This story would have been the cover feature if Weird Tales were still in its heyday. Read on and see how true this is.
There was a knock at the door. I groaned, turned over in my chair, and pried my eyes open, wondering why I had a client so early in the morning. The caller obviously had not read the notice posted outside the door stating clearly that my services were only available from two to seven o’ clock in the afternoon. Obviously he had not caught on yet, since he was still rapping away outside as if he seriously expected me to answer. I could hear muffled words and the sound of my name. His voice, as far as I could tell, was male, young, and clear.
“Inspector Hayson! Inspector Hayson!”
“Beat it,” I said, closing my eyes. “Go away and come back later. I’m trying to have a bit of a sleep. No cases for now.”
Apparently my caller either didn’t hear me or didn’t want to, because he just kept on beating down my door.
He would not leave me alone until I dealt with him, and so I at last rose from my seat and, mumbling curses, opened the door to let him in. He was a trim young man in a tweed vest and a newsboy cap, fairly tall and strikingly lean, but there was a shadow in his eyes that showed that my visitor had his reasons for his abrupt appearance. That shadow was the only reason why I didn’t kick him out on the spot. He tipped his hat politely, took off his coat, and came in.
“Mind if I have a seat?” he asked, gesturing to my chair.
I sighed, deciding to hear him out before showing him the door. I’d played loose with my schedule before. “Fine. This had better be important.” He gave a small, quick smile and sat down, long limbs dangling from the armrests as I brought over another chair. We sat in tense silence for a few moments before he cleared his throat.
“Apologies for my abrupt entrance, Mr. Hayson, but I have come because I desperately seek your help.” His voice had a strong New England accent to it, and I guessed that he was not originally from California. He was probably an immigrant from one of the northeastern states, possibly Maine or New Hampshire. New Hampshire would have been my first guess.
“There are dozens of private investigators in San Diego who work at this hour,” I told him, still annoyed by his nerve. “Why not go see one of them and let me have some sleep?”
“But none are as fine as yourself,” said the young man, his hat in his hands, revealing dark brown hair. “No other detective in the whole of the city would take my story seriously, and I am in desperate need. Mr. Hayson, my name is George Goodenough Akeley. I live in the house on 176 Pleasant Street, not far from your office, and I know something of your reputation. You have solved numerous cases involving ransoms, kidnappings, and murders. That is why I have come to you and to no one else.”
“Don’t flatter me, Mr. Akeley.” Half joking, I said, “Has someone been kidnapped or murdered, then? Or being held for ransom? That would explain why you’re in such a rush.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. That is why no other PI I’ve gone to is willing to help me. It’s a long story.” Guessing that this would take a while, I got up to pour a couple of drinks for myself and my visitor.
Akeley accepted his glass with a polite nod. Despite myself, I liked the kid. He had an easy manner and seemed honest enough. “To start off, I’m not from California.”
“Didn’t think so. New England kid, I’d guess. You’ve come a long way. I’m impressed.”
He only sighed, quietly sipping his drink. “You’re right. I was originally a Vermonter from the Dark Mountain area, descended from a fairly important family in that state. I was born in the family farmhouse and lived there until my mother died. Several years later, once I came of age, I traveled to my current home in San Diego to seek honest employment and good wages. My father, Henry Wentworth Akeley, wanted to stay in Vermont – too many memories in that house, of Mother and other things – but I felt like I needed to leave. I’ve lived on Pleasant Street for three years now.”
So, he was a former farm boy turned city dweller. That explained a few things about him. He looked a bit thin for farm work, but that wasn’t my business. “That’s straightforward enough. Where do I come in, and why do you need my help, Mr. Akeley? What’s worth waking me up this early? You look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep yourself in days.”
“I was getting to that. I have recently received word that something terrible has become of my father in Vermont. The news came from a man named Albert Wilmarth, a stranger. Wilmarth claimed that my father has been abducted by otherworldly creatures, creatures which, he said, inhabit the hills around my father’s property even now.” Akeley shook his head, as if not sure what to think. “He said that my father told him to mail me. He has been questioning me relentlessly about his nature, history, and previous interests. I wrote a desperate letter to my father, asking him to confirm that he was still alive, as I had received no other word of his death, and got no reply of any kind. No letter, no ransom note, nothing. He was always willing to write back to me before.”
“Let me get this straight. You think your father’s been kidnapped or murdered.” I didn’t tell him, but I wondered who would bother kidnapping an old farmer. From the looks of him George Akeley wasn’t rich. “Hate to say it, but murder’s more likely, especially if there wasn’t a note.”
“That is what I’m afraid of. Something is horribly wrong, Mr. Hayson, and I am determined to find Henry Akeley alive or else to learn what has become of him. Wilmarth is erratic and of questionable sanity, judging from his letters to me. I have replied to them, if only to work information from him, but his ramblings about fungi from Yuggoth will not help me find Father.”
“Speaking nonsense, huh? Seems as if he does know something, though. We should visit him and ask him a few questions about your father’s disappearance. It’ll be a good place to start if nothing else,” I said, cautiously deciding to help. Akeley did seem sincere in his request for help and he was truly frightened, judging from the haunted look in his eyes. He pulled a bundle of papers from a pocket in his coat. “What are you carrying?”
“The letters from Wilmarth. I will use them to help us find him; he lives in Arkham, Massachusetts, and works as a professor of folklore at the local Miskatonic University. ” George finished his drink and put it on my table. “When I contacted another professor for information, I was told that he has been paranoid and secretive ever since returning from a trip to Vermont to visit my father, who, he claims, was horribly dismembered and supplanted by the creatures, which he refers to as ‘the Outer Ones’. The faculty of the school keep him in their service on account of his usefulness, but his behavior has become increasingly disturbing. He insists on near complete solitude when not in class and almost never leaves town, even accompanied by others.”
“So, you think that he may have murdered your father in a fit of insanity and created these ‘Outer Ones’ of his to deflect the guilt of the murder on.” I’d seen cases like that before. I’m no shrink, but this was a classic symptom of a guilty conscience.
“I am afraid of that. That is why I am travelling to Arkham myself, to question Dr. Wilmarth on the matter of Henry Akeley. If you come with me, for an expert on these matters is necessary, I will reward you handsomely for your trouble. If we succeed in finding my father, alive or dead, the reward will be doubled. I may not be rich, but I’ll do what I can.”
That was it. George Akeley was a good kid and his offer was generous. “All right, then, Mr. Akeley. It’s a deal. We leave for Arkham tomorrow. Since it is a difficult journey and it is some way between California and Massachusetts, it would be a good idea to read over Wilmarth’s letters and learn as much as we can about the man before we face him.” I took Akeley’s hand warmly. The boy looked to be very pleased, his sunken features brightening, and he jammed his papers under one arm.
“Thank you graciously, Inspector, thank you very much. It is agreed, then. I shall wait for you at the station tomorrow.”
As I had feared, it took many days for the two of us to arrive at Massachusetts, and so George Akeley and I made use of the time by reading and rereading the letters of Albert Wilmarth. Surprisingly the man wrote with a great deal of logic and intelligence, even though so much of what he wrote was clearly the product of a disturbed mind. He described the body structure and abilities of the fictional Outer Ones with disturbing attention to detail. Leathery, armored creatures that traveled in swarms, extremely intelligent but absolutely amoral, all tendrils and wings and claws, the things were the stuff of nightmares. He seemed absolutely convinced that the monsters somehow did in George’s old father, and that they had a repulsive habit of snatching the living brains from human victims.
If Henry Akeley had in fact fallen foul of the creatures Wilmarth described, I had nothing but the greatest of pity for the man. The description in the letters alone was enough to make my skin crawl. If they were only constructs of Albert Wilmarth’s warped brain, he was without doubt a sick, twisted piece of work, or else possessed of a demented sort of imagination. Whether he was capable of murder remained to be seen.
Using the Wilmarth letters, we worked through a list of other possible suspects. There was Walter Brown, a surly farmer and Akeley’s neighbor who he apparently suspected of working with the Outer Ones. Outer Ones or not, there was no love lost between them. I brought up the idea that Brown might have killed his neighbor, hid the body, and made himself scarce. Unfortunately, he had disappeared from town some time before Akeley, as George’s own research confirmed, and all evidence from Wilmarth suggested that he was dead. Besides, Brown – bad-tempered, an enemy of the victim, and conveniently missing – was an obvious culprit if the real killer needed to give the police or us someone else to aim at. Then there was a shady character named Mr. Noyes who Wilmarth mentioned several times, a man from Boston who was definitely in on what had happened. Either the murderer, I thought, or definitely an accomplice.
George paused to think. “Brown’s a likely candidate, I’ll give you that, but I doubt we’ll find him if he’s still alive. Noyes might have been made up like the Outer Ones, or made himself very difficult to track, since Wilmarth admitted that he had disappeared on the same night as my father. I don’t know who to believe. It’s best to start with Wilmarth. We know where he is.”
When we arrived at Arkham, the very first thing we did was search for Miskatonic University, where Wilmarth worked. Since neither of us had been to Arkham before, we did not have the slightest idea of where it could be found until a kindly young fellow with a slight Vermont accent pointed it out, even going so far as to escort us there himself. He was friendly enough, if a little sullen, and seemed particularly interested in George. His eye never once left my client until we reached the university. Once there, the man bid us an almost hasty farewell, vanishing into the shadows after ushering us inside. We didn’t have time to thank him.
After some wandering in the university’s halls we encountered two students, Jacob Riddell and Frederick Galmann, who stopped us, introduced themselves, and asked us where we were going. Galmann was unusually pale, almost sickly in hue, and Riddell was precisely the same except perhaps a slight bit livelier – he called us over first. I explained that we were looking for Professor Wilmarth, and saw Riddell snicker. Both of them seemed to think that Wilmarth was a madman and not worth our attention.
“You’re looking for Wilmarth?” Riddell snorted. “Don’t bother. He’s a raving lunatic – he came back from Vermont rambling about disembodied hands and living brains rigged to metal canisters. It is nigh impossible to get any coherent speech out of him.”
“Was he like that before his trip to Vermont?” I asked them, and Galmann shrugged.
“No, no, I suppose not. He always struck us as a prying and unpleasant man, and we never liked him, but he was perfectly reasonable until he returned from his visit to a Mr. Henry Akeley, a scholar of some sort who lived as a hermit out there. They started exchanging letters after the Vermont floods last year.”
George sprang into the conversation, interested in the subject and determined to do some detective work of his own. “Henry Akeley was my father; I am George Goodenough Akeley. Do you know where he is?”
“Ah! Albert has mentioned you before. I’m in his class this year, you see, and have overheard some strange business concerning your family. I’ve seen his letters to you. Your father,” Riddell said, “has disappeared off the face of the earth. Ever since September, as I understand, no one’s seen a trace of him.”
George folded his arms. “I know that. Tell us more.”
Galmann took up the story. “Wilmarth claims to know what happened to him, although of course we take his theory with a grain of salt. For all purposes Akeley is gone and all but forgotten in Vermont. He rarely interacted with anyone else and his disappearance was almost completely ignored. As far as the townspeople where he lived are concerned, he just walked into the woods one day and never came back.”
George sighed. “I did suggest that he come out more often. But I am also looking for Wilmarth. Is he with you at the moment?”
“No. He says that we mustn’t interfere with him, that he is being hunted and that we may be put in danger too if we become involved.”
George gave me a quick, nervous look. “Hunted. Has he said by what?”
“The Outer Ones of Yuggoth. That’s another thing. He says that the planet of Pluto is in fact called ‘Yuggoth’ and is a sort of base for the things, monstrous bat-crabs that roam the Vermont forests. These creatures, heÂ claims,” Galmann said, placing firm emphasis on the last word, “were responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of Henry Akeley. If Akeley is in fact dead, there has been no evidence found to suggest it. The man appears, by what little we know, to have been something of a recluse and could very well have disappeared by his own free will.”
“Wouldn’t put it past him in any case,” said Riddell. “Your father was an eccentric and a recluse.”
“That may be, but he was always willing to write back to me. This is the first time, if what you are saying is true, that he is deliberately avoiding all contact with his own son.” George was trembling, obviously upset by the idea. “I want to see Wilmarth, get his account of what he saw in Vermont. If some sort of creature attacked and killed my father, I need to know.”
“Very well, then,” said Galmann, stepping aside. Riddell joined him. “If you are looking for Wilmarth, he is not far from here. You can find him in his office. He almost never leaves it, for his own reasons, presumably. Be warned, however, that he is fairly nervous when visitors are in the room, particularly if one of those visitors may bring back certain…Â memories… of his experience in Vermont.”
“Very well, then.” George gave a respectful nod. “Thank you both for your help. Send word to Professor Wilmarth that we would like to speak with him, but will not if he declines.” The two students disappeared down the hall, and we decided to give them some time to come back. Several minutes later, someone came, but he wasn’t Riddell or Galmann.
“You wish to see Wilmarth?” A young student, brown-haired and slender, darted into the hallway. Something was strangely familiar about his face, I thought, and then I realized precisely who he was. He was none other than the Vermont kid who got us to Miskatonic. “Well, then, I can take you to him. Follow me.” The student walked away, and I squinted at the sight of something unusual. There seemed to be a thin mark circling his head, a line of scarlet; almost as if he saw me looking at it, he shook his hair and hid the scar from sight. I looked at George, who did not seem to have seen it. Perhaps I had been imagining things. “Well, come on,” said the boy, urging us forward, almost jumping from foot to foot.
While we were following the young man, George looked around suspiciously, as if afraid of being watched. He seemed even more nervous than usual.
“Hayson, he seems familiar,” he said, voice low.
I faced him, trying to avoid the Vermont kid’s attention. “Yes. I know that. I’m not surprised. He’s the same kid who helped us find our way to the university. What’s he doing back so soon?”
“I am not sure, but that is not what strikes me as wrong. There is something else about him, something that bothers me much more. I know that I have heard his voice somewhere, although we have never met before today. How about you?”
“Maybe you only think you did. There’s nothing strange about him if you ask me. He is, I suppose, somewhat strange, but there’s nothing weird about him. My main question, George, is not what he wants or who he is, but how he got in.”
George paused for a moment. “He must be a student here, then. That would explain it.”
“Come on,” said the student, and, reluctantly, we broke off our conversation and followed him. All the same, I found myself wondering what George had heard that spooked him so much. Chances were, I thought, that George Akeley was nervous by nature and only thought that he heard whatever he claimed. On the other hand, there was something disturbing about the kid’s jerking gait, and the way he was so persistent in his demand that we follow him. Whether or not there was anything wrong with him, he gave me the creeps.
When we first met Professor Albert H. Wilmarth, he did not resemble the crazed madman that George Akeley and the two students before had led me to believe he was. He seemed to be a strange man, certainly, but by no means dangerous. A meek, soft-spoken, bespectacled figure, hesitant to speak, he was the very image of a reclusive academic. I found myself no longer fearing him and spoke boldly, George standing by my side. “Albert Wilmarth, we want to have a word with you,” I said, and George added, “It is about my father.”
He lifted his head, expression bleary, as if he was struggling to make sense of us. “Who are you?” he said, leaning back in his chair, fingering a pen held in one hand. “Who is the young lad with you?” He seemed to give a full-body shudder. “Something about him strikes me as familiar, something in his face, or the way in which he speaks.”
“I am William Hayson, a private investigator who lives in San Diego, and this young man here is Mr. George Goodenough Akeley, one of my clients.” George stepped forward. “He is with me today because he is looking for someone.” Wilmarth’s head snapped up at the use of the name “Akeley”, and his already pale face went even paler.
“He must be Henry’s son,” he said. “Here to inquire for his father.”
“I am,” said George, his voice surprisingly firm. He slammed Wilmarth’s letters onto the desk. “He has been missing for several months, and your letters to me gave me the indication that you know something about what became of him.”
Wilmarth gave a deep, weary sigh, and for the first time since the talk began I saw a hollow, empty look in his eyes. George’s presence had awakened some sort of nameless horror for him, and I almost began to regret our rash behavior. Then again, it was now clear that the old professor did know something about George’s father and that, with some encouragement, we could get the information out of him.
“Indeed I do, as I have informed you in my letters. I only wish that I did not.”
“We are looking for Henry Akeley, alive or dead, and you are the only lead we have.” George found a chair and sat at the table, opposite Wilmarth. “Please, Professor. We need your help.”
Wilmarth’s eyes blazed, and he sat bolt upright. “George, it is a foolhardy, reckless plan to go searching for Akeley. The man is beyond any help you or I can give.”
George stepped back, startled by the outburst. “Is he dead? Your letters gave me that impression.”
Wilmarth shook his head. “No. No. It would be far better for him if they had killed him, but, there again, that would have been too kind. For all purposes, the man that I knew as Henry Akeley is now dead. At the same time, he is very much alive. They got their claws into him.”
“Who are ‘they’?” I asked. He wasn’t making any sense now, but I could guess what he was getting at. “The Outer Ones?”
“You know about the Outer Ones, Mr. Hayson?” Wilmarth asked, surprised.
I swallowed. “No, Professor, George and I only know what you said about them in your letters, which we didn’t understand. What are they, to begin with?”
The professor leaned back in his chair, a distant look in his eyes. A part of him had been left behind that night in Vermont, no doubt. “The beings go by many names: the Winged Ones, the Fungi from Yuggoth, the Tibetans refer to them by the term ofÂ mi-go. George, your father knew them as the Outer Ones. But they are all of the same kind of creature, a species that can walk like an animal and yet possesses the biological makeup of a fungus. They are scientists and explorers by nature, not soldiers, although they do not hesitate to remove by force any and all who they see as interfering with their work. That is what became of poor Henry Akeley.”
“So they did kill him,” George said, horrified. “Do you have any solid proof that these Outer Ones exist?”
“They did not. The Outer Ones very rarely kill their victims outright. They remove the living brain from the skull of another being and store it in a sort of canister. If they wish, they can use special machinery to give the encased brain the powers of sight, hearing, and speech. As for proof, Akeley’s letters and the evidence that he collected were taken from me. That is for the best, I suppose, but I cannot prove that they exist outside of my word.”
George had lost much of his original confidence. His voice was anxious, halting. Perhaps he hadn’t expected Wilmarth to hold to the Outer Ones idea, or found it harder to face the man in the flesh as opposed to in his letters. However, I knew as much as George did that he was our only lead on the Akeley case. I wondered, insane as his theory was, whether there was a grain of truth to the professor’s strange story. He was consistent, if nothing else. If he was telling the truth, we would have no other choice but to track George’s father to where he had last been seen, to Dark Mountain.
“Professor,” George asked, “did you speak with or see Henry when he was alive, then? I assumed you’d met him.”
“Yes and no. We spoke through letters, and that was my only contact with the real Henry Akeley. You are asking me to revive old nightmares, Mr. Akeley, old nightmares that I had hoped to forget over the last few months. The Outer Ones will do to you what they did to your father if you interfere with them. If you return to San Diego and stop prying into matters that you simply cannot comprehend, they will let you be. Perhaps it is not too late for you and your friend to escape.”
“Tell me what happened when you went to see him. Was he there? Did he speak with you? What did he say?”
“One question at a time, George!” Wilmarth waved in mild irritation. “Yes, he did, but then again, he did not. I met a creature who called itself Henry Akeley, and had on his clothes and wore his skin like a mask, but the Akeley that I met was not your father. He, or should I say it, was one of the Outer Ones, and, as for your father, he had been taken by them and, well, changed. The creature told me many things, none of which I will repeat here. I will only say I would rather not have heard any of them.”
“What did they do to him, then?” I said. “Judging from your description, they skinned him after the murder, which is simply inhuman. This is the most horrific case I have ever dealt with. I’ve faced serial murderers who weren’t that sick.”
“I must remind you, Mr. Hayson, the Outer Ones do not operate by human ethics. He was not dead, at least not all of him.” Wilmarth’s eyes darted round, his muscles stiffened, and his voice became almost a secretive hiss. “You see, his brain was still alive and aware in its metal cylinder. I heard him speak.”
George was struck speechless, as if deciding whether the professor was simply insane or there was something else going on. As for myself, I decided to play by Wilmarth’s own rules to work out what had happened during his trip to Vermont. He genuinely believed that the Outer Ones had carried off Akeley, and I found myself wondering, despite all of my better instincts, whether he was telling the truth. On the other hand, I had heard of human killers who would be twisted enough to skin a man and wear his corpse like clothing. Wilmarth himself was innocent. That much was clear.
In any case, if we were to find George’s father we would have no other option but to track the ‘Outer Ones’ to their own territory. At the very least it would be a good idea to investigate the Dark Mountain area for evidence. It was clear that Wilmarth did not murder Henry Akeley, but someone or something else did, and his mind changed the memory. Perhaps he had only been an innocent witness to the murder after all, struck mad by whatever else it was that he saw. George, too, seemed determined in his search for answers, naturally for his own purposes.
“Then it stands to reason,” he told Wilmarth, “that if I find your Outer Ones then I will also find my father.”
Wilmarth faced my client, more afraid than angry. “George, youÂ must notÂ go searching for the Outer Ones. I have seen what they are capable of doing, and have no intention of becoming involved with them again if I can help it. They are watching me, to see if I show signs of becoming interested in them as Akeley was. They have spies in town, both human and not, observing us all of the time. I can trust no one. Do you understand?”
“Thank you for your time, Professor Wilmarth,” my client said, “but Mr. Hayson and I will be going to Vermont, to my father’s old house. Perhaps some evidence waits there to prove your account. If the Outer Ones killed him, then I shall withdraw from the investigation. But what I need are facts, not theories. If my father is alive, in whatever form, I swear that he will be found.”
Wilmarth loosened again, almost seeming to slump into a heap of clothes on his desk. “Very well, then. I have done all that I can to dissuade you. I assume that, being the son of Henry Akeley, you know where his farm is. I wouldn’t go there again myself – the hills are unsettling in and of themselves, even without the Outer Ones.”
George nodded. “Indeed I do. He lived on Dark Mountain, in Vermont, south of Townshend. I was born and raised in that farmhouse, Professor, and I have not lived in California for very long.”
“His house is also close to a central base of the Outer Ones on the earth, and where I believe many of them are. I do not know where Akeley’s brain is, for the Outer Ones take their canisters beyond this world, perhaps, if what I was told was true, even breaching the barriers of time and space. But if you intend to spy on the Yuggoth creatures, I must warn you that if you are caught they will have no mercy.” Wilmarth lowered his head, his voice almost a faint whisper.
“And, above all, I pray that you do not find who you are looking for.”
Wilmarth had been correct about one thing, at least. Dark Mountain was disturbing enough on its own even without flocks of winged body-snatching mushrooms. George, who had once lived there himself, served as my guide. He seemed firmly set on his goal, examining every spare bush or tree for clues. So far we had found nothing. I was not surprised. What was the chance that a body could have survived several months without rotting away or being eaten by scavengers?
George had not taken Wilmarth’s warning to heart. He called out his father’s name once every five minutes or so, to no reply. I was worried by both the growing darkness and Wilmarth’s tale of encountering the Outer Ones. If there were, in fact, Outer Ones living in Vermont, then Dark Mountain would be their home. Every bird’s beating wing or snapping twig could be one of the monsters swooping down upon us, every half-seen shape a lurking nightmare, and even my young friend jumped when a raven fluttered directly in our path.
Our goal was to search the forest for evidence of Henry Akeley’s presence or murder, whether in the form of blood, personal belongings, signs of a struggle, or a body. Nothing was found, but of course there are many ways to dispose of a corpse, even as simply as letting the vultures do their work. If Akeley was dead, chances were that no remains of the man would be found so late. If he was alive and in hiding, which seemed increasingly unlikely, he would not emerge to suit us.
George’s cries were by now far more desperate, now identifying himself as well. Broken, weak, he slowly seemed to be losing confidence. All the same, family ties would not let him abandon his mission. He gestured for me to join him, which I reluctantly did. If the Outer Ones were indeed watching us from the sky or the trees, we would be exposing ourselves to an attack. Regardless, I thought of the cash reward that I would claim in exchange for my help, and I felt very sorry for George.
We wandered around the hills for what seemed to be hours, startled by every other sound, constantly looking to the full moon gazing down at us from the starry sky. The Outer Ones had not come. Perhaps, I thought, we were afraid of nothing. The story was straightforward enough. Wilmarth was innocent. He had witnessed the brutal murder of Henry Akeley and went mad from what he saw. The killer, whoever he may have been, either Brown or some other disgruntled local, destroyed the body and left the area to avoid capture. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for what had happened that night, which did not involve rasping demons that wore human flesh like clothing or hidden planets named Yuggoth.
“George,” I told young Akeley, “we should return to Arkham and from there go back to San Diego. There is nothing to find here.”
George made as if to speak, but suddenly fell silent, his eyes wide from shock. I turned to face whatever the hell it was that he saw. It was a man, leaning casually against a tree, a smooth smile on his face. He was the young fellow from Miskatonic, no doubt about that, but there was something new in his expression. His eyes were bright, keen, almost blazing in the darkness. Somehow he had followed us to Vermont. I didn’t know what was more disturbing, his tailing us or that horrible smile.
“Who are you?” I asked, and the man gave a quiet laugh. “Why have you been following us? What do you want?”
The student waved my question away. “First things first. To begin with, I have not been following you.Â YouÂ have been followingÂ me. Do you think that I didn’t hear you two calling my name? We do seem to have found one another at last. I was hoping this would happen, and I am pleased to meet both of you face to face. You in particular, George. Your loyalty and persistence is admirable.” He turned to George, dismissing me. “I confess that what you are about to hear may confuse and astound you,Â my son…”
George straightened at once, his expression a mix of awe and fright. “No,” he told the man, his voice hoarse.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking the answer out of him. “You know this lunatic? Why didn’t you say so before?”
George gulped, shaking himself free, face deathly pale. “Not him, his voice. I recognize it now – it belonged to Henry Akeley! Hayson, I am a fool for not realizing this before. He is not my father, but he speaks with my father’s voice!”
“Well done, George, indeed I do, and there is in fact a logical explanation. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am your father, Henry Wentworth Akeley.” He gave a sweeping bow. “You have done well, my son, to come here. I was watching you. Actually, I must admit, I was helping you whenever an opportunity came that I could. I guided you to Miskatonic University and later to my dear correspondent Wilmarth. In both encounters I was using this host body. Since my original body was dismantled by the Outer Ones for their own purposes, they gave me an incredible opportunity in return, an opportunity I’m willing to share. It was a sort of test on my part, a test which you passed. I knew you would come looking for me. I’m very proud of you, George.” Henry’s smile widened, showing teeth. “Now we’ve come to the matter of your reward.”
“So Wilmarth wasn’t insane,” I said, trying to change the subject. I had a growing suspicion that Henry’s ‘reward’ wouldn’t be a reward in the usual sense. “You really were taken by the Outer Ones, and he knew the truth.”
“Professor Albert Wilmarth, my old friend. HowÂ hasÂ he been faring?” Henry threw back his head and laughed. “His fears of pursuit are unwarranted. We have decided to leave Wilmarth alone. No one else will believe his wild tale, in any case, and he poses no threat to our operations by himself. After all, George, even you did not believe him at first.”
“We? Our?” George blinked, realizing that the older man spoke as if he was working willingly with the creatures instead of, as he had probably assumed before, being forced into their service. He was becoming increasingly ill at ease. Something was very wrong.
Henry Akeley folded his arms and did not move from underneath the tree, nor did his smile do so much as twitch. “When the Outer Ones first encountered me, I was startled by their odd appearances and methods, and acted rashly. They showed me how magnificently flawed my judgement was and, once I agreed to certain conditions, gave me the chance to wear human skin again. The Outer Ones are truly incredible explorers, George, my boy, far more intelligent and capable of greater feats than either of us can imagine. Because of their technology I possess abilities beyond all other creatures native to this earth. Their surgical mastery allows me to take the form of any human being that I wish, to outwardly resemble them to the last detail, and yet my own brain controls that body. Of course, I cannot yet perfectly match the host’s mannerisms and speech patterns. My allies are attempting to find an effective solution to that particular snag.”
“And what,” George asked, “became of the poor soul you replaced? Who was he? Was he killed for your selfishness?” Despite his fear, he held firm. The kid had guts, I’ll give him that.
“This body,” Henry said, “once belonged to a young student from Arkham who got a little too interested in our work for his own good.” He smirked at the memory. “He is certainly familiar with it now. Do not fear, he is alive. The Outer Ones merely removed his brain for storage and placed mine in his skull instead, as we needed a way to gain entry to Miskatonic. The whole business is very efficient; it is not as messy as one would think. Nor is it as painful as would be expected, either. After all, I survived the experience, and for all practical purposes I am perfectly functional both physically and mentally. If anything, this body is an improvement. It is most gratifying to be young and strong again. I haven’t felt this healthy in decades. Besides, it is quite a fascinating experience to be someone else, George. With the help of my allies I can become any person I would like: wealthy or poor, male or female, young or old. It is a tremendous opportunity for me and, for them, a chance to create the perfect spy. They sent me to track you in Arkham as a test of my abilities. Needless to say, I have succeeded.” The arrogance dripping from his voice made my skin crawl.
Something else about Henry struck me as off. His grin seemed to be that of a hungry predator, as if he was restraining himself from lunging at us, and his burning eye was firmly kept on George all the while. Words aside, he was looking at my client more like a fresh meal than his beloved son. I did not understand all of the gibberish that he spouted, but it was clear to me that, whatever else was going on, he was profiting from another man’s kidnapping and mutilation. He wore the flesh of the wretched young man whose body he had borrowed without remorse, as an Outer One had once clad itself in his. George Akeley’s father, despite his human faÃ§ade, had become as much of a monster as the creatures he now served.
High above him, in the branches of the tree, something sat as if watching the spectacle. I could not make out much of its appearance, but it was around man-size and had broad webbed wings which spread out and folded back up again, repeatedly, as if the creature was preparing to swoop. Repulsed, I looked away from it and back to Henry Akeley, who seemed not in the least disturbed by the monstrosity at his side. The man was insane, driven out of his mind and robbed of everything once human in him through his own experience with the Outer Ones. He was clearly as pitiless as they were, giving little thought to the unlucky young man whose eyes and tongue he used so thoughtlessly. Even George seemed afraid of him, although to his credit he held his ground and addressed his father boldly. Then again, he had no other choice.
“What are the ‘certain conditions’ you agreed to in exchange for your fresh body? What did the Outer Ones promise you?”
The young man’s eyes flashed. “Companionship,” Henry said simply. “When I am not needed, I must be stored away in a canister like the others. My sole request in return for an eternity of faithful service was another to share my misery with, so the loneliness does not cut so deep. And who else was there to choose but my own son?”
George’s firm expression changed to horror as he realized the implications of what his father had told him, and he began to back away from raw instinct. “No, Father! No!” Henry only nodded, his smile sly and triumphant. “And what of Inspector Hayson? What will you do to him?”
“Your friend the detective has sealed his own fate by choosing to accompany you. I never intended for him to come along. It was you I wanted. Hayson is something of an uninvited guest, but we cannot allow him to escape. He has seen and heard too much, you see, and so must receive the same operation as you. You should appreciate his company. I am relieved that you two formed a friendship so fast. Why are you shivering so? I survived the procedure without trouble or lasting effects, and so it stands to reason that you can, too.” The creature dove down from the tree, drawing itself up to its full height. There was no doubt, judging from the numerous clicking claws and tendrils writhing in the air, that it was one of Wilmarth’s Outer Ones. Henry Akeley did not even blink at the sight of it. “No need to be afraid. It will not be terribly painful, something like a shot, perhaps. You’ve had those. One little cut to the skull and it is done with, and then both of you will be immortal, like me. We will outlive stars, even galaxies. A worthy reward for someone of your intelligence and bravery.”
I reached into my pocket and drew out a small handgun, aiming it at the beast’s pulpy head. It gave an angry buzz, but did not flinch, and neither did its servant.
“Firing upon the Outer Ones does little good,” Henry said, his voice not rising a bit, “as I myself can testify. Do stop this foolishness. I came all the way from nighted Yuggoth to find you and take you back with me. There is no need for recourse to violence.”
“How far away, would you say, is the farmhouse from here, George?” I said in a whisper, hoping that Henry and the Outer One could not hear me. I thought that I could see the old building, tantalizingly close, behind the tree and the two freakish creatures standing guard.
He looked behind us to check. “About fifty feet. Why do you ask?”
“We are going to have to make a run for it.”
George nodded, terrified. “This is my fault for leading you out here. Give me the gun. I am going to try and provide a diversion. He won’t expect me to shoot.” Fumbling, I passed it to him.
“Now, George.” Henry Akeley continued his rant, ignoring our conversation completely. Either he had not heard or he was too far gone to understand it. “Do not be afraid of the Outer Ones. Their appearances may alarm you, and their techniques seem distressing at first, but I assure you that they will accept you into their service as they did me. We will never age, son, and we will never die.” He offered George a hand.
“What, so I can become a murderous beast like you are, little more than a parasite, stealing and inhabiting the bodies of other people?” George said, now holding my handgun in a trembling grip. He fired two rounds at the Outer One, which buzzed again, but was otherwise unaffected. Its head changed to a vivid scarlet color. The bullets had only served to annoy it, but that was all that George had hoped to do. He grabbed my arm and fled while the creature was momentarily distracted.
For a moment I wondered why George had not shot Henry, who was human and thus vulnerable to firearms, instead of the Outer One. Then I remembered that my friend probably could not find it within himself to kill his own father, however demented he had become. Perhaps George hoped that the older man could be helped or shown reason. Looking back at the older Akeley, I doubted his optimism. Madness danced in the eyes of Henry’s host body, the look of a man both desperate and utterly mad. The Outer Ones had clearly taken whatever fatherly instincts the man had once possessed and used them to pervert him into the demon he had become.
“You cannot escape, boy,” I heard Henry say. “You ought to give yourself up quietly and save both of us the trouble.” He whispered something to the alien, which took off in a single flap and began a steep plunge from the sky, pincers snapping. We ran, hearts throbbing in our chests, struggling to stay ahead of the creature.
We could now hear the steady two-beat thump of human feet in pursuit, along with the throbbing leathery flaps above us. Henry Akeley, too, had decided to give chase. He was only a man, however much a twisted one, I thought, and could be overpowered if things came to a fight. It was the other hunter that we feared more. The Outer One gave a high-pitched scream of delight as it closed in.
We could see the house now; pounding along the stone path, we made for the door as the Outer One fell from the sky. George did not look back, determined to reach safety, pulling me with him. I dared not throw a glance behind me out of fear of what I would see and losing precious time, but the hideous beating noise was growing steadily louder.
George came to the door of the old Akeley farmhouse, fiddled with the lock, and managed to open it just as the monster was lunging for him. He roughly dragged me inside and, with all of his strength, firmly shut the door. We heard a dull thump, a buzz of frustration from the thing outside and the sound of flapping wings in retreat. We turned to one another, grinning idiots.
“Well, George, when do I get my reward? I found him, didn’t I?” I gave a bitter laugh. “You know what? I think that after this business is over and done with I’ll retire from detective work for good.”
“Why, yes, you did. We made a deal. Once we return to San Diego, I shall keep to my end of the bargain. Never mind that Henry Akeley has become a madman who attempted to have both of our brains stuck in canisters.” George chuckled, both out of fear and relief. “I think we owe Dr. Wilmarth an apology.”
“You know,” a third voice said helpfully from the front of the room, “you ought to be more careful when you shut the door.” I knew by the speaker’s voice who they were. Henry Akeley, still in the body of the hapless young man from Arkham, stood shadowed beside the entrance, watching us with an amused expression. He had managed to slip in before George or I could lock the house from inside. In an instant George held up the gun, boldly confronting the man. I stepped back. Seeing someone usually mild-mannered this furious was startling.
“Whatever the Outer Ones have changed you into through their hideous machines, Henry Wentworth Akeley,” he told Henry, snarling the name, “you are still human. You are my father. You cannot and will not hand me over to them. It is not too late for you to reclaim your humanity, Father, to make amends for what you have done. You fought them once, and can surely fight them again.”
There was another thump from outside as the Outer One beat itself against the door, joined by several more. Henry looked at George, his face as cold as his eyes were bright. “It is too late for all of us, George. The Outer Ones are coming. They never give in, take my word for it, and it is too far from town for any other folk to help you. You are outnumbered, and it would be best to come along quietly.”
George shook his head, still in denial. I couldn’t really blame him. He came all this way to find his father only to find him turned into a monster. “Please, Father. I know they’ve done something to you. They have you under some sort of mind-control, or they’ve hypnotized you. Whatever it is, if there’s anything human left in you you’ve got to fight back!”
“How admirably naÃ¯ve of you, George.” Henry’s stolen eyes narrowed as he came closer. I stepped back. “Now, I don’t want to do this. The Outer Ones prefer their bodies undamaged, and, as you said, youÂ areÂ my son. But if you resist, I have no choice.”
He reached into a pocket of his coat, but George was faster. There was no time to hesitate. Turning away, George raised the gun, aiming for the man’s head. “Neither do we. I’m sorry, Father.” In the next moment there was an explosion, and the wretched man staggered and fell to the ground. He did not rise again. George gave me a twisted smile, throwing the weapon to the floor. “Sorry, mate. I used the last bullet I had left on him.”
There was another angry buzz and the sound of scraping talons as the Outer One continued to attack the door, and the old wood began to crack. I heard more of the sounds, scratching, scrabbling, alien claws fumbling with the knob, and George and I exchanged looks. Henry was right; the Outer Ones were coming, and we had nowhere to hide.
Even now George is cowering, broken, beside the body of his father, waiting for the creatures to come and take him in the older Akeley’s place. As for myself, I am standing in front of the entrance, made utterly fearless by the certainty of my doom. Whatever happens, they will triumph. They always triumph. But my own brain, as small and pathetic and human as it is, remains determined to make them fight for it. I clutch my empty handgun in one hand and a set of tongs snatched from the furnace in the other. The Outer Ones will pay dearly for their victory.
We both turn our eyes to the lock as, with a final creak of protest, the door splits in two.