3LBE #4
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The Burrower From the Bluff

by Beecher Smith

 

April 19: dusk

This note pad you brought me, Bailey Stratton — your small charity to an apparent madman — may be my only chance to communicate. Perhaps I can convince you these aren’t the ravings of a lunatic.

I pray I can complete this, and persuade you to release me before Dhumin finds me. Eventually he will. Just like he found Pitt and Tarterro.

Trying to tell you about it in person seemed so useless. Oh, you tried to look interested. But you forgot you were talking to another lawyer. I saw when your eyes glazed over.

Did you think you were fooling me — fooling Snyder Trask? Hell, I was trying lawsuits when you were soiling your diapers. I’ve forgotten more body language than you’ll ever learn. Wait. I'm sorry. Not smart, when you’re helping me. It’s the strain.

I may crack up — but not yet.

When I tried to talk to you, I couldn’t quit stammering — he probably caused that, too. But I write legibly, even though my hand shakes pretty bad. You must read this — please!

I — _ — _ –

See how my script jumped? That was an earthquake tremor. But not a normal one. No tectonic shifts. Dhumin at work. It’s only a matter of time before he finds me, even here!

Bailey, you have to move me.

 

April 20: just before dawn

The floor nurse ordered me sedated last night. I hid this pad before they came. You, Bailey, my court appointed guardian, are my only hope! Read this objectively. I AM NOT MAD!

I’ll start at the beginning:

After 35 years I had one of the best practices in Memphis. My client list included a major bank, three insurance companies, several national corporations. All paid me handsome regular retainers.

But, as sometime happens, my personal and family’s spending outdistanced my earning capacity. I was facing bankruptcy. To my wife and children, our summer home on Nantucket, yacht, buying trips to New York and Paris, three country club memberships, and servants were necessities, not luxuries.

I had made some wise investments, which sustained our high lifestyle. When the markets dropped, I almost lost everything.

My own bank turned on me first. I had creditors lined up in the lobby of my firm, all wanting to know when they would be paid. I was good at stalling them — coaxing, cajoling, even lying — but none of those tactics would work for long. Then Pitt and Tarterro showed up.

You remember them, don’t you? Pitt, the ivy leaguer, who came from old Memphis money. Tarterro’s cash was new and not clean.

Anyway, they appeared at my office one gray afternoon last February, about two weeks after my financial troubles started. Henry Pitt breezed through the doorway, gave me a warm, firm grip, then moved aside for Tarterro to shake my hand.

Bedecked with a white, lapel carnation on his dark blue, worsted wool, custom-tailored suit and sporting a regimental blue-and-red striped tie, Pitt appeared impeccably dressed. Especially when compared to his short, heavyset colleague, who wore a green-and-brown checked wool blend winter sport coat, bright yellow slacks, and a hand-painted sienna necktie that looked like roadkill.

“Thanks for seeing us,” Pitt opened. “Word has gotten around you could use some new clients.”

“Yeah,” Ronnie Tarterro chimed in with a hoarse, gritty voice, “Who will pay well because you are influential and respectable.”

My senses went on guard immediately. Coming from Tarterro, an offer to purchase my services sounded like the solicitation of a prostitute.

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“It’s a simple case,” Pitt replied. “We lost before the zoning board and need you to appeal to the City Council.”

I remembered the matter. “Isn’t this about the Indian mounds on the bluff, overlooking the river? The City is broke and must raise cash. You must obtain a favorable rezoning to put up a condo development.”

“Yeah. 'dat’s us,” Tarterro answered.

I wondered how anybody with such atrocious diction could have finished engineering school. “Wasn’t there a big issue about the mounds being sacred to the Indians — some Constitutional prohibition against disturbing those ancient landmarks?”

“Quite correct, sport,” Pitt responded.

“What makes you think could turn this thing around?”

Tarterro grinned, displaying two gold caps on his front teeth. “You’re a talented attorney, Mr. Trask. We seen you win appeals after other lawyers — pardon the expression — screw up. You can convince the City Council.”

“But, Mr. Tarterro, your case doesn’t offer much promise.”

Tarterro winked at Pitt, who said, “Look, Snyder, we know you’re in some temporary financial difficulty.” I despised how he turned those upper class, old school phrases. He motioned toward the black, lizard skin briefcase Tarterro clutched, and added, “We thought a retainer might convince you as to the righteousness of our cause.”

At that, Tarterro opened the case, revealing neatly stacked rows of crisp, new $100 bills.

“Count it,” Pitt assured, “and you’ll find $100,000 — none of which needs to be reported.”

“But that’s i — illegal,” I stammered, a bad habit you’ve seen me exhibit under pressure, Bailey.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Trask,” Tarterro responded. “You’re much better off not having to pay tax. We won’t mind not claiming the deduction. Everybody’s happy, right?”

I knew then that their “principals” weren’t legitimate businessmen. But, if I didn’t accept their money my credit would soon be ruined. I let myself be bought.

Oh God! Another tremor. Louder, longer, and closer. How much time do I have?

I gave their case my complete attention. My staff researched the state and federal laws. One of my brightest and best, a kid two years out of Vanderbilt, found a loophole.

In the National Historical Landmark legislation there was no reference to those particular Indian mounds. The state laws prohibited them from being destroyed. Nothing indicated they couldn’t be moved — just like white men had moved the red men who built them.

When I informed Pitt he chuckled. “That’s simply capital, old sport. My principals can easily find another site for those. They can’t find another location for riverfront development. Millions are involved.”

I drafted the appeal, convinced my clients’ willingness to “preserve the landmarks” should satisfy the Council.

The day before the hearing I had another unexpected visitor. It was after five. The electronic security bell indicated someone had come in. In the office lobby, I saw a dirty looking, brown-skinned old man in tattered overalls. He wore his iron gray hair long, with a single tight braid on each shoulder. His clothes and scuffed black work boots gave off faint traces of barnyard odors.

He said, in a throaty voice, “I need to see Mr. Snyder Trask.”

“That’s me. But I'm headed home. If you want an appointment, you’ll have to call my secretary in the morning.”

His stare arrested me. In a voice so cold and resolute it could have frozen water, he announced, “I am Chief Russell Two Bears. You need to see me.”

Some preternatural force made me stay and listen.

He said, “There is a hearing tomorrow. You plan to ask the city fathers for permission to move my people’s sacred mounds. You must not do this!”

I tried to remain courteous. “Look, uh, Chief, I'm their lawyer. If your people don’t like it, hire an attorney. Don’t expect me to drop a paying client on account of any sob stories you might tell me the day before — ”

He rose indignantly. “I came, Mr. Trask,” he said slowly, in a tone of controlled emotion, “To warn that you are dealing with forces beyond your control. A very great evil will consume you if you are not careful.”

Oh Lord, I thought, does even this stinking old Indian know I’ve been bought by the mob? But to my surprise he cautioned against an entirely different kind of malevolence, asking, in a trembling voice, “You no doubt have never heard of the Uktena?”

I laughed, nervously — though I knew not why. “No.”

“Then I shall inform you. It might change your mind.

“Before the coming of the white man, even before the red man, this earth was ruled by an evil race known as the Great Old Ones. Most were banished back to the stars from whence they came by the Elder Gods under Tanka, the Great Spirit. Some eluded banishment and remained to wreak terror on my ancestors.”

Trying to humor him into leaving, I said, “Well, that’s all very interesting, but I don’t see what that has to do with my law practice.”

His eyes grew steely, his voice tense. “They remain a threat today. One especially. You make it so.”

“How?”

“Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw legends tell of the Uktena, a great snake of the underworld. It has antlers like a deer and wings like an eagle. It inhabits the deep waters, high places, and caverns beneath the earth. It bores like the earthworm, and travels freely between the land of the living… and of the dead. Sometimes it seeks souls to take back to the lower depths.

“The Uktena moves at night. A beast of the underground, it shuns the sun and all light. But there are dark places in every day, and it can smell these, and hunt in these.

“Ages ago, long before the white man arrived, the most terrible of all the Uktena — Dhumin — dwelled beneath where Memphis stands today. Its tunneling through layers of bedrock caused the formation of the wonderful water reservoir below this city. The god’s underground activities also may have created the New Madrid fault, source of many earthquake fears.

“As long as it left our people alone, they worshiped it with awe and reverence. But when it began attacking randomly at night, after several families and even some whole clans disappeared, all the tribes in the region united against it. By using fire, the only thing Dhumin fears, thousands of braves carrying torches encircled him and forced him to tunnel underneath the bluff, to where the rock was so hard and thick that he became trapped.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I interrupted.

“It is no legend. Dhumin sleeps deep beneath those mounds. My forefathers invoked a curse: Dhumin will destroy whoever disturbs him.”

All of this I silently dismissed as primitive tribal gibberish. I politely advised the Chief I would consider his warning. What kind of lawyer would be swayed by such claptrap? I told Pitt and Tarterro the next morning. Both of them thought it was hysterically funny — a real knee-slapper. Alas, had we heeded, they would still be alive and I would not be terrified.

I hear the nurse coming down the hall. It’s quitting time again. I'm almost through, Bailey.

 

April 21: early morning before sunrise

Another tremor awoke me. Two ceiling tiles fell. he’s close. Please come, Bailey. I know you will, but ten o'clock seems a month away.

You already know I didn’t exactly breeze through the appeal. It passed by one vote. Rumors soon circulated that the council member casting the deciding ballot had been bribed.

A month later, local and national media sucked up the story about the “terrible accident,” when Tarterro’s crew attempted to move the mounds. They said heavy equipment, rolling over an undetected subterranean cavern, caused a cave-in. Tarterro and eight crew members disappeared. What happened to their bodies?

I tried in vain to locate the Chief. Supposedly he left for Oklahoma the day after the hearing.

The morning after Tarterro’s “accident,” when Pitt was leaving for work, he started his car and the pavement collapsed. He and his automobile sank from sight. A defective sewer? Hardly.

What about the councilman who cast the swing vote? he’s vanished! There’s a huge hole in his back yard.

Are these coincidences? At each “accident site” the police found, covered with human blood, oblong disks the size of dinner plates — the scales of a giant reptile!

Now you understand, Bailey, why I developed a case of “nerves” when a wing of my home collapsed. Thank God I had just pulled into the driveway and my family was out of town.

My doctor had no right to commit me. Surely you must now agree? Damn! Another tremor. More falling ceiling tiles. This building — it’s five stories tall and each floor is built of steel and reinforced concrete.

Oh Lord. The whole structure is shuddering. A damn giant snake can’t be that powerful. Somebody could stop it with fire, bury it again like the Indians did. I can hardly write with the floor and walls trembling.

But the lights are on in the building, and shining bright. According to the legend, Dhumin hates light. So I guess I'm safe.
Bailey, where are you?

Jesus Christ! The lights just went out. Only those dim amber emergency lamps remain on.

Now I hear it — something slithering — huge, horrible — forcing its way up the elevator shaft. Get me out before it’s too lat__

 

 

Beecher Smith lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where he served as Elvis Presley’s personal attorney and still represents “the Estate.” Stephen King says only Beecher “really knows that Elvis has left the building.” With a B.A. in English Literature from Millsaps College, he has appeared in over 30 magazines, including Crossroads, Writer’s Block, The Black Rose, Bardic Runes, Medusa’s Hairdo, Freezer Burn, Renaissance, and The Black Lily; and fantasy and horror anthologies such as Strange Wonderland and The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-mortem (Delta Books, 1994). He is a member of the Horror Writers’ Association, with Active Status. He has won numerous awards at writers’ conferences and has lectured at the Arkansas Writers’ Conference, MidSouthCon, the Mid-South Writers’ Convention, and the Mid-South Poetry Festival. He has also served as a moderator and panelist at several HWA conventions, and at MidSouthCon for the past four years. Beecher is a past Poet Laureate of both the Poetry Society of Tennessee and the Mid-South Writers’ Association. In 1997 he won the prestigious Darrell Award for Best Horror/SF/Fantasy short story for both 1995 and 1996 from the Memphis Science Fiction Association for his stories “Don’t Look Back” (Medusa’s Hairdo, July 1995) and “The Shadow People.” In May of 1998, he received the Mid-South Writers’ Association’s Prose Writer of the Year Award. Besides being actively engaged in the profession of law, he operates a small press, Hot Biscuit Productions, Inc., under the aegis of which he edited the horror/SF/fantasy anthology, Monsters From Memphis (Zapizdat Publications: Palo Alto, CA; 1997), and the sequel, More Monsters From Memphis (ibid). A third anthology is planned for early in 2000, to be entitled Even More Monsters From Memphis. Beecher also wrote a collection of poetry and short stories, Recovering My Sanity (ibid), which recently went out of print. Visit him online at http://members.aol.com/beecherhbp/mfm1.html.


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ISSUE #4

January 2000

FICTION

ART