When a massive sinkhole opens up and swallows a retired couple from Iowa it seems like a freak occurrence. But it’s not the only one. Similar sinkholes are opening all over the world, even on the sea floor. And they’re getting bigger. Professor Matt Kearns and a team of experts are sent in by the military to explore one of the sinkholes, and they discover far more than they bargained for.
From the war zones of the Syrian Desert to the fabled Library of Alexandria, and then to Hades itself, join Professor Matt Kearns as he attempts to unravel an age-old prophecy. The answers Matt seeks are hidden in the fabled Al Azif—known as the Book of the Dead—and he must find it, even if it kills him. Because time is running out, not just for Matt Kearns, but for all life on Earth.
Greig Beck, author of the Alex Hunter series, is back for a new adventure with Book of the Dead—available December 11th from Momentum Books!
City of Damascus, Syria, 738 AD
Abdul Alhazred dodged his way down the street, weaving between stallholders and layabouts and mothers with too many small children. He passed the newly built Umayyad Mosque, and briefly contemplated entering, before swerving hard, knowing that there would be no sanctuary anywhere for him now.
He babbled and cursed in between ragged breaths, and even giggled as people stepped from his path, thinking he was mad. Alhazred threw back his head and roared with laughter. He was mad—the Mad Arab—insane, sent insane by the things he had seen, things he had uncovered through his travels and then his further studies.
He looked up, and saw birds circling above him, faster and faster—sparrows, wrens, shrikes, geese, and dozens more species all twisting together in a tornado of feathers and flesh.
He screamed at them, and cursed again at mankind’s stupidity, his stupidity, and…curiosity. A scrap of information here, a whisper there, and he’d been off like a hound on a scent. He had travelled to the ruins of Babylon, and then meandered into the great red deserts of Arabia, that vast and empty sea of nothing but heat and sand and scorpions. And then he had found them—the caves; he wished now he hadn’t. The legends said they were protected by djinn, evil spirits and monsters of death. He had found out too late that in their depths lay things far worse than that.
Alhazred felt the book under his robe. His fingers touched the soft cover of forbidden leather, and pictured the words he had transcribed within in a mixture of blood and charcoal as he had been instructed. Some of the words were incomprehensible even to him—the Old Ones spoke a harsh tongue the primitive mind of man could not possibly understand.
The book, the Al Azif, had taken him half a lifetime to write, and now he needed to hide it, get rid of it or pass it on, the ideas too important for mankind’s future to be reclaimed now by the Old Ones or their vile servants. The information was not just for the living, but instead, was a book of the dead.
Alhazred had been given their secrets, told to him in fever dreams, in return for the betrayal of his race. But the more he wrote down, the more frightened he became, and the more his sanity left him. They had promised him a kingdom, but all he saw was slavery to masters who would look upon him in the same light as he viewed an ant.
He turned briefly, glimpsing from the corner of an eye, the shape appear and then dissipate like oily smoke. Too late: they’d found him.
He had fled, stolen their plans, and disobeyed them. With his help, the Great Old One had expected to return to the world of man, to own it once again, but he had outsmarted them all, stopped them, or at least slowed them down.
He sucked in hot breaths, feeling the sweat pour down his body. He was nearly spent as he saw his target, a holy man leaving the mosque. Abdul put his head down and raced toward him. At the last second, he ripped the book from his robe, and jammed it into his hands. ‘Keep it safe, holy one. Mankind’s fate depends on it.’
He tore away and sprinted down a dark alley, but less than halfway to the end, the shape boiled up again, squeezing from the very cracks in the path and forming now into a shapeless mass of some viscous black substance, studded with disturbingly human eyes. Alhazred screamed: ‘Shoggoth!’
He looked high and higher as the thrashing tentacled mass grew. Lidless eyes swiveled toward him and a round sucking maw opened like a dark bottomless pit. He dropped his arms, surrendering. He was grabbed then, around the neck, the arms and waist, the black tendrils holding him tight, and sizzling and stinging like poisonous fire.
Abdul Alhazred, the Mad Arab, was lifted to the massive maw and jammed into that foul orifice. Mercifully, his mind left him completely as the jaws closed.
Red Oak, Iowa
Big Bill Anderson sat in his favorite chair—red faux leather, soft, deep, and comfortably shaped by decades of sitting into a perfect reverse image of his ample butt. His chinos were pulled up a little high, and his blue checked lumber shirt was a tad tight across the gut, but at his age, he’d earned the right to get a little out of shape.
He turned the page of his paper, looking down the ads for pet adoption, scanning the older dogs: Labradors, terriers, schnauzers. Most had pictures beside them, and insanely happy, beseeching, or frightened faces stared back at him, all wanting new homes, just one more game of fetch with an attentive new owner, or to be far away from the guy who used beat the shit out of them.
He stopped at one, a shepherd, five years old, big guy with the tip of one ear missing, eyes that were clear and sharp with whip-smart intelligence—Rusty.
‘I wish, boy.’
Bill had desperately wanted another dog ever since Bella had died ten years earlier. He felt that now he was retired, and had his days on his hands, he might be able to swing the old girl toward it one more time. He tore the page out and let it rest on the small side table beside a new cup of steaming tea.
The vacuum cleaner started in the other room, and he knew that Margaret would be pushing the infernal machine in under his feet any moment. He grimaced, imagining the rush of warm, stinking exhaust air, the roar of a jet engine, and her light smile revealing her perverse delight in either loud cleaning devices or another opportunity to simply bug him.
He leaned forward to look at the picture once again. ‘Maybe later, Rusty.’ Bill let his eyes slide to the small table. A huge roach was edging across its smooth top. He rolled up the paper, and whacked it. ‘Ha.’
A vibration beneath his feet tickled his soles. He forgot the roach and frowned in the direction of the vacuum-cleaner noise. ‘What the hell setting has that woman got it on?’
Another vibration and he noticed the surface of his tea shimmy. He reached for the cup just as there came a thump from below. The vacuum went off, followed by silence for several seconds.
‘Bill?’ Margaret called from the other room, apprehension in the word.
‘Wasn’t me, honey.’ Bill sat still, silent, waiting. There was another thump, then another, the latest from overhead. ‘What the Hell?’
A deeper thump, again from below, sounding like someone was shifting heavy furniture in their basement. An antique plate on the mantelpiece tilted forward and fell to the rug.
‘Margie?’ Bill slowly rose to his feet as his wife entered the room, her forehead creased, her hands wringing a cleaning cloth.
‘Bill, are you…?’
Bill shook his head, turning it slowly, concentrating on listening, his arms out from his sides slightly, as though to help with his balance.
Several more thumps came from above, and Margaret squeaked and hunched her shoulders. Bill looked to the window. Outside, there seemed nothing unusual—the garden and, beyond that, the Wilsons’ house, with the lemon tree just covered in green bulbs not yet ripe enough to pick, overhanging the fence in between.
More thumps, and, as Bill watched, something black struck the lawn, and then another. Bill squinted—birds.
‘Hey, birds are –’
Bill never finished that thought: another thump cracked the plaster in the walls, and the house actually seemed to drop a few inches.
‘Whoa.’ Bill noticed Margaret’s face was white, and her wringing hands continued to move up to her breasts, as though she was praying. She was shaking her head; her eyes were watering.
He smiled at her. ‘Stay there. We’ll be fine.’
There came a blast of thick heat, and then the house simply…fell. Bill felt himself become weightless, as if gravity had been suspended. Outside the windows went black at the same time as the power shut down. The only light was thrown down from above, and outside he could still see movement, but rapid, as though walls were shooting upwards past the windows.
There was a crash. Margaret screamed, and Bill was smashed to the floor. His wife of thirty-five years began to sob, and that hurt him more than anything else. He got to his knees, staying there for several seconds as he checked his numerous aches and bruises. He was relieved to find that nothing was broken—at sixty-five, bones were like kindling.
‘Oh god.’ He gagged, and put a hand over his mouth and nose, as a God-awful stench filled the house. His brow ran with perspiration from the heat.
‘Margie, you okay, girl?’ He stayed on his knees and crawled toward her.
His wife lay on her side, moaning. He bet it was her hip; she’d had a replacement half a dozen years back, and still complained of it.
Bill went to an upturned table among the debris of furniture, broken pottery, papers, sheets of plaster, and something else—dozens more of the scurrying roaches.
‘What the hell?’ He bet it was an earthquake, and a big one by the feel of it. He scrambled around in the murky light, just the ghost of a glow coming in through the windows. He pulled a drawer and emptied it, rummaging until he found a small flashlight, and flicked it on.
Margaret was sitting up, holding her stomach. There was blood on her face.
‘You okay?’ he whispered, not knowing why quietness was important.
She nodded. ‘What happened?’
‘I don’t know yet.’ Bill used the table to push himself to his feet and walked to the window. He was right—there looked to be walls built all around them. He frowned as he followed them upward, and placing his face close to the glass he saw that the walls loomed hundreds of feet over the house. At the very top, there was sky…and maybe a lemon tree.
‘Holy…’ These weren’t walls that had sprung up; instead the house had fallen down into some sort of pit.
He still had his cheek pressed to the glass when something rushed past. ‘Christon a cross!’ He pulled back as though electric shocked. The shadow had been huge: twice as big as a man.
‘Bill, is there a fire?’ Margaret had managed to get to one knee.
‘You just stay there a moment, old girl. I got to check on something.’ Bill licked his lips and ran a forearm up over his head. It was blistering hot, and though he couldn’t smell smoke, he could smell something that refused to be identified—sulfur, methane, and fishy like. He remembered being at a beach when he was a kid, and there was a shark carcass high and dry on the sand, all bloated up in the hot sun—it was that sort of smell.
He turned his small light beam to the floor, checking the rubble, and then picked his way through it to the front door. The frame was warped, and deep cracks run up past the lintel, and across the ceiling. The house was warped. Forget about repairs; this is a knock-down job, he thought. Hannity’s Insurance would have a fit.
He grasped the handle, and immediately jerked his hand away—it was damned hot. He gritted his teeth. ‘Man up,’ he whispered, and grabbed it again. The brass knob was hot, but not searingly so. He turned and tugged, and the door moved a quarter inch and them jammed tight. Plaster dust rained down onto his head and neck. Bill grunted and tugged again, and this time the door flew inwards.
A shock of horror ran through his entire body. He dropped the flashlight, and the breath caught in his throat. He didn’t smell the vile air, or feel the inferno heat on his face; instead every atom of his being was focused on the thing that filled the doorway.
Octopus man, was the thought that jumped into his mind. The creature towered over him, all thrashing arms sticking from a bulbous head. He stared, his mind trying to assemble it into some sort of category of man or beast he recognized, and failing miserably. The thing was a massive amoeba-like creature made out of iridescent black slime. Multiple eyes floated over its surface, popping open to stare, before sinking back into the mass, and rising in another position.
Something wrapped around Bill’s neck, wrists and waist all at once and began to drag him outside. It was hot and greasy against his flesh, and hurt like a jellyfish sting. He tried to pull against it, began to struggle, but made zero impact on the monster. As he was dragged along the remains of his lawn toward one of the walls of the pit, he managed to look back in time to see more of the lumpen things wedge themselves in through his doorframe.
He heard Margaret scream, and he began to weep. Big Bill Anderson, her protector, her rock, was now useless. He wished he had a dog, and a big one, as he was pulled toward the wall of dirt.
‘Yo, Frank, racked and ready.’ Andy took one last look around as he teetered on the edge of the cavernous sinkhole. The grass behind him was littered with dead birds, which was why he specifically had been called in from his home base at Cedar Rapids.
Andrew Lincoln Bennet was an environmental geologist, and one of the best authorities on sinkholes in the state, if not the country. His job was to try and ascertain any connection between the land sink and the avian deaths. So far, he had no idea. The birds’ lungs (he had hastily dissected a few on a trestle set up beside their van) showed no sign of gas inhalation, and their eyes were clear, so no toxin deployment either. Still, he had breathing equipment slung on his back as he knew methane, sulfur dioxide, and even chlorine gas could belch up from the earth with little warning, as if the planet had ingested something disagreeable.
Andy nodded to his second-in-command, Frank Kelso. Frank was twenty years older and knew rocks like they were his family, but Andy had the modern expertise and had seen a lot in his thirty-five years. Frank was more than happy to defer to his young protégé, as he liked to call him.
‘One away,’ Frank, yelled, manning the winch, and gave him a thumbs-up.
Andy stepped back to quickly rappel down into the darkness. The sinkhole crater was more than two hundred feet across, and about twice that in depth—a biggie in anyone’s books. Andy knew of larger ones—Louisiana had one at Lake Peigneur that went down fifteen hundred feet—it was huge. But the current record was held by a monster in China in the Chongqing Municipality, that was a thousand feet across and two thousand deep—it could have swallowed a small village. As he rappeled down, kicking off the wall, he thanked his lucky stars this one wasn’t like that. The big ones could collapse, and a few hundred thousand tons of cascading rock and soil meant you just earned a free burial.
‘How we lookin, hotshot?’ Frank’s voice squawked from his belt mic. Andy could imagine his buddy up top, standing a good fifty feet back from the edge in case the walls started to slide. He’d be fifty again in front of everyone else, keeping the police rescue, residents and general public well back until he, and others, had fully examined the site. The entire block would remain evacuated and sealed off until their work was done.
He touched down. ‘I’m okay; just hit bottom, pop.’
He heard Frank whistle. Andy unsnapped the harness hook and grabbed a secondary flashlight dangling from his belt; he flicked it on, adding the beam to his helmet lamp’s halogen, and looked around.
Andy’s number-one priority was to locate Bill and Margaret Anderson, and his hopes rose. The house was virtually intact, sitting in the center of several feet of green lawn, now littered with carcasses of dead birds.
‘Bill Anderson! Bill and Margaret Anderson, can you hear me?’ He waited as his words bounced around the huge pit. After a few minutes, there was still silence. Light from above gave the scene a nighttime atmosphere. He looked closer at the house: aside from some cracking in the external structure and the front door hanging off its frame, he might have expected to see Bill and Margaret sitting on the porch as if nothing was wrong.
‘Structure’s pretty good; I’m going in.’ As he approached he winced at the smell. Weird, he thought. Wonder if they’ve got a septic tank. He quickly checked the anemometer on his belt—the air quality was still good. Just leaking shit, he hoped.
Andy adjusted his helmet, sweat now streaming from his pores. As well as the smell, the heat was near unbearable, which was also weird, as he should be feeling lower temperatures at a few hundred feet. He knew there was no volcanic or geothermal activity in the area, and there hadn’t been for close to a million years.
Andy leaned forward to wave his light across the doorway and windows. He guessed if they were in there, they’d be damned confused and frightened. And if Bill had a gun, Andy was liable to catch a gutful of double ought if he went barging in.
He approached carefully, his feet crunching on something. He looked down to see hundreds of roaches moving about. ‘Nice.’ At the doorframe he rested his hand on the broken wood, and then snapped it back, revolted. Even though he wore gloves for the descent, he recoiled from the thick, viscous material that coated the rough leather. He shone his light on it—glistening, milky with darker streaks. He brought it close to his face.
‘Aw, fuck.’ He ripped it away. It had to be the source of the smell enveloping the area. It was like fish, sulfur and crushed snails all in a jellied paste. He shone his light around at the walls, wondering where it had come from. In his decade and a half in geology, he had never come across anything like it occurring naturally above or below the ground. He brought his light back to the frame.
‘Bill, I’m coming in, if that’s okay.’ He shone his light inside. ‘If you can hear me, just make a sign…anything.’
Andy counted off the few seconds—nothing but silence. He swallowed noisily, and then moved inside, avoiding the fallen furniture and going quickly from room to room. The smell was worse in the small building, and he held his breath as he searched. In a few minutes he had examined the house in detail, and stood again on the porch.
‘Nothing, Frank; are we sure they were home?’ He looked up to the sky, hundreds of feet overhead; suddenly wishing he was up there.
‘Yep,’ Frank said. ‘Neighbor said he saw them only an hour before, and he’s sure they didn’t leave. Have you looked everywhere—the perimeter?’
‘I’ll do a final sweep now.’ Andy stepped off the porch. The lawn was littered with dead birds down here too, but incongruously, it otherwise seemed almost untouched by the drop into the pit—as if it had been lowered gently. Flowers in their beds still stood upright, their blooms straining towards sunlight they would never feel again. There was a wheelbarrow, with gloves laid over one handle, and a flagstone pathway ran for two dozen feet to abruptly stop at a wall of dirt and rock.
Andy circled the house. He had about twenty feet of space between himself and the walls of the sinkhole. They looked solid and not saturated, as he would have expected.
‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ he whispered.
He knew sinkholes occur because groundwater erodes away porous limestone creating a karst feature below the surface shell. Eventually the ground just collapses into the void that’s been created, and might have been there hiding for days, months or even years. But water is the key ingredient, and down here it was dry…and hot.
‘Talk to me, Andy.’ Frank’s voice sounded tight.
‘It doesn’t make sense—it’s bone dry down here.’ Andy continued to pan his light.
‘Maybe drained away. That pocket could be years old, and by now we have a total percolation effect. Water’s long gone—it happens,’ Frank said.
‘Yeah, but in limestone, and not in bedrock like this. This just feels…different.’ Andy walked to one of the walls and frowned—there was something on it, or pressed into it—a symbol or shape. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small camera, taking a few images, and then turning to snap off some more pictures of the structure and size of the cavity.
He tucked the camera away and then reached out to touch the dark soil where the shape was indented. It was soft and spongy, like Styrofoam packing. He knew the earth was capable of some amazing feats—it could sink, rise up in columns or waves, it could spin like a whirlpool, and become as hard as rock or soft like quicksand. But this was something outside of his experience. Besides, as he’d said to Frank, down this far, it would have to be mostly bedrock, not soil.
Andy pulled a small plastic bottle out of a pocket and scraped some of the spongy soil into it. He capped it and had begun to turn away when he stopped, and then spun back, frowning. He lifted his flashlight, holding it up and centered while reaching into yet another of his numerous pockets. He carefully drew forth a flat folding knife that he expertly opened out one handed while keeping his eyes on the wall.
Andy used the blade to dig in gently, carefully, edging out the spongy soil, and letting it plop wetly at his feet. He used the tip of his blade to snag the object and drew it out: it was a sleeve—blue checked wool, thick, like you get in those hunting or lumber shirts. He tugged it free and held it up on the blade tip. Despite the dirt covering the material, it was clearly fairly new.
‘How the hell did you get in there?’ he whispered, and then looked briefly to the surface—not a chance that this thing had been buried by sedimentary processes. Anything down here would be tens of thousands of years old, at least. He flapped the dirt free and looked at it again; even from a foot from his face, he could smell the stink—the same fishy, sulfurous odor that was in the slime.
It was a sleeve with a shiny button still on the cuff end, shredded at the other. He moved his light a little closer—the ragged end was damp. It was hard to tell what it was in the whitening glare of the flashlight, but the fluid glistened, and he knew what he hoped it wasn’t—blood.
‘Jesus, Bill, what happened down here?’
He quickly checked his pockets. Damn, no sample bags. He cursed his poor preparation and ended up wadding the material up and tucking it in a spare pocket. He dug a little more into the soil without finding anything, and then turned away looking again towards the sunken house. It was tomb quiet, and a prickle lifted the hair on his neck.
‘Ah, Frank…’ Andy cleared his throat. ‘Frank, there’s nothing here.’ He lifted his light again. The slime glistened back at him from the door. ‘If the Andersons were ever here, they’re gone now.’
‘Probably never down there. They’ll sure get a shock when they get home this evening.’ Frank didn’t sound convincing.
Andy felt the sleeve wadded up in his pocket. ‘Sure…sure they will.’ He took one last look around, moving his light slowly over the property. Smears of the glistening slime reflected the beam back at him. The dark or confined spaces never worried him. Being a geologist meant caving, tight tunnels, basically a lot of underground work, but this down here…He felt the hairs on his neck rise, and stay risen like the hackles of a dog. This is a hundred percent pure weird, he thought.
Andy snorted softly. ‘Only in America.’
‘What was that?’ Frank asked.
‘Nothing.’ Andy reconnected himself to the drop line. ‘Grabbing some samples and coming up.’
Viktor smoked the pungent cigarette slowly. He managed to tune out the sound of his five young children and screaming wife, Alina, as he read the morning paper. It’d be another long day driving the bus from the airport to the city and back. It was a twelve-hour shift now; it had been eleven hours only two years back, but the manager had cut staff with the remaining drivers working longer, or risking being cut themselves. The biggest joke on the drivers was that though the hours increased, the pay stayed the same. Big, big joke, he thought and blew more thick smoke into the tiny apartment.
His wife’s voice went up a few decibels and he raised his eyes over the paper to look at her—he smiled and winked—still beautiful after five children. Alina had managed to turn her face beet-red from screaming at the young ones. Only Maria, their oldest at seven, ever listened to her. Alina straightened, blew hair from her forehead and grinned and shrugged.
He nodded in return. He’d work a hundred hours a week if it meant keeping food on this woman’s table. She made it all worthwhile. He looked up at the stained walls and the roaches moving along the peeling picture rails. She deserves better, he thought glumly.
He sipped at a metallic-tasting coffee and winced—extra flavor thanks to the old copper pipes, he knew. He lowered the cup just as the table jumped.
‘What is?’ The table jumped again. Alina stopped moving, and the house quieted as the children ceased their mad dashing about. They all stood in silence. Alina and the five little ones turned big eyes towards him.
Something struck the window, making Viktor jump and little Rakael squeal. Viktor looked to the pane as another wet thump sounded against the glass—it was a bird, momentarily stuck on the sill, its beak shattered and bloody, its eyes round and mad. It fell away, leaving a streak of blood as it plummeted towards the earth.
Viktor started to rise to his feet. Earthquake? he wondered. Kirov had minor tremors all the time, but these buildings, most twice as old as his babushka, were little more than cheap, crumbling brick and powdery mortar—a good breeze, and they’d collapse like a deck of cards.
He felt a juddering vibration beneath his feet, and then a waft of hot, stinking air. Birds started to crash into the building as though being fired from a cannon. That’s it, no more waiting, he thought. Better to be safe in the street, than crushed to muck in an old building.
‘We go quick. Out, out.’ Alina took control, snatching up the two youngest and yelling instructions. Maria grabbed Rakael, and he took his eldest son by the hand. They went down the old steps two at a time, their feet squashing roaches on every riser, as the building started to grind. On the way down, doors opened and old gray heads poked out, but then were pulled back in as though on a leash.
‘Get out!’ Viktor yelled to them, but no one followed or even acknowledged him. In this building, like many others, neighbors rarely talked, and all were strangers to each other.
Viktor kicked open the downstairs doors and rushed into the freezing street, not stopping until they were on the opposite sidewalk. He checked his brood were all with him, and put an arm around Alina. Only then did he look back.
The building shimmied, rose a couple of feet, and then, staggeringly, dropped into the ground as though on a fast elevator. It didn’t fall and then stop, crumble, or even collapse. It simply went down, and kept going down.
Viktor could hear the crushing grind of earth and brick as the three-story edifice disappeared into a massive black void. There was silence for a minute or two. Then the screams came.
Excerpted from Book of the Dead © Greig Beck, 2014