Cthulhu Blues

The Wade House has been reduced to ash, but the dreams that plagued Becca Philips and Jason Brooks when they slept in that abomination continue to haunt them. After years of facing trans-dimensional monsters in the service of SPECTRA, a few lingering nightmares are to be expected. But when Becca starts singing in her sleep—an ancient song that conjures dreadful things from mirrored surfaces—she fears that the harmonics she was exposed to during the Red Equinox terror event may have mutated not only her perception, but also her voice. It’s a gift—or curse—that she shares with a select group of children born to other witnesses of the incursion.

While a shadowy figure known as the “Crimson Minstrel” gathers these children to form an infernal choir, something ancient stirs on the ocean floor. And Becca, hearing its call, once again finds herself running from an agency she can no longer trust, into the embrace of cosmic forces she can barely comprehend.

Douglas Wynne’s Cthulhu Blues—book three in the Spectra Files series—is available now from JournalStone.

 

 

Chapter 1

On the night of the storm, Becca Philips sang in her sleep. Little more than a whisper at first, the song was not detectable by the microphone. Neither was it discernible to the technician from the background noise of air circulating through the vent above the bed, sleet lashing at the windows, or wind lifting the creaking gutters. The words, murmured in a dead language, gained no clarity when they rose above the din of environmental noise to tickle the green lights on the recording software at the monitoring desk where Maria Reid sat watching Becca’s vitals at 3:33 A.M.

The cold remains of a coffee in a paper cup at her elbow, Nurse Reid sat alert and attentive at what she had come to think of as the Witching Hour after twelve days of monitoring Becca Philips. The woman’s worst recurring nightmares happened like clockwork at 3:33 each morning, or night—or whatever you called the liminal realm in which Maria’s shift occurred.

Most nights, the audio recording picked up no more than agitated breathing, and maybe a repeated word or short phrase. But this—a mournful melody bordering on a chant, sung in the guttural syllables of an alien tongue—was something new. Maria felt a tingle run down her spine, like a grain of sleet melting under her smock. She rolled her chair closer to the desk and absently touched the gold cross in the hollow of her throat. She glanced at the monitor for the video camera she’d set up in the corner of the bedroom when Becca had insisted that they hang a curtain over the one-way mirror.

Becca Philips had a fear of mirrors. She claimed it was a recently acquired anxiety, which Maria found odd. Most quirky phobias were holdovers from a childhood or adolescent trauma. The nurse technicians had joked in private that Becca Philips must be a vampire. Janeth, who worked the two nights each week that Maria had off, had pointed out that vampires were nocturnal, but Becca only woke between 3 and 4 A.M. each night, sweating from her clockwork nightmare, even if she did sleep a fair amount in the daytime. And it wasn’t like the subject had requested the windows be blacked out—just the mirror. Janeth read too many vampire books to roll with a joke.

All jest aside, Maria knew that sufferers of depression were more likely to sleep in the daytime. Becca Philips came with a diagnosis of severe recurrent depression and seasonal affective disorder. Dr. Ashmead had commented that the diagnosis was from adolescence, even if the mirror phobia wasn’t, and that Ms. Philips had been highly functional in recent years, thanks to SSRIs and therapy. The nightmares were also a new development, and it was obvious that they scared Becca, maybe more than the mirror.

Maria had been happy to give the poor girl some relief by installing the wireless camera, which prevented having to move the monitoring equipment into the bedroom. With the wall between them, Maria could cough, sneeze, slurp her coffee, and check her phone without worrying about waking the subject. Just now, though, with the nor’easter raging through the speakers and that creepy melody rising out of the white noise, she caught herself holding her breath, afraid to move, her eyes darting between the grainy night vision video of Becca lying in bed and the flickering green and yellow indicator lights on the audio software.

Becca had rolled onto her back, knees bent and legs tangled in the sheets, her head lolling side to side as she sang. Maria couldn’t tell if her eyes were open. She was leaning into the monitor, squinting (as if that would help) when the image stretched sideways like an old TV in proximity to a powerful magnet, then distorted to digital snow and went black.

Maria looked for the little chip of amber light to tell her if the power had gone out on the monitor. Still on.

The track lights over the desk dimmed and swelled. Emergency generators would kick in during a blackout, and the computers had backup battery power supplies to prevent data loss from momentary outages. Not that the machines in this wing of the hospital strictly required it. Though the study subjects slept in a nest of wires—electrodes to measure brain activity, belts to track respiration, and a clip on the finger for blood oxygen—none of them were life-sustaining.

Maria ran her fingers under the video monitor, felt the power button, and clicked it. The amber light winked. The green-hued infrared image struggled to regain coherence, but failed in a scramble of pixels pulsing in rhythm to the sound of the chant emanating from the speakers. Each time the image of the room had almost settled, another syllable from Becca’s lips would assail it with a fresh gust of distortion.

Even as she puzzled over the song’s effect on her equipment, Maria was aware of its unnerving asymmetric contours—the way the melody hopscotched around an exotic scale, the spaces for a replenishing breath dwindling to nonexistence in the coils of a knot of sound tightening around her brain, making her temples throb.

She smacked the side of the video monitor to no effect. It was hard to think over that nauseating music. Should she call for a doctor? Go into the subject’s room and reset the camera?

The prospect of hearing the melody from its source without the distance of speakers suddenly terrified her. She had dated a guy who worked at an auto body shop for a while, and the image that came to mind now was of staring naked eyed at a welder’s torch.

A new sound joined the din: a groan that couldn’t be issuing from the same throat doing the singing. Another subject from an adjacent room? Maria glanced at the door—not the one that led to Becca’s bedroom, but the one that would bring her to an adjacent monitoring room, where another tech (Ryan) monitored another sleeper. Just as she started to rise from her seat, a crash popped the speakers. The audio meter flashed red overload lights.

No time for hesitation now. She had to go in and check on her subject, maybe wake her if she was thrashing in her sleep. Becca didn’t have a history of sleepwalking, but then, neither did she have a history of sleep singing. There wasn’t much in the room that she could hurt herself with, but there was that vase of flowers someone had sent her. If the crash was the vase, Maria was sure she’d have heard it through the wall as well as the speakers, but… dammit, she was stalling, like a child afraid of the dark.

The song. It’s that song. Why won’t she wake up and stop it?

Voices from down the corridor reached the mic in the bedroom and filtered through the speakers. Agitated subjects. Someone—asleep or awake she couldn’t say—moaning, “No, no, no. You can’t be here.” And an indistinct male voice, low and soothing.

Maria stood and walked toward the bedroom door, her fingers trailing over the surface of her desk, her shoes squeaking on the tiles, the hairs on her arms rising as she approached the solid oak door and the blacked out one-way glass beside it. The eldritch chant seeped from the speakers, tainting the air in the room like a toxin, worming tendrils of sound into her ear canals.

The curtain was suddenly ripped from the window. Maria cried out.

Becca stood at the glass in her hospital gown, clutching the black fabric in her fist, her eyes open but vacant, staring at her own reflection as if in a trance, her mouth moving, pitching the chant up into a region of harmonics that couldn’t possibly be the product of a single human voice. There had to be something wrong with the equipment. It couldn’t be coming from her throat like that…could it?

Maria clutched the steel door handle, her heart racing. She was about to find out.

*   *   *

Becca was in the Wade House again, following a dragonfly through a labyrinth of corridors until she came to a room she recognized. The empty second floor bedroom where her dog had been attacked by a cat that wasn’t a cat but a denizen of another dimension. Or maybe it had once been a cat and now roamed the planes between worlds, alive and not alive, feline and something else. Just as this house was both burned to cinders and somehow still here, its architecture still mutating, its rooms reconfiguring like a Rubik’s Cube even now. And what would happen when all the colors lined up? Would the house reappear then in the shelter of the hill at the edge of the woods as if it had never burned? Would the neighbors notice? Or would it remain hard to find?

Would she be lost in its secret spaces forever?

You’re dreaming again.

That inner voice was persistent, but she couldn’t put her faith in it. Her senses disagreed too much: The cold floorboards under her callused feet, the dust bunnies scudding along the wall where the peeling paper met the trim, the lace of aquamarine light lapping at the edges of the ceiling.

She knew where that light came from: a mirror. A full-length antique mirror in a hinged frame. But that wasn’t the whole truth, was it? The watery light entered this world through a mirror, but it came from elsewhere, from a temple on the ocean floor in the South Pacific.

Becca approached the mirror. The dragonfly was gone. Disappeared into the glass? Was it glass, or was it water? Would her fingertips break the membrane if she touched it? Would she flood the room, the house? Would she drown? Had the dragonfly drowned?

This was another clue, the voice of her more lucid self told her: If the dragonfly was real and not a mechanical drone, if it could drown in water, if it could pass through a standing wall of water that somehow didn’t break, then this was a dream, yes? Because none of that made sense.

But when had this house ever made sense? It defied sense down to the last nail and splinter.

Something crashed outside the room, down the hall. A voice cried out in distress, and another made soothing sounds. She cocked her head and listened, but couldn’t make out the words. When she turned to face the mirror again, the undulating light had vanished, and the mirror was draped in black cloth.

Now another voice was petitioning her, garbled by water, a murmured invitation to swim.

Becca knew she shouldn’t listen, knew she should flee the room, run through the maze of corridors and find the stairs, vault down them to the door, the path, the road.

But something inside her resonated with the unintelligible voice. She couldn’t decipher the words, but she knew their meaning, encoded in a muted melody. It told her that it knew her pain, the struggle she had fought for all of her adult life to keep her head above water, to not drown in despair, to not be overwhelmed by the barest of tasks. Getting out of bed in winter. Dressing, feeding herself, and working in the face of crushing futility. It knew the effort it cost her to do these things weighted down as if with pockets full of stones by the losses that had accumulated with each passing year: her mother, her grandmother, her lover, her father. Stones in the pockets of her wet clothes, dragging her down with the water in her boots.

Things did not have to be that way.

She didn’t need to keep her head above the waves, muscles aflame with the effort of treading water. She didn’t have to fight, the song told her. She wouldn’t drown; she would glide over the ocean floor, thriving in her element. If only…

If only she would recognize the voice of the singer.

And then she did. And it was her voice.

She reached out, seized the black fabric, and swept it from the mirror.

Someone screamed.

A cyclone of eels revolved in the water below the mirror’s surface, coalescing in a pattern resembling a woman turning in a pirouette, trailing scarves of black flesh. A chill coursed through Becca’s skin just as warmth ran down the inside of her leg and urine puddled at her feet.

She recognized the monster taking shape before her: Shabbat Cycloth, the Lady of a Thousand Hooks.

Another scream cut the air. Her own voice again, reflecting off the glass, setting the mirror to ripple with the vibration, and cutting the song short.

Becca blinked and looked down the length of her gown, at the wire trailing from her fingertip. A tile floor, a hospital gown. She wasn’t in the Wade House. She was at the Psych Center at UMASS Tewksbury, where she had admitted herself for episodes of depression, insomnia, and recurring nightmares. She was in the sleep study wing.

Becca looked at the black cloth clenched in her fist, then slowly raised her gaze to the mirror—not a floor-standing antique in a hinged frame, but a wide pane of one-way glass. Only, it wasn’t really a mirror at the moment, as it provided no reflection of her face or the room behind her. It might as well have been a tank at the New England Aquarium, like the ones she had seen when her grandmother brought her there as a girl, years before the aquarium was flooded and shut down in the wake of Hurricane Sonia. She couldn’t have been more than eleven when they’d made the trip, but she still vividly remembered standing awestruck at the glass, watching the mako sharks glide by, their rows and rows of teeth mere inches from her face. She felt that same primitive fear now, that same irrational, childish alarm that could not be soothed by the knowledge that the glass protected her, or that the environment she inhabited, that allowed her to breathe, was hostile to the monster on the other side of it.

The form of the goddess rotated before her, unconstrained by mundane laws of time and space. Seconds passed as it whirled in graceful slow-motion, punctuated by a spasm in which the lamprey eels composing it lashed out at the glass too fast for her eyes to track before slowing again.

Had she conjured this with her song? A song she’d never learned, formed from syllables her larynx should not have been capable of producing?

A wave of panic rushed through her as she grasped the implications of what she was seeing and the fact of its lingering beyond the boundary of sleep. The door beside the wide mirror opened and the technician appeared. Curses and footsteps ricocheted off the tiles of the hallway. An orderly came around the corner at a run. Becca turned away from the mirror and the abomination writhing at its edges, swept her outstretched arm across the nightstand, and hurled the vase of blue flowers at the glass.

The mirror shattered and fell to the floor like a sheet of water, dancing on the tiles in a rain of silver shards and twitching fins.

Excerpted from Cthulhu Blues, copyright © 2017 by Douglas Wynne.

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