Authors: David Nickle
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Short Stories
There was a man at the top of the ladder.
The light reflected back at us three times: dimly in each lens of the round safety goggles that he wore underneath his helmet, much brighter from the Cyclops-lens of his own helmet-mounted light. He wore a snowsuit, bright yellow underneath, but obscured by thick, hardening smears of mud. A shadow from a cross-beam fell on his chest and chin, enshrouding his features utterly. His arms dangled at his side, and in the mitten of his left hand, he clutched a crowbar.
Harry lifted his hands — as though the crowbar were a rifle, and the miner were a policeman placing the four of us under arrest.
“Hey, fellow,” he said. “Just thought we’d take a look around before it got too dark up here. Hope we’re not trespassing.”
The stranger stood stock still, and didn’t answer immediately. He was about fifteen feet above us, on a narrow platform that seemed to extend around the entire second storey of the minehead. The ends of the narrow-gauge tracks that the mine carts rode on extended out into space from the platform near his feet.
Bonjour, Monsieur Peletier.
” The voice was deep and gravelly, and the man up top didn’t move as he spoke. It was almost as though the voice had come from somewhere else — the top of the pit-tower, maybe the depths of the mine itself. But Paul answered readily enough, and with an easy familiarity that sent a premonitory chill through me.
Bonjour, Monsieur Tevalier. Ils sont ici — oui, mon père, ils sont tous ici.
Paul’s Northern Quebec French has always been a challenge for me, but even without the benefit of my Grade 10 French, the meaning of that simple sentence would have been unmistakable:
They are here — yes, my father, all of them.
No sooner had Paul spoken than the miner’s left hand opened and the crowbar clattered to the floorboards over our heads. He stepped back, and for the briefest instant as the shadows passed from his face, we could see him — an absurdly weak chin framed by mutton-chop sideburns the colour of dirty snow; hard yellow flesh, drawn tight as a drum skin across high cheekbones; and of course, we could see his teeth. They were like nails, hammered down through the gums so far that they extended a full inch over the lips.
Paul turned the light away as the creature leaned forward. As it raised its arms to fall, I heard the flick of a flashlight switch and that light disappeared. Something moved in front of the door, and the darkness of the pit-head became absolute.
The creature took Harry first. He was the oldest among us, he’d been slowing down for years, and from that sheerly practical standpoint, I guess he made the easiest target. There were no screams; just a high whimper. The sound a beaten dog would make, if that dog were Harry Fairbanks.
“The rest of you, stand where you are,” said Paul, his voice preposterously calm. “One wrong move, and you could find yourself dead at the bottom of the shaft.”
“Oh, you bastard,” said Jim, the words coming out in sobbing breaths. “Oh, you think you got us trapped in here, oh you Goddamned
“Only for a moment,” said Paul. “Only a moment. Stand still, and we’ll all walk out of here together.”
The whimper had devolved into a low moan, and it was quickly joined by another sound: dry clicks, the sound old men sometimes make with their throats, as they swallow their soup.
It was at that point, I think, that it occurred to me that Paul’s warning to Jim didn’t really apply to me: my back was still against the wall, and so long as I kept in contact with that wall, I’d be safe from making a wrong step into the pit. And the ladder to the second floor was only a step away.
Harry let loose a horrible, blood-wet cough, and with it, my decision was made: left hand still pressed against the rough tarpaper wall, I reached out and grabbed a rung of the ladder with my right. It was just as soft as I remembered it, but I didn’t take the time to worry whether or not it would hold and in a single motion, swung myself around and started to climb.
The bottom rung snapped under my foot, but I was working on momentum at that point and managed to pull myself past it. The climb couldn’t have taken more than a second or two, but it seemed like hours. I was torn between two dreads: of the moment the rungs snapped — beneath my feet, or my hands, or both — and I fell back into the mine; and of the instant that the creature below stopped swallowing, and reached up with whatever kind of claws it had hiding under those big miner’s mitts, to grab my ankle and pull me back towards the pit.
But the clicking continued, and the ladder held, one rung and the next rung and the next, and finally when I reached for another rung, my hand fell instead on the rim of the second floor. As I scrambled to get up, my hand closed around the cold metal of the crowbar the creature had dropped, and when I got to my feet, I hefted it in front of me like a club. There was marginally more light up here, and I took a moment to get my bearings. What remained of the day filtered in through cracks in the far wall, and reflected dull steel gleam off the mine-cart tracks even as they converged toward that wall. I couldn’t see clearly, but I knew there would have to be a door there — those tracks would lead out to the trestle, and the jagged heap of rocks that it traversed.
“Graham! For Christ’s sake!” It was Paul, but I didn’t take time to answer him. Something more important had suddenly occupied my attention:
The clicking had finally stopped.
And the ladder creaked under new weight.
I turned and ran towards the light. The floor was clear, but the boards had heaved over the years and I almost tripped twice before I finally fell against the huge door at the end of the tracks. It rattled on its runners as I righted myself. Behind me, I heard the sound of wood snapping, and something grunted — a sound a pig would make.
I found a metal handle about half-way up and lifted, but the door wouldn’t budge. So I wedged the tip of the crowbar between the floor and the bottom of the door, and stepped on it. There were more splintering sounds; this time coming both from the door in front of me and the ladder behind me.
“Graham! Get back here!”
“Forget it, Paul!” I was surprised at how giddy my voice sounded, echoing back at me through the darkness.
“I’m doing you a Goddamned favour!”
Whatever was holding the door shut gave way then, and I nearly lost the crowbar as it shot up with the force of the released tension. In a fast motion, I scooped up the crowbar under one arm, and lifted the door up with the other. The pit-head was briefly filled with grey November daylight and I let the door rest on my shoulder.
The creature was at the top of the ladder. It had cast off its helmet and goggles, revealing patchy whips of hair on a mottled yellow scalp, eyes that seemed all pupil — they glittered blankly in the new light. Its chin and beard were slick with Harry’s blood and its hands
claws. The gloves had been discarded on the way up, and they poked out of the snowsuit’s sleeves, dead branches blackened by flame.
The thing held its arm up against the light for only an instant before it launched itself at me.
I swung my head under the door and, checking my footing on the trestle outside first, let go. The door clattered down, even as the creature fell against it.
I backed up a few steps and raised the crowbar again, this time holding it over my shoulder, like a baseball bat.
I don’t know how long I stood there before it dawned on me that I could climb down any time I wanted; that it wasn’t coming out.
Before it dawned on me just what kind of creature the thing inside the pit-head was.
I threw the crowbar ahead of me, and in careful fits and starts, made it to the ground.
Paul raised his hands and stepped away from the van. I held his 12-gauge cocked and ready at my shoulder, an open box of ammunition on the floor of the van beside the chemical toilet, which I was using as a stool. If the gun were to go off, it would do so with both barrels, and take Paul’s head away in the process.
“Stay where I can see you,” I told him, and he made no move to disobey. He was framed perfectly in the open panel. “But don’t come any closer. No more tricks, all right?”
“I’m glad you weren’t hurt,” he said, and at that I swear I almost did shoot him.
“No thanks to you.”
“No, Graham,” said Paul, his voice very cool and reasonable considering his circumstances, “if you’d done what I told you to, stood still and waited for it, believe me — you’d thank me.”
“Yeah, Paul. Just like Jim and Harry are thanking you now. I want you to hand over the keys to the van.”
“So you can just drive away? Leave all this, leave your work behind?” Paul stood still, kept his eyes on mine as he spoke. “I’m disappointed.”
I’d been in the back of Paul’s van for about an hour before he’d shown up, and once I’d pried open his gun case and found where he’d kept the ammunition, I’d had little to do but think. Paul had set us up — set us up for something awful — that much was clear. Other things were clear too, but it was the wrong kind of clarity; I needed confirmation.
“That miner — that thing in the mine — it drinks blood, doesn’t it?” I demanded. “We’re talking about a vampire, aren’t we?”
“It’s not the only one,” replied Paul. “There are maybe twenty or thirty of them, living down in the tunnels. When the mine’s active, they feed on the miners.”
“And when it’s not active, they kill the tourists.”
Paul actually smiled at that. “Don’t be stupid. They don’t kill anyone; how long do you think they’d be able to survive here in these mines if they did? They just — ” he searched for the word “ — just feed, they milk us if you like. And they always give something back. It’s a transaction.”
“So that thing in the pit-head — the vampire — didn’t kill Harry?”
“He’s sleeping in his car.”
“They’re both fine.”
I sat back and let that sink in for a moment. If Paul were telling the truth, my original plans — stealing Paul’s van at gunpoint, hightailing it to the OPP station in Hailiebury and reporting a brutal triple-killing-by-exsanguination at the Royal minehead north of Cobalt — would all bear some serious rethinking.
“What’s the deal, Paul?” I finally asked. “Why’d you do this to us?”
“I didn’t do it
you,” he said, sounding a little exasperated. “I did it
you — particularly for
“So you keep saying.”
“Look: When you joined our little group three years ago, you were just out of art college. And even though you’re pointing my own shotgun at my head and it’s probably not the wisest thing for me to do, I’ll tell you: your work wasn’t much to look at then, and three years later, it’s still not much to look at. You might as well be doing paint-by-numbers. You’ve got technical skills that Jim and Harry would both probably kill for — hell, you went to art school for two years, you’d better have learned something — but artistically? You’re all cast from the same mould.”
When Paul was done, I lowered the shotgun. If I’d left it trained on his forehead, the temptation to pull the trigger would have been too great to resist.
“It may hurt to hear that,” continued Paul, “but I think it’s the case. It’s the case for all of you, and more days than not, it’s the case for me too. Which is why when this opportunity arose, I couldn’t pass it up. And I couldn’t have let any of you pass it up either.”
“What opportunity?” My voice sounded like metal in my head.
Paul shook his head. “How do you think,” he said slowly, “the Women’s Art League of Hailiebury managed to produce such consistently good work here? You think they were born with talent? Or maybe that it was God-given? They made an arrangement, Graham — just like I did.”
There was a rustling in the darkness behind Paul, and I raised the shotgun again. I could barely see Paul in the vanishing light; the shadows that emerged from the stand of spruce behind him seemed insubstantial.
“Let them inside,” said Paul. “They’ll change the way you see.”
“Go to hell,” I said.
The cold was fierce through the night, but I was glad for it; I managed to stay awake for all but a brief hour before dawn. Paul came by every so often, to check on me — he was waiting, I guess, for me to slip, for the miners to take me the way they’d taken the rest of them, so he could get inside and use his cot for the night. He would pound on the side of the van, shout — “Still corporeal, Graham?” — and tromp off laughing every time I told him to go screw himself.
For their parts, the miners weren’t half as annoying. Their claws made a noise like branches as they caressed the side of the van, but they stayed clear of the windows after I made it clear that I was quite willing to shoot the next one that tried to smash its way through the glass of the front windscreen, or tried to jimmy the door locks with its long talons. They kept clear of me to the extent that when I finally did nod off, at about 6:30 in the morning, it was Paul and not the miners that woke me up.
“Rise and shine, young Graham!” he hollered. “The sun’s almost up, and it’s time to get to work!”
I snapped alert, hefting the shotgun from where it had slid down between my legs. I looked out the front window and confirmed it was safe. Dawn was a thin wash of rose watercolour on the flat grey sheet of November cloud.
“You’re not still mad at me, are you?” Paul stepped into view outside the windscreen. “Come on, Graham, at least give me the Coleman and the cooler — the guys want some coffee.”
I let go of the shotgun with my right hand, flexed my fingers; I could barely feel them. My feet were similarly numb. And the prospect of hot coffee was impossible to resist.
“I’m still mad at you,” I said, and set the shotgun down on the floor. “Yes, you could say that.”
I made the fingers of one hand into a claw around the handle of the side door; the thumb of the other hand pushed up the lock. The door slid open, and the fresh morning cold pushed the stale chill of my first night alone in the van into the vaults of memory.
I don’t know why I stayed on the week. Harry, neck swathed in gauze and looking perversely healthy, better than he had in years, apologized for the troubles. He offered me a lift into town, even to pay for my bus ticket home if I wanted.