Bootleggers

The rain beat hard against the grimy panes of glass as I took a deep inhale of the recently emptied bottle. Sulfur, just like the others we had found.

“What do you want me to do with this one, Rick?”

I turned back to see Nathan stood over the man we found, knuckles whitened around the grip of his pistol. In the musty darkened room, the man in the seat seemed absent; I could just about make out his glazed eyes. In the intermittent flash of neon red from the sign across the road, I thought I could see an odd smirk on the man’s face.

“Keep an eye on him,” I said. “We don’t want this getting out of hand.”

By getting out of hand, I meant that we hadn’t got the correct permits from the local sheriff to be carrying guns for this investigation. In fact, I’m sure we weren’t meant to be here at all; but if the cops weren’t going to do anything, perhaps we would. Not just because we were getting paid, you understand, but because something truly odd was at work here.

Mr Reynolds had hired us over a month ago, following the brutal murder of his wife. The cops, he believed, had covered something up, had let someone get away with something. At first, I thought he was like the others who had hired us before, that it was just the grief talking. We knew that wasn’t the case anymore.

The cops had caught the killer in Mrs Reynolds case, however, the perpetrator had disappeared from police custody without a trace. How and why we did not know, but our inkling was that there was someone working for them on the inside.

Mrs Reynolds was not the only murder which had occurred recently. Of course, in a big city murders will occur, but these were precise in their gruesome fashion. All nine of the victims had been killed and mutilated in the same way; eyes gouged, disembowelled, and what appeared to be some indecipherable runes carved into their chests and foreheads. An empty bottle of the same sulfuric stench was found at each scene.

I stepped towards the man in the chair, boots thumping methodically across the wooden floorboards. Years of dust billowed from under them. He didn’t look up, even as I stood over him.

I held the bottle up in front of him. “What is this shit?”

The man let out a snort of a laugh then fell silent again.

“We know the bottles come from here, you must know something.”

The man burped, a hot smell of sulfur rising to my nostrils. My stomach churned.

Nathan shifted his weight. “Does the name Harry Thumps mean anything to you?”

This time the man did react. His glassy eyes rolled towards Nathan. “Harry Thumps is sleeping. Don’t disturb him.”

My heart leapt into my throat. Harry Thumps had been missing for the last three weeks, and we had assumed he had skipped town with all the murders happening. The killings all had the signature of occult or ritualistic killings, and the only known leader of such a group in the area was Harry Thumps.

Harry Thumps had been easy to dig up information on, given his strange appearance and habit of creating trouble. From his police records his obsession with the dark magicks and the occult began in his late teens, taking part in seances and ouija board sessions before delving into the lesser-spoken of elements of witchcraft.

His appearance never did much for him. He had implants placed under his skin to replicate horns, and seemingly every other inch of him was adorned with piercings or tattoos of obscure runes and rites. He was an easy one to spot, which made his sudden disappearance even odder considering no one had seen him.

The floorboards above us groaned under the weight of something. I clenched my jaw, poised to spring into action, but no further sound came. Even from the corner of my eye, I saw Nathan’s face drain of colour.

“Keep an eye on him,” I said, pulling my own pistol from its holster. “I’m going to take a look upstairs.”

Nathan gave an uncertain nod. His nerves were showing and he knew it. I just hoped the man in the chair didn’t notice.

Each creaking step made me wince as I inched my way up the stairs. As I approached the next floor, only darkness greeted me. I fumbled under my coat for my flashlight and switched it on.

The windows on this floor were boarded up. The dust on the floor was displaced in places, a path revealing the sagging boards beneath. Someone had been back and forth, and recently.

The stench of sulphur returned to assault my senses. It seemed to drag itself into my lungs, filling them and making them heavy. The need to cough fought me for control, but I kept the urge down. No need to alert whoever was up here, Harry or not.

I scanned the room with my flashlight. Old furniture sat silently against the walls, dirty glasses and cups littered liberally about the room. Under a few of the tables were crates of empty glass bottles; ones I recognised all too well.

The source of the sulphuric smell made its source known. In one corner was a still; a set of steel pots cluttered on a larger and stronger table with pipes running between them.

I crept towards the apparatus, a wave of dread coming over me. The equipment was filthy, encrusted with some kind of black scum. Something dripped out of the tap, and with it came that sulfur stench.

I gingerly grasped the empty bottle beside the still and ran the tap. A strange black liquid ran out, partially filling the bottle. It seemed heavy, much too heavy for its actual contents, and a strange sensation came over me, urging me to drink it.

I put it down and stepped back. I’d no idea what this liquid would do, all I knew was that it was at every murder scene. I followed the pipe which ran into the first container; it ran straight up and disappeared through the ceiling.

A creak from above again.

I gripped my pistol and made my way towards the next set of stairs. The flashlight cast long shadows as I ascended, the bannisters creeping up the old walls like black bars. I reached the top, and a short corridor with a single door greeted me.

A heavy chain and padlock were intertwined around the door handle, a hastily scrawled ‘Do not disturb’ scratched into the door with a knife. I pressed my ear to the door in the hopes of hearing something on the other side. Nothing. I gave a quiet knock. Nothing.

A gunshot sounded. I winced, ducking back from the door. It took a moment, but I realised it was coming from downstairs. Another three shots rang out.

I rushed down the stairs, plumes of smoke thickening the air. Nathan thrashed around on the floor, the man incandescent with rage atop of him.

I charged forward, knocking the man from Nathan. The man rolled over, revealing a bullet-ridden torso, blood spattering from his mouth. His eyes were wild with violence, a vile grin spread upon his lips.

He lashed forward at me. Instinctively, I aimed my pistol and pulled the trigger. The round ripped through his top, yet he leapt to his feet as if it was nothing. The next shot burst through his skull, putting him down for good.

Nathan pulled himself to his feet. “He wasn’t going down,’ he said between hastily drawn breaths. “I shot him. I shot him.”

“So did I,’ I said, staring down at the dead man. Even in death, he wore that strange grin.

A loud thumping came from upstairs as if someone was running around in that single locked room. I looked at Nathan, and without another thought we both tore up the stairs as fast as we could. If someone had heard the shots and called the police, we wouldn’t have much time until they got here. We had to get to the evidence before them.

Nathan repeatedly brought the butt of his pistol down on the lock, all the while I aimed mine at the door. Whoever was inside was frantically running around the room, the floor shaking around us. I braced myself, ready to put however many rounds were needed into who was on the other side if necessary.

The padlock gave way, the chain slithering off and falling to the floor with a loud thump. The running inside stopped.

Nathan drew his own pistol and booted the door open, a flurry of dust coming with it. He ducked into the room, checking the corners with his flashlight. I followed suit.

If not for our flashlights, we would have been in complete darkness. The bulb was smashed in its socket, the broken glass littering the floor and crusted with dried blood. Around the room were countless candles, pools of hardened black wax dripping from every surface.

On a small desk was a journal. I parted the pages with a shaking hand, a host of angry scrawls greeting me. I flicked through several pages, the thick smell of iron coming from the host of dark bloodstains within. Some were still damp.

“Rick, what’s this doing here?”

I turned to see looking at a large iron water tank, hand still clutching the dark cloth he had pulled from it. I stepped towards him and placed my hand on it. The coolness calmed me slightly. “This is where the still was drawing from.”

“But where’s Harry? Or whoever was up here?”

Nathan and I paced the room, rifling around for anything that may be of interest. I knocked panels of the wall, expecting to reveal a hollow section. Nothing.

“Fuck.”

Nathan stood with the journal in his hand. “What is it?” I asked, treading towards him.

He glanced up at me. “Read this.”

I don’t dare divulge the exact content, but within those pages was a host of blasphemous rituals. Of all the rites and spells which filled the accursed book, one was circled with fresh blood.

I spoke the name of it aloud. “Incantation of Malphas.”

The water tank shook momentarily.

“Holy shit,” Nathan muttered. “You don’t think…”

We both turned back towards the tank. In unspoken unison, we moved towards the tank, and with a bit of force removed the upper casing.

Inside was what we could only assume was Harry Thumps. A blackened skeleton rested in the bottom of the tank, long dead and rotted. My mind reeled at the sudden questions. Who was running around in the room? How could Harry’s body be stripped to its bones within weeks?

My train of thought became derailed when I glanced at Harry’s skull. The supposedly prosthetic horns which he had surgically installed, were not, in fact, prosthetic. Two large and pointed horns grew from the top of the skull, and I could not shake the feeling that something within those empty eye sockets stared back at me.

Nathan stuttered some words loose. “Do you think…is he really…” He took a step back as if he could not bear to stare at the strange body any longer. “Fucking hell. This is fake, right? This can’t be real.” His face paled once more. “People have been drinking this shit? Him?”

“No one is going to believe this,” I muttered.

“The police,” Nathan said. “Surely they can’t turn a blind eye to this?”

It did not take us too long to find out. We heard the police calling from downstairs. Before either of us could think, they were on us, blinding us with their flashlights and cuffing us.

As we sat in the squad car outside, waiting for the police to search the house, I watched. Two men pulled up in a black car. They looked somewhat more official than the police officers, wearing black suits and ties. They spoke quickly with the police officer at the entrance, then seemed to give orders to several others.

That was the last thing I saw before we were driven away. We were questioned and, after we spoke of what we saw, breathalysed. Both of us got booked for being drunk and disorderly, although neither of us had drunk anything that night. After a night in the cells, we were let go.

I went to speak to Mr Reynolds myself. I couldn’t tell him everything that went on that night, so I had to tell him we let him down. After that, I took a break from work.

Weeks later, I received a phone call from Nathan.

“Rick.”

“I’m kind of busy here, Nath.”

“I don’t give a fuck,” he replied. The urgency with which he spoke caught my attention. “You need to hear this.”

“What?”

“I checked the police callout records for the night we were at the old distillery. Local PD wasn’t even called out.”

A crushing weight hit my stomach. “If it wasn’t the police, then who?”

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