Sheriff Ed Brown looked down at the grisly remains scattered on the grass and shuddered. He'd seen many gruesome sights during the Great War; men torn to shreds by shells, ripped by barbed wire, smashed by heavy caliber bullets, but none of those atrocities matched this horror. The victim, for it was impossible to even guess who it was, had literally been ripped to pieces! The dead man's body had been scattered like some bloody jigsaw puzzle throughout the clearing. And those pieces had been burnt, scorched beyond recognition. The park smelled like a barbecue pit, but the burnt flesh was human. Some thing terribly strong, inhumanly powerful, and armed with fire had done this monstrous deed. It was up to the Sheriff to find that killer before he struck again.
Ed turned to his deputy, Stan Jones, who stood close behind him holding a lantern. The two had come to this park in the center of town in answer to reports of horrible screaming that had been phoned in to the station by a number of the locals. They had stumbled across the body almost immediately.
"There's a chance whoever did this is still around," Ed declared. "Keep your gun handy, and don't take any chances. Don't try to be a hero, Stan." The sheriff knew this deputy well. Jones was a good man, but he tended to think his position greater than it was. In other circumstances, Stan would have become the town bully. Instead, recognizing the problem early on, Ed had hired Stan as his deputy. A little authority made all the difference. "It must have been a gang. A gang of maniacs. Maybe nightriders, or the Klan. No normal man could have done this. No normal man."
Stan Jones looked about, his eyes jerking back and forth nervously. "Sheriff, what about that stranger staying at the Horton Hotel? He sure looked powerful enough to pull a man to pieces. Had a mean expression, too."
Brown nodded, thinking. The stranger had the physique of a circus strong man. And he had arrived in town only two days ago. He definitely wasn't a pleasant type. Curt, quiet, almost insolent. Ed had only talked to the man once, a few words passed in the street. The stranger, who went by the name Smith, went about his business with a minimum of fuss. Something about buying the closed-down paper mill at the edge of town. He hadn't caused any trouble. But now there was this body...
"Come on," the sheriff decided. "It won't hurt the man any to answer a few questions."
Ed's heart slowed to a normal rate as he exited the park. A combat-toughened veteran of the Big War, he wasn't afraid of much. Still, he was no fool. Anyone powerful enough to rip off a man's limbs was going to take more than a few shotgun shells to slow it down.
A group of citizens waited in the lighted streets outside the wooded area. Grim faced, Ed told them what he had discovered. "Lee, " he said to the town mortician, "you and Elmer and John collect the body. Or at least as much of it as you can find. I don'' like moving evidence but we can't leave the corpse spread out all over the park tonight. Do what you can. See if any parts are missing."
"The rest of you," said Ed, trying to remain perfectly calm. "Go back home. Stay indoors. Don't wander about. When daylight comes, we'll conduct a complete investigation. Stay calm, but keep alert. If anything funny happens, call me at the jail immediately. Tomorrow, we'll clear this mystery up."
The crowd dispersed quickly. Ed and his deputy walked down silent streets to the Horton Hotel, the town's only inn. A swift check of the register put the stranger on the fourth floor. Quietly, the two men made their way to Smith's room. A light glowed from beneath the door. Stan Jones drew his gun. Then, not giving the sheriff a chance to knock, the deputy squared back and lashed out at the door's lock with booted foot. With a crash, the wood caved inward. Stan leapt forward, gun in hand, his face flushed.
"Don't move," he cried. "This is the law!"
Cursing under his breath, Ed followed his deputy into the room. The man Smith had evidently been at the desk on the far side of the room, writing. Slowly, he rose to his feet, his features clouded with anger.
Etching in the light, the man presented a sinister picture. He stood several inches over six feet tall, with immense shoulders and arms almost as thick as a normal man's thighs. A stocky man with a barrel chest, he must have weighed well over two hundred pounds. Yet, despite his size, it was Smith's features that gave him a dangerous look. He had coal black eyes that flashed with some inner hellfire. Heavy dark brows curved down over a large hawk nose. A sardonic, almost sneering expression, surrounded by a black, square-cut beard that gave Smith a grim, menacing look. Seeing him, Ed was reminded of paintings of the notorious judges in the Salem Witch trials. Morgan Smith was not a man to trifle with.
"What is the meaning of this?" Smith asked. His tones were cold, controlled. Not the voice of a man easily intimidated.
"Keep your mouth shut," lashed out Stan. The deputy was edgy from the night's happenings. "We'll do the asking."
Ed Brown could see the muscles beneath the giant's shirt tighten, and then relax. Smith had perfect control of his temper. If the stranger knew anything about the killing, Sid had just made sure they wouldn't learn anything.
"There's been a murder in the park on the other side of town, Mr. Smith," Ed explained. "A pretty gruesome job."
"So? What has that to do with me?"
"That's what we'd like to know? It seems funny that there hasn't been a killing in this town for eight years, and then, two days after you arrive, a man is ripped to shreds and his body burnt beyond recognition!"
Smith stared at the sheriff, his expression suddenly not so hostile. If anything, Smith appeared concerned. Almost afraid. "Do you mean actually pulled apart?"
Ed nodded. "Exactly that. You know something about this, Smith?"
The huge man smiled, an expression devoid of mirth. "You'd never believe me if I told you. Call me crazy, or worse."
Stan Jones stepped forward, brandishing his pistol. "None of this back talk, junior. Answer the sheriff's question, before I..."
Smith was a huge man, but he moved like lightning. His left hand lashed forward like lightning and grabbed the deputy by the shirt. Without effort, he lifted the man three feet off the floor. Ignoring the gun in Jones's fist, Smith rattled the deputy like a rag doll. "Don't threaten me, little man. Don't you ever threaten me."
With a contemptuous gesture, Smith let the stunned deputy drop to the carpet. Ed Brown was white. This mysterious man was abnormally strong. Strong enough to make the sheriff suspicious.
"Assaulting a deputy in the course of an investigation," recited Ed trying to keep his voice calm. "That's a crime in this city, Mr. Smith. I think you had better come down to the jail with us. Then we can have a nice long talk about what we will and won't believe."
Surprisingly, Smith didn't object. In fact, he smiled faintly. "You have a sturdy jailhouse in this town, Sheriff?"
"Made out of cement and steel," muttered a subdued Stan Jones. "Strong enough to keep you inside."
"I'm more interested in whether it is strong enough to keep something out," retorted Smith.
Brown shuddered. Not someone, the man had said, but something. What unnatural horror had descended upon the town?
Smith was the only prisoner in the group of three cells at the rear of the county jail. The huge man looked amused by the 6x6 cell, empty except for the metal cot fastened to the wall and the primitive loo. He wrapped his massive fingers around the inch-thick steel bars and gave them a shake. "I'd prefer a solid steel door," he declared, "but these should work well enough."
Ed had absolutely no idea what Smith meant, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to know. Still, with the big man situated behind bars, he felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. In the morning, the fingerprints expert from Albany should be there, and that would clear up the mystery in a minute. Assuming that there were any usable prints on the charred corpse. Brown still wasn't had figured out if Smith was merely an innocent bystander or criminal Mastermind. Whatever the situation, Brown was convinced the giant knew more than he was telling. Time enough to find out what, in the morning.
He and Stan Jones took hour shifts napping on the cot in the front office, with the other man handling the phone. There were a few calls, mostly from young hotheads anxious to form a posse, others from the usual busybodies wondering if the sheriff might have some "secret" information he hadn't told anyone else. Ed was patient with one and all. Except for his years in the Army, he'd lived in this town all his life. He knew the people and their habits both good and bad. This was a nice, peaceful town and the news of a murder, and such a particularly brutal murder, had everyone shaken. He did his best to calm everyone's fears. Though he still hadn't entirely been able to calm his own.
It was a few minutes after four in the morning that Smith started calling for the sheriff. Shouting loud enough to be heard through the heavy wood door separating the cells from the office. Shaking Stan awake, Ed hurried to the back section of the jail. Smith's hands gripped the bars of the cell so tightly his fingers were ruby red.
"That man you found this evening," Smith asked worriedly, "burned and torn, was he about my size? Could you tell? Is it possible, could it be possible that he was mistaken for me in the darkness?"
It was not what the sheriff had expected. "Why, now that you mention it, there was a resemblance. Hard to tell, the burns were so bad. Face was scorched pretty much beyond recognition. Not sure who it was, must have been one of the farm workers in town for a bender. He did appear to be a heavyset fellow, wide and tall like you. "
Ed paused, running the words over in his mind. He wasn't fast but he was no fool. "Why, man? Do you know anyone capable of such destruction? Are you on the run from the Klan? Or some outlaw gang?"
Smith shook his head. His face was a ghastly white, his eyes crinkled in fear as if remembering something long forgotten. "Nothing human is capable of such violence. I recognize the signs, but I can't be sure. There is only one who possesses the power to summon the one I fear. Sheriff, you may be right. I could be the cause of your first murder in eight years. Not as the killer, though, but as the intended victim!"
"Smith, you're talking gibberish. Get a hold of yourself, man. Explain what you're saying."
The big man ignored the sheriff. Smith looked down at his huge hands wrapped around the steel bars of the jail cell. "I'm a fool. No building built can keep the thing hunting me at bay. Steel might stop it for a few minutes, but that's all. You've got to let me out!"
Cold fingers of fear coiled around Ed Brown's throat. "Are you mad? This place is like a fortress. I was in charge of its construction. A dozen men couldn't break in here."
Smith never answered. From the front room, Stan Jones's revolver crashed. Three shots exploded in rapid fire, and then the deputy shrieked in horror. One terrible scream and then there was a sound that Brown would never ever forget. A ripping, tearing sound, the sound of a man being pulled apart. The vile smell of scorched and burnt human flesh filled the cellblock. Pulling out his own gun, Ed backed up against the wall furthest from Smith's cell.
The floor of the jail trembled as something strode to the heavy wood door connecting the two rooms. Smith and Brown both stared in disbelief as the thing tore the door off its hinges. It was a creature that dripped blood, this thing that glowed white-hot, so intense that the air around it rippling with heat. A fire-monster, a mystic salamander, that had searched and now finally located Morgan Smith.
It stood seven feet tall, lizard-like in form. It walked on spindly, thin legs, its, body hunched forward, slender arms held out before it as if to maintain its balance. A long tail curled down from its backbone to the floor. Four-inch long talons extended from each of its four fingers. Atop a scaled, silver colored body, a thin sinuous head darted back and forth. A forked tongue, crimson red, darted in and out of a round mouth filled with needle teeth. Large, bulbous yellow eyes took in the surroundings with a short glance. In the close quarters of the cellblock, it smelled of sulfur and brimstone. The salamander completely ignored the sheriff. It was only concerned with Smith.
"I have come for you from beyond the Lake of Shades," spoke the monster in a voice like the hissing of a huge steam valve. "From out of the Night of Silence, from the darkest pit of the Seven Hells of Kadath-Kador. Called by three signs and the three cygnets. Raised out of the grave of a man thrice cursed. Given three days and three hours to live, and allowed three lives to take. I have sought and found you, Morgan Smith. I will have your shade to return with me to the haunted land of Yagg-drrsil."
Smith crouched in his cell, his back against the wall. Both of his hands pointed at the monster, his first and fourth fingers straight out, his other fingers bent. "I know you," he cried in a ringing voice. "And by your secret name, I command you to return to where you belong. I command you by the name, Sulan-Sathoth."
The salamander roared with laughter. "Your spells have no power over me, mortal. I was summoned by one stronger than you. Now, there is an end. You are the man!"
The creature leapt forward. Its wiry arms grasped the steel bars of Smith's cell. Metal shrieked but refused to bend. Yet, beneath the monster's fingers, the steel rods grew cherry red. Battling the fear that threatened to overwhelm his sanity, Ed raised his revolver and fired all six shots at the salamander's head. The bullets had no effect. For an instant, the creature turned and stared at Ed with burning yellow eyes. Then, it turned back to Smith. It could only kill three times, and two men were already dead.
"Soon you will die, S-s-smith" the monster hissed, as tears of steel dribbled down its fiery hands. "S-s-s-s-o-on."
In an incredible display of pure physical strength, Morgan Smith ripped the only piece of furniture in the small cell, a metal cot, free of the bolts holding it to the concrete wall. Grabbing the steel frame like a battering ram, Smith slammed the bed through a space in the bars directly into the creature's middle. Steam swirled and sparks flew. But the fiery monster kept its hold on the cell bars. If anything, the heat from its body glowed hotter.
"A few second-s-sss more," it declared, "then you will burnnnnn!"
"Moonshine!" Smith shouted, swerving his head to stare directly at Ed. "Find me some moonshine! Quick!"
There was no time for questions. No time for anything other than to rush through the opening where the door had stood a moment before; to stare for a bare instant with wide, horrified eyes at the blood-soaked walls of his office and the crumpled mass of flesh and bones in one corner that could only be what remained of Stan Jones; and then wipe open the file drawer marked "Unsolved Cases" and haul out the ¾ full bottle of bathtub gin he and Stan and a few friends drank during their usual Friday night poker game. Having not a clue what Smith wanted the bottle for, but not going to argue with a man about to be ripped into charred shreds by a monster that according to the local preacher never existed, Ed leapt back into the cell block, and in an inspired instant of lunacy, tossed the bottle of white lightning past the salamander and right into Smith's hands.
"Nnnowwwww!" declared the salamander and stretched open its arms, pulling the steel bars of the jail cell apart like sticks of molasses. Slowly, the creature entered the small cell, Its feet sizzling with every step. ""Your race is run."
"Not yet," answered Smith, smashing the top of the moonshine bottle across the remaining bars. Glass shattered, leaving a mostly full bottle of home-brewed white lightning sloshing about in the remnants of the bottle. "First, a drink, then we fight."
In a move Ed Brown considered totally insane, Smith darted between the open arms of the salamander, Obviously, his advance caught the beast by surprise as well, for it failed to react for a few seconds. Just enough time for Smith for Smith to empty the entire contents of the liquor bottle into the monster's throat. Then, drop like a stone as the lizard-man squeezed its arms shut.
"I-I-I will ---" growled the salamander, then stopped speaking. A bemused expression, an astonished look spread across its face. "I BURN!"
Scrambling on all fours out of the opening the creature had made in the steel bars, Smith grabbed Ed by one shoulder. Half-pulling, half-holding on for balance, he shoved the sheriff towards the outer office.
"I BURN!" shrieked the monster a second time, as Ed and Smith stumbled through the wreckage n the front room towards the front door. "I BUR---"
The jail exploded! A hurricane-force wind lifted Ed off his feet and sent him flying into the patch of flowers in front of the jail. He landed hard, but the soft dirt broke his fall and except for some strains and bruises seemed okay. As was Morgan Smith, rising to his feet a few feet away.
"Lucky we were both by the front door when that homicidal maniac who was using dynamite to kill his victims wandered into your office," said Smith as he wearily walked over to Ed. "Too bad about your deputy. Still, he died a hero putting an end to the madman's scheme."
"Yeah, right," said Ed, "I doubt if we'll ever find the bodies in that wreckage. Maybe the city fathers will just turn the entire area into a memorial park."
"Sounds like the right thing to do," said Smith. "They can count on a donation from me."
Curious townspeople were just starting to gather, to surround the collapsed and burning police station. Ed knew that in a minute he'd no longer have the opportunity to talk to Smith in private. So he asked what had to be asked.
"That whiskey? Why---how?"
"The monster was a salamander, a mystical fire creature. Its entire body was a living, breathing, walking furnace. Normal air serves as its fuel."
"The moonshine---" began Ed, seeing where Smith was leading.
"That rot-gut was close to pure alcohol," said Smith. "Burned a lot faster and much hotter than the demon could handle. The salamander literally exploded from the heat."
"The creature said it was sent specifically to kill you?" said Ed.
"All my life I have fought evil," said Morgan Smith. "Sometimes that evil fights back. The salamander was summoned by one who grows angry with my efforts. His hatred will continue to grow, until someday, there will be a confrontation. And, on that day, even blood ties will not protect him!"
"Blood ties?" said Ed Brown.
"My most dangerous enemy. The most diabolical sorcerer in the world," stated Smith. "My father."
* * * * *
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