It was a fitting place for man-eaters—murderous and silent and stocked with the dead of a hundred generations. It was a fitting place to bring the departed, even those still on two feet.
“Damn, this is heavy,” Cecil grunted as the bag slipped out of his hands and fell with a splash. The big man grabbed his end of the large, limp sack and, with a heave, helped his scowling companion lift it over the next knot in the ravine. It was doubly hard in the dark and rain, and as they stumbled through ankle-high water, it bubbled and belched a foul odor.
“What the hell is in here?” Cecil had dragged the load most of the way himself, and he was starting to tire. It had been raining for days, and filth oozed from the cemetery. It pooled in foot-sized pits the pair had tracked from the car parked just past the gate all the way down to the small crevice that cut through earth. “Vernal?”
“Why are we bringing dog food all the way out here?” Cecil grunted and heaved again.
The ravine was choked thick with knotted roots and ran crooked along the base of a shallow hill dotted with sagging granite headstones and marble statues with their arms raised to the sky in silent warning.
“What is this place?” Cecil was stout with thin eyes and a fat lip. He wiped the rain from his face with his large hands. His left cheek was raked in thin, nearly healed scratches. His knuckles were well scabbed.
His companion was a stump, just over five feet with a stocky chest braced by two stubby legs like the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun. Vernal pointed. “There.”
A concrete slab and the yawning maw of a stone mausoleum plugged the end of the ditch. Dead vegetation hung from the opening like strips of flesh. Its open throat was deep and black and disappeared under the hill, whose sole purpose seemed to be to keep the place buried.
There was a distant rumble of thunder.
“Climb up there and help me lift this up.” Vernal pointed with a fat finger to the concrete slab, which rose three feet over the crevice.
Cecil looked up at the worn stone arch that capped the entryway. The writing wasn’t visible under the dead vines and creepers. “Why do I have to go first?”
Vernal stood straight. His eyes were round and his nose flat, as if he’d been punched repeatedly. His last shag of hair ran from the crown of his skull down the back of his head while his harelip barely covered his chipped teeth. Everything about him was filed down—everything, that is, except his forehead, which his face wore like a hat. “Cecil, how much do you weigh?” His vocal cords grated his voice like cheese. Every word was rumbling diesel.
“It’s a simple question.”
“Uh, ’bout two-fifty I guess.”
“And how much do you think I weigh?”
“Aw, come on, Vernal.”
“I don’t know, maybe a buck-sixty.”
Vernal pointed to the slab. “If I climb up there, do you think I’ll be able to lift this bag?”
Cecil looked up at the entrance again, cold and dark. “Right.” He grabbed a fistful of dead vine and pulled.
“Dammit, Cecil.” Vernal quivered. “I’m soaking wet and covered in mud. You can clear the verge later.”
“Right,” Cecil repeated. He leapt onto the slab and bent to grab the front of the heavy bag. Vernal did his best to push from the bottom, but it was water-logged—swollen and fat like a tick’s butt—and hard to move.
Cecil pulled with a roar and hefted the bag over the concrete lip. The floor was wet and he slipped and fell on his ass. As the bag collapsed on the floor, something rolled out, and the stubby man snatched it quick.
“What was that?” Cecil asked.
“What was what?” Vernal gargled.
“That!” Cecil pointed at the bulge in his companion’s pocket.
“Was that a dick? That looked like a dick.”
“What are you talking about?
“I saw it!” Cecil protested. “It was a dick! A big, fat cock. It fell out and you picked it up.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“You must have been mistaken.”
“For fuck’s sake, Vernal, I wasn’t mistaken.” Cecil made quotes in the air. “Oh shit, is that blood?”
The water-logged bag lay like a leaky bladder on the concrete, sagging as its weight squeezed the water from its innards. Swirling trails of crimson flowed with the water over the lip of the floor and down into the ravine.
Cecil stepped back. “Is… is this a bag of penises?”
“No.” Vernal climbed into the mausoleum and shook his hands dry. “Well, not only penises.”
“You said it was dog food.”
“It is,” came a throaty voice from the dark.
Cecil spun around.
“You’re late.” A figure stood in shadow.
“Yes,” Vernal replied. “The weather and all.”
“Of course.” A jackal-headed man stepped forward. He walked on two legs and wore a fine linen shirt, silk vest, and trousers. He had a ragged top hat but no shoes. The fur on his feet and hands was bushy, while that about his neck was thin and gray. The spotted hyena on all fours behind him snickered and bore its teeth.
“Jackals,” Cecil breathed heavy and stepped back. He got goose bumps. “Vernal, what the fuck?”
The jackal looked at the stunted man. “You must be Vernal Wort.” He extended a long-fingered paw.
“At last we meet.” Vernal glanced down the black corridor at the greenish glint of animal eyes reflecting the faint light. He could hear growling and shuffling as he reached into his pocket and produced the stray member. He threw it to the hyena, which tore at the head. Vernal watched as it chewed the spongy insides with its back teeth. “Fresh,” he said. “Or reasonably so.”
“Oh God.” Cecil retreated farther. One hand drifted in front of his pants.
“I can assume the phallus came from the eunuch’s temple. Where did you get the rest of it?”
“The rest of what?” Cecil asked.
The jackal nodded to the bag, which was sliding back over the lip.
Vernal grit his teeth. “Cecil.”
“Get the bag,” Vernal sneered at his companion as the bag slipped over the edge and fell with a splash.
“Right.” Cecil looked back at the jackal-man and his pet before hopping into the mud.
“I have my sources,” Vernal said. “All you need to know is there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“And it doesn’t bother you, Therian, trading in man-flesh?”
“No more than it bothers you eating it, aminal. And I’m no Therian.”
The jackal smiled. The corners of his lips turned up to his eyes, far wider than any human could smile. His teeth were white and sharp and shone even in the faint light. “Such disdain for the Empire. Aminals, at least, are proud of their race.”
“Are we doing business, or discussing politics?”
“Well, I can’t very well discuss politics with them.” He nodded to the eyes in the dark. “Or are you only here to feed the dogs?”
Vernal stayed silent.
The jackal stepped forward and leaned close. He was two heads taller than Vernal. “Jackals have excellent hearing, Mr. Wort. And we can smell a lie.”
Vernal didn’t try to hide his fear. There was no point. The jackals could hear his heart beat faster, could smell him sweat. “You have something for me?” he asked.
“Our deal was for five hundred pounds of man-meat. There isn’t more than two hundred in that bag.”
“Well, I didn’t come with just the bag, now did I?”
The jackal-man turned to watch Cecil struggling with the sopping load.
“He’s not quite three hundred pounds,” Vernal said, “but then I figured there’s a probably premium for freshness.”
The jackal studied Vernal for a moment. “I can see where you earned your nickname, Mr. Wort.”
“Call me Vernal.”
“You know what we will do to him, don’t you?”
“Nope,” Vernal replied. “And I don’t want to. I already know what he did to two little girls last week, and that’s enough nightmare to last a year.”
The jackal looked at the scratches on Cecil’s face and the scrapes on his knuckles. “I see.”
“No. You don’t. But I’m trying to forget it, so I’m not going to explain.”
The jackal nodded to his colleagues, who erupted from the dark, whooping and howling, and descended on Cecil, who didn’t have time to turn. He screamed, and kept screaming as vice-strong jaws sunk their teeth into his body and pulled him down the dark hall in spastic tugs.
“Vernal, please!” He begged as he slid by, arm outstretched. His dense, muscled body smeared blood in its wake.
“Save his face for me,” the jackal called to his pack.
Vernal held out his hand. “My payment.”
The jackal reached into his vest pocket and produced a brass key, long and tarnished and studded with movable teeth like a combination lock. Vernal reached out but the jackal-man pulled back. “Why is this key so important?”
Vernal said nothing. He waited.
“Forget that the Empire would boil you alive for this, publicly. What about Pimpernel?”
“Who?” Vernal feigned.
“Erasmus Pimpernel. You outbid him for this key.”
“He offered a small fortune. But as you intelligently surmised, Imperial money is just paper to us.”
“Your concern is touching, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Vernal held out his hand again. “My payment, please.”
The jackal bared his teeth and handed the key to the little man. “As you wish.”
“If you’re so worried about this fellow Pimpernel, why didn’t you just give the key to him?”
“Well, you know what they say about enemies of friends with enemies.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Vernal wrapped the key in cloth, reached into his pants, and stuck it between his ass cheeks. “I don’t have friends,” he said with a grunt.
A long, gurgling scream echoed from the dark and faded into a slobbering moan, a blubbering, begging lament.
“I can see that.” The jackal licked his lips. As his tongue swung around his narrow muzzle, a drop of saliva fell to the ground. “I must confess, I’d considered eating you. But any man who isn’t afraid of Erasmus Pimpernel . . .”
“Frankly,” Vernal climbed down into the ravine. “I’m more worried about my poor sister.”
“Yeah.” Vernal turned. “Last week, her two little girls were killed, and now,” Vernal nodded down the dark tunnel, “her husband seems to have gone missing. Good day.”
“Good day, Mr. Wort.”
The first chapter of the first book I ever published, FANTASMAGORIA, opens with a literal bag of dicks. That says something.
cover image by asahisuperdry