(WARNING: If you did not read last week's post, scroll down and read it first! Otherwise you are starting the story in the middle!)
Thompson looked up, his face grim. “There is one last entry here,” he said. “It’s just a few lines.”
February 9 – I woke to find that he had gotten in and killed them all. He was standing over me, only the cross in my hand had kept me from joining my shipmates. Or perhaps he intended it thus – that I should be the only living man left on a damned ship full of corpses. He laughed, but I am the victor, for now he will perish from his own hunger. Perhaps in his final throes he will be driven to consume himself – that would be justice indeed!
The men were silent. Thompson looked at each of them in turn, but no one spoke. In the distance, the last fiery sliver of the red sun dipped below the horizon.
Finally the Chief Corpsman broke the silence.
“Captain, logic would dictate that we search the CO’s cabin next. Perhaps his logs will tell us the truth about what happened here,” he said.
Thompson grinned. “I would be less nervous about following your suggestion if the sun had not just set,” he said. “Let me radio the ship first.”
He thumbed the handset and spoke quickly into the mike, using the ship’s code name.
“Rubberneck, this is rubberneck one, over,” he said.
“Rubberneck here,” Branch’s voice crackled back. “Everything OK, sir?”
“Not really, Tom,” he replied. “We have just discovered that the crew of this ship was destroyed by an exceptionally virulent epidemic. There is a chance that the source of infection is still onboard, and we are going to investigate. If you don’t hear from us in one hour, get the Hawkins out to a safe range and blow this rotten tin can out of the water. That’s an order!”
“Is it that serious, Jim?” asked Branch after a moment’s hesitation.
“If it is still active, it is quite capable of destroying the Hawkins and everyone aboard her,” Thompson told him.
“Then get the hell out of there and we’ll blow her away immediately,” the XO replied. “It’s ridiculous to take chances with your lives.”
“I have to be sure,” Thompson said. “We’ll be in contact.”
He shut off the radio, cutting off his exec’s furious protests. He turned to the men of the rescue party, looking them each gravely in the face.
“There is no need for all of us to risk being attacked,” he said. Chief McAllister and I will be the only ones to go into the cabin. The rest of you will wait in the passageway until we give you the all-clear. Mister Robbins, do you remember where the CO’s quarters are on this class of warship?”
“Aye, Captain, I think I can steer us in the right direction,” replied the engineer. “We’ll need to go forward a bit, and then into the skin of the ship. There may be a hatch just below the signal bridge that will bring us into the right passageway, although it’s been a while since I studied World War Two era ship schematics.”
They advanced carefully, for even though the aged wooden deck seemed pretty well-preserved, there was no telling when a rotten spot might send them plunging through to the dark spaces below. They found a hatch leading inward at what seemed to be the right point and entered. The passageway was slimy with algae, and a skeleton lay sprawled a few feet inside. They went up two levels, carefully testing their weight on the rusty metal ladders as they climbed, and came out in a passageway that stretched across the beam of the ship. There were two doors on the left that led up to the bridge and down to CIC, respectively, and two others that bore plaques designating them as “CO Cabin” and “XO Cabin,” respectively. Thompson and McAllister moved forward.
“Everyone wait outside,” he said.
The door was jammed shut by rust and corrosion, so Thompson backed up a step and lashed out with his booted foot in a strong karate kick. The aged wood splintered and gave, and a foul odor spilled out from the sealed cabin like liquid from a burst jar. The two men gagged, and then as the air cleared they moved forward into the dark room. Thompson shone his flashlight about, revealing a sparsely furnished room with a single bunk against the far bulkhead. Laid out horizontally on the bunk with his hands crossed on his breast was the dried corpse of a man in the uniform of a naval Lieutenant Commander. Blood stained the front of the shirt in several places, but the corpse was undamaged. Long canines protruded over the shriveled lower lip, and the facial expression radiated such utter evil that both men recoiled in disgust. But the man was undeniably dead, and Thompson breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that. Beneath the leathery skin, little more than a skeleton remained.
A bare desk with two drawers occupied one corner, and in one of the drawers was a small leatherbound volume. As McAllister continued to examine the corpse, Thompson picked up the book and flipped through it. As he suspected, it was the diary of Captain Hazelwood. He glanced through it quickly, noting that it seemed to confirm the XO’s opinion that Hazelwood had been a fanatical madman. After the corpsman finished examining the body, they went out to the passageway to relieve the nervous crewmen.
“He’s dead, so far as we can tell,” Thompson said.
There were collective sighs of relief from the men. A few pressed forward to see into the room, but the rest stayed back. Thompson was looking at the few books atop the Captain’s desk. All but one of them were standard WWII works on navigation, enemy ship recognition, and tactics. But lying a little apart from the others, still open, was a large, battered black book. It smelled rotten, as if its leaves were made out of festering human skin. Thompson had seen its like once before, kept under lock and key at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. It was the English translation of the Necronomicon, the insane ravings of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred. Or were they so insane? He reflected as he recalled the horror of the sunken island he had encountered some fifteen years before.
“Captain,” called Robbins, bringing him out of his reverie. “Do you want us to begin testing for salvage feasibility?”
“Yes,” Thompson replied. “Take HT2 Evans and three men and go forward. See if the bow looks solid enough to take a towing cable and if not go aft and try the stern. It looked pretty firm, as I recall. Doc, you come with me. We’ll search the bridge, logroom, and ship’s office for all the records we can find so the Navy can close the books on this one at last. Chief, go topside and tell the Hawkins that the contamination source is no longer active, and that we are going to try to salvage her. Let’s move, men!”
As they exited the cabin, no one noticed that the withered, clawlike hand of Captain Hazelwood was no longer positioned exactly as it had been. With the infinite patience of pure evil, it had begun to move.
BMC Lorenzo lit a cigarette after he got the message off to the ship. Just his luck, to get stuck lugging the heavy PRC-40 radio around this stinking derelict. And here they were, grown men all, scared silly by the thought of vampires! He had never liked horror movies anyway, except for all the skin they showed in them nowadays. Death and sex, the two great lures to get people to the box office! He preferred straight sex in his movies, he thought with a grin, recalling the flick he and the other chiefs had been watching when he’d been called away on this screwy salvage detail. So intent was he on his pornographic imaginings that he never heard the hatch behind him as it slowly opened. Not until the bony claw grasped his shoulder and spun him about did he realize his danger, and the it was too late. His last conscious thought was of how inappropriate the gleaming yellow fangs looked in that brown leathery face. Then the fangs descended, and Chief Lorenzo’s last gurgling cry mingled with the lapping of the wave against the side of the dead warship.
Robbins led his party of men forward of the rusting gun turret. The bow of the ship was heavily crusted over with rime and rust, and he doubted it would be strong enough to take a towing cable. Nevertheless, he took his scraper and began flaking away at the corruption of time. To his surprise, he hit solid steel only a few millimeters beneath the corrosion.
“They built them to last in those days, Evans,” he said.
“If you say so, sir,” replied the Hull Technician. “From up here where I am, it looks like solid rust all the way through!”
“Hmmm,” mused Robbins. “Seaman Davis, you’re better with a scraper than I am. You and Evans scrape down to the metal every meter all the way around the bow and see how thick the rust is, and then we’ll go below decks and try the same thing on each level, all the way down to the keel. I’m going up to talk to Mr. Watson on the radio about what kind of line we’ll need to tow this tub.”
“No escort, sir?” asked Gunner’s Mate Smith.
The engineer laughed. “Captain’s ghost stories got you spooked, Smitty?” he asked.
“Something awful happened here, sir,” replied the young enlisted man. “Even if it was forty years ago, I’ll be glad when we are out of here.”
“Whatever it was, Gunner, it’s long gone now,” said the engineer. “And even if it wasn’t, your bullets wouldn’t do much good against it, if that diary is true.”
As he walked off, neither he nor the busy seamen heard the faint, mocking laughter that echoed from the shadows behind them.
Gunner Smith was very nervous. He had seen just about every vampire movie ever made, from “Nosferatu” to “The Hunger,” though it had cost him dear in nightmares. But the thought that such things might actually be real was not something he could handle. As the two men behind him scraped at the rusty hull, he stared across at the bright lights of the Hawkins illuminating the derelict and wished he were safe in his bunk aboard the ship, without all the deep shadows and their accursed secrets thronging at his back. He turned and faced the bridge of the ghost ship to see if he could see Lieutenant Robbins up on the bridge wing. Neither he nor the Chief was visible. Then, from the deep shadows by the gun mount, a slow moving figure began to emerge.
“Lieutenant?” he asked nervously. Not a sound. “C’mon, sir, don’t try to spook me!”
The men behind him chuckled at the laugh Robbins was obviously having at Smitty’s expense. Then the figure emerged from the shadows, and Gunner’s Mate Smith screamed. The other men looked up in shock as three consecutive shotgun blasts ripped the still fabric of the night. Still the nightmare figure came on, its withered talons catching the terrified seaman by the neck. The shotgun fell from nerveless fingers.
Although his gorging on the Chief had begun the restoration of Hazelwood’s body, he was still a terrifying sight – brown, leathery skin stretched taut over a skull that seemed lit from within by corpse-candles. But the rich, sweet blood of Lorenzo had had restored strength to those ancient sinews, and his fangs gleamed carious and yellow in the faint light from the distant ship. Evans and Davis looked on in shock as those fangs sank into Smith’s throat and pulled out again, bringing with them a large chunk of flesh. Blood spurted out in a dark, rich fountain, and the undead creature caught it in his mouth with a sigh of insatiable hunger.
Evans charged, swinging the steel paint scraper in a blow that would have fractured a man’s skull. The vampire caught his wrist in mid-swing, and wrenched his arm back so hard it tore from its socket. Still clutching Smith’s corpse, Hazelwood lowered his mouth to the spurting stump even as Evans eyes glazed over in the realization of his death.
Davis cowered in the shadow of the ship’s prow, praying not to be noticed. He thought the sucking and slurping sounds would never end. Finally, when all was silent except for the noise of the sea, he opened his eyes.
The monster stood before him, much revived, but still corpselike in appearance. The voice that spoke to him was harsh and grating, like the door of a long-disused crypt opening.
“I would not want you to feel left out,” said Captain Hazelwood with a ghastly smile.
Davis went mad.
Lieutenant Robbins stepped out onto the bridge wing, wondering where on earth Chief Lorenzo had gotten off to. Stepping forward, he stubbed his toe on something hard and metallic. He jumped around on one foot, cursing, then shone his flashlight down onto the offending object. There, smashed beyond recognition, was the PRC-40 radio set the Chief had been carrying. As he knelt to survey the damage, he saw a few spots of crimson on the ancient wood next to it. A worried frown creased his face. Something was seriously wrong here!
He stood, shining his light onto the water, wondering what was going on. Something caught his beam, something white and ghastly. Then the swirling sea brought the object bobbing towards him, and the engineer gasped as he recognized the body. In death, the grizzled features of Chief Lorenzo were almost childlike.
Robbins swore and ducked back into the ship. Climbing down the ladder from the bridge, he went to the open door of the CO’s cabin and shone his light on the coffin-like bunk. It was empty.
To his credit, Robbins’ next thought was of the men he had left behind. Then, as the shotgun blasts from the ship’s foc’sle echoed through the night, he recalled his words to Smith. Crying aloud in fear and anger, he turned and ran for the hatch leading outside. The slime on the ancient deck slid beneath his feet, and he fell. His head connected with the rusty metal bulkhead, and he remembered no more.
Down in the ship’s office, Thompson and McAllister tried to keep from gagging on the stench of rotten paper. A few of the old ship’s logs were still legible, and among them was what Thompson had hoped to find – a copy of the complete ship’s roster, dated just a few days after the Lawton had left port on its final, ill-fated mission. He handed it to McAllister, who stuffed it into his medical bag. At long last the families of those who had perished so long ago would have some definite word on the fate of their loved ones, and maybe even bodies to bury, Thompson, whose only brother’s body still lay somewhere amid the jungles of Vietnam, envied them just a little bit for that. Pushing these thoughts from his mind, he turned to the Chief Corpsman.
“Let’s go,” he said. “The prize crew can get the rest in the morning.”
They quickly completed a cursory inspection of the logroom and picked up a copy of the engineer’s log that was lying open, and then left. Climbing one level, they emerged in the passageway by the bridge and were stopped cold by the sight of Robbins’ prone form. McAllister and Thompson rushed to his side.
“He’s OK, Captain,” the corpsman said. “Just a nasty bump on the skull, maybe a mild concussion.” He broke open a capsule and waved it under Robbins’ nose. The engineer’s face twitched a couple of times, and then his eyes flew open.
“Vampire!” he shrieked as he recognized Thompson. “Still alive! Evans! Smitty!” He tried to get up, and would have run out to the foc’sle then and there had not the two men caught him firmly under the arms and restrained him.
“Captain,” said BM2 Cox, who had ferried them over to the derelict after Corbin had refused, “the bunk in the CO’s cabin is empty.”
“Shit!” exclaimed Thompson, lapsing into his enlisted vocabulary as he felt the old fear rising in him again. He forced his pulse to slow down, and then spoke again. “Everyone stick together and pray to whatever you hold sacred. Cox, you and the Chief help Mr. Robbins. First we’ll see if Chief Lorenzo is all right, then we will -”
“Lorenzo’s dead,” said Robinson in a groggy voice. “Throat torn out. I found the radio smashed and saw his body in the water, then I ran to see about the men I left up forward . . . must have slipped and fell then . . . that’s the last thing I remember.”
Thompson paused for a few seconds to think. He then slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small silver crucifix, similar to the one they had found on the body of the Lawton’s XO. His experience had taught him that it was wise to carry a talisman of holiness on him at all times.
“Chief, you take this,” he said. “All of you wait here for five minutes, and if I am not back by then, you get back to the whaleboat and head for the Hawkins. When you get aboard, tell the XO to blow this rotten tub out of the water with HE rounds. Make sure nothing is left afloat! If that damned bloodsucker gets onboard our ship, we could all wind up like these poor bastards. I’m going to see if any of the men up forward are still alive. Remember, five minutes, no more!”
“Sir, won’t you be needing this more than us?” asked McAllister, holding out the crucifix.
Thompson grinned, that same grin that had won the loyalty of every sailer he had ever commanded.
“Don’t worry about me, Chief, I am far from defenseless,” he said. “I’ve faced worse than this, if you can believe it!”
He turned and left them quickly, before his resolve could fade. The Corpsman breathed a silent prayer for his Captain, and then looked at his wristwatch as the beam of Thompson’s flashlight disappeared around the corner.
Thompson eased out of the hatch that led onto the foc’sle of the ship and shone his light forward. The rusting five inch gun mount loomed out of the darkness like the carcass of some ancient dinosaur, old and corrupt, that had outlived its kin by so many years that all memory had faded, and then died at last. He walked across the deceptively firm wooden deck and made his way around the gun. Shining his beam forward, he saw all he needed to know. The dead eyes of the three crewmen stared back at him accusingly, and he felt the same guilt he always felt. Surely he could have saved them somehow! He bowed his head and prayed a brief prayer for their souls, and then turned to leave.
He was not at all surprised to see the tall figure blocking his path, but the voice still unnerved him when it spoke. It was low and mocking and evil, the voice of a Lazarus resurrected from hell, brimming with evil secrets meant to drive the living insane. He forced himself to listen to its words.
“You must be the Captain,” it said. “Only a leader would come to see about his men . . . alone. You need not fear – my thirst is slaked, for now.” A ghastly smile crossed the undead face.
“I do not fear you, thirsty or otherwise, Hazelwood,” said Thompson, fighting to keep his hatred for this monster in check. “You’re just one vampire stuck in the middle of nowhere – and I’m your only ticket out of here. You won’t kill me – not until you pump me for information, anyway.”
A hideous look of anger crossed the undead face, and then passed as Hazelwood realized the truth of what he had said. Then he laughed, a hideous sound, the cackle of a rabid rooster in hell.
“You have accurately summarized my predicament, Captain,” the vampire said. “I have long since lost track of the years that have passed since I drank the blood of my last crewman – I consumed them too quickly in my rage against the faithless executive officer! You don’t know how many nights I stood alone in the pilot house, waiting for a ship to hove into view, feeling my body waste away, until finally I laid down in the only coffin I had, to await discovery. I sold my soul to the dark ones for one more chance to strike at my enemy. You are that chance, Captain.” The vampire’s eyes glowed in the dark with a hellish fire. “I read the thoughts of that last crewman of yours before I consumed him. I know the kind of weapons your ship carries. You will take me within striking range of Japan, and launch every missile in your arsenal. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ – Ha! The world will feel the fury of Thaddeus Hazelwood, and tremble! Take me to your ship, Captain James Thompson!!”
For a moment the compulsion in that voice was so strong that Thompson’s will nearly broke. For a moment he started to turn around and lead the monster to where his men were still waiting – but the act of motion brought him back to himself, and he turned back to face the creature, allowing himself a long laugh of pure merriment that blew the compulsion away like a spring breeze sweeping last autumn’s leaves aside.
“Like hell I will,” he said between laughs. “You’re a little behind the times, bloodsucker! It’s 1985 – Japan was defeated forty years ago and is now our strongest ally in the Pacific. If you think I am going to let a reanimated mummy like you use my ship to strike at a friendly nation, you’ve got another thing coming!”
Thompson had never encountered a vampire before, but he had encountered enough other creatures of darkness to know that it was fear which provided their power over men, not blood or flesh or darkness. He glanced at his watch, and saw that six minutes had passed. As if on cue, the roar of the motor whaleboat’s engine cut through the stillness of the calm ocean night. The hideous anger rose again in Hazelwood’s eyes as he realized what that sound meant.
“It’s just you and me now, bloodsucker,” said Thompson grimly. “But not for long. As soon as those men get to my ship, they will convey my order to the XO to blow this derelict out of the water with incendiary shells. You’re going to die the true death at last, Captain Hazelwood.”
The withered face had worked itself into a fit of rage as he spoke. When he uttered those last words, the vampire sprang. Thompson was prepared. He had gradually moved around the creature as he spoke, so that the aft end of the ship was behind him. Then he had slowly, imperceptibly dropped his body into the fighting stance the Okinawans called sanchin-dachi, bringing every muscle in his well-toned body into full tension. When the monster leaped for his throat, Thompson gave a full-throated kiai and fired a powerful front kick with his right foot. The vampire was much stronger than he, but it did not weigh nearly as much. The force of the kick sent Hazelwood flying backwards, and Thompson turned quickly and sprinted for his life. He reached the passageway leading inside the ship and barred it shut with a dogging iron as best he could, and then ran on into the blackness of the ghost ship, trusting his instincts to lead him to the only place of safety he could think of. He heard the screech of tortured metal behind him as the vampire tore the steel door off its hinges. He ducked through a hatch and pounded down a rusted ladder, and then made his way aft. In a few moments, he found the hatch he was looking for. The rosary beads they had tied it shut with might have kept the vampire out, but they were not proof against Thompson’s desperate strength. He wrenched the door open, sending beads flying, and darted across the body-littered floor. He came to the figure he was looking for, and knelt reverently beside it.
“Sorry about this,” he said, “but you’re out of his reach now. I’m not!” he lifted the silver cross from the body of the Lawton’s executive officer and turned. Even as he did, the nightmare figure of the vampire appeared in the hatch he had just come through.
“Out of my reach, Thompson?” Again that malevolent laugh sounded. “We shall see about that!”
The vampire waved his arm and spoke in a language Thompson did not understand, although it was horribly reminiscent of some of the more arcane chants in the Necronomicon. The mess decks were lit by a ghastly green light, and groans sounded from every corner as the bodies of the long-dead crewmen of the Lawton came back to life. Fear rose like black bile in Thompson’s throat, choking out his resistance. A few feet from him one of the withered corpses stood and opened its eyes. A hideous pale light, utterly corrupt, shone from them. Thompson cowered against the bulkhead.
“Now!” shouted Hazelwood with unholy glee. “Kill him! By the power of the Black Master I command you!”
To this day, James Thompson cannot say what compelled him to look down at that moment. But look down he did, and at his feet he saw the body of the long-dead executive officer, unmoving, unawakened from his eternal rest. Even in death, he defied his undead captain.
The fear in Jim’s heart died like an insect beneath his feet, crushed to lifelessness by a stronger force. Even as the talons of the first zombie clutched at his throat, he raised the silver crucifix and cried aloud:
“NO!!! In the name of Almighty God, whom you mock by your very existence, I forbid this! Release these men from your power, and trouble me no more!”
Blinding white light exploded from the cross, driving every shadow from the room. The green corpse light was extinguished, and the zombies fell in their tracks like rotting sacks full of dry sticks. Holding the cross before him like a torch, Thompson advanced to meet his foe. The vampire stood his ground until the Captain had advanced more than halfway across the room, then it melted into a black shadow and poured out through the doorway where it had entered.
Thompson quickly mounted the ladder he and his men had originally entered the mess decks through and made his way aft. As he emerged onto the fantail, he was nearly blinded by the lights from the Hawkins illuminating the ghost ship. Over the gentle lapping of the waves, he heard a sound that he had heard a hundred times before – the mechanical clank and purr of the five inch gun mount’s motors as they swiveled the weapon to lock onto its target. He made his way to the rail and braced himself to leap when the radio at his waist crackled to life.
“Captain!” came Branch’s worried voice. “If you are aboard, jump for it! I’m about to give the order to fire!”
Thompson picked up his walkie-talkie and thumbed the button.
“I’m all right, Tom. Give me a minute to get my shoes off and I’ll swim for it. Make sure this thing burns from the waterline up!”
“Aye aye, sir!” Branch replied. “One minute and counting – now get out of there!”
Seconds were vital now. Thompson kicked off his heavy work boots and laid down the radio. He stood on the edge of the deck bracing himself for the shock of the cold water, when suddenly a cold hand grasped his shoulder.
“No, Thompson,” the voice of Hazelwood hissed in his ear. “You shall die the true death with me!”
Jim pivoted and saw the ghastly face inches from his own. Something throbbed in his right fist, and suddenly he remembered the cross which he still clutched there. For the second time that night, Thompson laughed in the face of the monster.
“I don’t think so!” he said, punching with all his might.
The power blazed up in him again as his fist tore through the ancient cloth, leathery skin, and snapping ribs. Hazelwood’s face locked into a rictus of agony as that horrible fire seared his insides. Thompson could feel the undead heart beating against his hand in its horribly mockery of life. He opened his fist and grasped it, forcing the cross to touch the vampire’s lifewell. He raised his arm, the grisly figure impaled on it. There was an explosion of white light, outlining every muscle and bone in the vampire’s body. Then the corpse of Captain Thaddeus Hazelwood collapsed into ashes. Thompson dropped the cross onto the pile of pathetic remains with a prayer that perhaps a tortured soul could find piece. Then he dove into the water. Just before the icy waves enclosed him, he saw a blossom of fire from the Hawkins’ five inch gun.
Thompson gulped the hot coffee as if he could never get enough heat into his body. Branch sat in the chair next to his bunk, looking at him speculatively.
“Do you really think Admiral Collins will buy this vampire story?” he asked.
Thompson smiled; the smile of one who has many secret memories.
“He’ll have little choice. He and I have pounded a few wooden stakes in our time,” he said.
Seeing the look of puzzlement on his XO’s face, Thompson chuckled aloud. But before he was done, the sound resolved itself into a gentle snore. Tom Branch covered his captain with a blanket and shut the door very softly behind him on his way out.
A few pieces of flotsam still drifted where the derelict had gone down in fiery ruin. Among them was a withered body, still wrapped in the shreds of a naval uniform. Had anyone been there to look, they might have seen that the collar device was a tiny cross. Chaplain MGarth’s empty eye sockets stared up at the stars as he drifted with the current. After a while, with a sound that might have been a sigh of relief, the body disappeared beneath the waves.