Story by Justin Alcala
Illustration by Jon Stubbington
“We are all captives to the darkness. It’s only when we embrace our prisons that nightmares root and evil blooms.”
The American Civil War thundered for two years before the maelstrom of Gettysburg struck. It was a sticky July day when forces from both sides assembled. Over one-hundred-thousand Union troops settled in the low ridges to the northwest of town. Commander George Meade knew there weren’t enough surgeons to care for the throngs of injured, but it wouldn’t stop him from engaging Robert E. Lee. This battle could be the turning point for both armies.
The few surgeons on staff included Cecil Gibbs. The young weatherworn man was distinctive from his colleagues with his chiffon hair, willow eyes, and an ashen complexion. As a child, Cecil was bedridden from polio, and his twisted physique showed it. As hard as life had been, Cecil wouldn’t let it hold him back and dove into medicine as soon as he had the strength to walk. Still, for as determined as Cecil was, he was odd, even for surgeons’ standards.
His parents died of consumption when Cecil was just a boy. Cecil had no other family besides his neighboring aunt. The State allowed her legal guardianship of the boy, but the mile between the two estates caused her visits to be few and far between. Cecil was fortunate to get a feeding a day, and it was brief with little conversation. The decade of isolation caused the boy’s mind to warp and contort his character. He was a recluse by society’s standards, and Cecil learned to cultivate peoples’ uncertainty for him into a shield.
Day one of battle saw too much bloodshed. A clash of calvary corps caused for thousands of wounded and dying. His surgeon table pooled a slick pond of crimson as slick as sunlight on a wet street. Cecil was overwhelmed by the number of men slopped before him. One-by-one, Cecil cauterized, stitched and carved up soldiers. His hands were stained red and his saw dulled. Fathers no longer able to walk brought back shattered memories. The shock of men’s’ screams and gurgles haunted Cecil’s mind. Watching young boys jerk, flutter their eyes then fade into that other world gave Cecil the fantods for decades to come. And as the hours went on, the surgeon broke.
When Cecil returned from the ten alleys, his eyes tear-stained and a crooked smile smeared across his face, he was someone different. He picked up his tools with an eagerness set aside for the devil. Where cries once rang, Cecil now heard singing. Where surgeon’s tools once grated, only violins strummed. Before long Cecil was immersed in a symphony, and he was the conductor.
By dusk of day two, the injured had tripled, and Cecil the surgeon was no more. His colleagues declared that Cecil had gone mad. He grinned and cackled as new meat was put before him and began unnecessarily sawing limbs. Union command ordered to remove Cecil from his surgical tent, but he disappeared before he could be arrested. It was said that Cecil was seen limping up Cemetery Ridge, a tall silhouette with its arm around Cecil’s shoulder.
On the dawn of day three, infantry holding Culp’s Hill began to bring injured men from the woods. These poor souls survived their initial wounds, mostly gunshots, and artillery shrapnel, but were hastily cared for by a restless field surgeon that seemed to have sprouted from nowhere. While survivors initially were relieved, they became horrified when the medic bound them to a tree before sawing off limbs. The maniac didn’t stop until there was nothing left but a torso and head. Worse yet, Confederate soldiers along the battlefields were being found in the same state. Cecil was using the chaos of battle to mask his murder spree. Something had to be done.
Allan Pinkerton was the head of Union Intelligence. His spies reached across Union and Confederate lines and were spread across Gettysburg. Their objective…win the war by capturing battlefield intelligence and reporting it to command for better use. When news of Cecil reached the proper authorities, dispatchers were sent to Pinkerton agents with orders to remove themselves from the front lines and seek out the madman. Of the handful of agents reached out to along the lines, only one responded.
Oliver Lamb joined the Union Intelligence a year into the war. He was known for his no-nonsense, incorruptible attitude. Unlike some agents, Oliver felt his place as a Pinkerton agent was a calling from higher authorities. He didn’t flaunt his divine duty, nor did he ever speak of it. He just knew it to be so. Oliver dutifully removed himself from his post as a Union scout and investigated.
Now to say it was challenging to dodge fighting while hunting Cecil was an understatement. Skirmishes broke out from hills above, craters below and everywhere in between. Men died just as often while drinking tea as they did on the front. Nevertheless, Oliver was a master tracker, and he stalked each of Cecil’s steps. Oliver found the discarded limbs Cecil had heaved into piles along hills and bushes. Oliver interviewed bystanders. Oliver even tracked Cecil’s foot trail.
Only, whenever Oliver uncovered a detail, he found it strange that there was always proof of a second culprit at hand. A sharpshooter recalled a tall man in black with Cecil inspecting casualties along Barlow’s Knoll. A victim recollected an assistant with Cecil just outside of peripheral vision. Oliver even found a second set of large footsteps that walked along side of Cecil’s boot prints as he made his way to Oak Hill. Cecil somehow had a partner.
Oliver was a steadfast man however, and after hours of dodging canons and gunfire, he finally found Cecil along Herr Ridge. Oliver crawled through the muck, sneaking up on his mark. The surgeon wrung the blood from his hands along a creek. Oliver crept closer only to find Cecil’s latest work, an unconscious boy no older than sixteen butchered along a tree limb. Oliver knew he was dealing with a broken man and would only have one shot. Oliver removed his revolver from its holster. He cleared his throat.
“Cecil,” Oliver announced, pulling back the hammer of his firearm. “It’s over.” Cecil stared at his reflection in the stream.
“Is it?” Cecil inquired; his voice hoarse.
“It is,” Oliver confirmed. He made sure to keep a safe distance like you would a wounded cougar.
“It only made me stronger,” Cecil sighed.
“Not having a body,” Cecil confirmed. “I had polio as a boy. It empowered me as a man.”
“Are you sure about that?” Oliver asked. It was rhetorical, and Oliver didn’t wait for a response. “Come on. To your feet.”
Cecil slowly reeled around. His eyes were bloodshot with tears strumming down his cheeks. His once pale complexion was blush with scratch marks along his neck. Cecil stared down the barrel of Oliver’s gun. Oliver swallowed the lump in his throat before raising the revolver high. A man as desperate as Cecil was capable of anything.
“It’s not why I did it though,” Cecil confessed in a monotone voice.
“No?” Oliver asked while using his open hand to reach into his pack. He’d hung a pair of manacles next to the side pouch and blindly tugged at them while keeping his aim on Cecil. He could feel the bindings release from the straps.
“It made me do it,” Cecil said bluntly. Oliver didn’t know if he should indulge the mad man any longer, but he thought it could possibly help diffuse the situation without violence. Oliver palmed the now unsheathed manacles and hurled them at Cecil’s feet.
“It?” Oliver said as he watched the cuffs roll onto Cecile’s boots. “Who is it?”
“It doesn’t have a name,” Cecil confided. “It doesn’t talk about itself either. All it speaks about is what it wants me to do.”
“And it told you to mutilate these people?”
“Not mutilate,” Cecil argued, “cleanse.” Oliver had heard enough.
“Put on the manacles Cecil,” Oliver ordered. Cecil shook his head.
“I don’t hear it any longer though,” he moaned. “I was,” he stuttered, “I was its mother, but it dances to its own music now.” Cecil frowned while taking a step forward. Oliver noticed the saw in Cecil’s hand for the first time.
“Put on the damn restraints,” Oliver roared. “You still get a trial, Cecil.” Cecil shook his head hard while hurrying forward.
“You know where to take this,” Cecil lamented, lifting the weapon above his head. “So, wash me.”
“Cecil, maybe you have some sense about you, but if you do, you’re keeping it secret. Now,” Oliver seethed through clenched teeth, “last warning. Put the manacles on.”
Cecil took a step forward like a sailor taking his first steps on shore. A sort of errant smirk rose from his lips as he picked up his pace. Oliver aimed, hoping Cecil would stop, but instead the madman only sped into a sprint. Oliver fired three times. The first shot went wide, but the second bullet found its target striking Cecil in the shoulder before the third hit him in the heart. Cecil fell to the ground. Oliver paused and watched as Cecil lay motionless, his eyes staring at the sky. Oliver approached and kicked the saw from Cecil’s hand. It was done.
As Oliver searched Cecil’s body, he found the pages of a journal crushed into the surgeon’s coat pocket. Oliver unwrinkled the parchment and placed them neatly in his back pocket. When he was done, he searched the nearby area for the second culprit. Although the elevens on his neck stood like wild grass, there was never any evidence of an accomplice near Cecil’s makeshift lair. Folks had been mistaken. There was only one crazed man, a surgeon that blamed his sinful deeds on an unseen conspirator.
Oliver would petition for a nearby Union garrison to help bring back the corpse of Cecil and his victim. The Pinkerton agent was commended for his diligent work, but amidst the hell, command simply wished to sweep the incident under the rug rather than give out a medal or commemorate the intelligence officer. Oliver understood, and by evening, found himself on a new assignment. Luckily the battle would end after that third day. Oliver celebrated with the Union forces on their victory and followed the limping army as they advanced on General Lee’s heels.
In his haste, Oliver had forgotten to turn in Cecil’s last journal entries. On a night when the moon beckoned the dead, Oliver examined the papers by the campfire. In charcoal were drawings Oliver couldn’t understand. A well-drawn man of Cecil’s likeness stood above a stack of wounded men. Rendered in the backdrop was an emaciated figure nearly twice as tall as Cecil. Its flesh was sable, and it was absent of any distinguishing features beyond a maw of shark-like teeth locked in a bemused grin. The figure’s leg kicked out, its hands reached outward, and one hand clasped Cecil’s shoulder. The demon seemed to be dancing behind Cecil, watching the surgeon’s work.
Months later, Oliver joined General Sherman’s march south. It was a harrowing trek, but it helped Oliver keep his mind away from his encounter with Cecil. Along the way, Oliver received reports from passing Pinkerton agents that Confederate soldiers were found mutilated along the roads only a few days south. Intelligence said that a rebel soldier with a case of the rattles stretched out a murder spree throughout Fulton County. He blamed a creature that whispered to him in the night, a black figure with teeth like a lion. The Confederate soldier was later found and hung for his crimes.
Still, as Oliver continued to keep his ear to the ground, he learned that the horrific attacks went on, even past the war. A matriarch would kill her family in Dekalb or a man from the swamps would terrorize a low country village in Chatham. Each time, they’d always claim to have an accomplice that could never be found. Oliver remembered what Cecil had said after all. I was its mother, but it dances to its own music now.
— ♦♦♦ —
Hat’s off By Anthony Diesso, Art by L.A. Spooner
Don Fedora is determined to get his “lucky” hat back from the kid that stole it. His wife Vicky seems to content to sit back a let him run. After all, how much trouble can the Don get into chasing a kid somewhere on the coast of North Africa in the 1930s?