Thursday, December 7, 2023



Al Bruno III

Mulrooney was the last one left alive.

He ran, but the swamp clawed at his every step. The thick mire sucked at his feet, slowing him down. The bramble and thick roots made him stumble and fall, leaving his hands and face bloodied. When he looked behind him, he could only see the oily night.

But they were there. Mulrooney could hear them moving through the mud and water, swatting branches aside with their withered, impossibly strong arms.

He'd seen those arms crush the skull of Banning, blood and splinters of bone slathering over gnarled, bandaged hands. The sight had sent the rest of the crew scattering into the swamp, abandoning the crates of priceless antiquities.

Everything was abandoned except for one thing. Mulrooney reached into his pocket and felt the reassuring weight of the jeweled scarab. If he could just get to safety, he would be a rich man, he could retire... or at least get into a more honest line of work.

Mulrooney blundered into a patch of thick, knee-deep mud, and for a moment, he was stuck fast. Squealing, he clutched at a nearby tree, dragging himself forward, leaving one of his shoes behind. He didn't dare try and go back for it. Not when Whemple's horrified pleading still echoed in his ears. Mulrooney had turned away before Whemple had been torn limb from limb, but its sound nearly drove him to madness.

Easy money.

They'd thought it would be easy money, just pick up the cargo and drop it off again a few miles down the coast. Smuggling was never a problem; smuggling was their stock and trade. Drugs, illegals from Cuba, and weapons had all been stowed on their boat at one time or another. Their captain, a tattoo-covered man named Blane, was ex-Coast Guard, and he knew the Everglades like no other man. He had loved it in a strange way, but that was no protection when the alligators took him screaming into the deep. Mulrooney had almost been envious.

That was a good, sensible death. That was a death you could understand.

Slipping into the silhouette of a dead tree, Mulrooney took a moment to catch his breath and try to gain his bearings. No matter where he looked, he could not find the lights of civilization, and the low-hanging clouds kept him from navigating by the stars. Mulrooney had no way of knowing what way led to land and what way led back to the ocean. He could wander around all night and not find his way back to safety.

A guttural whispering joined the chorus of frogs, insects, and birds. Mulrooney started moving again, knowing they would never tire that they would run him to the ground, just like they had done to Patrick. Patrick had never been in the best shape, and though he tried to keep pace with Mulrooney, he soon began to fall a step behind. Then, two steps. Then a dozen. Then they caught up with him as he was doubled over gasping.

Poor old Patrick, he tried to fight. He always tried to give as good as he got, but his blows only raised clouds of dust and grime; his gunfire only tore holes through bloodless flesh.

Thoughts of what had happened then gave Mulrooney renewed strength. He urged himself to move faster. Mulrooney vowed that if he ever found his way out of here, he would find the man who had hired them and dispense harsh justice. They should have been warned.

Their employer had been well dressed and smarmy, and for some ridiculous reason, he called himself 'Jack Diamond.' He smoked expensive cigars and liked to rest his snakeskin boots on other people's furniture.

Jack Diamond. Mulrooney had thought that was a ludicrous name, like something out of a cartoon. When Banning asked him what they were bringing through, Jack Diamond smiled and said, "Artifacts… well, heirlooms, really."

No one in the crew believed him, but the money he was offering was enough to buy a fleet of ships to replace the 'Wicked Moonlight.'

What wouldn't Mulrooney give to be able to find that boat now? The name had been a gag, taken from the titles of one of the many pornographic movies Whemple had owned.

They'd all been watching one of those movies just a week ago, waiting outside US territorial waters for Jack Diamond's yacht, 'the Rhiannon.'

The 'yacht' had been awe-inspiring, almost five times the size of the 'Wicked Moonlight,' and equipped with its own helicopter landing pad.

Mulrooney wondered aloud why a wealthy man would need their help. The whole crew had agreed, but there had been no turning back. Most of them men had already begun spending their shares of the payoff.

The soft, marshy earth gave way beneath Mulrooney's feet, and he found himself waist-deep in dark water. He squealed with fear and stumbled back. Blake had only been knee-deep when the alligators had taken him, snapping and rolling as they fought over every morsel. They had been strange-looking creatures, too. Mulrooney remembered how odd their heads had looked- long and narrow, almost spear-like, not like proper alligators at all.

Shivering, Mulrooney doubled back and made his way along the ragged shoreline.

The trip back had been easy. The 'Wicked Moonlight' had slipped into US territorial waters like a shadow. They followed Jack Diamond's directions precisely, making their way from the ocean to the Everglades, where a third boat would be waiting for them.

During the time it took to make the trip, Mulrooney and the others became curious. He, Patrick, and Banning had made their way down to the hold, chuckling and half-drunk with greed.

Exhausted, Mulrooney fell to his knees. He shivered with guilt and revulsion at the memories that came next. What had he been thinking? Why had he let the others goad him?

There had been seven crates; most had been nailed shut, but a pair of them relied on hinges and padlocks. Patrick had always been good with locks; burglary had been his primary vocation before joining the crew. Soon, both crates were wide open. One was full of statues, rings, and necklaces; the sight of all the gold and gemstones dazzled them. Beautiful as it had been, it had all looked worn and in need of a good cleaning. Whemple wondered if Jack Diamond had robbed a museum. Patrick replied that he had likely robbed some pharaoh's tomb.

To prove his point, he showed them the other crate, the one the size of a piano crate that had shifted unevenly when it had been moved from the Rhiannon to the 'Wicked Moonlight.'

When Mulrooney drew close to the crate, a strange odor filled his nostrils, the smell of dust, dead flowers, and salts. The scent of a funeral home long abandoned. The crate was packed with straw to protect its strange cargo, but there were mummies under that material layer.

Five mummies, ancient and decayed and, stacked atop one another. The sight left the three men speechless: the twisted frames, the thick layers of sallow, half-rotted wrappings, and the tangible aura of the antediluvian. Where would they see something like this outside of a television show or a bad movie?

The lower four of the embalmed figures were tall and stocky; they reminded Mulrooney of the physiques found on older cops and prison guards. The one that lay atop them was different; it was smaller and more carefully preserved than the others. The layers of weathered linen could not disguise the feminine curves of the body.

Whemple had a gleeful laugh at that. A girl mummy! And, he commented, she was just the way Mulrooney liked them: slender, coltish, and not quite in the full bloom of womanhood. And that was true; it was a vice that had gotten Mulrooney into trouble on more than one occasion.

Mulrooney stared at it, wondering. Was this some lost princess or a king's wife? Questions he knew would never be answered.

It was Patrick who noticed Mulrooney blushing and staring, but it was Whemple who made the dare. Go on! He had urged. Who will ever know? Do you think she's going to complain?

Several dares and counter-dares later, Mulrooney found himself leaning into the oversized crate. His friends giggled like naughty schoolboys when he let his fingertips brush the frayed wrappings that covered the mummy's sunken mouth. When Mulrooney reached out and gave the girlish shape's breast a playful squeeze, they laughed and clapped with disgust and surprise. How much lower would his hand have gone if the captain hadn't heard the commotion and come barging in?

Mulrooney woke with a start, face first in the muddy ground. He didn't remember passing out. He didn't even know how long he had been unconscious. Everything ached, and blood was roaring in his ears. Groaning, he pulled himself back to his knees to find her staring down at him. The chase had left her linen wrappings mud-spattered and torn, loose ends flapped around her in the warm Gulf breeze. She raised her one hand on her hip and cocked her head. She had been waiting.

Hands shaking, he reached into his pocket, pulled out the jeweled scarab, and offered it with a mewling apology.

The scarab had been an afterthought, a bit of mischief. Mulrooney had pocketed it as they closed the crates back up. There were seven boxes of Jack Diamond's artifacts and heirlooms. Surely he wouldn't miss one thing?

Mulrooney barely had time to rethink his theft. Less than an hour later, the things that perhaps had not truly been mummies at all awoke and tore their way from the 'Wicked Moonlight' 's hold. Blake panicked and ran the ship aground. The whole crew scrambled for safety. They knew the movies from childhood. They knew how a living mummy would shamble and shuffle. They knew they could outrun the danger.

But the mummies did not shamble. They moved steadily and silently, wafting along the ground like fog. They had picked off the crew alone and in groups until only Mulrooney was left.

"Please..." He begged, "...take it..."

The mummy swatted his hand away; the jeweled scarab plopped into the dark water and was lost. She drew closer, her motions fluid and predatory. Her hand was on his shoulder, holding him with impossible strength. The linen wrappings had fallen away from the bottom of her face, revealing flesh the color of rancid fruit and a smile brimming with uneven black teeth. And her eyes, when Mulrooney saw what was in her eyes, he had to look away. He found his stare resting on her beast. The wrappings and flesh were still dimpled around where her fingers had touched her.

The mummy tried to speak her voice a guttural purr. She pushed him back into the mud, her touch shredding his clothes and his sanity.

In his madness, Mulrooney realized it had not been theft or blasphemy that had woken her- it had been an invitation.

His unwitting invitation.