19 Aug The Scourge of El Cuero
“The Scourge of El Cuero”Written by Nick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 33 minutes
It was about this time last year when the first skin washed up on the shores of Lake Bidai.
Death on the water was nothing new to Cliff Marten, who oversaw maintenance on the Lake Bidai Dam. It was a reservoir lake, formed back in the ‘30s by blocking up a tributary of the Mississippi River, so it was prime estate for tourists and vacationers. While always great places for boating and fishing and other recreational activities, the darker side of that coin reveals that nearly four thousand people drown in lakes across the U.S every year. Tragically it happens disproportionately to children…swimming out too far and lacking the energy to make their way back is a common yet mortifying occurrence. Adults are far from safe themselves. Boating accidents and medical episodes are the primary culprits for their unintentional drownings. One would think that decades of life experience would be enough to convince folks to keep life jackets on standby when on the water. Still, every year bodies go under and stay down, only reemerging once the life had been seeped away, replaced with sogginess and gaseous bloating.
Lake Bidai was no exception. In his fifteen-year career, Cliff had personally recovered three bodies from its depths. Unsurprisingly, they had transpired at the base of the dam, where the water plunges to nearly a hundred and fifty feet. Choppy waves, slippery rocks, and frigid temperatures combined insidiously with the dam’s more scenic qualities. From the dam, boaters could catch a marvelous view of the sunset, watching the blue of the day bleed red-orange as dusk fell. Then, suddenly it would be nighttime, and the hapless boaters would realize they had no idea where home was…or where anything else was. Nerves would spike. Tempers would flare. And accidents would happen.
The new case, however, was different. “Typical” drowning deaths were easy to determine…pallid blue color and swollen abdomens were diagnostic. However, on that summer’s day a hiker had reported seeing something strange strewn just under the surface at the bottom of the dam. When officers traversed the jagged rocks downwards, they found to their shock it was an empty human skin, split open and splayed out at the spine. There was no blood, no internal organs left…even the bones had been removed. Only two clues were immediately noticeable. One, the overall condition of the hide was ragged and soft, implying it had been underwater for some time before surfacing. And two, a handful of puncture wounds were visible along where the body’s back would have been. To the police officers, they resembled bullet holes. But that didn’t explain the complete deboning plus organ and blood loss, which they tentatively chalked up to cult activity.
Cliff wasn’t so sure. A small lakeside town in Northeastern Texas didn’t exactly scream “cultist hotbed.”
With no motive or culprit to attach it to, the first case descended into a fog. And with the discovery of the victim’s identity, a homeless man with a history of epilepsy, it simply disappeared from the town’s collective mind.
The next three skins, therefore, turned out more grievous and confounding.
Over the next twelve months a new hide would wash up in a consistent cycle of once every three months. All were split down the spine. All were missing their blood, innards, and bones. All were adorned with the same curious punctures. And all were recovered at or near the dam.
The victims this time were much more exploitable. A 25-year-old jet-skier from New York visiting family, who wiped out and never came up. A 53-year-old father of four, who wanted to show his kids how deep the lake really was. A 32-year-old swimmer practicing for a triathlon, who just vanished in plain sight. This death was the most startling, as Mason Campbell was well-trained and the weather conditions the day he disappeared were, at worst, mild. There was no way of determining a more bodily cause of death, as there was practically no body to examine. They only knew it was Mason Campbell from the swordfish tattoo on what used to be his left bicep.
The media murmurs about cult activity welled up again. Their wild speculating plus law enforcement’s lack of answers threatened to sink the town’s economy; the guided boat tours and quaint shopping districts that brought in capital every season showed signs of suffering for the first time in decades. The dam, once a tranquil and iconic set piece for the lake, became reminiscent of a warzone, on account of the armed officers patrolling its length, watching out for who or whatever would strike.
All that was on the back of Cliff’s annual dam inspection, where he and his crew would have to don scuba gear and perform a full maintenance check of the structure…from top to bottom. And with nearly three months having passed since the last skin, Cliff tried not to show it in his face that one of them might be next.
* * * * * *
“And the weather’s been kind this year?” Cliff Marten asked.
“Yes, rainfall’s been just below average,” said Sarah Nielsen, the Bidai National Forest’s head ranger. “We had a mild drought this spring. There wasn’t a need to drain too much water this year.”
“Very good,” Cliff remarked. Their vessel, consisting of the two of them plus his maintenance crew, was cruising idly about thirty feet from the dam’s base. A quick visual examination of the exterior showed no signs of structural compromise. It was a rock-and-earth dam; they were looking out for depressed sections or boulders which had fallen or become dislodged.
“Water outflow on the other side has been consistent?” Cliff continued.
“Very,” Sarah confirmed. “Really, I know it’s not our prerogative but we haven’t noticed much wrong with the dam ourselves. Everything seems…normal…”
Cliff had to hide a strained smile. He knew what was on both the ranger’s and his crew’s minds. All were dancing around the bizarre tragedies that had cropped up over the past year. And the mysterious deaths weren’t the only incipient problem brewing. With the town’s budget shrinking with each passing day, they could only afford to pay Cliff and his crew for their current inspection. If their financial trajectory continued to plummet, the long-term consequences of a neglected dam could be more severe than four dead bodies in the lake.
“Look…I’m sorry, but I’m done beating around the bush,” Sarah blurted. “I’m a park ranger. My job usually entails raising awareness for endangered salamanders. So I have to ask you, Mr. Marten, who or what could be doing this?”
Cliff sighed. He had dedicated his own seasoned thoughts to the deaths over the last several months, but the specifics eluded him just the same. “It’s very likely that the homeless man suffered a seizure and fell off the dam into the lake. With the jet skier, all it takes is one bad fall to lose consciousness and drown. With the 53-year-old…anything could have happened at that depth that would have kept him from coming up. Accidents happen…it’s inevitable.”
“Okay,” Sarah pushed. “And what about the, you know, the skins?”
Cliff shrugged and looked away. “If it was a person that did this, they’d had to have found the bodies once they floated up and done whatever they wanted to do…and I fail to see how they could have gotten away with it four times in a row. Especially with this much attention.” He gestured to the minute silhouette of a police officer walking the top of the dam. “And there’s no native animals in Lake Bidai that could do such signature damage on their own. The only culprit I can imagine is scavenging catfish.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow, and Cliff gave a grimace. “…but I think we both know that’s not gonna fly,” he said.
“Finally, a solid realization,” Sarah muttered, turning away and gazing over the lake.
Phoebe Pemberton, an experienced diver and one of Cliff’s longtime crewmates, perked up with a furrowed brow. “You said ‘native animals,’ Cliff. Is there anything other creature that could survive here capable of doing that to a person?”
Cliff considered it. Broadening the net further revealed a menagerie of exotic aquatic animals more than capable of killing humans. A rogue alligator was possible, but one would have been seen sunning along the shores long before. Bull sharks could survive in fresh water, but the lone, patternless punctures on the recovered skins were not diagnostic of their crescent-shaped jaws. Such punctures would normally pin the blame on a stingray, but there was no motivation for a bottom-feeding animal to deliberately pursue large prey on the surface. And of course, neither suspect could explain the missing innards and bones.
“It has to be a cult,” Rio Vasquez, the maintenance crew’s structural engineer, piped up. “I’ve heard of shit like this from back home. All those Santa Muerte nutjobs running around slaughtering cows and then blaming goddamn aliens?” He gave the ranger a knowing stare. “Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re running around here too.”
“Bottom line is,” Cliff interrupted, noticing Sarah’s mortified expression, “unless we can catch it in the act there’s no way of knowing for sure. Those skins left the coroners and the authorities with nothing.”
“It could be Bertha,” said the crew’s fourth and final crewmate, diver Trevor Maitland.
“Who’s Bertha?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, she’s this giant flathead catfish that lives by the dam,” said Trevor, his eyes popping with excitement. “By her size I reckon she’s at least forty years old. She likes when you give her a piece of shad, then she’ll nuzzle your face and let you tickle her -”
“That’s enough, Trevor,” said Cliff, flitting his gaze between him and the ranger.
“This is insane, this is just fucking insane,” Sarah nearly shouted, pivoting away towards the stern. “None of you know a goddamn thing and alien catfish cultists or whatever are killing people left and right in this goddamn lake…”
“Miss, please,” Cliff cut in, “we’re sorry we don’t have answers, but…”
“But nothing,” said Sarah with resolution. “Just get me off this boat and do your jobs, please.”
Cliff turned the boat away from the dam. “You sure? The nearest dock is a good half-mile off…”
“No, no, just drop me off at the base, I can manage it myself,” she snapped. Cliff hesitated, but carefully maneuvered their vessel to the base of the dam. He barely cut the engine when the ranger vaulted the railing and splashed into waist-deep water before ascending the steep, rocky slope. The maintenance crew gaped as she climbed the dam before leveling out at the top, to the bemused looks of patrolling police officers.
“She’s a piece of work,” Trevor finally said.
“She’s scared, Trevor,” Phoebe reprimanded. “Lots of folks are.”
“Which is why I’m going to offer this only once,” said Cliff. “We can put off the underwater inspection for now until we all feel a hundred percent safe. We don’t know what’s happening to these victims and I’d really rather not have to dredge up one of you from this lake next.”
“We’re experienced divers and we’re more than capable of handling any dangerous situation,” Phoebe countered. “I swam through a school of ravening reef sharks in the Bahamas. Without a tank I can hold my breath for twenty minutes. The difference now is that now we know what to expect.” She motioned to a wicked dive knife holstered on her waistband. “And we’re prepared to deal with it.”
“Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Rio commented. “We still have to run the sonar check.”
And with that the crew piloted the boat to the north end of the dam and activated the sonar device mounted at the bow. The sound waves would give a crystal clear picture of the underwater topography, translated to colored blotches on the monitor onboard. The boat enacted a slow cruise down the dam, watching for any anomalies near the bottom of the dam…sunken boats, collapsed rocks, depressions in the lakebed. Anything gathered at the submerged base of the dam threatened its structural integrity, and the severity of the anomaly would determine whether they had to go under and assess the potential damage.
So far, however, the monitor displayed a clear, clean lakebed, with schooling fish occupying various levels of the seventy-foot depth. It got progressively deeper the closer they approached the riser, a large concrete structure that jutted from the surface to the bottom and acted as the primary spillway. When they hit the riser, the depth reached its maximum of a hundred and fifty. They drifted past it with bated breath. The monitor remained blank.
Then, right on the bottom, it appeared. It translated to the monitor as a tubular splotch of orange that snaked along the lakebed about twenty feet from the base of the riser. Cliff cut the engine and they stared mesmerized at the anomaly. From sonar alone, they determined that it was a singular object rather than a collection of rubble. They also knew it hadn’t been there the year prior. Either it had rolled off the dam and into the water…or it had spontaneously appeared at the bottom of the lake. Regardless, it was troublingly close to the riser. Something had to be done about it. Otherwise, it could potentially obstruct the spillway.
“Damn,” Rio cursed under his breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Looks like it’s about to come to that.”
“I can’t determine what it’s supposed to be,” said Cliff, shielding his brow against the glare. “It’s official. We have to go down there.” His words hung like a knife in the air as Rio and Trevor gave him disconcerting looks. “Like I said, the offer still stands…we can put this off until we know it’s safe in the lake.”
“Whatever’s down there can’t be too much for a fully-equipped commercial diver,” said Phoebe. “I’ll gear up in full like it’s more reef sharks I’m dealing with. I’ll head down, survey the situation, and head right back up. It’ll be no more than twenty minutes.”
Her decree left the rest of the crew speechless. Trevor finally broke the silence. “…you sure?”
“‘Course I’m sure. I just want to get this out of the way,” Phoebe asserted. But Cliff could hear the uncertainty in her voice. He guessed she wished to “get it out of the way” the same way patients wished to get a violative, painful procedure “out of the way.”
“We should see you on the sonar,” Cliff said. “We’ll monitor your descent. If it looks like trouble we’ll come in after you.” Phoebe nodded, reluctantly removing a dive suit, buoyancy compensator, and oxygen tank from the cabin.
“Who’s ‘we?’” Trevor brought up.
“At the moment, you,” said Cliff. “I would do it myself, but…”
Trevor rolled his eyes. “Right, right. When’s that supposed to heal up anyway?”
“This time next month,” Cliff answered, his eyes narrowing. “And for the record, you’re on my crew, Trevor, which means if circumstances call for you to step up to the line of duty, you’ll do it without a second thought. I know I would when I have the go-ahead. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” answered Trevor, barely concealing the disdain in his voice.
Phoebe had completely suited up; the loaded utility belt, conspicuous dive knife, and reinforced wetsuit made her resemble a tactical officer more than a diver. Her brown eyes were barely visible behind the contours of her dive mask.
Cliff gave a questioning thumbs up. Phoebe returned in the affirmative. She turned to the stern railing, her body rising and falling as she took one resounding breath. Then she jumped into the lake.
She bobbed at the surface for a moment, then decompressed and sank below the surface.
Rio threw a dive buoy in after her as Trevor dropped anchor, lobbing it towards the rocks. Cliff watched the monitor, observing the vertical blotch that was Phoebe make its descent. Ten feet…twenty feet…
* * * * * *
…thirty feet…forty feet…
Lake water in such depths took on a deep blue, almost purple color. As Phoebe made her vertical descent, undulating sunbeams wavered into the gloom, fading away smoothly. The only sounds were her own mechanical breathing and the flurry of bubbles. It was daytime, but unlike the open sea, Phoebe found herself surrounded by darkness within fifty feet. She couldn’t see the surface above her, only registering an area of the water column that was slightly lighter than below.
A pinpoint pressure built in her ears. She stopped, swallowing hard to equalize her Eustachian tubes. The pain siphoned away with a gristly pop. Then she continued the descent.
At a hundred feet Phoebe relented and deployed her flashlight. Her beam was a white cone that lanced through the black, but she still couldn’t see the bottom. By her gauge, she was only two-thirds of the way there.
Equalizing again, she let more air out and accelerated the descent. She was surrounded by hundreds of square miles of water, yet she still felt enclosed with nowhere to go. Most commercial divers worked on oil rigs and pipelines hundreds of feet down in the ocean, whose dangers were very real and very present. Reservoir lakes were like swimming pools compared to the sea, but that implied their greatest threats were solely in the mind of a diver. Disorientation and paranoia could be just as fatal as any undersea creature or current.
With that, she tried brushing away the image of a flayed human skin looming from the depths, its lips still frozen in a scream.
The bottom appeared suddenly, and Phoebe forced herself to stop, decompressing and equalizing to compensate. It existed as a meager patch of barren, beige mud within her circle of light. Everything else was still and cold. She might have been hovering in a dark empty room for all she knew, but a surge of her flipper kicked up a lone whirlpool of silt. It boggled her mind that half a football field’s worth of water simply existed above her, bearing down with blinding, stifling pressure.
Phoebe shuddered, drawing her knife with her free hand. It glinted reassuringly in the beam. She checked her dive compass; she was too far southwest of the riser. She adjusted course, hugging the bottom, illuminating as much as she could in front of her. The landscape was punctuated by the occasional pebble or bit of broken glass. It would have been easy for anyone less experienced to get lost in such blackness.
Then the anomaly appeared in her light. She recognized it immediately on account of its pipelike shape, but it was much larger than she expected, wide enough to comfortably swim through.
And the longer she stared, the quicker she realized the true horror of its design.
“Shit,” she whispered, preparing to ascend.
* * * * * *
Back on the boat, Cliff, Rio and Trevor watched with perplexion as Phoebe’s sonar blip approached the structure, enacted her ascent…then stopped, meandered south at about a hundred and twenty feet…and disappeared.
“Where’s she going?” Rio demanded.
“What’s she doing is the better question,” Trevor said darkly.
“I don’t understand,” said Cliff, his skin crawling. “Unless she’s chasing something, she said she’d come up…” He ignited the engine. “Raise the anchor…we have to find her!”
Trevor hauled the anchor chain, dislodging it from the boulders, but Cliff accelerated anyway, his eyes peeled on the monitor. As Trevor struggled with the chain, the vessel encircled the riser and then banked south. The obstruction at the bottom disappeared, appeared, and disappeared from the monitor…but otherwise, the water column remained completely devoid.
“Gone,” Trevor said lowly. “Just…gone.”
“Did she enter the structure perhaps?” said Rio.
“I don’t know,” Cliff replied, cutting the engine once more.
“She’s dead,” Trevor declared, shaking his head. “The same exact thing got her, I know it.”
“Trevor…” Cliff started.
“And this time tomorrow we’ll find her skin floating on the surface!” he shouted, pointing with a shaky finger. “I should have stopped her! Why didn’t any of you!”
“Mr. Maitland!” Cliff reprimanded, advancing towards him. “Silence yourself! We have no confirmation that she’s dead in the first place. Not a word of this gets out.”
Trevor gave a breathy laugh. “Are you really gonna cover this up? That one of our own disappeared down there? Taken by the same thing that killed four others?”
“If word gets out that one of our own died, we’ll have a massive frenzy on our hands,” Cliff countered. “This is something we must figure out ourselves. She said it herself – people are scared. And it’s not going to stop…if it could take down someone like her then no one is safe. Understand what’s at stake, Trevor…unless you want to spend your time getting worked over by journalists and cops and single-handedly sink this goddamn town!”
The stunned silence hung in the late afternoon air. The two men stared each other down, seeming to dare the other to say a word further. The boat bobbed innocently, the only sound that of water slapping against the hull.
“…She’s gone,” Rio finally said, breaking the quiet. “She’s gone, and that’s all there is to it.”
Grief suddenly fell upon the three men. Cliff’s chest began to ache…not just from the crushing tragedy; the old wound was flaring again. If he hadn’t been crippled with his injury he’d have gone down into the depths first. No need for any of the confusion, the worry, the needless disappearance of his best diver…
That should have been me, he told himself, watching the sun dip below the horizon. It should have been…
* * * * * *
Later that night, at the Bidai Park Ranger Headquarters, the three maintenance workers sat down again with Sarah Nielsen. The air between them was dirty, tired, and strained, like it had just been pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building.
“…You lost a diver down there,” the ranger confirmed, her eyes closed.
“Disappeared,” Cliff corrected. “We scoured the entire base of the dam via sonar. We cannot confirm what happened to Ms. Pemberton.”
“Even so, we stayed two additional hours searching,” said Trevor. “If she hadn’t surfaced by that time, her air supply would have expired. We can only assume the worst,” he added, with a side-eyed glare at Cliff.
“Regardless,” said Cliff, his temper and his chest flaring, “I think you’d agree, Ms. Nielsen, that it would be in our best interests to keep this under wraps. I know we can’t afford another media frenzy…the area cannot take another hit like that.”
“Yet you still have no idea what it could be,” Sarah pressed, her gaze narrowed.
“The structure next to the riser is our only clue,” said Cliff. “Ms. Pemberton apparently saw it and tried ascending…that’s when she went off-course.”
“It did something to her,” Rio guessed.
“Or something else did,” Trevor suggested. “Something that lives there.”
“So this is some kind of creature,” said Sarah.
“Looks that way,” Trevor muttered.
“And if that’s the case there’s no better time to go down there than now,” said Cliff.
Trevor and Rio jumped. “What!” they yelled in unison. Sarah likewise looked as though Cliff had just spontaneously combusted.
Cliff, however, was resolute. “Think about it. People go on the lake every day yet this thing strikes only once every few months. I know it sounds grim, but with Ms. Pemberton…now that this creature’s attacked, it might be…tired. Full, lethargic, however you want to say it. Like how snakes go months between…well, you know.”
Trevor was shaking his head again. “If that’s the case, Mr. ‘I-know-it-sounds-grim,’ then why don’t you go down there next? To prove the worth of your words?”
Cliff prepared to argue, but he noticed Sarah’s penetrating stare as well. He sighed, his heart sinking. He had already endured so much guilt over allowing Phoebe to descend, over his condition that indirectly forced her to take his place…but the ranger didn’t know what his crew knew. He stood up, deciding that a graphic demonstration was apt.
Unbuttoning his shirt, he turned to face his crew and the ranger, exposing his chest. Trevor and Rio cringed, but subtly, as they had seen it many times before. Sarah, however, slowly raised a hand to her mouth. Cliff Marten’s chest was scarred and depressed, as if his ribs had been forced a few notches inward. Adhesive electrodes were stuck on his skin. Their wires led down to a device resembling a smartphone clamped to his belt.
“Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator,” Cliff explained. “TENS, for short. My ribcage shattered in a car accident months ago, and this device keeps the pain at bay while it heals. Obviously submerging would be a poor idea…but even without it, I cannot descend much more than thirty feet before the water pressure becomes unbearable.”
Trevor rolled his eyes. Cliff caught sight of this and shot him a glare as he buttoned up. Cliff was a tall, sturdy man all things considered…it seemed cruel that such a seemingly flimsy and benign treatment method was preventing him from doing his job properly. He found it an inconvenience then…now, with such a heavy loss on his shoulders, he despised it.
“We have to go down there again,” Cliff repeated. “And right now there’s only one man here qualified to dive at such depths.”
Trevor scoffed. “Right. As you see, Mr. Marten takes no issue with sending more sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.”
“I’m done trying to convince you,” Cliff spat. “I am no less upset at my condition than you are. There are bigger things out there though…four others are dead too, remember. Please, Trevor…if not for me, then do it for everyone else who depends on Lake Bidai. Do it for Phoebe.”
Trevor sucked in a breath through his teeth, looking around at the expressions on those around him. Cliff’s hardened urgency. Rio’s silent uncertainty. And ranger Sarah’s uncomfortable pity.
He threw up his hand and stood up. “Fuck you,” he said, pointing at Cliff. “Fuck this lake. And fuck everyone else.”
Then he sighed, his eyelids twitching. “…But I’ll do it. I’ll do it for Phoebe.”
* * * * * *
It was one in the morning when they had set out for the dam once more. They were packing compared to the previous afternoon…along with his own dive knife, Trevor was armed with a speargun they had stashed in their van, and clad with chain mail, normally used in defense against sharks. He also insisted on a tether attached to the back of his BCD trailing back to the boat.
“On the dot of twenty minutes, haul me up,” he snapped to Cliff, Rio and Sarah as he suited up. “I don’t give a shit about the bends. Better that than having my goddamn skin torn off.”
The moon was out in full; the ambient light was almost enough to see unaided. The surface of the lake was like black glass, the dam like a medieval fortress in the night. The brightest glow came from the sonar device’s monitor, which showed them they were placed squarely over the mysterious structure a hundred and fifty feet below.
“Don’t say a word, Cliff,” Trevor hissed through his mask as he made final preparations. Cliff shook his head, only giving the same questioning thumbs up he had given Phoebe hours earlier. Trevor either ignored or missed it, as he immediately fell backwards into the lake. Amid the flurry of bubbles and the kick of his flippers, a white light blazed to life underneath the surface. Within a minute, they couldn’t see him anymore.
The only sound was the soft ticking of the cord reel, which gradually let out more of the tether as he descended.
* * * * * *
His depth gauge read sixty feet, but Trevor still felt as though he hadn’t made any progress.
Night dives were nothing new to him, but none of those night dives had ever been accompanied by such a horrible combination of dread, hate, and indignation in his heart. He understood he was potentially swimming into his own watery grave, that he might meet some gruesome fate and suffer violently hundreds of feet underwater, registering as nothing but a few blips on the sonar monitor.
“Fuck me,” he whispered, stopping to equalize. Everything around him was cold and vast and blank as deep space. He could see his beam cutting far into the gloom, revealing nothing. Only his own sense of direction told him which way was up.
He gripped the speargun tighter as he resumed his descent. He had no idea whether it would be effective against whatever entity haunted the depths, but he was glad for a weapon nonetheless. Even a guise of power was enough to keep one going.
Within ten minutes he reached the bottom. Equalizing and righting himself, he checked his compass and found he was too far south. He corrected his course, slowly kicking off over the muddy bottom.
Something appeared in his beam. He yelped, sending up an explosion of bubbles. Once his heart settled back in his chest he realized the thing was tiny and motionless, half-buried in the silt. But deep fear set in where panic was once he realized what it was.
It was a hilt, the faintest sliver of a silver blade below it in the muck.
That was all the confirmation he needed. Phoebe loved that knife and would never have let it go, especially in the middle of a fight. Resisting a sob, he kicked past it.
A minute passed. Then something loomed in front of him.
He knew right away it was the mysterious, tunnel-shaped obstruction. He froze up in awe and terror, his beam scanning its length, drinking in its grotesque features. “Holy fuck,” whispered. “So that’s where they all went…”
His beam flitted upward, and something appeared to stand out against the gloom. It was hanging inert in the water column, about his size, yet shapeless and the same color as a wetsuit. Their wetsuits…
Trevor screamed as the flayed, soggy face of Phoebe Pemberton stared back.
Panicking, preparing for his ascent, he became aware that there was another pair of eyes upon him.
Below, buried in the silt, two green eyes looked up directly at him.
There was a whirlwind of mud. Trevor dropped his flashlight as he readied the speargun. The falling beam showed the creature in middling glimpses…whatever it was, it was huge, those green eyes standing out like signal flares…and as it moved in, Trevor fired where he guessed its head was.
A thunk resonated up the line, one Trevor felt in his arms. He gave a strangled cry. He had made contact.
That’s when something else made contact with his shoulder.
It didn’t hurt him at first; it was more like a splinter, on account of the thick chain mail. But Trevor felt the suit come apart and his skin break.
It happened almost immediately. Before his eyes the stray beam from his flashlight seemed to grow dimmer…then he realized it was his vision that was dimming instead.
“FUCK!” he shouted, making for his ascent. But in the confusion, the harpooned beast fled, trailing out all the speargun’s line – and it wrapped and knotted around the tether.
“OH GOD NO!” Trevor blubbered, reaching for where he knew his knife to be. But his vision had blackened entirely and he fumbled sightlessly with his utility belt…and groaned in agony as a new sensation overtook him…a bizarre stiffening in his head, like it was a helium balloon close to bursting…dizziness overtook him and suddenly his sense of gravity failed. He had no idea which way was up.
“No,” he moaned, kicking for what he thought was the surface…but his disorientation plus the monster’s thrashing was too much…he hung limp as the stiffness spread to his limbs, and he merely hung motionless in the water, a slave to the pain in his body. His organs were bubbling. His very blood threatened to explode from his skin. Gas expanded in his guts. He couldn’t see, but he could sense his eyes pop from his skull and plaster against his bloated cheeks. His stomach folded in, overturned, and bunched up his throat. He could almost taste it.
Trevor felt everything. Every heinous sensation. But it was all over with one wet, gnarly crunch, and all Trevor knew then was cold and black.
* * * * * *
“Bring him up!” Cliff shouted. “Something’s happening!”
Rio and Sarah jumped to their feet and grabbed entire lengths of the tether, hauling it up, their hands a blur. Cliff watched the scene unfold on the sonar, aghast. Trevor’s blip had seemed to double in size and it was meandering in all directions…but he was still there…
“Faster!” Cliff demanded. “Fuck the bends! Bring him up! He’s fucking dying down there!”
As Rio and Sarah heaved and pulled like machines, Cliff switched on a flashlight and shined it off the railing into the water. He held his breath…
“There! I see him!” he shouted. “Heave! Get him over the rail!”
With an almighty pull, Sarah and Rio practically fell over from the force. Trevor’s body caught on the railing…then flopped over onto the floor of the boat, speckling them with drops of lake water.
Rio swooped down on him, turning him over and ripping off his helmet. “Dios mio!” he cursed, scampering backwards and crossing himself.
Sarah gagged and leaned over the railing, dry heaving. Cliff nearly vomited himself but couldn’t tear his gaze away. Trevor’s eyes hung loosely from their sockets, which were oozing with a stream of foaming blood. His jaw was torqued open, and his stomach lining protruded from his lips, stuck against his teeth.
“Fuck me,” Cliff whispered. “Barotrauma…What the fuck!”
“Wait…Cliff, look!” Rio shouted, pointing at Trevor. “He fired his speargun! It’s attached to his tether!” He ran to the side railing, peering over the side down the line. “It’s on something! He shot it! Help me bring it to the surface!”
Sarah ran over, perhaps eager to turn her back on the corpse, and hauled in the speargun line with Rio. Cliff joined them with the light, shining it into the water once more.
The surface broke.
“What the Hell is that!” Sarah shrieked.
The beast took up so much space Cliff almost couldn’t view it in one look. It was flat, broad, the faded brownish-gray of sediment. Only two details stuck out to him…the silver spear jutting from behind its head, and two lime-green eyes with pupils like a goat’s.
The beast kicked, splashing them, but its struggles only scrambled the spear further into its brains. Within a minute, it perished, floating lifelessly in the water next to the boat.
The three scarcely even realize the boat had been pitching side to side from the creature’s frantic motions. Water, stray equipment, and Trevor’s disfigured body rolled and clattered about the floor.
“Get that thing on the boat,” Cliff finally said. “And let’s get back to the ranger headquarters. We have some business to take care of…alone.”
* * * * * *
“No trucks are due here until six, we’ll be fine,” Sarah said in a small voice.
They had towed their vessel into the building’s loading dock, ensuring that every way in was bolted shut. Despite the warm summer night the inside air was cold and musty, made no better by the flickering fluorescent lights and the creature’s putrid smell; although neither could tell with confidence which corpse still laying in the boat was actually responsible for the odor. Neither were particularly pretty to look at.
“My God,” Rio muttered, holding a washcloth up to his nose, “could we at least cover his face?” Cliff silently agreed and threw another cloth over Trevor’s deformed face. Everything below the neck then resembled nothing more than a slightly beaten diver mannequin.
“Sadly we don’t have a tarp big enough for that,” said Cliff, gesturing towards the beast, still flat and motionless across the floor. Carefully he hoisted Trevor’s body up, coughing against the strain in his ribs, and stepped off the boat, lowering him to the concrete. Then the three of them grabbed ahold of the speargun line and pulled, dragging the creature off the stern, where it flopped and slid sickeningly.
The three gathered around its body, unable and unwilling to break the uneasy silence.
“Well,” Cliff finally said, “I did have ‘stingray’ on my list.”
“Stingray” was perhaps the most accurate descriptor. Superficially, the creature resembled a manta ray, sans the fleshy protrusions on its face. It was also significantly more deep-bodied, its wings stocky and blunt. Its glassy eyes were positioned on the top of its head, giving it a permanent upwards stare. Perfect for seeing victims on the surface, Cliff realized. Its tail was short and sturdy; swordlike rather than whiplike.
“I don’t see a barb,” said Sarah, covering her mouth. “Did it break off in his flesh or something?”
“There was never a barb,” Cliff observed, pointing to its rather featureless tail. “And typical stingray venom is necrotic…it doesn’t induce barotrauma like with…with him,” he said, gesturing to Trevor’s body.
“So…we killed him?” Rio breathed.
“No way we could have induced such pressure imbalance on our own,” Cliff asserted. “Let’s flip it over.”
They slid their hands under the beast’s wing and lifted; it fell onto its black with a clammy plop. Cliff was surprised to see its mouth was very wide and malleable, like a sturgeon’s. Gripped with a sick idea, he knelt down and reached down its gullet.
Taking care not to prick himself on the sharp edges, he grabbed a fleshy handful of something and pulled, standing up.
Rio audibly gasped. It was equipped with a proboscis, longer than the creature itself. Sticking from the opening was a single oozing point.
“I know what this is,” Rio whispered.
“What!” Cliff demanded, dropping the tongue. “What is it!”
“Well…I know, but it’s not supposed to be real,” he stuttered. “This is El Cuero…The Cowhide.”
The following silence was awkward and thick. “The ‘cowhide?’” Sarah parroted.
Rio nodded. “It’s a monster that lives in rivers and lakes…it looks like a cowhide splayed out in the water…that’s how it gets you. You get up close wondering what a cowhide is doing in the water and boom – it grabs you with its tongue.”
Cliff examined the creature once more and had to conclude he could see the resemblance. “But what’s it doing in Texas?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Rio. “We have regular stingrays in Argentina…from what I know they became freshwater when the sea receded a long time and they became landlocked. That’s where the legend came from. Maybe…something like that happened here?”
“And evolution went haywire,” Sarah concluded with a grimace.
“Turned an animal that eats clams and fish into one that kills terrestrial mammals,” Cliff mumbled, pacing. “I’m willing to bet whatever venom it packs induces barotrauma in its prey…and it sucks out its softer parts with that proboscis.”
“Leaving just the skin,” Sarah finished.
“And that…happened to Phoebe?” said Rio.
Cliff nodded solemnly. Sarah had to turn away again.
“…But what about the bones?” Rio added.
Another sick idea came onto Cliff as he noticed the creature’s distended stomach. Drawing his own knife he knelt back down and slit the knife through its skin. It was slippery yet tough, resisting against the blade. Watery blood seeped forth and the horrid smell intensified; he turned his head away in fear of puking.
He tore open the stomach cavity with all his strength, ignoring the indignant stitch in his chest.
“There we go,” he declared ominously.
The creature’s guts were jam-packed with human bones…the entire skeleton could have been rearranged. The bones swam in a broth of digested flesh and foamy blood. “Strange, the bones don’t appear to have been digested at all,” he muttered, picking up a fingerbone. He stopped, however, at a lone glint of gold that stood out on it. He dropped the finger, mortified. Phoebe hadn’t been married, but he knew the ring had been a memento from her grandmother.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he declared, standing up. He turned to Rio and Sarah, opting not to tell them about the ring. “This ‘El Cuero’ may be dead but still we know nothing about that obstruction. Frankly, I fear the worst.”
“What’s the worst?” Sarah asked.
Cliff pointed near the beast’s tail, at two oddly phallic fins trailing off its body. “It could be a nest. For his mate.”
* * * * * *
The early morning had dragged on, but neither three had agreed upon their next course of action.
“We have to involve outside authorities,” said Sarah.
“I wouldn’t,” Cliff rebutted. “We’ve come so far by ourselves. Involving the others would slow things down and stir the pot more than it needs to.”
“We’ve lost two divers,” Rio reminded.
“If that thing is nesting there’s no telling what putting it off any longer will incur,” Cliff countered.
“If we know how to stop it then we can tell more qualified individuals how to take care of it,” Sarah offered.
“We are qualified,” said Cliff. “Every second counts.” And then the conversation hit another dead end.
In the meantime they had hauled Trevor and the beast’s body back onto the boat in the loading dock. The washcloth over Trevor’s face had been completely soaked through with liquefied innards, a revolting effect of El Cuero’s venom.
“He knew the risks and didn’t want to go…yet he did it anyway,” said Rio, shaking his head. “What a man.”
“Brave…very brave. What a shame,” Sarah commented.
“Fuck me!” Cliff snapped, stalking in a circle. “I didn’t ask for this! You people know I’d have gone under if I could!”
“Whoa,” said Rio, his eyes widening, “we meant nothing by it…”
“Sure, I just know you people think I’m some kind of cowardly invalid!” he ranted, short of breath from the pain in his chest. He dialed on his TENS device, increasing the voltage to his muscles. “You think I’m not regretting this?! You think I’m not eaten with guilt because we lost Phoebe and Trevor?!”
He stared wildly at them. “I want to put an end to this and I want to put an end to this now, but I can’t do it until I get rid of this damn thing! And who the Hell knows when and where Phoebe’s skin will wash up and get everyone worked up all over again?”
“You can’t go down because of your device?” said Sarah.
Cliff nearly lashed out in frustration. “Obviously!”
“Shit…I just remembered,” she said, clapping a hand to her forehead. “You and your team were using wetsuits…we have drysuits here at the station! They’ll keep water out! You can use your device while you submerge!”
“What?” Cliff spat. “That would have been nice to know earlier!”
“I’m sorry, but Trevor volunteered and…” She wilted at Cliff’s mutinous expression. “Want me to go get it?”
“I think you should,” said Cliff dangerously.
Sarah bolted towards a door and unlocked it, dashing through, her footsteps clattering down a hallway. As they faded away, Rio slowly turned to observe Cliff. “You sure about this, Mr. Marten?”
“I’ve been sure for a while,” said Cliff. Regardless he took a deep breath. “About time I prove the worth of my words, as someone once said. I owe it to them. Phoebe and Trevor…I inadvertently sent my crew to their deaths. I decided to escalate things from a maintenance check to a hunt. Now it’s my turn. It’s the only logical conclusion.”
Rio’s expression was unreadable. “You’ll end up like them,” he said ominously. “If El Cuero has a mate, she’ll kill you without a second thought.”
“I’d deserve it then,” Cliff grunted.
* * * * * *
Within the hour the three were back on the water. The sun hadn’t risen, but the eastern sky behind the dam was green with impending dawn. Their vessel cut through the water at top speed, and the chilly morning air slapped at their faces as the boat jerked and bounced along the waves.
Despite their newfound knowledge of El Cuero and the single-minded drive to take down the structure once and for all, the circumstances could not have been more morbid. At least they have found a body bag for Trevor, which was then nestled snugly in between two seats in the cabin. El Cuero’s body, however, continued to slide across the floor of the boat, and even at top speed they could still smell the reek of death.
“Well, where else were we gonna put them?!” was Cliff’s rationale to the dismayed Rio and Sarah.
The dam loomed in the horizon. The rising sun behind it formed a radical gradient of color…burnt orange melded smoothly into vegetative green, which turned to midnight blue, and finally abyssal black to the west. It might have been gorgeous, if it weren’t heralding El Cuero’s killing fields.
Cliff cut the engines and drifted directly over the obstruction near the riser. Its blotchy form permeated on the sonar monitor once more, stubborn and mocking. The atmosphere onboard was sepulchral, as if Cliff had already died, an observation that wasn’t lost on him as he suited up.
“Whatever it takes,” he kept repeating to himself. Along with the knife and speargun, he had also swapped out the bulb in his flashlight for a red one, as most other animals were not perturbed by red light. If El Cuero’s mate were down there, he could sneak up on it with at least one sensory advantage.
Over his layer of chain mail he also sported the drysuit Sarah had provided. The reinforced rubber, normally used for excursions into toxic water, would provide an extra layer of protection against El Cuero’s proboscis. Although the beast had still managed to penetrate Trevor’s chain mail…
Before he closed up the drysuit Cliff set his TENS device to the highest it would go before becoming painful itself. A concentrated humming echoed in his ribs, and within a minute his entire chest was numb and pulsing with an electronic heartbeat. He took in a deep breath that would have normally aggravated his injuries, and was relieved to feel nothing.
“Cliff,” Rio urged, before Cliff had put on his helmet. “You’re acting maniacal. You really can’t let someone else tackle this?”
“I’ll die before I let this thing get out any more than it already has,” Cliff resolved. “I’m going to go down there and do whatever it takes to avenge them. And myself.”
“If there’s another one down there,” said Rio worriedly,” and if El Cuero’s anything like my grandmother used to go off about…you truly won’t be safe.”
“I suspected this would be a one-way trip,” said Cliff, before disappearing under his helmet. Sarah’s concerned gaze seemed much less piercing from behind a visor.
Cliff gave a thumbs-up. Rio only meandered back to the helm and shot him a knowing expression.
“Down I go,” Cliff hissed, before tumbling off the rail and down into the depths.
* * * * * *
Whatever sunlight shining on the surface disappeared only after a few kicks into the water column. Cliff paddled resolutely, letting the stream of bubbles course up above him. Their ascension told him his downward trek was straight and true.
As the darkness became more severe, Cliff’s heart took on a dreadful heaviness. Perhaps it was the desensitized pressure on his chest…or the realization that both Phoebe and Trevor had traversed this horrid gloom before meeting their fates. Apprehension gripped him. He checked his dive gauge; it read sixty feet. It was the point of no return; everything around him looked the same. Ascending wouldn’t make a difference. There was only the descent left.
His nerve broke, and Cliff drew the flashlight. A red cone flared to life, drilling into the frigid depths.
He stopped. Something amorphous and ragged floated inert in his beam, almost glowing under the crimson light. At first glance it resembled El Cuero, strikingly living up to its cowhide-like namesake…then Cliff realized, his heart blackening, it had a vaguely human face on its far end.
“Christ,” he whispered. Phoebe’s skin would surface in several hours’ time, in broad daylight, in the sight of all. He hoped Rio and Sarah would have the foresight to watch out for it. Her, he corrected himself. She wasn’t a nameless vacationing casualty. She was his loyal crewmate, brave and steadfast, not fearing what horrors the lake was hiding…
Cliff stopped to equalize, taking a moment to quell his pulse. Then he resumed his descent. He could feel the pressure more greatly in his chest, but the pain was at least at bay. A nasty thought occurred to him…the TENS device was protected from water, but would it withstand water pressure? Would it malfunction and kill him before he even reached his goal?
You’ve got plenty to worry about, Cliff, he told himself. Just go…
After several agonizing minutes the bottom appeared in his beam. The redness gave it a disturbing likeness to strewn viscera. Cliff leveled out and checked his compass. He was too far northwest; he corrected his course towards the riser.
He expected to see El Cuero’s eyes shining out at him from the darkness, but all he saw was the desolate, red-tinted lakebed. The TENS device felt fifty pounds heavier in his drysuit. Could El Cuero detect electricity, like sharks and rays?
Something appeared to Cliff’s left and he halted – it was tall, smooth and featureless. He sighed, realizing it was the base of the riser. He was close.
The riser slowly disappeared behind him as he kicked forward. Once more, there was nothing but silt and darkness.
Then came the obstruction. Its size and shape was diagnostic, and as Cliff surveyed it with his beam he understood what had compelled Phoebe and Trevor to ascend so quickly.
It was tunnel-shaped as he had expected, constructed from what looked like a mishmash of debris, mud…and human bones. The harder he looked, the more he picked out spines, ribs, limbs, and even a couple of grinning skulls. A catacomb’s worth of bones, stolen from the beast’s prey and crafted into a grisly lair. And being washed in red light made it appear nothing short of hellish. Cliff shuddered as he imagined Phoebe’s bones added to the mess, their only indicator a glint of a gold ring among the dull, deathly decay…
Cliff laid a hand on his knife and his speargun, strapped to his utility belt. He’d have no problem tearing down the structure within the forty minutes he had left. But he had to make sure there wasn’t more to it.
Circling around, he found the opening to the tunnel, flanked by a rosette of spiky human ribs. Taking great care not to brush against them, he hugged the bottom and crawled with his fingertips towards the entrance.
His red light flooded the interior, and Cliff got the impression he was swimming into a furnace, the remains of its victims still leering at him. The walls were just wide enough for him to spread his arms. Random bones stuck out at odd angles. On the ceiling, a skull half-submerged in mud stared down, its jaw open wide as if screaming.
He ignored it and crawled forward.
The tunnel of bones took on a brief curve, and Cliff suspected he was reaching the end. If the passage was empty he would just backtrack and go about ripping it down. He prayed for it to be empty. He prayed there had only been one creature in the lake.
His hopes were wrong.
Trailing from the ceiling were ribbons of what looked like gelatinous bubbles waving listlessly in the water. As he shined his light on them he was startled to see black shapes squirming inside them. Eggs, he realized with horror. And, reflected in his beam behind the eggs was one angry eye staring right at him.
Cliff panicked and kicked away, averting his beam. But the mother remained still. It was broody, not willing to waste its energy unless it absolutely had to. Cliff stared at the beast, now seeing it was partially buried in a patch of silt between the eggs and the back end of the bone tunnel. He then stared at the eggs. Looks like you’re gonna absolutely have to, he thought.
He drew his knife and made a cutting slash at the eggs.
The creature immediately surged forth from its hiding spot in a cloud of mud, and Cliff gathered one image of it propelling through the ribbons of eggs, parting to the sides like curtains as it attacked.
It fired its proboscis and it punctured under Cliff’s shoulder – Cliff yelled out, but more in surprise than pain…the barb seemed not to have pierced through to his skin. Invigorated, he drew the speargun and fired – but the harpoon only caught the beast in the wing. Cursing, Cliff dropped the speargun and flailed with his knife, slashing at and missing the proboscis. The beast was lit from underneath by the red light…Cliff could see down its gullet, and the writhing proboscis probing through the water like a snake about to strike…
It struck again and cracked Cliff’s visor. He cursed again and backed off…his vision was distorted but no water appeared to be seeping in. Roaring, losing himself in an explosion of bubbles, Cliff darted forward and collided directly with the beast, driving the knife directly into its stomach.
Writhing and flapping, the beast retreated and Cliff drew the knife through its skin up to its mouth. The red water before him darkened further as a plume of blood shot up from its underside. The beast buried itself in the mud, its hateful eyes locked on him, its proboscis lancing and retracting like a chameleon’s tongue. It struck him several times at once…Cliff had to time to register whether he had been injected, all he had felt was whipping and tearing at his outer layers…
The eggs fluttered innocuously in front of him. Stricken with directive, he resorted to grabbing at the eggs, crushing and popping them like grapes.
El Cuero’s proboscis slashed him directly in the chest.
His skin still didn’t break, but a terrifying jolt shot up his body – the creature seemed to jolt too, its proboscis hanging limply from its mouth, its eyes unfocused. Recovering, Cliff sensed a new pain…an all-too-familiar crushing pressure in his ribs, like the edge of a house being lowered onto his chest.
Oh no…even as Cliff put the pieces together the agony compounded. He could feel the broken remains of the TENS device sticking into his skin, nearly buried underneath the pressure. He was done. His ribs seemed to fold in on his diaphragm. He knew then that his final moments would be spent hundreds of feet in cold, black water, with nothing but a hideous monster and grinning skeletons for company…
But El Cuero stayed down, viscous blood seeping from its underside, its proboscis useless and dead.
Do it, he thought, slashing and swiping at the eggs, puncturing their membranes, tearing them apart.
For Phoebe, he thought with each manic grab. For Trevor.
His chest crumpled. He could feel his heart scarring.
In one last defiant act he sprung upward through the ceiling, dislodging his helmet, sweeping and kicking at the remains of El Cuero’s lair. Bones and globs of silt rained around him.
There was darkness, and sheer torment. Cliff was sure it was similar to what Phoebe and Trevor felt in their last seconds. He hated himself, he hated it for them, that they had to endure such catastrophic agony.
But there was peace…peace knowing that no one else would have to.
* * * * * *
On the surface, as the sunrise peaked, Rio and Sarah had watched with amazement as Cliff Marten’s signature on the sonar monitor seemed to enter the structure, linger for a minute…then flat-out disappear as the structure collapsed in on itself. They stood glued to the monitor for ten minutes after that. Nothing more appeared from or around its remains.
“Whatever he did…that structure’s no longer a problem,” said Rio solemnly, pointing. “See, all the debris is spreading around. It won’t affect the spillway now.”
“You think his skin will come up too?” Sarah wondered out loud.
“Let’s hope for our sake no part of him comes up,” Rio muttered. “I don’t think he’d want to anyway.”
They continued watching the screen. Still, there were no other signs of life apart from the occasional schooling fish.
“I don’t want to speak too soon,” Rio continued, “but I think Lake Bidai is safe from El Cuero.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Sarah. “Look.”
Rio glanced around and saw a small group of boats heading their way. They were assorted, ranging from locals to vacationers to law enforcement. Whether word of the new deaths had gotten out, or someone had guessed something was up on their own, neither Sarah nor Rio knew. But they looked around at their own boat, hosting a laden body bag and the corpse of a lake monster, and cringed.
“I’d hate to have to explain this one,” said Rio.
“Leave it to me,” said Sarah, smoothing out her ranger’s uniform. “This is my lake anyway. And as of now, there’s no more reason to be afraid.”
They turned towards the approaching boats, confident to take on a new challenge and do their part for Lake Bidai.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableNick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Nick CarlsonPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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