A Coven in Essex County | Elsewhere, It Is Halloween

Below is Part 12 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.

◄◄  Read the first installment / prologue
◄ Read the previous installment, MILDRED

A call came for Betta on the telephone. It came as a surprise, since she often forgot there was a telephone in the house. Betta could not imagine anyone outside Innsmouth would call on her, or even knew she existed. The only place for her to take the call was upstairs in Mr. Bridgeford’s study. Mr. Bridgeford was out, but she was loath to pass the door to the nursery.

“Tell whoever it is that I will call on them tomorrow.”

The manservant looked her up and down, hungrily. He was especially unnerving at night. It was as if the special darkness that clung to the Bridgeford Manor rooms encouraged him and increased his appetite for her discomfort.

When she made her way to dinner, or took a turn around the house in sleepless hours, he seemed always to pop up unexpectedly and watch her for a while before inquiring after her needs. Betta would wave him away impatiently, like lingering smoke, but it would be moments before he disappeared. She had never grown used to his calculated sluggishness.

“I think you will want to take this call,” he said, finally. “They have already been waiting ten minutes.”

“Why did you not tell me straight away, then? Who is it?”

“Verna Marsh.” He seemed to register the flash of fear on Betta’s face. She was sure it showed for only an instant, but he had seen it.

“Better get that call before the line’s needed,” Betta said hurriedly. It was an unlikely scenario, especially at this late hour.

There was also no telling who was operating and who would be listening on the line. Whatever Verna had to say must be an emergency for her to do something so brash.

The manservant led her up to the study. It was unnecessary, but she tried not to let her annoyance show. Thankfully, he left her alone to take the call.

“Hello,” she said, trying to sound cheerful.

Verna’s voice dripped out of the receiver. She had been crying.

“They’ve taken her. They must know,” she said, almost whispering.

“Well hello there, Verna. How does it do? Taken who?” Betta thought maybe she had miscalculated. Perhaps she should have sounded groggy, as if awoken from sleep.

“Alda. They took her this morning. I went to Lilian, but—” obscene sucking noises came from the receiver. Betta stared hard at the switch hook willing the call to end. This was damned sloppy.

“Who’s Alda? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The blubbering dried as Verna regained control of herself.

“Never mind. Just know they came. Two of them, but all three know. They’re onto us.” There was a sob, then a mechanical click.

Betta hung up. She leaned on Mr. Bridgeford’s desk, putting her head in both hands.

All three know.

“Things not going as planned?” Betta looked up at the manservant. For the first time, his eyes shone brightly. They were lit with a sick triumph. Somehow, he knew everything. Every detail had opened itself to him and betrayed her, and now she would be responsible for whatever happened to all of the women she had entangled.

She pushed past him, into the hall without hazarding a response. He grabbed her arm briefly, then slackened, thinking better of it, as he passed her on his way to the top of the stairs.

He swiveled, looking back at her. “Come with me. We’ll talk it through. I’ll need all the details.” He smiled his pointed monstrosity at her like a blade.

Betta spotted a strange and sudden object. She was sure the toy train engine had not been on the steps when she had alighted minutes before. It had appeared at some point during her call. It must have.

Its molded metal form was painted a bright red and it was just large enough for a very young child to ride atop if he was imagining quite hard at being a giant. She recognized this little engine, and knew it was heavy with menacingly sharp edges. Like any mother, she also knew to look for toys in unexpected places.

The manservant was an absentee father, however. He had no such feminine instinct, and thinking he knew every inch of the manor, strode confidently forward onto the stairs, turning as he motioned Betta to follow him.

With a shout that was shockingly human, his foot hit the train engine as his other lifted, drawing an arc in the air. He pitched forward onto the stairs, tumbling down them like a doll with loosely jointed limbs. It was dreadfully comical, the way his splayed body bounced down the thinly carpeted staircase.

Betta knew purchase would be impossible to find, and it was a long way down.

He landed on his neck. There was a crunch like a sound effect in a radio serial. It all seemed so unreal, but then, reality had changed drastically for Betta after being married in Innsmouth. The manservant laid twisted and broken, and did not move.

A sound escaped from Betta—a sort of low, shocked keening.

“It’s okay, mama,” a tiny voice, no older than four years old reached her ears. She had not heard the nursery door open. “I will tell Grandpa what happened. He was mean to you.”

Betta slumped onto the top step of the staircase. Hunching over in exhaustion, she felt too tired to even cringe at the freezing touch of her child’s webbed and clawed paw on her shoulder. If she had a plan to rescue Alda, and restore their own candidate, Betta had forgotten it.


► Next installment: Lotte

[image: Octopus Love | Max Shuster]

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