Seven For The Slab - A Horror Portmanteau
There are few things as startling and, thereafter, as unsettling as a ringing telephone in the dead of night.
It repeatedly stabs the air, then the ear, then the psyche, driving deeper and deeper, until finally it reaches and awakens the conscious mind. It pulls the innocent from the blissful peace of sleep into a dark cold world of reality in which someone wants something from them, or needs to deliver life-altering news to them, or is compelled to level a shock from which they might never recover. Even if the call rescues them from the throes of a fitful sleep, or the bizarre terrors of a nightmare, it hardly feels the rescuer. For, until it is picked up, the ringing phone is a harbinger of the unknown.
What is more frightening than the unknown? How many phone calls bring good news in the middle of the night?
To even consider those questions makes it difficult to understand Herb Flay's glee, his absolute delight, at being roused from sleep by his ringing phone. But once he was awake, sitting up in bed and could identify the incessant noise, once he'd scooped up the receiver and managed a gravelly, “Hello,” once he'd heard and recognized the voice on the other end and gathered the incoming message, he was delighted indeed.
It was the call he'd been waiting for, waiting and waiting. It was the call he'd given up hope of ever receiving. Now it had come. It mattered not a whit that it was one o'clock in the morning. It mattered even less there was at that moment a torrential downpour taking place outside, a fierce thunderstorm into which that call would force him to venture. Nothing mattered now. The call had come. He was relieved beyond words. He was happy as a lark.
Two people had been found dead!
Herb Flay worked for a funeral home, the Fengriffen Funeral Home and Crematorium to be precise. It was a revelation that frequently caused queasy twists in the listeners' stomachs or the feeling of cold fingers climbing their spines, but it needn't have. Flay was used to the reactions, the discomfited pauses, the wary looks, the interesting and alarmed noises people made, involuntarily or on purpose, when they learned he worked at a funeral home; that he worked with the dead. “Hey,” Flay would tell them with a smile, “it's a living.”
For the record, Herb Flay – and his boss, Mortician Marlowe Blake, and their Fengriffen Funeral Home – resided in the mid-sized Illinois town of Sturm's Landing (population 32,000). It was named after its founder, Mark Von Sturm, a ferry operator on a mighty river that, in the century and a half that followed, had shrunk to a trickling creek. Over those same decades, the local economy did likewise. So had the funeral business. It all seemed to drain away. But it wasn't finished, not yet, not that night.
The remains of what once were two human beings lay in a house in the sleepy village of Cedartown, thirteen miles away, awaiting removal. There was much to do. Flay scrambled for his clothes.
He wasn't the only one.
The bodies had been discovered by Sheriff's Deputies Christopher Maitland and Philip Grayson nearly two hours earlier, well before the Witching Hour. The Sheriff's Department had been alerted by a neighbor who reported, “Something (at the house on the end of their block) seems amiss.” Maitland and Grayson responded, in separate squad cars, from separate ends of the county; Maitland arriving twenty minutes ahead of his brother officer. Unable to get a response from anyone inside, Maitland was suspicious of trouble and, more to the point, alarmed by the condition of the house. When Grayson arrived, Maitland shared his concerns. The deputies notified their dispatcher, who roused the sheriff and called an ambulance and the Cedartown Volunteer Fire Department.
A Fire Department engine and ladder truck, and an ambulance from the Sturm's Landing Rural service, arrived on the scene at a small split level with a mock colonial front porch built on a hill over top of its own garage in a quiet residential section of the village. The sheriff would begrudgingly be on his way, the officers imagined, though neither had heard from him personally. They decided not to wait for their superior. With the aid of the ladder truck driver, and a weighted bar from one of the truck's compartments, the lock on the front door of the house was gingerly knocked in.
The door flew open. The decayed breath of Satan, a rotting stench from the deepest pits of Hell, escaped past them out the door.
With the ambulance crew waiting anxiously by the door, holding their collective breath against the stink, the deputies entered the house by themselves. They did a quick search up and down, found what they found and, without disturbing anything further, made a hasty retreat. Back outside, they gulped air to keep from vomiting and told the ambulance and fire personnel the acute nature of the emergency was past… long past. When he could breathe again through his mouth, Maitland took up his portable radio and asked their dispatcher to notify the coroner that his services were required. That was as far as things had progressed.