Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


The God-Word

By Talbot Pratt

Believe me, this is one word you don't want to know....

The voodoo witch doctor turned off the lamp plunging the room into a fathomless well of darkness.

Nigel Pellew found himself unconsciously tensing, hands gripping the arms of the chair. His thoughts instantly envisioned the weird, unholy clutter of poppet dolls and grinning skulls, stuffed lizards, roots and other mystical paraphernalia that garishly littered the shelves around him. The air seemed suddenly heavy with strange unnameable odours, charged with alien energies. And the darkness didn't help one bit.

Then, from out of that darkness, across the desk, there came the rustle of paper -- followed a second later by the dry scratching of a pen. That sound, the sound of writing, so innocent in and of itself, caused Nigel to stiffen all the more. All thoughts of his grisly surroundings were instantly submerged, his nerves jolted, sweat dampening his palms, all because of that soft, quotidian sound. For he knew that, of all the items of voodoo magic to be found here, none was so deadly, so terrifying as the thing being created in the darkness only feet away.

For a moment, the scratching continued, slow, meticulous. Then it stopped and Nigel heard the paper being carefully folded. He exhaled in relief. A second later the lights came back on to reveal the voodoo witch doctor watching him with an intense, searching stare. Nigel's eyes fixed on the small folded paper in the other's hands. He licked his lips, almost hungrily.

"Again, I must ask if you understand all I have told you," the witch doctor questioned him pointedly.

"Yes, yes, I got it," Nigel replied impatiently. "I know what to do. Just so long as it works, you got that? I'm paying a lot of money for this thing, and I expect results."

The witch doctor scowled, still holding the paper. "I'm not sure you do understand, Mr. Pellew. The God-word is not something to be taken lightly. The risk involved is great. This word has been passed down since before civilization. It is said to be written in the Enochian tongue, the language of the angels themselves. One glance, just one, and the reader is destroyed."

"But it will look like death from natural causes, that's what you told me, right?" Nigel reached for the paper, but still the witch doctor held back, refusing to part with it.

"That is correct. It will seem that he died naturally -- or, at least, without human intervention. But you must promise me, after the deed has been done, you will burn the paper to ash. This you must swear."

"Right, right. I swear to burn it up once he's dead. Now, give it to me."

Finally, the witch doctor passed the folded paper across the desk. Eagerly, Nigel snatched it up. The witch doctor stiffened.

"Carefully!" he gasped, and Nigel started at the unexpected fear that thrummed in his voice. "If that paper should open, we would both be destroyed! One glimpse, that is all it would take, one glimpse!"

Nigel froze, holding the paper delicately, as if it were a ticking bomb. He gave a nervous laugh, a high sickly titter.

"I told you I got it," he said.

Then, with surprising gingerness, he slipped it into his jacket pocket...

Dr. Linus Nicholson settled stiffly on the couch and regarded his host with the wary eyes of a rabbit invited into the fox's den. He was a small man, middle aged with thinning grey hair. His black briefcase lay across his knees, one hand possessively clutching the handle. Nigel smiled back at him, as warm a smile as you could have hoped for from a man about to commit cold-blooded murder.

"Some coffee?" Nigel asked pleasantly.

"Thank you, but no." Nicholson darted a glance at his watch. "Actually I don't really know what the point was in my coming here. You asked me to bring my notes, but I assure you nothing you say can possibly change my findings. We both know Universal Glassware has broken just about every safety regulation in the book. You've been getting away with shoddy conditions for years; it's a wonder you weren't caught before this." He paused, then added in a bitter tone: "Or maybe not such a wonder. If your clumsy attempt at bribery had succeeded, you would have gotten away with it once again, I suppose."

"Bribery?" Nigel's brows rose in feigned horror. "That wasn't bribery. You misunderstood. I was merely offering compensation for all the extra work you were put to. It can't have been easy." Then, a touch of venom crept into his voice as he added, "You're certainly the most dogged investigator I've met."

"Thank you." Nicholson's own tone dripped with disgust. "Now, if there's nothing else..."

"What's the hurry? I merely wanted to sound you out, that's all."

Nicholson was dubious. "Sound me out? About what?"

"I was just as shocked as anyone when I read your findings, really I was. I don't mind if you report us, that's your job. But I don't intend to wait for the shit to hit the fan. I want to fix things now. Oh, yes, I want my workers to be safe as houses, but I need you to help me do it. What do you say?"

"What I have to say, I intend to say before the committee. If you want to know how to fix things at Universal Glassware, wait for my report."

Nigel chuckled softly, indulgently. Casually, he reached into his jacket and drew out a folded piece of paper. He placed the paper on the coffee table just beyond his guest's reach. Nicholson eyed the paper suspiciously.

"What's that? Another bribe?"

Nigel continued to smile. The time for pretence was past. "Oh, no no. You've already proven you are far too responsible to be bribed."

"Then you admit you did try to bribe me?"

"Admit? Of course, I admit it. But this isn't a bribe, I assure you."

"Then what is it?" Nicholson reached for the paper.

"Just a minute!" Nigel's shout made Nicholson jump. His frightened expression melted into a thin smile. "That is, you mustn't read it just yet. I have something else to show you first. If you'll just wait right here, I'll get it." He stepped to the hall door, then turned and glibly added: "No peeking, now."

With that, he slipped out into the hall. But he didn't go far. He didn't really have anything else to get. This was merely a ruse, to ensure that he would not be in the room when Nicholson read the God-word. But how could he be certain the investigator would read the paper -- even after he had been told not to? Because he knew Nicholson's type. The man was an incurable snoop. Tell him not to read something and, you could bet your life, he would read it.

Of course, there might have been easier ways to get him to read the paper, but Nigel wanted it this way. He relished the irony of it.

Just the same, as the seconds ticked by, Nigel began to wonder if he had misjudged the man. He stood just outside the door, his ear to the wood, listening. But there was no sound. None at all.

Then he began to wonder: what if the God-word wasn't real? After all, it sounded pretty crazy. An ancient word written in the language of the angels? A single word which no one could read without instantly dying? If he hadn't been so desperate, he never would have given it a chance. But he had been desperate. His glassware company was in terrible financial trouble. He couldn't afford to improve conditions and he couldn't afford to fight a court order instructing him to fix things. This was the only way out. If it didn't work, he was sunk.

If it didn't work, he was through. If it didn't work...

Then, suddenly, from beyond the closed door, he heard a sound -- the subtle whisper of someone unfolding a piece of paper. He knew it! He held his breath and waited. He didn't move. For a moment, the silence stretched on and on, unbearable, filled only by the racing of his excited heart.

Then -- a startled gasp.

That was all. After that, there was only more silence. For a full minute, Nigel stood there, wondering what to do next. He had expected something more, a scream perhaps, the thump of a body. Had it worked?

Tentatively, he called out: "Dr. Nicholson, are you all right?"

There was no response.

"Dr. Nicholson?" Still, there was only silence beyond the door. Nigel swallowed tightly. He closed his eyes, took a breath as if about to dive into frigid water, then pushed open the door and entered the living room.

"Dr. Nicholson?" With his eyes closed, the silence that greeted his query caused the hair to rise on the back of his neck. A man had just died in this room. Where there had been a living man only seconds before, now there was a corpse. Nigel tried not to imagine that corpse, but he wasn't entirely successful. How had Nicholson died? he found himself wondering. The witch doctor hadn't been very specific on that point. "Without human intervention", that was all the witch doctor had said. But what did that mean?

Marshalling his courage, Nigel carefully crossed the room to the coffee table, then circled around to the couch. With his eyes still closed, he reached out blindly, groping, flinching as his fingers touched the cold skin of the dead man's face. Nicholson was still sitting up. Nigel shivered. Then he bit hard on his lip and grimly worked his way down a sleeve until he found the hand still clutching the paper. He had to pry the fingers open. Then he snatched the paper up and stepped quickly back.

Carefully, he folded the paper.

He hesitated. What if he had folded it the wrong way, with the God-word on the outside? But no, he was certain he hadn't. He had folded it precisely as it had been folded originally. Nonetheless, it took a concentrated effort for him to force open his eyes. Finally he did so, and looked at the paper in his hand.

He had folded it properly. He blew out in relief.

Then he looked at Nicholson.

The horror of that moment sent him staggering backward, as if struck by an actual blow. He cried out, a high, shrill squawk, one hand leaping before his eyes, smashing into the wall and knocking a painting to the floor.

Nicholson's eyes were open, two appalling bulging orbs. His mouth gaped as if frozen in a silent unending scream. And his expression -- it was as if, in his final moment, he had gazed into the very pits of ultimate abomination, as if every terror ever imagined or imaginable had been played out all at once before his eyes, blasting his soul in an instant, withering his mind like a wild, sizzling wind from Hell.

My God! Nigel thought in sickened horror. What did he see as he died?

With frantic haste, he staggered to the fireplace and snatched up a match from off the mantel. With fumbling fingers, he set fire to the folded paper. He didn't breathe again, not until it was burned entirely to ash...

The cause of death was a heart attack. The coroner confirmed it, and so there was no question of an investigation. Dr. Linus Nicholson had died of a heart attack and that was all there was to it. As for his report on safety conditions at Universal Glassware -- those had mysteriously vanished. A new investigator would have to be dispatched. Hopefully, Nigel thought, one more open to monetary remuneration.

So there it was. No one knew about the God-word. Nigel had gotten away with murder. It made him feel very good.

In fact, it was the act of thinking about just how good it made him feel that, two days later, caused his mind to wander while he was driving home from the office. He was jolted from his reverie by the sudden rising wail of a police siren. He scowled angrily, and glanced at the dashboard, confirming that he was indeed cruising along at a merry clip. Cursing under his breath, he cranked the wheel and pulled over to the side, the police car drawing up just behind.

The officer got out and sauntered slowly up to the driver's door, taking his sweet time about it. Just one look at the man and Nigel knew there would be little point in trying to talk his way out of this. The officer had "no nonsense" written all over him. His features were stern, as if hacked from a stone block, and he wore a set of Ray-Ban sunglasses that flashed like lightning as he looked down.

"Evening, officer. Is there a problem?"

"May I see your driver's license, sir?" His voice matched his face, a sound like stone shifting ponderously in a cave. Nigel got his license out of the glove compartment and passed it out the window. The police officer studied it a moment in brooding silence, then handed it back.

"Are you aware you were driving over the speed limit?"

"Not until I heard your siren. I guess my mind wandered for a minute there." Nigel smiled sheepishly and shrugged. The officer didn't seem to notice. With rigid efficiency, he made out a ticket, and handed it back through the window.

"Well, keep your mind on your driving. That's how people get killed."

Without another word, he returned to his cruiser, pulled away from the curb, and drove off.

Nigel watched him go, his teeth grinding. He didn't like to be told what to do, not even by a traffic cop. And he didn't like getting ticketed, either. Not that he couldn't afford it, but just on principle. He didn't like to pay money for anything that didn't return equal value.

Thinking that, he glanced casually down at the traffic ticket in his hand, meaning to toss it into the still-open glove compartment.

That was when he froze.

His eyes swelled wide, his jaw dropped. He didn't move, not for a full minute. He could not have sat more still if he had found a massasauga rattler curled in his lap.

The traffic ticket was written on a slip of paper folded double, the words hidden from view. The reason Nigel froze, the reason he looked so shocked, was that the slip of paper itself was very similar to the paper on which the witch doctor had written the God-word. No, not just similar. Texture, colour, it was the same paper, exactly the same.

That's how people get killed...

Nigel continued to stare at the slip of paper, the cop's words echoing in his head. His thoughts raced dizzily. It was his imagination, it had to be. This couldn't be the same note, because he had burned that. It was just a coincidence, that was all. He told himself he should just open the ticket and look at it, prove it was nothing more than a harmless traffic ticket. He should just stop being silly and open that damn ticket...

But then another thought intruded. Maybe it wasn't the same note, but what if it really was the same paper? What would that indicate? Suppose, he wondered, someone else had the same idea as he had had. Suppose someone wanted to kill him, and they heard about the voodoo witch doctor and his God-word. They might have hired the witch doctor just like he did.

That's how people get killed...

No. He closed his eyes and shook his head. That was paranoia talking. Who would want to kill him? Well, okay, so he had enemies. Being the head of a major player like Universal Glassware, you were bound to ruffle a few feathers. But wasn't he forgetting something? The cop wrote out that note right there in front of him, in broad daylight. The witch doctor had had to write it in the dark, otherwise a single glimpse would have killed them both. Sure. Nigel exhaled in relief. That settled it right there. He didn't have to think any farther. That was the answer. The traffic cop couldn't have written the God-word, not without killing himself.

Nigel started to unfold the ticket -- then stopped again.

The cop had being wearing sunglasses, very dark sunglasses. He could have closed his eyes while he wrote out the God-word. He could have done that.

Now Nigel found his hands were shaking. He still tried to tell himself that he was just being paranoid, but somehow it just didn't help. He could recall too clearly the way the cop had said that last remark. That's how people get killed. Had there been the sound of irony in his voice?

There was only one solution. Crazy or not, he took the car's cigarette lighter and burned the traffic ticket, unopened, to ash. He still insisted that it was just his imagination, that no one was trying to kill him, but he felt a lot better afterward...

Part 2: Conclusion

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The God-Word is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)