#7 of ten short stories from my 2015 self-published horror anthology, Random Number Hotline.
There wasn’t a single pair of eyes on Willow Beach not fixated on the incredible sight just offshore. Everyone had seen a cruise ship before, but nobody appreciated just how enormous one of these ships were in person.
Beach-goers had spotted the ship off in the distance a few hours ago, and soon noticed it was heading straight towards the beach. Some thought it would change course, but it only glided closer and closer, soon coming to a halt just off the sandy shore.
As Clive Warner watched the motionless ship, he sighed. Perfect, just what I need on my damn vacation. He grabbed his phone and dialed a number. Warner brushed his sandy golden hair from his eyes and held the phone to his ear.
“Dispatch, Warner here. I’m gonna need some uniforms down at Willow Beach, got a cruise ship sitting just off shore, hasn’t moved in some time now. Might be stuck on a sand bar or something,” he said. The people down on the sand with him stared at the ship, some with snapping photos with their phones. ”Yep, an honest to God cruise ship.”
“Copy that, sending everyone we can spare. Should we notify medical services as well?”
Warner looked the ship up and down, trying to get a good look at the deck. There wasn’t a single person in sight. Something didn’t feel right. The ship sat in an unnatural silence, its engines still. Strange, especially since it had been in perfect working condition minutes ago.
“Wouldn’t hurt, let ’em know. Thanks Dispatch.” Warner hung up and headed back up the beach to the main road to wait for backup. He made a quick stop at his car and put his uniform on over his surfing gear, long black pants and his jacket. The gun wouldn’t be necessary, so he left it in his glove compartment. He was off duty, after all.
The police cars and ambulances arrived soon after, a force of eighty men and women. They poured out onto the beach; paramedics, rescue teams and uniformed officers. Warner followed them at a distance, not exactly thrilled to be back on the job like this. After close to a year of non-stop, stressful work at the station, and a particularly nasty investigation in recent days, he had needed this vacation. But now with this cruise ship popping up on the first day of his vacation, he might as well have stayed at work.
“Hey Clive, what’re you doing here? I thought you were on leave!” someone called from behind him. Warner turned to see Laura Kline, a paramedic from Willow General, a long-time friend and colleague. She looked alert and ready to work, as usual, in stark contrast to Warner who looked like he had just woken up with his dark eyes and pock-marked face.
“I thought so too,” Warner said, slowing his pace to walk alongside Kline down to the beach. “But here I am, ready and unwilling.”
Kline playfully punched Warner in his side. “Aw come on, surely you want to spend your day helping people? It’s not too bad once you get used to it, trust me.”
“That’s all I’ve been doing for the past year. I need a break from everything, but I guess someone up there doesn’t want me to have one. It’s just grand.”
Kline smirked. “You’ll get over it when we board that ship, see what’s up. Maybe something up there’ll convince you to postpone your vacation, get back to work because you miss it so much?”
“Uh huh. I doubt it. Let’s get this over with. It’s probably nothing. Captain fell asleep at the helm, equipment or engine malfunction, who knows.”
Kline flashed her best smile at Warner. ”See? You live for this stuff, there’s no getting away from it. Just roll with the punches, let this play out. It’ll be fun!”
“I think my definition of fun is a bit different to yours, Laura.”
The group reached the shoreline, where a perimeter was quickly established. Officers escorted onlookers away from the ship. Some people had tried to climb up on board, with little success. After too long, they closed the beach and sent the patrons away to let the team do their work. The situation on the ship still wasn’t known. Nobody on board had shown up yet, a fact which worried Warner.
Rescue teams brought small boats down onto the beach to get them closer to the ship. Groups of five or six floated out, equipped with ropes and climbing gear to get on board. It wasn’t elegant, but there were no other ways to get up there, so this would have to do. The calm waters made the entire boarding process quick and painless, with everyone aboard the ship in about fifteen minutes.
Warner and Kline were the last people to board. Kline reached into her bag of medical gear and pulled out a long flashlight. She flicked it on and off, testing the batteries.
“So you called this in?” Kline asked as they walked across the deck, passing fallen chairs, flipped tables and a dusty rundown bar. Many bottles remained unopened on their shelves. Nobody in sight.
“Yep, lucky me I guess. Just happened to wash up right where I was trying to have a break from all this and ruin my vacation.”
They passed the bar and joined up with the rest of the group, who gathered around the stairs into the shop. A few had already headed inside. Quiet conversations between the cops and paramedics were all discussing the same thing: where were the passengers?
The thought had crossed Warner’s mind. Nobody aboard had even tried to call down from the ship for help or otherwise. A cruise ship of this size should be teeming with people, if not passengers then at least the crew. To have seen nobody at all troubled Warner, and he knew it worried the others too. He prayed they wouldn’t be needing the paramedics’ help today. But with each passing second, his hope diminished.
Warner and Kline stood before the steps down into the ship. No lights were on inside as far as they could see. Good thing Kline had brought a flashlight with her. Few others had brought their own.
“Sweet Jesus…” a voice from somewhere down the steps gasped.” Medic! Medic! I need help down here, right fucking now! Oh my God…”
Warner frowned. Cops and paramedics rushed down the stairs and disappeared into the ship. Kline flicked on her flashlight as she entered, with Warner sticking close by. The cops who brought their own switched them on as well. Within moments they were inside, plunged into total darkness, save for the flashlight beams. And then the smell hit them.
It was amazing how nobody had noticed it on the upper deck. The moment Warner entered the ship the smell became clear. Rotting flesh. The smell of a decomposing corpse wasn’t a stench you easily forgot. Warner had seen plenty of them in his thirty years of law enforcement.
The cop who had shouted for help reeled backwards, wide eyed in shock. He raised a quivering finger and pointed into the darkness. The poor bastard was a nervous wreck. Warner inched forward, borrowing Kline’s flashlight and shone it into the corridor before them.
Kline put a hand over her mouth and looked away. Warner too was speechless. Nobody said a word as they took it all in.
The hallway before them was lined with bodies, all slumped up against the walls in varying states of decay and mutilation. Men, women and children, at least forty they could see from where they stood. Some were missing body parts; legs, arms, even a few heads. Warner had seen some horrific shit in his career: countless murders, domestic violence cases, even the aftermath of a particularly twisted individual cutting up bodies for their organs up north. But nothing compared to the slaughterhouse which lay before them.
It was some time before anybody said something. “Fuck me…” Warner breathed, holding the flashlight still on the scene. Few people stayed inside the ship after they saw what lay inside. Many scrambled back up the stairs towards fresh air. Some vomited all over the deck. The discovery chilled Warner to the core. But he took a step forward towards the bodies, the only person yet to do so. He moved around a body lying spread-eagled across the corridor, almost torn in two. The blood beneath the body had dried a long time ago, he noted. The corpse itself hadn’t aged well either, its skin as wrinkled and dry as the blood it lay upon. Somebody had a field day with these people. Someone incredibly sadistic and vicious in nature.
“What the hell happened here?” Kline whispered into Warner’s ear, making him jump. He sighed, thinking about what he had seen so far. The ship, the bodies, the blood. So much blood.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” he murmured before stepping away from the body. “Need more information. Not gonna get what I need here. We need to go further into the ship. Maybe there’s still someone alive down there.” Warner never noticed he and Kline were the only people still at the base of the stairs inside the ship. Everyone else had evacuated back up to the deck to escape the stench of death.
“Wait wait wait, you want to go further inside? Are you insane? What if the person who did this is still down there, did you think about that?” Kline said. She eyed the bodies before her, looking away again when she saw one whose head had been viciously torn from the rest of the corpse.
“Of course I want to go further down. And you’re coming with me.” Warner stared into Kline’s eyes. “If there are more bodies anywhere else on the ship, we need to find them. I want to see how long they’ve been in here and exactly how they died. You might see something I miss. Look, I don’t know, I’m just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
Kline wasn’t comfortable with the task at hand, but in the end, defeated, she just nodded.
Warner clapped his hands together. “Okay, let’s get this over with.” He strode down the hallway, navigating around the bodies as he went. Kline hesitated, but soon trailed behind Warner, the flashlight beam guiding them through the pitch black halls.
The journey deeper into the ship wasn’t pleasant. Bodies only increased in number as they progressed, as did the horrific injuries and dismemberment. Warner stopped by a corpse slumped against the left wall, next to a locked door. The guy’s face was lowered, and only looked as if he was in a deep sleep. But the coils of intestines splattered across his bloody stomach suggested otherwise. Warner guessed this had been one of the ship’s crew members. Nothing here helped shed any light on the situation, so they moved on.
Eerie sounds echoed throughout the ship corridors, sending shivers down Warner’s spine. He glanced at Kline and figured she felt the same way. It’s almost like a horror film, he thought. Warner never did appreciate those kinds of movies; his job often offered up far more horrifying sights than any movie ever could.
With each area of the ship Warner led Kline through, only more bodies lay to greet them. A cafe they stumbled across on one of the lower decks only served to disturb them even more. The bodies inside had been posed, with each chair in the cafe seating a body, all rotted and falling apart. Whoever did this had even placed plates of food and glasses of wine on each table, Warner noted. Other bodies littered the floor, not posed as the rest had been, tossed aside like useless trash. They had to have been killed elsewhere and dragged around the ship. The two left the grisly scene and continued deeper into the dark halls.
They soon ended up at two double doors, all closed and covered with bloody hand prints. Kline stared at them, horrified. Warner flung the doors wide open. The flashlight beam only lit up a fraction of the huge room before them, but even that was more than enough.
Inside the hall, which appeared to be some sort of ballroom, stood hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder, wearing fancy dresses, tuxedos and other smart attire. But something wasn’t right. Warner saw it in the dim light, only just noticeable, but definitely there.
Each person had been strung up with thin wires, and hung there like puppets, engaged in a silent, still show. Some had been arranged to look as if they were dancing with another person in an eerie embrace. The hall echoed with Warner’s footsteps as he approached the nearest body to take a look. This guy had been dead for quite a while, with his face hollow and skin peeling off. Warner touched the wires implanted in the body’s hands and feet, and ran a finger up as far as he could reach. They all led up to somewhere high above them, a spot on the roof which the flashlight couldn’t illuminate from here.
Was this all some sort of sick show, or a display? The manner each body had been meticulously posed and dressed chilled Warner to the core. There had to be hundreds of bodies in here. Who could have done this, and why?
“I don’t think we should stay here,” Kline said. “This place is bad news. We’re in way above our heads, we should just go back up to the others and wait for backup. Did it occur to you the guy who did this might still be in here?”
Warner shook his head. “No. We can handle this. I want to know what happened on this ship.” And kill the bastard responsible.
“Listen to me Clive,” Kline said, grabbing Warner’s shoulder. “We shouldn’t be here. There has to be two hundred bodies down here, and those are just the ones we’ve seen so far. This is something for the FBI or something to look into, not us. Let’s just get the hell out of here, secure the area with the others and wait for backup.”
The fearful quavering of Kline’s voice made Warner pause. He had never heard her this shaken up before, and she had seen some pretty terrible things in her career. Maybe she was right. This was way too big for a single paramedic and a vacationing cop.
“Okay,” Warner said with a slight hint of disappointment. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” They left the ballroom and closed the door behind them, leaving the poor victims inside to hang. Backtracking to the stairs was slow, they had to move carefully to avoid contaminating the crime scene.
As they inched their way back, Warner considered everything he had seen so far and tried to make sense of it all. This place was being used to collect and hold bodies, and had been for some time. Some sort of personal graveyard, of sorts. Had to be the passengers, although some wore unusual clothes to see on a cruise ship. Maybe some of them had stumbled aboard the ship, like Warner had.
The last thought chilled him to the core. He wasn’t sure why he had even considered it. Warner pushed the thought from his mind.
They had almost reached the stairs back up to the ship’s deck. Warner shot another glance at the bodies one last time as he passed them, before stopping at the crew member who he had seen earlier.
“Wait, hold on,” he said, coming to a halt as soon as he noticed it. Kline looked too, just as confused as Warner. An empty space remained instead of the body which had lay there only minutes ago. The coil of intestines sat there in its place, as well as the hat he had been wearing. The body itself though was gone.
Has someone moved the body? Warner didn’t believe the other cops or paramedics had the nerve to get this far into the ship, so the possibility of one of them moving the body was low. They wouldn’t want to disturb the crime scene. There was only one other possibility: they were not alone.
“We need to get out of here, right now. This is not good,” Warner urged.
“What? Where’s the dead crew member?” Kline asked. Warner shone the flashlight behind him, catching a brief glimpse of movement behind them.
“I don’t think he’s dead,” Warner whispered. He ushered Kline along through the corridor towards the stairs. “And I don’t think he’s a crew member either.”
As if on cue, a sinister chuckle echoed through the corridor. It bounced off the walls, sounding as if it were coming from everywhere at once. But each echo sounded different, some deeper and others quieter, further away. Warner cursed. They weren’t alone in here at all. Far from it. Loud footsteps thundered towards them, the cackles getting clearer by the second.
“Run! Fucking run! Get the hell out of here!” Warner bellowed as he shoved the petrified Kline ahead. She didn’t seem to have realized yet how much shit they were both in. There wasn’t just one killer on this ship. They had been laying among their victims in an effort to snare even more prey. How many had they passed on their way down here?
Warner and Kline darted ahead, the preservation of the crime scene now the last thing on their minds. Each step they took could be their last. A single lapse in concentration, and one of them could be on the ground and at the mercy of their pursuers. They rounded the corner, and met daylight, the stairs leading back up to the deck. None of the other cops were in sight. Must still be up on the deck.
Warner stomped up the steps with Kline close by. When they burst outside, his heart sank.
No cops or paramedics remained on the deck. None who were still alive. There were, however, at least thirty strangers, covered from head to toe in blood, all wielding rusted knives, improvised clubs and other makeshift weapons. Some knelt over the dead cops and paramedics, stripped them of their uniforms and gear and put it all on.
Warner thought back to the crew member. It had been a disguise, he realized. And now they had brand new ones in the form of police and paramedic uniforms, some of the most trusted professions around. If they got off the ship with those, who knew what they would use them for. They had to warn someone in town otherwise there would be no end to the bloodshed.
As every single person on the deck turned to face them, Warner instinctively reached for his pistol, only to grab at empty space. He had left it in his car. Shit, shit, shit. A stupid rookie mistake. And a mistake which could mean the end of his life, and countless others.
The crazed men and women roared and charged, weapons raised high above their heads, thirsty for blood. Warner grabbed Kline’s arm and ran with her towards the only possible way off this ship: the edge. The drop looked long, and would land them in shallow water, but anything would be better than the certain death they faced up here.
“We need to jump! Now!” Warner said as they clambered up onto the railing. Kline looked at him as if he were insane.
“What? That water’s nowhere near deep enough, we’ll break our goddamn necks!”
“They’ll tear us apart if we stay up here any longer! We jump now!”
Warner and Kline plummeted together down into the water below, bracing for impact. They landed uninjured, the beach at high tide this time of day. The two crawled to shore, adrenaline rushing through their veins, not looking back. Nobody remained on the beach, the area cordoned off until the ship situation was resolved. The people on the ship mustn’t have gone ashore yet.
All the empty cop cars and emergency vehicles remained on the road just next to the beach, up the hill. They both made a sprint towards Warner’s vehicle, which he flung open and pulled his fully loaded pistol out.
“Get behind me Laura,” he ordered. Kline ducked behind the car as Warner took aim down his sights towards the beach, covering the entire area. Any movement at all, he would pull the trigger. The beach was easily defendable from here, with sheer cliffs flanking each other side of the beach, this hill the only way in and out of the area.
He stood there, gun aimed down at the beach and watched the ship with unblinking eyes. Kline sat against the car and sobbed softly. Warner waited in anticipation, waited for just one of those bastards to show their face. He wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep putting down one of the people responsible for the horror show in the ship.
“Grab my radio, get some backup down there. If they come ashore, there’s no way I can hold them all back by myself.” She nodded and reached into the car and spoke into the mouthpiece, her voice shaking with fear. Warner didn’t hear a word she said. He concentrated on the beach, still waiting for someone to appear.
As more and more time passed though, he didn’t see a thing on the beach. Nobody left the ship either as far as he could see. But Warner didn’t dare lower his weapon. It would only take a second’s lapse in concentration to let someone escape. After nearly ten minutes of no activity, Warner frowned. What the hell were they doing up there?
Movement caught his eye. It took Warner completely by surprise, and for a second he could only watch in total shock.
“What the…no. No, no, NO!” he yelled. Warner vaulted over the bonnet and began a mad dash back down to the beach. Kline glanced up from the radio and watched the surreal scene play out before her. Warner made it halfway down to the ship, which then started to sluggishly back out of the Willow Beach inlet. The entire crime scene, close to eighty dead cops and paramedics, and the people responsible, just drifting back out to sea.
“Stop!” Warner shouted, his voice hoarse with anger. He splashed into the water and tried his best to catch up to the ship, but he knew it was useless. The ship had already cleared the inlet, its engines roaring once again. It headed out to the horizon, unable to be stopped. Warner continued to pursue the ship as far as he could swim, even though he knew it was pointless. The ship was gone in the space of a minute, disappearing behind a rocky outcrop. God knew where the hell it would go now. He closed his eyes and cursed to himself.
Kline ran down the sand back on the beach, accompanied by a squad of SWAT forces and armed police. They must have arrived moments ago, responding swiftly to her call for backup. The squad stopped on the shoreline when they saw Warner crawl back onto the beach. He was drenched, and shook with anger as he trudged back up to the car, a dead stare in his eyes.
Warner ignored the barrage of questions the responders asked him as he pushed his way past them. He could only think about the floating hellhole he had just let back into the world with even more bodies than it had started with.
He made a silent vow as he reached his car and shut himself inside, a vow to all the men and women who had lost their lives on the ship, both today and in the past. Warner would be there when the stowaways and their ship washed up on the next beach somewhere.
And he would be ready for them.