“Satan’s Lagoon” was the prologue that opened earlier versions of WILDWOOD. The novel ultimately took another direction, but a detour back to The Lagoon makes for an eventful excursion through some very murky waters…
The interior office window was the sort often found in factories and supermarkets: managers glaring at shoplifters or slackers below. This particular window, however, didn’t offer a view of aisles stocked with spaghetti sauce and canned peaches or the humming monotony of an industrial assembly line. It overlooked the fiery abyss of Hell.
The man known as 59 watched as his boss parted velvet drapes and peered intently through the window. “What are you looking at, Baron?”
“I seem,” a frowning Baron said, “to be gazing directly into the eyes of The Devil.”
“Did the son of a bitch blink?”
“He will. If he knows what’s good for him.”
The two men, smoking cigars and sipping Remy Martin, heard a rumbling sound somewhere within the vast building. “That,” 59 said, “will be our guests arriving.”
There was a knock on the office door moments later. The door was opened by a young woman wearing a long monk-like robe of a dark maroon flannel, complete with a hood. She was small and slender, with the face of a fallen angel and eyes as blue and turbulent as a storm-tossed sea. Her face was obscured by a mask of white make-up, her eyes lined with kohl. The artificial teardrops on her cheeks matched the blood-red color of her lips.
The hooded woman strode purposefully into the room, three disconcerted-looking individuals trailing behind her like submissive dogs. She indicated the others with a wave of her hand. “G. Herman LaFontaine, esquire. And his clients the Mutschlers: Karl and Irene.”
The Mutschlers looked like a couple of hayseeds; guest stars on Green Acres or Petticoat Junction. LaFontaine, a dapper and unctuous little man wearing a toupee and a carnation in his lapel, would have made a good funeral director.
Baron nodded. “Thank you, Ghoul Girl. We’ll be ready for our visit to the dungeons shortly.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
G. Herman LaFontaine and the Mutschlers appeared bewildered by their presence here, and not particularly happy about it. Their hosts didn’t bother to introduce themselves, nor did they offer anything resembling a welcome.
“This is very unusual,” LaFontaine said. “I expected…”
“Your expectations,” Baron said, standing, “have become rather tiresome, Gee Herman. You expect another lucrative payday, I’m sure. Courtesy of yours truly. Your entire career in recent years seems to consist of bringing claims against us. Do you happen to know the meaning of the word ‘spurious’?”
“Spurious,” 59 said, as he studied the interplay of a fly and a ceiling fan. “Rhymes with furious.”
LaFontaine verbally counterpunched, as if he were in a brightly-lit courtroom rather than a dark castle of the surreal. “I know that you put yourself into these situations time and again, gentlemen, due to your disregard for the well-being of others. Your negligence and arrogance.”
“Sounds libelous,” 59 said. “Maybe we should call an attorney. A real one.”
“We was led to believe,” Mr. Mutschler said impatiently, “that this meeting was about a settlement offer.”
“We just want what’s coming to us,” Mrs. Mutschler added. “For our pain and suffering. For losing our little girl.”
“Your little girl,” Baron said, “was twenty-five years old. She was bipolar. Had drug issues. And–according to a thorough investigation of the matter by the state of New Jersey–her death may have been a suicide. Rather than due to equipment failure, employee error or inattention to detail on our part.”
“Let’s not revisit the unfortunate particulars of the matter,” LaFontaine said, holding up his hand. “What happened happened. The question is: are you now prepared to do the right thing?”
Baron nodded. “That’s why you folks are here.”
Mr. Mutschler said, “You just don’t want us doing no more talking to the news medium about this tragedy. Don’t want no more bad publicity, with the season about to start.”
“Mr. M here,” 59 said as he toyed idly with a diamond pinky ring, “got things all figured out. You wouldn’t take him for a guy that dropped out of school in the eighth grade.”
“A dollar figure?” LaFontaine said, arching an eyebrow.
“We’ll get to that,” Baron said. “We’d like to offer a tour of our new ‘dark ride’ first. To demonstrate just how seriously we take the safety of our patrons here at Satan’s Lagoon.”
“Can’t we just wrap this up?” Irene Mutschler asked. “And get on with our lives?”
“Soon enough. But first: into the dungeons. A boat ride along the River Styx. I hope you’ll be impressed.”
“If we must,” LaFontaine said with an exasperated sigh.
Baron and 59 led LaFontaine and the Mutschlers along a dimly lit hall and down a flight of steps to an underground dock. Two open boats, long and narrow, sat in the shallow water of an artificial channel. Scythe-wielding grim reaper mannequins, robed and faceless, stood sentry in the sterns of both boats. Ghoul Girl sat in the rear boat, hands folded primly in her lap.
The attorney and his clients reluctantly climbed into the lead boat along with 59. Baron winked at Ghoul Girl as he joined her in the second boat. 59 pushed a switch on a panel. The two boats lurched forward, prows cutting and parting the water like the blade of a plow churning the rich soil of a South Jersey farm.
The sound of gurgling water reminded LaFontaine of his father dying of congestive heart failure, drowning on fluids that could not be drained from his lungs quickly enough.
The boats rounded a bend, the waterway entering a tunnel cloaked in eternal twilight. The attorney and the Mutschlers flinched and cried out as a trapdoor in the wall above sprang open suddenly with a loud creaking sound. A horizontal platform slid from the blackness of the open doorway. A grotesque Devil-like creature with the body of a man and the face and horns of a goat loomed before them.
“Far better to reign in Hell,” the animatronic Devil said, lips moving and huge black eyes blinking as a half dozen snakes curled around him, “than to serve in Heaven.” He cackled demonically now. “Ask not what Satan can do for you…but what you can do for Satan!”
“Is that Vincent Price’s voice?” LaFontaine asked as he wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a monogrammed silk handkerchief.
“Might be,” 59 said. “Or James Coburn. Maybe Jack Nicholson. Or even the dude that played Dr. Smith in Lost in Space. We’ve been sued by all of them at one time or another.”
“What happened?” LaFontaine asked.
“Things were settled,” Baron said, looking away. “Out of court.”
The boats inched forward through the seemingly extensive, eerily glowing tunnels with a muted hum, beneath arched ceilings in the eaves of which fluttered the wings of unseen birds.
Winding staircases and narrow passageways were cut into the mossy stone walls. The steps and passages accessed heavy wooden doors behind which could be glimpsed a flickering blood-red glow. Oppressive humidity dampened the visitors’ clothing as they listened to the sounds of constant dripping and of things slithering through the water.
“The boats operate on a monorail,” Baron said. “The water here is only three feet deep. The safety bars in the boats have been tested by experts. No one can fall out, jump or drown. The ride is accident-proof, trust me. We have a state of the art fire detection and control system. Sophisticated intruder alarms to keep kids from sneaking in here, getting into trouble or getting hurt. We don’t want that.”
“Everything is micro-managed and constantly monitored from our control room upstairs,” 59 added. “We take our business seriously.”
“All very nice,” Mrs. Mutschler said, frowning. “If too late for our daughter. God rest her soul.”
“The demons, witches, warlocks, griffins and grim reapers,” Ghoul Girl said, her voice echoing off the moist walls of Hell, “been created by the best in the business. Real Hollywood special effects people that won Oscars. Scary, huh? I almost passed out unconscious from fright first time I rode through here. And I seen some really BAD things in my time, believe me.”
“We believe you,” a smiling Baron said, patting Ghoul Girl’s hand.
59 pointed out gruesome scenes of interest as the boats glided along. “Some nice skulls there, in the graveyard. Your medieval torture chamber…check out the rack, and that poor guy with the ax in his head. I think the guillotine will be a real crowd pleaser. We’re gonna have an employee decapitated on every trip. Not to worry, though: it’s all just illusion. Good times.”
“Here’s the best part,” Baron said as the boats turned into a wide area: a vast dark moor illuminated by bonfires and backlit by a full moon that rode the horizon like a ghostly lightship. “We call it The Heart of Hades.” Beneath a flashing strobe light there were anguished moans and screams, perverse laughter and the cries of wolves and coyotes, the persistent barking of dogs that sounded more like man’s worst enemy than best friend.
“It all seems so real,” Mrs. Mutschler said with a shudder.
“Some of it is,” 59 said. “And some of it isn’t. Way of the world, huh?”
The Mutschlers’ eyes widened as they beheld a nightmarish and surprisingly realistic vista of decomposing corpses eaten by dogs and crows, screaming people trapped and sinking in quicksand, others being torn apart by wild animals. An army of the grotesquely deformed and the tattered undead moved ominously toward the boats, hands outstretched beseechingly, fleshless fingers beckoning.
“My god,” Mr. Mutschler said, wincing. “This is hideous. Who could dream up such a place?”
“I thought up the quicksand stuff,” Ghoul Girl said proudly. “Ever since I was little, I been scared of gettin’ sucked into the quicksand.”
“The children will be terrified by all of this,” Irene Mutschler said.
59 glanced at Baron, smirking. “That’s the idea, lady.”
LaFontaine squinted at his gold Rolex beneath the wavering light of a wall-mounted torch. “I’m sure 12-year olds will be suitably impressed. But maybe we could wrap this up and settle our business?”
“Certainly,” Baron said. “There’s just one more thing we wanted you to experience. The piece de resistance, as it were.”
Karl Mutschler sighed, bored and impatient. “If we got to.”
The boats stopped suddenly. Ghoul Girl, Baron and 59 stepped out into a broad cave-like area. The skeletons of hanging victims dangled from ropes above open caskets. A canned soundtrack disgorged devilish laughter, chanting and electronic music that sounded like the collective buzz of a thousand angry bees.
“Check it out, folks,” 59 said as the others gingerly disembarked from their dungeon boat. “Step right up.” He motioned to a raised wooden platform. “Wait’ll you see what happens next.”
“Is this really necessary?” LaFontaine asked.
Baron smiled. “I insist. If you really want that settlement.”
LaFontaine and the Mutschlers reluctantly ascended the platform. Mr. Mutschler folded his arms across his chest. “Now what?”
“Now this.” Baron nodded to Ghoul Girl.
Grinning, she yanked hard on a long braided rope dangling from the ceiling. A trapdoor in the platform floor abruptly sprang open. LaFontaine and the Mutschlers instantly dropped from sight.
The moans and groans began within seconds.
The screams took just a bit longer.
Ghoul Girl jumped up and down excitedly, clapping her hands. “Woo-hoo! They’re in some deep shit now!”
“They sound,” 59 said, “like a roomful of squawky parrots. I bet these parrots messed their cage, too. We should’ve lined it with newspaper.”
“Are we taping this?” Baron asked.
Ghoul Girl indicated a rolling reel to reel recorder on top of a table. “It’s all about the realism, boss.”
Baron peered down into the blackness below as the screaming and sobbing intensified. “What’s going on down there, exactly?”
“We’re thinking up ways,” Ghoul Girl said, “to include live rats in the ride. The rats are living down there now. It’s like their own little motel. There’s a whole lot of them, and the poor things ain’t eaten for a while.”
Ghoul Girl pulled on a toggle switch. The trapdoor swung shut.
Baron said: “I can’t hear anything now.”
“Soundproof chamber,” 59 said. “Cost a few bucks. Money well spent, I think.”
Baron, 59 and Ghoul Girl stepped out of the back door of Satan’s Lagoon into a warm and breezy late spring night. The sky was so startlingly clear as to seem yet another illusion, a special effect.
“I could count the stars,” Ghoul Girl said, looking upward, her eyes wide.
“Knock yourself out,” 59 told her.
“With what?” Ghoul Girl asked, puzzled.
“Gee Herman and his clients can’t simply disappear,” Baron said. “Questions will be asked.”
“Not of us,” 59 said. “We changed the meeting place at the last minute. No one knew about them coming here. They were brought in through the service entrance, out of sight. We’ll sanitize Gee Herman’s office just in case. Oh…did I mention their killer?”
“I don’t believe you did.”
“Loser just got sprung from Leesburg two weeks ago. Did time for attempted murder and assault. Had a nasty history with Gee Herman. Publicly threatened poor Gee. Jewelry and personal items belonging to our favorite attorney and the Mutschlers will be found in his apartment. Cops’ll ask him where the bodies are. He’ll never tell.”
“No, I don’t imagine he will. Speaking of bodies: can rats actually kill three people?”
59 shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out. A few days without food and water will do the trick in any case. We’ll check back next week. Because we care.”
“Just wondering: how do you get the rats out of there? In order to…do some housekeeping.”
“The little guys got their own exit,” Ghoul Girl said. “Controlled by us, not by them, and they’re semi-trained. Not a problem.”
“Disposal of the remains? The non-rodent variety.”
59 said, “We have several options. Might be sea and sharks. Might be acid and lye. In any case they’ll vanish faster than ocean mist on a sunny morning.”
“Could be a mess,” Baron said. “The hungry rats and so forth.”
Ghoul Girl lit a cigarette, exhaling. “We dealt with messes before. Messes are our specialty. Know what’d really be cool? If them people was still alive when we find them, but all chewed up by the rats. I seen a movie like that once. Or maybe I dreamed it…”
“Take some pictures,” Baron said. “We can incorporate them into the ride. Realism, remember.”
“Bitch of a way to go,” 59 said.
Baron smiled as he lit a cigar. “You know what they say.”
“They say a lot of things, chief.”
“Gee Herman and the Mutschlers pushed their luck, and their avaricious agenda, too far. Pushed a gentle man into doing something drastic, doing the unthinkable. Bottom line? You reap what you sow.”
“You could say that about a whole lot of folks. Hell, you could make a list.”
Baron said, “Funny you should mention that…”