I dare you to ride along with the masked passengers on this ride through a swamp with a destination perfectly designed for serial killers on a retreat. But when these six chatty travelers arrive, no one expects what happens next, least of all their robed pilot, sporting a wicked scythe.
The Ferryman guided the gondola along a watery path only he knew the secrets to as it transported a half dozen specially chosen masked passengers to an exclusive event. Though each eyed him with suspicion, they still appeared confident he would get them to their destination. They had to believe that because he was their only means of travel.
This sort would never admit they were at his mercy. They would talk instead as if the opposite were true, but he saw the questions in their eyes. He always saw the questions mirrored in each set of eyes exactly thirty minutes in. That was when the narrow boat passed the last shack squatting in the shadows of the densely wooded shore, casting its grudging light from tiny windows.
The rickety dwelling belonged to Old Maeve, and even if one of his passengers suddenly had a revelation and begged to be let off here, they would find no help, only the same hospitality that waited for them at the end of the line. But no passenger ever had a clue this early, which was why the Ferryman’s job never ceased to be entertaining.
It was always the moment when Maeve’s lights winked out and the dense canopy of moss-laden cypress shrouded the stars like a falling curtain that the nervous chatter started. He waited now for that dawning realization that only a lantern full of lightning bugs hanging from the bow, and a sketchy crescent moon was all that remained to show them the way.
But none of them ever admitted to being scared any more than they would own up to the fact they needed him. After all, they were in the business of causing terror.
The Ferryman could guess with precision who would be the first to speak, and on cue it was the chubby face under a fox mask who aimed a question at the skinny humpty dumpty. “I heard we had to have no less than twenty victims dead and buried in well-hidden places to get an invitation to this shindig. I’ve surpassed that. How about you?”
He wondered if the two noticed the mix-up in masks, a typical trick his employer played on a couple of passengers each journey. It added to the drama and more importantly, served to break up the monotony for the Ferryman. An employment perk, one might call it.
Instead of answering, Humpty Dumpty, whose oval mask was too big for his pointy face, lifted his bony butt from the seat and swung around to sit on the other side of the gondola. Exactly the response the Ferryman predicted. He was satisfied with his perks, but it would be nice if his passengers would surprise him on occasion.
It was the lone female with a cat mask who answered the fat fox. “I’ve heard lots of things about these parties. The final feast is said to be unsurpassed for its sumptuousness. But that’s not why I came. There’s a rumor one of you is the famous Crescent Moon Vampire. I wonder if you will be able to control your urges this weekend,” and she parted her collar and stretched her pale neck like an offering. No one took her up on it, or even flinched a muscle.
After a brief silence, the fox let out a nervous snort, and the too narrow mask that exposed more of the doughy face than anyone needed to see fluttered, so that he had to grab it and adjust the strings.
The passenger in the snake mask who’d been keeping to the shadows rumbled in a deep voice, “You’re a brave one to travel with men who if they’re like me, love to hate women in creative and painful ways. But you must have doled out your own hate to be here. Still, sticking your neck out is a bit risky, don’t you think?”
“You pretty reptile, there’s no hate involved. I love to love men. It’s not my fault when they fail to survive it.
This was the first masked ball in the Ferryman’s long memory in which twins were invited. One of the two identical gray-haired demons spoke now. “If she is who we think she is, watch your backs gentlemen, or more to the point, your willies.” The cat’s eyes gleamed, and the fox snorted again before he could stop himself.
He shrugged when the other masked faces turned towards him, then said as if to divert attention, “What’s with the Ferryman? That crow mask looks real. And how about those robes. Doesn’t he know it’s sweltering in this bog? And shouldn’t he have a sickle?”
The Ferryman produced his sickle with a swoosh of his robes and a ringing of steel, timing it so the crescent moon peeked through the canopy and glinted off the curved blade. He settled the staff at his feet and grinned to himself as stifled gasps rippled along the gondola. Achieving the maximum affect with his masterful reveal was another perk.
“We’re all overdressed. It’s a requirement, is it not?” The twin demon said, ignoring the dire implications and returning to the party discussion. He held up embossed paper to the feeble light. “It says, ‘To be allowed onto Isla la Sombra, you must be in possession of your invitation. You should be clothed in formal attire, wearing the masks provided to you, and prepared to be stuffed full of fine foods and wine. And finally, to be wowed by the tricks of the trade and the experts in your field. Should you succeed through every challenge, you will partake in a special feast.’ It is a strange mix of formality and mystery, to be sure.”
His brother chimed in, “The words on their own would not give me pause. But now that we’re deep in this watery maze, traveling in a gondola that seems out of place and time and operated by a silent, robed figure who should be plying the River Styx, I’m looking at the invitation with new eyes.”
Cat woman said, “Like any good party, it is merely the host tantalizing us with the amenities. After all, types like us go to great lengths to avoid exposure. But I for one couldn’t turn down the offer to immerse myself in the ‘tricks of the trade’ and meet the most notorious guest speakers from our ranks. Isn’t the underground chatter why you all ventured out of your nests?”
A bumpy outline rippled through the duckweed, and the Ferryman waited. The sounds of fear that followed could have been cues in a movie script as each passenger spotted Douglas.
“Shit! Look at the size of that alligator! Um… Ferryman. May I call you Ferryman? I’m going to take your silence as a sign we won’t be attacked. I’m sure our hosts don’t want us eaten.” That misguided assumption was from the pudgy fox. He voiced another concern that never failed to come up. “I wonder how far there is to go. For all we know, we could circle these shrouded waters forever if our pilot is as immortal as he looks.”
That comment had all eyes turning to the Ferryman, and each passenger flinched when he spoke in his best sepulchral voice. “Arrival is in thirty minutes. And Douglas will leave you intact, so long as you keep your limbs in the boat.”
Eyes wide behind the mask, the fox snorted, “Got it.” Then, under his breath. “A lot can happen in thirty minutes.” He lightened things up. “I’m sure it’s no surprise I came for the promise of excellent food. They say the finale will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven, not that I have any expectation of going there.”
The snake said, “Hmmm. That makes me wonder whether you might be the Cafeteria Killer, the one who likes to add special ingredients to the school menu. They say he’s rotund with the guileless face of a child. It’s astonishing how many kids disappear before the killer must move on. I bet the littlest tots were a tender addition to the tuna casserole.” He paused, then said, “So, what foods do you think might be offered at a banquet in honor of the best in the business?”
Petulant now, the fox said, “We’re not supposed to guess which legends we’re traveling with.” He tapped his mask. “It says so in the fine print. Didn’t you read it? And how would I know what an island at the ass end of nowhere has to offer? But it will be spectacular if our host lives up to his promise because like you said, we’re the best.”
“I wouldn’t think too highly of yourself, Fox Boy,” said twin number one in his cultured voice. “The host might have special plans for you. Didn’t you notice the fun being poked at you with that mask meant for the humpty dumpty wearer? Still, I wonder. Maybe it was assigned to you on purpose. Foxes are hunted. Your plump body would make a great main course. Fitting for the Cafeteria Killer.”
The fox retorted, “You all are making a lot of assumptions. If my mask means something, so do yours.”
Cat Woman burst out like she couldn’t help herself. “The details about these masked balls never have a source. They show up on the message boards, but I’ve never seen anything other than generic usernames attached to them.”
Snake Man said, “What do you mean?”
“There’s nothing to show they came from actual attendees. I wonder why that never occurred to me before?”
A twin offered a reasonable option. “It could simply mean the authors of the chats want to be anonymous. That’s not unusual for criminals of the most wanted variety.”
“I suppose you’re right. This eerie voyage is making me paranoid. But what if it’s all a ruse? Where does that leave us?” She seemed to be easily sidetracked and her eyes turned heated. “I think I know who you two are. There are not many twins these days who murder together. I’ve never had twins.” She ran her tongue over her teeth. “You both have fine mouths below those intriguing red masks, and lovely grey hair.”
The second twin flashed white teeth. “We’re flattered. But you couldn’t handle even one of us, my dear.”
Apparently, the chubby-cheeked fox had spent this time mulling over the idea he might be prey for a hunt, and he piped back in. “What if we were all invited to be nothing more than the main course? Who would ever know we went missing?”
The aloof humpty dumpty spoke for the first time, and his gravelly voice was ominous. “The messenger who sent my invitation went by Jeffrey Hannibal.”
“So did mine. So what?” Said the snake.
Cat Woman’s eyes squinted in a frown, then her brows rose along with her voice. “Mine was Lector Dahmer.”
Each of them began to sit straighter, and the Ferryman could almost see light bulbs clicking on over their heads. This inevitable perk was his favorite before the culmination of another successful charter, and he savored it.
The twin who read it before held the embossed paper to the light again. “This is signed, ‘Cordially, your host, Lector Dahmer.’”
They all stood so fast the rocking boat made them lurch back into their seats.
The Ferryman said in the slow, deliberate voice of doom, “Settle down, passengers. You don’t want to fall in. Have you forgotten about Douglas?”
Each passenger gaped at him from under their masks as the gondola glided into a lagoon. Off in the distance, a steady drumbeat sounded, and savory smells wafted to them through the ghostly trunks of cypress. Tall, shadowy forms emerged dressed only in loin cloths, and a closer look at the faces, smiling in welcome, revealed teeth filed to razor sharp points.
The fox leapt up faster than anyone might imagine a pudgy serial killer could move and shoved the Ferryman over the side. His fellow passengers cried out in shock, then grins widened under each mask as they spotted the bumpy outline that could only be Douglas closing in on the dark robes sinking beneath the duckweed.
As the drums continued to thrum in rhythm with the rocking gondola now devoid of a pilot, and their giant hosts lined up on the water’s edge, each passenger rose slowly and faced the other, sure one of them would have the next brainy idea.
Enjoy this story I was delighted to write under a tough challenge. The requirements were a 2000-word maximum (though I took liberties and went over that for this version), a new for me genre, Cannibal Comedy, an assigned character, Ferryman, and subject, a Masked Party.
It all happened in the Writing Battle Autumn 2022 Short Story Contest. I recommend participating for the fabulous feedback from peers, and the professionals… if you make it through the duels.
Artwork by me using the Photoleap A.I. generator and Canva.