“Tophet” (excerpt)

Parker Lonergan stampeded into the foreman’s trailer, all flared nostrils and wide eyes, looking like a man in search of something to trample.  He was dressed in a tuxedo jacket, pressed shirt and bow tie.  By the look on her face, Tamara—his administrative assistant—clearly had no idea why and not enough courage to ask.

Sheriff Holowell, who’d been waiting and buttering up Tamara in his handsy way, stood to give Lonergan his hand.   “Sorry to bring you out on such an important day, Park.”

Lonergan doffed his Stetson.  Somehow, this did not seem to make his head any smaller.  “Hell, Lance.  It’s the stoppage brought me out.”  Then he tapped a booted toe on the plywood floor.  ”Didn’t even know you were here ’til I arrived and ran into Nico.”

“Bad timing all ‘round,” smirked Holowell as he took a long look at his friend’s outfit.  A drooping mustache hid his amused smirk—something he found useful when questioning suspects.  “Got a grip on this thing yet?”

“Can’t say I do.”

The sheriff made a show of unsheathing a pack of cheroots, offering one to Lonergan before striking a match.  The two lit from its sulfurous flame and savored several puffs before Lonergan spat onto the muddy floor.

“Walk with me to the well pad.”

He led the Holowell down rickety steps and into the midday sun.  A wall of shipping containers, stacked like Legos and emblazoned with the Lonergan Energy logo, afforded the men no shade.  They strode past a knot of smoking workers—whose laughter died at the sight of Lonergan—and uphill toward a hellish scene of thunder, smoke and fire.

As he walked, a fragment of verse emerged from Lonergan’s memory:

And if thy hand offend thee, cut if off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell… 

Next to a newly constructed tank farm, enormous fracturing pumps crouched like dragons slumbering on truck beds.  As thick curtains of black smoke whipped away into the Montana wind, Lonergan thought about all the money he was losing every second those pumps sat idle.

…where their Worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.

At the top of the hill, fracking fluid seeped from gashes in the ground and gathered in crimson pools.  These reflected the roaring plume of burning gas, giving the well site a volcanic appearance.  A group of hot-suited well workers stood mesmerized by the fountain of fire, seemingly powerless to stop it.

As they approached, the Lonergan and the sheriff encountered an iron-solid wall of heat.  Lonergan shielded his face with his hand and shouted to Holowell.

“Alarms went off two hours ago.  Sudden loss of pressure.  Foreman thought cracked casing, maybe.”

“And the fire?” asked the sheriff.  “Were they flaring?”

“No.  No idea what sparked it, but it’s so hot in there it’s melting our suppression equipment.”

The ground beneath them lurched.  Then, as though heaving its guts, the well belched a sulfurous stench and vomited forth something huge and solid.  It flopped to earth, wet and aflame, in a shower of viscous filth.

The men staggered backward as the hairy thing uncurled and stood, glistening, eight feet tall though hunched.  Forking horns atop its mangled head jetted bluish flames.  Eyes like bloody orbs goggled in rage while its barbed tail swiped the dirt.

With a festering mouth, it bellowed—a sound like a pig caught in a wood chipper.  A sound that froze Lonergan’s marrow.

As the emergency crew fled, the creature wheeled and stomped toward the two men.

“Christ almighty,” said the sheriff.

“I know,” replied Lonergan.  “He wasn’t nearly this angry last time.”

Jason Clor, 2023