New York Times bestselling author and 7-time Bram Stoker Award-winner (and also the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award-winner), Nancy Holder is the Horror Writers Association's  Grand Master. She is a winner of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers ASH for His Abominable Wife, the Baker Street Irregular winner for Beryl Garcia. She is also a Dancing Witch of the Olympic Peninsula Honorary Sister, Black Cranes.

Her official website is HERE


(An invitation from your Captain)
by Nancy Holder


This how it will be when you drown:

You’ll start out, of course, in water. The particulars really don’t matter, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that you’re swimming. Of course, your boat might sink, or your plane may go down, and then there are ponds and lakes and rivers. And bathtubs. Or hot tubs. Dreadful things can happen in Jacuzzis. Have happened.

But imagine that it’s a dazzling, warm day at the beach. You’ve arrived not half an hour before with friends, and you decide to take a dip while the others lie in the sun, play cards and roast the weenies.

You shuffle through the velvet sand, watching the water roll ever closer to your toes. The rippled flow is frosted with bubbles that remind you of champagne; beneath the crystal-clear curtain, seashells glisten in the sun. You look up and down the deserted coastline at patches of grass and lavender boulders, planted by Nature in a thoughtful breakwater pattern, and you’re grateful no one else bothers with the five-mile trek on the unpaved road that leads to this secret spot.

A breeze ruffles your hair, tickles the hair on your arms. The water laps at the ends of your toes; you jump playfully back, daring it to touch you. While it recedes into the ocean, you write your initials in the wet sand with your big toe, blot them out, jump back as the water rolls back in. It catches you this time, and licks your foot like a puppy; to your delight it is cool and refreshing, not cold at all. And quite clear: you can see your toenails as you wade deeper, up to your ankles, your shins, just below your knees.

You call to your friends—they’re missing out! But they’re hungry, and busy preparing lunch, and they tell you to go ahead and enjoy yourself. You, after all, are the one who loves the water most.

Knowing you’re amusing them, you move faster, going deeper and making little noises because now the water’s a tiny bit chillier. You prance up to your thighs and then you rise up on your toes as the swell gooses you. Then one, two, three big steps farther out, you dive into the rolling wave as it curls chest-high.

It wakes you up! It’s salty and clean, and washes the sweat and sand off your chest and arms. The sun dances on the droplets that cling to your hair and eyelashes as you pop up, shaking your head and wiping your eyes. You turn and wave, let out a whoop; your friends wave back. At this distance, you can hear the radio, see the smoke rising from the fire ring; and in the otherwise deserted parking lot your car sits, waiting to be refilled with damp bodies and sand, and the leftover firewood.

You swim a little farther out, waiting for the moment when the bottom dips and you lose contact. Whoops! You duck under for a second, bob back up, tread water while you get your bearings. The water is a deep azure-blue, like a picture in a resort brochure or a travelogue about the South Pacific. You cannot believe the perfection of this moment, as buoyed by the salt, you dip your head back so the water can slick your hair. You squint into the golden, gauzy sun. You wave again to your friends with a rush of shy tenderness, because they seem so happy to see you enjoying yourself.

Adventurous now, you flop onto your stomach and swim away from shore. You watch the waves; one swells beneath you, carrying you toward the beach as you ride it backward. It was just a small one, so you cut the trip short by standing up. Eagerly, you swim back out. Jump headfirst into the next one and swim through it before it crests.

The sky is a reflection of the water—or is it the other way around? There’s not a single cloud up there, just the warm, gentle ball, a Goldilocks orb, not too hot, just right.

And then a wavelet smacks you. Your mouth is open and you swallow some sandy saltwater. Your throat and eyes sting a bit. A piece of seaweed brushes against you, lazes away. You wonder if there are any fish in the water. One of your friends brought a fishing pole, and has high hopes for later.

You give yourself a thrill by searching for jellyfish. But how could there be any, in this paradise? As if to confirm your opinion, a thirty-second of the area yields nothing.

You swim farther out. You watch the waves, travel over and up, waiting for just the one to ride in, anticipating the rough-and-tumble exit you’ll make as you hit the shore. Your stomach rumbles and you imagine the tastes of potato chips and potato salad and remember you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen after you dry off.

You turn around to see your friends again.

And they’re farther away than you thought they’d be.

A lot farther.

For a moment you’re puzzled, and then slightly panicked, as you understand you’ve been caught in an undertow. The current has dragged you out to sea. Yes, and why didn’t you notice before that you’re cold? In fact, you’re shivering. You have another uncertain moment, but then you recall that now you must swim parallel to shore. Eventually you’ll make your way out of the current—which is, by the way, growing still colder. It’s practically frigid, and your muscles are cramping. Gooseflesh coats you like a wetsuit.

Swim parallel. You say it to yourself three or four times as you swim. Hand over hand, steady, legs kicking easily. You move right along; after all, everyone says you’re part fish.

You have it aced, you think; you’re in no danger.

The undertow grabs hold of your ankles and drags you. You feel it this time, feel the process; have a frightening half-formed vision of someone actually wrapping their hands

—their bony fingers—

around you ankles and swimming off with you, depositing you in deeper waters. You forget you must not fight directly against the force. Legs kicking, arms flailing like windmills, you lose the rhythm of your breathing and stop, gasping. Your lungs hurt.

The waves are surging around you; they’re big enough to surf on. The water has deepened to a dark blue-gray like the skin of a humpback whale. You think you see things moving below the surface. Before you can be sure, a succession of waves crashes right over you, and you go under, gagging. You try repeatedly to catch one and bodysurf in. Each time, you fail. They roar and crash, pummeling you. You stop, because all you’re doing is exhausting yourself.

You go back to treading water. The water is thick and cold. The sun, once so benevolent, beats down on your head and makes you squint hard at the coastline. Perhaps due to the harshness of the shadows it makes, the lavender boulders just like hard, sharp rocks into the breakers, and you wonder, for the first time since you found the beach, if you could seriously hurt yourself riding the surf back to shore.

Something knocks into you, moves away. You don’t bother with it now, because you see your friends on shore: tiny dots. Your heart clutches. The something bobs against you again, and you look around. In a different direction, you see five huge Portuguese men-of-war, stinging tentacles streaming behind them. They drift in front of you, another obstacle between you and the beach.

You wave at your friends. “Hey!” you call, but your voice is raw from the salt and comes out scratchy and thin. Yet it must have done the trick; they’re looking around, looking for you, so you relax a little. They’re going to come for you and help you back. They’ll razz you, but you won’t mind, because you were pretty stupid to let this happen. You, after all, are an expert swimmer. But it’ll feel so good to be back on land, nothing can bother you. You’ll let them tease you all they want.

All you need to do is wait. To conserve your strength, you flip over on your back and lay your head in the water, spread-eagle yourself. Your buddies are probably already on their way.

But how? They don’t have a boat, or a raft, or even a life ring. And none of them can swim as well as you. Well, then, they’ll get in the car and drive for help.

Except that you drove, and the keys are in your waterproof wallet, safety-pinned to the cutoffs you’re wearing.

They’ll flag someone down, someone else in a car.

But no one ever comes down that unpaved road. It’s your secret spot. You read about it when you first moved to the area, in a book of local legends. Some ghostly nonsense you’ve forgotten now, evidently scary enough to keep everyone else away.

The undertow gives you another. Yank. You gasp, flip upright, and tread water again. You’re pulled past the breakers, into an ice-cube sea that rolls and dips but has no waves. Then even those highs and lows flatten out, and you’re floating on the liquid equivalent of a desert. The beating sun above, the cold depths below; the dark waters, where you can no longer see the lower half of your body. The ocean has swallowed it up and it’s pulling the rest of you down, sucking at your tired back and arms like quicksand.

You scan the horizon for your friends.

They’re gone.

The coastline itself is gone. You see nothing but endless, heartless gray. You turn in all directions, but there is nothing to see but more jellyfish and the painful reflections of the sun. No sailboats miraculously passing by, no other swimmers, no land. A line behind you where both the sea and sky bleach to gray and become the same horizon, where you might simply float away into oblivion.

You should call again for help. You realize you should have tried to shout louder when you were closer.

The shore, the world, is still gone.

You tread faster, comprehend that you’re doing the wrong thing, and rest back into the water so you’ll float again, while you consider your options.

But what you don’t understand is that you have no options.

And then something bobs against you again, against your calf, then your hip, then your side, and you think, Oh, my God, it’s a shark. Your heart skips a couplet, you hold your breath, and touch the thing.

Not a shark. You exhale, Only a dark green flask you mistake at first for a 7-Up bottle. But there are antique brown lines running through it, and dazzling red and blue stones circling the neck like a coronet. No, the brown is actually golden, and the bottle’s corked; and there’s something yellow and gooey half covering the cork.

You pick it up. It’s quite heavy, for something that’s floating. As are you.

There’s a piece of paper inside. A message in a bottle.

And because your hands are shaking, and you’re already getting tired and trying to keep floating; and you’re becoming giddy because you can’t believe this is actually happening—that you’ve drifted out to sea and no one’s come yet—no one’s come yet!—because it makes for something to focus on, a diversion from the fact that you’ve just realized you can’t swim or float or tread water too much longer—because you have nothing else to do but be so afraid you want to vomit, you pry off the coating, which is wax, pull out the cork, and tip the bottle upside down.

A piece of thick, yellowed paper slides into your hand. Decorated with an anchor—or is it a skull and crossbones?—the elaborately scrolled letterhead reads:

The Captain, H.M.S. Pandora.

Beneath it are engraved the following words:

The Captain respectfully requests your presence at the Captain’s Table for dinner this evening.

And something rings a bell. Something in the local legends concerning messages in bottles. And death warrants.

Because no one can swim for very long, and you certainly can’t hold your breath forever.

And when the drowning itself begins? Your actual last few minutes?

You have some final throes, of course. You do not go gentle into that deep ocean. You tired, and so you struggle, harder, which tires you more. You tell yourself to float, but you can no longer manage it. You’re hyperventilating. You’re crying. You wet yourself, and the warm stream reminds you hold cold you are.

You sink, fight back to the surface, sink, surface, and so on, until you find yourself mindlessly reach for a gasping, terrified gulp of air. It hurts when you inhale, feels better when you exhale. This seems to go on for an eternity, but ten, perhaps fifteen minutes elapse at most.

Your body is heavy and numb, and clumsy. You can no longer see because you’re blind with fear. You can think of nothing but the next breath.

And you can no longer make your way to the surface. Down, down you go, and then you struggle against your fate again, but to no purpose. Your eyes bulging, you stare up into the dazzling glare of the sun as it strikes the surface above you, and it looks unbelievably far away, that surface, that sunshine. Conversely, you can see nothing past your feet as they helplessly dangle.

Unbearable pressure pushes against your lungs, so you let the air out a bit at a time—a puff at a time, a slow leak, until your body aches. It feels thin and flaccid, like an empty balloon. Your throat tightens and aches. Your muscles tense and strain.

The surface above you dances and glitters.

Your lungs are almost drained, and you’re hovering in the water, and that damn bottle knocks into your head once, twice, and you shut your eyes and hope it does the job. But it drifts a few feet away, suspended and unmoving as if it’s waiting—and it is waiting. For your RSVP.

And you oblige. Because you are completely out of air, and now there is only one thing left for you to do.


And just as you do, and your eyes begin to roll back in your head, the shadow of a ship’s hull casts a large, gray net over you and you think, Thank god, thank god, you’re saved.

But you’re wrong. More wrong than you can imagine.

And that is what it will be like. And, more or less, how it will happen.

And it will happen. Sooner. Or later.

So nice you can join us.

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Vindication of Monsters Dead Detectives