WHAT HAS LONG PINK FINGERS AND SMELLS LIKE ROTTING FLESH?
It is a slime-covered fungus known for its pinkish red tentacles and pungent odor. It is indigenous to Australia but has spread to North America. Its Latin name is Clathrus Archeri, also known as Octopus Stinkhorn. Most people call it The Devil’s Fingers . . .
I DON’T KNOW BUT IT’S GROWING ON YOUR NECK.
Deep in the woods of Washington, botanist Autumn Winters stumbles onto a field of the luridly colored fungi. Two of her fellow campers make the mistake of touching it. Now it’s growing on them. Fleshy gelatinous pods. Sprouting from their skin. Feeding on their blood . . .
AND IT’S STILL GROWING.
Autumn watches in horror as her friends are transformed into monstrosities—grotesque, human-fungal hybrids as contagious and deadly as any virus. Autumn knows she must destroy these mutations before they return to civilization. But if there’s one thing that spreads faster than fear, it’s The Devil’s Fingers . . .
Raves for The Montauk Monster
“A lot of splattery fun.” —Publishers Weekly
“Frightening, gripping.”—Night Owl Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Carrie's screams rocketed Autumn's heart into her throat. A crow big enough to carry a cat in its talons leaped from its perch above their heads, screeching across the blue sky.
"Carrie!" she shouted.
Her friend had forged ahead to take pictures, her passion du jour of nature photography separating her from the group. Autumn Winters had wondered where she'd gone. Now, she just hoped she wasn't in a ditch or hanging off a cliff.
Like that time in Mexico, she thought, the heavy pack on her back thumping the base of her spine with each footfall.
"Over here," Carrie called back, her voice coming from a copse of spruce trees to their left.
Latrell sped ahead of Autumn, letting his backpack slip from his shoulders so it wouldn't hold him back. Carrie's longtime boyfriend, Dan Waverly, was right behind him. Autumn's much shorter legs couldn't keep up with the former college athletes.
She followed their path, branches and weeds swaying from their passing. Veering from the official trail worried Autumn, but nowhere near as much as Carrie's peal of terror. The gradual uphill climb had seemed so easy, the late spring air just cool enough to make it one of the more pleasant hikes she'd been on. It was amazing how arduous and stifling things got the second they had to sprint like madmen, thorny weeds scratching their legs.
The toe of her hiking boot caught on the underside of an immovable stone. Arms flailing, she twisted her body so she wouldn't fall on her face.
"Got ya!" Brandon barked as he grabbed hold of her backpack. He held on until she steadied herself. He coughed up half a lung while she caught her breath.
There was no time to thank him. Carrie had grown frighteningly silent and there hadn't been a peep out of Latrell or Dan.
"Come on," she said.
"I'll catch up," Brandon wheezed.
There were heavy footsteps behind him. He'd be okay.
Autumn weaved her way around the closely packed trees, careful not to clip her shoulders on the sturdy trunks.
"Where are you?" she shouted.
"Over here," Latrell answered.
Honing in on her fiancé's voice, she stumbled out of the tree line and into Dan's wide back. She caught an unwelcome whiff of sweat, her face smooshed into his moist shirt.
Regaining her balance — not that she had any to begin with — she stepped back, noticing that Carrie, Dan, and Latrell were standing alongside one another, hands on their hips, staring at something she couldn't see thanks to being dwarfed by Dan's massive shadow.
Latrell took her by the hand. "Look at this."
Carrie sounded close to tears.
"Are ... are they alive?"
Autumn looked across the meadow and fought a sudden wave of dizziness.
As far as she could see, the ground was littered with shattered white pods. Sprouting from each pod were thick, pink tentacles. It was like looking at a sea of squid, the underside of each tentacle dotted with wet olive and black spots. Interspersed within them were deathly pale limbs, four or more to a pod, looking too much like severed baby arms for Autumn's taste.
Autumn hated calamari.
She took a step toward the edge of the meadow. Latrell held her back.
"Don't go near them."
"Whatever the fuck they are," Dan said, putting a protective arm around Carrie.
Crashing in the brush announced the arrival of Brandon, Tina, and Seth.
"That is wild AF. And I haven't even smoked yet," Brandon said, peering at the field as if his eyes were deceiving him.
Autumn let go of Latrell's hand, crouching close to the nearest cluster of skyward-reaching tentacles. It was hard to believe that Autumn, the girl they all called Mighty Mite because her genetics refused to allow her to pass the five-foot mark, was out macho-ing her alpha male of a fiancé. Then again, this was kind of her specialty.
Or it would be in a couple more years.
"Jesus, don't touch it!" Tina yelped.
Autumn turned to her friends, all of them looking as if they were standing on the precipice of untold horrors. Latrell's smooth, shaved head ran with rivulets of perspiration. Seth's hand went to the machete secured at his hip.
"It's all right," Autumn said.
"That does not look all right," Carrie said, her hand on Dan's chest.
A breeze whispered over the meadow, animating the tentacles as they swayed back and forth. Tina yipped. Brandon pedaled backwards, falling on his ass.
The only thing worse than fried calamari was living calamari. Blinking hard, Autumn willed her mind to just shut up and deal with what was in front of her.
You're not at Nicky's Fish Box or lost at sea, dummy.
Autumn reached into her pocket for the little baggie of nuts she'd packed for quick snacking. Dumping the nuts on the ground, she inverted the bag over her hand.
She reached down, fingers grazing the papery flesh of the tentacle. She plucked it free from the pod. It was almost as long as her forearm, yet weighed next to nothing.
"Don't bring that thing near me," Carrie said, cringing.
Latrell's eyes grew wide. The wind changed direction, blowing Autumn's long honey hair into her face.
Hands flew to mouths as everyone started choking, Tina making tiny retching sounds.
Uh-oh, Autumn thought. I should have known better.
The stench rolling off the meadow was impossible to ignore. It hijacked their lungs, nestled into the membranes of their noses, coated their tongues.
A fetid redolence encompassed the campers, the presence of death too much for Autumn to handle. Eyes watering, she dropped the tentacle, hands grasping her knees, stomach heaving.
"Oh my God," Carrie gasped between gouts of vomit splashing her and Dan's boots.
She was the first to pass out.
But not the last.CHAPTER 2
"I knew they weren't real," Seth Willard said, setting up the camp stove with little success.
"Uh, hello? They are real," Autumn Winters said, scanning through the pictures she'd taken on her phone. After they'd recovered from what was the equivalent of the stench of a charnel pit, she'd snapped at least a hundred pictures of the field, all while holding a triple-folded bandana over her mouth.
Unlike Carrie, Tina, Seth, and Dan, she'd managed to keep the contents of her stomach where they belonged. Score another one for Mighty Mite.
"You know what I mean," Seth said.
Brandon Majors chuckled. "I know that I saw you about to whip out that Rambo knife to defend yourself. Did you think that was Cthulhu's bastard children out there?"
"What the fuck is a Cthulhu?"
"Reading is fundamental, buddy. It's never too late to learn. If you want, I'll order some Dick and Jane books from Amazon and tutor you once a week."
Seth grinned. "And I'll teach you how to actually get laid."
"Look, I like Tina as a friend. I'm not all that comfortable with you offering her up as some kind of teaching tool." Brandon flinched when Tina Beechworth launched her boot at him.
"Don't be such a skeeve," she said.
"Hey, blame your boyfriend, not me," Brandon said, holding his hands up in surrender.
Tina turned on Seth. "And why aren't you defending me?"
Fiddling with the connector on the stove, Seth replied, "Because he's an idiot and not worth the effort."
Brandon let out an exaggerated exhale. "Whoo. I thought you were going to whip out the old bros before hos."
Tina's other boot hit him square in the chest. He rolled onto his side.
Autumn noticed Seth's grin before he dropped his head back down to figure out how the infernal stove worked. She knew that was exactly what Seth was thinking. He and Brandon had been best friends since they were in diapers. Tina may have been movie-star gorgeous and smart, but she was no match for their bromance, no matter how much it sounded like they hated one another.
Their banter could border on annoying, but after what happened back at the meadow, it was a welcome amusement.
Carrying a bundle of firewood, Latrell Creedmore stood over Autumn while she looked at her phone.
"What did you say those things are again?" He dumped the wood and plopped down next to her, his bulging muscles pressed against her arm. A small, internal shiver rippled through her. They'd been exclusive for three years and he still gave her goose bumps.
Autumn stopped at a close-up of one of the pods, seven tentacles drooping and revealing what looked like a ribbed throat at the epicenter. Everyone but Dan, who was off somewhere, gathered around her.
"I know it looks like some kind of sea creature, but it's actually just a fungus," she said, feeling like one of her botany teachers starting a lecture.
"Like 'shrooms," Brandon said.
"I dare you to pop one of those in your mouth," Seth said.
"Only if I needed to throw something up. That stuff works better than ipecac," Brandon said.
Autumn rolled her eyes, continuing. "Technically, it's called Clathrus archeri. They're originally from Down Under, but have been making their way across Europe and now America in recent years. Personally, I prefer their nickname, the Devil's Fingers."
The day Professor Caldwell had introduced the class to Clathrus archeri, showing time-lapse videos of the fungus sprouting from its pod, there had been several sharp yelps, a chorus of gasps, and a lot of nervous laughter. Seeing the Devil's Fingers blossom was like watching a horror movie. It was hard, even for the botany students, to conceive of it as a fungus and not some kind of warped creature from the deep ... or outer space.
Carrie shivered, holding her arms across her chest, cradling her heavy breasts. "Now that name fits."
"It's also called octopus fungus and octopus stinkhorn, but neither has a poetic ring. A little too on the nose for my taste." Autumn giggled, clicking to the next picture that showed about a dozen of the fungi.
"Calling those things stinkhorns is way too misleading," Seth said. "I mean, stink is a potato chip fart. That was like ... I don't know, death."
Nodding, Autumn said, "I don't disagree. I'd smelled one before, but never that many all at once. When they're fully mature, they give off the odor of rotting, spoiled meat. Unfortunately for us, that entire meadow seemed to mature at the same time, which is a little unusual. If we came across it yesterday, we would have probably just seen what looked like the world's biggest Easter-egg hunt. Those pods they break out of look just like little eggs. Best of all, they don't have any odor."
"Well, lucky us," Tina said. "I hadn't fainted since I went on that broth and lemon-juice diet before the prom."
Seth brushed a lock of her red hair from her forehead. "It's just a little knot. It'll go down quickly. Good thing the cooler has ice."
"I'm never getting the smell of puke out of my boots," Carrie said.
"Or Dan's," Brandon added.
"That was definitely one for the textbooks," Autumn said, unable to contain her smile while everyone else looked miserable recounting their brush with the Devil's Fingers. "My professor is going to shit himself when he sees this."
After working three years toward a marketing degree in college, Autumn had done an about-face, going back to ground zero to pursue her true passion of botany. Because of that, all of her friends had graduated two years ago and she was still running for class and pulling all-nighters. Her parents weren't thrilled, but she had given up caring what anyone else thought. They'd also been disappointed with her initial choice of marketing. Being doctors — her mother a geneticist and her father an infectious-disease specialist — they'd assumed she'd follow in their footsteps. Her father had not- so-discreetly been nudging her toward oncology since she was nine. Autumn had the brain for it, but not the desire. Besides, cancer and disease and death depressed the hell out of her. She couldn't imagine telling someone they had five months to live, or having someone die while she operated on them. Not to mention the mere thought of even looking at a cadaver in med school. No way.
She only had one life and she didn't want to spend it on call twenty-four hours a day. And she certainly didn't want to wither away in some corporate marketing department.
"I think Seth shit himself back there," Brandon said.
"You wanna check?"
Seth grabbed Brandon by the back of his head, pressing his face into the seat of his jeans. Brandon punched his legs, struggling to get away.
"Boys," Carrie said.
"Who are old enough to be men," Tina added, looking at them with thinly veiled disgust.
Latrell kissed the top of Carrie's head. "Well, I'm going to tell everyone we faced the Devil's Fingers and leave it at that. It's better than saying a fungus field kicked our asses."
"That would kick anyone's ass," Autumn said. "As far as I know, there's never been that many amassed in one location in the United States. I'm not even sure if there have been recorded instances of them at all in the state of Washington. I'll have to check when I get back to the hotel. They also don't typically grow out in the open like that. You usually find them clustered under trees like regular mushrooms."
"Even as a vegan, there's no way I'd ever eat those," Carrie said.
Latrell inspected the camp stove, most of the parts lying about. "If we can't get this together, we may be eating energy bars. Good thing I got us some wood."
"Campfires are really frowned upon out here," Seth said, getting back to work. "And it's been especially dry this season."
They were gathered in a flat clearing by Merritt Lake. Evidence of numerous campers could be found in the marred soil. "Dude, look around," Latrell said, arms sweeping across the vista. A boulder-strewn cliff was opposite them, the dull rush of a waterfall behind a bend in the lake. "We're the only people here. I promise we won't get in trouble."
Seth shook his head. "It's not about getting in trouble. It's about respecting the land. This was my father's favorite place in the world. I'm not gonna be the one to burn it to the ground."
Everyone grew silent. Even Latrell, who loved to debate, clammed up.
They were all out here, after all, to help Seth scatter his father's ashes in Merritt Lake.
"Hey, man, I'm sorry," Latrell said.
Seth shrugged. "No worries, bro. I will get this together. It's just old and finicky."
Setting her phone aside, Autumn said, "Don't forget, after we cook a delicious meal on Seth's stove, save any empty plastic bags. I want to bring some Devil's Fingers back with me, especially the white ones. I can't tell you how rare they are."
"I remember when you used to not be weird," Carrie said, putting an arm around her and laughing. They had met in their core math class freshman year. Both had been about to pledge Kappa Ki sorority, though a night at the coffee shop debating the merits of pretending to be sisters with girls bent on humiliating them convinced them to start their own unofficial sorority — of two. While all the Kappa Ki cunts, as Carrie referred to them, acted like whores and fools to dig their hooks into every athlete that walked past their sorority house, Autumn and Carrie had landed two of the good ones without even trying.
Not that Autumn and Carrie had been angels.
Just not Kappa Ki cunts.
"And I remember when you used to enjoy meat," Autumn said.
"Who says I don't?" Carrie replied, pointing to Dan emerging from behind an evergreen tree.
He carried something in his hand, waving when he saw them.
"You won't believe what I found," he said.CHAPTER 3
"Did you steal this from some campers?" Carrie Danvers asked, holding a pair of woman's low-waisted jeans against her hips.
"Found 'em back there covered in pine needles," Dan said. He had laid out his other booty — two T-shirts, a black bra, baseball cap, panties, boxer briefs, socks, and khaki shorts.
"Looks like someone got scared out of their clothes and ran for the hills like in a cartoon," Brandon said. He picked up the ball cap. "The Mariners. At least we know they were locals."
Latrell grabbed the cap. "Not necessarily. I'm from Pennsylvania and I've been a Seahawks fan all my life."
"That's only because you knew the Steelers would never sign you, Creedmore," Dan joked. He and Latrell had been on the football team at the University of Maine. Both had suffered career-ending injuries in their senior year. Life after sports was very different than how they'd imagined it to be, but Dan was happy being a fitness coach and Latrell had just been promoted to manager at the sports-equipment store he'd spent so much of his time at from the other side of the counter.
"What can I say, I'm a nonconformist."
Brandon sniffed the bra. Tina slapped it out of his hand.
"Wait, I'm not some panty sniffer."
"No, you're just a bra bloodhound," Carrie said.
"That's not what I mean." He picked it back up, passing it to Tina. "What does that smell like to you?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Devil's Fingers"
Copyright © 2018 Hunter Shea.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.