Terrible Tilly Hunts the Cadborosaurus by Laurel Beckley
“You don’t want to stay for the crab festival?”
Tilly looked up from the scattering of newspaper clippings and photographs she’d pulled from her journal. Her breakfast lay untouched, eggs over easy congealing atop a slice of rye. “I already said no, and besides, you don’t eat crab.”
She selected the photograph of the Naden Harbor carcass from her pile, trying to cut off their conversation with her clear disinterest. She’d studied the damn thing from every possible angle, but the long, serpentine black body was as unfathomable as ever. She wished she could have seen it in person, but she’d had neither the funds nor anyone willing to cover her travel expenses to British Columbia.
Although a dead body of dubious origin wasn’t going to win the game.
There were rules. She needed a living monster. Actual, undeniable proof that the cadborosaurus existed. Tilly had a hunch she’d spot her quarry lurking around Newport Bay, masking his movements with the grey whale migration. Rumors and recent sightings indicated he was moving south, loosely paralleling her own path. He was such a tease.
Adam’s sigh stretched across the table, encompassing everything from annoyance to disappointment to exasperation. “We’re supposed to be compiling a travel guide of the coast, not chasing rumors of sea serpents.” He slurped his coffee in a clear attempt to distract her from her quixotic quest.
Tilly’s lips thinned. “It’s a perfectly respectable hobby.”
“More like obsession.” Adam set his mug down and bit his lip. “Tils, I admire your dedication, but the guys back in Salem are calling you—”
“I know what they’re calling me. I don’t care.” Tilly met his gaze firmly, ignoring the other occupants of the Abbey Hotel’s half-filled dining room. She and Adam had been working together for two years, and she didn’t need a lecture. “I do my job. I do it well. So what if I’m a little eccentric?”
“Eccentrics get lost in the middle of the Pacific or purchase gold telephones. They aren’t half-broke widows chasing rumors of monsters. You’ve been hunting Colossal Claude up and down the coast for years, Tils. Give it a rest.”
She frowned. He hadn’t batted an eye when she’d rowed all the way to Tillamook Light in search of her monster, hadn’t lectured her after her boat capsized and she’d swum the two miles back to shore. The others had teased, called her Terrible Tilly and the next Gertrude Ederle. Adam had merely said, “Next time,” and helped her dry off. He had his oddities, she had hers, and they worked well together.
So what the hell was making him so cranky? Adam shifted, folding up the Morning Oregonian, and Tilly saw the headline.
“When was the last time you heard from your family in Germany?” she asked, gently.
Adam glanced down, body tensing. Right under news of Joe DiMaggio’s continued holdout for a higher salary was an article on Hitler. “It’s been over a month.”
He paused, closing his eyes briefly. When he opened them, his body was still tense, but there was a forced joviality in his gaze. He opened his mouth to comment, possibly to redirect their conversation to something lighter—probably back to either her chase of sea serpents or his fascination with ghost stories, when a waiter approached their table.
He wasn’t their waiter—who was a sweet old lady who’d kept refilling Adam’s coffee as soon as it was half-empty—but someone she hadn’t previously seen in the dining room. Tilly stuffed her photos and notes into her journal, but the man spotted the Naden Harbor picture as she slid it between the worn pages. He held a pot of coffee, but made no move to refill either of their mugs.
“I heard you were with the writers’ program.” His dark brown eyes met hers, and his lips quirked into a smile.
Tilly’s hackles rose.
“We are.” Adam leaned forward, pushing his glasses up his nose and smiling to draw attention from Tilly. “I’m Adam Schroeder, and this is my partner, Mrs. O’Shea. We’re covering the coast beat for a travel guide. I write and she dresses it up with pictures.”
“Mrs. O’Shea, is it? Irish?” The waiter glanced back to Tilly’s journal.
Her hands clenched reflexively, and she nodded, sharply, refusing to be daunted or cowed by a man certain to ask where her husband was. She looked away when Adam kicked her in the shin, reminding her even widows had to be polite.
“What kind of travel guide?” His gaze continued to rest squarely on her, which she supposed should be mildly flattering, if she preferred the company of men. He was a conventionally attractive man—tall, broad-shouldered, young, with sun-kissed skin and sandy hair—save for those dark, fathomless eyes pinning her in place.
“We’re exploring local resources and places of interest for those who want to travel around our great state,” Adam replied. “Architecture, parks, places of natural beauty, bits of local history.”
“Local history, did you say?” There was something about him that put her on edge. Something that was so familiar… but that was impossible. It was April.
Adam fidgeted with second-hand discomfort. “Yes, to some extent. We explored Jump Off Joe yesterday, and the Devil’s Punchbowl and a couple other areas the day before that. Looked into local Indian legends.”
The man’s attention jerked to Adam. The movement split him into two—the interested young waiter superimposed over a dark-haired man of indeterminate age. The two images merged, the second man sinking into the first so rapidly Tilly blinked, second-guessing what she’d seen.
“Have you heard of the haunted lighthouse?” the waiter asked.
“Haunted?” Adam asked eagerly, displaying no evidence that anything unusual had just happened. “The keeper didn’t mention anything when we visited yesterday.”
“Not the Yaquina Head Light. The abandoned one over the bay.” The man smiled, flashing perfectly straight white teeth. He dipped his head to Tilly. “Check it out, but only in daylight.”
Adam turned to her, eyes alit as the waiter walked away. “Haunted lighthouse, Tils.”
Tilly rubbed her temple to stave off a headache. “I think that man took you for a mark.”
The waiter continued to the kitchen without stopping to serve any other guests. Tilly shook her head. For a moment, she’d thought—no. It had been a trick of the eye. He only assumed human form in the darkest month, when cold bodies huddled together for warmth and told stories to brighten the bleak nights.
“If we go to the lighthouse, I won’t make us stay for the crab festival.”
“Fine.” She’d wanted to spend her day scanning the ocean for her prey under the guise of whale-watching, but the thought of so many people crammed together for a festival made her skin crawl. Plus, she wasn’t going to let her partner go adventuring alone. He was only human, with no defenses against the supernatural.
She stood, letting Adam pay for their meal and trying not to feel guilty about her uneaten breakfast. Trying harder, still, to shake off the feeling of unease. She was growing desperate, seeing her trickster in ordinary men.
There were rules to the game, dammit.
And she had spent decades following them.
Tilly followed Adam up the hill, playing with her camera strap.
It was a brilliantly clear day, devoid of fog or rain or other bits of nasty weather that dogged the coast. Wind-stunted trees and rhododendrons clustered against the narrow gravel path leading to the bay light, filling the air with sweet and spicy cloves, overlaying the smell of salt and rotting fish. A perfect day for whale—or cadborosaurus—watching. She kicked a rock, watching as it skittered back down the trail.
“I asked the concierge, and they told me all about the ghost.” Adam paused, bouncing on his toes in an attempt to catch an early glimpse of the lighthouse through the overgrown trail. He spun, and some of Tilly’s annoyance faded at the sight of his enthusiasm. “Back in the 1890s, a schooner arrived in Newport Bay. Its captain left behind his teenage daughter, who’d been seasick and refused to continue further to California. Anyhow, the captain left her at the Abbey Hotel with the plan to return in a fortnight.”
Tilly made an encouraging noise as she edged uneasily around a huckleberry bush growing in the middle of the path.
Adam tromped right past, the plant smearing its unlucky blooms over his sleeve and stomach. “Newport was a resort town, even back then. When some young beachgoers arrived, the girl joined up with them, and they all decided to explore the bay light.”
The building appeared. The light tower was built directly into the two-story keeper’s residence, an unusual feature. Two chimneys flanked the light on either side, soot-darkened and grim. The lower windows were boarded, and several upper-story windows were missing their shutters. Tilly lifted her camera to her eye, catching the way nature’s beauty highlighted the dilapidated structure and its chipped whitewashing.
“It was erected in 1871, but decommissioned in 1874 when the Head Light was established. It sat abandoned until the early 1900s, when the Life-Saving Service made it their home base until 1933 when they built their new station,” Adam said. The front door was sealed with wood planks, so they moved around the building. “It’s been empty for the past five years, so I imagine it looks much the same now as it did then.”
One window on the second story was shattered, either by high winds or a miscreant throwing a rock or other projectile. A curtain fluttered behind that window as they walked beneath it, searching for another way inside.
“What happened when they got to the light?” Tilly asked, eyeing the curtain. It was probably just the wind.
“They went inside to explore, of course.” Adam chuckled, noting the irony. “Legend has it they found a hidden iron door behind some wainscoting. The door revealed a hole leading straight through the cliffs to the water below.”
Trees opened before the building, giving way to a stretch of sand and then the great, crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Tilly took a picture of the beach, capturing the drop of the bluff and the sea stacks jutting obstinately out of the blue water. The sight sent a dual sense of longing and loss coursing through her. She shook it off, refocusing. “Right into the water, huh?”
Adam shrugged. “Ocean shifting, perhaps?” He pointed to a shattered window on the first story. Broken boards lay in a haphazard pile nearby. “Think anyone’s in there?”
Tilly wouldn’t have been surprised if there were squatters living in the building, not in this economy. She marched forward. The house was built on an elevated foundation, and the window ledge reached her shoulders. She stood on tip-toe, peering inside the dark building.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed, returning as a low moaning ooooh.
Adam jumped and clutched her arm. “Really?”
Tilly glanced down at his hand, and he let go, flushing. He knew how she hated to be touched, skin-to-skin, but not why. “Shall we?”
She knelt, not waiting for his answer. His flush deepened as he put his foot into her hands. He’d protested the first time they’d done this, until she reminded him she’d been a swimming champion—a lie, all her past was lies—and he was just a scrawny man from the Bronx. She lifted, and he gripped the ledge, pulling himself in and over and landing with a pained thump.
“I landed on glass.” Sounds of scraping. “I’m clearing it for you.”
“Swell. Here, take this.” Tilly passed off her camera before hauling herself inside, thankful she’d worn pants.
She retrieved her camera and took a few pictures for Adam. This must have been the parlor, judging by the faded chintz wallpaper and moldy, sagging sofas. A wooden rocking chair sat in the corner beside the chimney, its woven bottom unraveled and empty. Debris littered the ground, evidence of squatters and mischievous youths. Tilly nudged a glass bottle out of the way, its label revolving as it rolled into a corner.
“What happened when they found the door?” she asked. The sooner they got through this, the sooner she could spend her day whale-watching.
“They left it open and kept exploring. The group headed back to catch dinner in town when the fog rolled in. The captain’s daughter had found her a butter-and-egg man, and they hung back to… ah, well.” Adam coughed and rapped his knuckles against the walls as they wandered down the hallway. “As they left the house, she told him she forgot her handkerchief.”
They peered through the kitchen doorway. Porcelain shards littered the floor. The cabinet holding the sink had collapsed, taking its tin tub to the ground with it.
“She insisted on going back alone, and told him not to wait—she’d just run inside, grab her handkerchief, and rejoin the group. He’d reached the base of the hill when he heard three screams.”
“Let me guess. They came from the house.”
“You said it.” Adam paused at the base of the stairs, tugging on the railing spoke to see if it would give. It stayed in place. At Tilly’s amused snort, he went first, the risers creaking under his weight. “Anyhow, he met the group. She wasn’t there, so they went to find her. All they found was the handkerchief—bloodied, of course—in the kitchen, a trail of blood going up the stairs, and a pool of blood in the second bedroom. No sign of the girl.”
“How did they know the blood was going up the stairs?” Tilly asked.
“That’s the part of this you’re questioning?”
They reached the landing, which opened up to three rooms and a water closet. Each room was empty, although one had a suspicious brown stain on the wood flooring. Tilly snapped a photo of it. “Fine. What about the mysterious door?”
“They couldn’t find it again.” Adam fingered the yellow-stained curtain, the one she’d seen flickering against the broken window. “The girl was never found. Even stranger, her father never came back. Townsfolk made inquiries down south, but no one had ever heard of him or his schooner.”
“Some say they hear her ghost wailing on foggy nights.”
“Of course it’s a ghost, not the wind blowing through holes in the bluffs.”
“You’re no fun, Tils.”
They headed back down the stairs. Adam examined each nook and cranny of the downstairs, tapping every wall, listening for the echo of a hidden passage. When he reached the parlor and found nothing, he slumped, disappointed. “You got some good pictures, at least?”
Tilly crawled out the window first and readied to catch him. “I did.”
“Well, at least I can say I investigated it.” The wind picked up, the coastal breeze working its wet and wily way through their clothing. Adam shivered. “Let’s go to the Natatorium. I’ve never been in an indoor heated sea-water pool before. In fact, I’m certain I’ve never spoken words in quite that order before.”
Tilly snorted but followed him down the path. Something scraped between her shoulder blades. She glanced back. A curtain wavered, as if hastily dropped by an unseen hand.
She shivered, not from the cold, and hurried to catch up to Adam. “You know, I think I’m going to go whale-watching instead.”
The fog rolled in that afternoon, so thick she could barely see past her fingers, scuttling her plans for a cadborosaurus sighting. While Adam soaked in the Natatorium, Tilly wandered the streets, taking in the faux-Victorian facades and admiring one building’s grand whale-mural, before retreating inside to the hotel to interview tourists arriving for the crab festival.
But there was only so much poetic waxing over six thousand pounds of free Dungeness crab she could handle. She extricated herself from a particularly noxious conversation about Hitler’s latest conquests and wandered to the kitchen on the pretense of interviewing staff. Her true intent was to search for the mysterious waiter, but no one had seen anyone of his description. Before she could press, Adam returned from his dip, refreshed and demanding dinner and her time, and she was unable to investigate, and the matter escaped her mind.
By two in the morning, she could resist the call of the ocean no longer.
Tilly slipped out of her room, easing out the window like a naughty child instead of a grown woman. She brushed the hem of her skirt down to her knees and slid barefoot along the high grass and dunes and rocks separating the hotel from the beach, thankful for the heavy fog hiding her from prying eyes.
Rock and grass turned to sand, sloping gently along the beach. Waves crashed in the distance, a steady roar calling to her with each step.
Tilly waded knee-deep into the white-laced water, mindful of her fragile human body and of the sneaker waves and roiling undertows the Oregon Coast was notorious for. Seafoam curled about her shins, gusting up to her waist, the frigid wet pressing her clothes tight to her skin. She closed her eyes, letting the waves rush around her as she wished—as always—for her pelt.
She imagined she heard the song of the kelp forests, the chittering of sea otters as they hunted for their shelled prey, the soft murmurings of fish and the low, joyful cries of grey whales traveling on their yearly migration, trailed by newborn calves and the hope of a belly-filled summer in the Alaskan waters. She wanted, with all her heart, to join them.
A wave smashed into her, knocking her backward, the water roiling over her, the strong rip-current threatening to drag her into the ocean. Tilly opened her mouth to scold the ocean, and swallowed a mouthful of saltwater before she remembered she was no longer a dobharchú stranded on foreign shores but a mortal woman enduring the consequences of her past.
She rolled over, legs kicking and arms pumping until she was safely on the beach, crawling on her hands and knees, sand scratching her tender human flesh as she coughed up salt and regret.
A figure moved through the fog.
Tilly sat up quickly, breath catching in her chest, worried she’d been spotted by a human, but the person walked away from her, ambling along the beach, dipping in and out of sight in the darkness as fog ebbed and flowed like the ocean.
She squinted. That broad back was familiar, as was the strange, superimposed double image of a second person. Either she’d been knocked on the head during her tumble in the water, or it was the overly inquisitive waiter from breakfast whom no one in the hotel remembered. Even if it wasn’t him, no one wandering the beach in the middle of the night was ever up to any good.
And if it was him… she followed, skirt tangling between her legs until she yanked the hem up to her thighs, holding the sandy mess with one hand. Her lips curled, baring her teeth as she stalked her prey.
Fog drifted faster, making it hard to see.
The man turned.
Gone was the young waiter. In his place stood her trickster. He lifted an arm, revealing the glimmer of furred silver bunched in his fist, and vanished.
Tilly stared, heart thumping in her chest in time to the crash of waves.
This was not part of their bargain. He was supposed to be trapped in his aquatic form, taunting her with his body instead of her stolen pelt. She forced her joints to unlock, and jogged forward, scanning the sand for footprints or tracks, any sign of him.
Tilly cursed, kicked the sand, waved her arms, anything to keep the trickle of fear down. Anything to prevent her from thinking of what it meant for him to take his human form now. She was so desperate to regain her pelt and her former life that she would have agreed to do anything, even this stupid game of chasing sea serpents up and down the coast for a stupid photo. The game could only be changed if she broke the rules, and she hadn’t.
Or was this another one of his—
A scream split the fog, reverberating across the beach.
Tilly jumped, searching for the source. It had been high and terrified and coming from above. The bluffs rose ahead, craggy and rough—she’d chased him nearly the entire length of the beach.
A second scream, and Tilly scrambled up the bluffs, finding a path in the darkness. She moved as fast as she dared, pretending she was what she’d once been, before a terrible man stole her pelt and traded it to a trickster. It had been her first lesson that men never accepted no for an answer—a lesson she’d learned over and over.
She kept going. She had no idea what she’d find—or even if she’d be enough to save whoever was in trouble. She was only one woman in soggy clothes. Her hands and feet grew raw from climbing and her inner thighs chafed and she wished with all her heart she was back in the black waters of Ireland with her sisters instead of here.
She reached the top at last, pushing through the huckleberry bushes lining the bluff and stumbling before the looming lighthouse and its gaping windows.
A third scream, from inside the keeper’s quarters.
Tilly climbed in through the broken parlor window, grabbing a discarded board for a makeshift weapon. The parlor was frigid, chilling her through her wet clothes. Glass scraped her bare feet as she crept through the darkened house toward the noise, board clutched in both hands and thrust before her.
A soft moan rose from the hall, low and steady like the rumble of far-off thunder, like someone barely conscious.
One of the hallway doors was open—she didn’t remember seeing any door in the hallway before, not even a closet. The noise came from the door, and she jumped in front of it, board raised.
The closet was empty, but the moaning continued, echoing down and down. Tilly leaned forward, staring into what looked like a hole dropping straight to hell. A gust of icy air blasted up, ruffling her hem and filling her nose with the stench of salt and fish. The moaning transformed into the crash of the ocean, now impossibly below her.
Footsteps banged down the stairs, slow and deliberate.
Tilly pivoted, stomach plummeting as she realized what she had done.
He’d tricked her into a colossal error, and now she was in a cursed house with a magic door on a fog-covered night. She wanted to scream, wanted to cry out, lash at him for breaking their bargain—for changing shape and twisting the rules to suit his whims. For playing this stupid game across so many years.
Another step, the risers creaking with the weight.
She had to get out.
Tilly raced for the front door, remembered it was boarded up, and turned for the parlor and its open window. The footsteps grew closer, hoarse breathing echoing through the darkened hallway. The stairs intersected her path, and she knew—she knew with a fae instinct—that if she met whoever came for her, she would not leave this house.
A silvery form emerged from the stairwell, muslin skirts rustling, a pale hand sliding down the railing, fingernails long and sharp and black.
Adam’s hoped-for ghost, seeking living flesh to possess.
Oh, her trickster had a foul sense of humor.
There was only one way out. Tilly dropped the board, braced herself against the closet door to gather her courage, and jumped into the darkness.
Adam peered over the latest copy of the Lincoln County Reader, eyebrows bunching in concern. “You don’t look like you slept a wink last night.”
“Bad dreams.” Tilly raised her hand to cover a yawn, wincing as pulled muscles strained. The long drop had sent her straight to the ocean. She’d made it back to the hotel, dripping wet and feeling eyes on her at every step.
She arranged the utensils on her plate to four o’clock, her breakfast of runny eggs and toast settling unhappily in her stomach. “I’d like to take some photos of the bridge while we still have a nice morning light.”
“No whale watching?”
“Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll spot something.”
“All right.” Adam eyed her journal, firmly closed and beneath her hand, but didn’t question further. He never probed. That was why their partnership worked.
They settled the bill at the hotel and drove in silence to the Yaquina Bay Bridge. Tilly directed Adam to park off the road where the lighting was decent and gingerly eased herself out of the car, limping down the embankment to capture the great arch in its entirety.
As she lowered the camera, satisfied with her last shot, she spotted a ripple in the bay, cruising idly along around the crumbling wooden pilings. She raised the camera, holding it close to her eye and zooming in, enough to catch the arched spine of a serpentine body.
A horse-like head poked out of the water, supported by a long, sinewy neck just barely breaking the surface of the bay. Two spiraling horns topped the head, which turned to look at her.
So they were back to the usual rules, then, and he was making it easy on her.
Was this some form of apology for last night? After all this time, was he finally feeling remorse? She took a picture, relishing in the satisfying click. It would be blurry, but she got him. “Game over, you bastard.”
She headed back up the embankment, giddy with joy. After all this time, she’d won. “Adam, do you see that? I caught it! I finally caught it!”
Adam turned from the ocean to face the bay, catching the massive body as it swam gracefully under the bridge. “Wow. I can’t believe we just saw a whale in the bay.”
“That’s not a whale, it’s a cadborosaurus,” Tilly crowed, limping across the road to reach the other side of the bridge. First stop the papers, next stop, her pelt and home.
Adam followed her, looking dubious.
The creature emerged, an elongated grey shape nothing like her quarry.
“It’s just a whale, Tils,” Adam said, voice soft.
The whale rolled onto its side, waving a flipper toward them before rolling again and sinking into the deeper waters just outside the bay. Damn him. He’d done it again. When she developed the photos, she’d probably have a lovely shot of a whale in the bay. Tilly’s shoulders slumped. “Just a whale.”
Adam smiled, eyes filled with empathy. “We can add it to the travel guide. Visit historic Newport—a place ripe for whale watching, filled with fabulous views of the coastline and ocean, and complete with its very own haunted lighthouse.”
Tilly forced a chuckle, and closed her eyes, letting the salt air soothe her frustration with its promise of reunification and home.
“Let’s get on our way,” Adam said, enthusiasm replacing his empathy. “I want to overnight at Reedsport, but there are a couple of kitchen middens near Yachats I’d like pictures of first, along with the Heceta Head Lighthouse and something called the Devil’s Churn. And I think there are sea lion caves, too. Can you imagine that going into the book?”
Tilly nodded absently, and got into the car.
Her trickster could twist the rules all he liked, adapting and changing the game to suit this new world of photography and cars and technology and his latest whim, but she had all the time in the world. She would continue to chase him, across the decades and around the globe, for however long it took, shedding identities like she’d once shed her pelt.
Tilly tucked her camera against her stomach and watched the rugged coastline as they sped along the narrow highway, imagining she was halfway across the world, swimming through the waves and rocks with her sisters, wrapped in fur and magic.
She blinked, coming back to her current self, a stout Irish-American widow with a fascination for sea serpents and a penchant for photography.
Well, on to the next town, and her next chance.
She was going to win this game.
Laurel Beckley is a writer, Marine Corps veteran, and librarian. Her debut novel, THAT DISTANT DREAM, is available through Amazon and NineStar Press. She can be found on Twitter or on her blog, The Suspected Bibliophile.