By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm’d, he came in vain”
–Blake, “The Angel”
When she looked at Linus, she couldn’t help thinking of Humpty Dumpty.
Agent Laura sat by the bed, her hand resting on his upper arm. His face was swaddled in bandages, particularly over his eyes and on his cheeks, which had been sliced open to give him a monstrous grin. His jaw was wired shut until his tongue and cheeks healed. His wrists were heavily bandaged, too, his hands immobilized. Several tubes disappeared under a blanket over his abdomen: good stuff in, bad stuff out.
She talked to him. She knew he was awake, for he reacted sometimes to her words with a twitch. The damage to the tendons and nerves in his wrists prevented him from writing notes to her, but they could have come up with a code of some sort. He didn’t respond to her attempts, which didn’t surprise her. She didn’t know if he was really listening. She wouldn’t blame him if her was trying to tune her out entirely, and surely the painkillers kept him detached from the world. Still, she told him what she’d learned on her side-trip to Hawaii and how it fit in with their present investigation, and what pieces were still missing.
After twenty minutes, the nurse asked her to leave the room. Special Agent Smalls had recently been through emergency surgery to reattach his tongue and save as much of his digestive tract as possible, and needed several more operations in coming days. He needed rest, not work. Maria knew otherwise, but she didn’t argue. She kissed “Alan” goodbye, told him to be strong, and left.
“OK, you’ve told the local cops the story. Now tell me the rest of it. Let’s try to put it all together and see if anything jumps out.”
They sat in Ahmed’s living room, among worn chairs and sofas rescued from garage sales and relative’s houses. The lighting was poor, the walls paneled in dark wood. Looming over them were bizarre stuffed animal heads garlanded with cheap Christmas decorations, months out of date, unplugged red-and-green jalapeno lights and psychotic Santas drooping in hibernation until needed. The small split-level house was quite old, and had inset knick-knack shelves on every wall, the shelves crowded with obtuse collections of tin ray-guns, rubber insects, plastic dinosaurs, all arranged around a “lucky-saint” candle for each niche. The house owner was a horror B-movie set designer; Ahmed rented a spare bedroom. His eccentric landlord let him use the living room and kitchen at will, however, and was often away on jobs.
Ahmed sighed, and Derek shifted to get more comfortable. Maria leaned forward to listen. Ruth, sunk deep into a chair with bad springs, frowned and focused on pleasing the regal, jet-black cat which had deigned to sit on her lap. They were all drained, exhausted. Morning was not far away, but no one suggested going to bed.
“Right,” Ahmed breathed. “Well, I met you and Alan four days ago, the morning after the break-in at the library. The two of you questioned me because I was the first on the scene–I found Vince, the victim. I was late for my shift; Vince was covering for me because I was on a date. Vince owed me one, and he was paying me back. So he died instead of me.” He paused, a muscle in his jaw working back and forth. “UT’s had budget cutbacks lately, so we only have one guard at the PCL at a time now, during the early morning shift. One guard, and one librarian,” he nodded at Ruth, who glanced at him, “and maybe some cleaning staff. But there were no cleaners in the place at the time of the attack. No students either, although they can be buzzed in by the guard from midnight to seven a.m. It’s summer vacation: not many students. At half past two, it was just Vince and Ruth.”
“According to the video and computer records, the power went out at exactly 2:33,” Maria said, checking a folder. “The power failure, which only affected the library building itself, lasted fourteen minutes. Even systems with a backup power supply–alarms, the server in the basement–none of their power came on during that time. So when the doors were smashed in, no alarm went out.”
Ruth stirred and said quietly, “My watch stopped.”
“I didn’t notice until later, but my watch stopped working during that time, too. It was slow by about fourteen minutes after the…power failure.” She took it off and handed it to Maria. It was a battery-powered quartz watch, with an analog face. “And the emergency exit signs–they have their own battery power, but they were out, too. It was pitch dark in there.”
“What else did you notice? I know Alan and I already interviewed you before, but maybe you’ve remembered something more since then.”
Ruth scratched behind the cat’s ears, looking down, brownish-red hair framing her freckled face, eyes hidden behind large lenses. “Well, I was up on the second floor, putting away books. I’d just said hi to Vince–he’d just passed me, doing a patrol of the building. I guess he went downstairs, and then the lights shut down. It was really weird, because the fans and monitors and fluorescent lights all make a kind of background noise that you usually never notice. Suddenly they all powered down and it was so quiet. And then the glass shattered–it was the front doors getting smashed in, but I didn’t know that then. It sounded huge, like an explosion, in that stillness, you know? And Vince yelled, no words, just yelling, and I heard him fire three shots really fast. I just flinched at each one; I was frozen. And Vince yelled again, and then he screamed….” She put her hand to her mouth. “He screamed a long time, like, half a minute. I never thought a man could scream like that. And I could hear b-bones crack–” She stood up suddenly, spilling the cat to the floor, and running to the bathroom. Maria tried to reach out to her as she went past, but when she heard the retching sounds, she was glad she hadn’t stopped her. She glanced at Derek, who nodded and got up to go help Ruth. The cat stared after them, then walked off, indignant. Maria turned to Ahmed, who was looking strained.
“The video shows you arrived at 2:58. Tell me again what you found.”
“Glass everywhere. Some blood, but less than I would have imagined. Vince was…torn to pieces. Literally. His body cavity was opened up, the organs spread out. Around him were marks on the floor, in blood. At the time I didn’t think so–or I didn’t let myself think so–but now I think they were footprints. But they were shaped kind of like a bird’s foot. Like a parrot: two toes forward, two back. Well, you’ve seen the police photos.”
“Tell me anyway. The photos might have missed something.”
“Right. Uh, there were these pools and drops of mushy yellow stuff, kind of like, I don’t know, custard.”
Maria’s interest sharpened. “You didn’t mention that before. And it wasn’t in the report.”
“Sorry. My mind was…I was kind of stunned when you talked to me. I told Alan later, but you’d already left by then. Anyway, the stuff was almost like a foam–I mean, it shrank pretty quickly. I think maybe it just turned to dust, but I didn’t see. I was calling the police and trying to find Ruth. Maybe nobody saw it but me.”
Memories surfacing: a feast, a dry rattling, yellow excrescence falling.
“Agent Verde,” he said. “What is it? You know, don’t you?”
She shuddered, and shook her head. “No. Maybe. Anyway, so you found Ruth in the store room, right?”
“Dolores. What is going on? I mean, we were helping Agent Smalls, and we weren’t just answering his questions–we were spying on people, staking out their offices, hell, I distracted that Collins guy while Alan broke into his office! We’ve broken the law for you. Now Alan’s been…fucking ritually tortured and maimed and I want to know what we’re doing!”
She held his defiant gaze. “What did Alan tell you?”
“He just said you were FBI, investigating similar murders and book thefts in other states over the past few years. When I pointed out that Vince’s murderer had yanked the steel door off the Special Collections room, he did admit that there were some odd things about the suspect. Unnatural things. But he didn’t tell me more than that.”
She nodded. “Good. Listen, I can’t tell you much more just now. But I’ll tell you this. You’re right: the thing that killed Vince probably was just that–a thing. Inhuman.”
Ahmed laughed in shock, then dropped his head. “I knew it. Just, hearing it from you…what is this, an X-Files episode?”
There was a noise outside. A chitinous rattling, and dry-paper flapping out of the bushes. Maria’s veins ran with ice and she was almost surprised to feel the weight of her “opera” gun–unregistered, untraceable, to be discarded after use–in her hand. She was crouching on the floor. She reached up to turn off the lamp, just before the power went out.
Ahmed was beside her, a blunt, heavy revolver in hand. Maria whispered to him, “Don’t shoot Derek and Ruth.” Soon Derek and Ruth crept back from the bathroom; Ruth’s tremulous breathing sounded like she was on the edge of a panic attack. This was a repeat of the library for her.
Ahmed whispered hoarsely, “Derek, you packin’?”
“No, man. I started taking my shotgun around when things got weird, but it’s out in the damn car.”
“I-I-I’ve got some p-pepper spray.”
“Better than nothing,” Maria whispered. “Just don’t spray us, girl.”
There was a thump and a heavy scrabble on the roof. Some loose shingles fell off the side and landed next the house.
Everyone became very still. They could here it creeping up there, not really trying to be quiet. Confident, predatory, its nails or claws scraping as it sought a way in.
Something else. They could feel, deep inside their heads, an itch–an annoying, maddening itch where none could be, buried in the primitive part of the brain. Like an insect’s whine translated from sound to touch. A mosquito bite of the mind.
A window shattered.
“Shit, it’s coming in!”
“Come on, get to the cars–“
“Derek’s car, we all go in Derek’s car!”
They rushed out, single file. Halfway to the car, a huge shape fell from the sky and crashed down to their right. They flinched away, and all looked. It was a desk. Just as that registered in Maria’s mind, another shape swooped onto Ahmed.
Derek didn’t even see it–he was in front, running to the car, keys in hand. It happened right in front of Ruth; she flailed away from it and fell down, her mouth shaped to scream, but with no sound coming out. Maria, bringing up the rear, clearly saw the thing slash Ahmed’s back and dig its claws in.
Torso of a corpse, bones or plates showing through mummified skin. Four limbs, all identical, hands/feet with four mutually opposable fingers, long and tipped with fillet-knife claws. A wasp-like thorax, spiny hairs erect, glowing blue, humming in their brains. Broken, torn wings, impossibly working to keep it aloft.
As it lifted, Ahmed frozen in shock, an expression of disbelief and confusion on his face, the thing turned to look at her. It didn’t exactly have a face–a maw full of pencil-like teeth, several clusters of blackberry-like blobs that might be eyes, scattered at random above and below the jaws. Twin antennae curving back over the head.
She instinctively aimed for the face. She was using the original 10mm loads, and they kicked like magnums, but she shot straight and put four rounds into its head and torso. She clearly saw teeth and skull shatter. A shot to the shoulder made it drop Ahmed, and then it was away, over the next house and behind cover before she could shoot it again. They heard it crash to the ground there, but it was flapping away again a moment later, whistling in distress.
It was gone.