From The Depths
by Phil Geusz
Our city's fight against the flood reminded me of pictures in old books of trench warfare during the First World War. For that matter, so did the odor. The wall of sandbags seemed endless, and the whole area smelled like rot and raw sewage. It wasn't an overpowering scent, but a continuous part of the background nonetheless. The ground squished a bit under my splayed feet as I picked a way through the maze of dump trucks full of sand, pallets of empty bags, lumber for hastily improvised braces, and acres of plastic sheeting. A big Diesel pump stood in our path, roaring away like there was no tomorrow, and the sound was like daggers in my ears as I squeezed by it. It was at times like this that I really missed my hands. Who could have known I would need earplugs?
A little way past the pump stood a huge stack of sandbags on top of what I knew must be a sewer lid. Water was oozing out in a pretty steady stream, and even as I watched the pile shifted and a couple sandbags from the top fell off. Immediately an engineer-type ran over and replaced them, but the look on his face said it all.
"Gonna have to pull back?" I asked, my voice raised over the still-significant racket of the pump.
Wearily, he noted my badge and nodded. "Looks like it. That wall of bags is nine feet high now. They start caving at about eight feet anyway, you know. But it's the sewers that are going to do us in."
I nodded, the motion exaggerated as always by my long flexible neck. "Geez. I'm glad I'm not the one that has to tell these folks that."
All around us, the makeshift levee was crawling with humanity. In hundred-degree heat, they still had so many volunteers coming to help that folks had to be turned away. People of all sexes, all races, SCABs and norms alike, carried sandbags and wielded shovels in an effort that would have made ants look lazy. It was incredible what Herculean efforts a flood could put into motion. Even more incredibly, I knew, the efforts sometimes continued for weeks. In the Great Flood of '93 in St. Louis, the weary sandbagging had literally gone on for months. Hopefully, that wouldn't be the case here, though rain was still forecast. Some of the weary folks around me were determinedly trying to save their homes, I knew. But most were perfect strangers to each other, slaving away in the steamy July heat. People really are wonderful, at times.
And it had all been for naught. In a couple hours at most, this line would become too dangerous to maintain. Another few square blocks would be surrendered to the river, and the work would begin anew.
From nothing. All the hundreds of thousands man-hours invested here would be utterly lost, and kilotons of material replaced. Just the thought of having to build this wall all over again made me weary.
The engineer sighed wearily. "Guess what? I'm the lucky guy. Want to trade jobs?"
"Think that one over carefully, friend. I'm with Homicide."
The weary man winced. "Yeah. Maybe I'll stick with what I got at that. I've seen the body. It's down that way." He gestured vaguely down the endless wall of sandbags. "I called it in myself, after one of the sandbaggers spotted it while we were adding a new tier. There's a few officers clustered around- you shouldn't have any trouble finding it."
"Thanks!" I replied, and walked on by. I only went a few steps, though, before things came unstuck. Just twenty feet ahead of me, sandbags began to shift.
Even before I could speak, the engineer was on it, all signs of fatigue gone. "Damnit! This is.... Damnit, Damnit, Damnit!"
It was clearly hopeless. The shifting had torn the plastic, and a trickle of brown water began to flow.
"Detective, you've got about two hours before this whole area is under water. God himself couldn't hold this line now!"
Out of nowhere, volunteers appeared with more plastic, more sandbags, more lumber. But even as I watched with my beak gaping open, the trickle became a torrent. Water under nine feet of pressure could be TERRIBLY erosive, I knew, but the demonstration of this previously purely academic knowledge here and now was simply appalling.
"Come on, Dan!" I shouted at my partner. "Let's salvage what we can!" And with that we swerved wide around what was rapidly becoming a miniature river, and ran down the line.
I easily outdistanced Dan-Man, of course; Track has kinda become my strong suit in recent years. But I need not have hurried, really. The crime scene was already literally a disaster area.
"Detective Bronski," a uniform called out. "Over here!"
It was incredible. No taped off area, people milling around aimlessly... Hadn't they even TRIED to preserve the crime scene? My anger rose quickly. But when the officer began talking, I calmed down.
"He was a floater," the uniform explained hastily. "They had to move him anyway to pile on more sandbags. It was urgent- the engineers said they couldn't wait. And then we had to move him again when a bulldozer needed to get by. Finally, we pulled him back from the levee area to get him out of the way and he sort of..."
"Right." The victim, a middle-aged white male with blonde hair, was now in three major and several minor pieces. I understood. It was no one's fault.
The officer looked relieved at my tone of voice. "At first, we figured a tugboat prop must have gotten him. Then we noticed this..." With a latex-gloved finger, he turned the head over to one side.
Quite clearly against the pale, cold flesh of the victim's temple a single circular wound stood out. It looked like it had been made with an ice pick. It MIGHT have happened while the body was tumbling in the river, but almost certainly it marked the victim as a homicide.
"Good eye, Officer. Thanks for calling us. You've done well here, under the circumstances."
The young man relaxed even more. Clearly he had still feared being blamed for the violations of basic procedure. Instead of being yelled at, he was being praised. "Thank you, Detective. It's an honor to meet you, sir."
I sighed. Ever since I had been part of a team that had cracked a notorious serial killing, my brother officers had been embarrassing me with praise. "I'm just another cop, son."
"Yes sir," he replied. But I could tell he didn't mean it.
"Is the Coroner's crew on its way?" I asked.
"I would guess so, but..." Helplessly he gestured at the chaos all around. Water was beginning to pool in the low spots.
"Yes, of course. Hmmm..." How were we going to get the body out? Usually the Coroner took care of that little difficulty, but it was obvious that we didn't have the luxury of waiting. Clearly, putting it in one the units was not practical. The corpse had apparently been in the water and the heat for several days and was starting to get rather...sloppy.
Dan-Man read my mind. "A dump truck, perhaps?"
I winced. It seemed so... undignified. But the water WAS rising fast. "Flag us one down, Son," I directed the officer.
Some sheet plastic served in place of a body bag, and Dan and the uniforms loaded up the various parts as I watched, already doing my best imitation of a wading bird. A City Engineer tried to stop us as we drove past the beginnings of a new wall of sandbags a few hundred yards behind the first, but my badge got us through. The truck was needed badly, sure enough, to combat the killer flood.
But I was combating a killer too. A rather nasty one, I knew already.
You see, no heavy boat traffic had been allowed on the river in weeks, because the wakes would damage the already precarious levees. And the body had not been in the water NEARLY that long.
It wasn't a tugboat's screw that had mutilated the body, I was already reasonably sure. It had been the murderer...
The Pig was rather maudlin that evening. Most of it was the big flood, I knew. People were exhausted, especially the big heavy draft-animal SCABs that were so much in demand on the front lines. Others, unable to really help due to their physical limitations, were simply feeling useless and unneeded. Plus, it was raining again and the big "28.2" that for several days had been posted behind the bar had just become a "28.3". The river, incredibly, was rising again. If this kept up, soon the West Street Shelter would be in danger, and not long after that the Pig itself. Which didn't even bear thinking about.
But the biggest problem, I fear, I caused myself. Feathers are good at catching and holding odors, and they are VERY hard to bathe. My own nose could not pick it up, but apparently to the sensitive nostrils of so many Pig patrons, I reeked of Death. Don't get me wrong, people understood that this was something I couldn't help, that it wasn't my fault. But it didn't exactly make me the life of the party...
Wherever I went, it seemed a void would soon develop in which almost no fur or scales could be found. Phil toughed it out long enough to say hello, of course, as did most of my best friends. And Dr. Derksen seemed unusually chummy that night. Oren had a cold, and thus remained blissfully unaware of my condition. He was good company too. But the evening was already getting awkward when my pager went off. It was almost a relief to discover that it was the Coroner's office. They wanted to see me right away.
I ran there, of course. It was four or five miles, not enough to bother anyone else for. The rain DID make the trip a bit uncomfortable, though, and pockets of standing water sometimes made my traction a bit questionable. We ostriches are runners, sure enough, but we evolved in a dry environment. Puddles throw off our stride a bit.
Fortunately, the Coroner's building has a nice little covered porch, and I was able to shake myself fairly dry while waiting for someone to let me in. "Someone" turned out to be a friend, Dr. Jack Lispman, formerly with the L.A. County Coroner's office. A bad case of the Flu left him with an exoskeleton and a couple extra appendages. I had never asked him exactly what kind of creature he had been melded with, and wasn't sure that I wanted to know. Dr. Derksen I could handle better than most- he merely made me hungry. But I could not even decide if Lispman was an arthropod or not. He was...hideous.
Not that his patients cared. In that at least he was luckier than most.
But Lispman was a first-rate, dedicated, and hard-working pathologist, a real pro. And he was a heck of a nice guy too. We were lucky that he had chosen to begin his new life here in our city, where so many SCABs seemed to be relocating nowadays
Tonight he was all business. "Glad you could make it so quickly, Detective. This is a most exciting case you have brought us."
"Oh, yes! There are certain... anomalies."
"Very strange circumstances. Very strange indeed. Feel up to visiting the lab?"
One of the things I liked about Lispman was that he was always considerate enough to ask. I had developed a stomach stronger than most, but my beak did not allow me to wear a mask. The odors could be quite... disturbing to the unprotected. "I'll be fine," I replied.
"Good! You really need to see this yourself. Pictures simply do not do it justice." And with that we headed downstairs.
The victim had as always been laid out carefully on a stainless steel table. This always looked strange to me, due to the lack of any padding whatsoever, but the patients never seemed to care. The tattered remnants of clothing had been cut away, exposing...
What in the Hell could have done THIS?
"I see that you understand already, Detective. But let me cover things in detail, to make sure that you have missed nothing. First, there is the obvious. The victim has undergone massive trauma, and large portions of him are missing. I understand your officers thought he might have been mutilated by a large propeller?"
"Yes. But that is not possible. The river is closed to traffic, and has been for some time."
"That is correct. No propeller did this. Look at the body closely, especially the areas that are no longer there. See anything?"
"Right! You have a sharp eye, Detective. The trauma is almost exactly bilaterally symmetrical. In fact," he continued, reaching out and flopping the head over to one side, "Even the puncture wounds to the head are nearly symmetrical."
TWO wounds? How had I missed that? I extended my head closer to look, then remembered that one side of the victim's head had already been plastered with mud from all the repeated handling before I saw it. Piss-poor crime-scene procedure, but unavoidable under the circumstances.
"But there is far more!" Lispman continued, warming to his theme. "Once the clothing was removed, we found six other large punctures, in three sets of two. All were evenly spaced, and all were symmetrical. They extended from the head to the lower thighs."
I inhaled to speak, but my friend headed me off at the pass. "By now, like me you are certainly thinking that a feral SCAB of some sort is responsible for this. It takes a single large creature to make deep wounds in such a pattern, true enough. And it is also true that there is nothing in the literature about a creature that kills this way. Therefore, it is natural to think that our killer must be some sort of bizarre SCAB. Probably an eight-limbed one. But there is more.
"Keep in mind that much flesh is missing, in a symmetrical pattern. I found this very odd, as a pathologist. Predators do not generally take such care with their meals, you know. So I examined the victim carefully, and noted that the missing flesh has an eight-fold symmetry as well. If you look closely, you will see that the upper arms, the lower abdomen, the buttocks, and the thighs are mostly gone. Each missing area is directly under a puncture wound.
"So I carefully examined these areas for tooth marks, and succeeded in finding something that completely contradicts everything else we have. Detective, given what we have up until now, you simply will not believe what I have to say next. But I assure you, I can document it."
I waited. If Lispman said he was sure of something, I would take his word.
"Each of these missing areas was consumed by something with a separate set of teeth. No two sets of tooth marks are identical, Detective."
I'm afraid my beak dropped open. This made no sense at all!
Reaching up, Lispman turned off the lamp over the table. "Come, let me show you some slides in my office."
It WAS a relief, I admit, to get out of the cold and away from the horrid odors. The slide projector had already been set up, and a computer-enhanced image divided eight ways appeared on the screen.
"Each of these was taken from a separate trauma area of the victim," the pathologist explained. "They are tooth scratches on bone."
I examined them closely. They were different, but not all THAT different. The projector clicked, and a new slide came up. "This time, you are seeing pictures of tooth scratches all from one area."
These WERE all alike. How odd! The slide projector shut down. "I could show you similar pictures from all eight wound areas. Each is characteristically unique."
"But all appear to have been left by the same species," I noted. "The teeth were all tiny."
"Yes, but different individuals. MOST confusing. Detective, I look forward to finding out exactly what happened here."
"You and me both, Doctor," I replied. "You and me both."
By next morning, our floater had been identified. Not that it helped us any- almost from the beginning we were betting he had been a random victim. It turned out we were right. The poor guy had been carrying household goods out his flooded home, his wife had said, and suddenly vanished. Up until we found his corpse, it had been assumed he had suffered a heart attack or somesuch and then drowned in the shallow floodwater covering his own front yard.
Moe Scarzi, his name had been, a truck driver recently moved in from New Orleans. Because the area had been evacuated, it was proving hard to talk with his neighbors. But everything we had on him checked out- the guy had been a solid, hardworking citizen and good husband. He owned his own rig, and all the payments were up to date. In a superb twist of irony, he had moved out of The Big Easy because he feared flooding, according to his wife. Apparently he hadn't believed his new home to be vulnerable, being as far as it was from the river. But a little creek ran nearby, and the backwater had flowed...
Jeez. What bad luck! Well, he'd never make THAT mistake again.
The longer I studied the file, the more apparent it became that I didn't have enough information. And what I needed to know wasn't going to come from any police headquarters. "Dan!" I shouted down the hall. "Dan-Man!"
My partner had just gotten back from interviewing the grieving widow, a duty that the Department regularly gave to Norm officers to avoid needlessly sparking tensions when feelings were running high. As usual, the kid was stuffing his face like it was three days past lunchtime. WHERE did he put it all? "Coming, Boss!" he replied good-naturedly. "Don't lay an egg!"
Dan had made a good recovery from serious head injuries not too awfully long ago, and perhaps really shouldn't have been back on The Job yet. But he'd been insistent. And, I must admit, I had been getting lonely. I'd been without a partner too long.
He was a good kid. And more importantly just now, he was one of the finest criminal researchers I knew.
"C'mon, Junior! We're burning daylight! The early bird gets the worm, and all that rot." Still chewing, Danny grabbed his keys and led the way down to the garage.
"Where to?" he finally asked, once he swallowed.
"City University," I replied.
"Right. That's in the Smith Building-"
"At the East end of the campus," he finished for me. "Got an appointment with Professor Norbert, in Room 205A?"
My beak fell open. "How did you..."
"I used to be a Geology major, remember? At City U. And Norbert was my advisor. He's the top paleo guy in the state, most people think." We were to the car by then, and he opened the door for me. "Cripes! We're going to have to hurry!"
"Why?" I asked resignedly.
"He ALWAYS goes to lunch at ten. And we've got a lot of questions to get answered before then." Almost before I could get settled, he slammed the door and easily jogged around to his side.
We were roaring out of the garage before I could ask myself why I was suddenly feeling useless.
Professor Keith Norbert was a Canadian, I could tell immediately by his accent. He greeted us politely, then recognized my partner. "Danny Boy!" he exclaimed, rushing over and pumping my young friend's arm. "How have you been, son! Still glad you changed career tracks?"
Dan smiled. "Yeah, Prof, I think I did the right thing. This line of work seems to be a lot more exciting than classifying brachiopods."
Norbert chuckled in reply. "You always were one for field work. Good to see you, Dan! Don't be such a stranger." Then he turned back to me. "Detective Bronski, you do not know how hard I tried to hang onto this one."
I rocked my head back and forth, personal shorthand for laughter. "Finder's keepers. He's OURS now." In the background, Dan was blushing.
Presently we got down to business.
"Professor, I need to talk to you about extinct life forms. "
"That's a large subject," he replied. "By some estimates, for every species alive today a thousand have passed into oblivion. And personally, I consider these estimates low." The Professor turned to Dan. "He could have explained all of this to you, I am sure."
"I didn't think to ask him, truthfully."
"I see. Well, life on Earth has well over a billion years of history behind it. In that time, we have seen enormous change. For geological ages, all life was single celled. Them, when multicellular structure evolved things really took off. I fear that if you are interested in early bacteria I will not be of much help to you."
"No, Professor. I'm here about a murder I think might have been committed by a SCAB or group of SCABs. The trauma on the body matches no present-day life forms. However, we'd like your opinion as to whether some extinct creature or creatures might have left such wounds."
"Ah, I see! Tell me about it, then."
And we did. The poor guy paled perceptibly at the big color photos, but soon his intellectual curiosity overwhelmed his nausea. "Most peculiar!" he said about the puncture wounds. And "How extraordinary!" he commented after examining the tooth-mark evidence for himself. But when we were finished, he had nothing new to contribute. "I'm sorry, Detective," he had explained. "But I cannot help you at all. In fact, I cannot even suggest any other experts for you to consult. In short, you have left me totally at a loss."
I nodded, and thanked him for his time. He had done all he could, I was quite certain.
We were almost out of the building when he chased us down. "Detective!" he was calling out. "Danny!"
The two of us stopped, and waited for the puffing figure to catch up. "One more thing..." We waited while he caught his breath. "Something to keep in mind..."
"Countless species have lived on this planet before us. Many of them, particularly the very early ones, lived under conditions that were quite unlike anything we know today. And the fossil record is terribly incomplete. No one really can know for sure, but our best guess is that 99% of all extinct species, perhaps even more, remain unknown to us. Whole phyla could have lived and died without us being any the wiser.
"This is particularly true of organisms that do not preserve well, or are simply rare to start with. Our record of extinct nematodes, or worms, is pitifully incomplete for example. Other life forms may have lived in environments that do not tend to preserve fossils anyway, such as along wave-strewn beaches.
"My point is that you are really dealing with the unknown here. Just because I cannot name one or more species to explain these injuries does not mean that you are barking up the wrong tree, so to speak."
"I see, Professor. Thank you," I replied sincerely. He smiled in return, waved at Dan, and walked away. We had just made it to our unit and my partner was opening my door for me when the pager strapped to my leg went off, followed a split-second later by Dan-Man's. It was the office.
Someone else had been killed. While out in the floodwater. And this time, there were witnesses.
It's not often I get to make a Code Three run across town any more, with flashing lights on and sirens blaring. Not that we made very good time anyway. The flood had disrupted normal traffic patterns and closed many streets. Despite the good intentions of motorists who tried to yield to us, we sometimes got boxed in just like everyone else. It was terribly frustrating.
Still, nothing was really lost by our tardiness. The Fire Department Rescue folks had beaten us, and did a good job securing the area. Their boat was already out, and even as I watched a frogman armed with a speargun dived over the side. The Station Chief was a casual acquaintance; over the years we had met several times at such happy gatherings. I nodded a curt greeting, and asked my first question. "What've we got, Becky?"
"Looks like a feral SCAB to me, Bronski," she replied. "I've got my divers armed, just in case. One victim, a mink-morph out for a swim. This used to be a ball field, until it went under- should have been safe enough, for a mink. Not that I'd admit that officially."
Of course not. ALL cavorting in floodwater was officially discouraged. Even where it really was safe. "The office said we had witnesses?"
"Yeah. The mink's husband. He's pretty broken up. And not making much sense. Take it easy on him, willya Bronski?"
"You've always had a soft spot, Becky. Have you considered calling in a fish-morph to help out?"
"They're all tied up inspecting sandbags and levees and such from the water side. This whole end of the State's gone crazy for anyone aquatic. And our mink's a deader for sure, Ken. I can't see bringing in a fish that might otherwise save someone else's life for a corpse."
I nodded. It made sense, even if I didn't like it. "All right. But have your people be careful, Chief. This may not be the first victim, if no one's told you yet."
At that she nodded. "We'd heard. But thanks for the heads-up." With that, Dan and I went in search of the victim's husband.
We found him sitting on the bleachers, which were sticking up out of the water. He was a young guy, about 25, and well dressed. Or he had been well dressed, until taking an unplanned dip in muddy water. My guess was that he'd gone out after his wife, and dived again and again and again after her. A fireman with eyes that appeared to have seen it all at one time or another sat next to him, silently sharing coffee with the bereaved. It was a moving sight.
Ordinarily I'd have let Dan interview him. But the guy had been married to a SCAB, so I bent the rules a little. Delicately, I waded out and climbed the bleachers. The structure shook a little under my weight, and the husband looked up for the first time. His face was slack with grief.
"Sir, I am Detective Ken Bronski, and I want you to know how sorry I am about what has happened."
He looked as if he were about to start weeping again for a second, then got himself under control. "I've seen you in the papers, Detective. Honored to meet you. My name is Jason, Jason Layne." He extended his hand, then realizing I had no way to shake it he withdrew it awkwardly. "Sorry..."
"Happens all the time, Mr. Layne. This is my partner, Detective Dan Shepherd. You can shake his hand twice, if you like." The lame joke eased the tension a bit, as it had so many times before. "Can you tell me what happened?"
The tiny bit of animation that had come to Layne's features vanished. "My wife... she was a mink-morph, you know..." The 'was' in his speech looked likely to break him down again, so I helped him along.
"Yes, and I bet she loved to swim. All minks and otters do."
It helped steady him. "Yes. She just HAD to go swimming here today. I tried to talk her out of it, but it seemed safe. I mean, we used to swim together all the time in the river, and that has a current to it. This is just standing water- no current at all. And I guess you know that it's a ball field? So there shouldn't have been any obstacles. I mean, how could it have been dangerous, really?"
Deep down, I couldn't argue with him. "I understand."
The young man sighed. "And she DID have so much fun to start with. Elaine was cavorting about and chasing little fish, and talking about how nice and warm the water was when..." He looked like he was about to cry.
"I know it's hard, sir. But we have to know, so that we can help others."
Jason nodded, and pulled himself back together. "Of course. I understand. Anyway, they came out of nowhere."
"What came out of nowhere, Mr. Layne?"
" The snakes. It was a nest of snakes, I think. But I'm sort of confused... I mean it all happened so quickly..." The last words were torn from him in a sob, and I hated myself for putting him through this. But there were divers in the water even now.
"Mr. Layne, just tell me what you think you saw. We understand that you might not have gotten a good look. Anything you can tell us will help."
"She... She was backstroking slowly along when the water seemed to boil up around her. And she got sucked under almost instantly. I ran out into the water, maybe eight or nine steps. You see, I was frightened, but still not sure what had happened. Then... Then..."
Jason began sobbing again. This time, I let his grief take its course. Eventually, he was able to go on, his voice wracked with agony. "She made it back up one last time for air. But the snakes were hanging on her, and already eating into her body. There was blood all over, and part of me knew it was too late. They were just burrowing away into her- it was horrid. And then...Then..." The young man stopped, and a puzzled expression appeared on his face. "Then it was like a trap closed on her, almost. It looked like something big sort of wrapped itself around her, and pulled Elaine under. It was all so fast! She didn't even scream, just inhaled and got pulled back down."
We didn't get much else out of him, save that he thought there were about five snakes, and that both the snakes and the "something big" that had pulled his wife under that last time were a pallid fishbelly white. Except of course for the snake's heads, which were red with gore. Eventually a friend showed up, and we left Jason in her care to get through the tragedy as best he could.
Dan and I waited around the scene for about two hours as uniforms canvassed the area looking for other witnesses, but none came forward. There was no trace of the body, but a sharp-eyed fireman on the diver's boat gave us our first real break in the case. Sitting idly in the boat, he spotted what looked at first like the head of turtle reaching up to the surface for air. But when the "turtle" didn't dive or even move for a few minutes, he became suspicious and rowed over to check it out.
It was a "snake" head, probably severed by the victim's own not inconsiderable jaws and teeth. But there were no eyes, and the small teeth in the circular jawless mouth were razor-sharp and utterly un-serpentlike. Fascinated, Dan-Man took a pencil-sized twig and carefully inserted it into the wicked, primitive maw. Instantly, the...thing clamped down and reduced the twig to splinters.
"OK," I said after watching this little experiment. "That's enough playing around. Let's get this... object back to the lab. VERY carefully."
The Fire Department came up with a metal bucket from somewhere for us to borrow, and a uniform sat rigidly in the back seat of our unmarked unit with the container in his lap. While we made the slow return trip across town, Dan got on the radio and set up another appointment with his old advisor, Professor Norbert. The old gentleman seemed quite excited, naturally, and told us to meet him in the biology building, where several specialists would be waiting for us.
You'd think we were carrying fried chicken to the Donner party, judging by the enthusiasm with which we were met. Eager hands tried to grasp the bucket away from the officer carrying it, and I thought for a second there might actually be a fight. But Norbert took charge, and it was he who finally dumped our little prize out onto the dissection table to a chorus of "Oohs" and "Aahs".
"Watch out!" I cautioned. "Those teeth were still working a little while back." One of the biologists turned around and acknowledged me with a nod, and then elbowed his way back to the table. Pretty soon they were talking Greek and Latin to each other, and I knew it was time to step out for some coffee. There was nothing more for us to do until the eggheads finished their work.
Six hours passed before a single soul left that dissection table. No one even took a bathroom break. I know this for a fact, because Dan and I took turns standing vigil outside. Whatever that head might be from, I knew, it was certainly not routine.
Finally, about the time it was starting to get dark, the door burst open and a very agitated Norbert stepped briskly through. I tried to intercept, but he pointed at the Men's room and I let him by. On the return trip, however, I was not so easily brushed aside. "Professor," I said, "Cut us some slack. What IS that thing part of?"
"Quite simply, Detective, we have only the vaguest idea. So far, we are still working on determining what it is NOT."
"OK, then," I continued easily. After all, he was on our side and doing his best. "What DIDN'T we bring you?"
He smiled. "It's time for a break anyway, and I want to do a bit of quick research. Besides, I'm a lot better with fossils than cadavers. Among all those biologists, I'm a bit useless. Let me grab a bite to eat, and I'll meet you in my office."
It sounded like a plan to me, and so we met thirty minutes later in Room 205A. Both the Professor and Dan-Man were chewing away industriously on tuna fish sandwiches from a vending machine, but I was forced to stand and ignore my own rumbling gizzard. Tuna fish oddly enough did not agree with my avian digestive tract, and that had been the only selection left.
But it still smelled good, which made the rumbling worse.
Eventually Norbert got down to business. "Detective, you may not realize it but you have brought us part of a creature that does not exist."
I waited, refusing to act as a straight man while so hungry. Eventually, he went on.
"Basically, the structure is that of a nematode. Muscle structure, skin, blood supply, all these things resemble those of a typical large sea worm. But, the nervous system is anomalous, and the teeth are totally out of place."
"What's so strange about a toothed worm?" I asked.
"It's just that it's the only one known. The development of teeth is a pretty radical thing, evolutionarily speaking. And these teeth are calcium carbonate, not calcium phosphate like those of most creatures. Offhand, I think only mollusks use calcium carbonate for teeth among living species, and then in an organ called the radula. Really in many ways this structure is not toothlike at all. But it's the closest analogue I can think of."
"Why is this important?" I asked.
"Two reasons. One, it says that we are dealing with a creature that has diverged widely from the main evolutionary path. This animal branched off from the known family tree a LONG time ago. Secondly, it tells us that we are almost certainly dealing with a very old life form. It has probably been extinct for hundreds of millions of years.."
"How can you tell that from the dentition?" This time Dan asked the question.
"Simple. While sharp, these teeth are very soft and must perforce wear away quickly. Calcium phosphate teeth, like yours and mine, won out literally geologic ages ago despite the fact that chemically they are far harder for an organism to manipulate and grow than calcium carbonate. That the victory of calcium phosphate was so complete shows that calcium carbonate teeth cannot compete. In each and every case, organisms with calcium phosphate teeth must have driven their competitors to extinction. My guess is that we have here a predator worm that died out in the Pre-Cambrian. In other words, it disappeared a VERY long time ago.
"But it's dead now, right? I mean, the mink got its head..." For a moment I was hopeful. This creature had once been a person, I knew, but the poor slob must have lost their mind long since.
"Well... That's another issue." Clearly Norbert was still uncomfortable. "This so-called 'head' clearly is no such thing."
"What?" Dan and I asked together.
The Professor looked at the floor. "I know it seems irrational, but the nerve structure clearly is wrong for this to be a head of any kind. It is merely some kind of appendage, is all."
"Does the mouth work?" Dan asked. "Is there a throat?"
Our host got even more uncomfortable. "Yes. Yes, it does seem to ingest food with this appendage."
"But it's not a head," Dan continued.
"No," Norbert said, finally looking up and meeting the eyes of his former student. "And I think that explains why your witness thought his wife was being attacked by a nest of snakes. It sounds crazy, but the Pre-Cambrian was a very strange time in the annals of life."
"But Professor," I asked. "What about the puncture wounds? Where do they fit into the picture?
He shrugged. "Wish I knew. Maybe when you get me a larger specimen..."
"It took incredible luck for us to get what we have," I muttered. "Are you sure there is nothing like this, um... toothed worm on record?"
"I wanted to check that before you left- thanks for reminding me. There's a new program here that lets me search the world's fossil databases. Now that we have some specifics, I think it might prove useful."
The Professor fired up his computer, and began fussily to hunt and peck at the keys. Finally Dan offered to help him out, and things went faster. Search after search turned up fruitless. "Well," the Professor said finally, "I really didn't think-"
But Dan was still typing merrily away. "Just a second, Prof," he said. "I'm starting to get the hang of this. Let me just alter these parameters a little bit..."
The professor got quiet. Apparently he had seen my partner at work too, and knew better than to object. And presently, a muffled oath escaped my partner's mouth. Then he spoke more clearly. "What in God's name..."
The professor looked over his shoulder, and I rubbernecked my own way in for a good view too. All three of us gazed upon the drawings revealed by the monitor with shock on our faces. Could this same good Earth that had given ourselves life have ever produced such hideous offspring?
Silently, Dan took us through page after page of horrors, all hideously deformed wormlike creatures. The drawings should have come from a lunatic's nightmares, but instead they originated from a very unusual Pre-Cambrian fossil bed in Russia. The specimens had been so well -preserved that even soft tissues could be reconstructed in detail.
And such loathsome details! Mouths lined with sharp teeth on appendages were commonplace, and one specimen had six such mouths. Nothing like it had been seen since, anywhere in the fossil record. But at this time and place, such grotesqueries had apparently been commonplace. Blind, fanged predatory worms, just like what we were up against now.
Professor Norbert apologized all over the place of course, but it had not been his fault. The specimens were known only from the one location, and frankly no real work had been done on them in decades. It was not surprising that he had never heard of them.
Eagerly, we began to put together a picture of our killer. First, the Professor scrawled out a wide, flat body, with eight snake-like mouth appendages. Then, right above each mouth appendage he added another sort of appendage, with a single long icepick like tooth. He made this limb shorter and thicker, as he figured it was a heavily-muscled mechanism evolved to hold struggling prey. We left it with no eyes, not a big handicap in muddy water. The result would have felt right at home at a family reunion with the nasties we had just looked over.
And so we had it, the answer to our mystery. Everything fit.
"Now," I asked the Professor, "How do we catch him?"
It should have come as no surprise to me that Norbert had not the faintest idea- he was not a trapping expert, after all. But the Department had needed to catch feral SCABs before, and I knew where to go for help. Thus, after too-little sleep, Dan and I found ourselves in yet another office the next morning. This time, we were scheduled to meet with a representative from the Fish and Wildlife people.
Agent Lincoln looked like a piece of portable wall. He was broad-shouldered, and all muscle under his knife-creased green uniform. His shoes reflected like mirrors, and I strongly suspected he had once been in the military. I had dealt with him before when tracking feral SCABs, and knew him to be competent, professional, polite, and dedicated. In short, he was a model of all that a wildlife law enforcement officer should be. Someday, I expected to find out he had become the top conservation officer in the state.
Quietly Dan and I explained what we knew about our killer as Lincoln sat and listened stoically. When we had finished, he asked questions. Lots of questions! Was our SCAB a scent-feeder? How often did it feed? Did it prefer warm-blooded prey, or cold blooded? Did the prey have to be alive? How sentient was our killer? The more often we admitted we didn't know, the unhappier our fellow law-enforcement official looked. But he understood that we simply were still lacking crucial data. After a moment of silence, the man in green promised to think on our problem for a bit, and call us back by noon.
I was scheduled to testify in an unrelated case at 10 AM anyway, but much to my delight a last-minute plea bargain freed up the rest of the day. So it was that Dan and I were enjoying the rare luxury of a sit-down meal at a real restaurant when my pager went off. We were wanted back at the Fish ad Game office.
This time, Lincoln was in field gear, wearing a light camouflaged coverall with a replica of his badge sewn over his heart, a baseball-style hat and rubber gumsole boots. Yet he still managed to look neatly groomed. When he wasn't looking I preened myself a bit in embarrassment, stroking some wayward feathers back into place. Just being around Agent Lincoln made me feel slovenly and unkempt. He greeted us at the door, and invited us to ride along with him on his first try at our worm.
Truthfully, I didn't understand what he meant until I saw the big jonboat on the trailer behind his official 4x4 utility vehicle. But by then it was too late to back out. As I mentioned earlier, ostriches evolved in a dry climate. Wading doesn't bother me, but think about it. Have you ever seen an ostrich swim? Neither have I, and I do not have the faintest idea of how I would attempt such a thing. Nor do standard lifejackets fit me.
Deep water gives me the willies. I don't even like driving over bridges!
But I WAS the one in charge of this investigation and manhunt, and it was my responsibility to see first-hand what progress was being made. So far there had been no panic, and the press had not yet picked up on the fact that our two killings were related. Sure, we had put out police sketches of our suspect based on Norbert's rough drawing, but the flood itself was such an overwhelming drain upon the city's resources and attention that we had not yet even made the front-page section. Once the words "serial killer", "mass-murderer" or "man-eater" were uttered, however, all bets were off! And if I once again found myself facing the merciless reporters at a press conference, I wanted to be able to truthfully say that I had seen for myself the methods being employed to catch the feral SCAB.
Boat or no boat.
On the way to the county highway that was being used as an impromptu launch ramp by rescue workers and others permitted to operate boats in flooded areas, Lincoln explained what he intended to do.
"Trapping an animal," he began, "is a lot like catching a criminal, I imagine. You have to understand the animal's needs and behavior patterns, and use these traits against it. For example, if you want to trap a rabbit you don't use fish as bait. Nor do you put the trap in a tree. So what I've had to do here is try and get some kind of picture in my head of what the behavior of this particular creature must be like."
"Makes sense," Dan muttered.
"I examined your sketch carefully, and then I called up the biologists who are dissecting the, ah, appendage that was found. Between us, we've reached some tentative conclusions.
"First of all, none of us think this creature can swim very well. It doesn't look like it's very streamlined at all. That tells us that it must either be a carrion-feeder normally, or else lie in wait for its victims. Also, it would seem to indicate that the creature prefers stagnant water, as it seems unlikely to be able to get around in any kind of current."
"Then you picture it naturally as a swamp dweller?" I asked.
"Basically, yes. Or else it could be a marine creature that is sufficiently tolerant of fresh water to allow it to survive. Like the sharks that are sometimes caught far up the Mississippi River."
"Also, my belief is that it must feed as a reflex. Cold-blooded creatures do not need a lot of food to survive compared to us mammals- and avians!" he added hurriedly. "You've got, what, fifty or sixty pounds of meat missing off your first victim?"
"At a guess, yes."
"Yet this creature probably only masses a couple hundred pounds at most, based on the spacing of the stab wounds. That much of a meal should last any normal worm metabolism for months, yet our SCAB struck again just yesterday, and was observed to eat it's kill. I presume the body has not been located yet?"
"Hmm. My guess is that if it turns up you will find only bits and pieces missing. There's no way the thing could be hungry again. Unless there's more than one, of course..."
THAT thought chilled me. Vaguely, I recalled that many lower life forms were bisexual...
"So," Lincoln continued, "We are going to proceed under the assumption that our worm will react instinctively if offered food. Our next assumption, based on the fact that we know it has taken two mammals, is that it will respond to the same food scents again. Either of these premises could quite easily be false, you understand. They are merely our best guesses."
"Therefore, we are going to try using some rather traditional fishing techniques, though of course we will be attempting to effect as humane a capture as possible in this case. We are as aware as you are that this is the work of a disturbed and terribly disfigured human, not some sort of monster."
"I'm glad you understand that. For a moment there, I was afraid you were talking about using bait and hooks."
"No, of course not. Though of course everyone has to be prepared to defend themselves."
"Naturally. What method are you proposing to use?"
"Well, at first I wanted to try and use drugged bait with a tracer in it, but the biologists pointed out quite correctly that we might poison our suspect by accident. So, we're going to telephone it instead."
"Telephone it?" Dan was baffled, but I was a country boy and knew the term.
"Electrofish it," Agent Lincoln explained, displaying a rare grin. "In the old days, they used to use a crank telephone for the electric current."
"Ah," Dan replied.
By then we were nearly to the launch site, and the vista of the County road disappearing under the brown water put a damper on conversation. There was a long line of old trucks and 4x4 vehicles with aluminum boats on trailers lined up, but unlike the launch ramp at a public lake these people were not out for fun. Each had been authorized to help in rescue work after their equipment had been checked and verified as safe by the Coast Guard, and most had a friend riding with them whose home or business was currently submerged. During intervals when there was no official traffic, they would be allowed to launch their small craft in an effort to salvage what they could from the still-rising water. Some had been waiting for hours, and a few looked resentful as our official standing took us to the front of the line.
Agent Lincoln was MOST efficient. Four other Conservation Department boats were already waiting for us just offshore, bobbing around a still-functioning traffic light. The scene was bizarre. We were in the water ourselves and underway within fifteen minutes.
Raising his gruff voice a bit to make himself heard over the idling outboard (for higher speeds were both prohibited and utterly reckless due to all the floating debris) the Agent explained that he expected the search for our worm to be both long and tedious. "After all," he said, "we're talking about trying to find a single creature among literally dozens of square miles of flooded-out land. In a few days, I hope to have as many as seven or eight teams out. But I figured you would wish to see our first attempt."
"Quite right," I replied, a lot more confidently than I felt. The water was getting deeper and deeper, as evidenced by the road signs now over half-submerged. "Thank you very much."
"And besides, I did a little map work this morning too," he continued. "This area we are in is very close to the flooded ballfield where the second victim was taken. I at least wanted to try fishing while it might still be near."
Presently Lincoln cut the motor, and waved his arm. And the other boats, each manned by a single Agent, clustered around.
"All right," Lincoln began. "I want you other boats to take up positions all around me and get your shock gear ready. Patrice, did you bring the net?"
"Sure thing, Boss!" she replied, indicating a neatly folded pile of steel wire on the deck.
"Good. We're going to drift and put out bait. Every few minutes, I'll give a signal and everyone is to shock the water at the same time. I figure we can cover an area about 75 yards across that way. If our target should by chance turn up today, the two closest boats are to go help Patrice net the thing when it floats. BE CAREFUL! This is a known man-eater we're after, not an overgrown bluegill. Any questions?"
There were none, and without further ado the boats formed a ring around us. Then Lincoln opened up a live well. Reaching in, the Agent brought out a dead fawn.
"Poor thing drowned," he explained, as he tied a large weight around its neck. "I figure that it's so fresh it'll still smell alive, though. I don't know what we're going to do for bait tomorrow." And with that, he tossed the poor pitiful little corpse overboard. Quickly the couple feet of line paid out, and we began our vigil.
It was hot.
It was boring.
It was endless.
Four hours passed as we drifted mostly among the ruins of an old shopping center, periodically shocking the water and causing all manner of fish to rise to the surface with mouths agape and gills twitching. To help kill the time, Lincoln identified them for us. Shiners. Buffalo. Mooneye. Carp. Blue, channel, and flathead catfish. Gar, in two varieties. Even a small pallid sturgeon once, a find sufficiently remarkable that Lincoln called in the other boats for a few moments to point it out to his compatriots. But no overly-large, eight-mouthed worms. We were drifting idly again, Dan-Man wishing aloud for the third time that he was not allergic to sunscreen, when the big catfish floating alongside us got sucked under in a brown swirl. Just a few seconds before, I had estimated that fish at twelve pounds. It was well over two feet long. Then, almost instantly, pieces of said fish came floating to the surface. Either we had come across one heck of a snapping turtle, or else we had hit paydirt. Suddenly the big, heavily-built 18-foot "Roughneck" brand jonboat seemed very small and fragile. It took the fawn next, as we could tell from the sudden jerking on the heavy line. Calmly, Lincoln gave his signal, and all the boats fired their electric charges into the water.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Lincoln gave the signal again and again to no avail, as the line continued its frantic dance. Eventually there came a mighty jerk, and the boat rocked drunkenly. Then the line jerked again, and parted.
Within seconds, all was as still as it had been moments before. The sun still was beating peacefully down on us, and the little ripples in the brown water were the only signs of movement anywhere. But our hearts were going a mile a minute!
Eventually we calmed down a bit, and began to ask each other what had gone wrong. The answer was obviously, of course, that our quarry was immune to electroshock. This was a bitter pill to swallow, and we spent many minutes chattering among ourselves like excited monkeys about what to do next. But the sweltering afternoon was turning into a hot summer evening, and distant rumblings of thunder could be heard from the storms predicted for that night. Regretfully, we headed for shore while I tried to figure out how I was going to explain to the next victim's family about The One That Got Away...
Not surprisingly, there was a big crowd of returning boats at the improvised launching area; the growing thunder was acting as a MOST persuasive reminder that it was time to go home. Many of the boats were almost sinking beneath their burdens of precious family goods that had been recovered at the cost of so much labor. They were a pitiful reminder of the scope of the ongoing disaster all around us. Each of the hundreds of empty buildings we had floated by that day represented a disrupted family or a business no longer able to function. And tonight's storms promised higher water still...
The squall line was closing in fast, and after making sure I had no urgent business to attend to Lincoln waved the householders and rescue boaters on ahead of us so that their belongings wouldn't get rained on. The first fat raindrops were just starting to fall when we got our craft safely trailered once again, the very last boat out of the water. Just then both Dan's and my pagers went off, and we used Lincoln's radio to call in.
The mink's body had been found. We had to get tot the scene immediately, of course, and Lincoln graciously offered to drop us off there. Besides, he was curious to see firsthand if his theory about the body being only lightly consumed would prove valid. So off we dashed through the gathering storm in the 4x4, pulling the boat behind us.
Except for the crashes of thunder and occasional radio calls, we rode in silence. The day's failure was still heavy upon us, and none of really had a clue as to what to do next. So we sat quietly, each of us trying in our own way to come up with a workable plan. But none presented itself. At least the traffic was light, I thought to myself. This was probably due to the severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado watches being updated every few minutes. Tornadoes were actually on the ground West of us, according to the reports steadily coming in, and it looked like it was going to be an exciting night weather-wise. Which most likely meant yet ANOTHER botched, muddy crime-scene, I realized suddenly. Damn!
It was just about then that I noticed that we were driving alongside the base of the Goose Creek levee. It was almost twenty feet high, I knew, and had been in the news a lot lately. Every day that a flood continues, the levees become more and more waterlogged. As a result, they become more prone to failure. While there was still a good foot and a half of levee remaining over the flood water and the Goose Creek was in no danger of being overwhelmed, or "topped", the City engineers were becoming quite nervous about the fact that it had been wet for so long. Levee failures are almost instantaneous- A National Geographic film crew once caught such a failure going from a barely-detectable trickle to raging torrent in under five minutes. I had watched the resulting real-time film as a boy, and never forgotten the spectacle. Within an unbelievably short time, the floodwater had washed away the backhoe sent to fix the trickle, and the operator had barely escaped with his life...
Suddenly, I wished Lincoln had chosen another route. Ominous weather reports continued to come in. There was hail in the storms headed for the City, they were now claiming, and I though nervously about the shiny new unmarked car that Dan and I had left parked in the open. But there was nothing we could do about it now.
The Goose Creek levee is over three miles long. About halfway along it, yellow flashers loomed out of the driving rain. It was a City Street Department vehicle. Lincoln slowed, and a figure came running out waving urgently for attention. He was wearing a reflective orange vest, and was covered in mud despite the downpour all around him. We stopped, of course, and the figure came dashing up to the driver's window. A peal of thunder drowned out most of his words, but all three of us clearly made out "...of our men trapped underneath!"
Dan and Agent Lincoln exploded out of the truck, but a wind gust slammed the doors closed again before I could get out. It was on of those incredibly frustrating moments, courtesy of the Martian Flu, in which I most sincerely regretted developing such a "chick" appearance. Angrily I kicked at the door, leaving a nasty scar on the upholstery, but my companions did not hear me. For a second I stretched my neck towards the horn, then reason set in. Why should I call anyone away from what appeared to be a rescue situation, when frankly I probably couldn't be of any help anyway? So I sighed, and sat back to wait with what grace I could manage. If I'd had thumbs, I would have twiddled them...
My wait wasn't long. Looking for the first time a bit disheveled, Agent Lincoln came bursting in out of the storm. "It's not too bad", he explained a bit breathlessly. "They were trying to load an earthmoving tractor onto a trailer when it slipped, probably from mud on the tires. A guy is trapped, but he's not hurt. There's no weight on him at all. I'll just get us lined up, and we can use the winch up front to get him out. The emergency crews are on the way, but with the weather like it is..."
"Right," I agreed. The lightning was getting pretty intense, and some wind gusts were sharp enough to rock the truck. Agent Lincoln pulled off the road, cursing the impediment of the boat trailer. But he was a skilled driver, and didn't have far to go. Without saying a word, he focussed his spotlight on the crazily tilted tractor and climbed back out into the storm.
Leaving me trapped inside again, away from the action. Oh well, at least I'd stay dry...
I listened to the cable unreel from the winch, then waited while it was hooked up. This took a while- quite reasonably, Lincoln was making absolutely certain that nothing would go wrong with the pull, and somehow injure the trapped man. Presently the electric motor fired up again, and the 4x4 groaned and leaned forward a bit as its frame took up the strain of the tractor's weight.
Vehicle winches are very slow, and several minutes passed before I saw the tractor flip back up onto its wheels and the construction crew dash forward to help their mate up. He was just regaining his feet when the hail began to fall. Baseball-sized hail.
Hail that big is no joke. It falls like thousands of meteors, and can easily kill anyone trapped out in the open. The construction crew, Dan, and Agent Lincoln were all far closer to the construction equipment than they were to me, and naturally they took their shelter there. To cross the little open space back to the 4x4 would have resulted in the equivalent of a severe beating at the very least.
The hail was like the end of the world. Each impact was loud in it's own right, and the combined effect of the hailstorm was akin to that of being inside a snare drum. WHAMWHAMWHAMWHAM was all I heard, interspersed with quieter shattering sounds when glass broke. It seemed to go on forever. When at last the hail shaft had passed by, I must have been still somewhat in shock, and deafened as well. Several minutes passed before I distantly realized that people were shouting urgently at me. Eventually I raised my head from where I had instinctively buried it under the seat, and tried to figure out what was going on. But all the windows were shattered, and the spotlight broken by a hailstone. I couldn't see a thing. In fact, it wasn't until the back of the 4x4 began floating that I figured out what all the yelling was about. Sometime during the hailstorm, or perhaps even just before, the Goose Creek levee had failed.
Even as I realized what was going on, things got worse. Apparently the break was fairly close by, and it grew incredibly fast. The roaring of the torrent became audible almost immediately; it sounded like Niagara Falls. God only knew how many cubic miles of water were headed our way, and it was in a HURRY! Even as I kicked ineffectually at the doors, I felt the front end of the little truck break free and begin floating as well. Then, I must have gotten swept into some kind of eddy, because presently the shouts became more and more distant and the motions of the 4x4 become more violent. Trucks are not designed to float. I knew I didn't have very long. Water was already coming in under the doors. When in a submerged vehicle, we are taught in Drivers Ed, one should not panic and struggle to open the doors. Rather, the correct thing to do is to wait until enough water has come in to equalize the pressures inside and out. Then the door will open easily. But what do you do if you have no hands to operate the latches?
For a few precious seconds I stuck my head under the seat again in ostrich terror, but then the water rose enough to force me out of that ridiculous position. The truck had taken on a distinctly nose-down attitude in the water, because of the weight of the engine, I reasoned. Therefore, if a bubble was going to form it would be in the back. With great difficulty- I am no longer designed to climb at all- I levered myself uphill, until I was looking up at the back window...
Which had three baseball-sized holes in it. No way was there going to bean air pocket. Suddenly, there was a terrible wrenching, and the truck slewed sideways, then slammed into something. Hard.
I damned near lost consciousness, I hit so hard. The impact was absolutely terrific- the 4x4 must have gotten caught up into the main torrent and then fetched up against a building or something. Once my head cleared I could hear the vortex all around me, and feel the truck swaying violently back and forth like a weed in a creek. During lightning flashes light, I could just make out brown water pouring in through holes everywhere. I would like to be able to relate to you that I calmly reasoned my way out of this crisis, that I pulled some sort of rabbit out of my hat. But in truth it was blind, unreasoned, void-your-bowels panic that saved my life. UP! My mind screamed, UP! And my body responded. Frantically I scratched and grasped and levered my armless body back up toward the blessed air, once more finding myself looking up at the holed rear window that was blocking my escape. This time, baseball-sized brown streams were pouring in through the holes, and I knew that my time was running out fast. Desperately, heedless of pain I pecked with all my might at the shatterproof glass. Once, twice, three times, to no avail.
The radios went under with a sizzle. They were now submerged.
Desperately I pecked again and again, but the safety glass was just too much for me. I readjusted my footing to try again...
..and felt my toe-claws brush up against the quarter-window glass. Of course! I could KICK far harder than I could peck!
Carefully I lined up for a backwards kick, and felt my foot go through cleanly. Again and again I lashed out, trying to aim for the edges so as to make a big enough hole. It was slow work, though, even with desperation to aid me. When my head finally did go under, I still was not finished. But two more quick kicks seemed to do the job, and somehow- I am STILL not sure how- I managed to twist and turn in the darkness and get through the now-glassless rear quarter window. Or nearly glassless- I felt a terrible pain in my right wing as I squeezed through, though it wasn't ABOUT to stop me! Then I hit my head twice as I rose toward the air, each blow threatening to make me inhale the water that would surely kill me.
Fortunately, there had not been enough time for the water to get very deep, and right in front of me was something I had absolutely forgotten about- the trailered boat! This was the reason the truck had stood on its nose! The jonboat's floatation had provided lift at the trailer hitch!
The boat was vertical too, of course, struggling against the weight of the 4x4. It was half submerged. In fact, I realized, the submerged front seats were what I had hit my head on. But newer boats will float and support considerable weight even when full of water- the Coast Guard requires built-in foam to allow this. Furthermore, the current was just roaring by, and the trailer and everything was twisted wickedly in relation to the 4x4 and rocking back and forth vigorously. Still, the near-vertical boat was a Godsend for me, as the backs of the seats provided a place for me to stand, and the hull shielded me from almost all the current. Somewhere down below the truck was securely wedged against something, but from where I stood there was no way to tell what.
Nor did I really care, as long as I could breathe air instead of muddy water... I stood there for what must have been several hours, getting terribly seasick as the boat swayed drunkenly and not daring to move a muscle for fear of pitching myself into the millrace below. Indeed, the current had slowed perceptibly by the time metal fatigue finally sheared the trailer tongue. If I had been pitched overside, I think it would have been all over for me. But as it happened the weight of the still-attached trailer slued the boat around and left me inside the sunken but still upright hull. It was a measure of how precarious my position had been that I felt relief at being cast adrift bleeding in a swamped boat at night with no lights, a bad weather forecast, and caught in the current from a broken levee. Exhausted, I collapsed onto the little foredeck, and even managed to sleep a bit. Thunder woke me up. LOUD thunder. And lightning.
A couple minutes passed before I realized where I was, that I was not having a nightmare. Or rather that I was in fact having a nightmare, but that waking up would not help me escape from it. The flashes of lightning gave me my first real ability to look around me, and I took full advantage. Eventually it became clear that I was in a huge flooded cornfield. In the distance, a subdivision of houses reared up spookily from the water like rows of tombstones. During my nap either the floodwater had equalized on both sides of the ruined levee or else I had drifted so far from the breach that it was out of sight. There had been over 18 feet of water being held back by the Goose Creek levee, and in a river valley that much water can flood square miles. It was even possible I had drifted outside the county line. Must be sure not to arrest anyone...
Carefully I examined the storm clouds above me. They looked really nasty. Great.
Then I finally got up, and began gingerly wading around the boat. There wasn't much to find, really, except for useless electric lights stowed neatly in their brackets and a considerably more useful paddle still neatly latched place just where I remembered it. The key was still in the ignition, too. No, I thought. NO WAY would this boat start after all it had been through. Standing on its nose for hours must surely have drained the water from the battery, and the fuel from the tank...
Lightning struck the water so close I heard the sizzle. What did I have to lose?
The motor was fuel-injected, I had noticed. No more fiddling with chokes like on the outboards of my youth. Carefully I grasped the key in my sore bill and turned. It smoothly clicked into the "on" position, and the depth finder lit up. I was in 6.3 feet of water, and the battery was still putting out juice!
A miracle! Eagerly, I cranked the motor. It turned over very slowly, but fired immediately and ran smoothly. I was ecstatic! In the darkness, I hopped up and down with pleasure, splashing gleefully. Let's see now, I though to myself, there was a bilge pump...
And sure enough, it began buzzing merrily away as well, once I found the switch. In time, it would bail out the whole boat. God bless internal combustion! The lights were too much for me to manage- without hands I could never rig them. But I was unlikely to encounter any traffic anyway, and the lightning was living up to its name well enough to navigate by. But where to go? In truth, I was not sure how long the motor would keep running, nor could I make out in the darkness which direction would lead to dry land. And the storm wasn't just almost upon me- it was already there.
A hot, dry wind blew across me, swinging the boat around. Then a cold wind came from exactly the opposite direction, swinging me back. This was going to be a bad one too, I realized. Already waves were starting to develop. The bilge pump would be slow, and I would remain low in the water for a long time yet. Waves were not something I was prepared to deal with. There really wasn't any choice. Fortunately boats are more ostrich-friendly to run than cars- the throttle can be set and locked in place, leaving my head free to steer. And so with the helm firmly grasped in my beak I made my way at idle speed towards the only solid structures in sight- the flooded subdivision.
By the time I got there rain was pouring dawn again, and the wind beginning to put a definite chop on the water. The bilge pump was still happily buzzing away, but what with the frequent waves slopping over the sides it was no longer making any progress. Even worse, the motor was beginning to misfire. It was clear that I had made the right choice in going for the houses. This became even clearer when I heard the voice over the sound of my stumbling motor. "Hello in the boat! Help!" Immediately I steered toward the sound, and presently I came to a figured huddled miserably on a roof in the lee of a chimney. "Hello!" I shouted back, by voice honking a bit under stress as it always does when I try to raise it. "Hello! Can you hear me?"
Thunder drowned out the reply, but this time I was able to make out the voice. "Dan? Dan-Man?" I asked incredulously. "What in God's name..."
"Ken!" he replied joyously, capering about a bit on the rooftop. "Jesus am I glad to see you! I thought..." More thunder drowned out the rest, but the point had been made. Carefully, I tried to nudge my failing boat up to the edge of Dan's roof so he could clamber aboard, but the broken-off trailer tongue suspended underneath and extending beyond the bow frustrated my first efforts. Just as I had changed strategies and brought my boat alongside the fascia my motor finally died. I tried to restart it as Dan firmly held the boat in place, but it was futile. I suspected that too much water had finally worked its way into the fuel tank through the air vents. Still, the boat could yet prove quite valuable to us before the night was out, so Dan carefully tied it up to the TV antenna mast before helping me up onto the relatively solid ground of the roof. I didn't realize how weak I had become until my legs failed at the first attempt, and Dan ended up almost having to lift me outright. The solid ground felt odd, and I almost stumbled twice climbing up the mildly pitched roof to the shelter of the chimney. Once there, we hunkered down together to share what little protection was available. "I thought you were a goner for sure!" Dan finally roared out over the violence of the weather. "It's SO good to see you!"
"What in the hell are you doing here, anyway?" I asked. "Did Lincoln and the construction guys make it?"
Dan explained that the 4x4 had been almost directly caught in the raging torrent, but that the dump truck and tractor just a few feet away had not. "Once we saw that you were trapped, one of the construction guys realized that your truck was still connect to the tractor by the winch cable. He fired the tractor up, and tried to pull you out. But the blamed thing took time to start, and the water was already over the truck axles by the time we got it running. Still, we gave it all we had. We kept pulling until finally the cable broke."
"Hmm," I mused "Is that when you dived in after me?"
Dan was silent.
"I see." And after that we were quiet for long minutes. Eventually Dan said, "Because we were right there on the spot, the residents had plenty of warning time. I think pretty much everyone got out."
"Except us," I added. "Right."
Finally, the weather started getting really exciting again, taking our minds completely off of our respective near-drownings. A sustained, hard wind began to blow as the storm reached its height, and the waves began to build.
And build. And build.
The sights revealed by the lightning flashes were absolutely fantastic, Muddy brown rollers over four feet in height were crashing through the subdivision, each shaking the structures noticeably as the wind howled and the endless rain became needle-like in intensity. All sorts of junk was being flushed out of the homes, floating free to smash itself to flinders. Windows burst, beds and refrigerators dashed themselves violently against each other, and once even a coffin rammed itself up against our refuge several times, only to sink out of sight a few moments later. Presently, we realized that we were in real trouble if the waves continued for long. Not only was the water dealing the home we were standing on a lusty blow with each impact, but the blows were rhythmic and always from the same direction. Before long, the structure was beginning to sway sickeningly with each shock. And after a surprisingly short time, both Dan and I noticed that the chimney was getting further and further away from the roof. The house was coming off its foundation under the stress!
We looked at each other but neither of us had any ideas. The boat was completely untenable under the circumstances, so our only choice was to wait and hope.
But we hoped in vain. Not long before dawn, the house groaned sickeningly, and came adrift. From there things went downhill fast. Houses are not designed to stand up to the same stresses as boats, and not surprisingly under the conditions this one didn't last long. Almost immediately we began to pick up speedbefore the wind and head for even deeper water. From time to time we hit various submerged obstacles, and the structure would shudder and groan and sway under the impact of the waves until something gave- either the obstacle or part of the house itself. Then we would drift on again, usually at some crazy angle because we had left a room or two behind. It was a mad ride.
Eventually, we came to the airport.
It wasn't the City's major airport, of course; just a satellite field built to take advantage of the flat river bottomland and the supposed flood protection of the now-defunct Goose Creek levee. There were two business jets and a whole slew of private planes bobbing about in the waves; later I learned that all the flyable ones had been gotten out despite the storms but that these aircraft had been grounded for service. And on top of the nearest jet, high and dry, laid a terrified Irish Setter. When dawn broke, it was still storming heavily and the waves remained strong. We were probably making several miles an hour downwind, and catching up to the plane the dog was riding. He noticed us eventually, and began barking excitedly, running up and down the fuselage and wagging his tail. He was SO glad to see people again, you could tell. People had ALWAYS helped him solve his problems before. And he was frightened, and lonely.
It was inevitable that he would try and swim to our floating house. And with one last excited yap, he leaped into the floodwater. "Come on, boy!" Dan encouraged him once the dog had made his decision. "You can make it!" He clapped his hands eagerly. And the dog almost DID make it. Until the water boiled up all around him, and he disappeared beneath the surface without so much as a yelp. Presently, pieces of him floated to the surface. Just like the pieces of a certain catfish I had seen...
Oh, shit! "Dan!" I said urgently. "You studied the maps. Were we fishing near here yesterday?"
It took him a moment to shake off the shock of what had happened to the dog. "Uh, yeah!" he answered eventually. "We were only about a mile from the airport, as the crow flies. But the levee was in between...."
"Yeah," I confirmed. "Look, you can just make it out through the rain over that way." I pointed with my beak toward the line of brush that marked the failed attempt to thwart Nature.
He thought a minute. "I bet our worm was holing up in the deep water right under the levee, and then got sucked through. In fact, I'd bet money on it."
"Right," I agreed. It made sense after all. "Let's hope we don't have to go swimming, then. If all goes well, I bet we can flag down a helicopter and get picked up once the weather clears."
"I don't know," Dan replied, pointing. "Look there."
It took me a minute to figure it out, but once I did the sight chilled my blood. "Oh, no! Not now, not when we're so close to making it..."
Directly downwind of us, right across our course, was a line of runway approach beacons. They were made of sharp-angled steel girders, and I knew them to be anchored in concrete. The waves would rip our floating house to shreds upon them!
"Quick!" I suggested, " Let's take our chances in the boat!" But there was no time. Before we could take two steps we hit something submerged but also solidly anchored, and were knocked off our feet. Had it not been for Dan I would have fallen in and drowned on the spot. But he grabbed me and held on tight as wave after wave of brown water smashed into the impaled and waterlogged structure, and began the final stages of disassembly. The roof tilted crazily first one way, and then another as rooms and walls were shed, changing the way we floated. And then for a few moments we dared hope again when the house split and our half floated away free. But it didn't last long. Another obstruction, probably a wholly submerged runway beacon, grabbed us once again, and with a shudder and a groan the house resumed coming apart under the repeated blows. This time, the building tilted crazily over and over again, but always in one direction. Apparently the airfield structure had solidly harpooned the house, and the structure was pivoting itself, with many groans and breaking-up noises, around the point where it was stuck. Gradually, the roof was more and more nearly approaching the vertical. There was only one thing to do. Our boat was long-gone by now, tied to the other half of the building. As gracefully as we could manage, we stayed on top of the rolling bulk as it turned, bit by bit. Eventually we reached broken edge of the roof, now the high point of our refuge. Then, as the rolling continued even that point became untenable.
Unceremoniously, the pair of us fell together down into the interior of what had once been a rather nice, upper middle class home, but which had now become a madhouse.
At first it wasn't too bad. An interior wall provided me footing once I found the studs amidst the rapidly dissolving drywall. The structure itself blocked waves and wind, and it was pretty comfortable. Until something tried to wrap itself around both of my legs...
I jumped like a startled hare, clearing the water by inches before crashing back down into the maelstrom. A quick frenzied search with my feet located the studs again, and presently I got my head safely above the surface. "Dan!" I shouted. "Dan! It's in here! With us!"
"Shit!" he declared from his perch atop a floating pool table. Once upon a time, this seemed to have been a rec room. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," I replied, my voice more under control. "It tried to grab me, but I was able to leap clear. Only..."
Not until then had I noticed the pain. "It hurt me, Dan. I think it stuck me in the leg with one of those spikes."
"Are you bleeding?"
Stupid question. "How would I know? But I think I must be."
"Shit. Let me try and pull you up on this table..."
But even he reached for me, another wave rocked the house, and he was catapulted into the water alongside me.
I heard Dan's arm break as he landed. By the time we got him squared away and standing on the stud work alongside me, the structure had stabilized again, for the moment. My partner was no longer in any more of a position to climb than I was. With his good arm he pulled his Smith and Wesson .38 from its holster, and took up a grim one handed stance. Clearly, he meant to go down fighting.
"Dan," I said. "I don't think a .38 is gonna do much good here."
"Neither do I," he answered back through clenched teeth. "Got any better ideas?"
Hmm. I looked around me. The light was getting better every minute, and for the first time the details of the room were becoming clear.
Unfortunately, it appeared to be just an ordinary rec room. An air-hockey table floated alongside the upended pool table, and the remains of a big-screen monitor dangled precariously over our heads from a cable connection. Furniture in various states of ruin completed the mess. Then I noticed that the light was mostly coming in not through the missing wall directly above us, but through a big glass panel that was half-submerged just across the room. It wasn't a window- it was a sliding door turned sideways!
"Dan!" I said urgently. "See that patio door? If we can get out, maybe the worm will be trapped in the building, at least for a while. Can you lift it with your good arm?'
"Yeah, I think I can!" he declared, holstering his firearm and delicately making his way across the latticework of 2x4's that was supporting us. Eagerly I followed, desperate for us both to escape the cold, slimy, agonizing and very final embrace I knew awaited us at any second. The door was very heavy, having been originally designed to slide sideways, and naturally there was no counterweight. Dan dropped it the first time, his feet slipping off the studs. But on the second attempt, he just managed to lift it. Quickly, I inserted a pool cue to hold it open, and gratefully Dan rested his burden on the improvised brace. Then, he wiggled his way through and I followed behind just as quickly as possible. But not quickly enough. The worm grabbed me when I had almost made it, and sank its prey-holding daggers deep into my legs before I could jump free. Fortunately, Dan must have felt the movement in the water. With a feral growl, he drew the .38 with his broken arm, while wrapping the good one around my neck. His strangling grip choked off my screams of agony as I felt first one, then a second mouth begin grinding their way towards my vitals. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the water begin to turn scarlet with my blood.
Then the shots rang out, each accompanied by a vehement word torn from Dan's throat. "Dirty... Filthy... Fucking...Worm... LET GO, GODDAMNIT!"
Then my legs were crushed, and I passed out for a bit.
When I came to, the sun baking down on me was the first thing I noticed. Then, as if from a great distance, I heard Dan stir as he noticed me opening up my eyes. "Ken!" he said. "Ken! It's OK. Don't even try to move. We're safe, now." "Safe? From what?" I asked. Then a moment later. "Why do my legs hurts? Dan? Why..."
After an endless time some of the bleariness cleared, and I recalled my last few moments of consciousness. Alarmed, I tried to roll over. But the effort hurt terribly. Finally I gave up, and asked how it was that I was still alive.
"It was the sliding door, Ken," he explained. "My last round hit the pool cue, and the door fell on the worm. It let you go, and started thrashing around. I pulled you out. The worm stayed stuck."
He gave me a couple minutes to absorb that, then went on. "I won't lie to you, partner. You're hurt pretty bad. I'm surprised you came around."
"I feel pretty bad," I agreed weakly. Then, after a few minutes. "Can I raise my head? I want to look around."
"Just be careful, Ken, and keep your lower body still. I think you've got two broken legs."
"Right." I knew that already. And there was worse. Far worse. But I wanted to look around before I died...
We were still adrift on part of our house, this time a wooden deck. Apparently the building had rolled some more before the weather had finally calmed, because the patio door that we had used for our escape was now high out of the water. And still solidly wedged in it, drying in the sun, was our worm.
It made a horrid sight, with my blood smeared all over the pallid undersides and the top a mottled brown that perfectly matched the floodwater. The mouths still twitched, sometimes. But it was a couple minutes, sick as I was, before the most important fact sank in. There was ten feet of worm dangling helplessly from the door. And at the point it was pinched the thing's body was still getting thicker, not thinner. Jesus! How long was that thing anyway? In answer to my question, I heard a splashing noise deep within the house, and watched as the pinioned creature twitched. Thirty feet, at least. My God...
We had though we were guessing the size of the whole animal, but it was only a segment!
"The storm hasn't been over for long," Dan finally said. "An airplane flew by, but I don't think he saw us. Still, it can't be long now."
Which was just as well. My God, was I starting to HURT...
Just then, before the pain blacked me out again, I saw it happen. Though often since I have wished I had been spared the sight.
The worm thrashed again in its death agonies, and finally the overstrained tissue caught in the door split and tore. The leading part of the worm dropped into the water, while the other severed end made a sullen splash inside the house. We watched as the half we could see spasmed violently a few times, then Changed...
...into a young screaming Japanese-looking girl, with blind terror in her eyes and her torso severed just above the middle. Once, twice, three times she issued her piercing wail, then floated silent with her open eyes staring fixedly at the glaring sun. Dan-Man was frozen in horror. He couldn't look away. "It's not your fault, Dan," I said. "It was a righteous case of self-defense. In your heart you know it."
But presently he began to weep, and there wasn't a thing I could do to console him before the blackness took me once again. I should have died, you know. But Dr, Derksen is MOST talented. One hundred and three days after admission, I walked from the hospital under my own power. In another few months, I would even be fit for duty again. We identified our young Oriental girl as a missing college student, and turned over the remains for burial. Dan was acquitted fully at his mandatory hearing, as it was understood that there was no way he could have released the perpetrator from its improvised trap without the result being the almost certain violent deaths of two police officers. And the grief counseling seemed to help.
Even the Flood itself is history, now, though the cleanup continues. Still, though, I just cannot seem to close this file in my mind. Oftentimes I sit in the Pig, swallow a beakful of beer and wonder. We never found the other part of that SCAB, you know. And a lot of lower life forms even without the involvement of the Flu can often survive being split in two. Is the remaining part still out there somewhere, eating catfish and healing and remembering tastier meals? And if that's the case, then the questions start running even deeper.
Is the other half still human, having re-developed without a head?
Had both halves lived, would there now be two of this girl? Where in the body is the soul located, anyway? Or does that question even mean anything at all, in the world after SCABS?
Quietly I sit alone sometimes, and get stinking drunk. So that I do not have to look in the mirrors of that poor girl's dying eyes and ask what my reflection means...
Copyright 1999 by Phil Geusz. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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