The bus took me to the subway station where I boarded the right train, which shunted and accelerated on time to end me up where I wanted to go. I remember I was whistling a tune from a popular television show and tapping my new, cream colored shoes, when the lights in the subway car suddenly flickered and strobed. The train jerked to a screeching halt, tossing passengers right, left and center, in varying attitudes of embarrassment, pain and confusion. I landed on the back of a fat, greasy man with his face plastered on the front page of his newspaper. Before the lights went out for good, I saw my story blazoned in huge, red letters across the banner, Terrif. . . . . . ewer! Whatever landed on top of me in the gathering darkness had enormous, pillow-soft breasts. One should always look for the positive aspects of any near disaster.
The woman on my back accented her annoyance with the situation with a heavily drawn breath, rather than the echoing grunts emanating from the fat man beneath my elbows. She took her time feeling her way up from my body, lightly dancing her fingers around my new suit, probing for an acceptable lifting-off point. The man under us was wheezing and puffing, faintly. I thought it wise at that point to give him a little air, but when I tried to push myself (and my female passenger) up from his folds of blubber, my hand shot out from under me, slipping off his sweaty face and smashing into his briefcase. He swore something that got lost in the rebounding of his cheeks. When my hands finally found the floor of the car, and I heaved myself up, girl still firmly pressed into my back, the fat man seemed to breath for the first time since the lights went out. The sigh from the woman, so close to me, wafted to my ears on wings of resigned disappointment.
Somewhere, way behind all the crying and screaming, was the sparking crackle of an errant electric cable. An occasional flash of blue-white light found its way through the marbled onyx of the cold windows and reflected off the aluminum and stainless steel of the car's interior. It was evident to me that we were in no little danger. It was also becoming evident I might not make my interview on time. Now a dog started barking somewhere outside the subway tunnel.
After exerting a little unappreciated muscle, I pulled myself free of the clinging and clutching throng and returned to what I assumed was my original seat. I was occasionally brushed by a familiar softness while I accomplished this feat. The wailing continued as I angled my head to peer out the blackened window at my back to locate the source of the flashing. There it was. One of the connecting cables from an underground transformer to the infamous "third rail" had broken, or been pried away, and was crackling in rhythm with some unfelt vibration, against one of the wheels of the car. I blessed whoever thought to insulate subway trains so well from such occurrences, and in the same breath, cursed them for inventing subway systems in the first place.
A spitting hiss filled the darkness, followed by a dim yellow emergency light and an officious sounding, mechanical voice.
"May I have your attention, subway patrons. Please remain seated, there is no cause for alarm. We are experiencing a minor difficulty. An emergency works department crew is en route to your position. Please stand clear of the doors and make no attempt to leave the train until the workmen...work crew, arrives. Thank you for your patience and your patronage."
Whereas the announcement was calculated to allay fears, it had of course, the opposite effect. A wave of hot panic washed over the bug-eyed faces glowing in the yellow light. The fat man still lay face down on his newspaper, sobbing now, while the crowd trundled over him toward every door in the car. Fists pounded and shoulders bashed, muted only by enough praying to cause the Roman Catholic church to reconsider St. Christopher's importance in the heavenly assembly. As I sat there, taking in all the excitement, I scanned the crowd for that comforting feminine scent I so closely associated with pillowy softness.
As the throng was attacking the doors, the heat level in the car rose a noticeable handful of degrees. My new suit was ruined and I didn't even want to think what my shoes looked like. Then, softly, a voice to my left whispered, "Why not try the emergency latch on the window?"
Oh, that voice. It just purred cool sweetness into my ear. I shuffled around so I could see its owner beside me on the seat. Even in the diffusion of yellow light, her eyes were blue, and soft and liquid and all the things blue eyes should be, while resting in the face of a beautiful woman. Somewhere in my pants a dog barked.
"I was just about to do that," I lied. "If I can get it open, would you care to go for a walk with me? In the tunnel? In the dark? Away from this sweaty crowd," I asked, putting Cary Grant in my tone?
"Yes, I'd like that very much," she answered, trailing a long, painted finger nail down the throbbing vein in my temple. "But, won't that be kind of dangerous?"
"I certainly hope so," I said. She gave my nose a little tweak and my ears a little giggle.
After a long and embarrassing battle with the latch, I finally got the window open. The funny thing about these emergency windows is that once the latch is sprung, the window doesn't simply open, it pops like a champagne cork and makes a godawful crash when it hits the ground. And when it did, all the screaming and crying paused while every head in the car turned to see what the noise was. I sat there like an idiot, not knowing what to say or do. I had a potential stampede on my hands.
But, the woman was sharp as well as beautiful. Without missing a beat, she announced in a loud and frightened voice, "Bomb, everybody down!"
That did it. The noise of bodies crashing would have made Wall Street cringe. They dropped like concrete flies to the floor of the car and the wailing resumed with more enthusiasm than before.
"Let's get going," she said as she shoved me through the window. I landed on my feet, just inches from the loose cable, and jumped back so fast and so far that I made a lasting impression in the tunnel wall.
As I pulled myself away from the cement, I watched as two shapely legs made their way out of the window, followed by a tightly muscled tush, slim waist and a beautifully V-shaped back, that I knew from experience, helped support a soft abundance on its front. All wrapped neatly in a smart silk business suit. Now that I had more time to appreciate the girl, I saw that she had dusty-brown hair, a five foot, four inch stature and an enviable agility .
When she turned after landing (much more deftly and much farther from the cable than I had) she was smiling slyly in my direction. I felt an overwhelming desire to kiss her gorgeous face until my lips could draw a map of it. And she wasn't doing anything to discourage me. As we started away from the crippled subway car and into the deepening darkness of the tunnel, the dog sat up and begged.
"While we're taking our little stroll," she said, grasping my hand in a firm, warm hold, "do you think we might possibly try finding our way out of here? Not right away, of course. But some time before tonight?"
"I am entirely at your service, Miss..."
"Dysan. Denise Dysan. And you are," she asked?
"Drooling down my shirt."
"I can see that even in the dark. But, what do they call you if they want you to answer?"
"Delaney, Ray Delaney. I'm a writer, usually. Newspapers, mostly. But, I've written for just about every medium on any subject that'd turn a buck. Just now I'm calling myself a journalist, again," I told her.
"How exciting," she observed, unexcitedly. I thought I caught a glimmer of amusement in her voice. "I just love professional men. Have I ever read you? What do you write about?"
"Whatever's in fashion for whomever I happen to be working at the time," I said, with probably more frankness than I intended.
"As a matter of fact, I've just sold a piece to one of those check-out counter shit sheets, about a monster living here in the sewers. I was actually on my way to see the editor of The Inquisitor before the subway broke down. I think they were going to offer me a beat on the paper."
"Monsters? How wonderful for you," she said.
"Yeah, but, unfortunately it looks like I'm going to be a little late for my appointment, so I might as well kiss the job good-bye. Editors like you to show up for interviews. It's a quirk they all share when they leave the rank and file. Hazard of upward mobility, I guess," I sighed.
"Maybe there's something I can do to take your mind off your bad luck," she whispered. This kind of thing just didn't happen anymore. But, here it was.
"Could be," I whispered back as our faces came together in the dark. A long moment later I continued. "In fact, I have a feeling we just might come up with something to cheer us both up."
"What's the name of this almost editor of yours, Ray?"
"Hey, that's funny. His name's Dysan, too. Dennis Dysan. Any relation," I asked into the nape of her neck?
"I take it you haven't met this person," she asked?
"No. I just faxed the story in on spec. Got a cheque, then a call three days later from the assistant editor telling me to be there this afternoon to meet with Dennis."
"Well, it's not Dennis, Ray, it's D' neece. And I think you're breathing in your future bosses' ear, right now." She laughed and her softness bounced and I shrank into my rumpled white suit, while the dog cringed in my pants.
"I guess I could teach a course on how to wedge your ass in a ringer, huh?"
"Don't be so hard on yourself," she said, still laughing with her eyes. "I suppose you could say this 'shit-sheet' heiress is guilty of manipulating the situation, a little. I noticed you on the subway and recognized you from your bio pic. That's why I got close to you, I mean before the accident. I sat next to you, but you didn't notice. You were admiring your shoes."
I don't believe she could see my face redden .
"Look, Ray, let's start over again. I like the way you write and I think you're a pretty nice-looking man. And since I'm late for our appointment, too, there's no reason to hurry. Is there," she asked, moving close again and planting another soft kiss on my widening grin?
The dog stopped cringing and wagged its tail.
I don't think either of us could give an accounting of the time it took for that embrace to run its course, but when it finally did, we found ourselves very far from where it began. Both geographically and emotionally
"Nice," she asked?
"It was more than that, Denise. But, I'd need a thesaurus to come
up with the right adjective."
"Well," she suggested, "I suppose we should try finding our way out of here, shouldn't we? I've got a paper to run and staff to hire." There was a wistful quality to her voice. "I imagine the subway crew have already rescued the great unwashed from the train. Speaking of which, how would you like to write it up for next issue? You know the read; 'Terrified Commuters Resort to Cannibalism During Week-long Ordeal in Bowels of Earth.' That kind of angle?"
"You mean I got the job?"
"You certainly gave a good accounting of your abilities in a tight spot," she teased. "And I hear you can write, too."
"Well, you're an easy boss to account to," it was my turn to tease, as we began orienting ourselves in the dim tunnels. It's hard to get your bearings in the dark. Well, it wasn't really that dark, the Transit Authority had the budget to recess a 60-watt bulb into the ceiling every fifty feet, or so. All we had to do, then, was find our way back to the main tracks and follow them to the next station. Simple.
Except for the fact we'd been so engrossed in our new, mutual interests, that we apparently spanned more than one set of tracks in our ambling embraces. We were suddenly faced with a number of branching arteries, each as alike as the others and each with its own recesses and hidey-holes. I understood what a laboratory rat must feel like, bumping its vicious little head on the artificial walls of its maze.
The dankness of the tunnels we kept discovering and the fact that we were getting more lost with each turn we followed, was disconcerting to us both. Denise seemed to be growing particularly agitated by the fact that we'd run out of subway track and were now following what appeared to be large maintenance tunnels. There was no seeming about it with me. I was getting antsy, really antsy.
To take her mind off the situation, while we stumbled into one false trail after another, Denise asked, "That piece you sold us about the thing in the sewer, Ray, that was just tabloid license, wasn't it?"
"Well, you know every major city's had its tradition of bogeyman in the sewers. Some have giant alligators and crocodiles, others have giant rats or experimental lab animals. But stories of monsters in these particular sewers always crop up with a stronger sense of reality than other places. I checked into some histories and a number of documented sightings and came up with a kind of pattern.
"I eliminated the obviously impossible, the patently stupid and I found a focus. Aside from the reptile and stray dog stories, only one continued to surface over a long period. It detailed the sightings of a humanoid creature, just over five feet in height, covered with silken hair, capable of human speech and of inhuman behavior and embodying naked evil. In short, a devil,
"I don't believe devils choose to live in the sewers of major cities, so I looked for other likely candidates. I met a guy, recently, in a bar. He told me about his wife's sister's husband, who met up with a hairy, little critter in the sewer.
"Seems the guy headed a troubleshooting team for the city. Mostly broken mains and plugged drains. The crew was underground in the main branch a while ago tracking a major blockage off in one of the tributaries. They supposedly had a hard time reconciling the computer readout indicating where the blockage should be with the actual underground layout. It was almost like the maps and charts had been altered on the data base. They were in a disused conduit of the sewer, so maybe the maps were just out of date, they thought.
"After over an hour of bumbling and cursing over their radios, they bumped into their blockage, in a runoff that shouldn't exist. It was a feeder tunnel connecting the new sewer to the original line, closed now, for forty years. Although it took a while, they finally realized their blockage was the rotting remains of a human being. Actually, it was the decomposing corpses of two separate women, bisected after death and stitched back together. It was impossible at the time to determine if the halves belonged together, or not. The autopsy confirmed they didn't."
Denise hissed a sharp breath through her teeth and fixed her eyes on mine in the half-light from the bulb directly overhead, as she grasped my sleeve and held me in place.
"You mean this is on the level," she asked?
"As far as the foreman and his crew are concerned, it is."
"If this is true, why weren't these details in your piece? What inquest? When? What are you planning, a series? Were you going to sell it to me one page at a time?"
"Actually, yes. That's what I had in mind. Until now."
"I went to see the foreman to get a quote. He was understandably upset over finding the corpses, but that wasn't the reason he quit his job. Did I mention he quit his job? He told me they're always finding dead things down there; it's routine, now. He said he refused to go back down, because he was afraid of seeing the monster again. In fact, his testimony about this creature was suppressed at the inquest.
"The Mayor's Office and the police decided to throw a blanket over this one. The decision was highly suspect. After all, transients, hookers and the city's dispossessed have been turning up dead in the sewers and subway tunnels since they were built. What's so special about this time? Well, this is the first time two hookers turned up interchanged and sewn together with mortuary suture. Nothing fancy here, just construction grade thread intended not to show during funerals, so it doesn't have to look good.
"Here's the kicker, the pair used to work for an escort agency and their last known whereabouts were in a city limo, returning from the Mayor's last fundraiser."
"So," Denise said, "you have a solution to why the cover-up. No?"
"I believe there's more to it. For instance; even the Mayor's people wouldn't impede a police investigation just because the crime involved isn't pretty, or it presents an embarrassment to them. So, it comes back to the foreman's story about this monster. Why wasn't his story just laughed off like all the rest over the years?"
The tunnel we walked down became colder and I noticed we were on a gentle decline. The sounds of water dripping and trickling reverberated off the moist curving walls and our footfalls echoed sharply back to us.
"The Works Department ordered the foreman and his crew back into the unmarked tunnel to chart it for future reference, but, like I said, he refused. They threatened and he threatened. Disciplinary action, work slowdown - lockout, full strike - do dah, do dah. Finally, after trying to give testimony at the inquest, he quit. He told them he wouldn't expose his men to the danger and he sure as hell didn't want to face it, again, himself. He got very quiet, then, as he described the thing to me.
"He said it stood upright, but it was not as tall as an average man. And he told me it was covered in long, gray, silky hair. Not fur, he was particular on that point, but hair. He said its eyes glowed yellow green, like a cat's, in the beams of their work lights and it had two, even rows of needle-sharp teeth. At first he and his crew thought it was some kind of exotic ape, escaped from an upscale zoo or a yuppie's private menagerie. But, then the thing spoke to them."
"It spoke to them," Denise asked guardedly?
I nodded. "He said the thing told them they were trespassing, to get out and leave it alone. And here's something that ties in later; the thing's vocabulary and speech patterns are totally unlike what you'd expect from a monster, if a monster could talk. That's what decided me the foreman was on the level. His story jibes with the rest of the sewer lore that's been taking shape around this creature for the past twenty-five years. Similar descriptions in numerous reports, as well as testimony that the thing speaks English - and usually better than the witnesses."
"Yeah? And? So..? What'd it say," she asked?
"It told them they were trespassing in its sanctum sanctorum; to leave and forget what they'd seen. It said it would see them dead before giving up its privacy. You ever hear of a talking ape that uses dialogue from B-movies?"
"No. But monkeys are too smart for that, these days."
"Haw, haw. Anyway, when the crew didn't move fast enough to suit
the thing, it rushed them and took a chunk out of the foreman's leg. It
actually bit him a little higher, but I thought that would read too funny
in the piece, so I moved it down a few inches. He showed me the wound.
Messy scab. It couldn't've been a dog or raccoon, the dentition's all
wrong, and unless somebody's dressing up in a gorilla suit and sticking
razor blades in his mouth, I don't think it's a human bite. The man's
story holds up," I concluded.
"Don't you think that's enough?"
"You know what I mean. Did it say anything more or try to hurt the other men?"
"According to the forman, they were half way out of the sewer by the time the thing was on him. As soon as they heard it talk, they bolted! That's why the last part of his story's a bit dicy. I didn't mention it in the article because I didn't have corroboration."
"Since when did my paper ever ask for corroboration," she laughed.
"Yeah, okay, but for my own piece of mind I still sometimes cling to a semblance of journalistic integrity. I like to pretend to legitimacy, at least."
Denise chuckled at that and asked, "What did you leave out?"
I said, "When the foreman finally beat the thing off, it skittered off a few yards and began hissing at him. Then it said, and I'm quoting him, here, 'I can have you killed any time I wish it.. If you breathe a word of this encounter to anyone, I'll have a visit paid to your home and eliminate your family. Make no mistake, I have the power to have this done.' Then it backed slowly, deeper into the tunnel and disappeared into the wall. The foreman said the tunnel seemed to swallow it up. And now, he thinks the thing might have been a ghost."
"He doesn't really," asked Denise, slowing to a stop under another utility light? "How do you read this guy?"
"Like I said, I buy it. I know he believes it, and he's no moron. I have a file this thick, (I spread my thumb and forefinger apart to indicate how thick the file was) on sightings of this creature. They date as far back as 1966, when the sewer was first enlarged and rerouted for the subway tunnels, and they describe the same thing. Whatever it was, appeared to lay in wait for anybody unlucky enough to work alone in the tunnels. You have to realize these stories never came to the surface until years after they happened. No one ever reported anything on an official basis, so there's no legal record of any of this. But, the grapevine is fat and memories cling.
"Most of the stories tell about a monster about the size of a small man with a little man's attitude. Attacking, violently, whenever it took a fancy. And actually bullying the biggest of the laborers. That's a shoulder with a chip."
"God," she whispered.
Of course, I didn't really believe half of what I'd just told her, but it had the desired effect. She clung to me like lint to a lollipop.
"So, walk me through this, Delaney. You're connecting this latest attack to all the folklore concerning the subway tunnel construction. And you're saying that a pint sized proboscis monkey who thinks he's Popeye should be taken seriously as a suspect in the murder and mutilation of two hookers. And you're telling me that there could be a cover-up involving the Mayor and originating from his Office. Is that about right," she asked?
"You left out the part about the thing biting the guy on the ass," I said.
"I know you're full of shit. But, down here, in the dark, in these tunnels, you've got me scared."
"About what the thing said to the foreman," she asked?
"Why do you think it would talk like that? I mean in just that way? It gives verisimilitude to the man's evidence, doesn't it. If you're gonna lie about something, you lie the way you talk, you don't suddenly increase your vocabulary. You use your own words. That scares me most. I believe him, too."
"Actually that's what sold me on the guy's reliability," I admitted.
"Christ, Delaney. You hear us? A Harvard-educated werewolf living in our sewers. But, that doesn't connect any of this to the corpses or the crime," she said.
"But it makes me think there should be a connection there. Otherwise, why is the Mayor's office suddenly so defensive and so evasive about why the victims were on the city payroll. What's the big deal? It's never been a secret where his tastes lie. Has it?"
"No, you're right. It's in the public domain, by now."
We walked on in silence, then, vainly trying to find indications of where we were. The tunnel was very large and rounded over our heads, and dripping quietly and constantly with either condensation or seepage. We stumbled along for another fifteen minutes, or so, following the wall to our right. As long as there were those little lights strung out overhead, I didn't think we would go too far wrong. The tunnel had to lead somewhere, or else why light it? In the dimness, I peeked at my watch. It must be cooling off outside now, in the late afternoon world of the living, shoving, too-busy-to-care urban commandos. I turned my head to remark as much to Denise, but she suddenly wasn't beside me anymore. She just seemed to vanish into the darkness.
"Sonofabitch!" It was her voice, somewhere near my shoes. "Who put that goddam track there?"
"What track?" I reached down to help her to her feet again.
"The bloody track I just tripped over. What track do you think," she snapped?
"Eureka," I said. I've always wanted to use that word. "If there's a track here that means we're getting out of these maintenance tunnels and back to the main line. Oh you beautiful, kid, you." I tried to kiss her, but she held me off.
"Thanks for the sympathy, pal. Go suck cement."
"C'mon, you found the tracks, didn't you? And probably our best way out of this maze. Don't be interrogating gift horses, boss."
She brushed imaginary dust and a smudge of real dirt off her skirt and her face softened after she'd let off steam. Eventually she brightened.
"Since I found the tracks, you can go first. And keep an eye out for little sewer creeps with Yalie accents, tough guy."
"That's Harvard accents, sweetheart," I Bogart-ed. "We're homefree now anyway, or almost. We just follow the tracks and hail a cab."
We followed the tracks through the tunnel until they took another right
turn. With all the right turns we'd been making I had the feeling we might
simply be moving in one big circle, but I didn't mention this to Denise.
A few minutes into this last turn and we noticed the lights were no longer
strung overhead. The tracks ended in a tangle of rust and corrosion and
we could hear the distant sound of running water. We stopped and looked
at one another. Somehow we had made our way into the sewer system itself.
The smart thing would have been to turn around and follow the tracks back to where we found them and start all over again. That would have been the smart thing. But I have an adventurous soul. Besides, sewers lead somewhere, too. All we had to do was follow the sound of running water to an opening, maybe a manhole ladder, and climb out. Piece a cake. Bogeyman notwithstanding, it seemed like a good idea at the time - so, we pushed on into the darkening, foul-smelling sewer. Denise was glued to my side, mumbling, and I was reminded of those magnificently proportioned assets of hers. I know, shameless. But the memory warmed my heart. Things could be worse, I thought.
Then they got worse.
We were traveling in near total darkness when we reached the source of the water; a ghostly light glimmered from somewhere out of sight and shimmered misty off the surface. The water flowed from elevated conduits that snaked throughout the city's guts. Denise and I had arrived at what appeared to be nothing more or less than an enormous cistern of excrementary muck. Purgatory for all those unmentionables that ride down millions of toilet trails each day.
Here it was just four low concrete steps below us and right out of the Phantom of the Opera, the holding cell for the newly arrested and yet to be processed. One of the city's main collectors and run-off channels, 20 to 25 feet from cobbled floor to brick ceiling, rounded like the other, smaller tunnels, and dripping the same steady seepage. It was a virtual river of crud, winding its murky way out to the first in a series of filtration stations, before spilling into the bay. We stood at the threshold of that massive vaulted chamber and stared in disbelief, breathing through our mouths.
"Places like this really exist. I'll be damned," I murmured.
"You could float a barge down the thing," Denise answered.
"You'd need one," I said. "Must be ten feet deep, can you swim?"
"Piss off," she snapped in alarm!
"Bad idea, huh?"
"Can we go back now, Mr. Delaney?"
"Hell, yes. This wasn't my idea!"
But when we turned around to retrace our footsteps, there, blocking our path in the dim glow of the illusive light, stood a short, hairy, bipedal creature slouching against the chamber wall. Its eyes shone yellowgreen in the dimness and I could just make out the tips of very sharp-looking teeth in its smirky grin. It appeared slightly built and gave the impression of almost, daintiness.
"Welcome," it said.
"Oh, shit," said Denise.
"Ditto", said I, surreptitiously reaching inside my jacket as the apparition in fur began a shambling advance on us. You can imagine my surprise, then, as I noticed Denise dragging a .45 caliber Anniversary Issue Colt Automatic pistol from her handbag at the same time. I decided to bow to superior firepower.
The gun looked like a cannon in her hands as she said, "Another step closer and you're road kill."
The animal before us became a study in still life. The only thing moving was the hair covering its body, wafting on the odorous breezes from the channel behind us. If it could have, I'd bet it would have stopped its hair from moving, too. Denise looked like the most dangerous human being in the universe at that moment, I marveled, and her .45 didn't waver a millimeter. It just stayed pointed at the thing's face.
"Road kill, my sweet," it hissed? It actually hissed sibilant esses to echo throughout the chamber.
"Why, I've done you no harm. Why do you threaten me with that pistol?"
"I don't know what you are or who you are, but you look like a monster to me and I'm scared shitless. So, move another step toward me and I'll scatter you across the wall," Denise told it.
"God, I love a dominant woman," I said.
"Belt up, Delaney!"
She turned her attention back to our hirsute visitor. "You going
to let us pass, or do I pull the trigger?"
"But you are in no danger from me, young lady. I simply saw you and your friend were lost and wished to help you to the closest egress," it said.
The reports were accurate, he certainly did speak very well for a monster. Egress! But then, all things being relative, how should a monster speak?
Denise said, "Right. What about those sewer guys you attacked, huh? You bit that man on his ass, that's disgusting. And you scared the hell out of them and threatened their families. I suppose they were in no danger, either, eh? Whaddaya take me for, an idiot? I'm a fucking editor, buddy. I been around."
"That fact is not evidenced by your speech, my dear."
He shouldn't have said that. Nobody tells editors they don't speak well. I put my fingers in my ears, anticipating the explosions to follow.
"As for the unfortunate incident with the work crew," the creature continued, surprisingly still alive. "They had wandered into my private place. They disrupted my routine and, frankly, they made a tremendous mess with their pumps and cables and lunch wrappers and their empty beer cans. Oh, yes, they were indeed drinking on the job. Domestic, too. Is it any wonder they gave such a distorted report when I asked them to leave," he asked?
"I merely took a firm stance in my interaction with them. It was their choice to become frightened by my attitude. I merely wanted my solitude back, and my anonymity. But that foreman babbled his tripe to the newspapers - yours included, I think, Ms. Dysan." Denise faltered, gasping slightly.
"In a sensationalized account reported by you, Mr. Delaney." I faltered. No gasp, though.
"Yes I do read the local newspapers. And the international press, as well. Shocked? Because I choose to reside in a sewer doesn't necessarily dictate that I am uninformed. By the way, you have a certain panache when you string words, Mr. Delaney," he concluded. I'd been forced to stop thinking of our visitor as a thing.
"Thanks, I try," I replied. "But I don't think you should be relaxing just yet. Can't you see the lady's got a gun?"
"If you prefer, we could retire to my apartments and talk in comfort," he offered.
"Until we know who and what you are and why you're down here scaring the bejesus out of whoever you like, I wouldn't feel safe going anywhere with you. Right Denise?"
But Denise wasn't answering. I glanced sharply at her eyes and saw the determination in them. She blinked and then gave me a tiny nod of reassurance.
"Who are you and what are you doing down here," I demanded.
His face seemed to visibly brighten and he stood straighter as he answered, "My name is James Isaac Jefferson Hunt."
"Bullshit," Denise snapped! "That Hunt boy was kidnapped and murdered in 1957. It's one of the biggest stories of the twentieth century. Jesus, pieces of the kid were sent back to his parents in boxes! Try again, sparky."
"You know your history," he observed, "but I am speaking the truth. That kidnapping was bungled from the start. Those people abducted the wrong person. They took my schoolmate, Charlie Beckwith, not me. I suppose all six-year-olds wearing academy jackets and caps look the same. But that's neither here nor there in the present circumstances.
"As cold and heartless as it may seem to you in retrospect, my parents took advantage of that child's death to protect me. They arranged to convince the kidnappers it was, indeed, me they had. They never found out why the boy was killed, the perpetrators were shot dead during their arrest, and my father used his influence to keep the truth from the public. My schoolmate's parents were adequately compensated for their loss, and their silence."
"What unbridled compassion," I said. But he ignored me.
"As a consequence of their decision, my parents kept me isolated from other children and eventually, from the world entirely, in their obsession to keep me from harm's way. Otherwise, I was a normal child in an abnormal environment. But by my early teen years, I contracted a disease called hypertrichosis which has left me as you see me now. A freak and a virtual mutant. I am, however, still a human being," he concluded.
"Great consolation. Why aren't you wearing any clothes," asked Denise?
We both ignored her.
"The way I read it," I opined, "the Hunt family had billions. If it's true they bought a kid's life, official collusion in a national cover-up and nonexistence for you all these years, they could afford to buy a cure. Hypertrichosis is rare, but it's not irreversible, is it?"
"Indeed it is," he said. "Look, let us please go to my apartments where I can give you a full explanation, in comfort and much more pleasant surroundings."
"I don't believe you," said Denise. "None of the Hunts I ever read about would be caught dead living in a filthy sewer. Werewolf or not."
I nodded to Denise and indicated with a shrug that we might as well start walking as stand there in the cold and dark. She waved her gun at Hunt, who turned and began to lead, talking back at us as he went.
"Yes, in the beginning the disease was confused with lycanthropy and many hundreds of sufferers were murdered by a concerned and benevolent church. Hanged, drowned or burned at the stake to save their souls. I know of a number of instances wherein the clergy summoned physicians to investigate the causes of such an abhorrent condition. The investigations consisted of dismembering the unfortunate patients, while still alive and conscious, to determine whether the hair grew on the inside, as well. An hypothesis held by a papal adviser, at the time, I believe," he chuckled.
"You're pretty chatty, I'll say that for you," said Denise. "But you're not explaining anything germane to the who/what/when/where/why. If you are James Hunt, where have you been the last three decades, and what are you doing in this sewer playing monster. And," she raised her voice and the .45 at the same time, "if you're so intent on privacy and isolation, why would you want to tell us anything, anyway? We are reporters, you know."
He glanced back over his bony, hairy shoulder and smirked that smirk
again, "I'm telling you so you won't shoot me."
Its outer door was blackened and rusting steel, heavy and gaping ajar. Hunt offered us a slight, theatrical bow and waved us in. We entered. The room was small and dark and just what a transformer station should look like inside. Cables and boxes mounted to walls and rows of toggles and switches. Hunt reached out his right hand, long-fingered and draped in wispy hair, and flipped one of the switches. The steel door behind us hissed closed as, at the same instant, another shwooshed pneumatically open at the far end of the room. The soft white light nearly blinded us after so many hours in subterranean gloom. Denise and I reflexively covered our eyes. And that's when he made his move.
Hunt bounded over to Denise in a series of jerky hops and wrenched the pistol from her hand, barked a laugh of malevolence and skittered back across the floor. "Now that you are my guests, welcome to the abattoir," he said pointing to the opened door and jabbing the gun at us. We went in. He followed, giggling.
Somewhere a dog was howling.
We entered a foyer, both huge and beautiful, decorated faithfully from the art deco period in sweeping curves and abrupt intersecting lines. Pastels glowed from walls and furniture alike accented in blonde oak and ebony in the mantel above the sleek fireplace. Geometric patterns covered the floor in inlays and scattered carpets. The air was cool and scented with a heavy perfume. I almost recognized it, but it slipped away from my grasp. I had the thought that it was both fragrant and practical, I didn't know why at the time, though. The door behind us whispered closed and the apartment was filled with the dancing violins of Vivaldi's Le Quatro Stagioni. The Four Seasons.
"Please," Hunt insisted, "do sit down, we have some little time to spend together before I have to go to work. Can I offer you something to drink? A snack?"
"So, you've shown us your place and we're both impressed. Denise? Yes she's impressed as well," I said. "I suppose you really are Hunt and you're a billionaire by now, with the family fortune to play with, and I'd guess your enforced seclusion hasn't been a total burden. But why hide down here? You could live anywhere, you're rich."
"Well, I suppose I'm safe in giving you the tour speech. The others haven't talked, I can't foresee that you will, either.
"You see, at first this wonderful place was my prison. My father's idea. I'm afraid. All those long cold years ago, he discovered that I was the kidnapper of my little school chum. What a commotion. But, you should have seen him die. It was glorious. And inventive. You see I was only six years old at the time and I was new at it, but even at that early age, I showed a flair for it. Of course my father recognized my child's handwriting in the ransom note I mailed along with Charlie's thumbs. My naiveté was my undoing, alas.
"Arrangements were made, when I was forced to confess. People were paid and doctors were consulted. I stayed in the old homestead for nearly ten more years. But, then this happened to me." He indicated the fine gray hair that grew long and silky from every pore of his body. He spoke by rote with very little drama or inflection, as he paced before us, chilling me by the contrast between what he said and the tired way he said it.
"Of course, I was still his son, freak that I had become. Monster that you see now. Therefore, institutionalization was out of the question. Can you imagine? A Hunt languishing inside a mental hospital? Never! Even if I were committed under a pseudonym, there would be too many variables; too many loose ends to keep track of. Instead, my father and his advisors came upon a perfectly workable solution. And this is the result, all around you. And six other rooms as well." He inclined his wizened little head toward Denise and winked. A grotesque gesture in his face.
"When did this stop being your prison and become your playground," Denise asked?
"No, Ms. Dysan, your first question is supposed to be , How did you manage to build such a stunning home in the depths of this filth?," he chided.
"Is that the script when you have dazzled visitors over to tea? Sorry to disappoint you, Jim, but I know all about your father winning the subway contract back in '64. He had a two-year window of opportunity with this project. It wouldn't have been a chore for him to arrange a cage for you along with everything else he had to arrange. After all, what's a father for?" She was on a roll. I was proud.
"Indeed, what's a father's money for, eh? Buy another politician for this, inspectors for that. Change plans, lose blueprints, reroute power, labor and loyalties. Money, my friends. Money makes possible the impossible.
"Of course I wasn't really a prisoner, in the real sense of the term. More like a captive patient. I endured his doctors and his attendants and his smarmy sweet nurses and all the rest of the charade. Hypertrichosis does not go away! You cannot drug it away. You cannot salve it away and you cannot pray it away. It does not go away!
"So, his brilliant idea was to have me barbered every day. A full shave, Ms. Dysan, from head to toe. Yes, I submitted to the indignity of having my forehead, my face and neck, my shoulders and chest, arms back and legs, and even my feet shaved by those lumbering ex-jocks in their hospital-issue uniforms and their ever-so-sorry apologies - but your father wants you to look your best for his visit. But that only started after my tunnel explorations became an issue. I was seen by too many laborers and thus a legend was born. I must admit, I got a certain pleasure in stalking them in the dark and an absolute delight in their terror. But he took that away from me, too. My father!"
He was pacing faster now and becoming agitated. This was no longer a tour guide droning on to a pack of flabby dough-faced bus riders. I caught Denise's eye and gave her a tacit chin raise, indicating she should continue. I hoped if she got him mad enough I might find an opening. It was becoming more than clear we were dealing with a person with bottomless psychoses and a sociopathic predilection for inflicting suffering.
"I hope you were being treated for your insanity at the same time, Mr. Hunt," said Denise.
He stopped, frozen to the spot, glaring at Denise with immense hatred. Then his eyes cleared in a flash and he grinned at us both, sitting before him on the expensively upholstered beige divan. No smirk, this, but a happy smile.
He said, "My insanity, if you must, certainly was of deep concern to my family, but more so to its legal staff. There were two incidents following wee Charlie's death. Nothing as spectacular nor as memorable. One was a little girl when I was nine and escaped from my room one spring morning. Much more stimulating than the unfortunate pets that never seemed to remain with me very long. Nobody ever found out about that one. And the other was during one of my stays at our summer house. He was a transient, a hippy I think. There were thousands of them camping around that summer. I was thirteen then and he must have been high on LSD or some such, because I played with him for hours before I finally hacked him to death his own hatchet. He showed true terror when he finally realized what was happening to him in the end. Nearly as much as little Charlie.
"My father found out about that one and there was hell to pay. I was under guard from then on. That's when my father and his yes men drew up the plans for my new home, here.
"But eventually my father met his death - then poor Mama left us. The Hunt fortune fell to me as sole heir. Hair if you prefer, eh, Ms. Dysan? Ha! Then my guards became my bodyguards and my father's lawyers and advisors were toadying around me like I was the new sliced bread. There was some small threat of contesting my claim, but that died along with the contestor. From then until now it has simply been a matter of keeping existing wheels greased and greasing new ones as they come to light," he concluded.
"I assume you've continued killing innocent people," said Denise.
"Oh, increased, dear girl, exponentially. I've become productive. Busy, busy, busy. Do you know how many homeless you can stuff in a sack? Hundreds, my dear. And that's not all. There are prostitutes that can go missing without the police turning a hair, eh heh. And lately I've been experimenting with orchestrating minor accidents on the subway line."
"That was you," I asked? "You rigged the cable to come loose?"
"Indeed. I have found that you can cull a better class of people from the mass of detritus that rides the transit. Arrange a small stoppage, wait for the work crews to come and open the doors. Watch as the passengers are lead through the tunnels, and then just cut one or two from the back of the herd."
"You can't possibly think that goes unnoticed," asked Denise?
"Money, Ms. Dysan. Impossible possible? What are a few missing persons in the balance of the police blotter? People disappear every day, some with my help. Nobody cares. I pad many paycheques. And I clean up after myself."
"Those two working girls found blocking the runoff were yours, weren't they," I said. "You didn't clean that up very well. What happened?"
"One of my mistakes, I'm afraid. I tried to make new women of of the Mayor's new girlfriends, but I was new at it and I didn't like the results. So, I flushed them and they went down the wrong hole. But that was a month ago, I've learned a great deal since then. Come, I'll show you. We still have time."
He motioned for us to stand and follow him, still training the barrel of the .45 at a space between our heads. We followed and he took us from the massive foyer and down a long bright hall, lined with original works of art recessed into custom niches, to a door at the back of the apartments. He stopped and smiled at us. This time the smirk was back.
"You are going to see a marvelous sight. Only the chosen, my friends. Only the chosen. I hope the beauty is not wasted on you."
Here he pressed his left palm onto a plate set in the door jam and it opened with a rush of cold air and a pungent scent. I recognized it as the odor that had been plaguing me since we'd entered the place. It was the fragrant disinfectant used by morgues and embalming rooms to negate the gassy stench of death. And through the opened door we saw a sterile white room, about thirty feet square, equipped with an array of medical tools, flashing blades, saws, retractors, stainless steel and porcelain enamel tables, hoses, sinks and drains and shelf upon shelf of chemicals and reagents. I stopped where I was and Denise took a step backward, but Hunt cocked the pistol and lay the barrel just under my right eye. We went in.
"How do you like my rumpus room, kids? Lots to do now, isn't there?"
As we were ushered deeper into the center of the room, Denise froze and pointed out a long wide tub running at right angles to the countertop holding the cutting tools. There were two bodies wedged side-by-side in the tub in a pool of congealing blood. The corpses were fresh. The blood just thickening.
"Ah, yes. I ran into those this afternoon. Friends of yours? They were on the same subway train. I only had to call from the darkness and they came like sheep. 'This way out, people, step lively. Follow me to the platform.' And by the time they reached my back door I was ready for them. Stunned them with my little taser, had an hour's fun. Then I set them in the tub for processing. Of course, I can't show you what that involves. I have to skin them and render them and it takes all my attention and both of my hands and who would hold the gun on you while I enjoyed my work," he sighed?
"But, I can show you the results . . ."
He moved away from me and toward a wall of vertical framed mirrors facing the tub. Hunt pressed a series of inset pressure pads and the glass inside the frames became transparent. Within each was displayed what might have been described as a carnival hype if it weren't so utterly and violently real. Two of the panels contained amalgams of human beings, mismatched in a comedy of pain and insanity. Heads sprouting from groin areas, a leg in place of a neck and head, arms and genitals spidering out of a bloated, leathery body. In the second, two bodies, stitched crotch to crotch, suspended horizontally with six heads. Three each end sutured to shoulder sockets and onto chests and scalps covering neck cavities.
Arranged beneath each travesty was an assembly of hands, fingers, feet and toes all quilted together in nightmare star patterns. The third panel held layer upon layer of cured and tanned human skins, each overlapping the other and ranging in size from baby through toddler to teen to mature adult. All displayed on a cutaway to highlight the workmanship of the exhibit. And there was a forth panel. Empty.
"Hermetically sealed. Air tight, you see. It takes so long to process them that I can't abide seeing them deteriorate, so I keep them in vacuums. Pretty, aren't they? At first I stuffed them. Studied taxidermy for months to get it right and just stuffed them. But where's the art in that? Eh? So here's what I've taught myself in one short year. Are you impressed," he asked Denise.
"You ought to be," he confided. "You and Mr. Delaney are going to join your fellow passengers from the tub in my next display. The only drawback is this gun." He leveled it at Denise and stepped into her, caressing her throat with the business end.
"You shouldn't have had this gun. I shouldn't have had to show myself to get you here. I shouldn't have had to do this much work. But, in a way, it sweetens the hunt, doesn't it? One can grow tired of too easy a game and begin to lose the keenness necessary in this type of sport. I think I'm correct, Ms. Dysan. Wouldn't you say?
"Unfortunately, I can see no way to truly enjoy your deaths. I can't trust you to sit quietly while I work my magic, can I? I'll just have to shoot you both. Such a shame, over so quickly," he said. He took his small left hand and cupped Denise's right breast in a weighing grasp as he turned his head to say something, no doubt enlightening, to me.
But Denise used that second of inattention to smash her knee into Hunt's hair-draped testicles. He grunt-squealed as he crumpled crashing to his knees, somersaulting the .45 backwards across the room. Denise kicked him three times in his ribs and once in his face, before I grabbed her and held her short of killing him. Even now, I don't know why I stopped her.
Denise broke away from me with an elbow to my solar plexus and an opinion as to my manhood and scrambled across the tiled floor after her Colt. As she came up with the gun aimed at James Hunt, a figure stepped through the opened hall door and drew bead on her with an ugly looking short-barrelled assault shotgun. "Drop the gun, Dini," he said.
"Ahhgh, you finally made it, good," coughed Hunt rolling onto his back and sitting up to face the newcomer. "I can always depend on your timing, Sergeant. And never better than now, was it?"
"Shut up, you sick puke," said the sergeant. "Denise, I'll take that gun, now."
"Larry, kill the bastard! Do you know what he's done?"
"Yeah, it's my job to know, Dini."
"You're involved with this," she asked, bewildered?
"Just for a few years. Get rid of the gun."
Denise let the Colt slip from her fingers to the tiles below, cracking the hard glaze as it hit. Hunt pulled himself across the floor and picked it up again.
"Who is this guy, Denise," I asked, scratching under my left arm?
"Sergeant Larry Mathews. He's attached to the Mayor's public relations task force on urban renewal. He's been a media liaison since the mayor took office."
"From your voice," I said, "it sounds like he's more to you than that."
"We were friends, once," said Mathews.
Denise drew a sharp breath and stiffened, her eyes narrowing on Mathews.
Hunt was struggling to his feet, trying not to drop Denise's gun and still attempting to save face as he pushed up with one thin, silky arm. He made it to his knees. And then he glared up at Mathews and snapped petulantly,
"Good Christ, Mathews, can't you see me floundering here? Aren't you going to do anything? What the hell am I paying you for?"
Mathews swung his shotgun over to James Hunt and fired one deafening, thundering, world-ending shot. Hunt, still on his knees, was hit just below his chin and whipslammed, bleeding, backward to crash, headlong into one of the dissecting tables.
"You don't pay me nearly enough."
I didn't know whether to be thankful or fearful. I glanced at Denise who was on the verge of delayed shock.
"What happens now," I asked him?
"I don't care. No, as a matter a fact, I don't give a shit! I don't give a flying rat's ass what happens now. To you, or her. I quit. I'm outta this nightmare, for good."
"You sound like you've been around this too long," I said.
"I've covered up for Hunt since the Mayor's election. And then I had to cover for the administrations before his. Do you know how long this prick's been butchering people and paying us to clean up after him? Jesus, it goes back . . ."
"To 1956, Larry," answered Denise, sharply, an edge to her voice. "It goes back to when he was six years old. Why did you guys let him get away with it for so long? Nobody's that rich."
"Yes they are, babe. He was."
"The question now is, what are you going to do with us? You can't let us leave, can you? We saw you murder him. You can't let us live. We can implicate this entire city in an decades-long cover-up and partnership to murder," I said.
"If you guys didn't feed him victims, you certainly turned a blind eye while he hunted them. Hunt kept hinting at time while he held us under the gun. As though he were gauging his actions to coincide with a prearranged schedule. A script, I think you called it, Denise?"
"More than a script," she said. "A routine. He'd played his game for so long there were grooves in the highlights. What were you doing for this pig, Larry? Clearing out his mistakes? Bringing his raw material? What?"
Mathews lowered his shotgun. "I was part of the cleanup. That's all! I had nothing else to do with this sick setup. Another team supplied the girls, but he never hurt them before. Until then it was decided that letting events continue as they were and facilitating certain scenarios was preferable to killing the cash cow and disrupting the status quo. He was under severe restrictions and we knew his every move. The situation was always contained and controllable. And his money ran half the city, for christsakes."
"Did you know he murdered children," I asked.
"That wasn't my job. I was only cleanup. But, after he killed the Mayor's two hookers, the set up was compromised. And today, he killed an off-duty policewoman, and that can't be covered up. The team couldn't allow itself to rationalize it away. She was on the subway this afternoon when he shut it down. Her and a college girl were helping passengers out of the tunnel when he took them. We were too late to stop him because we were tracking you two. The word came down an hour ago to end it here and I'm only glad I got the call to cap the bastard."
"He's got a case full of skins over there, Officer Mathews and some of them came from kids. Who pays for it? Did any word come down on that," I asked?
"What the hell are you whining about, Delaney? He paid. Can't you see him laying there? Now shut up and get moving, there's a wet team coming to soak up the mess and brick this place over for good. We're gonna seal it and everything in it. And nothing in here ever happened. Right?"
"You're letting us go," asked Denise? "What if we report this?"
"Be my guest, Dini. What's the name of that rag you own, The Inquisitor? I'm sure your readers'll eat it right up. Along with the UFOs, Bigfoot abductions, alien babies and Elvis sightings. Who the hell's gonna believe anything you print? Hunt was kidnapped and murdered in 1956. Prove otherwise." He turned and started for the hall door.
"Somebody owes for this, Mathews," I said slipping my hand under my left arm.
He spun around raising his shotgun, "This is too big and you're too small to be tuggin at my conscience, Delaney. I'm through with you, too."
I drew the flat, black .22 from my jacket pocket and voided the six-round clip into his chest before he took aim. He dropped like a rock beside Hunt.
"You should have had more bullets, Ray," said Denise. "You should have killed him some more."
We made it outside into the spring night in time to
see a fleet of city utility and repair trucks converging on the subway
grating that must have been nearest to Hunt's lair. The wet team to clear
away the blood, no doubt. The night was breezy, but warm. The moon was
new and silver in the sky. And from somebody's backyard came the welcome
sound of a dog barking.