Cyclone slammed the door. She grabbed a chair from the kitchen and wedged it under the knob. Only then did she look at me. Her eyes displayed a mix of fury and disbelief. She smelled of earth and mulch. Judging by the stains on her clothes she appeared to have been wrestling in the mud.
She snapped, “What the hell is with you and monsters? I wasn’t even looking for one today and there it was, out to kill me!”
I rubbed my eyes and drank another slurp of tea. I said, “I would suggest that dealing with monsters was a family tradition but, fortunately, most of the family seems to have avoided going into the monster business. It appears that only a select few of us are so lucky.”
Merlin Petersen tapped his cane on the hard, dry earth. He said, “My father bought that thing when I was just a kid. I must have been about ten years old. I figured that it was just another gaff. We had tent full of them. A feegee mermaid, a two-headed snake, a shrunken head, a cow with five legs, things like that. None of it was special. Only the snake and the cow were real. It came in this locked iron box with big thick glass windows on the front and side so you could get a good look at the thing. One night, after we’d had the thing for about a year, Benny Wicker, one of the other regular carny kids, dared me to let him touch it. So we waited until everyone had turned in or was too drunk to be paying attention and we snuck into the tent. Picking the lock was easy. He said he just wanted to touch it but the stupid little prick lied to me. He stabbed it in the hand with his pocketknife.”
Petersen was quiet for almost a minute. “There’s no big finish to this story. It took a deep breath and opened its eyes. For just a second or two. It barely moved. But we knew it saw us and we were sure that it would know us again if it ever decided to start walking around. I slammed that door shut so damned fast. Benny never went near the freak tent again. The next night I snuck back in and filled the lock with airplane glue.”
Eddie swung his huge fist. It connected with and collapsed Armbruster’s jaw with a hideous wet crunch. Blood and teeth spurted from his mouth as he staggered back, screaming. He dropped to his knees, his hands scratching at the floor as if he were trying to recover his missing ivories. Eddie delivered a kick to Armbruster’s chest. The sound of splintering ribs accompanied his flight across the room. His passage stopped at the concrete wall. Other than a burble as he attempted to cough up blood, the man made no sound.
Cyclone unsheathed her blades. I hefted my hammer. It felt good to have company.
The hand prints on wall were tiny, as if made by a toddler or a baby. It was difficult to tell with what they were made. I touched a half dozen of them with my left little finger. They were sticky. I held my finger beneath my nose. The substance was yellowish black and smelled rancid. There seemed to be enough variety in size and shape to the prints that I guessed they were made by at least four, perhaps more … infants? I closed my eyes and sniffed at my finger again. Rot. Fungus. Mold. And the distinctive chemical smell I’d come to recognize from the laboratories of members of the Prometheus Sodality. Perhaps the creatures that made the prints had once been human babies. Now they were something far less helpless and, apparently, quite dangerous. And they were loose in Northampton.
The sound of the plane’s engine lingered for some time after it passed out of sight beyond the mountains. I busied myself building a fire and making myself a pot of tea.
I was preparing my second cup when I heard the hushed sound of heavy paws. Without turning around I said, “Hello Archie.”
The manticore sauntered past my left shoulder and settled himself on the other side of the fire. He gave me one of his many many toothed smiles. “Hello Rose. Thank you for coming. I hope my message did not interrupt anything important?”
I returned his smile. I said, “The road has been my home for so long now that I don’t think interruptions are possible. One must have a routine for it to be broken. I simply have the next place to go. That I can spend time with old friends makes the destination more desirable.”
Podovkin’s flesh had a yellowish, waxy appearance to it. He had a burnt sugar chemical smell about him but I could not tell if he had brought it with him or if it emanated from him. “Miss Taylor. You look as unchanged as ever. Would that I could express pleasure at seeing you again.”
His face barely moved when he spoke. Only his eyes had their former vitality.
I said, “Would that I could express surprise at finding you here. I had thought you dead. But you have been dead more once already, have you not?”
The head’s eyes opened. Her nostrils flared and she breathed in deeply. She looked around the room and sighed.
She said, “I was dreaming of walking. Barefoot. On the beach. The stupid thing is, when I had feet, I didn’t like walking on sand. It was always too hot. My feet got dry and cracked.”
The smell called up memories of battle field hospitals, of blood, of rot, of sickness, of life that insists on remaining despite the death surrounding it. I covered my nose with my right hand but the odors were in my mind now, I no longer needed the actual scents. I breathed shallowly through my fingers. My hand did not actually filter the air. I knew that. But having a distance, if only a mental one, seemed to help.
The sound of Doctor Kempton retching brought me aware again. Even the sour stench of bile and half digested potatoes seemed safe in comparison to the foulness that permeated the pit. Kempton gagged and coughed for a minute or two before finally mastering himself. “What is God’s name did they dump in that hole?” he choked.
“From Alison’s description,” I said, “they dumped all the body parts they weren’t otherwise using in there. And then, one day, the parts organized themselves and climbed out.”
I grabbed a nearby cable and pulled. It came out the machine with a flash of sparks and an angry buzzing like a nest of aroused bees. I held the sparking end in front of me like a talisman. Cocteau’s creation looked at the cable suspiciously but continued to advance.
“Stop,” I said. “I do not wish to hurt you.”
She curled her fingers into claws and lunged. I stepped aside, jamming the live end of the cable into her spine as she passed.
Jessica grabbed Manuel’s arm with her right hand and twisted. His scream of pain almost drowned out the sound of his bones breaking. She punched her left hand into his right side. His whimper was inaudible over the sound of snapping ribs. He collapsed at her feet, making it easy for her to deliver two swift kids to his stomach. She jumped back as he vomited.
“Jessica,” I whispered. She turned to me, fury in her eyes. I bowed, looking only at the ground. I listened for the sound of a charge.