A tendril of spidersilk brushed across his forehead and he swept it away with a small cry of loathing and an uncharacteristic inner cringe.
“Not very nice under there, is it?” the janitor asked sympathetically, holding his light centered on the crate. “God, I hate tight places.”
Dex didn’t reply. He had reached the crate. He looked at the letters that were stenciled there and then brushed the dust away from them. It rose in a cloud, intensifying that mitten taste, making him cough dryly.
The dust hung in the beam of the janitor’s light like old magic, and Dex Stanley read what some long-dead chief of lading had stenciled on this crate.
SHIP TO HORLICKS UNIVERSITY, the top line read. VIA JULIA CARPENTER, read the middle line. The third line read simply: ARCTIC
Below that, someone had written in heavy black charcoal strokes: JUNE 19, 1834.
That was the one line the janitor’s hand-swipe had completely cleared.
ARCTIC EXPEDITION, Dex read again. His heart began to thump. “So what do you think?” the janitor’s voice floated in.
Dex grabbed one end and lifted it. Heavy. As he let it settle back with a mild thud, something shifted inside – he did not hear it but felt it through the palms of his hands, as if whatever it was had moved of its own volition. Stupid, of course. It had been an almost liquid feel, as if something not quite jelled had moved sluggishly.
Dex felt the excitement of an antiques collector happening upon a neglected armoire with a twenty-five dollar price tag in the back room of some hick-town junk shop…an armoire that just might be a Chippendale. “Help me get it out,” he called to the janitor.
Working bent over to keep from slamming their heads on the underside of the stairway, sliding the crate along, they got it out and then picked it up by the bottom. Dex had gotten his pants dirty after all, and there were cobwebs in his hair.
As they carried it into the old-fashioned, train-terminal-sized lab, Dex felt that sensation of shift inside the crate again, and he could see by the expression on the janitor’s face that he had felt it as well. They set it on one of the formica-topped lab tables. The next one over was littered with Charlie Gereson’s stuff – notebooks, graph paper, contour maps, a Texas Instruments calculator.
The janitor stood back, wiping his hands on his double-pocket gray shirt, breathing hard. “Some heavy mother,” he said. “That bastard must weigh two hunnert pounds. You okay, Perfesser Stanley?”
Dex barely heard him. He was looking at the end of the box, where there was yet another series of stencils: PAELLA/SANTIAGO/SAN
“Perfesser – ”
“Paella,” Dex muttered, and then said it again, slightly louder. He was seized with an unbelieving kind of excitement that was held in check only by the thought that it might be some sort of hoax. “Paella!”
“Paella, Dex?” Henry Northrup asked. The moon had risen in the sky, turning silver.
“Paella is a very small island south of Tierra del Fuego,” Dex said.
“Perhaps the smallest island ever inhabited by the race of man. A number of Easter Island-type monoliths were found there just after World War II. Not very interesting compared to their bigger brothers, but every bit as mysterious. The natives of Paella and Tierra del Fuego were Stone-Age people. Christian missionaries killed them with kindness.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s extremely cold down there. Summer temperatures rarely range 76
above the mid-forties. The missionaries gave them blankets, partly so they would be warm, mostly to cover their sinful nakedness. The blankets were crawling with fleas, and the natives of both islands were wiped out by European diseases for which they had developed no immunities. Mostly by smallpox.”
Dex drank. The Scotch had lent his cheeks some color, but it was hectic and flaring – double spots of flush that sat above his cheekbones like rouge.
“But Tierra del Fuego – and this Paella – that’s not the Arctic, Dex. It’s the Antarctic.”
“It wasn’t in 1834,” Dex said, setting his glass down, careful in spite of his distraction to put it on the coaster Henry had provided. If Wilma found a ring on one of her end tables, his friend would have hell to pay.
“The terms subarctic, Antarctic and Antarctica weren’t invented yet. In those days there was only the north arctic and the south arctic.”
“Hell, I made the same kind of mistake. I couldn’t figure out why Frisco was on the itinerary as a port of call. Then I realized I was figuring on the Panama Canal, which wasn’t built for another eighty years or so.
“An Arctic expedition? In 1834?” Henry asked doubtfully.
“I haven’t had a chance to check the records yet,” Dex said, picking up his drink again. “But I know from my history that there were ‘Arctic expeditions’ as early as Francis Drake. None of them made it, that was all. They were convinced they’d find gold, silver, jewels, lost civilizations, God knows what else. The Smithsonian Institution outfitted an attempted exploration of the North Pole in, I think it was 1881 or ’82. They all died. A bunch of men from the Explorers’ Club in London tried for the South Pole in the 1850’s. Their ship was sunk by icebergs, but three or four of them survived. They stayed alive by sucking dew out of their clothes and eating the kelp that caught on their boat, until they were picked up. They lost their teeth. And they claimed to have seen sea monsters.”
“What happened, Dex?” Henry asked softly.
Stanley looked up. “We opened the crate,” he said dully. “God help us, Henry, we opened the crate.”
He paused for a long time, it seemed, before beginning to speak again.
“Paella?” the janitor asked. “What’s that?”
“An island off the tip of South America,” Dex said. “Never mind. Let’s get this open.” He opened one of the lab drawers and began to rummage through it, looking for something to pry with.”
“Never mind that stuff,” the janitor said. He looked excited himself now. “I got a hammer and chisel in my closet upstairs. I’ll get ’em. Just 77
He left. The crate sat on the table’s formica top, squat and mute. It sits squat and mute, Dex thought, and shivered a little. Where had that thought come from? Some story? The words had a cadenced yet unpleasant sound. He dismissed them. He was good at dismissing the extraneous. He was a scientist.
He looked around the lab just to get his eyes off the crate. Except for Charlie’s table, it was unnaturally neat and quiet – like the rest of the university. White-tiled, subway-station walls gleamed freshly under the overhead globes; the globes themselves seemed to be double – caught and submerged in the polished formica surfaces, like eerie lamps shining from deep quarry water. A huge, old-fashioned slate blackboard dominated the wall opposite the sinks. And cupboards, cupboards everywhere. It was easy enough – too easy, perhaps – to see the antique, sepia-toned ghosts of all those old zoology students, wearing their white coats with the green cuffs, their hairs marcelled or pomaded, doing their dissections and writing their reports…
Footfalls clattered on the stairs and Dex shivered, thinking again of the crate sitting there – yes, squat and mute – under the stairs for so many years, long after the men who had pushed it under there had died and gone back to dust.
Paella, he thought, and then the janitor came back in with a hammer and chisel.
“Let me do this for you, perfesser?” he asked, and Dex was about to refuse when he saw the pleading, hopeful look in the man’s eyes.
“Of course,” he said. After all, it was this man’s find.
“Prob’ly nothin in here but a bunch of rocks and plants so old they’ll turn to dust when you touch ’em. But it’s funny; I’m pretty hot for it.”
Dex smiled noncommittally. He had no idea what was in the crate, but he doubted if it was just plant and rock specimens. There was that slightly liquid shifting sensation when they had moved it.
“Here goes,” the janitor said, and began to pound the chisel under the board with swift blows of the hammer. The board hiked up a bit, revealing a double row of nails that reminded Dex absurdly of teeth.
The janitor levered the handle of his chisel down and the board pulled loose, the nails shrieking out of the wood. He did the same thing at the other end, and the board came free, clattering to the floor. Dex set it aside, noticing that even the nails looked different, somehow – thicker, squarer at the tip, and without that blue-steel sheen that is the mark of a sophisticated alloying process.
The janitor was peering into the crate through the long, narrow strip he had uncovered. “Can’t see nothin,” he said. “Where’d I leave my light?”