What he exhibited was a kind of bug-eyed fear, no more or less than you’d expect to see a man who has had an extremely close call with…well, just an extremely close call.
“He went down, Dex?”
“Yes. He did.”
“You went with him?”
Henry shifted position a little. “I can understand why he didn’t want to get campus security until he had checked the situation himself. But Dex, you knew you were telling the flat-out truth, even if he didn’t. Why didn’t you call?”
“You believe me?” Dex asked. His voice trembled. “You believe me, don’t you, Henry?”
Henry considered briefly. The story was mad, no question about that.
The implication that there could be something in that box big enough and lively enough to kill a man after some one hundred and forty years was mad. He didn’t believe it. But this was Dex…and he didn’t disbelieve it either.
“Yes,” he said.
“Thank God for that,” Dex said. He groped for his drink. “Thank God for that, Henry.”
“It doesn’t answer the question, though. Why didn’t you call the campus cops?”
“I thought…as much as I did think… that it might not want to come out of the crate, into the bright light. It must have lived in the dark for so long…so very long…and…grotesque as this sounds…I thought it might be pot-bound, or something. I thought…well, he’ll see it…he’ll see the rate…the janitor’s body…he’ll see the blood…and then we’d call security.
You see?” Stanley’s eyes pleaded with him to see, and Henry did. He thought that, considering the fact that it had been a snap judgment in a pressure situation, that Dex had thought quite clearly. The blood. When the young graduate student saw the blood, he would have been happy to call in the cops.
“But it didn’t work out that way.”
“No.” Dex ran a hand through his thinning hair.
“Because when we got down there, the body was gone.”
“It was gone?”
“That’s right. And the crate was gone, too.”
When Charlie Gereson saw the blood, his round and good-natured face went very pale. His eyes, already magnified by his thick spectacles, grew even huger. Blood was puddled on the lab table. It had run down one of the table legs. It was pooled on the floor, and beads of it clung to the light globe and to the white tile wall. Yes, there was plenty of blood.
But no janitor. No crate.
Dex Stanley’s jaw dropped. “What the fuck!” Charlie whispered. Dex saw something then, perhaps the only thing that allowed him to keep his sanity. Already he could feel that central axle trying to pull free. He grabbed Charlie’s shoulder and said, “Look at the blood on the table!”
“I’ve seen enough,” Charlie said.
His Adam’s apple rose and fell like an express elevator as he struggled to keep his lunch down.
“For God’s sake, get hold of yourself,” Dex said harshly. “You’re a zoology major. You’ve seen blood before.”
It was the voice of authority, for that moment anyway. Charlie did get a hold of himself, and they walked a little closer. The random pools of blood on the table were not as random as they had first appeared. Each had been neatly straight-edged on one side.
“The crate sat there,” Dex said. He felt a little better. The fact that the crate really had been there steadied him a good deal. “And look there.”
He pointed at the floor. Here the blood had been smeared into a wide, thin trail.
It swept toward where the two of them stood, a few paces inside the double doors. It faded and faded, petering out altogether about halfway between the lab table and the doors. It was crystal clear to Dex Stanley, and the nervous sweat on his skin went cold and clammy.
It had gotten out.
It had gotten out and pushed the crate off the table. And then it had pushed the crate…where? Under the stairs, of course. Back under the stairs. Where it had been safe for so long.
“Where’s the…the…” Charlie couldn’t finish.
“Under the stairs,” Dex said numbly. “It’s gone back to where it came from.”
“No. The…” He jerked it out finally. “The body.”
“I don’t know,” Dex said. But he thought he did know. His mind would simply not admit the truth.
Charlie turned abruptly and walked back through the doors. “Where are you going?” Dex called shrilly, and ran after him. Charlie stopped 83
opposite the stairs. The triangular black hole beneath them gaped. The janitor’s big four-cell flashlight still sat on the floor. And beside it was a bloody scrap of gray cloth, and one of the pens that had been clipped to the man’s breast pocket.
“Don’t go under there, Charlie! Don’t.” His heartbeat whammed savagely in his ears, frightening him even more.
“No,” Charlie said. “But the body…”
Charlie hunkered down, grabbed the flashlight, and shone it under the stairs.
And the crate was there, shoved up against the far wall, just as it had been before, squat and mute. Except that now it was free of dust and three boards had been pried off the top.
The light moved and centered on one of the janitor’s big, sensible work shoes. Charlie drew breath in a low, harsh gasp. The thick leather of the shoe had been savagely gnawed and chewed. The laces hung, broken, from the eyelets. “It looks like somebody put it through a hay baler,” he said hoarsely.
“Now do you believe me?” Dex asked.
Charlie didn’t answer. Holding onto the stairs lightly with one hand, he leaned under the overhang – presumably to get the shoe. Later, sitting in Henry’s study, Dex said he could think of only one reason why Charlie would have done that – to measure and perhaps categorize the bite of the thing in the crate. He was, after all, a zoologist, and a damned good one.
” Don’t!” Dex screamed, and grabbed the back of Charlie’s shirt.
Suddenly there were two green gold eyes glaring over the top of the crate. They were almost exactly the color of owls’ eyes, but smaller.
There was a harsh, chattering growl of anger. Charlie recoiled, startled, and slammed the back of his head on the underside of the stairs. A shadow moved from the crate toward him at projectile speed. Charlie howled. Dex heard the dry purr of his shirt as it ripped open, the click as Charlie’s glasses struck the floor and spun away. Once more Charlie tried to back away. The thing began to snarl – then the snarls suddenly stopped. And Charlie Gereson began to scream in agony.
Dex pulled on the back of his white tee shirt with all his might. For a moment Charlie came backwards and he caught a glimpse of a furry, writhing shape spread-eagled on the young man’s chest, a shape that appeared to have not four but six legs and the flat bullet head of a young lynx. The front of Charlie Gereson’s shirt had been so quickly and completely tattered that it now looked like so many crepe streamers hung around his neck.
Then the thing raised its head and those small green gold eyes stared balefully into Dex’s own. He had never seen or dreamed such savagery.
His strength failed.
His grip on the back of Charlie’s shirt loosened momentarily.
A moment was all it took. Charlie Gereson’s body was snapped under the stairs with grotesque, cartoonish speed. Silence for a moment. Then the growling, smacking sounds began again.
Charlie screamed once more, a long sound of terror and pain that was abruptly cut off…as if something had been clapped over his mouth.
Or stuffed into it.
Dex fell silent. The moon was high in the sky. Half of his third drink –
an almost unheard-of phenomenon – was gone, and he felt the reaction setting in as sleepiness and extreme lassitude.
“What did you do then?” Henry asked. What he hadn’t done, he knew, was to go to campus security; they wouldn’t have listened to such a story and then released him so he could go and tell it again to his friend Henry.
“I just walked around, in utter shock, I suppose. I ran up the stairs again, just as I had after…after it took the janitor, only this time there was no Charlie Gereson to run into. I walked…miles, I suppose. I think I was mad. I kept thinking about Ryder’s Quarry. You know that place?”
“Yes,” Henry said.
“I kept thinking that would be deep enough. If…if there would be a way to get that crate out there. I kept…kept thinking…” He put his hands to his face. “I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. I think I’m going crazy.”
“If the story you just told is true, I can understand that,” Henry said quietly.
He stood up suddenly. “Come on. I’m taking you home.”
“Home?” Dex looked at this friend vacantly. “But – “