Some fans of The Danse series asked if I would write them a bonus chapter, kind of to tide people over until the next book—The King of Swords—comes out. So enjoy this one and only chapter from The Page of Staves…
The Snake-Thing in the Sewers
I remember that I was down with a cold that night. Tony and I had tickets to go see the Bulls that weekend, so I was home drinking orange juice and sucking on zinc tablets and doing everything I could think of to get over this stupid thing so that I could be up for it. That’s why I was laying on the couch, wearing sweats and playing with the twins, when Tony banged on my door.
We do have a doorbell, by the way. I don’t know if Tony just never learned how to use one, or if he always made sure to knock on principle because it suggested a greater sense of urgency or something. I guess that you’d have to ask him. But he was pounding away on my door at 7:15, and Joanna answered it with a lot more tact than I think that I would’ve had, if I’d been able to get myself off of the couch.
“He’s sick, Tony,” she said, blocking the doorway with her slight frame.
“Sorry, girl,” he grunted as he tried to barge right past her, “but him an’ me, we gotta get a move on.” I have to give my wife credit—she doesn’t let people get away with much barging around her. Not Durant, and certainly not Tony. She caught him by the collar and stopped him in the hallway.
“Tom’s coughing and sneezing, and he’s got a fever, and he’s not going out tonight.” Somewhere in mid-sentence, she turned on her “mom” voice, which usually works on pretty much everybody on the planet. “That’s why he called in sick today, and that’s why he’s not going out tonight. Even cops get sick days.”
“An’ he took th’ whole day,” Tony replied, twisting out from under her grasp and somehow slipping around her. “But I gotta have him tonight.”
I sighed. I knew that tone of voice, and he wasn’t kidding around.
“Whadd?” I asked, reconciling myself to the fact that I probably wasn’t going to be able to stay on the couch. “Whadd’s so imporddandd, Tony?” Both twins looked up at him and smiled as he entered the room, but he was too focused to notice.
“We got us another body offa Irving Park,” he said.
“Dden gib idd to Kingery or somebody,” I answered, coughing. “We can link up our inbesddigations later on, when I’m back in the office…”
“It’s a ‘stick’ case, Tom,” he clarified. His voice was grim, and he clearly didn’t want to say anything more in front of Joanna and the kids, but I knew what he meant. When Tony talked about the “stick,” he was referring to the Matteh ha Shelomoh—the Staff of Solomon that I picked up during that business with Durant a while back. The thing looked like it was basically as old as dirt, and I don’t know what kind of wood it had been carved from, but the staff smashed through supernatural creatures like they were made out of peanut butter. So whenever Tony brought up the Matteh ha Shelomoh, that meant that he was pretty sure that we would be going up against something creepy.
In other words, something that Kingery and Schroeder wouldn’t be prepared for.
“Okay,” I replied, sitting up, shifting the twins to the side and then wiping my nose with the nearest Kleenex. “Ddell me aboudd idd…”
* * *
A week before, a postal worker had literally stumbled over the remains of one Gabriella Jordan. She’d been sliced up pretty badly, and then left to die behind a dumpster behind the Martini Club. Now, at first, Tony and I figured that her death was probably related to the domestic abuse charge that she’d filed—and then later dropped—against her boyfriend, Ja’Quille Nash, about two or three months earlier. Nash had a rap sheet longer than my arm, with enough incidents of assault with a deadly weapon that it was a safe bet that he’d finally just lost it and killed her in their most recent fight.
The sad truth is that very few domestic abuse situations end well. I mean, I get it that you want to think the best of the person you’re with—you want to believe that the violence was only because he was drunk, or because she needed a fix, or because you’ve just had a lot of bad luck recently, or whatever. You want to believe them when they tell you that they love you and that it will never happen again. Add that to the fact that a lot of people fear the devil they know less than the devil they don’t—that they’re more scared of being alone (or being with someone even worse) than they are of their abuser—and you get a lot of dropped domestic abuse charges. But a guy who’s willing to take his hand to the woman he loves? That doesn’t just get better on its own. My experience is that if he was willing and able to do it to her once, then he’ll be willing and able to do it to her the next time.
But once we started looking into it, Nash turned out to be clearly innocent. Well, he wasn’t guilty of Gabriella’s murder, at least. It seems that he’d been picked up on a B&E across town in Westchester, so he couldn’t have killed his girlfriend because he was too busy being arrested at the time. Besides, once Bill Saunders looked over the body down at the morgue, he told us that her death was more likely from an animal attack. She hadn’t just been sliced… she’d been disemboweled.
Yes, I know that you’re probably thinking, “It was a monster!” or something, because you’re one of the five people who actually read my first book. But believe me that Chicago cops—even cops like Tony and me who’ve actually seen monsters—don’t just jump to that conclusion every time that a killing seems odd or unexplainable. That’s just bad detective work, to assume something like that.
But yes, it turned out to be a monster. And that’s why Tony had brought the stick.
Because that night, another victim had been found just off of Irving Park Road at Mango Avenue, not 200 feet away from where Gabriella’s body had been found. And this time, there was a witness. Luckily for us, the M.O. fit Gabriella’s death, so the call got bounced to Tony and Leah Wheaton (who was backing him up that evening, what with me being home with my cold).
Anita Torrent had been walking to her car with her ten-year-old son, AnDee, that evening, after doing a little last-minute shopping at the Family Dollar there. By the time Tony and Leah had gotten to the scene, little AnDee was wrapped up in a blanket and being consoled by the EMTs, but he absolutely refused to leave the parking lot until his mother’s body had been packed up and removed.
Leah sat down next to AnDee on the back bumper of the ambulance, just trying to build the kind of rapport that Tony had no facility for, while Tony went and looked at the body itself. Anita’s body displayed the same sorts of slashing trauma and disembowelment that had been dealt to Gabriella’s body a week earlier. Tony said that it reminded him of pictures he’d seen about that last Jack the Ripper murder back in 1888, when the Ripper had taken his time with Mary Kelly.
But according to AnDee, his mother’s murder had only taken seconds. They were on their way back to their car when something jumped out of the shadows at them. The assailant pushed the boy out of the way and began slashing at Anita wildly, even after she fell to the ground, dead. When he hunched over her body to attack her belly, that’s when AnDee saw him clearly.
“So whaddya see, kid?” Tony asked him, sauntering up to the ambulance and lighting up a cigarette. Leah had her arm around the boy, and she glared at Tony while she gave AnDee a reassuring squeeze.
“Can you tell us what you saw, hon?” she asked him more gently. “Whenever you’re ready…”
AnDee just sat there, watching silently as the CSI team loaded his mother’s corpse into body bag. He wasn’t even crying anymore—he was just in shock.
“C’mon, kid,” Tony pressed. “Whaddya see?”
“Nobody gonna believe me,” AnDee whispered, so quietly that they almost didn’t hear him.
“What did you say, honey?” Leah asked, leaning closer. Even Tony squatted down to hear him better. I know that because he complained to me that his knees both popped.
“I said ain’t nobody gonna believe me,” he repeated, only a little louder this time.
“Try me,” Tony asked. AnDee looked up at him, and Tony said that it was like the kid was trying to decide whether or not to trust him, just by studying his eyes. But after a couple of seconds, AnDee started nodding and muttering, “Okay…” over and over to himself.
Finally, he took a deep breath, looked Tony square in the eye, and said, “It was a snake-man.”
* * *
“You’re kidding me…” I said, once Tony told me what AnDee had said.
“Tha’s what I said,” he replied. “But then Leah had ’im draw us a picture o’ th’ thing, an’ lookit what he did.” Tony pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and showed it to me. I unfolded it and saw a child’s drawing of what looked like a man, but with a long torso that ended in a tail, and a reptilian face that looked like a snake or maybe a crocodile.
“He drew this?” I asked, and then grabbed another Kleenex as I felt another sneeze coming on.
“Well, it wasn’t me or Wheaton!” he snorted back. I finally sneezed twice in a row, but I could still feel that too-familiar tingle that told me that I wasn’t finished sneezing yet.
“And… And you—” and that’s when I sneezed the third time. “And you believed him?”
“You shoulda seen his face, Tom,” Tony replied. “He really, truly thought this snake-thing was what killed his mom t’night.”
I didn’t know. I mean, we’d seen vampires and rakshasas and revenants and more, but I was still hard-pressed to believe that some medieval basilisk thing slithered up and shredded two women in modern-day Chicago, just because some traumatized kid said so. Then again, we’d had a precedent for medieval legends coming to life in town recently. And then I thought about what Durant had told me about mishipeshus and ceffyl dŵrs in Lake Michigan…
“What if the kid’s tellin’ the truth?” Tony asked me as he opened up a can of Coke and took a huge slurp. “What’s next? Bigfoot? Aliens? Purple squirrels ridin’ motorcycles down Cicero wit’ Nazi flags streamin’ offa their helmets?”
“Don’dd be ridiculous,” I replied, losing myself in AnDee’s picture as if it could somehow prove to me whether or not it was legit, if I just looked at it long enough. “Squirrels never wear helmedds when ddey ride…” And that’s when I realized that Durant had begun to rub off on me.
“I’m serious, Tom.”
I confess that I’d stopped really listening to Tony at that point in the conversation. AnDee had drawn the snake-thing hunched over his mother’s body, but he’d also drawn other details as well. Tony said that Wheaton thought it was therapeutic for him, so she let him keep going. Behind Anita’s body in the picture was a crude drawing of their car, and he even drew the shop-front of the store as a backdrop for the whole thing. And just behind the snake-thing’s tail, he drew a black circle.
“Whadd’s ddat?” I asked, pointing to the circle.
“What’s what?” he replied, leaning in to look at the picture.
“Ddat!” I said again, poking the circle with my finger. Raising my voice like that made me cough again.
“I dunno…” Tony said. “A manhole cover?”
“Dden why is idd black?” I asked. I blew my nose on another Kleenex.
* * *
By the time that we got to the crime scene, I was feeling a little bit better. Joanna had made me take some cold medicine, so at least I wasn’t sneezing and coughing quite as badly. But now I felt like my brain was lost in the fog or something. That’s the worst part of the cold to me—not the runny nose, or the headache, or the coughing, but that horrible feeling that you’re always about a half-step off of your game, and that there’s nothing you can really do to get your mind cleared up again. Drink a coffee, splash your face with cold water, do whatever you want—you’re still thinking through cotton, and that’s just the way that it’s going to be until you finally get healthy again.
But even with my brain wadded in that cotton, I still wanted to look at the scene in person. You never know what will hit you when you just look around, opening your mind to everything in the area and nothing in particular at the same time.
So I stood there in the Family Dollar parking lot, surveying the scene in all directions. Across Mango was an auto repair shop, and then the whole neighborhood goes residential. Across Irving Park were places like a dance academy and a Muay Thai kickboxing school, the Martini Club and Brgrbelly, and then down a few more doors was Globe International Antiquarian Books shop. Side note—Globe International is where I found a lot of the information that you might’ve read in all of those background bits between the chapters in my first book, if you didn’t just skip all of those background bits. They specialize in first editions and rare books that you can’t find anywhere else. Tony’s got his Coca-Cola and cigarette addictions, and I have my used book store addiction. I try to hit a new one every time I travel to a town I’ve never been to before. For instance, I remember passing through Springfield, Missouri, years ago and stopping in at a place called Shirley’s Rare Books Store, thinking that it was going to be another shop like Globe International… but instead, I found nothing but piles of old, yellowed, moldy paperbacks stacked haphazardly on the floor. Contrast that with the other side of the spectrum, where you’ve got places like Lit. on Fire down in Peoria—bookstores that are in business because they clearly just love books. How can you not love a shop like that? Anyway, I couldn’t imagine what all of the store owners on Irving Park were thinking, what with two murders on their block in just a little over one week.
As I stood there, I couldn’t get AnDee’s picture out of my mind. He drew the Family Dollar, he drew the car, he drew the snake-thing over his mother, and he drew a manhole without its cover. I had Tony ask Wheaton to follow up with AnDee about why he drew it that way, and while I waited for an answer back from her, I looked around for manholes on the street. Sure enough, there were actually five manholes there at the intersection of Mango and Irving Park—some for the sewer, some for the storm drains.
See, Chicago has a combined sewer and storm drain system. In fact, we have one of the first real, honest-to-goodness sewer systems in the United States. Up until the mid-19th century, people living and working on each street in a city were more or less required to figure out their own sewage issues. The situation in Chicago got so bad that the city decided to put together our own municipal system to cover the whole area. But rather than just dig down, they also actually raised the whole city four to fourteen feet off of the ground. I’m not kidding—they lifted whole blocks like Lake Street with thousands of jacks and built the combined sewer and storm drain system under it. The whole thing was designed so that every time it rains in Chicago, it helps flush out the sewers. Of course, they were flushing all of the raw sewage into Lake Michigan, which was a horrible idea, but you still have to give them credit for the engineering achievement of it all. Sometime around 1900, engineers reversed the course of the Chicago River, so now the sewage flows away from our drinking water (which is, y’know, a good thing) and into the Illinois River, which then eventually flows into the Mississippi… which then made Chicago’s sewage officially St. Louis’ problem.
“Did anybody mess widd any of ddese?” I asked Tony, pointing to the manholes.
“Ya mean them covers?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Everything’s ‘as is’…” I could see that he was gearing up to add something snarky, but that’s when his phone rang—which I assumed to be Wheaton calling him back.
None of the covers were off of any of the manholes, but I looked each of them over carefully nonetheless while he stepped away to talk on the phone. The first two seemed perfectly normal, but the third one that I looked at was just slightly ajar. I know that the sewer guys would never have left it that way, so I got down on my haunches and shined the light from my phone on it, looking even closer. The surface was dark and slightly rusted, but I could see several small scratches along the sides. When a sewer worker pulls one of these things up, he usually just uses a special key in the access holes, or maybe a crowbar if the thing is wedged in there too tight—but they’d never be scuffing up the sides like this, because they’d never need to. Somebody else recently messed with this cover, and they didn’t use a crowbar or a manhole key to do it. I reached down to try to pull the thing up myself, but it was too heavy and I couldn’t budge it.
So whoever it was, he was also pretty strong.
Since I knew that it wasn’t Durant, AnDee’s snake-thing story was beginning to sound slightly more plausible at this point. Tony came trotting up to me, huffing and puffing.
“She said he said th’ snake-thing went down one o’ them holes!”
Which is what I’d thought to begin with, because it just made sense that it would have. There are more than 100 miles of sewer and storm drain tunnels crisscrossing under the city of Chicago, and I could totally picture something like that hiding out down there. Of course, even if it really was some sort of weird creature, it wasn’t just an animal—whatever it was had removed the manhole cover, and then it had replaced the cover when it went back down again.
The thing was smart.
And all of that meant that I was going to have to go down into those tunnels, and I still felt like crap. I took out another Kleenex and blew my nose, just thinking about it.
“You’re gonna wanna gedd a crowbar from the ddrunk ob my car…” I told Tony. And then I coughed.
* * *
For the record, those covers are hard to get off, even with a crowbar, because it took both of us working together it pry it up. Or maybe that one was just wedged in there really tight. Or maybe my cold was taking more out of me than I realized. However you slice it, I was feeling worse and worse about going down into the sewer to hunt something that much tougher than we were.
When I got to the bottom of the ladder, I double-checked my pistol. You need a stake for a vampire, and fire for a witch, and silver for a werewolf, right? Did you need something special to kill a snake-thing? Are there even any legends about snake-things out there to check on for something like that? I dunno… but that’s why Tony thought to grab the staff as well, because you can never go wrong with that thing.
Before I go any further, I probably ought to tell you that the sewer tunnels under Chicago don’t look the way that you probably assume that they do. My guess is that when most people think about sewers, they picture dark, dank, claustrophobic places that are always dripping and always smell like a public restroom. But the tunnels under Chicago are usually well-lit, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (some of them are up to 30 feet in diameter), and only marginally smell like a public restroom. On the plus side, I didn’t figure that we’d have to be down there too terribly long—whatever this thing was, it had attacked in this same area twice, which means that it was probably going to be somewhere fairly nearby.
The problem is, once you get to the bottom of a ladder like that, you have two options of which way to go. In my cold-medication-induced, cotton-brained thinking, I suggested that we each take a different direction and see what’s up.
“Are you nuts?” Tony barked, and his voice echoed down the tunnel. “I ain’t splittin’ up down here…” he added, much quieter. I saw him grip the wood of the staff just a little tighter.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Budd which way do we go?”
I looked down the left tunnel, then back to the right. At first, one direction seemed as good a choice as the other. I stopped and just listened for a while, but we couldn’t hear anything in particular coming from one way or another. So I flashed my light along the walls to see if there was any kind of clue to point us where to go. It took a few minutes of going down the left side of the tunnel, then backing up and going down the right side to find it, but eventually we did—a smear of fresh blood.
It wasn’t a very large smear, and it was just above the water line, so if it had rained recently, we wouldn’t have found anything at all. But about fifteen yards down the right tunnel, something bloody had recently brushed against that wall. I started looking even more carefully, and about three feet down from that smear was another, even smaller smudge of blood, with what looked like a tiny bit of tissue still clinging to it. We carefully gathered samples from both smears into evidence bags and decided that we should move down the right side of tunnel, because it looked like whatever had attacked Anita Torrent had come down that way, either its body still sloppy with her entrails, or else carrying her organs along with it.
And that’s an interesting little detail, in and of itself. AnDee hadn’t described the thing as eating her, but rather just ripping her apart. Why would it dice her up and take her organs with it? Was it bringing food back for its young? Was it murdering out of sheer spite? I tried to remember why Grendel attacked all of those Vikings back in the old Beowulf story…
…and that’s when Tony’s phone went off, echoing down the tunnels. He shut it down quickly, but we both still jumped at how loud it had sounded down there. He turned it to vibrate, but whispered that it was apparently a call from Leah Wheaton again. I suggested that he let it go to voicemail, then listen to hear what she had to say. To be honest, I was kind of surprised that he’d even gotten any kind of reception down in the tunnels. I checked my own phone to turn off its ringer, and I wasn’t getting any bars at all by that point.
We continued slowly down the tunnel, splashing as little as we could, and checking the walls to look for more clues, but I didn’t see anything. Tony was trying to listen to the voicemail, but he complained that it was fairly garbled, and hard to understand. After a while, he just handed it to me and let me hear it for myself—
“Just got the… report back on… Torrent… -iscerated, and her org-… But here’s the weird bit, if you… through the… didn’t… -ella Jordan, her placenta… -pletely missing…” And that was it.
“DDadd’s… odd,” I whispered, wiping my nose on another Kleenex.
“I know, right?” he whispered back. “So it sounds like this Torrent woman was pregnant. That makes this, like, a double-homicide…”
“Did idd sound like maybe Gabriella Jordan had also been pregnandd?” I added. “Had you read anydding from Bill Saunders about idd in his repordd on her?”
“Nope,” he said, putting his phone away. “But I can’t say I was lookin’ for it.”
Now, I realized that it could’ve been a coincidence—two women murdered the same way in the same geographical area of Chicago within a week of one another, and both of whom had been pregnant. It’s always dangerous to see patterns where there are no patterns. But I had to believe that all of those details were connected somehow.
Soon, the tunnel branched into two sections, and we had a decision to make. We’d long since lost our trail of blood smears—so we probably weren’t going to get lucky enough to find any more in one of these two sections—and by now, I was in total agreement with Tony that we shouldn’t split up. But it wasn’t really all that hard to figure out which tunnel to go down this time.
The tunnel to the right was smaller and still well-lit, but the tunnel to the left was dark—someone or something had taken out almost all of the lights.
“We goin’ left, right?”
“We’re going lefdd, righdd…”
And we both sighed.
* * *
The tunnel entrance had a bunch of rubble piled in front of it, and using our phones as flashlights as we went along, we saw that it was noticeably moister and more dilapidated than any of the others we’d been in. I know that Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project keeps refurbishing all of these old branches and shutting down ones that are too decrepit to be fixed, but maybe they hadn’t gotten to this one yet. Or maybe they’d sealed it off years ago, and then something had happened recently to re-open it by accident. Or maybe whatever had been living in the tunnel just wanted to pile rubble in front of the entrance to keep its nest from prying eyes.
Whatever the case, the place looked much nastier than any other sewer tunnel I’d ever been in before. Suddenly, I felt like I was in the middle of some stupid horror movie, and I couldn’t believe that I was still walking into scarier and scarier territory. But something down here had killed at least two women, and there was no way that I was going to let it get away with that in my town.
Going in farther, we noticed more and more cracks and holes in the walls of the tunnel, and we saw mold and lichens or moss or whatever growing in them. The stuff we were walking in became increasingly less wet and increasingly more sticky. It was clear that this tunnel hadn’t been repaired for years, and wasn’t functionally connected to any part of the existing sewer and drainage system—especially since the tunnel took a sharp turn just up ahead. It dawned on me that we should probably be wearing hazmat suits if we were going to be walking around down here, and I was about to turn to whisper something about that to Tony when I heard something moving, just around the bend.
It could have been a rat, but it sounded bigger, and it didn’t skitter. Instead, it sounded for all the world like someone was dragging something fairly large across the sticky surface.
So here’s the conundrum—do you turn off your light because you don’t want whatever’s ahead of you in the tunnel to see you? Or do you leave your light on so that you can hopefully see whatever’s ahead of you in the tunnel? Bear in mind that there’s at least a chance that it hasn’t seen your light yet, since it’s still on the other side of that bend. And even if it has, it might not be aware enough to really understand what that light would mean.
We decided to split the difference, and put Tony’s phone on a ledge, pointing it toward the bend to give us some light, but I turned mine off and kept it handy so that I could turn it on quickly if we needed it. I took a deep breath, quietly cocked my pistol, and moved forward—as silently as I possibly could. Tony came up behind me with the staff gripped in his hands.
We got to the corner, and we hadn’t heard anything else ahead of us. I took one more deep breath, then turned the corner.
And that’s when I sneezed.
We both just froze in place, suddenly terrified—and that wet, dragging sound quickly became a loud, slapping sound, then went away. It had been a pretty loud sneeze, even though it just came out of nowhere, with no lead-up into it, and the sound of it still echoed off of the walls and down the tunnels all around us. Later, I’d feel like a total idiot—but at that moment, I just stood there in shock. I honestly didn’t know what to do next. Finally, Tony broke the silence.
“Maybe nobody heard ya in Detroit…”
I realized that I’d been holding my breath, so I let it go with a long sigh.
It seemed less crucial now to be stealthy, so I just turned the corner and looked around the bend. The tunnel actually came to a dead end, mostly filled in about ten feet ahead by a cave-in that clearly happened long ago. And piled up against the rubble was—
Tony’s light suddenly went out behind us with a crashing noise, so I didn’t get a good look at the pile of… whatever it was…
“Do yer light!” Tony began yelling. “Do yer light!”
I grabbed my phone and began to fumble for the app for the flashlight. But that meant that I wasn’t holding my pistol as carefully as I had been holding it a moment before, and something knocked it out of my hands as it threw me to the side—something big, that sounded like someone dragging a bag of wet cement across the ground.
“Tony!” I yelled as I slammed against the wall of the tunnel, dropping my phone as my arm hit stone. He didn’t reply, but I heard him grunt as whatever had thrown me apparently knocked him to the side, too. I heard the staff fall onto the floor of the tunnel.
“Stupid stick!” I heard Tony yell back.
I began feverishly groping around for either my phone or my weapon—whatever I could find. My hands sunk into the sticky goo covering the ground, but all I felt was rubble and old sewage… until I grabbed something long and thick that I assumed to be the staff. But the moment I touched it, I realized that it was something altogether different—it was the scaly tail of something very large, and it darted out of my grasp so fast that it sliced my palm. I heard that wet, slapping sound again and felt something large spinning around in front of me in the dark, while two powerful hands suddenly grabbed me and yanked me to my feet. I smelled its fishy breath as it drew me close to its face, even with my nose as stuffed as it was. But the thing itself never made even the slightest hiss of a sound.
Since it was holding me, I pulled both feet up and kicked against it as hard as I could, and my shirt tore in its claws, freeing me to fall to the ground again. I frantically groped along the ground, looking again for anything that I could use as a weapon against it.
I didn’t find a weapon, but I did find my phone. I swiped the front, tapped the flashlight app, and whipped my phone toward the thing as fast as I could.
The light appeared to startle it, and it darted back and away from me, pulling its large bulk back toward the dead end of the tunnel. But before I could get a good look at it, Tony got between me and the thing, swinging the Matteh ha Shelomoh back and forth as hard and as fast as he could. The creature was much quicker than Tony, but it was so big and there was so little room left in the tunnel for it to maneuver that finally, he couldn’t help but hit it. When he did, the staff went straight through its body, ripping the thing into two halves… both of which then flopped on the ground for a few seconds before finally becoming still.
But that didn’t stop Tony from bashing at it several more times with the staff…
* * *
We used my phone’s light to find my pistol, which was actually sitting about six inches from my left hand. The sticky floor stuff gripped it for a moment as I picked it up, then dripped off of it in thick lines of goo. I figured that I was going to have to clean it really, really well when I got back home that night.
Then I turned back around to look at the corpse of the thing that attacked us, but Tony had really done a number on it by then. It was large and gray-green in color, covered in a scaly skin. Clearly a reptile. And yet, though the bottom half of the thing was serpentine, the top half looked fairly human—at least in its shape. Its two arms ended in crude hands, each with four large, clawed digits. The head was no longer much more than just a mushy pulp, thanks to Tony, but its internal organs were pale in color, and its blood seemed to be about the color and consistency of lemonade, though that was hard to tell as it trickled into the green-brown sludge on the floor of the tunnel.
“That there’s a snake-thing…” Tony said, wiping some grime from his face with the back of his sleeve.
I turned the light back toward the end of the tunnel, and the mysterious pile.
“Budd whadd’s ober ddere?” I asked, coughing from all of the exertion.
We walked closer, and we saw that it was a clutch of about a dozen eggs, each about six inches long, sitting on an even larger pile of rotted clothes, old bones, and other garbage. The whole mound was covered in more of the slime that we’d been walking in for the past several minutes… and something else…
There were organs spread across the eggs as well—human organs—and fresh ones, given their color. I’m no expert, but I was pretty sure that we were looking at the placentas that this thing had harvested from Gabriella Jordan and Anita Torrent… and several others, from the looks of it.
“Why…?” I began to ask, but Tony just shook his head and crossed himself.
I knelt down next to the pile to get a closer look, and one of the eggs shuddered. Leaning over and shining my light on it, I saw that something was moving inside of its thin shell.
“That’s it!” Tony grunted, and he grabbed what looked like the splintered remains of a femur from off of the pile, wrapping some of the torn clothes around one end.
“Whadd are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m sendin’ alla this back ta Hell, that’s what I’m doin’…” he answered, taking out his cigarette lighter and setting the old cloth aflame. Both of us were surprised at how quickly it lit.
“Waidd!” I shouted. “Maybe…” My brain still felt like it was wrapped in cotton, but at least some part of me realized that what we’d found here was important. Nobody had ever seen anything like any of this, and we probably shouldn’t just burn it all without thinking about it first. “Maybe we should, I dunno, gib one ob ddese eggs ddo a lab or somedding…”
“Yeah,” Tony said, tossing his makeshift torch onto the clutch of eggs. “An’ I’m gonna lose sleep over not doin’ that…”
The whole clutch burst into flame—all but exploded, really. In fact, the flames jumped along the slime on the ground and started setting the whole tunnel on fire. Apparently, something in all of that sticky stuff was flammable. I dunno… But the light of the flames shone through the thin walls of the eggs as it flickered, and we could see the infant snake-things wriggling within them as they burned.
And we could hear them screaming…
* * *
I don’t like thinking about that night, but I thought that all of it should be documented somehow, somewhere, even if I couldn’t put any of it in a file down at the office. I probably won’t even put this into book form, like I did with that episode with Sydor and Durant. But even if I can’t let the general public know what’s out there, I still feel the need to somehow… acknowledge it in some meaningful way.
How many people had it killed before we’d found it? Why was it harvesting organs from pregnant women? And why do these things keep finding their way to Chicago? Is there something about the water in Lake Michigan or some cosmic significance to the Cubs that just naturally attracts crazy monsters to come to Illinois? I don’t know, and I wish it would stop. But then again, I guess that I’d rather know the truth than to be blind to what’s going on around me, even if the truth hurts.
Especially if the truth hurts.
So where did this snake-thing come from? When the Deep Tunnel project excavated the Thornton Reservoir to contain the sewage from the south side of Chicago, they said that they’d found reefs dating back to the Silurian and Devonian eras. Maybe they uncovered something, like an egg or something, that finally hatched or woke up? That just sounds like bad science fiction to me—and my resident dinosaur expert, Chelsea, tells me that the only animals around back then were fish and millipedes and scorpion-type things.
Maybe it’s more simple and more scary than that. Maybe we just dug too deep and found that other things were already living in their own tunnels under Chicago. Maybe they’re living under other cities, too—or even under every city.
The fact is, the more caves we stumble into in Africa, the deeper trenches we explore in the oceans, the more tunnels we dig under Chicago, the more we find that there are a lot more bizarre creatures living in this world with us than we ever could have realized. Ten-foot tube worms living on hydrothermal vents on the bottom of the sea and breathing in hydrogen sulfide to survive, viruses in deep caves that liquify your internal organs within a week after inhaling them, funguses that infect and enslave the brains of ants and force them to offer themselves to become hosts to be eaten alive by even more fungus… the list goes on and on. And some of these new and exciting creatures don’t even want to kill everything around them.
For the biologist, I’m sure that that’s a really exciting prospect.
As I sat there in the outer tunnel, watching the flames, coughing, and wondering how many similar clutches of eggs might be out there, somewhere, just waiting to hatch… I had to admit that I found that prospect more than just a little bit terrifying…