Second story of the Nexus series. 19,000 words.
It was nigh midnight when the young man left his menial job of filleting fish and wrapping the steaks in waxed paper. Ten hours a day for twenty cents an hour, and an unpaid meal break.
I left Ireland for this? he thought as he stepped out into the bitter night, avoiding the freezing condensation dripping from the door frame.
Three blocks from the Hudson, north of the commercial docks, the fishing boats brought in Atlantic cod by the netful, and Tillerman & Sons — well, mostly the sons — were waiting at the dock with stacks of cash to buy up all they could haul to their warehouse's gutters and packers. There they were cleaned and frozen for sale in tomorrow's market. They had those stacks of cash because the housewives loved the convenience of their product, and droves of unsuspecting fools got off the boats from Europe, Africa, and South America every day of the week with dreams of finding their fortune in the Land of Opportunity. Old man Tillerman's smooth-talking son Gerald was waiting at the dock for these fish as well, with a promise of steady work at twenty cents an hour.
Fools like me, Cullen O'Neill thought wryly as he turned his collar against the biting cold and began the six-block walk to his horrid hotel. He couldn't remember what he had expected to find in New York when he had arrived six months ago, but he was pretty sure that it was something better than a drafty, bug-infested room barely big enough for a cot and a chair that hardly left him enough to eat on. Still, he consoled himself, he was always able to find an odd job to do on his day off, jobs that required a strong back and that paid a nice stack of coins, and he was sure this wasn't permanent. He had some of those coins saved up and was planning a move west. Chicago and St. Louis beckoned, cities where a man could rise from the squalor and amount to something; maybe even the gold and silver camps at the far end of the continent could use a man who wasn't afraid of a little work.
The shriek that interrupted his reverie seemed to come from almost right beside him, and his body jerked at the surprise.
"Who's that?" he called.
The only answer was another scream, this time accompanied by a strange clattering sound.
"Where are ye, lass? Make some noise!"
"Help meeeeeeeee!" came the drawn-out wail of reply.
O'Neill located the voice in general terms as being down toward the waterfront, and began to sprint in its direction, grabbing a stick from a garbage bin as he ran.
"I'm comin', lass! Hang on!"
He was prepared for thieves, rapists, or rabid dogs, but the sight that met his eyes when he rounded the last corner from Barrows Street onto the waterfront promenade stopped him in his tracks. The woman who he assumed was the author of the screams lay on her back unmoving. A form crouched over her, indistinguishable in the dim light, but it was obvious that whoever it was meant her no good.
"What's all this, then?" he shouted, raising his makeshift weapon. "Get off o' her!"
The figure did exactly that, straightening up and turning to regard him with black, soulless eyes.
'Neill recoiled in horror from the sight of the face that exposed itself.
Huge, wet eyes, almost all pupils, pointed slightly to the sides in the sharp, narrow face. No nose was visible in the darkness, but the slash of a mouth lined with triangular teeth and smeared with blood was unmistakable. Springing to its feet with supernatural speed, it charged him with a velocity he could scarcely countenance.
Hands, or something, lashed out at his face. Amidst an impression of finger webbing and dark-colored scales, he barely got the club up in time to knock them away from his eyes. The thing still barreled into him at a frightful velocity, knocking him off his feet, and the club went flying in his effort to break his fall. The thing was all over him without hesitation, but Cullen O'Neill knew his way around a street fight, and managed to kick out at his assailant's leg, scoring a solid hit in the knee area, driving the thing back off of him. He used the brief respite to get his filleting knife out of its sheath, a foot of thin, razor-sharp steel, and when the thing jumped atop him, the upraised blade sliced along the side of the thing's lower chest area.
The creature's "vocalizations" consisted of the clattering sounds made by the blunt, hollow chitin spines on its back, and it gave full expression to a roar that sounded like a heavy rainstorm as it fairly leaped off of him in its haste to get off the blade. It crouched down, seeking a new angle of attack, when the shrill blast of a police whistle sounded not far away, answered by several others farther in the distance. The thing jerked its head around, looking here and there for this new source of interruption, and giving O'Neill his first clear look at it.
The size and shape of a large man, it was covered in fine, dark scales that picked up a sheen from every distant light source as if it were wet from head to toe. There was a crest atop the head, and a small fin that ran completely down its back amid that forest of hollow, six-inch spines. The hand-like appendage it held in readiness carried four half-inch claws, and was webbed between the fingers. As O'Neill rose to his knees, the whistle sounded much closer, and the thing turned and ran in a shambling gait that may have had more to do with its wound than its aquatically oriented build. Reaching the edge of the promenade, it jumped over and disappeared below the edge.
As O'Neill got to his feet and began to stagger toward the woman, the first policeman arrived.
"All right, buddy, what's goin' on here?"
"That thing was attacking this woman," O'Neill answered. "I drove it off. Cut it, too. It's gotta be hurt bad."
"Drop the knife!"
O'Neill did so.
"What's gotta be hurt bad?" the cop asked.
"That creature. It jumped off the quay. You must have seen it, then."
"I saw nothin'. It jumped off where, here?"
"Buddy, it's twenty feet into ice water at the edge of this quay. It's not likely anybody's going to jump off there, especially somebody who's been stabbed."
"Aye, but this was no ordinary man, then."
"Oh, and what was it?"
A second cop arrived, drawing up beside his colleague and taking in O'Neill's disheveled appearance, the long, bloody knife on the ground, and the dark bloodstain on his coat.
"What's goin' on?" the new arrival asked.
"This fellow claims he drove off someone, or something, that was attacking that woman there. You'd best have a look at her."
The second cop moved to the lady's side.
"You were about to tell me what it was," the first cop prompted.
"Aye. It was built like a man, but it wasn't. It had scales, and these teeth that..."
He trailed off as he caught the cop's expression.
"His skin was scaly, then," he started again, "and his face was deformed, like somebody you'd see in a freak show."
"A freak show, is it?"
"Aye. You must have seen it."
"Well, ask her. She'll tell you."
"I'm afraid nobody's gonna be asking her anything," the second cop said, rising from the body.
"She's dead?" O'Neill breathed.
"But, I saw the guy. He attacked me when I tried to save her!"
"Listen, Buddy," the first cop said, "all I see here is a dead girl, and a mick with a big knife in his hand and blood all over him. You don't exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what's happened here. Put the irons on him, Frank. If this guy's the Creeper, we'll both be sergeants tomorrow."
"About damned time!" Frank said, reaching behind him for his handcuffs as he stepped up to shackle O'Neill.
O'Neill didn't hesitate. As a young man in Ireland, he had a closer than nodding acquaintance with the abuse of authority, As Frank came within arm's reach, O'Neill spun and drove his fist into the man's nose in a sucker punch that lifted him off his feet and deposited him in a heap several feet away. He didn't wait to see what the other cop was doing, but kicked him hard in the groin, forcing a squeal from his throat that would have done an actress proud.
With both cops down, Cullen O'Neill turned and fled toward the rat's warren of slums to the north. where a man could disappear without a trace, at least for a while, while he collected his wits and made a plan. He was running on blind instinct, a chorus of police whistles rising behind him, in a state of shock. He'd gone from heroic good Samaritan to wanted fugitive in the space of an instant, almost too fast to comprehend. He ran on blindly, unthinking, always turning toward the darkest pathways.
I left Ireland for this?
Ralph Turner was a detective assigned to the Twentieth Precinct, an area north of the commercial docks on the Hudson River, and thus just outside the boundary where organized criminals and opportunistic thieves and smugglers plied their trade. A veteran of fourteen years, he had just about resigned himself to spending his whole career writing down the mundane details of purse snatchings and burglaries when the Dockside Creeper had moved onto his beat and provided a stellar opportunity for advancement... assuming he could catch the guy, of course.
That was the rub. It had been six months ago last week when the first mutilated body had appeared near the docks. It was that of a young woman, pretty, well-dressed for the neighborhood, parts missing, torso torn open, a couple of organs gone as well. He had puked for the first time since his rookie year. There was no precision here. It didn't even look like a knife had been used. The girl had just been torn apart.
Clues abounded, and yet didn't add up to anything. Smeared footprints in the blood that couldn't be linked to any brand of shoe, bloody handprints on the body that carried no fingerprints, all led nowhere. No witnesses had come forward, and questioning the girl's family about her lifestyle had shed no light on the case. And then the second body had dropped.
This time it was a burly longshoreman walking to his job on the commercial docks. He had the frame and build to lift 200-pound crates by himself and had been armed with an eight-inch strapping knife which was found near his lifeless hand. Neither his strength nor his weapon had made any difference; he had been shredded, ripped to pieces, just like the girl, and none of the many bits of evidence at the gory crime scene had led to anything. Four more bodies had been left along the shore of the Twentieth in the months since, and a total of eleven if you counted the similar corpses found up and down the river.
This was Turner's obsession, his White Whale, and it wasn't hard to imagine his displeasure when he walked in the door for the day shift.
"Top o' the morning, Ralphie," big Dan Flaherty, the desk sergeant, greeted him as he entered. "Ye heard the news, then?"
"I just got here, Daniel. What news?"
"A couple o' uniforms had their hands on yer Creeper last night. He fought 'em both off and gave 'em the slip."
"The hell you say! Who were they?"
"Gorsline and Mitchell. Mitchell's still here, if you want to ask him about it."
"You bet your ass I want to ask him about it!" He moved past the desk and headed for the locker room at a fast walk. Entering a scene of chaos as most of two watches were changing, he shouted out for the man he wanted.
"Frank! Frank Mitchell!"
"Here!" came a voice from the far corner. "Who's calling?"
"Detective Turner," the newcomer replied, pushing through the crowd toward the sound of the voice. "Where are you?"
Turner found him, a wiry fellow in boxer shorts and a white undershirt, pulling a pair of trousers out of his locker.
"I hear you caught a bad one last night."
"That's right, Detective. I answered a whistle, and found Lenny Gorsline facing off with some mick near the body of a woman."
"The mick had dropped a knife. and it looked pretty obvious like he'd just killed her. Lenny'd interrupted him. He sent me to check on her while he interviewed the suspect. She was dead, of course."
"Sure. Nobody gets cut up like that and gets up to answer questions."
"What happened then? How'd this guy get away from you?"
"Well, he was tellin' Lenny something about how he'd come to rescue the girl and had driven off some creature."
"Yeah, that's what he said, at least at first, but he changed his tune when Lenny didn't believe him. Said it was some deformed guy like in a freak show."
"Did you see anybody else?"
"No. Of course, Lenny'd already been there, so somebody else could have fled, I guess."
"So, how'd he get away?"
"Lenny said to put the cuffs on him. When I stepped up to do it, he punched me in the nose so hard I couldn't breathe for a minute. By the time I got my wits back, Lenny was down, and the guy was gone."
"So you got careless?"
"I guess that's the gist of it."
"You stupid putz! You know there's a serial killer loose on the waterfront. How the hell do you do that? You could have had him!"
"Take it easy, Ralph." the voice of his partner, Lucas Gaines, came from behind him.
"Take it easy? This dumb bastard had the Creeper in his hand and let him get away! Don't tell me to take it easy!"
"That's what I'm telling you, Ralph. You've seen some of the Creeper's victims. This kid's lucky all he got was punched. Go on, get ready for the shift. You're too close to this to do any good."
"Ahhhhhh!" Ralph noised with a dismissive gesture and crossed the room to his own locker.
"Don't worry about him, kid. He's crazy. What did this mick look like?"
"About six feet, slender, dark brown hair slicked back. He dropped a knife. A foot long, thin blade, razor sharp. Looked like a boning knife."
"What about his clothes? How was he dressed?"
"Tradesman. Working stiff. Coarse trousers, jacket over. Looked like a thousand other guys down there. Sorry I don't have more. Lenny, uh, Officer Gorsline wrote the report. He might have included more."
"We'll look into it. Go home and get some rest. That's more than we knew before."
Gaines crossed over to his locker, next to Turner's.
"I got a description from him," he said to his partner. "Just some average working stiff. Not what you'd expect for this sort of killer."
"Well, what would you expect, Lucas? If serial killers had a certain look to them, that would make us pretty useless, wouldn't it?"
"I'm just sayin'. Apparently the first cop on the scene, Gorsline, wrote a report. Thought I might take a look at it before we head out. Might be something there we haven't seen before."
"Good idea. I hope he was smarter than this jackass over here."
"You're being too hard on the kid, Ralph. We was all rookies once. You know, if we were out there at night ourselves, we wouldn't have to rely on secondhand descriptions. I think we ought to ask the captain to put us on the night shift."
"Sure, like that's gonna happen! By the time he approves that, we'll be retired and dead of old age."
"Probably. Why don't you ask him anyway? You can do that while I'm reading Gorsline's report."
"Why not? Hard to say who's on the bigger fool's errand, though."
“Faster, Bailey, faster!”
Sweat poured from the slip of girl, soaking her gi to the point that she might have been dropped bodily into a tub of water.
Kick, punch, kick-kick, punch, spin, kick, her long auburn braid flying as the Oriental gentleman twice her age effortlessly blocked or redirected her every strike. The man’s demands were relentless, mitigated only slightly by the known fact that he was merely trying to impart skills that would save her life. If he didn’t kill her first.
“Faster now, stronger. Finish it!”
She registered no complaint, having learned early that doing so would only garner even more difficult drills, but pushed through the wall of exhaustion, somehow keeping her arms up and her kicks coming, weakening though they were. She couldn’t keep this up much longer.
“Miss O’Keefe,” a male voice called from behind her. “Forgive me, sensei,” it added as she turned, sweat dripping. “Mr. Alistair requires your immediate presence in his office.”
Waxman, she recognized, one of the pages. Fifteen, respectful, nice kid. Taken into Nexus for his own protection, but not quite ready for field work.
Enjoy it while you can.
“Surely, I’ve a moment to clean up, then?” she asked.
“As you wish, Ma’am, but I shouldn’t dally about it.”
“Very well. Tell him I’m right behind you.”
“Very good, Ma’am. Sensei.” He turned and departed.
“My apologies, sensei,” she said with a bow to her instructor, not feeling the least bit sorry. “Duty calls.”
“Of course,” he said, returning her bow. “Next session, we’ll have a real workout to make up for this one.”
“I look forward to it,” she said, thinking, maybe I’ll get lucky and die on this assignment.
Closing herself in one of the private alcoves, she stripped off her soaked gi and put it into the laundry bin provided. Taking up a sponge, she wet it in the basin and ran it over her arms and down her torso and legs. A torso already marked with a couple of unsightly scars; legs lined, even at rest, with the traces of lithe muscles, defined like taut cables.
Not the sort of body a twenty-one-year-old girl should have, she thought. But then, she was hardly a typical specimen. In the five years she had lived in the Nexus, she had been redesigned by her teachers to be, not a young woman crafted by nature to attract men and raise children, but a veritable machine, constructed by them to fight; schooled by them to win. Such became one’s life when the creatures of darkness came calling.
She cleaned her face, donned her lightweight blouse and mannish trousers, slipped on her comfortable flat shoes, and rode the elevator three floors up to the office complex. Opening the last door on the right, she entered Mr. Alistair’s waiting room.
“Good morning, Mildred,” she greeted Alistair’s matronly secretary. “I’ve been summoned.”
“Yes, Master Waxman said you would be along. Mr. Alistair,” she said into the intercom on her desk, “Miss O’Keefe is here.”
“Send her in,” came the gruff reply.
Mildred nodded and returned to her duties.
Bailey opened the door and stepped into the director’s inner sanctum. There sat Mr. Alistair, director of Nexus for all the human agents needed to know, with his round, bald head and sour expression, his piggy little eyes regarding her like something he had just scraped off his shoe. Rising before his huge desk from one of the two chairs pulled up for the occasion was a thin young man in tweeds, his bowler hat on the corner of the desk, leaning both hands on an ornate walking stick. The man studied her closely; God alone knew what Alistair had already told him.
“Sit down, Miss O’Keefe,” Alistair growled. “You too, Theodore.”
Theodore? Perfect name. This guy has bookkeeper written all over him!
“This is Miss Bailey O’Keefe, one of our more physical agents.”
“Physical?” the man asked.
“She’s a soldier,” Alistair clarified, “and much as it pains me to admit, one of our more effective ones. Miss O’Keefe, this is Theodore Stratton, the seventh Earl of Edwin.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss.”
“Yeah, charmed. So, what are we doing here, boss?”
“You see what I mean?” Alistair asked Stratton, who only smiled and looked down. “Miss O’Keefe, Mr. Nagoya has reported to the hospital for examination. He’s developed some soreness following your last assignment. Lord Stratton has come to us as a researcher, and has asked to be taken into the field to see what goes on there, and increase his value to us. I need an easy outing for him to get his feet wet, so to speak. Said easy outing has arisen, and as your partner is temporarily indisposed, you are going to take him into the field.”
You’ve got to be kidding, she thought, but only asked, “In what capacity, sir?”
“An apprentice, associate, whatever you care to call it. You will conduct a field investigation of this somewhat unlikely story and give him a first-hand view of our methods of operation.”
“I can hardly believe you want me to do this, sir. What is this mystery assignment?”
“If you can stop prattling for a moment, I’m attempting to tell you.”
“Sorry, sir. Carry on.”
“Thank you. Now, our New York field office has sent word of a lurid newspaper article concerning a deranged killer the police are calling the Dockside Creeper. The attacks started some six months ago, and he usually takes women, though there have been some male victims who should have been able to give a good account of themselves. No matter the gender or physical condition, the bodies are always mutilated almost beyond recognition. Now this tabloid has run a story saying that some sort of sea creature is actually responsible, and you are going to look into that.”
“Do we have any opinions on the matter, sir?”
“It seems unlikely, but then most of our cases do. In any case, this is the sort of thing we exist for, so you’ll need to track down this reporter and find out where the story came from. Probably just people desperate for information, and in the absence of anything concrete, they’re making up their own. Still, you need to get your feet on the ground there and look into it. You’ll be using the standard cover for this sort of job, investigators for the Royal Cryptozoological Society, and your credentials will be waiting for you in the equipment room. So, you take Lord Stratton here, get yourselves kitted up, and get to the New York field office where they’ll no doubt have more detailed information for you. There’ll be coordinates there to jump straight into the office itself, so move out as soon as you’re ready, and Miss O’Keefe?”
“Nagoya won’t be on hand to shield you, so you’d do well to minimize the shenanigans, because I don’t find your antics nearly as humorous as he obviously does.”
“Shenanigans, sir?” Bailey asked innocently.
“I mean it. You behave yourself.”
“I’ll be the soul of propriety, sir.”
Theodore Stratton, the seventh Earl of Edwin, watched this brash Irish peasant manipulate the bulky brass contraption strapped to her wrist, and at the final press of a lever, a purple-rimmed hole in reality opened. It could be described in no other way. He had taken this route to enter the Nexus, and knew first-hand that it was safe and effective, but it was no less unnerving for all of that. When he didn't make an immediate move toward it, Miss O'Keefe glanced back at him.
"You all right?"
"Let's go, then," and she stepped into the void and disappeared. Setting his jaw, he followed.
"There was a second of nausea, followed by an intense felling of vertigo as the clean gray chamber of the headquarters building abruptly became the industrial green plaster of somewhere else, painters' equipment in front of one salmon-colored wall that was in the process of being repainted, though no one was actually working on it at the moment. O'Keefe caught his arm as he reeled for a second.
"Steady on, then," she cautioned. "You'll get used to it after a few jumps."
He doubted that.
"So, where are we, exactly?"
"An unused room in the New York field office. Well, it's used for this, but if anyone asks, it's being renovated."
"Yeah. Come on, they'll be expecting us."
She opened the door on a common room with three clerks working at desks. The closest, a young woman with a clinging frock and bobbed hairdo with curls around the bottom, looked up at their entrance, and rose.
"Welcome to New York," she said, as if they'd just stepped off a train. "You must be the agents about the Creeper."
"That's right," O'Keefe replied. "I'm Bailey O'Keefe, and this is Theodore Stratton."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Carrie Simmons. If you'll come with me, I'll take you to Mr. Franklin's office."
She led them down a short hallway and around a right-angled turn to a room with a large window facing a busy street, a receptionist facing the door, and a glass-partitioned office in the back where a fortyish man in an old-fashioned suit sat at a large desk covered with stacks of papers and file folders. With a soft rap on the frame of the open door, Simmons announced their presence.
"Mr. Franklin, these are the agents from the home office about the Creeper case."
"Excellent," Franklin replied, rising, "thank you, Miss Simmons. Come in, come in, have a seat. I'm George Franklin. I manage the office here."
"Bailey O'Keefe, this is Theodore Stratton," O'Keefe said as they shook hands and sat down. "Mr. Alistair said you have a conventional case that's turned strange on you, and he wants us to look into it."
"Boy, that's the height of understatement," Franklin said. "For about six months now, the police have been on the trail of a deranged killer, at least that's their theory, who they call the Dockside Creeper. He takes a victim every ten days or so, mutilates them, takes enough of their flesh to make you suspect cannibalism, it's just horrible. So far, it's been confined to the docks along the Hudson, but it has the whole city on edge. Now, yesterday morning, the New York Register printed this."
He passed a folded newspaper from the top of one of the stacks. Stratton reached out to take it.
"You need to understand, the Register is well known for its trumpeting of conspiracies and other wild theories. Still, given the lack of success the police have been having, I thought it might be worth passing along."
"Frog-man Terrorizes Waterfront," Stratton read from the paper. "The baffling case of the Dockside Creeper took an unexpected turn in the wee hours of the morning when Arwen Patterson, a hotel night maid, became the eleventh known victim of the so-called Creeper. This publication has learned from a sober and credible witness that a creature described as half-man, half-frog was driven from the body in the midst of its gory assault."
"This is hardly proof of anything," O'Keefe observed.
"Oh, that's quite true," Franklin agreed, "and the nature of this paper only reinforces the skepticism, but even a blind dog trips over a rabbit once in a while, and given the lack of success by the police, I felt it was worth looking into."
"Really?" Stratton asked dismissively.
"Theodore is new to us," O'Keefe said. "He hasn't come to terms with the fact that all of our cases look like nonsense at first glance. You did well to pass this along, Mr. Franklin."
"Good of you to say so, Miss O'Keefe. So, what's your strategy going to be?"
"We'll need to get the address of this newspaper's office, and track down the reporter who wrote this."
"Some of these reporters can be pretty cagey about their sources."
"We have our Royal Society credentials, and once we convince him we believe every word, he should be willing to talk to us."
"I hope you're right. Let me just get that address for you," Franklin said, and stepped out to go to the back office.
"I say, you're terribly disrespectful to a peer of the realm," Stratton said to O'Keefe when he had left.
"I was Irish first, Mr. Stratton, and then became an American. I judge a man by his character, not by who his grandfather was. Mister is about the only title you'll get from me."
But what he might have said was interrupted by Franklin's return.
"Here you are," he announced, returning to his desk. "I'd better draw you a map. This office is up north on Riverview Drive. It sounds nice, I know, but it's a slum of the first order."
He took a blank sheet of paper from a drawer and began to draw the route.
The two investigators stepped off the smokey bus into a scene of squalor and destitution. Hungry eyes regarded them from the shadows of stoops and alleys, beggars sat on the sidewalk with cups of pencils or shoe boxes of sad-looking apples. Every nook seemed to hide a predator eager to strike.
"I'm not convinced this was such a good idea," Stratton said, eyeing the surroundings nervously. "I'm thinking now that we should have brought guns."
"We aren't allowed to carry guns," O'Keefe reminded him. "What isn't a good idea is you looking around like you're expecting to be attacked. That usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Not allowed guns," he snorted. "Whose idea was that?"
"The senior staff," she replied, getting him started on the two-block walk to the newspaper office. "We aren't in the business of leaving a trail of bodies who were shot by accident. I had to pass a grueling course and demonstrate exceptional proficiency before I was certified to even carry my crossbow."
"Do you have it with you?"
"I say, that's a fine bit of foresight! What are we going to do if we're attacked?"
"Relax. These people aren't fighters, and most of them aren't in the best of physical condition. I doubt they'll be much of a threat."
"Good Lord, girl! I was of a mind to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I'm beginning to think that Mr. Alistair was right."
"Not likely, then."
Despite Stratton's misgivings, they reached the storefront office of the New York Register without incident and presented themselves to the harried line-editor/secretary/receptionist at the front desk, Stratton taking the lead as they had arranged. Presenting his embossed identification plate displaying the symbol of King George V, he assumed his most pompous manner.
"Good morning, young miss. I am Lord Stratton, Earl of Edwin, and this is Miss O'Keefe, my personal assistant. We represent the Royal Cryptozoological Society, and we're here to have a word with your managing editor concerning a recent article published in your newspaper. Would that august gentleman by chance be on the premises?"
Stunned by this unexpected encounter with near-royalty, she sat slack-jawed holding his identification card and staring at his hat, perhaps wondering why he wasn't wearing a crown of some sort.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Mind was elsewhere. You want to see Mr. Davies?"
"If he is the editor, yes."
"Just a moment." She picked up the telephone on her desk and pushed one of the five buttons arrayed along the bottom edge. "Mr. Davies, there are some people here to see you from," she read from his card, "the Royal Crypto-zoo-logical Society. Yes, sir, I'll bring them right back.
"He can see you now," she said, hanging up the phone and returning Stratton's card. She led them toward the back along the side of the big room clattering with typewriters, and a phone ringing every few seconds. Opening a crazed-glass door at the back of the room, she led them into an office, no less cheap for being private, where a stout little man with a bristly mustache and the stub of a stogie threatening to set it on fire compared two typewritten pages, one in each hand. "Mr. Davies, these are the visitors."
"Yeah, thanks, doll. Come in, sit down. Mark Davies. What's on your minds?"
"I'm Lord Stratton, this is Bailey O'Keefe. We've been sent by the Royal Cryptozoologic Society to interview one of your reporters."
"Yeah, what the hell does that mean, crypto- crypto..."
"Cryptozoological. Zoology is the study of animals, and the prefix crypto means secret, or hidden. If your reporter has really identified an unknown species living right here in this major city, that would be the story of the century, and this newspaper would have the inside track for breaking the story."
"Inside track, huh?" Davies asked. "What would I have to do to ensure that I keep it?"
"For starters, let us interview the reporter that wrote the story. Maybe he could show us the scene of the attack, any information like that. The first thing we need to do is confirm its existence."
"Oh, well, that's easy enough." He got up and walked to the door. "Sally, you out there?"
"Yes, sir," a woman's voice replied.
"Bring your Creeper notes, and get back here."
He closed the door and returned to his seat.
"Sally Covington," he said. "Good reporter, thorough. Married, though I don't think she enjoys it much. Covington is her mother's maiden name. Her name's Crankham, which doesn't have the same panache, I guess you'd say. I don't care if she wants to call herself Mary Magdelene, that girl turns out good copy. Ah, here she is."
The door opened to admit a tall woman in a conservative dress and shoes. Old-fashioned, some might say, but she was obviously trying to appear serious and credible, and was by and large successful.
"Good afternoon," she greeted the strangers in her boss's office. "You wanted to see me?"
Introductions made again, she sat down to be interviewed.
"Mrs. Crankham," Stratton began.
"Covington," she said. "Covington is my professional name. Crankham is not conductive to being taken seriously."
"Neither is this article," Stratton replied. "You must admit that you've produced, if I might say so, a sensational article about a creature heretofore undescribed in science."
"We can't all write for the New York Times, Mr. Stratton. Some of us must toil at lesser labors."
"And a labor like this might open the door to a stellar career."
"Mr. Stratton, I must protest—"
"Actually, Mrs. Covington, we take you quite seriously. The Royal Society hasn't sent us half way around the world merely to denounce you as a fraud. We're more than a little interested in what has led you to believe in the existence of such an animal. Are you at liberty to reveal your source?"
"I see. Well, Mr. Stratton, my source is the entire Irish community. Word is all over the Irish quarter down by the docks that some sort of sea monster is killing those women, and the cops are trying to pin it on some poor laborer. You can ask anyone down there. They can't all be wrong."
"Perhaps not. Are you familiar with the site where this hotel maid in your article was killed?"
"Yes, quite familiar."
"Do you suppose you might take us there and show us the salient features?"
"If Mr. Davies can spare me."
"Sure, doll, show 'em whatever they need."
"All right, then, Mr. Stratton, it seems that I'm at your disposal. May I put the cab on the expense account, Mr. Davies?"
"Whatever you need, honey. This could put the Register on the map. I ain't gonna risk that over a couple of bucks."
"All right, then. Let me get my camera, and we can get started."
Cullen O'Neill hugged the wall of the brownstone as he made his way through the squalid slum. If he had any doubt about his status, it was dispelled when he saw a poster tacked to the door frame beside the entrance to one of the apartments he was approaching.
WANTED FOR QUESTIONING, it trumpeted.
Framed between the lines was a near-photographic likeness of his face with a physical description below. Twenty-five dollars was more than some of these residents made in three months, and he had no doubt that some would sell their own mother for such a princely sum. He sprinted up to the stoop and tore it down, crumpling it and putting it into his pocket. A few wouldn't see it, at least.
He returned to the street and started to turn right to continue on his way, but as he took a step, a beat cop rounded the corner and headed right for him. He froze for a moment, then tried to look nonchalant, pointedly studying the building across the street before turning up his collar and walking off in the opposite direction. As he passed a parked car, the reflection in the windshield showed the cop following at the same pace.
Damn! There could only be one reason for that, Cullen decided. The cop knew who he was, and was waiting for a fellow officer to come into view before making his arrest. There was an alley coming up on his left, and as he reached it, he turned casually and walked into it, as if he had every reason to be there. As soon as he was out of sight from the street, he sprinted hard halfway along, opening an unmarked door on the side, plunging through, and yanking it shut behind him.
Finding himself in a kitchen, he started to walk through to the front.
"Hey, who the hell are you?" the cook shouted at him in a vaguely Italian accent.
"I'm sorry. I thought this was the clothing store."
"No clothing stores onna this block! You come to steal food! Get out! Get out before I calla the cops!"
"Sorry, sorry!" Cullen moved through the restaurant's sparsely occupied dining room, glanced out the large front windows, exited, and quickly crossed the street. He had no idea whether the cop had followed, but there was no sign of him now.
Making his way the last three blocks to his destination, he climbed to the fourth floor of the grubby apartment building and knocked on his friend's door. He had to knock three times, but his coworker from the packing plant finally opened the door, hair and clothing in disarray.
"Cullen!" Sean Masters greeted him in surprise. "Where the hell have you been? Everybody at work has been asking about you."
"You haven't heard, then?"
"I had a little run-in with the cops the other night. Some lady was being attacked, and I tried to help her." He considered telling Masters about the creature, but thought better of it. "I chased off her attacker just before the cops showed up, and now they think I did it."
"Good God! Come on inside then."
Cullen stepped into the apartment just in time to see a young woman close the bedroom door.
"Look, Sean, if this is a bad time..."
"No, it's fine. You're going to get this sorted out, right?"
"Well, that's the thing. The woman died, and I don't think the cops are too interested in sorting anything out. As far as they're concerned, some Mick killed a woman. Case closed."
"Damn! What are you gonna do, then?"
"Obviously, I have to get out of town. That's why I'm here. Do you think you could arrange a loan?"
"I've been thinking about that. I think a hundred dollars would get me to Mexico."
"Canada's a lot closer."
"Mexico's a lot cheaper, and they aren't half as likely as Canada to help a New York cop find a fugitive."
"Yeah, well, here's the thing, see. I doubt that everybody I know has a hundred dollars between them. Your only chance for that kind of money is to ask the League."
"Old Man Murphy?" Cullen asked in a worried tone. They say that once he gets his hooks into you, you don't even own your soul anymore."
"Yeah? Well, if the cops get their hooks into you, you'll swing for sure. Sounds like you have a decision to make."
"Yeah, but the League? I don't know..."
"You need to go somewhere and think. I'd recommend somewhere in another part of town, 'cause if the cops think you killed a woman, they're going to have eyes all over this place."
"You want me to go." Cullen said, disappointed.
"You want you to go," Sean replied. "The cops are gonna be looking for you all over the Irish quarter, and if you hang around here, you're just going to make it easy for them."
"You're right, I guess."
"You know I am."
"But you really think old man Murphy is the answer?"
"He's the only answer you've got. Nobody else has that kind of money, and you need to get away from here. It's all your life is worth to stay here."
A crisp breeze, suddenly unimpeded by buildings or other obstructions, whipped at their jackets and pant legs as they rounded the corner onto the broad lot directly on the Hudson River. Sally Covington had to put a hand down to keep her skirt from performing an impromptu burlesque display. The sky was lead-gray with the temperature in the sixties, but there was no hint of rain in the low, scudding overcast. The typical smells of an industrial waterfront assailed them, aging fish and creosote being the most recognizable.
"Why are there no buildings here," Stratton asked, looking around at the area a block deep and almost a thousand feet wide. "This property must be of great value."
"I'm sure it is," Covington replied. "The locals call this Net Park. The fishing boats tie up over there and lay out their nets, cables, whatever they need a lot of room for, to do repairs and maintenance. I don't know whether the land is set aside for that, though, or if the boats have just appropriated it."
"But no boats are here now," Stratton observed.
"The cod are running up Newfoundland way," Covington said. "That's the single most profitable event of the year. No captain would be here sewing his nets while that's going on."
"And this was the condition when the woman was taken?"
"Arwen Patterson. After what was done to that poor soul, she deserves to be remembered as more than just 'the woman.'"
"Quite so. So when Miss Patterson was taken, it was close to midnight, and deserted like this?"
"And probably cold. Maybe foggy. She must have had some important business around here to have braved a night like that."
"By all accounts, this was her regular route home. She worked at a hotel a few blocks down, and had a room in a boarding house just across the way there. Some of the regular characters around here knew her, and would look out for her as she passed through."
"Yes, and someone tried to be her guardian angel that night, for all the good it did."
"That's right," she said, walking them about a third of the way down the open area, "The police described a young fellow, big, strapping, Irish accent. That's hardly surprising, of course. There's a whole community of Irish laborers just across the road."
"Let's get to the gist of it, Miss Covington," O'Keefe said. "Do you believe this frog-man story, or are you just trying to sell papers?"
"I believe that something out of the ordinary happened here that night. I don't believe that a young immigrant who came to this country to make a fresh start decided to throw it all away so he could stick a knife into Miss Patterson."
"Suppose he made advances toward her, and she shunned him. It wouldn't be so unusual to assume that a woman out alone at that time of night was a prostitute. Maybe he didn't take rejection well."
"No, he doesn't seem like that—"
"Like that sort of man?" O'Keefe finished when Covington didn't continue. "You've met him, haven't you? That article wasn't just you speculating, you were telling his story. What's his name?"
"Oh, God, what have I done? I can't give him up, I promised!"
"It's vital that we talk to the key witness," Stratton told her.
"But if I tell you, I have no control over who you might tell, and... Sweet Jesus!" she exclaimed, looking past them.
"What?" Bailey asked as they both turned.
"Turner and Gaines," Covington said as two men in off-the-rack suits crossed the street toward them. "Please, on my life, not a word to them about what I know. Swear it!"
"For now," Stratton said.
"Well, well, if it ain't little miss busybody," one of the men said as they came up to them, red-nosed, bulky, though not tall, a man too fond of beer and greasy snacks. "Giving some of your colleagues a little tour now?"
"These aren't colleagues, detective, they're investigators just like you."
"Oh, you're cops," the big man asked, turning toward Stratton. "What precinct?"
"Oh, we aren't police," Stratton said, his accent instantly marking him as an outsider.
"How about that?" red-nose said. "We are. I'm detective Turner, this here's detective Gaines. So, if you ain't cops and you ain't reporters, why are you muckin' around a crime scene with this busybody scribbler?"
Stratton produced his phony credentials.
"I'm Theodore Stratton, the Earl of Edwin. This is my partner, Bailey O'Keefe. We're with the Royal Cryptozoological Society."
"English, huh? What the hell's this cryptozoo..."
"Cryptozoological. It's the study of unknown animals."
"So you're what, monster hunters?"
"That's a lurid description, detective. The world has just begun being explored in a thorough manner, and new species are being discovered every day. Our interest is in the ones that might be harmful to humans, especially in unexpected locations."
So, you're monster hunters. And I'm guessing she sold you this bill of goods about a frog-man? You're wastin' your time on that. Some mick cut her up for bait, and that's that. Life in the ghetto."
"You're probably right, but we've been sent a long way to look into it."
"Your money, I guess. And what's your function, little lady?" he asked, turning to O'Keefe.
"I'm his secretary," she said with a glare.
Turner, being taller than her and interested in attractive women was pointedly looking down at her chest when something caught his eye.
"Here, what's this? Gaines!" At Turner's motion, his partner stepped behind her and grasped both her upper arms. She forcibly suppressed her finely honed reflexes and allowed Turner to unbutton her jacket and push back the sides, exposing the two daggers she wore at her hips.
"Secretaries usually use pens, don't they? Maybe you're the one we ought to be looking at, knife-lady."
"Could explain why the male victims didn't put up much of a fight," Gaines added.
"Now, see here," Stratton fumed, "we weren't even on the continent when these murders took place, and that's easily verified."
"Yeah? What about these knives, then?"
"She carries those for the same reason you carry a gun. We seek out dangerous animals, animals that could easily turn on us. It's only prudent to go armed. I presume you gentlemen carry guns for the same reason."
At a nod from Turner, Gaines released O'Keefe's arms.
"No law against chasing phantoms, I guess," Turner said, "but you nut-jobs best stay out of our way. Come on, Lucas. Let's go do some police work."
Stratton waited until they were a good way down the block, then turned to Covington.
"Now, young lady, we need to talk."
"Cullen O'Neill," Stratton said, tasting the name as their cab brought them down the riverfront toward their hotel. "Do you suppose she gave us his real name?"
"Do you even suppose he gave her his real name?" O'Keefe replied.
"Why wouldn't he?"
"He knows he'll be hanged if he's caught. Why would he?"
"And yet, he's the next link in the chain. We have to talk to him."
"That may not be possible. Or necessary, for that matter. We could just go down to the waterfront and start looking. I mean, Miss Crankham-Covington, whatever her name is, showed us the exact spot where he said the thing jumped into the water. That's our starting point, then."
"It was hunting," Stratton pointed out. "It might have been miles from its lair. We could enlist a hundred men to search all autumn and we might not find anything."
"Aye, but what else is he going to tell us that Miss Covington didn't?"
"Who knows what else he knows? We got his story second-hand from someone who told us the parts that she thought were important, and I'm sure he didn't tell her everything. If we can interview him, ask specific questions, he probably knows things that he doesn't even realize are important. Bailey?" he asked when she didn't reply.
"The story's in the paper. People are talking about this mystery man, and some of them know him. Who'd know an Irish laborer?"
"Other Irish laborers, I suppose."
"Exactly. And where would we find these Irish laborers?"
"At their jobs?"
"Uh-uh. That's what the cops do. They go into the workplace waving their badges and trying to intimidate everyone, and then they wonder why nobody wants to talk to them. No, we find them after work relaxing with a pint and a game of shove ha'penny."
"What, in a pub? America's under prohibition, you know. You can't get them drunk, and sober, none of those people will talk to us."
"No, not if we go in waving our credentials and trumpeting our professionality, but I already have the accent, don't I, and with a quick change of clothes I can look like I just stepped off the boat."
"What? No! It's far too dangerous. Just being up there at night is dangerous, and if they tumble to the fact that you're playing a game with them..."
"It'll be foine, then," she said, deepening her brogue. "I'm one o' them, don't ye see?"
"Well, I suppose it could work. But I'm coming with you."
"As who, my schoolmaster? A good many of those people left their homes fleeing English oppression."
"That's nonsense. We don't oppress anyone."
"I'm sure you believe that, but a fair percentage of them believe that they're prisoners in their own land, held in servitude by the King's army. If you want to see a major Donnybrook break out, just let a titled English nobleman walk in there! I'll have all I can do to get you out with your life. No, it's out of the question."
"What's out of the question is you going in there alone."
"I won't be alone, Theodore, I'll have Fonissa and Guerrero."
"Your knives? You plan to fight your way out?"
"No, Theodore, I plan to charm my way in, get what we need, and take a taxi home. It needn't be any more complicated than that. It won't be, if you'll just let me take care of it."
"I don't like it."
"Yes, you've made that abundantly clear. Look, I'm quite certain that your concern stems from you being a gentleman, but you need to realize that I am no lady. I'm the person you call to save you from the boogieman. I'll be safer in that pub than you'll be in the hotel room. You're not coming, and that's final."
The Sleeping Setter was host to only a few workers. Two dock workers by the look of them toed the line at the dart board in the back, while two tables were occupied by melancholy men telling each other shopworn tales of home that the listener knew as well as the teller. There was a barmaid, a fetching girl with curly blonde hair, leaning against the far end of the bar talking to two middle-aged men in work clothes, and the bartender sat on a wooden stool polishing glasses. There was where she would start.
"Tráthnóna maith," she greeted him, giving free rein to her accent and offering a good look at her second-hand peasant's dress.
"Evenin', lass," he said. "What can I get you?"
"A pint of Guinness would be nice."
"You must ha' just stepped off the boat then. We been under prohibition since last winter. We're dry, lass."
"I'd heard that. I'd been hopin' it were an exaggeration."
"Alas. Strongest thing you can get here is some aged cider."
"What do people come here for, then?"
"To socialize, lass, and that's the truth of it. It's a place to relax after work, but if you want a drink, you have to go to an underground, and the cops raid them periodical like. So you're lookin' at weak drinks here, or a night in jail there. Bad business for everyone, I tell ye."
"Sounds like it. I'll take an aged cider, then." She laid some coins on the bar, and as the barman turned for a glass, she continued. "I'm lookin' for a cousin who's been over here a few months, wonder if you might know him."
"What's the name?" he asked, turning to put her glass in front of her.
The barkeep stopped suddenly, fixing her eyes with his.
"Cullen O'Neill?" he repeated.
"Ní bheidh aon falsa againn anseo," came a sullen comment from behind her. We'll have no fake Irish here.
She turned to see the dart players standing behind her.
"Lorg falsa falsa i do scáthán, buachaill!" she spat. Look for fake Irish in your mirror, boy!"
"I'll have no trouble from you two," the barman said.
"Or what, old man? You can't afford to throw out two paying customers."
"Hold on, gentlemen," O'Keefe said. "Why don't I buy you a round, and you tell me what's so irritating about a girl lookin' for her cousin? Two more ciders."
She put another handful of coins on the bar.
"Let's have a seat, shall we?"
"Sure, lass. Let's have a seat."
The three of them moved to a booth, and they indicated that she should sit nearest the wall with one of them outside her; they had her trapped.
"Now, what's all this interest in Cullen?"
"I told you, he's a cousin. The family told me to look him up when I got here."
"Yeah? Where's your family from, then?"
"Cullen ain't from Dublin, wench," the one across from her snarled.
"You didn't ask where Cullen was from."
"Well, we're askin' now. Where's he from?"
"Nice guess," the one on the other side said. "I'm guessin' you already know that Cullen's a wanted man."
"And how would I know that?"
"'Cause you smell a lot like copper. Search her, Cooley!"
Cooley, the one beside her, seized her left wrist and reached to pull back the lapel of her coat. He started to reach in to perform a frisk, and suddenly Guerrerro's needle-sharp tip was poised against the soft meat below his chin.
"You reach in there, boy, you're going to find something you weren't looking for. Now, who's Cullen to you?"
The barmaid had frozen with their drink tray as the blade appeared.
"You can leave those," O'Keefe said to her. "Last chance, boy. What's your interest in Cullen?"
"He's a friend."
She pressed the tip in just enough to draw a pinprick of blood.
"Your lot's after him for murder. We don't want him to swing for something he didn't do."
"I don't, either," she said, moving the knife away and pulling her wrist from his grasp. "I believe his story about a creature, but I can't find it without his help."
"Hardly. You're right, I'm not his cousin, but I ain't no copper, either. I work for the Royal Cryptozoological Society. We travel the world to catalogue strange animals, and they sent me to look into this story about a frog-man. I need to meet with Cullen to find out what he knows. Could you arrange that?"
"Just like that, 'cause you say so?" the one across the table asked.
"Look, I can't prove to you that I'm not a cop, but if I was a cop, wouldn't I be demanding your names, and threatening to haul you in for harboring a fugitive or some such? I can't haul you anywhere, because I have no jail to haul you to. I don't care what your names are. I just need to talk to Cullen. That's all, I swear it."
The two looked at each other, and an understanding passed between them.
"All right," Cooley said, "we'll ask. Where can we get word to you if he agrees?"
"Bailey O'Keefe, at the Belvedere Hotel."
"Aye, we know it. We'll let you know."
"That's all I ask." She picked up her glass. "To justice."
"To justice," they echoed, and clinking their glasses, the trio drained their bland ciders.
Gerald Franklin's office was feeling decidedly crowded with four operatives standing before the work table. Franklin had been joined by his aquatic life expert, Matthew Packard, and O'Keefe and Stratton rounded out the quartet.
"There have long been reports... Rumors, really, unconfirmed sightings, but no one has ever produced a body," Packard, another young man in the mold of Stratton, was explaining. "And they've always come from the tropics. The Hudson River seems a bit off the usual hunting grounds for these things."
"What form do these things take?" O'Keefe asked.
"Most generally, they're hybrids of man and something else, and they seem to be culturally based, which leads me to suspect that they're pure folklore."
Packard opened a folder and slid out some hand-drawn illustrations.
"Natives of the Congo where the crocodile is a savage ambush predator harbor legends of the kitu di n'gandu, the crocodile-man. He is supposedly motivated by a desire to eat human flesh, and undertakes a mystical metamorphosis to become as a croc. This includes growing scales, a powerful swimming tail, and a long snout with rows of jagged teeth. Along the Amazon, where the natives are plagued by the piranha, there are legends of a man-fish hybrid with gills, webbed hands and feet, and a slit of a mouth lined with shearing teeth, not unlike the fish that preys on them."
"Are either of these creatures known to leave the water?" O'Keefe asked.
"Briefly. The croc-man retains his lungs, and is known to walk, or rather crawl, on land, the tail being quite a hindrance to walking upright. The fish man has gills, of course, and can do little more than walk across a sandbar to another body of water. But I must repeat that there is no evidence for the existence of these creatures. They are fabrications of primitive peoples based on the animals around them."
"And yet, something has been seen here."
"We have a young man who was found over a body with a bloody knife in his hand," Franklin said. "It wouldn't be surprising that he might make up a story to deflect blame from himself."
"Fine," O'Keefe allowed, "so, why would he then come up with the story least likely to be believed? He could as easily have said that he interrupted another person who was killing her. And what about the wounds? Not the sort to be made by his knife, or any knife I've ever heard of."
"The man may well have been an expert with a knife," Stratton said. "There are fish-packing plants in that area, and it was around the time most of the night shifts were getting out."
O'Keefe shot him a dark look.
"Whose side are you on?" she asked. "Look, maybe he did kill her, maybe he is the Dockside Creeper, but that's for the police to investigate. We're here to prove or disprove the existence of this creature that the suspect described. Let's not lose sight of that."
"So, how do we do that?" asked Stratton.
"It would be nice to talk to the suspect."
"And how do you propose to accomplish that?" Franklin asked.
"I had contact last evening with some dock workers who say they might be able to arrange an interview."
"Has anything come of it yet?"
"And it may not happen. Do you have any plans for the interim?"
"Of course. Our best chance is to be present when it appears. To that end I plan to rest at the hotel today so we can be fresh tonight, and get down to the docks."
"So we can... What?" Stratton blurted out.
"This thing, if it exists, lives in the river, under the city, God knows where. The only way to find it is to be there when it emerges, and that means to stake out its hunting grounds."
"You plan to spend your nights down there waiting for something that probably doesn't exist?" Franklin asked.
"The workers down there believe it exists."
"Belief doesn't make it true."
"No, but these people live and work down there, and they think something is going on."
"Something is going on. People are being murdered all around them. That's enough to get anyone making up stories."
"You don't believe it, then?"
"We need more information, and I'm not about to send people under my control into a situation before we know what we're dealing with."
"That's why we're here, Mr. Franklin, to gather that information."
"I don't like it. I'm not keen on having operatives from the home office dying in my jurisdiction."
"Well, it pains me to point this out, but we don't work for you. Director Alistair sent us here to get to the bottom of this, and I frankly think he'd be just as happy if I didn't come back. How about you, Theodore? Are you game?"
"Don't worry. I won't let the boogieman get you!"
Night was falling as Stratton and O'Keefe made their way toward the waterfront. The farther north they traveled, the poorer and rougher the surroundings began to appear, and Stratton didn't like it.
"We're agreed that there's no way to predict where this thing might strike next?" he asked O'Keefe.
"So, what's wrong with staying further south where the neighborhoods are a bit nicer?"
"What's the matter, M'Lord, do my countrymen make you nervous?"
"No, I just— Well, yes, to be honest. I'm not fully trained yet, and the statistical tables say that this is where the crime is."
"Is that what's bothering you? We're down here hunting a group of alligator people, and you're worried somebody might rob you for your wallet?"
"It's very unlikely that a single animal can maintain a presence in any environment. There's more likely a breeding population."
"A breeding— What? How many of these things do you think we're looking at?" Stratton asked, eyes considerably wider than they had been a moment ago.
"It would have to be at least fifty to be viable, probably more than that."
Stratton had stopped walking, and she turned to regard him, a smile reaching toward her ears."
"Relax, your lordship. I'm just having some fun at your expense. You forget, the things we go after are one of a kind, single entities that slipped through. We get this bugger, or disprove it, and we can head for the barn."
"Faith, an' look what we got here, now," came a musically accented voice from the side. Two tough-looking young men with reddish hair and work clothes stepped from an alley, as another emerged from an alcove ahead of them.
O'Keefe stepped back and turned to the side, keeping them all in sight as her left hand fell to the handle of Fonissa, her green-handled dagger.
"What's on your minds, boys?" she asked, holding her face expressionless.
"Depends," the spokesman said. "We're lookin' for a girl named Bailey. Long auburn hair, mannish clothes. Could be you. Is it?"
"What if it is?"
"If it is, and you can prove it, we're here to take you to someone you'll want to see."
"How would I prove it?"
"What's your last name?"
"Who's this?" he asked, jerking his head toward Stratton.
"He's my researcher."
"You know what we're after. It takes brains to find something like that, and he has them."
"I don't like it, Clip," his heretofore silent partner said. "The meet's for her alone."
"He can wait for me," O'Keefe said. "Maybe you can babysit him."
"Yeah, we can do that," Clip said, ignoring Stratton's protest. "The meet's in a pub. We can wait at the bar."
It was two blocks to The Sleeping Setter, and while O'Keefe tried to ask a few questions, their escort remained stoically silent. When they arrived, two of them took Stratton to the bar while the third walked O'Keefe to the gloomy back corner where he pointed out a figure seated alone in the corner booth, and headed back toward the others.
The man was considerably older than O'Keefe, a thin white beard adorning the leathery skin of his chin, and one eye held mostly closed. He was burly, stocky in a way suggestive of great strength, and as he hunched over the table, cradling a tankard within the circle of his arms, he leaned slightly to the left as if his back wasn't quite as comfortable as it could have been. He opened both eyes and looked her up and down as she stepped up to the table.
"You O'Keefe?" he grunted.
"Yeah. You ain't O'Neill, though."
"That's right. My name's Hamlin, not that it matters. Sit down, girl. I hear you're lookin' for the fish-man."
"So, why am I talking to you, Mr. Hamlin?"
"Ain't no Mr. Nothin'. Just Hamlin, an' you're talkin' to me 'cause I'm the one that'll talk to you."
"So, what do you know about it, Hamlin? I hope I'm not wasting my time."
"That's for you to decide. Me, I've met the thing you're lookin' for."
"It was six months back. I was a deck hand on the Hong Kong Princess. We was comin' up the Hudson not too far from these very piers when it climbed aboard. We was gettin' ready to anchor out, an' our boat ladder was already rigged, so I guess that's how it got aboard. Well, I was on deck, a lot of us were, gettin' ready to handle lines an' whatnot, when this green slimy thing ran up behind the third mate an' give him a hellacious blow to the back of the head. Went down like a piano'd fell on him. I tried to help him, hell, we all did. The Princess was a big schooner, and I grabbed a belayin' pin an' smashed it in the face, an' it jus' up and' slashed me like nothin' had happened."
He turned back the sleeve of his denim jacket to show her three still-angry scars running the length of his forearm.
"These ain't healed right yet. That's why I'm not back to sea. To finish the tale, the thing picked up the mate an' dived over the side. Never seen him again. That kid's tellin' the truth about a creature, an' if it's the same one we met, he's damned lucky to be alive."
"For now. They might hang him yet."
"Well, that's where you come in. You gotta stop this thing. The cops ain't gonna look for it. They'll use it as an excuse to hang every mick in this city unless somebody proves it's an animal. You're the best chance we got. Hell, there's gonna be lynch mobs down here if this don't stop. This thing's an animal. I know. I was face to face with it. I met it in the middle of the river, and it hunts over here. Its lair is along this side somewhere. Under a dock, in a cave, maybe out in the water, but it's over here somewhere. You'll save a lot of lives if you catch this thing."
"I certainly mean to try, Mr.— uh, Hamlin."
"You be careful, girl. I hit that thing in the face with a hardwood club, and it didn't even act like it noticed. That, an' I'm a lot bigger than you. Don't give it an even chance."
"I don't plan to. Tell me, do you know Cullen O'Neill?"
"Well, it would still be very helpful if I could talk to him. Ask him, will you? If you chance to run into him."
"All right. Where can I send word? If he agrees."
"Bailey O'Keefe at the Belvedere Hotel."
"Okay. I'll let you know."
"So, Lucas, what do you make of these so-called monster hunters?"
The pair were waiting for night to fall, having met at The Precinct, a bar catering to the police trade not far from the waterfront. Gaines shifted his weight on the deeply padded stool and reached for his glass of flavored water.
"Loons. The Royal Crypto-what-the-hell Society." He snorted, and took a drink. "Just the sort of garbage these Brits revel in."
"I don't know," Turner replied. "Their empire's all over the world, has been for a long time. I've read stories of lizards that can chase down and kill a water buffalo, and birds that'll kick a man to death and eat him if they catch him alone."
"Well, even if it's real, that's all fine for the jungles of Borneo, but the docks of New York? There hasn't been anything bigger than a muskrat around here since George Washington was a corporal in the militia."
"Yeah, you're probably right. That secretary of his bears watching, though. A lot of watching."
"Secretary, my eye!"
"Let's keep it clean, Lucas."
"No, no, not that."
"When I came up behind her and took her by the arms, it was like holding two steel cables. I got the impression that I could only hold her because she allowed it." Gaines drained his beer, and dropped a handful of change on the bar. "She may in fact be a secretary, but I'm here to tell you, that's the least of her duties."
"Now, there's a thought to warm a man's heart on a cold winter's night." Turner finished his cider and stood up. "Guess we better get out there. We can't catch the Creeper warming these bar stools."
"So, how long are you going to wait?"
O'Keefe turned from the hotel lobby window.
"Word from this Hamlin fellow? You can't just stay in the hotel all night."
"You're right. We have to get down there pretty soon."
"We? You're the soldier. I'm just purely support staff."
"You've been sent here to learn what we do. You can't learn that if you stay in the hotel all night."
"Now see here, I'm no fighter!"
"Yeah?" O'Keefe asked with a mischievous smile. "You might not be able to say that anymore if we run into that thing tonight."
"Well, this is endangerment of a valuable asset, that's what, and I want you to know that I intend to file a formal protest with the director."
"Dead men tell no tales," she said, slouching into one of the lobby's armchairs where she could watch the front desk, and propping her feet on the coffee table before it.
The desk clerk gave her a hard stare, and she winked at him in response.
"I'll wait for full darkness," she said to Stratton, "but then we need to get down there."
"It's futile," Stratton decided. "We don't know how often this thing strikes. We've assumed that it's feeding, but we don't know that for sure. We don't even know whether it's fish, amphibian, reptile . . . Some reptiles can go a month between meals, you know."
"Then we'll be down there for a month," she snapped at him. "Do you want to go back? The chronambulator's on my nightstand. I can send you back right now, and you can explain to Mr. A. how it is that you abandoned your partner and your assignment in the middle of the job."
"No, no, don't be silly," he said, studiously avoiding eye contact. "All I'm saying is that this looks to be a dangerous animal of some sort, and you could use a partner better skilled in the combat arts. Couple that with this open-ended assignment, and—"
He stopped mid-sentence as she held up her hand, a look of concentration coming over her face. He turned to see a tattered laborer at the desk engaged in conversation with the desk clerk who plainly didn't like such riffraff bringing disrepute upon his lobby. The clerk extended his hand to which the worker shook his head and said something she couldn't make out from the back. With a sigh of resignation, the clerk pointed straight at her, and the visitor turned and started toward them.
"Maybe not a month after all, then, eh?" she muttered to Stratton.
"Miss O'Keefe?" the man said, stopping before them and removing his battered newsboy cap.
"Where did you meet Hamlin?"
"The Sleeping Setter bar."
"I guess this is yours, then," the man said, taking out a folded square of paper to thrust toward her.
She reached for it, and the second she touched it, he tapped two fingers to his forehead in salute, turned, and bustled away.
"Well, let's see if Hamlin came through," she said, unfolding it.
Pier 45, 9:00 PM. Come alone. Don't be late.
"This could be from anyone," Stratton said, reading the brief message.
"He mentioned Hamlin by name," O'Keefe replied.
"And so what? What if this Hamlin thinks that we're some sort of threat that needs to be eliminated?"
"Then it's going to be an interesting evening."
"Are you always this cocky?"
"I hunt monsters for a living. How do you think I should be, exactly?"
"A bit more, I don't know, cautious?"
"Don't you know that he who hesitates is lost?"
"A fine homily for the penny dreadfuls. This is real life, and if Hamlin is against us, he's going to have a pack of thugs down there to settle accounts."
Listen to me, Lord Fauntleroy," she said. "This is no work for the timid. If you're afraid to stick your nose in, then I recommend that you get your ass out before your lack of courage costs us both our lives. We've been sent here to do a job, and this is the lead we have. It's two-and-a-half hours before the meeting. I plan to get there early and keep watch on the place. Are you with me, or do you want to go back?"
Stratton thought about this for a moment before he answered.
"Can I be armed?"
"What did you bring, besides that walking stick?"
"Nothing, I'm afraid."
"Well, that's pretty stout. I'll tell you what. You can carry my crossbow. Be damned careful what you shoot, though. If you kill an innocent with my weapon, Alistair will have me flogged until the whip cries for mercy. And you'd damned well better hope it kills me."
Cullen O'Neill followed the street tough down the grimy alley, the smells from the unemptied garbage cans struggling to trigger his gag reflex. Another followed behind him, wary for any sort of deception. These guys were real toughs, not the posturing teens found guarding the stoops around the neighborhood. He had no doubt that either was capable of killing him without a moment's remorse.
They led him to a service door, its brown paint peeling in layers, at the base of a nearly blank wall of bricks. Opening the door on a narrow hallway lit by a bare light bulb, they took him to a staircase and up two levels to a much more ornate door which they pushed him through, then followed him in. The room was sumptuous to say the least. Thick maroon carpet cushioned his steps as he stumbled. His eyes came up as he caught his balance to find a room full of bookcases, an executive though not ostentatious desk in one corner, a stout man in his fifties seated behind it. He reclined in the chair, puffing a cigar, taking in the view of the Hudson outside the window.
"This the guy?" he asked, sitting up and centering the chair behind the desk.
"This is him, Mr. Murphy. Cullen O'Neill. Says he needs to speak with you."
"All right. Sit down, Mr. O'Neill. Cigar?"
"No. No thank you, sir," O'Neill replied as he took the seat in front of the desk. His escorts moved to the far side of the room and took seats on a leather couch, one picking up a magazine.
"Not a smoker, eh? Don't know what you're missing. So, what can I do for you, kid?"
"I've heard you help Irishmen who are having a hard time, Mr. Murphy."
"Yeah, I do that sometimes. Are you having a hard time?"
"Pretty hard, sir. I've been accused of a crime I didn't commit. The cops are looking for me, and I need to get out of the city."
"So, there's the road. Go ahead and get out. What do they think you did?"
"They think I'm the Dockside Creeper."
"Wow! Hey, boys, you brought me a positive celebrity. What makes them think you're the Creeper?"
"I tried to help a woman who was being attacked. The thing— The person ran off, and the cops showed up right then. They found me standing over the woman who was already dead of her injuries."
"Well, that's harsh, but like I said, there's the road. What do you need from me?"
"A small loan, sir."
"I've been thinking about that, and I figure five hundred dollars could help me disappear for good."
"Five hundred dollars is what you consider a small loan?"
"It's just a figure to talk about. I could make do with less."
"Yeah, well, see there's a problem with that. If you disappear for good, how do I get my money back?"
"You have my word on it, sir."
"The word of a wanted fugitive? That would hardly be a sound business practice, now, would it? You can hitchhike to Canada from here in a single day."
"Canada? They'd have me extradited in a week."
"Sounds like you got a problem, kid."
"A hundred dollars, then? I could get to Mexico for a hundred dollars."
"I'm sorry, kid. I'm running a business here, and unless you've got something worth a hundred dollars to offer as collateral, we have nothing else to talk about."
"Mr. Murphy, please, I'm begging for my life!"
"Never beg, kid. Have a little dignity. Sweeney, show our guest out."
"Ralph!" Gaines stage-whispered from the other side of the muddy strip between the dark, ominous buildings.
"Shhhh! I heard it again."
Turner stopped, cocked his head, strained to pick any extraneous sound out of the darkness. The bell on a channel buoy clanged irregularly as it bobbed in the current, and foghorns sounded at frequent intervals from nearly every direction like a dinosaur serenade. Condensation from the heavy fog dripped from every eave and awning.
"You're touched," he said finally. "All this dripping and thumping. You'd be lucky if you heard a charging rhino."
"I'll damned well bet it can hear you! Do you want to catch the Creeper, Ralph, or do you want to scare him off to strike somewhere else?"
"All right, Lucas, what do you think you heard?"
"A sucking sound, like somebody pulling their foot out of deep mud."
"Huh!" Turner snorted, thinking that the likelihood of anyone identifying that sound amid all these subtle wet noises fell somewhere between none and zero. Still... "All right, where was it?"
"Well, let's go have a look. Watch the ground for footprints."
The muddy strip had been covered with grass during the summer, but any little tufts left now were brown and brittle. It wasn't exactly an alley, but too thin to be a park, and who in this godforsaken neighborhood had need of a park, anyway? It was just a spot the warehouses didn't quite cover. They moved out of the darkness toward the waterfront, work lights from the piers reaching out to illuminate the far end of the open space, a fact that Turner found discouraging.
"You know, the Creeper ain't gonna be sneaking around in the light down here."
"Yeah, most likely."
"Anyway, it could have been a workman."
"It could have been a lot of things, Ralph, including the Creeper. Just keep looking."
Why not, Turner thought. Ain't like we got anything else to do.
Time crawled by as they slowly moved toward the lights, stopping every step to examine the muddy ground.
Sucking sound, my ass, Turner thought. The only thing sucking out here was—
"Jesus Christ!" Gaines almost shouted. "Ralph, come look at this. You ain't gonna believe it!"
Turner walked across to where his partner stood, eyes riveted to the ground.
"For a guy who was so worried about being quiet, you sure found your voice all of a sudden."
"Look," Gaines replied, pointing down toward his feet.
Turner followed his finger to see a footprint... claw-print, the track that something like an alligator or a huge frog might leave. The creature, whatever it was, obviously carried some weight on its frame, as the print was pressed deep into a low-lying patch where the mud was wetter than the surroundings, and it was still filling with water. It was as fresh as fresh could be.
"Jesus Christ," Turner said reverently.
"What do you say now?"
"Too bad those cryptozoo people ain't here to see this. I imagine it would interest them greatly."
"I imagine it would. So, you think this is our killer?"
"It's very possible. Of course, it's possible that it ain't, too. This one heads in that direction," he pointed back toward one of the buildings looming in the darkness, "so we'd best follow it."
Unbuttoning his jacket despite the chill, damp air, to allow easy access to his shoulder holster, Turner took the first few tentative steps into the darkness, Gaines a few paces behind.
"We're never going to find anything in this fog," Stratton groused, obviously finding real field work a bit taxing.
"Will you relax?," O'Keefe chided, a smile in her voice. "If nothing else, this is the sort of weather the creature likes to hunt in, so maybe we'll get lucky tonight."
"Lucky? You've got some fine idea of what lucky means!"
"Aye, and I wish you had as good an idea what quiet means. The thing could creep right up behind us, and we'd never hear anything but you yammering."
That garnered a few moments' silence as Stratton turned a slow circle, peering into the gray blanket that surrounded them. O'Keefe used the moment to study the sounds that surrounded them, but just as with Turner and Gaines, the fog condensing on the cold building surfaces dripped into puddles, onto boxes and cans, splashed off awnings in a quiet cacophony, any component of which could have been made by the passage of man or beast. Very little information would be gleaned by ear this night.
The fog was patchy, however, and their eyes still brought them a limited supply of information. Lights from the piers to the left bled onto the street, and they could see pedestrians making their way to and from their various destinations, most of them jobs on the working-class waterfront, and a fair portion of them were women walking alone or in groups of two and three.
"I can't fathom it," Stratton declared.
"How many people are out here in this fog, even though they know that some sort of monster is out here killing them."
"Most of these people don't have options, Theodore. They miss a day's wages, they miss a couple of meals."
"Still . . ."
"I know." O'Keefe squinted into a light across the street to read a sign. "Pier thirty-seven. Another quarter mile at least. What time do you have?"
Stratton fished out his watch. "Eight-thirty five."
"Plenty of time, then."
She led him across the street to the seawall, and stood looking into the water.
"What are we doing?" he asked.
"Trying to meld minds with the creature. It lives down there somewhere. Where did it come from? What does it want?"
"I think it's fairly obvious that it wants to kill people."
"Sure, but why? Is it simply evil? Is it feeding? Is it intelligent, and maybe collecting parts for some larger project? The more we can understand it, the closer we are to bringing it to bay."
"I'm not sure I want to understand a thing that just piles up bodies like this."
"Well, that's understandable. Come on, we'd better keep moving."
O'Neill waited halfway down Pier 45, hidden by fog and shadows. He had specified this pier because its workers knocked off at 5:00 o'clock, and there was no night shift. The elderly security guard spent most of his time in his shack on the other side of the pier's warehouse, and was easy to avoid when he did come out. The stacked crates and drums laid haphazardly provided a rat's warren of concealment and covered routes, and he was certain that he couldn't be approached unawares.
Seated on a crate back under the eaves, he contemplated the two rusty freighters tied alongside, and wondered how difficult it would be to stow away on one. One of them, the Zephyr out of Amsterdam, had a gangway watch posted who was mostly interested in watching the diminishing contents of his whiskey bottle, and the other, identified by a line of Chinese characters at the stern, didn't seem to have a watch at all. It would be easy to slip aboard either of them, and sail off to another part of the world. He would need some non-perishable food and a supply of water, but that, at least, he could afford. He decided to look into that as soon as he talked with this so-called monster hunter who claimed she could help him.
Would Hamlin double-cross me? he wondered, and not for the first time. He dismissed the thought. Hamlin's reputation was solid, and after striking out with Murphy, he had to trust someone. He leaned back against the wall and bent his thoughts to what he would need for a sea voyage of unknown length.
A flicker of motion caught his eye, and he looked toward the shoreline to see a figure cross slowly through a street light's glow. Taking his watch from his pocket, he angled it to catch an errant ray of light.
8:52. She was early.
Well-aware of his wanted status, he saw no reason to get careless. Creeping out of his concealment, he made his way slowly and quietly up the pier, moving from cover to cover, and going to great pains to avoid making any sound. As he neared the shoreline, the figure moved across the light again. Its back was to him, and it wore an overcoat, but its hat was a distinctly male fashion item.
A man? he thought. Did I misunderstand something?
He worked his way a little closer, still undiscovered, until he was some fifty feet away. His mind raced. Hamlin had said he would be meeting a woman. Who the hell was this?
He was still trying to make a decision when the man turned and saw him. From his view, he saw a man sneaking up on him with unknown intent. He pulled a pistol from his coat and shouted, "Hold it, you!"
Panicked in the sudden realization that this must be a cop, O'Neill turned to bolt deeper into cover when a sharp pain exploded in his head and he fell to the ground, stunned. Before he could react, a weight landed on his back, and his hands were yanked behind him and locked in manacles.
He was rolled onto his back to see two men, one still holding the sap that had laid him out. The other took a paper from his pocket, unfolded one of the posters that showed his face, and held it up beside him.
"Well, look at that, Ralph," the man said. "Looks like the waterfront will be considerably safer from now on."
"Get up, you," Ralph said, pulling him up roughly under one arm. "You're under arrest."
"Arrest? I've done nothin'!"
"Save it for the judge, creep. Or should I say, Creeper? You match the poster, and as soon as the uniforms that pulled you off that woman you killed the other night pick you out of a lineup, they'll be fitting you up for a nice, custom necktie. Let's go!"
The prey moved along the edge of the strange flat wall. It was nervous, alert, as all the prey had been recently. It was almost as if the presence of the hunter had somehow communicated itself through the whole herd. It was a female. The hunter had learned to distinguish gender by the strange pieces of fabric they adorned their bodies with, and the females were smaller and weaker. Easier to take down and kill. The hunter would have preferred to remain in the den for longer than a few nights, but they would be hatching soon. They would need food. Partially decomposed food, easy for them to digest. The hunter would provide it. Its throat sacs were filled with fresh water. It would be an hour at least before it had to return to the river.
The night was busy. Many potential prey items were out and moving about. That gave the hunter a wide selection of victims, but it had recently learned that when numbers of them were together, they were likely to help each other, and they could prove dangerous in groups. No, patience was the best course. Patience would be rewarded.
The hunter slipped back to the waterfront, darting along the face of one of the strange hills that dotted the area, their sheer-walled canyons providing passages that crisscrossed the shore. It didn't understand such geography, but it could use it, nonetheless. The darkness between the odd square hills favored its crisp nighttime vision, and the irregularities at the bases of the hills as well as the debris often found between them afforded sufficient cover for its purposes. These things were obviously near-blind in the dark, and the hunter couldn't fathom why they would come out into the open at the time they were most vulnerable; it was to the hunter's good fortune that they did.
It had been moving to get ahead of the prey item it had selected, but now coming toward it were three of them, all males. It grimaced in frustration; they would prevent it from achieving an attack position. It recognized two of them by build and what little smell the air carried to it. They had been moving furtively about the area since the hunter had come onto the shore, almost as if they were hunting themselves. Now they held their struggling prey between them, dragging it away between two of the square hills. The hunter didn't understand why they didn't kill it and be done with it, but that was their lookout, and while they had disrupted its approach to its own prey, their success meant that they would be leaving the area, giving it free rein to ambush its own meal. Waiting for them to pass, it moved up to the corner and waited for the female to emerge from the parallel canyon.
"I've killed no one," O'Neill protested, dragging his feet between the two detectives. "I was tryin' to save the woman's life!"
"Sure you were," Turner growled, holding O'Neill off-balance forward, forcing him to walk or fall on his face.
The Irishman could see their paddy wagon coming into view ahead, and knew that once they got him in there, he would disappear into police custody and likely never make it to his trial. He stumbled, arresting their forward motion, and as soon as he caught his balance, he lashed out and kicked Gaines hard in the side of his calf.
God damn it!" Gaines swore, letting go of his hold on O'Neill's left arm.
He started to pivot in order to kick Turner; if he could free of them, he could disappear into the fog, and worry about the cuffs later. Turner was too quick, though, and drove his fist into O'Neill's solar plexus. As the breath exploded from O'Neill's body, Turner sat him down on the curb and pressed down on his back as the Irishman doubled over.
"God damn it, you little punk, I'm trying to get you to the station alive, but that's looking less attractive by the minute. You all right, Lucas?"
"Yeah, no thanks to this little bastard." Their description of O'Neill as "little" was odd, given that he was taller than both of them. "Why don't we just hog-tie him and drag him the rest of—"
His question was interrupted by a woman's scream of terror. It was obviously close, given the volume, but the buildings and the fog bounced it around, concealing its direction.
"Shit!" Turner swore. "Now what?"
"You see?" O'Neill gasped, still gulping air after Turner's sucker punch. "It's not me. It's happening again right in front of you!"
"Around here at this hour? That could be a whore discussing terms with a client."
"It's a woman in trouble. Are you two cops, or not?"
"Dammit!" Turner handed his sap to Gaines. "If he tries to stand up, beat him senseless."
"What are you gonna do," Gaines asked as Turner drew his revolver.
"Go play cop. Watch him!"
And with that, he began to work his way quickly yet cautiously back into the fog in the direction they had come from.
"What was that?" Stratton asked, looking around.
"Someone's in trouble," O'Keefe replied, one of her knives out, turning in a circle. "It's close."
A clattering shattered the quiet, sounding much like the lid being knocked from a trash can. O'Keefe's gaze snapped around to the opposite side of the street.
"Over there," she said, starting to run in that direction.
"Wait, wait!" Stratton shouted. "There's nothing there but a blank wall. The sound's being reflected."
He cocked his head like a dog, eyes closed.
"It's coming from our side of the street, up to the left."
"You'd better be right," she said, and began to sprint down the sidewalk. She slowed at the mouth of an alley, but heard nothing unusual there. Rounding the corner of the street a block from the waterfront, the smell of stale fish and rotting water plants filled her nose as she came face-to-face with a man-shaped thing, its form black in the dim light, straddling a struggling woman. Its body shone from a layer of slime picking up the ambient light, the eyes large and dark, mouth open to reveal a row of overlapping triangular teeth preparing to strike.
"Hey!" She shouted, charging the thing, and at the instant it looked up, her boot took it under the chin, sitting it upright. She kicked it a second time, and followed it with a slash at the thing's face. It got its arm up to ward it off, but took a cut across the forearm, forcing it to stand and backpedal. Short, spiky quills on its back rattled in irritation.
"Run! Get out of here!" she shouted at the woman while dodging a handful of sharp, dirty claws as the thing recovered from its surprise and began to attack.
The woman lay on the ground, panting and shaking, making no effort to rise.
"Get up!" O'Keefe shouted, dodging and blocking as she was forced back, but the woman didn't respond, and then the thing sprang at her, driving her back against the wall behind her. Pinning her with its weight, it immobilized her knife hand and drew its misshapen head back, preparing to strike at her vulnerable throat. She lowered her chin, left hand groping for her other knife, knowing she wouldn't make it.
Then, with a whoosh! and a blur, the thing was struck in the side of its head, making it stagger sideways, and there stood Stratton holding his cracked walking stick, staring wide-eyed at the thing he had just assaulted.
The blow had little more effect than to get O'Keefe free, and to enrage the creature further. It lunged at Stratton, would have been on him, had O'Keefe not driven her knee into the front of its thigh. Even that didn't do much beyond redirect its rage. At least the woman was getting up, O'Keefe thought, as she delivered a flurry of ineffective punches to its midsection. Stratton helped the woman regain her feet and gave her a push to get her moving down the sidewalk.
Hands low, head unguarded, she was wide open to the cuff the thing delivered to the side of her head. She might have been hit by a bat, so strong was the impact. She slumped to the side, vision blurred, as the thing turned on Stratton. The young man's eyes were as wide as the creature's as he backed away, holding up his broken stick as a pitiful shield. The thing crouched to spring, and with her head spinning, O'Keefe would be unable to save him.
The sharp crack of a gun being fired in her direction echoed through the night, and the thing jerked its head down, crouched further, then turned and ran in a four-legged loping motion toward the docks. There was another shot that went astray, then a man came running up the sidewalk, revolver in his hand. Through her clearing vision, she recognized the detective, Turner.
"Is everyone all right?" he shouted, watching the seawall where the thing had disappeared.
"I think so," O'Keefe replied. "Theodore?"
Stratton, panting with the adrenaline pulsing through his system, merely nodded.
"Where's the woman?" she asked.
"She got away," Stratton said.
"It's good to see you, Detective," O'Keefe told Turner. "We have to get after that thing."
"I couldn't agree more," Turner said, reloading the empty chambers of his revolver. "Let me get my partner, and we'll get going."
"There's no time," O'Keefe said, standing away from the wall and rotating her head to loosen her neck. "It's running in panic. If we don't find it now, it will go into hiding, probably change its hunting ground, and you'll have to start over from scratch."
Turner hesitated, unsure of the best course to follow.
"Theodore, do you still have my crossbow?"
"Yes," he replied, following a deep breath.
"Cock it and load it, and make sure the safety's on."
"What kind of bolt," he asked, taking it out from beneath his coat.
"Given what that thing just shook off, something heavy. Steel penetrator, I should think."
As he unrolled the cloth pouch to select the proper dart, O'Keefe turned to Turner.
"Are you with us? If you give this thing time to hide, it could be months before you get on the trail again."
Turner stared at her for a moment, mind considering the possibilities, before he said, "Okay, I'm with you. Let's go."
The trio arrived at the seawall, O'Keefe and Turner side by side, Turner with pistol in hand, Stratton a bit more reluctantly, but holding O'Keefe's pistol-size crossbow at the ready. Aiming their flashlights over the side, they saw a small beach of sorts, just a lip of wet sand exposed by the low tide, and a set of fresh tracks heading down-river.
"What the hell?" Turner exclaimed.
"What?" O'Keefe asked.
"Why didn't it just swim away? It could have lost us easy out in the water."
"Why indeed? Well... guess we'd better go ask it."
O'Keefe led the group down the wall until she found a maintenance ladder, little more than some iron bars set into the face, and swung over and started down without the slightest hesitation. Holstering his pistol, Turner followed.
"Are you sure about this?" Stratton asked from above.
"It's what we're here for. If you aren't up for it, toss my bow down here and go on back to the hotel."
There was a moment's hesitation while the young English lord contemplated the implications of demonstrating cowardice before this prickly Irish tavern wench, then with a sigh he backed onto the ladder and joined them.
"What's your plan, then?" he asked.
"Follow the tracks," she said, and set about doing just that.
They stood out in stark relief in the floodlights from the nearby pier, but then entered the darkness underneath, and in the glow of their flashlights, turned toward the seawall and entered a large open pipe some six feet in diameter.
"What is this, the sewer?" O'Keefe asked.
"No, storm drain," Turner replied. "You have to treat sewage."
"Where does it go?"
"Everywhere. It carries runoff from every part of the city. There's probably a thousand miles of pipe in there. Plus every kind of garbage that people wash down the drains every day."
"Well, this will be fun, I'm guessing," O'Keefe said, and started in.
"There won't be any tracks to follow in there," Stratton said. "This is pointless."
"Didn't you hear what the detective said? It could have jumped in the river and swam away."
"So, it's protecting something. If we can get close to whatever that is, we may force it to attack us."
"Attack— Have you given any thought to this at all? If that thing, whatever it is, attacks us in that confined space, it could become quite ugly in a hurry."
"Honestly, Theodore, you'll grow up to be an old woman. There are three of us, and we're armed," she said, drawing her amber-handled dagger and twirling it to the ready like an old-west gunfighter. "Where's your spirit of adventure?"
"Back in the Nexus," he said, ignoring her sharp glare. "I'm no field operative."
"You soon will be! We were sent here to do a job, and it's right in front of us. We're going in, then. You stay behind us, and if anything attacks, you can shoot it while it's busy with us. Now, let's go!"
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and headed into the pipe.
"What's a field operative?" Turner asked.
"What it sounds like. I'm one. Young Mr. Stratton is a researcher. They're sent into the field during their advanced training to experience what goes on out here for themselves."
"So if the fight starts, he won't be worth spit?"
"I wouldn't say that. When I was scuffling with that thing, it had me, but he attacked it with his stick to get me free."
"So, good man, but a question mark, then?"
"He's untrained, but he didn't freeze up on me, and I don't think he will if it comes to it again."
A hundred yards passed behind them, two hundred, then three. The sounds of the waterfront had died away to nothing as the claustrophobic concrete tube closed in behind them. Dim light entered occasionally from gutter drains above, but never enough to really see by. At the four-hundred yard mark, a side tunnel joined the main passage from the left, and they stopped to consider.
"Any hunches?" Turner asked.
O'Keefe stepped into the side tunnel and drew a deep, slow breath through her nose, moving her head around trying to catch a scent.
"What's that about?"
"That thing smells like rotten fish and seaweed," she replied. "I was hoping I might catch a whiff."
"And did you?"
"No. Let's keep going."
She led them on straight ahead, dagger in her right hand, flashlight in her left, Turner a half-step behind brandishing his pistol to her side. They came to a square alcove with a two-foot diameter pipe joining the main tunnel at a face-high level. O'Keefe stepped up to it and sniffed the air.
"Rotten fish," she said, shining her light into the tube that opened into another alcove some thirty feet in. "It must have come this way."
"There's probably more rotten fish in here than anything else," Turner said.
"It can't be coincidence," she replied, examining the pipe. "Look at this. Slime. That thing was coated with slime."
"So are the storm drains," Turner told her. "People up there wash everything they don't want down the storm drains. There ain't words for some of the crap you find down here."
"It's the best lead we've got," she said, sheathing her knife and setting her hands to climb in.
"Hold it," Turner said. "I should go first. I've got a gun."
"How are you going to hold it and the flashlight, and pull yourself along?"
"Yeah. Well, I'll hold the gun and you shine your light past me."
"Not much is going to get by you."
"Enough. Anyway, you in there with a knife ain't a good look."
"That I can agree with! Listen, detective, that thing's as strong as a bull. If it comes at you, shoot repeatedly, and shoot to kill. There'll be precious little we can do from here."
"Good advice. Wish me luck, then."
"Good luck," O'Keefe whispered as he hoisted himself into the narrow tunnel. She watched his feet as he inched forward, trying to keep her light pointed so that at least some of it would bleed past him, giving him a chance to see what might lie ahead. He stopped at the far end, turning on his light to examine the space beyond, then worked his way out, and fell awkwardly to the floor before his face appeared in the circle at the end.
"It's clear. Come on," Turner said, wisely keeping his voice just loud enough to hear. Stratton gave her an unnecessary boost, and she started through. The tunnel wasn't as tight on her as it was on Turner, and even she felt helplessly constrained, like she could barely move her arms. She reached the far end, and as her head emerged, Turner's arm came around her shoulders to pull her out of the tunnel and steady her until she could stand.
Everything but her knees and feet were out when Turner was struck by a titanic impact, knocking him across the floor and pulling her awkwardly out of the tunnel to crash on her head and shoulders. She heard Turner's gun go off, followed instantly by a half-dozen riccochets and a shower of concrete chips. She got to her knees to see the amphibious creature clearly in the glare of the dropped flashlight, a hideous combination of man and fish, flailing at Turner with both claws. Without trying to get to her feet, she threw herself on its back feeling its quills scraping her chest as she reached for Fonissa, her green-handled dagger, with her left hand. She had it part way out when the thing spun around and threw an elbow into her face, sending her flying across the alcove, her knife sailing into the darkness. The thing turned its rage back on Turner, who had stopped fighting and begun to scream.
"Bailey!" she heard Stratton shout from somewhere in the pipe, a few seconds away; he might as well have been in New Jersey. Turner needed help instantly if he was going to survive, and her bell had been rung so loudly she was sure she couldn't stand. Back on her knees, she drew Guererro, the other dagger, wound up and threw it hard. A gush of water exploded from the creature's neck as it buried itself to the hilt in the base of its shoulder, and the quills on its back rattled like hail on a tin roof. It turned away from Turner, black eyes boring into hers, and leapt onto her, claws going for her eyes. She got her forearms up and deflected them out away from her face, but its full weight landed on her, and she knew she could never match its strength. She tried to gouge an eye, but the head jerked aside, and she had to use both hands to stop its claws from raking her face. Then it jerked again from nothing she did, and Stratton's voice called her name from the opening. He must have shot the thing.
It took a look back, realized it had time, and decided to finish her off first. It renewed its attack, but she quickly realized that it wasn't using its left arm. Stratton must have hit it there, and in combination with the buried knife, its use was impeded. She gripped its right wrist with both hands, then released her right to backfist it repeatedly in the face. She realized at once that she wasn't strong enough to make that work, but then it jerked in response to another gunshot, then another, and another. She was finally able to push it off, and as it fell to the side, Turner, up on one elbow, fired a final shot into the thing's head, and it stopped fighting at last, extremities twitching, mouth making gasping movements.
She righted herself, crawling to Turner to examine his wounds. There were many parallel slashes, but none of them seemed fatally deep. He'd have to replace that shirt, though!
Stratton arrived at her side then.
"That's a lot of blood," he said.
"I think it's superficial," she replied. "How's your first aid?"
"Pretty good, actually."
"Good. You take care of him. I'm going to find my knives and check the area."
"Are you all right?"
"Better than him. Do him first."
Turning on her flashlight, she stepped to the creature, rapidly expiring from the multiple gunshot wounds — or was it? They seemed to be closing, the rubbery skin sealing over the ragged holes as she watched.
"Better load your gun, detective," she said, pulling her knife from its neck. "I don't think this thing's finished yet."
"I shot it in the head!"
"Well, we can hope."
She kept Guererro in her hand as she searched for Fonissa. Then she looked into one of the slots cut into the concrete along the base of the wall to allow access to the valves.
"What is it?" Stratton asked.
"I think I found what it was defending."
She turned, holding up two round green objects the size of ping-pong balls.
"Are you sure?"
"Of course not, but what else makes sense? How about you, detective? Have you ever seen a pile of these tucked away down here?"
"Well, no, but I don't spend a lot of time down here. Ow!"
"It's worse. It looks like a couple of them have hatched. Your people are going to have to move fast if you don't want an infestation on your hands."
"Are you kidding?" Turner asked. "Nobody's going to believe this!"
"They will when you drag this thing back. Ah!"
She bent to pick up Fonissa, and immediately slid it into the middle of the creature's chest.
"That ought to take care of that."
"It's been shot a half-dozen times," Turner said, getting to his feet with Stratton's help. "You stabbed it, and your understudy here shot it with a crossbow, and you said it isn't finished yet. What's one more knife wound going to do?"
"This one has a poisoned blade. A full-depth stabbing like this would bring down an elephant."
"It's likely a felony to carry a knife like that."
"Are you going to try to arrest me, detective?"
"No, not given what you've done— Wait a minute, you said try."
"Well, I couldn't very well let something like that, that I've been entrusted with, fall into the wrong hands, could I?"
"I don't know who you are, but that crypto-zoo story is beginning to develop a bit of an odor."
"That's the only story we have, detective, but you're right about the odor. We aren't here to catalogue these things, we're here to protect humanity from their ravages."
"Fish-men and so much more. This is one of the easier cases we've dealt with. Count your blessings, detective. It was a simple animal, no different in concept than if a bear had wandered into the city. Some of them are much worse."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Look, we'll help you drag your trophy out of here, you can stop hounding that young Irishman, and you can get a crew in here to clean this place out."
"Isn't that more in your line?"
"We brought it to light. It's time for us to report home for our next assignment. All you're going to need is a public works crew and some flamethrowers."
"Some hell of a job you've got. How would somebody go about applying for employment there?"
"I'll give you a card. You can write to our home office. Come on, let's get this thing out of here. I could really use a hot bath and some bandages before we head for home."
"That sounds delicious," Turner said, "but I've got a feeling my night is just beginning."