Excerpt: Business Makes Strange Bedfellows
Gert let herself into the laboratory in the weak dawn light, as she did every morning. No one was there this early, which was how she liked it. She hung up her hat, overcoat, and walking stick at the coat rack. Pulling off her jacket, she threw it across her desk before undoing her cufflinks and turning up the sleeves of her shirt to the elbows.
The Society’s laboratory had been built as a warehouse, close to the waterfront. Now it was just one long, big room. The floor was tiled, there was a row of desks closest to the door, and then examination tables beyond. She scrubbed her arms and hands in the sink to the right of the main area and then pulled on a white smock. The fresh bodies were already out on metal examination tables in the center of the room, which told her that they were delivered earlier that morning.
The two new bodies were not in particularly good shape, but that was hardly new. The choice cadavers went to Columbia University. The Society, meanwhile, had to make do with the unclaimed bodies of petty criminals.
This morning, one of the bodies in particular looked in bad shape, bloated and a little purple. Gert guessed he’d been in the water for some time. The Society’s experiments worked best on fresh bodies, so she marked the cadaver as not suitable for an attempt at electrical reanimation. It could, however, still be used for parts. She took the tag she’d been jotting notes on, tied it around the body’s left toe, and went to get the saws.
She’d set one of the saws to the corpse’s leg when it moved, trembling just a little bit. Frowning, she set the saw aside and leaned closer, watching carefully. The trembling came again, from the trunk of the body. She prodded the stomach area, frown deepening. This time there was distinct movement, and she stifled a sigh. Probably a rat caught in the body when it was in the harbor, or wherever it had been. Maybe, if she were very lucky, it would be just a gas pocket. Gert went to get a knife.
As she sliced into the body, the movement increased, becoming more frantic. She was resigned to most likely having to chase and kill the rat. She had managed to make a hole halfway down the abdomen when something black shot out, along with a spray of putrid-smelling liquid. Stumbling back, she dropped the knife and prepared to go for the rat.
Only it wasn’t a rat. Instead, something black and glistening oozed out of the body on the table, a slimy greenish tinge where the light hit it. As Gert watched, it continued to emerge; long appendages trailed down to the floor and were followed by a larger, slick black blob and something that looked like a long and spindly, clawed hand. The smell that filled the laboratory was even worse than that of the body: putrefying flesh mixed with decaying plant matter and something sharp and almost metallic underneath.
She backed up until she ran into her desk. The thing fell to the floor with a wet slap, lifted itself on the black appendages like some sort of huge, meaty spider, and then began to turn. She caught a glimpse of numerous red eyes and a huge maw of jagged teeth before self-preservation kicked in and she threw herself behind the desk.
The thing shrieked, a high-pitched, inhuman noise that seemed to go on and on. She could hear wet slapping as it scuttled across the tiled floor of the laboratory. The creature let out another gurgling scream, and she peered around her desk and wished she hadn’t. The creature had pulled itself onto the table with the body and was in the process of eating it, starting with the head. Fluids and brain matter dripped from the table and pooled on the floor while more smeared across the creature’s tentacle appendages and misshapen body.
Its gaping mouth seemed to have hundreds of teeth in it, now decorated with bits of flesh, blood, and brains. She very slowly retreated further back behind her desk and then turned to look at the door to the laboratory. The space between her desk and the door was not very far. Maybe she could make a run for it before the monster caught her. Maybe it wouldn’t even try.
Standing, she launched herself at the door behind her. The creature screamed. Something slimy and slick wrapped around her arm with bruising force. Gert stumbled as she was pulled backwards and slammed hard into the coat rack. It fell with a crash, and she landed on top of it with a pained shout.
The monster let out a series of chittering clicks and advanced on her. Rolling off the coat rack, she scrambled away on hands and knees. One knee slid into something hard that rolled away on the tile, and glancing down, she saw her walking stick. Fingers closing around the stick, she swung it in an arc towards the creature as it reared up over her. The stick collided with the creature, making a soft, wet thud. It gave a long rattling hiss, as she hit it again and again. It let out a higher sound and fell back a pace as she kept hitting, striking out widely, not leaving herself room to think.
Continuing to back away, the creature’s noises became more desperate sounding. A tentacle shot out, striking Gert along the left side of her body like a whip. She stumbled back as pain exploded down her left side, jarring all the way up to the top of her skull and down to her foot. Another tentacle lashed out at her again, and she swung wildly, smacking it with the cane with all her strength. The creature screamed and reared back. Then it scuttled backwards and slammed bodily into the laboratory door. There was a loud crack and bang as the door gave way under its weight.
Then the creature was gone.
Gert stood there, her breathing ragged, staring at the doorway. Her ears strained for any sound: a rattle of stones on the cobbled street outside, a slap of wet tentacles against stone or tile, anything. Her fingers began to cramp. She realized she’d been grasping her cane as tightly as she could. When she let it go, it clattered to the floor, the sound echoing around the laboratory. Outside, she could hear carriages and horses going by on the road. Inside, there was a soft drip-plop as what was left of the body’s brains pooled off onto the floor. She turned to look at the mangled mess on the table. Panic welled up inside her. There were people out there, children—the creature could…
She made for the doorway, sprinting out into the street. Outside, wagons, carriages, and people on horseback filled the streets. On the sidewalks, people bustled back and forth heading towards the docks just behind the warehouses, or away. No one seemed panicked or afraid, no one was screaming or running, and the creature was nowhere to be seen.
For a long moment, she stood there watching the people around her. A group of boys in ragged clothing and bare feet chased each other, shrieking and whooping down the street. A man stormed out of his store and began yelling and cursing at them.
Numbness stole over her, and she backed up until her back hit the wall. All around her, New York City went on as it always had.
The creature was gone, somewhere in the city, and she had no idea where.