A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen.
—Edward de Bono
Darkness blurred, the ebony reaches of it strained by a fizzing annoyance, a calling more felt than heard. Languid purple sounds slithered through the gentle shroud, unbalanced, straining, pushing aside the burden of shadow, burrowing toward the future—trying to finally remember itself in some complete sense before all was forgotten.
But one more, the still forming thought reminded itself, but one more needed.
And with that single realization, the retreating darkness was further dissolved, one more shade of it diminished, by the will of ego and the acid of patience.
DUKE UNIVERSITY, DURHAM, NC
The thrashing reptile let out a hideous roar, a long bark of hot air and frightened anger that echoed down the pristine, off-white corridor. The wrinkled gray dewlap beneath its throat fanned with indignation, its sparse and ragged crest fringes snapping sharply as it threw its head to and fro. The beast snapped its maw several times, biting at the air with curdling frustration, then roared again.
“I second the motion,” said the man pushing the creature’s rubber-wheeled cage. “Where the hell is everyone?”
The man ran his hand through his rough, dark brown hair, letting the doors to the Science Hall swing shut behind him. He was tall and lean, a well-muscled man with dark eyes and a heavy jaw. His mouth was drawn in a thin line, set hard with disappointment. His eyes scanning down the off-running corridor to his left, then the one to his right, he called out.
“Hey, famous explorer with his Nobel ticket here—hello?” The hallways maintained their deserted posture, even as the caged beast barked angrily against the silence.
“Christ,” announced the man with understandable frustration. “Can’t anyone hear little Edgar, here? Has curiosity completely died in this world?”
When no response came to his queries, frustration forced him to one final attempt.
“Where is everybody?”
Finally a young man’s head emerged from a room close by. Recognition prompted him to call out.
“Professor Blakely, you’re back.”
“Glad someone around here notices the little things.” The rangy, broad-shouldered man did not bother keeping the annoyance he was feeling out of his voice. “Where is everyone?”
“Auditorium C,” answered the student. “Doctor Boles is giving a demonstration.”
Did the young man have a twinkle of mischief in his eye? Was, Blakely wondered, the little son’va bitch mocking him? The doctor of Cryptozoology could not decide if the amusement he detected in the student was actual or imagined. Then, Blakely caught hold of his temper.
Sure, he thought, Boles figured out exactly when you were going to arrive and scheduled one of his little smoke and mirror productions just so he could steal Edgar’s and my thunder. Even though even I didn’t know when I was going to get back and even though he didn’t know about Edgar.
The large man calmed down. Yes, he admitted, it was true. The rivalry into which he and Boles had entered was fast becoming a point of amusement for the entire campus. Ever since they had been forced to work together by a staggeringly generous endowment, both those members of the faculty made jealous by the endowment and the student body in general had enjoyed watching the pair’s attempts to upstage one another. Neither of them had gone to any outrageous extremes, of course, nothing undignified—not yet, anyway.
“Still,” Blakely mused under his breath, “I would like to know what that little ferret’s up to now.”
So saying, the professor wheeled Edgar to his new, if but temporary home in the biology lab, and then headed off across campus for Auditorium C. There, he found his colleague seated at a small table, not on stage but down directly in front of the orchestra seating. He could not make out the man’s face from such a distance, but Blakely could discern his counterpart’s general form—the small shoulders, whipping black hair, slight frame, thinly oval face, and of course, his trademark wire-rimmed glasses, still sliding too far down his nose.
Okay, sneered Blakely within his head, go ahead and wow me, professor.
The cryptozoologist noted that the auditorium was packed, and not just with students. He spotted more than a few faculty members, as well as the curious from Durham, and even local journalists. None of them noted Blakely’s arrival in the auditorium. All their attention was focused on Boles.
At the table far down in front, Boles sat across from a young woman, a student with whom Blakely was not familiar. Boles was facing the audience but his attention was focused on the student, or more correctly, on the over-sized deck of cards she was manipulating. As Blakely settled into a seat, she spoke, loud enough for all to hear.
“Okay, Dr. Boles, that’s thirty-eight out of thirty-eight. You think you can keep going?” Fraternity noises and other encouraging expressions of gusto thundered from around the auditorium. Boles put up a hand to quiet the room.
“I appreciate the enthusiasm, everyone…”
“You kin do it, professor…”
Boles smiled at the lone voice. “Thank you, Mr. Purcell. Your faith is appreciated, but it will not change your current grade.” A knowing brace of laughter punctuated the quip.
“So,” said the girl across the table from Boles, holding up a random card from her deck so that only she could see its face, “wavy lines, a circle, a rectangle… can you guess number thirty-nine?”
Boles reacted as if he was ready to keep going, touching the tips of his fingers together, lowering his head, closing his eyes slightly. But then, he suddenly shifted his position—agitated—moving his head to one side as if listening to a faraway noise. After a few seconds, he responded.
“I’m sorry,” he said with what seemed like honest fluster, “but I don’t think I can. Suddenly there seems to be a blockage, as if a vast negative presence has joined us.”
“Maybe professor Blakely’s back in town.”
A large wave of mirth rolled across the audience at Purcell’s suggestion. Then, a sharp-eyed student sitting far to the back of the room shouted out;
“Chalk up number thirty-nine for Dr. Boles. Blakely is back.”
Heads turned. Fingers pointed. Some students laughed all the harder. Many were amazed. A few frightened. Blakely scowled, his original good humor of the day shattered. In the front of the room, Dr. Hugo Boles seemed almost reluctant to respond to the growing applause that wildfired its way throughout the auditorium. Finally, as it began to turn into a standing ovation, he acquiesced and rose as well, taking a short bow.
* *** *
The next day found Blakely in the office of the school chancellor, Mr. Gordon S. Pimms. Few would guess that the “S” stood for “Stonewall,” for Pimms was a rotund and balding man of short stature who perspired far too freely for a man of academic importance. Although the political correctness of the times kept him from announcing his being named for the great general very often any more, still he realized the importance of the connection to many of the older alumni, and thus still maintained the initial on his business cards and office door.
“So, Hugo,” he said to Blakely, hoping to find some small trace of good humor in the professor for once, “how’s it feel to be back in the States?”
“For my part, being nine thousand miles from the sideshow antics of William Herbert Boles and his nightmare theater were a blessed relief. A jungle thick with buzzers who take a quart of blood every time they fillet you was sheer heaven compared to being coupled with his royal highness, the grand poobah of weird.”
“Hugo, you’re just caught up. Why don’t you let me…”
“No,” Blakely snapped, “don’t veer me off, Gordon. I’m collar hot and I think I deserve to be. Look at what happened to me yesterday. I arrive here with the find of the century…”
“You know, I still don’t really understand what it is you found,” admitted Pimms. “They said it was an old lizard…?”
“Euuuugghhh,” groaned Blakely. Leaning forward, he held his temper back as he lectured, “Here’s the brief, so you can dazzle the alumni. There are four branches to the reptile family, and the oldest is the Rhynchocephalia, which has only one member genus, Sphenodon, which has only one species, the ratty little tuataras, and you can only find those dusty losers on a few islands off New Zealand where they keep body and soul together living in abandoned bird nests. With the discovery of Edgar, I just doubled the Rhynchocephalian species count. He is the quintessential reptile morphotype. I mean, back in ’56, when Romer wrote Osteology of the Reptiles, his constant anatomical point of reference was Sphenodon. Every major book since then has had to do the same. But, not any more. From here on in they’ll be coming to us!”
Pimms began to grasp the importance of Blakely’s find, at least in terms his outlook could appreciate. Not only would it bring additional prestige to the university, but its discovery fit the criteria of the lavish endowment the school had received to further both professor Blakely and Boles’ work, and that meant far more to the chancellor than mere prestige. Gaining his slight understanding of the importance of the discovery, however, did not bring to Pimms an understanding of what had Blakely so upset. Questioning that brought the balding man his answer.
“But did anyone come yesterday? A new species found, a creature that dates back directly well over 200 million years? Why bother? Who cares?” Blakely panted, his voice growing louder and more agitated. “What’s the point when we’ve got that trained frog Boles doing card tricks in Auditorium C?”
“My, my, and this used to be such a genteel office,” came a voice from behind the two men. “Now they’ll let just anyone inside.”
Pimms welcomed the arrival of Dr. William Boles. Blakely pushed himself backwards into the overstuffed leather of his high-backed chair, retreating into its padding. Boles moved into the chancellor’s office and took a twin seat next to his colleague. Turning to Blakely, he asked;
“So, what’s this about some parasite you’ve brought back to the campus?”
“Bite me, ghost boy.”
“Gentlemen,” snapped Pimms, his good humor draining out of his system, “you two are becoming impossible. But, in many ways that’s what I like best about you.”
Blakely blinked, stared at Pimms for a moment, then let his eyes dart sideways toward Boles. His colleague merely continued to gaze forward, maybe looking at the chancellor, perhaps at something behind him, or at nothing at all.
“I’ve taken the liberty of cancelling your classes for the next two weeks, William,” Pimms said to Boles. Turning his head to Blakely, he added, “since technically you’re still on leave, I’ve contacted Human Resources and told them to extend it for the same period.”
“What’s up, Gordie?”
“A Mr. Gary Railsbach has purchased some property he wishes to turn into a wildlife preserve. The only problem, it seems it’s either haunted or plagued by monsters. I told him our world-famous team of investigators would be to his rescue shortly.”
Blakely blinked hard, swallowed air with noise, then opened his eyes, flashing angry bolts at the chancellor. Boles merely raised one eyebrow and gave a short smile.
WA’CHENKA VILLAGE, at the ALTAMAHA RIVER, GA
“‘Why stay in Townsend?’ he says,” fumed Dr. Boles, staring out the window of Blakely’s Explorer at the collapsing remains of what had once been known as the Wa’Chenka Village, a tourist attraction of the fifties which had not merely fallen on hard times, but indeed which had plummeted to them.
“Pretty hard to meet our contact,” responded Blakely, aiming a thumb at the woman crossing the litter-strewn parking lot toward them, “if we don’t go where we say we will.”
“Apparently,” answered Boles slowly, cleaning his glasses at the same time, “you’re willing to endure fairly much anything, if it has female body parts attached to it.”
Blakely almost answered, then decided there was no point to it. Their contact was most of the way to his car. It made little sense to him to force her to knock on the window before they acknowledged her presence. Besides, he told himself as he opened his door with relief, ten hours trapped in the same vehicle with Boles was about his limit.
“Hello,” started the approaching woman, “are you Dr. Blakely?”
“What gave me away?”
“I have to admit,” she answered coyly, her eyes giving his body an approving stare, “it was hinted to me that the Blakely half of ‘Blakely & Boles’ would be the more interesting. If that’s him still in the car, then he must be something of a demi-god. Not to be forward, or anything.”
“Now, aren’t you sweet,” responded the professor with an appreciative smile, suddenly feeling better about things. “Whatever it is you’re selling, why not throw a case in my trunk while I get my wallet.”
“Touché,” replied the woman. Extending her hand, she offered, “I’m Kate Skyler. I’m the representative from Friends of Wild Life you’re supposed to be meeting here.” Blakely took the proffered hand, approving of the rough feel to the fingers, incongruous with the rest of Skyler’s appearance.
“Hugo Blakely, at your service.” At the sound of his passenger door opening he added, “and this is my esteemed colleague, Dr. W.H. Boles.”
“There wouldn’t be a clean bathroom somewhere on these premises, would there, young lady?”
Skyler smiled. Pointing toward the endless stand of trees behind the dilapidated buildings at the edge of the parking lot, she offered, “The forest is a beautiful place, Dr. Boles.”
The professor stiffened noticeably. Both Blakely and the young woman did their best not to laugh. Resigning himself, Boles moved off toward the woods beyond while the others talked.
“So,” Blakely began, “here’s what we have—supposedly there’s a creature, that may or may not be tangible, on the loose in this little attraction of yours. That was enough to get our chancellor to send us down to do a preliminary scouting of the site. Now why don’t you add the reams of facts we’re obviously missing.”
“Glad to,” she responded. “First off, the Wa’Chenka Village isn’t an attraction anymore. Our organization bought this place so that we can turn it into a wildlife refuge.”
“You bought it?” Blakely was clearly taken aback. “But, you’re environmentalists, correct?”
“Yes. Not all Earth-Firsters believe the government should be involved in everything, though. We bought the land when it came on the market, and we’ve got plans that will not only make it a functional refuge, but should also turn a profit.”
“Sounds intriguing,” said Blakely honestly. “So, where are the creatures? And what exactly do you want done about them?”
While Skyler answered the doctor’s questions, his partner made his way back into the forest, looking for a spot suitably secluded to relieve himself. Coming to a particularly dense section of pines, he undid his zipper and began urinating when he felt a motion behind him.
Not far away, not moving, thought the professor. Reaching out with his senses, he told himself, quiet, patient, but solid.
Boles found beads of sweat breaking out on his head. What was behind him, he wondered. Why was it watching him? What was it waiting for? When he was finished urinating, would it lose interest and wander off, or might it attack?
As the stream he was releasing began to break up into spurts, Boles went through his options. He could enumerate only two—turn and confront who or whatever was behind him or run for the car.
It stands to reason, he told himself, that anything truly interested in mayhem most likely could overtake me long before I can reach any form of safety. Indeed, I think it’s safe to assume such would have happened already.
That thought in mind, the doctor finished his business, did up his trousers, then turned, saying;
“Hello, whoever you are. Pardon me if I don’t offer to shake hands…”
Boles turned to find himself staring into the eyes of the oldest human being he had ever encountered. The man was obviously a Native American, possibly one of the Wa’Chenka the site’s faded and cracked front gate had promised.
“Name’s Na’kiraw,” the man spoke in a raspy, tired voice.
“Any particular reason you snuck up on me without announcing yourself?”
“Not polite to interrupt a man when he’s taking care of business. Besides, wondered if I could still do it.”
Boles smiled. He liked the old man’s attitude. As the pair walked back toward the buildings, Na’kiraw answered as many questions as he could. The Wa’Chenka Village had been a tourist attraction of no small repute decades earlier. The site was actually the tribe’s reservation—in truth, the holiest of their holy places. Hard times had forced them to the practical, however. Erecting signs to lure tourists onto their land, the Wa’Chenka had put on shows, demonstrating ritual dances, archery marksmanship, native crafts, anything that might bring in a dollar.
“Got good at the showmanship after a while,” the old man said with pride. “The best were the weddings. Any time we had enough tourists to make it worth our while, we’d tell them they could attend an actual tribal wedding. We’d just grab any two of us who weren’t busy and they’d play the couple. Charge by the head, shame them into springing for gifts, good business—you know?”
“Seems as if you had it all worked out.”
“We did,” the man’s face went soft with memory for a moment. “I remember one summer I got married twelve times. The groom always wore an emerald green robe, thousand hummingbird feathers. Very beautiful.”
“Sounds like you enjoyed it, somewhat, anyway—yes?”
“It wasn’t bad,” agreed the old man. “Didn’t get to keep the gifts, but I enjoyed the honeymoons.”
“You put Mickey Rooney to shame,” answered Boles. “So, what happened to this place?”
“Fuckin’ Disney,” answered Na’kiraw matter-of-factly. “There used to be roadside attractions all up and down I-95. Dinosaur villages, Santa Claus Lands, slave plantation re-enactments—all gone now. All dried up. Nobody had time for us—any of us. We Wa’Chenka, we were always a small tribe. Back in ’74, ’75, when there was just nobody stopping anymore, the influenza hit. By the time we got any real help, a lot of the tribe was dead. Big mess.”
Boles and Na’kiraw reached the main building at that point, joining Blakely and Skyler as they came out the front entrance. It was quickly made obvious that Skyler and Na’kiraw knew each other. The old man explained.
“Skyler’s group didn’t want the Wa’Chenka lands to revert to the government. They bought it from me…”
“It’s a lease, remember?” Skyler corrected. “A custodianship set up in the tribe’s name. The Wa’Chenka still have complete access to their lands in perpetuity…”
“Which,” the old man cut her off, “since I’m the last of the Wa’Chenka, means it will all be theirs to do with what they want fairly soon.”
“But,” returned Skyler, slightly flustered, “you knew that. I mean…”
Na’kiraw waved the woman’s comments off, coughing as he did so. The racking noise went on for an embarrassingly long time. Hacking up a great glob of phlegm, he spat it out, tasting blood as he did so. Covering his mouth with the back of a hand, he lowered himself slowly into a chair carved from a twisted tree trunk that rested against the front of the building. “I know, don’t get in a tizzy. I know. But, I also know I’ll be dead soon and the Wa’Chenka will just be a memory.”
Na’kiraw settled into the chair, moving his legs and back slowly as if he were squirming his way into cushions. It seemed obvious the old man was soaking what warmth he could from the wood, positioning himself in the late noon sun to gather more. The conversation between the four of them shrank to three as Na’kiraw made it clear he was more interested in napping than anything else they might have to say. As the trio wandered away from the front of the building, Blakely muttered in frustration.
“Damn, kind of an unlucky break there.”
“Why?” asked Skyler.
“We’ve got some kind of new creature running around here. Pops there lives out here—right? He has to know more about it that anyone else.”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” When both men turned to Skyler, the woman told them, “Believe it or not, Na’kiraw hasn’t seen the creatures. Or at least, he claims he hasn’t seen them. I tend to believe him, though.”
“Well then,” asked Boles, “who is it that’s been making these sightings?”
“That,” she admitted with a trifle of embarrassment, “would be me.”
* *** *
While it was true that Na’kiraw had so far claimed to have had no encounters with the creatures, not only had Skyler seen the various beasts, but so also had numerous members of her organization. As the trio sat at a nearby restaurant, the environmentalist told Blakely and Boles all she knew. As she spoke, her head continued to dart back and forth, giving the obvious feeling she did not want their conversation to be overheard.
“If you’ll forgive my asking, Ms. Skyler,” interrupted Boles, “is there some reason for you to be nervous over telling us about this?”
“Sorry, but I don’t want people thinking I’m a nut case,” she replied. “I do have to live here.”
“True enough,” agreed Blakely. “But you’re not the only person who has seen these creatures—correct?”
“No, but…” the hesitation in her voice choked along for a moment, then fell into silence.
“But,” Boles guessed politely, “all of the others who have witnessed anything have all been members of Friends of Wild Life—yes?” Skyler nodded. Blakely pursed his lips.
“Which means,” ventured the cryptozoologist, “people might be, or maybe already are thinking that your organization is up to something.” The woman nodded sharply, her head down, teeth biting at her lower lip.
The waiter chose that moment to return, setting up a standing tray next to their booth. Clearing their soup and salad plates, he passed around their platters, making the usual tip-boosting chatter as he did so. In seconds, he had Blakely’s crisp, double-battered chicken and potato wedge basket out with its sides of applesauce and corn-on-the-cob, Skyler’s broiled snapper with rice, with her sides of butter beans and spinach, and Boles’ house salad and side of Melba toast and sliced lemons. The threesome made pleasant chatter until the fellow left, then got back down to business, eating as they did so.
The thing the professors most wanted to get from Skyler was a description of the creatures she and her group had been sighting. Hesitation returned to the woman’s voice. Boles asked what the problem was.
“The problem,” she answered, absently twirling her fork in her spinach, “is that there is no one description of a thing. It’s things we’ve been seeing. All shape and size of them.”
Neither man said anything immediately. Blakely held a still steaming chicken breast gingerly between the thumb and forefinger of both hands. Boles gnawed at a large piece of raw broccoli, his eyes looking somewhere far away. Blakely responded to the woman’s comment first.
“Can you give us a ‘for-instance?’ Is there anything general to the descriptions people have been seeing?” When Skyler fumbled, not knowing what to say, the professor tried a different approach.
“Okay, no problem. Forget everyone else who saw the thing, things, whatever, for the moment. Just tell us what you saw.”
Kate stared at Blakely, her eyes unblinking, her face unreadable. The cryptozoologist pursed his lips, moving them first to the left, then the right. Still the woman said nothing, the uneasy look on her face growing more agitated. Understanding what was happening, Boles touched his napkin to his lips.
“Might I suggest the delay in your answering,” he said, breaking the mounting awkwardness, “is because you simply don’t know which thing to describe first?”
Skyler nodded, her hands starting to shake. As the two men watched, her hands grew more and more agitated, tiny flecks of spinach literally shaking off her fork. Boles reached across the table, his fingers gently sliding the fork out from between her fingers.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, her voice a ragged whisper. “I knew I was going to make a mess of this.”
She looked up, her eyes moistening, mouth forming a pitiful, small puckered line that seemed to get smaller with each passing moment.
“I asked that any of the others meet with you,” she told the professors. “I knew I couldn’t do this. They all begged off…”
“Hiding behind a woman…” growled Blakely.
“Letting the boss do her job,” corrected Boles.
“You’re right,” Skyler confirmed. “Can’t fault them for not wanting to… not… it’s the remembering that’s… it’s…”
And then, Kate Skyler began weeping uncontrollably, long and loud moans of pitiful anguish which defied her ability to control. Blakely reached over to take her hand, offering consoling words, whispering reminders about where she lived and whom she might not want to think of her as a nutcase. Skyler simply laughed at his efforts, her fingers absently closing and unclosing. When they descended to her plate and started to tear her fish apart, the agitated digits flinging bits of oily snapper flesh about, Boles smiled. Squeezing the last bit of flavor out of one of his lemon slices, he moved it carefully, making certain to fill every crevice of a particularly good looking slice of tomato. Finally things seemed as if they might be leading somewhere.
WA’CHENKA VILLAGE, at the ALTAMAHA RIVER, GA
“Why have we come back here?”
“I told you, Dr. Blakely,” answered Boles in a reedy sneer, “as usual, no one is going to be able to help us. We need to see these things for ourselves.”
Blakely thought to reply, then stifled the impulse. Boles felt Skyler had been unable to answer because she was simply too frightened to respond coherently. The parapsychologist explained he had seen such behavior all too often in the past, where individuals experiencing hauntings could not describe events they had witnessed; even families whose members had suffered through visitations together sometimes simply could not relate what they had seen. Even over time, as the intruding forces battered away at their lives, often two people confronted by something beyond their ken would relate the details of the event so completely differently it was hard to believe they had been in the same place. Or that they were not lying.
Whichever was correct, however, Blakely did not want to argue the point. It did not matter if Boles’ theory was correct as to why they had no concrete description with which to work. What mattered was they had no description—period. The more he had questioned Skyler, the more hysterical she had become. Eventually the cryptozoologist had relented when she excused herself, allowing her to flee the restaurant.
“All right,” snapped Blakely. “So what’s your idea? We just go out and walk around all night until one of us stumbles across something that we can’t describe?”
“And people say you have no grasp of the obvious,” answered the parapsychologist with a bubbly glee. “It is truly a pleasure working with someone who, no matter how much education or how many worldly experiences they might acquire, can still manage to maintain a distinctly pedestrian manner.”
“Bite me, Boles.”
“Note how easily the subject switches to alliteration…”
Blakely made a menacing motion with his fist that startled Boles enough to make him break off his chatter. The cryptozoologist made to speak, then thought the better of it. What could he say? What would be worth the breath?
Deciding he had wasted enough oxygen on Boles for one day, knowing he did not want to hear even another syllable in the man’s smug tone, Blakely stalked off into the night. Boles sighed, realizing he had pushed his colleague too far once more. He did not feel guilty at the realization, he merely enjoyed taunting Blakely so that whenever he finally succeeded in driving the larger man over the edge, it was always a letdown.
You should have been able to make that last another twenty minutes, he chided himself. Smiling ruefully, he admitted that was a possibility, but that he had been having too much fun to contain himself. Removing his glasses, he cleaned their lenses absently with his handkerchief, then slid them back in place. When he did, he found his view remarkably changed.
As the parapsychologist stood frozen in place, a trio of forms moved out of the deep forest toward his position. They were all different from one another, but familiar to Boles in certain general ways. One of them was remarkably cat-like. Though it seemed coated with scales rather than fur, and was absent a tail, still, something of the feline permeated it. The thing was predominately green, a shining, reflective shimmer highlighting its reptilian skin.
“B-Blakely…” Boles’ voice was scarcely more than a whisper. He did not mean it to be so, but he could not make it any louder.
The second was more like a badger, squat and low to the ground, with great sabre-toothed fangs curling over its lower lip. The thing walked with a rolling gait, its bullet of a head turning from side to side as its unblinking eyes scoured all directions ahead of it. Behind it, the third thing came, a bulbous, misshapen creature, one covered in long, red feathers. Great, apple-sized eyes protruded from its body in six spots, all of them staring at Boles.
“Blakely…” The word hissed from the parapsychologist’s lips, the sound of it so low even he could barely hear it. Boles shuddered, naked fear beginning to etch itself across his consciousness. He tried to ignore the terror, control the trembling in his legs, the shaking in his hands, but he could not. The trio of things had obviously seen him, had their attention focused on him. One by one they opened their maws, stretching their jaws to their fullest, flashing teeth and fangs and appetites that were not bound to mere hunger. Frothing drool foaming over their lips, the trio began to advance toward Boles.
They’re coming for you, his mind whispered, terror frosting the words, the painful cold of them eating at him. What do you want? Why are you not moving? Run you idiot—run!
He did. Boles spun about wildly, screaming as he did so. His arms wavering wildly at his sides, he bolted off in the first direction he could find that did not lead him to the creatures. Not thinking, not capable of thought, Boles’ voice strained and cracked as he shrieked, then suddenly was cut off as he crashed headlong into a tree at full force.
The parapsychologist rebounded from the hearty locust over two yards, his feet not touching the ground as he traveled. He did himself far more damage than he did the tree, hitting the ground after his brief flight with a bone-jarring force that left him gasping for breath. His arms scrabbled weakly, trying to lift him up, to drag him away, to turn him over, to somehow propel him along before the approaching things could reach him. Mercifully, he blanked out before anything more could happen, his screaming mind shutting down even as the three figures drew closer.
* *** *
“Don’t move,” the voice was not a sound Boles wished to hear. Hands worked on him, loosening clothing, brushing at his face. He struggled to open his eyes, a part of him wishing the insane trio of things had done him in rather than leaving him to a worse fate than death.
“Where are they?” he groaned sadly. His eyes blinking, he made to sit up, but Blakely held him down with one solid arm.
“I said ‘don’t move,’ and I meant it,” growled the cryptozoologist. “You’ve got thorns in your face and you’re covered with blood. Now just keep still.”
“Where are they?”
“They being the three twisted nightmares that sent me screaming into the night.”
Blakely laughed. It was a short burst, a noise more sympathetic than cruel, but the sound of it made Boles go stiff. The cryptozoologist pried loose a particularly long thorn, fresh scarlet pumping free at its removal, running over the black crusts already streaking Boles’ face. As Blakely worked, his partner described the trio of things he witnessed. He gave over what details he could, surprised at his recall.
“Why so surprised?” asked Blakely with honest interest. “You are a trained observer, for Christ’s sake.”
“So is Ms. Skyler,” Boles reminded. “And don’t point out that I’m more accustomed to things odd and terrible than she—I went a’whimpering just as she did.”
“What I find more curious are the details you’re giving me. I could do sketches from all you’re remembering.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” snapped Boles.
“No, just curious.”
“Where are you getting all these details from? It was pitch black, and you didn’t have your flashlight.”
Boles shook slightly, a small tremor that snapped his body rigid for an instant. His eyes narrowing, the question resounded within his mind.
“I did see those things…”
“I didn’t say you didn’t,” answered Blakely. “I just asked how you saw them.”
Boles thought for a moment, then sat up weakly. Turning toward Blakely, his mouth open as if to answer, he slowed, then closed his mouth again, his lips drawing into a thin line. He ran his tongue along the inside of his front teeth, then made a small ‘tsking’ sound, answering softly.
“I, I don’t know.”
“Yeah,” answered Blakely, looking around himself and off through the trees, “that makes two of us.”
* *** *
The next morning found the two professors investigating the area where Boles had experienced his confrontation. Blakely had made a particular addition to his wardrobe, now wearing a holstered Sig Saur 9mm on his hip. The pair entered the forest following the markings the cryptozoologist had made as they exited the night before which allowed him to return to the spot where he had discovered Boles without any difficulty. Backtracking, they were able to discover the spot where Boles had first spotted the creatures with equal ease.
“All right,” said Blakely. “That’s the end of your tracks. Now where do we find theirs?” Boles pointed. When he started to walk in the same direction, his partner told him to stay where he was.
“Let me do the moving,” Blakely instructed. “You just let me know when I’m in the same spot they were. You could wander all over looking for the spot, but our chances are better you’ll be able to tell when I’ve found it a lot faster—line of sight and all that. You just tell me when I’m there.”
In but a handful of seconds the pair found the tracks of the creatures. Blakely was able to separate out three distinct sets, finding evidence in the loamy forest floor that generally supported Boles’ descriptions. But, when the cryptozoologist tried to backtrace the tracks to their point of origin, or to follow them to wherever the beasts went after Boles ran into the tree, he found himself with nowhere to go.
“What do you mean?” asked Boles.
“I mean there aren’t any more tracks. Oh, the things you saw, you saw ’em. They were standing right where you said they were. And they chased you along, just like you said. But…” Blakely rubbed at his mouth, the fingers of his hand spreading across his face. “It’s as if… it’s… it’s almost as if when you weren’t looking at them, the damn things weren’t there.”
Boles stared dumbly.
“Hey, I’m not wrong about this. The ground’s the same all across here. There’s no rock ridges they could’ve jumped to, no surface clay. Nothing. They just start, and then they just stop. Period.”
Blakely waited for his partner to say something. Too trusting of the cryptozoologist’s skills to argue with his conclusions, however, Boles found he had nothing to say. Oddly enough, it was Blakely that made the next suggestion.
“You know, I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t more one of your cases than it is mine.”
“Certainly. Since we came down here looking for ‘creatures,’ I was working under the assumption that this one was going to be more my line.” Boles nodded in quiet agreement, expressing that he had been thinking the same way himself. “But now I’m beginning to wonder. I mean, no one is seeing the same creature as the next guy, you see three different ones all on your own at the same time. People can barely think about seeing these things without getting spastic, which you say is common in paranormal cases. Then, this whole thing with the footprints, as if there was nothing there unless you were looking at it…”
“Are you saying I imagined what I saw?” snapped Boles.
“Possibly,” acknowledged Blakely. “But just because you imagined them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
The two men went quiet. Each looked around him off into the trees. What they were hoping to see, they did not know. As the quiet of the wood curled menacingly around them, Blakely hurled it back with a question.
“So, what do you think? Is this some kind of a haunting?”
“I don’t know,” answered Boles honestly. Sitting down on the ground so as to be able to concentrate better, he said, “There are few of the signs of a traditional haunting. Of any kind of haunting, actually. To have this much activity in an area so open and empty… no, the spirit world needs human energy to work with. But, there’s no one here.”
“There’s Na’kiraw,” suggested Blakely.
“Well, yes,” agreed Boles. “But he’s close to booking passage on the first cruise ship headed across the Styx, and hauntings are almost always accompanied by young people.”
“Oh, yes. Most often girls, most often around the age of emergent puberty. Lots of psychic energy in the air for spirits to play with.”
“Huummph,” answered Blakely sourly. “Not quite the case here. Na’kiraw’s about…”
The cryptozoologist broke off as he noted that Boles had slipped into a trance. The parapsychologist was a licensed FBI field psychic—Blakely had come to respect his talent, erratic as it was. Sometimes the moments of vision came upon Boles without warning; sometimes he induced them on his own. Whichever one this was, the cryptozoologist was determined to let him get all he could out of it.
Blakely started to walk over toward Boles—slowly, quietly—when the parapsychologist stood up suddenly and instantly started running back the way they had come. When Blakely shouted after him as to what he was doing, he was given no more answer than to “hurry up and follow.” Blakely caught up to his partner in the parking lot.
“What’s going on?” snapped Blakely. “What did you see?”
“It wasn’t a vision,” explained Boles, panting, gasping for breath. “It was more of a calling. We’ve got to get to Na’kiraw right away—now. He’s dying.”
Boles began to stumble off in the direction of the elder Indian’s home. Blakely followed along, not bothering with any more questions. He might dislike the parapsychologist, but he did respect the man’s abilities. The two rounded the teetering row of long-abandoned gift shops and all the rest, heading for the modest home the Native American had made for himself years ago. As they approached the place, both men called out, but no answers were forthcoming. As they arrived at the door, Boles said;
“Break it in.”
“What?” responded Blakely, more than a little taken aback.
“There’s no time to waste. Break it down.”
Slightly amused, Blakely reached out instead and simply turned the doorknob. The door slid quietly open. The cryptozoologist smiled as Boles shoved past him, hurrying inside without a word. Blakely’s smile soon faded, however, as he stepped in behind him. They had found Na’kiraw.
The old man was stretched out on his couch, breathing in raspy, heavy gasps. He was covered with a thin blanket despite the heat, his one arm clawing at the air above his head. His eyes closed, Na’kiraw muttered some inaudible phrase over and over. It was not the old man, however, nor the terrible sound of his breathing that captured the professors’ attention. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, the pair forgot about him almost the instant they saw him.
All about the room stirred an incredible assortment of unknown creatures. The things Boles had seen the night before were there—the shining, reptilian feline, the sabre-toothed bullet-headed beast, the bulbous one covered in red feathers. And more. Dozens more.
There were bat-like things hanging from the rafters, some all fang and claw and smelling of death. Some were curled on the floor in fearsome heaps, legged serpents with folds of skin tucked against their bodies appearing to be wings. A vast and powerful bear-like thing sat in the back corner, dragging its claws along the floor absently, sending large curls of wood peeling upward with every stroke.
Eyes green and orange and yellow stared at the two professors. Jaws opened and closed, tongues of all shapes and sizes and weights curled around fangs of every description. Blakely’s hand unconsciously unfastened the strap of his holster. When he realized what he had done, he began giggling, his mind highly amused at the comedy of his action. Boles’ eyes darted from thing to thing as he whispered;
“I swear, I believe this proves Von Juntz’s doctoral thesis, one part of it—”
“What are you babbling about?” demanded Blakely.
“Von Juntz, The Origin and Influence of Semantic Magical Texts. Can’t you hear Na’kiraw? He’s chanting. He’s causing this.”
“But why?” asked the cryptozoologist, his hand still on his weapon. “What is he causing? How is he causing it? What’s going on?”
“When Von Juntz was in school in the early 1800s, there were all sorts of random magics loose in the world—unexplained events, creatures—”
“Sure,” agreed Blakely, “that’s when sightings of Bigfoot began. So…?”
“Von Juntz offered one hypothesis for creatures like Yetis, or the Loch Ness Monster, things people continually see, but can never find. He said they were race memories of destroyed cultures, left behind as reminders, or avengers, of peoples who were wiped from the face of the earth.
“His theory was that the life energy of the last remaining member of a people could be used to create such a thing. A memory of them. Of how they felt, how they wanted to be remembered.”
Blakely looked about the room again. A number of fanged mouths seemed a great deal closer than they had been a moment earlier.
“Yeah, well exactly how does this guy want to be remembered?”
“I think we’ll have to ask him that question.”
Boles moved a foot forward slightly, testing whether or not they might be able to reach Na’kiraw. Blakely watched stunned, allowing the parapsychologist to move off several feet before thinking to follow him. The two moved in inches, quietly, slowly, steadily. All across the way, hate-filled, unblinking eyes monitored their progress, always seeming ready to pounce at any moment. Dust snowed down from the rafters, the agitation of the things hanging there sending down the decades of build-up. Low hisses and deep growls challenged their every movement.
“Na’kiraw,” whispered Boles, kneeling beside the couch, “can you hear me?” When there was no answer, the parapsychologist asked again;
“Can you hear me?”
Again there came no response. The old man simply lay on his couch, clutching his blanket, muttering his never-ending mantra. Back behind them, the professors realized that various of the things had blocked the way to the door. Others were sliding across the heavily curtained windows.
“Na’kiraw,” snapped Blakely, out of patience and almost out of courage, “wake up!”
The command was shared by a vicious slap across the Indian’s face. Growls sprang from every corner, but nothing stirred as the old man’s eyes blinked open. Before Na’kiraw could react to what was happening, Blakely asked;
“Is there anything we can get you? Do you have pills? Should we call an ambulance? Can we—” Na’kiraw held up a silencing hand.
“Too late. My time. Too tired, don’t care anymore.”
“Na’kiraw,” asked Boles, his voice tense and desperate. “Can you see the things here in the room with us? Do you know what is happening?”
The old man blinked, straining to see. Sweat poured down his forehead and into his eyes, clinging to his moving lashes. With a smile, he answered in a tired voice.
“The children of the Wa’Chenka. Come… come to take my place. Our place.”
“But,” blurted Blakely, “you said you didn’t see anything.”
“True. Never saw them. Came when I was sleeping. Dreaming. The darkness… reaching for me… telling me to choose…”
Boles held the old man’s hand at the wrist. His pulse was fading fast. Around them in the room, an agitated growling began to rumble. The light piercing the windows flickered, phasing out as the darkness blurred, reaching for them. From beyond, an ebony voice called out in vibrations more felt than heard. Languid purple sounds slithered through the gathering shroud, advancing, clamoring, shrieking—
One of the solidifying things, an apeish beast with four arms, brushed against the green scaled cat. A reptilian claw tore down the ape’s side, thick black ooze spurting from the parallel wounds. The ape pounded back in raging anger, but the cat had bounded away. Others in the crowd bit and swiped and snorted at one another. An arc of blood splattered down from the ceiling, splashing against Boles’ head, sloshing down over his forehead as he said;
“Choose? Choose what? One of these things? Why? What for?”
“To be our memory. To remind people that the Wa’Chenka ever existed.”
Blakely pulled his weapon as the disturbances around them grew more intense. Boles bent close to Na’kiraw, struggling to catch his every word over the growing din of the creatures all about them.
“Tribal elders, coming… demanding a choice. Many voices, scream for revenge. Death to the white man. Death to the pillager. Death to the yellow hair…”
“What is he saying?” demanded Blakely as he used his 9mm to warn off those things showing interest in himself and Boles.
“He’s rambling. Not talking to us anymore. He’s talking to himself. Dreaming, I think. He’s only verbalizing because we’re here intruding on his subconscious.”
A set of shelves crashed down from the wall, spilling the old man’s collected treasures. The things that knocked them down smashed the personal items into rubble as they tore and smashed at each other in unthinking combat.
“Elders coming,” Na’kiraw repeated. “Elders coming…”
A fox-like beast tore the throat from the red-feathered creature with the terrible eyes. Acrid smoke filtered from the wounds, bleeding across the floor. The long feathers dropped from the body one by one, floating in the thickening smoke.
“Elders… elders here.”
As if commanded, several ghostly figures passed through the front walls of the old building. Short, many of them seemed, but weathered of face and taut of muscle. They came in what looked like pounded leather clothing, most of them adorned with shells and beads and feathers. Old were their eyes. Gnarled were their hands. Stern were their expressions. As the two professors watched, the figures walked silently across the room, moving toward Na’kiraw. One by one, they came up to his resting place, and then they walked into him, sinking inside his flesh, disappearing within his soul.
They came by the dozens, the scores, the hundreds. Every chief and shaman of the Wa’Chenka from the first prehistoric days when they had ceased being random creatures and became men instead. Rude were some of them in stance and form, but they walked erect and their eyes shone with purpose.
As the last of them merged with the dying Na’kiraw, the beasts in the room continued to battle one another, tearing off limbs, gouging eyes, ripping hair out by its roots, biting, clawing, slashing. Blood of all kinds flowed. Brains were bashed, bodies were pulped—but nothing died. Not truly alive, the mashed remains continued to struggle. Severed appendages dragged themselves along, grasping blindly. Ruined bodies dragged themselves toward one another, fleshy mallets battering one another senselessly as the ghostsouls invading the old man demand he choose a champion.
Blakely and Boles unconsciously shoved themselves up against Na’kiraw’s couch, straining to get as close to the old man and as far from the children of the Wa’Chenka as possible. And then, when they were practically lying across his body, the old Indian sat bolt upright, his arms flinging upward.
“The choice is made!”
The words leapt from his body, echoing through the rafters, reverberating through the old shack even as its owner fell dead to his cushions. The creatures and pieces of creatures gave out a great hiss in unison, and then began to burst into flames.
“Jesus Christ a’mighty!” shouted Blakely. “Now what do we do?”
Boles had no answer for his partner. The flames spread to all the walls and ceilings in an instant, trapping the two professors in the center of the room. On the outside, purple smoke leaked from every crack and opening. Flames ate their way through moments later and the entire building was quickly covered, the torch mouth of it reaching for the clouds. The blazing ceiling caved in soon after. The fire spread to the other buildings quickly. Long before the fire trucks could arrive, the Wa’Chenka Village was reduced to cinders.
DUKE UNIVERSITY, DURHAM, NC
“Yes, yes, and then what happened?”
“We came home to see you, Stonewall. That’s our job, isn’t it?”
“Yes, no, I mean,” Mr. Gordon S. Pimms went red, flustered in his excitement. “But how did you escape the burning building?”
“We didn’t,” answered Boles in an almost bored tone. “The roof caved in on us. Everything burned. Poof.”
“But, but, butbutbutbut—”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Blakely, “the world’s first hot air-powered motorboat.”
“Now see here, Hugo…”
Blakely let loose a short laugh. Boles merely smiled quietly. The school chancellor ranted for a while longer, but both professors stuck to their story, refusing to tell him anything else—though both remembered what happened quite clearly. When the ceiling had collapsed, the only remaining beast, the one chosen by Na’kiraw, despite most of his ancestors’ wishes, flew above the two men and began beating its wings furiously. As it did, it created a dome of air over the professors, enough to sustain them while the fire raged. As they clung to the old man’s corpse, sweating from the heat, they heard his disappearing voice in their heads.
“The Wa’Chenka were never great warriors. Many argue for revenge, but revenge against who? Against what? Fearsome should not be our memory. Small we were, fast we were, clever, but unnoticed. Beautiful, but rarely seen.”
Finally leaving Pimms’ office, the pair waved at the flustered chancellor as his polished mahogany door closed behind them. As they headed quickly for the hall, making to escape before Pimms thought to come after them, Blakely said;
“Well, duty’s done and all that. What’dya say, Boles, want to go get a drink?” The parapsychologist’s eyes went wide for a moment as he considered his colleague. Before he could answer, Blakely added;
“I was just thinking, maybe the two of us had better start trying to get along before we get into something… I don’t know, something where a little more teamwork might work better than the way we’ve been doing things so far.”
“I’d really like to say something sarcastic,” admitted Boles, “but the simple truth is I think you’re right. It’s a thought that occurred to me as I watched the ceiling caving in on us.”
“I know what you mean,” answered Blakely, his tone quieter than normal. Chastised. “Com’on, I’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in my office—”
“Green label, I hope?”
“Yeah, that would be appropriate, wouldn’t it? Sure, the good stuff, why not?”
As the two walked down the hallway, Boles ventured a comment bordering on the friendly.
“Heavens, who would have thought it? We’re almost Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at this point.”
“Yeah, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship at that. And if it isn’t, I’ve still got the pictures I took of you layin’ all sprawled in the forest with your face full of thorns and…”
Boles sputtered at his colleague. Blakely laughed. The two men kept walking toward their liquid reward, however, and far away in the deep wood, a hummingbird—one not fearsome but fast, clever but unnoticed, beautiful, but rarely seen, chirped in approval. Beating its emerald green wings, it flitted off into the forest, searching for the perfect spot where it could sun itself.