“What do you want?” The secretary was ancient, with blue-white hair piled into a shellacked mess atop her wrinkled pate. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth, and her inquiry dislodged a significant length of ash onto her rose colored blouse where it proceeded to slide down an ample, but sadly lowered breast until it disappeared below the level of her desk.
“My name is Steven Marks. I have an appointment.”
“Which ad?” She held out her hand. I dug through my battered briefcase until I found the clipping from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I handed her the clipping. She snatched it from my hand, put it about a half inch from her rheumy eye, and then returned it. I shoved it back in my briefcase. I stood waiting, slightly out of breath. The climb up to this little ramshackle office had been three flights. I was also fighting off the urge to sniffle. It was bitter cold outside and stifling hot inside.
“Dr. Krim is in there.” She indicated with a flick of her thumb and returned to the work on her desk.
I took this as an invitation to present myself, which turned out to be a bit of a challenge. The door was warped and I had to apply a shoulder to unstick it. The wood felt moist and smelled of mildew and cigarette smoke.
A man stood at a lab table in the middle of a large room. He wore a black rubber apron over a white lab coat. He pulled off thick dark goggles to look me over. The goggles left red circles around his eyes. His white hair hung below his shoulders, although he did not otherwise appear to be much past fifty. He affected a short goatee, equally white. He was very lean, with high cheekbones and a prominent, thin beak of a nose.
“He’s here about that ad.” For such an ancient woman she had the lungs of a stevedore.
“Which ad?” His own bass shout was enough to shake plaster from the moldy ceiling.
He moved to the left side of the room where a large desk, a swaybacked sofa, and about ten oversized filing cabinets stood. He motioned me to sit on the sofa, while he removed the apron and lab coat to reveal a clean white shirt with rolled up sleeves underneath, no tie. He sat down behind the huge desk. A large clean window behind him looked out onto a dreary row of small abandoned factories. From what I had seen on the cab ride over, his office was perhaps the only active business within a mile in this blighted section of Milwaukee’s rust belt.
I handed him a file folder with copies of my resume, school records, and letters of recommendation. While he read them, I took off my coat and looked around. On the opposite side of the room was a library with about twelve parallel rows of ten-foot high shelves, crammed full of books. At the back was a glass-walled and roofed enclosure with a revolving door surrounding an additional three rows—obviously an environmentally controlled room for more fragile texts. In the middle of the room was a large lab table presently set up with some sort of optical experiment. I recognized a high powered commercial laser and a series of standard splitting mirror assemblies. The back of the room was partially closed off with high curtains, but I could see enough to surmise that there was a small kitchen and some bedroom spaces back there. Overhead was a huge skylight, filthy with years of accumulated pollution. The floor was pitted and scarred concrete, covered here and there with expensive, but now stained and threadbare, Persian carpets.
“Dual physics/philosophy from Northwestern, graduate work at CERN, Ph.D. Berkeley. What the hell are you doing here?” He looked up from my papers and fixed me with sharp gray eyes.
“Look two pages further along. I like to be honest with possible employers.” A headhunter consultant had advised me to never volunteer any information about my trouble. He was an asshole. Employers always found out, eventually. Then it was pack up and move again. I was tired of moving. It was easier to get it out in the open from the start. He leafed through the clippings and the court papers. He took the time to read carefully and occasionally jotted notes in a spiral notebook. He used a beautiful old-fashioned fountain pen. Krim finally looked up.
“Is this all accurate? Are there any mitigating circumstances that you would like to add?”
“Nope. It’s accurate. I knew exactly what was going on from the start. I could’ve blown the whistle on the whole thing at any time. I wanted my share of the grant money, and I wanted my name on the papers that were produced. I was a duplicitous, greedy prick in a lab full of duplicitous, greedy pricks. I’ve paid for it over the last six years and have every expectation of paying for it for the rest of whatever professional career I get to have. I’m sorry for it, and I would not do it again no matter how sure I was that I could get away with it. I understand that my name would undermine the credibility of whatever research you are doing, and I am perfectly willing to work anonymously and without credit.”
His unwavering intense gaze made me uncomfortable. It felt as if I was being released when he glanced back to my folder. Krim read for a few more minutes. He finally looked up at me and leaned back in his cracked red-leather swivel chair. He put his ratty black high-top Keds up on the desk, knocking over one of the many stacks of papers and computer printouts that joined an unorganized pile of paper around the base of the desk. He made no attempt to retrieve them.
“The salary is twenty percent of net profits. I get forty percent, and there are two other members of our group who get cuts equal to yours. If you had been with us three years ago, you would have made $140,000. Last year and the year before, you would’ve made about $11,000. Extrapolating from what we have made so far this year, you might actually make nothing. There are minimalist accommodations on the floor below, and you are always welcome to live on site. If you choose to stay here, room and board, such as they are, are free. I provide full medical, dental, and vision. Ms. Beatrice Rutt, who you met, keeps all the books, which are open to all employees at all times. She can explain how net profit is calculated, though I should tell you that she embezzles an extra ten percent over and above her official salary. It used to be five percent, but last year she gave herself a cost-of-living adjustment. Her normal salary is part of the overhead—the embezzled funds come out of my net profit and in no way impact your cut. You are somewhat overqualified for our little enterprise, but I hope we can provide some challenge to keep you busy.”
“What will my duties be? What does your company do?”
“We do a variety of things, mostly in a consultant role. A subset of our activities is the debunking of supposed paranormal phenomenon. If you don’t mind, I usually give a couple of tests to potential employees. Feel up to it?”
“The first test is rather trivial, but it will give you a little taste of the sorts of hoaxes we come across from time to time.” He turned toward the curtained-off area at the back of the room and called softly, “Claudia? We have a visitor. Would you like to come say hello?”
Nothing happened for what seemed like a long time. I was getting a bit dizzy and my ears were tingling. I reached up to scratch my ear. But then I noticed that it was getting appreciably colder. Within minutes I could see my breath and my glasses were fogged. It was also getting darker. I glanced up. The view through the skylight was rapidly darkening, as if dusk were falling though it was only the middle of the afternoon. I removed my glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. I glanced at Krim. He was backing away, looking at the curtains.
The curtains stirred and then something emerged. The hackles rose on my neck. It was a girl, perhaps eight or nine. She wore an old-fashioned dress with a high neck. The garment was filthy, ripped in numerous places and had large sections soaked with what appeared to be fresh blood. Her flesh was a dead whitish green. Her eyes were dark but surrounded by whites shot through with broken blood vessels. Red tears leaked from them and ran down her shrunken cheeks. She had a scalpel in her hand and was using it to idly cut parallel, deep gashes in her left forearm. Blood flowed freely and dripped to the floor. She looked me in the eye and smiled, an unnerving evil smile. Her teeth had been crudely filed into points. She spoke in a shrill hoarse voice, distorted and choking as if made by something unfamiliar with human vocal chords.
“You’ve brought meat.”
With a motion almost too fast to follow she drew back the scalpel and flung it directly at me. She seemed to waver and go slightly transparent. I heard a distinct sharp exhalation, like a loud cough. I felt the wind of the scalpel, saw the glitter of it out of the corner of my eye as it passed my left ear and embedded itself in the brick wall behind me. Brick dust made me sneeze.
As I leapt off the couch the girl took a step forward. I could hear a low feral growl. And then she came straight toward me at astonishing speed. I put up an arm to block her attack as best I could. She had long ragged nails outstretched, and her lips curled back from those hideous fangs. Red foam bubbled at the corners of her mouth. I searched for something to ward her off. There was nothing.
The girl was only a few feet away when she quite suddenly lost cohesion. She had completely dissolved into a noxious red mist by the time she reached me. The cold wet mist wrapped about me, smothering me in the odor of rotting diseased flesh. I gagged and drew away from the horrible odor. Then it was over. The light in the room returned to normal, the smell dissipated, and the temperature came back up.
Krim returned to his desk. He pulled out a key and tossed it onto the desk.
“I have some work to do. Feel free to move around the building if necessary. That’s a master key. What it won’t unlock is irrelevant to the current demonstration. Ask for any equipment you might need. I’ve put a few things out on the desk that you are welcome to use. Don’t give me your report until you have the whole thing worked out.”
I was left to my own devices while Krim stepped out to confer with Ms. Rutt. My heart was decelerating, but my hands were still shaking from adrenaline withdrawal when I went over to the library and dragged the carpenter’s ladder over to the curtain that had moved. I found by touch the black thread that had been used to make it move. The thread was so cleverly worked into the curtain that I could only see it where it bridged the gap between the fabric and a tiny hole in the ceiling, and then only by putting a white sheet of paper behind it.
I found a magnifying glass on Krim’s desk and used it to examine the floor. The rugs didn’t quite overlap, and there was a narrow path of bare concrete on a direct line from the couch to the gap in the curtain where the girl had first appeared. Under the glass I could see that the floor was roughly pitted but also that there were tiny holes, cleverly disguised at the bottom of the supposedly accidental depressions. The floor was also moist to the touch.
I went over to the couch and examined the scalpel in the wall. It had been hurled with more force than a human could wield, and it took me a while to pry it loose. The blade, though badly maimed by the impact, was still razor sharp. The handle was an unusually thin, perfectly rounded cylinder, hollow and open at the end. I carefully pocketed it.
I examined the laser array on the worktable. The machine was cold to the touch, and it was obvious that it had not been active during the incident. The mirrors, however, were in an unusual arrangement for any conceivable experiment. I took measurements with a protractor and some string that Krim had conveniently left out on his desk.
I went behind the curtains where I found a full, if small, apartment with minimal furnishings. A steel door at the back unlocked easily with the key Krim had given me. The steel landing outside had both a stairway leading down to the next level and a ladder leading to the roof. I went back inside to get my coat and gloves. Once I made it to the roof I examined the skylight. I pulled off my glove and gave it a rap with a knuckle. It was some sort of plastic and laced with tiny filaments of copper wire. I found where the grid was connected to the main power. It took me a while to separate out the circuitry for the alarm system from the special circuitry. They had been set up to look virtually the same.
I went back down the ladder and then down the stairs and unlocked the door to the level below Krim’s office. I walked down a long hall, staring at the ceiling, figuring distances and relative positions. I had found a chair and had popped out a panel of acoustic tile when a door opened and a young woman came out to look me over.
“Don’t let me stop you.” She had a deep throaty voice with a trace of Bronx accent. Dressed in extraordinarily low cut pajama pants and a sports bra, she was runner thin with lean skin pulled taught across ridged abdominals. A ruby piercing winked at me from her navel. Bare feet, small and exquisitely shaped. Hair, fingernails, and toenails all done in the exact same shade of blood red. Delicate features. She would’ve been perfect except for the fact that she wore awful cosmetic contacts in the same blood red shade. It was rather disconcerting.
Once I had wrenched my eyes away, I returned to my examination of the ceiling. I found the pipes where I expected to find them, blue insulated ones beside white PVC. I traced the white ones back to the main water pipes, replacing ceiling panels as I worked my way down the hall. The blue ones turned down when they hit the wall.
I returned the chair to where I had found it and dusted off my shoe prints. I walked back to the woman who was watching me, still leaning indolently against a doorframe. I stood close and looked down into those bizarre eyes. She waited for my eyes to drop a little farther to steal a glance at her cleavage, but with an effort of will, I kept my eyes on hers. Her lips twitched at the left corner. Was that a smile?
“Can I just ask you to show me the rifle, or am I expected to search for it?” I carefully pulled the scalpel with the odd handle out of my pocket. She turned with a dancer’s lithe grace and led me into her room. It was a terrible mess, with clothing strewn everywhere, books stacked in precarious piles. A futon lay on the bare concrete floor. The rest of the furniture was minimal and cheap. She led me to the far wall where a large cabinet was mounted to the bare concrete. Blood red thong panties hung from one of the handles. She opened the cabinet to display a five-foot by four-foot cache of weapons mounted on a standard pegboard. In contrast with the rest of her room, the modern and functional pistols, rifles, and assorted edged weapons were arranged with meticulous care. She reached up and lifted down a short air rifle and handed it to me.
“Careful. It’s loaded.” I gingerly and obliquely examined the barrel and compared it with the scalpel. She then returned the rifle to its place. She took down a leather bundle, which she unwrapped to show a selection of darts with a wide variety of edged and cruelly barbed tips, all in razor sharp surgical steel, and all with the same hollow tubular body as the scalpel. I held out the scalpel. When she took it our hands brushed. A shiver of erotic electricity sparked between us. She got that slight curl at one corner of her thin lips. Now I was sure it was a smile. We locked eyes for a moment. Without looking, she threw the damaged scalpel over her shoulder. I looked away from her eyes to follow its perfect parabola across the room and directly into a small trash bin beside her futon.
“You were never in any danger. I never miss.” She wrinkled her brow a bit and put a delicate finger to her lips. “Or I suppose in this context, I mean I always miss. The last applicant blew his top about it. That’s OK. Krim uses it as an opportunity to discuss the dangers inherent in what we do.”
“And are those dangers significant?”
Her face clouded up and she turned away. She walked away from me then turned back.
“You’re replacing someone. Take it seriously.” She flicked her head toward the door, and when I stepped out into the hall she closed the door rather sharply. I wanted to knock and try to get her to tell me something more, but I decided against it.
Krim was behind his desk studying a huge tome. I glanced into it and saw that it was full of what looked like mathematical formulae, though in some strange symbol system.
“I’ve got it, though I didn’t go across the street to examine the laser.”
“I told you it was trivial. Just give me the high points.”
“You darken the room with special plastic in the skylight. You polarize it with an electric current. When it’s dark enough you pump a fine mist through the tiny holes in the floor while simultaneously pumping a refrigerated gas—carbon dioxide or nitrogen. I couldn’t hear the hiss. My ears were itching and I was dizzy. Subharmonics?"
“I would rather that you found the hidden speakers,” he said, “but your guess is dead on. It’s calibrated exactly to temporarily deaden the ears’ sensitivity to the frequencies made by the escaping mist.”
“I found the thread used to manipulate the curtain. I remember you stepping away from the desk, as if in fright. Actually you were moving out of the path of the laser firing from the factory across the street and through the remarkably clean glass of the window behind you. The mirrors on the worktable take the light from the laser and place it appropriately. The hologram tape is in one of those black boxes, plus the last mirror over there is connected to a simple servo to create the illusion of motion and the red haze, all projected onto the mist. I’ve seen holograms projected onto mist before, but your setup is extraordinarily realistic. I heard the report of the air rifle, and the girl’s image wavered as the real scalpel’s passage disturbed the mist on which she was projected. The smell at the end was a nice touch—a chemical diffused with the mist and aimed so that it washed across me. Thankfully the odor disappears quickly—I would hate to smell like that for any length of time. The lady downstairs says I was in no real danger.”
“Kyla doesn’t make mistakes.”
“She also intimated that I’m replacing someone and that there is danger involved.”
“Frank was your immediate predecessor. He made a mistake. The work we do can sometimes be dangerous. I provide a rather generous life insurance option, if that helps. But, before I answer any of your other questions, perhaps we could move on to the second test?”
“Azeroth. Belial. Yinqueth. Yinqueth. Yinqueth!” Krim screamed the last repetition, and the echoes somehow garbled into the sound of glass shattering, only much deeper. He stood for a moment shaking, as if he were having some sort of mild seizure.
The room got dark again but not the same way. The darkness ... writhed. It got cold, cold in a way I’ve never felt before, heat leaving my body like something actively ... sucking the heat from my bones. And then something was beside me. I felt paralyzed. I felt that if I turned and looked at it I would be destroyed. It was all I could do not to pee my pants.
“Hello, Stevie.” The words were in my head, feminine, but not human. “I hope you and I will become friends. Donnie says you are very, very smart. Is that true? Let’s have a little taste.”
Memories flashed through my mind of professors who had taught me, books that I had read, a night when I finally made a breakthrough on a project that a professor had told me was too hard for me. The afternoon I learned I had been found out. A night when I had come close to killing myself. Then something happened. A thought got shoved way down deep into my mind, somewhere I couldn’t get to. It was there and then it was gone.
“You’ll do. You’re going to make something for me, Stevie. And maybe the next time we meet we can play.” Something quite cold nuzzled my right ear. A tongue licked out, ice cold, wet, sharp. I felt both repulsed and yet deeply aroused. The tongue drew back and stung me with a thousand tiny barbs. Something gently sucked at the blood. Somewhere outside the cloud of wriggling darkness I could hear Krim mumbling some short incantation. I finally managed to pull away in one convulsive plunge. And suddenly the light returned to normal. I looked behind me with a whimper. There was nothing there. Krim came around his desk and helped me to my feet. He cleaned up my lacerated ear and put a Band-Aid on it.
“If you show up again tomorrow, you’ve got the job.”
I got the hell out of there, running down all three flights of stairs. I didn’t sleep at all that night. But I was back there the next day.