"This is crazy," Macintosh said. "What are we doing here?"
Dr. Luc Monnet watched the unkempt younger man breathe into his grimy hands and rub them together as he paced back and forth on the wet grass. It had rained most of the day, but now the skies had cleared.
"You should have brought a jacket, Tom."
"You didn't tell me we'd be standing around in a field at goddamn three in the morning!"
A moonless sky vaulted above them. Nearby, the glowing ribbon of Route 290 lay still and largely empty; beyond it the lights of downtown Chicago lit the horizon with false dawn. Hulking masses of hotels or office buildings rose here and there across the flat land like desert buttes.
"You're the one who wanted to know the source of the molecule," Luc said.
Demanded was more like it, but that was such a loaded term. Luc wanted to keep everything on an even keel for the moment.
"I still do. But what are we doing hanging around a circus?"
"It's not a circus." Luc gestured to the loomingshadow of the large oblong tent behind them. "As the sign says, it's an 'Oddity Emporium.'"
Macintosh snorted. "Euphemism for freak show. That still doesn't explain what we're doing here."
"This is the source of the molecule."
"Ok, fine. But why are we standing outside cooling our heels? And I do mean cooling."
Luc grinned in the darkness. If Macintosh saw him, he'd probably think it a response to his feeble attempt at humor. But Luc found nothing funny about Macintosh. Nothing likable about him either. Especially his looks. They were such a mismatched pair. Luc's close-cropped, styled brown hair, trim five-nine frame, and tailor-made slacks and sweater next to Macintosh's tall, ungainly torso, his wrinkled shirt, worn jeans, shaggy hair, and wispy goatee.
Truth was, he was glad Macintosh was uncomfortable in the cold. He wished he'd freeze to death right here and now. The swine didn't have much longer to live anyway, and that would spare Luc the ordeal of having him killed.
Killed, he thought, shuddering at the concept. I'm going to cause another human being's death tonight. What would have been unthinkable two weeks ago had become something he had to do. He felt nothing for Macintosh, only a crawling anxiety to have done with it.
"And was all the subterfuge necessary?" Macintosh whined. "Separate flights, separate hotels, you picking me up on the street in the wee hours of the morning to haul me out here to the middle of nowhere. Like some bad movie."
Luc bit back a sharp retort. Didn't the damn fool ever shut up?
"Think about that, Tom," he said, keeping his voiceeven. It wouldn't do to betray his loathing for this piece of human garbage. Yet. "Just think about it."
Macintosh was blessedly quiet for a moment. Thinking, perhaps? That was something he should have done before he demanded to know the secrets of the molecule.
Macintosh--what had he been thinking when he'd hired this slovenly creature? A brilliant researcher with gaping holes in his intellect. Perfect example: if he'd possessed a lick of common sense he never would have come here.
"Yeah," Macintosh said finally. "I see what you mean. But how much longer?"
Luc lifted his wrist and pressed the illumination button on the rim of his watch. The face lit, revealing 4:11:08. That was Eastern Standard Time. He hadn't bothered resetting it.
"A few more minutes," he said.
In truth, the moment he'd been waiting for had passed. Ten minutes and fifty-four seconds after four had been the mark, but he always liked to give himself a cushion. Just in case.
Canvas rustled behind them and a deep voice said, "We're ready."
Luc turned and saw a tall figure holding back a tent flap.
"Finally!" Macintosh cried as Luc led him toward the faintly lit opening.
"Good evening, Mr. Prather," Luc said to the tall, oddly shaped man holding the flap. The owner of the show had arrived.
"Good evening, Dr. Monnet," Prather said in his deep voice that seemed to echo around him. He pronounced Luc's surname properly, but with an odd cadence.
Ozymandias Prather. An odd-looking duck--nearlysix and a half feet tall, with narrow shoulders, a barrel chest, and wide hips. His long, narrow head completed the conical layout of his body.
"This is Dr. Macintosh. I told you that he'd be coming."
"You did indeed," Prather said.
No one offered to shake hands.
The air within was thicker and warmer but only marginally brighter than the starlight outside.
"Didn't they pay their electric bill?" Macintosh muttered as they followed Prather down the midway toward a better-lit area at the far end of the tent. "And what's that stink?"
Luc clenched his teeth. "That's the source."
At the end of the midway, in a pool of wan light, sat a cage. Above the iron bars a chipped wooden sign heralded THE AMAZING SHARKMAN! in faded red letters. Two roustabouts crouched before the cage, struggling with something between them--something long and dark that ended in three taloned fingers.
"My God!" Macintosh said, stopping and gaping at the sight. "What is that?"
"That ... is the source."
He knew what was going through Macintosh's mind: Sharkman? That arm cannot belong to a man of any sort. It has to be a fake, a muscle-bound performer in a rubber suit with a clawed glove.
That was what Luc himself had thought when he'd first seen the creature that crouched behind the bars. But it had proved to be the real thing. That dark reptilian skin bled when punctured; the talons on the ends of those thick fingers were sharp and deadly.
But Luc was dismayed that tonight it took only two of Prather's roustabouts to steady the creature's arm. These identical, vaguely canine fellows looked evenodder than Prather--muscular, neckless hulks with close-cropped hair, big square teeth, tiny ears, and dark, deep-set eyes. When Luc had begun taking samples last year, five of them had had difficulty restraining the thrashing Sharkman.
He squinted past them into the shadows of the cage but could make out only a darker blot within. He didn't need to see the creature to know it was failing. At first he hadn't been sure, but now with each visit it was more and more apparent that it was fading away. Another month, perhaps--certainly no more than two--and it would be dead. The wellspring of the molecule would be gone.
And then what would he do?
The precipitous drop in cash flow would be the least of Luc's problems.
He did his best to shake off the sick feeling crawling through the pit of his stomach and withdrew the venipuncture kit from his coat pocket.
Macintosh said, "This is some sort of joke, right?"
Feeling very tired all of a sudden, Luc shook his head. "No, Tom. No joke."
He unwrapped and inserted the short end of an eighteen-gauge double-pointed phlebotomy needle into the plastic sheath; with two serum separation tubes ready, he approached the arm.
"W-what are you going to do?" Macintosh said.
"What does it look like? I'm going to draw some blood."
The rank smell of the creature mixed with the wet-dog stink of the roustabouts, making him a little queasy. Holding his breath, Luc didn't prep the dark skin, simply trapped a ropy vein between two fingers and worked the needle point through the gritty epidermis--like stabbing through layers of sandpaper. As soon as hewas into the vein he snapped the vacuum tube home and watched it fill with dark fluid, much darker than human blood.
When the second tube was full--always an extra, just in case--he backed away and the roustabouts released the thing's arm. The creature snatched it back through the bars, then rolled over onto its side, facing away from them.
Luc held the tube up to the light.
"That's blood?" Macintosh said, leaning over his shoulder. "Looks more like tar."
Although as black, the fluid was nowhere near as thick as tar. In fact, this sample was noticeably thinner than the last. When Luc had started drawing the creature's blood, the tubes would fill slowly despite the eighteen-gauge needle. Tonight a twenty-two-gauge would have been sufficient. Another depressing sign that the source was failing.
Macintosh straightened and stepped closer--but not too close--to the cage. He peered into the shadowy interior.
"What is it?" he said, his voice hushed.
"No one knows," Luc said, returning the tubes to their padded transport case. "And it's a pity that you don't either."
Macintosh turned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just that if you knew something about it, anything at all, you'd be useful. I'd have a reason for letting you live."
"Heh," Macintosh managed through a wobbly smile.
Luc said nothing; he simply stared at him.
Macintosh licked his lips. "That's not funny, Doc."
Luc took profound pleasure in watching the smile fade and the eyes widen as the traitor came to realize he wasn't joking.
Macintosh glanced quickly around, then made a move toward the midway. But the two roustabouts blocked his way. He tried the other direction, but three more identical roustabouts appeared.
"Oh, God!" Macintosh wailed. "You can't be serious!"
"What did you expect?" Luc shouted. Finally he could vent his fury. "You've tried to blackmail me! Did you think I would stand for that?"
"No! Not blackmail! I--"
"'Give me a piece of the action or I go to the police'. That's what you said, wasn't it."
"No, really! I didn't--"
"If you'd simply gone straight to the police, I would have been angry, but at least I could have seen you as a well-meaning citizen. But after I'd hired you, provided you with cutting-edge research technology, and trusted you with my records, you try to dip your filthy hands into what is mine, what I discovered and developed. That's despicable--intolerable."
"Please!" Macintosh dropped to his knees, held up his hands, palms pressed together as if in prayer. "Please, I'm sorry!"
Luc stoked his rage. Without it he might not muster the courage to give Oz the signal to remove Macintosh and dispose of him.
"Or if you'd accomplished what I hired you to do, I would have found a way to cut you in. But you've failed me, Tom--as a researcher ... and as a man."
Macintosh sobbed. "Oh, Jesus!"
Luc glanced at Prather and nodded. Prather cocked his head toward Macintosh. In a single fluid motion, one of the roustabouts stepped up behind the kneeling man, raised a balled fist, and slammed it into the back of his neck.
Luc staggered back as he heard bones crunch like peanut shells and saw Macintosh's eyes bulge in their sockets as if his brain were pushing them from behind. Luc had never dreamed Prather's men would kill the man right in front of him. A surge of bile burned the back of his throat as he watched Macintosh pitch forward, his face landing in the dirt. His hands and feet twitched in time to the tune of his choked gurgling; then he lay still.
Luc swallowed and stared at the roustabouts. The killer had stepped back to rejoin his brothers, and Luc couldn't tell now which one had struck Macintosh, but the power behind that single blow had been ... inhuman.
He felt weak in his knees. He'd wanted Macintosh gone, but not to watch him die.
A dismissive flick of Prather's wrist set the roustabouts into motion. They grabbed Macintosh's body by its feet and dragged him out like a piece of tarpaulin.
Luc struggled to pull himself together. His life seemed to have been drifting into the Abyss these past months, but with this act he felt he'd accelerated into free fall. And yet, despite his growing despair, he could not deny his relief at no longer having Macintosh's threats hanging over him.
"We'll bury him deep," Prather said. "The ground here will be pocked and scarred when we leave Sunday. No one will notice."
Still speechless, Luc removed a thick envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to him. An oily lock of the big man's lank dark hair fell over his forehead as he opened the envelope and fanned through the wad of bills. The wan light made his pale skin look cadaverish.
"It's all there," Luc said, finding his voice.
"Yes, it appears to be." He stared down at Luc withhis icy blue eyes. "Why didn't you have Mr. Dragovic take care of this for you?"
Luc stiffened. "Dragovic? What do you mean?"
Prather smiled--thin, thin lips drawing back over yellow teeth. Not a pleasant sight "Come now, Doctor. I've done a little research myself. Didn't you think I'd be curious as to why you're so interested in my mystery pet's blood?"
Luc sagged. He could smell another shakedown coming.
"Not to worry," Prather said. "I've no taste for blackmail. Extortion is so sordid. But I can't help wonder why you didn't have your best customer remove this threat to both of you." His smile broadened. "Unless of course you didn't want Mr. Dragovic to know you'd left yourself so vulnerable."
Luc shrugged to mask the bunching of the muscles in his neck and shoulders. Prather had scored a bull's-eye. The last thing Luc needed was for Milos Dragovic to learn that this pig Macintosh had almost blown the whole business. Dragovic must never even imagine that Luc did not have absolute control of his end.
"Just as well," Prather said. "The extra money for removing him will help us meet payroll."
"Business off?" Luc said, trying to steer away from the subject of Milos Dragovic.
Prather nodded. "Bad weather sends people to movies but not to freak shows. And truthfully, some of our attractions become rather ... ripe in wet weather."
In wet weather? Luc thought. How about any weather?
"I'll take the next sample on May twenty-fifth," Luc said, paving his way toward the exit. "Where will your troupe be then?"
Prather smiled again. "Virtually in your backyard,Dr. Monnet. We'll be in a little Long Island town that is one of our favorite annual stops. We'll be quite nearly neighbors for a while. Won't that be special."
Luc shivered at the thought of living anywhere near Ozymandias Prather and his freaks. "Well, it will be nice to simply hop into a car rather than fight through the airports."
"See you then, Dr. Monnet."
Relieved to be leaving, Luc turned and hurried along the dark midway toward the exit.
Copyright © 2000 by F. Paul Wilson