I was asked about this story in particular, so I went ahead and finished it. This is definitely in the style of the early spicy pulp horror stories, known as the “Shivers.” Thanks to Sbrooks and texquill for beta read and editing. Any errors remaining are very much mine, probably added after their able assistance. As with most pulp-style stories there is far more innuendo than graphic sex. If you want to see what Rose and Lily look like, look up “Thelma Todd and Clara Bow.”
Crypt Girls 1923. Saint Louis, Missouri Rose drifted up the central stairs of the library, carrying the dusty tomes in her charge. She and Lily were “Crypt Girls,” sorting and re-shelving books in the main stacks in the sub-basements. Rose was occasionally charged with helping people in the public research rooms, while Lily usually stayed in the stack down in the “The Crypt.” The pay wasn’t great, but with both her and Lily bringing in small paychecks as library assistants, they were able to keep up with the rent and have enough to live on, although sometimes a bit sparsely.
They’d graduated St. Tristan’s after rooming together for four years there, and they’d gotten a lot closer than they’d ever have expected. Not long after they left the University, Lily had hired on at the library in Saint Louis and then sent Rose a letter asking if she was interested in working at the library as well. Rose was more than a little relieved; her mother was pressuring her to consider marrying a suitable well off man. Perhaps sensing the kind of relationship Lily and she had fallen into, her mother didn’t really seem to care which man. Rose had happily moved in with Lily, and they’d easily resumed their relationship, a very easy-going “Boston Marriage.” Very occasionally, they would accept a double date invitation to a club or dancing, but neither she nor Lily had any real desire for a serious long-term male companionship. They’d both tried that, and had some fun, but found each other much better company.
Even if they’d been inclined, dating men was problematic, the library did have a morals clause, even if it was nowhere near as strict or seriously enforced as some of the ones she had seen; an occasional date would be acceptable, but any hint of real impropriety, or even a long term relationship, would cost them their jobs.
The public library research room was usually empty during the day, with the exception of the “quiet man,” Ken Stanton, who spent Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays researching almost from open to close. Rose figured he must be a professor, or, perhaps, a writer, although his broad shoulders seemed rather more designed for longshoreman duty. The conservatively dressed man was always intensely focused on his wide ranging research, but was invariably courteous and distantly friendly to Rose, who found usually herself searching for a bizarre variety of obscure texts on his behalf. He usually wore a nice linen suit, occasionally removing his jacket while he sorted through the Crypt of books Invariably, he would quietly ask for her permission to doff his jacket – and it wasn’t in a perfunctory manner; she got the feeling he was actually concerned that he might offend her. She considered him something of a reliable fixture and, to be honest, a pleasant diversion. He was certainly better than the standard run of Frat boys she always had propositioning her, and he certainly had far better manners.
He’d been coming here since before even Lily started working at the library and knew the holdings well. A ragged scar ran down the left side of his face – Lily irreverently insisted that it was a dueling scar, but Rose harbored a suspicion that it was more serious, since his hands were heavily scarred as well. Perhaps, she mused, they were remnants of an early life hard-lived – or, she figured, he was of an age that he could well have served in the War. On anyone else, those scars might have been menacing, but he was so quiet and unassuming, they just didn’t have any impact, at least on her. His rather broad and heavily muscled shoulders, however, did attract her attention, although not in a negative way. Lily teased her about him, telling her that she was dreaming of being carried off over one of his shoulders, and, perhaps she was, just a little bit. Of course Lily didn’t seem too put off with the prospect of it herself – pointing out that he did, after all, have two shoulders well-suited for transporting fair maidens.
Today, Mr. Stanton was already in his shirtsleeves and linen vest – it was hotter than usual, even for mid August, and, while the tall ceilings and ceiling fans helped a lot, the heat was everywhere. The man seemed to be focused on the limestone caverns that dotted the central Missouri landscape –Rose had brought up a dozen books ranging from geology books to land grants, as well as recent newspapers from the area.
She shifted the final books onto the table next to him.
He glanced up at her. “Did you have any luck finding them all?”
She smiled. “Every one, although there were two different land grant volumes covering the time period you are looking at, so I brought them both.”
His gaze focused on her more directly for a few seconds. “Oh? Well thank you, Rose, that will save some time.” Distractedly he added. “I don’t think I’ll need anything else for a couple of hours, so you can retreat to the Crypt – it’s a lot cooler down there. Beautiful flowers shouldn’t be left to wilt in the heat.” He said it in such an off-hand way that it was more a statement of fact than anything else.
Rose blushed, thanked him, and headed back down to the Crypt, first informing Mrs. Crenshaw of her whereabouts then working her way down to help Lily; as it turned out, Lily was as deep in the Crypt as it was possible to get – the 3rd subbasement, where the walls were carved from the living limestone. Lily was working just outside the restricted stacks– the area closed off to all but a few employees. The restricted stacks were for particularly rare and expensive books, city records, and those books that might be deemed of “morally corrosive nature.” If a book in that zone were requested, Mrs. Crenshaw would have to get approval from at least two Library Board members, then, if the request was approved, the patron would have to do his or her research in the zone with a library assistant present at all times.
Lily was sliding books neatly into their places on the shelves from her huge wooden rolling cart, but once she saw Rose was alone she stopped and plopped herself onto a clear spot on the cart, leaning against the shelves.
“Have a seat, Rose,” she gestured to another conspicuously open spot on the cart. Lily had a great memory, so she could shelve books many times faster than the next fastest attendant – a fact she occasionally took advantage of by getting way ahead, then sitting and reading for long periods of time. She still managed to get more far work done in the Crypt than anyone else. Mrs. Crenshaw certainly knew about Lily’s long breaks, but overlooked it since the work got done. Besides, Lily could be a distraction if she were in the public areas. Lily’s tall, lean form and white-blonde hair were just as notable as Rose’s curly red locks and shorter, fuller figure, but Lily lacked Rose’s ability to avoid confrontations. More than one college frat boy had been given a ringing slap before Lily was eventually sentenced to the Crypt.
Rose pulled her sweater off the cart, put it on and slid up onto the cart next to Lily.
Lily smiled and raised one eyebrow. “So how’s our man?”
Rose told her about his comment on flowers and wilting.
Lily giggled. “Think he’d want to come down here and do a little gardening?”
For the next hour they shelved a few books and Lily quietly kept up a stream of endless sharp patter, full of gardening innuendos; she was especially interested in plowing and fertilizing. Both of them were in pretty silly moods when they heard the heavy door at the top of the stairs. Footsteps echoed as someone came down from the second subbasement.
Much to Rose’s surprise, Mrs. Crenshaw came around the corner, leading Ken Stanton and carrying her heavy key ring. He had his jacket back on, which Rose felt sure would disappoint Lily, but the lower Crypt was quite cool.
“Rose. Lily. Mr. Stanton requires access to the restricted stack. So, given that we don’t have a male assistant available today, I am going to require both of you to stay in the area. There are some books that require re-shelving in the restricted stacks any case.”
Rose was puzzled, since any book pulled from the restricted stacks was always immediately re-shelved. After she let them in, however, Rose could see a large stack of volumes next to one of the large chairs in the research area in the center; clearly not everything had been put up. As they signed in, she noted that the previous research entry had been signed by Mrs. Garrison, the wife of the Library Board President. The research entry said, “various.” Mrs. Crenshaw handed Rose a card with the authorized material listed, and stepped out in odd haste, leaving Lily and Rose trading puzzled looks.
Rose gestured to the chairs and tables. “Please, Mr. Stanton, take a seat and I’ll find these records for you.”
He smiled pleasantly and moved to a large green chair with a fairly large table in front of it. “Thank you, Rose, I’m looking at older land surveys and maps, so the large table is probably for the best.”
Past him she could see Lily moving toward the large stack of un-shelved books left behind by Mrs. Garrison, pause and arch her eyebrows and mouth, “Rose?” silently. She jerked her attention back to Ken – er, Mr. Stanton – and nodded. “I’ll be back.”
The surveys and maps were side by side, so it was easy to round them up. When she returned Ken was seated in the chair writing in his notebooks while Lily sorted through the un-shelved books. After she laid the maps and surveys out she realized Lily hadn’t moved – she seemed frozen, staring at an open book in her hand. Rose moved to her side and realized Lily’s face was beet red.
“Are you okay?” she hissed.
Lily shook her head for second “I, um, I just...” her voice trailed off.
Rose had never seen Lily so out of sorts – she reached up to take the books from her, but it dropped from Lily’s apparently nerveless fingers and slid right to Ken’s foot. As he reached down and picked it up, Lily’s flushed face paled and assumed a look of absolute horror.
Rose spun and stepped over to him, shooting a look back at Lily.
Ken flipped open the cover, glanced at the bookplate and gave a light chuckle, then extended it out to her.
“Generally not, I can assume, what Lily is used to sorting?”
Still confused Rose plucked the book from his hand and flipped it open to see just what was going on. She almost dropped the book herself. Rose was hardly inexperienced, but the stunningly graphic series of illustrations of people – from India to all appearances – engaged in a rather complicated and very acrobatic sexual coupling almost made her drop the book as well.
“Oh. Dear Heavens.” She stopped, flushed from head to toe, and looked at Ken, seeing the amusement in his eyes.
He broke the awkward moment as smoothly as it was possible to do, all things considered.
“That is the Kama Sutra – it is technically a Tantric religious text, although that is not usually the reason copies are brought here from India. The binding looks new, but the plates are probably original to India judging by the paper. Probably cut from a series of scrolls. It’s an extremely valuable work.”
“I ... I...”
“Libraries have to keep all sorts of material Rose, that’s what they are for. You and Lily are hardly accountable for Mrs. Garrison’s choice of ... research material.”
Lily stared at the pile - there were several more books – she started looking through them, placing each somewhat gingerly on the table again. Despite her overtly brash behavior, she was actually naturally shy – her brassy quips and comments were a shield of sorts.
“I think they’re all, kind of ... like that.” She held up one with an ornate lacquered wood cover while she glanced at the bindings. “These aren’t classed by subject first like the rest – they are classed by country of origin, then subject. And all the subjects are different.”
Ken nodded absently. “Since that’s a Japanese ‘marriage manual’ or ‘pillow book’ you’re holding, that makes sense. The Indian book is theology, the Japanese book would be considered an instructional book, an Arab version, if you have one, would be anatomy or physiology and that British ‘Pearl Magazine’ would be fiction.” He seemed to be sinking deeper into poring over a particular map.
Rose decided to help Lily shelve the volumes while he continued research. It turned out to be quite a slow process, which wasn’t exactly sped up by Lily’s insistence on pointing our particularly interesting illustrations to her. Or, to be honest, her own interest in those illustrations. Lily was terrible; she kept showing Rose the most lewd illustrations, especially ones with two woman and one man in them – making doe eyes, fluttering her lashes at her and asking if she thought they could find a man who could, perhaps, assist them in studying this complex and fascinating subject -all the while looking in the direction of the reading room and winking. When Rose threatened to tie her up to make her behave, all Lily said was, “Great Britain, aisle two, shelf three, the whole shelf.” Which turned out to be accurate. Caning and spanking, she helpfully pointed out, were on shelf four. And five.
Ken appeared to be oblivious to their quiet back and forth – for which Rose was grateful.
By the end of the day, the atmosphere was congenial, although not so “overly familiar” to where Mrs. Crenshaw would have any complaints, and they’d learned that the reason for Ken’s knowledge was that he’d been an attendant at a library “not unlike this one” when he was younger. Although whatever it was he did now was still unspoken. Unlike most men, he didn’t press the forced familiarity of the situation. That seemed to disappoint Lily a little, even if it was a relief to Rose. She liked working at the Library and really didn’t want to end up unemployed. When Mrs. Crenshaw popped down quietly, probably with an eye to seeing what they were up to, she found them re-ordering the map section correctly, since Lily had noticed many of the maps were misfiled. After Ken finished his research, commenting that he’d be back the next day with tracing paper, he departed, and Mrs. Crenshaw returned to lock the iron grate, letting them head out for the day through the back entrance, nearest to their apartment block.
Lily and Rose stopped on the walk home for a quick meal at the Blue Star tea room, then headed home.
Once Rose latched the door, she felt Lily’s arms around her.
“I’ve been absolutely starving for you all day!”
Rose turned and kissed her deeply, then, while Lily struggled with her clothing, “Me too. I can’t believe you were so bad down there!”
Earlier in the day, Rose had planned on getting some reading done, but that was out the window tonight; perusing explicit books from ten countries had left both her and Lily with some creative new ideas.
Ken Stanton walked into the lushly appointed restaurant, keeping his hands in sight and sliding into the chair that Giovanni “Johnny” Gambini gestured to. Johnny’s son Vittorio – or Vic – sat to his left with a thinly disguised look of contempt.
Ken accepted a glass of red wine from a concerned looking waiter.
Vic focused directly on his father. “Pops, look, I told you I can handle this – it’s just those Green boys again. A good knocking and they’ll back down.”
Johnny looked at Ken. “Please forgive my son his lack of manners. One tries, but his Mamma spoiled him way too much.”
Ken smiled, the flat, humorless smile of a true predator, although “Vic” didn’t recognize it for what it was. Ken could sense the four nervous bodyguards checked their spacing – they didn’t have the comfort of Vic’s lack of familiarity.
“Sir, I think I understand your son’s hesitance at taking in outside assistance. Caution with outsiders is a form of wisdom all its own.”
Johnny smiled, recognizing the thin effort at civility, “Still, the police are paying all too close attention to this matter and something about it smells ... rotten. My boys are loyal, experienced, and well meaning, but I’d rather have a professional clean this up.” Johnny glared at Vic as he said it, a not too subtle message to shut up.
Ken pretended not to notice. “I’ll do this at the offered price, but I need a reliable delivery truck, nothing new. An old grocery truck would be best, I think. I don’t know if I can recover the shipment, but I’ll hunt down the ones who did it.”
Johnny nodded. “Do you need any other equipment?” his slight pause made it clear “equipment” meant weapons.
“No, I have everything else I need.” Ken paused. “I’m pretty sure your driver and the other man are dead. I can’t think of any reason for them to be held this long without contact, and I think we’d know if they showed up anywhere. I doubt if your shipment is still around, but if I recover it, I’ll take the finder’s fee.”
Johnny nodded. “That’s fair. I feel bad about Tony and his brothers. I’ll have to make that right with his family. As right as I can. Nothing will make up for the loss of three boys.”
Ken simply stood up and shook hands with Johnny solemnly, then walked out.
Vic stared at his father, but before he could say anything, the old man heaved a sigh of relief, suddenly looking far more aged.
“Still breathing. I know he doesn’t take those kind of jobs, but ... what if he decided to?” Looking at Vic he went on: “If I have a heart attack or get hit by a truck or whatever, when that man shows up and asks for his pay, you just pay it. Capelli tried to cheat him, that’s why the Capelli family moved back to Sicily.”
“He can’t be that tough.”
“Don’t be a fool. If he wasn’t, he’d be dead by now.”
Vic started to respond, but Johnny staved him off with an upheld palm. “Don’t argue. This is no game. This man? He doesn’t bluff or threaten, he just does what he does.”
Vic noted the concern in his father’s voice. “Why do they call him Silence?”
“All I’ve ever heard is rumors. They say during the war he led a team of trench raiders. They’d creep across No Man’s Land and kill enemy sentries and soldiers using garrotes, knives, clubs and axes. Prepare for the big assaults. I don’t know that it is true, but that’s the story.”
Rose untangled herself from Lily as gently as possible and slid off the bed, as she did every morning. She always told herself – and Lily – that it was because she wanted to give Lily a few minutes extra sleep. When she was completely honest with herself, she admitted that with only the one washstand, she wanted to be cleaned up before Lily started her frantic preparations.
She just finished washing her face when she noticed in the mirror that Lily was up on one elbow watching her get ready.
“Good Morning, Sunshine.”
“Good morning to you. Are you going to just lay in bed all day? Would you like me to bring your cart of books here to work on?”
“Oh, would you? Mrs. Crenshaw would certainly understand, just tell her you kept me up all night with your lascivious and insatiable appetites. You wore my poor, frail self so thin you can see a candle through me.”
Rose threw her powder puff at Lily, hitting her shoulder, resulting in a delicate cloud.
“Who kept who up all night?! Deceitful woman.”
“Oh you love it and you know it.”
“I do. I really do. But still, you had better get your poor frail little self out of bed and get ready. I really don’t think Mrs. Crenshaw will accept ‘weariness from excessive Sapphic indulgence due to overexposure to morally corrupting material’ as a good excuse for lateness.”
Lily giggled, rolled over until she was crossways on the bed and rested her chin in her cupped palms, bright blue eyes twinkling. “If she did, I’d use that excuse every day.”
Rose rolled her eyes. “Mrs. Crenshaw wouldn’t consider the Apocalypse as a good reason for lateness.”
Lily swung her legs off the bed and self-consciously smoothed her thin, white, chiffon peignoir.
“Well, if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get trapped down in the Crypt with your man again!”
They were in fact “trapped” with Ken down in the Crypt for most of the morning. He’d brought several rolls of tracing paper and spent the morning tracing maps, then annotating them from his notebooks, occasionally asking Rose or Lily to hunt down one of the newspapers or books he’d been looking at. He was dutifully marking notations on the traced maps with a variety of colored pencils, then measuring and making more notations. He had a compass and a ruler as well as his colored pencils.
Lily’s curiosity got the better of her.
“So, what are you doing?”
Ken finished scribing a red line.
“I don’t really have a name for it – I’m looking at connections between events and geological formations for a customer.”
Lily looked at the mesh of lines. “Does it ... pay well?”
Ken smiled – it seemed just a little less humorless than usual. “It can. It depends on the customer.”
Rose sensed something off and was afraid Lily had said something offensive, and started to pull her away, but Ken smiled genuinely.
“If Mrs. Crenshaw approves I would to like to go ahead and work through lunch. If you two have no objection, I’ll have lunch delivered here for all of us.”
Lilly agreed for both of them – sometimes Rose despaired over how much Lily valued food – and when Mrs. Crenshaw came down to check on them, Ken explained that he really didn’t want to lose track of what he was doing and proposed his lunch offer – even offering to purchase lunch for Mrs. Crenshaw. She hesitantly agreed, although she declined his offer for her to join them for lunch, as she was afraid it might show favoritism toward Rose and Lily. Ken wrote out a note and gave her two dollars and a note to give to one of the cab drivers who came to the library to pick up patrons for lunch. He hadn’t asked what they wanted, but Rose figured two dollars would certainly buy some good sandwiches.
Rose and Lilly cleared off one of the research tables just in time. Mrs. Crenshaw escorted two large men down to the Crypt carrying large baskets – they laid out an absolute repast. Rose watched as Lilly’s eyes almost bugged out of her head at the trays of food being laid out. The smells were indescribably delicious. One of the two men gave Mrs. Crenshaw a basket to take with her when she went upstairs.
It was hardly sandwiches. Instead, a huge array of Italian dishes were laid out, some of which Rose had never seen before.
One of the two men pulled a bottle of wine out of the basket along with three glass, and expertly filled and placed a glass in front of each of them.
“From Mr. Gambini, with his thanks.”
Ken looked solemn for a moment and replied. “I appreciate it. And please tell him that the food is up to his usual fine standards.”
Rose felt herself freeze, and saw Lily freeze as well, glass couched in one hand, eyes wide.
That, she felt, certainly explained the fine food. Gambini’s was the finest restaurant in town. A single meal at Gambini’s would cost more than she and Lily earned in a month combined. While that was disconcerting enough, Gambini was also known to be one of the most powerful racketeers and bootleggers in the city. And the familiarity meant that Ken was connected to him.
Lily caught her eye and shrugged, then sipped her wine, closing her eyes for a minute. After the men left, they began their meal and Ken watched bemusedly as Lily tore through dish after dish, declaring each one to be better than the last. Rose could hardly keep up with her, but was surprised at just how much she did eat. Each and every dish really was better than the last.
Despite everything, Ken didn’t push his advantage with familiarity, although he responded to Lily’s aggressive questioning with wry amusement.
“So, is Johnny Gambini one of your customers?”
“Sometimes. I do occasional research for him. He pays well, and I can always get a seat at his restaurant.”
Lily peered at him with narrowed eyes and a slight smile, “What does your ... wife think of your work.”
Rose was appalled at her lack of subtlety and kicked her under the table, eliciting a yelp.
Ken chuckled. “I’m afraid my work isn’t very conducive to marriage.”
“Oh, that’s a terrible Pity”. Although it was quite clear Lily didn’t feel bad about that at all.
Rose felt it was a fair enough warning for any girl.
Despite being kicked, Lily kept up her barrage of questions. Which Ken fielded with good humor, and began politely responding with his own.
Lily responded with a flirtatious glee, far too forward for Rose’s comfort. Still though, Ken adeptly turned the subject whenever it bordered on true impropriety and made sure Rose was pulled into the banter herself.
By the end of the meal, as they packed up the dishes into the baskets for the men to pick up later, Rose realized she felt she had known Ken for simply ages.
By the end of the day, when Ken prepared to leave, both she and Lily actually felt saddened by his announcement that he would be gone for several weeks.
Two days later, Rose found herself working with a large, repellent man with thin, unkempt hair, and staring dark eyes in a lupine face, slouched shoulders, long arms, huge hands and large discolored yellow teeth that reminded her vaguely of shovels. Mrs. Crenshaw, obviously repelled by him, introduced him as Mr. Pike. His furtive looks at her made her uncomfortable in a different manner than those of the frat boys and other men. The frat boys – and most men for that matter – were obviously picturing her in a state of dishabille, but in this man’s case his desire seemed less like healthy carnal lust, and far more unclean. A vague foetid odor seemed to cling to him.
He’d asked for several books, some with German and Latin names, only a few of which were listed and most of them were in the restricted Crypt. His agitation at discovering he would have to fill out paperwork was clear. Rose patiently explained that she couldn’t even get into the deeper Crypt without Mrs. Crenshaw’s permission and keys, but he simply became surly and lurched from the library in visible anger leaving his material on the table.
Rose was hardly sorry to see him leave, but still resented his angry departure and furtive, unhealthy looks. She took the books down to Lilly in the Crypt and described the visitor while they sat, perched on Lily’s cart.
Lily wrinkled her nose. “Sounds perfectly horrible. I hope I never meet him.”
Rose shivered. “Guys look me over all the time, but the way he did it was...” she just trailed off as metal clinked over by the restricted Crypt. Rose stood up off the cart and stepped off in the direction of the sound, followed by Lily.
No answer but the creak of metal.
As they rounded the corner, the gate to the restricted stacks stood wide open. Lily pushed past Rose, eyes blazing. “I swear if it’s those Kappa Sigma mugs down here again...”
She froze as the grotesque form of Mr. Pike limped out of the restricted Crypt, through the open gate, clutching several volumes in his oversize hands. A string of drool hung from the corner of his mouth, which was frozen in a hideous parody of a smile.
He hissed at them, “Oh, what lovely Queens you will make!”
Rose was about to scream, when they were both seized from behind by several sets of strong, clawed hands and rags dripping with a noxious chemical substance shoved into their faces. The last thing Rose saw as she lost consciousness was a set of yellow, shovel-shaped teeth grinning maniacally in triumph.
The old grocery truck sputtered along the dusty road, occasional ruts making efforts to wrench the wheel from Ken’s hands. Weeks of dry heat had turned the landscape a dull brown – even the still-green trees were muted and dull. His ragged undershirt and stained work pants were almost the same color as the dull brown fields. A battered Ivy cap perched firmly on his head, twisted slightly to shade his eyes from the relentless stare of the sun.
Over the last three weeks, he’d turned up some interesting facts. The missing truck full of whiskey couldn’t have gone far – the follow car had made it to the rendezvous point only five minutes later than expected, found out that the truck hadn’t made it and turned right around finding the dead bootlegger only five miles back. There were really no connecting roads, but the ground had been baked hard enough that tracks were unlikely even in the open fields. Gambini was sure of his men’s loyalty. And Ken had failed to find anything to indicate he was wrong. There’d been some leads, though – his ragged array of vegetables, bought second hand from Soulard Market, brought a lot of wives out to look them over and exchange gossip. The vegetables were selling better than they should have due to the drought’s impact on local gardens and the fact that Ken was selling them below his cost. Stories seemed to center on a creepy hunchbacked man who had shown up a few months earlier – nobody really knew him, and nobody was sure where he was staying, but by the stories he certainly lived somewhere near the point where the truck had gone missing. Ken was sure the missing truck hadn’t left the area, and he suspected it was being kept in one of the large caverns he’d found on the geologic surveys in the library.
He pulled the truck into a small wooded draw sheltering a small spring-fed pool off the side of the road and spent several minutes covering with brush. On inspection, it was clearly out of casual view of the road, the small pool had kept the greenery thick enough for a good hiding place, despite the drought. He knew he was going to have to be cautious. Gambini had been right, there was a least one Treasury agent looking into the situation – a known bootlegger, dead with his throat ripped out had drawn attention. The agent hadn’t been very subtle, and all the housewives remembered the big blonde man very clearly, Ken had been careful to stay away from the agent’s inquiries. The agent had apparently left a couple days ago, but Ken had heard that he had left his suitcase at a rooming house in the area.
Ken pulled a long bundle and an old Army pack from the truck and began to stride quickly, but quietly toward the nearest cave.
Rose wasn’t sure how long she’d been here anymore, it seemed like forever; she was cold and damp ... and so gnawingly hungry. She had woken here, stripped and chained to the wall opposite Lily, whose bruised, pale, grime-covered body she could see curled in her corner, staring hollow-eyed, unblinkingly, around their tiny hell. They fed the girls occasionally, a nasty broth with undercooked chunks of gristly meat. It was probably a measure of how hungry they were that the awful meal was starting to taste normal. Recently, though, all they’d brought was a little iron-tasting water, obviously filthy, even in the dim reddish light that filtered in from the other side of the door. Both of the women felt sick, constantly queasy – and neither could sleep. After a couple days, a sibilant, unceasing whispering began that they just couldn’t shut out, no matter how hard they tried. They never said it out loud, but they both knew they would be defiled. It hadn’t quite happened yet but the awful men treated them horribly, leering and making grotesque gestures.
Once, a few days ago, one of the man-things had suddenly grabbed Lily and began to force her legs apart – in her weakened state all she could do was cry. But the others grabbed him and began to beat him unmercifully. He kept struggling to get to her right up until they caved his skull in. One of the animal-like men leered at her and uttered one of the few things any of them said. “Not ready yet.”
At first she and Lily had talked, kept encouraging each other and looked for a way out, but the chains were massive and they didn’t have anything to work with. As time dragged on, hope died and she and Lily had spent more and more time silently staring fixedly into each other’s eyes. Lily’s gaunt stare began to remind her of their grotesque captors, her shoulders hunching, her hands curling, claw-like. Worst of all, her eyes grew darker and darker, seeming to lose the beautiful blue that Rose loved so much.
Rose started at the sound of the metal door opening and cringed further back into her corner of the stone cell. Two of the misshapen men dragged something in. It was a man, a big, blonde man, badly beaten, breathing slow, shallow, labored breaths. His shirt and shoes were missing. The two captors produced a set of manacles and chained him to a large iron staple in the middle of the floor. Then they adjusted Lily and Rose’s chains to give them another couple of feet of movement before walking out.
The door slammed shut.
Rose crawled over to the new limit of her chain and tried to rouse the man. Despite the blood, he felt clean, somehow better than their surroundings. Lily was doing the same thing, gently shaking him and whispering, he moved but didn’t wake. Rose leaned closer. His smell filled her nostrils. She felt her mouth water.
Rose jerked back with a start, seeing Lily do the same – eyes wide in terror.
They knew now. They knew what the food was, knew why the food had stopped. The things had just brought fresher food this time. The whispering seemed louder, she was sure they were making vile, unspeakable promises, if only the girls would ... Rose heard a high pitched whining and looked at Lily, realizing that both of them were doing it.
Simultaneously they snatched each other’s hands in an unbreakable grip.
“NO!” Rose wasn’t sure which of them had spoken for a second, then realized it had been her.
Lily locked eyes with her – and Rose could momentarily see them flare to their old bright blue, hard and determined.
“I’d rather die.”
They both knew they really would die, and they began to sob, almost silently, leaning into each other. They huddled protectively over the wounded man until they fell into fitful, useless half-sleep.
Ken crouched over the dead body – he’d smashed the man’s head in with his old trench mace – if the ape-like figure really was a man. The trench mace was swifter and surer than the knife and lot less noisy than the shotgun slung over his back. He’d left his pack with its load of dynamite near the entrance.
After the finding the room with corpses of men and women hung up and butchered for meat, he’d gone back and killed the two “men” he’d knocked out and tied up; there would be no prisoners and he decided he really didn’t want to hear any answers they might have. The men were oddly formed, degenerate things, stoop shouldered, heavily muscled with big staring eyes that never blinked and large yellow spade-like teeth. He’d had a bad feeling when he’d looked at them. The repulsive things were familiar. Figures from the past, things he’d hoped to never see them again.
He’d found the truck, although had been abused to the point of uselessness. He’d also found what seemed to the entrance to hell. The cave system was dimly lit with oil lamps placed sporadically throughout the chambers. The floor had been somewhat leveled and various chambers were used as rooms for different purposes. The abattoir had been the worst, but the floors of other rooms were coated in blood. In one room he found the Gambini’s nearly pure alcohol. It was originally intended to be cut with water and colorized to produce ersatz whiskey, but it was spoiled for any purpose now – the barrels had been opened and severed heads floated in them.
Looking around a corner down a tunnel that seemed to lead steeply down, he could see two of the repellent men peering through a grating in a metal door. They were talking in harsh voices.
“They haven’t fed. Why haven’t they eaten?”
“Something is wrong, they’re ... broken ... somehow...”
The other snarled angrily. “We did nothing wrong!”
One of them pulled a set of keys and began to unlock the door.
Glancing once more down the passage, Ken slid toward them silently, trench mace readied.
The cover over the tiny grating slid back, letting more dull red light into the cell. Rose looked at Lily then down at the blonde man. He was still alive, she could sense his heartbeat. The mouth-watering smell wasn’t as compelling as it had been at first. She felt stronger, better. The unending sick feeling was gone for the first time she could remember since waking up here. Staring eyes leered at them through the window in the door. For some reason, she sensed that one of them was actually “Mr. Pike”, even though she couldn’t really see them and they were hard to tell apart anyway.
She felt their disappointment at the blonde man’s survival. She looked over and saw a defiant look on Lily’s face that she knew echoed her own. The horrible men would continue to be disappointed.
She returned her stare to the door as she heard the key turning and found her voice.
“You might as well kill us. It doesn’t matter how much you hurt us, we’ll never be like you!”
Mr. Pike started to respond, but was yanked suddenly from the window, with an odd crunching sound – moments later, something slammed hard into the cell door. Curious dragging sounds, with shifting light, then the door opened wide. As suddenly as if a radio was turned off, the horrible whispering scratching at the back of her skull abruptly stopped cold. A dark figure filled the doorway, a too-bright lamp in one hand and a heavy club of some kind gripped in the other.
Ken dragged the dead men from the door – they had been far too focused to hear his approach, and the mace had made short work of them. Grabbing one of the oil lamps, he pulled the door open.