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from Stakers by Mark Ellis

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Prologue
Then: Esterwegen, 1945

She knew her name was Eva, but she thought of herself as Twosie. She considered this logical since the number two was the first and last digits of the numerical string blue-tattooed on her right forearm.

Everything revolved around numbers in the camp. The watchtowers bore stenciled numbers, as did the splintery wooden walls of the barracks. Six corpses required twelve corpse-carriers, and the twelve carriers required four guards. Twosie had been in the Esterwegen concentration camp for seventeen months, four days, and nine hours out of her eight years.

 

Newsbreak

Island Books

Freda, who stood shivering beside her, looked to be about the same age, but Twosie had no idea how long she had been a prisoner. Nor was she inclined to ask. She knew only that she and the girl had stood outside of the commandant’s quarters for the past thirty-one minutes. The ragged, black-and-white striped pajamas they wore did little to protect them from the chill breeze that cut across the frozen mud of the compound.

A searchlight beam suddenly stabbed through the indigo sky and came sweeping toward them. The girls squinted away from the funnel of white incandescence, and it moved on, bisecting the blue-black tapestry of the sky. From far away came a distant rumble, as of thunder. Earlier in the day, Twosie had overheard several men excitedly claiming the booming noises weren’t thunderclaps at all, but artillery fire — American artillery.

They said the Germans would soon be in panicked flight. It was also whispered that, before they fled, the soldiers would execute every inmate of Esterwegen before it could be liberated. Twosie didn’t know what to believe. The prisoners in the camp were sustained on a steady diet of rumors, less nourishing than bread, but served far more frequently.

Sometimes the rumors were seasoned with folklore and legend. Among Twosie’s fellow Romanians, acting Commandant Skorzeny was believed to be an ocajinik, a shadow walker, but his woman, his whore who traveled everywhere with him, was said to be worse. Although she was supposed to be a countess, she was reputed to be a strigoaica, and that made her far more monstrous than the most depraved of the S.S.

The heavy wooden door suddenly swung inward, pulled open by a gray-uniformed, jack-booted Waffen S.S. officer. He gestured impatiently to the children. “Komm!”

Twosie made a tentative step toward the threshold, but she was so cold she feared to move fast, worrying that her legs would break like icicles. The officer snatched her by the front of her tunic, snarling, “Schnell!”

He pulled her into the room and released her. Twosie was so shocked by what she saw she was only dimly aware of Freda stepping up behind her. A snowy-white lace cloth covered a long dining table, and to Twosie’s eyes, it seemed to tremble beneath the weight of the massive silver candelabra, glittering tableware, cut-quartz wine goblets — and the food.

The sight and smell of the remains of a feast sent sharp, stabbing pains through her belly. Bowls of vegetables, baked potatoes, platters of chicken, dishes of bread filled all of her senses. She sucked back the string of saliva drooling from her open mouth. Freda whimpered, shifting from one foot to the other, then she shouldered Twosie aside and scrambled toward the table.

The officer watched the girl claw up handfuls of boiled vegetables and shove them into her mouth. He smiled in genuine amusement as she tried to cram the butt end of a loaf of bread between her jaws.

Twosie didn’t rush for the table. Even through the blood pounding in her temples, she heard her mother’s voice whispering to her, telling her not to trust the Germans, not fall for their tricks and perform for their entertainment. Although her mother had been killed four months before by a pack of guard dogs, Twosie obeyed her instructions. Still, her eyes filled with tears, even as her shriveled belly growled and rumbled.

Freda started to gag on a thick slab of chicken breast, but she still tried to force more food into her mouth. “Nein!” barked the officer, slapping the meat out of the girl’s hand. “Geh!”

Restraining Freda, keeping her flailing arms away from the table, the officer beckoned to Twosie. “Kommen zie!”

Twosie hadn’t shed tears even when she saw her mother’s mutilated body, but she wept now, stumbling blindly past the dining table and all the food scarcely an arm’s length away. It was as if a celestial door had opened a crack, permitting a fleeting glimpse of heaven, then had slammed shut, leaving her uncertain if she had actually seen it or only dreamed it.

The officer herded the two sobbing girls down a long hall, feebly lit by candles in wall sconces, and to a wide, oak-planked door. He rapped on it once, very sharply, and it swung inward. He stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture with one arm. Twosie and Freda cautiously stepped past him, and he swiftly pulled the door closed.

The room was illuminated by flare-topped kerosene lanterns. A hand-cranked gramophone filtered strains of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony from its ornate funnel. Twosie recognized the music, as tinny as it was. Her father had been a professor of music at the University of Budapest and went to great, often tedious, lengths to instill an appreciation of the classical composers into all of his children.

In the center of the room squatted a very deep, claw-footed iron bathtub. A small table held stacks of clean towels and a scrub brush. For an irrational instant of hope, Twosie wondered if she and Freda were supposed to bathe before they were allowed to eat.

A woman spoke from the shadows on the far side of the light shed by the lanterns. In a soft, melodious half-whisper, she said, “Welcome, darlings.”

She spoke in Romanian, but her voice held an odd accent. Twosie at first saw her as only a black silhouette against the wavering halos of yellow light. Time froze as the girls stared at her. She was more astonishing in appearance than the remains of the feast.

The Countess was tall and beautiful, with a flawless complexion the hue of fine honey. Her long, straight hair, swept back from a high forehead and pronounced widow’s peak, tumbled artlessly about her shoulders. It was so black as to be blue when the light caught it. The large, feline-slanted eyes above high, regal cheekbones looked almost the same color, but glints of violet swam in them. The mark of an aristocrat showed in her delicate features, with the arch of brows and her thin-bridged nose. Her face looked vaguely familiar to Twosie, but she couldn’t place in her memory where she might have seen it before. Yellow highlights, cast by the lamps, glinted in the woman’s eyes, reminding Twosie of how her pet cat, Kluju, looked when she found him with a mouse squirming between his jaws.

A graceful swanlike neck led to a slender body encased in a bizarre version of an S.S. officer’s uniform — high black boots, jodhpurs of a shiny black fabric, an ebony satin tunic tailored to conform to the thrust of her full breasts. On her left arm was the standard band of red, but it did not bear a black swastika in a circle of white. Emblazoned there was a curious symbol, both familiar and strange. In gold thread was a triangle that was bisected by a stylized lightning bolt. The bolt resembled one of the twin lightning strokes the Schutzstaffel had chosen as both its initials and insignia.

A man’s voice, speaking in German and dripping with disgust, demanded, “These are the best that could be found?”

A tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired man stepped forward, looming over a lamp. The wavering light cast yellowish shadows on his mustached face, making him look like a drowned corpse. Like the woman, he wore a black, high-collared uniform tunic; silver piping gleamed in a tight line along the shoulders and chest. The insignia patch on the sleeve, a black swastika against a triangular red background, looked like a splotch of blood in the semidarkness. He held a length of heavy, coiled rope in his right hand.

Twosie had only seen Commandant Skorzeny from afar, on the day of his arrival. He was handsome, despite the large hooked nose and a complexion so deeply pallid it was almost translucent.

The woman walked around the children, eyeing them, examining them, her boot heels clacking on the floor. “Your doing, Otto.”

With a gentle touch and loving murmurs of instruction, she had Twosie open her mouth and stick out her tongue. The Countess made a “tsk” sound of sympathy and turned to Freda. She caressed the girl’s cheek, fingering breadcrumbs away from her mouth. Her lips stretched in a warm smile. “Ah, you’re a greedy one, aren’t you? I like that.”

Freda didn’t understand German and so remained silent, though she tried to return the woman’s smile. The woman tilted the girl’s head back, telling her in Romanian to stick out her tongue. Freda obeyed, and the woman grunted softly as if in satisfaction.

Resting a hand possessively on Freda’s head, she said to Skorzeny, “She’s malnourished, but not anemic like this other one. She’ll have to do.”

Skorzeny dug around inside his tunic and withdrew a gold clamshell watch. Thumbing open the lid, he frowned at the face. “Our plane to the Alpine redoubt leaves in less than two hours, Elisabeth. According to the last report, a division of American infantry will be in sight of the camp by dawn.”

The Countess whirled on him, hissing in a voice sibilant with anger, “And when will be my next opportunity to bathe? A month? Two?”

The commandant visibly blanched, taking a half-step back. “Dearest, you tend to lose track of time during your...” He paused, groping for the proper word. “…ablutions. I wished only to remind you of the danger we may find ourselves in if we delay our departure. And remember, Teudt will be waiting for us — for you — at the redoubt.”

The Countess ignored the commandant’s words. Stroking Freda’s hair as if it were the coat of a dog, she said in a quiet, sad tone, “All of my own children are dead... long, long dead, and I can have no more. It is a condition that grieves me, but one I have learned to accept.” She chucked Freda under the chin. “That’s heartbreaking, isn’t it darling?”

Freda didn’t reply.

The woman turned her back completely on Twosie and pulled Freda by the front of her striped tunic toward the tub. The girl didn’t resist. All defiance had been shocked and brutalized out of her over the last few months. Twosie didn’t stir from her place by the door, glad to be standing in a wedge of shadow beyond the lamplight. She watched unblinkingly as Commandant Skorzeny uncoiled the rope and hurled it over a wooden ceiling beam directly over the tub. Swiftly and expertly, as if he had performed the same task many times, he knotted a noose in the rope’s dangling end.

Twosie had witnessed a number of hangings in her time at Esterwegen, executions of inmates who had violated one of the camp’s many contradictory rules. She had seen them jerking and kicking beneath the scaffolds. She had never heard so much as a whisper about indoor hangings, so she was perplexed, but not frightened.

The commandant and the Countess appeared to have completely forgotten about her, and Twosie did nothing to draw attention to herself. She continued to stand motionless, breathing shallowly, trying not even to blink.

The woman effortlessly swung Freda up from the floor, cradling her in her arms as if she were an infant. Skorzeny looped the noose around the girl’s ankles, cinching it so tight a whimper escaped from Freda’s lips.

“Hush,” the Countess said soothingly. “It will be over soon. Nothing will ever hurt you again.”

Twosie’s mind detached from her body, seeming to float up somewhere near the ceiling, abandoning the fragile flesh and blood shell. The shell still stood immobile in the shadows, not reacting at all, not even when the Countess began smearing blood over her arms, massaging it into the skin, filling the pores.

Skorzeny spoke, his voice sounding as if it echoed across the gulfs of space, “What about her?”

The eyes of the Countess, glazed and glassy, swept lazily over Twosie. “Leave her,” she replied drowsily.
“But she has seen…”

“She won’t live to speak of what she has seen. If the guards don’t kill her, malnutrition and her thin blood will. She is a nameless nobody, and she won’t live.”

Twosie’s mind suddenly returned to her body with such slamming force she nearly staggered into the door at her back. My name is Eva!

The thought leaped into her head with such intensity, she was almost overwhelmed by the joyful instant of self-discovery. Her lips stirred, silently mouthing the words. My name is Eva, and I will live.

She forced herself to keep her gaze fixed on the blood-masked Countess. My name is Eva, and I will live to speak of what I have seen. I know who you are.

A defiant, exultant scream of challenge rose in her throat, but she choked it down. I know who you are!

 

Chapter One
Now: The Upper Amazon Basin, Brazil

Beneath the steady silver glare of the full moon, Quentin Crockett and Tall Bull pushed through the underbrush and stepped into the perimeter of the Tupani-Gurani research station.

“Doesn’t look like much,” Crockett muttered.

Tall Bull grunted softly. “It looks about like every other dark site you’ve dragged me to... a shit hole.”

Behind them, Lieutenant Jorge Morales downed the last of his bottle of Dos Equus with a slobbery gulp. He successfully swallowed a belch and asked, “A what site?”

Crockett didn’t respond. The tall, broad-shouldered American merely stood and watched and listened. The parana trees swayed a little in the slow, humid breeze. The thatched roofs of the huts rustled softly in the sluggish wind. That was the only sign of movement. He heard nothing but the far-off shrieking of night birds.

Quietly, he asked, “So nothing has changed since you were here last? None of the villagers or the station personnel has turned up?”

Morales answered with a nod that was much like himself — short and sloppy. “Six days ago, when I made my monthly stopover, I couldn’t find anybody. I reported it to the Ministry bureau in Sao Paulo. They told me to forget about it, that the villagers had moved on when the timber company got too close.”

Morales paused and flicked an insect from his khaki uniform shirt. “Bullshit. The loggers moved out of here over a month ago.”

Tall Bull kneeled and probed the grass with his hands. Knee joints cracking, he stood up and extended the fingers of his left hand. The tips glistened dully with a viscous liquid. Dispassionately he said, “Gun oil.”

Crockett nodded as if only mildly interested and began walking along the edge of the brush line. His dark green hip-length field jacket and trousers helped him blend with the shifting pattern of moonlight and shadows. He kept the Glock 17 automatic leathered snugly at his hip, but he used the foot-long combat knife in his left hand to push aside hanging lianas and foliage in his path. A small leather carrying case hung by a strap from his left shoulder, leaving his gloved gun hand free. His high-topped, heavy-treaded jump boots barely made a noise on the ground. He seemed to know just where to place his feet.

Tall Bull walked beside him, stepping just as noiselessly. Morales thought he looked as much like a representative of a U.S. government agency as one of the indolent old beggars who lounged on park benches in Sao Paulo. A mane of silver-shot hair streamed from beneath the brim of a battered and sweat-stained Fedora. He wore a shabby, threadbare sports coat that might have been fashionable fifty years before. His khaki trousers looked to be about as old, judging by the number of peeling iron-on patches decorating them. Unlike either Crockett or himself, his footwear consisted of a pair of fringed boot moccasins, laced up to just below the knee.

His dark, weathered face was crisscrossed by a network of seams and lines, but eyes as hard and black as polished points of obsidian glittered on either side of a prominent nose. If the old Indio carried a weapon, he kept it out of sight. Despite his apparently advanced years, Tall Bull’s carriage was ramrod straight.

Morales blundered along behind them, trying to walk stealthily, heel-to-toe like the Americans, but more often than not tripping himself. Bugs whirled around his face, and he pulled the visor of his peaked uniform cap low over his forehead.

Crockett wore a long-billed, olive-green cap over his longish, dark blonde hair. Morales could see the faint outline of where an insignia patch had been removed on the front of his headgear. The man carried himself as if he were military, and his clothes certainly more than suggested such a background, but his credentials identified him as a special human rights investigator for the American Department of State.

As they crept along the perimeter of the village, both Crockett and Tall Bull peered closely at the ground. Even Morales saw the marks of many booted feet and where twigs had been stepped on and broken. Tall Bull wordlessly pointed to a tree trunk. The bark was deeply scored by six vertical gouges. Crockett nodded as if the scars were significant and continued on.

As much as he wanted to, Morales didn’t ask why the marks were of interest. He already regretted accompanying the Americans out into the rainforest. Even after fortifying himself with a six pack of potent Mexican beer, the prospect of spending the night out in the jungle, forty kilometers from the nearest village, didn’t please him.

In the heavy jungle growth on the western side of the village, their silent circuit completed, Crockett and Tall Bull stopped. They went to one knee, gazing at the building that housed the hospital and research station. It was far larger than the huts, long and rambling, with a covered verandah running its entire length. Wicker and rattan chairs were scattered around the open front door.

The Tupani-Gurani research station was not new, nor was it particularly unique. It was one of many in the heart of the Amazon Basin, established in the early 1960s through the combined funding of the World Health Organization, the Peace Corps, and the Brazilian government.

The station had been built in Tupani-Gurani territory and provided the native people not only free medical care but a measure of protection from the thugs working for the lumber companies. They did not bother to negotiate with the Indians for the timber rights to their land; they simply shot them on sight, and the Indians had no choice but to retreat farther into the rapidly shrinking rainforest.

The disappearance of twenty-three men, women, and children did not seem to be the work of hired mercenaries or the military junta. They had been Morales’s first suspects when, on his regular patrol route for the Ministry of the Interior, he had found the village and station deserted.

The population was simply gone, seemingly vanished in a moment, their tools and cooking utensils left where they had been last used, as if the people intended to be gone only a second and would return to claim them in the next second.

Morales had come across a number of deserted settlements in his five years on patrol, but the circumstances usually had easy explanations — famines, incursions of loggers, or simple boredom with the territory. Always some sign had been left, or the villagers would turn up again somewhere else.

More importantly, the staff of the research center had gone missing as well. They numbered only ten, a mixture of German, Brazilian, and British doctors. For over twenty-five years, a grizzled old Bavarian-born organic chemist named Rohrbach had served as chief of staff. Like the others, he was gone.

The disappearance of the professional people worried Morales more than it apparently worried his Ministry superiors. When he reported the mystery, he was simply told the Ministry was aware of the situation and ordered him not to pursue it. But Jorge Morales had been working for the Brazilian government far too long to simply obey such an order, without protecting himself. He feared a diplomatic incident would be dropped into his lap, and he refused to be scapegoated. If his own agency relegated the mystery to a low priority docket, he was sure something very unusual was bubbling in a stew of intrigue.

Morales had no intention of becoming an ingredient in that mixture, so he had sought an alternative. He personally informed the U.S. consulate, since Rohrbach was a naturalized American citizen. He decided to put it the hands of the Yanquis and let them deal with his superiors. He had not expected two representatives of the U.S. State Department to arrive within 24 hours of filing the report with the embassy, and he had certainly not expected them to be Crockett and Tall Bull.

“Well?” Morales asked. “What do you think? Have you ever heard of anything like this before?”

Quietly, flatly, Crockett answered, “As a matter of fact, yes. In 1930, a settlement of over a thousand Eskimos vanished without a trace. There were no signs of violence, and no bodies, living or dead, were ever found. Even the graves had been opened, and the remains taken. A search that covered the whole of Canada turned up nothing.”

“Oh.” Morales pursed his lips. “Should we seek out the graveyard, then?”

“Not yet.”

Crockett rose to his full six-foot-four height and swept the village once more with his gaze. Behind the outermost edge of the village, on the far side of the perimeter, lay a tangled strip of undergrowth. It sloped upward, then downward to the banks of the Madeira River, a tributary of the Amazon. The banks were thickly treed. Utter silence hung over the riverfront, not even broken by the croaking of frogs.

The two Americans began walking swiftly toward the research station. Morales tried to keep up with them, the empty beer bottle swinging from his hand like a bell. Crockett and Tall Bull reached the research station and crept up the sagging steps, crossed the verandah, and entered the main room of the building.

From a pocket of his jacket, Crockett fished out a pencil flash. By its narrow rod of light, the three men saw that all chairs had been overturned, the tables broken, bottles and vials of medicine shattered on the floor. The small short-wave transceiver in the far corner had been blasted into a twisted mass of metal, plastic, and glass. The examination room, which occupied over half of the station, was even worse. Tables, chairs, beds, cabinets, and shelves had been smashed with fury.

“Madre de Dios,” Morales breathed in shocked voice. “It wasn’t like this last week, I swear. Who did this?”

“More than likely soldiers,” Crockett answered. “That would explain the tracks we found.”

Tall Bull bent over and picked up a small brass object. Revolving it between thumb and forefinger, he showed it to Morales. “And explain this, too.”

Morales squinted. “What is it?”

“A cartridge case from an assault rifle, a 7.62 millimeter. Standard military issue.”

“I don’t understand,” stammered Morales. “Why would soldiers do this?”

“Part of the cover story — creating another unsolved mystery,” Crockett said absently. “No answers, just questions, something governments and the media hate. Inside of two weeks, the disappearance of all these people will be filed and forgotten.”

Morales opened his mouth then shut it again. On the floor near an overturned desk were scattered a number of four-color brochures and a couple of oversized paperbound books. Each one bore similar images — the face of a beautiful, stylishly dressed woman with long dark hair and a heartachingly lovely smile. Despite the different shots of the woman’s face, her image was always superimposed over a curious symbol — a thick-walled red pyramid superimposed by a golden lightning bolt.

The brochures were printed in French, English, German, and Spanish. Morales picked up one in the Spanish language. “ ‘The Priory of the Incunabula’,” he read aloud, stumbling over the pronunciation. “ ‘Open your soul to the liberating love of Morgana St. Clair.’ ”

He arranged his face in a leer. “I wouldn’t mind opening more than my soul to her.”

Crockett cast him a cold, slit-eyed stare. “Believe me, Lieutenant — you would.” He didn’t smile when he said it.

Crockett swept the narrow beam of the small flashlight over the debris-littered floor, traversing it an inch at a time. Quietly, he stated, “Somebody went to a lot of time, trouble, and expense to cover their tracks.”

“Cover the tracks of what?” Morales demanded.

Crockett didn’t answer for a long, tense moment. He shone the flashlight on a wedge of shadow in a far corner. Morales suspected the big American was deliberately ignoring him, and a profane remark leaped to his lips. Then Crockett said in a whisper, “That, I imagine.”

Morales followed the beam of the flashlight, his eyes narrowing as he tried to penetrate the smear of darkness on the opposite side of the examination room. A shape shifted within it, and when it did, he felt a pressure in his lungs and a sudden loosening of his bowels.

A pair of red, slit-pupiled eyes glared out of the murk, hell eyes staring into his own. Morales heard a faint rasping sound. Distantly, he realized the short hairs on the nape of his neck had lifted, scraping against the collar of his uniform.

A clicking as of claws clattering against wood and a rustle like a leather coat being shaken out filled the room. He caught only a fragmented glimpse of a figure skittering across the floor, half running and half hopping with a blurring speed. A pair of thickly thewed hind legs propelled it in quick, rapid motions as the creature scuttled out of the light. For an instant, the flashlight haloed an oval head, which seemed to be all eyes, brow, and a wetly hissing open mouth. The beam gleamed briefly on needle-pointed teeth. Two disproportionately small arms ended in three-fingered hands tipped with curving talons. Leathery membranes stretched out beneath the creature’s arms, as if it were a nightmarishly distorted flying squirrel.

Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the creature was gone, as though the gloom had reached out and swallowed it. Somewhere in the murk, Morales heard the bang of a door slamming shut.

All the moisture dried in his mouth. He fought against the mad impulse to turn and race back the way he had come, like a panicked deer.

He accepted the fact that he was terrified. His instincts had kicked in before his brain — the trapped animal buried within the human psyche cringing away before his reasoning centers grasped what his eyes saw and his mind processed.

Limbs shaking, voice hitting a shrill note of panic, Morales demanded, “What was that? What in the name of God was it?”

Neither Crockett nor Tall Bull had moved. Calmly, Crockett replied, “The culmination of about thirty years worth of genetic tinkering. On paper, it’s known as Transgenomic Level Five.”

Tall Bull turned his head toward Morales and intoned, “You probably know it best as El chupacabra.”

 

Chapter Two

“El chupacabra!” Morales exploded in disbelief. “The goat sucker?”

Placing the pencil flash between his teeth, Crockett went to his hands and knees. Around the handle, he mumbled, “Yeah, but the name is a misnomer. They’ll suck just about anything they can get their tongues into — dogs, cats, cows, even people.”

“They picked on domesticated goats at first,” Tall Bull offered helpfully. “Since most of them were tied up, it was an easier kill. The chupacabras are really piss-poor predators.”

Without even looking at him, Crockett knew Morales was staring in astounded incredulity at Tall Bull. He didn’t blame him. He crawled around, covering the examination room floor inch by inch visually and by feel. He saw another cartridge case in the litter of debris. Whoever had razed the station had been fairly efficient in policing the zone, but they had neglected to collect a few of their calling cards. This had been a military operation from start to finish, with a heavy emphasis on anonymity. It was an emphasis Crockett knew from the past.

Clearing his throat, Morales asked, “You are joking, having fun with me, no? That really wasn’t the goat sucker. It was a monkey or something, no?”

“No,” Crockett answered. “It wasn’t. And it wasn’t the goat sucker, but a goat sucker. There are more around.”

Lieutenant Morales swallowed hard and noisily, and his hand went reflexively to his holstered revolver. “They’re just made up monsters. Any animals that end up dead get blamed on the chupacabras.”

He waited for some response from either Tall Bull or Crockett, and when one wasn’t forthcoming, he said stolidly, “Besides, I heard they were in Puerto Rico, in the El Yunque National Forest.”

Crockett paused on his hands and knees long enough to remove the flashlight from his mouth. “Levels One, Two, and Three were made there. Levels Four and Five were created here.”

Morales’s shoulders jerked as if he had been struck between them. “How do you know so much? What do you mean made?”

“The goat suckers are genetically engineered,” answered Crockett, “using chimeric gene combinations.”

“What?” Morales asked raggedly.

“DNA taken from one organism and transplanted into another. Shake well, let ferment, and see what surprise monster you’ve made.”

“What?” Morales demanded again. He turned to Tall Bull, a beseeching expression on his face.

“There’s a little more to it than that,” Tall Bull told him wryly.

When he reached the far corner, Crockett turned to retrace his steps then stopped. The narrow floorboards bent slightly, creaking, beneath his weight. He detected a faint difference of sound when he moved farther into the corner. Bending low, he lightly rapped on the smoothly sawn planks with his knuckles.

“What are you doing?” Morales asked anxiously.

Crockett didn’t reply. He cleared away the broken glass and shards of pottery from the corner. He saw only bare floorboards at first, then the light showed him a thread-thin outline of the trap door.

Running his fingers along the edges and tugging, he said, “It went through here and locked the door behind it.”

“Is it smart enough to do that?” Morales inquired haltingly.

“Apparently,” answered Tall Bull in a monotone.

Jamming the long steel blade of the combat knife into the tiny crack between the edge of the trap door and the floorboards, Crockett tried prying it open. It refused to budge, held fast by a catch on the underside. He put his back against the wall and launched a straight-leg kick at the knife’s handle. Metal snapped sharply as the catch broke, and a three-by-three square of flooring popped up. A faint, foul odor rose from the opening, carrying with it a charnel-house reek.

Morales murmured something and covered his nose and mouth with one hand, crossing himself with the other. Tall Bull moved closer, eyes registering worry. Crockett put a finger to his lips and gestured for him to stay put. He returned the knife to its belt sheath, unholstered the Glock, and carefully shone the light down into a dark shaft. The metal rungs of a ladder ran down one side of the shaft into the dimness. The walls were made of heavy, mortared concrete blocks. The shaft was a rectangle, six feet wide and fifteen feet deep.

Crockett tucked the automatic back into its holster, hand-signed for Tall Bull to follow him, eased over the edge, and began to climb down. Tall Bull waited until he had descended halfway before swinging his legs over and out.

At the bottom of the shaft, on the facing wall was a slab of steel set tightly in the concrete blocks, a wheel-lock jutting from the rivet-studded, cross-beamed mass. When Tall Bull dropped from the ladder, Crockett went to the door. He put his hands on the wheel-lock, giving it a counterclockwise twist. It didn’t budge. Taking and holding a deep breath, he threw all of his weight and upper body strength against the lock.

With a tortured screech of solenoids, the wheel turned. Slowly and resistantly at first, then Crockett was able to get a hand-over-hand spin going.

He threw his shoulder against the steel door, and there was the sticky, sucking sound of rubber seals separating. The door opened inward. The charnel-house odor crowded into the shaft like a tidal wave of stink. Tall Bull uttered a gagging noise, and Crockett fought down a rise of bile, forcing himself to breathe through his mouth.

When Morales reached the bottom of the ladder, he made a sound as if he were going to retch, but he got his nausea under control. He murmured, “Viento de muerte. The death wind.”

Crockett stepped forward, hand on the butt of his automatic. Tall Bull followed him, alert and watchful. Both men stopped and stared. A neon light tube flickered overhead with a dim yellow illumination.

“What is it?” Morales demanded in a strident whisper from behind them. “What’s in there?”

Crockett threw him an over-the-shoulder scowl, making a sharp gesture across his throat with a forefinger. Then he waved him forward. Stepping with almost exaggerated caution, Morales crossed the threshold.

They stood in a large, low-ceilinged room with a dozen desks, most of them covered with computer terminals and keyboards. On a couple of desks lay a few of the Priory of Incunabula brochures. A control console ran the length of the right-hand wall, consisting primarily of plastic-encased readouts and gauges. The left wall was composed of panes of glass, beaded with condensation. Crockett’s eyes took in at a glance the heavy tables loaded down with a complicated network of glass tubes, beakers, and retorts.

On a long, black-topped lab table were glass cases and fluid-filled jars. Floating inside them were human internal organs — livers, hearts, loops of intestines. Morales made a gagging sound and crossed himself. Tall Bull and Crockett saw an open door on the far side of the big room, and they stepped toward it. A corridor stretched into darkness. All the neon lights were broken out, the glass carpeting the floor like a patina of frost. Shining his flashlight ahead of him, Crockett took the point, walking heel to toe.

All the doors on either side of the passageway were open, and Crockett peered into each one. Nothing moved among the shapes of tables and medical equipment. One room held only Plexiglas confinement cages, big transparent squares perforated with holes for ventilation. All of them appeared to be empty, and several showed deep gouges.

One room was divided by a thick partition of glass. Crockett and Tall Bull stepped to it, peering through into a darkened niche. Beyond the glass was a transparent vat filled with a semi-liquid amber gel. A small figure, curled in a fetal position, floated within its gelid contents. The misshapen, inhumanly large cranium was a pinkish-gray in color, spotted here and there with wispy strands of hair. The nose was merely a pair of tiny nares. Its up-slanting eyes were dull and fathomless. The limbs were disproportionate, far too long for the torso.

Morales moved to his side, stared, and whirled away, covering his mouth with one hand as he gasped out a “Hail Mary.” Crockett realized they were looking at a corpse, but the sight still made him feel physically ill, his belly turning cold flip-flops, mouth filling with sour saliva. He forced himself to keep staring at the monstrosity, hoping comprehension would soon replace his horror.

“What is this place?” Morales husked out. His voice was pitched low to disguise the terror-stricken quaver in it.

“A genetics lab. Biological experiments — the principal of which is the creation of a hybrid species.” Crockett’s tone was clipped, matter of fact.

“Hybrid species?” Morales repeated faintly. “Hybrid of what?”

“That,” said Crockett, a steel edge entering his voice, “is what we’re here to find out.”

Swallowing down the bile rising in his throat, Crockett forced himself out of the room and back into the corridor. The next door was closed, and he carefully turned the knob. It turned without resistance, and he pushed the door open, shining the light ahead of him. It took his brain a shocked moment to identify what his eyes were seeing. When it did, he instinctively recoiled, his hand making a grab for his holster. The three people stared blankly, bleakly into a large room on the other side of the door.

Judging by the long tables, chairs, two upright refrigerators, coffee makers, and a large microwave oven, the room was a dining hall. Whoever had eaten there last hadn’t bothered to clean up after themselves.

Bodies lay everywhere, strewed over the floor and draped over the tables in a bizarrely ordered formation. Naked men, women, and children, over twenty of them, lay on their backs. They had been eviscerated, and the uniform waxy pallor of their flesh showed they were drained of all blood. Thoraxes were peeled open, the skin covering the chest and abdominal cavities slit and double-flapped aside. Neither Crockett nor Tall Bull needed to examine the cadavers to know the soft organs had been removed.

The charnel-house stench of decomposing flesh was horrendous, like an intangible hook reaching down the throat to yank up the contents of their stomachs. Morales put a hand over his mouth and tried to bite back the groan of horror working its way past his lips. His shoulders shook in racking shudders, and he hugged himself, muttering a fervent prayer in Spanish.

Crockett said nothing, but nausea leaped and rolled in his belly, and bile slid up his throat in an acidy column. He tried not to breathe through his nose. He swung away, pulling the door shut. He met Tall Bull’s grim gaze and nodded. Only one room remained in the corridor, and Crockett went to the door. It was partially ajar, but blocked by the body of a man.

His blue eyes were glazed and wide open. His bush clothing was black with sweat and caked blood. He was an elderly man with thin, white hair topping an equally thin face. His eyes were surrounded by dark rings of suffering, sunk deep back in their sockets. His face was encrusted with dirt. The left leg of his trousers was ripped vertically up to his hip.

Morales craned his neck over Crockett’s shoulder and said in a faint, quavering voice, “That’s Dr. Rohrbach. Poor man.”

Crockett kneeled down, swiftly examining the man’s body. His exposed left leg was covered in dark-purple patches that shone with little poisonous beads of moisture. He found three puncture wounds on the inside of the corpse’s thigh, right at the femoral artery. They were tiny — pinhole perfect. He saw no evidence of tearing in the flesh. A length of rubber hose was knotted tightly around his leg above the wounds.

Crockett could smell the odor of putrefaction. The man had tied on the tourniquet to stop the bleeding but had evidently neglected to loosen it. He doubted gangrene had killed him. He stood up and closed the door tightly.

To Tall Bull he said, “Pretty obvious what happened here.”

Tall Bull grunted. “At least we got here while there were some pieces to pick up. Won’t last long though, so we’d better move fast.”

Another shudder shook Morales. “You expected this, didn’t you?” His voice was thick, but the note of accusation was very clear. “You bastards, you knew all about this. That’s why you came so fast. You’re both part of this.”

He made a fumbling grab for his holstered revolver. Crockett’s left arm snapped up from the elbow, the back of his fist catching Morales on the point of his chin. The man stumbled and would have fallen if Tall Bull hadn’t grabbed him and secured his right arm in a hammerlock.

Hands on Morales’s collar, Crockett lowered his head until his penetrating green eyes looked directly into the officer’s face. “We’re not a part of this, Lieutenant,” he said slowly and deliberately. “You called us, remember? Do you understand?”

The blow to the face had pushed Morales back from the brink of hysteria. He nodded, and Tall Bull carefully released him. Scowling, Morales reached up to disengage Crockett’s fingers from his uniform. “I understand, si. But you act like this is no surprise, like you expected to find this.”

From his leather carrying case, Crockett removed a compact video recorder. “I suspected we might find some of it. That’s the key word — suspected. I’m just glad we managed to get here before everything could be removed.”

“Who did you suspect?” Morales asked.

“The sainted Doctor Rohrbach for one.” Crockett brought the camera to eye-level and pressed the record button. “Among others.”

“Rohrbach?” shrilled Morales. “He is a healer, a man of science. The Tupani-Gurani adored him!”
“So did the S.S. Rohrbach is Dr. Wolfram Teudt, formerly of the Ahnenerbe Foundation. The Third Reich found his genetic theories very congenial.”

“You’re claiming he was a Nazi? He’s an American!”

Crockett marched back down the corridor to the room containing the corpses. Opening the door, he swept the lens of the camera over the cadavers inside. “Naturalized. He came across one of the rat-lines at the end of the war, part of Operation Paperclip. Looks like he found the perfect place to conduct his eugenics experiments in private — and maybe even with your government’s sanction.”

Morales dry-washed his face with his hands. “None of this makes sense!”

As Crockett stepped away from the room and moved back down the corridor, he replied, “It makes perfect sense, Lieutenant, according to the new paradigm.”

A great shuddery sob broke from Morales chest. “They butchered them all, didn’t they? The children — we’ve got to get to my superiors, bring them here, show them the evidence!”

“Long before we’re able to bring anybody back here,” Tall Bull said dolefully, “this site will have been cleaned out. A video tape isn’t the best evidence, but it’ll have to do.”

Hoarsely, Morales said, “You claimed soldiers were responsible for this. Where are they?”

As they turned a corner, Crockett replied, “They were here.”

He gestured to a scattering of brass shell casings on the floor then, tilting his head back, examined the upper walls and ceiling. He pointed to several small dark bullet holes in the tiles and the scars of ricochets on the metal cross-braces.

“Why were they shooting at the ceiling?” Morales demanded.

Tall Bull shushed him into silence. A faint scuttle and scutter came from above. The three men froze, not even breathing hard. A ceiling panel shifted, and a little shower of dust sifted down. None of the men moved. Then, with a mushy crack, the panel split in half. A dark shape plummeted down, falling directly onto Morales’s shoulders.

Screaming, whirling around like a dog trying to catch its tail, the man performed a dervish dance of pure panic. Crockett tossed Tall Bull the camera and lunged forward, closing his hands around the creature on the lieutenant’s back.

Spine-like quills penetrated the tough leather of his gloves, the razor sharp points lacerating the palms of his hands. It required all of his upper body strength to wrench the creature away. When it came loose, scraps of Morales’s shirt and bits of flesh were hooked in its claws.

Crockett flung it down the corridor. It landed on his hind legs with a scrabbling of talons. Crouching down, it uttered a prolonged hiss, like steam escaping from a faulty valve. Although the chupacabra wasn’t more than three feet tall, ropy muscles slid beneath the pallid flesh of its arms and legs. The head resembled an inverted teardrop in shape, terminating in a long pointed chin. Huge, back-slanting eyes as big in proportion to its face as those of a cat, gleamed with the color of fresh-spilled blood.

The nose consisted of a pair of slitted nares. The mouth gaped open, and behind double rows of pointed teeth stirred a long black tongue. It uncoiled like a serpent, extending at least six inches. Sprouting from the damp tip were three small curved spurs, either of bone or gristle. As the creature shuffle-footed forward, a series of sharp quills, like those of a porcupine, unfolded vertically along its spine.

Crockett’s pistol sprang from its holster, the bore spitting flame and thunder. Three rounds drove into the chupacabra’s head, pile-driving it backward in a flail of limbs, a flap of leathery membranes, and a misting of blood.

Morales had his own gun out, tracking wildly for a target. Eyes wide and wild, he panted, “The damn thing ran from us before.”

“I don’t think it was the same one,” Crockett bit out. “We can’t assume the others are as shy.”

Trying to get the tremor in his hand under control, Morales asked, “How many do you think there are?”

The door behind which Dr. Rohrbach lay suddenly swung inward. In the shadows beyond, they glimpsed a hint of stealthy movement. Pinpoints of red fire glowed, moving points of flame that seemed to dance and shift in weird rhythm. Faintly, they heard the soft pattering rustle of many feet and the castanet clicking of claws.

“If we decide to hang around,” said Crockett grimly, finger curling around the trigger of the Glock, “I guess you can do a headcount.”

 

Stakers and all characters appearing in this excerpt are © 2003 by Mark Ellis.

God Bless America© 2003 Timshel Literature