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Chapter 10

When I get back to Ned’s car he and Marisa have stopped playing, stopped attempting to play, hacky, and they are sitting on the other side of the road on a bench watching the construction on the elevator shaft atop the hill, with quizzical looks on their faces.“What’s the deal?” Ned asks, seeing me approach empty-handed. “Couldn’t get in?”“No, the books Scott sent me for have been burned, so there’s nothing for me to pick up.”Both of them raise their eyebrows at this and get up.“This is just getting too weird, too fast,” Marisa says, brushing herself off.

I nod my head and shrug. “So, you might as well take me home so I can be there when he calls to give him the bad news.”

We ride mostly in silence, although I can see that Marisa has pulled out a little notebook and begun to make some sort of list. Just before we get to my place she says “Ned said earlier that he’s been seeing some strange things around campus, and so have I. If you count the murder of Steve and the thing with Scott’s books, I’ve got a list here of fifteen things that I’ve noticed that seem different from normal for this time of the year.”

Ned, stopped at a light, looks back at her. “What have you got?”

She rattles off her list and Ned adds a couple of things to it that come to mind. I tell her about the owls and Lisa, the electrical engineering professor.

“Do either of you think that it just feels weird today being on campus? It just feels, I don’t know. It feels like things are too quiet.”

They both look at me, then each other. “Maybe,” Ned finally says, but he looks dubious.

I tell them about the opossums, but she doesn’t write it down. “Opossums are just like that,” she says.

Then she asks if there was anything strange about the books that got burned. “You know. I mean was there anything strange about the way they were burned or what kind of books they were?” she adds.

“I don’t know. They took one of the windows out to do it. But I don’t know how they burnt them. I guess I should have asked Nolan.”

“Nolan?”

“The painter who was there cleaning up and repainting. He’s an interesting guy. The books were rare, according to Scott. Nolan says they were pretty old, because they actually used squid ink, sepia.”

“He knew it by sight?”

“Yeah, I guess he’s a sort of wannabe artist. Or maybe a real one. I don’t know. He seemed to know his materials, anyway.”

She’s silent for another few seconds, then says “Ned . . .”

“Yeah, it’s okay with me,” he says.

“We weren’t going to tell anyone this until we managed to do it, but somehow this seems relevant. Ned and I have been attempting to synthesize sepia. It might be too hard to do. Chemically it is a lot more complicated than it looks. We ordered a bunch of the ink from a supply house in Boston to test it against. It has some really interesting properties.”

“Interesting because it makes strange designs?”

“Yeah, but it is more than that. Ned, did you tell him that some of the designs seem to repeat?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Repeat. So the ink makes the same designs over and over?”

“Or Steve did. We’re not sure which. I think there is something nano going on there. Ned says that he sees some fractal geometry in the designs. Anyway, we rigged up a machine to release the ink into sea water and it has been running for,” she checks her watch, “about six hours now. And it’s being filmed. If it repeats, or makes the same designs that Steve made, the computer should be able to tell us.”

She adds a couple of items to her list under the general heading “squid/ink” and by the time we reach my place she has got a list that covers two full pages and numbers forty-six items. But none of them seem to connect to anything or even each other very well.

“That pattern recognition stuff is getting pretty robust,” Ned adds.

So then we’ll know what, exactly?”

She looks again at Ned as he pulls up to the gate. “Three one five oh, right?” he asks. Even Ned knows the combination to this place. I nod, and he punches it in.

“We’ll know more about the state of our ignorance . . .” she finally says. They both smile. I get out of the car and we say our goodbyes.

“Let me know what Scott has to say about the books,” he adds.

“Actually,” I add. “We should meet later.”

They both look at me as if to say that they would be happy to, but that they would also like to know why.

“I think that it is possible that Scott knows some things that can tie a bunch of this business together.” I’m not going to spill the beans about that weirdness that Scott handed me over the phone. Not yet. I mean, ancient cults and “Old Ones?” The time just didn’t seem right yet.

Raised eyebrows again, but they seem willing to give me the benefit of the doubt for a little while longer.

“Your ride fixed?” Ned asks, leaning his head towards my car.

“Could be. If not I can borrow Molly’s.”

“We’re going to be at the lab. Just call first so I remember to answer the door. It has some wicked locks now.”

They take off and I’m left to wait at home for Scott to call. I’m hoping he can give me more than I will be able to give him.

I can’t seem to do anything productive around the house. I decide to drink some coffee, which even I recognize is not really a solution to the jitters I am beginning to feel.

I’m just a grant writer at a University, a guy who decided he didn’t want to become an academic because the work is too difficult. Well, there are other reasons, too. I’m not really afraid of hard work, I remind myself. It is probably the fact that I don’t really like to be the center of attention. Add that to the fact that about ten people graduate with a history degree for every tenure track position that opens up these days and a hatred of rejection and it was obviously not the direction for me.

I have no idea what I could possibly do about any of this and I begin to fear Scott’s call, because it seemed clear by the tone of his voice last time that something really needed to be done about all of this stuff. And what’s worse, whatever is going on seems to involve my family now. I just can’t sit by now. But I haven’t any idea what there is to do.

If I had my cell phone I could call the police again and see what they are doing about all of this, or if they even recognize that things are getting a little weird here in town. But then I start to think that aside from the death of a squid, which many people view as part of a balanced diet, and a very tiny book-burning party in the library, and vandalism against my car, there is little I could really say is wrong.

And I’ve had my car vandalized in lots of places. One time a friend’s car was vandalized right out in front of the house I grew up in, when we were in high school. It was a sleepy little western town, too.

But everything feels so wrong. And that feeling seems to get worse now—I finally decide to trust my feelings on this part—the closer I go to the center of town.

The phone finally rings after about an hour of this tail-chasing.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Neal. This is Scott. How are things?”

I tell him about my car being vandalized as sort of an appetizer, warming him up a little before I get to the subject of his call. “Scott,” I finally say, “somebody broke into your little rare books room last night and burned three volumes, the three that you asked me to get for you. So I don’t really have any way to help, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay, and from what I’ve herd from Quillan over the last day it’s really to be expected.”

“Really.”

“Yeah, he says that he’s relatively certain that one of these Old Ones is in town right now.”

“Okay. So what can be done about this? Is there somebody we can call?”

“Quillan spent the last few decades there studying this stuff and hoping that the weird things that periodically happened around town were just some sort of leftover residue from when the Old Ones occupied that place. He says that since things are getting weirder it means that most likely one of them has been awakened and is being housed somewhere around campus.”

“Apparently very few members of the Anthropology Department have shown themselves lately. Any chance they brought this thing into their building somewhere, or something like that?”

“Well, they are pretty big when they have enough to eat, but they shrink and get a little, well, desiccated, according to accounts, when they have been dormant as long as this one has. So it probably is not much bigger than a man, and probably a little lighter, something they could easily hide in the Anthro building. But there is really little that can be done, I think, in terms of enlisting the help of the “authorities.”

“Why?”

“Come on, Neal, you’re a smart guy. If you tell any of this story to, say the police, what are you going to get?”

“Disbelief.”

“Maybe. But let’s say they do believe you, or they believe you enough to investigate. Have you noticed how things feel different on campus than they did, say, last week at this time?”

“Yeah, I think so. It’s just a little more oppressive feeling. I get anxious. It’s different, but hard to describe.”

“Well Quillan says that as you get close to an Old One this gets a lot worse. But it’s not the only thing that happens. When they are weak they can only affect animals and people who are sleeping. But as they rejuvenate themselves they can start making people do what they want when they get close. So if you bring the police and they see this thing and get close to it, you’ll find that they become its allies.”

“So this is like the ideal situation, then. There are only a handful of people who will believe you and Quillan about what is going on. Anybody else is likely under its control by now or is not likely to believe us until it is too late?”

“Sounds about how we figured it.”

“I’m not really the hero type, Scott.”

“Who is? Anybody you know well enough to try to convince?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that many people here.”

“Ned will help, I’m sure.”

“Well, so that’s one we can count one. Maybe he knows some others.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“What do we have to do to this thing, then?”

“Well, they are really tough. Apparently, though, they can be killed. You just need some serious firepower. Probably a shotgun will do it, but it might be better if you had something that you could use from a distance.”

“Assuming we could get it in our sights before it is able to control our minds, or whatever. I’m not liking this a whole lot, Scott.”

“Believe me, I’m really glad I’m on the other side of the country right now. But I’ve booked the next flight out, just in case. And Quillan is thinking of joining me, although he hates the thought even more than I do. He knows what these things can do.”

“What about blowing the place up?”

“Could you be sure you didn’t take half the faculty with it?”

“No, I guess not. Look, what’s the long-run scenario? I’m not really for appeasement, but what’s the real danger beyond what we are already seeing? Does this thing keep getting stronger or something?”

“I don’t think so. The only time they were ever encountered before they stayed put and just got a little stronger. Then they were destroyed by their enemies. And that sounds nice, but apparently all of the mental effort this thing is putting forth can eventually attract its enemies, which you really don’t want to meet. Make these things look like good neighbors.”

“So that’s one down-side.”

“Yeah but there’s a worse one to consider. Apparently these things built their own little helpers, called Shoggoths. These were quasi-biological lumps that took on whatever shape was needed to do the job, whether that was building cities, collecting food, digging tunnels, whatever.”

“So this thing could build one of these?”

“Well, the records Quillan has seen seem to say that they lost the ability to create these things. But he believes that one of these is also buried somewhere deep below the town, in the same sort of protective shell that the Old One was found in.”

“So?”

“And if it somehow is dug out, this thing can multiply and that would be that.”

“Meaning?”

“Quillan seems to thing that would be the end of civilization, at least unless or until they nuked New England.”

“Well I’ve got good news, then. They have stopped the excavation for the elevator.”

“Maybe that gives us some time.”

“I hope so. No, wait a minute. How big a hole would need to be made in its little housing or shell or whatever, for this thing to get out?”

“They are really flexible, Quillan says. They can fit into anything, assume pretty much any shape. It wouldn’t take much. Quillan served on the city planning board too, not just the University. He as terrified somebody was going to sink a well into one of these things. It’s why the City hasn’t developed far from the river, he always found a reason to keep them from sinking a well.”

“This just isn’t my day. Scott, they replaced the excavation with what looks to be some sort of oil-well drilling equipment. The guy who was repainting your rare books room says they brought a crew up from Texas with the rig.”

Continued

“No offense intended, Neal, but I think this thing just got a little more complicated.”“I’m moving back to Idaho. I’ve had it.” There’s silence on the other end of the phone. I am frustrated, but I get the impression that Scott is even more so. At least I’m here and can, theoretically, do something about the whole mess.

“What do we do against this Shoggoth?”

“You have to keep it from getting out. You have to stop the drilling.”

“How am I going to do that when everybody who gets close to campus gets under this thing’s influence? Cripes, Scott, the Chancellor just spent a couple of weeks reorganizing the budget around completing the excavation for the elevator. They altered the state budget. My boss pulled money out of a slush fund just to get rid of a meddling history professor. Hell, Scott, there’s Federal money involved. If we try to stop this thing they’ll lock us up and throw away the key. Not to mention the minor fact that I’ll lose my job, my wife will lose hers, and anyone else involved will lose theirs. You know how hard it is for people with degrees in the humanities to find anything tenure-track.

“Look, I’m going to go back and get Quillan to come into town. We’ll call you back in, say, two hours. Hopefully he can get together some notes to help us answer anymore questions that you might have by then. Right now I don’t have any ideas other than what I gave you already. You should in the mean time gear up to get rid of the Old One. The longer he’s there the more influence he has. Maybe if you off him some way will open up to stop the project. Best I can do until later.”

I hear papers shuffling in the background. “Wait, what about this Nolan guy? Would you trust him to help?”

“I’d trust him, but I don’t know if he’d believe us about this stuff.”

“But he was talking to you in the Library as if nothing was wrong with him?”

“Yeah.”

“Well haven’t all of the construction guys been moved to temporary quarters near Engineering?”

“Again, yeah. Where are you going with this?”

“Neal, those quarters are almost as close to Anthro. If this guy seemed like he was relatively normal, maybe he’s not as susceptible to the Old One’s influence.”

“Or he could be completely a spy for the Old One or something like that.”

“Did he seem like that to you?”

“No. He seemed the same as he was last time I saw him. And that was off-campus. I’ll give him a call.”

“Great. I’ve got one more thing. You mentioned Nolan when you were talking about the books that had been burned.” He flips through papers again. “Oh, yeah. Steve. Steve was killed. You think that was connected to any of this?”

“I don’t know, Scott. Marisa is making a list of odd things that have been happening on or near campus in the last two weeks . . .”

“Marisa?”

“Friend of Ned’s, a new one. She and he have some similar research interests, apparently. Anyway, we could share the list with you later. I don’t know which things are connected and which are just weird.”

“But what’s you gut say?”

“Well, my gut is just churning quietly. But Marisa and Ned are working pretty feverishly on synthesizing sepia. They started the project just after Steve was killed. I don’t think either of them could tell you why exactly they are doing it, but they seem to think that there is something special and important about it.”

“Okay, I’ll mention it to Quillan when I see him.”

I feel my chest getting tight. I realize that I’m in this pretty deep now. No real way to pull out, and I don’t know what I’m going to tell Molly about where I’m going tonight.

“Scott, get in touch with us through Ned’s cell phone. I might not have mine.”

“You got it. Look, Neal, I’m sure that this is going to be really doable. Once the Old One has been taken out, things will go right back to normal. It will all look a little weird, but I promise, between Quillan’s influence on people on campus and in town, we should be able to see to it that nobody is permanently harmed by all this.”

“I wasn’t even thinking of the aftermath. Thanks for reminding me. I guess I just hope at this point that there is an aftermath. I’ve got a kid to think about.”

“That’s right. Jeez. We’re pulling for you guys. I’ll talk to you soon.”

We hang up and I stand there at the sink just staring into space for about twenty minutes. Then I remember that I have to call Nolan.

“Noly here,” he says.

“Nolan, this is Neal, Neal Slater?”

“Yeah, Hi Neal,” he says and I realize that he sounds as if he’s already had a few, and it’s only three forty-five. “What’s up?”

“Well, Nolan. I’ve got a strange sort of story for you, something you may find it a little hard to believe.”

“Oh, yeah, I’ve got one for you, too.”

“Really,” I say, a little taken aback. But then, this guy seems like he’d have some strange stories on tap. “Well, you go first, then.”

“You remember those guys with the big drill on the hill?”

“Yeah, you said they were oil well drillers from Texas.”

“Them’s the ones. Well I went up to see what they were doing after I finished painting, and those boys were the biggest bunch of dicks I ever met.”

“Really.”

“Really. One of ‘em grabbed a pipe and lit out after me. Like to beat me to death with it. He tripped over something coming down the steps. Woulda got me if he hadn’t.”

“Jesus.”

“Didn’t look nothing like Jesus either. He was screaming something at me, but I couldn’t understand a word he said.”

“Nolan, have you noticed any other weird things happening on campus in the last couple of weeks?”

“Stranger than normal, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Every night for a while a bunch of maintenance guys would get up and walk around after maybe one o’clock in the morning. A couple of times I saw them and asked them where they were going, because I was hoping they knew about a party or something. But they wouldn’t say anything. It was almost like they were sleepwalking.”

“For a while. You mean they don’t do it anymore?”

“A bunch of them have been gone since about Wednesday. So I don’t know if they are doing it or not. The rest of them seem to stay asleep now. They seem pretty tired.”

“That’s all pretty bizarre, but I think my stuff is going to be a bit stranger than that, Nolan.” I find myself struggling with where exactly to start what is fast becoming pretty convoluted tale. “You know that guy who kept the rare book room?”

“Quillan?”

“No, Scott Peterson, the guy who takes care of it now.”

“I don’t know Scott, but I’ve seen him around, I think.”

“Well he’s with Quillan in Kellogg Idaho right now. They both have this strange theory about all this stuff that’s going on on campus.”

“Well that Quillan guy is all right. I used to talk to him sometimes. He was on top of things. Knew lots of crazy stories, too.”

“Okay. Well he thinks that the excavation has unearthed some sort of creature that can control the thoughts of animals and even people.” I get silence on the other end of the line. “He calls this thing an Old One. And he says that this thing is behind all the stuff going on.” More silence.

“So what do we do about this thing?”

“Quillan says we need to kill it, that we need to shoot it, from a distance if possible, with a relatively powerful rifle or something.”

“Oh, I’m in.”

“You are?”

“Oh, yeah. This crap’s gotta stop. People wandering around all night running errands for some creature that ain’t even human. That’s just wrong. Burning books. Crap.”

“Well, those are good reasons, I guess. They’re certainly good enough for me. Nolan, you wouldn’t by any chance have anything like that. I mean a hunting rifle or assault weapon or something?”

“I’ve got something that might just fit that bill, matter of fact,” he says. “I think I’ve got just the thing.”

I don’t even want to know at this point, actually, so I just take him at his word. “Great. Um, a bunch of us, well, three of us, are meeting later on to put together a plan. Where’s a good place to meet?”

“Paige’s, on Central.”

“Paige’s, on Central.” I write it down, because I don’t remember it or have any idea where it is. Central’s a short street, though. “Meet you there around 6:00?”

“You got it. Want me to bring anyone else?”

“That would be great, Nolan. Um, is there someone you think will believe all this stuff, and would want to help?”

“I know a guy who is pretty credulous, I guess. I think he’d help out if he thought it was for a good cause, and if I told him to.”

“Well, I’ll leave that up to you, Nolan. We’ll see you at Paige’s, then. At six. Thanks.”

Just as I hang up the phone I hear Molly in the hallway, fumbling with her keys.

Take me to Chapter XI

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