A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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Chapter EightFor the first eight hours at my new job, while the ancient tanker plowed at fifty knots sixty-five feet beneath the surface of the Mediterranean, I labored with Joel at routine drudgery that could have been performed with greater efficiency and less cost by a medium-priced computer.I spent a bad hour when we surfaced to pass through the Gibraltar locks; a boat came alongside and I heard the clank of feet on the deck above, caught scraps of voices asking questions, and the Captain blandly denying any knowledge of stowaways. I was waiting just inside the deckhouse door as he invited his official visitors to search the ship. They declined, with curses. I heard them reboard their launch; then the sound of its engines growled away across the water. I leaned against the wall, feeling hot and dizzy. My arm throbbed like a giant toothache.Joel had been waiting with me. "Hey, Jones," he said. "How come we're hanging around here? You going out on deck?"I let a long breath out; it was a bad habit I was forming—forgetting to breathe for minutes at a stretch. I straightened with an effort, feeling the deck move under me. "Sure," I said. "Let's go take a look at the Rock."The cold predawn air cleared my head. I leaned on the rail beside Joel, watching the towering barrier walls slip down into the churning water as the lock filled; then the tanker edged ahead, the mighty gates slid in behind us, churning water aside, and met with a dull boom.Again we rode the flood, gained another hundred feet. Forty-five minutes and five locks later, we slid out into the choppy, blue-black waters of the South Atlantic, five hundred feet above the level of the Mediterranean. Dawn was coloring the sky. Lights gleamed wanly from the fortress of Gibraltar, and from the flat, white city on the African side.A raucous buzzer sounded across the deck. At once, the foaming water surged higher along the hull."Hey, we better get below before we get dunked," Joel said. We stepped back into the stale interior; a moment later we heard the crash of the waters closing over us above; then the silence of the deep sea settled in again."Well," Joel said cheerfully. "I guess we got to get back to work, Jones."* * *During the next forty-eight hours, Joel and I found time for several four-hour sleeps and a couple of short naps, between bellowed orders from Carboni or the unseen Captain. At odd intervals, we went to the crew mess, demanded and got plates of oily cold-storage eggs and too-salty bacon.Now, having just completed a laborious two-hour visual inspection of reset switches, I again sat at the long table, listening to the feverish humming in my head, picking at a mixture of mummified beef and canned milk and taking medicinal sips from a clay mug of North African brandy. Across the table, the bearded elder known as Doc worked conscientiously to finish the bottle.Joel had put his head on the table and gone off to sleep. At the far end of the room, Pogey, the horse-faced man, was monotonously and with much profanity calling off items from an inventory list, while a short, chinless sailor with a wool cap and warts ticked them off on a clipboard.What the rest of the nine-man crew did aboard the vessel, I hadn't yet learned. Four of them had just left the room, staggering drunk."Three more trips, Jones," Doc said. "Thirty-one years on the line—nine on Excalibur; I'll miss the old tub." He looked around the room with sad, red-veined eyes. "No, I'm a liar," he corrected. "I hate this damned scow." He looked at me as though I had praised it. "I've hated every minute of those thirty-one years. Hated medical school before that. You ever been in a cadaver lab?""Sure have," I said, forcing myself to follow the conversation. "There was a fellow I hadn't seen for years. Opened up the tin box, and there he was." I sipped the brandy, feeling it burn its way down. Doc worked his lips, blinked, took a pull at his drink."I knew a fellow," he said, "sold his body to a medical school. Got five hundred cees for it, which he badly needed at the time. Later on, he got in the chips, and thought better of the bargain. Wanted to buy it back. Well, seems like the title had changed hands a couple of times. He traced it from New Haven to Georgia, and on down to Miami. Finally caught up with it." He took a healthy draught from his cup, exhaled noisily. "Too late, though. End of the year, you know. Nothing left but a few ribs, the left arm, and the bottom half of the cranium." He sighed. "A sad case."His image was wavering, obscured by whirling points of light; I blinked them away, raised my glass to him. "Doc, you're one of the finest liars I ever met."He blushed, looking modest. "Shucks, seems like things just naturally happen to me. Why, I remember the time . . ." At the far end of the table, Pogey tossed his list aside, yawned, scratched at an unshaven jaw."Get some coffee over here, Runt," he ordered. The warty sailor bustled, operating the coffee maker. He filled a two-quart pot, rattled thick cups and sheet-metal spoons. He placed the pot in front of the horse-faced man."Watch out, Mr. Dobbin. She's plenty hot." He went back to his list, muttering to himself.Pogey grunted. He glanced at Joel, snoring across the table from him. He licked a finger, touched it to the polished metal; it hissed. An expression twitched at the corners of his mouth. He took the pot gingerly by the massive insulated handle, stood."Hey, dummy!" he said sharply.Joel stirred."Wake up, dummy!"Joel sat up, knuckling his eyes. He saw Pogey and smiled."Gee, I guess I—""Here!" Pogey thrust the pot at him. Joel reached out, took the rounded container in his two huge hands. His jaw dropped. His eyes widened. Pogey stepped back, his mouth arched in a grin like something carved at the top of Notre Dame.I was a little slow, but I reached Joel then, knocked the steaming pot from his hands; it smashed against the wall behind Pogey, spewed steam and liquid in a wide sheet that caught the horse-faced man all across the back.He howled, writhed away from the table, clutching at his shoulder. He screamed again, tore at his jacket. Doc came to his feet, grabbing at the bottle as it tottered, almost fell. The horse-faced man clawed his shirt open, ripped it from his shoulders. A vast red blister swelled visibly from his patchy hairline

almost to the soiled edge of the underwear showing above his belt. His eye fell on Doc."Do something, damn your guts!" he shrilled. "Oh, Jesus . . ."Doc started around the table. I caught his arm. "To hell with that sadist," I said. "Take a look at Joel's hands."Joel still stood, staring at his hands. A tear formed, rolled down his cheek."I'll kill him!" Pogey screeched. He plunged across the room, knocked the sailor aside, caught up a steak knife, and whirled on Joel. I pushed in front of him. The odors of sweat and alcohol came from him in waves. I caught his wrist, remembering not to pulp the bone."Joel," I said, my eyes holding on Pogey's. "If this man ever hurts you again, put your thumbs into his throat until he stops moving, understand?"I twitched the knife from Pogey's hand, shoved him away. His face was as white as the dead face of the thing I had killed in the ravine. The recollection must have shown in my expression.Pogey whimpered, backed, turned to the sailor who was standing wide-eyed, all warts and Adam's apple, looking from one of us to another like a spectator at a ping-pong tournament."Get me to my room," Pogey gasped. His knees went slack as the sailor caught him. Behind me, Joel moaned."Let's get this boy down to my sick-bay," Doc was saying. "Second-degree, maybe worse. Calluses helped . . ."As I turned, his eyes found mine. "You better let me take a look at you, too," he said. "You're hotter'n a power pile, Jones.""Never mind that," I snapped. "Just see to Joel."Doc eyed the cut on my face. "You should have had a couple of stitches.""All I need is to get to Jax and get clear of this scow," I said. "Let's get moving."Doc shrugged. "Suit yourself." He went out, leading Joel. I followed.* * *An hour later, in the cramped, paper-heaped room the Mate called his office, I stood before the ancient plastic-topped desk, waiting for him to finish his tirade. Two sailors lounged against the wall, watching. Joel stood beside me, his bandage-swathed hands looking bigger than ever. Carboni's good eye looked up at him from under his ragged eyebrows."I had enough of your numbskull tricks," he growled. "When we hit Jax, you're finished.""Gosh, Carboni," Joel started."Beat it," the Mate said. "I got work to do." He switched his glance to me. "You stick around, I got things to say to you."I put a hand on the desk to keep it from spinning."How's Pogey feeling?" My voice seemed to belong to someone else.Carboni's meaty face darkened."We'll see about you when we hit Jax, punk. I got plans for you.""Don't bother," I said. "I intend to resign my position anyway.""I'm a patient guy." Carboni got to his feet, walked around the desk. "But I got a bellyfull—" He pivoted suddenly, threw a punch that slammed against my stomach. He jumped back with a bellow, his face draining to a dirty white. One of the sailors brought a hand into view behind him, pointed a massive, old-model blued-steel Browning needle-gun at my belt buckle.We waited, not moving, while Carboni cursed, gripping his fist and grinding his plates."Walk him to the brig, Slocum!" he roared. "And watch him! There's something funny about this guy!"The gun-handler jabbed the weapon at me. "Get moving, you."* * *The brig was a bare-walled cell illuminated by a single overhead glare panel and outfitted with a stainless-steel water closet with stains, and a hinged plastic shelf two feet wide padded with a moldy smelling mattress half an inch thick.I sat on the floor, leaned against the wall; the feel of the cool metal was soothing to my hot face. The beat of my pulse was like a brass gong behind my temples. My left forearm ached to the shoulder with a deep-seated pain that made every movement an ordeal. I turned the sleeve back; under the crude dressing, the wounds were inflamed, evil-looking.I got out a tube of ointment Doc had given me, applied it to the ragged cuts, smeared more on the slash across my face, managed to reach the higher of the wounds on my left shoulder before the supply ran out.A panel covering a peephole in the door clanged open. A pale, fat man with a crumpled white-billed cap peered in at me through the foot-square grille. He muttered and turned away. I keened my hearing, following him:" . . . dock at Jacksonville . . . nine hours . . ." " . . . in touch with 'em . . ." Carboni's voice said, fading now as they moved away. " . . . in irons . . . on the pier . . ." " . . . don't like it . . . ask questions . . ." I sat up, fighting against a throbbing fever-daze in which the events of the past weeks mingled with fragments of nightmare. Jacksonville in nine hours, the Captain had said. It was time to start planning.I got to my feet, swaying like a palm-tree in a high wind. I went to the door, ignoring violent pains in my skull. I pushed against the door, gauging its strength. It was solid, massively hinged, and with a locking bar engaged at both ends, impossible to force, even if I hadn't been weakened by fever.I went back, wavered as I walked, and half-fell to the floor. A wave of nausea rolled over me, and left me shivering violently.I would have to wait . . . I forced my thoughts to hold to the subject. Wait until they came to open the cell door. There would be a band, dressed all in red, and General Julius would be leading it . . .  I fought the fantasy away. Delirium waited like a mire beside the narrow path of reason. Nothing to do with Julius. Julius was dead. I had strangled him, while he bit at me. The dog-things had chased me, and now I was on the beach. It was cold, cold . . . I shivered violently, huddling against the steel cliff . . . * * *Time passed, Joel was calling my name. He needed help, but I was trapped here. There was a way up the cliff: I could fly. I had the suit, and now I was fitting the helmet in place, and through it, Joel stared with agony-filled eyes—There were hands on me, voices near. A sharp pain stabbed in my arm. I pulled away, fighting a weight that crushed me."Please, Jones . . . don't hit the Doc . . ."I got my eyes open. Joel's face loomed above me. Blood ran from his nose. Doc's frightened face stared. I fell back, feeling my heart pound like a shoeing hammer."Can you hold him, boy?" Doc's voice was anxious."S'all righ'," I managed. "Awake now . . .""You been awful sick, Jones," Joel said. He raised his bandaged hand, dabbed at his nose, smeared blood across his cheek. Doc moved closer, working over me. I felt his hands on my arm. He grunted."My God, Jones, what did this?""Dog-bite." My voice was a hoarse whisper."Another few hours . . . no attention . . . burial at sea . . ." his voice came and went. I fought to hold onto consciousness." . . . can't get a hypospray to penetrate," he was saying. "Damnedest thing I ever saw. Can you swallow this?"I sat up, gulped something icy cold. Doc's eyes bored into mine."I've given you something to fight the infection," he said. "It ought to bring the fever down, too. That arm's bad, Jones. It may have to come off."I laughed—a crazy, high-pitched giggle that rolled on and on.Doc's face was closer now. "I never saw anything like this before," he said. "I ought to report it to the Skipper—"I stopped laughing; my hand went out, caught at his coat-front."I heard some of what you said when you were raving," Doc went on. "I don't claim to understand—but I know you for a decent man. I don't know what to think. But I wouldn't throw a sick dog to Carboni. I won't tell 'em.""S'all right," I croaked. "Go' job do . . . go' ge' well. Fix me up, Doc . . .""I've got to work on the arm now. Try to relax."I lay back and let the dream take me.* * *I awoke feeling weak, sick, beaten, thrown away. I stirred, heard cloth tear. I looked down; my left arm, as numb as something carved from marble, was strapped to my side. I felt the pull of tape at my neck, across my jaw. My mouth tasted as though mice had nested in it. I sat up. I was as weak as a diplomatic protest.I got to my feet, blinked away a light-shot blackness, went across to the door, and looked out through the bars. Joel lay in the corridor, asleep on a mat. I called his name.He sat up, rubbed his eyes, smiled."Hey, Jones!" He got to his feet, touched his swollen nose. "Boy, Jones, you sure pack a wallop. You feeling better now?""Lots better. How long was I out?"He looked down at me vaguely."How long before we reach Jacksonville?""Gosh, Jones, I dunno. Pretty soon, maybe."I tensed the muscles behind my ears, tuned through the sounds of the ship, picked up the mutter of voices; but they were indistinct, unreadable."Listen, Joel. You heard what Carboni said. There'll be police waiting for me when we dock. I have to get off the ship before then. How long before we surface?""Huh? Hey, how come the cops is after you, Jones?""Never mind that. Try to think, now: do we surface out at sea, before we get into the harbor?"Joel frowned. "Gosh, I don't know about that, Jones."I gripped the bars. "I've got to know what time it is—where we are.""Uh . . .""I want you to do something for me, Joel. Go to the crew mess. There's a clock there. Go check it, and come back and tell me what time it is."Joel nodded. "Okay, Jones. Sure. How come—""I'll tell you later. Hurry."I sat on the floor and waited. The deck seemed to surge under me. Either we were maneuvering, or I was getting ready to have another relapse.There was a distant booming, the sudden vibration of turbulence transmitted through the hull. The ship heaved, settled. I got to my feet, holding to the wall for support.There were sounds along the corridor: the clump of feet, raised voices. I keened my hearing again, picked up the whine of the main-drive turbines, the clatter of deploying deck gear, the creak of the hull—and another sound: the rhythmic growl of a small-boat engine, far away but coming closer.The minutes crawled by like stepped-on roaches. Joel appeared down the corridor, came up to the cell door. There was a worried look on his face. "The big hand was . . . le'ssee . . . Hey, Jones . . ." He looked at me like a lost kid. "I got a funny feeling—""Sure, Joel. I'm scared, too.""But I got this like tickle-feeling in my head."I nodded absently, listening for the sounds from above. The boat was close now; I heard its engines cut back, then it was bumping alongside. The sound of the ship's turbines had faded to a growl."Does a Customs boat usually come out to meet the ship in the harbor?" Joel was rubbing his head with one bandaged hand. He looked up at the low ceiling and whimpered."What is it, Joel?" Then I felt it: the eerie sense of unreality, the graying of the light in the dim corridor, the sense of doom. I grabbed the bars, strained at them. The metal gave, grudgingly, a fraction of an inch. My head pounded from the effort."Joel!" I called. My voice had a ragged edge. "Who keeps the key to this door?"His eyes wavered down to meet mine. "Jones—I'm scared.""I need the key, Joel." I tried to keep my voice calm. "Who has it?""Uh—Carboni. He keeps all the keys.""Can you get them?"Joel looked at the ceiling. I heard feet on the deck now—and a soft padding that sent a chill through me like an iron spear."Joel—I need those keys. I've got to get out of here!"He came close to the door, pressing against it. His eyes were sick. "I got such a tickle in my head," he moaned. "I'm scared, Jones.""Don't be afraid." I gripped his hand that clutched one of the bars."Sometimes—" he brushed at his face, groping for words. "When I see the big dogs— It was just like this, Jones; it tickled in my head."I swallowed hard. "Tell me about the big dogs, Joel.""I didn't like them dogs, Jones. They scared me. I run when I seen 'em. I hid.""When did you see them?""In port. Lots of times. I seen 'em in the street, and inside buildings. I seen 'em looking out of cars." He pointed to the ceiling. "They're up there now; I can tell.""Listen, Joel. Go to Carboni's office; get the keys; the one you want is a big electrokey. Bring it here, as fast as you can.""I'm scared, Jones.""Hurry—before they come down below decks!"Joel stepped back with a sob, turned, and ran. I clung to the bars and waited, listening to the feet that prowled the deck above.* * *The ship was deathly still except for the slap of water, the groan of structural members as the hull flexed under the motion of the waves. I heard stealthy feet moving, the rasp of unhuman hands at the deckhouse door.Far away, Joel's footsteps moved uncertainly, hurrying a few steps, then pausing. Nearer, there was a creak of unoiled hinges; then soft footsteps moved down the forward companionway. I tried the bars again. The fever had drained my strength as effectively as a slashed artery.Joel's solid, human footsteps were coming back now; the other feet paced a cross-corridor, coming closer, crossing an intersection fifty feet away, going on . . . Joel appeared, half-running. I heard the other footsteps slow, come to a stop. I pictured the thing, standing with one pale hand upraised like a dog on point, its death-mask turning, searching.I motioned to Joel. "Keep it quiet!" I whispered. He came up to the door, holding the key, a two-inch square of black plastic from which a short metal rod protruded."Carboni was setting right there; he never even looked up.""Get the door open."He inserted the key, his tongue in the corner of his mouth. I could hear the thing around the corner, coming back now, hurrying. The lock snicked; I slid the door aside, stepped into the passage.The creature bounded into view, brought up short, red eyes staring in a white mask. Beside me, Joel cried out. I pushed in front of him as the demon sprang. I slammed a blow to its head that sent it sprawling past me. It was up instantly, whirling, rearing up on thin, too-long legs. I chopped at its neck with the side of my hand, jumped back as its jaws snapped half an inch from my wrist. Its hands were on me, groping for my throat. I jerked free, swung a kick that caught its hip, knocked it against the wall. It yelped, came at me, dragging a hind leg. Behind it, Joel stood, mouth open, flat against the cell door.I shook my head to clear it. The scene before me was wavering; a sound like roaring waters filled my head . . . A cannonball struck me, carried me back, down. The needle-filled mouth was a foot from my face, and I hit at it, felt bone crunch under my fist. I struck again, twisted aside from a snarling lunge, caught a fistful of stiff-bristled hide, held the snapping jaws away. The great pale hands struck at me—poorly aimed, feeble blows; the jaws were the demon's weapon. They ravened inches from my face—and my arm was weakening . . . The beast lunged backward, twisted free from my one-handed grip. I heard Joel's yell, instantly choked off. I came to my knees, saw the flurry of motion as the demon bore him backwards.I got my feet under me, took two steps, threw myself at the black-bristled back. I locked my right arm around its throat in a crushing embrace. I lunged backward, rolled clear of Joel, saw him stumble to his feet, start toward me—"Stay clear!" I shouted. The demon fought, flailing the deck and walls with wild blows of its four hands. I held on, choking it, feeling bone and cartilage collapse, grinding the shattered throat until the head fell slack. One leg drummed for a moment against the deck; then the thing stiffened and was still.I pushed it aside, tottered to my feet. Joel stared at me, dazed. I listened, heard the slap of running beast-hands."Into the cell, Joel—" I pushed him inside, slammed and locked the door."You'll be safe there—they won't bother with you," I called. "When you get ashore, go home, stay there. No matter what—stay in Jacksonville. You understand?"He nodded dumbly. The feet were close now.I turned, ran along the passage, took a cross-corridor, nearly fell over Runt, lying sprawled on the deck. A patch of evening sky showed at the top of the companionway. I went up, leaped out on the open deck, almost awash in the still sea. I caught a glimpse of two demons standing with raised heads, listening, while beyond them a third crouched over a fallen crewman. Three steps took me to the rail; I leaped over it and dived into the dark water.* * *I came to shore in a tangle of water hyacinth rooted in the soft mud of a river's edge. For a long time I lay flat on my face, waiting for the sickness to drain away. There were far-off sounds of life: the rumble of a monorail, the hoot of a tug out in the harbor. Nearer, a dog barked. Mosquitoes whined insistently.I turned on my back. Giant stars blazed across a sky like charred velvet. The air was hot, heavy, oppressive. There was an odor of river muck and decayed vegetation. I got to my feet, staggering a little. I waded out, washed the mud off me. The bandages were sodden weights; I removed them, splashed water on the wounds. The left arm worried me; even in the near-total darkness I could see that it was grossly swollen, the cuts gaping wide. It was not so painful now, though; whatever Doc had given me was doing its work.I turned and made my way to higher ground. A sandy road cut across the edge of a planted field before me, a strip of lesser black against the darkness. I squinted, trying to bring my night-vision into play. For a moment the scene flicked from black to gray; then pain clamped on my head like a vise. I gave it up.A light was shining through moss-laden live oaks in the distance. I started off, stumbling in the loose sand. Once I fell, slammed my face hard. I lay for minutes, spitting sand feebly and trying out some of Carboni's Sicilian curses. They seemed to help. After a while I got up and went on.* * *It was a cabin sided with corrugated aluminum panels, a sagging structure supported mainly by a towering Tri-D antenna. A gleaming, late-model Mercette ground car stood in the yard. I crept up to it, glanced in, saw the glint of keys in the starter switch.The light in the house came from an unshaded glare-lamp on a table by the window. I saw a tall man cross the room, come back a moment later with a glass in his hand. He seemed to be the only one in the house.I studied the lay of the land. The ungrassed yard slanted down to the edge of the road, which ran level into the darkness. I opened the driver's door carefully, checked the brake, released it. A slight push started the car rolling backwards. I padded beside it, guiding it for the first few yards; then I slid into the seat, cut the wheel, rolled out onto the road. I switched on, let out the clutch; I moved off with the engine purring as softly as a spoon stirring thick cream.I looked back; the cabin was peaceful. There would be a bad scene when the car was missed, but an anonymous cashier's check would remedy the pain.Coffeyville, Kansas, Felix had said. Box 1742, the Franklin Street Postal Station. It was a long drive for an invalid, and what I would find at the end of it I didn't know—but it was something that Felix had thought important enough to lock in the final strongbox in his subconscious.I drove slowly for half a mile, then switched on my lights, swung into a paved highway, and headed north. 
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