ELEVEN: INTO THE BASEMENT
TODAY WAS NOT MY day for coffee.
On the way to Clem’s I’d made a quick stop at the Happy Hamburger Drive-In. It wasn’t even close to lunchtime yet, but they served up a few of them breakfast sandwiches. You know, sausage and eggs on biscuits and such. Plus they poured a decent cup of coffee.
The coffee rode in the cup holder I’d glued to the dashboard of my Scout. The biscuits I’d eaten during the drive. I arrived at Clem’s place and stepped out of the Scout. I leaned in to grab the coffee. Then, cup in hand, I backed away and turned. But I had misjudged the distance between the cup and the door so terribly that the cup struck the door, flew from my hand, and fell to the gravel below. The lid popped off, of course, and I watched in dismay as the coffee fled, soaking into the driveway.
I’d yet to even take a sip. Before I knew it I had a pistol in each hand, cocked and ready to fire. I ain’t rightly sure exactly what I’d planned on doing at that moment, to tell you the truth. Shoot the cup, maybe? I can sometimes let my anger get the better of me over the most mundane of situations.
So I took a breath, or twelve, eased the hammers down, and holstered both pistols. I took another few dozen breaths, eyes closed, head down, and got myself under control. Then I threw the empty cup into the Scout and slammed the door.
Clem could see, the moment he opened the door, that I was in no mood for much of anything. I’d left my hat and coat back in the Scout, so I’m sure I must have been quite the sight standing there on his porch. Along with the Peacemakers at my hips, I cradled my rifle, the trusty Winchester, in my arms. There’s just nothing like a good old Winchester to make a man feel safe.
I’d brought along more than my guns, however. I wore a backpack full of other items I felt might come in handy if I was to be dealing with what I suspected were the culprits behind the missing cats. Which were not, I want to make clear, aliens.
Clem only nodded and took me directly into the kitchen.
The basement lurked at the bottom of a rickety, wooden stair case. As I stood there at the top, looking down from the kitchen, I could see nothing but the inky gloom that comes from being underground.
“There’s a string down there once you step off the stairs,” Clem said. “Give it a pull and you’ll get some light.”
I didn’t wait to reach the bottom of the steps. Instead, I pulled off the backpack and retrieved a small lamp on an elastic band. I strapped the lamp to my head, switched it on and, rifle in hand, headed on down.
I stepped on to the dirt floor of the basement and found the string right away. It hung from a light fixture in the ceiling that contained just one, dust-covered bulb. I pulled the string and light struggled to shine through the layer of grime on the bulb’s glass. The fixture hung from its own cord and now swung back and forth creating dull shadows that played about on the rock walls like a dance troupe with no sense of rhythm.
Along the wall to the left perched a tall set of metal shelves which held various mason jars of differing sizes. The dust and grime covered each of the jars so that even by the light of my headlamp I wasn’t able to discern exactly what they held. Liquids in some, solids in others, even a bit a both in a couple.
To my right was a coffin freezer. It too was caked in layers of dirt and grunge. So much so that I had no clue as to the thing’s original color.
I got to thinking that Clem didn’t come down here too often, or if he did, it surely wasn’t to clean.
I remained at the foot of the steps and scanned the floor leading to the back wall. There, in the dirt, as clear as the letters in a book, were two sets of foot prints.
The first set was made by a pair of boots and they led in two directions. From the stairs to both the coffin freezer and the metal shelves, and then back. These prints were more like a well-worn track in the dirt, suggesting that when Clem did use the basement, it was to retrieve items from the freezer and shelves, or to places items in either.
The second set of foot prints went from the back wall to the stairs and back. And they were made by something that was not at all human. The first clue was how each of the toes ended in small claws. The second clue were the toes themselves. There were only four per foot. The prints were also small, like a child.
I walked to the back wall and tapped lightly on the rock. Not sure why. It sounded like rock, which is what I would have expected.
I set the rifle aside, leaning it against freezer and took a handheld flashlight from the backpack. I switched in on and used it to scan each inch of the back wall. More specifically the area where the four-toed foot prints entered and exited.
“You find my cats?” Clem said from directly behind me.
I’d like to say that I wasn’t startled, that the sudden sound of Clem’s voice in my ear didn’t cause me to jump a bit, that I didn’t involuntarily put my left hand on one of the Peacemakers and had begun to clear leather before realizing who it was. I’d like to say all that . . . but I can’t.
“Dang it, Clem,” I said, holstering the pistol. I turned to him. “I’m trying to investigate here. What do you want?”
“You find my cats?” He asked again.
“I’ve been down here for what, five minutes now?” I said.
Clem only stared at me, a blank look on his face.
“No, Clem, I haven’t found your cats,” I said.
His face dropped.
“Look,” I put a hand on his shoulder. “You go on back upstairs. This may take me a while, but once I find something I’ll let you know. Okay?”
“Okay,” Clem said. “I can do that.”
“Alright then,” I clapped him once on the shoulder. “You make sure you stay upstairs now, okay? No matter what you hear, you stay on up there.”
“I’ll stay upstairs,” he said, then looked confused. “What might I hear from down here?”
“Well, I don’t know, Clem,” I said. I tried not to let the frustration creep into my voice, but the man was making it difficult. “Just stay upstairs, okay?”
“Okay,” he said. Then turned and climbed the steps, closing the door at the top behind him.
I returned to inspecting the back wall. I ran my hand along its craggy surface, moving from top to bottom. I found what I was looking for where the wall met the floor. A small section of rock that moved slightly under my hand.
I pushed on the rock and nothing happened. I lifted up on the rock like a door handle and a section of the wall swung out into the basement on a set of hinges.
A hidden door. I shone the light of both my flash light and my head lamp into what lay beyond. It was a tunnel that sloped downward at a slight angle. It was tall enough and wide enough that I could step inside comfortably. And so I did.
The dirt walls were round and smooth like glass, as if a giant worm had born its way through, eating the dirt and excreting some sort of chemical that stabilized the walls around it. Which is exactly what had happened.
Deep underground, a mile or so below your feet, lives the Colossal Slug. Though it shares more similarities with the common earthworm than it does a slug.
They live off the earth, literally. Chewing up dirt and stone as they tunnel their way around beneath us. Most of what they eat goes back into the earth eventually, and there aren’t that many left alive at this point, so there’s no worry about the ground caving in beneath us. Especially when you consider the chemical that they produce, which coats the tunnel around them, is what is essentially solid stone. Only harder.
It’s all very technical and biological and somewhat magical. I don’t know how it all works, but it works.
But it wasn’t the slug that took Clem’s cats. Slugs don’t care for meat. Nor do they make hidden doors. No, it was what used the slug to carve out the tunnels that had taken them. Something that was small like a child, has four toes ending in claws on each foot, can manage to coerce a colossal slug into creating a series of tunnels for it, and has a taste for cats.
I loathe goblins.