SIXTEEN: FROM THE PAN TO THE FIRE
I FEEL THAT IT needs to be said that I don’t like cats. Not one bit
They’re weird and creepy and don’t seem to be the most affectionate of creatures. I don’t cotton to an animal that ignores your presence. It’s why I ain’t too keen on cattle. But, unlike cattle, cats come off as creatures of the devil. They act as if they own you. Like the only reason they keep you around is so that you can serve them. If not for that, they would swallow your soul and move on.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that under normal circumstances, I’m a dog man.
Today, however, I was Team Cat all the way.
I followed Biscuit, Clem’s only surviving cat, through the underground labyrinth, trusting that the cat was leading me out and not further into danger.
Eventually, as the light behind us dissolved into nothingness, I switched on the headlamp to avoid stepping on the cat.
Everything down here looked the same. Nothing was recognizable as a tunnel I may have taken before, or a room that I’d already been in. I was somewhat concerned that there was such a network underneath Eudora. If I ever got out I’d have to come back sometime after more preparation to do a more extensive investigation. Just how far did these tunnels reach? How many were there?
I mean, it was obvious by the group I’d seen chanting at a distance that these tunnels were still being used. I would have like to have checked those fellas out at the time, but getting out was currently high on my list of priorities.
But when I do come back down here, I’d know what I’d need. More glow sticks along with paper and pen to map everything out. Sure, I could have brought all that with me this time, but I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve only ever been in one other goblin warren and that was in Texas following the Civil War. And that wasn’t as epic as this one. Five rooms total and a dozen or so tunnels, all fairly straight forward. Easy in, easy out. It had still been a bit random and chaotic, but nothing like what we had going on down here.
It was like another world down here and I needed to know more about it. Just not now. For now I needed to get back to the surface. I needed air, I needed food, I needed water, and frankly, I wanted coffee.
So I put all my faith in a cat.
A few minutes later, as a dull green glow appeared ahead of us, as we got closer and confirmed it was one of my glow sticks, I found that I’d backed the right horse. Even if it was a cat.
I left the glow stick where it was and moved on to the next one. Now that I had a trail to follow I picked up the pace. Soon Biscuit was dogging my heels.
When we reached the room in which Biscuit had been held captive, we found that the body of Lolm, the troglodyte I’d had to shoot, was gone. I found that more than a little curious, but felt little in the way of urgency to find out where it had gone. The closer I got to freedom, the more suffocated I felt. The world was closing in on me, weighing me down. I needed out and all other considerations fell to the way side.
So I pressed on.
It wasn’t long before I reached the end. The top of the cork screw. I checked my watch. I’d been down here for nearly four hours. I ran my hands along the bottom of the hidden door and within moments it clicked and I pulled it open. Biscuit, now done with me, shot forward into the basement. The cat was up the steps and out of sight before I could close the big slab door behind me.
“Biscuit!” That would be Clem from the kitchen above. “Where did you come from?”
“She’s with me,” I said, as I stepped into the kitchen.
Clem was there, Biscuit held tightly in his arms. Old Clem smile on his face that could’ve powered Wichita. Pat was with him too. She sat at the cluttered kitchen table. Though that hadn’t registered with me right away. I was too busy taking in the air. In fact, the kitchen wasn’t good enough. The walls and ceilings pressed in on at me.
So I did the only thing I could. I ran.
Right through the kitchen and out into the driveway where I fell to my knees and vomited.
That was when it hit me that Pat had been back in the kitchen. She must’ve followed me outside because quickly after saying my name, she was crouched beside me, a hand on my shoulder.
“I am now,” I said.
“Where the hell have you been?” She stood.
“A few hundred feet or so below our feet.”
“Not now, Pat,” I said. “I really don’t want to talk about it.” It occurred to me that going back down to map the underground was going to rocket to the bottom of my priority list.
I stood as Clem joined us in the drive way.
“You found Biscuit,” he said, still smiling, still holding on to the cat like he’d never let go.
“More like Biscuit found me,” I said. “I’m sorry, Clem. The others are gone.”
Something passed through Clem’s eyes. Sadness. Regret. But it was gone just as quick.
“I figured as much,” he said. “But at least I got my Biscuit back. That’s something.”
“That’s a fine cat you got there, Clem,” I said. “She saved my life.”
I reached out and patted Biscuit on her head. She purred in return.
Clem thanked me a few more times before taking Biscuit back into the house. I had a feeling that Biscuit would no longer be allowed outside. Not that she’d been outside when they grabbed her in the first place.
That reminded me. I’d need to get someone out here to seal up that door. Maybe even get Oz down there to throw some kind of charm over it so that it couldn’t be opened again. I’d have to make some calls once I was back at the office. But first…
“Why are you here, Pat?” I asked. “Clem get worried and give you a call?”
“No,” Pat said. “Bob told me where you were.”
“You looking for me, then?”
“I wanted to let you know that the Walrus is on his way to Leavenworth.”
“Just a precaution. Not knowing just how strong he is, they have the only cage around here that I feel comfortable putting him in.”
“That’s probably a good idea, but you didn’t have to come out here to tell me that. You could have just left a message with Bob.”
“True, but I was out this way anyway...” She trailed off.
“What?” I said. “Something you aren’t telling me.”
“Another girl disappeared earlier this morning,” she said.
“Another one? That makes what, three now?”
“Four,” she said. “Four in the last year. But this one was older. A teenager.”
“You need me to look into it?”
“Believe it or not, Norman Oklahoma, the Eudora Police Department has solved a case or two in their day,” she said. “Besides, nothing about any of these disappearances point to anything that involve your kinda thing.”
“Well, you say you got it handled, I’m going to trust you. But if you need any help, you let me know. I don’t like these disappearances. Not one bit.”
“None of us do, Norman, but we can handle it.”
Just then her phone buzzed and she held a finger up to me as she put the phone to her ear.
“Chief McCrea,” she said and turned her back on me.
A few moments later she slid the phone into her breast pocket as she turned toward me, a glare on her face.
“That was Francine down at the station,” she said.
“She calls me from time to time when I’m out, just to keep me updated.”
“Okay,” I said again. I wasn’t sure where she was going with this.
“Apparently, not long after I left, a call came in from Abner Lemonzeo.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, the very essence of innocence.
“Yeah,” she said. “Claims someone shot up the Pub. John’s been down there all morning.”
“That’s curious,” I said. “There sure is a lot going on this morning. Francine say who it was?”
“No, she didn’t have that yet.” She stepped closer. “I swear, Norman. If I find out it was you…”
“Me? Come on, Pat. I told you I was gonna be nice to Abner.”
“I hope so, Norman. With all that’s going on today, I’d hate to have to run you in.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Just find those girls.”
With that we parted and I drove back to the office, thinking that maybe I’d look into these disappearances anyway, despite what Pat said. But first, I made a quick stop by the Happy Hamburger for another coffee.”
Bob hadn’t moved. He still sat at the desk. The book had changed, however.
“Solve the case,” he said from behind the book.
“Yes, and no. Found one of Clem’s cats. Goblins had taken them.”
“Of course,” Bob said.
“Never found no goblins though, which has me worried. That reminds me, could you get Oz on the phone.”
“Frank?” Bob put the book down. “What do you need Frank for?”
“The goblins had a tunnel the opened right up into Clem’s basement. I’d like Oz to seal it shut for me.”
“What happened to your neck?”
“Troglodyte,” I said, feeling at the bite mark. The healing itch had been consistent since I’d woken on that stone floor earlier.
Bob frowned and then looked at his watch.
“Well, I was going to Frank’s later this morning, anyway. How about I just go now and I can tell him in person.”
“What business you got with Oz?”
“I’m buying one of his paintings. Thought it would look good in here.”
“If you say so,” I said. “I don’t know nothing about art.”
“Yes,” Bob said, getting up from the desk. “I know.”
“Well, just tell Oz that I may need to go back down there, so seal it up, but not permanently.”
“Anything else?” Bob asked as he reached the door.
“Nope. Got my coffee, that’s all I need.” I hadn’t had a sip yet. I like my coffee hot, but not too hot.
“Need anything for that neck?”
“The neck is fine,” I said. “I t should be fully healed soon.”
“Fine,” Bob said. “Nothing for you.” Then he was gone.
I smiled and walked into my office. I hung my coat and hat on the coat tree, unstrapped my guns, and placed them on the desk along with the rifle and the bag.
I yawned. It had been quite the morning. Maybe I’d skip the coffee all together and have a nap. I was working on just an hour or two of sleep after all. Had I been more refreshed Bob wouldn’t have even noticed my neck. I put my hand on the wound. Still tender.
I went the window and looked out, yawning again. Yeah, I needed a nap. Still, the coffee did smell good.
So, watching the people outside go about their business, I brought the cup to my lips. As I was about to tilt it back and take a taste, the phone rang.
I sighed and walked to the desk. I had my hand just above the phone when my office door exploded inward. I ducked behind the desk and, dropping the coffee, threw my arms above my head as splintered wood rained down on me.
The phone continued to ring.
“Norman Oklahoma!” a voice roared from where my door used to be. I knew that voice.
I stood as the phone rang for the last time and my answering machine picked up. I heard my voice say that no one was available to take the call and all that jazz. But I wasn’t paying much attention to the outgoing message. Instead I focused on the hulking figure in my doorway.
“Ah, there you are,” the Walrus said, and in two quick strides, he was across the room.
I looked from the oncoming walrus to the guns on the desk. I tried to go for them, but I was too slow. The Walrus had reached the desk, batted it aside with one massive hand, and before I could run screaming from the scene, he had snatched me up, holding me over his head in both hands.
“Norman,” Pat’s voice rose from the answering machine that now lay on the floor. “It’s Pat. I’m not sure why you felt you needed to lie to me about the Pub, but we’ll talk about that later. For now, I don’t know where you’re at, but you need to know that the Walrus escaped custody and I’m afraid he’s gonna come looking for you. I’m coming down to your office. Keep safe.”
“Thanks, Pat,” I said.
Then the Walrus threw me out the window.