The back of Connor’s neck tingled in a way that should have told him the job was about to go south, way south. He was in front of a large oak door, on his knees, with his lock picks already inserted when the strong, almost electric buzzing started. Connor would later reflect on that moment and regret not taking out the small, metal picks, sliding them back in his pocket, and getting the hell out of that tiny little building that had the shady name ‘Securities, Ltd.’
Unfortunately, it had been so long since the last time such a sensation had struck him that he doubted its legitimacy. He could feel his partner’s warm, blue eyes pleading with him to get over whatever had caused the momentary pause in his work and open the door. One of the two guards that made up the night shift of this crummy, little storefront in downtown was bound to come sooner or later. After two and a half years, he could glean all of that just from the look in her eyes. He knew all the little cues and looks she had, the psychic language that develops only from knowing someone more than you ought but not as much as you’d like. His worries echoed hers. They were short on time in a zero sum game, and he had to make a split second decision. With a smooth, practiced motion, he clicked the final pin into place and turned the handle to open the door. Connor fetched some lubricant from his pocket as he slowly pulled on the knob, worried that any squeak might betray their sordid enterprise. There was nothing but silence, however, and Connor slid into the room, his partner right behind him.
As the dull, checkered linoleum transitioned to blue, threadbare carpet inside the room, Connor crawled a couple feet then dropped to the side to let his partner get in. She closed the door behind her, and they finally stood up. Connor rubbed his legs with annoyance. If he had known how much strain skulking and skullduggery would put on his knees, he probably wouldn’t have chosen ‘crime’ as a profession. He needed to have a stern talk with his career counselor.
He mirrored his partner’s motion as she raised her balaclava to have a clearer view of the place. Connor felt himself lost in the soft, warm, blue eyes, porcelain skin, and pouting red lips. Little wisps of blonde hair fell around her face like a halo of gold fighting to assert itself over the ring of black made by the mask. Leyla. How many times had he seen this woman? Yet, even now, the sight of her stole the breath right from his lungs. That was who she was, what she did. Even now, in the middle of a crime and dressed to sneak unnoticed, she drew any available eyes towards her. A good woman? No, but a hell of a thief and the best partner Connor had ever had. He felt that uncomfortable squirm in his guts that said he had been staring too long.
She paid him no mind as she casually regarded the room that they had just expended a great deal of effort breaking into. “Didn’t you say that anything with guards must have something worth stealing?”
Connor took stock of the area. When he had first heard of a place where the guards weren’t allowed to go into the only room in the building, he had let his imagination run wild with the possibilities. He’d created in his mind an elaborate series of traps including buzz saws in the floor, swinging blade-pendulums from the ceiling, and death lasers from the walls, all to protect a treasure the size of Rhode Island. He had brought every tool imaginable for the job, even taking the precaution of making sure they both had two duffel bags in case there was too much loot for one person to carry. He had practiced for every contingency, every contingency but this one.
It reminded him somewhat of an evidence lockup: cracked walls, nasty floors, and tons of terrible shelves. Fluorescent lights with an annoying amount of glare hung on chains from an off-white, unfinished ceiling. The chains were long enough that the dazzling illumination hung just a couple feet over Connor’s head. The bulbs cast an irritating, greenish glare over the entire room with a tired flicker that spoke of years of continuous use. Why anyone would put so much light onto the inventory of this sad looking room was beyond him.
He took a step forward and surveyed the rows and rows of shelving that made up this pathetic waste of the guards’ time. The room was segregated by six sets of disorganized shelves, which were of the cheapest wire construction possible. The shelving had worn holes into the blue, faded carpet in places, and there were long runs along the rows where the flooring had become black or gray from overuse. The shelves themselves were full; however, this didn’t seem to be much cause for celebration.
“Well, worth stealing if you know the right person maybe.” His tone was hopeful despite the sinking feeling of failure that was pulling on him. As far as he could see, the shelves were stacked with plastic tubs. Looking into one, he saw a mass of animal bones, arrayed in no particular order as if someone had merely tossed them in. The one next to that held some kind of tribal fetish of claws and tufts of fur wrapped in what Connor hoped was animal hide. He could feel his face writhe in disgust as he picked one up and considered the ghoulish looking item. Nobody was going to pay a thin nickel for this kind of stuff.
A cockroach crawled over his shoe. It was large and fast, and he heard a sharp intake of breath from Leyla. She looked over at him dubiously, “Okay, O Great Master of the Job, what do you want to do?”
Connor considered a moment, scratching the back of his neck to distract him from the tingling that still hadn’t relented. The safe-bet was to just cut and run, but the moment it crossed his mind he knew it wasn’t in him. He surveyed the rows upon rows of blue, green, and gray tubs, “No guards, no cameras. Relax, doll, we got all night. We’ll take our time and search row by row. There’s gotta be something around this place that we can fence.”
They both turned at a noise. Listening carefully, Connor realized there must be a rodent scurrying around beneath one of the shelves. Leyla’s look was skeptical, but she turned down the nearest row and began rummaging through the bins. Connor felt a little crestfallen as he picked the row beside hers and began his own search for anything that might salvage this job. As another cockroach darted over his foot, he could see a few indistinct blurs crossing the carpet from the corner of his eye. Looking at the newest bin, he found some broken brass pocket watches. He examined one carefully, turning it over in his hand, then threw it back in the box with a huff before moving to the next container. It was filled with candles made out of black wax. Maybe these were worth more than your average dime store fare, but nothing worth getting arrested over.
A rat flitted down the row, bold as anything. It ran right past his leg then disappeared under a shelf. Somehow it discomfited Connor that even the rats weren’t trying to hide. He could hear the skitter of another one down Leyla’s row. He picked up the pace of his searching. The pest control problem was giving him the heebie-jeebies, so he couldn’t even imagine how Leyla felt.
“Are we in the market for moving a large quantity of antique nails?” She asked him, clearly trying to focus on her work. She held up a long, rusty spike of a nail that looked like it was meant to hold a coffin together.
“Yeah, I think I know a guy in Mexico who makes little stick figures out of them. He’d probably give us a dime apiece.”
“Mmmmm, I might buy a mansion on the beach once that sweet nail money starts rolling in. Have you found anything yet?”
“Yeah, lots of things … Just nothing worth stealing.” He threw a set of gaudy, bent eyeglasses back into their box. What in the world possessed someone to hire guards for this junk?
“I’m drawing the line at finding a bin full of newspapers. With as many creepy crawlies as I’ve seen in here, that’s just a Hepatitis outbreak waiting to happen.”
“No joke.” Connor looked at his feet once more at the alarming number of cockroaches and rats that were streaking this way and that. Spiders and beetles had been added to the mix now too. “With the way they carry on, you’d think there was a box of cheese around here somewhere.”
He could see Leyla putting some kind of metal talisman back into its container, “Wouldn’t surprise me if there was. Do we got a time limit here, Connor?”
He was going to reply that they had until the rats built up their army enough to declare war, but he was suddenly distracted. About ten feet from his location, there was a gap in the bins. Ignoring the containers, he walked over to the open space. A rat scampered just inches from him while several insects, some Connor had never seen, crawled over and around his shoes. They barely even registered. Sitting in front of him was an unadorned box covered in black leather. “Leyla, come look at this.”
She was there in a moment, reaching the shelf opposite him just as he opened the box. Inside, a gem nearly the size of his palm sat. It was cut into a precise, multi-faceted octagon, with a strange symbol engraved into the very center. The gem was red and clear like a ruby, but it glowed and pulsed with an eerie light that sent a chill through the very center of Connor. He put the box down on the shelf and shuddered. The tingling on the back of his neck suddenly became painful and more persistent. He didn’t know why, but he felt the sudden urge to close the box and run away screaming.
Leyla stared, fascinated by the strange, multifaceted luminescence. Her hand reached out, timidly moving towards the stone as a smile slowly spread across her smooth lips. He could see the gem reflected in her pupils, the light in them somehow growing brighter and larger than the rock itself.
He wanted to warn her, to tell her to stop because the thing was dangerous. But he couldn’t fathom why he even thought such a thing. This was just what they needed. This could pay for the job a million times over. Hell, it was probably the only thing in here worth a damn. Chilled, he realized it was probably also the reason there were guards.
As He opened up his bag, Leyla closed the case and prepared to grab the gem and stash it. They were cut short when the lights suddenly went out. With the door to the room closed and no emergency or exit lights visible, the darkness was complete and pressing. It seemed to have a life of its own, that blackness, as if the walls of the room itself had turned to pitch and closed in completely around him. A claustrophobia Connor was achingly familiar with sent waves of panic through his guts. He stood up and tried to grab for the gem’s case at the spot he remembered it being. It was gone, either that or he misremembered the spot.
He called out in the blackness, “Leyla, are you okay?”
“Connor? Yeah, I’m fine. I can’t see a damned thing though.”
“Me either. Did you grab the gem before the lights went out?”
“No, did you?”
“No. Hold on, I’ve got a light.” His hand instinctively went to the flashlight he kept at his belt, but his glove touched nothing but cotton. Confused, he kneeled down and rummaged through the pack. He found his drill, his mirror assembly, his water saw, and every other damned thing he’d thought to bring in his flights of criminal fancy, but there was no flashlight. And he was supposed to be a professional. With a start, he jumped up when he felt the scurry of a rat crawling over his gloved hand.
“Connor? Did you find that light?”
“No, sorry. Guess I must have forgotten it.” Something didn’t feel right. He was sure that he had brought a light, but there was nothing he could about it now. Connor tried to focus on the problem instead. ”Look, we know where the door is. We’ll just use the racks to guide ourselves. Once we get to the door, we’ll hightail it out of here.”
“Yeah.” There was a scared, nervous quality to her voice. Connor couldn’t blame her; he felt it too. He had done a lot of work in the dark, but there was always something to give a tiny bit of illumination. Even if it was just the glow of a power strip or an alarm clock, he had a little light to go off of. Here there was nothing. He might as well have plucked his eyes out and given them to the rats for all the good they were doing him.
The thought felt oddly foreboding as he shouldered the pack and realized that the skittering and scurrying had grown much louder in the darkness. He couldn’t see them with his eyes, but somehow he knew that the bugs and rats were all around him, thicker than the carpet itself. He put his hand out to steady himself on the rack and took a step forward. A sickening crunch confirmed the suspicions of his ears. Every step had the sick, slimy sound of insect innards spilling out onto the floor. The electric feeling on his neck gained a life of its own as he felt the bugs that his shoes had failed to kill slowly working their way up his legs.
The sounds of rats gained a hollow metallic rattle to them. As he felt the little claws moving over his hand, he knew that the noise was from the rodents beginning their frenzied motions on the shelves themselves. The writhing masses of vermin and pests had grown so large that their din had become deafening. Yet above this bedlam, a new noise was working its way through the darkness.
It was the sound of a moist, ragged breath as if an asthmatic with a sinus condition and a swollen tongue were breathing right next to him. He had hoped that the image of some goober with bronchitis and night-vision goggles would ease the frenzied beating of his heart, but somehow that just seemed even worse. The rhythm was echoing in his chest, vibrating through his throat, and overwhelming his senses. He felt a sting like tears on his eyes as the bugs found their way under his pants legs. He pressed forward, but the sound didn’t relent.
He wanted to reach his hand out to try to swipe at whatever was breathing on him. The other part pushed him to run what must be only a few feet more to the door. He knew the person making that sound was close. He could feel the little drops of spittle from the distorted breather as the exhale came with an extended Chhthhaaaacchh. The smell of the exhalation was disgusting, like rotting cabbage and maggots. Neither swiping at the unknown respirator nor bolting seemed like a good idea. This person could clearly see him in the darkness, so he would get tripped up if he ran - or worse if he fought. He was still moving steadily through the crunch of bugs and the cheeah of the breathing when the emergency light flicked on for just a moment.
It was a flash so brief that Connor’s body reacted before his mind fully absorbed what it had seen. An intense, red light burst from the corner and he was sent reeling backwards. He lost his balance, tripping on the threadbare carpet and starting the slow, steady descent towards the ground. The whole fall felt like it took an hour, a slow motion plunge into eternal darkness, during which his brain had time to process the flaking skin, the exposed, rotten teeth, and the decrepit clothing of what must have been a man in a corpse costume.
He finally hit the floor with a thud. The pain welled up across his head, back, and tailbone as he impacted the solid ground. After the ringing, sharp ache of it finished echoing through his brain, he noted with relief that he hadn’t landed in a pool of insects and arachnids. After a moment, however, he couldn’t help but wonder what had happened that would make so many bugs scatter away so quickly.
The bright, red emergency lights began to flash on and off, creating a pulse of crimson that gave brief glimpses of dimension to the room. The corpse-shaped man wasn’t there any more, nor were the varied vermin and pests. He stood up, rubbing his backside as he shouldered the pack. He felt fuzzy around the edges, and a high-pitched whine the same frequency as the tingle on his neck was ringing in his ears. He wanted to find the exit, but everything looked dim and far away in the pulsing glow of scarlet. Leyla’s scream pierced through the fog of pain and confusion. He raced around the shelf and turned the corner to her row.
All of the insects, arachnids, centipedes, and rats had found some reason to congregate right in front of Leyla. She was sprawled on her back, her hands in front of her as the creeping creatures began piling up one on top of the other. The mountain of pests grew taller and more concentrated as slowly a shape began to form. Connor’s heart leapt and his eyes widened in disbelief. The pulsing red gave a slow animation to the forming of a crawling, writhing, heaping mass that was coalescing into an effigy of human form.
“Connor, help me!” Leyla’s screams had turned into sobs as the slithering simulacrum stuttered a slow step towards her. She was on her back, her legs and elbows scrabbling along the floor as she tried to gain some distance from the strange creature.
Connor’s brain felt dull and blank. Pain echoed in his ears as his neck pricked and tingled. He tried to think. What could he do against bugs and rats deciding to turn into a human? The grim arm of the thing reached out, cockroaches and rats darted this way and that, forming five cycling, rotating fingers. The pointer finger, formed by one long centipede with a mass of beetles crawling along it, extended, contacting Leyla’s face. A spider crawled out from the tip onto her forehead.