That's what they called themselves, and that would make a good story, Balenger thought, which explained why he met them in this godforsaken New Jersey motel in a ghost town of 17,000 people. Months later, he still would not be able to tolerate being in rooms with closed doors. The nostril-widening smell of must would continue to trigger the memory of screams. The beam from a flashlight wouldn't fail to make him sweat.
Later, as he convalesced, sedatives loosened the steel barriers he'd imposed on his memory, allowing frenzied sounds and images to dart out. That chilly Saturday night in late October. A little after nine. That was the moment when he could have turned around and saved himself from the mounting nightmare of the next eight hours. But in retrospect, even though he survived, he surely wasn't saved. He blamed himself for failing to notice how hyper everything felt. As he approached the motel, the crash of the waves on the beach two blocks away seemed abnormally loud. A breeze scraped sand across a decaying sidewalk. Dead leaves rattled across the cracked pavement.
But the sound that Balenger most remembered, that he told himself should have made him retreat, was a mournful rhythmic clang clang clang that drifted along the area's abandoned streets. It was harsh, as if from a fractured bell, but he would soon learn its true origin and how it represented the hopelessness he was about to enter.
It could have been a warning to ships to stay away and avert disaster.
Or it could have tolled for a funeral.
Or it could have been the sound of doom.
* * * *
Balenger sensed the excitement in the group as they turned on their walkie-talkies. The crackle of static filled the room.
Conklin pushed a button on his. "Testing." His distorted voice came from each of the other units.
In sequence, Rick, Cora, and Vinnie did the same, making sure that their units could send as well as receive.
"The batteries sound strong," Cora said. "And we've got plenty of spares."
"Weather?" Rick asked.
"Showers toward dawn," Conklin said.
"No big deal. It's time," Vinnie said.
Balenger shoved work gloves, trail food, water bottles, a hardhat, an equipment belt, a walkie-talkie, a flashlight, and batteries into the final knapsack.
He noticed the group studying him. "What's wrong?"
"You're really coming with us?" Cora frowned.
Balenger felt pressure behind his ears. "Of course. Wasn't that the idea?"
"We assumed you'd back out."
"Because crawling around an old building in the middle of the night doesn't appeal to me? Actually, you've got me curious. Besides, the story won't amount to much if I'm not there to report what you find."
"Your editor might not be pleased if you get arrested," Conklin said.
"Is there much chance of that?"
"Asbury Park hasn't seen a security guard in this area in twenty years. But there's always a possibility."
"Sounds like a slight one." Balenger shrugged. "Hemingway went to D-Day with a fractured skull. What keeps me from doing a little creeping?"
"Infiltrating," Vinnie said.
"Exactly." Balinger picked up the last item on the bed. The folded knife was black. Its handle was grooved.
"The grooves insure a tight grip if the handle gets wet," Rick told him. "The clip on the handle attaches the knife to the inside of a pants pocket. That way you can find it easily without fumbling in your pocket."
"Yeah, just like a military expedition."
"You'd be surprised how handy a knife can be if your jacket gets caught on something when you're crawling through a narrow opening or when you need to open the seal on a fresh set of batteries and you've got only one hand to do it. See the stud on the back of the blade? Shove your thumb against it."
The blade swung open as Balenger applied leverage with his thumb.
"Useful if you need to open the knife one-handed," Rick said. "It's not a switch blade, so in case you're caught, it's perfectly legal."
Balenger made himself look reassured. "Good to know."
"If we were exploring a wilderness area," the professor said, "we'd tell a park ranger where we planned to go. We'd leave word with our friends and families so they'd know where to look if we failed to contact them at a specified time. The same rule applies to urban exploration, with the difference that what we'll be doing is against the law, so we need to be circumspect about our intentions. I've given a sealed envelope to a colleague who is also my closest friend. He suspects what I've been doing, but he's never put me on the spot by asking. If I fail to phone him at nine tomorrow morning, he'll open the note, learn where we've gone, and alert the authorities to search for us. We've never had an emergency requiring that to happen, but it's comforting to know the precaution's there."
"And of course, we have our cell phones." Vinnie showed his. "In an emergency, we can always call for help."
"But we keep them turned off," Conklin said. "It's hard to appreciate the tempo of the past when the modern world intrudes. Questions?"
"Several." Balenger was anxious to get started. "But they can wait ‘til we're inside."
Conklin looked at his former students. "Anything we've neglected to do? No? In that case, Vinnie and I will go first. The three of you follow five minutes later. We don't want to look as if we're in a parade. Walk to the street, turn left, and proceed two blocks. There's a weed-choked lot. That's where you'll find us. Sorry to get personal," he told Balenger, "but please make sure you empty your bladder before you leave. It isn't always convenient to attend to bodily functions after we infiltrate, and it violates our principle of not altering the site. That's why we carry these." The professor put a wide-lidded plastic bottle into Balenger's knapsack. "Dogs, winos, and crack addicts urinate in old buildings. But not us. We don't leave traces."
* * * *
Balenger braced himself. Focusing his light on a rusted metal door.
Rick pressed down on a lever that formed the door's handle. Nothing happened.
Rick tried again, straining, but got the same result. "Locked. Maybe rusted in place."
"Professor?" Vinnie asked.
"This is always the moment I dislike," the elderly man said. "Until now, we've merely been trespassing. When we look for ways to infiltrate a building, I love it when we find a board that's fallen from a hole in a wall: a place to squeeze through. Nothing's been altered. Nothing's been destroyed. But now we're about to do something more serious. Breaking and entering. Assuming we can in fact enter. I'd very much like to see what's inside, but I can't encourage any of you to break the law. It has to be your choice."
"Count me in," Vinnie said.
"My life isn't that exciting. I'll never forgive myself if I miss this chance."
Conklin looked at Balenger, keeping his light away from Balenger's eyes. "Perhaps you shouldn't continue. You have no obligation to us."
"Yeah." Balenger made himself shrug. "But the hell of it is, when I was a kid, I always found a way to get into places where I wasn't supposed to go. You've got me wondering what's on the other side of that door."
* * * *
Balenger was conscious of the shriek of wind above him. "Odd to have two rooms next to one another, both associated with a suicide."
"Not if you think about it," Conklin said. "Thousands and thousands of guests stayed here over the Paragon's many years. A changeover in each unit every few days. Decades and decades. Eventually, every single room would have been associated with a tragedy. Heart attacks, miscarriages, strokes. Fatal concussions from falls in bathtubs. Drug overdoses. Alcoholic rages. Beatings. Rape. Sexual abuse. Marital and business betrayals. Financial disasters. Suicides. Murders."
"Cheery," Rick said.
"A small version of the world," Balenger told him. "That's why Carlisle was fascinated with his guests."
"A Calvinist god watching the damned, capable of intervening but choosing not to." Cora rubbed her arms in distress.
A new tunnel took them past more pipes and spiderwebs. Shadows bobbed bobbed in the lights. A couple of times, Balenger banged against the ceiling and was grateful for the hard hat. He splashed through another puddle. Despite the water, dust irritated his nostrils. His cheeks felt grimy. Everythign smelled stale. The cramped area seemed to compress the air, making it feel thick.
Vinnie, Cora, and Rick kept checking their meters.
"Isn't there an easier way to get in?" An echo distorted Balenger's voice.
"The windows are sealed from the inside with metal shutters, remember?" Conklin said.
"But the doors...;"
"The same thing. Metal. We could try to pry something open, I suppose. We have a crowbar and Rick's strong arms. But there'd be noise, and if a security guard came around, the damage might be obvious."
The tunnel ended, a new one opening on the right.
Rick checked his air meter. "The methane's still borderline. Anybody feel sick?"
Vinnie answered for them. "No."
As they turned the corner, Balenger stiffened, confronted by gleaming eyes. Heat shot through his nervous system. The eyes were a foot above the tunnel's floor. A huge albino cat.
Vinnie's camera flashed. Hissing insanely, arching its back, the cat whipped its right paw at the lights, then charged away, disappearing into the darkness. Balenger frowned, noticing that the animal's hind legs had something wrong with them. Their rhythm was grotesque.
Vinnie's camera flashed again. "Hey, kitty, you're going in the wrong direction. Dinner's the other way. I've got some rats I want you to meet."
"Damned big animal." Cora got over the shock. "Maybe he stuffed himself on rats. Seemed to me he could see our lights. He must have a way in and out. Otherwise, his optic nerves would have stopped working."
"His hind legs," Balenger said.
"Yeah." Vinnie showed the group the back screen of his camera: the photograph he'd taken. "Three back legs, two growing out of one hip. Dear God."
"Do you see this sort of thing often?" Balenger asked.
"Mutations? Occasionally, in tunnels that haven't been used in a long time," the professor explained. "More often, we see open sores, mange, and obvious parasite infestation."
"Fleas. When you got your tetanus booster, did you tell your physician you'd be traveling to a third-world country and wanted to take antibiotics with you, just in case?"
"Yes, but I didn't understand why."
"A precaution against plague."
"It sounds like a medieval disease, but it still exists. In the U.S., southwest areas such as New Mexico see it in prairie dogs, rabbits, and sometimes cats. Very occasionally, a human being contracts it."
"From infected fleas?"
"As long as you follow the recommended precautions, you needn't worry. None of us has ever gotten sick from plague."
"What did you get sick from?"
"Once I was in a tunnel that had standing water as this one does. Mosquitos. I got West Nile fever. I recognized the symptoms and went to a doctor early enough. Not to worry. Now that it's autumn, the mosquitoes are dead. And we've arrived. This is it."
He opened the door and flinched as something rushed past his legs. Cora shouted. Something hissed, racing toward the balcony. Almost drawing his pistol, Balenger heard Rick yell, "It's another white cat! The place must be lousy with them."
"No," Conklin said. "Not another."
He sounds delirious, Balenger thought.
"The same," Conklin murmured.
"The same? You're not making sense."
"Look at its hind legs."
Balenger flashed his light toward the panicked, awkwardly fleeing animal. So did Cora and everyone else. The glare of their beams showed it dashing along the balcony toward the grotesque tree growing through the floor.
But the albino cat was grotesque also.
"Three back legs," Rick whispered. "It's got three back legs. Just like the cat we saw in the tunnel.
"Not just like," the professor said weakly. "Mutations of that sort aren't common. The odds are against it."
"The same cat?" Balenger said.
"The one we saw on level four."
"But that's impossible," Cora said. "We closed the door that lead from the tunnel into the utility room. I know we did. I insisted we do it. So how did the cat get in?"
"Maybe the rats chewed holes through the concrete walls, like the professor said," Vinnie suggested.
"Maybe," Balenger said.
"There's no 'maybe' about it," Vinnie said. "That's the only way it could have gotten in."
"No," Balenger said, moving toward the balcony. "There's another way."
"I don't see what."
"Someone could have come in after us and left the door open."
Except for the wind shrieking past the holes in the skylight, the hotel became deathly silent.
Then the silence was interrupted by another high-pitched sound. Slow but rhythmic. Beautiful but mournful.
"Wait a minute," Cora said. "What's that?"
Doom, Balenger thought. Through the gaps in the skylight, the wind carried the distant tolling clang clang clang from the strip of sheet metal flapping in the abandoned condominium building. But it didn't obscure the sound below him.
Lyrical. Terrifyingly evocative. A mournful tune that summoned lonely images to his mind.
In the dark abyss below them, someone was whistling "Moon River."
Excerpted from CREEPERS © Copyright 2005 by David Morrell. Reprinted with permission by CDS Books, an imprint of Perseus Books. All rights reserved.