Malakh had seen some eerie spaces in his life, but few rivaled the unearthly world of Pod 3. Wet Pod. The massive room looked as if a mad scientist had taken over a Walmart and packed every aisle and shelf with specimen jars of all shapes and sizes. Lit like a photographic darkroom, the space was bathed in a reddish haze of safelight that emanated from beneath the shelves, filtering upward and illuminating the ethanol-filled containers. The clinical smell of preservative chemicals was nauseating.
This pod houses over twenty thousand species, the chubby girl was saying. Fish, rodents, mammals, reptiles.
All dead, I hope? Malakh asked, making a show of sounding nervous.
The girl laughed. Yes, yes. All very much dead. Ill admit, I didnt dare come in for at least six months after I started work.
Malakh could understand why. Everywhere he looked there were specimen jars of dead life-formssalamanders, jellyfish, rats, bugs, birds, and other things he could not begin to identify. As if this collection were not unsettling enough on its own, the hazy red safelights that protected these photosensitive specimens from long-term light exposure gave the visitor the feeling he was standing inside a giant aquarium, where lifeless creatures were somehow congregating to watch from the shadows.
Thats a coelacanth, the girl said, pointing to a big Plexiglas container that held the ugliest fish Malakh had ever seen. They were thought to be extinct with the dinosaurs, but this was caught off Africa a few years back and donated to the Smithsonian.
Lucky you, Malakh thought, barely listening. He was busy scanning the walls for security cameras. He saw only onetrained on the entry doornot surprising, considering that entrance was probably the only way in.
And here is what you wanted to see . . . she said, leading him to the giant tank he had seen from the window. Our longest specimen. She swept her arm out over the vile creature like a game-show host displaying a new car. Architeuthis.
The squid tank looked like a series of glass phone booths had been laid on their sides and fused end to end. Within the long, clear Plexiglas coffin hovered a sickeningly pale and amorphous shape. Malakh gazed down at the bulbous, saclike head and its basketball-size eyes. Almost makes your coelacanth look handsome, he said.
Wait till you see her lit.
Trish flipped back the long lid of the tank. Ethanol fumes wafted out as she reached down into the tank and flipped a switch just above the liquid line. A string of fluorescent lights flickered to life along the entire base of the tank. Architeuthis was now shining in all her glorya colossal head attached to a slithery mass of decaying tentacles and razor-sharp suckers.
She began talking about how Architeuthis could beat a sperm whale in a fight.
Malakh heard only empty prattling.
The time had come.
Trish Dunne always felt a bit uneasy in Pod 3, but the chill that had just run through her felt different.
She tried to ignore it, but it grew quickly now, clawing deeply at her. Although Trish could not seem to place the source of her anxiety, her gut was clearly telling her it was time to leave.
Anyhow, thats the squid, she said, reaching into the tank and turning off the display light. We should probably get back to Katherines
A broad palm clamped hard over her mouth, yanking her head back. Instantly, a powerful arm was wrapped around her torso, pinning her against a rock-hard chest. For a split second, Trish went numb with shock.
Then came the terror.
The man groped across her chest, grabbing her key card and yanking down hard. The cord burned the back of her neck before snapping. The key card fell on the floor at their feet. She fought, trying to twist away, but she was no match for the mans size and strength. She tried to scream, but his hand remained tightly across her mouth. He leaned down and placed his mouth next to her ear, whispering, When I take my hand off your mouth, you will not scream, is that clear?
She nodded vigorously, her lungs burning for air. I cant breathe!
The man removed his hand from her mouth, and Trish gasped, inhaling deeply.
Let me go! she demanded, breathless. What the hell are you doing?
Tell me your PIN number, the man said.
Trish felt totally at a loss. Katherine! Help! Who is this man?! Security can see you! she said, knowing full well they were out of range of the cameras. And nobody is watching anyway.
Your PIN number, the man repeated. The one that matches your key card.
An icy fear churned in her gut, and Trish spun violently, wriggling an arm free and twisting around, clawing at the mans eyes. Her fingers hit flesh and raked down one cheek. Four dark gashes opened on his flesh where she scratched him. Then she realized the dark stripes on his flesh were not blood. The man was wearing makeup, which she had just scratched off, revealing dark tattoos hidden underneath.
Who is this monster?!
With seemingly superhuman strength, the man spun her around and hoisted her up, pushing her out over the open squid tank, her face now over the ethanol. The fumes burned her nostrils.
What is your PIN number? he repeated.
Her eyes burned, and she could see the pale flesh of the squid submerged beneath her face.
Tell me, he said, pushing her face closer to the surface. What is it?
Her throat was burning now. Zero-eight-zero-four! she blurted, barely able to breathe. Let me go! Zero-eight-zero-four!
If youre lying, he said, pushing down farther, her hair in the ethanol now.
Im not lying! she said, coughing. August 4! Its my birthday!
Thank you, Trish.
His powerful hands clasped her head tighter, and a crushing force rammed her downward, plunging her face into the tank. Searing pain burned her eyes. The man pressed down harder, driving her whole head under the ethanol. Trish felt her face pressing into the fleshy head of the squid.
Summoning all of her strength, she bucked violently, arching backward, trying to pull her head out of the tank. But the powerful hands did not budge.
I have to breathe!
She remained submerged, straining not to open her eyes or mouth. Her lungs burned as she fought the powerful urge to breathe in. No! Dont! But Trishs inhalation reflex finally took over.
Her mouth flew open, and her lungs expanded violently, attempting to suck in the oxygen that her body craved. In a searing rush, a wave of ethanol poured into her mouth. As the chemicals gushed down her throat into her lungs, Trish felt a pain like nothing she had ever imagined possible. Mercifully, it lasted only a few seconds before her world went black.
Malakh stood beside the tank, catching his breath and surveying the damage.
The lifeless woman lay slumped over the rim of the tank, her face still submerged in ethanol. Seeing her there, Malakh flashed on the only other woman he had ever killed.
Long ago. Another life.
Malakh gazed down now at the womans flaccid corpse. He grabbed her ample hips and lifted with his legs, hoisting her up, pushing forward, until she began to slide over the rim of the squid tank. Trish Dunne slithered headfirst down into the ethanol. The rest of her body followed, sloshing down. Gradually, the ripples subsided, leaving the woman hovering limp over the huge sea creature. As her clothing got heavier, she began to sink, slipping into the darkness. Bit by bit, Trish Dunnes body settled on top of the great beast.
Malakh wiped his hands and replaced the Plexiglas lid, sealing the tank.
Wet Pod has a new specimen.
He retrieved Trishs key card from the floor and slipped it in his pocket: 0804.
When Malakh had first seen Trish in the lobby, hed seen a liability. Then hed realized her key card and password were his insurance. If Katherines data-storage room was as secure as Peter had implied, then Malakh was anticipating some challenges persuading Katherine to unlock it for him. I now have my own set of keys. He was pleased to know he would no longer have to waste time bending Katherine to his will.
As Malakh stood up straight, he saw his own reflection in the window and could tell his makeup was badly mangled. It didnt matter anymore. By the time Katherine put it all together, it would be too late.