CHAPTER ELEVEN

OFFICER GREER HUDDLED IN THE SILVER BLANKET, TRYING TO FEND OFF THE SHOCK.  IT DIDN’T HELP. THE COLD CUT TO HIS BONE.

“Officer? I’m Detective Cook, and this is Detective Lincoln,” Gail said, ignoring the glance from the EMT that indicated, This is not a good time.

“Homicide?” asked a concerned Greer. “The thing I shot – it was an animal. It had to be!”

The two detectives shared a look: where did that come from?

“You shot an animal?” asked Lincoln. “A dog? A wolf?   Something that escaped from the zoo?”

“Yes, something like…”   Greer began softly.   “No, it was… no.   I can’t say what it was.”

“Where is it now?” asked Gail.

Greer was lost in his thoughts for a moment.   As if trying to remember what he saw earlier and perhaps trying even harder to not remember. “I shot at it… but… it was gone.   I don’t think I hit it.”

“We really need to get him to the hospital,” said the EMT.   “I have to insist.”

“Yes, of course, go ahead,” prompted Gail.

“Dude, we’ll talk in the morning,” Lincoln added just before the ambulance doors closed.

Despite his nod, it was clear from his expression Greer was not excited at the thought.

CHAPTER TWELVE

THE VET-CO WAS A HUGE BIG BOX PET STORE LOCATED ON THE EAST SIDE OF 14th STREET.   IT SOLD RETAIL AND WHOLESALE PET PRODUCTS FOR DOMESTIC, COMMERCIAL AND VETERINARIAN USE. THEIR ADORABLE LOGO WAS A WHITE GERMAN SHEPHERD DRESSED LIKE A DOCTOR WITH A SIAMESE CAT AS AN ASSISTANT NURSE.

The store had been closed several hours when the rear door burst open from the outside, leading into a dimly lit access hallway.  The Creature from the park had pushed the door open by hurling all its weight against the door handle.

The Creature listened for any sound that might indicate it had been heard.   No siren, no footsteps of a security patrol.   Just silence.   Thank God for cheap employers looking to save a dime.

Weak from the gun wound, the Creature propped itself against a wall.   It tried to catch its breath and over a few moments its breathing slowed to a steady if labored rate.   Its eyes didn’t have to adjust, because the augmentations the doctor made to it allowed it perfect vision even in almost pitch darkness.

Which is how it noticed the blood on the floor.  Its blood.

It fell to its stomach and gingerly licked the blood from the tiles. Covering its trail.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

DETECTIVE JOHN LINCOLN LOOKED AT THE SHEET COVERING THE VICTIM AND TRIED TO RECONCILE ITS CONTOURS WITH WHAT HE KNEW ABOUT THE HUMAN BODY.   IT WAS DIFFICULT. SOMETHING WAS AMISS.  THERE WERE INDENTATIONS WHERE THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN SOLID MASS.   WITH A SKEPTICAL GLANCE AT DETECTIVE GAIL COOK, HE REVERENTLY LIFTED THE SHEET WITH TWO FINGERS.

And immediately wished that he hadn’t.

“Holy shit,” he exclaimed as he recoiled from the sight. “They weren’t kidding.”

Going by memory of what they had just seen, it was clear that nothing human could have done that damage to the victim.

“I went to Africa. Years ago. My honeymoon,” began Gail. “I saw a lion maul a cape buffalo. It… didn’t look as horrible as this.”

“If it were a lion, it would have finished her off,” said a surprisingly upbeat Park Ranger standing beside them. “Right down to the gristle,” he added helpfully.

Both detectives were happy for the distraction from the grisly sight they knew lie under the sheet. The Park Ranger, who was in his late 50s, lived for moments like this when his expertise might be needed.

“You checked all the cages, no doubt?” asked Lincoln.

“We prefer the expression ‘communal habitat’,” corrected the Park Ranger. He waited a moment for Lincoln to correct himself.   But nothing. Every bear, lion and snake – even our avian friends of a predatory nature – present and accounted for, Detective.”

Lincoln looked around. “What about the gorillas?”

The Park Ranger admitted, “We haven’t had one here since ’09.”

“How is that ‘under construction’?”

“The directors would rather visitors think they just missed seeing the majestic gorilla a week too late or a week too early.”

“So you don’t think an animal did this?” asked Gail.

“I didn’t say that,” corrected the Park Ranger. “Just that it was not one of ours. I can tell you that most animals only kill in order to eat. That’s not what happened here.”

“Most?”

“Yes,” said the Park Ranger. “Man is the only animal that kills for fun.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

THE ROAR OF AIR FLOODING THE DECONTAMINATION UNIT WAS NEVER UNPLEASANT TO ANTON.   MUCH LIKE A CONVENTIONAL SHOWER, IT GAVE HIM TIME TO CONCENTRATE ON THE DAY AHEAD OF HIM. HIS HEAD WOULD FILL WITH THOUGHTS OF NEW EXPERIMENTS HE COULD CONDUCT ON HIS SUBJECTS, OR SUBTLE VARIATIONS ON THE CLASSICS.

But this time it only filled his head with a single question. What went wrong?

When the air cycled through and the light in the small chamber went from red to green, the doctor opened the door and entered the Labyrinth.

He walked through the ancient hallway while keeping his eyes forward. The hazmat suit he wore kept out most of the unpleasant sounds as he passed – the mewling, the sobbing, the begging.   Often, he would stop and admire his and the work of his master.   But again, What went wrong?

panelb

He arrived at the massive vault door where his lab was located at the end of the hall. He pressed his plastic covered face against the ocular scanner and only had to wait a matter of seconds until his identity was confirmed and he was allowed to enter.

Anton was not happy to discover Isabel was waiting for him. Even ignoring her lack of protocol that was her unauthorized presence in his lab, there was the matter she wasn’t wearing a clean suit over her crisp white business suit and bustier.

But that was Isabel Moreau at a glance.   Rules didn’t apply to the boss’s daughter.

He swallowed his disgust and said, “I got confirmation. It was one of ours.”

“She, Anton.”

“I’m sorry, ‘She’ was one of ours.”

“Father knew the moment it happened,” said Isabel. “What he wants to know from you is who killed her and why.   Tell me about her pride.”

Anton loved his master.   The master’s daughter not so much.

“Four in all. None less than six months since their enhancement. Nothing exceptional about her readjustment process.”

“I’ve dispatched Wohl to clean up this mess.”

“Is that wise?”

“Apparently. Or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Isabel left.   As the vault door closed behind her, Dr. Anton Crest angrily hurled his bloody tools off the lab table and onto the floor.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THE GUARD SAT IN HIS CRAMPED BUNKER FILLED WITH A WALL OF MONITORS. EACH MONITOR FOCUSED ON A DIFFERENT SECTION OF THE PARK. AS HE NOSHED ON THE COLD NACHOS – THE GREASE STAINING HIS UNIFORM AS IT DID MOST EVERY SHIFT – HIS CONCENTRATION WAS ON THE MONITORS COVERING THE ZOO ENTRANCE WHERE ALL THE ACTION WAS.

There was a knock on the door.   Not too loud. Not hurried. Concise.

The Guard pushed open the door and tried not to be too excited by the presence of company.

“I figured you’d show up eventually,” he said as he stepped back so the man in the suit could enter. “I have everything queued up.”

The man in the suit didn’t say anything.   It wasn’t a question so it didn’t require a response and in his line of work chitchat was seldom called for.

In the light off the monitors, there was something… unpleasant about the man’s features. His eyes were sunk in a little too deeply.   His cheek bones seemed sharp enough to break through his skin.

“I’m sorry,” said the Guard, trying to puff himself up to his full height but being held into a perpetual stoop by his weight.   “Are you a cop?”

“Not at all.   No.”   Wohl turned and closed the door behind him.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CAPTAIN MACKIE WAITED BY A GIFT KIOSK FAR FROM THE COMMUNAL HABITATS AND THE PRESS. AS DETECTIVES LINCOLN AND COOK APPROACHED THERE WAS JUST A FRACTION OF A MOMENT WHERE HE WAS GOING TO TELL THEM THE TRUTH.   BUT THAT MOMENT PASSED.

“No offense, Captain,” Lincoln began with an expression that almost always preceded him saying something generally offensive. “But we’re Homicide, and this is clearly a mauling.   A pack of wild dogs, a stray coyote, something animally.”

“Lincoln is right, Sir,” said Gail, backing up her partner. “You would have been better off calling Animal Services.”

Mackie nodded in the direction of the press. “Tomorrow morning the city is going to wake up to read about a beautiful young coed dead in Central Park.

“The park is going to blame the city, the city is going to blame the people for acting like animals, and the people are going to blame the police for not protecting them. We’ll point out it was a mauling, and the press will shout we’re covering something up.”

“So the best way to prove this wasn’t a murder…” Lincoln began.

“…is to treat it like one,” concluded Gail.

Captain Mackie touched his nose: Exactly.   He walked away.

“Want to look at the body again,” she asked Lincoln when they were alone.

“Honestly, I’m okay with the Cliff Notes,” He demurred at the thought of seeing the damage to the victim again.

Gail rolled her eyes: Come on.   She turned to go and he hung back just a moment in an effort to afford himself the best possible view as she walked away.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THE CREATURE HAD MADE ITS WAY FAR DOWN THE HALLWAY AND INTO ONE OF THE THREE LARGE STORAGE UNITS IN THE REAR OF THE STORE. IT HAD STAUNCHED THE FLOW OF BLOOD WITH ITS LARGE PAW BUT COLLAPSED AGAINST A LARGE CRATE ONCE IT WAS SURE IT WAS ALONE.

It noticed its blood pool around it and realized the only way to save its life was to concentrate.   To transform before it bled out.

It concentrated, trying to find the human center of its brain – trying to force it forward and once again take full control of this feral form.

Through memories.   Through thoughts.   Down through regrets and fear and understanding.   All the way through to its – to his – motor skills.

His bones started to move rapidly, painfully.   Within moments, they broke and reset and broke and reset again as his body tried to fully reclaim its original human form – from the hair on his head down to his core genetic structure.

He fell and howled and writhed and screamed and bucked. Until the Creature was gone…

… and the twenty-six-year-old Rurik Tyler from Omsk, Russia by way of Brooklyn sat naked and shivering on the floor.

He smiled weakly at the sight of the bullet that had been expelled from his body during the transformation.  Finally, something had gone right for him this evening.

But then he remembered the last time he had seen his beloved Anya in the park.

He quietly wept until he passed out in the darkness.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS HAD TAKEN ALL THEIR PHOTOS AND THE FORENSIC TEAM HAD CLEARED THE BODY.  LINCOLN AND COOK GAVE THE UNFORTUNATE WOMAN ONE LAST LOOK BEFORE THE MEDICAL EXAMINER PREPARED HER FOR TRANSPORT .

Gail was the first to notice something not right. (Considering the horrific state of the body it would have been a simple matter not to notice something so mundane.)

“Where are her clothes,” Asked Gail.

Lincoln looked around the immediate area. Hmm.  “The animals that attacked her?   Ran off with them?”

“Do animals do that?”

“Do I look like an animal to you?” He asked.   She didn’t reply which was actually her reply.   He was oddly encouraged by her silence.

He approached Budianski who steadfastly had his back to the crime scene.

“Any hits on the victim’s prints?” Asked the detective.

“I don’t know if there is even enough left of her fingers to lift prints,” Said the sergeant, trying to shut down the memories that came with the thought.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

THE CORONER’S VAN SPED ALONG FIFTH AVENUE TOWARDS LENNOX HILL HOSPITAL.  JAMES HUTT ALWAYS CONSIDERED IT ODD A CORONER’S VAN SHOULD EVER HAVE TO RUSH ANYWHERE.  BUT HE DID LIKE THE WAY IT MADE HIM FEEL IMPORTANT.  ONE OF THE FEW PERKS OF SPENDING ALL HIS WORKING HOURS AROUND THE RECENTLY DEAD.

In the back of the van he slowly unzipped the body bag that contained the young woman from the park.  Then he smiled.  Because there were so many websites that would pay top dollar for the images he was about to take.   Some websites were more legit than others, true, but money is money.

James Hutt reached into his pocket with his chubby sweaty figures and pulled out his cell phone.

He snapped several pictures.  Then several more.

CHAPTER TWENTY

THE POUNDING ON THE DOOR WOKE HIM THIS TIME – FROM A DEEP SLUMBER. THAT DIDN’T MAKE ANY SENSE TO THE GUARD. HE NEVER FELL ASLEEP AT WORK.  EVER. THE LAST THING HE RECALLED WAS… ODD. HE COULDN’T REMEMBER THE LAST THING HE REMEMBERED.  HE LIFTED HIS GIRTH FROM THE CHAIR AND OPENED THE DOOR TO HIS MONITOR ROOM.

He was trying not to appear groggy as he attempted a hello.   Not at all sure if he pulled it off. “S’figured you’d be by… so… hey.”

Lincoln and Cook exchanged looks: Is this guy drunk? Was he sleeping? Does it matter?

 “We’d like to see the surveillance footage from around the zoo – about two hours ago,” Said Gail, indicating her detective’s shield.

“Of course, Ma’am,” He said, discreetly collapsing back into his well-worn chair.   “Right here.”  His fingers danced over the controls and the footage from cameras 23 through 33 rewound backwards.

Though the two detectives saw nothing of interest until the moment Officer Greer spotted the Creature off-camera and fired his gun, the Guard alone noticed something was wrong.   This was not the footage he had queued up earlier. That was when he remembered the tall thin man with the reptilian features.

Because he no longer had the footage, the Guard thought it was in his best interest not to say anything about the man.   Instead he said “Sorry, nothing helpful I’m afraid.”

From where he was standing behind the Guard, Lincoln noticed the large bit on the back of his neck: a large insect?

“That’s some bite, Buddy,” Noted Lincoln.

The Guard reached back and noticed it for the first time. “Yeah.  Mosquitos are brutal this time of year. Especially right off the lake.”

Lincoln stared past him at the multitude of screens.   Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on any of them.   Even the press and the onlookers had mostly wondered away at that point.

“I don’t get it. It had to have been a pack of wild dogs,” Lincoln said softly to himself.   “But where are they?  Where did they come from?   Where did they go?”

“Wider, please,” Said Gail.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am?” Replied the Guard.

“If we can’t find the dogs, lets find her.  I want to find the moment she entered the park,” Gail said.   The Guard manipulate the controls and dozens of cameras silently digitally whirled back nearly three hours.

“There!  Stop!” Shouted Gail, pointing to one camera that indicated it was located at the entrance of West 93rd Street.   It showed a woman, barefoot, dressed in a long cotton robe.   There was too much blood on the victim to tell her exact hair color – but this mysterious, beautiful but blurred young woman… it must be her.

“That’s as far as we monitor off park grounds, Ma’am,” He said as his fingers moved over the keyboards, hoping track the woman in the white dress entering the park.   A follow-up image didn’t appear.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to go out there and check for yourself.”