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Authors: John Halkin

Squelch

BOOK: Squelch
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Squelch

John Halkin

 

 

 

Copyright © 1984 by John Halkin

First published by Century Hutchinson

PROLOGUE

Kit gasped aloud when he spotted it. Not from fear; not at that stage. Fear came later.

The caterpillar was the most gorgeous he had ever seen. It was also the largest, measuring at least six inches from tip to tail. Possibly more. Kit stood on tiptoe to examine it closely through the glass wall of the tank and it rewarded him by rearing up to stare back with dark, baleful eyes. It was plump and hairy, too; a brilliant green with diagonal purple markings along its sides and a distinctive yellow stripe down the full length of its belly.

He was fascinated by it. ‘Real beauty, y’are!’ he murmured, unable to drag himself away.

The glass tanks, around a dozen of them, were set out in line along the high laboratory bench. They were clearly incubators of some kind. Each contained a different breed of caterpillar, but not one in the same class as this beauty. He had to have it for himself. No way was he going to leave this place without it.

Anyway, that would be his proof that he had been inside the ‘Research’. None of the kids in the village would doubt him once he produced that caterpillar.

But first he needed something to stand on.

Kit was small for his age. Always had been, and the others had never let him forget it. But sometimes – as today – it had its advantages. Had they known where to find the gap under the high security fence, one or two of them might have been able to worm their way through. Jacko perhaps, though not Lenny. Lenny was far too big,
most of it muscle too. Then, he was almost thirteen.

Once inside the fence, only Kit was small enough to squeeze between the bars over the open basement window and get into the building. That was worth some credit.

No use going back without evidence, though. They’d never believe him just on his say-so. He struggled over to the bench carrying a high lab-stool which he positioned carefully, trying not to make a noise.

‘Out of the way, cat!’ he breathed in annoyance.

Ever since he’d climbed in, that black cat had followed him around, rubbing itself against his legs to demand attention. Now it decided to sit and lick itself just where he needed to place the stool. He steered it away with the side of his foot. The building was quiet. No sound even of distant voices, though he knew there must be people about somewhere.

Standing precariously on the stool he slowly shifted the tank’s close-fitting plastic cover to one side. Filling much of the space in the tank was a potato plant, its roots in a thick layer of soil at the bottom; among its profuse leaves he now saw several caterpillars of the same type, though none quite as big as the first. The emerald green of their long-haired fur coats stood out against the darker background.

It eased Kit’s troubled conscience a little to know there were more. With all those to play with, the scientists weren’t going to miss just one. From his jeans pocket he produced the empty cassette box he’d found one day in the high grass near the village bus-stop. A bit small perhaps for the very big caterpillar, but it would do till he got home.

He leaned over the tank, his left arm inside up to the elbow, and gently grasped his prize between finger and thumb.

‘Jesus!’

The pain was like hot, sharp needles plunging into him, forcing him to drop the caterpillar. In a reflex action his hand jerked upwards towards his mouth, but before he could suck the agony out of his fingers his weight shifted and the stool on which he was standing began to tip over. To steady himself he clung to the tank, only to bring the whole thing down with him as he fell. It shattered on the hard floor.

Half-stunned, he must have lain there for quite a few seconds before recovering his wits sufficiently to realise that he had to make his escape before someone came to investigate. That crash must have been heard all over the building.

What was worse, the cat suddenly started dashing zanily round the lab like some mad creature in a horror movie, letting out strangled screams of terror as it skidded along the benches knocking over the racks of test-tubes, beakers, pipettes, flasks and all the other various apparatus.

‘Must get out,’ Kit was muttering to himself, his finger and thumb smarting viciously as if they were on fire. Strands of pain spread up his hand, too, as far as his wrist. ‘Must move. Now. Stand up first… careful… careful…’

On the floor beside him he noticed the caterpillar, swaying as though hypnotised by some Indian snake-charmer’s music, inviting him to touch it again.

To stretch out his hand and stroke it.

On his knees – preparing to get up – he hesitated, spotting the empty cassette box among the splinters of broken glass. He reached out with his good hand to pick it up. Then, in one quick movement, he scooped the caterpillar into it and snapped it shut.

‘Gotcha!’ he grinned in triumph. ‘I bloody gotcha!’

Through the scratched perspex he could see the long green caterpillar curled up inside making no effort to escape.

Pushing the box into his jeans pocket, Kit scrambled to his feet and ran to the door, almost colliding with that crazy cat as he reached the corridor. Somewhere in the background he thought he heard a woman calling, but he neither paused nor looked back. He took the steps two at a time down to the basement boiler room which was the way he’d come in. The window was still open. With difficulty he climbed on to the sill.

Irrationally, the bars of that steel grille seemed set much closer together than before. First his hips stuck; then his shoulders refused to go through. He knocked his injured left hand; the pain was so intense he almost fainted. But at last, somehow, he found himself on the outside, sprinting towards the fence.

To worm his way under the wire he had to lie flat on his back and push with his feet to propel himself along that shallow rain gully he’d discovered less than an hour earlier. By the time he emerged on the far side he definitely heard voices from the building he’d just left. But he didn’t wait to see what was going on. He plunged into the thick undergrowth which at that point grew right up to the fence.

Within seconds he had reached the protection of the trees. He had made it! He’d succeeded in penetrating the ‘Research’ and he now knew what went on there, which no one else did. Now Lenny and the rest of the gang would have to treat him with some respect. They’d be green!

He pressed on through the woods, pushing through patches of high fern, stepping over thick, gnarled roots, and from time to time fingering that plastic cassette box in his jeans pocket. Just wait till he showed them the caterpillar.

That King Caterpillar!

That Super-caterpillar, the greatest yet!

That Superpillar!

At last he stopped for breath. He was deep in the woods now, well clear of the ‘Research’. The only sounds were a vague rustling among the leaves and the sudden buzz of an insect close to his ear. His fingers had settled to a sort of raw numbness; so long as he didn’t bend them the pain was bearable.

It was then he became aware of an odd tickling sensation against his thigh as though something were scratching about inside his pocket. His
left
pocket, the same side as his injured hand.

The caterpillar?

The thought flashed through his mind. To make certain, he retrieved the cassette box from his right-hand pocket but the captive was still visible inside, curled up contentedly. So what could it be?

It bit into him sharply, a quick pin-point of pain at the very top of his leg which caused him to stagger back, dropping the cassette box.

‘Bloody hell!’ he swore as the pain continued, growing in intensity. He doubled up, gasping.

His left hand was useless, but with his right he managed to hold the pocket open so that he could at least see what was going on. Despite the fact that he was damp with sweat a cold shiver ran through his whole body as he realised he was looking at another of the bright green caterpillars. Its tail was undulating gently as if in sensual delight as its powerful jaws worked into his flesh.

He gazed down at it, paralysed with horror at what was happening to him. Ever since he had once seen living tapeworms on TV he’d had nightmares about terrifying creatures burrowing through his intestines. He wanted to scream out
Stop it! Stop it!
but somehow couldn’t; he could imagine the other kids laughing at him, jeering,
calling him chicken, finger-lickin’ chicken.

Biting his lip in an effort to keep his self-control, Kit slapped his hand firmly over the spot where the caterpillar was at work, aiming to squeeze it to extinction through the fabric of his jeans and carry on squeezing until it was no more than a mess of juice and pulp.

Before he could get a grip on it, another charge of savage pain shot through him, travelling up the full length of his leg which began jerking convulsively, beyond his control. He fell sprawling, unable to hold back his screams of agony any longer.

Two of them now.

Three.

Jesus, how many caterpillars were there?

Rolling over in a desperate attempt to escape, to crush them,
anything
, he found himself slipping into a deep hollow beneath the giant tentacle-root of one of the older trees. As he slithered into it they attacked again, gnawing into fresh areas of his flesh. Into his stomach… through his navel…

‘No… please… NO!’ he sobbed and yelled as they gorged themselves on him. ‘Oh Mummy, stop them!
Mummy!

He was no longer twelve. He was a baby once more, reaching out to be comforted, to be petted and told everything was all right, that there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all, nothing but…

Oh Jesus, that cassette box was lying open on the ground, level with his eyes. The king caterpillar was coming towards him, looping its back as it moved, ripples spreading down its long furry body, its eyes fixed on his.

Incoherently he yelled at it to leave him alone, what harm had he ever done to it? Why him?

He tried to retreat farther into that hollow among the tree-roots, that womb in the earth which enclosed him lovingly. The caterpillar came nearer. He felt a slight
prickling as its precise little legs touched his cheek. Then –

‘Mummy? Oh Mummy…’

The staff at the University of Lingford Research Institute were completely foxed by the accident. No one felt totally convinced that the cat was responsible, least of all Dr Sophie Greenberg whose research project it was. Dark-haired and slim, she had a touch of Lady Macbeth about her pale, intense face, and ambition to match. If this project succeeded, it might well mean a Nobel prize. Now months of work were down the drain.

Returning after lunch with her colleagues – they always used the top floor canteen as there was nowhere close enough to the Institute to make it worthwhile going out – she found the place a shambles.

Apparatus lay smashed on the floor, including an expensive microscope which was her personal property. Glass everywhere. Nitric acid eating into the parquet blocks. One caterpillar ‘cage’ knocked down, scattering soil and debris. Its plastic cover dangled from the high bench, suspended from the tubes and cables which had helped control atmosphere and temperature in the experiment.

Her cry of dismay brought Adrian running.

‘What the hell happened?’ he demanded, staring at the mess.

‘You tell me!’ she countered grimly. ‘Someone got in here, obviously. But why cause this damage? And none of us heard anything!’

‘I thought I heard something but took it to be a radio. You’ve noticed the door to the back stairs is open?’

She nodded. A clear trail of soil crumbs led over to it. ‘Whoever they are, they’re still here,’ she said, picking up the long window-pole. ‘Come on.’

On their way down the concrete steps they became
aware of odd noises coming from the boiler room at the bottom: an unusual high-pitched screaming sound followed by a series of bumps. Sophie felt Adrian’s hand on her arm.

‘Should I go first?’ he whispered.

‘Don’t be daft!’

Gripping the window-pole firmly, she rushed down the remaining steps and into the boiler room, determined to catch red-handed the person who had destroyed her lab
and
all her work into the bargain. Baggy, the lab cat, shot past her legs and hurled itself against the steel bars over the open window, bouncing back off them like a rubber toy, rolling over and over, then scrambling to its feet again, emitting a sequence of pathetic screams as it dashed hysterically between the boilers.

‘Oh, my God!’ Sophie exclaimed in distress. ‘Oh, the poor thing!’

‘Here she comes!’ Adrian announced, squatting down like a wicket-keeper, ready to grab the cat as it passed. ‘Hell!’

It dodged between his legs. Once again it threw itself at the steel bars. Once again it bounced back. This time – hitting the floor – it lay still, though whether dead or merely stunned Sophie could not yet tell. Around its neck was a long, bright green caterpillar. She recognised it immediately as coming from the destroyed ‘cage’.

‘Don’t touch it!’ she snapped, grabbing Adrian’s arm as he bent low for a closer look. ‘Unless you fancy a week’s sick leave.’

A couple of their colleagues trooped in from the other labs. ‘Anything wrong? That was an awful row! Poor old Baggy have a fit, or what?’

The cat was dead, its skull cracked by the impact with the bars. It had definitely caused the damage in the lab, there could be no question about that, though it remained a mystery how it had managed to topple the ‘cage’ down
from the bench. Those glass tanks were heavy.

The security men did a thorough check of the building but drew a blank. No one had passed through the entrance hall which had electrically-controlled doors which only the man on duty could open. All other doors were locked and bolted in accordance with normal procedure for a high-risk laboratory of this type. Every window was barred; no sign anyone had tampered with them.

In Sophie’s lab itself they conducted a perfunctory search for footprints, but so many of the staff had trampled through there during the excitement, it would have been a hopeless task even if there
had
been anything to find. The paw-marks on the benches were evidence enough as to what must have happened.

BOOK: Squelch
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