The third floor of the warehouse smelled like the zookeepers had gone on strike. That wasn’t as bad as the noise, though—creatures howling, roaring, screeching and jumping around like teenagers at a rave party.
Lotus shoved Montgomery onto the floor. “Stay. Stay!” He laughed like a hyena.
I watched Montgomery crawl across the floor. Murrow sat against a locker door, blood soaking his chest. Still breathing.
So, not dead. Not yet. But he didn’t look too good. He leaned against Montgomery’s shoulder, gasping.
The puma shoved me to the ground next to them, snarling. “Tom. Tom?”
I tried to sit. “Yeah, that’s me. Tom. What’s your name?”
He, or she, or it seemed confused. As if nobody had ever asked that basic question. “Twillith. I am four gen. The best.”
I nodded. “I can see that.”
Montgomery pulled on my arm. “Don’t talk to them.”
“Shut up.” I didn’t want to hear from him anymore. The animals were dancing around—a potbelly pig on thick legs, a goat with twisted horns on two unsteady feet, and a red fox, darting in zigzags around the room.
Two wolf-like creatures circled each other, barking, until the bigger wolf darted forward to bite an ear. The smaller wolf laughed—a human laugh, tinkling like a song—and then they rushed at each other. They wrestled around on the hard concrete floor, and then the larger wolf mounted the other one from behind. “Yah . . . yah!”
“Yah!” The smaller wolf shuddered. “Yah . . . yah . . .”
Lotus—the big creature—barked. Abruptly the shouting and howling died. Even the two wolves slowed their mating. They sank down on the floor, breathing hard.
Lotus stalked toward us. His face was covered with dark hair, but his eyes were bright as stars. He planted one fist on the floor and reared up on his back legs.
“What is the rule?” His voice was clear.
Silence. All the animals were gazing at us.
Murrow lurched up. “Obey. The rule is—”
“Obey.” Lotus slapped a thick hand across Murrow’s face. “What is the second rule?”
“Stand on two legs.” Murrow lurched up. “I taught you that. Eat your feed. What we give to you. I fed you. Stay in your pens. That’s for your safety . . .”
The animals around us growled.
“Third rule!” Lotus lifted his arms. “Quiet!”
Silence. The creatures shifted, murmuring impatiently.
Lotus crouched in front of Murrow. “What is the rule?”
Murrow wrapped an arm around the wound in his chest. “Obey! That is the rule!”
Lotus reached out, grasping Murrow’s neck. “Obey.” His fingers tightened around Murrow’s throat.
“No . . . no . . .” Murrow’s voice shuddered. “Help me . . .”
“Don’t kill him!” Montgomery kicked the floor, watching Murrow gasp for breath. “We’ll help you! We’ll do things different! Tell us what you want!”
The pig-man darted forward. Montgomery screamed as it chomped on his leg. Lotus pushed it back, scowling, but the pig scampered back into a corner and chewed on the fresh flesh it had ripped from Montgomery’s leg.
“Lotus . . .” Murrow coughed, fighting for air. “I only wanted to help you. Lift you up. Can’t you understand that?”
Lotus growled. “No. Never say no. That is a rule. But I say no. No!”
Then Lotus pounded Murrow’s head on the floor, over and over again until blood gushed across the concrete.
I looked away.
The animals behind him jumped up and down, barking and growling and howling in bloodthirsty glee. The pig-man rolled on its back, an ugly chortling noise rising from its throat. The two wolves rushed at each other, laughing. The goat danced in a circle, throwing its head up and down as its hooves slipped along the floor.
Only Twillith, the puma, stood silently. But even she licked her lower jaw at the sight of Murrow’s blood spilling from his broken skull.
Lotus reared up and roared. “Murrow! Murrow! Murrow!”
I looked at Montgomery. His eyes were closed, his face pale as a shroud while blood dripped from the gash in his leg.
I tried to concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply. I’ve faced vampires, demons, and dragons, and somehow I’ve always managed to get out alive. So far. But this felt like the time I wouldn’t get lucky.
Rachel was going to be so mad at me.
Montgomery’s question was right, though: What did they want? They hadn’t asked to be born, vivisected, experimented on, and then locked up in cages.
But what could I offer them? They couldn’t run wild on the streets. Vampires were bad enough, but at least they slept during the day and kept a low profile at night. The creatures here couldn’t be controlled. They’d been brutalized too long, like pit bulls trained only to fight. The pig-man had already tasted blood.
And Lotus had killed Nic.
But I had to do something. Say something. If I was going to die—and I really didn’t want to—I wasn’t going to go without talking one last time.
“Lotus?” I lifted my voice. “Lotus!”
Twillith heard me. Her upper lip curled in a snarl. The rest of Murrow’s animals kept dancing and howling until Lotus whirled around, saw my mouth move, and then suddenly sank down on his haunches, licking his lips. “Speak. Speak!”
The animals went silent. Except for the two horny wolves, growling at each other in a corner.
Now what? I coughed, wishing for a sip of water. Or one last beer. “You don’t have to kill us.”
Lotus laughed. “Why?”
Montgomery groaned. “Don’t. Please don’t.”
I struggled to sit up. “You can be better. Better than them. Run. Far away. Outside. Get away. Live. Leave us. But live. You can do it. Be better.”
Lotus leaned forward. I flinched as he grabbed my neck and yanked me close, peering into my face. His eyes glowed like red stars at twilight.
“Tom.” His voice was low.
“T-tom.” I couldn’t nod. I couldn’t even breathe.
Then Twillith was behind him, her eyes gleaming. She crouched and planted a paw on Lotus’ shoulder.
“Run away,” she whispered. “We run away.”
Lotus grunted. I closed my eyes and wondered how much this would hurt. Maybe if it was over fast—
Then Lotus stood up and raised his arms, his mouth split in a demonic grin.
“Yes!” His voice was a roar. “Run away! Run!”
I looked up at Twillith and tried to smile. “Run,” I murmured. “Run fast.”
The puma nodded silently. “Yes.”
Then the lights went out.
And the shooting began.
I sat in the Honda with the door open, staring at a cup of coffee that someone had given me. Rachel sat next to me.
“This guy named Adrian ran out the front door.” She ran a hand through her hair. “He sounded—crazy. And I couldn’t call you. So I called the cops. Was that all right?”
Adrian. Some guy working with Murrow on an experiment. I’d forgotten all about him. I sipped the coffee. “You did the right thing. Thank you.”
“I didn’t think they’d send a whole SWAT team, but when Adrian started talking—I mean, the patrol guy listened, and then there was all this shouting and howling from the top floor, and they decided to call in the cavalry. What the hell happened in there?”
I closed my eyes. I’d almost had it under control. Murrow’s creatures could have escaped, run away. Even Lotus, who’d killed two humans. And Twillith. She’d tried to help me, in her way.
But the cops had killed the lights and come in with night goggles, firing at everything that moved. I hit the floor, hands over my head, heart pounding, more afraid of dying than I’d been with Lotus’ hand around my neck. Screams, howls, and gunfire burned my ears.
I heard Lotus roaring and Montgomery cursing. A hoof pounded my arm as the goat tried to flee from the bullets. Sparks flew as bullets ricocheted off the cages. The pig-man screamed.
I lay on the floor until the lights came back on. I stayed there until I was sure the shooting was over, and then I lifted one hand. “Hello? Don’t shoot. Harmless.”
The cops yanked me up, asked me a few questions, then took me downstairs.
Montgomery was dead. All the animals were dead. Murrow . . . I saw a body bag being carted into an ambulance.
Damn it. I sipped some more coffee. But right now I wanted some more of Murrow’s whiskey. “He was . . . trying to build human-animal hybrids. That’s what killed Nic. His name was Lotus. He was—they were . . .”
I dropped the coffee outside the door. “Goddamn it.”
Rachel patted my arm. “I’ll get you another coffee. There’s an all-night place around the corner.”
I wiped my eyes. “That’s not what I meant. But—okay, fine.”
Just then a big cop in body armor marched to my door. “Mr. Jurgen? If you’re all right, we’d like for you to come down and make a statement.”
“Sure.” I stood up. “Rachel, can you drive? I think—”
Across the street, in the alley, something flickered. Two eyes. I leaned against the car. “Give me a minute, all right?”
“Just follow that vehicle.” The cop pointed to a flashing van.
I narrowed my eyes. Was it—? Not Lotus. Too tall, too slender.
Twillith raised a hand. Her jaw dropped, flashing her teeth. Then she turned and ran down the alley.
“Run, puma.” My throat felt raw and hoarse. “Just—run.”
# # #
[Author’s note: Knowledgeable readers will recognize this as an homage to the classic H.G. Wells novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Go read it. And watch out for strange animals in the night.]