Wednesday, December 14, 2011
"No sign of the monkey," he said. "I couldn’t tell if any of the bullets got him, but if not, the fall certainly did."
"He ain’t no monkey," Red muttered. "He’s a dang gorilla."
"Aw, he isn’t so big. He’s a runt baboon,” Big Ben muttered. “He only comes up to your knees.”
"He’s bigger than that," Red said. "I bet he weighs close to 300 pounds. And he’s pretty smart. He understands everything those guys say, even when they’re talking in that ancient Babylon language."
One of the other toughs started to argue with Red but Big Ben interrupted. "Shut up! None of that matters. We saw the plane crash. That took care of the Steel Captain and two of his helpers. The boys in Kansas City took car of the skinny guy. We killed Simian Sam Jones last night and had his pet pig for breakfast this morning."
He stopped and looked over at two of the members of the gang who were looking up from a motionless figure.
"How’s Diamond Jim doing?" Big Ben asked.
"He’s dead, boss," said the one called Drake. "One of our bullets got him right in the heart."
Big Ben nodded. "That takes care of Porky Lodge, the greatest lawyer in the U.S. Now he’s the greatest lawyer in Hell, so who cares about his pet baboon even if he did survive that fall off the cliff? We got work to do and a dam to blow up. And nobody’s left to stop us."
He pointed at the body of Porky. "Duke, Weepy, take him under those trees and cover him with leaves and brush. The rest of you come with me."
As the others followed Ben to the camp, Red hesitated by the cliff and listened nervously. After a moment, he shook his head worriedly and rushed to catch up with the others.
If he had waited a few minutes, Red might have noticed some rustling and scrambling and pebbles falling. If he had listened closely and blocked out all the noise ― the wind, the rushing water of the nearby falls, the noises from the camp ― Red might have detected the ape’s careful progress up the cliff.
Probably not. Test Tube could be very quiet when quiet was needed.
When he was certain that no one was around, Test Tube scrambled on two short-but-not-too-short legs along the edge of the clearing. He quickly found the spot where the graveyard detail had hastily buried Porky Lodge under a pile of dry leaves and brush.
Test Tube crept up on Porky’s body very slowly; perhaps, like a human, he was hoping the apparition of his longtime friend, lifeless and abandoned, would disappear before he could touch it. Test Tube held his eyes tightly closed long enough for a few deep breaths.
But it was no use. When he opened his eyes, Porky’s body was still there.
Test Tube finally gathered the strength of will to reach out and touch the corpse with the tip of his finger, then with his whole hand. He carefully brushed the plant matter from Porky’s staring face and scooted closer to look into the dead eyes of his friend.
He pushed the corpse’s shoulder and slapped the pale face, and still there was no sign of life. He chirped at Porky, trying to get him to wake up and come along for the final scuffle with the bad humans. They had caused a lot of trouble and killed a lot of people. They had also eaten Deposition, Simian Sam’s pet pig. They would have to be punished.
Finally, Test Tube realized he would have to do the punishing himself. Alone.
Test Tube expressed his grief with a powerful shriek, loud and shrill and heart-stopping to all those within earshot possessing guilty souls.
Test Tube stopped and, panting, crouched behind Porky’s corpse and listened. He realized the noise might bring his enemies out of their tents and cabins and away from their duties.
But nothing happened. Complete silence reigned, a fearful silence, as if all Nature was showing respect for the grief of the strange, sorrowful creature. Test Tube could hear nothing but his own breathing and, far below, the rushing water of the river.
Soon, the bad men recovered some of their courage. The simian could hear them muttering as they rummaged around for their weapons and flashlights.
Perhaps it was time to go, Test Tube thought. He took one last look at Porky’s white face and he remembered the first time he saw his longtime human companion, in the Golden Swamp region of eastern Cuba. Test Tube had felt an uncontrollable urge to befriend the pathetic hairless animal, bringing him nuts and showing him the way to water. And Porky had responded and shown him how to smile and had taken Test Tube around the world on dozens of amazing adventures.
And now he was dead, killed by the bad men.
Test Tube let loose with another forlorn and eerie shriek, again frightening the bad men into silence.
Again the stillness reigned in the pine forest. The only sound, slight as it was, emanated from Test Tube as he scampered farther into the woods and disappeared among the trees.
"What’s everybody standing around for?" Big Ben wanted to know. "That little ape is alive, and he’s over by the body of that shyster. If we hurry, we can get him."
The men looked at each other a little nervously. Finally, Red spoke up.
"What can he do, boss? What’s the big deal? Seems kind of silly to go runnin’ around in the woods after some dead lawyer’s pet when we got real work to do. Besides, he ain’t that little," Red concluded.
"And I don’t see you busting your butt to get out there after that ape," Drake snorted.
Big Ben glared and took a deep breath. He removed his pistol from its holster and slowly pointed it to the side, in the direction of the shrieking they had heard. He didn’t aim it at anybody; he didn’t need to. The look on his face and his tight grip on the weapon showed them he meant business.
"It’s a little loose end we need to take care of," he growled. "We’re all going to take a little break and go hunting. We’re going to get that little baboon."
They all grabbed their weapons and hurried off in the direction of Porky Lodge’s body.
"He ain’t so little," Red muttered.
Drake was the first to feel the effects of Test Tube’s wrath. The ape dropped on him from above, knocked him to the ground, and chewed off a large piece of his face. Drake managed to get back to his feet and managed to scream, "Get him off me! Oh, God, get him off me!"
He had taken a few tentative, almost nerveless steps when one of the younger members of the gang, a bit nervous and a little trigger-happy, aimed and fired several times in Drake’s general direction.
Test Tube was nowhere to be seen. But a couple of the bad men got to see Drake spit up a gallon of blood as he expired.
Baby, the one who had killed Drake, gulped.
"I guess we’d better be a little more careful from now on, huh?" he said.
"I’d say so," Big Ben grumbled. He looked like he was thinking of shooting Baby.
Red probably saved Baby’s life when he said, "That ape is still out here, guys. Maybe we should go back to the cabin where we can come up with a better plan, one where we’re not shooting each other."
"Yeah," Baby said. "We need another plan."
"That ain’t all we need," Big Ben said grimly as he led them out of the forest.
Baby had his guts torn out about fifteen minutes later, while the gang was finalizing their revised plan to get Test Tube.
They wouldn’t let Baby take a leak in the cabin. He didn’t go far, just around the corner ― it really wasn’t much more than a fancy shed ― to the side of the cabin that didn’t have a window.
Big Ben could hear Baby and knew he hadn’t gone very far. "When I get hold of him …," Big Ben muttered. He didn’t finish because Baby started screaming.
They all listened for a few seconds that seemed like an eternity. Big Ben quickly regained his nerve.
"That ape’s right out there!" he shouted. "He’s a sitting duck! Somebody just needs to go out and shoot him! A piece of cake!"
They looked around nervously, at each other and at Big Ben.
"You go out and shoot him," somebody mumbled.
"Fine!" Big Ben shouted, grabbing a flashlight and pulling his weapon from its holster. "I’ll get that monkey. And then I’ll come back in here and shoot everybody that doesn’t come with me and help!"
In less than an hour, the gang ― what was left of it ― was back in the cabin, huddled in the center of the single room with their weapons aimed at the door or one of the windows or the fireplace or the loose place in the roof that ― according to one of the bad men ― the monkey could probably squeeze through if it had half a mind to.
"The ape is too big for that space," Big Ben growled. He was a little pale, Red noticed. And he had quit saying "monkey" when referring to the primate that was terrorizing them.
Several of the bad men nursed bite and claw wounds on their arms and shoulders. Another had been shot in the leg in the confusion.
Two others had been left for dead in the darkness, one after a shotgun blast to the chest, the other ― they weren’t sure what had happened to him. Every time they were sure he was dead, he would scream again. It was usually nothing more than fear-stricken gibberish. But at times, it sounded like "Help me!" or "God help me!" or "Why doesn’t it stop?!"
This went on at intervals until an hour before dawn.
"We’re going to leave that ape alone," Big Ben had muttered when they retreated to the cabin. "We’ll be out of here tomorrow. We’ll just leave that ape here to die." He looked around the room. “We’ve barely got enough men to do the job now!"
"Wuh – what time does the dynamite get here?" Chattanooga asked. He wasn’t from Chattanooga. He was from Queens. But he frequently hummed "The Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and it had become his nickname.
'It’s supposed to be here about 8 a.m.," Big Ben said. "In a truck marked ‘Sunlight Industries.’ Enough explosives to take out the Harrison Lake Dam, wash away the mining town and give the boys up north time to finish their little project before anybody gets wise."
There was thumping on the roof, like naked feet scampering across the shingles, followed by a thud on the ground next to the wall that didn’t have a door or window.
"He heard us!" Red shouted. "He knows all our plans!"
Big Ben stomped out the door and fired uselessly into the darkness.
"Damned ape," he grumbled. "I can’t see a thing."
Grant Woodbridge swore under his breath because he was running late. He wasn’t running terribly late, but he knew the people he was dealing with wouldn’t like it.
"I’ll just tell them I had to be careful with a truck full of explosives on these awful logging roads," he said to himself. 'They can’t argue with that."
He slowed down even more as he looked at the short message he had written in blue ink on the palm of his left hand. (Woodbridge thought this a good way to keep track of instructions or directions because you could just spit on it and rub it away, a good method for getting rid of incriminating evidence if the bulls got involved in one way or another.)
"They said to go two miles down this road to find the trail leading to the left, toward the river," he said out loud. "There it is!"
Woodbridge guided the truck onto a damp trail ― barely wide enough for the vehicle ― with a strip of bright green grass running down the middle. He drove slowly, careful of the ruts and bumps in the trail, worried about those spots where the trees grew right next to the path. In places, it was hard to see because the leafy boughs stuck out over the roadway.
"They’re paying plenty for this," Woodbridge said to himself. He sighed with weariness. "I’ll be glad when it’s over."
It was over for Grant Woodbridge a few minutes after that. Truth be told, he probably wasn’t very glad.
Something thumped on the top of the truck’s cab. Woodbridge, afraid that he had hit a low-hanging branch, stopped the truck to take a look at the damage. He never had a chance to open the door as Test Tube flew through the open window on the passenger side and threw himself on the unsuspecting truck driver.
Test Tube crouched over the body, breathing heavily, for a time. He started at the dashboard and at the pedals on the floor and at the steering wheel.
It had been some time since there had been any reason for him to operate a motor vehicle. His mind went back to that hilly city on the windy peninsula when he had saved Mikey Michaels and Skinny Kosterman and Frowner Sullivan by stealing an ambulance and driving it through a garage door.
He unceremoniously pushed Woodbridge’s body out the door and seated himself comfortably as he shifted from neutral to first gear and placed his hands at the "10" and "2" position on the steering wheel.
The bad men had left the cabin, but they made sure to keep their distance from the trees as, weapons ready, they carefully scanned the edges of the clearing for any sign of Test Tube.
Big Ben looked at his watch. "They’re late," he grumbled.
"Maybe we should go meet the truck," Red said timidly. "We’d get out of here quicker."
"That trail’s pretty narrow," said one of the bad men. "I sure wouldn’t want to walk down it, less than the length of a monkey’s arm from the forest."
Big Ben almost hissed at him to shut up but he stopped when he thought he heard an engine.
"Do you guys hear that?" he said.
"Yeah! That’s the truck!" someone said.
"Praise the Lord!" another shouted.
In less than a minute, the truck poked out of the forest, traveling from the logging trail into the clearing as it sloped down in the direction of the cabin and toward the cliff.
"About time," Big Ben muttered.
"Hey, Ben," Red said. "He’s coming a little faster now that he’s in the clearing."
"You’re right,' Big Ben said. "Hey, slow down, stupid!" he shouted, running forward as he waved his arms.
The truck was coming at them pretty quickly now. The door on the driver’s side opened and something dropped to the ground. It all happened too quickly for anyone to tell what it was in the seconds of life remaining to them.
By the time most of the bad men realized that something was dreadfully wrong with the truck, it was too late to do very much. Big Ben cursed as he got off a couple of shots into the cab. Some of the men just stared dumbly. A few of them ran away from the cabin, getting a little distance between themselves and the explosion. They died, just like the others, but at least their bodies weren’t as badly mangled.
Test Tube watched from behind an old stump as the truck zoomed right over Big Ben and crashed into the little cabin. The blast shook the mountainside and deafened Test Tube for a few hours. The truck didn’t quite disappear, but it was scarcely recognizable in its new form as a few charred bits of twisted metal.
A smoldering crater decorated the center of the clearing where the cabin had been. The federal authorities who had jurisdiction over the site would eventually identify the remains of eight men killed in the blast. (This was in addition to several others who had been killed by various methods in the recent past, most of which had been dragged to the edge of the clearing.)
Several hours later, the authorities had arrived and set up shop. They would be trying to figure out what had happened for a long time. Some of it would always be a mystery.
A tall, steel-haired woman showed up at the site of the carnage, escorted by a couple of very solicitous state troopers. It was easy to see why they were being so solicitous. She was very well put together. You could see that, despite the way she was bundled up for warmth against the unseasonal chill in the early autumn air.
Even the grayish tinge to her hair didn’t detract from her beauty. It wasn’t really gray at all, more of a silver or steel color. It was a trait she shared with her famous uncle, Captain Valhalla. The unusual color of her hair didn’t make her look old, not at all. It just made her different. Her steel hair gave her a hint of mystery that many men found quite intriguing.
One of the troopers introduced her to Mr. Cooper, the agent in charge of the investigation.
"This is Jessica Valhalla," the trooper said. "She’s Quentin Valhalla’s niece, the only one of his associates we could get hold of."
Jessica Valhalla suppressed a hint of a smile as she thought about what her uncle would think if he had heard the trooper calling her one of his "associates." Captain Valhalla did everything he could think of to keep her from participating in his exploits.
"How is Quentin?" she asked. "Has anything happened to him?"
"We don’t know anything about Captain Valhalla and the others, Miss Valhalla," Mr. Cooper said.
"Call me Jess," she smiled. "Everyone does."
He sighed. "You want it straight, Miss Valhalla? From what I’ve heard, you’re the type who can take it."
She nodded grimly. "Don’t hold anything back. The quicker you tell me what’s happened, the quicker I can start doing something about it."
"We think one of the dead men here is William Rutledge Lodge," he said quietly.
"Porky!" she gasped. 'No, it can’t be!"
After Jess had identified the body of Porky Lodge, one of the troopers escorted her back to her pink Studebaker. Suddenly, Test Tube came bouncing out of the bush.
The trooper raised his pistol but Jess told him there was no danger and she added what she would do to him if he hurt Test Tube.
Jess almost fell when the ape jumped into her arms and pressed his face into her neck.
"Test Tube!" she cried. "So good to see you! I thought you were dead!"
He whimpered into her shoulder. Jess thought for a moment that he was crying.
Then she noticed how bloody he was.
"Test Tube! You’re a mess," she said. "You’ve got dried blood all over you."
She didn’t put him down. But she did sit on a stump to transfer some of his weight onto her legs.
Jess looked around at all the government agents in the clearing, at the tarpaulins covering the bodies, at the giant crater, at the metal debris that used to be a truck.
Then she looked at the simian she was embracing.
"Test Tube," she said. "You naughty boy. Did you do this?"
Test Tube didn’t respond. He had fallen asleep in her lap.
The trooper grinned. "That monk don’t look big enough to steer a truck full of explosives into a shed," he said.
Jess smiled. "He’s bigger than he looks sometimes," she said. "Come on, Test Tube, let’s get you cleaned up and then we’ll go and find out what happened to Uncle Quentin and the others."