No random rejections, reviews, or scans of early childhood scribblings this week — it’s the last day of my vacation! But rather than let Sunday go home empty-handed from Scribblings, here’s a randomly selected short story from the unpublished archives. Any resemblance to Night at the Museum is purely coincidental, as this story predates it by many years; any resemblance to the “Zuni Fetish Doll” episode of the old Trilogy of Terror television movie, on the other hand, is less coincidental, although I play the scenario more for comedy than for horror.
One interesting thing about this story is its reliance on the Internet for a few plot points, making it probably one of the first stories I wrote that did so. Another issue that befell this story is that, as I used to do with all my books and stories, it was originally stored in Microsoft Binder format — a format that has since been abandoned. Although there is an extractor that is supposed to be able to pull the contents of a Binder file out into their component files, it didn’t work all that well on this file, and I was forced to reconstruct it by looking at the binary (gibberish-filled) Binder file itself, and piece the story together that way. I think I got all of it, but I’m not completely sure (although I do know that the ending that’s there is original and complete). The moral of this story is to be wary of weird minor proprietary file formats, or else to make sure you always keep (and can run) a copy of the original software that created the files.
And now for our feature presentation, “The Patter of Little Feet”!
The Patter of Little Feet
“It looks like somebody stabbed him with the statue,” Marconi said. Walsh had to agree, even though it was one of the weirder theories he’d heard. Normally an object like this one-a semi-naked woman about eighteen inches tall-would be used as a blunt instrument. However, this particular figurine held a spear that was half again as long as the statue. The upper third of the weapon was gummy with drying blood.
The figurine stood on a shelf behind the victim, one Wally Kernan. The monitor displayed a chat room window; Kernan had taken a header onto the keyboard after being stabbed, sending a burst of gibberish over the Internet and alerting his cyber-buddies that something was wrong. Walsh wasn’t sure how they could tell that nonsense from all the other nonsense floating around out there, but at least one of them had had the sense to e-mail Kernan’s ISP, which had contacted the police.
“Okay,” Marconi said. “Somebody comes in, takes Athena off the shelf, stabs this schmuck in the back, puts her on the shelf again, and leaves.”
“And chains the door,” Walsh added.
“Um … yeah,” Marconi said. He scratched his balding head. “Well, he must’ve gone out a window or something.”
One of the crime scene guys poked his head into the study. “Detectives?”
“Yeah?” Marconi said.
“The house is locked up tighter than Buntz’s liquor cabinet. All windows latched, all doors chained.”
Walsh said: “Any sign of the perp?”
“Looks like a locked-room scenario,” Walsh said.
Marconi grunted. “Those only happen in mystery novels,” he said. “If the place is locked from the inside, then the perp is still here somewhere, and nobody’s going home until we find him.”
Five hours later, Walsh let himself into his apartment. It smelled like pasta sauce; he wondered when he had cooked recently, then remembered that Elaine had said something about coming over and making dinner this week. He stuck his head in the kitchen. A couple of pots were soaking in the sink. He checked the dining nook; the table was set for two places.
Walsh tossed his keys onto the counter and walked into the living room. The television was on, tuned to a late show; Elaine lay sprawled on the couch, apparently sleeping. He went to the television and switched it off; when he turned around, her eyes were open. “What happened this time?” she said.
“A guy got murdered with a statue,” he said. “His doors were chained and his windows were locked. Marconi made everyone stay and search the place ten times.”
She sat up, making room for him on the couch. “And?”
“We got squat. No breaking and entering, no sign of burglary, no prints, no nothing.”
“So whoever bashed this guy’s head in is still loose?”
“Oh, his head wasn’t bashed in. He was stabbed.”
“With a statue?”
“It’s a woman holding a spear.”
Elaine yawned, stretched, and stood up. “Well,” she said, “the pasta is in the fridge. It won’t be as good as it was three hours ago but it’s the only real food you’ve got.”
“But I just got here.”
“I only hung around to hear your excuse.”
“See you later, Chuck.” She walked up the hallway and out the door. Walsh spent the rest of the evening eating spaghetti and thinking up ways to get even with Marconi.
The phone rang at five in the morning. Walsh cracked an eye and glared at it; only Marconi would dare call so early. He picked up the handset and mumbled a curse.
“Same to you, Sleeping Beauty,” Marconi said. “I’m waiting for you on Kernan’s front step.”
Walsh sat up. “Why? What happened?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. And since the stakeout hasn’t produced results, I thought you and I could search the place one more time. You need the practice, anyway.”
Walsh rubbed his mouth. “It’s not even daylight yet.”
“Who needs daylight? We have electricity. See you soon.”
“But-” Marconi had already hung up. Walsh lay in bed for a few minutes, wishing he could be the senior partner. Just for one day.
Twenty minutes later, Walsh arrived at Kernan’s house. As promised, Marconi was waiting for him on the porch. As Walsh climbed the stairs, his partner said: “Took you long enough.”
“I had to make myself pretty for you,” Walsh said.
“Hm. In that case, it didn’t take you long enough.”
They entered the foyer and were transported to Kernanland, a magical world of antiques and knickknacks and kitschy junk. Walsh wondered if the victim sold these items, or just collected them. It might make a difference.
Marconi decided they would start in the attic, an airless space crammed with boxes of crap-or priceless treasures, depending on your point of view-and from there they moved room by room toward the basement, searching for the perp. Marconi remained convinced that the killer was hiding somewhere in the house, but Walsh wasn’t so sure. The crime scene guys had taken the place apart, and found nothing.
Walsh visited the victim’s bathroom while Marconi proceeded into the basement. Even the toilet looked like a curio shop. After a while he joined his partner downstairs. The cellar was lined with heavy bookshelves full of moldering science fiction titles; Walsh was startled to discover that one of the units had been moved away from the wall, revealing a ragged hole. Walsh went to the hole and peered inside. The space beyond was maybe six feet on a side, its dirt walls and roof shored up with ratty two-by-fours, crude plank shelving running between the supports. A battery-powered lamp hung from one of the beams, giving off a harsh white light that made the garish pornography titles look even brighter.
Marconi sat on the dirt floor, idly flipping through a magazine. When he noticed Walsh gawking at him, he said: “Looky what I found.”
Walsh stuck his head in and looked around. “I guess Kernan didn’t just deal in antiques, huh?”
“I guess not,” Marconi said.
“Is this stuff legal?”
“Mostly. It’s real trash though.”
“So why’d he go through all this trouble?”
“Who knows? Maybe he was hiding it from his mother.” Marconi gestured at the bookcase, which had hidden wheels underneath and chrome handles bolted to its backside so it could be easily pulled back. “The crew should’ve found this spot. I bet it’s where the perp was hiding.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
Marconi put the magazine down and clambered out of the cubby. “Where else could he have been? I’m going to make them go over it with their toothbrushes.” He took out his cell phone and clomped upstairs.
After a moment, Walsh bent over and squeezed into the tiny secret room. He took a pencil out of his pocket and used the eraser to flip through the pornography. There were a few titles that might’ve gotten Kernan busted, but nothing that explained the trouble he’d taken to hide his collection. Maybe Marconi was right; maybe it was sheer embarrassment.
He came upon a thin book. The unlabeled cover was rough leather, blackened with age and stained by water and mildew. Curious, Walsh put the pencil away and slipped the book out of the box. All the pages fell out, fluttering to the floor. “Shit!” he exclaimed.
“What the hell are you doing?” Marconi poked his head into the hole. “You’re making a mess.”
“I found a book.”
“Yeah, I found it too, but I didn’t pick it up.”
“How was I supposed to know the binding was shot?”
“Try checking the spine next time, Sherlock.”
Walsh knelt down and started picking up pages. “Yeah, well, it didn’t match Kernan’s pornos so I wanted to take a look at it.” The thick, dry, inflexible pages were hand-lettered in Greek and illustrated with pictures of little statues like Athena. Walsh proffered one to his partner. “Check this out. Owner’s manual.”
Marconi examined the paper. “He must’ve gotten this when he got the statue.”
“Why would he stick it in with his pornos?”
“Maybe he liked to beat off to pictures of naked statue chicks,” Marconi said. “Did you get all the pages?”
“I think so.” Walsh got down on his hands and knees and peered under the bottom shelf. It was only a few inches off the floor, with darkness beneath it. He brought the lamp down to illuminate the space. Sure enough, one of the little bastards had found its way in there. He tried to get it out, but his arm didn’t fit through the opening.
“Will you quit screwing around?” Marconi said.
“I lost a page.”
“Let the crime scene guys recover it. Look, you’re leaving fibers and shit all over the place. Get out of there.”
Walsh hung the light back up and crawled out of the opening. He handed the book-now a jumble of pages crammed into the leather jacket-to Marconi, who sighed and said, “Looks like my daughter’s art notebook.”
“I’ll take it to the lab,” Walsh said.
“You do that. And try to stay out of trouble for a while, okay?”
Walsh didn’t recognize the tech in charge of the forensics laboratory-Mary Stuart, according to her nametag. She opened the book and gingerly flipped a few pages. She looked up at Walsh. “Where’d this come from?”
“We found it in a secret room in Kernan’s basement.”
“Is this Greek?”
“Looks like it.”
“Huh. I might be able to get some fibers off it, but this material is shit for fingerprints. Karl!”
A voice from the back of the lab said: “Yeah?”
“Is that professor still working at the college?”
“The bug lady?”
“No, the language guy.”
“I think so.”
“Call him and tell him I’ve got something for him.” She turned back to Walsh. “Since this book is mostly pictures it shouldn’t take the professor long to translate it.”
“By the way, you can take Athena. We’re done with her.”
“Well, we’re running more tests on the blood. We think the sample might’ve gotten contaminated.”
“It seems to contain more than one blood type, which is impossible unless the victim was some kind of mutant.”
“Anything else? Prints? Hairs?”
“Nope. And only a few fibers from the victim’s home. He must’ve been a fanatical housekeeper.”
“So you got nothing at all?”
“We prefer the technical term diddly-squat,” she said.
“I’m surprised to see you before seven,” Eileen said. She was sitting on Walsh’s couch, watching television and puffing on one of his cigars.
He put his briefcase down in the hallway and came into the living room. “I get home on time once in a while,” he said. “Since when do you smoke?”
“Since when do you?”
“Usually after we close a tough case.”
“Well, I thought it was a box of chocolates. Then I decided to try one.” She raised an eyebrow at him, took a long puff on the cigar, and stubbed it out on a saucer. “Tastes like shoe leather. What’s in the bag?”
He was still hanging onto the statue, which they had given to him in a paper sack as if it were his lunch. “This,” he said, “is the murder weapon.”
“Really? Can I see it?”
Pause. “You really want to?”
“I had no idea you were so morbid.”
“Just curious,” she said.
Walsh shrugged, brought the bag over to the coffee table, and rolled down the top to reveal the figurine. He could see where the lab techs had scraped away bits of blood from the spear. Eileen bent forward, inspecting the statue. “Nice workmanship,” she said. “This isn’t resin. What is it, marble?”
“Is it genuine?”
“Not sure. We’ll have to get it authenticated.” Walsh moved around to look at Athena from a different angle. Her head was cocked to the side and a slight smile played on her tiny lips, as if she knew a secret. Her white hands curled delicately around the shaft of the spear, ready at any moment to bring the point rearing up against an enemy. The robe hung off her shoulders, draped over her elbows, open in the front to exposing her perfectly-formed breasts. One shapely leg emerged from the folds of fabric, ending in a sandal-clad foot. Each tiny toe was flawlessly rendered.
He frowned. Something wasn’t quite right; Athena looked a little different than he remembered. But in what way?
Elaine said, “Can I pick it up?”
“Sure. Um, hang on a sec.” Walsh went to the kitchen and got a pair of rubber gloves from under the sink, but when he brought them back into the living room Elaine was holding Athena upside down, looking at the bottom of the pedestal. Walsh sighed and said, “I told you to wait.”
“You said the lab was done with it.”
“That doesn’t you can get your fingerprints all over it. Here.” He tossed her the gloves. She made a face at him, but she put them on.
“I’m gonna go change,” Walsh announced.
Elaine didn’t comment.
“I say that just in case anyone’s interested.”
After a moment Walsh went to his bedroom. When he came out a few minutes later, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, Elaine had put the statue back on the coffee table. The rubber gloves were in a heap beside it. She had pulled her feet up on the couch and was eyeing the statue, her chin resting on her knees.
“So what’s the verdict?” Walsh said, sitting down next to her.
“Fake,” she said.
“Mainly, it’s too perfect. It looks like you just brought it home from Pier One.” She nudged Athena with her toe. “Can I take it to work with me? I’d like to show it to somebody, see what he thinks.”
Walsh rubbed his chin. “Well …”
“Don’t worry,” Elaine said. “We handle things like this all the time. We’re a museum.”
“A modern art museum.”
“It’s all art in the end.”
“That’s debatable,” Walsh said.
“You let your girlfriend borrow the murder weapon?” Marconi dropped his Danish and stared at Walsh as if he had lost his mind.
“She asked for it,” Walsh said.
“My wife asks for stuff too, but I don’t give it to her, for Christ’s sake.”
“She works for the museum. I thought maybe they could tell us if the statue’s real or not.”
“Normally we decide which experts will look at our evidence.” Marconi picked up his pastry and tore a piece off with his fingers. He waved it at Walsh as if it were evidence. “You know how it works. Chain of custody and all that shit.”
“So what the hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know.” Pause. “When we get it back, we’ll just pretend it didn’t happen.”
Marconi shook his head. “I should write you up for this. You’re lucky I’m feeling generous.”
“Must be the Danish. Hey, did the guys find anything in Kernan’s cubby?”
“Aside from the page you dropped? Not much. They’re going over it again today.”
“What was on the page?”
“A drawing of Kernan’s statue.” Marconi stuffed another piece of Danish into his mouth. “Kernan wrote on it. Underneath the Greek, or whatever that shit was. Like he was translating. I gave it to the lab.”
“What’d it say?”
“It didn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Marconi said. “It was some shit about bringing Athena to life. There was also a note. Kernan seemed to think he was going to use Athena to get even with someone named Bob.”
“Yeah. Useful, huh? Only about a million of those.”
“Sounds like Wally didn’t have both oars in the-hang on, I’m buzzing.” Walsh checked his pager; it was the lab. “Hey, I need to call the lab. Let me borrow your cellular, I forgot mine at the office.”
Marconi grudgingly handed over his phone. Walsh got Mary on his second try. “Remember I told you the specimen was contaminated?” she said.
“Well, it wasn’t. We definitely scraped off three different blood types. We don’t know for sure how many sources there were, but-”
“So there was other blood on the spear?”
“Yep. It can’t all be the victim’s, but only his is fresh. The rest seems to be pretty old. Luckily I’m not the one who has to figure out what it means. Hey, by the way, Professor Dickinson called. He said that book is just gibberish.”
“Yeah. The letters are Greek but they don’t make words. He thinks it’s some kind of code, so he’s having one of his buddies in the computer science department try to decrypt it. He says it shouldn’t be too hard since Marconi gave us a page that was already done.”
“Okay, thanks. Keep us posted.”
“Will do,” Mary said.
Walsh folded up the phone and handed it back to Marconi, who said: “Well?”
“The statue’s got blood on it besides Kernan’s.”
“Yeah. Is it the perp’s?”
“No, Mary said it was too old. She also said the book isn’t Greek. The language guy thinks it’s in code. He’s got his nerd friends trying to break it.”
“That doesn’t sound like the kind of paperwork you’d expect to get with an antique,” Marconi said.
“Kernan spent over two grand on Athena. That’s a hell of an outlay for an action figure. If I spent that much on an antique and it turned out to be fake, I’d go after whoever sold it to me. You ever hear of a flame war?”
“A flame war. It’s when people get online and start insulting each other. It’s like a blood feud for these Internet junkies.”
“You think the guy who sold him Athena killed him because of one of these flame war things?”
“Maybe,” Marconi said.
“Should we pick him up?”
“Nah. He lives in Ohio. We’ll fax whatever we find to his local PD and let them do the work. If they get enough evidence, they’ll extradite him.”
Walsh stirred his orange juice. The pulp, or something, had collected into a little scrim on the surface. “So what’s the plan for today?”
“Today you’re visiting Kernan’s favorite Web sites. I’m going through all his receipts and certificates.”
“Are we looking for anything in particular?”
“Nope. But we’ll know when we find it.”
By the end of the day, Walsh’s eyes felt about ready to fall out of his head. “Man,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “if I wanted to spend hours and hours on the Internet, I would’ve become a pornographer.”
“It’s not all busting perps and interrogating hookers,” Marconi said. He sat on the floor amid a confusion of papers and register receipts. “It’s also combing through stacks of shit like this.”
“Yeah, yeah. Is it too much to ask for a smoking gun?”
“Afraid so,” Marconi said.
Walsh’s beeper started humming as he spoke; he didn’t recognize the number, but he called it anyway. A woman answered on the first ring. “Chuck! Is that you?”
“Listen, Chuck, Martin’s dead and it’s gone-”
“Whoa, slow down. Who’s Martin? What’s gone?”
“The statue. I went to pick it up from his office and he’s dead and the statue’s gone!”
“Dead like a heart attack, or-”
“Dead like stabbed!” Elaine said.
“Who stabbed him?”
“How should I know? We’re closed, no one should be in here but us. Chuck … there’s a hole in his door. It’s about the same size as the statue.”
After a moment, Walsh said: “Are you telling me Athena busted through this Martin guy’s door?”
“I don’t know. Just get here, please! Something … something’s moving around out there. I can hear it. I can hear its feet.” She hung up, or the line went dead; he wasn’t sure which. He stood up.
Marconi said: “What the hell’s going on?”
“Somebody killed the guy who was looking at Athena. Elaine thinks the perp is still in the building.”
“Fuck, what a break,” Marconi said. “Let’s go.”
The museum offices were adjacent to the museum itself, in a converted mansion; the two buildings were connected by a glassed-in walkway. There were three cars in the lot. Marconi parked illegally right in front of the entrance. He and Walsh jumped out of their car and were immediately surrounded by the six uniformed officers Marconi had called in. “Spread out,” he told them. “I want every inch of the grounds under surveillance. You know what to do.”
As Marconi spoke, Walsh went into the office building. Although it still looked like a nineteenth-century estate, the interior had been gutted and redone in tile and glass. From the lobby, he could go left, right, or up. He had no idea where Martin’s office was. He flipped open his cell phone and called the number again. Elaine didn’t answer, but he heard a distant ring from above. He ran upstairs just as Marconi entered and called, “Walsh, wait up!”
The stairs let him onto a single corridor running front to back. The ringing phone was in an office at the far end; the door, which said Kenneth Martin, faced him. There really was an Athena-sized hole in it. His first thought was that the perp had kicked it in; but the shards of glass lay in the hallway, indicating that the breaking force had come from inside the office.
Marconi appeared beside Walsh, panting. “Slow down, God damn it,” he said. “You’re gonna get yourself-”
He broke off as Walsh ran up the hallway and flung the door open. The tiny office was lined with book-jammed shelves. A man, presumably Martin, sat behind a beat-up desk, head tipped back, eyes staring at the ceiling. A crimson stain blossomed on the front of his shirt and flowed down into his lap.
No sign of Elaine.
Walsh checked Martin’s wrist for a pulse. Nothing. He looked up as Marconi filled the doorway. “This the dead guy?” he said.
“Looks like it.”
“Don’t know.” He stood. “Maybe she got out.”
“Maybe the perp’s got her.” Marconi took out his radio. “Folks, be on the lookout for a woman, early thirties, five-two, black hair, name of Elaine Greenberg. We could have a hostage situation.” He clicked off.
They retraced their path up the hallway, checking each room along the way. All the offices were empty, so they returned to the lobby. Marconi pressed his finger to his lips and motioned Walsh toward the museum, then started in the opposite direction.
Walsh slowly walked up the breezeway. Through the glass walls he could see the uniforms prowling the grounds. He pushed open the swinging doors at the end of the corridor and entered the museum, walking out into the atrium. It rose high overhead, a hollow cube ringed with balconies. He spotted a crimson streak along the tile floor; it led to the body of a man in a suit. He had dragged himself almost all the way to the front door before collapsing.
Walsh drew his gun. “Elaine!” he shouted.
Then he heard a quick patter from above: small, hard sounds, like marbles clicking against stone. He turned his head, trying to follow as the noises moved along one of the balconies, then started down the stairs. The sounds echoed in the hollow building, making it difficult to tell exactly where they were coming from.
What the hell was it?
He drew his gun and slowly walked backwards, passing a horseshoe-shaped kiosk where they handed out brochures during the day. He backed into it.
Elaine’s hiss was so unexpected that he nearly spun and shot her. She had wedged herself into the tiny space beneath the kiosk where the receptionist’s legs would go. “It’s the statue, Chuck,” she whispered. “It’s alive.”
“That’s crazy,” he said; but it sure didn’t sound like human feet running around out there. And anyway, how had Kernan been killed in his locked house? What about the extra blood? What about the hole in the door?
What about the fact that it was impossible?
Then he saw her, just for an instant: Athena. She moved like a little person, darting out of the northwest stairwell, looking around with seemingly sightless eyes, and vanishing behind a rack of African tribal masks.
“She would’ve gotten me if Mike hadn’t come in when he did,” Elaine whispered. “She stabbed him instead.”
He didn’t know who Mike was. “We’ll get out of here,” Walsh said, looking all around, trying to locate Athena. She seemed to be holding still, wherever she was. “Don’t worry.”
“Sorry, Chuck,” she said. “I’m worried.”
The swinging doors banged open and Marconi barged in. He saw Walsh and said, “I’ve got two bodies but no perp. How about you?” Instantly the little footsteps started up, racing toward him.
“Watch out!” Walsh shouted.
“What the hell-” Marconi jerked back as Athena sprang at him, holding her spear in both hands. She raked him across the stomach, slicing through his shirt and cutting into his bulletproof vest. Before Marconi could react, she landed lightly, turned, and jammed her shaft into his thigh. He howled and went down.
Walsh vaulted the kiosk and fired. His shot zinged the floor in front of the statue. Her little head turned to him, her tiny eyes narrowed, a comical expression of rage on her face as she threw her spear at him. She must’ve figured out about the vests because she aimed for his head. Walsh ducked; the stone shaft nicked his ear and thunked into the kiosk. He fired again, missed again. Athena darted forward, but Marconi kicked her with his uninjured leg, sending her sliding across the floor. She clattered up against the base of a big modern art piece that looked like an elephant’s ass.
Before she could pick herself up, Walsh’s next shot shattered her completely. Athena vanished in a cloud of dust and marble fragments. When it cleared, all that was left was one foot and part of her head.
Marconi said, through gritted teeth: “Just as well. We never would’ve gotten cuffs on the bitch.”
Three weeks later, Walsh watched Marconi walk to his desk and sit down. He leafed through the get-well cards and grimaced at the army of weapon-wielding statuettes and action figures that had accumulated in his absence. He delicately picked the figurines up and threw them away, one by one.
Buntz came out of his office. “Marconi. C’mere.”
Marconi glanced at Walsh, then got up and followed the captain into the other room. The door banged shut. Walsh toyed with his pencil for a few minutes, then retrieved the figurines from the trash and set them back up on Marconi’s desk.
At length, Marconi came out and sat down. He gazed at the figurines almost sadly.
“So what’d you tell him?” Walsh said.
Marconi didn’t look up. “The truth, same as you,” he said. “Some nut job was running around the museum with Athena. When you blew her to bits, he freaked out and escaped.”
“Amazing none of the other guys saw him.”
“Yeah,” Marconi said, without enthusiasm.
“Who’d have thought a museum wouldn’t have video surveillance?”
“I bet they put it in now,” Marconi said.
“A little late. No cigar for us this time, huh?”
“Nope,” Marconi said.
The phone rang. Walsh picked it up. “Yeah?” He listened for a few minutes, then said, “Okay. We’ll be right there.” He hung up.
“Who was that?”
“Elaine. She says the elephant’s ass statue is gone. Says there’s a big hole in the front door, too.”
“Terrific,” Marconi said. “You think Athena is sending it to find us?”
“Well, that’s what the book said would happen if she was destroyed,” Walsh said. “Hey, you think the SWAT team will let us borrow a bazooka?”