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THE RETURN OF ATTAK-MAN, Part One

Short story By: Philip Roberts
Horror



A science-horror story where the monster emerges from the PC game to eat its victims!


Submitted:Feb 14, 2011    Reads: 44    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


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Seated at his PC consul, Greg Hepburn unzipped a black carryall, and removed stationary that he had "borrowed" on "ninety-nine-year loan" from his work. Last of all, he lifted out what looked like two CD cases.

Greg powered up his PC, and cursed as the RAM seemed to take forever to install.

He slipped the first CD into the drive and started it up.

Instead of the Cult of Cthulhu game with Great Old Ones versus the Ancient Ones that he had expected, he saw the message, "Beware the Return of Attak-Man!"

"Oh no, a virus!" he cried, thinking it was a joke message.

Greg reached for the reset button, in the vain hope of keeping the bug out of his operating system. Then he stopped as the name "Attak-Man" rang a bell in his long-term memory.

"There was a PC game named Attak-Man in the early 1980s," he recalled. Deciding that they must have put the wrong game into the CD-box, he started to unload the CD, then stopped again.

Without knowing why, Greg clicked the print Icon on the menu bar to print the message, "Beware the Return of Attak-Man!" on his bubble-jet.

As the bubble-jet roared into life, he finally recalled where he had heard of Attak-Man.

"Of course, it was that rip-off version of Pac-Man in the mid 1980s!" He stopped for a moment, puzzled. "But I thought the makers of Pac-Man had Attak-Man taken off the market by the end of the '80s!"

When he looked back to the PC monitor, there was a face like a classic Punch doll, but with crocodile-like extended jaws staring out at him.

Greg started to smile as he recalled the tacky Attak-Man figure from his teens. But the smile quickly faded from his face when he realised that the glass screen of his monitor looked distorted.

"What is...?" he said staring. The glass screen was bulging outward as though it had suddenly turned to transparent rubber, soft and viscous, flowing almost like honey.

Greg stared spellbound in horror as the monitor continued to bulge outward toward him. Thinking it was going to explode, he wanted to reach out and turn off the power to the monitor. But as though developing a will of their own, his arms refused to respond and stayed where they were, hovering a centimetre above the keyboard of his computer.

He struggled to make his hands moved, without success as the screen continued to bulge outwards, till he realised that it was the visage of Attak-Man, complete with crocodile jaws that was protruding through the glass screen toward him.

* * *

In the kitchen, Illona Hepburn was cutting up potatoes when she heard her husband's hoarse screaming.

"Damn!" she cursed as the knife slipped and nicked her thumb.

She grabbed up a wet sponge to press to her bleeding hand, and then walked into the washhouse to get an old rag to tie to her thumb as a bandage.

Returning to the kitchen she called out, "What's the matter, Greg?" Under her breath, she added, "Don't tell me you can't get The Curse of Zondar or whatever to load on your computer?"

"Greg?" she called again after receiving no reply. Thinking, "He can't have hurt himself up there, can he?" She strode across to the bottom of the steps leading to the second floor bedrooms and looked up.

"Greg, are you okay?" she called up the stairs.

After a moment's indecision, Illona finally started up the stairs toward her husband's "play room" as she thought of it.

Inside the study she found her husband sitting at an orange kitchen chair, which had been missing for the last few days -- despite Greg's insistence that he had not taken it.

"So that's where it got to?" she muttered as she went across to tap her husband on the shoulder.

"Greg, I thought you swore you didn't have this...?" she said, jumping back in shock as he suddenly lurched forward and fell to the floor.

Seeing her husband's faceless corpse, brains on clear show, Illona raced out of the room, toward the bathroom to throw-up.

* * *

Puzzling over the faceless corpse of Greg Hepburn, Inspector Aaron Powell said, "Years ago there were stories of hyaenas chewing the faces off sleeping tourists in South Africa. But I've never seen anything like it in Australia before."

Fighting the rising bile, Sergeant Les Arnold looked away and saw the sheet of paper sitting on the laser printer. Picking it up, he read, "Beware the Return of Attak-Man!"

Taking the sheet from his sergeant, Aaron read it, and then explained, "That was a rip-off version of Pac-Man in the mid 1980s. There was a long running legal battle over it. I guess the makers of Attak-Man must have won, if it's back on the market."

"What's Pac-Man?" asked twenty-seven-year-old Les, who's freckle-faced complexion made him look about fourteen.

Wondering if his sergeant was having him on, Aaron said, "I'll explain later. It obviously can't have anything to do with the killing."

Hearing footsteps behind them, the two officers stepped aside to allow the two paramedics to stretcher out Greg Hepburn's faceless corpse.

* * *

Grey-haired George Long was appalled at the state of Greg Hepburn's corpse. Although he had been a paramedic thirty-plus years, he had never seen a more shockingly mutilated corpse. Feeling the bile start to rise in his throat, the sixty-three-year-old paramedic looked away so that he wouldn't throw up, and was surprised to see his young assistant, Tony Hobbs almost smiling as they placed Greg Hepburn on the stretcher and covered him with a corpse sheet.

"Ten years ago, you would have already thrown up and would now be dry-heaving," thought George. He recalled that as a twenty-year-old Tony had actually fainted after seeing a man with half his face shot away. "Now he can shrug it off like it's nothing!"

He recalled teasing Tony at the time, saying, "You soon get used to this sort of thing ... in twenty years or so!" But now he thought, "I guess I was wrong. It only took you ten years."

"Be careful going down the stairs with that," warned Senior Sergeant Jennifer Hanley, a lanky ash blonde, meeting the stretcher-bearers in the corridor.

George Long glared at Jenny; indignant that she would think he might drop one of his "charges". Even if that charge was long past hurting.

* * *

In the study, Aaron Powell looked round at the sound of footsteps. Seeing Jenny Hanley, he waved her over and filled her in on the mysterious murder of Greg Hepburn.

Then, after taking down Illona Hepburn's statement, Aaron and Les departed, leaving Jenny to stay with the widow for a while.

* * *

Returning to Russell Street a few hours later, Les and Aaron found Jennifer Hanley waiting for them.

As Aaron put down the CD-ROM case they had obtained from Illona Hepburn, Les asked, "What is the name of the computer game he was playing when he was killed?"

Picking up the CD case Jenny read out, "The Cult of Cth ... Cth ... thul ... kuh thul...?"

Taking the plastic case from her, Aaron Powell read out, "The Cult of Kuh-Thul-hu. Don't they teach you young kids anything at school anymore? Cthulhu is the leader of the Great Old Ones. The sworn enemies of the Elder Gods, who sometimes help humanity to fight the Great Old Ones!"

"Don't tell me you're into this kind of game-playing garbage?" asked Les.

"No, but I can read. So I've heard of Lovecraft and Cthulhu."

"So Attak-Man is one of these Great Old Ones?" asked Les.

"No, as I told you before, Attak-Man was a rip-off version of Pac-Man in the mid 1980s."

"Then why does the CD box say 'The Cult of Kuh-thul-hu'? And not 'The Revenge of Attak-Man'?"

Looking puzzled, Aaron looked at the CD case, then took the laser print-out from Les and read again, 'The Return of Attak-Man'." After looking back and forth between the two items for a moment, increasingly puzzled, Aaron finally said, "They must have put it into the wrong CD case."

"So Greg Hepburn actually meant to buy the Kuh-thul-hu game? Not 'The Revenge of Attak-Man'?"

"I guess so," agreed Aaron with a shrug.

* * *

After they had stretchered Greg Hepburn to the back of the ambulance, George Long slid open the small window and informed the driver, "No rush, this one is long dead."

"His face has been chomped right off," said Tony Hobbs, almost with glee. Taking a Mars bar from his coat pocket, he popped it open and began to munch it with relish.

"How can you be hungry after seeing that?" wondered George as the ambulance took off slowly. "Gee how you've changed over the last decade. When you first started, you wouldn't have eaten anything for days after seeing something as gruesome as that."

* * *

Forty-five minutes later the ambulance pulled up at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Parkville. The corpse was rushed to an operating theatre; however, the surgeon took one look and declared, "Patient Dead On Arrival." He looked at his wristwatch to confirm the time, glad of any excuse to look away from the remains of Greg Hepburn.

* * *

As they were taking the corpse downstairs to the morgue, they heard a metallic clatter. Looking down, George Long saw a silvery disc, which he recognised as a CD-ROM.

"Damn, where did that come from?" he said, stooping to pick it up.

"It must've fallen onto the stretcher when we picked up the corpse in Footscray," suggested Tony.

"Damn!" said George. "I'd better give it to Nurse Jacobs to send back to the widow."

* * *

"I'm just going off duty now," said the four foot eleven brunette when George showed her the CD. "Give it to Nurse Brown ... I mean Nurse Carter."

"I thought she was still on her honeymoon?" asked George.

"No, I got back yesterday and came into work today," explained Sarah Carter from the reception area.

"That's dedication for you," said George. Holding up the silvery disk, he added, "We must have picked this up with the last corpse by mistake. Can you send it back to the widow?"

"Sure thing," said Sarah taking the disk, along with Illona Hepburn's address. Holding the CD up she read, 'The Return of Attak-Man'. Now where have I heard of that before?"

"According to Aaron Powell, Attak-Man was a rip-off version of Pac-Man in the late 1980s," explained George.

"Oh, yes," said Sarah, vaguely recalling Attak-Man from her pre-teens.

Putting the CD-ROM in a Manila envelope, Sarah wrote on the name and address of Illona Hepburn, then dropped it into a small out tray beside her desk. Meaning to take it downstairs for postage the next day.

By midnight, however, to her dismay Sarah Carter found that she still had not delivered the CD-ROM downstairs, despite having gone down to the level of the mailroom twice.

"Damn!" she said, looking at the overhead clock on the wall.

Picking up the package, she started around the reception counter, and then stopped. Looking both ways down the hallway, she saw that no one else was about.

"I wonder?" she said, still staring down the corridor. After a second's hesitation, she looked back at her workstation, then back out into the corridor.

She hesitated for a moment longer, then turned and headed back to her desk.

Sitting at the seventeen-inch monitor, she re-opened the package addressed to Illona Hepburn. Taking out the CD-ROM she read, "The Return of Attak-Man!"

After staring guiltily at the plastic disk for a moment, she looked behind her one last time, then placed the CD into the PC and booted it up.

After a few seconds the message, "Beware the Return of Attak-Man!" appeared on her computer monitor.

"Come on, come on," she said, impatiently pressing the enter key on her keyboard.

The message remained on the screen, but after a second a small green square appeared in the second "A" in the word "Attak" and slowly began spinning round and round, gradually increasing in size, as though it were approaching her. Until the nurse could make out the image of Attak-Man inside the green square.

Sarah shivered in disgust and said, "What is this?"

As Greg Hepburn had thought, the Attak-Man image looked like a cross between the puppet Punch and the crocodile from the Punch and Judy stalls of yesteryear. A "human" face, but with long, extended crocodile jaws.

"Well, there's Punch and the croc," said Sarah Carter, "now where's Judy, the baby, and the policeman?"

Sarah started to reach for the computer, when the Punch face of Attak-Man started to spin again. This time while opening its crocodile jaws wide, so that the nurse was given a very realistic image of its inner mouth and windpipe.

"Oh, yuk," said Sarah Carter, wondering why anyone would want to play such a computer game.

She wanted to download the game, but was entranced by the swirling image of Attak-Man's crocodile jaws.

After a moment Sarah felt her head swimming and thought she was about to pass out. Then she realised it was the screen of the computer monitor bulging out toward her as the crocodile jaws kept swirling like an out of control game show wheel.

"What...?" she said. She tried to stand and failed, plopping back onto the swivel chair, her legs unable to carry her weight anymore, as though they had transformed to rubber.

Unable to move, Sarah Carter opened her mouth to scream, as the swirling crocodile jaws suddenly leapt toward her. But her scream turned to a gurgle as Attak-Man's reptilian jaws chewed away her face and much of the brain matter beneath.

* * *

At 7:30 the next morning, Jennifer Hanley's yellow-haired form was already sitting at one of three back-breaking ergonomic chairs, in the glass-walled office that the three officers shared on the ninth floor of the Russell Street Police Station, when Aaron Powell came onto duty again after only four or five hours sleep.

Trying his best not to yawn aloud, the tall, thickset man walked painfully slowly across the room to where Jenny was sitting in front of one of three computer monitors attached to a single laser printer.

Finally giving in to the urge, he yawned wide and stretched, then slumped into a chair beside his second-in-command.

"Where've you been?" asked the ash blonde, as though he were hours late for duty.

Aaron thought of saying, "I slept in." But deciding against the quip, he said, "Upstairs talking to Elaine Maylor." Holding up a computer printout he added, "There's been two more murders like the Hepburn killing overnight. One at Parkville hospital, the other interstate."

"Oh, no," said Jenny taking the printout from her superior. "Epworth," she read out. "Then it can't be the same killer?"

Aaron considered for a moment, before saying, "It's only an hour's flight between Melbourne Airport and Kingsford-Smith in Sydney. So, I guess in theory it could be the same bloke."

Jenny considered for a few seconds, and then said, "Maybe. I guess it is a little too soon for copy-cat killers to be starting up."

"Anyway, we'd better get out to the Royal Melbourne. Is Les in yet?"

"No, he rang in to say he'd be a little late today."

"Then we'd better leave a note for him to meet us out there," suggested Aaron.

"Okay," said Jenny. Picking up a pen, she scratched off a quick message. Then they set off for the car park in the basement of the police station.

* * *

Bernie Ling served the last three people in the service station shop, and then looked up at the clock above where he sat in the small service booth. Seeing it was almost 10:00 AM he thought, "I wonder what's happened to Ross?" For the last twelve years Ross Wood had turned up for the morning edition of the Melbourne Herald-Sun every weekday by a quarter to ten at the latest. But today as Bernie glanced through the plate glass window at Alan Mance Mitsubishi across Barkly Street, there was no sign of the salesman.

"Don't tell me he's finally heard about sick leave?" thought Bernie aloud. "It's about time he had a day off."

Then, even as he spoke, the Chinese-Australian saw a tall, stocky figure start out the front door of Alan Mance.

"That can't be Ross?" thought Bernie, seeing the expensive cut of the pale blue suit. But as the stocky figure raced across the road toward the AMPOL station, Bernie saw it was indeed his friend.

"New suit?" asked Bernie as the glass door whooshed open and Ross Wood stepped into the service station shop.

"Don't sound so surprised. I have bought replacement suits on rare occasions over the last twelve years or so."

"Yeah, but only from the local Opportunity Shop," insisted Bernie. "This one looks brand new. What'd you do, win the lottery, or something?"

"Almost," said Ross. He took a golden coin and three silver coins from his suit pocket to pay for a newspaper that he took from a small pile on the counter. "I've just been made general manager of Alan Mance Mitsubishi, with a massive pay rise."

"Does that mean you're now allowed to play games on their computer system?"

"It sure does," agreed Ross. He held up a CD-ROM, which Bernie took from him.

"The Return of Attak-Man?" asked the Chinese-Australian, thinking, "Now where have I heard that before?" Aloud he asked, "Is that some kind of American Ninjas game?"

"No, no," said Ross, sounding shocked that his friend had never heard of the computer game. "Attak-Man is sort of like the old Pac-Man game. Where you have this crocodile-faced monster eating up the little star-shaped good guys as they run across the screen in straight lines."

"Sounds hi-tech," teased Bernie. "Does it come complete with a Hank Williams sound track instead of the electronic rock music most computer games have."

"No, and I'll have you know I like Hank Williams' music. He's the father of modern country and western music."

"Still we won't hold that against him," replied the Chinese-Australian.

Realising he would never get the better of Bernie Ling's caustic tongue, Ross Wood said, "Well, anyway, that's what Attak-Man was like twenty years or so back … in the early days of computer games. I guess it's been updated and improved considerably since then, with 3-D graphics and what have you."

"Yeah, great," said Bernie, sounding anything but impressed.

Ross Wood did his best not to play into Bernie Ling's hands by trying to beat him at his own game. He knew sarcasm was a natural mode of speech to the service station attendant.

Waving goodbye to Bernie, Ross Wood walked out into the service station yard, then walked across Barkly Street, where he carefully looked both ways before crossing. "Mustn't get run over now," thought Ross. He patted his suit pocket where he had slipped the CD-ROM. "Not before I've had a chance to play the latest update of my all-time favourite computer game." Although in truth he hadn't played any computer games in more than a dozen years.

After two near misses as he crossed the road, Ross stepped through the doorway into the lush carpeted office building at Alan Mance Mitsubishi. Striding straight past his secretary, he ordered, "Hold all my calls, Debbie, unless they're mega-urgent."

"Yes, Mr Wood," said the teenage girl as he pushed open the door to his office.

Inside the red-carpeted office, Ross plonked his backside onto the ergonomic chair, groaning as the chair sent back pangs shooting through his spine. "I've gotta put in for a new chair, now that I'm an exec," he decided.

Taking the CD-ROM from his coat pocket, Ross put the silvery plastic disk into the CD-ROM drive of the office computer system and booted it up.

"Come on, come on," he hissed impatiently as the image of what looked like a puppet Punch appeared on the left hand side of the screen. He angrily pushed the enter key on his computer keyboard, in the hope of speeding up the game. But it continued at a painfully slow pace, as a jaundiced crocodile appeared on the screen, then crept across toward the Punch figure as though to pounce on it.

Instead, the two figures began to swirl round in circles and slowly merge together; until they had blended into what looked like a Punch doll, but with crocodile jaws extending from its mouth.

"At last," said Ross with a curse, as though it had taken hours instead of a minute or two.

"Well, do something why don't you?" he said, impatiently punching the enter key again. But the computer game continued in slow motion as the figure of Attak-Man turned to face Ross Wood. It then began to enlarge in the computer monitor as though moving toward him.

* * *

In the outer office, Debbie Graham was typing up a report on her own consul, when Ross Wood began to scream in the next room.

"Oh, my God, don't tell me he can't get his silly computer game to load?" thought the brunette uncharitably, having seen the CD-ROM case protruding from the pocket of her boss's suit as he entered, despite his best efforts at concealment.

Then the screams took on a more strident tone. So, reluctantly Debbie got up from her desk and went to look.

She tapped on the stained-glass door, opened it and asked, "Are you all right, Mr Wood?"

Then Debbie started to scream, at the sight of the faceless Ross Wood, still sitting at his ergonomic chair.

* * *

Aaron Powell and Jenny Hanley stood in the small reception area, staring at the faceless corpse of Nurse Sarah Carter.

"Oh, God," muttered Jenny.

Aaron looked at her, but knew that she was a hardened professional, not likely to get sick at such a shocking sight.

After a moment, the pug-nosed inspector nodded to the two paramedics standing by as the police photographers finished up.

"You can take her away," Aaron said.

"Just a couple more pictures, inspector," said a young constable, who seemed almost eager to see the mutilated corpse. He snapped off what turned out to be a dozen photos, and then reluctantly stepped aside to allow George Long and Tony Hobbs to do their job.

"Gee, it'd be hard to make a death mask of this one," teased Tony, pointing to where raw brain matter showed beneath the absent flesh and bone on the face of the corpse.

"Quiet!" hissed George. He thought, "You really have changed over the last ten years or so. You used to be such a nice guy. Now you're an insensitive bastard!"

Stepping aside to allow the paramedics to pass, Aaron walked across to where Jenny was now trying to comfort a middle-aged brunette, Josette Jacobs.

"She was just married a month ago," explained the tearful nurse.

Aaron sighed and hoped he wouldn't have to break the news to her husband. Although he had had to comfort grieving next-to-kin many times over the last twenty years, he found that it did not get any easier with experience.

Aaron stepped back to let the stretcher-bearers past, then looked puzzled as a circle of silver on the enamel-topped bench caught his attention. Walking across, he picked up the CD-ROM and read aloud, "The Return of Attak-Man." Looking up, he asked, "How did this get here?"

Looking back guiltily, grey-haired George Long said, "We must've picked it up by mistake yesterday when we were in Footscray."

"Sarah was going to mail it back to the widow," said Josette Jacobs. The tiny brunette got up and staggered almost drunkenly across to the computer table and began to hunt around for the envelope.

"No, no, that's okay, I can drop it back to her," offered Aaron.

"No, no, I saw the envelope here somewhere," insisted the brunette fussing about the counter, shifting forms and note pads around.

Aaron started to stop her, but then he decided, "Let her go, it might be what she needs. Anything to take her mind off the brutal death of her friend and workmate." He looked across at Jenny, who nodded her agreement, as though reading his thoughts.

As Josette Jacobs fussed about the counter looking for the missing envelope, Les Arnold finally arrived on the scene.

Nodding hello, Jenny whispered, "Have you heard there's been a murder up in Epworth."

"And another five since then," stated Les, holding up a computer printout for them to see.

"What?" asked Aaron, snatching the sheet from the sergeant.

"That's right. One in Hobart in Tassie. One in Geelong in this state. Another in New South Wales, in South Sydney. One in Handorf in South Australia. And one in Queensland, in some place called Kangaroo Range."

After a few moments, they heard a squawk like an eagle pouncing on prey, and saw Josette Jacobs lunge toward the small grey metal rubbish bin under the counter. She reappeared holding a small Manila envelope addressed to Illona Hepburn.

"That's funny," said Jenny, taking the envelope from the nurse, "she's addressed it and even put a Post-It Note inside, then she's thrown it out."

Taking the envelope and Post-It Note, Aaron said, "Maybe she meant to put the CD inside, but got killed before she'd finished."

"No, no," insisted the blonde, pointing at the tattered flap of the envelope. "She's stuck it down, then reopened it."

Dropping the CD-ROM into the envelope, Aaron shrugged and said, "Maybe she stuck it down, then found she's forgotten to put the CD inside."

"So she reopened it, then got killed and dropped the CD on the floor?" asked Jenny, sounding dubious.

"Then who put the envelope in the bin?" asked Nurse Jacobs.

Aaron considered for a moment. "Maybe one of the staff here. They might have seen the torn open envelope and thought it was a used envelope, not one to be sent out."

"I can ask around if you like, inspector?" suggested Josette Jacobs, beaming at having something else to take her mind off Sarah Carter's death.

Aaron started to say, "No." Then he thought, "What can it hurt?" Aloud he said, "Yes, please, if it's no trouble."

"No trouble, inspector," said the tiny brunette. She ran out into the corridor to ask around.

Looking around Aaron saw Jenny smiling broadly and realised that she was pleased at him for taking the middle-aged nurse's mind off her friend's horrid death. Knowing it was probably a complete waste of time; Aaron sighed and thought, "Oh well, I guess even cops can do their good deed for the day occasionally."

It was nearly twenty minutes later when Josette Jacobs returned with a teenaged cleaner, who admitted to picking up the envelope and putting it into the bin when he saw Sarah Carter seated at the computer consul.

"When she was already dead?" asked Jenny Hanley.

"No, no, she was playing some kind of computer game at the PC."

Aaron and Jenny exchanged a puzzled look. Then, holding up the "Return of Attak-Man" CD-ROM, Aaron asked, "This one?"

The cleaner shrugged. "I don't know. I think she had just loaded it into the PC or whatever. I asked her if the envelope was garbage and she grunted what sounded like 'Yes'. So I binned it."

"Fair enough," said Aaron returning the CD-ROM to the Manila envelope. Although he had Les Arnold take the youth's name and home address, he had decided it was irrelevant to the murder investigation.

"Good work," Jenny said to the petite nurse, drawing a smile out of her, as they prepared to leave.

They had already started out of the reception area, when Josette Jacobs came running after them. "Inspector," she called, "there's a phone call for you."

Looking puzzled, Aaron Powell returned to talk on the phone for a few minutes. Then returning at last, he informed Les and Jenny, "There's been another murder in Footscray. In Alan Mance Mitsubishi in Barkly Street."

Looking astonished, Les Arnold said, "That's not far from Leander Street, where Greg Hepburn was killed."

Jenny Hanley nodded. She knew the two men came from that area and had worked at the Short Street station for years before it had been closed down.

* * *

At Barkly Street, Footscray Jenny Hanley parked the Fairlane and the three officers walked through the car yard into the offices of Alan Mance.

Inside they found an executive from Alan Mance Mitsubishi waiting for them. The white-faced secretary, Debbie, was standing outside being attended to by a nurse from the Western Hospital.

"How is she, nurse?" asked Jenny Hanley. She stopped to talk to the nurse as Les and Aaron headed toward the back office.

"In ... in there," said the grey-suited exec. He stopped in the doorway and waved a hand toward the opened door, clearly reluctant to see the corpse again.

Inside the office, they found a mess: tables turned over, the computer smashed on the floor, and the corpse of Ross Wood lying face down. Except that when they turned him over the corpse's face and brain matter had been chewed away.

"Wow, what did that?" asked Les Arnold. Although he had seen the other corpses, he was shocked by the state of the salesman. Almost all of the head and neck had been chewed away, as well as much of the chest and belly, including the woollen suit and silk shirt, which he was wearing.

Looking around Aaron Powell noted the absence of the torn clothing material around the floor, suggesting it had been devoured by whatever had attacked Ross Wood. He started to articulate the thought, but stopped when something caught his eye.

Walking across to the upturned blackwood desk, Aaron said, "Give me a hand with this."

"Shouldn't we wait till the photographers get here?" asked Les, stating the obvious.

Ignoring the advice, Aaron started to adjust the heavy desk by himself. So, against his better judgement, the redheaded sergeant walked over to help straighten the hardwood desk.

"I hope you know what you're...?" began Les. He stopped to stare in amazement at what had caught the inspector's eye. "My God, that's can't be...?" He pointed at the large bite mark chewed through the two-and a half centimetre thick wood.

"It is," insisted Aaron, as amazed as his assistant. "Do you know how hard blackwood is? How difficult it would be to bite clean through it?"

"What the hell are we dealing with then?" demanded Les Arnold. "A crocodile, or what?"

Aaron shrugged. "Who knows?"

"But there aren't supposed to be any kind of crocodiles or alligators in the state of Victoria," pointed out Les.

Aaron shrugged again. "No, but maybe they've migrated down from New South Wales. Or maybe they've escaped from one of those big overseas animal circuses forever touring this continent. But whatever it is and however it got here, I've got the feeling this case is way too big for just the three of us."

"You said it," agreed Les. He stared at the large bite mark through the blackwood desk and paled from shock and fear at what he was seeing.

Hearing footsteps behind them, the two men turned, expecting to see Jenny Hanley. Instead they saw grey-haired George Long and Tony Hobbs talking to two police photographers who had just arrived.

"Sir, you really shouldn't be touching things in there till we've finished up," reminded one of the photographers.

Exchanging a guilty look with Les Arnold, Aaron headed toward the outer office to allow the photographers to film the murder site.

"Pull your finger out, guys, we haven't got all day," said Tony Hobbs, as the two photographers started to snap away.

Aaron looked toward Les, and then seeing his sergeant wasn't about to mention the desk they had moved, he decided to keep quiet too.

In the reception room Aaron watched Jenny talking to the nurse tending the young secretary, Debbie Graham. Then he walked across to talk to George and Tony.

"Hey man, we've got to stop meeting like this," said Tony Hobbs with his usual lack of diplomacy.

"Tell me about it," said Aaron. "I'd be only too happy to stop meeting under these circumstances."

"Don't worry, you'll catch this psycho pretty soon now," said George Long.

"I hope so."

"Don't count on it," said Les. Then before Aaron Powell could stop him, he went on to tell of the killings in other states.

"What is this," asked George in amazement, "some kind of death cult thing?"

Aaron shrugged. "Let's hope not. We've never had a death cult in Australia before. Normally they occur in Europe or the U.S."

"Finished, inspector," said one of the photographers as they departed the crime scene half an hour later. "You can go back inside now."

"No thanks, I've seen all I need to see in there," said Aaron. "But you can send me a copy of those eight-by-tens when you develop them."

"Will do," said the photographer. Then reaching for a sheet of paper in his breast pocket, he flicked open the sheet and held it toward Aaron and said, "Oh, I meant to give you this when we came in."

"What is it?"

"The latest of these," he said thumbing back toward the corpse of Ross Wood. "There's been seven more killings."

"What?" demanded Aaron. He snatched the printout and began reading it.

"That's right. One in Queensland. Two more in New South Wales. One in South Australia. One in Western Australia. And two more in Victoria: one at Altona Gate, and one in Bairnsdale."

* * *

"Where to now?" asked Jenny Hanley as they climbed back into their white Fairlane.

"Altona Gate," said Aaron. "We can't check the one in Bairnsdale, three hundred and twenty Kays is too far to drive. We'll have to leave that one to the cops in Sale, or to Danny Ross in Glen Hartwell."

Without a word Jenny started the car and headed it down Barkly Street toward the Ashley Street turnoff.

END OF PART ONE:





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