A chilling news article I read recently inspired this new short story of mine. Might make you think twice about accumulating too much clutter in the living space. This morbid little tale is based, as we say in the trade, on true events:
Captain Joe Quinn, commander of the Baltimore police diving team, rode in the back of the van with the rest of his squad Jack Weller and Frank Dorsey. They climbed into their black rubber wetsuits, goggles, regulators and oxygen tanks. Quinn quipped it was the first time in their careers they had brought scuba gear to dry land.
“The smell was so bad Robertson keeled. He had to be given smelling salts and taken back to his squad car,” he said.
The decrepit warehouse building lay on the outskirts of the North Side. The impenetrable winter darkness was oily as the van sidled up alongside the lone Baltimore PD blue and white already on the scene. Red cherrytops strobed the shadows with ominous sanguine neon flares, pulsing the shadows of the derelict facade of the warehouse, making the looming face of the structure resemble a huge skull. Already, the powerful stench emanated through the night air. The diving unit cops poured the bottle of Old Spice aftershave on the cloths and pressed them to their faces.
Patrolman Dale Robertson sat on the bumper of the car, his face the color of Milk of Magnesia, pressing a cloth over his mouth. His partner Ramon Menendez had one over his. A pile of steaming vomit was on the ground near him and puke had got on his uniform. The cop regained his composure and stood up by his partner in their heavy leather coats and briefed the three diving team officers. He spat out the words between inhales of the cloth, gagging from the stench in his mouth. “Homeless guy named Wayne squatted in the lower floor of the warehouse–. “ Robertson pressed the cloth to his face, sucking air. “Guy’s an eccentric loner known locally as a pack rat who hoarded so much trash he had to burrow through the clutter to get around his home. Nobody’s seen him for months. Few hours ago security guard passing by heard him screaming for help when he was doing his rounds and called 911.”
They all heard it.
A voice from inside the warehouse, buried deep within.
“We’ll take it from here.” Quinn nodded to Weller and Dorsey and they shoved their regulators in their mouths quashing the smell. Tightening their goggles, activating their walkie-talkies and switching on their flashlights, the diving squad trudged in the boots they wore in place of fins towards the door to the first floor of the building. The wet suited shadows resembled Creatures From The Black Lagoon in the explosive backlight of the torches in their hands.
They went in.
What the police diving team saw stopped them cold after a few more steps.
Mountains of garbage fifteen feet tall filled the ground floor of warehouse room. It was literally tons of trash like an indoor junkyard. “Help me.” The voice was faint, weak and quivering with terror, location impossible to pinpoint amidst the vast landscape of stinking rubbish. Cherrytop red flares bloomed through the filthy tempered glass windows, pulsing over the towering heaps of refuse like a mountain range of steaming shit.
Quinn took a deep breath and pulled on his regulator. “This is the police. Where are you?” he bellowed into the room, jamming back in his oxygen mask before the involuntary gag reflex choked him.
“Here. Help me. I’m here.”
The diving team stood by the doorway before the trash piles of Brobdignian proportions. Through his goggles and the noisy respiration of his air tank, Quinn watched the blast of his flashlight diffusing through smelly waves rising from the valleys and peaks of paper and furniture. Wrappers, newspapers, mattresses, food containers, cloth, dumpster garbage were heaped everywhere. The team leader was thinking he did not sign on for this. It would haunt his dreams. These were the worst living conditions for a human being he’d ever seen. How could this guy have lived like this? The area must be a Center For Disease Control Department level hot zone of germs and bacteria and putting a call into the CDD was the first thing he was going to do once they pulled this guy out. Quinn shot a glance to Weller and Dorsey. In their apprehensive goggled eyes saw they were thinking the same thing he was. “We’re going in,” he said. “Remember this is a search and rescue and the sooner we pull this guy out of here the sooner we go home.”
“Man, that’s the last time I ever complain when my wife tells me to take out the trash,” Dorsey quipped lamely. The others tried not to grin so the stench didn’t get in their mouth.
Quinn gave swift “fingers out” combat hand signals.
The disturbed, disgusted faces of his team members nodded, eyes tearing up behind their goggles from the contaminated toxic atmosphere. “We split up, start from three corners and move in,” Quinn directed. “One of us should bump into him somewhere in there.”
The three scuba cops fanned out around the edges of the walls.
Then they forged into the trash pile.
Quinn’s boot sank in a mushy oatmeal of wet paper as he hauled away gloved handfuls of the paper, wading into the murk. A wall of garbage caved in, revealing a tunnel burrowed through the huge mounds of rotting rubbish; a darkened rat hole about three feet high wending deep into the refuse. He shined his flashlight inside the foul gloom, crawling on his hands and knees, moving further into the trash tunnel. “You boys find anything?” He choked into his walkie-talkie.
Then he heard the scream, a hideous hi-pitched shriek of sheer agony and terror. It was Weller. “Tom!” Quinn yelled into the walkie-talkie. Hammered the buttons. Got nothing but static. “Tom, do you read over?” No response. Not good.
“Captain!” Dorsey’s strained worried voice crackled over the radio, from somewhere deep in the trash heap. “What happened to Weller? Can’t see shit in here.”
“I’m in a tunnel of some kind.”
“Me too. It’s like a rat hole looks like the guy dug. Goes on forever.
“Should we call for backup, sir?”
“Weller. Weller do you read? Over.”
“Should we call for backup, sir?”
The walkie-talkie went dead.
Quinn stood and rose up in the tunnel, head and shoulders bursting through the surface of the junk pile, his wetsuit slimed with crud, filth and a putrid goo of liquefied vegetables and rotted food that dripping down his goggles. He wiped the sticky mess away with his rubber glove to see he was up to the midriff in the middle of a sea of trash, waves of garbage rearing over him on all sides, all sense of direction lost.
Then he saw it.
The trash moved, jolted, violently surged.
Something else was in there with them.
It was big.
He heard the scratching.
A huge, fast slithering scuttle through the tunnel.
“Help me. Oh God.” The homeless hoarder begged for rescue somewhere in the mess. Where was he?
Drawing his sidearm, Quinn gripped the .9mm Glock and submerged into the trash heap, lowering onto his knees into the burrowed tunnel. He shined his flashlight into what looked like how his decorated veteran father described the channels the Vietnamese tunnel rats had burrowed under jungles in ‘Nam. But this tunnel was far nastier, for instead of dirt and roots walls, it was garbage and cans and rotted fruit and decaying milk cartons and God knows that else. Cockroaches scuttled like shiny greasy thumbtacks from the beam of the light as he elbowed and kneed his way forwards on his belly, gun and flashlight pointed ahead.
Quinn had a bad feeling about this. And he felt in his gut he was alone.
The light of the flashlight had turned a reddish hue.
The ground was wet. He had not noticed because of the wetness of the trash and the moisture on his black rubber wetsuit looked colorless, but on the clear plastic lens of the police flashlight he now saw that wetness was blood. The ground was soaked in gore, like a lake. And he was all wet.
A new smell, distinct like copper pennies assailed his nostrils and he knew it was human blood.
There was a shadowy lump ahead, blocking the way.
It was Weller.
One half of him.
Gone below the waist.
Gnawed where he was cleaved.
Something sounded behind Quinn.
The tunnel was so tight there was no room to maneuver. Quinn looked out the corner of his eye at the manlike hulking silhouette by his feet in the red glow of the beam. The gun in his hand was useless since the thing was behind him.
“You saved me.”
“Sir, are you okay?” A surge of relief spread though him.
It was the homeless man.
“Just fucking hungry.”
But the derelict had a tail.
Several tons of flammable paper.
A dripping whisky bottle soaking the mulch.
Quinn raised his Zippo and thumbed the flint wheel.
He lit the fire…