Friday, January 22, 2016

The Rat

The Rat
Bobby Derie

Joannie Gorland doffed her hat to the dead man in the chair, the hum of the generators momentarily forgotten. If her employer coughed, it was lost in the drone.

The mummy was dressed in a nice brown pinstripe, seated in a dark blue leather chair that looked like the bastard child of a throne and a loveseat. Stiff brown fingers gripped the blue leather armrests, fingernails overgrown and curling into the wood. The aged head, eyes sunk in and pale hair gone long and framing the face, drooped as if in uneasy peace. Around the chair, laid out in even parallel lines like model train-tracks, was a circle of old-fashioned colored glass bulbs, forming a rough circle that was crossed and crossed again by straight lines.

The final effect was of a pentagram within a circle of green and blue light around the corpse. It was the only light in the room.

Almost by instinct, Gorland took out a notebook and did a quick sketch of the set-up, getting as close as she dared without actually touching anything, estimating angles.

Thick black cables - going grey with age - were laid out from the circle with neat precision, coming together in a bundle and tied neatly every foot or so, the whole black python leading over to a metal box on the far wall, next to a black Bakelite telephone with a rotary dial. Once, the room might have been a library, but all the books had gone, leaving empty shelves, and there was no furniture besides the chair; even the fireplace and windows had been bricked up. Brown brick and old pine, going to spiders. The whole place stank of ozone.

The hum was almost deafening. Sixty hertz is on the low end of human hearing, but it carries through brick and pipe, comes up through your feet. At this volume, it made your bones vibrate in your chest, and seemed to bear down on your eardrums, even though you could easily carry on a conversation over it.

"How long has he been there?"

"Since about 1919, we believe."

Her employer was a young woman's image of a young man; blonde hair cut short and greased back, sides shaved. Round spectacles in a wire frame - no nosepads, they sat on the little bridge of the Roman nose. Three-piece suit sans jacket; the vest almost hid her breasts, which must have been bound. In one hand was a clear plastic bag holding a thin, dark brown book.

"The lights?"

"There were concerns about continued containment. In 1923, the family called in a specialist from England, Thomas Carnacki. It's his design. Track lighting, custom bulbs, low voltage. Powered continuously, they can last a very long time - though we have a supply of spares, we've never needed them."

"'Continued,'" Joannie echoed. "What was the initial containment?"

A well-manicured hand led her away from the corpse, to a door next to the metal box. Opening the door let in a wall of noise - Gorland almost staggered as it hit her, along with the smell of grease. Generators, great big metal cylinders, two stories tall - it was a warehouse space, with basic metal railing and walkways, men and women crawling over it in hardhats and noise-cancelling headphones - the noise had tones in it, higher-pitched harmonics, right to the edge of her hearing.

With a suddenness, her employer closed the door, and the hum returned to its normal chest-grating ache. The edges of the door, Joannie had noticed, were designed to lock tight: soundproof, or pretty damn close.

"He was a pioneer, you understand, in electricity. Competed with Edison in a part of the War of the Currents that doesn't make the books, largely because he eventually sold out. Then something happened. He called it the rat." The electric pentacle was reflected in her round spectacles. "He thought it was a psychological issue. A recurring dream impinging on waking life, the result of cumulative stress...he went on a vacation, tried to get away from it. But it got worse; the rat was tormenting him more and more. He found a cure, out East, somewhere in the foothills of Tibet or Nepal - he wrote it all down in his journal," she held up the clear plastic bag, "but we haven't found the monastery he talks about."

The blonde carefully removed the book from the bag, and opened it to a middle page, where there was a long scrap of silk, painted with black characters.

"This was the original 'cure.' Some sort of prayer. The monks would spin it on a prayer-wheel; the faster it spun, the less influence the rat had on him. They had, according to him, small water-wheels set up to run the prayer-wheels continuously. But it wasn't enough for him, so he came back here. Those generators, you see, have copies of the prayer. Spinning continuously, much faster."

Joannie stared at the shrunken corpse, clutched to its overgrown chair.

"I take it things got worse?"

"He was obsessed with it. Poured all his attention into making sure the generators were running, and at speed. Neglected the business. A few of the relatives tried to get him declared unfit, but he defended himself. It took his toll, though. The rat never really left him, see. More and more, he seemed to feel it still there. There was a power outage in 1922. Three staff died before the generators came back on, and he was found locked himself in this room four days later. The family covered it up but...well, he hasn't moved since. The family they weren't really industrialists, they were engineers. Very practical. So instead of stopping the system, they refined it. Kept the prayer going continuously, back-ups and redundant systems, failsafes...if the mains fail, we have back-up generators, and back-ups for the back-ups..."

"But they had Carnacki in here, setting up his electric pentacles."

"The rat is still in there. In him. Things happened, when they were upgrading the generators. Some of the workers said they saw it, heard it. At first it was anytime the generator slowed, but it became more frequent. There were accidents. Bloody accidents. Men lost limbs in the machines. Then lives. That's when they called Carnacki in. He was skeptical, at first. Spent a night here, all alone."

"Let me guess: sealed the room like a ghostbreaker, set up his electric pentacle, barely survived the night, then designed and built your circle of lights the next day."

Glasses shot Joannie a confused look. "Yes. How did you know?"

"I'm familiar with his work. And if he decided to use the double circle of lights, he thought this was pretty bad indeed. Bad enough he couldn't exorcise it - only contain it." Gorland whistled, a warbling little bird call over the omnipresent hum. "Something Carnacki couldn't crack. This might be an interesting case."


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