George unfastened the buckle of his belt with clumsy fingers and eased his pants past copious thighs. They bunched at his ankles as he sat down on the cold seat and exhaled in relief. Green Thai curry last night had not been a good idea. Neither had the date with Therese from shipping.
As the unpleasant remnants of yesterday’s dinner plunged into the fetid depths of the ninth floor plumbing system, George mulled over the mousy-haired, bespectacled entity that was Therese. She had insisted that she was thirty-five, and George did not suspect that it was a lie. But she had the face, and most certainly the attire, of a woman ten years older, and George may have told her as much after his fourth glass of wine. Perhaps that was why she had skipped dessert and called for a taxi.
“Hmm,” said George, ponderously.
Hmm, hmm, hmm, echoed the walls of the men’s toilet, the flimsy painted-wood stalls, the grubby mirrors.
“Hmm,” said something in the pipes.
George clutched at his pants. What was that noise? Had he misheard?
“HMMMMMMMMMM,” rumbled the pipes.
George leapt off the toilet seat with a mild shriek. His bowels were suddenly all in a twist again.
“NNNGGGRAWRRGGH,” said the pipe directly beneath him, as the toilet began to vibrate, and then the floor, and then the stalls, until everything in the men’s room was shaking and banging and rumbling.
Gasping, George staggered out of the stall and fled downstairs to tell someone there was a monster in the toilet.
He pounded along the corridor, setting wall-hangings to shaking, reached the lifts at the far end and punched the down button. He was trembling all over like a heap of jelly. He’d only come up to the ninth floor because he knew no one ever used these bathrooms and it wouldn’t matter what sort of business he did in there. Never in his wildest imaginations would he have anticipated awakening a waste-fed, pipe-dwelling beast.
The doors chimed open.
A lady in a red suit-and-skirt combo yelped.
George glanced down; he hadn’t realised his pants were still tangled around his knees. He made himself decent and stood apologetically next to the red lady as they descended. She got off at Sales; he went down to the Management floor.
George detested this floor. It had been designed for a younger, slimmer generation with better spatial memory. It was a compact maze of white walls and frosted glass doors with tiny metal handles. The corridors fit three svelte ladies abreast, but only one George. The sight of a coworker advancing towards him was enough to break him into a nervous sweat: was it less inappropriate to present his crotch or his ass to the passerby as he sidled by, verily plastered against the wall? If it was a woman, would she likely sue him for sexual harassment?
At length he located the office of Bryan Wooding, Building Manager. George rapped on the door, decided not to wait for a reply, and burst in. He was immediately flustered. There was a very rousing brunette sitting in a chair with her legs crossed; she wore a marvellous black V-necked blouse. The Building Manager was leaning on the edge of his desk with his hands thrust into his pockets. His trousers had exquisitely sharp seams, George noticed. Even the brunette was staring at them.
Both the woman and the manager half-turned upon George’s entry, so that George felt as though he had attracted the attention of two curious seagulls.
“Hallo, George!” said Bryan. “Whatever’s the matter with you? Take the stairs?”
The brunette grinned at him.
“Something’s—wrong—on—the—ninth—floor,” said George.
“What’s up? A leak? A broken refrigerator? Don’t tell me the lift got stuck again. Last time, I was dangling in that shaft for hours tryna fix it.”
The woman uncrossed her legs. Her stockings made a sweet slippery noise as they slid together.
“The toilets,” said George. “The men’s toilets. I think there may be a monster in there.”
Bryan Wooding pushed himself off the edge of the table. “Excuse me?”
“I think I may have,” he swallowed noisily and ignored the woman, “disturbed an aggressive creature in the ninth floor bathrooms.”
Bryan stared. “George, don’t be ridiculous. There are no monsters in this building. We’ve had FC clearance on all floors of our property since 1995. not a single incident in six years. What the hell is that noise?”
Tap-tap-tap-taptaptap, went Wooding’s desk.
The taps ran together into a vibrating blur. Then the table was shaking, and everything on the table was bouncing up and down, and the brunette was bouncing in her chair, and the walls and floors thrummed dangerously.
“What the hell!” cried Wooding, clutching his desk.
“Monster,” said George.
The shaking subsided.
“Right,” said Wooding, smoothing back a lick of hair. “Amelia, I recommend you leave this building straight away and drive home. It’s not safe. George, follow me. We’d better speak to the staff.”
Thrilled, George stayed in the wake of Wooding’s swift stride and stood beside him as he addressed all the Sales and Shipping staff on the sixth floor. Dozens of faces peered out from a sea of cubicle walls: pale blotches floating, bodiless, upon rows of grey waves.
“…situation, but it’s no cause for panic,” Wooding was saying. “If you feel concerned for your safety, you may leave your work and return to your homes for the remainder of today. I will call a team of catchers and if all goes according to plan, the monster will be entirely disposed of by tomorrow morning. We apologise for the disturbance.”
A slow murmur washed through the cubicles as those closest to Wooding transmitted the news to the unfortunate colleagues at the far end of the room. When a second bout of quaking wracked the building, several workers hastily closed their folders, turned off their computers and interrupted phone calls to important clients by shortly hanging up. About thirty or so sales staff filed past George and Wooding with briefcases in hand.
“What about you, Therese?” said Wooding, as the shipping administrator came forward with her hands buried in the long pleats of her cobalt blue skirt. “You’re not rushing home?”
“Oh, I am,” she said mildly, pushing her hair back. “I’ve never met a Beast face to face and I’d like to keep it that way. No, I just thought I should tell you about a friend of mine. He’s a monster catcher, you see, a true-blue triple A grade catcher, I’m not lying. I can give you his number. He’s usually booked out for months, but if you tell him Therese called, he’ll come today.”
She glanced briefly at George, who pretended that he hadn’t been staring at the way she moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue before she began each sentence.
“What’s his name?” asked Wooding.
“El Cox?” Wooding’s eyebrows shot up. “You know El Cox? Therese, come to my office immediately. Let’s make this phone call.”
George came too.
Looking incredibly pleased, Therese picked up the receiver and put in a number. It rang once, maybe twice, before she said, “Hello, El? It’s me, Therese. Listen, I’ve got a favour to call. Will you speak to my friend Mr. Wooding?”
She held the phone out to Bryan.
“Mister Cox? Good day, I’m Bryan Wooding, the manager—the building manager, I mean, not the CEO, ha-ha. I must say it’s an honour to speak with you—what do I need? Ah, well, it appears there’s a monster in our ninth-floor men’s room; bizarre isn’t it, considering we haven’t had a single beast probem for the last six years…oh, yes, of course. Thank you. Bye.”
He hung up.
“What did he say?” asked Therese.
“He said he’ll be here in seventy-three minutes.”
“Right,” said Therese. “I think I might stay after all.”
The building was largely empty when Eldredge Cox arrived. He stepped into the foyer with an enormous orange toolbox in his right hand and a 12-inch meatball sub in his left, said, “So, where’s the problem, folks?” and tore a bite out of the sandwich with manly relish.
Bryan, Therese and George came down to meet him.
“We think the thing’s on the ninth floor,” Bryan told him. “George, tell Mr. Cox what you saw up there.”
“Uh,” said George. “I didn’t really see anything. I just heard rumbling noises. From the pipes. They got louder and louder and then the building started shaking. It’s been shaking intermittently for the past hour and a half.”
“Did you smell anything when you were up there?”
“Anything distinctly sulphurous, or acrid, or even sugary?”
I smelled shit and green curry, thought George, but he said, “It just smelled kinda bad.”
“That’s OK,” said El Cox. “Now, no one else has been up there, have they?”
Bryan shook his head. “We’ve made the ninth floor off-limits. Most of our staff have taken the day off work—”
“Well, nothing left to do but check it out myself,” said El. “Therese, you coming?”
Se held her hands up. “Oh no, EL, you know I couldn’t…”
“Come on, girl! Don’t be chicken. It’s probably an eensy lizard. And besides, you brought me all the way here; the least you can do is keep me company while I kill this little bugger.”
“That’s not fair; you can’t guilt-trip me into…”
El had thrown back the metal lid of his toolbox with a resounding thunk. “Here, you can hang onto this,” he said, giving her a fluid-filled pistol. “Now come on. We’re wasting time.”
“Why are we taking the elevator?” asked Therese. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
“The thing is in the pipes,” said El, finishing the second half of the meatball sub in three bites. “Pretty sure it can’t touch the lifts. Unless it shakes the cable loose, we should be fine.”
“Right,” said Therese.
“Relax,” laughed El. “I’m just messing with you.”
They reached the ninth floor and the doors slid open. Immediately, an intense smell like charcoal and chemistry poured into the elevator. The floor shook and pounded as they crept along the corridor.
Therese hissed, “So how do I fire this thing?”
“Point and pull the trigger.”
“And what exactly does it do?”
“Bathes the target in a flesh-dissolving solution—watch out!” El shoved her out of the way as a ceiling tile wobbled loose and crashed to the ground.
“Great gobbling Mahoney, I don’t want to die!” wailed Therese.
“Too late,” said El Cox, and kicked open the door of the men’s room.
Both monster hunter and office lady gaped.
Therese choked out, “I thought you said it was an eensy lizard.”
“Yeah,” said El, pulling a two-foot wrench out of his toolbox. “My mistake. Hitch up your skirts, missy—we’re going in.”
As El Cox ventured forth into the crumbling landscape of shattered tiles, snapped pipes and unhinged doors, whirling his giant wrench, Therese determinedly hitched up her skirts and followed, pointing her pistol. Her lace-up boots squelched through puddles of some vitreous greyish substance. Heat crackled in the air like he warm, dry breath of a primary school teacher who leans too close to your face. Her glasses were misting over, but she was still able to see in its gruesome detail…
…the slimy, serpentine shape curled around the farthest washbasin. About as thick as her waist at its widest part, and perhaps six feet long when fully extended, it was armoured in dark grey scales and oozed the sticky vitriol from its mouths and anus. It had eight little scrabbling feet and put Therese in mind of two mutant, conjoined reptiles.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Therese as El swung the wrench high above his head and brought it slamming down. The monster twitched violently, jerking loose of the washbasin and landing on the floor with a piercing shriek. The noise of its warcry shook the foundations of the building like an earthquake.
“Ultrasonic scream,” said El. “Listen too closely and it will turn you mad. Try to focus on something else and let the noise wash over you.”
The monster had quickly righted itself and, belching smelly slime, scuttled into the nearest stall.
“Oh, no, you’re not going back into the pipes,” said El, and dived after it. He caught it firmly by the tail and, though it writhed and thrashed, he wrestled it out of the toilet and pinned it to the ground.
“I’m covered in shit, aren’t I?” panted El.
He wiped his face with the back of one gloved hand, but only succeeded in smearing himself more evenly. “Better?”
“Um, yes. What happens now?”
“Now,” said El, “we finish it. Can’t have little bastards like this guy running around alive. The only good place to see one of these is in a museum, stuffed and perfumed.”
“You want me to finish it?”
“You’ve got the gun.”
Pressing her lips together, Therese planted her feet in an open stance in front of El and the Siamese lizard. She raised the pistol.
“If you fire it like that, girl, you’re going to hit me smack in the middle of the chest. A little lower…lower…yes, that’s right. You want to aim for the centre of its forehead, where it’s unprotected by scales.
“Between the eyes?”
“Somewhere in the vicinity of the face is fine.”
“And I just pull on this trigger?”
“Just where your finger is.”
“Therese! I can’t sit on this thing forever.”
She gritted her teeth and pressed down on the tiny trigger with both index fingers. There was a satisfying splat! as missile hit target, followed by a fierce sizzling noise. A glob of something grey smacked Therese in the face.
“My eyes!” she squealed. “I’m blinded!”
El Cox got off the monster, which was now slowly dissolving headfirst into a muck-coloured soup, and stepped over to Therese. He removed her glasses and carefully cleaned them with a cotton rag. “There you go, girl. He got you with his dying belch. Not very pleasant stuff, but you’ll be dandy. You see?” And he put the glasses back onto the bridge of her nose.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Therese, wide-eyed.
“What is it?” asked El Cox with a face coated in grime. He put his giant wrench over one shoulder.
“I killed a monster.”
In the second floor tearoom, George and Bryan Wooding had a plate of lemon custard pastries between them. They sat on either side of the white plastic table and ate slowly.
“Funny, isn’t it,” said Bryan, contemplating the sumptuously smooth yellow filling. “Everyone rushed home without finishing morning tea.”
George chewed and chewed for a long while. He swallowed thickly. “Well, their lives were in danger.”
Bryan snorted. “Hardly. Didn’t you hear what El said? It’s probably only a tiny lizard.”
“Did I hear what who said?”
“Oh, you mean Eldredge Cox. I don’t know if he’ll be too happy to let you into the nickname circle quite so soon.”
“Everyone calls him El,” muttered Bryan.
“Anyway,” George went on, “if it’s so small, how did it make everything shake so bad? I reckon Cox just said it was small to make Therese go up there with him.”
Bryan filled his mouth with pastry. George infuriated him.
The door banged open and two dirt-streaked figures stepped into the tearoom. One of them carried an orange toolbox and a wrench; the other had gelatinous grey gunk smeared through her mousy hair.
“We killed it,” announced Therese triumphantly.
“Bravo! Brava!” Wooding leapt up from the table and came over to shake El’s hand, then thought better of it. “I can’t thank you enough, sir, if there’s anything we can do…”
“You’ll probably want to call some people in to clean and repair the toilets,” Cox advised. “And have someone dispose of the body—or what’s left of it, anyway. I’d normally stay and run through the logistics with you, but I’ve got a hell of a day ahead of me; I’ve got to be down in Greensborough in half an hour…”
“We won’t hold you up any longer,” said George briskly. “Thanks for your help.”
El saluted at Therese and jogged away. George watched him go with a sense of disquiet.
“Ah, you’re covered in filth!” Bryan was saying. “What is that grey stuff? And you don’t smell too hot either.” He sniffed vaguely. “What is that? Green thai curry?”