We found the hut near the peak, half buried in Alaskan snow. The windows were broken, the glass was lying all around. “So they were broken after the blizzard — from within.” Weston enjoyed playing detective.
Hearne — the other reckless greenhorn — was the first through the door. “The heating’s still on.” He pointed at the crudely lagged jumble of pipes on top of a big tank or boiler. The only sign of it being on was a thin cloud of vapour near the top that looked more like breath than escaping steam.
Then it moved.
Weston grabbed my arm and Hearne reached for his gun, but I knew what it was, now. It was a man, bandaged from head to foot, sitting astride an oil drum nearly as big as him. The vapour had been his breath after all. As I watched he reached into his hip pocket.
Hearne drew his gun, I knocked his arm back before he could bring it up. “He’s gone, Hearne! Harmless. Look at him.” The poor guy was drinking from a hip flask — oblivious.
Weston stared. “Oh God!”
Then I realised: it wasn’t a hip flask. It was a bottle of aftershave. I moved forward and something crunched underfoot.
Looking down I saw the remains of that ‘something’; it was expensively electronic. “They smashed the radio to bits,” I said. I can play detective, too.
Hearne re holstered his gun and said, “Yeah, that’s why the distress call stopped.”
“But why did they smash it? Snow madness?” I walked up to the man sitting on the oil drum. The bandages made me think of protection against the cold. I looked closer. The white linen was covered in strawberry blotches. In places, shredded clothes showed through gaps in the bandages. He was wearing mittens that were stiff with frozen blood.
He had been hacked to pieces. Somehow, he had managed to just about cover himself with bandages. He must have been weeping in agony as he wrapped the gauze over the raw flesh; losing precious blood as he did so.
Hearne laughed nervously, “Wait until you see the other guy! — Sorry, bad joke. I’ll get a blanket.”
Weston came over for a look. He winced as he said, “Moving him’s out of the question.”
“We can’t get a helicopter up here so we’ll have to move him.” Hearne knew that for a fact having tried and failed before grudgingly coming to me. Weston had picked up the distress call, so he had to be cut in, but Hearne wanted no more shares — assuming there was any salvage to share; which I doubted.
On the floor there was an empty whisky bottle — and a syringe. So, after the morphine and whisky, all he’d got left was aftershave. “Hearne,” I said, “There’s morphine in the green bag with the red cross on it.”
Hearne shook his head. “We’ve got to let him come round,” he said “It’s our only chance to find out what happened.”
“Even if he comes round, we’ll never get him down — alive,” I said.
Weston made for the door, “I’ll see if I can fix up a sledge,” he said. “Oh, and don’t knock yourself out.”
If Hearne was wounded by the jibe, he didn’t show it. But he followed Weston outside. Someone needed to stay with the bandaged guy. I thought I might as well look for some sign of what had happened. Some kind of fight, obviously. But why?
The wind was rising, making a strange, unmusical whine as it blew over the glacier. As I listened, it sounded more and more like a hundred bag pipes running down and not quite together. I looked outside, but instead of a blizzard, there was an unearthly stillness. The weird sound must have been some kind of freak echo. I came back inside and as I re entered, just for a moment, I thought I could discern voices. But no: the man on the oil drum was quite motionless, his head on one side as if listening for his companions coming back. I listened too, and rested my hand on my revolver. All I could hear was that abominable piping; up and down over several octaves.
Weston and Hearne came back in dragging a makeshift stretcher made from one of the frame tents. “Thanks for the help,” said Hearne, sarcastic as ever.
Weston snapped on a big flashlight and swung the beam around. “It’s a prospector’s hut — prefabricated,” he said. “They erect them over test drills. It must have been a big team to drag this up the mountain — even in sections.” He hung the flashlight from a ceiling hook.
“So where is everyone?” I did not expect an answer — ever. Bodies soon got buried in this kind of ice flow. “Did they go crazy — or…?”
It was Hearne who answered, “Or what they were looking for was worth the risk — worth dying for.”
Weston was trying to persuade our friend to leave the oil drum. He was not co-operating so Hearne and I went to help. Even then, he fought like blazes, and it was only with a big effort that the three of us managed to get him on to the stretcher.
Hearne tapped the drum. “Whatever they found, it’s under this. They fought over it. The last survivor dragged this drum over the test hole and clung to it — like Ahab to Moby Dick.” The simile would turn out to be more apt than any of us realised.
We could see marks on the floor; the sign of a struggle — and crystals that could well be frozen blood. Hearne held up an ice pick and pointed to the red crystals on the tip.
The man on the stretcher was trying to speak.
We stood as close as we could and strained to hear.
He was saying one word over and over: “TRESOR! TRESOR! TRESOR!”
“Treasure!” Hearne laughed out loud. “You know what they found? Remember that plane that went down last year? It was in all the papers. Some French Canadian crime syndicate tried to hijack a charter flight carrying gold bullion. The attempt failed and the plane exploded and went down somewhere. These guys — must be French Canadians — came to look for it, found it, and fought for it — to the death.”
I was not convinced, “You think the plane is under our feet?”
“I’m sure of it,” said Hearne — and I’ve never seen such smugness; before or since. “A burning plane would sink straight down into the ice. After that, the ice fills in over it. They came along, drilled into the cargo hold and hit the jackpot!”
Weston tested the drum with his shoulder. “It’s still full of oil,” he said. “It won’t budge!”
“Looks like it’s jammed into the floor!” Hearne had his arms around the drum. Weston was trying to use a tent pole as a crowbar.
There was no mistaking the gold lust in their faces. They were in no mood to report the find. There are no salvage rights to gold bullion, so they were already outside the law. They would fight for it, just like their predecessors — to the death. Suddenly, I felt expendable. I backed away, feeling for my revolver. I nearly fell as my foot caught in a piece of wood on the floor. I reached down and picked it up. It was a sign:
“OXFORD UNIVERSITY CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL EXPEDITION.”
No. Hearne was wrong — ridiculously wrong. Skewed logic and misinterpreted observations; classic fallacious thinking.
I looked up in a daze. “Hearne, Weston, they weren’t French Canadians. They were English.”
They ignored me and continued to drag at the oil drum.
“They were zoologists — From Oxford University!” I pulled out my revolver. “Get away from the drum!”
But I was too late.
The drum came up out of the hole with a slurpy sucking sound. It shot to the ceiling taking Weston and Hearne with it. The light went out, smashed by the impact.
In the dark, there was a furious rattling as the hut shook. Something whipped across the floor — and the door slammed shut.
First the drum came crashing down from the ceiling, then Hearne followed, his arms flailing and mouth gaping as something dragged him backwards to the hole. I grabbed his arm and tried to hold on to the drum, but the floor gave way with a jolt and I had to let go.
It was then I saw Weston — or what was left of him.
He was hanging upside down from the ceiling, minus his head.
I switched on my flashlight and crawled frantically to the door, unable to get my balance.
Something had fallen against the door. I tried to pull it away, but my strength drained from me when I saw what it was — a corpse, covered in bandages. I turned away and it was then that Weston’s body came crashing down into the beam of my flashlight.
Moving the beam to one side I saw Hearne. He was shaking like a rag doll. And as he shook, bits of him came off.
Then I saw what was doing the shaking.
Those Oxford zoologists must have had a good idea of what it was they were looking for. They must have known from folk tales, or maybe even specimens from earlier expeditions.
They would have known that the octopus of the Alaskan coast grows to thirty feet across the tentacles, only they were looking for something bigger, a new species — or maybe a very old one. Maybe they did have specimens, brought up by drills, dating back to when the mountains were still at the bottom of a warm sea. They would have theorised or speculated about the exact nature of this prehistoric gastropod, drawing analogies from the diversity of marine life. Perhaps they had even the fossilised tracks of its tentacles. But this was a cryptozoological expedition — not a palaeontological one — and that shows that they expected a living specimen. But what could have prepared them for the madness in the ice — that hideous, multi tentacled mollusc like thing, with the huge, slurping tongue covered in tiny, jagged teeth that whipped and shivered and cut and slashed and sliced through Hearne and Weston’s bodies, dicing them like carrots and spraying the walls with their blood?
I was brought back to awareness when a tentacle lashed around my boot and dragged me half way across the floor.
It was incredibly fast. That Oxford expedition never stood a chance. Fighting back with ice picks and axes must have been like fighting a nest of serpents with a butter knife.
I fired my gun several times into the tentacle, blasting it to shreds. My leg was free — though badly cut — and I managed to stand. I fired the rest of the bullets into the gelatinous mass, but there was no real hope of hitting a vital spot.
There had to be another way.
The floor was alive with tentacles. They were like very fast blind snakes; randomly whipping this way and that. Instinctively, I leapt up on to the oil drum and found the hole it had punched in the roof. It took an agonisingly long time, during which the tentacles began to explore the air around me. But I climbed through the hole, just in time to see the drum being dragged away, leaking oil. That gave me an idea.
I took a magnesium flare from my belt, broke the seal and — as it began to blaze — hurled it through the hole.
I remember a deafening, roaring in my ears as I rolled over and over in the snow, dampening the flames that licked around me.
After that, I have the vaguest of recollections of dragging myself through a snowdrift. Everything that happened after that was a blank; until I awoke in hospital. Now it is a week later and I wish that blankness would return. It would be better than the sleepless nights. Even sleeping pills do not stop the dreams that awaken me to scream with terror. And the strongest prescription pain killers do not help, for the lacerations from the thing’s tentacles just will not heal. Antibiotics cannot stop the slowly spreading infection; the necrotising fasciitis that is slowly killing me. No, not killing me — eating me alive. Even that is not an adequate description for the way it is slowly digesting the muscles of my arms and legs; rather in the manner of the venom of certain reptiles, or spiders.
And then there is the other poison — the one affecting my brain. I wish that I could know for sure whether the madness in the ice is dead or not, for a deep longing fills me.
And gradually, the longing turns my wish for the creature’s death to a hope that it is still alive.
The parasitic virus lodged deep in my brain sends ever strengthening signals across my synapses, urging me to hire a charter plane to fly me over those dreaded Alaskan mountains, so that I can parachute down to the place where we found that loathsome, but fascinating, giant mollusc — and into its loving arms.
It is the perfect killer. I speculated for a time that it might even be some kind of biological weapon. But no; it is just very ancient and very specialised. You have to love it, in a way. It is efficient in what it does. But until the gradual warming frees it from the ice, it needs help — just as it needed help from the expedition who thawed it out. Its guardian, the man in the bandages would have freed it — if the virus had affected his brain enough, before he died. Now I will have to do it.
And I will, very soon.
But — with my last remaining particle of reason — I still appreciate the irony.
You see, when the rescue team found me, I was laughing hysterically and repeating one word over and over again; the word the English Zoologist had repeated — an English word, not a French one. Having seen that leftover from before the remotest ice age, I know how well the word described that dreadful, fascinating, quivering tongue with its rows of razor sharp teeth that buzzed and sliced effortlessly through flesh and bone — just as it will soon slice and dice my own willing flesh and end my agony of longing!
No, there was no treasure. That was not the word. Oh the irony!
Not treasure. And not “tresor” — but “TREE SAW”!