Maribelle drove into the parking garage with the windows of her Toyota Camry rolled down. It was hot out, but she still hadn’t been able to get used to air-conditioning again. It gave her a headache. One of the several ways in which Africa had left its stamp on her. She’d been home now for two weeks and the mother continent was still seeping out through her skin. Maybe it always would.
Today she was going to see the Blackmane.
The parking garage had an entrance into the building proper. No reason to have to venture outside on this hot morning. The sun, creeping high over the Atlanta haze, would be busy turning the sidewalks and asphalt of the metro area into a skillet; bare feet beware. But the cool, flavorless air that hit Maribelle as she stepped through the sliding glass doors into headquarters proper of the World Foundation for Ethics in Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation and Health caused her skin to gooseflesh. She shivered.
She found the nearest elevators instead of walking halfway around the first floor to the service elevator, then had to wait for a couple of middle-aged women to take the next available ride. One of them tried to hold the door for her but Maribelle pretended to be going for her cell phone and waved her off. The woman nodded and smiled.
When the elevator doors opened again the chamber was empty. Maribelle stepped inside. All the letters beside their round plastic buttons were for ascending numbers, all going up. But there was a slot beneath them where Maribelle swiped her ID card. The elevator began to move. Going down.
The basement. The WEBWATCH headquarters building looked like the offices of any given business. A bank, maybe. Neat carpeting and little offices, with here and there a fake plastic tree standing guard near a public water fountain. Generic and dull, that’s how it looked. But the interesting things were all below street level.
Maribelle had never been allowed down before. She’d never had the clearance.
The elevator doors slid open, and Maribelle stepped out into a white hallway with gray tile floors which shined as if wet beneath the fluorescent lights overhead. About half the length of a football field down the hall stood a desk. A man in a uniform sat behind it, with another standing over him, leaning with his hands on the top of the desk. Even from a distance Maribelle recognized the second man. *Oh, great. What’s that jackass doing here?*
Her shoes clicked on the tile floor, announcing her presence. Phil Hamm looked up and watched her as she came closer. He grinned.
“If it ain’t Miss Maribelle Tate in the delectable flesh,” he said, when she came close enough to hear him.
“I figured they would have shipped you off someplace by now,” Maribelle said, not at all interested in being polite.
“Your lucky day,” Hamm replied, still grinning. “You know, I was just tellin’ Max here about how you an’ Dr. Mocker went out an’ did my job for me, collectin’ the specimen an’ all. Easiest paycheck I ever earned.”
“The specimen?” Maribelle said. “That’s what he is now?”
“To everybody except your partner in crime,” Hamm said. “I was headin’ out, but as you are yourself just arrivin’ I’ll be glad to show you in.”
“Don’t do me any favors,” Maribelle said.
Hamm chuckled. “Come on. Follow me.” The man behind the desk, who looked the type to be friends with Phil Hamm, now that Maribelle got a good look at him, chuckled too. Maribelle rolled her eyes.
They went through a door on the right, a steel door painted gray that opened inward when Hamm swiped his key. Then down another sterile hallway and through a door identical to the first. This opened into a long hall, the right length of which was composed of glass. Maribelle looked down into a large laboratory with numerous people, many of them in white coats, moving around like ants.
She saw the cage. Then she saw the creature.