The cage, its metallic floor covered with straw, comprised the center of the room, with the lab and all its tables and equipment surrounding it. Video monitors mounted here and there on the bland white walls displayed the interior of the cage from various angles. The hallway with the windows terminated at a door that opened onto a set of switchback steel stairs. Maribelle got ahead of Phil Hamm, her shoes clicking as she walked.
“You remember the pass code?” Hamm asked her, in no hurry.
“By the time you get it memorized, they’ll just change it again.” Hamm stopped beside her, began punching buttons on a small keypad mounted in the wall beside the steel door. “Good thing I’ve got a photographic memory,” Hamm said.
Maribelle watched him as he typed in the twenty-three-digit security code. She had it written down on a card in her purse. She wasn’t supposed to keep such a thing on her person, would get in trouble if anybody found out about it, but she wasn’t even close to having the sequence memorized. How could anybody memorize a code that long?
The door slid open, and Maribelle hurried down the steps to the floor. She went straight to the cage. No one tried to stop her.
“Hey!” she said. “Hey, there! Remember me?”
The creature lay in the center of the cage, his back turned towards Maribelle, curled up with one arm over his head. He didn’t move.
“Hey? You awake?”
The creature rolled over, turned his head towards Maribelle.
“Hi. Remember me?”
He remembered. Maribelle could see it in his eyes, that and much more. Weariness? Sadness?
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get in to see you before now,” Maribelle said.
The creature got to his feet. He took a step towards her.
“Ma’am.” A young man in a uniform materialized at her side. Buzz cut, build of a quarterback. Ex-military, Maribelle figured. Now a standard rent-a-cop. “You need to step away from the cage, ma’am,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Maribelle said. “We’re old friends, he and I.”
“Step back, if you please,” the guard said.
Maribelle noticed the man carrying some sort of object in his right hand. She recognized it at once. She’d seen her father use just such a device on many occasions, back home at the farm. A “hot-stick,” he called it. A cattle prod.
“I’d suggest *you* step back,” Maribelle said, sounding as Southern as ever, “before I take that thing away from you and give you a jolt in the place you’d least appreciate it.”
The man blinked at her.
Maribelle had placed her hand on one of the crossbars of the cage. She kept it there as the creature came nearer.
“Hi,” Maribelle said, not knowing what else to say.
Even now, having seen him before, and up close, the sight of him almost made her lose her breath. The face that was not a man’s and yet not an animal’s looked drawn. The creature had lost weight. But those eyes. Those beautiful, terrible golden eyes. They still could catch her and hold her transfixed.
He touched her hand. To her credit—she would later congratulate herself—Maribelle didn’t pull it away. A light touch, brushing her knuckles with the rough palm of his right hand.
The Blackmane snarled, lunged at the bars.
Maribelle jumped back. To see that reaction from the creature, and up close no less. Her legs went weak. One word screamed through her mind, flashed like an inner neon sign in bloody red, one-hundred-watt capital letters: TEETH! But even as she pulled her hand away, she knew the creature’s reaction had not been the result of any provocation on her part.
Standing behind her, Phil Hamm laughed.
“Yeah, your mamma!” Hamm said.
The rent-a-cop stepped forward and jabbed the cattle prod through the bars.
“No!” Maribelle shoved him.
The creature jerked the cattle prod from the man’s hand.
Phil Hamm guffawed, slapped his knee. “Oh, shit! Now you’re gonna have to go in there an’ get it back!”
Maribelle looked at the Blackmane. The look in those golden eyes, with their pupils constricted to tiny black pinpricks, the rage and malevolence there, made her bladder threaten to turn loose. But the creature was not looking at her. He was looking at Phil Hamm. Growls rumbled up from deep in his chest, and his lips curled back to reveal the meaty gums, the fangs like little scimitars hewn from ivory.
Phil Hamm laughed.
With no apparent effort the creature bent the cattle prod in his misshapen hands, snapped its metallic stalk; a thin wire held it together. Its tip arced a blue-white spark as it died. The creature stepped up to the bars and threw the remnants of the device at Phil Hamm.