A Whispering in Distant Chambers
by Helen H.
The golf cart slid quickly to a halt. The two passengers inside sat still for a moment, taking in the silence. In front of them was their destination, one of the oldest buildings on the Institute grounds. Chip Morton was the first to speak up.
"You sure you want to do this?"
Lee Crane was already swinging out of the driver's side. He bent down and flashed a grin at his best friend and executive officer. "Since when have you been scared of a few spiders and rats?"
"It's not the spiders and rats that concern me, but what else we're going to find in this old warehouse," Chip countered with a sigh. Even as he uttered the reassuring speech, he couldn't suppress a little shudder of distaste at the building's obvious state of abandonment.
"Don't tell me you believe in things that go bump in the night."
Lee's challenging smirk was telling. Chip knew that look.
"No, I don't," Chip responded, determined not to be baited. "So Security says one of the guards has been seeing 'funny lights' inside. Doesn't mean we should be running over here to find out what's what. That's what those guys get paid for."
"You didn't make any objection when I invited you along, so don't give me any of your crap now, mister," Lee retorted, his grin getting bigger. He was enjoying this. "You're free to take off any time you want."
"And leave you on your own to get into trouble? This place has seen better days, that's for sure. I bet if you blew on it it'd fall over - and you'd be inside it at the time. So let's be honest about this, you need me along as a back-up, my illustrious captain."
"Back-ups are good. Witnesses are better. Let's go."
Lee had begun walking towards the building, so the rueful tight-lipped smile that Chip threw at him was unseen. Chip stepped out of the cart and rubbed his hands on his khaki trousers.
"How are we getting in?"
Lee brandished a key ring. "I've got a key to the roll-up door, the one the guards used last night. Got your flashlight?" Chip waved a huge black cylinder back and forth. "Good. C'mon."
"Could it be any darker here?" Chip grumbled, glancing around him at the meager spotlights that dotted the blacktopped alley.
The old warehouse was one of the last standing from the days when this site on the Santa Barbara coast did nothing more than process fish catches. It was due to be demolished to make way for another NIMR research facility. In the meantime, its location, close to the road that led to Seaview's underground lair, meant it was a regular stop for the security patrols. It was here one of the guards had noticed what he described as "lights and shadows" visible through the upper windows. The first night he chalked it up to clouds drifting across a full moon. On the second night... he'd called for reinforcements. By the time the rest of the security squad turned up and got inside all was dark and silent again. The guard had endured the good-natured ribbing, but the word had quickly gotten around that something was "not right" at Building 113. That the calendar indicated the days were close to Halloween only exacerbated the rumors.
The building was two stories high, its walls growing alternatively bright white and black as the clouds slipped open and closed against the evening's full moon. Tin siding rusting from exposure to salt air and the passage of time made up the facade. A row of windows fronted most of the second floor, the majority cracked and broken. Pigeons had made themselves at home here; Chip could hear their cooing as they settled into their nests for the evening. He gave a swift mental thought to what else they might find inside the space, then shook his head; too much imagination at work.
Lee might have the key, but getting in was easier said than done. The large rollup entry, even though it had been opened only the day before, was resisting the attempt to enter again. It took the combined efforts of both men to ratchet the door upward, corroded surfaces squealing loudly, before they could step through.
The tang of ocean water followed them inside, the scent always present this close to the cliffs. The reassuring aroma filled the space, thankfully cutting off most - but not all - of the other not so pleasant smells present. Wafting through the air was the unmistakable bouquet of animal detritus, certainly, but also the smell of stale oil, of mold and decay... just old everything, Chip thought. There was something else, too. His flashlight picked out darkened corners braced with 2x4s and stained rags hanging from their sides. Here and there one of the blocks of wood was decorated with a bright yellow hard hat hanging at a jaunty angle. A pile of empty frames littered another part of the space, thrown down haphazardly athwart each other in mass confusion. Pieces of metal, large sheets of it, marched down the floor, giant stepping-stones that disappeared into the dark space beyond the reach of his flashlight's bright ray. It was as if the building's occupants had knocked off work and then never returned, expecting to come back the next morning and resume their labors. But no one ever had.
The beam from the flashlight caused another reaction - movement and sounds, scurrying sounds, as residents of the rodent persuasion scuttled away behind boxes and into crevices. Chip's flashlight picked up the sight of a few of the critters as he swept it across the dusty interior. He gave another shudder.
"Ugh, rats. Hate 'em. Still can't believe that we've been so lucky not to have 'em on the boat."
Lee snorted. "No self respecting rat would want to be present when the Admiral's on one of his tirades. The volume would drive it over the side in a hurry."
"For which I am forever grateful," Chip answered firmly. His flashlight moved again, up and over the walls.
The place was a mess, proof positive that nobody had been here to do anything for a long time. Cobwebs hung from every girder. Inside, the holes in the windows were even more noticeable, the light from the moon forming weird patterns on the walls, undefined shapes that kept appearing and disappearing at the whim of the clouds outside.
"Okay, mystery solved," Chip announced. "What the guard thought was funny lights was just the moon cutting across those broken windows and reflecting off the glass on the other side. Can we go now?"
"We just got here. Let's look around," Lee murmured distractedly as he continued his exploration.
"We have looked around and there's nothing to see!" Chip declared. "C'mon, Lee, let's get out of here."
Lee looked askance at his unusually jittery friend. "Give it five minutes, and we'll go. I just want to be sure we're not missing something."
Chip sighed with resignation but stayed silent as in unison, they directed their flashlight beams up to the ceiling shadows. Pigeon eyes turned toward the light, but none of the sleepy birds made any move to leave.
The catwalk seemed intact, draped with tackling along much of its length. Here and then a metal ladder linked the passageway to the floor, tops lost in the darkness. Empty equipment stands were scattered through the space, the machinery that had once been attached long gone. Square in the middle of the ground floor was an office whose windows were deadened against the light.
"What was this building used for?" Chip asked.
Lee pulled a folded clump of papers from within his jacket. "Here, hold my flashlight and point it at this. Angie dug 'em out of the basement for me."
"I hope you took her out to lunch for that. It probably took some doing," Chip said, chuckling, as he trained the light towards the papers held in Lee's hands.
"Don't forget, she was working here before the admiral bought the place, so she said she knew exactly where to go."
They both saw the title at the same time. "Scrap yard?" Chip queried.
Lee poked a finger at the page. "Looks like they took in old boats and dismantled them, removing all the fixtures and anything else that could be sold. Then discarded the rest."
"Makes sense, with all that's sitting around here. Great. A graveyard for old ships. No wonder the place gives me the creeps."
"Suck it up, XO. Let's just walk around a few minutes more."
"You're nuts, you know," Chip said, nevertheless following behind Lee.
They began a circuit of the space, peering into dark corners, careful to avoid the piles of trash, rusted parts and flattened boxes that littered the floor. Here and there were remnants of a once functioning vessel; a diesel engine block, deck planking, coils of thick rope, even a few lobster pots, sides limp and twisted. Chip realized now that what he had classified as just a pile of empty frames was in reality the empty windows from long-vanished ship's bridges. Necessary work, perhaps, but depressing none the same.
"You can almost feel the sadness of this place. A ship pulled to pieces when it had outlasted its usefulness. Couldn't have gotten anything too big in here, maybe a 30 or 40 footer. Big enough to have to have a lot of work done to it, decks ripped apart, engines pulled out, cabinetry and gear set aside, waiting to be sold or taken to the junkyard. Then gone, as if it had never been."
Lee nodded slowly. "Don't like to see these graveyards of old ships, even though it needs to be done eventually. At least there hasn't been anything screwy about what we've seen so far," he added, sounding faintly disappointed. "Let's check the office."
The door opened silently and they stepped inside. The room was approximately 20 feet by 20 feet, with windows on three sides. The air inside was thick, closed up for who knows how long, and Chip made sure to take short, easy breaths. Windows streaked with dirt but intact afforded an easy view to the vanished work which one had taken place in this warehouse. The dust of discarded years coated the tops of the two desks that had been left behind, smothering the piles of catalogs that rested on their surfaces. An ashtray full of old cigar and cigarette butts sat forlornly on one desk. Gone were any other personal touches, like an old coffee cup or a pinup calendar, although a smudged outline on the back wall could mean a calendar had been hung up at one time. Only the catalogs hadn't been important enough to take away.
Lee picked up a topmost one and blew off the dust, the motes twinkling in the light from his flashlight.
"Thompson's Ship Parts," Lee said, tipping the cover up. "Required reading for this place, I'll bet."
There was nothing more to see here. They stepped outside and walked over to one of the ladders that led upward towards the catwalk. Lee pulled hard on the bottommost rung. The metal groaned while flakes of rust and debris rained down onto his shoulders and hands.
"No climbing up there," Lee announced, dusting himself off. "This place is pretty much done for. Good thing it's coming down soon." He pulled out the papers and studied them again, shifting his flashlight downward. "Second floor was used to pick the gear off the masts. That's what all the catwalks were for, I guess."
A sound, a soft metallic clink, grated through the darkness. Chip looked up.
Chip yelled out a warning and pulled Lee away from the ladder just as a large block and tackle came hurtling out of the darkness, clanging and banging until it hit the floor with a loud thump. The heavy piece of wood settled at their feet, raising a cloud of dust that covered their pants legs.
"Nice to know you were paying attention," Lee said, fighting to keep his voice steady. He gripped Chip's shoulder. "Thanks, Chip. I owe you one."
"Two or three, I'm thinking. And I'll hold you to it. Told you I was needed as back-up." Chip forced a hint of laughter into the words, but there was emotion behind them. Lee seemed to attract trouble as easily as he attracted women. Chip had made it a personal mission to keep his best friend and commanding officer out of harm's way. Sometimes he succeeded; other times… it was best not to think about those right now.
Both men stepped carefully away from the ladder, their eyes sweeping the darkness. Chip asked firmly, "Have we seen everything we came to see?"
Lee nodded, his head bobbing up and down vigorously. "I'd say we'd better leave before something else happens."
"First smart thing you've said all night. Then let's go before we - no, you - get killed. Should have never come in the first place," Chip added, scowling.
Lee smiled. Chip was on his high horse again. He was about to comment on that when something else caught his friend's attention.
"You hear anything?" Chip asked in hushed tones.
Lee stopped and looked around. "Oh, now you really are letting the place get to you."
"No, I'm serious, Lee. Listen."
Despite himself, Lee's voice softened, following Chip's lead. "Listen to what?"
"I'm not sure… whistling."
Lee stood still for another moment and then relaxed, then tension going out of his body.
"It's the wind, dummy. Haven't you noticed the breeze coming through that door? It started to get heavier the minute we walked in here. Kicking up the dust, too. There go my sinuses."
"Who's the dummy for coming here? No, I didn't notice the wind, too concentrated on the inside to notice what was going on outsi-wait a minute."
Chip stopped again, and a second later Lee did the same. For Chip, there was no mistaking the thudding of his heart in his chest. But what he had heard - or thought he had - was something else. He tried to pinpoint the sense of it, for it was more a sense than an actual sound. More like a vibration - there.
"In that corner," Chip whispered as he pointed.
Something pulsating, growing stronger, then fading away, then thrumming again, seemingly caroming off from corner to corner.
Chip tensed, the hair on his arms rising up even as the air seemed to press against the back of his neck.
"A snake… it's got to be a rattlesnake," he said, trying to convince himself that it was a warning rattle he was hearing.
"Awfully cold in here for snakes," Lee responded. "And getting colder, seems to me."
It did seem to be colder inside the building, colder than this time of October should be.
Another noise, from a different corner this time. Both men whirled in unison and pointed their flashlights at the floor - in time to catch a hint of undulation, a slippery shadow that disappeared under a pile of rags.
"That's all it is, a resident snake," Chip declared, feeling oddly relieved. The air that had seemed to press against him in an enveloping cloud was gone, too. "We'll have to let the demo crews know to be on the alert for something else besides all the trash in here." Sure now that he had all the answers he faced his comrade. "Okay if we go now?" he asked in a fake, whiny tone.
"I guess you won't give it up till we do," Lee replied, the words coming out in a harsher tone than he intended.
Chip looked up in surprise, both men suddenly embarrassed.
"Sorry, I shouldn't be making such a big deal about being here. The place is just… depressing, that's all I can think of."
"It's getting to me, too," Lee replied, knowing he needed to be placating. "The building does kind of give you the creeps. Didn't expect to find any monsters, anyway. Now I really will have to make something up for the wardroom."
"Just tell 'em how you almost got killed by a runaway block and tackle. And that your old pal Lieutenant Commander Morton had to save your sorry ass - again."
Laughing, the two men made for the doorway, leaving behind them a moping silence smelling of seaweed, rusty steel and decay… and maybe just a faint trace of tobacco smoke. The door ratcheted down, easier this time, and the lock clicked shut.
The voices and the footsteps faded away. And as they did, a sound like a shuddering sigh whispered through the building, as if a breath, long held, had been released. Startled, two pigeons jumped up and then quickly settled back down, all fluffing feathers and wide eyes. The disturbance was over in a few seconds.
Or maybe it was just the wind.
"A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snip of the window, the latch rises."
J. M. Barrie, The Little Minister, Chapter 22