I’d Like an Appointment
with the Giant Octopus, Please
Midnight in the basement of Cincinnati’s Horace Hotchkiss Aquarium. Puddles on the concrete floor. The festering smell of a fish market on a hot day.
“Keep your trap shut and follow me,” warned a voice in a harsh whisper.
The Jackal, a figure in a black leather trench coat, turned toward the voice. It had come from a man wearing a wet rubber scuba suit dripping with slime.
It was the job of the man in the scuba suit dripping with slime to clean the giant tanks in which the aquarium’s most dangerous inhabitants were imprisoned. The man’s name was Sledge. He had a two-day growth of beard and a deeply scarred face, the result of confrontations with creatures that didn’t appreciate his housecleaning. A large part of Sledge’s lower right lip was missing, revealing a disturbing sneer of teeth. It was fortunate he worked nights and rarely came in contact with the public.
Sledge led The Jackal into a dimly lit storage room. On its floor, black hoses coiled like sea snakes.
“Okay, chief, tell me what you want,” said Sledge, his voice as low and deep as a foghorn. “But make it snappy—I don’t have all night.”
Deliberately taking more time than he needed to, The Jackal removed a stiff pack of stinky French cigarettes from his trench coat pocket, put one between his lips, set it on fire with a wooden match, inhaled deeply, then exhaled a cloud of putrid smoke.
“One evening after the aquarium has closed,” said The Jackal, “a friend of mine, a young man, a professional daredevil, wishes to enter the tank with your giant octopus.”
“Absolutely, positively, totally, and completely out of the question,” the tank cleaner snapped.
“What a pity,” said The Jackal, puffing on his cigarette. “Why?”
“Why?” Sledge snorted, laughing nastily. “The octopus would snake her tentacles around your friend’s body and squeeze him like a tube of toothpaste. Her beak would open him up like a can of sardines, and she’d feast on his guts. His screams would die inside big bubbles of air. A truly ghastly death.”
“My friend is, of course, aware of the risk,” said The Jackal, inhaling more smoke from his vile French cigarette. “The risk is frankly what makes him do it. My friend has wrestled the man-eating crocodile, survived the attack of the giant grizzly, fought off the jaws of the great white shark. He does this for a living, you see. He’s quite well-known. Perhaps you’ve heard of him—his name is Wally Shluffmuffin.”
“I don’t care how well-known he is,” said Sledge. “The name means nothing to me, and your friend is a fool. He wouldn’t last sixty seconds with this creature.”
“I, on the other hand, believe he would last sixty seconds,” said The Jackal, with a grim smile. “I plan to videotape him from the other side of the glass. I already have a deal to sell the tape to a big TV reality show. My TV people will pay the same whether he lives or dies. Frankly, they’ll pay more if he dies. I can sign a legal paper absolving you and the aquarium of all responsibility. I can make this venture very much worth your while.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do say.”
“How much worth my while?”
The Jackal smiled again, a different sort of smile. “Very much worth your while.” He opened the black leather suitcase he’d been carrying. It was filled with bricks of newly minted hundred-dollar bills, Benjamin Franklin with pursed lips staring disapprovingly out from every one of them.
Sledge didn’t react to the contents of the open suitcase for the longest time. Then, at last, he spoke.
“Midnight next Thursday,” he said. “A back door will be left unlocked so you and your friend may come in unobserved. Your friend will enter the tank of the giant octopus and remain there for precisely six minutes. He will be permitted no scuba or other underwater breathing apparatus, no speargun or knife, no weapon of any kind. If he survives, you will both exit the aquarium as soon as the six minutes are up. If he does not survive—which he won’t—the creature will ingest all traces of him and you will exit immediately. I will sign no papers. We have never spoken of this matter or anything else. I have forgotten your friend’s name and I do not wish to know yours. We have never met.”
Sledge grabbed the handle of the suitcase. His hand was seriously deformed. It looked as though it had no bones. It looked less like a hand than a tentacle with a double row of suckers.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.