Grafting
By: Steven Bruce

Old Arthur scowled from the snow–covered steps of the Lichtman building as Baxter and Ward pulled up in the company van.

"Ah, shit," Baxter said, "I knew he'd be waiting."

They got out, rushed to the building, which was a red–bricked dinosaur with steel shutters barring the windows.

"And what time do you call this?" said old Arthur, tapping his watch.

"Traffic was a nightmare, boss," Ward said to him.

Old Arthur stared at his balloon–like face.

"So you didn't stop off anywhere, like, oh, I don't know, to stuff your face?" he said, pointing at the ketchup stain on the side of his mouth. "I'm docking your pay a half–hour."

"But we're only five minutes late, boss," Ward said, rubbing the stain with his palm.

"If you wanna argue with me, boy, you can go home instead."

Ward considered it but said nothing.

"Well, then, get the gear," old Arthur said, pointing at the van.

Baxter observed Ward scuttling through the dense snow.

What a way to spend a Saturday, he thought.

Old Arthur unlocked the door and pushed it open with his tattooed hand. The reek of damp drifted out through the doorway. Baxter made his way inside, kicking through a heap of old letters that littered the floor.

"Don't make them like this nowadays," old Arthur said, running a hand over the red and gold, faded, floral wallpaper.

"Thank the Lord," said Baxter.

Ward staggered in with a large bag strapped over his shoulder. He gave a wheeze as he tossed it to the floor.

"Be careful with that, dipshit."

"Sorry, boss."

Ward flicked the light switch up and down.

"No lights. Won't it be too dark in here?" He asked, noticing the dark hallway.

Old Arthur pulled a headlight out of the bag and shoved it at him.

"What do you think these are for, numbnuts. Did you bring the floor plan?"

"I forgot," Ward said.

Baxter puffed a cigarette behind the van.

"You coming with the floor plan or what?" Old Arthur shouted from the doorway.

He flicked the cigarette onto the snow, grabbed the papers, rushed back to the building.

"What the hell were you doing out there?"

"I was—"

"Forget it," old Arthur said, whipping the papers from his hand.

He held the plan out in the sliver of light that poured in through the main entrance.

"Okay," he said, "Ward, take the first floor, Baxter, you take second, and I'll go up top. If you spot anything hazardous or dangerous, log down the location and the details. You understand, Ward?"

"Got it, boss," he said, putting on his headlight.

"And don't dawdle, I'm taking the wife to see Macbeth tonight.""Who's he?" Ward asked.

Old Arthur grumbled and rushed off down the hallway. Baxter and Ward followed behind. The three men climbed the eclipsing darkness of the twisting staircase.

Baxter's headlight made a moon–like apparition on a half–opened door. He dipped his head around the jamb, and a smoke fume stung his nostrils.

He stepped inside, examined the room, stopping at a bin full of ash and papers. He picked out a half–charred document, a science article titled: The Human/Pig Comparison by Dr Z.B. Goethe.

As he left the room and crossed the hallway, his boots made a dull, peeling sound. He shined the headlight down to his feet, showing a dark–red sticky substance on the floor. He made a brief note of it and moved on.

The next room was empty, except for a rundown leather chair and a tall standing birdcage. His headlight illuminated a tiny pile of feathered bones resting in the corner of the tray.

A stamp–sized piece of daylight on the opposite side of the room caught his attention. He discovered it was a tiny window, which somebody had covered with black paint. He peeked out and could see nothing but fields and hills and a blue car parked nearby.

A dull, peeling sound came from the narrow hallway. Baxter shut his light off, moved through the room with careful steps, and peered out into the blackness. A whisper came out of the dark.

"Baxter, that you?"

He switched his light on, catching Ward's dumb–struck face staring back at him.

"Jesus, Ward, what are you doing?"

"My light's broke," he said.

"Well, go to the van and get another one."

"But I can't see where I'm going. Please, let me come with you," he said.

Baxter lit a cigarette, took a drag, passed it to Ward.

"When the old fart finds out, it's your problem."

The din of dripping water echoed along the third–floor. Old Arthur examined a steel door at the end of the hallway, studied the floor plan, cocked his head.

Hello, he thought. You're not supposed to be here.

He squeezed the handle, nudged the door with his stout shoulder, it didn't budge. He pressed his ear to the cold door and could hear somebody moving around on the other side.

Bastard squatters, he thought.

"Whoever's in there better unlock this door."

He listened again. The noise scraped into silence.

"Come on, open this door," he said, jiggling the handle.

Old Arthur pulled a bunch of keys from his pocket.

"Okay," he said, "you asked for it."

Baxter and Ward lingered in the dark, comparing smoke rings in the pale beam of light.

"I can't wait to leave this job," Baxter said.

"Yeah, I know what you mean, this building's dreadful isn't it?" Ward said.

"No, not this job. I mean this job. It's always the same shit but a different toilet."

"Oh, right, I've wanted to leave since I started," said Ward, scratching his neck. "But you know Lola won't have anything second–hand for the baby. She insists everything has to be new. It was the same when we moved in together. I bought a second–hand washer, it was in brilliant condition as well, and she told me to get rid of it. She said second–hand washing machines don't clean your clothes. I told you, didn't I, about the time she refused to suck me off because she thought she'd get pregnant, and now she is, and she still refuses to—"

"We should head down," Baxter said to Ward, stamping out his cigarette.

When the two men approached the staircase, a small, white mouse appeared in the globe of light. Its dull, red eyes peered up at them. The rodent had a bumpy mutation bulging from its side. Baxter brought his boot down on top of it and kicked it to the wall.

"Jesus," Ward said, moving onto the stairs. "It looked like a walking ear."

Baxter peered over the rickety banister.

"Hang on," he said. "Why's there no light coming in from the main entrance."

"It must be dark out," Ward said.

The pair arrived at the main door.

"The old bastard's locked us in," Baxter said, rattling the handle.

"He might have gone to the—"

A shriek of agony bellowed down from the staircase, freezing Baxter and Ward for a moment.

"Fuck," Baxter said, rushing towards the stairs. Ward followed, turning on his supposed broken headlight.

"Arthur, Arthur," Baxter called out.

The pair made it to the third floor, searched each room, landed at the steel door, which was now ajar.

"Oh, God," Ward said, covering his mouth and nose with his hand.

The door led to a narrow hallway. They shuffled along, found themselves standing in front of an elevator. Baxter thumbed the black button. It lit up with an ill green glow, and the machine jerked into life with an uneasy cranking racket.

"I don't like this. We should go," Ward said.

"Shush," said Baxter, pressing his ear to the elevator door.

Groaning and weeping sounds crawled up from the inside. Baxter and Ward retreated. The lift doors jerked apart. A buzzing, yellow light revealed a grotesque monster, half–human, half–animal. It loomed over a prone, semi–conscious old Arthur. And with a blood numbing squeal, it tore off the old man's arm and bludgeoned his face with it.

The doors began to stagger shut. A hairy, blood–soaked hand stopped it. The beast bounded out towards the two fear struck men. Baxter shoved Ward into its path and made a run for it. The sound of Ward's screams chased him all the way to the tiny, paint–covered window.

Baxter scanned the room, picked up the leather chair, smashed the glass with it. He squeezed his head and a single arm out of the window. The other arm dragged behind, the jagged glass ripped into his shoulder. He clawed at the outer bricks until his fingertips were raw and his second arm was free. Half–way out, he reached for the rust–clad drain pipe.

A powerful hand seized his ankle. Baxter flailed in agony as the beast tore into his leg. It yanked, twisted until bone snapped and his leg separated at the knee. When the second leg was off, Baxter lost consciousness, slipped out of the window, landing face–first into a thicket of nettles.

Baxter's eyes adjusted to the bright lights that hovered above him. A surgeon appeared at his side. His bushy eyebrows poked out from his pink scrub cap. Baxter groaned and tried to sit up.

"All is good," the surgeon said. "We caught the beast. All is good. We even managed to fix your legs." He placed a settling hand on Baxter's chest, easing him back into the pillow.

Baxter reveled in relief before realizing that his wrists were bound to the bed–rail. He peered down at his new legs and wiggled his grotesque, hairy trotters.

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