Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#34



No home will want to be without one!  Oh, yes, co-editor D.K. Latta tinkers together this mesmerizing monstrosity formerly published in the e-zine Spaceways Weekly and reprinted here with his generous consent!  It's a spine-tingling tale of devilish devises as Wellington Elles, an eccentric old inventor, happens upon the invention of the Century!  But don't rush out to the store just yet, Faithful Fiends, because this is one little do-dad that is definitely labelled "Buyer beware" -- a little offering we call...


The Google-Wumpf
(Part One)

By D.K. Latta
About the author


"IT WON'T TAKE A MINUTE," said Dwight Harris, describing his offer of a private demonstration.  Before Wellington Elles could respond, Harris darted out of the work shop to the pick-up truck waiting in the gravel driveway.

Wellington sighed and scratched at his silvery beard.  He shifted his bony weight on the canvas-topped stool and decided, somewhat curmudgeonly, that being a Grand-Old-Man of something was not, in fact, all that it was cracked up to be.  He was an inventor, and a damned good one, even if he thought so himself.  He actually managed to make a living at it--not a lucrative living, granted, but sufficient to pay the bills, purchase appropriate tools, and generally devote his time to coming up with new gadgets, doohickeys and a few useless-but-temporarily-voguish items.  He had a file cabinet drawer packed with patents, and another, not quite as packed, of business contracts.

He was something of a celebrity among the assortment of putterers and tinkerers and wannabes making up the body of his peers.  There were vastly richer inventors who had landed upon the one right idea at the right time and springboarded themselves into a whole new tax bracket, but, for general longevity and consistency of out-put, Wellington Elles took his place with very few others.

Being a celebrity meant that when he trotted his latest wares down to one or another exhibition, not just infomercial producers and direct-by-phone retailers gathered around his little table, but fellow inventors would cluster, to swap a few stories, pick his brain, and beg his advice on the best way to secure a deal and so on.  Invariably he would be wise and avuncular and say something about, "Anytime you're in the neighbourhood, drop by--"

Dwight Harris was the first of the young wannabes with the temerity to actually take his off-the-cuff invitation to heart.

"Good lord," Wellington muttered.

Harris struggled through the doorway with a bulky object wrapped entirely in an old bed sheet.  The young man's face was beet red and Wellington half rose from his stool to lend a hand, but Harris shook his head.  "S'aright.  It isn't heavy--oof--not really, just--uh--awkward."  With a rattle of something beneath the cloth, Harris deposited the thing in the middle of the floor.  It rose to his shoulders.

Wellington cocked an eyebrow.  "It's a bit bigger than what I generally do myself--"

Harris grinned and slumped into an old chair, wiping at the great bubbles of sweat linked across his brow.  "I call it a Google-Wumpf."

"A goo--?"  He couldn't quite see that name making it onto a cardboard box, but he held his tongue.  "How--unique."

"It's going to be big.  This time.  My first idea was more organic: the Vippy Veg," he said, his fingers carving quotation marks in the air, "a novelty plant.  I've a degree in botany, you know.  It was gonna kick Chia Pet's ass all the way into the two-for-one bin." His mouth quirked slightly.  "But it went kind of awry.  But this baby," he patted the bed sheet, "she's a winner.  Everyone's gonna want a Google-Wumpf; no home is going to want to be without one. And that's not hyperbole."

"Naturally not," he said dryly.  "But why bring it to me?"

Harris leaned forward, wheezing just a little as though having run a kilometre.  "Well, Mr. Elles, I'll tell you:  with something this potentially huge, I was hoping you could give me some advice about who I should approach, and maybe help me work out a few kinks here and there.  I don't have any family--or friends for that matter--so I'm kind of hungry for feedback.  I, uh--"  He stopped, blinked quickly.  "Cou-could I have a glass of water, please?  My mouth is duh-duh--"

"Christ!" Wellington exclaimed as Harris pitched over, sprawling like an old doll across his floor.  He leapt to the young man's side and lay a shaking hand across his broad chest, then with frightened, unsteady fingers tested for a pulse in his wrist.

It was no use.  Dwight Harris had departed for the World's Fair in the sky.

***

Wellington fingered his whiskey glass nervously as he watched through the open door as the ambulance rumbled away.  It did not flash its lights.

He felt sick.  There was something almost cosmically unfair about an old man watching as a young man with his whole life ahead of him was carted off to be measured for a hole in the ground.  He threw back his whiskey in one gulp.

Of course, that was not the only thing twisting a knot in his stomach.  It was coming face to face with his own shallowness.

Haltingly, his gaze fell upon the sheet rising up in the middle of his work shop, like the damning spectre of Christmas Yet To Come.

When the ambulance attendant had muttered something about a bad heart, then asked about next of kin, Wellington had said that Harris had suggested that he had none.  When the attendant asked if there were any more of Harris' belongings they should take with them, Wellington had glanced at the Google-Wumpf, slowly passed it and, in a flat voice, said, "No."

It had been a long time since he had had a really good idea.

The last few exhibitions he had attended he had not sold a thing. The people in their suits had come and looked things over--after all, he was still Wellington Elles, and that meant something; they had leafed through the specs, taken away pamphlets, but no one had made a deal, no one had called back the next day, or the next week.

Wellington, frankly, was out of good ideas, and he knew it.

And now friendless, kinless, Dwight Harris had died on his floor and left him sole possessor of the Google-Wumpf--which Harris had felt was going to be big.

He tried to assuage his conscience.  After all, if he didn't take possession of it, who would?  No one.  Better that the poor boy's last invention be given a shot rather than to have it buried with him.  And even if he had to pass it off as his own--just to side-step any tricky patent problems--if it became a success, he could then let it be known that Dwight Harris had, after all, been instrumental in its development.  "Yes," he assured himself, rising slowly to his feet.  "I'm doing this for Dwight, not to spite him." And he almost believed it.

"Now, let's see what we've got," he muttered and tugged on the sheet.  It rustled to the ground and Wellington stepped back, gawking at what was revealed.  After a moment, he said aloud, "What the hell are you?"

The Google-Wumpf was a bizarre collection of wires and rods and gears and plates.  It perched on three segmented legs like a tripod, and had a brass-coloured torso and more rods jutting out at odd angles; at its top was a dented cylinder.  There were lenses here and there, as though indicating it might be some sort of newfangled camcorder; as well there were slots and panels, as though it was built to house things.

He clawed at the panels, but they refused to open.  He poked at a few wires, but they were securely in place, and covered over with clear plastic tubing as though the mechanism was intended to withstand some foreseeable wear and tear.  He found a series of buttons on its back, hesitated, then pressed one and jumped back.

Nothing happened.

He jabbed a few others, in various sequences, and still produced no response.  The same resulted when he joggled the various toggles on its left flank and twisted the dial placed, indelicately, between its legs.

The Google-Wumpf did not stir.

Harris had died before saying what it was supposed to be, but Wellington had rather assumed he could figure that out after a quick examination.  But he could not imagine what the Google-Wumpf was supposed to do, how it worked, why, or who Harris had even intended to market it to.

He was stumped.

***

He blinked at the blood-red numbers of the bed-table clock glowing 1:22 AM.  He stared blearily up at the dark ceiling, and yawned. He was of an age where waking in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature was not uncommon, but his bladder did not feel particularly insistent.  He made to turn over and go back to sleep when, quite clearly, he heard a dull thud, followed by a lesser bump.  He craned his head off the pillow and frowned, but then decided it had not come from within the house; more like the work shop door being blown back and forth by the wind.

Except, he had locked the door.  And there was no wind.

Dressed in his old cerulean robe and mustard yellow slippers, a cracked baseball bat clutched in his thin hands, Wellington cautiously left the house and walked over to the modified garage that was his work shop.  Gravel crunched underfoot and he cringed at the deafening sound.  Feeling his heart throwing itself against the inside of his ribs, he slipped a foot in through the slightly ajar door, took a deep breath, then slid a hand along the wall, searching for the damnably elusive light switch whose mobility science had yet to adequately explain.  His fingers closed about the switch at last and, in moments, the shop was bathed in 100 watts of illumination.

The room was deserted.  He exhaled, noting with relief that his tools were where they were supposed to be; no burglar.  He had obviously forgotten to lock the door, that was all.  He turned to go, then stopped, belatedly recognizing one glaring discrepancy.

The Google-Wumpf was gone.

He stared at the bed sheet still upon the ground.  Who would want to steal the Google-Wumpf?  Of what value was it, that a thief would pass up his power tools and high-powered magnifying glass? For that matter, who would even know it was here?

He frowned.  There was little he could do, though.  How could he report a robbery of something which was not his to begin with?

Shoulders hunched slightly, Wellington wearily trudged back to the house.

***

The Google-Wumpf returned the next morning.

He entered his shop, newspaper folded under one arm, his morning cup of coffee in hand, and there it was, just as he had left it. If the question had been, who would steal it, then an even more curious inquiry might be, who would bring the damn thing back?  He tossed his paper on the chair, deposited his cup on the work bench, and went to examine the wayward Google-Wumpf more intimately.

He frowned.  It was filthy.  It was stained with dirt and grass, as if it had been dragged across the ground.  Stranger though were substances he could not identify.  A weird yellowish-green goop, mixed with swathes of dark red.

He backed away as a new thought occurred to him, sending a slight shiver up his spine.  What if no one had stolen the Google-Wumpf? What if it was self-mobilizing?  What if the thing had just up and walked off in the night, only to return in the morning like a cat returning home after a night on the prowl?  Had he unwittingly activated it while fiddling with its switches?

More to the point, where had it gone, and why?

He stared at the red smears on it, feeling a dryness in his throat that swallowing did nothing to alleviate.  He looked at the tightly closed panels, built to contain--what?  Snatching up a screwdriver with an almost frantic haste, he jabbed at the nearest panel, prying at the lip, pumping as though with a crowbar.

The panel did not budge.

After a moment, he stopped and stared into the blank lenses of the machine.

It gave off no hum or vibration of power, no indication it was at all active, nor did it seem to begrudge his assaults upon its person.  Not for the moment, at least.  Slowly, he again regarded the ominous red smears--smears that were drying to a rusty brown that was grimly evocative to a man who had fought in Korea.

Tossing aside the screwdriver, he went hunting up an empty peanut butter jar that he kept nails in.  The nails rained across his work bench as, scraper in hand, he returned to the Google-Wumpf to acquire some samples of the substances marking its metal skin.

***

Just as the sun reached its zenith, and most of the hemisphere had settled down for lunch, he heard a familiar rattling engine pull into his driveway.  He was unsurprised.

Dr. Anna Kapoor poked her head through the door, black tresses streaked with grey.  She saw him, and entered.  "Are you going to tell me what the hell this is all about, Wellsy?"

"The samples I sent over?" he asked, already dreading the answer; knowing it.

"Some of it was human blood," she confirmed, her dark brown lips a tight line.  "The rest, well, I've still got them working on it. Let's just hope one of my precocious little undergrads doesn't get all curious, or civic minded, and call the police.  Now whose blood is it, and where'd it come from?"

"To the first, God help me, I haven't a clue.  To the second--" Haltingly, he pointed at the contraption in the middle of the room. Its situation had changed somewhat since the morning.  Wellington had, in an act of nervous fear, set up a barricade around it made up of a couple of chairs, an old dresser, some loose boards, and a couple of cardboard boxes that would do no good whatsoever if the machine suddenly whirred to life.

Anna stared at it, peering over the makeshift fence, them stepped back.  "What is it?" she said at last.

"You tell me."  Quickly, calmly, he related all that had happened.

When he finished, Anna muttered a Hindu curse under her breath that he did not quite catch.  Then she shook her head.  "God, Wellsy, you've got to do--something.  Shut the damn thing off."

"I would, if I knew what I'd done to turn it on in the first place. But if I start pressing buttons again, who knows what might happen. I mean, at least it seems dormant during the day.  But if I fiddle--"

"Call the police."

"And tell them what?  That my Google-Wumpf may have killed someone, but I don't know who, or where, or even if?  'And, no officer, I don't even know what a Google-Wumpf is, but it's shaping up to be a mean son-of-a-bitch.'  They'd think I was crazy.  And what was all that other goo on it?  Where did it go last night?  Just what did it get into?"

Anna collapsed in the old chair, the same one Dwight Harris had chosen to expire in the day before.  "Thanks for dragging me into it," she grumbled.

"I didn't know who else. . . ." He shrugged.  "I scanned the crime section of the paper--something I never do.  God we live in a violent age.  Unsolved murders and disappearances all over the place--"

Anna brightened.  "Then--"

"--but nothing specifically last night," he finished sadly.  "I considered taking an axe to it, but I got scared.  What if it's designed to retaliate against assault?"

"Better not," she said quietly, after a moment.  "I mean, we're overlooking something.  Maybe it just hurt someone, maybe they're wounded somewhere.  This Google-Wumpf might be the only clue to where they are."

"I hadn't thought of that."  Then he looked at the rusty-brown staining the mechanism's hide.  "Still, that's an awful lot of blood."  He looked at her.  "You up for a slumber party?"

Her brow crinkled, then slowly smoothed as she understood the import of his words.  "You mean. . . ?"

He nodded.

"And until then?"

"It doesn't seem inclined to do anything until night, so you could get back to your lab and see about hurrying those results.  Me, well, I guess I'm off to Harris' place--wherever that might be. He's bound to have some diagrams and blueprints and stuff lying around that'll tell me what, exactly, this damned thing was programmed to do."

***

Wellington sat in one of two padded arm chairs he and Anna had wrestled from out of his house into the workshop.  His coffee cup was almost empty and the thermos was cold, but he did not dare to go and make a fresh pot.  The moon had been up for hours; if the Google-Wumpf was going to do anything, it would be soon.  He shook himself, feeling his old bones growing stiff and vindictive, his eyelids heavy.  He was getting too old for this, but it was his only remaining option.

It had taken him all afternoon to track down the final abode of Dwight Harris, after making calls to the morgue, and then to some friends who moved in inventor circles.  By then it was too late. Harris undoubtedly had had blueprints, diagrams, perhaps even instructions, but he was also two months behind in his rent.  When Wellington had arrived at his dingy apartment building, he had found the place cleared out and a For Rent sign outside.

Desperately he had sought out the land lady, but she was unsympathetic.  The moment she had learned that "no good bum" (Harris) had died, she had got her brother-in-law and his cousin to clear the place out.  Any objects they couldn't see as saleable, they trucked to the dump.

Any papers they had put out for the recycling truck--which had come that morning, since he was so desperate to know.  Whatever papers the late Mr. Harris had were already toilet paper or wrapping paper by now.  She grinned at him with nicotine-stained teeth.  "At least maybe something useful will come out of his scribblings," she had said.

Wellington had returned home with lead in his shoes.

When Anna arrived at a quarter to nine, her news was more curious, if unhelpful.  The unidentifiable goop he had scraped off the Google-Wumpf had turned out to be unidentifiable.  At least as far as any known genus or species was concerned, but it was definitely organic, leaning toward plant.  Mixed in with the blood and plant-like fluid was some sort of digestive enzyme--again, of an unknown type.

So now he sat in the chair, his back aching like the devil, staring at the cold, unfathomable object nestled behind his little barricade, while Anna snored quietly beside him in the other chair.

Plant?  Harris had said something about being a botanist. Digestive?  He turned the words over in his head.  Just what had Dwight Harris invented?  What had possessed him?  Just who did he think would buy this carnivorous monstrosity?  "No home is going to want to be without one," he had said.

Wellington shuddered.  It was now clear that Dwight Harris, the poor little inventor whom he had taken pity on and allowed into his shop, had been a raving lunatic.  Psychotic.  Now it was left to him to attempt to clean up the man's grim legacy.

Because he had tried to appropriate his invention.  The irony was not lost on Wellington.

Slowly his chin sank toward his chest.  He stirred, and looked up. After a few moments, again his head started to slump.

Something rustled.  Something thumped.

He jerked awake in time to see one of the old chairs used for the barricade come to the end of its tumbling roll, and moonlight glinting off a shape vanishing through the doorway.  His coffee cup hit the floor, fracturing into a thousand tiny, knife sharp pieces. He shook Anna's shoulder.  "Get up.  It's moving."

Part Two (Conclusion)




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The Google-Wumpf is copyright 1999 by D.K. Latta.  It was previously published in issue 119 of the e-zine Spaceways Weekly in December 10, 1999 and is reprinted here with the author's consent.  It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)