Robert Hardy was out on the beach wasting time, doing nothing. Not that this was anything new. He had wasted thirty- five years worth of time already, as much of it as possible doing nothing.
He had been coasting through college with very little margin when his father's older brother died and left Robert an inheritance that would allow him to avoid working steadily, though not enough to avoid work altogether. But he could buy a little place in a climate where the weather was always warm enough to hang around the beach, and he could do little odd jobs. Sometimes he worked in a store, sometimes in a restaurant. Sometimes he lived off women. Sometimes he told stories and passed the hat afterward. Sometimes he looked on the beach for things that he could sell.
He knew what the ordinary seashells looked like, and the less ordinary ones that could sometimes be sold to tourists at high prices. There were stores in town that sold those, and on some good days Robert could get a couple of hundred dollars just for a day of walking.
Robert Hardy did not know what to make of this shell. It certainly did not match anything he had seen before, not even anything he had just seen a picture of. It was black with a dark green edge, and it looked like a hand with four fingers, half- closed. Or maybe a paw, he thought. And when he picked it up, it felt more like rough skin than like a mineral excretion.
He should have been able to see all the way inside when he picked it up, but somehow he couldn't. He couldn't quite turn it the right way to get the light inside, but after all it was black in there so there wasn't anything to see.
It was deep enough inside to create that familiar illusion of the roaring sea, and he held it to his ear for a moment. But he didn't get what he expected. Instead there was what seemed to be a voice, which he could not quite make out, saying what were not quite words. In a spirit of play, he held the shell as if to listen carefully for a moment. Or Robert thought it was a moment; but his arm was a bit tired when he lowered the shell.
At the end of the day, he took the bag of shells to his usual tourist trap and put several twenties into his wallet. But he kept the black shell. That night he put it on his dresser and had strange dreams.
In the morning Robert Hardy put on swimming trunks and took a blanket and some gear and spread out on the beach. He was beginning to look his age; he was still in good shape, but he was starting to strike out with women more often than he used to, even if it seemed to him that they were often easier to get to bed than they used to be.
He tried to talk up a blonde in a red two-piece outfit, maybe twenty-three, and he was getting nowhere. Then he had a sudden impulse to ask her to listen to the shell, which he had brought with him for no reason he could remember.
She gave him a cynical smile, but she listened. Within a minute or two she was walking with Robert back to his cottage, leaving her blanket and beach umbrella behind. Within twenty minutes she was standing in his bedroom, peeling her swimsuit and reaching for him.
She did not speak while she was walking back, not even responding to his comments, not even when he asked her her name. Only when he touched her intimately did she utter any sound, and then only what an animal might. But she made noises at everything that he did to her, at every motion Robert made. And soon those sounds reached a frantic peak.
For the rest of that day she did anything that he asked of her, wildly and enthusiastically. At night he took her back to where he had found her; her blanket and umbrella were still there, but everything else had been long stolen. When he was a hundred feet away from her, she looked around in confusion and wondered at how it had gotten so late.
The next day Robert saw her again, but she gave no sign of recognition. He did not know what to make of what had happened, but he decided to go with the flow, as it were. There was a little bite on his leg this morning, more like from something with teeth than an insect, but still small. And he felt a little light-headed, but God knows yesterday could account for that. Or the loss of fluid associated with it could.
The shell was on the floor near his bed in the morning, though he had been sure he left it on the dresser.
He tried the shell on a beautiful black woman a few days later, and found that she had an amazing and versatile mouth. He left her standing on the street, as he had found her, perhaps an hour later. Again there was complete silence until she was naked before him, and only inarticulate grunts afterward as she drained him. Robert had her body and her will, but her mind was inaccessible to him, and to her as well.
Once or twice a week now he used the shell, and always he found fresh bites the next day. The period of the trance varied from hours to three days, but ended always when he was some distance away from the woman. He was careful always to be out of sight of anyone else when he left her, to avoid being associated.
As it was, Robert Hardy was alarmed when the subject of one prolonged abduction became also the subject of a search, and a newspaper asked for information about anyone who had been seen with her.
When he went to a doctor to ask about the bites, he was told that they did not seem serious since they healed so quickly, but that he was somewhat anemic.
The severity of these bites varied from mosquito-level to something requiring a bandage. But the variation did not match the length of the trance; he was puzzled by this until he realized that the worst ones were from balling married women, or the times that he used the shell on a young thing he had fantasized about but who actively disliked him. And the full truth only came to Robert on the morning after he had taken a virgin and found a gaping wound on his thigh.
The measure, then, was not the time that the thing in the shell had to work, but how hard it had to work. The ones that he could have tumbled on his own, the easy women, were easy for it too. Those with reservations about sex with men in general or him in particular required it to work harder. And those with a great reluctance to do anything at all...
So when Robert saw and began to stare at a red-headed teenager who was lively and enchanting and clearly underage, he was prepared to be laid up for a while afterward. Thinking about seducing and corrupting someone so sweet and obviously untouched made him very hard.
When he talked to her she was very wary of him, and he had a lot of trouble convincing her to take the shell and put it to her ear. The process of subduing her will also took longer than it ever had before.
But she went with him, and when they entered his bedroom, Robert set the shell down on his dresser as usual -- though he had learned to leave it on the floor after these episodes. The young girl, barely more than a child, let him undress her, but then she stepped from him and to the dresser. She picked up the shell and held it.
For the first time in many months, he heard whispering coming from the interior. Robert took it from her hand and glanced in, and could barely see a motion. His curiosity was piqued, and he put the shell to his ear.
Something shot out of it and bit the inside of his ear, then began to tunnel in. He screamed and ran nude into his living room. The young girl did not react at all. Robert pulled on the shell, trying desparately to tear it away from where it seemed to be trying to eat his brain. He did so at last, but only by means of a dying convulsion.
The shell landed and rolled, coming to rest near the bedroom door. A black wet tongue -- or horn? -- now tinged with red slowly withdrew into the black interior.
The young girl suddenly glanced around her, surprised to find herself nude and in the bedroom of an unfamiliar house. She quickly, nervously, dressed and gathered from the floor the things she had taken to the beach that morning. As she left the room, she picked up a strangely shaped black seashell and glanced at it idly. She turned to the left and left the house, not noticing the crumpled form across the room to the right.
Once she was outside, she soon oriented herself by walking to a seaside cliff that gave a wide view. When she glanced downward, her fingers slipped and she dropped the black shell. It shattered on the rocks below.