Basilisk Conspiracy

by Joe Pierangeli

Frederick stuck his head around the corner at the far end of the hall and stared at me with shining yellow eyes. A string of drool leaked from the corner of his mouth and burned a hole in the floor with a sizzle and a wisp of smoke. He looked straight at me for a long time. When I didn’t turn into a pillar of ash, he slithered around the corner, wiggled down the hall to my desk, and said, “Hey, what’s up?”

            I gaped at him from behind my computer screen.

            “I reckon if we are going to work together I had better introduce myself. My name is Frederick. How do you do?” Frederick said. Then he bit the ring and pinky fingers off my left hand.

            Frederick was a giant lizard.

 

It all started when I got fired from The Girthstrap Feed and Tack Shop for stealing ketamine from the medicine cabinet. Small towns are havens of domestic violence and drug abuse. Booze and pills mostly. You have to live in one to understand. It was not my first time getting caught and they would have thrown me into county for sure. Cody said he didn’t call the cops because he owed me one for saving his hand from the bailer that time, but I could consider my employment at The Strap officially terminated.

            I thanked him and we shook hands. I walked out of there with thirty-two hours on the clock and a bottle of K I palmed while he was lecturing me about loyalty and the old days. It felt good to walk under the sun a free man. I went down the street to All Yall’s and drank cheap beer and ate peanuts till I couldn’t see straight, then slid Dale my last twenty folded over three tabs of K and drove home.

            I found the listing the next morning over breakfast:
 

HighTech Research Laboratories, Inc. (HRL)

Is building a new high tech laboratory in your area!

Exciting new opportunities await!

Seeking positive, motivated professionals for:

Grounds Crew, Janitorial Services and Security Duties

 

            I opened a new window on my phone and tapped the microphone icon. “Can you be a rent-a-cop if you have a misdemeanor in the last three years?”

 

Frederick tossed his head and swallowed my fingers whole like a Sea World dolphin gulleting two mackerel after touching a balloon with its nose.

            I held my ruined hand in front of my face as blood gushed down my uniform.  I fumbled for my baton and whacked Frederick between the eyes but he didn’t even blink. I kicked him in the ribs and my wheeled office chair careened across the room, crashed against the wall, and spilled me on the floor. 

 

I woke to Frederick licking my stumps with his big forked tongue.

            “Hold still.” he said.

            I watched the skin close on itself and heal around the bones like Popsicle sticks in a pair of half-eaten corn dogs.

            Frederick licked his lips and shivered. “Damn dude, how high are you right now?”

            “What?”

            “Your blood is going straight to my head—how many drugs are you on?”

            “Just a bump of molly…”

            “Whoooee! I’m tripping balls!” He did a little happy lizard jig.

            “…four beers, a joint, and half a tab of—” I went on, but Frederick wasn’t listening.

            “You don’t look so good.” Frederick said.

            “I don’t feel so good.” I turned and threw up in the corner.

            “Dude, gross.”

            I retched again. “I think I’m in shock.” I said.

            “Probably.”

            “I better call 911.” I said.

            “I wouldn’t do that.”

            My thumb froze over the keypad. “You’re not going to eat me or something?”

            “Good god no.”  Frederick said. “You’ll probably die, but I am not going to eat you.”

            “Well, once I’m dead I won’t care whether you eat me or not!”

            “Then what are you freaking out about? All I’m saying is the EMTs can’t help you.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because I poisoned you.”

            “EMTs have shit for poison.”

            “Not mine.” Frederick said. “There’s a pretty nasty neurotoxin in my saliva that is swimming through your circulatory system as we speak. It will kill you by sunrise. Here’s the deal: the antidote is in this facility. I will help you find it if you help me with something in return. What do you say, partner?!”

 

They never told me what the facility does. I was just the night security guard. At 6 a.m. I signed out of the network, shut down my computer and went home. I say I signed out but the computer was more a time clock than the hub of some complex security network. There was no CCTV, no windows, and no fire alarms in the entire building. I didn’t even get a gun. I walked the halls once every two hours, making sure all the doors were locked, swinging a black lacquer baton like the ones English cops slap their palms with in Sherlock Holmes movies.

            The suits who interviewed me didn’t even work for HRL. They were with a temp agency out of Duluth, MN, contracted to handle the hiring. I Googled their address and the Street View showed a dirt lot under the sign for a condominium complex. Someone had rearranged the plastic letters on the sign from ‘The Condos at Whispering Pines’ to ‘The Condos at Whispering Penis.’

            After a while I quit trying to figure it out. I decided they probably made something really embarrassing like three-headed dildos or something really bad like weapons designed to melt poor people someplace far away. Or maybe they did nothing. Maybe the whole place was a front. For the Mexican cartels, or the Russian mafia, or some other, cooler, more secret mafia I never heard of. That would have explained a lot. But honestly, I didn’t care: somewhere on the premises I knew they had a lab, but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find it.

 

“Where do they keep the antidote?” I asked Frederick.

            “In the lab, naturally.”

            “In the lab? What lab? What’s the room number?”

            “B-204.”

            “There is no room B-204.”

            “Sure there is. Basement level room 204.”

            “No one told me there was a basement level.”

            “That’s because They don’t want you to know. Wait’ll you see how They hid the elevator.”

            “Who are ‘they’? You mean HRL?”

            “What the fuck is HRL?”

            “HighTech Research Laboratories—”

            Frederick looked at me like I just told him America was a democracy run by the people, for the people. “No, man, that’s just the code name for this facility or something—no, I’m talking They bro, capital ‘T’ They. The same They that always have secret laboratories hidden in secret basements. They’re suppressing solar energy. They control the stock market. They’re killing the oceans. They engineered the super strain of gonorrhea and They keep E.T. locked up in a concrete cell! No one knows who They are bro, that’s why we call ’em They.”

            “What are They doing here?”

            A green gob of spittle fell from his chin and crackled on the floor. Frederick had big curling horns on either side of his head and a ridge of bony horns along the spine of his back.

            “Let me put it this way.” Frederick said. “How many giant talking lizards do you know?”

            “None, really.”

            “And where do you think giant talking lizards come from?”

            “I don’t know.” I said. “Eggs?”

            Frederick shook his dragon head. “They grew me in a fucking test tube man, Jesus Christ. Haven’t you seen a creature flick in like, the last ten years?”

 

Naturally I keyed in to every door in the building looking for the lab. I found a lot of rooms with expensive instruments idling on stainless steel tables. Rooms with rows of white lab coats hanging from hooks on the wall and work benches cluttered with microscopes and slides. They had mechanical desks you could adjust with the flip of a switch to stand at while you work. I learned there were huge advancements in keyboard and mouse ergonomics that the scientific community kept from the rest of us. I found cabinets with biohazard labels full of things like ethyl alcohol and fetal calf serum. I found sharps containers the size of small cars. Centrifuges like blocks from the great pyramids. Their speeds were posted on their metal hides and they boasted space-time-tearing speeds of centrifugation. Shit like two-hundred thousand revolutions per second.

            Most of the other rooms were office space. Cubicles and the like. They had a conference room full of leather chairs, a server room (which I wasn’t allowed the key to, but ruled out as the place they kept the drugs), and a cafeteria that looked as sterile as the day it was installed. After I checked every room in the building, I checked them all again. I counted the number of keys on my key ring against the number of doors and wondered what I was missing. None of the rooms I searched had what I was looking for: a cache of drugs you could pop, snort, or mainline in exchange for a nominal fee to the enterprising soul bold enough to procure such treasures.

            About a month before Frederick arrived, I gave up searching for the lab in my free time and started watching porn. The computer at the security desk had high-speed internet but no site-blocking firmware. I had no supervisor that I knew of and no one was ever in the building. I finally checked out bestiality—which I had always wanted to do but never got around to. This led to a couple intense days of furry porn, then, like a culinary student discovering the wines of France, I discovered the pornographies of Japan: manga, hentai, futanari, bukake, omorashi, and gross-ass videos of things like chicks shitting into salad bowls. Then I discovered a genre of manga called yaoi—which are stories focusing on sexual relationships between men, but written by and marketed to women. By August I had moved on to animated parody. This is where people take episodes of popular superhero cartoons and reanimate them so the characters fuck each other. The night Frederick stuck his head around the corner at the end of the hall I was watching Superman pound Wonder Woman like a bass drum while the prone body of Doomsday lay smoking in the foreground from various wounds they had inflicted on him with their combined powers.

 

Frederick said he wasn’t supposed to exist. “Pliny the Elder was the first to describe the basilisk to the West back in 79 AD.” Frederick said. “He made up a lot of the details. Like bushes burst into flame when we pass. And we are three feet long. And crawl on our bellies like inchworms do, folding up in the middle. But the important stuff is mostly there—embellished for dramatic effect of course. You know the Romans.”

            “Totally.” I said.

            Frederick was four feet high and twelve feet long from nose to tail. He was pigeon-toed and wiggled his ass in a funny way when he walked. He had talons like a pirate’s prosthetic hook on every toe and opposable thumbs on his front feet, which he gestured with like an Italian meatball chef when he got excited.

            We were on our way to the conference room where he said the elevator was hidden in a wall.

            “So you have, like, powers and shit, right?”

            “Yep.” Frederick said.

            “Like what? What’s your best one?”

            “Well, my gaze turns people to ash.”

            “Like Medusa.”

            “Medusa turns people to stone, I turn people into pillars of ash. Existentially speaking, there’s a big difference.”

            “Cool!” I said. Then I thought about it. “Wait. So when you looked at me down the hall tonight, you were trying to turn me to ash?”

            “Pretty much.”

            “Dude.”

            “I thought you were one of Them.” Frederick said.

            “Oh.” I said. We walked down the hall. “Why didn’t it work?”

            “I don’t want to tell you.”

            “Why not?”

            “It’ll only piss you off.”

            “Come on, I wanna know!”

            “Only if you promise not to get upset.”

            “Whatever,” I said, “don’t be a bitch.”

            “People in whose hearts the ember of life has already turned to ash are immune to my glamour.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “It means you’ve had a tough life.” Frederick said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

 

The conference room was your standard corporate fare: a long, heavy-looking table made of dark wood surrounded by high-backed leather chairs. In the center of the table was a speaker/microphone console that looked like Darth Vader’s Roomba. Prints of inoffensive flowers hung in cheap frames. And at the front of the room was a flat-screen mounted on brackets that allowed it to turn in different directions.

            “The elevator is hidden in a secret passage behind the flat-screen.” Frederick said. “Just switch it to the right channel and the whole part of the wall slides up on a hydraulic pump.”

            “What channel?”

            “Take a guess.” Frederick said.

            I picked up the remote and clicked on the TV: Mr. 45 stood behind a podium making the OK sign with his fingers telling the country how good everything was and how everything was alright and how the country was stronger than ever. I changed the channel: another North Korean nuclear missile test had splashed down off the coast of Japan. I changed the channel: Puerto Rico was bracing for its third tropical storm in forty days. I changed the channel: another earthquake had rocked Mexico City, a 7.1. I changed the channel: a tragically standard definition A. J. Simon was trying to get his brother Rick Simon to finally tow his shitty houseboat out of the driveway of his high-end waterfront home.

            “Come on man!” I said to Frederick.

            “Just think about it.” Frederick said.

            “What is this, a fucking test?” I punched in the numbers for our local PBS broadcast.

            Bob Ross stood in front of a snowy canvas, “Shoot, you know what? I think a happy little tree lives right ’ere.”

            The screen crashed to black. Hidden gears engaged and ground to motion. The wall cracked open. A door-shaped section drew back on a whirring crank, stopped, then slid apart like the door to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Inside, the elevator lights flickered to life.

            “Alright dude, this is where shit gets real.” Frederick started forward.

            “Hold up.” I said. “What do you mean this is where shit gets real? What are They doing down there?”

            Frederick looked at the elevator, then up at me. He shifted his feet. “Haven’t you figured it out yet? They’re growing monsters of myth and legend in test tubes so they can weaponize our fiery breaths and death-stares straight up Weyland-Yutani style.” Frederick said. “They’re going to develop a whole new generation of weapons, against which there is no earthly defense.”

 

The elevator only had two buttons. They were silver coins without instruction or decal. Frederick pushed the bottom button with a long hooked claw. The doors slid shut and the elevator plummeted into the earth.

            “There are four principal researchers on my project.” Frederick said. “Dr. Richard Kimball, McDreamy, McSteamy, and George Clooney. Richard Kimball first got the idea when he watched the second Harry Potter movie with his son while he was recovering from chemotherapy.”

            “Where did you learn all this stuff?” I asked.

            “He told me.” Frederick said.

            “I mean you’ve been dead for like two-thousand years, how do you know so much about modern life?”  

             “When the researchers learned I was intelligent they gave me a sixty-inch 4K with a dope cable package.” Frederick said. “You have to remember these people are terrified I will kill them if they look at me. We’ve never even been in the same room together—we speak to each other over the intercom. Now, can we please pay attention? Dr. Richard Kimball watched the scene with the basilisk at the end of the second movie and about shit his pants. He made a call and HRL mobilized their goons. They robbed a reliquary in Wales, tortured a few shamans in the Amazon, and six months later, bam! There’s my nervous system growing in a petri dish. Richard Kimball’s son died later that year of AML, and he named me after him.”

            The elevator doors opened and we stepped into a corridor made out of some sort of space-age plastic composite. A Muzak version of “Free Fallin” played softly through a hidden sound system. The plastic material was baby blue and they had somehow installed lights right inside the paneling so that the hallway was glowing like a frosty marble. It gave the sense of being underwater even though I could see the dark earth beneath the walls. At the end of the corridor was a door made of the same blue substance. Above the door the security camera that monitored the elevator hung from the ceiling like a piece of chewed gum. It had been melted by Frederick’s saliva and was still smoking. The plastic panel behind the camera was pocked with burn holes in a scatter pattern resembling a shotgun blast.

            “So what’d you do? Kill everybody in the whole place?” I said.

            “No way man, there’s far too many of them for me to get alone.” Frederick said, as if he had already considered that option.

            The door hissed open and I saw what he meant. The basement level superstructure was massive. It looked like a football stadium from the future. It was round with a domed roof and a green area on the ground floor. We had come out in section 344, if you know your stadium layouts, and I crossed the concourse and leaned my elbows on the railing to get a look around. There were seven levels in the basement complex, all connected by a spiral ramp that went around the whole place from bottom to top, like the inside of that super-famous art museum in New York with the weird name. It was the middle of the night and the facility was in sleep mode. The lights were dimmed and a digital display of a crescent moon and stars slowly spun on the ceiling. The place was so big the far side was hazy with the distance.

            Below us, in the middle of the ground floor, the green area was a real park with real trees and bushes and a stream. There were grass lawns and stone paths and benches for taking well-deserved loads off after a hard day of engineering biological superweapons. The stream fed into a pond with lily pads floating on the surface and a fountain that shot a jet of white water fifty feet into the air as I watched. The water fell back into the pond with a slopping sound, then a second jet went up, and then a third. At their peak, the jets were still four floors down from where we stood. I checked my watch. It was 3 a.m. and, for a guy with a mythological neurotoxin in his bloodstream, I felt pretty good.

 

Turns out, I was not the only night security guard. The other guys wore tight-fitting uniforms with black plates of body armor on their chests and arms. And they had guns. And night vision goggles turned up on their heads. As my eyes adjusted, I began to see them as little white lights floating around in the baby blue dusk. The lights were tactical flashlights attached to the underside of their rifle barrels.

            “They get guns!?” I said.

            “Sssssss!” Frederick shushed me with a hiss. “Get down!”

            “Why do they get guns?” I hissed back.

            Frederick rolled his lizard eyes.

            “Dude, they’re automatics!” I said.

            But Frederick was already wiggling his ass down the ramp.

            I followed after as quick as I could, crouching low to stay out of sight. We soon came to a room on our right. The number on the door was B-702. Beside it was a large window, looking in. I dared a peek. The plastic room was empty except for a collection of metal slabs on gurney wheels all lined up in a row. Something lay stretched out on one of the slabs. I couldn’t tell what it was. They had cut it open and excavated its guts and big triangle flaps of flesh were peeled back and clamped to the slab like a butterfly’s wings pinned to a corkboard. It had a large pick-axe-shaped head and a long curved beak out of which a pale tongue had fallen to one side.

            “What the fuck is that?” I said, but Frederick didn’t answer.

            We continued down the ramp. Door tags counted down the room numbers: B-606, B-604. B-602. I felt my excitement rise. B-508. B-506. That’s when we ran into the first security guard.

            Frederick stood stone-still with one forefoot in the air like a bird dog on point and I almost gouged my eye out on the tip of his tail. Down the ramp from us, around the bend, someone opened a door and entered a room. We could just see over the concourse handrail the top of the door open and close and a silhouette pass across the lights blinking on and off inside.

            “Shit!” Frederick said and bounded down the ramp.

            He was surprisingly quick. I lost sight of him around the bend. When I caught up and pushed through the door, I saw it was the basement-level security room. There were monitors and flashing lights everywhere. I pressed my back to the door in time to see Frederick grab the security guard by the ankle and yank him off his feet. The guard landed on his face. He tried to free his leg but was helpless against Frederick’s grip. He rolled and brought up his assault rifle and aimed it at Frederick’s head. Frederick bent the barrel sideways, lifted the guard off the ground by his ankle, and bit him between the legs.

            And when I say he bit the guard between the legs, I don’t mean he bit his dick off like an asshole. No. Frederick bit him off below the ribs in one sickening crunch that opened the guard’s body like a flower bursting into bloom. His leg came away in Frederick’s hand and his guts spilled onto the floor. The guard tried to drag his dying carcass away from the monster before him and his lungs slid out and lay twitching in the gore like two deep sea creatures trying to breathe the alien air, which, in a way, is what they were. The guard slumped over dead. Frederick turned and smiled at me. He had shit all over his face like a toddler eating spaghetti marinara, all proud of himself in his high chair as if to say, look what I just did!

            I turned my back and threw up on a security console, shorting out all the lights and dials. On the other side of the console, a pillar of ash shaped like a dude with a cup of coffee half lifted to his mouth sat in a baby blue chair. His bulletproof uniform had turned to ash too, and I wondered how that worked.

            Next I knew, I was on my knees clinging to a joystick that made a camera pan across an empty hallway somewhere in the complex. Everything had gone dark. Light and color were just now returning to the room. Frederick came up and put a forefoot on me so I wouldn’t go completely over onto the floor.

            “Are you alright?” He asked.

            I looked away and almost threw up again.

            “What’s wrong?” Frederick said.

            “I…” I said. I took a deep breath. “You have some security guard stuck in your teeth.”

            “I do?” Frederick scratched a claw between two fangs and flicked his tongue. “Did I get it?”

            “No.”

            He scratched again. “How ’bout now?”

            “Still there.”

            “Where is it?” Frederick curled back his reptile lips.

            I pointed to where the remains would be if they were stuck between my own teeth.

            Frederick scratched it out and swallowed. “Thanks dude.” He said.

            I couldn’t look. My body was all tense and a cold tremble shook me to the core.

            “Is everything alright?” Frederick asked.

            “I don’t think so.” I said.

            “What time is it?” Frederick said.

            I looked at my watch. There were two arms and two watches and I couldn’t focus on either of them. “About 3:15?” I guessed.

            “We better hurry.” Frederick said.

 

Frederick was talking about the toxin. And maybe it was beginning to take effect, but that was not what had rattled me. I was starting to see Frederick for what he really and truly was: Frederick was a fucking monster. He was a vicious, savage, brutal monster that we had pulled out of time itself, and now he was running amok, stirring up all sorts of trouble with the wrong kind of people.

            I followed Frederick out of the basement-level security room into an eighteenth century village where it was always raining and I was the village drunk and the village doctor had just died and no one knew but me, and I was squatting in his house with the body, binging through his ether supply before anyone else found out he was dead. I was falling over in the mud streets at eleven in the morning and pulling down the thatch, grasping for balance on the boardwalks. People started to stare and ask questions…

            I woke from this fantasy to myself pitching face first into the handrail. I bounced off and staggered across the concourse, slammed into the wall, fell, got up, stumbled out into the concourse again, overcorrected, and took another header into the wall. I caught myself on a doorknob and managed to wall-crawl for a while, but I could feel the slow pull of gravity working against me.

            When I fell again it knocked the wind out of me and I couldn’t get up. I knew then I was finished. Surely the guards would be on me any second. I tried to curl into a ball and die to spare the pain of death by gunshot, but I couldn’t even do that. I lay there writhing like a worm in the rain.

            Frederick grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me down the concourse ramp. I knew it was him by the feel of the hand and the strength of it. When I opened my eyes again I was on my back in a room where all the walls were shelves. The shelves were stocked with jars full of gold liquid and each jar contained something dark floating in the fluid. I pulled myself off the floor shelf by shelf, wiped a bloody lip, and looked in one of the jars.

            “Frederick!” I said. “What are you doing inside this jar? Stop being silly!” I wiggled my finger at his adorable little snout smiling at me behind the glass.

            “Dude, I’m over here.” Frederick said.

            I spun to face the voice. Frederick was standing by the door, watching the concourse for security guards.

            “If you’re over there, then who’s this you floating in the jar right here?”

            “That’s an early version of me. 2.4 or some shit, how am I supposed to know? Now come on!”

            “I can’t anymore,” I wept against the jar. “I’m done man, just leave me.”

            “Jesus Christ,” Frederick came at me and I took a step back. He turned his flank. “Get on.” He said. “C’mon, we don’t have all night!”

            I slung myself across Frederick’s shoulders, then carefully lifted a leg over and sat up on his neck, the only place where he didn’t have huge, sharp dinosaur bones growing out of his spine.

            “Comfy?”

            “Not bad.” I said.

            Frederick hawked a huge loogie from within his poison belly and spat it on the floor between the shelves. His spit burned a hole through the plastic material like a hot coal through butter. We stepped to the dripping edge and looked in. It had burned through the next floor down, too.

            “Better hold on.” Frederick said.

            I grabbed his curling horns. “I just had an idea.” I said.

            “Good for you.” Frederick said and lunged into the hole.

 

Maybe it was because I was dying from a magical neurotoxin, but as I gripped Frederick’s horns like handlebars, I felt a clarity of thought I had never experienced before. I suddenly knew with certainty a truth that made my heart leap with joy: I didn’t care anymore if I lived or died. That I had never really cared. And I wondered: why didn’t Frederick do this a long time ago? Just break out of his plastic cage, run into the middle of the complex, and go down in a hail of bullets? I couldn’t understand why he seemed so eager to live while I was not. So I rode Frederick through the basement level complex, whooping like a cowboy, swinging an imaginary lariat, and spurring him on with my heels.

            “Ya!” I said.

            “Stop that!” Frederick said.

            “Ya! Ya!” I said.

            A security guard walked out the wrong door at the wrong time and we turned him to ash. Another took some shots at us from across the complex, but he was too far away and the bullets pinged harmlessly off the handrail.

            I shot back at him with my fingers, “Bang! Bang!” I said.

            The intruder alarm started going off and a muzzle flash buzzed the air around my head; then that guard turned to ash too, in his kneel-and-fire pose, a victim of the wrath at Pompeii.  

            “Ya!” I said.

            “Stop kicking me!” Frederick said.

            “Ya! Ya!” I said.

 

Frederick battered open the door with his horns, skidded to a stop, and shrugged me off his shoulders with a single flick of his scales like a horse shucking a fly. I soared through the air as if in slow motion. I watched Frederick slam the door shut, grab a chair, and wedge it under the knob. I yawned and scratched my cheek. Maybe it’s time to go to sleep, my body said. Then I saw the medicine cabinet against the wall and crashed down on someone’s work station, shattering their family portrait and tumbling to the floor.

            I sprang instantly to my feet, eyes fixed on the cabinet. It had double doors with silver handles and frosted glass panes, patterned to obscure what waited inside.

            I staggered to the cabinet and watched my hands open the doors.    

            LEDs kicked on like a light from heaven and I could almost hear angels singing as I looked at row after row of bottles, vials, syringes, topicals, sprays, gels. 

           

I was too far gone to care much at that point, so I just grabbed two bottles, one in each hand, gunslingered off the caps, and started gobbling pills like the Cookie Monster after six months of Jenny Craig.

            “This is it.” Frederick said. “Basement level room 204. The real laboratory of Hightech Research Laboratories, Inc. Where the real work gets done—Goddamit!” Frederick slapped the bottles away from my mouth, scattering pills across the floor. “What do you think you’re doing?”

            “Curing mythelf.” I said.

            “Dude,” he looked at the labels, “you just took like, an eighteen thousand milligram cocktail of Dramamine and melatonin.”

            “I feel better already.” I said.

 

The laboratory known as room B-204 looked just like the fake labs upstairs except that people actually worked here. There were plants in pots and a calendar on the wall of babies dressed like fruit. A Mets cap hung on the back of someone’s chair.

            The antidote was in the kitchenette, which was in an alcove separated from the laboratory area by a biohazard curtain and a plastic door that sucked the air when Frederick pulled it open. It was on the counter between the microwave and the refrigerator, in a big orange cooler like the ones from soccer practices of youth.

            Frederick pulled a paper cup from the dispenser attached to the cooler and held it beneath the spigot. His talons made it awkward to depress the little button and I laughed.

            “What’s so funny?” Frederick asked.

            “You guys coaching a softball team in here or what?” I said.

            “The scientists are trying to inoculate themselves against my toxin.” Frederick said. “Just in case. Each employee is required to drink sixty-four fluid ounces a day.” He held the antidote under my nose in its paper cone. I took it from him and knocked it back.

 

Frederick melted the padlock off Richard Kimball’s locker and I took out his gym bag, dumped the clothes on the floor, and filled it with the contents of the cabinet. I was feeling much better and could read again. Scooping the bottles, vials, and syringes into the bag, I saw their stick-on labels were exquisitely detailed with name, strength, recommended dosage, composition, shelf life, and a list of both favorable and harmful drug interactions to help the administrator achieve their desired effect.

             “OK,” I plopped into a plastic chair and let the bag slide off my shoulder, “I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s burn this fucking place to the ground.”

            “That won’t stop Them.” Frederick said. “This is not the only facility. They have others, hidden all over the country. It’s The Cabin in the Woods, dude.”

            “Others?” I said.

            “Each doing Their own independent experiments.” Frederick said.

             It took me a while to process this. “So what do you want me to do?” I said.

“They have a death ray.” Frederick said. “Extrapolated out of a dragon’s fire gland. McDreamy threatened to put me down with it on several occasions. All I need you to do is operate the controls.”

“Why don’t you just run out into the hall and let the guards blow you away?”

            Frederic snorted. “I am the mighty basilisk of legend! No mortal weapon can kill me!”

            I looked at Frederick and thought about his request. I watched the amber fire burn in his eyes, and I felt a strength rise inside me. “No.” I said.

            “What?” Frederick said.

            “I said, fuck that shit. I won’t help you quit. Not now, and not to Them.”

            “What’s your problem man? We had a deal!”

            “I am finally beginning to understand.” I said.

            “Understand what?”

            “Why the greedy take. Why the meek are humble. Why the warrior must overcome their fear.”

            “You’re fucking losing it dude.”

            Outside our barricaded door, the intruder alarm blared and I heard shouting and feet stomping up and down the concourse.

            “Look,” I said, “if you really want me to do it, I will. But let me propose a second option: what if, instead of killing you, we duct-tape two *REDACTED* to a gallon of *REDACTED*, put it in the microwave on high for ten minutes, and run like hell? It’s a big world out there, Fred. I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”

            “Sounds exhausting.” Frederick said.

            “Fine,” I said, “I’m not your life coach. Just show me the way out of here, and you can do whatever you want.”

            “Oh don’t worry about that!” Frederick said. “You already know the way out.”

            “I do?”

            “Yeah. It’s from one of the greatest prison escape movies of all time.”

            “Which one?” I said.

            Frederick smiled at me and nodded a big toothy smile. He wouldn’t stop nodding at me and smiling.

            “Oh no.” I said.

            “Oh yes.” Frederick said.

            “No, no.” I said.

            “Oh yeah.” Frederick said.

 

I ran alone down the sewage pipe with my pants around my shoulders and my shirt tied over my mouth. The shit-water was knee deep and the pipe wasn’t tall enough, so I had to stoop down right over it all. When I finally reached the end and saw the starry night I was almost unconscious from the fumes. I thrust my head out and gagged for air. Thank god I was on nine-thousand milligrams of Dramamine.

            The sewage drained into a cesspool with a layer of scum on the surface thick as mud. I tested the depth, holding to the pipe, and looked around. I was in the woods about fifty yards outside the facility perimeter, and I was the only living thing in sight except the trees.

 

I snuck through the woods, following the fence line toward the front of the building. Inside the fence, orange lights flashed against the sides of the buildings and search lights panned the sky. I moved from shadow to shadow, listening for sounds of anyone who might be following.

            I got to the parking lot and crouched by the fence to catch my breath. Suddenly the ground shook beneath my feet and a shock wave rushed through the woods, twisting the leaves and making the branches swing. I turned and saw a plume of fire belch high into the night. A second later the ground shook again and the roof of the entire southwest wing exploded off the facility and somersaulted out of sight.

            “Freeze, asshole!” A voice behind me said.

            I threw up my hands.

            “Turn around or I’ll shoot you in the back!”

            Frederick’s toothy smile and golden eyes met me in the flickering firelight.

            “Hahaha! I got you good, you fucker!” He laughed.

            I glared at him and put a finger to my lips. He came up and joined me at the fence. I pointed through the chain links to my truck. Frederick nodded. He melted a hole and we crawled through.

            We got to the truck and Frederick clawed up the side panel and lay flat in the bed. Just the tips of his horns and his eyes reflected the light over the tailgate. I threw the gym bag on the passenger seat and jumped behind the wheel.

            George was outside the parking booth, standing by the mechanical arm watching the facility burn. I felt bad for him. He was just an ordinary bastard being taken advantage of by the system, like me. I really, really hoped he wouldn’t try to stop us. When the needle hit 35 I kicked on the high-beams and thank god George dove out of the way. We broke through the mechanical arm, shattering it into a thousand pieces, and peeled out into the night.

 

I kept waiting to see the headlights of a convoy in hot pursuit. I watched the rearview mirror until the fires of the facility were a dome of orange glow. Then I felt better. I reached over and patted Richard Kimball’s gym bag, stepped on the gas, and pushed her up to 65 miles per hour. I checked the rearview again, but all I saw were two yellow eyes staring back at me and a crescent moon of pointed teeth, hungry for the flavors of a brave new world.

 
 
 
 
 
 
“Where do you think giant talking lizards come from?”
“Medusa turns people to stone,
I turn people into pillars of ash. Existentially speaking, there’s a big difference.”
It was 3 a.m. and, for a guy with a mythological neurotoxin in his bloodstream, I felt pretty good.
I lay there writhing like a worm in the rain.
I couldn’t understand why he seemed so eager to live while I was not.
“It’s Cabin in the Woods, dude.”
“It’s a big world out there, Fred. I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
“They’re going to develop a whole new generation of weapons, against which there is no earthly defense.”
“Can you be a rent-a-cop if you have a misdemeanor in the last three years?”

Beholder Magazine 2020