An Unlikely Tale, Part 3

(probably not all true)

Tom completed his rounds, not really aware that he had followed Jerry’s old habit of driving out to the east and west gates during the night. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but he felt like it was a good idea, and frankly, he felt a sense of loyalty to Jerry that maybe there was more out there than they knew about or that the Powers-That-Be would admit to.

The radioactive jackrabbit incident had gotten to Jerry and he’d lost it one night – his imagination just consumed him. Of course, Jerry had ultimately been fired, it wouldn’t do to have your security guard freaking out all the time. Tom had kept quiet about the jackrabbit incident, but had worried about his friend as he became more reclusive and paranoid.

Tom, however, had a good job, a great family that didn’t get too annoyed about his working all night, and for the most part, life was good. With the plant torn down, the work was pretty boring, but still, sometimes in the dark lonely shifts out where the stars were his only company, he had to wonder. Had Jerry really seen something, or was it just nerves and the stress he was under?

When his shift ended, he left the site but swung around the south side so he could stop by the store on the way home. Off to the side of the road, he noticed a vehicle and, as he passed, something caught his attention. Reluctantly, he stopped and swung around to get a closer look.

The grey morning light showed the car was covered in dust, and a tag hung from the driver side mirror where at some point a cop had checked it out. It was far enough off the right of way that it hadn’t been towed away, but it was clearly abandoned. Worse, Tom thought he recognized the car as Jerry’s, and the bumper stickers confirmed it. “What was it doing way out here?” he thought.

The car was clearly empty, and locked. He scanned the area around the car, but saw nothing beyond a pile of beer cans and some other trash. He made a mental note to check up on Jerry when he got home.

Of course, he forgot to stop by the store, and his night shift combined with Jerry’s day shift at the mall made communications difficult. And, Jerry didn’t have a cell phone, just a landline with an answering machine. After a couple of days with no response, he got pretty worried.

With the job changes plus his paranoia, Jerry had moved a few times and Tom wasn’t sure where he lived. He became more alarmed when Jerry’s boss at the mall reported that Jerry hadn’t shown up for over a week. Calls to the police and nearby hospitals proved futile. The next evening when he drove past the car, he saw it was being towed off. He asked the tow truck driver what was up, but all the guy knew was that he had been told to haul it away.

The activity log at the the office noted that all traffic into the south half of the plant was prohibited. Some kind of special research or something, he supposed. But later that night he heard from George, one of the other guards, that it was something weird. Actual army soldiers had come in late that afternoon and spread out across the southern part of the site. Heavy arms, too.

As they were talking, a young woman came into the office. Cute, maybe in her twenties and carrying a rucksack, she was dressed for field work. “Can you guys tell me what’s going on?” she asked, “I got kicked out of my research area by some wacky army guys.”

“Well, we don’t really know, Karen,” George replied, “we’ve just been told to stay out of that area, too.”

He introduced them and Tom learned that Karen was studying night creatures to determine if populations had rebounded since the plant demolition and closure. “It’s kinda crazy,” she reported in response to his question, “At first there were definitive increases in small mammals, but over the last year, the numbers have dropped. Also, I’m not seeing carcasses that would suggest disease; it’s as if the animals just disappeared. Many of my traps have been sprung or torn up.”

“I also got reports that some of the nearby residents have seen an increase in missing dogs and cats. Usually this near the mountains we can attribute that to bobcat or mountain lion predation, but not in the numbers we’re seeing.” She shook her head, “But the big cats also stash their kills for later meals, and I’ve looked in all the likely places and can’t find anything. I don’t think it’s big cats.”

“Not disease and not predation? Then what?” Tom asked.

“It’s not big cat predation, but maybe something else. Humans?” she looked at both of them, “Is anybody hunting out here? It might explain the decline and lack of carcasses. Maybe some crazy “enviros” are out there interfering with my research.”

“No way,” George replied, “We keep people off the site day and night. We’d see anyone and run them off or arrest them.” He handed her the activity log. “Any intruders would be noted in here. Take a look.”

While she scanned the pages, Tom had a flash that maybe Jerry was out here somewhere, hiding out and living off the land. And now there were soldiers. Was there any way he could get Jerry to leave? And he’d have to find him first.

Karen finished with the log book and gave it back to George. “They told me that tonight is just a recon for a more intense activity to come over the next few nights. One big push is what he said.”

Tom thought for a while as Karen and George chatted. When she got up to leave, Tom followed her out to her truck.

“I have a proposition for you,” He told her as she got in. “No, not that,” he hastily continued, “I think I need your help in finding a friend of mine.” He went on, “Can you keep it a secret?”

“Maybe,” she seemed puzzled, “Is it illegal or immoral or dangerous?”

He thought a minute, “Probably yes, no and I don’t think so.”

She chuckled, “Okay, go on.”

Tom told her about Jerry and the incident with the jackrabbits, and how he went a little crazy, and about the giant prairie dog and how he got fired. “Oh yeah,” she laughed, “I heard all about that, but I thought it was just a rumor. If it’s true, the managers did a really good job of covering it all up.”

“Well, I can vouch for the jackrabbits. But here’s the deal, I think that Jerry may have gone wild and is secretly living out here somewhere, eating all your critters. His car was parked on the south side road, but was just towed away.” He hesitated, “I’d like to try to find him and get him home.”

Karen mulled that over. She thought it could beef up her research if they could find Jerry, bring him in, and she could incorporate his impact on the numbers into her work. It would make her studies unique, and would be a killer paper and presentation. She agreed to help. They discussed the need to act quickly, and planned to talk the next day.

The next night Tom called in sick and they met as planned near where Jerry’s car had been parked. Karen brought night vision goggles for each of them, courtesy of her research grant. They tried to guess where Jerry would have gone, climbed over the fence and furtively entered the site. Karen was used to the goggles, but it took Tom a while to get comfortable, so they moved pretty slowly.

Based on her knowledge of the site, Karen suggested that Jerry was probably holed up somewhere near the drainage on the south side of the old restricted area. “I’m not allowed in that area, and it would be relatively easy for him to find a hidey hole somewhere and not be seen.”

“The guards don’t really patrol that area either,” Tom informed her, “We’re mostly concerned with the areas more likely to be accessed.”

They followed a faint path in that direction and tried to be inconspicuous. The restricted area fence loomed out of the dark and caught Tom by surprise. They helped each other over the fence and started down into the drainage.

“Shh,” Karen whispered, and pulled Tom down next to her. Across the small valley, Tom saw a light, then another, moving along the edge of the slope. “Soldiers.” They hunkered down into the brush and watched as they lights moved further down the stream. Staying on the other side of the stream, they followed the soldiers at a distance for quite a ways.

Suddenly, a spotlight appeared and they could see the flash of weapons firing, and heard the soft thud of silenced gunfire. They both flattened on the ground, but the shots weren’t in their direction. There was a bit of loud chatter from the soldiers and the lights all joined together pointing at something on the ground. It seemed to be a large tan lump.

“Maybe a big cat, or a bear?” Tom whispered.

“I don’t think so,” Karen replied softly, “Let’s see what they do with it.”

They could hear some chatter on a radio, but the words were unclear. After a few minutes, another set of lights approached. A jeep pulled up and the headlights stopped on the dead creature. A camera flashed a couple of times. Someone pulled a stretcher out of the jeep and they rolled whatever it was onto it, and placed it across the back end of the jeep. It drove slowly, flanked by the soldiers, further down the valley and stopped. Two soldiers got on each end of the stretcher and they carried it down the slope, huddled together and disappeared.

Karen pulled Tom closer to them, staying across the valley. A glow was visible from some kind of hole in the opposite slope where the soldiers had disappeared. “A cave,” Tom murmured, “maybe that’s where Jerry is hiding.”

The lights reappeared and the soldiers returned to the jeep. Two continued downstream on the top of the slope and the jeep drove back in the direction it came from.

Karen started down the slope. Tom caught up with her, “Where are you going?”

“I’ve got to see what they killed,” she hesitated, “and we need to see if Jerry’s in there.”

Reluctantly, Tom followed and they found the mouth of a small hole that appeared to have been widened recently. They could see the marks where the stretcher had been dragged, and followed them in. They half-walked under a tilted concrete slab, then stood up in a hallway maybe a dozen feet wide and eight feet tall. Ahead, they found a cross hallway that seemed to go several hundred feet each way off the central corridor. Ahead and to both sides, there were doorways off the corridor. Scuff marks on the floor indicated a lot of traffic down the main hallway.

The traffic seemed to be directed towards a low wide doorway down on the left. The two heavy steel doors were open, and inside there was a chaos of carcasses and a strong smell of decay. Just inside the doorway was a large, blood-spattered furry mass. Karen knelt down and began to examine it.

“This is a prairie dog.” she paused, “A giant prairie dog. Jerry wasn’t crazy.”

“At least about the prairie dog,” Tom thought.

“But it’s weird,” Karen continued, “It has the teeth of a predator. It has sharp pointy teeth for ripping and tearing. It’s at least an omnivore, if not a carnivore.”

“Maybe that explains the missing critters.” Tom offered.

He walked around the edge of the room, identifying dead rabbits, badgers, foxes, and raccoons, and quite a few bodies that were unidentifiable. He named them to Karen as he found them. Most had been shot, but towards the back of the room he found half-eaten carcasses and various decomposed body parts.

On top of a pile of brush in the back, he found six nearly identical bodies the size of dogs, shot through the head. He called to Karen and peered closely at the nearest one, then pushed it back to see the others. Something rolled out from under the dead creature and fell to the floor. Tom jumped and gave an involuntary shout. Karen came over quickly.

“These are babies,” she told him, examining the bodies, “Baby giant prairie dogs.” She looked around the room, “The soldiers have been collecting all the affected animals and bringing them here. That’s why no one has reported seeing them.”

She indicated the eaten carcasses and body parts, “And this is what they ate.”

She bent over something on the floor, and recoiled in shock. “I think I found Jerry.”

Tom recognized the half of Jerry’s face that stared up at him, but the rest was either mauled or completely gone. He backed away, then turned and vomited violently. Karen tried to comfort him, then they heard voices.

She ran to the door and saw lights at the opening of the cave. Quickly she looked down the hall, grabbed Tom, and pulled him in the opposite direction, and shut off their lights. The end of the corridor was blocked by double steel doors, and with some effort, they were able to open one and slip inside. The room was empty. Karen kept the door slightly cracked to see what was going on in the hallway.

Flashlights showed a group of soldiers hauling a stretcher, and they stopped at the door of the room that Karen and Tom had just left. “It’s another prairie dog,” Karen relayed to Tom, “They’re dumping it into the same room.”

The soldiers retrieved the empty stretcher and moved back to the opening. Two more figures wearing bulky gear entered her view and moved towards them. She saw them approach the room with all the bodies and step in. “Lay it down heavily,” one of them said, “We’ve got to totally destroy everything in here.”

There was a roaring sound and bright light from the room. Smoke poured out of the room and Tom peeked around the door with Karen. “Flamethrowers,” he said, “They’re destroying all the bodies. They’re burning them up. They’re destroying all the evidence.”

They watched in silence for the next ten minutes or so as the roaring, bright light and smoke continued. Finally one of the men backed out the door, then the second, both pouring flames back into the room. Tom could tell they were wearing supplied air and face masks, and some kind of protective suits. They turned off the flamethrowers, waited for the smoke to thin a bit and pulled off their masks.

“Is that enough?” one asked the other.

He stepped in and kicked at something on the floor, raising a small cloud of ash. “Nothing left, as ordered. Let’s get out of here. Time for the next crew.” They turned and left.

Karen quickly ran down the hall and looked into the room. “All gone,” she cried, “It’s all just ash and rubble. No one will ever believe now.”

Tom came up and put his arm around her. “Maybe we can sift through the ashes and recover some intact bone or DNA.”

There was a commotion from the opening, and peeking around the door Tom saw several soldiers digging and drilling holes around the entrance. The soldiers were busy and didn’t seem to be looking their direction. He and Karen decided it was safer to stay put, rather than risk being seen in the hallway. Karen poked around in the still-hot debris, but found little more than crumbled bone and ash. Tom sat by the door and tried to keep an eye out. “Poor Jerry,” he thought, “I guess he met his demons at last.”

There was some loud talking from the opening, then quiet. “Let’s give them a few minutes to clear out then we can get out of here.”

Karen nodded and sat down beside him. She contemplated her research, which was now completely worthless. And, there was no evidence to demonstrate the effects of the chemicals or radiation on the prairie dogs, so she would be unable to even take that new tack. “Oh, well,” she thought, “Another wasted semester.”

Suddenly, everything shook and pounded the breath out of them. Oppressive silence then a loud blast!

Luckily they were sitting or they would have been knocked flat. As it was, the blast disturbed the ash and dust and they were nearly choked before it began to settle.

Tom crawled to the door and peered down the hallway, his flashlight barely cutting through the dust. He pulled his handkerchief out to breathe through, and got Karen to do the same with a bandanna she had. They coughed and tried to regain their breath, and wondered what had happened.

After a while, enough dust had settled and they slowly moved down the hall. It was confusing, but the entrance seemed to have changed. In fact, it was gone beneath a wall of dirt, large slabs of broken concrete and rubble.

“They dynamited the entrance,” Tom realized, “We’re sealed in.”

Frantically, they probed the wall looking for any opening. The army demolition team knew their business, and had effectively closed the opening. Tom and Karen sat against the wall and contemplated their options. Tom turned off his light, then Karen did the same. There didn’t seem much to say.

Time was unmoving in the darkness, measured only by breath and heartbeat. Finally, Tom broke their silence, “Oh hell, if we’re going to be stuck in here, I’m at least going to look around.” He switched on his light and got up. Karen followed and they first explored the hallway to the right. Identical small rooms, empty and still, met their inquiry. They returned to the main hallway and went across to the other corridor. It was identical, but had a strong odor that got stronger as they proceeded. At the end, the floor was slippery and the smell overpowering.

“Bats,” Karen identified the smell, “There’s a bat colony here.” They peered into the room. The floor was deep in bat guano, but the room was still. “Any still in here probably flew off when things exploded.”

“But where did they go?” Tom asked, “We didn’t see any flying around down here. There must be another way out.”

Karen led the way back to the main hallway. “We haven’t seen anything down any of the corridors,” she noted, “So there must be something else around where the entrance was.”

“Do you have a lighter?” Karen asked, “In the movies they always hold up a small flame to find out where the air comes in.”

Tom shook his head, “Well, I know someone with a flamethrower, but he left a while ago.”

After a second or two, Karen began to laugh, then Tom joined in. They sat in the dark, occasionally chuckling to themselves for a long time.

Tom woke to the sound of wings. He found the darkness unfamiliar and confusing; then he remembered where they were. He grabbed his flashlight and turned it on, waking Karen in the process.

“The bats,” he told her, “Where are they flying?”

She shook her head and turned on her light. Bats were flying above them in a chaotic spiral; heading into the colony room. They both stood and tried to see where the bats came from, but there were too many crowding the ceiling to tell. As the stream of bats thinned, Tom spotted a gap above one of the broken concrete slabs. “There,” he pointed and Karen added her light to his, illuminating a spot about eighteen inches round. Karen made him wait until only a couple of bats came through, then none.

Climbing the rubble proved to be difficult and dangerous; at one point Karen was nearly smashed by a large chunk of concrete that Tom inadvertently knocked loose. Working together they managed to get up on top of the broken slab, and Tom slithered into the small hole, ignoring the brown slime left by the bats.

Karen helped support his feet as he worked his way upward. Once he got a good hold, she pulled herself along by holding onto his boots. Slowly they edged up the nearly vertical hole formed between two broken slabs. Luckily, it was rough and fractured enough that they could find hand- and foot-holds as they climbed. The concrete gave way to rocky soil, and they were able to pull themselves along with roots (“Probably sagebrush,” Karen muttered.)

Finally, Tom pulled himself out of the hole onto grass at the top of the slope above the former opening. He pulled Karen out and they both lay in the grass, looking gratefully at the morning sky. Tom shook himself and quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching. The place was deserted as far as he could see.

“What now?” Karen looked wistfully down the hole, “All the evidence is gone, and I bet you a hundred that all the army guys are reassigned to Alaska or somewhere far away.”

“Well,” Tom replied, “I could use a shower, some breakfast and maybe a drink.”

“That sounds nice. But I think you’ve got the order backwards. How about we go have a drink to your buddy, Jerry.”

Tom nodded, “I guess that’s the least we can do.” He thought a minute, “I wonder if Jerry’s job at the mall is still open?”

The sun rose as they made their way back to the cars.