Nevada Triangle

Nevada Triangle

A Story by Ron Sanders
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All the ones you love and more.

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Nevada Triangle

 

 

 

 

            “All passengers prepare for emergency landing!”

Every nerve in Mason’s body was a live wire. There wasn’t a damned thing left to try, but he couldn’t let go. Even though he knew the jetliner was out of control, even though the ground was rushing at him with all the visual impact of a tsunami, even though he knew he was about to die a death beyond imagination. “Everybody out of the aisles! Seatbelts fastened! Heads down between your knees!” He switched off the cabin speakers.

            “God in Heaven!” the copilot screamed. “Oh God! Oh Jesus! Oh God oh God oh--”

            “Ground, this is AAL-7. We are going down. We are going down. Beth I love you, I love you. Kids, I love you I love you I lo--” Mason’s throat seized. Blood filled his eyes, his arms locked, his entire body went into shock. To port and starboard, black smoke billowed and wheeled, racing its orphan wisps in dark tendrils that swept the glass like loose wipers. Now the smoke passed as though cleared by a gigantic lung, and the visual window blew out to a reeling panorama of fuzzy landscape and crystal clear details--ancient cacti, gutted cars, weeds and rocks so sharp they might have been etched into canvas--as his head jerked back, as his mouth broke wide for one endlessly plummeting, mindblowing scream.

 

 

            The smoke and dust were terrific, all but obscuring the crash site. Flames shot through the plane’s corpse, danced and raged overhead, lit the windows and passed. The smell of jet fuel was everywhere. A trough the length of three football fields had been ripped out of the land, ninety feet wide at its broadest. Nose, fuselage, and tail were in three distinct sections, buried, rather than scattered, due to the dramatic incline of descent. The right wing had detached completely, the left was a black crumpled ruin. And the real-time concussions, the aftershock of impact, still sang in the earth, still sent small stones tumbling.

            And a number of flat stones began to tremble on the desert floor. One by one the stones were shifted aside, and one by one the hot dusty creatures burst aboveground and maniacally charged the wreckage. Their pecking order was evident; the fastest and toughest were the first inside--the first-pickers of cufflinks and fountain pens, of ribbons and bows. Seat belts and oxygen masks were savaged in the rush, the carnage completely ignored. One squealed, and there was a sudden frantic pile-on of hairy bodies. In a minute the victor came up grasping a cheap patent leather billfold. After a short, brutal flurry, this little monster used his teeth to tear out a photograph of a sweetly smiling family. He snatched it with his paw, pressed the treasure to his chest, and threw the billfold, with its cash and traveler’s checks and credit cards, to the losers.

 

 

            Crash investigators have one of the toughest jobs on the planet. You never really adjust to it-- ever--though it’s imperative to develop a steely exterior, and to always treat it as just a job.

            Crash investigators for major airlines have upped that career ante considerably. Analytical and technical aspects aside, it’s not just a matter of noting and recording the dead--angles, impetus, collateral consequences--it’s a matter of cataloguing torsos, mutilated faces, miscellaneous body parts, many burned beyond recognition. A museum display in Hell:  the plane’s great black ruptured body, split open like a ripe pomegranate, the horror of charred corpses duly strapped in for the unbelievable, some cut right in half by those very seat belts . . . the nauseating stench of a charnel house, the hundreds of wild fixed expressions that not even death, not even flames, not even formaldehyde can repair.

            This job description, and the once-sanguine men and women who complement it, provides for a sober on-site experience. Those who try to survive by alleviation--through camaraderie and inappropriate or disrespectful behavior--don’t last. They’re not tolerated by the professionals who have built up the fortitude to take nightmares in stride, to break down only in the womb of family, and to regularly come to work with a set of gonads that would humble a daredevil.

            Deale got through it with an air of iron efficiency. An amazing man, able to consider the trajectory of a mutilated child with the emotional detachment of a chemist at his microscope--even if that innocent cadaver happened to be a dead ringer for his own beloved blonde daughter. His men were fellow travelers, treated with complete seriousness, no matter how deep or trivial their issues. Deale could get along with almost anybody, in a business sense, so long as that anybody behaved with mutual respect.

            One person he couldn’t get along with was the by-the-book, automaton type; the type using rank and connections to override authority. So when the tall ponytailed brunet in worker’s protective goggles, black form-fitting jumpsuit, and narrow steel-toed boots flashed her I.D. he automatically became a different creature, the kind of man his crew secretly admired. Deale glanced at her credentials with an air of surly indifference. Marilyn Sharpe. Yeah, pretty sharp all right, and way too good-looking to be taken seriously. Colder than dry ice. Didn’t know her place in a man’s world:  started off expecting to be taken seriously, then had to show she wasn’t soft, then had to show she was the baddest b***h in the litter. Lipstick lesbo. Eyes deep and cool, mouth soft and wide. But that voice would wilt a satyr:

            “You’re Deale? I’ve been assigned to manage this site; those bodies are not to be moved by anyone, not without my okay.”

            He looked away. “We’re pristine here, Sharpe.” Deale hiked a leg up on a bumper for his watching men’s sake, adding with thinly veiled condescension, “Is there anything we can help you with, agent?”

            “I want absolutely nothing removed from these victims. Every ounce of personal belongings is to be scrupulously accounted for.”

            Deale stomped over and got right in her face. “Agent Sharpe. If you’re implying . . . if you’re hinting for a nanosecond that one of my men is some sicko stealing off the dead then you’re gonna find yourself with real problems here. Meaning, with me.”

            She met him chin-to-chin. “Inspector Deale. My department isn’t accusing anybody of robbing the dead of cash and valuables. What’s pertinent, and this obviously has nothing to do with you or your men, is property of sentimental value. Relatives of victims of three of Southern Nevada’s last major air disasters have reported articles missing--articles of great personal, rather than monetary, dearness; objects naturally overlooked by investigators, but worth gold to the next of kin.”

            Deale smirked and backed off. “So old Dickey Riley still gets around, huh?”

            “Riley?”

            Deale blew her off. “The Columbia pilot. Don’t play innocent.”

            “Not familiar.”

            Deale considered her askance. “Richard Riley was pilot of the 747 that took down three hundred and forty-eight fares and a crew of eleven just shy of Vegas way back in October. The only survivor, if you can call it that. When they put him back together he started raving about ghouls in the desert, stealing spiritual items off the dead.”

            “Transients? Campers?”

            Deale smiled wryly. “No, Agent Sharpe. Real ghouls. Things that go bump in the night. None of this is classified; it’s just the stuff that trickles down the airmen’s grapevine.” He bowed for effect. “Maybe I could set you two up.”

            She pulled on her mask and surgical gloves and made for the plane. “First things first.”

 

 

            Sharpe wasn’t sure what to expect, though she’d been briefed on issues of Riley’s temperament, the urgency of personal sterility, and bedside protocol. She knew Riley had broken virtually every bone, lost copious quantities of vital fluids, been burned over seventy percent of his body, and been pronounced dead at least three times, twice at the scene of the accident. She knew he could communicate only by kazoo, the artificial voicebox implanted in those with irreparable throat trauma, could eat and eliminate only via tubes and traps, and then only with assistance, could neither go outside his protective room or tolerate visitors without their first being painstakingly scrubbed and inspected. Columbia Airways, bound both by contract and public relations, made sure he was well cared for.

            Richard Riley greeted her in his customized sitting gurney, both arms and four of his seven remaining digits supported by cable casts, the steel half of his skull painted flesh with a waxy veneer. This waxy impression was evinced, too, in the yards of grafted skin covering the man, forehead to ankles. Facial reconstruction:  seventy-three total hours of experimental surgery, eleven unbelievably agonizing flirtations with insanity. At this time Riley was suing for no further treatments. It wasn’t a cosmetic matter anyway. The ex-pilot’s countenance was a red and gray patchwork of butt and back grafts, strung together with wire, staples, and tender loving care. Pig hide eyeflaps had to be extended for sleep, and the removable false lower jaw, clamped in place to encourage basic skull conformity, needed hourly shifting to prevent the tongue’s sliding back into the gullet. He was wrapped in a pair of light sheets for Sharpe’s sake; ordinarily the constantly calving skin grafts, if not permitted to breathe, would drive him to itching madness. The shades were always down in Riley’s room; the least kiss of sunlight was screaming hell--even the fluorescents had to be tempered with special film. Only a pair of small emerald-green reading lights made objects visible, though their surreal cast predictably intensified the viewer’s initial sense of horror and alienation.

            “I,” Sharpe began, “am here solely for information, Mr. Riley. Please. I promise to be brief.” She consulted a laminated pad pinched in her sterile gloves. “In October of last year, the liner you were piloting for Columbia went down in the Nevada desert. You were coherent in the ambulance, and periodically between surgeries. Corroborated reports have you swearing your downed jet was assaulted by creatures that raided the dead for personal items. Since that accident there has been an epidemic of similar tragedies producing losses of otherwise worthless items that are still unaccounted for, most recently AAL-7’s disaster southwest of Reno. Our computer models demonstrate that these accidents have peculiarities consistent with your crash. The incidents--though not all were aviation-related--took place in a specific desert region of Nevada, miles removed from civic bustle and commerce. The Nevada Triangle, they’re calling it. All incidents involved a human toll exceeding fifty persons; these were genuine disasters. Except for your particular case, there are no eyewitnesses from any scene.

“Our agency, Mr. Riley, is interested in satisfactorily addressing the grievances of those relations who are on record as stating their loved ones have been removed of objects of depth. We have to be. These are very serious charges, and the bereaved have garnered very serious legal representation. The FAA is being deemed liable. My agency has partitioned large funds for the purposes of putting this matter to rest. To this end I have been assigned to take whatever steps are necessary. A visit to AAL-7’s crash site brought up your name and story. I’m not here to be judgmental; I have to follow whatever leads are made available.”

The man in the gurney let his head rock back to view his guest directly. This slight adjustment of angle and additional wedge of green gave Sharpe a cleaner look at something she hadn’t bargained for:  only half of Riley’s uppers were dentures; the other side, now grotesquely illuminated, were his own salvaged and replanted teeth, projecting through a partial cheek and serviced by a sanitary white dribble cot. It would have been possible, had she the stomach or inclination, to look straight down his throat at the vibrating mechanism now assaulting her:

“I stand by my statement. I was conscious and cogent. I know what I saw. You can take that back to your agency.” The effort cost him. Riley sucked laboriously at the cot while a respirator adjusted for his outburst. Sharpe could see the gurney’s onboard computer calibrating and resolving.

“Let me repeat, Mr. Riley, that I am in no way judging your actions or descriptions. You were there; not me. I’ll take whatever you say at face value, but I can’t read your mind.”

“Fair enough.” The head fell back on its sponge pillow. “I remember every second up to the crash. I could never forget. My next impression was of being dead, but of still living. It is an odd thing, ma’am, but in catastrophic shock the body does not feel pain--at least not the same animal that has wracked me since--and the mind is clearer than at any other time. I did not hallucinate, nor did I make a deal with my demons. I saw this thing, this hairy little hissing creature, work its way into the cabin and look around. It evidently thought me dead; what other conclusion could there be.

“It went through my copilot’s uniform and wallet, took his crucifix and a family picture. Through the door I saw several more, accosting the dead with equal urgency. When this little monster came to me it stopped abruptly, bent over my face and placed its paw upon my mouth. It must have felt a trace of breath, for it gave a small squeal and scurried back out.

“Ma’am, as I say I was in deep shock. My brain and body were reeling; I swear I died a moment later. But I came to outside the plane on a makeshift stretcher--a pair of horrified rock climbers had pulled me out. One had encountered a faint pulse. I must have told the ambulance attendants, brave men who somehow beat the helicopters across the desert, the same story I am telling you now. Since then I have remained a prisoner, here, alone save for my nurses and the occasional Columbia representative.”

“You claim they were after personal articles. Were any removed from your person?”

“None.”

“They feared retaliation, then?”

“Ma’am, I was unable to lift a finger or bat a lash. There were at least a dozen within my view. I was no threat. It was not my strength they feared, it was my innermost being.”

“I don’t follow.”

Riley half-lifted himself, his eyes burning green. “Young lady, there are things we are not intended to follow.” His head collapsed back on the pillow. “Not while breath yet fills our bodies.” He stared at the ceiling. “Leave me now. Cling to this precious existence with every fiber of your being.”

Sharpe nodded. “Thank you for your time and patience, sir. I’ll make sure my agency and Colombia are apprised of your assistance and hospitality.”

“Go.”

 

 

“So is it gonna be like ‘sir’, or is it gonna be like ‘ma’am’?”

She gave the little photographer a dour look, one of many to come. He was shifting back and forth like he had to take a leak, and bad, like he he’d been holding it forever.

“It’s gonna be like Agent Sharpe, okay? And if that’s too formal, just ‘Sharpe’ will suffice.” The mussy brown hair, the huge black-rimmed spectacles, the scrawny frame under thrift store combat fatigues--agents are never assigned assistants they’d choose, not in the field. That’s a federal rule, as anticipated as Murphy’s Law, jealously engaged and rigidly enforced. She hadn’t requested a photographer, but didn’t dare object; the fact that her impossible idea was given the go-ahead was enough to keep her passive.

They were sharing the shade of a canvas awning, eleven miles southwest of Boulder City on a desert flat that, except for the blazing sun’s lesser proximity, might have been on Mercury. A staff limo--read:  converted school bus--baked twelve feet away, emptied of all forty-nine crew. The photographer was interning; they told her he’d be green. “How old are you, kid?”

He bristled. “Please don’t call me ‘kid’. My real name’s Robert, but my official name’s StingMaster.”

“How old are you, Robert?”

He looked away. “Thirty-six. But like I said, it’s StingMaster.”

“Cool. So let me run the skinny by you. Stop me if I don’t make sense.”

“Okay, stop.”

“Real mature. Now shut up and listen. Accounting has agreed to a staged accident out here, and you’re along to record it. That’s all that’s required of you. Some wacko airline pilot named Riley witnessed what he called a lot of little creatures stealing personal items off the dead at a crash site. I didn’t word it quite like that or we wouldn’t be here. The Agency probably thinks there are sequestered Manson Family-like tribes doing hit-and-run acts in the desert. The fact that trinkets are taken instead of cash supports the concept of drugged-out airheads. They can’t really believe that, but they have to go with something, so if you can come up with even one verifiable snap of such a lowlife, it’ll be introduced as evidence against all these claims of a shadowy crash investigator looting corpses on-site.”

“Man! Little creatures! You mean like elves? Or do you think they could have been like midget Wookies?”

Sharpe considered him sourly. “I won’t dignify that with a . . . look, what he said was ‘ghouls’, all right? ‘Things that go bump in the night’. Say, maybe you and Riley could team up and take your act on the road.”

Robert grew pensive. “Ghouls in the desert. Possible. I mean, radical, but like totally probable.”

“Then you’ve heard of them?”

“Ghouls, sir or ma’am, are nothing to sneer at. I learned all about ’em in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Alternate Universes, which every speculative dude knows is about as legitimate as you can get. Ghouls live underground, same as trolls, but they need stuff from real people to survive. Artifacts, y’know? Mementoes. So they lift junk off the dead and feed off the sentimental vibes stored in that stuff. Those vibes become their souls, you dig?”

“I guess Riley read the same book. Is there any way to stop them? I mean like kryptonite or anything?”

“Dude . . .” Robert shook his head slowly. “This ain’t no comic book universe, okay? These are facts, as real as whatever they taught you in spy school or wherever. The only way to kill a ghoul is by taking his picture. That takes his soul.”

“I guess it’s a good thing I was assigned a cameraman after all. So these ghouls of yours wait underground for corpses to loot, thereby ensuring their immortality. Why pick this spot? What’s so special about the desert?”

“You’ve heard of the Bermuda Triangle?”

“Of course.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“Oh, Jesus. Flying saucers on sojourn?”

“Maybe. Who knows?” Robert raised an eyebrow. “What’s on the other side, sir or ma’am? Who knows where a black hole goes, or what happens when we energize through a time portal? The ancients knew things. They spoke with angels and demons. And they had visitors, from other worlds and other dimensions. So who knows where ghouls come from, or if they use some kind of exotic magic, or if they simply teleport planes to cause crashes and get what they need? For all we know they could be the upper-earth descendants of the ol’ Slinker himself. They could be watching and waiting, like a totally radical Delta Force of guerrilla Gollums.”

“What’s a Gollums?”

Robert’s jaw dropped. “Dude!” He slowly wagged his head. “Gollum’s like this psycho fisherman who lives in a cave, man. Bilbo stole his One Ring but he almost got it back from Frodo at the Crack Of Doom. You’re not, like, totally unaware of speculative stuff, are you?”

“D***o . . . ?”

The photographer’s face twisted all around “Awww . . . don’t you people keep up? Frodo, dude, is like Bilbo’s adopted nephew. Bilbo left the shire on his eleventy-first birthday, I mean like way after the whole Smaug thing. Now hang onto your flashlight, Agent Sharpe. This is so heavy I don’t know if I can do it justice. Y’see, the Dark Lord forged the ring in Mordor, and--”

 “And the Air Force has agreed to airlift a gutted World War Two bomber stocked with gas and a small detonator. They’re going to release it strategically so that it crashes in a cleared area close enough to observe. The bomber’s really a mess; it’s costing more for the lift and drop than for the plane, but the Air Force is willing to halve the bill by making this all part of an official exercise, complete with video from the air. You, as our ground cameraman, are going to get in as many shots of that crash and burn as you can, then we’re going to get dirty. We’re not trusting long-range lenses in all this rising heat. As soon as it’s safe to approach, you and I’ll mosey on over for your close-ups.”

“And how long’ll that be?”

“Forever. There’re no hidden tribes of crazed hippies, Stinkblaster, and no noble armies of swashbuckling fairy princesses. But there has to be something that makes logical sense, and we’re either going to find it or head home empty-handed. How many megabytes will your equipment handle?”

Robert sneered in private offense. “Dude,” he muttered, shaking his head. After a few seconds he held up an old khaki camera case covered with campy Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter stickers. “Hwang-Yu Special Edition, UL. Bangs straight 30mm and digital. Hairtrigger autofocus in whiteline and infrared. Independent shutter and Dynalens. Magnesium instaflash for the life of the battery.” He smirked. “Solar-chargeable nickel-cadmium.”

Sharpe nodded appreciatively. “Old school.”

“So if it turns out your pilot dude was right, and I end up being like your mentor on the subject, you’ll step down from the whole bitchy Elvira thing and admit I’m The StingMaster?”

“Fair enough.”

An air horn, the kind used at sporting events, barked once behind a little imported trailer. “That’s it,” she said, and swung up her binoculars. Robert began tweaking his camera’s lens.

Four cable-suspending Chinooks appeared over a low range, each copter supporting a section of bomber at nose, tail, and wings. At a precise point the cables were released simultaneously, and the derelict, with the payload in its nose, dipped dramatically before gracefully planing two hundred feet into a spectacular explosion and mini-fireball. The fuel burned itself out rapidly and, bearing nothing inside to support a blaze, the hull was a black and blue carcass within minutes.

The agent and photographer moved boulder to boulder. The rest of the company waited back.

“Now what?” Robert wondered, stepping around the fuselage, still ticking hot in the sun. “I sure don’t see any of your crazy hippie dudes.”

Sharpe joined him under a twisted wing, out of sight of the makeshift command post. “None of your like totally bitchen fairy dudes, either.” She grabbed his shoulder and shook. “Gollums! Look!”

A hairy little creature popped out of the ground, then another and another. They stared in all directions before beginning an all-out dash for the plane. “Gollums, Gollums!” Sharpe hissed, pounding the frozen photographer on the back, “Shoot, shoot! Get it! Shoot!” Robert was so nervous he jerked up the camera, and sun glinting on the lens appeared to startle the creatures. They hesitated as one, looked all around, and scattered. She grabbed his arm and dragged him out into the light, even as several vanished before their eyes. They ran in a crouched pursuit of the slowest. It turned and hissed as they were closing in, and a second later disappeared.

“He went under here!” Sharpe said excitedly, dropping to her knees.

Robert joined her on the other side of the flat stone. He tapped on it and bent an ear. “Like a manhole cover,” he breathed. He looked up. “You’re cool?”

She nodded. They pushed the surprisingly light stone aside and peered down a hazy well swimming with dust and swirling motes.

Sharpe went down first, finding footing a yard below the rim. She helped the photographer in, then intuitively dragged the stone back into place, leaving a crescent of daylight.

They were hunched on a little ledge that was dissolving even as they fought for purchase, their wide eyes adjusting to a strange half-light that filtered throughout a labyrinth of crumbly tunnels. A sudden burst of daylight to their left preceded the rapid plunge of another of those creatures.

“God,” Sharpe whispered, “it’s real.”

Robert grabbed her arm with passion. “Middle-earth!”

“No, Gollums, no! Listen, man:  these aren’t hobbit holes.”

“How do you know, Agent Sharpe? How do you know we haven’t stumbled on the most important secret since Luke’s dark lineage? Now you listen:  the giants--Lucas, King, Tolkein, Rowling, Lovecraft--were onto something. They were trying to tell us, man, that there’s more to reality than meets the eye.”

“Oh, they were on something, all right.”

“Listen to yourself! The proof’s right in your face, and all you can do is go on and on like it’s like an illusion. What more do you need?”

Sharpe nodded. “You’re right. Let’s get moving before they slip away.”

“Are you nuts?”

“Look, Gollums--” she grabbed his hand “--we’ve come this far, and we’re not leaving without some pictures. You’re absolutely right-on:  we’ve latched onto something amazing. And what are you afraid of, anyway--they weren’t chasing us; it was the other way around. Like totally awesome reactions upstairs, by the way.”

Their fast-eroding shelf sealed the issue, forcing them to creep down a foot at a time, half-visible wraiths in the depths. The rock and sand readily gave way, and at last Robert and Sharpe were standing alone on a fairly flat floor, maybe thirty feet below the surface, bathed in a dim fuzzy light while contemplating a slender passage into the unknown.

“Gone!” Robert whispered.

Sharpe looked up and around. “The desert floor’s porous up there; light filters down in bits and pieces, so to speak. There’s air, enough to breathe anyway.” She squinted into the narrow tunnel. “Not so much light outside of this hole we’re occupying, apparently, but there’ll always be some at our backs.”

“You’re going . . . in?”

We’re going . . . in. Make sure your magicflash is ready on that multigizmo.”

“Forget it. Let’s just get some shots of this cave and split while we can.”

“I’ll cover your butt,” Sharpe said with a shove. “You cover mine.”

The dimness increased step by step. In a few minutes they grew aware of a similar light source at the tunnel’s far end; evidently another surface-lit pit.

“The desert’s honeycombed,” Sharpe whispered. “These interconnecting tunnels must go on for miles and miles.”

They came to a slender right-hand opening. It was pitch black within; Sharpe flicked on her flashlight’s red emergency bulb and they slipped inside.

They were at the entrance to a dome-shaped warren, spacious as a small cathedral. Sharpe’s beam, trained on the floor, at first picked out only a massive, wall to wall heap of personal items:  hats, gloves, ribbons and bows, lighters, pens, purses and shoes. There were scattered piles of scarves and stockings, along with a flyer’s cap, two wigs and a set of false teeth. All were mashed and charred by physical disaster; most were streaked and spattered with old dried blood. A nauseating smell hung in the air and clung to the walls; an old, grieving smell of caked sweat and stale perfume. Only as she swung the beam did they become aware of the hundreds of hairy creatures hanging by their feet from the walls and ceiling. A lax mucilaginous web was slung creature to creature.

They were hideous things to view up close, but their absolute stillness made them seem harmless, like stuffed animals in a trophy room. So deep was their coma that Sharpe was able to shine her blood-red beam directly in their faces. Their fangs protruded over the lips, and their eyes, open even during unconsciousness, were huge yellow orbs without any reflective capacity. The nails on their paws, fore and rear, tapered into long scythe-shaped affairs, bending thumbward.

“Sleeping?” Robert whispered, his Potters gleaming in the camera’s green corona.

“You’re the expert.”

“So now what do you believe? Are you still gonna swallow whatever the man tells you? Or are you gonna take the red pill, and see just how deep the rabbit hole goes?”

“I’m not blind, Robert. It’s some kind of undiscovered species. It’s--I don’t know. It’s for the specialists to figure out. It’s only our job to report what we’ve learned.”

And to save it for posterity.” He took a step backward while stooping, his camera’s viewfinder already at eye-level. “And the word you were looking for is rediscovered.” He winked. “It’s just a matter of angles, Agent Sharpe. Somewhere in here’s the perfect vantage for catching not only these nodding orc dudes but at least the top third of the pile. And you can take that back to your Joe Science.”

“And how wise are we being now? Aren’t you the one who said they’re camera-shy?”

“These guys are totally crashed-out. They’ve obviously been placed under a spell.” He snapped his fingers loudly. “See?”

“They’re hibernating, okay? Nobody slipped ’em a Mickey.”

“And the dudes we chased outside? They were hibernating too?”

“Would you listen to yourself? They weren’t in here. They’ve obviously gone down the tunnels.” Sharpe’s exasperation finally got the better of her. “What are you, man, a flipping idiot or something?”

Robert’s eyes burned in the dark. “You . . . you . . . what do you know? How do you know Gandalf didn’t put these critters under? How do you know he isn’t stalking the others, even as we speak? Use your brain for half a minute--I mean, for God’s sake, lady, your job doesn’t make you special:  you’re a slave. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage--into a prison for your mind. Just think about it, all right? Oh, and if someone should give you, heaven forbid, the benefit of a little insight . . . jeez, I mean it’s just like totally retarded to believe what they want you to believe. They can cover up an alien crash for over half a century, man. They can rig an election, massacre students and fake a moon landing--and these are the very people you’re working for! So don’t call me an idiot. Anyone who doesn’t accept speculative stuff right off the shelf is only proving his ignorance and immaturity. Or hers, as the case may be. I mean like no offense.”

“None taken. Believe me. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”

Robert crossed his eyes and held his breath until it looked like his head would explode. “They’re spellbound! All right? Why can’t you dig that? Spellbound, spellbound, spellbound! Just admit it.” To prove his point he yelled “Hey!” Nothing changed. It was still as a tomb. “Wizard or no wizard,” he whispered, “you guys are coming with me.” He froze in an awkward stoop, muttered, “Damn, I’m good,” and took a snap. The warren was hit with a light so bright it momentarily blinded them both.

Immediately the creatures began falling like stones. Others screamed and hit the floor hissing; those plummeting from just above caught in hair and clothes and went absolutely wild with their nails. Sharpe and Robert were quickly smothered in a hissing, heaving scrabble; only their survival instincts saved them from being buried alive. They lunged through the aperture and ran shrieking through the tunnel; mobbed, covered, freed, mobbed again, until finally they burst out into the original well. The little creatures followed them up full-tilt, scrambling and hissing like cats. Robert and Sharpe kicked and flailed as they climbed, backs to the crumbling wall, and when Sharpe reached the covering stone she was hysterical enough to slide it out of the way in one move. Robert paused for half a minute, snapping away with his camera. The little creatures dropped in their twos and threes; the remainder stayed on the well’s floor and looked up blinking and hissing.

Sharpe half-hauled the photographer out. They quickly kicked the stone back into place.

“Man!” Robert heaved. “Was that ever hairy!” They leaned on each other in the frying sun, then looked up and all around. Reality yawned back at them. The pair staggered off to the base on eggshells, expecting stones to slide aside at every step. The bus was waiting in the heat; the crew on board, the gear packed.

“Hold it!” Robert whispered. He shielded the camera under his shirt and a minute later brought out a black plastic film canister on a leather thong. “Our secret’s safe in here,” he said, draping the canister around his neck like a pendant.

“What secret?”

He squeezed her shoulders in his arm. “Just for now. Trust me, dude.”

“Don’t you shush me!”

He surprised her with a passionate clutching of hands. “We’ve got the proof, man! We’ve got what dudes have been waiting for . . . for--for like forever. We’re gonna be rich, we’re gonna be famous. We’re gonna be like rich and famous.”

“This is bigger than us, son. We’re gonna be silenced and put out to pasture somewhere. You think the powers that be are just going to throw the Nevada Triangle open to the general public? You’re the one who alluded to Area 51. Well, this whole desert’s going to be quarantined under the biggest coverup of the millenium. No one’ll ever hear from us again. So let’s just go get our rabies shots and call it a day.”

Trust me.”

The driver, all sagging belly and flushed flesh, leaned against the right front fender with a forearm resting on the windshield’s hot frame, his free hand languidly waving them in. He clung to the handrail for perhaps two minutes after they’d found a seat; his head down, one foot on the first step and the other in the dirt. He climbed in like an invalid, sweat rolling down his back and chest.

Robert, unable to sit still, brought his voice down low and leaned in. “Ummm. Listen, sir or ma’am . . . I been thinking about your objection, and I got the feeling we should like make us a pact.”

“A pact?”

“Yeah, a pact. You know, like a private agreement, dude-to-dude.”

“I’m listening.”

He nudged her gently and rattled the film canister. “In here’s pure gold. These pictures aren’t just worth a fortune, man, they’re like priceless. We can name our sum to any TV station in the world.”

“Those photographs are the property of the Agency.”

“Oh-h-h . . . I dunno ’bout that, man. I’m an intern; I’m not on anybody’s payroll. This camera’s my property, and so’s the film. Until I’ve received a check from ’em, they got no say whatsoever. And with the dough we make off our first interview you could retire and buy your own agency. We’re in this whole deal together, see? You got the credibility and I got the goods. By that math, Agent Sharpe, these pictures of the little ghoul dudes are both our property.”

She leaned in tight. “It’s like Marilyn.”

Robert’s whole face lit up and he stuck out his hand. “A pact it is then!”

“A pact it is.” She shook hands. “And dude . . . dude? I just want you to know that you are The StingMaster.” They sat as schoolchildren, hands folded on laps. Little by little Robert’s left hand crawled across his thigh. Their fingers locked.

“Okay, folks,” the driver wheezed. “Let’s roll on out of here and snag us a couple of cold ones.” The passengers all cheered and he wiped his forehead, grimacing. “Everybody make sure your seatbelts are fastened.” Once he was certain they’d complied he gasped and turned himself in his seat like a man boarding a wheelchair. The engine kicked over. “Ah, Christ,” he muttered, and put the bus in gear. As they bumped along he gradually leaned against his window. His face was very red. He sagged and sagged, bit by bit. Suddenly he sat bolt-upright.

And the bus banged out of control, accelerating in a serpentine path off the dirt road to the lip of a rocky gorge, where it did a swan dive into an outcropping, flipped twice in the air, and crashed on its side in a storm of diesel smoke and thrashing flames.

And the ground erupted in a flurry of sliding stones as the hairy little figures raced out, clawing one on top of the other for first dibs. One of the scrappier fought corpse to corpse, snatching medals and keys, earrings and key chains, finally lurching onto a scorched man and woman locked in a horrified embrace. He ripped open the man’s fatigues and scratched around until he came up with a little film canister. It was an absolute score:  quirky and lightweight, with a stretchable leather thong that gave it a nice personal touch. He rattled it against his ear, tested the cylinder’s side for smoothness. Another paw made a swipe, but he bit and slashed, jealously clutched the canister to his chest, and dashed out the bus.

 

 

Check out Faces at:  http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/Ron-Sanders/622481/

 

http://ronsandersatwork.com/

 

[email protected]

© 2011 Ron Sanders


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Added on December 12, 2011
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Author

Ron Sanders
Ron Sanders

Marina del Rey, CA



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