Summary: Agent Phillip Broyles stumbles into the unexpected...
-Baltimore, MD 1997
Light flashed on a parked car in the distance. The glow was a faint, moving blob at first, but then coalesced into dual headlight beams as a vehicle reached the corner. The low silhouette of a sedan slid into view, approaching the intersection after a long line of adjacent warehouse buildings.
It was almost time.
Agent Phillip Broyles sat up straight as the vehicle rolled to a stop at the corner. The squealing of brake-shoes in need of maintenance was audible through his cracked driver's door window. From its outline in front of a distant streetlight, the car was an older model sedan and full-sized, similar to his own government-issued Crown Victoria.
The sedan came to a complete stop at the corner. A shadow moved in the driver's seat. Phillip dropped his cigarette in the ashtray and reached for the binoculars sitting next to him on the passenger seat. He exhaled a jet of smoke through the narrow slit in the window and lifted the binoculars.
It was a Crown Vic, as near as he could tell, though not a federal vehicle. A tan ragtop over the rear portion of the roof was testament to its civilian origins. Light flared inside the driver's window for an instant, then was extinguished. A lighter. The driver was a smoker like himself. He wondered if they were having as hard a time quitting as he was, and resisted the urge to scratch at the nicotine patch underneath his shirt.
A moment later, the sedan made the turn and headed west, away from his location. He watched the tail-lights until they disappeared, then shifted the binocular's view to the nondescript, white-painted brick warehouse in the center of the block. The garage door was still closed, and the gray work van still parked where it had been upon his arrival over three hours ago.
Relaxing back in his seat, Phillip dropped the binoculars in his lap and sighed in the mid-July heat. Despite the sun having been down for hours, the temperature was still scorching hot. His shirt clung to him like a second skin in the wretched humidity, and removing his tie had done little to ease his discomfort.
He glanced down at his watch, wincing at the time. Diane would be furious; it was the third night in a row, and she'd been making his mother's meat loaf. His wife understood his job, though, and the hours it required—or at least he thought she did. His pager remained silent in the cup holder next to his empty coffee mug. She would beep him sooner or later. She always did.
A sliver of light appeared down the street. Phillip snatched up the binoculars once more. The garage door rolled upwards. He adjusted the focus on the garage's interior, what little he could see of it, and on the man who waited just inside the threshold.
It was a tall fellow and thin, like himself, with deep-set eyes and reddish hair. He wore what looked like a white smock or a gown. Was it this Mr. Pritchard? He couldn't be sure. The only description they had to go on was incomplete—a dying declaration from the only victim who had lived long enough to be found alive. A white man, tall and sickly-looking was all she’d managed to utter before her life's blood finished draining out on the pavement. The man he was looking at certainly didn’t appear sick; there was a spry confidence to his step as he moved out in the moonlight and unloaded several boxes from the back of the work van. He slammed the van's rear doors shut, then glanced up and down the street.
Phillip tensed as the man's gaze swept his way, lingering for an instant, and then he turned and walked back inside with his burdens. The garage door began its inexorable downward glide. Was it his guy? What was in those boxes? There was no way to know for sure, short of getting a look inside that warehouse. But he had no warrant. Roth would have his head on a spike if he called in the cavalry and came up empty, or worse, with a lawsuit. They'd had more than one false positive with this case. He wasn't even supposed to be there. There was no proof, only intuition and a crumbled post-it with a partial address—an address for a different location altogether. The link to this warehouse was tenuous at best, and grasping at straws, at worst. But then again, he had a hunch...
Lines of sweat tumbled down his cheek and he wiped them away absently with his sleeve. His watch ticked in the silence. Time was slipping by, gaining momentum like a boulder rolling down an incline. On an impulse, he reached for the door handle.
He had to know, had to see the perp face-to-face. If he was guilty, it would show in his eyes, in the coldness of his gaze. It always did. Besides, he was hungry, and meat loaf was waiting for him. She would only keep it warm for so long.
Phillip trotted toward the white-bricked building, zipping his dark jacket in place over his white shirt. A fine layer of gravel covered the sidewalk and the scuffing of his shoes screamed in his ears. There was no wind, no sounds at all, other than the distant roar of the freeway to the south. The line of cars in which he had secreted his own vehicle came to an end, leaving empty street all the way to his target. He ducked low behind a rusted Ford Escort and peered through the grime of the rear window at the warehouse front entrance. He needed a plan, a reason to knock on that door that would gain him access. Should he just flash his badge and demand entrance? Or pretend to be having car trouble and in need of a phone? He debated both options, but had the decision taken away when the warehouse door suddenly swung open.
The tall man he'd seen before stepped outside, minus his smock. He closed and locked the door behind him, then walked out into the street and climbed inside the van's driver's seat. The engine roared to life, and the gray work van accelerated away from the curb a moment later.
When the van disappeared from sight, Phillip rushed forward, angling toward the entrance. He spotted a security camera mounted high above the door, and shrugged his baseball cap lower on his head until he was underneath and out of its field of view. He pulled a small, black leather case from his pocket, opened it, and then cast a furtive glance around. The street was clear in both directions. He bent down and examined the door lock.
While lock-picking wasn't a skill he was particularly good at, he did practice occasionally. Luckily, the door lock was old and loose in its housing. He selected a slender pick with a number of opposing bumps and curves at its pointed end, and worked it inside the lock's narrow groove. The tumblers felt like distant points of resistance that he plucked one by one, until there were no more. Then he inserted the hooked wrench and twisted gently...
The lock snicked open.
Phillip let out a slow breath, and put the lockpicks away. He could still back out, still turn around and walk away. He could ignore that feeling in his gut; the feeling that kept insisting that the answers were right there, right in front of him. He just had to open the door. There was no one in sight. He reached for the knob and slipped inside.
The door opened into a lightless corridor. His elongated shadow fell forward across a tiled floor laid in a checkerboard pattern. He hesitated, glancing back at the open door, then swung it shut. There was no going back. After removing his flashlight and unholstering his service weapon, Phillip started forward, arms outstretched. The building's ventilation system hummed gently. Doors to his right contained offices that looked as if they hadn't been occupied in ages. Dust covered the bare furniture in thick, undisturbed layers. Clearly the building was not currently in use for any sort of retail or commercial venture. He passed by a bathroom and an empty storage closet, then came to a wide metal door. Above it was an ancient sign that read, Danger, in red print, and underneath, Chemical Storage Area, was stamped in black.
He sniffed the air and noticed a faint odor on top of the mustiness he'd already grown accustomed to. The scent stung at the inside of his nose. Chlorine? He sniffed again. The sharpness of it brought to mind the public pool he'd grown up with. The pool maintenance people had over-chlorined it every summer, enough to make opening his eyes underwater a risky proposition. He had loved that pool, until they had closed it down due to lack of funding, he had learned much later.
Phillip put his ear to the cool metal of the door and listened. There was nothing at first, only the blood rushing in his ears, but then he heard something. The sound was indistinct, but still familiar somehow. He heard it again, more clearly. Moving water...and bubbles? A splash? He frowned, and then cracked open the door.
Not chlorine..., he thought, cringing away from the waft of ammonia that assaulted his senses.
Holding his breath, he directed his light through the partially open door. The circular beam illuminated a row of metal shelves against the near wall, crammed full of jars and containers of varying size and shape. Phillip tested the air, then pushed open the door. While still pungent, the ammonia wasn't as overpowering as he'd thought initially.
The room was spacious and L-shaped, with the shelving to his left and a wide open space to his right that extended out of view around a corner. It was some kind of laboratory, he realized. His flashlight beam refracted spectacularly through a maze of twisting tubes and glass beakers that sat atop two long tables pushed together in the center of the space. Tall refrigerated cabinets with clear glass doors glowed in the background. Unrecognizable lab equipment sat in a neat line along the exterior wall, ominous in their strangeness. Someone smarter than himself would have to make heads or tails of it all. Of the boxes he had seen the man carry inside, there was no sign.
He stepped closer to the metal shelving and examined several of the containers. The majority of the names on the labels were of the unpronounceable sort—like Nocadazole or Democolcine—and had unnerving bio-hazard or poison warnings in large lettering. He walked over to the refrigerators. Rows of stoppered vials and circular petri dishes with numbered labels filled the interior shelves, all carefully arranged.
Prickles of uneasiness wormed their way down Phillip's spine. What is this place? he wondered, turning away from the cabinets. The man—no, the killer—he was after was not a scientist. All the profilers had come to the same conclusion: that the man they were looking for possessed an average to below-average IQ, and had probably worked in the service industry at some point, and might even still, from the locations where the bodies had been staged. A man with a penchant for sharp knives.
An orange blinking dot on the far wall drew his gaze. He moved toward it, turning his light on a small desk with a computer, and then jerked to a halt mid-step as the rest of the room slid into view. The orange light and the computer fled from his mind—insignificant blips compared to what lay before him.
Translucent plastic sheets hung suspended from the ceiling in the area of the room that had been out of sight. They formed a perfect square in the middle of the space, with a zipped-shut section in the center of the side facing him. Some sort of isolation chamber? A large utility sink sat against one wall. Hanging from a rack next to the sink were a number of dark clothing bags, of the sort in which one might store a suit. He peeked inside one and found a set of blue surgical scrubs.
"What the hell is this shit?" he muttered out loud, zipping the bag closed. None of it made any sense. It was beginning to feel as if he'd stumbled into something else entirely—unrelated to the cold case he'd been working on his spare time for the last three months. Something big.
There was a dim glow coming from inside the chamber. Vague silhouettes were visible through the plastic; dark shapes set low to the floor. They were roughly man-sized in length. He cleared a chalky thickness from the back of his throat and moved closer, shining his light on the nearest of them. As his flashlight beam passed over the plastic sheet, he heard the ripple of water and the same bubbling noise he'd heard before. There was a splash that made him jump, and then a hollow thud. Eyes widening in the darkness, he took an involuntary step backward. Away from the enclosure.
Something was in there. Something alive.
He exhaled harshly through his nose. The uneasiness plaguing him since he'd first entered the room intensified and his stomach rolled over unpleasantly. He wouldn't have named it fear, exactly. More like a burgeoning horror at what might be, at the possibilities his imagination conjured.
Phillip inhaled a strangled breath. It's all in your head..., he thought, forcing himself toward what appeared to be the enclosure's entrance. Whatever's in there...you've seen worse.
He settled his pistol back in its holster, then reached for the zip. His hand shook and he clenched his fist for a moment. When he released it, it was steady as always. He pulled the zipper down, and then to the side like he was opening a tent. The rank odor of ammonia washed over him, watering his eyes. Here was the source. He covered his nose and pushed the hanging flap of plastic aside with his flashlight.
There was more space inside than he would've guessed. A low tripod sat in the center of the chamber, holding a single spotlight with its beam directed upward at the plastic ceiling. Surrounding the tripod in a loose circle were a number of low, rectangular tubs. Hanging from waist-high poles at the end of each tub were what he thought might be vital signs monitors. None were turned on. The boxes he'd seen the man unload sat on the far side of the tripod, unopened. On the corner of each box was a white sticker with a red letter B superimposed over a black M. The logo seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it.
He noted all the details at glance, but it was the ring of plastic tubs he was mainly interested in. Did he want to know what was in them? They were just tall enough to prevent him from seeing their contents without going inside. Part of him demanded he turn around and walk away. Instead, he cleared his throat and took a deep breath, then stepped sideways through the rent in the plastic.
The fumes were overpowering. Phillip approached the circle with slow steps, aiming his light on the nearest of the long containers. It was filled with some dark reddish liquid—a mixture containing a high concentration of ammonia, he supposed, from the toxicity of the atmosphere. Lumpy, formless shapes rose above the liquid's surface at random intervals. Squinting, he tried to discern something recognizable, some feature that might explain what he was looking at, but it was outside of his experience.
You've seen worse, he reassured himself again, and moved closer still, eyes locked on one of the lumpy shapes. What was it? Ivory-white flecks that gathered the beam of his flashlight speckled the surface. A surface that was wet and stringy, like layers of yarn soaked in blood. They looked like...like... He couldn't complete the thought. He felt his eyes bulging from their sockets. Bile rose in the back of his throat. Surely he was mistaken. Surely he wasn't looking at...
His knee bumped up against the side of the tub. The liquid rippled at the impact, leaving trails of red behind on the tub's inside. A series of small bubbles rose to the surface on the end nearest himself. And then the shape with the white speckles...moved. It twisted slowly, rolled onto its side, and the other shapes followed suit. They were connected. The stringy surface appeared to...flex, somehow, scrunching and pulling apart at the same time. A narrow slit opened—and madness stared out at him.
It was a moment he would never forget. He realized just how wrong he'd been. About everything.
Dear god... Phillip's mouth worked, but no sounds issued forth. He couldn't look away. His stomach heaved violently. What happened next was a blur of static images, of desperate scrambling to get away. He found himself outside the enclosure, gripping the edges of the utility sink with both hands in the darkness, chest heaving from the violence of his expulsions. When the spasms finally subsided, he spat once more into the sink, and then wiped the sourness from his lips.
His flashlight was on the floor at his feet, painting the line of equipment on the opposite wall. He couldn't remember dropping it. Stooping to retrieve it, he glanced over at the light inside the plastic enclosure. Trying to push away the horrifying images of what was inside was fruitless. They had seeped into his brain, staining it like red wine soaking into white carpet. Stains like that didn't come out easily, or completely.
Phillip had no idea what was going on in this laboratory, only that it had to be stopped. Immediately. His duty as an Agent, no as a human being, demanded it.
He pulled the bulky mobile phone from the clip on his belt and flipped it open. "This is Agent Phillip Broyles," he said in a hoarse voice to the dispatch who answered at the J. Edgar Hoover Building back in D.C. "Badge number, five-two-seven-one-four-nine-zero-two."
There was a pause as the dispatch checked his credentials, then came the reply. "What can I do for you, sir?"
All the lights were out when Phillip arrived home hours later that night. Diane had paged him, as he'd known she would, probably right about the time he'd been staring straight into the teeth of insanity. He sat outside in his driveway for a long time—hours possibly—just thinking, and trying to clear his head, before lumbering up the walk to the front door.
The meatloaf was long since cold, and utterly tasteless. He ate methodically in near darkness, the only light being a paltry luminance from underneath the microwave. When he was finished, he poured two fingers of cheap whiskey and swallowed the glass in one gulp. While he had hardly tasted his cold dinner, the alcohol burned like acid going down. He grimaced at the bite, but then poured himself another. This one he sipped slowly, staring out the bay window into his backyard, and at his own reflection, trying to purge the night's horrors from the forefront of his mind.
It was his general rule of thumb to never bring his work home, but it had never been such a challenge. Until that night, he'd thought he'd seen it all—seen the extent of depravity man was capable of.
The warehouse was his line of demarcation.
There was the before. When war and terrorists, serial killers and rapists had encompassed the sum of his experience. And then there was the after. Where someone—they hadn't caught the guy yet, but they would—had the ability and the know-how, and last but not least, the determination, to grow or make...those...things. He couldn't refer to them as human, despite what had looked up at him. More than one of the ERT Unit techs had broken down in tears at what he'd shown them. He kind of felt like crying himself. Could they feel pain? If so, it must have been unimaginable. What kind of monster would—
"Phillip...?" a soft voice spoke behind him. "What are you doing down here in the dark?"
He swallowed, and then turned around to face his wife. They regarded each other over the kitchen table. She was wearing her nightgown, dark hair in loose curls over her ears. Her face was unreadable and cast in shadow. "Sorry, Dee," he said in low voice. "I didn't mean to wake you up."
She stepped forward, into the light. Her eyes narrowed. "You didn't," she said after a moment of silence. "I was already awake. I heard you pull up over an hour ago." She opened her mouth, then closed it. When she finally spoke, he thought she'd intended to say something else. "Bad night?"
He grunted, and took a swallow of whiskey. "You might say that..." The eye opened again in his memory, the dilation of its pupil as it swiveled and focused on his flashlight. The memory still made the hair on his arms stand on end. The iris had been brown, like baby Christopher's.
Diane moved around the table. "Are you okay, Phillip? What's wrong?"
Phillip shrugged, and rubbed at a spot behind his ear. "It's nothing...just...a bad night, like you said."
"Well...do you want to talk about nothing then?" she inquired, seeing right through him in her usual fashion.
"You know I can't, Dee," he deflected, shaking his head. "You don't know how much I wish I could."
She pulled the glass of whiskey from his hand and set it on the table. "I think I do know...," she said, looking up at him with sad eyes. "Did you eat? I saved your dinner."
He nodded and gestured toward the sink. "Yeah, I found it. Thank you...," he answered, and gave her a weak smile. "Sorry I'm late again. I know I promised you I wouldn't be, but—"
"But something came up, I know...," she finished for him. He heard resignation in her voice, and hated the sound of it. But he had his duty, and it pulled from both sides. She hooked an arm around his and tugged him toward the hallway. "It's late, Phillip. Let's go to bed."
"Is the baby asleep?" he asked as they headed toward the stairs.
"Uh huh," she replied. "I put him down hours ago. He missed his daddy, and so did I."
The next morning he showered and left early, before his wife or the baby awoke. He had lain awake most of the night, staring at up the ceiling and listening to rhythm of his wife's breathing on the mattress next to him. The constancy of her exhalations was soothing and familiar, and everything the monstrosity he'd discovered the night before was not.
When he walked inside the J. Edgar Hoover Building the atmosphere was not at all what he expected. Agents sat at their desks, doing their morning paperwork and other menial tasks that they would do every morning. Those he knew well enough to call friends nodded or waved in greeting as he passed by, but there was no mention of the warehouse, no buzz in the air regarding what he'd stumbled upon. It was all...oddly normal.
Nothing out of the ordinary occurred until he reached his own desk, where he found his partner Mitchell lounging up against the cubicle wall, using his telephone. Mitchell Loeb was a few years younger than himself, with an easy smile and impeccable blond hair. They'd been partnered together for several years. He hung up as Phillip approached.
"Hey, where were you last night?" Mitchell asked. He held a red apple in one hand, and bounced it on his palm as he spoke. "I called your house, but Diane said you never came home after work. I had some ideas on the Smitherton case, and I wanted to run them by you. That case is really busting my balls..."
Phillip rubbed at his nose, hiding a frown. Was it possible he didn't know? How could that be? He glanced over at his superior's office. The door was closed, but there was a dim light on inside and he saw silhouettes moving in the adjacent clouded glass window. More than one. It was early for visitors. It was early for his boss to be there at all. Most days he was in meetings until after mid-morning. "I had a few drinks after I left," he explained with a shrug. "Down at the Elephant."
"Aw, hell man, you should have told me...," Mitchell said, and took a bite of his apple. "I would've come with. Samantha was working late."
"Maybe next time..." He nodded toward their superior's door. "He been here long?"
"He was already in there when I got here," Mitchell replied, gazing over at the closed door over the cubicle walls. "Weird, isn't it? I'm not sure what's going on, but some suits arrived not too long ago. And a woman. They're from upstairs, I think. They've been in there ever since."
"Is that so...?" he mused, turning the puzzle pieces over in his mind. His partner was right about one thing: something was going on. People should have been talking about the warehouse. Mitchell should have known, should have been all over him with questions and complaints that he hadn't been included. It would pay to be careful, or he might find himself reassigned to some faraway station in Alaska, or worse. He'd seen it before. Bureau politics had effectively ended more than one promising agent's career.
"So, how's that Pritchard thing going?" his partner asked around a mouthful of apple. "You got any leads yet? From what I hear, that case is below sub-zero."
He cracked a forced smile, keeping one eye on his superior's office. "Nothing that's panned out so far...," he admitted, trying to sound casual. "I...thought I might've been on to something with—"
He broke off as the office door opened and a tall, slender man wearing a dark suit stepped out. Phillip tried to get a look at his face, but the man was turned away, speaking into a mobile phone. He followed the man's progress toward the elevators, until the cubicle walls obscured the mop of wavy, gray-streaked hair. He was fairly certain that he'd never seen him before. If the fellow was from upstairs, the floor must have been high indeed.
"Agent Broyles!" He turned and found his superior standing outside his office, giving them a furious stare. Section Chief Wessley Roth was an arrogant, portly man with raven hair—a toupee, if Phillip had ever seen one, and he would know, given his own bald head—and a wide, cleft chin. The two of them had never hit it off; Roth was a career bureaucrat who had never set one foot in the field. How he had managed to land the position was one of the great unsolved cases of their unit. "You're wanted in here, Broyles," Roth said, waggling his fingers. "Now..." His face was set in a stony expression, a look normally reserved for chastising green agents.
Phillip exchanged glances with Mitchell, who was rightly curious, and then headed toward his waiting superior. He sensed his partner following, but there was no way to warn him off.
The Assistant Director held up his palm as they approached. "Not you, Loeb," Roth said through lips set in a thin line of disapproval. "Just Agent Broyles, here. I don't think you want any part of what he's in for."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Mitchell's voice was a growl. It was common knowledge that there was no love lost between the two of them, or with any of the agents who served under Roth. "What is going on here...sir?"
Phillip caught his partner's eye and shook his head slightly. Wessley Roth was an ass and a racist to boot, but it wasn't worth getting him more riled up than he was already. Besides, if he was going down, he couldn't drag his partner down with him. "I'll catch up with you later, Mitch," he told him. "You can tell me about the Smitherton case then..."
Mitchell's glance flickered between Roth and himself. He shook his head and then nodded with reluctance. "Sure. Later, then," he confirmed. "Watch yourself, Phillip." He fixed their superior with a cold glare, and then stalked away.
When Mitchell was a safe distance from them, Roth rounded on him, eyes blazing. He reminded Phillip of a preening rooster, trying to establish his dominance. "I don't know what the hell you were doing in Baltimore last night, Broyles," he said in a harsh whisper, "but I have the Associate Deputy Director in my office, among others. The Associate Deputy Director! Do you know who that is?" Roth's face grew redder with every word. "Do you?"
Phillip gazed steadily down at the shorter man. The Associate Deputy Director. A chill of fear ran through his chest in slow waves. The Associate Deputy Director was two steps away from the Director himself and far above the little man standing before him. He kept a mask of calmness in place. What had he stumbled into, some kind of black operation? He'd heard rumors of such things before, of course. They all had. But surely they were myths. Surely. Alaska was beginning to look like a certainty. "Of course I do. Sir," he said after a moment.
Another thought struck him then: Roth didn't know. Which meant they hadn't told him. What did that mean? He wondered about the ERT Unit, the techs who had shown up at the scene. Had he doomed them to Anchorage or some other backwater assignment, also? Some of them had been friends, or acquaintances, at least. They'd only been doing their jobs.
Roth leaned in close, eyebrows drawn together in his fury. "They were asking about you," he hissed, "about your case history, your successes and all your failures. Asking if I was the one who sent you to Baltimore..." He straightened his tie, pulling the knot tight, and smiled cruelly, resembling nothing so much as a cat—albeit a short and fat one wearing a toupee—gloating over its dinner. "You can be sure I told them I had nothing to do with it. And that I also told them exactly what I thought of you...Broyles."
"I'm sure you did...," he said monotone, looking over the shorter man at the closed office door. "Didn't you say they were expecting me...?" He started to brush past him.
"Are you going to tell me what you were doing last night?" Roth said, grabbing his arm.
Phillip glanced down at the hand, then met his superior's gaze. He curled his lips into the biggest fuck-you grin he could muster, making sure to show all his teeth. "If they'd have wanted you to know that," he said, "then I'm sure they would have told you. Sir. Excuse me." Roth's eyes widened, and he appeared on the verge of apoplexy. Phillip jerked his arm free and pushed into the office. In what was a surprising turn of events, his boss made no move to follow him. It seemed that whatever was happening, it was for his ears alone.
He paused inside the doorway. Cigarette smoke hung in the air, acrid and stale. Only a single light illuminated the office, a small pen lamp on Roth's desk. The lack of proper lighting gave the impression of an interrogation. Behind the desk sat a man he recognized only by picture. Assistant Deputy Director Jonathon Hirsch. Deep wrinkles lined his face, pronounced sharply in the narrow light. Thick spectacles hung low on his nose. The assistant director watched his entrance without giving away a hint of his intentions. In the back of the room sat two people with their faces veiled in shadow. A man in a suit, and a woman wearing a dark skirt and flats. He wondered which of them had been smoking, and who they were to blatantly ignore the newly-minted no-smoking policy in federal buildings. Or had it been the tall man talking on the phone? And why had he left beforehand? There were too many unknowns. The only certainty was that he was in deep water. He just had to keep his head above the surface.
"Close the door, Agent Broyles," Jonathon Hirsch ordered, gesturing with one hand. He spoke with a dignified and well-educated southern drawl. Another bureaucrat. "And then have a seat. We have things to discuss...and I fear the conversation will not be a short one."
Philip hesitated, then did as he was instructed, relishing the quivering anger on Roth's face as the door closed. Whatever happened, he suspected his days of working under Wessley Roth might be a thing of the past. And that was something to be happy about, even if he was going down in flames.
He took one the empty seats in front the desk, with the man and woman seated at his back. Apparently there would be no introductions. His neck prickled from the pressure of their gazes. Sweat trickled down the gap between his shoulder blades beneath his shirt. The man behind the desk studied him over steepled fingers.
"Well, it would seem congratulations are in order, Agent Broyles," Hirsch began when it seemed the tension couldn't get any higher. He leaned back in Roth's chair, as if it and the office belonged to him. "Your work last night in Baltimore has provided us with an opportunity. But there are a few...questions that need answered, first and foremost, and then we'll move on." He moved forward into the light, placing wrinkled hands flat on the desk. "Now I am curious... Enlighten me, Agent Broyles, as to how you ended up inside that warehouse. From what I can see, none of your current caseload warranted any such surveillance." He pulled the spectacles from his nose and began wiping one the lenses with a handkerchief. "You see, we have a bit of a problem, a...conundrum, if you will. The existence of such laboratories—and there are more than one, I assure you—is highly classified..." The assistant deputy director paused and looked up from his glasses, eyebrows raised expectantly. From the look on his face, it was clear that he wanted answers, and that they had better be convincing.
Phillip's mouth went dry as a series of realizations struck in quick succession. First, that his position was infinitely more precarious than he'd thought. It wasn't reassignment to some far out of reach station he was facing, but possible indictment, even prison time. They weren't sure of his involvement, hence the questioning. The second realization was that as strange as it might seem, the interrogation—or debriefing, depending on one's point of view—might also be looked at as a job interview, an opportunity for advancement. Such opportunities were rare in the ultra-competitive atmosphere of the Hoover Building, and not to be missed. If he could satisfy the man in front of him with his answers. He wet his lips, and then told his story, beginning at the beginning.
"Approximately one month ago," he started, "Section Chief Roth assigned me to a string of unsolved murders, dating back from 1992 to the present, the last of which happened in January this year. The murders ranged up and down the East Coast, from Boston all the way to Charleston. The victims were all women, and all were sexually assaulted and mutilated, their bodies dumped in a public location. All with their throats cut. The only link between any of the victims was their ages. They were all under thirty." He heard a sharp intake of breath behind him, from one of his anonymous viewers, but was unable to determine if it came from the man or the woman.
"I saw this case in your files...," Hirsch said, flipping through a stack of manila folders on the desk in front of him. He pulled one free and flipped it open. "Yes. The woman in January was still alive when she was found, throat only partially cut. She passed after describing this Pritchard fellow. The agents working the case at the time were unable to turn up anything." He looked up, eyes sharp and intent. "What's the connection to the lab in Baltimore?"
"A crumbled post-it with an address was found stuck in the tread of the last victim's shoe," he said. "The address belonged to an empty warehouse in Trenton." One of the chairs creaked behind him, as if its occupant had leaned forward to listen closer. Had Trenton struck a chord? What did they know? Curiosity burned in the back of his mind, but he kept his focus. "The agents on the case at the time had full forensics done on the warehouse," he continued, "but it was clean, and the woman was from Queens, her body found in Brooklyn. And according to its owner, the space had been empty for at least a year; his financials backed up his statement. So they dropped it as a coincidence."
"What made you think otherwise?" Hirsch asked.
"Not sure really," he admitted, thinking back to the night inspiration had struck. He had been reading the paper, and Diane had been working on their personal computer. She had asked him if he had ever heard of some new website called 'Craigslist' on the world wide web. He had not. It's a website for classified ads, she had explained. Some of the things you can find on there are downright disturbing, Phillip. You might want to look into them. "On a hunch, I ran a search on area newspapers, going back at least a year, for any ads containing that address. I found one that ran for a week in the New York Times in December, last year."
"That must have been rather time consuming," Hirsch said. "I admire your commitment to intuition. What was the ad for?"
"It was advertisement for pregnancy research," Phillip told him, recalling the thrill of excitement when he'd realized the address listed in the ad was the same as on the post-it. "They were offering cash for participation in an ongoing clinical trial that I was unable to find any record of. The ad had been paid for with cash, and the Times had no record of who'd bought it. Since then I've been looking for similar ads in all the major newspapers on the East Coast. A week ago, I found one. In the Baltimore Sun."
"Which explains your presence in Baltimore last night...," Jonathon Hirsch said, rubbing his chin. His gaze went over Phillip's shoulder to one of the silent observers for an instant. "And yet none of this is in your casefile, Agent Broyles. It's all very...convenient, from my point of view."
"Sir, I was working on the case in my spare time," he explained, feeling the edge of the precipice under his feet. "The newspaper ads were just a hunch. When, and if anything had panned out, I would have put it in the file. I intended to do just that this morning."
The assistant deputy director nodded and leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. "I must be in a forgiving mood, Agent Broyles," he said at length, "as I believe you. Your record is impeccable, here at the Bureau—despite what that fool Roth would have us believe—and during your time in the service. I would, however, advise you to document everything you do in the future—including your hunches in your spare time—and then we can avoid having these kinds of conversations. Do you take my meaning, son?"
Phillips swallowed and nodded once. Beads of sweat rolled down his cheek, but he resisted the urge to wipe them away. "Yes, sir. I understand."
"Good. Then that's settled." The older man sighed heavily, and shook his head. "Now, what am I going to do with you?" Hirsch said, looking up at the ceiling. Phillip swallowed through a lump in his throat. The tight seriousness vanished from Hirsch's face a moment later. "That was a rhetorical question, by the way. I already know exactly what I'm going to do with you. All things considered, you've managed to accomplish much and entirely on accident. I suppose you're curious about the shit-storm you dropped in my lap last night?" Phillip nodded silently and he continued. "Then know this, Agent Broyles. To this date, only a select few are even aware that such labs exist. We have a very small task force of agents, working under the direct supervision of the Director himself, and they have been charged with tracking down those responsible. For these atrocities, and others. Yours is the first we've ever found with the...experiments, still intact. What would you like to know?"
A thousand questions popped into Phillip's head at once, but they all lead back to the same place. He could see the eye opening, the string-like flesh stretching and contracting around it. What was it? "What were those...those...things," he asked, "inside that isolation chamber?"
Jonathon Hirsch smiled sadly. "I thought that might be your first question," he said. "And I'll defer to my colleague and friend, Special Agent Van Horn, for the answer. But first, we need to come to an agreement on your future. You're being promoted, Agent Broyles, and your security clearance raised appropriately. It's either that, or reassignment to Juneau, or some other equally unpleasant and far out of the way locale. How does that strike you?"
Phillip exhaled a slow breath of relief. Instead of a prison sentence, a promotion, and with it, higher security clearance. He'd have a chance to make a real difference in people's lives on a much broader scale. It was everything he'd hoped for since joining the Bureau. "I understand, sir," he said, keeping his elation at bay. "And thank you. I'll do my best."
"I'm sure you will...," Hirsch said with an amused nod. He thrust a hand toward the rear of the room. "Jim? You're up. And somebody turn the damn lights on. I can't see a goddamn thing in here. I swear I hate this cloak and dagger shit. Always have."
Phillip heard a ringing, a feminine chuckle, and one of the chairs creaked. The floor-lamp at the back of the room bloomed into life. The assistant deputy director screwed his eyes shut, uttering a curse under his breath. He turned and got a look at the silent observers sitting at the back of the room for the first time.
A smiling woman with flaming, shoulder-length hair pulled away from the floor-lamp's hanging pull-chain. She was more than a few years older than him, though still attractive, with a sharp, vulpine chin and gray eyes. Her crimson lipstick looked like satin, and contrasted vividly with the paleness of her skin and the expensive-looking black suit she wore without affectation. A black leather glove hid the length of her right forearm. In the chair next to her sat a man in a navy suit and maroon tie. He was a big man, with a barrel chest and short, chestnut hair that was beginning to recede back over his scalp. From his age, Phillip thought he might be on the downside of his career working in the field. He had never seen either of them before, man or woman. They rose to their feet in unison.
"Jim Van Horn...," the big man said. His voice was deep and resonant, like an old school high school football coach. "Looking forward to getting some fresh blood on the team."
Phillip stood also and met them halfway. "Phillip Broyles," he said, extending his hand. They shook, and Van Horn inclined his head to the red-haired woman.
"And this is the always glamorous, Nina Sharp," Jim Van Horn introduced her with a cheeky grin.
The red-haired woman arched a delicate eyebrow. "I'm more than capable of speaking for myself, Agent Van Horn," she said, raising her chin and fixing him with a predatory glare. She held out her right hand. "Nina Sharp, Chief Operating Officer at BellMedics."
"BellMedics...?" Phillip said, taking the gloved hand automatically. Her grip was surprisingly strong, though it was a detail he would only remember later. Hearing the BellMedics name sent shock coursing through his veins. The logo on the boxes in the warehouse; he suddenly remembered where he had seen it before. On a billboard advertising breakthroughs in prosthetic limbs off the shoulder of I-90. A BellMedics billboard. Was her company involved somehow? Or were they covering their asses? Though highly irregular, it might explain her presence in the room.
Nina Sharp's eyes glittered as if she could read his mind. A knowing smile curved her lips. "I can see you're surprised at my being here, Agent Broyles," she said. "Given the...particular nature...of the ongoing investigations, we thought it best to offer our assistance to the Federal Government."
"We?" he asked.
"My superior, William Bell," she replied. A proud, almost worshipful smile crossed her face briefly. "CEO and founder of BellMedics. He has a long history of cooperation with the Federal Government, dating back to the nineteen-seventies."
"Indeed he does," Jonathon Hirsch interjected. "Where is Bell, anyway? We haven't spoken in quite some time, not since our...arrangement was made."
"William is currently overseas on a business trip through Asia, Mr. Hirsch," she told him, shrugging her shoulders. "When he'll return, I can't say. As you are quite aware, he is a very busy man."
William Bell was a name Phillip had heard before. The man was some sort of genius when it came to developing breakthrough medical technologies, which were the bread and butter of BellMedics. What was the arrangement the assistant deputy director was referring to? He cleared his throat, and their eyes turned on him. "When I was in the warehouse in Baltimore," he said. "I saw boxes with your company's logo on the outside, Ms. Sharp. Can you explain that?"
His question hung in the air between them. Van Horn and the assistant deputy directed exchanged glances, and the red-haired woman's gaze turned ice cold. Her lips thinned into a flat line. He thought she might be a woman not accustomed to being questioned or balked.
"Eager to get started, are we?" Nina said light tone of voice that belied the cold daggers in her eyes. "I'm fully aware of the...material, found at the scene last night. My people have already gone over it. And while it may have originated at BellMedics, I assure you, Agent Broyles, our company is in no way involved with these horrendous experiments." She paused, as if to gauge his reaction, then went on in a less forceful, almost jovial tone. "We do, however, have products available for purchase by the general public. And much like any manufacturer of products that can cause considerable harm if used in an improper manner, our responsibility ends at the point of sale."
The hard look she gave him then brooked no further argument. Phillip thought he might have overstepped his bounds—considering he'd been on the job for less than five minutes. The others were staring at him, eyes narrowed. He wondered if Hirsch was reconsidering the promotion. After an interval of awkward silence, Agent Van Horn grunted and rolled his eyes.
"We can get to that later," he said, sounding impatient. "You wanted to know what you found last night, Agent Broyles...?"
Phillip nodded and remained silent. It was probably best to keep his mouth shut, for the moment, at least. BellMedics might claim no responsibility for their products, but he planned on looking closely at the company anyway. Sometimes a coincidence was just that—and sometimes it wasn't. In his experience, the latter was usually the case when it came to criminal enterprise.
"What do you know about recombinant DNA, Agent Broyles?" Van Horn asked.
Phillip lifted his shoulders and shrugged. "Not a thing," he answered honestly.
"Cloning then?" Van horn said. "You've heard of that, I assume?"
"Of course...," he nodded. "A sheep was successfully cloned last year in the UK, if I remember correctly."
"Yes, that's right," Van Horn said, glancing between Jonathon Hirsch and Nina Sharp. "Unfortunately, that particular genie is out of the bottle now, as much as we might wish otherwise. What you found last night was someone's failed attempt to grow a human being from scratch, Agent Broyles. But you already knew that, didn't you?"
He saw the single open eye, a human eye, surrounded by white specks that could only have been teeth, and again tasted bile. How could human cloning attempts be related to the killings he'd been investigating? There had to be some link, some connection. "I...was hoping I was wrong," he admitted with a nod. "What I saw in that warehouse, it just...didn't seem possible."
"Oh, it's very possible," Van Horn said. His voice was grim with distaste. "These are just some of the kinds of things we've been tasked with putting a stop to. Can you handle that? Quite frankly the work can be...disturbing, to say the least. I've had more than one seasoned agent who couldn't hack it..."
"I can handle it," Phillip said without hesitation, looking the older agent straight in the eye.
-Georgetown, Washington D.C. 2005
None of the others were there yet when he arrived at the scene. Traffic was notoriously bad on Route 29 at that time of day, but they should have made allowances. He made a mental note to reprimand whomever arrived last. The pickle-green house sat atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, which was visible through the swaying tree branches that crowded the view to the south. A halo of revolving red and blue lights filled the cul-de-sac. Local PD.
He parked his black Lincoln next to one of the flashing police cars and got out. The temperature was below freezing, and he pulled his beige trench-coat tight around his waist, then walked down the line of cars to the yellow crime scene tape cordoning off the area. A uniformed police officer, young and green-looking, stood at the bottom of a long set of steps leading up to the front door. He shivered in the cold. One glimpse of the officer's face was enough to see the truth; he had already seen what was inside. From the shell-shocked look the young man was sporting, he thought it must be an extraordinarily bad one.
"Special Agent Broyles, FBI...," he said, holding up his badge. Puffs of condensation rose up between them.
The young officer did little more than glance at his credentials before lifting the yellow tape and waving him through. As he ducked underneath the tape, the officer spoke up in a voice that trembled. "Sir. Do you...do you know what happened in there?" he asked. His voice was hoarse with stress. "I...I've never seen anything like that before..."
Phillip Broyles glanced down into the younger man's horrified eyes. "That's what I'm here to find out, son," he said, projecting a confidence he didn't feel, though it seemed to reassure him in any case. A glance down the street revealed more flashing lights approaching. "More of my people should be here in just a minute. This is now a federal crime scene, Officer. I need all your people outside the perimeter, ASAP."
"Yes sir," the officer said, reaching for his radio without putting up any sort of protest. It was refreshing.
Phillip put the officer out of his mind and began the long climb up to the house. He thought of his conversation with his superior earlier that morning. Lately, it seemed as if each case he worked was stranger, and more difficult to comprehend than the last. More and more were ending up in the unsolved category. His failure rate was approaching the fifty-percent mark. It was a disturbing trend he wasn't sure how to handle. Van Horn could shove his budget. He needed more and better people; specially trained agents equipped to handle the highly irregular. Unfortunately, none existed, and their little task force only garnished a trickle of the dollars sent the Bureau's way. Their secrecy was a double-edged sword when it came time to request additional funding.
The officers began to file out as he reached the front door, some in uniform, others wearing the plain-clothes of detectives. They gave him varying looks as they passed, some curious, others with outright hostility, but all were pale and shaken. He ignored their looks and waited passively for them to leave. The last man out of the residence, a veteran graybeard in a black overcoat stopped on the doorstep. Their eyes met.
"I had a feeling the Feds would show up before too long," the man said, nodding his head as if he were an equal. "Detective Luis Delgado, Metro Homicide."
"Special Agent Broyles, FBI," Phillip introduced himself, offering him a gloved hand. They shook, and he nodded past the detective into an elegant entryway. "What've we got in there, Detective?"
The homicide detective grunted and looked down. A shudder racked his shoulders for an instant. "A body, female...in the family room," he answered, twisting a gold wedding band on his left hand in manic fashion. "You know I've been on this job for almost thirty years...and in all that time, I have seen a lot of strange and messed up things; gang-bangers killing each other in the streets, tweaker babies OD-ing on their mother's milk, hell, even the occasional gang-rapes or mass killings. But I ain't never seen anything remotely like this. Honestly, Agent Broyles, I'm not even sure it is a murder. Whatever it is, though, you're welcome to it, and I hope you feds are a hell of a lot smarter than I am. I'm getting too old for this kind of thing."
Phillip frowned and looked past the detective again. The case sounded right up his alley. He wondered—and not for the first time over the last eight years—who it was that tipped Van Horn off when something out-of-the-ordinary happened that warranted their attention. "Any witnesses?" he asked.
"Yeah... there's a husband who came from work and found...her." Detective Delgado sighed and shook his head, still turning his wedding ring. "He's pretty incoherent, I couldn't get much out of him."
"I see..." Phillip said, moving aside to let him by. The detective was still shaking his head as he followed his officers down the steps to the street. He watched them for a moment, troubled by the man's diatribe, and then stepped through the door.
Inside the house, nothing was as he expected. From the look on the young officer's face and the detective's confusion, he'd been expecting a bloody mess, something grotesque, but the interior was clean and neat enough to have passed his mother's inspection, with no signs of a struggle or forced entry. He passed a doorway into a kitchen where a man was seated inside, holding his face in his hands. The husband. Quiet sobs racked the fellow's shoulders. Phillip watched him for a moment, then moved toward a wide doorway that led into what appeared to be the family room. Interviewing the husband could wait until after he'd seen the body.
He stepped though the doorway. The family room was spacious and well lit, with a large window facing southward toward the Potomac. A faint, singed odor hung in the air. He went a few steps further into the room and looked around. Nothing appeared burnt, and a smoke detector high on the ceiling was silent, with its test light green. In the center of the room, contemporary black leather sofas that would have made his wife cringe were arranged in an open square, facing a thin television mounted on the wall above a brick fire place. The television was on, but displaying only static. On the sofa with its back to the large window, a young woman with jet-black hair lay on her side, with her head resting on a white pillow. Her eyes were open, lips parted, and at first glance she appeared to be watching TV. At first glance.
The hardwood floor creaked underfoot as he moved closer.
She wore a thin nightgown that exposed most of her thighs and left little to the imagination. Her feet were crossed at her ankles, her arms tucked up under the pillow. There was no blood, no obvious cause of death that he could spot from across the room. A tepid blush colored her cheeks. If it weren't for her utter stillness, he would have thought she wasn't dead at all, that she would sit up at any moment and admit it was all some sort of elaborate hoax. Either that, or she was a wax figurine. The coloring was all wrong for a body in rigor-mortis. But then he noticed a small blackish spot on her temple, just above her ear. Phillip crossed the room in several long strides and stared down at it, lips agape. Suddenly it all made sense; the detective's confusion, and the younger officer's wide-eyed horror. It wasn't a spot on her skin at all.
It was a hole. Or more precisely, a handprint.
"Mother of god...," he whispered, unable to lift his gaze from the finger-deep depression in her scalp.
From across the room, only the tip of the middle finger had been visible. From above, however, he could see the shape clearly. Someone—presumably her husband—had placed their hand on her head, perhaps in greeting, and it had...sunk in. Like pressing a shape into play-dough. The black hair around the outline was broken off as cleanly as if it had been cut by scissors. Only there were no clippings left behind, only a dark, grayish dust that resembled ash.
He squatted next to the body and sniffed. It was ash, not dust. The singed odor was much stronger up close. Her corpse was indeed the source of the smell, though impossibly, the couch cushion beneath her appeared unblemished by any sort of fire or heat. He took a closer look at the ash in the handprint. What was underneath? Blowing softly, he directed a stream of air into one of the finger grooves, trying to clear some of it away.
The ash swirled upward sending a gray shower over the surface of her surrounding skin and hair. Instead of seeing pale skin underneath, there was only more ash. Where was her injury? There must something underneath, flesh underneath. Shaken by the abnormality of the situation, he blew a hard blast of air, and immediately regretted it.
A thick cloud of the ash kicked up and showered down on top of him. It was everywhere; in his hair, on his face. He tasted it on his tongue, and gagged. There was still no skin, no flesh. The fingerprint shape was gone, and a mitten-shape remained where it had been. Upon seeing it, the truth hit him all at once: there was no flesh. The body was ash, all the way through. Incinerated. A single speck of dust—her cooked flesh, he now realized much to his horror—larger than the others drifted in front of his eyes. Stunned and open-mouthed, he followed its progress downward, twisting and turning like a snowflake in the wind, until it landed with perfect accuracy on the pristine surface of her open eye.
And then her face...slid off.
Similar to a glacial ice sheet breaking up and tumbling into the Antarctic, it started slow at first, before picking up speed. A crack formed, a jagged line running from the corner of her jaw up into her scalp. Her face...shifted, sagged downward. The line became a gap, exposing more gray beneath. More cracks spider-webbed across her cheeks, her nose, her forehead, her lips...her eyes. Dear god, her eyes... he thought in a daze, gaping as fine hairline cracks ran across their crystal clear surface. Blood and guts he could deal with; he'd been around them his entire professional career, even more so since his promotion, but this... The hazel irises...imploded. And then her face was sliding downward, somehow still maintaining the same blank expression even as it spilled over the pillow, gaining speed like an avalanche. Her face poured onto the floor like an hourglass, making a conical pile at his feet. Where it had been on the pillow, only a blank, gray slate remained. The chain-reaction sped the length of her, crumbling the nightgown along with her flesh, until only her crossed ankles remained untouched. From somewhere far outside himself, he noted that she had a tattoo on one of her ankles, right or left, he couldn't tell; a crescent moon surrounded by a ring of blue stars.
He heard footsteps and then a bloodcurdling scream.
"Jenny!" The husband stood behind him, fingers pulling at the hair on the sides his head. A river of tears gushed down his cheeks. "Jenny!" he shouted again, locking eyes mad with grief onto Phillip's face. "What have you done, you son of a bitch! Jenny! Jenny!" He fell to his knees in the doorway screamed her name again and again, each utterance more mournful than the last.
Phillip Broyles stumbled backwards away from the couch and the growing piles of ash. Numbed shock dulled his senses. His mind reached out, grasping at any explanation, rational or otherwise, for what had just happened...and failed. His back struck the wall hard next to the fireplace. The piles of ash on the floor grew larger still. Somehow, through it all, the ankles remained grotesquely unblemished. The moon-and-stars tattoo filled his vision. He was falling, down a deep hole into the world beneath the world, where unshapen things of nightmares still reigned supreme. The husband's wails receded into the background, sounding tinny and distant. Time slowed to sequential ticks, grains of ash falling one by one. He found himself thinking of eight years ago in Roth's office.
Can you handle it...? Van Horn had asked him. ...The work can be disturbing...I've had more than one agent who couldn't hack it...More than one agent...
Can you handle it?
Images of his wife, his children flashed before his eyes. They had to be protected from horrors such as this. At all costs. They all had to be protected. Because it was his duty, and there was no one else who could. His duty.
I can handle it, he had answered those long years ago.
And he still could.
Special Agent Phillip Broyles blinked, and came back to present. He glanced at the distraught husband, weeping for the loss of his wife, and then at the remains on the couch. At any cost, he told himself. Time resumed its steady pace. A rush of footsteps echoed out in the hallway. He straightened his tie, and then stepped away from the fireplace.
A/N: So that's that... Thank you to wikiaddicted723 for her input, and my friend Jenny for her help as well.