‘Do we have to keep him locked up like that?’
Cynthia looked at Quaestor sitting alone in his cell.
As soon as the group had reached the remnants of the mouse colony Brendan had ordered the scrawny Stagg rat at gunpoint to get into a holding cell. Justin and Julia had been too overwhelmed with recent events to protest, plus they did not trust the sewer rat either. Before Cynthia, her mother, or Timothy had been able to object the hooded mouse had slammed the steel barred door shut and raced from the colony’s jail. Now the reunited members of the expedition from Thorn Valley were left to look at the pitiful sight of the rangy prisoner. Quaestor looked calm. After the initial shock of the fire trap triggered by Brendan the Stagg had simply followed whatever orders the masked mouse had given him. Now he waited.
Rather than trying to follow Brendan on his dash through the dark mouse colony the group had decided to wait where they were and had made time by sharing their experiences. Both rats and mice had been riveted by each others’ accounts. When everything had been told it had taken the rodents a while to organize their thoughts. The presence of the imprisoned rat, who had shared nothing and simply observed them intently, was also distracting.
‘It’s wrong keeping him in there.’
Cynthia was glad that her mother agreed, but was worried that none of the rats appeared too enthusiastic to plead for Quaestor’s release. Justin in particular eyed the caged rodent with a brooding look that was difficult to read. Finally, he stepped closer to the bars and nodded to the captive.
‘Quaestor, if we let you out, you could be free, you know. I mean, totally free, free to go wherever you wanted to.’
The yellow eyes of the prisoner gazed back in confusion for a moment. Then, the rat tilted his head back and laughed an exhausted dry laugh.
‘You don’t understand, do you? You think I follow the Overlord because I have no choice?’
With surprising agility, the lean rodent jumped to his feet and rushed to the other side of the steel bars, taking Justin by surprise so that he took a step backwards. Putting his rather bony hands on the bars and leaning his head against them Quaestor sighed.
‘I follow Balak, because I choose to. Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what he has done for me, done for all of us in the deep sewers?’
Justin looked at his friends in confusion. He honestly could not tell what the celled rat was trying to hint at. Noticing his lack of comprehension, Quaestor shook his head.
‘You only see the surface, the violence, the cruelty. You never lived down here before the Overlord, before his Lady brought the change.’
The leader of the Thorn Valley colony felt a strange warmth in his chest. An odd feeling, a sense of knowing, or at least guessing, was spreading through his mind, his entire being. He stepped back towards the cell door again, placing his own hands around the bars as well and leaned closer until his eyes and the prisoner’s were level.
‘What was it like?’
Quastor’s features relaxed as his yellowed eyes seemed to become transfixed by Justin’s gaze. Brutus, Julia, and the mice looked curiously at their friend. Truth be told, Justin himself did not understand what compelled him to act this way. Some driving force, a sensation of inner certainty was guiding him. And the rat from the sewers was being caught up in the spell too. His face calmed as he spoke.
‘Way before, life was hard, very hard. We, the weak ones, always had to get out of the way when the Warriors or the Lord were angry. We were expendable, to be beaten and eaten. Only when one of us was good at scouting did anyone ever see use for us.’
Then, the caged rodent’s eyes turned to look at Julia, sitting on one of the benches.
‘But the females had it worse. The big rats owned them. Us they ignored, but the females they hoarded and beat, always.’
Drawing her legs closer to her body Julia shuddered.
‘Then what happened?’ Justin prompted.
Quaestor smiled in remembrance.
‘I was lucky. I was in the Overlord’s clan when he first became Lord.’
Then the Stagg’s gaze locked with the other male intensely.
‘He had to kill his own father. There was no other way. Balak always had more respect for the females and us, the smaller males. But he could never afford to show it. Weakness invites challenge.’
Then, the intensity melted back into the smile.
‘It was his mother that shaped him. She was braver than all of us; the only female ever to stand up to the male who claimed her. It meant her death, you know. That’s why he finally killed his father, challenged him moments after he saw him break his mother’s neck. He lost both his parents that day.’
The brown rat outside the cell nodded solemnly without interrupting.
‘When Balak took control he forbade any wastefulness, as he called it.’
‘What do you mean,’ Cynthia suddenly chimed in, ‘wastefulness?’
The lean one tilted his head so he could look at the crème-furred mouse.
‘He decreed that any killing out of spite was wasteful, depleting the clan of resources that they needed. Balak stated it was foolish and that he did not intend to rule over fools.’
‘I bet that went over well,’ Timothy sneered.
Quaestor looked at his feet, still standing opposite Justin.
‘There were challenges, a number of them. In that first day, he had to kill six challengers before the other Warriors decided not to risk attacking him openly.’
Mrs. Brisby’s eyes narrowed.
The prisoner nodded.
‘The next day three of them tried to ambush him together. It was against tradition.’
‘I guess he won,’ mused Julia.
‘He did,’ the Stagg rat affirmed.
‘And in less than three weeks the clan had changed. The females were still property and the weaker males were not respected, but the senseless cruelty stopped. Nobody wanted to get on Balak’s bad side.’
Quaestor fixed his eyes on Justin’s again.
‘Can you understand what that felt like? For the first time in my life, I did not have to fear getting killed by the first Warrior that was having a bad day.’
With that, the caged rat returned to his bunk in the cell and sighed.
‘He then began his conquest of other clans, imposing his rules on them. His Lady, Rapta, appeared during that time, bringing the power to take over all the clans, unite them, change them. The rest is history.’
‘And that is why you follow him.’
Justin’s remark was not a question, but Quastor nodded nonetheless.
‘Among other things.’
The creaking of the metal door that led into the jailing area interrupted the conversation. A hooded and apparently exhausted Brendan shuffled into the sterile room that gave access to the cells and unceremoniously slumped on a chair.
‘The colony is sealed and secure.’
The mouse’s voice sounded even more obscured than normal underneath his mask.
‘So,’ Cynthia chimed in cheerfully, ‘when do we leave for NIMH?’
Despite the mask Brendan’s incredulity was palpable as he looked from one face to another until his gaze rested on Justin. The brown rat simply shrugged.
‘Yes, she’s always like that.’
That elicited chuckles from her family, which Cynthia simply ignored as she radiated eagerness towards the covered Brendan. A few moments of silence and the hooded mouse shrugged.
‘We could leave anytime, I guess. You have your gear. We all have added rations. I put the colony’s defense systems on automatic so that nothing,’ his eyes went to Quaestor in his cell, ‘will be able to invade while we are away.’
‘That’s very good then.’ Mrs. Brisby added.
‘Then you can let Quaestor out and we can be on our way.’
Brendan eyed the older mouse with the same disbelief he had bestowed on her daughter earlier.
‘You really want to take him with us, madam?’
Before Elizabeth could answer Julia stood up and approached; her face was icy.
‘Brendan, I have lived behind bars. It is cruel. I know his kind has hurt you, but what has he himself done to you that you would leave him here?’
The masked face turned from the white rat to Quaestor, who was still sitting on his bunk but was now gazing at the young mouse in the protective gear with hope in his eyes. Brendan slowly rose. He walked to the cell door and leaned against the bars, the glass lenses of his mask reflecting the light. Then, after a few moments, he inserted a key and unlocked the door.
Everyone was packed and ready.
Even Quaestor had been outfitted with a backpack from the mouse colony, stuffed with gear that Brendan, with the aid of Timothy who felt like a kid in a candy shop looking at all the gadgetry left behind by the mice of NIMH, felt would be useful. The sewer rat looked a bit awkward, as if his inclusion in the group was something he he could not emotionally reconcile. It could have also been the suspicious glances Brutus was casting his way from time to time. Justin had impressed on him to keep an eye on their Stagg, which the big rat seemed to take to heart with vigor.
Brendan, still in his protective clothing, was busying himself on a raised instrument panel set into the metal walls of the chamber. Rats and mice had, in short order, filed into the round hall, the one with the only exit leading towards NIMH. Now the last of the Mice of NIMH was activating the mechanisms that would allow them to finally venture to the one place where all their hopes and terrors resided.
There was a metallic groan at the center of the floor as panels opened to raise the metal ladder up to the sealed hatch at the chamber’s apex. Hydraulic in nature the ladder extended upwards with small puffs of steam and the smell of greasy lubricant. Once the steps locked into a special recess in the ceiling, right below the hatch, the round wheel that allowed access to the hatch began turning on its own. More steam, more metallic groans. Then, the hatch swung back, revealing a circular black hole above their heads.
The masked rodent waved a glove at the group.
‘Climb up. There is a platform above. I will be right behind you.’
Justin took the lead, followed by Mrs. Brisby and her children. Julia came next, looking down at Quaestor who, under Brutus’ scrutiny, was following below her. Brendan flicked a few more switches and then rushed up the ladder as fast as his cumbersome robes would allow. Brutus had just managed, with some effort, to squeeze himself through the opening when the mouse scrambled up behind him, apparently in a hurry.
‘Get your tail out of the hatch, Mr. Brutus!’
The large rat looked at the masked features in confusion before he noticed that his tail was still dangling through the opening. When the hatch began swinging back on its own to the accompaniment of steam he hastily pulled his tail away. Once the door had shut Brutus gave his tail a short inspection before wiping his brown in relief.
Brendan had navigated these sewers often.
The certainty with which the blighted mouse led the group to their destination was awe-inspiring. Cynthia, who seemed to have taken a liking to the stranger, stayed close behind him, followed by her brother and mother. Julia and Justin came next with Quaestor trailing them and Brutus brought up the rear. Apparently, the Mice of NIMH truly had built their home directly underneath the very same place that had changed them. Rats and mice had to utilize Timothy’s grappling hooks, which Brendan had deemed superior than even his equipment, yet still augmented with air-powered pump guns, time and time again to climb up vertical drains. To the dismay of the group, the level of grime did not decrease with elevation and climbing made keeping clean almost impossible. Soon every member of the expedition was caked in dirt and slime.
‘This stinks!’ Timothy exclaimed as he was pulling himself up the grappling line behind his sister.
‘So do you, Timmy.’
The dangling mouse grimaced as he tried to peer through his dirt-crusted glasses. Sometimes Cynthia’s penchant for cheerfulness could be royally aggravating.
Finally, after hours of climbing and walking, the rodents were near exhaustion. Still, Brendan urged them onwards. The pipes they traversed were becoming smaller, making it more difficult for the larger members of their group to navigate. Especially Brutus needed to squeeze and wriggle in ways that would have been comical in a less urgent setting. Then, a small upward pipe with a circular grate set at the end showed in the ceiling of the drain they were moving through. The pipe was so short that a mouse standing on a rat’s shoulder would be able to reach the grate easily. Brendan looked at the rest of the expedition and pointed upwards.
‘That leads to one of the showers the humans use at NIMH.’
Catching his breath Justin followed the mouse’s direction and nodded.
‘Do you have something to open that grate?’
The hooded mouse walked to Timothy and pulled something from his backpack.
‘This thing that Timothy made should work great. Better than the screwdrivers we use.’
‘Leave it to Tim the Tinkerer to invent a better drain-opener.’
‘Shush!’ Mrs. Brisby scolded her daughter, although not without a wide grin.
‘Showers?’ Julia wondered as she looked at the mess that had once been her borrowed tunic, ‘I wouldn’t mind a shower.’
Justin bent downwards and motioned to Timothy.
‘Hop on my shoulders. You weigh less than Brendan with those robes.’
Taking off his backpack first the bespectacled mouse clambered onto the larger rodent’s shoulders, holding on with one hand while trying to work the odd-looking tool Brendan had referred to. The grate had probably not been replaced in a long time because Timothy strained to loosen it, which, in turn, caused Justin to wobble and sway underneath him. A few subdued curses from both rat and mouse later, accompanied by a few near collisions with the pipe walls, and a wrenching noise indicated that the drain grate had been removed.
‘Can you lift me up, Justin?’
‘Just a second.’
The rat took a deep breath and then hoisted the smaller rodent up through the hole. Moments later Timothy’s head and arms poked back through.
‘I can take my pack again.’
Justin provided the bag and then began lifting Cynthia and her mother. Her brother, in the meantime, fastened a grappling line to the grate rim. That, once Brendan had joined them, made it easier for Justin and the other rats to follow. Once Brutus had managed to emerge with some difficulty, Julia put the grate back loosely into place.
The all looked around. The room was dark. But the smell, a mix of disinfectant and moisture, was a great improvement to the smells of the sewers, or the smell of the group, for that matter.
‘Brendan, did we bring that lamp?’
The cloaked rodent answered Cynthia’s question by removing his own back-pack and producing the requested item. A match flared in Timothy’s hand and soon the showers were illuminated by the reddish glow of the oil lamp. This was obviously a group shower. Tiled a sterile white the place was palatial to the diminutive travelers. Julia gazed at the opaque shapes of the showerheads longingly.
‘If only these things weren’t human size.’
Justin sniffed his own arm and made a gagging noise.
‘Yikes… yes, a shower or bath would be nice.’
Quaestor, who had remained silent during their voyage was gazing at the unfamiliar surroundings in wonder.
‘A place to make yourself clean… amazing.’
Mrs. Brisby gave the emaciated Stagg rat a side-long glance.
‘You do not clean yourself?’
The rat looked embarrassed.
‘We have little clean water in the sewers. Occasionally we can wash, but not often.’
‘Well, these things,’ Cynthia pointed at the showerheads, ‘can spray all the clean water you could ever want, warm or cold.’
‘Ahem,’ Brendan cleared his throat, ‘we might want to find a less open place to rest up and then we need to move on.’
‘This is NIMH, right?’ Timothy opined, ‘So, how much farther to we have to go?’
The masked face turned to Julia.
‘You know what room and floor we have to go to?’
‘It was a ground floor laboratory, room 108.’
Brendan’s head tilted sideways.
‘Are you sure it was 108?’
Julia nodded again.
‘When they took our cages out to the cars I got to see the room number. It was definitely 108, an animal lab.’
The mouse was silent for a moment, then he shrugged.
‘We better get going then.’
Mrs. Brisby looked around the vast shower room in confusion.
‘Where to, the door?’
Brendan pointed a gloved finger to a corner of the shower room, where lockers and benches were located. There, right below a bench, was an access vent to the building’s air condition system.
‘Into the air vents again. Not a kind of memory I would choose to relive.’
Removing a corner of the vent proved more difficult than the shower grate had been. In the end, Timothy and Brendan were able, with some muscle on Brutus’ part, to crowbar an edge from the siding wide enough to allow all of them access. Once inside the ventilation duct the big rat removed the wedge and, apart from some slight denting, no human would be the wiser. Leading the way Justin kept close to Brendan, since both had been inside the air circulation system before.
‘Brendan, do we have to climb up the ducts or do you think room 108 has ground access?’
‘The rooms have heating vents on the ground and cold air from the ceiling, so we don’t have to climb.’
Timothy sighed appreciatively.
‘My arms would probably fall off if I had to climb another rope.’
‘Well,’ Cynthia chuckled, ‘at least it’s nice and warm in here.’
That at least, was true. The lower ducts still carried warm air, even during the night. As the rodents walked along the aluminum walled passages their respective leaders wasted no time following one ventilation grate after another until Brendan halted.
‘Okay, this is room 108.’
Julia rushed to the grate and tried to peer into the room beyond. There was no light except a small, reddish emergency lamp at the distant end of the wall. It revealed only dark crevices, and many shelves. Justin joined her and muttered,
‘Is this it?’
The female did not answer right away. Then she swallowed hard.
‘It’s so dark. I… I can’t tell. It looks… smaller.’
‘Timothy, Mr. Brutus, I think we are needed again.’
Both mouse and rat ambled towards Brendan, their exhaustion remedied by being so close to their objective. Timothy even chuckled as he and the other mouse maneuvered the tools into place for the big rat to crowbar apart a sizable opening. Then, one by one the eight rodents lowered themselves to the linoleum floor, gazing up at the gloomy recesses of what appeared to be a much narrower space than a laboratory should be.
‘This doesn’t look right.’
‘Yep,’ Timothy agreed.
Justin turned to Brendan.
‘Will you be okay if we make the lamp brighter?’
The masked face nodded, but the mouse still took a step away from Cynthia, who was holding the lamp. Once the wick burned brightly the chamber divulged some of its secrets. Julia was getting fidgety, her hands clenched and unclenched as she was able to see the room she was standing in.
‘This… is all wrong!’
Nobody commented for a while.
The room they were standing in was narrow and devoid of windows. Each wall was lined with shelves, from floor to ceiling. Boxes, bottles, and various utensils were stacked there. At the end of the room a wash basin was set into the wall and an array of brooms and mops hung on a rack.
‘A maintenance room?’
All eyes turned to Julia and Brendan. The female rat looked terrified and confused while the mouse, under his robes and hood was impossible to read. Then the mouse shrugged.
‘That’s why I asked whether she was sure it’s room 108. That’s been a glorified broom closet for as long as I have been on patrol.’
Julia was walking in circles, eying the dim shelves and close to tears.
‘It was 108! I saw it!’
Cynthia walked up next to her and put a hand to her back.
‘I believe you. Calm down and we will figure this out.’
The white rat nodded vigorously as she tried not to start crying.
‘Guys, there’s something weird over here.’
Timothy had stepped away from the group to look at something that was partially hidden by a plastic bucket beneath one of the shelves. The others faced him as he pulled a metal box from the recess. Almost as large as a mouse the rectangular object proved surprisingly light. What caught the mouse’s attention was a large green stone, in shape and size comparable to the one his mother had long ago given to Justin, set into one side. It was glowing in rhythmic pulses.
The brown rat put a hand on his shoulder.
‘Timmy, I think you might want to put that down.’
Looking over his shoulder at the rest of group the young mouse chuckled.
‘Don’t worry! I’d know if this was dangerous.’
On the black desk’s surface the office’s occupant gazed at a glowing diagram. Within a square outlined in glowing white lines were nine glowing dots. Four were blue, four were yellow, and one was a bright green. One of the blue dots at the edge of the grouping was right next to the green one. The time had finally come.
A slender finger with a strangely shaped nail gently tapped the glowing green light. Upon touching, the light changed to an angry red.
Suddenly, the green stone in the metal box flared up bright red. Rats and mice immediately took a step backwards, Timothy dropping the box, which clattered onto the linoleum. Then, a loud hissing sound issued from the metal container. Within seconds Timothy’s body slumped to the ground. Mrs. Brisby wanted to rush forward to her son, but at the first step she felt her body become soft, rubbery. As she folded up on the floor, fully aware and awake, her head landed at an angle to allow her to see that Justin was losing control of his legs as well. Julia and Cynthia were already on the ground. She could not see the others from her vantage point.
They were all awake. Lying in different positions, some rather awkward, each rodent was able to see, smell, and hear. Even their eyelids worked. Breathing came easily and there was no sensation of pain. But their bodies were numb and paralyzed. Those that had fallen within a line of sight of the metal box noticed that the stone’s light changed from red back to a gently pulsing green.
The glowing diagram had disappeared from the desk’s ebony surface. The occupant’s chair was facing the round window again as he spoke.
From hidden speakers the gruff voice muddled by cellular phone static answered.
‘Yes sir. I’m here.’
‘The specimens are contained. Proceed please.’
There was a pause at the other end of the line.
‘Do we have time?’
The figure nestled in the chair sighed. Despite his accomplishments, it was still difficult to inspire confidence in some people.
‘Yes, Karl, you have all the time you need. The security systems are under watch. Just proceed as planned and return the specimens when you are done.’
The door to the maintenance room opened revealing two human silhouettes. Mrs. Brisby was one of the few lying in a position that allowed her to see the doorway. The rest had to rely on their hearing. Both shapes were male and wearing maintenance crew overalls and caps. The one in front was stocky, a bushy mustache visible and the sparse emergency illumination coming from the hallway. Behind him the second human was pushing a cleaning cart, its tiny wheels squeaking. This slimmer man was wiry in stature and had a wide brim of whitish hair protruding underneath his cap. It gave his outline a strange resemblance to Albert Einstein.
Then the heavier man turned on the lights of the supply room.
Mrs. Brisby saw their faces.
She was not an expert on humans but the two towering above the prone rodents seemed somewhat old to be wearing janitorial clothes. The man in front was completely bald with large glassed and an unhealthy reddish complexion. His grey mustache looked pale by comparison. His companion looked even more cadaverous in the bright light, a sickly yellowish pallor and a gaunt face hallowed by a white cloud of hair. And both of them were looking straight at her.
The gaunt man pulled a pair of rubber gloves from a pocket and put them on. His companion followed suit and removed what looked like a large red plastic toolbox from underneath a towel on the cleaning trolley. He placed the box close to the stunned rodents and opened it. The thinner man walked around the cart, carrying a clipboard underneath one arm and holding a plastic water bottle and towel in the other. Finally, both men went down on their knees, groaning as they did so. The taller one put down the bottle and towel and held up both clipboard and a pen.
‘Ready when you are, Karl.’
The heavy-set man pulled the water bottle and towel close. Then his gloved hand moved towards Mrs. Brisby. Her heart raced as terror coursed through her numbed body. Thankfully, the immense hand did not grab a hold of her. But her relief was short-lived as she saw the shape of her daughter dangling from the human’s grasp. She wanted to scream, yell, run at the human and bite him. She could not even twitch. Tears ran down her eyes as she was forced to helplessly watch Cynthia being taken.
Strangely enough, the human handled the limp mouse in his hands rather gently. More peculiar was that he did not seem at all surprised to see a rodent wearing clothes. Using a pair of blunt forceps with his other hand the mustached man removed the dirt-caked backpack and poncho from the mouse’s body. Both items were placed into the red toolbox. Then, with amazing tenderness, he used the water-bottle and towel to clean Cynthia’s fur.
Elizabeth did not know what to think. Fear, anger, and despair roiled through her entire being as she observed the odd procedure her daughter was being subjected to. Her emotions reached another fever pitch as the human put down the towel and bottle and removed an unknown object from a different compartment of the box. Mrs. Brisby had never seen a hypodermic gun before, but even if she had, this type would have startled her. The thick man looked at the mouse in his hands and muttered.
‘Mouse, female. Crème pelt, probably second generation.’
The other man nodded as he went through two sheets on his clipboard.
‘Found it. Number three.’
Cynthia was being turned over slowly so that her captor could observe her in detail.
‘Possible signs of genetic regression in stage one, but difficult to determine due to fur color.’
The human with the corona of hair jotted down some notes. Then his colleague put the nozzle of the inoculation gun to the mouse’s side and pushed the trigger.
Mrs. Brisby closed her eyes, the only part of her body she could still move on her own. Tears of anguish were rolling down her cheeks onto the floor. She did not want to see anymore.
‘Rat, male. Dull-brown pelt, probably first generation or early second generation.’
She forced her eyes open to see, despite her despair. Cynthia was nowhere in sight. The human with the mustache was now holding the naked, washed body of Justin in his hand. It broke Elizabeth’s heart to see her friend as limp as a rag doll, being turned around and examined like so much meat.
‘Definite regression signs, stage one.’
Again, notes were taken. Again, the injection was made.
This time, Mrs. Brisby observed in horror as Justin’s body was placed somewhere in the box the humans had brought. Then her terror mounted, something she would not had thought possible. But now it was her turn. She felt the huge fingers wrap around her body, lifting her up. The backlight face grew like an angry moon in front of her.
Even in her panic she marveled at the care the human took. The blunt forceps removing her clothes and gear, even her glasses, moved with such precision they hardly touched her body. The water from the plastic bottle was surprisingly warm as it washed away the sewer grime. Slowly, she slipped into an emotional numbness that mirrored her body. She was being rolled around as the human dried her with the towel and then began looking her over.
‘Mouse, female, brown pelt. First generation.’
He moved Elizabeth onto her belly.
‘Regression stage one.’
She heard the other man take his notes as her body was turned to face her tormentor once more. Her terror returned as she saw the end of the injection gun get closer and closer.
A pain pierced her side. Heat was flowing through her body from her belly.
Then, everything went dark.
The two men rolled their cart down the empty hallways, turning off lights behind them. At a maintenance ramp the heavy-set man unlocked the doors while his counterpart pushed the supplies down a cement ramp. A white van with “Carlsen Cleaning & Maitenance” printed in large letters on the sides and back was waiting in the empty parking lot. Neither man seemed in a rush as the cart was loaded and secured inside the van. Then, unceremoniously, the van pulled out of the NIMH parking lot and drove into the night traffic of Baltimore.
‘I can’t believe we agreed to this.’
The gaunt man had taken off his cap and was massaging his brows. Besides the fuzzy fringe of white hair he was just as bald as his colleague driving the van.
‘Like we had a choice.’
The mustached driver kept his hat on, his mood obviously dark.
‘With the dirt he has on us, he can basically make us do anything. We are lucky he employed us after that fiasco years ago.’
Fringe-hair nodded with a sour expression, but kept on talking.
‘If the government finds out what’s going on, we’re talking treason, not just our careers, but prison.’
‘Shut up, Valentine! I don’t want to talk about it!’
They continued driving in silence. Rather than heading towards a location within the city the duo soon found their way across suburb roads to an old seldom used highway leading into the country. The road was deserted and neither man spoke. Fields gave way to forest until they turned right at a gated and fenced driveway. Large signs warned of electrocution and declared the property to be owned by Lazarus Laboratories Inc. The gatehouse appeared to be unmanned but the two men still waved an identification badge at a sensor. A few moments later and the fence gate opened and allowed them access.
In many ways the private drive was better maintained than the highway. A wide swatch cut through the forest and every couple of yards a set of poles with lamps illuminated the road. There were cameras on each pole as well. Soon, the van entered a large meadow cleared around a raised hill. Here, a second electrified fence with gate waited. This time the gate opened without the vehicle having to stop. Upon the hill their destination awaited them.
Neither man liked the design of the structure. As impressive as the new research building was, the brooding tower with its four ancillary structures always reminded the two men of daggers trying to pierce the sky, or some sort of needles thrust out from the ground. The company that had given them employment after their disgraceful dismissal from governmental work must have spent millions on the design alone, money that might have been better used to supply its researchers. But then again, Lazarus Laboratories was not stingy in research funds either. In all honesty, the doctors Schulz and Valentine had never seen a more sophisticated research facility in their entire careers. How their employers had kept some of their revolutionary equipment from government use or oversight was beyond them.
The van pulled up to one side of the main tower, a wide swinging door reminiscent of a vault entrance opening automatically at their approach. They followed the labyrinthine paths down the different parking levels until they reached a spot right next to the glass-shielded lobby of level 2. There were two other vehicles waiting there, private vehicles with Lazarus Laboratory decals. Dr. Karl Schulz parked the van next to the lobby entrance where two men were already waiting for them.
As he and Valentine exited the van they both removed their overalls and put them in the driver’s compartment with their hats. In the neon lights of the parking garage the tiny beads of sweat on Valentine and the greasy sheen on Schulz’s face belied their discomfort at their night errand. They went to the back of the vehicle together, opened the hatch, and Dr. Valentine removed the large red toolbox from the cart. Then, they approached the two men waiting for them.
While Schulz and Valentine were wearing simple sweaters and pants the men at the lobby entrance were dressed in immaculate business suits. The smaller of the two was just a bit below average height, slender, and looked to be of early middle age despite a face that had a boyish air to it. He was dressed in a black suit, with matching shirt and tie. This somewhat somber attire was offset by the man’s wavy grey hair, some of which was falling in a rakish fashion down his gently smiling face. A small goatee of the same color and a golden tie-pin with a round emerald green gem completed the man’s air of eccentricity. There was something jovial and good-natured in both his features and body language.
The man standing a little behind him was almost his complete opposite. An angular dark-tanned face with black slick-backed hair and a small pointed corsairs beard glowered from a muscular frame just over six feet tall. This one was wearing an ash grey suit with the company logy, an arrangement of triangles emblazoned on the vest pocket. He looked at the two approaching figures with obvious displeasure and suspicion.
‘Dr. Schulz! Dr. Valentine! Thank you so much for undertaking this late-night venture.’
The smaller man stepped forward, his arms raised as if to embrace the two scientists and his face radiating good cheer.
‘It was the least we could do, sir.’
Schulz’s usually gruff voice sounded cowed as he addressed the smaller man.
Taking up position between the arrivals he patted both of them on the shoulder as he led them towards the other suited man, who had not moved an inch.
‘You compromised your morals and safety for the good of the company. There is no way I can adequately repay you for that service.’
Valentine coughed nervously.
‘Sir, are you sure that nobody will know?’
The boyish face winked at the rangy man.
‘Edward, Mr. Fray’s best technicians have been controlling NIMH’s security protocols for over a month now. There will be no trace of anything amiss.’
The white fringe of hair bobbed as Valentine nodded.
Padding both men on the shoulder one more time the smaller man motioned towards his sinister counterpart.
‘If you would hand Mr. Fray the specimen case? I bet you must both be exhausted.’
The pallid scientist almost tripped over his own feat in his eagerness to comply while Schulz still perspired heavily. The grey-suited man took the red box from him without comment. Once he had returned to his colleagues’ side their apparent superior looked the pair straight in the face, each hand once more taking a hold of one of the scientists’ shoulders. His features became milder and more subdued.
‘Karl, Edward, I know how uncomfortable this whole deal has made you. But I assure you it will be alright.’
He smiled again and padded their shoulders once more.
‘Go home and get some rest. You have a long weekend ahead of you. Tomorrow, this whole affair will seem like a bad dream, okay?’
The two grown men, each clearly older and more weathered than the other, nodded like embarrassed children and then hustled off towards their respective vehicles. The man in the black suit smiled and folded his arms across his chest as the cars pulled out from their lots. He gave a small wave as they passed and then left the confines of parking level. The green stone on the black tie was pulsing in a strange light.
A few moments after the sounds of the cars had died away the smile left the boyish features, to be replaced by an emotionless, calculating expression. As he turned around the larger man, Mr. Fray cocked a thick black brow.
‘They will keep quiet?’
‘By tomorrow morning,’ the smaller man smirked, ‘they will only remember that they had to work late today.’
A sinister smile crossed Mr. Fray’s features as he nodded. The black suited man’s hand pointed at the tool box in the other’s hand.
‘Take the specimens to the assigned laboratory. Make sure that they are comfortable. Bring them to me once the sedation wears off.’
The sinister figure’s smile disappeared as he gave a single grim nod and headed through the glass lobby doors. The other watched him silently as he entered the elevator and disappeared. Then, slowly, the smaller man too walked towards the lobby, a content smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Everything had worked perfectly.