A year ago last week a friend of mine who made a living carting trash and used appliances to the dump asked me to help him. He'd been offered a big job through his e-mail for more money than he ordinarily made in a month. I agreed, of course. We drove his flatbed thirty miles or so down a dirt road off the highway. It was pot-holed and rutted so I had misgivings about the project from the get-go; his truck is old and weary so I held my breath over every crash and bang waiting for it to break a leg and die right there in the middle of the desert. But miraculously we made it to a large concrete building surrounded by a few smaller one with tin roofs. The main building was worn and covered with cracks from erosion. No one was there. He'd been sent a key and told to remove any and all stuff from a back storage room. No questions asked and no explanations given. Chris didn't protest.
We entered the musty place that smelled of rat feces and years of dust. Wild grass from the desert grew right out of the concrete floor, cracked in several places. Ragged tarps covered an unknown number of what turned out to be wooden crates and boxes, all locked. After the long arduous ride, we drank some coffee and walked around, estimating how many trips we'd have to make. He was getting paid for the gas so he didn't care. We figured it would take a few days, at least. Daylight was burning, as they say, so we started right in. We left town early expecting to make three trips that day. We loaded the truck in short order; the boxes were heavy but we had a hand truck and two planks we leaned on the edge of the bed. The dump was between town and the jobsite so we were back from our first trip and nearly loaded again by noon. Tired, we decided to break for lunch.
Sandwiches in hand, we went exploring about the site. All the out-buildings were locked. We tried to peer through the windows but they were so dirty it was impossible to see anything inside. We went back to the storage room and behind some crates found a door leading to the rest of the building. The knob wouldn't turn; it too was locked. We looked at one another in that way two old friends do who've done some shady things in their lives together and decided, what the hell, let's break in and check it out; we could fix it later so no one would know. That was a mistake, as it turned out.
*************The door was metal and seriously worn at the hinges. It didn't take much to open it with the help of a flat-bar. The inner chamber was huge compared to the room we were working in. The ceiling was a good ten feet higher; from the outside it all looked the same. Perhaps in the storage room there was an attic, a second floor, we guessed, although we didn't spot a stairway. Why waste all that space with a false ceiling? It was just a storage room. The inner chamber was quite a bit different. Long metal tables stretched along two sides to the right and left, smaller ones with deep basins and strange protuberances that looked like water faucet hardware jutted from it. But they weren't over the basins, they stood separate and detached from the network of piping filling the space beneath. They poked through into the concrete floor and went God-knows-where. At the far end were more boxes covered by tarps, all old and covered with dirt and spider webs.
We walked slowly through, examining everything like archeologists on a dig. Creeping ourselves out with the silence. The atmosphere seemed to instill a sense of quiet, or the need to be quiet. When we reached the far wall we noticed for the first time four cylindrically-shaped objects about eight feet in length and three feet in diameter over by the wall on the right. A stack of boxes had obscured our vision until then. Some instinct told us to approach carefully. They were unlocked. A seam stretched across their lengths as though a lid. We looked behind them and indeed there were hinges. Just then we heard a screechy raw sound of a piece of loose sheet metal from one of the roofs blowing in the wind. Where'd that come from, we asked one another, it'd been perfectly calm. In the desert the weather can turn on a dime. It didn't do our nerves any good. Chris wanted to try to open one, any one. I balked; why, I don't know. We stared at them half-expecting sounds of some kind to emanate. Chris finished his sandwich and threw the foil at the nearest container and turned toward the front. We went back to work and finished loading the truck.
On the way back from the dump we laughed at ourselves for being scared. It was just an old warehouse filled with junk, after all. But, considering the unusual circumstances with respect to the job in the first place -- the mysterious e-mail with directions and the key sent by UPS -- it didn't take much for us to come up with weird scenarios about the place and its original purpose, located in the middle of nowhere. I asked him how he was going to get paid and he said he'd already received the money; it'd been wired to his checking account the previous day. That's a lot of trust, I observed. For the first time he looked a little skeptical.
We finished loading the third and last load for the day and were worn out. It was time for a beer. The ice in our little cooler had melted but that didn't stop us; a beer is a beer. After one, we popped another. We couldn't resist. We had to fix the door we jimmied anyway in case someone showed up, so we decided to buck-up and go back to the cylinders, the beer helped. We approached cautiously nonetheless. Chris put his hand on one and said it felt cool as though it were refrigerated. But there was no electricity in the building. With that observation we noticed it had grown even darker in the vast room. He placed his fingertips under the seam and was about to try to pull it open when three dim lights came on, evenly spaced across the top. We jumped back ready to run but managed to get control over ourselves. The one at center flickered briefly then grew brighter, as did the rest. What was causing these lights?
Through all the years of our friendship, Chris had always been the more adventurous one, taking reckless chances that he'd later talk me into. I think that's why I liked him, he got me to go beyond my limits, while I remained the voice of caution. Now I asserted that voice and suggested we leave well enough alone. He laughed, nervously and kind of forced, but I could tell he was goading himself up. He threw his beer can towards the other side and again approched the front container, the one with the lights. He placed both hands on it this time and turned towards me, a strong serious look on his face. I didn't know if he was putting me on or what, but suddenly he grabbed the seam with both hands and reefed hard. It didn't budge. He told me to go back and get the flat-bar but I refused, insisting we go to the dump and then to the bar and forget about this goddamn thing. He wouldn't budge either, I could tell; he had committed himself to a course of action and that was that.
Nearby lay a small pile of hinges, probably left over from all the box building. He searched through until he found a large flat one. He forced it into the seam where it bent out slightly, from what, who knew? The rest of it seemed in perfect condition. Using both hands, he wrenched it up, trying to pop the lid. As he did so we both heard a definite gurgling sound coming from within. That was it all it took for me. I turned and ran like hell for the storage room; Chris was right behind. We got to the door but it'd jammed shut somehow, probably from a gust of wind; it'd been picking up gradually all day. Both of us pushing on it had no effect. Nervously we looked back in the direction of the cylindrical tanks and could see in the growing dusk that the lights from all the containers appeared to be on now. We banged on the door; I thought to yell for help but caught myself in mid-scream -- we were completely alone.
Getting some control of ourselves, we searched for a battering-ram, anything heavy enough to force the door. In the process we came across a small cardboard box sitting on a table under a tarp. Curious and in need of momentary distraction, we opened it. It contained paperwork, printouts and a strange device about six inches long with a handle; stones laid out on its surface, varying in color and shape. We read. It was cryptic jargon to us, techy talk. Something about subjects prove insoluble in acid. arms and legs jointed asymmetrically with respect to thorax section. carapace jointed for maximum dexterity. capable of withstanding 800rads of subcutaneous liquid plutonium. And other stuff that might as well been pictographs and probably were. There were diagrams and layouts done freehand with a pen. On one piece was the drawing of a sphere with legs, sections colored on its surface it distorted geometric shapes, no two alike.
Our research came to an abrubt end when we heard more gurgling coming from that direction. Was it nearer? I thought. We dropped the paperwork in the box and started searching in earnest for something large and heavy to get the door open.
"If only we'd brought the flat-bar with us," Chris spat out, annoyed at himself. It wasn't all fun and games anymore; time to go. It gets dark all of a sudden in the desert, like someone turning off the light, and we knew that was about to happen. Besides that, except for the translucent glare coming through the two rows of sand-covered skylights, the building was windowless. Why build a place way out here and not have daylight pour in? Where's the sense in that?
"We need that hinge I was using", Chris said. "Maybe we can force the door with it."
He was about to head that way when I grabbed him by the arm. "Are you nuts?" I protested. "Don't go up there, let's keep looking elsewhere."
He was as disturbed as I was, but he wanted out and gone and if that giant hinge would do the trick, we had to have it. I went with him but when we got there, all the lights on all four containers were shining brightly. So I held back; I couldn't do it, go the whole distance. Chris edged forward to where he'd dropped the hinge at the base of the near cylinder. And that's when it happened.
As he reached down to pick it up the lid of the container flew open. What looked like an oily, dripping rag came out and grabbed him by the arm. He screamed; we both screamed as it pulled him inside, the lid slamming shut with a thud. I couldn't help myself; I ran full speed for the door. When I got there, it was open. I ran through to the truck, cranked it up and raced out of there for town. I went straight to the sheriff's office and told them what'd happened and that we needed help. They didn't believe me, or at least that's what they said. I know the chief sheriff made some phone calls; I could hear him speaking in his most official voice although I was too far away to make out what he was saying. Afterwards, they put me in jail.
It wasn't until the next day that they went out there. Chris's body was found in the dirt outside, badly decomposed as though having been soaked in some kind of toxic chemicals for far too long. And I was accused of being the cause. Beyond that, their report stated that no purported cylinders existed.
So here I sit, in prison, convicted of killing my best friend, although nothing that could've caused such a horrible death was ever recovered, nor was any motive attributed to me. We were best friends, for God's sake. I don't understand how this can be. It should be obvious I was not at fault. I have frightening dreams every night; as well I miss Chris.
Who e-mailed him with the job? I wanted them to find out. Can't they trace the bank wire to someone? Where is this vat of toxic waste I supposedly pushed him into? And how did he end up out in the dirt in his condition? What the hell is going on here?
I heard through the poop-line that the entire compound of buidlings has been demolished and the place where it stood smoothed over as though nothing ever existed, the desert growth quickly taking over.
You have to help me. Otherwise, I'll be here forever, the rest of my life.
--- 30 ---