Radial Symmetry (6 of 10)
Tentacle 6: Mauling
" . . . the rightern— or dexterous— hunting tentacle rips and shreds the flesh of the prey whilst the other tentacles restrain and distract . . . "
Leeks leaned in close and asked, "Rob, what exactly do you think this lab does?"
Rob opened his mouth and then closed it. He thought back over his three-year tenure at the lab, and realized he mostly just remembered mopping things up, being yelled at by the Giant Squid, and sitting in his cubicle in the late afternoon, stoned, idly surfing porn until he finally dozed off in his office chair. Upon reflection, he wondered why he'd even had a computer and cubicle. Or even a job, really.
"Studies, like, Lord A? And teaches chimps to speak French, I guess."
Leeks shook his head, "I really cannot imagine why—"
But he was cut short by the squeal of tires as a late-model VW Beetle rushed around the central concrete pylon supporting the weight of the parking structure, almost clipping Rob in the process. He danced clear of the path of the vehicle, and turned in time to see Molly stop and climb out of her car.
Ivan went rigid at the sight of her. He alternated between staring fixedly and averting his gaze furtively. Ivan had a dark secret hidden in his baltic soul: The one thing he would never admit to anyone was that he had drunkenly masturbated while watching the last State of the Union Address because: 1) he had a desperate infatuation with Sigorney Weaver and 2) President Molly Reynolds was her spitting image. It hadn't been obvious when they worked together, and when Ivan had merely a work place crush on her. Molly had worn jeans and sweaters and dressed as casual as one could in such a place. But once she was elected the image-makers had gotten to her and toughened her appearance up. So now, yes, she looked like Sigorney Weaver circa Aliens, which was also Ivan's favorite movie.
"Nuke the site from orbit," Ivan whispered in surprise. "It's the only way to be sure." He didn't know he had spoken aloud.
Molly snuffled, rubbed the heels of her palms into her damp, red-rimmed eyes, and asked "Why's everyone standing around in the parking structure?"
"Molls?" Rob asked. "Dude, you been crying?"
Ivan turned to Rob, "Is that the president?" Ivan's voice was high and tight, although Rob didn't notice, still caught at the cross-section of almost being run-over by his former co-worker, the President of the United States, and still being confused about what the purpose of the lab he'd worked at for three years had been.
Strangely, it never struck Rob as odd that, despite being a twenty-something recovering pothead who couldn't spell "simultaneously," he knew two Presidents.
"Was the president," Leeks corrected flatly, "She was forced into resigning last week."
Molly sniffled and pointedly ignored Leeks. "And why do you have Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle weapons? Are you making a mov— Rob," Molly gasped, "What happened to your face?"
"Some fag thought he was molesting children!" Ivan piped up, excitedly. "Ms. President." Rob scowled and shoved Ivan with his free hand.
"Best Buy security beat me down," he corrected.
"You were shoplifting?" Molly asked.
"Spider told them I was showing kids my junk."
"You exposed yourself to Spider?"
"No, I—" Rob dropped his borrowed sword and clutched his hat with both hands, "Does it really fucking matter?!" he shouted, "I just want to know why Devo got fucking half-a-mil in severance and I've been fucking returning returnables in order to scrape together enough change to get coffee at Starbucks!"
"Are you back on drugs," Molly asked pointedly.
"No!" Rob shouted, throwing his hat on the ground. "I was drunk, but I'm not even that now. Fuck! Why does everyone have to fuck with me! Why can't I get a straight answer about my goddamn severance pay!"
Leeks smiled primly and pushed his glasses up on his nose, "Well, it's really a rather complicated matter, but actually quite interesting, from an accounting stand point. You see, Rob—" Devo slid out from under Leeks' Volvo, wiping his hands on his threadbare, insulated overalls.
"Your coolant line is fixed," he said, pointing to Leeks, "and I'm cold as a whore's heart. It's 20-degrees in this stupid garage. I vote that we go to a Denny's or something if there are going to be any long-winded expositions."
The suggestion was met with uncomfortable silence. It was the kind of silence that told you that you had said something absurd and terribly embarrassing but that no one had the heart to tell you, the silence that greets children when they ask where daddy went and who this new man is at the dinner table. Rob and Ivan busied themselves with picking invisible bits of lint off their borrowed ninja weapons, Leeks' buried his hands in his pockets and looked off into the middle distance, and Molly rifled through her purse, clearly attempting to pantomime "woman looking for her billfold, despite being relatively certain she spent the last of her money in southern Ohio gassing up her car, and realizing that her credit cards were still in the Oval Office safe."
Devo rolled his eyes. "I'll pay," he sighed. "C'mon, let's go."
They wound up crammed into the booth of a Big Boy on Jefferson Ave., where Rob and Ivan fell upon their menus like ravening beasts. Devo handed down the edict that he would pick up the tab only for breakfast items. Rob and Ivan agreed to split an order of country biscuits with sausage gravy, steak and eggs, the Big Boy Favorite and a bottomless pot of coffee. Molly blew an exasperated puff of air through her bangs, and then ordered the french toast. Leeks declined Devo's generous offer. After a long explanation and several bribes, ten raw steaks were brought out to Devo's truck and fed to the Giant Squid, who was torpid from the cold.
"This the squid that was President?" the waitress asked suspiciously, zipping up her black parka.
Devo weighed his options. "No," he finally said. "Do you remember what I told you?"
"Yeah," she said, already exasperated and bored, "Just like the cylinder-tube at the bank: slide the door upon, drop in some steaks, then slide it closed. Watch your fingers."
"Right-oh," Devo said, dropping a wink and handing her a twenty dollar 'pre-tip.' The girl rolled her eyes and pushed out through the glass double doors.
When Devo returned, he found that the talking had started without him.
Molly sipped her strong black coffee. "— been going on around here? What happened to the Giant Squid's anti-bathospheric velocitating suit?"
Devo grinned and cracked his knuckles, "The Big Calamari has been living in a trailer park with his girlfriend just falling to pieces. He was living out of that suit."
"Dying in the suit, more like." Interjected Ivan.
"But y'know me, I can fix anything."
"Molls," Rob asked in his serious voice, "Did you know what was going down at the lab? What Sang was studying?"
"What, you mean the military stuff?"
"Military? How the — I mean, didn't Sang work for Lord A?"
Leeks chimed in with a small cough and a hand politely raised. He stared at Rob until Rob gave him a small nod, and then Leeks said, "I don't know all of the details, but I've been working accounts receivable and payable for Mr. Sang for eighteen years, well before Mr. Squid came along." He adjusted his wire frame glasses on his ebeneezer nose. "I don't know exactly what he was doing, but I can tell you that the government and some other military supplies were paying him very well for it, especially in the last year."
Molly slapped the table, causing the silverware to jump and Ivan to glance away nervously. "I heard about this in Washington, here and there. Part of what got the Giant Squid and me in so quick were all of the lab's ties to the DoD. When we arrived all the players thought we were in someone's pocket, Halliburton or Lockheed-Martin or the Carlisle Group or something."
Leeks nodded meekly. "Yes, those were some of the financial backers. And they were the ultimate owners of many of Mr. Sang's patents," Leeks sighed, "Work-for-hire contracts are quite complicated with so many corporate entities backing a project, especially when they do so through such a complex array of S-corps and holding companies."
"So wait, the fuckin' lab — Lord A's fucking lab — was owned by the goddamned Military-Industrial complex?" asked Rob.
Molly stared at him, eyes narrowed. "What does that even mean, Ike? Military-Industrial complex?"
"I dunno, it's too complex for me." Ivan muttered.
"Did Ivan get retarded or something?" Molly poured more coffee.
Rob shrugged. "He's got Seasonal Retard Syndrome or something. His thickass black baltic blood gets all jelly-molasses in the winter and chokes his brain."
Ivan tried to think of a snappy comeback, but for no reason at all could only faintly hear Ace of Base's "The Sign" playing in his head.
Devo's head snapped around to focus on Leeks. "Patents? What fucking patents?"
Leeks blinked at Devo and swallowed nervously. "Devo, uh, sir. Did you read your severance papers? You sold your works to the company for that five-hundred-thousand dollars. Five-hundred-thousand after taxes; the original check, as I recall, was seven-hundred eight-three-thousand three-hundred and fifty-eight dollars." Leeks gripped his briefcase tightly in his lap and prayed that Devo wouldn't hit him. "I handled the taxes as well, as you'll recall. As a courtesy."
"Finally," Rob sighed as the dull-eyed waitress set his greasy steak and eggs before him, "I've been fuckin—" But what Rob had been fucking was never revealed: he froze, an idle glance out the big, plate glass windows fronting the restaurant become a pointed stare, and then flung himself from the booth and pounded out the double doors. Devo and Molly craned around to see Rob — arms waiving, his shouted invective almost visibly coloring the icy night air — chase a trio of teens away from the wrecker, and the crippled dually and recently repaired squid within.
"I gave you squid all his steaks," the waitress said to Devo.
"I know hon. My friend is excitable is all. You wanna maybe swap this bottomless pot for decaf?"
The next morning Rob drove out to the trailer park to return Donny's ninja toys and check on the Giant Squid. He immediately noticed police cruisers, and drove past rather than turning in; the last thing he needed was to get picked up on some crazy illegal weapons bullshit over Donny's replica katana and wooden nunchucks.
He parked at a condemned Burger King over on 8 Mile. The building was in decent shape and intact, save for plywood sloppily epoxied over the front windows, which likely had been smashed. For whatever reason, Rob decided that the boarded over restaurant was much creepier than a burned out shell of a restaurant would be, like a blindfolded corpse. Rob double-checked that the doors to his Honda were locked before hoofing it across the fallow field, approaching the trailer park from the flank, and coming from behind that trailers at the tail end of the loop.
He was relieved to see that the cops were not congregating around his erstwhile boss in his hotwired, partially-stolen, definitely-not-street-legal velocitator. They were across the circular drive, talking to a large black man on his porch, and a scrawny teenager. Rob sorta kinda thought he recognized the teen, but had no idea why he might. The man was standing ram-rod straight, holding the boy tightly around the shoulders, but he was sobbing. The only thing Rob caught was the man yelling "If my son says French midgets stole my boy then French midgets stole my boy! I don't care if you gotta haul me to a cell under suspicion, just please start finding my boy!"
Rob walked over to the squid-laden truck and knocked three times, lightly."I BELIEVE SANG HAS KIDNAPPED TRAEL," the Squid whispered from beneath his blue tarp.
Rob blinked and frowned. "Why would you think that?"
"ALL OF MY GUESSES ARE EDUCATED, ROB. IS DETROIT KNOWN FOR ITS COMMUNITY OF TINY FRENCHMEN"
"No, but . . . I mean, why the fuck would Sang kidnap Trael?"
"PERHAPS BECAUSE I WAS GONE WHEN HE CAME FOR ME. PERHAPS FOR TO COMMUNICATE TO ME, IN MY EVER AMELIORATING CONDITION, HE CAN HURT THOSE WHOM I LOVE. I AM TO BACK OFF AND HIDE, TO INK THE WATERS OF MY LIFE CHANGE COLORATION AND SEEK A NEW QUIET STREAM TO WHILE AWAY THE EDDIES OF MY LIFE."
Rob kept staring across the motor court at the sobbing man, at the cop with his head bowed over a little notepad nodding while he wrote, at the other cops entering and exiting the house without even looking at the big man, let alone giving an audible please, thank you or excuse me. "You need to find Hazel, don't you?"
The answer was obvious, and neither of them really saw the need to put it out in the air.
Trael awoke that morning in a room with no windows and concrete floors. He was lying on a brand new cot, beneath an itchy old army blanket. The cot had a shiny, tubular aluminum frame. The surface was blue nylon, held taught by springs. It was bouncy, like a trampoline, and sounded a little like a floor tom when he drummed his fingers on it. The blanket was dark — either green or brown — and pilly with repeated washings. It smelled faintly of motor oil. Trael lay in the dark, drumming his fingers lightly on the surface of the cot, and listening.
In the room he could hear breathing, and feet shuffling as someone walked around. Then the creak of a chair and crunching. He decided there was just one person in the room, and he doubted any of the bad monkeys were there, unless they were sleeping, and the monkeys had smelled so bad and were so big that he was pretty sure he'd still know they were there.
"I know you're awake, little one," the man in the chair said, "You been awake for fifteen minutes. It's okay. I've got cereal and milk for you — Coco Puffs and," Trael heard the man shift, heard the dry rattle of a cereal box, "Um . . . cheap-ass Spartan-brand Cheerios™. Sorry, I mean Organic Honey-Roasted Oat Rings."
Trael pulled down the blanket. The room he was in looked like the high school chemistry labs you saw on TV, but older. Maybe more like a morgue on a police show: there were long, high counters with sinks, rows of glass-fronted cabinets hanging above them. The cabinets were empty, save for one at the end, over the last sink, which was full of groceries: bread, boxes of Easy Mac. A grimy old hot plate and some pots were neatly lined up on the counter beneath this, and next to the counter was the only new thing: a little white humming mini-fridge, its HOLIDAY SPECIAL sticker still on the front.
Florescent lights hung from the ceiling, although only one strip was on, which was why it was so dim.
"Them monkeys in here?"
The man at the table, who was thin and Hispanic and looked a little ill, smiled.
"Naw, it's just you, me and Dupree, buddy."
"You seen that movie?"
"Yeah," the Hispanic man smiled genuinely, "You?"
"Yeah. Me and my brother downloaded it from the Internet. Owen Wilson funny."
"That he is, m'man. Why not come and have some cereal with me? You can have the good-for-you crap or the sweet-crap, as much as you want."
"You got milk?"
Spider Ramirez held up the carton, and Trael got up and joined him.
The table was a folding card table and Trael, who had eaten off of folding tables all of his life, knew to be careful of tipping it. The Hispanic man sat in a straight-backed wooden chair, and Trael had a new metal folding chair, like they sat in when they had assemblies in the gym at school. He thought that his chair was probably more comfortable than the wooden chair, and wondered why the man hadn't taken it for himself.
"I don't like them bad monkeys," Trael said as he poured himself a bowl of fake cheerios, and then followed them with milk. He wasn't allowed to have sugar cereal.
The thin Hispanic man smiled broadly and shook his head, "I don't, either, kid. We'll tell 'em they have to find new pals for lunch, okay."
Trael smiled, "Yeah, that good," and dug into his cereal. He watched the man eat his own cereal, noted the man's closely shorn hair, his trimmed shadow of a beard — a sharp line following the jaw line, then making a goatee at the chin. He looked at the main's refined, slender gold bracelets, the cross around his neck, and saw that the man was homosexual. This wouldn't have worried Trael last month, but he had overheard his brother talking with his pals while playing Halo on the Xbox two weeks ago, and now the idea of sitting at a table and having cereal with a gay man made him uneasy, like sitting at a table with a lion.
Trael wore a cross, too. It was similarly sized — it had been his mother's, he thought. He found it among the things she'd left behind, at the back of a drawer — and he worried that it might be a gay cross. Trael frowned down at it.
The man put down his spoon. "Listen, m'man. This is scary shit, no doubt. I know, for real." Spider leaned in close and pointed with two fingers at Trael, at his cross. "But everything is gonna be fine. It's like Jesus says: everything has its time and its season. Right now is your sitting-in-here time is all. But the Big Man, he's looking over you. Everything gonna be fine."
Trael thought of his cancer-riddled aunt, and of the thing he'd seen on the Internet, and of his mother. He knew from the picture books in church that God was a big, broad empty place in the air, and Jesus was a man with eyes like anyone else, not Superman eyes full of lasers. Maybe God could see everything, but Trael had studied eyes at school — they'd even cut open a big stinky cow's eye — and he had begun to doubt in Jesus' powers.
"I don't think Jesus everywhere, and I don't think he sees everything. I don't think he can see in here." Trael put down his spoon and pushed the bowl away slowly.
Spider frowned. "Jesus can see you here. You aren't so far gone away. You'd be surprised. If you could see things another way, you'd know that you actually know right where you are right now. Jesus do. And Jesus wouldn't let anything bad happen to you, little man. He's the Shepherd."
Trael looked down into his lap, but still held his spoon. "I don't think Jesus can always have his say. Like when the shepherd asleep late at night, and the wolf come up creepin'." What Trael didn't say was the worse thing: Trael had made a report for school about Navajo ranchers in the Southwest. Trael knew what shepherds ultimately did to sheep, and it wasn't hugging them and bringing them chocolate bunnies or Christmas presents.
"Me and Jesus," the man said, "are tight shepherds, yo. We're looking after you, and will be sure that you're fine as our flock. My name is Spider."
Spider held out his hand — which, though thin, didn't really look at all like a spider — to the boy.
"I'm Trael Godwin," Trael said. "And I know what shepherds do."
Spider smiled and Trael gravely shook hands with him. The man was not wearing a mask, and Trael knew from TV that this was a bad sign: if the man really intended to ever let him leave, then he would want to hide his face so that Trael could never identify him to the police. The man was apparently entirely unconcerned with being identified later. Of everything, that was the scariest part.
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson