Flagstaff, Arizona* July 2 2000 [A Flagstaff, but not OUR Flagstaff]
I'd saved up my vacation time and took it in a huge swath of two weeks. I was fixated on taking a car tour of the American south west, a place I'd never been.
It was hot. Blisteringly hot. The spit evaporated off of my lips as quickly as I moistened them. It was a long way from Atlanta, where I called home. There were salt rings decorating my shirt under my arm pits and around my neck. The windows were down in a futile hope for a little cross breeze. I was passing through Flagstaff on my way south west out of Denver. I was stopped at a traffic light next to one of those big 12 foot by 12 foot louvered air ducts you sometimes see on big buildings. The thing gave a "Chuff" and cold air momentarily bathed my pickup. Then alarms went off.
Armed soldiers came out of nowhere and immobilized the traffic. They were wearing gas masks. All I could think was, 'poor bastards--wearing those in this heat.'. I noticed my breathing was coming fast and shallow. Everything grayed out.
I woke up flat on my back. I couldn't see, I couldn't move. I was so tired. I went back to sleep.
I snapped awake without moving. Gently stretching, I tried to move, and found myself bound to a table or bed of some sort, hand and foot. Thirsty. I raised my head and looked around. The sheet covered only one leg and my groin. It looked like I was wearing some sort of form-fitting garment that was covered in dark green scales. I felt a shiver cover me and watched the scales over my chest flex. Christ! it was my skin! What the hell happened to me?
I have to admit, I panicked for a bit and threw a fit, but being tied down it didn't do a bit of good. Soon I calmed down and tried to learn from my environment. White ceiling tiles. Recessed lights. I was in some sort of ward, with others like me tied down to either side and what looked like across from me with a walkway down the middle. No windows. No equipment such as a heart monitor. I saw other rolling gurneys to either side of me and in a row across from me. We were being warehoused--but why?
I heard a nasty buzzing sound as the door at the end of the room released. Mag lock. Two big guys in red-stained surgical scrubs unlocked the wheels of the next bed closest to the door and wheeled it out. One of them used a mag stripe card pulled through a reader to open the door. They didn't treat whoever was on that bed very well. A nasty part of my snake brain said "autopsy". If they don't kill you before they dissect you it's called vivisection. Things got personal, fast.
I looked down at my arms. I'd seen the scales 'ripple' when I shivered. Could I make them stand up? Were the edges sharp enough? The cuffs were made of heavy leather, two inches wide. I'd have to somehow cut or wear them away before I had a hope in hell of escaping.
There was no question about it. I had to escape.
I flexed my muscles, braced, pulled, everything. Finally I did something right and the scales on my arms stood up. I sawed away at the cuffs with long, slow strokes as I watched the little piles of leather shavings grow. When the guards came back for another victim I laid doggo. I don't know how long it took, but I managed to work first one hand, then the other loose of the cuffs. With better leverage I tore apart the locks on my ankles.
I stood and stretched. I saw several pairs of eyes watching me. I quickly went down the line, freeing everyone. I tried to clear my throat and talk but everything came out in a whisper. "Get up, stretch. If you know any martial arts, do some katas. I'm taller, stronger and have longer arms. Get used to your bodies. We're going to need every weapon we have to keep from being dissected alive."
The door buzzed. I ran to hide behind one, and motioned the others to imitate me. The guards both made it through the doors before they noticed the empty beds. I took out the rear one with a kick to the back of the knee and a knee to the back of the skull. Broken neck. The other was taken out by what looked like a Capoeira strike and a heel stomp. I got the security card key free, opened the door and stuck my head out. Black rubber wheel marks leading right. I ran left. The group split up. They were after revenge. I only wanted to escape. Only four others followed me.
I found an elevator, but refused to use it. Instead I looked for the associated stair well. Gotta love building codes. The door opened easily, thank God with no alarms going off. Up or down, which way? I decided to go up. I figured on breaking out onto the roof and hiding near the HVAC chiller while getting the lay of the land. There was no telling where they'd taken us.
Fuck. The roof doghouse opened up on the roof of a four story building in the middle of what looked like a military base.
We needed information. We needed clothing. We needed disguises. We needed food and water. If my face looked like the other guys, there was no way I could pass for human. I led the others back down a floor and into a bathroom, where we all tanked up on water. I whispered to the others, "I think it's the weekend. This building's about empty. The top two floors appear to be nothing but offices. We can explore and look for maps, candy, food, whatever. The labs downstairs might have laundry service--let's go look for scrubs after we check out the top two floors. So far we haven't seen any guards or triggered alarms. Let's keep it that way."
I didn't know why someone else didn't try to take over, but nobody did. They left me in charge.
We didn't try to break into locked rooms. I was worried about alarms. Still, we made out pretty well, as we found a few stashes of ready-to-heat lunches, cookies, water bottles and such. I saw a parking lot on one side of the building with painted lines. Four vehicles were parked there. We found a lunch room on the second floor with microwave ovens and a refrigerator. There were several more heat'n eat and frozen dinners in the fridge. We shared it out. I was amazed at how hungry I'd been. The changes to my body seemed to allow me to go for extended periods without food or water, but I eventually had to pay the piper.
We did a skills inventory.
Me. Terry. machinist. ex-navy, out six years. Carl. Martial arts instructor and commercial truck driver. Joe. Carpenter and mason. Jackleg electrician and plumber. Linda. (LINDA? the bug or whatever didn't do her any favors!) professional cook. Took self defense courses from Carl. Thomas. Gang banger. Soldier. He was the shortest.
It was time to make some plans. The trouble was, we couldn't do much until we found out what happened to the other three that had split away downstairs.
Thomas wanted some weapons first. A bread knife didn't cut it. I agreed. "Let's look for a mechanical room. There's bound to be tools, and maybe keys. Next, we'll look for the street exits and any security. I don't doubt that we'll find something, given the nature of this place. With tools I can probably spring the door to an armory, or go through a wall. Next, I want to clear out the rest of the building, release any others like us and find the group that split off. NO surprises."
The guard's security station was empty. It was set up to check people into and out of the building through a bulletproof pair of doors and a short corridor. We were locked into the building--maybe.
There were three floors below ground. We'd been held on the L2. L3 held the support and mechanicals departments, including the laundry facilities. They had scrubs and sneakers, but no socks or underwear.
We were able to break into the service bay with a metal shop. I was surprised at how complete it was. It held a few nice toys, such as a oxy-acetylene rig with short tanks. Both gauges showed pressure. It would be messy, but I could make short work of any lock I was bound to find in a building like that. A bank vault? Not so much.
A neater solution sat on a metal shelf. It was an angle grinder. A partially empty box of cutoff wheels sat next to it. We were good to go.
Thomas laid his hands on a three foot crow bar and seemed quite happy. Carl found a couple mason's trowels. he sharpened them up on a grinder and gave one to Linda. I grabbed a two pound ball peen hammer and a half inch steel punch. I was out of hands, I found a hand truck and a milk crate. I used a rubber cord to fasten the crate to the hand truck, then loaded it with an extension cord, the angle grinder and cutoff saw blades. We HAD to get into that security office.
We found the other group. They got up close and personal with a couple of guards armed with MP5's. Both sides were down, including what appeared to be our Dr. Mengele wanna be. He'd got his come-uppance. His throat had been ripped out.
I got an idea. I picked up one of the guard's bodies and hung it up against the wall as I stood next to it. "Well, guys? You think the uniform will fit?"
"It might." "Maybe." "Looks okay to me." "Shoulders might be tight."
We stripped the bodies and ran the uniforms through the laundry. The shoulders were too tight, but splitting the seams worked. I had to cut out the backs of the shoes to get them to fit as well. That gave Carl and I decent costumes when covered by armored vests and helmets.
I let the others know my thoughts. "I plan on having one of us buzz people through the security access, then take them prisoner. We'll need a lock-up that we can pull all the phones out of, and we'll have to search them for cell phones. Like I said, no surprises! Eventually someone will have to come in with a van or a pickup truck with a club cab. In this climate, no doubt it'll have tinted windows so people won't easily see us inside. I want to get into that security office for ammunition for the MP5's, too.
We'll be able to use the prisoners as a source of clothing and shoes for us so that we can blend in with civilians. I plan on taking one of the prisoners as a driver to get us off the base. We can take whatever cash they have for gas money. Any idea where we can go to hole up?"
Linda said, "I've got family in Naples, Florida. That's not far from the swamps. We could hide out in the cypress swamps until the second coming and nobody could dig us out, especially looking like this." That got a quick round of agreement. That rang a bell with me. I'd tell the others as needed, but I already had a place picked out.
Well, that got us busy. We grabbed the welder and some flat stock to turn an inner room, the break room, into a lock-up. Joe and I welded barriers across the hallways so that a bathroom was inside the perimeter, then framed up a doorway, built a heavy door and welded in a few hinges. A padlock secured it. Nobody was getting out of there without tools. We stripped all the shelves and took out all the appliances except for a coffee maker, fixin's and cups. There was no reason to be barbarians about this. we left the tables and chairs, and ripped up several sections of carpeting for our prisoners to lay down on. Four layers of carpet isn't a Sealy Posturepedic, but it ain't concrete either.
We found two more MP5-10's in the security office, locked in a cabinet. Enter, angle grinder. Exit, firearms and ammo. I was happy to get all our firearms cleaned.
We almost blew it. About six the first couple people showed up. They were the next guard shift. They didn't see what they expected and things got delicate. We had to take them down by hand. Joe and Thomas waded in and had to break ribs and arms before they'd yield. They were big guys, so we stripped 'em for their uniforms before laying 'em down in the lockup. That got everyone but Thomas in a uniform. He was shorter than the guards. The BDUs wouldn't fit.
The office staff started trickling in by ones and twos. Linda kept a watch out to see who drove what. By nine fifteen they stopped rolling in. Linda had identified the owners of two white vans. One had windows like a small school bus. The other was a panel van. That was the one we decided to take. Joe, Linda and Thomas stripped several of the mattresses from the secured beds we'd been strapped to for the back of the van. Meanwhile, Carl and I went to talk to the prisoners.
They were raising hell. Some were scared and some were belligerent. I started stripping down to my scales. It got real quiet as they watched. "I was born and raised near Atlanta. The government did this to us. They took our livelihoods, our possessions and some of us, our lives. We were all strapped to gurneys in the second basement. Vivisection is a death row offense, but not for the military I guess. They were dissecting us alive, but we broke loose. The guards and the doctor are dead. You aren't. Count your goddamned blessings.
Who owns the panel van?"
A brunette in her thirties gave a tiny little wave. I motioned her to come up to the gate where we separated her from the rest. We took her downstairs to see the holding room and the bloody mess of the dissection room. Down a short hallway lay a square lift gate that radiated heat. A pull chain opened it, showing a bottom grate and gas jets wavering in the dim light. I pointed out all the black wheel marks leading to the crematory door. I asked, "Believe me now?" She had one arm wrapped around her middle while the other hand hid her mouth. She nodded frantically. As I led her out the door she picked her way between the pools of drying blood on the floor. There was a little kitchenette next door. I offered her a chair and a glass of water. She nervously drank, her eyes never leaving us. "What do you want me for?"
"We need a driver. Someone that looks human to get us past the guards and off the base, then to buy for us. Are you willing?"
She asked, What are your names?"
I really couldn't smile any more, but I tried. "I'm Terry. This is Carl. What's your name?"
"Vangie. Short for Evangeline."
I asked, "Well, Vangie, you in with us?"
She took a deep breath, let it out and nodded.
"Great. Now let's see if we can get some cash to work with."
I led the way back to the lockup. "Vangie, tell them. Did I lie?"
She shook her head. "No. There's like an autopsy room down there and a crematory. The burners are lit. You can see black wheel marks from the wheels where all the beds were taken back to the gates and the bodies pushed into the crematory. It's horrible!"
"Vangie has agreed to drive us. I'm going to ask each of you to donate three hundred bucks out of a debit card. If you don't want to, no harm-no foul. We'll only use it once, then cut the cards and dump them. We want to get moving fast, and don't want to leave an electronic money trail, so one shot is it. Debit cards have a three hundred dollar daily limit so that's the cap on your exposure. Who's in?"
Surprisingly, over a third of the twenty-some people agreed to help us. Carl used a clip board to write down the names and pin numbers while I collected cards in a baggie.
"When the downstairs security guards don't check in for their shift someone will come to investigate. That'll be midnight at the latest. Sorry about not feeding you, but there's nothing here to feed you with. You've got water, coffee and access to the toilets. I'll find some spare toilet paper, towels and sheets from the lower level before we leave. We want to be out of this state before the alert goes out for us."
I saw a few nods and a few grumps. I refused to trust this crowd with my life so they were staying locked up.
Someone yelled out, "What about the guards? They need medical attention!"
I replied, "They're part and parcel of the crew that was killing us without a blink. No fucking mercy. It won't hurt a damned thing as long as nobody kicks 'em."
I loaded a tool box, the angle grinder, cutoff wheels and extension cord into the van before we left.
We were slowly making our way towards the main gate when Joe spotted an on-base grocery store. "Hey! Pull up beside that white van! I want to swap plates."
We had new GS plates in a flash. Nobody looks at a government motor pool plate.
Since we were already at a grocery, I asked Vangie to do a little shopping for us. It was just before Easter so picnic hams should be on sale. I asked her to pick up ruck sacks for all of us, five picnic hams, fifty pounds of salt, sixty pounds of flour and four big five-gallon traveling water jugs. While she was out Joe raised an eyebrow at me. "I've got a few ideas on the burner. Camo BDUs and boots for all of us, food and weapons, tarps and rope, trot line and Jon boats. Cots, shovels and water purification. A little generator, power saw, drill, hammer and nails. Like that."
Vangie returned all smiles, towing two carts. "They had this big stack of surplus green duffle bags that were fitted out with shoulder straps. If they're too big we can cut them down."
"Perfect! We'll need big rucks at first."
"I got money out of three cards, too."
"Great! With the money from the guards' wallets that's over a thousand bucks. I got the pin number out of one of the guards too, so that's five more accounts to hit, then we can hit the road."
She'd bought mayo, mustard and bread as well. We all pigged out on ham sandwiches before looking for another ATM.
Leaving the base was simple. The guards were bored and unobservant. Near the university we hit a big Safeway. Vangie tapped out the debit cards and bought six more picnic hams, sixty pounds of corn flour, a tortilla press and six 48-ounce jugs of corn oil, four big poly tarps, paper towels, a couple thousand feet of natural 1/4 inch rope as well as more bread and condiments. A couple cases of Gatorade finished the purchase.
We all praised Vangie for her good work and watched her preen under the compliments. She stopped at a truck stop near the edge of town and used her own debit card to pay for gas. It wasn't unusual for people to tank up on water before heading out into the desert. Nobody really noticed us filling the water jugs. She bought us take-out meals from the trucker's restaurant. I suggested that she pick up a blouse, jeans, underwear and runners at the little shop. She had to stay presentable. By one P.M. we were on the road East with me driving.
It was dark. I heard Linda crying in the back. I pulled over and killed it. On opening the rear doors she was right there, curled up in a ball, crying her eyes out and shaking. I picked her up and sat where she'd been laying with her on my lap.
"What's wrong, girl?" I finally got it out of her. "I'm UGLY! My BREASTS are GONE! I look like a lizard and I HATE IT!"
All I could do was hold on and rock her. After a while I started talking. "It doesn't help, but none of us signed up for this. We've all been crapped on and our lives have been ripped away from us. We can't even show our faces around our old friends and family. It's horrible! It has to be that much worse for you, the way our culture expects so much from women to always be attractive. You're one of us, though. Just remember that. You're one of us. You need a hug? There's not a one of us that'll turn you down."
I tagged Thomas to drive next. I stared out at the receding countryside as I held and rocked poor Linda. We were so screwed.
About four A. M. Thomas pulled over. "Potty break." We all exited the van and stretched. The stars were still overhead and the moon had set. The lights of Albuquerque shone against the high clouds in the distance. Thomas had done what everyone else does when desert driving--he stopped at something that broke up the scenery. It was a billboard advertising Cabela's. We all did the doggy thing, peeing on the posts, then shared out our breakfast of ham sandwiches and Gatorade. "Vangie? Feel like another shopping trip?"
"What? Not up for shopping? Are you crazy?"
"We need fishing gear, ammunition, sleeping bags, cots, cast iron cookery, boots and more."
"Lead me to it!" Linda and I put together a big fat shopping list, including a propane burner, a deep fryer setup and six 5 gallon jugs of frying oil. I made sure that we had trot line gear and jug line setups on the list.
We gassed up near the store and Vangie picked up some take-away from Cracker Barrel for us. We were eating those buttered mashed potatoes with our fingers until we found the plastic spoons. Yum.
We had to set up one of the cots for everyone to sit on. After a trip to a big box store for 100 liter storage boxes we were able to get rid of the shipping materials and free up some room.
I didn't mind so much spending all that money. I owned my house near Atlanta. With any luck at all I could talk my good buddy Dale into swapping the signed title for his everglades property. It backed onto the Big Cypress national park. The tides changed the water level constantly.
Three days later we pulled into my driveway in Covington, near Atlanta. I jammed my hand in between two soffet boards to pull out my reserve set of keys. We were inside and out of view within minutes. I dug out an old painter's canvas tarp to throw over the van, which hid the license plate and truck model. It was good to be able to relax, shower and eat at leisure.
"Vee, if you want to head out now, nobody's stopping you. You've done your share and more. You're our hero, you know. We never could have gotten this far without you."
She blushed and grinned. "You-all got the shitty end of the stick, and not through any fault of your own. I couldn't just stand there and ignore that."
I quietly said, "A great man once said, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Thank you, Vangie."
She smiled and cried a little. "I've got kin in Augusta. I think I'll surprise 'em with an extra chair at Easter." There were hugs all around and thanks, after which we unpacked her van. I made sure to leave her a couple Gatorades and a couple big fat ham sandwiches in a cooler.
After a few days of relaxing I got off the pot and started organizing. I'd never been one to trust banks all that much. I had over eighty thousand in a dirty old footlocker under my workbench. My work truck was a Dodge 4x4 club cab. I had a slide-in camper for it as Dale and I went down to his gulf property every other month or so to do some fishing. We needed a trailer to stow everything. I had to get hold of Dale.
He lived a few blocks away. I dressed for the dark in a raincoat with a high collar, a hood and a ball cap. It was dark when I knocked on his back door. The security light came on, lighting up the back yard like the friggin' super bowl. "Dammit, Dale! Douse the lights!" It was just seconds later that darkness ruled again, but my night sight was screwed. The door opened and I shouldered my way inside. "Dale, it's Terry. You ain't gonna believe the shit I've been through."
... twenty minutes later...
"An you got these fuckin' scales EVERYWHERE?" "Total skin replacement, man. I've got four more people over at my place in the same boat. Dale, it hasn't hit yet, but I can see a manhunt like we haven't seen since the WWII spy scares. We've got to get out to somewhere outside of all developed areas. That's when I thought of you and that Everglades property you've got. I want to work a trade. I sign over my house to you in trade for that swamp land."
Dale sat down at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee. After a couple sips he seemed to make up his mind.
"I've been thinkin' about movin' down to the glades. I'm not gettin' any younger ya know. I'm goin' with y'all. You do the liftin', totin' and diggin' while I'll be your face. I can buy stuff for ya and not a word'll be said."
"I've got the deed to the house in the garage. There's no need to hit the bank. If I back-date it to before my vacation then nobody can say squat about it. What do you figure, put it on the market for three quarters its appraised value? It should sell in a flash., leaving us with plenty of capital to work with."
Dale nodded. "If anyone asks, you lost a poker bet."
I burst out laughing. "Jesus, Dale! I didn't think that I was that bad a poker player!"
We made arrangements to buy a covered trailer for my work truck. It had duallies in back, so pulling a trailer wouldn't kill it. I'd hauled big generators around with it. Once Dale made up his mind everything started rolling. He contracted for a few loads of limestone to be delivered and tamped flat, then called up a place that would put up a shortie insulated pole barn. The property was just off a highway, so getting power run wasn't an issue. Once the pole barn was up we stripped what we wanted out of the house, loaded the trailer and headed south. Dale drove along with us to pay for gas and buy food once we made it to the property.
The only real dry places on the whole plot were the driveway and the pad. The air smelled indescribable--rot and growing things all at once, overlaid by the stink of bird shit and rotting bait fish.
Dale picked up some shovels, a narrow Jon boat and a heavy fiberglass flat-bottomed pirogue with paddles. A Lowe's discount store got us a quiet little Honda generator and the biggest electric chainsaw they had. We needed to clear a way to a waterway or a small lake for fishing, and we wanted to do a little building. Joe needed lumber and he was either going to get fresh pine from the state park near us, or cypress from the swamp. The little electric chainsaw was one hell of a lot quieter than a gasoline powered job, and the generator was designed for use in a trailer park where noise was a no-no. We saved all the cut-offs for firewood. It's amazing how easy it is to cut dimensional lumber with an aluminum ladder, a chainsaw and a couple pulleys bolted to the chainsaw. Screw that ladder to your timber and just use it as a guide. An electric drill makes it go fast. We spent a lot of time getting the touch right when learning how to sharpen a chainsaw blade. A little clamp-on jig sure made it a lot easier. We kept new files in gallon paint buckets soaking in oil so that they wouldn't rust.
We worked in pairs, one digging or lumbering while the other kept a watch for snakes or gators. We did a lot of digging. The hummocks we dug up were moved to the edge of the pad to give us a grassy area. Dale picked up a dock kit that just fit in the back of the truck and the trailer. It gave us a place to tie up the boats and drop a trap or two in the drink. We didn't use motors on the boats so the water wasn't poisoned.
We needed fresh water. We went with the military's tried-and-true methods. We needed fifty gallon drums, broken limestone, screen, lump charcoal and sharp sand to make labyrinth filters. The easiest way to use them was an electric motor and hoses to pull up the swamp water and collection buckets with lids and hoses to keep out the critters.
Pooping was another matter. We dug out a ten foot cylinder-shaped pit next to the drive way, poured a concrete liner and dropped in a fiberglass septic tank. Dishwater, pee, and wash water went over the side. Poop went into the tank. We had to dig a big pit and had rock hauled in to make a dry sump for the waste water.
We got tired of sleeping in what amounted to a barracks. A few loads of lumber and boxes of drywall screws netted us individual sleeping quarters for a little individual privacy. The climate would eat paint and most other finishes. We wiped oil over all the wood surfaces.