“What a night for a press conference,” Benjamin Johnson said as a greeting to the tall, dark security guard approaching his car. Although he walked in the casual manner of security guards his face held a contemptuous glare. “I’m sorry I honked the horn. I just wasn’t sure if there was anybody there—at the gate I mean. I was expecting the gate to be open for the whole thing. I’m sorry.”
“You numb?” The guard asked with a sigh. Benjamin wasn’t sure what he had meant by that, but he didn’t like the way he had said it. Was he really this touchy?
“I am not going to sit here and be berated by someone like you just because you work for the richest man in the county. I’ve come an awful long way to get through this gate. As it stands I’m already twenty minutes late. Are you listening?” The guard’s expression was still as contemptuous as ever, but Benjamin thought he noticed him shaking his head briefly.
“I wud be glahd to lut you puss, but before I cun allow you to I need you numb.” It was just then that Benjamin realized to his utter embarrassment that the guard spoke in a very thick African accent. The term that he had heard as ‘numb’ obviously meant ‘name.’ What a start!
“Oh! I’m sorry Sir, I thought you were calling me ‘numb’,” the African guardsman responded to that with a quizzical lowering of his eyebrows. “Anyway,” Benjamin continued a little uncomfortably, “My name is Benjamin Johnson of the Bakersfield Tribune. My name should be in the registry. I was invited.”
The guard removed a flashlight from his belt and used it to read a list on a clipboard. After quite a long time of studying the list the guard raised his gaze and the flashlight to Benjamin’s face. The bright flashlight shining in his eyes made him blink repeatedly like a fool. He wanted to yell at the guard and tell him to get the damn thing off of his face. Instead, he simply averted his eyes and asked, “is there some sort of a problem?”
“I dun know, you tell me Benjamin Johnson,” the guard annunciated the name very slowly, “your numb doesn’t appur in the list. I cunnot lut you puss. Go along home end dun’t comeback.” The guard began to turn and walk away, but Benjamin grabbed his arm. When the guard turned his contemptuous stare was met equally.
“I’m a member of the press, and I was invited here by Mr. Connolly himself. I have brought an authentic hard copy of an email I received as well as my ID from the Tribune. Either that or give me the list and I’ll locate the name myself. I’m not leaving.” Benjamin had often believed he had a gift that awarded him advantage in many situations. His penetrating stare and profound coercion skills had allowed him admission to several exclusive parties without an invitation and to sleep with several women who were obviously out of his league.
After what seemed like far too long the guard finally shook his head and the ID and emailed letter. To Benjamin’s astonishment, he also yielded the clipboard with the names on it. The registry was exactly what he had been counting on, but hadn’t expected it to fall into his lap as it did. The names were alphabetized from top to bottom with a little box set about an inch from the person’s name. Almost all of these names were marked with an ‘X’ in the box to show that they had arrived. It was a near composite to the template Benjamin had been counting on. Without moving his head Benjamin looked to make sure the guard wasn’t watching him before pulling the tiniest strip of tape from behind his ear and dabbing it onto the bottom of the list. Luckily his aim had been nearly perfect. When he peeled away the strip his name appeared nearly perfect at the bottom of the list.
“Aha,” Benjamin said aloud seemingly to himself. “I found my name down at the bottom after Mr. Roger Whitfield. It pains me to think I was an afterthought, but there it is. The small Tribune seems to come in last place again.” With his thumb marking the spot he handed the clipboard back to the guard shaking his head.
“I dun undahstand how I missed it, but there it is. Your ID and the letter look authentic as well, but I’ve lived in Bakuhsfield for twelve years and haven’t known about any newspapur.” As the guard handed his things back to him Benjamin apologized again for the horn honking and to his surprise the guard smiled back and nodded.
Beyond the gate Benjamin heaved a sigh of relief. The idea of there even being a gate, and a checklist had come only hours before he had left the dorm. His roommate would be rolling on the floor once he was told about this little encounter. The Dorm was located not far from the University Benjamin Johnson and Charlie (Chuck) Wolford attended. They had been attending for five semesters. In another year or so the two would become alumni. Chuck would most likely graduate with honors. Both of them were students of journalism.
As a child Benjamin had possessed a fascination for going places where he wasn’t supposed to go and doing things he wasn’t allowed to do. He would often be scolded after disappearing for hours in the wilderness surrounding his childhood home in Bakersfield, California. His teenage years were full of breaking into houses and local businesses. Even now, at the age of 22 Benjamin still felt the craving to break into numerous places around the University of California community. Remarkably, as of yet, he had a clean rap sheet with the law even considering his past. Crashing press conferences without an invitation seemed a harmless way to satisfy his lust for taking risks. As of this endeavor his abilities had granted him access to a dozen different proceedings ranging from political functions to crime scenes and quite a bit in between. As Benjamin put the car in drive he began to recount an excursion three days prior that he hadn’t been able to erase from his mind.
A week ago every broadcast station in the country had been providing continual coverage of death row inmate Jacob Alan Webster’s final attempts to avoid the needle. The entire perimeter of the prison at San Quentin had to be cordoned off, but not for supporters of the inmate. Webster had been tried and convicted of seven counts of first degree murder, and for over twenty counts of aggravated sexual assault with minors. The girls had all been of ages ranging from 7 to 12, and each of them had been severely beaten and left to die. The seven people that had been murdered were all members of Webster’s immediate family. His wife of fifteen years had finally observed too much odd behavior, and too many nights with her husband mysteriously vanishing until morning. When she went to the police they placed her in a hotel with the six kids under surveillance. According to testimony from investigators a bloody cell phone found at the crime scene contained three calls to Jacob the night of the murders. It was believed she had called to reconcile with him. Instead of reconciliation her head was separated from her body and left in the room’s toilet. The children were all found arrayed beside one another on one of the queen beds. They had each been shot once in the head. There hadn’t been much media coverage surrounding the trial. Justice had been quickly deliberated. Webster was to become California’s fourteenth offender to be executed since the death penalty had been reinstated in 1976 barring a miracle stamped by the government. Jacob’s letters probably never received a second glance. Essentially it was the rarity of the sentencing over the savagery of the crime itself that generated a media boom around the man’s final days. The media’s reopening of the case files, and release of the gruesome details of the crimes attracted many death threats for the man already doomed to die. That was the reason behind the roads being taped off, and a 100 ft. radius kept between the prison and the general public the day of the execution.
For a man such as Benjamin Johnson, a so-called blockade had provided too much of an opportunity for exhilaration. Also, there was the idea of witnessing death first hand that he found oddly appealing at the time. For several months prior he and Chuck had stalked political meetings, crime scenes, and other newsworthy events and they hadn’t seen a cadaver. He had seen videos as a teenager of people being shot, violence, and mayhem. He had never seen it up close and personal, and to him that was what made the idea of journalism so intriguing: the prospect of witnessing enthralling situations first hand.
Using little more than persuasion and a fabricated license Benjamin had been able to sneak into the small observation room intended for the relatives of the convicted. A guard had confiscated his things immediately upon entering the small side entrance of the prison. After a moment he had become perplexed by a foolish fear of them suddenly checking his phone and realizing that ‘Benjamin’ and not ‘Michael’ appeared on the display. They never came for him.
Instead he had sat alone through the whole ordeal. He had watched as Jacob Alan Webster was ushered into a room that was much smaller than Benjamin had expected. He had never seen a room so white appear so dismal. Towards the ceiling of the 10x10 room flecks of white paint had eroded away to expose dark grey cement. The gurney was sheeted in white, and it was bolted to a floor with white tiles. Standing beside the bed had been a gentleman in a white doctor’s jacket full of pockets. With him was a nurse in a white blouse and skirt. They were both far past their middle years. A heart monitor had been positioned on the other side of the gurney along with a metallic stand on which three bags hung. The three bags contained three different fluids in them. Sodium thiopental was an anesthetic and was administered first. Pancuronium entered the bloodstream to paralyze. The last intravenous injection would be Potassium Chloride to stop the heart. Benjamin had done his research.
Jacob had appeared much older than a man who was only supposed to be 37. His hair was long and in disarray, and far more grey than brown. He had been smiling and talking to one of the two officers escorting him when they had entered. The officer hadn’t appeared to be listening. When the heavy door behind them slammed shut with a boom there was no laughter or conversation to be had. Benjamin had then noticed a thickening in the air even in his sitting room. Everything had seemed to become very still for a moment. Then the guards had assisted Jacob to the gurney. There was no resistance from him whatsoever. After he was positioned and restrained with both arms strapped to arm boards he had whispered something to one of the officers. The officer’s response had been a bare shaking of his head as he walked away.
As the IVs were being attached to both arms another gentleman had appeared and introduced himself using a mic clipped to his long-sleeved brown shirt as Donald Kiefer. He was the warden of the prison. The redundant business of explaining the necessity of the execution was announced. Jacob did not want a blessing, but he had wanted to say some final words.
For the convict another mic was brought in by yet another prison guard and was placed to his mouth because of his restraints. Jacob had cleared his throat, but in doing so he had appeared to be constraining a laugh. “I just wanted to announce to everyone here that an angel came to me last night and told me something that I’m sure will piss all of you off. You may put me to death, but I will rise again, and when I do the world will suffer again my wrath. You all will suffer!” With that his head had turned so that he stared right at Benjamin, and even though a pane of steel enforced glass had separated them Benjamin knew fear at that moment as he had never known it in his life. The convicted murderer and serial rapist after threatening everyone had smiled thinly when they inserted the IVs into both of his arms. His eyes had appeared dark as coal with a penetrating stare that had seemed to pierce through the glass and into Benjamin’s very soul to torment. Webster’s chest after a time had begun to stop fluctuating, and the heart monitor eventually began flatlining. The warden had announced Jacob’s time of death at 7:06 PM to Benjamin and whoever the revelers had been in the other observation room. Finally, one of the nurses had closed the dead man’s eyelids forever unless Jacob’s decree proved true. For the first time Benjamin could remember he didn’t feel up to sticking around to witness something as astounding as resurrection. He did, however, check the 10 o’clock news to make certain the man was dead. After all, he had to sleep that night.
The execution had occurred three days ago, and every night since he couldn’t help thinking about those eyes staring at him. As his black Subaru Impreza made its slow journey along the wooded driveway leading towards the Connolly Mansion he shook thoughts of Jacob’s ghost possibly materializing in the dark recesses beyond the headlights. The trees along the road were of the sort that provided a canopy overhead. The sheer darkness of what Benjamin knew was a moonless night coupled with the smothering array of trees had an isolating effect on his psyche. He suddenly felt something in common with an old lady he had encountered once on an elevator in a hospital. She was huddled in a corner, and when he stared at her as people often do at a lunatic encountered publicly a young lady in the elevator explained to him that the other was claustrophobic. He wished that lady was with him now so he could tell her he understood that the world held a constricting effect at times. Really he just wished he had anyone with him. If something did come out of that darkness would anyone hear him scream?
Abruptly an illumination caught his eyes just ahead around a curve in the driveway. The trees soon gave way to an orchard of what Benjamin perceived to be cherries, because they appeared more like big bushes organized in precise rows. Ahead he spotted the sprawling red mansion of Dr. James Connolly. By stark contrast to most of its driveway the house itself was lit completely throughout the length of its foundation. In its entirety the house itself took up around 50,000 square feet and appeared as three massive combined sections. The largest of them overlooked the driveway as it crept up to run alongside the front of the house before circling back around on itself. The circle drive was filled in between by a statue of a man outstretching a sword ten feet into the sky.
There was no one in sight as Benjamin put the Subaru in park directly in front of the mansion so he decided to take the keys with him. The sound of thunder greeted him as he stood from the car followed moments later by flashes of lightning and another louder rumble. Heeding the sky’s warning he opened the door to the backseat and began his search for his umbrella. After a while he finally found it lodged underneath the passenger seat.
Plucking it up he rose from the car and this time there was an old man standing directly across the car smiling at him. Benjamin gasped with sudden fright and the old man’s smiling face immediately changed to concern.
“My sincerest apologies sir, I didn’t mean to startle you! I could have sworn I had seen to the last guest twenty minutes ago!” the old man exclaimed with utmost sincerity. He had a full head of medium-length white hair that he had combed forward framing a face that may have been handsome decades ago. His eyes were blue and kindly. Overall, to Benjamin he seemed grandfatherly.
“It’s alright. I scare easily some nights. I missed my exit and had to backtrack from Canada I think! I’m just hoping I haven’t missed too much already.” Benjamin replied.
“Oh no sir, not much at all! The guests have all only just now begun assembling in the theatre room. Mr. Connolly has been distracted for the nonce. He’s not expected to make an appearance for a while yet.”
“Well that’s convenient.”
“I hate to keep you any longer, sir, but I will need to see your invitation.”
“Oh, that’s fine.” Benjamin said as he handed over his invitation.
“Ah yes, Bakersfield,” said the butler thoughtfully, “My daughter moved there last year. It seems like a nice community.”
“Not if you read the newspaper.”
“Well if I paid attention to everything you probably call news I would likely become too paranoid to walk three steps outside my front doorway.” The old butler handed Benjamin back his invitation and added, “although I may be taking an overly aggressive stance on all that. I’m sorry if I offended.”
Benjamin had to smile at the man’s honesty as he said, “you’re actually absolutely right about everything you said, but you can’t really blame me for trying to earn a buck can you?”
“I suppose I can’t. After all we must do what we can to survive, and survival is what tonight is all about isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is,” Benjamin began, but soon after finished with, “however, to be completely honest with you I have no idea what tonight is all about.”
The old man looked puzzled, and Benjamin wasn’t surprised at that. After all what journalist would dare arrive blind to a press conference? Truthfully Benjamin and his roommate Chuck had spent weeks laboriously searching the web for news articles, lab journals, and general information on Dr. Connolly. For the most part what they had discovered seemed unremarkable. Connolly had been a brilliant oncologist with a career cut short once his daughter was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer. The last several years of his life had been spent trying to find a cure.
Before the butler could respond Benjamin said, “I’m led to believe it has something to do with cancer research. Has he had a breakthrough?”
The old man began shaking his head and said, “From what I understand he has had a breakthrough of sorts. The Doctor has made a discovery of some kind, and he hasn’t discussed the details with his butler. I probably wouldn’t understand it if he tried. I’m not nearly the brilliant mind he is on the subject.”
“Well then I should be looking forward to hearing what he has to say on the subject. Thank you very much for your information Mr.--, I’m sorry I must have missed your name?”
“I’m sorry sir! I must have forgotten myself with the surprise of your arrival. My name is Cliff.”
“Cliff. That’s an easy name to remember. I will not forget you, Cliff. So shall I let myself in?”
“I would escort you Mr. Johnson but I’m afraid I’m rather slow company. You will head straight to the front door. Once you’re inside there should be someone there to escort you to the theatre room.”
“Okay, well I guess I better go. Thanks again friend.”
“Don’t mention it.”
With one last smile for Cliff, Benjamin ascended the steps and hurried past row upon row of orange columns. The whole of the portico appeared to be constructed of marble from the red tiles on the floor to the deeper red ceiling and everything between. The doors at the end were already ajar so Benjamin entered the mansion.
Once he was inside Benjamin found himself surprised to be standing in a small, poorly lit entrance room with dark green wallpaper and dark gray granite floor tiles. The first thing that caught Benjamin’s eyes when he entered the vestibule was an antique grandfather clock made of dark oak sitting against the far wall. It was ornately carved with leafy vines running along the wooden border of the lower door used to access the pendulum. Around the face of the clock carved fairies appeared to be dancing in pairs framing the glass. It was overall an intricately designed piece of work, but all of the fairy faces appeared the same. The carvings made Benjamin feel slightly uneasy. Tiny, pinched faces appeared to be smirking in an unpleasant, almost wicked manner. Their beady eyes weren’t staring at each other, but at whoever happened to gaze at the clock. Suddenly the thin smiles on those beady-eyed faces began to resemble someone Benjamin had recounted all too recently.
“Sir,” someone said as they gripped Benjamin’s shoulder.
With a sudden gasp Benjamin shrugged free of the hand as he backed away from the wide eyes of yet another servant of the house. “Shit! You scared me!” Benjamin exclaimed as he took a deep breath and lowered the umbrella he was currently pointing at the servant. “What is it with you people and scaring me tonight?”
Briskly shaking a bald head the short old man replied serenely, “I am so sorry sir. I just saw you come in and admiring the clock and I was going to tell you to please not touch it. I didn’t mean to lay a hand on you. It’s just a habit of mine. You see, I have a son about your age and—“
“It’s fine, I didn’t mean any animosity by what I said. I’m sorry if I yelled. I’ve just had some things happen lately that have had me on edge. That grandfather clock just spooked me a little is all, none of it your fault.”
At first the servant appeared to puzzle over what Benjamin had meant by being ‘spooked’ about the grandfather clock, but then his face adopted a thoughtful expression. “The clock is actually a sinister depiction I suppose. The enchantment of fairy rings has often been discussed in European folklore. In England it was once believed that fairies would conjugate and dance in a ring to lure unsuspecting victims to join them. They used to say that any human who entered into a fairy ring would meet with unpleasant consequences.”
“Sounds like just the thing to put in the entrance of a home,” Benjamin said dryly.
The servant chuckled as he replied, “well honestly Mr. Connolly is a bit reproachful when it comes to accepting guests into his home. The only reason any of you media types are allowed in tonight is to help get the word out about this discovery he’s had.”
“Well it’s nice to feel welcomed. Listen, your hospitality and acumen have been very much appreciated but I don’t want to keep our gracious if-not-grateful host waiting.”
“Thank you and understood sir. Please follow me.”
The old man led Benjamin away from the vestibule through a doorway not far from the old grandfather clock and into the grand foyer. It was a very large room with dark wood flooring and walls painted in the blended earthy tones of brown and copper. There were two massive bookshelves spanning at least two stories high and half that in width built into a nearby portion of the wall on the right side. Beneath the bookshelves a giant red embroidered rug carpeted a small sitting area containing an antique dark green settee sofa with two matching sitting chairs.
As Benjamin’s guide led him towards the library another larger sitting area became visible across the foyer with much the same styled furnishings, but blue. A painted portrait of a little girl in a bright pink dress hung above a giant fireplace and seemed to be the centerpiece of that area of the room. “Is that Mr. Connolly’s daughter or just a distant relation?” Benjamin asked.
“That is our little mouse, Maddie.” The old man fondly replied as they began to cross the embroidered rug. “The painting,” he continued, “was a gift from one of Dr. Connolly’s patients. It really was a very fine resemblance of the vibrant little girl I used to know. Nowadays I have a hard time looking at it for any length of time. Cancer is a devastating affliction.”
Without another word they left the foyer through a wooden door built into one of the bookshelves. The next room they entered had obviously been altered fairly recently. Indentation spots on the maroon carpet gave away that at least three furnishings had either been moved or removed in preparation for the press. Currently the room contained three trestle tables loaded with various hors d’oeuvres that had been piled on tiny trays so neatly that Benjamin doubted anyone had been allowed to eat any of it yet. He wanted very much to reach out and snag a crab cake or two, but he resisted. Then his stomach growled loudly.
“What was that?” the servant asked.
“It was me,” Benjamin replied rubbing his stomach. “I honestly haven’t eaten all day.”
Suddenly the short old man turned around with a grin and said, “in that case, sir, you’d better hurry and have yourself a few of those crab cakes before we go in. I’d hate to be you if your stomach causes any disruption during Dr. Connolly’s presentation.”
Benjamin smiled back a touch embarrassed as he grabbed a napkin and using tongs plucked up a couple of the warm, plump crab cakes he had been eyeing. The servant looked very surprised once Benjamin finished the morsels in less than two minutes. In answer to the man’s startled expression Benjamin explained, “I skipped dinner this evening.”
“I see,” the servant replied, and then said, “If you’d like to have another than that will be fine. If not, then we really should finish getting you seated.”
The first two cakes had been so delicious Benjamin couldn’t resist engulfing another, but he instructed the servant that he could eat while following. Although the thick double doors to the theatre room were closed as the two of them approached it Benjamin could hear a growing murmuring of voices that grew to a crescendo as the servant opened the door.
Inside the theatre room was bustling to near capacity with journalists from all over the continental United States. A select few Benjamin recognized, but for the most part he was unfamiliar with them. Everyone had their press IDs displayed either on a lanyard hanging from their necks or clipped here or there on their clothing. Benjamin pulled his fake one out of his pocket and clipped it onto a chest pocket.
“Well here you are sir,” his servant guide told him as he started to look around the room for someone. “There was supposed to be someone here to see you to your seat. I’d hate to keep you waiting, but let me try to locate him. He has the seating chart.”
Seating chart? Benjamin thought as his blood pressure began to rise. “Actually there appears to be a lot of open seats here. I’m really not too concerned about whether I have a good seat or not through the whole thing. I’ve always been more of an auditory learner anyway.”
“I would still rather have you shown to the seat we’ve assigned to you. Dr. Connolly made meticulous arrangements to have seating organized just so and—“ he was cut off by the loud footsteps of a group entering the raised stage at the front of the room where the projection screen was. Soon three men appeared on the stage approaching a podium under the screen. The crowd as a whole began to quiet.
“That’s Dr. Connolly now! Let’s find you a seat quickly!” the servant said as he guided Benjamin to an empty chair towards the back of the room. With a quick handshake and a nod of his bald head the servant departed leaving Benjamin comfortably seated in a blue seat between a middle-aged man from the Miami Herald and a beautiful woman from the Washington Post. The audience continued its decrescendo while some of its members who had been milling about hastily returned to their seats. By now the conference that had originally been scheduled for 9 PM was reaching closer to the 10 o’clock mark, and people were getting more than eager for things to get started.
Without hesitation a bearded, middle-aged man with wavy brown hair separated himself from the three that had entered the stage and stepped behind the podium. He adjusted a pair of light brown glasses as he examined the crowd with dark blue eyes. “Greetings everyone,” he began hoarsely, then cleared his throat and continued, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. My daughter Madelyn has been ill for quite some time. Some of you may be familiar with that. Well, tonight her condition began to worsen.” Dr. Connolly pushed his glasses up out of the way to wipe his eyes with a hand and let out a long sigh shaking his head. “Now, thankfully, she is resting.”
“Madelyn is the center of my life. Some of you in this audience tonight might have children as well and therefore will understand that as a parent we must do everything we can for the sake of our children. When my Maddie was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma I was away delivering a seminar at Johns Hopkins clear across the country in Maryland. I’ll never forget the sound of my wife’s voice on the phone as she told me. I’ll never forget how I felt. I was always away from my family before I received the news, but after my wife told me our daughter was sick I promptly changed. For the love of my daughter and my wife I gave up practicing medicine and began boldly seeking out a cure.
“From the outset I knew that the odds were against me, but I wouldn’t allow doubt to reside where I needed ambition. Finding a place to start appeared as my greatest obstacle in the beginning. My daughter and I traveled across the country visiting a number of research hospitals—three months here, another there, and so on. I traded intellects with a number of brilliant men and women working in the field of pediatric oncology. I cannot begin to tell you how many manic days descended into sleepless nights in the laboratory. Nor would I care to explain to you how often I lost hope. Instead I’d love to tell you about how my perseverance eventually paid off where hundreds of more focused minds had failed over the decades—to have discovered a cure for cancer—but, alas, I cannot make that declaration.” The last words fell hard on the expectant crowd.
“Well then why the hell are we here?” demanded a plump, white-haired journalist across the room. Almost immediately afterwards the rest of the room rambunctiously began joining the assault. A woman sitting center stage yelled, “you were an hour late! For this?” while another man sitting two rows in front of Benjamin angrily yelled, “you arrogant prick!” Connolly withstood the onslaught resolute and determinedly resilient behind the podium.
Finally after a short time of enduring the crowd Dr. Connolly raised both of his hands and said, “ladies and gentlemen, please. I’m not quite finished.” The crowd began to reluctantly silence itself as he smiled and said, “I beg all of you to please be patient. A lot of you appear to have been expecting something. You bought your ticket for Babylon, but have arrived at a ruin. I promise you that your time here will be worth more than that.” The audience appeared to settle significantly.
“What a group we have here today.” Doctor Connolly began again, but this time with more energy. “You have such vitality. You’re all so full of life and yet so worried about me wasting your time. I can see from up here that by majority we are Americans in attendance today with here and there a sprinkling of European and Asian members. All of us seem lucky enough in our heritage to have been born into sophisticated and industrialized nations. By way of this serendipitous accession most of us will live to see 78 years. That’s our life expectancy. That is quite an accomplishment for modern medicine when you consider that a century ago your ancestors were lucky to reach 40!
“Yet we fear death. It is a fear derivative of our self-awareness. The same knowledge that helps you steady your comb while you groom in the mirror is responsible for your recognition of your own mortality. We may contrive all manner of provisions to safeguard ourselves from the inevitable, but eventually the Reaper gets us all. Diet, exercise, stretch, nip, tuck, and Botox yourselves until you’re more mannequin than human—spend hundreds of thousands of dollars doing so and what do you achieve? Ultimately, you only wind up with a better looking corpse. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could cure aging and wipe away the effects of time completely?
“The validity of Juan Ponce de Leon’s expedition to discover his fuente de eterna, or fountain of youth, has long been debated in some circles. The whimsical desire of man to stabilize the condition of aging is, however, undoubtedly shared by all of mankind. It is that desire, a universal desire, which has brought us all together tonight--” The Doctor raised a vial he had pinched between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. In the glass was a peculiar fluid almost entirely a dark purple save for several very tiny luminescent particles that glowed a stark pink against their dusky counterpart. “And this is how we will achieve that task,” he provided as he tucked the vial safely away.
“Remarkably, what I just showed you is a naturally-occurring mixture that was recently discovered in an Amazonian cave network. I received a call months ago from an old, forgotten friend from my formative years at Harvard named Gabriel Moreno.” Connolly extended his right hand towards the two men standing behind him onstage. “Gabriel’s here tonight. Care to wave at the audience old friend?” Connolly said with a chuckle.
Gabriel was probably at least a head shorter than the good Doctor and of Latin American decent. With very little emotion he leisurely waved to the audience. Although his two companions had dressed formally he had chosen to adopt more casual attire consisting of dark brown cargo pants and a green button-up shirt with several pockets.
“Dr. Moreno is an archaeologist whose profound interest in the fringe study of lost and forgotten cultures is fast becoming legendary. I had not spoken to him for decades prior to receiving the urgent call two years ago that lead to this,” Doctor Connolly said patting his coat pocket. “He had asked for my help. At the time I was reluctant to offer aid of any sort for the obvious reason that my daughter was ill. Then the shocker came when he told me he knew of her illness, and that her illness was his reason for calling.
“I had always known Gabriel to be a direct and highly intelligent man not to be taken by foolish flights of fancy and whimsical superstition. When he immediately started telling me that he had witnessed a man die and then come back from the dead—his exact words—I was perplexed.” There was a slight stirring in the crowd as members began murmuring amongst themselves.
Doctor Connolly allowed them some time to ponder, but soon continued a little louder, “As an oncologist treating patients with a potentially terminal disease I had always allowed myself to accept the feasibility of all the alternative treatments for cancer. The disease alters with every individual. I mean, there are constants, but, when treating cancer you have to accommodate for each individual. There is no universal mandate that decrees said doctor must enforce said treatment. Sometimes alternative treatments go a long way in making a patient feel at ease. Therefore I always encouraged those who wished to visit the shamans, herbalists and witch doctors to do so responsibly. Those, however, were my patients. When Gabriel called I was a full-time father physician, and I wasn’t convinced.
“Gabriel had quite a fight on his hands I must tell you. I fought him tooth and nail for close to two hours. I had extracted every answer to every question I could think of: ‘How long was he deceased?,’ ‘What were his ailments?,’ ‘What medical supplies were utilized?,’ ‘Who was the attending physician?,’ ‘What of his credentials?,’ ‘Was an autopsy performed?,’ and so on. Every answer I received was detailed and spoken with conviction. Every argument I had was nullified by Gabriel’s earnest rebuttals. After two hours he still sounded just as sincere about what he had witnessed with his own eyes as he was when first he spoke it. The following day I was in Brazil trekking through the Amazonian rainforest, and three days later I arrived at the threshold of Gabriel’s cave.
“From then on the journey became very slow going as we descended deeper and deeper into the underground network. There were many different tunnels along the way—so many, in fact, that my guides appeared to get lost from time to time. Eventually, however, we did arrive at our destination roughly one mile beneath the Earth’s surface. I found Gabriel there engaged in friendly conversation with a couple of very peculiar men. They were speaking in a language I could not distinguish. These men were roughly half his size and possessed the very pale complexion commonly intrinsic to albinism. Their eyes on the other hand weren’t red, but a very dull green. After a short time Gabriel noticed me standing there ogling and graciously introduced me to the two tribesman. I’ve since forgotten their names, but they belonged to a long hidden and almost lost civilization of primitive man. They belonged to the cave, and the cave belonged to them.
“The next thing I knew we were all four approaching a makeshift infirmary where I immediately was approached by the dead man, Artie Finch. He appeared remarkably well for someone whose death had all but been confirmed a week before. Gabriel had debriefed me over the phone that Artie had been an unfortunate victim in a series of mishaps. He had first acquired a compound fracture to his tibia bone in the lower leg that tore through his skin. That area had then become infected. While they were still treating his infection poor Artie had contracted yellow fever. When he had passed away Attending Physician Lopez had found it difficult to single out which of his conditions had caused his death.
“Artie looked so healthy when I met him that I couldn’t believe he had been dead. I had been a strict skeptic of this tale before, and meeting a nimble-footed, spry young man in place of someone who by rights should have at least still been bedridden struck me as preposterous. I demanded some kind of proof of Artie’s death, and was handed an incident report. Disappointed, I requested to see some kind of physical evidence of the fracture. Artie was quick to comply by raising his pants’ leg to expose a very nasty scar just above his right ankle. I could tell by the scar that whatever injury that had caused it must have been very severe. However, the leg and the laceration were completely healed! Compound fractures never heal within a week’s time. I wasn’t sure why my old college friend and this young upstart would want to try to fool me, but I was truly beginning to believe that I was being duped. There hadn’t been an autopsy performed, so in my frustration I asked if they had anything of any true value to show me that would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man had been truly dead. It was then that I was informed about a video taken the day of Artie’s death.
“A member of the research team had quickly started taking the video, because she had been led to believe that a kind of funeral ritual was going to take place among the tribe. The original purpose of it had been to document the tribe, and not the deceased. When I watched the video for the first time I could see the confusion and passive disapproval the research team showed as one of the pale tribesmen began crudely inspecting the body. No one in the video truly seemed to understand what was going on. Several of the researchers had even attempted to apprehend the tribesman before Gabriel appeared and told them to allow the fellow to do his work. Despite being taken by a phone the quality of the video was very good, and the camerawoman while caught up in the confusion was able to steal some very revealing footage. I saw a partially bandaged and badly swollen leg. Artie was decisively pale, and when the tribesman examined his eyes they were unresponsive. The most revealing evidence of precedent death was when someone attempted to move Artie’s right hand from his chest. Rigor mortis had settled in significantly. My guess had been that Mr. Artie Finch had probably been dead for several hours before the video was even shot. That fact became confirmed by Doctor Lopez and Gabriel shortly after as I had absently said it aloud.
“After a relatively quick examination of the corpse the pale tribesman quickly muttered something in his native language. I then heard Gabriel in the video say, ‘they can save him. The chief says they can save him.’
“The translation was not received well by a wide-eyed Dr. Lopez who quickly started yelling at Gabriel, ‘he’s dead! He’s beyond it! He’s beyond death!’
“Before Gabriel could even answer the protests of Dr. Lopez the cadaver was being stolen away down a dark tunnel by four tribesmen. They were quickly followed by Gabriel, Dr. Lopez and everyone else in the infirmary. The passage was very dark so the video was cut off. Luckily she had remembered to begin rolling again once they arrived at where they were going, otherwise I would have never chanced to see one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed.
“The second part struggled to come into focus at the start. This was not due to the absence of light in the cavern they had wound up in, but rather the trembling of the woman taking the footage. I heard her on the video say, ‘this place is incredible,’ just before she steadied it and a magnificent site was revealed to me. A vast underground lake spanning deep into the cave and out of site appeared to be pulsating faintly pink in the surrounding gloom. The contrast corrupted the footage for most of its runtime, but not so that I couldn’t make out what was transpiring on the shore of the lake.
“Artie had been laid out with everything save for his head submerged in the pulsating waters of the lake. The tribesmen were chanting something. Three of them were scrubbing and massaging the corpse—an activity I originally took for bathing the deceased. The other had a bowl of some sort he used to scoop water out of the lake with. After doing so the bowl contained the pink light of the lake! Then I witnessed the same man pour the contents of the bowl down Artie’s mouth. A silence came suddenly.
“After several minutes Artie’s lifeless body began to convulse, and cough. He was alive! Everyone in the video was crying and in disbelief. I was in a trance myself after watching it. The video had been over for five minutes before Gabriel broke the silence to ask me what I thought of it, but I didn’t hear him at first. All I kept hearing was Dr. Lopez’s frantic voice saying ‘deader than dead!’ followed quickly after by Gabriel’s voice muttering, ‘they can save him.’ Both phrases kept looping until Gabriel finally shook my shoulders and brought me back. It was at that moment I had begun to believe that Gabriel might be on to something.
“I enthusiastically conducted interviews henceforth with some of the more distinguished members of the tribe to determine what they knew about the water. It was their strong belief that the water was a reward from a mysterious idol, a God, buried deep within the Earth. The pink light seemingly emanating from the lake itself was believed to be the result of tiny spirits who made their home in the waters of the lake. The cavern itself further invoked the mysticism as it was treated as a kind of sanctum used for worshipping their idol. They upheld these beliefs with a fierce devotion. Even so, I was awarded the opportunity to study the grounds at will. Once I achieved their permission I immediately began extracting samples for use back home at my laboratory.
“I spent many months researching the mysterious substance the tribe had begun to call Alba Nueva, which in Spanish translates to “New Dawn.” Gabriel had been trying to teach the tribe to speak Spanish as it was wider understood to the team than their original language. The name was more of an allegory based on the tribe’s original depiction of what the waters represented. They did not rely on names to describe such things. The water was just what it was. They didn’t have to name it.
“Research tends to be very tedious, so I will not go into any great detail regarding all of that. The paperwork will be released shortly I promise you. Instead, I will simply confess to you that the miracle reagent is administered virally. The true spirits of the lake are in fact a virus that manufactures and uses some kind of chemical to reanimate cells on a massive scale. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’m sure it will revolutionize the world of medicine as we know it.
“Who would have thought such treasures still awaited us in the world? This just goes to show how much we don’t know about this world we live in. I’m extremely optimistic that this new discovery may hold other hidden treasures. The interactions that it has with dead and damaged cells may already hold the key to unlocking the door concealing cancer’s true nemesis.
“It will take time befo—“
“Now, hold on!” A voice from Benjamin’s left yelled forcing everyone including Dr. Connolly to look in his direction. He was in the third row straight in front of center stage, and he looked about as young as Benjamin with medium length jet black hair. “Are you seriously going to try to wrap this whole thing up without showing us any sort of demonstration of this miracle at work? You mentioned a video you watched, but tactfully didn’t reveal it to any of us. Why is that? What are you hiding? I mean let’s face it, the only reason you organized this little get-together was to try to lure in more finances for your research. If that’s the case you’re financiers are going to want to see proof that the product that they’re investing in actually works.”
Dr. Connolly seemed to consider the words he was going to say carefully while showing a smile that probably should have been a frown. “Mr. Mathews, we’ve met before,” he said in a tone that made it obvious there was some animosity between them. “The video in question has been misplaced.”
“Oh really,” Mr. Mathews replied incredulously.
Dr. Connolly appeared to want to shake his head but stopped himself midway as he replied, “yes, actually it has. There was only one video, and before I could get my hands on a copy it vanished.”
All of a sudden the crowd began to rumble back to life as people began murmuring discontent throughout the auditorium. The lively Mr. Mathews was grinning ear to ear enjoying his time in the spotlight. With the same big smile on his face he said, “well, isn’t that providential? Strange how such an important video could have gotten lost. I would hasten to think if it were me I might have—I don’t know, had copies sent to my phone immediately or something. Do you mean to tell me you don’t have any physical or visual evidence to show us tonight? I’ve flown a long way to see something remarkable just like most of the other people here tonight. I think we may be a little disappointed leaving here without--if I may borrow the statement you presumably used in the cave--‘anything of true value.’”
Doctor Connolly had been eyeing the young reporter like a hawk would a rat during the whole statement. When he was finished Connolly began to dry-wash his hands. His eyes were on the podium, but his mind appeared to be elsewhere. Finally, after a couple of minutes the Doctor said, “okay, so be it. If it’s a demonstration you want, you shall have it.”
Turning to his right, Connolly shouted, “Lars! Kevin! Please restrain and bring Subject 15 to entertain our friends here.” A couple of powerful appearing men quickly jumped onto the stage and just as quickly vanished behind it. “Mr. Mathews,” Connolly began turning back to the crowd, “you may want to have a seat. This may take several minutes. In the meantime I’d like to explain a few things to all of you before Subject 15 makes his appearance.”
“Research and experimentation are still in their early stages. The virus is incredibly complex and difficult to study. Its replication rate and movement through the body are astounding. One of the first subjects we chose to use was a mouse. It had been dead for all of two hours before we injected 3 CC’s of fluid into it. Within all of five minutes we had a reanimated mouse staggering around its confined quarters. From there we moved onto more mice. When we were done with the mice we used monkeys, and then moved onto orangutans. Before long we had decided it was time to move on to something even bigger. Our first human cadaver arrived days late on account of paperwork and legislative oversight. By the time he arrived here he had been deceased for two weeks. Incredibly he too was a successful candidate. Soon you will get a chance to meet another more recent one.”
“For many of you his identity will be familiar. It was not our intention to acquire such a famous, or rather infamous, cadaver to be a part of human testing, but we have to take what we can get. Try not to be startled by his appearance. He was refrigerated during the whole period before he arrived here, but even so the physical signs of death will be very apparent. He was never a cordial man in life, and death has not made him any friendlier. We will have him restrained and gagged—“
“Sounds like a delightful fellow,” Benjamin couldn’t resist to say to the beautiful young brunette on his left as the Doctor continued onstage.
She chuckled and replied, “yeah, I really can’t wait to meet him.”
“Oh, I can’t wait either, and I’m not even joking about that. If he’s really brought someone back from the dead that will be something else. I wonder who on Earth it could be though? I can’t think of any celebrities who’ve died recently. Can you?” Benjamin asked with a grin.
“Oh no, I’ve never kept up very well with celebrities. Maybe Betty White, is she still—“
Suddenly something the Doctor had said onstage caught Benjamin’s attention, and filled his soul with fear. A name he had heard just on the edge of his hearing.
“I’m—I—uh—I’m sorry,” Benjamin called out to the stage.
Dr. Connolly visibly sighed as he addressed Benjamin, “if I continue to get interrupted we’re all going to be here until morning. Is that what you want, young sir?”
“I—um—“ Benjamin started, then said “I just thought you said ‘Webster.’ Did you say ‘Webster?’”
Connolly shook his head, but in frustration. “Yes, son, I said ‘Webster.’ I said, Jacob Alan Webster to be precise. The death row inmate recently put to death at San Quentin. Not the most deserving benefactor of resurrection, but as good a person as we’re going to have donated to us.”
The Doctor continued delivering his speech, but Benjamin could no longer hear any of it. The rapid thrumming of his beating heart was the only sound receiving any notice. He wanted to run, but something made him stay. His wide eyes looked towards the stage in time to see a man whisper something in Connolly’s ear. Somewhere floating in the air beyond the sound of his pulse he overheard that it was time. The moment had come for Benjamin to revisit his nightmares from the last few days.
A specialized dolly was wheeled onto the stage by two men with a man strapped onto it. Or maybe it wasn’t a man. A burlap sack was draped over its head. Instead of the blue prison clothes he had been wearing on the day of his execution this thing was clothed in stained oversized grey sweatpants and a black tee-shirt. A hushed silence had taken the entire audience, but onstage an unsettling sound could be heard coming from under the burlap sack. Such a wretched and vile sound had never originated from a human throat. In the beginning what Benjamin perceived to be a hacking cough emerged horrifically into a maniacal and throaty laughter. So taken by its mirth was it that the buckles and brackets of its restraints rattled loudly as it shook with sheer delight. Sickly thin arms covered in ulcers struggled against two straps pulled tight over the chest and pelvis of the thing.
To Benjamin’s left, the woman he had just been speaking to turned to him, and worriedly said, “I can’t watch this! It just doesn’t seem right.”
“I know what you mean,” Benjamin muttered as he looked around at the rest of the audience. Many of the others had arrived at the same decision. Several had turned away while many more disapprovingly shook their heads in utter distaste.
Onstage Dr. Connolly appeared troubled by the audience’s reaction. “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not be so judgmental,” he declared desperately. “I am only in the beginning stages of discovering AN’s potential! Every miracle cure has its drawbacks. We have to trust in the process!”
Protests had already begun to assail the stage from enraged people in the audience. There were so many people shouting at the stage that Benjamin couldn’t interpret what anyone was saying. Dr. Connolly seemed to be trying unsuccessfully to reason with the howling mob, but his voice went virtually unheard over the din.
Then, suddenly a bloodcurdling scream hushed everyone. It had come from the stage. The creature being restrained had begun to struggle with the restraints. Instead of laughing, now, he was thrashing about snarling, and screaming frantically. It was a pitiful sight.
“He’s going to break his neck!” Dr. Connolly yelled to the two men standing near the dolly. “Take the sack off of his head, it’s making him temperamental. Now!”
The two men looked at each other. Each one was hoping the other would follow the order until Dr. Connolly himself finally ran over to tear the sack off of the thing and then threw it at the two men. The audience as a whole gasped as an almost familiar face wrought with decay stared back at them wide-eyed in wonder. They were not quite the same coal-colored eyes that Benjamin had remembered from three days ago. Tonight all of the color had left them, vanquished by the ghastly white fog of death. This adaptation coupled with how they seemed to be bulging from its skull made the eyes far more awful than before. The whole face was swollen and covered with deep sores full of pus and coagulated blood. Everything about the creature was repulsive and embodied the stuff of nightmares. Worst of all, however, was Webster’s new permanent smile. Most of his bottom lip was gone exposing his bottom teeth and gum line. The same dried blood that resided in the sores on his skin had also stained his chin below the desolation of his lower lip. Once, Jacob Allen Webster had been one of the most ruthless men California had ever seen. Now, he was horror incarnate.
Many stunned and frightened audience members had again began yelling indignation at the stage. Those who were not addressing it expressed their disgust in other ways. Some, like the woman Benjamin was seated n
© Copyright 2016 Don McLovin. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Horror
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