"Good morning, Doc," said the lab attendant. He slouched in his chair and swiveled to face them as they entered. The name tag on his lab coat said Bibeaux. Under his coat he wore a Grateful Dead t-shirt, dark blue with a skull and lightning.
"Good morning, Ellis," said Jones. "This is Mr. Coffman whom I phoned you about."
"Uh-huh," said Bibeaux. "Nice meeting you, Coffman. I’m all the staff there is on duty."
"Must get lonely," Coffman said.
"Oh, I kind of like the quiet. I suppose you want to see the John Doe."
Coffman nodded. The freezer units were in back of the lab, behind a clear plastic curtain. "Coming right up," said Bibeaux.
Coffman followed him and Jones stayed behind Coffman, if not placated now, at least keeping out of the way. The units were three-shelf stainless steel cabinets. Rows of them, numbered, were lined against the rear wall. They all looked quite new and shiny. Coffman wondered why Leclerc County needed so much cold storage.
"This here is the old boy’s intake." Bibeaux handed him a clipboard with a sheaf of papers on its rings, official forms. "Nothin’ out of the ordinary. Old guy croaks. That’s all. Up and croaks. Ticker stops ticking. Dullsville, by comparison. Most of what we get is car accidents, drug OD, gun shot wounds, domestic abuse, HIV-related, all that nice messy stuff."
"I see." Coffman put down his bug-out bag and gave the intake file a cursory review.
"The dead-o you want is in unit five."
"Let’s do this," Coffman said. He kneeled to unzip the bag.
"Let me see if he’s home." Bibeaux rapped his knuckles on the door of the middle unit in the storage cabinet. "’Scuse me! Mr. Doe? Sorry to disturb you. You got a visitor." He looked back at Coffman and grinned and saw that Coffman had no discernible sense of humor. Bibeaux then cut the comedy and unlatched the fridge unit and slid out the body inside, unfolding the metal legs that supported the sliding table. Then he unzipped the gray body bag. The flabby body was naked and white and puffy, like a mushroom. The dead man had a bald, spotted head and a long jaw with purplish lips. His eyes and mouth were closed. The mouth had been pinned.
"Meet John Doe," Bibeaux announced. He snickered. "Caucasian male in his late fifties, pudgy as a doughboy. You can bet we didn’t find no health club membership card on him."
"He was absent ID and personal effects," said Doctor Jones. He remained a few feet behind Coffman and leaned on a cabinet, his arms across his chest.
"OK," Coffman said. "Thanks."
"You’re more’n welcome!" said Bibeaux.
Coffman removed a hand-held scanner from his bag and switched it on. Battery still good. He ran the blue beam it emitted up and down the ‘dead-o.’
Doctor Jones leaned forward, interested. "What is that device?"
"I can see that," said Jones. "I can see it scans. I’m not familiar with that device."
"It’s special use." Coffman tapped the side of it. Damn thing needs to be recalibrated, he thought. Been sitting on the shelf too long. But it would do for today.
"That’s cool," said Bibeaux. He smiled. "I love me gadgets. That one is way cool! Where is that made? It is like a German or Swiss precision instrument?"
"Taiwan actually." Coffman adjusted a dial and continued the scan.
Jones said: "What is it, precisely, you are scanning for? The parasite?"
"I hope," said Coffman, "that I’m scanning for something that isn’t present."
Then there was a blip. Shit, thought Coffman. Bibeaux actually jumped back. But Doctor Jones, quite calm, leaned in closer, taking what seemed to Coffman to be a clinical interest.
"What does that signify?"
"What I’d prefer it didn’t," Coffman said.
But it was there, and clearly defined in the scanner’s small screen. A sub-dermal microchip, its data immediately readable. He was one of theirs, the agency’s. His name was Marek, Lawrence R. He had been a pathologist, part of a team that was now all dissipated, several dead, others missing. The thumbnail image showed a younger, thinner man who was not dead, but quite healthy and alert and fifty years of age, who had worked at a secure facility in New Mexico before his disappearance. Marek had been missing for three months.
Further scan picked out the organism. Buried in its victim’s intestines. Damn you, bug, thought Coffman.
It was there alright and it had caused Marek’s deterioration and death and now it was dormant, a lump, retracted. Waiting. For maturation or a new host, now that Marek was defunct. It had a tag too, its data secure, unreadable on the standard-issue, portable device Coffman carried. But its chip could be excised and deciphered later.
The immediate objective was to get the organism.
"You’ve found something," said Jones.
"Parasite," said Coffman. "We refer to them as bugs or flukes but that’s jargon. It’s a form of biological organism. You’ll get a chance to see it up close and personal after I remove it."
"Remove it?" said Bibeaux.
"There’s no immediate danger," Coffman said to Bibeaux. "This is under control."
"If you say so," Bibeaux said. He looked nervous.
"It’s no big deal," Coffman said. Stay calm, be the alpha dog, reassure the locals, elicit their cooperation.
"I’ve done this before. I will need your assistance. And yours too, Doctor Jones."
"How you going to do that, remove it?" Bibeaux wanted to know.
"Indian snake charmer method."
"Don’t worry. I got this," Coffman said. He turned. "Doctor Jones?"
Doctor Ahmad Jones lunged forward with a small, flashlight-sized stun stick in his hand, which he had surreptitiously removed from his pocket, and now slammed into Coffman’s neck, voltage pouring into Coffman’s flesh. Jones forced Coffman to his knees, then forced him prone on the tile floor of the lab, convulsing and then unconscious. He let up on the switch on the stun gun and replaced it in his pocket. He looked at Bibeaux, who stood off to the side, his mouth hanging open.
"Had to be done," said Jones.
"Yeah, but why?"
"Trust me, Ellis. I am a physician."
"You killed him," said Bibeaux.
"Not killed," said Jones. "Not killed, only disabled and only temporarily. I told you I am a physician. I do not kill. I preserve life. In all its myriad forms."
"Sure looks like you killed him. I mean, it was a real cool move, like a samurai or a Jedi with a light saber. Looks like he’s dead now, lying there. You smoked him, doc."
Jones stooped and felt a pulse in Coffman’s thick, muscular neck. "He will survive."
Standing, Jones unlocked a cabinet drawer and withdrew a retractable baton, removed it from its black nylon sheath, and extended it. "This too is purely a defensive weapon, Ellis. I am not the aggressor. He is."
"He doesn’t look so aggressive now."
"Mr. Coffman would have destroyed the organism and that can’t be permitted. I have an affirmative duty not to allow that to happen."
"What organism? The thing he scanned?"
"The chrysalis," said Jones.
"Huh? You mean what’s inside the John Doe?"
"He had a name," said Jones. "The man’s name was Marek."
"You knew him?"
"We communicated. Mr. Marek and I were in communication. He came here to contact me but, unfortunately, was unable to do so in time."
"In time for what?"
"To save him," said Doctor Jones. He heaved a sigh of deep regret.
"So he like croaked under the bridge?"
"No, he did not. He did not ‘croak.’ He transitioned."
"Fuck’n transitioned into a dead-o."
"There is no death, Ellis. Death is an illusion."
Bibeaux looked at the cadaver. "Fooled me."
"I will explain to you, in time," said Jones. "But not now. This is not the appropriate time. What is important now is that the chrysalis went dormant and is under my protection."
Jones stood over Coffman and poked him between the shoulder blades with the tip of the baton. Coffman didn’t move or respond. "In his ignorance, he called it a parasite. That is repugnant. He would have destroyed it. That would have been murder and that I cannot permit."
"So, you’re like saying, it’s not a parasite after all?"
Jones gave Bibeaux a look that was all sympathy and patience. "No, Ellis, it is not."
"Then what is it?"
"I will take you into my confidence, Ellis."
"I’d sure appreciate that, doc. I’m confused."
"We are dealing with a unique life form. That of a higher order."
"Higher than who?"
Doctor Jones, satisfied that Coffman remained unconscious, retracted the baton and placed it aside, on the cabinet shelf. He opened other drawers and removed zip ties and a hypodermic needle and a small bottle of fluid. "I will explain, Ellis," he said.
"What’re you doing?"
"I have to give Mr. Coffman an injection."
"To kill him?"
"No! I don’t kill! It is a sedative. And we must restrain him, bind his wrists and ankles. Out of necessity. He is a dangerous man, Ellis. Trust me when I say that. He is from the government but he is not here to help. To the contrary, he is here to destroy."
"But what I asked," Bibeaux said, "about higher than who."
"Higher than us, Ellis. But we shall evolve with the chrysalis, in symbiosis."
"Interdependence, mutual benefit, a sharing of strengths." He tried to find words that Bibeaux could comprehend.
"Symbiots?" said Bibeaux. "Like in Marvel Comics?"
"Don’t be absurd, Ellis. This is reality."
Jones prepared the injection for Coffman but paused and turned to Bibeaux. A beatific smile spread across Doctor Ahmad Jones’ face. He raised his hand, palm up. "It is evolved, you see. Its evolution was not distorted by emotional or sexual factors. It doesn’t know politics or ideology, or any ism. It is pure. Pure as the primeval rain on the first day. And it is life-giving. It restores vim and vigor to the human body, as I can well testify. And it offers us the opportunity to evolve with it, in perfect symbiosis, if only we submit."
"Submit like how?"
"You shall see."
"You mean like having a fuck’n parasite inside?" The prospect repulsed Bibeaux.
This exasperated Doctor Jones. "It is not a parasite! Are you not listening to me, Ellis?"
Bibeaux shrugged. "Guess I don’t get it, doc."
"Hmph," said Jones. He took the syringe and squatted down next to Coffman, placing the zip ties on the floor.
Coffman popped up, propelling himself with his arms and knees, standing upright and taking Doctor Jones by surprise. He knocked the syringe from Jones’ hand with a swing of his arm and then, grabbing Jones by the collar of his suit jacket, lifted him to his feet and delivered a solid punch to his face. Doctor Jones fell backward. The back of his head hit the wall with a solid thunk. He slid down to the floor.
Coffman, like a lineman looking to sack the QB, turned on Bibeaux.
"Whoa!" said Bibeaux, backing off. He raised his hands in surrender. "Easy, bro."
"Don’t you give me any flak too."
"Nossir, no, no, no! I am not going to. Honest to Gawd, I won’t!"
Doctor Jones, still conscious, reached into his pocket for the stun stick, but did not try to get up.
"Stay down," Coffman said.
"I have to stop you," said Jones.
"I strongly advise you not to try. You’re not in any shape to."
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