Iron Angels – Snippet 29

Chapter 17

After an abbreviated tour of the immediate area of the University of Chicago, Ed ushered them into one of the empty stadium-style lecture halls he used for the lower level science courses he taught.

“The University’s changed since you stumbled through here, my friend.” Ed gestured to the flat panel monitors on the wall. “Not to mention all the kids these days carry laptops, tablets, phones, you name the gadget and they’ll have one.”

Temple glanced about the hall. “Much different than the small school I attended.”

“Things couldn’t have changed that much since you attended college, what a few years back?” Ed grinned.

“Really, Ed? This guy,” Jasper thumbed toward his old professor, “thought women would fall for his Billy Dee Williams routine, but — ”

“Hey, you’re the one who invented all the Billy Dee nonsense,” Ed put up his hands as if fending off an attack. “Tell me this woman doesn’t look youthful.”

Temple averted her eyes from Ed’s and turned her head ever so slightly.

“You’re falling for this load of crap, Temple?” Jasper grinned.

“Well, I’d say Ed’s a lot classier and more refined than some people I’ve been associating with lately.”

“I like this lady,” Ed said.

Jasper shook his head. “Ed, I hate to tell you this, but Temple is about as old as you are. Well, maybe not quite as old — ”

“What is this, high school?” Vance dropped his bag on the lab-sized table and rustled through the contents.

Ed coughed. “This guy right here, this so-called Special Agent, once raised his hand during a lecture and asked — ”

“Yeah, a truly painful and boring lecture,” Jasper said, laughing, “I said something like, ‘Hey Lando, is it true you just made a deal to keep quality education out of here forever?”

“You believe this guy?” Ed chuckled, deep and good-natured.

“I don’t — oh, I get it, Billy Dee, Lando from Empire Strikes Back,” Temple said. “What did you do?”

“I answered him like Lando, and even got the line correct.” Ed smiled broadly.

“Hey guys?” Vance peered at them from behind his bag of whatever, a gigantic grin on his face. “Let’s talk science.”

Temple, Jasper, and Ed laughed long and hard.

“What?” Vance looked at each of them in turn and held up a sample he’d taken from one of the scenes they’d visited.

“Forget it,” Jasper wiped tears from his eyes. “Ed, I’m gonna sober this up a bit — we’re investigating a few disturbing matters with bizarre occurrences we’d like to run by you.”

Ed’s brow furrowed. He clunked the metal thermos down on the table and pulled a pair of glasses from the breast pocket of his dress shirt. Ed ignored Jasper and peered over octagonal framed glasses at Vance. “You seem eager to discuss science, at least.”

Ed reached for the sample and peered at the liquid within the vial. “Light pink in color, non-viscous in appearance. What am I looking at here?”

“Well,” Vance said, “this was the only liquid found at a crime scene, the remains of a human. I also found — ”

Ed turned to Jasper. “You didn’t mention anything about human remains. Was this a murder?” He’d turned deadly serious and professor-like on a dime.

“We can’t figure out what is happening,” Jasper said. “It’s beyond my understanding.”

“Perhaps you should start from the beginning. Provide me some perspective, you might say.” Ed spread his arms wide, palms up.

“Coffee,” Jasper said, “I’m in need of some good coffee, preferably a dry cappuccino.”

“Oh, sure,” Ed said, “and here’s a profiterole. I can get you some coffee, can’t vouch for the quality.”

“Couldn’t be any worse than the battery acid forced upon me on the way over here.” Jasper frowned at Temple.

“You’re such a whiny coffee snob. You don’t like what I brought, get up earlier and make your own.”

“I’m liking Ms. Black still more,” Ed said.

Jasper got his coffee, and they briefed the entire affair to Ed and what they’d witnessed and found so far.

The lecture hall was still and devoid of any sound. Ed sat, an intense expression on his face. Finally, after a long pause, he spoke. “I’m not sure I’m following the part with the haze and the dragon and these, what did you call them?”

“She called them demons,” Jasper said. “I’m not sure that part of this equation is even real. Did we imagine fantastic creatures? Or perhaps the mist congealed in such a way — ”

“No. I don’t think so,” Temple said. “You obviously aren’t familiar with certain books of the Bible.”

“I have read the Bible, you know.” Jasper folded his arms.

Temple huffed. “This is fire and brimstone stuff. I can’t help but think we need to pay attention and not dismiss a possible Biblical origin of these… creatures, if the word ‘demon’ bothers you too much.”

“I’m not disputing any of your religious beliefs.” Jasper sipped at his coffee. “But too many other factors exist. You’re acting like this is the start of the End Times, for crying out loud.”

“And why not? God promised not to send another flood, but — ”

“Yes, yes. I’m familiar with that part of Genesis,” Jasper said.

“But he didn’t make a covenant not to send forth demons and therefore pave the way for the second coming of Christ, did he?”

Jasper threw his arms up.

“I’m not sure I understand why the Bureau is getting involved in this,” Ed interrupted, peering over his glasses. “I didn’t think you investigated murders, unless they involved something like national security.”

“Oh, allow me to explain,” Jasper said. “Temple and Vance are assigned to SAG.” He let the acronym hang —

“SAG? Like Screen Actors — ”

“All right,” Temple said. “I can’t help the acronym. SAG wasn’t my first choice but people at headquarters have zero imagination. SAG stands for Scientific Anomalies Group. And by the way, Jasper is assigned to us now as well, and I am his supervisor — ”

“Temporarily assigned,” Jasper added.

Ed rotated the vial in his fingers. “Vance, if what you told me is correct, well — this would be the discovery of a lifetime. You’re talking alien life, alien elements. I can’t even imagine how such chemistry could exist on our world.”

“It could if supernatural forces were involved,” Temple said.

“You mean divine intervention?” Jasper shook his head. “And why would God send some terrible creature, one resembling a Chinese style dragon, down here to digest people outside its body? Can you explain that?”

“I didn’t say anything about divine intervention,” Temple replied.

Ed flipped through a textbook lying on the table. “All right, are any of the materials you’ve shown me here classified information?”

“No. I haven’t made any of this classified,” Temple said. “So far, this is a criminal investigation, not national security.”

“In my mind,” Jasper said, “our discussions have no choice but go down the path of weaponization.”

“I don’t think so,” Vance and Ed said at the same time then regarded one another, as if in unspoken respect.

“I’m no scientist, but if Temple asserts divine — or satanic, whatever — intervention in the daily lives of people and Vance asserts alien elements? Well, I’m afraid the government, and specifically the military would say otherwise. Almost everything has weapon potential.”

Temple smacked the table. “That is the whole reason I’m not classifying anything right now. I want to keep all talk of aliens off the radar.”

Jasper pursed his lips. “Damn. I hadn’t thought of that angle. Good call, Temple. Withholding information from headquarters, since they typically stick their noses in places they shouldn’t.” He laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing really, only that you’re headquarters, right? And SAG is sticking its nose in fieldwork. But you’re rather not like them, you’re not even close to resembling standard HQ bureaucrats.”

“Gee, thanks for the compliment,” Vance said, “I think.”

Jasper shook his head. “We’re letting speculation get too far ahead of us. As of now, mangled bodies are our only concrete evidence.”

“I wish I’d seen the specimens in person,” Ed said.

“Specimens? I’m not so sure.” Jasper made a face. “It’s one thing to view bodies and speak of bodies in a clinical manner, but on a crime scene, when they’re bloody and mangled, well — ”

“Yes,” Temple added, “when confronted with the brutality of man directly, it’s sobering.”

“Horrific, I’m sure, but you didn’t witness the acts.” Ed peered at them from over his glasses. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to diminish or downplay any of what you’ve all been through.”

“I witnessed two men incinerate themselves by way of thermite.”

Ed winced. “Sorry. Nasty stuff. I can’t imagine a human being making a conscious decision to end their life in such a horrible manner.”

“Me, either.” Jasper’s shoulders twitched, as if suppressing a shiver. “I saw what the stuff did to metal during my time in the Marines.”

“All right. Let’s discuss what we actually have here.” Vance spread a line of photos on the table. “This is what the bodies looked like.”

Ed leaned over the photographs and picked up a magnifying glass. After perhaps a minute of examining the images, he said: “If I didn’t know better, and without getting overly technical, I’d say this was an attempt to digest food outside the body.”

“My thought as well,” Vance said.

“But what kind of creature is capable of such destruction?” Temple demanded. “Certainly no land animal I’ve ever heard of.”

“Man, for one, though I don’t want to believe a man or men performed such heinous acts,” Jasper said. “But we talked about a few possibilities last night, while stomping around the old man’s backyard. You mentioned a sea creature, didn’t you, Temple?”

“Close enough.” Ed kept his head down, continuing his examination of the photographs. “Certain types of starfish are known to extend their stomachs outside their bodies.”

“I’m not a biologist. Not by any stretch, but are there any land animals capable of this?” Temple asked.

“Fungi are saprobrionts and engage in extracellular digestion. But this is odd and combined with the samples you provided and from all you’ve told me, well, the lack of foreign digestion enzymes precludes an entire line of reasoning and type of animal. However, the evidence does suggest an animal that savages its prey.”

Temple stood straighter, leaning back a little from the photographs. “But we never saw an animal.”

“It has to be an animal,” Jasper said. “There is no other explanation.”

“I disagree,” Vance said. “I found material suggesting an alien world.”

“Are you saying we’re being invaded by aliens from another world?” Jasper asked. “Look, aren’t we getting carried away? Innocent people died at the hands of what we believe are a cult operating in the area.”

“What, all the sudden you’re buying into the cult idea?” Temple asked. “Seriously?”

“After the van last night and the proximity to the Euclid Hotel, linking the kidnapping with the first one, the little girl, is easy. Look,” Jasper said, “I’m accepting the initial theories you proposed when we first met. As I was saying, we have insanely carried out suicides, kidnapped people — one living and one dead, and two other dead bodies, both human, but mangled beyond recognition. And we’re worrying about aliens and demons? Am I the crazy one here? How about we focus on reality; what lies within the realm of possibility on earth?”

“Relax, folks.” Ed placed a hand on Temple’s shoulder, and she didn’t flinch or attempt to pull away. “Jasper’s got a point, but how about this: we ask another type of expert around here, an astrophysicist. Also, I’m gonna suggest Vance stick around. We should take all of the material you’ve gathered and run some more conclusive tests in my lab.”

“An astrophysicist? Why?”

“Vance said that some of the material he collected points beyond our world, and should be examined, no? I’m not discounting anything at this point,” Ed said. “But, and this is my opinion as a non-law enforcement type, you all should be on the street trying to find the cult members. Makes me not want to leave Chicago. You Indiana folks are just plain weird.”

“I’m not from Indiana,” Jasper said. “But going out and catching bad guys is exactly what I’d like to do, and we have other leads to follow-up on.”

Ed grinned. “Now you’re sounding like some cop show on television.”

“I’d be impressed if you somehow came up with answers as fast as they do on all the crime scene investigation shows on TV,” Jasper said.

“I thought the FBI crime lab was world class. Why not use them rather than me then, wise guy?” Ed removed his glasses.

“Come on, really? They’re good, but if you need an answer now, not so much.”

“So true,” Temple added.

“Indeed,” Vance said, “why do you think Temple brought me on to her team?”

“You and I both know, my friend.” She winked at Vance. “This was not only my last chance, but yours.”

That was so true, also. They’d both been misfits — well, Vance was. For her part, Temple had pissed off all the wrong folks along the way, even though her case work had been outstanding over the years. Hers was a permanent exile to headquarters. Vance still had a shot at a normal career, whatever that was in the modern day Bureau.

“I’ve missed quite a few things, I think.” Ed twirled his glasses. “Does the plan work for you?”

“Yes, let’s ask this physicist of yours, but how about later? We’ll leave Vance here with you.”

“This’ll likely take most of the day,” Ed said. “How about you guys come back this evening, we’ll chat and grab some drinks?”

Jasper grinned; glad the topic of drinks came up. “Hey Billy.”

“Will you please stop with the Lando crap?” Despite the harsh sounding warning, Ed was all smiles — Temple could tell he loved this sort of banter and doubted any of his professor and scientist buddies acted like this around him.

“You know, speaking of drinks,” Jasper said, “I hear there are two rules to having a good time.”

Vance was looking confused again.

Temple rolled her eyes. “Jasper thinks he’s a real comedian with all these Billy Dee Williams jokes. You probably don’t remember those beer commercials Billy Dee did back in the day, Vance. It isn’t that funny, so don’t worry about it.”

“What?” protested Jasper. “Come on, that was a pretty good joke. Even Lando thought so.”

Temple smiled. “Me, I think Ed is more attractive than Lando Calrissian, just the way he is — and I’m guessing, and really going out on a limb here, way more intelligent.”

“Why, thank you.” Ed stood taller, beaming.

“Though, I’m not sure how much given your choice of friends.” Temple rolled her head, aiming her gaze at Jasper.