by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson
She left a trail of blood as she went. Her raw feet pattered on the pavement. Her sight was blurry so she saw very little, despite having no eyelids. Then again, that may not have been an improvement. The little shop stood out in the dark, all lit up, as shops are wont to be. She ran into the shop and screamed.
The three customers and the clerk all looked around, and once they saw what had appeared, their blood ran cold.
The elderly man caught his elderly wife as she fainted. The clerk still stared. A young woman who had just stopped by to get some cosmetics stared in wonder. She looked friendly enough to the invading apparition.
Screaming, the ghoulish thing laid her hands on her shoulders. The young woman screamed, and the skinless human figure screamed back at her.
“Get away!” the young woman managed to cough out, and freed herself of the screaming revenant.
The clerk got out his shotgun and fired. The skinless figure fell into a rack of candy and hit the floor.
* * *
Detective Johnson stared. That was, by far, the oddest thing he had seen. It was definitely a human being there on the floor, being studied intently by the Crime Scene Unit. But no skin. That sort of thing belonged on a previous century’s heavy-metal album cover, not on the floor of a convenience store.
“I don’t think I want to explain any of this to the next of kin of whoever that is,” he said.
“You don’t have to explain,” said his partner, Tubbs. “That’s what the media are for.” He grinned.
Tubbs had seen skinned people. But he had never known them to run.
“I have a craving for ham, for some reason,” he said.
“Shut up,” said Johnson numbly.
They went out to their car.
* * *
“What do we know?” said Johnson.
“Well, the trail leads from the trees,” said Tubbs, “but there was some mild drizzle at the time, and woodland creatures are always hungry...”
“Well, the trail leads through the woods to the road on the other side. There it ends. Or starts, you know,” Tubbs said shrugging.
“So, somebody dropped Miss Naked USA off and she ran for cover in the woods?”
“So it seems.”
Detective Johnson shook his head. “Did the cameras pick up anything?”
“Well, yeah. It was most definitely a car of some sort,” said Tubbs.
“Who was she?”
Tubbs read through the file he had from the coroner. “Jane Doe, apparently,” he said, “but here is where things get interesting...” He paused for effect. Johnson perked up his ears. “We know from her DNA that she was definitely female. But...” Again, pause for effect. Johnson looked annoyed.
“She was pumped full of testosterone. Lots of it, from birth, so she had a very male figure. I don’t think I would have been any more attracted to her with her skin on. It was that bad, they say.”
He paused for breath and concluded. “And she wasn’t skinned.”
Johnson looked interested. “What? How come she was like that then? Was she born that way?”
“It appears so. There were no cut marks on her anywhere or tears or any signs of violence. There was no sign of any attachment to leather anywhere. Or so the coroner says.”
Johnson licked his molars. There were some traces of sweetbread there. “I don’t like where this is going.”
“It only gets better,” said Tubbs. “Her bones were not very developed. They had not grown properly yet.”
“Says here,” said Tubbs, pointing at the text on his pad, “a number of indicators put her age at five, maybe six years, at most.”
“So, we have a suspect,” said Johnson.
“We appear to have. Several of them.”
* * *
The International Biotec building looked like any other factory. It was white, made of corrugated iron, and pretty much ugly all around. The casual observer might think it was full of hay, since it resembled a barn. But it wasn’t. And the security was a bit over the top for a few bales of hay.
It was surrounded by a fence, which, oddly enough, was designed to keep people in, something a casual observer would not notice. And the four guards carried 4.6 x 30-calibre submachine guns. An ancient design, but one could write one’s name in some Kevlar with that.
Johnson and Tubbs stopped their car at the gates.
“Hi, I’m here to see Nero,” said Johnson.
“He´s not here,” said the guard. “He never visits.”
“Should have known. Who is in charge then?”
“Dr. Oberheim. He’s in right now, I think,” said the guard.
“I’ll speak to him then.”
“And who may I say wants to speak with him?” asked the guard.
“Detectives Johnson and Tubbs,” said Johnson, “because we found something we believe he has lost.”
The guard raised an eyebrow ever so briefly and went to his booth to check on something.
“Is he going to shoot us or what?” asked Tubbs, half-amused.
“He’ll either let us in, or some guys are going to come out and offer us money,” said Johnson.
Tubbs looked at him.
“In that case, I’ll advise you to take the money and never speak of the thing again.”
“Seriously?” said Tubbs.
“Dr. Oberheim will be happy to see you,” said the guard, much to the detectives’ surprise. The gate was lifted, and they drove in.
They parked the car in the personnel parking space and walked to the door. They opened it and were greeted by a secretary who was busy answering phones.
They looked around. The office was dull and drab, with two doors leading from it, one labelled ‘Personnel,’ the other ‘Management.’ They smiled at the secretary, and she told them Dr. Oberheim would be right down to see them.
They heard him come down the stairs before he opened the door. He smiled at them, but Johnson could tell right away he was just showing them some teeth.
“How may I help you?” he asked the detectives.
“We found a thing we think belongs to you,” said Johnson, not even trying to smile.
Dr. Oberheim raised his eyebrows, waiting for Johnson to elaborate.
“You are the only biotech company in the area,” said Johnson, “that has the financial ability to pull off the thing we just found.”
“You found a thing?” said Dr. Oberheim. “So?”
Johnson and Tubbs looked at each other.
“This thing,” said Tubbs, and handed his pad to Dr. Oberheim.
Dr. Oberheim looked at the pad, and raised an eyebrow. Johnson could not tell if he was scared or just disgusted. Or either of these things.
“Looks like a human,” he said after some reflection, “Why do you refer to it as a ‘thing’?”
“We don’t think it is human, strictly speaking. I mean one not naturally born anyway,” said Tubbs.
“Is it genetically human?” asked Dr. Oberheim.
“Yes,” said Tubbs.
“Then it’s human,” said Dr. Oberheim, “and you should refer to it as a him, or as the case may be, her.”
Johnson rolled his eyes a bit, thinking of something to say. “It’s an ‘it’, and I think I prefer calling it an ‘it’, if you don’t mind. Can you look me in the eye and tell me it did not come from here?”
“You do know it is illegal to build humans,” said Dr. Oberheim.
“It’s not a human,” said Johnson.
“Sure it is. He, or she, I mean. Does he have a name?”
Johnson bobbed his head. He was wondering if the man could be highly intelligent, yet at the same time retarded, and it annoyed him.
“Can we have a look around the factory?” he asked, out of the blue.
“No,” said Dr. Oberheim blankly. “Not without a warrant,” he was quick to add.
Johnson shook his head. Who demanded warrants these days? Then it occurred to him that it was highly unlikely that anyone would give him a warrant to search this particular place, since it was one of the government’s own, so to speak. It was complicated.
Johnson turned around. “We aren’t getting anything from these guys,” he told Tubbs, and they left.
* * *
“They definitely made it,” Johnson said to Tubbs while driving out the gate. “They are the only biotech company for miles. And they are definitely getting away with it.”
Tubbs was silent. Then he suddenly turned toward Johnson, as far as the seatbelt would allow, and said, “But how did that thing get out?”
Johnson said nothing.
“I mean, there is security around the place. And that thing could hardly have climbed the fence. Someone drove it out, we know that. But who? Think about it,” said Tubbs, becoming more animated. “Somebody inside that facility is nutty enough to take one of the products and just dump it out on the road somewhere for the fun of it. I think that gives us something to investigate.”
Johnson looked somewhat less grim, almost happy, even. “Let’s get their employee list,” he said.
* * *
“How do you get people to work here?”
“We feed them drugs. Lots of drugs,” said Dr. Oberheim.
“You are insane!”
“I believe it is called being a sociopath. But any word will do, I suppose.”
“You are on drugs, aren’t you?”
“Why do you think I’m so calm about this?” said Dr. Oberheim. He smiled at the new guy.
“They’ll kick in soon, and then you won’t care either.” He turned and pointed him to go in before him. “Let’s look at the deboning facility before you stop caring. I find that most often leaves an impression.”
The new guy didn’t know what to say. He was torn between “I have been drugged” and “Deboning facility?” He chose neither.
* * *
The drugs were beginning to kick in as they exited the deboning area. The new guy looked kind of pale.
“You will be working here,” said Dr. Oberheim. “This is where your skills will be of use.”
“People will do that for money?” he managed to say.
“No. They work for the drugs we give them. Payment is just a bonus.”
“We have a modified type of coca leaf we process to make a drug that produces euphoria. They say it feels like being in love.”
The new guy said nothing.
“Your résumé said you have five years’ experience in fitting newly grown limbs to people,” said Dr. Oberheim.
“I never said I was into... that.”
“Skeletal replacement,” said Dr. Oberheim, and pointed on his pad. He showed it to the new guy. “It says so right here, Dr. Martin.”
“Not... like... that...” said Dr. Martin.
“Same thing. Easier, if anything. Look, the new plastic metal mesh bone is coated with titanium so it will stick better to flesh than ordinary bone.”
“I have a headache,” said Dr. Martin, staring at the floor. He trailed off, bending over, heading toward some chairs lined up against the wall.
Dr. Oberheim sighed. Yet another new guy who could not quite take it. He would be better in the morning, and after a week he’d be just like the rest.
He looked through the clear wall at all the white-clad men in the sterile environment reboning the flesh as it came through to them. Next in line was the coating, followed by canning.
The flesh needed to lager a bit before being armoured and put into storage.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson