From The New York Times: In response to protests in various states, the Secretary of Defense announced that the government has withdrawn all chemical soldiers from Iran. “Our post-operation teams are completing their inspections of the conflict sites,” he told the public yesterday, “and we expect their involvement to be brief and non-violent.”
“I know two members of my team are missing,” Abe spoke into his radio. “But we’ve searched every room of this palace and now we’re doing a double-check. The Marines are going door-to-door in the village. I’ll radio as soon as I’m done with my check and then you can start the fireworks. This building’s going down today, Ben. That’s an order. I want us back in Tehran by 1700 hours so we can finish all our inspections on schedule.”
Abe pocketed his radio in his desert camo trousers and glanced out one of the lattice windows lining the Rose Hall. He could see the palace’s shell-shaped swimming pool. At the bottom of the drained pool were black body bags holding the 13 dead Iranians Abe’s post-ops team had located when it first inspected the palace yesterday.
Abe wondered if Janet and Tyrell were dead, too. The team members had disappeared around dusk yesterday while the team was wrapping up its inspection. Abe guessed insurgents from the neighboring village had kidnapped them, but Ben had insisted the security remained tight throughout the inspection.
“No one came over the wall bordering the estate,” Ben said last night while they stood together by the palace gates.
“So you’re going to tell me ghosts got ’em?” Abe snapped.
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, Ben.” Abe gazed at the bulbous towers of the palace, which moonlight had changed from aqua blue to bone-white. He considered how everything in the desert transformed so drastically after dark.
Abe now moved from the Rose Hall into the nearly pitch-black Chamber of Mirrors. He clicked on his flashlight and pointed the light around the room. He saw the same tipped-over pink-cushioned chairs he’d seen yesterday. The pair of marble lion statues between which he’d found an elderly man’s corpse. The spiraling yellow, green, and violet tile work spanning the dome-shaped ceiling. And, of course, the hundreds of mirrors clouded with a residue of YZ-549.
He stepped toward one of the mirrors and, with a gloved hand, brushed away the ash-like granules that stuck to its surface. YZ-549 was initially lethal but became inactive within hours of its use. All post-ops teams knew not to let the chemical come into contact with sores or open wounds. Such contact would undoubtedly lead to localized infection, then sepsis, finally death.
Staring at his reflection, Abe saw his hazel eyes were as bloodshot and puffy as ever. His skin was paler than it should be considering all his sun exposure over the past three weeks. His brown hair was much thinner than most 30-year-olds’.
“Six months of this job has made you look a decade older,” Kara had told him before he left for his latest tour of duty. She sat on the living room couch of their rented townhouse in Denver, fingering the gold engagement ring he’d given her a month ago. She wore denim shorts and the sleeveless turquoise blouse he’d bought her in Cairo. With her pouting pink lips and sandy hair spilling over her shoulders, she looked the same as when they’d met during their senior year at the University of Colorado.
“Why don’t you just tell them you’re not going this time,” she said.
“And how great would that be for my career in the government?”
“What kind of career is this, Abe? You go to the sites where the chemical soldiers have done their dirty deeds. You wander through who-knows-how-toxic environments. And you gather people’s dead bodies after YZ-Whatever has made their skin melt off.”
“This isn’t the only government job I’m going to have, Kara.” Abe sat next to her on the couch and slipped an arm around her shoulder. “And this war is wrapping up. I’ve already applied for that transfer to an embassy job. My manager thinks it’s going to work out. You said you’d like to try living in a different country.”
“So I’ll get through this last tour,” Abe said, squeezing her upper arm. “And then maybe we’ll move to Kyoto or Geneva, and we’ll really start to live.”
Kara smiled and looked into his eyes. “And maybe have a baby?”
Abe kissed her. “Yes, and hopefully more than one.”
Abe froze in the Chamber of Mirrors when he noticed movement in the next room.
The adjoining space was one of the palace’s fountain rooms. Four pillars surrounded the dry, octagonal fountain that was in the center of the chamber. A beam of sunlight from one window showed bloody handprints on a pillar. Dust particles drifted through the sunlight.
More movement—someone stepping back from the doorway. Abe thought he spotted the hem of a dress.
“Janet?” he called. He put away his flashlight and reached for the pistol tucked under his belt. He crept toward the fountain room. “Tyrell?”
Abe stepped through the doorway and pointed his gun in the direction of where the person had retreated.
He faced an empty corner.
On the floor was a crumpled, dark blue chador—the cloak some Iranian women used to conceal their heads and bodies. Most of the women in the nearby village wore them. Abe lowered his pistol. He snickered and asked himself, What are you going to imagine next? The chador floating through the air?
He told himself nobody had been in the room. The shadow of a pillar had messed with his mind. And he was exhausted from sleeping no more than five hours a night for weeks. And he wasn’t about to believe in ghosts.
Like Janet did.
He recalled her approaching him yesterday with that stricken look on her face. It was twilight, and he was making sure team members had properly set up the tents among the palm trees behind the palace.
“I saw a woman,” Janet had told him. Her face was a purplish pink from the sinking desert sun, and her close-cropped hair made her frightened expression all the more apparent.
“She wasn’t dead, Abe. She walked toward me. I saw her in one of the hallways upstairs—where the bedrooms are. She was naked, with burns all over her body. She had hair down to her waist, and that look in her eyes….” Janet shook her head. “Hateful.”
“So there’s a live woman in there,” Abe said, reaching for his radio. “The general who was the main target in the palace was supposed to have a mistress with him.” Abe had helped deposit the general’s leaking remains in one of the body bags. “Maybe you saw the mistress. We haven’t come across any women’s bodies.”
Janet looked down at the roots of a palm tree. “She wasn’t alive,” she said. “I mean I think she was a….”
“A ghost?” Abe asked, sneering. He fake-punched her shoulder. “You and Tyrell promised you were going to stay away from that hashish dealer in Tehran.”
Janet gave him an embarrassed nod. “I’ve actually got to meet Tyrell now. We’re going to check the ballroom together. Forget what I said, Abe.”
After she left, Abe never saw her again.
He glanced once more at the chador in the corner.
One sleeve was moving toward him, as if it were reaching for him.
Startled, he stepped backwards, almost falling into the basin of the fountain. He was horrified to see two brown insect-like legs protrude from the embroidered edge of the sleeve.
A camel spider emerged from beneath the material.
Abe had seen a few of the spiders during past inspections and at the camp on the border of Turkmenistan. Even though they weren’t venomous, they always made his forearms break out in goose bumps. They had tan, furry bodies and huge pincers that could supposedly break the bones of small birds. Usually, they were the size of a pack of cigarettes.
But this one was bigger than his hand.
And it was approaching him with its two front legs lifted in an attack posture.
Abe started toward the doorway on the other side of the fountain. He still gripped his pistol. When he glanced back he saw the insect was following him. It was only feet away.
“Sonofabitch,” he muttered. He needed to focus on his search for Janet and Tyrell. He quickened his pace and entered some kind of dining room he hadn’t seen yesterday. A banquet table was in the middle of the dim space. Broken plates and glasses were strewn across the table. A dead cat lay on a throne-like chair at one end.
Abe looked behind him. The spider was at his heels. He turned and tried to stomp on the insect, but the spider easily dodged his descending boot.
He ran alongside the table, thinking he’d escape into another room and shut the door, but he felt something grab his ankle.
He gave a cry, then looked down at his leg. The spider was crawling from his calf to his shin.
Abe kicked his leg to shake the thing off, but it didn’t lose its hold. It was climbing past his knee.
He aimed his pistol and fired.
He felt an explosion of pain in his foot, and he collapsed on the floor. Despite his agony, he checked to make sure the spider wasn’t still on him. Thankfully, the thing scurried away in the direction of the fountain room.
When he spotted blood spurting out of the front of his boot, he realized he’d shot himself in the foot.
“Smart,” he said as he used his palm to apply pressure to the burning wound. “Real smart.”
He’d just gotten the bleeding to slow down when Trent and Federico charged into the dining room with their guns drawn. They entered from the fountain room. Trent pulled his radio out of his pocket and barked, “Man down in the palace. Repeat, man down in the palace.”
Abe grinned at them. “Did you see the sonafabitch?” he asked.
Federico gave him a confused look.
“The spider. In the fountain room. It was huge.”
Federico turned to Trent, and both men seemed baffled.
“We only saw the corpse in that room,” Trent said. “The woman in the ripped chador. With the long hair.”
“But there was no woman,” Abe said with a frown.
Abe was relieved to watch the palace grow smaller as the helicopter lifted into the bright sky. The towers were no longer looming and the wilderness of palm trees in the rear of the estate was now just part of a large garden. Yellow desert surrounded the palace walls and continued toward the horizon. Abe thought of Kara lazing on the hammock behind their townhouse, staring up at the evergreens as she wondered when he’d return to Colorado.
“So does this mean I’ll be going home early?” he asked the medic, who’d been bandaging his foot at the time of the helicopter’s lift-off.
The medic didn’t respond. He was scowling at Abe’s bare calf.
“What is it?” Abe asked.
The medic pressed a gloved finger against his calf, making him wince. A sharp pain shot all the way up to his thigh.
“You’ve got a bite mark on your leg,” the medic said in a surprised voice.
Despite the heat, Abe felt a chill. “It was the spider,” he said. He tried to ignore his fear about the woman’s corpse in the fountain room. He’d seen the body after Federico and Trent led him out of the dining room. The woman’s angry-looking face was burned in various places. He’d told himself he’d been under a lot of stress during the inspection. Maybe his mind had blocked out the sight of the woman’s remains when he was first in the room. After all, a dead woman couldn’t transform into a spider, and he still refused to believe in ghosts.
“That’s not a spider bite,” the medic said, peering into Abe’s eyes. “That’s a human bite if I’ve ever seen one.”
“What?” Abe asked in a panicked voice. He sat forward to look at his leg. He saw the red, scabbing ring of indentations on his flesh. Someone—or some woman—truly had bitten him.
A sob rose in his throat as he recognized the gray granules of YZ-549 around the bite mark, mingling with his blood.
David Massengill is the author of Fragments of a Journal Salvaged from a Charred House in Germany, 1816 and other stories (Hammer & Anvil Books). His short works of horror and literary fiction have appeared in dozens of literary journals, including Pulp Metal Magazine, Yellow Mama, Eclectica Magazine, and The Raven Chronicles, amongst others. He is currently seeking a publisher for Extermination Days, his novel about deadly insects invading the Pacific Northwest. Read more of his work at www.davidmassengillfiction.com.