The Siren Stopped in Twin Lakes
© Isabella Bailey 2019
All rights reserved.
CONTENT WARNING: THE FOLLOWING STORY CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND SCENES OF VIOLENCE. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
Just outside Fairplay, Colorado
I was supposed to have the day off.
That was the first thought to go through Bryan Gilbert’s mind when his phone lit up on the bedside table, its shrill alert tone fracturing the fog of sleep and dragging him, kicking and screaming, into the morning.
The second was, It’d better not be another plumbing problem. I just fixed the damn sump pump.
He fumbled for his phone, wiping the sleep crust out of his eyes, and read the message. It was from Stout. How soon can you get down here? We’ve got a situation.
Not a plumbing problem, then. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good; that much was obvious by virtue of the hour alone. Gilbert tapped out a response—Just woke up, give me an hour or two—before flinging away the blankets and hauling himself into a sitting position.
Stout’s reply came a moment later, again heralded by that ear-splitting whistle that made him want to chuck his phone across the room. Not good enough. Need to come ASAP. Matheson already on the way. Major shit, can’t say more. There was a brief pause, followed by another message: It’s a cleanup thing.
A cleanup thing.
In the years that Gilbert had been a janitor at the Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, those were, ironically, three words he’d started to think he would never have to hear.
“It’s just an extra precaution, really,” the recruiter had told him when he was first interviewing for the job. “Sort of a failsafe. To protect the Department, you know? Jeez, that makes it sound really sleazy,” she’d added, fixing him with those big doe eyes and a smile that wormed its way into his chest. “Look, it’s above board, okay? But as long as places like this exist, there’ll always be investigative journalists sniffing around. If something does happen, we just wanna keep the busybodies away, you understand?”
Gilbert had smiled back and nodded, saying that yes, he understood perfectly. He didn’t bother to wonder just what kind of something she meant, or why anything that happened at the RMTRI would warrant an investigation in the first place. That had all seemed secondary at the time. He’d broken out the old rose-colored specs that day, sidetracked by the cushy salary, full benefits, and employer-sponsored apartment with a great view of the Rockies. And as uneventful weeks became uneventful months, maybe he had gotten a little too comfortable. He’d never bothered to think much about how easy his work was for what he was making, or how little he really knew about the kind of research that went on in large portions of the facility.
Gilbert stood up, flipped on the light, and plucked his uniform out of the haphazard pile of dirty clothes in the corner of the room. No obvious stains, and it passed the sniff test. Good enough. He changed, zipping his substantial paunch into his coveralls like a sausage into a casing, and glanced out the window with weary eyes. The first amber light was already illuminating the world outside, throwing the Mosquito Range into sharp relief. Today was going to be a hot one.
U.S. Highway 24, Lake County, Colorado
By the time Gilbert passed through the town of Granite, the sun had risen all the way and was beating relentlessly down on him through the windows of his Altima. The idea of the return trip in this thing after it had been baking in the heat for hours wasn’t something he relished, but then again, neither was any of this.
As he was wont to do during these long commutes, he found himself thinking too much. While normally it was about something trivial, like whether he’d made a fool of himself in front of the cute barista at Corpus Coffee, today it was the job.
It was never the job.
The last time he’d had to slog over to the facility during the daytime was months ago, and that had been for a routine emergency drill. Now his mind spun with questions: Who else had been called in? Did he really remember all the different protocols? Above all, what was it that needed cleaning up in the first place?
If you asked the average Twin Lakes resident what went on all day up in that big building in the foothills, they probably would have shrugged and said something about government-backed weapons development. As far as Gilbert could tell, this was correct. They—the ever-elusive they, those faceless people in high places—were always trying to make things more intuitive, more automated, more accurate, more deadly. Wasn’t that reason enough for them to want to be left alone in their top-secret laboratory, away from society’s prying eyes? He wasn’t under any illusions that the government’s activities were all, as the oh-so-charming recruiter had put it, “above board”. So why shouldn’t this be anything more than some lab technician getting taken out by a malfunctioning assault rifle, or a nosy reporter who got a little too gung ho—clean up the evidence, dispose of the remains, and be home before dinner?
As he veered west, Gilbert found himself thinking back to a conversation he’d had with Powell, one of one of the other crewmen, during his first night on the job. This was just after he’d been shooed away from the door to Lower Level 1 by an uppity researcher who couldn’t have been that long out of grad school. Gilbert had returned to the equipment closet, tail between his legs, trash bag still in hand, and asked Powell how the hell he was supposed to change the garbage downstairs if they weren’t letting the cleaning crew in.
“You’re not,” Powell had replied from where he was leaning against a stack of crates. “Only senior crewmen are allowed down there.”
“That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” Gilbert asked. “What do they think we’re gonna do? Steal something?”
“I don’t think they’re worried about theft,” said Powell. “I think it’s just too dangerous.”
Gilbert frowned, unsatisfied, as he stripped off his gloves. “What are they even working on down there?”
“We’re not supposed to know,” his colleague replied. After a moment’s hesitation, Powell straightened up. “I’ve heard rumors, though.”
“What kinds of rumors?”
Powell stole a glance at the door. “Crazy shit,” he replied. “Brain stuff. I heard a guy ended up down there by mistake once, and when he came out, he couldn’t remember his own name.”
“Right. Sure. So, what, like MKUltra or something?”
“Like MKUltra on steroids.”
The seriousness with which Powell said this had been almost comical, prompting a snort from Gilbert. He imagined every place like this had its share of stories—a friend of a friend said they were cloning people in the basement of Los Alamos!—and they were likely all a crock of shit. It was never something that exciting in real life.
As the newness of the job had worn off, along with the glamor of telling people he worked at a high-security government laboratory, Gilbert had managed to put his curiosity out of his mind. Don’t ask, don’t tell, and all that. He was getting paid regardless; all the better if he didn’t have as many bathrooms to clean. The other kind of cleaning had begun to seem like such a remote possibility that he was even starting to feel like he’d gotten away with something. Now, however, he found himself wondering again, this time with more than a touch of unease.
A burst of music from the passenger seat nearly made him jump out of his skin. His phone was ringing, Lloyd Stout’s name flashing on the screen. Gilbert swore and pulled over, putting his hazards on. What a ball-breaker. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he fumbled his phone to his ear. “This is Gilbert.”
“Gilbert.” There was a distinct edge to the janitorial supervisor’s voice. “What’s going on?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” He winced even as the words came out. Don’t sass this guy, for the love of god. “I’m on my way to the facility, like you asked.” And I still have no clue why you called me in.
“Right.” Stout cleared his throat. “Yes. How far out are you?”
“Maybe fifteen minutes, give or take,” answered Gilbert. When Stout didn’t reply, he pressed on, shifting in his seat. “I wasn’t supposed to come in today, so—”
“Yes, well,” Stout interrupted, “that’s why I’m calling. You can turn around. The situation is under control.”
“What do you…” Gilbert faltered, swallowed, and tried again. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. You want us to go home?”
“Yes, that’s right. You can go on home.”
“Matheson too?” He truly didn’t want to imagine what kind of mood his colleague would be in when he found out he’d been dragged out of bed for nothing.
There was a long pause. “Yes.”
Gilbert pressed his lips together. His gut was urging him to end the call and do as he was told. If he turned around now, he could be back in time to beat the rush at Lou’s Diner, and he wouldn’t have to deal with another second of Stout’s hot air. His head, however—perhaps the same part that had been ruminating the entire way up here—drowned it out, and Gilbert listened. “I’m sorry, sir,” he began, hoping he sounded more at ease than he felt, “I’m a little confused. What happened at the facility?”
He was expecting Stout to pull rank, mention security clearance, and tell him to eff off. Instead, his supervisor replied, “There was a small incident — a containment issue. The day shift is taking care of it. No need for you to…” His voice gave way to silence.
For a moment Gilbert wondered if the line had gone dead. “Sir?”
It was another second before Stout responded, sounding somehow far away. “Yes?”
“No need for us to…?”
“Actually,” Stout said slowly, “on second thought, I think maybe you guys should come in. We may need you after all.”
Way to go, genius. “I… Okay.”
“Let me know when you get here.”
Stout hung up without waiting for a reply, leaving Gilbert frowning at his phone. He put it down and eased his car back onto the road, telling himself it was all fine as he switched on the radio and began to mindlessly cycle between stations. His stomach felt suddenly tight.
There had been something he didn’t like in Stout’s tone. He’d never cared for the man, but the one thing his superior had always been was decisive, on the ball to a fault. Why start second-guessing now? And if the onsite cleaning crew was already taking care of the problem, then why summon the night shift in the first place?
A small incident.
A containment issue.
Gilbert turned off the radio.
Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, Main Entrance
He was sweating when he entered the Twin Lakes Wilderness Area, doing twenty in the Altima as he bounced along the washboard roads and wishing, not for the first time, that he hadn’t decided to wait to have his tires changed. The Institute was a squat gray building in a leveled-out lot off one of the side roads. It stood beyond several hundred yards’ worth of RESTRICTED AREA signs, which were so choked by the dense foliage that the words were hard to make out.
Usually the front gate opened for him automatically, but the bar remained lowered when Gilbert approached. He jiggled the fob they’d given him on his first day, but the barrier still didn’t lift. Another try—nothing.
Mopping his brow with his sleeve, Gilbert pulled up to the guard station and rolled his window down. “Hello?” he called, leaning out into the July morning. “Anyone there?”
A breeze stirred the hot air, making the trees shudder and rustle their leaves. A bird shrieked. There was no response from the guard station.
Maybe this made sense, he told himself. Maybe the guard was in the facility, helping sort out whatever had happened.
But why leave his post?
Gilbert pulled over, shut off the engine, and hauled himself out of the car. He gave the guard station window a halfhearted tap as he approached, not expecting much. No reply came, and a glance inside yielded nothing of interest. Just an empty booth.
Bracing himself for the sound of blaring alarms, Gilbert squatted—no small feat for a man his size—and limboed under the barrier.
Where was everyone? After an accident in this place, he would have expected a lot full of armored trucks, Department vehicles, and maybe even a helicopter or two for good measure. Instead, there was only a handful of cars, alongside a pair of menacing black vans belonging to the onsite security team.
As he approached, the door of a nearby pickup truck swung open and Henry Matheson, who had been on the janitorial crew approximately since dinosaurs roamed the earth, stepped out. “He arrives at last,” he proclaimed, clapping Gilbert on the shoulder with a bony hand. “Took you long enough.”
“I was sound asleep two hours ago,” Gilbert fired back. “This wasn’t exactly how I planned on spending my day off.”
“Yeah, cry me a river,” his coworker said, but there was a half-smile on his face. Gilbert had always liked Matheson. A genuine, no-bullshit kind of guy. Despite his seniority, he never acted like anything other than what he was: just another crewman.
“Where is everyone?” Gilbert asked, the tension in his gut easing slightly.
“Stout said he was bringing in a few others to help with the cleanup,” Matheson replied. “As for everyone else, your guess is as good as mine.”
“Who else is coming?”
“Ridley and Davidson should be on their way, if they’re not here already… although why they’d go in without waiting for us, I have no idea.” He pulled his walkie-talkie from his utility belt. “Matheson for Stout. What’s your twenty?”
Gilbert shifted nervously where he stood, his eyes drifting back over to the empty guard station. The tension was back in full force.
Matheson exhaled loudly. “Matheson for Stout. Do you copy?”
A moment passed before their supervisor’s garbled voice broke the silence. “Stout for Matheson. I copy.”
“I’ve got Gilbert with me, but Ridley and Davidson aren’t here. Please advise.”
Another long pause. “Start without them,” Stout replied at last. “Do a sweep of the ground floor. Clean up where you can, and then report to Lower Level 2. It’s a real mess down here.”
Unable to hold his tongue anymore, Gilbert groped for his own radio. “Gilbert for Stout. I’m not supposed to go down there.”
For a few sweet seconds, he actually dared to hope Stout would send him away. His heart sank when his supervisor’s reply came through: “Consider yourself authorized.”
“Roger that,” Matheson interrupted before he could protest. “We’re on our way.” Pocketing his radio, he raised an eyebrow at Gilbert. “Nice try.”
“Can you blame me?” Gilbert asked as they approached the entrance, his voice thin with anxiety. “It must be bad if he’s willing to let me go downstairs.”
“Hey, take it easy,” Matheson said, coming to a stop before the front doors. “The Department guys have already been called in, so don’t go getting all twitchy on me now. We’re just here to clear mop up.”
Gilbert sucked in a breath. “Right.”
Matheson swiped his key card, tried the door handle, and swiped again.
“Did he call you while you were on your way here?” Gilbert asked after a moment's hesitation.
“Stout?” Matheson frowned down at the keypad. “No. Why?”
“I was like fifteen minutes out when I heard from him,” Gilbert explained. “He said to forget it and go home, but then he changed his mind.”
Matheson looked up from his pocket, where he was digging for his keys. “Really?”
“I didn’t hear a peep from him,” said Matheson. “You’d think he would have called me first…” He trailed off, his eyes narrowing. Another warm breeze rippled through the clearing, tugging at their clothes and ruffling their hair.
Gilbert scuffed his boot against the gravel. “Matheson?”
His superior shook himself. “Sorry. Just thinking. Let’s go.” He pulled his keys from his pocket and jammed one into the manual lock below the keypad. “Millions of dollars in funding and they can’t even get a working keycard system,” he muttered, shoving the door open, and the two men stepped into the facility.
Rocky Mountain Tactical Research Institute, Ground Floor
Reception was empty. Matheson flipped the light switch to no avail. “Guess that explains the door,” he said. “The power’s out. We’re gonna have to check the fuse box.”
Gilbert took a doubtful glance around the room. “It looks pretty clean. Maybe the others already came through.”
Matheson grunted. “They could at least be bothered to meet us up here. Idiots.” He frowned. “And where the hell is Kendra?” Leaning over the reception desk, he called into the break room just beyond. “Hello?”
“Empty,” Gilbert observed, peering over his supervisor’s shoulder. There was no one in the lounge, although a whiff of French roast told him the coffee on the counter had been brewed recently. “Maybe they sent her home.”
Matheson turned away, but Gilbert lingered, his eyes slipping down to the reception desk. One of the drawers was open, rows upon rows of documents jutting out. Next to the keyboard sat a manila folder, a sticky note pasted to the front. The words “Call Allied re...” were scrawled on it, the writing abruptly trailing off. Gilbert looked back up at Matheson, who was staring into the main hallway. “This whole thing feels off.”
“You don’t say,” Matheson replied, and stepped away from the doorway.
There was a body at the end of the hall.
Gilbert’s hand flew to his mouth. “Matheson…”
His colleague approached the corpse, leaving Gilbert to trail along behind him on legs that felt like jelly. It was Kendra, although with her head twisted nearly all the way around, one could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing her. Her limbs were splayed out, and upon leaning down, Gilbert noticed blood caked under her fingernails. He staggered back, his mouth opening and closing. A low moan escaped him, his gorge rising.
Matheson stood up. “Easy, Gilbert, easy,” he said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Just take a breath. We’re going to handle this.”
“We… We need to get out of here,” stammered Gilbert. “Kendra—what the hell happened? Where’s security? I can’t...”
He tried to back up further, but Matheson’s grip tightened. “Just take a breath,” he repeated. “Don’t look.”
“Let me go,” Gilbert protested, his ears ringing as panic seized him. “We need to get out of here. Whoever did this—”
“Gilbert, you need to relax.”
“Like hell!” Gilbert retorted, wrenching free and stumbling back a step. The empty guard station was flashing in his mind like a neon sign. “We need to leave. Call the cops, wait for the Department—”
“Stop.” Matheson positioned himself in front of Gilbert, grabbing his shoulders again. His watery gray eyes didn’t reveal much, but he continued to speak in a low, urgent voice. “We can’t call the cops. Do you understand?”
His throat thick with fear, Gilbert shook his head.
“Why do you think this place has private security?” Matheson persisted. “Bryan, listen to me. We can’t call the cops because they can’t know about what’s happening here.”
With his view of the body obstructed, Gilbert's thoughts began to straighten out, but not by much. “Huh?”
“Our job isn’t fixing doors and scrubbing toilets, okay?” Matheson raised his voice, and something in his tone—a flash of genuine fear buried beneath the frustration—made Gilbert shut up. “That’s what they say our job is! But you know that's not the real reason we're here. We're here to clean up after them when stuff like this happens, so that no one outside ever finds out what they’re doing.”
“I know that,” Gilbert snapped, "but I didn’t sign up for—”
“Yes. You. Did.” He was practically shaking Gilbert’s shoulders. “We all did. We sold our souls to these guys, and now they’ve come to collect. Do you get that?”
Gilbert swallowed, his eyes still wide. He felt like a little kid, on the morning of a test he hadn’t studied for. “Yes.”
Matheson leaned in close enough for Gilbert to smell the cigarettes on his breath. "And what do you think will happen to us if we go blabbing to the cops about anything we see in this place? What do you think will happen if we do anything except clean up?”
Gilbert was unable to respond.
All those NDAs. The background checks. The apartment and the car. The wealth of information they had on him, on his family, his friends, his friends’ friends…
His mouth fell open. The penny had finally dropped, all the way from the top of Mount Elbert, it seemed.
“They’ll clean us up,” Matheson finished, relinquishing his grip on Gilbert’s shoulders. “That’s what will happen.” He returned to Kendra, leaving Gilbert to watch him, shoulders slumped.
“That can’t be…”
“Legal?” Matheson snorted but didn't turn around. “They said the same thing about GITMO.”
Gilbert fell silent, his breath coming in low bursts and his blood freezing in his veins. Was this how a mouse felt, cheese in hand, in the moment before the trap snapped shut?
“What should we do about…?” he asked, gesturing weakly at the corpse.
Matheson spared the former receptionist a last glance and then rounded the corner, heading in the direction of the supply closet. Feeling disconnected from his body, Gilbert drifted after him. He was afraid of what awaited them, but the next corridor was empty, as quiet and sterile as if there weren’t a dead woman lying less than a hundred feet away.
The closet was cramped, but it contained everything they needed. Enzyme solution, brushes, gloves, aprons, towels, and plastic sheeting were all neatly lined up on the shelves, tucked away behind a mountain of trash bags and toilet paper rolls. After loading their supplies onto a cart, the two janitors returned to the body and got to work without further fanfare.
Silence pressed in on them from every angle as they spread a tarp on the floor and set Kendra’s body down on top of it. Gilbert’s movements were rote, mechanical, the motions filtering back to him from crisis training drills that now seemed ages away. He was afraid to examine the corpse too closely, but he found himself looking anyway, wondering how deeply she must have scratched in order to have drawn blood. It came as a relief when they rolled up the tarp like a carpet, putting it on the cart and wheeling it off to the twin chutes by the side entrance. The one on the left was marked GARBAGE, and the one on the right was marked INCINERATOR. Grunting, Matheson pulled open the latter, and they wordlessly relinquished the body, watching as it disappeared into darkness. All that was left now was to scrub the scene, which they accomplished in silence, the smell of industrial cleaner stinging their nostrils.
Gilbert couldn’t think of anything to say as they snaked their way around the ground floor, trudging past darkened offices, their footsteps echoing obscenely on the linoleum. Most of the doors stood ajar, revealing papers scattered across desks, chairs that had been pulled out, and filing cabinets that hadn't been closed. A burst of bubbles rising from a water cooler by the bathrooms made him jump, but otherwise, the place was quiet. Deathly so.
They found two more bodies near the conference room, as well as one caught between the elevator doors, and gave them the same treatment they had given Kendra. Wrap, jettison, clean. Rinse and repeat. These other corpses were equally mangled, already growing stiff in the stagnant air, and Gilbert was huffing and puffing by the time they had wrangled them all into the chute. All the while, the thought of the Department hung over him like a shroud.
Their next stop was the electrical room, where Matheson pulled open a metal panel, examined a row of circuit breakers, and tripped a few of them. Nothing. “Shit,” he muttered, running a hand through his thinning hair. “Looks like we’re taking the stairs.”
“The others...” began Gilbert.
Matheson waved him off. “You heard Stout. They’re not our problem. This floor might as well be abandoned.” He shut the panel and sidestepped around Gilbert, taking a disinterested look at his watch as he exited the room. “I’m more worried about the Department, if I’m being honest.” He pursed his lips, that same queer expression he’d worn outside returning to his face. “Whatever happened must’ve gone down in the basement.”
“Maybe they’ll tell us more once we’re down there,” Gilbert suggested, not sure whether he believed it.
"Yeah," Matheson agreed. "Maybe." He slowed as they approached the door to the stairwell, which was plastered with a glaring AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY notice. “Yeah,” he agreed at last. “Maybe.” He flicked on his radio. “Matheson for Stout. Ground floor is clear. We’re proceeding to the lower levels.”
Squaring his shoulders, the older janitor unlocked the door, throwing it open and stepping through without checking to see if his overweight underling was following.
Gilbert watched his colleague disappear into the darkened stairwell, a cold, hard lump of fear forming in the pit of his stomach. The doorway loomed before him like a gaping maw, and his mind kept returning to Kendra. There was no shaking the image of her sprawled on the floor, her bloody hands testament to the last desperate fight she’d put up before having her neck twisted like an empty tin can.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Gilbert brought an unsteady hand up to the back of his neck. He didn’t want to go down there. He didn’t want to follow this story any further than he already had. Fantasies of sleep, booze, and busty waitresses had long since fled his mind. He just wanted to get as far away from this place as he could, to start driving and not stop until he reached the Pacific.
You know it’s too late for that, came a voice in his head, cynical and pragmatic. You heard Matheson. It was too late for that the minute you walked through the front door today. Hell, it was probably too late for that the minute you took the job. That 401(k) still sound like a sweet deal, Bryan?
He opened his eyes. The sound of Matheson’s footsteps was receding, and would soon be eaten by the silence of the building. Sucking in a breath, he looked down the hallway toward the row of large windows against the far wall. The morning sun was streaming through with enthusiasm, throwing a glare so bright that it made his eyes water.
Gilbert dragged his gaze away, unable to shake the feeling that this would be the last light he would see for a very long time, and followed Matheson into the basement.
© Isabella Bailey 2019
All rights reserved.