“Frank, you’ve been awfully closed-mouth,” said the big man behind the steering wheel.
“Just thinking, Gerald.”
“Solid,” said Gerald.
Solid? I mused. Well, that was Gerald Peyton for you—Shaft on steroids. I’d asked him along to be more than a sidekick—he had my back. For now, we cruised down a desolate stretch. Why did Interstates always take the butt-ugliest path? We’d flown by toxic waste dumps all colors of the rainbow, blasted out phosphate quarries, and a farm of rusting junk cars.
America the Beautiful? Yeah.
“This lady, Mrs. Saxon, you say her son died,” said Gerald. “I’m vague on the details. What killed him?”
“He was Quincy Saxon, age 23,” I said. “Exposure to radioactivity killed him. His morgue photos showed third-degree burns smothering his body. He looked like rotisseried chicken.”
Gerald whistled through his teeth. “Bad news. The lady wants answers and we’re her answer men.”
“Solid,” I parroted back to him.
Gerald’s grin broadened. “Okay, what about Quincy’s boss? Is he some sort of a whack-job scientist on a mountaintop playing with fire?”
“That pretty much covers it,” I said. “The investigating authorities accepted his explanation that Quincy’s death was a work-related accident. Shit happens, right? His mom didn’t sign off on it.”
“I don’t blame her,” said Gerald. “Don’t sweat it. We’ll get to the bottom of things.”
Gerald’s reassurance didn’t quell my queasiness. Appalachia was a third-world nation stuck up in the leafy hills. The smart young folks counted off the days until they could eject from it. Many enlisted to go wage our holy oil wars. Our destination there was an old, defunct dam condemned by the TVA. The last worker leaving it ages ago had switched off the lights and padlocked its gate shut.
“Hey, are you packing heat?” Gerald asked me.
“My mama told me to leave my guns at home,” I said. “But I bet you brought along some pyrotechnics in your duffel bag.”
“Yep,” said Gerald. “Cause, you see, my mama told me just the opposite.”
After a while we approached a pale blue limestone cliff. Pointing at it, I asked for Gerald’s opinion. He squinted to look through the dirty windshield and agreed. It did appear to be a half-finished portrait of Mr. Reagan, our fortieth president, carved into the cliff.
“What a monumental waste of limestone,” Gerald said. “How do we get started at the dam?”
“Nothing to it,” I said. “We do some snooping around.”
“Solid. Now, tell me about this asshole doctor.”
“Dr. Ames, a nuclear physicist educated at Yale no less, took the facility out of mothballs,” I said. “His experiments with radioactive stuff centered on how to counteract bad guys with a hard-on for Americans.”
“Things got out of hand and he nuked this Saxon kid,” said Gerald.
“Hell, you must’ve been there,” I said. “At least that’s the official version.”
“Where is Dr. Ames nowadays?”
“Probably lounging on a beach in the Azores,” I said. “He was exonerated of all criminal negligence.”
“Yeah, he’s about as harmless as a goddamn boxcutter,” Gerald said, his grim tone sending an icy chill up my spine.
We sidled up a series of switchbacks climbing the face of a jagged mountain. My ears popped twice. Gerald let off the gas pedal and geared down. A lift in power got us to the top. At the last dogleg turn in the narrow lane, we braked to a standstill. Below us in a shallow crater, a concrete monolithic dam bottled up a deep arsenic-green lake.
The tallest spiral staircase in the world went down to the crackerbox buildings. It was the only way in and out. Recent rockslides from a hurricane had blocked the road. I half-expected to see a crack in the concrete dam and a dutiful Hans Brinker with his thumb stuck in it.
After unbuckling, Gerald and I hauled out of my car. He notched his nuts and I spat. Both rituals denoted disgust.
“I guess we have to snake down that staircase,” said Gerald.
“You’re a good guesser.”
“All right then, wait up.” Mumbling dark obscenities, Gerald stalked around to key open the trunk. I ignored him until he returned brandishing two sawed-off 12-gauge riot shotguns and bandoleers heavy with fresh shells, buckshot load. “Here,” he said. “Take this. Stay sharp.”
I accepted his martial gifts. At the stairhead, I didn’t look down until vertigo hit me. My mouth went dry and my heart hammered. Gerald came after me, one-handing a loaded pump shotgun. We started down the staircase.
“Any idea what we’re after down here?” asked Gerald.
“Any bad shit,” I said. “We’ll know it when we smell it.”
“Right. I got a nose for sniffing it out, dawg.” Gerald’s face took on a wild, crazed look I didn’t like.
By the time we reached the dam’s bottom, we were breathless but too amped on adrenaline to notice. The facility’s locked steel doors didn’t deter Gerald. He blew away all the offending hardware. Cordite stung our eyes. My ears screamed in protest.
I coughed, waving away acrid gun smoke. “Gerald, hold up a second.”
“Man, it’s creepy inside this concrete tomb,” said Gerald. “Where’s the fucking lab?”
“Mrs. Saxon told me it’s in a large room near the front.”
Gerald thumbed more shells into his shotgun, then pointed. “I see lights up ahead. Behind that concrete column.”
“Man, we need a Geiger counter,” I said, as we advanced into the musty gloom. “Who knows how hot the radioactivity is in here?”
“I thought you said this Ames skipped the country, Frank.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Well, I hear somebody or something talking.”
“Probably the dead souls your shotgun blasts woke up,” I said.
“I love teaming up with you, Frank. Never a dull moment. Nope, not on your life.”
“Shut it up. Keep moving.”
In single file, we prowled deeper into the cavernous space. Some electrical source lit the way. The smell of charred human flesh grew sweet and oppressive. We swung around a corner, shotguns hoisted at the ready.
“Gentlemen,” said the nasal, reedy voice. “You’re here in time for your tanning session. Most excellent.”
“What the hell?” said Gerald.
“Just keep your weapon fixed on the crazy bastard,” I said. My eyes cut back and forth. Four tanning beds lay open, awaiting their next victims.
“Who will go first?” the man asked. I blinked at a tall, lanky man with a swatch of jet hair combed back off a bulbous forehead.
Gerald growled. “Mister, keep your hands where I can see them. Any funny moves and…”
“…we’ll blow your shit away,” I said to complete Gerald’s thought.
The gaunt madman frowned at us. “I’m Dr. Ames. Aren’t you my one-thirty appointment?”
“Appointment for what?”
“Why, to soak up a tan,” said Dr. Ames.
“Where do you stash the cobalt?” I asked.
“Why, in its lead container, of course,” Dr. Ames said. “Now, which of you will go first?”
“Frank, I believe I’m satisfied with my pigmentation,” said Gerald. “Why don’t you hop on one of those tanning beds, boy?”
I caught a certain sly tone in Gerald’s voice asking me to play along. “Sure. I’ve been meaning to get rid of this pasty Irish look. Where do I lay down, Doc?”
Dr. Ames beamed at us. “Take any one you like. Meantime, I’ll go fetch the cobalt.” He strutted the opposite way through an arched doorway.
“The lead container must be inside that hideyhole,” Gerald sidemouthed to me. “What now?”
“Send Ames to the happy hunting grounds,” I said. “Before he sends us. I don’t see any other exit out of this shit-storm.”
We hoofed it at a snappy pace ducking through the doorway where Dr. Ames had disappeared. We heard his spectral voice rattling off something excited and demented. Death permeated the oxygen-starved air. Our scuffing shoes alerted Dr. Ames as we invaded his Inner Sanctum.
“Doc, step away from that box,” said Gerald.
Defying our wishes, he unsnapped the clasps. “Oh put up your shotguns,” he said. “You’ll only scare the other customers.”
“He’s starting to crack the fucking lid.”
“No way that can happen,” said Gerald. “No other choice now. Let’s rock-and-roll, Frank.”
Our 12-gauge shotguns flamed out blasts like a double-necked electric guitar’s first riff.