Bad news for the janitor; good luck for Dr. Malikudzu. Sometime in the middle of the night-shift, after a fight with Max the supervisor over who was to empty biohazard bins in the animal experimentation labs, young Mr. Coover let go his already slender grip on discretion and began unadvisedly opening random drawers in the offices of the principal investigators. He had seen too many bad things peeking at him emptily from the plastic shrouded hollows of the laboratory bins; he wanted to know what got into the heads of these doctors to make them go after living meat the way they did. Drawer after drawer yielded nothing but paper and paperclips, the occasional stash of change for the vending machines, stale fragments of pastry. But finally, in the office of one Dr. Malikudzu, he came upon a cache of tiny liquor bottles, of the sort distributed by airlines. With a grin he settled back in the squeaky office chair, unscrewed the cap on a vodka bottle, and tipped the contents down his throat, never noticing that the paper seal on the neck of the bottle had already been broken.
It burned like vodka going down, but the taste was all wrong. And at the bottom young Mr. Coover was unsettled to find that it had dregs—namely a little rubbery bit like a cheese curd, which slipped past his tongue before he could spit it out. Bleh! He held the bottle up to the light, but there was nothing remaining in it to suggest that it had ever held anything but what it claimed.
Suddenly queasy, he scarcely had time to drop the bottle back into the drawer—knocking over several others as if they were bowling pins—and stagger to his rolling garbage can, therein disgorging all that he had drunk and quite a bit more besides. He hung weakly over the rim of the huge reeking barrel, his mops and brooms clattering to the floor, and waited there in case his stomach might surge again. He felt as if he were breaking out in needles, his stomach seared by acids. His eventual thought was that things would be complicated if he were discovered in this office, where the drawers had obviously been ransacked. To hell with straightening up—he was sick. He had meant to quit anyway, now that he’d saved some money. Let them try to track him down. Doctors weren’t supposed to keep wet bars in their drawers; he probably wouldn’t be reported. But Max, his superior, was another matter.
He stooped to recover his brooms and mops, and his guts seized the opportunity to stab him without mercy. Then he staggered from the office, pushing his cart and barrel ahead of him through aisles of black acid-proof counter tops lined with glassware and fancy instruments that looked like televisions without screens. His stomach spasmed, forcing a scream from him. The sound echoed through the lab, brittle and cold as the Pyrex. He thought he heard an answering cry from down the hall. Was Max coming to check up on him?
Get out of here now. Out of here. It sounded like there was a jungle in the walls, apes screaming; but that beating of metal bars would have been out of place in the wild.
He pushed against another door, this one with a yellow pane set in it. Locked. He fished out his skeleton key, ignoring the warning symbols on the glass. Something more than biohazards here. He pushed the door open and the screech of animals overwhelmed him. Monkeys stared at him from rows of unlit cages: unlit, but their eyes glowed with a sick yellow light, the color of the glass pane. In fact, the pane was clear; this yellow radiance had colored it.
“Oh God . . .” He put a hand to his belly, rubbed gently, wishing the pain would stop. He had swallowed something, he knew. Something like a tequila worm, but still alive. It was roaming around inside him, not bothering to follow the twists and turns of his guts—no, it was boring a way straight through. The shortest way to a man’s heart . . .
At that thought, he knew that it had found this most prized muscle. A hot yellow exultance swept through him—alien to his thoughts, but arising alongside them. His heart quivered and there came a soft jabbing. No more pain. The muscle stopped beating, his eyes bulged, and then the organ throbbed and went to work at a far different pace. His blood flooded with yellow light; it spilled from his eyes and lit the dark comers.
He smiled. A man was calling him, coming down the hall. Max.
“Coover? What are you doing in there? It’s your ass this time, shithead. We don’t clean these rooms.”
Young Mr. Coover met him at the door. His heart beat a rapid yellow accompaniment to the stifled gasp, the wet rending of muscle and bone, and the arrhythmic sound of dribbling on the easy-to-clean linoleum tile.
This done, Mr. Coover found one of the larger cages in a corner of the room and opened the wire mesh door. The occupant gazed at him with soulful yellow eyes, understanding why he must squeeze it by the throat until the vertebrae were mingled in the cooling jellies of the neck. His eyes shone all the more brightly as he climbed into the cage and pulled the door shut after him. Then, until morning, he sulked and howled like all the rest.
It was a short trip from the simian labs to the psychiatric institute. Dr. Leslie Malikudzu watched from his high office window as the strait-jacketed figure of the young janitor was led around the back of the opposite building by several security men and three white-coated doctors. He could still see the boy’s eyes in his memory: the faint residue of luminescence dying from them in the daylight. He had neglected to mention the empty Vodka bottle to the police. Now he returned to the drawer and examined the other bottles in order to ascertain that they were in fact all quite full of stasis fluid, and that the tiny flesh niblets inside each remained immobile.
Thank God the janitor had drunk the stuff, he thought; must have held quite a kick, too. He hated to think of what might have happened had the bottle broken on the floor and the flesh-tag escaped. It could have struck from anywhere. Now, however, it was safely lodged in a companionable heart; its presence, he had determined, had struck the boy dumb, driven him utterly mad. It seemed doubtful that he would ever regain speech sufficient to describe how he had been driven to murder his supervisor and the ape whose cage he’d occupied. This was fortunate for Dr. Malikudzu, who was still years away from publishing his tentative findings, and much farther than that from asking permission of the Human Experimentation Committee to pursue his work into animals of a higher order. The Simian Commission did not know exactly what he had done to the apes now in his keeping; or rather, the experiments they had authorized were not the ones he had conducted, although they bore a superficial resemblance. He could thank Mr. Coover that his work had been accelerated by perhaps a decade and its benefits to him might be immediately forthcoming.
He only required access to the patient himself. If the doctors across the street were close with their unpublished data, they were more so with their high-risk inmates. In cases such as this, Coover might not remain there long at all. The psychologists would argue that he needed mental care, the police that he should be treated as a criminal. Before this argument could get underway there were some tests he would very much like to run on the fellow.
Poor fellow! He allowed himself a moment of compassion, then reminded himself that the janitor was very likely a drunk, not to mention a pilferer. Well, the tag would have a grand old time with him, wouldn’t it?
Dr. Malikudzu had his assistant place a few calls, which required interrupting the gossip over the grisly murder and the breakage of several astronomically priced pieces of analytic equipment. Finally he was connected with Dr. Gavin Shiel, financial director of the psychiatric institute. Shiel had a doctorate in economics, and equally important to his status, he had graduated from Cornell with top honors in Hotel Administration.
“Gavin, how are you? You’ve heard about that ghastly business in my lab I suppose. They’ve brought the young man to your place and I wondered if I could see him.”
“Good to hear from you, Les. Awful business. I’m not sure who’s handling the case. It’s urgent, you say? Why don’t you run over and ask for a minute with him?”
“I’d like to, but you know your staff. Quite rigorous on protocol. He did just murder a man, you realize. I wondered if you might oil the water a bit, advise them that I’m coming. Otherwise I’ll have to get into this terrible hassle over privacy, privileges, medical jurisdiction.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll call Therese Dowsie. Should be straightened out by the time you can get over here.”
“Wonderful. Let’s get together for lunch sometime soon.”
Dr. Malikudzu whizzed down to the lobby in the elevator, dashed through a light drizzle and crossed the street, threading between two beacon-flashing ambulances that were stalled at the emergency parking entrance while a mailroom messenger gathered up a spill of envelopes. By the time he entered the other building, a nurse named Linda was waiting for him at the elevator. With her key in a coded lock, they were given access to the middle of the crisis ward. The hall was full of wandering patients. An older man with sunken black eyes informed Dr. Malikudzu that he had always loved him. It was impossible to separate staff from patients; there were no alienating white coats in this ward. Dr. Malikudzu was only mildly suprised when Linda began railing at the young man behind the reception desk, telling him that he should be in his room and not answering phones. Before he slipped away, however, she asked him the whereabouts of Dr. Dowsie, and the patient pointed down the end of the hall. They passed out of the ward, checking that the door locked behind them, into an area of much higher security.
A policeman stood in the hall, talking with the proud Dr. Dowsie, a tall black woman who now began berating the cop for “waving his gun around where it wasn’t wanted.” When she saw Dr. Malikudzu, her only greeting was, “You.”
“I know you’re expecting me.”
“Gavin made it clear that I was to let you see the new boy. You know how he reasons—with a checkbook. I don’t see what business it is of yours really.”
“He was found in my lab.”
“I’m investigating a disappearance.”
“You’re not going to get anything out of him. Besides, his hands were empty when they brought him in. I’m trying to get his evaluation started.”
“Is he sedated?”
“We had to sedate him. You heard him howling.”
“But did the drugs work?”
A sudden yell answered his question. It sounded like the door might open from the blast. The cop backed away and started walking down the hall shaking his head; he was headed toward the crisis ward.
“Linda, show him out. I’ll let Dr. Malikudzu in.” She unlocked the door with a deadpan expression.
“I’d like a few minutes alone if you don’t mind.”
“Be my guest.”
Inside, the smell of urine and feces was as strong as the blast of sound. Difficult to imagine such fierce emanations from such a small man. Fortunately, Dr. Malikudzu was quite accustomed to the reek of hominid effluvia. Coover had crawled back into a corner of the couch, and there he lay with his head thrown back, raging at the ceiling, only occasionally glancing down at the man who had come to share his cell. There was no more yellow gleam in the boy’s eyes; they seemed entirely burnt out.
“I know you’re in there,” Dr. Malikudzu said, not that the flesh-tag implicitly understood human speech. Still, there was a chance that it might have infiltrated the boy’s speech centers and joined forces with him. These were all things he had hoped to ascertain with human subjects.
He took a bottle of Puerto Rican rum from his pocket and held it up to young Coover’s face. The boy quieted instantly, staring into the depths of stasis fluid at the floating speck within, a bit of twisted flesh that resembled nothing so much as a kidney bean.
“Ah, recognition! I could inject you with this fluid, you know—a needle to the heart—and stop your thrashing about in this unfortunate lad. But then there would be an autopsy. There might be one anyway if you’re not careful to live. We must give you time yet to heal. The entry wounds must be painful, yes?” He got close enough to the boy to see blood inside his lips, but it was hard to tell if he’d done that by gnashing his teeth or whether it might have come up from his interior. “Do you know what you’ve got in there? Perhaps I should ask, do you know what you are?”
He was thrilled by the notion that he might actually be communicating with the flesh-tag for the first time. His simian models had been disappointing in this regard. In fact, in none of them had he seen such extreme reactions. As he’d always suspected, the human organism was the only one that would allow the tags to take their full effect. Which meant . . . the ends of his efforts might be in sight!
“You are a cancer,” he said. “A bit of self-consuming flesh. Or rather, that’s what you were until I got ahold of you. Now you’re something rather more special than that. In a sense, I am your father.”
The boy stared deep into his eyes, head jerking rapidly.
“Yes I am. You should be pleased that your sire is such a genius. It hasn’t been easy to pursue this work. I’ve had four separate rotating groups of graduate students working with me, all of them unaware of the other groups, all convinced—like my patrons—that they were working toward quite different ends. It’s been a jigsaw puzzle, you see, in which only I hold the key piece. I’ve had to invest a bit of unpaid time myself, but I don’t mind. The exposure to radiation, the messing about with chimerae, all part of the job. Do you remember, I tried sending you messages once before? I wrote amusing little codes into chromosomes and let them replicate within your genetic predecessor. I thought you might catch on and reply in kind. Perhaps you’re not that intelligent. Perhaps you’re nothing more than a malignant worm after all.”
The boy kept nodding, a slather of blood on his chin. Suddenly his eyes rolled back and he slumped in a faint, relaxing the rest of his bodily control. The smell worsened only slightly. Dr. Malikudzu backed away, uncapping the rum and dribbling a bit of stasis fluid over the couch—where it could hardly be distinguished from the rest of the slime—while he shook the tiny tag into the palm of his hand. He pinched it by one end and dropped it into the boy’s yawning mouth.
Instantly young Coover’s jaws snapped shut with such ferocity that his teeth were in danger of shattering. The boy’s throat began to tremble, ripple, and the passage of the tag was marked by the heaving of the chest. There was a lull during which the doctor capped the bottle and slipped it back into his pocket. Then Coover slid from the bed and became a sodden, stinking heap on the floor. A gibbering heap.
Dr. Malikudzu knocked lightly on the door and Dr. Dowsie opened it. “Had enough?”
“I think so. The sedatives seem to have taken effect. Keep me posted, will you? I’d like to stop in this afternoon if that’s all right.”
“He might be in jail this afternoon. I’m trying to see it doesn’t happen.”
Dr. Malikudzu bit his lip. That would be unfortunate. He didn’t know anyone at the jailhouse who might let him in.
“Best of luck,” he said.
“I still don’t understand your interest in this kid,” she said. “What’s he to you?”
He glanced at his watch. “Sorry, I’ve got an appointment with the Chancellor. Shall we talk later?”
She shook her head and called a nurse to let him off the ward.
His phone rang at 3:30, as he sat with his collection of little liquor bottles arrayed on the desk before him.
“Malikudzu? This is Therese Dowsie—”
“Dr. Dowsie, I was just going to call you. How is our patient? Not taken from our arms yet. I hope.”
“He’s not going anywhere. There’s no way to restrain him. I think the cops are afraid to touch him.”
“Why, what’s happened?”
His heart, which had finally slowed after the events of the morning, now began to beat faster than ever. His dreams were coming true so suddenly!
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on. He seems to be . . . deteriorating . . . quite rapidly.”
“Bone structure is liquifying. His skin is mottled, as if something’s sucking up the melanin; looks like someone spilled bleach all over him. And his eyes. . . God, it’s like looking at an octopus. They still blink. They’re yellow. We tried to move him an hour ago and he just sort of . . . sort of oozed out of his clothes and the strait-jacket. He’s still intact, somehow metabolizing, though I don’t think he can breathe. I wondered if you might have any idea how his happened. You seemed so interested in him this morning. It’s become plain to me that this is not a mental problem.”
“It sounds . . . terrible.” He had almost said “wonderful.” “Shall I come over and have a look?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Dr. Dowsie herself was waiting to take him up to the ward. This time, unfortunately, she chose to accompany him into the room. He would have liked time alone with the remains. Perhaps it could still be arranged.
“I think you should call Gavin Shiel,” he said. “A higher authority seems necessary now. A new stage in treatment.”
“Treatment?” She looked considerably aged; her words were shrieked. “What can you do for that?”
She had seen too much at once, without forewarning. He had expected something like this . . . this malign jelly. The two tags had met, given the proper host, and powered by their fusion they were eating what had once been Mr. Coover from the inside out—like earthworms processing soil, they were eating but not destroying him. They were transforming an ordinary old life into an amazing new form. It was wonderful. He prodded at it with his foot, trying to locate the brain center. Abruptly it opened a pair of golden eyes and winked at him.
“My God, did you see that? I can’t take any more of this.” Dr. Dowsie bolted from the room, forgetting to shut it behind her. He heard her tennis shoes squeaking down the hall.
Dr. Malikudzu had come prepared. As he stooped toward the mass he said, “Intelligent, aren’t we? More intelligent than Mr. Coover, I’d imagine, hm?”
The jelly shook faintly, as if in accord.
“And hardy? Durable? Life, perhaps, everlasting? As difficult to eradicate as cancer itself?”
He had located brain, heart, liver—other major organs. The lungs seemed to have lost their utility. He extracted a long scalpel and began to stroke randomly at the surface of the thing; it was like trying to slice pudding. The slits closed instantly. He stabbed the brain half a dozen times, executing neat twirling trepanning gestures deep in the cortex, but all without effect. The eyes narrowed, staring more brightly than before. Liver, heart, nothing was harmed by his knife —and in fact he was positive that all the organs were moment by moment becoming less differentiated. This quivering protoplasm was life itself, nothing less.
“Fire might do you in,” he said, and it gave him such a look that he almost pitied it. “I wish I could carry you away from here to a safe place. With time we might learn to speak to each other. But I’m afraid I’d need a large bucket for that task—something like one of your custodial drums. There isn’t the time. So many experiments don’t quite pan out. Eventually, however, we will succeed. I think that personally my chances are excellent.”
He bowed slightly, stepping back as the mass extended a pseudopod and flowed toward him, flexing resilient tissue that fell somewhere between muscle and bone in organization and function. He could see it taking on new forms, working out new definitions, discovering itself. He could see how strong it might eventually become. If it lived that long.
They would kill it, of course. They always did. With fire or water or chemical reagents. The world was hard on foundlings.
He turned to the exit, left ajar by Dr. Dowsie, but somehow Coover got ahead of him. A thick snaky arm slipped under the door and drew it shut. There was no latch on the inside.
Dr. Malikudzu regarded the arm with curiosity. It ended in a flat, paddlelike hand from which a dozen wriggling fingers sprouted. Shifting, liquescent, the arm now thrust itself into the air like a fleshy cobra wishing to shake hands. It swayed toward him, thrusting past his half-hearted parry. He was keen to see what it would do.
What it did was cover his mouth. A scream was out of the question. The cupped palm exerted a slight suction on his lips, drawing them open as it gripped his jaw. Several fingers explored his gums, his tongue, and finally came to rest atop the edges of his teeth. In the center of the room, watching him from a distance, the yellow eyes of the cancer flared. The grip tightened. His teeth snapped together, severing the fingertips inside his mouth. For a moment they lay cold and oozing on his tongue, until arousing themselves, they made quickly for the passages of soft tissue and began their burrowing odyssey toward his heart.
This journey had begun with cocktails. If only it could have ended half so pleasantly.
* * *
“The Liquor Cabinet of Dr. Malikudzu” copyright 1987 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Night Cry, Summer 1987.
As I go through this antique stories, scanning and cleaning them up to post on the website, I am tempted to make a lot of corrections and repairs. Mostly I resist the urge, unless I’ve found typos or even outright incorrect words missed by past proofreaders. In the case of this story, I had to resist the urge to retitle it completely to something less ludicrous. However, in the end I let it stand. The name “Malikudzu” is a strong signal as to how seriously this story ought to be taken.