Holly’s headache had progressed from a dull throb to a pounding jungle beat. Since she had turned off Route 85 at Gila Bend the narrow road seemed to stretch before her in an unrelenting straight line through the desert to the horizon. She had not seen any directional signs since she had passed Sentinel over an hour ago, nor had she seen a single car. Another Excedrin moment was definitely in the making, and if she turned to one more radio station playing Patsy Cline she knew she would completely lose it.
Just thinking about the cargo that she carried in the rear of Dr. Stanley Cooper’s old Chevy van would be enough to send creepy crawlers along the spine of most people. But Holly Samuels was not most people.
That was what Cooper had told her when he asked her to transport his five canisters through a dozen Nevada ghost towns to some God-forsaken medical laboratory twenty miles south of Painted Rocks State Park. The man could not have found a more secluded spot to continue his research than if he had bought real estate on the far side of the moon. Cooper trusted her with his secret and that was enough for her, although the man had yet to explain to his wife that he had been banging his lab assistant for the past six months. But that was a headache meant for another day.
Holly’s thoughts traveled their own path as she drove. There was something else about Cooper’s cryogenic project that she had always strained to remember but could not, something misty and unformed that lurked in a dark chamber of her brain. Holly considered it strange how a part of one’s mind did not always share the secrets of one’s own thoughts. Especially when so many of her thoughts included Dr. Stanley Cooper.
Last night in her bed he had exploded inside her like some sort of lower form primate, but once dressed Cooper again became all business, the research scientist speaking clinically to his lab assistant. The man could switch gears so quickly that for a moment Holly had even considered taking out her notepad.
“The Oatman Foundation people are beginning to ask questions,” he had explained to her as he slipped on his shoes. “ We’ll have to move the specimens tomorrow morning, and you’ll drive them to the Sonoran lab. We can’t take any more chances leaving them at the Kingman Center.” Holly knew this was true, although she might have also believed Cooper if he had asked her to believe in the tooth fairy. The $140,000 Oatman research grant had so far produced little more than a few computer graphics and analysis charts from Cooper, and the Foundation was having second thoughts about its magnanimity.
Timing the move to the Sonoran location was critical, because no one could object if the Oatman people suddenly decided to inspect the Kingman lab. In the morning Holly had helped Cooper pack the five specimens into the canisters with the liquefied hydrogen and oxygen needed to preserve them, carefully averting her eyes from them as she worked. She hoped Cooper would dismiss this morning’s squeamishness as the natural reaction that any woman would feel, although she knew there were other reasons for it. As always, Cooper mentioned how the job required the utmost secrecy. That, and a strong stomach.
“No problem,” Holly had assured him. She lied.
Holly never doubted she would keep the doctor’s secret, but now she had some doubts about keeping down her lunch. Because she had not seen any gas stations since leaving route 85 she reluctantly turned off the air conditioning to save fuel, and within minutes her nipples peeked through a tank top sopping with perspiration as if she had been in a wet t-shirt contest. Cooper would have appreciated the high beam look, but he would not think such happy thoughts if he knew she was lost.
A half-formed memory again teased her thoughts with peek-a-boo flashes, but still it refused to come out. Something about those damned canisters that only she knew, something even Stanley Cooper had not considered. Her solitude always seemed to give birth to some mighty uncomfortable thoughts.
Holly looked into the rear view mirror and wiped a damp string of hair from her forehead. A small bead of sweat had caught in the tiny half-moon scar above her left eye, one of many such childhood memories of her father after another alcoholic rampage. Shortly before Vernon Samuels died he had arrived home late one night playing that same God-awful Patsy Cline tape he always played on the truck’s cassette deck. When he tripped over Holly’s bicycle in the driveway, he called out her name, cursing and howling while she pretended to be asleep. He found his way into her bedroom, snapped on the light and grabbed the first thing he saw, one of the high heeled shoes Holly had worn to her first social. Sputtering and cursing, he slammed the heel deep into the girl’s forehead, narrowly missing her eye. She always hated hearing the sound of his footsteps on the staircase as she lay awake in bed. That had not been a good time to feel alone, and neither was this.
Keeping one eye on the road Holly reached into the pocket book beside her. She found the small pill box, and downing two aspirin dry she felt her stomach double over on itself. The sudden wave of nausea was not brought on entirely by the aspirin. These memories and those damned canisters were a whole lot more to blame for her guts slam dancing inside her. Better not to think of those canisters, though. Better to think of anything but those buckets when she did not have the slightest idea where she was. She was thirsty, and the fuel gauge was slowly creeping up on ‘E’.
Without pulling to the side of the road Holly stopped the van and cut the engine. It was at least 110 in the shade out there, except that she could not see any shade. She rifled through the glove compartment for a road map. If Cooper had not left one in there for her, the man would have to stand on his head and spit nickels before she climbed under the sheets with him again. She found the map crumpled beneath a medical kit and spread it open on the seat. Tracing the blue line of route 85 to Gila Bend, she knew the road she should have followed would have passed the Air Force bombing range at least twenty miles ago. Whatever road she was on, it was not on the map.
If she turned back toward 85 now, she would not have enough gas to make it. Although Cooper had bought a fancy high-tech cellular phone for his new Porsche, he had not equipped his old Chevy van with one because he had normally used the vehicle only for local hauls. Maybe she could continue following this road and hope to find a phone. She might flag down another driver who might allow her to siphon some gas, assuming the guy was not a serial killer. Or, of course, she could simply stay put and wait for the vultures.
She turned the ignition and for a moment the engine wheezed, sputtered, then clicked off. The red ALT dummy light on the dashboard flickered on and Holly stared at it dumbly, her mouth open. She turned the key again. This time, nothing. It took a moment before the realization hit.
“Goddamn it all to fucking hell!” she burst out, smashing her fists into the horn. The shrill blasts startled her into silence, and she heard the horn’s echoes wail in the distance, disappearing far away like the cries of lost children. If any patrol cars were in the area the noise might bring them, and considering her cargo that was not such a good idea. Holly turned the ignition key again, but even the dull clicking had disappeared.
Leaning forward over the steering wheel, she tried to summon a rational thought. She looked into the rearview mirror and tore her fingers through her hair, revealing the tiny half-moon scar above her eye. “ Holly, ol’ girl,” she muttered into the mirror, “ we are in the proverbial deep shit.”
There was no need to take inventory. She had brought neither food nor water with her because the van had just passed its state inspection, and this was supposed to be only a four hour drive. She had intended to haul ass all afternoon and reach the lab by dusk for Miller Time.
A four hour drive to the middle of nowhere . What had she been thinking? She knew the desert showed no mercy, and people died out here all the time. Where was her head? Had Cooper been so focused on his damned cryogenic project that the danger of this trip never occurred to him either? Where in hell was his head?
The thought almost made her laugh. Where was his head? Hell, that was an easy one, as easy as (Ha! Ha!) a walk in the sand. Holly knew where five of his heads were. She was doing a lot more than simply hauling ass for Cooper.
She was hauling heads .
Months earlier Cooper had reminded Holly of a messy scandal back in the early ‘80’s involving Dr. Benjamin Reuben, a seasoned Philadelphia MD who had become involved in somewhat secretive cryobiological research. The man had believed that the human head could be kept alive apart from its body, and demonstrating the medical profession’s insatiable desire to cheat death, Reuben believed his work would pave a dramatic inroad. If one’s body became diseased and the head could live on, perhaps in time it could be attached to a healthier body, maybe even a prosthetic one. The MD had made the incredibly stupid mistake of having a human head shipped to his doorstep by an unusually curious UPS carrier, and after a lengthy trial Ben Reuben narrowly escaped imprisonment. Cooper had explained that following his trial, old Ben had some difficulty finding patients willing to open wide to say “Ah.” He believed that Reuben was probably today selling vacuum cleaners somewhere closer to Somalia than Philadelphia. Cooper told Holly that he had no intention of joining him.
Somehow the federal government learned the specifics of the Philadelphia doctor’s research, and they also knew of the Oatman Foundation’s generous gift to Dr. Stanley Cooper of Nevada’s Kingman Medical Center. The Feds were prepared to assist. But if the contents of the Chevy van were confiscated by some toothpick chewing state trooper, Holly knew that no federal official would step forward to admit the government’s role in a project that might equate Stan Cooper’s research with that of another doctor named Frankenstein.
The state authorities were the ones to fear. These isolated desert roads were commonly used for drug smuggling, and routine checks were in every law official’s training manual. Any officer wearing a tin star who took one look at the contents of the old storage trunk inside the van would toss her and Dr. Stanley Cooper into a dark room four miles underground and lose the key.
Holly could picture the scene when a baby-faced deputy might confront her with the evidence after swinging open one of the canisters.
“What the–? Say, isn’t this–?”
“That’s right, officer,” she would answer with child-like innocence. “That’s the head of Angelo Hemp you’re looking at. You remember Mr. Hemp, don’t you officer? The man who left various parts of school children scattered throughout the country a few years back? You might be wondering what I’m doing with a part of him? See, my doctor friend thinks Mr. Hemp’s head may still be alive. Why not pop open the other four canisters and say hello to the heads of a few more celebrity psychos? Hell, why don’t you take old Angelo here and go bowling while I pose for my mug shots?”
The real explanation would be considerably more complicated. The remains of supposedly executed prisoners had supplied the federal government with all the bodies they needed for their secret research projects, and fortunately the heads came with them. The word (and maybe a little cash) came down from Uncle Sam to selected state prison officials to tone down their wattage for the hot seat, to spill a less-than-lethal dose of morphine into that final booster shot, or to pump just enough carbon monoxide to provide a convincing last dance inside that death chamber. The federally appointed prison doctor would dutifully pronounce the time of death, and other prison goons would cart the poor schmuck off. Excepting the decapitation part, there was no fuss, no muss. Within twenty four hours the Feds had signed a few papers and delivered the latest package in the ever-popular plain brown wrapping to Dr. Stanley Cooper, who also signed a few papers. The men in dark suits wished him a nice day, and were gone. It was as efficient an operation as it was illegal, as American as apple pie and old Chevy vans.
Holly knew dehydration would get to her long before the law did, and the hours spent baking inside the van had already caused her tongue to swell. Her throat felt like she had swallowed a fistful of razor blades, and she was feeling woozy with the heat. In the desert death was an insidious little bastard, and thirst was his first calling card. She crushed her fists into her temples to clear her mind.
Of course! Any high school kid who had ever taken Chemistry could have figured this one out. There was liquefied hydrogen and oxygen inside the canisters. Good old H2O ! Condensation would have gathered at the bottom of each container, enough for a nice cool drink. She rummaged through the glove compartment and found the collapsible plastic cup inside the medical kit.
Pulling the keys from the ignition she scrabbled crab-like to the rear of the van. The large trunk that held the canisters had a simple bolt lock, and she twisted the key inside it, swinging the flap open. The lids to the containers inside were fastened with flap-top locks, and Cooper had scrawled numerals on them. Holly did not know whose head would greet her when she opened the container, but she knew who these guys were. Their faces would have been familiar to anyone who did not live in a cave.
Reaching for the first canister her hand hesitated, then dropped. “Come on, Holly kid,” she muttered. “This is not the time to turn candy-assed.” She chewed on her lip and stared at the first container.
She knew enough about the history of each to write a resume on at least four of them. With one notable exception these folks had made headlines right alongside such specialty sociopaths as Jeffrey Dahmer and Gary Heidnick. Holly had been the traveling companion of a rogue’s gallery of American VIP’s, and the list read like a Who’s-Who at the Post Office :
Angelo Hemp of Denver, Colorado, had been a department store Santa the Christmas before he began his kiddie spree. Children’s remains were discovered in condemned mine shafts across several states, and one little girl’s badly decomposed body was found with her still clutching her Cabbage Patch doll.
Jake Wessey of Fort Worth, Texas, had strolled into the local Chicken n’ Ribs during lunchtime, ordered a whole mess of each, then after casually wiping the sauce from his chin took a .38 from his denim jacket and blew away three waitresses and the high school cheerleader in the next booth.
Coley Simms of Scranton, Pennsylvania, frustrated over the care and feeding of his mentally retarded adult daughter, one night sliced and diced the woman into puppy chow, stuffed her remains into his Hotpointe, and served up a hearty meal for the family dog.
George Gracey, a guitar-picking dishwasher from Los Angeles, had spent two years picking up pretty coed hitchhikers and inviting them to his home for dinner without bothering to inform them that they were the main course.
And there was a woman. Cooper had refused to speak about this one. Her crime had been so horrible that the police, fearing an inspired copycat, had urged the news media to bury her story on the last page. Fortunately Desert Storm had eclipsed the woman’s deeds when she was captured in 1991, so relatively few people knew the name of the second female to face the electric chair in the past twenty years.
The gang was all here, and because Holly’s tongue blistered, she had no choice but to say howdy to each of them. Her thirst would require a few trips to the well, and if she could reach into the canisters without actually looking inside, maybe she could handle this without getting the dry heaves. How difficult could it be? Scoop up a little moisture collected underneath, and bottoms up.
Holly popped the flap-top from the first canister. The head inside the bucket seemed small enough that she could easily slide her arm along the edge, and working carefully she might work her way toward the bottom without rubbing flesh with the thing inside. She saw it only from the top, and its hair was long and stringy, rodent-colored. Pulling open the plastic cup Holly slipped her hand slowly inside the canister, casting her eyes skyward while trying not to gag.
The coldness should have felt soothing in such dry heat, but the matted hair brushing Holly’s forearm felt like she were probing a spider’s web caked in ice. Her arm lightly brushed against the head, and she dislodged it slightly, causing the cold cheek to lean heavily against her wrist. The flesh felt like thawed meat, and strangely smooth. This bucket contained the woman, but Holly did not look at her.
The cup struck bottom where a cool liquid gathered, enough for maybe three good gulps. Holly scooped at it, and brought the cup back, bringing it to her swollen lips as soon as her hand was free. For one triumphant moment she hesitated and forced herself to look into the bucket. She raised the cup in a toast to her silent companion who rested inside.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” she sneered at the woman’s head peering back at her through narrow slits. “ Lady, I never was a quitter just because the other person was ahead!” Without even looking at it she downed the liquid in one swallow, drinking so quickly that some of it streaked vein-like down her chin. It felt cold going down her throat but sticky with thick pulp, and its taste was bitter. Hardly like water at all.
Holly ran her hand across her chin that dripped with the gluey stuff. She looked at the smears on her hand, then spun to see her reflection in the rear view mirror.
“God! Oh God! Stupid! I am so fucking stupid!”
Her chin dripped with the blood she had gulped down. Holly had swallowed a mouthful of pulpous gore that had leaked from the neck of the severed head inside, and even when spitting proved useless she persisted. Her lips dripped with the gummy residue and the foul taste lingered as she gagged on it.
The realization struck her even as she choked.
She knew she would have to go back into the canisters to see if there were any pure liquid she could salvage that might quench her thirst. And that meant that for even a single mouthful of water, she might have to remove every head that lay inside. The blistering heat permitted no further delay.
“Okay, then,” she muttered, wiping the blood from her mouth with the back of her hand. “ Let’s do it …”
She grabbed the stringy hair and lifted the woman’s head slowly from the container until only its forehead peeked out from the top. Holly again forced herself to look down at the half concealed face as if the head had presented the challenge to her, “ Look at me if you dare, you cowardly worthless piece of shit. You belong in here with me!”
For a moment she believed her eyes had deceived her. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Seeing only the woman’s forehead Holly’s jaw dropped and her body stiffened with paralysis. What she saw simply was impossible.
There was a half moon scar just above the woman’s left eye, an exact duplicate of Holly’s own.
A voice inside her screamed Drop the goddamned thing back into the box and slam the fucking lid! Run into the desert and get yourself far away from here ! Run! Run! But the paralysis remained and she crouched frozen with the thing in her hands, and suddenly it pressed against her palms as if it were resisting being placed back into the container. Impossible! the voice inside Holly screamed. Just above the lid of the container the thing’s eyelids were flickering, as if struggling to open.
Impossible! Impossible! Run!
The eyes in the woman’s head suddenly blinked wide open and rolled upwards. They locked with Holly’s and held fast. A voice spoke from the bucket, echoing within the tiny chamber.
“Well, are you going to take me out of this fucking thing or not?”
The heat! It had to be the goddamned heat!
As if her hand had free will, Holly lifted the head and held it between her palms directly in front of her face. She looked at it hard and saw it staring back at her. She wanted to scream, and she wanted to laugh herself sick. Clearly her mind and all reason had finally parted company.
“Go on, Holly,” the voice said to her with icy calm. “Take a long look at me and tell me what you see.” Its mouth curled into a twisted grin as it spoke.
Holly watched the thing’s mouth move, the blood dripping from its teeth, and suddenly she laughed like a kid at the circus who had just seen the funniest clown in the world. And the longer she looked into the face she held in her hands, the harder she laughed. She had never seen anything so gut-busting funny in all her life. Losing one’s mind was more fun than a day at the beach. And her companion found humor in the situation too, because she also laughed.
Like looking into a mirror, isn’t it?” the voice from the head spoke to her, and in it Holly heard the echo of her own. It whispered to her as if sharing a secret. “Look inside the other containers, Holly. You’ll be surprised at what you find.”
She half expected to hear a calliope playing “ Pop Goes the Weasel” just before a blood-soaked Jack-in-the-box sprang out of each bucket. But of course Holly had already known what she would find inside them. She popped the latch of the second canister, the third, fourth, and fifth.
The four remaining buckets contained the same thing, and she almost vomited with laughter with each head she removed. And in the midst of her chortles the memory that had lurked inside her mind jumped out and shouted “ Boo!” like a mischievous little kid hiding in the subterranean passageways of her brain.
I remember!” she said aloud to her five companions, now resting like grotesque centerpieces along the rear panel of the van. “Oh, Jesus, I remember everything … everything!”
Holly looked at the heads she had lined up in the van’s cargo area like toy soldiers, each a twin sister right down to her tiny half-moon scar. She sat cross-legged in front of the five heads looking like a little girl at a pajama party sharing an incredible secret with girlfriends who shared the same face and were missing their bodies. Holding her sides, Holly Samuels laughed so hard that it hurt.
She laughed so hard she hardly noticed the soft flesh along the stitches of her neck tear and separate, and she laughed even as her head lolled forward, leaving her body.
And the five heads with Holly’s face continued laughing with her. ***
After three viewings of the videotape, Stanley Cooper snapped off the Kingman lab’s VCR. “I’m working too hard,” the doctor finally told himself, wondering what trick of his imagination had made him think he had seen the Samuels woman’s eyes flicker. He had aimed the camcorder at her head specimen for hours but did not notice anything different since that one moment around noon.
But if his cryobiological hypotheses were to have any merit he had to consider all possibilities. A cryogenic subject – if technically still alive – had to have thoughts, didn’t she? Whether with truths or fabrications, the human mind needed to occupy itself. He wondered what kinds of thoughts Holly Samuels might have. Thoughts reflecting her supreme isolation, perhaps, because of her inability to communicate, but what else?
Cooper gulped down the remaining cold coffee and stared at the girl’s frozen head specimen behind the freezer’s glass canister. The young woman’s face revealed nothing of the demons that must still have lurked inside that head, demons which two years ago had caused Holly Samuels to go on a killing spree across the country.
Hadn’t her lawyer tried to cop an insanity plea, claiming Miss Samuels had some form of schizophrenia, a rare multiple personality disorder? Cooper had read the court transcripts of a psychiatrist who had claimed the Samuels woman had even given her personalities men’s names and personal histories, perhaps bringing back to life the father she had shot to death years ago. The jury didn’t buy her insanity plea, and eighteen months later the state of Nevada strapped Miss Holly Samuels into a chair.
The day following the Samuels execution Nevada’s Kingman Medical Research Center received a visit from three pasty-faced men in dark suits carrying a large container for Dr. Stanley Cooper. The men had told him nothing about the woman’s psychological profile, but Cooper believed a doctor’s first duty was to know his patient. It mattered little to him if that patient were in a freezer apart from her body.
Staring hard at the head specimen, Cooper considered a possibility. If schizophrenia were the only reality Holly Samuels had known, wouldn’t her thoughts reflect that? Cold and alone, literally cut off from the physical world, wouldn’t she try to connect, to reconstruct reality based on whatever felt familiar, whether it were a voice or a sound? In a desperate attempt to reconnect with life, might she even display a motor reaction of some sort?
“I’m working too hard,” Cooper again told himself, sinking into the soft chair before the VCR. He poured himself another cup of coffee and hit the ‘Play’ button again. The radio had been on during the videotaping he had done of the Samuels specimen at noon, and for a moment he closed his eyes to listen to “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline.
In the canister inside the freezer behind him, Holly Samuels’ eyes struggled to open …
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