Mickey Reichert: The beasts of Barakhai

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Mickey Reichert The beasts of Barakhai
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    The beasts of Barakhai
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Mickey Zucker Reichert

The beasts of Barakhai

Chapter 1

RACKS of plastic hutches lined the walls of the biology laboratory at Algary campus, each with a testtube water bottle jutting from its mesh screen lid. Surrounded by wood-topped metal stools, six fused desks/cabinets filled the center of the room, a chaotic jumble of notepads, pens, pipettes, and goggles cluttering their faux wood surfaces. Stomach growling, Benton Collins ladled fresh wood chips into the pan of an empty cage while its usual occupant, a fat white rat, nosed at the corners of the cardboard box that temporarily held it.

The odor of the cleaner churned Collins' hunger into nausea. He flung strands of dark brown hair from his eyes with a gloved hand, smearing wet food mush across his forehead, then immediately berated himself with sarcasm for the habitual gesture. Smart move. Good thing I wore gloves to protect me from this slop.

As the sweet aroma of cedar replaced the chemical smells, Collins' gut rumbled again. He had skipped breakfast and lunch, the expectation of a Thanksgiving feast holding hunger at bay. He had promised his girlfriend to do whatever he could to make it to her family's home by 2:00 p.m., to meet her parents for the first time. Collins doubted his skinny, bespectacled self would make much of an impression on an old-money family like the Johnsons, especially reeking of rat and with green-gray smudges of food stick goo across his face. He glanced at his watch. 3:30 p.m. And he still had an entire row of cages to clean, as well as Professor Demarkietto's notes to review, before he could call it a day. The drive alone would take an hour.

Feeling more like a punching bag than a graduate student, Collins filled the water bottle, placed a few fresh sticks of food in the cage, then hefted the cardboard box. He poured the rat back into its cage. It scuttled about, hurling chips, then hunkered down with a food stick clenched between its front paws. Collins clipped the lid back in place and replaced the cage on its rack. He peeled off the gloves with a snap of latex and tossed them into the trash can. Using a damp paper towel little finer than sandpaper, he scrubbed the grime from his forehead, then washed his hands and drank from his cupped palms. The water sat like lead in his otherwise empty belly. After drying his face and hands, he wadded the paper towels together and launched them, like a basketball, into the can.

Only then, did Collins take a deep breath, close his eyes, and reach for the telephone. Fumbling through the papers for his own organizer, he opened his eyes and leafed to the last page for the home number of Marlys Johnson's parents. He punched it in.

Marlys answered on the first ring. "Hello?" Her tone hardened. "Benton, that better be you."

Seized with a sudden urge to hang up without speaking, Collins forced a laugh. "If I'd been Publishers' Clearinghouse, wouldn't you have felt dumb?"

Dead silence.

Collins cringed. He pictured her: long red hair permed and styled for the holiday, the green eyes that could as easily scald as melt him, the slender legs that seemed to climb to her smallbreasted chest. In his mind's eye, he imagined a glare that would send tougher men skittering for cover.

The distant sound of laughter wafted across the receiver, followed by song. The background noise brought Collins back to his childhood, when his parents lived together and his Uncle Harry and Aunt Meg spent every Thanksgiving with them. Harry loved to tell jokes but butchered the punchlines. Meg would try to correct them, laughing so hard that she usually only succeeded in making them hopelessly obtuse. The interaction between the husband and wife always seemed so much funnier than the joke, even correctly told. Collins had spent last Thanksgiving with his mother and her new boyfriend, a paunchy, socially inept engineer with three visiting children he could not control. This year, the two were spending Thanksgiving in Vegas on their honeymoon. Collins' father was touring Europe with his quirky girlfriend, Aviva. Harry and Meg had not invited him.

"You'd better be calling from a cell phone." Marlys' frigid voice jarred Collins back to the present.

Collins sighed, hands sliding instinctively to the cell phone, pager, and multitool at his belt. "I'm still at the lab."

"Why?" Her tone implied no explanation short of nuclear catastrophe would suffice.

Collins knew better, but he could not resist another joke. "The rats invited me for dinner. I couldn't resist… food sticks."

"That's not funny."

"I'm sorry."

"Am I a joke to you?"

"Of course not." Collins rolled his eyes to the whitewashed ceiling, wishing he had not attempted humor. "I'd be there if I could, Marlys. You know that. But the power system's been touch and go with all the grain harvests. Lab loses electricity long enough, crash go some of the experiments. Including Dundee's two-million-dollar grant."

"You're not working for Dundee," Marlys reminded. "Why can't her grad student handle it?"

Collins sat on one of the stools, propping his sneaker-clad feet on another. "Marly, come on. You know Dave's parents live in Florida."

"Don't call me Marly-"

"Once they all found out my family wasn't available for the holiday-"

"It's Marlys, Benton, not Marly. And why do you let people take advantage of you?"

Collins gave the expected reply, though he had tired of it. "Just call me Ben. And it's not a matter of taking advantage. It's-"

"Demarkietto's a slave driver."

Though true, it was not what Collins had been about to say. "Well, yes, but-"

"Why don't you just tell him to go fuck himself?"

"Marlys!" Collins had never heard her use that word before.

"You have a right to a holiday, too."

Collins hated to remind Marlys of his shortcomings, especially when she had her mother to disparage him. "A lot of candidates applied for lab positions this year. I was lucky to get one."

Marlys refused to concede. "No, Demarkietto's the lucky one. Lucky he could get any grad assistant after Carrie Quinton."

Collins had also heard the rumors, that the beautiful postdoctoral genetics student had disappeared without a trace in an effort to escape Professor Demarkietto's demands. "I need the money, Marlys. I'm already three payments behind on student loans. And I need the recommendation. Whatever you or Carrie Quinton thinks of ol' D-Mark, he's well-respected in the scientific community."

Something white caught the edge of Collins' vision.

"Benton, my parents are starting to think you're unreliable."

Distracted, Collins returned to wit. "So is student loan services."


A white rat scurried from behind the desks, scrambling through the gap in the partially opened door.

"Damn it!"

"Benton! Did you just swear at me?"

"Big problem." Wondering whose ten-year, million-dollar experiment he had just ruined, Collins said, "I'll call you back." Without waiting for a reply, he started to replace the receiver.

Marlys' small voice chased him. "Don't you dare-" Then the earpiece clicked down, cutting off whatever threat Marlys had uttered. Uncertain whether or not he would ever see his girlfriend again, Collins bashed the door open with his shoulder.

The panel shot wide, and the impact bruised his arm even through his emerald-green Algary sweatshirt. Collins caught sight of the rat squeezing beneath the door of one of the unused classrooms provided by grant money. He had once overheard some of the professors discussing the perks of earning such a room, then using it for storage, a badge of honor for bringing in a large endowment. Collins groaned, doubting he could find the escapee amid years of a scientist's accumulated crap.

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