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Chapter XXVI

Watching the snakes descend, Marcus decided the moment to leave had arrived. Whether Two-eyes survived or not was out of his hands, but the mission had to succeed. D could fill out the lost agent report, he was going to trace the snakes back to their source.

Luther Van Krossen was standing some distance behind the bleachers and Shield approached him about previous night’s offer of a tour. Van Krossen jumped at the chance to avoid witnessing the slaughter.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said holding open an access door behind the barn. “Gunther gets entirely too much pleasure out of these little events.”

“I’m surprised they happen at all,” offered Shield. “Even in Texas this kind of thing must raise a few eyebrows.”

“Fewer than you think,” he said but didn’t elaborate.

The Thulewaite Pharmecutical factory was apparently contained underground. Suggesting this was a little unusual, Luther explained that the heat demands for their process were rather extreme. Indeed, as they walked down a large straight corridor, Shield could catch glimpses through windowed doors of large surgical steel pasteurization vats and automated filling machines. For a complex of this size, Shield was surprised how few people were around.

They came to a door marked simply A-23 and Luther began fishing for the right key.

“What’s behind door number 23?”

Luther looked up and gave a strange half smile. “Believe me when I say, you’re going to have to see that for yourself.”

Behind the door was a long corridor with glass panels. Before he entered the corridor he knew what he would see behind that glass.

Thulewaite had gone to a lot of expense for his snakes; the corridor turned out to be a catwalk over a large drum-shaped chamber filled with tropical trees and plants. The far walls had been covered in a Rousseau jungle scene, complete with strangely paralyzed monkeys and lions gazing stiffly out of the composition. He caught a glimpse of pink striations as a snake plunged into thick undergrowth. The animosity of the snakes for their captors was a tangible thing, a pervasive force that raised little hairs on the back of his neck. He crossed the catwalk in about three steps and didn’t look back until they were in the next room, a multilevel atrium containing workstations and banks of grey filing cabinets.

“So, what do you think of the snakes?”

“Unnerving.”

“Try working here day after day,” Krossen paused and leaned in close. “Someone last year died right on that catwalk. That’s why they walled it in glass. The fucking snakes found some way to latch onto the bottom of the bridge. They cooperated. A few snakes wrapped around the struts and served as anchors for one of the really big ones. Imagine being that luckless bastard: on your way to get some coffee and then BAM! You’re taking a one way trip down some reptile’s throat.”

Shield, already searching through the file cabinet for shipping invoices, buy reports, and records of transport, gave his reply as a grunt.

“Never even recovered the body,” came a new voice, dimly familiar. “Just too expensive to open up of those wonderful creatures up every time they eat someone.”

Shield swiveled, already pressing down on his index joint. He saw Melissa and the gun pointed at her head.

“I wouldn’t try that, Mr. Duncan” said Hugo Simplex, pressed a gun close to Agent LeHaze. “Or should I say, Agent Shield?”


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“Frankie, listen to me. You have to pull the trigger.”

Frankie was silent. The rifle rested at his shoulder, just like he had practiced. He had D sighted, the slender cross-hairs pointing to spot just over her right eye. There was a slight Eastern wind which would pull the rifle to the left. He made his calibrations and rested his finger on the trigger. Perhaps a dozen men who could make this shot. He was one of them.

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