It was a Tuesday when the flea and tick preventative salesman showed up at Mary’s door. It would also be the last day of Mary’s life.
Orphaned hamsters were Mary’s specialty. She took it upon herself to rescue them from pet stores, take them to the veterinarian for their checkups, and pay for their castration. Yes, she neutered her hamsters. She wanted none of them to escape and cause havoc in the fields around Roswell. She also had three cats named Snickers, Sweet Potato, and January.
Mary had just finished pouring Meow Mix into a galvanized steel bowl the size of a hubcap for her cats when the doorbell rang. It was a nice young man in a grey suit holding a tan leather briefcase.
“Good morning, ma’am. I’m George Mason and your neighbors tell me you love hamsters.”
Mary blushed and let the man into her home immediately. He opened his briefcase and asked how much she paid annually in flea and tick preventative. She, of course, hadn’t kept track because her dead husband had left her a sizeable inheritance and his life insurance had set her up for several lifetimes.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said George, “not only will you save money with this new flea and tick preventative, you’ll never see a flea and tick enter your home again. You see, all you have to do is treat each of your hamsters once and you’ll kill all the fleas and ticks they come into contact with for the rest of their short lives. One application and done. You won’t even have to remember to reapply every few months or every year.”
Mary thought this sounded pretty great. But she was also wary. It seemed too good to be true.
“I’ll even give you one free application on the hamster of your choice,” George held up a small vial of green liquid. It didn’t look like any flea and tick preventative she’d seen before.
“I don’t know. What company did you say you worked for again?” Mary asked.
“I see you’re hesitant. How about this, I’ll apply my product to as many of your hamsters as you like as long as you tell your friends and your veterinarian about this new product. We’re a new company and would like as much publicity as possible.”
Mary had a few new hamsters quarantined in her garage she had hoped to take to the vet that day. One of them had already been to the vet — a large yellow male who had his testicles removed — and was there recovering.
“Alright, let’s try it on the ones in my garage. But I’m not letting you touch my babies inside.”
At 10 PM that night, the castrated yellow hamster began to scream. Mary assumed its pain medication had run out and went to the cupboard to draw up some more solution. By the time she made it to the garage door, the entire garage was on fire. When she opened the door, a flood of flames leaped through and snatched at her sweater. She attempted a “drop and roll”, but the flames flowed over her and consumed her body and then her house. Snickers, Sweet Potato, and January escaped out the pet door and once more became strays.
1. Anna’s First Day
Anna Skellig’s first day working as a veterinarian was a Tuesday. It was an overwhelming first day. While Dr. Holden had given her mostly wellness appointments, the sheer number of things Anna needed to remember from school almost gave her several panic attacks throughout the day.
During the interview in September, Dr. Holden had made it clear she wouldn’t be thrown to the wolves on her first day. He had kept his word. Wellness appointments were fairly simple. Do an exam, tell the tech what shots to give and what medicines to re-fill, listen to any complaints, send the animal home.
She was upfront discharging a patient when Ms. Mary Freise came through the door with her five new hamsters. Dr. Holden was busy and Anna had a free slot so the receptionist asked if she could see Ms. Freise, a regular at the clinic.
Seeing the five hamsters there, Anna almost begged Dr. Holden to take the case. Hamsters were the worst pets. Once, in vet school, a child had come into the teaching hospital with a hamster. While Anna examined its belly, the rodent bit down on her finger like a pit bull and wouldn’t let go as she yanked her hand away. The little Cretan flew across the room and hit the wall. Only dazed, the hamster spun in a circle and escaped under the door. The little girl screamed. Anna fled the room searching for the escaped hamster. No luck.
A few days later they found the hamster gorging itself in the dog food supply. They’d sent the hamster home. Anna never wanted to see another hamster in her life. Today was no exception but she bucked up, took a breath, and walked into the exam room.
Mary Friese was not weird. She was polite, friendly, and merely loved hamsters enough to actually care for them. She said cost was no barrier, and when Anna talked with Dr. Holden later, he nodded and said Mary was always good for the money. She was a rich widow with too much time on her hands.
Anna asked about each hamster’s very short history. Mary told Anna about the flea and tick preventative salesman. Anna checked each hamster for a reaction of some kind (using a tongue depressor) and found nothing. “We’ll keep an eye on them for any changes over the next 24 hours. It shouldn’t change anything about their surgery, but if they had a severe reaction, we might have to delay.”
Neither Mary nor Anna realized as they talked about the hamsters that this would be their one and only interaction. Anna hardly thought about Mary and her hamsters the rest of the day. But Ms. Friese became a hot topic at about midnight when Dr. Holden called Dr. Skellig with a very different kind of veterinary emergency.
2. The Hot Topic
Anna Skellig slept on a mattress on the floor. Her German shepherd, Trusty, lay like a log beside her, his feet straight out taking up half the bed. She still lived out of boxes a week after moving to Roswell, New Mexico alone. Her house was essentially empty.
Her dreams were a kaleidoscope of dogs and cats and clients and orders and charts. A faint tune rang out above the din and confusion. She wondered where it came from. Her clinic had no speaker system. And then she realized it was all a dream and woke up.
Anna snatched her phone off a box next to the mattress, “Hulllo?”
“I’m so sorry to wake you, Anna.”
It took Anna a moment to recognize the voice, “Dr. Holden?”
“I swear this won’t be a normal occurrence. At least. I hope. It won’t be.” Dr. Holden said.
“Alright,” was all Anna could think to say.
“I kinda need you to come in. We’ve got. A situation. Here at the clinic.” Dr. Holden was breathing hard as if he’d run a sprint.
“Are you ok?” Anna asked.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Had to put. Out. A fire.”
“Yeah, I’ll explain when you get here. It’s about Ms. Friese’s hamsters. Just come down. I’ve got some coffee on,” Dr. Holden hung up.
Anna sat in the dark a moment staring at her phone. Ms. Friese’s hamsters. He couldn’t mean the hamster lady. And a fire?
Anna rolled off the mattress and Trusty started awake, flailing onto his feet and looking like a dazed wolf. “Sorry, bud. You’ve got the house to yourself for a while,” Anna pulled on jeans and an orange t-shirt, the words Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine emblazoned on the front.
When she arrived at the clinic, Dr. Holden was at the front waiting to let her in.
“I was here late finishing records,” he began as he locked the door behind her. Something acrid stank up the clinic. “I smelled hair burning,” Holden continued while leading her to the back area. “I got up and went searching for the source thinking maybe something electrical had caught fire in the clinic. And when I got to the small kennel room, I saw this blazing fire inside.”
Anna was suddenly not wanting to be at the clinic. Holden’s story already sounded like a weird nightmare. Perhaps she’d never actually woken up. Maybe she was still in bed back at the house, Trusty still conked out beside her.
“I ran and grabbed the fire extinguisher. By the time I got in there, the ceiling was on fire and the hamsters were already gone. Thank God I smelled the smoke so quickly or we’d be standing outside right now watching the fire department take care of it.”
They were at the small kennel room and Holden opened the door for her. It stank of burnt rubber and something worse Anna couldn’t identify.
“I’m gonna need you to help me move the rest of the animals out of here. But you should see this first,” he led her to the center of the hallway-like room where Mary’s hamsters had been when Anna had left. They were still there but in a different form. A greasy pile of ashes and a charred skeleton curled like a seashell sat in each cage. The metal of the cage was scorched all the way to the ceiling, their water bottles melted to the spout.
Anna gasped, “what the hell?”
“Exactly,” Holden replied, “I remember you said you’d seen Mary’s hamsters today. I’ve never seen anything like this. I haven’t pulled your records to see what you wrote. Did she say anything unusual? Was there anything…weird about these hamsters?”
“No, the hamsters seemed completely normal…” Anna thought for a moment and then said, “but she did mention some salesman came to her house and gave her a new flea and tick preventative. I didn’t think it was anything at the time. Nothing seemed wrong with the hamsters. I’ve never heard of flea and tick preventative doing that…” she pointed at the nearest cage.
“Unless it wasn’t flea and tick preventative…” Holden said, his tone serious.
“Wait…what? You really think what that salesman gave her did this?” Anna asked.
“Hmm…maybe,” Holden mused, “I didn’t see anyone else when I found the fire. I guess it is possible someone snuck in here and set five hamsters on fire at the same time.”
“It’s certainly the more rational solution, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps,” Holden said, “let’s move the rest of the animals out of here and check them over. Then we’ll collect samples from the ashes so I can analyze them in the morning. But first coffee.”
“Wait…analyze the ashes? How are you going to do that? That would take some sort of…I don’t know, chemical analysis?” She didn’t know if even her vet school could have done that.
“Yes, chemical analysis. I’ll be testing for byproducts of flammable compounds or accelerants. I’ve become somewhat of a chemistry nerd over the years and I own some extra equipment…at home,” Dr. Holden said that last bit a little too quickly and then turned to walk out of the room.
Anna was confused and a little impressed at the same time. Holden didn’t seem as perturbed as someone should be when their client’s hamsters spontaneously combusted.
When Dr. Holden said coffee, he meant that morning’s brew reheated. One of the techs had already warned Anna about Dr. Holden’s coffee. Some days he wouldn’t drink the whole pot. The next morning he would pour the day-old coffee into a cup and nuke it in the microwave. While Anna was a coffee snob most days, she couldn’t be picky right then. One, it was her new boss offering and two, she was tired as fuck after a long first day, three hours of sleep, and the shock of finding her client’s hamsters more crispy than usual. She took the shitty coffee gratefully.
“I want you to go talk to Ms. Friese tomorrow and find out what that salesman said and get a description. Don’t tell her about the hamsters,” Holden said.
Anna almost spat out her coffee, “what am I supposed to tell her then?”
Holden scowled, “I don’t know, did you tell her you’d watch for a reaction?”
“Well, yeah…” replied Anna.
“Then tell her they all have a weird rash and you wanted to know who the salesman was,” Holden said as he walked toward the small animal kennels. “You’ve got to gain some confidence if you’re going to be a good veterinarian, Anna.”
Anna was hurt. Asshole, she thought and scowled. She was confident. This was not the kind of situation she thought being a veterinarian would put her in, interviewing crazy hamster ladies about a topical solution. A topical solution her boss thought was capable of causing an animal to catch fire… She shivered and then yawned. It was going to be a long week.
3. The FBI
Ms. Friese lived on the other side of town in a middle class neighborhood. The houses were squat ranch style homes mostly made of brick. In the desert, it was rare to see two story houses. Cooling a home was simpler when you only had one floor.
Also rare were lawns. White granite gravel was the low-maintenance choice. Anna still wasn’t used to the dryness and lack of green. It felt like she’d moved to another world entirely and the cactus strewn yards in Roswell seemed to confirm that fact.
When Anna turned onto Stoppard Street, she expected more of the same dry, brick facades. What she found instead was a scene straight out of a cop drama. Police vehicles on boths sides of the street. 451 Stoppard Street cordoned off with yellow “DO NOT CROSS” ribbons. A lollygagging person or two. Cops and people in grey suits moving in and out of a burned out brick shell.
She parked down the street and walked over to the activity surrounding Ms. Friese’s house. Anna didn’t see Ms. Friese in the crowd anywhere. A cop stopped her and asked what she was doing there.
“I’m Dr. Skellig, Ms. Friese’s veterinarian. I was coming to talk to her. Is she around?” Anna tried to look beyond the cop through the door of the house but he moved in closer to her.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not at liberty to say where she is. You’ll have to step back,” he put a hand on her shoulder and tilted his head.
Anna got the signal and began to step back when a lanky man in a dark grey suit came up and asked, “Officer Cortez, who is this?”
Anna looked up at the man whose face was as long as his body. He had high cheekbones and a nose too big for his face and short black straight hair parted at the side.
Officer Cortez replied, “She says she’s the lady’s vet.”
The man in the suit glanced down at Anna and scowled, “You’re not Dr. Holden.”
Anna wanted to say something snarky in reply but held her tongue, “I’m Dr. Skellig, Dr. Holden’s new associate. What happened?”
The man raised an eyebrow, “huh,” he looked at the ground for a sec and then back at Anna, “I’m Agent Kelly from the FBI. Let me get my partner. I’d like to talk to you about Mary Friese over there by that car.” He turned to the officer, “Thanks, Cortez.”
Anna stood by an unmarked black sedan. The summer heat was already unbearable at eight in the morning. She was glad she’d put on a short-sleeved scrub top that morning.
Agent Kelly and his similarly dressed partner approached.
Kelly’s partner, another man, shorter, sturdier and with blond hair, stuck out his hand, “I’m Agent Becker. I hear you’re working with Dr. Holden?”
Anna shook his hand and continued to shield her eyes as she looked up at the agents, “Yeah. What happened to Ms. Friese? Is she ok?”
Kelly glanced at his partner and said, “I’m sorry to say that Ms. Friese died in a house fire last night.”
“What caused the fire?” Anna asked.
“Undetermined,” Becker said too quickly as if anticipating the question, “probably electrical. My partner says you’re working under Dr. Holden?”
“Umm…yes,” Anna replied. She wanted to ask a billion questions, but something inside her told her to comply with the men in authority so she did.
Becker continued, “We don’t want to alarm you, but we suspect Dr. Holden has been involved in some…illegal activities in Roswell. We’ve been watching him for a while but don’t have enough evidence to bring him in for questioning.”
Anna dropped her hand and looked at both agents, “you think my new boss is a criminal?” This week was getting weirder and weirder.
“No.” Kelley said, “we’ve just had some reports from…clients of his. It might be nothing. But we were wondering if you could keep an eye out for anything unusual that might be going on in his clinic. You know, the usual, money disappearing, him meeting with unusual clients. That sort of thing. Then let us know if you see anything,” the agent pulled out his wallet and handed her a business card.
Anna took the card and put it in her pocket.
“It was a pleasure,” Becker began to say and then changed his tone, “I mean, sorry about your client.” He walked back to the house while talking to his partner in a hushed tone.
“What the actual?” Anna said aloud to herself and pulled out the card. It was embossed with the FBI seal. “Agent Chris Kelly, Field Investigator”, Anna read out loud. She realized neither agent had shown her an I.D. But did FBI agents really do that in real life? She didn’t know. Anna had never met an FBI agent.
She walked back to her car thinking about what both agents had said. “Illegal activities.” “Anything unusual…money disappearing…unusual clients.” They didn’t mention hamsters turned to ash or Holden being a closet chemist. She decided it would have to be something obviously criminal if she were to report her boss to the FBI. Anna put the card in her wallet when she got back to her car and drove back to the clinic.
4. Dr. Holden’s Secret
When Anna got back to the clinic, Dr. Holden said he’d talk to her at lunch. She hopped into the rotation and started pulling wellness appointments off the list. She didn’t have time to think about what had happened outside Ms. Friese’s house that morning.
When lunch came and all the staff went for their lunch break, Holden pulled Anna into the office, closed the door and closed all the blinds. “Ok, so, what did Ms. Friese say?” Holden asked as he sat on one of the desks.
“Ms. Friese is dead,” Anna replied.
Holden screwed up his face and looked at the floor, “how?”
“Fire. Her house was a burned out husk. There were police everywhere. They said she had died in the fire,” she intentionally left out the FBI agents.
Dr. Holden stood up and paced for a moment.
“It’s a really weird coincidence. They said it was an electrical fire though. So, probably a coincidence, right?” Anna asked.
Dr. Holden looked almost younger for a moment when he looked at Anna. He rarely smiled when at the clinic. Some of the receptionists said clients complained about that. He was a greying older man with solid features. If he’d just act a little less grumpy, he might be almost handsome with his salt and pepper hair and square jawline. But his current half-smirk and narrowed eyes belied a kind of excitement bubbling underneath his usual demeanor.
“I didn’t think something like this would happen so soon after you got here. I was debating whether to bring you in on it or not,” Dr. Holden stopped pacing and looked down at Anna.
Oh, shit, Anna thought, the agents were right. Holden is a criminal.
“I’ve not known you for very long, but you seemed to be an honest person. Someone who is both practical and smart. But you’re curious and wanting to learn everything at the same time. I just don’t know how good you are at keeping secrets. Can you keep a secret?” Holden asked moving almost uncomfortably close to Anna, his concern three lines on his forehead.
Anna thought about what the FBI agents had said. If Holden was a criminal, then could she remain a mole? Did she have it in her to rat out her own boss? Of course, she could keep a secret. She hadn’t told Holden about the agents. She decided on her answer.
“Yes,” She replied, “I can keep a secret. What’s going on?”
“Good!” Holden danced around her and walked to the door. “I want to show you something. But you have to swear you won’t tell a soul it’s here. Not even your own mother.” Holden’s eyes twinkled. There was a kind of life in him she hadn’t seen yet.
“Umm…ok?” Anna said.
“Great!” Holden replied and led her to the large animal garage on the other side of the clinic.
Anna hesitated at the door to the feed room when Dr. Holden went inside. What if Holden was a serial killer or something? What if he was going to lock her in somewhere and then torture her? She shivered. Then she remembered the hamsters and Ms. Friese. No, she thought, something else was going on. Maybe he’s an arsonist. That would be better…maybe?
She followed Dr. Holden into the feed room where he walked up to a pile of white five-gallon buckets. He yanked on the top right one and the whole pile slid away from the wall revealing a heavy steel door. Next to the door was a keypad. Holden typed numbers into the pad and the door clicked open.
Behind the door was a set of stairs leading downward. Holden flipped a switch and a light came on somewhere at the bottom. He descended.
The basement was about the same floor space as the clinic above. The walls on the closest half of the room were lined with stainless steel tables. Lab equipment littered the tables. Petri dishes, bunsen burners, beakers, microscopes, and an assortment of machines that looked similar to the blood analysis machine upstairs.
One table seemed dedicated to dissection. At the moment there was nothing there but sterile instruments lined up perfectly and ready for use.
Next to the dissection table was a surgical island like the one upstairs with a surgical lamp hanging from the ceiling. It was a large raised sink with a surgical grate laid across. Just beyond it was a surgical table with another surgical lamp. That was table that pivoted to drain away blood like the tables in the sterile room upstairs. An ultrasound machine stood on a cart next to it. There was an I.V. stand with what looked like I.V. bags hanging from it only the liquid inside was fluorescent green.
The latter half of the room was filled with rows of steel file cabinets. And at the farthest end another steel door, this one larger and thicker. It reminded Anna of the giant refrigerator door at the restaurant where she’d spent a summer waiting tables.
Anna was relieved to see nothing obviously criminal going on. No bodies yet. No stacks of cash or cocaine or trays of meth. “So, this is where you were going to analyse the ashes?”
“Yes!” Holden replied, “Sorry to lie to you. Hadn’t decided whether to trust you yet. No hard feelings, right?”
Anna shook her head as she scanned the equipment.
“Good. I’ll tell you about this later. First, you have to see my collection,” Holden said and walked over to the big steel door.
“Collection?…” Anna asked. This didn’t sound good.
“Trust me. You’re gonna like this,” he said as he opened the door which hissed like a snake.
Anna tripped over the raised threshold as she entered. The spectacle inside had grabbed her attention so quickly she didn’t noticed that there was a ledge. She stumbled into Holden who politely caught her by the shoulders and righted her, letting go immediately and stepping back so she could see the whole room.
The smell of formaldehyde tried to bring her back to anatomy class in vet school, but failed. The room was filled with shelves of glass jars and clear sealed containers of various sizes. What stood out the most was a glass tube that reached to the ten-foot high ceiling and sat on squat metal pedestal. It was filled with a different solution than the rest, something blueish, almost silver. Suspended in the liquid was an almost human.
That’s how Anna thought of it. But it wasn’t human. It was much taller than any person she’d ever met. It had four legs with very human-like bone and muscle structures. It also had two arms and a torso like a human being. Its dead eyes bulged a bit from the saturation of whatever solution, but they seemed disproportionately large compared to it’s fairly long face. The nose rolled off the face like a squat bit of dough someone had combed between its two sharp cheekbones. The mouth hung open and its teeth were thick and bladed like those of a horse. Its swollen tongue looked long like a horse’s too.
“He was probably a fugitive. Most of the ones who crash land here are. And they’re typically dead by the time they do. I paid a lot of money to get this one here. Stolen out of a British Military lab in the north of Scotland. One of my contacts there authenticated the discovery. His ship crashed in the middle of the Atlantic and fortunately a military boat saw it or he’d have been lost in the deep. Crashing on land is actually pretty rare on planet Earth since we’re seventy-one percent water.”
Anna didn’t know how to reply or whether she could believe her eyes. The room was filled with weird creatures. Monkey-like things, obvious sea creatures with a billion tentacles, bug-like things, many-segmented things. Some were horrifying. Some were actually kind of cute.
Dr. Holden crossed his arms and watched Anna for a moment. She walked around and stared at everything. She’d completely forgotten about the last 24 hours and everything else weird about them. This topped everything anyways.
“My contacts call me the Xeno-Veterinarian. I kind of like it. Has a certain ring to, doesn’t it?” said Holden before he led her out to the main part of the basement.
Anna had a billion questions. This time she was actually going to ask them.
To Be Continued….