Three Years Ago – Somewhere in Central Florida
Laura Wells had been driving for hours. Now as midnight came and one day slipped into another, she pulled off the interstate and followed the directions provided by the man she knew only as Mr. Smith. This was not his real name, she was sure. While there were many people in the world who bore that moniker, it was too obviously generic, even laughably so given how often it cropped up in bad movies, to be genuine. This was to be expected. Which was fine. All she cared about was the twenty grand that waited a few miles ahead. But now, as she followed a back road deep into the Central Florida woods, she started to have second thoughts.
Behind her, in the truck’s bed, was a two by three-foot cage of the type commonly used to house large dogs. But her cargo today was anything but as mundane. It still slept, thanks to the liberal dose of Carfentanil, a potent elephant tranquilizer, she had administered back at the lab. Even so, Laura was nervous. What if she’d given it to much, and the animal was dead when she got to the rendezvous? It wasn’t like she was trained in this kind of thing, being a lowly assistant who more often than not spent her days fetching coffee and cleaning out empty cages soiled with feces and urine. Still, she had watched the researchers and veterinarians go about their business and had, she believed, picked up a few tricks. Not least of which was how to subdue a snapping, angry animal that wanted nothing more than to take a chunk out of whomever was closest to its mouth.
And so here she was, miles from home in the middle of nowhere, racing to meet a man she knew nothing about except that he possessed a wad of cash. Enough money to save her hide, or rather, her husband’s. The bills were piling up, and Jeff hadn’t worked in six months. Not only that, but he didn’t seem to have any inclination to change the situation. Which was the primary reason they picked her, for sure. How they found her she did not know. Likewise, how they knew the dire landscape of her finances. But none of that mattered. Another hour and all this would be over. The slumbering beast in the cargo bed would be gone, and Laura would be able to pay the mortgage company before they took her house.
The road had become a pair of narrow lanes, surrounded by dense woodland. One in each direction with no buildings in sight. Laura started think she’d misread the directions and taken a wrong turn. But then she saw a gate ahead, blocking the road.
She approached the gate and stopped.
A chain link fence topped with razor wire led off in both directions through the woods. A sign on to the gate told her this was the correct location.
No entry by order of Sinclair Research Corporation.
Trespassers will be prosecuted.
Next to the gate was a keypad. A pole mounted camera watched as she entered the code Mr. Smith had provided. When the gate opened she pulled forward and passed through.
A little further in, the woods thinned and opened up into an empty parking lot. A large four-story building sat on the other side, across a shimmering, serene lake surrounded by manicured landscaping.
She came to a stop and waited, as she had been told to do. A feeling of unsettled nervousness nagged at the back of her mind, partly because she was so far off the beaten track, and also because she appeared to be alone.
Except she wasn’t.
A pair of headlights snapped on across the parking lot, and Laura realized that an SUV was there, sitting in the darkness. Waiting.
The SUV moved now, driving toward her. After it stopped, a slender Asian man with graying hair got out. He stood and waited while she gathered the courage to move.
“You’re late,” he said as she exited her vehicle.
“It was a long drive.” Laura realized she was shaking. She willed herself to calm down. “This place is really out in the boondocks. You’d never know it was here.”
“We like our privacy.” The man stepped closer. He glanced toward the crate in the bed of her truck, covered by a tarp. When he spoke, there was excitement in his voice. “Is that it?”
“Can I see?”
“What about my money?” Laura asked.
“I have it.” The man chuckled. “You’ll get it once I verify the package is genuine. Now, may I see?”
“It’s real, I assure you.” Laura went to the back of the truck, dropped the tailgate. She pulled the tarp aside. “There.”
Mr. Smith came closer. He leaned forward; his eyes wide with anticipation. “Fabulous.”
“I don’t get it.” Laura studied the creature, curled up in a fetal position on the crate floor as it slept off the sedative. It was three feet long, with a thick scaly hide, muscular limbs, and a toothy snout. “Why pay so much for an alligator?”
“You think this is an alligator?” Mr. Smith laughed and peered into the crate, his face inches from the wire.
Laura shrugged. “Sure.”
“Oh, my pretty. You’re no alligator, are you?” he cooed the words, eyes roaming across the slumbering beast. “Oh no. You are much better.”
“What’s so special about this, anyway?” Laura found the creature repulsive. “It’s ugly.”
“That it is.” Mr. Smith agreed. “But under that grotesque shell lies a work of art. Ancient genes, dormant for millennia, turned back on thanks to genetic engineering. Size, power, instincts, all reverted to an earlier, more primal stage. It’s fascinating, and it’s going to shave years off our research.”
“Why bother to do the work yourself, when you can just steal it,” Laura said, instantly regretting the words as Mr. Smith fixed her with a cold glare.
“You don’t have much room for judgement, young lady. After all, you are the one who stole it for us,” Mr. Smith said. “Speaking of which, you made sure it would not be missed?”
“Yes.” Laura nodded. “These things are not terribly friendly, even to their own young. They tend to eat them.”
“Survival of the fittest,” Mr. Smith said. “A lot of animals eat their own offspring to thin out the litter. Remove the weak. The infirm. Nature is a cruel mistress.”
“Well, whatever. I made it look like mommy got hungry and chowed down on junior here. He won’t be missed.”
“Good. You did as we asked.” Mr. Smith nodded toward the crate. “Load him into my car, will you? And then you may take your money and be on your way.”
“I’m not touching that monster again,” Laura said. “Why don’t we just drive it up to the building?”
“No.” Mr. Smith shook his head. “Here will be fine.”
“Don’t trust me, huh?” Laura said.
“Not one little bit. You proved yourself untrustworthy when you agreed to steal this beastie for us.”
“Fair enough.” Laura shrugged. “But I’m not moving this thing again. It was bad enough back at the lab. It’s your turn.”
“Very well.” Mr. Smith sighed. He tugged the tarp clear and reached forward to pull the crate from the truck bed.
The creature opened an eye, observed him.
“It’s awake,” Laura said.
“I can see that.” Mr. Smith withdrew his hand. “I don’t suppose you have another dose of tranquilizer?”
“No. I gave it enough to knock out a horse for a week. It should still be in dreamland.”
“Well, it’s not.” Mr. Smith rubbed his chin. “One of those genes they turned back on must have enhanced its metabolism. I can’t wait to study this.”
“Great, then get it out of my truck,” Laura said. “I’ve had enough of this. I want to get my money and go home.”
“Right-ho.” Mr. Smith hesitated, clearly unsure about handling the cage while the creature was awake.
“There’s a handle on top,” Laura said. “Use that.”
Mr. Smith nodded, yet still he seemed reluctant to move the cage, reaching out gingerly and flipping up the handle. He dragged the crate to the edge of the truck bed.
The creature stirred and let out an angry hiss, uncoiling and glaring at its captors.
“Hurry up.” Laura eyed the creature, her apprehension growing. “Before the sedative wears off completely.”
“Unless you would like to take over, I suggest you keep quiet,” Mr. Smith snapped. He gripped the handle and lifted the crate from the bed, grunting at the weight, then turned to retreat back to his own vehicle.
The beast shifted position, watched him through the bars. Then it stood on its hind legs and jumped.
Laura shouted a warning. Too late.
The creature’s snout pushed through the wire. Teeth closed on Mr. Smith’s fingers. He yelped and let go. Blood trickled down his arm.
“Goddamned thing bit me.” He held his hand aloft to staunch the flow of blood and glared at Laura. “Get over here and pick this up.”
But Laura wasn’t paying attention. She was watching the crate and the creature inside. Because the cage door wasn’t latched anymore. When the cage hit the ground, it had jolted open. With growing horror, she saw the beast take a step forward, then another.
“It’ll get out.” She pointed at the crate. “Quick. Close the door.”
Mr. Smith glanced downward, his eyes flying open with fear. He reached down, but not fast enough. The beast was at the door now, pushing it wide with a nudge of its snout. And then it was outside, in the clearing with them.
Mr. Smith let out a whimper. He kicked at the beast in an attempt to force it back into the crate, but the creature sidestepped his clumsy attack.
It stood between them on its hind legs, looking more like a dinosaur than a crocodile.
Then it hunched down, emitted an angry squeal, and leaped.
The creature caught Mr. Smith in the chest. He stumbled back, arms flailing, the beast’s claws digging into his shirt. And then it clambered up, toward his throat.
The stricken man pawed at the beast, attempting to rip it away, but it was no use. The creature was too strong. It reached his shoulders, darted in, clamped its jaws on his neck, and tore a chunk of flesh away.
Blood was soaking Mr. Smith’s shirt. He stumbled, his eyes meeting Laura’s in a silent plea for help. Then he toppled backward.
Laura found the will to flee.
She turned back to her truck, pulled at the driver’s side door. She climbed in and fumbled to start the engine, but her hand was shaking so badly, she could not get the key into the ignition.
Outside, Mr. Smith lay where he fell, his upper torso a bloody, torn mess. He was clearly dead. But what really scared her, was that the creature was nowhere to be seen.
She focused back on the task at hand, finally getting the key in, and turned it. The engine roared to life. Before she could move, the truck was rocked by a heavy impact. The passenger side window disintegrated. Glass exploded inward. And there was the beast, sitting on the seat, its snout dripping red.
She let out a terrified wail and pulled the driver’s side door open, tumbled from the truck. The woods were twenty feet away. The building was too far to even consider.
Laura took off.
If she could reach the trees, she might live. It was a slim hope, but there was no other choice.
Except the beast was giving chase, racing after her, faster than she could run. Then it leaped, hit her square in the back.
Laura crashed to the ground. She rolled over, ignoring the throbbing pain from the fall and her scraped elbows and knees. She scrambled backward, away from the creature.
It hunched down, head cocked to one side, advancing with slow, deliberate steps. As Laura staggered to her feet the beast circled. She felt hot tears running down her cheeks, wished she hadn’t gotten involved with Mr. Smith, and his money. But she didn’t have long to rue that decision. The beast pounced again, and this time it started to bite.
She screamed when the beast ripped at the soft flesh of her stomach. She screamed when its snout pushed deep and found all the soft, tasty bits. But not for long. As the blood left her body, Laura slipped away until the pain became dull, then nothing at all.
A little while later, its meal finished, the creature surveyed its new home. Then it went to the shimmering lake and slipped beneath the surface, happy to be free.