1 THE NIGHT OF THE CHOLLA “Good evening, everyone. I’m John Phillips with the News at Six.
Here are our top stories! The Governor announced in Albany today that he will sign off on the widely talked about Nomad Project, scheduled to begin next month. The project, also supported by the mayor, is slated to bring hundreds of new jobs to the New York City area. Though lawmakers agree it would be a big boost for the city, many have protested the project saying that it jeopardizes the quality of life in the New York City area. “Project Nomad, the name chosen by the Corp of Engineers, will bring about the reopening of the old research facility in the Bronx that was closed in the Fifties. The facility, once used to test and house radioactive material, was deemed unsafe in 1957 and was immediately shut down by the Governor. “Since the closing of the Bronx facility, the New York Botanical Garden has played host to several major research projects which have helped fund the Garden’s popular exhibits and expansion plans. When the old facility is reopened, those research projects will begin operating from that research facility. This will allow nonprofit organizations to use the newly vacated space at the Botanical Garden. “In other news, the body of twenty-six year old botanist Karen Moore was discovered by her coworker sometime after five this evening at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s main greenhouse. Police officials have locked down the main greenhouse to gather clues as to what happened to the botanist. She had been struck several times about the throat and back, the apparent victim of a horrific– just a moment.
2 “Were getting word that the police have discovered her alleged attacker is still in the greenhouse. We go live to our field correspondent, Lisa Breslaw, on scene at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Lisa, what can you tell us?” “Well, John, police were inside the greenhouse gathering evidence when they say two of their fellow officers were attacked from behind and stabbed repeatedly around the neck and shoulders. Both officers were taken to Methodist Hospital. One died shortly after arrival. The other officer is listed in stable condition. Their names have not been released at this time. “The police have locked the building down and called for back up. An aerial unit was sent up a short time ago, equipped with infrared, to see if police can pinpoint the exact location of the assailant inside, but heavy amounts of heat and moisture are making it impossible to track movement. Police units have closed off the streets leading to the gardens and surrounded the building. It’s clear that whoever committed this crime, and the attack on the botanist, is about to give the police a long standoff. We’ll continue to follow this story as it develops. Reporting live form the Botanical Garden in Brooklyn, I’m Lisa Breslaw, back to you John.”
I got the call about the case several hours after the news report. I really wasn’t too surprised when they called, given the recent events that had unfolded. When I first heard about the individuals being attacked, I immediately thought that no person could have done it. It had to be something else: something closer to nature. I had worked cases where those attacked by poisonous and venomous creatures were often found with small markings on them, with bites and sting markings clustered in multiples to ensure the attacks would be lethal. Venomous creatures’ attacks were intended to kill when it came to people. That seemed to ben the case with the three victims in the greenhouse.
3 My suspicions were confirmed roughly four hours into the standoff when my good friend Dr. Monica Kelly, one of the city’s top five medical examiners, called me regarding the body that had been brought in, the girl. We studied toxicology in college together and kept in touch over the years, helping each other out when we could. “They’re going to call you in on this one,” she said. “I just thought you’d like to know.” “You’re sure?” “After what I told them I found, I’m positive.” “You know who I should be looking out for?” “A detective named Gains Elliot. I’m sure he’ll bring you here, and when he does I’ll tell you what I found,” she said. “How bad is it?” “When they have to call you, it’s bad. You’re not going to like this,” she said. “Let me guess–” before I could say anything my call waiting beeped. “I think this is him now. I’ll talk to you later.” I clicked over, “Hello?” “Hello. I’m Detective Elliot. Are you the toxicology expert?” “That’s me,” I said. “What can I do for you, detective?” He rehashed the news reports to me before adding that the officer in the hospital was able to give them a brief account of what happened. He dispelled the idea that they had been attacked by a person, but asserted it had been something else. He didn’t get a good look at it, but remembered that it lashed out at them and either bit or stung him. They weren’t sure what had attacked him, but it definitely wasn’t a person. The doctors at the hospital said he appeared to have had a very bad allergic reaction to the venom that was injected into his body when it attacked him. The officer was now in a coma.
4 “Well, if the other two victims were attacked the same way, I will need to look at the bodies and see the entry points of the venom to determine what it might be. I do have some expertise with that. So, detective, no one saw what attacked them?” I asked. “No, and I refuse to allow anyone else in the greenhouse at this point until we’re sure what it might be.” “I see, well, I will need-” “Yes, I know. That’s already been arranged.” “It will take me about an hour to get down there.” “Thirty minutes. A car is downstairs now waiting for you,” he said and hung up. I looked outside and sure enough there was the detective standing alongside his sedan and a black and white waiting to take me to the ME’s office. Right then I knew this night was going to be a hard one. When I got to the ME’s office we got right to work. Dr. Kelley and I looked at the wounds on the neck and shoulders of the victims. There were a lot of them: small round wounds surrounded by swollen skin that had turned red. The area around the wounds was also inflamed due to the distribution of the venom. She then showed me a tissue sample she had under a microscope and I felt a chill go down my spine. “Is this right?” “Blood work hasn’t come back yet. But when we tested the skin, we found high concentrations of that substance,” she said. “But this couldn’t come from an animal or insect. I mean, there are species of fish that are toxic but not even to this magnitude,” I replied. “So unless it’s a walking fish, you have a major issue on your hands.”
5 “Yes, I do. Because this it isn’t venom, it’s poison,” I said. “I told you that you weren’t going to like this,” she whispered to me. “I didn’t want to tell him that until you got here.” “I’m sorry, did you say poison?” Detective Elliot asked. He had been in the room while we assessed the bodies. “Yes, venom and poison are different. You see, poisons are substances that cause illness or death by chemical reaction. It’s a biological toxin that is absorbed either through the gut or skin.” I turned to look closer at the wounds on the bodies and waved him over. “You see these holes? If you look around the edges of them, and over here, about a couple of centimeters, see that red swelling? That’s where the poison was laid and absorbed.” Detective Elliot still looked confused by what I was explaining to him. “So these little holes here are not bite marks?” “They look more like a puncture hole left by a thorn or a barb. Sea urchins, for example, leave marks like this. But whatever made this hole must have had some kind of poisonous skin or secretion that left this behind,” I said. “So what’s venom then?” Detective Elliot asked. “Venom is also a biological toxin but it’s injected. Nothing in the bloodstream means this stuff attacked the skin and nerves. Death was painful,” I said. “Has anyone else gone into the greenhouse since you came to me?” “I left strict orders not to let anyone in there. What do you think did this?” he asked. “I’m not sure, but we need to go down there. Tell them to get the head botanist and meet me there. I need to ask some questions.” I turned to Dr. Kelly. “Find out exactly what kind of poison that is and get back to me.”
6 “But you’ve seen the samples,” she said. “I know, but I need to be absolutely sure so I’ll know what to tell the area hospital to have ready in case anyone else gets hurt. It will also help me determine what to look for. Let’s get to the Garden. Time is of the essence.” I grabbed the Polaroid camera off the shell and took some shots of the wounds. I would need them for the botanist.
As we walked through the Botanical Garden I pondered what could have attacked the cops and the botanist. With the type of poison I saw under the microscope, I couldn’t put a finger on anything. It would have had to be something of a considerable size. Not to mention it could hide among the plants. Then, as I looked around, a funny thought entered my head. What if it wasn’t a creature at all? What if it was a plant? I knew very little about poisonous plants. Hell, the only poisonous plant I could identify was poison ivy and all I knew was that it left a bad rash. Unless you’re allergic to the toxin, it didn’t kill you. Besides, the wounds on the victims’ backs looked like attack wounds and plants don’t attack people. At least I had never heard of plants attacking people. Was that even possible, I wondered. Detective Elliot walked beside me as we arrived at the greenhouse where there was a large police presence on standby. He went over to a small command center that had been set up where the Chief of Police and a short woman in glasses wearing a long coat were waiting. I was introduced to the chief and then to the woman. “This is Dr. Gloria Bennet, one of the head botanists here at the gardens,” the chief said. “Were you able to determine what killed my men and that girl?”
7 “I can tell you that they were all killed by a highly potent poison,” I said. “A poison? From what?” the chief asked. “That’s what we need to find out.” I took the pictures out and showed them to the doctor. “Dr. Bennet, these wounds were found on the victims. The ME confirms it’s poison. I wanted you to look at this and tell me if it looks familiar.” She took the pictures and looked at the wounds. I watched for her response. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything like this before,” she said. “At first I thought it was a reptile or animal of some sort but I have to ask, do you have you any poisonous plants in there? Something with thorns or barbs that could do this?” I asked. “That’s ridiculous. Those people were attacked,” the chief said. “I know, but I just want to be sure,” I said. “Sure of what?” Dr. Bennet shook her head after she thought about my question. “All our poisonous plants are in another building. We wouldn’t put them in the main pavilion,” she said. “What about weeds? Aren’t some weeds dangerous?” “Hogweed is but only if you cut it. This doesn’t look like Hogweed did this.” She looked at the pictures again. “The police say the individuals were attacked. Plants do not attack people,” she said as she handed the pictures back to me. I looked into her eyes and could tell that she wasn’t telling me the truth about something. “Have you had any recent incidents around here? Minor ones, you know, with people getting sick or anything?” “Aside from an occasional allergy, no.” “Well did you receive any new plants that would have gone in that greenhouse recently?”
8 “A plant wouldn’t. . . .” “I understand that, but there is a chance something might have come with it. I had a case once where a sidewinder stowed away in a crate of eggs. It happens,” I said. Dr. Bennet thought for a moment. “I don’t recall anyone saying anything. But we got a very nice cactus from Nevada about five weeks ago. We planted it on the second level. Other than that…” It was an answer I was hoping for. It quickly dispelled my thoughts of a plant and I focused in on a more believable probability. “Desert, okay, now we’ve got something. Greenhouse temperatures, poison secretions, small holes; it might be a lizard. It’s quite possible that’s what it is. There are some heavy enough to jump on someone and they do have small sharp claws.” I took the picture from her and looked at it. “The wounds are spread out enough to be claw marks and some lizards do secrete. Might have stowed away in the cactus and you didn’t know about it. Okay, let me go inside and look around. I’ll need some gloves, goggles and mask.” “Hold on. I don’t think you should do that,” Dr. Bennet said. “It’s okay. This is why he’s here,” said Detective Elliot, turning to me. “If your lizard happens to walk upright and speak like a person I want you out of there fast.” I agreed and prepped Dr. Bennet on what we were about to do. The idea was to go in and see if I could locate the reptile’s hiding spot; then coax it out so I could get an idea of its size and species. Once I knew that, I would come back out, get the proper removal equipment and go back in to capture it. Most likely I would have to contact the zoo to take the reptile. And as fate would have it there was one in Prospect Park right across the street.
9 A uniform gave me what I needed and I put everything on. I double-checked to make sure everything fit properly, then I was escorted to the greenhouse. The heat hit me immediately when I walked in. Sweat began to trickle down my face. I breathed steady. It was perfect conditions for a reptile. I looked around the floor first just to be sure it wasn’t crawling around then I slowly made my way down a walkway. The greenhouse was quiet. There were a lot of tall plants around me. Some trees thriving in the humid atmosphere cast their shadows along the floor so I was mindful that anything on the floor could use the shadows for cover. At the far end of the walkway, there was a staircase leading down. I paused for a moment and looked around one more time before heading to it. The whole time I listened carefully for movement but there was none. The stairs took me to a sub-level where there were desert plants on display. The exhibit was beautiful, and with all the lights it felt very serene. But it was even warmer in this part of the building and my shirt started to cling to me. As much as I wanted to turn back, I knew I had to keep going. I could see where they had marked off the area, where the botanist and the cops had been attacked. That’s where I began my investigation. There weren’t any signs of a reptile. There was nothing on the floor, no small prints near the exhibit, and no droppings of any kind. I tried making some sounds that I knew lizards made as mating calls, but nothing came out into the open. I circled around and moved closer to the crime scene. I passed the outline of the girl and began to kneel. Just as my knee touched the ground something hit me on the head and fell in front of me. I saw it was a small leafy branch from a bush. I looked up and saw that it came off of a medium-sized bush that had been planted within
10 the display. I picked the piece up and looked closely. Several more branches fell onto my head, then I heard rustling. I froze and stared at the bush. For a moment nothing happened. I continued to stay very still and waited. Then the heat started to get to me, so I moved my hand against the floor to shift position. The leaves started to shake. I immediately stopped and so did the shaking. There was something up there that was watching me. Carefully but quickly, I moved away from the crime scene and put some distance between the bush and me. The bush continued to shake then I saw it start to split open, as if someone was parting it. I moved out of the direct line of sight and the bush closed but kept shaking. I leaned over to see if I could tell what was making the bush shake but then it stopped. I moved over some more and stood on my toes to get a better look. I could barely see behind the bush. I decided to walk up to the display area while keeping my distance. Suddenly, there was a noise that began to slowly resonate out of the silence. It sounded like hissing at first but as it got louder it shook, making a rattling sound. It was too loud to be a snake. It was more like a cicada, only louder. I backed away again. The second I did, the hissing stopped and there was a muffled pop. Something whizzed past my face and into the display behind me. There were two more pops and I saw something silvery fly past my eyes. I wasn’t sure what it was so I got down low and ran for the stairs. The hissing started up again but I didn’t stop. I took off up the stairs and stumbled out the door. “I don’t know what’s in there.” I started to take off the gear as everyone gathered around me. “It sounded like a cicada but there are some reptiles that hiss to throw off predators or attract
11 food,” I said. “Whatever it is it also spits. So I’ll have to be very careful when I go back down there to coax it out.” Dr. Bennet was upset. “I can’t believe there is a poisonous animal in the greenhouse. I’d like to go with you and see what it is,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. If it’s really that dangerous, I don’t think you should be exposed to it. Besides, I’m an expert at these things. I should go alone,” I said. “I’m used to handling poisonous living things,” she said. “What you handle doesn’t move like a reptile.” “I’ll stay behind you then. I won’t get in the way.” I was worried about letting her go with me. I wasn’t clear on what I was up against, and if this creature was smart, it could ambush us. But another pair of eyes would be useful in case I missed something, or if the creature tried to escape. So I agreed and told her to get ready to meet me at the door in ten minutes. I had the police call over to the zoo to have someone on standby with a cage. Then I requested a burlap sack and some special thick gloves with good grip. I double-checked to make sure the sack was sturdy by punching the insides before getting suited up. They got an extra pair of gloves for Dr. Bennet: just in case she had to help me. Then they double-checked us to make sure we were okay. Once we were given the green light, we went into the greenhouse. We headed down the stairs to the lower level and approached the display area with caution. Immediately, I noticed there was sand all over the floor around the crime scene. The heaviest amount of it was at the base of the display below the bush. A thin layer was scattered around between the outlines of the body and near the foot of the stairs. There was dime-sized
12 circles spread out in a funny pattern in the sand. They were in various spots throughout, then disappeared at the base of the wall. Something had crawled through it. “It’s been out,” I said. I knelt and put my finger inside of the print, measuring the depth of it to determine the size of the creature with which we were dealing. They weren’t too deep, which made me guess that it would be small in stature. Yet I couldn’t make out from the shape of the prints what I was going to be dealing with. “I don’t know what kind of creature made these prints,” I said. “Maybe it went back into hiding. Where did you say you heard that noise?” I pointed to the bush. Dr. Bennet started to walk toward it but I held her back and led the way. The sand crackled under our feet making it impossible for us to be quiet. We were only a few steps away from the bush when that low resonating sound started up and formed into a disturbing hiss. I told her to back up quickly and move out of the direct line of the bush. As soon as we did there were repeating popping sounds from the bush and we saw something shootout and strike the lower part of the display across from it. Then the hissing stopped and everything went still. We carefully and quietly went to investigate what we saw come from out of the bush. Along the base of the exhibit wall we found very sharp, large, silvery needles that were dripping some kind of liquid. It was thick and oozed slowly down to the floor. The sight of them made my blood run cold. “What the hell is that?” I started to reach for them, but Dr. Bennet pushed my hand away. “You stick to your field of expertise, let me stick to mine,” she said as she carefully pulled a needle out of the wall and looked at it closely. “This looks like a cactus needle,” she said.
13 “A cactus needle. They get that big?” “I know,” she said as she turned it up to look at the tip. “I have seen some large ones before but not like this.” “I didn’t know a cactus could spit needles.” “They don’t,” she said looking at me, “And they don’t secrete fluid like this from their needles either.” I stood up and looked at the bush. I didn’t want to move and make any noise, so again I stood up on my toes to see if I could see over it to see the plant. I couldn’t. “I don’t see anything back there. I’ve never heard of a spitting plant,” I said. “I don’t know of any plant that shoots needles,” she said. “I mean this looks like a cactus needle but we don’t keep cacti down here. They’re all on the main level above us.” I rejoined her and looked at the needle again. “Does the Garden have any poisonous plants down here?” “No, and nowhere in the garden do we have any with needles like this,” she said. “And I can’t think of. . . .” My phone rang, startling the both of us. I looked at the name on the screen and motioned for Dr. Bennet to follow me. We returned to the upper level out of harm’s way and where my reception was better. “Hello?” “It’s Dr. Kelly. You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “We just ran a test on the poison; it’s got traces of radiation in it.” “Radiation? Are you sure?” “We ran it three times. Whatever you’re looking for is radioactive.”
14 “There’s no way there could be–” I never finished the sentence. Hundreds of needles flew from the direction of the stairs and struck Dr. Bennet. They pierced her suit and covered the side of her face. Immediately her skin began to swell. She screamed and began convulsing as the poison entered her blood stream. I reached for her as she started to pass out but her fingers slipped through my hand. When I turned to look at the stairs a vine came swinging at me. I ducked and started to run for the exit. I could hear the cicada hissing behind me along with the sound of something dragging. I didn’t look back because I was afraid of what I might see. Feeling the breeze from the swinging vines near the back of my neck, I ran in a zigzag hoping that would buy me some time. I was almost at the door when I tripped and fell on my shoulder. Pain shot through my body as I rolled over on my back. I clenched my shoulder and cried out in pain. It was then I saw my attacker, and my screams of pain turned to screams of intense horror. It was a large drooping cactus, using its roots to push itself across the floor. Standing at roughly five feet it moved in a stop and start motion. Its spiny vines were draped down by its sides, and the longest of the vines were scraping across the floor in a zigzag formation. The vine passed within inches of my foot a couple of times, then it stopped. I covered my mouth to muffle the scream, and the moment I did, the cactus stopped moving. It brought the vines in closer to its body, except for the longer vines that rolled up its ends, and exposed its larger needles. It was waiting for me to make the next move. Behind me I could hear the police knocking on the door for me to let them in. But I stayed deathly still, never taking my eyes off the plant. The cactus, however, responded to the
15 knocking by shooting several needles at the glass door but they just fell to the floor inches away from me. It was responding to sound. The knocking prevented the plant from leaving. Slowly and carefully I raised my hand, motioning them to stop. When they did, the plant began to move on its roots and head back down the stairs. I waited until I was certain it would not hear me before moving again. The Chief and Detective Elliot met me first as I left the building and quickly ushered me back to the command center. “What happened? Why were you laying on the floor?” Detective Elliot asked. “Did you see something?” the Chief asked. “Yes, I saw something. You have to give me a minute to collect myself,” I said as I took a seat on a bench and regained my composure. Suddenly, everything that happened in the greenhouse came flooding into my mind and I threw up. “I need some water.” “Get this man some water!” “What happened in there?” My hands shook terribly. I closed my eyes to help concentrate on trying to get my heart to stop beating so fast. “Dr. Bennet and I were attacked. I think she’s dead.” “Dead? How? What happened?” “She was shot with poison from a plant,” I said. “I’m sorry, a what?” “A plant,” I said, “A cactus, to be exact.” An officer returned with a bottle of water and I drank it fast. “Don’t go in there. It shoots its needles at you if you get near it. And that’s not all.
16 Dr. Kelley called me and said that the poison has traces of radiation. So we’re dealing with a very dangerous plant.” Detective Elliot looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Are you telling me that there is a fichus in there killing people?” “Not a fichus; a cactus. And there’s one more thing. I’m not even sure how to say this,” I cleared my throat, “it walks.” “Walks?” the chief yelled. “Plants don’t walk. You probably got so scared that you were seeing things.” “How big is this thing?” “About,” I looked around at the police around me and pointed to one of them, “His height, I think. It looked bigger when I was on the floor,” I said. “You see, there’s my point; seeing things. We need to go in there and get Dr. Bennet’s body out.” “You don’t want to go in there, trust me. We need to learn what kind of plant this is first then figure out how to attack it.” “Weed killer should do it,” the chief laughed and several officers around him did too. “Where is this plant?” “It went back down to the lower level.” “Okay then. I need two officers to go in with me and get Dr. Bennet’s body,” the chief said and he pointed to two men behind him. “You two come with me.” “Don’t–” I started to speak but they were gone. “Detective you need to stop them.” “Let’s go over what happened in there so we can get a clear picture for my report.” I watched as the chief and two officers headed toward the building laughing at my story.
17 “You need to stop them,” I said. “Look, let’s just sit down and talk and get things straight. You had a bad episode in there and we just need to make sure you’re clear about what you saw.” “I know what I saw. I’m not crazy.” “No one said you were crazy,” he said. “You have to see things from our side though.” He sat me down and took out his pad and pen. “Okay, let’s start from the top.” Detective Elliot hadn’t put the tip of his pen to the pad when screams and gunfire erupted from inside the building. Everyone froze and looked at the greenhouse. It was silent for a moment, then more gunfire. Suddenly one of the officers came crashing through the glass door screaming; his face covered with needles. The police ran toward the doors with their guns drawn as I stood to see what was happening. The chief was behind the officers trying to drag Dr. Bennet’s body out. He was halfway out when he screamed, arched his back in pain, and fell face first into the glass. The sounds of guns being cocked filled the air as the cicada sound from inside the building started growing louder. I was preparing to see the plant come crashing through the door, vines waving in the air attacking everyone with its needles. But the plant never emerged. When the cicada noise subsided, the only sound that could be heard was a breeze in the trees.
They carried the chief over to a bench and lay him face down. Needles protruded from his back and one from his neck. “Don’t touch the needles,” I said as the officers started to gather around. I knelt and looked into his face. “Chief?” He opened his eyes slowly and started at me. “It got me in the neck.”
18 “And your back,” I added. “That’s funny; I don’t feel anything in my back. You sure they went through my vest?” I reached over and felt the back of his shirt. Sure enough he was wearing his bulletproof vest. The needles hadn’t penetrated the armor. But his neck was my concern. Swelling had started around where the needle had pierced him and he was starting to pass out. The poison was working fast. “Stay with me, Chief,” I said then I turned to the officers around me. “Someone get an ambulance!” “It seemed to come out of nowhere,” he said. “It was on us so fast. We have to…” then he blacked out. “Chief! Chief, stay with me!” I shook him but he didn’t respond. “Detective, we need to get someone down here who knows what kind of cactus plant that is. I need to know what we’re dealing with because this is way out of my league,” I said. “I need a zip lock bag and some tweezers.” While they got on the phone searching for someone, I used a pair of tweezers to pull several needles out of the vest and put them in the zip lock bag for testing. An hour after the chief was taken away, floodlights were brought in and the police surrounded the greenhouse. White light poured into the glass structure, helicopters circled above trying to pinpoint the plant’s whereabouts. There was no movement from inside and no one was going to brave going in to see where it was. “This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Detective Elliot said. “How am I going to fill out a report on this?” “That’s a good question,” I replied.
19 Just then an officer came running up to us. “Detective, that expert you wanted? He’s here,” he said. “Follow me.” Detective Elliot and I followed him as he led us over to a short and portly man who was standing with two other officers. He looked around at everyone with a befuddled look then his eyes fell on me. “What is this? What is going on around here?” his voice was shaky. “You are Dr. River Baum right?” Detective Elliot asked. “Yes I am and who are you? And why are there flood lights being shined into the greenhouse? Don’t you know that could damage the plants?” “Dr. Baum, we have a situation,” I shook his hand and introduced myself. “Seems there is a plant in that building attacking and killing people and we need to know what species it is,” I said. “What do you mean attacking and killing people?” he asked. So I told him what happened so far and he shook his head. “That’s not possible. Plants don’t–” “This one did.” “Well then I’ll say this. There are no known cacti, or any other plant that I know of, that attacks people. There are no known species that have radioactive poison.” “Then this is a new species.” “Not in that building. We don’t put them in there. We have a special section for that.” “Listen to me, this thing attacks anyone that comes near it. You don’t know any kind of plant that does that?”
20 Dr. Baum thought for a moment. “You said the plant that attacked you was a cactus?” he asked and I nodded. “How close were you to it when it attacked?” “I don’t know, a few feet,” I said. “Come with me. I might be able to tell you something.” We followed him down a walkway to an administrative building. He took us to his office which looked like a tornado had hit it. “I never work in here really. I have an office under the greenhouse,” he said as he logged into a computer that was in the corner. He clicked the mouse and dragged several screens over then stopped. “We received a shipment in from Nevada a couple of days ago.” “We were told there had been no shipments here,” I said. “This one didn’t go through regular channels. When it’s a special delivery it comes to me.” “And by special, you mean?” “Let me see. . . .Ah, here it is. It came from a place just south of Yucca Flats.” “Yucca Flats; is that even a real place?” I asked. “It’s where they used to test H-Bombs back in the Fifties and Sixties. Okay, yes, here it is. It was a Cholla or as we call them ‘jumping’ Chollas.” “A jumping Cholla?” Detective Elliot asked. “Oh, this I have to hear.” Dr. Baum explained that the jumping Cholla was a cactus with very sharp needles and long vines. If a person or an animal got too close, it would “jump” at them and jab its needles into their skin. Once that happened it was nearly impossible to get the plant off. “A hairbrush works effectively to get the needles off,” he said.
21 “Well, this thing is spitting needles at us like darts. Are they known to do that too?” I asked. “No, and they don’t walk either.” “But they are poisonous, right?” “No. There are no families of cacti that are poisonous to people,” he said. “Then what’s the deal with this thing then? Something from outer space?” Detective Elliot asked. I could see the look of apprehension to answer that question on Dr. Baum’s face. For a moment, I thought he was going to walk out on us. But then he smirked and looked Detective Elliot in the face. “I doubt that very much. Unlike the last plants we encountered from outer space, I doubt this one will be sprouting giant seedpods or singing and eating people,” he replied sarcastically, and before Detective Elliot could respond, he turned to me. “Do you have any of the needles? I’d like to take a closer look at them and see if I can’t determine what this poison is.” I handed him the Ziploc bag, he looked at them, and went down to a lab at the far end of the hall that was designed to treat unhealthy plants and vegetation. We immediately got to work at a corner station. He broke one of the barbs in half on a slide and liquid began to ooze out of it. Using a high-powered microscope, he examined it while I watched. After a moment, he consulted a book on poisonous plants to see if he could find the identity of the dangerous liquid. “You don’t deal with plants do you?” he asked while looking through the microscope. “No, actually, I deal in venoms and poisons mostly in reptiles. Behavioral issues in certain animals and that sort,” I said.
22 “So they called you in because they thought they had a dangerous animal on their hands,” he said and continued looking through the book. “You would be right,” I said. Dr. Baum nodded then stopped and stared at a page. He pointed to a picture then went back to the microscope and looked at the slide again. Almost immediately he became deflated. “That’s not it,” he said. “This poison has two compounds. If I can figure out what one of the poisons is, I can at least pinpoint…wait. You said the poison has some radioactive property, right? That might be the way to go in this. We can use the computer in my office to–” Before he could finish, the door to the lab burst open and an officer stood before us, out of breath. “It’s. . . It’s. . . .” “What? What happened?” “Come on. They need you two at the greenhouse,” the officer said. We ran out the office and headed to the greenhouse. On our way there we could hear gunshots and glass shattering coupled with screams of panic. Helicopters had arrived and hovered above the greenhouse, shining lights down on it. I heard a voice come over the officer’s radio. “Get out of there! Move! It’s trying to get out!” The Cholla was at the door, spitting barbs and hitting anyone close enough to it. Policemen were running for cover behind overturned tables and chairs, a shed and some trees. But it was doing no good. Many were struck in the face and neck; others were hit in the legs. Gunfire didn’t phase the plant. It wasn’t backing off, but it wasn’t coming beyond the door
23 either. When the gunfire stopped, it turned and headed back down into the lower level of the greenhouse. Dr. Baum was in awe, and for several minutes, he didn’t say a word. “What happened?” I asked. “We sent some men in there to see if we could flush it out. They got down to the lower level and it just attacked everyone. Then it came up here and started spitting needles and swinging its vines,” an officer said. “What did you guys do to it?” “Nothing; it just attacked,” he said. “Dr. Baum?” I looked over and Dr. Baum was still in awe. He slowly turned and looked at me. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “It really did walk.” “Yes, I know this. But we need to figure out a way to stop it now,” I said. “You mean kill it? We can’t do that. We have to study it. Figure out why and how it does what it’s doing. Do you realize this is a great scientific event happening here?” “Don’t go there, Doctor. You saw what this thing did. You see the effects of the poison.” I was cut short when several members from the task force appeared from inside the greenhouse looking exhausted and scared. Officers rushed to help them over to a bench. We promptly joined them. “Some of my men are still down there. We couldn’t risk going back for them,” Lieutenant Reynolds, the leader of the task force, said. “That thing is vicious.” “What happened down there?” I asked. “Who are you?”
24 “He’s the man we called in to verify the poison,” Detective Elliot said. Lieutenant Reynolds took a moment to gather himself, then looked at me. “We went down to the lower level to see if we could flush it out into the open. It was hiding behind a bush. The moment we got close it started making this strange sound then it attacked. One of my men managed to get behind it and stepped into the display to get it from the back. But it must have sensed he was there because it whipped around and went after him. “It started flailing its vines around but it didn’t spit those needles at him. Not at first. Only when he got back down and came toward us did it cover the side of his face with them. I’ve never seen anything like that before. We circled around to the back and took cover in the elevator. We heard the gunfire but–” Only the helicopter above us made any kind of sound. Everyone else was deep in thought, trying to figure out what to say or do. My mind was processing everything he had said. What was happening started to make some sense. But the “how” was still unclear. “There’s got to be a way for us to lure it out,” Dr. Baum said. “You don’t want to mess with that thing while it’s alive,” Lieutenant Reynolds said. “Maybe if I get a piece of the limb,” Dr. Baum said. “Do you think that would be possible?” “Doctor, that thing is attacking everyone that goes down there for no reason and–” The moment the lieutenant said that, I gasped. I didn’t remember doing it so loud that it would draw attention to me, but it did. “I can’t believe I didn’t figure this out before. There is a reason behind the attacks,” I said. “Would you like to enlighten us with your revelation?” Detective Elliot asked.
25 I cracked a smile at his sarcasm. “Simple. It’s protecting its territory.” “I’m sorry. What do you mean it’s protecting its territory?” “Okay, imagine for a minute you’re sitting at home relaxing then suddenly someone comes in and tries to remove you from your living room. You would fight them off, wouldn’t you? It’s the same principal here,” I said. “I don’t think that’s the case,” Lieutenant Reynolds said. “That’s because you’re looking at it from the standpoint of this thing being a plant. We think of plants as inanimate objects, but don’t they grow? Don’t they need air and water to live? They procreate don’t they? Some even eat insects to sustain life.” “That is true,” Dr. Baum said. “Even this species of plant attacks anything that gets close to it.” “And it keeps going back to the same area after the attacks. It’s not waiting in the doorway or on the steps for anyone to come in. It thinks we’re a threat to its living space.” “Here’s a crazy question, when and how did this particular plant gain enough selfawareness to know when it was being threatened? I mean call me crazy,” Detective Elliot put his hands out and shrugged his shoulders, “Unless you can tell me about another case where something like this has happened–” “That’s why I need to get a piece of the plant to study it. You have to let me go down there and break off a piece to look at,” Dr. Baum said. “You think that thing is going to let you touch it?” “No one is going down there,” said Detective Elliot. “We’re staying the hell away from that greenhouse for now.”
26 “There might be some pieces of it by the door from my men shooting at it. Would that help?” Lieutenant Reynolds asked. “Yes, but it can’t be too damaged. Otherwise, I can’t do anything with it.” Lieutenant Reynolds radioed to his men for them to search the area just around the doorway for parts of the plant. They were warned to be very careful and if they did find anything not to handle it without gloves. Dr. Baum was kept away from the area for fear that he would attempt to storm the building. All pieces of the plant were going to be brought to him at the lab where we retired to and waited. I decided to go online to see if I could learn more about from where the plant came. It always helped my cases when I had a better understanding of an animal’s natural habitat. Yucca Flats, in the Nevada desert, was home to our military’s testing of nuclear devices. Since there were no towns or cities in the immediate area, it was the perfect place for detonations. Although mushroom clouds could be spotted from Las Vegas, there were no immediate dangers. From 1951 to 1992 there were 928 nuclear tests done in Yucca Flats; 828 of them were done underground. Our minds began to wander. “What would years of nuclear testing do to a plant? We know if a person was exposed they could suffer from radiation sickness, sterilization and painful death. There’s no cure for radiation poisoning and there’s no adapting to it. But plants could adapt, couldn’t they?” I asked. “Over time generations of the plant could become immune to the radiation in the area much like how many insects have become immune to chemical sprays. Underground rivers that provided water for the plant would be carrying traces of radiation in it from underground blasts.
27 This tainted water would be consumed and passed on to another plant during pollination,” Dr. Baum said. “You think that’s what happened with this Cholla?” “It would explain the radioactive poison in the needles. But that doesn’t explain the walking,” he said. We sat there in silence for a moment. I thought back to my biology classes from college. I remember having a class on cell structure. I tried to think of anything from that class that could help me now. “If I remember correctly, from my biology class, don’t plants move? Say if a house plant that needed light was sitting in a dark corner, inches away from a window where sunlight was coming in, couldn’t it lean over to get the light?” “Not in the conventional sense you’re talking. They don’t move, but they will lean and grow toward the light. This plant is moving up steps and crashing through windows. It’s like something from another world,” Dr. Baum said. “Well, this can’t be the only one like this. There have to be others. We should call someone.” Just as I started to suggest calling the military base in Yucca Flats, there was a knock at the lab door. We looked up, expecting to see the police. Instead, there was a tall gentleman in a suit and tie with two Army soldiers standing next to him. “Dr. Baum?” he asked. “Which of you is Dr. Baum?” “I am.” The man smiled and entered the room. The soldiers entered with him carrying M-16’s and stoic faces and behind them were several more people all wearing white coats. When they
28 were all in the room, another army man entered. This man, however, was dressed in his military finest and had several bar medals on his breast. With his hat tucked under his arm, he walked over to us with a commanding presence. “Are these the men?” he asked the man in the suit and tie who nodded. “Gentlemen, I’m Lieutenant General Adam Denmark with the United States Army. This man standing to my left is Dr. John Hannigan. We’re here to take care of your plant problem.” I was speechless for a moment. “You know about the plant?” “One of our Chollas accidentally got shipped here instead of the facility out in the Bronx. We’ve been trying to track it down for a week,” said Dr. Hannigan. “I see it’s caused some issues.” “You could say that,” I replied. “What is that thing: an experiment gone wrong?” “No. It was discovered near one of the testing facilities in Nevada. There hasn’t been any plant life in that area in some time so we were going to run some tests on it to see what effect long-term radiation exposure had on it,” Dr. Hannigan replied. “It’s actually escaped us twice. We decided to send it here to a more controlled and stable environment.” “Stable environment? It won’t let you get near it without a fight. It’s killing anyone that gets within inches of it,” I said. “Getting it won’t be a problem,” Lieutenant General Denmark said. “We brought the correct provisions with us so we can transport the plant safely. Now then, Dr. Baum, can we see you outside for a moment, please?” “Right now?” Dr. Baum asked. “Yes, please,” Lieutenant General Denmark said.
29 Dr. Baum looked at me again with a befuddled look then walked toward the team of people in white coats who, with Dr. Hannigan, escorted him outside. Lieutenant General Denmark stayed with me. The other two soldiers had positioned themselves on either side of the door, their fingers at the ready near the triggers of their weapons. “So all this is due to a shipping error, huh?” “Try not to let that worry you,” he said. “Well, I just–” A soldier who entered and saluted Lieutenant General Denmark interrupted me. “Lieutenant General Denmark, sir, the perimeter around the greenhouse has been secured. General Adams is requesting your presence, Sir.” “Thank you, soldier,” he said and saluted him. “I’m going to need you to stay here for your protection,” he said to me. “These soldiers will make sure no harm comes to you.” I looked at the soldiers at the door as they saluted Lieutenant General Denmark when he walked past them. They then turned to me and stood shoulder to shoulder. I said nothing. I took a seat and tried to relax. My entire body welcomed the seat and I could feel my muscles slowly loosen. I hadn’t taken a break since I arrived. “You guys okay?” I asked the soldiers. “Just fine, sir.” “Your buddies are going to take care of our plant problem?” “That’s what we’re here for, sir,” the other soldier replied. I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. I was relieved that someone had come along to handle the problem. Before I knew it my muscles relaxed, my eyes got heavy and I had fallen into a deep sleep.
When I opened my eyes, the soldiers were gone. I got up slowly and looked around to get my bearings before going outside. The second I stepped out of the building I could smell the gunpowder. The air was thick with it. Walking down the path that led back to the greenhouse I was hit by a thin layer of smoke. I felt something hard crackle under my feet. I looked down and saw bits of glass everywhere. But I didn’t stop walking. I continued on the path and followed it around a turn. There were shell casings from a machine gun, and several from shotguns, scattered everywhere. I froze and waved my hand in front of my face to clear the smoke away. That’s when they materialized into view: the bodies of police and military lay before me. They were all lying on the ground face down, weapons still in hand. No one was moving. Cactus needles were everywhere mixed in with the shell casing and glass. I knelt next to one of the military men and turned him over. Needles were embedded deep in his face and neck. His eyes were wide open and there was a look of pain frozen on face. I looked across at a cop who was on his back; his throat was covered with needles. I jumped up and started to move quickly through the bodies looking for a familiar face. The bodies of the police officers present when I first arrived were scattered about. I ran to the command center only to find it destroyed. There was no sign of either Dr. Baum or Detective Elliot, or even the Lieutenant General. I cupped my hands over my mouth and got ready to call out when I suddenly remember the plant moved toward sound, so I didn’t utter a word. Instead, I ran to the greenhouse where there were more bodies, piled one on top of the another. It was like the aftermath of a war.
31 The entire front of the greenhouse had been blown away by gunfire. Dust and smoke still rose into the air. There were pieces of the plant on and around the men and women who had done battle with it, but there was no sign of the Cholla anywhere. I then realized there was no helicopter in the sky and the floodlights had been destroyed. “How long was I asleep?” I asked myself. Suddenly I heard several shots from somewhere inside the greenhouse. I didn’t even think. I ran as fast as I could through the doors and listened for where the shots were coming from. Two shots resounded from the lower level and I made my way down carefully. I stopped short when I saw Detective Elliot, on bended knee, aiming for the exhibit where the Cholla was hiding. “Detective!” I shouted. “What happened?” He stopped firing and changed clips. “Stupid idiots. They tried to rush the place.” “What? I thought they said they had a plan to capture the thing.” “Oh, they had a plan all right. They tried to freeze it. Guess it remembered that little trick, too.” He raised his weapon and fired five shots into the exhibit. “That thing lashed out hitting everything it could. I don’t know who’s alive or dead at this point.” “Where are Dr. Baum and that Lieutenant General?” “Dr. Baum ran when that thing came crashing through the doors. The Lieutenant General is dead. I saw him take a shot to the face back there.” He fired one more shot. “And that Cholla is still alive.” Detective Elliot lowered his weapon and stared at the exhibit. The plant had returned to its normal spot and dug itself into the sand. It was done fighting. There was no doubt that this plant was determined not to be killed or allow itself to be taken away.
32 “We can’t leave this thing in here,” Detective Elliot said. “More people will be killed.” He was right. I started to think if there was any way we could stop it. “How were they going to freeze it?” I asked. “They had some chemical in a canister. I think it’s upstairs somewhere,” he said. “I can go find the canister and toss it down here. There are no windows down here. That might–” “No,” Detective Elliot said. “There’s a safer way to kill this thing.” “Really?” “I’ve been going over it in my head since the Lieutenant General tried his stunt.” Detective Elliot nodded then he changed clips in his gun. He pulled the slide back and a bullet slipped into the chamber. “This plant needs heat to survive. I’m going to deprive it of its need,” he said and aimed across the room and fired a single shot at the wall. There was a loud beep and then I heard a machine shut down somewhere in the building. “What was that?” “I may not be a scientist, but I’ve got some knowledge about places like this. That was the heating unit.” He turned his weapon upwards and fired into a glass fixture in the ceiling that allowed people on the first level to look down at the second level. “I’m going to let all the heat out.” The plant began to stir as Detective Elliot rose to his feet and headed back to the second level. He ran to the next glass floor piece and shot down into it, then hurried to the wall and destroyed the next thermostat. I could hear the plant below us making its threatening sound. It must have sensed what we were doing and started to move.
33 “It’s coming, Detective! We need to get out of here before it comes back up here,” I said. “Let it come. I want it to come up here,” he said. “Where’s that canister?” I ran out the door and started looking around for the canister. If what Detective Elliot was about to try worked, he was going to need some help. Destroying the thermostat and breaking the glass wasn’t going to do it. I moved about the bodies looking for the canister. I had to bend and turn several over just to see if it was hidden under someone. I wasn’t sure what it looked like but I was certain I would know when I saw it. “Looking for this?” I looked up and saw Dr. Baum standing there with the canister cradled in his arm. “They dropped it during the attack.” “Dr. Baum!” I ran to him. “Are you alright? What happened to you?” “It was horrible. It was so vicious; so relentless. I’ve never seen such aggression in a living thing.” I slowly took hold of the canister and looked him straight in the eye. “We’re going to have to kill it. You know that, right?” “I know,” he said, sounding both disappointed and relieved as he let go of it. “You’re going to have to throw it down into the lower level where it’s hiding. I’ll show you where to throw it.” I nodded and took the canister back to the greenhouse with Dr. Baum right behind me. Detective Elliot was aiming at the stairs, waiting for the plant to come up. “It’s on the move. I think. . . . Dr. Baum, I thought you left.” He looked at me with a smug expression. “He turned tail and ran out on us.”
34 “I’m a doctor, Detective. Not a hero,” he replied. “I got the canister,” I said. “How do we do this?” We gathered around the canister and did a quick survey of it. It was two feet tall, five inches wide and silver with a dial on the top. There were warning stickers near the dial and one that read “contents under extreme pressure” on the side. I had no clue how to operate it but Dr. Baum said he overhead the instructions when the military were explaining the operation. “We have to turn the dial counterclockwise,” Dr. Baum said. “Turn it until it locks then press this red button here.” He pointed to the button in the middle of the dial. “You have one minute before it releases the gas that will freeze the plant.” “Ok, Doc, you set it. I’ll keep it from coming back up here.” “How are you going to do that? It’s not afraid of bullets,” I said. “When those Army guys tangled with it the last time, someone shot it in the root. Apparently, that’s a tender spot. If I can cripple it so it can’t run that would give us a better chance. Once the canister is ready, it’s up to you to throw it down there. We’ll only get one shot at this, guys, so let’s do this right.” Dr. Baum didn’t waste a moment. He immediately turned the dial and set the canister. I took the canister from him and shook my head. “You’re no hero. I’ll take it down there.” Dr. Baum didn’t protest. Detective Elliot aimed at the stairs then looked at me and nodded. Clutching the canister I started to run down the steps. I heard a muffled pop and several needles whizzed pass me. In an effort to get out the way I slipped and dropped the canister.
35 It rolled away from me, clanking all the way down the steps while the Cholla appeared and swung at me. I rolled out the way and tried to get up but my foot slipped and my knee struck the corner on the stair. Pain seared through my leg as I struggled to get back up again. Detective Elliot started shooting. I heard him yell for me to get out of there but I turned my attention immediately to the canister which was just inches from the Cholla’s feet. “I have to press the button!” “You’ll never do it without getting killed.” “Shoot the roots.” Detective Elliot took aim and fired three rounds into the roots. The Cholla responded violently, swinging its vines around and hissing at us. It moved forward to the canister, pushing it off to the side as it climbed over it and started up the stairs. It started spitting needles aimlessly, missing us by mere centimeters. I hobbled back up the stairs and Detective Elliot kept firing but the Cholla kept coming. Dr. Baum turned to run but was hit in the neck by the needles. He screamed in pain as he slipped on the broken glass and fell on top of some bodies. “Detective, we have to get out of here!” “No, it’s got to die!” “You can’t–” Detective Elliot slid the empty clip out and quickly slid a new one in and began firing. The bullets left the weapon rapidly, tearing apart the fleshy parts of the Cholla’s roots. The hissing started to sound like screaming as Detective Elliot walked toward it, firing with each step until he was out of bullets. The Cholla fell backwards off the stairs and down alongside the canister. Its vines kept swinging but it couldn’t walk. Detective Elliot slid the empty clip out then reached for another,
36 but he was out. He looked around, spotted a dead officer and quickly grabbed the available weapon and loaded the chamber. He took aim and fired. The bullet struck the dial on the canister, popping it off. The canister whistled as the pressurized contents shot out and began to spray the Cholla. He took aim again. “Get down!” Detective Elliot yelled. “I’m getting out of here!” I turned to run as he fired. I heard these high-pitched pings as bullets struck the canister. I heard Detective Elliot scream and then I felt a huge blast of wind behind me, and my body rose off the floor. I flew over several bodies before landing hard on my side knocking the wind out of me. My face struck the floor and bits of glass pierced my cheek. A blast of cool air passed over me as a high-pitched ring resounded in my ear. I closed my eyes and passed out. When I awoke my face and body were numb. The ringing in my ears, however, slowly started to dissipate and I could hear the muffled sound of a helicopter approaching. My back muscles felt heavy and were not allowing me to stand so I rolled over and looked up at the ceiling. The searchlight from the helicopter passed over the greenhouse and shined down on me. I struggled to raise my hand, hoping they would see that I was alive, when someone grabbed my wrist. Then they began to drag me across the floor slowly. I could make out voices protesting to the person who grabbed me. I felt them let go of my wrist then faces came into view around me. Among them was Detective Elliot, half his face blackened. The cold from the canister had burned his face. “He’s alive. You need to get him to the ambulance.” “Don’t worry, sir. We’ve got you. Are you in any pain?” the paramedic asked me.
37 “What? What happened?” I asked. “The canister exploded. We were both caught in the blast,” Detective Elliot said. I tried to get up but everyone reached out and pushed me back down on my back and told me to stay still. “Where’s the Cholla?” Detective Elliot looked toward the stairs. “It’s gone. Killed in the explosion.” “Make sure,” I said. “Will do. Now let these people take care of you. I’ll see you at the hospital.” Detective Elliot disappeared and the paramedics and police went to work on getting me to the hospital. They put me on a gurney and when they raised it so I could sit up. I saw Detective Elliot along with firefighters pulling the remains of the Cholla up the stairs. A man dressed in a silver fireproof outfit stepped up with a flamethrower and fired small controlled bursts at the parts. Then he stepped back and they just let it burn.
© Copyright 2011 Marc LAbbott