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Custodial Science

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David, Michael, and Darren are three janitors at a wildlife research facility in California dealing with a mysterious, unnatural odor that quickly vanishes just as it appears...is it more of Science?

Scifi / Mystery
Joseth Moore
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Ok, this is what I remember…It was a Friday night that I’m sure of, because I was actually in a good mood before going in to work. I’m a janitor. You know; I clean toilets and dump trash for the headquarters of the California Research Center for Wildlife. After I parked my piece of crap car that’s when I smelled that weird smell again! Kind of a sweet aroma—like antifreeze in a car’s engine that’s too hot. Only even more intense of a smell.

While I was walking to the complex, Lisa Punnel was just leaving. She’s one of the Center’s researchers. Me and the two other janitors responsible for cleaning the joint like her attitude. You know, she doesn’t act stuck up even though she’s a fancy scientist and all. Anyway, it was around 5:00 in the afternoon and her shift was done for the week. It was then when I found out that it wasn’t just me and the other custodians that have been smelling whatever it was that produced that, smell…

“Happy Friday,” I said to Lisa with my hands straight in the air.

“Like-wise, David!”

“So, you have any big plans for the weekend?”

“Just relax for a change…What about you, Dave?”

I noticed that she didn’t keep walking towards her car as she chatted with me. I learned over the years that when people did this at the Research Center it meant that they had a little time to talk.

“Mmm, I was thinking about going to San Francisco with my sister. We want to see that modern art museum.”

She crossed her arms and nodded her head at this point.

“Wonderful! My boyfriend and I had gone there a couple of years ago. You’ll like it, Dave. Maybe it’ll help you to decide whether or not you want to go to school for art.”

“Yeah, I’m still not sure about that…” I looked around to see if any of the other workers at the Center were passing by. There were just a few plowing their way to their cars from a distance. “Hey, um, Lisa; can I ask you a question?”

I could tell she misunderstood my motive by the way she seemed to blush and roll her eyes at the same time.

“No, no, no! It’s not like that! Besides, I’m pretty sure Harris would pounce on me and make a modern sculpture out of me! Uh…” I was never good at segueing into discussions. So I discreetly stepped up to Lisa and continued with a whispered tone. “I’m not trying to be funny or anything, but have you noticed a strange smell around here lately?”

It took her about five seconds, but she finally responded.

“Yeah…yeah, now that you’ve mentioned it. Kind of like—“

“Burning antifreeze?” I jumped in.

“Yeah! It’s odd. Faith and I were talking about that a few days ago. I’m surprised no one’s asked you guys in maintenance to check it out.”

“Well, no one said anything to me or the other guys, but one time I did try to find out where the smell was coming from.” I shrugged my shoulders and looked around for some subconscious reason. “Nada. I looked up and down the facility! In the garage, in the laboratory, all of the bathrooms…even all of the researchers’ rooms in the entire building.”

“Hmm?” Lisa shook her head as she stood there with her lunch container and a couple of other miscellaneous things draped over one her shoulders. For a few more seconds neither one of us said anything. “I tell you what, David, I’ll talk with Faith and everyone else in our division and ask them to tell maintenance whenever they smell something like that again.”

“You know, that would be great, Lisa. If something’s burning and we don’t know about it, we don’t want to wait until it’s too late!”

“Great point, Dave…okay, I’m out of here,” Lisa said to me as she finally turned and went to her nice, shiny car.

I watched for a few more seconds as she drove by and then I threw a wave to her. But when I started to go inside the Center, the smell was totally gone this time...

Well, it was our half-way mark for our part-time shift. Most nights many of the researchers hung around the Center, still working. But on this Friday night I didn’t see any of the scientists or the office staff diddling around there. Probably because it was a nice summer night. Plus, the fact that it was the weekend and everyone had just gotten paid on Thursday. This left us free to blast our music from the radio and do a little fooling around at the Center. Especially since our immediate supervisor had taken off early that afternoon.

“Attention shoppers,” Mike announced over the facility’s intercom system. It was his turn to play disc jockey that night. “We invite you to our annual cook-out festival! On the menu is David Turner, served very dry; just like his humor!”

Of course I chuckled at Mike’s silliness. I was on my way to the breakroom to get my typical dinner: coffee with a lot of cream and sugar, accompanied by a Snicker candy bar. The fine dining would not have been complete without the Sacramento paper to fill the void as I chewed away at my candy. Only on that particular break I would not have time to read the paper since Mike and Darren joined me in the breakroom. After they got their own junk food from the vending machines, they snatched the two chairs that were next to mine, parked in them, and stuffed their faces.

“Hey, Dave,” Mike poked at me. “I saw you talking to that Lisa, again.”

Darren smirked. He helped himself to my paper and started rummaging through it. Rude. But instead of making an issue of it, I got out my non-Smart phone and linked to the BBC’s site. I was trying to save my phone’s battery-level since I had done a lot of internet-searches that day.

“Alright, knock it off, you yutz,” I told Mike. That was the kind of relationship we had. “I told you, she already has a boyfriend. And even if she didn’t, do you think she’d go out with a janitor?”

Both sobered up after they saw how serious I was.

“Besides,” I went on to explain as I scrolled through the BBC’s news page, “we were talking about that weird smell that’s been going on around here.”

“Mmm,” Darren mumbled out of his mouth as he devoured his chips. “The mysterious smell…! What did she say about it?”

“Well, she noticed it. And so did that other scientist that works with her.”

“Faith,” Mike interjected.

“Yeah…I told her about that one time when I looked all over the Center to see what was smelling so bad.”

I distinctly remember looking at Mike at this point, because he had a very blank stare in his eyes.

“What’s wrong with you,” I questioned him. I was so used to seeing Mike in a more humorous way; he was always joking so much.

“Nothing…you just reminded me of something when you said how you looked around the building.” Darren and I just sat there waiting for Mike to say more to us. “Well, I can remember the first time I smelled whatever it is…I didn’t look all over the whole building like you did, Dave, but I went over to the lab. It was—Hmm?” Mike just shook his head as he crinkled up his empty bag of chips and tossed it into a nearby garbage can.

“What?” I said irritated.

“You know how the lab has that one small window to the main part of the lab?” Darren and I nodded our heads without saying anything so Mike could talk. “Well, I figured that smell must have been something burning in the lab. So, I was going to knock on the door and ask one of those researchers about it. But before I could even get to the door, I thought I saw something.”

Darren and I just looked at each other and laughed at Mike.

“No, I’m telling you guys! I saw…I don’t know what it was! But—“

“Mike,” Darren interrupted, “take a clue, buddy. That’s why they call it the California Research Center for Wildlife!”

“No, you don’t get it, Darren! The issue is not the animal I saw. Maybe a bobcat or a deer, or something…the point is I don’t know what happened to it!”

Well, now I was starting to get a little worried. It didn’t help to see Mike so dead serious while he was talking.

“I’m lost,” I admitted. “So, you saw some animal in the lab, and you don’t know what happened to it? Happened. You lost me—“

“It’s like it just disappeared, man! You know…like in those Sci-Fi flicks!”

It was after this statement that I decided I had heard enough. It didn’t help that it was rumored among the maintenance division that Mike believed in UFOs and aliens. And Mike already knew how people felt about him; including me.

I got up from my chair, cutting the link to the BBC and Darren just kept flipping through the newspaper—quietly.

“Well,” I said with a long stretch, “I’ve got to get going on that hallway by the lobby. Boss wants three coatings on—“

“Can I show you guys something?” Mike asked with his head down. That made Darren lift his head up from the paper. “I wasn’t really sure about it myself. But I think after our little talk tonight, someone else should see it…”

Now I was really apprehensive!

Mike led our small pack of three down the hallways in the Center. There were plenty of lights on in the facility since we were still on our shift. But every now and then we would pass darkened hallways…this, too, did not help my nerves! We all looked around as we walked at a fast pace, knowing that we should have been working on some floors or bathrooms at the time.

“Did you guys notice something else about that smell,” Mike asked us as we came near to an isolated closet.

“Yeah,” Darren answered after a slight pause, “sometimes you can smell it, sometimes it’s totally gone.”

Mike took out his collection of janitorial keys and used one of them to open the closet door. He smacked the light switch to the on position as we all just kept trekking our way to the back area. Mike finally stopped by a couple of vacuums, a trash barrel, and some other tools of the trade that’s normally associated with custodial work.

“I found this after I dumped one of the trash cans from the laboratory,” Mike stated.

Darren and I just stood next to Mike, waiting for him to turn around. We both automatically started to look around the closet space. Then it happened again: that smell! It wasn’t as strong as I was used to smelling it, but it was there. I turned to face Mike again, and when I did, I saw Darren peering down at something small that Mike held in his hands, wrapped in a clear plastic bag.

I walked up to see what it was. I sighed out of disappointment and looked at Darren.

“So what! It’s one of those animal skulls that biologists collect for categorizing different species! Michael, if I were you I would throw that away so no one will think you—“

“Wait a minute,” Darren said. I was actually mad at him for doing that until I saw what he was talking about after he took the skull from Mike. “Is this a real skull,” Darren asked Mike.

“Now you’re catching on,” Mike said with some degree of vindication.

I couldn’t see the skull that well, so I grabbed it out of Darren’s hands and examined it for myself. The skull must have belonged to a mammal of some sort, maybe a rabbit or another animal comparable in size. The right side of the skull seemed pretty normal to me. Except for some pitting that appeared to evenly cover the area.

Now I will say what was not so normal to any of us was how there was a drastic change or difference on the left side of the skull…I don’t mean a gradual shifting in texture, but a clear, clean-cut difference; as different as if you were to take an egg shell and placed it next to the surface of a porcupine! Only, imagine the porcupine needles being much shorter and on the same surface as the egg shell and you’ll understand what we saw that night!

“Good grief,” I nearly shouted. I handled the skull a few more seconds and gave it back to Mike. “There’s no question about it; that’s bone! At first I thought it was plastic or something.”

“So, what are you saying about this, Mike?” Darren inquired.

“Well, like I said before, I’m not exactly sure. But what in the world is a wildlife research facility doing throwing away anomalies of nature like this?”

It was a very good question. Darren and I glanced at each other and thought for a bit. Mike decided to use that quiet time and tell us more.

“I became suspicious after a while…I started to see a pattern about the lab. Every time I smelled that disgusting smell, on that same day I would find bits of animal bone in the lab’s industrial trash bin. Sometimes even little pieces of flesh!” We all winced at that line. “So far this is the largest piece that I found.”

“You’ve got more?” I said excitedly.

Mike turned around and took out a small bag from the tool cabinet. He was right. The bone fragments were minute, but there probably was about twenty pieces in the bag.

“Hey, it looks like there’s scorching on these bones,” I observed after sifting through them.

“It’s on all of the pieces,” Mike affirmed. “Even on the skull. It’s like they got burned by something!”

Darren rolled his eyes up for a split second as he thought about something and leaned against the closest wall to him.

“Mike, are you saying there’s some kind of a connection between the smell and these bones?”

“Well, think about it, guys! Now, Dave, I know you’ve been here for just over a year, but, Darren, can you tell me any other time when you smelled that odor around here? You’ve been here longer than me.”

“No, actually I can’t!”

“So, it’s like the scientists around the Center are using animals for some kind of experiment,” I asked. “Where they’re, what, blasting the poor critters with some kind of heat that makes all that disgusting smell?”

“And if that’s the case,” Mike said, “it makes you wonder if it’s legal. There are a lot of new laws in California and at the federal level that protect animals against certain experiments.”

“So,” Darren asked, looking a bit confused, “if these scientists here are throwing away these weird animal bones, maybe they’re trying to cover their tracks; thinking that some low-life janitors wouldn’t know the difference?”

It was another one of those thinking times. Mike placed the skull back into the bag with the rest of the bones and, in turn, replaced the bag to its original hiding place inside the cabinet. He then turned to face us.

“Listen…I know I have a reputation around the Center for being a little on the weird side, with all my UFO-beliefs and stuff. So, maybe I shouldn’t say all these things. I think it would be better if other people hear it from you guys!”

“Now wait a minute, here,” Darren said as he looked at me with surprise—as I’m sure I was looking at him! “Michael, we’re not some zombie hunters, or something! We’re just a few janitor-joes nosing around a research facility!”

I can tell Mike was getting upset; he tsked so loud it sounded like a sneeze! “Then what’s the point in us snooping around? If we’re wrong, we’ll explain that we were doing far less than what Edward Snowden did with the NSA spy info!”

“Woah, dude, now you’re really taking this much farther than I want to go,” Darren told Mike.

My turn. “Let me ask you this, Mike…okay, let’s say there is some kind of illegal scientific study going on here; what would it be? Because I think we all agree that what you have there is a real skull! Look, I may not be a scientist, but I’ve taken a couple of biology courses from the university. And I know enough to say that whatever it was that happened to that skull was not a natural phenomenon!”

Even Darren had to agree with my point. I knew I could get some kind of an educated guess from Mike. He was a computer science college dropout and had gravitated to the more paranormal side of life. As much as Mike may have been stigmatized in society for that, it was a lot more than I could say for Darren: a man approaching middle age and merely finished high school. Not that it made him any less of a human being for not having a college education. I just didn’t think that Darren had any room to dismiss scientific possibilities, given his limited education.

Mike thought on my question to him for a little while.

“At first I thought it could have been cloning.”

“But it’s not illegal to clone animals in the US,” I volleyed to him.

“Yeah, I know. And besides, I’ve seen the effects of botched cloning studies. Trust me, they don’t look anything like that skull! But then I thought about another possibility…”

Mike peeped at the time on his smartphone and flinched because of the time. Darren and I indicated to him that we weren’t concerned about the time. Besides, it was a Friday night.

Once again, Mike got something out of that same tool cabinet. This time it was a large photo album. I knew what it was since we’ve talked about his collection of scientific articles and essays. Instead of sentimental photographs of family members, the album had articles dating back several years and others more recent. In fact, the majority of the contemporary clippings weren’t newspaper clippings at all. They were articles copied off the Internet.

Mike cleared off the top of another, but shorter, cabinet and set the album there. Straightway he flipped the pages to a particular article from a scientific magazine.

“Teleportation, Mike?” I said in an almost rebuking tone after seeing the headline. I thought, ‘Oh, great, he’s going Trekkie on us now!’

“Yeah, it’s when—“

“I think we all know what that is, Michael,” Darren said while he kept his eyes on the story. “Kind of like when the characters in Star Trek are beamed around the galaxy by each atom of their bodies.”

“But what does that have to do with the Center’s lab, Mike,” I questioned as I sat up from skimming a portion of the article.

Before he would answer, Mike insisted that Darren and I read a paragraph from the article. To put it very short and simple, the passage dealt with a Teleportation study done by some scientists in Switzerland. From what I gathered from the one paragraph that Mike had us read, this scientific team had spliced a few photons with some kind of specialized crystal. (For those who care, later on I had written it down: potassium-niobate.) It’s weird. I guess what happens is the two separate pieces of photon—from the original whole photon—always move at the same time! From the study in Switzerland, the photons could be a few feet from each other or literally miles and miles apart; it doesn’t matter! Those pieces of light particles from the original photon were somehow tightly bonded together!

As expected, Darren didn’t show much interest in the article. Oh, he understood what the experiment was about; it’s just that there was no tangible quality to the article, so to him it might as well have been Science Fiction.

Michael and I, on the other hand, looked at each other with wide grins.

“I can’t believe it,” I told Mike. “I mean, I’ve heard about studies like this, but I didn’t know there had been such advancements in the study of Teleportation!”

“That’s nothing. This article is about a couple of years old. Since then there have been other researchers throughout the world to take the Switzerland model a step further.”

Now, even Darren started to develop an interest at this point. Darren and I stared at Mike for divine revelation.

“There have been scientific teams that have actually practiced—or, I probably should say, attempted—Teleporting more complex things at the molecular level…relatively large molecules, viruses; even very small insects like gnats and ticks.”

Just then, I got where Mike was going with this. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like Darren had understood it as well.

“I can’t believe it,” I said. Michael’s face had that look of victory again. “And you told us earlier that you believe you saw some animal just disappear that one night?”

Mike’s head nodded; he was so proud that he could finally convince someone else of his paranormal belief! But then, all of the sudden his eyes were locked into one position. And that was toward the door of the janitor closet...

All three of us looked at each other. Then, with quantum speed, took off toward the door! We had split up as we looked for whoever it was that Mike thought he saw had cast a shadow in that small closet. I looked diligently all over the hallway that I choose to run down—nothing! Apparently it was the same for Darren and Mike, as I saw them meet up with me on that floor’s main hallway. In panic, we all clumsily rehearsed the last few seconds of our conversation in the closet, trying to see if any of us remembered hearing the door to the closet open or not. Obviously, that was our clue to disperse and get back to work! I do remember this, too. On that night, all three of us left the Center earlier than we should have…

Well, the weekend had passed. My sister and I got a chance to go to San Francisco’s modern art museum. I must say, the trip was an epiphany for me. For now, I had decided to go to some university or a school of Fine Arts after our trip! I was so enamored with the contemporary artwork and even the museum itself until I had totally forgotten all about what happened last Friday night!

I saw Lisa again. This time I had deliberately gone to work early so I could show her and other people at the Center some of my pictures that I had taken while at San Francisco with my new, high-tech, razor-thin camera I bought just for the trip. I had gotten carried away; I took about three-hundred pics! And you better believe I had posted them to my social media sites!

After I mingled with the scientists and the office workers of the Center, I saw that it was time for me to return to my social strata and start my shift. First, with collecting the trash, then I started my first restroom. I had barely squeezed my rubber, cleaning gloves on when Michael came rushing up to me.

“David, I can’t believe they did it,” Mike harshly said as he tried to restrain himself.

“Mike, you’re scaring me! What are you talking about?”

“The bones, man,” he said with a whisper, “they’re gone!

“What?!” I quickly looked around, since our supervisor was back on his regular schedule at the Center. I took off my cleaning gloves and pulled Mike into the ladies’ restroom, since I was about to clean it anyway. I continued in a whispered tone. Bathrooms are notorious when it comes to echoes. “Now, just think, Mike! Maybe you just misplaced the bag…you know, we got pretty excited Friday night after you thought you saw—“

“ ’you thought?’ Dave, come on, man! You still don’t believe me? I’m telling you, I saw someone’s shadow in that closet! And whoever it was must have access to Maintenance keys, because that closet door locks automatically whenever it’s shut.”

That was one detail I had forgotten about. My mind must have been spinning in circles after that point.

“What about your album, Mike? Did they take—“

“No, no. It’s still there.” Mike said this while he vigorously shook his head. “And in case you’re wondering, so is my Teleportation article.”

“Good; that was going to be my next question…say, where’s Darren?”

“Not here, yet.” Mike slumped against the wall and covered his face with both of his hands.

Just then we heard our boss call for us. Composing ourselves, we calmly walked out of the bathroom to greet him.

“Hey, there you guys are,” Rick sung out to us in a jovial mood. “How was your weekend?”

“Mmm, pretty good,” I said with sincerity.

“Yeah, one of the office workers told me that you had gone to San Fran.’ Three-hundred pics, David?” Rick asked me in a quipping manner. Mike and I just chuckled. All three of us janitors like him. He was a very easy-going fellow, especially as a supervisor.

“Hey, listen,” Rick continued, “I’ve got a brief meeting with all three of you after Darren gets here. It’s actually good news!”

Mike and I looked at each other with puzzled faces.

“I had a talk this morning with a few of the researchers about some foul smell around the facility lately. It looks like we won’t have to worry about it. They said they found out what it was. Apparently some birds had been nesting in one of the complex’s main conduit pipes.”

Mike just froze; I nearly choked on my saliva.

“Birds, Rick,” I said half sarcastically; half disbelieving.

“Well, yeah. I guess a couple of the biologists climbed into the conduit pipe and found a nest with three dead chicks still inside it. He never showed me what they did with them, though. Be glad, fellas, because, otherwise, we would have been the ones to clean up after the birds. If you ask me, it’s about time those high-paid scientists did a little dirty work of their own!”

I’m not sure, but I think I saw a tiny smile on the corner of Michael’s mouth as he slowly shook his head. “They sure did, Rick,” he finally said. “They sure did…”


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