Read The World Beneath (Joe Tesla) Online

Authors: Rebecca Cantrell

The World Beneath (Joe Tesla)

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THE WORLD BENEATH

Rebecca Cantrell

 

Dedication

For my husband, my son, and my (non)psychiatric service cat

Prologue

November, 1949

Presidential train

En route to Grand Central Terminal, New York

 

Dr. Berger looked into the long dark mouth of the tunnel. This tunnel would lead to another and then another until they stopped at a secret platform under New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Only one train had permission to stop there. This one—the presidential train car. It hadn’t been used by the president since the war and, despite its original purpose, the car was surprisingly utilitarian—simple wooden cabinets, a stainless steel counter bearing four liquor decanters, and leather chairs bolted to the floor.

He clutched his precious briefcase with nervous fingers. The train had almost arrived at its destination, and nothing had gone wrong. Yet.

Darkness engulfed the train car as it pulled inside. The train slowed to a crawl. To see why, Dr. Berger adjusted his round spectacles and peered through bulletproof glass so thick that it had a green cast. Dim, electric lights hanging from the ceiling revealed a field of silver tracks merging together again and again as the tunnel narrowed. The engineer had slowed to switch tracks. The car was deep underneath the city now. Close.

He cast a sidelong glance at his sole traveling companion: the uniformed soldier who was tasked with protecting him and the secrets he carried. What did he know about the man?

What was there to know? The man sitting straight-backed and alert with a Thompson submachine gun flat across his lap was merely an ordinary American soldier. A soldier much like the one who’d taken Dr. Berger prisoner in Bavaria a few years before. Another square-jawed man with close-cropped hair whose narrow eyes told Dr. Berger how much he hated all Germans. Of course he did—because of the war. These American soldiers held him personally responsible for all the deaths caused by Hitler’s madness, as if these soldiers could have influenced Roosevelt’s decisions themselves, as if his adherence to orders was so different from theirs.

In the end, he had defied his superior’s orders when he’d packed up his notes and gone to meet his destiny on a train not unlike this one, fleeing west, praying only to surrender to the Americans and not the Russians. He’d been lucky. The troops who’d stopped his train were sturdy and well-fed, chewers of gum and crackers of jokes—American through and through. Their orders regarding high-level scientists were clear, and they hadn’t mistreated him.

They’d brought him to the United States, interrogated him respectfully, and paid him a good salary to continue his research. They’d even retrieved his yellow parakeet, Petey, and the upright piano he had inherited from his father. His specialized knowledge had put him in the president’s own train car on a special and secret mission that would change the future.

Funny how things turned out.

“Near now,” Dr. Berger said.

The soldier jerked his head. Almost a nod, but not quite. The man had probably been given instructions not to speak to him. As kind as they seemed, the doctor doubted his American colleagues trusted him. A mutual state. The wounds from the war had not had time to heal.

Dr. Berger’s fingers tapped out a song on his briefcase, but instead of helping him play music, the notes in its leather interior helped him to play the human mind. The trials were promising indeed, though protocols in the United States were more complex than they had been in Germany. Here he spent too much of his time talking about safeguards, about how to minimize risk and wondering if his funding would be canceled.

He hadn’t worried about such things in Germany.

The SS valued only results.

He tilted his head, certain that he had heard a familiar sound. The clacking of steel wheels against track filled his ears. The reassuring rhythm told him that every second brought them closer to their destination. He closed his eyes and relaxed.

The sound came again—like Petey’s soft warble when he tapped his mirror with his rounded beak. This sound wasn’t quite the same. Seeking its source, he scanned the front of the car. A small hand emerged from behind the door of a cupboard at the front of the car, and tiny brown fingers with dark nails groped the frame.


Gott im Himmel
!” The precious briefcase slid unnoticed to the floor as the doctor sprang to his feet and brushed past the startled soldier. The little hand vanished behind the wooden door as if it had never been there. But he had seen it.

Dr. Berger lurched toward the cupboard. It was impossible. It couldn’t be there. It must not be there.

“Come out, little one.” He eased the door to the side. Its nerves were probably on edge, too, and he had no wish to startle the creature.

The soldier stood behind him, gun trained on the half-open cupboard. “What’s in there, doc?”

So, he could speak.

Dr. Berger reached inside the cabinet with one cautious hand while speaking in a gentle singsong voice. “No one will hurt you. We are all friends here.”

Leathery fingers curled around his wrist, and a slight weight dropped onto his forearm. Slowly, he pulled the creature out.

“A monkey?” asked the soldier.

Not just any monkey. The animal on his arm was a female rhesus monkey. Short brown fur covered her plump body, except for the inverted pink triangle of her face. Huge brown eyes stared up into his.

“Do I know you?” Dr. Berger crooned.

He touched her soft ear and felt for a tag punched through the cartilage. His heart sped with fear, and the monkey tensed, too. He took a deep breath and hummed a few bars of
Eine kleine Nachtmusik
to calm them both. With one hand, he tilted her to the side to study the small piece of metal that would determine his fate.

The orange tag bore the number sixteen. The worst of all.

He wanted to throw her out the window, as far from him as possible, and pretend he’d never seen her. He could. The soldier didn’t know what the tag meant. She’d have a few days, perhaps weeks, of precious freedom before she succumbed, and he would be safe.

“How’d a monkey get in here?” The soldier seemed charmed by the little creature. “He’s a cute little guy.”

“It is a female monkey.” As if that mattered.

The thick bulletproof windows had a complicated latch, but the soldier would undo it for him, if he asked. He could not ask. He was a scientist first. This monkey must never be freed. Indeed, she must be contained at all costs.

Because she was infected.

She’d been infected only a few days before, but the infection ran its course quickly in primates. The danger already swam in her rich red blood. Incurable.

He remembered her now, recognized the distinctive shock of golden fur above her brows. She had been the most docile of animals, before. But she might not be docile now. He must not agitate her.

“Find a cage,” he said quietly.

He stroked a finger along her warm cheek, and she followed the movement with round eyes the same shade of brown as the soldier’s. Smiling, he hummed to her, while she relaxed in his arms. He drew her close to his chest and cradled her like a baby. She reached up and left an oily smudge across the right lens of his glasses.

The soldier looked blankly around the car. The doctor watched him go through the cupboards with methodical efficiency. The young man pulled out paper, pens, liquor, snacks, a towel, but nothing to contain the monkey.

If they could not imprison her, they would have to kill her. The doctor could have done it easily, but a deep wound ran along the palm of his hand where he had cut himself yesterday when slicing bread. If the monkey’s blood entered his cut, he might become infected, too.

“You must kill her.” He lifted the animal up toward the soldier. She weighed about five and a half kilos—he translated the metric measurement because he was in America now—twelve pounds, not much more than a human newborn.

“It’s only a monkey.” The soldier made no move to take the warm furry body.

“Take her,” the doctor ordered.

The monkey’s eyes widened as if she knew what he intended. Lightning fast, she sank her teeth into the doctor’s thumb. Her sharp canines grated against his phalange bone, and his grip weakened. She squirmed free of his wounded hand and landed on the floor on all fours like a cat.

Holding his bloody hand, the doctor stumbled back against the wall of the car. He cursed. Pain throbbed through his thumb, but that was not the worst of it.

A harsh screech rose from her throat. His blood dripped from her bared fangs and fell onto the floor. She trembled and swiveled her head from side to side as if she saw enemies everywhere. She probably did.

While the soldier gaped at the angry creature, gun lax in his hands, she leaped onto his knee and climbed him like a tree, little hands and feet gripping the folds of his uniform. When she reached the top of his head, she leaned down to sink her teeth into his ear before leaping off his head and grasping a light fixture hanging from the ceiling of the car.

Nimble and quick, she swung along the wire toward the back door. The soldier’s bullets stitched a neat line behind her, never quite catching up. Bullets ricocheted around the car, and both men dove to the floor.

When they stood, the monkey had disappeared.

The soldier cupped the bite on his ear, and Dr. Berger gripped his bleeding thumb.

“We may be infected,” Dr. Berger said. “We must follow protocols.”

The train engineer’s surprised face stared at them through the thick glass window separating the engine from their car. The engineer was protected from them, and from the monkey. He lifted a black object with a curly cord. His radio. Good. He would explain what had happened, and proper protocols would be in place when they arrived. The danger would be contained.

Dr. Berger nodded his approval, and the man turned around again.

The doctor lifted the heavy top off a cut glass decanter that stood next to the compact steel sink, and the harsh smell of gin billowed out. That would do. He sloshed gin over his thumb. The alcohol burned like acid in his open wound, but it was not to be helped. It ran down the drain, colored pink with his blood. He tore a strip from the bottom of his white lab coat and used it to fashion a crude bandage for his thumb. Then he cleaned and dressed the soldier’s wound, slow and fumbling because of his bandaged hand.

The monkey stayed hidden, and neither of them attempted to find her.

The soldier put down his gun and poured them each a glass of gin. He pointed to the bottle of vermouth, and Dr. Berger shook his head. The soldier didn’t bother with any, either. Some things called for liquor straight up.

The gin burned a warm trail down his throat. His aching thumb would heal, and the chances of cross-species infection were minor. It was a mere inconvenience, but they would both have to be quarantined for a few weeks to make certain. Fortunate, indeed, that he had brought his notes. Perhaps the time in isolation would let him truly concentrate. At least there he would be spared the drudgery of meetings. He drained his glass, and the soldier filled it again.

The train jerked to a stop. Dr. Berger peered into the gloom. The row of orange light bulbs hanging from the ceiling cast faint light on ten armed soldiers standing in formation around the car—four on each side and two behind. These soldiers looked like the soldier inside the car, except that their Thompson submachine guns were raised and pointed at the train.

With his hands raised above his head and a meek expression plastered on to his face, Dr. Berger stood. He knew how to surrender. He walked toward the back door, to open it and explain to them they had nothing to fear from him or from the soldier.

“Don’t open the door, sir,” barked one of the outside soldiers.

Dr. Berger stood still and called through the door. “It is not airborne. You could only be infected by transfer of blood. There is no danger.”

The soldier kept his weapon up.

Clanking at the front of the car told the doctor that a worker was unhooking the engine, but he could not see him. Half the lights were burnt out. Postwar rationing.

He’d have to wait until an intelligent man arrived to whom he could explain the situation properly. In the meantime, he sat and drank more gin while a new engine pushed their car down the tracks from behind after the old engine had left. There would be time to explain when they reached their destination.

He hoped.

A spike of paranoia rose in his brain, but he quashed it. He posed no threat to these men, and they posed no threat to him. They were no Nazis. Human life mattered to them.

The engine pushed his blue railroad car into a dead-end tunnel, then pulled away.

Darkness cloaked the car at the back and on both sides. He stared at the mouth of the tunnel. Soon they would send a doctor to whom he could explain the risks, and they would be released into quarantine.

Lit from behind by the lights strung from the ceiling, the silhouette of a tall man moved in front of the men with guns. The tall man carried a triangular blade and a bucket. A smaller man carrying the same curious items walked behind him. Were they setting up to disinfect the car with chemicals from their buckets? That was unnecessary, and they must know it. They wore blue overalls like workmen, not white lab coats, so they must be here to perform a different task.

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