Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2008: Ghosts of Cretaceous Park

GHOSTS OF CRETACEOUS PARK Illustration

Ghosts of Cretaceous Park

Larry Hodges

 

Sam Birdle hated every inch of his older brother’s fat, weather–beaten face. It was a face he had to deal with every day as the junior partner in the Birdle Construction Company.

“Are you almost done?” he called down to his bald brother in the newly dug foundation for an upcoming high–rise. Sam chewed his Ashton Cigar and paced back and forth. It was six in the evening on Christmas Eve, and he wanted to go home and watch TV.

“Just a few more minutes,” Bruce said. “Gotta cross the i’s and dot the t’s on this foundation, or we’ll end up with the leaning tower of Santa Monica.” He and the foreman stood along the side of the foundation examining a diagram. A number of hydraulic shovels and bulldozers were parked nearby.

Bruce continued to give instructions to the foreman, looking like a common worker with his callused hands, work shoes and dirty worker’s overalls that barely contained his hugely fat body. Sam did not like this—it was so undignified. They were the owners, and their appearance should make this clear. Sam’s manicured fingernails, human hair toupee and double–breasted suit, fitted perfectly to his toned body, did this quite nicely.

Bruce had founded the company and brought in his brother, but it was Sam who’d convinced Bruce to expand into the lucrative real estate business so that their company now owned the land they built on. It was Sam’s creative accounting that freed up money for such investments. It was Sam that had made the company one of the most successful in the region.

Yet the inept Bruce was the senior partner at the company, with 51% ownership. Sam’s 49% was worth millions and nothing. When the board of directors met, who did they look to when important decisions were to be made? Sam ground his teeth in irritation as he looked off into the distance.

He was looking directly at the wall at the far side of the foundation when the dinosaur’s head emerged.

The Ashton cigar dropped to the ground.

The giant head and jaws floated rapidly toward him, with the neck disappearing into the ground below. The neck moved through the soil and rocks as if they were no more than smoke.

“Look!” was all he could choke out as he pointed. Bruce and the foreman turned and saw the monster bearing down on them.

The foreman leaped aside and hid behind a nearby bulldozer, yelling for Bruce. The dinosaur’s neck and head, jaws snapping furiously and eyes flashing red, closed the distance toward the frozen Bruce as they faced each other.

Its jaws collided with Bruce as Sam watched in horrified fascination.

The dinosaur head went straight through Bruce’s rotund body and disappeared into the foundation wall behind him. Bruce stood still for a moment, and then grabbed at his chest. He collapsed to the ground.

As the foreman applied CPR to his brother, Sam continued to stare at the walls of the foundation where the dinosaur had appeared and disappeared. He was already applying creative accounting to the many millions he hoped they would soon earn, if only, if only. . . .

dinosaur eye

Sam looked at his watch. It was 6:03 p.m. on Christmas Eve, time for the show. He turned on the monitor in his office to watch.

After just one year, Cretaceous Park flourished beyond even Sam’s wildest dreams. There were acres and acres of dinosaur themed exhibits, gift shops, rides, games, restaurants and other money–making operations for the Birdle Corporation. The latest project was a twelve–story life–like recreation of an Albertosaur, built so kids could go inside and explore the dinosaur’s internal organs.

In the center of everything was the stadium which housed the main star, the sexually misnamed Albert.

Paleontologists had identified Albert as a female Albertosaurus from the Cretaceous Period, approximately 70 million years ago. Her fossilized bones had been found and were on display in the stadium’s entrance. The bipedal Albert was thirty feet long from nose to tail, standing eleven feet tall, with small human–sized forearms with two digits. Her head was a yard long, filled with pointed banana–shaped teeth. She was about midway in size between the Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus Rex of Jurassic Park movie fame.

These same Paleontologists had not been able to determine what had turned this ancient dinosaur into a ghost, or why she made her daily trek.

If the living, breathing Albert were to show up in Sam’s office, he’d have kissed her for choosing such a perfect location to haunt, on property owned by the Birdles, near the warm California beaches and only fifteen miles south of Los Angeles. Disneyland? Who went there anymore?

At exactly 23 seconds after 6:03 p.m., as she presumably had done every day for 70 million years, Albert appeared.

If you looked closely, you could just see through her, especially if there was a light on the other side. Her green and gray tiger–striped body answered part of the long–time question about dinosaur coloring.

Until her discovery a year before, her daily journey had been underground, through solid rock, until the Birdle Corporation dug her out. Now a packed domed stadium of paying customers cheered as the show began, with close–ups playing on the stadium’s big screen. The Albertomimes took up a full section as they mimicked her every move in each performance. Everyone loved Albert, from the wart on her nose to the tooth–mark scars on her tail.

Albert stood still, head looking down, perhaps enjoying the warm Cretaceous sun. Then she looked over her shoulder, and froze. Her jaws opened in an almost human expression of shock as she sprinted silently across the field away from whatever she saw, her jaws snapping. As she reached the far side of the field, she slowed down. She looked over her shoulder again as she came to a complete stop, and turned to face whatever chased her, jaws wide as if roaring silently. Her body shook as if hit by a heavy object, and lifted off the ground for a second before collapsing in a torn and bloodied heap. Then she winked out of existence.

Total elapsed time: 47 seconds. Sam yawned. It was the same every night. Same dinosaur place, same dinosaur time.

Extrapolating the events of 70 million years ago had led to a worldwide parlor game. At the end of the trek, something very large—a Tyrannosaurus Rex?—had obviously grabbed her from behind in its jaws, lifted her up and thrown her to the ground. But why had she stopped and turned around in the middle of her flight away from this predator, leading to her capture and death? There were many theories; perhaps she had been cornered, or perhaps another large predator blocked her path. But Sam thought there was a more likely answer. He’d seen it so often with people, and why should dinosaurs be different? Only family entanglements would cause a human or dinosaur to act in such a suicidal fashion. Albert must have been a mother, indecisive about whether to run away or protect her baby, and so she failed in both. She got what she deserved.

Sam prided himself on his decisiveness. After watching the hundred–meter sprint at the Olympics that summer, Sam reached the winner on his cell phone before the guy could catch his breath. Within days Sam had arranged a televised special where the Olympic gold medalist sprinter raced Albert during her roughly hundred–meter run across the field. Albert won easily in front of a worldwide audience in another banner payday for the Birdle Corporation.

And so the value of the Birdle Corporation continued to skyrocket. Sam calculated that the market value of the Birdle Corporation would reach two billion dollars by Christmas tomorrow. That came to $141,844 per second of Albert viewing time since they’d first opened in an uncompleted stadium ten months before.

Bruce, with his 51% share, was now a billionaire. Sam’s 49% meant that he was still twenty million short.

It rankled him.

Bruce had mostly retired after his near–fatal heart attack the year before, letting Sam run things except at board meetings or when big decisions had to be made. It was he, Sam, who had the entrepreneurial spirit, vision, and creative accounting skills to create Cretaceous Park. He had turned his fat brother, at home with his books, jigsaw puzzles, and silly wife and kids, into a billionaire. Sam, of course, was too busy and too important to have a family.

Forty–nine percent. The number sickened him.

Fifty–one percent. That was even worse.

The show was over. Customers filed out of the stadium, and Birdle employees moved in to clean up and prepare for tomorrow’s show. Sam turned off the viewer, and thought.

dinosaur eye

Cretaceous Park only closed on Christmas. 364 days per year customers filed in, deposited their money, watched Albert’s short odyssey, and then filed out.

On Christmas, Sam called to invite his brother for a private viewing.

“You know what I think about getting anywhere near Albert,” Bruce said over the phone. “I’ll never forget those big jaws closing down on me. She may have died a long time ago, but I was her last victim.”

“Ah, c’mon, big brother, it’ll be fun! Remember, Albert’s the one that puts caviar on the table and private jets in our driveways.” More caviar for some than others, of course. “We can toast the Birdle Corporation while Albert’s doing her act. Plus I’ve got something to show you.”

“I promised the family to spend Christmas with them,” Bruce said. “Albert nearly killed me, and I wouldn’t want the wife to finish the job.”

Sam had his own opinion on this, which he kept to himself. “It’d only be a few minutes. C’mon, big brother, you spend nearly every day at home.”

“It would be nice to get out of the house. God, I miss the old days, when I had my finger in everything. Now I mostly read about what you’ve been doing with the company while I eat doctor–prescribed salads. Did you know they now use intravenous tubes to remove any possible flavor in those things?”

“How about a quarter to six, I’ll bring the drinks?”

“Quarter of six it is. Bring a muzzle for Albert in case he gets too frisky. A big one.”

At the appointed time the brothers were alone near where Albert always made his entrance, with goblets of Champagne.

Sam had made sure all the surveillance devices were turned off. This would be a truly private time between the brothers.

“To the Birdle Corporation!” Sam in his $6000 Brioni suit said, raising his glass.

“To Cretaceous Park!” said Bruce, in blue jeans and an “I see dead dinosaurs” t–shirt. They clinked glasses. “You’ve done an incredible job, little brother. Bringing you into the business was the best thing I ever did, next to the wife and kids, and maybe that jigsaw puzzle I finished last week.”

“And I do appreciate it,” Sam said, in contrast to his thoughts. “Hey, is that a new watch?”

Bruce looked at his wristwatch. “No, same one I’ve had since before Albert was born.”

“Can I see it?” Bruce handed it over, and it was that easy for Sam to move the minute hands back five minutes as he pretended to examine it. He returned the cheap Timex, smugly glancing at his own $20,000 Rolex.

“Look over here at this,” Sam said, pointing to where Albert would shortly make her appearance. “The scientists say they’ve found something interesting that might explain Albert’s appearances.”

“Isn’t it about time for Albert to—” Bruce stopped, looking at his watch. “I thought—never mind. I’ll take a quick look, I just want to make sure I’m way, way out of the way when Albert shows, preferably a different continent. One close encounter of the close kind with a large set of teeth is enough for me.” He followed Sam down to Albert’s emerging area.

Of course Bruce stood directly in front of Albert and her large set of teeth when she made her appearance, right on time.

A year before Bruce had only encountered Albert’s head and neck sticking up out of the ground. Now he faced the full version. As always, Albert was looking down when she appeared, directly at Bruce.

Once again Bruce froze in horror.

Once again Sam watched in horrified fascination as his brother faced off with a large carnivorous dinosaur.

This time Bruce didn’t stay frozen. He took off across the field while Albert was looking over her shoulder.

The chase was on as Albert began her daily sprint. Sam was amazed at how fast his fat brother ran, but in a man versus dinosaur race, there could be only one ending.

Albert went through Bruce and continued her daily trek.

Bruce fell to the ground clutching at his chest.

The perfect murder is when there’s no murder at all, where the victim dies of natural causes. What could be more natural than dying at the foot of one of nature’s predators?

Sam fingered the syringe of potassium chloride in his pocket, which would induce a natural–seeming heart attack. It didn’t really matter a whole lot whether Bruce’s heart attack was brought on by Albert or by the syringe as long as it appeared to be because of Albert, just as it had the year before. It looked like he wouldn’t need to use his backup plan.

“Ambulance,” Bruce stammered.

“Would you like me to call you an ambulance, big brother?”

Bruce looked up and tried to say something, but nothing came out.

Sam looked at the hated face, now contorted in pain. He’d thought this moment would be enjoyable, but somehow it was not.

“Oh, just die already and get it over with,” he finally said. He was starting to feel sorry for his brother, and he did not like that one bit.

Bruce voiced a wordless “Why?” with his lips.

“Why? Why? You think I enjoy being number two? Having nothing more to look forward to every day than being your second banana? Look around you! I created all this, not you! Me! Yet at board meetings, who’s in charge?” Tears came to Sam’s eyes. He wiped them away in embarrassment, looking away.

His legs were pulled out from under him. Caught off guard by his brother, Sam slipped into the dirt. His right knee scraped across the ground, tearing his Brioni pants. Blood poured from the knee as he tried rolling away, but Bruce grabbed him by the waist and pulled him back. Sam spun about, and the two brothers faced each other for a moment, Bruce’s steady eyes boring into Sam’s terrified ones.

Then Bruce’s face cringed, and he clutched at his chest again. Sam pulled away, coughing from the dust, and climbed to his feet.

He brushed the dust off himself as he caught his breath. He watched as his brother’s body went limp.

He did a quick trip to the stands to find a bathroom where he emptied the unneeded potassium chloride into a sink. He rinsed the syringe clean, and then ran water to get rid of the chemical evidence. He tossed the syringe into the trash. He washed the blood off his knee. There were bloodstains all over the Brioni pants.

When he returned to the field, he was shocked to see Bruce on his hands and knees. He still wasn’t dead! Why wouldn’t he just die?

Bruce was trying to scrawl something in the dirt with his finger. As Sam approached, Bruce convulsed, fell over and lay still again. Sam shook his head as he brushed the desperate scratchings away with his foot. A clean slate.

After a few minutes, he picked up his brother’s arm and checked his pulse. There was none. He’d wait a few more minutes, and then call the ambulance.

With his brother’s life ended, Sam’s own fortune expanded. He knew Bruce had left two–thirds of his 51% stock to his family, and one–third to his dear brother, or 17%. Combined with his 49%, he now owned 66% of the Birdle Corporation. The $340 million he’d just inherited made him a billionaire.

Sixty–six percent. What a nice number.

dinosaur eye

The next day Sam tearfully explained to Bruce’s wife and family how he’d tried CPR, even torn his pants and hurt his knee as he knelt on the ground doing so. His horror was evident to anyone who had not seen him practice it earlier in front of a mirror for thirty minutes. Sam thought about the life he might have led if not for Albert and his poor brother’s unfortunate heart attack, and the tears flowed easily.

As the executor of his brother’s will, he would gladly dole out the 34% shares that went to Bruce’s family when the time came. He wasn’t greedy. He just wanted what was his, and he now had that. Complete control.

On the other hand, he thought, maybe Bruce’s family didn’t deserve all of that 34%. Let’s see what the lawyers say. He couldn’t help but tremble in excitement at the thought of the upcoming court battle. Let them squirm a little bit; his 66% was secure.

The night after Bruce’s death, the stadium filled to capacity for the show. Sam rarely attended the appearances in person, but tonight he sat in a front row box seat, chewing on his Ashton Cigar. A few minutes before Albert’s appearance, he spoke a few pre–arranged words of praise about Bruce, and called for a moment of silence.

Then the festivities began. Right on time, Albert showed. Forty–seven seconds, and then Sam could leave. He glanced at his watch.

There were gasps from the crowd and he looked up. Albert was in her normal starting position, looking downward before her mad sprint across the field.

Standing before her was Bruce.

Sam stared as the scene from the night before played out. Bruce turning and running. Albert catching up and running past him. Bruce falling to the ground, clutching at his chest.

There were now two ghosts in the show.

Sam thought furiously. Just as nobody would ever know what had chased down and killed Albert, nobody would ever know who had killed Bruce. He was safe.

The ghostly figure of Bruce rolled over onto his stomach and struggled to his hands and knees. The stadium big screen zoomed in on him.

Bruce began tracing, his ghostly finger going through the dirt and leaving no trail. Then he collapsed to the ground and disappeared.

Close–ups replayed it over and over on the stadium’s big screen. Fifty thousand pairs of eyes watched, letter by letter, as Bruce’s finger traced out the condemning words, and then fifty thousand pairs of accusatory eyes bore down on Sam. His Ashton cigar dropped to the ground.

 


 

Larry Hodges, of Germantown, MD, is an active member of SFWA with 17 sales. He’s a graduate of the six–week 2006 Odyssey Writer’s Workshop and countless other workshops. (And he thanks Critters, Robert J. Sawyer at Odyssey, and Editor Wendy Delmater for the excellent critiques and suggestions for this story.) In the world of non–fiction, he’s written three books and has exactly 1060 published articles in 73 different publications. Strangely, nearly all of his non–fiction works are on the Olympic Sport of Table Tennis (yes, ping–pong); he’s a member of the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame. Really!


 

Story © 2008 Larry Hodges. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press 





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