The interior of the building wasn’t any better than the exterior. I stepped through a wall of boarded-over glass doors into what was once a side entrance to the mall’s common area. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see an expanse of ripped and stained carpet extending a few hundred feet to my left. Store fronts, some with security gates torn open, others never closed, lined the passage. To my right were another bank of glass doors. Through the glass I could see a mess hall filling a long defunct department store. A dozen faces pressed against the panes. Their eager expressions relishing my situation.
The gray-haired man stared at me. His braded, pony tail hung to his waste. “You going to just stand there?”
I looked at the jumpsuit I held in my hands and figured it might be best to play along. “Here?”
“You always lead with a question?” He crossed his arms and flexed the hula-girl tattoos on his forearms. A navy anchor twisted along with the girl’s skirts.
“Cool anchor. Were you stationed at Pearl Harbor?” I couldn’t get a read on this guy. Usually when I meet someone, I can feel their vibe. The only thing this guy gave off was, nothing. I don’t mean nothing in the sense he was devoid or lacking… but more like he kept an impenetrable wall surrounding his emotions.
Gray Dude raised a walkie-talkie. “We got a slow one. Go with new arrival encounter bravo.”
A scratchy voice answered. You got it, Chief. “You better scoot. five, four, three…”
Gray Dude turned around, opened a glass door into the mess hall, and stepped through. I heard a distinctive click followed by him showing me a key.
Alarm horns blared. The dozen people on the other side of the doors banged their fists against the glass and started chanting the same stanza I’d heard before. “Kill, eat, kill, eat…”
I knew what was coming. I wasn’t ready for it, but that didn’t matter. How could I have been so naive to think my encounter with the dogs would be so simple.
I ran deeper into the building. My boots clunked along the floor and the rucksack bounced on my back. In the distance behind me, the voices faded to be replaced by the snarls and barks of a multitude of dogs. They were mastiffs. The same breed and decked out in the same leather barding the ones outside had worn. I ran faster and did my best to control the panic chewing through my guts. I knew better than to run from dogs. It only made them see you as prey.
Prey always ran. I was prey. I ran faster.
On the left, the security gate to a candle shop hung partially ajar. I grabbed the links and yanked up on the grill. A gap appeared at the base. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize going under the gate was the only choice. I slung off my pack, kicked it through the gap, and crawled in after it.
I slammed my foot against the grate and stacked a display table against the opening. The dogs never slowed down. Jaws agape, they charged head first against the security barrier.
Six armored beasts growled and ram their heads against the enclosure. When they tired of the ramming, they took turns chewing on the metal links with teeth as long as my fingers. Twisted shapes formed after every bite and to my sickening stomach, individual links along the grate continued to sperate into larger holes. Droplets of blood pooled on the ceramic tile.
It was only a matter of time before one of the hounds chewed a hole large enough to squirm through.
I shoved another table into the opening created by the dogs. My efforts were rewarded by two of the hounds chewing the legs off the table and spitting chunks of wood on the floor. They shook their heads, coughed up a couple more splinters, and resumed their attack.
Looking around the room I saw an assortment of scented candles. Some in glass jars, others as tapers. A back wall held several bottles of lamp oil. Mosquito replant was written on the label. As far as I was concerned, the dogs counted as massive fur covered mosquitos capable of chewing me into smaller bits. I had a plan.
In a back closet I found a mop and bucket. I dumped a couple of bottles of oil into the pail and soaked the mop head. The dogs were still hard at work trying to bite their way into the store. I’m a realist when it comes to animals. Sometimes they’re cute and cuddly, and in need of our protection. Other times they can be instruments of war. I went with the war definition in this case.
I grabbed one of the unopened bottles and poked a hole in the cap with my pocket knife. Standing at the security gate, I sprayed the oil across the dogs. They didn’t seem to mind and used the situation to their advantage: open their mouths, get soaked with oil, and continue chewing.
I grabbed the mop and pulled a cigarette lighter from my pocket. “If someone’s listening, I’m about to light-up these puppies.”
No response. The dogs kept chewing and barking. It wouldn’t take much longer before they gnawed a way in.
“Last chance, guys.” I ran the lighter along my pants leg. A yellow flame sparked to life.
I’ll do it. Really, I will.”
The mop burst into flames as I held the lighter to its oil-soaked strings. Dark smoke bubbled from the burning mass.
I approached the hounds. Flames reflected in their eyes. The dogs stepped back. I held the mop in one hand and used the other to move more clutter against the shredded security grate.
A whistle chirped from somewhere down the hall. The dogs sat on their haunches, mouths open wide, panting.
Gray Dude stepped between the dogs and the front of the store. “I want to congratulate you, Mr. Ironstone. Not many people escape the dogs, let alone find a solution to the problem.”
“Thanks,” I said, adding a bit of irritation to my words. “Are we keeping score or is this just some new guy stunt you like to pull?”
“Does it really matter why?” He studied me with dark eyes. His cheekbones were high, and skin pulled tight from what looked like long periods spent in the sun.
My assumptions about Bureau Camp were not panning out as I expected. I thought we would do something like the FBI did. Run laps, shoot guns, and learn how to cuff people. This place was bite-the-big-one when it came to getting in the front door. It felt kinda’ homey in a weird and bizarre way.
I used my booted foot to sweep an area clear and dropped the burring mop onto the floor. “Bring it on, old man.”
He spent a couple more seconds studying me. Finally nodding his head. “Welcome to Special Bureau One Camp, Mr. Ironstone. We call it The Kennel.”