I’ve always been thankful that I grew up in a place as unique as New Orleans. Granted, making your home in any densely populated city is going to come with its share of problems, especially when that city devolves into a drunk zombie apocalypse one month out of every year (fuck you, Mardi Gras). But that’s the trade-off for living in a cultural and artistic hub.
New Orleans is a major port city as well and, consequently, an ideal target for terrorists (apparently, we were first on Al Qaeda’s list of alternate 9/11 objectives). For this reason, NOLA is also the southern hub for a large number of government entities. There are whole taskforces of D.E.A. and A.T.F. whose sole purpose is to police the port. This is also why, in 1952, we became the home of America’s first Civil Defense Control Center.
You’re probably saying, “Joel, I’m curious. What the fuck is a Civil Defense Control Center?”
Well, if you can shut up for a second, I will quote the pertinent details straight from NewOrleansHistorical.org:
In the decade following World War II, the United States formulated a Civil Defense initiative that would attempt to preserve order during a nuclear attack. [New Orleans] installed an elaborate warning system of 76 large sirens and even built a fully equipped command center from which city officials could “safely” direct the operations of rescue and salvage following an attack. The bunker remains abandoned and in disrepair on the neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards. [NewOrleansHistorical.org]
So a couple of years back, a bunch of top secret files became declassified thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and according to one of these files, the government had secretly converted the Control Center into a CIA research facility shortly after it was officially decommissioned in 1965.
And command of that facility was handed over to none other than real life mad scientist Sidney Gottlieb, a man who was so cartoonishly evil that Freddy Krueger would’ve told him to give it a break.
Of course, unlike Krueger, Gottlieb was a real guy who destroyed the lives of real people by making them unwitting test subjects in his sadistic LSD-based mind-control experiments. Experiments that were sanctioned by the US government and subsequently destroyed the lives of hundreds of innocent people.
In most cases, these “subjects” were dosed with so much LSD (upwards of a MILLION HITS AT ONCE) that its effect was basically the chemical equivalent of a lobotomy. Did I mention that Gottlieb also had a clubbed foot? Not to mock a man for his disability but, all things considered, that last detail pretty much makes him a Bond villain.
I actually read a few pages of the journal that Gottlieb kept while he was on his deathbed (the journal is currently a matter of public record thanks to a federal trial regarding MKULTRA). From what I could tell, Sidney died believing himself to be “the truest kind of patriot” whose numerous horrific acts had been “the regrettable efforts of an inherently noble quest.” Now I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but seriously?
Fuck that guy. The fact that we live in a world where everything I just described really ACTUALLY happened is almost proof enough that A. There is a God and B. He has a sick sense of humor. Either that or he clearly doesn’t think very highly of us. Of course, when you hear about an Olympic-level douchebag like Gottlieb, it’s not hard to figure out why.
After the files were declassified, it seemed like the Control Center’s sordid past was all anyone wanted to talk about. The Times Picayune and all of the local news stations ran numerous stories on it and I found the whole thing interesting at first but everybody’s obsession began to wear on me. So when my friend Eleanor revealed that she and her boyfriend (another buddy of mine by the name of J.P.) had snuck into the now abandoned Control Center, my initial response was less than enthralled.
Her story was pretty unbelievable. According to Eleanor, a place that was originally designed to withstand a nuclear winter was apparently about as hard to sneak into as an R-rated movie. She told me there wasn’t a fence or anything to keep people out and the metal door that served as the facility’s surface-entrance was just sitting open when they got there.
“It’s three flights of stairs down to the actual entrance and the whole bottom level is partially flooded from all the rainwater that’s collected down there over the years. It’s at least a foot deep and smells fucking horrible. I told J.P. there was no way I was trudging through some nasty fucking indoor lake just to sate his curiosity, but you know J.P.”
“I do,” I said and nodded. “That’s why I’m not surprised he was able to talk you into any of this.”
“Tell me about it. He made me help him steal a bunch of folding chairs from his parent’s garage and then we went back and J.P. used the chairs to make like basically a stepping stone bridge through the water. He’d set two down, stand on them, and then I’d hand him two more to set down. J.P. had this map of the complex he had gotten off Google and we used that as a guide and eventually… after like an HOUR… we made it to this door marked ‘upper level access.’”
“What was up there?”
Eleanor let out a humorless scoff and said, “I don’t know. We didn’t make it past the steps. There was this…”
Eleanor paused and for a second I honestly thought tears were about to start pouring from her eyes as she continued, “AWFUL scream… It was… I was following J.P. up the steps and I saw his face turn white. He’d rounded the corner of the stairs and had a view of the floor above and I know J.P. saw something up there because he looked even more terrified than me and I’ve never seen that man look scared in my life.”
J.P. was a marine and by this point he’d already served two tours in Afghanistan. I’d never seen him look scared either and I once saw J.P. start a fight naked. I found him practically cowering inside his apartment when I went to check on him later that afternoon. I had called J.P.’s cell at least a dozen times on the way over there and got his voicemail every time. I had to knock on his apartment door for a solid 10 minutes before he finally opened up.
J.P. looked like he hadn’t slept in a month and hesitated when he first saw me standing there. J.P. gave me a suspicious frown, as if he wasn’t quite sure he could trust what he was seeing. Finally, he said, “Eleanor send you?”
I nodded and J.P. let out a frustrated sigh. After another beat, he moved out of the way and gestured for me to enter. I stepped inside the apartment and J.P. shut the door behind me.
“So, how much did she tell you?” he asked.
I avoided returning J.P.’s uneasy gaze by surveying his dimly-lit living room. The place smelled weird and I pretended not to notice a large jar of urine tucked beneath the coffee table.
“Everything up to the part where the two of you booked it out of there. She asked me to check on you because you said some stuff afterward that seemed to be worrying her but she wouldn’t say what it was,” I replied.
J.P. nodded. “Look dude, I appreciate your concern but Eleanor is blowing this whole thing out of proportion. I don’t care what she thinks. I didn’t see ANYTHING. I need you to tell her that I’m fine and that I need everybody, including her, to please just leave me alone for a little bit.”
“Man, look…” I started to reply but then J.P. cut me off.
“PLEASE!” he repeated, a bit more shrilly than before. J.P. yanked the door back open and stood there, glaring at me.
I shrugged and said, “Fine… Fair warning, though. You know how I am. My love for a good mystery borders on childlike wonder and if you can’t tell me what happened, I’m gonna be forced to go down there and investigate.”
“I’m not your dad. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to. Now, if you don’t mind…” J.P. said as he gestured at the open doorway.
I was back outside and halfway down the path leading toward the visitor’s parking lot when I heard J.P. shout.
I turned to see him still standing in the open doorway. The expression on J.P.’s face was apologetic and he sounded almost desperate.
“Dude… Please don’t do this.”
I opened my mouth to respond but J.P. slammed the door shut before I could.
Eleanor called me when she got off of work later that night and I told her about the ominous warning J.P. had left me with, though Eleanor didn’t seem very bothered by it. When I was done recounting our visit, she said, “You ARE still coming with me, right?”
“Of course. I’m not entirely sure why you think you need to go back down there but I’m in.”
There was a pause as Eleanor let out a tired sigh.
“You talked to him today. Did that seem like J.P. to you? If he’s not gonna tell us what he saw, then the only chance I have of helping him is to find out for myself.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
Eleanor told me she still had to run home and grab a few things and that I should meet her at the Center in an hour. I said that was no problem but it had been a long day and I accidently nodded off in front of the TV while I was waiting.
Ninety minutes later, I was yanked out of unconsciousness by the sound of my cellphone ringing and I looked down to see Eleanor’s picture on the screen. I quickly stood and shouted, “SHIT!”
I shoved one arm into my hoodie and then started to exit the apartment as I put the phone to my ear.
“I’m SO sorry. Power-nap ran a little long. I’m on my way,” I said,
I waited for her to respond.
Still no reply from the other end of the line. After several awkward beats, I lowered my cell and checked the screen to make sure the call hadn’t dropped out. It hadn’t. I put the phone back to my ear just in time to hear a strange CLICK, followed by another one a moment later. I’d seen enough mobster movies to know this meant the line was tapped and I immediately hung up.
I had been in such a hurry to leave a moment ago, but now I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to try and call Eleanor back. Someone answered on the first ring but they didn’t say anything. I heard more clicking.
“Who is this?” I whispered.
The clicking started to get louder and more constant until eventually it was all I could hear and I was forced to hang up again. Out of sheer desperation, I tried calling J.P. and was greeted by an automated message of a robotic female voice.
“You cannot reach this number. Do not try again,” the voice said.
I considered calling 9-1-1 from a payphone and telling them that my kid-sister had wandered into the Control Center and was now trapped down there. Though I was fairly certain I could’ve gotten away with it, I ultimately decided to wait until I’d first checked out the Center for myself. For all I knew, Eleanor was still out there waiting for me and her cell was simply acting up.
Thankfully, the Control Center wasn’t far from my place and less than ten minutes later I was parked across the street. I popped my trunk and retrieved a duffle bag containing three flashlights of varying sizes, two road flares, an electric lantern that was powered by a hand crank if all else failed, a pair of night-vision binoculars, a laser thermometer, two bottles of water, and assorted snacks. When you do dumb shit as often as me, you learn it pays to pack supplies.
I slung the strap of the duffle-bag over my shoulder and started across the street, making my way toward what appeared to be nothing more remarkable than a grassy mound surrounded by a small patch of trees. As I got closer, I spotted a stone driveway that cut a path through the trees.
The driveway lead to a large vault-like door built into the side of the grassy mound. The door was sitting open when I found it, just like Eleanor said it would be. I pulled out my phone to try calling her again and saw I didn’t have any bars. I figured this was because of my proximity to the Control Center and was about to walk back across the street to make the call when I heard something that sounded an awful lot like Eleanor shouting my name from somewhere inside the facility.
At first, I was pretty sure I had imagined it, but I moved closer to the partially opened door and heard her shout my name again, this time even clearer. I dug out the largest flashlight in my bag and pointed it through the open doorway, revealing a small landing that preceded the stairwell leading down to the Center’s actual entrance.
I slowly sidestepped through the opening as I scanned my light across the landing, revealing a patchwork of claw-marks littering the stairwell’s far wall. I barely had enough time to process what I was seeing before I heard Eleanor once more.
It sounded like she was directly below me and I quickly aimed the flashlight down through the gap in the center of the stairwell. As the beam of light illuminated the lower level, I caught a glimpse of something…. A vaguely human shaped blur disappearing beneath the stairs…. Then, just like that, it was gone so quickly I wasn’t entirely sure it had ever been there.
I tried my best to ignore the sense of impending doom that began to gnaw at the pit of my stomach as I started down the three flights of stairs leading to the Center’s actual entrance. You know how in a nightmare, you can be fully aware of how wrong something is and still have no ability to stop yourself from doing it? That’s what I felt like, descending those stairs.
I paused just before the lower landing, which was submerged in the same foul-smelling cesspool that covered the rest of the bottom level. I scanned the water with my flashlight and saw that the surface of it was teeming with what looked like a million of these tiny pink stringy worm things that were like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, that wasn’t necessarily true. They sort of reminded me of sea monkeys on steroids. Just like that, the name “Bunker Monkeys” popped into my head.
“Eleanor!” I shouted. After a tense pause, the darkness replied with what sounded like her screaming. I started through the inner-entrance, using J.P.’s chair-bridge to avoid the infested water, and I have to admit that being down there alone and surrounded by all of that impenetrable darkness was starting to get to me.
I kept hearing people whispering just out of reach of the beam of my flashlight and imaging that those bunker monkey things were crawling out of the water and inching their way up my pant leg. I stopped about 15 times just to check and make sure they weren’t. It felt like I had been following Eleanor’s screams for several hours when I finally reached the stairs leading up to the next level and the sound abruptly stopped.
This stairwell was a lot narrower than the previous one and lit by a pale glow that I at first mistook for moonlight before remembering that I was currently thirty feet underground. I paused before rounding the bend in the stairs to remind myself that this was the same point at which J.P. freaked out and told Eleanor to run. Whatever he’d seen down here, it had been just around this next corner and so was the source of the faint glow currently illuminating the stairwell.
I slowly leaned my head around the corner. I could see the landing above, which lead to a gray door with a small square window set into it at about head-height. The light was coming from the window and through it I could see what looked to be a brightly-lit hallway. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t anything so…anticlimactic.
I cautiously approached the door and peered through the small window. The walls of the hallway were bare and the corridor curved off to the left after about 10 feet. I expected the door to be locked but the knob turned without resistance. I carefully inched the door open and then gently pulled it shut behind me as I entered the hallway, careful not to make any noise.
It was a strange transition; going from the musty darkness below into a clean, well-lit corridor. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. There was a familiar hum coming from overhead and I held my hand up to the vent above me. Cool air was flowing out of it.
I heard someone to my right say, “Thank you, Jesus!”
I whipped my head around to see a metal door that I hadn’t noticed when I entered. A pair of eyes were staring at me through a thin rectangular slot in the door and I heard the owner of the eyes chuckle as I spun to look at him.
The man said, “Sorry if I spooked you. I was cleaning out the cell and the goddamn door shut on me.”
“Oh…” I said as I scrambled to think of a better reply.
“Mind punching in the code?”
“Sure…” I replied and stepped closer to the door as I scanned the surrounding wall for a keypad.
The eyes retracted from view and the man stuck a hand through the slot, using it to point to a metal square set into the wall.
“Behind the panel,” he said.
I pressed on the square and there was a click as it started to retract, revealing a numeric keypad. I held my hand over the keypad.
“Got it,” I said.
“Awesome,” the man replied and withdrew his hand.
“What’s the code again? I can never remember it.”
“One-one-five-pound,” he said, sounding annoyed.
I was about to key it in when I paused.
“Hash-tag!” The man let out a frustrated sigh. “Kids,” he muttered.
I entered the passcode and a buzzer went off as the door’s bolt retracted with a metallic THUNK. The heavy metal door slowly slid aside and before the opening was wide enough for him to exit, the man reached a hand through and grabbed me by my shirt.
Before I realized what was happening, he pulled me toward him and I whacked my head on the metal door between us so hard that it momentarily replaced the center of my vision with a swirling black blob. Suddenly the blob screamed, “WHO ARE YOU?! I know every face in this vile ass-crack and yours isn’t one of them. MI6? Interpol? Fucking Illuminati? WHO?!”
“Nobody,” I choked out. “I’m just a dumbass.”
“WHAT?!” he shouted, the man’s mouth now inches from my face. He pressed his forearms to my throat and pinned me against the wall as he began to choke me.
After several terrifying moments, he relieved the pressure on my neck enough for me to talk and I gasped, sucking down a lungful of air.
“Nobody sent me!” I said. “PLEASE! I was just worried about my friend! She said she wanted to come down here and now she’s missing…”
The man scoffed. “So you just WALKED in? You actually expect me to believe that?”
“Only because it’s the truth. I thought this place was abandoned, I SWEAR!”
The man pulled his arms away from my throat. “How did you make it through the pit?”
“I used a bunch of folding chairs,” I said and the man let out a reflexive laugh.
When I showed no signs of joking, the man’s smile faded. “SERIOUSLY?”
I slowly nodded. The man’s face lit up and he laughed again.
“Deus ex moron,” he screamed and suddenly kissed me on the mouth.
Before I could even begin to process how to respond, we heard the sound of a door opening at the opposite end of the hallway and the man’s eyes went wide.
“Don’t let them catch you,” the man said as he took the flashlight from my hand and yanked open the door to the stairwell. He sprinted off into the darkness and I quickly chased after him as three figures in blue hooded robes rounded the corner, heading our way.
I dug a second flashlight from my bag as I followed the man down the stairs. He let out another reflexive giggle and shook his head as he turned the corner and saw the path of chairs leading into the adjacent hallway. The man started across the chairs as I looked back and saw the slowly shrinking shadows of the three robed figures, now backlit by the light from the hallway as they continued to pursue us at what can only be called a leisurely pace.
Just as I was about to exit the stairwell, I glanced back again and saw the figures watching me from the bottom of the stairs. There wasn’t enough light for me to really see them, but from the little that was visible, I could tell that there was something inherently wrong about them. The three figures removed their robes and then entered the stagnant water, which was still teeming with bunker monkeys.
Seeing this made me double my speed as I entered the corridor. The man sped up to match my pace, but his front foot slipped as he was stepping from one chair to the next. I managed to get my arms under his and prevented him from falling face first into the water, but his front foot went under for a moment. When he lifted it out, his shoe was coated with thrashing bunker monkeys.
The man began to scream. He braced his hand on my shoulder and used his other foot to frantically kick off the encased shoe. He then grabbed his leg.
“I need light!” he shouted.
I aimed my flashlight down at his leg and saw that the man had one of the bunker monkeys pinched between his finger and thumb. The thing had started to burrow into his ankle and was already half-submerged just beneath the skin. The man let out a painful moan as he attempted to pull the thing loose, but it wasn’t budging.
“Here,” I said and handed the man my flashlight. He emitted another agonized groan as I plunged a hand into my bag and retrieved one of the road-flares. I could hear something sloshing through the water behind us as I attempted to light the flare. In my panic, the ignition-cap flew out of my trembling hand.
My heart was beating so fast, it was all I could hear. It actually helped me focus as I watched my hand route through my bag and slide the cap off of the remaining flare. I scratched the cap across the top of the first flare and it hissed to life with an eruption of red fire.
I could see the bunker monkey’s raised outline through the man’s skin and pressed the flare to it. He howled in pain, but didn’t flinch or try to pull away and after a moment, the pink worm thing slid free of the man’s leg, looking withered and lifeless. The man let out a relieved sigh as he tossed the thing aside.
“Thank you,” he said.
A figure, covered head-to-toe in squirming pink bunker monkeys, emerged from the water behind us and let out an inhuman screech as it yanked the man off the chair. He screamed and reached out a hand as he was pulled down into the water and I grabbed on, but it wasn’t enough to stop both of his legs from going in.
I tried to pull the man back onto the chair and the figure screeched at me. I spotted a MUCH bigger version of the stringy worm things protruding from his throat and I realized it was this super-sized bunker monkey that was the actual source of the piercing wail. I jammed the lit flare into the figure’s open mouth but that only made the wailing worse.
The figure released its grip on the man to pull the road-flare from its mouth and I started to guide the man’s limp body between the pathway of chairs, moving just fast enough to keep him out of reach of the two figures still pursuing us. By this point, the smaller bunker monkeys had begun to consume everything below the man’s knees and he had fainted from the pain, which made the dragging a bit easier.
We reached the bottom of the outer stairwell and were almost to the stairs when I misstepped and stumbled into the infested water. I never was very good at “the Floor is Lava” game as a child, but it wasn’t until that night that I regretted not playing it more.
I lunged up out of the water and hurried onto the steps. I had only been under for what felt like less than a full second but I saw how long it took for them to envelop someone. I was fucked and I knew it. I was afraid to even look down at myself, though I could already feel them chewing through my jeans.
All I knew was that if I was going to die tonight, I didn’t want it to be down here. I was still dragging what was left of the man behind me and wailing like a lunatic as I reached the upper landing and almost plowed into Eleanor.
“WHOA! What’s with the CPR dummy?” Eleanor shouted, holding up her hands.
“It’s not a CPR dummy…” I sobbed, tearing off my shirt.
I looked down to see that I was gripping the rubber hand of a legless CPR dummy.
Eleanor furrowed her brows.
“Are you okay? Why are you WET?”
The dummy clattered to the ground as I spotted something on the wall of the landing, just to the left of the surface entrance doorway. I slowly approached the vent and held my hand up to it. I’m still not sure how much of that night was a hallucination, but one fact is certain: For some reason, the A/C was on.
Eleanor had showed up so late because J.P. called to tell her that he’d taken a nap and felt way better and that he was sorry about everything. They talked for a while and then she tried to call and tell me that our expedition was off but my number kept going to voicemail (I must have been down in the Center by then.)
After doing a bunch of research on Gottlieb, I discovered that in 1992 the government sold the Control Center to a shell-corporation that traced back to Sidney himself. My theory is that he had purposefully tainted the facility’s air filters, possibly with an aerosol form of LSD, and then left the entrance open so that he could continue to secretly dose unwitting victims even after his own death.
It would explain pretty much everything that happened to me down there and also why all J.P. had needed to feel better was a nap. That’s also why I haven’t hidden the Control Center’s location from you, the reader. A ton of people wanted to know the location of the Devil’s Toy Box, but I wanted to spare the town in question any more bad press and so I refused to tell them. But New Orleans is a different story.
So, if you really want to go down to that godforsaken place after reading this, be my guest.