“Nobody ever died of being shot by a cookie.”
― Ilona Andrews, Magic Slays
Plopping his overstuffed briefcase on his chair, Lucas tiredly opened it and yanked out a battered laptop. He made to set it on the desk, but there was something already there.
It was a cookie. Big and round and full of chocolate chips.
Lucas stared at it. Whoever had left it had clearly done so intentionally, for it was perfectly centered on a paper doily, but there was no note. He looked around for anyone watching him and listened for the sounds of snickering. He’d been the target of a few office pranks before, and this seemed like a highly suspicious object. But the few people who were around were either working at their desks or loitering near the expresso machine in the breakroom. No one seemed to be paying any attention to him.
He set his laptop carefully down next to the cookie. It did look very delicious.
“Hey, Ann?” Lucas leaned over the cubicle wall to his neighbor. Ann’s frizzy black hair looked even more disheveled than usual, but her eyes were bright and curious when she looked up.
“Good morning, Lucas! How are you?” She peered at him more closely. “Wow, you look terrible. Did the fireworks keep you awake, too?”
“Maybe,” he said distractedly. “Ann, do you know who left this cookie here?”
“Cookie?” She stood to look over the cubicle wall. “That chocolate chip cookie?”
“Yeah. It was just on the desk when I got here.”
“No, I didn’t notice anybody come by, but I wasn’t really looking at your desk.”
Lucas frowned and stared at the cookie.
Ann said thoughtfully, “Do you think it’s a prank?”
“I’m not sure, that’s the problem.”
“Are you gonna eat it?”
“What if it’s full of salt or jalapeño sauce—or poison?”
“Lucas, be serious, who would poison you?”
“I could have enemies.”
“Do you, though?”
“Well, I’ll eat it if you won’t—”
Lucas moved the cookie away from her outstretched hand. “What if it’s a secret admirer?”
“That’s a bit more likely,” Ann conceded, looking disappointed. “Here in the office?”
He looked around again. It wasn’t that there weren’t suitable candidates among his colleagues, but none had ever shown any interest in him. He gave Ann a side glance. “It wasn’t you, was it?”
She rolled her eyes. “I like you, Lucas, but I do have a boyfriend.”
“Hey, just checking.” He swiveled the cookie on its doily. “We get any new people in?”
Ann shook her head.
After a pause, Lucas picked up the cookie carefully and examined it on all sides. It seemed like a normal cookie. He gave it a cautious sniff. It smelled normal. He broke it in half to look at the center. Normal. And a little gooey from the chocolate chips melting in his hand.
He glanced at Ann, who was staring at him eagerly. “Do it, do it, do it,” she chanted quietly.
He turned the pieces over in his hands, then slowly took a tiny bite. Ann looked alarmed when he winced, but it was a false reaction. It tasted just fine. Amazing, almost.
“Doesn’t seem to have anything in it,” Lucas said, swallowing. He took a larger bite.
“Except sugar and fat and chocolate,” Ann said with a relieved smile.
He finished off one half and paused to reevaluate. It didn’t taste bad per se, but there was a peculiar something that didn’t seem to quite belong. Not excess amounts of a foreign spice or a frightening bitterness, just . . . a something.
“I think it’s gluten-free,” Lucas muttered, turning the other half around as if he could actually see the lack of white flour.
“Why, does it taste funny?”
“Maybe it’s got Splenda instead of sugar.” Ann grimaced. “I hate Splenda.”
Since his mouth wasn’t burning, disintegrating, or otherwise sabotaged, Lucas ate the rest of the cookie. He placed his hands over his stomach, waiting for . . . whatever was supposed to happen.
When no ominous gurglings or explosions occurred, Ann leaned back into her cubicle. “Guess you’re just a lucky guy. Hey, maybe it’s little elves who have a crush on you.” She winked and disappeared behind the wall.
“Ha ha,” Lucas said, loud enough for her to hear, then moved his briefcase aside to sit on his own chair.
He sat there for a few moments, testing his innards as best he could. Then his phone beeped, signifying a new email, and he remembered how much work he had to do. He tossed the empty doily in the trash, swept a few crumbs off the desk, and put his laptop in place, thinking that if he was gonna be sick, it served him right for eating strange food.
Lucas was slightly tense the rest of the day, but as hours passed and still nothing happened, he began to think it must’ve been a treat meant for someone else, but had been put on the wrong desk. He decided to appreciate the mystery gift for what it was, and he was cheerful when he left for home.
When he came into work the next day, he was surprised to find another cookie there.
Ann was leaning over the cubicle wall, waiting for him.
“This one has sprinkles on it,” she said, sounding a little awed.
Lucas set down his things and picked up the cookie to examine it. Like yesterday’s, it was big, perfectly round, and delicious-looking. He split it in half to check the inside, then took a bite. Again, it had wonderful flavor that was mildly tainted by an odd taste.
“You didn’t get sick at all from the other one?” Ann watched him with a suspicious look on her face.
“Nope,” Lucas mumbled, mouth full of cookie.
Lucas shook his head, swallowing. “I think you’re right, it’s got Splenda or some sort of sweetener in it. Not as sugary as it looks.”
She shrugged and went back to her desk.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next day, there was yet another cookie on Lucas’s desk, peanut butter this time.
“Someone must really, really like you,” Ann said, now seeming a little jealous.
Lucas ate that one with only the slightest hesitation, figuring that if this was some sort of long con, he might as well enjoy the lead-up.
* * * * * * * * * *
Two days and two cookies later (red velvet and macadamia nut), it was the weekend, and he thought that would be the end of it. He missed his nine a.m. sugar burst (or rather, Splenda burst), but otherwise felt fine and enjoyed his two days off.
On Monday morning, a fudge cookie was on his desk with a fresh paper doily and still no note.
“This is getting a little ridiculous,” Ann remarked when she saw it. “There’s no way they can keep this up forever. They’ll run out of cookie flavors!”
Despite this proclamation, chocolate chip didn’t reappear until three weeks after it had shown up on the first day.
“Well, I was right,” she pointed out, but without pleasure. “You still haven’t figured out who’s been leaving them all this time?”
“Nope,” Lucas said, wiping crumbs off his face. “I’ve just been thinking that someone else has the secret admirer, and they’ve got the wrong desk.”
“And you’ve been eating their gifts? That’s kinda messed up.”
“These cookies are delicious, Ann.”
“Yeah, thanks for sharing.” She looked around his desk. “I guess you don’t have any pictures or anything to show that this cubicle is yours. Maybe put up a name plate or something and see if the cookie still shows up?”
Lucas reluctantly agreed. He really liked the special morning treats, but if they were truly meant for someone else, then it wasn’t fair for him to keep getting them. He scrawled out a note on legal paper that said, “THIS IS THE DESK OF LUCAS RODRIGUEZ.” Then to make it less suspicious, he added, “PLEASE STOP STEALING MY PENS. THANK YOU” and taped it on the wall opposite the cubicle opening.
He admitted to being slightly relieved when he came in the next day to find a cookie on his desk as usual, a sprinkly Snickerdoodle.
“I guess the admirer is yours,” Ann admitted, her brow furrowed.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Lucas said dryly. He ate his cookie in one bite.
* * * * * * * * * *
After two months of cookies, Ann asked if he had checked the surveillance tapes to see if any cameras had captured the mysterious gift-leaver.
Lucas hadn’t, because he felt like it was too easy and also a little invasive. Clearly, this person, whoever they were, wanted to stay in the shadows, or at least didn’t seem interested in Lucas beyond leaving him cookies. And he had told his mom and sister about the situation, subtly digging for clues that either was the instigator, but both had merely told him off for eating food left by a stranger. In any case, the mystery continued, and as long as the cookies remained delicious, Lucas found that he didn’t really care. He had even stopped noticing the funny taste.
* * * * * * * * * *
By month four, Ann had ceased to wonder about the mysterious cookies, and Lucas had accepted them as a permanent staple in his life. The only thing that amazed him was how varied they consistently were, as there was always a new twist or flavor or color. He never shared them with anybody, though he couldn’t’ve said why.
* * * * * * * * * *
One morning, after about six months of cookies had gone by, Lucas arrived at work to find his desk totally cookie-free. No Snickerdoodle or sprinkle surprise or chocolaty fudge on a crisp clean paper doily. It was startling how upsetting its absence was; he had never realized how much he had grown to depend on one always being there, waiting for him.
What was on the desk was a box. And, for the first time, a note.
Lucas stared at the two objects without touching either and then leaned over the cubicle wall to ask Ann what she thought of the situation. But she wasn’t there. He was completely thrown for a few seconds (she had never been late in all the time he’d worked there) until he belatedly remembered it was drug testing today. Everyone in the office had report in and provide blood and urine samples to make sure they were all “clean” or whatever. No one liked the practice, least of all the finance department, who had to juggle the budget to pay for an insurance-approved medical collection service to come in every year. Others considered it an invasion of privacy and hotly contested it whenever company polls went around. Still, the testing was an annual requirement, and most people, including Lucas, didn’t want to risk their jobs and so went through with it without complaint. Ann liked to get it out of the way as soon as possible, hence why she wasn’t at her cubicle, but likely at the donation area in one of the conference rooms.
He turned back to his desk to examine the note and box more closely. It was a medium-sized box, made of thin cardboard, and black and matte and void of any distinguishing symbols or even fingerprint marks. The note was folded in half and taped with a small, round, black sticker. After looking around to make sure he was relatively alone, he sat down and carefully opened the note. Its words were typed on plain computer paper and in regular Calibri font.
“PLEASE USE THESE FOR THE TESTING. YOU WILL NOT PASS OTHERWISE. MORE INFORMATION WILL BE PROVIDED TONIGHT.”
Lucas reread this several times before shakily replacing it on the desk. He had no doubt this was from the mysterious cookie person, and how they had known it was drug testing today was incredibly ominous. And use what? He turned to the box. Trying to control the trembling in his hands, he popped off the piece of tape holding the lid closed and opened it.
Peering inside, he saw a vial filled with a deep red liquid and a small jar filled with golden liquid and nothing else. It wasn’t exactly what he had been expecting, and it was a moment before Lucas wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and reached in for the vial. The red stuff inside was thick and viscous, rather like . . . blood. Slipping from his shocked fingers and onto the desk, the glass vial tinkled against the wooden surface, luckily without breaking. Now breathing rather hard, he pulled out the yellow jar and nearly dropped that too when he realized it was full of urine.
Lucas put both items back in the box—after glancing around nervously—and read the note again. Then he sat back in his chair to think. Clearly, he was supposed to somehow switch out his real samples for these ones when he went in for his testing today, but he couldn’t even begin to imagine why. He didn’t take drugs, never had, so why wouldn’t he pass? He felt like he had just crossed into some terrible thriller movie and regretted not trying harder to figure out who his secret “admirer” was. It was too late now to check the surveillance tapes, and he was going to have to go in for the testing sometime before he left today. Should he tell someone? Ann? Security? Call the police? Would they be able to do anything? What if he got in trouble somehow instead?
He put his head in his hands, trying to control his thoughts. Only a few viable options presented themselves. One, he could say he was sick and ask to go home, but that would look suspicious to the company and he didn’t exact trust the note-leaver to be entirely benevolent about that, either. Two, he could ignore the note entirely and do the testing as normal. That also had the risk of upsetting whoever had left the fake samples, and if they were right and he failed, he would lose his job. Three, he could do what it said, somehow switch out his blood and urine without getting caught, and hope that the whole situation was just someone trying to help him out. Maybe he had been drugged without noticing it?
“This is ridiculous,” Lucas muttered. He rubbed his temples and then looked at the box.
He kept glancing at it the rest of the morning, as he tried unsuccessfully to focus on doing work. When Ann came back, he stuffed it under his desk, but could still sense its presence. He was also very jumpy and distracted, and leapt nearly a foot in the air when Ann asked to borrow his stapler.
“Are you alright?” She looked faintly alarmed.
“Y-yes,” he said, trying to control his wildly beating heart. He handed her the stapler quickly so she wouldn’t see how shaky his hands were. “Just . . . nervous about the testing.” It wasn’t entirely a lie.
The worry in her face faded. “Oh, don’t like needles, huh?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“It’s okay, they do it pretty fast and it’s over in a minute. They just want a sample, not a whole pint.” Ann gave him a reassuring smile. “As for the pee test, just start drinking a whole lot of water.”
Lucas gave her a small smile in return, which instantly disappeared when she went back to her desk. So he would only have a short window of opportunity to switch out the vials, which meant doing it quickly and surreptitiously.
He realized he had subconsciously already decided to obey the note, which was slightly worrying (what did that say about his personal willpower?), but before he could dissect the thought further, an announcement came over the intercoms.
“Last call for drug tests,” came a tired voice. “Please report to the donation area in Conference Room 3 in the next ten minutes.”
It clicked off, and there was a rustling as other procrastinators around Lucas organized their work before trooping off to the elevators. He waited until the last person had passed by his cubicle, then pulled out the box. It chimed faintly as the glass beakers clinked against each other. Casting a look around for anyone watching, he took out the blood vial and stuffed in his right pants pocket. He did the same with the urine jar, putting it in his left pocket.
Rather feeling like he was smuggling bombs in an airport, Lucas carefully undid the empty box and slid the flat piece of cardboard into his briefcase, along with the note, which was now crumpled from reading it so much.
He waved goodbye to Ann and then walked over to the elevator. As he waited, he thought about how he was going to pull this off. The urine presented little issue, as he would be alone in the restroom. The blood was infinitely more difficult, as the assistant would be right there, holding the tubing that drained his vein.
The elevator came and he went up without having resolved anything, and then he was entering Conference Room 3, and he couldn’t think to plan at all. One of the white-coated assistants greeted him when he came in, ushering him kindly to a chair near an apparatus Lucas recognized as being used for blood donation.
“Which arm would you prefer?” the assistant asked, pulling on fresh latex gloves.
“The left,” Lucas said after a second’s hesitation of remembering which pocket the vial was in.
The assistant nodded and rolled up Lucas’s sleeve to clean his arm. She had a surgical mask on that covered most her face, but he could tell she was smiling at him. “Nervous?”
“A little,” he said, eyeing the syringe she was prepping.
“Don’t worry, we’re only taking one little tube of blood, you won’t even notice it’s gone.” She flicked his skin with a finger to get his vein to stand out better, and then with an efficient, practiced motion, stuck the needle in. The little bottle connected to the end of the tube began to fill up with the scarlet liquid.
Lucas knew he had mere seconds to make the switch, and without thinking, he said, a little too loudly, “Say, does he need help?” He pointed across the room to one of his coworkers, who actually did appear quite pale.
The assistant turned to look, and Lucas frantically pinched the blood tube awkwardly with his left hand to stop the flow of blood, and with his right, twisted out the nearly full vial, which, though uncapped, he slid into his breast pocket, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t spill. He then reached into his right pocket with his right hand, pulled out the fake bottle, and yanked off its cap, which he also stuffed in his shirt pocket.
Miraculously, the assistant noticed none of this and actually moved forward to help the other man, but another assistant came instead. She turned back to Lucas, who was still pinching the tubing and holding the alternative blood vial.
“I-it looked like it was going to overflow,” he stammered, holding it out to her.
She took it with a slight brow furrow. “Oh! Well, you shouldn’t have done that, it wouldn’t have overflowed.” She capped it, then examined the tubing. “You could’ve hurt yourself, sir.”
“I’m so sorry, I just thought—I got nervous, I guess.”
She made a noncommittal noise and carefully pulled out the needle. Wiping his arm clean, she gave him a cotton ball to hold on the wound while she put the vial away and opened a Band-Aid for him.
Once Lucas was bandaged and free of tubes, the assistant gave him an empty plastic cup with a lid and directed him to the restroom at the far end. “Take your time and try to fill it up as much as you can.”
His instinct was to run and get away from her and the trick vial as fast as possible, but he managed to control himself until he was in the men’s room, a single facility with one toilet, a urinal, and a sink. He bolted the door with a satisfying clunk and nearly sank onto the floor with relief, but then remembered where he was, and leaned against the wall instead.
He couldn’t believe he’d actually pulled the switch off, and almost laughed aloud from pure nerves. The fact that he could still get caught sobered him quickly, and after putting the empty urine cup on the edge of the urinal, he carefully pulled out the real blood vial from his breast pocket. It fortunately hadn’t spilled, and after a moment’s thought, he poured its contents into the toilet, watching the clear water turn deep red. He flushed twice, then rinsed out the bottle in the sink before putting it in his right pocket. From his left, he pulled out the urine jar and then froze.
Unlike the blood vials, which had been virtually identical, the one he held was glass and free of markings, while the provided jar was plastic and had the company’s logo on it.
Lucas thought he might faint for the first time in his life until he realized the most obvious solution and poured the contents of the fake jar into the plastic cup and secured it tightly. Laughing softly at himself for panicking, he rinsed that jar out before returning it to his pocket, trying not to think about the person who had used it last. Then he used the urinal himself, and feeling relieved in more ways than one, exited the restroom with the now-full plastic cup. He handed it to the assistant, who gave him a masked smile.
“Thank you. The results will go through the company, who will then relay to you any troubling findings.”
She turned away in a clear gesture of dismissal, though Lucas stood there for a few awkward seconds, waiting for something else to happen. When nothing did, he slowly left for the elevators. Every step, he expected a burly security guard to burst from the conference room and chase after him for falsifying his samples. Or for alarms to start sounding everywhere and him getting tackled by a SWAT team. Or for the CEO to be in the elevator when it opened to tell him that he was fired. Or even just the assistant coming to tell him that he had to do the tests again.
But Lucas returned to his desk without incident. He slumped onto his chair, feeling rather numb.
Ann popped up over the wall. “How did it go? Did you survive?”
“Yeah,” he said in a stunned voice. “It went fine.”
She beamed at him. “I told you it was no big deal.”
The rest of the day flew by, though Lucas got less work done than he had in the morning. He had pulled off the impossible, but he knew it wasn’t over. “MORE INFORMATION WILL BE PROVIDED TONIGHT,” the note said, and he had no idea what to expect next. The “tonight” part was what he found most worrying, as it suggested somewhere not at work, which ended at five. Did this person know where he lived?
The thought consumed him all afternoon, and when the announcement came, signalling the end of the workday, he was still distracted by the issue, only mechanically organizing his work and gathering his things. He vaguely said goodbye to Ann and his other coworker friends, and nearly missed the elevator going down to the parking garage.
It was cool and dark there, and Lucas felt his head clearing a little as he walked to his car. Maybe this was all an elaborate prank, like he had thought from the very beginning, getting him to do all these ridiculous things for a laugh. Or maybe it was some sort of test from corporate, to see if he was loyal to the company or not. Maybe he was just losing his mind and imagined the whole fake samples thing. Maybe—
There was someone standing by Lucas’s car. It was a tall man wearing a pristine black suit with white shirt and black tie, shiny shoes, dark glasses, and some sort of device in his left ear. He looked rather like a member of the Secret Service.
Lucas stopped walking.
“Mr. Rodriguez?” the man asked again in a deep, commanding voice. He came forward to stand in front of Lucas, who took an involuntary step backward.
“Y-yes?” he said, clutching his briefcase reflexively.
The man looked him up and down, then reached into the inside of his suit. Lucas took another frantic step backward, feeling very vulnerable. There was no one else in the garage, he realized wildly.
Instead of the gun he’d been expecting, the man pulled out a slim pastry envelope. He held it out to Lucas. “Cookie?”
Lucas stared at him. “What?”
“Do you want your cookie? It’s flutternutter.”
“. . . You’re the one who’s been leaving me the cookies every day?” Lucas asked, trying to get a grasp on some tangible element of this absurd situation. “You left the note?” He almost let out a hysterical laugh. “It’s not quite ‘tonight,’ you know.”
The man slipped the envelope back into his pocket. “Yes, there was less traffic than normal.”
That wasn’t at all the reaction Lucas had been expecting, and he just gaped at the man.
“You switched the testing samples, correct?” the man asked, unperturbed by Lucas’s lack of response.
“I—well, yes, but—how did you know about—? I mean—” Lucas shook his head hard. “Wait, wait, who are you? Why did you leave me cookies? Why did you give me those vials? Why are you here? What do you want from me?”
The man smiled, which was somehow reassuring despite his intimidating appearance. “You’re pretty smart. You ask questions first. Very good.”
Lucas couldn’t say anything to that.
The man continued, “I’m from a faction of Homeland Security for the US government.” From a different pocket, he pulled out a badge enclosed in leather and let Lucas examine it. The man’s name was apparently Abraham Pangcog. “We deal with biological hazards, chemical warfare and the like, within the country’s borders.”
The badge seemed legitimate, but the circumstances didn’t. “Why are you talking to me here, in my work parking garage?” Lucas asked, returning the badge. “Shouldn’t this be all more official, like I get summoned to your office or something?”
Abraham Pangcog’s smile broadened. “Truly excellent. Forgive my amusement, it’s not at you. Normally, doubt is suspicious in my line of work, but it’s reassuring to meet someone not so gullible as to trust a stranger like me.” His face darkened a little. “Many good citizens have been deceived by criminals in such a way.”
“I did obey the note,” Lucas pointed out. “And eat the cookies.”
Mr. Pangcog made a conceding gesture. “Let’s just say you have a good balance of trust and wariness. In any case, you’re here now. We need your assistance, Mr. Rodriguez.”
“Homeland Security wants my help? I’m not sure how my family would feel about that,” Lucas said, only half-joking. He felt somewhat at ease now and put down his briefcase to relieve his arm.
“Yes, I know your parents had problems in acquiring their citizenship papers. Not my division, but I do offer my apologies. My own family had similar roadblocks.” Mr. Pangcog shook his head. “It’s an issue I had hoped to resolve in my work in the government.”
“Had hoped?” Lucas questioned.
Mr. Pangcog gave him a searching look. “You realize that by talking to me, you’ve already entered a verbal contract not to disclose anything you see or hear, correct?”
“Uh . . .”
“And should you decide to no longer associate yourself with this project, you open yourself up for scrutiny and observation from Homeland Security to ensure your silence.”
“Furthermore, your compliance with us to this point with the ingestion of the formula and undermining corporate drug testing is a crime under the law and thus your cooperation is not only for our benefit, but yours, as well.”
“We’ll provide a more detailed contract you’ll have to sign later, but that’s the basics of it,” Mr. Pangcog said, giving no sign he heard any of Lucas’s protests. “I mean, you’ve already come this far, so—”
“What are you talking about?” Lucas interrupted, feeling blindsided. “I didn’t comply with anything, I just ate those stupid cookies!”
Reaching into his suit once more, Mr. Pangcog took out the pastry envelope that contained one of said cookies. “These are not your grandmother’s cookies, Mr. Rodriguez. These contain a highly complex formula designed to protect you from the effects of equally complex poison. They’re an antidote, if you will.” He peered in the bag thoughtfully before putting it back.
Lucas returned to being frightened and confused. “A-an antidote? To what?”
Mr. Pangcog looked more serious than Lucas had seen thus far. “Mr. Rodriguez, everyone knows the government is full of secrets. Things that never reach other divisions in the same department, let alone the public sphere. It is our duty at Homeland Security to protect American citizens—even from the government itself.”
He took off his dark glasses, and Lucas could see what seemed to be genuine concern in the man’s eyes.
“There is a . . . medication of sorts being spread among select members of the population. The entire formula hasn’t entirely been worked out yet, but it seems to be designed to brainwash people.”
“B-brainwash—like in a sci-fi movie?” Lucas asked, trying to bring the conversation into a realm he understood.
Mr. Pangcog nodded. “In a way. We don’t know how or why these people are chosen, but the medicine is introduced into their tap water, likely somewhere in the piping of their house.”
Lucas began to regret that he ever stopped buying bottled water.
“It’s a project with a long term goal, which we haven’t figured out, either.” Mr. Pangcog spread his hands apologetically. “You’ll have to forgive our ignorance, we’ll only recently learned about this transgression.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Lucas asked, hoping to fight his growing terror with more information.
“My team. The ones who discovered the anomaly and want to combat it. I’ll provide you with more information in more confidential setting later. We’re not exactly working openly.”
Lucas took a few controlling deep breaths. “Let me see if I get this. There’s a brainwashing chemical in people’s drinking water—”
“Only a few people. A couple hundred in the whole country.”
“Right, okay. But you don’t know why these people are chosen or what the chemical does?”
“I’m afraid not. Merely that it instigates a reaction in the brain, making the person susceptible to obeying any command. Basically, whoever’s in control can order these people to do whatever they want them to do without any resistance.”
“But you’re working on fixing it, right?”
Mr. Pangcog didn’t answer beyond putting his glasses back on. Lucas felt frantic.
“What about the cookies, then? What are those?”
“As I said, they contain the antidote. It combats the effect of the medication by restoring the brain’s natural chemical levels, rendering it useless. There was a tiny amount in each cookie, provided semi-daily to negate what was consumed from drinking water. For some reason, the antidote is the least noticeable in baked form, specifically cookies, though a trace flavor remains.”
“And here I thought they were just sugar-free,” Lucas said in wonderment.
To his surprise, Mr. Pangcog let out a great guffaw. “Tastes like Splenda, right? That’s what we thought, too.” He shuddered. “I hate Splenda.”
“So does Ann,” Lucas said absently. Then he gave a start. “Ann! What about her? Is she being brainwashed, too? Why didn’t she get any cookies?”
Mr. Pangcog put up a reassuring hand. “Calm yourself, Mr. Rodriguez. Miss Kelsey nor any other of your coworkers are victims.”
“But I was, right? Or am?” Lucas’s knees felt weak, and he wished he could sit down somewhere. “Why me? I’m nobody. And I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way,” he clarified. “But I don’t know anybody in the government or protest politicians or anything. Heck, I barely remember to vote.”
“It seems to be a very precise selection,” Mr. Pangcog said. “Out of all those we’ve managed to identify, there is the most correlation in regards to water consumption, whether you drink from the tap or buy bottles; age, which is mostly young twenty-somethings with no health issues; and lack of family, either parental or spousal.”
“So I was going to be brainwashed and the cookies saved me? I almost threw them away! Why didn’t anyone just come right out and tell me?”
Mr. Pangcog frowned. “It wasn’t as simple as that. You must understand that we’re working in complete secrecy against people in our own department. I don’t believe this goes as far as the President or her team, but there is an organized official faction carrying out this terrible deed, and to openly protest is tantamount to treachery.”
Lucas’s knees did give out then, and he used his briefcase as a makeshift stool. “This is . . . a lot to take in.”
The expression on Mr. Pangcog’s face softened. “Yes, I realize that. It might have been better to take you into the office to explain this more succinctly, but I thought you would appreciate being on familiar territory.”
This was true, though Lucas noticed that the man was between him and his car, and if he did decide to run, he doubted he would get very far.
“What about the blood and urine samples?” Lucas asked after a moment of silence. “I haven’t taken any of the drugs they test for.”
Lucas looked up at Mr. Pangcog, who continued, “Whoever is in charge of this brainwashing operation knows you are part of their project and should currently have levels of their chemical in your body. But you’ve been consuming the antidote provided by my team. When your tests were processed, they would be able to see—”
“That there isn’t any of that stuff in my blood,” Lucas finished slowly. “So the samples you gave me. . . ”
“Contained the chemical, yes. We used donations provided by a member of our team with your gender, height, weight, blood type, and other similar characteristics and added in the appropriate amount of the medication from a supply we confiscated.”
“The cookies have been working, then? How many other people are doing this? Eating antidote cookies, I mean.”
Mr. Pangcog looked grave. “You’re the first person we’ve managed to reach in time. Everyone else had been consuming the chemical for far too long for the antidote to be of any effect. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Rodriguez.”
Lucas didn’t feel lucky. He felt exhausted, sick, and used. “So I’m part of your little project now, is that right? I don’t get a choice in the matter?”
“You made your choice the instant you ate that chocolate chip cookie, Mr. Rodriguez,” Mr. Pangcog said sharply.
“I did think it was a gift from someone. You know, a normal thing to assume,” Lucas said, fighting to keep his tone light.
“Understandable,” Mr. Pangcog said, stepping closer. “Regardless, that was merely a matter of protection. You truly became involved when you switched those samples. I’m sure you were fully aware of the consequences then.”
Lucas couldn’t argue with that, no matter how much he wanted to do. He could’ve taken the test anyway, called the authorities, and risked losing his job—but he hadn’t. Now here he was: being blackmailed by a man who had simultaneously saved and ruined his life.
“What happens to me now?” Lucas asked quietly, staring at the cement floor.
“You can go home. Forget all this happened. We’ll be watching you to ensure you don’t tip off the enemy, of course, but we’ll otherwise leave you alone. No more cookies, but I’m sure you’ll be buying water bottles from now on.” Mr. Pangcog’s tone suggested he was being snarky, but when Lucas glanced at him, he seemed sad.
“Or,” he went on, “You can join my team. Help us fight against whoever’s doing this and put a stop to it. It might be dangerous, I admit, but . . . You could help save people’s lives.”
Lucas didn’t know what to think or how to feel. Whatever he decided, his life was never going to be the same.
Mr. Pangcog stretched out a hand. “So, Mr. Rodriguez—
“Would you like to join the Resistance?”
I swear I thought this was going to be a short story—really! I don’t know what happened, it totally got away from me, but it was kinda fun, so I guess that’s a good thing. And it started off as such a simple idea, too! But then, I suppose those are really the best kind to foster creativity. In any case, hope you enjoyed it!
Want to do the challenge yourself? Today’s prompt is: “One day, you come into work and find a cookie mysteriously placed on your desk. Grateful to whoever left this anonymous cookie, you eat it. The next morning, you come in and find another cookie. This continues for months until one day, a different object is left—and this time, there’s a note.”