Stratus Fear

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Chapter Eleven

Now with my thoughts still in full gear, I almost missed the Medical Center stop; but managed to exit the tram car just before the doors closed again and took me on to parts unknown. Once on the ground, I took the glideway up to the hospital entrance, a low, block structure of pale yellow attached to a ten-story building with mirrored windows that presumably housed patients, operating rooms, and all that good stuff. So far in my brief lifetime, I hadn’t the need to avail myself of hospital services, or even had the occasion to visit someone who had. Therefore my expectations remained on hold.

Entering the lobby proper, I passed through one of the laser detectors, but it, along with two others, seemed to be out of order. I went further into the lobby area and contacted Libby Farah for further instructions. She told me to come to the third floor and turn left. The hall would lead me to a waiting area outside of the ISU, whatever that was. I didn’t press her for details since she would relay such when I arrived.

As I passed by the front information desk, two drones, one male the other female, glanced up but barely registered my presence. So much for security around here. Arriving at the designated floor, I made a left turn I found the sergeant exactly where she told me she’d be, standing straight and tall and looking very officious with her comlink in hand. As soon as she spotted me, Libby offered a small nod of polite acknowledgement, the only salute I’d ever receive from a colleague. And she didn’t waste time on superfluous information, but plunged into her story when I asked for a briefing.

“I have a person here,” she began and turned to face a pair of metal doors ahead of us, “who came in last night. He’s a male, Caucasian by the name of Buckley Grover, but his age is still unknown.”

Frowning, I walked beside her as she started for the doors. “What do you mean?”

“The man was admitted last night for observation. His wife swore that when she left Mr. Grover to go to work, he looked normal, a man of thirty years old, weight a hundred and seventy, and height six-two. But when she returned from work at eleven, she found her husband had aged considerably.”

After the doors swished open with the press of a wall display, we headed for the area designated as the Iso-Submersion Unit, hence the ISU. At the admitting desk, two medics all in white glanced up but said nothing as we walked on by and turned to continue down a hallway. The sergeant finally paused at a large viewing window.

I joined her and made a frank appraisal of the scene I witnessed behind the window. Suspended in midair a long glass and metal tube took up half of the stark room. Inside the cocoon-like structure, a person laid prone, an old man by the looks of him, naked except for a mesh band across his middle. I turned to Libby and frowned. “You say, this Mr. Grover started out as a thirty-year-old and somehow turned into an old man overnight.”

“Yes, and he continues to age. A pack of specialists have already examined him but they can’t form a logical diagnosis. So, they called us to see if we could do anything.”

I couldn’t imagine what we could offer over and above what the medical specialists had already done, but I stuck to the routine. “Are you sure the wife made a positive identification? She swears this man is her husband?”

The sergeant nodded. “Married eight years, yes. She made sure to verify that the man she knows as Buckley Grover is indeed him, her husband, the man you see lying there in the tube. When she returned from work, she found him in bed, where he had gone to rest earlier when he didn’t feel well. She called the paramedics then.”

“Where do they live?”

Libby consulted her digital pad where she had jotted her notes. “The Sunset Inn. That’s a motel over by the Strip. The couple has two children, a boy seven and a girl five.”

I kept staring at the old man, or young man as the case may be. A series of IV lines ran to arms, his temples and chest dotted with those little white discs that monitor vital signs. His skin looked like rippled parchment and thin enough to see the veins beneath, his torso now wizened and shrunk. How could this be? How could a supposedly normal, healthy man suddenly turn into…what? A septuagenarian? An octogenarian?

“You said he continues to age. The doctors know this for a fact?”

“Oh, yes. They took all the necessary vitals and measures and continue to monitor Mr. Grover’s aging process. He started off at almost eighty years. The internist, the osteologist, the cardiologist and the gerontologist estimate he’s now roughly ninety-five and still aging. His proposed life expectancy based on his rapid degeneration is still anyone’s guess at this point.”

“Well, I suppose he’ll stop aging when the rest of him stops for good, whenever that is.” Incredible, amazing, bizarre… “And what about the wife?” I asked when I ran out of superlatives to describe the situation. “Is she here?”

“Yes, let me take you to her.” Doing an about-face, Libby followed the same path we had taken earlier. With nothing better to do, I simply tagged along. Back at the lobby area she skirted around the admitting desk and continued until we came to a private waiting room done up in soothing blues and greens. I couldn’t help but notice the statuesque woman who stood staring at the blank wall where a video image had run earlier. The platform heels made her taller still, her legs beneath the leatherette mini dress long and muscled, and her dark hair cascaded down her back from its point of gathering at the top of her head. When Libby called softly to her, Mrs. Grover turned around and looked at us with a vacant stare beneath the heavily shadowed eyelids, the same glitzy azure blue color that highlighted her long and pointed fingernails.

“Mrs. Grover, this is Detective Parrish.”

“It’s Simbi Grover,” the woman stated flatly as she registered my presence. “What’s going on? Do you know something about my husband? Any of you?” For a moment her eyes widened, her gaze animated and focused on the sergeant, her voice pitched in an octave that offered both a hopeful and a dismissive air.

“Sorry,” the sergeant murmured. “Not yet.”

“I know you’ve told the sergeant here what happened,” I began, “but I’d like to hear your story. Can we talk?”

As I spoke, I reached out a placating hand and touched the woman’s bare arm in the hope of guiding her towards the seating arrangements. Simbi Grover merely nodded but chose not to accompany me to one of the empty sculptured chairs. She continued to stand, although relaxed enough to slump against the wall.

“What do you want to know?” she asked simply.

“Well, just start from the beginning,” I urged and with, I hoped, a look of encouragement.

Simbi recited her tale from the time she noticed her husband, Bucky, had started to feel ill and on to when she discovered him as he was now when she returned home. “You see,” she added, “with Bucky not feeling good, I was going to take the kids over to my friend’s place to spend the night, but I found her—well, not there. That got me upset, too, and it’s been one horrible thing after another.”

A few tears appeared on her lower lashes, and with the heavy silver liner along the rims they twinkled like diamond beads. She sighed. “I don’t know what the fuck to think anymore. I can’t believe Bucky is like…is like some kind of horrible old man.”

“I totally understand, Simbi. That’s why I want to help you, but that also means you have to help me.”

As she nodded her jet ponytail jiggled behind her. “Sure, whatever. I just want Bucky back the way he was. He might not be the best husband in the world, but he’s all me and the kids got.”

“Especially now since we finally got some money. Bucky tries, he really does, but this one job really helped us out.”

“What was that, Simbi?”

She blinked. “I’m not really sure but a man gave Bucky some money to complete a job up on Terre Celeste.”

“Did he offer any details as to where or with whom?”

“Not really, only that he went to some big apartment building to do a service job.”

“By himself, or with a crew?”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure about that. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know at this point. How much was he guaranteed?”

She gave me a blank stare for a moment. “Oh, you mean how much did Bucky make on the job? Well, let’s see…” Her abrupt pause led me to believe she didn’t want to reveal the exact amount, and I didn’t press. “He made enough,” she quickly amended with a clipped tone.

I continued to offer my supportive smile, the one that says, “I hear you and I’m with you all the way,” although my mind had kicked into high gear as soon as Simbi mentioned her husband’s lucrative job offer on Terre Celeste.

Now Simbi eased into the nearest chair, and I could tell by her flagging body movements and sagging facial muscles that her worries and lack of sleep since her husband’s hospitalization had finally led to complete exhaustion. With that in mind, I decided any further questioning could wait until tomorrow. Finished, I asked for her phone number, and when she provided it I programmed my information into her smart link.

“Please call me,” I reassured her, “if anything changes, if you remember anything else, or if you just need someone to talk to. I’m available, and so is Sergeant Farah here.” Libby had been standing very patiently near the waiting room entrance. Now I rose and went to join her. Simbi Grover remained seated and seemingly fading fast, right into the microfiber cushions.

Yet before I left, I asked one more question. “By the way, Simbi, where are your children this evening?” I didn’t mean to pry, but it always helps to cut off some of those loose ends.

The dancer tried to blink, but those thick lashes and heavily shadowed lids seemed to weigh her down as much as her exhaustion. “I took them to my cousin’s house in El Monte.”

“Good. Now you should go home and get some rest. I’m sure someone here at the hospital will contact you if your husband’s condition changes.”

“All right, but can someone give me a ride to the motel?”

I glanced at my colleague. After all this was her baby. “Sure. The sergeant will be happy to oblige.”

I’m sure one of these days, Libby will give back what I’ve piled on her; but until that day comes, I planned to make sure she had enough variance in her work load to highlight and enhance the reason she wanted to go into law enforcement in the first place. In fact, I murmured a couple of suggestions, actually questions I hoped the sergeant would put casually to Simbi Grover on the way to the motel. As she listened, Libby simply nodded, our agreement seemingly sealed by a copacetic meeting of the minds. Yet, as I started off ahead of the two women, I swore I felt Libby throw those proverbial “dagger eyes” at the back of my head. So much for mentoring young and eager recruits.

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