Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twenty-one

It just would have been nice if someone had called me earlier to let me know that Buckley Grover had died early this morning. But, at least, I received a call from Captain Bender informing me of our potential suspect’s passing. Sure I could accept this information with a modicum of credibility; but it’s the way Buckley Grover died that had me and everyone else stumped beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the captain, Grover had literally exploded and melted at the same time; which, of course, left the attending physicians extremely baffled. Only an autopsy, a very detailed autopsy of what was left of Buckley, could explain this strange phenomenon. But even the strange way Buckley passed on wouldn’t deter me from my mission to find Gavin McAllister’s killer, be he alive or dead. The captain gave me the go ahead to continue my investigation, but I did ask him to have Libby Farah search the Grover residence and see if she could come up with a blue canvas gym bag. If my theory proved correct Buckley had stashed his disguise in the bag and hadn’t bothered to get rid of his props.

Thus, with Bender’s assurance that he would get the sergeant right on it, I pulled into the parking garage of Alpha Village, my last stop before I headed down south. Alpha Village had been dubbed the retirement center of the stars, a luxury residence for those fortunate few who had beat the odds and lived beyond their sixties, whether the lucky person had been a star or not. The resident I came to see had worked with my father back at the space laboratories when the government had sanctioned the development of suspended animation, or SA, for long space flights as well as warp speed synthesis with Mach speeds up to seven light years. The last manned flight to Mars had used both sustained animation and hyper space flight, and by next year another international team planned to arrive on Uranus with travel time cut down considerably from the original ten years it would take to get there.

My father still worked on the project; but the man who had headed the initial research and development phase of SA, Dr. Kozimir Fediyoskin, had recently retired and took an apartment here at Alpha Village. Earlier, after I left the de la Vega residence, I called him on the off chance he’d be home and want to see me. Lo and behold, Koz promised to help me out in exchange for a takeout lunch of real pastrami sandwiches. Now I came now bearing a fragrant bag of said sandwiches along with sides of potato salad, pineapple slaw and garlic pickles, all bought at the upscale delicatessen Koz had suggested.

The upscale cost of the meal, a hefty fifty-eight bucks, would be processed through my departmental expense account at some time in the future, but at the moment I didn’t mind shelling out the money when I knew I had a wonderful treat in store for my taste buds. Of course, if I didn’t watch it, I would be in danger of becoming too used to fine dining, what with the steaks the other night, and the full-course restaurant meal Dane and I had last night. To justify my gourmet consumption, I chalked it all up to the hazards of the job, a necessary evil to which I would subject myself in the name of law and order.

I used to call the man Koz, and I still will if he wants me to. During my formative years, he was simply Koz to me, not the emanate scientist who had won the Nobel Prize for his work on sustained particle travel. Koz and his family had emigrated from Belorussia many years ago, hence his name, although he told me once he had no memories of the old country. Instead, he felt, talked and acted a hundred percent American, and our country is lucky to have him.

A few years older than my dad, Koz sported a generous but slightly messy crop of salt and pepper hair and a matching goatee. The facial hair made his round, fleshy face look thinner, but it did nothing to flatter his barrel shape or his short stature. As I grew, or actually sprouted, I surpassed Koz by a good ten inches, making me feel both awkward and self conscious. But Koz, always good natured, used to joke that I possessed the potential for greater “heights” of achievement, while he remained destined to “spread” his knowledge laterally.

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving and Christmas had not been the same since I grew up and stopped coming home. Koz had spent every holiday since I can remember with my family, and as far as I know he still does. When I and my siblings were small, Koz played Santa Claus to our childish delight. As I grew older and became too skeptical of the world, Koz gave up the suit and began to give me silk scarves for Christmas. I still have the scarves—some even monogrammed—folded neatly in my dresser drawer; and even though I never use them, their presence reassures me that there’s still something right about the world. They, along with the thought of Koz, provide a sense of nostalgia for me, a warm and fuzzy old-fashioned feeling concerning personal bonds, of family and friendships.

Now when Koz greeted me and welcomed me into his apartment, I recognized that same glistening look in his eyes, one of avuncular fondness and genuine mirth. He hadn’t changed much. The silver in his hair had strengthened in color and mass, and a few crinkles appeared around his eyes and forehead that hadn’t been there before. But otherwise, he looked good, warm, chubby and happy as he always had before I abandoned the home front. Had it been almost ten years? In a way I wish Koz had invented a time machine so we could all go back and relive those moments most special and important to us. But I had to face the fact my childhood had ended long ago and so too the candy-coated innocence.

Now when Koz took my bag of goodies and told me to take a seat at the little dining alcove while he dished out our lunch, I used those precious moments to sneak a peak at his new abode. Ever the scientist, researcher and scholar, he possessed mountains of books, the old-fashioned kind that came bound in leather. Their particular scent of academic paper permeated the room along with the odors of isopropyl alcohol and pipe tobacco. Koz stilled smoked his particular brand, a combination of anise and cherry; and I learned to love that aroma. To my delight, he still possessed the Meerschaum pipe I had given him one Christmas, sitting proudly on the side table next to his favorite arm chair. Masses of books and files, a jumble of lab equipment, an antique microscope, and several used tea cups not yet gone to the dishwasher cluttered his long work table. In addition, Koz had a telescope stationed at the living room window, pointed to the sky or perhaps at the neighbor’s apartment across the way, I really couldn’t tell at this angle.

Nearby, an ancient bronze sun dial stood sentry duty, while between the copious volumes stashed in the bookshelves stood the noble busts of Koz’s idols on marble stands, Albert Einstein, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Copernicus and Leonardo Di Vinci. Some people might call Kozimir Fediyoskin a bit eccentric, especially now that he’s approaching sixty-five; but I find him simply charming and a genius in his own right, no more eccentric then say Dr. Nutter at the Senesco Institute.

After Koz brought our spread on a tray and then took a seat next to me at the table, we spent the next few minutes piling up our plates and enjoying our meal while we tried to catch up with personal news. Even though retired and living here, Koz still visited my parents in Lompoc, and I told him I kept in touch with the folks electronically as well as with my brother, the Reverend Carson Parrish, who managed a Christian-based rehab program in Santa Ana. Carson had always been the good one in the family, followed by my sister Cantrelle, who works for a social services agency. Among other things, she helps single mothers find housing, jobs and child care. Then there’s me, somewhere between so-so and pathetic, but Koz never saw it that way. In fact, he considers what I do just as important as my brother’s ecclesiastical efforts, my sister’s social responsibilities, and the humanitarian causes my parents embrace.

So now I filled him in on my most recent cases, but steered clear of my own personal affairs. Finally, I got around to why I wanted to see him in the first place, not that this impromptu visit hadn’t been special in its own right; but this investigation had me bound tightly time-wise with little chance to stretch and flex. Koz understood that perfectly; and as I spoke, he listened intently and nodded occasionally.

When I finally finished, I took a long drink of the iced tea he had provided while I allowed him to digest both his meal and my information, including the lab reports I had filched from Dane’s files. As he examined them, he went to sit in his old, comfortable arm chair and quietly placed the amber stem of his pipe between his lips. Koz jokingly remarked once that he could stuff trade secrets in the pipe’s big, ivory-hued bowl and still have room for his lab equipment. Now he generously filled the pipe with his favorite tobacco and then lit the mix. As he read, he puffed languidly and created fragrant smoke rings. In a way he reminded me of a jolly Dutchman, practical and wise, too, and knowing exactly where he fit in the universe.

Once finished with the files, he glanced back at me with a curious expression. “I believe,” he began, “that these reports represent a breakthrough in scientific research. That’s if I’m interpreting what you have here correctly. I can’t say for sure until I make a thorough study of the trial data and corresponding results. This comes from the Senesco Institute you said. Yes, yes, I think I understand the direction… well…let’s just say this data, however it was obtained, presents both a challenge and a scientific venture unlike any I’ve come across in a long, long time.”

With all due regrets, I finished the last bite of my wonderful sandwich. “Could it have something to do,” I queried between chews, “with a drug—or something similar to a drug—called Progerus?”

Taking one drag on his pipe, he nodded. “I believe so. But like I said, Cadye, I must study the reports further and perhaps make some phone calls. I don’t want to say anything more until I have something definite. There’s a mention here of H2N2, the virus that caused a pandemic way back when. I have a friend and colleague with the International Health Organization who’ll help me with the analysis.””

“Take all the time you need, Koz. I truly appreciate your input, and any and all help you can give me will be appreciated.”

“Glad to do it, my dear. Perhaps by tomorrow I’ll have something to report.”

Placing my napkin on my spic-and-span plate, I donned a small frown. “Tell me, Koz, do you regret taking an early retirement?” I knew how much he had loved going to the lab every day. The thrill of pure scientific research and possible discovery of something truly startling if not beneficial to mankind stays in the blood forever, or so my father tells me.

Koz chuckled and got to his feet. “No, not really. As you can see all around you, I have more than enough interests to keep me busy until doomsday and beyond. Besides, I’ve managed to accumulate a little nest egg so I’m able to afford real food whenever I want it. And you’re always welcome, my dear, to share in my bounty.”

Even after I just stuffed myself, the idea of returning for more decent food certainly appealed to me. Now I wanted to advance our discussion further by including Buckley Grover’s strange death, but Koz’s quaint cuckoo clock chippered two o’clock, thus alerting me to the fact I had to get going if I wanted to meet with Dalton Hendricks by three-thirty. At the very least, it would take me an hour to navigate the traffic down and over to the Senesco building. Of course, I hated to cut short my visit with Koz, but it couldn’t be helped. I did promise to return over the weekend for the food and a nice long chat. His whole countenance brightened with the prospect, and I got a glimpse of the old Koz I’ve come to know and love. He even offered to pay for our lunch but I told him it would all go on my expense report whether my captain liked it or not. Thus, for the food, the company, the expertise and the fond memories, I couldn’t thank him enough. Sad to say, my only offering in that direction was a grateful, pickle-laced kiss on his Santa’s cheek before I left— but Koz didn’t seem to mind my gesture one bit.

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