Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twenty-six

I needed to eat but I had no appetite. Still, I went across the street to the Mexican restaurant and ordered a Mexican beer and a tequila chaser. I needed that more than food. The moment I thought about Dane Merrick, my heart sank. If the information Grace had given me proved true, then Dane had to be in the middle of it all. Everyone in the institute, Grace said, had to know that their miracle was being administered to unsuspecting women, everyone from Tiffin Hillary the receptionist to Mendell Joffe, the president. And who had invented this miracle drug in the first place? Had it been Zeff Nutter, the crazy scientist? Initial experiments with animals proved futile and so the higher ups at the institute needed human guinea pigs, preferably people who didn’t matter much in the scheme of things and who wouldn’t be missed. After all, they would be sacrificed in the name of science. Men proved to be difficult test subjects, and so women like Grace Paquin, young and healthy, became the ideal guinea pigs. The drug, Progerus L50, had been developed to allow a person to reach his or her natural life span and even live beyond that. Finally, a miracle drug to counteract the devastation caused by the pandemic virus seventy years ago that had cut people’s ages by almost half.

Instead, Progerus L50 sped up the aging process. How sardonic was that?

I knocked back the tequila and allowed it to work its agave magic, as warm and smooth as a summer’s night in the desert.

I knew I had to take this to Bender, but I also knew what my supervisor would tell me: hand it over to the feds, the drug enforcement people. It would be their problem for now on. But I couldn’t do that, not without feeling guilty for abandoning these women. I suspected that Koz had discovered the same information which would serve to verify what I had learned through Grace. He carried a lot of weight in the scientific and medical community. Then, I would need tangible data—names, dates, places, dosages, results—to use as court-sanctioned evidence. Why didn’t I just ask Dane? I could, and then allow him to implicate himself and the rest of his colleagues, not to mention voluntarily destroying the corporate empire that made his career and paid his salary. I doubt, though, he would do it, even in the name of affection…and hot sex. I would have to find some way to procure the data without tipping my hand. Catch ’em in the act, I always say, but this time, the villains proved more despicable than any bad guys I had ever dealt with in my career. I certainly couldn’t wait around until another unsuspecting woman received her deadly shots, but going under cover as one of the guinea pigs didn’t seem feasible either. For one, I don’t act or look anything like a strip-tease dancer ready for a good time. And if Dane was connected with any part of the experiment I would be discovered right off. No, I had to think of something else.

By the time I finished my beer, I had a pretty good idea that Renata Tijeras, Senesco’s marketing director, served as the female half of the two recruiters from the non-existent Megastar. As for the one calling himself Devon Brand, I figured it had to be either Dalton Hendricks or Dane Merrick. As much as my heart tried to tell me otherwise, I had to include Dane who fit the initials DB to a T. Although something that obvious didn’t seem to fit Dane’s character. But what did I know?

Actually I knew quite a bit about how the Senesco scheme operated. Gavin McAllister initially did the scouting for the victims under the guise of entertaining clients, his favorite haunt the Midnight Lace Club. Once he chose his mark, Renata with either Dalton or Dane enticed the victim up to the suite at the Royal Palms Hotel, rented by another bogus company, the Genesis Group. Catchy name that. The recruiters then promised their victim a new, exciting career where she would earn big bucks. All she had to do was lay back and relax, and the recruiters would do the rest…pump her with Progerus L50. No problem if the desired results failed to deliver. The drug went back to the lab to be reformulated, as many times as needed. Then the process of choosing test subjects began all over again.

But for some reason, Gavin McAllister had had enough and wanted out. Maybe he saw Tora Goodlove as more than a test subject. Maybe he had a change of heart when his conscience kicked in, helped along by Arianna. Whatever the case, he knew too much and had to die. That’s where Buckley Grover came in. He had been recruited to assassinate McAllister, and after he successfully completed his mission, he had to be eliminated as well.

I had to stop this insanity before any one else died. Those megalomaniacs at Senesco thought they were saints on a mission, to destroy lives in order to save lives. Or as the old saying goes, first you have to destroy before you can create.

Mendell Joffe and his subordinates would win the Nobel Prize and their achievements would go down in the scientific and medical annuals as the greatest discovery of all time. Forget about all that nasty testing business. The development of Progerus L50 was far more important than the mere lives of those who unwittingly served as guinea pigs, martyrs for the cause. Yeah right. Everyone involved with this atrocious business deserved the harshest of punishments, and I would be more than happy to take them all down—even Dane.

Yet, an emotional dilemma still raged inside of me. You don’t kiss a man, make love to him, without knowing whether he harbors a cruel streak in him or not. You can taste and feel cruelty, but I neither tasted nor felt cruelty in Dane’s kisses or when he wrapped me in his arms. Still, I could be wrong. As a public relations expert, Dane had the skills to hide his real feelings beneath the glib and slick hype of his profession. But would he do the same in bed? I truly wanted to believe in his innocence, that somehow he got sucked up in the heinous Senesco plot and had no other recourse than to go along with Joffe and the others.

Yeah, and I still believe in the Easter bunny.

When the waiter returned and asked if I wanted another round, I shook my head. This time I ordered iced tea and a combo plate, cheese enchiladas and two tacos filled with real ground meat. I would need to keep my wits about me, as well as fuel my body for the investigative road ahead.

Before the food arrived, I called Ginger again and asked her if she could remember how many of her colleagues had been recruited. I would need their names and phone numbers, too, if she had access to them. I had to tell Ginger the bare minimum in order to solicit what I needed. She didn’t seem too surprised.

“I only know of Tora, Fauna and Athena,” she told me. “I’m sure they were others before I started working at the club. What a scam! You know, they tried to recruit me, too, but my boyfriend wouldn’t let me. He didn’t want me screwing around with other guys.”

Ginger didn’t know it but her boyfriend had saved her life.

“Hey, did you ever get a hold of Athena?” she asked me before we disconnected.

I lied and told her no. I couldn’t bear to describe what had happened to Tora’s friend.

“You know,” Ginger continued with a tone and expression that indicated she had just recalled a bit of useful information, “I think I know where you can find Fauna Vixen. She’s working up on Terre Celeste. At least that’s what I heard.”

Fauna. Suddenly that dim bulb I called a brain lit up. Hadn’t I met a girl named Fauna at Arianna’s get-together? She had been a new recruit, a companion-in-training, Arianna said. Now I thanked Ginger for all of her help. I’d have to do something nice for her someday soon.

I put in a call to Arianna but she didn’t answer her comlink. I left her a message to please contact me as soon as possible. I hesitated to add that it might be a matter of life and death for her colleague, Faun. I didn’t want to scare either woman, but if Faun had fallen victim to the Progerus L50 scam I needed her testimony badly and she probably needed medical help—before she turned into another Grace Paquin.

I hurried to finish my meal, my agitation and need for action outweighing any sensible recourse like calling Bender and filling him in. I couldn’t, not yet anyway. I needed to gain access to the Senesco data system, and the only way I could think of involved Dane. I would need to hack into his andron—and that meant I had to work up an excuse to see him again at his apartment. Maybe I could ask him if I could use his shower again, since my own bathroom pipes had clogged. It wasn’t such a stretch of the truth. The pipes in our apartment rattled and groaned every time we turned on the faucets. To get the hot water going, Rogue banged the pipes with a wrench, but now in his absence I couldn’t bang the damn things as skillfully as he had.

As if on cue, Rogue called just after I left the restaurant. He told me he had gone to London to see his mother who had taken ill.

“Oh, I hope it’s not too serious,” I queried. I liked Rogue’s mother, Gemma. A true British lady, she spoke her mind and offered practical advice between sips of tea or Guinness lager, depending on the occasion.

“It’s just a bout of the pneumonia,” Rogue informed me, “but I thought mum could use a helping hand.” He paused for a moment as if weighing what he wanted to say next. “Sooo…I’m not sure when I’ll be back, luv. It could be weeks or several months.”

“It’s all right,” I assured him, unable to adequately read his facial expression in the compact image of my link. I couldn’t tell if he was sad, happy or indifferent. “Take as long as you need. I can handle things on this end.”

He let out a sensual chuckle, obviously in better spirits than I thought. “I know you can, luv, and that’s what I’m afraid of. You’ll find living single preferable to having me around.”

I tried a carefree laugh, although I had to force it. “Oh, I don’t know about that. But give my love to Gem and tell her she’s got to get well. I’ll see you when I see you then.”

“Right-o, luv. I’ll keep you informed…and in my thoughts.”

As I clicked off, I wondered if I could do the same with him.

To rid myself of that excess energy and any extra pounds I may have gained from my heavy meal, I took a walk along Olivera Street and simply took in the sights, sounds and aromas. You didn’t have to go to Tijuana for a true Mexican experience. It happened right here. As I stopped at an outdoor vendor to examine a pair of real leather huaraches, Arianna returned my call. I didn’t want to panic her, and so I asked if I could stop by in about an hour without revealing why. She said fine. Once I arrived, I could tell her the shocking news. She would definitely get in touch with Faun after that, and from there, we could decide the best course to take.

It seemed to be my day for making and taking calls. Before I headed for Terre Celeste, I called Dane at his office, my excuse to see him formulated after I walked past a cantina advertising cold cerveza and hot tamales. “I thought I’d repay your generous gesture of dinner last night,” I told him when he answered and greeted me on a friendly note. “Or at least a drink this evening.”

“I’d love to, Cade,” he said in a tone that meant otherwise, “but I have a meeting tonight that will probably go on and on till the wee hours. Perhaps we can make it tomorrow evening.”

“Of course,” I told him, my mind set in motion again. “No problem. Why don’t you call me tomorrow and we can set a time to meet.”

“Excellent. Oh, and Cade.” He let my name dangle for a moment. “I really, really enjoyed last night.”

I bit my lip. “I did, too, Dane. See you tomorrow.”

When he signed off, I stood for a moment and debated. Unwittingly, Dane had given me a great opportunity to break into his apartment and lift the information I needed. Sure, it’s against the law and I serve as a purveyor of that law, but when push came to shove, I preferred to do a little shoving, the harder the better. Since I knew he wouldn’t hand over the information to me willingly, I had to take it upon myself to obtain it, and by any means necessary. Technically, it wouldn’t be breaking and entering since I had observed Dane key in his security code when we entered his apartment last night and when we left it this morning. I can’t help it if I’m a whiz at remembering numbers—573149. It was almost an invitation to come on in and help myself.

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