Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twenty-nine

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Dane’s front door clicked open after I plied the last number; and as the shadows of the alcove continued to give me cover, I casually slipped inside his apartment. The darkness came scented with his lingering cologne, an alluring blend of lotus flowers, sandalwood and kukui. I used my flashlight now rather than alert any nosy neighbors to my presence by turning on lights.

I groped my way to the staircase and climbed to the second floor. As I passed the bedroom, my heart took a dive into my stomach. Only last night Dane and I had indulged our passions in his big, inviting bed while the universe swirled around us. Now the silence and darkness seemed an omen, urging me to get along with my business and then leave. I did notice that Dane had left the French doors open in the bedroom, confident that would-be burglars would nix the idea of trying to scale the walls to get up to the second-floor terrace.

A sudden breeze rustled the curtains, sucking them in and out and then twisting them into ghostly shapes. I saw a quick streak of lightning in the distance, followed by a rumble of thunder. The air came charged with electricity and the smell of creosote, all preludes to a storm. At least I hoped so. We desperately needed the rain. Now I hurried along to the den and took a seat at Dane’s desk. His andron sprung to life when I turned it on, but now I would have to get passed his security password it in order to get into his files. I figured Dane did most of his work by voice activation, but in some instances, a keyboard was preferable. I looked around the desktop and then tried the middle drawer where I found the laser device that generated the keyboard.

Retrieving my scanner from my pocket, I slowly and carefully ran it over the keys in order to find those he used most often during the few times he utilized the board. They would have the slightest depressions as well as multiple fingerprints. E came up, of course, the most common letter, along with S, R, N and A. When I thought I had them all, I ran them through my portable scanner to come up with the most common sequences of words. I thought of Progerus and Senesco Institute, but they seemed too obvious even for Dane. The screen scrolled through the various combinations until I came to those that sounded promising. I paused the generation when one word stood out for me: Rensselaer. During our first dinner together, Dane had mentioned his hometown of Rensselaer, Indiana. Not the most original password, but then again, he didn’t expect someone like me to hack into his computer files. Besides, who knew how to spell Rensselaer if you didn’t grow up there?

As soon as I typed it in, the andron came to life as a large holo screen. I tackled the files next, all stacked neatly in digital “drawers.” They whisked across the screen, quite a few of them in all, but I only opened several at random just to see what Dane had stored there. I seemed to hit the jackpot with a file called RSLTS. Here was everything I needed, trial runs, test results, dosages, charts, prognoses, and the test volunteers labeled by initials and numbers, those women who had been duped into taking the injections. From their descriptions, I thought I could identify the individuals who became Senesco’s unwitting guinea pigs, at least those I knew by their real names.

ID# JM-15: Hair blk, eyes gr, ht. 5-6, wt. 120, age 28,—Jocelyn Mora aka Tora Goodlove?

ID# GP-18: Hair br, eyes bl, ht. 5-3, wt. 105, age 23—Grace Paquin aka Athena Amore?

I find Fauna Vixen’s file as well: ID# DL12: Hair br, eyes br, ht. 5-2, wt. 115, age 22—Paisley Weeks.

I had no idea what the numbers after their initials stood for, but I rather doubted they represented intelligent quotas. These women had been smart in their own right, but had been duped into these sicko experiments with outrageous promises of beauty and youth.

Beneath their names ran a series of numbers I assumed to be blood counts, genetic makeup, etc. that I, as a layperson, had no idea how to interpret. I would have to employ an expert or two to decipher the technical stuff. Grace Paquin’s file seemed to have the most recorded information, with dates ranging from the past two and a half months when she first received the Progerus dosage up to and including last week. Had she systematically checked in with the lab techs to get her vitals recorded, or had they come to her? And most importantly, had Grace been given any more of the drug?

All good questions, ones I hadn’t thought to ask. Then again, I hadn’t access to this damning information before.

There were other victims, of course, whom I couldn’t ID right off the bat. From the recorded dates, these tests had been going on for three years, the total number of victims well into the twenties. I couldn’t quite believe it. The Senesco people had tested what appeared to be 26 women so far, and the results all seemed to indicate failure at some point. No problem, just reformulate, regroup, and keep on testing. The saddest part of the whole affair centered on the victims who hadn’t come forward to expose this despicable charade, let alone ask for help.

I sat back and tried to relax my tense arms and back muscles while my hyper-cube drive eagerly copied all the files, opened and unopened.

Suddenly, the lights came on like the blast of a high-intensity search beam. I practically jumped out of my skin, expecting Dane to swoop in and catch me red-handed. But after I blinked to adjust my vision, I found myself staring at Dalton Hendricks and Renata Tijeras standing side-by-side in the doorway, both dressed as if just returning from a cocktail party, Hendricks in a jazzy indigo suit and Renata in crushed black taffeta. Neither looked very happy to see me.

“Well, well, Ms. Parrish,” Hendricks said with a faint sneer. “Just what are you doing in here?”

“She’s copying files,” Renata stated the obvious.

I fumbled to unplug my cube from the andron.

“Hold it, detective!” Hendricks commanded. This time he had a Walther LPB pointed right at me. He took a few steps forward and then held out his free hand. “You will please give us your drive.”

I debated whether to do as he asked or just toss my drive in the air and see what he’d do next. Maybe I could jump up and rush him, but that seemed a dangerous and stupid move. They taught us at the academy not to take those kinds of risks. Thus deciding on the safest course of action, I slide my hyper-cube across the desktop. It remained lit up in shimmering blue like a crystal.

Instead of her partner, Renata strutted over and plucked the device off the desk, and then deposited it in her jet-bead evening bag. Her air was one of smugness now, the candy-sweet PR attitude long gone.

With a barely perceptible flick of his wrist, Hendricks trained the gun at my head. “Now you will be so good as to get up, detective, and keep your hands where I can see them. We’re going on a little journey.”

I did as told, rising slowly with my hands in the air. “Where’s Dane?” I asked. “I assume since this is his apartment, he’d be here, too.”

“He’s been delayed,” Renata answered with a cool smile as she came over to take my backpack from where it sat next to the desk chair. I hadn’t thought to bring my gun along, focused instead on packing my hacker equipment. “But Dane will join us soon enough,” she continued. “Now let’s go, Ms. Parrish.”

They made me walk ahead of them, but I took it slow and easy, even with Hendricks right on my heels. Renata had given him my backpack, and now he had it strapped easily on his shoulder. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” I asked finally, my gaze focused ahead and my hands down at my sides.

“We’ll be the ones asking the questions, detective,” Renata counseled with a clipped tone. “We caught you in the act of illegally copying private computer files.”

At the ramp-way, I descended one careful step at a time. “How do you know Dane didn’t invite me here? Maybe he gave me permission to copy those files.”

Hendricks let out a high-pitched, almost neurotic laugh. “Dane isn’t gullible enough to let the police see our records. In fact, he shouldn’t even have them, since he has nothing to do with the technical logistics.”

“Brett!” Renata cautioned. “Don’t tell her anything more.”

She called her partner Brett. His middle name? I mulled it over for a moment and came up with Dalton Brett Hendricks alias Devon Brand. If so, then Dane had not actively participated in the recruitment process, nor did it seem that he had been involved with the laboratory testing. Still, he was a part of the conspiracy, and thus equally guilty.

Now Hendricks told me to keep quiet and just keep walking. Once at the front door, Renata went to open it and then gripped my arm to shove me forward. I tripped and started to pitch forward, hoping to take her down with me. Instead, she pulled me back abruptly and then sandwiched me between the two of them as we left the apartment. We walked single file now as we headed for the parking lot. Renata led us to a new model Galaxy cruiser in a sleek mica-blue with a plush interior. Opening the passenger door and then stepping aside, she motioned for me to get in. When I did, Hendricks, his gun and my backpack joined me along the backseat. Renata would be our driver for the evening, and I had a feeling our next stop would be the Senesco Institute. She headed out of the lot and soon joined the flow of traffic on the second-tier freeway heading north.

With nothing to do at the moment, I decided to see if my guesses proved correct. I turned my head and gave Hendricks an affable smile. “So, you’re Devon Brand, and Renata there is Talitha Rusk, ace recruiters for the fictitious Megastar Placement Services.”

The financial manager aimed a brief glower in my direction and Renata kept her focus ahead, neither one giving me a yes or no answer. So, I continued. “You take unsuspecting women and entice them up to your suite at the Royal Palms Hotel. Then you promise these women whatever they want to hear so you can shoot them up with your wonder drug. And who cares if it doesn’t work quite the way it’s supposed to. These women aren’t worth much anyway, just a bunch of strip tease dancers who give men hard-ons for a living.”

“That’s much too simplistic, detective,” Hendricks said at last, his gaze straight ahead but his gun cocked in my direction. “We choose our subjects very carefully. The right skin type, the right blood type, the right genetic makeup, and the right age bracket.”

“And yet your victims age rapidly until they look like old, old women. I saw what your miracle drug did for Grace Paquin, and in only two short months. I couldn’t tell if she was twenty-five or ninety-five.”

“Unfortunately, some risk occurs,” he quickly pointed out. “We must go through a continuous trial and error period before our tests achieve the desired results.”

“And what are those desired results?”

“To live, Ms. Parrish, beyond the expected life span. The pandemic cut our life expectancies by a fourth and some cases by a third. Progerus L50 will not only extend life but restore youthful qualities to the recipient.”

I snorted. “From what I see, it does just the opposite.”

“We must try all avenues before we succeed. No one has ever been coerced into taking Progerus. They all agree willingly.” Hendricks actually looked pleased with himself.

I wanted to slap his smug, attractive face. “But how many victims will you go through, how many will die, before your miracle drug actually works?”

Renata took her gaze off the road for a moment to glance in the rearview mirror. “You keep saying victims, detective. As Brett—Dalton just told you, they are all willing participants, and no one is promised anything that cannot be delivered. There are side effects, yes, but that’s to be expected. No test group comes out a hundred percent successful. Even with the risks, these women still volunteer on their own accord.”

I dared to meet her gaze in the mirror, the eyes that stared back at me an icy, calculating blue. “Just one more question,” I ventured. “Who killed Buckley Grover?”

Hendricks looked like I had just made him eat dirt. “Who?”

“You know exactly who. He did your dirty work by murdering Gavin McAllister. Somebody—either alone or with a partner—snuck into the hospital and doctored Buckley’s IV unit with, I assume, a mega dose of Progerus. He died a horrible, agonizing death.”

“It was unavoidable.” This from Renata, her gaze now back on the road, her tone as flat as if she just given me directions to the nearest filling station, so cool, calm, and detached. What a bitch! She didn’t elaborate and Hendricks didn’t jump in to agree or negate what she just said. Still, I took that as a confession of guilt, as good as I would get.

Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my thigh, and I quickly jumped away from Hendricks who held a slim, shiny injector in his hand. “Don’t worry,” he tried to reassure me. “It’s not the serum, but a sedative to help you relax.”

I don’t need to relax! I wanted to tell him, but I had trouble forming the words. As I slumped against the car seat, I tried to focus on his smarmy bastard’s face. Instead, he blurred to a gray mass right before my eyes. Then I faded to black.

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