Stratus Fear

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Chapter Thirty

When I awoke a couple of hours later, I found myself bound to a desk chair in what appeared to be one of the Senesco laboratories. The overhead lights made my head throb, but I still made out the sky blue walls, the gleaming metal equipment, and the room’s overall white sterility. The holo clock on the wall opposite from where I sat told me the time, 10 p.m., past my bedtime. I glanced down at my wrists, bound like my ankles in tight nylon straps. Someone had relieved me of my comlink unit so there went my chance to record any pertinent conversations with my kidnappers. I didn’t have long to wait for the dynamic duo of Dalton and Renata to return, this time dressed casually. How nice. They had gone home to change.

“How do you feel, detective?” Hendricks asked in a surprisingly gentle tone.

“I’ve been better,” I said, tonelessly.

“If you want a pain reliever, I’ll get you one.” This from Renata alias Talitha. She wore a low-cut top, tight slacks and stiletto heels, the new marketing-slut look.

As much as I wanted to stick around for a nightcap and a chat, I preferred to go home, and told my captors so.

“Sorry,” Hendricks announced, “but we can’t let you do that. Mr. Joffe wishes to speak with you. I know this is quite a drastic step, but we have to ensure your cooperation.”

I snorted. “Well, your director could have called me and made an appointment. I would have shown up at his office voluntarily for a civilized meeting. Now you have a charge of kidnapping a police officer on top of everything else.”

As if on cue, the lab door swooshed open and Mendell Joffe entered followed by Dane Merrick. I tried not to look at Dane, because if I did I knew my blood would boil from both anger and arousal, if that were possible. With a polite smile, Joffe hiked his hip onto the nearest work table and struck a relaxed pose. He wore one of the regulation lab outfits, the silver micromesh jacket and pants while Dane wore his regular clothes, still savvy, still sexy.

“I’m so sorry, Detective Parrish,” Joffe told me. “I hate having to treat you like this, but you see, I can’t have you stealing our important data and then giving it to the wrong people. The police and media simply do not understand the magnitude of our work here.”

“You mean how you dupe innocent women into taking your lethal serum,” I shot back. “You use them like guinea pigs, and so far, your miracle drug hasn’t done its job. In fact, it produces the opposite effect by aging a person too fast.”

“On the contrary,” Joffe differed, still with his polite smile. “We have finally perfected the formula, and once our final test results come in, we plan to go public with our discovery. So you see, we can’t have you jumping the gun and jeopardizing such an important event, even sabotaging such an important contribution to the world.”

I donned a grimace, partly from his incredulous words and partly from my tight bindings. The clear nylon straps they had used on me now felt like iron clasps. “You won’t be able to cover-up your atrocities with so-called humanitarian efforts. We have enough evidence now to stop you and your institute. Everyone in your employ will be convicted of horrific crimes, and I’m going to make sure all of you get what you deserve.” As I spoke, I glanced at Dane who remained in the background. He looked uncomfortable, as he should. If he had any conscience at all, he should be quaking in his expensive leather boots right about now.

“Let me tell you a story,” Joffe continued as he hopped off the table. He began an idle pace, his hands clasped behind him. “As a young boy, I was afflicted with a rare genetic disorder called Progeria, a disease that tricks the blood vessels of a young child into functioning like those of an 80-year-old. My parents heard of a Swiss scientist who had developed a breakthrough treatment for my condition, and they took me to the Swiss clinic so I could be tested.” Pausing in front of me, Joffe donned a stricken look but his gaze burned almost dangerously bright, as if reaching inside of me to tear away my blood vessels. “I endured three long years of horrible, painful injections, and my recovery was just as abominable. But as you can see, the treatment proved successful and I am now a normal thirty-eight years of age.”

Thankfully taking his gaze off of me, he began to pace again. “Then, when I went to college and on to medical school, I vowed to find a way to help people age beyond their stunted life expectancies, and do so normally and pain-free. I founded this research facility to do just that. The name Senesco is derived from the Latin senescent, to grow old. The word senecio itself means an old man, but in our terminology it means a healthy, vibrant old man.”

Joffe returned to stand in front of me, his gaze softer. “So you see, detective, what we have developed here gives hope and new life to those who would never have a chance to age gracefully otherwise, to interact with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as it’s supposed to be. But you would tear all of this down, all the years of research, trial and error…and success, with just a few chosen words.”

“Yes,” I said carefully. “I can and I will. What you have done on the surface is certainly praiseworthy, but underneath you and your associates are nothing more than barbaric butchers who have sacrificed women to satisfy your insane egos.”

Suddenly, Joffe laughed, a high-pitched, eerie laugh, like that of someone on the verge of going mad. “How sad, detective, that you still think on such a plebian level when you have learned so much but understand so little.”

Despite the fact I didn’t want the answer, I asked the inevitable anyway: “So, what are you going to do with me?”

Joffe cocked his head and gave me a thoughtful look. “We won’t inject you with the Progerus L50, if that’s what worries you. Instead, we must make your death look accidental. We’ll say you broke into our facility with the intention of stealing our valuable data. Instead, you locked yourself in the pyrolytic lab and accidentally turned on the nucleon fission generators. It can get up to 500 degrees Celsius in there, Detective Parrish. That’s approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit for your benefit, although most people expire from such intense heat and quick dehydration at about 135, give or take a degree.”

Great! They were going to cook me. “Tell you what,” I countered. “I’ll give you that old clichéd line: You won’t get away with it. My captain and the rest of my team know where I am, and should be here any minute.”

“I rather doubt that.” The CEO glanced at my bound wrists, my hands tingling from lack of blood flow. “Ms. Tijeras made sure to strip you of any device that might alert your colleagues, and she found that you hadn’t used your comlink before, during and after you pilfered our files. So detective, no one is going to come to your rescue.”

“Oh, for Christ sake!” Suddenly, Dane perked up and stepped forward. “Let her go, Mendell. If we kill her, then it’s homicide. You want that along with everything else? I never agreed to kidnapping and murder…or even this whole experimental scheme of yours.”

Turning quickly to face his subordinate, Joffe donned an irritated scowl. “But you are, Dane, you are involved! And now you’re just as guilty, even more so for fucking a cop and then giving her free and clear access to our data.”

“No, I didn’t—” Suddenly the blood drained from Dane’s face as Joffe produced a Walther from under his jacket and aimed it at his PR man.

For a moment, I wondered if the gun was the same one Hendricks had trained on me earlier, and then I wondered if Dane had spoken the truth, that he hadn’t wanted to go this far…with the experiments and now with me.

“Damn it, Mendell!” Dane advanced on his boss, as if he planned to wrest the weapon out of Joffe’s hand. Perspiration had formed on his brow and his handsome face looked clammy. “We can’t go on with this! Please, stop now before it all comes crashing down on us!”

“You’re a fool, Dane!” Joffe announced and then fired the gun.

The bullet struck Dane on his left side, just below his rib cage and a bit off-center from his abdomen. As he crumbled to the floor I let out a cry and then squeezed my eyes shut. Seconds ticked by like hours. The acrid aftermath of gun smoke burned the sensitive tissue in my nose. I wanted to see if Dane had survived but at the same time I wanted to believe that none of this madness had ever happened, that I had dreamed it all, and when I opened my eyes I would actually be back in my apartment and under the bed covers.

Instead, I felt someone undo my restraints and then lift me out of the chair. When I dared to look, two hulking forms in hazmat jump suits had me in their tight grip, my feet dangling helplessly as they began to carry me away. I couldn’t see their faces beneath the protective mesh masks, but I had a fair idea that they worked here, probably lab technicians.

I heard Joffe call after me. “Again, my apologies, detective, but we must do whatever it takes maintain the advantage. It’s nothing personal, you see.”

If I could, I wanted to knock him out with whatever it took to gain my advantage—nothing personal.

The two techs locked me in an air-tight room, the only equipment several heat-resistant pedestals for placing test objects as well as vent-ducts over them. At first, I felt only the warmness of the enclosed room but then the heat began to creep in from the radiator-conductors placed strategically along walls. I found the pyrometer that registers the increments of heat, now close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweat trickled down my brow and between my breasts, and soon my clothes stuck to me like adhesive tape.

I lifted my head with the intention of saying a prayer, probably the only prayer I had ever offered up to a supreme being, at least that I can remember. I had never been religious, and I wondered why I wanted to start now. As I tried to form the words, my gaze fixed on the large vent-duct in the wall above me. It looked like a regular ventilator where anyone with a remote control could open and close the slats in order to adjust the air flow. The vent had to be connected to ducts that ran throughout the building. From the size of the vent, the ducts had to be about the same diameter, which meant I could easily navigate the system on my hands and knees. Now if I could just get up there…

I gauged the weight a lead pedestal, at least two hundred pounds. No sweat! I just had to push it over to the wall and climb up, but it seemed more and more like a Herculean task. The temperature had risen to 135 and I felt my strength zap with every climb of a degree. I would have to work fast.

As I put everything I had into pushing, the pedestal began to move, inch by possible inch. I used my upper body strength first, my hands flat on the surface and my arms stretched. Then I switched so that my back did the work while my feet gained traction and helped push backwards. When I finally hit the wall, I sank down in a perspiring heap and took a moment to catch my breath. I felt extremely thirsty, but I couldn’t think of my discomfort.

Before I climbed up, I grabbed a pair of cast iron pinchers used to transfer hot objects. I would need the tool to pry open the vent cover. Then I climbed to the flattop surface, rose and stretched. Clutching the vent’s lower slats with the pinchers, I pulled as hard as I could. It took me several tries but I finally managed to yank the cover off. It dropped to the floor with a resounding metallic clank. Now the temperature registered 165 as I grabbed the vent rim, hoisted myself up and then into the duct. Dark shadows greeted me as I began to scramble forward along the aluminum-coated duct. I had no idea which way to go except forward, and if I came to an impasse, I’d either take a detour or find an outlet into another part of the building. I seemed to be crawling for miles, the duct just as hot and stuffy as the room I left, but at least the heat wouldn’t become lethal. Every once in awhile, I paused to catch my breath and listen for any movement or voice below me. It seemed almost too quiet, without the usual noises emitted from office and lab equipment.

Then I heard it, the calm voice of a man from somewhere in the building, almost suave in timber but also detached. Then I recognized it as computer-generated, an android voice that now warned me I had twenty-five minutes in which to vacant the premises before detonation.

Detonation? My God! Mendell Joffe had decided to blow up his institute, thus leaving no traces behind…including me.

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