Stratus Fear

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Chapter Nine

Bishop Dane Merrick had set our appointment for one o’clock, and I arrived at the Senesco Institute parking lot fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Now before I left the cruiser, I made a quick glance in my compact mirror, just to make sure I didn’t have part of my lunchtime barbecue “spork” sandwich wedged between my teeth or a dollop of sauce on my chin. When I checked out okay, I proceeded to get out and lock the car, and then stroll towards the building. As befitting a non-profit organization, the powers that be at the Senesco Institute hadn’t designed their building with an artistic or ostentatious plan in mind. In fact the building looked quite utilitarian and functional in white slate with no visible windows. A metal sculpture of what appeared to be the world sat in the middle of a simple rock garden in front of the entrance.

This part of the county around Glendale had been nothing more than a burned-out hunk of land about ten years ago, thanks to the metro gang wars that had broken out and gripped Los Angeles in a state of civil disaster for almost two and a half years. The surrounding suburbs as well as parts of downtown LA had been decimated by fire, looting and general mayhem. At the time I had been a student in Simi Valley, a region thankfully untouched by the violence.

But once the newly-elected mayor of Los Angeles and his regime of reformers took over, the city began to resurrect itself, returning to its former glory as a movie mecca and tourist attraction. The gang members responsible for the riots, beatings and killings had since become wards of the state’s penal system or had died in the ensuing backlash. Now the new breed of industrial and real estate developers vied to see who could build the most aesthetic, Nuevo-chic, and culturally-significant buildings and landscapes. “Eco-People friendly” they called it.

The title of the institute had been etched in small letters above the double smoked-glass doors with chrome pillars doing sentry duty on each side. As soon as I walked into the lobby, a wonderful cool breeze greeted me. Of course, I had to pass through a screening tunnel before I went any further, but thankfully I came out the other end without setting off the alarms. Thinking that I wouldn’t need backup for such a benign and non-threatening meeting, I had stashed my department-issue gun and holster in the glove compartment of the cruiser. That way I could also shed my jacket in this miserable heat and not freak out anyone with my very-visible weapon lodged in my shoulder holster. Now I could savor the cold air along my bare arms and enjoy the way it dried my sweaty back and front—both covered by my fuchsia tank of course.

Once I proceeded to the interior of the building I noticed the hallways came in sterile white with recessed lighting along the edges of the pristine tiled flooring. No artwork of any kind graced the walls, no picturesque prints or even portraits of the founding fathers or mothers here. Only the front lobby area to the right offered a bit of color, the reception desk of highly polished teak wood, the receptionist sitting behind it of the highly-polished blonde variety with artistically arranged assets. When she spied me walking her way, Ms. Gatekeeper gave me a subtle perusal with her cool-blue gaze and asked if she could help me.

“Mr. Bishop Dane Merrick, please,” I said simply. “We have an appointment.”

“I’ll call him to the front.” As she consulted her cubic phone unit, the only item on her desk besides a small bouquet of white day lilies in a silver vase, I glanced at the back wall, also paneled in teak wood. A holograph scroll with the institute’s name in gold cursive lettering hovered between the wall and the receptionist. Most companies offered a big marquee listing the names of the main players, the upper echelon of management, but not this organization apparently. In here, you either knew the big wigs or you didn’t, and if you didn’t you had to start at the bottom—the Average Joe or Jane off the street—and work your way up to the top brass; although I hoped to by-pass all those steps and go to the top of the class by the sheer weight of my authority to investigate the murder of one of the institute’s own people.

Now as I waited for Mr. Merrick, I leaned against the desk and idly watched a few employees walk back and forth along the main hall. They all wore silver Xylon suits, straight-legged pants, fitted jackets with clergy collars, and nondescript crepe-soled shoes. I could barely distinguish the males from the females, most of the men shorn of all top hair while the women sported close-cropped ’dos. Some of the employees also wore pastel-blue hair caps, face masks and gloves like medical professionals ready for surgery.

I turned to the receptionist, also clad in silver, but her outfit looked much more appealing and comfortable, a dress with short sleeves and a dipped neckline. Her name tag over a rather voluptuous left breast proclaimed her to be Tiffin Hillary, an appropriate name I thought and one that went with those artificially-enhanced breasts. “You don’t perform surgery here, do you? I mean, several of the employees look like surgeons ready to operate.”

Ms. Hillary smiled sweetly and produced a visitor’s badge of plain white plastic with my name printed in deep blue. “Oh, no. Those people are laboratory technicians. They must keep a sterile environment at all times. You’ll see when Dane…Mr. Merrick takes you for a tour. Before you enter some of the areas, you must go through a sterilization compartment. Again, Mr. Merrick will explain.”

With a shrug, I took the proffered pass, peeled the tape off the strip of sticky backing, and then stuck the thing over my small but very real right breast.

As if on cue, Merrick appeared from around a corner, bearing a smile and outstretched hand, all friendly and encouraging from a public relations standpoint. Interestingly enough, he didn’t wear the standard space cadet uniform, but a nice taupe suit jacket and slacks with precise pleats, his shoes of fancy maroon leather. The smile and hand came with an attractive face and nicely proportioned body. Thankfully, his job excused him from the shaven head look, his nutmeg hair neat and thick, his mouth full and confident, and his eyes expressive and very blue.

“Detective Parrish, I’m Dane Merrick. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

We shook hands, his flesh smooth and warm. “No problem. Do you have an office or room where we can talk in private?”

“Of course, but I’d like to give you a tour of the company first, just to give you an idea of what we do here. If you like, we can talk while we walk; and I assure you that we can do so in all confidence.” He pointed up to the corner of the ceiling where a camera lurked. “We have those for security reasons, of course, but we don’t record conversations or watch our employees around the clock. Nor do we require visitors to wear name tags or identification devices. We just don’t think it’s necessary in establishing good will between the institute and the community.”

Nice speech, I’d have to give him that.”

He flashed me a charming smile. “So, let’s take the tour.”

As Merrick then led the way I walked a pace behind him until we came to a junction where the hallways diverged in opposite directions. Then he paused and waited for me to join him before we continued down the right hall, side by side. We stopped when we came to a large viewing window. “This is our production lab,” Merrick explained as he turned to me, “where we continue our research on cell development.”

I peered through the window and observed some employees hunched over steel work tables, others operating equipment, sophisticated machines. “I suppose that’s my first question, what does the institute primarily produce, and who is your target audience?”

Merrick laughed. “That’s two questions, detective, but I can answer both quite readily. The purpose of the institute is to research and develop what we hope will be a common vaccine to rid the world of the most prevalent diseases, and that means cancer.” He paused to take a quick breath. “In the twentieth century, the medical community produced vaccines to eradicate the most common diseases up to that point, mainly polio. In the twenty-first century, AIDS became the next heinous disease to go. And now it’s cancer, with our primary goal to come up with an aggressive vaccine. Oh, I know there have been breakthroughs in cancer drugs, but we want to eradicate the cancerous cells before they take hold. Our second objective is to research and develop ways to prolong life. Wouldn’t you like a long, fulfilling, and healthy life, Detective Parrish?”

His gaze focused on my face. For some reason I felt a blood rush and a tingling sensation as if Merrick could strip away my officious veneer and discover my more intimate thoughts. For instance, my assessment of his total form and function ran towards definitely handsome, sexy and inviting. “Of course,” I answered truthfully. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“For most people, a longevity serum would be hailed as truly miraculous, a chance to return to the days of our ancestors when people lived well into their nineties and even on to a hundred or more. Same holds true with a drug to prevent major diseases. Therefore, our audience consists of the world population, most of us ordinary but valuable people just like you and me.”

I switched my glaze back to the technicians in the laboratory as Merrick continued to stare at me. Checking me out? Looking for flaws? Scoping out my intentions? I couldn’t tell.

“Actually,” he professed and finally focused on the top of my head, “we’re more of a research and development company, similar to a pharmaceutical firm but with much more advanced methods and proven results.”

“What did Gavin McAllister do here? You remember him, the dead man.”

Merrick never batted an intriguing eye. “Oh, yes, yes, his death hit us all hard. Gavin had been our senior production and resources manager. He will be sorely missed, of course. I only knew him on a professional basis, but Dr. Zeff Nutter might be able to give you more information about Gavin as well as explain more fully the goals of our organization.”

“Proven results,” I repeated as we began to walk the hall again. “How do you measure longevity on people not yet ready to move on to old age? You don’t speed up the process, do you?”

Merrick laughed again, his voice a pleasant base tenor. “Actually, we measure certain chemical reactions that happen naturally in the body, those stimulated by the drug, and then the combination structure of both. From there we can chart the progression of ageism quite accurately.” As he spoke, the PR man played with a portable communication unit, probably a communicator to call or summon other employees. When a message came up on the narrow display he smiled and then glanced back at me. “Doc Nutter says we can meet him for a couple of minutes in his briefing room. From there—” His gaze deepened again. “We can go to the employee café and have a cup of coffee while we talk. I can think more clearly when I have my afternoon caffeine rush. What about you?”

I offered an agreeable smile. “Caffeinated sodas work for me, or one of those high energy drinks, but coffee is good, too.”

We started our walk again, further along the hall until Dane Merrick came to an archway leading inside a compact but dark tunnel, the only light from thin strips of blue neon edging the entrance portal. He pressed his hand against the wall display, the sensor inside registering his palm print and identifying him as a Senesco employee. He quickly programmed the digital panel below and then turned back to me with another warm smile.

“There, now I got you programmed in. Just walk inside here, pause at the yellow line and allow the scans to acknowledge and sterilize you. A beep will alert you when you’re good to go, and from there you can continue on to the doctor’s liar…oops, I mean scientific environs.”

Suddenly, Merrick let out a low, throaty chortle, like the menacing laugh of the bad guy in one of those old-fashioned melodramas. He just needed the black cape, top hat and narrow handlebar moustache. “We call him Dr. Nut Case,” the PR man continued with a clever wink. “Of course, we reserve the euphemism for those times when he dismisses us from his company which is often. You’ll understand when you meet him. The doc looks and acts like a mad scientist at times, like he has bats in his belfry, but he’s a genius, a rather intense genius. Just don’t let him scare you.”

I laughed. “Oh, I don’t scare that easily.”

“Good.” Before he allowed me through the sanitizer, he gave me a thoughtful look. “I’d like it if you would call me Dane. I’m not much on formality, only when I’m conducting business, and then it’s the full moniker, Bishop Dane Merrick. But as Dane, I can talk candidly and openly. In fact, you’ll find me much more conducive to an interview when I loosen up a bit.”

How loose did he want to become? For a moment I weighed the pros and cons of allowing him a more familiar line with me, but in the end I consented. “All right, Dane. You can call me Cadye when we talk together like this.”

“And save the more formal Detective Parrish for public consumption, right?”

“Right.” His attractive smile always made me follow suit. As much as I allowed myself to admit it, I had been stacking up his assets since we met. For one, Dane Merrick stood a good five inches taller than me which made for a nice, even match on the dance floor, that’s if we ever got that far. I had been studying his shoulders, too, and decided that broad, sturdy look beneath his jacket had to be from a real set of muscles and not padded enhancements.

Now Dane gave a polite sway of his arm towards the tunnel. “Right this way, Cadye. Guests first.”

I never felt a thing as I walked onto the autoclave panel, paused at the yellow line and waited for the sanitizer beam to pass over and around me. Beneath the panel a series of rollers picked up all the minute particles on the bottom of my shoes. When the machine finished, a recorded message directed me towards a revolving door with an exit sign overhead. I gladly left and waited for Dane. When he joined me, he touched my elbow and guided me forward and through what appeared to be another lab, only this one smaller in size and scope. Yet the machines in here seemed bigger and more complicated with vials, gadgets, blinking lights and those funny levers and electrode things found in all good horror movies. Could I be looking at the creations of a mad genius? Probably.

Before we went any further, a tall, willowy woman in a lime green suit wended her way around the work tables and made a beeline for us. Her wide smile of welcome added to the friendly glint in her hazel eyes. She had a long face with prominent features, and cropped hair, short and spiky on top, its color a blend of jet sheen and copper red.

“Ah, there you are, Dane…with our guest.” The woman extended her slim hand, making her trio of chunky platinum bracelets slip down her wrist. “Hello, detective, I’m Renata Tijeras, the executive director of marketing and sales.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied and shook her hand. Besides the manicured nails with soft mauve polish, I noticed she wore several gold rings with semi-precious stones but no wedding band. And she exuded a pleasant smell, of hibiscus and amber. “I’m Detective Parrish, assigned to the Gavin McAllister murder.”

“Oh, yes, what a terrible tragedy.” The marketing director’s smile faltered for a moment. “I wasn’t actually acquainted with Gavin or even worked with him directly, but I did know he was an incredible asset to the organization. If there’s anything I can do for you, detective, please don’t hesitate to ask. Tiffin at the front desk will give you our individual extensions so you can contact me and Dane directly. And by the way, I prefer to go by Renata.”

“All right, Renata, thank you.” Right now I preferred to stick to cool politeness, not because I felt intimated or even superior to the corporate management types; but Renata Tijeras, like Dane, remained a potential suspect. Nonetheless, Ms. Tijeras struck me right off as a straight-forward, no-nonsense go-getter, who probably belonged to all those networking clubs and women’s organizations after graduating in the top ten percent of her class at some business school, and then setting out to prove herself as an independent career woman. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I always steered clear of those kinds of women if only because they always seemed on a mission to recruit us hapless, clueless working gals. And whether such professional camaraderie would help me in the end or not, I simply had no time to network and join clubs.

“Well, I won’t keep you two,” Renata said as she crooked her arm at her side, allowing her bracelets to slide back with a clink of metal. “I know, Detective Parrish, that Dane will do whatever he can to assist you.”

“We’re off to see Dr. Nutter,” the PR man informed his colleague with a lyrical up-slide of his voice as if announcing, we’re off to the wizard!

Renata gave a light laugh. “Oh, yes, our resident scientist is quite a character, but he’ll prove informative nonetheless. He can’t help but talk about his work; and if you steer him gently, he’ll offer much more about the people here and the dynamics of our organization.”

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Dane added, his own chuckle puckering his cheeks and making little attractive dimples under each. “Or at least a few words of enlightenment.”

Setting her teal gaze on me, Renata offered another pleasant smile. “Well, good luck to you, detective. As I mentioned, I’m available if you need any more information or help.”

I thanked her again before she continued on her journey to wherever she was going. Returning to our own quest, Dane gave me a polite nudge at the elbow and moved us right along. We managed to circumvent the long, cluttered laboratory and proceed to a room at the far end. Here very ordinary chairs and a horse-shoe conference table inhabited the space with a large display screen on the back wall. Dane consulted his wristwatch. “The doc should be here in ten seconds.”

Again, as if on cue, a man appeared from a recessed doorway, actually more of a character dressed in a white lab coat and bow tie. He, too, had kept his hair, although by the look of that fulvous frizz going in all directions, he’d be better off going bald. Besides the angular face, the doc possessed a pronounced hawk-like nose where a pair of black-framed glasses now sat, his eyes behind the specs dark and glassy. I knew the glasses had to be for effect, since in this day and age government-funded laser surgery, simple and easy, corrected all ocular shortcomings. Now people wore glasses to shade the sun’s powerful rays and to enhance simulator, multi-dimensional games played at home or at the arcades.

Dane glanced at the doctor and announced: “Dr. Zeff Nutter, I’d like you to meet Detective Cadye Parrish from the LA police.”

The man gave me a curious look from behind his specs, his eyes small, but darkly intense and sharply aware like those of a hawk. “Yes? What do you want, officer?”

“I’d like to ask you a couple of quick questions, doctor. How well did you know Gavin McAllister?”

The scientist crinkled his forehead, his hairline converging to the middle in a prominent V, or as they call it in popular lingo, a widow’s peak. “Gavin McAllister? I never associate with those who work here, least of all those number-crunching idiots from management. I did not know Gavin intimately or professionally. And I’m not sorry to say that if I had no use for him in life why should I think of him in death?”

When I glanced at the company spokesman, Dane threw me a thin, disconcerted smile and a shrug of those firm shoulders. Then he addressed the doctor. “Sorry, Zeff, I thought you knew Gavin McAllister a bit better than the rest of us. I guess I was mistaken.”

“Yes, yes, yes.” Seemingly distracted now, the scientist went to the wall display and configured the side panel until images began to appear on the screen, icons and numbers and symbols found in scientific formulas. “Now what else do you want?” He didn’t bother to turn and address us but continued to bring up and manipulate the data on the screen.

I took in a steadying breath. “I’d like to form a more comprehensive picture of what you have accomplished, Dr. Nutter.”

Taking up a stylus he herded two round and dimpled 3-D shapes to the middle of the screen. They looked like cells, the kind found in the human body. The doctor tapped the shapes and continued to focus on the images. “You see these? They’re the normal cells found in living creatures, natural, unadulterated, perfect. But this one—!” He produced another cell, though different from the others, its color a dark gray and its surface pitted and stressed. “This is a mutated cell that will ultimately grow and consume the good cells, thus producing a debilitating and often fatal disease in the living orgasm. But I have formulated a defense against such mutations.” Suddenly a mass of good cells formed a protective barrier around the bad one, like a band of covered wagons circling around the bad guy in those old Western movies. Then the “good guys” began a fast, wild spin, moving in closer and closer until, once they made a tight fit around the black enemy, they aggressively attacked it, winding down only after they had totally decimated the mutation…like a frenzied feast, eating the bad cell alive.

“There! Now you can see it! We have a way to kill the mutants and destroy the corrupted spawns of disease. This is a simplistic reenactment, of course. Normally, large armies of good cells take over and destroy the grid work of burgeoning disease. Simple! Effective! Beautiful!” Jabbing his stylus at the good cells now drifting about the screen, the doctor jerked his head back, gave a wild shake of his ragged mop of hair, and sent his glasses flying off his nose. They clattered to the floor and lay there; but since the doctor never bothered to retrieve them as he continued with his bellicose lecture, Dane and I left them alone as well.

“And this is just the beginning,” he continued, raising his voice a notch. “I can go a step further and isolate and destroy those factors that inhibit natural aging. Here the good cells can be enhanced and made to control the output of somatotrophin, the growth hormone. Then, zap, zap, and we can live forever!” He began to laugh, a giddy stream of high-pitched “hee-haw” chortles.

This time when I glanced at Dane I shrugged and rolled my eyes. I understood most of Dr. Nutter’s ravings, at least enough to get a decent handle on the work done here at the institute. I also understood why everyone here called the scientist Dr. Franken-nut. Raising my voice above his braying, I thanked the doctor for his time and help, but the man continued to jab at the floating cells and chuckle like a hyena with hiccups.

Hooking his arm through mine, my escort led us quickly out of the room and through the lab. “Now you saw it for yourself,” Dane chuckled, too, although his laughter sounded quite normal with a pleasant, breezy air. “That man is crazy but brilliant. No doubt about it, Zeff will win the Nobel Prize for his discoveries this year, nutty or not.”

“I’m just glad he’s on our side.” I continued to grin as Dane whisked us out of the lab, down the hall and over to a set of elevators.

As we waited for a down tube, he glanced at me and offered a sexy smile. “Ready for coffee and a piece of real New York-style cheesecake?”

“Of course.” I tried not to let my enthusiasm get the best of me as we made our way to the staff commissary.

The institute’s board of directors had made sure to give their employees plenty of attractive work and rest areas. The commons area offered numerous seating options, tables and chairs for those who wished to eat lunch and comfortable padded chairs and couches for those who wanted to read the numerous selections of materials available, or just to relax over coffee and conversation. The décor came in muted blues and agate browns, except for the food, of course, which in itself proved quite attractive and sumptuous. The cafeteria style selections included regional cuisines, standard favorites, and a plentiful salad bar, not to mention the variety of drinks and desserts—and all gloriously real.

When I mentioned this fact to the PR man, Dane readily explained that the managers wanted all of the institute’s employees to work and live well, which included a detailed regimen of diet and exercise. So, in addition to the health-conscious choices, the staff could take advantage of a fully equipped gym, an Olympic-size swimming pool and sensory stations that featured music, relaxation and self-improvement recordings.

“Well, that all costs money,” I mentioned when we both had selected nonfat lattes and cheesecake slices.

Continuing to offer his congenial smile, Dane led us over to one of the cute café tables where we took a seat. “Yes, but its well worth the investment when you compare it next to the employee-work output.”

“And I suppose you cut some of the overhead costs by locating out here.” After my first bite of the rich dessert, I almost had a hard time switching to conversation when my mouth and taste buds kept crying for more cheesecake, and less talk. I detected at least three kinds of cheeses, mascarpone, a creamy and ricotta for sure, plus the addition of lemon zest. I couldn’t imagine why I knew this, unless I had tasted cheesecake in the past. Perhaps, my mother fed it to me during my babyhood, pureed heaven on a graham cracker crust. Now I tried to concentrate on Dane’s commentary.

“The city, county and state offered incentives to any organization and company wanting to help re-energize the area out here. And of course public transportation is readily available. Our employees come from various parts of the county and find it easy to travel back and forth. Of course, we do have a few who work from their home offices, one from Sacramento, one from San Diego and two from the San Francisco-Oakland area.”

“Any hail from Terre Celeste?” I asked between sips of the wonderful coffee.

Dane’s smile faltered just a smidgen. “I’m not sure. We built down here to include everyone, not just a few. We concentrate on research and results, not on looking good to our investors.”

“But I suppose you live upstairs.”

Now he shook his head. “No, I don’t. I prefer to live here on good ol’ Terra Firma. Actually, I just bought a place off Melrose. The developers actually took a burned-out building and converted it into apartment units, not necessarily up-scale but stylish and affordable.”

His real estate pitch caught my attention. I wouldn’t mind taking a look at his place, but of course, I couldn’t voice my interest lest he misunderstood my intentions, not that I had any to offer at the moment. Instead, I glanced at the portfolio display on the institute he had given me earlier. I took note of the institute’s personnel listings, particularly the chief operating officer, Mendell Joffe and the chief financial officer, Dalton Hendricks. I asked Dane if either one would be available for an interview.

“I believe,” he told me, sitting back with his coffee cup in hand, “that Dalton is out of town on business this week, but Mendell should be here. Let me contact his assistant and set up an appointment.”

“That would be great.” I noted Dane used the first names of both big shots, and I had to wonder how tight he was with his bosses. Did he play golf with the big guys on the weekend, perhaps attend their barbecue and cocktail parties at their palatial estates on Terre Celeste? Oh, I had no illusions to the contrary. Both Mendell and Dalton had to be pulling down some decent salaries, which automatically put them in the higher-income and living brackets.

“But in the meantime,” Dane continued, “I’ll round up a few of our managerial staff who dealt with Gavin in the past. Hopefully, they’ll help you in your investigation.”

“I’d appreciate it.” The smile that now affixed my face had been pieced together from a mixed bag of feelings, everything from sugar-laden bliss to nitty-gritty curiosity.

While my tour guide went to make arrangements, I finished my dessert, making sure to pick up every last crumb. For the rest of the day and evening, I’d be on a giddy cheesecake high.

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