I’m a killer. No better than a common murderer, and worse, really. More like a serial killer who can’t help himself as he takes life after life, unable to stop even if he wished he could.
Darian frowned at the corpse on the stainless steel autopsy table. “Damn it, Zeus, I thought you were going to make it.” His frown deepened until long lines etched into his face. Remorse wasn’t good enough. It was useless. Pointless, really. Remorse would not bring Zeus or any of the others back.
He glanced at the video projections of Zeus’s brain development. His original brain on the left screen appeared normally formed and perfectly functional. The one on the right showed Zeus’s brain after he had injected him. Misshapen and grotesque, it was so overdeveloped it strained against the skull.
Darian shook his head. “Not again. I can’t lose another batch of test subjects.”
“We’re making progress, Doctor Beck. This time, the brain enlargement slowed at the end. With some adjustments, next time it might stop before….” George attempted to smile, but only the tips of his lips responded. Twice Darian’s age, he was so optimistic he could see the silver lining in a hurricane, but this lethal turn of events left even him speechless.
“We’re missing something critical. We need to stop the brain development before it overwhelms the subject.” Darian peered through the glass wall that separated the autopsy room from the rest of the laboratory. The remaining five subjects sat perfectly straight and stared mournfully at the glass as if Darian and Zeus and the table with death hovering above it drew their gaze.
An icy chill tickled its way up his spine. The others had no idea Zeus had died. They were often separated. To them, the glass wall was a simple mirror. They had no idea—could have no idea—a laboratory sat beyond the glass, yet he suspected they knew the truth: that Zeus was dead and he the killer.
Darian nodded toward the remaining subjects. “It’s odd that they haven’t eaten their breakfast. It’s already past noon. They must be hungry.”
Color drained from George’s face. “It’s unnatural for them to stare at the mirror like that.”
Darian pressed a button on a keypad and the one-way glass window turned gray, blocking the other subjects from view. Led Zeppelin started playing. “It’s just our imagination. Hand me the circular saw. Let’s hope we can learn enough from Zeus to save his friends.”
George handed him the shiny autopsy tool, but before he switched it on, the lab door swung open and Brenda Callaghan darted into the room. The normally composed, rather attractive young researcher appeared ashen, her jaw clenched tight.
“What’s wrong, Brenda?”
“I came as soon as I heard. I’m sorry about Zeus, but there’s something else you should know.”
Darian stared patiently and waited for her to continue. She clutched a thin hospital issued tablet in her hands. His chest tightened.
“Wickersham authorized EBF-202 to be administered to a new patient. He doesn’t know that Zeus died, but the injection is scheduled for later today.” She handed Darian the tablet.
Darian narrowed his eyes until they were nothing more than slits. “This is a young patient. How can he do this? This is my trial! We’re not ready! We’ll end up killing him.” The tablet cracked under his tightening grip. “I’m going to….” The violent images flashing through his mind came too fast and were too graphic to put into words. He hurled the tablet across the room and raced from the lab.
Darian hurried toward the elevator, his white lab coat flapping open, revealing a vintage Grateful Dead t-shirt, worn blue jeans, and flip-flops. His usually affable face twisted into an angry grimace as he repeatedly jabbed the call button. He cursed under his breath and shifted his weight back and forth. When the bell rang, the door swished open, and he darted inside the empty elevator.
“Please hold the doors!” a voice called.
He instinctively thrust out his hand as they began to shut. A young female lab assistant strolled into the elevator. Her long, pin-straight blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and swayed as she walked. Her golden brown tan contrasted with her white lab coat, and her jade eyes that flirted behind long eyelashes. She smelled like jasmine and vanilla. She must be new, he thought. Perfume was discouraged in the labs, and no one stayed tan after working the long hours the research facility required.
“Thanks for holding it for me.” She smiled.
“No problem.” Darian tapped the button for the top floor, raised his eyebrows, and glanced at the lab assistant.
“That’s good for me,” she said.
When the elevator stopped on the main floor to let in three additional passengers, Darian stepped back, and she slid closer to him. The fragrance of her perfume grew stronger. A current zipped through his body as he breathed the scented air deep into his lungs.
“My name is Vanessa.” She held out her hand.
Darian squeezed and let go, but her hand lingered for a second longer than it needed to. Electricity flowed between them.
“I’m Darian Beck.” He had been so angry and preoccupied that he almost forgot to notice that she was a knockout. Almost, but his eyes wandered to her thin neck and started to wash down the rest of her body when he admonished himself and pulled away.
The elevator stopped at the fourth floor and let out everyone except Darian and Vanessa. He used the space to furtively study her reflection off the elevator doors. Her eyes were wide, lips full and red. A small beauty mark dotted her right cheek, which made her perfectly symmetrical face beyond beautiful—unique.
Vanessa stayed close to his side. A seductive smile snuck across her lips. “I’ve heard your name mentioned before, Doctor.”
He grinned despite his surly mood. “Only good things, I hope.”
“Mostly.” She winked good-naturedly at him.
When the doors opened, he raced from the elevator, eager to be on his way, temporarily forgetting about the new lab assistant with the sweet smile and perfume.
The top floor hardly resembled the rest of the research hospital. Gone were the gray tile floors, fluorescent lights, plain hallways, and metal doors. Dark cherry paneling, antique ink drawings, and white wooden doors replaced them.
He stomped toward the corner office. With each step he grew more agitated, as if his anger rolled down a steep hill, gathering intensity as it went. He stared hard at the nameplate on the corner office door—Samuel Wickersham, PHD – Head of Research—and shoved it open.
The receptionist screeched in surprise at his sudden entrance. She regained her composure and grinned at him. “I’m sorry, Doctor Beck, but we don’t have an appointment for you.”
“Not to worry, Clair. He’ll want to see me.” He quickened his pace toward Wickersham’s door, turned the doorknob, and plunged into the corner office.
Wickersham’s cavernous office was larger than Darian’s entire studio apartment. Floor-to-ceiling windows covered both exterior walls and offered stunning views of New York City. He huffed to Wickersham’s massive desk. Four inch risers lifted his desk and chair. In reality, Wickersham was short, well below average, but from Darian’s vantage point, he seemed imposing.
Wickersham immediately raised his left hand with his palm facing Darian, without looking up, as if he’d been expecting him. Wickersham’s vast oval desk contained only a flat screen computer monitor, a new holographic video display that was turned off, an old-fashioned intercom box, and a photograph of a smiling Wickersham with his left arm draped over the Vice President’s shoulders. He told everyone that they were childhood friends. No one believed him.
Wickersham’s eyes never lifted from his keyboard.
Darian seethed as he watched the snail-like progress of his fingers drag across the keyboard. He balled his hands into tight fists. Wickersham shifted in his seat, but his perfectly tailored, crisp navy suit moved seamlessly with him. He paused for a second and gently stroked his dyed blond hair, but not one hair moved. He used so much hair gel, Darian thought it would take a tsunami to move any out of place.
When Wickersham finished typing, he looked up from the keyboard. Darian couldn’t read his emotions; Wickersham had injected a river of Botox into his face. It was like dealing with a mannequin.
“Doctor Beck, I didn’t know that we had a meeting scheduled. I imagine you have something important to tell me. Perhaps you have a breakthrough to report? Please, take a seat.” Wickersham gestured toward one of the two leather wingback chairs facing the desk, but Darian remained standing.
“We can’t try EBF-202 on a new patient. It’s not ready.”
“I disagree. The drug has shown remarkable potential.” Wickersham crossed his manicured hands on the desk in front of him. He sat absolutely straight, tried his best to smile, and sighed slightly when the effort failed.
“The first version of the drug ended up killing all the test subjects.” Darian leaned on the desk, wondering if he could hurtle it and reach Wickersham’s throat in one leap.
“That was the first version. The second version hasn’t produced any fatalities. I visited all six of our research subjects last night. They all looked healthy.”
“Zeus died this morning!” Darian glared at him, hoping Zeus’s death would cause him to reconsider, or at least bother him, but if it did, the head of research showed no signs of it.
“We only started this trial two months ago. Their brains are still developing. The pace has slowed considerably, but it hasn’t stopped yet. If the development continues, they will all die over the next month. Plus, their behavior has altered. It’s just not safe! We don’t understand all the ramifications of the drug. We can’t use EBF-202 on humans. I didn’t go into research to kill people! It’s bad enough the dogs have died.”
Wickersham leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “How did you know I planned on using a human test subject?”
Darian’s face grew hot.
“I see. Callaghan must have told you. My mistake.”
“That’s not important. EBF-202 regenerates brain tissue, but we can’t control the effects. It will likely kill anyone you inject with it! We need more time with the animal control subjects.” His anger crested like a wave headed to shore, and crashed as it mingled with sand and surf and the knowledge that he was helpless.
“This drug will revolutionize how we view the brain. The treatment will not only end Alzheimer’s and senility, but can increase cognitive powers. The applications are endless, and so are the profits. You’re young still. You must understand the bigger picture. With your share of the money, most of your educational costs will be paid off.” Wickersham’s moss-colored eyes gleamed brightly.
Darian’s spirit sank. That look in Wickersham’s eyes meant that he sniffed money, and when he thought he might get paid, nothing changed his mind. “Did the patient’s guardian sign the consent forms?”
Wickersham tried to smirk, but he gave up under the strain well before Darian could have recognized the reaction. “You’ve seen the young man’s chart. He’s not going to recover from his head wound if we do nothing. At least we’ll be giving him a chance to benefit all humankind. Besides, he’s the perfect test subject— young and strong with a severe head trauma.”
“He still has a fighting chance to come out of the coma using traditional treatments. His guardian should be told about the choices and the risks.”
Wickersham stood, his head clearing the high back of his chair by an inch. “This is 2041, Doctor Beck. The law was changed two years ago. Without premium insurance, I can make this decision, and he doesn’t have the proper coverage.”
Darian’s nails dug into the palms of his hands. “But the Sheppard Group is paying all his bills. They have the required riders in their insurance.”
Wickersham slithered toward the side of his desk. “Yes, but the tennis instructor is not covered by that insurance. They’re paying for his costs out of pocket.” Wickersham waved his arms in the air as if he were conducting a symphony. “This is for the best, Darian. Don’t worry about the ethics. You should stick to what you’re good at: neurobiology and making friends among the female staff members.”
“Just give me another two months with the dogs. We’ll be in a better place.”
Wickersham stood beside him, his head just inches above Darian’s shoulder despite the man’s ridiculous platform shoes. “You’ll be fully involved in his case study. Just imagine how much we’ll learn! Think of all the people he’ll be helping.”
The intercom buzzed. Wickersham might have been the only person alive who still used one of those things. “Your daughter is here for your meeting, Doctor Wickersham.”
“Great. I’ve just finished with Doctor Beck. Good day, Doctor.”
“His name is Jack.”
“The tennis instructor. Your case study.” He had a fleeting fantasy about smashing his fists into Wickersham’s surgically altered nose, but spun and stormed toward the door instead. He reached for the doorknob, but the door swung open and he collided with Wickersham’s daughter. Their eyes met.