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Authors: A E Rought

Tainted (22 page)

BOOK: Tainted
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“Were you there?” he asks, gaze as unwavering as his voice.

“Not by choice.” Maybe my pleading will play to my benefit. “We went to the movies like I said we would. Emma got a text, said she needed to use the bathroom and disappeared. I got a picture of her there. She’s not been right since I woke her. I
had
to go.” I drop my focus to my plate and murder eggs with my fork. “I got into a fight, and–”

“I see your shiner,” he interrupts.

“They kicked me out. Jason and I went back and that had happened,” I stab my fork in the direction of the dead TV screen. “We found Emma, got her out and came home.”

“And you have no idea what transpired when you weren’t there?”

“Tiffany said the victims were poisoned.”

“Do you know where it came from?” Gran asks, and rests her hand on my arm.

“No idea.”

My best friend is dying. Hailey is trying to pressure me into signing over half of Ascension. Emma’s afraid she’s losing her mind and I’m afraid it’s my fault. In a moment of sick realization, the thought, I wish my dad was here, goes through my head. He might’ve been a bad man, but he was brilliant. He could’ve figured this out. At least Emma’s problem.

“Does anyone else know you were there?” Grandpa continues to needle me.

“Two people,” I say, “both old friends from Sadony Academy.”

“We haven’t had a call, yet,” Gran says, thoughtful and soft. Grandpa nods. “The police have had hours to interview witnesses. No one’s called or stopped, yet.”

“Maybe he’s going to be safe.” It sounds equal parts question and hopeful statement coming from Gran. “His mother escaped a lot…”

“His mother didn’t escape everything.” Grandpa’s eyes go hard and his expression closes off. Candles could catch flame with the fire in his eyes when he turns to me again. “Something in that lab is evil, boy. Or somebody. I know you’re dependent on it, but you can’t let what’s rotten there fester and destroy everything else.”

“Paul and I are looking into everything.”

“Paul Stanton?” Grandpa leans back, snagging a slice of bacon his way. “Your father’s right hand man. Are you sure you’re trusting the right person?”

My grandfather hasn’t seen the picture in Paul’s office. He hasn’t seen the way Paul looks at my mother in it. He felt for my mom the way I feel about Em. How can a person who knows love like that be evil?

But my grandfather’s staunch distrust of pretty much everyone else has put roots in me. I question Paul’s honesty, his involvement in Emma’s problems. Why else would that video show up on his computer? Or the one he swears he deleted show up on our phones?

I force my mind off that track, choosing not to swill farther into doubt, and work at the food Gran put on my plate.

Sullen quiet sits like an unwanted guest at the table. Gran sips her tea, pushes around her food. Grandpa seems determined to make up for the lack of appetites at the table this morning. He piles his plate a second time, fork stuck in the syrup-laden mess when he lifts his cool blue glance at me. “You’re not going to achieve anything sitting there mashing eggs that are already scrambled.”

“No sir.” I scoop up my plate. Renfield leaps into my vacated seat after I stand. He watches while I clean my plate. At least the cat’s faith in me doesn’t seem shaken. Then again, I doubt he had much to start with.

What will restore Grandpa’s faith in me? Saving Emma? Rooting out the poison sickening Ascension Labs?

Despite my grandfather’s doubt, I still have some faith in Paul.

I will confront him; then together, we can solve the riddles.

Rock salt crunches under the Acura’s tires when I turn onto Ascension’s drive. This weekend’s bitter temperatures have rendered the salt ineffective. Michigan winters have mad skills – so damn cold, the salt won’t melt anything. At least the grit provides some traction.

Just past the gates, I’m tempted to stand on the brakes and throw the car in reverse. Hailey’s flashy Audi A4 sits parked a few spaces from the doors. What is she doing here now? It’s bad enough we share the same planet, why do we have to share the same lab? My grip on the steering wheel tightens, my jaw clenches and revives the ache nestled there. Maybe I step on the brakes too hard when I park, but I’m suddenly pissed.

I lift my chin, like I’ve seen Emma do when her stubborn side comes out. Hailey is not going to chase me out. Flawed, poisoned as my Grandpa says, Ascension will be mine someday, not hers.

The building doors open, and Hailey strolls out, dark hair whipping like a flag in the wind. Her pause is so brief I might be imagining it. Something flashes across her face, too quick to read. Her gaze finds mine when I step out of the car. Then she straightens her fur collar and a predatory grin cuts into her cheeks. If she was a cat, I would be looking for feathers around her mouth. Careful steps carry Hailey across the parking lot, she stops at her car long enough to give me a perfect parade float wave.

Bitch.

I tuck tighter into my new leather jacket, taking some comfort in its stiffness. Black leather, motorcycle style, plenty of zippers and snaps – with everything falling apart, a little toughness is a good thing.

My ex-girlfriend sits behind the wheel of her prissy car, texting, when I walk past. I’m too irritated with her to feel any trepidation walking up to the building.

“I’ll buzz you in,” Paul says through the intercom when I reach the doors.

I’m not the least surprised when my cellphone goes off. I snatch it out of my pocket when I walk into the building. The caller ID reads:
Hailey Westmore
.

“What?” I snap when I answer the call. The doors whisk closed.

“Nice jacket,” she purrs. “Is that new?”

“What do you care?” I turn and glare at her shadow in the Audi.

“Oh, now don’t get pissy with me, Alex. You won’t like me when I’m angry…”

“Ha!” I snort and pour as much condescension in my voice as possible. “Don’t quote Bruce Banner. He turns into the Hulk. You’re just a bitch.”

“That’s so nerd-boy of you,” Hailey says, voice iced over and brittle. She guns her Audi, the car lurching forward, tires hurling rock salt at the doors. “Slumming has really brought you down a few levels.”

“I would say I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I nearly growl, “but I don’t want to lie.”

“You still care about me,” she says. “You’ll come back.”

“You would have to kill me first.”

“There are better ways to coerce you.” That damn I-know-more-than-you tone in her voice makes me crazy. “For instance, I could tell the press what I know about your activities on Christmas Eve.”

Oh God.

The bottom drops out of my gut. Cold shock floods me. Christmas Eve? How can she possibly know? Paul said he deleted all the files. If I acknowledge what I did to Emma, Hailey will use it against us. I might as well hand her Emma’s head and the keys to Ascension.

I have to act like she’s wrong, like she’s crazy.

“You don’t know anything.”

“Tell yourself that,” she says, her voice full of false sweetness, “if it makes you feel better.”

“Hailey?”

“Yes, Alex?”

“Go jump off a cliff.”

Admittedly not the most mature way to end a phone call, but I can’t tolerate another minute of her. I stuff my phone away, choking down my heart.

Suspicion already makes me think she’s involved in more than blackmailing me, even if I can’t prove it. Sure, she has an alibi for the night Emma was killed, but she knows something.

Paul’s office door stands open, a silent invitation to join him. The hall is short, empty and crowded with the ghosts of things unnamed and unwanted. My footfalls echo off the hard surfaces. I knock once at the threshold, alerting Paul to my presence. He’s wrapped up so tight in something on his computer screen he looks like he could get pulled in.

“We need to talk,” I tell Paul when he fails to acknowledge my presence. He flaps a hand at me, in the general direction of the chair.

His distracted behavior sucks the fire out of my anger. Left hollow and burnt out without it, I sink into the chair and watch him scanning over something on the computer. One fingertip hovers millimeters from the screen, tracing across and then down. His mouth moves like he’s reading. Occasionally Paul nods, or makes notations on a notepad.

When his finger reaches the bottom of the computer screen, he looks up. The man looks like he hasn’t slept in days, dark circles under his eyes, pale skin, beard past grizzle and into whiskers.

“Hey, kid,” he says. “Did you say something?”

“Yeah. About two minutes ago.” I hand him the coffee cup he’s fumbling for, even though it’s gone cold. “Are you OK, Paul?”

“Me?” He blinks, downs the rest of the coffee, then polishes his glasses. “Not sure. Been pulled fifty different ways, twisted, pressed, squeezed. I know you have questions about those videos. And I don’t blame you. I wish you would believe me. I wish I had answers for you other than I didn’t do it and I can’t trace the source yet.

“But I am making positive strides in eventually regulating your highs and lows post
treatment
.”

Post Lazarus Treatment, as Jason suggested.

“I don’t know what to say,” I struggle for words. Him addressing my doubts, then throwing this kind of curve ball has knocked me on my ass. Especially after what Hailey threatened. The things I came to discuss – his possible guilt, Emma’s personality flips, Hailey’s harassment, Trent and the others dying – fracture against the wall of my shock. I thought my life had hit the skids and slid into the kind of dark it never truly recovers from. Paul, against whom I’ve harbored mistrust and doubt, just offered me a glimpse of hope.

“I’m still a ways from my goal, on both fronts, but I’m on the right path.” He rolls his chair to the corner of his desk and picks up an unmarked DVD. “The preliminary numbers are
very
positive.”

Damn the hope that catches fire in my chest. If he can really stop the weekly dose-to-dose fade in me and Emma, maybe he could help Jason. The possibility of having my girl and my best friend and actually keeping them in my life is at once too sweet and too scary to consider. But, I do.

“Do you think you could cure a disease, then?” Do I dare ask? It isn’t my place. But, if Paul can help… My voice cracks when I say, “What about Jason?”

Paul stops every movement, focuses on me. In these moments, he reminds me most of my mother. If I had a problem the world would cease to exist for her until she fixed it. He exhales in a deep sigh. Then he pulls up a webpage of information on Juvenile Huntington’s.


This
,” Paul indicates the Lazarus Procedure file, “is a lot different than curing
that
degenerative genetic disease, Alex. This has been in the works for a very long time – decades. It would take many more years, if it’s possible at all, to cure Jason. We might not find a cure before he succumbs. And there is the permanent joint and tissue damage to worry about.

“Your father worked a miracle in you. I’m not sure I can do the same for Jason.” He must see the disappointment on my face. “But I will try, once we have things under control here.”

At least it’s a promise to try. “Thank you.”

“Now,” his expression slips to questioning when he says, “Is there something else I can do?”

“What Hailey was doing here?”

“Oh. Um…” he searches the desk, riffles through a couple piles, then picks up the DVD he set down in order to search. “She dropped this off, said it was very important that I watch it.”

Alarms ring in my head. “And you trust her?”

“Not particularly.” He removes the disk from the paper envelope, and puts it into a drive set aside specifically for scanning software for viruses and harmful programming. “The scanner says it’s safe.”

I stand, and join him behind the desk when he puts the DVD into the appropriate tray in his computer. The media program opens automatically, and starts the video. The screen flickers, an image clears and focuses on Katrina, one of the interns my father had hired from the local community college. The animal research lab makes a ghost town of a backdrop. Vacant cages, doors hanging open, metal edges gleam dully behind her. Something feels off about it. Kat’s usually so… perky… and she sits there as empty as the cages.

“I know,” she says, voice hollow and dead, then looks at a piece of paper in her hands, “that my negligence has caused untold harm. First, I lied about the animals.” Kat refers to the page again. “I lost control of them when an experiment went awry.” She shifts a glance off screen, then back to her script. “Then, I breached protocol by leaving a trial drug unattended. My samples were stolen. The tragedy at the Reindeer Games is my fault, too.” Another peek at her paper. “I’ve failed Ascension Labs. I’ve failed White River. I’m terribly sorry.”

Except she didn’t sound sorry. She didn’t sound sad, mad, guilty – anything. Katrina didn’t have any emotion for someone admitting to these crimes.

“This isn’t right,” Paul says when the video abruptly stops. “I just spoke to her today. She maintained everything was normal when she signed out, the animals were in their cages that night. And she didn’t mention anything about the drugs.”

He replays the video, scrutinizing every frame. Keys clack beneath his fingers with his frenzied typing as he calls up the lab records for the past week. It’s all there, every time someone clocked in or out, the respective lab files coordinated with those times. He scrolls through everything Katrina’s done, then grabs the business phone from his desk and paces after dialing.

“Hello? Katrina?” Then his lips turn down and he pinches his nose beneath his glasses. “Voice mail,” he mutters, then says, “Katrina, this is Paul Stanton at Ascension. A very disturbing DVD was delivered here and we need to discuss it. Call, or come in, please. I will be here all day.”

“Here’s the question, though.” Because it needs to be asked. “Why did Hailey bring it here?”

“She offered Katrina a place to stay for a few nights,” Paul answers, peering at Kat’s files some more, “while Kat’s apartment complex was repainted. Hailey said she found the DVD left behind.”

BOOK: Tainted
4.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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