Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Queen of Guilty Pleasures - Part 5

Marcel led them to a small shed behind the building where old bound volumes of newspapers lined the shelves. He pulled a box from behind some of the large books.

“Damn, you put the stuff out here?” said Hitchens, “with no air conditioning?”

“This sophisticated kind of package is totally insulated,” said Tersarius, as he carried the old software box into the building.

“I wouldn’t open it if I were you,” said Marcel. “It’s in there pretty tight.”

Tersarius cracked the box just enough to see the zero-energy container inside.

“How did you notice the box?” asked Marcel.

“Well, even though I don’t use the software much, I know Pagemaker is an Adobe product now. And this box says Aldus, so I knew it was pretty old. I mean, why would a newspaper be using desktop publishing software ten years old? And then I realized the name.”

“I tried to be too clever, huh?”

“I don’t get it,” said Hitchens, “What about the name?”

“This tissue sample is from a woman named Bettie Page. She was a top pinup in the 1950s and the Playboy Playmate for Christmas 1955. She became a Christian in 1959 and has been pretty much living a private life in anonymity since then.”

“I get it. The software is named Pagemaker.” Hitchens rolled his eyes. “Page-maker. Sheeyit.”

Tersarius pointed a thumb towards the door. “Time to visit Cloverleaf Farms.”

* * *

Despite it being the middle of a Texas summer, the grounds of Cloverleaf Farms were bright green. It was gated and a voice squawked from a box after they pulled up.

“I’d like to see Mr. Jervinis.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I don’t need one. I’m Agent Tersarius of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

There was a pause. “May I see your badge?”

Tersarius held it up in front of the lens. The gate swung open.

They drove up to a large and long building, where a chunky man with sandy hair came out. “Gentlemen, I’m Mark Ginn, the manager here at Cloverleaf. How may I help you?”

“We’d like to see Mr. Jervinis.” Tersarius looked around the expansive estate.

“Mr. Jervinis isn’t here right now. Is here something I can help you gentlemen with?” He obviously recognized Marcel but didn’t give Hitchens a second glance.

“I want to see your embryology lab.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible. It’s secure and sterile and I don’t have the authority. Mr. Jervinis is the general manager, I’m just the manager of the boarding facility. Besides, do you have a warrant?”

“I believe there’s a crime in progress. Your lab is being used for illegal cloning.”

“Agent Tersarius, cloning livestock is hardly illegal.”

“Cloning humans is.”

Tersarius could tell from his reaction this was the first he’d heard of this.

“Are you going to cooperate, or do I need call the Dallas office for backup, and do a thorough search?”

Ginn let them in and the four men slowly made their way through the lab. Ginn seemed unfamiliar with the facilities, but Tersarius recognized the standard lab setup — refrigeration equipment, sterile hoods, incubators and such.

He looked around and rubbed his chin. “The right stuff isn’t quite here.” He looked at Ginn, who just shrugged.

He noticed a locked door off to the side. “What’s in there?”

“From my having visited in here before, I think that’s a personal office for Mr. Jervinis.”

Tersarius twisted the knob and shook the door. “Do you have a key?”

Tersarius let go of the knob, but it continued to twist. The door opened and a dark-haired man with a neat beard looked out. “What’s going on here?”

“Mr. Jervinis, I’m sorry.” Ginn spoke up. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“That OK, Mark. Tim, what’s going on?”

“This is an FBI agent Tersarius. He’s investigating a suspected case of human cloning.”

“There’s been no law violated, Agent Tersarius.” Jervinis was the image of reasonability. “I’ve only been involved in some personal embryological research, related, of course, to our reproductive services division here at the ranch.”

“Well, then, you don’t mind if I take a look inside.”

“Not at all.”

Tersarius went inside the small room, which also had a sterile hood and incubator, along with a small refrigerator and a microscope, all on one large table. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a tray with vials.

He looked over the containers. He gestured towards the other men. “Gentlemen, step forward here. I want to show you how to clone a human being.”

“First, you examine the human cells under this high power microscope, to insure there’s no contamination. If you’re unsure, you can always use a small centrifuge to isolate them.”

He looked at Jervinis, who was beginning to look worried. “I assume you have one someplace?”

Jervinis nodded very slowly.

“Then you put them in this specialized culture media,” he said holding up a vial, “where the cells grow and divide. You need to grow a good supply of clean cells.”

“This stuff here,” he said, “holding up another tube, “is called minimal media. It’s formulated so that the cells stop dividing and become quiescent.”

He pulled out a sealed petri dish. “You then take an unfertilized human egg, not terribly difficult to obtain, and under the sterile hood, you use a microscopically thin pipette to puncture the cell wall and then suck out the egg’s nucleus.”

He opened the door to the hood and slid in the dish. “Then you take one of the cells and slide it into the egg’s cell membrane.”

He looked at the trio. “A normal human cell is much smaller than an egg, so you can implant it in the egg’s cell wall quite easily. Isn’t that true?”

Jervinis nodded again.

“Then you either use chemicals or electroshock to jolt the cells so they fuse. The nucleus of the clone cell merges with the egg and takes the place of the nucleus you earlier removed. The egg will develop with the genetic material of the clone cell rather than what it started with. Then it’s just a simple matter of artificial insemination with some willing host.”

He turned to Jervinis. “I assume from the caps on some of these vials you use the electroshock method?”

Jervinis reached into a drawer and pulled out a small box with some wires and clamps.

“Very simple, but it would do the job,” said Tersarius. “I commend your expertise. You’ve managed to put a neat cloning operation on a desktop. You obviously know your stuff.”

“You obviously do, too. Have you ever done this yourself?”

Tersarius gave a little laugh. “No, but remember I’m the one asking questions here. And the next one is, who you have been working for?”

Before Jervinis opened his mouth, Marcel turned to run but Hitchens quickly grabbed him and then shoved him back in the door.

“That’s OK, Mr. Editor, it isn’t hard to see you’re the linchpin of this project,” said Tersarius. “You thought implicating over the Frames would throw me off you, and that when I ran into the lieutenant, he’d do his job.”

“I thought he would do at least what he was damn well paid to do.”

“Well, it was obvious you’re at the center of this. I can see Jervinis recognized you but not the lieutenant. The Frames knew the lieutenant but not you. You and the lieutenant are at the center of this conspiracy — and you’re obviously working for the client. Why would you get the tissue sample instead of Jervinis here? You can’t do a thing with it.”

He turned to Jervinis. “By the way, do you have an idea of the name of the clone subject?”

The doctor looked at him warily.

“Oh, I’m sorry, now that I’m sure, I need your testimony and expertise for this case,” said Tersarius. “We’ll give you immunity. It’s obvious Marcel here is our connection to the client.”

“Actually, Agent Tersarius, I don’t know and I never asked. I thought it was better that way.”

“Which means our editor friend here was the only person who knew her name. Page-maker, huh?” He snorted. “Desktop publishing software. Desktop cloning. All sorts of in-jokes.”

Marcel glared at him. “I want an attorney.”

Tersarius cocked an eyebrow at Hitchens. “You want to do the honors?”

The lieutenant smiled. “My pleasure.”

“Oh, you son of a bitch! I’ll be damned if you’re going arrest me!”

Hitchens already had the handcuffs on behind his back. “Just tell the man what he wants to know.”

“I can’t.”

“Yeah, I know.” Tersarius said. “Let’s go.”

He turned to Jervinis. “I’d like to debrief you. I think I’ll learn more if you and I cooperate. I think we can chalk this up to research for future cases.”

Jervinis smiled and nodded. “Mark, please turn off all the lights and lock up behind us.”

(to be continued)

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