Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Queen of Guilty Pleasures - Part 6 (conclusion)

It was past 10 p.m. before Tersarius was done debriefing Jervinis in Dallas. Marcel was fuming in a cell and Hitchens was back doing whatever a crooked cop does in a small town.

He drove back to Juniper Valley. The Town Square was dark and quiet as he let himself in the Journal office. He walked around the editor’s desk and slowly looked over the shelves. There were many science fiction books. He glanced over some of the titles:

Web of the City

The Man with Nine Lives

The Sound of the City

“Seems to be a pattern here,” he thought.

He noticed a memo pad on the desk. The top sheet was blank, but he could see an impression of what had been written on the sheet above. He could just make out what looked like

HE

m

an

“He-man?”

He tore the sheet from the pad and stuck it in his shirt pocket. He began going through drawers.

He found a slick trade paperback. The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pin-ups.

“He did a little research here.”

He flipped through the pages and noticed the book opened at the foreword: “The Queen of Guilty Pleasures.” Then he saw who guest-authored the foreword.

“Payoff.”

He threw the book back in the drawer.

* * *

“I’m surprised to see you back in Southern California,” said Detective Sloan. “I did think I’d get a call. But I assumed after you took off for Texas, I’d never see you again.”

“If you think about it, neither of us should be surprised the trail led back here,” said Agent Tersarius. “You know how uncommon random assaults are.”

“You said in your message you think the person who set up this possible cloning deal lives here.”

“Yes, that probably explains how he knew Bettie Page still lived in the LA area,” said Tersarius. “Plus he fits what I would call the profile in this case. Someone old and wealthy who could afford to do this, someone who would remember Bettie Page as a pinup in the ‘50s. In this case, my suspect was 21 when she was a Playboy centerfold in 1955.”

“I don’t pretend to completely understand how it’s done,” said the detective, “especially if — if you cloned someone today, wouldn’t it take years for the clone to grow up? Don’t they age like a normal human?”

“That’s the interesting twist on the case,” said Tersarius. “I have an indication this may have been done before.” He pulled out the sheet from the memo pad. “When I ran this through the bureau’s lab in Dallas, they made out the whole message. It actually says “HE make another.”

“Is HE your suspect then? I assume those are initials.”

“Yes, and that’s where I’m going next.”

“Do you need my help?”

“No actually, he lives elsewhere, so it doesn’t fall under your jurisdiction. I just wanted to make a courtesy call. I’ll let you know if it pans out.”

The detective stood up and shook Tersarius’ hand. “Well, this was probably ground breaking.”

Tersarius gave a wan smile. “It might be earth shaking, if the suspect is who I think it is. On the other hand, we probably will cut a deal. We may need this man’s help more than we need him prosecuted.”

“You would have thought the first real attempt at cloning would have been for spare organs,” said the detective as he escorted the agent to the door.

“Well, the two things that drive mankind are a desire for sex and a fear of death,” the agent said dryly. “Human nature being what it is, I’m not surprised someone would have wanted to clone a concubine.”

He turned as he walked away. “Anyway, this is the first case I’ve seen involving a sex toy.”

* * *

Agent Tersarius parked in front of a ranch house with a California stone exterior.

A diminutive well-dressed man with intelligent eyes behind rather large glasses answered the door. “Good afternoon. Agent Tersarius, isn’t it?”

“We need to talk, sir.”

The old man gestured expansively for the agent to enter. “I got word from Texas to be expecting you.”

Tersarius knitted his legs as he sat down on a large leather couch. “I guess Tim Marcel called you as soon as he posted bail.”

A pretty dark-haired teenage girl came into the living room. “Hello. Daddy, you didn’t tell me we had a guest?”

Tersarius smiled at the girl. “I just arrived.”

“Bettie, dearest, could you get us some coffee, please?”

“Sure.” She smiled at the agent. “I’ll be right back.”

The author turned to Tersarius. “As you can see, there’s nothing romantic going on here, agent.”

“Was that the original plan?”

The old man sighed. “You’re very perspicacious, sir.”

He sat back in his chair. “Yes, I planned to use her as a paramour — but as she quickly matured, my heart wasn’t in it.”

“Quickly, eh? How old is she?”

The author looked at his with resignation. “Seven. She’s seven years old.”

“She looks like a 16-year old.”

“And her rate of aging is accelerating. She’ll probably die of old age by the time she’s 30.”

“Things didn’t work out the way you planned, then. Couldn’t bear to become attached to her?”

“You make it sound so crass.”

Irritation crept into Tersarius’ voice. “Crass? Damn, man, you were going to start making a series of then? So you’d have a fresh one when the previous one got too old?”

The author’s blue eyes flashed as he leaned forward violently. “No, dammit. I just wanted to see whether this first case was an aberration. I wanted new work done.”

Tersarius nodded in the direction of the kitchen. “So she wasn’t a product of the Texas lab?”

“No, I had a fellow in Nevada do that work. Marcel was a fan who happened to broach the subject of cloning in a letter. I used him to set up the second attempt.”

He sighed. “I just learned two days ago it wouldn’t have worked. I was going to tell Marcel to destroy the tissue sample. Then you showed up.”

“What did you learn?”

The author leaned back in his armchair and rubbed his hands in a very obvious way. “Now, are we going to talk about leniency?”

“If you happen to have something substantial to offer, yes.”

The old man smiled. “My man in Nevada isolated a genome that seems to determine the rate of aging once maturity is achieved. Apparently, it must have some kind of environmental trigger — which explains why, in an artificial situation such as this, the aging proceeds geometrically after infancy.”

“How has he been able to confirm this?”

“This genome in Bettie duplicates that which has already been found in victims of Progeria — except it’s not the same gene. Since we know what the gene looks like initially, a little splicing and we’ll have a cure for fetuses diagnosed as possessing the Progeria defect.”

“A cure for Progeria.” Tersarius lowered his voice as Bettie returned with a tray and a carafe of coffee.

“Thank you dear. I know you have school work to do. Please leave us two old fellows, we’re talking business.”

“Of course, daddy.” Her blue eyes sparkled. “Please say good-bye before you leave, Mr....”

“Tersarius.”

Her bangs swayed as she giggled. “I’m sorry, did you say Terry Serious?”

“Close enough.” They both laughed.

The author nodded after she left. “She’s my responsibility in every way. Now I have to watch her grow old so quickly. The least I can do is make some good come out of this — a rich, old man’s foolish fantasy.”

“She was cloned before the law went in to effect,” said Tersarius. “And you were stopped before the next attempt. The most I would have is a conspiracy charge.”

He sipped his coffee. “I think we can deal. The NIH will appreciate the information you turn over to them.”

* * *

“You could have flown in tomorrow morning.”

Tersarius was pulling off his tie. “After spending all that time in Texas and California, I wanted to get back home.”

He kissed his wife.

“Where’s the little one?”

“Asleep in her bed, like a little angel.”

They both looked at their daughter through a partially cracked doorway.

He smiled and turned away as he quietly closed the door.

She held his hand. “Wasn’t this job about illegal cloning?”

“Yes, but they didn’t succeed.”

“Well, did you learn anything?”

He looked at her thoughtfully. “Yes. Bringing life into the world is a big responsibility — also a big risk.”

She had hardly ever heard him say anything so touching. She hugged him, and he hugged her back even tighter.

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