The Queen of Guilty Pleasures
by Lou Antonelli
part 1 of 2
Bob the Stockman was absent-mindedly loading a shelf with dollar pasta when something caught the corner of his eye.
Bob used to be a telecommunications specialist — but the gigantic corporation went bust, and now he felt himself lucky to get a minimum-wage job at a Bargain Bucks store.
He turned and realized why his peripheral vision had tugged subliminally at his consciousness.
“How special,” he thought. “The Trash Perfecta. Cheap Trash, Old Trash, Euro-Trash.”
The astoundingly-dressed hooker was just picking up her yellow plastic bag full of junk food. An old overweight woman standing behind her stepped up.
Euro-Trash was behind her. Even in LA, this guy stood out — wraparound mirrored sunglasses, slicked back hair, olive complexion, a narrow white tie on a silver lame’ shirt and navy blue chinos. All under a heavy dark long overcoat.
“This dope is a slave to fashion,” thought Bob to himself. “Wearing a coat like that in LA in July.”
The elderly woman's pretty blue eyes sparkled as she made small talk with the clerk, who took her cash and turned to the cash drawer.
Before the old woman had a chance to pull back her arm, Euro-Trash reached into a deep coat pocket and pulled out the god-damnedest big syringe Bob had ever seen. In one smooth gesture he raised it and pulled the cap off the large needle. Leaning around the old woman, he plunged it deep into the fleshy part of her upper arm.
It took a moment for the pain to register. As she turned and started the scream, Euro-Trash raised his forearm to block her head, and then pushed her away, letting the needle pull out at the same time.
With his free hand, he pulled a narrow black container out of the opposite pocket and he dropped the syringe inside as he ran out the door.
Blood ran down the old woman’s arm and onto the counter as she sobbed. The clerk pulled a roll of paper towels out from under the counter.
Bob saw the whole business, which probably took all of ten seconds. He ran down the aisle and for a second thought to help the old woman, but instead sprinted to the door and into the parking lot.
Despite the heavily tinted windows, he could see Euro-Trash wildly turning the steering wheel as he sped into the street. In the split second the Porsche slowed as it entered traffic, he read and memorized the license plate. It was from Texas.
Bob went back into the store, where the cashier was hugging the old woman.
“There, there, Miss Bettie, the ambulance is on its way.”
The old woman pounded the counter with the fist of her uninjured arm, and clenched her teeth in pain. “A kook, another damn kook! Jesus help me!”
* * *
Agent Tersarius alighted into the office like a crane on a branch. He perfunctorily flashed his badge. “I’m glad to meet you, Detective Sloan, and I appreciate your contacting us.”
The LAPD detective sat back. “I hope this isn’t a false alarm.”
“We evaluated your message. That’s why I’m here.”
“You think there may be something to this?"
“Ever since the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act of 2003 was passed, we’ve had a protocol enforcement.”
The detective sat up straight. “I guess you have a serious forensics background. It must be interesting.”
“Actually, I’ve been mostly stuck in a lab, and it gets boring as crap.”
He smiled. “I enjoy getting out of the lab. There are only a handful of FBI agents who can do forensic microbiology."
The detective’s eyes began to glaze. He shrugged and pushed a sheaf of papers towards Agent Tersarius. “Here’s the full report from the attending physician who treated the subject.”
Tersarius flipped though the papers as the detective spoke. “As an assault, it’s fairly atypical,” Sloan continued. “There was no prior contact, no communication during the assault, no attempt to take any valuables, and there was no attempt on the woman’s life. For now, it’s still only an assault. The bells went off because of the comments the attending physician added.”
“Yes, I see. Wound indicates attacker used specialized tool normally used for taking tissue sample from cadavers.”
Tersarius looked up. “That’s the operative term, tissue sample.”
“When I came to where you first mentioned the victim’s name, I thought it sounded familiar,” he continued. “Googled up a storm.”
“She’s lived in LA for many years. She was pretty famous in her day — they say she had 20,000 pin-up photos made in the ‘50s.”
Tersarius looked up. “Maybe some rich old man wants to re-live a teenage fantasy?”
“Is that possible?”
“I doubt it, but someone may be running an elaborate scam. Anyhow, it’s the thought that counts," he said with a thin smile. “I’ll take the case from here.”
“No problem, I wouldn’t know where to start, if this is what you think it is,” said the detective. “Now I have the good news and the bad news.”
“Give me the good news first.”
“A few minutes before the attack, while he was stalking the victim in the store, the perp stopped to make a cell phone call, and as he held the phone, a surveillance camera could see the key pad. We got the area code and exchange.”
Detective Sloan handed him a slip of paper. “Outside Dallas,” he said. “A town called Juniper Valley.”
“Texas A&M has been in the forefront of cloning technology for years,” said Tersarius. “What’s the bad news?”
“The plate is untraceable.”
“I guess that's not surprising.”
They both knew that with the corruption in Texas law enforcement caused by the Mexican drug cartels, more and more organized crime protection rackets were being run out of the state. "Somebody in law enforcement probably procured the plate," thought Tersarius.
Detective Sloan showed him to the door. “You think someone is finally trying to clone a person?”
“You know the saying. I’m not paid to think. But if someone is trying to violate the law, it’s my deal.”
He squared the papers. “By the way, how is the victim?”
“She’s fine, but still shook up. I’m sure she would have been happier if someone asked for her autograph.”
“Ouch.” The agent dropped the papers in his briefcase. “I’ll let you know what I find.”
* * *
Agent Tersarius picked up a car at the Dallas FBI office and drove 30 miles to Juniper Valley, a small suburb on the southern edge of the county. He drove around the Town Square.
Catty-corner from the City Hall he saw a rather dilapidated office building with a sign, “The Juniper Valley Journal — Your Hometown Newspaper.”
No one was inside except a dark-haired middle-aged man behind a large desk. Tersarius smiled as the man stood up. "Can I help you?"
Agent Tersarius flashed his badge. He noticed the man flinched slightly
“I’m Agent Edward Tersarius, and I’m looking for information about Juniper Valley. I thought the local newspaper would be a good place to start."
The man relaxed slightly and smiled nervously. “You’ve come to the right place.”
They shook hands.
"I’m a microbiology forensics specialist with the FBI out of Washington, D.C.,” he said evenly. “I’m investigating a suspected attempt of illegal human cloning, and I have a lead that’s brought me here.”
Tersarius could tell the man actually understood him. “How can I help you, Mr. Tersarius. Is that a Lithuanian name?”
“Yes, it is, my grandparents came through Ellis Island. A phone call trace has led us to Juniper Valley,” he said. “How much do you know about law enforcement in this town?”
The man turned around and sat back in his seat. “We run the police log every week. Like everyone else.”
“Who’s the Coordinator in this town? You know, the guy you need to go to get permission to do stuff?”
The man glared at him. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I assume whoever your local Coordinator is might be involved — for protection.”
"Coordinator" was the term used in law enforcement for the person in any law enforcement agency who worked for the drug dealers.
“I can speak plainly," said Tersarius. "We know Texas law enforcement is on the other side of the drug war. We’ve known it for years. All Texas police and sheriff’s departments have been compromised by the drug cartels.'
He leaned forward for emphasis. "It’s like during the ’20s and Prohibition. I don’t really care. I’m not here on a drug investigation, Mr....”
“Marcel, Tim Marcel.”
“A former Playboy Playmate and pin-up star from the 1950s was attacked in Los Angeles,” he continued. “The nature of the wound indicates the assailant may have collected a tissue sample.”
He let the statement sink in. “Perhaps whoever's involved in this cloning project has arranged for protection from your local Coordinator. These people make all kinds of side deals for extra money — easy enough, considering they control local law enforcement."
"We have a partial phone number that led me to Juniper Valley," he continued. "The question is, why would the trail lead to Juniper Valley?”
The editor looked wary. “What kind of businesses might be involved?”
“Reproductive services, artificial insemination, livestock cloning, perhaps? Microtechnology, cryogenics...”
“Whoa, stop right there. What’s cryogenics got to do with cloning?”
“If you transport tissue samples, they have to be cryogenically frozen."
Marcel walked over to a window and beckoned the agent. “You see that furniture store across the square?”
“You remember the Superconducting Super Collider?”
“The Collider was being built next door in Ellis County, at least until the assholes in Congress cancelled the project 12 years ago. The project’s headquarters were in an industrial park here in Juniper Valley while the tunnel was being built.”
Marcel turned to Tersarius. “The first people who came here were in cryogenics, because of the magnets they were going to install. When the funding was yanked, a number of people took retirement and gave up on government science work, including..."
He pointed. “Jim and Jill Frame, who opened up that antique furniture shop.”
“Thanks, that’s interesting.”
“Yes, and AirFlo Gases is still in the industrial park.”
“What’s AirFlo Gases?”
“An outfit that started up the same time as the Collider. They liquefy gases they pull out of the clean Texas air. Like liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen.”
“You’ve been very helpful, Mr. Marcel. I may stop by and visit with you later. By the way, do you own the paper?”
“Yep, I do everything pretty much. Owner, publisher, janitor-in-chief. This is a small outfit.”
“Well, I know small newspapers don’t make lots of money. You hang in there.”
Marcel showed him to the door. Agent Tersarius turned before he walked out. “By the way, you never told me.”
“Told you what?”
“Who I was asking for?”
“Oh, yes.” Marcel shuffled his feet. “Lt. Scott Hitchens. He’s the guy.”
* * *
The temperature was already past 100 and the sun beat down in sheets of glare. Although the Juniper Valley Antique Furniture Emporium was across the square, Agent Tersarius drove out to the highway.
AirFlo Gases was in a medium-sized industrial park. He could see a large vacant building with the faint outlines of “Superconducting Super Collider Facility” still visible on the façade.
“We only sell direct to industries,” said the office manager. “You just can’t walk in and buy liquid nitrogen.”
“Really?” Tersarius was still holding out his badge. “This place is rather out of the way. How do we know if a terrorist came by and slipped someone in the plant some cash for a carry-out deal?”
The woman cringed. “Please, I had nothing to do with it.”
The head of the shop where the tankers were loaded blubbered away immediately.
“Just tell me who wanted the nitrogen and I’ll be happy,” he said. "I'm not INS."
“I don’t know his name, he was a old white man. He had a real lab flask, though, so I figured he knew what he was doing.”
“Well, what he look like?”
The man hesitated. “If hope he’s not going to tell me we all look alike,” thought Tersarius.
“He was an old man, tall, bald in the middle with curly hair on the sides. He had a checked shirt on.”
“He had a funny hammer in his belt, with a small square head.”
“Relax, amigo, you’re a small fish. Gracias.”
Tersarius headed back up the highway and into town again.
* * *
He walked into the furniture store and saw a lanky man hammering away at the back of an old Victorian Era sofa.
The man’s eyes twinkled behind his wire rim glasses. He unfolded his tall frame as his tucked the upholsterer’s hammer in his belt.
“How may I help you?”
Tersarius pulled out his badge. “I understand you once worked for the government, Dr. Frame.”
The retired scientist stiffened.
“And if you are retired, why would you still need liquid nitrogen?”
“Am I under some kind of investigation?" He spoke very precisely.
“Yes. Liquid nitrogen is a very hazardous material, and you had no right to purchase it. The agency is very concerned about any possible terroristic threats against..."
The older man straightened. “There’s no terrorist threat!”
“Then what about The Prohibition of Human Cloning Act? You’re a little old to go to prison, Dr. Frame.”
An older woman with stark white hair pulled back in a ponytail came from a back room. “Who is it, Jim?”
“Someone who wants to know how we paid for the Sebring convertible.”
She stopped dead in her tracks and looked over Tersarius’ thin frame and dark suit. “Oh, dear god.”
Frame gestured to large couch against a wall. “Can we sit down and talk?”
* * *
Their story was simple and straightforward. Someone who knew about the retired couple’s background had paid them a large sum to prepare a kit for the transport of a tissue sample. Yes, it could have been used for a human sample, noted Frame. They never knew who paid them. An intermediary arranged the deal.
When he was back in his car, Tersarius realized someone sitting in an unmarked car across the square was looking at him. They made eye contact.
They both got out and met at the gazebo in the center of the square. Tersarius sat down and spread his arms on the back of the bench. Hitchens stood with his arms crossed on his chest just below his badge.
“I really don’t care whatever else you have going,” said the agent. "I know this couldn’t have been your idea.”
The lieutenant had watery blue eyes and a droopy cowboy mustache. “I don’t know if it’s any y’all’s business.” He spat tobacco juice over the railing and onto the geraniums.
“The boys in Washington want to nip this new crime in the bud,” said the agent. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to lose your money from Matamoros. Nobody’s going to care about protecting you because you got involved in some science project.”
Hitchens glared at him. “You drive a hard bargain.”
“Hard, but simple.”
“We’re all divided up, like cells. Mah part was to handle the liquid nitrogen. After Frame got the kit ready, I turned it over to someone else, who’s the real middle man.”
“Yes, someone I imagine in the middle of things, who everyone trusts, and nobody would suspect. Certainly not you. Let’s go."
Tersarius took off at a fast pace across the small park towards the newspaper office.
* * *
Marcel shot a quick glance down the hall as Tersarius and Hitchens walked in.
“I wouldn’t bolt, if I were you,” said Tersarius.
“He knows,” said Hitchens.
Tersarius looked towards the credenza with a shelf lined with software packages. “I see you’ve already removed the box.”
Marcel looked angry. “I needed the money!” he snarled. "I can't make a living from this pissant newspaper."
Tersarius gave him a dubious look.
"I needed the money,” Marcel repeated. “Why else do you think I’d work with this crooked bastard?”
“Well, you’re not any better than him now, are you?”
“Can’t we make some kind of deal? Like for immunity?”
“You’ve been watching too much television. You tell me where you were taking the tissue sample, and maybe, maybe we can talk.”
“I had to wait until I was told to make the drop-off. This whole deal was set up with firewalls,” said Marcel.
“The guy at Cloverleaf, Jim Jervinis, contacted me. I passed along the information on what was needed to him,” he said, gesturing to Hitchens, “he got the stuff from Frame, and then I passed it along.”
Tersarius shook his head. “What’s Cloverleaf?”
“That’s a fancy horse hotel on the edge of the city, right on the county line,” said Hitchens. “So that’s where this was going.”
“I assume there’s a lab set up at Cloverleaf,” said Marcel. “They host a stud service, and have been big into AI for years.” He paused. “Of course, in this case, AI stands for artificial insemination.”
“Have you already called Cloverleaf?”
“No, I called Scott.”
“Did you call Cloverleaf?”
“I didn’t know they were in on this. My connection was to him.”
“Good, then we’re going to this Cloverleaf place and you’re both coming with me.” He turned to the editor. “Would you like to retrieve the box?
Copyright © 2005 by Lou Antonelli