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The Lab I

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The Lab

Chapter One.

September, 1993.

I met her at a party up above Sunset. She was standing out on the terrace with some lunatic who was ranting to her and another woman about global conspiracies and black helicopters and how the government was helping the United Nations control all of us.

She was small, petite, but poised in an Audrey Hepburn kind of way. Late 20's, early 30's like me. As I stood at the edge of the conversation she gave me the smallest flick of an eyebrow, as though to indicate that she found this guy wryly amusing. I stood at the edge of the conversation and listened to him as I watched her while trying not to appear as though I was mentally undressing her, which I was. Eventually, as the rant continued, her look changed to one of mild boredom.

She was gorgeous. More beautiful than Audrey Hepburn. There was something in her eyes that seemed to say 'I'm not as fragile as you think I am', and while she was slim she was not too thin.

Short dark hair, a gorgeous neck, creamy white shoulders that were interrupted only by the shoestring straps on the dark green dress she was wearing.

She was way out of my league and I knew it. This was someone who was used to these shiny kind of people, who had probably grown up all her life among movie stars and fat lawyers and sleek women with hollow cheeks. I was a guy from Detroit. All I'd seen for most of my time in LA the last few years was other environmental-rights activists, and they are not often called sleek.

I could see her glass was empty and stepped up to take it from her. Without taking her attention from the boor she handed me the glass, as though she was used to having servants take care of such things. I smiled and nodded like I understood how this game worked, and she smiled back in a half-apology as she saw my response. I went inside the house to find some white wine. It was full of gorgeous women and men in expensive casual clothes and tasteful jewellery. Lawyers, most of them, I guessed. She was probably a lawyer, too - though the fact that she hadn't argued with the loon made me less sure. Todd, who owned the house, had just been made partner at a prominent firm downtown, and I guessed most of his friends were in law too. I knew him from football at college.

It took me a while to locate the kitchen inside the house, and then somewhat longer to realise that the wine was in the bar, not in the kitchen. When I came back out to the terrace the loon was still boring another woman to death but She had gone.

I wandered the party but couldn't see her anywhere.

Eventually I figured I'd had enough of hobnobbing with the rich and famous. As I left the Conspiracy Theorist was still trying to convince people that the black helicopters were everywhere.

***

A few days later it was getting on toward dusk as I drove into the parking lot of the company where Tom worked. He and I got together every Thursday evening after work for a quick game of tennis and a bite to eat afterwards -- at least we had done most Thursdays since we'd both graduated some years earlier. Tom had continued working for the drug company he'd been doing research for when he was a grad student. I took the moral high road and went to work for an environmental action group as a researcher and activist on biochemical hazards.

I gritted my teeth as I pulled into the lot -- Tom's new black Corvette was shining in the sun's last rays as I hefted the wheel on my own sorry wreck, a 1970 blue-and-primer Bonneville with intermittent power steering. One of us was making a lot of money these days, and it wasn't me.

I grabbed my sports bag from amongst the trash in the back seat and headed for the security desk in the lobby. One of the perks of Tom's job was that we got to use the courts at the facility where he worked. Usually after playing we'd wander across the road to the fairly sleazy bar opposite, and sink a few beers and have dinner while we moaned about our poor track record with women. I was the one who did most of the moaning. I hadn't had a girlfriend since Shelley had left me two years ago, though that wasn't for want of looking. Tom, on the other hand, had no trouble picking up women. He just didn't seem able to keep a relationship going for more than a month or so.

The Dawe compound was a collection of bland 1980's buildings in reflecting glass and cheap cement block, the kind you find spread all over southern Los Angeles. Only the name of the company picked out in blue letters on the cement wall next to the front door gave you any clue that the place was the principal research facility for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and that behind the two-

storey facade of this building there were another seven large buildings further down the lot.

I said hello to Tyrone, the guard at the desk. He buzzed Tom, and then let me sign myself in and gave me a visitor's pass and told me to head on through. I had idly wondered once or twice at the lax security standards here at Dawe, since after my second visit there they always let me through unaccompanied and never searched my sports bag, but I guess Tyrone saw me often enough and Tom had vouched for me the first few times.

I wandered along the bleak white corridors. Tom's office and lab were deep inside the complex, small windowless rooms that reminded me of scenes from that old George Lucas movie I could never remember the name of, THX-something. I was looking forward to beating Tom tonight. Last week I'd been slightly off the pace, distracted by some bad stuff at work I think, and Tom had beaten me for the first time in months.

We were usually pretty evenly matched. Both of us were pretty big guys. I was a fraction over Tom's 6'2", and we both weighed around 220 lbs. Not Goliaths, but we could both punch a mean serve, and match one another on the deep court strokes. I always thought I had a bit more control than Tom. He was inclined to recklessness sometimes and I knew how to goad him into mistakes. We both enjoyed the games, and it kept us in touch with one another. I had been afraid when we took such disparate jobs that we might have started to grow apart.

I found Tom in his office, just finishing some notes. I hung around for a few minutes while he secured his stuff, and then the two of us went out to the sports center. He was in a good mood. He told me he was working on some really cool stuff, but wasn't allowed to talk about it. I told him about all things I was up to at work anyway. Part of me enjoyed needling him by talking about all the evil corporations who were screwing up the world. He still had some traces of the rebellious student spirit we'd shared a few years earlier, and was ever so slightly guilty about having sold out to the forces of global capitalism.

But only slightly guilty. The goading helped distract him from his game, though.

The game went well. We played three sets -- I won the last two, distracted in the first by my hair, which I'd let grow a little and which kept getting in my eyes when I was serving. I resolved to get it cut soon. Tom took the loss well, I suppose because it had almost gone the other way. After I ribbed him a bit about losing his touch we hit the showers.

The water felt good. I've always kept myself in pretty good shape, at least as good as someone who works all day at a desk can ever get. I dried myself off, and went to the lockers to dress.

As I opened the locker a small bottle fell out, and smashed on the floor. I didn't know where it had come from. It sure wasn't mine. Whoever else had used the locker that day must have left it. From the smell I figured it was after shave. I bent to pick up the shards of the bottle, which had spread out in long, evil-looking splinters only a fraction of an inch wide.

Tom came out of the showers and held his nose. "Pheeee-euw!"

he said. "Are you trying to impress the girls, or what?". I hadn't heard his footsteps, and as he spoke he startled me. I cut myself deeply on the thumb with one of the shards, and cursed.

Tom helped me clean up the rest of the glass, and then the blood that was still flowing from my thumb. I ran it under cold water for a few minutes but it still bled slightly. I'd really scored it heavily with the glass, and it was a very deep cut.

The attendant had left the sports center by the time we went to leave, and there was no first-aid kit in sight, so Tom suggested we go back to his office to bandage me up before we went to dinner.

My thumb was still oozing blood as we walked back up the corridors. I was trying to staunch the flow with some paper towel, but the blood was still flowing pretty freely. "I hope you don't need stitches", Tom said hopefully, and I glared at him.

As we rounded a corner an alarm went off nearby, and in front of us a door swung open and a woman slumped out into the corridor, gasping. Some sort of gas or steam billowed from the doorway.

Tom swooped and deftly caught the woman as she was falling.

He and I both looked into the room she'd come from. Inside I could see a man's legs sticking out from behind a table. As the alarm sounded and lights in the corridor flashed, Tom tried to get the woman to tell him what had happened.

After a few moments the gas began to stop, and I gingerly entered the room. There was shattered glass on the desk, more on the floor, and a bluish gel spread over part of the desk.

Tubes and hoses were also scattered around, along with more glass beakers, unbroken. Behind the desk was a heavy door, of the airlock kind we used when I was studying and we were dealing with dangerous organisms. My heart told me this was a situation I should be worried about, but my head told me I was on the right side of the door, the outside, so whatever this stuff was it couldn't be too dangerous.

I tried to pick my way through the debris without disturbing anything. On the other side of the table, I saw that the figure on the floor was a man, perhaps in his mid-fifties. He was lying on his front, with his face turned to one side. His skin was mottled, red and white, I guessed from the explosion, whatever it had been. He didn't look good. I bent down to feel for a pulse. His neck, and some of his hair and clothing, was covered in a clear slime. It stung the wound in my thumb as I touched him, and I recoiled. I used my other hand to feel for the pulse. Nothing. He was gone.

I stood up, wiping my hands unthinkingly on my clothes. Tom was in the doorway, still holding the woman, who was conscious but in some sort of shock, staring at the guy on the floor. I shook my head.

I was picking my way back across the debris when a voice in the corridor called out "Stop right there". In the corridor I could see four figures in biohazard suits, carrying guns. One of them took the arm of the woman Tom had been supporting and led her away. Another motioned for Tom to follow. He glanced at me, to gauge how I was I guess. I stared back at him blankly as he shrugged, turned and followed the guard. The other two came for me. I raised my hands over my head and they escorted me up the corridor. As we were walking I looked back and saw another half dozen people in biohazard suits entering the room we'd just left.

***

They kept me waiting in a small, white room for what must have been several hours. I stupidly hadn't put on my watch after tennis, distracted by the cut to my hand, I guess. It was in my sports bag, which I had dropped in the corridor outside the room where the accident had taken place.

There were two simple black folding chairs in the room, and a stainless steel sink in one corner with a small white cupboard above it. I was sitting on one of the chairs. Apart from that the whole place was white. White walls, white ceiling, white synthetic rubbery floor covering. My blue jeans, dark blue shirt and a red blood-soaked cloth on my hand were the only real color in the room, including my skin color which was probably paler through apprehension. I'd looked through the small cupboard, which had a couple of small beakers and some surgical gloves in it and that was all. I'd looked outside, too, but there was a security guard at the door and he'd asked me -- no, told me -- to wait inside.

Eventually a guy in his late thirties with greying hair came in.

He pulled the other chair about five feet from mine and sat down in it, a clipboard on one knee.

"James Ealey".

"Yes", I said.

"How are you feeling?", he asked, seeming genuinely concerned.

He had a face that disconcerted me.. Not because of any very distinctive feature -- perhaps because there were hardly any distinguishing features. His eyes were neither blue nor brown, more a greyish color. He was about 5'10" tall, not notably solid but not thin, either. I noticed he didn't volunteer his name, and that he wasn't wearing an identification badge the way Dawe employees usually did.

"I'm fine", I said. "How's Tom? How's ... that woman who was there?"

"Barbara Andreesen", he said, looking at his clipboard. "Oh, they're both fine", he said.

"Well, that's a relief, Mr ..."

There was a pause, and I realised he wasn't going to tell me his name. "It's difficult for a lot of people when this sort of thing happens in the workplace" he said instead.

I reflected that he was probably right, Tom had seemed a bit shocked. "Yes", I said. "I suppose so".

"But we just need to take some precautions", he said after a moment. He indicated my thumb. "You cut that in the room after the accident?"

I looked down at my thumb, still wrapped in the handkerchief.

"Uh, no, actually. I cut it in the locker room after Tom and I had finished playing tennis". I looked him in the eyes. "You know, those guys in the suits scared the shit out of me.

Especially with the guns and everything".

"Yes, I'm sorry about that, they do tend to overreact when things go wrong here. You must understand there are a lot of things that are developed here that could be dangerous if they were exposed to the world prematurely, and things we keep for research into exotic diseases. So we tend to be perhaps a trifle anxious when things go wrong. Fortunately this accident wasn't in a secure area. I understand you are familiar with biohazard safety procedures yourself".

I wondered how he knew that. Perhaps Tom had told him. "Yes", I said. "Which is why it scared me".

"Well, we just want to be careful". He paused and took a closer look at my thumb. "I'll have a doctor look at that and make sure the wound is cleaned up", he said. He stood up, and I stood as well. "Anything else we can do for you?" he asked.

"Well, you can let me get out of here. And get my stuff.

Where's Tom?"

"Mr Masterson is in the next room. You can see him after you've seen the doctor". He began to turn away, then thought of something else. "Mr Ealey, you signed yourself in tonight, did you not?"

"Uh, yes, I always do when Tom and I play".

I doubt that you've paid too much attention to it, but when you did that you agreed to a non-disclosure agreement as part of the terms of your entry. So -- "

"-- So I can't tell anyone about tonight, right?"

"That's right, Mr Ealey. I knew you'd understand".

I did understand. I remembered Tom had joked about it the first time he'd signed me in. It didn't worry me. If there had been anything illegal about the events tonight the non-disclosure wouldn't be valid anyway. That made me think once again about the old man on the floor. "What happened to the other guy?"

He looked at me blankly for a moment. "Oh, you mean Mr Winters, the man who died? He had a heart attack, I'm afraid. Nothing to do with any experiment or anything like that, the poor old man's heart just picked a bad time to give out I guess. Pity, he was a nice man".

He seemed genuinely sad that Mr Winters had passed on. I wanted to ask him more, but he turned and left. I tried to follow him out of the room, but he closed the door after him and I discovered it was locked from the outside.

I sat back down, and a few moments later She came in carrying an enormous black bag. The woman from the terrace at the party, I mean. She introduced herself as Doctor Adams.

"We've met before", I said, hoping she'd remember.

She looked at me blankly for a few seconds. She was gorgeous, even in the white coat she was wearing over her dress.

"You were at Todd's last Saturday night. Seen any more black helicopters lately?" I asked.

She smiled, and my heart skipped a few beats. "Yes", she said, "I was, and I think I owe you an apology for skipping off like that. I was called away suddenly."

I was getting tongue tied here. I was always hesitant with women, especially beautiful women, and she was one of the most beautiful I'd seen. "One of the hazards of being a Doctor, I expect", I said, trying to say anything that might seem vaguely intelligent, but thinking I sounded like an idiot.

"Yes", she said, and proceeded to unwrap the bloodied handkerchief carefully. I noticed she was wearing surgical gloves as she held my hand. "I wasn't on call, exactly, but a colleague knew where I was and something important came up.

Made a mess of this, didn't you?", she said, indicating my hand.

I wasn't paying attention. I was distracted by the back of her neck when she bent down. She had short black hair, trimmed at the back, and the most delicate neck as she bent over my hand.

I towered over her, she can't have been much over 5' tall. She was cute, though. Not in a particularly girlish way, she was more sophisticated than that. Just petite and sexy. With beautiful dark eyes. I had been entranced by her eyes as soon as I saw her by the pool, and now I was spellbound again.

She straightened up. "We'll need to rinse this thoroughly".

Businesslike, she led me over to the sink, rinsed my hand, then poured some antiseptic over it from a bottle she had in her bag.

It hurt like hell, and I yelped. She looked surprised, then smiled and wiped the wound clean. "No need for stitches", she said, and smiled again. I liked her smile. I could have watched her do that all day.

She bandaged up my thumb tightly. It looked ridiculous when she'd finished, about twice as thick as normal. I wasn't going to be able to do a lot of things until it healed properly and I could take the bandage off.

"Now I just need a blood test", she said, assembling a hypodermic.

"What for", I asked suspiciously.

"Mr. Ealey --"

"-- Jim --"

"-- Jim, I'm sure you're aware that you've just been in an industrial accident, in a facility loaded with all sorts of things people here would really rather not talk about. Now, if you decide to sue the company further down the track, how are we to know what your state of health was when the accident happened?"

"You want me to give you a defense against me suing?" I asked, incredulously. The idea hadn't occurred to me until now, but maybe I could sue. There'd be some kind of settlement at least, just to shut me up. I shook my head, ashamed of myself. That would almost certainly be the end of Tom's career, since the company knew we were friends and I was only on the premises courtesy of Tom..

"No, I don't want you to give me any kind of defense", said Dr Adams. "I don't work on staff for the company, I just got called in tonight. So it doesn't matter to me either way whether you give me a sample or not. The company asked me to get one. And if it makes you feel better, it's probably safer to give me one now, so I can spot anything that might be wrong and we can treat it faster".

"What could be wrong? That other guy said it wasn't a secure area so there wasn't any danger".

"And I very much doubt there is", she said soothingly. "You don't have to if you don't want to". She started to pack up her bag.

"No, it's okay", I said, thinking that this was probably something else that would reflect badly on Tom. Plus I was prepared to give her anything just to buy time so I could figure out a way to ask her out.

She took the sample, marked the tube, then disposed of the needle in a sharps container and resumed packing her bag.

"So, have you finished here now?" I asked her, eyeing off what I could see of her under the white lab coat she was wearing. She was slight, but with a good figure all the same.

She looked up at me. "I've finished here, if that's what you mean"

"I, uh, just wondered if you'd like to get a drink with my buddy Tom and me, across the road. I could use one after all this".

She smiled again. I sure did like that. "No, Jim, but thank you. I've finished here, but I'm still on call, and I don't drink when I'm on call".

"Oh. Well, in that case..."

"But you could call me another night, when you're not my patient any more", she said, her eyes sparkling. She scribbled a number on the back of a card and handed it to me. Dr. Catherine Adams.

I smiled back.

"I'd like that a lot. Which days are you not on call?"

She left after we'd agreed to get together the following Tuesday night. I wandered out of the room, finally, to see Tom sitting on a low bench across the corridor, waiting for me. He had both our sports bags with him, and he tossed me mine as I approached.

"Wild night, huh?" he said, slapping me on the back. "And you thought my job was boring!".

On the way out past security Tyrone made a joke about the size of my thumb, and I gave him a weak riposte about using it to plug the holes in the company's security. Tom and I threw our bags in our cars, and we went across the road and had a few drinks. It was way too late to eat, and both of us got quite drunk on our empty stomachs. Despite the trauma of the evening I was a little high because Catherine Adams, the good doctor, had agreed to see me again, and Tom and I cut loose on whiskey instead of our customary beers. Tom went home with one of the waitresses. I ended up sleeping in my car in the carpark rather than drive home.

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