Sapphire Angel – Beginnings (Chapters 32-33)
Written by CJS :: [Thursday, 29 August 2019 21:15] Last updated by :: [Friday, 30 August 2019 08:23]
“We can‘t just sit here!” Beth pleaded, leaning off the hotel sofa and reaching forward to squeeze Stanley’s arm. “For all we know, the missing prisoners are dead. We can’t let that happen to Ethan.”
Stanley sat on the end of the bed, his laptop computer open next to him, and looked back at Beth with sad eyes.
“Beth, I want to find him as much as you do. I was lucky when the phone from Dominick’s man led us to the farm. But none of its location data has lead me to where Dominick might be holding Ethan. Just his guy’s home, a gym, gas stations, several burger joints, stores, and other normal stuff. And I finally hacked into Dominick’s home network. There are no clues there, either. He either isn’t much of a computer guy, or knows not to keep Fizzure information at his home.”
Beth groaned, but said nothing.
“I‘m not giving up,” Stanley said in a soft, soothing tone. “I think our best shot is Philip Gruden. He was Dominick’s lead scientist before going into hiding, so he might know where Dominick would set up shop. I’m got into his home network, too, including his surveillance cameras. I doubt he’ll show up there, but if we’re lucky, he might remote into his network. If he does, I might be able to trace things back to him.”
“Wouldn’t Dominick be on the lookout for that, too? Do you really think Gruden would be that careless?”
Stanley gave a grim smile. “That’s the best idea I have right now.”
Beth sank back onto the sofa in Stanley’s hotel room, curled her legs underneath her, and buried her face in her hands. The tears were coming again. This would be too much. First John, and now Ethan.
“This is my fault,” she said, the bitterness creeping up in her voice. “Again. Ethan was there to rescue me.”
“Beth, I understand. But this isn’t your fault.”
“I sent Ethan and the other prisoners out on their own, so I could go take on some of Dominick’s men,” she said, lowering her hands from her face. “I should have made sure they were safe first.”
“And then the police might have none of his men in custody, and no leads at all. You should be proud, not guilty. It was amazing how you handled things at the farm.”
Beth chewed her lip as she thought back to her various fights with Dominick’s men. She shook her head. “It should have been easier. If I hadn’t taken so long to beat them, I would have gotten the prisoners to safety.”
“By my count, you took down 13 men. That’s almost hard to believe. I’m not sure what you expect. You’re new to this and still did an amazing job.”
Beth shook her head slowly. “I can’t explain it, Stanley, but I know I should have been quicker. Those fights should have been one-sided, without them laying a hand on me. I was five times faster and stronger than any of those goons. But it was more than that. In each fight I felt instincts rise to the surface, helping me do things I shouldn’t know how to do. But those instincts, wherever they came from, were rusty. Less rusty with each fight, but still rusty. If I had taken my self-defense classes seriously, I would have been unstoppable.”
“From what you told me about those fights, I doubt your instincts came from your self-defense classes,” Stanley said. He seemed to bite back a smirk, before he shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they did. But anyone with training would be more dangerous. If you ever decide you want proper training, I can see that you get it.”
“It’s too late for that,” she said, her voice rising. “They have Ethan, and if we don’t find him soon, he’ll be dead. And that’s on me!”
Stanley stared at her, his forehead wrinkled in thought. He was silent for a moment, as if waging an internal battle. He took a deep breath. “Let me tell you a story from my past.”
Beth looked up at Stanley as if he were about to reveal his deepest secret. In a way he was, she thought. Or at least one of his many deep secrets. Stanley had made it clear from early in her relationship with his son that he could never discuss his past. Based on his skills, she assumed he had worked for the CIA or a similar military organization, but that was a guess.
“Many years ago,” he said, “I was on assignment in a dangerous area when someone on my team was blown to pieces. He had asked me to send him ahead while I took care of other matters. Essential matters, but I should have been the one to die, not him. It was the sort of job I usually handled myself.”
Beth wanted to probe Stanley for more details, but she knew better. She remained quiet.
“I’m telling you this because I don’t want to have happen to you what happened to me,“ he said, before pausing with another deep sigh. “I blamed myself. Went into quite a funk, actually. As a result, I nearly got me and my team killed a month later, when I froze when our team was in a high-risk situation. I needed to make a hard decision, but I didn‘t want to put anyone on my team in harm’s way. I believed I was the most capable - and I was - so I should take all the risks. I couldn’t make a decision.”
The old man paused with a faraway look in his eyes, as if reliving events. His eyes came back to focus, and he stared at Beth with a burning intensity.
“It took me a long time to learn the obvious, which is that I couldn’t do everything myself. I couldn’t carry my team’s burdens myself. Other people make choices, too. Other people take risks. Other people can try to be the hero. Not just me. What happened to my man wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of the killer. My man chose to take the lead the day he died, just like Ethan chose to help find you. What happened is the fault of the people who kidnapped him.”
Beth stared at Stanley, processing his words. He was telling her Ethan could make his own choices, but there was more to it than that. He was giving her a lesson for her future.
“If you continue to be Sapphire Angel, I want you to remember something very important,” he said. “You might be a hero, but you need to accept that you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you think everything depends on you, life will get very hard, very fast. Nobody can bear that kind of burden. There are others out there trying to do good in this world. Maybe not with powers like you, but they’re trying to help, too. Sometimes you need to let them. If I could teach you one thing, it would be that.”
Beth averted Stanley’s gaze as she absorbed his words. She knew he had a point, and a wealth of experience. But her situation was different. Stanley didn’t possess incredible powers. He wasn’t bulletproof. He wasn’t stronger than an Olympic weightlifter, or more agile than a champion gymnast. His team member had died because Stanley had made a necessary decision. Ethan had been captured because Beth had made a bad one.
When she looked up at him, he was looking sideways at his computer screen. His face was white.
“What is it, Stanley?”
“A local news headline. ‘Philip Gruden, Fizzure scientist, found dead at Garman Park.’”
The driver pulled Demarco Dominick’s sedan into the old brick building, and two men swung steel doors shut behind them. After the car came to a stop, Dominick stepped out of the vehicle and surveyed the surroundings.
The dirt and rubble made the place look like war zone, as if a bomb had gone off in the middle of the building but left the walls and roof standing. He wished he had thought to tidy things up when he had bought the building a year earlier. Eventually his men could paint over the graffiti on the walls, fix the broken windows, and clear the cobwebs from the rafters. But that could wait.
For his current needs, the place would suffice. The building was old, but not decrepit. Not weak. Even covered in dirt and grime, the brick walls and steel beams in the ceiling gave the place a sturdy feeling, as if it could withstand whatever nature could throw at it. Best of all, the structure was in a remote part of the county. There was little chance someone of importance would stumble upon it.
Two other cars sat in a line, further into the building. A massive boiler, part of the building‘s heating system, loomed against the back wall. It dominated the room, resembling a large, fat torpedo standing on end.
Tied to the boiler were three young adults. The soon-to-be subjects of his experiments. They were unconscious but still gagged.
A man stepped toward him.
“The scientists are upstairs,” the man said, pointing over his shoulder to a metal staircase climbing up the left wall.
This entire ground floor was open, with some crates scattered amongst the rubble, stacked and rising toward the low ceiling. The open beams overhead gave the place an unfinished feel.
Without saying a word Dominick moved forward to the stairs. They rattled with each of his heavy footfalls. He reached the second floor, stepping into a hallway in even more a state of disarray than the garage entry on the ground floor.
As he looked down the dim hallway, he spied chunks of plaster and paint on the floor. Fluorescent lights flickered in the ceiling above him, but were overwhelmed by a bright light coming from a doorway at the end of the hall.
He picked his way through the debris on the floor and made his way to the light. When he reached it, a long, rectangular room opened in front of him. The large glass cylinder, brought here from the basement of the Fizzure headquarters, dominated the space. Three of his top scientists leaned around it, inspecting it like a jeweler might examine a flawless diamond. One of them glanced over his shoulder at Dominick, before standing to address the large man.
“It looks good, sir,” the man said. “No damage. We just need to run the cables.”
“How long will that take?”
“An hour or two.”
“Then let’s not waste any time. Get started. Have someone else prepare a prisoner. Pick the healthiest one.”
“That would be the new kid. Ethan Moore. But he hasn’t been through the normal testing.”
“I don’t care. If it kills him, it kills him.”
“Very well, sir.”
“And get the security cameras up. I don't want any surprises.”
Dominick started toward the car to retrieve his briefcase, but stopped and reached into his pocket. He had almost forgotten about the paper from the man with silver eyes. He turned toward the scientist and handed it over.
“Have someone get to work on this. We may end up needing it before the night is out.”
From a thick grove of trees on one of two hilltops, the man with silver eyes watched as Dominick’s vehicle disappeared into the warehouse and the metal door slammed shut. The man smiled and shook his head. Dominick was a fool for thinking he wouldn’t discover this place. The Fizzure CEO did nothing without the robed man’s knowledge.
He grabbed the large pack at his feet, zipped it, and slung it over his shoulder. The pack was now empty, and the explosive charges placed in and around the building. If Dominick looked hard enough, he would find them. But he was too focused on his experiment to look.
The man with the silver eyes shook his head slowly, as if processing a piece of bad news. It gave him no pleasure to see all his progress wiped out before fruition, but it was necessary. He was playing the long game. His presence here couldn’t be discovered. Not yet. There would be other chances to pick up where Dominick’s work left off, even if it took months, years, or decades.
By the time the timer counted down, he would be far away, and any trace of his involvement would be blown to pieces.
Beth had fallen asleep on the couch in Stanley’s hotel room when the knock came at the door. She yawned and stretched as Stanley looked through the peephole. He fumbled with the chain and opened the door to reveal a woman standing in the hallway. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, with long, straight brown hair, and plain features.
“Come in, Mrs. Gruden,” Stanley said. Beth’s head jerked up at the mention of the name. Philip Gruden was the Fizzure scientist they wanted to find. He had just been found dead in a local park.
The woman shuffled into the room, looking over her shoulder. Stanley gestured toward the sofa. Beth slid to one end, making room for her to sit down. Gruden‘s hands were trembling.
“Beth, this is Danielle Gruden, Philip Gruden’s wife,” Stanley said. “I asked her to come here. Ms. Gruden, this is Beth Harper, my son’s girlfriend and like a member of our family.”
The two women nodded in greeting, before Beth turned and shot Stanley a stern glance. He hadn’t mentioned reaching out to Danielle Gruden. Beth hadn’t even considered it.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Stanley asked Gruden as she lowered herself onto the sofa.
“N… no,” the woman stammered.
“I’m very sorry to hear about your husband,” Stanley said in a soothing voice. Mrs. Gruden had tears in her eyes.
Beth studied the woman, confused by her presence. Police had found her husband’s body only hours ago. Of all places she needed to be, why was she here? And why hadn’t Stanley mentioned he had reached out to her?
“At least he was doing the right thing,” Gruden said unprompted, her voice raspy. Her words almost seemed directed at herself, as if she was trying to reassure herself about her husband. “We both know who killed him, even if the police don’t.”
Stanley nodded, but said nothing. Beth also remained silent, not wanted to disrupt a delicate situation, and still irked that Stanley had kept her in the dark.
“I’m not sure how you hacked into my email,” Mrs. Gruden continued, looking up at Stanley. “But it was clever of you to reach out to me for help in an unsent draft. It just took me a little longer to stumble upon it in my drafts folder.”
“Sorry about that,” Stanley said. “When the news reports mentioned that the police couldn’t find you, and when I couldn’t track you down, I figured you were in hiding, or…” Stanley’s voice trailed off.
“Or Dominick’s people already had me.”
“Yes,” Stanley said, giving a grim nod. “I didn’t want the Fizzure people to find my message. I couldn’t be sure they hadn’t accessed your account. I took a big risk even telling you how to text me, but I figured it was worth it.”
“They may have accessed my account, I guess,” Gruden said, glancing down. “Dominick may not be satisfied, even with Philip out of the way. I might be a loose end in his mind. And he has people everywhere. Maybe even with the police. Philip thought so.”
Now it all made sense to Beth. The woman was here, of all places, because she had nowhere else to go. She was in hiding, afraid she would be next on Dominick’s hit list. And knowing Stanley and his protective nature, he hadn’t mentioned his attempt to reach Gruden because he didn’t want to get Beth’s hopes up.
“But you trust me?” Stanley asked Gruden.
Gruden’s head sagged. “I read about your son. I’m so sorry. Of course I trust you’re not working with Fizzure and Dominick.”
Beth saw a rare glimpse of Stanley’s facade cracking, as a pained looked crossed his face, and he raised a finger to brush at the corner of his eye. Perhaps it was the empathy shown by this woman, who had also lost someone, that reached him.
“Thank you,” he said, regaining his composure. “And I’m sorry I reached out to you at such a difficult time. I wish there were another way.”
“Tell me what I can do,” Gruden said, and Beth felt the determination in the woman’s voice, almost like Gruden was pleading with Stanley to give purpose to her shattered life. Or perhaps to give her husband’s death purpose.
“I’ll get right to the point,” Stanley replied. “Dominick and Fizzure have taken a friend of ours, and we need to find him. I’m hoping to pick your brain. Maybe you know something that can help us track Dominick down.”
Gruden closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.
“Is your friend in his early twenties?” she asked with her eyes still closed.
“He is,” Stanley answered.
Gruden looked down at the floor, and for a moment it appeared she might be reconsidering. But she looked up and stared first at Stanley, and then at Beth, with a pleading look on her face.
“I’ll tell you what I know, but please don’t judge Philip for his part in this mess. He waited too long to break from Fizzure, but he was a good man. I think he had a hard time seeing Dominick for what he had become. Dominick didn’t start out as a bad man. In fact, he was a good man once, in a way. Someone Philip admired. His heart was in the right place. I met him several times when Philip started working for him. But his daughter got sick, and that changed him. It changed everything.”
“He mentioned his daughter, “Beth said. “He talked about about drug addicts deciding her punishment,”
Gruden’s face twisted in confusion. “He talked to you about his daughter?” she asked.
“It wasn’t exactly a social setting,” Beth explained. “His men kidnapped me. But I escaped.”
Gruden’s eyes opened wide, and she shook her head. “You’re lucky to be sitting here right now. You’re the first I’ve ever heard to walk away from it.”
“Walk away from what?” Beth asked, trying to hide her impatience.
Gruden stared at Beth for several seconds, before her shoulders sagged and she looked at the floor. When she spoke, her voice was quiet and filled with sadness.
“Dominick is experimenting. On people. Or at least using people. You could have been next. Your friend might be next, too, if it’s not too late already.”
Beth and Stanley exchanged glances. This didn’t surprise her, given all that had happened, but hearing Gruden speak the words made it sound more ominous.
“What kind of experiments?” Stanley asked.
“I can only give you the layperson version. I’m not sure I understand it all, to tell the truth. And my information might be outdated. Philip really clammed up recently and stopped telling me anything. I think he was protecting me. But I can tell you it all started, or at least started in earnest, several months ago. A man approached Dominick and convinced him about a method of tapping into a hidden energy.”
“Hidden energy?” Stanley asked.
“Yes. Again, I’m not sure I understand it, but I can try to explain it if you’d like.”
“Yes, please do,” Stanley replied.
“I’ll do my best. As Philip explained to me, most types of energy are invisible to the naked eye, if you think about it. Electrical. Sound. Heat. But over time we’ve come up with ways to measure and detect various kinds of energy. The man who came to Dominick claimed to have information about a previously undetectable type of energy. A power beyond anything we’ve ever seen, he said. He gave Dominick a sample, and some rudimentary tools to detect it and tap into it. But he needed Dominick’s scientific resources to further build on those tools.”
Gruden paused, noticing Stanley’s raised eyebrow. She frowned. While Gruden may have seen doubt in Stanley‘s reaction, Beth saw something else. A realization or understanding, perhaps?
“I know the idea sounds crazy. A new type of energy? I said the same thing to Philip. He reminded me that a few centuries ago, electricity seemed crazy.”
“But we’re much better suited to detect things like that now, aren’t we?” Beth asked. “We wouldn’t miss something so significant. We’re not cavemen any longer.”
A thin smile crossed Gruden’s face. “Again, you sound just like me, when Philip explained this to me. He said science can’t afford hubris. Thinking there is nothing beyond our grasp is the height of hubris.”
“Your husband was right, Ms. Gruden. Go on,” Stanley said.
“Philip was really getting grumpy about the project. He gets really down when he can’t figure things out. With the strange man’s help, Philip was able to detect this power, but not harness it. This…” she said, her voice trailing off. She took a deep breath. “This is where Philip should have acted sooner. The project had been failing at every turn. But they discovered, at the urging of the man who came to them, that they could tap into the energy. But it was at a great cost - a human element.”
“A human element?” Stanley asked.
“Yes. Something about some part of a living human, or perhaps an entire person, being needed as a reagent or trigger to capture this power.”
“And what could this power do?”
“That’s the big question. Dominick wasn’t entirely forthcoming. Or perhaps he didn’t know for sure. Dominick thought they could use the power to augment the strength of humans. Make them stronger, and more resilient. He thought this would help him heal his daughter. Whether that is true, or just what the man told Dominick to get his cooperation, I don’t know.”
Stanley and Beth exchanged a glance.
“You said there was a great cost - a human element?” Stanley said. Beth thought back to John, and already knew Gruden’s answer before she spoke.
Mrs. Gruden looked down, sniffling. “That is where Philip made a mistake,” she said, her voice quiet. “One of the early experiments resulted in the subject's death. A volunteer, supposedly. And so did the next. All brushed under the table by Dominick’s people. And then Dominick started bringing in young people, who clearly weren’t volunteers.”
“Why young people?” Stanley asked.
“All Philip said was that the strange man insisted they needed young adults to make this work. The healthier, the better. That’s when Philip got out. He worried the work would kill all of them. He wanted to go to the police, but by then he had seen a change in Dominick. Dominick had become obsessed and unbalanced. Philip knew nobody could just walk away from him. The man had already killed several young adults.”
Gruden’s voice cracked, but she paused only a moment before continuing.
“Philip was paranoid Dominick was monitoring what his people did, and would find out. Philip thought Dominick had contacts everywhere. The police. The FBI. Everywhere. Maybe he was being paranoid. I don’t know. So Philip reached out to a television news reporter instead. Someone he had dealt with before. So stupid, in hindsight,” she said, her voice filled with bitterness. “Why the hell a reporter?”
Beth’s jaw tightened. They had Ethan. They might be subjecting him to these same experiments right now, if he wasn’t already dead.
“Who is this man?” Beth asked. “The one who came to Dominick about the new type of energy?” She already knew the answer, but had to hear the words.
“All Philip said was he was very strange. He talked about his eyes. He said they were silver, and it felt like they looked right through him.”
Beth nodded. Of course he was the instigator.
“Any idea where Dominick and the rest of his people might be?” Stanley asked. “Did they have any other facilities anywhere?”
“I knew you’d ask that, so I’ve thought about it. Fizzure had at least one backup facility. Maybe more. Places to fall back on if something ever went wrong at the main location. But I don’t know where.”
“Did your husband have any records anywhere that might mention the place?” Beth asked, trying to keep her excitement in check. “Files? Or a computer where he stored things?”
Gruden sighed. “He did, but just a few hours ago our house was ransacked. Anything related to Fizzure was taken. That’s why I went into hiding.”
Beth sank back into the sofa.
“Is there anyone else who might know about the facilities?” Stanley asked.
Gruden shook her head. “Philip always talked about how secretive Dominick was. The man was paranoid. I suspect Philip was the only one he told. Well, that and maybe his daughter. But she’s on death’s door. Philip said part of the reason Dominick became so unhinged was that he and his daughter were so close. So close he’s brought her home to die, or to save.”
Death was everywhere, it seemed. John. Philip Gruden. Dominick’s prisoners. And now perhaps Dominick’s daughter, too. But she wasn’t dead yet. She might not even be conscious, but it at least offered a glimmer of hope.
Stanley could handle things here. Beth rose from the sofa. Gruden glanced over at her.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Gruden, but I need to check something out. Call me when you’re done, Stanley.”
Beth snatched the bag containing her costume and rushed to the door. There was no time to waste. Ethan could be in danger, if he wasn’t dead already. It was time to break into Demarco Dominick’s home.