He hadn’t been Doctor Cartin.
That last thought before I blacked out under the anesthesiologist’s care became the first when I resurfaced. The accompanying shouts and alarms had faded with my descent from consciousness, but now quiet footsteps paced along my bedside.
Hoping for a doctor or nurse, I opened my eyes. I sought the hospital’s pristine tiles, the straight lines of ceiling meeting walls, and the antiseptic smell of protection from all things sickening or invasive.
I discovered an empty stone cavern instead.
Irregular lumps of gray held together by green-tinged mortar suggesting mold or mildew curved around me. Sconces held burning torches, the light flinging shadows up the cylinder.
Glancing down, I found my painted toenails, legs, and arms bare, and a plastic medical bracelet ringing my wrist. My pale blue surgical gown adhered to the curves of my breasts and hips, the thin fabric rustling with my quickening breaths.
While I struggled for comprehension, the feet stopped. “Good morning, Karmen.”
My appointment had been the last of the afternoon, an in and out procedure, done hundreds of times, nothing to worry about, be back at work by Monday. But now, it seemed a day at least had passed.
Someone other than Doctor Cartin appeared at my shoulder. White hair sprouted, Einstein-like, around a round head sporting two jutting ears but I didn’t get the sense of genius nor any comfort from the stranger’s clean-shaven face split by a beaming grin. He’d kept the lab coat, the one with Cartin’s stitched name half-hidden beneath the lapel. Underneath, his scrubs had been replaced by dusty jeans and a purple tee shirt with a frayed collar and chipped lettering to a word I couldn’t make out.
Not-Cartin spread his grin. “How are you feeling?”
“Who are you?”
His teeth sparkled in the torchlight, each pristine and white. “You first.”
“Enough of this.” I sat up and the room seemed to join me half a second later.
Not-Cartin chuckled with approval. “Good, good.”
Ignoring him, I sprang off the table, what had been a mattress now a thick slab of stone.
Despite the chill on my back and butt, I sought a door. The curved rock walls, however, failed to break with anything more suggestive than bits of mortar needing repair.
Spinning on not-Cartin I retreated against what I hoped would be a sturdy defense. I thought about pointing the index finger my IV-bruised hand and my arm moved in a blur, the demanding digit thrust forward and quivering. I squinted at my target while the rest of the world caught up.
“Whoever you are, let me out of here.”
“Oh not yet.” Not-Carlin pocketed his hands. “I don’t think you’ve quite got a hold of yourself.”
“Look at where you’ve been already.”
Not-Cartin motioned at the footprints, my footprints, dotting the earthen floor like raindrops. My steps raced around the room in giant strides I didn’t remember taking.
Shaking off the eerie sensation I’d made the circuit faster than a normal woman could have, I focused on Not-Cartin.
“So I made it around the room a couple times? I was looking for a goddamn door. One I’m going to leave through.”
Not-Cartin clucked in disappointment. “I’m afraid I’m the only one who knows where the exit is.”
I gulped at his self-assured tone. Backing up, I felt the cold stone, strong and sturdy, against my fingertips, and yearned to soak its stability into my wobbly knees and trembling voice.
“What’s going on? I was supposed to be getting my gallbladder out.”
“I know, but there was a slight change of plans.”
Not-Cartin hopped onto the center slab where I had awoken. Swinging his legs, he cocked his head and peered at me with eyes as golden as the torches’ flames. He sniffed once and then nodded.
“It is working.”
I caught the wad of crumpled paper before I realized he’d brought it out of his lab-coat’s pocket and pitched it at me like a baseball. It crinkled in my fist.
“No.” I scrunched the paper until my nails met the heel of my hand. His grin reappeared and I shivered.
“I have improved you, Karmen.”
A rock came next, one I hadn’t seen him pluck from the slab. I snagged the lump out of the air as easily as the paper. The smack of it against my palm provided a quiet sting letting me know I wasn’t dreaming or under some anesthetic. The speed of my own body, however, seemed too fast to be real.
“What did you do to me?”
“A transfusion. Blood transfusion.”
Co-pays and insurance restrictions sprang to mind, a drip from the rough hewed ceiling heightening my mundane concerns. “I never, ever signed paperwork for anything like this.”
“Of course you didn’t. That’s why I had to take you.”
The last thought I’d had before blacking out, the hint of an argument happening somewhere beyond, made a little more sense even if I’d never understood the words or been drugged to the gills. This man, this not-Cartin, had whisked me off, away from those who’d promised to take good care of me, and done…something.
I pressed my paper-crunching fist where my gallbladder and its infection might still be.
“I took care of that too, not to worry.” Not-Cartin chuckled. “I can’t have my prize specimen damaged from something so trivial as cholecystitis.”
The first of his technical terms made my newest scar twinge. “Specimen?”
“You’re the first, well, second really, but he’s not cooperating anymore which makes studying him rather difficult. You, on the other hand seem quite inquisitive.”
My hackles rose at his off-handed tone. “I want to know where I am and what you’ve done to me. Why you kidnapped me from the hospital.”
He beamed. “See so many questions.”
“How about some answers?”
“Answers are fickle. They never really answer anything. They just inspire more questions.”
I scowled. “You’re the one wanting to chat.”
“I suppose so.” Not-Cartin swung his legs as if their metronomic sway could work up a reply. “The first was Morning, right?” He patted the slab with both hands, apparently pleased with his own memory. “It is morning, three days after you went under.”
He raised a halting hand. “That one came later. The next, ah yes, who are you?” Hopping off the slab, he bowed like some noble man, complete with a flutter of his lab coat’s slack and doff of an invisible hat. “I am you humble host Lord Frederick Charles Jones the—” Straightening, he counted on his fingers. “The seventeenth.”
“Seventeenth? Seventeenth of what?”
“My you are inquisitive.” With an approving titter, Jones resumed his leg-swaying seat. “What I meant by getting a hold of yourself, is simply that. My improvements have enhanced your basic motor functions. You’re moving faster,” he waggled a sneaker at my footprints, “and I can’t let you go wandering about. You might end up halfway across the compound or lost in the woods somewhere and then what would I do? Can’t find another one like you so easily.”
Fearful his rant might stop, I seized my tongue before I could add any additional questions to the ones I’d already spouted.
Staring into space, Jones cocked his head to the opposite side. “I feel that answers the fourth of your queries. I improved you and am keeping you here until you’re stabilized. What’s working would be you and the components I instilled in your blood. It seems the melding of the new chromosomes was successful, hence your improvements and your status as my prime specimen.” He hummed in satisfaction and looked my way. “Any other questions?”
I could only think of one, although I suspected I already knew the answer. “What are you going to do next?”
“Study you of course.” His grin spread again, so broadly it made my cheeks hurt. “If you’re willing to cooperate, then we can get you out of this,” he tipped his chin at the medieval dungeon surroundings, “and that,” he said with a perusal of my scrubs, “and get you more comfortable.”
“And what if I don’t?”
“Oh don’t be like Sebastian.” He pouted, his shoulders slumping.
“He’s the uncooperative one?”
“Unfortunately. I’m hoping with a new specimen though, he might perk up. Been on his own for quite a while you see.”
“How long is a while?”
Jones tallied on his fingers. “Three, no four weeks.”
“You’ve held a man here for a month?”
“Not here.” He clasped his chest, his face aghast. “He has a much nicer room and so will you.”
“And how long are you going to keep him? Keep me?”
Pursing his lips, Jones frowned as if he’d never pondered the notion. “Until I’m done I suppose.”
I sagged against the stone. “What does done mean?”
With a hearty sigh, he seemed to blow my words and my concerns from the air. “Done is like answers, there’s never truly an end. I suppose I know when I’m finished when I’m finished. Science is not like plate of cookies, young lady, you can’t know when to stop because only crumbs remain.”
Staring at Jones, I wished I could come up with some other query, one to help me make more sense out of this morning, out of what my own body seemed to be doing, out of what this man had done to me. Nothing came except: Why, and the answer seemed simple: Because he wanted to.
Jones cleared his throat. “Are you ready then?”
I hugged myself. “Ready?”
“Gotten a hold of your nerves? Are prepared not to go bolting off at the first strange sound. Ready to leave this dreary room and see what I have in store for you?”
I glanced about, seeking a glimmer of the outside world. Torchlight simply shone on rocks, some shinier than others, making me think of my office windows. Like at work, staying seemed easy. Leaving this room and its flickering shadows, impossible without cooperating.
I returned to Jones who arched his bushy white brows in expectation.
“I don’t think I have much of a choice.”
Jones hopped off the slab. He tapped the toe of a sneaker on a section of stone no different than the surrounding rock and the central platform began rotating. Warmth billowed from the opening, and my mouth watered at the savory aromas. The smell of meats and butter, as well as sweets and spices reminded me of Thanksgivings back when I had family with which to celebrate. Feeling the gap and the grief anew, I stumbled back against the rock.
“Is that why you chose me?”
Jones stopped three steps down the revealed spiral stairs. “Chose you?”
“Because I don’t have a family?”
He shrugged. “It was an appealing aspect of your profile. Less questions asked since no kin will be looking for you.”
“I have a cousin.”
“Yes, in Arizona I believe. Visit him often?”
“He’s about as interested in your life as you seem to be in his.” Jones beckoned. “There were many reasons for your selection.”
I shoved off the stone so I could keep up with his revelations when he continued descending.
“Blood type was key of course, you had to match my own beyond the typical A, B, or O. Gender. Social and economic situation. Ancestral history.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Had to make sure you didn’t have anything messy in your background that might taint the experiment you see.”
I imagined FBI files and report cards cluttering a desk somewhere. My youthful transgressions seemed innocent compared to stone caverns and torches, and I imagined a nose to the grind stone work ethic would make the past two decades light reading. Although I might have wished different, my fatted bank account, dearth of family, estranged boyfriends, and friends who would no doubt think I’d disappeared into yet another project, however, had apparently been what Jones had been looking for.
During our coiled walk, Jones divulged less emotional considerations, various chromosomes, DNA sequences, and other medical details I couldn’t comprehend, let alone knew I had in the first place.
The list ceased when he came to a thick velvet curtain and pivoted to face me. Our eyes met on a level playing field with me perched on the higher tread.
“Suffice to say, you, Karmen, are perfect, for my needs at least, which is why I have selected you. Which is why the transfusion worked. Which is why we, together, are going to change the world.”
He smiled again, and my cheeks burned while the rest of me shuddered.
“Come along.” With a sweep of his arm, Jones breezed through the part in the curtain.
I raised my hand, blocking the blaze of light until the drapery settled into a sheet of unmoving fabric once more.
A glance up the stairs told me where I’d end up if I ascended. I suspected the slab would cover up the stairwell too, if it hadn’t already, and leave me trapped.
The curtain before me, however, didn’t hint at what might lay beyond, besides inviting smells and apparent daylight. The only other details I could latch onto were a possibly manic scientist with an Earth-shattering plan and a stubborn specimen who may or may not want company.
The stone’s cold crept into my skin, inspiring another coating of goose bumps and a shiver swift enough to fling hair into my face. I matted my auburn mess back into the ponytail I’d tied before the surgery, the preening brisk but familiar. My locks felt greasy, though, and wondered if Jones had a shower.
“You won’t find out standing here half-naked.”
Grasping the back of my gown to preserve what little dignity I might have left, I shoved the curtain aside with a blurred hand and dashed without intent into whatever Jones had in store.