The man who called himself Howard Welles was an unassuming man in a tattered suit that must have been elegant once, but it now looked like it had been lived in for sometime, dusted with dirt, fringed cuffs, and grungy shoes. His features were gaunt. More than gaunt, really. Sunken. Byron figured it had been a long time since this guy had a good meal, or at least more than a drink. The man shook his head quickly. “No, no, it doesn’t matter; we don’t have the time for it now. We’ve got to light this place up, quick.”
Byron stepped forward and pointed with the gun. “Howard Welles is dead. Make time.”
Howard sighed. “You see a body? Exactly. Follow me. I’ve got some gas canisters in the car.”
“Not good enough.”
“Alright, alright.” Howard stopped, held out his arms. “Listen, I know you’ve got questions. I don’t know how many I can answer for you, but I’ll answer what I can. First, though, I’ve got to burn this place down. If you’re not going to help, then I need you to at least stay out of my way.” He smiled and pointed to the bodies. “Plus, I don’t figure you want to leave these two just sitting around, right?”
Byron couldn’t exactly disagree with that last part, so he finally nodded and put the gun away and gestured towards the door. They grabbed a couple canisters of gasoline from the back of Howard’s car, a dilapidated sedan that looked twenty years past its prime.
Howard asked, as he began dumping the gasoline over the filing cabinets first, “Who are you, anyway?”
Byron told him about being contacted by his wife, her deception and request to look into his murder.
Howard’s face fell as he heard it. “Yeah. That sounds like Virginia. I feel terrible about doing this to her, but it had to be done.”
When they were done, Byron took out his lighter and grabbed a handful of papers from the desk. He lit them and tossed them back into the warehouse. The fire streaked across the room with a roar like an angry lion and the speed of a lightning bolt. The intensity of the blaze shook Byron as he ran back towards his car. Byron almost wished there were windows to watch the fire dance from. It would have been an incredible sight, he was sure.
The man claiming to be Howard Welles was sitting in Byron’s car when Byron got back to it. Howard told him it would be better this way. They could talk while they drove. Howard had said he had a place they could be safe and talk.
“I haven’t seen anyone following us yet. That’s good. Take the next right and then get over two lanes. Yeah.” He gestured then shifted in his seat to look Howard full on. “Alright, ask away.”
“Who would be following us? And why did that sheriff want me dead? And why’d you fake your death?”
“Yeah, I figured you’d start there. Okay, okay, umm… Let me start from the beginning. How much do you… Never mind, I’ll assume you’re competent enough to know my background. All the money I made in my twenties has afforded me a particularly leisurely lifestyle. I was one of the few people born in this place to get out, but there’s a, well, it’s something like a magnetic pull, I guess. Even if you get away, you can’t stay away. I wasn’t even thirty yet, I was in love and newly married, and I was looking to settle down, and my wife Virginia had loved the stories I told her of the little place I grew up, and she knew that that’s where she wanted to go and raise a family (at the time we didn’t know she was barren, but that’s another story entirely). So, I came back home. Bought the big house on the hill, all of it. By thirty, my wife and I, we’d… well, we’d already settled into a routine like an old couple. It was nice, but I did miss the science, so I started to get back into the work. Mostly research. I had a small lab at the time. It wasn’t particularly large, but it kept me working.”
“What lab? It certainly wasn’t the junked up operating room you had in the warehouse, and I checked your financials. You didn’t have any other property on record.”
“No, no, that came later. Much later. I have a set up at my house. It’s a small facility set back in the garden. Didn’t my wife tell you about it?”
Byron shook his head. “No, she, uh, it seems she forgot to mention it.”
“Well, as I said, I was excited to get back into the research. I had enough money coming in to keep me from needing oversight or government grants, so I was free to get into the less practically applicable science and was just doing pure research into human genetics. Well, I started publishing a work in a few journals, and from there a man got in touch with me. Called himself Gideon Chambers. We started writing letters back and forth, discussing research. It was very, very exciting stuff. This guy was brilliant. I didn’t know where he was coming up with the stuff he was telling me, but he was advancing my research by leaps and bounds. With Gideon’s help, I was doing some really revolutionary work in the lab. I know that kind of thing gets bandied about a lot, but really, absolutely, change the world as we know it revolutionary. Cheating death revolutionary. Changing the course of nature revolutionary. It was… Well, it was very exciting.
“So exciting, in fact, that I never once stopped to ask myself where he was coming up with this stuff, nor did I realize that he was very subtly aiming the direction of my work. I thought we were just doing interesting work in the application of mutagens, but Gideon had an agenda in mind that I just couldn’t see. He was interested in fundamentally altering the human genome with the controlled application of mutagens”
Howard turned away as he searched for the right words. “A mutagen is any substance that causes mutations to occur in DNA above and beyond the natural rate of mutation. There is a lot of really good, solid work being done in the field to combat cancer cells. That’s the kind of work I started doing. I was attempting to breed cancer-resistant cell structure right into the DNA of mice. That’s the research that caught Gideon’s interest. Cancer-resistant mutations. Oh, oh, take a right at the light, and then take you’re first left. There’s a row of abandoned houses on the right. You’ll see one with a yellow fence. We’ll need to put the car in the garage to hide it. Damn thing is too conspicuous to leave on the street, even if nobody does come down this way.”
“Alright, okay, so, you’re working to fight cancer. I don’t really see what about that is leading to you faking your death.”
“I was interested in cancer. Gideon was interested in immortality.”
Byron started. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. Gideon wanted to cure death. It took me a long time to realize that that’s where he had the work headed, but even knowing the work we’d been doing up to that point, I was still stunned by the revelation. It’s a pipe dream, or so I thought.”
“So you thought?”
“Yeah, so I thought. The reason I realized that Gideon was searching for immortality was because I finally caught on to the fact that Gideon wasn’t interested in studying the mutagenic effects we were coming up with, he was interested in finding a specific effect. Specifically, he wanted to be able to replicate a specific effect. That’s what got me scared.”
Byron found the yellow fence and pulled up the driveway, putting the car in park but leaving it running. He looked directly at Howard. “I’m sorry, I’m not following you.”
“Well, okay, it was like this. The applications, tools, processes we were coming up with together, I thought, were being carefully guided by Gideon’s mind. I caught on to the fact that he was looking to create a very specific DNA sequence that would produce a very specific combinations of proteins in the human body that would act like, well, that would basically turn your blood into the fountain of youth. Theoretically, the protein would not only halt the degeneration of cell tissue, but it would actually kick start growth like you were twenty all over again.”
“And you’re telling me you actually created this protein?”
“Not exactly. Come on inside with me. There’s still quite a bit more of the story to tell. The part where it gets really scary.”
Once they got the car in the garage and closed off, they went into the house proper and sat down at a card table Howard had set up in the dining room with some folding chairs. The building wasn’t wired for any electricity anymore so there wasn’t anything in the fridge, but Howard had some room temperature water bottles and he offered one to Byron. Byron hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until he saw the water bottle.
Having taken a long drink of water, Howard continued. “Okay, so, if I weren’t already stunned by the realization of what Gideon, and I with his help, were actually attempting to do, I was utterly shocked by the very simple fact that, if Gideon knew enough about the way this protein combination worked to be able to hunt for it with mutagens, then that meant he had come across it at some point, by some incredibly unlikely mutation in nature, and that he’d either lost it, or it was in such a state that he couldn’t replicate it synthetically, or there was something about the protein that caused the introduction of it into a foreign host which rendered it inoperable or deadly or whatever. For whatever reason, he needed to recreate the mutation and not the protein. That’s where I came in.
“Having realized this, of course, I confronted him about, as best as you can confront someone that you’ve never actually met in person or even spoke to on the phone, and in response all he sent me was a single vile of blood. No description, no information, no explanation. Just a single vile of blood. So, I brought it to my lab and I took a look at it. I’d never seen anything like it. I ran a few tests. In some ways the blood resembled normal human blood in the way that a distant, distant ancestor of yours might resemble you, but strange in a way that not only didn’t seem human, but didn’t seem, well, to have come from here at all.”
“What do you mean, from here?”
“From Earth. I’m not saying anything about where it came from, just that it did not appear to be the blood of any creature that would have evolved in an environment that existed anywhere on this planet.”
Byron put down his water bottle and gave him a hard look in the eye. “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me he sent you fucking alien blood?”
“All I’m willing to say is that it was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of on the planet earth. That’s it. Whether it was a genetic mutation, a previously undiscovered species from the Amazon rainforest, an alien, or a monster from under the bed I can’t say. I never did find out where the blood came from. But I wanted to. My God, did I want to.
“I wrote back to Gideon about the blood with a thousand questions. He wouldn’t tell me much, didn’t want to meet, he just wanted me to continue my work, but at this point I was dealing with a whole new level of bizarre and even as excited as I was, I was curious now, too, about who, exactly, I was working with and where he got the vile of the queerest blood I’ve ever seen. I started making inquires at universities, institutions, conferences, checking journal publications, all the kinds of places where someone with the mind of Gideon Chambers was likely to end up, and not only did I never once find anyone who had met Gideon Chambers, I didn’t find anyone who’d ever even heard of him. As far as I could tell, the only person who’d ever come across the name Gideon Chambers was me. So, then I got really curious.
“I hired a private detective at this point. I gave him the letters I received from Gideon, some of the innocuous early ones, and the envelopes they came in, and the address where I had been mailing everything and asked him to find the man. I didn’t ask him to confront the man, or approach him in anyway, I just wanted to find out who this guy was, if Gideon Chambers was his real name, what his background was, etc… I just needed to find out how I was working with.
“It wasn’t long before the detective found the address I’d been mailing was a dummy address. No one lived there, no one had lived there in years, and no one who ever had lived there was named Gideon Chambers. He staked out the letter box, though, that was still getting the mail, and he called me one day to say he’d caught sight of a man checking the box for mail. He was going to follow him and find out what was what. Well, he did, and it turned out this guy checking the mailbox was nobody, a homeless guy who was to check that mailbox for mail, and if he found anything he was to forward it on to another address, and if he did this, every Friday he’d find a letter in that mailbox with some cash in it.
“The detective told me the address that he was forwarding the mail to was a PO Box here. In town.” Howard paused for effect.
“So, of course, now I’m not only curious, I’m a little bit scared. The detective comes to town, tells me he’s going to stake out the PO Box to find out who is picking up the mail from it there. That’s the last I ever hear from him. A week later, I see an obituary in the paper with his name on it. It said he’d died in a motel room fire down state. The paper said he had been smoking in bed and fell asleep. The bed caught fire, the room went up, and that was it. Only, it said he died on evening of the 8th, and I spoke to him in town that morning and I know he wasn’t staying at a motel downstate.
“This was about eight months ago. I got another letter from Gideon with veiled threats and admonishments to continue my work. This one did not have a stamp on it. It had simply been placed in my mailbox. I was having none of this, whatever it was. The next letter was slipped under my door within the hour. Not my front door, mind you. My bedroom door. I was scared shitless. I didn’t know what to do, so I went back to work.
“I started working heavily, far more heavily than before. The communication stopped being two-way. I would continue my research, and I’d get regular input from Gideon on the work I was doing. However he was doing it, he was keeping tabs on my research and findings. Close tabs. I moved out of my wife’s bedroom soon enough. I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in there knowing I was being watched. I figured, at least this way, if Gideon decided he was done with me, he wouldn’t need to kill my wife at the same time, too. I never told her what was going on. She was upset, and I hated doing that to her, but it was best to just let her think it was something with her rather than put her in danger. But I guess she figured something out anyway.
Byron lit a cigarette and blew the smoke into Howard’s face. “Yeah, yeah. Everybody’s sad for your wife. Howard, but I’m getting a little fucking impatient here, buddy.”
“Okay, okay, six months ago, we made the breakthrough. Gideon told me that we needed to step up the work. He said we’d need a bigger space. I was to rent the warehouse space. There’s an old hospital a couple miles north of it, in an old part of town, the closed down a couple years ago. I’m guessing that’s where they got the stuff from. There sheriff and a couple of men I’d never seen before were already setting the place up when I got there. All there sheriff would tell me was he was working for Gideon. That there were a lot of people working for Gideon. And he was glad I was working for Gideon, too.”
Howard suddenly became very still. He stayed quiet and breathed deeply and hung his head in his hands. He didn’t even look up as he continued talking. “We, uh, we stopped doing research then. Started doing trials. It was… I don’t know where the people came from, but we mocked up some of the mutagen and tested it. Then we watched the reaction and went back to the lab and tested it again. Thirty-two patients. That’s, uh, that’s how many people we… I killed. Not one of those thirty-two survived more than a few days. It was,” and here Howard swallowed heavily, “it was horrific. But at that point it was work or die. I didn’t… I was afraid to die. Who isn’t? But then we got it right. And then I knew I was done.
“So, uh, you did it then? You cured death?” Byron tapped his cigarette ash directly onto the table.
“I thought we did. So did Gideon, because he had the sheriff put two in me when I stepped into the warehouse the day after I made confirmation. I didn’t fake my death, Mr. Grayce. They very much tried to make me dead. I guess it, uh, it just didn’t take. I’m not even sure how I survived. It’s an incredible fog for the next week. The next thing I can remember clearly, I’m hiding in the abandoned houses, dirty like a dog, and hungry. This was about a week ago. I’ve been hiding out since, trying to get my bearings. That man you saw on the table? He’s the last one we tested the mutagen on. With him, it seemed to take. He was going to be Gideon’s star. I was following him when he threatened you in your motel room. At the time, I had no idea who you were, but I knew who he was, and I knew I’d need him if I were going to be bargaining with Gideon. I’m the one who sliced him up on the table. That’s when I saw what our little protein miracle was really doing to him. If Gideon knew, he’d be pissed. But he doesn’t know, and I do, and now his boy is burned up with all the research I still had at that facility. For once, it seems I’ve got a bit of the upper hand on Gideon.”
“What’re you going to do now?”
“Me? I’m going to find Gideon. What are you going to do?”
Byron took a long moment. “I’m not sure. But two people have tried to kill me today. If you’re not lying to me, this Gideon is behind it. I don’t like people who try to kill me.”