Authors: Maureen O. Betita
By Maureen O. Betita
isbn 10: 1-939-9143-96
isbn 13: 978-1-939914-39-2
Copyright © 2014 Maureen O. Betita.
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Maureen O. Betita
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
The music drove me to write this novel. How the words and music dives deep into the heart and finds the pain and the glory, connects with all of us and provides answers when we are in distress.
For Evanescence, Breaking Benjamin, Lacuna Coil, Grey Eye Glances, October Project and so many more.
Music is therapy.
Federal Agent Sam Montgomery had seen amazing things in his career as a chief investigator for the Homeland Research and Security Department. He’d traveled across the world, met thousands of people, good and bad, and taken part in clandestine operations whose complexity would choke Einstein. But this was a first. Tilting his head, he studied the woman on the computer monitor. She certainly didn’t appear to be dead. Despite the evidence of all available data.
In 2039, Rachel Inez Aster, at the admirable age of eighty three, committed suicide by jumping off the stern of a cruise ship, into the water off the Bahamas. Her body was never recovered. Now, twenty six years later, she was back, currently a resident of a security cell in Virginia. According to Dr. Drummond – Drum to his friends – she was forty three years old. DNA didn’t lie, but he wondered, could it be fooled? According to the chief medical officer, no.
Sam tapped a few keys, bringing up a still from Ms. Aster’s suicide video. With another keystroke, the video feed from the prison cell appeared next to the first image. He found another recording, of the author from the year 2000, and studied the three faces. According to the computer, they were the same woman.
She’d been striking at eighty three, good bone structure stood out from the lines on her face. He started the video from the beginning.
The laptop’s autofocus took a moment to center on the woman as she sat down. She appeared to study herself on the screen, eyes darting from point to point. Then she settled and began to speak. Her voice was rough. She coughed, cleared her throat and began again.
“I, Rachel Inez Aster, know exactly what I’ve done. Or will do. My will is in the hands of Cardonza and Sons, San Francisco. My home is packed, everything ready for the estate brokers.”
She gazed beyond the screen, the light reflecting in her light brown eyes. He noticed the white halo around the iris, a sign of her age. She looked fit, her color good and skin actually quite radiant. The reports he’d read said she’d been in good health when she made the recording. He turned the volume up.
“I have led a good life. Long and productive. Eight-three years is enough. I’ve made it quite clear, in the last two decades, of my general opinion regarding the direction my country and the rest of the world is heading. To be blunt, I don’t want to live in this world. I don’t want my DNA entered into some vast data bank, though I lost the argument on that one.”
Sam found it ironic that she’d resisted having a sample taken, considering that tissue was now providing him with a baffling question regarding her identity. He took a deep breath and returned attention to the video.
“It doesn’t matter at this point. I hope the crew of the ship will not waste time searching for me. And I apologize to any passenger who misses the next port because they insist on looking. At least you can brag that you were on the ship when that wacky romance author threw herself from the stern. I hope you can milk that for something once you’re home.”
She ran her hands through her short crop of silver hair and took a sip from a martini glass, shivering as the bright green liquid slid past her lips. A smile lit her face and she tilted her head to study the glass. “Reynaldo, you made a wonderful drink. I hope the tip I left for you is sufficient. I don’t know that I believe in the afterlife anymore, though I hope that what is left of me sinks to the seafloor and provides some comfort to the dying ocean. Sorry, another lost cause I embraced.”
She upended the glass and let the last of it drain into her mouth, and then carefully set the glass down. He wondered if she’d been drunk.
“Ah. Now, the crux. Don’t bother to look through my computers for bits and pieces of unfinished manuscripts. They are purged. Don’t dig through my papers looking for unpolished stories to sell. They are gone. I wrote what I wrote and that is it. My agent has a final manifesto, but whether she finds a place to publish it, or is allowed to publish it…well, that isn’t up to me, is it? Perhaps it is up to you. I don’t know. This video will go live minutes after I have leapt from the stern of the boat. To my loyal readers, I hope I have brought you some light in the dark days.”
He’d already done the search. She’d been quite thorough and nothing was published after her death. The manifesto had been posted, but ridiculed and torn to pieces by those who found her views unpatriotic. Officials had done an excellent job at suppressing any hints of validity regarding her observations.
At this point, the camera focus wavered, searching for the point to sharpen. All Sam could see was movement. Finally, she returned to center screen just in time to record her picking a full length black cape from her chair and settling the garment onto her shoulders with a theatrical flourish. She paused for a moment, gaze meeting the camera’s unblinking eye. Then she began to remove her jewelry. Her earrings and necklace first, and then her rings, which seemed reluctant to leave her fingers. After a few struggles with the reticent bits of sparkle, nearly all her finery lay on the keyboard. She fingered a flashy charm bracelet and left it clasped on her left wrist. Then, with a wave at the camera, she hit a key. The screen went black, the date, August 02, 2039, stark against the background.
Sam took a deep breath and played the recording again. He glanced at the image on the screen to the right, mounted on the massive wall shared by twelve different monitors, and back again at the woman in the cruise ship cabin.
Was it the same person? How could it be? He tapped a few keys and the frame froze at the point where she looked above the laptop and he studied her face. Another few keystrokes and he captured the image, transferred it to a special program and watched as the age fell away. He stopped it when he felt it was closest to the woman in the cell, a date and time continually blinked on that screen.
He switched to a fresh keyboard and a moment later a montage from her funeral played across the screen. Photos of the author from younger days, some video, some stills, began to play. He listened as fans of her writing, along with friends and acquaintances, spoke of how much they would miss her, how her books influenced them to write, or to smile, laugh. She’d been beloved by her fans, that seemed obvious.
A politician spoke of her commitment to the restoration of individual freedom and how much the funds she’d left to the cause would be appreciated. Though he made it clear they would rather Ms. Aster had chosen a different path.
It all seemed terrible pointless. She’d killed herself.
Sam's focus swiveled from the frozen frames of the suicide video, the composite from the identity program and a still from the memorial service.
Damn. Whoever created her, did a good job of it.
Remove the cap of short, scrappy hair she’d worn in her
forties and replace it with five feet of wavy auburn curls and the woman could be the author’s twin. According the DNA bank, they weren’t twins, but the same woman.
Not a clone, reported Dr. Drum. At least not according to what they knew about current cloning techniques. After the international ban on cloning went into effect in 2020, rumors would rise of renegade labs in Sweden, or deep in Asia, making astonishing progress, but no scientific papers were published. The scare of the poultry plague killed off that branch of research. At least, the rest of the world assumed that.
Dr. Drummond’s words from earlier in the day played across his mind. He’d known Drum for decades and could tell when the man was finding the entire puzzle much too amusing. His face betrayed the fascination, the curl of his lip and raised eyebrow illustrated excitement. Not to mention the near bounce as he gave his report
“She isn’t a clone, Monty. Her DNA structure is much too stable and the radioactive trace in her skeletal structure, along with the mineral make up of her cells, indicate she didn’t mature in a lab environment.” Drum had met his eyes and smiled crookedly. “And why, in God’s green acres, would scientists who could clone this perfectly choose a romance author from early in the century as a subject? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Drum had a point. It didn’t make sense. Nothing about this mystery appeared simple. A clone of a terrorist, or a beloved politician or celebrity would make sense. Someone to win over the public, or rally the troops, fool the voters. But an author? She’d been well known, but not of superstar status. If this were a plot of some sort to win public sentiment, a more recent candidate would make more sense.
He glanced at the list of awards she’d won in her day. No, the
had won in her day. Something called a KATHY, four of them. She made the New York Times Bestseller list eight times, when it was still a print paper. There had been three television movies and an aborted big screen attempt to dramatize one of the best sellers. She’d been a popular speaker and only in the latter half of her career had her outspoken liberal politics impacted her sales. But even then, she remained a darling of the coastal populations, who embraced her Save the Seas Foundation.
She’d left most of her money to that effort. He’d been on the oceans most of his life, and to be truthful, totally agreed with her cause. Raised on the eastern coast, he loved to sail and took every opportunity to still find time on the water. Economic hardship hadn’t done the waters covering most of the earth any favor. The big oil spill and fire off of San Diego had been an environmental catastrophe to rival every disaster of the century before. Millions had died.
With a sigh, he switched over to another screen and called up the reports from that charity. He pulled a chair out and sat to read. For over an hour he examined the news coverage after her death and, buried in the numerous stories, he caught something that made him smile. Evidently, Rachel Inez Aster had been partly responsible for the breakthrough in oil cleanup, since her foundation funded a scholarship for Angela Frederick, the scientist who would go on to patent the compound that neutralized spilled oil and turned it into benign chemicals.
He explored Dr. Frederick's background and read that she still worked in a lab on the west coast. And all the proceeds from her patent continued to fight for coastal waters.
Could she have covertly funded an effort to bring back Rachel Aster? It certainly didn’t seem feasible.
He straightened his back and lifted his hands from the keyboard to stretch. A yawn threatened to break his concentration, but he shook it off.
Another cup of coffee would probably fry his brain, but he needed a breakthrough and something nibbled at the back of his head. Drum promised completed lab tests the next day, frowning as he studied the preliminary report. “Something isn’t right, here. Might be a normal genetic abnormality, I’ll send it in for further testing.”
“What sort of abnormality?”
Drum had pointed to a series of lines running down the full body scan they’d done of the prisoner. “Might be scratches on the films, might not be. I’ll get the Professor to analyze my equipment.”
“She’s busy looking over the video from the
“Yes, but her imaging diagnostics are fully automated. She can let the program run while she works on the
’s video feed.” Drum had slapped him on the back. “You can’t wave your hand and have all the answers. I know sixty-five sailors and scientists are missing. But you found no sign of violence, no ransom request, plus no group has gone online and claimed responsibility.”
Sam didn’t respond, his mind spinning with the horror of some new weapon that would cause the crew to throw themselves off the ship. He had a wicked imagination. She was the only clue regarding the crew’s disappearance, if she’d only talk!
Monty pushed the chair away, stood and paced before the wall of monitors. After several minutes, he brought up the live feed from the cell where she sat. The subdued lighting mimicked night, but she didn’t sleep. She sat on the cot, her arms wrapped around her knees. The bright yellow set of surgical scrubs came from Drum. A single ray of light, probably from a fault in the mirror, illuminated her bare foot and the vivid cuff of the pants.
When the Navy pulled her from that raft, floating four hundred miles from the South Carolina coast, she’d been naked. According to Drum, she must not have been there long. No sunburn, no dehydration.
He clicked another monitor on and loaded the video from the rescue. She’d been on her stomach, an impressive swath of hair providing some shelter from the sunlight across her back. When the Navy dingy reached her and one of the sailors slid onto the raft, she’d risen up, stared straight at him and then tried to throw herself into the water. It had taken three men to calm her down, get a blanket around her and one sailor had to hold her tight against his body as they sped back to the ship.
She’d tried to get away over and over again, never saying a word. She made no sound. Just attempted to escape. Finally, the medic declared her in shock and suffering from hysteria. They sedated her, locked her up in a quarantine area of medical bay and contacted the base. Three hours later, every electronic device on the ship failed, the video cameras and recorders stopped and seven minutes later, when they all returned to function, no one remained but the rescued female, still unconscious.
The Navy answered an emergency beacon, independent of the ship’s power. In fact, it went off because the systems ceased so abruptly. After arriving and only finding the woman, they called his unit in and transferred her to the care of Homeland Research and Security Department for interrogation.