Wringing her hands, Valerie sat in front of the large cherry wood desk across from Max. Certificates and plaques hung along the walls next to photos like the one in Jack’s room. She was not impressed with the display of coins, ribbons, and badges he had earned throughout his life. She knew he was a snake.
Max ignored her, typing and clicking demands into the computer. Looking far too pleased with himself. He glanced up and motioned her attention to the monitor. The computer screen displayed three parts. She and Max occupied separate sections, and a third was blank, awaiting the other member of the conference. She wanted to slap Max for the way he looked at her but maintained her poker face as promised, though her heart skipped as the screen indicated they were dialing into the conference.
The blue screen disappeared, and a handsome young man appeared in a tailored navy suit and deep red tie. His brown hair was short and connected to a trimmed beard. His smile curled at the corners of his mouth. Valerie was not intimidated by the image. She coughed to cover a laugh. If the CDC were sending young go-getters after her, she would have no problem evading the government entity.
“Ah, hey there, old friend,” came the voice through the speaker. “Thank you for arranging this meeting.”
If the men were old friends, she had no way of knowing how old the gentleman on the screen was. She knew they had a DiaZem at the Denver facility, so that would explain his age regression. Valerie hated how his low, smooth voice made her feel. His tone was warm and familiar, like an old blanket. She hated him more for it. Her hands in fists under the table, she focused her energy on maintaining her façade.
“You know I always keep my word,” Max answered.
“Yes, you do. Now, would you be so kind as to step out and allow Ms. Burton and me some privacy?”
Max’s smile faded, but he stood and crossed the room to the door. The man on the screen had more authority than Max in his own home. Valerie noted the observation, but did not know what to make of it. The man on the screen was nothing to her. She would give enough respect to get what she needed. Nothing more.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Burton. My name is Doctor Lucas Jarrett. I am a geneticist with the CDC and have been assigned to Denver as the Head of Research for the United States. I understand you have several questions, as do I, but you may go first.”
“Where are my father and brother?” Valerie kept her tone pleasant despite the disdain she felt for him. She would let the use of her maiden name slide. If this was her father’s arrangement, her proper name was inconsequential.
“Yes, of course. Your family is fine. Comfortable and well. Would you like to speak with them?”
“Yes, please,” she answered with tight lips. He was smug and mocking in his tone. She had worked with plenty of doctors with the habit of talking down to her. Lucas was not an exception. In normal circumstances, she could stand her ground, but Valerie had to muster every ounce of will to keep her agreeable posture toward the man on the screen. She could not show fear or anger; she did not want to give herself away.
The display on the monitor changed to show a sterile white room. At a white table, seated in white chairs, were her father and brother in white clothes.
“Valerie,” her dad said, sitting upright. He looked young and healthy as the doctor had promised. His shoes were not the regular ones he wore over his prosthetic foot. Kevin sat beside him. The two men looked like twins rather than father and son. Valerie’s emotions swelled in her throat, which she swallowed hard to keep from bubbling to the surface.
“Hi, Dad. Kevin.” She hoped her father would take the lead in the conversation because she could not speak without choking on her words. Valerie was unsure of how much Lucas already knew about her and assumed Max had kept him informed of her every move.
“We are fine. Nothing bad is going to happen to any of the conductors.” He paused for a long time with a blank look.
She understood his underlying message. The general population was in danger. Valerie was too scared to ask him anything. She nodded in understanding, and he continued.
“They are having a hard time locating Caleb. Once you find him, Gia will know. . .”
The video cut back to Dr. Jarrett.
“Now, you see they are happy and healthy. But there are matters you and I need to discuss, Ms. Burton.” The curled smile spread deeper across his face, making her stomach turn.
“Mrs. Russell,” she responded, tightening her fists under the table, thankful the words did not come out as a scream. She took a deep breath and gave him a rehearsed smile. Yes, she would play along, but he would know that the power he assumed he had over her was minimal. Lucas could treat other people as less, but not her.
“Yes, Mrs. Russell.” His smile widened. “Mr. Davis shared with me a rather disturbing video, among others. We know you have been affected by the event, but not in the way that your friends have. The awakening of the dormant gene has also brought into effect a type of system of checks ...