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The Pleasure Project
By JENNA McCORMICK CASSIE RYAN
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2013 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDr. Jenesis DeBruehl looked down the rows of tidy little cages with rats of all sorts of colors within them, one rat per cage, nearly one hundred of them on her right side. Steel lab tables gleamed with cold perfection and brand-new equipment, including the latest in centrifuges, note centers, and high-powered microscopes. Mirrors lined the ceilings along with bright fluorescent lighting, to help others watch the work of the researchers without overcrowding them.
Jenesis's heart was pounding with excitement. This gift affected her like diamonds or new shoes might affect some other woman. Her palms were moist and she surreptitiously wiped them down over her hips, her new lab coat crinkling with starch.
"So ... where is my desk?" She looked at the young lab technician, wanting to remember his name but too overwhelmed by the rushing sound of her own blood in her ears.
Hers. This whole lab was all hers. Fully funded. Fully staffed. Fully stocked. And, apparently, brand spanking new. Who the hell ever got brand-new anything in a lab? In her last research project, even her lab coat had had someone else's name on it at first until she'd had it patched over. Granted, that had been her very first solo lab since ...
Since she'd been over-recognized, made notorious, and seriously disrespected after the painful separation of her life from that of one maniacal Dr. Eric Paulson. After that, the responsibility of an entire lab had been hard to come by.
As usual, the thought of Paulson sent a horrid shiver down her spine. She had barely managed to escape jail time because of that lunatic. But what the outside world had not understood about the Phoenix Project was that below a certain level, the people working in Paulson's labs had had no idea he'd been experimenting on captive humans with the untried methods they were in charge of creating. It was supposed to have been a simple study on interrupting the natural decomposing cycles of the human cell, also known as an antiaging process. But regardless of too-obvious applications in the world's beauty markets, there had been whole sections of the labs that had had a much loftier goal.
Imagine, she thought, as she had thought when she had first signed on to the Phoenix Project, the possibilities for human beings riddled with cancer or leukemia if the precious and fragile healthy cells they had left could be preserved from the natural shedding process just long enough to help them through the chemotherapy or radiation processes. Jenesis herself had been designing the tag meant to differentiate a healthy cell from an unhealthy cell, so when the delivery took place, only the healthy cells received the strengthening alterations.
But then it had all gone to hell. That monster Paulson had been using her work—her work—to torture, murder, and mutate innocent human beings. He had bastardized her precious cellular tag to deliver specified cellular mutation commands.
He had used her and some of the best minds in the medical research world to create the Morphates, a new species of superhuman, in his quest to play God with others and find immortality for himself.
And she had been none the wiser until the day the Federated police had raided the labs and arrested her. Her life had been ruined, her reputation trashed. Now here she was, seven years later ...
Seven years later and she finally had her own lab again. Someone had finally decided she was once again worthy of the honor that a woman who had earned her doctorate by the age of twenty-five deserved.
Someone who hated her.
"I'll show you," the lab tech said.
Was it her imagination or was he looking at her with disdain? As she followed him through one perfect lab room after another, one beautiful display of expensive equipment after another, she realized everyone was watching her. They didn't even bother to pretend they weren't doing so. They flat out gawked at her. She could hear the accusations in their looks.
Monster ... Dr. Frankenstein ... mad scientist ...
She had heard the accusations hurled at her for years. No one cared about the details. No one cared that she had been used and destroyed almost as badly those innocent humans whom they now called Morphates. And perhaps they weren't that wrong. She was supposed to have been this incredible genius of the research world. How could she have been so stupid? So wrong? So dense?
Oh, she knew exactly how.
But she refused to let her new subordinates see how insecure she was, or how desperate she was to make this work. She didn't want to feel that desperation, but it was better than the clinical drive and the associated tunnel vision that had allowed her to be so ignorant of what Paulson had been using her for.
As she was led around the network of the lab, she began to realize the enormity of this project—that and the sheer wealth of its benefactor. If it hadn't been so perfect, she might have found it obscene.
The tech led her to her office, which, it turned out, was at the center of the lab, like the hub of a wheel with 360-degree windows or doors exposing each spoke of the lab as it stretched out and away from her. She would be able to see almost everyone as they worked, and would be within visual beckoning if anyone needed her. The glass was, however, threaded with steel fibers so it couldn't be easily broken or breached, and if she wasn't mistaken, it was also smart glass. All the doors were secure locked, requiring not only a key card but a thumbprint to cross from one section to another. They even had an entirely "clean" environment in one section, requiring very stringent protocols before workers entered or left the environment to keep it as uncontaminated as possible.
Everyone seemed busy as she stood in her office looking around, but she knew it was all just equipment testing and that everyone was getting their bearings just like she was. The lab had not been used until that day. There were seals on all the refrigeration units, blue protective plastic on all the displays, and hardly a single fingerprint on the metallic surfaces.
It was all waiting for her. Regardless of how they felt about her personally or even professionally, her staff was all waiting for her. And it was high time she started.
"Are you my go to?" she asked the technician as she lightly touched the state-of-the-art laptop sitting next to the desktop computer. Portable data next to fixed data. All of it, no doubt, linked to a central database. An empty database, perhaps? Most likely. She had lost everything she had been working on in the Phoenix Project when the labs had been destroyed by the government. Although long before the agents' arrival the data had apparently been decimated by Paulson himself before he'd escaped into the unknown. She didn't know which disturbed her more: losing all the magnificent advances she had made, or the idea that Paulson was still out there.
"No, Doctor, I'm not your lackey," the tech bit out, sounding mightily offended by the idea.
"I hardly consider my go to as my lackey. I consider him or her my lifeline to what is going on in the entire lab, the one person besides myself who will have his finger on the pulse of the bigger picture here. I consider my go to to be a crucial sounding board, a secondary voice to the one in my own brain. A fresh font of ideas, perhaps. Or even the voice of my conscience. You see, Paulson had no go to. He never thought he needed one. He was quite brilliant, you know, but also quite without conscience. I do not aspire to his type of brilliance."
"I'll be your go to, Dr. DeBruehl," a sophisticated, feminine voice spoke up. Jenesis turned to look over her shoulder to see a beautiful brunette woman in the doorway. She had fair-colored eyes, hair of indeterminate length twisted neatly at the back of her head, and she wore a smart vintage Chanel skirt and Possessiere blouse beneath a neatly tailored lab coat that hung open. Her name had been tightly stitched over her left breast in bright red thread: Dr. D. Chandler.
"Thank you, Dr. Chandler. I wasn't allowed to bring any of my own staff. It will be awkward until I learn everyone's capabilities." And beggars couldn't be choosers, Jenesis thought wryly. She had been in no position to make any demands for staff or anything else, to be honest. As it was, she had no idea why she'd been given this spectacular lab in the first place. With her besmirched history, she was still considered toxic goods. And considering this lab was owned and run by the Dark Philadelphia Morphate clan ... Jenesis had her theories on why they had chosen her to head up the lab, but she would have thought that would be all the more reason for them not to want anything to do with her.
"Devona Chandler," the doctor introduced herself, holding out her hand to Jenesis. "I'm in charge of your zoologicals. I'll be keeping the test animals happy and healthy. As happy as they can be, in any event."
Jenesis slowly reached out for the doctor's hand, her own hand shaking as they made contact. "Dr. Chandler. Your reputation ... well, it's as colored as my own," she said with a self-mocking grimace.
A Morphate. Chandler was a Morphate. The first she had ever met, never mind touched. Jenesis felt a little sickly as they shook hands. It was because of her that this woman was now a cross between a savage beast and a human, and was also immortal in every sense of the word.
Morphates could not be killed. The tag that had led Paulson's genetic modifiers into her cells had made those cells indestructible, unaging, and had given them the most incredible regenerative ability known on Earth. A Morphate could be shot right through the head and could still heal and eventually fully recover with perfect integrity. It was also a surprisingly fast process. So as she shook Dr. Chandler's hand, she was overwhelmed with a combination of utter guilt and absolute fascination. Oh, she knew she had had nothing to do with the creation of the actual genetic modifiers that had caused this woman to mutate, she had only created the delivery system, but still ... it would be as ignorant to say she hadn't created the bomb, she'd only discovered how to split the atom.
"I ..." What could she say? That she was sorry? That she hadn't meant any harm? Hadn't meant to be a part of making her inhuman? If she said the wrong thing, the woman was now strong enough to rip her head off in a single punch. And she'd have every right to do so.
"Eric Paulson asked me to be a part of his work," Devona Chandler said in her soft, refined accent. "I was honored and thrilled. I accepted before he even offered me my salary. After all, it was Eric Paulson. He was a genius and the most powerful researcher I knew of. It wasn't until I realized his zoologicals were actually humans that I comprehended what I had signed on for. I quit on the spot. Tried to walk away. But he was having none of that. He gave me a choice: work with him or for him. What he meant was he knew I would speak against him if he let me go. I would either take care of his test group as I'd been hired to do ... or I would become one of them. I chose the latter. I like to think that had you been aware of the nature of what your work was being applied to, you would have made the same choice."
Jenesis nodded mutely, but she could not affirm that with any honesty, so she didn't try. It was easy to say she would have made the right choice in a crucible of morality, but the fact was, no one could honestly answer a problem like that unless they were actually in the situation.
"I would like to think that as well," Jenesis agreed grimly. "But only you have the real answer."
Dr. Chandler gave her a slow nod and a half smile.
"Come. Let me give you a more in-depth tour of the lab," she said, pulling Jenesis into position at her side.
Kincaid Gregory stood with his feet braced hard apart and his arms folded tightly over the expanse of his chest as he stared fixedly at the monitors on the wall. Behind each mirrored run along the lab ceilings was a multitude of cameras, one for each workstation at minimum and dozens of others besides that were less hidden. The security cameras in the corners of the labs were par for the course and to be expected, but these others were for his purposes, although it benefitted everyone that there was always a second witness to the techniques, actions, and culpability of all events in the laboratory.
He had gone from being one of those anonymous little rats in Paulson's cages to being Paulson himself.
The parallel was not lost on him, and it didn't fail to make him just a little bit sick to his stomach. But unlike the demented Eric Paulson, Kin Gregory was not trying to recklessly mutate innocent humans, although it had become quite apparent early on that the mighty Dr. Paulson had never intended for his creations to become indestructible. Quite the contrary. That outcome had not suited his methods of illegal and inhumane research at all. After all, how could he possibly get away with what he was doing if he couldn't destroy the evidence?
Kincaid narrowed his focus onto the smooth little blond doctor he'd hired to run his lab. She had been one of Paulson's weapons in a vast arsenal of scientists. A key weapon, as it turned out. Without her, without that damnable tag of hers that had ferreted out the perfect cells necessary for transforming Paulson's human rats into the inhuman Morphates, he might never have succeeded.
Without her, Kincaid might still have the human life of a Federated police agent he had once been so proud of. His brother, Nick, would also be the human cop he deserved to be. Now, instead, they were ...
Alphas. Beastly leaders of a beastly species, condemned to live this parody of freedom as the leaders of two out of the six Dark Cities. Seven years ago, no one in their right mind would want to purposely set foot in one of the Dark Cities. They had been overrun with the scum of the earth. Gangs. Rapists. Pedophiles. Thieves. They had claimed Dark New York, Dark Philadelphia, and four other cities for their own, making certain no decent person would want to go anywhere near them. Law-abiding citizens had then walled those cities off, isolating the bad things where they could keep an eye on them. Then they had stuck their heads in the sand, pretending that the scum of the earth would be quite content with their lot and never want to expand their territory.
The walls had kept people out of the Dark Cities, but not in. The pestilence of poverty and violence had been creeping over the walls slowly, bleeding into the New Cities as well as the workhouses, industrial parks, and the low-income housing along the Dark City walls that no one else wanted to be near.
And then the Morphates had come.
Much in the way Native Americans had been given reservations, the Federated government had given the Morphates the dubious benefit, at Nick Gregory's suggestion, of taking over the Dark Cities. Normal people had been given the illusory comfort of putting the scary Morphates they hardly understood behind high walls with all the other things they didn't understand or were afraid of, and the Morphates found themselves in charge of huge amounts of real estate that, up until then, had been controlled by the baddest asses of the moment. Well, there was nothing more badass than a Morphate. It hadn't taken long for the criminal element behind the Dark City walls to realize there was a new sheriff in town, and that sheriff couldn't be dealt with the way they had dealt with previous mortal competitors.
Each Alpha in each City ran things his own way, and those Alphas took part in the Alpha Council, which was loosely responsible for keeping each group of Morphates under a modicum of control and helping the Morphates maintain representation in the government. After all, what the government had given, the government could just as easily decide to try and take away.
If they were stupid, that is. But no one had ever accused the government of being overtly smart. Over the past seven years, Dark New York and Dark Philadelphia, the cities run by the Gregory brothers, had undergone massive restructuring. The cleanup was moving along in both cities and, for the most part, the criminal element had been cleaned up along with it.
Kincaid smiled, a feral showing of his teeth.
Not that they'd had many other options, he thought.
Excerpted from The Pleasure Project by JENNA McCORMICK CASSIE RYAN Copyright © 2013 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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