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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Sleep then my Princess (Chapter 1)

Stephani Robbins looked up from the slides of tissue cultures she was checking for signs of necrosis. Her back ached. She leaned forward and rubbed it.
Nina Mumszuk, her friend and co-worker, set down the cultures she’d seeded on the white bench top and pulled down her face mask. “I spent the weekend looking at houses in Mesa. Vassily thinks we should wait 'till we have more savings, but I want my own place.”
Stephani saved the results of the latest round of tests. “I should be buying, as there are still some bargains buys, but I’m not exactly sure where I want to live.”
Three capped and masked heads turned towards them.
“People used to say that you couldn’t lose with real estate.” Richard Dixon, her colleague and head tissue engineer, said. “Coffee anyone?”
“Just what I need. I’ll sort through the mail.” Stephani said.
Fred Lincoln returned to calibrating the injection robot.
“I’ll go,” Nina said. She glared at Fred’s back. “The usual, Richard?” When he nodded, Nina asked Stephani.
“Same here.” Stephani bypassed bench tops and let herself into the glass corridor that led to three offices. They always reminded her of linked rows of goldfish tanks, like the ones she’d longingly pressed her face against as a small child at the local mall. She tugged at the face mask ties that had caught in her black hair as she strode to her office.
Her forgotten morning cup of coffee was on her desk. She started to sort the mail into two piles, one for Richard and the other for herself, until she came upon a pink envelope without a return address or company logo, addressed to her:

Doctor Stephani Robbins, Senior Tissue Engineer
Rigby Research Inc.
55-78 Desert Sun Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85251

The envelope had an embossed edge like an invitation.
Richard strolled in with two coffees and paused when he spotted her abandoned cup. “You already have a take-out.”
“That’s from this morning. Thanks. Just put mine on the desk.”
He took a sip and leaned over her shoulder. “Any of that for me, Doc?”
“Stop it. Just because I’ve got a few letters after my name.”
“Just teasing.” He grinned. “You’re always so serious. I’d do anything for a smile.”
If he could call her “doc” because she had a doctorate, then she could do the same for him. “Sure, Professor Dixon.” That didn't come out the way she'd intended. It sounded like she was being sarcastic. God, she wished she could be glib like Iantha, her half-sister from her mother’s second marriage, and get away with it.
“Now…now. I see you’re still getting loads of stuff forwarded from our L.A. branch.”
She took a sip of her coffee. The aroma reminded her of when her mom used to have one on the go as she got ready for work. Stephani had to be up and have her nose in her books.
“I’m not working two jobs for nothing. You’d better study hard and get a degree,” her mother had always said.
Stephani looked up to see Richard rake his fingers though his unruly black hair. He was always trying to tame it. A Harvard graduate, Richard had been headhunted by Rigby.
His hands were large with prominent veins on the back and his fingers were almost squared off. And she remembered from when they’d first met, he had a handshake with a sure grip.
“I’m beginning to wonder if our suppliers bother to update their records. I emailed them two months ago when I transferred,” she said.
 “Obviously, none of them are as organized as you.”
“It doesn’t feel like that. After five years of research into healthy endothelial cells in stromal breast tissue, I should have made a breakthrough, not be agonizing that if I’d taken a different approach I’d be registering a patent for us now.”
“Shoulda, coulda. You’re too hard on yourself. We knew that finding a biological alternative to silicone wasn’t going to be easy.”
“Maybe I’m not committed enough.” Her phone rang. The girl at reception told her that Jack Theed, the representative from West Labs Equipment, had arrived for their meeting. “He’s early. Tell him I’ll be down in ten.”
“So after the fire at the lab in L.A. and having to move here and set up again, you still think you’re not committed enough?” he said.
‘Mm,” she shrugged. She should be grateful that the project still had funding.
“How are the RT241 trials looking so far?”
“It’ll be another thirty-six hours before we know anything.” She opened the pink envelope and found a letter on matching embossed paper.
“What have you got there?” Richard asked.
“An invitation, I think.” She unfolded the letter.

Dear Stephani,
You are my Princess,
My only Princess,
I’ll make you happy,
When you are sad,
I’ll always love you
And treasure you forever
Though others won’t understand,

No one loves you more than I do,
So my Princess be true to me,
In your heart, you know I love you,
Soon, we’ll be together,
And you’ll be mine eternally.
No one loves you more than I do
No one!
Yours forever.

Who the hell’s this from? She slumped into the hydraulic chair and edged backwards from her desk. Why would anyone send this corny poem to her? It wasn’t even Valentine’s Day.
“What’s wrong?” Richard asked.
She shoved the letter back into the envelope. “Nothing.”
“You sure?” Richard raised an eyebrow.
“How’s the new iPhone?” She needed time to think this through.
“Still working out all those Apps. I tell myself it can’t be that hard if a five-year-old can manage it.” Richard glanced down at her quizzically.
She fumbled with the jumble of envelopes trying to cover the one with the poem inside, but everything cascaded to the vinyl floor. Jesus, I’m a klutz.
He gathered them up.
“I can do that.” Dismayed, she watched him pile them onto her desk and swallowed as the letter fell out.
It was in his hands before she could reach for it. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Tell me is it okay for someone to send this to me?”
Richard glanced down at her. She found she had nowhere to hide from his searching gaze.
He read the poem. “Is this from someone you know?”
She shook her head. “I’m too old for star-struck teenagers to be writing me a love poem.”
“This is disturbing. Especially, since this guy thinks that you’ll be his forever.”
“Oh. Let me look again.” This time, she took in each word.
“I can’t think of anyone who would write this stuff.”
“My conclusion is some weirdo’s got a fixation on you.” Richard frowned.
“No one’s been following me. At least I don’t think so. Maybe we’re overreacting.”
“Call security.”
“But what if it’s just a prank?” She’d had a couple of strange calls recently on her home phone even though her number was unlisted. Stephani picked up the phone but put it down when she saw, through the glass wall, Nina leave Laboratory 1 and come along the corridor towards them.
Nina knocked on the door and entered. Strands of her blonde hair had worked their way out of the disposable cap and fell across her face.
“I’ve almost finished loading the incubator, and wanted to check you still want me set the timer for thirty-eight hours.”
“Yes,” Stephani said. “Let’s see if the enriched mixture will improve the cell growth.”
Nina glanced at the letter Stephani held. “Wedding invitation?”
“Someone’s sent me this poem. It’s not like the sort you’d get from an admirer but from….” She let Nina read it.
Nina stared open-mouthed. “Oie Boczi. Sorry. That’s 'Oh God' in Ukrainian. What is in their head? What are you going to do?”
“We’re going to inform security,” Richard said.
“Let’s go talk to the staff and see if anyone’s got any clues,” Richard said. “You could have yourself a stalker.”
Stephani, capped and gowned again, scarcely noticed the familiar smell of growth media and disinfectant as a moment of panic gripped her when two capped heads turned her way. She took a deep breath before she spoke. “Hey, guys.”
She swallowed the hesitation welling in her throat. “Can I ask you something?” Why did she have to deteriorate into a nervous wreck when it came to something personal?
She turned to go when Richard gave her a look that said ‘if you don’t, then I will’, so she pressed on, “I received a poem in the mail today. I don’t know if this is meant to be a joke. If it is, it’s not funny.”
“What’s the problem?” Melissa Toomey, the tissue-engineering graduate, closed the glass fume hood, peeled off her disposable gloves, stepped from behind the bench, and slipped down her mask to reveal a heavily made-up face.
“Have a read.” She slipped the poem from the envelope.
“Do you think he’s stalking you?”
“I hope not. Now I’ll be looking over my shoulder every time I go out.” She should secure the front door of her apartment at night. However, the thought of being in a locked space scared her more.
“Have you seen anyone suspicious, Fred?”
Fred added incubation media into an injection robot. A soft whizzing sound punctuated the air as a measured amount of medium squirted into test tubes.
Finally, he lifted his head and eased down the mask that covered his bulbous nose. “What?”
She repeated her question.
He raised his eyebrows. “As if I'd send you that! I’m here ‘till eight o’clock most nights. When would I have time?”
A typical answer from someone who still lived with his mother and wore pants up to his waist with two pleats that were perfectly formed on each side.
“Can you glance at this and see if it sounds like anyone you might know?”
“Oh, why did I even ask?” She turned from him. Fred, the resident guru in cancer cell research, had an IQ that was probably off the scale, but possessed no people skills.
“Give it to me,” Fred snapped.
“See the way he talks to me,” she said.
“Fred, that was out of line,” Richard said.
Fred flung the poem at her. “Let me get on with my work.”
“I hope someone will-”
“Stop your babbling,” Fred said. “I can’t concentrate.”
“Richard, are you going to let him get away with that?”
“Quit it, Fred. We’re adults and should behave as such.”
“I apologize. Happy?”
Did he even realize that he’d upset her and pretended to be contrite?
“No,” she said, knowing that it would have little impact on Fred. “Richard, how are the RT251 tissue cultures coming?”
“Promising. Still, it’s too early to say for sure.” He glanced at her with a questioning look.
“I’m fine.”
Fred adjusted his mask and picked up the tray of test tubes partly filled with media and ambled, with a loaded tray, to the incubator. “Maybe, this guy’s obsessed with you.”
Her Mary Janes encased in disposable shoe covers made a shh shh sound on the floor as she followed him. “My God, Fred! What makes you think that?”
“The choice of words,” Fred opened the incubator door and began to put the trays inside.
“Are you okay?” Richard asked. “You’ve gone very pale.”
Clutching the poem, she rushed to her office, picked up the phone and realized she couldn’t remember the number. She looked it up on the computer and dialed security. When someone answered, she told them about the poem.
After she hung up, she gulped some cold coffee, called the police and was told someone would be over that morning.
“I’m glad you did that. If you hadn’t, I would have,” Richard said.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to see you make that call.”
“I should be doing something.” She left her seat and paced to the window, which gave a view of cacti and succulent gardens with a backdrop of cloudless blue autumn sky against a scattering of eucalyptus trees, and back to where Richard was standing beside her desk.
“Easy now. Just calm down,” he said. “What did you plan to do this morning?”
She drew her palms up. “I don’t know. I can’t think.”
Richard hugged her. “Let me get some photocopies of that poem so I can ask a few people.”
“Thanks,” she said. His aftershave smelled of musk, and his shirt had the scent of freshly washed laundry that made her think of her mother, who spent her nights doing washing and ironing for the extra cash. It was comforting. “I should get back to work.”
Back in Laboratory 1, she picked up the slides and put them down then picked them up again. Maybe, she was making too much of this, and it was just a joke. If that was so, then why did this poem make her feel uncomfortable?
After a few moments, Stephani tried to view the slides and discovered that the microscope wasn’t working. She turned it off and on, to reset it. The images on the screen showed some minor bacterial growth. That was good. Two done and another twenty-two left.
God, the gloves felt wet on the inside from her clammy palms. Usually, she had no trouble concentrating. She forced herself to scan all of the slides and save them to the computer. She’d go back to them when she could focus.
Stephani deposited the slides into the refrigeration unit, binned the rubber gloves and face mask, and retreated to her office.
When her phone rang, she wrenched it from its cradle, dropped it and then finally uttered a flustered, “Good morning!”
She was told Jack was still downstairs at the reception waiting to see her.
“Shoot, I’d completely forgotten. Tell Jack I’ll be down in five.”
After a quick inventory check to see if the lab needed any more test tubes or other equipment that West Labs carried, she shrugged out of the lab coat and hurried into Richard’s office. “Can you call me when security or the police arrive?”
“Where are you going?”
“Jack’s waiting for me downstairs. Just call me when they arrive, and I’ll terminate my meeting with him.” She hurried out the door and was at the elevator when she remembered the order sheet and rushed back to retrieve it off her desk.
As she stepped back into the elevator, a chill ran through her. How long had this anonymous poem writer been stalking her?

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