“I’m brilliant, it’s a fact,” Dr. Demetrius said. He glanced over at Artemis as he pulled out a rectangular plastic tray. He shook the tray covered across the top with wobbly mushroom caps.
“I guess we all need some self confidence,” Artemis said.
“It’s how I manage the humidity, temperature, C02, with just the right environment,” Dr. Demetrius said, proudly. ”Did you know that I can create a structure for human organs.”
“Why keep people on life support?” Artemis asked without looking into Dr. Demetrius’ eyes. “Appears a harsh protocol.”
“Oh, the staff takes every precaution, we do try to keep them alive, after we tried to save them,” Dr. Demetrius said. He kept inspecting his mushrooms. “I’ll say it, but never admit it. I think it’s just my greedy hospital employer. They squeeze out every dollar from Medicaid. It’s obvious, they file claims for more money based on the time the patient stays. It’s the government system. I try to ignore them. I’ll never say that in the open, or in front of a lawyer.”
“How does this thing feed?” Artemis said. “I read some papers, it needs a tree, or other waste to feed?”
“You mean like a big compost pile?” Dr. Demetrius asked. He slipped on another clean pair of latex gloves. “That’s kind of how it works in the forest. Mycelia need the rot, they have enzymes that break it all down, animal dies in the forest, it’s slowly consumed, in a way.”
“You have a compost pile?” Artemis asked. The acid from her stomach licked behind her throat.
“We do, think about it. Leaves, twigs, fall from the trees, die off from the trees, winter comes, come back in the spring, where did the leaves go?” Dr. Demetrius asked. He pointed at another tray. “See those, cordyceps, from them, we think cancer drugs. They are a strange fungi, alien like, they have a parasitic existence. I feed them insects, grasshoppers, the mycelia literally take over the insect. It’s quite startling first time you see it. They eat the insect from the inside out, maybe a way to kill cancer cells inside the body, don’t know yet.”
“You’re the hospitals medical director,” Artemis said. “How are you going to answer for the death cases, overdoses, and then the bodies are cremated, how’s that the standard?”
Dr. Demetrius pondered Artemis’ questions. He moved about the laboratory and appeared to simply inspect the trays covered with a cheesecloth like material spread over a variety of mushrooms. He was careful, surgical like as he dug beneath into the mycelia networks.
“Not me, DEA, look it up,” Dr. Demetrius said. “Passive toxicity, addict dies, the body is a host – it’s toxic, breathe in stray particles, someone gets sick, or worse. So, the hospital took an absolute position.”
“But the families?” Artemis said. “They were denied the right to a proper goodbye, burial.”
“We have to treat, you know this,” Dr. Demetrius said. He plucked off some mushrooms, and dropped them into a biohazard container. “Bad ones, so, what if one of these deceased patients, their addiction leads to a virus, or worse. We can’t see it, you can’t see it, its viral. The unsuspecting population starts getting sick, they trace it back here, and then what?”
“I show up,” Artemis said.
“Exactly,” Dr. Demetrius said. He walked between the rows of trays for mushrooms, and mycelia. “They are all different. It’s an endless harvest.”
“It sounds harsh, we have to respond to the claims,” Artemis said. She crossed her arms and made an effort not to touch any laboratory surface.
“It is, I don’t like it, but, we have an epidemic here,” Dr. Demetrius said. “By simply breathing a body becomes infected. In truth, most of this is not science, it’s ignorance from the DEA. But, we had to take extreme measures. Besides, I rarely see any family show up after an addict dies, unless there might be some money at the end of a dead persons rainbow?”
Artemis was cautious not to bring up Laina, or the information she had gotten from Dr. Langendorpher. She was uncertain how to approach Dr. Demetrius. He was quite smart, elusive, and Artemis thought potentially lethal.
“Local lawyer seems up front,” Artemis said. She strolled along the laboratory aisle between storage stacks behind Dr. Demetrius, with what she presumed inside were all mushrooms.
“I know Jerome, he does have ethics,” Dr. Demetrius said. He snipped off the tops of mushrooms with sharp shears he had retrieved from within sterilized packaging. He stared over at Artemis. “Small town, my dear. Besides we don’t have attractive redheads roaming our streets, perhaps you come over to my place for dinner?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Artemis said. She avoided looking at Dr. Demetrius.
“Pity,” Dr. Demetrius said. “I’m an amazing chef. As you might imagine my mushroom receipts are to die for. Besides, I like you Artemis, you’re interesting.”
“I’m just a claim handler,” Artemis said.
Dr. Demetrius stopped shearing the mushrooms. He looked back over at Artemis, again with a smirk.
“You are not like any insurance talking head we’ve had up here before,” Dr. Demetrius said. He dropped the shears into a sealed bin. “You’re military, it’s in your eyes.”
“Sorry?” Artemis said.
“You’re not a fat, pale stale male, and like I said, you’re military trained, it’s obvious,” Dr. Demetrius said. He waved for Artemis to follow him. “It’s about money, I get it. It’s rather a sad journey, money cannot really solve the worlds problems, but money invested, targeted, ah, then we can help vast populations live better lives.”
“World’s problems?” Artemis said. She noticed they walked away from the lab, and down a long, well lit corridor toward double doors with round porthole windows at about her eye level. “That’s an opened ended statement.”
Dr. Demetrius pushed back the right side door, and put on a long overcoat with the hospital emblem on the right breast pocket. He handed a similar one to Artemis.
“Earth is over-populated, plastic is clogging up the oceans, killing innocent wildlife,” Dr. Demetrius said. He pointed over toward a tall storage facility. “But I’ve developed a temporary solution, it’s how I keep this hospital open, let me show you.”
“I see now,” Artemis said. She walked outside with Dr. Demetrius. The active commercial facility did not smell of diesel or natural gas. She turned to focus on the busy loading dock, and workers swiftly moving different sized wooden containers from storage spaces on to electric powered forklifts that were driven over toward open shipping containers. “Gene and Loretta didn’t want me to see this place, why?”
“Stupidity, never mind them,” Dr. Demetrius said. “What you’re seeing is just freeze dried mycelia. They are produced for a vast array of commercial uses. Our clients can grow them, they just need to add some water, so forth. Once they take root, they provide a reusable, clean, resource for study.”
“The reason they didn’t want the reinsurance company aware?” Artemis asked. “What’s the deal.”
“Greed,” Dr. Demetrius said. “Think greed. My creation can replace plastic containers. Think about the size of that market?”
Artemis tried to focus on every detail she saw, the tall storage units were upward to about twenty-feet, all stacked full with pallets of plastic wrapped boxes. The workers covered in germ free suits, each face hidden behind safety goggles.
“Billions,” Artemis said. “Why the germ suits?”
“Hospital is a not for profit,” Dr. Demetrius said. “But they do know how to make money. The suits are to minimize contamination. It’s unlikely, but we don’t want to spread candida auris. It gets inside the hospital, nasty fungus, but just being safe out here, good risk management.”
“I take it this gets a lot of attention?” Artemis said.
“Oh yes, my employer is like big pharma,” Dr. Demetrius said. “Once they suck in enough money, they’ll suddenly start sharing my patents with the world.”
“Who your clients?” Artemis said. “Can’t be just anyone at this point, given all the secrecy.”
“Ah, good question, we are just testing with distribution companies for container manufacturing, we don’t disclose,” Dr. Demetrius said. He waved over at the foreman. “For now, our pharmaceutical friends, its an easy platform for drug investigations. Bio companies for creating human organs, like ears, livers. The mycelia are clean, as if like stem cells. Eventually, into the meatless market, really quite limitless.”
“You’re your own company inside the hospital,” Artemis said. “You turn a healthy profit?”
“That’s why they leave me alone,” Dr. Demetrius said. He stuffed his hands into the coat pockets. “Science, the art of medicine is about discovery, curiosity, and seeking the truth, not money.”
“That’s all you care about?” Artemis asked.
“Next time, bring your FBI friend. I’ll show him whatever he wants,” Dr. Demetrius said. “They don’t need to fly over us with a drone.”
Artemis turned toward Dr. Demetrius.
“He’s not hard to notice,” Artemis said. She looked past Dr. Demetrius, and then back at him. “Neither am I in a small town like this, guess it’s a good place to hide in plain sight?”
“You’re holding out,” Dr. Demetrius said. He winked. “I’m standing right here, it’s just you and me.”
Artemis was certain he wanted her to take his bait. She reserved her thoughts about Laina, and her mother’s whereabouts for another time. It would be the obvious first questions.
“You’ve a twin?” Artemis asked.
Dr. Demetrius grinned without showing his teeth. But his dark eyes told Artemis he welcomed the question.
“He’s lost his mind, drug addict,” Dr. Demetrius said. He held his hands behind him. “Calls himself Prophet Higgs Boson, you know, the god particle. How creative. He is profoundly disturbed, that’s who the FBI should investigate.”
“You’ve been out in the forest?” Artemis asked.
“No, I don’t communicate with drug addicts,” Dr. Demetrius said. “He’s dangerous, I suspect. I don’t know, but he’s a functioning drug user and dealer. Opioids, heroine and the rest, wasting his life, wasting other lives.”
“Then you don’t speak anymore?” Artemis asked.
“Never, it’s been years,” Dr. Demetrius said. He stared down at the smooth concrete slab. “He’s the reason for all the high-security. He is very smart, like me. We constantly scan the hospital campus for his girls, of course, some come inside in an ambulance. Like that little girl’s mother.”
“I know you know that. Some might think you two are working together?” Artemis said. She placed her hands on her narrow hips. “He gets them hooked, hospital takes them in for addiction treatment. You both get paid coming and going.”
“Fair question, Artemis. But, I took an oath. I take that oath to heart. I do try to heal,” Dr. Demetrius said. He squished his lips together. He pointed over at Artemis. “At first, I wasn’t sure about you. I find business people, lawyers, boring, at best. Just a collection of greedy boxes of hair, but you seem different.”
“What’s your brother doing out in the forest?” Artemis said.
“You’re holding out on me, again,” Dr. Demetrius said. He quizzically studied Artemis’ face. “I know I’m an arrogant ass, but my work is for humanity. My name will be on those patents well after I’m gone, they are my legacy.”
Artemis kept her gaze right back at Dr. Demetrius. She sensed he was being truthful. And for the first time, he was not over cautiously and evasive.
“He’s, into demonic worship,” Artemis said. She stopped. She crossed her arms. “Tell you what, I’ll take you up on your offer. I’ll come back with my FBI friend, take a tour, and why don’t we all go out into the forest to visit your brother.”
“He’s dangerous, he’s hated me after I refused to share with him,” Dr. Demetrius said. He looked downward. “He’ll kill me on sight. I have no question about that, or his intentions.”
“You’ll be safe,” Artemis said, flatly. “I’m well trained for these sort of, ah, trips.”
“Oh, I see. I’m not afraid of death,” Dr. Demetrius said, matter of factly. “I’ve been in death’s presence, many times. My DNR has simple instructions, after, I’ll be wrapped in mushrooms, and ethically buried near newly planted oak trees leading up to the hospitals front doors.”
“I’ll protect you,” Artemis said. “We’ll go during daylight, you’ll have the FBI, Agent Beaky as well.”
“I have a bad feeling about my brother, you know he hates my mother for leaving us at birth, strange thinking,” Dr. Demetrius said. “He has no ethics, no higher calling. I’ll almost guarantee you he knew you were out there, he monitors everything. Keeps the local police in his pocket.”
“I believe you,” Artemis said. She backed away. “I’ll be in contact.”
“And you meant to say, mission, right?” Dr. Demetrius said. He backed away from Artemis, and started to walk toward the double doors. “Don’t edit your words, makes you appear weak.”
End. Chapter 27.
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