The killer took lives out of sheer necessity. No pretense. No contrition. No deliberation. No agonizing over being caught. And the killer had become efficient at the work. Highly efficient. And now, it was going to happen again. The victim was walking home in the late moonless night along a secluded poorly lighted path behind the biology building. Petite, dark haired, curvaceous. It was her fault. She brought this on herself. That was abundantly clear. On the trail behind her now, with footfalls soft as winter’s first snow, the killer moved closer. Closer. Until... She turned. “Oh, hi. You scared me. I didn’t see you.” “Hello.” A hand slipped into a coat pocket. “You really shouldn’t be walking alone at this time of night. May I walk with you?” “It’s a free country.” “Perhaps we could talk again about your findings.” “If you’d like. But, I’m not changing my mind. You are wrong. And I will report it.” “Is there anything I can--?” “No.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. Even in the ambient light the killer could see her demeanor darken like an impending storm front. “I will report this and I expect you will be out of a job as a result.” The killer felt a burning rage working up from the gut mixed with flashbacks of childhood trauma so severe tears came. The right hand, palming the sponge, swiftly moved from the pocket to the woman’s face. The left arm enfolded her waist. Both bodies, propelled by the larger person’s legs, launched into the thick bushes out of sight of any potential passersby. A sickly sweet acrid odor swirled through the night air then vanished. *** She awoke in complete darkness groggy from... What had happened? She began to recall. There was a struggle. A hand over her face. A pungent smell. Then weakness. Now she was here. But, where is ‘here’? With no sight she tried to concentrate with her other senses. It was dead quiet. There was a dankness in the room with just the hint of a coppery odor. It was a smell she’d experienced before, but couldn’t quite remember where. Cognition improved. Her sense of touch now came to the fore. She lay on her back. The hard cool surface told her two things. She was on a metal table and she was naked. She tried to get up but was bound. Wrists, ankles, and upper abdomen were held fast by a strong but pliable material. Leather? Panic ensued. Breaths came in rapid spasms. She pulled against the restraints to no avail. She yelled, “Help! Get me out of here!” But, no help came. She struggled against the restraints and screamed for what must have been three quarters of an hour. Until she relaxed against the bindings, skin sweat drenched, muscles aching, spirit exhausted. Everything settled back into a dead quiet save the sound of her rapid erratic breaths. Perhaps we can bargain, she thought. “Hey,” she called out, “we need to talk. Is it money? I’ve got one hundred thousand in a trust. You can have it all. Just let me go. I won’t call the police.” Silence. “Please! Please, let me go!” She began to sob. A click. She was suddenly blanketed with light from a bare overhead bulb. Darkness fled to the periphery of the room. Startled, she stopped crying and squeezed her eyes shut against the precipitous assault on her retinas. She blinked to allow her pupils to accommodate the brightness. Now, her vision confirmed her other senses. She was indeed strapped on a metal table with leather hospital restraints and she was completely naked. “Hey!” she called in a tremulous voice, “Why are you doing this? Just let me go. I’ll destroy my findings. I won’t turn you in. I swear.” Then...the clop, clop, clop of thick soles on the linoleum floor. She felt the aura of something evil. A violent pressing savagery. A few steps closer, and it was upon her. Her breath caught in her throat. Standing over her was a phantasm. This was the only way her brain could interpret the presence now before her. Tall, baleful, the woman looked at her with a ravenous gaze. Her long face, framed by blonde locks ending in two braids bound by red bows, seemed to elongate like ectoplasm in the stark luminance. She wore white powder the consistency of a geisha’s with scarlet rouge on high cheek bones. Large blue eyes were framed by thick black mascara. Thin lips overpainted with blood red lipstick turned in a contemptuous curl. She tugged against the leather restraints again. “Who are you?” No answer. “Let me go! Please! Where is doctor--?” “Naughty, naughty, child,” interrupted her assailant in a piercing tone. “What?” Unnerved, she exploded into a fit of rhythmic wriggling of arms and legs that shook the table. Her head pitched from side to side. Then she saw the hand rise holding a beam of light. No, it was a knife. The long thin lustrous blade reflected the overhead glow. Eyes widening, she became transfixed. The hand came down. Agonizing pain skewered her pelvis. She emitted a guttural scream. Raising her head she saw bright red blood spurt from her lower body. The sticky warm fluid flowed down her hips. The scream faded into a moan, then silence as consciousness ebbed. Her breaths became shallow. Then stopped.
This was only the second patient Bryan Sheaffer, M.D., had attempted to intubate. For protection he wore a green gown over his scrubs, surgical mask, and sterile surgical gloves. The intern’s hands trembled. Poised over eighteen-year-old college freshman Allison O’Connell in a small treatment room of the Compassion Hospital ER, he held a laryngoscope and endotracheal tube attempting to insert the tube into her trachea. It would be a lifesaving procedure. Allison just twenty-four hours ago had been the picture of health: stunningly beautiful, trim, athletic, and, based on her Redding College enrollment, a mind keen as a laser. Hope Allerd, M.D., also dressed in gown, gloves and mask, stood in the doorway of the pale green tiled room, arms folded, watching the intern like a mother hawk monitoring her chick’s first flight. The ER’s head nurse had contacted Hope in her capacity as the infectious diseases fellow on call to consult on the case. Now, Allison seemed to shrivel before her eyes. Semiconscious, racked with a menacingly high fever, and covered head to toe with bluish macular lesions, she dwelled in that purgatory between life and the netherworld. Bryan squinted and pushed the tube into the young woman’s throat again only to bring it back out. Seconds went by. Her skin, the part that had been light pink, now took on a dusky hue. The head nurse scowled at him. “I called Dr. Allerd.” He looked in the direction of the door. “What? No. I can...” “You’re losing her, Bryan,” said Hope. “How many attempts have you made?” “Two.” “Naw, I’ve been counting. It’s three. Three strikes and you’re out.” Hope stepped next to him. Her slim five-foot six frame was like a dwarf’s next to his six-three muscular build. She took the instruments from him and bumped Bryan aside with her hip. Hope deftly inserted the laryngoscope into the dying woman’s throat and gently lifted. She immediately saw the inverted “V” of the vocal cords and slid the endotracheal tube past them into the trachea. Holding the tube in place she put the metal laryngoscope on a nearby instrument tray and picked up an Ambu bag lying on the tray, attached it to the tube, and began squeezing. After three compressions of the bag the young woman’s color began to turn pink. She was nowhere near being out of the woods. But, it was a start. “Bryan, where’s your senior resident?” “A patient on the floor with pneumonia was crashing so when he got the page from the ER he sent me down to see this patient.” “What has she got?” asked Hope. “Uh, meningitis?” “What about the rash?” “Oh, yeah.” “Meningococcemia, she’s got meningococcemia Bryan. What’s the mortality rate?” “Uh...” “It’s ten percent. If she goes into shock it may be as high as fifty percent. She may have a one in two chance of dying. What do you want to do next?” The intern’s eyes narrowed. He appeared deep in thought to Hope. “Come on, Bryan. Her life’s in your hands.” “I uh...” “How about ordering some ventilator settings?” “Oh, yeah.” He reached under his gown and retrieved his notebook, flipped through some pages, and began to read. A moment later he looked up at Hope and said, “Yeah, uh, assist control, uh tidal volume of...of...” “Geez, Bryan. You’re gonna let this girl die. Write this down: Assist control, tidal volume of 300 cc’s, respiratory rate 25 per minute, flow rate 60 liters per minute, FiO2 of 100% and PEEP of 15.” The intern scribbled furiously in his notebook. “What about antibiotics?” asked Hope. “Uh, a cephalosporin?” “OK. But, what generation?” “Er, third?” “OK. Why?” “I...I donno.” “Only the third generation cephalosporins, cefotaxime and ceftriaxone achieve adequate levels in the CSF to be useful. Pick one. What else does she need?” Bryan gave her a blank stare. Hope waited a beat. “Vancomycin. Add vancomycin to cover for any resistant organisms, at least until cultures are back. Also, even though its controversial, you might want to add dexamethasone. Studies have shown that it decreases the rate of post infectious arthritis.” Thirty minutes later Hope sat back-to-back with Bryan in a carrel off the intensive care unit facing computer terminals. Sans mask, gloves and gown she felt as if she could breathe again. Although a necessity in her current work in infectious diseases, she never liked wearing surgical masks. It wasn’t a matter of vanity though she was aware of her natural beauty--liquid brown upturned eyes warm as sunshine, regally high cheekbones, lustrous chocolate skin, and lips so luscious that men have been rendered speechless by their parting. No. What bothered her about masks was the confining sensation of the material against her skin. She took it as an extension of her aversion to the confining sensation dark places gave her. And there was no doubt over the origin of the phobia--that night of horror. Hope completed her consultation note and turned to see Bryan struggling to finish the patient’s history and physical. “Bryan, you’re going to have to do much better if you want to successfully complete your residency. Didn’t you play football in college? You backed the line or something?” “I was a linebacker. All-American.” “You worked hard at that, didn’t you?” “Yeah.” “To make it as a physician, you’re gonna have to work much harder than you did playing at football. Make a sincere effort, Bryan.” Hope got up to walk out. Half way out of the carrel room Hope heard Bryan murmur, “Bitch.” She stopped, gathered herself, and closed the door. Alone with the intern, she leaned against the door and took a deep breath. “Bryan, I don’t know what you expect to get out of your residency. Maybe you think being a physician is somehow cool, or maybe you want to make mommy and daddy happy, or maybe you figure you’ll be rolling in cash by being a doctor. Frankly, I don’t care. But, what I do care about are my patients. And, I won’t let you or any other half-assed intern put them in jeopardy by being ill prepared to care for them. If that makes me a bitch, then so be it.” Hope opened the door and stalked out of the carrel.
Three hours before he died, Jared Burch cut himself while shaving.
A red dot bloomed. He continued to scrape his chin, taking short, swift strokes with the razor. Marion Burch watched the reflection of the crimson circle expand in the bathroom mirror.
“Cut yourself,” she said.
Jared took a styptic pencil from the edge of the sink, wet it, and dabbed the spot.
“When’s your flight to Houston? Eleven, isn’t it?” asked Marion.
He rinsed the razor in the sink.
“‘Cause I was thinking, since you’re not dressed—”
Jared was naked. He always shaved right after he stepped out of the shower and dried off. The blood was now burgundy stippled with specks of alum.
“Gotta go,” he said. “Besides, weren’t you about to leave?”
Marion was dressed for work: grey skirt and jacket, white ruffled blouse, and black heels. As the newest partner at Newman, Peterson, and Rush, she was expected to look the part. “I can be a few minutes late. Perks of the new position.”
“I can’t.” Jared wiped his face with a towel and splashed on some cologne. “Be back really late. I’m taking the red-eye. Don’t wait up.”
She fingered a six-inch scar that ran diagonally along his lower back, a souvenir from a kayaking accident. She then pressed herself against his back and kissed his shoulder, letting her fingers explore the ridges of his abdomen. “Sure you won’t change your mind?”
He grabbed her wrists and dropped her hands to her sides.
“I said no”. Jared pushed past her.
She grasped the sink’s edge and stood there staring into the bathroom mirror at her reflection, pondering the minefield their marriage had become.
Jared never wanted kids, but she hinted at the idea with a wink or glance at every opportunity on seeing couples with infants at the park, in the grocery store, or upon sighting vans with a child seat in traffic.
Then there were the arguments over work. He wanted her to cut back, spend more time at home. Be there with dinner waiting when he arrived. Was it jealousy over her salary outpacing his? But how could she give all this up? She was moving up in the firm. It would be idiotic to relinquish her position.
And sex. Or more to the point, the lack thereof. They were mister and missus hard body and should have been going at it like minks.
It had been nearly two months since they’d actually slept together. Without having to stare into the glass, she knew she was a looker. Short-cropped auburn hair. Large brown eyes that could suck one in. Movie starlet features. Clear café-au-lait complexion. All of this and a dancer’s body. It was easy for people to think she was ten years younger than her thirty-five years.
The conclusion? To her analytical lawyer’s mind, it was patent. The foundation of their marriage was crumbling. The whole thing would eventually implode. He was probably poking some twenty-something bimbo from the secretarial pool.
Marion released her grip on the edge of the sink. Her fingers ached. She took a deep breath and entered the bedroom.
Jared was standing just outside the walk-in closet, his back to her. He was dressed in gray slacks and an undershirt. The white cotton fabric clung like a second skin, outlining his muscular physique.
His head turned, revealing his profile: penetrating brown eyes, rich chocolate skin, and succulent lips. She paused. He still had the looks that could steal her breath.
He wheeled full around. “Look at this. Look at this.” He held out a white cotton shirt, revealing a brown neck stain inside the collar.
Marion glanced at the shirt. “Yeah?”
“I told you a week ago to take those shirts to the cleaners.” Jared pointed to a pile of white shirts in a corner.
“I forgot. I’m sorry.”
“Great. I’ve got no clean shirt.”
“Well, you could have taken them.”
“I’m too busy,” said Jared. He put the shirt on and selected a tie.
“And so am I.” As they both brought extremely sensitive work home, they’d long ago agreed a maid was out of the question.
Marion took a deep breath, bracing for the impending storm.
“My work is important,” said Jared. He buttoned his shirt.
“So is mine.”
“Oh, yeah. Getting white collar criminals off after they bilk stockholders out of millions? That’s a great job.”
“I’m on the cusp of the greatest discovery of the millennium. Don’t tell me what’s important.”
“What are you talking about?”
Jared faced the mirror and tied his tie.
“Jared, talk to me.”
“You know I can’t tell you about my work. Suffice it to say that in five years the name Jared Burch will be uttered alongside names like Einstein, Newton, and Oppenheimer.”
“You’re scaring me, Jared. That sounds like megalomania.”
Jared knotted his tie. “Megalomania?”
He stepped to within an inch of her, his brown eyes intense with anger. “Don’t worry about my state of mind. You just take my damn shirts to the cleaners.”
Jared grabbed his blue blazer from the mahogany caddy and walked out.
Marion stood there trembling. As fights go, this was their worst. Others had lasted longer with greater volume. But this was the first time she’d actually felt physically threatened. Tears came and mingled with spittle on her cheeks from Jared’s close quarter’s tirade.
The garage door hummed. Jared’s Porsche 911 rumbled to life. She listened to the car’s sound fade.
She began to make the bed, hoping the mundane chore would somehow sooth her. She smoothed the sheets over the down comforter on her side and walked around to Jared’s side.
Life suddenly bore down on her shoulders like a ten-ton weight. She sat on the edge of the bed as she wept for the impending demise of their marriage.
But wait. Maybe there was a way to save it. They could seek counseling. She would be more compliant. More loving.
She dropped her head and wiped her tears with the back of her hand. Then she saw it: a corner of white protruding from the bottom drawer of his night table.
Marion pulled the drawer open. She immediately recognized the sheaf of papers as a legal document. She removed it and began to read.
What she read seared her gut. A bilious taste rose in the back of her throat, sending her scurrying back to the bathroom.
Like a million times before, Jared Burch pulled up to the main gate of Tyler Industries the namesake of its CEO, retired Air Force General Robert Tyler. The ten-acre private research and development facility created cutting edge technology for the military and the corporate community.
Upon showing the guard his ID, he was waved through, drove to his reserved space at the research building, and entered by pressing his code on a keypad beneath the doorknob as always. But today felt different. Soon, he was going to be the man school children would read and write reports about, the man who would grace the covers of Time and Newsweek, the man whose name would be on the tongues of every Wall Street investor.
Jared stepped into his office to revise his PowerPoint presentation at his desktop computer. As he completed a review of his final slide, a hand appeared placing a cup of coffee on the desk.
“Saw you working and thought you might need this,” said a soft feminine voice in a high-pitched Southern drawl.
Jared swiveled in his chair and looked up to see Nancy June McCarthy, his personal secretary, standing behind his desk. Pert, trim, twenty-five, with a round cherubic face framed by blonde curls, she was his ray of sunshine and his lover for the past six months.
There had always been some sexual tension between him and Nancy. But nothing more than a light banter-she calling him “handsome” and she was his “sexy lady”. Then things turned serious. He’d asked her to work a few late nights. On one of those evenings, after a particularly grueling session, he’d opened up to her about how his bitch of a wife didn’t really understand him. Then it happened. A touch sparked a kiss, leading to petting, which blossomed into intercourse on his desk.
Since then, they’d made love during late night work sessions, during lunchtime trysts, and on secret weekend getaways. Each rendezvous ended with Nancy’s burning question: “When are you going to leave her?”
Now, as he took a sip of coffee, Jared realized he could finally give her an answer.
Nancy sat on his knee and gave him a peck. “How’s it going, handsome?” she asked as she adjusted his tie.
“I’ve got some good news. I’m finally divorcing the bitch.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “That’s great. No more sneaking around.”
“We’ll still have to be discreet for a while. But I see a time when we can be a real couple.”
She pressed his cheeks between her palms and kissed Jared deeply. Jared let her sensually exploring his mouth with her tongue.
Jared pulled back. “I’ve got to go,” he whispered.
“Oh, yes. You’ve got a plane to catch.” She stood.
Jared, spun back around to face his computer, hit a key on the computer’s keyboard to save the PowerPoint to an SD card, removed the card, and inserted it into his laptop.
After placing his laptop into his briefcase, Jared got up to leave. “We’ll talk when I get back,” he said before stepping into the hallway.
A voice called, “Jared.”
He turned to see Addi Singh approaching with an identical briefcase in his hand. Addi, like Jared, held a Ph.D. in experimental physics and was Jared’s co-researcher in this current endeavor.
“Jared, I’m glad I caught you,” said the smallish brown-skinned man with dark grey-streaked curly hair.
“What is it, Addi?”
“Change of plans. The general wants you to bring this for the presentation.” Addi glanced down at the briefcase in his hand. Jared and Addi had created three portable prototypes of their work in the form of briefcases kept in Addi’s office. Complex electronics and intricate molecules in a special containment unit were jammed into every square inch of the grey metallic cases. Their skins were bullet-proof and contained undetectable explosives to destroy the interior in the event of theft or loss, thus preventing exposure of proprietary secrets.
“What? But we’re not ready—” Jared was reluctant to fly with such a case let alone reveal its sophisticated workings to an uncommitted investor.
“No. No. It’s a mockup. He just wants you to explain how the real one will work.”
“But I’ve got the PowerPoint on my laptop.” Jared lifted his briefcase, indicating the laptop was inside. “I’m taking the redeye back tonight and I don’t wanna take two briefcases to the meeting.”
“Just hot sync the presentation to your smart phone and use it. In fact, let me do it for you. Give me your phone.” Addi took Jared’s briefcase and gave him the duplicate.
Jared handed over his phone. “Where is Tyler?”
“He is in the lab. But he does not want to be disturbed, Jared.”
“No. He needs to understand. He can’t interfere with my presentation.”
“But you’re representing us all.”
“No. I created the matrix. I worked out the entanglement problem.”
“No.” He stalked off down the hallway toward the lab.
At the lab, Jared found the door locked and guarded by a member of the security police.
“I need to talk with General Tyler,” said Jared.
The stone-faced man in the blue uniform of the Tyler Industries security police nodded and whispered into a small two-way radio.
A moment later the door opened and General Robert Tyler’s head appeared. He stepped into the hallway. Animated, like a ferret on crack, with a perpetual smile— or an expression others might characterize as a sneer—Tyler had the blond-haired, fresh-faced, boyish features of a newly graduated prep school student, causing most people to feel at ease in his presence. Practically speaking, a huge mistake. Standing only five-six, he had to look up at Jared. The smile began to fade.
* * * *
“What is it, Burch?” asked Tyler.
Jared looked past Tyler into the lab. There were five men seated on bleachers, their backs to him.
“What’s going on in there?” asked Jared. The men turned in unison at the sound of his voice. He recognized none of them, save perhaps one.
Tyler closed the door and locked it. “Don’t you have a plane to catch?”
“What are those men doing in the lab? My work is supposed to be classified.”
“Your work? Without me you wouldn’t have the machine in the first place.”
“And without me you wouldn’t have the physics to do any work at all.” Jared began pacing in a tight circle, then stopped and faced his boss. “I want to know who those people are in the lab.”
“Just catch your flight and make your presentation.”
“But people like that don’t belong here. What are you doing?”
“I’m helping keep this company afloat like you should be doing by going to Houston and pitching our work to GenCorp. Now get the hell out of here.”
Jared pointed his finger at Tyler’s nose and opened his mouth. But before he could organize a rebuttal, Addi came running up.
“Jared, here is your phone. The PowerPoint presentation is loaded.” He handed Jared the smart phone.
Jared wheeled around to continue his argument, but Tyler had already slipped back into the lab and secured the door. It was useless to try to get the general to come out again.
But it didn’t matter. When he returned from Houston, Jared would learn all he needed to know about what was going on in that lab. Six months ago, Tyler had special high definition security cameras installed in the lab, in his office, and in his adjoining conference room. There was also a sophisticated sound system. Jared had learned by accident, while hacking into the computer system to test the security that Tyler was secretly recording each conversation, each experiment that transpired, and saving them on AVI files on the server. Since then, Jared had downloaded copies of the AVI files and periodically viewed selected ones to keep tabs on his boss.
Addi just stood there. The smaller man was trembling. Beads of sweat coalesced on his forehead.
“You okay, Addi?”
“Yes, yes.” Addi tried for a grin but managed only a grotesque parody of a smile.
“I’d better go,”
“Yes.” Suddenly Addi grabbed him by the neck and drew him downward so his cheek brushed Addi’s. The Indian whispered, “In the firmament of miracles, your star will shine brightest of all.”
Just as suddenly Addi released him, turned, and strode down the corridor, disappearing into a doorway some fifty feet away.
Jared, with the mockup briefcase in hand, left for the airport.
As he got into his Porsche, he wondered why everyone was acting so strangely. Maybe it was the pressure of the project. Still, it was inexcusable for Tyler to let those people in the lab. Then he recalled the man he thought he recognized. He’d read about him in one of Marion’s People magazines and seen him on a newscast. He was that Saudi-English billionaire playboy, Hassan Al-Sabia, the Prince of Bling Bling and a rumored financier of a terrorist operation.
It was all disturbing to Jared. Very disturbing.
The tiny man in the rumpled russet suit disembarked from the Des Moines flight behind a college female soccer team: a gaggle of acne-faced, giggling, cell phone-talking pubescent women in red warm-ups with white piping. He was entering the final leg of his mission and he tried to look inconspicuous, but his heart thumped and his palms sweated. As soon as he was in the center of the terminal, he bee-lined it for the men’s room, his fourth trip since boarding the flight in Des Moines.
After all, a man with less than an hour to live had a right to be nervous. As he washed his hands at the sink, he caught the irony of the situation and wanted to laugh. But couldn’t. It’s worth it, he told himself. A mountain of debt erased and a million in the bank for the wife and kids. And all he had to do was ride the plane.
He exited the lavatory and checked his boarding pass: Gate six, the flight to Houston. As he approached Gate six, he scanned the seated passengers for his mark. He’d memorized the face from a photo his contact had given him a month ago.
There he was, the tall black man viewing his cell phone display. The smaller man had only to sit in view and do two things: first, press a remote in his pocket to activate the thick horn-rimmed glasses he wore—actually a high resolution camera—then make a cell phone call. The cell phone, along with the glasses/camera, were given to him by his handler with instructions on how to use them.
The phone was to be used to make one call only. He opened the phone and dialed the given number. It rang twice. Then a voice on the other end—not his handler’s—said, “Yes?”
He replied with the one word response he was instructed to give, “Engaged.”
The phone clicked off. He flipped it closed and stuck it in his pocket. He desperately wanted to use it just once more to call his wife, to tell her he loved her, instruct her to kiss the children for him, and let her know that no matter what happened, he did it because he loved them all. But it was useless. His handler had told him that after that initial call, the phone would become inoperable and even the call he just made would be untraceable.
He stared in the direction of his mark, who sat with his back to the large plate glass windows, looking out onto the tarmac. The 737, which would be bound for Houston, was pulling up to the gate. In thirty minutes they would be airborne. Then after that, inside another thirty minute window, they would all be dead.
He had to go to the bathroom again. But he couldn’t. The instructions were explicit: once he made the call, the mark was to be kept in sight until the last instant. The last instant.
For a moment he thought about just peeing his pants. What difference would it make? But he held it.
The gate agent made the announcement. Flight 305 for Houston was boarding, first class passengers initially. He checked his boarding pass. He was in seat 5A—first class. He waited a beat. The black man stood and entered the queue. He slipped in behind the man, separated by an overweight matron in an expensive pantsuit wearing way too much jewelry.
He stepped a little to the side to keep the mark in his line of sight as they walked through the jet bridge to board.
On entering the doorway of the plane, he checked his watch. His heart began to pound harder and his bladder called louder.
Twenty minutes to oblivion.
* * * *
Jared heard the call for first class passengers. He continued to review his PowerPoint presentation on the cell phone’s display as he entered the queue, holding the phone in one hand and the briefcase and boarding pass in the other.
He was having trouble with the introduction. Revolutionary? Too bland. Earth-shattering? Too clichéd. Paradigm for a new millennium? Yes. Wordy, but apt. He would begin the presentation by speaking of Tyler Industries’ new finding as the paradigm for the new millennium.
As he boarded the plane, Jared felt flushed with a fervor for life he could not articulate. He was ushering in a new era for mankind. There were limitless possibilities and the name Jared Burch would forevermore be uttered with a holy whisper as the Messiah of a technology so advanced, so cutting edge, he would be like a god alongside lesser men.
Jared found his window seat and settled into the plush leather of the first class accommodations. He looked to his left and saw one—a lesser man—dressed in a wrinkled brown suit staring at him through a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses.
The corners of Jared’s mouth widened into a condescending smile.
Behold your superior.
Lethal Paradise CHAPTER 1
Everybody dies. There are no exceptions. Twenty-three year old Francine Devereaux now knew this all too well. She was dying. She could feel it. The decay seeped into her marrow like roiling molten lava devouring a dulcet meadow.
It was the poison they gave her with that needle. It was killing her. But, it will not end here, she vowed. Not in this sterile white wasteland of alcohol scents and needle sticks. She resolved to escape. To get home. A woman should die in her own bed.
She’d come to the little hospital in excellent health. What started out as a wonderful dream had mutated into a horrific nightmare. They’d demanded she receive this shot on arrival and, when she refused the needle, they put her in restraints and gave it to her against her will. Then, each day afterward they poked her arm taking blood multiple times. They ignored her daily protestations of feeling nauseated and vomiting her guts out.
She hadn’t eaten in four days. An IV dripped fluid into her arm. But, it was not enough. Francine had lost weight. The soft restraints that confined her to her bed for these five days were now useless to her captors. She wriggled out of them with the alacrity of a Houdini-like escape artist.
Despite being dressed in only a white and blue polka dot hospital gown, she had to leave now. She yanked the plastic IV catheter from her arm, ignoring the bleeding from the puncture wound. After tossing the covers off, Francine stood on wobbly legs.
It took some time, but she felt a modicum of strength return. She reached the doorway of her room surprised that no one had come in to stop her. Now, down the hallway. Footfalls soft as whispers.
At the nurses’ station she paused. The nurse on duty sat deep in concentration as she stared at a computer screen. She was the one who had appeared in her village and assured Francine that by coming to the hospital and staying for a few days she would help cure Caribbean Fever, the killer of her three children. Of course, Francine had jumped at a chance to end the horrible sickness. No mother, she thought at the time, should suffer the loss of her children as she did.
Time to go. She shot down the hallway passing rooms filled with women just like her. Women who had come to this place bright with hope but who now shivered and ached in despair.
She darted through a door at the end of the hallway and bound down a set of stairs. An alarm sounded.
By the time she reached the building’s rear door, every muscle in Francine’s body protested the slightest movement.
She stepped outside. The door slammed shut, locking. No going back.
A chain link fence surrounded this section of the building. A padlock on the gate. Rolled barbed wire topped the fence all along the length, except for a fifteen-foot span. Ladders and wire for that span lay on the ground, awaiting workers to come and finish the job.
Francine stepped up to that section of fence. She tried to lift one of the ladders, but it was too heavy. Climb, she told herself and put her right foot through an opening of a chain link. Then, gripping the links, she put her left foot in an opening over the right, ascending. Slowly, she went up and over.
Landing outside the Barrett Pharmaceuticals perimeter, she was partway there. Twenty-five miles of jungle trails to go to get home. Back to mama and poppa. But, reality began to sink in. I will never make it, she thought.
Bare feet trampled on forest floor. Each step unmitigated hell. Joints ached. Muscles burned. Lungs seared. Heart thudded. Head spun. They pursued with dogs. She didn’t have to look back. She could here the barking grow louder.
Fueled by adrenalin, she ran. And ran.
Even in her weakened state her thoughts were clear. Why did they pursue? Was it over the fifty US dollars they gave her for coming here? She was just a poor islander, widowed by that cursed dictator, Anton Dubois. His soldiers had shot her husband when he and some men of her village demanded jobs on the tourist side of the island. Now, the barking grew even louder. She was a blink from passing out and being mauled by those vicious canines.
Two steps further and she dropped to her knees. Spent, she crossed herself, closed her eyes, and awaited the inevitable. Consciousness failed. She crumpled, face first, into the dirt.
Death swallowed her whole.
“I have found something. Something horrible. Hope, I need your help.” Face etched with anxiety, he took a deep breath and looked over his shoulder. Turning his gaze forward again, he continued, “Hope, people will die. Thousands. I’m in Mousseux. The Hotel Blue Surf in the town of Nouveau-Croix. Room 328. I’ll have a key left at the desk for you, in case you arrive and I’m out. I know what you’re thinking, ‘Mousseux, the island of sparkling beaches and happy times’. But, there’s a sinister underbelly. Please come. And don’t trust anyone, especially the local police.”
“It has been a while,” he said, the disquiet melting away for a moment. “I miss you. I think about you every day. I know we didn’t part under the best of circumstances, and I’m sorry. I’m also sorry for not keeping in touch. I have really been busy, but that’s no excuse.” He rubbed his lips and leaned in to emphasize what he was about to say next. “Please come as soon as possible. Just be very careful. I can’t overemphasize that this is a matter of life or death.”
Hope Allerd, M.D., hit the key to pause the video e-mail attachment. She knew him to be a man of his word, not prone to hyperbole. That last phrase—”life or death”—reverberated in her brain. The irrational mental picture of him lying in some God-forsaken hole in a pool of his own blood whispering her name assailed her thoughts. She shivered.
Willing to walk through hell for this man, Hope resolved to go to Mousseux then and there, to help him in any way she could, regardless of the circumstances. Hope took a moment to stare at the still image on the computer screen: same rock star features and maudlin brown eyes that initially drew her in, all in 1080p. She touched the image of his handsome umber face with two fingers and longed to be with him—Clive Andrew, freelance reporter, wounded soul, and love of her life. As she swiveled in her executive chair away from her desk, Hope began to think of what to pack. She left her office and took a short walk down the hallway past her colleagues’ office suites to see Samuel Wallenstein, M.D., the senior partner in the multi specialty practice she’d joined a year ago.
The door was open. She rapped on the casing. Wallenstein, a balding, gray haired, owlish man wore wire rimmed glasses, a bowtie, and a stiffly starched white lab coat. He looked up from his desk and smiled. “Ah, Hope,” he said in a reedy voice, “come in. Take a seat.”
Hope entered and plopped down in a chair facing his desk.
“Oh, before I forget,” said Wallenstein, “I want to thank you.”
“Thank me?” Perplexed, Hope furled her brow.
“Yeah. Your call on that pneumonia patient. I got the urinary antigen test like you recommended. Positive for Legionella. How’d you figure it out?”
“His history,” said Hope. “He was using this misting fan at his local pharmacy. I had it tested. The water was redolent with Legionella. I called the Health Department, by the way.”
“Brilliant and thorough. That’s one thing I like about you. And, that’s why I overruled them.”
“Yeah. Some of the doc’s in the practice didn’t like that situation with Dr. Francis Peril during that part of your infectious diseases fellowship here in Birmingham.” Hope felt a flush of anger and humiliation swell in her cheeks. “But, I found out that he was a serial killer.”
“It wasn’t that so much as you set him on fire and shoved him into a lake.”
“He was trying to stab me to death!”
Wallenstein raised his hands, open palms toward Hope. “Take it easy, Dr. Allerd,” he said, a nervous chuckle etched in his voice. “I’m on your side. I’m sure the newspapers exaggerated the event.”
Hope buried her face in her hands. “I didn’t sleep for a month afterwards. I had to restart my infectious diseases fellowship in Ohio. I—”
“No doubt you have had a hard life,” said Wallenstein, sounding conciliatory. “I did a little research. I know your parents were murdered in a robbery gone wrong and you and your brother were shot.”
Hope looked up, cheeks burning like hot coals.
“But, you overcame it, like you did that Peril affair. You’re not only brilliant and thorough, but you’re a fighter, Dr. Allerd. And this practice needs fighters. Those practitioners willing to go the extra mile for their patients. Practitioners like you.”
In a quiet voice, Hope said, “Thanks.”
“This isn’t just flattery. I’ve been watching you. You’ve been covering for your colleagues when they were on-call and needed time off and have seen their patients when colleagues have called in sick. You’ve been available, night or day, anytime a colleague needed an infectious diseases consult, and you’ve worked just about every holiday. In short, Hope, you’ve done nothing but advocate for our patients.”
“Well, thanks again. It’s a bit embarrassing, but…”
“Time off. That’s kind of why I wanted to see you. I need two weeks off.”
Wallenstein leaned back in his chair, surprised. “Well, uh…”
“An urgent personal matter. It literally just came up five minutes ago. I promise when I return I won’t take any vacation time for the rest of the year.”
“You haven’t taken any time off for the twelve months you’ve been with us thus far.” The older man glanced up at the ceiling and sighed. “Very well, Dr. Allerd, when do you want to go?”
Hope rose from her chair. “First thing in the morning.”
*** “Jack, I’m taking a trip,” said Hope into her cell phone.
“About time you got away, sis. How long has it been since you had a vacation? About eighteen months, isn’t it?” said Jack.
“It’s not a vacation. I got a call from Clive. He needs my help.”
“How is the old boy?” asked Jack in his best imitation English accent.
“He might be in trouble. I need to know everything about the island of Mousseux in the Caribbean.”
“Ah, Mousseux, the island of sparkling beaches and happy times,” said Jack.
“So I’ve heard. Are you busy?”
“I’m writing cyber security software for a local bank. But, for you I can make time.”
“Thanks, Jack. Use your cyber genius and pull up all you can about Mousseux.”
Hope listened to the clack-clack-clack of his keyboard in the background interspersed with the creak of his wheelchair indicating that Jack was repositioning himself. “Jack, how’ve you been doing?”
“I’m good, sis.”
“No autonomic dysreflexia?”
“You’d be the first I’d call if I were hospitalized.”
“Last one healed a week ago.”
“Sis, I’m fine.”
“With paraplegia you have to take care of yourself, Jack.”
“Hey, I’m the one in this wheelchair. Oh, and in case you were about to ask, I’m taking my meds for PTSD and attending group. I think about Mom and Pops every day.”
“Yeah,” said Hope. “I do too.”
Hope fell silent as she listened to more clacking of Jack’s keyboard.
“OK, sis, got something for you.”
“What is it?”
“First, a little trivia. How did the island get its name?”
“Come on, Jack.”
“Mousseux means sparkling. It was named for the white sandy beaches. Apparently, back in 1743 Pierre Leclerc, the explorer who claimed the island for France, thought the beaches sparkled.”
“OK, Jack, got it. Mousseux, the island of sparkling beaches and happy times.”
“Right. Mousseux was a big producer of sugar cane and part of the triangle slave trade.”
“Oh, great. I’m loving the island already.”
“Lets see what else?” said Jack. “Mousseux gained its independence in 1960 and was ruled by a succession of dictators. About that same time, English became its primary language. It was a poor island for several years until Andres Dubois took over thirty-five years ago. He was the father of the present dictator, General Anton Dubois. Anyway, Andres invited several international luxury hotel chains to build on the island and constructed an international airport. And the rest, as they say, is history. Currently, Mousseux is the second biggest tourist destination in the Caribbean.”
“You don’t say.”
“Hey, sis, I don’t write ‘em. Oh, one more thing. Dubois is on par to become the richest man in the Caribbean. Barrett Pharmaceuticals is going to expand their manufacturing plant on the island and there are plans to build more hotels, restaurants, and casinos.”
“So, bottom line is,” said Hope, “rich ruler, about to get richer.”
“Wait a second. I found one more item. A feud between Dubois and the poor mountain people has been going on for twenty years or so. Over land. The land they want to build on.”
“OK, so rich ruler, about to get richer with poor folk who won’t share in the riches. Sounds typical.”
“When are you leaving?”
“I’ll tweak your cell phone contract so you can call me without having to mail in your arm and leg with the next bill.” “Thanks, Jack. You’re the best.” “Be careful out there, sis.”
The Proxima Plague
Humankind’s worst catastrophe since The Flood began and ended with a text. A minuscule item within the rhythmic patterns of cosmic circumstances. But, tiny ripples can be the genesis of a tidal wave of change as Hope Allerd would come to learn. The first text awoke Hope at three in the morning horrifying her. Technically, she wasn’t awakened. Hope hadn’t fallen asleep. She was in the grasp of insomnia, obsessing over what she needed to say later that day. The smart phone’s ding was just an excuse to sit up in bed to ponder the speech she had to give in sixteen hours. The speech of her life. But, reading those few simple words in New Times Roman and seeing the name of the sender were like colliding head-on with an approaching freight train. She was frightened. No. Frightened didn’t begin to describe it. She felt betrayed, violated, devastated. Hope was tempted to call her. Just dial the number and demand, Why would you send such a text? Hope imagined a one-sided conversation: “Are you drunk?” Silence. “Do you want to keep your job?” Silence. “Give me one good reason why I should not fire you right now.” Silence. Perhaps, she thought, I should call the police. Report her. After all, it was a threat. A promise to do violence in a most heinous way. Call her or phone the police? In her fatigued state she decided she needed an arbiter. Hope arose and dialed the only objective third party she knew would be awake at this hour, Clive Andrew, her on-again-off-again boyfriend, some three thousand miles away to the East. While listening to the connecting circuits’ clicks and hums she replayed the text in her mind and shivered. Finally, a series of rings followed by a sleepy, “Hello?” “Clive,...It’s Hope.” “Hope? Oh...uh, hi.” “Aren’t you awake?” “Well,...I had a late night.” “OK, what nightclub?” “No. No. I was up well past one A.M. local time interviewing President Angula about poisoned wells in Namibia. I’ve got a great piece. If you’re calling about your speech, I’ll be there. I guarantee I won’t miss it. Even got my tux.” “Thanks, Clive. But, that’s not why I called. I received this text. About five minutes ago.” “Kind of early for a text, isn’t it? What is it, three A.M. there?” “It was from an employee in my lab. A usually nice kid. Out of nowhere she just sent it.” “What did it say?” Hope recited the threatening words from memory. “Did you two have a fight? You reprimand her or something?” “No. We hardly see each other. And, as I recall, the last evaluation I filled out on her was glowing.” “Then she’s crazy.” “I don’t think—” “Jeez, Hope. Call the police. Leave immediately and call the police. I’m packing now. I’ll take the first flight out. Call me from a safe place.” From somewhere within the house Hope perceived a thumping. Footfalls on the stairs? She wasn’t sure. “Hope? You there?” Hope held her breath trying to parse out sounds of movement. “Hope!” “Er, yes, yes I’m still here. I thought I heard something.” “Get out. Get out, now!” Hope put Clive on hold and called 911. She then returned to his line. Beginning as a low keening, an inhuman moan rose to a nerve-jangling, nails-on-chalkboard screech. “What was that?” demanded Clive. In a hoarse whisper, Hope said, “I...I don’t know.” “For God’s sake, leave now!” With cell phone in hand and not bothering to slide on her slippers, she vaulted from her bed wearing nothing but her floral-patterned pajamas. Overhead a loud “thump-thump-thump” reverberated. She sprinted in a crouch for the bedroom door, expecting some bogeyman to drop through the ceiling at any second. Hope bound down the stairs of her two-story townhouse. Now louder, the thumping followed in cadence to her steps. At the front door, she turned the lock and deadbolt and shot from the building. Stopping at the curb, Hope spun fully around to observe her darkened home. The front door was ajar, otherwise, the silhouetted facade was the same as always. Then she saw it. Angular and black, a humanoid form hunched near the chimney. In a flash, it was on the lawn. Frozen in fear, Hope stood within twenty feet. Moving with inhuman speed, the figure leaped for her. A sudden whoop. Flashing blue and red light reflected from the stone faces of townhouses. Hope turned to see a police car slowing to a stop. She turned back, bracing for the crushing impact. But, it was gone. In that glint of time the intruder had vanished. Hope stood nonplussed. To her adrenalin stoked mind, in the half second it manifested itself in midair before her, her specter appeared to be... ...a naked young woman.
Hope pulled her silver Lexus LS into her reserved space in front of the Stoner Building and exited. She entered the front door and took the stairs to her third floor office. As Chief of the Infectious Diseases Division in the Department of Internal Medicine, Hope oversaw a staff of twenty. The Stoner Building was a throwback to the fifties, a former hospital converted to an office building for the clinical faculty of University Medical School. It had those faded green and white checkered linoleum floors, whitewashed walls and wooden doors with opaque glass windows. Names and room numbers were still painted on the glass in block print. Each morning on seeing hers, “Hope Allerd, M.D.”, in block letters on the frosted pane, Hope always got the odd impression that she’d traveled back to the nineteen fifties. “Good morning, Dr. Allerd,” said Steve Holcomb, Hope’s secretary, as she entered her outer office. Steve, a slim young man impeccably dressed with perfectly coiffed hair, handed her messages on slips of paper. “Morning, Steve,” said Hope as she trudged, bleary-eyed, into her inner office. “Coffee’s on your desk. Cream with no sugar. Looks like you could use it this morning.” “Thanks. You don’t know the half of it.” When she reached the doorway, Hope turned and said, “Would you get Tailor Gaffney on the line? She works in the lab.” “Will do.” Hope took a sip of coffee as she settled in behind her desk. She’d spent the remainder of the predawn morning sitting on her living room couch staring at her locked front door awaiting the return of her specter. The two policemen who responded to her “911” call had entered and “cleared” her townhouse. “Probably just shadows. They can do funny things this time of night,” had said one of the officers in response to her description of the leaping monster on the roof. In her fatigued state she was inclined to believe him. She’d also called Clive back to reassure him that the police found nothing. Now, she mulled over that threatening text and its sender. Hope concluded: having her brightest microbiologist arrested for a single indiscretion was overkill. Everyone deserved a second chance. Still, she needed to confront Tailor about the inappropriate message. Her intercom rang. Hope pressed the button to talk. “Yes?” “No luck, Dr. Allerd,” said Steve. “Tailor didn’t come in to work today. Apparently, this is the third day she hasn’t come in.” “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” “I just did.” “Yeah, OK.” Hope rolled her eyes, momentarily forgetting that her title as Chief entitled her to oversee only the clinical and research aspects of the division. Control over hiring and firing, sick days and vacation days still resided with the University’s Personnel Department. Supposedly, having less administrative responsibility was one of the perks of the job. At this point she wasn’t certain. Hope walked out of her office. On passing her secretary, she said, “Steve, I’m heading over to the lab.” “Don’t forget. Budget meeting at ten-thirty.” “Right.” Hope strolled across the campus pondering her upcoming speech that evening. Her mea culpa, really. She was going to take the fall for malfeasance involving the John C. and Cora H. Allerd Foundation that she founded to provide care for indigent people in the Caribbean. She’d likely, according to her attorney, be indicted and face prison time. So, with the text from hell, seeing a phantasm on her roof, and her pending confession of possible wrongdoing, her day was definitely on tap to begin and end on a down note. Hope arrived at the Mason Research Building which housed the infectious diseases lab. It sat across the street from University Hospital and was connected by a skyway. The postmodern glass and steel structure, looked more like a facade on a sci fi movie set than part of a medical school. She entered and took the stairs to the second floor. Once there, she accessed the door to the lab with the chip on her ID badge clipped to her white lab coat. She could see researchers at work on their grant funded projects through interior windows in the rooms off the main corridor. Hope arrived at the office of Sean Early, Ph.D., supposedly the best microbiologist in the division and Tailor’s immediate boss. His door was open. He sat at his desk, back to her, facing his desktop computer on a table beneath a cork board beside a sink. Not bothering with the formality of knocking, Hope entered. On the computer screen was a stereoscopic diagram of a unique proteasome inhibitor. It was, Hope knew, one of a group of molecules that were being researched in cancer treatment because they could activate cell death in some cancer cells. The text on the screen spoke of a novel virus that secreted the molecule. Groundbreaking. “Hi, Sean,” said Hope. Sean, a diminutive red-headed man with the complexion of baking soda, spun around in his swivel chair and simultaneously hit a key to bring up the computer’s screen saver, a photo of him in khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirt paddling a canoe down a stream. “Hope, hello. I didn’t hear you come in.” “What are you working on?” Sean fidgeted with some papers on his desk. He flashed one of those waxy smiles like you’d see on a Halloween mask and ran his hand through that red-orange mop of hair. “Uh...yeah. I’m doing a study on...on probiotic bacteria and...and their ability to inhibit pathogen colonization. Fascinating stuff.” “Oh? Cause I thought I saw—” “I’ll send over a copy of the paper for you to review. You do realize I value your input.” “Sure, I look forward to reading it.” “You should knock before you enter. I know you’re now head, but the last Chief never bothered us. As long as we did solid research, he didn’t come by. And, I for one have produced some of this department’s best work.” He waved his finger at Hope. “Ask anybody. They’ll tell you.” Sean’s face pinched into a toddler’s pout. Hope raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Sean,” she said, “I’m not here to conduct an inquisition. I just asked what you’re working on.” “Probiotics.” “Probiotics. I got it. I actually came here to ask about Tailor Gaffney. She works for you in your research, right? She hasn’t come to work for three days now. Is she sick?” “You know why they hired you, don’t you?” “What?” “They needed to tick off a couple of items on their equal employment opportunity check list: African-American and woman. And, I suppose heading that foundation didn’t hurt either. Good publicity for the Medical School. You’re no administrator, Dr. Allerd, just a figurehead.” Sean’s waxy smile returned. Feeling the heat rise in her cheeks, Hope grated her teeth. Maybe accepting this job wasn’t the best decision. She took a deep breath. “Sean, I only wanted to know if Tailor is sick.” Sean shrugged. “But, you knew she was out. Right?” said Hope. “Dr. Allerd, I don’t take daily attendance on the people I work with.” “OK, OK. I’ll leave you to your work on...probiotics.” Sean’s expression softened. “If you want to know about Tailor, check with her graduate assistant, Lester Pearson. Those two are as thick as thieves.” He leaned forward, looked from left to right in a conspiratorial posture, and whispered, “A rumor is circulating that someone caught them going at it in the supply closet last week.” “Really?” Sean shrugged again. “Anyway, he’s around somewhere.” Hope nodded, and left. *** Lester was alone in the break room—the typical lunch hangout with vending machines, fridge, microwave, and plastic table with six chairs in the center of the room. The lanky young man with acne scared face and buzz cut pulled a steaming cup of coffee from the microwave and sat at the table facing the doorway just as Hope entered. She sat across from him. “Lester?” she said, “I’m Dr. Allerd. The head of the Infectious Diseases Division.” He poured sugar into his coffee from the dispenser on the table for about ten seconds then stirred the concoction. “Like a little coffee with your sugar?” asked Hope. His expression was blank, like he hadn’t heard her. Putting the spoon in his mouth, he began sucking on it. Hope noticed beads of sweat on his brow. He hasn’t even taken a sip of coffee yet, she thought, so, why is he sweating? Then there was his shirt. It looked like he’d slept in it for the past week. “Lester, are you all right?” He continued to stare into infinity and suck on the spoon. “Lester.” Hope touched his wrist. He glanced down at her hand, and she immediately removed it. “Lester, I want to ask you about Tailor.” He downed the coffee in one gulp and returned to sucking the spoon. He then put a hand on Hope’s wrist and, grinning, rubbed it. It was Hope’s turn to pull away. “Lester, did you hear me?” He stood, put down the spoon, and started out of the room. “Where are you going?” asked Hope. “To catch a plane.” Hope arose to question him further. But, by the time she turned and reached the break room’s doorway he was gone. The door to the stairs at the far end of the hallway, slowed by its pneumatic closer, slammed shut. Hope stood transfixed. No human being could move that fast.