Ft. Dix 1976
Pale blue lifeless eyes stared back at Ed as he wrestled for a better grip on the limp soldier’s uniform. The thick rubber gloves of Ed’s biosuit snapped rigid in the bitter cold of the February dawn. The gentle hiss of air through his respirator drowned out most of the distant cadence of trainees chanting as they marched down icy roads: “A yellow bird, with a yellow bill, flew upon, my window sill…”
His companion’s voice cracked over his headset. “Hurry up, damn it, we don’t have all day. We have six more to pick up before the truck arrives.” Sweat poured down his face despite the winter chill, fogging the glass visor of his hood.
“Yeah, sorry, it’s these gloves.” Ed lied as he reflexively swiped a gloved hand over his mask. The cold bodybag crinkled, throwing showers of frost into the frigid air as he zippered it closed over the now perpetually young face, a face that would haunt him for years to come. A small cat wandered onto the deck from nowhere. It meowed as it rubbed against the reinforced legging of his biohazard suit.
“Kick that fucking cat away, we don’t need to explain how this shit got out of quarantine because we let a curious pussy get too close,” his partner yelled. Ed gently nudged the cat off the deck as they hoisted the body onto a steel gurney.
“Was it the flu that killed him?” Ed asked. Icy cold snow crunched under their boots as they wheeled the corpse over the slippery cargo deck toward their biocontainment van.
“Who knows? And I suggest you learn not to ask. Here comes the other truck. Sign that release and head on back to Decon. I’ll meet you there once I’m done here.” The staff sergeant shoved a metal clipboard into his gloved hands. Ed managed only an unseen nod from inside his biosuit.
A rusty speaker blared overhead as entered the cold receiving bay of the morgue. “Toughen up Ed. You’re gonna see worse than this. I’ll guarantee it,” the harsh mechanical-sounding voice prophesied.
Bethesda, MD 2018
The sequencer’s screen flashed a monotonous chain of multicolored letters …CTGGAGATCCTGTTGACT... A stainless steel bench reflected the soft, purple haze of overhead germicidal lamps. With a gentle, soothing hum they emitted an acrid, pungent odor of ozone that bit at the nostrils of the fidgeting scientist.
“I am Vishnu, both creator and destroyer.” Murphy giggled as he fondled the small plastic vial. Scientists had a most curious tradition of naming resurrected gene sequences after fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty came first and then of course next was the Frog Prince. He searched old childhood memories for a fitting name. A gentle tap on the vial sent glistening dewdrops sparkling like fairies in flight. van Winkle, he thought, what an appropriate name for such a long sleep.
“What’s so funny?” A tall, thin man glared at him from across the desk like a raptor after its prey. His question startled Murphy back to the present.
John Stevens wasn’t your typical bureaucrat; he had a lean, hungry edge about him, exceedingly fit for a man in his sixties. His cold, quiet demeanor was unlike most in finance--chilling actually. Those cool gray eyes made it nearly impossible to evade probing, nearly.
“Oh, nothing, really. You may inform our backers that their cholesterol vaccine is almost complete. I only need to do a few additional animal tests before we can begin human trials.” Murphy turned toward the printer to hide his lunatic grin and ripped the report free; it felt good being a god even if your subjects were only microbes.
Stevens was a man of instinct. He read people well and listened to his intuitions. Murphy was dangerously close to needing a psych eval. “More tests? Your last report indicated you had finished animal testing.”
“I did, with the promoter; but I still need to run a few more on my transposon.” Murphy shrugged. Normally he usually ignored the idiots DoD sent to review his research, but this Stevens was different; he was the sort of man you ignored at your own peril.
“Transposon? You never mentioned any other sequences in your reports. The IRB granted approval only for your control element.” Murphy’s tousled hair and wrinkled lab coat did little to inspire Stevens' confidence.
“Yes, I know what I wrote, John. You know as much as I that Investigational Review Boards are a joke; they waste more time and money on navel gazing than investigating and offering valid critiques. I don't give a damn about their opinion, only yours.” Murphy peered over his wire-rimmed glasses at Stevens.
This man made him uneasy, he felt tightness in his gut around Stevens, it was a feeling he hadn’t experienced in years. Fear? He refused to be bullied again, not after all he has done and accomplished, not even by Stevens. “You should thank me instead of interrogating me, John. My transposon overcame the instability problem that plagued your boys in Defense.”
Stevens glared back at him, Murphy’s faint body odor of sweat mingled with the smell of ozone was nauseating. “I’m going to need a detailed report on your transposon later, but for now, a quick summary will have to suffice. First off, what is a transposon and where did you get it? We need to make sure there aren't any infringement issues.”
“Oh, I can assure you there won’t be any.” Murphy's eyes twinkled. His fat jowls jiggled in merriment; now it was his turn to show who was in charge; and it sure wasn’t an ignorant fool from finance.
“How can you be so sure?” Stevens asked. Few lie well, even fewer can get away with their lies. Most reveal themselves with simple body language and Murphy’s hyperactivity showed he was hiding something important.
“This sequence hasn’t existed for over 25 million years. I've rebuilt it from various pieces of DNA scattered about in our genome.” Murphy bit his lower lip with glee.
“You resurrected an ancient virus? Why?” Stevens snatched the printout from Murphy's pudgy hands.
Murphy's piggish eyes filled his spectacles. "Not a virus, John. It’s a transposon. I’m surprised you don’t know the difference; perhaps I should explain it so you will understand. Scientists like me aren't really sure what a transposon’s origins or functions are. Some believe they are 'pre-viral' elements that allow viruses to assemble themselves faster when faced with a new environmental challenge.”
“Whatever their purpose, my transposon stabilized our cloning vector. It made the virus I used for cloning damn near sentient! I call it nano-intelligence; it has awareness in a limited way. Not only can it interact with its environment, it’s actually able to manipulate it to a certain degree.” Murphy swiveled playfully in his stool.
“Intelligence?” Stevens shook his head and frowned. “I may not know much about virology, but I’m quite certain viruses aren’t capable of thought.”
“It’s not thought as we know it, but it is cognition. There are precedents you know. Human Papilloma Virus manipulates host sexual behavior to promote its own transmission through kissing. And the parasite Toxoplasma increases our dopamine levels to alter its host’s personality." Murphy grinned and bobbed his head up and down.
“It’s brilliant if I must say. Instead of dopamine, I designed my vector to perceive and regulate cholesterol. Cholesterol levels induce cellular changes that increase the transposon's probability of survival.”
Murphy jumped from his stool and ran toward a chart rolled on the wall. He pulled it down in such haste that it nearly fell from its hooks. “Oh, I am sure this may be a difficult concept for you to grasp, but my vectors do have intelligence. I am able to control their behavior or even selection of a host simply by adjusting the appropriate sequences. Maybe this will help.”
Murphy grabbed a pencil lying on the table and pointed to the flowchart. It showed a complex arrangement of colored globs with strange names and arrows pointing in all directions.
“My promoter is regulating an operon that controls 30 genes; this is a graphical representation of the process. Don’t even try to figure it out, because it’s difficult even for experienced biochemists.
“Suffice it to say, each of these genes influences the others; it’s called a feedback loop. What concerns you is this circle at the top, which represents my modified promoter.
“Notice that even though the arrows point to many other shapes, each is ultimately traced back to the promoter." Murphy jabbed his pencil at the chart, snapping its point.
“Think of this chart as representing an orchestra and each shape is a different instrument that is waiting for cues about what or when to play. Some, like the tuba, play infrequently, while others, like the violin, may be more dominant.
However, the important concept to remember is that they all need each other. None can be in harmony without paying attention to what the other instruments are playing. Without direction you just have a cacophony of sound.
“That is--unless they receive guidance from the conductor. Consider my promoter to be analogous to him; all the instruments are under his control. He tells them when and how to play to create a sonata. He is the soul of the orchestra, not the brains; the brains are the musical score.
“The conductor interprets that score in a way unique to him and his interpretation creates music. My promoter is like a conductor, the soul of the virus, giving purpose and balance to a system that otherwise would be in chaos.” Murphy flourished his hands with a hopeful grin. Stevens only scowled and shook his head at this egomaniac.
Murphy dropped his smile as he grabbed his reports. “Stevens, you’ve been blunt with me, now so shall I be with you. You think I don’t know why the Department of Defense is providing support for my project? Frankly, I don’t care what they do with my research once it's completed; I’m only interested in its continued funding. As far as I’m concerned, the clinical use far outweighs any potential military application of using viruses as a guidance system for biologicals.”
Stevens deflected Murphy’s comment by pointing toward the open ledger. “I want a closer look at your notebooks, so we may as well head back to your lab.”
“So are you convinced?” Murphy beamed as he unlocked a freezer then gingerly lowered the vial back into its thick, acrylic container.
“No, smart or not, you have yet to prove your virus is safe for human use.” Stevens muttered as they left the isolation room. The cold, stainless steel room was once again quiet; its stillness interrupted only by the buzz of UV lights and the intermittent clicks of thermocyclers.
Stevens rubbed his straining eyes and pushed back from a desk cluttered with lab books. “I want this summarized in time for the shareholder meeting this Friday. How soon can we begin the Phase One trial?”
“Well, I would like to do at least a few additional animal tests with my transposon so perhaps two months, three tops." Murphy said.
“Three months won’t work at all. We promised the Board that clinical testing would be ready in two months,” Stevens shook his head.
Murphy laughed. “Things have progressed a bit since the days of Pasteur, John. He had the luxury of bypassing most of the animal testing when he used his rabies vaccine on that young boy; he was damn lucky. Last thing your sponsors need is for another 18-year-old to die as the result of gene therapy.”
Stevens nodded with a solemn grunt. “Jesse Gelsinger. Yes, that was quite tragic.”
Murphy snapped the notebook closed as they exited the sequencing lab. “Authorize the proper equipment and I’ll meet the Board’s deadline. I want a geographically isolated region with access to modern medical centers; preferably an island with an impoverished population.”
“Impoverished? Why impoverished?” Stevens detested backwater nations. Their corruption added uncertainty to any project.
“They may be willing to allow us to continue safety studies after our initial testing. And, if we’re lucky, their government may also agree to Phase Three trials. Tourism will also be limited, so it’ll be easier to initiate quarantine in the unlikelihood we have an accidental release."
Murphy's portly swagger down the long hall was reminiscent of a duck's waddle. If Stevens had learned anything from his Reagan years, it was this: Trust, but Verify. “Several on the committee have voiced concerns over using viruses as vectors.”
“Would they prefer stem cells? Sure, there’ve been a few incidences from viral use as vectors. But, that’s nothing compared to protesters who can't tell the difference between humans and pre-embryonic cells. Would they prefer to deal with an unholy alliance of ignorant Tea Baggers and filthy Occupiers defecating on their corporate lawns? The fools would demand equal protection for stem cells while proclaiming we're killing babies for profit," Murphy snorted.
Stevens suddenly felt a gentle rubbing against his leg. He gazed down into the blue eyes of a mewing kitten. “Well, hello kitty, where’d you wander in from?” Stevens smiled at the purring kitten.
A technician suddenly pounced through a nearby doorway and ran towards them with a choke stick. Murphy swore at him. “Damn it, Maurice, I told you to keep those subjects locked up. If it had scratched Stevens there would have been reams of paperwork. Put it back in the cage and be more careful.”
“Yes sir,” Maurice whimpered. He stealthily stalked the kitten, dangling the pole’s open noose.
“Subject? You use this cat for lab tests?” Stevens growled.
“Yes, they’re part of the safety trials that we’ve been discussing. Don’t worry, though, they’re clean. They should be sterile as much as they cost per unit. This lot is used only for control purposes.” Murphy chuckled.
Stevens felt a cold sweat at the sight of the noose dangling from the choke stick. Tightness gripped his chest as he struggled against the memory of the young, dead trainee who frequented his dreams. Apparently, ‘Ed’ wasn't as dead as he had thought. Stevens reached down and carefully lifted the purring kitten. It nuzzled close against his lapel.
Murphy was animated with rage. “What are you doing, Stevens? Are you mad? That wild animal may have an infection or worse. Give him to Maurice so we may finish our conversation.”
“No, I think I like him. Just send CBOB a bill for any charges due, I’ll be sure to authorize payment for it and you requested equipment. Have a good day, Doctor, and be ready to give your report this Friday.”
Stevens was only vaguely listening to Murphy’s protests as he exited the lab with the kitten. He had his own special safety tests to perform; find the ideal location to contain an event few have ever seen, but most dread--a viral outbreak. And the best place to was on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic, one where death is routine and a few more would likely go unnoticed. Impoverished, isolated, dangerous yet accessible, a place with nothing to lose: Española.
Senator Harlan ‘Raging Bull’ Long’s office was decorated with the usual ostentatious displays of patriotism. American flags, bronze plaques of past victories, and multitudes of framed newspaper clippings adorned the otherwise sterile marble walls. The room’s vulgar displays of political conquests had the subtlety of a bordello, but, paled to in contrast to its occupant. “Dammit Gina, where in the Hell is my call from Tony?” ‘Harley’s’ voice boomed from inside his chamber.
“I’m ringing you through now, Sir, but for some reason it’s not connecting.” Gina flashed a polite smile at Stevens as she punched the buttons on her phone.
“Shit, I hate these Blackberries, Blueberries or whatever you call them. My fingers are too damn big for the keypad. Who the Hell built these thing, Smurfs?” Harley’s profanity-laced bellowing reverberated throughout the room.
“Try hanging it up, Sir. I think you’re still on the line.” Gina managed only a sheepish grin; she knew where this would be going.
THUD. Wars, politics and years had done little to mellow Harley. Greyed and grizzled, his 300 pounds towered over John as he stormed into the room. “Son of a bitch! Bring me my other cell, Gina. I think I broke this worthless piece of sh..,” Stevens cleared his throat.
Harley spun around with an agility belying age. His bear paw hand smacked a resounding slap across Stevens’ back. “Oh hi, John. I didn’t see you standing there; come on in. I’m trying to get Stryker to join us if I can ever figure out how to use these damn phones. Those asses at State keep insisting we need better security. They’re idiots! We don’t need better encryption, just fire the leaks.”
Stevens entered the office and spied the remains of Harley’s Blackberry strewn across the carpet.
“Where is my other cell, Gina? I need to call Tony for this meeting.”
“You had me lock it in the safe, Sir. You said it contained some rather sensitive numbers,” Gina replied cautiously.
“Well, call Tony for me then. Have a seat, John.”
Gina bit her lip. “Unfortunately, that was one of the GAMMA numbers State wanted encrypted; I don’t have it on file, either.”
“Ah shit! Oh well, then try ringing him through the AMRIID switchboard and tell him to get his ass over here, pronto. John and I need to have a sit down with him about this Statgene project.”
Stevens fingered through the remains of the cell. “If you like, I can get our boys to repair this. They may even be able to install a larger keypad.”
“Hell that would be great. Thanks.”
Stevens slipped the phone into his pocket. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Harley lit a cigar then settled back into his chair. “Well, you may as well give me an update while we wait for Tony. Sounds like this project may have more than one use.”
Stevens seldom relaxed, especially around Harley. He knew his boss expected a casual yet thorough report. “I have some major concerns, not only about this project, but, Murphy in particular. I seriously question his sanity. He believes he is able to create sentient viruses with goal-directed behavior he calls nano-intelligence.”
Harley nodded. “Yeah, I’ve read some of his reports. Brilliant guys like him tend to be nuts. Hell, Tesla obsessed so much over white pigeons that he actually believed he was married to one. When the damn thing died, ol’ Nikola became suicidal. We Southerners value our eccentrics. I don’t mind a little insanity as long as it doesn’t affect this project.”
Stevens frowned. “Well then, how do you feel about viruses?”
Harley blew a smoke ring and chuckled. “Well that all depends. When I sit on the Bioweapons Oversight Committee my official stance is that I’m against them.”
“However, I also chair the Appropriations Committee for funding of medical research. There, I find it useful to extol their virtues as vaccines.
“Basically, I tell ’em whatever the hell they want to hear; it makes for happy constituents. But personally, I never really gave ‘em much thought one way or the other. Why do you ask?”
Gina knocked at the door. “Sir, Colonel Stryker is here. Would you like him to wait?”
“Great. Nah, tell him to come on in and close the door. And turn off my phones if any of them are still working.” He winked.
Gina escorted a swarthy officer into the room. Harley stood and slapped him on his broad, muscular back. “Thanks for coming on such short notice Tony; I’d like to introduce you to my Personal Assistant, John Stevens.”
Stevens stood and extended his hand, saying nothing. He preferred the discomfort of silence. Many filled in the void by offering more information than could be obtained by a simple query.
Stryker offered Stevens a firm handshake, pulling him slightly toward his lean frame. He was a uniformed version of Stevens in many ways. “It’s good to meet you at last, John. I’ve enjoyed mulling over your thorough reports. Few have your skills in information retrieval; I’m sure this session will be no exception.”
Harley chuckled. “Hell, you boys need to learn how to relax. We’re here just for a friendly chat, not an interrogation. Here, have a taste of this sipping whiskey I picked up in Lexington, some of the best I’ve ever had.” He poured a shot glass filled with the mellow amber colored beverage.
Stryker reached for a shot glass while Stevens shook his head. “Thanks. But, I’ve had some issues with gastritis as of late, I’d better take a rain check on that offer.”
He seldom drank alcohol. In his profession, any impairment could be detrimental not only to his health, but to his mission’s.
Harley settled back into his chair cradling his whiskey like a rosary. “Suit yourself. I want you to update Tony about your concerns over this project, I’m sure there are elements he may find useful.”
Stevens removed a small notebook from inside his jacket. “I already filed the official evaluation, as I’m sure you both are aware. However; I also recorded a few personal observations I think are worthy of sharing privately here.”
Stevens flipped through his journal citing his concerns. Harley clenched the cigar with his teeth and laughed. “Hell, I don’t know whether to honor the bastard for his contribution to science or have him committed. I must admit I was confused by all that talk about nano-intelligence; I thought it was just jargon. This is why I have you two fellows to help me out.”
Harley leaned forward towards Stevens and muttered. “So John, do you really think he can make a smart virus?”
“Not only can he, but I believe he already has.” Stevens pocketed his journal and noted Stryker’s silence; it spoke volumes.
Harley lapsed into his customary profanity when stressed. “Jesus! I’m sure glad we had him use something beneficial instead of something like a neurotoxin. I’m not quite sure how I feel about smart viruses. I’m just glad they’re ours and not some crazy terrorist’s. No telling what they could do with this sort of tech.”
Stryker nodded. “Our group has long considered viruses capable of some degree of discernment. However, we were never successful at modifying the regulatory elements to provide any real useful measure of control. Nearly all our attempts resulted in major rearrangements of the virus; these instabilities made them unsuitable for our purposes.
“I’m very impressed indeed if he has succeeded in modifying the regulatory regions to seek and interact with preprogrammed targets. My hat’s off to him for doing what a whole team failed to do even after nearly a decade. I’m looking forward to seeing how this Phase One trial pans out.”
Harley tapped the ash from his cigar. “I just want to be sure WHO’s fingerprints are all over this shit. Last thing I need is for the media to see it as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s a hell of a lot easier to obtain federal funding for a vaccine to treat heart disease than for a bioweapons system.”
Stryker agreed with his customary brevity. “Yes, WHO’s probably a good choice. I’ll be sure to minimize Defense’s involvement other than as a partial sponsor.”
Harley nodded. “Yeah, the media is already hyping targeted drone kills as being unethical, I can’t imagine the hysteria they’d drum up over military -grade smart viruses.
We’re still dealing with blowback over that Massad microbiologist. I’m not sure how many more times the press will buy another deranged scientist story.”
Stevens nodded in agreement. “WHO will be an appropriate cover. The potential of an effective vaccine against heart disease will assure their cooperation.”
Harley grinned as he snuffed his cigar. “I want you both to drop your other projects and follow this one closely. I’ll arrange proper lab facilities for you at the test site, Tony. All right John, what location did you chose for the clinical studies?”
Stevens walked to a wall map behind the desk and grabbing a pointer, placed its tip onto a small Caribbean island. “Española. It meets all the requirements a project of this nature demands in the event of an accidental release.”
Harley sputtered on his drink. “Good God, that hell hole? Can’t we do any better than that dump?”
“Unfortunately, the very reasons that make it undesirable for tourists add to its attractiveness as a testing center. Most Phase One studies of this nature involve geographically-isolated, economically-depressed areas. I suppose we could arrange testing instead on a remote Alaskan island or something similar.” Stevens circled the pointer around northward toward the Bering Straits.
Shaking his head, Harley scowled. “No, you made your point. It’s close to home, but is isolated. I’ll arrange for ‘Sea Smurfs’ to exercise nearby in the event we need to initiate a Mitigation Response. Española it is. I’ll contact our embassy there and find you a suitable testing facility. It shouldn’t be too hard or costly. Keep me posted of any changes and be careful, that island is damned dangerous. Alright John, We’re done here. Have Gina let you out. Tony and I have a few more details to go over. Call when you get to the island.”
Stevens suddenly remembered the cell in his pocket. “Would you like me to give this cell back to your secretary? I don’t think I’ll have time today to have it repaired.”
“Take it with you and fix it when you can, I was told that cell can call from any location on earth, but damn, those keys are just so small. I’ll pick it up when I join you as soon as I clear my desk. It shouldn’t take but a couple of weeks.” Harley said.
“No worry. I’ll have the keypad replaced and it’ll be waiting for you at the embassy office. I can let myself out. Nice meeting you Stryker, I look forward to our collaboration.” Stevens nodded.
Stryker returned the nod. “I also. I’ll start the ball rolling on upgrading security at the Embassy first then fly out early next week. See you then, John.”
Stevens left the two men poring over details that he knew few would ever hear. The whole project was of course simply another cover-up Black Op. Pay the locals enough money and the researchers could exert all the control the project required. Contract Research Organizations often mirrored safe houses in both form and function. The CIA had a long history of hiding their activities among the equally obscure and evasive medical communities. He was off to Española; but first, he wanted to pack a few things to keep him safe on an island in chaos. Good thing he was flying military, he would’ve loved to have seen the faces of the TSA techs if his luggage passed through their scanners. He laughed, and it felt good. He knew there would be few opportunities for mirth in the following months. Damn… Española.
National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD
Stevens scoured the conference room looking for a familiar face. Harley was speaking to a young woman in a distant corner. Murphy stood at the podium playing with the slide viewer. Stryker was near the entrance conversing with a few young officers. Stevens spied an empty chair near the podium and decided it would be the best place to monitor the audience.
A perky, thirty something Latina intercepted him as he walked to the chair. She thrust her petite hand holding a press badge at him. With a seductive smile, she announced, “Mr. Stevens, my name is Lauren Sagrado. I’m a reporter for Society Online Publications. Would you mind answering a few questions before Dr. Murphy begins his talk?”
He scanned her beautiful but determined face. Damn, some fool had listed him as the contact for this study. He’d hoped to remain unobtrusive during the presentation, but he was now a target for anyone with a press badge.
Stevens smiled and continued his brisk walk toward his chair. “Thank you, but my role in the project is actually quite minimal. I can refer you to the Clinical Coordinator after the presentation if you...”
Ignoring his offer she thrust a recorder at him. “Mr. Stevens, my sources show your previous involvement with several Walter Reed studies. But, since most are classified, it’s difficult to determine your exact role. However, it suggests your opinion holds importance in many controversial studies. My readers would like to know your opinion on this particular study.”
Stevens feigned a polite smile. “I’m very happy to be associated with a project having such potential benefits. As you can see, given my age, I’m personally affected by the outcomes. So, I hope to see it come to fruition quickly.” He laughed; perhaps she would tire of a generic response.
“Hmmm, you don’t look that decrepit to me. In fact, my sources say you hold several Black Belts and have other skills more suited for a spy than a bureaucrat.” Lauren edged closer with her seductive smile.
“Unfortunately, those days are long behind me. I serve primarily in a supportive role in obtaining and organizing information.” Stevens’ smile faded. He gave serious thought to killing whoever leaked his profile on this project.
Harley’s booming laugh filled the room as he grabbed Stevens’ shoulder. “Well John, I see you’ve met the beautiful yet relentless Lauren Sagrado: reporter extraordinaire. I’m sure by now she has enticed you into revealing all your deepest and darkest secrets.
“Hello Lauren, please spare old John’s ailing heart. He knows only what Clinical Operations has chosen to reveal. I’m certain Murphy will provide a far more interesting interview for your readers. Now, I see Dr. Murphy is about to begin, so please follow my aide to your seat. I promise I’ll help you get a private interview with the good Doctor after his talk.” Harley smiled as an aide pointed her toward the Press Box.
“If you have any more questions, I’m sure John will answer them later.” Harley grinned as he winked at Stevens.
With a flirtatious look, Lauren thrust a card into Stevens’ hand. “I hope to continue later where we left off, John, perhaps over a drink. Call me tonight after nine. Baltimore has some great clubs and I’m sure your heart isn’t as feeble as the Senator would have me believe. See you later.” The aide escorted her to a front row seat. She turned again and flashed a provocative smile before opening her cell.
“Stay away from her John, she’s a siren.” Harley grinned as he patted Stevens’ arm.
Stevens tensed. “Yeah, I sort of figured that out on my own. Why’d you tell her I’m involved in this project, Harley? You know I prefer anonymity.”
“Because, besides her being a good looker, she’s also a good journalist. She’s been digging info on you for a while. Concealment would only add to your mystique. So, I decided just to be open about your involvement as the Information Officer.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll offer your profound regrets for your being busy tonight. I want you in Española this week anyway. Now have a seat, Murphy is about to begin.”
Stevens finally reached his seat just as the Clinical Coordinator stepped to the podium. Stevens was more interested in the audience’s reaction than listening to the obligatory introductions.
Murphy stepped up to the podium and tapped the mic. “Good afternoon. As you can see from our press release, we are beginning Phase One testing of our vaccine to forestall heart disease. The Framingham Heart Study has previously shown cholesterol levels play a significant role in heart attacks.”
Murphy started a PowerPoint presentation showing timelines of significant events in cardiac research. The first slide was a cartoon of an obese man running on a treadmill eating tofu. “Later studies followed that evaluated the roles of diet and exercise on heart disease. Drugs were the next therapy offered. However, most were abandoned after further research concluded they were no better than placebos.”
The next slide was a graph with the arrow pointing downward. “All this changed during the 80’s. Statins showed a positive impact on slowing the progression of heart disease. But, more important, they actually reduced the numbers of cardiac deaths.”
“They soon became the cornerstone for the treatment of heart disease. Their safety profile has been thoroughly studied and side effects are generally rare. Except for muscle cramps in roughly 15% of patients they are both safe and effective.”
“Several countries have recently begun studies to determine their use on a population level. They have begun public health programs with the goal of treating all citizens; both young and old.”
“Our project has added a new dimension to the treatment of heart disease. We, of course, still rely upon the statins. However, unlike our counterparts; we’ve abandoned the pill approach entirely. Treating every citizen for decades would needlessly add billions to health care spending.”
“We instead have opted for a radically different approach. Instead of using a daily dose of drugs, we use a single injection to provide lifetime protection.”
“Our diligent scientists have developed a vaccine we call StatGene. It uses weakened viral vectors like the flu vaccination. However, instead of providing immunity to flu, our vaccine will control the body's cholesterol levels. We have designed a ‘switch,’ called a promoter, which acts like a thermostat. The promoter is able to determine cholesterol levels then adjust them to therapeutic levels.”
“Once inoculated, the individual will never again have to worry about their cholesterol levels. We expect our vaccine will save millions from an early death as the result of heart disease.”
Murphy showed a slide of a mace like virus attacking a glob of fat. The caption read, “Hasta la vista heart attack.” He waved to the audience in his best impersonation of PT Barnum. “Welcome to a new age in the treatment of heart disease. I thank you again for attention and will gladly entertain any questions you may have.”
The audience erupted with a customary applause. It had barely ceased before a petite hand waved in the front row. “Dr. Murphy, thank you for presenting your visionary work. May I ask a few questions related to the design of your clinical study?”
Stevens suppressed a groan. Damn, it was that vixen reporter. Harley was right; she didn’t waste much time moving on to other prey. Stevens nearly felt a moment of pity for that ass, Murphy.
“Why of course Ms….” Murphy oozed with geeky charm.
“Sagrado, Lauren Sagrado, Society Online Publishing. You say adverse effects are minor for the statin drugs but state 15% of the population may suffer from them. Is that an acceptable rate of side effects for your study?”
“May I ask if the data you quote about the statins was from a Contract Research Organization? And are you also planning to use a CRO for this study? If so, are you aware many studies have shown CROs exploit the poor? They often give untested drugs to them in exchange for as little as $85.” Lauren frowned as she flipped through her pad.
“Are you also aware that drug companies are now using the poor of third world nations as guinea pigs? This is despite the objections of well-respected journals who question both the data and the ethics of these practices?”
“And, finally; is it true your project has chosen Española just to increase profits and the likelihood of a favorable study?” Lauren glared at Murphy.
The room fell silent; with all eyes first on Lauren, then back to Murphy as he gaped in unbelief. “Ah, er, ah, I’m sorry; I’m not quite sure where to begin to answer your many questions.” He stammered.
“Would it help you if I asked them again one at a time?” Lauren tapped her pen on her pad.
“No, please. But, I’ll respond only to those I have knowledge.” Murphy replied.
A brief murmur erupted from the crowd. The room then fell silent again in anticipation of Murphy’s response.
Murphy lifted the mic from its stand and then paced in front of the podium. “Well, I think it is best to answer each on the basis of previous research. As far as the incidence of side effects for statins, it is well established data by researchers over many decades. I imagine most of these studies were concluded even before you were born.
He held up a palm to suppress the crowd’s chuckling. “I cannot nor will not defend men of their caliber. They’ve brought cures and therapies that have saved millions of lives. It would be naïve to suggest as you have, that medicines should have no side effects.”
“We do the best we are able within the limits of our knowledge to assure public safety. Even a fool,” he gazed pointedly at Lauren, “realizes a drug company could not survive if they ignored public safety for the sake of profits.
“I’m not sure if you’ve read our press release, Ms. Sagrado. But, perhaps I should review the scope of our project. We are in joint cooperation with the WHO, the United Nations and our host for today, the NIH. Suggesting these august bodies exploit the poor for the sake of profiteering goes beyond ridiculous.”
“I’ll yield the floor at any time for any of their representatives who wish to respond for themselves. However, I have nothing but respect for all they’ve done to help the poor, including those in Española.”
The room broke into a spontaneous applause; Stevens reluctantly joined in. Seems Murphy can hold his own in a cat fight after all, he thought. Lauren only glared back at Murphy then turned her gaze back at Stevens. Shit, for some reason she seemed to think he’d something to do with her public humiliation. He shook his head and returned her frown.
Undeterred, Lauren again raised her hand. “May, I ask one last question, Doctor?”
Harley waved for Murphy to hand him the mic. “Well, I’m sure any follow up questions you wish to ask, you may do so in private later at Dr. Murphy’s leisure. Until then, I suggest we open the floor to others.”
Stevens knew Lauren would never have that opportunity. The press conference finished without any further events; the usual softball and setup questions. Lauren’s tirade would soon be forgotten by most, including the rag she represents. The conference ended with no further disruptions. Little did Stevens realize Lauren was just the opening act for equally-minded lunatics.
Murphy beamed as they exited the conference room. “Well, I was pleased overall with the press conference. Our project was very well received.”
Sweat stained the arm pits of his shirt as he waddled down the sidewalk. “It would’ve been perfect, if it hadn’t been for that first reporter. Fortunately, I anticipated the likes of her. And my response seems to have placated any who may have had similar concerns.”
Stevens wondered if Murphy ever grew tired of his own self-aggrandizement. “It’s a shame she wasn’t more professional in her approach. She raised several valid points. I have similar concerns but as long as our subjects are informed I’m willing to set them aside.”
Murphy glared at Stevens. “What are you talking about, Stevens? Agree? How many times do you test a drug on a chimpanzee before you feel it was safe to give to a child? Animal rights, hah! The only rights animals have are to die for the advancement of medical science!”
“At some point human testing is essential and someone has to assume the risk of taking an experimental drug.” Murphy ranted as they strolled toward the parking area.
Stevens tiring of Murphy’s rants, decided to change subjects. “So, I take it you’ve finished with the animal testing?”
Distracted, Murphy patted the pockets of his disheveled labcoat looking for his glasses. “What, what? No, of course not. We’ll continue them even into post-marketing. Now, however, we’ll focus on using our primates for safety testing.
“I’ve had a few monkeys and chimps flown to our lab in Española so we can get an early start as we enroll our Phase One volunteers.
Murphy looked down his glasses peevishly at Stevens as he recalled the kitten episode. “I hope you don’t plan on displaying any more of your sentimental behaviors with my primates. We pay dearly for each of those animals, my God; they live better lives than we do.”
Murphy pointed toward his car as they entered the parking lot. “Tens of thousands of clinical trials have gone offshore. It has been a win-win for nearly everyone. The host country gets a huge influx of capital, the companies receive state of the art laboratories completed at a fraction of the cost and regulation is minimized. The net result is the consumer gains access to newer agents in a fraction of the time compared to testing in the US.”
“I can’t tell you how difficult it is to find a sick person in our country who hasn’t already received treatment for their disease. Previous treatments make it all the more difficult to determine if the new drug is responsible for improvement or if credit goes to the competitor’s drug.”
“How are you going to prove your drug can prevent cardiac death when nearly every citizen at risk is already on at least one cardiac drug?” Murphy lamented.
As the pair approached the gate, they heard the indistinct sound of voices chanting: Nolog, nolog, nologs… Rounding the corner, they were engulfed by a large crowd of protesters. “No Logs, No logs, No Logs…,” they chanted. Too late Stevens realized they’d been encircled by animal rights activists.
Murphy’s eyes bulged in panic as he ran around fervently seeking an avenue of escape. The thought briefly occurred to Stevens that Murphy’s behavior was oddly reminiscent of a rat in a maze.
Stevens smirked. Hmm, just a bunch of kids carrying bags filled with foil-covered rocks. Some wore sweaters emblazoned with a single log overlaid by a red ‘no’ symbol and ‘731’. Well, that explains the chant; Unit 731 Japanese vivisectionists called their subjects ‘logs’. They tortured and dissected hundreds of thousands of the still living, all in the name of medical research.
One of the long-haired maniacs pulled a handful of the rocks from his bag and screamed, “You forgot to take out the trash vivisectionist!”
He pummeled Murphy with the metallic wads; the foil fell from them revealing: RAT HEADS!
Murphy bleated uncontrollably, “Oh God, please stop, our research is just trying to help you.” His screams only embolden their charge; they pelted him with soggy rat brains.
A separate phalanx that advanced towards Stevens seemed more restrained. He knew a single shot from his SIG would quickly dispel them but he opted instead to simply watch their antics. He cocked an ear toward the roar of an approaching car; a red Miata barreled toward him. The crowd of activists parted as the car swerved to a stop. Damn, it was that insane reporter, Lauren Sagrado.
“Get in John!” she shouted.
Murphy ran toward the car, “Wait, wait for me!”
Lauren smiled as she hit the accelerator, “Sorry, no room, it’s a two seater.”
Her tires squealed leaving a bluish cloud of choking smoke. The surrealistic blend of humor, carnage and smoke, seemed more appropriate for Cirque du Soleil than a getaway.
John watched the crowd slowly dispel through his rear view mirror. Apparently, their mission had been accomplished; he’d been the object of this staged protest.
“Hello John, I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten about our dinner date.” Lauren said with a mischievous smile as she swerved her Miata onto the freeway.
Stevens glanced at his watch; 9 pm on the nose. “I’d thought Harley was going to introduce you to Murphy?”
Lauren pouted her lubricious red lips. “Hmm, seems he stood me up. He got what he deserved.”
“Okay, so where we going? A club?” Stevens shook his head in disgust. Damn, he was getting soft letting a girl half his age abduct him; somehow he doubted this was all about animal rights.
“Well, to be honest with you, John; I lied about the club… that is for tonight. We can of course go later but I have a friend I would like you to meet first. Hand me my bag, please.” Lauren managed to daub on a fresh coat of lipstick as they roared past a campus.
“Yeah, I sort of figured that. So, why didn’t your stooges attack me along with Murphy?”
“You are not like him, John. You showed that when you saved that cat.” Lauren smiled. Her fresh coat of lipstick glistened in the moonlight.
“Cat? How do you know anything about that?” Stevens slid his hand into his jacket until he felt the caress of cold steel.
“Well, I’m certain you know you and Murphy weren’t alone.” She smiled.
“Maurice, eh! I’d never have taken him to be a spook; what is he, 22 at best? Is he your inside man?” Stevens shook his head. Damn, he was getting old for sure by missing that little detail. Lauren’s little games were starting to get on his nerves.
“Spook? Oh, you mean agent. No, no! He isn’t an agent or even an inside man; he just loves animals. He works as an animal handler for the NIH, but occasionally, his love for animals gets the best of him. He’s helped more than a few find better homes. He’d already planned on smuggling your cat out. Apparently, it decided on its own that you were to be his new master.”
“Maurice told our group that you cared for animals; so, we decided to approach you to see if you’d be willing to help us expose this project’s cruelty.”
“I’m taking you to meet one of our leaders. Unlike that ass, Murphy, she is a humane scientist. She is an expert in DNA and gives our group talks about evolution and genetically modified organisms. You will love her.”
“We’re here!” Lauren swerved the Miata into a back alley of a large marble-encrusted museum. A small, bookish brunette waved to them from the loading ramp. The glare of flood lights cast stark shadows over her thin, Gallic face.
“Thanks for waiting, Gisèle. I’d like you to meet StatGene’s Information Officer, John Stevens. John, this is Gisèle Carré, she’s the scientist I wanted you to meet.” Lauren exchanged air kisses with Gisèle’s porcelain cheeks.
Gisèle smiled at Stevens as she led them through a carved door into her office. Two large, leather chairs guarded her desk like mahogany sentinels. “Bonsoir John. S'il vous plait, have a seat and forgive my clutter.”
Gisèle’s petite, small frame was swallowed by her oversized desk chair. “I apologize for Lauren’s unusual invitation; she does have the flair for the dramatics at times.”
Lauren grinned as she pulled a writer’s pad from her Louis Vuitton clutch bag. “Sorry, but you did agree to meet me at nine, John.”
“All’s forgiven.” Stevens shook his head and flashed a thin smile. He’d been kidnapped by worse, he thought wryly.
“I was hoping you may possibly help us. I’m not sure how much Lauren has told you about me. I am Curator of the natural history exhibits of the museum.” Gisèle’s childlike face looked out of place in her office filled with taxidermy and mounted bones. Yellowed maps and shelves of old leather tomes lined the paneled walls of the chamber.
“Lauren was telling me, in her opinion, you are a humane scientist and your specialty is evolution; that is all.” Stevens said as he settled into his chair.
“I, along with many of my colleagues, have interests in a new theory that explains evolution by a different means. Gisèle smiled from behind her desk.
“May I offer you both a glass of tea?” She pointed to a small tray holding ice filled glasses and a teapot.
Sipping her tea, Gisèle nodded at Stevens. “As you know, Darwin and his followers promoted what scientist refer to as gradualism; they believed species formed as the result of the accumulation of mutations over long periods of time. Beneficial mutations were preserved within the genetic code of the organism and those detrimental were lost when the mutated organism died.
“Gradualists have maintained that all the complexity of life is simply the result of eons of mutational errors. I don’t doubt the process of evolution, however, the mechanisms that brought it about requires a better explanation than that offered by gradualists like Darwin or his modern counterpart, Dawkins.”
She pulled a small trilobite fossil from her desk drawer and handed it to Stevens. “The only problem is that the fossil record simply doesn’t support his views on gradualism. Over two centuries of diligent research has yielded only a smattering of truly transitional species.”
“So, are you saying the ways fossils are displayed in museums are disingenuous, they really aren’t so closely related after all?” Lauren scribed her question onto her pad.
“Well, most displays are only interpretations of the Curators. They are primarily meant to attract visitors into the museum, not to be an actual record of current research. It isn’t that the exhibits are wrong, it’s more like ‘here is our version of the events.’” Gisèle responded as she returned the fossil to her drawer.
“Darwin may have given the world an alternative to Creationism; unfortunately, the fossil record simply doesn’t support his views on gradualism. This lack of transitional species is a trade secret of paleontology.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Watson and Crick, the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA as a double helix; however, you may not have heard of Barbara McClintock?” Gisèle pointed to a picture of herself standing next to an elderly, frail-looking woman.
“She noted that inheritance in maize didn’t follow the gradualist model. New traits just suddenly appeared without any transitional intermediates.” She pulled a piece of Indian corn from another drawer and placed it on the desk.
“Barbara discovered mutations occurred in clusters with multiple changes occurring in a single generation; this directly contradicted what Darwinism predicted. The new varieties arose abruptly from the exchange of packets of information she called ‘transposons.’ Unfortunately, her pioneering work was published and reviewed by a male dominated profession.”
“Most of her work was ignored until the advent of molecular biology in the 70’s when transposons were finally identified and confirmed as genetic elements. I met Barbara when I was still a young grad student and she lamented that Darwin was sacrosanct and challenges to his theories were rarely tolerated, especially those proposed by a woman.”
Lauren frowned as she scribbled furiously in her pad. “It wasn’t until the 80’s that paleontologists Eldredge and Gould finally renounced the dogma of gradualism; and they weren’t to be taken lightly either. Eldredge was the Curator at the American Museum of Natural History and Gould was a Harvard professor and Curator at the institution's Museum of Comparative Zoology.”
“Both confirmed Barbara’s work, stating what amounted to near heresy, that the fossil record didn’t support gradualism. Instead, it showed evolutionary change occurs rapidly with long, alternating periods of stability.”
“Their gender and preeminent positions alone kept their theories from meeting the same ridicule as Barbara’s. Decades of bitter infighting have only succeeded in strengthening their arguments against Darwinism. It wasn’t until 2003 that they were finally proven right by the Human Genome Project. Scientists discovered that nearly 50% of our DNA doesn’t even code for genes. It is full of ‘junk’ DNA many of which were transposons and other pre-viral elements. A good case was made that we consist more of the remnants of ancient parasitic viruses than we do of the genes which make us human.”
“This ‘junk’ is now believed to be responsible for diversity by destabilizing and rearranging genomes. My work suggests junk DNA serves as sort of a testing ground to allow the accumulation of mutations. Once enough have occurred to create a sequence with selective advantages, it just ‘pops out’ and reintegrates into the organism’s genome at a different point where it may be more effectively controlled.”
“And here’s where it relates to Murphy’s project; the introduction of transposons accelerates the rate of evolution. If he succeeds into inserting his viral vectors into humans, the results may prove to be disastrous.”
“It could cause major instabilities in our DNA. Some propose that a mass extinction event of mammals 30 million years ago was the consequence of such an event.”
Gisèle leaned forward in her chair. “John, you have to find a way to prevent Murphy testing his virus. I believe it’ll cause far more harm than good and possibly endanger our species.”
Stevens was stunned and mumbled. “I’m not sure I’ve totally understood what you’re telling me.”
Gisèle lifted several sugar cubes from the tray and stacked them on top of each other. “Consider these cubes represent transposons added to our genome. Initially, there may be little effect. However, eventually when enough have been added, they cause instability and total reorganization. It is called Genomic Collapse.”
“This isn’t theoretical, John. It is a naturally occurring process and may have resulted in previous mass extinctions. There is no reason to believe it can’t happen again.”
“It’s been 40 million years since the last transposons inserted itself into the human genome, this coincided with early primate evolution. Some suggest this event may have created our species.” Gisèle’s voice cracked as she pursed her lips together.
“I have kept you too long, John. You do not have to give your answer today, I only ask you to think on what I have told you.”
Lauren shuddered then stood. “I’ll drive you back, John. Please help us. And I prefer you not to discuss what we told you with the others on your project.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. As the information officer, I’m obligated to file a full report. However, I wouldn’t worry, as I’ve seen no evidence of criminal activity except for Maurice.” Stevens politely thanked Gisèle as he stood to leave.
“I’ll be heading to the clinical site shortly; Phase One testing is to begin next week. But, I will promise I’ll investigate these matters more fully and contact you if I have additional questions. Harley has been trying to reach me on my cell. We need to go Lauren before he notifies the authorities that you kidnapped me. I’ll stay in touch, Gisèle; thanks for sharing your concerns.”
“Au revoir, John. I am certain we will meet again.” Gisèle smiled.
The small, white observation room had only a single, long window. Through it was a view into another equally nondescript area where several white coated technicians pored over clipboards. Murphy stood near a stainless steel cabinet where he dispensed a blue colored fluid from a vial. Harley watched the events as a photographer clicked staged photogenic shots of him using an archaic film camera.
“Okay, that’s enough for now.” Harley held up his bear paw hand then waved at Stevens.
“I’ll be right there, John; glad you could make it to the trials.” Harley stooped to duck his head as he popped through the viewing room’s small, steel door. “I hope you had an uneventful flight.”
“It was fine. I’m surprised you were able to find time for the initial testing.” Stevens nodded as he watched Murphy scurrying around inside the sterile cubicle.
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this shit for the anything. It’s great PR for my reelection campaign; your tax dollars hard at work! If Herr Murphy there is right, this may be a historic event. Isn’t that right Walt?” Harley shouted into a small mic mounted near the viewing window.
“Careful with that you fool, that vaccine is worth more than your whole fucking island.” Murphy’s voice blared over an overhead speaker.
“What was that, Harley? Oh yes, I believe this is truly a momentous period in medical science. The animal studies exceeded my expectations. We’ve tested our promoter in every way imaginable, and it has consistently given reproducible results: cholesterol levels have remained tightly regulated.” Murphy grinned vacantly at them through the one-way mirror.
“What about that transposon, has it yielded any unexpected results?” Stevens shook his head in disgust. He had come to despise this pompous, tight-lipped egotist.
“Unexpected? No, nothing unusual at all. Why do you ask?” Murphy quickly shifted his eyes back to his notes as he shrank a bit within his lab coat. Stevens knew a lie when he heard one.
“I think John is talking about Dr. Carré, Walt. The concerns she had about instability.” Harley interjected as Murphy scurried to unlock a cabinet. Stevens got the message; Harley had even more vested in this project that Murphy.
“Yes, I read her report; she’s a damn fool. Why would anyone ever trust the likes of her? What reputable scientist would associate themselves with a bunch of rowdy animal rights activists? I do, however, wish to thank you Stevens for exposing my technician’s duplicity; I fired him on the spot for his treachery.
“To answer your question, there is no need for concern. I do admit time was a bit of a factor. However, as I had promised, we managed to maintain my transposon in a cell culture for multiple generations with no signs of rearrangement. Frankly, I’ve been far more concerned with finding suitable subjects for our trial than worrying about the overwrought imagination of some silly, hysterical woman. She’s a joke.”
A young, black man entered the treatment room carrying a canvas bag. Stevens tensed. “Is the treatment room hermetically sealed?”
“Of course not. Why would it be? I deleted all the genes responsible for transmissibility in my vector. It’s impossible for my vaccine to infect any cell other than the host; it’s as safe as Kool-Aid. I designed the vaccine so it may be administered by any physician without the need for special containment.”
The skinny, black assistant pulled syringes from his canvas bag and handed them to Murphy.
“Here are the inhalers, we’re about to begin the study.” Murphy said.
“Inhaler? What, no needles?” Harley asked.
“No. Many subjects have an aversion to them. So, we’re using the new carbon nanotubes inhalers. Our vaccine is encapsulated in a special protein that’s tissue specific; nano-crystals are much more efficient in cell delivery. Nano-needles have really lowered the dropout rate of clinical trials that normally require injections.”
Damn, Stevens thought. The poor bastards selling their bodies for use in medical experiments are more worried over a needle prick than organ failure.
“I see our first subject is here and ready for the inhaler.” Murphy’s squealed like an excited child as a ‘volunteer’ wearing light blue pajamas shuffled through the treatment room door.
If the thin subject had any misgivings; they were assuaged by what appeared to be a paymaster standing in the corner, laying out neat stacks of twenty dollar bills onto a table.
Stevens cleared his throat to conceal his contempt. “Do you actually pay them as they are being treated?”
“Oh, we have to, they absolutely insist. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve lost a volunteer at the very last step of a clinical trial, such a waste of time and money. ‘Show me the money’ is actually an effective strategy.” Murphy giggled as a nurse placed a bullet-shaped inhaler into each of the young man’s nostrils.
The subject sniffed then hopped from the table and then quickly walked to the paymaster where he received five twenty dollar bills.
“That’s it? Is that all he gets paid for testing?” Stevens found it inconceivable these poor victims each risked their lives for such a paltry sum.
“Well, that’s all they’ll receive today. This is a three week study so each will be paid a total of $2100. This isn’t as cheap as it may appear. Just the payment alone to our volunteers will cost nearly $50,000. However, this is a bargain compared to what we’d have to pay in the US. A similar study there might cost $10,000 per patient. Even in Russia they’ll receive $3,000 each, so you did well, Stevens. We are saving a bundle on research using this wretched island.”
“If you don’t mind I’d like to step out for a bit of fresh air, I think the heat or possibly jet lag has me a bit under the weather today.” Stevens felt nauseous.
“Are you OK? If not, I think I can get you a doctor, since we’re surrounded by them. Can’t throw a stick without hitting a doctor in this place.” Harley laughed.
“Yes, just a bit fatigued. I won’t be long. Enjoy your study.” Stevens answered, but Harley had already returned to monitoring the study.
Stevens left the facility and considered finding a bar; the poverty of the island did little to lift his spirits.
“You know John; it isn’t really very safe walking out here all alone on these streets.” A woman’s voice startled him as he walked past a dilapidated store. He spun around only to find a familiar face: Lauren. Damn!
“What’re you doing here, Lauren?” Stevens growled.
“Hey, it’s a free nation; I can be here if I want. Okay, it’s not REALLY a free nation, but my passport still says I’m allowed here.” Lauren joked as she hugged his neck; a hug he only half-heartedly resisted.
“We came to see if you’ve changed your mind about helping us.” She smiled.
“We? Us? Just exactly who else has joined you in stalking me?”
Ignoring his cold, analytical gaze, Lauren laughed. “For now, only Gisèle and Maurice, but we hope to organize a lot more before this project is completed. I told you we weren’t through with this study. We won’t stop until they stop torturing those poor animals.”
“I’d be careful about staging protests on an island where most see this project as providing jobs.” Stevens said, looking at his watch.
“And I’d also suggest you refrain from throwing animal parts at people. It may be seen as bad manners in a culture where animal sacrifices are part of their vodou rituals.”
Lauren tenderly held him by his arm. “Yea, we kind of suspected that. It’s why we’re just planning old-fashioned picketing. Of course if you have a better idea…”
“Actually, I do. I need to do my job. Try not to create too much of a fuss, I’d hate to be forced to have to call the police on you and Gisèle too.”
“Too?” Open mouthed, Lauren squeezed his arm.
“Yeah, I have to warn the authorities that they’ve let a convicted thief into their country. Tell Maurice to take in the sights while he can, his stay here won’t be long.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to rejoin the others. And I suggest you take your own advice and find a safer place to stalk me than on these streets. Give Gisèle my best and tell her I’d enjoy having dinner with you both before you leave the island. Look for me in the embassy lounge around nine.”
“John, why do you always have to be so difficult?” Lauren stuck out a petulant lip as she pushed his arm away.
“Because, it’s my job. Now, get off these streets; I’ll see you and Gisèle at 9.”
Without saying a word, Stevens rejoined Harley in the observation room. Harley barely noted his presence as he watched Murphy dispense more vaccine. “I was about to send security to look for you, John. Those streets are dangerous to old men like us, even if you do still have claws. But, from that smile on your face, you must feel better.”
“Yes, the night air was all I needed; these close quarters can be a bit stifling.” Stevens replied.
“Shit, John. I know that smile, usually means a woman is involved. It’s none of my business though, as long as it doesn’t interfere with this study. Anyway, you made it back just in time; the prime minister is about to join us. Murphy plans to update him about the study and see how he feels about allowing us access for Phase Two trials.”
“You do what you do best, and watch. I know I don’t have to warn a tight-lipped bastard like you to be careful what you say around him. Our intelligence says he’s every bit as bad as his predecessor, maybe worse. We still aren’t certain he didn’t have the former Prime Minister assassinated. It’s why they call him el Chacal.”
“For whatever reason, he has an interest in all things medical; but like everything else on this island; his interest is corrupted by superstition. Damn fool thinks he’s a voodoo priest or something. So, steer clear of offending him in anyway. And by no means stare at that scar on his neck.” Harley was clearly stressed; even his usual feigned smile had evaporated.
“Yes, I saw that on his profile. Ugly business his own father slitting his son’s throat while offering him as a sacrifice to their Loa of the dead.” Stevens replied shaking his head in disgust.
“I didn’t think human sacrifices were a part of Voodou religion.” Harley said with a look of consternation.
“They aren’t, officially. It’s why Dubois’ followers said Samedi rejected the sacrifice and refused to dig Dubois’ grave, essentially making him immortal. Dubois’ father died shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances. His followers suggest it was because Samedi had disapproved of the profane offering. Our sources say it was more than likely he was killed by a Bizango bokor.” Stevens shook his head.
“Bizango bokor, not a Rouge Secte priest?” Harley muttered.
“We can’t be sure; secret societies like the Bizango or Cochron Gris stay way under our radar. Most in the States even doubt their existence since there are no official reports, well not until the rape of those nuns. But, the Church decided it was more convenient to designate their deaths as martyrdom and never filed a report. Rumors abound here though that the Cochron Gris still practice cannibalism in their mountain enclaves.” Stevens continued.
“It is one reason why Dubois is feared more for being possessed by Samedi than he is for his cunning ruthlessness. The most troubling part is our reports suggest Dubois actually believes it himself. Damn, collapsing DNA and now voodoo priests, what next?” Stevens answered grimly.
Harley was about to speak when the large powerful looking uniform-clad leader entered the room, his dark skin was accentuated by his robust physique. White teeth flashed a contorted smile over his broad, massive face and with humorless eyes he extended his hand toward Harley. “Ah, my friend, I see you have already begun our trials. I was hoping to have been here earlier but we had a small matter that required my special attention. Please, introduce me to your researchers and staff.” He said with feigned civility.
“I always prefer to meet directly with any in my country, especially if it concerns things of an economic nature. I find you can never be too careful in matters involving money. I recognize most here from the reports my staff has given me. But, this gentleman here seems to somehow have slipped through without his photo being posted.”
Dubois turned to examine Stevens as he spoke. He towered over Stevens; his presence dominated the room. With the physique of a wrestler, he was like no head of state Stevens had ever seen. As he extended his huge hand to offer a handshake, Stevens noted small spatters of blood on his perfectly starched linen cuff.
“Oh, pardon me. I seem to have soiled my sleeve as I was shaving this morning. Thank you for noticing, I’ll just have my assistant bring me another.” Dubois said as he withdrew the proffered handshake.
Motioning to a small weasel of a man in a poorly fitting uniform, he barked. “Philippe, bring me a clean shirt from my limo.”
“You keep clean shirts in your limo?” Harley asked with an amused smile.
“Yes, I find my job often exposes me to events that may soil my wardrobe. It makes sense to keep extra shirts and other items handy for these contingencies.” Dubois replied with a grin reminiscent of a grinning skull, more fearful than humorous.
Stevens could now see why the Prime Minister was so feared; his cold, unnerving presence personified death; comparisons to Baron Samedi were indeed apropos.
“Thank you for allowing me the honor of attending this clinical trial.” Stevens replied in his most laconic, gracious manner.
“Yes. well, please accompany Philippe as he obtains my shirt to have your photo taken. No one enters my country without my permission, and that is only granted to those obeying my rules. Your stay is contingent upon my having a photo to crosscheck you against my known enemies. I’ll postpone that handshake pending your clearance.” Dubois said tersely.
Stevens felt Dubois’ cold gaze inspecting him as he left with Philippe. He thought how oddly similar clinical trials were to his former occupation. He was glad he had the foresight to bring the hardware Harley had suggested. Lauren and Gisèle had no business in this hellhole. As he stepped outside, the hot, humid air clung to him like a wraith. He hated the heat but knew it would only get worse. What can you expect of Española in June, except heat and misery, he told himself
After getting his picture taken and returning to the observation room, Stevens saw Murphy doing his best to describe the study to Dubois. Murphy was so engrossed in the presentation he was oblivious to the dangers posed by his sponsor. The damn fool was dancing with the devil and trying to lead!
Stevens could now see a major difference between bioweapons development and clinical trials. Bioweapons were always maintained in closely guarded facilities with maximum security. In clinical trials, he realized too late, he was the only security available. Doctors and nurses were worthless in protecting themselves from thugs like Dubois. He needed backup and it looked like he would be going this alone.
Murphy led Dubois into the treatment room to talk with the volunteers. A skinny, young volunteer grimaced as the male nurse pushed the inhaler into his nostril. “You need to take a deep sniff to get paid.” The nurse ordered.
The skinny boy sniffed loudly then sneezed. Mucous spewed from his nose and mouth. Too late, Dubois covered his face with the sleeved arm of his suit. “You fool! You didn’t tell me your subjects were infectious.”
“No, no. I’m sure they’re okay. It is probably just allergies. Give him another squirt Ramon to be sure he received a dose. Then get him out of here!” Murphy grinned at Dubois as he handed the subject a handful of tissues. “Cover your nose you idiot, didn’t your parents teach you any manners?”
“I am sorry, sir. I am an orphan; I had no one but the Sisters to teach me anything.”
His nasal whine only irked Murphy. “Bring in another subject, this one disgusts me.”
Stevens caught Harley’s eye and directed him toward a quiet corner to speak. “I know I selected this island for our trials, but, I’m concerned about how involved the Prime Minister is becoming with this project.
“I’d hoped we would be seen as just be another Western group seeking to evaluate new drugs on his island. I didn’t anticipate he’d want to become personally involved in this research. Is there something else I need to know that would explain his undue interest?”
Harley glanced at Dubois. “I’ll tell you later, it’s just a little something I’d hoped to append to this project without attracting additional attention. We managed to get it by congress but the Prime Minister may have ‘additional concerns’ that I’ll have to address.” Harley rubbed his fingers together in the universal symbol for money. “Don’t worry, I’m sure we can work it out; it doesn’t directly affect your work anyway. I’ll explain more in private later.”
One thing Stevens had learned over the years is that when a politician tells you not to worry and they can explain everything things would soon go very bad. No sooner had he thought it, when he saw bad exiting through the back door: Lt. Colonel Tony Stryker. Damn, no wonder Dubois had a disproportionate interest in this project; he smelled USAMRIID and bioweapons development all over this study. Thank God Murphy was totally in the dark about Harley’s plans for his new promoter. He had to give it to Harley; he had used the hell out of both Murphy and himself. Looks like bioweapons development was the last minute add on to this project. Stryker’s presence more than confirmed his fears.
Stevens moved closer to Harley. “I need to speak with you and Stryker privately later. I just discovered those animal rights activists have followed the project to this island. If they make as much a stink as I think they plan, I can’t vouch for the safety of anyone related to this project.” Stevens whispered to Harley.
“Fine, just come to my embassy office in the morning. I’ll update you more then and we can discuss what to do with those activists. Try to relax, John. This isn’t like your old days at CBOB. We’re here just to do a three week clinical study; it’s a win-win for everyone. Our host is returning, so I’ll meet you in my office in about an hour.” Harley nodded, his feigned smile had once again returned; albeit a bit more strained.
As Dubois entered the room Harley greeted him with a laugh. “Well, Prime Minister, I hope the Doctor gave you a more in-depth overview of the heart study than I could. Several international research communities are already clamoring for these results. I expect if things go as well as anticipated; your island will see a flood of similar investigations from many nations.”
Dubois remained as distant and portentous as when he had first come in. “Hmm… Yes, your Dr. Murphy was very enlightening. I was particularly impressed by the needleless injections. He says it’s possible to do mass injections without even using a needle. My people here are sometimes overly concerned about seeking medical care. I’d like to discuss where we may obtain similar injection systems for use in our clinics.
“Mass injections without needles may have many uses on our island that is so ravaged by disease. Send whatever information we need to obtain our own supply to my office; I’ll have my physicians order some for our own studies. Now, I must leave for another engagement, but, I’ll post some of my security here, for your protection. You can never be too safe. It would be a shame to see anything happen to endanger your promising research.” Stevens doubted the offer of protection, but knew they were in little position to refuse his host’s ‘generosity’.
Murphy shuffled into the room reviewing his clipboard notes. “How soon will your know the results of this study?” Harley asked.
“Well, officially it will take a few months to review the data once it has been collected. But, since the primary purpose of this phase of clinical testing is determining safety and tolerability, I don’t imagine it will be more than a few days.
“Okay, I’m off to catch up on my reading. Tomorrow will be an important day. We begin lab testing of the subjects to measure how well the vectors are controlling blood cholesterol levels and make sure they are not having any adverse effects that can detect by lab studies. I’ll give you an update on our progress before you leave the island, Harley.” With that said, Murphy sauntered off with a pile of journals.
Harley slapped John on the back. “All right John, I’ll see you in the morning. Try to relax and enjoy the few sites on this miserable island. I’ve absolute confidence in Walter. This is just a small study; I’ve helped initiate dozens like it. I need to make a few calls then I’m off to bed. Call my cell if you need me, you have the number. Damn, I forgot that one doesn’t work on this island. Just call my secretary.
“I’ll try to remember to pick up the one you had repaired tomorrow. I guess State is right about having a phone that works everywhere; I just wish they had a bigger version.” Harley left muttering about his poor cell service.
Stevens had one more visit before he turned in; Gisèle and Lauren expected him at the embassy lounge. He had just enough time to pick up a few essentials from his room that might come in useful later. Wearing a jacket in this heat was nearly intolerable, but the alternative was not carrying many of his ‘claws’ and he had enough of those in his room to take care of both the living and dead.
The heat of the day was making for a bad shift, Frank had been on duty only 36 hours and his mood was already rapidly deteriorating. Not that his normal mood was all that pleasant, but he hated heat; GOMERs had a tendency to seek medical care in the heat. Whoever coined that name must have been one burned out SOB; Get Out of My ER says it all. Last thing he needed on this shift were more GOMERs. He hated GOMERS on any day, but today he was just too busy to do anything but throw their asses out onto the street. Another wave of cholera victims filled every nook and cranny in his ER. The smell of their diarrhea permeated the air. Its rancid fishy smell mixed with the odor of bleach was nauseating and contributed to his sour mood.
“Will, someone please call housekeeping to clean that crap off the floor, I’m stepping in the shit and tracking it all over the place.” He said as he leaned over the next patient lying motionless on a gurney.
“They just cleaned it up, Doctor.” The secretary informed him from behind her desk as she reached for the phone.
“Well, tell them to fucking clean it again; this is supposed to be a hospital, not a cesspool.” He barked at her as he attempted to find a blood pressure on the severely dehydrated man in front of him.
“Shit, I can’t get a blood pressure on this one, who’s his nurse?” He said as he threw his stethoscope down across the patient.
“It’s me Dr. Kirby,” stated a young Asian nurse as she wrapped a tourniquet around a young boys arm.
“Well, you need to do a better job, Elaine. This one’s dead already, I don’t have time to bullshit with corpses. Find me one that still has a pulse if you can.” He said as he grabbed the stethoscope to check on the next patient.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, but he had one when I assessed him, it’s just they are all so dehydrated and we have so many. I haven’t seen him in over an hour; I’ve been trying to put lines in these kids.” She replied.
Frank was about to examine the next patient when a nun approached him with a look of concern. She was attractive despite the lack of make-up; her large brown eyes reflected her anxiety. “S'il vous plaît, Doctor, may I ask you for your help.” She inquired.
“I’m sort of busy here sister, ask a nurse if it’s about medical care.” He said trying to hold onto his last shred of civility.
“It is but, I need to talk to a doctor. It is about these children I brought in today. They are so young to be dying; I fear that if you don’t see them soon they will all die.” She stated looking into his eyes.
“Look, sister….? Nun or not, he was losing patience and needed to continue his assessments.
“Rocco, Sister Genevieve Rocco. I brought them from my parish in the mountains. They had been playing yesterday and none were sick. But today, when they failed to come for morning prayers, we looked for them in the village. When we found them, they were barely able to talk, so I brought them here.”
“Well, we’re having a cholera outbreak, as you can see and smell. We’ll do the best we can for them. The nurse is starting IVs so we may give them fluid.” He pointed, hoping to divert her attention to one of his nurses.
“They don’t have cholera, I know cholera. I fear it’s something much worse, but I lack the appropriate equipment to provide them the level of care they need.” She stated emphatically.
“Are you also a nurse?” He inquired, his curiosity was now piqued.
“No, a pediatrician.” She replied bluntly.
Frank looked up from his charting in surprise. “You’re a doctor?”
“Why do you look so surprised? Pediatricians may also serve our Lord. I attended Loyola University; from there I entered the Sisters of Medical Mercy. I have been called to help the poor as a medical missionary. I can assure you, our order is full of many like me who use their talents to help the poor.
“But, enough of me. Do you know what is wrong with these children?”
“Why do you seem so convinced it isn’t cholera? I mean, we’re in the middle of an outbreak, it wouldn’t take much of a leap to conclude they are just more victims of this epidemic.” Frank shrugged.
“Yes, but they don’t have diarrhea or the other signs of cholera. I was hoping their lab work would show something more conclusive. They are so dehydrated.” Genevieve pinched a fold of skin on the frail, unconscious boy; it bunched up and slowly returned to its original shape.
“Labs are still pending; we send them out when we start their IVs. Elaine, have you seen any of the lab results back for these kids yet?” Frank yelled at his nurse as she filled a tube of blood from another victim.
“Oh, I’m sorry Doctor, I haven’t looked yet. I’ve been starting IVs and sent the labs as I could. Let me see if any are back.” Elaine tore off her gloves, then thumbed through a stack of papers.
“Oh my! You need to see these Dr. Kirby. They’re panic levels.” Elaine gasped as she read the reports.
“Panic? On what? Why the hell didn’t they call to report them?” Frank snapped.
“On their liver enzymes. Their CKs are over 20,000, 40x normal, and looks like they are severely dehydrated.” Elaine’s voice quivered as she handed him the labs.
“I’m sorry they just called, I was on the phone with them and meant to tell Elaine but I forgot.” The secretary bit her lip as she dropped her phone.
“What! Give me those labs. Shit, these kids need emergent dialysis. They’re in acute renal failure from rhabdomyolysis. I want a STAT nephro consult now. Never mind, screw the consult. Tell them to get their asses over here now. I have six dialysis patients that should have been dialyzed hours ago.” Frank yelled.
“Sister, do you still have an active medical license?” He asked as he grabbed a procedures cart.
“Yes, of course.”
“Great, gown up. I’m going to need help placing all of these dialysis catheters before the team gets here. These kids can’t wait. If we’re going to save their kidneys we should have started this hours ago. If you said they were fine yesterday, it means something happened last night to cause severe muscle breakdown, myoglobin is clogging their kidneys
“Since CKs usually peak 36 hours after an injury, which means these kids CKs are going to get even higher. Elaine, be sure to open fluid wide on all the kids you have started IVs in and get help putting in cannulas in those you haven’t.”
He paused long enough to shout to his secretary. “I want surgery in here STAT and schedule STAT Dopplers while you’re at it. I want these kids checked to rule out Compartment Syndrome. And call anesthesia, tell them we have 6 kids who may require intubation prior to surgery, so get down here now.”
“Oh my, do you think they could have exercise-induced rhabdo?” Sister asked as she quickly grabbed a sterile gown kit.
“Hell, who knows what caused it. All I know is that without dialysis; none of them are going to keep their kidneys. And by the swelling in their arms, I’m guessing some of them are going to need surgery to save their limbs. Shit, hold on, this is going to get bad. Let’s go.”
He opened a central line kit and prepared the groin of the first boy. Sister Rocco gave a quick prayer as she crossed herself then started prepping the next boy for Frank. God help them, a cholera epidemic was bad enough, now multiple cases of idiopathic rhabdo causing acute renal failure and Compartment Syndrome. Could it get any worse?
As Stevens approached the embassy lounge he could see Harley sipping on his customary whiskey sour out in the sun under an umbrella. His shirt was already sweat stained by the morning sun. “Care to join me, John?”
“Thanks, but I’m not here for a social visit. We need to talk more about those animal rights protestors. I believe they intend to disrupt the clinical trials with more protests.” Stevens said as he sought relief from the heat under the shade of the umbrella.
“Christ! Just as I thought this project was looking good. Damn, they aren’t content with harassing researchers in the States, now they have to stalk us here. Well, they screwed themselves this time.” Harley’s words were slightly slurred as he spoke between sips of his third drink.
“Who is it? Let me guess, I bet it’s that damn Lauren and Gisèle.” Harley said as he fumbled into his coat pocket for his cell.
“Yeah, and they also brought that kid Murphy fired, his name is Maurice Zucaro. Is that your old cell, didn’t the repaired one work?” Stevens asked as Harley’s fidgeted with the keypad of cell.
“Hell, I don’t know? It’s locked in Murphy’s safe. I keep forgetting to pick the damn thing up. Hold on for a second.” Harley said holding up an unsteady hand to Stevens.
“Hi Rodney? Yea, this is Harley. I need a favor from you. You know that grant you’ve been waiting on for approval? Well, I think it’s almost done; however, it sure would be helpful to my office if I had a bit more time to finalize it.”
“What’s the hold up? Hell, I’m so damn busy with these protesters here in Española, I can’t find enough time to sign the authorization. Between those protestors and this cholera epidemic it’s been pretty hard to find any free time to work in my office.” He said as he swirled the ice in his glass with his straw.
“Yeah, only three. Maurice Zucaro, Lauren Sagrado and Gisèle Carré, you need me to spell them. No? Thanks. No, we’re fine; my security can pick them up. Thanks again. Hey, and congratulations again on that grant approval, I’ll get the paperwork sent out to you when I return. Give my best to Katherine, bye.” Grinning, Harley attempted to end the call but dropped the cell onto the pavement cracking its screen.
“Shit, now I have no excuse not to get my phone; that was my favorite cell too. Guess I have no choice but to swing by Murphy’s lab for it.” He nearly lost his balance as he leaned forward to reclaim the remains of his cell.
“Oh well, at least this protestor problem is solved. I just had quarantine declared around the lab; security will detain any American they find for their safety. Let’s go check on Murphy to see how his trials are going.” He staggered briefly as he rose from his chair before recovering his composure.
“What if they resist or refuse to come?” Stevens offered Harley a hand.
“Then I’ll have their passports pulled and their asses shipped back to the States on the next flight; either way we’re done with their meddling.” Harley declared as he brushed Stevens offered hand to the side.
Leaving the compound they entered an observation room in an adjacent building to find a bleary-eyed Murphy pouring over a stack of reports. “Morning Walt, how’s the study going today?”
“From what I can see in these reports, the promoter appears to be functioning as I predicted in 18 of the 20 subjects.” Murphy replied glancing up at them with bloodshot eyes from behind his spectacles.
“Only 18? What about the other two, is there something wrong with their results?” Harley asked with new found sobriety.
“Well, I can’t be sure. They didn’t show up this morning to have their labs drawn. Unfortunately this isn’t all that unusual of an event. Many subjects tend to be unreliable once they’re paid, especially in these third world nations.” Murphy whined as he continued to rifle through reports with a peevish look.
“I suspect they simply used what they’re paid to get drunk or buy drugs. Either way they’re out of this study. It’s hard enough to present clean data without confounding factors like drug or alcohol abuse. The last thing we need is for an addict to die from an overdose, we have to account for his death in our study and it skews our data badly.”
“But, we should have enough here to meet the study’s requirements. I’m sure the P value will still be significant, and all the subjects are without any measurable side effects. Overall, I’m quite pleased with the results I’ve seen so far. Your broker will be happy I’m sure. It’s still early in the game but I don’t see anything to warrant downgrading Synergenetica stocks.” Murphy stated, smiling, as he at last put down his paperwork.
“But what of the other 2 subjects, won’t their absence affect your results?” Stevens interjected.
“They’re just considered dropouts; we’re done with them in this study. So our final conclusions will be from the remaining subjects. They appear to be more dependable anyway, so I’m sure we’ll have a better study without those two.” Murphy glared back at Stevens.
The observation room phone rang as they spoke. Murphy waddled to answer it then extended it to Harley. “It’s for you.”
Harley answered it, and then turned to Stevens with a droll smile. “Well, John, it looks like we didn’t have to wait very long for your stalkers to be ‘rescued.’ Security picked them up and has offered them an open-ended stay at our embassy.”
“Do me a favor and escort them to my office, I’ll meet you there as soon as I hear from Tony. He went to investigate a possible candidate for his collection in a nearby village out in the boonies. Something about a new kind of cholera with an unusually rapid onset. I expect him back shortly; we’ll meet you as soon as he returns. Keep your new found friends out of trouble; they’re yours for the remainder of this test.”
As Stevens approached the security office he heard Lauren lambasting the guard. “Besa mi culo, Bastardo. You’ve no right to detain us against our will; we’re American citizens and won’t be treated this way. I want to speak with our ambassador about our treatment. Pudrete en el infierno.”
“Hello Lauren, nice to see you again Gisèle. Where’s Maurice?” He asked them with a friendly smile as he signed the security release.
“Hi John. Oh, Maurice is still in a tree. He climbed it to escape these guards; I think he believed we’re under arrest.” Gisèle giggled, clearly relieved by John’s presence.
“No, unfortunately we received reports of a particularly virulent form of the cholera nearby. Your detainment is only precautionary. You may leave as soon as I escort you away from the embassy area.” He pointed the way down a long corridor leading toward the embassy gate.
“However, I’ll have to ask you not to return for your own safety. Security has orders to arrest anyone who violates this order.” He said firmly, as he led the pair back to Harley’s office.
“It’s rather convenient for your study to have us detained because of an outbreak. Sus guardias estúpido puede besar mi culo” Lauren swore in Spanish as she snatched her pocket book from the guard’s hand.
“My, testy aren’t we?” Stevens replied in amusement.
“When I’m upset, I often swear in Spanish, it’s an old habit I wish I could break.” Lauren answered, softening her tone.
“Well, your detainment was none of my doing actually. But, I do confess that I’m relieved to see you both here.
“There’re a lot worse things that can happen to a woman on this island than cholera. Besides, Lauren, you’ll finally get that exclusive interview you were once promised. I’m sure it’ll enrich the details of your investigation.” By her smile he could see his words appeased her for now.
“Senator Long asked me to escort you to his office. I’m sure I can arrange a tour of the facilities if you’d like. The interventional part of the study has been concluded, the only thing remaining are a few lab tests and continued monitoring for side effects.
“I’m afraid it’s rather anticlimactic, hopefully little remains to do except observing the subjects for the next 3 weeks. But, we can arrange a flight back on a military hop if you become too bored in this heat.” As he spoke, his cell phone rang.
“Hello. Yes, I have them in your office now.” Stevens’ professional manner had returned.
“What sort of problems?” Lauren eavesdropped intently, hoping to catch something to use in her story.
“What hospital?” Stevens asked grimly.
“What do you want me to do with our guests? OK, I’m on my way, I’d leave them here with security but I’m sure they would just follow me anyway. We’ll be there shortly.”
Turning to Gisèle he inquired. “We may have need of your expertise; do you feel up to a little research?”
“My expertise, do you mean in evolutionary biology.” She answered with a look of puzzlement.
“Yes. We located two of our subjects that have been missing since yesterday. They were last seen playing soccer with a group of teens. One of our researchers found them while investigating that nearby cholera outbreak.” He stated as they walked the long hallway toward the exit.
“Were they OK?” Gisèle asked as she exited the compound.
“No. One died and the second is on life support in a local small hospital.” Stevens’ answered in a matter of fact tone.
“Oh my God! But what does their cholera have to do with me?” She asked in astonishment.
“Well, that’s the problem. Our researcher says they don’t have cholera, the doctor says it’s some sort of muscle disease he called rhabdo. It’s uncommon but occasionally strikes athletes who over-exercise or become overheated.”
“But how is this related to evolutionary biology?” She asked clearly confused by Stevens’ statements.
“The researcher who found them is a bioweapons expert, he believes whatever they contracted may be viral and from our study. Murphy has been notified and is working up their blood samples now.”
“But why do you believe it’s infectious and not simply a side effect of the therapy?” Gisèle tried not to think the unthinkable.
“Because, only two of these kids were subjects in the study, the other four were just friends. You may be right about that crossover event; he thinks Murphy’s virus just made an evolutionary jump.”
“Stryker suggested it may have activated a latent virus and the now active virus carries the transposon. Looks like nature found a way to spread that damn vector after all. Let’s go.” Stevens said as he opened the door to Harley’s office.
“¡Oh Mierda!” Lauren swore.
Stevens escorted Gisèle and Lauren to the Senator’s embassy office. As they approached, they heard the echo of muffled voices arguing. Opening the large oak door of Harley’s office, they confronted a beet-faced Murphy ranting uncontrollably at Stryker who calmly lit a cigarette. “I don’t give a damn what you think, their deaths had nothing to do with my vector!”
Taking a long puff, Stryker coolly corrected Murphy. “And I’ll tell you one last time, I’m not suggesting that at all. We’re simply following established protocol for any death in a clinical study involving recombinant viruses.
“The hospital has sent blood samples from each of the victims to your lab. They should be arriving shortly. All you’ve got to do is just perform a simple PCR to confirm the absence of your vector in the victims who weren’t part of the study.” Stryker advised as he continued to calmly smoke his cigarette.
“That’ll at least rule out your vector as a cause of their deaths. If their PCR results are negative, it suggests they probably died from something else. Maybe drugs as you suggested; who knows? The hospital lab is also running STAT toxicology on each victim, which will determine if illicit drugs are a factor.
“Just get your technicians ready to run those PCRs, the sooner they’re completed, the sooner we may resume your study. Until then, no one leaves this facility.” Stryker’s cold blue eyes reinforced that this was not just a request. As he reached inside his coat, Murphy cringed momentarily in fear. Stryker withdrew his cell, flipped it open with a snap of his wrist, and dialed a programmed number.
“This is Tony Stryker, put me through to operations. His reptilian presence silenced all in the room.
“This is Lt. Colonel Anthony Stryker; Pandora may have opened the box. Yes, you heard me; Pandora may have opened the box. I’m locking down Athens; I’ll notify you in 24 hours if she left anything in the box.”
Snapping his cell shut, he declared to a wide-eyed Murphy, “You have 24 hours to prove this isn’t your virus.”
“24 hours? What do you mean?” Murphy replied looking totally bewildered and overcome.
“If you cannot prove your virus didn’t cause those deaths, our government has no choice except to initiate the protective sequestration protocol.” Stryker answered him flatly.
“Protective sequestration protocol? What the hell are you talking about? Don’t they teach you in military school how to speak in anything but military jargon?” Stryker’s orders irked Murphy into anger.
“Protective sequestration protocol means quarantine. This island will be quarantined until it has been shown an infectious virus was not responsible for those deaths.” Stryker brusquely turned his back to Murphy and snapped his attaché closed.
A now sober Harley interjected in astonishment. “I’ll be damned, I’m planning to take a flight out tonight back to DC; I need to be there by tomorrow for a Senate hearing.”
“Well, you’re going to have to miss that hearing, Harley; in fact, there will be no incoming or departing flights until the van Winkle transposon has been cleared as the responsible agent. We are all stuck here, so get used to it.” Stryker snuffed out his cigarette for emphasis.
“My God, this is insane. You can’t close down an entire island over the deaths of a few addicts.” Harley yelled, spilling his drink on Stryker.
“We already have. This is none of my doing; I’m as stuck as the rest of you. You know as much as I do Harley this is SOP.” Stryker stood to leave.
“Who and the hell gave you the authority to declare a state of emergency on an independent sovereign nation, this is outrageous and I won’t stand for it.” Harley blustered as he slammed his shot glass onto the desk.
“You know fully well, one of the triggers for initiating quarantine is unexpected deaths of test subjects. If you want to bitch about it I have the number to the WHO Director-General. Perhaps you can explain to him why you are countermanding your very order that you wrote to assure the public’s safety in the event of an accidental release of Murphy’s vector. Better hurry and call him though, before he uses the WHO’s authority to initiate Martial Law without our host’s consent. I can’t imagine Dubois is going to be very pleased with any of us because within the hour there will be an emergency session at the UN to have Española declared a failed state.” Stryker replied contemptuously as he brushed Harley’s spilled whiskey from his coat.
“Hell fucking no, you can kiss my ass, Stryker!” Harley swore as he grabbed the Consulate’s secured line phone and pressed a button labeled: White House.
After a short delay the receiver emitted a series of fast tones. “White House Communications, Lt Commander Smithson”, how may I help you Sir/Ma’am?”
“This is Senator Harlan T. Long; put me through to the president’s phone. This is an emergency. Humpty Dumpty’s fallen.”
Another series of tones burst over the receiver. “I’m sorry, the President’s aid states he prefers not to be interrupted for the moment. Would you please try your call again later?”
“What the hell do you mean he can’t be interrupted? I want him now, you son of a bitch, or I’ll have your ass answering phones in Afghanistan.”
“Are you able to hold while I try again?” The White House operator asked curtly.
“Yes, I’ll wait.” Harley nervously fidgeted with his glasses as he waited for the President to answer,
“Hey Tom, this is Harley, some damn hot shot WHO Director-General is trying to quarantine this facility in Española. I told them this is a damn sovereign nation; we’ve no authority to control their government here even if there is a medical crisis.”
“What! I know you have no authority here but how the hell can some WHO general just take over; that’s a goddamn coup d'état and the government here won’t tolerate it.”
“What do you mean it’s a guardian coup d'état, what the hell is the difference. Besides, we don’t have the authority to just come here and take over, no matter what the emergency.”
“You are bullshitting me, what do you mean it’s been done before. Where the hell was I and the rest of the world when this happened? Yes, I remember that quake, but that was a state of emergency, not martial law. We were only there in a supportive capacity, the UN were the ones in charge we just offered them our services. Hell, we can’t wipe our asses without the approval of the UN Security Council’s Chapter VII authorization and you know how hard it is to get those weasels to do anything. “
“It’s not like we’re talking genocide here like Rwanda or Kosovo, it’s just a possible small outbreak of a virus. The UN has no right to try to use the Insurrection Act to deploy their troops; even the use of IRH 2005 is questionable.”
“Damn, you mean Dubois signed the Comprehensive Defense and Security Agreement and agreed to allow the UN send in their own troops? Who in the fuck convinced him to do that? What do you mean by ‘there are no troops coming if we’re quarantined?’ How the hell do they expect us to survive? Dubois is an insane thug. If he finds out we’re responsible for this epidemic we can kiss all our asses goodbye.”
“Let me ask him, hold on.” Harley held his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece and turned to Murphy.
“The president wanted to know how long it’ll take for you to run PCR samples to clear all of us from your virus. He says if we can show we don’t have it in our bodies he can arrange an offshore pick up of just us, but that is about all he can do.” Harley’s eyes bulged in fear as he spoke.
Murphy barely managed to stammer out his response. “Oh, my God, I don’t know maybe one day to do it properly.”
“Too fucking long. We’ll all be dead by then. If not from your god damn virus, then from UN peacekeepers smoking this island. You better find a faster way to do it, and he wants to have the raw data faxed directly to his office before he allows us to leave. I guess he doesn’t trust us. Can’t say I blame him.”
Murphy looked like deer caught in headlights as he responded. “Wait, I just remembered we bought a new microchip PCR with the money you advanced us for this study. It can clear a sample in only 15 minutes.”
“OK, there are only five of us, so maybe two hours max.” Harley replied as he lifted the receiver back to speak.
“Wait, what about Maurice, he’s here somewhere. We can’t just leave him alone and how about all your staff and the people of this island. Do you plan to just leave them here to die?” Lauren blurted.
“You’re more than welcome to stay with them if you like. But as for me, I want off this fucking island. I’ve come to detest this place.” Harley sneered.
Lifting the receiver he continued his call. “Okay Tom, Walt says two hours to clear us and we need another two to get our boat to your pickup point.”
“Shit, okay three hours. I’ll get his ass working on it now.” He answered with a quavering, yet determined voice.
“Hell, you’ve got to be kidding, hold on.” He said as he looked aghast at Murphy.
“He says you also have to check the blood samples from the victims who were in the study and the kids who were with them. He wants to confirm Tony’s opinion that your vector is responsible for their deaths.”
“If the kids who weren’t part of the study are clean, we don’t have to be tested. But, if they come back positive it means your vector is now infectious. So, I suggest you get your ass back to your lab and run those samples. And find a technician to collect our blood samples; we’ll all be there as soon as I finish this call.”
Murphy scrambled for the door and ran down the hallway. He lunged up the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. Harley returned to his call. “Okay three hours, where do you want us to go for our pick up? Okay, I’ll tell them. I owe you, Tom.”
“Oh, shit, I knew there’d be a condition attached to this, go ahead.” He said rubbing his hand through his thinning hair.
“What in the hell was she doing here? Damn, we’ll do our best, send her to the embassy. I’ll notify our guards to let her in. Thanks again, and I’ll get my satellite phone from Murphy’s safe for future calls. Talk to you then, bye.”
“Who are we waiting for?” Stevens asked as he placed a full magazine into his Colt before returning it to his shoulder holster.
“The President’s wife, Geri. She was here filming a commercial for her charitable organization trying to save some stupid albatross from extinction. She can be a real prima donna. If she isn’t here in 60 minutes we’re leaving her ass. I bet that bitch has already left anyway.”
Looking out his window, he spied a courier clad in white entering the complex. “Let’s get this over with. I see the hospital technician is here with those samples.
“Roll up those sleeves girls; it’s time to make a donation. We have a plane to catch.” Harley’s feigned bravado did little to cover the fear in his eyes.
Stryker lit another cigarette as he removed a Glock from his briefcase. “I guess we’ve overstayed our welcome here, anyway. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As they left the embassy compound, Lauren turned in her seat to Stevens with her eyes flashing angrily and demanded, “Okay John, I’ve been silent enough, now I’m pissed. Gisèle and I came here just to protest the use of animals and prevent this project from happening. I’d no idea we’re stepping into a bunch of spy stuff involving the CIA and guns. So just what the hell’s going on, and where are you taking us?
“Both my family and my work know I’m here to report on this damn clinical study, so don’t think they won’t look for me if I end up missing.”
Stevens answered her coolly. “We’re only going to the CRO lab across town. The President has made plans to extract us from this island, in three hours, but only if we’re not infected by Murphy’s vector.
“Murphy is already there running the blood samples of those subjects who died during his study. If he can show the others who died with them aren’t infected, then the whole thing stops there and this is only a criminal investigation.
“Unfortunately, Stryker thinks the van Winkle transposon was responsible for their deaths. If that is the case, it means it may have evolved into a lethal contagion for which there may be no cure.
“By the rapidity of their deaths, it’s likely van Winkle is airborne and highly infectious. The only way we will be able to leave this island is to show by PCR we do not have it in our blood.
Laura’s face froze emotionless; she momentarily looked like a mannequin displaying the latest in island wear, before she managed to gasp. “What? What did you just say?”
“You heard me, we are all under quarantine because Stryker believes Murphy’s van Winkle has escaped and caused multiple deaths in otherwise healthy young men. At least six are known dead after coming in contact with two of the study volunteers. If van Winkle is in fact responsible for their deaths, we all may be infected and possibly contagious.
“Our government has no choice except to quarantine this entire island, if necessary by force, and detain any who try to get off. I’m sorry to say none of us will be allowed to leave until Murphy has shown we are not infected.”
“God, now I’m really confused! I know that PCR somehow is used at paternity cases, and somehow has something to do with DNA, and sort of understand about quarantines, but I …
Lauren stopped in mid-sentence as the sedan careened toward the curb in front of the CRO lab. “Get out now, we have little time left to be cleared. If our lab results are not on the President’s desk in two hours we lose our exit option.” Stryker barked.
They scrambled out of the sedan and ran toward an awaiting technician wearing white scrubs. “Please, there is no need to rush. Dr. Murphy told us to expect you, follow me into the lab for your testing.” He escorted them into a white room smelling of alcohol and iodine before motioning them to sit in a drab waiting area.
After what seemed an eternity, Stevens rolled up his sleeve as he as sat in the chair for his blood draw. The phlebotomist flashed a broad luminescent smile while wrapping a tourniquet around his arm. “This will take just a minute, so please relax.”
Stevens rejoined the rest as they stood nursing their bruised arms. “This is a very simple lab test. Dr. Murphy asked me to have you all be seated in the waiting room until he personally runs them. He should have the results in about 30 minutes and will review them with you as soon as they’re completed.
As he scurried out of the room, Lauren rushed to Stevens. “John, what’re we going to do if the blood specimens are positive? Will they really keep us on this island?”
“Damned straight they will, I saw this once before in my ‘Nam days, if they even suspect we’re infectious, they’re liable to waste us all.” Harley blurted as he took a swig from a flask he had pulled from inside his coat.
“I’d know too. Hell, I wasted enough myself to get a fucking medal. For what? Ha, I can’t even remember. Christ I was supposed to have once cleaned out a whole village by myself but woke up alone in the jungle with only an empty gun and this flask. Here’s to valor.” He staggered briefly as he took another long quaff from the flask.
“Shut up Harley, can’t you see she’s afraid?” Stryker grabbed Harley by his lapels shoving him against the wall. “Your bravery here is no better now than it was 50 years ago. So, put that damn flask away and sober up, if any of us are going to have a chance we have to work together.”
Harley’s face flushed florid as he sobered briefly. “Why you son of a bitch, you touched a sitting senator. I’ll have your fucking ass busted so low you will be bussing tables at GITMO. If you ever touch me again I’ll waste you myself.”
“Shut up, both of you! Harley, where is your satellite phone? These tests are taking too long. We only have 45 minutes to get cleared of Murphy’s virus. We need more time, call Operations and see how much of an extension they can give us to get to the warm zone.” Stevens’ cool demeanor was rapidly diminishing in this heat.
Harley patted his jacket and then his pants. “SHIT!”
“Don’t tell me you forgot it again.” Stevens snapped, holding back his anger.
“Crap, with all of this excitement, I left it back at Murphy’s lab. Hell, it’s only a few minute drive; don’t make a federal case out of it. Stryker, you have their number, just call them on your cell.” Harley mumbled.
“I would, you old sot, but per containment protocol, all offshore communications have been severed. Last thing we need during an outbreak is for the locals to start sending out calls of distress asking to be rescued.” Stryker replied contemptuously.
“If we don’t get your satellite phone in the next hour, our asses will be as stuck here as the rest. Where is Murphy, damn it, he was supposed to be here ten minutes ago with those results.” Stryker fumed, the heat and stress was beginning to get to them all.
“If those tests are positive, we’ll remain in indefinite sequestration until that damn virus is no longer considered a threat. Pending an immediate cure, we could remain here for years or worse - hours.”
“Why would hours be worse than years?” Lauren asked, her voice trembling with fear.
“Ha, that’s fucking easy, because in hours, they may begin to bomb the hell out of this whole island.” Harley laughed sardonically as he guzzled another drink.
“Oh my god, you mean they would drop nuclear bombs on even the civilians?” Gisèle exclaimed.
“No, not nukes, thermobarics. There’s too high of a risk of throwing the virus into the stratosphere and contaminating the jet stream using nukes. Incendiary bombs can be almost as destructive and will fry everything instead of blowing it to pieces.” Harley replied with a now grimly sober look on his face.
“You mean they’ll Napalm the cities?”
“Ha, ha, ha. You wish. No, they won’t drop cluster bombs. Have you ever heard of Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb or MOAB for short?” Harley asked.
“No.” Gisèle replied with a look of horror.
“We now have the Granddaddy of all Bombs, that’ll turn everything on this island into a fine white ash. So if we don’t get those results soon we’re all going to light up like candles. Let’s find Murphy and get the hell back to the Embassy lab for that satellite phone. Let’s go.” Now sober, Harley stormed out the door.
They rushed from the lab in time to see the phlebotomist about to take an elevator. “Hey bud, where is Murphy running those tests? They should have been back by now.” Stryker shouted as he ran toward the elevator.
“Oh, come with me. I’m going that way now. It’s on the third floor.”
Flinging open the doors to the PCR diagnostics room, they were greeted by the ghastly site of Murphy’s body swaying on a noose improvised from an electric cord tied to a water pipe. His bloodshot eyes bulged from his beet red face, and his mouth gulped for air like a dying fish out of water.
A Butterfly knife materialized in Stevens’ hand and with one deft slash he severed the noose wire. Murphy’s urine soaked body fell to the lab floor.
“Shit! Help me pick him up; we need a doctor to keep him alive.” Stevens shouted at the others as he tore the noose from Murphy’s neck.
“All this is his fault; leave the son of a bitch to die.” swore Harley.
“I would, except he is the creator of this damn plague and may be our only hope for a cure, so shut up and grab his legs.” Stevens yelled at Harley as he ripped a flame resistant blanket from the wall. They rolled Murphy’s body onto the improvised cot and rushed toward the exit.
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Gisèle as she scanned through several printouts next to a device holding tubes filled with blood.
“God, what is it now!” Stryker grunted as they hoisted Murphy’s body.
“These are the PCR reports, anyone who was present during the clinical trials is positive for the vector.”
“Damn! We breathed that shit into our lungs when they had the subjects inhale it.” Harley groaned as he lifted one corner of the makedo stretcher.
“No, the other victims who died also are positive for the vector. The vector is clearly transmissible.
“Lauren and I are the only ones negative. If we can’t get Murphy to tell us how to deactivate his vector, we may all die.” Gisèle wept as the reports fell from her hands.
Stevens kicked the entry doors open as Lauren rushed to the elevator call button. “Let’s throw him into the van and drive him ourselves.e don’t have time to wait for an ambulance. Stay together, we’re now in a hot zone and from the looks of it, things are going to get a lot hotter.”
Gisèle’s face was ashen as she stammered. “I’m afraid I have more bad news, there were other reports printed out besides our tests. One was a sequence of the viruses from the victims. It showed Murphy’s vector has totally rearranged itself. It has undergone huge deletions in his promoter so the statin gene is no longer controlled by a feedback loop.”
“Put that in simple English.” Harley clenched his teeth.
“The switch that regulated statin production was deleted so the cholesterol drugs are being expressed continuously. The victims received an overdose of statins and it’s probably why they died from rhabdomyolysis. Their drug levels were so high it caused their muscles to breakdown and virtually dissolve in their bodies.”
“Okay, that sucks for them, but how did we get infected? That asshole Murphy said he deleted genes so his virus couldn’t infect others.”
“I believe his van Winkle transposon may have activated a latent virus, something similar to his own vector. His virus was then packaged normally so it regained the ability to infect outside of its original host. It happened just as we feared; his resurrected ancient virus has become a monster.” Gisèle said in a strangely detached manner.
“Yeah, it makes sense. We’ve seen it occur in HIV and Herpes as a result of superinfection.” Stryker nodded.
“What the hell is a superinfection? You two are going to have to keep it simple if you want the rest of us to keep up with this science shit.” Harley growled.
“Superinfection means if one virus is inactivated and it infects a cell, it stays inactivated, unless you infect that cell with a similar virus that isn’t fucked up. That normal virus packages itself AND the broken virus so they both are now infectious. Is that simple enough for you, Harley?” Stryker smiled.
“Yeah, I understand. It means you eggheads probably killed us all. I guess it serves me right for trusting experts. I’m aware I should know this since I authorized this fucking project, but how in the Hell did he manage to resurrect an ancient virus anyway?” Harley shook his head.
Giselle looked up from Murphy’s notes. “It’s like rebuilding a jigsaw puzzle that has missing pieces. You simply collect as many incomplete puzzles as you are able with each missing different pieces. You reassemble each puzzle and then select whatever missing pieces you may need from the other puzzles. If you search through enough puzzles, you should be able to find all the pieces to reconstruct one complete puzzle.”
“Are you telling me he used old pieces of lots of viruses to reassemble an extinct virus? Like a virus Frankenstein?” Harley’s mouth opened in incredulity.
“Well, we don’t really know if they are viruses, but they act the same sometimes. But, to answer your question; yes that is basically how he did it. It’s a van Winkle Frankenstein” Gisèle nodded.
“Who and the hell thought it was a good idea to bring back ancient viruses that are linked to mass extinction events?” Harley screamed. He kicked at Murphy on the makeshift stretcher, but missed as Stevens took a fast turn and threw them all into the wall of the van.
“Obviously, it was you. You signed off on the project.” Gisèle cringed.
“I have no idea if the overexpression of statins is our only concern. If van Winkle activates other sequences it could cause Genomic Collapse.” She wept as she continued. “Death from rhabdomyolysis may have been merciful; a catastrophic collapse of genomes could be far worse.”
“What in the Hell can be worse than being killed by his virus?” Harley growled.
“She’s suggesting Murphy may have created the next mass extinction event with his damn van Winkle transposon. It could slice and dice your DNA like a drunken sushi chef. If van Winkle leaves this island, humans could be facing extinction.” Stryker said as he nudged Murphy.
“Either way, we can’t let his vector off this island. Even if we manage to save Murphy, if he doesn’t have a way to deactivate his sequence, humanity may be lost. We have to at least try to save him John. He alone knows how he made his vector and any weaknesses that may be exploited to control its spread.” The van veered as she grabbed Stevens’ arm. He eased the van onto a crowded street.
“Look, I don’t believe this shit. There has to be some hope, you guys all act like you’re geniuses ; so think!.” Lauren exploded from the back seat.
“Everyone here is acting like we’re already dead, and why? I know those poor men died from something and Murphy showed they had some sort of DNA thingy in them, but, so what? John, you, Stryker and Harley are also contaminated and none of you appear sick. I may not be as smart as the rest of you, but, I am a reporter and can do basic math. This shit isn’t adding up. There were 18 other “volunteers” intentionally infected; have any of them died yet, Stryker?”
“No. Not to my knowledge. These young men appear to be the only confirmed fatalities so far.” Stryker responded in his customary cool manner.
“SPIES! You spend your whole life chasing after each other only to lose your own perspective. Well, I have a news flash for you, baby: We’re not all spies. Those poor men didn’t die from a conspiracy; maybe they simply died from an overdose of drugs or something else. Hell, you paid them nearly a year’s wage for a few hours of testing; I imagine you can throw one hell of a party on this rock for $100.” Lauren argued to avoid being engulfed by her unreasonable fears.
“I’m not buying any of this and I’m sick of this assignment. Let’s go Gisèle! We’re not positive so we can get out of here., I’m splitting and heading back to the states tonight. This is nothing but a bunch of hype from a couple of old spooks employed by yet another corrupt politician.” She fumed as she reached for the van’s door handle.
“No, wait. I’m sorry Lauren, but you’re wrong. I do believe Stryker. I just told you those young men not only died from over expressing the statin genes, but their chromosomes were severely rearranged.” Gisèle turned around in her front seat and gently nudged Lauren’s hand from the door handle.
“Besides, it doesn’t matter what any of us think other than Stryker. He is the DoD’s expert on this matter, so if he says quarantine this island, it’s done.
“I’d do the very same thing if I was in his position. However, I saw Murphy’s notes on the margin of the printouts. He wrote and circled the words: “HEAT SHOCK PROTEINS.” Gisèle quietly locked their doors.
“Great more science shit I can’t understand. All I want to know is it going to kill us or save us?” Harley mumbled.
“Simplistic, but a good question Harley.” Stryker nodded as he nudged the unconscious Murphy to keep his airway open as Stevens took another hard corner.
“The heat shock protein binds to DNA, think of it being like masking tape. As long as the heat shock protein is stuck to a DNA sequence, that sequence can’t be expressed or even interact with other sequences. Gisèle continued.
“But, if you heat up the protein even a little, it changes shape and falls off the DNA. The now exposed DNA is able to again express its genes or interact with other sequences.”
“Again I ask; is it going to kill us or save us?” Harley squirmed in the cramped back seat.
“So, you think Murphy was suggesting heat shock protein is preventing the van Winkle transposon from interacting with DNA?” Stryker asked as he gave up on his attempts to get Murphy to wake up.
“Perhaps suppressing is a better way of thinking of it. As long as heat shock protein is expressed the sequences that interact with van Winkle are masked. But, once the mask is gone, van Winkle will resume its binding and probably kill us in the process.” Gisèle concluded.
A clearly winded Harley barely managed to pant. “But, why didn’t it kill those young men? You said they died from overexpression of the statin gene that caused their muscles to dissolve.”
“I’m not sure, but, I think the rearrangement may have caused a mutation that overexpresses the statin gene while also inhibiting the heat shock protein.”
“Statin overexpression may be a marker of van Winkle activity? So, any time the statin gene is expressed our DNA is also being damaged?” Stevens asked as he maneuvered the van around the growing crowds.
“Yes, I believe so. High levels of statins cause muscle cramps, if our muscles cramp it may mean we are also having genetic mutations.” Gisèle answered; her voice barely audible over the snoring sounds of the clearly distressed Murphy.
“Shit, then how do we prevent the statin gene from being activated and killing us?” Harley blurted out the question they all had been pondering.
“This, of course, is all speculation. But as long as heat shock isn’t inactivated it acts as a mask that prevents damage to our DNA. So, we need to stay cool. If we get overheated like those young men did playing soccer, it will inactivate our heat shock protein, which then allows expression of both the statin gene and the van Winkle transposon.”
“Simple English, damn it!” Harley cursed.
“If we become overheated we may go into kidney failure. Even if we don’t, our DNA could mutate or even stop functioning. Cancer would be inevitable.”
“Santo mierda, we’re stuck on a tropical island in the summer and our lives depend on remaining cool! How and the hell are we going to do that?” Lauren swore as she unconsciously fanned herself.
Harley slithered out of his jacket and tie. Ripping the buttons from his shirt, he grinned. “Any of you ladies care to join me?”
“You are a disgusting pig, I hate you! Turn up the air conditioner, John!” Lauren screamed as she flung her jacket into Harley’s face.
The van screeched to a halt throwing them into each other. A uniformed officer knocked on their window. “You’ll have to turn around and go back another way. I’ve orders to keep this road closed.”
“We’ve got to get this man to the hospital, he may be dying!” Lauren yelled.
“Ha, stand in line. That’s why this road is closed. No one is going to the hospital anytime soon. It’s been overrun by hundreds just like your friend. So turn around and get the hell out of here before I arrest all of you. Now, move it!” He ordered as he unbuckled his holster.
Murphy’s incessant snoring suddenly ceased, his color slowly transitioned from red to an ashen blue. Harley whipped his ID from his wallet and thrust it into the officer’s hand. “I’m Senator Harlan T. Long, you son of a bitch. We need to get this man to a doctor; if he dies I’ll call my personal friend, Dubois, and have your damn head. Now get the fuck out of our way!”
“Well, by the looks of him, your stay won’t be too long anyway; so go on.” The officer refastened his holster and waved then on as Murphy drew one last rasping gasp.
“Oh my God, I think he’s dead. It’s too late!” Lauren shrieked.
“Hold on we are going to hit a bump.” Stevens shouted as the he hit the accelerator. The van slammed into a parked ambulance parked at the ER entrance. “We’re here, get out and remember, STAY COOL.”
“Someone please help us, he’s stopped breathing!” Lauren screamed as they burst through the receiving doors while pushing the unconscious Murphy in a wheelchair.
Get a doctor, he hung himself!” She yelled at a nearby nurse who stood with her mouth agape as the group crashed through the ambulance doors.
“What the hell is going on out here and who….” Frank swore as he stormed from behind a curtained area. His profanity stopped midstream as he spotted Murphy slumped in the wheelchair.
Grabbing his stethoscope he tore open Murphy’s lab coat and listened intently to his now blue-hued chest. “Shit, he still has a pulse.”
“Elaine, get that damn corpse off my exam table now! Vivian, grab that crash cart and page respiratory STAT! I need a vent in the ICU now.” Turning to the secretary he barked. “Get me a cric tray and order me a STAT portable and neck series.”
“But Dr. Kirby, the family hasn’t seen their father yet and it’s going to take a minute to clear the other table!” Elaine squeaked as she pointed to the body on the exam table.
Frank grabbed the arms of the body and began to pull it onto the floor. “I said I need a damn table now! Help me drag this body onto that wheelchair and push it out of the way into the corner. You guys grab your buddy and throw him onto this table; we’ve no time to waste. We need to tube him now.”
Elaine briefly covered her mouth to conceal her horror. “Oh my God, what’re you doing? You may hurt him or yourself, STOP!”
“He’s dead, Elaine, way beyond hurting. Now, shut up and help me move his remains to that wheelchair so I don’t injure myself. Where’s Genevieve? I need her to help me tube this guy. Genevieve, stop whatever you’re doing and come help me!” Frank shouted as he pulled the body from the table and dropped it unceremoniously into a wheelchair.
Sister Genevieve poked her pretty face, now hidden behind a surgical mask, from behind another curtain. “Did I hear you calling, Frank?”
“Grab the crash cart and start bagging this guy, we need to tube him,” Frank ordered as he made a quick attempt at scrubbing between patients.
“No, not that dead guy in the wheelchair, the other dead-looking one on the exam table.” He shouted as he flung on a blue smock. “Vivian, start an IV on him as we work on his airway. We need access in case he codes.”
“Where’s my 4 inch Mac, Elaine? Damn, you know I prefer a Mac when I tube.” Frank said as he tore through a tray of medical equipment.
“It’s dirty. You used it on the last patient who died. Do you want me to grab it so you can use it again?” She replied sarcastically.
“Funny, Elaine. Now shut up and bag. Genevieve, I need you to apply cric pressure. Do you remember how to do that?” Frank asked as he applied a face mask.
“Yes, it’s been awhile, but I think I remember.” She answered while placing her gloved hands over Murphy’s now still Adam’s apple. She pressed downward using her thumb and index finger on either side as Frank grabbed the straight intubation blade.
“Is this right?” Genevieve asked while Elaine positioned an ambu mask over Murphy’s nose and mouth.
“Perfect. Let me grab my blade and we’re ready. Elaine, shove that rolled up towel under his neck for me while Genevieve applies pressure. You get a sat on this guy yet?” Frank asked as he peered through the laryngoscope into Murphy’s throat.
“Yea, but it’s only maybe 70, so I hope you’re lucky with that straight blade.” Elaine smiled as she rapidly squeezed the ambu bag.
“I can’t get an IV in his arms Dr. Kirby, there is too much motion from your intubation. May I use his foot?” Vivian asked as she discarded her third needle and held pressure on a bleeding arm.
“I don’t care if you have to stick it in his ass, just get me access.” Frank swore as he turned to Elaine.
“I’ll take that as an order that I may use his foot for an IV site.” Vivian replied coldly.
“Okay, stop bagging while I check out his airway. Crap, I can’t visualize his damn cords, too much swelling or fat.” Frank swore while he repositioned his scope.
“Probably both, by the looks of him.” Elaine laughed dryly.
“Okay, Genevieve. Apply that pressure for me.” Frank ordered as he probed deeper into Murphy’s throat with the steel intubation blade.
“Oh shoot, Dr. Kirby, he is bradying, his heart rate is now in the 40s. Stop or he will code!” Elaine squealed, she furiously squeezed the ambu bag as Frank halted his attempt and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
“Son of a bitch, I hate straight blades, let’s try this one more time after you bag him back to 90. If I can’t get it, then I’ll just cric him and be done with it.” Frank swore in frustration while suctioning slime from Murphy’s mouth.
Peering into the laryngoscope, he contorted himself nearly vertical and then shouted. “Okay, I see the cords, give me cric pressure now, Genevieve.”
After pushing a long white tube into Murphy’s throat he exclaimed. “Finally, shit I thought I was going to have to cric his ass. What’s his sats now, Elaine?”
“Hmmm, not as high as his IQ but I bet it’s better than yours.” She laughed as she held the tube while Genevieve secured it into place with tape.
Frank managed a brief smile. “You’re a real smart ass today, Elaine. Keep it up, it works for you. Now just tell me his sats.”
“Ninety-two and rising, and he has bilateral chest sounds too. See, you can tube with a straight blade after all. You finished just in time for the chest x-ray too.” Elaine beamed at her favorite doctor.
“Okay, get him to the unit and tell respiratory to put him on whatever works, then get me a gas. I’ll be there in maybe 15 minutes. I need to get some sort of history on him while I can.” Frank ordered as he stripped off his gloves with a deft motion.
Turning toward Stryker, he glared. “Okay Stryker, what the hell’s this all about?”
“You’ve both met?” Lauren asked as she sought to regain her composure.
“Yes.” Stryker responded in his characteristic monosyllables. “We talked briefly when the subjects were first brought here.”
“Subjects. Is that all they are to you?” Frank snapped.
“What else should I call them? They were part of a clinical trial, so of course they were subjects.” Stryker shrugged.
“Perhaps I can help explain, I’m Senator Harlan T. Long. This is all part of a study NIH is funding and we are just ….” Harley interjected as he offered his hand.
“Look, I know who you are and I don’t have time for your fucking name dropping. In case you haven’t noticed, I just intubated a man wearing a lab coat. I assume he is one of your scientists. I want to know why the hell he tried to kill himself less than one day after the deaths of six young men associated with your study.” Frank snapped.
“Two actually, the other four were not part of our trial.” Stryker smiled.
“We’re here for the same reason you are, doctor. We’re trying to determine if those young men died as a result of our clinical trial, or, if their deaths are attributable to another cause.” Stevens interjected in an attempt to defuse some of the tension.
“Who are you and why shouldn’t I have your entire party ejected from my ER?” Frank demanded as he reached for a phone.
“My name is John Stevens; I’m the project’s Information Officer. I may be able to answer most of your questions. The man you just now intubated was the lead scientist for this project.”
“Yeah, I pretty much guessed that on my own, continue.” Frank nodded as accepted a cup of coffee from his nurse.
“Stryker is a specialist in the development of biological weapons; he’s on our project solely as a precautionary measure in the case of an accidental release.” Stevens replied. He paused with a sigh as he evaluated how best to appraise Frank of the preceding events.
“That’s why Stryker spoke with you earlier; it was his job to follow-up on the incident involving those young men. He needed to secure any areas that may be affected by a potential biologicals exposure. Since their deaths were highly suspicious, Dr. Murphy was required by our guidelines to determine if his vector contributed to them in anyway.”
“Dr. Murphy? Is he the guy I just tubed?” Frank asked as he rifled through charts.
“Yes. Unfortunately, Murphy found all the young men were infected by his vector and apparently so are most of our group. I don’t engage in speculation, therefore you’ll have to ask Dr. Murphy why he hanged himself.” Stevens replied.
Frank knocked over his coffee as he slammed his clipboard down. “Shit, you mean you’re also infected? How long were you exposed to that virus?”
“Transposon, it isn’t really a virus. It may be more accurate to either think of it as the ancient remains of a virus or a provirus.” Stryker interjected while holding up his index finger.
“We were exposed only briefly, a few minutes at most; possibly when a subject sneezed after inhaling our vaccine. The ladies here haven’t yet been shown to test positive for it, so I can’t tell you how transmissible the vector is from human to human.” Stevens continued.
“Well, we have four young kids who never came in contact with the original vector and they are all dead. So that tells me this thing is capable of human to human transmission.” Frank grunted as he rubbed his scrubby bearded face.
“Shit, you just made my ER Ground Zero for your fucking Hot Zone! I’m going to need something stronger than this coffee.” Frank cursed as he accepted another steaming cup from his secretary.
“And what the hell do you mean ancient virus. How do kids playing soccer end up dead from a CIA rogue science project?” Frank yelled between gulps of black coffee.
“The CIA is not formally involved with StatGene, we are simply a precautionary courtesy.” Stryker stiffened.
“Murphy resurrected an ancient sequence from early viral progenitor. You were probably too busy saving lives to read the Press Release by our NIH sponsors; but, here is a copy if you think it will be of any help today.” Stevens calmly placed his hand on Stryker’s arm as he handed Frank a crumpled presser.
Frank took another sip as he skimmed the paper. “What! You mean that son of a bitch did this INTENTIONALLY!” He screamed. “Who and the hell thought this a good idea let alone test it on a bunch of kids!”
“Our paperwork is in order… It was good enough that both the WHO and NIH had no problems backing us. If you read a journal once and awhile instead of hitting on your damn nurses, you might get how Statgene could save millions of lives.” Harley bristled at this third world upstart; rage seemed to add two inches to his height.
“Christ, I should have figured WHO was involved in this debacle. They’re all the time having well-meaning trials go to shit. They didn’t learn a damn thing from MONICA.” Frank swore as he grabbed his clipboard and stormed to the elevator. “We don’t have time for personal insults; no matter how deserving they may be. Save your excuses for Dubois. But, first I need to give a report to the next shift.”
Frank yelled at Elaine. “I want you to send a code page to Dr. Scott right now.”
“But we don’t have a code, Doctor. Why do you want me to do that?” Elaine asked.
“Just do it. He needs to get his ass out here so I can finish my job; I’m not his mother, so wake him up.” Frank replied gruffly as he grabbed a stack of papers.
Frank’s pager sounded with a shrill high-pitched beeping as he kicked at the doctor’s lounge door. “Get your ass up Scott. I need you out here now.” He barked.
The lounge door burst open and a bleary eyed resident stumbled out while pulling on his scrubs top. “What, what? Where’s the code?” He stammered as he rubbed sleep from his eyes.
“You slept through it! I just wanted you awake to watch over the ER while I write the ICU orders for the guy I just tubed.” Frank laughed with a sardonic smirk on his face.
Scott flashed a look of bewilderment that quickly became a scowl as he adjusted his scrubs. “You bastard, why the hell did you call a code then, Frank? You knew I was asleep!”
“Yea, and I don’t have time to nudge you awake. So listen to your report so I can finish this code, unless, of course, you want to write the orders for me?” Frank offered his pen with a smile.
“No, go ahead let me grab some paper.” Scott replied as he fumbled for his own pen.
“Okay, it’s the same as it was 60 hours ago but worse. More damn cholera victims and a never ending stream of GOMERs. That’s your report, so I suggest you grab some coffee while you can because you are going to need it.” Frank laughed as he again headed toward the elevator.
“Damn, Frank, what type of report is that?” Scott shouted at Frank as the elevator door opened.
“It’s all you’re going to get unless you want to write these orders for me. Oh, by the way, you are again short-staffed, and Judy is the charge nurse today.” He laughed as he held the door open for the group.
“Oh hell, not Judy, crap. Can’t you find me another nurse? She’s such a bitch.”
“Sorry, it’s all you’ve got. Better make the best of it. I’ll see you in 48 hours; I’ll be on the unit until I get these orders written. Take care, bud, you’ve had worse.” Frank smiled as the door closed in the face of Scott as he rubbed his hand through the few bristles of hair left on his receding hairline.
Frank leaned against the elevator wall as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his lab coat. “Hit floor four, that’s the ICU; it’s where I sent your friend. He lit a cigarette and drew a long, deep puff.
Lauren coughed and waved at the smoke wafting in her direction. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you smoke. You’re a doctor, for Christ’s sake. If you have no concern for your own health, you should at least be concerned for ours.”
Frank’s second puff was deeper than the first as his tension was replaced by a nicotine buzz. “In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t the States. There’re ashtrays in these elevators for a reason. It’s how I unwind after a long shift, so pipe down and let me enjoy my cigarette.”
“Besides, MONICA says I could do a lot worse than take an occasional drag from a cigarette.” He smiled as he inhaled the blue smoke.
“Who is this Monica you keep talking about?” Lauren asked, clearly piqued by his refusal to snuff his smoke.
“That’s right, WHO.” Swirls of haze lingered around him as he flashed an enigmatic smile.
“What? What do you mean by who?” Lauren’s perky nose wrinkled.
“Well, before this degenerates into a Abbott and Costello script, I’m referring to the largest study on the risk factors for heart disease. It was called the MONICA study and was done by the World Health Organization. It failed to show a causal relationship from smoking and heart disease.” Frank relaxed between puffs.
“And before you ask, it also found very little evidence that it causes lung cancer. However, since we are now on our floor, I’ll extinguish it for my patients’ safety.” Frank managed one last long drag on the butt as the elevator jolted to a stop.
“Okay, let’s check on your friend so I can get finished of this shift.” He extended his arm to motion the women from the elevator.
As he approached the nurse’s station, the secretary placed her phone down and stated, “He’s in room six, Dr. Kirby.”
“Thanks.” Frank exhaled a final cloud of smoke through his nostrils. “Hand me his chart too, if you don’t mind, and I’ll write a few orders.”
Frank perched on a stool as he scribbled illegible orders. “Okay, Stevens; you were telling me your friend here managed to resurrect some extinct viral sequence that may or may not have killed those young men.”
“I need to know if it’s infectious. I have a whole unit to consider, not to mention my staff. I’ve placed him in my only isolation room and instructed the staff to treat him like he has TB.”
“I’m guessing however, this isn’t enough to contain whatever he has; but, it will have to do until we find a treatment. Stryker, you have the most knowledge of bioweapons. Do you have any suggestions to offer?” Frank handed the orders to his nurse.
Stryker nodded as he inspected the ICU hall. “Well, I’m sure you’ve probably discovered by now that the island currently has no phone contact with the mainland. The WHO has mandated that the UN enforces quarantine until we are able to clarify the infectivity of Murphy’s now mutated virus, we have to call the damn thing something so for now I suggest WM1; after its creator.”
“Or Weapon of Mass Destruction.” Lauren sneered.
“Whatever. Anyway, we have to either show it isn’t communicable, or that it poses no serious public hazard before anyone will be allowed to leave this island.” Stryker continued.
“However, since most of us are already infected, it’s unlikely we’ll be allowed to leave unless you can prove they died from other causes.” Stryker peered through the glass window of the isolation unit. A tech was fidgeting with dials on a breathing machine over the still unconscious Murphy.
“Our lab tests showed they died of complications related to rhabdomyolysis. It’s a rare disease associated with the destruction of muscles in the body. I’ve ordered a series of tests to rule out other differentials. Maybe we’ll get lucky and those kids simply bought drugs like speed, or creatine, and overexerted themselves in this heat while playing soccer with their friends.” Frank said.
“If it is heat or stress related rhabdo it helps explain a lot. Their CK levels were off the charts. Their Tox screens should be back shortly. If it’s energy drinks, creatine or speed we can at least explain the rhabdo; but, the cellular damage resembling prodromal radiation poisoning won’t be so easy. I’ve seen something similar with overdoses of semiconductors like germanium and other heavy metals. But from the looks of these kids I doubt they ever worked at Microsoft.”
“Unless you aren’t telling me everything, which is probably the case, I don’t think we have to worry about radiation. I’m having Nuclear Med sending me a counter from the Mothership just to be sure.”
“Unfortunately, statin induced Rhabdo is at the top of my list since you indicate WM1 was designed just for that purpose. Rhabdomyolysis is certainly a side effect of statins.” Frank concluded in grim silence.
“Doctor, may I offer you my opinion?” Gisèle quietly held up her hand.
“Why not? Everybody else has. Who are you and what do you wish to add?” Frank rubbed his eyes.
“My name is Gisèle, Dr. Gisèle Carré. I am an evolutionary biologist and the curator of Biological Sciences for the Baltimore Museum of Natural History. I have expertise along these lines.”
“Go ahead, Doctor.” Frank stood and offered her his stool.
“Just Gisèle, please. I examined Murphy’s labs from specimens of not only the deceased but also from our own blood.”
“It showed his vector had undergone major rearrangements that resulted in the initial van Winkle virus mutating into what we are now calling WM1. The van Winkle regulatory region was deleted and replaced by something resembling a heat shock promoter. At least that was what Murphy’s final notes suggest.”
“Was that a formal conclusion?” Frank grabbed a nearby chart.
“No. Sadly, it is only my interpretation of what he had scrawled into the margins of his reports. He apparently hanged himself just after completing these tests. The new promoter may be driving statin expression to lethal limits. Overheating probably hastens the onset of muscle wasting and may explain why those young men died after playing soccer.”
“So you are suggesting his vector simply redesigned itself? I find that hard to believe that it was able to re-engineer itself.” Frank shook his head.
“I’m not. It’s rather common for viruses to alter their genomes. The influenza virus does this each season; it’s why a new vaccine is required every year. Viruses have a way of directing their own evolution. Murphy wrongly believed he had subjugated them for his own purpose.” Gisèle sighed.
“The massive fragmentation of the chromosomes would introduce millions of nicks in their DNA that would be indistinguishable from radiation poisoning. The only treatment may be to find a way to turn off the promoter that is driving overexpression.” Gisèle continued.
“It is why we have tried so hard to save Dr. Murphy; he is the only one who understands how he created van Winkle. If he dies, he may also take any hope of finding a treatment to the grave. Heat appears to worsen the symptoms, so possibly keeping the patient cool may mitigate some of its damage.” Gisèle’s voice faded as she looked at Frank with solemn brown eyes.
Frank glared at her in silence before finally speaking. “Shit, it all fits. Let’s see if Murphy is in any shape to provide any additional help.”
“Until then,” Frank stuck his head out of the isolation room foyer and shouted to his secretary, “Hey, Maria, call Plant Ops and tell them to turn this room temp down as low as they can get it. I want two cooling blankets on him at all times and tell everyone entering this room to wear hoods. And bring me every cooling pack we have in supply.”
“Yes sir.” Maria replied as she grabbed a phone and covered her mouth with her sleeve. “Get up here, George. The doctor wants room six as cold as an icebox and while you are at it turn the temperature down for the rest of the floor too.”
She ran to the wall thermostat and turned it as low as it would go and reached for a face mask and gown.
“That’s not needed for me, Maria.” Frank shouted at her from the foyer.
“It isn’t for you, sir. It’s for me.” She yelled back as she put on the gown and mask. There was a rush by all of the staff to the isolation carts as they quickly applied masks and gowns.
“I guess it’s too late for that to work on us?” Harley’s joke fell on deaf ears as they entered the isolation room.
“Yeah. But this is probably all just for show anyway. Gown up if it makes you feel any better. We need to ask the good doctor a few questions if he has any neurons left to nod his head for us…” Frank shrugged as a whoosh of air sucked them toward the isolation room’s door.
The soothing, rhythmic hiss of a ventilator greeted them as they entered the room. A therapist wearing a duck-billed mask scribbled on his clipboard.
“Hi Doc, he seems pretty comfortable on Pressure Support at 30%; are you okay with that?” The therapist asked as he placed moved his stethoscope across Murphy’s chest.
Frank nodded his head in agreement. “What’s he sound like, Manny?”
“Clear as a bell, but lots of upper airway stridor. What happened to him?” Manny said as he reached for his clipboard.
“He botched hanging himself.” Frank scowled as he recalled his difficult intubation.
“Jeez, there are a lot easier ways to off yourself than stretching your neck. Any clue why? Hey, I’m going to need restraint orders too, if you don’t mind. I’d hate to see him wake up and try to finish the job.” Manny strapped Murphy’s wrist to the bed’s frame.
“And what’s with the isolation, are we ruling out TB or something more exotic?” Manny’s eyes twinkled behind his mask.
Before Frank could respond, Harley staggered into the room wearing a hooded rebreather. He looked like a cross between the Stay Puft Marshmallow man and Darth Vader. “What the hell are you doing wearing that? I thought you said you’re already infected; it won’t help you at all. Besides that, you’re wearing the damn thing backwards. That pack goes on your ass you Nimrod, not in the front.” Frank snarled.
“Screw you! We don’t know jack about this virus, yet. Just because I’m positive doesn’t mean I have the same thing as those kids. So until I know otherwise, I’m wearing this hood for insurance.” Harley argued in a muffled voice as he fumbled to readjust the hood’s filter without removing it from his head.
Lauren and the others crowded the small room. Frank grabbed an opthalmoscope from behind the bed and peered into Murphy’s eyes. “Well, he has a heartbeat and can breathe, so let’s see if anybody’s home.” Making a fist, he rubbed his knuckles briskly across Murphy’s chest. The ventilator alarms exploded as Murphy bolted upright, pulling against his restraints.
Manny silenced the alarms as Frank jabbed the call light button. “May I help you?” asked a nurse stationed from behind the desk.
“Bring me the sedative I ordered before this guy extubates himself.” He growled.
“Alright, Stevens, he’s yours to question. But you better make it quick before I have to put him down again.” Frank said as a nurse rushed in with a syringe and injected it into Murphy’s IV.
Murphy gagged uncontrollably against the tube in his mouth. His eyes bulged as he coughed and thrashed, pulling against the restraints.
“Calm down, Murphy; I’m your doctor and you’re in a hospital. I had to put you on a breathing machine after you hung yourself. You can’t speak so don’t even try. Just nod your head if you understand me.” Frank barked as Murphy’s sputtered against the breathing tube.
“I told you to nod your head if you understand me. I don’t have time to screw with you all day, so nod your damn head.” Frank shouted as he grabbed Murphy’s tube to stabilize it.
Murphy’s bobbed his head up and down like a toy dog on a dashboard. Stevens approached the now lucid Murphy and gently placing his left hand to Murphy’s face and turned his head to maintain eye contact. “Murphy, the doctor is correct. We really don’t have much time. Your life, as well as our own, depends on how quickly and accurately you respond. Do you understand?”
Murphy nodded his head slowly, his gaze transfixed on Stevens’ face. “Good. I want to thank you for your reports; we know most of us are infected by your vector. I have a question about what you wrote on them about heat shock proteins.”
“We need to know if there’s a way to control its spread to others. We put you into a cold room on Gisèle’s suggestion; she seems to think your vector may slowed by the cold. Stryker thinks this may be effective but he isn’t sure if it’s enough.”
“We need to know if there is a way to prevent van Winkle from infecting or if there is a way to treat those already infected.”
Murphy moved his right hand in a scribbling motion as he slowly closed his eyes. “He wants to write us something. Quick, give him a pen before he falls back to sleep.” Harley shouted as he frantically patted his containment suit.
Frank whipped out a prescription pad and pen and thrust them into Murphy’s now limp hand. “Damn it, he’s over-sedated! How much Ativan did you give him?” he shouted at the nurse.
“Two milligrams, Sir; just as you ordered.” The nurse mumbled.
“I ordered 0.5-2 milligrams. I can’t believe you hit him with the whole damn vial. Get out of here. And bring me some flumazenil, if you think you can do that right, before I have you fired.” He swore as he checked Murphy’s chest again for breathing.
The ventilator emitted a shrill alarm as Manny adjusted its dials. “Whoa, Doc! That Ativan snowed him. He quit breathing on his own; I’m going to have to put him on a backup rate.”
“Do whatever it takes, just keep him breathing. The flumazenil should reverse it for a few minutes. Just keep him breathing until that sedation wears off.” Frank cursed the nurse under his breath.
She nurse scurried back into the room without her facemask and gingerly handed Frank her syringe. “Do you need anything else, Sir?”
“Just get the hell out, you’ve done enough already!” He swore as he shoved the contents of the syringe into Murphy’s IV.
Murphy’s eyelids flickered as he took a deep breath on the ventilator. The ventilator again emitted a shrill alarm that was quickly silenced by the therapist. “Murphy, wake up!” Frank shouted as he grabbed the end of Murphy’s nipple and twisted it sharply.
Murphy again gagged on the vent before calming down. “We need to know if there is an antidote for that damn virus you made. If there is, you better write it down now or we’re all screwed.”
Frank shoved the pen into the now fully awake Murphy’s hand. “Release his restraints.” Frank snapped.
Murphy fumbled with the pen and managed to scrawl a nearly illegible answer. “What’s it say? I can’t see a damn thing in this fogged hood,” yelled Harley, as he struggled to clear the hood’s visor without removing it.
Stevens lifted the pad from Murphy’s hand. “It has just two words, Cold and Vishnu.”
“Well, we already know that cold affects this thing, but what does that have to do with the Hindu god of creation?” Stryker shook his head.
“Actually, Brahma is the Hindu god of creation. Vishnu maintains balance between creation and destruction. So what are you saying Murphy, does cold both create and destroy your virus?” Stevens asked as he gently shook Murphy.
Murphy slowly nodded his head as the pen fell from his hand. “Oh God, he’s asleep again, that medicine must have worn off; give him some more.” Lauren yelled as she shook his limp arm.
“What’s the use? Who knows if he even understands what he’s writing. I don’t see what a Hindu god has to do with an ancient viral sequence. It’s probably best just to let him sleep off the sedation. We can try again later when he is more coherent.” Frank said as he glared at the nurse outside of the room.
“Maybe Murphy has already told us what he thinks we need to know.” Gisèle said as she looked up from her notes.
“What do you mean, Gisèle?” Stevens asked.
“Well, Murphy seemed to be rational when he was awake. So, perhaps as Vishnu is the balance between creation and destruction, cold may be responsible for both the virus’ formation and extinction.”
Stevens’ head snapped up from his deep thought. What a fool he had become, he had known the means of controlling the vector from it very origin. Murphy had spoken those very words when he had confirmed its creation.
“It’s not cold as in temperature. I do believe he means it is the common cold virus. Murphy used the cold virus as a backbone for the construction his vector. Gisèle, is there any way the common cold virus could destroy his vector?” Stevens asked as he pulled a black notebook from his coat.
“Not destroy, John. Out-compete. Of course, now it makes sense. Murphy was trying to tell us that his vector is similar enough to the common cold that exposure to the cold adenovirus will simply displace his vector.” Gisèle’s face brightened.
“His vector is nothing more than an inferior version of an adenovirus. In hosts infected by both, the common cold virus will out reproduce and re-infect at a much higher rates than Murphy’s weakened version.”
“The common cold virus is nature’s triumph in adenoviruses; any vector based on its sequence will be simply supplanted by the more efficient natural version. It’s as Darwin states; a niche will be filled by that which is most fit to occupy that niche. The cold adenovirus is as perfect a virus as nature can create. Nothing will come even close to out competing it for infecting its natural host.” Gisèle smiled.
“Are you telling us all we have to do to get over this infection is to simply catch a cold?” Harley grinned from inside his hood.
“Yes, and more importantly, I believe that’s what Murphy was trying to tell us. Wake him up so we can be sure, but I think he believes a cold is a cure for this infection.” Gisèle grabbed Murphy’s still hand.
“But how are we going to catch a cold on a tropical island in the summer?” Lauren whined as she removed her facemask.
Stryker grunted a dry, humorless laugh. “Leave that to me. I’m sure I can arrange to have an adequate supply of cold viruses dispersed over this island.” Smiling, he turned to Stevens. “Let’s confirm this with Murphy then head back to the embassy for Harley’s phone. I’ll contact my group and give them the good …. ”
CODE BLUE EMERGENCY ROOM, CODE BLUE EMERGENCY ROOM, boomed over the loudspeaker. Frank slapped his forehead. “Oh hell, I forgot to tell Scott about that body I left in the wheelchair; I bet he’s trying to code it again.”
“Damn! Manny, let me know if it’s a dead guy in a wheelchair when you get there. If it is, have Scott call off the code. And do me one more favor, if you see a nun down there named Sister Genevieve, have her give me a call. I forgot to thank her for her help in the ER today.”
Manny ripped the mask from his face and grinned broadly as he ran for the elevator, “Sure thing, Doc, no problem. I’ll call you in a minute.”
“Crap, I just remembered. My phone is locked in Murphy’s safe.” Harley’s yelped.
“Well, can’t we just get the combination when Murphy wakes up again?” Gisèle asked with a perplexing look.
“We could if it had a combination; but it’s a biometric lock. The only way to unlock it is by a retinal scan of Murphy’s eyes.” Harley groaned.
“What! You mean you locked your phone in a safe that only Murphy’s eyes can open? Isn’t there a way to reprogram it? Damn, I hate this island and you even more.” Lauren cried.
“I could if I called the Security team for the embassy, which happens to be in DC. But, without that phone we’ve no communication with the mainland. We’re still screwed, unless maybe we gouge out his eye.” Harley answered as he leaned closer to Murphy’s vent.
Frank pulled Harley back. “Are you crazy, have you ever seen a dead man’s eyes? I can assure you they don’t look the same as the living.”
“If we have to unlock that safe with a retinal scan, we’ve no choice but to take Murphy there. Do you think he is stable enough for transporting there in an ambulance, Frank?” Stevens asked as he spied the gurney outside of the room.
“Yeah, I’m pretty certain his main problem was swelling in his neck from trauma. As long as we keep that tube secured for a day or two he should be fine. We have an ambulance out front that is available; I’ll have the secretary tell the EMT to crank it up. I better go with you though just in case; I’m off for a few hours anyway.” Frank said as he again pressed the call light button. “Hey, Louise, call the ER and tell the EMT to start up his ambulance. Room 6 is going for a ride.”
“Yes, Sir. Do you need anything else?”
“Yeah, if you get a call from a nun named Sister Rocco, transfer her into this room. Thanks.” Frank turned a knob on the ventilator as he spoke to Stevens. “How far is your embassy from here?”
“We made the trip from there to here in maybe five minutes.” Stevens replied.
“Good. I think he’s stable enough for a quick trip. As long as he’s going for a ride I may as well transfer him to the Mothership; they have a hell of a lot more resources than we do.”
“Mothership?” Lauren asked.
“Yeah, it’s what we call our main medical facility.” Frank grabbed the ambu bag from the wall.
“Help me pack him up. Grab one of those oxygen tanks and hold onto his monitor. Looks like your friend here is going for a short joy ride.” Frank stated as he pulled the monitor from over the bed.
As Frank disconnected the IV, the phone rang. “Answer that for me and put it on speaker phone.”
“Hey Doc, is that you?” Manny’s voice echoed off the walls of the nearly empty room.
“Yes, Manny. Were they coding that guy I left in the wheelchair?” Frank asked as he eased the oxygen tank onto Murphy’s bed.
“Yep, just as you thought. I think Scott is really pissed at you, so you better have a good excuse for leaving a dead guy in a wheelchair for him. Oh, I also spoke with that nun you asked about. I gave her the direct number to that room, so …..”
“What the hell! Hey Doc; some militia types just burst into our ER looking for those people you’re with, and they don’t seem too happy by the looks of their guns.”
A faint voice could be heard in the background. “Who are you talking to?”
“Hey, I’m just a respiratory therapist. I was talking to our ER doctor about a patient. Put those guns away, man, this is firearm free zone.”
“Where are those agents who brought a man here? Our guard says your doctor treated him. Give me the phone. Hello, who is this?”
Frank exploded with anger. “What the hell are you doing in my ER, get out! We don’t allow any weapons in our hospital, so leave before I call security.”
The man on the phone continued unabated in his ranting. “Are you the doctor for the man those American agents brought in today?”
“Agents, what the hell are you talking about. The man was injured and we treated him the same as we would anyone else. So, shut up and get out of my ER.”
“You have five minutes to bring us that man and the American spies. If you do not, we will shoot your staff one at a time.”
“Get out of my ER; I won’t have you threaten my staff in this way. I’ll call our consulate and ….”
“Hey, man, look I don’t want any problems I just work here. I …..”
The roar of automatic weapons burst through the phone speaker. “You are responsible for this man’s death. You have five minutes before another dies. Bring me those spies.”
Frank froze in anger. The ringing of the phone jarred him back to reality. Grabbing the receiver, he shouted, “You son of a bitch, I’ll see to it personally that you are shot.”
“What? Frank is that you? Did I do something wrong?” Sister Genevieve’s voice trembled over the phone.
“Oh, I’m sorry Sister; I didn’t realize it was you. Look, things are bad in the ER, so don’t go anywhere near it. Gunmen just killed one of my therapists and are demanding I bring them that guy you helped me intubate. Those killers have accused him and his friends of being spies.” Frank admonished through gritted teeth.
“Oh my, I hope it doesn’t have anything to do with this outbreak.” Genevieve gasped.
“You mean the cholera?” Frank queried, puzzled by her question.
“No, not the cholera. I was just about to return to my village because Sister Dominique called to report there are more victims who are just like those young men I’d brought in earlier. The villagers are in a panic and many are trying to get to your ER.” She answered, her voice choked with emotion.
“Huge crowds have blocked the entrance into the ER. What’re we going to do, Frank? There may be hundreds around the hospital already, how will you be able to treat them all?” Desperation gnawed at her dwindling hope.
“We can’t. Scott was in bad shape already with just those few I’d left from my shift, and that was before those murderous gunmen killed my respiratory therapist.” Frank replied, clenching and unclenching his jaw.
“What’s worse, I can’t do jack to help him. I’m stuck on the fourth floor. They’re demanding I bring them my patient and his friends or they’ll kill more of my staff.” His knuckles blanched as he gripped the receiver.
Stevens motioned to Frank. “Ask the sister if she has a view of the van we drove to the hospital.”
“Sister, you hear that? Can you see the van they used to bring that patient here?” Frank asked.
“Yes, it’s parked behind an ambulance. Why?” Genevieve asked.
“Are there any gunmen around the van or ambulance?” Stevens queried.
“No, not that I can tell. And the EMT just went into the ER; he left the backdoor of the ambulance open.”
“Good, well not for him, but maybe for us. Did he leave it running?” Stevens continued.
“Yes, I believe so. What are you planning to do?”
“We have a gurney outside of this room and I’m sure the gunmen will eventually find us in the ICU. We have no other choice. If we stay here or go to the ER, we’ll most likely be shot. Our only hope is to leave the hospital.” Stevens answered.
“I don’t think they are interested in killing the staff except to force us into surrender. Hopefully, they’ll pursue us as we escape and leave their hostages safely behind.”
“Do you want me to bring the ambulance to the front, Frank? I’m pretty sure no one would watch an old nun leaving a hospital. One of the acquired skills of my profession is that we can drive just about anything.” Genevieve offered. Her voice rang with renewed confidence.
“Are you certain no one is watching?” Frank asked.
“Yes, there’s no one near the ER doors. I can meet you at the front entrance in five minutes, be ready to load him quickly. God bless you Frank for your ministry to God’s children.”
“No, don’t move the ambulance; we’ll meet you where it’s parked. Just be ready to go as soon as you see us. Stryker and I’ll meet you and the others there.” Stevens interrupted as he spied a large oxygen cylinder in the foyer.
Frank replaced the receiver the dialed another number. “This is Dr. Frank Kirby; let me talk to whoever’s in charge.”
“So where are those spies? Do I also need to kill your nurse?” An ominous, cold voice inquired.
“No, I’m sending them down now, but it may take a few more minutes to transfer the patient. May we have another fifteen?” Frank implored.
“You have ten before your nurse dies.”
Frank heard a click then a dial tone. “We have only ten minutes before they shoot another hostage.”
Frank hit the call light. “Maria, have a nurse bring me all the Ativan we have on this unit.”
“All of it Dr. Kirby?” The secretary’s voice trembled.
“Yeah, even the pills. I’ll sign for them later; just get them in here now. And I’ll need the Go Bag too.”
“Who was their leader?” Stryker asked as he readjusted his shoulder harness.
“Dubois. Could you have made a worse enemy on this damn island? If I turn you over to him, as I should, I risk everyone on this island dying from your plague. If I help you escape, my staff may be slaughtered by that madman.” Frank fumed while throwing supplies onto the gurney.
“He won’t kill them if we don’t give him time.” Stevens responded cryptically.
“Just how and the hell do you propose to do that?” Frank snapped as he pushed more sedative into Murphy’s IV.
Stevens pulled his Colt from inside his jacket and deftly cocked and locked it. “Because he’ll be too busy trying to kill Stryker and me. Come on, we don’t have much time, our ride is waiting. Let’s go.”
Stryker nodded with a grin as he grabbed a mask and yellow gown. “Do you have any extra sheets and pillows?”
“There in the cabinet beside of you.” Frank replied as Lauren opened the twin doors of the isolation room.
Frank turned off the vent then attached the ambu bag to Murphy. “Whatever you do, don’t pull this tube from his mouth. So keep up with me, I’ll lead the way.”
“John and I’ll catch up with you at the ambulance. We’ll give you all cover.” Stryker replied coolly as he donned his mask and gown. “Perfect! Let’s go John; I never really made plans for retirement anyway.”
Frank yelled as they rolled out of the room down a long hallway. “This way, we’ll take the freight elevator to the lobby, the other goes to the ER.”
“Well, I guess that’s our ride John, care to hit the down button for us.” Stryker said as he grabbed another gurney.
Stevens shoved a red steel crashcart toward the elevator door. “This may be useful; it has a couple of extra tanks on the back.”
“Let’s go, we have only a little time to kill.” Stryker laughed.
“Hey, where are you guys going with that code cart? Put it back before I call security.” A nurse yelled as she reached for a phone.
“Don’t worry; I’m sure security won’t mind.” Stryker quipped as he pushed it into the elevator.
Stevens placed pillows around the oxygen tank on the bed before covering it with a sheet. “I’ll do the cart and hit the button once the bed is clear, you get the bed.”
Stevens crouched behind the cart while Stryker pushed the ER button on the panel. The elevator slowly descended to the second floor, opening to reveal a waiting nurse. “Are you going down?”
“Yes, but this elevator is about to go out of order, I’d suggest you take the stairs.” Stryker smirked before pulling his mask over his face. Unfastening his holster, he fondled his SIG.
The elevator resumed its descent to the ground floor before coming to a gentle halt with a bing. The doors slid open to reveal a ragtag group of waiting gunmen holding ancient Mausers and M14s trained upon Stryker. “You assholes expecting this?” He laughed, as he kicked the bed toward them and pulled the sheet off the oxygen tank. “I bet not!”
The bed crashed into the group just as the doors started to close, scattering them like fallen toy soldiers. Stevens emerged from behind the crashcart and fired his Colt directly into the tank. A huge blue fireball lashed all in the room with tongues of fire, scorching the crashcart and elevator doors. The percussion slammed the cart back onto Stevens as the door closed. Carnage engulfed the room as they exited unscathed from the elevator; their weapons drawn.
A hellish scene greeted them. Flaming bodies were strewn around like the remnants of a grisly campfire. Survivors thrashed about in attempts to extinguish the flames on their clothing. Screams of women and children from the waiting room did little to drown the wailing of the burn victims in their ringing ears. The smell of burnt hair and flesh combined with the odor of feces and bleach was nauseating as Stevens and Stryker warily crept toward the entrance. The wail of the fire alarm was unnerving as they slowly crept across the room. Rivulets of blood washed into ever growing pools as the sprinkler cleansed the bodies of the fallen.
Gunfire greeted them as they rounded a corner. They shielded themselves behind the cart while scanning the room. “There’s only six left, you take the right, I’ll pick off what remains.” Stryker sneered while bullets struck their crashcart shield with a metallic ping, ping sound.
The explosive rounds of his SIG deafened their already ringing ears. Stevens’ Colt rang a rhythmic beat of death: one round, one kill. The thud of bodies falling to the floor was accompanied by the metallic rattle of their weapons hitting concrete.
The room reeked with the pungent smell of gunsmoke mingled with the salty odor of fresh blood. Smoke from the explosion and gunfire mingled with sweat, blood and warm water from the overhead sprinklers stung their eyes as they strained to look through the dark, hazy room. “There are two more behind that sink, but I can’t get a clear shot at them,” whispered Stevens to Stryker, who silently peered at the reflections of the gunmen in a mirror mounted near an adjacent sink.
“I see them. Grab a tank and kick it toward them. I’ll give you cover; I think we can take them out with another explosion,” Stryker answered as he crouched close to the crashcart.
Stevens carefully pulled a tank from its rack as a rapid burst of gunfire showered the room. He placed it on the floor beside him and kicked it toward the gunmen. It rolled to a stop just short of their hiding place. “NOW,” shouted Stevens as he took aim at the tank. A burst of rapid fire whizzed past his head while Stryker returned cover fire. The flaming fangs of gunfire illuminated the wafts of smoke with eerie, swirling patterns.
Stevens’ shot struck the tank valve, snapping it off with a brilliant flash and the roar of a jet. “Shit! Duck!” The tank slammed around the other side of the room spewing scorching blue fire. The snipers jumped as the flaming missile spun wildly toward them. The soldier’s head disintegrated, spraying scalp and brains over his companion. A vaporized cloud of blood erupted from the last gunman’s chest.
The faint sound of sirens was barely audible in their ringing ears as Stryker shouted at a now deafened Stevens. “Let’s get the fuck out of here before we’re left behind. I don’t know about you old man, but I’m no match for a SWAT team.”
From what he had just witnessed, Stevens sincerely doubted Stryker’s humility. Stevens shouted back, “Go ahead; I need to pick up a few things from our van.” He scurried into the van and, grabbing a canvas bag, raced back toward the ambulance. It was just the beginning of a very long night in Española.
“Hit it, Sister!” Stevens tumbled through the ambulance’s rear doors.
“Are we going, back to the embassy?” Genevieve ran over the curb. She averted her gaze from the sporadic puffs of blue smoke reflected in the ambulance’s mirror.
“Too dangerous, we need a safer place,” Stryker shouted as his return fire dropped two more soldiers.
“Oh my God, I’m sweating!” Lauren yelled. Her damp tee clung to her ample breasts.
“We need someplace that’s cool, anyone have a suggestion?” Stevens handed Stryker a clip from his canvas bag.
“I have a friend who runs a morgue on the west side. He’s out of town but left me a key in case family had need of a prayer service. Will that work?” Genevieve said as she swerved the ambulance around a corner.
“Perfect! And I doubt anyone will notice an ambulance parked there in the dead of night,” Stryker grinned at his own bad joke.
“¡vete a la mierda! I’m not sleeping with the dead!” Lauren cursed.
Harley handed her an icepack. “I’d rather sleep with them than join them... Hey, what’s wrong with you, Frank? You like shit!”
“Are any of you having muscle aches?” Frank rubbed his calves and grimaced.
“You’ve got to be kidding; do I look like I get any regular exercise?” Harley asked as he offered Frank a coldpack.
“Now that you mention it; yes, I do,” Genevieve winced as she braked for a curve.
“Me too,” Gisèle massaged her arms.
“¡Maldición! I hurt everywhere,” Lauren groaned. “Are we all infected?”
“I don’t know, maybe; these cramps could be a sign of early rhabdo. I took a leak before you all arrived and it was dark. I wrote it off as my usual state of dehydration from long shifts in the ER; but, now I’m not so sure. Trust me, dark urine isn’t a good sign; we need more fluids,” Frank threw open the ambulance cabinets; “Only saline, that ain’t going to cut it; we are going to need water and lots of it.”
“Brown piss, hell, you probably just shit yourself from all the excitement,” Harley pulled a flask from his back pocket.
“You better save that liquor, Harley; we may need it later,” Frank ordered.
“We need to get to that morgue fast. Here, take one of these; maybe it will help delay kidney damage,” Frank handed them each a large, white tablet.
“Is it an antibiotic?” Harley cautiously sniffed his.
Frank shook his head, “No, it’s only an antacid; it should help alkalinize our urine. It isn’t enough but it’ll have to do until we get more water.”
“How much further is it to the morgue?” Stevens asked.
“We’re here,” Genevieve swerved the ambulance under a canopy of a decrepit, brick building.
“Stryker, help me with this gurney. Harley, grab those I icepacks,” Frank barked as he kicked the rear doors open.
Genevieve pulled a passkey from the front pocket of her habit. The room was empty except for a refrigerator, cabinets and a steel embalming table at its center. A steel door, tarnished from years of disinfectant use, greeted them.
“Check that refrig for drinking water; we can use that hose if we have to,” Frank pointed toward a frayed, coil of black lying on the floor.
“Oh hell no! This place creeps me out and I’m not drinking out of no hose that was used to clean up after the dead!” Lauren bit her lip as she looked over her shoulder toward the ambulance.
“Get used to it, this may be our only hope,” Frank bagged Murphy as Stevens guided the gurney into dark cooler.
“¡Oh, Dios mío! I see dead people in there; Diablos no ¡No voy a entrar!” Lauren lapsed into Spanish as she peeked into the box’s dark interior.
“Get your ass in there unless you want to join them in the afterlife,” Frank swore as he grabbed the door’s handle, “Harley, you see anything in that refrig we can drink?”
Harley twisted a cap from a beer bottle. “Yeah, someone left a six pack. Care for one?” Harley smiled.
“Yeah, I would; but we can’t drink any. Alcohol is a diuretic. We need water, so empty those bottles and fill them with water and ….. Whats that?” Frank stopped midsentence as he spied a yellow box on the refrigerator shelf.
“Aww, it’s just a box of baking soda. I was hoping it was something we could eat; I’m starving,” Harley answered, his stomach growled at the thought of fried chicken.
“I want everyone over here. Empty those bottles and fill them with water. We need to drink all we can hold; but first,” Frank drained the beer into the sink and poured a small amount of baking soda into it before filling with the bottle with water and handing it to Harley.
Harley shook his head, “Damn, what a waste.”
“Just drink it and shut up; I want the rest of you to do the same. Everyone needs to drink at least 4 bottles of water,” Frank handed the next bottle to Genevieve who blessed it before guzzling it dry.
Harley took a cautious swig of his soda water, “Needs scotch.”
They took turns gulping and filling their bottle. “I can’t drink anymore; it’s going to make me puke,” Lauren whined as she chugged her third bottle.
“You need at least four bottles, drink it! When your finished get in the freezer, just don’t close the door completely or we may suffocate.”
Lauren slowly edged into the freezer, bagged corpses lined the shelves. “Estoy tan asustado que mis piernas están temblando!
“Your legs are shaking because it’s so cold in here. Just hurry up, we need to close the door,” Frank muttered.
“This is too creepy and cold. Can’t I just sleep in the ambulance?” Lauren whined as she pressed against a bodybag.
“Only if you prefer to wake up dead; so shut the hell up and drink,” Frank swore as he handed her his bottle.
“How are we going to sleep in here, I’m freezing,” Lauren shivered.
Frank snatched a sheet from a body on the shelf, “Here, now quit your bitching and get some rest. You’re going to need it. Use that sheet to curl up with Genevieve and Gisèle; it’ll help you conserve heat.”
“Oh my God, if we do survive, I’m going to have nightmares about this forever,” Lauren cried as she inspected the sheet.
“Alright you guys, we need to take turns bagging Murphy; who wants the first hour?” Frank said as he emptied a syringe into Murphy’s IV.
“I’ll go first. Tony can break me if my hand gets cramped,” Stevens nodded as he switched places with Frank. The rest of you get some rest, Tony and I need to talk about a few things, anyway.”
“I just gave him another shot of sedative, he should be fine; just don’t pull out that tube. The swelling in his neck should be less by tomorrow and if we’re still alive, I can pull it then. Wake me if he gives you trouble,” Frank covered the shivering women with his labcoat.
Frank was awakened by Lauren’s cursing, “This is bullshit; I’m tired of sleeping with the dead and waiting for Murphy to die. Why don’t we just go to the Coast Guard station and tell them what happened?” Lauren wailed as she rubbed her cold arms.
“Protocol states there’ll be no contact with those in a hot zone without official approval. They’re waiting for our call on Harley’s phone. I imagine by now they’ve concluded we’re either dead or incapacitated,” Stryker offered Frank a cigarette from a badly beaten pack. “Care for a smoke, it helps me to think.”
“Yea, me too,” Frank smiled weakly as he accepted the offer.
“Screw this; I’m not hiding here anymore. Hell, Gisèle and I aren’t even a part of your study, neither is Genevieve. I’m going to the Coast Guard station and try to find a pilot who will fly us home. I’d rather be shot down by our own military then die in this God forsaken place. At least I could hear another American voice before I died. Let’s go Gisèle ….” Lauren shivered.
“Wait! She’s right!” Stevens exclaimed.
“I am?” Smeared lipstick broadened Lauren’s confused smile.
“Yes, we’ve been so focused on recovering Harley’s phone that we’ve overlooked the obvious. If we fly out of this hot zone they’ll have no choice but to shoot us down in the warm zone,” Stevens accepted a cigarette from Stryker.
“Shit, that’s your plan? Fly into the warm zone so we can be shot down? Hell, I’d prefer my chances here, MIRAGE fighters seldom miss. We’re better off looking for my cell,” Harley laughed as he accepted a cigarette.
“Yes, but they do issue a warning before they fire. Tony, can tell them to call his agency. Gisèle and Frank can then explain what they know. It may work; we circle near the warm zone and wait for their response. As long as we don’t actually leave the hot zone they may only issue a warning. What do you think ……?” Stevens stopped in midsentence and held his finger to his mouth.
“We’re not alone. I hear voices in the next room. Everyone, up on the racks and pretend you’re dead. If they’re armed there’s no way we can shoot our way out of here in these close quarters,” Stevens whispered as he shoved them toward the back of the cooler.
“Oh my God, not again! I just can’t stand touching these bodies. Please can’t we just…” Lauren’s whine was silenced by Stevens’ glare.
An EMT entered the morgue. “Put him in the box and let’s get the hell out of here, I hate morgues; they are places of evil,” he said with a thick Creole accent.
“You are such a superstitious fool; there’s no one here but the dead. Open the cooler and quit your whining,” His companion laughed as he pushed a gurney carrying the body of an old man. The freezer door creaked opened, bodies lined the shelves; Murphy’s body lay on his gurney covered by a thin, soiled sheet.
“Damn, they didn’t tell me they had so many bodies. They even left one on a gurney; there’s no room for ours. Let’s just stuff this one onto a shelf next to another and go,” The Creole EMT said.
As they hoisted the corpse, Lauren stiffened to suppress a scream. She peered through slit eyes at the open mouth of a cadaver now lying beside her.
“Oh my God, I can’t take it anymore!” She screamed as she leapt from the shelf.
The Creole let out a blood curdling scream as he stumbled over his companion. “Aiyeee, we have awakened the dead. They are after our souls, run!” In his haste to escape, he knocked the other to the floor. Harley jumped to his feet with arms outstretched holding his beer bottle. “Tonight, I shall drink your soul!” He shrieked a wicked laugh as he toss baking soda into the air.
The fallen EMT scampered toward the door. “Bokor! Bokor! ” he yelled. They ran from the morgue and jumped into their ambulance and with tires squealing, roared away in a cloud of smoke.
“What the hell was all that about?” Stryker asked the white-faced Harley.
“These are superstitious buggers living here, so I simply played on their fears. They thought Lauren was one of my living dead. ‘Bokors’ are the evil variety of voodoo priests,” Harley grinned.
“Many here fear Bokors because they think they can capture your soul, stuff it into a bottle and then turn you into a ‘zonbi’ using a magical white powder they call ‘coup padre’. Not having any, I just improvised using baking soda. It bought us a little time.” Harley laughed as he tried to wipe the powder from his face using his sleeve.
“You mean there are good voodoo priests?” Lauren handed Harley a wet corner of the sheet.
“Oh shit, yeah; they’re called Hougans and you better learn the difference if you want to make it off this island. Now let’s get the hell out of here before a real Bokor shows up,” Harley grabbed his beer bottle.
“We are going need another ride, I’m sure by now they are now looking for our ambulance; keep your eyes open for another van,” Stryker said as they drove through desolate streets.
Lauren fidgeted in the back seat. “I know we’re in a hurry and don’t really know how to say this delicately, but I really have to pee badly. I didn’t want to say anything because I was hoping to find a bathroom. It’s all that water we drank, I don’t think I can hold it much longer so please don’t hit a bump.”
“Me too Lauren, so don’t feel so bad. Is there any possibility we can stop at a store, John?” Gisèle asked as she squirmed in her seat.
“I’m afraid I have to agree with Gisèle and Lauren, John,” Genevieve added.
“Damn, you women must have bladders the size of a walnut; I can drink a whole six pack and still managed to run for my flight,” Harley laughed.
“Well, it’s a good sign that our kidneys are still functioning. But, let me know if your urine is dark or foul smelling. Since we’re going to stop, we may as well pick up a few cases of water to keep us hydrated,” Frank suggested.
“Look, a store and they’re open!” Lauren yelled. Genevieve eased the ambulance into the parking lot.
“I’ll look around to see if there’s another van. I’ll pick you all up at the front when I find one; if I’m not back in fifteen minutes just leave without me.” Stryker placed another magazine into his SIG.
The women scooted into the store as Harley relieved himself on a fence. “Whoops, I think I just pissed on a cat.” He laughed. “Let’s get that water while the girls take care of their business.”
Frank nodded as he checked Murphy’s chest, “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Murphy. Get as much water as you both can carry.”
“It shouldn’t take long, keep an eye out for Tony; and take this in case you spot any trouble.” Stevens pulled another Colt from his bag.
“Hell, I don’t need a gun. I’m liable to shoot myself with the damn thing.” Frank snorted.
“I said take it. Even if you shoot yourself, it’ll at least be a warning shot for the rest of us,” Stevens thrust the .45 into Frank’s hand.
“How do you disengage the safety?” Frank asked with trepidation.
“The safety is only used when you store a weapon, if you pull that trigger it’ll fire, so be damn careful where you point it,” Stevens placed a full magazine into another Colt and handed it to Harley.
“Hot damn, it feels good to have cold steel in my hand again,” Harley beamed like a little boy getting his first BB gun. “Now, let’s get that water and get the hell out of here before the locals think we’re a bunch of punks trying to knock off this store.”
The convenience store was empty except a clerk watching TV. “Do you sell bottled water?” Stevens asked while glancing at the overhead mirror.
“Haven’t you listened to the news? There’s a cholera epidemic; I sold my last bottle hours ago,” The startled clerk reached under his counter.
“We still have beer, but that’s going to cost you $50 per six pack. So unless you can afford it, I suggest you get out now,” he pulled a shotgun from underneath the counter.
“Are you serious? Hell, that’s even more than I pay when I fly,” Harley reached for his wallet. “I’ll give you $100 for water though if you care to sell any from your personal stocks.” He smiled while brandishing five one hundred dollar bills.
With open mouth, the clerk reached for the bills. “Not so fast, bud. Get us the water first, and if you’re quick I may even give you a tip,” Harley laughing, snatched the bills back from the clerk’s eager hands.
“Yes, yes wait here I have 4 cases in the back!” He stammered as he scampered toward a walk-in cooler.
The clerk returned carrying two cases in his arms and dropped them onto the counter. “I have a bad back .Would you mind helping me get the rest? There are four more; I’ll give you the sixth at no extra charge for your help,” He grimaced while rubbing his back.
The clerk opened the cooler and pointed toward four cases of bottled water. “Hell, I’m no fool. For what I’m paying you, you can afford a chiropractor, we’ll wait out here,” Harley laughed as he reached slowly for his .45 secured in the back of his pants.
“Oh God, hot food!” Lauren cried as she burst from a back room toward a display of hotdogs and burgers. “I’m faminished, give me two of those dogs and a burger.” She ordered as she inhaled the smell of day old grilled food.
“How much for what you have in that case?” Stevens pulled out his wallet.
“I cooked those personally just two hours ago; you may have them for only an additional two hundred dollars,” The clerk dropped the last cases of water onto the countertop.
“Damn, now there’s a twist; being robbed by a clerk in a liquor store,” Harley chuckled as he grabbed two cases of water. “Hmmm, I need help here; any of you girls have a free arm?”
Lauren ignored his request as she gulped down a burger. Genevieve and Gisèle were both equally preoccupied filling their bags with chips and cookies.
“Three hundred should cover everything they’ve taken,” Stevens laid three crisp bills onto the counter cluttered by candy and lighters.
The clerk reached under the counter saying. “Please, let me get you a bag.” He leaned behind the counter then, standing, pointed a sawed-off shotgun at Lauren’s chest, “Now, get on the floor before I shoot you.”
Lauren choked on her burger as she fell to her knees. “I said get down, all of you. You’re the American spies that brought this plague into our country. There’s a very nice reward for you, either dead or alive, so I don’t care if I have to shoot you….” The clerk stopped midsentence, as a cold, steel muzzle pressed the back of his neck.
“Did the news not mention me?” The dull thud of a blackjack against his skull knocked him to the floor. “Stupid ass should have taken what you paid him. Let’s go, I have us a ride waiting out back,” Stryker shouldered his SIG.
“Grab the water and hot food; but, you won’t need those snacks,” Stryker smiled as he lugged two cases of water toward the back door. “Frank’s already there with Murphy, grab what you can and let’s go.”
“But how did you get in? I didn’t see you enter,” Lauren scarfed down what was left of her burger.
“I came in from the back. It didn’t take much effort either; even a Girl Scout could’ve picked that lock.”
“Wow, you hit him pretty hard. From the sound of that crack, I’m worried he may have a skull fracture and may need medical care,” Genevieve stooped to see if the clerk was still breathing.
“You’re more than welcome to stay and attend to him if you like, but the rest of us are off; you coming?” Stryker asked sarcastically.
Genevieve examined the unconscious clerk sprawled on the floor; blood trickled from his ear. “Yes, I’m not a neurosurgeon. But can’t we at least call for help?”
“He already did. He hit an alarm while reaching for that bag, hang around much longer and you can give the police a thorough report. So let’s go, our ride is waiting,” Stryker loaded his pockets with lighters and matches.
They raced out the back lugging food and water. “Where’s our ride, all I see is a snack truck parked in the alley?” Genevieve mumbled through a cookie stuffed in her mouth.
“You’re looking at it. We get to ride in style for a change. Load up, ladies first,” Stryker laughed. Frank was munching on chips as he opened the side door.
“Frank, we have a hot fries,” Grinning, Harley reached into a greasy brown paper bag.
“Normally, I’d tell you junk food shortens your life, but since I can’t see how any of us are going to make it off this island alive anyway, thanks. Bring any ketchup?” Frank flashed a rare smile.
“Anyone have unusual looking urine.” Frank asked with his usual dour demeanor.
“Mine seemed to attract cats, but other than that, no,” Harley laughed as he checked under the van’s seat.
“How about the rest of you?” Frank demanded while guzzling another bottle of water. “No.” was the unanimous response from the group. “Great then grab another bottle and drink up, either this virus is overrated or hydration is preventing us from developing rhabdo.”
Harley pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from the visor and offered one to Stryker in exchange for a light. Rolling down his window he announced. “Okay, I’ll drive. Everyone hold on,” He said as he revved the engine.
“I only hope we can actually get past those guards at the gate,” Harley covered the Colt in his lap with a napkin.
“But why wouldn’t they let an American onto US territory?” Lauren asked as she sipped a diet soda.
“US territory? What the hell are you talking about? This isn’t a US Coast Guard base. We don’t have any sovereign rights on this island, not even our Chancery. The whole island is run by Dubois. I thought you knew that?” Harley answered as he weaved the snack van down a deserted back road.
“What! You mean we’re going onto a base run by the very people trying to kill us?” Lauren choked on her drink.
“Yea, it’s why I liked your plan. No one would ever expect us to go to there,” Harley laughed as he turned the van down a secondary road. “Relax. Money opens doors in third world nations. We’ll just find us a pilot and bribe him to take us up with him on his next patrol.”
“But what will we do if we can’t bribe him?” Genevieve asked as she rifled through the glovebox.
“Unlikely, however, even then we’re covered. I bet I can fly any plane on this poor excuse of an island. And I’m sure neither Tony nor John will have problems convincing a pilot we need to commandeer their aircraft for humanitarian reasons. Isn’t that right boys?” He laughed at Stevens in his rear view mirror; Stevens flashed a tepid smile then returned to counting cartridges.
“Okay, we’re approaching the gate. I want everyone in the back where they can’t see you. As far as they know, I’m just a driver filling their vending machines. John, you and Tony cover the back door in case the guard decides to actually do his job.”
“This doesn’t look like a Coast Guard base; it’s just a used car lot with a few of boats.” Gisèle pressed her face against the glass window.
“You’re looking at it sweetie. Why do you think they call this place the third world? Hell, even their military sucks; a bunch of second rate wannabees.” Harley fondled his .45 under its napkin.
“I’ve seen bigger trailer parks; you’ve got to be kidding. Where’s the runway? There’s just some dirt path full of potholes.” Lauren joined Gisèle at the window.
“Well, it’s sort of straight and long enough to land a Cessna and …. Damn. Is that a Bird Dog? Good God, that relic must be a collector’s item by now. Man, that plane is a legend.”
“It’s too small for our purpose though, but, that Skymaster may have just enough oomph to get all of us off the ground. We’ll head for it once we clear the gates.” Harley pointed toward an oddly shaped airplane with twin tails. The second propeller was mounted at the rear of the cabin seemingly as an afterthought to compensate for the small front blade.
“Are you sure you can fly that?” Lauren asked.
“I don’t know? I’ve never flown one. I was just a young buck in ‘Nam when that model was made. I wonder where they get the parts to keep these antiques flying,” Harley grinned with anticipation. “Hell, I’m just now beginning to enjoy myself here. I’m almost regretting having to leave so soon; but we’re here, so get away from that window and pipe down.”
Harley pulled the van up to a guard shack and rolled down his window. “Hey, bud. Where’s the hangar, they said the snack machine needs filling.”
“You are not the usual driver, let me see your hands,” The lone guard chambered a round into his Browning rifle. “Get out!”
“Hey, take it easy; you could kill someone with that thing. Are you Marcos? Rudy told me to give you these as a going away present.” Harley held up his hands with a smile.
“If you don’t want them, fine; but, I’m sure the flight crew will be more than happy to eat them. Now, put that rifle down; I’m coming out,” Harley backed out of the cabin with his hands in the air.
“Give me what? Don’t try anything funny or I’ll shoot you,” Marcos jabbed his rifle barrel into Harley’s gut.
“Geez all I wanted to do was give you these donuts. May I?” Harley nodded toward a box on the van’s seat.
“Rudy told me to wait until I’m leaving before giving you your cut of the change,” Harley palmed a roll of quarters in his hand.
“Bullshit, you think you can cheat me, give them to me now or they can send another driver,” Marcos slung the rifle over his shoulder as he reached for the donuts.
“Okay, suit yourself; they’re yours,” Harley laughed. His sucker punch landed square on Marco’s temple knocking him senseless. Donuts poured from the box onto his limp body.
“Oh shit, you killed him,” Lauren gasped.
Harley rubbed his bruised knuckles. “Nah, he’ll wake up eventually. Damn, I forgot how good it feels to kick ass. Hey Tony, help me drag him to the bushes before we’re seen.”
Tony hogtied the guard with twine and dragged him into a clump palmettos. “Damn, Harley; you could have just given him the donuts and change.”
“Whatever. I know this guy’s type; he wasn’t going to be satisfied with a few donuts or quarters. This will gag him until we are long gone.” Harley shoved a donut into the guard’s mouth.
“He’ll have General Orders to call in; so, we better hustle,” Stevens said.
The roar of an airplane prop shattered the silence. Harley grinned, “Well, look at this, right on cue; they just fired up that Skymaster. That means the pilot can’t be too far off. Let’s go before he takes off.”
Harley swerved the van toward the hangar. “You gals come with me; it may improve our chances for getting a ride. You and Tony give us cover us if you see any trouble.” Harley nodded at Stevens.
Lauren and Gisèle followed Harley toward the loading gates past a solitary TV. “To repeat our top story, authorities are seeking information on the whereabouts of gunmen who stormed the Port City Hospital.”
A young Creole reporter continued her news alert. “Witnesses state, gunmen engaged and mortally wounded several security officers in their attempt to steal drugs from the hospital pharmacy. The theft was thwarted by the brave actions of Prime Minister Dubois’ guards who shot and possibly killed two of the terrorist. Prime Minister Dubois personally risked his own life in the defense of those injured during this brazen daytime robbery. A spokesman for the hospital states that although the Prime Minister was slightly burned during his heroic rescue of the injured guards, he is expected to fully recover.”
Passport photos of Harley, Styrker and the others were flashed across the screen. “A $1000 award is being offered for the arrest of any of those shown. Authorities suspect Senator Harlan Long, Lt Colonel Anthony Stryker and a still unidentified male may also be responsible for the release of the new drug resistant strain of cholera now plaguing our island. Hospital authorities believe it was purposefully released by American drug companies in an attempt to expand their markets for the sale of new antibiotics.”
Lauren froze. “Oh shit! They’ve posted a bounty on our heads. Harley; I hope this works.”
“Come on and quit your yapping. I’ll bribe the pilot and we’ll all be off the island in a few minutes.” Harley growled.
They hustled past a janitor emptying cans in the waiting area. “The flight area won’t be open until the morning; may I help you?” He said while barely looking at the trio.
“We won’t be long.” Harley hurried past him toward a pilot reading gauges on a vintage plane.
“Hey bud, got room for any passengers?” Harley waved a stack of bills in the air.
“Sorry, but this flight’s already booked. Come back in the morning and I’m sure for enough of that wad, the other pilot’ll help ya.” The pilot smiled and returned to writing on his clipboard.
Harley considered reaching for his Colt but handed the man a hundred dollar bill instead. “Mind if I have a quick look around? I’m a pilot, too; I haven’t seen a Skymaster in ages.”
“Sure but make it quick, I need to taxi out onto the runway soon. But, your friends are going to have to leave the flight deck, only pilots are allowed here,”
“You girls head on back. I’ll be there shortly,” Harley said. “I think the janitor recognized us, you should go”
“I knew this was a bad idea,” Lauren shook her head as they exited the hangar.
Opening the van’s door, Genevieve helped Lauren inside. “We’d better go, John. Harley thinks the janitor recognized us.
“Where is he?” Stevens asked.
“I think he is trying to bribe another pilot,” Gisèle said as she climbed into the van.
“Or jack a plane from what I know of Harley. Oh hell, here comes trouble, looks like we were spotted,” Stryker pointed toward a caravan of jeeps barreling toward the hangar,
“Anyone else want one?” Stryker pulled a rumpled pack from his pocket.
“How and the hell can you smoke a cigarette when we are about to be shot?” The remnants of mascara trailed down Lauren’s face.
“Take them back to the Embassy, John; I’ll meet you there,” Stryker took one last drag from his cigarette then shoved a match into its filtered end. He gently placed the improvised delay fuse into a box of matches then walked to an aviation fuel pumping station in the open hangar. As the snack van rounded the corner, Stryker removed a fuel nozzle from its holder. He pounded the nozzle with his hammer, flaring its tip with each blow. Grabbing the fuel handle, he pulled its grip then tied it fully open with a piece of wire. Satisfied, he placed the improvised fuse onto the fuel station’s fender. Stryker reached for the pump’s ignition just as Dubois jumped out of his jeep.
“Don’t let him start that engine, shoot him!” Dubois screamed.
The pump station roared to life as Stryker jammed a screwdriver into the engine’s governor. Its hose whipped about like a writhing snake shooting a fine stream of aviation fuel into the air “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, your muzzle flashes will set off that fuel,” Dubois frantically waved his arms at his soldiers.
“Just kill him with your knives; I’ll give a $1000 to the first man to bring me his head,” Dubois’ mouth foamed with rage.
Stryker turned to run just as the first assailant reached for his arm. Stryker’s blade flashed in the moonlight severing the tendons and ligaments of his opponent’s elbow. Sobbing, his would be assassin fell to the ground clutching his bloody stump.
Another stabbed at Stryker, only to have it twisted back upon him and thrust into his chest. A third tackled Stryker knocking him briefly to the ground. Like an agile jungle cat, Stryker nimbly scrambled free, his claws left the body of the third kicking on the ground; a long spike protruded from the base of his skull.
A fourth charged him with knives clutched in both hands. Stryker’s left arm swung in a long graceful arc, trapping both his opponent’s arms. A quick tug and the man fell to the concrete; his own knife impaled his back. Stryker spun toward the fifth and blinded him with a deft slash across his face then continued the blade’s trajectory where it pierced deep into the neck of a sixth.
“Kill him, you fools!” Dubois shrieked.
Stryker eluded the lunge of another then glanced at the burning cigarette. “Been fun, but I gotta go. See ya!” He sprinted toward the tarmac where the distant roar of a prop driven plane grew louder. He dashed toward the flight tower where he hoped to find better a better view of potential avenues for escape. Dubois and his men scurried like mad roaches out of the hangar just as the delayed fuse ignited.
The percussion of the blast knocked him through an open stairwell door. The world faded to black as a fire extinguisher crashed against his head.
“Whoops! Sorry, get up; we need to get out of here!” Stryker shook his throbbing head; he choked on the water pouring over his face. Steadying himself on a stair railing, he pulled himself upright. A familiar warm, salty trickle stung his right eye before running into his mouth. He was barely aware of something or someone tugging at his jacket while guiding him up the dark stairs.
“Come on, come on, damn it. We don’t have much time.”
Stryker squinted through blood at the shadow pulling his arm, the bright light in the approaching room was excruciating. “Come on, we’re almost there. Shit, you’re lucky I was out of ammo, or I would’ve plugged you. Watch out for those bodies, keep moving, we don’t have much time.”
Stryker covered his eyes with his hand to block the blinding light. Peering through his fingers, he barely made out the hazy silhouette of his guide. The ringing in his ears subsided as his vision slowly cleared.
“You look like shit, Tony. Rest a bit while I work on this radio.” Harley said with a sheepish grin as he handed Stryker a wet cloth.
“Son of a bitch, Harley; I’m on your side. Why’d you try to bash my brains out with a fire extinguisher?” Stryker only managed to smear the blood over his face with the rag.
“Where have you been, Lauren gave you up for dead after you sent them back to the van,” Stryker winced as he closed the gash over his eye.
“I tried to bribe another pilot but couldn’t find one. But, I did manage to hotwire that Bird Dog and it’s waiting out back for us. By the way, I’m going to need more ammo if you have any spare.” Harley showed him an empty clip.
“Use it sparingly until we find more. What’d you do with the ammo you had?” Stryker poured a few rounds of ammo into Harley’s eager hand.
“I sort of had to use it,” Harley smiled.
“All of it? On what?” Stryker asked.
“This.” Harley stepped away from Stryker and pointed to his handiwork. The control tower was bathed in carnage; three bodies lay sprawled in growing crimson pools. Blood splattered the walls and dripped down the radio console.
“Holy shit, why’d you kill all these guys? You’re a damn Senator, why didn’t you just ask them to use their radio?” Stryker shook his head.
“I tried, I really did. I thought I’d just come here and radio a pilot then catch up with the rest of you. I hoped I could convince a pilot to send a message to our Response Team. It would’ve worked too, except that damn news caster must have plastered my mug all over the entire island.”
“One of these guys jumped up and started screaming something about my being an American spy about the same time you blew the shit out of that hangar; nice work by the way. Another went for a gun, so I had no choice but to waste him; then the others grabbed his gun and tried the same thing. They kept coming at me like lemmings over a cliff.”
“Damn, what a mess I made. Let’s just send this message and get out of here before we’re spotted. If I can only figure out how to get this radio to work,” Harley stood by a bloody chair as he grabbed the mic and adjusted a few knobs on the transceiver.
“Forget it, Harley. Looks like one of you put a slug into the radio; no wonder you can’t get it working,” Stryker point to a large bullet hole in the console’s side.
“Shit! Now our only chance is to get to my damn phone that’s locked up in Murphy’s safe. Is he even still alive?” Harley cursed.
“Yeah; last time I saw our group, Frank still was bagging him. Oh, oh; I hope you really can fly that Bird Dog. Dubois is back and he’s brought reinforcements. Let’s go!” Stryker shouted as he bounded toward the stair well
“Yeah, me too. Give us cover until we’re in the air,” Harley sighed. Let’s fly!”
“Where to, John; the Embassy?” Genevieve asked. Snacks tumbled from their bins as the van lurched over the tarmac.
“Yeah, but we’re not going through the front gate. So head for the wharf,” Stevens grabbed a tattered map from the glovebox.
Looking over his shoulder, Lauren pointed at the pier icon. “Won’t we be trapped? In case you haven’t noticed, el Chacal’s men are on our tail.”
“Not if we can find a boat to hotwire. We need to dump this van anyway; it’s too slow for a chase,” Stevens rolled the map and stuffed it into his jacket.
Genevieve stopped their van alongside a dilapidated wharf. The halyard lines of an old sailboat chimed rhythmically against the mast. Ghost crabs scurried under a small flat-bottomed boat that lay inverted near a rusting skiff; several small fishing boats bobbed slowly in the rising waters.
A deafening blast shook their van as a huge, orange plume of fire lit the night sky. “Oh diablos, ¿qué fue eso? Are they trying to bomb us?” Lauren yelled.
“No, it’s the diversion Tony promised,” Stevens walked the pier.
“Do you think he escaped?” Genevieve clutched her rosary tight in her hands.
“Yeah, Tony’s alright; he set a delayed fuse with a cigarette. He’s probably looking for Harley as we speak; I told him we’ll catch up with them back at the Embassy. So, we need to find a boat or we’ll miss them,” Stevens pulled a small penlight from his jacket. “Fan out and help me find a something that’ll be safe in offshore waters. We shouldn’t be long, Frank; Murphy okay?”
Frank nodded as he emptied a syringe into Harley’s IV. “Yeah, but make it quick, that was the last of my sedative.”
Stevens briefly glanced at the skiff then continued down the beach past Genevieve as she inspected a panga boat. Two small Catamarans floated peacefully on the rising tide. “They’re small but we could use one of these to carry us to that trawler anchored out there. By the looks of it, the crew’s probably either drunk or at a bar getting drunk,” Stevens pointed toward the dim shadow of an old, rusty dragger; its limp nets reflected in the still waters.
“Well, I don’t see anything else more promising. Gisèle, take over for Frank and tell him I need his help to launch this catamaran. We’ll try to find something more suitable for open waters in the cove. Where’s Lauren?” Stevens threw the boats lines onto the pier.
“She went toward that other dock looking for a better boat, she seemed upset,” Frank winced as he jumped from the van.
“Get what we need out of van while I look for her; we need….,” Stevens stopped in midsentence; a large engine roared to life further down the beach. “Quick, take cover.”
Stevens crouched behind the panga with Colt drawn. Gisèle dove face first into the dry sand as Genevieve jumped into the driver’s seat.
A long, red cigarette boat chugged up to the pier; Lauren grinned as she eased it to the dock. “I’m sick of riding around this island in pieces of shit. I miss my Miata and if I’m going to die, I prefer to be found in something besides a damn bread truck. This is more my style don’t you think, John?” She laughed as she tossed him a line.
“Nice! Where’d you find that and how’d you get it started? Frank nodded at the sleek, predatory lines of the rum runner.
“My ex-boyfriend had one just like this. He loved to cruise around showing me off in my bikini. He drank too much, so decided to teach me how to pilot, just in case he got fell overboard. Its spare key was hid a toolbox, the same place as my boyfriend kept his. I guess its owner had similar worries as my ex.”
“Hurry up and get in, I’ll steer. I’m sick of being hauled around like cargo. I think we’ll all fit in, these runners usually hold around five; that plus a few hundred pounds of contraband,” She grinned as she offered Gisèle a hand.
“Are you kidding, how do you suggest we keep Murphy alive in that thing? We’re all liable to drown,” Frank watched the water lapping over the boat’s stern.
“Better drowned then shot; get in, I see headlights,” Lauren waved them onto the boat.
Frank and Stevens lugged Murphy into the craft just as a jeep breached the berm of a sand dune, “Stop them!” Dubois fired a shot at their group.
“Hit it, Lauren!” Stevens tossed his canvas bag into the back seat.
Lauren gunned the throttle; the boat lunged forward sending a huge arc of spray that drenched Dubois’ soldiers. “Son of a bitch, kill her, kill them all!” Dubois shouted. Their volleys of gunfire could be scarcely heard over the engine’s roar. The shoreline dwindled into darkness as the cigarette boat skipped over and through the waves. Lauren laughed. “God, I forgot how fun these things are; they’re such an adrenaline rush.”
“I didn’t have enough time to grab our water or ice. Head for that trawler, maybe they will sell us some,” Stevens yelled over the roar of the engine.
Gisèle opened a hatch in the rear. “I think this must be a smuggler’s boat, the hull looks reinforced and lots of empty barrels down there. I can’t believe they would just leave the keys in such an expensive boat.
“I’m not a bit surprised, considering it’s owned by smugglers. Smugglers don’t take kindly to thieves. Unlike the police, the locals know most of the smugglers here and generally try to avoid pissing them off,” Frank clutched Murphy’s loose breathing tube. “Damn, whatever you’re planning to do, you better do it quick. This airway won’t last much longer.”
“Lauren, head us out into the cove. We need to find a trawler that’s riding low in the water. Hopefully, it’s full of fish. I’ll hail them to ask for ice,” Stevens watched as Frank grimaced. “Are you okay, Frank? Did you get hit?”
“I probably just strained a muscle jumping into the boat,” Frank answered.
“Won’t they shoot us if we try to board?” Gisèle held her hand over her pale face.
“Unlikely. Not a smart thing to shoot at smugglers, they’ll probably give us anything we want just to get rid of us,” Stevens shouted as salty spray drenched their boat.
“There’s another trawler, John. And I don’t see any lights,” Lauren eased back on the throttle. The boat slowed to a crawl alongside the rusty dragger.
“¡Oh Dios! It stinks,” Lauren sniffed the odor of rotten fish. “I think the smell’s going to make me puke,” She gagged as she hung her head over the boat. Gisèle joined Lauren in vomiting her previous meal into the sea.
Stevens pulled a couple of wet hankies from his coat and offered them to the women. “We just need ice. Stay here and I’ll see if anyone’s home.”
“Ahoy, we need help. May I board?” Stevens knew the answer even before he asked, the sweet nauseating odor of ganja drifted from a sleeping guard. He scrambled up the rusty ladder and yelled again, “We need to buy some ice.” His only answers were the creaking of the boat and the sound of waves lapping against its side.
Stevens crept over the deck and cautiously knocked on the cabin’s hatch. “Hello, anyone here?” He slowly shoved it open using a pole he’d found on the deck. Music drifted up from the cabin. A battered lamp, hanging from a joist, illuminated the cabin in a warm, yellow glow. Stevens turned off the portable radio then slid it into his pocket.
He once again spoke to the unconscious guard then yelled over the ship’s rail. “Frank, are you well enough to help me shovel ice from the cargo hold?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Frank lied as he struggled to climb the rusty ladder.
“Let’s form a chain so it won’t take as long,” Genevieve followed him onto the deck.
“I’ll help, too, if Gisèle doesn’t mind watching over Murphy,” Lauren shouted.
“That’ll be fine; all Murphy does is sleep anyway. Just hurry; before I throw up again.”
Frank and Stevens climbed into the cargo hold, “There’s a shovel, Frank; fill those tubs and I’ll carry them up onto the deck.”
Lauren and Gisèle dumped the ice into the cigarette boat’s cargo hold. Lauren poured a handful into her blouse as she sat in the pilot’s chair. “Oh God, that feels so good. Now can we leave? I can’t stand the smell any longer.”
“Yes, I think that’s enough,” Stevens closed the hatch. “Thanks for your help, Frank, Now get some rest. We can …..”
“You’re not going anywhere, spy!” The now awake guard pointed a rifle at Lauren’s chest. “I’ll get a thousand for each of you; I can live a long time off of five thousand dollars.”
“You mean six,” Startled, he spun around just in time to kiss a shovel with his face. The blow tossed him into the swirling waters.
“Oh gosh, I hope I didn’t kill him. Should we rescue him?” Genevieve dropped her shovel and ran to the rail.
“Forget that rat. He’s already swimming back to the ship. Where’d you learn to swing like that, Sister?” Frank managed a weak laugh.
“Baseball. Our children in the village love to play ball. Sorry I was late, I had to use the ship’s latrine,” She chuckled as she joined them in the boat.
“Well, that guard missed our hull; unfortunately though, his shot hit our radio. So much for using it to call for help in the warm zone,” Stevens poked his finger into the gaping hole of the ship to shore radio.
“This rocking boat, fumes and smell of fish is going to make me…” Gisèle grabbed her mouth and vomited again into the moonlit waters. Oh, God, I’m so sick. Please let’s just go before I….”
“Are you going to be okay, Gisèle?” Genevieve laid a towel over Gisèle’s quivering shoulders.
“I hope so; it’s just this small boat. Damn, what a time to get seasick. Sorry, Sister”
“I did find a small shortwave scanner in the ship’s cabin; maybe we can at least get radio updates on the quarantine,” Stevens handed Frank the radio.
Lauren eased back the throttle as they slowly chugged away from the fishing boat. “Where’re we going, back to shore or out to sea?”
“Take us offshore, but don’t go past the 12 mile point. I imagine we’ll have company long before then. As long as we stay in the cordon sanitaire the Peacekeepers probably won’t bother us. Maybe we can at least let them know we are still alive,” Stevens replied.
“What’s a cordon sanitaire?” Lauren asked.
“It’s the quarantine zone?” gasped Gisèle between gags.
“Okay, we’re at 20 knots, 12 miles should take us about 30 minutes,” Lauren checked her watch. “But, how are we going to contact the Peacekeepers without a radio? Won’t they just blow us out of the water?”
“As long as we stay in the warm zone they won’t shoot. Peacekeepers are only authorized to use the least amount of force necessary to enforce quarantine. As long as we don’t shoot at them, they’ll just warn us to turn back,” Stevens nodded as he dug through the boat’s toolbox.
“What if we go past the 12 mile limit?” Genevieve offered Gisèle sips of water from her bottle.
“A .50 caliber from a M107 machine gun will take out our engine block. Let’s just say if you’re adrift it’s prudent to obey. I, for one, don’t want to be the first here to test their rules of engagement. So, if we’re hailed, do not fire upon them or do anything to provoke an escalation,” Stevens smiled as he uncovered a can of paint.
“I once read in a medical journal that “forced quarantines” where used in China. That wasn’t much of a surprise, but, it also reported Canada detained 30,000 otherwise healthy people in Toronto during the SARS outbreak. Thanks to Homeland Security, both the Coast Guard and National Guard may now use ‘appropriate measures’ once an outbreak has been declared to be an Imminent Threat,” Frank shook his head.
“Our Coast Guard uses face recognition technology to discriminate between recreational boaters and drug runners. Hopefully, the Peacekeepers are doing the same. I want you to stop the boat and everyone just look up when we see a plane or helicopter. That should get their attention,” Stevens watched Frank rubbing his calves.
“Okay, we’re about 10 miles off the coast. The sun will be up soon; can anyone see anything that looks like a yacht?” Lauren scoured the horizon in the early morning dawn.
“There’s something over there but can’t tell what it is,” Genevieve pointed toward a small light in the sky.
“Oh, God! It’s a helicopter and it’s spotted us. Oh please rescue us!” Lauren squealed as she clapped her hands.
“Keep your current course and speed, Lauren. And everyone remember to look up when they hail us. Don’t cut the engine, Lauren, just let us drift,” Stevens grabbed the scanner from Frank. “I’m going to write SOS on our bow with this paint; maybe they’ll at least drop us a survival kit.”
“Shit, we’ve got problems, John,” Frank pointed toward the shore.
“Damn, now what?” Stevens emitted a rare profanity.
“Three go-fast boats and they’re closing in fast,” Frank groaned.
“What do you want me to do, John?” Lauren snapped.
“Hit it full throttle and don’t stop until you are hailed. Take us out of the hot zone into International waters, just don’t make any threatening moves,” Stevens yelled. “I’m going to try to paint ‘SOS’ on our bow.”
“Mierda, hold on! You better hope I don’t flip this thing,” Lauren pulled the throttle hard.
The boat surged out of the water and skipped erratically over the waves. Gisèle and Frank fell onto the boat’s deck. “You better hold on tight, this is going to get bad!” Lauren shouted over her shoulder.
A helicopter was on them before she could stop. The pilot’s voice blared through the chopper’s megaphone, “You are about to enter a restricted area; turn back now. I repeat you are entering a restricted area, cut your engine or return to the island.”
“Keep going. Don’t stop until its side door opens,” Stevens shouted as he clung to the bow.
“Oh, mierda! He’s opened the door and he’s wearing a gasmask!” Lauren’s scream was barely audible above the engine’s roar.
“Don’t cut the engine until he points that Barrett at us, it’s going to take him a few seconds to line up a good shot. Stop once he takes aims; we need to be close enough that he can read our SOS. Frank, try the scanner, it may pick up the pilot’s communications with his base,” Stevens pried the top off the paint can.
Wave crests soaked them as their boat lurched toward the helicopter. Gisèle lay retching uncontrollably in growing pools of water. Frank grimaced as he bounced about the deck like a limp ragdoll; unattended, Murphy slid toward the stern. “John, get ready. Hijo de puta; he’s pointing that rifle at us! Chingar!”
“Throttle down, Lauren; don’t let him shoot your engine. Everyone hold up your hands when we stop and remember to look directly at the pilot,” Stevens shouted.
The cigarette boat slowed as it crashed through a large crest and then another. Stevens scrambled over the slippery, wet bow holding an old rag and a can of red paint. He plunged his improvised brush into the can and hastily scribbled ‘S’.
“What’s he doing, Jack?” The radio squawked.
“Looks like he’s trying to write something. See any guns?” Another voice burst over the radio’s speaker.
“Nada, but those chasing them have semis. Be prepared to shoot out their blocks if they don’t power down. We’ll sort this shit out later.”
Waving her arms, Lauren yelled at the pilot. “We’re Americans, don’t shoot!”
Genevieve jumped to her feet and joined Lauren’s shouting. “Don’t shoot us, we need help; they’re trying to kill us!”
Stevens managed to scrawl ‘SOS US’ over the bow before losing his grip on the paint can.
“Stop your boats and turn around. This is your last warning!” The chopper’s bullhorn boomed at the rapidly approaching go-fast boats.
“Hey, those stupid pricks are firing at us. Give them a taste of our Light Fifty. Smoke their blocks, that’ll slow their asses down,” The pilot cursed as he rotated the helicopter to give his gunner a better view.
“Will do.” The machine gun roared as it spewed orange ribbons of fire at the rum runners. “Got ‘em. Hey, those assholes are still firing at us!”
“Light ‘em up. Base says we got an ID back on one of those scans. They think it’s positive for an American but aren’t sure; the guy it matches is supposed to have died in Russia. Whoever he is, we can’t pick him up, but they cleared us to drop his group a couple of survival kits once we clean up this shit.”
“Roger,” Again, the Barrett roared to life belching dancing, orange threads of fire that cut huge, snaking swaths through the water toward their attackers. The go-fasts exploded, tossing debris into the air, as 0.50 caliber rounds ripped through their hulls. Two of the boats immediately burst into flames while the third sank low in the water. The gunmen knocked each other into the diesel stained waters as they scrambled toward the safety of their bows.
“Get out of here, Lauren, while you still can,” Stevens yelled as he clung to their bow’s railing.
“You’ll fall. Let us try to pull you in first,” Lauren reached for Stevens.
“You need to go before those gunman swim to your boat,” Stevens shouted.
“I won’t leave you, John. Give me your hand,” Lauren stretched over the bow.
“Just go,” Stevens released his grip and slid into the fuel stained water.
“John!” Lauren screamed as he struggled against the currents.
The pilot’s voice burst over the radio. “That operative’s down; drop him a raft and a kit.”
The helicopter’s bullhorn blared. “We’re dropping you a raft, but, do not try to leave the hot zone or we will be forced to sink it.”
Stevens struggled against the turbulent waters from the downdraft toward the bobbing raft. He rolled into it just as a large, gray fin cut through the water.
“Sharks in the water! I’m taking us down for a sec to check on that operative. Give him cover if he needs any,” The radio squawked. Waves lapped the helicopter’s skids, Stevens managed to flash the pilot a quick thumbs up.
“He’s good. Let’s head back to base; it’s going to be a busy day.”
“Roger that. The red go-fast appears functional. Those stranded assholes can use the raft once the operative rejoins his friends, assuming of course they can outswim those sharks,” The gunner laughed and waved at Lauren before closing the side door. “We’re clear, over.”
Lauren listened to the pilot’s chatter as the helicopter faded from view. “We’re coming, John; hold on. Genevieve, it’s nearly daybreak; do you no anywhere safe we can hide?
“Safe, no; secure, yes. There’s a sea cave near our mission; but, its entrance is only accessible during low tide. We’ll have to hurry, Lauren; the tide is rising. The cave is dangerous but, it’ll give us cover until we find something better. Pick up John and let’s go,” Genevieve crossed herself as sharks circled the struggling gunmen. “God help us all.”
“Here we come, John,” Lauren eased the powerboat toward the drifting raft. “Be careful climbing in; there are sharks.”
“Yes, so I’ve noticed. Get as close as you can; the Peacekeepers dropped a couple of survival kits. We can also use this SART; they’ll be able to at least track us,” Stevens sliced a tethered orange buoy free from the raft.
“Can we call the Peacekeepers using it?” Genevieve pulled on the ropes of his raft.
“No, it isn’t actually a radio; it’s only a transponder that sends out a beacon signal that’s activated in response to radar; at best it has a range of maybe 6 miles,” Stevens handed Lauren a survival kit.
“Do you think they’ll look for us now?” Lauren tossed the kit into their hold.
“Yeah. They know I’m the Information Officer so I’m sure they’re hoping I can give them an update, along with a few more personal questions,” Stevens sighed cryptically as he grabbed a yellow reflective bag.
“Help me with these ditch bags and check the pockets on the raft for space blankets or other useful items. Grab anything that may help us survive,” Stevens unzipped the raft’s bin doors.
“Hot damn!” Lauren yelped.
“What’d you find? A radio?” Stevens stopped his pillaging and leaned forward to examine Lauren’s bin.
“No. It’s toilet paper! And it’s going into my personal stock,” Lauren laughed as she stuffed the roll into her blouse.
“There’ll be a VHF radio in one of these bags. I’m sure they haven’t jammed Channels 16 or 9, they’ll need them in case their own aircraft send out distress signals.” Stevens pulled ropes and tarp from the bins.
“Why don’t we just call them now instead of returning to the Embassy?” Lauren tossed a box of flares onto the boat.
“We could if they were in sight,” Stevens pulled a mosquito netting and medical bag from a pocket.
“You mean we can’t signal anyone unless they see us; shit, what good is that?” Lauren frowned.
“Transponders are only for search and rescue; you have to in line of sight range to send a distress call,” Stevens shook his head at Lauren.
“That beacon has a battery life of only around 100 hours. So, somehow, we’re going to have to convince a pilot that we’re worth the risk of reentering hot zone. If we can’t lure a pilot closer than 5 miles, our radio and beacon are as useless as a tin can on a string.” He tossed Genevieve a reflective blanket.
“Would it help if we could put the antenna higher, would that increase its range?” Genevieve asked as she covered Frank and Gisèle with the blanket.
“Yeah, that would help but how do you suggest we do that?” Stevens nodded.
“There are high cliffs on the shore near our mission; if we climbed them do you think we could broadcast further?” Genevieve pointed toward the barely visible distant shore; rose-colored bluffs glowed faintly in the early morning sun.
“Further yes, far enough is the question. But, we better do something soon, I don’t like the looks of those clouds; a squall may be coming,” Stevens leapt back into the powerboat.
“Genevieve said she knows a safe place to hid,” Lauren said.
“I said secure, Lauren; it’s anything but safe,” Genevieve shook her head.
“Where is it?” Stevens asked.
“Not far from those cliffs. It’s a sea cave; but, the entrance is accessible only during low tide,” Genevieve answered as she covered Murphy with a blanket. “They don’t look too good, John. Murphy’s still alive but I’m not sure how much longer he’ll last.”
“The tide’s been rising for a while, we need to go. Not much we can do for any of them out here,” Stevens said as he joined Lauren at the helm.
“John, that cave is dangerous; the villagers avoid it. Some believe it is the entrance to the Underworld; it’s called ‘Mouth of Damballah’.” Creases of fear etched Genevieve’s sun bronzed face.
“What is a Damballah?” Lauren asked.
“Not what, who. He is a great serpent and is venerated as the Sky Father by the Cochon Gris and Bizango.”
“Who are they? Lauren flinched as lightning flashed overhead.
“Evil practitioners of the Black Arts who I hope you never meet; they live…”
“I’m worried less about spirits than I am of that storm,” Stevens surveyed the darkening horizon with a newly found pair of binoculars.
“Spirits aren’t why it is avoided, John. It’s because smugglers often hide contraband inside its grotto.” Genevieve answered with wide, solemn eyes.
“Frank and Gisèle aren’t looking that good and Murphy hasn’t moved in hours. We have no other choice, that squall is approaching fast,” He dropped his binoculars and pulled the tattered map from inside his jacket.
“But first, turn us around. I’m not taking any chances getting too close to those soldiers but I don’t want to leave them here as shark bait either. Our jets may blow the raft toward Dubois’ men. Maybe it’ll get close enough to give them a chance to get into it before the sharks get to them.”
“Hopefully, the currents will carry them to shore. If not, the Peacekeepers won’t let them drift out too far. Either way, they’ll have more of a chance than they planned to give us.” He glared at the soldiers huddled together on the bow of their sinking Go-fast.
Lauren gunned their engine and blew a long arc of water into the raft; it drifted toward the sinking vessel. “Okay, we need to go; powerboats don’t ride very well in storms. Which way, Genevieve?”
“Toward those cliffs, you’ll so rock jetty. If we’re lucky, the entrance should still be open.”
The cliffs loomed ominously, surf beat against stony outcroppings; a dense fog of spray hid the cave’s entrance. “Oh hell, this doesn’t look safe at all. I’m worried we may run aground or hit submerged rocks.”
“Slow down, if you hit one it’ll rip our hull apart. No way could we swim in this current, try easing us toward the cliff face.” Stevens contemplated the craggy cay with its jutting ridges.
Their boat was jarred by a submerged outcropping. The collision nearly tossed Genevieve over the railing. “Slow down, Lauren. We should be close to the entrance; I hear its roar.”
“Roar?” Lauren strained to hear over her engine as she peered into the mist.
“You’ll see why they call it his mouth once we find the opening. There! Over there, I see it! Turn slowly to your right and pray we don’t wreck!” Genevieve jumped as she pointed toward a smudgy patch of fog.”
The swirling mist parted briefly, revealing a dark, jagged crevice. Eroded stalactites and stalagmites jutted like serpent’s teeth from the cave’s maw. Puffs of mist erupted with each roar of the crashing surf. “Oh God, it looks like a dragon!” Lauren gasped.
“Sea serpent. Damballah was the eternal snake who created the world. Those teeth have claimed many souls; so be careful or we may join them.” Genevieve shouted.
“Oh hell, I think we’re too late, the opening is too small for our boat to fit.” Lauren gasped, her knuckles whitened as she struggled to hold the helm.
“Wait! We’re riding a crest that’s lifting us above the opening. Guide our boat into a trough, it should clear those stones,” Stevens shouted.
“Oh God, I’m not that good of a pilot. I don’t know if I can do it.” Lauren cried; doubt seized her as she watched a sea of green foam swirl about them.
“Yes you can! Ride a wave as it passes under us, then give it just enough throttle to follow its trough into the cave. Just try to stay in the middle of the opening or we may run aground. Gun it once you clear those teeth or the backwash will spew us back into the surf.” Stevens steadied her hand on the wheel.
“Genevieve, we need everyone near the bow. Help Frank and Gisèle crawl forward, I’ll drag Murphy; our bow needs to go as low as possible,” Stevens yelled as he tossed her three life jackets.
“Hold on here we go!” Lauren gunned the throttle as a large crest lifted their powerboat.
“Slow down; try to stay in the trough.” Stevens shouted over the crashing surf.
Lauren eased the throttle as currents sucked them into Damballah’s Mouth. “Oh mierda, duck!” With a horrible grinding, their windshield was ripped free by a dagger-toothed stalactite.
“Now, Lauren, gun it!” Stevens yelled.
The stalactite impaled their craft as Lauren revved the throttle. Cold, torrents swept them into a mist-filled cavernous lake. “I did it!” Lauren shouted.
“Reverse us, now!” Stevens screamed as a backwash of litter swept toward their boat.
“Reverse? Shit, I only know how to go forward!” She snatched the throttle back and desperately spun its wheel.
Their boat slammed sideways onto a shell-strewn shore. John plunged into the surf as the others tumbled violently around the deck. “Ouch, that hurt!” Lauren yelled as her chest struck ship’s helm.
“You’re breaking up, turn it off, turn it off!” Stevens shouted from waist deep water. The powerboat’s engine sputtered and died just as the rising tide covered the grotto’s entrance. “The tide’s coming in fast; are you sure this cavern won’t flood?”
One last swell lapped the rocky shore then silence. Water dripped from the caves craggy vault drenching everything with a putrid, damp chill. The go-fast sunk into the grotto’s pool. “Oh hell, we’re sinking,” Lauren yelled.
“No, you’re okay. The hull was foam-filled by drug runners to keep it afloat even if breached. Nice job, Lauren.” Stevens managed a weak, unseen smile in the cave’s gloom.
Lauren screamed. An enormous tarantula jumped from a crevice and snatched an orange-banded centipede nearly half its size. As the spider struggled to subdue its prey, a giant, blue wasp swooped in to sting the arachnid. The wasp darted away with the quivering spider to a dried mud nest daubed overhead. The distant twitters of bats echoed from deep within the cavern. Hamster sized crickets swarmed the algae matted walls. Decaying kelp littered the small rocky shore where ghost crabs waged war over the remains of a half-rotted fish. A monstrous brown centipede lay silently nearby chewing the head off a flapping bat.
Gisèle lifted her head at Lauren’s screams. “Oh my, it’s a Scolopendra gigantea, how wonderful!” She smiled before resuming her retching over the boat’s rail.
“Oh crap, what were we thinking? This was a good idea at all; now, we’re all trapped,” She gasped as a fat crab crawled out of the dead fish’s mouth.
Stevens secured the anchor line to a stalagmite then waded back toward their boat. “Yeah we are, until low tide anyway; better get used to it. Now, help me secure what’s left of this boat and check on the others. We may not be able to get out but at least no one can shoot at us for 12 hours.”
Lauren shuddered as she snatched a piece of seaweed from the back of her neck. “¡Oh Mierda, I hate caves. I don’t think I can deal with this, I’m claustrophobic!”
“We have bigger problems than claustrophobia,” Frank groaned. He slowly crept across the broken deck and offered Gisèle a sip of water. “Gisèle’s dehydrated from vomiting and I’m not in much better shape.”
“Haven’t you been drinking enough water, Frank?” Genevieve asked as she cradled Gisèle in her arms.
“Truthfully, no.” He winced.
“Oh my God, why not! You told us it may be our only way to prevent kidney failure. We’ve plenty now, drink Frank.” Lauren shoved a bottle of iced water into his shaking hand.
“No, it isn’t that. I often give orders because it’s what’s expected; most of the crap we order really makes no difference at all; but, we still try just in case.” Frank shook his head as he downed the bottle of water.
“You’ve all risked your lives just to complete my orders; I just wanted to be sure my orders were worth your sacrifice. So, I tested to see what happens if we didn’t hydrate ourselves. I guess my hunch was right.” He winced.
Genevieve shook her head. “That’s sweet, Frank, but really foolish. Now look at you, you need medical help yourself.”
“True.” He again flashed his rare but sincere smile. “The good news is water, cold and baking soda may be enough to keep us out of rhabdo.”
“Yes, that is good news; now drink! God, men can act so stupid just to prove a point!” Lauren fussed with a worried look as she fetched another bottle.
“Yeah, I may have proved my point but now I feel like shit. Every muscle in my body aches, my hands are starting to swell and I haven’t pissed in hours; and last time I did, it was awfully dark. How about the rest of you?” Frank grunted as he watched Gisèle once again retch over the railing.
“All I can do is pee, hell; I have to pee now,” Lauren giggled nervously.
“Me too, my bladder hasn’t slowed a bit,” Genevieve managed a timorous chuckle.
“Genevieve, do your best to keep them hydrated for now, when the tide drops we’ll have to make another foray to the hospital. Until then, I suggest we just lay here and rest. We’ll take turns helping Frank and Gisèle. I haven’t seen Murphy budge in hours, but someone needs to be by him in case he wakes. I’ll do the first watch, who wants the next?” Stevens ordered as he climbed back into the remains of their boat.
“It may as well be me, John; I can’t sleep a wink anyway. Let Lauren get some sleep, six good hours should help refresh her. I’m sure she’s exhausted and he’s still pretty heavily sedated.” Genevieve offered as she shined a penlight into Murphy’s eyes.
“Okay, Lauren; try to find a dry spot on the shore…” Stevens handed her a space blanket.
“¡Oh jodido infierno no! I am not sleeping there with those creepy ass things crawling over me!” Lauren cursed.
“Fine, then do your best to make a bed on the bow and try to get some rest. Genevieve will wake you when it’s your turn to watch.” Stevens nodded.
“God, how am I ever going to sleep in this tomb? Mierda and I thought the morgue was bad; now I actually miss it,” She stared at the monstrous crickets that crept over the putrid algae mats.
“You’re not allergic to any meds are you?” Frank reached into his lab coat and withdrew a small brown pill bottle.
“Not that I’m aware of. Why?” Lauren looked quizzically at the bottle.
“Here, take one of these, it should help you get some sleep.” Frank opened a small pill bottle.
“What is it, a sleeping pill?” Lauren asked.
“Hell, no! They are way too addicting. It’s hydrocodone, just a pain pill. I keep them handy for this very reason. Pop one of these babies and its nighty night for about 6 hours.” He laughed.
“But, don’t I need a prescription?”
“Consider this a consult. Take the damn thing or give it back.” Frank snapped as he plopped the pill into her outstretched hand.
Frank poured another pill from the bottle. “Anyone else? No?”
He replaced the pill back into the bottle and grabbed a survival blanket. “Okay, I’ll try to get some rest in that pilot’s chair if no one minds. I’d suggest trying to get Gisèle to shore, maybe solid ground will help abate her motion sickness.”
“Rest, Frank. You look horrible.” Genevieve said as she helped Stevens carry Gisèle to the shore.
Frank pulled the blanket around his shoulders and watched Lauren drape one over her head. Seventy hours is a long time to be without sleep, his eyelids grew irresistibly heavy watching Lauren’s rhythmic breathing and soon he fell fast asleep.
On shore, Genevieve leaned close to Stevens and whispered, “What are we going to do, John? Will anyone rescue us? Frank and Gisèle both need medical treatment and Murphy may have suffered anoxic brain damage by now. We keep IV supplies at my clinic that I use for treating children who are dehydrated from dysentery. When the tide goes out, I may be able to rehydrate Frank and Gisèle, but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough.”
“For now, we need to rest. We’re safe enough in here. When the tide recedes, we’ll see if Frank and Gisèle are in any better shape to travel. If not, I’ll go for the supplies and see if things have improved; hopefully, the quarantine has been lifted by then. I suggest you try to get some sleep yourself; we may have to hike to your village in a few hours. I’ll need you at your best to help me. Watch Gisèle and I’ll keep an eye on the rest.”
“Yes, you’re right. God bless you, John; try to get some rest too.” Genevieve hugged him briefly as he turned toward the boat.
God had little to do with this debacle. He thought as he accepted the hug. “Thanks, you too.” was all he managed to mutter before heading back for his watch.
Stevens nudged Lauren awake. “Care to take over? I want to give Genevieve a break.”
“Sure. I must have been more tired than I thought. How long have I been asleep?” Lauren wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“Four hours. Fortunately, it’s been quite. Frank’s out cold and Murphy hasn’t moved an inch. Better keep a close eye on him though, just in case that sedative wears off.”
“I’m okay. Wow, that pain pill really knocked me out. Do you have a flashlight? I don’t want any of those creepy things crawling on me,” Lauren yawned.
“Here, but only use the red light; the regular light will blind us in this darkness.” Stevens handed her a flashlight.
“Okay, thanks. Try to get some sleep, John; I’m sure you’re exhausted too. I’ll cozy up by Frank and wake you in about four hours,” Lauren flashed the blood hued beam at stalagmite where a dangling brown ‘root’ sprang to life. The cave snake snatched a passing bat in midflight then wrapped it in tightening, pulsating coils.
Damn, eight more hours in this disgusting place, she thought as she tossed the blanket back over her head.
Genevieve was fast asleep as Stevens approached her in the still darkness. He laid his blanket on the cave floor near Gisèle. He hated getting older. He wasn’t sure what he missed the most: his memory or his stamina. He closed his eyes briefly to sooth their sting from the fumes of decay.
Splash! Lauren’s echoing screams startled him awake. As he leapt to his feet, his flashlight rolled into the cave’s darkness. “¡Oh Mierda, John! Help! It’s Murphy! We woke up and pulled that damn tube from his mouth. He thought I was a demon taking him to hell and jumped into the water before I could stop him.”
Stevens stumbled toward her in the darkness just as she turned shined the bright light into his eyes. “Turn it off, it’s blinding me. Use the red light, the red light.” He barked.
“Oh God, I’m sorry I turned it the wrong way,” She yelled as she fumbled for the red beam’s switch.
Small ruby droplets shimmered in the cave’s haze. Genevieve shouted, “I don’t him by the shore, he must’ve swam further out.”
“Shine your light towards the cave entrance, maybe he managed to cling to a stalagmite,” Stevens carefully waded toward the boat in the dim red light.
“Wait a minute, listen for him; can you hear anything?” Lauren pointed her scarlet light into the murky grotto. Faint echoes of her words were all they heard.
“What’s that? Is that him?” Genevieve pointed her dim, red beam toward a small floating mound near their bow.
“I think it’s a turtle or maybe a log. I can’t tell with this red light, let me get closer.” Lauren inched closer on the bow and kneeled closer.
“Oh Jesús, yo creo que es él y él ahogado!” Lauren screamed, She lurched back from the boat’s edge and crossed herself, "Por la senal de la Santa Cruz, de nuestros enemigos libranos Señor Dios Nuestro.”
“What! What did she say? Does he need doctor?” Frank crawled to the railing.
“A bit late for that, looks like the poor bastard finally killed himself.” Stevens swore as he grabbed the floating body. “Someone help me drag him back onboard just to be sure.”
Stevens shook his head as they pulled the water-soaked body from the water. “So much for a retinal scan. Damn!”
“Please tell me he isn’t dead.” Lauren screamed as Frank checked Murphy’s neck for a pulse.
“He’s dead,” Frank shook his head.
“Oh God, I killed him!” Lauren wailed clinging to Frank’s arm. “What about CPR? Shouldn’t we at least try? God, he just now drowned, maybe it isn’t too late to bring him back.”
“Normally, I’d agree with you, but, as you can see I’m not in the best of shape myself. Besides, he was the first exposed to that thing he created. There’s no guarantee he isn’t a carrier; any volunteers to do mouth to mouth?” Frank smirked.
“I thought not. Well, I’m pronouncing him dead; if we ever make it out of here alive, I’ll do the official paperwork. Until then, we should pack his body in some of this ice to slow its decay. Wrap it in a tarp and then throw on a few buckets of ice over the body. We need to store it away from where we’re sleeping, no sense risking other diseases.” Frank pointed toward a small rocky strip of beach.
“Oh God, I’m sorry. I tried to stop him from pulling out that fucking tube, but he was too strong. He just yanked it out then stared at me like I was a ghost. He jumped to his feet screaming that I wasn’t going to take him to hell. I was so shocked; I didn’t get to say a word before he jumped overboard into the water.” Lauren wept.
“It’s not your fault. He killed himself because that’s what he intended to do all along. Get over it, he’s dead and we’re alive. I never met him but of little I do know about him tells me was probably insane. Shit, he’s why we’re fugitives forced to hide in this shitty cave. I, for one, hope he rots in his much deserved hell. Now, can we figure out another plan besides that idiotic retinal scan?” Frank asked as he rinsed his hands in the grotto’s waters.
“We need to find away get you and Gisèle hydrated with fluids. Genevieve says she has supplies at her mission’s clinic, but we’re stuck here until low tide,” Stevens wrapped Murphy’s water-soaked body in a tarp.
“No, I never said there wasn’t another way out of this cave. Our island is honeycombed with interlinking caves; it’s why parents tell their children to stay out of them. On occasion, some of the more curious explore them anyway. I have heard of children exiting miles from where they entered.” Genevieve looked up from her a brief prayer.
“What! You mean there may be a way out of this cave?” Lauren exclaimed, suddenly losing interest in the wrapping of Murphy’s body.
“Probably. Sea caves often have sink holes and blowhole openings near their entrances. In all likelihood, there’s an exit just a few feet further inside.” Gisèle nodded weakly as she sipped cautiously on a bottle of water.
“Damn, you mean there may be a way out of here! Okay, I volunteer to go with Genevieve to her village for supplies. It’s the least I can do since I let Murphy kill himself.” Lauren smiled with renewed energy.
“Well, as stated earlier, you’re not responsible for his death. But more importantly, how do you propose to find a cave exit. It may be hundreds of feet or even miles back into this cave.” Stevens tossed a bucket of ice over Murphy’s remains.
“Yes, I’m sorry I even mentioned it. It’s way too dangerous to wander in these caves. Some even suggest all the islands of the Caribbean may actually all be interconnected by passages. You can’t just wander around inside of them without a map or proper supplies.” Genevieve shook her head as she helped Stevens drag the body.
“No, there’s a way.” Gisèle sighed after taking another small drink. “I’m not totally useless here. Remember, I’m a curator for Natural History.”
“You know these caves, Gisèle?” Lauren asked with a quizzical look.
“No, not these in particular; but, I do know bats. Follow the trail of bat guano; bats wouldn’t wait until low tide to leave these caves. I’m sure they have another exit.” Gisèle stated with quiet conviction.
“But how will we know the exit is large enough for a human to crawl through?” Lauren asked, intrigued by Gisele’s reasoning.
“You don’t. But, Genevieve is right; this island has one of the largest and most complex cave systems in the world. Usually, there are sink holes or blowholes not far from the entrance of sea caves. You also have the advantage that it is now daylight. You should be able to see sunlight long before you find the actual exit. Just be careful, there are no poisonous snakes on these islands for a reason. That niche was already filled by poisonous insects, spiders, centipedes and scorpions.” Gisèle advised as she wagged a finger at them.
“This is literally bat shit crazy! Do you actually expect to find your way out of this cave by following a trail of guano? Don’t do it. Just wait until low tide, we don’t have a choice.” Frank swore with a wince.
Stevens pulled out a candle from one of the survival bags and lit the wick with his lighter. It burned brightly in the gloom with a flickering flame. “If there’s any significant airflow in this cave, the smoke should drift toward the opening.” He said as he blew out the flame and watched the smoke waft slowly from the wick in his flashlight’s red beam.
“There’s airflow, alright; the smoke is clearly being sucked toward the back of this grotto. I do believe Gisèle is right. Following bat droppings may lead to an exit. If there’s any confusion, I could just light a candle to see which way the smoke drifts. It may work.” He declared.
“Genevieve, it’s up to you, do you want to try to find an exit now or wait for low tide. Unfortunately, since you’re the only one who knows the way back to your village this plan requires you leading the way,” Stevens cocked his head as he waited for her answer.
“I don’t mind at all. I used to be quite the explorer in my youth,” She chuckled. “I’m sure the entrance can’t be very far away. Teens often enter these caves on a dare; there must be a way out. Fortunately, we’re only a couple of miles from our village. If the entrance isn’t too hard to find, we should be back in only a couple hours.”
“Okay, then it’s settled. Genevieve and I’ll go to her village for supplies. Lauren, watch over Frank and Gisèle while we are gone. Here’s a pistol in case we’re delayed,” Stevens offered Lauren his Colt but she stepped back shaking her head.
“No! I don’t want to. I’m not staying here. I’ll go with Genevieve; you stay. I hate caves and I’m smaller. What will you do if the exit is too small for you? Besides, I don’t know how to use a gun. So it makes better sense for you to remain while Genevieve and I go for the supplies.”
“Lauren, please…” Stevens sighed shaking his head and rubbing his eyes.
“No! I’m not staying and you can’t make me. If it’s safe enough for Genevieve, then it’s safe enough for me,” Lauren pouted out her lip with finality.
“Well, it’s probably not safe enough for any of us, but our options are limited,” Stevens rebutted, knowing she had bested him.
“She has a good point, John. Perhaps Gisèle and Frank would be safer with you. I promise not to lead her astray,” Genevieve managed only a nervous laugh.
“Fine!” Stevens relinquished by thrusting his Colt back into its holster. “At least promise me that you won’t go in very far. And if it looks dangerous, turn around and follow a trail back. Hold a candle flame near the ceiling, the smoke should leave a smut marking. Do that frequently and it’ll leave a trail that’ll bring you back to this grotto. Got that?”
“Yes, sir!” Lauren smiled triumphantly as she accepted the candle and lighter. “I trust Genevieve will keep us safe.”
“It’s not Genevieve I worry about.” Stevens replied dourly.
Gisèle laughed weakly. “Thank you, Lauren. You both please be careful.”
“We promise to keep low and stay out of bars.” Genevieve mustered a brave chuckle. “Take care of Frank; doctors are absolutely the worst of all patients.”
“Okay, before you leave, I’ve been thinking. Frank is right, we need another plan. Who knows where Tony and Harley are holed up, and now Murphy’s dead. For now, it there is no sense in trying to make it to the Embassy. Even if we made it there, we’d never be able to open that biometric safe. However, we do have another way to call for help.” Stevens said as he reached into a bag.
“That radio the helicopter pilot dropped, right?” Lauren guessed with a big smile.
“Right, its VHF so it’s only good for line of sight. However, these cliffs may be high enough to get a radio signal out far enough to contact the barricade. Lauren, send out a Mayday on channel 16 when you reach the crest.”
“Do you think they’ll try to rescue us?” Lauren asked as she accepted the radio.
“No, not really. But, it’s really our only hope. You can tell them what Frank is doing to slow the symptoms and that Gisèle thinks its cold sensitive and possibly eliminated by natural selection with an adenovirus.” Stevens replied matter of factly.
“Should I tell them how to find us?” Lauren asked as she inspected the radio.
“No need. Take the transponder, too; that’ll do it for you. If they want to find us, I’m sure they’ll have no problem.”
“One last thing, tell them this is a CBOB project gone bad. They’ll of course know, but will be surprised to hear you call it ‘Operation Pandora’.” Stevens suggested with an enigmatic smile.
“How do I use this radio?” Lauren asked while turning a few knobs.
“It’s pretty simple, turn it on here, push that button to speak and release it to listen. If they tell you to change channels, use the knob on the top. Any other questions?” Stevens pointed toward the controls as he summarized it operation.
“Not from me, what about you Genevieve?” Lauren placed the radio into her small backpack.
“Good luck and please keep safe, you may be our only hope. Use the regular light on this flashlight but wait until you’re out of our sight so we’re not blinded.” Stevens briefly warmed as he handed Lauren a flashlight.
Lauren shined the red beam of the flashlight onto cavern floor. “God, there’s bat shit everywhere. Which way do we go?”
“It looks deepest going through that crevice, let’s try that way. The candle smoke seems to be drifting that way, too; so maybe it’s our exit.” Genevieve squinted in the dark while inspecting the wafting candle smoke.
Lauren crept through the crevice swearing. “Damn it, this bat crap stinks. I can hardly breathe, all I smell is ammonia.”
“Wait, I feel fresh air. Can you smell it?” Genevieve exclaimed after a deep sniff.
“Sorry, all I smell is bat turd and dust. Wait, yes your right. Look at the candle, the flame is blowing,” Lauren replied with a cough. “I think I see light ahead. I’m turning on the regular beam so we can see where we’re walking.”
The brilliant yellow light cut a hazy, scintillating swathe through the mist and dust. “Wow. It’s beautiful in here,” Huge cream colored stalactites oozed like melting pillars into algae covered stalagmites thrusting from the floor. Delicate crystalline shards lay scattered about on the floor near walls engraved with ancient symbols and graffiti.
“Hey! I recognize some of those words, they’re Spanish. Shit, they must be at least a couple hundred of years old. But, I don’t like the looks of those skull drawings, let’s hurry up and get out of here,” She traced the engraved images with her fingers.
“Besides the local cults, these caves were also used by the French or Spanish explorers. The Taino were the very first to meet Columbus when he first arrived on this very island. My… I mean, they were peaceful people who were no match for the brutality of our Church’s priests. Taino were butchered because of their failure to convert to Catholicism.
Genevieve picked up a curious triangle-shaped stone with a ferocious face carved on one side. “These are called Zemi and are one of the few things that remain of their culture.”
“Hmmm, I like the carved petroglyphs of frogs and turtles, but the faces look so scary.” Lauren squinted in the dim light at engravings of fierce looking faces with long needle like teeth.
“The Spanish enslaved the Taino and worked them to death in their mines looking for gold. The few who escaped the whip died of plague; smallpox decimated them. How sad, their descendants could suffer a similar fate from Murphy’s plague,” Genevieve sighed as she touched a petroglyph of a helmeted man beating a slave with his whip.
“I didn’t know plagues had killed off the original people here. These drawings are horrible, it’s like we are living in a reenacted; but, with a modern plague,” Lauren turned away in disgust from the petroglyphs as she shined her light back on the cave floor.
“No wonder they hate us…. Wait, I think I see light ahead! It may be an opening; a sink hole! Come on let’s get out of here.” Lauren turned off her light for a better view of the faint, distant glow. “Great, Gisèle was right; this wasn’t hard at all.”
Lauren grimaced as she poked her head out of the small hole and rubbed her hands over her face. “What the hell’s all of this sticky stuff? Crap, it’s all over my face and hair.”
She screamed as she looked out of the crevice. “Oh, shit there’s dead birds and bats out here. Oh hell, there’s a spider the size of a cat and it’s trying to eat me! Help! Pull me down!”
Genevieve tugged frantically at Lauren’s legs as they both tumbled off the boulder covered with spider webs and dozens of huge brown hairy bird eating spiders. Lauren screamed as she pulled webs and leaves from her face. “Oh God, we must’ve disturbed their nest. Here they come! Run!”
Lauren screamed as she tore at the cordlike webbing wrapped around her legs and arms. “I’m stuck, run, Sister, run!” She yelled as a large hairy purple-hued spider ran over her leg. Her flailing only agitated the swarm, causing the smaller blue spiders to scurry over the web toward the damp moss covered walls of the cave.
“Don’t kick it, Lauren, it feels threatened, it’s just trying to get away.” Genevieve shouted as she chased the tarantula away from Lauren with an old piece of bark. Tarantulas are actually pretty meek and won’t bite unless you handle them, but the ones on this island tend to be a bit territorial. Villagers keep them as pets in their homes as a sort of natural pest control.”
“No way would I let that disgusting thing in my home!” Lauren jumped to her feet and kicked a clod of moss at the tarantula causing the spider to wave its hairy legs at her.
“They eat the scorpions, bats, centipedes and other really dangerous pests. An occasional spider with an attitude is better than a scorpion sting or centipede’s bite on this island,” Genevieve pulled Lauren back onto the boulder.
“Stay close to me. There are a lot worse creatures out there then tarantulas.” She carefully reached for the flashlight that lay covered under debris in a dark corner. “Oh good, it still works. We may need this to get back. Okay, let me climb out first and I’ll pull you up if it’s safe.”
“And leave me here with those fucking spiders, hell no! I’ll go first. God, I hate spiders!” Lauren shuddered as she peeked through the sinkhole opening. “It’s disgusting out here, dried up bodies of lizards, bats and birds. Okay, okay you first, but I’ll watch from this boulder.”
Genevieve slowly managed to crawl out of the hole into the moss covered sinkhole. “Well, I don’t imagine any other insects will be hanging out with those spiders, so I think it’s safe now. I’ll pull you up, give me your hand.”
Genevieve grabbed Lauren’s wrist and hauled her out of the opening into a dank, smelly depression. “Please tell me the whole island isn’t like this.” Lauren whined as she darted her gaze about searching for more spiders.
“I wish I could; but, it’d be a lie. This is why most people live along the coasts and rivers. I must admit, I stay clear of the trails also for fear of the rats.”
“Rats! Shit! Let’s just find a clearing. We need to get to the top of this cliff to use that radio,” Lauren swore as she frantically brushed dried leaves from her hair.
“Okay, keep close. I’ll lead the way,” Genevieve swept aside a small fern then stepped over a small branch before motioning Lauren to follow.
The branch suddenly sprouted hundreds of legs and wiggled away into the underbrush. “Ewwww, what the hell was that?” Lauren cringed as she stepped back from the fern.
“I think it was a giant centipede, they’re everywhere here. Just don’t touch it, they’re poisonous,” Genevieve admonished as she once again offered Lauren her hand.
“Touch it! ¡Oh Mierda! I don’t know if I can do this!” Lauren shook violently as she pulled back from Genevieve.
“Yes, you can! Come on, we’ll find a trail, it should be better there.” Genevieve grabbed the rosary in her pocket with her left hand and held Lauren’s outreached hand with her right. “We’ll do it together, you’ve got us all this far Lauren, without you, we’d all probably been shot back at the wharf.”
Genevieve continued her praises as they slowly skirted a rustling bush. “I was amazed how you managed to pilot our boat through the cave entrance into that grotto.”
Lauren’s glanced down to see a small mouse-like animal running over her foot. “I can’t do this Genevieve; I’m so afraid!” She cried and squeezed Genevieve’s hand so hard, she grimaced.
“We’re almost there, Lauren. You’re stronger than you realize, most men wouldn’t even try what you’re doing,” Genevieve distracted her from a boa sunning itself on a rock. “There! Look, see it’s just as I said, we’re almost on that trail. Soon we’ll be on the top of the cliff in a clearing. Then you can call for help on the radio. Maybe, they’ll hear you and pick us up. Just think, in a few minutes, we may be off this island.”
“What? I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. I was watching to see if that snake had caught a rat. What’d you say?” She answered distantly, her gaze transfixed on a moving bulge inside the boa constrictor.
“Nothing, dear. We’re here. We made it to the trail; I know where we are now. It’s just a short climb to the top of this cliff, and I don’t think there are any spiders or other things here that will stop us,” Genevieve sighed deeply as she relaxed her numbing grip on the rosary.
“Are you sure?” Lauren asked looking down the trail.
“Yes, definitely.” If we walk only a little over a mile down this trail, we’ll be at my village on the river bank. It’s actually very peaceful, or was before this outbreak. We’re not too far from a lovely waterfall where children often bath after they play. I can’t wait to get back to check on the villagers, they’re poor but hard working and friendly.”
“But first, let’s try that radio; follow me up this trail. It’s a small climb but at least we’re out of the jungle, and the view from the cliff is beautiful. Sometimes we take the older children there for picnics or flying kits,” Genevieve huffed as they climbed the steep rocky trail.
After a few minutes of scrambling up the steep incline, Genevieve announced. “We’re here!” She cautiously led Lauren to the cliff’s edge, where they were greeted by a panoramic view of waves dancing like shimmering diamonds across a cove of deep azure. The warm tropical breeze carried a sweet honey aroma mingled with the faint salty smell of sea foam. The faint cries of gulls echoed from sunbaked, white cliffs amidst the roar of the distant surf. “Let’s rest for a while under these almond trees. We should cool off, before we overheat again.”
Lauren’s eyes filled with tears as white almond blossoms drifted slowly down upon them in the tree’s shade. “Oh my God, it’s beautiful here. I usually just go beach walking when I travel to the islands, that or shopping. I’ve never taken the time to climb the cliffs. I can’t believe I’ve missed this view.”
“Yes, the islands are rich in natural beauty. At night, the winds blow from the interior carrying the more earthy smells of tropical flowers and mountain pines. Don’t worry about conserving our water; we have plenty at our village,” Genevieve offered Lauren a cold bottle of water glistening from its recent ice bath.
“We can see for miles from this view. John said as long as we’re above 800 feet the radio signal should easily reach the barricade. We must be over a thousand feet above that surf.”
“Close, I think the cliffs are somewhere around 900 feet,” Genevieve answered as she peeked over the cliff’s sheer walls.
“Okay, cross your fingers. Sorry, I mean pray this works,” Lauren turned on the radio and checked the channel. “John said to signal Mayday three times on channel 16, give the nature of our emergency then release this button to receive a signal. Okay, here it goes.”
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. We are in the need of immediate assistance. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Can anyone hear me, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. I wonder if this thing works like my cell? Usually, I have to move it around to make calls in areas with poor signals,” She said while waving the radio in the air.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday we are trapped and need help. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” She shouted at the radio.
“Don’t forget to release that microphone button, Lauren,” Genevieve pointed to the radio.
“God, I’m so nervous I already forgot. Thanks.”
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Lauren Sagrado, we’re trapped and need immediate help. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” Lauren released the talk button and listened intently for a reply.
“Roger, Lauren Sagrado. We copy. This is Vector One. What is the nature of your emergency? Over,” The radio blared, Lauren scrambled to turn down its volume.
“Oh shit! We got someone. What should I say?” She swore in surprise.
“Oh, gosh I don’t know. Ah, tell them who you are!” Genevieve grinned as she ran toward Lauren’s side.
“I just did! Now what?”
“Wait, didn’t John give you a list of things to say, can you remember it?” Genevieve grinned with excitement.
“Damn, I forgot most of it. Let me think.”
“This is Vector One, Lauren Sagrado, say again; over,” The pilot asked with a heavy Southern accent.
“Just say something, tell them what happened and where we’re located.”
“This is Lauren Sagrado, we’re on a cliff overlooking the ocean on the island of Espanola. Do you need directions to find us?”
“Roger, Lauren Sagrado. No, we’ve followed your transponder for some time, and currently have a visual on you. What is the nature of your emergency and please identify the individual beside you. Over.”
“How can you see us? Where are you?” Lauren strained looking at the clear blue skies.
“Roger. We can see you, ‘nuff said. What is the nature of your emergency? Over.”
“Where are they, can you see them?” Lauren shaded her eyes as she scanned the horizon.
“No, but if they see us, be careful what you say. You’d better answer his question before he leaves,” Genevieve suggested while peering into the skies.
“Hi, ahhh, pilot. I’m Lauren Sagrado and this is…ahhh,” Lauren stammered.
She released the talk button and with a look of confusion asked, “Should I call you Doctor or Sister, Genevieve?”
“Hmmm, call me Doctor, maybe that’ll help if they know I’m a physician.”
“Hello, pilot. It’s me again, Lauren Sagrado. Dr. Genevieve Rocco and I are trapped on this island. We have information you need to know about this … ah.. outbreak. John Stevens told me to tell you it’s called Operation Pandora. … ah.. over.”
“Roger. This is an unsecured channel reserved for emergencies, Ms. Sagrado. Please go to channel 9 and wait for our response. Do you copy? Over,” He ordered with drawl.
“Yes, yes, I think I can do that. Please don’t leave us. Over,” Lauren jumped excitedly as she released the button.
The speaker fell silent with only an occasional hiss and crackle. “Quick, turn it to channel 9, do you know how?”
“Yes, yes! John made sure I knew before we left. Let me see, I turn this knob until the display shows 9. There!” Lauren fidgeted with the radio’s buttons.
“Hello pilot, it’s me again Lauren Sagrado. Are you there? Over,” She asked coyly.
“Roger. Please hold. Remain on this channel until we contact you. Do you copy? Over,” He replied with a faint chuckle.
“Okay, thank you so much, sweetie,” She flirted as she wondered if he was as sexy as his voice.
“Ms. Sagrado, please pick up,” A deep Russian voice boomed over the radio, jarring her back to reality.
“Here I am; who’s this?” Lauren squeaked.
“Demetrius. Please, just call me Dmitry for now. I’m currently the group leader of a multinational rapid response team sent by the WHO in answer to Colonel Stryker’s call. May I call you Lauren?” He asked with a thick Russian accent.
“Yes, please and Dr. Rocco prefers to be called Sister Genevieve, she’s a pediatrician. I can’t believe we finally managed to get help. We’ve been all over this island trying to get away from their Prime Minister. He’s trying to kill us because he thinks we’re spies.”
“So, I’ve heard. Your group has been blamed for every disaster on the island,” He laughed heartily. “However, their media reports claim several of you were gravely injured during a firefight in the hospital. Are any of you hurt?”
“No, no. We’re all okay. Well, we were until Murphy drowned,” Lauren corrected herself.
“Murphy’s dead?” His tone was now professional and grim.
“Yes, he fell out of the boat in the cave. We had to keep him heavily sedated after he tried to hang himself,” Lauren sensed the concern in his voice.
“These matters are best discussed in private. We have a problem; we need a more thorough debriefing than possible using a radio. You are presently in a restricted zone and, unfortunately, we’ll not be able to enter without our proper equipment. The United Nations is assisting in this effort by offering protection for our medical convey.”
“Protection? Why would medical relief ships need protection in these waters?” Lauren blurted out.
“It’s just a precautionary measure I can assure you. In any event, our medical teams are well on their way and should be available by the days end. Until then, I strongly recommend you remain isolated for your own safety.”
“We’re able to track your position as long as you carry the transponder and you may call me anytime on this channel. I compliment your foresight and skill in seeking shelter in the sea cave. May I ask why you left its protection?”
“We need medical help. Frank and Gisèle are both really sick from the outbreak. We’re heading for Genevieve’s village to bring back IV supplies. Frank’s an Emergency Room doctor; he thinks it may help them to recover. It was Gisèle’s suggestion we stay cool, she is an Evolutionary Biologist and knows much more than any of us about this outbreak.”
“So, let me get this right, you have an Emergency Room doctor, and Evolutionary Biologist and a Pediatrician in your group?” Dmitry asked.
“Yes, is that a problem?” Lauren asked.
“No, fortuitous. Interesting, this is very beneficial. May I speak to Dr. Rocco?”
“Yes, here she is,” Lauren handed to radio to Genevieve with a look of bewilderment.
“Hello. Please, just call me Genevieve,” She answered.
“Fine, Genevieve it is. I would like to ask if you’re willing to act as a surveyor for our group. You have suitable skills and as a doctor you know that hours count during an epidemic. It would be very useful to supplement our aerial surveillance with a surveyor on the ground.”
“Of course, I would love to help. Years ago, I did a 2 year postgrad for the Epidemic Intelligence Service as an EIS Officer. It’s why I chose pediatrics as my specialty.”
“Excellent, then you understand what we need. Basically, interview anyone you meet to determine if they’ve had contact with those initially infected or the first responders. Record all details and call me if you find anything you believe is immediately pertinent.”
“Oh my, then I believe I need to file my first report; it’s about Senator Long. He needs to be isolated, Murphy tested us before he died and we’re all positive for his vector. I’m not sure if transmission was airborne, fomite or human to human, but all are infected except Lauren and me,” She reported.
“That isn’t an issue just now, but thank you for your honesty.”
“Aren’t you concerned he may be infectious?” She asked in surprise.
“It’s a moot point; he never made it off the island. He and Stryker apparently crashed a small plane into the mountains and our scouts believe they both died on impact.”
“Grab anything you can carry, we need supplies,” Harley yanked open a small refrigerator and scooped his booty of bag lunches into a trash sack. “Hot damn, we have take out!”
Stryker scanned the landing strip with a pair of binoculars he found on the desk. Several trucks carrying soldiers bobbed down the airstrip toward the flight tower. “Looks like we’re going to need a bigger bomb,” He chuckled. “Unless you can find one in that refrig, I suggest we get the hell out of here while we still can.”
“Okay, okay. Keep those binoculars, and grab that cell on the desk. We may be able to use it if we ever get service. Let’s go,” Harley bolted toward the door with his Colt drawn and sack in tow, followed closely by Stryker.
“I left the engine idling, pull out the chocks while I do a quick check,” Harley yelled over the roar of the prop.
“It’s going to have to be a real quick check, they’re here,” Stryker fired a round that dropped a soldier rounding the tower’s corner.
“Pull the chocks, screw the check. We’ll do it on the runway if there’s time!” Harley scrambled into the cockpit and pulled back the throttle releasing the brakes. “Get in, we’re out of here!”
Stryker fired two more rounds before closing the door. “Go! I’ll belt up in the air! Head east, the sunrise may blind them!”
The old plane rumbled down the tarmac toward the air strip. “Damn, it’s blinding me too. Can you see if we’re clear?”
“I checked it out from the tower before we left. We’re good; just get us in the air,” Stryker shouted and slammed a new cartridge into his SIG.
A small hole appeared in the fuselage with a smack. “Damn, we’re hit. Let’s go before they blow out our tires,” Stryker fell into his seat and managed to secure his seatbelt just as the Cessna hit a pothole. “Shit, they hit our wing. Where’s the fuel tank in this eggcrate?”
“Where do you think? Check to see if we’re leaking fuel. Hold on, we’re airborne.”
The Cessna barely cleared a cluster of small dilapidated buildings then swooped low over the jungle. “Damn Harley, get us some altitude; we’re sucking dirt!”
“I’m trying, the elevators are sluggish; they may have hit our stabilizers. Pray this works,” Harley pulled back hard on the joystick; the plane shook violently before sending them into a steep climb.
“Shit, I thought you said you could fly this thing, level out before we stall!” Stryker yelled over the wailing stall warning light.
“Can you see our tail? Something’s not right back there,” Harley gripped the shaking joystick, his knuckles blanched white.
Stryker peered intently at the tail assembly. “No, it seems….. wait! Shit, you’re missing a piece of the horizontal stabilizer.”
“Hold on a minute! I think we’re okay. Whatever was dampening my elevators must’ve just torn loose. I bet we took a round in our tail. We’re choppy, but, at least I’m able to make a normal climb again,” Harley eased back on the joystick.
“Well, don’t get too happy about it. They hit our tanks, we’re losing fuel,” Stryker shook his head at the slipstream of fuel flowing from the wing.
“Son of a bitch, how bad? Harley hurried through his instrument check.
“Bad! It punched a quarter-size hole into the wing and fuel is pouring out. What’s your gauge read?” Stryker grabbed the parachutes.
“Half a tank. At this rate we aren’t going to get very far. There ain’t no damn way I’ll fly out to sea. If the Mirages don’t get us the sharks will,” Harley flipped several switches on the Cessna control panel.
“Yeah, and the beaches are off too; even if we managed to land I’m sure they’d see us,” Stryker slipped into his chute then held the joystick as Harley struggled to adjust his harness.
“Head for the mountains, there’s a small village, Bèl Tonbe; it’s on a river called Danjere. It’s where all this started. I’m betting most of the villagers have already fled. It’s unlikely Dubois would expect us to return to Ground Zero of this outbreak,” Stryker searched the carpet of green jungle for a clearing.
“Here, we may as well eat these,” Stryker handed Harley a sandwich from their booty bag. “Keep the bag; I’ll store our matches in them.”
“Good idea, here.”
Stryker tossed the matches and phone into the plastic bag with his SIG. “At the rate we’re losing fuel, that village better be close, we’re down to a quarter tank.”
“Where are we now?”
Stryker opened a well-worn map. “Here. We’ll be there in about five minutes at our current speed.”
“What direction should we approach the strip? We may not get too many chances to circle at our current fuel loss,” Harley’s pudgy finger pointed to a large green area on the map.
“Head southwest, that should take us straight into the landing strip. I’ll check to see if there’s anything useful back here. Flares and those inflatable jackets for sure. An oxygen tank, a toolbox and a medical bag, that’s about it. I bet they used this Bird Dog as a tug; there’s also a winch and gear for towing.”
“Let me know if you need help,” Stryker rummaged through the back of the Bird Dog.
“Oh shit! We’re going to need help alright; everyone left the village. And they dumped all their crap on the runway,” Harley swore as they descended toward a packed dirt strip.
“What! Oh hell! Is there anywhere we can land; how about that field?” Stryker climbed back to his seat to get a better view of the ramshackled village. Rickety buildings of rusted corrugated steel lined a weedy dirt runway.
“What field? Looks like they bugged out and dumped anything they couldn’t take. Who the hell would bug out carrying televisions? Chairs, beds, sofas, good God did they really think an evac flight would rescue their freezers.”
“The poor bastards probably worried all they had would be looted if they left it behind,” Stryker replied empathically.
“Let me circle to see if I can find any sort of approach,” Harley banked the old plane then buzzed the strip again.
“I don’t think this was a bug out after all; there’re bodies all over the place,” He eased the plane closer to the airstrip.
“Damn, maybe Murphy’s transposon got ‘em,” Stryker craned his neck for a better view.
“Not unless it evolved enough to use automatics. From what I can tell at this altitude they look like they were shot.”
“Make another approach; I’ll get a closer look,” Stryker lifted the binoculars from around his neck. “Yep, looks like your right. They were strafed. It blew the shit out of all of ‘em. It doesn’t look like our work though; we clean up after all our messes and leave things nice and tidy.”
“If we have time,” Harley replied solemnly; he briefly flashed back to distant memories.
“This wasn’t done by professionals. I bet it’s that bastard Dubois’ version of containment, he knew those kids came from this village. They didn’t stand a chance….shit.?” Stryker swore at the plane’s low fuel alarm.
“Ah fuck, we’re almost out of fuel. We need to set down fast! I saw a lake on the map; unless you feel like jumping, it’s our only chance,” Harley swore.
“Go for it! It’s on the plateau above the waterfall. Follow the river, head straight for those falls, maybe thermals will give us enough of a boost to clear those cliffs.”
“I’m throttling back, it should help conserve our fuel; but first, we need to get some altitude.”
The plane’s engine briefly roared as Harley pulled back on the stick. “Come on, come on baby, you can do it!” Harley coaxed the Bird Dog toward the escarpment.
“A little more, we’re almost there. Come on… shit!” The engine sputtered and died, the prop froze in place.
“We’re too low to jump. I’m taking it into the center of the falls. Strap in, this ain’t going to be pretty,” Harley yelled. Their plane descended with a soft, eerie whistle.
“It’s going to be close. I’ll stall it as we pass over the falls to break our speed, it’s our only hope.”
The whistling of air grew louder the closer they plunged toward the raging falls. “Hold on! Here we go!” The Bird Dog flashed through the swirling mist; Harley jerked the stick, the stall nearly stood their craft on end. For a brief moment, it seemed to poise over the waters like a ballerina doing a pirouette. Then, its tail skipped lightly over the river’s surface, before submerging into the rushing waters. The sudden deceleration cartwheeled the plane, plunging them nose first into the deep waters. A boulder clipped their right wing, sheering it from the fuselage; fuel gushed over the plane’s fallen carcass as it landed inverted near the lake’s mouth. The wreckage of the plane sank slowly beneath deep waters amidst a rainbow sheen of aviation fuel and oil.
Stryker rubbed his bruised, bleeding lip and wiped the trickle of blood from his brow onto his sleeve. “Oh hell, we’re underwater. Harley, wake up! Wake up, damn you!” His knife slashed through his seatbelt webbing dumping him into a growing pool of water on the cabin roof.
“What? Where are we? Oh man, my fucking chest is killing me; shit, I think I pissed myself!” Harley rubbed his chest and felt his wet trousers.
“It’s not piss; we’re underwater. We’re drenched in AV fuel! The plane flipped when it crashed. We need to get out of here. Hold still, damn you or I’m going to cut your nipple off,” Stryker severed Harley’s safety belt; dumping him unceremoniously into the fuel-stained water.
“The cabin’s underwater, can you swim?”
“Swim, are you kidding? Look at me, I’m a fat blob; I’ll just bob to the surface. Let’s just crawl out; we can’t be that damn deep,” Harley frantically crawled out of his parachute pack.
“No way! We’re soaked in fuel, one spark and we’re toast. We need to get away from that slick before it ignites,” Stryker stuffed his cell phone into a sandwich bag.
“Damn Tony, I can’t swim, I’ll just float. How and the hell am I going to get out?” Harley whined.
“Here, use this. Now you can breathe, let’s go. Grab that tool box to weight you down and hand me your chute,” Stryker threw Harley an oxygen mask then ripped the green tank from its holder. “Stay close and share that air. We’ll surface once we’re out of this slick.”
Harley panted in the facemask, Stryker kicked the cockpit door open; warm waters flooded their cabin. The dim cool blue-hued sands suddenly burst into bright, flickering orange ripples as flames engulfed the wreckage.
Harley lugged the toolbox through soft mud that sucked at his ankles. Stryker motioned for the bubbling oxygen mask while dragging the bloated bag of chutes with his other hand. Water plants tugged at their legs, slowing them to a crawl; a small school of fish darted around frantically in the flames glow. A patch of water hyacinths entangled their packs, halting their progress. Skirting the water lilies, they slowly crept to shore and crawled onto a half-submerged tree. Harley flung himself onto the warm sands of the shore gasping for air. “Oh crap, that was close.”
“Damn, where did you learn to fly?” Stryker pulled the heavy packs from the water.
“Yeah, I was impressive if I must say so,” Harley grinned as he helped Stryker pull in the water soaked chutes.
“Impressive! You fucking nearly killed us!” Stryker threw a wet pack at Harley.
“Hey, I landed us safely. Besides, it’s your damn fault we crashed.”
“How and the hell do you figure that?” Stryker smiled and handed Harley a bottle of water.
“You’re the one who suggested we land at that damn village. Shit, I can’t believe we cleared that waterfall. We wouldn’t have if those thermals hadn’t nearly flipped us.”
“Yeah. Good flying, Harley,” Stryker slapped Harley’s back.
“Too damn bad most of our supplies burned in that Bird Dog,” Harley’s smile faded; flames devoured the remains of their Cessna.
“I grabbed most of what we needed: chutes, binoculars, the cell, map, a few tools, our pistols and what’s left of our sandwiches. Here, we may as well finish these off; save that bag,” Stryker tossed a damp sandwich bag at Harley.
“Thanks. Crap, we must be above a 1000 feet. How in the hell are we going to get down from here? No way can we climb down this mountain and I don’t see any signs of a trail,” Harley surveyed the distant, green horizon.
“I scoped out the area during our descent, there’s only dense jungle with two poorly marked trails and we’d need horses to get down them. We need to find a more direct route,” Stryker retied the plastic bag containing their supplies. Standing at the cliff’s edge, he admired the roaring cascade. “Those falls must drop nearly 300 feet but, there’s a pool at the bottom.”
“Too far to jump or climb even if we had ropes, we need to find another way down,” Harley grumbled.
“It may be our only way off this plateau, looks like we’re going to have to jump” Stryker held a wet finger into the air.
“Are you fucking crazy, we wouldn’t survive jumping from this height!” Harley cursed.
“Sure we could, kids do it all of the time. You ever hear of base bumping? I’ve seen them jump from heights much lower than this just for a thrill. We can’t stay here waiting for a rescue that’ll never come and we’d die from heat exhaustion on those trails. Let me have your chute,” Stryker snatched the pack from Harley’s hand.
“Come on! This is insane, there’s got to be another way down.”
“Fine, let me know when you find one. I’ll spread out our chutes to dry while you look around,” Stryker pulled the damp chutes from their packs and splayed them across a warm rock. Harley disappeared into the jungle, ranting.
After thirty minutes, Harley stormed back covered in sweat. “Shit!” He swore. Harley eased back into the cool waters. “We’re stuck; I tried those trails and didn’t get a hundred feet down them before I was lost. You got any other bright ideas?”
“Nope. This is it. We’re too high to tie the chutes together and rappel down the cliffs. Frankly, I’m not sure I could make it even if they did.”
“Hell, I know I couldn’t. Come on, Tony, this is crazy, we’ll die for sure. I need a cigarette,” Harley frantically patted his torn, stained shirt.
“Well, we could die, that’s for sure; but, I still think we have a reasonable chance of survival. All I know is that we’ll die for sure if we stay here. So, I’m going for it. You can stay or come with me, your choice,” Stryker pulled a pack of cigarettes from his bag and tossed them to Harley. “Here.”
“Yeah, but don’t base jumpers use some special type of chute? We only have these cheap ass emergency chutes.” Harley lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply then slowly exhaled a lingering cloud of blue smoke. He tossed the pack back, visibly relaxed, while savoring each puff.
“True, but the riskier ones will jump with anything. I saw a kid once jump from a bridge with only a tarp taped to a bamboo frame. I know, it’s insane, but at least we have real chutes,” Stryker lit a cigarette for himself before replacing the pack into the plastic bag.
“How long do you think it’s going to take to get down?”
“Depends. If the chutes work, maybe 15 or 20 seconds, if they don’t, maybe four.” Smoke only partially obscured Stryker’s Cheshire Cat grin.
You’re a wily devil, I’ll give you that, thought Harley. “Okay, just suppose we actually survive the jump, what’s next? Do we just wander around this damn island looking for stupid ways to waste ourselves, or do you actually have a plan?”
“Well, before I left the others, I told them I’d meet them back at the Embassy. We’ve a better chance surviving this fiasco if we work together, so I suggest we find a way to regroup with them,” As Stryker fiddled with the shroud lines, a long tenacious ash grew on the end of his cigarette.
“Do you think they’ll make it?” Harley asked.
“I have no doubt; John’s one of the best out there. He may have a few years on him, but so do we. And frankly, we’ve kicked the asses of everyone we’ve met on this fucking island. I see no reason to think John isn’t doing the same,” Stryker looked up from his rigging with a confident smirk.
“I’m sorry I left my phone locked in the safe. I’m getting old and forgetful, guess I’m becoming an old dinosaur,” Harley doodled in the wet sand with head bowed; exhaling smoke, he seemed more reminiscent of a dying dragon than an aging politician.
“So am I, but we ain’t extinct yet; besides, even an old living dino can still kick the shit out of you. Don’t worry about the phone, that’s Special Ops’ screw up; they should’ve had a backup plan for communicating through their jamming. John’ll get through to them; I only hope they don’t waste us once he does,” Stryker snatched a line tight then sprang to his feet tossing the cigarette butt into the river.
“Speaking of getting wasted, let’s get this shit over with. I’ll jump first. Do exactly as I tell you and I think this’ll work. That plastic bag kept our chutes fairly dry, but it’s too risky jumping using a packed chute. So, we’re going to have to do a TARD jump,” Stryker was as cold as ever.
“What’s that?” Harley gingerly snuffed his cigarette before storing its butt in his sandwich bag. “I’m saving it for later; I’m trying to be optimistic.” He laughed nervously.
“TARD is what base jumpers call a jump with an unpacked chute; it stands for Totally Awesome, Rapid Deployment. The adventurous ones don’t even bother to repack between jumps, takes too much time. They either drop the chute over the edge and do a flip over it or hold it in their hands and release it as they clear the edge; they call that one a ‘Mary Poppins’. I think you’d be better off doing a ‘Poppins’,” Stryker poked a finger into Harley’s fat gut.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we? Look at how fat I am; I’ll drop like a stone,” Harley wasn’t amused.
“You won’t fall any faster than I will, so shut up and grab that chute. Bundle it in your hands like this and keep those lines just as I’ve laid them out. Just don’t snag them, and stay away from me. Last thing I need is for to crash into me as I’m falling,” Stryker clutched a wad of the canopy; its laces draped loosely over his fist.
“That’s it; got any questions? If not, then stand back,” Stryker threw his chute over the cliffs edge. “Count to two after you jump then release your chute. Remember, TWO, then release. This doesn’t take any skill Harley, just balls. Got any balls?” Stryker jackknifed over the hanging chute falling past the fluttering canopy. The lines snapped taunt pulling the chute fully open with a loud whoosh. Stryker’s chuckles faded as he drifted gracefully away from the mist filled bluffs. “Got any balls, Harley?”
“Son of a bitch! I’ll show you balls!” Harley yelled wildly as he rushed toward the cliff’s edge clutching the wadded chute. “Oh shit!” He screamed too late to stop his plunge over the cliff. He briefly teetered on its edge, flailing his arms in a desperate attempt to regain balance, before toppling into the rising mists.
“Shit! Two!” He shouted throwing his chute into the air. The lines whipped about his arm then snapped tight with a jolt, jerking his arm upright. The chute careened wildly throwing him against the cliff face before descending in a slow dizzying spiral down into the mist of the falls.
“Watch out! Pull your fucking lines, Harley! You’re going to hit me!” Stryker yelled as Harley gyrated into his shroud lines. With lines entangled, ensnaring them both, their entwined canopies plunged towards the river below.
“What!” Lauren gasped.
“Oh my, are you sure? We saw Harley at the Coast Guard station, he went looking for a plane to rescue us; we had assumed he found a way to leave the island. How could’ve he died with Tony?” Genevieve asked bewildered.
“He and Tony created quite an incident at the airport; Dubois was personally injured when Stryker caused an explosion at the hangar.”
“We saw the blast, John said it was Tony’s doing; but how does that explain Harley?” Genevieve asked leaning into the radio.
“There was a separate event later at the flight tower that involved both Stryker and Senator Long. Harley apparently killed several of the airport’s controllers; I can’t say whether it was in self-defense but Dubois’ military had orders to shoot either of them on sight.”
“They were shot down?” Lauren asked; tear tracks stained her dusty cheeks.
“We don’t think so, but our scouts did see him and Stryker crash into the mountains a few miles from Bèl Tonbe. There were no reports of any parachute activity prior to the Senator’s plane crashing and bursting into flames. I’m sorry for your loss.” Dmitry’s solemn voice crackled over the radio.
“We are not certain if they were investigating another separate incident at Bèl Tonbe. We believe Prime Minister Dubois may have sent a containment squad to prevent villagers from fleeing the area. I strongly suggest you seek your medical supplies from a different location or better yet return to the safety of your sea cave.” He advised with a thick Russian accent.
“But how will we get to another clinic, are you going to airlift us?” Lauren wiped tears from her dirty face.
“No, you’re currently under isolation,” Dmitry’s mumbled reply was barely audible over the radio. “The appropriate means for transporting infected persons are in transit and without them, I’m afraid that’s impossible. It’s probably best for you return to the sea cave and wait for medical relief. We hope to have the hospital ship ready for use in another day or two.”
“Are you kidding, you think that’s a rapid response? By then we’ll probably all be dead like Tony, Harley and Murphy!” Lauren screamed into the radio.
“I’m afraid that’s officially all we can offer at this time. Anything else could be considered as an intrusion on a sovereign nation.” He answered.
“You mean you care more about what Dubois thinks than you do the innocent people he kills?” Lauren yelled, Genevieve held her hands in the air and shook them in an attempt to quiet Lauren’s outbursts.
“It’s not about caring; it’s about respect for international laws. We are obligated to obey their national boundaries. But, I understand your concern for your friends.” Dmitry calmly reassured her.
“Understand! You don’t understand mierda! Our friends may be dying in that cave and we’re trapped on this fucking island by the very ones who offer to help us. Come on Genevieve, we don’t need them.” Lauren grabbed Genevieve’s hand.
“Please, Ms. Sagrado. If you don’t care for your own safety, then consider that of your friends. Our scouts have found the island is falling into unrest as news of quarantine has spread. We hope to be able to offer medical support in a few hours; our relief ship will be able to do far more for your friends once it arrives.” Dmitry’s reassurances sounded hollow.
“Assuming they live that long. I gave my word to bring them medical supplies and by damn I will or die trying!” Lauren reached for the radio’s power button.
“Very well, I see you’re determined so at least accept this offer. I’ll have our pilot leave a special phone at the trailhead. We plan to monitor this outbreak in real time. WHO has found using phones connected to a global network of specialists improves surveillance during outbreaks,” Dmitry conceded in his most soothing tone.
“That cell will allow you to text message questions or concerns to those specialists. As a group, they can advise you best about how to handle most situations.” He continued apologetically.
“Can we use it to contact our families to let them know we are okay?” Lauren asked, releasing her grip on Genevieve’s hand.
“No, unfortunately, the International Health Regulations allows unofficial sources only to post questions related to epidemics or provide updates related to its spread. The Global Alert Response Network is restricted to official use to prevent it from crashing during heavy demand in an outbreak.”
“But, thanks to the quick action of Colonel Stryker, we hope to have this event rapidly contained in a matter of days. Your stay on this island should be short. If you insist on continuing your search for medical supplies, use the transponder for voice communications and have Genevieve use the cell to provide updates or ask questions related to the outbreak.”
“We’re just going to the village clinic then return to the sea cave. We won’t take long, this whole damn island creeps me out.” Lauren replied with a shudder. “But Frank and Gisèle need our help and we won’t let them down.”
“Well, please leave both the cell and transponder turned on so we may at least track you. I strongly advise you to return to the sea cave as quickly as possible. We’ll retrieve your sick friends as soon as our ship arrives.” Dmitry gently re-extended his initial offer.
“If you have any more questions, just call the pilot on this same channel or text the Network once you have the cell. Please be careful and bud zdarova!” He concluded lapsing back into Russian.
“Thanks. But, who’s Bud?” Lauren asked with a confused look at the transponder.
“No, it’s an old Russian blessing that means ‘be healthy’. Stay on the line, Nick will tell you where to find the cell. Bye,” He chuckled.
“Ms. Sagrado, this is VECTOR One, can you read me? Over,” Nick’s southern drawl boomed over the transponder.
“Yes, yes. Hi, is this Nick?” Lauren smiled broadly at his reassuring voice.
“Roger, Ms. Sagrado, this is Nick. You’ll find the cell at the trailhead in a small white bag. Dmitry authorized me to leave you another present also. I’m sure you’ll find it useful on the trails,” Lauren again wondered if he was as sexy as his smooth confident voice.
“Officially, we’re only allowed here in a surveillance capacity, so try to avoid contact with anyone you may see. If you get in a bind, just give us a holler or key that mic a few times. We’ll give you all the help VECTOR will authorize. Take care and be safe, ya’ hear. Over,” The soft, pleasant cadence of his words seemed nearly like a song.
“Bye Nick and thanks again….. ah ..over,” Lauren whispered dreamily into the transponder.
“What’ll do we do now Genevieve? Do you want to return to the cave and wait for Nick or go ahead as we planned? I hate putting you in danger but I just can’t sit around watching Frank and Gisèle die,” Lauren sighed; Genevieve smiled at the look in Lauren’s eyes.
“No, I agree with you. Rhabdo is serious but treatable as long as we keep them hydrated. Frank knew that and it’s why he had us drink so much. Let’s find that cell and head toward the village. With any luck, we should be back at the cave in a couple of hours.”
They slowly meandered down the trail looking for any signs of the white bag and their cell. “Do you see any sign of it yet? Nick said it’s somewhere here by this trailhead. I don’t see…. Wait! Is that it?” Lauren pointed toward a white bag perched on top of an old moss covered stump.
“Yes, here it is. Wow, it’s awfully heavy for just a cell phone.” Genevieve lifted the bag like a prize trophy.
“Nick said he left another gift also. Open it up; let’s see if it’s anything useful,” Lauren jumped around like a little girl, barely containing her excitement.
“Oh my!” Genevieve’s mouth gaped open as she delicately withdrew a small flat-black polymer pistol with an extended magazine.
“Holy shit! Sorry, I mean wow; it’s some type of machine gun looking thing,” Lauren swore at the sight of Genevieve pointing the pistol into the air like a guerrilla.
“It’s a Glock,” Genevieve replied, still numbed by the weapon in her hand.
“You shoot guns too! You’re amazing!” Lauren giggled nervously.
“No, I don’t, but, I’ve seen pictures of them. When I did my residency in Chicago, gang members used them against each other. One child died in our ER and we found one of these under his coat. Security locked our whole floor down because they worried the gang would come back for it.”
She reached into the bag and withdrew a handful of boxes. “Look, Nick left a couple of full magazines and more ammo. Oh my, what should we do with them?”
“I don’t know. I hate guns, but I hate being shot even worse. Dmitry said something about an incident at your village, I bet he expects trouble. Oh God, I hate guns, but give it here. John showed me how to use his pistol; this probably works the same way.” Lauren aimed the Glock toward a tree as she examined its trigger.
“Let’s head toward the village before it gets any hotter. Do you think the trail is safe? I sure don’t want to wander in the jungle anymore,” Lauren gingerly returned the Glock to its bag.
“Just watch out for the mongoose and Agouta, most of the poisonous insects stay off the trails.” Genevieve replaced the ammo into the bag.
“Agouta? What’s that, an animal? And more importantly, is it dangerous?” Lauren tied the sack onto her belt.
“Very. It is an odd looking creature that looks like a smiling possum with a long nose. Scientists came here once to study it. They called it a Solenodon and said it’s a living fossil that has been on this island for 76 million years.”
“Smiling possum? That doesn’t sound dangerous, it sounds kind of cute.” Lauren flashed a toothy grin.
“Well, it is sort of cute. But, it’s also is really badly tempered and its bite may cause convulsions and paralysis. I think the scientist said its venom is closely related to that of a Gila monster. He said it was once the top predator on all the islands, its bad temper and venom seem to have kept it alive.”
Genevieve looked nervously at the ferns on the trail. “Usually, they’re only out at night, but keep an eye out for them anyway, The villagers believe one bite is lethal, so tend to avoid them.”
“Good God, what an island! Bird eating spiders, poisonous smiling possums and madmen Prime Ministers who believe in zombies. I don’t see how you stand this place,” Lauren shook her head in disbelief.
“Oh, it has its charms. The views from the cliffs are spectacular, the waterfalls are breathtaking and the rivers are cool and refreshing. And the people, they are some of the sweetest in the world. They’re kind and generous to even strangers. The little they have, they are willing to share with even strangers, because they understand the pangs of hunger,” Genevieve delicately brushed a fern frond to the side as they continued down the trail.
“You actually like these people, they all seem so superstitious to me. But then, I haven’t met very many who weren’t trying to kill us,” Lauren stepped slowly over a fallen branch that she worried would sprout legs and run up her leg.
“Most here fear the police and military, they are no more than thugs working for our corrupt leaders. The villagers are not the ones who brought evil to this island; it’s brought by the likes of Murphy and companies who exploit the poverty here. The poor are only seen as new markets for selling drugs at best and test subjects at worst,” A rare scowl wrinkled her angelic brow.
“Wait! What’s that on the trail? It looks like a weasel.” Lauren pointed toward a long brown animal with a bushy tail lying in the bushes by the trail.
“No, we don’t have weasels on the island. It’s a mongoose and it looks sick. Stay away from it, many are infected with rabies and some even have anthrax,” Genevieve grabbed Lauren’s arm and pulled her back from the animal.
“I didn’t know mongooses lived in Espanola.” Lauren skirted the dying animal while keeping a close eye on it and the trail.
“They’re an invasive species, one of many boondoggles done by leaders who thought they could improve the living conditions on these islands. They were brought here years ago to kill the rats that ate the crops. The rats weren’t indigenous either; they jumped off the early sailing ships.”
“Civilized men ruined this paradise; they enslaved the Arawak Indians, starved or worked them to death. Smallpox then decimated the few who had survived; then were replaced by slaves from Africa. The slaves soon rebelled but their own leaders were at least as cruel as their European masters.”
The rare scowl returned to Genevieve’s pretty face but this time she shook it off with a sigh. “Their descendants have survived many disasters, both natural and manmade. I pray their resilience helps them overcome the cholera brought upon them by relief workers and the plague of Murphy’s transposon.”
“Watch out, there’s another mongoose over there and it looks dead! Shit, this place creeps me out, let’s get going. God, I never thought I would actually miss that cave,” Lauren yanked Genevieve away from the carcass.
“We’re about a half mile from the village. Be careful ahead, it’s where the Agouta live in a warren. They usually sleep during the day, but watch out anyway, they have a nasty disposition,” Genevieve slowed her pace while cautiously peering through the brush.
Lauren sniffed a musty goat-like smell the air. “Phew, God they stink. Oh, it’s horrible.”
“It’s their droppings; it’s all over the trail, so watch where you step.” Genevieve pointed to small piles of dung littering the edges of the trail ahead.
A faint clicking sound greeted them as they rounded the bend. A large rat looking creature ran over Lauren’s foot as it scurried to hide inside of a hollow log. “Oh mierda! It’s one of those possum things and it almost bit me.”
“No, that’s a hutia, they’re harmless. Many in the village hunt them to eat; they cook the poor things with wild nuts and honey. But that clicking sound is from an Agouta. They usually hide in their burrows near that crevice. There! Look do you see it!” She pointed toward a large rat looking animal peering from a small rocky outcropping.
“Yes, I see it! They do look like cute happy possums. But, why are there so many sleeping in the open, I thought they hide during the day.” Lauren pointed to several Agouta that lay still near the burrow entrance.
“Because, they’re not sleeping, they’re dead! Oh my, I wasn’t worried about the mongooses because they’re considered pests and are poisoned. But, no one would poison the Agouta because they’re protected. I think we should report this to Dmitry, it may be significant.”
Genevieve pulled the cell from inside her torn now dirty white tunic. “Do you think we should use the cell to call the Network or the transponder to call Nick?”
“Let’s try Nick first; Dmitry said to call him if we have any updates,” Lauren pulled the transponder from inside the white bag. “Hello, hello, can you hear me Nick?”
“Yes, I copy you, Lauren. Go ahead. Over,” Nick’s drawl was inexplicably comforting.
“We just wanted to report to Dmitry that we’ve found several groups of dead animals near the village. Genevieve thought it may be significant enough to notify him of their location. Over,” Lauren scoured overhead hoping to catch a glimpse of his helicopter but the jungle canopy occluded most of the sky.
“Thanks. Hold on, I’ll patch you through to him. Over.”
“Thank you, Nick.” God, how can I be dreaming of this man when I may be in danger? She thought with dismay. Stupid!
“Yes, Lauren, may I help you,” Dmitry’s booming voice jarred her back to the present.
“I’m sorry to bother you so soon, but Genevieve thought we should notify you about something she thinks is odd. I’ll let her tell you,” Lauren handed the transponder to Genevieve then resumed her search for Nick’s helicopter.
“Hello Dmitry. We were about a half mile from the village and found several dead or dying mongooses. I wasn’t concerned at first since they simply may’ve been poisoned by the villagers. But, now we’ve found a colony of dead Agouta and I’m wondering if these two events may be related to Murphy’s vector,” Genevieve joined Lauren in her search for the helicopter while waiting for his answer.
“Good question. Hold for a minute while I check, please,” Dmitry grunted.
“Yes, of course,” Genevieve walked around the clearing looking for any sign of poison traps.
“Genevieve, I had several responses from the Network and they’re very concerned. Ferrets are routinely used to test virulence of avian flu because they show a similar response as humans. In some ways they act like a canary in a mine.”
“Oh really?” She said hoping for good news.
“The consensus is not enough is known about the Agouta to rule out that they may be an indicator species like a ferret. The Agouta won’t be much help to us, but if a mongoose is also sensitive to the transposon, we may be able to use it as an animal model for testing possible therapies,” Dmitry sounded surprisingly optimistic.
“Good work! I’ll arrange to have a shipment of mongooses airlifted here at once. They’ll be waiting upon your arrival and may possibly be useful to determine if your group remains infectious to others. Don’t hesitate calling me, well done. You should be able to call Nick as long as you remain clear of the mountains. I’ll get started on making arrangements for animal testing.”
“Thank you so much Dmitry, bye,” Genevieve handed the transponder back to a disappointed Lauren. “I don’t think he wants us to see him Lauren.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just nice to know he is watching over us,” Lauren sighed as she slipped the transponder back into the white bag.
Genevieve smiled as she held Lauren’s hand. “Its okay, the village is just past this grotto. We’ll make a quick run to the clinic for supplies and water, then check to see if the villagers have any food to spare. If not, I have a few cases of canned liquid feedings I use for those too sick to eat solid food. It’s not great but a lot better than eating hutia with nuts and honey.”
“Ugh, just the sound of that meal is disgusting. I hope we can….. shit!” Lauren nearly ran into a disheveled group of gunmen as she entered the grotto.
“Stop! Put your hands up and drop that bag. Where do you think you’re going? The village is closed,” Their fat, dirty leader waved his pistol in her face; his men encircled them with leers plastering to their ugly faces.
“Oh, I’m the doctor. We’re just returning to check on my patients. We promise not to be long; I just need to pick up a few supplies for another patient,” Genevieve drew close to Lauren’s side.
“Doctor eh? Then tell me Doctor, why you need to carry a gun,” He shouted as one of his henchmen pulled the Glock and radio from the bag.
“Take these bitches back to the village, they’re spies,” He backhanded Genevieve in the face then snatched Lauren by her hair. “We’ll have some fun with them before we shoot them. Head for the clinic, we can play doctor there,” He laughed viciously as he pulled Lauren’s hair.
“El Chacal doesn’t care if these spies are dead or alive. So let’s get some use out of them while they’re still alive. Get moving spy or I’ll fuck you here!” He snatched Lauren’s long black hair. “Move, or I’ll take you now bitch!”
Lauren kneed him in his groin and spit into his face. “Vete y chinga a tu madre que hijo de puta!”
She raked her nails across his face and turned to run. Genevieve screamed, “Lauren run!” as she threw her attacker to the ground. “Run, Lauren, run!”
A large, fat man ran toward them screaming, “Get away from them you sons of bitches!” But his pistol misfired. “Oh shit! Don’t shoot, I’m a Senator.” He swore as he threw his hands into the air.
“The first man to kill him gets to go first on this one.” Their scar-faced leader screamed as he again snatched Lauren by her hair. “Kill him!”
Stryker rolled to his knees and puked water onto the warm sands of the shore. “Man, I feel like shit! What happened?” He gasped while wiping his mouth onto his sleeve.
“Oh hell, I thought you’d drowned! Our chutes entangled and I couldn’t pull you out,” Bug-eyed, Harley grabbed Stryker’s arm and pulled him to his feet.
“What?” Stryker asked with a dazed vacant look.
“Don’t you remember? We jumped off the cliff; I hit the cliff wall and was knocked out; when I came to I saw we were entangled and heading for a bunch of boulders. Somehow, I managed to pull my shroud lines just in time to land us in this pool,” Harley said while waving his arms as if to reenact their fall.
“I must’ve KOed you when we slammed together. Are you okay?” Harley examined Stryker’s head for bruises.
“Aside from a near drowning, I guess. Where’s our bag of supplies?” Irritated, Stryker brushed Harley’s hands aside then patted his jacket for his SIG.
“Oh, it’s okay; I fished it out with you. It’s tied to our raft.” Harley offered Stryker a bottle of water.
“Raft? What raft?”
“Well, it’s the best I could do. One of the Bird Dog’s wings holding a fuel tank washed down the falls. It’s a bit beat up, but still floats. I think it’ll carry us both,” Harley pointed to the shiny wing floating in a stand of reeds.
“My, you’ve been busy,” Stryker managed a faint smile despite his sore shoulder.
“I needed to do something to pass the time away,” Harley tightened their bag’s tether.
“How long’ve I been out?”
“Almost two hours,” Harley mumbled.
“What! I’ve been out for two hours?” Stryker snapped fully awake.
“Yeah, I considered trying to take you for medical help, but worried you would’ve drowned. Even if you didn’t, I sure wasn’t going to take you back to that hospital,” Harley pulled a broken prop from behind a bush.
“Two hours; we need to get going! You hit that cliff pretty damn hard, you okay?” Stryker pointed to the rag wrapping Harley’s arm.
“Yeah, I’m alright. It’s one of the many advantages of being fat, we bounce pretty good,” Harley patted his paunch. “But, that damn shroud line nearly dislocated my arm; it gave me a pretty bad rope burn.”
“Let’s see it,” Stryker unwrapped Harley’s arm; a long, raw burn covered his lower arm. “Hmmm, we need to find something to keep that from getting infected. Open wounds don’t heal well in the tropics. Genevieve said she had a clinic in her village; we’ll head back there first. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find something we can drive to the Embassy.”
Wading to the plane’s wing, Harley spotted the flash of small, pencil thin fish darting about their legs. “You don’t suppose that’s one of those fish that can swim up a man’s prick? Maybe we should take precautions.”
“The Candiru? Nah, they live only in the Amazon, besides; I think that’s only a myth. It’s probably just a Needlefish.” Stryker shrugged and pulled the makeshift raft closer to shore.
“So, I guess there’s no need to tie a string around my prick just in case.” Harley grinned.
“Only if you want gangrene. Just get on the raft; I’d worry more about being shot than impregnated by a fish,” Stryker shook his head.
“I’ll sit in the back; I made us a rudder with piece of the prop,” The wing dipped slightly below the surface as Harley plopped his ample frame onto its rear.
“Damn, Harley; you’re a regular survivalist,” Stryker crawled over the wing toward the ‘bow’.
“It’s a holdover from my ‘nam days. We didn’t have crap in the field, so we had to improvise. It was kind of fun actually. Okay, hold on. We’re off,” Harley pushed the wing toward the center of the pond and paddled briefly downstream.
“We’ve got a pretty good current. Keep us midstream, no need making us an easier target than we have to. I’d suggest landing upstream from the village; we’ll hike the last bit just to be safe. Did you already finish that butt you saved earlier?” Harley nodded. Stryker pulled another from his crumpled pack and lit another for him. “Here, you earned it.”
“Kind of peaceful here; what do ya’ think our chances are of making it off this island alive?” Like an aged Huck Finn, Harley puffed his cigarette and slowly guided the wing pontoon toward the river’s center.
“About the same as a chicken’s chance in China, slim to none,” Stryker leaned against the supply bag and took another drag from his damp cigarette. “I’m sure by now, SOBR is already here. If they wanted to rescue us, they would’ve done so by now.”
“Sober, who’s that?” Harley shot Stryker a puzzled look as he navigated a small bend.
“Not Sober, SOBR. The Spetsial'nye Otryady Bystrogo Reagirovaniya from VECTOR. This outbreak is a ‘grey area’ that suits them well,” Stryker corrected as he savored his diminishing cigarette.
“Oh Christ, tell me we didn’t contract with those bastards. They’re nothing but a bunch of bioterrorist mercs,” Harley cigarette nearly fell out of his mouth.
“BOB didn’t, but WHO did. World Health elites decided it may be smart to hire former Soviet scientists before they all sell out to terrorists,” Stryker methodically wiped each round of ammo before reloading them into his SIG’s magazines.
“Shit, they actually think those bastards will stay bought. They’ll work for anyone who’ll throw a few Euros their way.”
“No, they insist on gold these days ever since the Euro fell. But, I’m afraid you’re right. We have on occasion used their services for more delicate issues but their methods of containment became harder to justify,” Stryker mumbled while inventorying their supply bag. “I have to hand it to them though; they stopped that black pox outbreak cold back in ‘72’.”
“Yeah, but look how. Damn, thugs were brutal. I heard they even made a horror movie of that Belgrade containment. We’re screwed if WHO’s using them,” Harley frowned as old memories flooded his thoughts; funny how they were often in black and white like a vintage propaganda film.
“I’m afraid your right. And from what our analysts have uncovered, they’ve only gotten more efficient over the years. Outbreaks of polio in Tajikistan, dengue in Pakistan, West Nile in Volgograd and anthrax in Sverdlovsk only improved their skills. We’ve recent reports suggesting SOBR is recruiting ‘volunteers’ of specialists who’ve survived epidemics. The scuttlebutt is WHO is using them in a quasi-military role to contain outbreaks,” Stryker’s litany of horrors only soured Harley’s mood.
“Okay, now’s as good a time as any to get our story’s straight. If those bastards pick us up, we better damn well be singing from the same hymnal.”
“Yeah, I agree.”
“So let’s talk about Bellerophon.”
“We have no choice; aside from mosquitos, I don’t imagine there are any bugs here,”
“Go ahead, I’m listening,”
“CBOB now restricts our SOBR use to only highly classified projects like that debacle at Dugway last year. Those damn fool bikers managed to enter Area 12 just as we initiated Operation Bellerophon.” Harley muttered.
Stryker scowled at the thought while wiping his knife blade against his pant leg.
“I chaired the committee investigating their disappearance. That bitch reporter caused a stink until her lead decided to conveniently whack himself. We don’t need to do that too many more times; it’s bad enough she blew the covers on our cluster bombs and anthrax testing. If it hadn’t been for Trousergate, Bellerophon would’ve been lost.”
“I have to give the NSA credit; it took a lot of balls to cram those docs into his crotch. But, it took even more to leave those doctored ones.” Stryker’s laugh was dry and humorless.
“Losing Bellerophon would’ve been disastrous; we’d all been doing time in a federal prison. Do you think VECTOR snagged any of our chimeras?” Harley asked as he watched a pair of egrets peering for fish in the river.
“I don’t see how they could. Who’s going to examine the shit of cadavers for phages? Even if they did, they’d only find a bacteria virus with a small innocuous gene.”
“Murphy had me a bit worried. His talk of viral intelligence was getting a bit too close to BOB’s use of E. coli viruses to target bioweapons,” Stryker cautioned as he slid a knife back into his ankle sheath.
“John kept an eye on him. I would have hated to have lost Walter so late in the game; but, guess none of that matters now, anyway,” Harley shrugged.
“I know I’m supposed to understand this; hell, I’m the one who gets your group funding. But, I never really understood all that crap about using viruses to mark targets.” Harley professed with a confused look.
“You understand how to use lasers to light up targets for missiles, don’t you?” Stryker asked as he checked to see if the cell remained dry.
“Sure, but that’s different.”
“Not really; instead of using a laser to mark a target, we designate one by having a bacteriovirus infect the target’s gut bacteria. Once infected, the E. coli now produces a regulatory protein that acts as a switch controlling virulence in our weaponized strains.”
“As long as the target lacks the regulatory protein, any weaponized strain remains non-virulent. But if our weaponized strains infect someone who had been previously targeted by a bacteriovirus, the weaponized strains now becomes virulent.”
“It’s now simply a matter of infecting the targets beforehand with our chimeric bacterioviruses. Since they’re benign, the target can be infected months or even years prior to the release of any weaponized strain. Without the regulatory protein, weaponized strains remain non-virulent, but in the presence of the marker protein it regains its virulence and kills the host.”
“So just think of the marker protein as being the laser light that identifies targets to kill,” Stryker concluded as he replaced the magazines back into the pockets of his jacket.
“Yeah, too bad….. Wait a minute, do you hear something? It sounds like women screaming.” Harley stopped paddling and cupped his hand over his ear.
“It is. Pull over to the shore and keep it quiet. Stay behind me, I’ve only a few magazines left. Come on and follow me and stay low.” Stryker eased silently from the wing onto the riverbank. Crouching behind a palm he spied two women struggling against a group of soldiers. “Looks like some of their thugs grabbed a couple of locals, it’s not our fight, let’s move on.”
“Wait, I recognize that voice. Oh hell, it’s Lauren and Genevieve and those bastards have them.” Harley jumped to his feet and ran toward the ragtag group brandishing his pistol. “Get away from them you sons of bitches!” He yelled pulling the trigger of his Colt. Click was all he heard as the .45-caliber misfired. “Oh shit! Don’t shoot, I’m a Senator.” He swore as he threw his hands into the air.
“Who ever kills him gets to do her first.” Their scar-faced leader screamed as he snatched Lauren by her hair. “Kill him!”
Stupid shit, Stryker popped in a newly filled magazine into his SIG while at a full run. He squashed a monstrous brown tarantula underfoot while avoiding an overhanging palmetto, a huge, slithering centipede barely missed the same fate.
Twenty years ago this would have rocked but now it was just a pain in the ass. He slapped a biting fly that drew blood from his neck and silently skirted a clump of sedges. He hated sawgrass, shit rattles and cuts you. If they were going to have any chance at all, he was going to have to get close; real close. Stryker spied a clump of fern fronds growing under a stand of cycads near the trail’s end. This’ll do, he thought.
Dropping his Colt onto the trail, Harley managed a sheepish grin. “Look ya’ll, I’m a US Senator and there’ll be hell to pay if I’m harmed. I’ve got a few hundred in cash on me and I can get more, take it, just don’t harm those women; they’re US citizens. Shit, my government may even give you a reward for helping us out in this jam.”
“You think you can turn us into cowards by bribing us. We don’t need your pity, Langet manmanw. Kill this, coco santi!" Their leader snarled. “Cut the old goat’s throat, I’m tired of his cowardly bleating.”
Lauren screamed in horror as she struggled against her captor. “Oh God, Harley! Is that you?”
I’m going to kick his ass if we survive this shit! Stryker thought as he crept through the ferns. He flicked away a large brown scorpion that blocked his way only to have it replaced by a banana spider with an attitude, waving its legs at him.
“Wait, wait. Take my wallet, just don’t hurt us,” Harley begged, tossing his wallet onto the ground by his feet.
Four of the henchmen surrounded Harley like hyena around a wildebeest, barking obscenities to embolden their charges. “Ou fout led passe chien!” One yelled as he kicked Harley’s ass.
“Masisi devègonde! You smell worse than a lizard’s pubic hair,” A second sneered, striking Harley’s shoulder with the butt of his Mauser.
Damn, I need more time! Fight them Harley! Stryker thought; incessantly buzzing mosquitoes swarmed his sweaty gun hand. Twenty-five meters used to be a piece of cake, he was no Olympiad but at one time could hold his own in rapid fire. He winced briefly to help clear the sweat from his eyes.
“Malpwòpte!” A third laughed spitting tobacco in his face. Harley wiped the brown oozing spittle off his cheek and glared at his attackers, he swelled like a pompous old toad. “Listen here you sons of bitches, get the hell out of my face or I’m going to kick your asses.”
“You and what army, kochon?” The fourth laughed as he swung the butt of his 12 gauge shotgun at Harley’s head. Harley managed to partially deflect it with his arm; the butt struck the side of his head and briefly stunned him, buckling his knees.
Stryker slowly eased into position with his back pressed against a mat of resurrection fern growing on the side of a papaya tree. He snapped the slide back on his SIG, the hammer cocked into place with a metallic double-click sound. It’s party time! He smirked while watching Harley regain his feet.
Harley struggled to stand, blood streamed from his right ear down his livid face. “This army, you son of a bitch!” He yanked the shotgun’s barrel toward the second gunman. It discharged with a violent flash, disemboweling his attacker; a lingering odor of gunpowder mingled with blood permeated the air.
“I’ll kill you for that, Salopri, …”
Stryker eased his muzzle around the tree taking care to remain hid and pulled the short trigger. Tap, tap.
The right half of the gunman’s head exploded as a 9mm ripped through his skull. “What? Guete!” The third gunman was hit in his chest spinning him, showering the others with a spray of blood.
“Kaka!” The fourth screamed swinging his rifle around toward Stryker’s muzzle flash. Harley tackled him from the side, knocking him to the ground; the shot deflected harmlessly off the tree. Flinging himself atop the gunman, Harley grabbed the shotgun and rolled to his side; he pumped two rounds into the fallen thug’s chest.
“Drop those guns or I’ll cut her throat!” Their leader shoved Lauren before him as a shield. “Drop them!” He yelled; snatching her head back, he thrust his blade against her neck.
“Pudrete en el infierno!” Lauren swore and blindly stabbed his face with a nail file clenched in her fist.
“Bouzin sal!” Their leader reflexively dropped his knife to pull the file from his oozing socket. A 9mm round snapped his head backward, the near headless body briefly thrashed about before toppling into a stand of palmettos. Genevieve’s attacker turned to run but was cut down by a blast from Harley’s shotgun.
“Shit! Get him, he’s getting away,” Harley scrambled toward the last gunman who darted down the trail.
The gunman dove headfirst into a 6-wheeled cargo truck and sped toward a nearby road. Stryker’s SIG rang out two rounds. “Damn, he’s out of range.”
A distant gunshot echoed off the hills. The fleeing gunman was ejected from the cargo truck, his body tumbled several times before coming to rest in a bloody heap. The now driverless vehicle swerved into an old, thorn-covered tree; its horn blaring as its engine died.
“Damn, what the hell happened!” Harley exclaimed; his mouth gaped in astonishment.
“Someone took him out. Come on; give me cover just in case we missed any of these goons. We need to silence that horn,” Stryker sprinted toward the amphibious truck.
“Are you girls okay?” Harley hobbled toward the women.
“Oh my God, you killed them!” Lauren’s trembling hand dropped her file.
“They would’ve killed you both if we hadn’t. You girls take cover in the jungle, I need to help Tony,” Harley racked another shell into the shotgun’s chamber and handed it to Lauren. “Take this, blow away anything that moves; we’ll be back once we’re sure it’s safe.”
“Wait, Harley; here,” Lauren winced and delicately scooped a white bag from near the quivering body.
“What is it?” Harley asked.
“It’s a Glock and more ammo,” Lauren watched Genevieve silently kneel to inspect her attacker’s body.
“He’s dead!” Genevieve murmured, crossing herself.
“Yeah, well that’s kind of the point for shooting people, Sister. Where’d you get this Glock, tell me later; I need to give Tony cover. Head back into the jungle. Be careful of that shotgun, it has a hair trigger. We’ll be back once we’ve secured the area,” Harley trotted toward the cargo truck with Glock in hand.
“Get over here Harley, I need cover,” Stryker crept toward the Gama Goat.
Harley jogged slowly toward Stryker; stopping midway, he clutched his chest. “I’m coming, Christ; I’m too damn fat to run like this. You trying to give me a coronary or what? Okay, okay, I’m coming,” Harley lifted the Glock then surveying the hills, limped toward the truck.
“What hit him?” Harley kicked the body to assure it was dead.
“I think it was a .50 caliber from overhead. That splatter pattern looks like he bought it from somewhere higher than those hills. There must be a chopper up there, so be damn careful what you do. We’re sitting ducks down here. Where’d you get the Glock?” Stryker asked while focusing his binoculars on a distant speck in the sky.
“Lauren gave it to me. Here, I brought you a present,” Smiling, Harley pulled two boxes of ammo from the bag and tossed them to Stryker.
“Fucking A! Things are looking up,” Stryker pocketed the ammo and laughed. “Let’s cut the wires on that horn and see if this thing still runs.”
Harley lifted the hood on the rear of the cab and snatched a couple of wires, silencing the horn. “Done. Okay, crank it.”
The engine again roared to life. “Hop in. Where’d you send the girls?” Stryker spun the cargo truck around nearly backing over the gunman’s corpse.
“They’re down the trail, I gave Lauren that 12 gauge so be careful she doesn’t blow our heads off. Head back toward that grotto; they couldn’t have gotten very far.”
“Hold on,” Stryker jounced the Gama Goat over potholes down the trail, its articulated rear wagging like a happy dog tail.
A flock of birds burst into the air, frightened by a blast that shattered the jungle’s stillness. “Oh hell, she fired that shotgun; hit it!” Harley yelled.
Stryker floored the accelerator and they careened wildly down the path leaving swirling contrails of dust.
“Over here, it’s blood,” Harley leapt from the truck and followed a smeared trail of red. “Christ, I told her that thing has a hair trigger.”
“It runs toward the grotto, let’s go,” Stryker jumped from the driver’s seat with his SIG drawn.
“Lauren, Genevieve, where are you?” Harley’s shouts echoed hollowly off the grotto walls.
“Help us; we’re in here,” Lauren’s muffled cries reverberated from inside a mossy cave. “Watch out, they’ll bite you, they’re poisonous!”
“What’ll bite us?” Harley hollered; walking slowly toward the cave entrance, three possum size critters scurried out smiling to greet him.
“Watch out for the Agouta, they’re aggressive and poisonous!” Genevieve shouts drifted from the caves interior.
“What? You mean these cute little varmints? Hell, they don’t look so…. Son of a bitch! Shoot the damn things, shoot them! They’re trying to bite through my shoes.” Harley booted one of the Agouta like a furry football. Several more swarmed from the cave chirping warnings as they waddled toward them.
“Holy shit, run,” Harley turning to run back to the Gama Goat, tripped over a root; he landed face first onto the damp moss. Agouta swarmed over him like ants over candy.
“Get ’em off me!” Harley squealed kicking at an Agouta gnawing on his shoe. “Shoot the damn things!”
“Shit, hold still Harley or I’ll hit you,” Stryker cursed as he took aim at the waddling hoard.
Genevieve’s voice echoed from inside the cave. “No! Please don’t shoot them, they’re endangered.”
Harley managed to scramble back to his feet and kicked another Agouta into the bushes. Squeaking loudly, it landed with a soft thud then resumed its waddling attack.
“Just shoot the fuckers, Tony; they’re never going to stop!” Harley pulled out his Glock.
“Well, they’re persistent, I’ll give them that, but, I think they’re just protecting their den,” Stryker grinned as he side-stepped another clumsy slow-motion charge. “I don’t think they’re any real threat, poisonous or not, they’re too slow.”
“Slow or not, I’m taking the damn little pissers out before they bite us.” Harley raised his Glock to fire but halted. “Stupid shits, I can’t shoot ‘em; they look like they’re smiling at me. Come on, let’s get the girls and get the hell out of here. We’ve made enough noise to wake any zombies buried in these woods.”
“Lauren, Genevieve, are there any more of these possum things in that cave?” Stryker yelled as he booted another Agouta into the underbrush.
“Yes, yes. Quite a few, but I think they’re their young. I don’t think they can harm us,” Her voice echoed from the crevice.
“Come on out. Harley and I will keep them occupied. Just run toward our vehicle while we distract them.”
“Okay, are you sure it’s safe?”
“Yeah, come on,” Stryker grabbed a pair of Agouta by their tails and flung them into the brush. “Help me out here, Harley; just grab them by their asses and chuck ‘em.”
“Grinning poisonous possums; what’s next?” Harley punted another chirping Agouta towards a gulley. Lauren and Genevieve raced from inside the cave nearly knocking him over; they scrambled over the rear gate into the truck’s bed.
“Let’s get out of here. Head back toward the village, Harley; I’ll ride shotgun. We can check to see if there’re any survivors on that airfield,” Stryker jumped over the remaining Agouta and plopped into the front passenger seat.
Harley clambered behind the wheel and hollered. “Hold on you gals, it’s going to get a bit rough back there.”
The Gama Goat lurched forward, throwing a cloud of dust in its wake. The rattling cargo trailer bounced the women across its bed. “Hey, I said hold on back there; you want to get tossed out?”
“God we’re trying. Slow down,” Lauren crashed into a mounted bench before grabbing the rail.
“Get used to this puppy, it may not look like much, but she’ll damn near climb vertical,” Harley said.
Harley jabbed the brakes as they shot into a clearing, the trailer jumped briefly in the air throwing the women again to its bed. “Damn, take it easy, Harley, you trying to kill ‘em?” Stryker grumbled while bracing himself with clenched fists around a steel handhold.
“Sorry, those idiots set the brakes too tight. Stay in the Goat, we need more ammo for that shotgun, it won’t take but a second.” Harley stooped over a gunman’s body and unfastened two buckles.
“Got ‘em,” He jumped to his feet grinning, clutching two old leather bandoliers like trophy fish. “Let’s go.”
He tossed the bandoliers toward a dazed Lauren squatted in the trailers bed. “¡Oh Mierda! What’s this? Damn, they’re covered in blood. What am I supposed to do with these?”
“Put ‘em on, you’re going to need ‘em to reload that shotgun,” Harley grunted.
“Shotgun? Are you crazy? I’m not wearing those things; they’re bloody. And I’m not shooting that shotgun, either,” She kicked the bandoliers back toward Harley.
“Suit yourself, but it’s easier to hit things with a shotgun than a Glock.”
“I don’t know how to shoot anything; I just want to go home,” Lauren whined.
“Yeah, well don’t we all. I’ll wash the blood off those bandoliers at the river, just in case you change your mind. Okay, let’s ride,” Harley jumped back into the driver’s seat and peered at the distant hills.
“Hey Tony, do me a favor; take a quick look before we make a run toward that strip.”
Stryker slowly scanned the clearing and surrounding hills with the purloined binoculars. “Well, I don’t see anything obvious, but I sure hate that clearing.”
“Yeah, me too. But, we can’t stay here forever. There’s a small shack at this end, it’s probably their idea of a hangar. I’ll head there; it’s at least a little cover. Okay, one more time, hold on and this time do it right!” The engine again roared as they bounced over the open field toward a dilapidated wooden shack.
The Gama Goat squealed to a stop beside an open hangar, the musty scent of dirt mingled with oil wafted in the heat from its dark interior. Stryker, leaping forward with SIG drawn, rolled into the dim, machine-cluttered shack. He crept around old half repaired engines toward a small room in the rear. After several long minutes, he emerged, covered with dust, oil and sweat. “It’s clear. Back the Goat inside, I want it ready for a hasty retreat in case we have any unwelcome company.”
“Gotcha. Okay, let’s head to the strip to see if there are any survivors? You gals stay here.”
“Wait!” Lauren shouted as Harley grabbed his Glock.
“Wait for what?” Harley grumbled.
“They told us you were dead!” Lauren blurted out. “Last we heard you both had died in an airplane crash. I’m sorry but I’m so confused not to mention being overwhelmed.”
“They? Who’s they? Who told you we were dead?” Stryker strolled back to the Gama Goat wiping the sweat off his dirty face onto his sleeve.
“Demetrius. He said a pilot saw you both crash into a mountain and burn, and that no one could’ve survived.” Genevieve offered Lauren a hand getting out of the trailer.
“Demetrius, Demetrius who? It wasn’t Demetrius Popov, was it?” Stryker’s eyes flashed with anger.
“I don’t recall him ever giving us his last name. He just told us to call him Dmitry. He seemed very nice and is trying to help us,” Genevieve smiled timidly, hoping to diffuse Stryker’s irritation.
“Yeah, nice for a fucking bioterrorist.” Harley chambered a round.
“Bioterrorist! Oh, my no. He’s the coordinator for a WHO rapid response team; he said his team also works with the United Nations. He assured us that medical relief ships are on the way and will arrive this evening. He even had his pilot leave us that Glock and a special cell phone just to help keep us safe until they arrive. I’m sure…” Genevieve shook her head; her brown eyes wide-open in surprise.
“Cell phone! He left you a cell? Give it to me,” Stryker held out his hand.
“It’s here. He asked we leave it on for our safety, he says it’ll help locate us when the rescue team arrives,” Lauren’s voice squeaked as she offered Stryker the bag.
“Yeah, right,” Stryker snatched the cell from inside and tossed it to Harley inside the hangar. Harley placed it inside his pocket then walked toward the hangars’ rear.
Stryker shook his head at Lauren and Genevieve; they shrank visibly under his glare. “And you believe that bullshit? He’s using it to track you! He isn’t planning a rescue; he’s enforcing quarantine and is looking for specimens,”
“Specimens! No! He said he was just worried about us and wanted to keep us safe,” Genevieve stammered.
“Damn, you two need to wake up. Just because a man has manners doesn’t mean he isn’t a killer. Stevens is as polite as they come, but don’t think he won’t drop you if the need arises.”
Stryker turned his back toward Harley then muttered softly. “Your ‘friend’ Colonel Popov is a former director of Biopreparat, a secret facility that manufactured biological weapons during the cold war. I don’t suppose he mentioned that to you or how he killed over a hundred of his own countrymen with an anthrax leak?”
Lauren and Genevieve’s mouths gaped.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Despite that debacle, he somehow managed to defect to the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our agency helped him elude the KGB and briefly contracted with him. He became obsessed with creating some sort of viral cocktail to protect us from the very weapons he’d created.”
“We dumped his sorry ass when he started peddling some crap nutritional supplement to the wealthy to protect them from the very bugs he’d designed. We didn’t really mind his sideline work; it was how he tried to boost sales that ended our collaboration.”
“Seems his dietary supplement didn’t catch on as much as he’d hoped, but, lucky for him someone decided to send anthrax in the mail. He raked in millions before selling the franchise and moved offshore before the Feds could conclude their investigations,” Stryker’s cold voice sent chills up their spines despite the heat.
“Are you saying he was responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings?” Lauren nervously glanced toward the bandoliers.
“I’m saying the FBI considered him a person of interest and sure would like to ask him a few more questions. Fortunately for him, they decided it was easier to blame some poor smuck who conveniently died of an overdose, then admitting they’d contracted with the likes of Popov.”
“The whole damn thing was an Operation: Paperclip redux. He’s real fucking reptile. Hand me that cell, Harley; let’s see how my old buddy Dmitry’s doing,” Stryker motioned for Harley to rejoin them.
“You’re friends with him?” Lauren asked in amazement.
“Yeah, used to be anyway. I’m the one who recruited him to join our agency and once dated his sister. He’s a real pussycat compared to that bitch.” Stryker laughed dryly.
“Put Popov on the phone,” Stryker yelled at the cell.
“I think you have to turn it on first,” Lauren timidly pointed to a small switch on its side.
“Is that what he told you? He can hear everything damn thing you say without turning it on; it’s bugged,” Stryker opened the cell and hit the speakerphone button.
“Come on, Nick, I know you’re listening. Patch me through to Dmitry,” Stryker tapped his foot on the dirt tarmac.
“Yes sir, Colonel, hold on,” Nick’s voice popped over the speakerphone.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe he tapped our phone!” Lauren cradled her dirty face in both hands.
“Hello Tony, how nice to see you have survived the crash. You seem to have more lives than a cat,” Dmitry’s smooth Russian accent boomed from the cell.
“Cut the crap, Dmitry. What the hell’s going on?” Stryker snarled at the cell like an enraged lion looking at a thorn in its paw.
“What do you mean? We’re responding to your call. You notified your chain about an accidental release of an agent capable of human-to-human transmission that may be responsible for multiple deaths,” Dmitry deftly sidestepped Stryker’s accusations.
“You know protocol, Tony, we’ve initiated protective sequestration. Hopefully, your group hasn’t spread it very far beyond its epicenter. It’s a shame the pathogen was introduced into their local hospital, we’ll be forced to implement decontamination of the facility upon our arrival this evening,” His parry further enraged Stryker.
“Those kids were taken there for medical treatment before it was discovered some were involved in the study. What the hell did you expect Genevieve to do, leave them here to die?” Stryker’s face was livid with rage.
“Now is not the time for accusations. Thankfully, you’ve been reunited with your friends and they made an excellent choice for a refuge. Our pilot was barely able to detect their whereabouts even with our equipment. I’m sure it’ll afford your group protection in the days to come. Please return to its safety as soon as possible,” Dmitry’s flattering didn’t improve Stryker’s mood.
“We wish to limit our use of proportional force for obvious reasons. I’m glad Nick was able to assist your group in acquiring transportation” Dmitry reminded Stryker in his most civil tone.
“Is he the one who took out the driver?” Harley shouted over Stryker’s shoulder.
Dmitry laughed. “If you mean by ‘took out’ that we exercised our option to use containment, yes. Currently we think the outbreak is limited to only four clusters: the contract research organization, the hospital, what’s left of the Coast Guard station and this village. The use of quarantine is solely under my discretion.”
Stryker shook his head at the cell. “Quarantine won’t work on an island this size.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken. Our models suggest a rapid series of strong responses that limits immigration from within a 10 kilometer radius of the epicenter should resolve this outbreak without excessive casualties. Ring quarantine is definitely a viable option.” Dmitry confidently assured.
“That’s bullshit, forced quarantine to contain SARS in Toronto was a fucking disaster, and you know it,” Stryker’s knuckles whitened as he clenched the cell.
“Surely, I’ll concede that Toronto was not adequately managed. However, we were able to adjust our models using their failings. Our dynamic models since then have been highly predictive; they suggest if we act early, fast and hit hard using increasing intensity with everything at our disposal the outbreak should be limited in scope.” Dmitry’s enthusiastic chuckle was ill-timed.
“From what we’ve learned from Genevieve, we’re currently looking at possibly less than a dozen infected individuals, of course that was counting the now deceased Dr. Murphy. We’re still uncertain about the ‘R’ number, but it’s obviously greater than one since many of your group have tested positive for the contagion.”
“We’re currently considering the two young volunteers of your study as the index patients. It’s possible, however, that there may also be a super-spreader. Fortunately, as far as we know, there are currently only six reported deaths. We’ll worry more about transmissibility of the infection when we’ve more data. Hopefully, the deaths of the young men were either incidental to other causes or outliers.”
“Isolation and ring quarantine should be sufficient to limit the number of clusters until herd immunity can be established. As long as the contagion is self-limiting, palliative relief and supportive measures should suffice until it’s auto-extinguished from lack of a host. Tell your man, Stevens that he did well with his site selection. Containment would be much less certain if he had selected a larger municipality on the mainland.” Dmitry concluded his summary with a satisfied grunt.
“Tell him yourself if you have the nerve,” Stryker laughed dismissively.
“No need for sarcasm, Tony. We are both Cossacks.” Dmitry’s voice boomed over the cell.
“What’s a Cossack, is that like a soldier?” Lauren asked.
“No, they are what you Americans call ‘cowboys’.” Dmitry answered.
“Cowboys, I thought you were a doctor that controlled outbreaks.” Lauren blinked in puzzlement.
“I am not a doctor; I have the same job as Tony, to capture and cage the swift horse... ”
“Don’t go there, Dmitry.” Stryker said.
“What? You mean you haven’t told them?” Dmitry said.
“Told us what?” Lauren bristled.
“The swift horse we are both seek has a name, it is ‘Pestilence’. If we fail, well, I am sure you know the story of the Riders of the Apocalypse. Our job is to corral the horse of Pestilence. Men like Harley foolishly believe the steed of the Pale Rider can be tamed for their own use, but it has only one master, Death.”
“But, back to our discussion on containment. We will focus our resources on managing waves of infection until herd immunity is naturally established.” Stryker’s face steeled as he listened to Dmitry’s droning lecture.
“We will restrict quarantine to those already sick and their caregivers, it then becomes a much easier task to remove the contagion from the general population.” Dmitry paused briefly for Stryker’s response.
“Are you suggesting you plan to convert this island into a lazaret?” Stryker muttered through gritted teeth.
“Well, not the whole island, just within 10 kilometers of the epicenter. I knew you’d understand. Our medical convoy will address the populace’s health care needs outside of the contagion and supply ships will meet their basic needs until herd immunity has been established.” Dmitry concluded with a satisfied grunt.
Stryker swore at the cell. “There’s no damn way Dubois is going to accept your quarantine, he’ll consider it an act of war.”
“Prime Minister Dubois currently has his own problems.” Dmitry corrected. “Your study only succeeded in destabilizing an already precarious situation. He’s extremely germaphobic and is accusing your CIA of using the outbreak to topple his regime. He sent soldiers to that village to kill as many as possible in a crude attempt at containment.”
“Unfortunately for him, it was also the home of one of his opposition leaders. The few who survived this massacre are convinced the CIA is in fact backing Dubois. They believe your CIA assisted him in using bioweapons against his own people. They’ve reunited with opposition FRAPH groups and have surrounded the Presidential Palace.”
“It’s too early to predict the outcome, but either way, the CIA will be blamed for both the outbreak and the deaths of these villagers. The UN is currently in emergency session that’s considering to declare Española a failed state.”
“I’d highly recommend you gather your supplies and head back to the sea cave as soon as possible. Our team will gladly furnish you with any needed supplies as long as you stay within the 10 kilometers of the outbreak’s epicenter.”
The peaceful singing of birds and buzz of insects were incongruous with the Stryker’s pensive silence. “What location are you using as the epicenter?”
“We’re considering the CRO facility where the trials began as ground zero. Do as you please, but, I’d suggest you remain within the quarantine perimeter and limit your interactions with others.”
“Our Minister of Health believes this’ll be a typical short-term quarantine lasting no more than seven to ten days. When quarantine is lifted, my sister would love to meet you all and personally show her appreciation for your help.” Dmitry said.
“Sister?” Genevieve asked with a confused look at the cell.
“Oh yes, I’m sorry, please forgive my poor manners. The Minister of Health is my sister, Tatyana Popov Ivanovsky.” Dmitry chuckled.
“How’s Taty doing these days? It’s been a while since we chatted.” Stryker flashed an enigmatic smile.
“Ask her yourself, she’s on the line. Thanks again for your help, if you’ll excuse me I’m needed by my medical officer. I looking forward to meeting you all tonight when we land, especially you Tony, we have a lot of catching up to do. Bye.” Dmitry laughed cryptically.
“Hi Taty, you there?” Stryker beamed a crooked smile.
“What the hell are you doing on that island, Tony? And who is that pretty girl beside you, is she your new girlfriend?” The woman’s sensual voice grilling him only made his smile broaden.
“Taty I see you haven’t changed a bit, still blunt and insanely in love with me. You’re breaking my heart!” Stryker laughed, his smile turned into an open grin.
“Screw with me, Tony, and I’ll break more than your heart. Do not leave the hot zone until I give you permission. Get back to that cave; I’ve got enough clusters to chase thanks to you and Harley.”
Tatyana slammed the receiver back into its cradle, then hit the speakerphone button. “I thought you told me he was dead!”
“Our pilot reported that his plane crash and burned in a river, he assumed…” Dmitry stammered on the other line.
“You can’t assume anything with Tony Stryker. If he leaves the hot zone, shoot him. However, I have a special gift I want you to give him. But, have one of your best men kick his ass before he gets it. But, be sure he does it before he gives my present to Tony or he won’t get the chance.” Tatyana laughed.
“What is it? Dmitry queried with curiosity.
“Don’t worry about it; it’s something special to Tony. He may need it to help complete our mission. Keep me informed.” Tatyana snapped.
“Okay, but…” Dmitry began but halted upon hearing the dial tone.
Damn, this assignment sure would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if Tony had stayed dead, but not as interesting! Dmitry chuckled to himself as he hit an intercom button. “Taty’s sending me a package; let me know when it arrives. Oh, and tell Boris to get ready to suit up, I’m adding him to the landing crew. Taty requested him personally as her deliveryman.”
Lauren jumped back from Stryker gasping in amazement. “Oh hell, did she just threaten you?”
“No, Taty doesn’t make threats; they’re more like orders and promises.” Stryker chuckled with a mischievous grin spread over his face. A brief shake of his head restored his typical no nonsense demeanor. “Harley, grab the map from our bag; Dmitry said we need to stay within 10 kilometers of the research facility, I’m betting we’re there now.”
“Well I can’t tell you precisely, but I can say we’re about 15 miles from downtown Port-aux-Hôpital.” Genevieve nodded.
Stryker gingerly unfolded the damp map spreading it across the Gama Goat’s rusty hood. Harley pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and handed the straightest to Stryker. “Here, use this as a ruler.”
“Thanks. Damn, I knew it! We’re exactly 10 clicks from the facility, WE are the perimeter, it’s why Dmitry said not to exceed 10 kilometers; they don’t want to expand the hot zone boundaries.” Stryker leaned forward to accept a light from an expensive looking gold lighter cupped in Harley’s dirty hands. After a long lingering puff, he surveyed the hillsides.
Genevieve drew a line on the map using her finger from the village then slowly circled a large lake. “We’re fairly remote even by island standards; the area around the lake remains wilderness because it’s prone to seasonal flooding and is mosquito infested. The nearest village is across the lake and is probably 20 miles away.”
“Well, the good news is we don’t have to worry about spreading the transposon to another village. It’s probably why Taty let us live; she doesn’t worry we’ll create more clusters as long as we stay within the hot zone.” Stryker nodded. His exhaled smoke dissipated quickly in the warm tropical breeze. “But, the bad news is, it leaves us with few places to ride out this quarantine: the research facility, hospital, this village and the Coast Guard base are the known clusters. You girls say John and the others are hiding in a sea cave?”
Lauren dodging a wafting curl of smoke suppressed a grimace. “Yes, but its horrid. I barely managed to crash our boat in it before the tide covered its entrance. Now, we can’t get back inside unless we wait for low tide or crawl back in through that God awful spider infested sinkhole.”
“No, wonder Taty told us to hide there, it sounds ideal. Great work.” Stryker nodded his head slowly with approval, dislodging a long grey ash over the map.
“There’s no freaking way we can live in that cave for 10 days, it’s unhealthy and filthy. That’s why I’m here now; I couldn’t take it another hour.” Lauren snapped. “I crawled through a disgusting nest of spiders just to get out; I’ll be damn if I’ll crawl through them again just to get back inside. I’d rather learn to shoot that shotgun then have those creepy spiders crawling on me again.” Shuddering violently, her voice shrilled as she recalled the events.
“Well, would you rather return to the Coast Guard base or hospital?” Stryker casually brushed the fallen ashes from the map.
“Oh hell no, they’d kill us!” Lauren yelped.
“Exactly.” Stryker gave her a long reassuring smile. “Okay, well then, that leaves the research facility or stay here. I’m fine with here for a while, Nick can give us cover and we need to stock up anyway. I suggest we check around for survivors, gather what we need, then rejoin John and the others back at the sea cave.” He carefully refolded the damp map before handing it back to Harley.
“Can’t we just go to the research center or the Embassy?” Lauren pleaded.
“It’s too risky; Dubois probably already has it surrounded.” Stryker shook his head.
“Let’s stock up, we need supplies. I’m sure John can handle things in the cave until we return.” Stryker grunted. “Take anything you find that we may need to minimize our need for foraging once war breaks out. I want everyone to spread out but keep within eyesight just in case we’re ambushed.”
“Okay, let’s first check out those bodies on the airfield, the poor bastards tried to bug out so they may’ve already collected much of what we need.” He caught Harley’s eye and nodded his head forward; Harley advanced slowly sweeping his Glock before him like an eager hunting dog straining at its leash.
“Oh my God, are, are …are we going to rob them?” Lauren stammered.
“It’s not robbery if they’re dead. You got any problem with this Sister?” Stryker grumbled without breaking his slow stride, his Sig fanned the way before him.
“No. They are… I mean were, very kind and generous people.” Genevieve shook her head solemnly. “They never hesitated helping others in need, even though they had little themselves. I’m sure they would share even now if they were able, it’s just so sad.” She stopped suddenly overcome with grief. Lauren rushed to her side and held her closely as they both sobbed quietly. “I just don’t understand why the Prime Minister killed them, they were peaceful and never bothered anyone; it just makes no sense.”
Stryker retraced his steps to check on them, God, he hated emotional women during fieldwork! He thought. “It does if you have Mysophobia. Dubois’ dossier states he’s germophobic, looks like he must’ve read the ER notes of your kids then took containment into his own hands. Let’s go. It’s too dangerous hanging out here in the open.”
“I guess, but, it all seems so senseless…. Wait, is that a body?” Genevieve straightened, her gaze affixed on an old abandoned car.
“Where?” Harley squinted at a rusty, old wreck parked with its door half ajar near the runways edge.
“Over there, near that abandoned car in the grass!” She pointed toward what seemed to be a brown rock partially hid in the weeds.
Stryker scanned the wreck with the binoculars. “Yeah! And it looks like there may be a couple more near it. Maybe you and Lauren should stay here while Harley and I check this out.”
Stryker slowly turned the first body over then rummaged through its pockets. “Keep an eye out, Harley, while I pat ‘em down.”
“Blowflies, I hate fuckin’ blowflies.” Harley swatted at the buzzing flies that swarmed around the bodies.
“Yeah, these bodies are starting to stink; they’ve been out here a few hours.” Stryker pulled a few small items from inside the bloody jacket. “A lighter, no money in this wallet… Oh wait, , here’s a cell.” He pocketed the lighter and cell then walked slowly toward the next body.
“I think the village is deserted, do you mind if Lauren and I grab the medical supplies and a few other things from inside the clinic.” She asked pointing to an old shack slightly less dilapidated than the rest.
“No, Harley cleared it already, just stay close in case we need to leave in a hurry. We won’t be much longer, gives us a shout when you’re ready to help us search for food and water.” Stryker said.
“Oh, that shouldn’t take long; we have a food cellar under our clinic. I stocked it with emergency supplies to prepare for hurricanes. Lauren and I can start bringing up enough to last us a few days.” Genevieve motioned for Lauren to join her at the tottering clinic’s door.
“Hey, isn’t this a battery operated TV.” Harley pulled an old electronic device from underneath another corpse.
“Look’s like one, turn it on to see if it works, it may come in handy.” Stryker said as he looked up from the last body.
“Yep, but only snow… wait what’s that.” The ghostly image of a man standing before a crowd briefly flickered across the screen. “Let me pull out the antenna to see if it clears. There, better. OH, HELL! You’d better come look at this!”
“What is it?” Stryker asked as he slung the bootie bag over his shoulder.
“It’s not it, it’s WHO! It’s that son of a bitch, Dubois. He’s at the Embassy; let me turn up the volume.”
The small screen filled with the fuzzy image of a soldier storming erratically around several hooded figures. They were lined precariously on a rooftop edge as Dubois shouted at the crowd below. “…. CIA wants to destroy our nation! But, our Loa foiled their evil plan to enslave us with the poisons they promote as medicine. What would our Loa have us do with their enemies?”
“Kill them!” “Shoot them!” “Death to America!” Screamed a group of soldiers from within the cowering crowd of emaciated peasants.
“Here’s what our Loa will have us do to our enemies and all who oppose our liberty!” Dubois nodded to his gunman who grabbed one of the hooded figures. The assassin fired point blank into the hooded prisoner then dumped the body into the crowd below.
“Death to America! Death to America! Death to America!” The staged crowd chanted with feigned enthusiasm as soldiers waved them on with rifles in the air.
“Find all Americans my brothers and kill them, bring me their bodies and our Loa shall reward your loyalty. Let our enemies know that every day we shall shoot another spy until the Americans agree to our demands and leave our country. Fight for your country, fight for honor, fight for our Loa! Bring me their bodies!” Dubois screamed into his microphone from behind a glass shield.
The face of an attractive Creole newscaster filled the small, snowy TV screen. “Just breaking live; our Prime Minister Dubois has announced that an American plot by the CIA was thwarted by our Ministry of Defense. He openly challenged the Americans to withdraw peacefully from our islands by no later than tomorrow or suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of our military forces. We will provide additional updates as they become available. On a different note, our scientist report solar sunspot activity is declining and it is expected normal offshore communication should resume sometime this evening. And now a look at our weather..”
Harley fumed as he snapped the TV off. “That Son of a bitch just killed someone in our Embassy. I’m going to personally see we kill his ass. Let’s get the girls and get the hell out of here while we still can, Maurice is going to have to wait.”
“No. Dubois was at our Embassy, so maybe he’s still there. Since the research center is across town, we may be able to get there undetected.”
“What? Are you kidding, who and the hell did we leave there that’s worth risking our lives over?”
“Not who, what. Murphy’s project notes are still there in his computer. If our Embassy has fallen, it means there’s no one there to protect the data. Our fingerprints are all over this study, it’s going to be damn embarrassing to our State Department if certain details are leaked out of context to the media. We need to retrieve Murphy’s hard drive and burn that facility to the ground.”
“Why and the hell will that thug Dubois give a damn about our notes.”
“He won’t, but Taty will. We need to get there before she ‘cleans’ up that facility. We need a back road out of here fast; one that’s not being watched.”
“Leave that to me, that Goat makes its own back roads. Let’s hurry and…..son of a bitch, now what?”
Genevieve and Lauren crashed out of the clinic’s door shrieking. “Oh my God, help, they’ve butchered him!”
Stryker snatched Lauren’s and pulled her toward his menacing face. “Shut up! If anyone else’s here, you’re going to give away our position. So shut the fuck up!”
Harley patted her sunbaked quivering arm and whispered. “Pipe down, just tell us what the hell you saw. I cleared that damn house, I’m positive there weren’t any bodies inside.”
“I’m sorry, tell them Sister.” Lauren’s voice quaked.
“It’s not inside the clinic. We were trying to help gather supplies but we both had to pee. Our clinic has a bathroom out back and we had hope to freshen up just a bit. I thought it’d be okay since Harley had checked our clinic. We …”
“Son of a bitch! You went into a building I hadn’t cleared! Damn, you crazy broads are going to get us all killed doing shit like that. Where’s the body?” Harley growled clenching his jaw like an old bulldog whose favorite bone had been snatched from its mouth.
“I’m sorry, we didn’t know.” Genevieve pointed a shaking finger toward a clump of palmettos.
“Can you drive a stick?” Stryker caught Harley’s eye then nodded toward the showers.
“Yes, but why..” Genevieve began but stopped as Harley tossed the truck’s keys at her.
“Get back to that Goat and crank it up, if you don’t hear from us in five minutes get the hell out of here.” Stryker snarled. “Head back to the cave if we don’t return.” Genevieve hustled a sobbing Lauren toward the old hangar.
Harley bellowed like an enraged bull as he crashed through the rickety shed’s door. Stryker darted toward the palmettos and flung himself against the shower’s vine-covered wall. “It’s clear, but you better come see this.” Harley’s growl echoed from inside the rusty outhouse.
The old steel door squeaked open onto a carnage of blood-splattered walls and a body lying face up in a pool of scarlet; large dried clots filled its eye sockets. Buzzing blowflies swarmed from the hollow cavity in its chest. “Damn, this was personal.” Stryker covered his mouth and nose with a rag to keep from retching at the noxious smell.
“It’s more than personal. I once saw this years ago as a young lawyer in Louisiana. It’s fucking Voodoo; they mutilated the body to keep it from reanimating as a zombie. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s about the same idea as the old Indian warrior custom of massacre. They fear the dead even more than they do the living.” Harley buried his mouth into the crook of his elbow.
“Well, dead is dead, it’s the living that worries me!” Stryker motioned for Harley to follow him toward the hangar.
“Yeah, I used to think that too, until that asshole Murphy resurrected his virus. We’re all going to end up like that poor SOB if we don’t get off this island. Let’s get the hell out of here; I’ve seen enough of this shit, I’m ready to head to that sea cave.” Harley paused on the path to take a deep breath of fresh air.
“Unfortunately, we can’t go there yet. I’m going to need your help to get that hard drive. It’s too risky letting the girls walk back alone and we’ll need that Goat to get to town. That means we’re going to have to stick together, let’s finish up here before Dubois begins to wonder why his goon squad hasn’t returned.” Stryker scooped up his bootie bag and pulled out two bottles of water.
“Damn! What’re you going to tell the girls? This shit’s getting scary.” Harley accepted a bottle then drained half of it over his thinning mat of hair.
“The truth, that kid they’re trying to find is probably already dead; but Lauren won’t rest until she knows for sure. You help search for him while I pull that hard drive. With any luck, we should be there fifteen minutes tops.” Stryker followed Harley’s suit and doused his own head.
“Luck? The only luck we’ve had so far is bad. I’m starting to ache again too; we better find a place to cool off.” Harley winced as they rounded the corner of the garage.
“I’m sorry, Tony. We …” Genevieve’s apologies greeted them as they approached the Goat.
“Forget it. We’ve got a change in plans; we’re going to try to find your friend Murray then head back to the sea cave.” Stryker shirked off her apologies and dropped his bags into the bin.
“Maurice.” Lauren mumbled.
“What? Maurice what?” Stryker shrugged, barely suppressing his irritation.
“His name is Maurice.” Lauren corrected testily. Turning her back to Stryker, her tone soothed as she feigned a smile to Harley. “Will you please show me how to use that shotgun; I’m getting damn tired of having to be rescued. There’s no way I’m going to let anyone do to me what they did to that poor man, I’d rather shoot myself then end up dying that way. So, please show me how to fire it and reload, maybe I can at least draw fire from you and Tony.”
“Go ahead and show her, this ought to be interesting.” Stryker smirked as he tossed a crumpled pack of cigarettes to Harley.
Harley grinned and handed his shotgun to Lauren; he wrapped his pudgy arms around her wasp thin waist then grabbed her left hand. “Glad to! It’s damn simple, too simple actually. Grab here then yank it back until you here that; it will load a round into the chamber.” He held her left hand over the slide and briskly pulled it back with an ominous racking sound. “Point, squeeze and then hold on like hell. You don’t even have to let up on that trigger; this is a Chicom ripoff of a Trench Gun so it doesn’t have a trigger disconnector. It’ll slamfire if you don’t release that trigger.”
Lauren returned Harley’s contagious grin and asked, “What’s slamfire?” as she hoisted the gun to her shoulder and pointed it at an old dead tree.
Harley chuckled as he watched her nuzzle the beat-up stock against her shoulder. “It’ll fire six rounds as fast as you can pump. Be careful though, this 12 gauge has a bad ass kick so it’s going to give you a sore shoulder but also a hell a lot of respect. Put those bandoliers on and once we’re in a safer place I’ll show you how to reload. Now, can we get the hell out of here?”
Genevieve shook her head at Stryker. “Tony, Dmitry called; we may have a slight delay.”
“What’d my old buddy Dmitry have to say?” A wraith of smoke swirled from the cigarette hanging limply in his mouth as he hoisted a case of water into the Goat’s storage.
“His epidemiologists are concerned about leaving the bodies in the open. They are worried that gulls will eat human flesh and possibly spread the outbreak.”
“So what’re they suggesting, we can’t bury them all, there must be a couple of dozen.” He tossed the last bag into the bin with a definitive thud.
Genevieve hesitated briefly before answering. “They would prefer we carry them into the hangar and if possible, cremate their remains.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me. Why should we do Dmitry’s work for him? It’s like shooting a fucking flare into the air to announce ‘here we are, come and shoot us’.” Stryker’s butt fell from his mouth singeing a small hole in the front of his dirty, torn shirt.
“No. He seemed quite serious; he did however say he’d make it worth our while.” Genevieve cringed as Stryker snuffed the glowing embers on his shirt.
“He will will he? Bullshit! Get that damn Chechnyan eel back on the phone.” Stryker grabbed his map laying on the dash.
“I’m sorry, but there’s more. He said the epidemiologists are reporting there are now clusters in places we’ve never been. He wanted to know if anyone else besides our group was at the test site.” Genevieve asked.
“Not that I’m aware of.” Stryker shook his head as he closed the rusted, clay-spattered tailgate.
“Oh, crap; yeah, there was!” Harley slapped his wet forehead with a loud smack.
“What! Damn, Harley; you need to tell me shit like this.” Stryker’s eyes flashed with anger.
“I didn’t have time; I was too busy saving our asses.” Harley bristled at Stryker’s menacing tone.
“Yeah, you have. Sorry, I just don’t trust that damn Chechnyan, he’s up to something. Okay, who was it?” Stryker squinted at Genevieve with cold, reptilian eyes.
“It was Dubois; he came in after you’d left. He wasn’t there long though. One of the subjects sneezed on him. Pissed Dubois off and he hot-footed it out before you returned.” Harley shook his head as he inspected the Gamma Goat’s chassis for holes.
“Oh my, that may explain the new clusters.” Genevieve blurted as she tightened the bandoliers across Lauren’s ample chest. “They are occurring around the presidential palace, parliament and in a very upscale district. Dmitry believes whoever was exposed may be a superspreader and is carrying the virus beyond the quarantine zone.”
“Just what doesn’t he want us to do? Pick up and cremate all these bodies then take out Dubois but not before we convince him to allow WHO onto the island to treat a disease we probably caused.” Stryker grumbled. “Is he on the phone now?”
“No, I turned it off when you returned, I thought you may wish to discuss this in private.” Genevieve slipped the cell out from inside of her torn tunic.
“Good thinking.” Stryker grabbed the cell and snapped, “Nick, put Dmitry back on the line.”
“Yes sir, Colonel; please hold.” Nick’s soothing drawl seemed out of place amidst their chaos.
“Yes Tony, have you had a chance to discuss our offer?” Dmitry’s velvety smooth Chechnyan accent boomed over the cell’s speaker.
“Offer, is that what you call it? Do your own damn work, our plate is kind of full already. We’ll just wait things out in the cave as you suggested.” Stryker laughed.
“Unfortunately, we are having problems meeting that pickup schedule. The convoy has nearly established the quarantine lines, but Dubois refuses to allow us entry into his country. We had hoped the coup would have taken care of this issue and simply declared Espanola to be a failed state. However, Taty is close to finalizing an arrangement that Dubois may find acceptable.” Dmitry ignored Stryker’s taunting.
“Is that right? Well, you may want to tell her to hold off on that deal for a bit. Seems Dubois was present during the initial testing of the vaccine. One of the subjects sneezed on him and from the location of the new clusters I imagine he’s probably your superspreader. You may be more persuasive then me, but I kind of doubt he’ll submit to home quarantine for the good of his people.” Stryker sneered.
“Oh dear, this does complicate matters. I’ll have to talk with Taty to see what she suggests. Please stay on the line.”
“Before you go, Dmitry; just curious, what bargaining chip do you plan to offer for us to clean up this mess. And it better be good or I’m turning off this cell and heading back to the cave.”
“It would be to the best interest for all involved if you help us, Tony. We know you left some unfinished work back in town. If you help us clean up this outbreak I’ll be sure to give you something of real value.” Dmitry chuckled cryptically.
“From where I’m looking, we’re holding all the cards down here. Unless you’re more specific, we’re headed for that sea cave to sit this out.” Stryker sneered.
“Don’t be such a cowboy, Tony. Clean up that site and help us dispose of Dubois and I’ll give you back Murphy’s hard drive.” Dmitry ‘s abrupt response jolted Stryker like a hot wire.
“I don’t believe it, how’d you get it, you haven’t even landed let alone know where it’s hid.” Stryker blustered despite the doubt creeping into the pit of his stomach.
“We don’t have it, Dubois does. He sent his men to your testing site looking for your group; fortunately for us, you were not there. But, he destroyed the labs, killed the technicians and took Murphy’s computer. Apparently, he couldn’t decipher its encryption but has offered me the computer and agreed to allow us access to the island in exchange for your heads. I suggest you take our offer while you still are able. Take out Dubois and I give you my personal word that your group will be taken to a safe holding area and you can also have back your precious hard drive. Your choice but I need to know now, you have five minutes. I suggest you begin cleaning up that site before Taty concludes her call with Dubois. Five minutes, Tony, no more.”
Taty threw her pen at the teleconferencing phone’s screen. She shook her head in a rage until her strawberry blonde locks draped haphazardly over her pale blue eyes. “You fool! I can’t believe you told Stryker we don’t yet have that hard drive.” Dmitry reflexively dodged the virtual projectile while smiling timidly at her ranting. “I’d have your head if you weren’t my brother. He won’t be any use to us hiding in a cave; shit, now we have no choice but to make a deal with that butcher, Dubois. I want you on that island tonight; we already have 12 clusters to control, if Stryker won’t fix this then turn him over to Dubois.”
Drawing closer to the camera, Dmitry wisely suppressed a grin as he did his best to placate her with a brotherly smile. “Taty, I’ve known Tony for years, longer than even you. Trust me, can you really see Tony cowering in some cave. If he knows Dubois has his precious hard drive; he won’t rest until its back into his hands.”
He leaned back relaxing in the overstuffed leather chair and reached for a Cuban cigar cradled in a teakwood box. He briefly inhaled its rich aroma, the smell reminded of his early years in Columbia. The light of the match flame briefly flooded her viewer before it refocused on his smiling eased continence. “I’m sure he’ll do the job for us; I’m just trying to negotiate the best deal. Our epidemiologists are worried that the transposon may be carried off the island by gulls.”
Tapping a long ash into a gold tray he flashed a brief frown that eased back into his usual confident smile with another puff from his cigar. “Unfortunately, the UN won’t support our entry without that scoundrel Dubois’s consent. So, unless we can manipulate Tony into cleaning up that hot zone, the gulls may carry this thing to the mainland.”
Taty swept the tangle of hair from her soft blue eyes that she flashed at him from across the world. “I don’t trust anyone, especially you. I want this job finished this week. The WHO is worried, despite assurances by those stupid Americans that the contagion will get off the island. They’ve agreed to give us a bonus if we wrap it up by week’s end. Besides, if we can show Stryker’s group is responsible for its creation, that’ll give our scientists a better bargaining position at the next Biological Weapons Conference.”
Grabbing a small black book she thumbed through several pages then slammed it open onto her cluttered desk. “I want you to lob a couple of FROGs at that village tonight; we can’t take any risk that an insect vector will carry it off the island. Replace their payloads with DDT, if it has six legs I want it dead.”
Dmitry paused briefly before exhaling a lingering puff of blue smoke. He grimly shook his normally jovial bearish head. “Hmmm. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have authorization from the UN and the use of DDT may cause us problems with the Stockholm Convention. Wouldn’t you rather use an approved pesticide like DDVP or Naled?”
“Just do it! The UN is scared shitless over this thing; if it gets off that island, health care costs will skyrocket for every nation.” Taty slammed the worn book closed and tossed it into a growing pile of well-used manuscripts and glared back at Dmitry’s now solemn face on her monitor. “The UN will look the other way; they’ve enough on their hands explaining how they caused that cholera epidemic in the first place. DDT is still in limited use in Espanola; we’ll simply say it’s an emergency control measure to kill off mosquitoes carrying the UN’s cholera. They’ll think twice about objecting because it’ll remind the world they’re the ones who brought cholera to the island.”
Her anger tempered to only disdain as she blew a waft of hair from her face. “No one gives a shit about that backwater nation; they just want this thing contained. The locals will either hale us as heroes for finally ridding them of their mosquitoes or blame Dubois’ regime for dumping poisons on their villages. I don’t give a damn which, I just want this situation cleared off my desk by the end of this week.”
Dmitry’s huge barrel chest inflated with a deep, resigned sigh; he knew it was useless to argue when Taty set a timeframe. Time to her meant rubles. “Fine, I’ll order the strike once the convoy’s in place. But, what about Dubois, he has a heavy guard, I’m not sure Tony will be able to get close enough to take care of him. Our pilot dropped a Glock before we knew Tony had survived the crash but I don’t see how he’ll be able to get within pistol range. Harley managed to acquire a shotgun but other than that, they have no real fire power.”
“I’ve already taken care of that small detail, has my package arrived?” The faint enigmatic smile that twisted Taty’s fine angelic face was oddly disquieting.
“No, but I wouldn’t expect it until tonight even by a MIG, we’re about 10,000 kilometers from Moscow.” Dmitry replied while handing a hastily scribed note to a young man who had entered the room after being summoned.
“Who said its coming from Moscow? I’m having it shipped from Cuba. I kept it close to Tony just for a contingency like this. It should already be there, I want it delivered to him before he leaves that village. Who is that boy and why is he listening to our conversation?” She demanded pointing peevishly at his aid with her immaculately manicured ruby-red nails.
“He’s my page. I sent him to check on the whereabouts of your package. I’ll be sure Tony gets it before he leaves.” Dmitry waved the page away.
“Good. Aren’t you a bit curious as to its nature?” Taty smiled impishly as she looked up from sorting a stack of files strewn across her massive, cherry wood desk.
“Of course.” Dmitry grinned and shrugged his wide shoulders while nonchalantly waving his cigar. The lingering contrail of tobacco smoke accentuated his broad, relaxed smile.
Taty leaned forward mischievously as if to share a secret with her monitor. “Do you remember the game you and Tony played when we first met? He loved that horrible American sport of Varmint hunting. The two of you spent hours trying to outshoot each other in the forest near Istanbul. I never did understand your fascination with killing those poor scrawny jackal, but tolerated it for the sake of your friendship with Tony.”
Dmitry slowly stroked his thick jaw as he savored the memory. “Yes, I remember those times quite well. He always beat in me in long distance shooting with that cannon he called a pistol. I accused him of never even hitting the jackal at all; they simply fell over dead from fright.” His hearty laugh softened the wrinkles of his brow. “I enjoyed those times, we were all young and our body counts weren’t as high. Hmm, but what does that have to do with your package?”
Taty eyes lit brightly with amusement as she whispered. “That package contains Tony’s gun, it’s his beloved Varmint pistol.”
Dmitry sprang forward in his chair so quickly; ashes fell from his cigar across the front of his pinstriped vest. “What? But, you said you’d tossed it into the Caspian when he broke off your engagement!”
Taty chuckled as she watched him brush ashes from his favorite vest. “I was a spy, spies lie.”
“Are you telling me you would lie to our own brother?” Dmitry mouth gaped open with incredulity.
“I would especially lie to you. Brothers don’t need to know all the details of their younger sister’s lives.” Taty teased shaking her head like a naughty rebellious little girl.
Her girlish charm vanished as quickly as it came, replaced by the cold calculating look that unnerved her rivals. “Anyway, I took his stupid gun out of spite and kept it not only as a reminder of happier times but also for a contingency such as this. I plan to give him back his Varmint gun to take out Dubois. The Kremlin refuses to authorize us to do this hit, but we may be able to use that hard drive as bait to entice Tony to do the job for us.”
Dmitry nodded in approval, emitting a grunt of satisfaction. “Your plan may work. I’m sure he’d do the hit if he could get close enough. Do you want me to have our pilot spot for him?”
“No, that’s too obvious. Let them sweat, I’m sure he’ll find a way if he thinks he can get back that hard drive. If he succeeds, we’re rid of Dubois, if not, Dubois is rid of Tony and we have the hard drive and access to that island.” Taty’s smug smile betrayed her approval of her cunning.
“What of Tony, do you still want the deliveryman to kick his ass?”
“No, he’d probably only get himself killed anyway. But, use an operative just in case there’re any unanticipated problems. As for Tony, he screwed up years ago when he broke my trust, the Americans have a saying, ‘payback is a bitch’. As far as I’m concerned he is just another contracted agent, or a contract. Don’t screw this up or I may have to reconsider sparing your head.” Taty grabbed a folder from a stack and flipped it open; she quickly scanned its contents before scrawling her signature then flung it onto another pile.
“One more thing, I expect a dossier on all members of Tony’s party to be on my desk no later than this evening. I don’t want any surprises waiting for us when you land.” She mumbled scarcely looking up from another document.
“We’ve already completed dossiers on most of the party. In fact, Tony has a varied group; many have critical skills that may be useful for future missions. We plan to induce an Emergency Room doctor and an Evolutionary Biologist to join our crew in exchange for medical treatment after we extract them from the hot zone.” Dmitry reached for a cut glass decanter and poured himself a small shot of potato vodka. He gently swirled his shot glass releasing a faint citrus aroma before gently sipping the creamy smooth elixir.
“I expect you’ll maintain maximum containment precautions, do not take them out of the warm zone.” Taty glanced up from her signing authorizations. “You said you’ve competed dossiers on most, whose haven’t you finished?”
Dmitry lids grew heavy as he relished his shot, he poured another to buy more time before replying; Taty hated obstacles. “We’re having problems getting information on only one of Tony’s group. He’s listed as their Informational Officer. There’s scant information about him prior to this study; John Stevens, Senator Long chose him personally for this project.”
Leaning forward, he squinted soberly hiding behind his bushy eyebrows. “I have real concerns over this man. We rescued the group only because our pilot took aerial photos of them while they were being pursued by some of Dubois’ men.”
“We wouldn’t normally have intervened but this Stevens scrawled a call for help across their boat’s bow then had each look directly at the pilot. I’m sure he realized our helicopters are equipped with facial recognition technology. Tony and Harley weren’t in the group at that time, so our database only retrieved Stevens’ face.” He continued cautiously, Taty had a bad habit of shooting the messenger.
“So, what’s the problem, send me whatever you have about him from the American Operative Database.” She paused in her signing, and leaned forward to scour his face for signs of duplicity.
“This is where things get perplexing; he isn’t listed in the American Operative database. He’s listed in OUR database as possibly one of our former agents.” Dmitry answered delicately, washing the words out of his mouth with a larger shot of vodka. Taty may hate bad news but she hated deception even worse.
“What! What’s one of our agents doing in an American study? Is he undercover or did he defect?” She jumped like a deranged pixie to her feet knocking a stack of folders onto the floor.
“We’re not sure, that’s why I’m telling you it may take a bit longer to prepare his dossier. The really odd thing is he’s listed as deceased. We’ve no records of him since his reported death back in 2002. He could be a defector or he could be mole still working for us. I was hoping you could check with Mikhail at the SVR to be sure we don’t blow his cover if he’s one of our agents.” Taty could handle bad news as long as it wasn’t drawn out, it was always best to give her all the details at once no matter how painful they may be.
Taty was again animated to distraction, her confident look had evaporated, replaced instead by a rare look of concern. “Oh, shit, I hate asking Mikhail anything. He’s has a thing for me; I’m worried he may try extortion just make me sleep with me, but Cherkashin is still around as a private security analyst. If Stevens is a deep cover mole, Viktor would know, he handled both the Ames and Hanssen cases and was involved with Howard’s defection. Contact him and give him any details he may need. What agent matched Stevens face?”
“Well, it wasn’t a perfect match, only 85% suggestive but…” Dmitry hesitated, looking for the right words to help divert her coming wrath.
“I don’t have time for your rambling, Demetrius, just tell me; who was it?” Taty snapped. It was always a bad sign when she used his proper name.
“It may be Howard.” He blurted as he reached again for his decanter.
“Howard! That’s impossible, he’s dead. The SVR killed him in 2002. The scan must be wrong! Tell me all you know, if we blow an agents cover we’ll both lose our jobs. If we don’t report finding an American mole, they may conclude we’re collaborating with him and we could be imprisoned or worse. Shit!” Taty reeled back in stunned amazement, shaking her head.
“From the reports I’ve seen, the whole affair about Howard’s death was badly botched, his death was leaked to the media before a cover story was finalized. There was never a body recovered and no witnesses were ever interviewed. Pravda actually reported five different versions of his death. I worry that this all may just be a cover to hide the real fact that he was repatriated to his own country.” Taty grabbed her own crystal decanter filled with a richly amber colored beverage while he summarized his findings.
“What! This is insane, are you seriously suggesting the Americans would actually want that traitor returned to their services as a spy. Just when did you plan on telling me this small detail?” The Cuvée cognac nearly choked her as she gulped it in one shot. Her porcelain cheeks flushed briefly from the afterglow of its sweetened spicy notes.
“I find this all disturbing, also. It’s something I’m sure the SVR doesn’t wish to be disclosed. But, I’m not now convinced that he actually was a traitor. It looks like he may have been a re-doubled agent like Yurchenko. He may have only pretended to defect in order to throw us off the trail of a more important mole. Yurchenko’s dangle bought Ame’s nearly another decade; Howard may have bested even Yurchenko’s ploy.”
Dmitry unlocked an old leather attaché and withdrew a folder labeled classified. “You better have a seat; some of this information is a bit unsettling. In retrospect, the CIA now admits Howard didn’t reveal anything Ame’s hadn’t already told the KGB. Howard may have been planted once it was determined Tolkachev’s usefulness had ended. Although, at that time, they didn’t realize Ames was our mole, the US may have arranged for Howard to become their own mole and ‘betray’ Tolkachev in order act as an agent for disinformation.”
Dmitry adjusted his reading glasses as he pulled a document imprinted with the seal ‘ВЫСОКО КОНФИДЕНЦИАЛЬНЫЙ’ across its manila cover. “In 1985, several major scandals at Moscow Station convinced many in the US State Department that their Embassy and agents had all been compromised by an unknown mole. Howard was blamed for these activities and used as a scapegoat to deflect criticisms from the CIA’s Counterintelligence Officers. His supposed defection was seen as an embarrassment by most except his handlers.”
“Senators Long and Hollands were convinced a mole existed in the highest levels of both the CIA and possibly FBI, which put them at odds with most in the Senate as well as their CIA leadership. Long grew tired of the never ending stream of Gatesian sycophants and was convinced the only way to ferret out the real mole was by the formation of a clandestine group of mole hunters called VIKTR that was financed through the Special Activities Division. Bipartisan concern over moles may have been enough for Tower Commission to intentionally ignore VIKTR and focus instead on the Iran-Contra scandal. We had always suspected that a splinter group had emerged after the debacle in Moscow Station, but since Ames was out of that loop, we had no way to track their activities.”
Dmitry scarcely looked at Taty as he pulled yet another document from inside the attaché. “Ames simply exploited all these events to his own advantage and used Howard and another agent, Jonathan Pollard, to divert the CIA from his own activities. His sacrificing of Pollard and Howard bought him nearly another decade of use. Ames had thought he’d used Howard to cover his own tracks, but in fact he had unwittingly aided VIKTR in placing Howard as their mole into the KGB. Even the CIA had no knowledge of Howard’s role as an agent for VIKTR.”
“Nearly a decade later, the FBI used an operative named Eringer who was undercover as an editor and literary agent to supposedly assist Howard in writing his memoirs. Eringer had initially believed his work was a ruse to lure Howard to a country where he could be captured in a sting operation they called “Extraordinary Rendition.” Our SVR initially paid little attention to this but now believe Howard had also snookered Eringer and used his manuscript as a means of communicating to VIKTR information he had obtained from disgruntled former KGB agents.”
“We continued the sham of treating him as a defector for a decade, I’m sure he was seen as a marked man so his death seemed a natural outcome of a treasonous spy. His case was seen as being closed. It wasn’t until our man Serge ran a brute force attack on Howard’s book using COPACOBANA that the depth of the charade was revealed. They found Howard’s “A Spy’s Guide to Central Europe” that Eringer had published posthumously on his blog, wasn’t only a memoir; it was also a cryptogram for highly classified ongoing SVR operations. Apparently, Howard had also done this with a previous memoir published in 1995 called ‘Safe House.’”
“That’s the extent of information I have on Howard. The only real issue is we really don’t know if Stevens is actually Howard. What do you suggest we do?” Dmitry closed his attaché case shaking his head as he downed the last of his vodka.
Taty scowled and followed suit with her cognac. “It gives me a headache trying to keep up with your spy doings, all the smoke and mirrors, lies and delusions.”
“Finish your job with Tony; I’ll take care of this issue with Stevens. If he isn’t our agent he is of no real concern to this mission and if he is, then we’re better off not knowing anything about him. I’ll contact Cherkashin to see what he suggests. I expect you to land tonight, keep me informed. Let me know if Tony refuses to clean up that village, if he won’t then we have no choice but to reveal his location to Dubois.”
Genevieve contorted around the steering wheel as she groped blindly for the buzzing phone. “Oh dear, where’s that cell. I dropped it somewhere under the seat.”
Lauren dropped to her knees and rooted through trash. Dredging out a few bags, she wrinkled her nose in disgust at the treasure trove of garbage. “Ewww, nasty. I hear it but can’t feel… wait, wait here it is! There!” She fished out the cell along with a pile of old candy wrappers.
Genevieve hastily fumbled to open its cover. “Hello, hello.”
“Sister Genevieve, are you okay? You sound winded.” Dmitry’s deep Russian accent boomed over the cell.
“Oh yes, I’m sorry I dropped the cell while we were loading supplies into the truck.” She wiped melted chocolate off the cell with her dirty tunic.
“Is Tony available? I need an answer to my earlier question.” The soothing cadence of Dmitry’s rich baritone voice could charm the hump off a thirsty camel.
“Here he comes, hold on.” Genevieve jumped up from her seat and slowly waved the cell in the air. Harley and Stryker strained as they lugged another body toward the Goat.
“It’s Dmitry.” Stryker flashed an irritated scowl as he unceremoniously dumped the body bag onto the tailgate.
“I’m kind of busy down here, Dmitry. What do you want?” Stryker wiped his forehead with an improvised bandana.
“Oh!” Dmitry’s brief pause betrayed his jubilation. “Are you already recovering the bodies? That’s excellent; I told Taty we could count on you.”
“Yeah, well seeing you’re basically holding a gun to my head, I really don’t see how I had much choice. Dubois’ stooges took out a couple of dozen of mainly young men down here.” Stryker poured a cool bottle of water over his bandana before draining the rest with a long, thirsty swig.
“That’s consistent with our intelligence. He was fearful of reprisal so used the outbreak to help even old scores. Our epidemiologists plan to sterilize the village later today, so you need to gather whatever supplies you can manage and leave there at once. My team plans to extract Drs. Kirby and Carré shortly. May I assume your John Stevens is unarmed?” The tempered urgency in his voice briefly faltered at the mention of Stevens.
“You can assume anything you want, but armed or not, Stevens is more than likely going to drop any of your men who actually manage to enter that cave.” Stryker flashed a wet whimsical grin at the thought of Dmitry wearing a biohazard suit looking down the barrel of Stevens’ Colt.
“Hmmm, now that is a bit problematic.” Dmitry coolly shrugged off Stryker’s laugh with a gracious offer. “Therefore, I have a proposal that may be mutually beneficial to all parties. Our research team needs blood samples from each of you to determine exactly what sort of contagion we are fighting. Since your group is presumably all infected and needs a safer place to ride out this quarantine, I suggest you return to the cave and convince Stevens to allow us to extract whoever may need medical care. We’d be willing to allow your group the comfort of our warm zone for the remainder of the quarantine.”
“Oh thank God, we don’t have to stay in that damn cave.” Lauren clapped her wet hands.
“Rescued! You got to be kidding? You need to tell them, Tony.” Harley grunted as he pulled the blue tarp bodybag into the Goats’ bed.
“You sure?” Stryker flashed a look of surprise. Harley nodded. Matted hair clung to his dirty sunburnt brow.
“Yeah, they need to know where we stand to make their choice.” Harley only managed to smear the dirty smudges as he wiped a soiled rag over his pudgy, beet-red face.
Deep shadows creased Stryker’s lean face as he cocked his head. “Look, Dmitry’s a collector just like me. He’s here for two reasons, to isolate the contagion and to collect specimens for possible use as biologicals. Ain’t that right, Dmitry?”
“Tony, I don’t think this is the proper time…” Dmitry’s frosty interjection hid his rage.
“Biologicals, what does that mean?” Lauren stared blankly at Stryker.
“Turn off that cell. We’ll call you back, Dmitry.” Startled, Genevieve nearly dropped the cell.
“Your turn Harley, this is above my paygrade.” Stryker pivoted like a toy soldier on parade as he grabbed another box of supplies.
“You gals have the right to know. You’re in this as bad as we are, so I’ll give it to you straight; Murphy’s clinical study also had other uses, military ones.” Harley’s drawl dissolved into his most professional Senatorial oration. “I won’t get into specifics, but Tony collects biological agents from epidemics for the military to study.”
“Oh God, do you mean Murphy released a biological weapon! No wonder everyone’s trying to kill us!” Lauren gasped, spewing water from her mouth as she choked on her bottle of water.
Harley frantically waved his dirty palms like a deranged flagman. “No, no, no, no, not even close! There were no biological weapons involved in this project. A very small component could possibly be worthy of additional studies and that’s it. Tony routinely works in areas with active outbreaks we call Hot Zones.”
Stryker threw Harley a cold irritated look as he interjected. “Dmitry is my Russian counterpart; it’s why I don’t trust him. His rapid response team isn’t here on a rescue mission, it’s here to enforce quarantine and collect specimens. He sees us only as a source for spreading more clusters and as hosts containing specimens. The Russians are notorious for collecting specimens from the sickest or dead. Their reasoning is, if a host was killed, it probably harbored the most virulent forms of the contagion.”
“I basically track outbreaks of emerging diseases which sometimes requires me to enter into Hot Zones during an active outbreak; that’s what’s happening here.” Stryker leaned against the rusty hood of the Goat as he accepted a cigarette peace offering from Harley.
Lauren coughed as she fanned a waft of smoke back toward his relaxed, sinewy frame. “Gosh, you sure smoke a lot for a spy!”
“That’s because I’m not a fucking spy! Now, may I please continue?” Stryker blew a stream of smoke back at her.
She screwed up her cute, pug nose and grumbled. “Disgusting habit, even for a spy!”
Ignoring her taunts he snuffed out his cigarette on the hood after only a single puff. “The real problem is our bureaucrats have no clue how to classify this damn thing and Dmitry’s in the same boat. It’s not listed as an infectious agent in our lists or even an Emerging Disease. So why does this matter?” He gazed coldly down his sharp predatory beak at Lauren like a professor grilling an inattentive student.
“God, I don’t know! Why?” Lauren squirmed under his stern glare but she refused to kowtow to this spy.
“Because, how a contagion is classified determines which department runs the show. Many operations bog down or are delayed because of in fighting over who’s in charge.” He shot her a thin smile. “Each department has a different policy for how they contain and treat an agent. Science has a tendency to be trendy, and experts are treated as rock stars, many of them think their expertise is a lot broader than it usually is. Most have a lot of knowledge in a very limited field, there’s nothing sadder than seeing a virologist trying to control an outbreak from a bacteria or fungi.”
“Then how did all this happen?” Lauren huffed throwing her arms wide and pointing at the bodies stacked in the Goat.
“Good question. The van Winkle managed to slide under our radar because it isn’t considered infectious. Murphy didn’t even have to use Biosafety precautions when he created it; he just assembled it on an open bench. Since it was never officially alive, I’m sure the Chemical boys are probably making their case to run this show even as we speak.” Stryker nodded his head approvingly at her quick comeback.
“Once Dmitry obtains samples, he’ll just sell them on the black market or offer them to a ‘boutique’ collector specializing in weaponized strains before officially depositing it into the World Federation Collection.”
Looking longingly at the remains of his butt he sighed. “Here’s the gist on what makes van Winkle so special, there’re only about a couple of dozen naturally occurring biologicals suited for use in bioweaponary and most of those aren’t really all that virulent. Very few are able to kill as quickly as van Winkle.”
“Hell, just the fact symptoms appear so rapidly and worsen with activity makes it a near perfect biological. The cardinal rule in warfare is don’t kill ‘em, maim ‘em. It ties up their resources and is demoralizing as hell.” Stryker grunted a cold hard laugh.
He reached for his cigarette butt and raised an eyebrow to Lauren while grinning broadly; she acquiesced with a nod of her head. “People like Dmitry are experts with no qualms about selling biologicals to whoever is willing to pay. Of course if you asked Dmitry he’d just say, ‘terrorists can get these strains the same as us, but, it’s easier to buy them. And the best part is they’ll only succeed in killing themselves anyway and I’ll still have their money.’ I have to admit there is some truth to his perverse logic.”
Lighting the slightly crooked butt Stryker inhaled a deeply satisfying puff then blew a long gentle stream of smoke into the air. “The Russian collection at VECTOR contains over 10,000 entries from Blue Mold to Red Tides. Hell, it’s a regular rainbow garden of delights.” Another long drag as he eased back against the Goat’s hood while savoring the dwindling glowing fag.
“Back in ‘79, while I was in Liberia, I ran into a group of Russians looking for victims of Lassa fever in a local hospital. They gave me some cock and bull story that they needed the virus to make antibodies, just in case their citizens came down with the disease. They pestered the CDC officials for a year trying to get samples we’d collected.”
“When did you first meet Dmitry?” Lauren was transfixed, captivated by his reminiscences of intrigue.
“That’s where I first met him. He was one of the KGB’s ‘illegals’ and had just started as a Collector for a top secret operation the Russians called ‘Department 12’.”
“I didn’t know there were legal spies. Aren’t they all illegal?” Lauren knit her pencil-thin brows in bewilderment.
“Illegals is spook talk for what Hollywood calls ‘sleeper agents’. They live undercover lives indistinguishable from regular citizens in their assigned country. Dmitry and I met again shortly after the Lassa Fever episode but this time it was during an Ebola outbreak in Sudan. Only seeing each other wearing biohazard suits did we realize we were both Collectors. But, by then we had already become friends and he introduced me to his sister, Taty.”
Stryker ground the remainder of his butt decisively onto the old hood, smudging his fingers with a brownish-red stain from rust. “Trouble is, Dmitry is also a former KGB agents, one that Stevens…let’s say has issues with. Stevens is more than likely to shoot them all on sight let alone offer them a sample of his blood. So, this could get nasty. Just how bad are the other two of your group?” He glared coldly at Genevieve’s sweet sun-bronzed face.
Shaking her head slowly her voice dropped as she answered. “Very bad. It’s why we’re here. Gisèle was able to speak when we left but is severely dehydrated. Frank was in a near coma and I fear he needs dialysis. I know we should rescue Maurice, but I do think we should first get medical care for Gisèle and Frank.”
Nodding his head, he turned toward Harley. “That’s what I thought. Okay Harley, what do you want to do?”
“In ‘nam we had a motto, ‘never leave a man behind’. The kid may already be a goner so I’m for helping the living first. I think we should meet Dmitry back at that cave and go from there.” Harley returned Stryker’s unflinching gaze as he pulled the Goat’s keys from a torn pocket.
“Oh God, Maurice needs us too, but Harley is probably right. Can we look for him after we get help for Gisèle and Frank?” Lauren’s fingers blanched white as she gripped the stock of her shotgun.
“Okay, I’m game too; we’ll hunt for him once Frank and Gisèle are safe. Anyone who wishes can remain in the sea cave if they prefer. Fire up that cell and get Dmitry back on line, Genevieve. We need to finish up here. Once we torch that hangar, this place is going to be swarming with their troops.” Stryker grabbed an old beat up can of fuel and poured aviation fuel over the hangar walls.
“Do we have to cremate them?” Genevieve gently touched Stryker’s arm as he headed into the hangar’s old wooden interior.
Shaking her hand aside he threw another splash on the oil stained walls. “Sorry, it’s a health issue and they’re already dead. Pray for them if you like. Get that Goat away from here, we don’t need it to go into flames along with this hangar, it’s our only ride out of here.”
Genevieve sighed as she climbed into the driver’s seat, her lips moved silently in a prayer. “Get Dmitry on that line, I’m hot as hell and hurting all over again, we need to cool off soon before we all end up as specimens in some freezer at Koltsovo.”
Stryker pitched the empty fuel can into the back of the Goat with a hollow rattle. Meticulously wiping fuel from his hands with an old rag, he snapped. “You got Dmitry on that cell yet?”
“Nick’s patching him through now.” Genevieve smiled as she offered him the cell.
Dmitry’s velvety voice drifted from the speaker, it had a slow, natural measure that was very disarming; Genevieve wondered how many he’d literally knocked dead with that soothing charm. “Oh good! I’m glad you called. I was just on the line with our epidemiologists. They asked if there are any gulls in your area.”
“Yeah, I see a few. Why?” Stryker brusquely replied, scanning the skies with binoculars, while ignoring Dmitry’s charismatic probing.
Dmitry continued in his usual polished diplomatic manner, honed by years of subtle manipulation. “They would like you to kill any you see. They believe gulls could be carriers and may spread the van Winkle to the mainland by eating the remains of the dead.”
“Damn, you got to be kidding!” Stryker’s outburst hid a thin smile as he focused the old binoculars on a faint speck nearly hidden by a few clouds; focusing revealed a distant hovering helicopter. Gotcha, you son of a bitch! He nodded his head slowly like a ravenous predator savoring its prey.
Dmitry hastened his requests, his tone shifting nearly imperceptibly as he sensed Stryker had now become the hunter. “Sadly, no. Just finish and then head for the cave. With any luck, you should have your hard drive back by this evening and we can begin treating this outbreak.”
“Too bad I don’t believe in luck, Fortes Fortuna Juvat.” Stryker scoffed with derision while scrutinizing the distant helicopter through the ancient well-worn binoculars.
“Do this for me and I’ll see to it you’re adequately prepared my friend. Taty has a present waiting for you at the sea cave.” Dmitry fondled the stub of his cigar as he felt a growing sense of unease at the mention of her name. Taty hated obstacles and Stryker certainly had the potential to become a hindrance.
“Have your pilot spot for us until we make it back to the cave, this hangar’s going to be a smoke signal to any in the area. I’ll see you at the cave in a couple of hours or so. However, I’d suggest you don’t try to enter it until we’re there. Stevens won’t be as forgiving of your past indiscretions.” Stryker flashed a broad crocodilian smile at the thought of Dmitry in a biohazard suit looking down the barrel of Stevens’ Colt.
“Wait for me at the entrance! Talk to you later.” Stryker slammed the cell shut and flipped it unceremoniously back to Genevieve who scrambled to catch it in midair. “We need to get the hell out of her, he’s up to something.”
“Hey Harley, come on over here and bring Lauren.” Stryker hollered at Harley who was picking through a pile of cans like a fat, old raccoon.
Harley ambled back to the Goat toting a bag containing a few cans of peaches in one hand and a Glock in the other. “What’s up? Most this shit is out of date; I hope it doesn’t make us sick.” He quipped looking at a label; his piggish eyes twinkling brightly at his own sarcasm.
Stryker chuckled at the gallows humor while motioning Lauren to join them. “You ever do any bird hunting?”
Harley threw his head back in surprise and cracked. “Hell yeah! Down in Louisiana, I hunted quail with my great-granddaddy while we BOTH were in diapers. What birds do you want done. This’ll be a great chance to teach Lauren how to shoot that 12 gauge.” Lauren quietly sidled up to join them, nervously taking the 12 gauge Stryker offered.
“Keep your hands away from that until Harley clears you.” Stryker swatted her hand as she reached for the trigger. She snatched her hand back and murmured. “Sorry.”
“Gulls. Dmitry said they may spread this van Winkle so he wants us to clean them out before we leave.” A gull swooped by them even as he spoke; landing near a body Stryker had just stacked in the hangar. It waddled to the corpse and pecked viciously at the body’s bloody fingers. Stryker’s SIG rang out an explosive round, evaporating the bird into a cloud of feathers and blood. “Take care of them, even if they aren’t spreading disease, these villagers deserve better than that.”
Harley shot a toothy grin at Lauren then pointed toward a distant rusty truck near a small trash heap. “I saw a few around that old truck, I’ll birddog for her and she can get some practice. Come on Lauren, its time you learned to be more than just a target carrying a shotgun.”
Lauren plucked at his torn sleeve as they approached the truck. “Harley, I’m afraid. I want to help but don’t know if I can shoot this thing.”
“Oh, hell. It’s easy as pie; I bet you’ll actually enjoy blowing away them nasty ass birds. It’s not like they do anything useful, all they do is shit on everything and squawk nonstop.” He flippantly chuckled as he covered her hands on the stock with his own pudgy bear paws.
“I know you must tire of having to rescue Genevieve and me. I want to help but I’m no hero like you three.” She sighed as she tearfully gazed into his smiling eyes.
“What are you talking about? I’m no damn hero.” Harley stammered; stopping dead in his tracks. His thoughts vacillated between rage and shame but he only managed a confused blustering denial.
“Yes you are! You have all those medals for bravery from your service in Vietnam.” Lauren squeezed his hands tightly.
“I got those medals because I was a dumb ass kid. There ain’t no heroes in war, only survivors. I woke up drunk surrounded by the bodies of both my friends and the enemy. It was either Court Martial me or reward me, and since my Dad was a Senator, they thought it best to honor me.” Harley laughed awkwardly.
“Well, you saved me from those men earlier, no matter what you say; I think you’re a hero. So are Tony and John. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” Lauren confessed with a coy smile.
“Tony was a crazy ass sniper in ‘nam, there ain’t nothing normal about a sniper, I wouldn’t suggest using him as a model. But he’s a good man and a patriot, John is too but he’s a tad complex.” Harley smiled patting her hands gently.
“John never says very much, is he okay?”
Harley grunted slowly shaking his head. “It’s like I say, he’s complex. It’s best not to get too involved in his affairs. I’ll tell you this though, there’s not a man on this island he fears.”
“Harley, may I share something very personal with you?” Lauren pulled his strong pudgy arm close to her for courage.
“Go ahead, I’m a Senator, we’re good at keeping secrets. Hell, I can’t tell you how long I’ve had to keep my mouth shut about those aliens we’d stored in Area 51. Just kidding, I’ll hush now and just listen.” He gave her a friendly hug that she willingly accepted.
Lauren deeply sighed then looked away distantly as she recounted her fears. “Harley, I was terrified when those soldiers captured us, they said they were going to rape us first then kill us. I haven’t told this to very many but I want you to know why you’re my hero.”
When she looked back at him with solemn brown eyes, he saw courage he hadn’t seen since the jungles of Vietnam.
“When I was only 13, my father died and my mother was forced to move us into the Projects. We lived in a poor part of town run by Mexican gangs. They told my older brother that if he didn’t join the gang, they would rape me. My brother loved me so he joined them hoping they’d leave me alone. He was killed shortly after during a gang war and my mother died in shame a few years later. I vowed to her that I’d restore our family’s honor avenging his death and regain my honor the gangs stole from me. It’s why I became a journalist; I wanted to expose the evil of people like gang members and help those like my mother.”
“If there’s a hero among our group, you’re it. I swear I’ll never let them touch you or Genevieve. So, let me show you how to rapid fire that 12 gauge, who knows you may want to go bird hunting with me when we get back home.” Harley repressed his tears as he hugged her shoulders.
Lauren carefully accepted the shotgun and cautiously racked a round. “Show me!”
Stryker briefly looked up from stocking the bin at the explosive echoing of multiple shotgun blasts. “Care to drive, Genevieve? Harley and I’ll ride shotgun in case we run into any trouble.”
“I’d love to, that Goat looks fun. Where are we going?” Genevieve handed Stryker the last case of bottled water she’d taken from the clinic.
Stryker threw it into the bin then nimbly sprang from the bed and slammed the rusty mud-caked tailgate closed. “Dmitry plans to meet us back at that sea cave as soon as we can get there. Are there any roads nearby that’ll get us close?”
“No, that cave is really very remote. Lauren and I had to walk through a section of jungle just to find the trail, and I’m sure the path isn’t wide enough for the Goat. There is, however, a road that goes to the beach; but it’ll first take us closer to town. Is that okay?” Genevieve grabbed the damp map from the dash and carefully ironed it out on the sunbaked hood with her petite hands.
“Nada, I prefer we remain out of sight. Hold on, here comes Harley and Lauren, we need to find us a safer route.”
Harley sauntered up while popping shells into the chamber with his thumb. “Did we miss anything?” He flipped on the safety before handing the shotgun back to a now grinning Lauren.
Stryker nodded them a greeting as he held the damp fluttering map onto the hot hood. “You tell me, how’s her shooting?”
Harley’s belly laugh jiggled his ample frame as he wiped his sweaty face onto a sleeve. “She’s a natural born bird killer. Nary a one got away, and I took care of the few that did. Are we ready to get out of here?”
“Yeah, just about. The Goat’s bin is packed full. Genevieve’ll drive. I want you to ride shotgun with me just in case we run into trouble.” Stryker shot Lauren an approving smirk that she returned in kind.
“Good idea. Where’re we going?” Harley waddled to Stryker’s side and examined a red circled area on the map.
“To that sea cave, Dmitry will be there in about 2 hours. There’s only one road out of here and it isn’t safe, so we need to find another route.” Stryker traced his finger on a winding yellow highlighted line.
“What about that river branch, where’s it go?” Harley squinted at a thin blue line then definitively jabbed a fat finger at its intersection with the main river.
Genevieve opened a pair of reading glasses she’d pulled from inside her tunic and leaned close to examine the map. She looked up slowly shaking her head. “Well, it heads toward the beach alright, but its banks are impassable, they’re far too muddy for travel.”
Harley fondly patted the driver’s seat of the Goat and chuckled. “Shit, this Goat makes its own roads. Are there any rapids on that branch?”
Genevieve again peered over the wire-rims perched on her nose at the map then delicately pointed to a section close to a cove. “A few in one spot, about four miles from here, just before the river breaks onto the beach.”
She glanced up at Harley, her head cocked with a look of confusion. “But I don’t see how that’s going to help us. Even with six wheels, I’m sure we we’ll get stuck in the mud. The land’s just too marshy for anything but horses or mules and it gets worse the closer we get to the sea. Its banks are covered in mangroves and rice paddies grow next to them. ”
“You ever drive a duck?” Harley chuckled as he walked around the Goat.
“A duck? I don’t understand.”
“An amphibious vehicle, we call them ducks.” Harley’s voice drifted from underneath the Goat while examining its undercarriage.
“No, but I’m sure I could learn.”
“There’s nothing to it, just don’t freak out when we take on water.” Harley scrambled to his feet while futilely beating the dust off his filthy, torn pants.
“Take on water! Do you mean we may sink?” Genevieve yelped wide-eyed in alarm.
Harley chuckled as he leaned against the Goat’s massive tires. “It’s going to look like it, these Goats float but they ride pretty damn low in the water, especially carrying the four of us and a bin full of supplies. They sort of crawl through the water, they’re slow but are built just for this sort of terrain. Goats love mud!”
Harley’s reassurance did little to quell Genevieve’s apprehension. “It’s not the mud I worry about!” she stammered.
“Anything you want to keep dry you better throw into that bin, we’re all about to get soaked. I need a bath anyway.” Harley looked like a rooting pig as he wrinkled his nose in disgust while smelling his sweat-stained armpits.
Stryker ran his hand around the seal on the tailgate before slamming it closed again, throwing a small cloud of red dust into the air. “How’d those hull plugs look?”
“We may take on some water but I think they’ll hold.” Harley grunted as he climbed over the tailgate into Goat’s bed. “Alright Genevieve, crank ‘er up and let’s take this baby for a swim. Which bank has the most mud?”
Genevieve turned the key and the two-stroke diesel roared to life with a high pitched scream. She yelled while pointing to the opposite bank. “Oh, the other side for sure, it’s impassable. That’s why there are no villages in this area except for here. So, do you want me to stay on this side?”
Harley’s contagious grin infected them all. “Hell no!” He hollered through cupped hands. “I want you to drive this Goat right into it the river. We’re heading for the opposite shore. If it’s that impassable, it means we won’t have to worry about close combat, only snipers. Goats are loud, so we need to stay clear of this side if we don’t want to be heard.”
“Are you sure?” Genevieve hesitated as she grabbed the wheel and slammed the Goat into gear.
“Yep, let’s do it. You’re in for the ride of your life. Hell, these things were fun even in ‘nam with people shooting at us. This is going to be a hoot!” Harley yelled like a kid on a roller coaster.
Stryker lit a Molotov cocktail he had prepared and tossed it into the hangar’s fuel drenched interior. Orange tongues of fire exploded as the walls burst into flames. “Let’s get out of here!”
The Goat lunged forward toward the river; the independent suspension gave an amazingly smooth ride despite the raucous noise. It splashed into the water and smoothly treaded its way toward the other side with waves lapping near the top of its doors. “Oh gosh, Harley the water is almost over the door, this is really scary. I, I, I think we’re sinking.”
“Nah, they ride low in the water, just let me know if your feet get wet.” Harley yelled while inspecting the floating trailer for leaks. Lauren giggled in amazement as she dipped her hands in the cool river water streaming by the cab.
“My feet have been wet since we entered the river.” Genevieve glanced over her shoulder and nervously watched as the river bank receded into the distance.
“What! Crap, we must have a leaky weld in the front. Hit the switch for the bilge pump by the steering wheel; that should dry us out.” Harley shouted as he craned his neck to peer into the cab.
“It doesn’t seem to do anything and the water is now over my ankles. Oh my, what do we do, I think we’re going to sink.” Genevieve hands turned white as she gripped the steering wheel.
“Oh hell, head for the shore, hit it. The front seals may be trying to give away. Damn, I hope we don’t have to swim!” Harley swore.
“Me too or I’m in trouble, I can’t swim!” Genevieve revved the engine louder, yet their forward speed remained barely a crawl.
Stryker threw his pack of cigarettes into the bin then shouted. “I think we may be overloaded; everybody who can swim, into the water! Jump!”
Lauren clambered over the front door into the water as Harley did a cannon ball jump out the rear. Stryker dove head first into the river, barely making a splash. They floated together as they watched the Goat suddenly lurch forward toward the bank.
“I think I’m in the mud now. What should I do?” Genevieve’s shouting was barely audible over the roar of the diesel.
“Pull it up to the shore and just idle, we’ll swim to you, just wait for us.” Harley sputtered choking on water as he dog paddled toward the Goat. “I need to check those seals and find out why that bilge pump didn’t kick in.”
The trio sloughed their way through mud toward the idling Goat. Harley wallowed in the mud as he inspected the hull plugs. “Damn, those plugs look fine, there must be a broken weld somewhere underneath. I don’t think you were in danger of sinking though. But, hit that pump switch again, I want to see why it’s not working.”
Genevieve nervously stammered as she reached under the wheel to flip a switch “See, I don’t think it’s working.”
“Hell, no wonder. You hit the light switch try the one next to it.” Harley chuckled.
A huge arc of water shot over the left side of the Goat soaking Stryker as he started to light a cigarette. “Son of a bitch, you had better have a dry cigarette, Harley. That was my last pack.”
“Sorry Tony!” Harley burst into a hearty laugh at the site of Stryker drenched in muddy spray. “Yeah, I found a few packs when I was foraging at the village, get me one too if you don’t mind, I stored them in a bag in the bin.”
Harley gave Genevieve his biggest Cheshire Cat grin. “There you go, the pump should keep the cab dry. Head back out into the river or run the mud, it’s up to you.”
“If you don’t mind I prefer staying in the mud, as long as we don’t get stuck.” Genevieve smiled.
“Suit yourself, but stay out just a bit. It’s less buggy out here. At this clip we should be at the beach in less than an hour.”
“I don’t know about anyone else but after all of this excitement, I’m famished. Anyone care for a snack?” Lauren squealed as she pulled bags of potato chips from a sack.
“Hot damn, junk food! Do you have any candy bars in that sack?” Harley asked as he crawled back into the trailer. Lauren tossed him a couple of bars and offered Genevieve a bag of chips.
“What about you, Tony. Aren’t you hungry?”
“I’ll wait for later, carbs make me drowsy, but thanks.” Stryker kept a vigilant eye on the shoreline as the Goat slowly crawled downstream toward the cove.
Genevieve hadn’t exaggerated about the river’s remoteness and inaccessibility. Palms, mangroves and cacao trees filled with the raucous calls of birds cluttered its banks. An occasional anole lizard fell from branches onto the Goat as it brushed trees gently aside. They menacingly puffed out their red throat fans before scurrying over the side. A distant roar of surf was barely noticeable over the chugging diesel. Finally they drifted past rice paddies and fields of cabbages toward a small picturesque village near the river’s mouth. Brightly hued, painted shacks were strewn around seemingly at random over a pristine alabaster shore. A small peninsula jutted into the cerulean seas terminating with a mount of green.
Stryker nudged Harley and nodded toward a dilapidated shanty with only a tattered rag for a door. Its colorful fading blue concrete walls contrasted beautifully with the rusty red of its corrugated steel roof. But, Stryker wasn’t admiring its quaintness, a pair of naked human legs protruded from inside its dark disturbing interior.
The Goat crawled slowly toward a deserted rocky cove; twisted mats of mangrove roots scraped their hull as they drifted through the murky waters.
“This place creeps me out.” Lauren jerked her hand back from the water after the caress of a bony-fingered root.
The echoes of singing jungle birds faded into the distance, only to be replaced by the sound of a desolate breeze whistling eerily across the barren beach. “Is there a village near this cove?” Stryker squinted tensely through the binoculars at the distant roiling surf.
“No, just a few huts. The locals fear this area because of that mountain; they call it Cauta.” Genevieve shouted over her shoulder as the Goat clambered though tidal mud flats; scattering a cast of foraging fiddler crabs that angrily waved them away before burrowing into the wet mud. She briefly pointed to a large rocky turtle-shaped prominence jutting out into a turbulent sea of foam; its long shadow draped over the lonely mist-shrouded peninsula.
Harley tapped Stryker’s shoulders and pointed for the binoculars. “Damn, that mountain looks just like a giant sea turtle crawling from the sea.”
Genevieve swerved to dodge a large root, nearly tossing Harley onto the Goat’s bed. “It’s why the Taino revered it; they believed a turtle crawled from the ocean depths to lay eggs that would become men. There’re two caves near its base. According to their myths, the first was the home of a savage tribe of cannibals. The second, Cacibajagua, is where the Taino believed they once lived as spirits.”
Lauren accepted the binoculars from Harley. Genevieve throttled back on the Goat, coughing briefly from the irritating odor of rotten eggs wafting from decaying mats of grass. “In their creation story, a watchman named Mácocael, guarded its entrance. One morning, he returned late from watch and was turned into stone when struck by the rising sun’s rays. Petrified, he was unable to warn the others that it was now day. The sun’s glare changed fishermen into cherry plum trees and even Yahubaba, the Old One, was transformed into a nightingale.”
She slowly swung the Goat around the remains of an old, dilapidated pier. “One trickster, Guahayona, convinced the women spirits to paint their faces black with fruit juice. He then led them from the cave into the land of the living. But, their children hesitated and were turned into frogs when they left the cave’s darkness. The islanders teach their children that the frogs’ nightly singings are actually the calls of spirit children crying out for their mothers. The locals tell these tales to keep them children from straying out alone at night and to protect them from evil both real and spiritual.”
Genevieve caught a glimpse of Stryker in her mirror, shaking his head while grinning at Harley. “Cute. Now, if we are done with your fairy tale, we need to check out this area. Who lives in those huts?”
Harley pointed toward a large tree swarming with raucously cawing crows. Genevieve strained while peering toward the compound. “Michael la Fyè. He’s feared even more than those caves. He’s an Obeah-man descended from Mackandal the Mawon and his mother was a Taino related to Anacaona.”
“A snake?” Lauren asked as she focused the binoculars onto the remote shack’s door.
“Not anaconda, Anacaona. She was the Taino princess who swam into the sea to greet Columbus.” Genevieve smiled.
Stryker shrugged as he placed another magazine into his jacket. “I’m not worried about magic just as long as he isn’t armed.”
“Do you know anything about Obeah, Tony?” Genevieve shouted over the engine, her voice rising in concern.
“Only that it’s just some bullshit form of Voodoo.” Stryker swore as he spat out the gnawed remains of a well-chewed toothpick into the swirling waters of their wake.
“It’s not Voodou, it’s not even related. It’s much older and deadlier. The people here believe he is a duppie, one of the spirits of the dead. They fear he can steal their shadows.” Genevieve continued; her sun-baked face now pale and drawn.
“Stealing shadows, duppies, I don’t have time for superstitions. Is he armed or not?” Stryker shook his head.
“He’s a poisoner, there’re none more proficient in the use of natural poisons than Obeah-men!” Genevieve blurted.
“How do you know so much about him? Stryker grunted with a patronizing smirk.
“We are sort of colleagues. We’ve worked together many times helping sick villagers. He considers himself as my protector and I think of him as a friend.” Genevieve glared back at him through the rear view mirror.
“Good God! How and the hell can you call some bone rattling witchdoctor a friend let alone a colleague?” Harley glanced up from his foraging for a candy bar in the bin.
“He isn’t as you think, Harley. He was once a biochemist and worked for a drug company. When his father died, he believes his father’s spirit called to him in a dream saying he’d been chosen to be a Boitiu, a healing Obeah-man. Boitius are the enforcers of laws and sanction only the evil ones who threaten their communities.” Genevieve smiled softly at Harley as she accepted the candy bar and offered half to Lauren.
“Even the authorities fear him, as you should. He does not know you, so show him respect and do not threaten him in anyway.” Genevieve warned wide-eyed, shaking her head ominously.
Stryker pointed toward a teetering boat pier. “Pull up there. We want to be sure Dubois’ men aren’t around, we won’ be long. I’ll be sure to pay your friend for his time.”
“He doesn’t want your money. Just show him respect and let him know you’re my friend and that I’m outside. Hopefully, he’ll help you and not blame us for the bad mojo that is plaguing their island.”
Stryker leapt agilely from the truck onto the rickety pier. Harley grunted as he rolled over the tailgate falling unceremoniously onto the deck. He waddled toward the passenger seat to check on Lauren. “Are you going to be alright with that shotgun?”
Lauren ejected a shell then quickly reloaded it into the magazine. “Is that right?”
“Yep, you did good. Just remember, ninguna misericordia! Shoot the bastards on sight!” He grinned at her proudly like a father watching his daughter first learning to ride a bike.
“Sí, ninguna misericordia!” Lauren managed a feeble but sincere smile as she briefly squeezed his hand.
Harley scurried to join Stryker under an enormous Jumbee tree towering over a crumbling stone wall. Its weathered gnarly trunk warped by winds, reminded him of an old hag’s face. The tree’s spiny limbs swooped low, laden with swollen seed pods emanating a bilious smoky cloud of yellow fibers. A white goat briefly paused its nibbling then cocked its head at Harley. It bleated and flashed him an oddly human smile; its golden eyes twinkled in mirth.
“Damn, Lauren’s right; this place creeps me out! Even the animals look possessed.” He shivered and rubbed at the standing hairs on the back of his neck.
“Is that a G18?” Stryker glanced at Harley’s Glock as he released its safety.
“G18C, and Dmitry even threw in an extended magazine! I’ll have to thank him, if I don’t shoot him first.” Harley flourished the Glock with a campy grin. “This should do just fine.”
Stryker nodded with a thin approving smile. “You think you can handle it in full auto?”
“Yeah, I’ll be okay; which is more than I can say for anyone on the receiving end of this thing.” Harley ejected the magazine and popped in the 33 round clip.
“Alright, lead the way; let’s clear this area before we head for that peninsula. Last thing we need is to have our asses stuck on that rock.” Harley cautiously stepped into the courtyard cluttered with bones and small carved fetishes with protruding tongues and fierce grimaces. He slowly fanned the Glock over the patio as he crept toward the hut.
Nanpwen maladi ki pa gen remèd was painstakingly carved above the shanty’s door. Harley ran his hand over the carved words. “This looks a bit like Creole, I think it means ‘There is no disease that can’t be cured.”
A mural of a black snake slithered around the door’s weathered jam. Dried strings of bleached white vertebrae swayed softly together in the warm tropical breeze across its maw echoing a soft hollow clunk, clunk, clunk as they struck faded blue wattle walls. Lanmò geri iremedyabl was scribbled in blood across an adjacent wall, moist trickles testified to its recent inscription. “‘Death cure the incurable’ This looks fresh, be careful.” Harley nodded at Stryker.
Stryker brushed the bony beads aside with a noisy clatter. Harley lunged into the hut’s dimly candle-lit interior and stumbled over a body lying face down. “Damn!” He swore.
Harley squinted as his eyes slowly acclimated to the faintly lit interior; three more bodies were sprawled near the first. “Oh hell, more dead guys! How many ya’ count?”
“Looks like four over here and two more in cots by another slumped over that table.” Stryker slowly panned the room with his SIG then slowly kneeled to check a body for breathing.
“Yeah, they’re dead alright. No sign of gun fire though, so be damn careful. I have no idea what took them out. Give me cover while I check that one by the table, he may still be breathing.” Stryker cautiously approached a motionless figure dressed in white slumped across a crude wooden table. Spilled bowls of herbs and dried animal remains littered its top and spilled over onto the packed mud floors. A small leather bag was tethered to the body’s left hand while the right pressed dried plants wrapped in a spider’s web against his bloody right thigh.
Stryker aimed his SIG at the shaman’s head then quickly kicked his blood soaked leg. “Hey! Wake up!”
The old man grunted and shook his grizzled head. He slowly leaned back in his chair with a brief wince that was quickly replaced with a broad, wrinkled smile. “There’s no need for weapons my friend. I am Michael la Fyè and this is my home. Please put away your guns and accept my hospitality. You must be Genevieve’s friends. I’ve been expecting you.”
His natural, friendly grin framed perfect white teeth that luminesced from a nearby candle’s glow. His words were precisely articulated with only the faintest trace of a French-Creole accent. “Please forgive my appearance. As you can see, I had unexpected company shortly prior to your arrival. They were bokors that Dubois sent to kill me.”
“But, pardon my manners, I am being impolite. Please, Senator Long, may I have that cane beside of you.” Harley grabbed a heavy mahogany staff that leaned against a corner in the shadows. He marveled at its richly detailed carving of a serpent climbing a budding limb before cautiously extending it to the Obeah-man.
“Did you kill those guys?” Stryker pointed toward the bodies.
“Oh, they’re not dead, yet.” Michael smiled cryptically.
“Well, they look dead.” Harley used his foot to roll a body over onto its back; glazed, lifeless eyes stared blankly back at him.
“Yes, they do, don’t they.” Michael nodded his head as he rinsed his bloody hands using a small owl-shaped pitcher. “But, I plan to return them to Dubois with a message that he won’t soon forget.”
He meticulously dried his hands then tossed the towel into a can with panache. “Now, I suppose you’re here about your plague?”
“Our plague? We had nothing to do with it. We’re stuck here just the same as everyone else because of the quarantine. Dubois’s trying to kill us too because he thinks we’ve intentionally released it on the island.”
“Not intentional, I’m sure, but I do know your project caused this outbreak. That’s why Dubois probably hates you more than he fears me. He believes it’s a CIA attempt to assassinate him using bioweapons.”
“No damn way! I don’t know where you’re getting your info, but whoever’s feeding you this bullshit is dead wrong!” Harley cursed.
“Dead, but not wrong.” Michael swayed unsteadily as he reached for the table for support.
“What?” Harley offered his arm but Michael politely waved it away; leaning instead onto his staff. He pointed to cots in the corner with the bodies of two young men wearing blue jumpsuits.
“Those men were part of your study. The villagers brought them here for to me to treat after the others were taken to the hospital. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time; however, they did live long enough to tell me about your study before they died. I was able to learn what caused your subjects to get sick and infect others and believe I know how to treat it.” Michael reached into a glass jar and pulled out a large dried pufferball mushroom then crushed it against the bloody poultice on his side then reached for the table.
“I had hoped to heal them and had gone to the forest to gather oanga; unfortunately, those bòkòr arrived and made sure both those boys remained dead. But, the bòkòr shall not be so lucky.” Michael pointed to a mortar and pestle filled with dried herbs, frogs, pufferfish and tarantula legs. “But first, please bring me Genevieve; I think I may need her help to control my bleeding.” Michael collapsed across the table; scattering candles and jars that crashed to the floor amidst a growing pool of fresh blood.
“He’s shot! Get Genevieve!” Stryker yelled as he pulled back a blood drenched hand from the dying Obeah.
“Help me get him on the table!” Sinews snapped taunt in his forearms as Stryker flung Michael’s limp body onto a wooden table, knocking half-filled bowls of herbs to the floor with a clatter. Harley wrinkled his piggish snout in disgust as he grappled with the blood-drenched trousers. Genevieve leapt over the bodies and rushed to the old man’s side.
“Do you think you can save him?” Stryker slashed through the bloody pants leg exposing a spurting red stream that swiftly poured across the table before cascading onto the floor, splattering small droplets of crimson onto their legs.
“I’m not sure, he really needs a surgeon.” Genevieve brushed clotted bags of herbs aside then whipped out a nylon strap from inside her tunic and expertly twisted it around the swollen leg, slowing the pulsating flow to a trickle.
“It wasn’t a bullet. He was stabbed in the leg and it’s probably hit the femoral artery. Fortunately, he seems to have stanched some of the bleeding using those poultices.” She wiped the blood from her hands onto Michael’s shirt before plunging them into a large glass jar filled with clear liquid and floating twigs.
Snatching an old flag from the wall, she barked to a dumbfounded Harley. “Here, use that as a drape around his leg! Lauren, grab me that pack of gloves inside my bag and some for yourself, I’m going to need you’re your help. Put them on as best as you can; then I want you to carefully hold a pair open for me so I can put them on sterilely.”
Genevieve held her wet hands up fanning them rapidly, wafting a pleasantly alcoholic aroma into the air before spinning around toward a dazed, and scrambling Lauren.
“Harley, help her. I need you to grab that blue pack from my bag and carefully lay it open on Michael’s chest. Just don’t touch anything inside of it or you’ll contaminate my field. Then, dump a bunch of those clean gauze packs onto the sterile drape and squirt some of that orange liquid over them until they’re soaked.” Genevieve lifted the cork stopper from a brown glass jar sitting on a bench then grabbing the shriveled remains of a few green frogs, tossed them into a mortar and quickly ground them into a fine powder. She hastily poured colorless liquid from a bottle label ‘Kleren’ into an enamel cup then placing a sieve over its top, dumped the pulverized residue from the mortar onto the mesh and shook a fine grey dust into the alcohol brew. “Hurry up, we don’t have much time.”
“What the hell is that! Damn, are you going to make him drink that frog shit?” Harley’s pudgy fingers trembled as he carefully opened the blue pack containing a few surgical instruments then carefully laid it open across Michael’s slowly rising chest. “Why don’t you just give him a pain killer or morphine?”
Genevieve plunged her now dry hand into the extended glove then nodded for Lauren to hold open the next. “Too risky to keep narcotics at the clinic, addicts break in to get them. Michael showed me a few of his potions just in case I had a need. This frog elixir will work just fine to dull his pain.” Popping her other hand into the last glove, she snapped them quickly into place then grabbing a piece of gauze dripping with orange solution, scrubbed a wide circle around the neat puncture wound.
Tossing the used gauze aside, she gingerly lifted a steel scalpel; her gaze lingered briefly on the nearly erotic curves of its gleaming blade. “I’m going to do a cut down and put a ligature on that artery, but Michael desperately needs a transfusion.”
“Harley, would you please tie my mask then hand Tony that cell. It’s inside my tunic. Perhaps, he can convince Dmitry to spare us a few units of O negative blood.”
Harley, grinning sheepishly, averted his eyes as he fumbled inside the tunic for the cell. “What the crap do you keep in here?”
“It’s a nun’s secret. Just get that cell and get out of there. My iodine’s dry and I need to do this cut-down.” Her eyes twinkled as she shot him a quick, facetious smile only partly obscured by the mask.
Harley’s ears flushed as he cautiously extracted the cell from her tunic then handed it to Tony who shook his head sniggering dryly. “I’ll wait outside, all this blood’s getting to me.” Harley mumbled as he scurried for the door.
Stryker lost his grin nearly as fast as it came, replaced instead by his usual surly smirk. “I’ll do my best. Hopefully, he’ll agree to evac your friend out with the others.”
“Michael won’t go and I can’t make him.” Genevieve shook her head as she peered intensely at a growing crimson line below the shimmering blade. She deftly wiped the incision with an iodine soaked gauze then retracted the skin and underlying iridescent fascia.
“Not even if it’ll save his life?” Stryker nodded his head in approval at her skill with a blade.
“No, he has reasons for not leaving and doesn’t trust modern medicine.” Genevieve carefully thrust the scalpel deep into muscle near a pulsating thrombus and slowly removed the clot piecemeal until she exposed a large artery with a small gash in its side oozing bright red blood.
“It’s a good thing this wound wasn’t a gunshot, or he’d probably lose that leg. But, by the looks of it, the artery was only nicked and has left a fairly clean edge. I may be able to repair it to some degree using simple suturing. His main concern is now going to be infection. I managed to bring along some rocephin with my IV supplies so maybe it’ll at least give him a chance for recovery.” She filled a plastic syringe with saline from a small container laid on her sterile field.
“If you don’t need me, Harley and I are going to be sure the area is secured. Can I bring you anything from the Goat?” Stryker noted the dwindling supplies in Genevieve’s medical bag.
“No, I’m fine and Michael seems to be stable for the moment. Lauren can help me if I need anything. I should have enough here, if not, I’ll have to make do with less traditional methods.”
“Harley and I are going to have a look around.” Stryker shook his head musing grimly as he stepped over a body blocking his exit. “How and the hell can it get less traditional than this?”
He cautiously stepped into the sunbaked courtyard, the soft echo of his patent leathers whispered off the faded blue walls. The SIG cast a shadow like a warrior’s tattoo over his stern face as he shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare. Gliding quickly into the shade of the entrance gate, he motioned for Harley to join him under its cover. “Check behind the hut and I’ll get the beach. Then, let’s meet back at the Goat.”
Harley waddled back to the pier, toting the shotgun slung over his sweat-stained shoulder. Wiping back a few strands of matted hair, he tossed Stryker a bottle of water then chugged down his own. “There ain’t a damn thing out back except a big ass hole in the ground. I think it’s a sinkhole but I wasn’t about to risk a snake bite crawling down into it to be sure.”
Stryker nodded then flipped open the cell’s cover. “There aren’t supposed to be any snakes on this island, but a centipede bite can be just as bad. Okay, let’s see how soon Dmitry can get here. Maybe he’ll agree to airlift this guy out when he picks up Frank and Gisèle.”
“Nick, you there?” Stryker offered the binoculars to Harley with a nod toward the beach.
“Yes sir, Colonel! What can I do for you, sir?” The cell faintly hissed and popped with Nick’s southern drawl.
“Get Dmitry on the line, we have an emergency down here.” Stryker snapped as he slowly turned hoping to improve the cell’s reception.
“Hold on sir, I’m patching you through now.”
“Yes Tony. Are you already at the cave?” Dmitry’s smooth voice cracked over the speaker.
“Near about. How soon do you plan on being here?”
Dmitry paused, groping delicately for his most abstruse reply. “It’s taking a bit longer than I had anticipated. We’ve finally established quarantine. The transport pods will be loaded just as soon as the helicopters are refueled, so hopefully in no more than a couple of hours.”
“Any possibility Nick can pick up a load now or deliver us a few supplies?” Stryker shook his head in irritation at Dmitry’s bullshit non-response.
“A pickup is out of the question! Our epidemiologists have insisted we use Racal suits during any direct contact, so Nick is returning now to suit up.” Dmitry grunted.
“Yeah, I thought that might be the case. How about a drop, will they allow him to do a fly over to drop a few supplies?” Stryker warily pushed, hiding his annoyance.
“As long as he stays above 1000 meters, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I hope everyone in your group is okay. What supplies do you need?”
Dmitry’s disingenuous consolatory tone was beginning to really piss him off. “Blood. We have a casualty down here that needs a transfusion fast. Send as many units of O Neg as you can spare along with transfusion sets.”
“Casualty? Who’s injured?”
A faint trace of a smile spread slowly over his thin lips, Dmitry’s interest had been aroused! “It’s some witchdoctor Genevieve knows; she thinks he may be able to help us in controlling this outbreak.”
“Witchdoctor! I’m sorry, Tony. We really can’t spare that blood; it’s being kept in reserve for our own emergencies.” Dmitry blustered, dropping all pretense of concern.
“How about if I tell you he says he’s found a cure for this outbreak, now can you spare any?” Stryker’s thin smile broadened.
“Come on! Do you really expect me to believe a witchdoctor knows how to control a transposon that hasn’t been active for millions of years? I’d find that very unlikely even if an ethnobotanist made that assertion.” Dmitry puffed in disbelief.
“What if I say his name was la Fyè, then would you believe me?” Stryker flashed a toothy smile.
“Michael la Fyè is your casualty? Interesting! What did he say is the cure?” Dmitry voice once again oozed its normal Chechnian charm.
“He didn’t have time to tell us before he passed out from blood loss. Dubois sent a few bokors to snuff him; luckily, he turned the tables on them. But, one did manage to stick him. If we hadn’t arrived when we did, he’d probably already be dead.”
Dmitry exploded into a rarely heard profanity. “Damn you, Tony! You know I’ll have to clear this with Taty and that will take some time.”
“Suit yourself, but if he dies, you’ll have to explain to her why you didn’t have the balls to make this decision on your own. Come on, just send the fucking blood. You know she’ll be pissed if she loses a potentially new and patentable antiviral.” Stryker chuckled at his imminent victory.
“Two units and that’s all you’ll get! And you’d better not be bullshitting me either or Taty will have both our heads. Nick’s just now landing; I’ll send him back for the drop. You have two hours and no more, just find out what works against this transposon, and then meet us at the cave. Nick will make your drop near the pier in about 15 minutes, don’t screw this up!” Dmitry’s cursing ended abruptly with a dial tone.
Harley held his belly laugh until he was sure Stryker had turned off the cell. “Taty always did wear the sharovaries in that family.”
Harley sidled toward the towering shade tree. “Alright, let’s give Genevieve the good news. I can’t wait to get off this damn rock. But first, hold on. I’m going to release this goat.”
“There.” Harley slashed through the rope with his pocket knife then removed the noose from its neck. The goat smiled at him, its yellow eyes shining brightly as it bounded away with a bleat.
Stryker shook his head, perplexed by Harley’s actions. “Why’d you do that? Maybe that witchdoctor wanted it tied there.”
“I’m sure he did, they use goats for animal sacrifices in Hoodoo. I may be a killer but I never did anyone who wasn’t trying to do me first and this goat ain’t done nothing to nobody. Okay, let’s go.” Harley tossed the rope aside and watched the goat skip playfully towards a grassy knoll.
As they walked back toward the courtyard gate, Stryker rubbed his stubbly chin musing out loud. “Something’s sure fishy about this Michael guy. It strikes me as pretty damn odd that a nun’d be so protective of a man who makes his living by poisoning people.”
“Yeah, I agree. I saw her glaring at you on the Goat; she looked really pissed when you called his magic, ‘mumbo jumbo’.” Harley nodded in agreement as he shoved the courtyard gate open with a rusty squeak.
Stryker blew a contemptuous puff as he followed Harley through the arched wattle entrance. “I don’t give a damn how pissed she gets. Keep an eye on her, she’s hiding something. Alright, let’s check to see if Michael’s in any shape to give us a few answers.”
“Grab that vial of Lidocaine and hold it up. I need to inject some of it into his wound.” Genevieve snatched a rubber tubing taut below the stab wound then quickly unlaced Michael’s boot and dropped it to the floor with a thud. She carefully felt behind his heel and the top of his foot then briefly clasped his foot in her hands.
“His foot’s cool but not cold; he may still have enough circulation in that leg to avoid gangrene.” She pulled a pair of gloves from an IV start kit then grabbed steel hemostats from her surgical field and clamped a needle dangling a small piece of black suture.
“What is this? Is it a pain killer?” Lauren squeaked wide-eyed from behind her mask as she struggled to steady the vial in her trembling hand.
“Sort of; it's a local anesthetic, a numbing agent. I don’t want Daddy to move around much as I’m suturing.” Genevieve pierced the vial’s diaphragm with the syringe’s long needle.
“Daddy! He’s your father?” Lauren gasped, nearly dropping the vial.
“Yes, but few know. He worries his enemies may try to hurt me if they found out.” Genevieve nodded as she injected anesthetic around the wound’s quivering edges.
“My mother told me they’d met when she was a medical student in Paris and he was working on his postdoc. But my grandparents didn't approve of her seeing him because he wasn’t Catholic or French.” Genevieve jammed her gloved finger behind the femoral artery and pulled it forward, inspecting it closely as she rolled it between her fingers.
“Fortunately for me, my mother was very independent minded; a family trait I seem to have inherited.” Genevieve chuckled as she daubed the incision with a piece of dry gauze. She then flushed dark clots away from the artery using a heparin-filled syringe.
“Mama continued to meet him in secret until she became pregnant. Her disobedience enraged Grandfather and brought shame to our family. So he sent her to live with his brother in Morocco and she never saw Michael again.” Her head bobbed about erratically as she peered intently at the injured vessel from all sides.
“At least I don’t see an aneurism, so I don’t think he’ll need a graft. Go ahead and loosen that lower tourniquet just a little until I tell you to stop.” Lauren slowly released the rubber tubing; the artery briefly pulsated to life, spewing a few spurts of bright red blood.
“Okay, that’s enough!” Genevieve nodded as she squirted a few drops of heparin into the artery.
“Now, slowly release the upper one...just be careful, it’s under a lot of pressure.”
Lauren gently released the Velcro tourniquet and relaxed its tension as Genevieve milked a long clot from the artery and injected heparin into its oozing end. She wrapped the suture around the hemostats, meticulously securing several small knots that puckered the nick’s edges.
“I never knew Michael was my father until just before Mother died. I searched for him all during my residency only to find him here just after I’d entered the sisterhood. He told me he never knew Mama had been pregnant, let alone had a daughter. That’s why I came here to practice; because he’s now my only family.” Genevieve inspected her repair as Lauren nodded in silence.
“Okay, loosen the lower tourniquet first and let’s see if I have any bleeders.” Genevieve inspected the surgical site, dabbing away a small amount of dark oozing blood.
“So far it looks like it’s holding. Now, SLOWLY release the upper tourniquet.”
Lauren held her breath as she heard the gentle crackling of the Velcro tourniquet. The artery swelled, once again engorged by a pulsating arterial flow.
“Good! Let me check his foot for a pulse and we’re nearly done.” Genevieve's face beamed as she proclaimed.
“Great, he’s got a strong pulse. I’m no vascular surgeon, but I guess I’ll do in a pinch. I haven’t had to do that since I was a resident.” Her eyes twinkled as she covered the repaired artery with a small flap of severed muscle then saturated the entire site with saline poured from a bottle.
“Okay, we’re finished with surgery but now we need to make sure it stays repaired."
"I’m going to have to make a compress dressing. So hand me that container of ‘Fat Binder’.” Genevieve pointed a bloody gloved finger toward a large glass jar sitting on a shelf among others holding various dried plants or desiccated animal remains.
“Fat Binder? Why would you use that on a wound? Won’t you contaminate it?” Lauren stripped off her gloves and shot Genevieve a quizzical look.
“Well, I’m sure it already is. But, hopefully we’re about to make a dressing that controls both bleeding and infection. Michael showed me a few of his tricks and this is one. That ‘Fat Binder’ is basically pure chitosan which is used in dressings by field surgeons to help control bleeding."
"I’ve always been amazed how Michael uses unconventional alternatives to provide modern levels of care.” Genevieve poured some of the white fluffy powder into a large mixing bowl.
“I need that jar next to it also. Just open it carefully; Michael uses dry heat to decontaminate it for wounds.” She pointed toward a green glass container filled with grey, dusty granules.
“What is this? It doesn’t look like an herb.” Lauren rattled the jar, sloshing its contents around into a dusty swirl.
“It’s not. It’s kitty litter!” Genevieve smiled as she poured saline into the mixing bowl.
“Alright, now I know you’re kidding!” Lauren shook her head as she slid the jar onto the table.
“No, I’m serious. It’s cat litter that’s made of a mineral called zeolite. Zeolite is used by the military in sponges to control major bleeding.” Genevieve poured half of the jar into her mixing bowl and carefully replaced its lid.
“Michael has an excellent collection of herbals with antibiotic properties. Hopefully they’ll help abate any local infection that isn’t controlled by antibiotics. I’ll make enough compresses to last him a couple of days until we can close that wound.” She dumped several fragrant herbs into the mix then stirred it into a homogenous paste.
“But won’t it get infected being left open to air for so long?” Lauren asked.
“No. If I closed it now, he’d only get a worse infection. Changing dressings frequently helps debride the wound by removing any dead tissue and pus. Alright, hand me a clean pair of gloves and grab a set for yourself.” Genevieve once again rinsed her hands in the alcohol solution and shook off the excess before sliding into her gloves.
“Please don’t tell anyone he’s my father for a while, okay?” Genevieve asked softly as she filled several pads with the aromatic paste.
“No, of course not!” Lauren handed Genevieve a roll of gauze.
“I think I hear Tony and Harley. Is he going to be alright?” Lauren ripped off a length of adhesive tape and offered it to Genevieve.
“Better than alright, thanks to my Genevieve.” Michael smiled weakly between grimaces as he struggled to prop himself up on his elbow. “Now, please hand me my cane.”
“No! You’re not going anywhere for a while, Papa. You’ve been stabbed in the leg and would have bled to death if we hadn’t arrived when we did.” Genevieve wagged her finger at him.
“Oh!” Michael winced and rubbed the thick padded dressing secured to his thigh. “Oh yes. Now I remember. Bokors! Are they still dead?” Michael leaned back onto the makeshift gurney.
“Still?” Lauren flashed a vacant smile that she quickly dropped as Genevieve shook her head.
“Yes Papa, they’re still dead.” Genevieve patted his hand. “Now, hold still unless you want to join them. You lost a lot of blood and I had to do surgery on your leg.”
“Drink this. It should ease your pain.” She offered him a mug filled with a foul-smelling potion.
“What is it?” Michael sniffed at the froggy brew.
“Your pain potion.” Genevieve shook her head impatiently.
“Which frog did you use? It wasn’t the Golden Frog, was it?” Michael cautiously dipped a finger into the slimy grey drink then applied a small drop to the tip of his tongue.
“No, Papa. It wasn’t Phyllobates terribilis. I made sure it I grabbed the Poison Arrow frog. It was the brown and green one, not the yellow one.” Genevieve leaned forward and gazed into his soft brown eyes with a reassuring smile.
Michael held up the mug to take a gulp, but hesitated. “And it wasn’t the Bumblebee Frog? They’re very difficult to distinguish from Epipedobates, you know. I have to take special care myself to ensure they are labeled properly.”
“No, Papa, the bands were vertical. I made it just like you taught me.” Genevieve leaned close with a grin and gently kissed the tip of his nose.
“Now drink.” She cradled her hands around his as he lifted the mug with a smile.
“You are a good girl, Genevieve. You even remembered to use the right kleren. You make me proud.” The furrowed lines a pain eased across his brow as he gulped the smelly infusion.
“Who is this with you?” Michael set the cup aside and turned to offer Lauren his hand.
“Lauren, she’s a friend from America, she and her friends are trapped here because of the quarantine.” Genevieve spiked a bag of saline and hung it on a nearby rusty hook.
“Oh yes, Senator Long and Colonel Stryker, now I remember. They had just introduced themselves when I so rudely fainted.” Michael squeezed Lauren’s hand and grinned broadly.
“You weren’t rude Papa, you lost consciousness from blood loss; you nearly bled to death!” Genevieve mumbled as she adjusted the IV fluid.
“Well, it still seems rude to me. I was a most ungracious host. Please forgive me, Ms. Sagrado.” Michael’s charm perfectly reflected that of his daughter.
“Well, there’s really no…” Lauren paused mid-sentence as she saw Genevieve silently mouth, ‘Humor him.’
“Oh! Yes, it’s fine.” Lauren stammered. “How do you know my last name?”
“Genevieve told me about the study just before she took those boys to the hospital.” Michael watched as his daughter slowly injected an antibiotic into his IV.
“And I read how you and your friend, Dr. Carré, opposed the use of animals in this study and for that I commend you.” Michael gently wrapped his warm hands around Lauren’s.
“But, how do you know this?” Lauren shook her head in amazement.
“Oh, I simply researched the study online. Clinical Trials provided a very detailed synopsis, including its primary sponsors and contacts.” Michael returned Genevieve’s reassuring smile as he watched her check his blood pressure.
“I also found several excellent articles you wrote about the use of animals during its preclinical testing. Your picture of course was included with your stories.” He casually shrugged.
“That’s amazing! Where did you find a computer with an Internet connection way out here?” Lauren pointed at the hazy view of a pristine beach surrounded by distant mountains that filtered through the small, dingy window.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really. I was a researcher for years and still keep my hand in it even in this remote location. My laptop is a bit slow but…” Michael gestured toward a large worn, leather valise leaning against the corner wall.
“Laptop! You have a laptop out here? How do you get online and keep it charged?”
“Well, I profess we are a bit primitive, but no matter what you may have heard, we’re not barbaric. I use my foot-powered generator to keep it charged and of course my satellite card connects me to the Internet.” He pulled a small device with pedals from under the table.
“Wow, that’s so cool!” Lauren squatted and marveled at the two plug outlets mounted on its top.
“I could certainly use the computers in the village, but I find it preferable to use my own. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons I chose to live on this remote beach; it’s not only beautiful, it also has a usable satellite signal that’s impossible to obtain in the mountains.” Michael grunted as he leaned to stow the generator back under the table.
“But, enough of this, we have more important matters to discuss.” He motioned for Genevieve to sit next to him as he lay back on the table.
“Genevieve, the bokors came just as I had finished my studies on those two young men. I believe I know what caused their deaths and possibly how to prevent it in the future. It’s too late for them, but with your help, it may not be too late for others.” Michael pointed toward the bodies lying on cots across the room.
“The transposon may have caused a mutation in La Grippe, creating a new variant of flu capable of killing by Influenza B-associated rhabdomyolysis.”
Genevieve’s face froze emotionless.
“Worse, I believe this variant has an expanded host range so it’s no longer limited to humans or seals.” Michael slowly rubbed his grizzled hair as he looked out the dusty window toward the distant roiling surf. “If this is true, then we could be on the verge of an Influenza B pandemic.”
“Okay your blood’s on the way." Stryker emerged from the shadows and nodded at Michael. "Is he in any shape to answer a few questions?”
“Blood! If that’s for me, I don’t need it." Michael’s eyes twinkled from inside deep crevices of wrinkles. "But, thank you anyway.”
“You’ve probably lost at least two units; I’m sure you’ll feel better once I’ve corrected your anemia.” Genevieve glanced up at Stryker as she adjusted the IV in Michael’s forearm.
Michael pulled a pair of bent wire-rimmed glasses from his pocket and perched them on the tip of his broad nose. Peering over their scratched lenses, he grinned at Genevieve. “It may make me feel better, but I still don’t want the blood. I’m more concerned about infection than anemia. I’m sure that bag of fluid should be enough for now.”
“Whatever, I only hope it isn’t too late to stop Dmitry from sending it.” Stryker rubbed the graying stubble on his chin; it rasped softly, as he studied their more-than-collegial interaction.
Harley sauntered to the lifeless bodies sprawled near the doorway, turning each of their heads with the 12 gauge’s barrel. A white, dusty powder pancaked their lifeless, black faces.
“I suggest not touching them just yet, Senator. I’ll need to prepare them a bit more before they’re safe to handle.” Michael cautioned with a nod as Harley reached to turn the last body over for a closer examination.
“Okay, I was just making sure they’re all dead.” Harley carefully eased away from the bodies.
Michael flashed an enigmatic smile. “There is no sharp distinction between death and life; it’s possible to be more dead than alive.”
Michael adjusted his wire rims then looked back toward Stryker. A glint of candlelight off the lenses partially obscured his analytical gaze. “Thank you again for your concern, Colonel.”
Stryker wiped the sweat from his forehead with a soiled rag and shook his head at Genevieve. "You okay with this?”
“No. But once Michael makes up his mind, there’s little use trying to change it.” She opened a small clamp on the IV line, allowing a steady stream of fluid to flow unhampered into Michael’s vein.
“Are you sure?” Stryker shot a grim scowl at the Obeah man.
“Quite, but thank you anyway.” Michael grinned.
Genevieve sighed and gently laid her stethoscope diaphragm against Michael’s chest. “There’s no use arguing when he says ‘Thank you.’ I’m sorry, but you may as well tell Dmitry to save the blood for someone in more critical need or who is less stubborn!”
"I could also say pigheaded," she grumbled, "but that’s self-evident.”
She moved the diaphragm to his back; its coolness startled Michael into inhaling a small shallow breath. He chuckled and brushed aside her stethoscope. “Well, now that we’ve dispensed with this issue, Colonel, I’d like to continue our earlier conversation that ended when I collapsed.”
“Pigheaded!” Genevieve muttered under her breath as she replaced the stethoscope into her bag.
“You’d said you knew what caused this outbreak and how to treat it. So, the subjects told you about the transposon?” Stryker nodded toward the two bodies lying on cots in a shadowy corner.
Michael shook his head “No, unfortunately, they were in too much pain, and frankly didn’t have that depth of understanding for these issues.” His smile faded into one of pondering sadness.
“I had explained earlier to Genevieve that I’d researched your project online so I have a reasonable understanding of its methods and goals.”
Michael fumbled blindly under the table with one hand and recovered a small, carved bone pipe. “It was a noble project, but alas, your Dr. Murphy failed to consider other factors that caused this outbreak. I don’t believe the transposon is directly responsible for the epidemic.”
“What do you mean by directly? If the transposon isn’t causing it, then what is?” Stryker reached into his jacket, then with a flick of his wrist ignited a small lighter and offered Michael a light.
“La Grippe. Both of those young men had influenza, I’m sure their deaths were a result of complications from the flu.” Michael drew several deep puffs; a cherry red glow illuminated his cupped hand as the embers ignited in the bowl. He threw his aged, grizzled head back after a long satisfying drag. The wrinkles melted as he exhaled a fine jet of blue smoke.
“Why do men smoke at times like this?” Lauren fanned at the bluish-gray wisps of smoke wafting in her direction. “And how can it be flu? It’s summer.”
“We smoke because it helps us to relax as we think.” Michael winked, and favored her with a wry smile.
“Thank you, I couldn’t have said it better.” Stryker grinned as he tapped a couple of cigarettes from the rumpled pack. He offered one to an eager Harley before pulling out another for himself with his thin, chapped lips.
“Now, about your other question, we’re on the equator. It's always flu season here. Travel companies tend not to stress this in their brochures; it's bad for their business.” Michael dumped the contents of a small jar into an old can then pushed the jar to the table’s center.
“The flu, eh? How can you be so sure?” Stryker flicked his ashes into the makeshift ashtray.
“I’ve been treating my people for over three decades; I know the flu when I see it. For instance, I see all of you have it. Muscle aches, headaches, fatigue. Do you think they’re just the result of our island’s relentless heat or jet lag?”
Michael reached around his neck and untied a small leather pouch then emptied it on the table before him. He gingerly lifted one of the fluffy, yellow clumps and stuffed it into his lit pipe.
“Okay, I’ll give you that point. We’ve all felt like shit for over 24 hours, but why do you think it's the flu? Besides, you’ve been with the sick longer than any of us. Are you telling me you don’t have the same symptoms?” Stryker watched, coldly transfixed, as Michael again lit the pipe’s bowl, this time with a candle, and slowly inhaled the fumes from the pungent, yellow crystals.
Michael’s eyelids flickered lightly as he exhaled, blowing a bilious swirling cloud. “No. I take precautions to prevent flu infections and that’s what I need to tell you. I can’t possibly treat the thousands who will become infected. But fortunately, I won’t have to. I see the WHO has sent a medical team to our island and will begin treatment once they get past that madman, Dubois.”
Taking a second puff, he placidly gazed past Stryker. “And they have enough antivirals and vaccines to slow its spread. So we should begin shortly, before it escapes our island.”
Hands shaking, he lifted the pipe for a third and final puff. “For once it reaches the mainland their task will become insurmountable...” His head slowly drooped as he melted into a stupor, his warning trailing into an incoherent mumble.
“What the crap did he just smoke?” Harley lunged forward, his cigarette falling from his lips as he reached to check Michael’s pulse.
“Don’t touch him! He’s divining!” Genevieve rushed to his side, gently deflecting Harley’s outstretched hand. “It's a psychoactive grass. He’ll return to normal in just a few minutes.”
Harley reached for his fallen cigarette, hesitated, and ground it onto the stained mud floor, then accepted another from Stryker. “Normal, eh? There ain’t nothin’ fuckin’ normal about this place! I haven’t seen shit like that since I left ‘nam! Damn, I hate this dump!”
“Hold that thought! We may as well take advantage of this intermission.” Stryker grinned at Harley’s look of disgust as he powered up the cell. “Nick, have you left with that blood yet?”
“Yes sir, Colonel. I’m sorry for the delay. They needed authorization for its emergent release, but I should be there in about five minutes.” Nick’s usual drawl had an inflection of urgency.
“Well, take it back. The patient’s refused it.” Stryker watched as Genevieve hovered near Michael’s limp, reclined body.
“Hmm, okay... Would you like me to patch you through so you can explain the change of plans?”
“Yeah, I’ll hold.” As he watched them together in the candlelight, Stryker’s usual deadpan briefly faltered with look of surprise. Damn, he’s her father! he decided with a chuckle.
Dmitry’s thick accent booming over the cell interrupted his revelation. “What in the hell’s going on down there, Tony? I personally approved that release. We don’t have time to be running a valet service at your whim. You’ve no idea how much paperwork this is going to create.” Dmitry snorted.
“Hey, don’t get so pissy with me; I’m the one who's stuck on this rock. I’m just trying to do you a favor for old times.” Stryker loved this game; he always won.
“Eto prosto pizdets! What do you want?” Dmitry conceded defeat with a bearish growl.
“Yeah, I know it’s all fucked up; tell me something I don’t know. However, la Fyè may have some good news for you. You’d better get Taty on the line too, it's fairly technical. She’s probably going to want to hear this for herself.” Stryker smirked as he watched Genevieve pour Michael a small cup of kleren.
“She’s on now! Tell her yourself.” Dmitry grunted a hard, sardonic laugh.
“This better be good, Tony, or I swear I’ll just turn your ass over to Dubois.” Stryker flashed a mischievous grin at Taty’s sultry threat.
“Come on Taty, the way I figure it, you owe me. Just think of the rubles you’ll make from this job,” he teased. Michael, now fully awake, nodded for the phone. “Hold on, here’s la Fyè. He thinks he’s found a way control this outbreak.”
“Hello. Yes, Colonel Stryker’s correct. I’m sorry for any delay I may have caused but hope we can assist you with a targeted response.” Michael politely offered, now fully lucid.
“The Colonel said you’ve been under the misconception that you’re dealing with a disease caused by a transposon. But, that’s not exactly correct.” He nodded a thank you to Genevieve and accepted a refill of the frog potion.
“Go on.” Taty prompted as he paused to sip on the painkiller.
“I think, somehow, the transposon created a mutation in an influenza virus, possibly by reassortment. This new variant seems to be particularly virulent and aggressive. Yet, I believe it’s still treatable by conventional means using antivirals and vaccines.”
“Why should we believe…?” Dmitry blurted over the cell.
“Shut up! I want an influenza test kit flown to them immediately!” Taty scolded.
After barking a few words in Russian to an underling she returned to the call. “What are the symptoms, Dr. la Fyè?”
“The same as usual, but more pronounced, and an acute sensitivity toward heat. Too much exertion also seems to induce a rhabdomyolysis-type response. I had two young men both die with what looks like compartment syndrome. Their arms were blistered and badly swollen; both hands showed early signs of gangrene.”
“The virus may also affect heart muscle. I believe those young men died of cardiac complications from their infection.” A grim resolve replaced his usual congenial smile.
“Do you know what type of influenza?” Taty asked, with the coldness of a Siberian winter.
“No. Sadly, that’s beyond my technical ability with my limited resources.” Michael removed his glasses to rub his strained eyes.
“I want biopsy kits sent on that flight, now!” Taty barked at her brother who quietly acquiesced, muttering only “Da.”
“Dr. Rocco, do you feel qualified to obtain muscle biopsies from the deceased?”
“Of course.” Genevieve answered with a contemplative frown.
“If Dr. la Fyè is correct this could be an atypical variant of the flu and the emergence of a third lineage. The test kits will confirm his suspicions and identify if it’s either A or B.”
Genevieve pulled a small green book titled Pediatrics Survival Guide from her bag and thumbed through a few pages. “I’m concerned because as I recall, Influenza B-induced rhabdo is generally restricted to children.”
“Yes, here it is. It says influenza is one of the primary causes of rhabdo in children, it rarely infects adults.”
Michael raised his index finger and politely interrupted. “Why do you think those young men were adults? Neither had erupted wisdom teeth. It’s unlikely they were over the age of 16 and they were certainly still in puberty.”
“What! Are you saying those subjects were kids?” Harley exploded in disbelief.
“Yes, undoubtedly. You didn’t know?” Michael nodded at him with a look of puzzlement.
“Shit! That clinical study was open only to adults. How the hell did they get in?” Harley fumed.
Stryker ground the cigarette butt under his shoe and replied with his usual stone-face. “They obviously lied and no one bothered to check.”