Plague

Plague
H.W. 'Buzz' Bernard

September 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-176-0

Atlanta is targeted as Ground Zero for the most horrifying plague in modern times.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt 

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In only a matter of days, 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers will be rivaled by a lone-wolf terrorist attack on America. Atlanta is targeted as Ground Zero for the most horrifying plague in modern times.

Deep in the secret recesses of a Cold War lab, the Russians created tons of deadly bio-weapons. Now, decades later, aprotégé of that Russian research is about to release weaponized Ebolainto the heart of the South’s most iconic city: Atlanta, where the symbols of American "decadence” range from a happily diverse population to the Coca-Cola museum and CNN building.

A preliminary test of the horrifying virus demonstrates the unspeakable suffering of its victims—and alerts the Centers for Disease Control that a terrible pandemic is in the making. CDC Virologist Dr. Dwight Butler begins a frantic effort to track down the source before it’s too late.

For new BioDawn CEO Richard Wainwright, it quickly becomes clear that the "accidental” plane crash that killed the pharmaceutical company’s entire executive hierarchy may have some connection to the evolving threat. Suddenly Richard is being stalked by a hit woman. He and Butler join forces to find the lone terrorist at the center of a plan that could unleash a modern Black Plague on the western world.

H.W. "Buzz” Bernard is an Air Force veteran and retired Weather Channel meteorologist. His 2010 hurricane thriller, Eyewall, became a number one bestseller in ebook. Visit him at www.buzzbernard.com.


Reviews

 "The premise is horrifying and all too believable… Flawlessly flowing prose and electrifying discourse kept the entertainment level high for me…. This story is well worth the read!" -- Laurie Jenkins, Laurie’s Thoughts and Reviews

"…an edge of your seat suspense thriller. ..chilling." -- Kat Steven, Heart to Heart

"Strap in for this one because it never slows down. Buzz Bernard’s PLAGUE is a spell binding race against time to prevent a biological Armageddon with Atlanta as ground zero of a lone, homegrown terrorist bent upon destroying America. The characters are believable and the story all too possible. PLAGUE will make you question the safety of your way of life." -- Heather Maury, Netgalley

"…a well written novel as well as extremely readable and entertaining… I now need to get a copy of "Buzz" Bernard's first novel, Eyewall, because I love novels based on meteorological events too!"-- Lori Lutes, She Reads Softly 

"Mr. Bernard has obviously done his homework in terms of the science of bio-warfare… he keeps you on the end of your seat, biting your nails, turning the page, and holding your breath… It was mesmerizing and horrifying, and I couldn’t put it down." -- Rochelle Weber, Rochelle’s Reviews

 

"…a story that grabs you from the first page and never lets go until the last page is turned!" -- Annette Gisby, Books and Tales

 

"WOW!!! Plague is quite a wild ride! What an amazingly, well-written, expertly-crafted book! The descriptions are all-too real and the story too believable. Well done, Mr. Bernard, well done. Plague is a book not to be missed." -- Cheryl Kravetz, Classic Bookshop

"…mesmerizing and horrifying, and I couldn’t put it down…keeps you on the end of your seat, biting your nails, turning the page, and holding your breath!" -- Rochelle Weber, Rochelle’s Reviews

"Fans of the late Michael Crichton should check out Buzz Bernard’s Plague. This bioterrorism thriller is a real page-turner.” -- Cheryl Norman, author of Rebuild My World

"An all-too-believable nightmare tale.” -- Tom Young, author of The Mullah’s Storm, Silent Enemy, and The Renegades


Excerpt

Chapter One

NORTH METRO ATLANTA, GEORGIA

SUNDAY, AUGUST 18

David Gullison stared into the bathroom mirror, terrified by what he saw. Someone he didn’t know, someone he’d never known. There was something almost demonic about his image. His eyes swam in crimson. Dead rubies. His face, flushed and splotched with tiny scarlet blooms, gave the appearance of Edelweiss gone bad. He looked the caricature of an aged, hard-drinking Irishman. But he knew it wasn’t age or booze. It was much worse than that.

The pain came again, squeezing his gut, wrapping around his chest. It had started suddenly a couple of days ago. At first it was just his back. "Too much golf,” his wife said.

"Maybe.”

"No maybe. I warned you. Take it easy. You’re retired now.”

Then the fever had come, boiling up inside him like a pyroclastic flow. His throat felt as though a cheese grater had been dragged through it.

"The flu,” his wife said. "Go lie down for a while. I’ll get some aspirin.”

"Yes,” he said. He’d flopped down on his bed and didn’t move for twelve hours. It was unlike any flu he’d ever had. He felt as if he were on fire, burning up from the inside out. He struggled to take deep breaths; his lungs suffused with fluid. He coughed, deep hacking wheezes that expelled fine sprays of mucus tinged in pink.

The pain spread, invading his stomach and bowels, locking them in vise grips of agony. Vomiting and diarrhea followed. Nonstop.

Now the cramping hit again, sharp, wrenching. He leaned over the sink and vomited once more, long after there shouldn’t have been anything left to bring up. A tarry mixture, black and red, flooded into the basin. It was as if his insides were liquefying, turning to jelly. He gripped the edge of the sink, but had no strength left. The room spun in a dizzying spiral.

He knew he’d waited too long; knew he needed to get to an emergency room. He tried to call for his wife, but before he could, the searing effluent rose in his throat again. He sank to his knees and crawled toward the toilet, but failed to make it in time. A rush of burbling flatulence shot from his bowels. A vile, malodorous slime of blood and dark, stringy tissue ran down his thighs and splattered onto the floor. It oozed over the bathroom tile, staining it with a harbinger of something far worse to come.

He lost consciousness and collapsed into the repulsive emulsion.

SUNRIVER, OREGON

SUNDAY, AUGUST 18

Richard Wainwright stood alone on the first tee of a golf course in Sunriver, just south of Bend, as the rising sun lifted into a pristine cerulean sky. The slanting rays lit the Cascade Mountains in a manner that exaggerated the contrast between their snow-capped peaks and the verdant darkness of the forests cloaking their slopes. Overhead, a golden eagle orbited, perhaps waiting to catch a ride on the first thermal of the day. The deserted fairways, notched among corrugated lava buttes and bubbly knobs of pumice, sported a fringe of sagebrush and juniper beneath open stands of ponderosa pines. The air, brisk and tinged with just a hint of dust, was redolent with the essence of evergreens. He could have been in the Garden of Eden. Yet he found no joy in the setting, for he was lost in memories, wrapped in melancholia, and clinging to a ghost that would never return. Karen.

He stepped up to the ball, eight-iron in hand, and took his stance, committed to hitting the perfect shot. He began his backswing, but was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He plucked the phone from his golf bag.

"Wainwright,” he said.

"Rich, I was hoping I didn’t wake you. I know it’s early out there.” The soft, deep rumble of a familiar voice.

"Ned. Good lord, it’s been awhile. What on earth are you doing these days? I’d heard you’d retired.”

Ned laughed, a sardonic chuckle. "And the answer is: two ex-wives, five kids in college and a huge mortgage in Greenwich.”

"Ah, then you’re still billing yourself as the nation’s top executive headhunter?”

"Business has never been better. There’s actually increasing demand for competent executives these days. Ones with integrity anyhow. Like you. And, well, I’ve got this company that’s in a real bind.”

Richard drew a deep breath. He probably shouldn’t encourage Ned. But what the hell, it couldn’t hurt to listen. "Okay, lay it on me.”

"Actually, it’s an easy assignment. Three months, six months. An Atlanta biotech firm, BioDawn, needs someone to step in and stabilize it while they find a new CEO. It’s a solid operation, well respected, in good financial shape. All you have to do is come in and look pretty. Hobnob with the investors and tell them everything’s going to be okay. And it is. Nothing nefarious here. The money people and board of directors just want a firm hand on the tiller while they ferret out new leadership. And there’s no firmer hand than yours.”

Wainwright waited for Ned to elaborate. When he didn’t, Wainwright challenged him. "Don’t give the mushroom treatment, partner. I know damn well there’s more to the story than what you’re telling me. I can hear it in your voice.” Richard sat on a bench adjacent to the tee box and gazed out at a nearby pond. A sub-surface wake knifed through the water. A beaver performing homeland defense.

Ned didn’t respond immediately.

"Ned, talk to me. Why is the CEO being replaced?”

"He’s dead.”

"That hardly seems like a situation that would, as you said, put a company ‘in a real bind.’”

"So are the COO, CFO, executive vice president and chairman of the board.”

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. What happened to ‘easy assignment’? Jesus, what happened to the corporate hierarchy?”

"Plane crash. The corporate Gulfstream was on its way to Munich from Atlanta when it disappeared over the Atlantic somewhere between Bermuda and the Azores. Only bits and pieces of wreckage were found. It may have been an explosion of some sort. But we’ll never know for sure.”

"Why were all those guys on the same plane?”

"Not too smart, I know, but they were young and inexperienced in the travel safeguards that bigger corporations use. They had their own plane and were excited to be going to Germany to open a new office. They probably viewed it as more of a field trip than a business trip.”

"Still...”

"Yeah, I know. They’re all dead.”

"I’m sorry to hear that, Ned. But you know I’m out of the game.”

"Yeah, but I want you back in. You were a legend.”

"No, a myth.”

"Not the way I heard it.”

"That was twenty years ago.”

"Whatever it was, it launched your career. Stepping out a window onto the ledge of a New York City office building; threatening to jump unless a group of Wall Street investment bankers agreed to back a federal bailout loan for Brighton-Reames Aerospace.”

"It was a joke, a youthful shenanigan by a wet-behind-the-ears CFO. I only stuck one foot out the window. I had no intention of going any farther.”

"Joke or not, it worked. You became a star.”

"I was lucky.” Richard stood and walked back toward the tee.

"No. You were the epitome of competence and integrity. You went on to raise more companies from the dead than Jesus Christ could have. And, on top of everything else, you oozed charisma. Even people you intimidated or fired respected you.”

"Yeah. But I pissed off a lot of folks. Too hands-on, they said.”

"Bull shit. That was your style, your strength. You could smell out deadwood like a hog after truffles. You knew how to read employees and understand their motives, their goals, their integrity, their competency ... or lack thereof. You couldn’t have done that with your butt anchored in a corner office someplace.”

"Ned, read my lips—well, you can’t. So I’ll speak slowly. I. Am. Retired. It’s a beautiful day in Oregon. The sun is out. An eagle is soaring overhead. I’m on a golf course. And I’ve got it almost to myself.” A slow ripple fanned out over the pond as the beaver approached the shore.

"Spare me. You don’t know a Callaway RAZR from a Gillette razor. Don’t light me up.”

"I’m not available. And I know what a Callaway RAZR is. You have to know that before you can retire.”

"You’re too goddamned young to be retired. Look, I heard what happened; I know you had some heavy duty shit laid on you. And I know you’ve heard all the platitudes, but...” He paused.

Richard sensed he probably didn’t want to hear what Ned would say next, but then again, maybe he did.

Ned spoke softly, his words threaded with compassion. "You can put down the cross, Rich. Nobody will blame you. It’s been over two years. It’s okay. Get back in the game, move on with your life.”

The beaver surfaced and fixed its gaze on Richard and his eight-iron. Richard dropped the club and covered the mouthpiece of his phone. "Relax,” he yelled at the animal, "I’m hitting in the other direction.”

"Who are you talking to?” Ned asked. "I thought you said the course was deserted.”

"A beaver.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Then, "You’re bored, aren’t you?”

"Shitless.”

"I win.”

"Yeah, I was good. But you were always better.”

"There’ll be a ticket waiting for you at the Redmond airport early this afternoon. Quick hop to Salt Lake, then Delta—first class, of course—to Atlanta. You’ll get in late this evening. There’ll be a driver at Hartsfield-Jackson waiting to pick you up. And bring your clubs. Lots of great courses in Atlanta. You’ll have plenty of time to hone your game.”

Though he didn’t believe in sixth sense, something gnawing at Richard told him that wouldn’t be the case.

DOWNTOWN ATLANTA, GEORGIA

SUNDAY, AUGUST 18

Alnour Barashi stared down from the window of the Sun Dial Restaurant, 73 floors up in the Westin Peachtree Plaza, at the weekend throngs below. At the crowds strolling through Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, people perhaps headed for the CNN Center, the massive Georgia Aquarium or the World of Coca-Cola. Americans, a nation of infidels. He imagined all of them—men, women, children—writhing in agony. Dying.

He gazed at the structures that towered skyward around him: the Bank of America Plaza, One Atlantic Center, 191 Peachtree Tower. Great steel and glass icons that symbolized everything he despised about American culture: its ill-gotten wealth, its excesses, its arrogance. "Faah,” he mumbled to himself. He finished his lunch, paid the bill in cash, and left.

Back in his apartment, he reclined in a chair and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, tilted his head back and blew a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. He repeated the action several times until a thin, hazy stratus blanketed his small quarters. Relaxed, he reflected on the fact there was one thing he liked about America, Atlanta in particular: its mild climate, a welcome counterpoint to the ice-bound years he’d spent working at the Koltsovo Institute of Molecular Biology in Siberia.

But that was far in the past. Now it was time to breathe life into the legacy of Koltsovo. He placed his cigarette in an ashtray and rummaged through a desk drawer. He pulled out a well-worn roadmap of metropolitan Atlanta, opened it and spread it over the top of his desk. He studied the red circles he’d made earlier on the map. With a ruler calibrated in millimeters, he measured the distance between the circles. He retrieved a calculator and tapped in some numbers. Time, speed, distance. He’d done this before, but wanted to make certain. No margin for error. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would die. He didn’t want to be one of them. He wanted his escape to be clean, and for that his choreography—attack, move; attack, move; attack, flee—had to be perfect.

He smiled, or at least imagined he did. His face, he knew, rarely betrayed emotion. Perhaps the world would never be aware of his genius, his accomplishment, his lethal bioengineered virus, but Allah would, and Allah would be pleased. Allah understood the scientific acumen, the years of labor, the dedication that had been invested in the effort.

Satisfaction washed over Barashi. His determination and patience had been rewarded. The prize: a recombinant Ebola virus as easily transmittable as the common cold. It was something known in the field of microbiology as a chimera virus, named after the mythological fire-breathing creature with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a snake.

The virus had only one more trial to pass, a field test he’d initiated Thursday. He already was convinced the pestilence would prove its lethality, but wanted to be one hundred percent positive. Tomorrow or the next day he’d call area hospitals to see if either, or both, of his targets had been admitted. He expected they had. And was certain there’d be others.

From his briefcase, he pulled a journal. He scribbled some notes in it, then snapped it shut. It made a sharp but tiny sound—a note of confidence, of celebration, of victory. He reached for his cigarette. Too late. It had burned out, leaving only a skeletal cylinder of ash. He brushed it into the center of the ashtray.

He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and considered what he was about to unleash. In the 14th century, bubonic plague, the Black Death, swept through Europe claiming more the 25 million lives. Death was excruciating. Victims often endured a week of continuous, bloody vomiting and decomposing skin before gasping their final agonizing breaths.

Now, Barashi mused, it would be America’s turn. Payment had come due. For its arrogance, for its imperialism, for its brutality. For its dismissal and humiliation of us. For its crusade to project its values onto our culture and our religion.

But no more. Of that he was certain. He held the power: the Black Death of the 21st century.


 

 

Chapter Two

NORTH METRO ATLANTA

SUNDAY, AUGUST 18

David Gullison awoke into a confused, Kafkaesque world. He had no sense of what time it was. Day or night? He didn’t know. He wasn’t even sure where he was. In a bed, he was certain, but... Images and voices swam through his mind as if in an abstractionist dream. He wondered if this was Thursday, his day to play golf with Alan. They always got an early start. He shifted his head to look for his alarm clock. There. But the numbers didn’t make sense. They constantly changed, blinking on and off, pulsating. And why were there so many of them?

He endeavored to sit up, but was too weak. Warm liquid dribbled down his chin. He labored to breathe, but there was something covering his mouth. He raised his hand to remove it, but his arm seemed constrained by wires or tiny cables. Smothered. I’m being smothered. He twisted and turned in a brief, futile attempt to free himself, but again his strength abandoned him.

He tried to scream, but only gagged and coughed. Searing pain lanced through his throat and wrapped itself around his tongue. He inhaled repeatedly, rapidly, but couldn’t gather enough oxygen. It was as though his lungs had turned to moth-eaten lace. Each breath produced no more than a hollow rattle.

Dr. Arthur Willand concluded he should stop looking at pictures of himself. These days he was mildly put off by what he saw: a middle-aged man who looked much older than he really was. His close-cropped blond hair was prematurely flecked with gray, and a nascent double chin—too much time in emergency rooms, not enough time in exercise rooms—hung underneath his freckled, Charlie Brown face. And it was days like today that made him a viable candidate for Grecian Formula.

Because North Georgia Regional Hospital was a Level II Adult Trauma Center, one of four in metro Atlanta, Willand had seen his share of severed limbs and gaping wounds and been splattered by more geysering arterial blood and projectile vomiting than he cared to remember. But what he was dealing with today in the patient by the name of David Gullison was something beyond his ken. Far beyond.

Gullison seemed to be leaking blood from every orifice in his body, eyes and ears included. Dark, bloody emesis and diarrhea speckled the treatment room, filling it with the fetid stench of putrefaction. The patient’s stare was vacant and distant; his body, puffy and swollen. His testicles had ballooned to the size of a grapefruit and turned black and blue. His blood pressure had plunged.

Attempts to stabilize him, to give him IV fluids and medicines, proved futile. A needle inserted into his skin would launch additional hemorrhaging. He was a human colander, unable to retain his own blood. Transfusions were attempted, but blood seeped out as fast as it went in. Dabs of gel foam, used by surgeons to stanch bleeding in severed capillaries, were useless. His blood had lost its clotting capability.

Dr. Willand shook his head in disgust, not at what he was seeing, but at his inability to do anything. He turned to the head ER nurse, a middle-aged slip of a woman with soft, brown eyes who could bark orders like a Marine drill sergeant or soothe a patient with the compassion of Mother Theresa.

"Doris, are we sure Mr. Gullison doesn’t have a clotting disorder?”

"Positive.”

Well, he does now. "Where’d he come from? What’s his background? Who brought him in?”

"His wife. They live just a few miles from the hospital. She said he’d been sick for a couple of days—vomiting, diarrhea—but that he got a little better yesterday. They thought he might be getting over it. Then he began hemorrhaging this morning. She’s wondering if it isn’t just a bad case of the flu or food poisoning. Like that stuff folks get on cruise ships.”

"A Norwalk-like virus? Were they on a cruise recently?”

Doris shook her head. "Mrs. Gullison said they haven’t traveled outside the U.S. in over a year.”

"Well, I don’t think it’s the cruise-ship shits anyhow. This guy is a lot sicker than that. Let’s get a blood sample down to the CDC. They should be able to tell us for sure. In the meantime, get Mr. Gullison started on whole-body type-O blood transfusions. At least we can fight a holding action until we figure out what we’re dealing with and how to treat it. Oh, and have a respirator standing by, too. This stuff is attacking his lungs.”

"It’s attacking everything.”

Willand nodded. A small shudder ran through him. "Let’s err on the side of caution. Have people suit up around Mr. Gullison. Masks, gloves, eye protection. No visitors. Isolate him. And Doris?”

"Yes?”

"Be really careful.”

David’s insides felt as if they were being gnawed away, chewed into chunks of raw meat. A hot sword of terror knifed into him. Oh, God, I’m being eaten from the inside out. Something is eating me. Please, God, no. He tried to scream again, but no sound came, only a thin dribble of fluid from his mouth.

His heart quivered, a sack of blubber struggling for life in a dead environment. Shadows hovered over him, a piercing squeal filled his head. He jerked erect, seizing, retching uncontrollably, spewing grainy, coffee-ground-like vomit into whatever covered his mouth. Abruptly, something narcotic surged through his being, and he sank into a netherworld of nightmares.

It didn’t last. He awoke once more into a world devoid of time and place. A world where only pain existed—excruciating, unending, relentless. Excruciating? Too weak of a word to describe it. The mere touch of something resting on him—a bed sheet, perhaps?—sent waves of agony through his skin. Now, just one thought, one hope, consumed him: death. Merciful God. Let me die. I ask in your Son’s name.

He thought someone called his name, but wasn’t sure. His brain, suddenly infused with bright yellow and red light, seemed to explode. Then nothing. Only blackness. His sense of being slid into an infinite, limitless void. And the pain ceased.

"I’m sorry, Mrs. Gullison, I’m truly sorry. We did everything we could, but he was just too far gone. We tried to defibrillate him, but there was zero response, absolutely nothing. It was as if his heart had disintegrated. All his other organs had failed, too, kidneys, liver, lungs, everything.” Dr. Willand shook his head, partly in sympathy, partly in disbelief. He didn’t like this part of his job; didn’t like telling spouses or parents or children they had lost someone they loved. Someone who had loved them. He didn’t like failing. He especially didn’t like not knowing what he was dealing with.

Mrs. Gullison, seated next to him in an anteroom near the ICU, sobbed in great, gasping bursts, her head buried in her hands, her body shaking with the trauma of sudden grief. Dr. Willand rested his hand on her shoulder, cold comfort in her agony.

"What was it?” she choked out between sobs. "What killed him? He always...” the words wouldn’t come. Dr. Willand waited while she composed herself. She did finally, but kept her head bowed. She held her hands together, but they were in constant motion, writhing like a tiny, knotted ball of snakes.

"He was always so healthy,” she said at last, finishing her statement. "He exercised. He didn’t smoke. He ate right. He had a checkup every year. There was nothing wrong with him, doctor, nothing. How could he have died like that? It was so... ugly.” The tears came again.

He patted her shoulder. Ugly wasn’t the word for it. Agonizing. Cruel. Excruciating. Calamitous. Ugly didn’t begin to describe it. It was as if AIDS had ransacked Gullison’s body in a matter of days. From a standing start to the speed of sound in metaphorical seconds.

"I’ll be honest with you, Mrs. Gullison. We don’t know. Sometimes we come up against that. A rare illness. An emerging disease. A new virus or bacterium. But we’ll find out. I promise you. We’ve notified the state health department, and we’ve sent a sample to the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control. They’ll find out what this was.”

Mrs. Gullison nodded, then began sobbing again, this time silently, softly. She appeared to be an attractive, middle-aged woman, but the ordeal with her husband had taken its toll. Her short, henna-hued hair was disheveled, and her clothes, wrinkled—casualties of long hours of vigilance at the hospital; hours without sleep.

"Is there somebody I can call for you?” Dr. Willand asked. "Family? Friend?”

She shrugged.

"I could have the hospital chaplain come sit with you for a while. Would you like that?”

"That would be nice.”

He rose. "I’ll have him paged.”

She lifted her head and said, "Thank you for trying, doctor. I know it wasn’t your fault.”

He took an involuntary step back. She stared at him with bloodshot eyes. Not merely bloodshot, but bathed in crimson as though all the tiny veins in her eyeballs had shattered.

"Mrs. Gullison, perhaps we should have a look at you, just to make sure—”

She raised her hand in protest. "I’m fine,” she said. "I just need some rest.” As if to punctuate her lie, she broke into a spasm of coughing, watery hacking coming from deep within her lungs.

"No,” he said. "You’re sick.”My God, what is this?

DRUID HILLS, ATLANTA

SUNDAY, AUGUST 18

Dwight Butler, a virologist in the Viral Special Pathogens Branch of the CDC sat sequestered in his office. He’d been called in on an emergency. Now he remained there late in the day because he was—he could think of no other way of putting it—scared shitless.

Outside, lightning illuminated the darkness in almost continuous high-voltage brilliance. An artillery barrage of thunder rumbled steadily. "It’s the angels bowling,” his grandmother used to tell him as a child. Adjacent to the cluster of tightly-packed brick and concrete structures that comprised the CDC, a dark river of rainwater streamed down Clifton Road.

"No angels tonight,” he muttered as he stared out at the storm without really seeing it. His thoughts were elsewhere, wrestling with something far less visible: metastasizing fear. He realized he didn’t look like a man who should be frightened of anything. Truth be told, there were people frightened of him. In the parking lot at night, he’d witnessed coworkers who didn’t know him take the Great Circle Route of avoidance if he approached them.

By any conventional standards, he certainly didn’t look like a doctor, which he was, courtesy of Johns Hopkins University. With a polished ebony head, bulging muscles and a gold earring dangling from his right earlobe, he came across as an African-American Mr. Clean. But unlike Mr. Clean, he sported a bushy, black mustache that drooped over the corners his mouth like the horns of a Cape Buffalo.

His boss, J. W. Zambit, Chief of Special Pathogens, had been appalled by Dwight’s appearance the first time they’d met. Not by his mustache or earring, but by his casual manner of dress: khaki shorts, a flowered Caribbean shirt and gnarly leather sandals. "You can’t come to work looking like you’re going to a Jimmy Buffet concert,” Zambit snapped. "People will think I’ve hired a Parrot Head.”

"What you’ve hired,” Dwight fired back, "is the best damned virologist on the East Coast. Bugs don’t care what I wear.”

He had backed up his boast, and Zambit never raised the issue again. Still, a low level of tension festered between the two. Zambit from time to time would mumble under his breath about decorum in the pathogens branch "going to hell in a hand basket,” words clearly directed at Dwight. Dwight, for his part, never passed up a chance to poke a stick in Zambit’s eye, usually by arriving late for meetings and then walking in humming "Margaritaville” to the beat of his clip-clopping sandals.

 

Once, they’d almost reached a level of détente. Several of the staff had been in a Buckhead bar kicking back on a Friday evening after a particularly arduous week, and Zambit, after a couple of belts, had asked Dwight in a non-adversarial manner, "So why flip-flops and not hip-hop?”

Dwight crushed a tiny orange drink-umbrella between his thumb and forefinger. "I grew up in Newark. My father was killed in the riots there in the late 1960s, and my mother wasn’t really interested in being a mother. I was raised by my grandmother, bless her soul, but I survived by being a street punk. I discovered my appearance helped; it intimidated people.” He tossed the crumpled paper umbrella onto the table.

"Still does, I hear.” Zambit took a swig of his Dewars.

"Yeah. Well, that’s part of the reason I’ve gone Key West.” He spread his arms in a insouciant gesture. "What you see here is the kinder, gentler ‘Dee Butt.’”

"Dee what?”

"Dee Butt. Street name. Long ago. A life I escaped. It never was me. Give me a pair of cheap sandals, a sunset, and a rum and Coke, and I’m a happy man.” A grin on his face, he leaned toward Zambit. "How about you, boss. What makes you happy? Anything? Or are you always going to be a stiff with pipette up his ass?”

Dwight regretted almost immediately saying the words, but he knew you couldn’t un-ring a bell. The opportunity for peaceful coexistence spiraled into history.

This evening, Dwight had no thought of peaceful coexistence with anything. His laid-back nature and professionalism had been pushed to limits he’d never imagined. He recalled only once before being this terrified: in an SCCA sports car race. He’d lost the brakes on a Porsche Carrera screaming into a sharp right-hander at Watkins Glen and could only hang on and try to grip the seat with his butt cheeks as the car ripped through a fence and hurtled into heavy underbrush at over 100 mph. He still loved fine cars, but his high-speed excursion into the Upstate New York woods had ended his career as an amateur competition driver.

When he picked up the phone to call Zambit, he discovered he was back in the Porsche on an out-of-control ride. "Calm down,” he said out loud. He punched in the number of his boss’s home phone.

"Dr. Zambit,” a voice on the other end of the line said.

"Zamby, this is Dwight.”

"The hell you calling in the middle of a storm for? You’ll get us both electrocuted. Or was that your plan?”

"Actually it wasn’t. But you may feel like you’ve been electrocuted after this call is over.”

The phone line popped and crackled as a lightning bolt lanced onto the roof of an adjacent building. Zambit yelled for his wife to bring him a portable handset. There was a pause, then Zambit said, "I gather you’re about to lay some serious shit on me.”

"Think of it as an elephant dump.”

"You’d never pass up an opportunity like that, would you?”

"We’ve got Ebola in Atlanta.”

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Eyewall

H.W. "Buzz" Bernard

May 2011  $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-001-5


Our Price: US$15.95

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