VIRAL FEAR

 
 
 
By

 

 

 

 

Robert Aardvark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1997, a deranged man committed a series of crimes at University Hospital.  He claimed he was infected by animals housed at the facility.  He was only trying to cure himself.

 


 

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly.

I don’t know why she swallowed that fly.

Perhaps she’ll die.

 

Chapter 1

Spam turned the corner and aimed toward the door marked “No Entry.” He gave a quick smile and a nod to the nurse at the desk as he walked by. It was even easier than he had hoped. The guard at the door had left for the bathroom, giving Spam a lucky, but probably unnecessary, break. When it came to getting past security a suit and a stiff look of confidence were as good as any ID. Spam had all he needed: an expensive coat, a stethoscope, a beeper, and his calm. Spam sometimes had a great gift for calm. God gives everyone a talent.

“Good evening, Doctor.”

“Evening.”

Spam kept his greeting short. He had learned, after being picked out in a lineup in DC, that conversation only served to fix him in an observer’s mind. Doctors were expected to be curt. So he was curt.

The doors in front of him opened automatically into a long, windowless hallway. When they closed behind, he was safe, by himself under the neon lights.

Spam moved briskly along the corridor. Research wings of hospitals rarely had windows. Partly this was for security. Partly it was because PhDs didn’t have the clout to rate window offices. Spam scanned the doors as he walked. Warning stickers about radiation and hazardous materials adorned lab doors.  Cluttered arrays of Far Side cartoons or news clippings indicated offices.  A chalkboard on one wall was marked with chemical formulas and a few lines under the inscription “quote of the week.” Spam smiled to see that it had not changed in six months.

This would be his last hit on this hospital for a while. Steal from a man once and he puts it down to bad luck. Steal from him twice and he starts to take precautions. Spam turned a corner in the hallway and followed a sign that read “vivarium.”

The vivarium was the animal facility. Such places have advantages to a thief. The people there are predictable. Researchers, as with all hospital personnel, tend to work odd hours, so it is hard to plan a time when they will not be there. Research animals, however, are kept on strict, day-and-night cycles so as not to disturb their natural behavior.  If the lights were out on the guinea pigs, chances are no one would be there working with them.

The other reason Spam liked raiding vivariums was that they were more likely to have what his clients referred to as “far-out shit.”

Most drugs go through years of animal testing before they are ever used on humans. PCP was a tranquilizer used by veterinarians long before it ever became a common street drug. Last year, Spam had scored twenty-four vials of Scarsinol, worth $5000 a hit to the right clients, from a vivarium. Of course, there were certain disadvantages to using experimental drugs, but Spam’s supplier was busted two weeks ago. Unless Spam got something soon, he’d be out of business.

Spam walked up a short, inclined ramp to what appeared to be an old-fashioned steel door.  That, in a sense, it was. The door was old, but the security attached to its entrance was quite modern. A tumbler prevented the latch from being moved without a key, and the door itself was magnetically sealed, and answered only to an ID card reader. 

The ID reader was a new addition since his last raid.  Security suspected that the items missing from stores might have been pilfered by a man with a talent for locks.  Spam had such a talent, but, more importantly, he knew an addict who did construction work for the hospital.

For a few small bags of white powder, worth only a fraction of what he had taken from the vivarium on his last visit, he had obtained three keys. Two of those had previously been enough to let him into the vivarium.  The third key opened the office of the on-site veterinarian.  From that office, after a simple search, he had borrowed two more keys. Keys beget keys, and finally let him into the double-walled locker where the drugs were stored. The construction worker could have done the same if he had the brains to figure it out.

Now there was the additional ID reader. Spam had found out about that for free.  If a mark wasn’t smart enough to figure out the value of keys, he was even less likely to know the value of information. The hospital was building a new biohazard wing. It abutted the vivarium, but wasn’t open yet.

Spam turned away from the elevator and toward the yellow door marked “Warning Biohazard Class IV : Highly Infectious Agents.” The biohazard area connected to the vivarium through a back door. The ID reader and magnetic lock had yet to be installed there.  Spam couldn’t get a key for this door, but it was rather flimsy, and he wasn’t planning to come back.

A crowbar was pulled from a lined compartment Spam had sewn into the inside of his coat. The compartment would also do for smuggling the drugs past the nurses’ station during the course of his escape. Jamming the bar between the crack of the door, he pushed hard until a sound like breaking ice told him the plaster surrounding the lock to the biohazard wing had given way.

The noise was louder than Spam had anticipated. It must have carried all the way to the vivarium because the sound of barking dogs started up from behind the doors.  Spam froze, momentarily startled by the otherworldly noise of the animals in their cages -- howls, echoed by grunts and then loud screeches.

Monkeys, thought Spam. There weren’t monkeys last time he was here. They were very loud animals. The doors muffled the sounds, but anyone nearby would undoubtedly hear. If a guard were to come and investigate, Spam would be caught holding a crowbar. Stethoscope or no, he doubted he could talk his way out of that. Spam closed the yellow door behind him, hoping a passing guard wouldn’t notice the shattered lock.

Spam found himself in what looked like a locker room.  Benches were separated by a single sheet of metallic lockers—apparently different sides for men and women, although the provisions for modesty were minimal at best.  Stacks of green scrubs sat on a shelf half way between the men and women’s sections of the room.

Some perversity in Spam’s subconscious made him head for the women’s side of the locker room.  It was not that he had a thing for women’s bathrooms per se, or anything that was truly sexual. The drugs had killed his need for sex years ago. But this felt sexual, felt like an exciting hunger. Spam needed to go places that were off limits. Even while breaking and entering, he didn’t feel as if he had pushed himself quite enough out of place.

But the biohazard signs might do it. The red symbols gave Spam the creeps. They were spider-like and edgy in their warning. Spam moved to wipe the perspiration from his forehead, but his palm was as damp as his brow. He wished he had brought downers. Of course, if he had downers he wouldn’t have had to make this trip at all. Spam gripped the crowbar more tightly and wiped his palms and forehead on his sleeve.

He thought about the biohazard signs. Perhaps this was too much trouble for the money.  Spam had netted about $15,000 from his last trip, if you didn’t count what he had used himself. If he cleaned the place out he could probably double that amount, but it wasn’t worth coming down with Ebola or some other nasty disease you only saw in science fiction movies. Then Spam smiled, thinking of when he was younger and had worked a stint as a mule for a chemistry graduate student who had sold LSD. Spam, at first, had been terrified of all the warning labels that covered the lab.

“Don’t you get scared working around all this shit, man?” he had asked.

“You dodge bullets for a living and you’re afraid of warning signs the regulators make us put up?” The graduate student had laughed.  “Look around at this chemical shelf.”

Spam had looked.

“What has the worst looking warning on it?”

“I don’t know. That one,” Spam had said, pointing up to a brown jar labeled with a skull and crossbones.

“Caffeine,” the student had smiled. “Don’t get me wrong, caffeine is dangerous as all bejesus if you get too much of it, but you get the idea. We’re overprotective.”

Overprotective, thought Spam. No university hospital was going to put its students and workers in real danger.  Their patients, maybe, but med students often had lawyers for parents. He would be fine. He just needed to relax and get through this. The place wasn’t supposed to be finished. They probably didn’t have anything dangerous here.  All he had to do was cut through to the vivarium, find the same key as last time, and then he was out of here.  Relax. Get in. Get out. Relax.

Three more rooms passed in the deserted facility, and he barely noticed them. Spam’s calm had returned as he walked quickly, directly, to where he knew the connection to the vivarium must be: past the shower, past the second locker room with biohazard suits hanging like withered green ghosts on clothing hooks, past the blue lights that made specks on his suit glow with a faint pallor, and forward through another set of locked doors that, this time, yielded almost noiselessly to the crowbar.

Spam had made it. On the far side of the room, seated in what looked like a giant fishtank set into the wall, was an African mountain gorilla. The face, like that of an old man if you got past the lack of a nose, echoed Spam’s own sense of calm. It grunted, picked at itself and settled back into a corner. Two similar, though smaller, gorillas shuffled silently in Plexiglas cages adjacent to the larger animal’s segregated space. 

Spam could see the rest of the animal facility through the back of the translucent cells. The main lights were off on the other side, but he could still make out the hallway near the veterinarian’s office. Although the cages acted as windows to his goal, there was no obvious door connecting the two areas. The construction worker had been wrong. He had come to a dead end. 

There must be a way through somehow. Spam examined the gorilla cages. He spotted the keyhole and hinges on this side. The entire front surface was a door. The question was, did the sheet of Plexiglas on the other side serve a similar purpose, or was the entrance one sided, with the back wall serving only as a means of observation? Tracing the beams of the ceiling with his eyes, Spam’s vision fell on the support pillars at the back of the cages. Like arches for doors.  And there, at the base, nirvana. He spotted a latch. Two-way entry.

He had to get those doors open and pass the proverbial, five-hundred-pound gorilla. The primate itself didn’t fill Spam with as much dread as it might. Spam remembered from a trip to the zoo as a child that apes were vegetarians. This pearl of wisdom had in fact been refuted since the time Spam had learned it, but that gorillas often hunted, killed and ate smaller animals, including monkeys, probably would not have deterred him either. Gorillas were not man-killers, at least not on purpose.

There was still the problem of getting into one of the gorilla cages.  Spam looked for small hiding places. That was the thing he loved about hospital facilities. Everyone kept everything so nicely locked, but they always seemed to leave the keys around somewhere. It wouldn’t do to have doctors looking like janitors with a ring of fifty keys, would it?

Opening the first drawer, Spam smiled at his good fortune. Sitting in plain view were two boxes of syringes and a bottle labeled “Nembutal.” They hadn’t even locked it up.

Nembutal wasn’t Spam’s favorite drug. It was sodium pentobarbital, truth serum. Really, it was a tranquilizer, made you feel like you were moving in slow motion and too tired to care. Maybe that was why it worked as a truth serum. You were too tired to come up with a good lie. It put you to sleep if you used too much of it. Spam thought he could sell it for a few bucks though, and the syringes would always come in handy. He stuffed his pockets.

Finding the key ring took ten more drawers and three cabinets, filled with everything from test tubes to a dart gun to dried fruit. Finally, the keys were there, as he knew they would be.

Spam surveyed the three gorilla cages and decided to go for the smallest animal. The big one might be harmless, but there was no point in taking chances.  The fourth key on the ring matched the cage door, and Spam swung it open. The gorilla stayed in the back of the cage.

Spam took a broom from the cabinets where he had found the key.  Returning with this weapon, Spam leaned in toward the small ape and gently prodded it with the soft end of the broom.  The gorilla snorted and brushed it away, returning to a curled position on the floor.  Spam tried again, a little harder this time. The gorilla snorted louder, but still did not move from its repose. Well, if it was that sound a sleeper, Spam doubted it would pose much of a threat as he slipped past to the Plexiglas door.

He was wrong. The ape shrieked loudly as Spam entered the cage. Suddenly, bounding from side to side, it was fiercely awake and preventing him from getting to the latch on the opposite wall. The other animals answered the noise with their own cacophony. Gorillas howled in the surrounding cages, and from the other side of the Plexiglas came the loud barking of dogs.  Spam remembered the broken lock he had left at the entrance and once again prayed that no one responded to the noise.

He had to get the damn ape out. Spam thought about the dart gun he had run across, but was hesitant to part with the Nembutal to load it. Stepping to one side of the cage, he pushed the broom out and nudged the screaming gorilla toward the open door.

The ape’s reaction was faster than Spam had been prepared for, and the pull much stronger. The gorilla had taken the other end of the broom. Now the animal, not the man, held the stick. A sweat that Spam had avoided since entering the biohazard facility returned to him in cold sheets.

But with the new toy of the broom in hand, the ape seemed calmed. It sniffed at the bristles, and, seemingly bored with this, at last noticed the open door. Spam smiled at the child-like transformation. The ape shuffled along comically, dragging the broom on the ground, and came within arm’s reach of Spam before dashing out of the cage to freedom.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Spam smiled at the gorilla’s ingenuity.

Climbing on the cabinet and turning the handle like any human might, the ape had headed directly to a hidden cache of food. The broom was discarded in favor of a feast on peanuts and figs. The ape used hands and feet to select choice morsels.

Spam reached for the latch at the base of the Plexiglas wall, and was momentarily surprised when it did not move. Then he remembered the ape’s hands.  If a human could open it, then so too could a gorilla. Like the front door to the cage, this back door must be locked. Only, in this case, there was no visible keyhole.

Spam searched in vain for some hidden release or slot that might fit one of the myriad keys or electronic cards that hung on the recently pilfered key ring.  Then it was back to the crowbar.  This time, even that brutish method did not prove simple. The bottom edges of the Plexiglas were sealed tightly against the wall. There was no way for him to insert the bar and gain leverage.

Spam’s concentration was so complete that he did not notice that the gorilla, having finished its meal, had moved back into the cage. Spam was thinking of levering the latch instead of the door itself when he heard a low grunt behind him.

He could not contain an open laugh as he turned. The look on the ape’s face was so human, so curious. It was like the look of onlookers when they visited the zoo. Spam was in the cage, and the gorilla was watching him. Spam reached out to shoo the ape away.

The gorilla shrieked and bit.

Like the incident with the broom, Spam was surprised by the speed of the moment. That so big an animal could move quickly seemed unnatural. Spam withdrew his bloodied hand and swore.

He thought about hitting the creature with the crowbar. It soothed the hurt to imagine bashing the offending creature’s skull. He thought with some comfort of his weapon-using superiority. Only humans used tools. He remembered that from an introduction to Planet of the Apes he had watched once on late night TV. Damned dirty ape.

The story of the tools, like the story of gorillas’ being entirely vegetarians, had been proven false since Spam’s TV viewing, but his ignorance mitigated his need for vengeance. Besides, Spam remembered the incident with the broom, and he did not want to lose the crowbar.

Instead, he let the ape retreat and shriek, and turned back to the latch.  Spam wedged the bar into the space where the metal attached to the floor and worked it back and forth until there was a gap big enough for him to insert the end of the bar.

This produced the desired effect of cracking the lock. The Plexiglas sheet slid upward a few inches into the ceiling. There was an inward whoosh of air and a horrible noise.

“Oh, shit.”

Spam’s profanity was covered by the noise of barking and howls, but also, terribly, by a loud, wailing siren.

 The calm deserted him, replaced by a panic more fierce than that of the most unstable junkie. The noises and flashing lights put him in hell. Spam ran down the hall thinking only of escape, until he stood facing the lens of a security camera.

Instead of inspiring more fear, the camera brought back perspective. Spam was in a bad situation. He needed to get out. In his mind he watched himself being watched, and played out the scenario.

He needed to create a distraction. Spam thought of the dogs. Where was the room where the barking originated? It sounded like it came from a little to his left. He ran quickly until he found the loudest door and kicked violently. It was weak. He was lucky.

Twenty or thirty dogs barked vigorously in the dim room.  Spam swung open the cages, releasing the largest dogs first.  The animals bounded at the opportunity.  A German shepherd jumped up to lick at Spam. Many more rushed out of the room altogether.  Spam called to the remaining animals.

“Come on boys! Time to cause some chaos.”

Spam ran down the hall, the dogs bounding joyfully along with him as sirens and barking and screams of unidentifiable animals echoed down the corridors. The door out of the vivarium was only locked in one direction. Spam pushed it open and let the dogs run out in front of him.

The timing could not have been better. Two oncoming security guards were met with a mass of onrushing canines.  Spam called, as if he were trying to hold the animals back.

“Hey, come here! Come back here!” Spam charged after one animal and past the overwhelmed security personnel.

The guards were fooled momentarily, but Spam was already around the corner, and the guards were slowed by the mass of animals. Spam tried various doors, and at last one opened. He ducked in a moment before the guard rounded the bend to the research hallway.

The lights of the lab had been left on, but the room was empty, and it was a mess. Papers and equipment sat on various lab counters, while a small desk in the back corner was piled unevenly with books, knickknacks, and scattered notes.

“No damn windows.”

Spam looked around feverishly for another way out. Two more doors, one on each of opposite walls, provided possibilities, but no clear answers.  Spam sucked for a moment at his wounded hand.

“Oh, that tops it!”

Looking down at the gash, Spam saw that he had bled considerably. His suit, calculated to get him past the security desk on the way out, was covered in red.  Spam grabbed papers off the counter and tried to rub off the stains, but it was no good.  He was trapped. He didn’t know a back-way out, and he couldn’t walk out the front.

Or could he? Spam peered momentarily out the door. Some lab-coat-clad students had stepped out into the hall to discover the source of commotion. Spam noted a similar coat tossed recklessly over the desk and put it on over his suit.  A pair of Walkman-style earphones also caught his attention. He put them on, stuffing the unattached end of the wire into the coat. From the desk he took a manila folder, which, when held close to his body, served to disguise his injured hand.

There was nothing to do but try it. Spam stepped out into the hall, his back to where he thought the security guards would be.

Luckily, he had guessed correctly. The guards were still at the end of the hallway near the vivarium, one talking to a graduate student while the other tried to herd the dogs back toward their stalls. Spam walked for the exit next to the nurse’s desk.

“Hey, you!”

Spam kept walking, bobbing his head as if he were listing to music on the Walkman.

“Hey you, have you seen a guy in a blue suit going... What the?” The guard’s interrogatory was cut short as a beagle began tearing at his trouser leg.

Spam pushed on the exit door, continuing to bob his head to the imaginary music.

“Good evening, nurse.” He nodded curtly.

“Good morning, doctor. Quite a commotion you all are having back there, isn’t it?”

“Apparently so,” said Spam, heading into the elevators.

 

Chapter 2

Merlin Webster hunched down from the car roof that was too low for him and blinked hard as the sun blinded him to the speed of the oncoming traffic. His car, or rather his wife’s car that he had borrowed for the morning, was almost motionless in the early rush hour. He hated getting into work after sunrise.

“We wouldn’t have this problem if we had stayed in the city where we belonged, Martha.”

“Yes, Dear. Now remember to get in the right-hand lane. Your exit is next.”

“I know where the exit is. I’ve been working in the same building for twenty years.”

“Oh, you are such a curmudgeon when you drive.”

“I’m always a curmudgeon, Martha.”

“True, but you can be so very cute when you’re grumpy.”

She leaned over and kissed him as he shifted lanes. Merlin grunted, but he smiled as he did so. It was an old conversation, but one that never stopped pleasing him. His hand left the wheel momentarily to brush softly across his wife’s wrist.

“It looks like there is a commotion going on at the hospital,” Martha said, peering out over the side of the interstate.  “Maybe that’s what’s causing all this traffic.”

“It’s a hospital, Martha. There is always commotion at hospitals.”

“But look, there are all those news vans. Do you think they will interview you about what happened? Be careful of that car, dear. He’s going to merge in front of us.”

Merlin hit the brakes as gently as possible so as not to jerk Martha in her seat. He noticed that there was another news van three-car’s-length in front of them.

“I’m a scientist, Martha. They never interview scientists, unless you have handed them a miracle. And I haven’t walked on water lately.”

“That nice man called you up last month.”

Merlin thought about the reporter, and about the protest that had sparked the interview. Some celebrity had died of a rare disease, and the local chapter of his fan group had decided to mark the occasion with a charity walk to the hospital. “What do we want? A cure! When do we want it? Now!” they yelled outside his window.  Oh, that helped, he thought.  Now that you have yelled at me I will reveal the secret formula that I have been hiding for years because I could not stand the idea of winning the Nobel Prize and making millions of dollars.

“Well, that was because someone died,” Merlin said.

“Maybe they died again. You had better let this truck in, by the way. He looks rather insistent.”

“I am never coming in to work this late again. I cannot believe how pushy people can be in rush hour.”

“Well, your car will be fixed tomorrow, dear. For the life of me I don’t know why you keep that vehicle.  It’s such an ugly brown.”

“It’s a good car. Unlike some people, it likes to start early in the morning.”

“At the moment it won’t start at all. If you weren’t so cheap you could buy a new one, and then you could drive in as early as you like. But as long as I, and my car, have to come in with you, we are not getting up in the dark. I need my beauty sleep.”

Merlin leaned over and returned the peck on the cheek his wife had given him earlier.

“I must admit, it has worked wonders over the years.”

“Oh, you.” Martha slapped his hand playfully. “Now keep your eyes on the traffic. A fine thing that would be to crash my car before yours even gets out of the shop.”

They said no more.  Their verbal dance was done for the morning. Martha’s head swayed to the big-band music playing softly on the car speakers as they took the exit to the hospital.  Merlin normally listened to the news in the morning, but he knew his wife preferred music, so he had brought along a CD of Glen Miller.

Merlin gave Martha a final kiss and picked up his non-spill coffee mug from the car’s drink holder before exiting and heading for the back door of the hospital. He nodded to the nurse as he approached the station, and was surprised when she asked for his I.D. He didn’t know her name, but he had passed her station hundreds of times and never been questioned. 

Merlin walked the hallway to his office and stopped again. The door in front of his desk was open, but the entrance was blocked by yellow tape that stretched across the doorposts. More disturbing, the tidy enclave of books and microscope slides normally secured behind this door had been replaced by a jumble of ripped pages and broken glass. At the center of it all was a small dog sitting on Merlin’s desk.

Merlin stepped back from his office.

A measured reaction to strange situations was one of the hallmarks of a truly mature individual, Merlin believed. He took a sip of coffee, and rapped gently on the door across the hall. Entering the lab, he found his senior graduate student stooped under a lab bench, examining a spot on the floor. The student looked up momentarily.

“Morning, Merlin. Bit of a late start for you today?”

“Ah, a bit.  Am I disturbing your work, Scott?”

In Merlin’s day, graduate students had not referred to their mentors by their first name, but Merlin tried to be less formal. Using the name Merlin did not make him feel as old as being called Dr. Webster.

“Not disturbing me at all, Merlin.”

“Yes, well, that is to say, there appears to be a chihuahua in my office.”

The graduate student continued looking at the spot on the floor.

“A chihuahua? You should count yourself lucky. Dr. Armani found two rottweilers in his lab this morning. Big dogs.  Messerschmitt’s lab uses them to study supports for broken bones, you know. There has also been a wiener dog dashing in and out of here all morning. Fast little guy. We couldn’t catch him.”

Merlin took another sip from his coffee, noticing for the first time that the entire lab was in a similar state as his office. Broken glass was everywhere, and parts of the lab had been cordoned off by police tape.  Scott, still bent over the spot on the floor, was the only student to have arrived this early.

“I think they missed this spot. It looks like blood, but I’m not sure how fresh. Song is going to be pissed. The police took half her stuff as evidence. Looks like she was working on something pretty late too. The timer on the PCR machine said it was started at 3 a.m.”

“That would likely be Song.”

Song Kim was an MD/PhD student who worked with Merlin and Scott. Unlike the two men, who tended to be early risers, she often worked the graveyard shift.

“I suppose it would spoil all your fun if I asked you directly to tell me what happened in here,” Merlin said dryly.

Scott Bienvenu rose from contemplating his possible spot of blood. He was quite tall, even compared to Merlin, who was himself a little over six feet two.  There had been a joke that the two of them had worked on growth hormone research and had sampled their own wares.  Scott had, in fact, been diagnosed at one point as acromegalic, which meant that his body was producing too much growth hormone, but the state was natural, not brought about, by laboratory science.

“Merlin, I’m shocked. I thought you would have heard. Aren’t you as much of a National Public Radio junkie as the rest of us?”

“We made the national news?”

“Albeit under the section normally reserved for humorous little anecdotes, yes. One of the dogs with a broken leg found its way to the osteopaths. The press liked that.  The bit about the biohazard facility will probably hit the fan about noon, I’d guess.”

Merlin started to show signs of being genuinely upset.  He had tried to take the presence of the dog in his office with good humor, but it wasn’t even seven a.m., and he had already had to contend with traffic, an office in a shambles, and his lab splattered with spots of what appeared to be human blood. Now he had been told that the canine in his office might have escaped from the biohazard facility. This was far too much, even for a Monday morning.

“There is an infectious dog in my office? Why hasn’t animal control re-captured it yet?”

“Oh relax, Merlin. The dogs are harmless. Some animal rights activists broke in last night and let them out of their pens. Security has rounded most of them up. I’m sure the veterinary teams will gather the rest when they come in around eight.”

Merlin relaxed a bit, but was still wary. He took another sip of his coffee.

“So what were you saying, about the press going nuts over the biohazard facility?”

“Well, to get in where the dogs were, our PETA fanatic went through the Class IV biohazard facility they’re building. There isn’t anything that’s actually class four in there, but he got into the cage with the SHNV-9 apes, and I don’t think your average reporter is going to see biohazard four and understand we haven’t released a new plague upon the world.”

“Dr. Saunders will not be pleased.”

“A fair prediction,” said Scott, “but speaking of Saunders, don’t forget that you and he are giving the noon seminars today.”

Merlin had, in fact, forgotten. Every Monday the hospital held a luncheon meeting where researchers presented short talks about their work.  Merlin had originally been scheduled for next month, but the program had been accelerated when someone suggested that, in order to diversify the crowd, two talks should be given instead of one.

The talks were supposed to support social and intellectual interaction between different labs. Of late, they had degenerated into opportunities for rival researchers to take potshots at each other. There was free food, so no one wanted to cancel the seminar altogether, but lately things had gotten so hostile that attendance had dropped. Only the most prominent researchers could still draw a crowd.

“I don’t suppose you would want to substitute for me today, would you, Scott?”

“Oh great, throw me to the wolves. Actually, when I saw the state of your office, I kind of thought you might be asking me that.  My talk should go well with Saunders anyway.”

“Thanks. I owe you one.”

“Remember that when I defend my dissertation.”

Merlin smiled again. Professors have a reputation for keeping their students from graduating so that they can use them as slave labor in the lab. In many instances this reputation is justified. In Scott’s case, however, it was the student’s own stubborn insistence on finishing all the studies he had initiated, rather than pressure from above, that kept him from completing his PhD. 

“Oh, and remember, Dr. Saunders and I have agreed that none of us will mention the big project until the grant comes through, OK?” Merlin added.

Scott rolled his eyes in disgust. “Like it would be me that you would have to worry about. Saunders couldn’t keep his mouth shut if it were stapled. But I was going to talk about uses of the virus for gene therapy in the brain.”

“Whatever you think is best.  I’m going to see what I can do to accelerate the process of getting that mutt off my desk.”

Merlin stepped out of the laboratory and back across toward his office. Peering in the door, he saw the dog, still perched in the center of the room. The animal had turned somewhat and Merlin was now able to see that it had a small, shaved patch on its side. This was to facilitate the giving of injections. The dog was used for raising antibodies.

Antibodies show an amazing ability to stick to only the substance that has been injected, and so, once recovered from an animal’s blood, have myriad uses in detecting or binding up particular types of molecules. The procedure rarely involved infectious materials, so Scott was probably right that the dog was harmless.

Merlin knew he should walk in, pick up the animal and carry it back to its pen in the vivarium. Except that Merlin wasn’t good with animals. Even rats, which despite their nasty reputation in the wild, are the most amicable of all lab animals, bit Merlin when he tried to work with them. He had no desire to be bitten by a dog. Besides, he told himself, he probably shouldn’t cross the police tape.

“Ramesh,” Merlin called to an Indian lab tech who was coming out of Dr. Armani’s lab down the hall. “How can I get a dog out of an office?”

“Don’t vote for him next time,” said the technician. “I don’t know. Try offering him food. But make sure it’s not from the cafeteria or you’ll have the animal rights people after you again.”

“Very funny. I don’t suppose Dr. Amberlight is in yet?”

“Actually, she is,” Ramesh responded. “She got called in last night when the dogs escaped. I don’t think she’s gone home yet.”

Sandra Amberlight was the only person in the hospital that did experiments on dogs. Most of the other animals in the canine ward were owned by people who worked in surrounding facilities. Merlin had always thought it odd that Sandra should choose to work with dogs, since she was such an animal lover herself. She had four pet dogs, two cats, and a parakeet at home. It must have been hard on her to have to put to sleep so many of the animals she loved.

Merlin walked through the hospital toward the surgical wing where Dr. Amberlight had her office. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid the chaos of the waiting room. There were even more reporters in the lobby than half an hour ago. Perhaps Scott was right about the news media picking up the bad news concerning the biohazard wing. Merlin was struck by how artificial these reporters looked as they tried to play up the details. That was the problem with local news, he thought. They always sentimentalize and sensationalize, pretending that it was the most important thing in the world that Eye Witness Six was the first on the scene to see that dogs had escaped in a local hospital. If they could admit it was only a dog story, then maybe people would have some faith in them if an important event did occur.

Merlin pushed his way through the quieter hallway beyond and knocked shave-and-a-haircut on the door to Sandra Amberlight’s office.

“Go away! I told you I am not giving any goddamn interviews.”

Merlin leaned his head inside the door. Sandra’s face was red, as if she had been crying, and her desk was almost as much disarray as his, sans broken glass and canine presence.

“Sandra, are you OK?”

“I’m fine, damn it. Go away. They shot two of my dogs.”

Merlin struggled for something to say. He had come to ask for help with the dog in his office. He hadn’t anticipated the possibility that Sandra would be having problems of her own. Dr. Amberlight continued talking before he could think of an appropriate response.

“If I ever get my hands on that goddamn terrorist who let them out, I’ll inject him with every virus and microbe we have ever developed a vaccine for and then see how he feels about animal research.”

“Look, if this is a bad time…” said Merlin.

“No, no. Come in. I’m sorry, but did they have to shoot the dogs?” Dr. Amberlight indicated a chair for Merlin.  “I know they were barking at people in the E.R., but the dogs were cardiac cases for goodness’ sake. They couldn’t have hurt a flea.”

“I guess in all the confusion, security panicked,” Merlin tried vainly as he sat down.

“I know. It’s that animal-rights terrorist, and that’s what he is, a terrorist, who is to blame. It’s not like he even helped his own cause. Those dogs had survived almost a year with an artificial valve transplant. Now we are going to have to do the work all over. Two more dogs and a year’s worth of work down the drain.”

“Well, at least no one was hurt.”

“No one was hurt? That valve could be saving how many lives a year? And now how far back has this stunt pushed FDA approval? Tell me that.  Goddamn terrorist.” Dr. Amberlight’s eyes began running again.

“Here, have my handkerchief. You still have the data, don’t you, Sandra?” Merlin was beginning to wish he had grabbed the dog, let it bite him, and have done with it.

“Yes, at least I still have the data. The study won’t be as good, but we should be able to publish. Poor Dr. Lai. Two rottweilers got into his office and chewed on his hard drive cable this morning. He doesn’t even know how much information he’s lost.”

“Oh God, my proposal.” Merlin went completely white. He hadn’t thought about the damage a dog could do to a desktop terminal. He tried to think of the last time he had backed up his files. Not recently enough. He had spent the last month and a half working on the grant proposal with Dr. Saunders, and the only copy was sitting on his hard drive next to a dog that could at this very moment be digesting the disk.

“Dr. Webster? Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, I’m fine. That’s what I came to talk to you about. There is a dog in my office, and my grant...”

“Well, we can take care of that straight away.” Dr. Amberlight stood up, and directed Merlin to do likewise.

The two researchers exited the office. Merlin walked along dumbfounded for a few moments, but then realizedthat at least one of his problems had solved itself. Dr. Amberlight had magically returned to her normal state of full composure and efficiency. Unloading your own problems was probably not considered a politically correct way of dealing with another’s emotional crisis, but it had worked. What’s more, Dr. Amberlight was now going to get the dog out of his office.

“So, Merlin,” said Dr. Amberlight as they passed back through the lobby, “Dr. Saunders tells me that you two have some exciting ideas for this grant proposal? Sounds like a shoo-in to get funded.”

“Perhaps,” said Merlin, looking at some reporters who were getting pushed out of the way by an ambulance crew, “but you can never tell what is going to happen.”

 

Chapter 3:

The child’s face was a mask of blisters and pus. A black bar covered the eyes, but even with this veil of censorship Jennifer McGee could see blood leaking from the tear ducts and other orifices. She read the caption under the photograph. The final stage of ebola infection involves widespread infection of microvascular endothelial cells and compromise of vascular integrity. Death results from high fever, diffuse bleeding, and hypotensive shock.

“A little light reading?” Shep peered over her shoulder.

Jennifer stuffed the scientific journal back into a stack of similarly-titled volumes in the bookshelves that lined the hallway, and pushed again at the elevator call button.

“It’s still less disgusting that coming all the way out here for that worthless-excuse for a press conference,” Jennifer said impatiently.

“Oh, I don’t know. I got some good pictures of the doctor with the puppy up at the podium,” shrugged Shep.  “A few dog puns, and you’ll have a great piece for the living section.”

Shep Thomson was the photographer with whom Jennifer had been paired for this assignment. He and most of the other newspaper people were filing out of the press conference behind her.

“I need a cigarette,” Jenifer said.

“They won’t let you smoke in the hospital.”

“I know. I think that was part of Morty’s plan when he gave me this job. If the dull stories didn’t force me to quit, the nicotine withdrawal would.”

“You could expand the story,” Shep offered. “If you wanted something more serious you could do a bit on the science these dogs were involved with.”

No, the research angle was not what she wanted. Jennifer had agreed to the hospital beat because she thought it would bring her important stories, stories of life and death. So far, those had gone to the senior reporters who came in following a crime. She got the leftovers—the cop’s long recovery from a bullet wound, blood drives, and now this dog story. 

The hospital had provided interviews with a doctor who treated the dog with the broken leg, and the usual pap about the hospital’s commitment to total patient wellness. Who invented the word wellness anyway? Half of the conference seemed to be taken straight from the hospital’s commercials, and the other half by idiotic questions from TV reporters about the names of the dogs. One reporter from the Alternative, a free weekly that liked to think of itself as daring, got off a question on the animal-rights angle. He asked whether the doctors who had fixed the dog’s leg had also been involved in breaking it.  Other than that, and Jennifer’s own question, everything about the conference had been totally softball. Jennifer hated it.

“Why’d you ask about the biohazard thing, Jennifer?” Shep piped in again. He smiled when he asked the question, playing “the good-old-dumb Shep” role that would let Jennifer blow off some steam. He liked Jennifer. She believed in what she did. She was young, driven, and absolutely sure that there was a scandal somewhere in every story. Of course, that was usually true. Dig deep enough and you always find a scandal, thought Shep. But sometimes it wasn’t worth it.  Sometimes you just have to ask the dog’s name.

“I had a hunch,” Jennifer answered. “I noticed a couple of the hospital administrators cringed earlier when someone asked if our dog liberator got in through the new wing. Their answers were too long. Went on about how the biohazard facility is not yet being used at the class-four level, or something like that. People use more words when they’re lying or covering something up.”

“Really?” Shep nodded.

“Definitely.” Jennifer was rambling happily now, letting out all the things she had wanted to say at the press conference. “Ever notice how long Nixon went on in questions about Watergate? Talked too long in response to simple questions? Same thing happened here. There are a lot of nervous people in this hospital. They outright dodged the question from the Alternative. Instead of answering they gave us the hurt-dog bit. They want this to be a one-day story.”

Shep had to laugh inwardly at the Watergate reference. Jennifer hadn’t been born when the news of Watergate broke, but that one story had shaped the media world with which she had grown up. Every reporter today had an inner longing to be an investigator.

Jennifer pushed at the elevator button for what seemed like the hundredth time. Several of the reporters who had been waiting behind gave up and headed for the stairs. A few TV crews remained, setting up to film panning shots in the hallway and auditorium.

“And why are so many of the nationals here?” Jennifer indicated a chisel-jawed reporter from NBC. “They must know something we don’t.”

“The big guys like cute stories too, Jennifer. You could ask them, though.”

“Yeah, right.” Jennifer’s scowl returned. “Like the old-boys’ network is going to give away a scoop to the local paper, and to a female reporter at that.”

Shep was annoyed by Jennifer’s comment. He knew the press corps could be rough on women, but he felt that Jennifer was too quick to assume she was being persecuted.

“Well, why don’t you let an old-boy have a go at that old-boys’ network.” Shep winked and walked over to the NBC reporter.*

Jennifer ignored him and continued to push at the elevator button. How could the elevators in a hospital be so slow? What if someone had to get surgery?

As if to answer her question, a light flashed above the elevator, stating “emergency override.” The numbers on the floor-indicator started going back down as the elevator headed away from their level and toward the apparent crisis.

The doctors from the conference must have already headed for the stairs since they weren’t milling around the elevator area with the now disgruntled reporters. Jennifer thought about taking this route as well, but she was in no hurry to get back to her office. She didn’t have the story that she wanted. Besides, Shep was still talking to the guy from NBC.

The two seemed fairly chatty. Maybe Shep did have an in with the network boys. It seemed unlikely. Except for his unusual, and sometimes annoying, optimism, Shep was a fairly traditional newshound.  He never cared much for TV news, and the NBC guy to whom he was talking was a stereotypical talking head. Nice ass, though.

The elevator came, but Jennifer decided to wait for Shep. Two janitors stepped out and headed toward the auditorium. Jennifer wondered if the cleaning crew, not a patient with a heart attack, had caused the elevator to be delayed.

A load of overweight reporters piled into the elevator to replace the exiting janitors.  The camera crews were starting to pack up as well. There had been journalists from twenty media sites at this dog story. It didn’t make sense.

“Nice fellow.” Shep had returned to Jennifer’s side and was nodding toward the TV reporter with whom he had been speaking. The reporter returned the nod. “His father worked for the Washington Post about the same time I did.”

“We missed the elevator.” Jennifer started pushing at the button again.

“He thinks you’re cute, by the way.”

“Typical,” Jennifer said with a note of disgust. That’s all he can think about.

“Yes, well, anyway, I’m big enough to admit that you were right, and I was wrong, Jennifer.” Shep nodded gravely, as if considering his error.  “The networks are here for a more important reason than the pups. The hospital is up for a big, federal, research project. Senator Albertson was pushing it personally, but there is talk that the hospital has problems. Since the reporters were here anyway, they decided to pick up the dog story.”

Jennifer perked up immediately at Shep’s news. She still didn’t trust the idea that a network reporter would give up information to a competitor, but perhaps they thought a local paper was beneath their notice. At least there was the possibility of a story about more than escaped canines.

“Did the TV guy have any idea what sort of research the feds are involved with here?”

“He wasn’t quite sure. Some virus.  The announcement hasn’t been made.”

“And who’s working on it?”

“Well, anything this big is sure to involve more than one research team, but the big infectious disease guy around here is Dr. Fredrich Saunders.”

“Saunders, Saunders, Saunders,” Jennifer repeated. “Where did I see that name?”

“I worked with Art O’Connell on a profile of Dr. Saunders about a month ago for the metro section.  Hometown heroes—you know the bit.”

“No, that’s not what I was thinking of.”

The elevator arrived and the two stepped in, followed by techs from a camera crew and their equipment. Shep pushed the button for the lobby, continuing to go on about what he knew about Saunders: Yale Undergraduate. Harvard Med School. Residency and Fellowship at Johns Hopkins. Top of his class all the way through. Turned down the chairmanship of Pathology here because he wanted to concentrate on his own work. Both Time and Newsweek did stories on him last year. Jennifer shook her head all the way through. She knew the name for some other reason.

Then she looked up at the elevator wall. She suddenly pushed the button for the third floor.

“I have a pit stop to make, Shep.” Jennifer smiled wide as the doors opened on the third floor.

Shep shrugged as the elevator doors closed behind her.

“Some women can’t hold it.” one of the camera tech’s commented. “I wouldn’t have thought three floors would make much difference.”

Shep looked down to where Jennifer had been tapping her fingers on the elevator wall. A schedule of the week’s activities for the hospital was posted. A good place for it, he thought. Nothing else to look at in an elevator. Scheduled for noon today was an informal faculty and student discussion with Doctors M. Webster and F. Saunders.

 

 

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