“Okay, this is one I’m sure you’ll like,” Beck said confidently, advancing through the songs via the button on the steering wheel. “This was one of my favorites when I was a kid.”
“Back in the late Pliocene?” his passenger asked.
“I was born in the early Holocene. Now, listen.”
As Beck cruised north on Connecticut’s I-91 with the rented convertible’s top down, his ID badge flipped and bounced against his chest. It read MICHAEL BECK, EPIDEMIOLOGIST, and right under that, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL, ATLANTA GA.
The song began quietly, a simple drumbeat accompanied by silvery high notes in a playful intro. Then a call-and-answer segment featuring bass, sitar, and piano. Finally, Robbie Dupree’s eternally soulful voice delivering the first line.
“It’s called ‘Steal Away.’ It was a huge hit when I was a kid; the DJs loved it. It gets airplay even now and is included in movie soundtracks once in awhile. Not so bad, right?”
He glanced over in time to see her roll her eyes, which made him smile. She’s heard me prattle on about this before—“The Lost Age of Melody,” I call it, back when songwriters ruled the music business and hits had hooks you couldn’t get out of your head.
“Yeah, it’s great. I’m totally blown out of my seat.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad.” He sang along with the chorus in a voice that was good enough for private use but would surely earn the wrath of the American Idol judges. “And this guy’s new album is terrific. I’ve played it a few times for you.”
“Well, it’s certainly better than that other stuff you like … what do you call it? Exotica?”
“Like lying on the beach in Hawaii with a mai tai in your hand. Pure bliss. Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman…”
“Lyman was the best.”
“But it’s all so lightweight,” she said.
“That’s what’s great about it. The music you listen to … my God, it makes you want to grab a machine gun and start thinning out the neighborhood.”
She turned to him with a smirk. “That’s what’s great about it.”
She went back to her trademark I’m-so-damn-bored posture—chin in hand, lips tight, and the tiniest trace of resentment in the eyes. He smiled again and decided to let her be. Maybe the song would seep through her defenses, act as a kind of antidote. Music had the power to bring warmth and joy and relief to a troubled soul, he knew, and Cara Porter was certainly burdened with a troubled soul. One look at her gave that away—the goth makeup and jewelry, the perpetual scowl, the hunched shoulders. Beck had taken a huge chance on her. When she ended up on his doorstep with a freshly minted master’s degree in one hand and a résumé in the other, he thought someone down the line had made a mistake. Then he caught a sense of the real person behind the armor and thought he detected much more. In time, he came to realize he had been correct. When she was working, an alternative persona—the one, Beck thought, represented the true individual—emerged. The professional Cara Porter was inspired, intuitive, and boundlessly compassionate. Their exchanges were more substantial and mature. And her sensitivity, usually kept so carefully guarded, was remarkable. From human patients to laboratory animals, she treated all living things with uncommon kindness and respect. This one, Beck often thought, has the seeds of greatness. Now, if we can just get them growing.… He came to think of her as a surrogate daughter, although he never told her this for reasons of his own.
“I’m not saying everything you listen to is bad,” he said. “For example, that Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy, is pretty good.”
“I agree. I do play it when you’re not around, you know. I’m not a total dork.”
He nodded. “Yes, just mos—”
An iPhone trilled.
“Is that yours or mine?” she asked.
Beck waited until it called out again. The ringtone was the first few bars of “On and On” by Stephen Bishop. “It’s a good melody—must be mine.”
She shot him a look as he grinned and drew the slender device from his front pocket. He also thumbed down the volume via the button on the steering wheel, and his beloved “lightweight”’70s music disappeared.
“It’s the boss,” he said, looking at the caller ID. Then he put it on speaker. “Hello, there.”
“I can barely hear you.”
“We’re in the rental car right now with the top down. Hang on a second.”
He pulled to the shoulder and engaged the roof. It came up like a giant hand in a monster movie. Once it was in place, he set the phone on the dashboard.
“Yes. Listen, where are the two of you?”
“On I-91, heading back from the conference.”
He could sense she was stressed even beyond what was customary for her. After working together for eleven years—the first nine when she was drifting up through the CDC’s ranks, and the last two after she was elevated to the top role—there wasn’t much he didn’t know about her. Sheila Abbott was the type who lived for stress, ate it in handfuls. The kind, it seemed to Beck, who followed the motto, ‘There’s something wrong if there’s nothing wrong.’
“I need you in northern New Jersey as quickly as possible.”
Beck checked his rearview mirror, then eased onto the road again to search for the first available U-turn.
“Something’s happening, I assume?”
“Seven deaths, all in the town of Ramsey. Two of the dead are police officers, so the news media already has it and is running with it.”
Beck shivered. Could a problem exist that wasn’t made forty times worse because of the media’s love for scaring the hell out of everyone?
“Well, that should help keep things under control.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What do we know so far?”
“The victims were covered with large pustules from head to toe and exhibited symptoms of extreme delirium. It also appears they had extensive subcutaneous bleeding.”
“Pustules and subcutaneous bleeding?”
“That’s right. The first autopsy report says there was dissolution of everything from the mucous membranes to the GI tract, with heavy bleeding into the lungs, out the mouth, everywhere. It was as if the organs melted like ice cream.”
Beck found an exit ramp and changed sides, heading south now.
Abbott said, “It almost sounds … smallpox-esque, doesn’t it?”
Beck nodded. “That’s what I first thought when you mentioned the pustules, but … do we even know if the agent is viral and not bacterial?”
“It’s viral. That’s been confirmed from samples.”
“Aren’t the pustules and the subcutaneous bleeding symptoms of two different forms of smallpox?” Porter asked.
“Yes. The pustules are symptomatic of the common form, and the internal bleeding is an indicator of … what?”
“The hemorrhagic form. The nasty one.”
“Correct. Very good.”
Hemorrhagic smallpox was one of the most horrific diseases imaginable. Unlike the more common form of smallpox, the hemorrhagic variety featured minimal manifestations on the outside of the body, such as dark papules. Instead, most of the damage is subcutaneous. Internal bleeding will occur first in the mucous membranes and gastrointestinal tract, but can also affect the spleen, kidneys, liver, bladder, and reproductive organs. Sometimes the whites of the eyes also turn a deep red. Hemorrhagic smallpox mostly affects adults and is nearly always fatal.
“I don’t know of any cases where both symptoms occurred together,” Beck said, “so my gut tells me this is something different. Sheila, are any other CDC people on the ground?”
“No, but Ben Gillette is waiting for you at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. They’ve moved all the bodies there.”
Gillette was one of New Jersey’s county epidemiologists, and Beck knew him from the University of North Carolina. He was a quality guy, in Beck’s estimation, serious and focused and thoroughly professional. One of his favorite memories of their college days was the time he had to pick up Ben from the Chapel Hill police station after he was arrested for stealing street signs. Gillette’s girlfriend had dumped him for one of the university’s wrestling studs, and he responded with a night of binge drinking and driving around in his ’74 Corvette with a pair of Vise-Grips.
“I know you’re a long way from your home in Seattle, but I need you to do this. Along with everything else, you need to be my eyes and ears on the ground.”
“Not a problem. What about autopsies?”
“They’ve done some and are doing more now. I’ll send the information as I get it.”
“Okay. We’ll be there shortly.”
“Please call and let me know what’s happening. New Jersey’s governor is crawling out of his skin.”
“I would imagine. What’s the latest—?”
During the ensuing silence, Beck said softly to Porter, “Use the GPS on your iPhone to figure out the route.” She nodded and dug the unit out of her black leather bag, which had a small plastic skull dangling from one of the metal loops.
“That was Ben. Three more deaths have just been reported, same symptoms, and it looks as though six other people are in various stages of the infection.”
“This looks like it could be something, so get moving.”
“We’re moving,” Beck said, pressing the gas as he weaved through the early afternoon traffic.
“And keep me updated.”
Copyright © 2012 by Wil Mara