DRAGON FIRE (Chapter One)
For Secretary of Defense Thomas H. Koestler and other major Washington news sources, Sunday mornings meant either being on one of the talk shows or watching them. On this Sunday, Koestler was in the kitchen of his manorial home in a Virginia suburb of Washington. Perched on a high stool at the marble island that curved through the room, he nibbled on half a bagel, lathered with cream cheese, and watched Meet the Press on a small television set placed under the garland of hanging pots and pans. Tim Russert had managed to snag Joseph Praeger, President Jefferson's National Security Adviser. Well, not snagged exactly. Praeger, Koestler knew, was on Meet the Press because he wanted to handle "the Taiwan thing," as he called the issue that he and Koestler had been wrestling with.
And so when the assistant producer of Meet the Press asked for the Secretary of Defense, the White House communications handlers had deftly intercepted the invitation and offered Praeger as a real catch. Praeger rarely appeared on television, and Koestler, looking at this diminished version of him, was surprised at how ill at ease he appeared to be as Russert went into his ritual: a tough question, then an incriminating or enlightening news clip scrolling down the screen.
"Well, Mr. Praeger," Russert said, "let's start with Taiwan. Is the United States planning to rattle China's cage by giving Patriot antimissile weapons to Taiwan?"
As Praeger opened his mouth to speak, Russert said, "Let's look at this," and an excerpt from a Washington Times news story appeared on the screen:
The Taiwan Defense Minister went on to say that his country would establish what he called the "Taiwan Missile Defense System," which seems to be a version of the U.S.-developed theater missile defense system. His reference to the system appeared to be an attempt to raise a hot-button issue: Taiwan's intention to join the U.S.-initiated theater missile defense project.
The Defense Minister said that Taiwan would purchase foreign equipment while at the same time developing systems on its own. As part of the program, he said that Taiwan would install an early-warning radar system and purchase the U.S. Patriot III anti-missile system.
As the clipping faded, the screen was filled with the image of a Patriot anti-missile streaking skyward.
"There you are, Mr. Praeger," Russert said, swinging his gaze toward the adviser. "Patriot anti-missiles, special delivery to Taiwan?"
"Let me make one important point, Tim," Praeger began. "The Patriot III is not on the table--yet."
"Yet," Koestler repeated, smiling and shaking his head. Pure Praeger, he thought. Tantalizing the truth.
Koestler picked up his coffee cup. Suddenly, his hand began shaking. He had never felt so tired, not even at the end of the Marine Marathon. The cup fell to the white-tile floor and shattered. He heard a long, yowling cry and looked across the kitchen to see Sheba, the old black cat, stagger in. Her shrieks were echoed by her old mate, Grayfur, making banshee yowls somewhere in the house.
Koestler started coughing--a wet, hacking cough that ripped through his body. He coughed so hard that he could hardly breathe. His throat burned with a greater pain than he had ever known. He stood and turned toward the sink. He needed water. But he could not make his feet move. He leaned his big, broad-shouldered body against the island, gripping the smooth edge to keep from falling. Now he was shaking all over, and a hot, vile-tasting fluid rose from his stomach. He was gagging. Blood was running from his mouth and nose. His body began heaving as he threw up, strands of blood glistening in his vomit. His bowels opened, and a warm, stinking mess ran down his right leg.
His beefy hands opened, as if on their own, for he knew that he could no longer control his body. He coughed one more time, spewing blood. Then he fell, the left side of his face slamming down on the shards of porcelain. He summoned enough strength to scream. Another echo of the cats, he thought. But they were no longer screeching.
He screamed again. He could hear Gertrude calling his name again and again--"Tom, Tom . . ." Doc Gert, he remembered, for his brain still worked. Gertrude Koestler, M.D., who so loved to bring babies into this world. Then she was there, kneeling at his side, pressing her hands on his chest, then pressing her lips on his mouth, giving him breath, giving him breath. . . .
As she tried to bring back his flickering life, she knew what was happening inside the body of the man she had loved for thirty years. She recognized the symptoms immediately. Two recent anthrax poisonings had been plastered all over the front pages and the evening news. Anthrax! Spores of Bacillus anthracis were smashing against the membranes of cells throughout his body, opening cell after cell. The spores were maturing into deadly bacteria, multiplying so fast that his immune system could not develop antibodies. Crippled, the immune system still tried to function, seemingly killing the bacteria and bearing them to the lymph nodes for disposal. But the insidious bacteria was resurrecting now, she knew, multiplying, producing toxins, and spreading into the bloodstream.
Dr. Koestler stood and reached for the phone on the wall. When she dialed 911, the numbers appeared on the screen of a console in the gatehouse, where members of Koestler's security detail stayed when he was home. Two men wielding MP-5s burst out of the building and ran up the half circle of the driveway. One pressed a button on a remote device that opened the front door. He entered the house while the other crouched and covered him, swinging the MP-5 from right to left.
"In here," Gertrude Koestler shouted. "Help me move him."
They came in, their eyes and guns scanning the room.
"For God's sake, put down the guns and help me get him on the couch," she said, pointing toward the hall that led to Koestler's study.
One of the men put his gun on the marble island and squatted at Koestler's shoulders. The other man, still holding his gun, said, "What happened? You're both bleeding."
Gertrude Koestler realized that her face had been bloodied by the wounds on Koestler's face. "Never mind the blood," she said, moving to help the squatting man. The other man put down his gun and slipped his arms under Koestler's twitching legs. Koestler, eyes closed, struggled against death. He was gasping for breath, blood now streaming from his gaping mouth.
"Don't worry, Sam," Gertrude Koestler said, looking into the fearful eyes of the man at her side. Half-carrying, half-dragging, they had reached the study and had placed Koestler on the couch. "We're all inoculated. But Tom wasn't."
DRAGON FIRE Copyright 2006 by Thomas Schhly Filmproduktion GmbH