A Terrible Mercy
A Terrible Mercy is, to my knowledge, the first real-time novel, meaning that it will be updated and re-published every three months to reflect current events. ATM is an unconventional thriller in another respect, as well: its protagonists are not government-trained operatives with unfailing nerve, possessed of skills bordering on the supernatural, but a mismatched quartet of ordinary people unwillingly stitched together by events over which they have no control, but which compel them to battle an unseen evil that threats to cast the world into an kitumian darkness in which only ebola thrives. As the world crumbles about them, only one thing is certain: trust no one; especially not each other.
A Terrible Mercy
Chapter One: Sentries
ooooHe didn’t distinguish the voices at first. They were part of the overall mosaic of sound one gets accustomed to in London, a noisy city in a deafening century. But that was outside. Within Westminster Abbey it was yesterday. A thousand years of yesterdays.
ooooDumas bent closer to his work.
ooooThe watery gray light of a stormy English winter had exhausted itself on the day and was leaving through the web of windows in the south transept. A semicircle of anemic electric lights in wall sconces were left to stand watch over his shoulders like half-blind old men, too high to be of any practical use, casting just enough light so his own shadow kept getting in the way. He rubbed a little harder to transfer the images from the stone to the rice paper. The next train to Birmingham left Euston station at 5:17, and he had to be on it; rather, he hoped to be on it. He wasn’t of sufficient importance to anyone that he actually had to be anywhere.
oooo“Thatcher would have seen coming,” said a man’s voice, separating itself from the background. “She was a pragmatist.”
oooo“So, you don’t think peace is such a good idea?” said a second voice, also a man. He seemed amused.
oooo“It’s a pipe-dream. You know that better than most.” The man nodded toward a depiction of Paradise in a dingy stained-glass rosette. “Adam was the only man who ever knew it. Then Eve entered the picture . . . ” He made a dismissive gesture with his fingers. “Now it’s just a rune we bow to, undecipherable as the swirls on a Celtic cross; but we like the sound of it. So we throw blood and bones at it as if sufficient sacrifice will bring it to life.”
ooooA wordless interlude followed, during which the wandering motes of millennia sifted into the sightless eyes of stone and plaster saints. “The old girl was right when she said we hadn’t heard the last of the Irish Troubles with the St. Andrew’s Agreement. People ignored her, just because the gears were beginning to slip.”
oooo“They ignored her because they didn’t like what she had to say,” said a second voice, also a man. “Just like they ignored Churchill, and Reagan, and Bush. People are pretty quick to slap on the blinders when reality intrudes on their delusions. Anyway, who even remembers Thatcher anymore? Or Patrick Magee, the Brighton bombings; any of it? Ancient history. Say IRA these days, and people think you’re talking finance. Mention the Iron Lady, and they picture Meryl Streep.”
ooooThe voices were not those of young men, nor were their words those of young men. Truth be told, their perspective was one with which Dumas—however hard he might be trying not to eavesdrop—could identify. These were men of his generation; a fact which did not dispose him any more kindly toward them for their intrusion. What were they doing here? Though neither a drinker or socializer himself, he imagined that somewhere, among all the pubs presently undergoing renovation and updating in London, there must exist some dimly-lit, poorly-frequent throwback to the ‘50s where smoking and intelligent conversation were still allowed and men of their vintage could bluster, and fuss, and complain to their heart’s content. If not, then a private club, of which a few remained. Why here in Westminster? Why now?
oooo“In any event, she wouldn’t have pulled the rug out from under the Loyalists to trade for peace, the way Number 10’s done this time ‘round.”
oooo“Not peace. Peace of mind; the kind one buys with blinders on, and pays for in the same currency Chamberlain exchanged for Hitler’s precious slip of paper. To be fair, the bombing of the Baker Street Mosque brought al Qaeda back from the dead, and lit a fire under our home-grown towel-heads and malcontents. I think Cameron figured a second edition of Sinn Féin upstarts was one more than the Home Office was willing to deal with at present. Even Gerry Adams couldn’t keep them in line.” He chuckled drily. “He’d be livid, wouldn’t he? a bunch of kids who weren’t even born when Belfast was a battleground, doing what he and the rest of the living dead hadn’t managed in forty years!
oooo“Anyway, now that the ink is try on the Oxford Accords . . . the country’s running amok with unemployed extremists—pardoned, pointless, and heavily armed. Does anyone really think they’re going to go quietly to hourly work at Wimpy’s?”
ooooThere was a smile in the other man’s voice. “Wimpy’s was taken over by Burger King.”
oooo“You take my meaning. Not an attractive career option for some testosterone-fueled radical who’s just grasped one of life’s little ironies: you can get what you want at the point of a gun. It’s going to make the riots of ’11 and ’12 look like foreplay.”
ooooDumas was irritated by the interruption, and by his inability to tune out a private conversation. No one was supposed to be in the cathedral between the Samuel Johnson Memorial Service, on the 18th, and Christmas morning while three of the vaults in the nave were being reinforced in preparation for the hoards of visitors expected in the aftermath of the Games. It was dangerous. They’d canceled the memorial service—and even Dumas had difficulty obtaining permission to spend a few hours in the Poet’s Corner—and he sat on the Board of Regents.
ooooThe intruders must have come in through the cloisters.
ooooThe old men in the wall sconces seemed emboldened at having chased away the day, and shone a little more brightly now that it had all but gone, leaning over his shoulder and casting critical glances upon his work as, high overhead, sleet etched a blustery message on the windows.
ooooHe needed to squeeze Thomas Gray in before he had to go. At this rate, he’d have rubbed all the graves in another month or so—his contribution to the family fortune. A pauper’s bequest; especially apt since he’d sold most of the real art to subsidize the title and the family pile at Hanbury.
ooooLord Dumas, kneeling, rubbing, gently bringing the dead to life on paper. Truth be told, he’d gotten good at it. He made a point of reading some of the works of each in turn and would whisper to them in their own words as he worked;
oooooooo‘Their lot forbad: nor circumscrib’d alone
ooooooooTheir growing virtues, but their crimes confine’d
ooooNormally, the sound of his voice had the effect of quieting the troubling doubts raised by his more pragmatic inner self in consideration of his labors; would people pay to see The Dead of Westminster, Distinctive Rubbings by Lord Dumas, Eighteenth Earl of Shadowmarch?
ooooLast Earl of Shadowmarch, and good riddance.
ooooWho cared? Even he didn’t. It was only some atavistic sense of familial loyalty that kept him at it. He scratched a hasty signature in the lower right-hand corner.
ooooFootfalls measured the silence until the first man replied. They came to a stop where the Poet’s Corner intercepts the south ambulatory, about twenty feet away.
oooo“When you give in to bullies, you don’t just empower them, you encourage whatever methods they employed to achieve their objectives; usually terror and violence. Meaning it’s the innocent who pay; a busload of tourists in Tahrir Square; mourners at a funeral in Baghdad, a group of Christian girls in Nigeria . . . ” He paused for a moment. “The kind of peace those acts purchase, I’m willing to die to prevent.”
ooooDumas stopped rubbing in mid stroke.
ooooA long row of wooden folding chairs formed a porous wall between Dumas and the men. He pulled himself across the cold stone floor on his knees—which ached despite the neoprene knee pads—and, pressing his face against the chairs, peered through them.
ooooThe first man was indistinguishable from half a million others on which England held the exclusive patent. Everything about him was medium: his height, his weight, his clothes, his shoes, his voice. Medium. A tiny island of silver hair in the middle of his forehead oversaw the retreat of the hairline in general. An indistinctive man who couldn’t have been more anonymous if he’d trained for it. Nevertheless, there was something familiar about him.
oooo“Then why all the bother about McGilvery, if he’s just one among many?”
ooooThe speaker’s voice was low and full-throated, with a distinctly Gaelic flavor. His words were clear despite the fact that he spoke just above a whisper. Like Dumas, he was fairly tall and had probably been lean at an earlier stage in life. Unlike Dumas, he was muscular and ruddy, not much at home in his new suit. There was a lot of silver in his close-cropped hair, especially about the temples and in his carefully groomed mustache and beard.
ooooAs Dumas had inferred from their voices, the two were roughly the same age though the small man seemed older. Preoccupied and nervous, he kept looking in the direction from which they’d come and off into the shadows of the north transept and the Henry VII Chapel. Once, Dumas felt sure he was staring right at him. “Arafat was one among many,” the small man said. “If Rabin had had the forethought to slip a knife into his belly at that little Nobel fête, we’d all have been a damned sight better off. Better yet, if some benevolent time-traveler would slip back to the start of it all and throttle Haj Amin al Husseini in his bassinet . . . ”
ooooThe tall man choked off a monosyllabic laugh. “Some would say Balfour was the midwife for that particular monstrosity. Water pretty long under the bridge in either case, wouldn’t you say? Anyway, I don’t think there’s much chance of the others rallying ‘round a loose cannon like Sean McGilvery. I just think you’ve become obsessed with him because of what happened to your daughter.” Immediately he repented. “I oughtn’t to have said that. Sorry.”
ooooThe eyes of the other man wandered the darkened precincts of the cathedral, as if in search of something he knew wasn’t there. “Used to be there was a reason for blowing up babies and bludgeoning grandmothers in their wheelchairs, however logically or morally profane. At least they all danced ‘round the same maypole. Did lip-service to the same totem. Now, it’s totally senseless. Vicious.
oooo“Violence in support of an ideology is a fearful thing—God knows we’ve had our share of it lately—the video of Mohamed Merah laughing and praising Allah as he pumped a bullet in the brain of that little girl in Toulouse makes an indelible poster for radical Islam, Forsane-Alizza in particular—but at least you know where it’s coming from and what its ends are, more or less. Violence without ideology, as an end in itself, is just an omnivorous mass, mutating as it evolves as mindless and meaningless as wildfire . Look at the lunatics swarming Europe. Hoodlums and anarchists calling themselves revolutionaries, as if that somehow ennobles their crimes. Haven’t even the sense to see they’re holding knives to their own throats.”
ooooHe sighed deeply. “Nothing new under the sun. What’s that from? Ecclesiastes, isn’t it?”
ooooThe other man made a noise of agreement.
ooooThere was a brief silence during which Dumas battled the urge to declare his presence. No ignominy could surpass that of being found squatting behind the chairs eavesdropping on a private conversation between two gentlemen. And in Westminster, of all places.
ooooBut it was already too late. If discovered, he’d have to pretend to have fallen asleep.
oooo“Go on and say it,” said Rhodes.
oooo“‘Like the rest of society.”
ooooThe bald man grunted a note of irony. “Don’t get me started,” he said. “But this isn’t about McGilvery. He’s already stuck his neck in the noose. All I have to do is give the rope a good stout yank—which pleasure shall be mine within a fortnight if all else goes according to script.”
oooo“I thought as much. It’s the ‘all else’ we’re here about, isn’t it, Avery?”
ooooAvery! Avery Fuller. The Ghost of MI6. Dumas had seen him in Parliament often when the Conservatives were in. A shadowy figure with some connections to the COBRA Committee’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre who, true to his sobriquet, haunted the foggy periphery of government.
oooo“Let’s have it then.”
ooooFuller searched every nook and cranny of the abbey with practiced eyes, twice sweeping across the row of chairs as Dumas held his breath. “It’s very sensitive.”
oooo“I gathered as much,” said Rhodes. The quirky smile dissolved from his lips and he stared hard at his companion. “We could have discussed McGilvery at the office.”
ooooFuller took Rhodes by the arm and drew him off the aisle, closer to Dumas whose heart, he felt sure, would betray him at any minute. “You remember Farhan al-Sa’di?”
oooo“Of course. We dug him out of a hole in Basra shortly before we pulled out of Iraq, didn’t we?”
oooo“Started his illustrious career as a courier, sneaking porn and Nestle’s Quik! to bin Laden in Abbotabad. His street cred among the rank-and-file soared when he escaped bin Laden’s compound the night the Yanks landed.”
oooo“So I recall. He’s not got out after all this time, has he?”
oooo“In a manner of speaking,” said Fuller. “He’s dead.”
oooo“Nothing quick and painless, I trust.”
oooo“Food poisoning, of all things. Apparently the cuisine at Belmarsh prison is at odds with the Arab constitution. Must’ve been the bacon.”
ooooRhodes’ mirthless, monosyllabic laugh banged around the extremities of the minster in search of humor. “The chef deserves the Victoria Cross. So, why the secrecy?”
oooo“Take a seat,” said Fuller, pulling a chair from the stack nearest Dumas. He kicked it open and sat down. Rhodes did the same, depleting Dumas’ cover by a quarter. “I assume you’re familiar with the ebola and Marburg viruses?”
ooooRhodes sat bolt upright, nearly toppling the chair. His eyes widened in what couldn’t be taken for anything but blind fear. “Hell!”
oooo“Shh!” said Fuller, darting cautious glances at the points of the cross. “Sit down, man!” He patted the vacant seat. “Sit down. What’s gotten into you?”
oooo“I’ll tell you what’s not getting into me,” said Rhodes shakily as he resumed his seat. “Bloody ebola. I’ve seen it in action, and I’d rather be drawn and quartered.”
oooo“Not a good way to go.”
ooooRhodes was breathing deeply and swallowing frequently. “Inhuman.” He stared blankly at Fuller. Sweat was forming on his forehead. “Just the word makes me nauseous.”
ooooThe folded legs of a chair intersected directly in front of Dumas, forming two triangles. Through the upper triangle, he could see Rhodes’ face. No longer ruddy, it had turned pale and pasty as if someone had stuck a spigot in the base of his skull and drained the blood out. In the lower triangle his hands wrestled one another fiercely.
ooooThey were not the hands of a timid man.
oooo“This latest outbreak in West Africa . . . brings it all back, too vividly.
oooo“I was on my way to Kenya after sorting out a little trouble in Kinshasa—back in my dark ages—not long after New Year’s. Somewhere along the way I hopped this old Fokker Friendship for Nairobi, and we bounced around the better part of the day, picking up passengers and freight from Kisangani to Entebbe.
oooo“In Kisumu this mgoso got on board.”
oooo“White bloke. I didn’t take much notice, at first. Then, just as we were swinging out over Lake Victoria, he reached for the goody bag and crammed it over his mouth.
oooo“I almost laughed, you know how you do when it’s someone else who’s airsick and not you? But it went on and on. The bag was full—then started oozing over with this—this vile, blackened blood.”
oooo“The bag broke and we were all showered with it. It was like a nightmare, one of those things you just know can’t really be happening. Then he raised his head.” Rhodes turned away and winced, as if to avoid staring the memory in the face. “Blood was gushing out of his mouth, his nose—his eyes and ears. And his skin was falling away in clumps; rotting off his face.”
oooo“Good heavens, Rhodes!”
oooo“‘Crash and bleed’ they call it. He was being eaten alive—from the inside out—by ebola.”
oooo“You don’t mean to say . . . you didn’t catch it, did you? Well, clearly not. Did anyone else?”
ooooRhodes shrugged. “Who knows? If not, it’s a miracle. The plane landed in Nairobi and the poor wretch dragged himself off in a taxi. That’s the last I saw of him, but I heard what happened from a doctor friend. Not a nice story.
oooo“When they finally dissected him it was impossible to tell one organ from another. Everything had sort of joined together in a putrid mass of blackened ooze. Blood pudding, the doctor called it. Cases like that made ebola front-page news back in the day. A lot of books were written on the subject, some scientific, some sensational. But no collection of words could ever describe what I saw.” The hands stopped their incessant worrying as he fell silent, then resumed as he spoke.
oooo“It’s always something” said Fuller. “The disappearing rain forests, the ozone hole, snail darters, global warming. . .”
oooo“Climate change, Avery. Climate change. Get with the program.”
oooo“Every potential disaster has its messiah, its Al Gore, stuffing cash in his trousers with one hand while clearing space on the mantle for the Nobel Prize with the other. Every cause generates its own mini-economy, and the job of those who feed on that economy—its apostles and evangelists—is to fuel the fear. Heaven forbid they should find a solution, they’d all lose their jobs.”
oooo“Life would be much easier if all the devils had horns. Nice little speech, though. I don’t guess you’ll be delivering it at that environmental feel good they’re having across town.
oooo“Ebola doesn’t belong on your list, though. It’s earned whatever fear it inspires.” Rhodes removed a handkerchief from the inner pocket of his overcoat and dabbed at his forehead. “I’ll tell you how bad it was; I’d bought this old plantation along the eastern rift—within sight of Kilimanjaro—and was fixing up whenever I had the chance, the odd week or fortnight here and there.
oooo“Seven years I stuck at it. Not paint and wallpaper, either, mind. First I had to reclaim the land itself—sixty acres of it. Not as hard to do as to keep done the way things grow down there. Then I raised the main house—which wasn’t much more than clapboards with a tin roof held in place by cobwebs to begin with—and installed a proper cellar only to find termites had got at the sills and cross-members—had to replace every last one of them.
oooo“I figured it was worth the sweat and tears, though, since I meant to retire there—find the old maid daughter of some local missionary who’d be only too happy to settle in and see me through my dotage, since I don’t have any other family . . . not anymore.
oooo“Every sou I had in the world went into the place. I was going to cash in my chips next furlough and erase myself from civilization; slip off the grid, as they say.”
ooooHe paused, staring at the floor. “That day in Nairobi, I booked into a hotel, took the longest, hottest shower in history, got on the next flight out and never looked back.”
ooooA protracted silence followed during which even the storm outside seemed to sit still and await developments. Dumas could hear the sweat forming on his temples and his back hurt so much he hardly noticed the pain in his legs or the cold stone floor freezing his buttocks to sleep. But there was no question of moving now.
Fuller loosed a long sigh on the centuries. “It may be too late to look back.”
ooooRhodes’ hands tensed. He let his eyes ask the obvious question.
oooo“Ebola’s in Europe.”
ooooFuller didn’t answer immediately, but Rhode’s didn’t prompt him. “Fact of the matter is—I haven’t a clue.”
oooo“What do you mean? If there’s been an outbreak, it has to be localized somewhere.”
oooo“There hasn’t been an outbreak—yet.”
oooo“Then how do you know it’s here?”
oooo“Someone’s brought it in—on purpose; al-Sa’di’s people.”
oooo“Shh!” Fuller cautioned. “Keep your voice down.”
oooo“The place is closed to the public.”
oooo“Maybe so,” said Fuller, “still. . .”
oooo“Where does your information come from?”
oooo“Out of Washington . . .”
oooo“Oh, well, then.”
oooo“Solid? Out of Washington? Mutually exclusive terms.”
oooo“Well, discredit where discredit is due, Rhodes; we’re the ones who verified WMDs in Iraq . . .”
ooooRhodes had worked up a head of steam, however, and would not be diverted.
oooo“Since 9/11 the security infrastructure in the States has sprung up like a mushroom cloud, so fast that one hand doesn’t know what the other’s doing. Hell, the hand doesn’t even know what it’s doing itself! Did you know there are over 850,000 people with top-secret clearance in the United States? And more than a third of ‘em are contract employees! If that many people know something, what’s the secret!?
oooo“I’ve still got friends at half the departments in Liberty Square, and they’ve all bitched to me over drinks at one time or another about how everyone else serves the interest of their own little fiefdom, spending more time guarding their perks and parking spaces than they do battling terrorism.” He bracketed the air with inverted commas on the last two words. “These people go to war with each other over who can use what acronym! Since 9/11, more than 260 intelligence agencies have come into being, Avery; every one with its own population of directors, deputy directors, assistant deputy directors, associate assistant deputy directors, and hoards of crab-handed analysts duplicating efforts by cubed multiples and they all do obeisance to Washington’s great Unspoken Mandate—POT: ‘Protect Our Turf.’ Anything to keep the funding coming. And they can’t between them and the whole alphabet-soup of international agencies even find a few hundred screaming schoolgirls held in the jungle!”
ooooRhodes had allowed him his little diatribe, Fuller had reciprocated.
ooooRhodes exhaled sharply and, with a wan smile, said: “If you gather from the preceding that I have little confidence in your intel from Washington, you would have inferred correctly.”
oooo“Just between you and me?” said Fuller.
oooo“The information comes from Payton Brady.”
oooo“Payton? Son of Walter, your old school chum?”
oooo“He was ten years old last time I saw him. What’s he now? Twelve?”
oooo“Twenty-four, and snatched fresh from college by the CIA—who are having to pluck the low-hanging fruit because all their top personnel are defecting to the private sector, once they get TS/SCI clearance.”
oooo“You’re saying Payton is a low-hanging fruit?”
oooo“The exception. A real patriot.”
oooo“And to prove it, he’s committing treason to slip you some top-secret intel?”
oooo“He’s one of those crab-handed analysts you mentioned. He sifted the information from a variety of sources, and pushed it up the chain-of-command.”
oooo“Let me guess; the chain of command wasn’t interested.”
oooo“If you can credit it.” Fuller came as close to laughing as his physiognomy would allow.
ooooDumas swallowed hard and tried to ignore a persistent tickle at the back of his throat.
oooo“That’s what they were going to use to get al-Sa’di out? The virus?”
ooooFuller must have nodded, because Rhodes continued without interruption, “How did they come by it?”
oooo“Something else you won’t credit. Seems they came by it courtesy of our friends and allies the Dutch.”
oooo“You’re joking,” said Rhodes, but he knew levity was foreign to Fuller’s constitution. “Not the same crowd that perfected an airborne version of the H5N1 virus and were so proud of themselves they wanted to publish the recipe on the internet.”
oooo“After Science and Nature decided against providing a forum for them. Yes. The very same, to a man.”
oooo“I was joking.”
ooooFuller shrugged. “Dr. Ron Abêtir of The Erasmus Medical Institute in Rotterdam. It took the pressure from the director of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to put the kibosh on those plans.”
oooo“But that was avian flu. Nothing to do with Ebola.”
oooo“That’s where things get interesting. Abêtir was apparently not pleased when his government stifled him; no doubt there was a lot of prestige going begging . . . ”
oooo“Which means money. . . ”
oooo“Goes without saying. So, subsequent events gave rise to speculation that he might have found another way to spin his research into gold.”
oooo“Sell it to terrorists.”
oooo“Not just your garden variety; Boko Haram.”
oooo“. . . flush with oil cash. . .
oooo“And since driving the Christians out of the northern part of the country, massacring those who remained, and eviscerating the regional government, they’ve anointed themselves with the task of purifying Islam . . . ”
oooo“By wiping out whoever won’t submit to Shaira. In shaa’Allah. ”
oooo“Their interpretation of it, at any rate.”
oooo“But not with anything so sedate as H5N1, with only a 50% kill rate. They wanted a more lethal concoction, so—at his suggestion—they sponsored Abêtir on a little scientific foray down to your old stomping grounds, some cave or other—”
oooo“Kitum Cave,” said Rhodes, “on Mount Elgon. I thought the WHO was going to bulldoze that place fifteen years ago.”
oooo“That sounds right. Some sort of Doomsday pit they’ve got themselves there apparently, eons of rot and filth brewing up a sort of viral stew—cousins to HIV, from what I gather—”
oooo“HIV is a head cold by comparison,” Rhodes interrupted.
oooo“Be that as it may,” said Fuller, “Abêtir’s idea was to officiate over the the unholy union of H5N1 and certain traits of a strain of Ebola; creating an incurable disease so they can create a cure for it—Armageddon in concentrate. All in the name of research.
oooo“More than likely he’d convinced himself—rather allowed himself to be convinced—that he’d somehow retain control. Can’t imagine he’d have made such a deal with Devil otherwise, no matter how out-of-joint his nose was—but he hadn’t reckoned on al-Sa’di’s tribe, who caught wind of the project. Of course they immediately grasped the potential of such a biological atom bomb . . . ”
ooooIn politics it’s called negotiation but, yes, blackmail. ‘Either release al-Sa’di or we release the virus’.”
oooo“From what I know of Boko Haram, I don’t see them just surrendering the goods to al-Sa’di’s people. Arab and African Muslims don’t often share the same bed.”
oooo“Didn’t used to; there’ve been so many ideological splits since the Arab Spring, though, that the motivations behind the actions of a given group aren’t reducible to the standard Sunni-Sufi-Shi’ah formula. What we’re left with is theological quicksilver. So we don’t know how al-Sa’di’s crowd came into possession of . . . whatever they’re in possession of.”
oooo“You think it was successful then, this ‘marriage’ between H5N1 and ebola?”
ooooFuller shrugged again. “No one knows for sure. What we do know is that Abêtir’s dead.”
oooo“He was found in a river. There wasn’t enough left of him to determine the cause of death.”
oooo“The first bullet may have been. Probably not the next four.”
ooooRhodes absorbed this. “Anyone else?”
oooo“If you mean anything indicating an armed action between al-Sa’id’s people and Boko Haram, no. Of course, something like that could have taken place upriver. Who knows how far he’d drifted by the time the body was found.”
oooo“My head’s spinning.”
oooo“In the words of the old song, it’s only just begun,” said Fuller. He removed a small case of leather and gold from his inside coat pocket, opened it, and removed a small black cigar.
oooo“You shouldn’t smoke in here,” said Rhodes reflexively.
ooooFuller put the cigar to his lips, lit it, and released a cloud of blue smoke upon the still, stale air. “Smell of smoke is nothing new to the saints,” he said. “They say the damned roast forever in fires just outside the walls of Heaven.
oooo“For the sake of argument, let’s assume that—pursuant to what passes for logic amongst fanatics—al-Sa’id’s people killed Abêtir, for whatever reason, then realized they may have acted precipitately. My guess is it would probably occur to them that they’d need a medical person of some stripe to handle the witch’s brew they suddenly found themselves custodians of.
oooo“So, they kidnapped the nearest person who seemed to fit the bill, the head scientist on a CDC project operating in the same region under the auspices of the U.N. An American woman named Thompson, or something very like.” He patted his pockets. “It’s in my notebook.”
oooo“Nevermind about that,” said Rhodes impatiently. “I find myself thinking questions I don’t want the answers to,” said Rhodes. “Is it airborne?”
oooo“We’re operating on worse-case assumptions. So, let’s assume so. H5N1 has survived nearly seventy-two hours; what biologists call hang time—I take it that means it can survive a while in the air . . . ”
oooo“Outside a host,” Rhodes concluded, nodding slightly.
oooo“Yes. From what I understand most viruses break down pretty quickly under ultra violet light—sunlight, what have you. In all likelihood, this lot does too, but—again, assuming the worst—not nearly so quickly. As a serum, properly kept—freeze-dried, for example—it could, in theory, last indefinitely.”
oooo“So, they’ve got this doctor; this woman, playing nursemaid to Satan’s spittle while they carry out the negotiations,” Rhodes whispered hoarsely.
oooo“Assuming she’s not in on it, somehow.”
oooo“Oh, great! You didn’t mention that. Is she come kind of academic nutcase?”
oooo“Not as far as we know. P\I have people digging into her background. Until we have a clearer picture, we have to consider the outside chance. You never know.”
oooo“I don’t suppose al-Sa’di’s friends would be content with his carcass?”
oooo“They don’t know. I have no way of contacting them. All to the good, I expect. God knows what they’ll do if they find out he’s dead; very loudly blame us for it, at the least. I shudder to think what reprisals that might reap in the present atmosphere. In any event, they’re not likely to fold their tents and gently steal away.”
oooo“You’ve managed to keep it quiet.”
oooo“Another question I don’t want answered: What’s all this got to do with me?” Rhodes had mastered his nervous hands and the color had returned to his face. “Why drag me here?”
ooooFuller shuffled in his seat. “I think you know.”
oooo“If you think I’ll have anything to do with that . . . that pestilence,” Rhodes protested in a loud whisper, “you haven’t been listening. I wouldn’t get within fifty miles of it.”
oooo“You may be within a mile of it already, for all we know.” Fuller’s voice was calm and even.
oooo“I don’t care,” Rhodes protested. “I’m not going to do it. I’m retired, remember? I’m the one in twenty who survives this racket with his sanity reasonably intact . . . ”
oooo“Listen, Daniel,” Fuller interrupted softly. “You’ve got to know—I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to get you put you onto this.” The brief silence that followed was laden with meaning. “Anything.”
ooooRhodes looked up with a start. “You wouldn’t do that Avery.” But the look in his eyes betrayed the certainty that he would. “We’re friends . . .”
Rhodes protested, forgetting to whisper. “You couldn’t possibly . . . ”
oooo“I think you should read this before you assume what I will or won’t do.”
ooooThe hands in the lower triangle, nervous again, received an envelope and opened it. The eyes in the upper triangle read and widened. “This is monstrous!” he gasped, glancing nervously from the paper to Fuller.
oooo“It’s a monstrous business, trading in people’s secrets,” said Fuller coolly. “I think the end of the Cold War has left us with too much time on our hands.
oooo“Six copies of that letter will be on their way to the papers by special messenger at six o’clock if you refuse to take it on.”
ooooRhodes was dumbfounded. He knew Fuller wasn’t making idle threats. A reply died on his lips as he re-read the letter in disbelief. “I can’t believe you’d do this.”
oooo“I’ve done much worse. You know that,” Fuller replied. “We both traded in our souls long ago. That’s the price of admission. I’m sure I could have made you see sense eventually, without having to resort to this, but there’s no time. Diplomacy is the first casualty of crisis.”
oooo“Where is it?” said Rhodes with bitter resignation. He took a cigarette lighter from his pocket and lit the paper, holding it between his fingers until it had burned completely. He dropped it to the floor and ground the charcoal to dust on the ancient stones beneath his feet.
oooo“Europe,” said Fuller stoically. “That’s all I know. Could be anywhere. I’ve had two calls, one from France, the most recent from a mobile phone in London.”
oooo“A mobile phone.”
oooo“Very veiled language. I doubt anyone who wasn’t privy to the first call could have made the least sense of it. I barely made sense of it myself. At any rate, that doesn’t tell us much about where the serum is.”
oooo“It tells us there’s someone in London who knows where it is,” said Rhodes flatly. “How many people can you give me?”
oooo“Avery?” said Rhodes. “How many?”
oooo“None, I’m afraid.”
oooo“You can’t mean it—you’re mad!”
oooo“There’s someone in the department—someone over me at the Committee—who’s in their pocket.”
oooo“You should take your intel to Secretary Scott directly.”
ooooThe Home Office is leakier than Parliament . . . or the Titanic, take your pick. If Al-Sa’di’s people were to find out what we’re up to . . .
oooo“However—that’s not to say you can’t buy your own help . . . “
ooooooooOnce again the hands received an envelope.
oooo“A government draft-to-bearer for a half-million pounds.”
oooo“A half-million? How did you come by that kind of money if no one at COBRA knows?”
oooo“I borrowed some of the money from the little caché in Al-Sa’di’s belongings when we searched his flat in Basra. Heroin money. All duly catalogued and stuck in an interest-bearing account ’til further notice.
oooo“Computers are wonderful things. It pays to keep up with technology, you know—especially when one can do so at the department’s expense. After hours, of course.”
oooo“You stole it.”
oooo“It’ll turn up missing in accounts at the end of the month,” said Rhodes.
oooo“The 27th, to be exact,” Fuller replied. “That’s when they close the books.”
oooo“They’ll find out. That could be enough to queer things, even for you.”
ooooThe older man was quiet for a moment. “Imagine the population of Europe suffering in the manner you described,” he said at last. “I think it’s worth the risk of a job, don’t you?”
oooo“And your freedom.”
ooooFuller smiled stoically. “They’d have to find me.”
ooooRhodes’ responding smile had something deeply fatalistic about it. “Thinking you might buy back that soul you were talking about?”
oooo“Deposit the draft at Barclay’s in Sloane Square. The assistant director’s name is Scopes. He’s done some timely expediting for me in the past,” was the non-reply. “You’ll find everything you need in there. An ID card with a hologram of my thumbprint. That should get you in anywhere this side of the queen’s bedchamber. Sign it with your new name.”
oooo“Russell Church. Born in South Africa—an orphan, unmarried. You came to England four years ago, representing a South African manufacturer of semiconductors. Executive in charge of international sales. Congratulations.”
oooo“Does a rise come with the promotion?”
oooo“It’s all synopsized in the envelope. Nice dull history.” He hesitated for a moment. “Of course I’ll help you in any way I can.”
ooooRhodes tucked the envelope into his jacket pocket.
oooo“There must be someone we can trust.”
oooo“A week ago I’d’ve agreed with you. But once you fancy you’re being cuckolded, even your confessor doesn’t escape suspicion. The most insignificant things develop sinister dimensions.
oooo“I had the dickens of a time working up the crust to call you, to be perfectly frank.”
oooo“You were suspicious of me?”
oooo“In twenty-four hours time you’ll be suspecting me—if you’re doing your job.”
ooooDumas perceived a look in Rhodes’ eyes that seemed to ensure the eventuality.
oooo“Your personal secretary, do you think he can be trusted?”
oooo“She,” Fuller deliberated. “I think so. But she’s perfectly placed to pass along information.”
oooo“She? A female secretary, Avery? The Nineteenth century’s catching up to you! How long has this been going on?”
oooo“‘Nothing’s been ‘going on.’ She was sent over to me a couple of weeks ago when Hyde retired.” said Fuller. “She’s very smart, I’ll give her that—and pretty in her own way, they tell me. Came well recommended.”
oooo“Avril Miller,” said Fuller. “No—I’m convinced it’s someone higher up.”
ooooThe men studied their feet in silence.
oooo“They’ll be near an airport.”
oooo“I had thought of that,” said Fuller. “It’s most likely. If not now, then certainly as the deadline approaches. All they’d have to do is toss the vial in an air conditioning duct and—everyone in the airport would be infected in minutes, climbing onto their planes—like biological petri dishes; human time bombs.”
oooo“On to other airports, major cities—the virus would have spread worldwide within twelve hours.” Rhodes took a cigarette from a battered silver case and put it between his lips. He didn’t light it. “What’s the incubation period, do you know?”
oooo“Twenty-four to thirty-six hours.”
ooooRhodes lowered his head to his hands. “This isn’t good, Avery. Not good at all.” When he raised his face, his eyes looked like those of an old man. The skin that had been pressed against his fingers had lost its elasticity and was slow to resume its shape. “This is when we’re supposed to start quoting Revelation, isn’t it?” Outside, the wind caught up the souls of a million dead and dragged them, screaming, among the parapets and gargoyles.
ooooFuller stood up, thrust his hands in his pockets, studied the ceiling, and hurled words at the wailing wind. “‘I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues, last because with them God’s wrath is completed.’” He didn’t whisper this time. His voice echoed through the abbey.
ooooRhodes looked up at him.
oooo“Where else do you research the end of mankind?” Fuller shuffled a few aimless paces toward the nave and stopped. “Interestingly enough, those plagues come in vials, too.”
oooo“Curious,” said Rhode, raising his eyes.
oooo“What? My quoting Scripture?”
ooooRhodes studied the shadows overhead. “The rafters seem to be holding up all right,” he said. “What’s curious is that bit about seven angels and seven plagues—the ebola virus contains only seven molecules—proteins. That’s all. Nobody knows what they are, or why they do what they do.” He paused. “Seven submicroscopic Angels of Death.”
ooooDuring the exchange Dumas managed to twist himself a few degrees in the opposite direction. His limbs sang out in celebration as the blood surged through them, though their relief was short-lived. Immediately they began to suffer new depths of agony.
oooo“The threat wasn’t necessary, you know, Avery,” said Rhodes, standing. “For all my kicking and screaming, I’ve always done my duty.”
ooooBoth men were now framed in the upper triangle; Rhodes was the closer of the two which, given Dumas’ perspective, made him seem about twice as tall as his companion. Fuller nodded almost imperceptibly. “I hadn’t the time to play the begging game.” He began walking toward the cloister door. Rhodes fell in beside him. “Any ideas?”
oooo“Two,” Rhodes replied without hesitation. “A large bitter, and a sound kip. It could be my last for a while.”
oooo“Where will you begin?”
oooo“With the phone calls,” said Rhodes. “Tell me everything you can remember—what was the voice like? Anything at all—we can go out this way. It’s quicker,” he gestured toward the main entrance. “The bolt opens from the inside and latches automatically.”
ooooFuller stopped in his tracks and replayed the conversation in his mind.
oooo“It was a male voice, husky. Thickly accented—but I can’t tell a cockney from a Liverpudlian, much less one Arab dialect from another. But that’s what it was—or what I’m meant to think it was . . . an Arab.”
oooo“Were there any background sounds?”
ooooFuller shook his head. “Not that I recall. Nothing that stood out, at any rate. All my conversations are recorded automatically, though. The machine is in my office. Not much to go on, I’m afraid.”
oooo“You must be joking,” Rhodes replied facetiously. “Finding a husky-voiced Arab in Londonistan? Should be a walk in the park.”
ooooThey resumed walking. “I know it’s inhuman of me to have put you in this position,” said Fuller. “It’s a terrible knowledge to possess alone.”
oooo“You possessed it alone,” said Rhodes quietly. “Now you’ve divided the burden by half.”
ooooTwo thirds, thought Dumas, unbending his leg. As the men approached the door they receded from his hearing. Now and then a word bounced off the intervening masonry but the wind throttled the sentence to which it was attached, so their meaning was lost.
ooooHaving already heard the end of the world, sequelae was superfluous. He clambered to his feet, with Thomas Gray clutched in the sleep-benumbed fingers of one hand and the charcoal stub embedded in the palm of other.
oooooooo“Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
ooooooooAnd shut the gates of mercy on mankind.’”
ooooThe ancient iron hinges complained loudly in the narthex as its massive oaken door opened upon the 21st century. Winter rushed in at the breach and skidded across the ancient stones in menacing eddies of ice and dust. Dumas was suddenly overwhelmed with an irrational fear—that when the door closed he would be shut in forever with the terrible secret, impotent as the dead. With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach he staggered blindly up the aisle, no clear thought in mind but the insistent feeling that he had to purge himself of his accidentally acquired knowledge, as if it was a purse someone had dropped. A boil that had to be lanced.
ooooThe door was closed by the time he reached it. He threw it open with the vehemence of someone who had been buried alive, and ran outside. Suddenly swathed in the full fury of the storm and indecision, Dumas stopped on the step and yanked his collar around his neck. The two men were walking along the pavement in front of the sanctuary. Alerted by the squawk of the hinges, they stopped, too, turned and stared at him. The shock showed in their faces.
oooo“You there!” Fuller cried above the wind. They were his last words. The archway of the sanctuary was suddenly concussed by a blinding pulse of light and an explosion that tore a ragged hole in the wild night and scraped the two men over its sharpened edges.
ooooDumas was momentarily transfixed, unable to react, unable to think, or blink or breathe until, seconds later, the squeal of tires drew his attention to a small green Morris Minor pulling away from the curbing on Victoria Street. Beneath the visor of his hand as he shielded his eyes from the storm, he saw through the open window in the side of the car nearest him—the passenger side—a redheaded man, his face contorted with a grisly satisfaction that quickly gave way to alarm as his eyes met those of the only witness to his crime.
ooooWhoever was driving stepped on the gas and the car sped up Storey’s Gate.
ooooFor the Rugby World Cup matches, white plastic road barriers had been set in place from Victoria St, to Abington Road, Great Peter Street, and Marsham Road, turning Westminster and the surrounding neighborhood into a pedestrian mall. The arrangement was found to be conducive, so it was kept in place. Beyond that, the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington had been designated Special High Congestion Zones in which non-commercial vehicular traffic was subject to substantial surcharges over and above the customary £10 daily levy. As a result, even in the best weather there was little traffic and—with the Minster closed and the newborn winter battling a furious nor’easter—few pedestrians haunted the precincts.
ooooDumas ran first to Rhodes, whose remains had been blown ten feet closer by the blast. A veteran of the Falklands War, he immediately recognized the savage signature of a particularly powerful hand grenade. There was no need to feel for a pulse; he couldn’t find a wrist.
ooooDaniel Rhodes need no longer live in fear of ebola.
ooooConspiracy would plague Avery Fuller no more.
ooooGiven that he could have no intimation of its profound consequences, Dumas’ next action was both instinctive and inexplicable; he quickly fumbled through shredded remains of Rhodes’ Burbury and removed the envelope Fuller had given him, slipping it into the pocket of his greatcoat. Then he went to Fuller, who was lying on his back, staring up into the starless sky from the remains of his face with a look in his eyes that apprehended a horror transcending that of simple death.
ooooA large hole had replaced the man’s upper torso; the heat of the blast had apparently cauterized the vessels that would otherwise have been pouring blood into the cavity. A palm-sized leather notebook had fallen from among his clothing and laid, smoldering, on the ground near his head. Dumas picked it up, dropped it into his pocket beside the envelope, and stood amid the carnage like a good Englishman to await the arrival of the authorities.
ooooHowever, the sirens had begun to wail in the distance as the little green car returned, having skidded around the corner from Great George Street, it proceeded the wrong way up Sanctuary Lane by Parliament Square at high speed, shredding one of the plastic barriers that defended Westminster from the 21st century. Dumas’ instincts sprang to action when a semiautomatic rifle appeared in the window.