Authors: Gordon Bickerstaff
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Medical, #Conspiracies
Gavin Shawlens had gained a great deal of experience over the past six years on a number of major investigations for the Lambeth Group. In fact Gavin Shawlens had a UK security clearance of Top Secret Level D, which meant he had knowledge of the highest category of official state secrets. He knew where some of the nastiest Government skeletons were buried. He'd been present at the burial of two of them.
Gavin Shawlens had just arrived in his office when the phone rang and he took an internal call from Sir Charles McCall-Brown. The Vice-Chancellor said little of what to expect. He instructed Shawlens to assess whether or not the incident at Fairfells had any of the hallmarks of a university research project that had backfired.
A thirty-six year old academic, Gavin Shawlens stood five foot eight in his socks and occupied a lean and muscular frame. He kept himself fit with occasional visits to the University judo club. His thick mop of hair had a light straw-colour in summer that darkened in winter. A tousled fringe covered his forehead. His voice resounded with a strong Scottish accent although all trace of his Glasgow dialect had been smoothed out after years of lectures and public speaking.
Fifty-two minutes after taking the call he stood with Colin Blunt and Carol Donginger facing the dead dog at Fairfells Pet Centre. Colin had decided not to disturb the dog until it had been inspected. All three wore protective head visors, disposable coats, over-trousers, latex gloves and disposable plastic bootees. It didn't occur to any of them that their strange attire set most of the boarders in a frenzy of barking and jumping.
"It's been dead for less than six hours yet it's showing massive decomposition," Colin said as Gavin examined the body.
"The cold last night should have slowed any decomposition. Something has speeded it up even against the cold. Interesting," Gavin said.
"This white matter has seeped from both ends. All its teeth are out, hair is loose. Tissue and skin is well..., jelly," Colin said while he gesticulated nervously with his hands.
"How did the dog come into your possession?" Gavin asked as he circled the dog taking photographs with his Lambeth Group SEM mobile phone.
He didn't tell them the photos were being transmitted to the Lambeth Group office or that his phone also transmitted their conversations.
"Police rounded her up and brought her here to me," Carol said.
"Obviously this is not a typical infection. I think it escaped by accident or design from a university research laboratory," Colin said.
"Really!" Gavin said.
"Animal rights people or students probably let this dog loose," Colin said accusingly.
"Well it wouldn't be the first time that's happened."
Shawlens knew that mongrel dogs aren't used in research laboratories because they don't have the defined genetic profile needed for provenance.
"I want full microbiological and viral screens done on this animal? I want to know what I'm dealing with here."
Gavin Shawlens stepped back, frowned and wondered what had agitated Colin Blunt.
"Full screens are a lot of work. What do you think you have?" Gavin asked.
"Looks to me like Strep. The flesh eating one," Colin said impatiently.
"Streptococcus pyogenes," Gavin replied.
"That's the nasty one isn't it?" Carol said to Gavin.
"Yes it can be. It occurs naturally in humans, occasionally causes sore throats. Very rarely it causes necrotising fasciitis or flesh eating," he said as he rummaged through a corner of his memory.
"How does the flesh eating business work?" Colin asked.
"...umm. Strep bacteria secrete enzymes to digest tissues. Skin blood vessels are so thin they're digested quickly then skin tissue is destroyed."
"Killer enzymes," Colin said.
"Not intentionally. Imagine if I gave you a giant loaf of bread five miles by two miles. Before you could eat it you would need to break it down to mouth size. Bacteria are too small to consume our organs directly. They need to use enzymes to demolish huge structures down to small building blocks they need to make new bacteria."
"The dog is dead is it not?" Colin argued.
"This type of infection is rare. Probably less than ten people in the UK each year," Gavin said as he walked out of the kennel to join Carol.
He'd had enough of Blunt's paranoid ideas. Her face looked more interesting as they exchanged smiles.
"They say large doses of antibiotics are useless," Carol said to Gavin.
Gavin Shawlens engaged her in eye-to-eye contact.
"That's almost true. Antibiotics do kill Streptococcus but not its enzymes. If Strep gets time to secrete large quantities of enzymes into the blood antibiotics won't stop tissue destruction and death can follow quickly," Gavin said as he and Carol examined the fine detail on each other's face through their visors.
Colin paced around the kennel evaluating this information. Extensive damage seemed consistent with Strep bacteria.
"You're not convinced it's Strep are you?" Carol said pointing her hand at Gavin.
Colin frowned but she had read Gavin's facial tell correctly. Gavin Shawlens hesitated. The Lambeth Group demanded complete confidentiality and he was unsure what had happened.
"Strep doesn't occur naturally in dogs. They have natural immunity to Strep."
"WHAT? Are you certain?" Colin shouted.
"A Strep infection is unlikely in a dog."
Shawlens sounded sympathetic and shifted his gaze back to the dog. Colin sucked in air loudly with frustration. His heart started racing again. He stared at the dog.
"Then it's a genetically modified strain that attacks dogs, no question."
"That's one possibility," Gavin conceded.
"Get the screens done then," demanded Blunt.
Colin Blunt pressed his hands downward against his thighs causing the latex gloves to tighten against his fingers. Gavin noticed perspiration on Colin's forehead and a mist of condensation had formed on the top of his visor.
"Okay I'll take samples and send them off."
Colin marched to the kennels office and changed out of his protective clothes. Gavin carefully collected samples and stored them in a transit bag. He helped Carol move the dog into a body bag. In the office they removed their protective clothing and he put his SEM mobile phone back on standby.
"I'm sorry we had to haul you out of your bed to come here," she said softly.
"I was already in my office. I'm an early morning man."
"I like the morning."
"Best time of the day for me. No distractions, well not usually."
"Sorry about Colin, he's quite upset about this thing," she said.
"I think I got that message loud and clear but why?"
"We've never seen anything like this before. It must be pretty bad, eh?"
"There's nothing to worry about. This is good quality," he said pointing to the protective clothing.
He smiled at her but she didn't respond and that surprised him. She sat silent with her head bowed and he realised he didn't have the full picture.
"I'm feeling frustrated like I've missed something here."
He leaned forward to look at her face now pale and drawn.
"We touched the dog and Colin got fluids on his hand," she said and stared at the floor.
Gavin Shawlens wanted to point out their stupidity but too late for that to do any good. She nodded her confirmation and looked up to his eyes for support. He shook his head and they stared at the floor. He didn't know if Colin and Carol had been exposed to anything. He wasn't sure if he should be sitting so close to her.
He knew Streptococcus wasn't responsible and no official research laboratory would experiment on a mongrel dog with unknown genetic profile but that didn't rule out a rogue company. His mind swung back and forth trying to decide whether or not he should advise Carol to seek a course of antibiotics. Hospital treatment would draw attention from authorities and could cause a problem for the Lambeth Group if a research project had indeed backfired.
Hairs standing on the back of his neck pricked his skin as he looked at Carol's fearful face. Her left hand fidgeted with the seam of her trousers and she placed her trembling damp sweaty right hand on his left hand.
"Dr Shawlens please tell me what I should do about this. I don't want to die like that poor dog," she said as tears ran down her cheeks and she squeezed his hand.