Lethal Expedition (Short Story) (3 page)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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“And he will do this because …”

“Because, Señor Villanueva, he hates Laning even more than we do.”

Villanueva nodded slowly, then more quickly.

Suddenly there was a flash, making Ely jump. One of the guards had taken a picture of Poblado with an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. It rolled out a print, which Villanueva examined briefly before handing to Ely.

“Another memento,” he said. “To help you keep your word.”


The high altar in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral was carved of stone from Solomon’s Quarry near Jerusalem. Hence the creation’s official name, “Jerusalem Altar.” It was ivory-colored, 30 feet tall, 105 feet wide, and its 110 sculpted figures surrounded the radiant face of Christ.

Every weekend, thousands of visitors kicked up storms of dust. By Monday morning, the altar’s pale saints and icons wore dark cloaks of dirt. Cathedral vergers took turns cleaning the altar, and it was not a popular job, requiring them to teeter atop a twenty-five-foot stepladder with feather duster and polishing cloth. Today was Head Verger Henry Backer’s turn. Backer had started as a lowly apprentice sexton—a janitor, really—in 1967 and never left. He could have delegated the chore to an underverger, but the idea had never occurred to him. The cathedral was God’s house, and it was also Backer’s. Medieval vergers lived in their cathedrals, and so did Backer, down on the crypt level in a neat, clean room with bed, table, chair, and bookcase.

He was perched atop that spindly ladder, dusting Saint Benedict’s head, when someone called up, “Henry, may I speak with you, please?”

If it had been anyone else, he would have snapped at them to wait until he was finished. But the Most Reverend Bishop could not be ignored. He climbed down, brushed dust from his gray hair and black suit, and stood before Suzanne Newberry.

“How may I help you, Bishop?”

“There have been complaints about the Resurrection Chapel downstairs.”

“What kind of complaints?”

“Reverend Chase can give you specifics.”

“You asked me to climb down off that ladder for this? I have my hands very full preparing for the president’s visit.”

People did not speak to the Most Reverend Bishop that way. She resisted the urge to snap back and instead thanked God for testing her patience. “I was passing and didn’t want to shout. The chapel will open for visitors soon.”

“I’ve been taking care of it for forty-five years. I know when it opens. It will be ready for visitors, rest assured. Is there anything else?”

“No, that’s all. Thank you.”

He started back up, and Newberry was alarmed by the old ladder’s creaks and shakes. “Henry, would you like me to steady this thing?”

Without looking down, he said, “No need. I’m quite used to it.”

“Well, please requisition a new one. I don’t think this is safe.”

Newberry sighed and walked on. She had come to preside over the cathedral just this year, and was still learning about her people there. Despite his long service, Backer’s file was one of the thinnest, revealing that he was an orphan, had some kind of learning disability, was a high school dropout, and had worked at the cathedral forever.

They were so different. Backer was old, and she was young. He was uneducated; she held a Princeton doctorate. He took his Bible literally, and she believed that God bestowed brains for thinking. Probably most important, though: he was a man, and she was not. He did not—or could not—conceal his dislike. At first, she thought it might have been just her as a woman bishop, but in the passing months she had seen that it was women, period.

As long as he did his job well, she could accept Backer’s manner. But recently she had seen him talking to himself while working. Perhaps he was praying—Backer was the most obsessively devout man she had ever met. He would have made a good flagellant, when that was
still allowed. Sometimes, though, he also made strange faces and gestures. Or perhaps it was early Alzheimer’s, though he was a bit young for that.

Still, she could not fault his work, and the undervergers seemed happy enough, though she suspected they might be too afraid to complain about him. Ultimately, she decided, patience was the lesson here. Time and death would purge women haters like Henry Backer from the church. Until then, she could only pray for them and goad gently when they strayed from the Path.


“Next item on the agenda,” President Justine Laning said. “National Cathedral, Easter Sunday service. In at eight, out by nine-fifteen.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said press secretary Blair Lee. “The Service assures a smooth visit. In and out under two hours, guaranteed.” Laning looked up from her chair at the Oval Office coffee table. Journalists called her striking and severe. She had been an All-American lacrosse player for Stanford before taking her JD degree from Columbia, and at fifty-two she retained a spare and athletic beauty. Like a diamond, Justine Laning was arresting to behold but had edges that could cut clean and deep. She rarely raised her voice, but when she spoke in a certain tone every brain in the room snapped to attention.

“Not two, Blair. One and a quarter, tell them. The eggs roll at eleven, and we will not be late for the children of dead soldiers, clear?”

“Clear, Madame President,” Lee said. Tall, powerfully built, he had been CNN’s White House reporter before joining the president’s team.

“I’m looking forward to this,” Laning said. “It will be a very special day. Thanks to, of all people, Speaker Deroche.”

“For a conservative, the man has a good head and a good heart,” said Vice President Rand Marshall. His own head was shaved and laced with red scars, and his voice would always sound like gravel being shoveled—both compliments of Desert Storm shrapnel.

“Right on both counts,” Laning said. “And good ideas as well.”

“Even I have to agree,” said the rabidly partisan Lee. “It’s simple, but brilliant. ‘Get people of different faiths and political stripes together and’ … how did he put it?”

“ ‘Gather the divided under God’s roof and let Him join them together,’ ” Laning said. “You know what surprised me most about Deroche’s invitation?” Lee asked.

“That it came from a Republican,” Marshall said.

“That I could find no ulterior motive. I did try, believe me.”

“I’m sure you did. Always on the lookout for those, Blair?” Laning said.

“With all due respect, ma’am, is there any other kind?”

She smiled. Behind closed doors, Laning was not loath to shed the mask of command. “Once in a great while, apparently. And do you know what else? Amica and Leanna love singing hymns at the cathedral.” She was referring to her daughters, fourteen and sixteen. “Me, too, for that matter.”

Marshall coughed and examined his Mont Blanc. He and Lee exchanged glances. Laning watched them over the rim of her cup. She was a damn good president, but cursed with one of the worst singing voices ever to haunt the White House. She let the moment linger, then laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll restrain myself at the proper time. I’ve become very good at lip-synching.”

“Thank you, Madame President!”

Day Five: Tuesday


A pale, heavy-set man with curly black hair came into Hallie’s hospital room. Pressed khakis, white shirt, blue blazer, a red-and-gold striped tie. “Hello, Dr. Leland. I’m Agent Luciano, with the FBI. The doctors told you I would be coming?”

She nodded. Two days before, she had emerged from Talisto Cave exhausted, dehydrated, possibly concussed. A Mexican search-and-rescue team medevacked her to Oaxaca’s capital, and the next day a government jet flew her back to Washington, where doctors admitted her to Bethesda Naval Hospital for observation.

Luciano was opening his briefcase, fumbling for tape recorder and legal pad, but his eyes kept darting to Hallie. Tall, slim, and square-shouldered, she had fine hair cut very short, so blond it looked almost white in certain lights. An angular face in which dark-turquoise eyes were not perfectly aligned, the left just slightly higher than the right. The left eyebrow was arched higher, too, which made her default expression quizzical. Her philtrum—the space between her upper lip and nose—was slightly shorter than average, so that when her face was completely relaxed, her lips remained parted by a tiny, crescent-shaped space.

Hallie put Luciano in the middle of his thirties and his career. He had a cop’s hard, unyielding eyes, but his tone was kind enough as he apologized for interviewing Hallie here.

“People I work for got a call from State,” Luciano said.

“Is that unusual?” she asked.

“Not when two federal employees die under suspicious circumstances doing government business in a foreign country.”

Hallie didn’t like the sound of that, and she had never been awed by authority, even the vaunted FBI. “What do you mean, ‘suspicious’? One had an accident; the other took his own life.”

Luciano was unruffled. “Three elements constitute ‘suspicious’ in relation to a death. Involvement of crime or accident; absence of prior medical prognosis; and death caused by trauma. Here we appear to have all three. Like I said, I’m just here to gather facts. Somebody else will do the sorting out.”

With the machine recording, Luciano identified himself, noted the time, date, and location, and asked his first question: “Please state the origin and purpose of the Talisto Cave expedition.”

“It was my understanding that it originated with a research proposal from Dr. Ely. Aquifers were his area, and he thought Talisto Cave might connect with one. His proposal included a virologist—Dr. Halsted—and a microbiologist.”

“Why were you picked?”

“Talisto is a supercave thousands of feet deep, with miles of passages. There aren’t many microbiologists in the world qualified to work in a cave like that. Fewer still in the U.S.”

“How many such expeditions have you been on, Dr. Leland?”

“This was number nineteen. Or maybe twenty. In China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, Mexico, and all over the U.S.”

“What were you looking for, specifically?”

“Extremophiles—organisms that thrive in ultrahostile environments.”

“And why?”

“We need new antibiotics, and they might be a good source.”

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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