Lethal Expedition (Short Story) (8 page)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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Hallie awoke fuzz-brained and thirsty. She looked at the bedside clock: 6:13
What day? Sunday.

In the kitchen, she fumbled a glass from one of the cabinets, reached for the faucet, and suddenly somebody was hugging her from behind. Only one person had a key.

“Stephen!” she yelled, struggling to free her arms. “Let me go. This isn’t funny!”

A hand pushed the back of her head forward into the V created by a forearm and bicep. The hand pressed harder and the V tightened, compressing her carotid artery and jugular vein. Her vision grayed, and her skin tingled, and she heard buzzing like a thousand bees swarming in her head.


The Secret Service started screening people at six
for an eight o’clock service. It was not a quick process. Every attendee passed through five layers of security. Metal detectors were first. Then stand-in-place threat-detection systems, augmented by dogs sniffing for explosives and biological agents. Concealed face-recognition scanners analyzed every visage. Specially trained agents watched for “tells”—physical manifestations of unusual levels of stress, anxiety, anger, or fear.

Backer had seen it all before and took little notice.

As head verger, he worked hard to prepare for the service. He and the other vergers had already laid programs on every seat. They had made final adjustments to the lavish floral arrangements flanking Bishop Newberry’s Canterbury Pulpit and the Holy Eucharist table. Checked the sound system. Straightened the altar candles. Set out chalices, wine vessels, plates of wafers.

Everything was in order by six forty-five. He dismissed the undervergers. It was time to make himself ready, as well.


Hallie struggled toward the light.
. Good: pain meant she was alive. Something was around her neck. Too tight. Rough, cutting her skin, pulling against her throat. She was sitting down, but couldn’t move her arms and legs.

It was dark, and she was bound to a heavy, solid chair. Towels covered her forearms and lower legs like soft casts, and duct-tape overwraps bound them to the chair’s arms and legs.

She remembered someone behind, squeezing her neck. A queer buzzing, then passing out. Waking up here in her own basement with what felt like a noose around her neck.

Once she had been trapped in a cave passage that held her like a stone straitjacket. Her arms were extended straight out in front, her legs behind, and she had been inching forward by pushing with her toes, pulling with her fingertips, and keeping her lungs deflated. But then the passage ceiling dropped another half inch, sharp projections stuck down behind her shoulder blades and up under her chin, and she was jammed. The panicked urge to flail and writhe was almost irresistible, but the only way out was to relax, soften, make herself smaller. No one could help—hauling her back with a rope would have shredded her flesh. Only she could save herself. It took two hours and utter control of mind and body, but she did it.

This new entrapment, she understood, would take the same kind of control. And she was not sure even that would be enough.


On this day of days, all had to be right for the eyes of the Lord. Henry Backer fastened the top button of his new black cassock. His shoes, socks, and shirt were also new. His room contained no mirrors; he thought they bred vanity. He didn’t need them to brush gray strands straight back from his forehead and shave his cheeks glass-smooth.

The Bible stood upright on his table. As Kurt Ely had instructed, he put on a surgical mask and latex gloves. Then he poured the contents of the aluminum cylinders into a glass bowl. Backer had been curious to see what the pathogen would look like, but it was just clear, viscous liquid with no odor. He used a new one-inch Purdy brush to paint the liquid on the front and back covers of the Bible, making sure—as Ely had instructed—to use every drop. It dried to invisibility as he watched. The Bible looked new, clean, and shiny.

He put everything but the Bible into a plastic bag and dropped it into his wastebasket. Later it would go to the Anacostia Refuse Station’s incinerator.

He rolled the cuffs of the latex gloves down and put his white clerical gloves on over them.

It was time.


For Justine Laning, the novelty of traveling in a vehicle with five-inch armor, smoke grenade launchers, a supply of B-negative blood, and a Remington shotgun under the front seat had worn off after the first few weeks. Daughters Amica and Leanna put on their best blasé faces during trips around Washington, but Laning knew that traveling in the Beast was still like an amusement park ride for them. The First Husband usually dozed off within ten minutes; car rides did that to Paul. Right now, he was nodding, the girls were laughing and pointing out the windows, and Laning was enjoying a rare moment of doing exactly nothing.

She watched the city stream past as the Beast and its flock of red-blinking, siren-wailing security escorts sped north on Wisconsin Avenue. Washington in April was as beautiful as any city on earth, not only to see but to smell, with apple and cherry blossoms, hibiscus and gardenia, roses—a kaleidoscope of fragrances. They were mostly a memory now, because she was always shielded from anything the Secret Service thought could harm her, which meant just about everything. Not even light reached her untouched. The Beast’s windows were so thick, filtering out so much natural light, that interior fluorescents were needed.


“Those ties aren’t too tight, are they? We can’t have them leaving any marks. That’s why I used the towels.”

There was a strange rustling. She recognized the voice and the cigarette reek. “Kurt?”

“Hi, Hallie.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“You didn’t really, not anymore. You talked to that bitch Taylor. Broke into my house. Called my Mexican friends.
was your big mistake, let me tell you.”

“What’s going on?”

“I could just kill you and be done. But you are the most conceited bitch I have ever met. I’m going to enjoy demonstrating just how smart you’re not. You thought the expedition was about finding something
the cave.”

“Wasn’t it?”

She saw a flame and then the red coal of a cigarette tip. “We needed to bring something
. Have you ever heard of Biopreparat?”

“The old Soviet biowarfare lab. A horrible place. Shut down years ago.”

“The law of unintended consequences is a beautiful thing.”


“Overnight, they put thirty thousand scientists on the street. Can you even imagine what a million bucks looks like to a hungry Russian?”

“You’re talking about bioweapons?”

“What do you get if you cross
Mycobacterium leprae

“Leprosy and strep? Nothing. Vastly different genomics.”

“Come on. Thirty thousand scientists with unlimited budgets? They could have cloned Jesus Christ if Moscow had ordered it.”

“Why would they want to cross those two bacteria?”

“Who knows why Russians do anything? Paranoia and vodka are a dangerous mix.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it. The stuff—we call it ‘the Skinner,’ by the way—ate the skin right off some poor Mexican. I saw him.”

“That would be fatal.”

“Fatal, but not quick.”

“But why would you have anything to do with that? You’re not a terrorist.”

In a very different voice, Ely said, “I am a New Patriot.”

“What’s that?”

“Today, no one knows. Tomorrow, the world will.”


BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
9.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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