Read Wired Online

Authors: Douglas E. Richards

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Thriller, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adventure, #Fantasy

Wired (3 page)

2

 
 

Jim
Connelly reached into a small white refrigerator that was tucked away against
the wall of his office, pulled out two chilled plastic bottles of spring water,
and handed one to Desh. Desh nodded his thanks, unscrewed the cap, and took an
appreciative sip, while Connelly slid a wooden coaster across to him.

The
colonel took a drink from his own bottle. “From what we understand, Kira Miller
is even more of a genius than her record would suggest,” he said. “Especially
when it comes to gene therapy. In this field, scientists who have worked with
her think she might just be the most brilliant, intuitive scientist alive
today.”

“Gene
therapy?”

“It’s
just like the name suggests,” explained Connelly. “It’s a therapy to cure
disease, or even birth defects, by correcting faulty genes. Or by inserting
totally new ones,” he added.

“That’s
possible?”

“For
quite a while now. I wasn't aware of it either. I guess those involved in this
field haven't done a good job of spreading the word.”

“Or
you and I have had our heads in the sand.”

The
colonel chuckled. “I wouldn’t rule that out either,” he said, amused.

“How
is it done?”

“The
most popular way is to use viruses, which insert genes into host cells
naturally. These viral genes commandeer our cellular machinery to make endless
copies of themselves. Some types, like herpes viruses and retroviruses,
actually insert their genes right into human chromosomes.”

Desh’s
face showed a hint of disgust. Even though it occurred at the submicroscopic
level, the thought of a virus inserting its genetic material into a human
chromosome was disturbing. “Retroviruses,” said Desh. “You mean HIV?”

“The
AIDS virus is in the retrovirus family, yes. But regardless of the virus type,
the idea of gene therapy is to use modified versions of these viruses as
delivery vehicles, forcing them to insert human genes into our cells rather
than their own. If you cut out all the nasty parts of a retrovirus and add back
in a human gene—say, insulin—the virus will insert perfect, working copies of
insulin genes into your chromosomes. Presto—no more diabetes. Simple as that.”

“So
the AIDS virus could actually be used to save lives?”

“Properly
hollowed out and genetically engineered, yes. Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Very,”
said Desh. He was intrigued. Rather than treating the symptoms of a disease,
gene therapy offered an outright cure: virus-aided microsurgery on the genes
themselves. “It sounds ideal,” offered Desh.

“In
many ways it is,” responded Connelly thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, the field
hasn't progressed as quickly as scientists had hoped. It might sound simple on
paper, but I’m told it’s treacherously complicated.”

“It
doesn’t even sound simple on paper,” noted Desh wryly.

The
corners of Connelly’s mouth turned up into a slight smile. “Apparently she had
quite a knack for it,” he said. He lifted the water bottle to his lips and gestured
at the photographs lying on the desk in front of Desh.

Desh
flipped the picture of Kira Miller on its back and revealed the second photo in
the stack. It was a two-story yellow brick building, not particularly
attractive, with a large placard over the door that read,
NeuroCure
Pharmaceuticals
.

“She
joined NeuroCure, a publicly traded biotech company in San Diego, right out of
Stanford,” continued Connelly. “She was well liked, and by all accounts
performed as brilliantly there as expected.”

He
gestured again and Desh dutifully flipped to the next photo, a small,
nondescript building in the middle of an industrial strip. The building had an
address affixed to it but no name.

“NeuroCure’s
animal research facility,” explained the colonel. “The building that Kira Miller
worked out of, and for which she was responsible. Notice there’s no way to tell
it’s at all associated with NeuroCure, or that there are animals inside. Biotechs
don’t like to advertise these facilities. Not with all the PETA types running
around.”

Connelly
stroked his mustache absently with the tips of two fingers, something he had
had a tendency to do ever since Desh had known him. “Kira was a model employee
her first two years at NeuroCure, performing with the level of brilliance
expected of her. During this time she was promoted twice, which is fairly
unprecedented.” He raised his eyebrows. “Then again, so is graduating Stanford
with a Ph.D. at twenty-three.” Connelly leaned forward in his chair. “Which
brings us to about a year ago,” he said meaningfully, a hint of weariness in
his voice.

“Let
me guess,” said Desh dryly. “That’s when all hell starts to break loose.”

“You
could say that.”

“Interesting,”
noted Desh. “Up until now, at least, you’ve painted Kira Miller as a model
citizen. It must have been
some
year.”

“You
have no idea,” said Connelly ominously.

3

 
 

The
colonel motioned for Desh to flip to the next photograph in his thin stack. It
showed a short, slightly pudgy man with a hard look, holding a cigarette
loosely.

“Larry
Lusetti,” said Connelly.
“Private
Investigator; ex-cop.
One morning about eleven months ago he’s found
dead in Kira Miller’s condo in La Jolla, his skull bashed in with a heavy
marble bookend and his body severely lacerated. After he was bludgeoned, he
fell through a picture window in the front of the condo, which explains the
lacerations.” He paused. “Kira must have managed to pull him back inside and
close the shutters, but a neighbor heard the glass shattering and went to
investigate. When no one answered the neighbor’s knock—and then Kira sped out
of her garage and raced right past him—he called the police.

“Kira
Miller couldn’t be located, but later that morning police found that the
victim’s apartment had been broken into and turned upside down. Turns out
Lusetti had installed a motion-activated nanny-cam inside a hanging plant in
the apartment. Because of the nature of his work he tended to be a bit
paranoid.”

You’re
not paranoid if they really are out to get you, thought Desh dryly, but he
didn’t interrupt.

“Lusetti’s
secretary alerted the authorities to the existence of the camera, which recorded
some nice footage of Kira Miller ransacking the place and leaving with a large
file folder and Lusetti’s laptop. They were able to enhance the footage enough
to make out the label on the file she took. Turns out it was a file Lusetti had
on
her
.”

“Interesting.
Do we know why she was under investigation?”

Connelly
shook his head. “No. Lusetti’s secretary knew nothing about it. And Kira
Miller’s file was the only one he kept at home. There were no other records
ever located that made any mention of her at all—other than the ones she took,
of course.”

Connelly
gestured at the photographs and Desh flipped to the next one.

“Alan
Miller,” said Connelly. “Kira’s older brother.”

Desh
studied the photo. Blue eyes. Handsome. He could see the family resemblance.

“Around
midnight that same day, brother Alan turned up dead in Cincinnati. His house
was found burned to the ground with his charred remains inside.”

“Arson?”

“No
question about it. A rental car was found abandoned near the house with traces
of acetone inside, the fire accelerant used in the arson. The DNA from a strand
of hair found on the driver’s seat of the car matched Kira Miller’s DNA from
hair samples police had taken from her condo.”

“And
she had rented the car?”

“Yes.
Using an alias. The name and license she used to rent it turned out to be
untraceable. But the rental car agent identified her picture from ten that were
shown to him. Later, police found a cab driver who recognized her picture. The
Cabbie said he had picked her up a few miles from the brother’s house, about an
hour after the fire, and had taken her to the airport.” Connelly frowned. “This
is where the trail ends. We presume she took a flight, but if she did she used
fake identification.”

Desh
pulled Kira Miller’s eight-by-ten from the photo pile and examined her once
again. She had such a friendly and appealing look. But this was just a
carefully constructed mask. Being burned alive was one of the more horrible
ways to die. Killing anyone in cold calculation in such a sadistic fashion—especially
a family member—pointed to a psychopathic or sociopathic personality. And these
soulless monsters were hard to spot. In fact, Desh knew, they were often quite
intelligent and charismatic, and highly skilled at hiding their true nature.

Connelly
nodded toward the last photo Desh held in his hand. It was of a tall man,
probably in his early fifties, with wavy, seemingly uncombed salt-and-pepper
hair, dressed in business casual slacks and shirt. He had a long, thin face and
a wild, faraway look in his eye that reminded Desh of a stereotypical
professor.

“Tom
Morgan. He was NeuroCure’s Chief Scientific Officer and Kira’s boss when she
joined. He was killed in an auto accident almost exactly three years after Kira
Miller’s hire. In light of future events, we now think there's a good chance it
wasn't an accident.”

Desh
frowned and was silent for several long seconds, digesting what he had been
told so far. “You said her parents were deceased. How did they die?”

“I
figured you’d jump to this question,” said Connelly approvingly. “You really do
have a singular talent for connecting dots.”

“Thanks,
Colonel,” said Desh. “But these particular dots aren’t exactly difficult to
connect.”

“You’d
be surprised. Anyway, to answer your question, her parents both died in the
same auto accident. While she was in high school. As with Morgan, the police
didn't suspect foul play at the time and didn't do much of an investigation. But
in light of everything else, it's not hard to imagine that their daughter was
behind it.”

Desh
knew signs of sociopathy were usually present from a very young age if anyone
was looking in the right direction. If Kira Miller could torch her brother in
cold blood, she wouldn't likely be squeamish about killing her parents either. A
thorough examination of mysterious deaths and disappearances with her as
epicenter was almost certain to be revealing. Perhaps brother Alan had been
helping this private investigator, Larry Lusetti. This was as good a conjecture
as any for why she killed him so soon after recovering the file Lusetti had on
her. Alan Miller could probably have pulled any number of skeletons from his
little sister’s closet—perhaps literally.

“Any
other unexplained accidents in her wake?” said Desh.

Connelly
nodded grimly. “An uncle drowned while swimming alone when she was twelve. And
he was known to be a very strong swimmer. There were two other incidents
involving teachers at Kira’s high school the next year. One turned up dead in
her apartment, her face so badly eaten away by sulfuric acid it was
unrecognizable. The other went missing and was never found. Neither case was
ever solved.”

So
the breathtaking, fresh-faced girl smiling in the photo was a psychopath, and
was at the very least a double murderer. The tale Connelly had spun was truly
grisly. But Desh knew the worst was yet to come. There was only one reason any
of this would warrant the colonel’s attention. “So what’s the terrorism
connection?”

Connelly
sighed heavily, as if he had hoped he could somehow avoid this discussion. He
rubbed his mustache once again and said, “As the Lusetti investigation and hunt
for Kira Miller continued, the police found evidence that she had been in communication
with several known terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad.”

“Nice
groups,” said Desh dryly.

“The
case was turned over to Homeland Security. There’s a detailed report in the
accordion file, but they quickly found that she had millions of dollars
deposited in banks throughout the world, well hidden, including several
numbered Swiss accounts. They’re certain they haven’t found it all. The methods
she used to obscure the trail between herself and her money were quite
sophisticated. They also found several false identities, and are convinced she
has more.”

“Working
with Jihadists is an interesting choice for a Western woman, even for a
sociopath. These groups aren't exactly known for being progressive when it comes
to a woman’s place in society.”

“It's
a puzzle alright. She's not Muslim and there’s no evidence she ever supported this
ideology. She could be in it just for money, but somehow I think there's
something we're missing.”

“Do
you think she’s attracted to the danger of working with terrorists?”

Connelly
shrugged. “It’s impossible to say. Normal motives don’t necessarily apply to
psychopathic personalities. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and cannibalized seventeen
people, three of whose skulls were found in his refrigerator.”

“That’s
perfectly
rational behavior,” said Desh sarcastically. “He just didn’t
want them to spoil.”

A
smile flashed across Connelly’s face, but only for a moment. “You’ll read in
the report that they found a flotation tank in her condo,” he continued. “Top
of the line. That’s a pretty unusual device to have taking up space in your
living room.”

“Flotation
tank?”

“They
used to be called sensory deprivation chambers. Basically a giant coffin filled
with water and Epsom salt. Seal yourself up in one and you bob around like a
cork, weightless, in total silence and total darkness. You receive virtually no
sensory input while inside.” Connelly grimaced. “One can only imagine what she
was doing with it. Performing bizarre rituals? Locking people in for days at a
time as a means of torture?” he shuddered. “This girl is our worst nightmare:
brilliant and totally unpredictable. No conscience; no remorse.”

The
room fell silent. Both men were alone with their thoughts. Desh knew that any
problem Connelly had that he couldn’t solve with his vast resources and was
important enough for him to summon Desh had to be very, very ugly. He wasn’t
sure he really wanted to know what it was. Maybe he should just leave now. What
did it matter, anyway? Stop one villain and another would always spring up to
take his place. But he couldn’t bring himself to walk away, at least not until
his curiosity was satisfied.

Desh
took a deep breath and locked his eyes on Connelly. “So let’s cut to the chase,
Colonel. What are we really talking about here, biological warfare?”

Connelly
frowned. “That’s right. And she’s the best around—maybe ever.” Connelly’s
demeanor, already fairly grim due to the nature of the events he had been
reporting, took a sharp turn for the worse.

“With
her skills and experience engineering viruses,” said Desh, “I’m sure she could
make them more deadly and contagious. But to what end? You can’t contain them. They
could easily boomerang back on the terrorists. I know these groups aren’t very
selective in who they kill, but their leaders, at least, aren’t in any hurry to
meet the seventy-two virgins awaiting them in heaven.”

“My
bioweapons experts tell me someone with her skill can get around the
containment issue by designing in molecular triggers. The DNA not only has to
be inserted, it has to be read and turned into gene products,” explained
Connelly. “There are promoter regions on the DNA that control under what
circumstances this happens. Triggers. Someone as talented as Kira Miller can
engineer these to her specifications. Like a Trojan Horse virus that infects
your computer. It lies dormant until whatever predetermined time the asshole who
invented it has specified. Then it emerges and demolishes your files.”

Connelly
took a deep breath and then continued. “We think she’s engineering the common
cold virus to insert specific Ebola virus genes into human chromosomes like a
retrovirus does,” he said gravely. “As with any cold, it would spread quickly. But
now, in addition to a runny nose, those infected would get a bonus: the genes
responsible for the massive hemorrhagic fever associated with Ebola. This is
almost always fatal. Victims suffer from fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and
uncontrollable bleeding, both internally and externally—from the corners of
their eyes, their nose—everywhere.”

Desh’s
stomach tightened. Ebola was the deadliest virus known. He shouldn’t have been
surprised that something as promising as gene therapy and molecular biology
could be bastardized to kill rather than cure. Humanity seemed to have a
singular ability to find destructive uses for any constructive technology. Invent
the computer, and you could be certain someone would invent computer viruses
and other ways to attack it. Invent the Internet, an unimaginable treasure
trove of information, and you could bet it would be used as a recruiting tool
for hate mongers and instantly turned into a venue for child pornographers,
sexual predators, and scam artists. Humanity never failed to find a way to
become its own worst enemy.

“I
still don’t see how the terrorists can be certain of avoiding the Ebola genes
themselves,” said Desh.

“They
can’t be. But there’s more to the story. This is where the molecular trigger
comes in. Remember, the genes don’t only have to be inserted, they have to be
activated.”

“So
what activates them?”

“We
believe she’s trying to engineer them to be triggered by a chemical. One
specific to a certain food. Ingest this chemical and the inserted Ebola genetic
material begins to be expressed by victims’ cells. And once the genes have been
triggered, there’s no stopping them. People’s own cells are transformed into
ticking time bombs. A few days to a few weeks later, boom!—you’re dead.” Connelly
raised his eyebrows. “Any guesses as to what food sets it off?”

Desh
looked blank.

“Pork.”

Desh's
eyes widened. Of course it would be pork. What else? Only those at the pinnacle
of the Jihadist pyramid would know of the plot, but since ingestion of pork was
forbidden in the Muslim religion, their followers would be safe. And Desh knew
how these people thought. In their eyes, any Muslim around the world who ignored
this prohibition and
did
eat pork deserved
to die anyway.

“Our
organic chemists tell me there are several complex molecules that are
swine-specific. We believe the Ebola genes are set to be triggered by one of
them. But even though the genes are triggered, the viral parts aren't present,
so it isn't infectious like the natural Ebola. That’s what keeps the terrorists
safe. As long as they don’t eat pork, they have nothing to worry about.”

Desh’s
lip curled up in disgust. It was a masterful plan from the terrorist’s
perspective. And as utterly horrific as their strategy was, it was not without
its boldness or creativity. Ironically, in addition to devout Muslims,
religious Jews would also be spared. This would be the only fly in the ointment
of an otherwise ideal plan from the terrorists’ perspective. The fact that
their most hated enemy would remain untouched would sit like open sores in
their stomachs.

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