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Thy Kingdom Come (3 Complimentary Chapters)

As I do with all my novels, I’m offering the first three chapters of my newest novel, Thy Kingdom Come, to my readers. If you like what you read and would like to purchase the book, links will be provided at the end of this post. This novel is available in E-Book, Paperback, and Hardback.

Hope you enjoy the read.

GNP

PROLOGUE

At the exact same moment that Jim Hardy was preparing to begin the day’s wheat harvest and Estella, his wife of forty years, was striking a match to light the burner on her old gas stove to begin her fifth day of canning vegetables, fruits, and jellies to sell at the annual Clairmont County bazaar in Cedar’s Grove, Oklahoma, over fourteen hundred miles away in Canal Point, Florida, Ben Donaldson was engaged in a battle with his conscious, trying to determine whether he and his family should evacuate from the state and head north to escape the monstrous hurricane that was headed their way, or take his chances and ride it out exactly as he’d done during every other storm he’d been through. Earnestly weighing the pros and cons of both, he faced making an important decision, and he needed to decide quickly before he found himself in the dire predicament of having Mother Nature decide for him.

In Widow’s Peak, Washington, Dr. Jacob Underwood, Geologist and Volcanologist, was working in the field, collecting water samples, recording atmospheric measurements, and comparing his current seismology data to the printout his boss, Herb Winwood, had given him before sending him out on assignment to monitor what he determined to be disturbing volcanic activity from Mount Cereubus, never realizing that as he packed his suitcase and gathered all of his expensive and necessary equipment, it would be his last time ever having to do so. 

Harvey Wiseman, in Benedict, Maine, cursed beneath his breath as he carried an arm full of firewood into his living room and dumped it onto the growing heap on the floor beside the fireplace hearth, frowning as he stared at the wood, trying to decide if he should bring in a couple more armfuls before the heavy snow fell. “Snow, my ass,” he grunted. “Who the hell ever heard of a snowstorm in July?” When he’d first heard the report last week, he’d phoned the news station and politely telling them that their meteorologists seriously needed to lay off the whacky tobacky and sloe gin because they were talking pure bullshit by telling their viewers to prepare for a blizzard in the summer! The lady on the phone had laughed at him, then politely assured him that what the station had reported was factual. And once he replaced his trusty old Stetson with his thinking cap, he’d realized that she might just be right because June hadn’t delivered what anyone would consider being warm days, like it normally did, and July hadn’t been too promising so far. But to a Mainer, they considered sixty degrees warm compared to the sub-zero temperatures that the winter months brought. “You dumb sum’bitches better be right about this,” he huffed as he headed back outside. “I’m gonna be madder’n a wet hen if I’ve done all this work for nothing.”

Tania Brock was in Rafael’s Point, California, a freshman college student studying to get a degree in Criminal Justice so that she could pursue her dream job of working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a career she’d committed herself to achieving ever since she was a little girl and had watched her first episode of Twin Peaks. Agent Dale Cooper had been her inspiration, and through his character, had portrayed, in her opinion, what a real F.B.I. agent should look and act like. That he was handsome, suave, and debonair had meant nothing to her then, but once she’d reached adolescence and then adulthood, she’d viewed Agent Cooper in a whole new light. Love and respect for law and order, and the desire to catch criminals and put them in jail where they belonged were the two main motives that had driven her to her decision. Wearing those cool black pants suits and flashing a shiny badge in the faces of law breakers would merely be enjoyable and rewarding perks of the job. She only hoped that she would eventually become as good of an agent as Cooper had been. As she leaned against the trunk of a tree on the main campus of the university, a book on deviant behavior opened on her lap, she wasn’t aware that she was on the brink of experiencing her first, and only, earthquake, and that her lifelong dreams would never be fulfilled.

Pastor Maximillian Erwin sat at his desk in the rectory of the Visionary Southern Baptist Church in Cedartown, Georgia, reviewing and editing the sermon he planned to deliver during the next Sunday service. The book of Revelations and the end of times had been weighing heavily on his mind for the past several weeks and he felt compelled to preach about it, to instill the word of God in every heart of the members of his congregation, knowing full well that although many of them attended every church service, few had fully turned their lives and hearts over to Christ. Revelation 3:16 was the verse that continually played inside his head. “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” In his heart of hearts, Pastor Erwin knew exactly what that verse meant. Trying to explain it to his parishioners in a fashion that they would understand and live by could propose more of a challenge than he might expect, however. What Pastor Erwin wasn’t aware of while preparing his sermon was why he was being compelled so strongly to deliver the message. Within a few short days, he would come to know why.

None of these people knew each other and were unaware of each other’s existence. They’d never met, had no chance encounters, and never would. Not one of them knew they were only a handful of bit actors that had been chosen to take part in a play that would eventually reveal the greater scheme of things. They were all mere pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that, once put together with every single piece placed properly, would create an entire and explicable picture of the grand finale that was taking shape.

Neither were they aware of the woes of all the others or the impending tragedies they were on the brink of experiencing. Survivors the world over would remain the same complete and utter strangers in the aftermath of events as they were before their inception.

If everyone involved had been forewarned of the ultimate plan, most of them still wouldn’t have believed, or accepted, the truth, because human nature tells one to discard and forget about that which does not fit into their personal belief systems. Or that which is too horrifying and painful to acknowledge. And it can be stated with precise certainty that, given a choice, none would have voluntarily participated. 

And then there are those who knew the day would come eventually, a finite class of people who had heard about it in church for most of their lives, yet still dismissed the possibility that it could ever happen during their lifetimes.

Until it did.

But by then, it was too late to do anything to change the outcome. Their only goal would become simple and singular–a fight for survival.

ONE

Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, Wuhan, China

Noel Langford stepped out of the taxi that had picked him up at his hotel, took his luggage from the porter, entered the airport, and headed to the ticket counter to check in for his flight back home to Bangor, Maine.

“No luggage, Mr. Langford?” the clerk asked.

“Just my carry-on,” he answered, wiping sweat from his brow as he watched the attractive Asian girl who spoke perfect English type his information into her computer, and then print out his boarding pass.

“Your flight will depart at gate B16,” she said, sliding his ticket across the counter. “Thank you for visiting China. Enjoy your flight.”

Briefly, he considered grabbing a quick bite before boarding, but feeling a tad nauseous, decided against it. Last thing he wanted to do was puke his guts out on a plane while the other passengers watched with disgust, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He’d never suffered air sickness before, but the way he felt at the moment, this flight could be his first.

“I’ll take a large, sweet tea,” he said, stepping up to the counter of a fast-food restaurant inside the airport’s food court. Maybe the tea would settle his stomach and he’d start feeling better. Before checking out of his hotel, he’d taken a couple of aspirins for a mild headache, but they hadn’t kicked in yet. Currently, it was only a dull ache, so hopefully the aspirin would quell it before it grew into a painful one.

With his tea in hand, he casually walked toward the waiting area outside his departure gate, shocked at the number of travelers on his flight, recalling that there had been several empty seats on his trip there. This time, however, nearly every seat had been taken, mostly by Americans returning to the United States. Next to a window that overlooked the tarmac where his plane would arrive, was a couch with an empty end seat.

“Anyone sitting here?” he asked the elderly gentleman that occupied the middle.

Looking up at him through coke-bottle thick glasses that made his eyes look five times too big, the old man smiled and said, “Nope. Go ahead. Have a seat.”

The flight home was long enough on a day when he felt fine, but he wasn’t looking forward to a twenty-nine-hour trip with three stops along the way, feeling as badly as he did. When he’d felt a hint of a cold coming on the day before, he’d medicated himself with cold and flu medicine and laid around the hotel all day taking it easy. But when he’d awakened that morning eager to get home, he’d felt worse than he had the day before, now with a scratchy sore throat and a nagging headache that was continually getting worse.

“This your first time in China?” the old man asked.

“Hmm?” Noel said, turning to face the man. He’d been more focused on his current state of health, not quite understanding what the man had said.

“I asked you if this was your first time visiting China?”

“No,” Noel answered. “I’ve been here a few times.”

“It was my first time,” the old man said, his dentures slipping as he talked. “And my last. Hate to say it, but this has got to be one of the nastiest places I’ve ever been to.”

Noel didn’t object because the old man was right. Because of the high level of smog in the major cities, face masks were standard apparel there. Wearing one was a requirement unless one wished to choke to death on air pollution.

“Cal Jackson,” the old man said, extending a gnarled, wrinkled hand.

“Noel Langford.”

“Nice to meet you, Noel. You here for business or pleasure?”

“Business.”

“Oh yeah?” Cal asked. “What kind of business?”

If he tried to explain to Cal exactly what he did in his line of work, they’d be sitting there for hours. “Pharmaceuticals,” he replied.

“This place was on my bucket list,” Cal said. “Been wanting to visit for over twenty years. Now that I’ve seen it, I can tell you I wasn’t missing much.”

“It’s different, that’s for sure,” Noel said, taking a sip of tea to soothe his aching throat.

“These people here will eat any damn thing, you know that?”

Noel chuckled. Again, the man was right.

“Went out to dinner last night at a restaurant that was purported to be one of the best in town. Or so the tourist map said. When I got the menu, I couldn’t read one damn word of it. It was written in Chinese. Looked like a damn tic-tac-toe grid. I didn’t know one thing from the other, so I just pointed to the first thing I saw. I’m telling you the honest to goodness truth, when that waitress brought my order, whatever the hell was in that bowl was still moving and while I sat there staring at it, I saw a tentacle slither over the side,” he said with a shake of his head. “Turns out I ordered live octopus.”

“Did you eat it?” Noel asked.

“Hell no, I didn’t eat it. I paid my bill and got the hell out of there and found a place that served hamburgers.”

“China Western Airlines, Flight 729 to Xiamen is now boarding at gate B16,” came the overhead announcement. “Please have your boarding passes ready.”

“That’s me,” Noel said, getting up from the couch. “Nice talking to you.”

“That’s my flight as well,” Cal said, using his cane to stand.

“Where you headed to?”

“Los Angeles. You?”

“Bangor.”

“A Mainer, eh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Never been there,” Cal said. “But tell me something. Does it really snow a lot there in the winter?”

Noel smiled. “As we Mainers like to say, Cal, does a bear shit in the woods?”

Cal laughed, nearly spitting out his false teeth. “I like a person with a good sense of humor.”

Normally, he could have told joke after joke, but not today. He barely felt like talking.

The two men boarded the plane together, but sat in different sections, which pleased Noel because he wasn’t interested in continuing a conversation. Cal was pleasant enough and could probably tell him some stories of his own, but he wasn’t up to engaging in chitchat. All he wanted to do was sit down, lean back, and close his eyes.

Assigned a window seat, Noel buckled his seatbelt and set the overhead air conditioner on high, letting the cold air blow directly in his face. His headache was getting worse–and so was the nausea. Once they were airborne and the flight attendant came around, he’d ask for a ginger ale and perhaps a pack of crackers. Salt was good for easing a queasy stomach.

Enroute to Los Angeles, the second stop in the flight, Noel’s head began throbbing. He’d never had such a painful headache before. And he felt hot. So, so hot, like he was on fire, burning him up inside. Dozens of sweat beads formed on his forehead, glistening against his skin. The air conditioner was already on high, but it wasn’t providing much comfort.

“Mister, are you okay?” the woman sitting beside him asked.

Noel glanced at her, seeing that she had a look of concern on her face.

“Not feeling too well,” Noel answered, closing his eyes, and laying his head against the back rest. It was hard to breathe, and a heaviness had settled in his chest. 

“I’m having a heart attack,” he thought. “In midair!”

“Shall I get the stewardess?” the woman asked.

Noel nodded, unable to speak, suddenly overcome by a breathtaking fit of coughing.

“Sir, please come with me.”

Noel gaped at the flight attendant in surprise. Why was his wife onboard this flight? No, wait a minute, that’s not possible. There was no way in hell his wife could be on this plane, or anywhere else. She was dead. And dead people don’t book flights to or from China.

“Sarah?” he gasped. “What are you doing here? And when did you come back?”

“My name is Rachel, sir,” she said, reaching out her hand. “Please, come with me.”

Noel slowly reached out and grasped onto her, feeling euphoric, like he was floating on air as he followed her down the aisle.

Why were all the passengers wearing clown makeup? Everywhere he looked he saw red curly hair, yellow curly hair, orange curly hair–and huge red smiles. And why were they all laughing at him? When were all the psychedelic flowers painted on the walls of the plane? They weren’t there when he’d boarded. Someone had been quite busy artistically. Various shapes and sizes of multi-colored, hippy era flowers were everywhere, even on the windows and pull-down shades.

Where was he? Why had Sarah led him to a small corner space at the back of the plane and closed the curtain?

“Have a seat here, sir,” the helpful woman said, lowering a cushioned chair from the wall. “Captain,” she said, speaking into a megaphone. No, wait a minute, that’s not what those things are called. Telephone! That’s what she was talking on. “We have a medical emergency. I’ve isolated the gentleman from the other passengers.” Putting a hand over the speaker, she spoke to the other flight attendant who had accompanied them to the private area. “Megan, go check the flight manifest and see if there’s a doctor on board. If so, get him back here immediately.” Speaking to the captain again, she said, “Sir, I’ve sent Megan to see if she can locate a doctor. I’ll keep you apprised.”

“Sir, can you tell me your name?”

“You know my name, Sarah,” he answered, slurring his words. His tongue felt like it had swollen to the size of a baseball, making it difficult for him to speak properly. “We were married for thirty years.”

“Sir, my name is Rachel, not Sarah.”

If she didn’t know any better, she’d swear the man was drunk, except that she knew he wasn’t. She’d seen him board the plane completely sober, and they hadn’t served him any alcoholic beverages. He was sweating profusely and having a hard time keeping his eyes open.

“Sir, don’t fall asleep. Do you know your name?”

He stared blankly at her, as though he found the simplest of questions too confusing to comprehend.

The curtain opened and Megan reappeared, followed by a middle-aged man with graying hair and a goatee.

“This is Dr. Graves,” Megan said. “And his name,” she said, pointing, “is Noel Langford.”

“Mr. Langford,” Dr. Graves said, squatting down in front of him. “Can you look at me?”

Noel’s head wobbled back and forth as he tried to focus his attention on the doctor, abruptly stricken by another coughing spell, spittle flying from his mouth and into the doctor’s face.

“Get him a glass of water,” the doctor said.

“I can’t breathe,” Noel said, clutching at his throat.

“This man is burning up with a fever,” Dr. Graves told Rachel. “I can feel the heat radiating off of him.”

Megan returned with the water and handed it to Dr. Graves.

“Here, Mr. Langford, sip on this,” the doctor said, holding the paper cup for him.

Noel reached for the glass but kept missing his grasp, forcing Dr. Graves to place it in his hand and guide it to his mouth. Noel choked on the first sip, coughing up the water and a good-sized chunk of bloody phlegm.

“Was he this sick when he boarded?”

“No,” Rachel answered. “When I checked his ticket at the door, he seemed to be fine.”

“Has he asked either of you for any medication, perhaps something for a headache or maybe a throat lozenge?”

“No.”

Noel slumped down in the chair, nearly sliding to the floor.

“Mr. Langford!” Dr. Graves said sharply, giving him a sturdy shake. “Please try to stay awake. When did you become ill?”

Noel glared at him with unmoving eyes but said nothing.

“Are you certain he wasn’t unwell when he got onto this aircraft?” Dr. Graves asked.

“I’m positive,” Rachel replied. “I think I would have noticed a passenger as sick as this man and I would have reported it right away.”

“Has he said anything to you that would make you believe he wasn’t feeling well? Or has he been acting strangely? Has anyone reported any unusual behavior?”

“No, but he kept calling me Sarah even though I told him repeatedly that my name is Rachel.”

“If his fever is as high as I believe it to be, he’s likely delusional and suffering from hallucinations.”

“From a fever?”

“An extremely high one can cause irreversible brain damage or death if not properly treated. And if measures aren’t taken immediately to bring the temperature down. Obviously, appropriate facilities aren’t available aboard an aircraft.”

Dr. Graves studied Noel momentarily, noticing a change in the coloring of his skin, especially around his mouth. He was turning cyanotic, showing that he wasn’t receiving an adequate supply of oxygen. He had no supplies with him to treat a patient, and airplanes weren’t outfitted with medical equipment. Without treatment and already being in grave danger, things didn’t look good for Mr. Langford.

“If what you’re saying is true, and I’ve no reason to doubt you, then whatever this man is suffering from is an illness that advances with a rapidity that I’ve never seen before. And there’s only one thing I can think of that’s capable of advancing that fast.”

“The flu?” Rachel asked.

“No,” Dr. Graves answered, rising from the floor. “A virus. And if Mr. Langford deteriorated this quickly in only a couple of hours, I’d say it’s a rather deadly one.”

Rachel glanced at her co-worker with a look of concern. “A virus? Like a contagion?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“Then that means he’s potentially spread it to every person on this plane,” Rachel stated with alarm.

“That would be correct,” Dr. Graves said. “Even if he hasn’t been in direct contact with them. If it’s an airborne virus, it can and will easily pass through the ventilation system.”

“Like the air conditioning?” Megan asked.

“Yes.”

Noel belched loudly, sliding from his chair onto the floor, frothy white bubbles gurgling from his mouth.

“Oh, God!” Rachel exclaimed, taking a step backwards. “Is he… is he?”

“Yes,” Dr. Graves announced after checking for a pulse. “He’s dead.”

“I have to notify the captain,” Rachel said, picking up the phone.

“This man needs to be encased in a protective sheath and placed somewhere away from all these passengers until we land,” Dr. Graves said. “Even if that means putting him in the cargo hold. Being dead doesn’t mean the virus is as well. Better safe than sorry.”

“I’ll tell the captain and request his permission to move him,” Rachel said.

Turning to Megan, Dr. Graves asked, “Are the two of you the only attendants on this flight?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“Dr. Graves?” Rachel said, putting her hand over the phone as she spoke. “The captain approved moving him, but we won’t be making an emergency landing.”

“That’s fine,” he answered. “There’s no reason to now.”

“Captain says he’ll notify the authorities in Los Angeles and put them on alert.”

“Expect the plane to be quarantined,” Dr. Graves said. “And don’t be surprised when a medical crew comes aboard wearing hazmat suits.”

“Why would they do that?” Rachel asked.

“Being cautious,” Dr. Graves answered. “The captain will notify the authorities before we arrive in L.A. that an unexpected death has occurred in flight. They’ll want to know if the passenger was ill prior to his demise, and the captain is obligated to disclose Mr. Langford’s condition. And when he does, they’ll take proper measures to treat the situation much in the same way as they would a biological threat.”

“Because they don’t know what to expect, or what they’re dealing with?” Megan asked.

“Right. They’ll check every passenger on board for even the minutest of symptoms similar to what Mr. Langford displayed prior to his death. Anyone deplaning in L.A. will probably be moved to a detainment facility where they’ll be held for a certain number of days. After the quarantine time ends, and if they show no symptoms, they’ll be released to go home. However, if they do show signs of illness, they’ll be transported to a medical facility for treatment.”

“Can they legally do what you just described?” Rachel asked.

“Yes. You and you,” he said, pointing to her and Megan. “Me, and everyone else on this plane will be quarantined. Especially when you tell them how rapidly Mr. Langford declined, and I’m sure they will question you about his condition from the time he came aboard until the moment he died.”

“What kind of virus can kill someone that fast?” Rachel asked.

“I have no idea.”

Flashing red and blue lights from ambulances, fire rescue, and police cars were visible even before the plane touched down on the tarmac. Notified ahead of time, they were on standby at the terminal waiting for the aircraft to arrive.

While still taxiing, the captain’s voice came over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats. Because of a medical emergency, disembarking will not be permitted until further notice.”

Passengers glanced nervously back and forth at each other, worried expressions on their faces, wondering how they’d missed something as important as a medical emergency.

“L.A. County Fire Rescue has notified me that medical personnel will come aboard. There’s no cause for alarm as this is standard procedure following an event such as ours. It may delay us in L.A. for an extended period while they gather the information that they need. And I assure you that once they’ve done so, and we’re cleared to proceed, I will get you all safely to your destinations. Again, please remain seated.”

Noel was put inside a black body bag, along with the mylar blanket he’d been covered with, loaded onto a stretcher, and wheeled away by two staff members from the coroner’s office while shocked passengers gasped in surprise as they watched the commotion through their windows.

Half an hour later, white hazmat suit-wearing medical personnel entered the plane and stood side by side next to the door.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” one man began, speaking through a glass-shielded helmet with a filtered breathing apparatus attached to it. “Don’t be alarmed by our apparel. It’s only precautionary. My name is Dr. Samuel Sizemore. I’m a virologist at L.A. County Regional. This other gentleman with me is Dr. Will Patten, also a virologist.”

In his hand, Dr. Patten held a silver aluminum suitcase. Placing it down on the seat, he opened it, but didn’t remove anything.

“I’m sure you’re all curious about what is going on, so I’ll do my best to tell you what I know so far. A passenger on this flight died en route here.”

More gasps and curious whispers filled the aircraft, the passenger’s expressions changing from curiosity to fear as they listened to Dr. Sizemore speak. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that for biohazard suited doctors to come on board, the man’s death was suspicious.

“While we’re not exactly clear on his cause of death, because of the information that we have received, we both feel certain that when he expired, he was infected with an unknown virus.”

As expected, his statement caused panic.

Several passengers rose from their seats and began making their way towards the front of the plane and would inevitably attempt to push their way past the doctors. Had they been more observant, they would have known beforehand that doing so was an enormous waste of time since the door was closed and sealed shut. It would remain that way until everyone received medical clearance.

“Please return to your seats,” Dr. Sizemore shouted. “No one leaves this plane.”

“You can’t keep us here against our will!” a man yelled.

“I absolutely can, and I intend to. At least until I can affirm that none of you are a threat.”

“I’m getting off this plane!” Another man shouted, pushing his way forward.

“No, sir, you’re not. Dr. Patten?”

Dr. Patten reached into the silver suitcase and pulled out a device that resembled an over-sized laser gun.

“What Dr. Patten is holding in his hand is a rapid-fire injection gun filled with a highly potent sedative that will render one unconscious within a matter of seconds,” Dr. Sizemore warned the man. “Neither of us would prefer to resort to physical force, but if you attempt to barge your way through us intending to exit this plane, you will leave us with no other choice. What will it be, sir? Do you prefer to return to your seat or have a nice, long nap?”

Reluctantly, the man turned away.

“Now that that issue is settled, allow me to explain what Dr. Patten and myself will be doing. It’s quite simple, really, and non-obtrusive. The more willing all of you are to cooperate, the faster we can finish. Does everyone understand?”

A chorus of yeses echoed through the aircraft. Everyone was eager to move on and find out what the hell was going on.

“I’ll be handing each one of you a questionnaire asking you a variation of questions. Things like where you’ve been, what did you do, what did you eat? Once you’re finished, we will collect the questionnaires and review your answers. I cannot stress to you enough the importance of being completely honest when giving your answers. Understood?”

Everyone nodded.

“Good. Before we begin, by a show of hands, is anyone aboard this aircraft feeling sick at the moment? That includes nausea, headache, sore throat, fever. Anyone?”

No one raised their hands.

“I know you may all be feeling somewhat frightened at the moment, and that’s perfectly normal, considering the circumstances. Seeing that none of you are reporting any sicknesses, I feel confident that there is nothing to worry about right now. Hopefully, once you complete your questionnaires, I can clear everyone and allow this plane to continue on without further delay.”

Dr. Sizemore gave a quick smile at the eruption of applause. “Thought you might like that.”

While the passengers completed their paperwork, Dr. Sizemore checked the tablet he was holding to see if he’d received any information alerting him to a possible viral outbreak, but there wasn’t one. If there were any others infected with whatever Mr. Langford had, the cases hadn’t been reported yet, leading Dr. Sizemore to believe that Mr. Langford’s case was an isolated incident and his illness not a viral infection at all, but a possible food allergy to cuisine ingested while in Wuhan that resulted in his death. Prospects of what food it might have been were endless considering that just about anything that moved was viewed as consumable, including live bats.

Mr. Langford’s body had been transported to the L.A. County Medical Examiner’s Office with a warning to proceed with caution while conducting the autopsy, and a recommendation to wear full hazardous protective gear while doing it. Whether the coroner followed the advice was his own choice.

Dr. Sizemore also requested that a full toxicology panel be performed, including specific testing for the presence of poisons. If what Rachel, the flight attendant had told him was true, something sure as hell had killed the man quickly, and if it wasn’t viral, then surely it had to be biological. Within a few days, he should have a copy of the report on his desk. Maybe then he’d have a definitive answer. 

Upon completion of assessing the questionnaires, Dr. Sizemore discovered that most of the passengers had been to the same place as Mr. Langford, and several of them had visited the same sites and eaten at the same restaurants, yet none of them reported or showed any symptoms of having contracted an illness, leading Dr. Sizemore to conclude that Mr. Langford’s case was, indeed, an isolated incident. Therefore, there was no cause to delay the plane and its crew any longer.

Flight 729 was cleared for travel.

Next stop, Philadelphia.

Even if Dr. Sizemore had not given clearance for travel, he or anyone else could have stopped what was coming.

It would remain unclear where or how Noel Langford contracted his mysterious illness, but in the short span of time from the onset of infection until he died aboard Flight 729, he infected the hotel staff, the cab driver, the ticketing agent, and every single passenger on the plane.

Every one of them would carry the virus home to their friends and loved ones, all of whom would continue to spread it to every person they came in contact with.

It was a gift that kept on giving… and giving… and giving.

TWO

West Lawn of the White House, Washington, DC

Sue Mason took a deep breath and held her head high as she entered the West Wing of the White House and sashayed down the blue carpeted hallway to her desk situated outside the Oval Office.

“Good morning, George,” she said cheerfully to the Secret Service Agent posted outside her boss’s office door, aware that his job didn’t permit him to engage in conversation with her. She didn’t even know his proper name because he wore no identification badge. None of the Secret Service agents did. The ones she was familiar with she recognized by face, not by name. From the first day she’d seen him at his post she’d called him George, and since he hadn’t protested or corrected her, she’d been calling him that ever since. It was more important than ever that she follow her normal routine today, just as she’d done every morning for the past two years, acting as if the day were as typical as any other.

Except that it wasn’t. This day was going to turn out like none anyone had ever seen before. Even if she wanted to change her mind and turn back, it was too late. She’d already sent out packages containing copies of incriminating documents against Lucius Maximus to journalists of her choosing, ones she trusted and who would go public with the dark secrets behind the Maximus administration. Fay Bennett at the Washington Chronicle would receive hers within a couple of days, as would Greta Turnbull at the Worldwide News Agency, and Gail Peters at World at A Glance newspaper. She’d also stashed an extra copy of all the papers in a safe deposit box at her bank, and no one other than her and the bank manager had a key.

What she’d done was something she’d been contemplating doing for several months but had only followed through on once she’d learned of Maximus’ decision to ignore the threat of a possible deadly pandemic that had the capability of becoming an E.L.E.–extinction level event. Ignoring the advice of scientists and specialists who’d dealt with outbreaks before, Maximus, being the narcissistic, sociopathic asshole that he was, had made it clear to them and everyone else in the meetings that it was him who made all the decisions, and if they knew what was best for them and their medical and professional futures, they’d do well to listen to him and follow his orders instead of acting on their own instincts.

“Sir, you understand that if this virus crosses into the United States, it has the potential to kill millions of Americans?” That was one of the first questions proposed to him by Dr. Anthony Foster, an immunologist with the Arlington Research Institute for the Study of Viral Diseases, at the first administrative meeting held after learning of a viral outbreak in China that might be a threat to America. “To ignore our advice and not take precautions to protect American citizens is the equivalent of committing mass murder. It would be nothing short of negligible homicide.”

That was the moment that she’d seen how truly vile Maximus was, when his evil persona reared its ugly head and rose to the surface, brilliantly displayed for all to see.

Maximus’ face turned a bright shade of purplish red, the veins in his neck bulging so profusely that they appeared to be on the verge of exploding. His dark eyes raged with fury as he slammed a heavy fist down onto the table. “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Don’t you fucking ever make baseless allegations like that against me again!” he hissed, spittle flying from his mouth. “If you even so much as think it, I’ll personally make sure that your medical license is nothing more than a worthless piece of paper, and by the time I’m finished with you, you’ll be begging for a job at a local hamburger joint. Do I make myself clear?”

Dr. Foster nodded, his jaws twitching in anger, wanting to respond but knowing better than to further anger the president.

“I’m sorry,” Maximus sneered. “I didn’t hear you.”

“Yes,” Dr. Foster said.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”

“That’s better,” Maximus gloated. “Now, let me see if I can ask you a question that you might have an answer to, since you’re such a hotshot viral expert.”

While attendees in the meeting had laughed to appease Maximus, she’d sat in silence cringing through the entire humiliating episode, taking minutes and adding side notes, her loathing for the man growing deeper by the second.

“Is it or is it not true that a virus, any type of virus, has no cure and must be dealt with by allowing it to run its course, and when it’s finished, it’ll simply die?”

“Generally speaking, yes, but…” At that point, she’d made a note that Dr. Foster had wanted to add something to his statement about the particular virus they were dealing with, but Maximus cut him off and wouldn’t allow him to say anything else, feeling that it was an important note to make since she’d likely never have the chance to ask Dr. Foster what he was going to say, and chances of him ever being invited to another meeting were slim. 

Like everyone else who’d ever crossed or dared to stand up to Maximus, Dr. Foster would soon be history as far as his administrative post went.

It was what Maximus said next that prompted her to decide to go public with what she knew about him.

“Nope, nope, nope,” Maximus protested, holding a hand up to stop him. “There are no buts.  A virus is a virus, regardless of where it originated from. If people die, they die. That’s life. It is what it is. Deal with it. I’m of the opinion that the threat simply isn’t serious enough to warrant shutting down the world, as you and your cohorts have suggested,” Maximus said to Dr. Foster. “What good would that do if they’re going to die anyway?” he added with a light chuckle. “With that said, you will follow my orders and do as I say. News of a virus possibly entering the country is not to be made public. The less people know about it, the better off they are, especially for an event that would cause panic and chaos. Any further information or reports regarding the progress of the virus are to come to me directly, with no copies forwarded to any other department. Does everyone understand?”

Every person sitting at the table glanced back and forth at each other, nervous and unsettled by his bizarre request, yet all agreeing to his demand, exhibiting what obedient puppets they truly were. “Yes,” they all said in unison.

“I think we can all agree that some things are better left unknown,” he added. “This is one of those things.”

Had she understood him correctly? Had the President of the United States just said that citizens were not to be made aware of a possible impending health crisis that could cost them their lives? Why would he choose to remain silent about such an important and dangerous issue? She was astonished to hear him make such an irresponsible remark, but she’d heard him say it and had taken the minutes to prove it.

She’d hoped she was wrong about the feeling she’d had, but she thought he actually wanted the virus to spread and kill innocent bystanders. Who, in their right mind, would push to advance such a tragedy?

The most powerful man on earth refused to take precautions to keep safe those who he’d sworn to protect. Instead of seeking a way to prevent devastation, he wanted all information about the virus quashed and wouldn’t even allow voices of reason to speak.

One thing she was sure of was that while Maximus might very well be able to keep his staff quiet, he could never silence the media, no matter how many times he complained about their dishonesty and bias towards him. And they’d find out about it. When they did, they’d all do what the president had refused to do–warn the American people of an impending viral threat.

To her knowledge, Dr. Foster or any of the other scientists involved in collecting the virus data had suggested “shutting down the world,” as Maximus had put it. What they had suggested was imposing a travel ban to prevent the possibility of foreign travelers from entering the states and spreading the virus; and issuing health alerts advising the public of a potential outbreak and how to take precautions against infection. All suggestions sounded reasonable to her, but Maximus disagreed, objecting to even the slightest of recommendations, stating that, ‘if adults have to be told to wash their hands and practice good personal hygiene, then their problem is worse than any virus ever could be.’ He was hell-bent on keeping the news of a deadly viral spread out of the public domain, and not one of his cabinet members protested or objected to his careless decision, which she found not only appalling, but disheartening. Screw them all, she’d decided. If you won’t tell the public, then I will.

She supposed she shouldn’t have expected anything less out of the man. He was completely devoid of any kind of human emotion. Ruthless, heartless, and soulless with no compassion, empathy, or sympathy for anyone. He could talk a friendly game and speak the words that people wanted to hear, but the center of his world was himself. The man didn’t even like animals, for crying out loud, and had voiced his disdain for domesticated pets frequently, not understanding why anyone would allow such filthy vermin inside their homes or on their furniture.

Sometimes she swore the man ate fire and brimstone for dinner, and the indigestion it gave him came forth with vile and bitter words.

“Sue,” he shouted over the loud stir of voices. “These minutes are for the file only. They’re not to be disseminated to anyone.”

She’d nodded in stunned agreement, pretending to be as uncaring as he was while knowing what she had to do.

Was she scared? Hell yes she was. Her heart was racing as fast as a thoroughbred heading into the final lap of the Kentucky Derby. But to know what she knew and not make it public would be extremely dangerous, deadly, and quite frankly, would make her no better of a person than Maximus and his team of evil-doers. Not only would it be perilous for her, but for every person living on the planet, and she wanted absolutely no part in his devious plot to engage in mass destruction. 

Standing nearly seven feet tall, his appearance alone was intimidating. He always looked down his nose at everyone, considering them to be beneath him, and treated most as if they were nothing more than a bothersome dog turd stuck to the bottom of his shoe that needed to be scraped off on the nearest sidewalk curb.

He had his moments when he could be charming, but it was usually because he wanted something in return. Lucius Maximus never did a thing for anyone out of the goodness of his heart. That would be impossible considering he didn’t have one.

When she’d applied for the position of Administrative Assistant to the President of the United States, she’d done so with a mixture of hope, pleasure, and gratitude–hoping that she’d be chosen to fill the position, happy and grateful for the opportunity to apply because it would be an honor to serve her country, even if it were in such a meager position as a secretary. In the beginning, she had known little about Lucius Maximus, except that before running for office, he’d been a successful entrepreneur and self-made billionaire who owned hundreds of expensive commercial and rental properties. “Great,” she’d thought. “Not a politician.  Maybe he can do for this country what no other president has done.” She’d certainly gotten that part right. But what he’d done wasn’t a positive thing, nor was it for the betterment of the country and its people as a whole.

Part of her job was attending meetings in the oval office and taking minutes for transcription. It was during those meetings, and others like it, that she’d learned more about Maximus than she’d cared to, telling herself early on that he was the type of person who would deny making statements that he actually had, and had also made extremely questionable decisions, with the help of his equally cruel cabinet members, that were deeply disturbing and could have had a detrimental effect on the safety and well-being of the American people. Sometimes, they had, like the one she considered being the last straw for her in his never-ending reign of cruelty. It was his lack of care and concern and nonchalant attitude that pushed her to decide to go public with everything she knew about him.

Whenever she’d taken minutes, she’d written them in shorthand because no one other than her could read them, making side notes to herself to add as emphasis whenever she typed the transcriptions. Instead of taking the risk of being caught with an unauthorized flash drive, she’d begun emailing copies of all minutes, memorandums, and letters to her private email account then deleting them, and from home she’d print them and delete those as well, erasing any trail that she may have left behind.

For two years she’d sat in on meetings, listening to Maximus and his cabinet engage in sexist and racist conversations, keeping her mouth shut and her ears open because, God forbid, anyone should ever call out Lucius Maximus about wrongdoing. Other than Dr. Foster, she’d seen it happen one other time, and witnessing both events had been enough to convince her that not only was he a vile and vindictive person but also an immoral and callous man.

Topics of discussion in some of those meetings stood out more than others because of the subject, such as the meeting on border security that she recalled.

Maximus and all of his administrative team sat around the oblong oak table, their yellow legal pads in front of them for jotting down important points of the meeting. 

“What’s the first topic of discussion?” Maximus asked.

Tony Spencer, his senior policy advisor, spoke up. “We need to talk about construction of a border wall.”

Maximus leaned forward and crossed his arms on top of the table. “There’s nothing to discuss,” he stated flatly. “A wall isn’t necessary. To begin construction on one would be a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars, wouldn’t you agree?”

“No, sir, I wouldn’t consider it a waste of money at all,” Tony replied bravely. “Something has to be done to stop illegal border crossings and I feel that a border wall is our best bet.”

Maximus stared coldly at Tony; his mouth set in his usual condescending sneer. “You feel, do you? Let me ask you something, Tony. Do we, or do we not, have border patrol agents?”

“We do, sir.”

“Are the agents armed?”

“Yes, sir, they are.”

“With real guns and real bullets?”

Tony laughed, an action one did not take with Lucius Maximus. “Are you serious?”

Without emotion, Maximus replied, “Do I look like I’m joking?”

“No, sir, I suppose you don’t. Yes, Mr. President, the guns and bullets are real.”

“There’s your answer.”

“I beg your pardon?” Tony asked, frowning.

“I’ll explain how simple it is. Pay attention, you might learn something.” Maximus glanced from member to member, making sure that everyone was listening to him before continuing. “The duty of a border agent is to monitor illegal crossings. Their job is to make sure none happen. The solution would be to eliminate the problem at the point of occurrence. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Tony stared with wide-eyed disbelief. “If I am understanding you correctly, sir, you’re saying that the border patrol agents should fire their weapons at immigrants caught crossing the border into the United States.”

Maximus clapped slowly. “Well, give you a red lollipop, you were paying attention.”

“Sir, these are human beings we’re talking about,” Tony argued. “Most of them come here requesting asylum while seeking a legal path to citizenship. All they want is a chance at a better life.”

“Then they can seek it somewhere else,” Maximus declared. “Not here.”

Chief of Staff, Garrett Blake, spoke. “Sir, you can’t simply shoot people on sight for illegal crossing. Murder is against the law, no matter who you are. You really should reconsider your decision.”

Maximus did not fare well at being confronted. “Tell you what, Tony. Make sure the order states that the agents are hereby authorized to shoot to kill. I’d hate to have a bunch of maimed fuckers filing lawsuits against our government.”

Tony shook his head.

“Is that gesture one of incredulity, or are you refusing to follow my orders?” Maximus asked.

“Sir, you do realize that several of the immigrants will have children with them?”

“What’s your point?”

“What do we do about the children?”

“Same as the parents,” Maximus replied. “It’s not the responsibility of the United States to raise their illegitimate bastards for free. Is that clear enough for you?”

“Indeed it is, sir,” Garrett answered tartly.

“What’s next on the agenda?” Maximus asked as casually as if he were asking for a slice of chocolate cake.

Every single person around the table sat in stunned silence, none of them brave enough to speak up or speak out about such a high level of immorality, fearful for their own political and financial opportunities.

She’d concluded that their choice to remain a part of his callous administration could be attributed to one or many things. Either they’d fallen victim to his monolithic ability to sway them into his ungodly circle, their own lust and desire for power and authority, that he possessed incriminating information that he could use against them that would ruin them personally and politically should they betray him, or because they actually enjoyed being a part of his heartless administration. And if the latter was the reason they stayed, then that meant that they were all as equally corrupt as Maximus himself.

“Nothing,” Tony said, gathering his pen and pad and rising from the table. “Nothing else was scheduled because I thought this topic would be a much longer conversation. Guess I was wrong,” he said before exiting the conference room.

Neither Tony Spencer nor Garrett Blake attended another meeting.

Both men were fired and replaced that very afternoon by staff who were almost as cunning as Maximus himself.

Sue sat down at her desk and began making preparations for the day’s activity like she did every other morning, except that this would be her last time doing so. When she left for the day, she would not be returning. She’d never deserted a job in her life without notice, but this was a walkout that she would never regret.

Come Monday, she expected the phone calls to start coming in from the journalists she’d sent the documents to, wanting to verify their authenticity and confirm that she wanted to go public.

Her answer to both would be yes, but she didn’t want to be sitting at her desk inside the White House whenever her cell phone rang.

Lucius Maximus and all of his filthy lies, evil doings, and sinful corruption, were about to be exposed, showing the world what a repulsive monstrosity he truly was.

* * * * *

The Oval Office, White House, Washington, DC

“You wanted to see me?” Vice President Greg Coates asked as he entered the President’s office.

“Come in and close the door,” Maximus instructed him as he reclined in his chair and propped his feet on the corner of the resolute desk. “Sit,” he instructed, pointing to a paisley-print, cloth covered chair across from him.

There were multitudes of people he did not care for, and Greg Coates topped the list for most despised. He was a weasel of a man. Not too tall, thin and lanky, balding head, and lifeless, dull eyes the color of a dog turd. Coates was well-known for putting on a show of bravery and hardness for those around him, pretending to be a tough as nails kind of guy, but Maximus knew he was actually a weak pussy who was scared of his own damned shadow and cowered away from confrontations of any sort. He’d pay good money to watch him in a man-to-man showdown with someone who actually was tough and didn’t need to emulate being so. It would make for one hell of a display and might even make him do something he wasn’t prone to do. Laugh.

Lucius Maximus believed in giving credit where it was due, and he had to hand it to Coates. He was one hell of a smart guy and knew Washington inside and out, which was beneficial to him. But none of those things were the reason he’d asked him to be his running mate in the Presidential election.

Able to see deep into Coates’ soul, he knew that the man harbored an even deeper animosity towards humanity than he did, and carrying that trait was even more helpful than knowing how to plow his way through lobbyists and politicians. He could easily imagine Coates being that nerdy kid at school who no one paid attention to but was secretly plotting to either bomb the campus or go on a frenzied shooting spree, killing everyone in sight for the pure hell and fun of it without considering the consequences for his actions.

There was another, more important, reason Coates had been chosen. Not by him, but by a higher power. They both had a master to serve and were both governed to fulfill a task that was meant to be, and their objective was on the precipice of being executed.

“It’s time to launch Operation Wormwood,” Maximus stated flatly. “An incident has arisen in China that provides us with the perfect cover and we’re going to take advantage of it.”

“I understand,” Coates replied in a deadpan tone. “How is this to be done?”

“Disclosing detailed information to you is not of concern at the moment. What is important, however, is that you successfully complete the task that’s been assigned to you,” Maximus replied, passing him a folded sheet of paper. “You are to speak only to the man whose name I wrote there. The address is included. I’ve already been in contact with him. He’s expecting you. Use the passcode I’ve provided so that he’ll know you’re there at my request, and that he’ll know you are who you say you are.”

“I’m the Vice President of the United States,” Coates stated matter-of-factly. “Everyone knows who I am.”

“Yes, I suppose they do,” Maximus replied snidely.

“Is this gentleman part of the operation?” Coates asked.

“Not in a way that he’s aware of.”

“How did you get him to cooperate, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“In a manner he recognized as me demanding, not asking. Suffice it to say that I got my point across, which is why you’ll be paying him a visit today to collect what he owes me.”

“What is it I’ll be obtaining from him?”

“A small package.”

“What does the package contain?”

“Nothing that you need to know about just yet.”

“As second in charge of the operation, don’t you think I have the right to know?”

“Not my decision, Greg. Your instructions are simply to take possession of the package. Nothing more, nothing less. Unless you prefer to question the higher-ups. I highly recommend that you don’t. If you want to continue being a part of this operation, that is.”

“As you wish,” Coates replied cautiously, thinking it best not to step on the toes of Lucius Maximus. “Considering the location that I’m going to; I must ask what the possibilities are that he will reveal what you have requested of him?”

Maximus glared at him, eyes burning with fury. “None,” he snapped. “He’s been duly warned.”

“Do you trust him to heed that warning?”

“After describing in detail the agony and pain he would be subjected to should he defy me, I think the answer to your question is yes.”

“I just want to be assured that there won’t be any hiccups that could derail our mission.”

“There won’t be. Besides, in the unlikely event that he should divulge my request, I’ll simply deny it and then have him dealt with in a worse manner than I initially expressed, which would be most unfortunate for him. Anyway, you know how my supporters feel about me. They love me. In their eyes, I can do no wrong. They’ll never believe a word from him, only what I say.”

“Must be all that charm and charisma you possess,” Coates stated flatly. “What am I to do with the package after I retrieve it?”

Maximus passed him another folded sheet of paper. “Deliver it to that man. I’ve been in contact with him as well, and like Dr. Foster, he’s expecting you.”

“May I ask if plans are in order to further the mission and carry it out completely?”

“You may ask, and yes, they are. The name written on the second sheet of paper is a water plant manager who was quite eager to assist, for a price, that is. Therefore, I’d say yes, everything is lined up and ready to go at my command. What you’re picking up is the final piece that will set it all in motion.”

“A water plant, sir?”

“It’s the perfect plan for carrying out our mission, Greg. Do you have any idea how many tourists flock to DC every single day? Visitors come from all over the world, and while they’re here, they drink the water, bathe in the water, use it to brew coffee, use it to cook, fill baby bottles.”

“In other words, everyone in DC uses water from the same facility, and whoever drinks or uses it will ingest whatever is being introduced into the water supply.”

“Now you get it,” Maximus stated, snapping his fingers.

“Yet you’re still not willing to tell me what’s in the package? Even though you’ve made me aware that it’s being delivered to a man at a water plant?

“Think of it as a specialized solution that won’t be kind to anyone who partakes of it. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.”

“And this solution is what we need to complete our goal?”

Instead of answering, Maximus glared at him, his expression relaying much more than words ever could.

“Very well. I shall go now,” he stated in his robotic, monotone voice, rising from his chair.

“Take this,” Maximus said, placing a briefcase on his desk.

“What is it?”

“Open it.”

Coates’ eyes widened as he stared at the contents.

“In case he asks to see his money first,” Maximus said. “Open the case and show it to him, but don’t let him touch it. You know what to do.”

“Indeed, I do,” Coates replied, closing the briefcase and exiting the office.

“Miserable little pissant of a man,” Maximus hissed as Coates closed the office door.

President Lucius Maximus was correct in his statement when he told Coates that DC attracts millions of visitors a day from every corner of the world.

Tourists weren’t the only ones inside the nation’s capital daily, however, and it would require the participation of them all to make his mission successful.

There were also residents, commuters who worked in DC but lived in Maryland or Virginia, and politicians.

All of whom would drink or use the water in one form or another, and when they did, Operation Wormwood would be in full swing.

Because they would unknowingly take home a free souvenir, and along the way would share it with every single person they came into contact with.

* * * * *

Arlington Research Institute for the Study of Viral Diseases, Washington, DC

Dr. Anthony Foster gazed at the small glass vial he held in his gloved hand, his mind foggy and confused, pissed and deeply concerned that he’d been ordered by the most powerful man on earth to willfully hand over the highly toxic mixture he’d concocted–at the President’s demanding insistence.

“There’s something I want you to do for me,” Maximus told him over the phone a week prior, shortly after the shitshow of a meeting when he’d dared to confront him about the lack of action he’d chosen to take regarding a virus from China that had the potential to wreak havoc inside the states. What the good doctor wasn’t aware of, however, was that his name had been revealed to Maximus in an extraordinary way. And if he had revealed who had recommended him, he wouldn’t have believed it anyway, so why bother? “You owe me one after your blatant show of disrespect towards me this morning.”

Ignoring the intended condescension, he’d asked, “What can I do for you, sir?”

“You’re going to mix me a potent cocktail,” Maximus answered bluntly.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Guess I should work on my comical skills,” Maximus stated dryly. “Comedy never has been my forte, so let me try again. What I need from you is a mixture of a highly contagious virus, the deadlier you can make it, the better.”

“What?” Dr. Foster shouted. “Why in the hell would you want something like that?”

“Dr. Foster,” Maximus hissed angrily. “It would be in your best interest not to speak to me in such a blasphemous tone. Do I need to remind you exactly who you’re speaking to?”

“That won’t be necessary.” You contemptuous prick! “My apologies, sir.”

“That’s better. I’m sure it does sound rather strange to you, a request such as mine, but I can assure you it isn’t. Trust me when I tell you I’m not plotting anything nefarious,” he insisted. “It’s being requested for use as a study tool for a project currently being worked on by anonymous scientists at another institute.”

“By whom?”

“Did I not just say the researchers are anonymous? In case you’re not sure what that means, their names are undisclosed.”

“I know what anonymous means, sir, and I’m of the opinion that it matters considerably who’s requesting such an abhorrent potion, and why. If a deadly virus such as what you’re requesting should end up in the wrong hands for the wrong reasons, the end results would be beyond devastating. It could have the potential to extirpate the entire human race.”

“I understand your concern, Dr. Foster, and you have my word that isn’t my intention.”

“With all due respect, sir, if I were to make this cocktail for study and research reasons, I’m assuming it’d be used as a tool for constructing a biological weapon.”

“I suppose it doesn’t hurt to confirm that much. On that assumption, you are correct, Dr. Foster.”

“Then why isn’t it being requested from someone in the defense department, or an authorized scientist from this other institute you spoke of?”

“To bypass all the red tape such a request would cause,” Maximus answered. “Let me see if I can put this into business terms to help you better understand. I’m the man at the top of the corporate ladder, the one who can get things done without asking approval and without delay, the go-to guy, so to speak. When I say jump, you ask how high.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to deny your request. Have someone who has the authority to do so file a DD-777 and submit it through the proper channels. I refuse to voluntarily provide a vial of deadly toxin to anyone without substantial approval. Even you, sir.”

Maximus clenched his fists in fury. Who the hell was this man to tell him no? He was the chosen one, the President of the United States, for fuck’s sake.

“This is not going according to plan,” he finally said, struggling to conceal his bitter anger. “You came highly recommended, Dr. Foster. To assist your country in the completion of this assignment. I would have thought you’d be a bit more cooperative, but I guess I was wrong for assuming. Perhaps I can persuade you in another way,” he said, pausing for several seconds. “Check your messages, Dr. Foster. I just sent you quite an important one.”

“What the hell is this?” Dr. Foster asked as he stared disbelievingly at the threatening message.

“Is that your daughter?”

Dr. Foster swallowed hard. “You know good and damn well it is.”

“How much do you love her?”

“What?”

“You heard me. How much do you love her?”

“With all my heart.”

“Would you be willing to die for her?”

“In a heartbeat.”

“I thought so. Would you say she’d be willing to do the same for you?”

“She’s only six years old. I seriously doubt she even knows what an ultimatum is.”

“Do you know what a rack is, Dr. Foster?”

“A rack? I’m not sure I’m following you.”

“It’s a mechanism used in medieval times to punish lawbreakers and evil-doers, Dr. Foster. The whole point of using it was to inflict as much pain as possible on those who refused to comply with rules. It requires the person to lie down on a wooden base while tying their arms and legs to moveable objects with rope. Items like wheels or horses, and when set in motion, literally rips a person’s limbs from their body. If the initial shock doesn’t kill them, then the loss of blood most certainly will. Is that an adequate enough explanation for you?”

“I know what it is, but what does it have to do with me or my daughter?”

“Everything,” Maximus replied. “Because, Dr. Foster, if you refuse to do as I’ve instructed, I can promise you we will use this torture technique on your precious little girl, and I will personally ensure that they make you watch while it happens. Do I make myself clear?”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Dr. Foster seethed.

Maximus gave a short, evil laugh. “Oh, but I would.  Are you brave enough to tempt me?”

“You are one sick bastard, you know that?”

“Perhaps, but I’m a man that gets what he wants, regardless of what actions I have to take to get it.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“Before you say no again, Dr. Foster, allow me to inform you I know everything there is to know about you. Where you live, your wife’s name and where she works, the name of the school that your daughter attends. The important things, you understand. Do you comprehend what I’m saying?”

The immoral son of a bitch had left him with no choice, forcing him to go against every personal and medical standard he believed in for the sake of saving his innocent daughter from an excruciatingly painful death.

The calm and assuredness of his tone convinced him that Maximus had meant every word he’d said and would follow through on his threat without an ounce of regret.

“Fine,” he stated sharply, feeling defeated. “I’ll do it.”

“I’m glad you see things my way. One other thing, Dr. Foster. Should you decide you want to divulge our conversation or my request to anyone, especially to the press, I will find out about it. And when I do, I will keep my promise regarding your daughter. Think about that before you decide to run your mouth.”

“How soon do you need it?”

“Right now.”

“That’s impossible. It’ll take me several days to get the ingredients. Give me a week.”

“Done. I’ll check back with you in a few days to see how your work is progressing.”

Then he hung up. No goodbye, no thank you, no kiss my ass. Nothing.

What the hell was he supposed to do except obey his request? Lucius Maximus wasn’t the type of man to kid around about dismembering his daughter in front of him. He was a man of his word and he knew that if he crossed him in the slightest of ways, it would be his young daughter that suffered the consequences.

He’d gone as far as considering taking his family and running away to avoid having to follow Maximus’ orders, but that would have required an explanation to his wife about why they were running in the first place, why their daughter was being snatched out of a school that she loved, and why he was deserting a job that he’d always treasured. And he had. Until Maximus fucked that up just like he did everything else he touched. Then there was also the not-so-subtle warning Maximus gave him, letting him know unseen eyes were watching him and would know every step he took, every move he made, and if he tried to escape, he or one of his loyalists would halt him dead in his tracks.

What good would it have done to abscond, anyway? Maximus would have either sent a search squad after him, or given the assignment to another researcher, someone who might be much more willing than he was to create a deadly potion. He had loyal sycophants planted everywhere, those who were eager to bow at his feet or kiss his ass for no other purpose than to please him and stroke his ego.

He was not one of them.

Dr. Foster carefully laid the vial inside the protective Styrofoam container, sealed it, and then wrapped it in brown packaging paper. He thought about marking the package with biohazard tape, then decided against it, figuring Maximus would see that as some kind of artful threat. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, especially when the dog is a rabid wolf.

May God forgive him for what he’d done, and for what he’d created, all while understanding why he’d conceded to the president’s request.

Not only had the project been risky, but extremely dangerous as well.

Since he was the administrator of the institute and cleared for all levels of contagion storage, no one would ever question his presence at any of the bio levels, which was why when he’d visited Bio-Safety Level 4 to steal an ampoule containing an infectious and deadly disease, no one was suspicious or asked why he was there. Had they known he’d taken the vial out of the freezer storage and to his own personal lab, they undoubtedly would have, especially if they’d known which one he’d chosen to remove.

After decontamination and removal of his biohazard suit, he’d returned to his work area and created an explosive and lethal new disease. The only one of its kind. And one without an antidote or cure.

Just as President Lucius Maximus had requested.

“You have a package for me?”

“Dammit,” Dr. Foster said, startled by Coates’ sudden appearance in his doorway.  “Don’t you people know how to knock?”

“I know how, but I chose not to.”

“Yes, I have it.”

“My instructions are to collect it from you and return it to President Maximus. Need me to recite the password?”

“I know who the hell you are,” Dr. Foster stated tartly. “What I don’t know is what the two of you are up to. Here,” he said, handing Coates the small brown package. “Be careful with that. You are literally holding what could be the damnation of humanity.”

He’d done as instructed without breathing a word to anyone. If Maximus kept his promise, he and his family were no longer under threat of retaliation.

Relieved that it was finally over, he put his head in his hands and wept.

* * * * *

Greater Metropolitan Water Works, Washington, DC

Walt DuBois had been the plant manager at the water treatment facility for thirty some odd years, and not once in all that time had he been asked to perform a task such as the one he’d directly received from the President himself.

When he’d answered his phone and the caller identified himself as Lucius Maximus, he’d thought it was one of his drunk friends playing a trick on him, so he’d told him to fuck off and hung up on him. Within seconds, he called back.

“Mr. DuBois, please do not hang up on me again.”

“Holy shit,” he’d began, immediately apologizing for his language. “Is this really you, Mr. President?”

“Indeed, it is.”

“I don’t understand, sir. Why are you calling me? I’m nobody important.”

“Quite the contrary, Mr. DuBois. You are extraordinary.”

Walt wiped the sweat from his forehead on the back of his sleeve. His hangover headache was pounding with the beat of his heart, throbbing in his temples. He’d nearly called in sick but was glad now that he hadn’t or else he would’ve missed what was probably the most important phone call he’d ever gotten in his miserable life.

“How so?”

“It is my understanding that you’re the supervisor of the treatment plant where you work. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Which gives you unimpeded access and authorization to the town’s water reservoir?”

“Yes,” he answered, curious to know where their conversation was going.

“Perfect,” Maximus exclaimed. “I have a special assignment for you, Mr. DuBois, one that I personally chose you for.” That wasn’t quite true, but it sounded saner than telling him who’d actually chosen him.

“What kind of assignment, Mr. President? I don’t know nothing about politics.”

Maximus faked a genuine laugh. “There’s nothing political about it, Mr. DuBois. However, your services are being requested to assist your country in carrying out a training exercise. We won’t be able to do it without you.”

“What kind of training exercise could a water plant manager possibly offer the government?”

“You, Mr. DuBois, will not be conducting any type of training. What I need from you will help those involved in the exercise carry it out.”

“I see,” Walt said, rubbing his stiff neck.

“What I need for you to do is quite simple, Mr. DuBois. My associate will visit you in approximately one hour and will deliver to you a package containing a vial of a very important solution that needs to be introduced into the city’s water supply.”

“Whoa, hold on a second,” Walt objected. “What kind of solution are we talking about here?”

“Nothing serious,” Maximus lied. “It’s harmless, trust me. It’ll dissolve naturally within a day’s time. By then, the scientists working on the experiment should have all the information they need for their analysis.”

“Then you ain’t asking me to poison the water?”

“Oh, good heavens, of course not. That would be insane.”

“Let me think on this a bit before I give you an answer.”

“I need your answer now, Mr. DuBois. As I just explained, my associate will pay you a visit today. Did I not mention that you’ll be nicely compensated for your troubles?”

“You mean you’re offering to pay me to do it?”

“It was remiss of me not to mention that earlier. Guess it slipped my mind.”

“How much are we talking about?”

“Do you like the sound of a cool million?”

Walt let out a sharp whistle. “For pouring a harmless mixture into the town’s water supply?” he shrieked.

“Not enough?”

“Holy shit! Sorry, sir, I mean holy cow. That’s a lot of money.”

“I suppose for someone like you, it is. Bet you could think of all kinds of ways to use it, right?”

“You have no idea, sir.”

“Then do we have a deal?”

“Yes, sir!” Walt exclaimed. “Will your associate be bringing the money with him?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

When two hours had passed and the president’s associate still hadn’t shown up, Walt figured he’d changed his mind about needing him. Too bad because he’d been spending his imaginary money ever since he’d ended his call with Maximus. It was nice to pretend, even if only for a short while.

“Mr. DuBois?”

It surprised Walt when he turned from the water gauges and saw the Vice President standing behind him. In one hand, he held a small brown package, and in the other, a black briefcase that he assumed held the money they’d promised him.

“Yes,” Walt said, wiping his wet hands on a dirty rag. “Did the president send you?”

“He did,” Coates answered. “Shall we get this done?”

“Follow me,” Walt said, leading him down a narrow corridor, across a catwalk, to a humongous, silo-like apparatus with a ladder attached to the side.

“This is the main water tank?” Coates asked.

“It is,” Walt confirmed. “For this region. You understand that there are other facilities that service different locations?”

“We’re aware, however, President Maximus specifically requested this location.”

“So he did,” Walt said, rubbing his stubbly chin. “Might I ask if that bag you’re holding contains the money he promised to pay me?”

“Yes, it does.”

“Can I see?”

Coates popped the locks on the briefcase and opened it, revealing several banded stacks of various denominations of bills. Walt had never seen that much money in one place in all his life. And it was his! Glory be, it all belonged to him!

“Alright, give me the stuff,” Walt said, holding out his hand.

Coates sneered as he passed Walt the package, the evil grin growing into a smile as he watched him carelessly unwrap the package and tear into the Styrofoam protective shell.

“Easy there,” Coates said. “That’s the only bottle we have. If you drop it and break it, our experiment will be screwed, and President Maximus will be pissed.”

Walt extracted a corked test tube containing a light pink liquid, holding it up to the light to get a better look. “What the hell is this stuff?” he asked, crinkling his nose. “Ectoplasm?”

Coates didn’t respond. “My instructions are to remain here and observe you while you pour the solution into the water tank,” he explained. “I will then collect the empty vial, pay you as promised, and then be on my way.”

“Stay right here,” Walt told him. “This won’t take long.”

Coates struggled to contain his pleasure as he watched the backwoods dimwit empty the contents of the vial into the town’s water, not knowing what he’d done.

It wouldn’t be long before the effects of Operation Wormwood surfaced, and no one would suspect that it had all begun at a treatment facility inside the United States. Everyone would be too focused on the viral outbreak in China to consider looking closer to home.

Maximus didn’t need to disclose to him what he’d planned to do or what was in the vial. He already knew. Maximus wasn’t the only one involved that the higher-ups contacted regularly.

“Here you go,” Walt said, holding out the empty vial.

“Drop it in here,” Coates replied, removing the lid from the Styrofoam box and immediately resealing it.

“Kind of sticky,” Walt said, wiping a hand on his khaki pants. “And smells awful. Must be one hell of an experiment.”

Coates could have opted to let Walt DuBois live, since he probably only had a couple of days left at the most. The dumb shit had gotten the toxin on his hand while pouring it into the water and jump started his own death. However, doing so would mean defying the implicit instructions of Maximus, and that could prove to be an even bigger mistake.

Coates reached inside his jacket, brandishing a gun equipped with a silencer.

“What the hell?” Walt said right before Coates fired twice, the bullets striking Walt in the chest and forehead.

“Sorry, pal,” Coates said, returning the gun to its holster and picking up the briefcase. “Orders are orders.”

THREE

Cedar’s Grove, Oklahoma

“Where do you think you’re off to?” Estella Hardy asked her husband, Jim, as he opened the screen door leading onto the back porch.

“It’s harvest time, woman,” he replied. “I’m headed to the barn. Gotta get to work. Them fields ain’t gonna harvest themselves.”

“Not until you eat breakfast,” she told him, putting a plate of bacon and eggs on the table. “You need your energy if you plan on being outside all day. Besides, Rocky’s already out there servicing the harvester and getting her ready.” Rocky was the teenaged son of their closest neighbor and lived five miles up the road from their farm. Jim had given him a part-time job of helping him on the farm because he knew Rocky’s family was having a rough go of it and too proud to ask anyone for help. Therefore, Jim had done the next best thing by giving their son a paying job, knowing that he’d hand his earned money over to his parents because Rocky was a good kid, and that’s what good kids did for their parents. Although a little slow upstairs, he was decent enough and certainly a hard-working young man. “Sit.”

“Nag, nag, nag,” Jim huffed as he pulled out a chair and sat down.

“Coffee?”

“I reckon so. Since you’re making me eat, you might as well make me drink, too.”

Forty years of marriage with plenty of rough spots thrown in for good measure had kept their relationship strong and lasting. They built it on love and respect for each other, learning to take the good with the bad, the happy with the sad, and the gains with the losses. Estella knew Jim wasn’t really being grumpy. He loved the fuss she made over him, and she loved the attention he doted on her in return. Truth be told, they’d be completely lost without each other, and they both knew it.

Jim had built their farm from scratch. It was accurate to say that he’d created it with blood, sweat, and tears. When he’d purchased it shortly after they’d gotten married, the farmhouse was barely being held together with rotted wood and rusty nails, and the land was fallow. But Jim had a dream and saw the potential for making it a successful business. She had not been afraid or ashamed to express her feelings of doubt, for she did not share in Jim’s rosy outlook.

Much to her surprise and delight, he had proven her wrong, over and over again. First by tearing down the old house and rebuilding a bigger and stronger one, removing and destroying all failed crops, tilling, and fertilizing the soil until it was healthy enough to produce, and grew his first wheat crop with much success. Over the years, he’d expanded his growing capacity, planted row upon row of fruit trees, and planted and maintained a considerably sized vegetable garden.

When he’d plowed for the first time, he’d done it the hard way–by hand with a push plow, working and toiling in the heat from sunup until sundown, his skin turning so brown that he looked like he’d been over-baked in an oven with the temperature set on high.

With profits made from selling his crops, he’d been able to advance to a horse-drawn plow, which was easier on him physically, but still a lot of hard work. It had taken years to be successful enough to purchase motorized farming equipment such as his harvester and planter, and the journey to reach that goal had not been an easy one. He’d suffered through failed crops, broken down equipment that had cost nearly as much to fix as the machine itself, and canceled buyer’s contracts. Through it all, he never gave up. Each failure or setback only motivated him to strive harder.

There was no longer a mortgage on the house or the farm, and all profits made from the sales of harvests, her handmade quilts, and canned goods usually provided them with enough money to live off of for an entire year, with some left over for unexpected expenses should they arise. She didn’t expect this year would be any different.

“I think it’s going to be a profitable year for us at the bazaar,” Estella said as she joined Jim at the table with a cup of coffee.

“That right?” he mumbled over a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

Estella nodded. “My quilts always sell out, as do my jams and jellies. Between that and your large wheat harvest, I think we’ll make out pretty good.”

“If you say so.”

“Of course, I’ll have competition this year. Cora Flanders joined and will sell her homemade dill pickles and what she refers to as her award-winning pies. Between you and me, she probably doesn’t possess a single blue ribbon.”

Jim wiped his mouth and dropped his napkin onto the plate before getting up from the table. “Wouldn’t worry too much about that if I were you,” he said, giving her a quick kiss on top of her head. “Cora Flanders couldn’t bake a decent mud pie if it rained chocolate drops and sprinkles. Whoever told her that her pies could win awards obviously only said it to keep from hurting her feelings. And have you ever tasted her pickles?” Jim said, faking a shudder. “They’re so sour they’ll make your asshole pucker.”

“Get out of here, you old coot,” Estella laughed. “You’re just plain rotten.”

Estella watched through the kitchen window as Jim made his way towards the barn. “Keep him safe out there for me, Lord,” she said as she washed the remaining breakfast dishes. “I don’t want to lose him, and I don’t think you’re ready for him.”

Labeled jars lined every shelf in the cellar. Blackberry jam. Strawberry jelly. Apple sauce. Apple butter. Estella took a quick inventory of how many she had of each, trying to determine how much of which one she needed to make more of. She hoped every jar would sell, just as they had every year since she’d began selling her goods at the bazaar. Initially, she’d only canned for her and Jim, and to give to friends and neighbors. Jim was the one who’d encouraged her to market her goods. At first, she’d been skeptical. After all, she lived in a town where she was sure most of the women knew how to do their own canning and probably did so every year. But after being successful in her first year, she continued to do it every year thereafter. Since that time, it’d grown to be more of a hobby than a need for income. Although she considered herself a modest and down-to-earth woman, the compliments she always received about her goods were fulfilling, but not to where they puffed her up with pride. Estella Hardy knew better than to gloat about her canning abilities, or anything else for that matter. From experiences she didn’t care to recall, she knew God had a way of reversing pride and arrogance, and the taste of crow had never been pleasing to her palate.

Estella removed the notepad from the pocket of her apron and jotted down a short list of additional supplies that she needed to add, then went back upstairs to the kitchen to begin the day’s work. On the table were three unopened cases of glass jars and the large-lidded pots she’d be using.

Dumping an armful of apples into the sink for washing and peeling, Estella looked up to see Jim running towards the house, his arms flailing wildly in the air. He was yelling something, but he was too far away to hear what he was saying.

Behind him, a tremendous black cloud was descending upon the farm, and for one horrified moment, she thought they were about to be hit by a storm.

Except that there was no rain, no tornado siren had sounded, the sun was shining, and emergency alerts hadn’t been issued.

Estella nervously yanked the back door open and stepped out onto the porch, wiping her wet hands on a dish towel.

“Jim?” Had something happened to Rocky? A farming accident, maybe? Or was Jim injured and running to her for help?

RUN, ESTELLA, RUN!” Jim screamed.

Estella’s surprise at Jim’s unusual and alarming behavior prevented her from being able to move.

“GET BACK INSIDE THE HOUSE!” he screamed as he neared the house. “THEY’RE COMING!”

Who’s coming? she wondered. They weren’t expecting anyone, nor was she waiting on any parcels to be delivered.

A loud and monotonous drone swiftly overcame the farm, the constant buzzing sound deafening. Estella watched in horror as Jim began swatting at his head and clothes, fearing that he was being attacked by a throng of bees.

Grabbing onto her arm as he leaped onto the porch, he pushed her inside the house and slammed the door. “Are all the windows closed?”

“Yes,” Estella answered nervously. “Jim, what’s going on?”

“Turn off the stove, ‘Stella, and pull all the drapes. Block out the light.”

“Jim?”

“Do it!” he snapped. “Quit dilly dallying, woman, and do what I told you to do!”

The sudden onset of thumping noises hammering against the house alarmed Estella. The sounds resonated throughout the entire house. On the roof, slamming against the windows, and into the sides of their home.

Estella gasped as a massive opaque mass completely covered the windows and door panels, plunging them into total darkness, as if the sun had instantaneously disappeared from the sky and lunged the world into nighttime in the middle of the afternoon.

“Don’t worry about the upstairs,” Jim told her. “There’s no time. Come on,” he said, again taking her by the arm and leading her into the cellar. “Find me a towel to put under this door.”

“Jim, what in the world is going on?” Estella asked, her voice cracking. “You’re scaring me half to death.”

“You should be scared,” he told her. “We’re being invaded.”

“Invaded?” she repeated.

“That’s what I said. Please, ‘Stella, find me a towel first and then I’ll explain.”

Jim shoved the towel as far up under the door as he could get it, leaving not even the tiniest of cracks.

“Where’s Rocky?”

“I sent him home.”

“He’s not hurt, is he?”

“Not unless he crashed his dad’s truck on the way.”

“Are you hurt, Jim?”

“No, but my heart feels like it’s about to explode. I can’t remember the last time I ran that fast,” he said with a nervous chuckle. “Didn’t even know I still could. We’ll be safe down here,” he assured her.

“Safe from what?”

Glass shattered, crashing onto the floor above them.

“They’ve gotten inside,” Jim said, tilting his head towards the ceiling. “They’ve broken the windows and gotten in.”

“What’s gotten in, Jim?”

“Locusts, ‘Stella. A swarm of locusts.”

Locusts? she thought. In Oklahoma? That sort of thing didn’t happen there.

“Are you sure about that, Jim? When have you ever heard of a horde of locusts descending on Cedar’s Grove?”

Jim looked down at his wife and put an arm around her, pulling her close to him. “Today,” he said. “First time I’ve ever seen anything like it. They came out of nowhere.”

Estella didn’t need for Jim to explain to her what a locust invasion meant. She already knew. The crops would be destroyed, as would all the fruit trees and the garden. The insects would feast on every piece of fruit and vegetables until there was nothing left. And the likelihood that their farm was the only one that would suffer was extremely low. A swarm as large as the one she’d seen would strike every single farm in Clairmont County, wiping out every farmer’s crops, resulting in a huge monetary loss. There would be no possibility of growing more until the next season. An invasion of crop-eating insects would affect everyone in Cedar’s Grove.

“Oh, Jim,” Estella cried into his shoulder.

“Everything’s going to be okay, ‘Stella,” he said, kissing his wife’s forehead. “Don’t you worry. We’ll be fine.”

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