An hour before sunrise, forty-nine year old Candice Beckman jogged south along the bike path between George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. Through the rising fog above the water, she could barely see the traffic bottled up on the Woodrow Wilson bridge spanning the Maryland and Virginia borders. Her run was her confidant. The morning, her sanctuary from the craziness she endured in an average work day.
In an effort to combat high cholesterol and keep the weight of her six-foot frame at one hundred and thirty pounds, she followed the same exercise regiment every morning. Rising at zero-five-hundred to yawn and stretch, then out by zero-five-thirty for a five-mile run, followed by a bowl of bran cereal and a sliced banana with orange juice.
Divorced at age forty from a husband who’d left her to spend his life with another man, she’d adapted well to the single lifestyle, swapping years of bad marriage for a newfound sense of self. Her work at the Centers for Disease Control had become her companion; one who didn’t care if she slept in on Sundays or never set foot in the kitchen.
A Ph.D. student by the age of twenty-one, she’d completed her doctoral dissertation on viral nerve agents by age twenty-six and spent the next several years floundering from one research project to the next until she landed a job as a senior pathologist with the CDC. Now a GS-15 with a healthy salary and a pension to fall back on, she had money to spare and no husband to support. Life was good but lonely. Her days of bar-hopping and speed dating long gone, she’d resigned herself to occasional flirtations with an on-line date, pretending the hunk she imagined on the other end was a lonely gentleman with honest intentions and not a horny pervert too cheap to buy her dinner.
At the end of her second mile, she checked her pulse on the wrist-mounted monitor and started back toward home along a different path to add some distance to her run. Jogging north, she kept her arms at her sides with occasion to glance at the river to the east, where a harbor patrol boat accelerated from a distance and followed her along the shallow banks. Then as if the voice of God bellowed from the sky above, she heard her name called out, followed by a flash of blue light as the Coast Guard signaled her from the water’s edge.
“Doctor Beckman,” the Coast Guard officer blared through a megaphone.
Doctor Beckman ran in place, cupping her hand above her forehead to shield her eyes from the blinding spotlight turned upon her.
“Sorry to disturb you, Ma’am, but headquarters asked us to bring you in.”
“At this hour?”
“Yes Ma’am. There’s been an incident. Code yellow.”
Doctor Beckman reached for her beeper and realized she’d left it on the table at home.
* * *
Inside the quiet office space at Ft. Belvoir Hospital, Doctor Beckman stared through a transparent, plastic hood, leading a four-person HAZMAT team dressed in positive pressure suits with self-contained air supplies and chemical-resistant gloves and boots. She moved with slow, deliberate motions inside the protective covering she jokingly referred to as her martian suit.
She’d responded to dozens of similar events in her career, but something about this one seemed different, more ominous than the others. Despite the talent on her team, poor timing and bad judgment by a physician she’d never met left her in charge of a biohazard containment operation beyond the scope of any domestic outbreak herself or her team had seen before.
She entered the office of Doctor Lewis and held a portable air analyzer in front of her. “So far so good,” she spoke into her headset microphone.
“Not for this poor bastard,” a colleague, confidant, and senior scientist said, touching his gloved hand to the back of the deceased doctor’s neck. Flies buzzed above the corpse, where a puddle of body fluid accumulated beneath the chair. “State of decomp suggests he’s been dead for at least a couple days.”
Doctor Beckman eased the doctor’s head off the keyboard and moved the mouse to deactivate the screen saver. She scrolled up the screen and read the e-mail message he’d prepared but never sent. “Who found the body?”
“Custodial worker. We’ve got him quarantined with the others.”
“How many all together?”
“Thirty-five so far.”
Doctor Beckman moved a pile of folders on the desk, pushing pages of a medical journal with her finger. “I want a list of every person who’s been in contact with this doctor over the last four weeks. Every patient, every nurse, every doctor he’d consulted.”
The senior scientist read the e-mail display. “Do you think this is accurate?”
Doctor Beckman recalled the previous victims she’d found and the bodies she’d examined in the morgue. “I think it’s plausible. Either way, I’m not taking any chances.”
* * *
Kriegel paced outside the ambulatory entrance, where Doctor Beckam and her team had entered the building. Beyond him, a road block sealed off the major side streets clogged with reporters who lingered outside their news vans. From his vantage point, he could see Doctor Beckman remove her chemical protection suit before she passed through an airlock channel to reenter the decontaminated atmosphere. “Candice,” he called out.
Doctor Beckman greeted Kriegel with a smile. “What brings you here, Agent Kriegel?”
“I heard you shut down the hospital. This place is crawling with press. Rumors are flying about a weaponized Ebola scare. The FBI Director wants answers.”
Doctor Beckman opened a bottle of hand sanitizer and rubbed a dollop through her hands. “That’s why I’m here.” She strolled with Agent Kriegel to the portable FBI command center inside a converted RV and helped herself to a cup of black coffee. “I’ve got good news and not so good news.”
Kriegel frowned. “Just give it to me straight.”
“The good news is we’re not dealing with Ebola virus.”
“And the not so good part?”
“We could be dealing with a form of weaponized anthrax.”
“It gets worse. Based on what we found in there, we’re not facing a garden-variety strain. It appears the anthrax spores have been refined, and their particle size reduced as a fine powder for more effective dispersion. I’ll know more once we run our test samples through the lab.”
Kriegel gnashed his teeth, fighting a migraine in a holding pattern with an ulcer requesting permission to land. “Contact Fort Detrick. I want the Army Medical Research Institute involved.”
“What has any of this got to do with your robbery investigation?”
“Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. I need all the information you can give me on everything you find in there. No detail is insignificant. I need your first string players on this one.”
“You have them.”
“What else can you tell me?”
“We’ve found thirty-five dead so far. There might be more. I have another team searching the hospital.”
“Is this contained?”
“To some extent. Right now we still don’t know the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”
“What about treatment protocols?”
“We’re working on it. There’s a triage unit in place. We’ll do more as we know more.”
“How soon until the lab results come in?”
“I’ll need a copy of your incident report as soon as you can get it to me.”
“You’ll have it,” Doctor Beckman reassured him. “But do me a favor, first….”
“Smile for me.”
Kriegel touched her hand, his face a stony image of concentration. “I never see you downtown anymore.”
“I’m around. You just have to know where to look.”