24 hours pass. 36. 72. We have taken only the briefest of breaks in order to catnap and occasionally eat. Losing weight is something I've been meaning to do, but as a diet plan, this is worse than the Stillman Diet. I always understood why Jean Harris murdered Herbert Tarnower. Anyone who attempted the plan would agree. For the first 72 hours, it's not incredibly terrible. Keeping the men stable is not as horrible as we expected it might be, although it's clear that they are not improving. As long as they don't get worse, we're okay. At least until we hear from Ms. Runtz, whenever that will be.
I wish they were able to rest better. I understand it with Ringo. We keep having to administer albuterol to him to keep his asthma under control.
“Y’know,” he wheezes, “didn’t mind this stuff when I was up all night gaming in smoky rooms. But this really sucks.”
I keep looking for signs of improvement. Sporadically, they will stabilize—heart rates down, blood pressure near normal—but their breathing is still labored. They appear to have some form of pneumonia from all appearances, but we know it’s not any of the pneumonias we’re familiar with.
Devi has sent down a TV, indicating that she doesn't care if it has to be tossed once we're done with it. I was thinking it would be a good diversion for all of us, except that it has resulted in more arguments over what is to be shown, and not just from the guys. Sari and John want Masterpiece Theatre and BBCA. Deborah and Langly consider Battlebots to be inviolate, and incurred both of their wrath when they broke into "Rumpole of the Bailey" (not half bad, I must admit). Mel and I were angry over missing a winning hit during the Steelers game (me more than him. the Orioles are his team). By the end of the second day, I'm ready to toss the thing through the nonexistent window, or at least take a sledgehammer to it.
We've got cabin fever and for the women, suit fever. Intermittent showers only give temporary relief. It might help if we could sleep better, but I doubt that is going to happen anytime soon. Sari is particularly upset that she can have no physical contact with John. I empathize with her, but I'm so sick of confinement myself that I snap at her to quit whining. She looks as if she's been struck, and slinks away from me in silence. I try to apologize to her. Deborah, normally very sure of her abilities in the field of medicine, is losing her confidence to a degree I find alarming. She has friends who work in infectious diseases but to bring them in would be risking them as well. We keep putting Devi out with our extremely different food requests (Indian things I can't pronounce for Sari, cheeseburgers and nachos for me, Count Chocula and Twinkies for Deborah).
Devi has been very accommodating, right down to Deborah's requests that she snag her some medical texts on infectious disease, even offering to have them couriered over. Deborah needs them, but having books couriered here is risky. Better to go Fedex Overnight. Unlikely to arouse suspicion, since publishers do Fedex Overnight all the time.
The men remain stable—until the third night.
Then all hell breaks loose. John, seemingly the most stable of the three, goes into cardiac arrest. The others were resting somewhat comfortably until the alarms went off. I wish to God the other two had been out of it when it happened, but when they do sleep, it’s so lightly as if not to be sleep at all—and seeing their friend in this condition is doing nothing to improve theirs.
Deborah and I both know well how to handle a cardiac arrest, and we spring into action, and Sari does her best to help us, but we're all nearly in tears as we try to stabilize him. We finally do, but when it's over, we all just break down into small puddles. We keep our cool in front of the men, but once we’re out of sight, we let it all go.
"I'm killing them," Deborah sobs inconsolably.
"You are not," I try to reassure her, although with our lack of knowledge as to what we're dealing with, anything is entirely possible, and we both know it.
"I hope Ms. Runtz is good for her word and gets this person here soon," Sari sobs. "I can't bear to lose him."
"None of us can." I say it gently, trying to fight my own tears. "And we won't." Wishful thinking perhaps on my part, but one has to hold on to hope, especially if it's the only thing one has. My job, as the elder stateswoman here, is to keep the other two together.
"Their vitals are declining," Deborah says softly, so they can't hear her, but they probably know as well as we do. "We've got to get some help. If they don't start improving, I'm going to have to make some calls."
At that moment, the phone rings. I pick it up. A rather exhausted Devi is on the line. "Ms. Runtz and Ms. Miller are here."
"Chin up, ladies. Ms. Runtz just arrived with the magic bullet." We hope. Like no one ever hoped before.
Sari offers to see them. I think it will be a good distraction for her, get her out of the suit, lift her spirits some.
I'm shocked when Sari, Ms. Runtz, and Ms. Miller all walk in, without so much as a face mask, let alone their biocontainment gear. Then again, we do only have one extra suit.
"This is Alexandra Miller," Ms. Runtz introduces who I hope is going to be our savior on this one. "She prefers to be called Anndie."
"It's all right," a very young, attractive woman I'm assuming is Ms. Miller explains. "The virus in airborne form is very labile. It only lives airborne for about 12 hours. You can shed the plastic."
Deborah and I can't work fast enough to get rid of those things, even as we're asking if she's positive on this. Sari races over immediately to hug John, who simply responds with a moan.
"They're not doing well," Deborah begins, explaining the treatment protocol we've been using and how they've fared thus far.
"First thing you have to do is stop the antivirals. The molecule that triggers this virus has a receptor site that binds tightly to the proteins in antiviral drugs," Ms. Miller explains.
Deborah loses it. "See? I told you I was killing them!"
I grab her arm. "Deborah, you were using your best medical judgment. Quit punishing yourself, and I do mean right here and now."
"Why did it take you nearly four days to get here?" I inquire as politely as possible.
"You may not realize it, but Ms. Miller is in as much danger as you are, and she's had to make herself scarce," Ms. Runtz reproaches. "She knows more about this virus than nearly anyone except her late, unlamented ex-boss. Don't you think people might be interested in her other than yourselves?"
"Point taken," I say, and make the decision to shut up and learn something. "Ms. Miller—"
"Anndie. Please, I'm only 26! Although these days, I'm feeling a lot older."
I can empathize with that one. Actually, it's not too bad right now. I don't feel a day over 100.
She's a pretty young thing, but there's a lot of sadness etched into her face. Too much for one so young.
"What can you tell us about the virus?" Deborah demands, restored to clinical mode. She then turns her gaze to Ms. Runtz. "You're done here. Beat it."
"What's she going to do now?" Sari asks wearily. "She found Anndie.
"Well, one thing's for certain, she's never going to lock my man in a room of toxic vapors again!" Deborah snaps, but I give her my best mother-head nurse stare, and she backs down.
Mel wakes up. "She risked a lot by coming here." I check his vitals as he awakens. They’re still nowhere close to what I’d like to see.
Deborah's about to issue another fine retort, but I remind her that the task is at hand, and we need to pursue it. That's something she understands. "Tell us everything you know," she orders Anndie.
Ms. Miller shakes her head sadly. "I had no idea for the longest time that I was working on a biological weapon. I swear to you, I didn't."
"Save your atonement for Yom Kippur," Ms. Runtz says, very sharply. I sometimes think that girl needs a good smack.
"Most people don't," Langly says softly, almost inaudibly. Deborah, realizing she can make contact with him again, goes over and lays a soothing hand on his forehead.
"I wanted to do work in immunology, and jumped at the chance to work in Dr. Schneider's lab. I didn't suspect anything until I was three years into my program. And," she adds guiltily, "I said nothing about it. I had two years to go. I had a promising career ahead of me. I love biochemistry. I wasn't about to go about making loose unfounded accusations, especially of the person who had control over my future."
"The details." Deborah is growing impatient, but I think Ms. Miller has kept this to herself for a very long time, and she really needs to discuss it. And some of it might be pertinent to what we need to do in order to proceed properly.
"Finally, in my fourth year, I had gathered enough evidence that I confronted Dr. Schneider. I asked him outright about our doing weapons development."
"Go on," I encourage her.
"He denied it, of course, but when I was able to provide the data to back me up, he became furious. He said he would terminate my post in the lab immediately…unless I agreed to an affair with him. He said he'd always found me attractive and blah blah blah. To me, it was blackmail, and I filed a formal complaint, in the meantime attempting to join a different lab, but Hartwell's not very big. There are only a limited number of posts available, and to be honest, I joined the college only to be part of his lab." She sighs. "My mom was right. I should've gone to Rutgers. Moms always know best."
And look what she had to go through to figure that out, I think, chuckling silently to myself.
"I didn't know what to do. The college would not take my complaint seriously. They wanted Schneider because he's a champion grant writer, and if you know anything about the university system, it's all about the Benjamins."
"That, and everywhere else," Sari comments dryly.
"So, I quit. Then he tried to sue me for theft of intellectual property." She scoffs. "What was I going to do, go to the press?"
"You could have," Sari tells her.
"Nobody would have believed me. I wasn't permitted to take any of my lab notebooks. If I don't have my lab notebooks, I don't have the proof."
"We would have believed you," John croaks. She's not consoled.
"They're journalists," I explain.
"This is all very sad, and I'm sure we could eventually have a nice chat at Starbucks about it, but in case you haven't noticed, we've got patients here, and they need help. Cut to the chase already." Deborah's had enough, and in a sense, she's right.
"I'm just trying to assure you that I would in no way betray you. Ms. Runtz made it clear that I had to reveal this to no one."
"Your secrets are safe with us," I assure the shaken young woman.
"The virus, in implanted form, takes approximately 3 months to take effect. When it does, it's deadly. Schneider chose his test subjects very…carefully." She winces. "The airborne form is different. It's intended to disable, not kill. It's a drug for subjugation. To make the population docile for whatever purposes."
"How long do the effects last?" Deborah demands.
"Well, in rats, the virus is active almost immediately. The symptoms can be very severe, but all of our subject rats recovered within 30 days with minimal tissue damage."
"What kind of tissue damage?" Deborah turns professional again.
"There was some muscular atrophy," Ms. Miller admits.
"In case you didn't pay attention in physiology class, the heart is a muscle," Deborah shoots back.
"Deborah…" I raise an eyebrow at her. Stay on target.
"What's the treatment protocol?" Sari asks.
"There…is no treatment protocol." She hides her head in shame. This visit is, for her, the ultimate admission of failure, in all areas of her life. I should be angry at her, for the situation she's wrought, but all I feel is compassion. "The virus eventually becomes inactive."
"But not before it creates permanent and possibly irreversible damage," Deborah comments. "That has to change. You built this molecule. You should have some idea on how to counteract it."
"I have no lab access," Ms. Miller says softly.
Deborah's about to say she has it, but the fact is, she hasn't been to work in several days. She's been calling in sick, but sooner or later, they're going to get wise to her. We're going to exhaust the goodwill of our employers very soon. I have a ton of vacation time, since I can never afford to go on one, and I simply said I had a family emergency. Which is not untrue.
"I'm an instructor and house officer at GWU," Deborah says. "Although at this point, I don't know for how long, and you wouldn't be safe working there."
"Did you try Maggie again?" I ask Deborah.
"Oh, God, Maggie. Shit. I need to call her back. I told her I called but didn't leave the number."
"There's no time like the present," I say gently to her, but the ominous message is, it should have been yesterday.
All of a sudden, Mel's alarm goes off. Here we go again.
I hope Maggie can help us. And I hope that Ms. Miller can work very, very fast.
The phone rings wildly while we’re working on Mel. We ignore it. We have to. I hope we can star 69 the person, and hope that person is Maggie, but as it’s a secure line, I doubt it. I keep saying as I’m pumping more drugs into my beloved, please, let it be Maggie, and let her keep calling.
Whoever it is keeps trying to call us. We have to ignore it. Save the life of the patient. That’s my mantra, for every patient. Especially this one. Please, Mel, I whisper as we work on him. Stay alive. You’re strong. You can do this. I’m not sure how much longer I can.
“C’mon, Frohike. I really am not in the mood to do a thoracotomy,” Deb hisses at him. She must really be tired if she’s not up for cutting and pasting. Not to mention that these are no ordinary patients. Not that any of them are, but these are incredibly special people in our lives. I cannot imagine life without Mel…I will not.
The phone rings again. “Anndie, please answer that.” Anndie’s been helping us, and she takes direction pretty well, and Ms. Runtz has proven she can do more than put on lipstick and pout, but if it’s Maggie and we lose her, just shoot me now. Sari is trying to keep the other two calm, no mean feat, as both are near tears at this point, begging Mel not to leave them with whatever strength they have left.
“Put it on speaker!” Deborah barks.
“Hello,” Ms. Miller says, her voice shaking.
“This is Margaret Rose returning Deborah SaintJohn’s call,” the gentle voice says over the line. Hints of West Texas in there. A kindred spirit.
“Maggie! Oh my God, it’s you!” Deborah almost sobs with relief as she continues to work.
“This isn’t your GWU number, or your home number. Where are you, hon?” Dr. Rose asks gently. “Are they forcing you to take continuing education credits in pathology?”
“Oh, I wish, I wish. No, this is way worse, I need help.”
“We’ve got pressure!” I call to Deborah. A nice, solid 100 over 60. Not normal for Mel, who runs high, but something solid to work with. Pulse is still thready and rapid, but maybe another push through his IV and we’ll get that under control.
“Deborah, where are you?” Dr. Rose is sounding more and more worried. “What’s going on? What can I do to help?”
“He’s going to be all right,” Sari whispers to Ringo and John. “They’ve got blood pressure back.”
“Long story short. I have a sample of a virus that I need analyzed, and if possible, some kind of antidote formulated.”
Dr. Rose whistles slightly. “You don’t want for much, do you, hon?” She laughs a little. “Is there some reason why GWU isn’t handling this?”
“Lots of them, but I can’t go into that. And Maggie? You’ve gotta not tell anyone what you’re doing.”
She laughs again, like the peel of small bells. “Deborah, you’re such a surgeon. Virology doesn’t work that fast, I’m afraid. When did you start to get interested in infectious disease, anyway? You hated it in school.”
“Since…my boyfriend got this,” Deborah says softly. I glance over to Ringo. Even in his weakened state, you can see him blush a little and smirk.
“You’re still with the same one? The journalist?”
“And when do I get to meet this god of a man?”
“After you find a way to fix him.”
Dr. Rose sucks in her breath. “Deborah, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m not going to pry, but you know that everything we do here at CDC, we have to document.”
“You can’t do it on this, Maggie.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that. How soon can you Fedex the sample?”
I feel my legs melt under me. Not only is Mel stabilizing, but we’re going to get some help. I think.
“We can’t. It could be traced. We’ll have someone bring it to you.” She turns to Ms. Miller. “Ever been to Atlanta?”
“She can’t go in her car,” Ms. Runtz, uncharacteristically quiet, speaks up.
“Then we’ll get her another car!”
“She needs a driver,” Sari points out. “She needs to look like a tourist. What about Jimmy?”
“Jimmy needs to stay out of the loop. He doesn’t even know the guys are alive,” Ms. Runtz points out.
“I think it’s unkind to not tell Jimmy,” John protests weakly.
“We don’t have a choice! We have to get it there, like yesterday!” Deborah is becoming increasingly bellicose. I understand why, but I do wish she’d keep her voice down. She turns to Ms. Runtz. “A guy named Jimmy Bond is going to be driving, and the person bringing you the sample is named Alexandra Miller. Make them show positive ID.”
“Hon, believe me, I’m taking enough chances as it is.” Dr. Rose’s voice never loses its soothing tones. “How soon will they be here?”
“We need to set up a meeting place,” Ms. Runtz points out. “I know Atlanta pretty well.”
Is there any city she doesn’t, I wonder? The criminal life gets you around, that’s for certain.
Deborah hands the phone to Ms. Runtz, who proceeds to make arrangements with Dr. Rose. When she’s finished, she hands the phone back to Deborah.
“Maggie, if I ever pay off my student loans, I’ll send you to Bermuda,” she promises.
“I’ll hold you to that one,” Maggie says, chuckling. “And you have to introduce me to that man of yours.”
“Someday, girl, someday. Thanks for everything.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I don’t even know what I’m dealing with.”
“We don’t, either.”
I turn to Ms. Runtz. “I think you’d best locate your young friend, post haste. Are you sure he can handle this?” I’ve heard more tales of Jimmy’s ineptitude from Mel than I have gray hairs. He sounds like a sweet boy, but I worry.
“He’d do anything for these guys,” Ms. Runtz points out.
“Well, now’s the time for him to do anything. Anndie? You ready to travel?” Deborah asks her.
Ms. Miller looks numb. “Whatever. I’ll do it.”
Ms. Runtz and Ms. Miller file out. I hope they can move on this, fast. Mel’s okay for now. They’re all holding, but for how long, we have no idea.
Deborah flops into a nearby chair. “Know what I need?”
“A crash course in advanced immunology?” Sari asks.
“No. Pizza and beer.”
Sari smiles for what has to be the first time in days. “I think Devi can take care of that one.”
Devi more than takes care of us. She sends in enough pizza for a platoon, or, assuming they were well, for the guys and all of us. We eat away from them; it seems as if most things are making them nauseous and they have nothing resembling appetites. She’s also delighted that she can come down, and she pays a visit to the guys and chows down with us. She’s not quite as thin as her sister, but she can pound down an amazing quantity of food. She’d rival any resident. There’s also enough beer to float a battleship.
“We probably shouldn’t be drinking right now,” Sari says softly. “What if we have another emergency?”
Devi laughs. “If anyone ever needed to drink on the job right now, it’s you guys. That’s what’s so fun about being married to a diplomat. You get to drink on the job.”
“When does (insert the name of Devi’s husband) get back from Singapore?” Sari asks her sister.
“Not for another nine days, if negotiations go as planned. Otherwise, it could take longer,” she mumbles over a mouthful of pizza.
“You haven’t said anything to him, I hope,” Sari admonishes her younger sister.
“Do I look insane?” Devi asks her in mock horror.
“Don’t make me answer that,” Sari teases back, and for a few minutes, it feels like a normal girls’ night out with pizza and beer. I didn’t realize I was so hungry until I’m reaching for my sixth slice of sausage and mushroom.
Deborah breaks the spell, however. “We’re running out of supplies. We’ve got about 2 days’ worth of stuff left.”
“We could order more,” Devi offers.
Deborah shakes her head. “I have like NO money in the bank. Everything’s been going to pay off my loans for Tulane. And I can’t just have a medical supply company drive up here. That’s a dead giveaway.”
“Hey, I have plenty of money,” Devi chimes.
Sari shakes her head. “Devi, that is so tacky!”
“She meant it well,” and I am certain she did. “Deborah, what about your buddies, Ed and Fred? Could we bribe them again?”
Deborah considers it. “It’s probably going to take a lot more than a case of Sam’s and some whiskey to buy them off this time. Especially since they’re not going to get an adrenaline rush out of it.”
“Not a problem,” Devi says. “Tell me how much you need, I’ll take care of it.”
“Uh…to tell the truth, I have no idea what anything costs,” Deborah admits.
“Doctors don’t know those details. I have a rough idea, but better yet, we’ll make a list and call the Terror Twins,” I suggest. “But first, let’s eat. We don’t know when we’ll be able to enjoy such a sumptuous feast again.”
“You’re serious about this,” Deborah says skeptically to Devi.
“Of course I’m serious. It’s only money. These are the men you love. You can’t put a price on that,” Devi says. “I believe in love. I also believe I’ll have another beer.”
Go To Chapter 4