Hallways, Part One

"Morning, Mr Patterson."

Joseph Patterson nodded at the young couple who held the door of the apartment block open for him. He walked past them, wrapped up against the cool weather, leaning on his stick, breathing heavily after his morning walk. He'd lived in the building a long time, first with his wife, Claire, then alone, after she'd died, God rest her soul. His son and grandchildren still came to visit him. He spoiled them rotten, but better they got his money now, when he could see them enjoy it, than after he was gone.

He'd seen a lot of changes, seen a lot of neighbours come and go, seen a lot of old friends move on, replaced by younger people, younger families.

He walked on through the hallways, returning greetings from the other residents. Everyone knew Mr Patterson, still fit and able, despite his age. Still capable of walking the route he had always walked with his dear departed Claire.

If anyone thought that Mr Patterson looked a little more flushed than was normal, thought his breathing was a little more laboured than normal, they paid it no mind. 'It's just the weather' they told themselves. 'Its November, after all. He's an old man, he's going to have to slow down at some stage.'

Joseph Patterson reached his door, fumbled briefly with his keys and walked into his apartment. He had almost reached his favourite armchair when a sudden fit of coughing racked through his body, wet and tearing. Still coughing, he sank into his chair.

"You're getting old, Joseph."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, carefully embroidered with C+J, and wiped his lips. He didn't notice how the cloth came away, stained with blood.

An hour later, Joseph Patterson died in his favourite armchair, clutching his embroidered handkerchief, clotted with his own blood.

Free at last to join his beloved Claire.

"Why didn't Mommy pick me up from school?" Patricia Ashton covered her mouth and coughed politely into it.

"Good girl." Michael put his arm around his daughter. "Mommy isn't feeling too well, sweetie." He tapped her lightly on the nose with a finger. "She's in bed." He pushed the door of the building open. "Afternoon Gerry."

"Mr Ashton."

"Come on sweetie." He led her towards their apartment, wiping sweat from his forehead. When had it got so hot in here? He dodged around a workman and his ladder, wrinkling his nose against the smell of paint. Fighting the urge to sneeze.

Patricia coughed again, a longer hacking noise.

Michael smiled at her as he opened their door. "You go and get ready for bed, Patricia. I'll go and check on Mommy."

"Okay Daddy." Patricia disappeared inside her room.

Still smiling, Michael pushed open their bedroom door. "Are you still asleep hon.." His words died in his throat, strangled before he could utter them.

His wife lay dead in their bed, the sheets stained with the blood she had coughed up.

He pushed the door shut, knowing that Patricia didn't need to see her mother like this. He slid to his knees, tears falling like drops of blood.

Joseph Patterson and Katie Ashton were not the only ones to get sick. They found Mr Patterson's body in the late afternoon, when Gerry, the doorman, kicked in his door.

By then, another man had died, coughing in the front hallway of the building, coughing until his blood had splattered on the walls of the apartment building. Three more people were in bed, coughing, running temperatures and shivering under the blankets. At least one of those had started coughing up blood.

Tiny scarlet drops, staining the sheets like the signature on a death warrant.

All through the silent, frightened apartment building, the sound of coughing echoed like sobs.

"Come." Stephen looked up as Eva knocked on his door. "What is it Eva?"

"I think we got a problem. I just got a call from a GP in Newark. He thinks he has an outbreak." She handed him the data pad. "At least two people have died already."

He read through it quickly. "Have you called Natalie yet?"

"She's already here. So are Frank and Miles."

"Good. Tell them to get packed up. We're going to Newark. Now."