In answer to Discord in the Garden's challenge (which answered mine with the heart wrenching extravaganza that is Underestimating), but requires more typing than I can manage in one night. I humbly offer this opening chapter. The rest is complete (it's handwritten so don't be impatient, Syd!) Forgive the typos birthed of sleepy fingers...
A meeting behind glass is not a private affair. While words are muffled by the thick panes, gestures and expressions are on display for the few passersby who dare to dawdle outside. The presence of a man of average height and forgettable features hovering by the stairwell, face shielded by a report, was ignored in the rush of a Monday in progress. He was studying the assembled group, their images distorted slightly by streaks in the newly washed glass.
The news had been delivered hours ago. Absorption was today's program.
The people seated in the enclosed room were hardly strangers to the observer; the trendy girl, the young man and their veteran colleague. The team spanned the length of the table, coffee mugs abandoned before them. For all the easy camaraderie, it was the speaker, a woman in a pressed pantsuit, who seemed out of place. Her collar appeared to trouble her neck and her fingers rose frequently to relief the itch of unfamiliar clothing. Analysts would pick apart the clues in her stance, the nervous hands and the quick, darting glance to the third man, a blond who stood detached and reserved.
Connor was biting the life out of his tongue.
The watcher grinned, feasting on the prospect of discord among the lead team. It was justice. The stairs were growing crowded with the stampede of the mid-morning and the man was content with the sights his mind had captured and catalogued. Cutting a path through the throng, Nigel Caspett returned to his own team in the glow of a plan.
"So, let me get this straight," Terry Picerno huffed, his pace brisk enough to send carpet fibers into orbit. "She's never led a team, but now she's over all of them? And what wormhole did I drop through again?"
Caspett sipped his latte with more relish than store brand coffee deserved. "Kate moved up. Someone had to fill the space."
He'd been choking down venom all morning to keep it from rising into his tone. There had to be stability of face and voice in order to gauge where his group stood.
"And four team leaders were bypassed for a lab troll like me?" The hopeful face under the tan cowboy hat belonged to Kyle Tienkin. "Nice."
Nigel considered the two men sharing his cramped office. Kyle, showing the first signs of decent whiskers, possessed a photographic memory that failed to shave the naivety from his small-town integrity. Terry, meanwhile, had recently permitted liquor to coax a confession of environmental terrorism as his wholesome hobby. The third member, Lucy, was nothing singularly outstanding; simply a woman good enough at an array of useful tasks. And Desmond was… Desmond.
"Should have been you, boss." Terry was watching him now. "First Ewing's promoted over you and now this."
"It's not like you haven't been here forever." Kyle's high register leaned toward insulting and Nigel cast him a firm stare.
"Remember that your place here is conditional, boy."
A tap on the door preceded the entrance of a lovely woman in a modest skirt. Renita was Caspett's fantasy made flesh, even as her pretty face carried the weight of her distrust. He motioned her in further but she held her ground under the door frame.
"Interim Director Durant wants to see you."
It was a testament to her nimble tongue that Renita managed to get the sentence past the grapefruit-sized gum. He tried to unstuck his mind from that mouth as he pounded through the halls, knocked on the door still labeled 'Ewing' and crossed the threshold. Expecting to find a mess of cardboard boxed to rival a storage unit, Caspett was greeted by the minimalist approach to her relocation. Not that lab rats accumulate much bric-a-brac at their stations. The office wasn't overly large, which had been Kate's token attempt to show that she wasn't a power-hungry demon.
Behind the gleaming walnut desk borrowed from someone else, Natalie Durant waited in a crisp white shirt, jacketless, with hair loose but smooth. No lipstick, he noted. It wouldn't be long until the frazzled look creeps in, sending the woman to the depths of middle-aged weariness. He'd spoken with her many times, always as a superior and never had he found any facet of her especially winning. Connor's contentment with the woman was baffling.
"Director, you sent for me." Keep it short and deny her eye contact, so went his goal for this initial volley.
"I'm hoping to talk to all the heads today, get a feel for where everyone is."
Under you, his itching brain supplied. Durant's voice, too hard to be feminine, betrayed her hesitance and Caspett's internal smile tried to break its shackles.
"My team is ready, Director." Dear, he'd have to watch the tendency to spit out that title. "And at your disposal."
She fiddled with a pencil, sifting through possible responses. "I understand you're two hours from leaving on your next case. How do you prefer to update NIH on your progress and needs?"
"Communication by phone for urgent matters and a summary e-mail at the end of each day."
"That's good," she said and Caspett tamped down the cringe. He was no schoolboy seeking praise for the simple things.
"Is that all?"
Blue eyes scanned him for a moment, as though meeting anew. "Yes. I'm sure you're in a hurry." If one leaned to the right, the ears could nearly catch the envy in her tone.
The shade of turquoise accomplished by the Pacific Ocean was miraculous. The gulls floated on an ideal breeze while in a Latino clinic, bodies lay writhing in the scorch of an imaginary sun. So crimson was the skin pf each victim that it seemed they'd all bathed in red egg dye. Caspett had been, in younger days, the kind of physician that would suffer the pangs of sympathy in the course of the greater good. Now the faces squinting up at him with agony stirred not his empathy but only consideration of the publication benefit. Papers by Nigel Caspett found easy homes in the finer journals. If his new boss had ever submitted pathological findings, it certainly hadn't merited his notice.
His former adversary had taken the change in stride.
In truth, Stephen Connor was still his rival, though Nigel's current focus would take precedence. That Caspett's team was never listed as primary, that they had only a half of team one's prestige, that Renita's starved eyes tracked Connor's every move, only added sharper edges to Nigel's anger. Natalie Durant's impending failure as director would not only throw an unflattering light on Connor, but would leave Nigel as the logical choice for the position.
He'd be damned if he would let them grant power yet again to lesser before getting to him.
Lucy pulled together the information to forward to Durant while Kyle scuttered from bed to bed seeking clues. Terry had been dispatched to the apartment complex where all of the ill resided though Nigel wasn't expecting specimens gathered there to provide useable data. Connor preached commonalities of the whole but Caspett trusted in patient zero for the bulk of his theories, which was unfortunate in this case. It had consumed most of his afternoon, questioning the dreaded third party instead of the preferred source. Although the two year old could say mama, dada and juice, she was too deep into coma to muster even those. The parents hindered Nigel's inquiry, refusing to believe their child had brought this rash of illness about. Nigel wasn't blaming the kid, as the father would soon accuse in a two-language diatribe. Rather, he was considering all possibilities, the mark of a competent investigator. Desmond had taken over shortly after a chair had been tossed, the lab tech putting aside his test tubes to whisper in Spanish to the grieving couple.
As the host of swabs returned under Terry's arm, Caspett worked to chart the toddler's day and was reminded why having children was best left to others. Like Lucy, who had just weeks ago popped out a little boy and yet resumed liaison duties that today took her to the opposite shore from her offspring. A photo of his one day old face hung from a keychain but the baby wasn't mentioned.
"I have the e-mail ready," Lucy announced before downing a third espresso.
"Too early yet," Caspett said. Wait until Letterman's over, his old leader used to order. The tactic ensured that either there was enough information available to form initial conclusions or the reader was half-asleep.
The clock, slow moving beast of technology, attested to the last hour, inconsequential as time was on this job. They worked while twilight collapsed on the waiting planet, running cultures, analyzing results and posing more questions to the reddened patients not yet at coma-stage. The state of things was not satisfactory, Caspett decided by one o'clock and looked for something, anything, to distinguish what they've achieved.
At three am, the toddler died.
The update e-mail was sent ten minutes later, minus that fact. By morning, two elderly patients had also shed their earthly confines to the sound of much wailing. Gnashing of teeth would follow, Caspett fretted, should the tide not turn. When Terry's swabs had divulged a commonality, Nigel cursed Connor and blessed the breakthrough.
Team two was so often overshadowed by team one that it seemed nothing could grow in the absence of light. With the loss of their pathologist, the cohesiveness that had defined Connor's brood would crumble and allow Caspett's group to shine. This moment of discovery, when patients are yanked from death's party, was perfectly timed for the second day's e-mail. The director responded immediately: Good work.
This time, the principal's head pat was almost welcome. Which wouldn't spare her.
Part two coming to a dusty screen near you...