I apologize for the delay! Work has been swamped and I completely lost track of time. Hopefully this chapter will have been worth the wait!
Jordan woke slowly the next morning, almost thinking she was back in her warm, comfortable bed in her warm, comfortable apartment - far from the events of the last few days. The only thing that didn't change as the haze of sleep lifted was Woody's arms around her. She was half against his chest, half in the space between his side and the back of the couch, their legs tangled together. His heart was beating softly under her ear, having lulled her to sleep through her raging thoughts the night before and still lending her comfort now. Her sleep had been filled with restless dreaming, but every time she came to she felt his arms and heard his heart and knew she was safe. For the moment, at least. Now the anxiety was filtering back.
She ran her hand gently over his chest, not wanting to wake him and knowing she wouldn't be able to fall back to sleep now. It was dark outside the round window of her office, probably about an hour before dawn if her internal clock was still running on time. Slowly, she tried to pull her legs from between Woody's with the intention of getting up and finding something to do. It wasn't that she wanted to leave him; she just couldn't stand being stationary now that she was awake. Being alone with her thoughts was the kiss of death for her mental state.
Once she had stood and stretched, she tip-toed to the door and reached out to open it. But then she paused and turned back around. Woody was still sound asleep on her couch, not having noticed her absence yet. She crept back and knelt beside him, chewing on her lower lip as she watched his face for a silent moment. Maybe holding on to this life for him isn't such a bad thing, she thought. I may not care whether or not I die, but I don't want to leave him.
"That's all I need," she whispered out loud, her fingers barely tracing a line down his jaw.
After another moment, she got back to her feet and quietly left the office. The halls were practically deserted. Garret and Kate weren't in their offices - they had probably gone home sometime during the night - and Nigel, Bug, and Claudia weren't in the conference room, where they had decided to hunker down together. Autopsy was surprisingly neat, what with the cases being rerouted to nearby hospitals for the moment, so there was nothing there for her to do. Thankfully there was fresh coffee in the break room and, pouring herself a cup, she finally found all three of them in one of the research rooms.
No one noticed her entrance, all entranced by their own work. Nigel and Claudia were both bent over a terribly expensive electron microscope studying something while Bug worked on a culture in a Petri dish nearby.
"Look at this one here," Claudia said. "It's just a little different. I haven't seen one exactly like it before. How long until we get the sequence back?"
Nigel was quiet for a moment, probably staring at what she had pointed out as he switched slides, before answering. "Any moment, love. You're right about this culture; it's certainly different, if only just a bit. Is that normal?"
"What sequence?" Jordan asked from the doorway, hurt that none of them had let her in the loop before. They'd obviously been working all night while she slept, and she had no idea what was going on.
"Ah, good morning, sunshine!" Nigel slid his rolling stool across the floor to stop right in front of her and gave her a bright smile. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine. What are you doing?"
"Comparing samples of the bacteria taken from all of the deceased to one another, and then to the samples Claudia has on file with the CDC," he explained, gesturing for her to follow as he rolled back to the microscope. "Here, have a look. These three, here, are all the same, aren't they? Yet, visually, they don't look the same as any of the images from this lovely notebook from Atlanta."
"You're running a...what, a DNA sequence of these strains?" Jordan asked, peering down into the eyepiece and switching between the three slides.
"How are you getting that back so fast? We don't have those capabilities here."
"I'm running it through Atlanta's headquarters," Claudia piped in.
"Hey, um, Nigel, Dr. Vijay, why don't you guys go crash for a while?" the other woman suggested softly. "I already got my little cat nap in and you've done such great work tonight. I'll let you know if I need anything, okay?"
Nigel and Bug looked at each other for a moment and then glanced at Jordan's dark, pinched face. She was flipping through the notebook now, though not really paying any attention to it and obviously angry. An explosion was brewing. "Yeah, okay," Bug said, carefully setting down his cultures. "I'd like to call Lily, anyway. She's probably awake by now."
Once the two men had quickly clambered from the room, Claudia gave Jordan a small smile. "I'd be happy for a woman's presence for a little while, to be honest."
"Yeah," Jordan agreed softly, still staring blindly at a blown up still of a textbook microscope image of the bacteria they were studying. "Sometimes the testosterone in this place can be overwhelming. So...when did you send a sample down South to be analyzed?"
"As soon as I got here, actually," the other woman admitted, switching slides again. "Samples from the two victims at the time. You have incredible equipment here, it's just that Headquarters has an archive of every modern-day strain of Y. pestis. If we can find out what strain it is, we can track it easier, contain it. The hospital where it originated is on lockdown now, too, but we still need an exact answer."
"Of course." Jordan sat heavily on Nigel's vacated stool and stared listlessly through the microscope again at the smooth shape of the bacteria on the present slide.
Claudia straightened and brushed her hair from her face, looking at her companion for the first time. For the first time since she had arrived in the morgue, really. "I hadn't known about your previous illness until I got here, Doctor - er, Jordan. Still, the chance that you'll catch this thing is so slim it's ridiculous. I know you know that, but sometimes it helps to hear the words from someone uninvolved."
Jordan just puffed the air from her lungs, turning to lean back against the edge of the table and attempting to rein her temper back in. "Yeah. What did they tell you about my...previous illness?"
"Not much," the blond said carefully. "Just enough to know that your immune system wouldn't be able to fight off the bacteria. That was all I needed to know; the rest isn't my business."
The unfounded anger she'd been holding onto against Nigel and Bug began to vanish. "Thanks." Something else occurred to her then, and she smirked and added, "By the way, Woody and I aren't -"
"Aren't married, I know, I know. He corrected me yesterday. Goodness. I can't believe I fell for that when Nigel told me. I am so sorry. I really hope I didn't make things awkward," Claudia said
"So it was Nige, huh?" Jordan waved away her apology when the woman blushed. "I figured. He was doing it to tease me, not you. Though I really don't understand why he thought now was a good time."
"Trying to lighten the mood?" she suggested. "He seems like a good guy. Speaking of, where is your detective? You two have been practically joined at the hip since I got here."
The M.E. smiled thinly. Any other time she would have snapped and become defensive, but to an outsider she supposed that was definitely how it appeared. When Woody was frightened - especially for her - he got a little clingy. It used to annoy her, but somewhere along the line the annoyance had faded away and turned to something else. One of the many things she loved him for. "He's still asleep." She stared down at the empty ring finger on her left hand, suddenly feeling like something was missing. "Are you married?"
Claudia was silent long enough for Jordan to look up again. "I wish I was," she finally said. "It's not legal for me to marry the person I love back home. We've been together for seven years now, though. Live together, have a home together, act like we're married. But, according to the law, we can't be. So I guess it depends on how technical you want your answer to be." She chuckled. "That is such a scientist's answer."
"What's her name?"
"Joy." She paused again, staring off in thought toward the far wall. "We're happy down in the South, though. I love my job, and she loves hers. We live in a nice neighborhood in a good part of Atlanta, and our community accepts us. Other than the marriage thing, our life is pretty damn good."
"What, um..." Jordan took a deep breath, knowing she was crossing a line but unable to stop herself. "What about kids?"
Claudia met her gaze and something unspoken passed between them. Even with what little she had been given of her medical history, they were both doctors; she could put the pieces together. She scooted her chair a little closer to Jordan's, sensing her need for comfort, even from a stranger. Or perhaps especially from a stranger. "We don't have any. We could, if we wanted to, what with all of these wonderful medical advances, but we've never felt the need. We thought we did, at first," she explained quietly, setting down her pen then picking it back up again. "It's what every woman is supposed to want, right? Growing up, we both did. But...we love each other, and we decided that we were happy enough without children as long as we were with each other. Our love was enough to carry us. Man, I've never talked about that with anyone but Joy."
"Thank you," Jordan whispered. "I mean, I never really wanted kids when I was growing up. I didn't hear my biological clock until a few years ago, and now I guess it's too late."
Claudia reached out and touched her arm, bringing her eyes back up. "Medicine is advancing every day, and there is always adoption. If, of course, you change your mind down the road. I may not know your exact situation, but it's never too late."
The other woman wiped at her eyes and looked away. "God, I'm sorry. I don't even know you, yet here I am prying you apart. Probably living up to every bit of rumor and reputation you've heard." Jordan cleared her throat then, ready to change the subject. "So, um, Garret and Kate left?"
"Oh, yeah. They left a few hours ago. Garret said something about seeing his daughter? And Kate just wanted to get away from Nigel, I think."
Jordan laughed at that. "I bet being locked up with him really put Kate over the edge. They've been getting along surprisingly well lately, but there's only so much a person can take."
"It was certainly getting amusing watching them argue, though."
A comfortable silence fell and Claudia turned back to her microscope, jotting down a few more notes. Jordan watched her absently, not really paying attention but still pleased to have the company and know the same was reciprocated. She needed to talk with Woody. She almost wished she had done so last night, but hearing what Claudia had to say about her own life experiences had helped to calm her nerves a bit. For the moment, anyway. This had been eating at her for months now. Her heart wanted to believe what they had was strong enough to endure her illness and everything it was going to put them through now - things such as what they were having to deal with right this second, with the quarantine and the contamination, as well as long-term effects - but there was still a nagging in the back of her mind, warning her to let go now before he got hurt. Before she died, too, just like everyone else he had cared for had.
A small, electronic pinging sound brought her from her thoughts. Claudia glanced up as well, sliding over to another counter where her laptop was sitting open. "The sequence is ready. Mike must have been working on it for forty-eight hours straight." She pulled open the email attachment as Jordan came to peer over her shoulder. "The guy deserves a drink. Or at least the rest of the morning...oh. Oh, my God."
"What?" The M.E. stared at the sequence, but she didn't have the specific training the scientist did. It just looked like a standard bacteria to her. "What is it?"
"I've...I've never seen this strain before. But...no, this can't be. Hold on." She grabbed the notebook of information she had brought with her, flipping it open to a specific page and studying it for a heartbeat. "See? Look here." She pointed between the notebook and the screen; Jordan followed her finger, starting to notice what had already begun to click. "This strain, here in Boston, started as this one. But...this strain has been dead for decades. It's only available in labs now. This difference, here? It's...oh, my God. It's man-made. Someone genetically altered the bacteria that killed these people."
Jordan jumped away from her, eyes wide as a thought ran through her brain like electricity. Man-made.
Not speaking, she dashed from the lab and down the hall toward the crypt. All cares forgotten, she threw open the drawer containing Ivan Hertz and, snapping on only a pair of gloves, she began to look over his right arm.
"Jesus, Jordan! You know how dangerous this is!" Claudia came running in behind her and, without waiting for permission, reached out to put a mask over her nose and mouth. "What are you looking for?"
"Needle marks," she explained briefly, voice muffled through the mask.
"You think -"
"Here! Right here!" On the side of his arm, where one would expect to be given a vaccine, was a small puncture. She left Hertz and moved to Katie Andrews. There was a needle mark in the same place. Vicky Stephenson had one as well. All of them were fresh, unhealed. Inflicted less than forty-eight hours before death. Jordan stood back, feeling dazed. "These people didn't just die of the Plague. They were murdered."
"Are...are you sure?"
"Biopsy the skin under all of those injection sites. I'm positive. Someone infected them." Jordan turned her stunned eyes to Claudia's. "Coincidences like these don't exist."
"So this new strain of Y. pestis..."
"Was created and used by someone with the intent to harm. Whether or not that person is one and the same, though?" She shrugged, trying to fight off the cold chill that was creeping over her skin.
"You just touched an infected body. Shower and get yourself clean before you get sick. I guess I should call your chief back in here?"
"And I need to wake up Woody. He has to open an official homicide investigation."
Claudia nodded. "I'll do that. Now go! Coming in here was really pig-headed!"
Jordan flashed her a thin smile over her shoulder, almost feeling a spark of her old self at the hint of mystery opening before her. "Thanks for not trying to stop me."
"What, and stand in front of a moving train? I quite like my arms right where they are, thank you. Get out of here!"