Chapter 4: All the World Is Mad
FBI J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC
The Next Day, 1:30 p.m.
Executive Assistant Director Charles Patterson leaned back in his chair, hands folded behind his head. Just a few days shy of his 62nd birthday, Patterson, with his faded salt and pepper hair, tanned complexion, and chiseled lines that reflected a life lived in the outdoors, thought he'd pretty much seen it all. Like a protagonist in the old black and white detective movies he preferred, the worst of what people offered didn't really surprise him much anymore. If someone could think it up, chances are he already had. One only got to his position by being that proverbial step ahead. But he should have known better than to get cocky. There were still things lurking in the shadows that he had yet to comprehend. This latest case was up there and it was vexing him to no end. Motive. Usually everything came down to a motive. This time, for the life of him, he just couldn't comprehend any motive.
It started yesterday when the Commerce Department's General Counsel passed out in the lobby of the Marriott. It wasn't so much the passing out. He had a few bets on who would be caught with their pants down for each administration. No, someone going down generally wasn't a concern. Still, the Bureau always checked it out just to be sure. The news quickly worked its way through the morass to land on his desk with the request to please investigate, with discretion. Sending an agent to do a soft follow-up, the man reported back that the woman was admitted to the intensive care unit of George Washington University Hospital with severe flu-like symptoms. Patterson had the agent check her background and she was what he figured her to be, an overachieving workaholic. Recalling the agent back to headquarters, Patterson chalked it up to someone spread too thin and ignoring the body's not-so-subtle requests to take a day off. He saw it all the time in those eager young souls bouncing in to Washington, eager to make a name and rise to the top. He gave it no further thought until the other reports began to trickle in. As the morning turned to afternoon, more stories crossed his desk of individuals showing up at their doctors' offices or area emergency rooms complaining of flu-like symptoms. Some complained of no more than a headache with intermittent aches and pains, others displayed more advanced cases of what could only be a seasonal flu attack. When the number hit 100, the alarms rang that dragged his sleepy unit to life.
Things didn't end up in his unit if they were meant to see the light of day. The better part of valor is discretion and that's when his group stepped in. Rumors swirled around Headquarters of the existence of Operation Sub Rosa, a unit so secret that even it was a secret. Only Patterson and the few agents under his command knew the group's official name. Normally the agents were assigned elsewhere, but with a call from Patterson, they reformed as duty required. And duty so required this time. It had taken a work of genius to bury the story in the back pages of the Washington Post thus far. He owed the Office of Public Affairs a few rounds over at the Green Turtle once this was over.
Opening up a file, Patterson sent his best men in to follow-up that evening. After conducting several interviews and putting the puzzle pieces together, the one thing all the victims, as Patterson was starting to think of them, had in common was ridership on the Red Line and, more particularly, proximity to Metro Center station at around 9:30 in the morning. Metro officials were quickly contacted and readily agreed to allow the FBI to review the morning security camera footage. The Metro officials were even less inclined than the FBI to allow the story to blow open before they knew what they faced. Any rumors of a virus outbreak on the Metro would no doubt cause panic and mayhem to reign supreme, which in turn would kill ridership. Until there was solid confirmation that they were in fact dealing with an epidemic, Metro would issue reminders to be mindful of spreading germs by washing hands and coughing and sneezing into elbows.
Patterson knew he didn't have much time to get to the bottom of the mystery. That one Post reporter, Marvin Blackstone, was poking his nose around. Blackstone was a bit of a conspiracy junkie and had an avid and loyal following of tin foil hat wearers. Patterson worried that Blackstone would get to the bottom before he did. Reaching over to pick up his coffee cup, Patterson grimaced as he choked down the lukewarm contents. His ears perked up at the knock in his door. Maybe this was the breakthrough.
"Come in," he called out in his mellifluous baritone.
"Sir, we've made some progress." The voice of Agent Miller preceded the actual man. Clocking in at barely five foot four, Agent Miller was small of stature but enormous of mind. Whenever Patterson needed answers fast, Miller was on his speed dial.
"Talk to me."
Miller entered and took a seat in front of Patterson's desk, practically dwarfed by its dimensions. "Well, Agents Ekstrom and Herrera poured over the footage last night and we think we found the source." Handing over a small digital player, Miller had the select footage cued up for Patterson.
Patterson watched the screen as a group of college-aged kids in silly blue jumpsuits took up spots handing out what looked like gum to the throngs of passengers entering and exiting the busy station. "Did you?"
"Yes Sir. We located a few of the individuals. They were completely oblivious to what happened. They're all students at Mason who answered an ad to act as part-time brand ambassadors for some outfit called Enterprise Media. This was the third gig. The first gig was handing out flyers for a test prep course on campus. The second was handing out water bottles after a Skins pre-season game and now four students in the group confirmed that they were out promoting some gum called Cool Breeze. One student we interviewed said he wasn't feeling very well. Turned out he kept some of the merchandise he was supposed to hand out."
Patterson jumped up in his seat, "And?"
"Well, we ran a trace on the company and it came up as marketed by a firm called Exclusive Food and Beverage, Inc. Herrera ran a database search on it. A Delaware corporation, its charter was revoked last year for failure to pay incorporation fees.
We attempted to contact the listed registered agent, but it's a disconnected number. The corporate address listed in its registration papers doesn't exist either."
"What do you mean it doesn't exist?"
"I mean it doesn't exist. It's a street and town in Pennsylvania that aren't in Pennsylvania. Herrera is following-up, but we've got nothing so far. Same with the actual product. No applications with PTO, no correspondence with the FDA, no marketing to stores, nada. There is no record anywhere of this product existing before yesterday."
"Well, tell Herrera to work double-time. This can't be a dead end." Patterson paused, "What about the kids? How are they?" Patterson privately chuckled at calling the college-aged individuals kids. Well, to him they were kids. It was always a funny observation to him that the older he got, the older a person qualifying as a kid got. With two out of college and one still in, they were definitely still kids in his book.
"Generally, the ones we were able to contact in short notice seemed ok with the exception of the one. Some said they had tried a few pieces of gum and they reported no symptoms. But my hunch is that's our culprit." Miller sucked in his cheeks, the next part was the true mystery. "But Sir, there's more."
"Yes, play the next part."
George Washington University Hospital, Intensive Care Unit, Washington, DC
Sarah pressed her nose against the glass, trying to get a better glimpse of her sister through the tinted pane. Her sister Michelle was surrounded by machines and staff dressed in biohazard suits. Sarah twirled a strand of long, straight blonde hair around her finger, planning her next move. She turned around, "Damn it! When can I see her? Will someone please tell me what's happening?"
A nurse sitting at the station across from the room spoke up, "We're sorry ma'am, but your sister is under quarantine. No one is allowed in at this time. A doctor will be out shortly to speak with you."
Sarah eyed the nurse wearily. She wanted answers and she wanted them now. She wasn't accustomed to waiting, "No, not shortly, now! I want to know what happened to my sister NOW!"
The nurse fidgeted in her chair, "Please ma'am, a doctor will be with you momentarily."
"Do you people not listen? Did I not make myself clear?" This is ridiculous, Sarah fumed to herself. "Is this just something you do? Take people against their will and hide them away? I'm sure the news reporter downstairs would love to hear what I have to say."
The nurse sighed, wishing she could slip the obnoxious blonde a sedative, "Please ma'am, the administrator has already explained to you the seriousness of maintaining Ms. Parke's privacy at this time."
"I can assure you that Ms. Parke is in no need of privacy at this time." Sarah spat out the words. Walking up to the station, Sarah glanced down at the nurse's name tag, "Well Ms. Anderson, what I need is some information. Someone better start telling me what's going on or I start complaining that this hospital is holding people against their will. I suspect there is something being covered up. You know that guy downstairs loves cover-ups." Sarah folded her arms, staring down the nurse as if to dare the woman to make her day.
Nurse Anderson looked around for assistance, any type of help in handling this woman. She wasn't even supposed to be working today. Diane just had to attend that seminar, leaving her here with this raving lunatic. Not to mention the fact that she was well aware of the reporter downstairs. All staff were informed that if Mr. Blackstone even set as much as one pinkie toe on this floor, they might as well pack up and not show up for work tomorrow. "Ma'am," Nurse Anderson paused, how could she explain to blondie what she herself didn't know. She had never encountered this situation before, heck, she didn't even know it was possible. Nurse Anderson couldn't identify any of the doctors or staff in the room with Ms. Parke if her life depended on it. They all worked for the CDC she believed. No one introduced her and she wasn't about to start asking. She had her list of patients and that was enough for her right now. How the hospital chose to handle Ms. Parke wasn't her concern until blondie showed up and started to make a raucous scene.
"It's all right Ms. Anderson, I can take it from here." Nurse Anderson turned around at the sound of her name and watched as an older gentleman circled around the station toward Sarah. Dressed in a white hospital coat over a grey suit with a dark blue tie, he held himself confidently and appeared to be in his late 50s. Pointing to the CDC badge clipped to his coat, he placed a guiding hand on Sarah's elbow and gestured toward the small waiting area opposite Michelle's room, "Shall we talk over here?"
Sarah shook her head yes and dutifully allowed him to escort her away from the nurses' station while casting quick glances behind her to check on Michelle.
The doctor took a seat facing away from Michelle's room and patted the seat directly across from him. Sarah was a bit relieved, finally someone who appeared to care. Offering his hand, the man introduced himself, "Dr. Blaymore, infections specialist." Sarah took his proffered hand and felt the gaze of the man's eyes as he sized her up. She was of average height, her blonde hair being the most noticeable feature. It was impeccable. Clearly a lot of money was sunk into its maintenance. On second glance, a lot of money was sunk elsewhere as well. Her clothes were expensive and of the latest style and the ring on her finger could probably pay his property taxes for a few years. She seemed to know what she wanted. Generally, not the type he preferred to deal with, but she obviously loved her sister and that was really all he needed to know. He had instructions to not speak to anyone until Michelle Parke's next of kin had been confirmed. He made the call she was who she said she was and trust worthy.
"I can't tell you much officially at this point. We're still doing our assessments. Now, Ms. Parke?"
"Actually, it's Mrs. Benton, but call me Sarah."
"Alright Sarah, those doctors in there,"
"Those doctors work with me at the CDC."
"That's the disease people?" Sarah felt her strength leaving her and tightly grasped the chair arms. "What do you want with Michelle?"
"We're not sure yet. We're trying to figure out exactly what's wrong. Your sister collapsed while waiting in line for coffee this morning. Prior to that she had apparently been acting very erratic, a few witnesses reported that they thought she was drunk. The police department received a call shortly before she passed out from a caller believing it was a case of public intoxication. After she collapsed, the hotel called 911. The paramedics found your sister at the scene unconscious and not responding to stimuli. She was burning up and her temperature was 104.3. . ."
"That's not good." Sarah interrupted.
"No, that is not good. That's when hyperthermia can set in."
Sarah's hand went up to her mouth and she pressed her fist against her lips to keep from screaming. She could feel her body tense and shake. She knew it was bad, but not this bad. If anything happened to Michelle, she shook her head back and forth, casting out those thoughts. She wouldn't think them, not of Michelle.
Dr. Blaymore rested a hand on Sarah's knee, "Are you all right, do you want me to get you some water?"
Sarah shook her head no and then nodded her head to urge the man to continue with his story.
"Ms. Parke experienced acute respiratory failure and had to be intubated at the scene. She was rushed here where the doctors first thought that she had a severe case of the flu. Tests were negative and then, based on her symptoms, the doctors began to think bigger—anthrax, small pox, you get my drift—and quarantined her room and those that had been in close contact. I believe at that point, they called us in. We've ruled out the usual suspects and no one who has been exposed to Ms. Parke has shown any symptoms or elevated white cell counts. We take that as a good sign as this thing seems to move fast. But that's really all we know at this point."
"Thank you doctor, I sincerely appreciate it." Sarah sucked in her cheeks, and looked up, trying to swallow down her anxiety and fears. Her leg was bouncing a mile a minute as she attempted to process the news. There were so many unanswered questions starting with how this could happen to Michelle. She looked back at Blaymore, "How long?"
"How long can she go on like this? What are her chances? What are you going to do?"
"We'll do everything we can Sarah. I think we've stabilized her but I can't venture a guess beyond that. Tell me, did your sister travel to any exotic locations recently?"
Sarah shook her head, "No, Michelle's been so wrapped up in her work I think the only exotic place she visits is maybe the grocery store."
"What about people in her life? Has she mentioned to you that she was having problems with anyone?"
Sarah gasped, "You think someone did this to Michelle? How? Who would do this? How could they?"
Dr. Blaymore reached out a comforting hand, patting Sarah's knee in an attempt to get her to relax, "Slow down Sarah, I'm only asking the basics. Remember we don't have any leads yet."
Sarah's rolled her head around her shoulders, trying to maintain her grip. "No, I don't think she was having problems with anyone. People generally like Michelle. She's hard working and easy to get along with." Sarah smiled, "Kind of the opposite of me."
Blaymore chuckled, "I see. Well Sarah, someone will be along shortly to discuss this with you more fully." He rose from the seat, "I just didn't want you to have to wait that long. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Something to eat?"
Sarah brushed away an errant tear, "Thank you doctor, again, I appreciate it. Actually, a coffee would be nice. Should I wait here?"
Blaymore nodded and departed, leaving Sarah alone with her thoughts. Although the doctor had given her as much information as he could, it wasn't enough to satiate her need to know everything. She felt the story was bigger than Blaymore let on. While there was no one who would want to harm Michelle because she was Michelle, it was possible she was an afterthought. Frustrated, she knew there was one person who could get the answers. Crossing over to the nurses' station, she used her best smile and apologetic words to gain access to a private phone. Even though it killed her, she flipped through her address book until she found the number. Dialing the code at the beep, she waited for the whirling clicks to subside and inhaled sharply when he answered. "Hi, um, it's Sarah. Listen, there's been a problem with Michelle. We need your help."
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC
Patterson pressed play and the vantage point jumped to a security camera directly across from the previous camera. He watched as a man seemingly appeared out of the ether to step in front of one of the college kids and hand Michelle a piece of gum. He likewise was dressed in one of the garish blue jumpsuits, but the cut was slightly different. It was looser. Patterson froze the frame and panned in on the individual, his brain processing all the minute details of the scene. From the female college student's irritation at being pushed aside, to the dark trouser fabric peeking out from underneath the blue uniform, no detail was too insignificant to notice. That's how one investigated a case. Take notice of everything, leave nothing to assumption. The man's face though, was blurry. Zooming out for better resolution resulted in no change to the image. Patterson couldn't get a read on it.
Patterson allowed the video to play to its conclusion and watched Michelle pop the piece of gum into her mouth. Her eyes grew wide as she chewed and drifted out of the camera's range. Patterson leaned back in his chair, fingers drumming on his desk. "Hmmm, unusual."
"Did you notice it Sir?"
"The man without a face."
"Miller, what do we know about a man without a face?"
Miller shrugged his shoulders.
"He wasn't with those kids Miller. His outfit was different. He was wearing something underneath. Find out the location of the nearest trash bins. Find out where the trash has gone. I bet we find that blue suit there."
Miller whipped out his notebook from his front pocket and began to jot down notes.
"And his face. Have Herrera check our files. I can't place it but I know we've seen this before."
The phone rang and Miller answered as Patterson closed his eyes in thought. After a few mumbled words, Miller hung up the phone, "Um Sir, that was Herrera."
Patterson's eyes snapped open, "And?"
"You won't believe this, but Exclusive Food and Beverage was acquired this morning and all of its past due taxes and fees were paid."
"Yes, by a holding company called Extensive Enterprises."
"Hmmm." Little butterflies swirled around in Patterson's mind, picking up past bits of data, making connections. It was the indescribable feeling of déjà vu. No face, holding company, blue jumpsuits. Then it all fell into place, "But, Extensive Enterprises did you say?"
"Miller, will you please have Marcy get Sergeant Hauser on the line."