COVID PATIENT ZERO

A Jason Hammond Thriller

by Wil Mara

Chapter Three

Jason was distinctly uncomfortable now. The sudden change in context—one minute cruising along a quiet highway on a pleasant afternoon, the next pulling onto the driveway of a remote penal institution—was jarring. What made it all the more disquieting was Ling’s nonchalance. There was no perceptible change in her disposition, as if she brought people here (for one reason or another) all the time.

Less than twenty-four hours ago, he couldn’t help thinking, I was lying in my warm bed, next to my warm wife, in my warm home….

They were stopped at the checkpoint, where four blank-faced soldiers with rifles were ready to roll. One came alongside the car, and Ling flashed her ID. The gates were opened immediately, and they breezed through. After Jason put on his mask and exited the vehicle, he couldn’t help noting again that no one took any notice of him. He wasn’t exactly expecting a homecoming parade at any point during this operation, but the categorical indifference still struck him as peculiar.

They left the parking lot, crossed the road, and came to a sidewalk. Then to the front of the building, which had a small rock garden that included spirea and lotus shrubs. The fact that someone had decided to landscape a prison with a palette of nature’s more cheerful colors was filed away in a mental folder titled ‘Ridiculous Beyond Description.’

Another pair of soldiers stood inflexibly on either side of the entrance. Through the doors, Jason and Ling came to a dark foyer where a man in a suit and tie was waiting. He was portly and smallish, probably in his early sixties, and had a full head of hair that was most of the way through the gradual transition from black to pewter. The eyes behind the steel-rimmed glasses seemed paternalistically friendly, and they locked onto his guest the moment he appeared.

 “Mr. Hammond, this is Dai Huang, the chief administrator. What you would call a ‘warden.’”

They bowed politely to one another. “Thank you for allowing me to come,” Jason said. “I’m sure you are very busy.”

“I am busy, yes,” Huang replied, his English not as clarified as Ling’s but still understandable, “but I know this is important. Would you like to speak to your man now?”

Jason couldn’t help but admire Huang’s all-business attitude. Time was precious and life was short, after all. “That would be fine, thank you.”

They began down a corridor to the right, every bit as spotless as the airport and completely empty. There were windowless doors on either side, each with a short run of Chinese characters at eye level. Then another left turn and another empty corridor. The general vibe of the place, at least thus far, reminded Jason of a typical American school during summer break; perhaps toward the end of the season, after the custodial staff had the chance to scrub and polish everything in sight.

“You keep this facility nicely maintained,” he said.

“It is well-funded,” Huang replied, “so we can afford to.”

“I don’t want to pry, but I’m genuinely curious. Do you hire an outside cleaning crew, or do you have the inmates take care of it?”

The tiniest of smiles swam to the surface of Huang’s face.

“The inmates. We have work programs, reward programs, and early release for those who behave particularly well. This is a progressive institution, Mr. Hammond. For example, medications are used for violent inmates rather than physical punishment. This is not a dungeon.”

Jason nodded agreeably. “No, it certainly doesn’t look like one.”

Another turn, then he spotted the first open door, swung all the way back and wedged into place. As they went by, he made no attempt to hide his curiosity. There were at least a hundred of the prisoners, all dressed in blue jumpsuits, sitting at long tables eating lunch while a swarm of armed guards looked on. Some of the latter remained stationary, others mulled about. He had to admit the inmates looked well fed, and some of them were engaged in what appeared to be genial conversation. He recognized a few of the mingled aromas that were drifting out—tofu, rice, noodles, and a variety of steamed vegetables—but could not place others.

They made one more turn, then Huang led them to the second door on the right.

“In here,” he said before giving a perfunctory knock. When the door opened, a guard who looked as though he hadn’t even experienced his first case of acne stuck his head out. He was clearly startled by Huang’s presence, and he pushed the door back in as welcoming a spirit as he could muster.

Jason filed into the room with Huang ahead of him and Ling behind. For a fleeting moment, a disturbing notion ran through his mind—there would be no interviewee in this room, and this was all a ruse to capture and hold him for ransom. Ling would produce something from her pocket—a telescoping bludgeon, perhaps, or a syringe—and drop him on the spot. When he awoke, he’d be tied to a chair with the adolescent guard standing watch while Ling and Huang and God knew who else negotiated with Katie and Noah for his release. He was not normally given to paranoid visions, but this one had a lucidity that made it particularly chilling.

Nothing of the sort happened. Huang stepped aside, and Jason found a man of perhaps thirty four or five sitting in a simple chair at a simple square table. Everything about him was ordinary—average height and build, dark hair with a modest complexion, no scars or freckles or other facial anomalies. There wasn’t a hint of emotion, either. He was looking at his visitor with benign curiosity at most. He wore the standard-issue blue jumpsuit and some anonymous brand of white sneakers with velcro straps. But he had neither a mask nor gloves. Jason also noticed he hadn’t been fitted with any type of restraints, handcuffs or ankle chains or otherwise. His hands were bunched together on the table as if he was patiently awaiting a dinner companion.

Huang turned on his heel in an oddly feminine fashion and said, “I have to get back to my desk. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.”

“Thank you,” Jason said. “I will.”

****

Following Huang’s exit, the guard brought over two more chairs. The seating arrangement seemed predetermined—the interviewer directly across from the prisoner, the interpreter between them.

“I notice he’s not wearing a mask or gloves,” Jason said to Ling.

“He gets tested every day,” she replied. “Plus he is kept in isolation, so the chances of him contracting the virus are next to nothing.”

Jason made a point of showing no reaction to the puzzling revelation that this individual—a recovered Covid patient, not a criminal—was being held in isolation. And he was sure he wouldn’t get much information if he inquired further. So he nodded again, then took out his pencil and notepad.

After flipping the cover back and setting it down, he looked directly at his subject. The curious lack of vitality was still there, and for a passing moment Jason considered the possibility that the guy had been drugged. Then he decided no, there was a twinkle of awareness in those eyes.

“Good afternoon,” he began.

Ling turned and said, “Xiàwǔ hǎo.”

Xiàwǔ hǎo,” the man replied with the lightest touch of a smile.

“You are from Wuhan, yes?”

“Yes,” came Ling’s interpretation.

“Close to the center of the city?”

“Yes.”

 As Jason began writing, he marveled for the first time at the fact that he had agreed to undertake a search for one person in a city—assuming patient zero was even in Wuhan to begin with—of about eleven million.

“On what day did you first exhibit symptoms of the Covid infection?”

“November fourteenth. A Thursday.”

“And what were those symptoms?”

“I awoke that morning with shortness of breath and a low fever.”

“What kind of social interaction were you having the previous two weeks? And as specifically as you are able, tell me about people who came within about two meters of you for more than fifteen minutes.”

Here the man made the first demonstration that he was capable of an emotional response. He shrugged, looked away for a moment, and held up his hands in a gesture that said, How many times do I have to answer this question?

“I had many social interactions over that period. I went to restaurants with friends. I went to work. I walked down the street, went into stores. I came well within two meters of hundreds of people. Maybe thousands.”

“Do you recall if any of them were already exhibiting symptoms?”

He shook his head. “I don’t believe so, but I can’t be completely sure because I don’t take notice of such things. A cough or a sneeze from someone happens all the time. But if you’re asking me if there was someone sweating, gasping for breath, or suffering from fever, no. I don’t remember anyone like that.”

Jason kept scribbling. “What people in your social circle have since developed symptoms?”

When he looked up again, he saw something in the man’s countenance he didn’t expect—the tiniest hint of uncertainty. That should not have been the case with someone who had been interrogated previously. Jason was unable to decipher the core of it, but a far-flung instinct suggested it had to do with the fact that his last question referred to matters that occurred after the man had contracted the virus, not before.

“I don’t know,” the man said carefully.

“Do you live with others?”

“No, I am single.”

“Apartment?”

“House.”

“And your co-workers—were any of them diagnosed with the virus? Even as asymptomatic cases?”

“Not that I am aware.”

“We already looked into that,” Ling said with a smile a used-car salesman would have envied, “as I mentioned before.”

“I’m just double-checking as a routine part of contact tracing. Sir, do you know if any of your family members exhibited symptoms after you interacted with them?”

Another small hesitation. “As far as I know, they did not.”

Jason wanted to write He is scared, but decided to keep it to himself for the time being. He was well aware that Ling was peeking at his notes with some frequency.

“Okay, how about the so-called wet markets? Have you—”

The man was already shaking his head in an obvious albeit wordless response. That one’s also been tossed at me a thousand times.

“Got it. Were you bitten or even scratched by any animals prior to developing the infection, either domestic or feral?”

“I’ve thought about that one, but no. A neighbor of mine has a dog that I play with once in awhile, and sometimes she bites and scratches for fun. But I don’t believe dogs are carriers, are they?”

“They are not. And you’ve had no interaction with any other animals?”

“No, I’m certain.”

Jason set down his pencil, leaned back, and sighed.

“Well,” he said to Ling, “one thing’s for sure—if he didn’t contract the virus from an animal, then it was from a human. If he hadn’t gone anywhere near the wet markets and sustained no bites or scratches from animals either domestic or wild, then there’s no other reasonable conclusion. Which means patient zero is not sitting on the other side of this table.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“Well, it’s not going to be easy, but we need to identify as many people who came into contact with him prior to his illness as possible. Not just friends and family—everyone. It will be a laborious process, and even then many will be missed. But it’s a start.”

“We can do this,” Ling said. “He lives in a highly populated area, so there will be security cameras everywhere. That should help.”

“Yes.”

“And cellphone tracking,” Ling went on. “That will help us find a percentage of people who were in the area around the same time.”

Jason couldn’t avoid thinking about the public outrage back in the States over the growing cellphone-surveillance issue. In spite of the fact that it had been proven effective against the spread of Covid in other nations such as South Korea and Singapore—nations that had great success in squelching Covid’s movement—nearly two thirds of Americans were firmly against the practice. It was unlikely, however, that the Chinese government would be as concerned about its citizens’ feelings on the matter.

“That will be good, yes,” he said. “We can talk about more of the fine details in the car when we leave. In the meantime, could you kindly ask the warden if anyone here has contracted Covid in the last few weeks?”

Ling became visibly confused. “You mean from this man here?”

“Not necessarily. Please, if you wouldn’t mind….”

“Sure, okay.”

She rose and went out. Jason crossed his arms and smiled at the prisoner, who responded with one of equal charity. A few moments passed in silence.

Then Jason turned to the guard and said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?”

The boy nodded. “A little.”

“Could I please get some water? My throat has become very dry.”

“Yes. I will be back in a moment.”

“And if it isn’t too much trouble, can I have a straw with it? Please, I prefer to drink with a straw.”

“Uh…yes. I think I can find one.”

“Great, thank you.”

The guard gave a quick bow before disappearing. And the moment the door shut, Jason turned back and said, “Okay, quick—what aren’t you telling me?” in perfect Mandarin.

****

The man looked like he’d been poked with a needle.

“You can spea—?”

“Yes, I speak your language. Look, we’re not going to have much time. So tell me what you haven’t told them, and do it fast. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Qiang.”

“Pleased to meet you, Qiang, I’m Jason. Okay, so let’s have it. You know how you got the virus, don’t you.” This was a statement, not a question.

“I am…almost positive.”

“And?”

“You must promise me one thing first.”

“What’s that?”

“That you won’t tell them.”

“You have my word. So who was it? A girlfriend? Family member?”

“Ex-family. My former brother-in-law. He is…he was a nice boy when my sister married him. Then he got kind of crazy. Became involved in all these political things. Soon we began to believe he was being watched.”

“What does this have to do with you catching Covid?”

“My parents urged my sister to end their marriage. They thought if the police came after him, they’d take her, too. She stayed with him as long as she could, but finally she left. He kept coming around, though. All he cared about was his glorious cause. One night he came to see me. Wanted me to take part in some online protest. And he was sick at the time. Cough, fever, shortness of breath. He said he thought it was pneumonia, just like all those other people who found out later they had corona.”

“Do you know if it was Covid for sure? For certain?”

“No, because I did not see him after that night. In fact, I have not seen or heard from him since. But that had to be it, I am sure.”

Jason nodded. “Okay, I’ll check into it. And I will not tell anyone else, just as I promised.”

“Thank you. He is not a bad person, just a little lost at the moment. But I would not want to see him hurt.”

“I’ll do what I can. What is his name?”

“Li Chen,” Qiang said.

“And where can I find him?”

“In Xiaogan, about thirty miles northwest of here.”

Qiang gave him the street address, then pointed out that the property was a rental because Li was planning to move out of the country soon. Jason committed all this information to memory rather than write it down.

He had no way of knowing Li’s body had now been lying dead in the villa’s bathroom for three days.

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