COVID PATIENT ZERO

A Jason Hammond Thriller

by Wil Mara

Chapter Four

The conversation on the return trip to Wuhan was just as Jason expected it to be. What were the next steps? Who did he want to see? What questions would he be asking? Ling also seemed curious about whatever update Jason planned to give Deion, although that was technically none of her business. In truth, he hadn’t put any thought into it yet. There was precious little to tell, and the thing with the brother-in-law…well, the archaeology on that hadn’t even begun.

When they pulled up to the hotel, all they had agreed upon was that they would start again in the morning. Jason prayed Ling wouldn’t suggest a friendly dinner, and she didn’t. She waved out the window as she pulled away, and he whispered his gratitude to the heavens as he waved back.

His room was spacious and elegant, with tall windows that allowed for copious amounts of natural light. He found his luggage neatly arranged on the bed and was relieved to see that, just as Ling had promised, none of the contents had been confiscated. It didn’t even look as though anything had been disturbed, although he doubted that was the case.

The battle between exhaustion and enthusiasm had begun. His body ached for sleep; he had been awake for nearly twenty four straight. But this business with the brother-in-law was intriguing beyond measure—and, certainly, beyond his ability to resist it.

He showered, put on fresh clothes, and went back out.

****

He briefly considered the idea of a disguise. He’d brought along the basics, including hair dye and a convincing mustache. Then he decided there was little point. As an obvious Caucasian—and a tall one at that—he’d stand out either way. Simply wearing the requisite mask, a pair of glasses, and a baseball cap would be sufficient.

He was surprised to find an Avis car-rental agency just a few blocks away. He took the most nondescript sedan they had and paid with a credit card issued under a pseudonym; one of several he used on a regular basis. He fed the brother-in-law’s address into his GPS and was off. Then he nestled the Bluetooth bud into his ear and called home.

“What’s the latest?”

“We had a hard time tracking him down,” Katie said. “There are quite a few Li Chens in China.”

“Didn’t the address help?”

“It did, but not right away.”

“Because the house is a rental?”

“And because he’s paying month to month,” Noah cut in. “He’s been there since September. But that information was hard to come by. It’s hard enough to get rental information here in the States, especially when you’re working remotely.”

Jason grinned. “So how’d you do it?” He considered himself fairly agile where computer technology was concerned. And he’d been way ahead of Noah for years. Then the latter finally accepted the fact that the digital revolution was here to stay, caught the addiction himself, and dwarfed Jason’s skill level at record speed.

“I worked my way into a few databases that, from a legal standpoint, I probably shouldn’t have. Thank God for proxy servers and brute-force password crackers.”

“Should I hear any more of this?”

“I doubt it.”

“Okay, well, good job. What else do I need to know about him?”

“There wasn’t much. Grew up in Henan, which is due north of Wuhan. Father was military, and they moved around a lot. Decent student, but not great. I couldn’t find much else. I can keep digging, though. Katie, too.”

“Do either of you have the name of Chen’s brother-in-law, i.e., the man I spoke with at the prison?”

“Not yet,” Katie said. “We’re still trying to find him in the system. The databases we’ve tapped so far have been private, like the realtor’s, and those don’t run particularly deep. I’m sure we’ll do better on a government site.”

“But we’d rather not touch one of those if we don’t need to,” Noah added.

“I don’t blame you. I’m sure the encryption technology is a lot tougher.”

“Not to mention the tracers,” Noah said. “The last thing we need is for our home address to pop up on some security officer’s monitor in Beijing.”

“Quite,” Jason replied. “By the way, I’m putting a package in the mail to you guys first thing tomorrow morning. The return address will have the usual name. If you wouldn’t mind, please jump on it as soon as it gets there.”

“Okay,” Katie said. “What do you need us to do?”

Jason told her.

****

As the urban districts began falling away, he marveled at what he considered the ‘reliable sameness’ of modern cityscapes. Other than the occasional Eastern-cultural flourishes, Wuhan could be interchanged with nearly any headlining metropolis in the world. The wide streets and towering architecture were stamped from the same template. The only component that currently seemed to set it apart was the obvious lack of citizenry. As dusk began to settle, it felt more like an abandoned theme park than a pulsing commercial center.

He got on the G70 Fuzhou-Yinchuan Expressway, which took him on a thirty-minute course past Qijiawan and Zhuzan before connecting with the National Highway. From there it was just a few miles to Xiaogang.

Chen’s rental house sat at the terminus of a dead-end lane in a grubby suburban grid. The street itself was a stub at best, as if the civic engineers had some leftover blacktop and decided to use it up. The sodium lights threw a dim and depressing cast on the beaten cars, cracked sidewalk, and scant landscaping.

A row of tall shrubs that reminded Jason of arborvitaes fronted Chen’s address like soldiers on guard. Not surprising, he thought, as they effectively obscured the dwelling. It was smallish, almost a cottage, with a microscopic porch barely able to accommodate the resin table and single chair that had been put there. Both were nature-stained and covered with leaves.

Jason went to the driveway that ran along the left side of the house and saw a rusting Honda parked all the way back. It sat in the shadows like a bug in its hole. He then returned to the porch and pressed the button for the doorbell. A muted but buoyant ding-dong! echoed inside. When no one answered, he rang it again. This also produced no response.

Jason went to the driveway again. He half-expected to see Li Chen creeping toward the car in the hope of a quick getaway. But there was no movement of any kind. After all these years, Jason had developed a sixth sense about certain things, and one of them was the unseen presence of others. No such entity existed here; everything remained perfectly still.

He went back to the porch and gave the bell a third ring, this time pushing the button repeatedly. Annoying for the occupant, perhaps, but that would be their problem. When it again went unanswered, he gently moved the chair and table aside so he could get to the window. The microblinds were shut, of course, but at least there was a light on in there.

As was always the case with microblinds, he had to skim just about every inch to find the one spot that provided a decent view. In this case it was near the bottom left corner, where one of the cheap plastic slats was twisted like an upturned eyelid. The perspective it afforded was inherently limited, but he was still able to see the living room, the entrance to the kitchen, and a small bathroom. Jason could tell that the door to the latter was open and the overhead light was on.

Then he saw the body.

****

The front door was locked, so he kicked it in. Even with his mask on, the first thing that hit him was the smell. Nevertheless, he rushed to Chen’s body and knelt down to feel for a pulse. The skin was frigid and had the unyielding pliability of a car tire. One of Chen’s eyes was still half open. Jason tried to close it but couldn’t. Each time, it drifted back to its original position with gruesome sluggishness. Then he spotted the cellphone and was unsurprised to find it as dead as its owner.

He considered removing the corpse from its undignified location, then thought better of it. He knew the correct procedure here would be to call Ling, but he began a systematic search of the house first. The bedroom was a disaster zone—strewn and soiled clothing, bloody sheets, and a small wastebasket overflowing with crumpled tissues. There were several empty water glasses on the nightstand. He also noticed a white charging cable snaking its way to a wall plug. He retrieved the cellphone and connected it.

The living room provided a stark contrast to the bedroom; neat as could be and nothing out of place. The kitchen wasn’t much different. A few dishes and some flatware in the drainer, mostly empty cabinets, and almost nothing in the fridge. There was a door at the other end that led to a tiny yard. Jason turned on the light back there—amazed that it actually worked—but found nothing of note. Then he went to the car, which was unlocked, and searched it with the light from his own cellphone. It, too, was oddly sanitized. Virtually everything he was seeing thus far said the same thing—Li Chen wasn’t planning to be here long.

 He decided the bedroom had been Chen’s main area of operation. He went back in and opened some windows to repel the deathly aroma, then began a more thorough survey of the space. In the closet he found three pairs of shoes on the floor and two baseball caps on the shelf. In the dresser drawers there were socks, underwear, six pairs of jeans, and about a dozen polo shirts of varying colors and patterns. The watch on top of the dresser was a cheap Timex. Chen’s wallet was also lying there, which electrified Jason until he saw there was nothing inside but some cash and a few basic forms of ID. There was also one photo, somewhat faded—Chen and a woman on their wedding day. Jason assumed her to be his now-ex wife. Nothing was written on the back.

Chen’s phone beeped as it reached minimal charge. Jason crouched to one knee and grabbed it. It took him all of about half a minute to realize this wasn’t an actual iPhone. He had no clue what it was, but clearly nothing available on the consumer market. A few moments of navigation also told him he would find no personal information. This device had returned to a virginal state. Considering the fact that he found it next to Chen’s corpse—i.e., the only item the man made a point of keeping near him during the final moments of his life—Jason correctly assumed a data-wiping app had been activated just before Chen breathed his last.

 He was just about to give up and call Ling when he decided to check under the bed. The box that was tucked against the back wall was about the size of a large dictionary. Pulling it out, Jason saw that it was plain cardboard with the four top flaps folded together. There was a mailing label on one of them. Li Chen was the recipient.

He opened it and viewed the contents. His eyes bulged at the sight of it; of all of it. 

Jesus….”

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