COVID PATIENT ZERO

A Jason Hammond Thriller

by Wil Mara

Chapter Five

The box contained several syringes and small glass vials. The syringes were still in their plastic-and-paper wrappers, the vials filled with a clear fluid, their rubber caps unpierced. There were no labels on anything, and thus no indication of manufacturer or country of origin. Intentional, Jason thought. That was nothing but unharbored instinct, he knew, but the feeling was strong enough to follow for the moment.  

He set the box on the bed and went out. In the kitchen, he carefully—very carefully—dug through the garbage can, but found nothing of note. Then to the backyard again, where he thought he saw a steel trash can in front of the Honda. There it was, with a fine layer of piebald rust around the body and a more aggressive species nibbling its way through edges along the bottom. The lid was on so tight that he almost fell back when it finally popped off. There were two more kitchen bags inside, the ties knotted into little bows.

He carried them inside and launched into another delicate search. He found a discarded vial and syringe in one—the tip of the latter came so close to pricking the back of his right hand that his heart jammed itself into his throat—and two of each in the other. He rolled them into several layers of paper toweling, then the garbage bags were returned to the can outside. Back in the kitchen, he washed his hands thoroughly. Then he put everything in a ziptop bag he found in one the drawers, and finally set that into the cardboard box with the rest of it.

Now back to Chen himself. The musky drift of his rotting corpse seemed to be growing heavier by the minute. Jason gingerly lifted his arms, first right and then left, and found what he was looking for on the latter—several obvious needle pocks near the inside fold of the elbow. One had the remains of a localized infection. Which shouldn’t bother him too much anymore, Jason couldn’t help thinking.

He drew his cellphone from its holster and took several photos from different angles. Then he took a few more shots of Chen’s face. Finally, a second ziptop bag was retrieved from the kitchen, along with a plastic knife he’d noticed before. He used the knife to scrape off some of Chen’s skin cells. That bag also went into the box; a growing collection of Covid-related ephemera.

Jason sat on the edge of the bed and thought about what came next. Two words surfaced immediately—call Ling. Of course this was the right thing to do. Here he was in her country, on the other side of the planet, conducting an investigation whose purpose, at least in part, was to help out her government. And he had found not just a dead body but also some pretty damning evidence. What that evidence represented had yet to be determined, but she certainly should be involved in the making of that determination. Deion, too. He should call Ling first, and Deion second.

In a moment of irony that only a situation as bizarre as this could provide, his next thought—that the police should probably also be alerted—came to him just as the sound of distant sirens arose. His heart began hammering again, and he stood quickly. A litany of scenarios blurred through his mind, the least pleasant of which involved his being handcuffed and led outside, where the rest of the neighborhood would no doubt be watching in horrified confusion as the tall American was led to one of the awaiting vehicles amid the fitful pulse of its lightbar. 

The two-note cacophony rose to a crescendo, then began fading off. Jason closed his eyes and breathed out a long sigh. Not here, he thought, they’re going somewhere else. He thanked the heavens and decided it was time for him to move on as well. He closed the flaps of the box, then tucked it under his arm and headed for the door.

Back outside, his hands were shaking slightly as he got the key into the ignition and started the engine. He reached the end of the street a moment later and turned right. The on-ramp for the National Highway was just a few miles north.

In a rare instance of oversight, he did not pick up on the fact that he was now being followed.

****

“My God, Jason,” Katie said. “Are you worried you could’ve caught it from Chen’s body?”

He’d gotten onto the National Highway minutes earlier and was astonished by how empty it was. Only a handful of cars in either direction.

“I had my mask on the whole time,” he told her. “Plus I washed my hands repeatedly. By the way, what time is it there?”

“About noon,” Noah replied. “You’re twelve hours ahead of us, so our noon is your midnight.”

Jason nodded. “Right, that’s right.” He was feeling so exhausted that he couldn’t even calculate how long he’d been awake now. “Anyway, a body that’s died from Covid—assuming that’s what finished him—can still be contagious for a little awhile. But he’s been dead for more than a day for sure. Probably two. I doubt very much I had anything to worry about. Remember, a virus needs a living host. Once the host goes, the virus follows soon thereafter.”

“Yes,” Katie agreed, “but in the immediate period after death, the opposite happens. The immune system stops functioning, so the virus has a field day for a little while. So with some pathogens, a corpse actually becomes even more contagious for a brief period.”

“And the experts still don’t know if that’s the case with Covid,” Noah added. “I’m looking at an online article right now, one that was published just three days ago….” He mumbled a few lines to himself, then, “Okay, listen to this—Some of the most fundamental mysteries about corpse management, like how long after death the SARS-CoV-2 virus can stay active, remain unanswered. “I’ve asked that question probably ten times and nobody’s really given me a good answer yet,” said the owner of a funeral home in a recent radio interview. That’s because the scientific literature on the post-mortem risks of the coronavirus is almost nonexistent. Researchers have rightly prioritized investigation of lifesaving interventions. But even when opportunities for post-mortem insights arise, they’re often neglected. A recent study, for example, used a corpse model to assess the risk of COVID-19 transmission during CPR, but gathered no additional data on the risks posed by the dead.

“And that’s after this thing has been terrorizing the planet for months,” Katie said. “All this time, all the fatalities, and still no solid answers.”

“Exactly,” Noah continued. “Later in the article there’s a bit about guidance from the CDC and the WHO on this topic being based solely on examples from related viruses. And even those two agencies don’t agree on all the details—While the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other agencies issued interim guidelines for interacting with COVID-19-infected bodies, their advice is based on a mixture of common sense and past experiences with other infectious diseases, not COVID-19-specific research. That’s why the advice sometimes differs. The CDC, for example, is supportive of continued embalming, whereas the WHO urged caution.

“So you need to take this really seriously,” Katie said.

“Well, again, I never removed my mask, and I washed my hands several times. When I get back to the hotel, I’m going to take another shower. And I’m tossing these clothes, too. There’s not a lot more I can do beyond all that.”

“I’ve been doing some research on how Covid spreads,” Katie told him. “We know so much more than we did at the beginning of this nightmare.”

“No doubt about it. So what have you got?”

“It’s from person to person, period. The only way you can get it is from someone who is already infected and contagious. This happens most commonly through the air. An infected person coughs or sneezes, for example, and droplets from their lungs are released into the air. Those droplets contain the virus, and then people nearby can inhale them and become infected themselves. This is the most common method of transmission, responsible for the great majority of cases.”

“Which is why social distancing is so critical,” Jason said.

“That and wearing a mask,” Noah inserted.

“Right,” Katie replied. “Those two practices—keeping at least six feet from people and always wearing a mask reduces the odds of an uninfected person becoming an infected one to nearly zero. Of course, time of exposure is important, too. If you’re on a bus or a train with someone who has it, mask or not, the chances of acquiring it from that person increases relative to the length of the journey.”

“The virus can also be picked up from surfaces, too,” Jason said.

“Yes, although that’s a much less common form of transmission. It’s not firmly known how long the virus can survive on different types of material. Again, no solid data yet.”

“And washing your hands kills the virus pretty reliably.”

“It does. The irony here is that this particular strain of coronavirus isn’t all that tough. Outside the human body, it’s fairly easy to kill.”

“What makes me nervous is how long it can linger in the air,” Noah said. “Think about it—some infected person goes into a supermarket without a mask on, walks down one of the aisles, sneezes without anyone else noticing, and there’s Covid, floating like a cloud for the next hour or so.”

“Is that scientifically accurate? An hour or so?”

“Yes. So then someone else walks into the supermarket a short time later. Someone who hasn’t yet caught the infection but also isn’t wearing a mask. They start walking down the same aisle and think they’re safe because they don’t see anyone around. They walk through that invisible Covid cloud, and now they’ve got it.”

“That’s insane,” Jason said.

“And yet it’s happening every day,” Noah replied. “Wanna hear something really crazy?”

“What’s that?”

“The WHO, of all institutions, endorsed the usage of masks in public places only recently.”

“The World Health Organization?”

“That’s right.”

“I heard that, too,” Katie said.

“From where?”

“I saw something about it in the New York Times. Hang on…yeah, here it is. The headline reads, ‘WHO Finally Endorses Masks to Prevent Coronavirus Transmission’. Long after most nations urged their citizens to wear masks, and after months of hand-wringing about the quality of the evidence available, the World Health Organization on Friday endorsed the use of face masks by the public to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. Since the beginning of the pandemic, surprisingly, the WHO had refused to endorse masks. The announcement was long overdue, critics said, as masks are an easy and inexpensive preventive measure. Even in its latest guidance, the WHO made its reluctance abundantly clear, saying the usefulness of face masks is ‘not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence,’ but that governments should encourage mask wearing because of ‘a growing compendium of observational evidence.’

“I never knew that,” Jason said. “I thought they were onboard with mask usage all along.”

“Now they are,” Noah replied. “A bit late in the game, I’d say.”

“Just a bit.”

“So do you have any clue what’s in those vials?”

“I have my suspicions, yes. But I don’t want to speculate until I can get some tests done.”

“I’ll bet I know what those suspicions are,” Noah said.

“Me too,” Katie added.

Jason smiled. “Well, if you think about it, there can only be one of three possibilities. The first is that there’s absolutely no connection to Covid. Maybe this guy was shooting some kind of medication into himself for an unrelated medical condition, or it’s some form of recreational narcotic. If it’s that second one, by the way, I’m in violation of Chinese federal law simply because I’m traveling with it. And they’re a lot less forgiving about illegal drugs than the authorities back home. If I got caught right now, I’d be thrown in a cell and left to die.”

“Let’s not even think about that,” Katie said.

“No, let’s not.”

“So what’s scenario number two?” Noah asked.

“That Chen did have Covid and was using whatever’s in those vials to treat himself. Maybe it’s remdesivir, the antiviral medication that’s been used with Covid patients as an emergency measure. Aside from the United States, I think it’s also in the UK, India, and Singapore. If you recall, it’s been effective in decreasing a patient’s recovery time. And the samples I’ve seen come in a clear fluid. So maybe the stuff in these vials is nothing more than that.”

“Sounds to me like you’re trying to talk yourself into believing that,” Noah said.

“Maybe.”

“So what do you really think is going on?”

A few beats passed in silence before Jason said, “Let’s not discuss that just yet.”

****

He parked in the hotel’s multi-tiered garage and took the elevator up to his room. Once inside, he went over the box with a wet cloth and then hid it under the bed in roughly the same spot where he’d found it in Chen’s villa. At the same time, he knew this was an essentially pointless undertaking. If, for example, his illegal-narcotics idea proved accurate, a drug-sniffing canine would locate the stash in about three seconds. Not long after that, wealth and influence notwithstanding, he’d be on his way to a Chinese prison within the hour. The government of this particular nation, he knew, had little tolerance where the illegal drug trade was concerned, and punishments were often swift and harsh. Cursory trials followed by almost immediate executions were not unknown.

Ruminating upon this, Jason decided to call Ling and report everything as soon as possible. First, however, it was imperative that he remove and discard his current outfit, then wash himself from top to bottom.

The clothes were stuffed into a spare garbage bag he found in the bathroom under the sink, the top knotted tightly. Then he started the shower and stepped in. He adjusted the spray so it wouldn’t be overly warm. A complete and perfect exhaustion had seeped into his bones, and the cool water was the only thing keeping him on his feet.

Back in the main suite, the door that led into the hallway began to open.  

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