COVID PATIENT ZERO

A Jason Hammond Thriller

by Wil Mara

Chapter Six

Jason had taken up the practice of showering at night rather than in the morning a few years ago. He was one of those people who searched tirelessly for ways to improve his daily schedule. He realized this made him something of an efficiency freak; an inherited trait from both parents, but his dad in particular. And that tendency drove him to tweak and fiddle with his routine in the hope of squeezing as much productivity out of each moment as possible. Even as a child, he was intuitively aware of the fleeting nature of time. Every day was a gift—he truly believed this—and he needed to make all of them count.

Showering just before bed enabled him to get right to work the following morning. Even while traveling, he did his best to adhere to this ritual. The process, which he carried out now, was always the same—take a warm shower, dry off, then get into clean underwear, gym shorts, and a t-shirt. He dried his hair first with a towel and then with a blow dryer. The one provided by the hotel produced a gust that was pleasingly strong.

He left the bathroom, went down a brief hallway, and into the main suite. Fatigue had infused itself into his very bones, and nothing looked as welcoming as that enormous bed. A flurry of cogent thoughts managed to pass through the neural network before he got there, the most important being the decision to call Ling as soon as he woke up. And Deion, too. There was no sense hiding what he’d found at Chen’s villa. Maybe he could’ve gotten help analyzing it all back home, but he didn’t even know where to begin such research over here. Plus there was a dead body to be counted. Counted and logged and bagged and either buried or cremated. He couldn’t stand the thought of the poor guy just lying there, regardless of what sins Chen may have committed. Again, Jason wouldn’t know where to start a sub rosa retrieval over here, but Ling surely would.

He pulled back the covers and was preparing to slip beneath them when a voice spoke out—

“Stay right where you are.”

Jason did exactly as he was told, one foot on the mattress as he was reaching to lift sheets. It was an idiotic posture to be sure, but he wasn’t concerned with appearances at that moment.

He looked in the direction of the voice and saw a small figure emerge from the shadowy alcove by the door. A male, native Chinese to be sure, late twenties or early thirties, outfitted in black sneakers, black jeans, and a white tank top. He had boyishly smooth skin and prominent eyebrows, which created a youthful air that was almost unaffected, even wholesome. But there was something else in that face moving like a fish beneath the ice of a winter pond. It was raw malignancy, of the kind that can only come from years of hardship. This was a creature of the streets. The slicked-back hair, the gold jewelry, the tattoos. A career criminal in the making, and unquestionably dangerous.

Jason made a quick appraisal of the gun his guest was holding. A Heckler & Koch P30. Considering the fact that China had some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world, he was willing to bet the weapon wasn’t of legal pedigree.

The guy’s introductory phrase had been delivered in passable English, so Jason felt it was acceptable to reply in kind.

“Don’t shoot, I’m completely unarmed. What can I do for you?”

“I want the box you carried in when you arrived here.”

“Box?”

The man’s jaw tightened visibly. “This gun is fully loaded, and I’m not the least bit afraid to use it. Also…” he reached around to his back pocket and brought out a short, black tube. “…this is an Osprey silencer. I can drop you right now and be a thousand kilometers away before anyone finds you. So let me be clear—I’ve been following you from the moment you left the house in Xiaogan. I saw the box you carried out. Then I saw you bring it up here. I searched the room while you were showering but couldn’t find it. But I know it’s here, so give it to me.”

  A dozen possibilities as to how this could play out surged through Jason’s mind. The guy was too far away to jump, so that wasn’t happening. Continued conversation was an option, but that didn’t seem like the path to a satisfactory result. And if Jason refused to cooperate, the little bastard would just shoot him and then, eventually, locate the box anyway. Also, there was no way for Jason to know if he’d be shot once the box was handed over anyway.

He nodded toward the nightstand on the opposite side.

“It’s down there, underneath.”

“I already looked in there.”

“No, beneath the bed.”

“I looked there, too.”

“I put it where it was hard to see, in the back against the wall. The same place where I found it in the house in Xiaogan.”

The gunman studied him for a long moment. Then he looked to the spot Jason described. He seemed to be considering his own options.

“You want me to get down there so you can attack me,” he declared finally.

“I swear it’s where I said it was. I swear it.”

The man stepped back and motioned with his weapon. “Then you get it. And if you so much as twitch in my direction, I’ll make you sorry.”

“I understand.”

The gunman took two more steps back. Jason came around to that side, making a point of holding his hands up about halfway. They looked like they were perched on the heads of two invisible children.

He knelt down and reached in, and his fingers found the smooth angularity of the box’s corner without any trouble.

“Okay, I’ve got it,” he said. “I’m going to pull it out now, so don’t freak. I’ll go very slowly.”

That bit of reassurance received no response. He pulled the box from its hiding place and set it on the comforter. In that moment, he saw his way out of this.

“I’m opening it now,” he continued, “to show you what’s inside.”

He lifted the flaps and bent them back so they wouldn’t swing closed again. Then he took the box in hand again and, turning unhurriedly, held it out.

“Syringes and vials of some kind of clear fluid,” he said. “Those that are wrapped up in the paper toweling were already used. I found them in the trash.”

The gunman’s eyes shifted between Jason and the box a few times.

“What’s in the vials?”

“I have no idea. I was going to have them analyzed tomorrow. Or, actually, later today, after I got some sleep. If I had to guess, I’d say they had live samples of the coronavirus.”

 A shadow of fear passed over the gunman’s face for just an instant. Jason took note of this and had one thought—it’s now or never.

He reached in and took one of the vials in hand.

“But I can’t be sure because none of the vials has a label. See?”

His guest did exactly as Jason hoped—his eyes trained on the vial like a child watching a magic trick.

In one smooth motion, Jason popped off the rubber cap with his thumb and threw the vial’s contents into his guest’s face. The latter managed to hold onto the gun but was too busy covering his eyes—an immediate human reflex that could always be counted on—and letting out a shriek so high and strangled it almost sounded like an adolescent female.

Jason tossed the box aside and moved in quick, chopping the man’s hand just below the wrist. The gun flew back into the darkened alcove, clattering across the tiled floor. Then Jason threw an elbow to his nose, which produced a crunching sound that was truly awful.

For a flicker of an instant, Jason thought this was going to be that rarest of physical altercation where one of the participants gets KO’d before the first bead of sweat breaks out on the other. No such luck—the unwanted visitor lunged forward, driving the two of them onto the bed. He threw several rapid punches to Jason’s face. Then he delivered an open-handed blow to the chin, which in turn smashed Jason’s lower jaw into the upper; a classic move designed to send a shockwave through the brain. It had the desired effect, because reality began spinning and darkening, and for a moment Jason was sure he was going to pass out.

Somehow he didn’t, and even more incredibly he managed to hold onto the man by his otherwise flimsy tanktop. Jason brought up his knee and connected to the one spot where no ever wishes to be struck. Then he pulled his leg up further, set his foot flat against his attacker’s stomach, and rolling backward, tossed the guy off him. He sailed through the air with his arms flailing—which would’ve looked comical under almost any other circumstances—and landed back-first onto a small glass table, which immediately exploded.

Jason scrambled off the bed and went to the alcove, where he found the gun lying in one corner. He grabbed the weapon, clicked back the hammer, and spun around, fully expecting his attacker to be fast approaching for another round. What he saw instead was startling. The curtains leading to the balcony were rising and falling gracefully in the night breeze, and the sliding door stood open.

He went over cautiously, the pistol aimed and ready. He pulled one curtain back and found the balcony empty. For an instant he thought he’d been fooled—his visitor had only slid the door back to make it seem as though he was gone, when in fact he was hiding behind one of the heavier curtains, waiting for his chance to ambush. But when Jason yanked back the curtains one at a time, he found nothing but unoccupied space and a light cloud of dust motes.

With every sense on high alert, he stepped onto the balcony and performed a careful inspection of his surroundings.

His visitor had fled.

****

“Then you went to sleep?” Ling asked incredulously.

Her relatively small office was completely enclosed and had all the hallmarks of any American equivalent—desk, computer, printer, pens, pencils, and piles of paperwork either unresolved or unfiled. A tall shelf was half filled with books and the other with framed photos of family and friends. Two more paper piles were stacked on a walnut cabinet.

“You have to understand how tired I was,” Jason pleaded, sitting in the sole visitor’s chair feeling like he was being scolded by the school principal. “I was past the point of exhaustion before this guy showed up.”

“He could’ve come back.”

“Highly unlikely. I locked all the doors and windows. Plus, he knew I had the gun.”

Ling shook her head. “What if you’d had a concussion?”

Jason admitted the headache he was nursing could’ve killed an elephant. “But I’ve had concussions before, and this isn’t close. The guy got in a few good blows, but a concussion? No.”

Ling leaned over and inspected the wounds on his face one more time. There were three—two were beneath his left eye, which was also a bit swollen, and the third, which ran at an angle across his forehead. All were relatively minor.

“It’s no problem to have someone from the medical team check you out,” she said. 

“No, it’s fine. I cleaned myself up before I went to sleep and applied some stuff from the First Aid kit I brought along.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am, but thanks. Don’t worry, I’ll survive.”

She shook her head again. “Men.”

Jason smiled. “We really are pathetic, aren’t we?”

“Indeed you are.” She leaned back in her chair and put on a smile of her own. “So, you do speak our language after all. I should’ve known.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t. I’m sure it’s in my school records.”

“I’m surprised Deion didn’t.”

“Me too.”

“So what did he say?” Ling asked.

Jason replayed the last few hours in his mind. When he left the hotel, he had two boxes—the one his attacker was after, and a second ready for mailing back to New Hampshire. He made a point of going to a different China Post location than the one he used the other day. After that he got in the car and headed for Ling’s building. Along the way, he called Katie and Noah to let them know another package was coming. Then a call to Deion to update him on recent events.

“Well, like you,” he told Ling now, “he wasn’t thrilled. Glad that I was making progress, but not thrilled that I didn’t initially reveal the full breadth of my language skills. He’s probably wondering how much else I’m keeping from him.”

“I’m fully behind him on that.”

Jason shot her a withering look. “He’s probably doing a deeper dive into my personal details than ever before, making certain I’m not a Russian spy or something.”

That we would’ve known,” Ling said emphatically.

“I’m sure.” He thought again about the boxes he’d been sending back home and prayed that neither Ling, Deion, nor anyone else beyond Katie and Noah knew about them. He couldn’t see how anyone would, but then this was China. Privacy in America was a privilege that had been gradually shrinking for decades, but at least its citizens had the means to fight for it. Here, on the other hand, a system was already rooted in place to assure that every detail of a person’s life could be fully exposed at a moment’s notice. For all Jason knew, agents had been trailing him since he landed.

He was about to change the subject when Ling’s phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID, then hit the speaker button.

“Hello, Quan. What’s up?”

Jason was introduced to Quan Liu shortly after he got here. Liu was soft-spoken and genial, with thick glasses and a bookish air that underscored his academic background. He was also the head of the forensics division and, as such, took possession of the box Jason found at the Xiaogan house for analysis.

“We’ve got something,” he said in English that was somehow understandable in spite of the thick accent.

“From the box itself?”

“The box, the needles, the vials…all of it.”

Ling looked at Jason and smiled. “Sounds serious.”

Quan issued a diminutive chuckle that carried absolutely no traces of humor.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said.    

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