COVID PATIENT ZERO

A Jason Hammond Thriller

by Wil Mara

Chapter Seven

Ling took Jason down two floors to the forensics lab. Through a brightly lit hallway and a set of double doors, then another set of doors that slid back after Ling ran her card through a magnetic slot on the wall. Inside was a long room even brighter than the hallway. And whiter, too—white ceiling, white walls, white tile flooring that had been polished mirror-brilliant. There were several slate-topped examination tables, all suspended by locking cabinets instead of legs. Some had large computer monitors with wireless mouse-and-keyboard combos. And every chair was of the same office-simple design, with five wheels and no armrests. They looked like they’d could’ve been purchased from a fire sale after some small business went bellyup.

Liu, in a white lab coat, was sitting at one of the tables. Jason could see his suit and tie peeking out at the top and marveled again at how formal so many Chinese professionals could be. He couldn’t help but wonder if the practice of dress-down Fridays, which had its origins in Hawaii in the early 1960s, had ever caught on here.

Liu waved them over, and as they drew closer Jason saw all the evidence spread out before him—the cardboard box, the needles, the vials, all of it. There was also one of those flat, three-bladed speakerphones found in conference rooms across the globe; the kind that looks as though it could be used as serviceable projectile. Liu was hunched over it, arms crossed, conversing with a disembodied voice that Jason quickly identified as Deion’s.

Liu motioned for them to sit in the two chairs he had rolled over in preparation for their arrival. “They are here now, so let’s begin.”

“Looks like you’ve been busy,” Ling said as she sat.

“We have learned much already,” Liu replied, shifting his gaze to maintain eye contact with both of them.

“This is pretty remarkable stuff,” Deion inserted. “Prepare yourself, Jason.”

“I’m about as prepared as I can be,” he replied.

“Okay. Quan, let ‘er rip.”

Liu nodded. “First things first. The gentleman you found in the house in Xiaogan did, in fact, die of the infection caused by the Covid virus. His remains have already been collected, removed, and examined.”

“That’s probably not much of a surprise,” Jason said. “Right?”

“No, but some of the details are quite unusual. We ran all the tests, and the antibody load in his system was off the charts. And yet, he was otherwise a very healthy individual. He was young, his body was well-toned, and we could not find any signs of the normal abuses—tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, and such.”

“He should have sailed right through Covid,” Deion piped in. “A classic example of someone for whom there should have been few to no symptoms.”

“Then what happened?” Ling asked.

Before anyone else had a chance to respond, Jason said somberly, “He kept injecting himself.” There was a brief pause among them, then he continued with, “Am I right?”

“That is almost certainly correct,” Liu answered, nodding toward the monitor. There were three stacked mountain charts, with labeled circles at the peaks. “Not only was his antibody count abnormally high, but also the presence of the pathogen itself. Much higher than a normal case. And the wear and tear it caused tells us that the war inside him had been going on for much longer than usual. In a typical Covid case, the symptoms will last about two weeks, with about one in ten cases going three weeks and, in very rare instances, slightly longer. But this poor man’s body had been battling for well over a month, maybe two. The only reasonable explanation for that—”

“—is that he kept reinfecting himself.”

“That is right.”

“That’s pretty nasty,” Deion commented.

“It certainly is,” Liu replied.

“And it explains all the needle marks I found on his arm,” Jason said. “Five in total, I believe.”

“Yes. And I’m sure you noticed that some were older than others. The earliest one was almost fully healed. The most recent had localized swelling and redness.”

“What was the frequency of the injections?” Ling asked.

Liu puckered his lips in an expression of uncertainty. “Maybe two or three weeks.”

“Each time the infection started to fade,” Jason suggested. “Whenever he felt he was getting through it.”

“That’s a very likely explanation,” Liu said.

“So if we do the math,” Jason went on, “then a conservative estimate puts his initial infection at some time around early November.”

“Probably late October,” Liu corrected. “It’s okay to be conservative with the numbers, but I think late October is more realistic. As the antibodies continued to mass, you would think his system became better equipped to maintain a defense.”

“Yes.”

“But remember that this man also kept sending in more of the enemy troops. He kept injecting himself with fresh virus, which in fact continued to weaken those defenses. He simply overwhelmed them. With that in mind, my opinion would be that he launched this attack on himself in late October.”

Jason nodded slowly. “I guess it’s safe to say those vials contain live examples of the virus?”

“Yes they do.”

“So can we assume this man is our Covid patient zero? At least for the moment?”

“Based on all the other data we have, absolutely.”

“Okay, so then I guess the next big question is why was he doing this.”

Liu held up a finger and managed a tiny smile. “Ah, well, we may have some answers for that, too.”

“You guys are sitting down, right?” Deion asked.

“We are,” Jason answered.

“Good, because this is where it gets truly surreal.”

****

Jason said, “Let me guess, he was infecting himself so he could infect everyone else. Or as many people as possible, that is.”

Liu was nodding. “That is the theory we’re working with. We already have a team going through video files from security cameras to see if we can trace his movements in Wuhan.”

“Not Xiaogan?” 

“We are looking for video from there, too, because it is a fairly well populated area. But the first recorded Covid cases are from Wuhan, which is one of our largest cities.”

“Number nine in terms of population, I believe,” Jason said. “Around eight and a half million.”

Liu jabbed a finger toward Jason in a curiously charming and grandfatherly manner. “That is correct.”

“And an ideal starting place if you wanted to spread a powerful contagion,” Ling said. “Lots and lots of people.”

“Of course.”

“But it is ideal in other ways, too,” Jason added. “It has a large population, but it’s not a city that has a high of a profile as, say, Shanghai or Beijing, your number one and number two, respectively. Most of the rest of the world never heard of Wuhan until Covid broke loose.”

“That’s for sure,” came Deion’s voice through the speaker. “I certainly never had.”

“Me neither,” Jason went on. “And yet with the wet markets and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it’s a perfect starting point. Lots of blame to spread around, lots of mystery and misdirection to work through.”

Ling frowned. “But that still doesn’t tell us why. What was this man’s motivation?”

“Well, we know that he was a political animal,” Jason said. “His former brother-in-law said as much.”

“And we’ve found some connections in his past to support that,” Deion added. “His name came up in some security searches that some of Ling’s colleagues have already run. He was definitely anti-Communist. It’s not clear if that necessarily meant he was pro-West. But he most certainly had issues with his own government.”

Jason had to fight off the urge to shake his head. The last thing he was prepared to do was launch into a discussion about politics, philosophy, and all the other axes upon which the world supposedly turned. But it did fascinate him to no end the way some people didn’t seem to subscribe to any particular point of view, but merely enjoyed standing in opposition to whichever one was put in front of them. People like that, he believed, would never find inner peace because it wasn’t really peace they wanted. Noah had a saying about such people that seemed to capture them flawlessly—“They’re only happy when they’re unhappy.”

“Most people have issues with their government to some degree,” Jason replied. “But that doesn’t automatically make this guy a genocidal lunatic.”

He expected Deion or perhaps even Ling to swing at this pitch. But it was Liu who spoke first.

“No, but one of his other possible connections may suggest he was willing to give it a try.”

“Meaning….”

Liu pushed his keyboard and mouse away and pulled the cardboard box closer.

“The answer may lie right here.”

“Inside the box?”

“No, with the box itself. We were able to trace its manufacturing origin to a company in Malaysia. One of the smaller companies of its kind, producing a wide variety of boxes as well other cardboard and paper products.” Liu flipped it over and pointed to a set of tiny Malaysian characters printed in one corner. “That is the model number of this particular box. So we called the company to ask about where it is sold and distributed.”

“That must’ve provided thousands of results,” Ling said.

“Yes, but—” he flipped it right-side up again “—we also have a mailing label here. No return address, of course, as it was ripped off to protect the sender’s identity. But the mailing label is still attached, probably because the recipient didn’t think it would reveal much. It does, however. Between the label itself, the printing, and the adhesive, we know this package came from Singapore.”

“Simple narrowing through multiple parameters,” Jason said.

“Correct. It’s what makes Google searches so easy. The more details you feed into it, the smaller the list of results will be.”

“Same principle as with eBay,” Deion said.

“Exactly. So after we made the determination about Singapore, we went back to the box manufacturer, and their list became much smaller. From there we added other parameters as well—the shipment of those boxes to Singapore within the last three months, the manufacture and distribution of both the vials and the needles….” Liu carefully lifted one of the latter and pointed to the soft rubber connector between the barrel and the shaft. “See that little thing? It tells us exactly where this needle was made. Which plant produced it, when it was shipped, and to where.”

“And what about the fact that the packaging around each needle was blank?” Jason asked. “There was no printing on any of them?”

“That’s because it was an institutional sale,” Liu replied. “It was supposed to go from one company—the manufacturer—to another. And that company would add their logo or whatever.”

“So what did you finally conclude?”

“We had a list of eight possible sources in Singapore from which this box was likely sent.”

“Had?” Ling asked.

“Yes, but then we narrowed it even further.”

“To how many?”

Liu’s smile faded now, which struck Jason as odd. If anything, it should have grown larger.

“Just one.”

“Which was…?”

“We believe it could be Prizrak,” he said solemnly.

More silence fell between them. When Jason turned to Ling, he found her looking more perplexed than ever.

“Okay, so where’s Prizrak?” he asked.

“Prizrak isn’t a place,” Deion answered. “It’s a person.”

“And even the name isn’t accurate,” Ling said as if in a trance. “My God….”

“I don’t understand.”

“Prizrak is the nickname we’ve given to a person we know exists but we’ve never been able to identify.”

“I still don’t—”

“Jason, ‘prizrak’ is the Russian word for ghost,” Deion said.

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