Author:Michael Palmer

    “I’m afraid Dr. Chopra, the director of our Division of Bacterial Diseases, has been called away on business, so we’re not going to be able to visit her lab before our tour of the grounds and the museum. We have two alternatives. We could visit the Division of Viral Diseases or take a tour of our Antibacterial Resistance Unit.”

    Viral diseases … Antibacterial resistance … A candy store for terrorists. The phrases reverberated in Lou’s thoughts.

    Harvey Plimpton, who had been taciturn in contrast to Brenda Greene, came alive at the option.

    “Antibacterial resistance. Before I changed specialties, I did research on E. coli mutation. Can we go there?”

    “If you both agree,” Heidi said.

    Lou and Greene made brief eye contact and nodded.

    “Great, we’ll start your visit there,” Heidi said. “I’ll call and let Dr. Scupman know that we’re coming. I think you’ll find him … well, quite interesting.”

    “What do you mean by ‘interesting’?” Lou asked.

    Heidi returned an enigmatic smile, but not an answer.


    The government exists to provide order to the people while 100 Neighbors exists to define what that order shall be.

    —LANCASTER R. HILL, 100 Neighbors, SAWYER RIVER BOOKS, 1939, P. 17

    It was three tenths of a mile from the main building to the CDC’s recently constructed Antibiotic Resistance Unit. Led by Heidi Johnson, the small group trooped there through a muggy, seventy-five-degree morning. The ARU, an expansive, single-story blockhouse-like rectangle, was constructed of gray cinder block. Dense low shrubbery surrounded it, but there was little in the way of artistic landscaping. Lou wondered if the designer had been intimidated by the notion of the germs the building was to contain or had simply been instructed not to make the place too inviting.

    As if validating his suspicions, security protocols commenced upon entry. An armed guard, young and fit and not the least bit engaging, came out from behind a small, unadorned desk in an equally uncluttered lobby. He took IDs and registered fingerprints using a biometric scanner. Moments later, another armed guard appeared from behind a locked steel door, this one secured by a keypad entry system. Escorted by the second guard, Lou followed the others into a long, windowless corridor, with unframed, foot-square photos lining the wall on each side—unlabeled, unappealing, colored microscopic and electron microscopic images of germs, mostly bacteria.

    The air, possibly filtered through some sort of recirculation system, tasted stale. Passing in front of a glass interior door, Lou spied a trio of scientists dressed in white knee-length lab coats at the far end of a hallway to their right. He glimpsed them just before they vanished through a side door into what might have been yet another corridor … or a stairway.


    The mystery of what lay beyond that passage tugged at Lou’s curiosity and had him suspecting that there was more to the facility belowground than above. The labs housed germs that were resistant to treatment. The battles that must be raging within those unappealing walls were intriguing. How many lethal forms of microscopic life were being cultured and studied? Could the scientists he had seen be working on something other than antibiotic resistance—weapons of mass destruction, perhaps? He kept pace with the others but let his imagination run on high.

    Following a maze of shorter corridors, the group passed through an open doorway and entered into a space with no scientific equipment inside—a conference room and library, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Tomes and bound periodicals, neatly arranged and labeled, occupied the entirety of two walls, and there were half a dozen bridge chairs set in front of a large flat-screen television positioned at the front of the room.

    Awaiting their arrival were two people, a man, mid-to-late fifties, and a woman, perhaps two decades his junior, both wearing knee-length lab coats. There was no identifying information—their names or the name of the unit—stitched above the breast pocket. The man had a broad, flat nose, heavy-lidded green eyes, and unruly gray-brown hair, carelessly parted on the right. His pallid complexion hinted to Lou at unbalanced hours spent indoors, probably in this vitamin D–deficient sarcophagus. The blue oxford shirt beneath his open lab coat would never pass anyone’s wrinkle-free test. His associate, her raven hair pulled into a tight bun, had an academic look, enhanced by heavy-framed glasses. Petite and quite cute in a mousy sort of way, she, at first take seemed reserved and uneasy around the arrivals.

    “Hello and welcome,” the man said, his speech, purposefully or not, delivered in a sepulchral tone. “My name is Scupman—Dr. Samuel Scupman. I am the head of the Antibiotic Resistance Unit here at the CDC. My associate is Dr. Vicki Banks. She will be assisting with today’s presentation. Mr. Greene in public relations tells me you are all physicians.”

    “Except me,” Heidi said. “I work with Mr. Greene.”

    Lou again saw Brenda’s eyes flash.

    “I’m Dr. Brenda Greene,” she said. “Mr. Greene and I are—were—married. This is Dr. Harvey Plimpton and this is Dr. Lou Welcome. We’re attending the national physician health organization meeting, and we’re all thrilled to be here.”

    Scupman, looking as if he could not care less who they were, nodded but made no attempt to shake hands. His eyes narrowed, possibly at the notion of having to interact with a species composed of more than one cell. A cloud of sorts passed in front of his face.

    “I confess I was surprised that your husband would offer up our unit this way,” he said. “Much of the work we do here is top secret. To guide you into the heart of our lab would be profoundly irresponsible. You see, within the confines of this facility exist more than ten thousand different species of bacterium—”

    “Actually, at last count, we have more than twenty thousand,” Vicki Banks interjected.

    “Yes, of course, thank you,” Scupman said. “Twenty thousand different strains of germs, many of which are so lethal that even for people highly trained in biorisk management, including the most advanced biosafety and laboratory security protocols, the dangers are still quite pronounced. I know you’ll want more, but for your own protection, today’s tour will be confined to the safety of a slideshow.”

    “We understand,” Brenda said, her disappointment obvious.

    “Please, if you’ll take your seats,” Banks instructed. “Dr. Scupman has another commitment, so we’ll need to begin right away.”

    As soon as everyone was settled, the lights dimmed and the first slide—bright colors, high definition—appeared on screen. It depicted a series of pink, rod-shaped bacteria, housed within a pink culture medium.

    “What you are seeing here,” Scupman said, “is a Gram negative motile bacterium called Burkholderia pseudomallei. This impressive little creature is the root cause of the infectious disease melioidosis. Without proper treatment, mortality rate for infected organisms exceeds ninety percent. Vomiting, high fever, cough, and profound chest pain combine to deliver a mercilessly slow and agonizing death. This bacterium, endemic in parts of Asia, Australia, and Africa, is currently classified as a category B biological weapon agent. It is sturdy, easily obtained, easily cultured, and stable enough to be weaponized. Impressive, yes?”

    Scupman flashed through a series of slides depicting different germs while speaking of the miraculous properties of each of them as if they were his brilliant, accomplished children. The more he rhapsodized, the more uneasy Lou became. It was one thing for Scupman to love his work, but another altogether to idolize the very beasties he was trying to defeat.

Most Read
Top Books