The Deathbrew Affair

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Note: This chapter is a draft, not the final version.

 

Chapter 1

 

Crouching under a desk wasn’t the best way to see Italy, but I hadn’t come as a tourist. I glanced at my watch, clearly visible in the dark through my night vision eyepatch.

Eleven seventeen.

Fooling the scanners so I could break into this office had taken too much time. Only thirteen minutes left to see what was in the concealed safe and return to my job in the warehouse ten floors below, or I’d blow my cover.

Rumor had it the desk’s owner, JJD Industrials magnate Jasper Jones-Demerest, was dealing black market arms to rogue nations. My real employer, the international intelligence agency Arachnid, had sent me, Katherine “Casey” Billings, to find out how deep in the muck he waded.

I scowled at the safe. Paranoia’s a survival skill in the black market arms business, but putting a safe inside the kneehole of the desk had to take some kind of prize. My neck already had a twinge that warned of a crick forming.

My watch vibrated. Swallowing a curse, I yanked the chair in close to me to avoid having its displacement show on the overhead security camera.

Every three minutes, it did a five-second sweep, long enough to register those present but not long enough for even a lip-reader to decipher a secret deal. I had twelve minutes before I needed to resume my shift in the warehouse, but I had no room to open the safe door.

The elaborately carved, mahoghany desk was roughly the size of India but still had little space under it for five feet, eight inches of me. Then there was the bulk under my green JJD Industrials coverall from my Walther PPK and the pack that held my extra ammo and tools flush against my stomach. And the big chair.

All that made a space that was small to begin with downright cramped. Good thing I wouldn’t be here long.

My watch vibrated again, signaling an end to the camera sweep. I elbowed the chair away and turned back to the safe.

We’d obtained a print of Jones-Demerest’s index finger, and our scientists had incorporated it into a small sheath, sort of like a tiny condom, to fool the safe’s scanner.

I shoved my finger into the sheath, but the latex twisted. It went on at an angle that yielded a lumpy fit. Hell. I yanked it off and tried again. This time it slid smoothly over my fingertip. Only eleven more minutes left on my break.

I pressed my fake-printed index finger to the scanner. With a barely audible click, the safe popped open a quarter-inch. At last!

Opening the door, I checked the arrangement of the contents. Just files stacked neatly, no objects I’d have to replace with care. I grabbed the top file and flipped it open. Swiss bank account numbers. Nice but not what I’d come for, and I had no time to spend on it. I traded it for the next one.

Project Utopia, the top sheet read, with a list of tactical weapons below the title. I ran my microscanner down the pages to copy it. The scanner’s internal light source didn’t affect my eyepatch, so I skimmed as the scanner recorded.

Jones-Demerest had purchased farmland in Yorkshire. Odd. Lab supplies, too. I frowned. That stuff wasn’t in his usual line. Neither were the mass orders for eggs on the next page.

Eggs with weaponry? My gut knotted.

When I turned the page, a phrase jumped out at me, LD-50.

Shit.

I flipped to the next page, and something worse jumped out, Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax. That explained the eggs. They were incubators. Hell in a handbasket.

Below, I read Salmonella typhimurium, Latin for salmonella, Salmonella typhi, typhoid fever, and poena summa, the Latin for highest punishment? That had to stand for something vile.

Coupled with the reference to LD-50, the term for the dosage needed to kill fifty percent of the test population, this information could mean only one thing. Jones-Demerest, that bastard, had graduated from bullets to biowarfare.

I cursed him silently as I scanned the rest of the file. When I finished, my watch read eleven twenty-four, giving me six minutes before my break ended.

The other three files in the safe, labeled Annual Report, Ledger, and Quarterly Returns, appeared related to his cover business. I didn’t have time to scan them, and stealing them would tip him off that someone had penetrated his security.

I couldn’t risk that, especially given what I now knew. I stacked all the files and shut the door.

The timer signaled another sweep, so I pulled the chair in again. While I waited, I replaced my tools—except for the jammer—in the flat pack under my clothes and sealed the seams.

The timer vibrated, paused for ten seconds, then vibrated again. All clear. Four whole minutes to make it downstairs, when I needed at least five. Hellfire.

I pushed the chair away, climbed out, and replaced it. I dashed across the antique Persian carpet and out of Jones-Demerest’s palatial office, through the smaller one for his personal assistant and across the still-smaller waiting room for his two secretaries and visitors. This guy had as much status space between his sanctum and the world as the monarchs of old. Probably an ego to match.

None of that could save him now.

Anyone putting bioweapons into the world deserved the worst possible punishment, and I’d see that Jones-Demerest reaped exponentially more than he’d meant to sow. But I shelved the terrifying image his intentions roused. I could worry about that later. Now I had to escape without being discovered.

At the door, I paused to straighten my caramel-brown wig and green ball cap, which working in cramped quarters had pushed askew. I didn’t hear anyone in the hallway.

Holding the jammer down to fool the security camera across from the door, I slipped out into the hall. All clear.     

My heart beating fast but my feet silent on the burgundy carpet, I hurried down the walnut-paneled corridor. Heading for the elevator, I passed the offices of the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer.

Nice little enclave they had up here, serving the King of Slime. Whether or not they knew about his side businesses, they benefited from the tainted income.

Bringing home the evidence I carried might save thousands of lives. It would also spur Arachnid to move against Jones-Demerest. My late partner, David Rhys, had been killed while we were investigating a gun-smuggling ring tied to the rat-bastard.

David. My throat tightened, and my chest ached. He and his wife had treated me like family. He’d been gone sixteen months, and I still had occasional nightmares about his death. Still wrestled with guilt and second-guessing.

If Arachnid went after Jones-Demerest, I wanted the point position.

At the corner, I activated the jammer to send the security camera into a three-second internal replay and trotted past. The elevator waited where I’d left it. I had to bet security wouldn’t notice the elevator grid if the video screens stayed clear.

I hit the jammer again to foil the camera inside and used my counterfeit key—required for the penthouse level—to send the cab down to floor seven. The elevators from the warehouse went only that far, to the domain of low-level management. As the doors opened there, I squeezed out.

I ran down the hall to the warehouse elevator and jabbed the button. Nothing. Oh, hell, someone must’ve used it.

Checking my watch, I wheeled toward the stairs. Eleven twenty-seven. Three minutes left before I’d have to test my creative excuse.

Behind me, a door clicked open. “What are you doing up here?” a man’s voice asked in suspicion-tinged Italian.

So much for my three minutes.

I pasted on a smile, summoned my own Italian, and turned. “I was looking for the lounge. I’m new.”

Approaching, he frowned. He was about five nine and pudgy. I could take him if I had to. His eyes dropped to read the ID badge clipped on my chest pocket.

“Maybe you can help me,” I suggested, though his frown implied he felt more apt to call Security. I gauged the distance as he closed. If he came within reach—

“The lounge is on the warehouse level, by the lavatories.” He stopped just outside my kicking range.

“The door was shut.” I gave him my best Clueless Babe impression. “One of the men told me there was another one up here. Isn’t there?”

“You can discuss that with Signor Abruzzi.” Reaching for my arm, he stepped forward.

I’d never survive a chat with the shift supervisor. When Signor Suspicious gripped my right arm, I socked him in the gut with a hard left. Shock broke his grip. With a groan, he crumpled into my rising knee.

Something dinged behind me. Pivoting, I slammed my right elbow down at the base of his skull, and he collapsed. With me facing the open elevator doors.

And the elevator camera.

Shit.

Swallowing against panic, I pressed the button on my watch to signal Petunia McIntosh, my backup, to move in ’cause my butt was in a sling.

I had no time to tie up my new friend. Jumping over his sprawled form, I bolted for the stairs.

There were security cameras on each floor in the stairwell. I hit the jammer button and lunged through the door. A leap and a knee-jarring landing, and I reached the turn. Another leap, while I held the jammer button, brought me to the next floor.

I’d just hit the next landing when the klaxons shrieked, a bone-rattling clamor filling the office floors. The stairway lights blinked red. My heartbeat went into adrenaline surge overdrive. Damn. But I’d known Jones-Demerest wouldn’t have dolts watching the security monitors.

The elevator camera had probably torpedoed my cover, but using the jammer should keep them from knowing exactly where I was. I hoped.

I ripped a few orange gumballs out of my pack. The midget smoke bombs, which resembled nickel gum, might come in handy. As backup, I also pulled out a jawbreaker. It looked like a rough-textured, yellow gumball but packed a hellacious flash/bang combination.

Holding the jammer down, I frog-jumped down to the warehouse level. The guards might know I was trouble, but as long as they didn’t know where, they couldn’t overwhelm me. The fire door was one floor down, with an alarm. Since that would alert them to my route, I’d try evasion first.

Removing my wig revealed my hair’s true, dark brown color. I tossed the wig and cap down the stairs to lay a false trail, then unzipped my coverall partway so I could draw my Walther from its shoulder holster more easily if I needed it.

Gulping in a deep breath to brace myself, I slipped out of the doorway. Just as alarms sounded in the warehouse.

A wooden pallet stacked high with boxes of ball bearings blocked my view of the warehouse but not of the loading bay door. It stood about a dozen yards past the pallets, open to the balmy night. With a screech, the metal hatch started downward to cut off my exit route.

“Hey!” someone behind me yelled in Italian. “You, stop!”

Crap. I flung a gumball in his direction. It smashed on the concrete as I drew the Walther. Acrid black smoke erupted. The guy coughed, a deep, racking, sick sound. That should slow him down.

I hurled the flashbang toward the opposite side of the room. The more false trails, the better, and it detonated with a blinding flare.

Through the flare of light and the ear-splitting din of shouts and coughs and klaxons and banging, I ran flat-out for the loading bay. Maybe there’d be a boat I could steal at the end of the dock to carry me downriver to meet Petunia. The Tiber River was the weak chink in the plant’s armor. Everything on land was fenced, guarded with electricity and dogs.

A couple of guys by the loading bay wheeled toward the din I’d created. I never lose sleep over killing agents of chaos, but I try to avoid whacking some dupe who’s just doing his seemingly innocent job. I threw my last gumball and plunged at the door. I half skidded, half rolled under the metal panel an instant before it thudded into its floor slot behind me.

That bought me a few minutes. Ignoring my scraped, stinging hands, I sprinted thirty yards across the empty freight yard for the dock. I didn’t bother with the jammer. The outside cameras would pick me up, but I’d lost any hope of secrecy anyway.

Fear tightened my throat. I swallowed against it. I’d survived worse scrapes than this.

A faint scent of motor oil hung in the air. Across the broad, moon-silvered river lay other companies’ warehouses, now deserted.

Tall stacks of crates awaiting tomorrow morning’s barge pickup took up most of the dock. At least I’d have some cover. Heart racing, I darted behind them.

No boat.

Shit. I hoped that didn’t mean I’d used my quota of luck for tonight. Personal reasons aside, I had to let Arachnid know what I’d found. Just thinking of the deaths an effective bioweapon could cause in a single release made me ill.

I’d have to swim downriver—and conceal myself underwater before the guards reached me. Which could be any minute.

But I couldn’t let haste or anxiety lure me into a stupid mistake. Jaw set, I ducked behind the crates, set the Walther down and shucked the coverall and pack. That left me with a tank suit and sneakers.

Loud, male voices came from the direction of the building. I didn’t have much time. From the body pack, I drew a waterproof pouch containing the fingerprint sheath, the scanner, the night vision eyepatch and my two spare magazines for the Walther. I’d take them and my weapon. The ordinary, unremarkable tools I hadn’t needed to use, I’d leave in the pack and fling it into the river. The splash would draw attention to that spot while I swam away in a different direction.

I hoped.

Footsteps hit the metal dock, fast and angry. They stopped abruptly.

Uh-huh, sneaking up on me. A little late for caution, guys. Also a little soon for my needs.

Silently, I set the waterproof pouch down and gripped the Walther. I held my breath, crouching, and listened.

Two people, by the sound of their muffled but heavy footsteps. One on my left and one on the right. A flanking maneuver, but divide and conquer could serve me as well as them.

The one on the right sounded closer. But the crate on the left stood only waist high, while the ones on the right rose about six feet.

I’d have to go left. It’s hard to explode into action around something. “Over” works much better, especially with an assist from gravity.

I set my hands cautiously on top of the low crate, waiting. With the gun in my right hand, I’d have to put most of my weight on my left. The right-hand guy reached the corner. I surged upward, vaulting over the crate and twisting to slam my feet into his dark-clad companion.

He had a lineman’s blocky build, but I hit him squarely and hard. He toppled backward with a grunt. His gun barked, and a bullet zinged past my ear.

I landed, spinning toward the second guy as he turned back toward me. Just as I’d figured, only two of them. This doofus didn’t even have his gun drawn. I took a step forward to meet him and pivoted on my left foot for a right roundhouse kick to the ribs. He swatted at my leg, an amateur move.

My toe stuck—some kind of crap on the dock—but my leg was already swinging. The kick drove his arm aside and struck him in the ribs, not as hard as it should’ve.

White-hot pain blossomed in my left knee. At least it didn’t collapse, but I couldn’t run on it. I had to finish this quickly.

The guard staggered. Righted himself to lunge at me. I set my weight on my right foot, blocked his punch with my left forearm, and hit his temple with the butt of my Walther. He dropped silently.

His buddy stirred. A squad of men in guard uniforms, about a dozen, charged from the reopened warehouse gate.

I rolled across the crates. When I landed, my left leg screamed blue murder and crumpled.

Stifling a groan, I knelt to jerk the mermaid mask out of my pack. I sealed the waterproof pouch with the things I was taking, then hurled my pack low and hard off the dock. It hit the water with a satisfying splash about eight feet out, in a spot where I might’ve dived.

Holding the pouch, the mask, and my gun, I slid into the water. Damn, but it was cold. I swallowed a shivery gasp.

I surfaced under the dock to the sounds of gunfire and Italian curses and the dank, oily stink of polluted river. Bullets ripped knife-like splashes where my pack had sunk.

At least my leg worked well enough to tread water, though every kick sent fire up my thigh. I could swim, more or less, and probably hadn’t torn the ligaments completely. Maybe luck hadn’t deserted me after all.

I fitted the mask over my face and pulled the straps tight. If the filter didn’t work in this nasty water, I wasn’t out of the swamp yet. Cautiously, I submerged the lower half of my face and inhaled. The mask drew air from the water. Not as much as I’d’ve liked but enough to sustain me until I reached the rendezvous downstream.

The guards were shooting into the river at random now. I sank under the water and used my arms to push myself down a meter, two, then three. If I went down far enough, the water would slow any stray bullet that came my way.

I set my lips in a line behind the mask and, ignoring my screaming knee, kicked out into the current. Next up, ending the twisted career of Jasper Jones-Demerest.

#

Three hours later, I perched on the edge of a leather seat in an Arachnid jet racing north over the Italian Alps. Settling back, I spared a moment’s gratitude for the convenience. I still carried enough of Hartner Falls, North Carolina, my textile-mill hometown, with me to see private cars and jets as privileges not to be taken for granted.

The small plane didn’t have a shower, but it did stock a limited selection of track pants and t-shirts for agents who, like me, had suffered recent wardrobe losses. I might still have gunky hair, but I did have clean, if baggy, clothes.

Petunia McIntosh, my backup, wrapped a pressure bandage around my swollen knee. Brows knitted below her spiky blonde hair, she stared at the bandage, then popped a huge, purple gum bubble. “You know, Casey,” she said with her Scots lilt, “for a roundhouse kick, you pivot on your toes.”

“Tell that to the guy who didn’t clean the dock.”

“I don’t think you tore anything, but you’ll have to stay off it for a bit.” She spoke from both paramedic training and long experience with field operatives.

“I don’t have time to rest. We have to nail this guy.”

We need not include either of us, you know. Arachnid has scores of operatives.”

“Yeah, but I discovered this plot. We should have first crack at breaking it.”

We’d transmitted my data ahead on a scrambled channel. By the time we reached London headquarters, the analysts there would have as clear a picture of Jones-Demerest’s bioweapons scheme as my information could supply.

Petunia—probably not her real name, but that was her business—blew another bubble. “I’d like to be a fly on the wall when you try convincing the Spider Lady of that.”

“You could probably sell tickets.” Going by the title Arachne, as all regional directors did, our boss made Hitler look as determined as a bag of marshmallows. “Don’t bet against me, though. I thrive on uphill battles.”

I’d had to, to escape Hartner Falls.

“Everyone in Arachnid knows you do.” Petunia grinned around her gum wad. “It’s a couple of hours to London. Take an anti-inflammatory and rest.”

“Maybe later.”

Petunia rolled her eyes as though she’d expected that reply. “Suit yourself, but I’m dozing.” She belted herself into the seat across from mine.

I slid down in my seat to practice controlled breathing. It did little to dull the pain. Resting made sense, but drugs would fog my brain for the coming argument.

I have first dibs would cut no ice with Arachne, but telling her my real reason for wanting this gig so badly would get me scratched from it for sure.

Lack of objectivity, she’d say. She’d be right about that but wrong about personal reasons always being a hindrance.

I owed David and his family. For his funeral, his petite, blond wife, Amelia, had worn green and dressed their two sad, bewildered little girls in floral prints, the outfits David had loved best on them. Not even the bright spring dresses could bring the sparkle back to those young faces.

My heart clenched on the memory. One way or another, I would keep the promise I’d made Amelia that day. I would bring Jones-Demerest down.

Abuse of power was personal to me. I’d grown up in a mill town in North Carolina, one that ran on the old model with the mill owner controlling everything from the schools to the churches to the grocery store. Nobody sneezed without begging “Mr. Jim” Hartner’s pardon. No kid dared win a game from any of his sons. Or defy their orders, no matter how petty or unfair.

I’d learned that the hard way when I was eight, when “Jimbo” Hartner, the youngest, ruined what turned out to be my last evening with my grandfather. Ever since, I’d fought for what I wanted, first to escape the grinding mill town life that so easily squelched any hope of something better and then to build the life I wanted.

I’d read everything I could get my hands on in high school, busted my ass putting myself through college, even changed my speech patterns to fit into a less rural world.

I’d fight for this case if I had to.

Jones-Demerest had money and power, and he was abusing them to get more of both—wanted more badly enough to create and likely sell a plague that would kill hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who’d never done anything to injure him.

Son of a bitch was too mild a term for him. Also unfair to female dogs. Devil spawn came closer.

Terminated would be even better. Especially if I could convince my perceptive, iron-willed, always-the-job-first boss that I was up to taking care of him.

#