Friday, September 7, 2018
I pressed the buzzer for apartment 3A three times without getting a response. So I pushed the button marked “Manager.”
A voice responded 30 seconds later: “Yeah?”
I looked up at the security camera inside the door. “Can you let me in? We need to do a safety check on one of your tenants.”
Two minutes later a young white man in jeans and a Chicago Cubs T-shirt opened the door. “What’s up?”
“My name’s Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective.” I handed him my card. “Jim Gold’s ex-wife hasn’t heard from him in months, and she’s concerned for his safety.”
He looked at my card. “His safety or her alimony?”
Child support, actually. “Either way, he’s not answering.”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
It was a small building, three floors, no elevator. We were both huffing for breath by the third floor.
The manager—Jack Figueroa, he told me—unlocked 3A with a key from a large ring attached to a thick leather belt. “Let me go first. I don’t know—whoa!”
The stench from inside was enough to knock a grown man over. Figueroa backed away, retching. I put a hand over my mouth, trying to control my stomach. Was Gold dead? That would explain . . .
No. I’d found dead bodies before—sometimes long dead. This odor was different. But no less nauseating.
Figueroa leaned down, hands on his knees, gasping for breath.
I grabbed a handkerchief from my back pocket and held my nose. Then I went through the door.
Patches of gray slime dotted the carpet. Empty cans of beer sat on a coffee table in front of a red couch covered with similar stains. An empty case of beer was infested with cockroaches feasting on the remains of a pizza that must have been a month old.
They didn’t even scatter as I crossed the room, trying not to step in the slime.
The apartment had one bedroom and a kitchen. I glanced into the kitchen, saw more roaches and blotches on the floor and counter, along with more beer cans, then bit my lip as I headed for the bedroom.
The stink was worse. And the hardwood floor was almost completely covered with the gray slime. I stood in the bedroom doorway, fighting my nerves.
On top of the bed, a lump of blankets shifted.
“Uh . . . hello?” I lowered my handkerchief. “Mr. Gold?”
One blanket fell over. Then another. The pile rose up . . .
And a hand reached out.
It was covered with gray slime.
Something reared up, pushing the blankets off. It looked like a fungus, green and gray, its body shaped like a gumdrop the size of a man. The arm stretching out dripped moisture on the stained sheets. The tip of the gumdrop bent forward.
Then a face appeared. Not a full face—just eyes and a lipless mouth, no nose, no hair.
“Gold.” The voice quavered. “Jim G-Gold. Can you help me?”
Cristin Kiley lived in California. She’d gotten divorced from Jim Gold two years ago. “He was always good with the child support,” she told me over the phone. “But the checks stopped coming a few weeks ago. He moved, and I can’t find his new address. He doesn’t answer his phone. This—this is going to sound strange, but . . . I’m worried about him.”
“Not strange at all.” I asked a few questions, made some notes, and told her I could probably track him down soon.
It seemed like a routine case.
Finding Gold’s new address wasn’t difficult. He still wasn’t answering his phone or email, so the simplest solution was to go over and ask for a safety check.
So here I was. Staring at Jim Gold—or something that had once been Jim Gold, now a mound of foul-smelling fungus.
“What the hell?” Figueroa was behind me, trembling like me.
“Mr. Gold?” I wondered if it could really hear without ears. “My name is Tom Jurgen. Your ex-wife asked me to find you.”
The face reappeared, straining against the gray matter from the inside as if shrouded in translucent plastic wrap. “C-Cristin?”
“She was worried. What . . . happened to you?”
When he—it?—breathed, the stench grew stronger. “It went wrong. Everything. I didn’t know . . .” The head dropped, and in a moment his eyes disappeared back into the mass of fungus that made up his body. The arms slid back, and now he was just a lump, writhing on the filthy sheets.
I took out my phone and took a few pictures. When I turned, Figueroa was out in the hall, wiping off his shoes. “Do I call the cops? What do I tell the neighbors?”
Good questions. “I don’t know if the police can handle something like this.” I knew cops who’d dealt with vampires and other supernatural creatures—the kind I run into more often than I’d like—but they wouldn’t know what to do with something they couldn’t lock up, stake or shoot. “Stay out of here.” I clicked my phone. “I’m going to have a friend come over.”
“Can he do something about this? What is that?”
“It’s a she. And I don’t know.” The phone buzzed once. Twice. “Hey, Rachel? Can you drop whatever you’re doing and come over here?”
Rachel is my girlfriend. We live together. She’s got red hair, hazelnut eyes, and psychic powers. She can’t levitate objects or influence the weather, but she can sense magic and other supernatural phenomena. Which comes in handy all too often in my job.
She wasn’t happy about being called away from whatever graphic design project she was working on. She was even less happy when she peered into the apartment. “Yuck! Bugs! And what’s that smell? It’s worse than your dirty socks after a week.”
“Yeah. It gets worse.” I took her hand. “Try not to step into any of that gray stuff.”
“I’ll be right here.” Figueroa leaned on the wall next to the door, scratching his ankle. “Don’t take too long.”
Rachel followed in my steps to the bedroom, where the mass of fungus that had once been Jim Gold shuddered on top of the mattress. “What the—what the hell, Tom?”
“This is Jim Gold. Or it used to be.” I crossed my arms. “I need to know if this is magic . . . or something else.”
Rachel reached out. “Okay . . .”
I nudged her shoulder. “Don’t touch him.”
“Do I look stupid? Don’t answer that.” She kept her distance.
The thing lurched up. A hand shot forward—five fingers, grasping at the air. Slime dripped down from each fingertip.
Rachel groaned. “There’s something . . . not magic . . . but something wrong. Really wrong.”
“Okay.” I pulled her back. “Let’s just go.”
The fungus slouched forward, spilling over the edge of the mattress. A hoarse breath followed us. “Help me! Help . . .me . . .”
I pushed Rachel ahead of me. She glared over her shoulder as she made her way to the door. “Stop shoving my ass! I’m not some damsel in distress!”
“Fine!” I slammed the door behind us. “I just wanted . . .”
Figueroa was sitting on the hallway floor, his shoes and socks in a tangled pile between his legs.
He was rubbing a foot. A foot covered with gray fungus.
He looked up. “What do I do? What now?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“I’m going to go wash it off. Or something. Bleach, maybe.” He pulled his shoes back on. “If this is what happened to him . . .”
I looked at Rachel. “I need to go back in and try to talk to him.”
She grimaced. “You really want to do that?”
“You can stay here.”
“Hell, no.” She punched my arm. “You’ll just get into trouble.”
“How do we get rid of it?” The manager hopped on one foot.
“I don’t know.” We had to keep it—Gold—isolated. “Maybe you’d better tell the tenants there’s a gas leak or something.”
He shook his head. “There’s isn’t gas in the building, just electric.”
“Then there’s a wiring problem. I don’t know.” I took a deep breath. “Come on, Rach.”
We went in again, staying away from the blotches in the carpet. Had they spread in the last few minutes? The thought worried me.
Gold’s fungoid body still lay on the bed, the pile of blankets shoved aside. If it noticed us, it didn’t give any sign.
“What happened?” Rachel was next to me. “Why are you . . . like this? I’m Rachel, by the way.”
The mass of gray fungus rose up into its gumdrop shape again, and Gold’s face pushed forward. “It was . . . accident. At lab.”
“Far—Fahringer. Far . . .” The head dropped. “Beer. Beer.”
Rachel and I looked at each other. A beer-drinking fungus? I remembered the can strewn across the living room.
Rachel turned. “I’ll go see.”
“Don’t touch anything!” I watched her head for the kitchen, then looked back at Gold.
He was a shapeless blob again, parts of his body pulsing up and down. The top of his head pushed up. “Lab. Fahringer Lab. Didn’t know. Didn’t know . . .”
Rachel returned, carrying an open can of beer with a wad of paper towels. “It was in the refrigerator. I used the paper towels—”
The arm shot out faster than either of us expected. Rachel dropped the can, and it sank into the soft fungus, along with the paper towels.
“Fahringer Lab.” I wondered how it was spelled. “Let’s go.”
Back in our apartment I called my client. I didn’t tell her what I’d seen. Only that her husband was sick.
“How sick?” she demanded. “With what?”
I hesitated. “I don’t know yet. I’ll call when I have more information.”
I got the name of the research facility her ex-husband worked for: Fahringer Laboratories, up in Barrington, which—the website told me—specialized in “plant-based solutions to all manner of diseases and disorders.” Jim Gold was listed as a “eukaryotic researcher,” with a link to his résumé. His photo showed a bearded, somewhat portly man with a broad smile.
I looked at the picture of Gold-as-fungus on my phone. Something had happened to him. Something terrible.
So I called the lab and asked for Jim Gold. The receptionist told me he was on a leave of absence, and wouldn’t tell me anything about when he was expected back—or what he was working on.
I checked the time—12:30. Enough time to drive up to Barrington and ask some questions in person.
Then Rachel came out of the bathroom. “We have a problem. At least I do.”
The back of her right hand was spotted with fungus.
“Oh, shit.” I shoved my chair back. “How did that happen?”
“I don’t know.” She was surprisingly calm. “Maybe when I passed him that beer. I tried to be careful, but . . .” Her voice trembled now, and her shoulders shook.
I stood up, but she darted away. “Don’t touch me! I was washing my hand for fifteen minutes! Soap, rubbing alcohol, everything but Drano, and I might try that next.” She sank onto the couch, holding her arm in the air. “You might have to cut it off.”
“That’s not happening. Remember last month when I was a vampire?” I’d told her to be ready to drive a stake through my chest.
“This is different! You could live as a vampire. Or un-live, whatever. I can’t end up like that—that thing we saw!” She bent down, hyperventilating.
I went to the bathroom and brought out a towel to wrap around her hand, and used duct tape to keep it in place. I checked the Fahringer website again for the address. “I’ll be back.”
“Where are you going? And how do I work the TV remote with my left hand?”
“You’ll figure it out.” I leaned down to give her a kiss. Without touching her, it was the least satisfying kiss ever. “I’m going to get some answers.”
I might have broken the speed limit on my way up to Barrington. Getting off the highway, I definitely rammed through some yellow lights. At least I didn’t hit any cars in the Fahringer parking lot.
I locked the Honda, took a deep breath to steady my nerves, and headed for the front door.
The Fahringer building had three floors, but it took up a lot of ground space. The entrance was all glass and steel. The second floor had tinted windows, shades pulled down and shut tight. The third floor windows were completely blacked out.
The doors on the ground floor looked solid enough to stop bullets. They slid aside and I made my way to the front desk. A second set of sliding glass doors waited beyond.
A young African-American man smiled as I approached. “How can I help you, sir?”
Breathe, Tom. Breathe. “I’m here about Jim Gold.”
“Let me just . . .” He clicked a keyboard. “I’m sorry sir, Mr. Gold is on a leave of absence—”
“I didn’t say I wanted to see him. I want to talk about what happened to him.” I planted my fists on the reception desk and leaned forward. “Let me see his supervisor.”
I’m no Sam Spade. I could never pull off the tough-guy detective act. But my voice apparently made an impact. He picked up a phone. “And you are?”
I gave him a business card.
“Yes, Dane? It’s Pete at the front desk? There’s a . . . Tom Jurgen out here? He says he wants to talk about Jim. All right.” He hung up. “Just a minute, Mr. Jurgen.” He pointed to some chairs. “Take a seat.”
I paced the lobby instead. Five minutes later the doors behind the desk slid open and a tall balding man in thick glasses, a blue blazer and a black necktie walked through. “Mr. uh, Jurgen? How can I help you?”
I pulled out my phone and pulled up the picture. “This is Jim Gold. I took this two hours ago. Can we talk?”
He peered at the screen. His face seemed to turn from pale to green before he looked away. “Come with me.”
The doors locked behind us. Dane led me down a long hallway, turned right, and then pointed into an office. The nameplate on his desk read “Dane Adler.” I sat.
He sat behind his big desk, shoving his computer screen to one side. Bookcases around the room were stuffed with looseleaf manuals. His window looked out on the parking lot.
Adler leaned back. “What’s this all about?”
“You tell me.” I waited.
I used to be a reporter. One thing I learned was that letting people talk—without prodding them or interrupting them—was the best way to get to the truth. So I sat back and crossed my arms.
Adler sighed. “There are things I can’t tell you.”
“Rules. Contracts. Confidentiality. Jim’s privacy—”
“I talked to Jim this afternoon. He said what happened was an accident here at the lab.”
Adler shook his head. “I can’t comment on that.”
“What kind of research was he doing?”
“Again, I can’t comment—”
“I’m not asking you for comment, damn it!” Okay, the whole letting-him-talk thing wasn’t working. “I’m asking you for answers! Jim Gold is a big blob of fungus on a bed, begging for beer! You can tell me what’s going on, or I can take all of this public before the infection starts spreading!”
“It can’t spread.” Adler looked confused. “It’s contained in the lab—”
“It’s spreading. Believe me.” Figueroa. And Rachel. But I didn’t want to tell him. Not yet.
“If it’s outside the facility, then it’s on Jim. He signed papers.” Adler stood up abruptly. “Let me show you.”
He took me back up the hall to an elevator. On the third floor, I followed him down a narrow hall with locked doors every 20 yards or so. A few staffers said hello. Adler ignored them.
At the end of the hall he turned left and tapped a code into a keypad above a door marked 312. Inside the door, a man and woman worked on computers in front of a wide, wire-reinforced window.
The man, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a gray lab coat with a nametag that read “Hurzberg,” swiveled around in his chair. “Hi, Dane. What’s up?”
“This is Tom Jurgen.” Adler gestured to a window in front of the two scientists. “Take a look, Jurgen.”
The room had a tile floor and sound-absorbent walls. Harsh fluorescent lights burned down from the ceiling. A refrigerator sat against a wall.
I peered through the wire-reinforced glass. Inside a small enclosure I saw a pot, tubes inserted in the soil. Rising from the pot was—something tree-shaped. But covered with fungus. The same kind of fungus I’d seen in Gold’s bed.
It enveloped the tree, strands dripping gray slime from the lower branches. Puddles of slime blotched the white tile floor. The fungus shivered, as if breathing in and out. The trunk of the tree bowed over under the weight of the fungus, looking as if it might topple over at any time.
“What we’re looking for is a way to fight fungal diseases.” Adler sounded like a university professor. “Mycosis, blastomycosis, candidiasis, and more. This is a new type that we’ve developed to fight those infections. The longer we study it, the closer we get to cures.”
I stepped back. “How did it get out?”
Hurzberg pointed to a door leading into the chamber. It looked like a hatch on the International Space Station. “That’s secure. No one goes through that door to gather samples without full protective gear.” He stood up. “Back there.”
A long closet in the back of the room held hazmat gear—coveralls, helmets, gloves, boots, and small oxygen bottles, the size and shape of gallon water jugs.
“So he would have suited up in these? And then gone inside?” They looked like spacesuits. “Who’s responsible for checking people out before they go in there?”
“We’re all trained.” It was the woman. She wore a pink T-shirt, blue shorts and green rubber boots, a nametag with “Wilton” pinned close to her neck. She looked up from her screen, annoyed at the interruption. “We check each other out every time. And all the samples are secure. They’re stored in separate containment, down the hall. Can I get back to work, please?”
“And we all know what we’re doing.” Hurzberg slammed the door. “Are we done here?”
“Something got out.” I pulled out my phone. “And it’s killing Jim Gold. Take a look.”
Hurzberg’s eyes narrowed. Wilton gasped.
“That’s enough.” Adler pulled out his own phone. “I’m calling security. You’re leaving.”
“Is there a cure?” I peered at the fungus, growing inside the habitat. “What are you doing to control it?”
I didn’t want to talk about Rachel. I was too scared. And not sure what I might do or say if the answer was “no.”
“All right, I’ll go.” I marched toward the door. “But I’m not done here.”
Adler smirked. “What can you do? This is a private facility. This is legal research. If Jim violated protocol—”
I leaned against the door, my brain flashing. “You don’t want to know what I can do.”
Back at our apartment I found an ax standing next to the door, with a price tag and receipt taped to the handle. “Rachel?”
She staggered out of the bedroom, her arm wrapped in towels taped up to her elbow. “It’s getting worse.”
Goddamn it. I pointed at the ax. “And what’s that?”
“I had them deliver it from the hardware store.” She lifted it, then set it back down. “It’s heavy. You might want to take a few swings with it before—”
“Not going to happen.” I looked at her, my blood running cold. Rachel’s face was pale, and her red hair drooped over her face. “We’re going to figure this out.” Somehow.
“I know.” She nodded. “I’m just being . . . practical. What did you find out?”
“They’re experimenting with some kind of fungus to cure diseases. It’s in a controlled room that Gold had access to.”
Rachel scratched her elbow. “Okay. I—I need beer.”
She carried out a six pack of Heineken in bottles from the kitchen, dropped it on the table, and struggled with a cap using only one hand.
“Here.” I had an opener on my keyring. I popped a cap off, and then another. And then a third one, for me. I’d been taking anti-anxiety meds for months, but lately my doctor had told me I could taper off and have the occasional beer. This seemed like the perfect time.
Rachel chugged one bottle down, then started on the second. “Oh, god,” she murmured. “Something about . . . whatever’s in the alcohol is helping. Slowing it down . . . maybe.” She sank back in her chair and closed her eyes. In a moment she was snoring, a line of drool dripping down her chin.
“Rachel? Are you okay?”
Her eyes blinked. “What? I’m fine. I just . . .” She scratched her arm. “Find out anything?”
I stood up. “I’m going to talk to Gold again. If I can.
She finished another beer. “I’ll go with you. As long as we stop for more beer.”
Fire trucks blocked off the street. I saw smoke in the sky, and smelled it inside my Honda. I had to park three blocks away and wander through the throng of onlookers until I reached the barriers, where viewers wept and took pictures with their phones. Rachel stayed in the car, dozing.
“Excuse me.” I looked at a woman in sweats and sandals, a bag of groceries at her feet. “Do you live there?”
She glared. “Are you a reporter?”
“I’m looking for the building manager—Figueroa? Is he out here?”
She stepped back. “You a friend of his or something? He started this.”
“I’m a private detective. I was talking to him about . . .” Wait, what? “How do you know?”
“I saw him on the stairs! He was carrying two big jugs of gasoline up to the third floor. I could smell it.” She waved a hand in front of her nose. “I was going out to get groceries. When I came back . . .” She pointed. “That.”
Smoke poured from the upper windows. Gold’s apartment was on the third floor.
I nodded. “You should probably tell the police.”
“Oh, I will.” She nodded strongly. “My apartment’s probably wrecked. Who did you say you are, anyway?”
“Nobody.” I picked up my backpack.
In the Honda I woke Rachel. “It looks like Figueroa set fire to Gold’s apartment. We’re going back to Fahringer.”
“Oh god.” Rachel sounded sleepy. “Can we get more beer?”
Rachel staggered through the doors with me, lugging a case of Old Style into the reception area that we’d bought on the way.
The man from before had apparently gone home. An older woman with a blond ponytail raised her eyes. “Ye-es?”
I dropped the beer on the floor and tossed a card on the desk in front of her. “Tom Jurgen. For Dane Adler. He’s expecting us.”
“Okay.” She picked up a phone.
I looked at Rachel. She was shivering. She’d drunk four beers on the highway, and I’d been nervous about getting stopped by the cops with open alcohol in the car while speeding. She pulled the raincoat tight.
A security guard, tall and appropriately bulky in a gray uniform, walked through the door behind the reception desk. “This way.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No guards. I want Adler.”
The guard shrugged. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve got my instructions—”
“Screw your instructions!” Rachel threw the raincoat off. “Look at this! Look at me!” She pulled at the duct tape, letting part of the towel droop down.
The fungus had crawled past her elbow, creeping up toward her shoulder. “You want a piece of this? Just take a bite.”
The guard staggered back. “Uh . .. what is that?”
“This is your fungus!” She lifted her arm in the air. “And it’s eating me alive!”
Adler came through the door. “What’s going on?” He saw me, then looked at Rachel. His eyes widened as he gazed at her arm. “Who are you?”
“Rachel Dunn.” She smirked. “I’d shake hands, but—”
“She works with me.” I heard my voice trembling. “She picked this up from Gold. You have to do something. Rachel, this is Dane Adler, he runs the place.”
“Okay.” Adler sighed. “Kent, we’re going to have to evacuate the facility and secure the west corridor of the third floor. Give everyone 20 minutes to leave, but make sure three is secure before you lock it down.” Then he looked at us. “Okay. This way. Please cover up your arm. It’s not much protection, but it’ll do for now.”
“Where are we going?” Rachel struggled with the raincoat.
“Third floor. We need to keep the fungus contained up there. We’ll figure it out.”
I picked up the beer. Somehow I didn’t feel reassured.
People were already starting to leave as Adler led us to the elevators. I hadn’t heard any loudspeaker announcements; the order must have been sent by text message. Up on three, we followed him past 312—where I’d seen the fungus growing in the pot—down to the end of the hall. “In here.”
The room was almost the size of a high school gym. Most of it was enclosed behind a shield of glass, facing desks full of dark computers. Adler pointed to a door. “In there, please.”
“You’re locking her up?” I wanted to hit him. “We came here for—”
“Shut up, jerk.” Rachel punched me with her left fist. Hard. “I don’t want this to get out any more than he does. Just give me the beer.”
“Hang on.” Adler reached into the half-empty case. “Let me take a few of these for testing.”
I grabbed one too. I’d probably need it.
Rachel went through the airlock doors and sat in a metal folding chair in front of the window. She pulled the raincoat off and threw it on the floor. “Now what?”
Adler started powering up the computers as he punched a number on his phone. “Ben? We’ve got another case down in 300. Yeah, right now.”
Thirty seconds later Hurzberg and Wilton came in—Hurzberg in his gray lab coat, Wilton in the same T-shirt, shorts, and rain boots. Hurzberg sat down behind a computer. Wilton leaned forward and peered through the window. She picked tapped a button and spoke into a microphone. “Hi, I’m Wilton.”
“Rachel.” She slurped a beer. “Can you do something about this?” She jabbed her arm forward.
Wilton blinked. “How did that happen?”
“I was in Jim Gold’s apartment. I must have touched something.” She glared at me. “My idiot boyfriend there was lucky.”
“What’s with the beer?” Hurzberg tapped keys.
“She says it helps.” I remembered what was left of Gold. “He was asking for it too.”
“Helps how?” He was looking at a screen full of text. “Alcohol can spur growth. Maybe we should—”
“Rachel?” I pushed my head next to Wilton’s. “Be careful with that beer, maybe.”
“I heard.” Rachel took one last gulp, then stretched out her arm and poured the last of the beer onto her hand.
Her arm trembled. Beer dripped on the tile floor.
Then the gray fungus on her hand burst, spewing particles through the air.
“Shit!” Rachel jumped back, knocking the metal chair over. She hurled the beer can at the window and covered her mouth with her good arm.
“Rachel!” Wilton shouted. “That locker in the back! There are blankets! Cover yourself up!”
Rachel spun around, spotted the locker, and scampered back, holding her infected arm out like the wing of a hawk. She threw the locker door up and pulled out a pile of silvery blankets. One she wrapped around her arm. The others she used to shroud her body to protect her from any bits of fungus drifting through the air.
“I’ve got the fans going.” Hurzberg pressed more keys. “They’ll suck everything through to the containment tanks. Rachel! Put on a face mask.”
“Alcohol feeds it.” I shook my head. “What else are you feeding it?”
“We were focused on helping it grow, not making it stop.” Wilton turned to the door. “I’m going back to 312 to run some tests. In the meantime, I’d pour all that beer down the drain.”
“On it.” Rachel’s voice was murky through the mask, but she attacked the cardboard case and started popping cans into a drain in the corner of the room.
Adler closed the door behind her. “We’ve got this contained. It’ll be okay.”
I’m not a violent person, except when I’m scared. And I was scared enough now to seriously consider strangling him with his necktie. “I don’t care about containment! What is this stuff, and how do we get it off of Rachel?”
Adler grabbed the door handle behind him. “I have to make a report. We’re doing everything we can.”
I let him leave. Hurzberg was still crunching data.
I walked to the window. “I’m going to go down and talk to Wilton. How do you feel?”
“How do you think I feel, you jerk?” She pounded the glass with her good fist. “I want a beer!”
Then she pulled the blanket around her shoulders. “Sorry. I feel . . . okay. Tired. Scared.”
“We’ll work this out.” I managed to put more confidence into my voice than I actually felt. “Promise.”
Rachel nodded. “We should have brought the ax.”
I knocked, then pounded, on 312. Eventually Wilton opened the door.
“Inside,” she hissed. “Quick.”
She flipped the lock and turned around to head back to her terminal. In my terrified state of mind, I barely looked at her legs in shorts or her butt as she leaned over her keypad. I know, I know, but part of my brain was still a guy.
Then I looked over her head into the enclosure.
The fungus had taken over. I couldn’t see the tree, or the pot it was planted in, or the back of the small room. It pressed against the glass, and it was pulsing, like a balloon being pumped to its bursting point.
“What the hell?”
“I shut down all the feeding tubes. This is just in the last hour.” She checked a monitor. “I thought that would kill it, but instead it’s metastasizing—almost like it’s looking for more food.”
The fungus fell back a few inches, then lurched forward again. “Is that going to hold?”
“It has to.” She glanced toward the airlock door. “I just hope that does too.”
“What is this?” I jabbed a finger at the glass. “You say you’re trying to find a cure for diseases, but how is this helping anyone?”
Wilton sank into a swivel chair and swung around, peering at data on her screen. “It’s biological warfare. Fahringer is owned by a defense contractor. It’s all under the radar, because it’s illegal, but—hey, these days . . .” She tapped some keys. “Cooking up the recipe is easy. Controlling it is a little harder.”
Wait a minute . . . “What’s going on?”
She sighed. “I know who you are. I’m with Red Watch.”
Oh hell. Red Watch was an environmental activist group. They “liberated” test animals from scientific facilities, burned GMO crops, and occasionally shut down expressways with protests. I didn’t agree with their tactics—hey, I like a hamburger every now and then, even though Rachel glares at me when I cover it with Heinz 57—but I’d encountered them over the years. “So what the hell are you doing about this?”
Wilton glared over her shoulder. “Look, I’ve been undercover here for seven months, trying to keep my job and keep an eye on what’s going on in here. Red Watch doesn’t pay us. It’s all volunteer. If I started sabotaging projects right away we’d never get anywhere or know anything. And I’d be filling prescriptions in a Walgreens somewhere.”
Yeah. I’d met one Red Watch spy helping to breed giant mutant chickens for chicken fights. Another one had been out at Brookfield Zoo, watching experiments at turning feral monkeys into dangerous mutants. The first time I’d run into them they were monitoring a rogue scientist manipulating a virus that turned people into zombies.
And all of them had been watching. Waiting. Documenting what they saw. But not doing anything about it until they were forced to.
I used to be a reporter, and my job had been to get the truth out accurately—but quickly. Red Watch talked a good game, but they kept their information to themselves. Yeah, they’d posted a video about the zombies, but then they went deep underground.
“Fine.” I wanted to spit on the floor. “So what can you do now?”
“I’m trying.” She peered at the glass. “I don’t want that stuff outside any more than you do.”
“All I want is for Rachel to be safe.”
The fungus pulsed again, as if trying to break through the glass and escape.
I stepped back. Okay, I wanted to be safe too.
Wilton stood up. “I have to go down to another lab to try something. Stay here and watch the thing, and keep an eye on this monitor.” She pointed. “If that that line goes up to orange or red, call me.” We exchanged numbers, and she left.
I called Rachel. She still had her phone. “Anything new?”
“I tried running water over it.” Her voice was muffled by the mouth mask. “Some of it sort of melted away. We’re going to try turning on the sprinklers.”
“Wilton’s doing something in another lab. She’s with Red Watch, by the way.”
“Yeah. The fungus is some sort of bio-warfare project, according to her. Anyway, she’s doing a test. Or something. Don’t get desperate.”
“I’m going to have to strip down before the sprinklers come on. That’s pretty desperate.”
I checked the color on Wilton’s monitor. Yellow. “Call me before you do that. So I can, uh, keep an eye on Hurzberg.”
“I’m dying and all you can think about is cheap thrills? Jerk.”
“Love you too.” We hung up.
The fungus billowed like a balloon, as if straining against the glass holding it in. The light dropped down to green, then flashed back up to yellow again.
Then it went to orange.
What the hell did any of this mean? I tried to read the data on the other monitors, but it might as well have been in Klingon. I crossed my arms, uncrossed them, paced, sat down again, paced some more, and resisted the impulse to call Rachel again.
Then the fungus started seeping out of the bottom of the airlock door.
Holy shit. I jumped up, kicking my chair over, and grabbed my phone. “Wilton? Hey, it’s me. It’s out. What do I do?”
“Oh hell.” Wilton’s voice was calmer than mine, but I could hear a tremble in the back of her throat. “Stay away from it. I’m working on something. Just—stay clear.”
“Yeah, no problem there.” I hung up and ran from the room. I pushed the door shut and heard it lock.
Then I headed back down to the end of the hall—where Rachel was. Again I had to pound my fists on the door until Hurzberg let me in. “What are you . . . oh, god.”
He peered over my shoulder. I turned.
The fungus crawled across the floor, a gray mass of ooze. “I locked it!” I stomped a foot. “I swear I locked it! It got out through the airlock, and I never touched that!”
“Whatever.” Hurzberg grabbed my shoulder. “Inside.”
He slammed the door. I rushed to the window. Rachel sat on the floor, legs crossed, the blanket over her shoulders, her mask on the floor next to her feet.
“Are you all right? Did it work?” I leaned against the glass.
“A little.” She held her infected arm outside the blanket. “Does this look better to you? What’s going on?”
“It, uh . . . escaped.” I looked back at Hurzberg. “It’s coming down the hall.”
“Great.” Hurzberg sat down and opened a drawer. “We’re not getting out of here.” He lifted a bottle of brandy and a plastic cup. “Anyone?”
ATTENTION! ATTENTION! The voice blared around the room. IMMEDIATE EVACUATION! LOCKDOWN ON LEVEL THREE! ALL ELEVATORS AND STAIRWELLS CLOSED! STAND BY FOR INSTRUCTIONS ON FARHRINGER.INT. ATTENTION! ATTENTION . . .
Hurzberg took a swallow of brandy and then stared at the data streaming up and down his screen.
Rachel stood up. She knocked on the glass. “Hello? Still locked in here.” She hugged her blanket tight. “I mean, if I’m going to die, I’d rather be out there than in here. Also, I’d like to get dressed.”
“You’re not going to die.” I hoped that was true. “Wilton is working on something—”
Hurzberg’s phone buzzed. “Ben?” It was Adler. “Goddamn it, how did it get out?”
“I don’t know!” Hurzberg gulped some brandy. “Maybe it was Jurgen! He didn’t lock the door or something—”
Asshole. I leaned forward. “Hey, Dane, it’s Tom Jurgen. First, I did close the close the door. Second, what are you doing developing bioweapons for the military? I’ve got all of it right here on my phone.”
Adler’s voice lowered. “This is important research. And it’s confidential. We’ve got to contain this.”
I grinned. “Thanks. You just confirmed everything.” I didn’t have any data, and I wasn’t actually recording. I just wanted to spook him. I only hoped that Wilton had been sending data to Red Watch.
The door burst open. Wilton. She carried an insulated shoulder bag, zipped up on the top. “Okay. I might have something. But that stuff is coming down the hall, and it’s getting thick. We don’t have much time. They’re going to burn this place down soon.”
Hurzberg secured the door behind her. “How much is out there?”
“It’s getting bigger.” Wilton unzipped her bag and began setting up an assortment of syringes and needles and test tubes filled with the fungus across the desk. Then she lifted a sealed jar holding a liquid that was thick and dark as oil fresh from the ground.
“What is all that?” I leaned against the table.
“Do you want some brandy?” Hurzberg filled another cup.
“Not right now.” Wilton sorted everything out. “Okay, the fungus is a parasite. It feeds on the host. Like Jim Gold. And right now, Rachel.”
Oh god. “So what can we do?”
Rachel banged her fist on the glass. “Hey! I’m still right here!”
“Yeah.” Then Wilton pulled her left boot off.
Her foot was covered by the fungus.
“I got infected.” Her voice was quiet. “A couple of hours ago. I thought I was being careful, but it must have slipped over the edge of my boot.”
“Oh god, Wilton.” Hurzberg stared.
“On the bright side . . .” She rolled her eyes. “Now we have a test subject.”
“For what?” I looked at the dark oil.
Wilton tapped her phone. “I’m sending the data to you, Ben. I’ve been working on this on my own. It’s just a question of getting the dosage right.” She uncapped the jar and fitted a needle into a syringe.
“You can’t do that!” Hurzberg reached out to pull her hand away.
“I have to. I helped create it. And we don’t have much time. I’m starting with a low dose.” She dipped the tip of the needle into the liquid and pulled back the plunger. “Ben, check the data I just sent you. I’m starting with dose No. 5.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I looked at Rachel.
“Wait!” Rachel hammered the glass again. “Don’t do this for me! I’ll just chop my arm off or something!”
“We have to know if this works. If this stuff ever gets out again, they need to know how to treat it. And they’re going to send in flamethrowers. I heard Adler talking about it.”
I blinked. “How? Did you call him?”
“I hacked his phone a long time ago. I can read his text messages.” She pulled up her shorts and rubbed a small alcohol wipe on her butt. “Okay, here goes . . .”
“Wilton!” Hurzberg shouted from his computer, where he’d pulled up her data. But Wilton jabbed the needle into her skin and pressed the plunger down.
Goddamn it. My own skin went cold. I wanted a cure for Rachel—one that didn’t involve cutting her arm off—but this was taking too big a chance.
Wilton leaned against the table. “Okay. Now we’ll see. It shouldn’t take too long. Ben, it’s based on my weight, 142. What do you weigh?” She looked at Rachel.
“Uh, 153, last time I checked.” She glared through the glass at me. “We’re eating too much pasta.”
“You look great to me.” Even draped in a blanket, with one arm covered in fungus.
“Jerk.” She bent forward. “You okay there?”
Wilton’s shoulder’s shook. “Fine. I’m fine.” She looked down at her foot. “Maybe you should take pictures to document any change. Maybe . . .”
Before I could pull my phone out Wilton fell to the floor. “Oh shit,” she moaned, her body twitching. “I’m okay, I’m okay . . .”
Her head sagged back as I knelt beside her—taking care to stay clear of her infected leg. “What is it?” Not that I’m a doctor. But I had to say something.
Hurzberg pushed me away. “Wilton? Talk to me. What’s going on?”
“I can’t—I can’t . . .” She coughed. “I can’t breathe . . . oh god, oh god . . .”
He started doing CPR. I stood next to him helplessly. Should I call 911? Would Adler even let them in here?
Wilton’s eyes flared open. She gasped once, and then her arms and legs went limp.
I reached around Hurzberg to check her pulse. Nothing.
Hurzberg kept working, but after five minutes he gave up. “I don’t believe this. I don’t . . .” He wiped his eyes. “Damn it, Wilton.”
I straightened up and looked at Rachel. But she had her head bowed, weeping.
Then I looked down at Wilton’s foot.
The fungus was dissolving.
“Look.” I pointed. “It worked.”
“What? She’s dead!” Hurzberg lurched to his feet. “How can you . . .” But he stopped.
“The dosage? Maybe it was too high?”
Hurzberg forced himself to sit back at his computer. He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and peered at the screen. “The dosage schedule goes up to 12. She took No. 5, based on her weight—there’s a schedule for weight. Maybe . . .” He shrugged. “But how do we test it?”
ATTENTION! ATTENTION! The words blared in our ears. ALL PERSONNEL ON LEVEL 3! ATTENTION! SECURITY PERSONNEL WILL BE CLEARING THE AREA! COOPERATE WITH EVERY INSTRUCTION! ATTENTION! ATTENTION LEVEL 3 . . .
I unsealed a test tube. “I weigh 168. Ish.”
“NO!” Rachel pounded the glass so hard I was sure she’d break it. “You asshole!”
“Too late.” I spilled the fungus over my left palm. “At least this will give us something more in common to talk about.”
“Oh, we are so going to talk about this. Forever.” She pulled the blanket over her shoulder. “If the fungus or that stuff doesn’t kill you, I’m going to.”
“You’re an idiot.” Hurzberg started running numbers. “And this is unethical. I shouldn’t have let Wilton do that.”
“And building a killer fungus is the very definition of ethical science?” I hoped Wilton sent every bit of data to Red Watch before she’d . . . died.
“I was following the protocols. I didn’t . . .” He slammed a fist on the table. “I sound like a Nazi, don’t I? Okay, give me a minute.”
I looked at my hand. The fungus was already starting to spread. It tickled. “Rachel? Does it tickle at first?”
“It itches. Then you want to tear your skin off.” The blanket slid off her shoulder. “I washed my hand for an hour. What are you looking at?”
“Uh, nothing.” I glanced at Hurzberg. “Coming up with anything?” I really wanted him concentrating on his screen—and not my half-naked girlfriend.
“We’ll start with No. 1.” He looked at my hand. “Wilton was too aggressive. I don’t blame her, but—”
The door opened behind us.
I twisted around. Two uniformed security guards marched in. They wore Tasers on the belts and annoyance on their faces. “Out. Now. We’re about to start scouring this floor.”
“I can’t.” Hurzberg tapped keys. “I’m working here—”
One of the guards, a short woman with a badge named “Smith” on her pocket, stalked forward. “Sir, this is an order from—”
I held up my hand. The fungus was already spreading over my wrist. “We’re staying. Tell Adler to go to hell.”
Smith stepped back. “What’s—you have to leave. They’re sending up flamethrowers.”
“Tell them to wait!” I pulled my hand back. “Until we’re done.”
“Sir.” The male guard—his badge read “Boomer”—shook his head. “We have to get you out of here right now. This can’t wait.”
“Hey you!” Rachel stood in front of the glass. “Take a look at me!”
She threw her blanket down and stretched her arm out. Naked. Well, maybe she still had her socks on.
But we could all see the fungus relentlessly crawling toward her shoulder.
“You going to burn me down too? Or let me go outside?” She planted a hand on her hip. “Okay, take a good look, idiots. But mostly look at this.” She rotated her arm.
I took a deep breath. Then I glanced back.
Boomer lifted an eyebrow. Smith slugged his arm. “Come on, you haven’t seen a naked girl before?”
“We’re working on a cure!” Hurzberg was still tapping keys. “Give us half an hour! Twenty minutes. Or else we’re all dead anyway.” He sighed. “Like her.”
Smith saw Wilton on the floor. “What happened to her?”
“She was helping with the cure.” I looked down. Her leg was free of the fungus. “It worked.” Too late.
She snorted. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“Shut up.” I was sweating. “Go ahead, open that door and drag her out. Get it all over yourself. Then you’ll wish you’d given us a few minutes to work this out.”
Boomer stared at Rachel. “I don’t know what’s going on, but . . . who is she?”
“She’s my girlfriend. Stop leering.” I picked up a syringe and started screwing a needle onto it. “Ben?”
“Yeah.” He took the syringe from me and finished putting the needle on. “We’ll ignore your weight and just go with the lowest dose. Roll up your sleeve.”
I looked at Rachel.
“You didn’t have to do this,” she said.
Already I was regretting it. But it was done, and this was our only chance. “Yeah. You’re right. We should have brought the ax.”
Rachel laughed. “Next time.”
Hurzberg wiped down my arm and then jabbed me as Smith and Boomer watched.
I looked at my hand. Nothing yet. How long would it take if it worked? How long could we wait before trying it again? How long . . .
Did I have to live?
I sat down and looked at Rachel again. She hugged her blanket around her. We didn’t say anything. My mouth was too dry to talk anyway.
The door opened again. Adler. “What the hell is taking so long? Why are you—”
He saw Wilton first. Lying on the floor, her foot bare—and free of the fungus. “What’s going on?”
“We’re trying to find a cure.” Hurzberg went back to his computer. “She developed it, but the first try . . . it killed the fungus, but it—killed her too. We’re trying it again.”
“You’ve got to get out of here! They’re coming up any minute!” Adler’s balding scalp was red and sweaty.
“M-maybe we should.” My voice sounded hoarse. I needed a drink of water. “Wrap up my hand, get Rachel safe—take that stuff and try it again. Or just cut my hand off.” I could still work the computer with one hand. And maybe drive a car. Maybe even—
“How do you feel, Tom?” Rachel pressed her hand against the glass.
I was still alive, so that was a plus. I looked down at my hand.
The fungus was drying up. I shook my hand, and some of it fell off.
“It’s working.” My heart pounded.
“Damn it.” Hurzberg shook his head. “No, I mean, that’s great. If Wilton had started on a lower dose . . .” He shook his head again. “Okay.” He picked up another syringe and looked at Rachel. “Do you want to try it?”
Back home we drank Coke—the thought of beer made Rachel nauseous—and ordered pizza.
The flamethrower squad had arrived only minutes after Rachel’s injection. Once it was clear that the serum was working, she got dressed, mostly. She left her shirt, and so she got a lot of attention in her bra and jeans as we made our way downstairs, but neither of us cared. Too much.
Hurzberg told Adler he was quitting, and we told him we were leaving. Surprisingly, Adler didn’t argue with either of us. He just looked up at the smoke billowing from the top of the facility.
Rachel didn’t talk much on the drive back. Mostly just “yeah,” “okay,” “jerk,” and “no beer.”
At home I called Cristin Kiley to report. It wasn’t an easy conversation—at first she didn’t believe me, and then she’d wept. She didn’t want the pictures. She said she’d contact the authorities on her own to make sure the fire had really killed her ex-husband. She was going to sue Fahringer Labs for everything it had.
I wished her luck. She told me to send her a bill.
I had lots more question that I’d probably never get answers to. Was Figueroa really dead? I’d checked the news about the fire on my phone, but details about victims hadn’t been released yet. And that was all overshadowed by the bigger fire in Barrington—“A scientific research facility is in flames, and firefighters are battling the blaze. More from EyeWitness news . . .”
And who was Fahringer connected to? For once I hoped that Red Watch was on the case. So that Wilton hadn’t died for nothing.
Once the pizza came we ate in front of the TV, watching Better Call Saul. Between two episodes Rachel reached over to squeeze my left hand, as if making sure it was still there.
“Why did you do it?” Her voice was a whisper.
I sighed and thought about Wilton. “It was an impulse. And it was . . . stupid. I don’t think—I hate to say it, but I’m not sure I could do it again.”
She punched my shoulder. “Don’t.”
Rachel smiled. “Idiot.”
# # #