Breathless Page 20

“I’ve got a terrible tropical parasite, Mr. Feldstein, but not to worry. You can’t be infected just by riding in a car with me.”

“That’s good to know, sir,” Feldstein said as he popped the hand brake and tramped the accelerator.

“Is the site in the city?” Lamar asked Palumbo.

“No, sir. We’re flying out from here.”

“To where?”

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

Palumbo’s apparent discretion must mean that the agent hadn’t been told the location. In Lamar’s experience, that was unusual.

“What’re we dealing with this time? Explosives, chemical, biological, nuclear …?

“Sorry, sir,” Palumbo replied, “but I’m really not at liberty to disclose anything.”

Extraordinary. The escorting agents always knew the nature of the threat. Usually they presented a briefing en route.

Two airliners waited on a taxiway to use the runway that was being held clear for Feldstein.

Following the centerline stripe, the young agent drove at such high speed, he seemed to think he was expected to achieve flight velocity.

The executive helicopter was parked at the extreme end of the runway, on the chevrons marking the overrun area. As Lamar Woolsey, Palumbo, and Booker got out of the sedan, the chopper’s rotors began to slice the air, casting scimitar shadows on the concrete.

The three men ducked under the blades, and the agents followed Lamar into the craft as Feldstein drove away.

Palumbo and Booker took the seats nearest the door, and Lamar made his way farther into the eight-passenger craft.

Another man was aboard, ensconced in one of the last two seats.

Lamar sat across the narrow aisle from Dr. Simon Northcott. “I’ve got a terribly vicious tropical parasite. What’s your excuse, Northcott?”

“Food poisoning.”

Belting in, Lamar said, “You lack imagination, my friend. As I’ve noted regarding other issues. Where are you coming from?”

“We took off from my hotel parking lot just minutes ago. I was looking forward to this conference.”

“Well, you never know,” said Lamar. “Maybe this time it’s not just a plot to poison millions. Maybe this time it’s the end of the world, and you wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?”

Northcott’s smile was indistinguishable from any other man’s grimace. He was a good enough fellow and incredibly intelligent, but his sense of humor had atrophied in the Paleozoic Era.

The whine of the engine escalated, and Lamar looked out the window as the pavement fell away.

“How does a bankrupt government,” Northcott said, “pay to have all these cars and helicopters and jets and field labs and swarms of mortician-faced agents standing by 24/7, coast to coast?”

“I’ve heard the secretary of the treasury has worked out a deal to sell the Chinese five Midwestern states, where the people are just too uncool, anyway.”

Northcott didn’t wince a smile, but stared at Lamar as if he might be serious. Crane-tall, hawk-faced, as lean as an anorexic stork, he hunched forward like a vulture on a tree limb. He really wasn’t an actively bad guy, and he truly was incredibly intelligent, but Lamar found him about as likeable as an attack of gout.

“What do they want with you this time?” Northcott asked. “Is it physics or maths?”

“You’re a geneticist and physiologist, so you probably wouldn’t be here if this had anything to do with explosives or chemicals. If they want me on a biological threat, my guess is it’s not physics or maths so much as it is chaos theory.”

If Northcott’s smile looked like a grimace, then his grimace was more like the expression of a man who found a live cockroach swimming in his soup at the very moment he broke a tooth on a ball bearing spooned from the same bowl.

“The butterfly effect, fractals, strange attractors, nonlinear equations—it has a voodoo feel to me.”

“Well,” said Lamar, “the field hasn’t been around half a century yet. When we’ve got a century and a half behind us, if we haven’t piled up multiple irrefutable proofs of basic contentions, I’d agree with you that we should stop calling it science and start calling it religion. And of course we already have quite a lot of proofs we’ve built upon.”

Northcott knew to what the century and a half referred, and he was about to skewer Lamar with pointed words when Agent Palumbo came along the aisle, holding on to the seats on both sides, and went down on one knee in front of them.

“ETA is fifty minutes. The pilot had a sealed directive for me. The site is in an unincorporated rural area in the higher foothills, a private residence belonging to someone named Grady Adams, and with him will be a veterinarian, Dr. Camillia Rivers. Both are witnesses, not suspects at this time. It’s a biological issue, but the decision has been made that decontamination and isolation protocols will not be necessary. The field lab needs only to approximate the sterility of a hospital operating room. Neither airtight nor positive-pressure antimicrobial suits will be required.”

“Then what the hell kind of biological threat would it be?” asked Simon Northcott.

Palumbo corrected him: “Sir, the directive calls it a biological issue.”

Northcott’s face clenched, the high points of his cheekbones and his nose as white as tensed knuckles, the rest of it red. “I’ve been yanked from the conference to be flown off at high speed to consider an issue?”

“Sir,” Palumbo said, “all I can say is, based on my experience, this might not be either a ticking-clock or a doomsday case, but it’s big somehow. Something different and way big. It came up quick, and D.C. calls it a Priority One Incident, which until now has meant only one thing—nuclear detonation imminent. Paul Jardine is on his way to the site now.”

Lamar had met Jardine a few times in the past six years. After the recent reorganization, he had been appointed deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security for the western half of the country, from the Mississippi to the Pacific.

Northcott said nothing more, but he looked neither mollified nor impressed.

Lamar said, “Agent Palumbo, I’m sorry. The engine noise, the rotors … I didn’t get the owner of the residence, the site. What did you say his name was?”

“Adams, sir. Grady Adams. The veterinarian is Dr. Camillia Rivers.”

“Within every chaos,” Lamar said, “is an eerie order waiting to be revealed.”


Lamar said, “Just talking to myself, son.”

“Sir, we’re now in a communications blackout until the end of this. I have to impound your cell phone and laptop.”

The laptop was at Lamar’s feet, and he presented his cell phone to the agent.

“Sir, I also need any text-messaging devices you’re carrying.”

“Oh, son, I have too few years of life remaining to spend one minute text-messaging.”

Northcott, on the other hand, proved to be a walking telecom store. Grumping, he shed two cell phones and an array of devices that filled Vincent Palumbo’s available sport-coat pockets.

As the agent went forward again, carrying their laptops, Simon Northcott said, “They’re all idiots at Homeland Security. This does it. I’m going to take my name off the volunteer specialists roster.”

The more enlightened officials in the federal government were aware that the scientists directly in their employ were not generally speaking the most brilliant in their fields—with the exception of some people at NASA and a number in institutes completely funded by the Department of Defense. Consequently, specialists in numerous sciences were solicited to volunteer to be available to Homeland Security in crises, if called.

As one of many on the roster who had his skills, Lamar had been tapped only six times in seven years, and he imagined there had been as many as a hundred crisis responses during that period. He doubted that Simon Northcott was drafted as often, because only a fraction of terrorist plots involved biological weapons, whereas a specialist in probability analysis and chaos would be a valuable team member regardless of the threat scenario.

“Priority One Incident,” Northcott said with a sarcastic note, “yet it’s not a threat, it’s an issue. A Priority One Issue—now there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one.”

Lamar put his forehead against his window, looking down at the shadow of the helicopter racing over the landscape below them.

Grady Adams of Colorado. Marcus had no closer friend than Grady Adams, who had been with him when he died.

Carl Jung, the psychologist and philosopher, had believed that coincidence—most of all that most extreme kind of coincidence called a synchronism—was an organizing principle of the universe as real as any of the laws of thermodynamics and of gravity. On issues such as culture and human exceptionalism, Lamar Woolsey had little in common with Jung, but there was certainly a place for the man in chaos theory, where hidden order could be found in even the most seemingly disordered and formless systems like the actions of wildly tossing storm waves and the furies of tornado winds.

Grady Adams. Lamar figured, drawing this card at this time was like being dealt the most meaningful card from a thousand-deck shoe.


Driving to Grady’s place, Cammy’s attention repeatedly strayed from the highway to her hands on the steering wheel.

Having resisted embracing victim status for so long and having lived with the scars for most of her life, she thought about this disfigurement hardly more often than she stopped to think that each of her hands had five fingers and fourteen knuckles. The scars were a fact of her hands that embarrassed her no more than the fact that she had fingernails. A survivor could not be embarrassed by proof of her resolute spirit and endurance.

She kept glancing at the scars now because she felt trapped for the first time since her fifteenth birthday, for the first time in more than twenty years.

The trap from which she escaped on that long-ago birthday had been one that she endured from the age of five. It began when her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Jake Horner, took Cammy across state lines to avoid abiding by a child-custody decision handed down by the divorce court in Texas.

The court gave both parents joint—and equal—custody. Cammy’s mother, Zena, didn’t like anyone telling her what to do.

Jake Horner had inherited some money. He used part of it to buy a boat, a fifty-six-foot coastal cruiser, which he named Therapy.

Jake, Zena, and Cammy cruised ceaselessly, from Vancouver south to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and back again. They were never in port more than two weeks at a time.

Mike Rivers, Cammy’s dad, tracked them down at a marina in Northern California, eight months later. Because differences in the laws between California and Texas hampered him, he took matters into his own hands.

When Mike Rivers appeared on the dock, he was talked aboard Therapy by Zena, who expressed remorse and fear of the authorities, and by Jake, who said he was unaware that Mike either wanted custody of his daughter or was granted any such arrangement by a judge. Jake was angry with Zena and assured Mike that they could settle the issue quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction.

The spacious main cabin included a galley with teak cabinets and a matching teak floor, a dining area, and a salon. There, Jake and Zena stabbed Mike Rivers to death.

In the aft stateroom, beyond a closed door, five-year-old Cammy heard the brutal assault. She didn’t see the murder—except in her imagination.

Her father took a while to die. But he did not beg for his life. She never forgot that he refused to beg.

Jake and Zena wrapped the body in a tarp, then in chains. Later that day, more than two miles offshore, they added a spare anchor to the package and dropped it overboard.

Cammy was on deck when the bundled body went over the side. Near twilight, the green and purple sea opened as if it were a great dark maw, hungrily swallowed her father in an instant, and licked the hull of the boat, wanting more.

At the marina again, Jake found Mike’s car, drove it elsewhere, and abandoned it. That night, he was in high spirits.

In the morning, they cruised south toward Mexico. As if nothing had changed, nothing at all, the sea rolled vast and bright, the air smelled fresh, the sky was blue, and white gulls soared with a grace they did not possess when on the land.

Jake Horner loved books. He read fiction and nonfiction, but he especially liked volumes about therapeutic psychologies. He called himself a “journeyer,” as if it were a vocation, an avocation, and a faith. He said life was about one thing and one thing only: the next possibility.

Because Cammy never went to school, Jake taught her to read. After that, being a dedicated autodidact, she taught herself what else she needed to know.

Zena appreciated the mood-altering power of drugs, particularly ecstasy, and Jake liked to torment children. And burn them. Their arrangement was beneficial for them; it was a living hell for Cammy.

Her patient reading tutor, who cheered her on when she caught fish and who personally baked her birthday cake each year, was also her torturer.

For ten years they plied the sea, and Jake himself was a sea of contradictions. When Cammy sustained a cut or an abrasion, Jake dressed it tenderly and monitored her healing with concern. In less compassionate moods, he burned her with cigarettes, with objects like spoons and cast-metal religious medallions that he first heated with a butane lighter, and with melted candle wax.

Her mother, having dissolved moral conscience with the chemical bliss of ecstasy, told her to be grateful for the generosity with which Jake shared his wealth and for his restraint. He hurt Cammy like that only twice a month, after all, always on the first and third Sundays, so she did not, Zena counseled, have to be afraid every day. Besides, he didn’t mar her face or body, restricting his attention to her hands, her feet. And although the threat of sexual assault was present, he never touched her that way. Her obsequious obedience, her abject capitulation even to torture, gave him a sense of power that he needed. Her pain was his ecstasy.

“The poor thing’s had a hard life,” Zena told young Cammy. “His father was a psychiatrist. His mother was his father’s patient. She suffered spells of ennui and psychosomatic rashes. Neither could heal the other. They conceived Jake as their cause, but he fulfilled them no more than did fund-raising for the symphony and donating to the opera. At night, he sometimes cries in my arms, he’s so sweet.”

Cammy never knew the significance of first and third Sundays or why burning mattered to him. He treated every burn with ointment, and when the wound healed, he kissed the scar and wept.

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