PAROXYSM

A Thriller

by Matt Hughes

Chapter 1

A casual visitor would never have suspected that the low-rise blond-brick structure on the outskirts of a small town in one of the fly-over states would be the source of so many deaths.  But the place had never had any casual visitors.

Officially, it was a repository for outdated military records, and that description tallied with the utilitarian, floor-to-ceiling shelving that filled its windowless interior.  Each shelf was crammed with alphabetically ordered file folders that bore authentic, color-coded labels.

A closer inspection would have revealed that the electronic security around the building was much more sophisticated than its purported contents warranted.  The armed military police might have seemed too many and too vigilant to be safeguarding nothing more than a collection of manpower reports and convoy manifests that dated back to the Korean War.

But there had been very few close inspections during the more than two decades since the facility had been constructed, equipped and staffed.  The inspectors had ignore the camouflaging paper stored above ground.  Instead, the focus was on the work taking place in the three stories built beneath its government-issue surface.  The first inspection had come in 1973, just before the installation’s commissioning; a team of specialist engineers had fine-toothed the intricate matrix of gaskets, traps, filters and vacuum pumps that hermetically sealed the lower floors from the rest of the world.  The pumps and fans had started up, and had run continuously ever since.

The last inspection, undertaken in mid-2007, had been much more casual.  A major general and his aide wandered around the labs and data processing center for fifteen minutes, idly fingered the equipment, stared at the staff, then announced that the facility was to be permanently moth-balled.  The visitors did not go down to the ultra-secure lowest floor — referred to by the scientists who worked there as “the well” — because there was not much to see, except for steel containers stored behind triple-sealed safety glass.  And no matter how many stars the major general had on his collar, if he went down the well, he would not be let out again before enduring a tedious half hour of decontamination.

Between the first and last inspections, the installation had been of interest only to the small group of carefully chosen people who worked in it, and to the fewer than ten very senior people in the military and the government whose need-to-know status encompassed its existence.  Not even the soldiers who guarded the place knew what went on underground.  But they knew that any inquiries in that direction would mean a quick transfer and a damaging paragraph in the permanent record.

Six months after the major general brought the order to shut down, with most of the salvageable equipment already stripped and shipped, and with most of the staff pensioned off or reassigned, the brigadier who had commanded the unit for almost all of its existence arrived for his last day on the post.

The MP at the front gate came out of the guardhouse as the car pulled up, and bent to look in the windows.  He recognized three of the men in the car: the brigadier, a lean, hard-faced career officer, coming to clean out his desk; his aide, a smooth and sly-eyed major, who would be following the general into retirement; and the plump, balding man who had been chief of civilian scientific personnel.  The guard noted that the scientist looked nervous and unhappy; but then that was nothing unusual.  Each man held up a plastic laminated security pass worn on a chain around his neck.

The driver was new, a middle-aged man in a cheap suit fresh off the rack.  To the military policeman’s observant eye, the man’s style said former soldier; the puffy flesh under the eyes said active service boozehound.

The general leaned forward from the back seat.  “This is Raifort, my new driver,” he said.

The guard leaned over to the car window.  “I’ll need to see his pass, General.”

“Of course.  Show him your pass, Raifort.”

Everybody on the post knew that the long-service noncom who had been the general’s driver for several years was away on emergency compassionate leave.  His wife had been severely injured in a hit-and-run the week before.  The general had declined a replacement from the unit’s dwindling complement, saying he would instead hire a civilian for his final days, someone who could continue to work for him after he retired.

Raifort proffered a plastic-laminated blue card.  The MP studied it.  It was a temporary pass, allowing the man onto the post as long as he was escorted.  It had been signed by the general.

The guard opened the gates and waved the car through.  It rolled to the end of the driveway, turned and passed down the side of the building to where a ramp sloped down to a roll-up steel door.

The door opened, and Raifort wheeled the car carefully into the underground parking garage, putting it in the general’s marked space next to the glassed-in guard post beside the elevator.  Here the four men left the vehicle and went through the same procedure of showing their passes.

The MP in the booth pushed a button and the elevator door opened.  The four men entered and the aide used his key to unlock the control panel and press the bottom-most button.  The elevator descended silently for thirty seconds.

When the door opened again, they exited into a concrete world.  Floor, ceiling and walls were a uniform hard gray.  They came into a space ten feet square, containing a steel desk, chair and lockable filing cabinet, the key to which was on the belt of an MP master sergeant.  The belt also carried a holstered pistol.  The noncom saluted, then inspected their passes.

“Last day, Ted,” said the general to the sergeant.  “Sorry to see it end.  Been good duty.”

“Yes sir,” said the noncom.  “Good duty.”

A steel door was set into the wall opposite the elevator, an electronic key pad beside it.  The sergeant tapped in the day’s code and stepped back.

The moment the door swung open, a draft of air was sucked from the lobby.  All of the space that lay beyond the door was negatively pressurized, so that air blew into it from the outside.  For thirty-four years, air had only moved from out to in.  Had it ever moved the other way, alarms would have screamed, automatic doors would have slammed shut, and anyone on the wrong side of those doors would have stayed there a long time.  Perhaps forever.

But that was back when the facility was active, back before the convoy of specially fitted trucks had come to carry away a small sample of each carefully engineered micro-organism and precisely constructed molecule that had been made down the well.  The samples had been put in storage in a vault whose security apparatus made Fort Knox look like a five-and-dime store.  The rest of the material — enough to make life thoroughly miserable if not impossible for a billion people — was boiled, irradiated, scorched by ultraviolet light, chemically disassembled and neutralized, then finally flash-incinerated at steel-melting temperatures until nothing much remained.  The nothing much was nonetheless sealed in lead lined concrete forms and buried in a disused salt mine in Utah.

Now the labs were empty, the personnel reassigned or retired, the equipment stripped away.  The guards continued to carry out the security procedures because no one had told them not to.  So the four men followed the wafts of cool air through the steel door and into a room where they disrobed and hung their clothes in green lockers.  Rings, watches, even the security passes, were stored away.

An MP watched from a glassed-in enclosure, and did not press the button that opened the door to the next room until he saw that all four men were completely naked.  He noticed that Raifort’s left thigh ended just below the hip, where it met a government-issue artificial leg.

The next room contained benches and shelves of clothing, loose fitting shirts and pants, underwear and slippers.  The four men dressed, then the major opened the door — this one an ordinary wooden panel — and they stepped into another concrete corridor.  It led them to a suite of offices.

The brigadier and the major had adjoining rooms, their dimensions and contents conforming to the specifications laid down in a Pentagon manual.  The junior officer followed the senior into the larger office, but the brigadier waved him away.  The major then went instead to his own cubicle, while the brigadier instructed Raifort to assist the scientist.

The general’s office contained a desk, three chairs, a filing cabinet and a credenza — all supplied by the military and all to remain where they were.  The only non-issue items in the room were in frames on the walls: a citation for efficiency, a certificate attesting to the brigadier’s mid-class standing at his graduation from West Point, and a few photographs.

The general quickly took them down and stacked them on the desk.  A moment later, the major came in with a similar pile of memorabilia: his had fewer photographs, and the citation was for marksmanship.  The major piled his stuff on top of the brigadier’s and picked up the pile.

The general did not give the office where he had spent most of the past twenty-three years so much as a parting glance.  He strode out into the hall, followed by the laden major.

The scientist and Raifort came out of the former’s office down the hall.  The balding man carried a plastic box filled with the kind of paraphernalia that accumulates on some people’s desks: balanced steel sculptures that rotate when touched; ball bearings hung by wires from a metal frame, so that they clacked together in syncopated rhythm; colored liquid gels trapped between panes of plexiglass that imitated wave action when tilted.  The driver held a second box that contained more of the same.

They reentered the corridor, but went past the door by which they had entered from the dressing room.  They stopped at a steel portal next to a glassed-in booth, where yet another armed MP pressed a control that made the heavy door slide open.

Beyond was a tiled room with benches where they undressed and deposited their “inside clothes” in bins.  At the far end of the room was another guard in a booth, a steel exit and a hatchway with a hinged panel set into the wall.  After disrobing, the major passed the pile of framed documents and photos through the opening.  Raifort and the scientist did the same with the boxes of bric a brac.

Naked, they walked to the exit door next to the hatchway.  The door did not open.  The brigadier looked at the MP corporal in the guard booth.  The man was clearly trying to make up his mind.

“Sorry, general,” the noncom said after a moment, “but I have to ask your man to…, well, to put his leg through the hatch, sir.”

The brigadier looked at Raifort.  The driver went and sat down on a bench.  “What the hell,” he said, and began unstrapping the prosthesis.  When it was loose he handed it to the major, who carried it to the hatchway and passed it through.

The one-legged man stood up on his remaining limb.

“Could you help me, sir?” he asked the major.  The officer allowed the driver to put his left arm over his shoulder, and supported Raifort as he hopped to the doorway.  The guard opened the door and they went into the decontamination suite.

The procedure here was thorough, but much less comprehensive than if they had been returning from the well.  They showered in chemically treated water using specially formulated granular liquid soaps — long showers that involved particular attention to the parts of the body covered in hair, and to folds, wrinkles and indentations.  They dried themselves under hot air vents, then stood with eyes closed for five minutes in a room lined with intense ultraviolet lights.  The major helped support Raifort.

While they were so occupied, the items they had passed through the hatchway were carried by a conveyor belt to a small sealed chamber.  Here the officer’s documents, the scientist’s knick-knacks and the driver’s leg were subjected to similar procedures.  The goods were sprayed, doused and scrubbed by technicians who used remote manipulator arms to reach through the chamber’s glass wall.

At the end of the process, the objects were delivered by conveyor belt to two security officers, who carefully inspected each item, even to the point of removing the cushioned pad that capped the artificial leg.  The officer tapped the end of the hexagonal steel rod that descended through the plastic body of the leg from its top to the knee joint.  Its top was flush with the plastic surface.  It was solid.

The items the four men had brought from their offices were compared one by one against detailed descriptions on a list.  Nothing that was not pre-approved as personal property and authorized to be removed would be allowed to leave the premises.

The security personnel delivered the goods to the locker room where the brigadier’s party had left their clothing.  But the four men had one more procedure to endure before they were reunited with their possessions.

They entered a small room whose exit was controlled by another guard in a booth.  An MP lieutenant rose from a desk.  He saluted, then carefully maintained a poker face as, beginning with the brigadier, he ran his fingers through the hair of each man and asked each to open his mouth.  Then he put on a disposable plastic glove, and went back to the general.

“Sir,” he said.

The brigadier about faced and bent over.  The lieutenant made sure that the general had nothing to conceal.  The MP discarded the glove in a bin, got another from the stack, and approached the major.

The scientist, when it was his turn, said, “Here’s something I won’t miss.”

“Yes, sir,” said the MP.

When Raifort had been checked, leaving him red faced, the lieutenant nodded to the MP in the guard booth, and the door to the locker room swung open.  Raifort hopped to the bench where his artificial leg lay and strapped it on.  They dressed and picked up the items they had brought from the offices.  The general opened the door to the lobby, and they left.

The master sergeant with the pistol and MP brassard stood to attention and saluted.  The brigadier took the salute, and said, “Goodbye, sergeant.”

The man moved the control that opened the elevator doors.  “Goodbye, sir,” he said.

Two minutes later, the brigadier’s car was through the front gate and heading toward the interstate highway.  It traveled north for twenty-five minutes at the speed limit, being passed by every other vehicle going in the same direction.

“I don’t think we’re being followed,” said the major.

“I agree,” said the brigadier.  The scientist let out a trembling breath.  Raifort said nothing.

“Take the next exit going east,” the major said.

The driver nodded.  A mile further on, he eased the car off the interstate and onto a two-lane blacktop.  For the next half hour, the major occasionally issued terse instructions, and Raifort followed them until the car pulled into a played out gravel pit, next to an abandoned farm that was scheduled to be bulldozed for a miniature golf course.

At the center of the place was a roughly circular, water-filled hole twenty yards across and more than ten yards deep.  The gravel excavators had long ago struck an underground spring; when there was still gravel to be taken, a pump had kept the hole from filling up.  Now the pump had been hauled away, and the pit had filled with opaque green water, on which floated a mat of algae.

Raifort stopped the car near the slimy pool and switched off the engine.  He opened his door and swung around in the driver’s seat so that his feet touched the ground.  Grunting, he pulled up his pants leg and unstrapped the prosthesis.  Meanwhile, the major got out the other side and walked around the car.  Raifort handed him the leg.

The scientist was in the front passenger seat, with a box of his desk toys on his lap.  He reached into the box and brought out one of the devices.  It was a three-dimensional lattice-work of stainless steel rods, with a cap and base of dark, polished wood; when it was tilted, a polished brass ball rolled from level to level.

The balding man wiped his sweating hands on his shirt, then gave the toy’s top a clockwise twist.  The wood separated from the metal with a click, and the lattice-work of bars collapsed in on itself, the ball rolling free.  Most of the rods remained connected, but two separated and came loose.  The scientist handed these two past Raifort to the major.

One of the rods ended in a hexagonal socket; the second had a hole through its middle that exactly fitted the squared off other end of the socketed piece: put together, they made a T-shaped socket wrench.

The major put them together.  Then he removed the pad at the top of the leg and applied the socket to the end of the steel rod that passed through the plastic thigh.  He pressed the socket down onto the plastic that surrounded the rod, and maintained the pressure steadily for almost a minute.

The pressure caused heat.  The plastic had the particular quality of contracting when its temperature was sufficiently raised.  As the major pressed down on the material surrounding the top of the six-sided rod in the center of the false limb, the plastic shrank and allowed the socket to slide snugly down over the steel.  The major turned the T-wrench.

The rod did not run all the way from the cushion pad to the knee.  Instead, it was a lock-nut that held the top of the artificial leg to the rest of the prosthesis.  Now the top came off, revealing a cylindrical compartment six inches deep and an inch-and-a-half in diameter.

The major carefully upended the leg, and held his hand beneath the hole in its middle.  An object slid silently out of the cavity.  It was made of dull black metal, of a size and shape to fit precisely the space in which it had been hidden.  Rounded on the ends, it resembled a giant version of the gelatin capsules the pharmaceutical industry uses to package individual doses of antibiotics.

The major hefted it gently in his hand.  “Well, now,” he said, and looked at the brigadier.

“Very well, indeed,” said the general, and smiled.

The scientist looked away.  He did not like to think about how he had carried the capsule from down the well up to the washroom beside his office.  He had concealed it in his colon, knowing that body cavity searches took place only at the very last security check.

Before that, he had spent weeks watching and waiting for brief opportunities.  He’d loitered, sweating, until his subordinates would leave the deep lab; or he’d send them on manufactured errands, to give himself time to steal, little by little, the substance that was now in the capsule.

The lab’s storage facility had contained ten flasks of the stuff, each holding five hundred centiliters of the agent.  The agent was not part of any active research program.  Field tests were over.  The material was now in secure storage, kept against the day when someone in authority ordered its use.

To the ten flasks, he had contrived to add an eleventh.  Who would notice an extra container at the back of the storage locker?  Then, over a period of weeks, he had surreptitiously transferred fifty cc’s from each legitimate flask to his extra one.  At the end it was easier, because most of the staff were gone, but sometimes it was hard to come up with a plausible reason for going down the well.

“Just checking a couple of things,” became his regular refrain.  His colleagues, especially those who were lucky enough to be reassigned instead of forcibly retired, told each other he was in denial.  Making work for himself, they said.  Poor asshole.

Then, came the last-but-one day, the day before the trucks would come to haul away the ten flasks.  He had gone into work, with the specially made capsule in its rectal hiding place, feeling like he was going to lose it — literally — any second.  They never check you going in, never on the way in, he kept telling himself as he passed through the layers of security.

And then down the well, the capsule pressing on his anal sphincter like an enema with a mind of its own.  Then getting it out — what a mess — and filling it from the bootlegged storage flask, which he then had to rinse clean in the lab sink and toss into the disposal bin.

Then reinserting the capsule into his rectum, thinking Christ, what if there’s a droplet of the agent on the casing?, knowing all too well what the stuff would do to him.  Thinking about it all the way up to the washroom that was down the hall from his office.  Then more distasteful mess, until finally the capsule was hidden in his desk, behind some papers.

The next day, the trucks came, took away all the chemicals, all the microbes.  He’d supervised the loading and signed off on the ten flasks.  Then he’d waited, and waited, and waited: for the knock on the door in the middle of the night, for the MPs filling his office doorway, for the handcuffs and the barred windows and the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary.

But none of that ever came.  Instead, here he was on a fine, crisp morning in a beat-up old gravel pit, with the major holding up the capsule and the brigadier smiling from the back seat of the car.

And Raifort clearing his throat, in a meaningful way.

Raifort didn’t know what the capsule contained, and didn’t care.  “Can I have the leg back?” he said.  “And I think I got something else coming.”

“You do indeed,” said the brigadier.  “Well done, sergeant.”  He turned to his aide.  “Major?”

The general handed the major a briefcase through the car window.  The major gently placed the capsule on the ground, received the briefcase and opened it.  Inside it was filled with foam padding, into which a space for the capsule had been cut.  The major fitted the capsule into the cavity, closed the briefcase, and handed it back to the general.

Then, using the T-wrench again, the major quickly reassembled the artificial leg and passed it back to Raifort. The driver strapped on the prosthesis and got out of the car to make it fit properly by walking a few steps on it.

“This is a damn good leg,” he said.  “Better than that piece a crap the VA give me.”

The major also disassembled the steel tool and handed it to the scientist.  “Put it back together,” he said.

The balding man stared.  “What for?”

The brigadier leaned over the front seat.  “Because details count,” he said.  “You do the details right, the big things tend to stay on track.”

The scientist shrugged and put the toy back together.  It was easy; he’d practiced doing it so many times that he could fit the components together and snap the thing into shape in under fifteen seconds.  The brigadier and the major had made him practice.

Raifort was clearing his throat again.  The brigadier made a motion with his head, and the major went to the back of the car and opened the trunk.  He came back to the front of the car with a zipper-top canvas bag, placed it on the hood and opened it.

Raifort looked into the bag and made a sound in the back of his throat.  He pulled out one of the bundles of twenty dollar bills and riffled it.

“Whatever we just did, general, it was worth it,” he said, rummaging around in the bag.

The general got out of the car and produced a chased silver flask from his breast pocket.  “And that was only the beginning,” he said, handing Raifort the container.

The one-legged man uncapped the flask, sniffed its neck delicately, then put it to his mouth and up-ended it.  His Adam’s apple bobbed once, then twice, and was heading back for a third time when the major put a small-caliber automatic to the back of Raifort’s head and pulled the trigger twice.

With the muzzle pressed tight against the victim’s skull, the shots sounded no louder than a couple of vigorous hand claps.  Liquor spewed from the driver’s mouth, but he was already dead before the first drops touched the ground.

The brigadier’s flask tinkled musically on the stones.  He bent and picked it up, wiped its mouth and took a swallow as major went back to the car’s trunk and pulled out a length of heavy chain.

The brigadier called the scientist to assist the major.  The civilian worked unhappily but efficiently to help wrap Raifort tightly. Then the scientist grabbed the corpse’s ankles — one flesh, one steel — and prepared to lift, but the major said, “Wait a second.”

He went back to the trunk and brought out a long-bladed chef’s knife.  The scientist looked away as the major slit the dead man’s belly.  “Stop him from floating when he gasses up,” he said.  “Okay, let’s put him to bed.”

He grabbed the shoulders of Raifort’s jacket and the scientist took the legs.  They carried the body to the edge of the green pool, swung it together twice, and on the third time they tossed it so it arced out and down, broke the green surface and disappeared from view.  The major threw the pistol and knife after it while the greasy ripples were still slurping at the rim of the pit.

The major drove them away from the gravel pit, the scientist beside him.  The brigadier sat in the back, with both the briefcase and the bag of money.

They drove to the airport; the general had chartered a private jet.  It flew them to Portland, Oregon, where a bank deposit box yielded three false passports.  They put the capsule where the passports had been.

They bought a used car for cash, and crossed the border into Canada before dark, in plenty of time to catch their Air Canada flight to Hong Kong.

A week later, they were comfortably housed in a small commercial hotel on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, conducting exploratory meetings with the clients.

 


Paroxysm is available in print from the Archonate Bookstore and Amazon. It is also available as an eBook from the Archonate Bookstore, Amazon (for the Kindle) and Kobo.