CHAPTER ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY-FOUR
Wednesday morning — 6:10 A.M.
Ava woke with a start. Confused, she rubbed her eyes. She was sitting in an arm chair in her office. Alex and Max were gone. She glanced at her watch then turned and stared at the clock on the wall
“Oh crap, I’m late,” she mumbled.
Semi-awake, she hopped to her feet.
“Slowly,” a man’s voice said. “Give yourself a second to wake up. I have coffee.”
Ava turned to see Alex’s problem solver, Captain Troy Olivas standing in the doorway.
“Are you guarding me?” Ava tried to say. She was so groggy she wasn’t sure what came out. He smiled at her.
“I have two cups,” he said. “One with lemon, warm water, and some of Alex’s honey and one with coffee and a little whole milk.”
Ava held her hand out for the lemon water. He came into the room to give it to her. She took a sip, then another. He sat down on the couch.
“Alex’s honey?” Ava asked.
“Alex and Max keep bees at the house,” Troy said. “They have a beekeeping club and keep bees with Delphie. You’ll have to come over for a harvest. It’s almost a pagan ritual.”
“Why are you here, Captain Olivas?” Ava asked.
“Orders,” Troy gave Ava a big toothy smile. She blushed at how handsome he was. “Actually, Alex seems to think I can help. There’s a bunch of us here. Margaret’s here to help with the Geneva contingency. Colin’s here to help sort out the medical piece with your lab tech Leslie. Raz is working with your computer guy… uh…”
“Nelson,” Ava said. “And Fran?”
“Vince is to work with her,” Troy said. “He doesn’t look like much, but he can build anything anywhere. He’ll help Fran figure out how everything worked. Our orders are to help but not interfere.”
“Were you ordered to wake me?” Ava asked.
“I was ordered not to wake you,” Troy said. “But the CDC is downstairs and the Geneva and Israeli teams are on their way from the airport. We’re concerned there will be a turf war. And…”
“And?” Ava asked.
“Your fiancé is an old friend of Alex’s father,” Troy said.
“They served in Vietnam together,” Troy said. “We don’t have time for turf wars.”
“Why are you here?” Ava asked.
“I’m an ‘out of the box’ thinker,” Troy said. “I have a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics. I’m assigned to assist you.”
“Who’s working with Bob?” Ava asked.
“Max,” Troy said.
“Is my team…?”
“They’re due here at six-thirty,” Troy said. “We’re having a big meeting at eight. That gives everyone time to get their ducks in a row. Are you hungry?”
“Why don’t we get out of here?” Troy asked. “You can brief me over breakfast. I’m sure you’ll want to shower and change your clothes. Or at least I do when I work all night.”
“Shouldn’t I stay here? Assert my authority?”
“Nah,” Troy said. “Alex is here. Turf wars are one of her specialties. No one’s going to try anything while she’s around. There’s not a big dog in the world that won’t roll over at her feet.”
Ava stood up and went to her desk for her purse.
“You don’t mind if the rest of your team meets us, do you?” Troy asked.
“I’d really like that,” Ava said. “I touched base with them before they left last night, but it would be good to get a thorough update on their progress.”
“Good,” Troy said. “They’re on their way to Dozens.”
“Sounds like you’ve been busy,” Ava said.
“Not me,” Troy said. “Alex and Max. But we’ll need to have something soon.”
“The patients didn’t fair very well overnight,” Troy said.
“Seth?” Ava’s voice came out in a panicked breath.
“He’s alive,” Troy said. “That’s all I know.”
“I should stay,” Ava said.
“You need to come with me,” Troy said.
“Something like that,” he said. “We’ll be back in time to get this done.”
Ava smiled at him. He escorted her through the lab. When the elevator opened, she saw the team from the CDC waiting there. She swallowed hard. She was about to say something when Alex welcomed them to the lab. She and Troy got on the elevator and went up to the first floor. She was out of the building before she took her first full breath.
“That was close,” Troy laughed.
Ava smiled and followed him down the street to the restaurant. Inside, she saw her team and the soldiers assigned to each of them. They were laughing about something and Ava smiled. When Bob waved to them, she felt a rush of hope.
“I can do this,” she muttered.
“We’re waiting for you to,” Troy laughed.
She smiled at him and went to meet her team.
Wednesday morning — 6:10 A.M.
“Jill!” Valerie whispered and tapped on the door.
She’d crept up to Jill and Jacob’s apartment. As if she’d been waiting for her, Jill opened the door. Jill smiled at Valerie and gestured her into the kitchen. Jill nodded to a bar stool and Valerie took a seat at the counter.
“Isn’t Katy up?” Valerie asked.
“She and Jake are sleeping in,” Jill said. “We were up late. Doesn’t matter when Katy falls asleep. She’ll sleep exactly eight hours and wake up. She won’t be up for a few hours yet.”
“I had the weirdest dream,” Valerie said.
Jill set a cup of tea in front of Valerie and poured one for herself.
“I dreamed that we killed the monster in Brighton,” Valerie said. “You, me, the kids, Honey, like we did last night. I woke up with this feeling that we had to do it. Today.”
Jill smiled and stirred her tea.
“You don’t have to be so quiet,” Valerie said. “I know about the twins.”
Jill’s head jerked up with surprise.
“You do?” Jill asked. “Jacob doesn’t even… How…?”
“Mom told me,” Valerie said. Jill raised her eyebrows and Valerie laughed. “When we were kids. Not now.”
“She told me that only Jake could have boys,” Valerie said. “I always knew it but I was still so devastated at losing Jack.”
“I know,” Jill reached out to cover Valerie’s hand with her own. “I haven’t known how to tell you. I’m so sorry about Jack.”
“Me too,” Valerie said.
Jill gave Valerie’s hand a squeeze.
“So you’re not upset?”
“About the twins?” Valerie said. “No. Not at all. I’m excited to be an aunt. I’ve been buying baby stuff for the boys. I hope you don’t mind.”
Jill smiled. The women fell silent for a moment while they drank their tea. Valerie looked up and smiled at Jill.
“Mom told Jake too. He would have a girl, a set of twin boys and maybe more later. She couldn’t tell after the twins,” Valerie said. “He would roll his eyes and head out to screw some other chick. It was pretty funny looking back on it.”
“Screw some chick? When?” Jacob tried for indignant but couldn’t keep from laughing. Wearing his pajamas, he kissed Jill good morning. “Thanks for ruining my big moment.”
“Which big moment was that?” Valerie laughed.
“My moment of surprise and love – Twins? Us? Really?” Jacob leaned over to whisper in Jill’s ear. “We’ll talk later?”
“Are you here about the monster in Brighton?” Jacob asked.
“I’m not going to let you go by yourself,” Jacob said. “I doubt Aden will let the kids and Sandy go by themselves. Mike’s going to insist on coming. And there’s no way MJ’s leaving Honey’s side.”
“We’d probably have to kill Delphie to keep her from being involved,” Jill said.
“But we need to go, right?” Valerie asked.
“Today,” Jacob said. “I’m a little surprised…”
“Jill?” Delphie stuck her head in the doorway. The dogs, Sarah and Scooter, came running in. “I’m glad you’re awake.”
Scooter made a beeline for Katy’s room.
“I can stay here with Katy,” Jill said. “We don’t have the mitochondrial DNA.”
“You need to go,” Valerie said.
“But…” Jill said.
“We need you there,” Delphie said.
“Katy won’t be awake for another hour or so.”
“Maria is here,” Delphie said. “She wanted to talk to you about what you wanted your nursery to look like anyway.”
“So everyone knows?” Jill asked.
Delphie gave Jill one of her flower child smiles. Jill shook her head and Delphie hugged her.
“We leave in a half hour?” Valerie got up from her stool. “I’ll talk to Honey.”
“The police are coming at eight,” Jacob said. “They want to talk to everyone. That’s going to take all morning.”
“Sissy can’t miss dance,” Jill said. “But I can stay here with her. She and Charlie don’t have the DNA either.”
“No, I think everyone has to be there,” Delphie said. “You, Katy, Sissy, Charlie, Teddy… Yes, we need you to kill this thing.”
“Construction has started on the fields around the barn,” Jacob said. “We can’t run the risk of involving their crew.”
“We go tonight,” Valerie said.
“After dinner,” Jacob said.
“It’s a plan,” Delphie said.
Valerie gave a pert wave and left the loft.
“I’m thinking of staying here,” Jill said.
Concerned, Jacob reviewed her face.
“What is it?” Jacob asked.
“It’s just been a lot,” Jill said. “For me. For Katy. Serial killers. Monsters. Crazy people. It’s just a lot. I don’t know… I guess I’m tired.”
“Is it the babies?” Jacob asked.
Jill shook her head.
“I need to shower,” Jill said.
She smiled at him and Delphie and then left for their bedroom. Worried, Jacob eyes followed her to the door. He was trying to figure out if he should follow when Delphie cleared her throat.
“Did you notice it’s summer?”
His mind still distracted by his worry for Jill, Jacob gave Delphie a curt nod.
“Do you remember what happened last summer?” Delphie asked.
Puzzled, Jacob tried to figure out what Delphie was saying. Delphie twirled back and forth making her skirt puff out.
“I met Jill at the engagement party?”
Smiling, Delphie twirled and her skirt puffed out.
“Katy got stung by a bee?” Jacob asked. “Honey was almost killed?”
Delphie twirled back and forth.
“You’re not going to tell me,” Jacob said.
“I’m not,” Delphie said. “You can ask her, but it’s probably better if you figure it out yourself.”
With that, Delphie turned in place and left the loft. Sarah, his yellow Labrador, looked up at him. Confused, he rubbed Sarah’s ears. His mind ran through the important days of last summer. He took Jill on her first date to the zoo. Katy was stung by a bee. They made love the first time. He was injured. Jill and Katy moved in. They moved into this loft. He shook his head with confusion. Hearing Jill start a shower, he turned to look toward their room.
Thinking he should ask her, he went into their bathroom. He passed the claw foot tub and the toilet. With the mirrors and sinks on his right, he went around the corner to the shower. Passing the French doors to the small balcony, he wondered why they never sat out there. It was a gorgeous day. Maybe when Jill was done showering, she would join him for a cup of coffee. Standing at the French doors, he looked out into the backyard.
Delphie and the kids had already planted most of the garden. The trees were starting to make fruit. Even the bees were beginning to wake to the gorgeous day and… It hit him.
They don’t sit on this balcony because it overlooks where Trevor was shot. Trevor, Jill’s ex-husband, was shot through the forehead last summer. He closed his eyes to count the days.
The anniversary was a week from Saturday.
He glanced at Jill’s naked body through the Plexiglas shower doors. Was Jill mourning Trevor? Did she miss Trevor, her battering, cheating ex-husband? His mind reviewed the crazy last year. It had been wild. And certainly this never ending crap with his ex-secretary didn’t help. And now with twin boys Jill would need all her resources to help them survive. He wouldn’t blame her for wanting a quieter life.
But Trevor? She missed Trevor?
Jill said she was happy. Jill said she had the life she always wanted, always dreamed of. Jill said she loved him. She’d even said they belonged together.
Why was she upset about Trevor?
Unsure of himself, he yelled: “I’m going for a run.”
“Have fun,” Jill yelled back. “We’ll have breakfast when you get back.”
He changed into his running gear. Jill was just getting out of the shower when he whistled for Sarah and took the long stairwell to the side door. He glanced up to see Jill waving at him in the front windows, then took off toward City Park.
He knew he was trying to out run his fear that he had lost Jill. He knew he should talk to her, ask her, and listen. But right now, all he could do was put one foot in front of the other and pray she loved him.
Wednesday morning — 10:40 A.M.
“Charlie! Charlie!” Sissy shook Charlie awake.
“What?” Charlie sneered at Sissy. “I’m sleeping.”
“It’s MOM!” Sissy spun on toe in place with delight. “On the phone. She wants to see us! She says she misses us! and… Here!”
Sissy pushed the phone at Charlie. He looked at the phone and curled his lip.
“She says she’s really sorry,” Sissy whispered. “She says she’s been sick and…”
Sissy’s eyes begged Charlie to talk to their mother. Charlie closed his eyes and rolled away from her happy face.
“What’s going on?” Sandy asked. “I thought you were napping before ballet?”
“I was,” Sissy said. “But the phone rang and I hoped it might be Ward because he said he would call and… It’s MOM!”
Sandy grabbed the phone from Sissy.
“Mom?” Sandy walked toward the living room with Sissy and Charlie following close behind.
“Yes, Sandra, it’s me,” her mother said.
“What’s going on?” Sandy asked.
“I’d like to see you and the children,” her mother said.
“Which children?” Sandy asked.
“Mitzi and Charles,” her mother said. “My children.”
“When?” Sandy asked.
“Really Sandy, do we have to be like this?” her mother asked. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I admit that. Do you have to be so cruel?”
“Cruel? Me?” Sandy asked. “I thought I was dead to you.”
“I see your feelings were hurt too,” her mother said. “We both have said a lot of things we didn’t mean.”
Furious, Sandy looked across the room. She saw Sissy’s pleading eyes and Charlie’s feigned indifference.
“Please!” Sissy begged.
“What are you proposing?” Sandy asked.
“I have some time off treatment this weekend,” her mother said. “I’d like to see you, Mitzi and Charles. I thought we could meet with my therapists and try to figure out how to go from here.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Sandy said.
“In order for me to leave treatment, I need to prepare to live my life,” her mother said. “I need… We need to figure out what makes the most sense for me and all of us really.”
“Sissy has ballet from noon to six on Saturdays,” Sandy said. “I don’t think we can make it.”
“I’m trying to be a mother here,” her mother said. “I know it comes easily to you, but I’ve had to learn how to… “
Not wanting to give her selfish mother an inch, Sandy didn’t fill in the blanks.
“If you can’t stand me, you can always send Mitzi and Charles,” her mother said. “I know it won’t be a financial burden for you with all that money from your father.”
“I’ll speak with Aden,” Sandy said. “We’ll see what we think is best for Sissy and Charlie.”
“They are my children. Isn’t that for me to decide?”
“You gave up that right when you gave up custody,” Sandy said. “We need to go. Sissy needs to rest.”
“She’ll be fine,” her mother said. “She’s young and…”
“Good-bye Mother,” Sandy said. “We’ll call you this evening.”
Sandy hung up the phone.
“Why were you so mean?” Sissy asked at the same time Charlie said, “Same old selfish bullshit.”
“I understand how you feel, Sissy. I want Mom to be better too. But we have to make sure she’s really better – for you both. I won’t stand for you and Charlie to be hurt by her again,” Sandy said.
“But…” Sissy said.
“Go rest,” Sandy said. “I’m taking you to dance then going to sit with Seth. If you don’t rest, you could get injured.”
“But…” Sissy said.
“I’ll talk to Aden about Mom. He wants to go somewhere this weekend. Maybe Tuscon is it.”
Sissy scowled at Sandy and Charlie collapsed into himself.
“Back to bed,” Sandy said. “Both of you.”
Sissy and Charlie turned to walk down the hall.
“Wait,” Sandy said.
They stopped walking and turned to her.
“I love you both so much,” Sandy said. “That’s all that’s going on here. I don’t want to see you hurt again.”
Sandy held out her arms and Sissy hugged her. Sandy grabbed Charlie’s shirt and pulled him into their hug. Letting go, she looked at both of their weary faces.
“You have to trust me,” Sandy said.
Sissy nodded to Sandy and followed Charlie down the hall. Sandy gave one last worried glance down the hallway then went back to her bedroom.
“What was that?” Aden asked.
“My mother,” Sandy said. “She wants to see ‘Mitzi’ and ‘Charles’ in Tuscon this weekend.”
“For a command performance?” Aden asked. “Fat chance.”
“The problem is she asked Sissy first,” Sandy said. “Sissy’s begging to go. Sissy wants Mom to be her Mom so badly… I…”
“I remember that feeling,” Aden said.
“Me too,” Sandy said. “I’ll tell you Aden, this is not going to end well. I just know it.”
Wednesday evening — 3:40 P.M.
“Are you sure?” Max asked as he entered Ava’s office.
“No,” Ava said and sat down in her desk chair. “You?”
“No,” he said. “Bob?”
“No,” Bob said.
Ava looked up to see Leslie in the doorway. Ava waved her inside. Leslie waddled her pregnant girth to the couch. Nelson and Fran followed her over to the couch. Max closed Ava’s office door then took an arm chair. For a moment, no one said any thing. Then they all spoke at once and laughed.
Picking up a pad of paper and a pen, Ava got up from her desk. She took an arm chair and Bob turned around a straight back chair to join the circle.
“I feel like we’re at Alanon,” Fran said. “Hi my name is Fran and I’m a Codependent.”
“Hi Fran,” the rest of the team said and laughed.
For a moment, everything seemed normal. There was a knock on the door and reality set in. In a few minutes, they would have to make decide what to do. Through the glass wall, Ava saw the lead researcher from the USDA. She shook her head and he waved. She knew he’d come to tell her that everyone was waiting for their decision, her decision.
“Lay out the facts for me one more time,” Bob said.
“We don’t have time to make an effective anti-toxin,” Ava said. She looked up to see if everyone agreed.
“Well, that and we can’t reverse two hundred million years of evolution,” Max said. “Human being evolved after wasps and their venom. Any antitoxin would have to account for millennia of evolution, not to mention human experience. I mean, how many times has Seth been stung by a wasp? I bet a lot. The antitoxin would have to take into account his body’s immune memory for the venom.”
“There may never be an effective anti-toxin for the First Responders Toxin.” Ava wrote her statements on her pad of paper.
“Ever,” Nelson said.
“That’s more like it,” Fran said.
“Facts,” Bob said. “Let’s stick with facts.”
“The wood shards were soaked in toxin,” Fran said. “And they had fatty pockets of toxin stuck to the shards. When the wood spikes were pulled out, these packets of toxin were left behind.”
“That’s got to be why the men keep spiking fevers,” Bob said.
“I’m sure you’re right,” Leslie said. “The men’s immune systems would attack the outside fatty shell of these packets. When the shell dissolves, more toxin is released.”
“The men received doses of the toxin from the wood spike. They continue to receive toxin through these…” Ava said. “We’re calling them packets?”
“You could call them franicles,” Nelson said.
“Packet it is,” Ava wrote down Fran’s discovery.
“The thing I’m stuck on is that we’re fighting the natural human response to this venom,” Bob said. “If we introduce another agent, even an effective antitoxin, the men’s immune systems are so fired up, they will attack it.”
“That’s a good point,” Ava said. “The men are all in a high allergic state. The ER docs said their allergic response is so activated they’re starting to have autoimmune reactions similar to lupus.”
“Allergy medications are starting to fail,” Leslie said. “Their blood pressure keeps dropping. They’re already using dopamine to stabilize their pressure but…”
They fell silent for a moment digesting Leslie’s news.
“We can’t give up,” Bob said. “The men’s lives depend on what we decide.”
“And what did we decide?” Ava asked.
“Surgery,” Max said. “The men need surgery to clean out the wounds. The rest of the toxin must be removed. That’s got to be first.”
“Dialysis with the Immunoglobulin filters,” Leslie said. “The ER docs are already talking about it. If they use the right filter, they can reduce the immune response.”
“And?” Ava looked up from her writing.
“We have to think treatment protocol,” Bob said. “Not anti-toxin.”
“And our treatment protocol is surgery, then dialysis,” Ava said.
“Meds for pain, steroids to reduce allergic response, and blood pressure stabilizing,” Bob said. “Flush their systems with saline IVs and more dialysis if necessary.”
Her team nodded.
“And if we kill them?” Ava asked.
“They are dying anyway,” Leslie said. Nothing the heartbreak on Ava’s face, she added, “I’m sorry Ava, but it’s true. The docs say they won’t make another the night.”
“Have the families been notified?” Bob asked.
“They have,” Nelson said. “But everyone expects that we’ll pull off some miracle. We are their last chance.”
Ava nodded to Nelson. She reread her notes then nodded to her team.
“Anything else?” Ava asked.
“We’re praying for him, honey,” Fran said.
Ava looked up to see the kind eyes of her lab techs and Max Hargreaves. She gave them a smile to keep from crying in exhaustion and despair.
“I’ll go tell them,” Ava said. “If we get agreement, I’ll need your help relaying it to the docs at Denver Health.”
“I don’t work for the UN or the Israelis or Homeland Security or the USDA,” Nelson said. “I work for you.”
“Nelson’s right,” Leslie said. “We should relay the information to Denver Health while you and Max talk to the research teams.”
Ava looked at Leslie and Nelson.
“He’s right you know,” Fran added.
“I agree,” Bob said. “I’d be happy to make the call.”
“Let’s go ahead,” Ava said. “Let me know if the docs have anything else to add.”
“Will do,” Leslie said.
“You guys can go home when you’re done,” Ava said. “It’s been a long day and we were here late last night.”
“We’re not leaving you,” Fran said.
“Plus, Franny and I have babysitters,” Leslie said. “I want to get another meal…”
“In an adult restaurant,” Fran said.
“Without kids!” Leslie added.
“We’re trying to say we’ll wait for you,” Nelson said. “And we want to go out again.”
Ava smiled at them. Bob got up and crossed the room to use Ava’s phone. Ava stood and Max followed her. They were almost to the door when they heard Bob request the ER doctors who had been tracking Seth and the other police officers. Ava and Max shared a look and went to tell the international team their findings.
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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