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Authors: Scott Sigler

Pandemic (4 page)

BOOK: Pandemic
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This man, this tall, strong man who had served his country in one form or another for twenty years, this black man who had put up with anything he’d had to in order to climb the ranks of the white-run CIA, this lover who had once put her on the back of a motorcycle and raced her out of Detroit while the world went crazy around them — now this man could not look at her.

That tiny inaction said more than any words ever could. Clarence had already made up his mind. He had made the decision days ago, probably, and had been waiting for the right moment to tell her. Knowing him, he’d been waiting for a chance to be kind, to at least
try
to be kind, but she’d forced it out of him. She’d been a self-involved bitch and backed him into a corner.

“Honey …” she said. There was more to the sentence, but she lost it. The single word hung in the air, lonely and impotent.

She thought of their early years together, their happiest years, and how they’d squandered much of that with days and even weeks apart due to her marathon sessions in the lab or his other assignments. She thought of how they’d console each other by saying they had all the time in the world to catch up, because they were
married
, because they were
together
.

Now it was all gone.

Clarence sniffed. He blinked back tears. “I’m getting older, Margo. I want a wife who’s
here
. I want a family.”

“I can’t,” she said instantly, feeling better for the briefest moment because this was another familiar argument. “I can’t bring a child into this world.”

A world of death and violence. A world of constant hatred. And she was too old, too old for a baby … those excuses and a hundred more.

Clarence sniffed again. He wiped the back of his hand against his eyes. “I know you can’t,” he said. “I accept that. Once I was willing to give up children if I could have you” — he looked up, spread his hands to indicate the room where she spent almost all her time — “but you’re not
you
anymore, Margo.”

She shook her head. “Honey, you don’t—”

“Stop,” he said sharply, the word a slap that landed in her soul instead of on her face. Then, softer: “You know me. You know I wouldn’t start this unless it was already finished. I love you. I always will. You didn’t
kill
millions, you saved
billions
. I tried to help you realize that. But you know what? It’s just not something you want to hear.”

Margaret spent much of her time hating him,
wanting
him to go, but now that he’d brought the idea out of the shadows and into a squirming reality, she suddenly,
desperately
wanted him to stay. She couldn’t have let this slip away.

“I won’t give you babies, so you’re leaving me,” she said. “That’s all I am to you? Just a breeding factory?”

She’d used that argument before, and it had always worked. This time, however, his eyes hardened.

“You’re not a breeding factory,” he said. “You’re not a
wife
, either. We don’t even make love.”

This was about his goddamn
dick
? Her hands clenched into fists. “We just had sex a couple of days ago.”

“Two
weeks
ago,” he said. “Only the second time in the last four months.”

It seemed like more, but she knew better than to argue with him. He probably kept a calendar somewhere, tracked the actual days. That was often the difference between the two of them: Margaret
reacted
, Clarence
planned
.

He weakly waved a hand at the laptop. “You don’t want me because
that
is your lover. You
want
the hurt and the misery. You
want
to read the awful things people say about you.”

She felt a stinging in the back of her eyes, and a hard piece of iron in her chest where it met her neck. “They despise me,” she said. “I deserve it.”

The sadness faded from his eyes, replaced by conviction. That look stabbed deeper than his angry stare ever could — it was done.

“You don’t deserve to be hated,” he said. “But I’m done being your punching bag. If you can’t love yourself, I won’t spend any more time trying to convince
you why you should. You’ve given up on life. I haven’t. I need someone who’ll fight by my side, not roll over and wait for death. I need a
soldier
. That’s what you were, once … but not anymore.”

She felt her hands gripping her shoulders, felt her body start to shake. Her rage had vanished. The puppeteer that made her say horrible things had fled the field of battle.

“But Clarence … I love you.”

He shook his head.

Margaret wanted to go to him, hold him, have him hold her, but a barrier had sprung up between them, a distance that might as well have been miles.

His cell phone buzzed. He pulled it out in an automatic motion, so fluid and fast it was more muscle memory than conscious thought.

“Don’t answer that,” she said. “Please … not now.”

He looked at the screen, then at her. “It’s Longworth.”

“I don’t care if it’s Jesus. Not now, Clarence,
please
.”

He stared at her for another moment. The phone buzzed again. He answered.

“Yes sir?”

Clarence listened. His eyes widened. “Yes sir. Now is fine.”

He put the phone away.

She felt numb. Not cold, not hot, not even angry or sad — just
numb
. “You just told me you’re abandoning me, and now you’re going to go to
work
?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “Murray will be here in fifteen minutes.”

The director of the Department of Special Threats was coming to their house. At three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. It was important, but she didn’t care.

“You know I don’t want anyone here,” she said. “Why didn’t he have you drive in?”

Clarence took a step closer. “Because he’s coming to see
you
.”

She felt a cold pinch of fear. There could be only one reason Murray wanted to see her:

It was starting again
.

GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS

Such a tough choice: sit in the sun and watch girls in bikinis, or spend the afternoon rolling up forks and knives in napkins? Steve Stanton had opted for the former.

He’d slipped away from the restaurant earlier that morning while his mother, father, uncle and cousins were prepping the day’s vegetables, pot stickers and egg rolls. Steve held advanced degrees in robotics, artificial intelligence and computational science, yet his family wanted him to snap the stems off green beans and prepare a hundred sets of flatware for the customers who couldn’t figure out how to use chopsticks? He wasn’t doing it, especially on a day like today.

Instead, Steve had brought a lawn chair out to the narrow, run-down park that ran along the St. Joseph’s River. He’d also brought his laptop. That, connected through his cell, gave him the Internet. His father didn’t know cell phones could do that: if the man came looking for Steve, he’d start in the coffee shops that offered free Wi-Fi.

Steve gazed up at blue skies, soaking up delicious warmth. For once, the November clouds had failed to appear. Gulls called constantly, both close and distant. He looked at the boats either heading out onto the endless horizon of Lake Michigan, or returning to port. A century-old, black-iron bridge hovered over the river, ready to turn ninety degrees and connect the railroad tracks on either side should a train come along.

His father would never look for him here, not in the park while an unseasonal sun blazed down. Steve normally avoided the sun. He’d inherited his mother’s light complexion. As she had done back in China, she made a point of staying as pale as possible; dark skin was for laborers, for fieldworkers. Steve didn’t care about his color. He stayed covered up because he had no intention of dying from skin cancer. Shorts and a T-shirt might have been more comfortable than his sweatshirt and jeans, but the long sleeves and hood blocked the sun’s rays.

Butt in the lawn chair, laptop on his knees, Steve slid his sleeves a little
higher so he could type unencumbered. Not that he was typing all that much; three girls were also taking advantage of what might be the year’s last sunny day to stretch themselves out on a blanket laid upon the grass. They all looked to be in their midtwenties, about Steve’s age. His eyes kept flicking away from his screen’s engineering reports and oceanographic research to the girls, to their long hair, to their tan skin gleaming with oil.

He ached to talk to them. But those kinds of girls didn’t want a guy like him. Girls like that wanted the captain of the football team, not the captain of the chess club. Girls like that didn’t care that he’d earned two doctorates before he’d turned twenty-one, could have earned at least another three if he hadn’t been forced to keep his discoveries secret.

And anyway, those kind of girls didn’t go for first-generation Chinese American nerds. As smart as he was, talking to women made him feel stupid. It made him feel
small
.

The girls back at Berkeley had liked him. Well, not girls who looked like
that
, but at least they were girls. Here in Benton Harbor, Michigan? Women wouldn’t give him the time of day, let alone their phone numbers.

For all Steve’s brilliance, he was wasting away in this shit hole of a town in a shit hole of a state, waiting for a moment to serve his people and his country — a moment that was never going to come. He couldn’t use his education, his rather significant set of skills, couldn’t do anything that might draw attention. Not until the Ministry of State Security decided there was nothing in Lake Michigan worth finding.

His eyes followed the curve of the middle girl’s ass, took in the smooth skin, the way the sun kicked off a soft reflection from the curve’s apex.

She looked up, caught him staring. He turned away instantly, tapped random keys on his keyboard, focusing on the screen like it was the only thing in the world. He heard the girl laugh. Just her, at first, then the other two.

He felt smaller than ever.

A trickle of sweat rolled down his temple, but he knew the heat wouldn’t last. Weather.com said the first big fall storm was on the way in. Early effects were due in about a half an hour. The encroaching front would soon chase away the girls with the long legs and tight butts, while Steve would be nice and warm in his heavier clothes. By tonight, everything would be freezing and wet.

Why did people live in Michigan, anyway? Winters full of cold and snow.
Trees shed leaves that turned into a brown paste on the roads. When the summer finally came, it brought with it sweltering, cloying humidity that seemed to suck the sweat right out of your body.

He wanted out of this washed-up excuse of a small city, wanted to leave this frigid state for good, to go somewhere the sun never hid behind clouds or vanished for weeks on end. He wanted to go back to Cali, to Berkeley. He had friends there, people who understood him. And if he couldn’t go back to California, he wanted to go to his
real
home.

He wanted to see China for the first time, experience the nation of his people, see where his parents and ancestors had come from. Even his last name — Stanton — that wasn’t
his
. The MSS had ordered his parents to change their names when they arrived in America. More for his sake than theirs, as it helped establish their son as just another American boy.

What Steve wanted never seemed to matter, though. The MSS wouldn’t let him go to China. Not that he ever talked to anyone who was actually
from
the MSS — just their messengers, their errand boys.

So warm. Steve’s eyelids drooped. Maybe the girls stopped laughing at him, maybe he just dozed off.

A shadow fell across his face.

Steve looked up to see a wrinkled old man looking down at him. Well, if it wasn’t the MMS’s main messenger.

“Bo Pan,” Steve said. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

Bo Pan nodded once.

Steve sighed. “You’re blocking my sun.”

Bo Pan looked down, realized he was casting a shadow. He quickly stepped to the left.

“Sorry, sorry,” the man said.

Bo Pan wore secondhand jeans, secondhand sneakers and a Detroit Lions sweatshirt that was probably
third
-hand, if not fourth. With wispy hair around the temples of a bald head, and eyes that were deeply slanted even by Chinese standards, Bo Pan didn’t look like a threat to anything but the grass on some rich white dude’s lawn.

Steve sat up, turned, put his feet on the sparse, cool grass and packed dirt. “There’s nothing new to report. But you know that. Here to check up on me?”

Bo Pan shook his head. He looked out at the river, squinted at the sun, then took in Steve’s chair.

The old man frowned. “You look comfortable. Are you enjoying yourself?”

Steve smiled. “I am, actually. It’s a beautiful day for a pimp like me.”

Bo Pan’s mouth pursed in confusion. For someone who had spent decades living in America, he understood little of the culture and
none
of the lingo.

“Do your mother and father know it’s a beautiful day? I saw them working away in the restaurant.”

Bo Pan hadn’t come around in, what … three months? Three months without a peep, and the first thing he had to communicate was a guilt trip?

Steve eased back in his chair. He took his time, milking the motion just to annoy Bo Pan.

“My mother and father don’t need me today.”

“You are lazy,” Bo Pan said. “You have grown up like them.”

Like them:
like an American.

Steve glanced over at the girls. He couldn’t help it. As if being a semi-heliophobic nerd sitting with a laptop wasn’t enough of a turnoff, now he was hanging out with a hunched-over, fiftysomething old man.

The girls were pulling on sweatshirts of their own, stepping into form-fitting jeans. The temperature was dropping.

“I’m not lazy,” Steve said to Bo Pan. “I’m efficient — my work is done, remember?”

The old man shook his head. “No longer. We have a search location.”

Steve sat up. He forgot about the girls, forgot about the sun.

BOOK: Pandemic
8.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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