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Authors: Carol Plum-Ucci

Streams of Babel

BOOK: Streams of Babel
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Streams of Babel
Carol Plum-Ucci


Copyright © 2008 by Carol Plum-Ucci

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the
work should be submitted online at
or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Plum-Ucci, Carol, 1957–
Streams of Babel/Carol Plum-Ucci.
p. cm.
Summary: Six teens face a bioterrorist attack on American soil as four
are infected with a mysterious disease affecting their small New Jersey
neighborhood, and two others, both brilliant computer hackers, assist
the United States Intelligence Coalition in tracking the perpetrators.
[1. Bioterrorism—Fiction. 2. Terrorism—Fiction. 3. Communicable
diseases—Fiction. 4. Computer hackers—Fiction. 5. Espionage—Fiction.
6. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. 7. New Jersey—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.P7323Str 2008
[Fic]—dc22 2007026503
ISBN 978-0-15-216556-7

Text set in Minion
Designed by Cathy Riggs

First edition

Printed in the United States of America

This is a work of fiction. All the names, characters, places, organizations,
and events portrayed in this book are products of the author's imagination
or are used fictitiously to lend a sense of realism to the story.

To Rick and Abbey—
thanks for putting up with me.

"We have slain a large dragon. But we live
now in a jungle filled with a bewildering
variety of poisonous snakes. And in many
ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of."




I SAT VERY STILL, waiting for the police and ambulance to arrive. If I dropped my gaze from the living room window, I could see my mother's body on the couch from the corner of my eye. So I stared out at the oak trees and silhouettes passing under the streetlamp. A girl's voice rose, with a couple of guys adding whoops and shouts.

"...gonna win tomorrow! Go, Trinity!"

My wish wrenched my insides—to be that carefree girl out on our pretty street, with sports and guys to worry about instead of this. I had assumed, like anyone would have, that my mother had just overdosed.

I call my mother Aleese. She had walked into my life for the first time when I was twelve. She was an addict then and got worse, but fortunately, she didn't make public spectacles of herself. Even so, I'd always feared a visit from the police, and the
moment had arrived. A minute after the singing died away, flashing red lit up the house like a fire.

I sat in the chair beside Aleese, gripping a glass of water. I knew from my grandmother dying three years ago that the shock doesn't hit you right away. I couldn't look at Aleese on the couch, but I could say things in my head, like
She has died
I am alone now,
knowing the shock was about four days off.

I thought there might be some way to keep Aleese's drug habit from looking so awful. If the paramedics got suspicious that we weren't particularly close, I could mention that Oma, my grandmother, had raised me. I should remember to refer to Aleese as "Mom." I could make her sound a little respectable by saying that she had at one time been a freelance photographer. I knew that was true. I had the camera to prove it.

But there was no getting around the worst of this. I had always hoped that if Aleese accidentally overdosed, it would be while she was buying her drugs in Atlantic City, her one inspiration for leaving the house. I would
the phone call instead of
the phone call. Now the police would see how we lived.

"Come in?" My voice squeaked as I sat frozen.

Our little ranch was suddenly full of people. Four officers, four paramedics, a man in a suit and tie. Nobody ever came in our house, so it was like being hit by a tidal wave. Loud voices and gnarled replies from walkie-talkies filled the air, and footsteps echoed through the walls. They made me want to curl up in a ball, but I sat up very straight.

"Hey, Cora. Are you all right?"

My eyes rose to see Rain Steckerman's dad. He was the man in the suit and tie. He had been the local FBI director for years,
then right after Christmas he'd become something bigger. He was now some South Jersey supervisor for the U.S. Intelligence Coalition.
I recalled the name and that he had been on television a couple of months back, but I couldn't remember why. And I couldn't understand why someone who tried to catch terrorists would be here with the police and paramedics.

I realized he was out of breath. And I put it together that he would have seen all the flashing lights from his house. He had run up here trying to be nice.

I didn't want to hear nice. Especially since his daughter went to my school. Rain Steckerman was perfect and had more friends than anybody.
Lord, don't let him feel sorry for me. Don't let him tell Rain about this so she can pity me even worse.

"Uh ... hypodermic in the couch, belt under the coffee table," an officer recited the news. Mr. Steckerman's face was between his and mine. He was looking at me intently, so he couldn't miss what I couldn't help: My eyes were rolling.

"What was in the vial, hon?" the policeman asked.


I wished Mr. Steckerman would back away from me. He was making me want to cry. He looked like he
me to cry in front of all these people. But a voice rang loudly from the kitchen, drawing my attention away from the men surrounding the couch.

"...used to be, like, a ... newspaper photographer in Beirut or somewhere, and a bomb went off, destroyed her shooting arm. I think that's it. She's been a recluse and a drug addict for years."

I was stunned that the paramedic knew all of this, but he'd just recited it into a cell phone. I had never said it to anyone,
and my mother had never been arrested. Her morphine addiction had been Our Big Secret. At least, I thought it had been.

Maybe other people have always known, and I've been too stupid to realize it.
I had imagined that we'd kept the secret so well, and some strange part of me made one last stab at keeping the secret now.

"She ... had a strange flu," I admitted loudly. "I have it, too! It was making her nose bleed. It started bleeding about half an hour ago. She suddenly ... stopped breathing. I tried CPR, but I've only seen it done on TV." I trailed off quickly, wanting only to forget how my pushing on Aleese's chest did little more than send small gushes of blood out her nose.

"She snort something?" an officer asked. He was young, couldn't have any kids in my school. Not that it mattered, with this room full of people who probably did.

"She never snorted anything. She only took injections."

"Does she have a prescription?"

I just rolled my eyes again. My own questions fired off in my head. Why couldn't my mother have said something heroic in her last words? Why couldn't she have finally told me she loved me?

"Take a picture of me."

"Don't be crazy, Aleese! I'm calling 9-1-1 this time!"

"Take a picture of me first."

"Just keep that ice on your nose, and—"

"I know you love that goddamn camera you stole from me. When was that? Ninety-eight? Are you going to learn to use it? Now is the time."

"9-1-1, please state your emergency."

"Um ... my mother has the flu and she's been complaining of headaches, and now her nose won't stop bleeding."

But she sure could talk. And be rude, and terrify me as always with her surreal, drug-induced comments. Do some things never change?

The paramedics had started to move her already. They were putting her on a stretcher behind two policemen, so I couldn't see much.

I decided,
Things that never change can change in an instant.

"Where are you taking her?" I asked. It seemed I ought to know.

"It depends on whether your family wants an autopsy," the paramedic said, and I glanced at him. He looked familiar. Football games ... a face in the stands.
Oh, damn. Football dad. Whose dad?
What did it matter? Nothing mattered.

"Cora, what extended family is coming to stay with you?" Mr. Steckerman shook my shoulders slightly. "I know your grandma passed away when you and Rain were freshmen, but is there someone else?"

You and Rain. Like we were best buddies because we lived a dozen houses apart. Like I had something in common with Rain Steckerman except that we breathed the same air at school.
I swallowed. "I have another grandmother in California. She's coming."

I knew I couldn't get away with that lie for long. I wasn't sure seventeen was old enough to make funeral arrangements or sign papers or anything that might need to be done. I just wanted to get him out of the house for now. I needed my house quiet. I needed to think some more, and he was too important to be in here.

In a blur, the business in January that had put Mr. Steckerman on the television news floated through my head. Trinity Falls and bunches of other communities between here and New York had to test their water supplies—terrorist threat. The tests had come back negative even before the television stations found out about it. So Mr. Steckerman had been the local hero who got to announce that. Now he was in my living room—a man who had been on television. Thinking of him as a man who lived in my neighborhood gave me an even more bizarre feeling than when I'd watched him on the television.

He backed off into the kitchen, but I could hear his murmuring clearly. "...file a recommendation for an autopsy. Kid says the woman had the flu, and the kid looks like she has the flu, too."

"A mild flu can kill a drug addict, Alan. I don't see the point," the paramedic replied.

"It's just that I haven't heard of any flus going around that cause people to bleed out through the nose and ears."

"Touché," the paramedic said. "But what are you suggesting? Do I need to start rooting through my mountain of memos on emerging infectious diseases? Or do you need to start rooting through your mountain of bioterror threats?"

"Neither, I'd say. But why take a risk when it's in the hospital's budget to do an autopsy?"

"Because it's a busy night, and I don't need the paperwork hell." The paramedic sounded a little defensive, but Mr. Steckerman must have made some face, because he went on. "Fine, fine, I'll file a rec. And how's this? I'll even check out the kid before I leave. This house doesn't look like it comes equipped with medical insurance. It's a goddamn mess."

Mr. Steckerman agreed.
He's going to tell Rain what the inside of my house looks like.
I was horrified. Suddenly, the paramedic was in front of me, cutting off my circulation with a blood pressure cuff. Then he stuck a thermometer in my mouth.

"Have you ever done drugs, Cora?"

I spoke to him around the thing. "
Never! See?" I showed him my elbows and patted the backs of my knees just below my skirt line. I would probably have showed him between my toes just to prove it, but Mr. Steckerman was back, squatting down beside him.

"I'm sure what she's saying is true," he told the paramedic, and I died a thousand deaths.
Rain must have talked about me. He knows you have to have friends even to smoke pot.

"Honey, what's your birth date?" Mr. Steckerman asked.

I sensed the importance of the question, though it took me a few moments for the reasons to come clear. As the paramedic read the thermometer, I spit out, "I'm eighteen."

My life was a chronic secret, and yet I don't ever remember a real
coming out of my mouth too many times before tonight. I've always managed to keep secrets by not getting so close to people. It had been important to me, for some reason, not to have to keep track of lies.

"Your temperature is just over a hundred." The paramedic offered half a shrug. "Have any nausea? Vomiting? Diarrhea?"

I shook my head on the first two and nodded on diarrhea, not looking at him. I hadn't looked closely at any of the paramedics. First, it would have meant looking at Aleese. Now it would have meant looking at them to say I'd spent most of today in the bathroom.

I finally looked when the paramedic who had come up behind Mr. Steckerman said, "My mom's got the stomach flu, too."

BOOK: Streams of Babel
7.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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