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The Effectives (With apologies to Zenna Henderson)

Sasha scurried through the darkened yards, thankful for the fog and that in this part of town neighbors did not believe in fences. Neither homes nor streets showed lights, but over her shoulder to the southwest, Sasha could see a glow on the misty scrim — the Fairgrounds — this region’s detention center.

“Fool!” she thought . “You are a fool to come this close.” But her mission demanded it. In one of the small houses nearby was a Survivor and it was imperative that Sasha get to her before the authorities.

The virus had, it seemed, come out of nowhere, out of the secretive East. It might have been contained early on, but through willful ignorance, it had spread — from the village of people so starved of protein that any creature was literally game to the industrial city of more than ten million souls, and from there to the high fashion centers of the world — Milan, Paris, London, New York. Although the original victims were poor, now the virus claimed the globetrotters — media stars, millionaires, congressmen, and even world leaders. There was no preventative. There were no effective cures.

The answer came from Germany. The Prime Minister had been exposed. Despite official pronouncements that she had tested negative, she fell ill. The Prime Minister was on a ventilator in a secure, private hospital suite, but hope for her life was fading. The medical team was grasping at straws. It was a lowly intern who broached the idea.

“If the reason this virus is so deadly is because the body has no antibodies to fight it, what if we inject antibodies that recognize the virus? Antibodies from a survivor? “

“Preposterous!” the senior virologist snorted.

But the other team members overruled him. On the floor below, a young pastor was taking his first tottering steps after fighting the disease for two weeks. He was the same blood type as the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s personal physician approached him.

“I am delighted you have survived this terrible ordeal. Your body has now created antibodies that can defeat this virus. It may be possible that those antibodies may be able to save the lives of others. I know you are weak, but may we draw a unit of blood to test out theory?”

The pastor thought a moment, and said, “Of course.”

Almost before the words were spoken, a phlebotomist hustled into the room, followed by the rest of the medical team. During the procedure the pastor reclined with closed eyes and silently moving lips. The virologist continued to sputter, “This is most inappropriate!”

“There is no time!” snapped the Prime Minister’s personal doctor.

The transfusion took place immediately. Within the hour, the Prime Minister’s breathing eased. The vent was withdrawn. In two hours, she was awake and aware. And within three, she was standing beside her bed demanding her clothes.

In this country, initially, the virus was not taken seriously. Then state by state, the Union instituted precautionary measures, from publicizing health procedures to full lockdowns. The crisis brought out the best in many people. It also brought out the worst — from those who used it to further political ends to hoarders to those who looted shuttered shops and vacant homes.

Reports flowed daily from Hollywood, New York, Washington D.C., that this movie star, that business tycoon, or that other senator tested positive. They spoke hopeful words to the camera as they went into quarantine. They had reason for hope. After all, they had access to the best medical teams the nation had to offer. But then they started dying.

The search for a cure ratcheted up to the highest priority. Appeals went out to survivors to donate blood. Many were reluctant. Financial incentives were offered and the donors trickled in. But the results were unimpressive. Only one in twenty transfusion recipients recovered. Still, that ignited hope and the net was cast wider.

But then the Vice President fell ill, followed by the President. Both were treated with transfusions. Neither survived. The opposition party used the opportunity to seize control. Martial law was declared. Transfusions from survivors were no longer a voluntary matter. Thousands of survivors, some as young as ten or twelve, were rounded up and herded into ICE detention centers which had been emptied for the purpose. There, willing or not, blood was drawn, tagged,and shipped to hospitals. Each unit was tracked. Where the transfusion was ineffective, the donor was released. But when there was a recovery, the donor was removed to a secure research facility where blood was drawn again…and again…and again.

Roundups were carried out from coast-to-coast. For the most part, in areas such as Seattle, Low Angeles, Chicago, the results were the same — one in twenty (or fewer) were efficacious. But there were pockets where the numbers were different — 40%, 50%, even 80%. Places like Franklin, Tennessee, Asheville, North Carolina, and Sasha’s hometown in the heart of Wisconsin. Immediately the focus of the raids shifted. The National Guard moved in.

As knowledge of the raids spread, fewer people submitted to mandatory testing or sought medical help for symptoms. Sasha was a survivor. When she learned that she had been exposed, she went into seclusion in her uncle’s hunting cabin deep in the Chequamegon National Forest where she weathered the disease alone. Thus she was not on any official list. Yet she felt deeply responsible for the lives of others. The problem was that blood drawn from detainees was not going to general hospitals. Instead, it was being funneled to the private clinics of the rich and famous and politically powerful. As soon as Sasha recovered, she joined an underground network of survivors donating blood to be used in treating ordinary people. In the network, donors were true volunteers, giving only as much blood as was healthy. And unlike the blood from conscripted donors, their transfusions were 100% effective.

Still, it was not enough. That’s why Sasha’s mission was so important. The woman she hoped to spirit away this night was a member of a small church. She had been among those who tested positive for the virus but had not required medical treatment. Ava was scheduled to be detained the next day. Sasha reached her target. She scratched softly at the back door which was immediately opened. The woman’s dearest treasures were stowed in a large backpack which Sasha shouldered. Silently, they crept back the way Sasha had come to a house a few blocks away. They would go no farther this night. A vehicle moving after curfew would be too easy to spot.

In the morning, their host, none other than the town’s police chief, treated them to a delicious breakfast. After, they hid in the back of the Chief’s SUV. He drove them to the industrial park on the outskirts of town. They exited the vehicle inside a massive manufacturing plant. From there, they were led to a small door hidden behind a sliding wall of shelves. Stairs led down to a long tunnel that proceeded to another set of steps leading up. The door opened to a swell of music and the welcome of a young man speaking German accented English.

“Gut morning,” he said, ” and welcome. Sasha, thank you for bringing our new friend. I am Pastor Willem Steinhoff, and if you will permit, I will give you a tour of our refuge before I show you to your quarters. Sasha, I will see you later. ” He took Ava by the arm. “You are wondering about my accent? I came before the travel ban to visit my cousin, a doctor. I had news to share about the cure. You see, we discovered the secret to the effectiveness of our transfusions, although the scientists refused to believe us. It is a simple thing, perhaps too simple for the very sophisticated and educated. Ah. This is our infirmary.

With that, he led Ava into a bright and cheerful room lined with two dozen recliners. Half of the chairs were filled, attended by phlebotomists collecting blood. Here too, the music was louder. The occupants of the chairs, some with their free hands waving above their heads, were singing along. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation…”

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Best Day of My Life

Beyond The Steel Wall

Best Day of My Life by Robert W Cely, Jr.

Day 1 – Today is the best day of my life. I am so excited. I can hardly believe what happened. Just today, I had a little cough. So of course Mom freaks out and takes me to the doctor. But guess what?? I have corona!!!! This is great!!! I am being sent to the basement, to be quarantined for 14 days. It will probably be boring a lot, so I decided to start this journal. But it’s going to be so awesome. We don’t know anyone else with corona. Just me. I feel like a celebrity. All my pages are going to blow up now. I might even get a sponsor from Bang energy or something like those other models. And Justin is being so sweet. He came by as soon as he heard and yelled down the stairs…

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Learning from History

Sunday, May 31, 2020

I went to church today. It was our first service since March 15th and it was different. On a table at the entrance sat a box of masks for anybody who wanted one as well as a bottle of hand sanitizer and a request that everyone use it before proceeding further. In the fellowship hall, half the tables were gone and only three chairs were placed at each remaining table. Breakfast and coffee were both behind the counter. No one was allowed to serve him or herself. As a result, I didn’t get quite as much cream in my coffee as I would like, but hey! It was coffee. In the sanctuary, every other row of chairs had been pulled and chairs had been set up in the overflow area for anyone who wished to distance themselves further.

Yes! There were hugs! But only for those who were comfortable with the notion. Those who wished to retain a larger personal space were respectfully given their wish. And there was singing! Particularly apropos was the song “Is He Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson. It spoke so deeply of this world broken by disease, injustice, and violence. Pastor Art Scottberg did not preach today. Instead, we had an extended time of prayer for our nation and for the needs of individuals within the congregation. Our elder, Henry Zimmermann, shared his heart and how he was led by God from fear and complaining with those who were doing likewise to pointing those he encountered throughout his work to the power, majesty, and salvation of God. After that, Pastor called for testimonies, stories of how God has been providing for each of us through the isolation of lockdown. Oh, and there were stories indeed. And then, in joy, we sang our way out of the service.

Once home, I indulged in that grand Sunday afternoon family tradition of a nap before preparing supper for my brother Mike and me. And after the plates were cleared and Mike had returned to his own house, I sat and thought. Although I sometimes feel it and often times joke about being old, in my mid-sixties, by today’s standards, I’m not really all that ancient. But what makes me sometimes feel as if I belonged to an age gone by, I think, is that as a child I listened, really listened to the stories my grandmother, aunts and uncles, and parents had to tell. It has been said one can truly only understand and feel history as far back as the oldest person you have known in your life. My mother’s mother was born in 1895. My father, if he were alive today, would be 110 and my mother, 103. So their stories carry me back in time 125 years. And I believe their stories can teach us something about the circumstances in which we live today.

Mary Willger, at the age of three, in 1898 contracted diphtheria. So did her infant brother Joseph. Mary, my grandmother survived. My great-uncle did not. In the case of infectious diseases in those days, public funerals were not permitted. So my great-grandfather laid his baby boy to rest in the cemetery on St. Mary’s Ridge, alone. My father’s older sister, Mural Catherine, died at the age of 13 from either diphtheria, the Spanish flu, or tetanus. Unfortunately, I cannot remember which. Three of my mother’s brothers, Phillip, Richard, and Theodore contracted polio and survived. Theodore also survived spinal meningitis. My brothers, Tom and Ken, when they were five and six, were removed from our home and quarantined in the county sanitarium until they recovered from scarlet fever. And I remember the county health nurse posting a quarantine sign on our front door when I had the measles.

So? So what can these anecdotes teach us today? My grandparents, parents, siblings and I lived through times when epidemics swept the country — some relatively mild, some deadly. I know my grandmother and parents feared winter — diphtheria, influenza, and whooping cough season. They feared summer — polio season. And with good reason. they had first hand knowledge of the devastation and death these various diseases could deliver. And there were no vaccines, nor even the suggestion that such a thing might ever be. Yet despite the epidemics of diphtheria, deadly influenza, polio, despite the anxiety fueled by newspaper headlines, They. Lived. Yes, I’m sure they took precautions, when they knew what precautions might be effective. I’m sure there were times of anxiety. But they lived! They lived to celebrate the times of recovery. They lived to mourn their losses. They went about their livelihoods and family gatherings, and days of worship despite their fears and anxieties.

And that is what those people, my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, now all gone, can teach us today. Yes, there is cause for concern. Take the precautions you feel necessary for yourself and your family. But above all, remember God is in control…and don’t forget to live!

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Weather

One of the several things I miss about working at the radio station are the drives out into the country. Sure, there were a few times, due to snow or floods, when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it either there are home, but that was part of the adventure. This is from one of those nights five years ago.

Wild ride last night. As I was preparing to head out to the radio station, the first rumbles of thunder spearheaded the approach of a well-defined storm cell moving in from the west. The temperature dropped as the wind picked up and maple seeds, samaras, pelted the roof. Stopping for gas, paper, bags and other light debris sailed across the street.
Highway 10 formed the hem of the storm and I skirted it all the way to the station. Heading east, to my right the sky was pellucid with the afterglow of the recent sunset. To my left…Armageddon. Inky pillars of cloud towered upwards, tossing lightning bolts back and forth illuminating overhead in brilliant strobes. Darkness prevailed except when the sky was split with a ground to cloud strike. Occasionally fat drops of rain were blown sideways to spatter my windshield. Crosswinds exerted a constant pressure to push the car to the west. By the time I reached the Blenker overpass, the rain was constant and at the highest point of the road, a gust shoved the car three feet sideways.


Then I was at my corner and it was time to turn into the teeth of the storm. Headlights turned the horizontal rain into a moving starfield. The icy drops, not quite hail, hammered the flooded road with such force they bounced several feet into the air. The frequency of lightning ground strikes increased, blindingly brilliant. Watching the road, watching the tower, praying, “Please Lord, don’t let it hit the tower, don’t let it hit the tower,” I crept toward the station. Just at the driveway, the sky flared with a fresh strike, the roar of thunder occurred simultaneously and I could feel the ground shake. Blinking to restore my vision, I looked upwards…the tower’s red lights still flashed their steady signal into the night. Another sense-shattering bolt and I prepared to dash from the car. It was only a few feet but the raindrops stung and were icy cold. Through the door, I breathed a sigh of relief as the switch flooded the office with light.

But all was not well. I could hear our programming over the air, but the monitors in the studio remained stubbornly dark. In the transmitter room, I checked the computers whose lights blinked reassuringly back at me. I spent the next half-hour dealing with the equipment malfunctions from the close proximity of the lightning surges and notifying Mark. Fortunately the system was working in the second production studio, so the show must go on.


Driving home in the wee hours of the morning, the overhead sky was dimmed by the filmiest of veils. The waxing moon, headed westward was the color of old ivory and tendrils of mist rose from the running ditches and saturated fields to dance wraithlike across the road, filling the night with a fairyland beauty. To paraphrase the old song, “I Could Have Driven All Night.”

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Secrets — II

Janelle woke early, well before dawn, yet the room was light. She rose to look out the bay window. A new coat of snow covered everything and low clouds reflected the city lights back to the street. One lone car sat in the street below, the only object not snow covered. 5:30 AM. Too restless to return to bed, Janelle snatched the quilt from the bed, wrapped herself in it and settled into the easy chair with her tablet. The cozy mystery she had been reading held no interest for her.

She clicked off the novel and opened the notebook feature and began a chronological list of the previous day’s events.

8:45 AM: arrive at work.

9:00 — 10:30: review, translate, and format the virologist Dr. MaCauley’s notes on accelerated vaccine development.

10:30 — 10:40: take a stretch break.

10:42 : phone call from Hiram informing Janelle he was in the hosspital, soon to undergo emergency surgery for appendicitis and telling her she needed to take his place for an urgent package delivery in northern Wisconsin. Janelle objected, but Hiram overrode her concerns and told her that airline, rental car, and motel reservations had all been made on a business credit card. He gave her the combination to his office safe to retrieve the package, instructions, and the credit card and that he had already informed Marcie, his secretary, of Janelle’s mission. Her flight left at 2:00 from Billy Mitchell to Mosinee, and if she left immediately, she would have sufficient time to return home to pack an overnight bag and make check-in time at the airport. When Janelle objected again, Hiram made it clear that if she still wanted her job the day after tomorrow, she would undertake this errand. Then he instructed her to tell no one about her task.

11:00: Janelle retrieved the package, instructions, and credit card from Hiram’s safe, Marcie was nowhere to be seen.

11:30: Made arrangements with her neighbor Chuck to feed Roscoe, her Maine Coon cat.

11:45: Packed and departed for the airport, stopping at a fast food drive through for lunch.

12:30: Checked in at the airport and was surperised to find the ticket was in her name and not Hiram’s or Carter Laboratory.

2:00: Boarded on-time flight.

2:45: Arrived in Mosinee. Was surprised again to find the rental car in her name.

3:05: Left Mosinee for Wausau.

4:00: Checked in at the motel. By now, she was not surprised the room was reserved in her name. Hiram, or Marcie must have been very efficient getting everything switched over on such short notice.

4:25: Arrived in front of Jimmi’s.

A thought occurred to Janelle. If the package was indeed connected to her attack, might not Hiram also be in danger since he was the intended courier? She regretted her promise to Detective Anderson to not call him. But surely, if Hiram was in danger, wasn’t it her responsibility to warn him? Then she realized she didn’t even know which hospital Hiram was in. But Marcie would know. Janelle looked at the wall clock. 6:15. Marcie was due at the office by 8:00. If Janelle called her by 7:00, she would still catch her at home and get the information she needed.

Janelle stood up. She might as well get dressed for the day. That chore accomplished, she began to pace. She looked out the bay window. The dark car was still there and in the marginally brighter conditions, she could see a plume of exhaust issuing from its tailpipe. Had it been running all this time? She shook herself. She was just being paranoid.

At five minutes after seven o’clock, she placed a call to Marcie. “Good morning, Marcie. Sorry to call you at home, but I need the hospital and room number for Hiram.”

“Janelle!” Marcie shrieked. “Janelle, where are you? And what’s this about Mr. Carter being in the hospital? We’ve all been so worried with the both of you missing! The police seem to think you’ve both just taken off for a lovers’ holiday!”

“Wait! What? Whoa! Marcie, what are you talking about? The police? Yesterday Hiram called me and told me he had developed appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. Then he gave me an assignment to deliver a package for him in Wausau. But there have been some complications and I need to know what hospital he is in so I can tell him about them. He said you had set up all the arrangements for me.”

“What? This is the first I’ve heard any of this! All I know is that Mr. Carter didn’t come in yesterday at all and he didn’t call. His wife reported him missing when he hadn’t come home the night before last so the police came by just before closing to check his calendar. And as for you, I saw you come in at your usual time, but then you never showed up for lunch and you weren’t in your office all afternoon. What’s going on?”

“I wish I knew, Marcie. I wish I knew.” Janelle decided not to tell her about the attack.

“Oh, Janelle, there is something else. I probably shouldn’t say anything since you’re not here to do anything about it…”

“Spill it, Marcie.”

“Someone tried to burn down your house last night.”

“What? Roscoe! Is Roscoe all right?”

“Roscoe is fine. Your neighbor Chuck was just going over to feed him when he saw the flames at the back of your house and someone running away. He rescued Roscoe and shoveled snow on the fire until the fire department arrived. Chuck said your siding was damaged but that was all. Everything inside was fine.”

“Why didn’t he call me?”

“Well, it was late, after 10:00. He said he had forgotten about Roscoe until then. He did try to call, but it went to voice mail. You gave him my number as your emergency contact, so he called me.”

“Look. I will get back just as soon as I can. There are some complications here and I am just so confused.”

“You and me both, Janelle. What should I say if the police come back with more questions?”

“Tell them where I am. Give them my phone number. Better yet, have them contact Detective Mark Anderson of the Wausau Police.”

“Police! Janelle, are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No! Well, maybe yes, but not with the police. They’re helping me.” Janelle ended the call with promises to keep Marcie updated. She dug in her purse for her phone. Dead. She had forgotten to charge it. She plugged it in and in a few minutes, it beeped at her, letting her know there were messages. She called Chuck to thank him for saving her cat and her house, then went down for breakfast.

Breakfast was just the thing to settle Janelle’s nerves. Martha and Pete joined her. Martha served individual German pancakes topped with fried apples and maple sugar. Janelle was on her second cup of coffee when the doorbell rang. Pete looked at his phone, pressed a button, and the front door opened. Detective Anderson walked in. Before he could even take a seat, Martha poured a cup of coffee for him. “Sit, sit,” she said. I popped a pancake in the oven just when you called. It will be nice and hot just now.” She bustled into the kitchen.

Martha returned with the pancake and more fried apples. Janelle thought the detective must have some news for her or he wouldn’t be here, but she waited while he wolfed down his breakfast. As soon as he swallowed his last bite, she said, “I called work.”

“I thought you promised you wouldn’t do that.”

“I promised I wouldn’t call my boss, and I didn’t. I called our office manager. And it turns out my boss is missing.”

“I know.”

“You know? How?”

“By doing my job. It has been an interesting night.” he pulled two pictures from the file folder he had carried in with him. “Do either of these two look familiar.”

Janelle tapped one of the photos. “I think he was sitting at the bar when I came in. But this other one — I don’t recognize the face, but that is the jacket of the man who attacked me.”

“I thought that might be the case. He has a small wound just above his navel.”

“So where did you find them?”

“Breaking into your motel room. And neither one of them is Jason Murphy. Which means if you receive any more texts or calls from him, do not respond. Relay the information to me immediately.”

Janelle blinked hard. “I feel I’ve walked into an episode of the Twilight Zone.” Martha came and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Well. You caught them. My flight to Milwaukee is this afternoon, so I’ll need my car back. I have my job to get back to and I’ll have to contact my insurance agent. Someone tried to burn down my house last night.”

Anderson and Pete both stared hard at Janelle, and Martha’s grip tightened around her. The detective said, “That I didn’t know about. I faxed the content of that document to a friend of mine from work. He’s a doctor at the clinic in Marshfield and he’s from Hong Kong. He’s pretty busy but he said he would have his wife translate it for me. I think you should stay here until we know what it says, especially if your home has been targeted.”

“But I have to get back,” Janelle protested. The plane ticket is non-refundable and Hiram only authorized the rental car for two days. Add in what it cost to stay here last night, and my budget just can’t handle it. Besides, Roscoe will miss me.”

“Roscoe?”

“My cat.”

Pete broke in, “Mark is right. You need to stay here until this is all settled. It’s the safest place for you.” Pete seemed strangely energized. Martha went to stand behind him and placed both hands on his shoulders. She was smiling.

“But…”

“No buts.” Martha said. “And don’t worry about your budget. This is the off season. You’ll findour rates are very, very reasonable. Are the plane ticket and rental car on a company credit card?” Janelle nodded. “Then you don’t have to worry about any expense there. Pete and one of his drivers can return the car to Mosinee. And as for getting you home when the time comes, Milwaukee isn’t that far of a drive.”

“But.”

“No buts.” Pete, Martha, and the detective said in unison.

Janelle sighed. “I guess i’m outnumbered. And I don’t have a car to make my escape.” She paused. “Speaking of cars. Early this morning I noticed a car parked on the street. It stood out in my mind because there was no snow on it. And a little while later it was still there, but the engine was running. Is it a neighbor?”

Mark coughed. “No. that was one of ours. I didn’t know if your phone might have had a tracker on it, so after we booked the two who broke into your motel, I had Perkins and Bao Keep an eye out.”

Pete said. “I noticed them this morning, too. That red hair of Perkins practically glows in the dark. But I can arrange security from here on out.”

Mark yawned. “So that’s settled. You’ll stay here at least until we get that translation. Now I need to get home and give Lydia a kiss before she forgets what I look like and then get some sleep before my shift tonight. Don’t worry Ms. Walker. You’re in the best of hands.” Anderson picked up his file folder and departed. Pete walked him out.

“Well! I guess I’m good and stuck. I’ll need to call Marcie and Chuck, but then what am I going to do all day?”

Martha said, “I’m baking cookies for church on Sunday. Would you like to help?”

“You bet!”

*****

Janellle made her phone calls and then spent a delightful morning in Martha’s kitchen making five varieties of cookies: snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar cookies, and peanut butter cookies. The warmth and aromas took her back to her childhood, baking with her mother and grandmother. She also learned a good deal about Mark Anderson, his wife Lydia and their four teen-aged children. She also learned about Pete’s eagerness to help her.

“Pete’s had some difficulties re-integrating into civilian life. This house and its family roots have helped ground him, and the limo service gets him out of the house and gives him something to do. The youth group at church provides a sense of purpose.

But your case. Well, now your case has given him a mission and there’s nothing an Army Ranger likes better than a mission. I am so happy to see him come alive like this.”

At noon, Pete returned and the three of them ate klunch together. Grilled cheese sandwiches and cream of tomato soup. ” I figured with all that’s going on, you could use some comfort food,” Martha said.

Janelle was restless through the afternoon. She found a nice selection of books in the Schneider’s parlor, and Pete had built a small fire in the fireplace. But cozy as it was, Janelle couldn’t concentrate. Martha accepted her offer of help to prepare supper. The work of chopping onions, carrots, and celery for stew helped soothe her jangled nerves.

A grim faced Detective Anderson came by after supper. The four of them settled into chairs in the parlor. “I’ve been in contact with Detective Elizabeth Sosa of the Wauwatosa Police Department. You’ll be glad to know you are no longer considered a missing person, but she will want to talk to you. And they are investigating the arson at your house. However,” he paused and looked at his notebook. “Do you know a Dr. Frank J. Macauley?”

“Yes. Why?”

“He was found dead at his home this morning, an apparent suicide.”

“This is just too much! Hiram is missing, I was attacked, and now Dr. Macauley is dead? What is happening?”

“That’s what I’d like to find out. Does the name Wuhan mean anything to you?”

“Yes. It’s a laboratory in China, one of their largest. Carter Lab has purchased some specialized equipment from them and we had a personnel exchange for some of the lab assistants.”

Mark opened his briefcase and withdrew a folder. “This is the translation of the document you were carrying. Honestly, it might as well still be in Chinese for all I can understand it.. You said you were a technical writer and made scientific jargon intelligible. Can you make heads or tails of this?”

Janelle took the document and began to read. Her face paled the further she got.

“What’s wrong?” the detective asked.

“I’m not a scientist, so I don’t understand all of this, but the gist of the paper is about a project to isolate novel viruses from animals and genetically modifying them to make cross species transmission easier. The stated purpose is to discover ways viruses could be used to modify the genetic sequence and create therapies for inherited disorders. But there’s so much that could go wrong. And if anything escaped the confines of the lab, who knows what could happen. Oh, my!” Janelle dropped the manuscript.

“What is it?”

“The past two weeks I have been preparing Dr. Macaulay’s notes for publication. The article for the professional journals didn`t need much work. But it needed a lot of clarification for general knowledge publication.”

“What was he working on?”

“Developing protocols for accelerating viral vaccine production.”

Anderson snatched the paper from Janelle’s lap. “This is now officially bigger than all of us here. Especially with the one last bit of news that I have. Hiram Carter is no longer considered missing. Three days ago, he and a young Chinese woman boarded a flight for China.”

“So. So, when he called me to give me this assignment he was already out of the country?”

“Yes. Who else knew what Dr. Macauley was working on?”

“Well, Hiram, of course. Dr. Macauley. His lab assistant…who was from Wuhan, and me, for certain. I don’t know if Dr. Macaulay discussed his work with anyone else at the lab or at his home.”

Pete spoke up. “Hiram Carter and the lab assistant are in China. Dr. Macaulay is dead. And you have been attacked. You’re the last link in the chain.”

“And now we’re links in the chain, too.” Martha said.

“Excuse me. I need to make a phone call,” Mark said. He walked out of the room but returned fifteen minutes later. “I talked to the chief. He put me through to a contact in Homeland Security. Agents from Homeland and the Center for Disease Control will be flying in tomorrow to collect everything we have on this case and to interview you, Janelle.”

“So what do we do now?” Pete asked.

“We keep Janelle safe. And. We wait.”

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Secrets

Janelle pulled up across the street from the address scrawled on her boss’ business card. Oh, great! The tavern’s façade did not inspire confidence. The bar was flanked by a vacant storefront to the north and a small parking lot to the south containing four vehicles, two of them rusty pick-up trucks, but at least the lot had a light pole. Following her boss’ instructions, she texted Jason Murphy to let him know she had arrived. Hitting “send” Janelle waited for a response. Already the light was fading and she did not like the idea of entering the bar in the dark. Ten minutes later, with the January cold seeping up through the floorboards her phone beeped. The text from Mr. Murphy was not reassuring.
“Hello, Ms. Walker. I’m sorry but I’ve hit a snag. I’m running about a half-hour behind. Jimmi’s serves food, so just go on in and get something to eat and I will be there as soon as I can.”

Lovely, just lovely. Janelle considered what else could go wrong on this business trip that seemed to be turning into a wild goose chase. She wondered once more what was so important in the thick manilla envelope entrusted to her by her boss that could not have been delivered by fax or messenger. With her toes rapidly turning into icicles, Janelle had to decide between waiting for Mr. Murphy in the warmth of the bar or running the engine on her rental vehicle to keep the anemic heater going. Her frozen toes won out. Janelle inserted the key into the ignition to move the car into the bar’s parking lot, but at the last moment decided to leave the vehicle on the street. She snatched up the manila envelope and her purse, stepped into the street and hit the “lock” button on the fob.

Pulling open the battered door, the familiar and detested odor enveloped Janelle. A quick scan of the room revealed three unoccupied tables against the right hand side of the room. Good. At least she wouldn’t have to sit at the bar itself. The bar stretched the length of the left side. A third of the tatty barstools were occupied by five scruffy men. Parked in front of the restroom doors at the rear an equally tatty pool table listed to one side. So far, the place was living up to its façade. Janelle took a seat at the middle table. The bartender called out to her, “We ain’t got no table service, lady. Whatcha want?”

“I’m meeting a business associate in a little while.” She looked at the soiled laminated card that served as a menu. “Jimmi’s serves food,” she thought. “Right, if you’re immune to food poisoning.” Out loud, she said, “I think I’ll wait to order until he gets here. For now I’ll have a Coke.” Janelle was pretty certain the bar did not have iced tea or even coffee. The bartender plucked a glass from the overhead rack, pulled the soft drink tap and placed the foaming glass on the bar, uncomfortably close to his unkempt patrons. She could feel five pairs of eyes on her as she walked over to pick up her drink.

Seated so she faced the door, Janelle pulled her tablet out of her purse and thumbed open the cozy mystery she had been reading before her sudden, out-of-town assignment. She was thankful for the lighted screen since the dim lighting would make reading a traditional book difficult. Janelle sipped the Coke and grimaced. It had been a long time since she’d had a soda so she didn’t know whether it was her altered taste buds or dirty lines that made the drink taste slightly off. A few pages into the book, Janelle grimaced again. She would have to use the restroom and she shuddered at the thought of what she might find in the ladies’ room.

The linoleum was worn and the Pepto-Bismol sink dated back to the 1950s, but at least the room was clean. Washing her hands, the water rattled and spurted from the cold water tap. The hot water tap yielded nothing. Janelle wiped her hands on the old-fashioned roller towel. She didn’t think those things were even legal anymore. Janelle reached for the door but stopped. The sensation that ran down her spine was what her grandmother called, “someone stepping on my grave.” Unbidden the thought echoed between her ears, “Careful! Pay attention! Observe!”

Something about the atmosphere in the bar had changed as Janelle stepped out of the ladies’ room. Resuming her seat, she noticed her glass of soda was not quite as she had left it. She could almost feel someone or something encouraging her to take a big gulp of the soft drink. Before touching her glass, she reached into her suit jacket pocket. At the airport, her friend Crazy Carrie had handed Janelle a small package. “It’s a ‘get out of jail, free’ card” Carrie said. Responding to Janelle’s puzzlement, she went on, “If you find yourself in a deadly boring meeting, just push the button. It has a 30 second delay and then it will ring just like your cell phone. Then you can grab your cell, pretend you have an important call and make yourself scarce.”

Janelle laughed. “Don’t laugh,” Carrie answered. “You never know what kind of emergency you might need this for…and for some reason, I think you’re going to need it.”

Janelle thanked her friend, put the device in her suit pocket and promptly forgot about it. Until now. She opened up her tablet once more, then pushed the button. Mentally counting down, she picked up her glass at five, raised it to her lips on four, three, two…and when the shrill chime sounded, she jumped and spilled the soda. Grabbing several napkins, she began to mop up the mess, exclaiming “Sorry, sorry. Do you have a rag?” The bartender scowled and tossed his bar towel at her. Janelle caught it and wiped down the table.

“Ya need a refill?” he growled.

Janelle picked up her cell phone and pretended to read a text message. “No, thank you. Something’s come up and I need to leave. If a Mr. Murphy comes in asking for me, could you tell him I’ll call him tomorrow?” The bartender nodded. “Thank you, again.” She gathered up the tablet and envelope, stuffing both into her bag, slipped on her coat and lengthened the strap on her purse to hang it across her body. As she opened the tavern door, she fanned the keys on her ring in between her fingers. Her father called it a poor man’s brass knuckles.

Janelle stepped off briskly into the empty street and was just inches from her car when the attack came. She had almost been expecting it The man grabbed her from behind and she pivoted on one foot, driving her fistful of keys into his midsection with all her strength. He grunted and doubled over, releasing her. Slicing upward with her free hand, she caught him between the legs and the man collapsed onto the ground. Janelle hit the fob, wrenched the car door open and collapsed onto the seat. Locking the door, she fumbled the key into the ignition, shifted and peeled out from the curb, narrowly missing the writhing figure on the blacktop.

Two blocks away, Janelle stopped the car. Shaking, she slipped the purse off her shoulder and buckled her seat belt. One deep breath. Two. Three. Four. Five. Control returned. She checked her phone for the location of the police department and entered the information into the car’s GPS. It was when she started the car again that she noticed the red stain on her house key. It was the longest one in the bunch. She had drawn blood defending herself. Janelle ‘s purse, or rather its contents, were legendary among her friends. She had never gone in for the dainty handbags that could barely hold a single credit card. Sure enough, one of the many zippered pouches held a plastic zipper bag. She slipped the house key off the ring and into the bag. Then she headed for the police station.

Ten minutes later, Janelle pulled into the police department parking lot. Unlike the tavern’s, this was well-lighted. Still, she felt a bit of hesitation as she unlocked her car door and stepped out. It was only a matter of a few dozen steps until she entered the brightly lit lobby. A half dozen chairs, secured to the floor crowded the small but empty space. A counter, guarded by a Plexiglas window and equipped with a telephone handset, was flanked by a locked steel door. Janelle approached the window. A gently rounded woman with short silver curls indicated the phone. Janelle picked up the handset and said, “I need to make a report. I was attacked.”

The receptionist asked if Janelle needed medical attention. When she said no, the woman took her through Janelle’s basic information; name, birthdate, address, phone, and time, location and nature of the attack. She then told Janelle to take a seat and a detective would be with her as soon as possible. Plopping down in one of the plastic chairs, Janelle felt her control slipping. She was in the safest place possible but she couldn’t control the tremors that began in her midsection and traveled to her extremities, nor the tear that leaked from the corner of her eye. She was wiping her eyes and blowing her nose when the steel door opened.

The man who approached Janelle was tall and slender, with thinning blond hair lacquered into place. His dress shirt was wrinkled and open at the collar and topped a pair of dark blue dress pants and black oxfords. An empty holster sat on his right hip and his badge was affixed to his belt. He extended his hand and identified himself. “I’m Detective Mark Anderson. You said you were attacked? Why don’t you come back to my office and tell me about it.”

Janelle nodded and rose, but her knees buckled and she thumped back down into the chair. Concern creased the detective’s forehead. “Are you sure you don’t need medical attention?”

“No. I’ll be fine. Really.” Janelle took a deep breath and stood again. This time her legs supported her, but her hand still trembled as she shook the detective’s. He placed a hand beneath her elbow and led her through the steel door down a gray tiled hallway to a tiny office that barely had room for the detective’s chair, a small computer station and two visitor chairs.

“You are obviously in shock,” Detective Anderson observed. He picked up his desk phone. “Emma, could you bring us two cups of tea, please?” Turning to Janelle, he said, “Tea is better for shock than coffee. So tell me what happened.”

Janelle began her tale. “My boss was supposed to meet with a new client, but he had an emergency appendectomy, so I was sent instead. I was supposed to meet a Mr. Jason Murphy at a bar called Jimmi’s on Prospect Street.”

The detective’s eyebrows lifted, “Jimmi’s, you said? Interesting.”

Janelle continued, “I don’t like bars and I wasn’t happy with the choice of meeting place, but I didn’t have much say in the matter. When I got to the bar, I texted Mr. Murphy to let him know I had arrived. He texted back and told me he was running late, but I was to go into the bar and order a meal.” At this, Detective Anderson snorted. “Mr. Murphy said he would join me as soon as he could.”

Janelle hesitated. Should she tell the detective about the intuition she’d had in the ladies’ room? No. That just sounded crazy even to her own mind. So she went on, “I didn’t like the look of the menu, so I just ordered a Coke. I waited about fifteen minutes, but the place just gave me the creeps. So I told the bartender that if a Mr. Murphy came looking for me, I would call him tomorrow. I left the bar and had just reached my car when a man grabbed me from behind.” Janelle hesitated again. “My father always taught me that when walking alone, to keep my keys laced between my fingers. When I was grabbed, I punched the man in the stomach with my keys. Then I got in my car and drove away. I looked up the location of your police station and then I noticed blood on one of my keys.” Janelle fished the plastic bag from her purse. “And I came here.”

The detective’s blue eyes turned sharp. He opened his mouth to say something when the woman from the front counter, Emma, bustled in with two steaming mugs. Anderson shifted some papers to make room for the cups, and just as quickly as she came, Emma departed.

“I have the feeling you’re not telling me everything.”

Janelle took refuge in her mug of tea. The heat steadied her shaking hands. “Well, that’s what happened.”

Anderson looked down at his fingers tapping the handle of his mug. When he looked up again, he asked, “Can you give me a description of the man who attacked you?”

Janelle closed her eyes. She felt the hands again that had violated her. Everything had happened so quickly. “It had just gotten dark. He grabbed me by the shoulders and put one arm around my neck. He was taller than me, but not as tall as you, and husky. I was able to twist around and I hit him in the stomach with my keys. He doubled over before I could see his face. He was wearing a blue or gray watch cap and a plaid wool jacket. I think the colors were black, green, and blue. It wasn’t buttoned up. I think he had just a t-shirt underneath. And he had faded jeans and worn out work boots.” Janelle opened her eyes. “I didn’t know that my keys had
drawn blood until I’d gotten away. That’s not going to get me into trouble is it?”

Detective Anderson picked up the plastic bag. “We don’t have access to the fancy labs you see on TV locally. But the state lab can analyze the blood for DNA and check if it’s in our system. It will take time, though. They have quite a backlog.” He paused. “Why do you think this Mr. Murphy chose Jimmi’s to meet? It doesn’t have the best reputation.”

“I have no idea. I’ve never been to Wausau before and I’d never heard of the place. But my boss was supposed to be familiar with it.”

“What exactly was the purpose of your meeting with Mr. Murphy?”

“I understood that he was a new client of our company and I was supposed to deliver a package to him.”

“And what company would that be?”

“Carson Laboratories. I’m a technical writer there. My boss is Hiram Carson. His grandfather founded the company.”

“What was in the package you were supposed to deliver? And why was it so important to deliver it in person?”

“I have no idea. Everything is in a sealed manila envelope.”

Anderson asked, “Do you have it with you.”

“Yes,” Janelle replied and pulled the now battered envelope from the depths of her purse.

Anderson’s eyebrows quirked again. “What else do you have in there? Should I have put it through a metal detector before letting you bring it in here?”

Janelle blushed, “Oh, you know…just the normal things a woman needs to carry with her…”

He smiled. “So why don’t you tell me what you’re not telling me?”

Janelle blushed again. “Its, its, its just that it sounds kind of crazy.”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

So Janelle launched into her tale of her trip to the ladies’ room and the intuition she had that something was wrong. She told Anderson how she had the feeling that her glass of soda had been tampered with and Carrie’s little gift to her, how she purposely spilled her drink but tried to make it look like a clumsy accident. Suddenly she stopped her narrative. “Oh! I completely forgot. Before the bartender threw me his towel, I mopped up some of the soda with the paper napkins on the table.” She pulled a soggy wad out of another pocket in her purse. “I wasn’t even thinking when I stuffed them in my purse. Oh, and I didn’t just hit my attacker with my keys. I, um, well, I also gave him a karate chop to his privates.”

The detective had been sipping his tea, and now choked as the lukewarm liquid spurted out his nose. Janelle noted he reflexively crossed his legs.

Anderson coughed and reached into a drawer for a tissue. He blew his nose, swiped his face, and regained his composure. “You are full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Janelle couldn’t help smiling.

“Why don’t we take a look at this mysterious envelope to see if it has any bearing on your case?”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea, ” Janelle said. “It could cost me my job.”

” while it’s possible you were the victim of a random mugging, it’s also possible you were deliberately targeted. That seems likely after your description of events in the bar. And if that’s the case, ” here he held up the envelope, “this is evidence.”

” Well, then… ” Janelle was interrupted by her beeping phone. She pulled it from Her purse. “It’s a text from Jason Murphy.”

” What does it say? “Janelle

“Sorry. Delayed again. Why don’t I meet you at your motel? One hour?” Janelle read.

“Don’t respond just yet.” Anderson said. “Which motel are you staying at?”

“The La Quinta on Stewart Avenue. My company booked the room.”

“Have you checked in?”

“Yes, as soon as I got here. But my suitcase and laptop are still in the car.”

“Good. You will not be staying at that motel tonight.”

“After what happened, that’s what I thought, too. The LaQuinta is on the company expense account, but I’ll have to pay for anyplace else. Can you recommend somewhere not too expensive?”

The detective responded , “Not much is cheaper than the LaQuinta unless you go out of town.”

Janelle’s phone beeped again. She read the text. ” Where are you? You have the package? Good to meet at the motel? “

“Just tell him, ‘OK. One hour.'” Anderson said.

Janelle did and got a thumbs up in reply.

“Okay now. Let’s see what’s in this mysterious envelope.” He donned a pair of surgical gloves. Then he placed the envelope in a large evidence bag. With the bag mostly sealed, he inserted a letter opener to slit the envelope, quickly sealed the bag the rest of the way and shook it. When no dust or particles emerged, he opened both the evidence bag and the envelope and slid the contents out. It was a document of perhaps fifty pages, stapled at the top. “Curioser and curioser,” he said. “It’s in Chinese. You said you are a technical writer. Can you read it?”

” Chinese? No, I can’t read it. I translate scientific jargon into intelligible English, “said Janelle. “But I can’t read Chinese.”

“Then this will have to wait until I can contact someone who can.” He looked at his watch. “What we need to do now is get you settled somewhere tonight and a team over to LaQuinta. I’ll need your car key and your motel key.”

“My motel key, I understand,” Janelle said as she dug the card from her wallet . “But my car key?”

“The team will drive your car to the motel. It’s a rental, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Janelle as she unzipped it from her ring. “But I still need an inexpensive place to stay and a way to get there.”

“I can arrange that.” Anderson reached for his desk phone. “Emma, round up Perkins and Bao and send them in, please.”

Moments later, two uniformed officers crowded into the tiny office. The man was of average height with spiky, copper hair. The woman was tiny but muscular, her shiny raven hair slicked into a tight bun.

“Ms. Walker, Officers Randy Perkins and Minh Bao. They will be staking out your room at the LaQuinta tonight. We’ll see what your Mr. Murphy has to say for himself…if he shows.”

“But that still doesn’t give me a place to stay?” Janelle objected .

“Yes, I’ve thought of that. Are your suitcase and laptop in the back seat or the trunk?”

“The laptop is on the front seat, the suitcase is in the trunk.”

The detective explained his plan to the officers. “Randy, would you get Ms. Walker’s belongings from her car? Then one of you drive her car and the other take an unmarked vehicle to the motel. Bao, you’re in the room. Perkins, you’re outside. Room 110.”

The officers left. ” But, but… “Janelle sputtered, “How will I get to a motel?”

“You won’t be staying at a motel. There’s a bed and breakfast that will do quite nicely. I’ll drop you off there. “

“A bed and breakfast? I can’t afford that!”

“Don’t worry. It’s off season. You can afford it. Besides, my sister and brother-in-law own it.” He picked up his cell. “Siri, call Martha.” His phone rang three times. “Hey Sis, I’ve got a guest for you tonight. You have room? Mmhmm. I figured you would. Oh, and she may need security. Pete can handle it? Right. Good. I’ll drop her off in about twenty. See you.” He ended the call.

Janelle was flabbergasted. “A B&B? Security? You’ll drop me off? Is this the way you handle all your cases?”

The detective grinned. “No. Just the interesting ones. If you’re ready, let’s go.” He rose from behind his desk and held the door for her. He stopped to retrieve his gun from a locker. Janelle’s suitcase and laptop were parked by Emma’s station and the detective picked them up. He led her through a maze of hallways to a back door, and from there to his personal vehicle.

A thought occurred to Janelle on the drive over. “I should call my boss to let him know what’s going on,” she said.

“No. Don’t do that. I don’t like it that he was supposed to be the person to make this delivery. You said you had less than a day’s notice of the change in plans?”

“Well, yes. But appendicitis doesn’t exactly give advance warning.”

“Still. Hold off until I can get that document translated.”

Janelle grudgingly agreed.

“You’re probably wondering about the B&B.” Anderson said. “Pete, my brother-in-law inherited an old Victorian mansion from his grandmother while he was still an Army Ranger. My sister Martha was living in base housing while he was deployed. Our Dad is a carpenter and it was Sis, not me, who ended up being his partner. She loved the challenge of fixing the place up, with Dad’s help. So by the time Pete got out of the service, it was quite the showplace. But it was too much house for the two of them and Pete was having a little difficulty settling into civilian life. Turning the place into a B&B, where they could make a living and be their own bosses was just the thing. In the off season, Martha still works with Dad building and remodelling houses. Pete bought a limo and provides transportation and security for guests at the downtown hotels and for wedding parties and proms.

The Victorian was perched on a slight rise, surrounded by a large lot. Directly south, across the valley containing an arm of the city, the illuminated ski runs of Rib Mountain created ethereal trails against the dark bull of the hill. Even before she was out of the car, the door to the B&B opened. In the porch light, Janelle could see a blonde woman, tall and solid, and beside her a surprisingly slight man the same height as the woman. Janelle had supposed Army Rangers must be muscle-bound hulks.

Anderson handed over Janelle’s luggage to the man and made introductons. “Ms. Walker, this is my sister Martha and my brother-in-law Pete. They’ll take good care of you. Now I’ve got to run.” He gave Martha a quick peck on the cheek and dashed back to his car.

“Well, now. Let’s get you settled. Do you prefer Janelle or Ms. Walker? We normally only serve breakfast, but I’m guessing you haven’t eaten. And without a vehicle, you won’t be able to go out for a bite. I have leftover roast from supper that I can warm up, and I can throw together a salad. Or you can order a pizza or Chinese, whichever you prefer. ”

“Janelle, is fine, and the roast sounds wonderful, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” Martha replied. “Pete will show you to your room.”

Pete led the way up a grand staircase with gleaming walnut handrail and newels. He opened the first door on the right, indicated Janelle should go in, then followed and set her suitcase on a luggage stand and her laptop on a desk. ” The bathroom’s through there. ” He nodded towards a door on their left. “I’ll let you know when your supper is ready, or you can come down any time you like. We have a library downstairs and a parlor, so you don’t have to stay up here. You’re our only guest tonight so you’ll have them all to yourself. ” Then he left.

Janelle marvelled at the room she was in. It was easily twice the size of her own bedroom. To the left, as Pete had noted, was the door into compact but beautifully detailed bathroom. The second door on that wall revealed an ample closet. Centered on the outside wall was an electric fireplace. Flanking it were the desk, where Peter had set her laptop and an oak bureau. The queen size bed was on the interior wall with oak nightstands on either side. A bay window overlooked the street and the view of Rib Mountain. Next to it was a highbacked arm chair and matching, upholstered ottoman. The bed was covered with a handmade quilt. Janelle recognized the “trip around the world” pattern. It was what her Mennonite friends called an ugly quilt. Individually, most of the fabrics were unattractive shades of mustard yellow and avocado green. But the quilter had employed accents of royal blue, gold, emerald green, and brown to skillfully pull the disparate blocks into a soothing whole. The light oak hardwood floor sported several floral rugs that picked up the colors of the quilt. The high walls and ceiling were painted a light celadon and accented with white crown molding. This was a far cry from the dingy motel room Janelle had expected at the start of her assignment.

So lost in her admiration for the space, she was startled when Pete tapped on the door to announce supper. Janelle followed him down to an elegant dining room. A place setting graced the head of the table. She felt a bit awkward sitting at the long table that could seat a dozen people. Martha carried in a platter of roast beef and a bowl of parslied potatoes. Pete followed with bowls of green beans and a mixed salad and they set them before her. Janelle felt even more awkward. She was not accustomed to being waited on.

“Would you like tea, coffee, water, milk, not chocolate, or a soda with your dinner?” Martha asked. ” I have both regular and decaf. “

“Oh, coffee would be lovely.” Janelle said. ” but better make it decaf…and some milk for it, if you don’t mind. “

“Of course. And…” here Martha paused. “Would you like some company, or would you rather be alone?”

“I’d love some company.” Janelle answered .

“Good!” Martha grinned. “Because I’m dying of curiosity!”

Pete re-entered the room with a tray containing a coffepot, three cups, cream, sugar, and three plates of blackberry cobbler. They took up seats on either side of Janelle but gave her a few minutes to make some inroads on the plate before her while enjoying their own desserts. Then Janelle repeated the tale of the evening’s adventure. Martha had almost as many questions as her brother, but Pete sat silent and attentive. At the end of her narrative, Janelle was unable to stifle a huge yawn.

“Oh my goodness!” Martha exclaimed . “You must be exhausted! Why don’t you go on upstairs and we’ll see you in the morning. Breakfast is usually at 7:00, but I can serve it later if you need your rest.”

“Would eight be a problem?” Janelle asked.

“No. That means I get to sleep in, too.” Martha laughed.

They said their goodnights and Janelle retired to her room. She really was exhausted, but when she looked at the schoolhouse clock on the wall, she was surprised to see it was only 9:15. She took a quick shower and changed into her pajamas. Settling herself into the comfortable bed, she took out her Bible to read a chapter in Psalms, but was unable to concentrate on the words as the day’s events replayed themselves. Tired as she was, she thought, “I’ll never get to sleep this way.” Yet in just a few moments, she was snoring softly.

*****

(To be continued)

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The Unessential

Beyond The Steel Wall

The Unessential by Robert Cely, Jr.

Alia tried to flatten her t-shirt out. It was black at least, so most of the stains wouldn’t show. She had to slide the cuff of her leggings up so they would bunch up and cover the holes in the knee. Most importantly, she kept her back straight, eyes ahead, and acted like she belonged.

Most of the time Alia felt she could pull it off. With her frizzed out hair pulled back into a pony tail it might just look like she had been exercising. That’s what women did on this side of town, after all..

Alia dodged the other bodies in the street. Most of them hardly looked up, eyes on their phones. The only time they seemed to notice is when someone drifted too close for too long. Then, some developed instinct kicked in, telling them that another body was hovering…

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Choices

Derek Elkins Writes

Sometimes, our stories get a little too real, a little too on the conspiracy theory mark. Submitted for your approval is today’s story by Joe Courtemanche, We Have Four Options. Check it out at Commotioninthepews.com/?p=12705

And, if that story whets your appetite for some good reading, then check out the blogs from Joe Shaw at joeeshaw.com, Kathy Kexel at KathyKexel.wordpress.com, Jamie Greening at JamieGreening.com, Paul Bennett at afallofsparrows.blogspot.com and Rob Cely at beyondthesteelwall.wordpress.com. Read now before the government intervenes.

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Healing Waters

Invisibility is a fickle mistress. Like any mistress, she is utterly fascinating; the subject of legend and story. From the Brothers Grimm to J.R.R. Tolkein to Marvel Comics, authors have been mesmerized by the possibilities such a gift bestows. But also like a mistress, invisibility comes with a price — often a very steep price.

*****

Althea Waters had the gift of invisibility. She discovered the gift early on, in the first and second grades. When some classroom honor or privilege was to be bestowed, Althea would strain at the confines of her desk, fingers outstretched to their limit as her arm waved wildly. But it would always be one of the popular girls, one of the pretty girls who would be chosen. Once, and only once, Althea worked up the courage to ask her teacher why she had not been selected only to be told, “Did you have your hand up? I didn’t see you.”

Disappointing as that was, Althea often found the gift to be useful, as when students were called to demonstrate their knowledge of mathematics or geography or science before the entire class or when distasteful chores were being assigned. However, she quickly learned not to rely completely on the gift. All too often it failed her, such as on her solitary walks home from school when the mean girls spotted her from half a block away. The seventh of eight children, Althea found her gift of invisibility to be just as effective or just as capricious at home.

As Althea matured, she learned better how to control her gift and as importantly, when not to depend on it. As always, there was a price to pay. Invisibility might render her immune to layoffs at work or the machinations of her eldest sister who had taken upon herself the role of matchmaker. But it also meant she was overlooked for promotions or the attentions of attractive men.

Career moved Althea three hours away from her family, and to her multitude of nieces and nephews she truly was invisible. They were always surprised to receive a birthday card or Christmas present from her even though those events happened every year. As she aged, invisibility visited Althea more frequently, settling upon her shoulders like a soft cloak. After her retirement party, she could scarcely remove it ever.

Only at church was Althea fully visible, but even there, not to everyone or all the time. She was a dutiful church lady, creating delectable dishes and prize-winning desserts for pot-lucks, christening parties, and funerals. But come her own birthday, or special anniversary, the cloak would settle about her once more.

As accustomed to solitude as Althea was, the lockdown due to the pandemic brought no significant changes to her weekly routine, except for missing church. She had long since taken to making nightly rounds of her neighborhood in the wee hours. An arthritic hip frequently required her to use a cane by day, but at night she preferred her walking stick — a thick linden tree branch that was taller than she. Her younger brother expressed occasional concern about the dangers of the night, but Althea walked the blocks and passed the darkened houses unseen, the hollow thump, thump, thump of her stick the only witness to her rambles.

As the spring daylight lengthened and temperatures warmed, Althea took to sitting on her porch, soaking up the westering sun. The children from the house across the way playing in the street took no notice of her. Sometimes a sparrow even perched on the porch rail a few inches away or a chipmunk would run right over the toe of her shoe.

So it came as a shock the day the tranquility of her routine was broken. She was enjoying the spring sunlight as usual when Lori, her neighbor to the north stumbled out of her house, weeping. Lori blindly flung the phone in her hand and it soared over the porch rail to land at Althea’s feet. Lori’s weeping turned to wails. Althea picked up the phone and limped down the steps to return it. A shocked gasp stayed Lori’s cries for just a moment and then she fell into Althea’s arms. Flouting all conventions of social distance, the two women clung to each other for an eternity. Finally, Lori was able to speak. Her mother, Dorothy, had had a major stroke. She had been taken by ambulance from her nursing home to the hospital. She had not regained consciousness and was not expected to live through the night. Because of the quarantine, neither Lori nor anyone in her family could visit. Lori’s mother was going to die alone. A car pulled up and Lori’s husband Ted clambered out. He rushed to the women and took his wife in his arms, then led her, still sobbing, indoors.

An hour after sundown, Althea drove to the hospital and parked in the empty ramp. Walking stick in hand, she approached the locked doors. They opened for her, but the security guard never looked up. She had the room number for Mrs. Michalski and rode the elevator to the third floor. She passed mostly empty rooms until she reached the intensive care unit. Four nurses sat at the station closely observing a set of monitors. Althea slipped into Mrs. Michalski’s cubicle. Other than telemetry wires, the woman in the bed was not hooked up to any machines. Perching her good hip on the side of the bed, Althea took the woman’s cool, wrinkled hand into her own and began to speak. “Dorothy, I want you to know that Lori is heartbroken that she can’t be with you. She loves you so very, very much. But I’m here, and I won’t leave until you’re ready to go.” Althea felt just the slightest return pressure and then it was gone. Softly, Althea began to sing, “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart…” The pauses between each of Dorothy’s breaths became longer and longer until the silence was shattered by a strident beeping and the monitor displayed a flat green line.

Althea backed into a corner of the cubicle, clutching her staff as nurses swarmed in. They noted the time of death, unclipped the monitor and drew the sheet over the still form. Althea followed them out and began walking back to the elevator.

There were nine other cubicles in the ICU and all the beds were filled. Althea turned back. In the room next to Dorothy’s, a man lay attached to a ventilator. Althea took his hand. She felt a strength, a springiness, a fighting spirit in that hand. Smiling, Althea bent close and whispered in his ear, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all shall be most well.” After uttering a brief prayer and singing another hymn, she slipped into the next room. In each, she held a hand, smoothed a brow, whispered a prayer and sang a hymn. She stayed longer in some rooms, where the hands she held lay limp in her own. It was past 3:00 in the morning when Althea left the last room.

Althea had found her calling. The next night she returned to the hospital. She stood for a while at the nurses’ station listening to the chatter. “Isn’t that something about Mr. Woodman?” one of the nurses said.

A young man answered her, “I didn’t think he would ever come off that ventilator, but when I extubated him, the first thing he said was an angel had visited him and told him all would be well.”

Althea smiled. That night she stayed almost until dawn, going from room to room. She said a final benediction over two of the patients. The next night, she went back…and the next…and the next. Two weeks later, Althea woke to a world of pain. She felt chilled as the heat poured off her body and her sore throat was shredded by a dry cough. Althea knew what was to come but felt no fear.

Invisibility has its price.

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The Man in the Eyes

Derek Elkins Writes

For the majority of the world, Covid-19 was an inconvenience. For certain people, the elderly and and those with predisposed conditions, the virus spelled a more dangerous possibility. But for Jerry Kincaid, the outbreak was a return to true form, an opportunity to allow the beast out to frolic and cause as much havoc as possible. The pandemic was a straight six months of that movie, The Purge, and Jerry Kincaid was loading up for a lifetime of repressed violence and suppressed urges. After a lifetime of hiding his special abilities and his search for that illusive knowledge that would make all his dreams come true and let him finally know what this life was really about, maybe taking out just one here or there, this pandemic was a straight-up god send.

It had started early for Jerry, at age eight, when he had smothered the puppy because he was…

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In Memoriam

Beyond The Steel Wall

In Memoriam by Robert W. Cely, Jr.

Nathan cursed as he worked the long sleeve of his shirt over the proximity detector. It always seemed to give him problems. The small, black band was supposed to be unnoticeable. Only a small interface stuck out. But whether it was snagging on the cuff of his shirts or chafing when sweat got beneath it, it found a way to remind the wearer that it was there.

Working the shirt over the band reminded him how much he hated the things. His wife looked over at him and smiled as she cocked her head to one side, working in an earring. Somehow she was able to make the bands look like an accessory, like it was supposed to be there. Then again, everything about Lily was gorgeous.

Nathan held his hand out behind him, stretching his arm as far back as it would…

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