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.”
“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.”
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.
“No buts.” Martha said. “And don’t worry about your budget. This is the off season. You’ll find our 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.”
“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?”
Janelle 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 lunch 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?”
“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 modify 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. Macauley’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. Macauley 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. Macauley 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.”