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Secrets III

Janelle’s second night at the B&B was not as comfortable as her first. Troubling dreams kept waking her. She finally rose when pale January sunlight filtered in through the bay window.  Showered and dressed she booted up her laptop. She felt the same eerie sensation she had experienced in the bar’s restroom. On a hunch, she downloaded all her personal files onto a thumb drive. On a separate drive, she downloaded all her files relating to her work and put them in her suitcase. Then she went downstairs to another hearty breakfast. But afterwards, she paced like a caged tiger until she persuaded Martha to allow her to help with housekeeping chores.  Scrubbing toilets was a great way to keep her mind occupied.  Just after lunch, Detective Anderson called to let her know the agents from Homeland Security and the CDC had arrived.  The doorbell rang fifteen minutes later.

The detective looked as though he hadn’t had much sleep as he shepherded the two newcomers into the parlor.  Martha set out hot water for tea with an assortment of tea bags, coffee, cream and sugar, and a plate of the cookies she and Janelle had baked the day before. Mark introduced them. “Martha, Pete, Ms. Walker, this is Dr. Joy Hauptmann of the CDC and Special Agent Jesse Carbajal from Homeland Security. Ms. Walker, they have some questions for you and you are entitled to legal representation before you speak with them, if you wish.”

Janelle gasped, “Am I under arrest?”

“No, nothing like that,” Anderson replied. “But you seem to have stumbled into something that impacts national security and your actions may have legal implications. I’m relatively confident you are simply and innocent bystander in these matters.” Janelle caught the glare Special Agent Carbajal directed at the detective.

“Ms. Walker,” the agent began, “why don’t you start at the beginning and explain how you came into possession of this document.” He withdrew both the original Chinese manuscript and the translation from his briefcase.

Janelle recounted the events of the past three days, beginning with Hiram’s phone call, his threat to fire her if she did not do as requested and his insistence on secrecy.  “If it helps, I can give you a timeline of that day.”

“That would be helpful,” Carbajal said, “Do you have any idea why Dr. Carter should pick you in particular for this errand?”

“None at all. I suppose it could have been that I have the most flexible schedule, in a way.   The researchers and their lab assistants have projects that require frequent monitoring.  And Marcie, our receptionist is needed to field any incoming calls, interact with sales reps, and handle any correspondence so that the researchers are not interrupted. As long as I have my source documents, I can write almost anywhere.”

“Getting back to documents,” the agent continued, “are you certain you had no knowledge of the contents of the paper you were tasked to deliver?”

“No. I didn’t even know what was inside the envelope until Detective Anderson opened it in his office. And then it was in Chinese, and I don’t read Chinese.”

“But you did know what Dr. Macauley was working on, didn’t you?” asked Dr. Hauptmann.

“Well, yes in a general sort of way. For instance, I understand the scientific method. So when writing about the process Dr. Macauley used in his research, I can state his initial hypothesis, describe the parameters and methods of his experiments and explain his conclusions. But I don’t really comprehend the significance of the substances he uses, and the equations are simply over my head. So, for the article he is submitting to the professional journals, I check the spelling of the various chemicals and compounds, correct the grammar and make sure everything follows a logical sequence. That’s a major thing with Dr. Macauley because his notes tend to be on random scraps of paper at times.  Then for a news release or a popular journal, I put everything into plain language.”

“I see,” she said.

“Look,” Janelle went on.  “Detective Anderson showed me the translation of the Chinese document.  I get the general gist of the experiments it was describing, and I do see how Dr. Macauley’s work dovetails with those processes. If the modification of a novel virus was ever to somehow escape the lab and be transmissible to humans or livestock, a rapid process to develop a vaccine would be critical. That’s the extent of my knowledge.” She sighed. “All I want to do is get back home and back to my job. After all, Detective Anderson’s officers caught the men who attacked me and broke into my motel room.”

Agent Carbajal coughed. “You have forgotten that the same night those men were caught here in Wausau, an arsonist attempted to burn down your home in Wauwatosa. The men in custody are not the only ones involved, and after interrogating them, it is obvious they are not the brains behind these events. Besides, I’m afraid you don’t have a job to go back to.”

“What?”

Dr. Hauptmann explained, “Carter Laboratories has been shut down.  My team arrived there today to analyze every research project the lab has undertaken for at least the last decade.”

Carbajal added, “And since it appears that Hiram Carter may be guilty of treason, the government has seized all of the lab’s assets. You and the other employees will receive final paychecks, however. At the moment, until we can determine the extent of your involvement in these matters and discover the persons behind them, you have two options: we can take you into protective custody, or you can remain here.”

Janelle covered her face with her hands.  All she wanted to do at the moment was curl up into a ball and cry, but she told herself, “I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry.”

Detective Anderson’s ringing phone broke the tension, He looked at the incoming number and excused himself to take the call.  He was back in just a few minutes. “That was Chief Davis in Kronenwetter. A body was discovered in a snowbank in the Forest Unit by some snowmobilers.  According to the ID on the body, it’s Jason Murphy. It appears he has been dead for several days.”

Dr. Hauptmann and Janelle spoke at once. Carbajal held up his hand and gestured for Dr. Hauptmann to go first.  She said, “Jason Murphy was one of our people. Hiram Carter contacted the CDC several weeks ago. He indicated he had stumbled upon some research into viruses that would be of interest to us. He made arrangements to meet with Jason and turn over that data two days ago here in Wausau. While it was unlike Jason to not maintain contact with the DC office, until Special Agent Carbajal contacted us, I had no idea the exchange hadn’t gone as planned.”

Anderson said, “Well, at least that corroborates Ms.Walker’s story. Plus, the napkins she salvaged from Jimmi’s were soaked in rohypnol”  

“But if Jason Murphy has been dead for days, who is the Jason Murphy I contacted? Hiram gave me his phone number, I texted him, and he texted me back,” Janelle asked.

“Ah, yes.  Your phone.  We’ll need to confiscate it and see if we can trace the number. We’ll also need your laptop and any notes you may have on any projects you were working on for the lab”, said Carbajal.

Janelle handed them over without mentioning the thumb drives in her suitcase. “Any notes not on the laptop will be in my files back in my office. But what about my personal information. My photos, music, addresses?” Janelle asked.

“After all the relevant information has been retrieved, we will return your property to you,” the agent said.

“That could take months,” Anderson said. “Tell you what. Let Ms. Walker sync her contacts to my phone. Then she can buy a new phone and I can download them into it.  If she’s like most people these days, she hasn’t memorized even her important phone numbers.”  Carbajal grudgingly agreed.

Dr. Hauptmann spoke up.  “The CDC will also need those computer files.”

Carbajal grunted and the doctor stared him down. “Okay. But only the relevant ones.”

“It will take the scientists at the CDC to determine which files are relevant. That means they will need all of them.  You can keep the phone.”

Janelle could tell the agent was not happy with being outmaneuvered.  He placed the documents and Janelle’s phone in his briefcase but handed the laptop to Dr. Hauptmann. As they rose to leave, Detective Anderson had a parting word. “Since you proposed taking Ms. Walker into protective custody, seeing that she is now a material witness in two possible murders, industrial espionage, and perhaps even treason, if she is to remain in my jurisdiction it seems appropriate to me that the government cover the cost of her house arrest.” That elicited another grunt from the Special Agent, but he agreed. Anderson instructed Pete to give the agent a list of expenses. “Oh, don’t look so glum,” he told Carbajal. “You’re getting the off-season rates.” As the agent and the doctor left the parlor, Anderson winked at Janelle.

The next morning, Martha offered to take Janelle shopping. “You need a new phone. And I’m fairly certain you didn’t pack nearly enough clothes for an extended stay. Mark will be by before he goes on shift this evening and you will be able to retrieve all your contacts. Oh, and feel free to use the washer and dryer.”

Janelle thanked her profusely. As lovely as the B&B was, it now felt like a prison and she was overjoyed to be released for an outing. Shortly after breakfast, Pete drove up in a black SUV. Martha took over the driver’s seat, Pete rode shotgun, and Janelle was seated in the back. The mall wasn’t far.  The mall was nothing like the ones in Milwaukee. It was small and half the storefronts were empty, but Janelle soon had her new phone. Looking at her options, Janelle picked up some underwear in the department store. Then she asked Martha if there were any thrift stores in the area.

“Great idea!” Martha said. “My church runs one and it’s not far. And they do take credit cards.”

Janelle was able to pick up three pairs of jeans, several blouses and two sweaters for the cost of what a single outfit would cost at Gordman’s. Late that afternoon, Detective Anderson stopped by and restored her contacts in her new phone. She asked him if he had made any progress in unravelling the mystery surrounding her. He said he couldn’t talk about it, especially now that the federal government was involved.

Sunday, Janelle went to church with Martha and Pete. It was very different from her home church, Elmbrook. Instead of an auditorium that could seat 3,000 people, the church met in a strip mall storefront attended by fewer than 100 folks. Still, the people were friendly, the worship band, if not composed of musicians from the Milwaukee Symphony, was enthusiastic, and the sermon solidly biblical.

Monday, Pete asked for her house and car keys. Pete’s plan was to take one of his employees down to Milwaukee and return with her own car. She explained that her house key was still in Mark’s possession, but her neighbor Chuck had a spare key. After a quick call to Chuck to let him in on the plan, all was arranged. Tuesday dawned clear, so early that morning the two men left for Wauwatosa. They returned just before supper. Janelle was delighted to have her own transportation once again but Pete had an even better surprise for Janelle.

“Roscoe!” Janelle shouted when Pete brought in the cat carrier. “You really don’t mind?” she asked Martha.

Martha laughed, “No, I don’t mind.  As long as it’s the off season and you’re the only one here. You will have to keep him in your room, though. I would love a cat or a dog myself, but the potential of guests with allergies makes that impossible.

“Man, I’ve never seen a cat that big,” Pete chuckled as he unlatched the carrier. Roscoe poked his nose out and then launched himself into Janelle’s arms.

She snuggled her cat and began to cry. “You have both been so good to me. And you don’t even know me. I’m sure Agent Carbajal thinks I’m some sort of spy, and, and, and…”

Martha embraced Janelle. “Mark has good instincts. He doesn’t think you’re a spy and neither do we. You just have to ride this out until they catch whoever is behind it, and then you can go back to your normal life.”

“A life without a job,” Janelle thought.

Wednesday, a major snowstorm swept through the area, keeping Janelle housebound. By Friday, she was eager to venture out and explore her surroundings. Pete had some strict rules however. Janelle was not to leave the B&B for any reason without informing him. When she was out, she was to check in every half hour. She was also to be especially vigilant about any vehicles that might be following her and if she suspected that one was, she was to call him and drive immediately to the police station.

Sunday, during fellowship time at church, Martha and Pete pulled Janelle aside. “What exactly is your academic degree?” they asked.

“I have a Bachelor Degree in communications with a minor in education and an MFA in writing. Why?”

“That’s perfect!” Martha said. “Pete’s cousin Sasha is personnel director for Midstate Technical College. Just before Christmas, their instructor for their technical writing and English classes went out on maternity leave. On Friday, she just informed Sasha that she has decided to stay home with her baby and will not be returning. Students have already registered for the classes and the next semester starts just one week from Tuesday. She’s desperate. You need a job and you have the qualifications to teach the classes. So, come meet Sasha.

Janelle was astounded at the speed in which everything came together. Monday, she met with the department chair and the personnel committee and was hired on the spot. Tuesday, Detective Anderson received permission from Agent Carbajal for Janelle to move to Marshfield. Wednesday, Pete and Martha’s Pastor reached out to a Pastor in Marshfield. The Marshfield church met in a former funeral home and the facility had a furnished apartment above the chapel. Janelle was welcome to stay there temporarily until she found a permanent apartment and the rent was reasonable. Unfortunately, Roscoe was not welcome, but there was a bookstore down the street that would permit Roscoe to take up residence provided he got along with the other bookstore cat. Pete and Martha volunteered to make a trip to Wauwatosa to retrieve any special belongings Janelle would need, if she would make a list. And Friday, she was in her new home away from home.

Teaching was significantly harder than merely translating scientific jargon into intelligible English, and Janelle was exhausted at the end of her first week, even if she had spent fewer hours on campus than she had in her office. She was thankful her predecessor had left behind excellent lesson plans, so she had a good place to start. The weeks sped by quickly and she heard nothing from Detective Anderson, Special Agent Carbajal or Dr. Hauptmann but she was too busy to give it much thought. Pete had taken a crew down to pack up everything in her house and put it in storage after she gave her landlord notice. She had until the first of June to find a permanent place to live.

The news broke on Valentine’s Day. Pete and Martha invited Janelle to supper after her Friday classes. Detective Anderson, his wife and children would be joining them. Janelle arrived early and Detective Anderson was waiting for her.  Word had reached Agent Carbajal through the U. S. Embassy in Beijing that Hiram Carter had died in an automobile accident. When Mrs. Carter met with their attorney to arrange for the funeral, she discovered that Hiram had left behind a letter to be opened only in the event of his death. In it, he detailed his involvement with the Chinese. He had become suspicious of Dr. Macauley’s lab assistant from Wuhan who was part of the staff exchange program. Hiram had managed to get his hands on and photocopy the document that had been entrusted to Janelle. He had contacted Jason Murphy at the CDC to hand the information over, but was forced to leave the country when the lab assistant’s handler threatened his family. The letter included the handler’s name and Homeland Security and the FBI had taken the man into custody.

The case was closed. Janelle was free. “But what of the Chinese research? It is so dangerous. And Dr. Macauley’s research? To be able to quickly develop vaccines for rogue viruses is so important.”

“It’s all in the hands of the CDC now.” Anderson said. “They’ll know what to do with it. And besides, how likely is it that an animal virus could really be engineered to infect humans? That’s just science fiction.”

*****

Isn’t it?

By kathykexel

I've been writing from close to the time I learned to read. Fortunately, almost nothing exists from those days. Throughout my working life, I've jotted down bits and pieces here and there. But now that we m retired, I've run out of excuses not to write.

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