Nightwatch: Rogue Harvest
by Ralph Benedetto, Jr.
The ambulance driver looked at Weldon and asked, "Do we know what we're doing?"
Weldon grinned back at him. "It doesn't matter," he said, opening the passenger side door. "That’s the beauty of it. Reality isn't what's important. It's what people think reality to be that determines their behavior." He swung himself out of his seat and down to the asphalt and shut the door.
"Swell," the driver said to himself, pocketing the keys and opening his door. "I don't even know what that means, and I'm not too sure he does, either.” He shook his head. “Why do I do these things to myself?”
Weldon gave the ambulance doors a rhythmic knock as he crossed behind the vehicle and looked around as he crossed the parking lot and headed into the hospital.
It wasn't Weldon's first time in Nigeria, but it was his first visit to Jos, and he liked what he'd seen of the city so far. When Simon had called him and asked him to perform "a simple little job – a cakewalk," he had been a little reluctant to put his own affairs on hold, but Simon had impressed him with the job's urgency, so he'd agreed in the end. Besides, how often did he get a chance to play doctor?
"We've got one man there,” Simon had told him, “but we don't think he could pull it off alone. It would take too long for us to get anyone else over there. You're close by and could just nip over and do this little thing tomorrow, Tom..."
The woman at the information desk looked up as two men entered, both of them white. One was a tall, gaunt man with hollow cheeks, unruly hair that seemed to stick out randomly in all directions, and a bushy moustache. The other was dressed as if he were a doctor, but he looked more like a rugby player. In fact, he looked as if the Good Lord had started out to make two rugby players and then changed his mind at the last moment and decided to just make one.
"May I help you?" she asked politely as the two men stopped in front of her.
Weldon glanced at her name tag. "Thank you, Ms. Ola," he said. "I'm Dr. O'Grady. I'm here to pick up Mr. Tamagawa."
The woman turned to her computer and clicked the keys quietly for a moment. "I'm sorry," she said, turning back to Weldon. "We don't..." the her eyes widened. "The man without a name!” she said. "You're the people for the man without a name!"
Weldon smiled. "Yes," he said. "When Mr. Tamagawa was brought in, I understand that he was in no condition to give his name."
"Dr. Okoko is expecting you." She gestured to her right. "Please follow the orange line until you pass through the double door. Dr. Okoko's office will be the second door on the left."
Weldon smiled. "Thank you," he said politely.
"Mr. Tamagawa," the woman said musingly.
Weldon simply smiled again in reply. The man without a name now had name. In fact, he had two names: the false one that Weldon has just given the receptionist and the real one that Simon hadn’t felt a need to burden him with. Simon hadn’t actually said that the name Tamagawa was false, but Tom knew Simon more than well enough to work that one out for himself. He was equally certain that the numerous documents in his possession giving him permission to remove the patient from the hospital and from the country were equally false. That didn’t trouble him, as long as everyone else accepted them as genuine.
Weldon and his companion made it through the double doors but not all the way to Dr. Okoko's office. The receptionist had apparently called ahead, and Dr. Okoko came out to meet them in the hall.
"Tare Okoko," he said, holding out his hand to Weldon.
"Patrick O'Grady," Weldon said. The name had been Simon's choice, not his, and Weldon had to fight the urge to try out an Irish accent. He gestured at his companion. "Paul Griggs," he said.
"The patient's room is this way," Okoko said, sweeping the two men along with a gesture. "We're delighted to know that his family has found him."
"The newspaper article was a good idea," Weldon said.
Okoko nodded. "Have you been briefed on his condition?"
“Not really, no," Weldon said.
"It is a very unusual case," Okoko told him, "To say the least. I have never seen anything even remotely like it. He was picked up by the police wandering the streets. At the time he was suffering from malnutrition and also had some deep bruising and various cuts and slashes, only one of them at all serious. His physical wounds are well on their way to healing, but his mental condition..." He shook his head. "Some days he seems alert and attentive, perfectly normal, except that his entire vocabulary consists of one or two words, although he seems to think that he is communicating everything that he wants to."
"Aphasia?" Weldon asked.
"If so, it is extremely atypical. But, then, everything about this case is atypical."
"You said that some days he was alert. What's he like on the other days?"
Okoko sighed. "On those days it is as if he has no will of his own. He will do whatever you set him to do in a very docile manner, but you have to tell him everything. If he is eating, you have to instruct him to chew and then to swallow. Sometimes he changes suddenly from one state to the other. This morning he was in the second state, but I do not know what state he will be in when we get to his room. We shall find out together."
Weldon shook his head. Simon hadn't given him quite as much information as he might have. Typical. Need to know. The mania for security could be land carried too far.
A short walk took them to a comfortable room. Inside was an oriental man wearing a hospital gown. He looked up as Dr. Okoko entered his room.
"Responsive," Okoko murmured. "Good morning," he added in a louder voice.
The patient nodded. "Window," he said politely. His voice was calm and measured, but the word had been thickly accented.
Weldon blinked and looked at Okoko with one eyebrow raised.
"These gentlemen," Okoko said, gesturing at Weldon and Griggs, "Are here to take you home to your family."
The patient smiled pleasantly at Weldon. "One dow," he said, nodding
“Yes,” Weldon said with a pleasant smile. “Let’s find you some clothes, shall we?”
Simon Litchfield strode the halls of the Nightwatch Insitute for Strategic and Economic Studies. He was a good match for the quiet elegance of the building, with his silver hair and brown eyes and what, at first glance, seemed to be merely a suit of comfortable khaki clothes but which turned out, at second glance, to be a very expensive suit of comfortable khaki clothes.
After the wood paneling and expensive land carpeting, Simon always found it a bit jarring to enter the Institute's library. It wasn't the library itself, but, rather, one part: the section devoted to popular culture.
Books on economics and geopolitics made sense, but why did the Institute need to have every issue of People magazine that had ever been printed? Why did they need disks of once popular television shows? And why didn't they notice that this particular culture section of the library was almost never used?
Still, that paucity of use made it the perfect place for Simon to meet with Callow, the representative of the Institute's Lower Echelon - that secret group within a group that periodically tossed more interesting assignment's Simon's way.
Callow was waiting at a table in the far corner of the popular culture section. This time he didn't seem to have brought anything with him, not even a notebook computer. Not even a real notebook. That vaguely disturbed Simon. If there was something so unsettling that Callow wasn't willing to keep even personal records of it, then Simon wasn't certain that it was something that he was going to enjoy dealing with.
Callow waited, his face utterly expressionless until Simon pulled out a chair and sat down, and then he said, "We have a...situation."
Simon cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "We always have situations," he replied. "That's why I'm here. That's why we're both here. What makes this one so special?"
Callow looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable. "We have a certain lack of...understanding of this situation."
Simon frowned. "Why don't you stop dancing circles around it and just fill me in."
"All right. You will remember the medical patient in Nigeria that we acquired last week."
"The root cause of his condition has been determined to be a never before seen neurotoxin."
Simon nodded. "Interesting," he said.
“We have also managed to identify him. His name is Dr. Fa Leung. Does that name ring a bell with you?"
"No," Simon said. "Should it?"
“He is a well known molecular biologist."
"Oh..." Simon said. "Yes, I keep trading cards of well known molecular biologists."
"You, of all people, should," Callow said dryly.
"Oh, a joke," Simon said. "Excellent. Well done, Callow. Don't try another one too soon. You might hurt yourself." He shook his head and sighed, "Genetic engineering and a brand new neurotoxin. Does this get worse?"
"It gets more puzzling," Callow replied. "Dr. Leung's condition makes it difficult to get information from him. We do have one thing. When the doctor is in his responsive phase, he repeats a similar two syllable sound."
Simon nodded. "I saw the report," he said. "Window...wan chow...one toe..."
"He has stabilized now. Instead of repeating similar sounds, he apparently finally struck on the combination that he was looking for, and it is now all that he says."
"Are you going to keep me in suspense?"
Simon raised an eyebrow. "Which is Chinese for..."
"Soybeans," Callow said unhappily.
"Soybeans," Simon repeated.
"You think-," Simon began.
"Yes," Callow said, hoping to avoid hearing the thought out loud.
"That someone is genetically engineering soybeans..."
Callow sighed. "We have done some investigation and analysis. Dr. Leung was not supposed to be in Africa. It can still be difficult to gather information on Chinese nationals, but the Chinese government still maintains that Dr. Leung is in China at this moment."
"Are you certain he isn't?"
"Yes," Callow said. "I wouldn't be here talking about--"
"Killer legumes," Simon put in.
"…if I weren't serious," Callow finished. "Also, there is a research lab in Nigeria working on grains and soybeans."
Simon raised an eyebrow. "A genetics lab?" he asked.
"All quite legal," Callow assured him. "A large biotechnology firm established the lab a decade ago, but the firm has been having financial and legal difficulties for a few years now."
"These things do tend to drag on when the defendants are rich, don't they?" Simon asked sweetly.
"Cynicism doesn't become you, Simon."
"Yes it does," Simon said firmly. "Tell me about the biotech company."
"Meggar and Fields," Callow told him. "Their CEO and chief financial officer were apparently involved in some rather complicated and highly illegal doings. The government is still trying to sort things out. Many of the company's assets have been liquidated and many others have been put into a sort of limbo."
Simon blinked twice and then pulled his shoulders upward, trying to stretch out a tight spot in his back that had been bothering him for a few days. "A genetics lab in limbo?" he asked.
"The lab still exists, but, according to the company's internal records…"
"Have we a mole?" Simon asked.
"According to the company's internal records," Callow repeated, ignoring the question, "the lab has gone almost entirely unfunded. Salaries are being paid to a few people to keep an eye on things, but minimal research is currently being done."
"A genetics lab in limbo," Simon repeated. "Ripe for the picking, I would have said. So, what research were they doing before the CEO did the big swindle?"
"Their two main lines seemed to be increasing the protein content of various legumes and working on plants that would help the global environment by absorbing and processing greenhouse gases."
"That's a far cry from neurotoxins," Simon said.
"We suspect that the lab may be...freelancing. We'd like you to go check it out."
"All right," Simon said. "I can't resist the urge to find out about killer soybeans. I think Tom is still in Nigeria doing whatever it is that he's doing. I might enlist him to help."
“Who you take with you is at your discretion," Callow told him. "Subject to the usual considerations, of course. Are you going to take…" Callow arched his eyebrows.
"One of the delicate phantoms of my past? Probably." He started to turn away and then stopped. "I have an idea, but it's going to require a little infrastructure."
"You know the rules under which you are required to operate, Simon. Within that framework, you may do whatever is required."
Simon nodded and finally did turn away, humming a George Harrison tune to himself: “Devil's Radio.” It seemed somehow appropriate.
He was still humming a few moments later as he paced one of the institute's hallowed halls and spotted Stephanie Keel. The computer wizard was dressed, as always, in khaki cargo pants with a khaki vest over a sweater - today's color being a soft blue.
"Simon," she said with a grin. "How's the back?"
"There's nothing wrong with my back," he said, resisting the urge to stretch again.
"Of course not," she said. "That dive into the corner couldn't possibly have hurt someone in such good shape. Then you'll be up for another game this weekend?"
Simon shook his head. Stephanie was a good racquetball player, and he wasn't able to beat her as often as he would have liked, but he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of knowing it. "I'm not sure we'll be back by then," he said.
She raised her eyebrows. "We?" she asked.
"I just had a chat with Callow. Pack for someplace warm. We'll be leaving in a couple of days. I'll let you know when."
"You got it," she said. "I'll have to clear a few things from my calendar." She started to turn away. "Catch you later, Doc. Page me when you get things nailed down.”
Simon watched her go, not that he could see much through the loose pants and sweater. He liked watching her better when she was kitted out for racquetball. When she was out of sight, he headed for his own office to make a few calls.
The passenger cabin of Nightbird One was comfortable, even opulent, and the plane could make the flight to Nigeria without stopping to refuel. It wasn't as fast as the Grumman G6, but it had a few little extras that Grumman didn't put in its planes, not even for the obscenely wealthy.
Simon was leaning casually back in his seat, a glass of gin in his hand and a pair of headphones on his ears. His eyes were closed and his brain at rest, when he felt a touch on his knee. He knew that touch, so knew exactly what he'd see when he opened his eyes.
The seat across from his that swiveled to face him was pleasantly full of a nicely constructed redhead with cornflower blue eyes and pale skin with a dusting of freckles, especially across her nose. Her lips were curved into a not entirely pleasant smile.
"Yes, my love?" Simon asked.
Morna's smile widened slightly, and her lips curved upward in just the way that had made him glad to wake up beside her every morning for five years.
"Simon," she said. He couldn't hear it over the string section in his headphones, but he read her lips. The rest of her sentence escaped him. He pressed a button and the music faded away.
"I'm sorry," he said, removing the headphones, "I didn't quite catch that."
"I said" she repeated with that touch of asperity that he had heard a lot during the divorce proceedings, "that I was able to get some information on Fa Leung." She had never lost the faintly musical lilt of her Irish homeland.
"Then you're doing better than the Institute," he said appreciatively. "You always were something special, pet. Especially in the…"
"Simon," she said, "You're a dear, but I'm immune to your charm."
"Alas, my Sunrise," he said, "if only I were immune to yours."
Morna rolled her eyes. "Simon," she said, "can we keep our mind on business?"
"We both know you aren't really immune to my charms," he said. "You've just always liked playing hard to get."
She laughed and shook her head. "Fa Leung," she said.
"Very well. The Institute hasn't been able to pry anything out of the Chinese government about either him or his work. How did you get the information?"
"I called some colleagues. Scientists talk to each other. There's competition, of course, but we still talk about our work. Dr. Leung was working on transgenic plants. His early experiments were primarily focused on putting the nitrogenase gene into nonlegumes."
"Oh, good," Simon said. "I was hoping someone was doing that."
"The idea," Morna continued, leaning back and crossing her legs, her eyes closed halfway as she watched Simon's gaze track along her calves and thighs, "was to create plants that had a higher level of high quality protein. That first meant increasing their nitrogen content."
Simon nodded, taking a sip of gin. "That could explain why he was working at this particular lab."
"If he was," Morna said. “He apparently had moved on to a new line of investigation, something very hush hush for the military. There wasn't much information out there except that he had been working with some insect species in the rain forests. There were rumors of some rather unpleasant casualties but nothing really concrete."
Simon frowned. "All right," he said. "All right." He took another meditative sip, his eyes narrowed in thought, then his brow suddenly cleared, and he said, "Thank you, Morna. I knew you were the right person for the job."
"All right, Simon, I've got some papers I want to read over. Go back to your Wallace."
Simon looked down at the headphones. He knew good and well that she couldn't possibly have heard what was playing on them, but it was Wallace right enough. He put the headphones back on, and his gaze drifted to the stack of three legal books sitting in the seat next to him. With a sigh, he picked one up and opened it.
Morna made her way down the aisle, smiling at Stephanie as she passed.
Tom Weldon was there to greet the plane. Simon, stepping into the heat and humidity, spotted him and waved him up. Tom climbed the stairs up to the plane's hatch and shook Simon's hand.
"You may possibly," Simon said dryly, "be the only man in Nigeria dressed all in black. It must be over ninety degrees out."
"I hadn't noticed," Weldon said. "Mind over matter. But I wouldn't say no to a drink."
"You never do," Simon said with a grin. "Come on in. We've made some preliminary plans, but we need to fill you in."
Tom climbed up the stairs and stepped into the plane. “I assume that Andy made it back with our mystery patient?”
Simon nodded. “Of course,” he said.
Tom nodded. “Good.” He grinned. “I don’t think he enjoyed our little impersonation in the hospital.”
“Well,” Simons said meditatively, “I believe that he did make one or two comments about your observations on the nature of reality.”
Tom’s grin got bigger. “That man’s outlook on life it just too narrow,” he said. “Now, about that drink…”
The land rover was not a rental, but it would untraceable should anyone have any reason to attempt to trace it. It was well air conditioned, had comfortable seats and a CD player which Tom, who was doing the driving, had taken control of. It was currently playing a selection of Robert Johnson songs that Tom seemed to know all of the words to and which he was singing along with in a deep, gravelly bass.
Stephanie was in the front seat beside him. While Tom was still wearing his normal black slacks, black shirt, black shoes, and black belt, she had a made a concession to the heat and had topped off her khaki pants with a loose shirt.
Simon and Morna were in the back seat taking quietly to each other.
"So," Tom said with mock seriousness, "I see that you've come out of your den long enough to get some sun."
Stephanie glanced at him. "You've never even seen my den." There was a slight crinkle visible around the corners of her eyes and lips.
“Alas, no,” Tom said with a huge sigh, “But I imagine it as a dark, cool place full of disemboweled computers and disjointed pieces of machinery."
"Nothing of the kind," she said, her tone a perfect match for Tom’s. "It's very brightly lit."
“But still full of body parts,” Tom said. “Is this your stop?"
She looked around. There was cover nearby and ready access of the telephone lines. "This'll do," she said.
The land rover slowed, and she picked up a soft-sided briefcase and climbed out. She pointed to
a case on the ground. “Remember, the jammer needs to be within five hundred meters of the building, right?"
"Got it," he said with a grin. "Leave it to me."
“Leaving it to you is what concerns me,” she said with an answering grin. "I don't trust you with hardware, you know. It isn't your specialty. Don't break any of my stuff, all right?"
“I have the delicate hands of a surgeon,” he told her, then he gave her a quick salute as the land rover pulled away. “Trust me!”
Stephanie laughed, shook her head, and headed toward the bushes that she planned to set up camp behind.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Two miles later they had turned off of the main road and were headed down one made of dirt. After several hundred yards, they found their way blocked by a fence. There was no one around.
Tom pulled the land rover to a stop, looked around for a few seconds, shrugged, got out, and opened the gate, utterly ignoring a sign that promised dire consequences to anyone brazen enough to pass through the gate uninvited.
Tom left the unfriendly gate open after they drove through it.
"Shouldn't you close it back again?" Morna asked him.
Tom grinned at her in the rearview mirror. "Nah," he said. "We're arrogant officials from the head office, remember?"
The road led them to a large, low white building in the middle of a dirt parking lot. There were three other vehicles in the lot, all of them covered with dust and looking much the worse for wear. Tom parked the land rover close to the building and pocketed the keys. Then he reached over and flipped a switch on the hammer. It beeped once and then began to hum quietly to himself.
Simon stepped out of the land rover and, with a swirl and a flourish, draped a tan cape over his shoulders and picked up a mahogany walking stick with a gold and silver knob.
"Oh, Simon," Morna said, "not the cape."
"I'm a lawyer, my love, and must look the part, heat or no heat. The weather can never be allowed to interfere with one’s sense of style. Let's go."
They walked to the building. It was long and low with white sides and numerous windows with tinted glass. All of the windows were covered by curtains. The building had an indefinable air of not being well maintained, although it was far from being in disrepair.
The front door proved to be unlocked. Simon opened it and they entered.
They found themselves in a luxurious waiting room. The floor was not carpeted, but the walls here were hung with numerous pictures, and several very comfortable looking chairs were scattered about with a casual randomness that must have been the fruit of considerable effort.
A woman at a desk looked up in surprise at the three strangers.
"Uh...may I help you?" she asked.
Simon walked up to her desk and stood looking down at her. She was blond, with full lips, long carmine nails, and various other features, all of them designed to attract the eye, and, in Simon's judgment, all of them artificial. He wondered if she'd purchased an artificial personality to complete the set.
He smiled genially at her and flourished a card. "We would like to see Dr. Geisel, please. Immediately." His tone was perfect. It was cultured and polished, with a veneer of politeness covering chilled steel.
The woman gaped at him. Then she gaped at Morna. That didn't seem to help her, so she gaped at Tom. He at least, with his massive weightlifter's frame, was worth gaping at. For his part, he was ignoring her and studying the paintings. They were prettier.
Simon tapped the knob of his cane on the woman's desk to draw her attention back to him. "Dr. Geisel," he said. "Your head of research. We would like to see him immediately."
"Um...yes..." she floundered. "But..." she cleared her throat. "Dr. Geisel is not in."
"He will be in to me, or he will very soon be out."
She blinked at him.
"Out of a job," Simon explained, leaning toward her slightly. He did a conjuring trick, and a letter appeared in his hand. It was on the letterhead of Meggar and Fields, signed by Jonas Fields himself. Simon considered letting her read it, but he had already decided that her head was little more than ornamental. "Tell Dr. Geisel that I will wait precisely three minutes. If I don't see him by the end of that time period, I will order this facility closed down and everyone here will be out of work." He smiled at her. It was neither polite nor comforting.
She fumbled for her phone and spoke hastily but quietly into it for a moment while Simon appeared to ignore her utterly. Precisely two minutes and fifteen seconds later, a door in the far wall opened and a chubby man with thinning hair and thick features appeared in the door way. He was dressed in casual tan slacks with a white polo shirt on and a thin cotton lab coat on over that.
The man cleared his throat and said, "I'm Ted Geisel. Can I help you?"
"Ah, so you were in after all," Simon said. "How fortunate. I'm Simon Clarke." He handed Geisel the letter. “I believe this will explain everything," he said.
Geisel scanned the letter quickly and then slowed down and read it a second time, then he looked back up at Simon and handed him the letter, making a ghastly effort at a smile. "An audit team," he said. "Well, well. How...um...yes."
"Yes," Simon said. He turned to his two companions and gestured at Morna. "My colleagues Miss Talbot," he waved a hand at Tom, "and Mr. Seals."
"And, why, precisely, are you here? Not that you aren't welcome, of course. Heh." Geisel's attempt at a laugh was even more ghastly than his smile, and, despite the very efficient air conditioning, he was sweating slightly.
"As you know,” Simon told him, surveying his surroundings with just the right air of disdain, “Meggar and Fields is having some…budgetary difficulties. Cost cutting may be essential to the firm's survival. We are here to see how this department is spending the money that it has been allocated and whether that allocation of funds is merited. You wouldn't mind showing us around, of course?"
"Clarke," Simon supplied.
"Yes. Mr. Clarke. Well if you...uh...wouldn't mind...um...possibly waiting a few moments? I'm sure you can understand...I'd like to..." He waved his hand vaguely in the air.
"Call and check out our bona fides?" Simon finished for him. "That would be prudent. I'm sure you wouldn't mind if we accompanied you."
"No...of course..." He tried to smile at Morna. "Yes. Miss...um...please...this way...?"
They followed his waving arm through the door and into a long hall and then into his office. There were two chairs, one behind the desk and one for visitors. Simon gallantly gestured Morna into the visitor's chair and then smiled pleasantly at Geisel while he fumbled with his computer. Tom merely crossed his arms and waited patiently, seeming to retreat into himself. He had decided that his role in this particular performance was to be quietly menacing, so he was having a go at it.
Geisel clicked away at the keyboard for a moment and then frowned, and a sound that could only be described as a nervous giggle escaped him. "The...uh...the sat-cell network seems to be...uh..." he giggled again and then glanced at the others. Simon kept his pleasantly unpleasant smile on his face. Morna looked sympathetic. She was beginning to feel sorry for the poor man. Tom was merely looking impassive.
"Perhaps you could use the regular phone system," Simon suggested.
"Yes." Geisel fumbled for several painful moments before he finally found the number that he was looking for and punched it in. A few miles away, a phone connected to a portable computer sitting in a case at Stephanie's side rang. She glanced at the screen where the words: "Meggar and Fields: Main office" were displayed.
She picked up the phone. "Meggar and Fields," she said in the perky sort of voice that she loathed hearing on the other end of the phone. "May I help you please?"
"Uh...this is...this is Dr. Ted Geisel at research office 1127 Nigeria. I need to speak to Mr. Fields. My authorization code is 25-A-Red."
Stephanie pushed a button on the computer's keypad, then she flipped a switch on the
phone's receiver, waited ten seconds, and then punched the keypad again.
"Mr. Fields office."
She was speaking in her normal voice, but the voice in Geisel's ear sounded like that of an entirely different woman. Stephanie was very proud of that small modification on her part to the system.
“This is...um...1127 Nigeria. Dr. Geisel. I need to speak with Mr. Fields immediately."
"Mr Fields is not in today, Dr. Geisel," Stephanie said. A groan floated up the wire and into her ear. "But he left a message for you. May I have your authorization code, please?" She was proud of that one. She hadn't even known that authorization codes existed until Geisel himself had told her a moment ago.
"Yes, Dr. Geisel. Mr. Fields said to tell you to expect an audit team sometime in the near future. They are to be shown everything without reservation. They have the authority to determine the future of the facility they are investigating."
"Oh...dear..." Geisel said hollowly. "Yes. Um...thank...um..."
"You're welcome," Stephanie said. "Good-bye." She hung up and smiled to herself, then she reached into a cooler at her side and pulled out a bottle of soda. She'd have to keep monitoring the phones until the others came back to pick her up, but that was easy enough. It was a good thing they'd been able to jam the sat-cell network in the lab's area. Simulating the video would have been possible, but way too much trouble. Hmm. So they needed a way to make that easier. Stephanie frowned in thought. Maybe if she...
Back in his office, Geisel hung up the phone and smiled weakly at Morna. He had chosen her as the least threatening member of the group. Everyone makes mistakes. "Well, everything seems to be..."
Morna smiled back at him. "Shall we get the tour started, then?" she asked.
"Yes." He rose unsteadily to his feet and headed for the door. "If you'll...um..." he gestured with his arm, and they followed him into the hall and toward a door at the far end.
"No doubt you know," Geisel began, his voice steadying as he slipped into autopilot, "that there are a number of ecological problems facing the planet at this time. Gree...many people are forced to live on diets that contain very little meat and which are low in essential proteins. One of our main focuses...foci?..um... is to remedy that situation by creating plant species which are higher in proteins. As a first step, one of our projects is to introduce the genes which code for the enzymes involved in nitrogen fixation into plants." He wrinkled his brow at Simon. "You have to increase the nitrogen content of the plant preparatory to increasing the protein content."
"Of course," Simon said.
"Yes," Geisel said. "Of cour...um...yes. Well...of course, with the...uh...problems that the company is...well, money, of course...we don't..."
"Money is the engine that powers corporate research," Morna said gently.
"Yes!" Geisel said, suddenly beaming.
"And, without money, there isn't much research going on here."
"Yes!" Geisel said again.
"But you'll show us what you do have going on and explain it to us."
"Yes!" Geisel said again.
Morna had to resist the urge to say, "Right this way" and start the man off, but he did eventually direct them toward the labs.
“Will you be conducting the rest of the tour?” Simon murmured to her. She elbowed him in the ribs without breaking stride.
There really was very little going on in the facility, apparently. Geisel led them through every lab, every storage room, every office. Morna prowled through cabinets, refrigerators, and freezers. Tom moved things for her. Simon supervised, looking both threatening and smug. The place was the very picture of an underfunded lab with little to nothing on hand.
By the end of the examination, Geisel was calm. He quite cheerfully gave the trio several disks full of records that Simon knew would show absolutely nothing useful and which he had absolutely no intention of wasting his time examining.
Geisel showed them out with every expression of good will, even shaking hands with each of them, albeit a little gingerly with Tom.
As they walked out, the three were silent until they climbed back into the land rover, with Tom once again in the driver's seat. He didn't start the engine immediately.
"Well?" Simon asked.
"He's lying," Tom said firmly.
There was a moment of silence. "Which you know...how?" Simon asked.
"Pupil response," Tom said. "As well as general demeanor. He was scared witless at first, and then when he realized that we weren't going to find whatever it was, and he calmed down."
"Interesting," Simon said. He might have sounded dryly sarcastic, but both he and Tom were well aware that he trusted Tom's instincts in such matters.
"He's lying," Morna agreed. "There is research going on somewhere in that place."
"How do you know?"
"When we went in, he was wearing a radiation film ring on his right hand. He must have quietly slipped it off while he was behind his desk, because he wasn't wearing it when he stood up again.”
"Besides, I checked every freezer in the place. There were no radioisotopes there at all, but his wearing a film ring indicates that he was doing some hands-on work with radioisotopes."
"Now that is interesting," Simon mused. He nodded at Tom. "Let's get out of here. I don't want to sit here and start the man wondering what we're up to. I want him as calm and unworried as possible."
As Tom complied, Simon scratched his chin and glanced at Morna. "As I recall from visiting you at work once or twice, don't you usually wear some kind of radiation badge?"
"But he wasn't. But, then, maybe he had time to remember to take it off and forgot about the ring in his anxiety."
Tom reached over and flipped off the jammer. "So...where was the work being done?" he asked. "I would swear that we saw every square inch of that place."
"So would I," Simon said, "And I was paying very careful attention to…stop!"
Tom hit the brakes, and Simon opened his door and jumped out.
"What?" Tom asked, looking around. He opened his door.
Simon was standing on the running board and leaning on the roof of the land rover looking back at the lab, a little smile on his face.
"Simon?" Morna asked. "What is it?" She glanced at his face. "I know that look. What are you on to?"
Without a word, Simon leaned back into the land rover and rummaged through a small pile of gear. He pulled out some field glasses and used them, appropriately enough, to look at the field around the lab. He lowered the glasses and laughed.
"Yes?" Morna asked, beginning to sound a little exasperated.
"Let's go," Simon said. He climbed back into the land rover, and the others followed suit.
As Tom put the land rover in gear and hit the gas, Morna said, "Simon, if you don't tell me what you're thinking, I'm going to hit you with something."
"It's underground," he said.
"The real lab. It's underneath that field behind the lab."
Morna frowned at him. Her forehead got the little v-shaped set of wrinkles that Simon liked so much. "How do you know?"
Simon shrugged. "I've been on enough large-scale engineering projects to recognize the aftermath of another one, no matter how well they’ve tried to clean it up.”
"I didn't see anything unusual about the field," Morna said, still frowning.
"It's there," Simon said confidently, settling back into his seat.
"Creating an underground lab," Tom mused aloud. "That would be kind of expensive, especially for a cash strapped company."
expensive," Simon agreed.
"And I bet that the expenditure isn't noted in any of the files
that we were given.
"There must be a door somewhere in the main building," Morna said thoughtfully.
"Well hidden," Simon agreed. "But that's all right. We have Stephanie with us. She gave Mel a list of items she wanted. She must have some kind of toy to help. Or she'll build one."
It turned out to be a little of both.
They made it back to the lab two nights later. The delay was caused by Stephanie wanting a little time to modify some of the equipment that she had brought with her. Some of it was quite bulky, but Tom was a willing packhorse, which was fortunate, since Simon didn't feel comfortable driving right up to the lab, and there was no could place to hide the land rover within a couple of hundred yards of the lab.
They walked quietly through a warm moonless night, no one speaking until they neared the building.
"At least the parking lot's empty," Tom said.
"Which isn't to say that the building is," Simon retorted.
Stephanie examined the building, the door and the lock carefully, then she grinned. "Uh-huh!" she said. She pried opened a metal panel. "Uh-huh," she said again. She pulled out a line tester and a series of small tools and began to poke through the components which had been hidden behind the panel. It took four tries before the line tester failed to light up. She turned her attentions to the lock and worked quietly for a moment before announcing, "It's all yours, Doc."
As Stephanie put up her tools, Simon gently opened the door. The small group passed quietly into the darkened building, and Simon pulled the door shut.
Inside the building, Tom set his burden on the floor, then he and Simon spread out and searched the building. It was empty.
Once that was confirmed, Tom resumed his duties as packhorse and the quartet went back out through the front door and around the to back of the building. Stephanie nodded at Tom, who set his burden on the ground. Squatting on her heels, Stephanie rooted through the large pack and pulled out a flat metal orange box. It was about eight inches long by six inches wide by four inches high and weighed about fifteen pounds. Stephanie then pulled a collapsible metal handle out of the bag, telescoped to its full length of about four feet and attached it to the box.
"What is that?" Tom asked. Having lugged the darn thing around for so long, he was naturally curious.
"Ground penetrating radar," Stephanie told him, opening her laptop and beginning to click the keys. "It'll give us a three dimensional profile of the what's under the ground around here. I hope."
"You hope?" Tom asked.
Stephanie shrugged. "It kind of depends on the mineral content of the soil, the conductivity of the pore fluid, things like that. We'll see. If it doesn't work, I have some back-up options."
"Where on earth did you get that?" Simon asked. “Don’t tell me you just happened to bring it with you!”
"It was a creative acquisition," Stephanie told him, continuing to type.
"A what?" Morna asked.
“She stole it from somewhere," Simon translated. "That was what you were doing this morning."
“More or less,” she said. “You scrounge through enough junkyards, you pick up a few tricks about how to find things that are…um…hidden.”
Once everything was calibrated and ready, Stephanie nodded at Tom, who took hold of the handle and began to sweep the ground. He looked like a man with metal detector searching for buried treasure.
"From packhorse to prospector,” he said.
"What?" Simon asked.
Stephanie stayed where she was, her eyes on the laptop. A small transmitter sent a signal to her laptop which then translated the signal into a three-dimensional image.
"Well?" Morna asked after a moment. Simon appeared indifferent to the search.
"Oh, yeah," Stephanie said. "There's a huge underground cavity."
"Of course," Simon said quietly.
"Of course," Morna echoed. She glanced at Simon whose face held a smug little smile. "You can so insufferable when you're right," she said, but there was no sting in the words.
"Track back toward the building," Stephanie directed. Tom did as he was told. She let him sweep up to the wall of the building and then directed him to move the length of the wall. After a moment she came over and marked the ground. "Here," she said. "There's a tunnel that goes under this wall."
"Let's get inside," Simon said.
It was a simple task to find the room that abutted the wall at the point where the tunnel crossed under the building, and then it was a simple matter to find where the tunnel ended beneath the floor of the room.
“The entrance is probably right under here somewhere," Stephanie said, pointing.
"Do we care if they know we've been here?" Tom asked.
"Oh, they'll know we've been here when we're done," Simon told him.
"Right." Tom pulled a large clasp knife from his pocket and began to slice up the carpeting. The outlines of a trap door were visible in the floor, and there was a handle inset into the wood. After glancing at Simon, Tom grabbed the handle and pulled. Nothing happened.
"There must be a switch somewhere," Stephanie said, looking around the room. "Maybe by that desk..."
Tom looked disgusted for a moment, then he braced his feet, took a deep breath and pulled. His shirt stretched as the muscles in arms swelled, then something under the floor snapped loudly and the door flew upward suddenly. Tom regained his balance and then let the door fall.
"Of course," Stephanie said, "we could also do it that way..."
Tom glanced down at the passage and nodded. "One of us should stay here," he said, "in case someone comes along."
Simon looked at him. There was something indefinably odd about Tom's tone. "All right," he said. "Why don't you do that?"
"Usually," Simon continued, "I'd say ladies first, but not this time." The room was windowless, so they had turned on the light. Simon dropped into the tunnel. There was enough light streaming in through the open door to let him find a switch in the tunnel wall. He flipped it and light flooded the tunnel.
It was a neat well-made passage that liked like nothing more than a windowless hallway paneled with linoleum.
"Come on," he called. Morna and Stephanie joined him. Tom then handed down the bundle he had been carrying. Stephanie took it lovingly and strapped it across her back. With a jaunty salute to Tom, who was up above peering down into the tunnel, Simon began to walk with the ladies at his side.
There was something peculiar in the passage. Later, Simon could never decide if the peculiarity was real or all in his mind. Every sound that they made seemed to be somehow magnified beyond reason by the walls and floor and ceiling, and there was a sense of heaviness, almost of oppression, in the air. The lights were fluorescent, and most of the bulbs needed to be changed, so the passage was dim. The dead hum of the bulbs was a nagging undertone to the sounds made by their feet.
The passage wasn’t long; they quickly found themselves at a door which was sealed with a keypad. Almost as quickly, they found themselves through the door, courtesy of Stephanie and her collection of toys.
They passed through the door and into the space beyond. It was a large area, more than double the space of the building above ground. When Simon had been in the hallway, he had wanted a larger room. Now that he found himself confronted with one, he found that he preferred the hallway.
At first, light streamed in from the open door behind them, but then that door slid shut with a quiet but somehow final sounding click. The large room was now shrouded in darkness that wasn’t quite complete. Placed around the room were various pieces of machinery that gave off feeble gleams of light here and there, just enough to accentuate the fact that most of the room was in shadow. It was like some vast cave, and the demons that hide in the darkest caverns might be hiding here as well.
Simon shook himself like a sleeper trying to come fully awake, and then light flooded the room, bringing every piece of machinery into sharp relief. Simon glanced over at Morna who had just found a pulled a switch, and he grinned at her.
All of the machinery was now clearly visible and, to Simon at least, still largely incomprehensible. Six doors opened off of the central room. Three of them, in the far wall, were simply normal doors, such as might be found in any office. The other three were complex affairs of glass and steel which fitted into sockets on all four sides. They reminded Simon of airlocks.
"I'd say we've found the place where the research happens," Morna said dryly, looking at the thick doors. “Potentially unpleasant research."
Simon turned to Stephanie. "See what they have in the way of records. Get everything you can," he said.
"Gotcha," she said and picked a door. She hoped that they wouldn’t be so dull as to keep paper records and that she’d have to crack into their computer to find what she wanted. What is life without a few little challenges to make it interesting, she thought.
"Let's check out the labs," Simon told Morna. They picked once of the thick glass and steel doors. Simon tried to look into the room beyond, but the lights in there were off. There was a bulky piece of complicated looking technology to the side of the doorway. Morna eyed it for a moment and then flipped one switch to power it up, a second switch to turn on the lights in the lab and a third switch to open the door.
"Good thing they hadn't locked it with a code," she said. She glanced at Simon’s raised eyebrow and smiled. “It isn’t suspicious,” she said. “In a sealed lab like this, they wouldn’t be expected outsiders.”
The door opened not into the lab beyond but into a small chamber about the size of an elevator with another door in it's wall. Morna pressed a button just inside the room. The door they had entered by closed. After a delay, light flooded the room beyond the second door. The door opened, and they passed through.
It was a greenhouse of some sort. The room was rectangular, with the walls lined with shelves and cabinets packed with abstruse equipment that Simon assumed Morna could identify. Even the ceiling was laced with equipment - special lighting, hoses and something electrical and complex.
A rim of floor about three feet wide ran all the way around the room. A walkway followed the wall all the way around the room. The interior space of the room was filled with plants. Soybean plants.
“Huang hou," Simon said.
They walked down the right side of the room, reached the far corner, followed the wall as it made a left hand turn and then down to the far corner and made another left hand turn. Simon was gazing at the equipment. Morna was gazing at the plants. They were walking slowly, absorbed in the sights around them.
"These aren't normal soybean plants," Morna said quietly.
"That much we knew," Simon said. “What makes them different?”
Morna leaned forward for a closer look and then reached out a hand.
"Naughty, naughty," a voice said. "Mustn't touch."
The both looked up, startled. Dr. Geisel was standing on the other side of the room, perhaps fifty feet away from them, with the plants between them. He was holding a gun.
"How did you get in here?" Simon asked him.
"Actually, I believe I'm the one entitled to ask that question," he replied.
There was a long pause. Simon could feel Morna’s hand clutching his. She was shaking just a little. No one said anything.
“Oh, very well," Geisel said after a moment. "I was waiting here for you, if you must know. That's all. I waited last night as well. I just had a feeling you'd be along."
Simon stared at him for a moment, then he said, "You called Meggar and Fields back."
Geisel looked surprised. "Yes," he said. "How did you know?"
Simon shrugged. "Just a guess,” he said. “Silly of me not to have thought of it beforehand.”
“Hmm,” Geisel said, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Now it’s your turn to tell me something. I know that you don’t work for Meggar and Fields, so who do you work for? And how did you find me?”
There was a moment of silence, then Geisel shrugged. “All right,” he said. He nodded at Morna. “I’ll shoot her in the knee first.” His smile was very thin. “We don’t want to end the fun too quickly, do we?”
“Fa Leung,” Simon said quickly.
“Ah...” Geisel’s smile broadened. “He survived, then.” He clicked his tongue. “That was sloppy of me. Oh, well. I won’t make that mistake again.” He lifted the gun slightly.
“What happened to him?”
“Leung? He was exposed to an early form of a neurotoxin that we’ve been working with. I was quite sure that it would kill him, but it didn’t.” He shrugged. “It was useful having a test case for a few days, but then it got to be too much trouble to take care of him. I sent a man in to kill him, and it didn’t go well.” He clicked his tongue again. “That’s what I get for delegating. It’s a good lesson for all of us.” He smiled at them.
“But, what happened?” Morna asked.
“Oh, he unexpectedly attacked the man who was sent to kill him. He knocked the man out and then was cunning enough to make it out of the facility.” He frowned. “He was unexpectedly lucid. I should have foreseen that.” His face cleared. “He made it to his car in the parking lot and took off, but he wrecked not far down the road. We found the remains of his car, but he was gone. We hunted for him, of course, but we didn’t find him. How did you?”
“He made it to Jos,” Simon said.
Geisel’s eyes widened. “Really?” he said. “I am quite astonished. I would never have guessed he could make it so far in his condition. I was quite certain that he was dead in a field somewhere. Well, we all make mistakes. Who do you work for?”
“If I tell you that,” Simon said, “they’ll kill me.”
“That does seem to leave you between the sword and the wall, doesn’t it?” Geisel said.
Simon sighed. “You’ll kill me whether I tell you or not.”
“True,” Geisel said, “but you should be more concerned about how I’ll kill you. And her.”
"I assume that these are transgenics," Morna said suddenly, gesturing at the bean plants. "What exactly have you created here?"
Geisel smiled a very smug smile indeed. "I have created..." he paused dramatically, "the world's first weapons grade soybeans!"
Simon stared at him. "Weapons grade soybeans?" he asked.
"Enough to wipe out entire populations," Geisel told him proudly. “Possibly the entire world.”
"With soybeans," Simon said.
"Wipe out entire populations."
"Yes!" Geisel was beginning to sound annoyed.
"You mean that lots of people with eat the beans and then…”
"Oh, let's not be childish," Geisel cut him off. "We started out trying to make soybeans that would absorb extra carbon dioxide to reduce the greenhouse gas levels. One of my new plants is just an expansion on that idea.”
"What do you mean?" Morna asked.
"In one of the other labs, we have some plants that absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide. The plants are highly invasive and pesticide resistant. They send out underground runners and they grow faster than bamboo. If they were set loose, they would significantly lower the world's carbon dioxide levels."
Simon cleared his throat. "I don't want to spoil this evil megomanical mood you have going, but wouldn't that be a good thing?"
Geisel laughed. "Only if you consider wiping out all life on the planet to be a good thing." It was at that moment that Simon felt the first touch of fear. Not because of the beans but because of the laugh. There was something...unsettling about it.
Simon frowned. "How…" he began.
“You really are a very ignorant man,” Geisel said, suddenly losing patience with Simon. “Aside from world wide climactic changes, there’s the mere fact that humans need carbon dioxide in order to breathe properly.”
Simon frowned. “But I thought…”
“Shut up!” Geisel snapped. “I’m not going to give instruction in basic biology and ecology. I had enough of that during my years teaching!”
“Well,” Simon said, “if this is how you talked to your students, then…”
“Shut up!” Geisel said again.
"What about these plants?" Morna asked quickly, gesturing at the ones in front of her. “The ones in this lab. You've done Cristobal field work on them, haven't you?"
Geisel's smile was genuine. "Ah," he said. "You know about that?" He glanced at Simon. “You don’t. I already know that.”
Simon rolled his eyes upward but didn’t say anything.
"Yes,” Geisel confirmed. “You can see the tracks on the leaves of some of the plants, can't you? These plants are different from the others. You see…"
As Geisel talked, Simon casually reached behind his back, which was against one of the shelves. His hand closed on something metallic that had some heft to it. With one quick motion, he threw the object toward Geisel and then lunged sideways against Morna, pushing her and himself out of the spaces they had occupied an instant before.
Simon heard a single gunshot, then he heard Morna's voice in his ear, "Door! Run!" There was an urgency to her tone that was unsettling. He ran.
They reached the door. Simon hit the switch. He had a tremendous desire to look at Geisel, and a spot in the center of his back was itching as it waited for a bullet. The door opened. Morna's hands were against Simon’s back, pushing him. A siren went off as they stumbled across the door's raised sill, and the door slammed shut behind them. Morna yelped. Part of her blouse had been caught by the closing door. Simon jerked and the fabric ripped.
In the lab behind them, Geisel was motionless, the gun still pointed at the spot where they had been standing. Foam appeared to be coming out of his mouth, and a pale green mist was wafting around him and starting to spread throughout the room.
The outer door opened, and they stepped out. The door closed again behind them. One of the other doors opened, and Stephanie came running out.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Contamination lockdown," Morna said. " Simon threw something into the plants, and the injured ones gave off a gas."
"Geisel was waiting for us," Simon amplified. "He's trapped in there."
"He's dead in there," Stephanie said. She held up a book. "That's lab one.” She shuddered and swallowed hard, as if trying to make sure that everything kept moving in the right direction. “Those plants give off a neurotoxin, according to this. It sort of...melts the brain or something. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I didn’t really want to read the details.”
Morna took the book and began to glance through it.
"What do we do now?" Stephanie asked. “Stay here and finish or leave?”
Simon glanced at Morna. "Are we all right here?" he asked.
She nodded absently, absorbed in her reading. "Oh yes," she said. "We're fine. The lab's sealed."
"We stay, then.” Simon glanced at Stephanie. “Get the rest of the records," he said. "Let's get all of the information we can. Then we have to figure out how to destroy these plants. We can't let anyone else get hold of them."
Stephanie left again, and Simon looked at Morna. "How do we handle this?" he asked.
"Hmm?" She was still reading.
"Sunrise," he said, touching her shoulder. "What should we do?"
“Oh. Wait a moment.” She flipped through the book, read for a few minutes and then went back to the machine at the lab door. "This is a pretty standard setup," she said. She pointed at three red panels. Each was locked with a key. "Open those and you'll find three switches. Flip them in sequence and a compound which will kill the plants will be released into the lab.”
Simon frowned. “Why would they make them so easy to kill? Isn’t that counterproductive?”
Morna shook her head. “They’re easy to kill if you know the precise compound to use,” she said. “And, anyway, the susceptibility would have been deliberately built in as a safety feature. They could have removed later if they had chosen to.”
"All right," Simon said. "You stay here and keep an eye on things. I'm going to go back and let Tom know what's going on. We’re going to need a cleanup team in here, I think.”
He stared to walk away, but she called him back.
"How did you know that tossing something into the beans would do what it did?"
He sighed and glanced around. Stephanie hadn't come back. They were alone. "To you," he said, "I'll say that I was trying to throw it at Geisel. Not into the plants. Fifty feet. I should have been able to hit him."
She cocked her head slightly to one side. There was something odd in his tone. "What is it, Simon?" she asked softly.
He smiled slightly. That tone in her voice still had the same effect it had always had on him, not lessened at all by the passing of the years or the time they'd spent apart.
"You know," he said reflectively, looking at the floor, "some mornings when I wake up, I can barely make a fist." He met her eyes and tried to grin. "Arthritis," he said. "Not bad, but...there."
She laid on hand gently against his cheek. "Simon," she said softly. "Good men age well, like fine wines." She paused. "Or cheese."
His eyes narrowed, then he saw the twinkle in her eye and the smile that she was barely managing to repress, and he laughed and kissed her. "Cheese," he said. "I'll go get Tom. Maybe, between the two of us, we think of way to explain to Callow why we didn't bring him back any potted plants to play with."