Excerpt 1 from The Panama Contagion - The Virus | Verso.ink

Excerpt 1 from The Panama Contagion - The Virus

Book 3 in The Net thriller series.

By DM Coffman

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October 20

“Last call,” the 2nd officer announced as the Foreigner boarded the cruise ship Antavia. He was to meet 3rd officer Vikram Padilla in the crew work area on deck 3 at 5:00pm.
Vikram was waiting for him when he arrived. Once inside, they began filling empty spray bottles with a saline solution.
“Why Panama?” Vikram asked.
“We don’t want passengers exhibiting symptoms until they reach Los Angeles,” the Foreigner mumbled, not really in the mood for small talk but Vikram was critical to his plan—he had to make an effort to be cordial. “This is the best location before LA.” He forced a smile.
“That’s five days away. What happens if some get sick before then?”
“Exposure takes about five days, so we should be fine. If some get sick earlier, most likely it will be viewed as a harmless flu bug.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Just so long as none of it gets on me,” Vikram joked, leaning away and waving his hands as if terrified.
The Foreigner sprayed him with some saline solution and Vikram feigned a choking fit.
They both chuckled and it lightened the mood.
The Foreigner took out two vials of the contagion and poured equal amounts into each of the spray bottles. He then added a slight floral scent, and Vikram put special disinfectant labels on each bottle.
Vikram sniffed the container of scent and nodded his approval.
“A nice touch, don’t you think?” the Foreigner smirked.
“You’re a sick man.”
The Foreigner frowned. “You may be right. . . . In fact,” he scratched his five o’clock shadow, an idea coming to mind. “I think I want to do some of the spraying. We are about the same size. Take off your uniform.”
“Take off your uniform.” He pointed at Vikram’s white officer’s uniform and hat. “Take it off. I want to wear it long enough to spray some of these people. You can wait here or wear my clothes. I don’t care.”
“You really are sick,” Vikram scowled as he began to remove his clothes.
As the Foreigner dressed in Vikram’s uniform, out of habit he put his handkerchief in the pants pocket. When he finished dressing, he wheeled the cart to the crew distribution area.
Crew members went to their assigned posts at each dining area entrance with their bottles of the special disinfectant to spray on passengers’ hands as they entered to eat. Regularly disinfecting the passengers’ hands using spray bottles was a common practice to prevent the spread of viruses. But, this time, spreading a virus was exactly what the Foreigner had in mind.

October 24

“Mommy, my tummy hurts,” Sissy complained at dinner. Moments later, she threw up onto the floor. Her mother quickly grabbed her napkin and wiped Sissy’s mouth. Waiters scurried to clean up the mess before it affected other passengers. Feeling her forehead, a look of concern came over Anne Krause’s face.
“She’s burning up,” she said to her husband, Ryan. “I better take her back to the room.”
Ryan nodded and brushed some hair out of Sissy’s face. “I hope you feel better, honey.” He gently kissed her on the cheek. Turning to his wife, he added, “I’ll take Danny to the show. Come and get me if you need anything.”
“Okay,” she smiled, then carried Sissy out of the restaurant.
When Ryan and Danny returned to their cabin, Anne was pacing the floor.
“I think she needs a doctor,” Anne sputtered, tears starting to form in her eyes. “She’s not able to keep any liquids down and I’m not able to get her body to cool down. I tried cool compresses. I even took her into a tepid shower . . .” her voice trailed off, helpless.
Ryan went to the phone and dialed the medical clinic. The line was busy.

“This is your captain speaking,” a voice came over the ship’s loudspeaker. “Despite every care and precaution, we appear to be experiencing an onboard virus. We are taking extra measures to prevent its spread and ask for your cooperation. We have activated Outbreak Prevention Plan level 3. We will continue to disinfect surfaces regularly. But we also ask that you use the hand sanitizer dispensers located throughout the ship as often as possible and please wash your hands frequently. If you are experiencing symptoms, we ask that you remain in your cabin. Thank you.”

When the ship arrived in Los Angeles, Danny and his mother stood on their balcony on the starboard side watching the activity taking place on the dock. Numerous ambulances and several county medical examiner-coroner vehicles pulled up and waited for the ship to unload. Seventeen people had died at sea. As Danny and Anne disembarked, other families also appeared to be in shock as they comforted each other while slowly exiting down the gangway. Many were startled by the shrill sound of sirens starting to blare as ambulances left the terminal area in their rush for the nearest hospital.

* * *
October 27

Swab samples taken from the ship and the sick and deceased passengers were sent overnight to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Specialists there would determine what the cause of the illness was, its source, how it was transmitted, and what the best course of treatment would be. However, what started out as routine testing for a common case of a flu-like virus suddenly became a matter of top-secret national security.

The CDC scientist scratched her head and rubbed her eyes, thinking she had misread the scanning electron microscope (SEM) specimen. She tried again, adjusting the alignment and magnification.
After two more attempts, she called for a second opinion.
“Neil, would you come over here, please?” she said to her colleague.
Dr. Neil Jackson put down the iodine dropper bottle he was using and came over to the SEM microscope.
“What’s up, Wyn?”
“What do you see here?” Dr. Wynona Lomas replied, once again rubbing her eyes as if not believing what she had seen on the screen. She pointed to the unusual spikes on the cells displayed.
Dr. Jackson moved in for a closer look.
“That can’t be,” he said, shaking his head. “That just can’t be.”
He grabbed the Known Deadly Viruses binder from the shelf and began flipping through the pages.
Dr. Lomas leaned back in her chair, stretching from the long hours of work she already had put in, knowing how many more overtime hours this new situation was going to require.
“We’ll have to run a rapid PCR test to identify the RNA coding to be sure. But I’ll be damned if that isn’t that bioweapon virus from . . . where was it?”
“Hainan Island,” Dr. Jackson replied, reading from the binder.
“It has mutated, but it’s clearly from the same strain,” Dr. Lomas stated in her most clinical tone.
They both stared at each other as the sickening reality set in.
“But how did it get on a cruise ship in Panama?” he asked.
Neither one wanted to think about the answer to that question.
“Wyn, you set up for the RNA coding and case definition study. I better get the director down here.”
She nodded as Neil left the lab. They needed to work quickly. If they were correct, they could have a deadly pandemic on their hands.

Dr. Gordon Sanderson, the CDC’s Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases, put on his reading glasses and carefully studied the lab report.
This pathogen is identified as a deadly mutated strain belonging to the large family of coronaviruses; specifically, a mutation from the virus confiscated in April 2001 from the Net organization’s bioweapons laboratory on Wild Boar Island in Hainan Province of the Peoples’ Republic of China (labeled HAiCo-1). The origin of this pathogen is linked to a Russian virologist (current status unknown), believed to have developed the strain in laboratory in 1989, sharing many similarities with a deadly variation used for genocide in Iraq in 1990 (MERS), and a weakened variation recently identified in Guangzhou, China in July (labeled SARS).

Testing the incubation time before manifestation of symptoms has determined exposure to the virus to be from 5-10 days. The case definition study identifies the occurrence of initial exposure to have occurred sometime while the two cruise ships (
Antavia and Southlandia) were in port at Panama City on October 21. A total of 7,218 passengers and crew members were identified as possibly exposed, traveling home (with subsequent exposure to others) to thirty-one states in the United States, and seventeen countries in North and South America, Europe, and Asia (the list of specific travel itineraries and final destination areas is attached as Exhibit A). Risk of infection after exposure is placed at a high level with possible mortality rate as high as 60% among at-risk candidates.
IMPORTANT FILE NOTE: Discovery of any variation or mutation of this virus is to be brought to the immediate attention of Ross Pomero, Director of Intelligence & Analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), contact information in file.

Dr. Sanderson closed the report and took off his reading glasses. Other than a slight shake of his head, he gave no impression of concern for the report.
“Wynona, please label this virus the Panama Contagion, or PanCo,” he said, “and add it to the Known Deadly Viruses binder.” To both doctors he added, “Discuss this with no one until I say otherwise. We do not want to cause any alarm just yet. I need to make some phone calls.”

* * *

“Mr. President, preliminary intelligence reports and recent samples gathered from a cruise ship by the CDC indicate that a potential medical situation may arise in certain parts of the United States," Ross Pomero explained in a conference call with his boss Mark Stanton, head of the CIA and Director of Central Intelligence, Dr. Gordon Sanderson from the CDC, and US President Stephen Bradshaw.

“We will continue to monitor the passengers and crew to see if they develop any symptoms. By doing so, we should be able to track potential outbreaks, if any,” Director Stanton added.
“That sounds optimistic,” the president responded with a lilt in his voice.
“It’s not that simple,” Dr. Sanderson’s voice edged up in volume. “In fact, I feel that I need to emphasize the importance of implementing CDC protocols now in preparation for a potential pandemic.”
“A pandemic! Come now,” the president chuckled, wanting to keep the conversation from getting too serious.
“Let’s not get carried away,” Pomero retorted trying to alleviate any tension.

“I agree with Ross,” Mark Stanton chimed in. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Yes,” the president concurred. “We don’t want people to panic. I think we ought to hold off until we know this is really going to amount to something.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Stanton agreed.
“This is a mistake,” the doctor implored. “We are dealing with a serious and deadly virus.”
“If it proves to be so, then we will deal with it. Let’s give it a few days to make sure,” the president announced before he hung up the phone.

* * *

Despite the president’s request to hold off taking action, Dr. Gordon Sanderson at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta implemented pandemic protocols nationwide. CDC technicians set up screening stations at all major airports and passenger seaports and began checking all arriving travelers for fever and flu-like symptoms. Travelers were instructed to go home and self-quarantine for at least ten days. Hospitals began triage quarantining of patients exhibiting symptoms, and they required all medical personnel to take extra precautions in hand scrubbing before and after patient care, and in wearing new personal protective equipment for every patient.
I should have done this from the beginning
, Dr. Sanderson thought. I only hope it’s not too late.
“Dr. Sanderson, this is President Bradshaw calling. I thought we were going to hold off on upsetting the public about this virus thing.” The president chuckled slightly, trying to keep his annoyance from showing in his voice.
“Mr. President,” Dr. Sanderson spoke abruptly and with authority. He did not care if his annoyance showed. “I’m afraid upsetting the public is the least of your worries. Our labs have been working around the clock analyzing all of the samples from those two cruise ships, trying to pinpoint where and how this biochemical contagion was introduced. Well, Mr. President, they’ve narrowed it down to spray bottles on those cruise ships. That’s right, spray bottles. This deadly man-made virus, for which we have no cure, no vaccine, no way of even slowing it down at this point, was sprayed onto the hands of the passengers. That means it quite possibly was a deliberate vicious attack.”
The president spoke almost in a whisper. “This was a terrorist attack?”
“Well, that’s for your people to decide. But I can tell you, at the rate of new cases that we’re seeing, until we know how this virus is transmitted so we can stop the cycle—let alone figure out how to treat it—this virus is going to spread like an out of control wildfire with not a drop of water in sight. I advise you to start taking this seriously now!”

* * *

November 6

The Foreigner arrived at the Grand Casino of Macau for his 2:30 meeting with the owner, Mr. João Araújo. As they walked through the elegant gaming area of the casino, the Foreigner could not help but be impressed at the state-of-the-art facility. Rows of machines blinked with a kaleidoscope of colorful lights, but the usual clanking sounds of coins were replaced with rhythmic beeps of electronic money transactions, and the lack of lingering cigarette smoke meant an expensive air filtration system.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Araújo spoke first after they entered his private office. A slight tension lingered in his words. He gestured for the Foreigner to sit in one of the leather tufted chairs opposite his desk. He returned to his executive chair between his desk and credenza.
The Foreigner shrugged and casually rotated his hand in a so-so manner as he sat. “Mostly pleasure,” he said. “Maybe some business. We haven’t had a chance to meet yet. I thought it was time.” A smirk creased the corner of his mouth.
An awkward silence hung in the air.
Araújo opened a cigarette case, took one out and lit it. He did not offer any to his guest.
The Foreigner leaned back in his chair and let out a deep sigh. “I wonder if you would please tell me about a gentleman by the name of Yi.”
Araújo thought for a moment. He chose his words carefully. “Yes, Yi. The administrative judge from Guangzhou. He was here about a month or so ago. Concerned about some shipping violations on Net vessels in Guangzhou. I referred him to your facility in Thailand. That’s the last I saw of him.”
Their eyes remained locked as the tension between them increased.
The Foreigner nodded. He then sighed as if in resignation, opened the black case sitting on his lap, and took out a small thin straw.
He closed the case and set it beside his chair.
He then stood and walked over to Araújo’s desk by the phone. He picked up the handset and handed it to Araújo. “I want you to call Yi and get him here. As soon as possible. Invite him to dinner tonight as your guest. Be very pleasant but tell him it’s urgent.” Then with a harsh sneer he added, “Just get him here!”
Araújo put out his cigarette and shook his head. “I don’t think this kid’s who you think he is.”
The Foreigner blew through the straw directly at Araújo. A sticky substance landed on his cheek and nose. Araújo reached up and touched the gel with his fingers and looked at it then looked at the Foreigner. A curious look crossed his face.
“What is this?” he questioned, but terror began spreading through his mind. As he realized what had happened, an answer could not come quick enough.
“What have you done?”
The Foreigner just smiled.
“Are you insane?!” Panic set in as he tried to wipe it off but only spread it more as it quickly dissolved into his skin.
The Foreigner held up his hand. “Don’t worry. I have the antidote. And I will administer it if you do as I ask.” He smirked.
“But what is this?!” Araújo was afraid to even move. Knowing the reputation of this psychopathic killer, a flood of horrifying thoughts passed through his mind.
The Foreigner let out a menacing chortle. He so enjoyed the drama. “Well, you probably don’t really want to know. . . . But I will tell you anyway. It is a flesh-eating bacteria that in about ten hours will advance beyond the help of the antidote.”
Araújo grabbed the phone and dialed Yi’s number.
The Foreigner wiggled his finger back and forth with a sneer on his face. Of course, Araújo would not try to pull a fast one. His life was now on the line. The Foreigner then pointed his finger downward and pushed the speaker button on the phone. He wanted to hear the whole juicy conversation.
Araújo took a deep breath to calm his nerves. He needed to sound believable to pull this off.
“This is Yi.”
“Yi, this is John Araújo.”
“Yes, John. It’s nice to hear from you.”
“Thank you. I hope you were able to resolve those shipping violations without any problem.”
“None at all. Thank you again for your help.”
Araújo cleared his throat then said, “I was hoping I could ask a favor in return. A rather urgent one. If you are available for dinner, I would like to invite you to my casino this evening, say six o’clock?”
“Well, John, I have an early court hearing I was hoping to prepare for this evening . . .”
Araújo interrupted, “Please, Yi, this is a very urgent matter. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”
“John, is everything okay? You sound . . . distraught.”
Araújo took a breath to steady his nerves. “No, No! Everything is fine. I’m sorry if I have alarmed you. It’s just that time is of the essence on this. I really need your help this evening.”
Yi thought for a moment. “Okay, John, if it’s that important. I’ll be there at six.”
“Great. I’ll meet you in my office.”
They both disconnected the call.
Araújo sat back in his chair and let out a nervous sigh of relief. Beads of perspiration began forming on his forehead and neck.
“Okay, Xavi, let’s have the antidote.”
“Not until Yi is here in this room.”
Maybe it was his imagination, but he could already feel a burning in his nostrils.
“Please, Xavi!”
“We have time. Oh, and I’ll take whatever guns you keep in this office.”
Araújo opened a side drawer of his desk and handed him his 9mm automatic.
* * *
The Foreigner enjoyed several drinks from the well-stocked liquor cabinet to pass the time while Araújo chain-smoked for over two hours. Red blotches had spread across his fingers and hands and black centers had begun to form in the red areas on his face and neck. He could no longer feel his nose and his lungs felt congested. He assumed that was from the continual cigarette smoke.
The phone rang at 5:50. It was one of the doormen. Yi had arrived.
The Foreigner opened his black case and prepared a syringe.
“Is that the antidote?” Araújo was shaking in anticipation of finally getting some relief.
“Not yet. This is something I brought especially for Yi.” He held the needle up and flicked it to remove any air bubbles. Not that an air embolism to the heart wouldn’t be an exciting thing to watch.
“Have Yi sit in the chair when he comes in,” the Foreigner instructed.
The doorman knocked.
“Come in!” Araújo eagerly shouted. “Please come in!”
Yi was startled when he saw Araújo.
“John, are you alright?”
Araújo took Yi by the arm and led him to the chair.
“I’ll be fine, Yi. Please, just sit down. I’ll be fine.” The beads of perspiration were now running down Araújo’s face.
Yi noticed the man standing off to the side. He looked vaguely familiar.
As Araújo started to say something else, the Foreigner stepped behind Yi and plunged the syringe into his neck.
Yi’s quick reflexes knocked the syringe from the Foreigner’s hand and he bolted from the chair, but not before a lethal amount of the contagion had entered his body.
“I’m so sorry, Yi. I had no choice,” Araújo cried. Overcome with guilt, and weakened by the bacteria now destroying his body, he collapsed to his knees on the floor.
His hands clasped in front of him, he begged. “Please, Xavi, give me the antidote now.”
“So you’re Xavi.” Yi didn’t know whether to take Xavi out or try to help Araújo.
Looking at Araújo, the Foreigner replied feigning dismay, “Oh, I’m afraid I left that in my other case.” He covered his mouth as if stifling a chuckle.
Araújo’s body collapsed to the floor. Yi dashed to the phone and called for help.
“It’s too late,” the Foreigner said casually as he closed his black case. “He has a flesh-eating bacteria. And as for you, that injection was a little virus I brought back from Panama. Such a high concentration will begin to take effect in a matter of hours rather than days.” He pulled out the gun and moved toward the door.
Ignoring the Foreigner, Yi checked Araújo for a pulse and began chest compressions. Maybe there was a chance to save him. He had to at least try.
Both doormen came into the office and ran toward Araújo. The Foreigner stepped into the doorway.
“And now, gentlemen, I will exit this establishment without any incident, or many other people will die. Understood?”
“An ambulance is on its way,” one of the doormen said to Yi. He nodded and continued the compressions. Glancing toward the door, he saw that the Foreigner was gone.
The ambulance arrived within ten minutes, but João Araújo was pronounced dead.

When Yi left the casino, his head was spinning. Not from the injection, but from the loss of João Araújo. He liked him. João had been one of the few people outside of his judicial assignment that Yi had actually enjoyed. Now, all he felt was . . . he wasn’t even sure. He just felt numb.

As the train from Macau pulled into the Guangzhou train station, something else was not sitting well with Yi. Symptoms began rapidly appearing. Cough, fever, nausea, tightness in his chest. He knew he was going to be sick. Very sick. Xavi had said the virus would take effect within hours. He just thought he would have more time. He needed to return to his apartment in Guangzhou to get his American identification documents. As the train doors opened, he exited in time to vomit into the bushes.

Yi sat down on one of the platform benches. A lightheadedness washed over his mind like a milky cloud, and the tightness in his chest made it difficult to breathe. He tried to conserve oxygen as his lungs refused to take in air and darkness began to surround him. This time there were no stars, only blackness.

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About DM Coffman

DM Coffman specializes in clean suspense thrillers (no offensive language, graphic sex or extreme violence). Strange experiences while living in China inspired The Net thriller series, and many unusual truths are interwoven into the stories of espionage and international intrigue. It's up to the reader to figure out where truth ends and DM's imagination begins.

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