Home > The Strain (The Strain Trilogy #1)(5)

The Strain (The Strain Trilogy #1)(5)
Author: Guillermo del Toro

Eph pulled up his CDC-issued Ford Explorer at the curb. Kelly owned a small house on a tidy square of land surrounded by neat, low hedges in a sloping block of two-story houses. She met him outside on the concrete walk, as though wary of admitting him into her domicile, generally treating him like a decade-long flu she had finally fought off.

Blonder and slender and still very pretty, though she was a different person to him now. So much had changed. Somewhere, in a dusty shoe box probably, buried in the back of a closet, there were wedding photos of an untroubled young woman with her veil thrown back, smiling winningly at her tuxedoed groom, two young people very happily in love.

"I had the entire weekend cleared," he said, exiting the car ahead of Zack, pushing through the low iron gate in order to get in the first word. "It's an emergency."

Matt Sayles stepped out through the lighted doorway behind her, stopping on the front stoop. His napkin was tucked into his shirt, obscuring the Sears logo over the pocket from the store he managed at the mall in Rego Park.

Eph didn't acknowledge his presence, keeping his focus on Kelly and Zack as the boy entered the yard. Kelly had a smile for him, and Eph couldn't help but wonder if she preferred this-Eph striking out with Zack-to a weekend alone with Matt. Kelly took him protectively under her arm. "You okay, Z?"

Zack nodded.

"Disappointed, I bet."

He nodded again.

She saw the box and wires in his hand. "What is this?"

Eph said, "Zack's new game system. He's borrowing it for the weekend." Eph looked at Zack, the boy's head against his mother's chest, staring into the middle distance. "Bud, if there's any way I can get free, maybe tomorrow-hopefully tomorrow...but if there's any way at all, I'll be back for you, and we'll salvage what we can out of this weekend. Okay? I'll make it up to you, you know that, right?"

Zack nodded, his eyes still distant.

Matt called down from the top step. "Come on in, Zack. Let's see if we can get that thing hooked up."

Dependable, reliable Matt. Kelly sure had him trained well. Eph watched his son go inside under Matt's arm, Zack glancing back one last time at Eph.

Alone now, he and Kelly stood facing each other on the little patch of grass. Behind her, over the roof of her house, the lights of the waiting airplanes circled. An entire network of transportation, never mind various government and law enforcement agencies, was waiting for this man facing a woman who said she didn't love him anymore.

"It's that airplane, isn't it."

Eph nodded. "They're all dead. Everybody on board."

"All dead?" Kelly's eyes flared with concern. "How? What could it be?"

"That's what I have to go find out."

Eph felt the urgency of his job settling over him now. He had blown it with Zack-but that was done, and now he had to go. He reached into his pocket and handed her an envelope with the pin-striped logo. "For tomorrow afternoon," he said. "In case I don't make it back before then."

Kelly peeked at the tickets, her eyebrows lifting at the price, then tucked them back inside the envelope. She looked at him with an expression approaching sympathy. "Just be sure not to forget our meeting with Dr. Kempner."

The family therapist-the one who would decide Zack's final custody. "Kempner, right," he said. "I'll be there."

"And-be careful," she said.

Eph nodded and started away.

JFK International Airport

A CROWD HAD GATHERED outside the airport, people drawn to the unexplained, the weird, the potentially tragic, the event. The radio, on Eph's drive over, treated the dormant airplane as a potential hijacking, speculating about a link to the conflicts overseas.

Inside the terminal, two airport carts passed Eph, one carrying a teary mother holding the hands of two frightened-looking children, another with an older black gentleman riding with a bouquet of red roses across his lap. He realized that somebody else's Zack was out there on that plane. Somebody else's Kelly. He focused on that.

Eph's team was waiting for him outside a locked door just below gate 6. Jim Kent was working the phone, as usual, speaking into the wire microphone dangling from his ear. Jim handled the bureaucratic and political side of disease control for Eph. He closed his hand around the mic part of his phone wire and said, by way of greeting, "No other reports of planes down anywhere else in the country."

Eph climbed in next to Nora Martinez in the back of the airline cart. Nora, a biochemist by training, was his number two in New York. Her hands were already gloved, the nylon barrier as pale and smooth and mournful as lilies. She shifted over a little for him as he sat down. He regretted the awkwardness between them.

They started to move, Eph smelling marsh salt in the wind. "How long was the plane on the ground before it went dark?"

Nora said, "Six minutes."

"No radio contact? Pilot's out too?"

Jim turned and said, "Presumed, but unconfirmed. Port Authority cops went into the passenger compartment, found it full of corpses, and got right out again."

"They were masked and gloved, I hope."

"Affirmative."

The cart turned a corner, revealing the airplane waiting in the distance. A massive aircraft, work lights trained on it from multiple angles, shining as bright as day. Mist off the nearby bay created a glowing aura around the fuselage.

"Christ," said Eph.

Jim said, "A 'triple seven,' they call it. The 777, the world's largest twin jet. Recent design, new aircraft. Why they're flipped out about the equipment going down. They think it's something more like sabotage."

The landing-gear tires alone were enormous. Eph looked up at the black hole that was the open door over the broad left wing.

Jim said, "They already tested for gas. They tested for everything man-made. They don't know what else to do but start from scratch."

Eph said, "Us being the scratch."

This dormant aircraft mysteriously full of dead people was the HAZMAT equivalent of waking up one day and finding a lump on your back. Eph's team was the biopsy lab charged with telling the Federal Aviation Administration whether or not it had cancer.

Blue-blazer-wearing TSA officials pounced on Eph as soon as the cart stopped, trying to give him the same briefing Jim had just had. Asking him questions and talking over each other like reporters.

"This has gone on too long," said Eph. "Next time something unexplained like this happens, you call us second. HAZMAT first, us second. Got it?"

"Yes, sir, Dr. Goodweather."

"Is HAZMAT ready?"

"Standing by."

Eph slowed before the CDC van. "I will say that this doesn't read like a spontaneous contagious event. Six minutes on the ground? The time element is too short."

"It has to be a deliberate act," said one of the TSA officials.

"Perhaps," said Eph. "As it stands now, in terms of whatever might be awaiting us in there-we have containment." He opened the rear door of the van for Nora. "We'll suit up and see what we've got."

A voice stopped him. "We have one of our own on this plane."

Eph turned back. "One of whose?"

"A federal air marshal. Standard on international flights involving U.S. carriers."

"Armed?" Eph said.

"That's the general idea."

"No phone call, no warning from him?"

"No nothing."

"It must have overpowered them immediately." Eph nodded, looking into these men's worried faces. "Get me his seat assignment. We'll start there."

Eph and Nora ducked inside the CDC van, closing the rear double doors, shutting out the anxiety of the tarmac behind them.

They pulled Level A HAZMAT gear down off the rack. Eph stripped down to his T-shirt and shorts, Nora to a black sports bra and lavender panties, each accommodating the other's elbows and knees inside the cramped Chevy van. Nora's hair was thick and dark and defiantly long for a field epidemiologist, and she swept it up into a tight elastic, arms working purposefully and fast. Her body was gracefully curved, her flesh the warm tone of lightly browned toast.

After Eph's separation from Kelly became permanent and she initiated divorce proceedings, Eph and Nora had a brief fling. It was just one night, followed by a very awkward and uncomfortable morning after, which dragged on for months and months...right up until their second fling, just a few weeks ago-which, while even more passionate than the first, and full of intention to avoid the pitfalls that had overwhelmed them the first time, had led again to another protracted and awkward detente.

In a way, he and Nora worked too closely: if they had anything resembling normal jobs, a traditional workplace, the result might have been different, might have been easier, more casual, but this was "love in the trenches," and with each of them giving so much to Canary, they had little left for each other, or the rest of the world. A partnership so voracious that nobody asked, "How was your day?" in the downtime-mainly because there was no downtime at all.

Such as here. Getting practically na**d in front of each other in the least sexual way possible. Because donning a biosuit is the antithesis of sensuality. It is the converse of allure, it is a withdrawal into prophylaxis, into sterility.

The first layer was a white Nomex jumpsuit, emblazoned on the back with the initials CDC. It zipped from knee to chin, the collar and cuffs sealing it in snug Velcro, black jump boots lacing up to the shins.

The second layer was a disposable white suit made of papery Tyvek. Then booties pulled on over boots, and Silver Shield chemical protective gloves over nylon barriers, taped at the wrists and ankles. Then lifted on self-contained breathing apparatus gear: a SCBA harness, lightweight titanium pressure-demand tank, full-face respirator mask, and personal alert safety system (PASS) device with a firefighter's distress alarm.

Each hesitated before pulling the mask over his or her face. Nora formed a half smile and cupped Eph's cheek in her hand. She kissed him. "You okay?"

"Yup."

"You sure don't look it. How was Zack?"

"Sulky. Pissed. As he should be."

"Not your fault."

"So what? Bottom line is, this weekend with my son is gone, and I'll never get it back." He readied his mask. "You know, there came a point in my life where things came down to either my family or my job. I thought I chose family. Apparently, not enough."

There are moments like these, which usually come at the most inconvenient of times, such as a crisis, when you look at someone and realize that it will hurt you to be without them. Eph saw how unfair he had been to Nora by clinging to Kelly-not even to Kelly, but to the past, to his dead marriage, to what once was, all for Zack's sake. Nora liked Zack. And Zack liked her, that was obvious.

But now, right now, was not the time to get into this. Eph pulled on his respirator, checking his breathing tank. The outer layer consisted of a yellow-canary yellow-full encapsulation "space" suit, featuring a sealed hood, a 210-degree viewport, and attached gloves. This was the actual level A containment suit, the "contact suit," twelve layers of fabric which, once sealed, absolutely insulated the wearer from the outside atmosphere.

Nora checked his seal, and he did hers. Biohazard investigators operate on a buddy system much the same as that of scuba divers. Their suits puffed a bit from the circulated air. Sealing out pathogens meant trapping sweat and body heat, and the temperature inside their suits could rise up to thirty degrees higher than room temperature.

"Looks tight," said Eph, over the voice-actuated microphones inside his mask.

Nora nodded, catching his eye through their respective masks. The glance went on a moment too long, as if she was going to say something else, then changed her mind. "You ready?" she said.

Eph nodded. "Let's do this."

Outside on the tarmac, Jim switched on his wheeled command console and picked up both their mask-mounted cameras, on separate monitor feeds. He attached small, switched-on flashlights on lanyards from their pull-away shoulder straps: the thickness of the multilayered suit gloves limited the wearer's fine-motor skills.

The TSA guys came up and tried to talk to them some more, but Eph feigned deafness, shaking his head and touching his hood.

As they approached the airplane, Jim showed Eph and Nora a laminated printout containing an overhead view of the interior seat assignments, numbers corresponding to passenger and crew manifests listed on the back. He pointed to a red dot at 18A.

"The federal air marshal," Jim said into his microphone. "Last name Charpentier. Exit row, window seat."

"Got it," Eph said.

A second red dot. "TSA pointed out this other passenger of interest. A German diplomat on the flight, Rolph Hubermann, business class, second row, seat F. In town for UN Council talks on the Korean situation. Might have been carrying one of those diplomatic pouches that get a free pass at customs. Could be nothing, but there is a contingent of Germans on their way here right now, from the UN, just to retrieve it."

"Okay."

Jim left them at the edge of the lights, turning back to his monitors. Inside the perimeter, it was brighter than day. They moved nearly without shadow. Eph led the way up the fire engine ladder onto the wing, then along its broadening surface to the opened door.

Eph entered first. The stillness was palpable. Nora followed, standing with him shoulder to shoulder at the head of the middle cabin.

Seated corpses faced them, in row after row. Eph's and Nora's flashlight beams registered dully in the dead jewels of their open eyes.

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