The tiny brown mouse, identified only by the bright orange 47 tag on its ear, trudged through the cedar chips toward the water bottle attached to the cage. It nudged the spout twice with the tip of its nose, and droplets oozed out onto the mouse’s forehead. With a soft grunt, the mouse jolted backward and collapsed in a heap in the opposite corner, its chest trembling with exhaustion.
“Amazing,” Victoria Krell whispered, scribbling notes onto her iPad. The fluorescent lighting flickered above her, and she began writing faster; Craig was getting impatient for his bed. She scratched out a side note in capitalized, red letters to remind herself to bring Star Lab’s oldest night security guard a big batch of Boston creams tomorrow morning.
Victoria leaned closer to the lone cage perched on her workstation, watching 47’s wet, blank staring eyes. The brown mouse was only one of twenty in a three foot long cage. It was not particularly interesting or unique, just as all lab mice were not particularly special or interesting. That was what they were bred for. But this brown mouse was one of only four in the cage that were still breathing, as the corpses of its litter mates lay scattered in various states of decomposition after finally giving in to psychosis and asphyxia.
Counting the twelve other cages, 187 specimens had contracted the virus and withered away like autumn leaves on a dying oak tree.
Victoria couldn’t keep back her grin even if she tried.
The office phone trilled. Victoria pressed the receive button on the speakerphone. “I’m just finishing up now, Craig. It’ll only take about twenty-”
“I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear that, but it’s Markus. Let me in?”
Victoria glanced over her shoulder at the lab’s interior air lock. Markus stood there in his positive pressure suit, knocking lightly on the glass. Victoria felt her shoulders tense, but she disengaged the lock anyway. The alarm system blared a warning accompanied by a burst of quick red flashes, and then the door shut and all was quiet and calm again.
“What are you doing here, Mark?” She moved to the right, partly covering the contents of the cage with her hip and shoulder before she realized how stupid she was acting. The room was filled with the same cages, after all. “It’s five in the morning.”
Markus smiled. “I could be asking you the same thing. Why in the world are you down here?” He stared at the cage of mice and frowned. “I didn’t hear anyone approve a level four experiment this week.”
Victoria bit her lip. “They didn’t.” She glanced down at the ridiculous green rubber boots on her feet. “At least, not officially. Just for me.”
Now Markus’ piercing blue eyes were trained on her. Victoria felt liquid steel trickle through her veins. “Well.” Markus’ wide mouth curved into a slow smile, bearing large teeth lined with yellowed coffee stains. He chuckled. “Well, well, well. Victoria. I have to say, I’m impressed.” He stepped forward, his right shoulder just brushing her left one. “You finally got your own pet project. You’ve only been working here for… what, fifteen years now?”
Victoria frowned, tilting her head back to meet his eyes. Even with two positive pressure suits between them, Markus’ presence overwhelmed her. “It’s been seventeen, actually. Just a year less than you.”
Something rattled in the cage behind her. Both scientists turned.
An albino mouse, his mouth and nose stained with bloody foam, lay crumpled on top of 47. Drool dribbled down his throat, and when it hefted its thin body off of its victim, Victoria could see a series of gashes forming a semi-circle around 47’s neck. 47’s eyes were closed.
The little brown mouse was no more.
“Rabies?” Markus asked. He pushed past Victoria and knelt in front of the cage. He watched the surviving mice, now down to three, with an analytical intensity fitting for a scientist. “Sure looks like it.” He looked at Victoria. “Now what’s so great about this little experiment that you’d need special clearance? Rabies is fun to play with, but it hasn’t been relevant to pharmaceuticals for decades.” He straightened and stretched his arms. “I don’t think you can stake a promotion on this, babe, but I’ve had a few scraps I’m willing to throw ya, if you’re interested?”
Victoria swallowed her harsh reply. “Thanks, but no thanks. And I’m sorry, but that’s classified. You and the rest of the team will find out when I present my findings at the meeting Friday.”
Markus snorted. “Oh, so it’s like that, huh?” His eyes pierced her again. “You must have something pretty amazing.”
Victoria shrugged, clutching her tablet to her chest. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that… just trying to follow the rules, Mark. They’re there for a reason.” She edged away from him. “I’m just cleaning up here.”
“Oh, that’s my signal to go, right? Okay, Vic, I won’t keep pestering you. Good luck with…” He motioned with his hand. “Whatever it is you’re doing.”
The question pushed past Victoria’s lips against her better judgment. “You never did say why you’re here ten hours after your shift.”
“What can I say,” Markus said, “I’m a diligent researcher.” He bid her a wave and eased back over to the air lock. He folded his arms, turning to look at Victoria with his eyebrows raised.
Victoria’s blood boiled. Lying piece of garbage.
She opened the door so Markus could leave, and then reengaged the air lock once he was gone. Logically she knew he would still be on the basement level for at least twenty more minutes while he showered and changed, but she still felt the lightness that always came with him leaving.
Victoria logged out of her user account and slid the iPad back into its designated slot on the wall shelf. “Guess I’m done for today, then,” she murmured, rubbing an aching spot in her shoulder. She bent in front of the cage and took one final check on her mice, or “Little Buddies” as Markus liked to call them with a smirk right before he released the valve that filled their cage full of carbon monoxide. Creep.
All the mice had stopped moving. Victoria glanced at the LED clock on the wall: 5:22 AM. She’d arrived just after 11.
Almost 200 mice had died in just under the span of five hours.
Fighting a shiver, Victoria wrote and attached a note to cage one alerting the morning staff that the rodents needed to be euthanized and then stored in the freezer. The rest of them would be cremated, burning both their battered bodies as well as any trace of virus that may be still active and waiting for a new victim. If not for her pressure suit, that new victim might’ve been her.
Victoria shuddered. Never underestimate the power of nature.
“Thanks guys,” she said, patting the cage. She cut the lights and let herself into the changing room, where she dumped her contaminated pressure suit, and then hobbled naked into the adjacent shower space. Warm water sluiced over her tired, aching and sweaty body. Those pressure suits were always stuffy.
She closed her eyes and fantasized about the whirlpool tub and the super soft Queen waiting for her at home, and then about how her colleagues would look when she told them about her experiment results. She was still trying to wrap her mind around it herself, but it could help the science community understand both rabies and similar diseases better, leading them to create more effective treatments for humans with the virus.
Victoria turned the spray off. Or Markus could be right, and she was wasting her time. But that was something she’d worry about after a congratulatory bottle of wine and a nice long sleep.
After dressing in her jeans, sweater, and sneakers, Victoria retrieved her purse and coat from her locker and headed for the stairwell. Her footsteps echoed in the dim corridor. At the second level landing, she swiped her ID card and turned the knob after hearing the soft click of the lock turning over.
Sometimes she felt like someone was trying to keep her in as much as they were trying to keep the viruses out.
Craig sat at the security desk hunched over his cellphone, his pudgy fingers flying over the keys. He glanced up and gave her a smile as she walked past him. She smirked at the squawking sounds coming from his speaker. Angry Birds again. He wasn’t much of a talker, but she felt more warmth and normalcy from him than most of the other people she was forced to see on a daily basis.
“See you ‘round tomorrow, Ms. Krell.”
“You too, Craig.”
She wrapped her raincoat tight around her chest and headed into the sharp spring wind.
As Victoria headed away from Times Square, the crowds died down until she could count only a few dozen on either side of the road. The distant sound of honking cars and vibrant club music ebbed and flowed around her while she walked from street to street.
New York was sleepy at this time of morning, but the night times were slightly more manageable at this time of year as well – it wasn’t quite Spring Break yet, which meant the giant influx of tourists had yet to arrive. She found herself wishing for those extra witnesses, though, when she felt anxiety brewing in her gut, as well as a hyperawareness and had her glancing back over her shoulder every few feet.
Breathing deep and slow to calm her nerves, Victoria continued toward her high-rise 12th floor apartment on E 57th Street. As she quickened her pace, she watched a long shadow form on the edge of her peripheral vision, bouncing in time with her own footsteps. She turned, and her eyes locked with a twenty-something black man jogging with his girlfriend. He nodded, she smiled. I’m being paranoid, she thought, making a conscious effort to unclench her muscles. I’ve been down this sidewalk thousands of times. She squeezed the pocket pepper spray canister she kept in her purse. I’m perfectly fine.
She couldn’t help feeling someone was watching her, but in New York City, with all its skyscrapers and high-rises and sophisticated restaurants with patio dining, watching was easy. Someone could be sitting in front of their hotel window right now, drinking a beer and admiring her shoes. That’s what it was like being in such a crowded city – always feeling like you were on display.
Maybe someone thinks I’m so amazingly beautiful they can’t look away, Victoria thought with an eye roll.
Her intuition told her something entirely different.
She heard something shuffle and bang in the alleyway behind her. She hoped it was a cat. The cornered, high stress feeling she was having now reminded her instantly, oddly, of Markus, though he would’ve been long gone by now… or was he? What if he had never left the building? What if he had been waiting for her to leave?
“Mark?” She called out. Silence greeted her. She jutted her chin out. “If you’re still after my research, then you’re still out of luck. Plus all my notes are password-protected and encrypted so don’t plan on going down that road either.”
The banging noise continued. She cleared her throat, turning in a circle as she checked every nearby shadow. “Is anyone out there?”
The black couple bounced by, and the woman rolled her eyes. So much for being neighborly.
Victoria gripped her pepper spray in hand and started walking as quickly as her heels would allow.
When she finally got up to her apartment, she used the deadbolt for the first time in the eight years she’d been living there.
Victoria jerked awake. Her hand shot out for the obnoxious phone on the night stand, and she pulled it up against her ear in record time. “What?” She asked, her voice scratchy with sleep. “Who is it?”
“Hey Victoria,” a soft female voice said. “It’s Annie. I’m sorry I called you so early… I know you’ve been up late. I-it’s just that-”
“Phil gave me full clearance for those mice,” Victoria said, her voice rising. Her brain was crying for sleep. “So if it’s about that, then-“
“No, no… it has nothing to do with that. He told me about that yesterday. I wouldn’t have been in the BSL-4 lab today… I didn’t know what you were doing down there and knew I shouldn’t know, but-”
“Annie,” Victoria said sharply. “We’ve been friends for almost ten years. I trust you enough to know you wouldn’t be trying to steal my research.”
“R-Right, I know that… but anyway, so… I went down there anyway, just to see if you needed anything disposed of that you couldn’t have done at night, and so I figured I’d euthanize the rest of the mice and then send them off to cremation, but…”
Victoria sighed, rubbing the crust out of her eyes. “Annie… If there’s a point, I’d really like you to get to it.”
“I found him,” Annie whimpered. “He-he was lying on the floor in his suit, not moving. I thought he might’ve fallen or something, but I… oh god, it was so-“
“Annie,” Victoria moaned. “Who was on the floor? What happened?!?”
Annie sniffed. “It was Markus, Vic! He was lying there in his pressure suit, and he didn’t answer me when I shook him. So I called 911. They took him off to Saint Providence about an hour ago, but…” She sobbed. “He- they pronounced him dead on the way. Markus is dead, Victoria.”
Victoria sat up in her bed, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She’d known Markus for seventeen years… she saw him almost every work day for 6,205 days. He was an arrogant, sadistic prick who belittled her at the soonest opportunity, and now he was dead.
She pressed a hand to her stomach. Despite everything else, though, he was an amazingly competent scientist. And for that, she was going to miss him.
“God, Annie,” she murmured, “that’s crazy. I just saw him… I literally just saw him a couple of hours ago, and he looked fine…do they know how he died?”
There was a long pause on the line. Victoria kept thinking Annie just needed a few seconds to compose herself and then she’d go off on another one of her ridiculous rambling tangents, but the tangent never came. Victoria couldn’t even hear Annie’s phlegmy sniffs and coughs anymore… did she drop the phone?
“Annie?” Victoria pulled back the covers and slid to the edge of the bed. No doubt the Star Labs lobby would be a clusterfuck… still, it would be wrong for her not to go in at this point. “Annie, sweetie… are you all right? Are you there?”
Finally, Annie blew out a long, tortured breath. “Victoria, I’m not supposed to tell you this. But you’re my friend, and I think you need to know.”
Victoria frowned. “Uh, okay.”
“They’ve already figured it out. He had all the signs. Vic, the official cause of death was rabies.”
The bedroom and the phone in her hand faded away. Victoria felt herself teetering, lurching, right at the ledge, ready to fall into a deep dank hole that would take everything she had worked so hard to accomplish these past seventeen years far, far from her.
Victoria lipped her lips. “...Was… was he bitten?”
“No, he didn’t have a scratch on him, and never reported anything like that prior to him up and dying. No one can even recall him ever showing symptoms before it happened. But the coroner definitely found traces of the virus in Mark’s saliva, and his brain was totally fried at that point. The doctor couldn’t make any sense of it, but…”
Annie didn’t need to finish that sentence. Victoria knew. ‘Everyone knows you’ve been experimenting with rabies in that maximum security lab,’ she thought. ‘There’s no way this isn’t going to bite me in the ass. Damn.’
“What,” Annie said, “exactly were you doing in that lab? Victoria, what did you do?”
“Listen to me, Annie,” Victoria said. “I. Did. Not. Kill. Him.”
“Maybe you didn’t,” Annie conceded. Her voice was soft and apologetic. “But they think your experiment did. And I guess that’s enough to make you a suspect. There’s about five police cars in the front of the building."
“Are you kidding? I never did as much as glare at Mark! He walked all over me, treated me like dirt-” She shut her mouth.
“Everyone knew that, which is why I think they’re making you the scapegoat. They think you used your virus to get rid of him because he was giving you trouble.” Annie blew her nose. “Either way, they’re probably going to be calling you soon. Vic, you need to firm up your alibi and then get a lawyer. Please. I don’t want to see this ruin you right when you were getting started.”
Victoria ran her fingers through her thick black hair. “Okay. Thanks, Annie. For calling.”
“No problem. Good luck.”
The air felt thick and frosty cold as Victoria walked into the lobby of the Star Labs compound, and it wasn’t because of the air conditioning. Clusters of Star employees were talking in excited tones, while some others sat in the waiting area or stood aimlessly, waiting for their bosses to tell them to go to work or to go home. As she approached, the action died down and the room focused only on her. Manny Ortega, a dear friend and mentor, smiled at her but stayed right where he was. With the rest of her colleagues it was more of the same.
“Victoria!” Phillip J. Harken, Star Lab’s director, strode over to her with a uniformed NY officer in tow. His face was grim. “We need to talk.”
“I’m going to need you to explain exactly what you were doing in the lab, both in general and when you were here earlier.”
The officer, a short burly man named Detective Trawick, was the first to speak when the three of them took over an unused conference room on the third floor.
Victoria looked to her boss, whose graying hair and pale face made him seem much older than his true age of 55. He nodded. “I was… studying several strains of the rabies virus in an effort to synthesize them. With Dr. Harken’s approval I began a biosafety level 4 experiment where I cultivated my new strain and then tested its effects on rodents. I was doing a final round of tests last night and this morning, from 11 PM to around 6 AM.” She bit her lip. “During my experiments… Markus showed up. I don’t know why; his shift had ended much earlier. But I let him into the suite and we talked for a while… then he left. That’s all.”
“And what makes this strain different from the others?”
Victoria struggled for the words. “It’s… a lot more vicious, so to speak. It can be transmitted from human to human more easily, and symptoms appear within hours of infection rather than the typical incubation period of months.”
Trawick nodded. “Ms. Krell, do you have an itemized list of everything that was in the lab this morning?”
“Of course I do. It’s standard procedure.”
“You said you had your own strain of the rabies virus, correct? How much of that strain do you have stored in the lab?”
“I have eight specimens stored in the freezer, clearly labeled.”
“Are you aware that only seven samples were discovered in the freezer after Markus’ death this morning?”
“…What? No, that’s wrong… I counted. There were eight samples before I left. I swear to God.”
“Well unfortunately, God can’t testify for you. But luckily the forensics team can. They found a petri dish in a plastic bag in his pocket. The virus was found all over it.”
“What… but- why would he?”
“I’m going to assume, based on Dr. Harken’s testimony, that you did not plant the evidence on him. But I’m going to hold my final verdict until the investigation is finished.” Trawick’s cell phone rang, and he wandered out into the hallway to answer it.
Phil turned to Victoria. “For the time being, you’re suspended without pay. I’m sorry Victoria, but this is going to earn us a lot of flak with the press. It’s the only way I’m going to keep the government from shutting us down.”
Trawick slipped back into the room. “I see you weren’t kidding about the virus transmission being easier. Two EMTs began showing rabies like symptoms a few hours ago. They were immediately hospitalized and given the vaccine, but it was too late for one of them. She passed away 15 minutes ago.”
A tiny tremor built in Victoria’s hands. There was nothing to say.
“Go home,” Harken said. “But stay by the phone.”
At the very least, Victoria thought, they’re not a hundred percent sure I killed him.
“Hi, Craig.” Victoria smiled and waved at the security guard. “Playing Angry Birds again?”’
Craig couldn’t meet her eyes. “Not really.”
Apparently, the percentage didn’t matter.
Sweating under the noonday sun, Victoria felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. Unlike the last time, though, the sidewalks were packed with commuters and no ominous noises echoed from the alleyways. For a moment, she pictured Markus' ghost, haunting her from beyond the grave.
Instead she caught a stranger peering at her from an alleyway.
White hot rage bloomed in her chest. She spun on her heel and pushed through the throng, her dark eyes determined.
“I dealt with enough shit today,” she barked. “So if you want my money, just take it. I’m done. You hear me? I'M DONE.”
The stream of people parted around her, leaving a thin, greasy man standing, cornered, by the subway station. The man watched her, his mouth yawning open. His fingers twitched as if he meant to reach for her, but then he jerked his arm back at the last moment. He shoved his hands in his pockets and shook his head. “I don’t want your money.”
“Then what?” Victoria's voice reached a hysterical pitch. “I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want anything. I just want to be left alone. Please.” The emotions building inside trembled and then exploded. Tears poured down her cheeks that she hastily tried to wipe away. "I don't want anyone to be hurt. I didn't want any of this..."
At the sight of her tears, the man softened. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you… I just…” He grunted and addressed the pale blue sky. “I was just… I was hoping that what happened… it wouldn’t happen. I knew you were a scientist and you worked at Star Labs, and I was scared.” He swallowed. “Your name is Victoria, right? Victoria Krell. You synthesized the rabies virus.”
“How would you know about-”
He shuffled his feet. "I just... I used to work there. Long time ago."
“You… I felt like someone was following me yesterday. That was you, too?”
“Yeah. There’ve been rumors that some scientist was cooking up some kind of modified bacteria or something… I knew you would know about it, but I couldn’t exactly ask you outright, so…”
“You followed me,” Victoria said.
“My daughter… died from swine flu during that pandemic a couple years ago.” He chuckled, but there was no truth in it. “She never touched no pigs, and I made damn sure she washed her hands about ten times a day, but…” He shrugged. “She still got it. Then she died. Now I can’t look at anything without seeing little bacteria wiggling all over it.”
Victoria bit her lip. Closed her eyes. “That’s horrible.”
“I’m sorry about your colleague… Markus Brighton. I heard about it on the news this morning… real sad.”
“Yes, it is very sad.”
“I know you didn’t want it to happen.”
How could this random man’s opinion mean anything to her? Somehow though, it did. “Thank you.”
“But… promise me something, will you?” He stepped closer, as close as he could be without touching her. “Promise me that you’ll be careful. That you’ll make sure you don’t make some freak virus that kills us all. I don’t want to see Lizzie happen all over again.”
Victoria thought of the little brown mouse, Markus, and the EMT whose name she didn’t even know.
“I know. Me neither.”