Episode III: Part I - The Case of the Missing Virus
The white four door coupe sat idling, parked under a large tree outside the bowling alley, the car’s air-conditioner straining against the oppressive summer heat. The wraparound sun glasses and dark suit worn by the driver added an element of cloak and dagger to the scheduled meeting. The driver craned his head in the direction of the double doors just as Matt walked out of the main entry and in the direction of the coupe. He opened the passenger door and climbed inside.
“Thanks for meeting me here.”
“No problem,” Matt reassured the driver. Two hours and a telephone call earlier he agreed to meet the caller. The conversation was otherwise unremarkable with the exception of the caller’s insistence they meet privately, along with a description of the vehicle and where it would be parked. “So, what’s this all about?” Matt asked.
“One of our employees, a scientist, is missing. He disappeared five days ago during his lunch break.”
Matt’s face twisted. “Missing scientist? You didn’t say anything about anyone missing when you and I spoke earlier.”
The driver sighed nervously. “You’re right, I didn’t, not even my name or who I’m affiliated with,” he reminded Matt, fidgeting with his glasses and checking his rear view and side door mirrors.
Matt pivoted and faced the driver. “Then start talking,” he demanded, “or the meeting is over.”
That was all the additional impetus needed. Wayne Hutchinson was a biotechnologist with Virolabs, Inc., located in the middle of a desolate wasteland on the outskirts of the city limits. The only thing Matt knew about the rectangular shaped, drab concrete constructed facility prior to Hutchinson’s earlier call was that it was built approximately ten years ago, never giving it any further thought. Matt nodded again. “Alright, now tell me about your missing colleague.”
“Harold Mitchell, 58 years old, a widower,” Hutchinson answered. "He’s the Chief Virologist, a scientist responsible for the Omega Project, a research effort to create a hemorrhagic virus more contagious and deadly than anything known in nature or previously created. Plainly stated, it could threaten millions of lives.”
Matt rubbed his chin pensively. Damn, there’s no way I could have guessed this was coming, he thought. “And who's responsible for the order to create this virus — and why” Matt asked.
“Let’s just say that since they lifted the ban on making lethal viruses, the justification for the creation of these deadly pathogens is deemed necessary.”
“Necessary? Necessary for what?”
“For the development of strategies and effective countermeasures against new pathogens that pose a threat to public health — the so-called ‘official’ rationale for the R & D necessary to produce these microorganisms,” he replied.
“Who’s they?” Matt asked.
“Who do you think?” Hutchinson said with enough sarcasm further explanation wasn’t necessary.
Another nod. “Yeah, I get it. I’m no scientist, but I don’t have to be to know that kind of sanctioned research could unleash a new and unpredictable contagion if not properly safeguarded — or should it escape from your lab — or any lab.”
“Which is exactly why I’m here,” Hutchinson fired back, fear written all over his face.
Taking in a deep breath, Matt locked eyes with Hutchinson. “So, not only is the Chief Scientist missing, the hemorrhagic virus he’s responsible for creating has vanished as well. Are we on the same page?”
The biotechnologist bobbed his head slightly. “Mitchell has disappeared, along with two vials of a biosafety level 4 virus."
"Biosafety level 4?"
"That’s what I said. There are four biosafety levels; BSL-1, BSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-4, with BSL-4 being the highest level of containment. This hemorrhagic virus is a BSL-4 pathogen.”
“How do you know the vials are missing?”
“I spoke with Mitchell’s assistant. Her name is Joan Miller. She informed me privately her boss and both vials are missing — then swore me to secrecy. She’s pretty shook-up — and scared.”
“Go on — keep talking,” Matt prodded.
“That’s all I know. Before Joan’s disclosure we just thought he’d taken a few days off, then rumors began to circulate about Mitchell being AWOL. Everything from, ‘he had resigned to he’s been kidnapped and is being held hostage — either by criminals, terrorists, or a rogue foreign government.’”
“Anything from the Bio-lab director or his associates?” Matt asked.
“Nothing. And no one has have been questioned by local or state law enforcement — or the feds. Nobody understands why they’re being so hush. That’s the catalyst for the rumors. People start coming up with their own theories and scenarios. And it makes them fearful they might be next. You can’t blame them.”
Matt nodded in agreement. “Is that why you keep checking your rearview mirrors?”
“Yes …. I mean, what do you think?” Hutchinson answered nervously.
Matt took a deep breath. “What do I think?” A pause. “The word espionage is the first thought that pops up in my head. Terrorism is another. And old fashioned criminal theft for ransom completes the list.”
Hutchinson craned his head in Matt’s direction. "That’s why we contacted you. The senior project virologist and two vials of a deadly virus he created are missing, and no one is talking to us or saying a damn thing. We need some answers,” the bio-technologist pleaded.
The vehicle’s air conditioner provided little relief from the sweltering heat. Matt turned, facing the front windshield. After adjusting the air flow on the dashboard supply vent and loosening his tie, he pivoted back in Hutchinson’s direction. “Alright, I’ll do what I can."
Hutchinson pursed his lips in a half smile, relieved at Matt’s answer. “What else do you need from me?” he asked.
“A recent bio, photo, and his home address to start,” Matt replied.
Hutchinson turned and reached behind the driver’s side seat. He grabbed a small briefcase by the handle sitting on the rear floorboard and pulled it over, setting it awkwardly on the center console. He opened the briefcase and removed an unlabeled office file. “Here — everything you need to know about Mitchell is in the folder,” he said, handing the binder to Matt.
There’s no question the feds are involved, even if Hutchison doesn’t believe so, Matt thought, opening the makeshift dossier. He visually scanned the documents and passport sized photo taped to the inside cover of the file. He closed the folder and looked up at Hutchinson.
“This will do for now. I’ll be in touch. You spoke with my assistant Delia earlier when you called and asked for me. She’s fully briefed on every case I handle. Keep that in mind when communicating with her - capice?”
“Understood,” Hutchinson replied.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Matt said, opening the passenger side door and stepping out, his dress shirt soaked with perspiration.
“What’s that?” Hutchinson asked, a curious expression appearing.
“Do something about your air conditioner.”
Click to read Episode III Part II "MATT DUGGAN - DETECTIVE SERIES"