Episode III: Part IX - The Case of the Missing Virus
“Joan didn’t come in today,” Hutchinson explained.
Sitting next to Delia in front of Wayne Hutchinson’s desk, Matt exchanged a dubious stare with the Virolab technologist. “Do you know where she resides?”
“I can pull up her address. We all have access to that information in the company’s data base.” Hutchinson paused. “My question is -- why? What’s going on?”
“Mitchell is dead — that’s what’s going on,” Matt retorted.
Hutchinson rendered an incredulous stare. “What? What do you mean, he’s …. dead?”
Delia placed her hand on Matt’s forearm. “Apparently the FBI hasn’t notified Virolabs subsequent to our leaving the crime scene.”
“And Morelli isn’t going to be happy when he finds out we beat him to it,” Matt added. He locked eyes with Hutchinson. “Get her address, Wayne — we need you to come with us.”
“I don’t understand,” he pleaded. “What’s Joan got to do with this?”
“We’ll explain on the way,” Delia answered.
Exiting the building and departing in Matt’s vehicle, they followed the GPS instructions on Delia’s cell phone. Time of arrival was estimated to be approximately twenty minutes. Matt and Delia briefed Hutchinson while they drove toward Miller’s home.
“This is all just …. surreal,” Hutchinson sighed. "Mitchell’s disappearance, now his murder; the missing vials; the secret laboratory; the FBI. “You really believe Joan might be involved in this?" he asked.
“That’s what we plan to find out,” Matt replied.
“She’s not married,” Hutchinson revealed. "Other than that, I don’t know anything more about her personally. On a professional level they appeared to work well together. If there was a problem of any kind I wasn’t aware of it.”
"Keep following the lady’s voice — we’re almost there,” Delia said, alternately looking at her cell phone and each approaching street sign.
“You have arrived at you destination,” the GPS announced.
The home was at the end of a cul-de-sac between two adjacent homes spaced widely apart in a middle-to-upper class neighborhood. All were nicely maintained; lawns and landscaping neatly trimmed. Matt parked his vehicle next to the concrete curb in front of the house, noting the lengthy and semi-curved driveway snaking its way to a side garage before splitting toward the front of the home.
Exiting his car, Matt walked toward the front door, followed by Delia and Hutchinson. Pressing the doorbell, he turned and exchanged a smile with Delia, Hutchinson staring off to the side.
Opening the door the length of the attached security chain an attractive, middle-aged woman with shoulder length sandy blonde hair pressed her face close to the narrow opening. “Yes,” she uttered softly, attempting to catch a glimpse of several people on her doorstep through the narrow opening.
“Ms. Miller?” Matt blurted.
A pause. “Who’s asking?” came a cautious reply.
“Matt Duggan. I’m the private detective assigned to locate Harold Mitchell, the missing scientist at Virolabs. I’m here with my assistant, Delia Perez, and a colleague of Harold’s, Wayne Hutchinson. We would like to speak with you — if that’s okay.”
Making more of an effort to confirm the party of three through the narrow opening, she noticed Wayne Hutchinson standing behind Delia.
“It’s me, Joan,” he said as they made eye contact.
She removed the security chain from its slider. “Come in,” she invited, opening the door.
Matt entered first. “Thank you, Ms. Miller. This is my assistant, Delia Perez. And I believe you and Mr. Hutchinson are already acquainted. We’ll try and make this brief.”
"And that’s all it’s going to be ….. BRIEF," Wayne Hutchinson suddenly shouted. Stepping back several paces and holding an East German Makarov semi-auto pistol, Hutchinson ordered Matt and Delia to lean forward against the living room wall. He removed Matt’s snub-nosed revolver out of his holster, then his cellphone out of his jacket. Removing the battery out of Matt’s phone, he instructed Miller to confiscate Delia’s purse.
“Now what?” Miller asked, exchanging glances with Hutchinson.
“We’re going to have to kill them just like we did Mitchell and those two fools of his,” Hutchinson angrily replied, handing her Matt’s revolver. “They know all about your East German background including your association with the Research facility in Leipzig."
“What else do they know?” Miller asked.
“Whatever Mitchell told them before he had a chance to test his virus on the two. They knew where the vials were before we got there and moved them back to the lab. Just like that nosey neighbor we had to silence after she spotted us at Mitchell’s home.”
“Arrangements with our client will be much more difficult without test results,” Miller insisted.
“I know that,” Hutchinson snapped. “You can thank Mitchell for that blunder.”
“Forget it,” Miller piped. “We’ll deal with that later. First things first, starting with these two." Looking through Delia’s purse, she retrieved her cell phone, removed the battery, then threw both on the floor. “Ahh, look what else Duggan’s partner has in her purse — handschellen, as we call them in German. She handed the cuffs to Hutchinson. “Place these bracelets on our clever detective so he doesn’t give us any trouble. I can handle Nancy Drew here.”
“You’ll never get away with it,” Matt shouted, purposefully leaning as close to the wall as possible. He could feel the texture of the wallpaper through the palms of his hands.
“Shut-up,” Hutchinson flapped. He stuffed his semi-auto pistol into his waistband, Miller simultaneously placing the barrel of the revolver against the back of Delia’s head. “Try anything funny and your partner dies instantly. Understand?” he snarled.
“Whatever you say,” Matt scoffed, his head turned and facing Delia, both making eye contact. She returned his wink.
Hutchinson reached for and grabbed Matt’s left wrist. In an instant Delia dropped to the floor, still facing the wall. She reached behind and grabbed Miller by both ankles and pulled. Lifted completely off her feet, the back of Miller’s head struck the tiled floor. Distracted by the commotion, Hutchinson released Matt’s wrist and reached for the pistol in his waistband. Matt turned and delivered a jaw-breaking punch to the side of Hutchinson’s face, both now unconscious and lying face-up on the tile. Grabbing the guns and rolling both over, Matt cuffed Hutchinson’s hands behind him, Delia binding Miller’s wrists using a roll of masking tape found in a desk drawer.
“Should we contact Morelli?” Delia asked.
“Not before we search the entire house,” Matt declared. “It’s obvious they were planning on delivering the virus to someone. I’d like to know who that someone is.”
"You mean the so-called ‘client’ Miller was referring to?" Delia clarified.
“Exactly,” Matt replied.
“Hold on,” Delia whispered after glancing out the front window. “A black and white just parked behind your car out front.”
Matt gazed at Mitchell and Miller. ”Those two are out cold; they’re not going anywhere. We can’t ignore the two cops — let’s go outside and see why they’re here.”
Walking out the front door and down the winding driveway, Matt and Delia approached the two officers in the cruiser, now walking behind and around Matt’s vehicle.
“Can I help you, officers?” Matt asked.
“Is this your vehicle?" the officer standing behind Matt’s car asked.
“It is. Is there a problem?”
“We received a call about an unfamiliar vehicle in the neighborhood. Do you reside here?”
“No, we ….” BOOM, a deafening explosion erupted. Matt, Delia, and the two officers ducked instinctively behind the Police cruiser. Peering upward, the house they just moments before exited was now totally engulfed in flames.
“What the hell?” the first officer yelled. Pulling his service revolver, the second officer screamed ….. “on the ground, both of you — NOW!”
Morelli turned and walked away from the two dispatched officers and their supervisor. “I’ve explained the situation — as much as they need to know,” he continued. “At this time we don’t know who triggered the explosion, or why, but I’m willing to bet the ‘bigger fish’ involved in all of this was not happy with Hutchinson or Miller either.”
“And as far as Matt and I are concerned — intended targets as well, or just collateral damage?” Delia asked.
“That’s a question we may never know the answer to,” Morelli speculated.
“I still don’t understand why Hutchinson hired a private detective agency to track down a co-conspirator, a colleague of his he knew had stolen the virus and was preparing to test it on Matt — and me.”
"The “gang of three” may have assumed the disappearance and death of you two would provide not only the results they were looking for, but would more deeply involve the FBI to the point it would enable an easier conclusion of their ‘arrangements’ with whatever hostile foreign party or criminal organization they were dealing with," Morelli posited. "The good news is we’ve kept the virus out of the hands of some obviously malevolent people. It’s back at the lab where it belongs. We don’t know who these people are at this point, and we'll continue our investigation, but we’re confident all the players responsible at virolabs they were in cahoots with have now been identified.”
“At a tremendously high price,” Delia stated. “Highly educated, talented scientists who took a wrong turn somewhere along the road."
“Better than millions of other innocent people — wherever that deadly pathogen’s final destination was intended,” Matt added.
Delia gazed wistfully at Matt and Morelli. “There’s still an innocent party we’re all forgetting.”
“And who would that be?” Morelli asked, a curious look appearing.
“Susan Caine, the widow who resided a few homes away from Mitchell.”
Morelli nodded. “Yes, from what has been uncovered to date it appears she was the innocent victim in all of this.”
“That’s where we can still be of help,” Matt suggested. “We’ll conduct a search for any surviving family members. It's possible they may have a claim against the estate of the three deceased Virolab employees.”
Walking away from the crime scene and navigating the gauntlet of numerous fire rescue vehicles, police cruisers, and FBI government cars, they stopped alongside Matt’s vehicle. Duggan and Morelli shook hands. “Sorry I was so hard on you,” Morelli admitted. “You can be a real pain-in-the-ass sometimes.”
“Oh, really?” Matt quipped sarcastically. “It wouldn’t be because I’m contentious, ignore your suggestions, your orders, and do things my way, would it?”
Morelli smirked. “Smart ass — always a smart ass. By the way, Columbo, forensics determined the caliber of weapon used in the execution of Mitchell and his three thugs. It was a 9 mm.”
“Hutchinson’s Makarov,” Matt surmised.
Delia walked between the two. She threaded her hands around Matt and Morelli’s arm. “Do you two ever stop talking shop?" Exchanging glances with both men, she asked, “which of you handsome fellows will be taking me to dinner?”
Matt and Morelli looked at each other, then shrugged their shoulders.
“Awesome,” she beamed. “Both of you.”