Markus awoke. This time he had slept in his office with his head resting on a computer keyboard. He looked at his watch. It was almost midnight and time to get moving. He stood up, grabbed the duffel bag and hurried out of the office. As he staggered down the hall, he felt terrible. On the first landing of the fire stairs, he put his duffel down and waited until the dizziness subsided. He pulled out the plastic bag with the foot and removed the sacks of frozen peas and ice cubes. The extra weight was killing his back; he could stop on the way to San Diego and buy ice later. He dropped the pea packages and cubes down the center of the stairwell and heard them strike the cement at the bottom.
Markus took several deep breaths, pulled the brim of his hat farther down to eliminate the reflected light overhead and started up another flight. When he finished the five-flight climb, every part of his lower body hurt, his back muscles were locked in spasms and his head was in a fog. He lay down on his stomach, reached up and pushed open the third floor fire door. He wiggled through the doorway, pulling his duffel along behind him. Markus knew the angles of the security cameras were off. The retard guards were probably asleep, but even if they were watching, the video screen would only show the top half of the door.
He inched his way into the hall and the fire door swung shut behind him without a sound. Markus lay in the hallway and listened. In a building designed for silence, he could hear his labored breathing and pounding heart. He felt drowsy and wanted to go to sleep right there on the floor, but the thought of Alexei and Grisha kept him going. He stood up and dragged his duffel bag through the hall until he stood outside the door marked:
PETER T. MURRAY, MD. Ph.D.
He removed the bottle of ether and the dark green washcloth. The last face it touched was Audra’s—the next face would be that of the China Doll. Markus took a deep breath. He pulled out his master key, unlocked the door and crept inside the laboratory.
Only the lights on the far side were on. He saw the China Doll, just as he had imagined, with her back to him, bent over a laptop. No one else was in the lab and the setup was perfect. In a few seconds, she would be lying unconscious on the floor. He would insert the IV, drain her blood and it would be over.It was a piece of cake, a done deal. Alexei and Grisha would be off his back.At last, things were going his way. He could soon resume a normal life.
He opened the small bottle and emptied the remaining ether onto the cloth. In a haze, he inched his way along a row of workbenches and approached the China Doll from behind. His running shoes made no sound, but he never considered that the smell of the ether would precede him. He was still ten feet behind her when she sat up, raised her head slightly and sniffed the air like a wolf sensing the scent of blood.
A Li had just finished downloading as much information as she could get from Dr. Murray’s research database. It was 12:30 p.m. and she was anxious to finish and get out of the lab. She had copied into her laptop most of the data on successful reprogramming of stem cells into blood cells by the insertion of new DNA; she wasn’t interested in the experiments that had failed. She now possessed the information from dozens of successful mouse and human cell reprogramming efforts, the genetic instructions and molecular models, as well as the details on the particular viruses used to introduce the new DNA into the stem cells. What remained was to copy the summary of recent work on the errant cells that caused cancer in mice, which Hisao described in the last lab meeting. The information was still locked in his laptop. She sat with it in front of her on his workbench. Her attempt to access his files was taking too long.
While A Li tried to circumvent the security codes on Hisao’s computer, a strange smell wafted through the lab.
Sister? A Mei?
Markus watched her as she turned, saw him, stood up and screamed. He couldn’t understand what she shouted, but he saw the fear in her eyes. He tried to spring forward, but his head was spinning and his body moved in slow motion. The China Doll backed away from him, bumping into what looked like a gray Humpty Dumpty squatting on the floor. He reached out toward her and tried to press the ether-soaked cloth against her face.
What creature from hell was this with red eyes? What infernal smell came with it? Every evil spirit from her childhood rose up in A Li’s memory.
Sister, are you doing this?
By the time her scream bounced off the insulated walls of the laboratory, she came to her senses and realized it was the strange man dressed in black. She had never been close enough to see his red eyes. He was a Bai Hua Bing, an albino, and he was coming after her with a cloth saturated with ether.
A Li backed away. While her mind tried to make sense of what he was doing, her instincts called for defensive action. The first thing she thought of was the metal thermos bottles containing liquid nitrogen, kept on the counter next to the tank. She grasped one by the handle and swung it at the albino’s head. He was too far away to strike, but the top of the container flew off, releasing the contents in a spray of vapor and sub-zero liquid. A small amount of the N2 touched her lower leg and she felt a sting on her flesh.
She swung one of the thermos jugs. Markus saw a cloud of white mist and liquid coming at him. Was he hallucinating, or was it boiling water? When it hit his right ankle, ran through the mesh on his running shoe and touched his bare foot, he knew it was something else. Markus looked down and it was only nanoseconds before a liter of liquid nitrogen, at a temperature of -270 degrees Celsius, boiled on contact with his skin.
The pain receptors in his body reordered their priorities. The lower back pain signals were old news. The first-order neurons in Markus’ skin sent out a new alarm to his central nervous system. The signal reported tissue trauma from a heat burn. By the time the second-order neurons sent additional acute pain information up through his spine, the signal had changed to one of extreme cold—his skin was freezing. The impulses reported that a cryogenic burn had occurred. Once his brain became conscious of the injury, it shifted into damage control. A message went back down his spinal cord to increase respiration and to block the pain sensation with the release of endorphins. Markus’ heart rate and blood pressure, depressed from the painkillers, shot through the roof.
The pain suppression lasted ten seconds.
Markus screamed as he had never done before. The goddamn Chinese bitch had burned him! He wanted to choke her. He wanted to kill the she-devil slut and drain every drop of her blood. He reached out for her neck, but managed only to lurch sideways and crash into a workbench. The impact knocked down a shelf of glass chemistry utensils. Beakers, flasks, jars, burettes, test tubes and dishes rained down on him, smashed on the floor and sent a shower of glass fragments everywhere. He stood amid the sea of broken glass, looked at her and screamed, “You bitch. I’ll bleed you dry!”
The Bai Hua Bing screamed when the liquid nitrogen touched his skin. He staggered toward her, his red eyes full of fire, calling her a bitch. A Li backed away toward her workbench. She looked for another weapon and saw a pipette syringe on the ledge above Tetsu’s bench. She reached up, grabbed it in her fist and in the process, tipped the entire shelf. Another shower of glass crashed onto the floor. With her thumb resting on the plunger, she stepped toward the albino and swung her arm in a horizontal arc that ended at the base of his throat. She jammed the business end of the syringe into his Yan Hou, the soft indentation at the base of his throat. On impact, her thumb came down on the plunger.
When the pipette needle penetrated his skin, Markus felt a stinging sensation in his throat and began to cough. By the time he pulled the syringe away, the sodium azide, NaN3, a poisonous substance with acute toxicity, was already in his bloodstream. Markus tried to hold on to the top of the bench, but he fell to the floor, gasping for breath. While the NaN3 combined with his hemoglobin, blocking oxygen transport in his blood, Markus’ lungs worked furiously to provide his body with air. He groaned. He heaved. He sucked air and it rattled through his throat. He felt steel bands around his chest, drawing tighter and tighter. The pain was excruciating. His lungs burned. Bubbles of saliva formed on his lips. He wheezed, gasped and clawed at the steel leg of the lab bench while a few drops of blood oozed from the puncture wound in his throat. He looked up at the China Doll—not even her rare blood could have saved him at that moment. When his own blood, devoid of oxygen, failed him, Markus suffocated on the floor of the lab, lying on a carpet of glass fragments.
A Li stood frozen in the aisle of the lab. The Bai Hua Bing lay motionless—she was certain he was dead. The empty pipette syringe lay on the floor, inches from his body. A dark green washcloth was also on the floor, covered with shards of broken glass. Most of the ether had evaporated, but she could still smell traces of its distinctive odor in the air. After the chaos, the screaming, the shattering glass and the sound of the albino gasping for air, only the hum of the refrigerators remained.
A Li steadied herself against a bench and tried to comprehend what had just happened. Whenever there was an emergency, the Americans yelled, “Call 911.” A Li thought about it. She could not call 911. The police would come, there would be an investigation and she would be detained.
She heard someone open the door to the lab. A chill came over her.