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Viral Fear

By Robert_Aardvark All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Thriller


When a thief breaks into a research facility, he comes away a multi-million-dollar secret. He is also bitten by an animal. A young reporter is convinced that the thief is infected with an experimental disease that makes the victims more sexually aggressive and violent. Blood and sex form a chain of infection, but has the reporter unleashed a virus of paranoia via her stories? Viral Fear plays out the drama of risk and benefit, public and personal good, life and death. In science there is always a right answer, but does it come in time?

Untitled chapter

In 1997, a deranged man committed a series of crimes at University Hospital. He claimed he was infected by animals from the facility. He was only trying to cure himself.

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly.

I don’t know why she swallowed that fly.

Perhaps she’ll die.

Chapter 1

Spam turned the corner and aimed toward the door marked “No Entry.” He gave a quick smile and a nod to the nurse at the desk as he walked by. It was even easier than he had hoped. The guard at the door had left for the bathroom, giving Spam a lucky, but probably unnecessary, break. When it came to getting past security a suit and a stiff look of confidence were as good as any ID. Spam had all he needed: an expensive coat, a stethoscope, a beeper, and his calm. Spam sometimes had a great gift for calm. God gives everyone a talent.

“Good evening, Doctor.”


Spam kept his greeting short. He had learned, after being picked out in a lineup in DC that conversation only served to fix him in an observer’s mind. Doctors were expected to be curt. So he was curt.

The doors in front of him opened automatically into a long, windowless hallway. When they closed behind, he was safe, by himself under the neon lights.

Spam moved briskly along the corridor. Research wings of hospitals rarely had windows. Partly this was for security. Partly it was because PhDs didn’t have the clout to rate window offices. Spam scanned the doors as he walked. Warning stickers about radiation and hazardous materials adorned lab doors. Cluttered arrays of Far Side cartoons or news clippings indicated offices. A chalkboard on one wall was marked with chemical formulas and a few lines under the inscription “quote of the week.” Spam smiled to see that it had not changed in six months.

This would be his last hit on this hospital for a while. Steal from a man once and he puts it down to bad luck. Steal from him twice and he starts to take precautions. Spam turned a corner in the hallway and followed a sign that read “vivarium.”

The vivarium was the animal facility. Such places have advantages to a thief. The people there are predictable. Researchers, as with all hospital personnel, tend to work odd hours, so it is hard to plan a time when they will not be there. Research animals, however, are kept on strict, day-and-night cycles so as not to disturb their natural behavior. If the lights were out on the guinea pigs, chances are no one would be there working with them.

The other reason Spam liked raiding vivariums was that they were more likely to have what his clients referred to as “far-out shit.”

Most drugs go through years of animal testing before they are ever used on humans. PCP was a tranquilizer used by veterinarians long before it ever became a common street drug. Last year, Spam had scored twenty-four vials of Scarsinol, worth $5000 a hit to the right clients, from a vivarium. Of course, there were certain disadvantages to using experimental drugs, but Spam’s supplier was busted two weeks ago. Unless Spam got something soon, he’d be out of business.

Spam walked up a short, inclined ramp to what appeared to be an old-fashioned steel door. That, in a sense, it was. The door was old, but the security attached to its entrance was quite modern. A tumbler prevented the latch from being moved without a key, and the door itself was magnetically sealed, and answered only to an ID card reader.

The ID reader was a new addition since his last raid. Security suspected that the items missing from stores might have been pilfered by a man with a talent for locks. Spam had such a talent, but, more importantly, he knew an addict who did construction work for the hospital.

For a few small bags of white powder, worth only a fraction of what he had taken from the vivarium on his last visit, he had obtained three keys. Two of those had previously been enough to let him into the vivarium. The third key opened the office of the on-site veterinarian. From that office, after a simple search, he had borrowed two more keys. Keys beget keys, and finally let him into the double-walled locker where the drugs were stored. The construction worker could have done the same if he had the brains to figure it out.

Now there was the additional ID reader. Spam had found out about that for free. If a mark wasn’t smart enough to figure out the value of keys, he was even less likely to know the value of information. The hospital was building a new biohazard wing. It abutted the vivarium, but wasn’t open yet.

Spam turned away from the elevator and toward the yellow door marked “Warning Biohazard Class IV : Highly Infectious Agents.” The biohazard area connected to the vivarium through a back door. The ID reader and magnetic lock had yet to be installed there. Spam couldn’t get a key for this door, but it was rather flimsy, and he wasn’t planning to come back.

A crowbar was pulled from a lined compartment Spam had sewn into the inside of his coat. The compartment would also do for smuggling the drugs past the nurses’ station during the course of his escape. Jamming the bar between the crack of the door, he pushed hard until a sound like breaking ice told him the plaster surrounding the lock to the biohazard wing had given way.

The noise was louder than Spam had anticipated. It must have carried all the way to the vivarium because the sound of barking dogs started up from behind the doors. Spam froze, momentarily startled by the otherworldly noise of the animals in their cages -- howls, echoed by grunts and then loud screeches.

Monkeys, thought Spam. There weren’t monkeys last time he was here. They were very loud animals. The doors muffled the sounds, but anyone nearby would undoubtedly hear. If a guard were to come and investigate, Spam would be caught holding a crowbar. Stethoscope or no, he doubted he could talk his way out of that. Spam closed the yellow door behind him, hoping a passing guard wouldn’t notice the shattered lock.

Spam found himself in what looked like a locker room. Benches were separated by a single sheet of metallic lockers—apparently different sides for men and women, although the provisions for modesty were minimal at best. Stacks of green scrubs sat on a shelf half way between the men and women’s sections of the room.

Some perversity in Spam’s subconscious made him head for the women’s side of the locker room. It was not that he had a thing for women’s bathrooms per se, or anything that was truly sexual. The drugs had killed his need for sex years ago. But this felt sexual, felt like an exciting hunger. Spam needed to go places that were off limits. Even while breaking and entering, he didn’t feel as if he had pushed himself quite enough out of place.

But the biohazard signs might do it. The red symbols gave Spam the creeps. They were spider-like and edgy in their warning. Spam moved to wipe the perspiration from his forehead, but his palm was as damp as his brow. He wished he had brought downers. Of course, if he had downers he wouldn’t have had to make this trip at all. Spam gripped the crowbar more tightly and wiped his palms and forehead on his sleeve.

He thought about the biohazard signs. Perhaps this was too much trouble for the money. Spam had netted about $15,000 from his last trip, if you didn’t count what he had used himself. If he cleaned the place out he could probably double that amount, but it wasn’t worth coming down with Ebola or some other nasty disease you only saw in science fiction movies. Then Spam smiled, thinking of when he was younger and had worked a stint as a mule for a chemistry graduate student who had sold LSD. Spam, at first, had been terrified of all the warning labels that covered the lab.

“Don’t you get scared working around all this shit, man?” he had asked.

“You dodge bullets for a living and you’re afraid of warning signs the regulators make us put up?” The graduate student had laughed. “Look around at this chemical shelf.”

Spam had looked.

“What has the worst looking warning on it?”

“I don’t know. That one,” Spam had said, pointing up to a brown jar labeled with a skull and crossbones.

“Caffeine,” the student had smiled. “Don’t get me wrong, caffeine is dangerous as all bejesus if you get too much of it, but you get the idea. We’re overprotective.”

Overprotective, thought Spam. No university hospital was going to put its students and workers in real danger. Their patients, maybe, but med students often had lawyers for parents. He would be fine. He just needed to relax and get through this. The place wasn’t supposed to be finished. They probably didn’t have anything dangerous here. All he had to do was cut through to the vivarium, find the same key as last time, and then he was out of here. Relax. Get in. Get out. Relax.

Three more rooms passed in the deserted facility, and he barely noticed them. Spam’s calm had returned as he walked quickly, directly, to where he knew the connection to the vivarium must be: past the shower, past the second locker room with biohazard suits hanging like withered green ghosts on clothing hooks, past the blue lights that made specks on his suit glow with a faint pallor, and forward through another set of locked doors that, this time, yielded almost noiselessly to the crowbar.

Spam had made it. On the far side of the room, seated in what looked like a giant fishtank set into the wall, was an African mountain gorilla. The face, like that of an old man if you got past the lack of a nose, echoed Spam’s own sense of calm. It grunted, picked at itself and settled back into a corner. Two similar, though smaller, gorillas shuffled silently in Plexiglas cages adjacent to the larger animal’s segregated space.

Spam could see the rest of the animal facility through the back of the translucent cells. The main lights were off on the other side, but he could still make out the hallway near the veterinarian’s office. Although the cages acted as windows to his goal, there was no obvious door connecting the two areas. The construction worker had been wrong. He had come to a dead end.

There must be a way through somehow. Spam examined the gorilla cages. He spotted the keyhole and hinges on this side. The entire front surface was a door. The question was, did the sheet of Plexiglas on the other side serve a similar purpose, or was the entrance one sided, with the back wall serving only as a means of observation? Tracing the beams of the ceiling with his eyes, Spam’s vision fell on the support pillars at the back of the cages. Like arches for doors. And there, at the base, nirvana. He spotted a latch. Two-way entry.

He had to get those doors open and pass the proverbial, five-hundred-pound gorilla. The primate itself didn’t fill Spam with as much dread as it might. Spam remembered from a trip to the zoo as a child that apes were vegetarians. This pearl of wisdom had in fact been refuted since the time Spam had learned it, but that gorillas often hunted, killed and ate smaller animals, including monkeys, probably would not have deterred him either. Gorillas were not man-killers, at least not on purpose.

There was still the problem of getting into one of the gorilla cages. Spam looked for small hiding places. That was the thing he loved about hospital facilities. Everyone kept everything so nicely locked, but they always seemed to leave the keys around somewhere. It wouldn’t do to have doctors looking like janitors with a ring of fifty keys, would it?

Opening the first drawer, Spam smiled at his good fortune. Sitting in plain view were two boxes of syringes and a bottle labeled “Nembutal.” They hadn’t even locked it up.

Nembutal wasn’t Spam’s favorite drug. It was sodium pentobarbital, truth serum. Really, it was a tranquilizer, made you feel like you were moving in slow motion and too tired to care. Maybe that was why it worked as a truth serum. You were too tired to come up with a good lie. It put you to sleep if you used too much of it. Spam thought he could sell it for a few bucks though, and the syringes would always come in handy. He stuffed his pockets.

Finding the key ring took ten more drawers and three cabinets, filled with everything from test tubes to a dart gun to dried fruit. Finally, the keys were there, as he knew they would be.

Spam surveyed the three gorilla cages and decided to go for the smallest animal. The big one might be harmless, but there was no point in taking chances. The fourth key on the ring matched the cage door, and Spam swung it open. The gorilla stayed in the back of the cage.

Spam took a broom from the cabinets where he had found the key. Returning with this weapon, Spam leaned in toward the small ape and gently prodded it with the soft end of the broom. The gorilla snorted and brushed it away, returning to a curled position on the floor. Spam tried again, a little harder this time. The gorilla snorted louder, but still did not move from its repose. Well, if it was that sound a sleeper, Spam doubted it would pose much of a threat as he slipped past to the Plexiglas door.

He was wrong. The ape shrieked loudly as Spam entered the cage. Suddenly, bounding from side to side, it was fiercely awake and preventing him from getting to the latch on the opposite wall. The other animals answered the noise with their own cacophony. Gorillas howled in the surrounding cages, and from the other side of the Plexiglas came the loud barking of dogs. Spam remembered the broken lock he had left at the entrance and once again prayed that no one responded to the noise.

He had to get the damn ape out. Spam thought about the dart gun he had run across, but was hesitant to part with the Nembutal to load it. Stepping to one side of the cage, he pushed the broom out and nudged the screaming gorilla toward the open door.

The ape’s reaction was faster than Spam had been prepared for, and the pull much stronger. The gorilla had taken the other end of the broom. Now the animal, not the man, held the stick. A sweat that Spam had avoided since entering the biohazard facility returned to him in cold sheets.

But with the new toy of the broom in hand, the ape seemed calmed. It sniffed at the bristles, and, seemingly bored with this, at last noticed the open door. Spam smiled at the child-like transformation. The ape shuffled along comically, dragging the broom on the ground, and came within arm’s reach of Spam before dashing out of the cage to freedom.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Spam smiled at the gorilla’s ingenuity.

Climbing on the cabinet and turning the handle like any human might, the ape had headed directly to a hidden cache of food. The broom was discarded in favor of a feast on peanuts and figs. The ape used hands and feet to select choice morsels.

Spam reached for the latch at the base of the Plexiglas wall, and was momentarily surprised when it did not move. Then he remembered the ape’s hands. If a human could open it, then so too could a gorilla. Like the front door to the cage, this back door must be locked. Only, in this case, there was no visible keyhole.

Spam searched in vain for some hidden release or slot that might fit one of the myriad keys or electronic cards that hung on the recently pilfered key ring. Then it was back to the crowbar. This time, even that brutish method did not prove simple. The bottom edges of the Plexiglas were sealed tightly against the wall. There was no way for him to insert the bar and gain leverage.

Spam’s concentration was so complete that he did not notice that the gorilla, having finished its meal, had moved back into the cage. Spam was thinking of levering the latch instead of the door itself when he heard a low grunt behind him.

He could not contain an open laugh as he turned. The look on the ape’s face was so human, so curious. It was like the look of onlookers when they visited the zoo. Spam was in the cage, and the gorilla was watching him. Spam reached out to shoo the ape away.

The gorilla shrieked and bit.

Like the incident with the broom, Spam was surprised by the speed of the moment. That so big an animal could move quickly seemed unnatural. Spam withdrew his bloodied hand and swore.

He thought about hitting the creature with the crowbar. It soothed the hurt to imagine bashing the offending creature’s skull. He thought with some comfort of his weapon-using superiority. Only humans used tools. He remembered that from an introduction to Planet of the Apes he had watched once on late night TV. Damned dirty ape.

The story of the tools, like the story of gorillas’ being entirely vegetarians, had been proven false since Spam’s TV viewing, but his ignorance mitigated his need for vengeance. Besides, Spam remembered the incident with the broom, and he did not want to lose the crowbar.

Instead, he let the ape retreat and shriek, and turned back to the latch. Spam wedged the bar into the space where the metal attached to the floor and worked it back and forth until there was a gap big enough for him to insert the end of the bar.

This produced the desired effect of cracking the lock. The Plexiglas sheet slid upward a few inches into the ceiling. There was an inward whoosh of air and a horrible noise.

“Oh, shit.”

Spam’s profanity was covered by the noise of barking and howls, but also, terribly, by a loud, wailing siren.

The calm deserted him, replaced by a panic more fierce than that of the most unstable junkie. The noises and flashing lights put him in hell. Spam ran down the hall thinking only of escape, until he stood facing the lens of a security camera.

Instead of inspiring more fear, the camera brought back perspective. Spam was in a bad situation. He needed to get out. In his mind he watched himself being watched, and played out the scenario.

He needed to create a distraction. Spam thought of the dogs. Where was the room where the barking originated? It sounded like it came from a little to his left. He ran quickly until he found the loudest door and kicked violently. It was weak. He was lucky.

Twenty or thirty dogs barked vigorously in the dim room. Spam swung open the cages, releasing the largest dogs first. The animals bounded at the opportunity. A German shepherd jumped up to lick at Spam. Many more rushed out of the room altogether. Spam called to the remaining animals.

“Come on boys! Time to cause some chaos.”

Spam ran down the hall, the dogs bounding joyfully along with him as sirens and barking and screams of unidentifiable animals echoed down the corridors. The door out of the vivarium was only locked in one direction. Spam pushed it open and let the dogs run out in front of him.

The timing could not have been better. Two oncoming security guards were met with a mass of onrushing canines. Spam called, as if he were trying to hold the animals back.

“Hey, come here! Come back here!” Spam charged after one animal and past the overwhelmed security personnel.

The guards were fooled momentarily, but Spam was already around the corner, and the guards were slowed by the mass of animals. Spam tried various doors, and at last one opened. He ducked in a moment before the guard rounded the bend to the research hallway.

The lights of the lab had been left on, but the room was empty, and it was a mess. Papers and equipment sat on various lab counters, while a small desk in the back corner was piled unevenly with books, knickknacks, and scattered notes.

“No damn windows.”

Spam looked around feverishly for another way out. Two more doors, one on each of opposite walls, provided possibilities, but no clear answers. Spam sucked for a moment at his wounded hand.

“Oh, that tops it!”

Looking down at the gash, Spam saw that he had bled considerably. His suit, calculated to get him past the security desk on the way out, was covered in red. Spam grabbed papers off the counter and tried to rub off the stains, but it was no good. He was trapped. He didn’t know a back-way out, and he couldn’t walk out the front.

Or could he? Spam peered momentarily out the door. Some lab-coat-clad students had stepped out into the hall to discover the source of commotion. Spam noted a similar coat tossed recklessly over the desk and put it on over his suit. A pair of Walkman-style earphones also caught his attention. He put them on, stuffing the unattached end of the wire into the coat. From the desk he took a manila folder, which, when held close to his body, served to disguise his injured hand.

There was nothing to do but try it. Spam stepped out into the hall, his back to where he thought the security guards would be.

Luckily, he had guessed correctly. The guards were still at the end of the hallway near the vivarium, one talking to a graduate student while the other tried to herd the dogs back toward their stalls. Spam walked for the exit next to the nurse’s desk.

“Hey, you!”

Spam kept walking, bobbing his head as if he were listing to music on the Walkman.

“Hey you, have you seen a guy in a blue suit going... What the?” The guard’s interrogatory was cut short as a beagle began tearing at his trouser leg.

Spam pushed on the exit door, continuing to bob his head to the imaginary music.

“Good evening, nurse.” He nodded curtly.

“Good morning, doctor. Quite a commotion you all are having back there, isn’t it?”

“Apparently so,” said Spam, heading into the elevators.

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