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A Shot of Red
By Tracy March, Stephen Morgan, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Tracy March
All rights reserved.
Mia Moncure squinted against the piercing Haitian sun, unable to see an end to the line of anxious people waiting in front of the makeshift clinic. It only took simple math to figure that there weren't enough flu shots in the humanitarian aid team's coolers to vaccinate everyone waiting. Hopefully there was more on the way from Moncure Therapeutics, the biotech company her grandfather had founded years ago and built into a powerhouse in the industry. But the vaccine never seemed to arrive fast enough or in large enough quantities to ease her constant worry about protecting people before ... before it was too late. She took a deep breath of the stiflingly humid air and blew it out slowly as the sun inched closer to the bleak horizon. Even if more vaccines were on the way, they wouldn't arrive today.
And that could mean trouble ...
She turned, stepped beneath the tent, and veered off track a little as her eyes adjusted to the shade. Her knee caught something solid, yet frail. She stopped short and glanced down to see a tiny Haitian girl she'd knocked off-balance. Grasping for the child's bony arm, Mia hoped to save her from scraped hands and knees, and from dropping her tattered baby doll in the dirt.
At the last second, Mia managed to grab a fistful of the girl's once-bright lime-green sundress that looked dull next to her creamy brown skin. The fabric strained but didn't tear, and the child stayed on her feet.
"I'm sorry, ti pitit." Mia spoke in a soothing, remedial version of the Creole patois she'd picked up without instruction. She glanced around quickly, looking for the girl's parents, apology in her eyes. The Haitians had already survived a devastating earthquake and a deadly cholera outbreak. Tempers were frayed now that they faced a flu outbreak that could turn epidemic, with a limited supply of vaccine. The slightest misstep might cause an incident — the politically correct term the aid team used for all sorts of trouble. There had already been some tense moments, yet Mia liked to think that she, the aid team, and Moncure Therapeutics had done more good than harm here.
She searched the snaking line of people, but no one looked her way. No one paid any attention to the little girl. Mia knelt and gently placed her hands on the child's shoulders, her bones as delicate as a bird's. Unshaken, the girl gazed at Mia, her large eyes an unexpected pale green, her lips pursed in a bow. She clutched the plastic baby doll to her chest. Mia's heart hitched.
"Where's your mommy?"
A fleeting look of question passed behind the toddler's eyes, but her solemn expression didn't waver.
"We'll find her," Mia said. I hope. On the ravaged island, there'd been numerous cases where desperate mothers abandoned their children, or simply died.
"What's your name?" Mia waited expectantly.
A delicate barrette dangled from the end of one of the girl's pigtails, attached to just a few strands of hair. Mia unclasped the barrette — enamel white daisies soldered on a metal backing — then clipped it more securely. "There you go." Mia smiled.
The little girl tipped her head and studied Mia, her brow furrowed. Slowly, she held out her doll and offered it up.
The armor Mia had constructed against emotional swells melted away in an instant. "She's beautiful — like you." Mia tucked the doll into the crook of the child's arm. "Love her."
Mia felt a surge of compassion that dwarfed countless others she'd experienced in her long but rewarding months in Haiti. She pulled the girl into her arms and held her tightly, trying not to imagine what might become of her.
"Pearl!" a woman bellowed.
The little girl flinched.
Mia turned to see a heavyset woman wearing a navy skirt and a short-sleeved white blouse trudging toward them from beyond the tent. Mia took the girl's hand, then stood.
"Pearl." The woman stepped beneath the tent. "Ou pa ka kouri ale tankou sa. Vini non isit la."
You can't run off like that. Come here.
With little effort, the woman lifted Pearl and set her on her well-rounded hip. She quickly inspected the girl, then narrowed her gaze at Mia. "You already give her a shot?" the woman asked in her native tongue.
Mia interpreted the question and shook her head. "I just found her here," she said in her best Haitian Creole. "Are you her mother?"
The woman gave her a rueful look. "One of them. We got about fifty kids under three years old in our orphanage right now. They want to give us more, but we can't take care of the ones we got. We're in line back there — twenty of us." She pointed to a group of small children and several busy women about thirty yards away.
Dwarfed by her caregiver, Pearl stared at her doll with wide eyes. A miniature yellow flip-flop dangled from Pearl's tiny foot.
Mia swallowed hard. The child had no mother, and her guardians were responsible for fifty children. No wonder she'd been willing to give up her doll in exchange for a little attention. Mia secured the flip-flop between Pearl's toes. "What orphanage?"
"Maison des Anges."
"Didn't someone arrange for a team to come there and vaccinate you and the children?" Mia knew she'd butchered the question, yet she hoped the woman had understood.
The woman lifted her broad shoulders.
Mia made a mental note to check the schedule to make sure the orphanage was included in their coverage — sometime soon, if not today. But judging by the number of people waiting now, tomorrow would be the earliest they could make it there. She'd have to reserve the needed vaccine — if there was any left after they treated everyone in line, and it was doubtful they even had enough for that. Their stock had dwindled as they made their way farther from Port-au-Prince. If they ran out today, the children and caregivers who remained at the orphanage would have to wait until more vaccine arrived.
If more arrives ...
"Bring the children in here," Mia said to the woman. "Skip the line and come to this table." She gestured toward a rickety folding table nearby.
The woman nodded and turned to go, but Pearl's gaze stayed locked on Mia.
"Wait," Mia said.
The woman stopped and looked over her shoulder.
Mia reached out and took Pearl's hand again. "How old is she?"
"Almost two." The woman started walking away, and Pearl's hand slipped from Mia's. "I think."
With a weak smile of encouragement, Mia held Pearl's stare until she and the woman rejoined the group from the orphanage. Then she rushed to check on the dwindling vaccine supply, hurrying behind the table and through the obstacle course of aid team supplies — portable cots, boxes, and coolers.
Three of the four large coolers that had held syringes of vaccine stood open and empty. Mia's pulse pounded as she approached the last cooler, afraid of what she'd find. There had to be enough vaccine to inoculate the orphans and their caregivers.
"Please be there." She lifted the cooler's lid, and her stomach knotted. The supply was critically low. Two, four, six ... she rushed through a count of twenty-three, shut the cooler, and rolled it toward the table. On her way, she signaled and whispered to her team, "We're out." Several of them exchanged wary glances, having experienced the unrest that had occurred when people were told they'd have to wait until more vaccine arrived.
Within moments, the aid team's head of logistics briefed the Haitian government liaison assigned to their operation. Tall and rangy, dressed in a red polo shirt, the man narrowed his eyes, his dark features stretching into a grimace.
Ditto. Mia's heart raced. Nothing good could come from a situation like this.
The liaison shared the news with the brawny officer in charge of the U.S. Marines who accompanied the aid team — in full camouflaged fatigues and loaded with gear in the searing heat.
Mia followed the unspoken message as it passed from soldier to soldier, their postures shifting from alert observation to readiness. The knot in her stomach twisted tighter.
The group from the orphanage moved closer to the tent with little sense of urgency — several children in the arms of their chaperones, the rest hand in hand. Pearl remained on her caregiver's hip. Mia motioned for them to hurry, though only she knew why. Surely those left in line wouldn't begrudge the orphans getting the last of the vaccine.
Mia approached the Marine closest to her, a very tall, broad guy who faced the crowd with his back to her. She tapped him on his arm, which was like steel beneath her touch. He turned and her heart jackknifed. For a split second, in the glare of the sun, he reminded her of Gio Lorenzo, the man she'd spent months in Haiti trying to forget. She blinked several times. Of course the Marine wasn't Gio, but her adrenaline had kicked in, making her hyperaware of their similarities — the shape of strong shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist, the sturdy jawline, the olive skin highlighting heavily lashed, rich brown eyes, the perfect lips ...
Mia's breath hitched. The young Marine's good looks only hinted at Gio's, who was probably ten years older and wore them with a manlier edge, but the resemblance had brought Gio front and center in Mia's imagination. Tingling warmth surged in her body as her mind replayed sultry scenes from the night they'd spent together months ago. Heat rose in her face, as if the Marine could sense the abandon Gio had aroused in her — intensity as she'd never experienced, but regretted ever since. She knew all about the hurt and confusion that kind of passion could cause.
Her one-night stand with Gio had happened just a week after she'd ended her safe and predictable relationship with her boyfriend and former co-worker, Brent English. He'd startled her with an unexpected proposal, and Mia had turned him down. Her feelings for him hadn't been deep enough to commit to marriage, and his proposal made her realize they probably never would be. As much as she'd loved Brent, something had been missing in their relationship. She hadn't been able to explain that to him, or really understand it herself. But her night with Gio had made it clear. Nothing she'd experienced with Brent compared to the fire she felt with Gio. And she knew what a scorched path a fire like that could leave. Frightened and confused, she'd quickly rearranged her life and left for Haiti.
Hindsight told her that hadn't been the most mature strategy, but her impulse to run had won out at the time. She owed Brent an honest explanation — maybe Gio, too, since she'd ignored his calls and texts. Most nights she lay awake in bed, planning what she'd say to each of them face-to-face when she returned to DC in a couple of months. Surely she'd be thinking about it again tonight. Until then, she'd stay focused on helping the Haitians.
Mia set her gaze on the Marine, struggling to shove aside her thoughts of Gio. "Let this group through, please." She tipped her head toward the orphans approaching the tent.
With a brave expression and worried eyes, he gave her a quick nod. The corners of his mouth turned up in a half smile. "Yes, ma'am."
At twenty-nine, she didn't consider herself old enough to be called "ma'am," but she appreciated his manners just the same. "Thank you for helping." Mia shot a weary glance at the M16 dangling from a strap on his shoulder. "And for keeping us safe." She hoped this time, unlike several before, the Marines wouldn't be forced to brandish their weapons. She mirrored his half smile. "Good luck."
A flicker in his dark eyes. Another efficient nod. "Yes, ma'am."
As soon as the group from the orphanage gathered beneath the tent, the soldiers moved, as if choreographed, and formed a barrier between the aid team and those remaining in line. The government liaison announced that no more vaccine would be administered today, and the people would be notified when more was available.
Amid shuffling and shouting but behind the buffer of Marines, Mia and her team vaccinated the women and children from the orphanage. Needles plunged into arms, and cries pierced the sweltering air. Mia wiped sweat from her forehead.
Children's cries mixed with the terse yelling of orders, angry retorts, and the rhythmic thud of boots on the ground. Mia dared not look beyond the shield of Marines. She took wide-eyed Pearl from her caregiver and sat in a folding chair with the child on her lap. Pearl's bottom lip quivered.
Mia swabbed Pearl's upper arm with alcohol, reached for a syringe, then hesitated. What is wrong with me? She'd vaccinated countless people — all for their own good — but she couldn't bring herself to stick this child with a needle. "I need someone to give her a shot," she called out.
Pearl flinched, and Mia hugged her closer.
Two of her teammates exchanged bewildered glances. One, a fifty-something woman who was den mother of the team and a registered nurse, took the syringe from Mia and went to work.
Mia turned Pearl's head so she wouldn't see the needle. She braced herself for a shriek from the little girl, but all that came was a whimper. And huge, glistening tears that trickled down her dusty face.
Mia rocked her and wiped away her tears. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
Gunshots crackled in the distance. Mia opened her eyes to see the Marine who reminded her of Gio standing in front of her with several others, knee-deep in Haitian children.
"We'll escort them back to the orphanage." He reached for Pearl, but Mia couldn't let her go.
She balanced Pearl in her lap and cupped her face in her hands. "You're going to be okay, sweetie." One of the straps of Pearl's sundress had fallen from her bony shoulder and Mia smoothed it back in place. "I promise."
Mia stood, holding Pearl. Before she could hand her to the Marine, Pearl began combing her fingers through Mia's ponytail, her gaze curious.
"Jòn," Pearl said in a small voice that was barely a whisper.
Mia's heart tumbled.
"Jòn?" Mia waited and was rewarded by a single nod. She pointed to Pearl's dress and gave her an expectant look.
"Vèt," Pearl said.
Mia beamed. "Good job."
The Marine cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but we need to head to the orphanage."
Mia nodded, although she wasn't anywhere near ready to let Pearl go. "There's one more thing we need to do." With Pearl on her hip, she dashed over to her duffel bag, pulled out her camera, and returned to the Marine. "Could you take our picture?"
"Yes, ma'am." He took the camera from Mia, snapped several shots, and handed the camera back to her.
Mia hugged Pearl tightly. "Go with the nice man," she said and passed her and her doll to the Marine.
"Thank you, ma'am."
She gave him a wan smile. "You guys are the heroes."
He nodded politely and turned to go. Pearl gazed over his shoulder, just as she had done when her caregiver had walked away with her earlier. After a beat, she waved good-bye. Mia waved back just as the den mother of the team tapped her on the shoulder.
"There's a phone call for you." She handed Mia the team's satellite phone. "It's your grandmother."
Mia's heart jumped up into her throat. They rarely received phone calls, and then only in emergencies. She held the phone to her ear. "Hello?"
"It's nice to hear your voice," Lila Moncure said sincerely.
"Yours, too. Are you all right?" Mia couldn't help but sound kind of frantic. Her grandmother was her rock. The thought of anything bad happening to her tipped Mia's world off axis.
"I'm fine, sweetie."
"Thank goodness." Mia tried to walk off the shakes caused by her alarm. "Please tell me you're sending more vaccine. We ran out again today. Had to turn people away. And there wasn't enough for all the children at the orphanage."
"That's why I called," her grandmother said. "I'm sorry to have to deliver the news, but there'll be a delay getting more vaccine to your team."
Mia's heart sank.
"We've depleted the supply of vaccine you've been using," her grandmother said, "and its efficacy is questionable anyway in light of the new active strain information we got from the CDC. All production was switched to the tiered vaccine with the new formulation. We've gotten it ready much sooner than we anticipated and, initially, we'll be distributing it in the U.S. only."
Excerpted from A Shot of Red by Tracy March, Stephen Morgan, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Tracy March. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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