A Heartbeat Away

A Heartbeat Away

3.6 160
by Michael Palmer

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The New York Times bestselling author and master of suspense delivers another novel at the crossroads of politics and medicine in this shocker of a thriller

On the night of the State of the Union address, President James Allaire expects to give the speech of his career. But no one anticipates the terrifying

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The New York Times bestselling author and master of suspense delivers another novel at the crossroads of politics and medicine in this shocker of a thriller

On the night of the State of the Union address, President James Allaire expects to give the speech of his career. But no one anticipates the terrifying turn of events that forces him to quarantine everyone in the Capitol building. A terrorist group calling itself "Genesis" has unleashed WRX3883, a deadly, highly contagious virus, into the building. No one fully knows the deadly effect of the germ except for the team responsible for its development--a team headed by Allaire, himself. The only one who might be able to help is virologist Griffin Rhodes, currently in solitary confinement in a maximum security federal prison for alleged terrorist acts, including the attempted theft of WRX3883 from the lab where he worked. Rhodes has no idea why he has been arrested, but when Allaire offers to free him in exchange for his help combating the virus, he reluctantly agrees to do what he can to support the government that has imprisoned him without apparent cause.

Meanwhile, every single person in line for presidential succession is trapped inside the Capitol--every person except one: the Director of Homeland Security, who is safely at home in Minnesota, having been selected as the "Designated Survivor" for this event. With enemies both named and unnamed closing in, and the security of the nation at stake, Griff must unravel the mysteries of WRX3883 without violating his pledge as a scientist to use no animal testing in his experiments…and time is running out.

Tense, thrilling, and entirely plausible, A Heartbeat Away will make you reflect, wonder, and be truly afraid.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Palmer (The Last Surgeon) offers a nifty plot premise in this high-concept medical thriller, but a plethora of subplots distracts from the more interesting primary issue. As the U.S. president, James Allaire, is beginning his State of the Union address, a number of small containers of a viral agent explode and infect the more than 700 people, including every important member of the government except the director of homeland security, who have gathered in the House chamber. The Capitol must be sealed off and the infected audience held inside until a cure for the disease can be found. The plotters behind the attack, a group of domestic terrorists known as Genesis, demand, among other things, that the government abolish the Patriot Act and cease unchecked spying on ordinary Americans. Overblown prose does little to make the implausible scenario more believable. Readers with a low tolerance for the hyperbolic are advised to give this one a pass. (Feb.)
RT Book Reviews (4.5 stars)

Palmer never fails to thrill when he presents a tautly constructed puzzle, with characters that make readers whiz through pages late at night.
Marblehead Reporter

Sound Commentary

Robert Petkoff is excellent as narrator not only at maintaining the pace but also at providing the voices of the varied accents of men and women. Transitions are seamless and unobtrusive. Palmer's fans will be enthralled.
The Midwest Book Review

Skillfully narrated by Robert Petkoff, A Heartbeat Away is a gripping saga that remains tense to the very end.
Bookin' with Bingo

Tense, thrilling, and entirely plausible, A Heartbeat Away will make you reflect, wonder, and be truly afraid.
Huffington Post

When it comes to inventive plots for medical thrillers nobody does it better than Michael Palmer… This premise is explosive and compelling and grabs the readers from the very first page.
Crimespree magazine

A non stop action ride…Having made a career with medial thrillers, this latest adds political intrigue and terrorism into the mix. …Palmer makes what Clancy writes look like the Boxcar Kids.
Boston Globe

Michael Palmer anchors his thrillers in high concept and steeps them in medicine. A Heartbeat Away opens with a prologue, and from the opening line, the reader knows things are not going to go well…This is the book for readers who wholeheartedly believe politicians are capable of anything.
Library Journal
On the night President James Allaire is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address, a fatal, virulent, and highly contagious virus is mysteriously released in the capital. Desperate for an antidote, Allaire turns to virologist Griffin Rhodes, who has been languishing in solitary confinement in a maximum-security federal prison for alleged terrorist acts. Actor Robert Petkoff (robertpetkoff.com) does an exceptional job of narrating Palmer's (www.michaelpalmerbooks.com) follow-up to The Last Surgeon (2010), perfectly capturing each character's unique accent, quirks, and personality and rendering Griffin's best friend and colleague Melvin especially well. Sure to keep listeners on the edge of their seats; highly recommended for mystery/thriller fans. [See Major Audio Releases, LJ 1/11; the St. Martin's hc, which published in February, was a New York Times best seller; the mass-market pb will publish in August 2011.—Ed.]—Ilka Gordon, Siegal Coll. of Judaic Studies Lib., Cleveland

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St. Martin's Press
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Chapter One


8:30 P.M. (EST)

“Madam Speaker, the President of the United States.”

At the words from the sergeant at arms of the House of Representa­tives, the audience  rose to its feet as President James Allaire entered the  House Chambers to thunderous applause, mixed with cheers. Al­laire glanced at the two Secret Service agents stationed opposite each other just inside the entryway, standing as straight and still as the black and gold Ionic columns dividing the wall behind the tribune. Sean O’Neil, head of the presidential Secret Service unit, shadowed Allaire as he glad-handed his way down the long, royal-blue-carpeted corridor.

The president’s heart responded to a rush of adrenaline as the clap­ping neared the decibel level of a jet engine on takeoff. He stopped every few steps to shake hands or exchange modest embraces with men in dark suits wearing carefully chosen ties, and with impeccably dressed women who smelled of exotic perfume. Ahead of him, he could just see the nine justices of the Supreme Court, and the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff .

Allaire sensed  O’Neil move a step closer behind him as a congress­man from Missouri exuberantly pumped his hand and then shouted, “Go get ’em, Mr. President! You’re going to wow ’em tonight!”

That’s right, Allaire thought. I am going to wow them.

There had been many occasions during the beginning of the first term of his presidency when Dr. Jim Allaire privately wondered about a decision he was forced to make. The weight of a single act, be­nign as it might at first seem, often carried with it surprising ripples and  unintended consequences that added to his graying hair and the crow’s-feet at the corners of his gray- blue eyes.

However, delivering the first State of the Union Address of his sec­ond term was not one of those moments of self-doubt. He had won reelection by a fairly wide margin over Speaker of the House Ursula Ellis, and now, despite lingering subrosa enmity between the two of them, it was time to cast aside politics and get some business done.

For the past hour, Allaire had paced inside the office of the minor­ity leader of the  House, sipping Diet Pepsi and having makeup reap­plied for the cameras, all while trying to contain his nervous energy. The feeling he got before a speech of this magnitude reminded him of his days playing quarterback for the Spartans of Case Western Re­serve, where he also earned his M.D. degree.

Between his college football career and years spent working as an internist at the Cleveland Clinic, Allaire had learned the importance of balancing confidence with a respectful fear of failure. Viewed as a man of the people, the genuine caring that had made him a respected physi­cian contributed to his consistently elevated job approval rating as president. With the world’s problems getting progressively more com­plex and domestic terrorism on the mind of every American, the people needed a leader they could believe in—a man of poise and dignity in whom to invest their trust. Tonight, Allaire vowed to reaffirm that he was that man, and to give them a speech they would all remember.

The president reached the podium, where his head speechwriter, visibly more nervous than he was, had placed two leather-bound cop­ies of tonight’s carefully guarded address. He turned and presented the first copy to Vice President Henry Tilden in his capacity as president of the Senate, and then the other to Ursula Ellis, who strained to main­tain eye contact, and whose handshake held all the energy of a mack­erel on ice. The president stifled a grin, although he suspected Ellis knew what he was thinking—fifty-three to forty-four—the margin by which he had beaten her in the election.

Allaire had practiced the speech dozens of times and could probably have delivered it flawlessly without the aid of the transparent tele­prompters set on either side of his lectern. The crowd kept up its ap­plause. With the American flag serving as his backdrop, he faced the people and waved his appreciation. Then he set his hands on the sides of the podium as a signal he was ready to begin. His eyes met briefly with those of his wife of twenty- seven years, the much-loved first lady, Re­becca Allaire, and next to her, their only child, Samantha, whom he still could not believe was a senior at Georgetown, already set for Har­vard Law.

The clapping continued. Speaker Ellis  rose from her chair and banged her gavel several times. At last, a profound hush fell over the seven hun­dred in attendance.

On the cornice overhead, the clock read exactly 8:00 p.m. Allaire’s thoughts flashed on the motto inscribed in the frieze—in god we trust. It was a running joke about doctors that their M.D. degree re­ally stood for M. Diety. Allaire had a deep faith, and had never felt comfortable with the notion of physicians as gods. But he did know that at that moment, he was closer to being God than any doctor had ever been.

Thanks to the recurring deadly attacks by the apparently domestic group calling itself Genesis, the first order of business for the night had to be terrorism. People were on edge. The four attacks orchestrated by the group had been bold, ruthless, arrogant, and very dramatic. Still, there had as yet been no demands made—only the damage and the deaths. He was going to start strong with a warning to Genesis, whoever they were, of American solidarity, and a promise that their capture and successful prosecution was the top priority of his second term.

Allaire had been assured by Hank Tomlinson, chief of the fifteen- hundred- officer Capitol Police force, that security for tonight’s speech was the most extensive ever, employing state-of-the- art magnetome­ters, camera after camera, and manual bag checks in addition to ad­vanced X-ray screeners. Now, it was up to the president and his speechwriters to convince the American people that they were as safe and secure in their homes and personal lives as those  here with him in the Capitol of the United States.

Allaire’s speech materialized on the virtually invisible tele­prompters.

“Madam Speaker, Vice President Tilden, fellow citizens: As a new Congress gathers, I am reminded of and humbled by the sacred honor you, the American people, have invested in all of your elected officials. So, before I begin tonight’s State of the  Union Address, on behalf of all who have been blessed with your trust, I want to offer my bottomless thanks for another term of what my father would have called good, steady work.”

Allaire paused, waiting the perfect number of beats to let the laugh­ter subside before resuming. It was a strategic opening that he had ar­gued for with his speechwriters, all of whom felt it important to start on a more somber note. As usual, he was right. The State of the Union was a wonderful opportunity to showcase his humanity, in ad­dition to imparting to the electorate his resolve and courage to do what was right and necessary.

“But with this responsibility comes great challenges that we must strive together to overcome. Our economy is growing stronger now, but there is much to be done. Unemployment is at its lowest level in more than a decade. Slowly, we are winning the war against poverty. Our optimism that we as a people can master any difficulty and achieve unparalleled peace and prosperity throughout the world has never been greater, and the state of our union is strong.”

Allaire beamed as those on both sides of the aisle, and in the gal­lery, rose to their feet as one, cheering loudly. He could hear whistles over the applause, and hesitated long enough to draw in a slow, deep breath. The next several crucial minutes of his speech would focus on international and domestic terrorism. The crowd settled down. Al­laire scanned their faces. He would know when they were ready for him to resume.

As a dense silence enveloped the room, the president suddenly heard a disturbing noise—a popping sound, immediately followed by some­thing that, to him, sounded like the plink of breaking glass. The sound came from somewhere in the crowd to his right. Allaire and many oth­ers turned and watched as California Senator Arlene Cogan opened up the purse that she had stowed beneath her chair. Instantly, a thin, white mist wafted out from within it, covering her heavily made-up face like a steam bath. Within seconds, Cogan and those nearest to her began to cough—and cough vehemently.

Allaire immediately gave a prearranged signal to the coordinating technical director, ordering the man to implement antidemonstration procedures and shut down the network pool controlling all television feed from the Capitol.

Murmurs from among the crowd escalated as another pop occurred across the chamber from the first, followed by another, and another, each accompanied by the breaking of thin glass, white mist, and more coughing. The murmurs gave way to shouting. Another briefcase and a purse were opened, releasing identical thin clouds.

“Don’t open it!” someone hollered.

“I can’t breathe!”

“For God’s sake, that’s you! That’s your pocketbook!”

“Get out of here! Let’s get out!”

The popping and breaking glass continued.

Two more . . .  three . . .  four . . .  five.

Allaire could see that mist was even arising from some bags that were unopened. He quickly counted fifteen plumes scattered about the room, maybe more.

“Do not open your briefcase or purse!” Allaire shouted into his mi­crophone. He slammed his open palm on the podium. “Everybody, please remain calm!”

Secret Service agents rushed the stage and quickly surrounded him. They attempted to escort him to safety, but he struggled against them and continued to call loudly for order. At that instant, Allaire caught sight of something on the two teleprompters in front of his podium.

His blood turned cold.

The speech, which seconds ago was easily legible in fourteen-point Helvetica font, had disappeared from the screens. In its place were three lines of text. Allaire’s breathing nearly stopped as he read the message.


 God created the sun, the moon, and the stars.

And Genesis released WRX3883.

A HEARTBEAT AWAY Copyright © 2011 by Michael Palmer



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