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I was elbow deep in cow udders when my cell phone rang.
Hopefully, the caller was my veterinary friend returning the message I'd left. My face was pressed against warm quivering cowhide. I managed to say, "Dr. Eve St. Giles," into the voice-activated headset without getting a mouthful of hair. I ran a swab along the udder wall and placed it in a test tube.
"Eve?" My sister's strident voice came through loud and clear, causing the cow to shift away from me.
"Shhh," I whispered to the nervous animal. "Every-thing's going to be all right."
Actually, the situation here in Yorkshire was anything but all right. Constables in yellow slickers and armed with rifles stood outside the barn, ready to slaughter this and every other cow on the farm if my verdict was mad cow disease.
"Did you just tell me to shush?" Yvette demanded over the receiver.
"Not unless you've developed hooves and are chewing your cud since I last saw you."
So much for that admittedly poor attempt at lightness. My sister had never understood our physician father's need for humor in tense situations either. I swore Dad was a walking encyclopedia of every poor joke in the world.
I capped the test tube and sighed. "I was kidding, Yvette. I'm checking out a cow at the moment and she's a little skittish."
"Really, Eve. Your fascination with germs is bad enough when it pertains to people, but must you also muck about with animals?"
Life in any form was precious as far as I was concerned. That belief was what kept me going. "Animals get sick, too."
No point in explaining animal-borne diseases could easily mutate and become transmitted to people. Yvette always left the roomwhenever Dad and I engaged in medical shop talk at family gatherings.
Because the barn was closed up tighter than a coffin, the air felt stuffy and heated. A bead of sweat ran by the corner of my eye. I nearly wiped my brow before recalling where my hand had just been.
Occupational hazard of being an epidemiologist. I swiped my face against my shirtsleeve.
"Yvette, what's up? I'm slightly busy."
"So what else is new? You never have time for the family."
Normally Yvette's discontented tone meant she was between men and needed a shoulder to cry on. I sought to sidetrack her with my favorite topic after microbes.
"Where are Laurel and Phillipe?" I adored my niece and nephew and would gladly suffer through Yvette's gripe session if it meant I got to speak with them, remote as that possibility was. Yvette didn't exactly encourage my contact with her children.
"I sent them back to their grandparents in France. Everyone seems to be sick here," Yvette complained with a slight cough.
I tried to squelch the disappointment that welled up in me. When was the last time I had gotten to speak with them? One month, two months? I knew it had been way too long since I'd heard their voices.
"Where's here?" I ran a soothing hand over the cow's haunch as I rose from the three-legged stool. To my left, the gaunt-faced farmer and his wife didn't move, didn't react to my movement. Resignation lay like a dark shroud over the barn.
I had read the case study on my helicopter ride in. Following an urgent call from a friend with Great Britain's health department asking me as a favor to come, I had flown into London from Stockholm for a briefing before coming here.
Like so many British farmers, the owner had almost lost his farm with the first devastating outbreak of mad cow disease. Over the years, he had rebuilt his herd only to have a dozen cows fall ill and die over the past few days. Stepping out of the stall, I nodded at the couple as I moved to the other side for privacy.
In the quiet I realized for the first time that my sister's breathing sounded thin, wheezy. "Yvette, are you all right? Where are you?"
Along with a sizable fortune, my sister had come into several estates when her husband, a French aristocrat, had been killed water-skiing. A drunk on a jet ski had run into Jean-Pierre Fouquet, leaving in his wake the death of the sole heir to the Fouquet vineyard in Languedoc-Roussillon, a shell-shocked widow and two grieving children.
"I'm in Damassine. I was going to take in the festival and ski, but I think everyone in the whole damn town is sick. I never should have come here."
Damassine. While the little village tucked off the beaten track in western Switzerland wasn't on my sister's top-ten list, even its name resonated within me.
I gnawed on the corner of my mouth as I mentally ran over the last computer updates I had read before leaving my office at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control--the ECDC--in Stockholm. No mention of any influenza outbreaks in Europe.
"What are the symptoms?"
"Damn it, Eve, I'm not some lab rat for you to quiz." While our father was Boston proper and we had been raised in his hometown, our very French mother had left a strong stamp on both her daughters' temperaments and language.
I also suspected that Maman had bestowed an extra little gift on her youngest, aka me. However, her psychic powers paled in comparison to mine. In which case, if such powers expanded with each generation...
No, don't go there. You've already made your decision to ensure that doesn't happen. The risk has been contained.
"I didn't call to be part of your freak show," Yvette continued.
My sister didn't take kindly to my special talents. "Then why--"
"I need you to watch Laurel and Phillipe next week." Delight sped through me. She must be truly desperate to call me, her babysitter of last resort. I kept my voice light. "Hot date?"
"Someone of interest. But it's too early in the relationship to introduce him to the children."
My BlackBerry was in my bag, which was outside where constables stood ready to slaughter a herd of cows. I didn't think it was the time to check my calendar.
"I don't have my schedule--"
"Fine. Let me know as soon as you can spare me a minute of your precious time."
So much for advising her to drink plenty of fluids and rest. I removed the icky latex gloves, stuck them in a baggie and took out a fresh pair. Nothing like a sibling guilt trip. I would have to make amends later.
But right now, I had a puzzle to solve.
I left the barn with the owners close on my heels. Immediately the local authorities pressed around us. Although I had my field kit in my bag, I didn't need to run any tests to know something about the situation didn't square with a diagnosis of mad cow disease.
Wrong, whispered my inner voice.
As if I would ever listen to my sixth sense again. Not after that disaster in Brazil. Focus on the science, as I had promised myself. Listening to the woo-woo would only lead to failure.
I removed my hat and ran my fingers through the short, damp waves of my hair. "Would you please run over the chronology of what happened?" I asked the couple, expecting the man to answer. But it was the wife who spoke. "It wasn't at all like the first time this area had that outbreak." She shot a defiant look at the men with guns.
"How's that?" I walked toward the pyre built to burn the cow carcasses stacked in the pasture. The odor of diseased, rotting flesh hung heavy in the air. I hated death and the grotesque effects it had on bodies. However, the reason I became a field epidemiologist and not a lab rat, as my sister so fondly put it, was so that I could prevent death. Only by confronting its ugliness face-to-face could I find the necessary answers.
But death always took its toll. I could feel the blackness smothering the light of energy in me.
I planted my foot on the lower rung of the wooden paddock fence and gazed around the pasture. It was a typical English winter day--gray, overcast sky with drizzling cold rain and a raw chill that seeped into my bones. I flipped up the collar of my field coat.
The farmer's wife stood next to me, her hands stuck into the pockets of her wool, hand-knit cardigan. "When the blight hit this area years ago, it was gradual, like a cancer. First one cow fell ill."
Cow Zero, I thought. The first victim who had become the carrier in turn.
"Then another and another until most of the herd had to be destroyed." The woman swallowed hard but pointed at the dead cows. "That wasn't the case this time. They were all sick at once."
Interesting. Were we dealing with a new variant of the virus or something else?
A man's rough voice spoke behind me. "Cripes. Enough of this bloody waiting. Sorry, but I have my own herd to protect. Let's get it done."
I turned. A man in a yellow slicker and mud-covered Wellies strode toward the barn. "Hey." I stepped forward, cutting off his path. "I haven't finished."
"You go play with your test tubes, Yank. We have a job to do." The other men shifted, but when I glared, didn't follow.
I fisted my hands on my hips. "The chief health administrator personally asked me to investigate."
Although animal viruses weren't my specialty, in conjunction with these cows falling sick, there had been reports in the area of an increase of people with flu symptoms. My cachet as a field epidemiologist for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had led the British health officials to invite me to join in the investigation. If gene-swapping was going on where a nonhuman flu virus was adapting and becoming a human virus, the health organizations needed to know. It was easier to stop a contagion in its infancy before it grew into an epidemic.
"I have complete authority here. Not a shot's to be fired unless I say so." I had long ago learned in potentially dangerous situations to maintain the appearance of control.
However, my order didn't faze the man. He gripped the rifle's muzzle and butt and thrust it at me, aiming for my chest.
The one good thing about having a Swiss Guard as a former lover is that you learn moves in and out of bed.
I grabbed the rifle, giving it a sharp twist, and wrenched it free from the startled man. I handed the rifle to a stunned constable. Small wonder. I stand about five-four in my boots, while the disarmed man had to be six foot and outweighed me by a good seventy pounds.
I wagged my finger at the officer. "I say when and I say how. Clear?"
The constable nodded. "Yes, Doctor."
"Good." I returned to the paddock fence and climbed over. I walked the perimeter paralleling the drive. I didn't know what I was looking for, but my instincts told me the answer was here. The farmer trailed close behind.
I found remnants of a bale of hay in the corner facing the house. I kicked aside a few strands and spotted flashes of green.
Ignore the voice, I warned myself, and concentrate on collecting data.
Still, curious, I knelt and picked up a branch with flat needles and a few red fleshy berries. I held it up.
"What's this plant?"
The owner shrugged. "Dunno. Looks like it's from one of those shrubs my wife planted along the drive last year."
I rose and looked at the bushes on the other side of the fence. Although the row was straggly, several branches shot toward the paddock. Here and there were patches of churned dirt, exposing the roots.
I hit the speed dial of the phone clipped to my belt. When I reached my agency, I asked for the resident plant expert. After describing the bushes, I had my answer. I rang off and went to the farmer. Clapping my hand on his shoulder, I pointed toward the group of men milling by the barn.
The owner nodded.
"Give them shovels and have them dig up every one of those plants and burn them."
Hope lit his eyes. He swallowed, hard. "Why?"
"Because your cows got into your wife's yew bushes. Lack of coordination, nervousness, sudden collapse.
All signs of alkaloids affecting the heart. Very toxic. And very much contained in the yew."
The man blinked rapidly and then grabbed my hand. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
A sense of rightness filled me. "You're welcome." I stuck the yew in a bag and then paused.
"By the way, that last cow I examined in the barn." The farmer's mouth tightened. "My children's favorite. What about her?"
I winked. "She's expecting twins."
"You felt them when you examined her?"
"In a sense." During the time I'd been in physical contact with the expectant cow, I'd seen in my mind's eye two embryos stirring.
I smiled. "A male and a female. Congratulations."
I headed toward my equipment by the barn, whistling all the way. After a long cold streak, life finally had come out the victor.
However, the triumph was too little and too late, as my transfer request was signed, sealed and only needed to be delivered to my boss.