The Devil's Pitchfork (Derek Stillwater Series #1)by Mark Terry
What would happen if terrorists got their hands on a virus a terrifying mix of Ebola, hepatitis, and bubonic plague with the potential to wipe out humanity? This is the crisis that Derek Stillwater faces as troubleshooter for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A specialist in biological and chemical weapons, he's in a breathtaking race to find
What would happen if terrorists got their hands on a virus a terrifying mix of Ebola, hepatitis, and bubonic plague with the potential to wipe out humanity? This is the crisis that Derek Stillwater faces as troubleshooter for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A specialist in biological and chemical weapons, he's in a breathtaking race to find the terrorist thieves and destroy Chimera M13. There's little evidence, except for the recording of a familiar voice that reminds him of an army buddy who's dead. Questioning his sanity and failing to keep his panic attacks at bay, Stillwater has no choice but to follow his instincts while scientists work on a vaccine in Washington, D.C. He just might have a chance in hell of ending the madness if only the government's most experienced immunological researcher hadn't become infected.
Read an Excerpt
Derek Stillwater and Richard Coffee crouched on a desert ridge, peering across the expanse of sand toward an Iraqi ammunition depot. Dressed in biological containment suits camouflaged for night work with black face paint and tight black gloves, they watched the target site through night-vision goggles. They hated the suits. They were clumsy, bulky, and hot. Sweat soaked their skin and rolled down their backs and sides. Both men were thankful they didn't have to wear the gas masks unless all hell broke loose. They were both Special Forces. Above them the desert night was overcast, cloud cover at a maximum, no stars or moon visible.
A Special Forces kind of night.
Coffee went about setting up a laser targeting system. Somewhere overhead flew an F-117A Stealth fighter. Once the ammunition depot was targeted and Stillwater gave an okay, the fighter would take out the depot, leaving a massive gaping hole in the Iraqi supply line.
Twenty miles away coalition troops were ready and waiting to break through the Iraqi defense.
Stillwater didn't like it. Through his night-vision goggles the desert glowed green. Two miles north he could see the shapes of men guarding the depot. Off to his left, much closer, was an Iraqi patrol. They were noisy and used flashlights; he found it hard to believe they would be so careless. But so far everything about the Iraqi army had surprised him. It had been amazingly easy to slip through its patrols in a specially equipped dune buggy, driving in the dark while wearing night-vision goggles.
Quickly Stillwater went about laying out his equipment. He was a specialist in biological and chemical weapons. The first thing he set up was a miniature weather station. Whether the Iraqis knew it or not, they had picked a good spot for their ammunition stores; the weather conditions here were unpredictable, particularly the wind, which shifted and veered and swirled around a series of low and high ridges on three sides of the depot.
The anemometer began to spin. Wind speed: 15 knots. Direction: unstable. Mostly a north or northwest wind. Stillwater grimaced. Bad, bad, bad, he thought. The Iraqis were known to have large stores of biological and chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein was a big fan of sarin and cyclosarin gas. If the bomber nailed the depot and the wind was blowing toward the U.S. and coalition troops, even at a distance of twenty miles there was likely to be fallout with unpredictable results.
In a briefing regarding the mission, Stillwater had recommended that allied troops stay even farther back. The answer: greater distance was not tactically efficient. Meaning when the depot was blown, the troops would advance quickly.
So now, on the front line, Stillwater had to make a decision. Were the weather conditions going to allow this bombing? Derek felt sand peppering the back of his neck. That was fine. If it began to hit his face, they were in trouble.
Suddenly, behind them appeared two Iraqi soldiers, also wearing night-vision goggles. They began to shout at Coffee and Stillwater in hoarse Farsi and point their guns.
"Dast kasidan! Payin! Payin!"
Not seeming to pay attention, Coffee clicked one more switch and gave Stillwater a thumbs-up.
Shit, thought Stillwater, and he hit a preprogrammed sequence on his radio, giving the all-ahead. His mission was clear. The targeting laser took priority over the safety of the troops.
The wind direction suddenly shifted from the west. If only it would hold. He watched the vane shift: north, west, north, north, west, south, west . . .
The soldiers barked orders, clearly wanting the two Americans to surrender. Slowly, eyes on the vane, Stillwater placed his hands on top of his head.
In a rough voice Coffee snarled, "Madhar eta coon mae kun um!" The Iraqis began to scream at them.
"Offering to buy the beer?" Stillwater asked.
"I was suggesting that I would like to have anal sex with their mothers," Coffee said.
"Oh, good. I was worried you'd say something that might make matters worse." Stillwater didn't take his eyes off the weathervane. West, west, west.
"Just buying time."
"I would prefer they didn't kill us"
They didn't hear the F-117A fly overhead or see its batlike shadow blot out the sky. But Stillwater had a sense of the five-hundred-pound bombs coming down just prior to impact. The roar, even from two miles away, was deafening, setting off other bombs, a chain reaction of explosions. The ground shook, seemed to undulate like a writhing snake. For a moment it felt like the end of the world. Dust rose like flies from a corpse.
Stillwater, thrown to the ground with Coffee, kept his eyes on the weathervane.
An alarm went off in his ear, the small earphone connected to a chemical agent monitor, the second piece of equipment that was his responsibility. It was rigged for audio alarm only. The display that would indicate intensity and type of gas was blacked out for covert night action. "Gas!" he shouted at Coffee.
But Coffee was rolling on the hard desert floor, handgun pulled, firing at the Iraqi soldiers, who had also been flung to the ground by the force of the shockwaves.
In the distance the depot continued to explode, armaments going off from the compression caused by the U.S. bombs. In comparison, Coffee's .45 seemed like a popgun.
Stillwater pulled his gas hood over his head and ran to Coffee, staggering as the ground shook beneath his feet. Coffee was gasping for air, scrabbling for his own hood. Snatching it from his hands, Stillwater yanked it over his head. Antidote, antidote, he thought, quickly grabbing for the kit attached to his belt.
With practiced hands he slammed together the ampoule of atropine and injected it into Coffee's thigh. Coffee slumped to the ground, chest heaving. Turning, Stillwater saw that the Iraqis were on the ground, gasping for breath, clawing with bleeding fingers at their throats, dying for air. They would soon be dead.
Stillwater's gaze returned to the weathervane.
A gust of wind struck the helmet of his gas mask, sand making skittering sounds against the shield.
North, north, north.
The wind had shifted. It was blowing the poison gas and whatever else Saddam Hussein had in that depot. It was blowing the fallout toward the waiting troops.
He glanced at the Iraqi soldiers. Both were still, skin blistered, faces swollen, lying in pools of vomit and blood and shit.
Lugging Coffee onto his shoulders, Stillwater carried him to their dune buggy and dropped him into the passenger seat. Stillwater felt for a pulse beneath the hood.
Weak. But steady.
It took Stillwater only minutes to load their equipment into the dune buggy and haul ass out of there, back to the troops. As he drove, he radioed a warning of the cloud of toxic waste that was coming their way.
He hoped he wasn't too late.
The Gates of Hell
Baltimore, MarylandPresent Liz Vargas leaned against the wall outside the locker room on the second floor of U.S. Immunological Research. Just off her left shoulder, a sign read:
HOT LEVEL 4
HIGHEST LEVEL BIOCONTAINMENT
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
Beneath the sign, in blood red paint, was the spider-like biohazard symbol.
Liz tapped her foot and glanced at her watch. Michael was late. So what else was new? She didn't like working with Michael Ballard in Hot Level 4, but her usual partner, Jim Scully, had called in sick.
No one was allowed to work HL4 alone. No one. And since there were only five authorized people to work HL4, only five people whose ID badges would open the door to the locker room, she had needed to make arrangements. The two other people authorized had been unable to partner with her today. Frank Halloran, the head of the division, was in meetings all day and couldn't get out of them. Nancy Latrelle had turned her down. Liz was pretty sure Nancy would no longer be working HL4, the hot zone. They worked with the most dangerous and lethal infectious agents on the planet in HL4. Some peoplemost people with any degree of sanitybegan to worry about working there. Any normal, intelligent human being began to worry about what one mistake, one slip of a glass pipette or a scalpel, might mean. Working with Ebola and Hantaviruses, Marburg, and othersthe engineered nightmareswas not work for the squeamish. Nor was it work for the crazy. Crazy people weren't afraid. Sane people-well, sane people feared the demons inside HL4.
But Nancy probably hadn't developed that sort of problem. What Nancy seemed to have developed was far more common in hot zones: claustrophobia. In order to work in a hot zone like HL4, you had to wear a biohazard suita spacesuitand some people couldn't handle it at all. And some who could handle it, like Nancy, started to lose their grip on it and began to sweat and panic inside the suit. It had happened the last three times Nancy had suited up. Liz was pretty sure Nancy was done with Hot Level 4. So that left Michael. Who was chronically late.
She was just about ready to drop down to his office when the elevator door opened and a short, bustling man race-walked toward her down the fluorescent-lit corridor. He flung his arms up in the air when he saw her standing there. It was exactly his fast movements and nervous energy that made Michael Ballard a liability in a hot zone.
"Sorry, sorry," he said. "Angie called me, and we got into it?"
Angie. The soon-to-be ex-wife. Yet another reason Liz didn't like to work with Michael. All the emotional agitation was not meant for Hot Level 4. In a hot zone you needed a cool head.
"She's starting to quibble over the boat. The boat! She didn't want me to buy it, she didn't want to go out on it, and now she wants to"
"Michael! Are you ready for this?"
"Hey, sure, no"
She came off the wall and stood squarely in front of him, tapping him on the chest, making sure she had his full attention.
"We have to do this," she said. "But I'm not going in there with you if you've got your undies in a bunch. Don't spend time thinking about Angie or your lawyer fees or your goddamned boat. Think about getting in and out of there without any mistakes. Pay attention."
"Hey, no problem."
Liz was an inch or two taller than Michael's five-five. She gazed into his blue eyes and saw him take a deep breath, relaxing. Centering himself. He became visibly calmer.
"Okay, sorry," he said. "You go in, get changed. I'll be ready in a few minutes."
The locker room for HL4 was unisex. With so few people qualified to work the space, there had been no sense putting in separate locker rooms.
He nodded and ran his left hand through his wiry brown hair. She noticed that he wasn't wearing his wedding band. She wondered if this was because he had taken it off in anticipation of the impending divorce or because no jewelry was allowed in the hot zone. "Yeah," he said. "I'm sure. I'll be fine. Go on."
She nodded and pressed her ID badge to the reader. A green light clicked on, and she pushed her way into the locker room. Five miles away from the two-story building housing U.S. Immunological Research, three white panel vans traveled down I-695.
Inside each van were four men, one driving and three in the back, waiting. They were all in contact with one another via scrambled radios. All but the drivers wore white Tyvek biohazard suits. Hanging around their necks were rubber North respirator masks with Lexan faceplates and two purple virus filters jutting out like insect mandibles. They were seven minutes out.
The locker room was tiny. It contained half a dozen metal lockers, a bench to sit on, a mirror, and shelves. Liz opened a locker and stripped naked. She took off her Timex Indiglo, her earrings, and the gold chain she wore around her neck and placed them on the top shelf of the locker. She twisted her diamond ring and wedding band. The diamond definitely had to go. It was impossible to wear a diamond ring under rubber gloves, and the risk of the diamond cutting the thick rubber was too great. She took off both rings, her heart thudding in her chest. Her husband, Alan, had died two years before in a motorcycle accident, and she still wore the rings. She hated to take off the wedding band. Usually she did, just like the rules said. But she also knew that most everybody took some sort of good-luck charm into the hot zone. Level 4 pathogens did that to seemingly rock-steady people. She put the diamond ring on the shelf but slipped the simple gold wedding band back on her finger. Quickly she pulled on a set of green surgical scrubs. Underwear was not allowed into the hot zone. She donned a cloth surgical cap. She wore her blond hair short, partly to make this work easier, and partly because she thought she looked pretty good with it short. She worked hard at keeping in shape, was still two years shy of forty, and knew she could pass for younger thirtiesnot in her twenties, that wasn't possible. But thirty-two, maybe. She took a calm, steadying look at herself in the mirror, then walked to the door and knocked on it so Michael would know he could come in. She crossed the room to the opposite door and pushed it open, feeling pressure sucking at the door. Everything beyond the locker room was under negative air pressure, designed to keep nasty germsbugsfrom floating out on the air currents. The room beyond, Level 2, was filled with blue ultraviolet light. UV light destroyed viruses and bacteria. Level 2 was a staging area into HL4.
A mile from U.S. Immunological Research, the three vans sped off the expressway onto an exit ramp, then split up, one van heading for the rear entrance, two for the main entrance. The two-story U.S. Immunological Research building was a long, low-slung concrete box with few windows. The second floor contained no windows at all. It looked industrial and uninteresting except for an unusually large number of air vents and stacks on the roof. It was surrounded by a largely empty parking lot, narrow grass borders populated with mature ash, oak, and pine trees, and a six-foot tall chain-link fence. The gatesone in the front and one in the rearweren't designed to keep serious intruders out, but rather to provide a psychological barrier to the randomly curious. When asked, employees of U.S. Immunological Research told people they were a small biotech company trying to create new vaccines, which was essentially true. A uniformed security guard manned a booth at both entrances, and employees were required to display ID and sign in with the guard before a barrier arm was raised. The three vans were two minutes out.
Liz walked through Level 2, which consisted of a shower stall lit by UV light. There was soap and shampoo. She grabbed a pair of socks off a shelf as she passed and slipped them on, then moved into the staging area that contained a desk, sink, and chair. On the desk was a roll of duct tape, which she used to tape the base of her pants to her socks, creating a seal. Then she slipped on a pair of latex gloves and proceeded to tape the shirtsleeve to the gloves. It was a pain in the neck to use tape while wearing rubber gloves, but she managed it without tearing the gloves.
In an overgrown closet next to the desk, her spacesuit hung with four others. It was the newest out from Chemturion, a prototype, bright blue and bulky. She laid it out on the concrete floor and slithered into it. She was staggering to her feet when Michael appeared, his wrists and ankles taped. She shouldered her way into the sleeves, then pulled the facemask over her head, zipping up the zipper. Her faceplate immediately fogged up. Coiled on the wall were plastic air hoses. She unhooked one and plugged it into the suit, which instantly inflated with pressurized air. Her faceplate cleared, but she could barely hear through the roar of the air. She watched as Michael donned his own spacesuit and hooked up to the hoses. They took turns examining each other's fittings and connections, taking extra time to make sure there weren't any breaches in the suits. They each gave the other a thumbs-up, unhooked their air hoses, and proceeded to the passage leading into Hot Level 4.
It was a stainless steel airlock with nozzles built into the ceiling and walls that could spray water and bleach or Lysol for decontamination. It was called the decon room on the technical specs, though everyone who worked HL4 called it Styx. Liz didn't know who had called it Styx first, but the name of the mythological river one crossed into the afterlife had stuck for the decon room. Black humor, to be sure.
At the far end was another heavy metal door. Liz unlatched the door, thinking, Welcome to Hades, and stepped into the hot zone. The vans' attacks were so closely coordinated that two of the vehicles hit the front gate at almost exactly the same time the solo van hit the rear gate. Pulling up to the gates, the vans' side doors slid open, and fully geared men fired their Colt XM-177s into the guardhouses, the 45mm rounds immediately shredding the security guards. Roaring forward, splintering the gate arms, the vans raced to the entrances. The two vans in the front pulled to the front door, and five armed men dressed in white biohazard suits exploded through the main doors. They fired their machine guns at the shocked guards at the main entrance, racing through the main corridor at a dead run, hitting the elevator in seconds. Two white-suited men stayed outside the elevator and fired at anyone who stuck a head out of an office as their three companions rode the elevator to the second floor.
The rear van took a similar approach: only two men went in through the loading dock, emptying their weapons at anyone they saw, breaching the main building and setting up perimeters at two crossways so no one could get to the elevator.
Hot Level 4 opened into a small concrete-block room, about ten feet by sixteen. The walls were covered with metal cabinets that contained a variety of laboratory materials and were lit by UV lights. Everywhere was the red biohazard symbol. At the opposite end of the room was a long concrete corridor with rooms jutting off it. Some of those rooms contained laboratories with microscopes and hoods and centrifuges, while others contained animalscaged monkeys in three of the roomsand yet others were autopsy suites. Momentarily unhooked from the air supply, Liz shouted, "We need to feed the monkeys, then check the Marburg cultures. Frank said"
Above their heads a yellow light began to strobe. There were two lights, one yellow, one red. The yellow one indicated someone was entering HL4. That was unexpected, but they had just a moment to be glad it wasn't the red strobe light. The red light indicated that the negative pressure air system had been compromised and any bugs in the area might be able to get to the outside world.
Their relief was short-lived as two figures in white Tyvek biohazard suits burst into the hot zone. Both carried machine guns. One had a bulky bag slung over his shoulder.
"What the hell?" Michael stepped forward, hands held out in a "stop" gesture. "Who the hell"
The machine guns chattered. Michael flew backward, blood spattering his blue suit. Clumsy in her spacesuit, Liz spun and began to sprint down the hallway, hoping to dive into one of the rooms. She could lock herself in. She was into the corridor when a massive impact struck her back and, slamming into the concrete-block walls, she was flung to the ground.
She heard the two men shouting to each other in a foreign language. She didn't move. Didn't want to bring their attention to the fact she was alive.
She didn't know why she was alive. Her back hurt like she'd been hit with a sledgehammer, but she otherwise seemed uninjured. Her heart thundered in her chest, her breathing fogging her faceplate. Oh God! she thought. Don't let them see the mist on the faceplate. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the two figures disappear into the first room on the left, the storage room for the frozen samples of all the Level 4 pathogens. It contained refrigerators, freezers, and liquid nitrogen containers.
Who were they?
She heard one of the men say something. It sounded ... Asian? She didn't know. Foreign. She tried to focus on the words. Tried to remember, but her brain wasn't working right. Her usually nimble mind seemed to be stuck in a pit of thick tar. There was a dim rumble and clatter, then a hissing sound. A moment later she heard the sound of footsteps as the figures left Hot Level 4. She tried to take a deep breath but found she couldn't. When she tried to inhale, a blistering shot of pain seared across her back and shoulder blades. She was getting sleepy, her eyes barely able to open. God, she thought. Maybe I am dying. And then she realized that without an air hose hooked up, she was rapidly depleting the remaining oxygen in her suit. Staggering cautiously to her feet, she noted that the yellow strobe light had stopped, but she could hear klaxons going all throughout the building. Reaching over, she snagged an air hose and hooked it up to her spacesuit. Her suit inflated again, the roar in her ears almost a comfort. She looked down at Michael, lying still in a puddle of blood, and began to shake. Then it hit her, hit her hard, the shock, the fear-and she crumpled again to the hard floor.
Meet the Author
Mark Terry (Michigan) is a full-time writer and editor. The author of a collection of mystery novellas and a crime novel, he currently reviews books for The Oakland Press. Terry also has a degree in microbiology and experience with infectious disease research and genetics.
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I tend to get a bit jaded when it comes to thrillers, so when I find one worth recommending, I want to do so fome the mountaintops! "The Devil's Pitchfork" is just that kind of thriller. It is the first in the Derek Stillwater series. Judging from this book, it is a series that will be around for a long time. In this book you have a biological weapon that makes the worst part of The Bible look like a walk in the park; a villain that wants to destroy the world so he can have his own paradise, and a hero that is all too human. The writing is fast paced and as addictive as potato chips. You will not want to stop. Consider this a warning. Yes, this book is that good!