December 2001: Two unrelated but equally devastating events on opposite sides of the globe will forever change the life of young Sara Wyeth.
When American forces invade Afghanistan, Sara leaves her internal medicine residency in London, and with her fiancé, Dr. Khaled Afaq, she joins in setting up a hospital in Kabul, only to have Khaled kidnapped and thrown into the U.S. established Bagram Prison as an accused terrorist. At the same time, Sara's father, a renowned biogenetics research scientist, has disappeared in Memphis, Tennessee and feared murdered over his ground-breaking research on immunity to anthrax. Sara turns to Memphis homicide detective and former Delta Force Operative Will Howling to help with the impossible: spring Sara's fiancé from a lawless prison in a war zone and find her father's murderer. Together they find themselves confronting a tangled web of shocking corruption at the highest levels of power, a plot to unleash a deadly virus, and on a collision course of fated love.
From a notorious black site prison, to a midnight rendezvous with a Voodoo god on a crossroads in rural Mississippi, into the corrupt corridors of pharmaceutical giants who will kill for profit and power, A Midnight Trade explores the opening salvo of the twenty-first century in this story of a young woman whose life is torn apart and whose future is irrevocably altered.
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A Midnight Trade
By Janet Wise
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Janet Wise
All rights reserved.
December 2001, Tennessee
Looking out the kitchen window, he saw foggy mist hovering, a ghostly blanket over the frost-covered ground just visible in the predawn light. Curling his shoulders forward, then in a backward roll, he stretched tender muscles.
Will Howling pulled on a fleece, and taking his steaming mug of coffee, stepped outside onto the planking that spanned the cliff side of the cabin. Leaning against the railing, he savored the hot liquid, its aroma mixing with the pungent scent of pine, cedar, and damp ground covered with rain-soaked leaves. The cabin set etched into the side of a ravine down from the Cumberland Plateau, which at its highest, rose more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River Valley. The Obed Wild and Scenic River System was a labyrinth of rocky ridges and verdant ravines dropping steeply into gorges laced with waterfalls, caves, ferns, forests, and rhododendrons, their blooms absent this time of year.
Watching the morning mists as they rose from the deep, Will had a primordial sense of the history these rocky walls had seen; he pondered what words William Butler Yeats or Walt Whitman might have used to describe the ancients who had dwelled in those caves. Would they put into prose the feeling that lingering spirits watched over the garden valley still ... that they drifted from those dark crevices and rode the swirling clouds? The week of winter rock climbing and white water canoeing had cleared his head and his spirit, reminding how good it felt to live out of doors—to pit muscle and skill to scaling those rocky cliffs and riding the rapids.
The door opened. Paul Maxwell, aka Max, joined him. "For a desk jockey pushing forty you managed to keep up all right."
Will's ancient spirits retreated into the mists. A grin tugged, but he didn't bite. "Only a couple of fools would freeze their butts off to have all this fun."
"Ah ... but we've had it all to ourselves, and the river is wilder after the autumn rains."
"Like I said, only a couple of fools ... as far as having the place to ourselves, there's probably a reason for that." Will paused for another sip of coffee. "What time you heading out?"
"About an hour." Nodding toward the front side of the cabin where their canoes were parked, "Soon as I pack up and tighten the bungees on the ole' girl there. You?"
"Same." Because his drive back to Memphis was two hours shorter than Max's return to Fayetteville in North Carolina, Will said, "Thanks again, Buddy, for coming up here this time. Your pick in the Smokies in May." The Smokey Mountain National Park would be the destination of their next alpha-male ritual.
When they'd first begun these biannual rites ten years in the past, Max had dubbed their sojourns into the wilds as two little boys playing Lewis and Clark. "I'll be Clark," he'd said, telling Will he had to be Lewis, since Lewis died mysteriously at the age of thirty-five.
"No way," Will had retorted. "I'm not ending up as a syphilitic drunk named Meriwether. You be Lewis, I'll be Clark. Besides, my name is William, so naturally I should be Clark." They'd drawn straws: Will was Lewis.
"Not a problem, Meriwether. You were right about this place. The river here was a great ride. Instead of the Obed, I rechristened her Oh Betty, for how she does buck and roll! Speaking of which, think over what I said. If you've seriously severed your ties and banished all thoughts of pending matrimony—well, with all the terrorism shit that's broken loose this fall, there's a lot of opportunity back in the Force. Hell, your fancy education, you could re-up at a higher rank. Get reinstated for a short path to retirement. JSOC could use you," Max said, referring to the Joint Special Operations Command that presided over Delta Force, the Army's elite Special Operations Force and primary counter-terrorism unit in which Max served, and up until eight years ago, Will had as well. "There's also a whole new privatized military industry popping up. The pay is fantastic." He hesitated, and then said, "I can see why being a homicide detective in Memphis and staying in one place looked good to you, if you were going to try again at tying the knot. But if you're not, well, it's got to be, uh—"
"Hey, what do I know? But then again, how many different ways does some pimp or john whack a drugged-out streetmama?"
"Yeah, well, being on the side that's putting them away somehow feels better than arming Contras, and stumbling into villages and seeing what they were doing with the firepower—what we were helping them do. You know why I got out, Max. Afghanistan won't be any different than Nicaragua or El Salvador."
Max was silent for a moment. "Just think about it. JSOC could use someone like you. Former Delta Force, reconnaissance, now a forensics BA and Masters in Criminal Justice, your homicide experience," he said. "This new bunch of creeps is producing a lot of business."
"You have some kind of sadomasochistic streak? You really want me to come back and win all your pay? Two weeks out of the year isn't enough for you?" Will said, referring to their nightly marathons at poker.
"You know I just let you do that to compensate for me being taller and better looking."
Will chuckled. He was three quarters of an inch over six feet tall, never able to stretch the tape to six-one, and weighed in at 190. Max was six-three, and tipped the scales at 215. "All brawn and no speed, and my mother thinks I'm better looking than you."
"My mother probably thinks so too," Max said with a grin. "She probably even likes you better than me, and why I take such good care of you. She'd be pissed if I let you fall off a cliff face and bump your head. Come on, let's load those canoes."
* * *
Later that Sunday afternoon, Detective Will Howling reversed onto his garage ramp, pressed the door opener, and guided the small boat trailer inside. He unhitched it, pulled his SUV into the other side of the double-wide, and unpacked the rest of his gear. It had been a great week, and he was just stiff and sore enough to be pleasantly reminded of how he got that way. A daily run and three to four hours a week at the gym with the weights kept him in shape, but there was nothing like a week in the wilds with Max to find those weak spots.
The drive back to Memphis had given him plenty of time to reflect on Max's pestering about returning to the Force. It wasn't that he was bored with his job. Yet after all he'd worked for, he sometimes wondered if being a homicide detective in Memphis was a satisfying end of the road. Then he'd met Cindy. She was an assistant to the DA: smart, funny, a nice face, and an even nicer body.
It had been twelve years since Will had divorced his first wife, to whom he'd been married at the young age of twenty-one. The marriage had ended in disaster when he was twenty-seven. While he liked having a woman in his life, and preferred monogamy, his first failure at making it legal—that he partially blamed on his being in the military and gone a lot—had left a scar in his psyche that made him shy away from trying it again. He was happy enough on his own, he counseled himself, and most of the time, could honestly say that he preferred it on a day-to-day basis. But Cindy had other plans and had pressed for something permanent. At thirty-two her clock was ticking. For awhile, he'd actually thought about trying the whole marriage thing again. But his brain—the one that wasn't located between his legs—had held off. Because when he wasn't thinking with the one between his legs, he just couldn't picture it. Having a family, living happily ever after, and growing old with Cindy, wasn't an image he could hang on to. True, his lower brain got excited about her in the sack, but his upper forgot about her when his erratic work life called. Cindy had gotten tired of that arrangement, not that he blamed her. That was three months ago.
He'd asked her once how she knew that she loved him. She'd said, "Because my heart beats faster when you're in the room and I have trouble breathing." They'd laughed. But, though he didn't tell her, he'd realized his heart didn't. The symphonic crescendos just weren't there for him—not a robust full orchestra to accompany them for a lifetime.
But about Max's pressure that he come back to the Force, Will knew that wasn't it for him. That would be going backward to something he had left for reasons that for him were still valid. At the same time, his friend had a point. There were a lot of career tracks opening up, thanks to the attack on the World Trade Center. He wouldn't mind putting some of those perps away. Plus there were times when his world seemed a little small.
"Hey, Sal," he said in greeting to the fluffy feline who glowered at him as he came through the kitchen door. "Did Mrs. Bemis take good care of you?" Her unfriendly meow that sounded more like a growl told him he was going to be in the doghouse, or more appropriately, the cathouse, for awhile. Ms. Bemis provided for Sal's food, water, and kitty-litter needs when Will was gone. When he finally dared reenter her domain, the cat sulked, showing, in Will's estimation, how much she'd missed him. Like Cindy, he thought.
"Just so you didn't piss in my shoes, darling." He reached to give her a stroke, to which she responded by turning and stalking away, reminding him with regal dignity who was queen in this household. He was going to have to grovel for awhile.
His answering machine blinked six messages. Will ignored it until he'd unpacked and returned to the kitchen and retrieved a cold Bud from the refrigerator. Only after he'd popped the top for a draught did he punch "play."
The first two were from earlier in the week from his mother up in Tiptonville wanting to know about his plans for Christmas and reminding him that his thirty-ninth birthday fell three days before the holiday. She suggested he come up in time to celebrate both—little more than two weeks away, he realized. Her mention of it brought back Max's jibe about his friend pushing forty. Forty was to be a time of taking stock of one's life and making course corrections, as in having a mid-life crisis. Will didn't feel in crisis, but smiled to himself, thinking he still had a year to go. Maybe he could create one before then. The next message was from his sister asking about gift exchanging.
The following two were calls from the Chief himself. At 12:20: "Howling, Chief here. I know you're not due back on duty until tomorrow morning, but we've got a situation here I'd like you to take a look at. Give me a call as soon as you get in."
At 13:45: "Howling. This is the Chief again. We've got a missing person on our hands— an important doc from the East. Set up to look like a jumper off Hernando, but it doesn't hang right. I want you on this. It can't wait until 08:00 tomorrow." Hernando translated as the Hernando de Soto Bridge which spanned the Mississippi River.
The last message at 14:15 was from Detective Ted Lawson, who worked in missing persons, asking that he call just as soon as he got in.
It was now 14:45. Will gave a silent groan and dialed the Chief's number.
* * *
"So what we've got here is one of the country's top biogenetics scientists—maybe one of the top in the world—doing a disappearing act on our turf. His rental car was found a mile in on Hernando, facing the wrong way, no damage indicating an accident. Time pinpointed between 03:45 and 04:00 this morning. Patrol checks showed the bridge clear at 03:45, with vehicle found at 04:00. Dr. Daniel Wyeth was last seen at the Children's Hospital fundraiser at the Peabody at 24:00 Saturday—an obvious gap in time between midnight and four a.m. Turns out he serves on the board, and he was the keynote at this black-tie dinner and auction affair. Wyeth flew into Memphis alone, arriving Saturday around noon from Baltimore, staying at his wife's parents' house over on the east side. Wife and two young children had stayed behind in Baltimore. Wyeth was scheduled to return to Baltimore, departing at eleven this morning."
Will sat at the small conference table along with Chief Hank Hawkins; Detective Lawson; Sam Peck, the department forensics team leader; and Detective Susan Hendricks, Lawson's junior partner. Both Lawson and Hendricks were with missing persons. Will was the only one with homicide, and technically the one person who was out of place at this meeting. The Peabody Museum was located downtown and not far, as the crow flies, from the river, as everyone in the room was aware.
"Forensics is going through the rental, we've ordered DNA and dental, with the wife's permission," the Chief continued. "We're dredging the river."
"Other family?" Will asked.
"Scientist has a set of twins, twenty-eight years of age—fraternal—a brother and sister," the Chief replied. "Mother died of cancer quite young. No brothers or sisters of his own, his parents deceased. So Wyeth's on his second family: wife number two about eighteen years younger, kids aged four and one. Parents and wife say Wyeth is—or was—happy as a clam with his new set-up, and at the peak of his career."
"Biogenetics, as in what?" Will asked. "What was he working on, and where?"
"Well, that's something for you to dig into, Detective. But from what the family tells us, he was top in his field in studying immunity to anthrax, smallpox, and other types of influenza. He was tied to Johns Hopkins Research Center in Baltimore, as well as Howard Hughes Research in Chevy Chase."
"Anthrax?" Will asked.
"Yeah," the Chief grunted. "Sort of broadens the scope of speculation."
"What do we know about the twins?" Will asked.
"Both went to top ivy-league schools. Son's a law graduate from Harvard and works for a big beltway corporate law firm in D.C. Daughter went to med school at Johns Hopkins—also studied biogenetics, kind of following in her father's footsteps. But her whereabouts is something of a mystery. Out of the country, but no one could, or would, say where exactly."
"Given Wyeth's profile and his being a missing person, are we expecting the Feds on our doorstep?" Will asked.
"Without a doubt, they'll be ringing our doorbell by 08:00 tomorrow."
Will and the Chief exchanged a look, but nothing further was said. Everyone at the table knew that the first forty-eight hours were the most critical in solving a crime. After that, the evidence went cold and witnesses dried up or disappeared. But this case, so far, had no witnesses, other than those who had seen Wyeth at the fundraiser. And there was no body, so they didn't even know if a crime had been committed. The people who'd attended the Peabody affair would all be interviewed, and there would also be a more thorough discussion with the wife's parents and the wife—plus the son, and the daughter, if she could be located.
Will would be burning the midnight oil on-line researching Dr. Wyeth's field of research, and exactly what the missing doc had been up to. As well, he would be talking to his employers and research colleagues back east. He underlined "daughter." Close relatives whose whereabouts were mysteriously unknown always made one curious when someone in the family got whacked, assuming the doc hadn't been practicing his swan dive off the Hernando.
The conversation with Max, and his reflections about Memphis being a little backwater when it came to homicide work, came ironically back into Will's thoughts. Thinking of Max brought back the physical and spiritual lift provided to his psyche from their week in the wilds of the Obed River Valley. Though grounded once again in his real world, the residual from that lift still hovered in the margins of his mind.
* * *
A time would come in the future when Will would remember his reverie prompted by the mists over the valley below, recall a line from Lord Byron, and recognize it as a metaphor of caution to himself:
The mists begin to rise from up the valley; I'll warn him to descend, or he may chance To lose at once his way and life together.
December 2001, Afghanistan
The room was cold. Had there been any light, Khaled Afaq might have seen the fog of gray mist with each exhalation. Sara Wyeth's soft, even breathing tempted him to slip in close to her silky, slender warmth. She would murmur something and snuggle next to him, welcoming even in sleep. But this morning he didn't want to wake her. The late night before at the hospital had been rugged. A bomb in a market had killed seven. The other fifteen injured were women and children. They had lain in hollowed-out shock, moaning, or waiting their turn in silence, their minds elsewhere, gone in the aftermath of pain and horror. As a small team of physicians, they'd done what they could in the poorly-equipped, makeshift hospital, neglected during Afghanistan's quarter century of war.
Excerpted from A Midnight Trade by Janet Wise. Copyright © 2013 by Janet Wise. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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