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Got It Bad
By Mary Kay McComas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Mary Kay McComas
All rights reserved.
"Good morning. I'm Dr. McKissack from the CDC. I'd like to see Dr. Kurtsevo Andropov." Her voice was calm but firm as she resisted the urge to reach out and choke the receptionist at Agro-Chem Labs until her pretty hazel eyes bulged. "Please."
Recognition flickered across the young woman's face. "I'm sorry, Dr. McKissack," she said, taking a deep, bracing breath. "Dr. Andropov isn't taking any calls or seeing any visitors right now. If you'd care to leave a message, I'll see that—"
"I am not a visitor," she said, cutting through the standardized rejection speech. She kept her tone soft and mild, the way her mother had taught her. Loud, squeaky wheels got more attention, she used to say, but the quiet ones that kept on moving covered more territory. "I am here as an agent of the United States government and Dr. Andropov will see me. Today. Now."
The receptionist was clearly shaken. Being caught between the United States government and Dr. Andropov was an undesirable position to be in, to be sure. As the woman began to shake her head the great glass doors to the lobby opened with a swishing noise, and a wiry, highly harried man scurried in.
"Oh, man. Oh, man. I hate this. I really hate this," he told the world as he scanned the lobby and fixed his attention on the receptionist's desk. The small red-and-white cooler he held at arm's length in front of him was marked with a familiar CDC label reading: Danger. Live Organisms. High Risk. "I don't mind the body parts, the brains and hearts and stuff ... and I don't mind most of the bugs," he was saying as he approached them. "The regular kind that can't hurt you, ya know? But I really hate these ones you can't see, the ones that can kill you twice before you even know they're there. Oh, man. Gives me the creeps, I'm tellin' you."
The courier set the cooler on the high rim of the receptionist's desk, swinging his arms wide and taking two giant steps backward.
"Stand back, lady," he said to her. He picked up a black stone that was hanging around his neck on a chain and held it between him and the box—as he might thrust a crucifix at a vampire. "I wouldn't get any closer to that thing than I had to. Oh, man. My girlfriend told me not to get out of bed today. I shoulda listened to her."
Dr. McKissack moved sideways, distancing herself from the messenger rather than his delivery. Even if the box contained the deadly Ebola virus, it was better controlled than the strange young man in the khaki Bio-Transport uniform.
"Good morning, it's ... Dwayne, right?" the receptionist said, smiling, seeming to take his behavior in stride. Opening a three-ring binder, checking the numbers on the cooler, and shuffling through the pages all at once, she went on, "You're early this morning. Ah, here we go. This one's for Dr. Powhatten. Huh, third one this week," she said, as if it were interesting. "I'll call and make sure she's ready for it."
She picked up the phone and punched in several numbers before her gaze rose and met Dr. McKissack's again. There was a certain resignation in her eyes, and she sighed.
"I'll let him know you're here, Doctor. But that's all I can do."
"Thank you," she said, her soft Southern accent barely detectable. She turned away from the desk when the woman began to speak into the phone. There were court orders to be issued if worse came to worst, she knew, but that would take more time and trouble that she simply couldn't afford at the moment.
Besides, she wasn't what you'd call a by-the-book sort of gal. A big part of an unshakable belief system that she'd developed in her life was that there was an exception to every rule, and every rule was meant to be broken. So, what good was "the book" anyway? As a matter of fact, she so rarely used "the book," she wasn't all that sure what was in it anymore. For the most part, she made up her own rules as she went along, broke them when it was necessary, and made up new ones.
Dr. Andropov's reputation—as brilliant, bullheaded, and badly behaved—extended far beyond the front desk at Agro-Chem Laboratories. She'd been considerably less than graceful in accepting the assignment to investigate his work with a new strain of bacteria called Andropov-B, A-B1 for short, named, no less, after the brilliant Dr. Andropov himself.
Hmmph. Dealing with galactic egos was not her forte. And this particular oversized male ego had pushed her beyond understanding, beyond tolerance, almost to the point of throwing "the book" at him. Actually, any large book would do.
"Upstairs. Bio-Chem labs. Go all the way to the back, all the way down the hall. It's the last door on the left," she heard the receptionist telling Dwayne the messenger.
"Oh, man. I hate this," he said, reaching for the cooler. "I shoulda stayed in bed. Today is not a good day to be messin' with stuff like this. My karma's too weak and my stars are all out of sync and today's Friday the thirteenth ... I got a really bad feeling about this," he muttered as he walked toward the elevators. "A really bad feeling. I need more protection. What's an obsidian stone against bugs you can't see? I shouldn't even be here. She was right. I shoulda stayed in bed ..."
It was a relief to see him swallowed up by the elevator. His anxiety was contagious, she realized, rolling some of the tension from her own shoulders.
She couldn't remember the last good night's sleep she'd had, her mind drifting to the queen-size bed with the cool cotton sheets awaiting her in the apartment she rarely lived in. She traveled constantly; her last real vacation had been two ... well, certainly no more than five years ago. She rolled her aching shoulders once more. Where had she gone? Her mind went blank. Lord, she couldn't remember her last vacation. It was definitely time for another.
Hearing her name spoken softly into the telephone across the lobby reminded her that she could have avoided this trip—and maybe spent a night or two in that big cool bed, if his royal highness Dr. Kurtsevo Andropov had been so kind as to return her calls. Hmmph. Surgeons were reputed to have serious godlike complexes, but they couldn't hold a candle to a dedicated scientist on a save-the-world mission.
"Dr. McKissack?" She turned to the receptionist but didn't speak. "Dr. Andropov asked me to tell you to please be seated," the young woman said, waving toward a cluster of comfortable-looking chairs aesthetically arranged near a large window displaying a panoramic view of the Arizona desert.
Soft chairs. Scenic locales. The combination always equaled a long, boring wait. She looked back at the young blond woman, who had the grace to look away, ill at ease.
"To please be seated and then what?" she asked.
"He suggested knitting," she said, all but flinching as she prepared herself for an explosion. "And failing that, he said he'd heard there were several hundred different ways to play solitaire."
Maintaining her anger at a low rolling boil was no longer an option in this particular kitchen. The flame flared, her wrath raged and bubbled over the edges. Yet, the only outward sign of this calamity was her white-knuckled grip on the handle of her briefcase as she walked slowly back to the desk.
"Please inform Dr. Andropov that I'll be returning this afternoon with a search-and-seizure warrant," she said softly, her Mississippi drawl thicker and sweeter than usual. "If he chooses not to cooperate, we'll be moving this investigation to Atlanta." She started to leave, then turned back. "Thank you for your trouble."
It was pleasing to hear the frantic ticking of the receptionist's nails at the telephone as she called to warn the doctor. But it was the tiny tink of the elevator arriving that went off in her head like the alarm in a fire station.
To hell with this, she decided impulsively, making a U-turn at the doors. This assignment had been foisted upon her because she always got the job done, one way or another. The great Dr. Andropov was not going to be her first failure.
She pressed the button for the second floor—Dwayne the messenger had been directed to the bio-chemistry laboratories there, so it made sense—and already she had a plan in her head.
She was like that. Quick on her feet and planning all the time.
Okay. So she'd bluster her way into the doctor's lab, find out what he was doing, make an evaluation, call it into the office, and go on a long vacation. That was the plan. Oh, and sleep. She nodded. Lots of sleep. She liked it. It was a doable plan.
The elevator doors opened to the second floor and to ... well, she wasn't sure what it was at first. The man's smile blinded her. Warm. Welcoming. Amused. And his eyes, a bright laser blue, seemed to be capturing, calculating, and categorizing every atom of her body at once. She was completely undone.
"Dr. McKissack," he said, his voice smooth and deep like cool clear water over river gravel. "What a lovely surprise. You're a little smaller than I expected. Prettier too."
She was speechless.
He knew she would be.
"I know, I know. You don't need to say it," he went on. "I'm younger and better looking than you expected. I hear it all the time. People are constantly confusing me with my father, who'd be nearly a hundred by now, if he were still alive. You can come out of there. I don't bite."
Naturally, he had an entirely different maneuver for keeping male bureaucrats unbalanced, but being the humble, unassuming man that he was, it never failed to amaze him how well a more personal approach worked on females.
He was quick to catch the door when it tried to close on her as she took a reluctant step forward—and he was wrong about her confusing him with his father. She knew who he was.
"I, ah, your father ... He was ... a visionary." She was stammering like an idiot. She cleared her throat. "I admire his work a great deal. Humankind would have starved to death by now if it weren't for some of the work he did."
He nodded his acknowledgment of her tribute, admired her a bit for having done her homework, and then got to the point.
"But that was him and this is me, and right now you're so mad at me, you can hardly see straight. Am I right?"
She was seeing very well. And, unfortunately, she wasn't as mad as she had been. But she still had work to do.
"I don't get mad, Doctor. I do my job. I'm fast and I'm thorough and I try not to interfere with the work in progress. I do, however, very much resent any and all attempts to deny me access to the information I need."
He was smiling again. "Where are you from?"
"You know perfectly well where I'm from," she said, taken back. "Atlanta. The Centers for Disease—"
"No, no. Where did you grow up? Your accent is nearly gone, which is a damn shame, if you don't mind my saying so, but you didn't pick it up in Georgia: It's ... if you'll excuse the word, baser. More common, less refined. Louisiana? Texas Basin maybe?"
"Mississippi," she said, annoyed that all the speech classes she'd taken hadn't eliminated her drawl completely.
"I thought so. A pretty little Southern belle," he said, looking her over from head to toe—not an altogether difficult task, by the by. She was pretty, her stiff neck and prim manner notwithstanding. "And here you are in the dirty world of bacteria and virus. How did you get interested in this field?"
Was he kidding? Did he really believe she couldn't hear the superiority in his voice? The condescension? What was his plan? To keep her talking outside his lab until she passed out from fatigue or hunger; or try to charm her to death with his too dazzling smile and pointless prattle, then shove her back into the elevator and out the front door?
Obviously, he had no idea who he was dealing with.
"Call me Kurt."
"Dr. Andropov, my background is such that I am fully qualified to enter your lab and confiscate any organism I feel is a threat to world health. My authority is such that I can have you placed under arrest if you try to detain me. The same is true if you withhold information from me or mislead me with false information. I am perfectly willing to be reasonable with you. I can conduct my investigation in your lab without disrupting your work, but I will be given a free hand here, or this entire affair will be taken to the labs in Atlanta. The choice is yours, Doctor."
"It's not the bacteria," he said, some of the stubbornness and disagreeableness she had expected now creeping into his demeanor. "It's an outside influence. The bacteria are benign."
"They can't be that benign, Doctor. We've had to quarantine an entire village in Chad and another in the Ukraine, whose inhabitants were manifesting the same mysterious symptoms. When I left Atlanta yesterday they were sending a team of doctors to the Yucatan to check out several more unexplained deaths due to sudden internal hemorrhaging and renal failure. You and the A-B1 bacteria are the only link to all three places that we've been able to come up with so far," she said, wanting very much to give his work the benefit of the doubt. Absently, she noticed Dwayne the messenger exiting a lab down the hall behind Dr. Andropov. He was still holding the cooler as if it contained raw sewage, and looked more confused and upset than before. "If what you say is true and the bacteria checks out benign, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that we'll be back to square one with this investigation. If not, then we'll be able to control the bacteria before it does more harm."
"Believe me, sending you back to square one will give me very little satisfaction, Doctor.
But I'm telling you, it's not the bacteria." Dwayne was making his way down the hall toward them. "They're a natural part of the nitrogen cycle in the soil, as harmless as those living on the roots of ... of clover and alfalfa. They produce nitrates for plant proteins, not toxins."
"That remains to be seen, doesn't it, Doctor?" she said. "Particularly, by me. And until I give the A-B1 bacteria a clean bill of health, it will remain under suspicion and unavailable for foreign export. How will Agro-Chem feel about that, I wonder?" Dwayne, high-strung and ultrasensitive being that he was, chose to avoid the tense atmosphere surrounding the two doctors in the hallway and veered toward the laboratory directly behind them, entering unchecked.
"Agro-Chem has nothing to do with this. I'd pull the fertilizer off the market myself if I thought for one second that the A-B1 bacteria in it was potentially dangerous—which it isn't." He reached over and pushed the down button for the elevator, a not-so-subtle hint that it vas time for her to leave. He'd been mistaken before; her stiff neck and prim manner added something to her beauty, like bone-dry kindling to the fire burning within her. Her quiet passion appealed to him; tempted him to make it burn hotter. "And please don't think I haven't enjoyed meeting you, Doctor. Perhaps if circumstances were different ..."
"If circumstances were different, Dr. Andropov, I'd be a man and I'd punch you in the nose for being arrogant and pigheaded," she said quietly. "I find it hard to believe that you're willing to take this kind of risk with hundreds of thousands of lives, for an organism with your name on it. You are conceited beyond words."
By hook or by crook she was going to get into his laboratory, and she certainly wasn't above stomping on his pride.
"Well, what would you call someone who names a major agricultural miracle after himself? Humble?"
Only the rigid muscle in his cheek twitched, but he couldn't have distanced himself any further from her if he'd taken a rocket to the moon. She was aware of a rigid breeze blowing through the hallway, and she shivered.
"Actually," he said, "I'd call him hardworking and deserving, but there again we differ in our opinions, Dr. McKissack. And since we appear to be unable to agree on anything, perhaps now would be a good time for you to run along and get your court order, and for me to return to my work."
He turned his back on her. Dismissed her. As if she were a ... ah, a ... While her mind sputtered for the proper term, her temper was throwing sparks everywhere.
Excerpted from Got It Bad by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1996 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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