A Heartbeat Away

A Heartbeat Away

by Michael Palmer

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A Heartbeat Away by Michael Palmer

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429994262
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/15/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 92,696
File size: 985 KB

About the Author

Michael Palmer (1942-2013) wrote internationally bestselling novels of medical suspense, including The First Patient, The Second Opinion, The Last Surgeon, A Heartbeat Away, Oath of Office and Political Suicide. His book Extreme Measures was adapted into a movie starring Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman. His books have been translated into thirty-five languages. Palmer earned his bachelor's degree at Wesleyan University, and he attended medical school at Case Western Reserve University. He trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals. He spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine. In addition to his writing, Palmer was an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society Physician Health Services, devoted to helping physicians troubled by mental illness, physical illness, behavioral issues, and chemical dependency. He lived in eastern Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

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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A Heartbeat Away 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 164 reviews.
Richard_Mabry More than 1 year ago
I'm an unashamed Michael Palmer fan, so I went into this one with high expectations--and he exceeded them. I was hooked from the first couple of scenes, and couldn't wait to get back to the book to see what he'd cooked up next. It's a bio-terror thriller that involves the President, Congress, and everyone in the line of succession to the President except the "designated survivor" being exposed to a deadly virus by a group of terrorists. The only man who can possibly find a solution to save everyone is a scientist the President has had locked up in solitary confinement for months as an accused traitor. I'm pretty good at predicting twists, turns, and endings, but Palmer kept me guessing to a very satisfying end. Highly recommended
CBH More than 1 year ago
When a power failure occurred in parts of the eastern United States, no one had an inkling of what caused it. All the experts were stunned since with all the emergency backups in place, this shouldn't be happening, but it was! As President James Allaire took the podium to give his State of the Union address, power to certain areas also failed in the house chambers where all of the top officials of the United States government were gathered to listen to this annual report the president gave to the nation. The only exception to this gathering was one government official that wasn't allowed to be with all the others in case of an emergency. For this occasion it was the eighteenth in succession to the presidency, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Paul Rappaport, who was in another area of the nation. When President Allaire started his speech, all rose and gave enormous applause for him. However, when his speech resumed he heard a popping sound followed by the sounds of breaking glass and the emergence of a thin, white mist throughout the audience as the same sounds were heard in various areas of the room. Thus was the first that Genesis had become public with their threats by releasing a horrific threat called WRX3883. The president immediately had all the doors locked to keep all inside so none of this terrible what-ever-it-was could be spread to the outside world. Eventually President Allaire split the over seven hundred in the gallery into three groups depending on how close they were to the mist that had been released. The Speaker of the House, Ursula Ellis, who thought she should have been elected president because she was the best thing that could have happened to the nation, was one of the large baulkers about the separation. President Allaire admitted to some that he and some others had been working on finding a serum to fight this released biological agent but he had kept it secret and was still doing so. No one knew how so much of this could have been smuggled into the House. Angela Fletcher is a star reporter who had worked with others in the biological field and who wanted in on whatever was occurring in the House Chambers. The outside world was blocked from any news regarding the threat facing all those gathered to listen to the State of the Union message. President Allaire knew the man he wanted to attempt to open the mystery of WRX3883; Griffin Rhodes was this man but the problem is that Rhodes was serving a life sentence in prison for killing, even though he still maintained his innocence. Rhodes was contacted and his demands were met for a full pardon IF he found a serum that would wipe out this terrible disease that tore the insides of a person apart in a very short time. Angela and Griffin had known each other from previous work and were both drawn into the search. All the time there were battles in the groups between the hateful Speaker of the House, the Vice-President, the President, and others taking one side or the other in attempting to control who would do what and how. "A Heartbeat Away" is a fantastic thriller with many twists and many turns including Genesis finding out who was doing what and where through someone that must be working against the president. Michael Palmer has given us a look at some of the terrible situations that could arise out of such a dangerous threat and how hard-fought the battle could be to attempt to control such an immediate threat. Read it and y
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
Michael Palmer has written an intense political thriller involving the president, terrorists, scientists and a deadly virus. From the start when terrorists calling themselves 'Genesis' cause a huge blackout then release a deadly virus in the Capital to the finale and resolution, this novel is one hell of a page turner. Non-stop action, twists, questions and more kept me engrossed throughout the night reading this one.
We-Love-2-Read More than 1 year ago
What a fantastic thriller! Just when you thought you had it figured out, you were wrong again. I couldn't put the book down. I have read nearly all of Michael Palmer's novels and enjoyed each of them equally as well. I highly recommend his books, especially to medical professionals who enjoy a good thriller. The medical side is so accurate too!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thsi book was so intense that I literally could not put this down..Micheal Palmer is the best!!!
Laura50 More than 1 year ago
I received an advanced review copy of Michael Palmer's "A Heartbeat Away" which opens with U. S. President Jim Allaire entering the U. S. House of Representatives Chamber to give his State of the Union address. While still giving his introductory remarks, a biological weapon, WXR3883, is suddenly released from several purses and briefcases of unaware Congressmen. The President, a former physician, knows that this virus is deadly and in seeking to prevent it from being spread to the public orders the Capitol doors shut, locking every one in. A terrorist group called Genesis sends an email to the House Speaker, the President's rival, demanding that their legislative agenda be passed before they will allow the antidote to be dispensed. The agenda? Banning the Patriot Act and opening up the borders. The Cabinet member designated not to attend the speech, a/k/a the survivor, is the Secretary of Homeland Security, the last Cabinet member in the line of succession to the Presidency should a terrorist action take place. Allaire has to rely on a domestic terrorist that he sent to prison, Griffin Rhodes, to come up with an antidote. I loved the Melvin Forbush character and wonder if he was for Bush. He is a sloppy, overweight scientist with zero social skills but can solve every crisis by finding a mirror from the ghosting errors of just about any movie. He is Rhodes' assistant. I would love to see him in a real flick. There was another part of the story that I found fascinating. It dealt with Griffin Rhodes' refusal to use animals in his experiments. I don't know if this is realistic today or if Palmer made it up. I thought about whether to categorize this novel as a political thriller even though Palmer writes medical mysteries. The title is certainly a political one as is the setting. However, there are too many strings left hanging that you would not find in a political thriller. There was no investigation of Capitol security or other staffers to determine their culpability. Likewise, there was no looking at the particular Congressmen from whose bags the weapon was released. All of these issues would be central to any political thriller. The plot followed the placement of the weapons in the Chamber to find those Congressmen who were the most ill. All were triaged into 3 groups depending on the advanced state of their illness. Instead of finding fault here, I decided to categorize it as a medical mystery. Most of the story lies in the symptomology of the virus as well as the rush to find an antidote. The medical mystery formula is the one Palmer followed so that makes the decision a little easier but I think a lot of folks will be disappointed that there were unresolved political schemes. In any event, this is still a great novel that keeps you hanging until the last page.
usmc_brat More than 1 year ago
This was the first book I've read by Michael Palmer, and I will efinitely read more. Fast paced and considering our times, very believable. I'm a politics junkie, so this was a perfect read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I stumbled across this title just as I was finishing Ken Follett's Whiteout, another virus thriller. While the plot concept sounded good, book really just failed to keep my interest at any level. I think the biggest problem for me was that all the characters seemed so shallow, self-serving, and downright evil. Even the "hero" didn't inspire any enthusiasm.
Suspensemag More than 1 year ago
Always exhilarating, Palmer ratchets the tension to a breathtaking level with the release of "A Heartbeat Away". Stunning in its realism and truly terrifying, Palmer keeps a frantic, anxiety-driven pace, giving his fans a ringside seat as the nightmare unfolds. As President James Allaire begins his second State of the Union address, he's prepared to captivate the public with his charm, but doesn't get the opportunity. Within moments of launching his message, puffs of vapor begin pouring out of strategically placed locations on the floor of the House Chamber. As the haze subsides, he receives a horrifying message. Genesis-a domestic terrorist group-has released a deadly, contagious and incredibly aggressive virus into the Capitol building and all hell is about to break loose. Allaire is all too familiar with WRX3883 and the lethal consequences of its release. He is, in part, responsible for its origination and is very aware that the outcome has become dire for the hundreds of beautifully coifed attendees of this evening. Trapped with all but one successor for the office of the presidency, Allaire must reach out to the one man who has absolutely no reason to help him. One time virologist, Griffin Rhodes is now a permanent resident in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison in Colorado. Being held for alleged terrorist acts and unaware of his crimes, Rhodes faces a personal challenge when granted freedom in exchange for his assistance. With a grim outlook, amplified as he walks into the nightmarish scene of the crime, Rhodes understands that the hope of the nation lies heavily on his shoulders. Palmer's genius lies in his ability to never underestimate the intelligence of his readers as he takes us into thought-provoking territories meant to keep us up at night. Reviewed by Shannon Raab for Suspense Magazine
KenCady More than 1 year ago
I have previously enjoyed some of Michael Palmer's medical thrillers, but this one is just dreadful. Truly one of the worst books I have read in years. The plot just doesn't hold interest or belief.
majkenmarie More than 1 year ago
This book had promise at the beginning, but started lagging in the middle. Some of the dialogue was off, and the end seemed thrown together in a hurry. Not a book I'd recommend.
Kittyb1 More than 1 year ago
I literally found myself holding my breath throughout this roller coaster ride book. I've read all of Mr. Palmer's books and love his direct, fast paced style. This one has it all! Political intrique, scary characters, a deadly virus...and an unexpected hero! Get ready to stay with this one...you can't put it down.
tommygrrl723 More than 1 year ago
Although I found the premise of this book intriguing, the lack of character development, the severely uneven pace of the plot, and the seemingly rushed ending left alot to be desired. Definitely not one of my favorites from Michael Palmer.
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This was my first Michael Palmer book and it won't be my last. At first it was a little slow,  but the more I got into it was difficult to put down. Really liked it and would recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great political thriller with many twists and turns.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The plot moved along fast and kept my attention but the who doneit part of the story was highly disapointing but overall a very good read
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Great book
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