Vivian Henry hasn’t heard her ex-husband’s voice in three years, but it still fills her with fear. Dangerous and brilliant, Dr. Rogers Henry is calling because he’s dying. He offers Vivian a fortune in insurance money if she’ll carry out one final task for him: Take the Medusa device to Washington, DC. The Medusa is his life’s work—a thermonuclear bomb capable of knocking out all modern technology in the country—and he wants her to deliver it to the Pentagon before it falls into the wrong hands.
Cargo plane captain Scott McKay is miles above the ground when the Medusa begins to speak. A recording of Dr. Henry’s voice announces that the device is active and about to explode. With nowhere to land, Captain McKay must rely on his instincts and fly like he has never flown before to prevent a worldwide apocalypse.
Medusa’s Child proves once again that John Nance is the “king of the modern-day aviation thriller” (Publishers Weekly).
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By John J. Nance
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 John J. Nance
All rights reserved.
"Vivian, it's your ex-husband."
The owner of the small florist shop held the telephone receiver to her chest as she delivered the message, startled by the look of shock that swept across the face of her assistant — a tall, elegant woman in her early sixties who seemed frozen in place, a dozen uncut roses clutched in her hand.
"Are you all right, dear?" the shop owner asked.
Vivian Henry's eyes were riveted on the phone as she stepped back in obvious confusion, knocking an empty bud vase off a work table. It crashed to the floor and shattered, but her eyes remained on the receiver.
The diminutive silver-haired owner looked down at the shattered vase, then back at Vivian.
"I take it you don't want to talk to him, then?"
Vivian shook her head vigorously, her eyes wide, as she whispered, "Why is he calling? What does he want?"
"I don't know. Should I ask?"
Vivian nodded, then changed her mind and shook her head no. Slowly she moved forward and held out her hand to take the phone, putting it to her ear as she closed her eyes.
"What do you want, Rogers?" she asked at last.
After three years of blessed silence, the mere sound of her ex-husband's voice triggered the old familiar feelings of panic — the horror of being cornered and unable to run.
"How are you, Vivian?" he asked evenly, the question sending chills down her back.
His voice was different somehow — calm and eerily friendly — just as he'd always sounded before unleashing some withering verbal attack. But there was no hint of the old fury, and no echo of the constant telephone threats he'd hurled at her for months after she'd left him. In their place was the calculating, manipulative Dr. Rogers Henry, a man who clearly wanted something. The strange tone and calm demeanor of his voice made her skin crawl with apprehension.
"You didn't call here to check on my health, Rogers. What do you want?"
I should end this! she cautioned herself, even as she surrendered to the idea that talking might appease him — as if she hadn't made the same mistake for most of the thirty years of captivity — a marriage spent in the yoke of his iron-willed control and abuse.
"Why do you assume I want something?" he asked.
"Then ..." she began, her voice faltering. The wrong response would bring forth a predictable tirade. "What in the world could you possibly want to say to me after all this time? What ... could you possibly say after threatening me so many times — so many ways?"
His reply was as calm as before.
"Has it occurred to you I might want to say I'm sorry? Look, I need a couple of minutes to explain. Will you give me a couple of minutes, Vivian?"
His voice, though calm, sounded weak — devoid of the usual menace. She wondered what was wrong. She'd promised herself she would never care again — never play nurturer to her abuser — but she couldn't help it. She could still remember the thrill of being asked out by him, she a young nuclear engineer on her first important job; he, the young genius pushing the frontiers of theoretical physics. Somewhere within his dark and angry soul were the loving remnants of the handsome young scientist she'd married so long ago, or so she'd always told herself. That vain, endless hope had always been her downfall, and she was horrified to find it was still alive, still whispering stupid promises in her ear that this time it would be different.
"Vivian? Are you still there?"
She nodded before realizing she had to speak to be heard.
"Good. I've got something very valuable to give you, and I really want to see you. I ... want to make amends before it's too late."
Too late? she thought. Somewhere in her head a voice of caution was screaming at her not to listen, not be taken in.
"Are you ill, Rogers?"
There was a pause on the other end.
"I'm dying, Vivian. Pancreatic cancer. No more than a few weeks left at best."
"I'm sorry," she said without emotion.
"Please come. Just for a few minutes. I'm leaving this house to you. No strings. But more than that, I want to see you once more. I've had time to think about a lot of things."
Vivian closed her eyes and rubbed her head. The only sensible response was no, and good-bye. After years of trying to put those decades behind her — years of counseling and learning to function on her own again — there was no way she should walk back into his presence. What if he hadn't changed?
But he was obviously weakened by illness and she found herself wanting to know if the impossible had happened. Maybe he had changed.
She had to know.
Vivian heard herself answering, "Very well, Rogers, will this afternoon do?"
The gaunt scarecrow of a man who answered the door of their South Miami home — her former home — bore little resemblance to the world-class nuclear scientist who had followed in the footsteps of nuclear pioneers like Oppenheimer and Teller at Los Alamos. The cadaverous pall, the sunken eyes, and the stooped shoulders startled Vivian deeply as she stood in confusion for a few moments on the front porch, fighting the knowledge that the frail little man before her was only sixty-two.
He looked ninety.
"I'm glad you came, Vivian," he said in the same subdued voice as he held the door for her.
The interior was darker and more foreboding than she remembered, the gloom of closed curtains and the anemic light from a single lamp making the den feel like a funeral parlor. It smelled of mildew and stale smoke. She sat carefully on the tattered couch, her mind still reeling with conflicting emotions as he shuffled to an armchair near the door and sat down heavily, facing her.
"You said something about making amends, Rogers," she began.
"I'll let my deeds speak for me," he said. "I told you you'd never get this house, and that was wrong. I've changed my will." He gestured to an envelope on the end table by the couch, and she retrieved it and read the new provision he had circled, leaving her the house the divorce court had awarded to him.
"There's more," he said when she looked up without finishing. "Provided you carry out one final task for me, the policy is yours, too."
"Policy?" Vivian asked.
"The whole-life policy. The paid-up life insurance. Three hundred thousand."
She nodded. "You swore that money would go to some religious cult. Anyone but me, you said."
Vivian braced for a fiery retort, but Rogers Henry suppressed an impatient scowl and got to his feet to shuffle toward the bookcase on one side of the den.
"The money will be yours, if you complete the task," he repeated.
"And what am I to do for you, Rogers?" she asked evenly.
For several moments there was no answer, but when he turned to face her, there was a spark in his eyes.
"I did it, Vivian! I completed Medusa. The Medusa Wave is achievable, and I've perfected the design!"
She looked stunned and he watched her expression with satisfaction as she groped for words.
"By yourself? How? You had a team of forty scientists working for, what was it, a decade?"
"Took me eighteen years after my forced retirement, but I did it, and you're going to take the prototype to Washington after I'm gone."
"I ... don't understand ..."
"I've built a mockup. A dummy, of course, but it's a complete working model, without the plutonium. That's what I was doing all those years in my lab. New trigger design, new concept, new everything." He began shuffling back toward the easy chair, his eyebrows animated, his eyes darting toward the far door to the converted garage.
"Why Washington, Rogers? Why not Los Alamos?"
His voice became an angry growl.
"Because, the slimy bastards who terminated my program and said it couldn't be done are in the Pentagon now. I want the mockup right there where they can see it and feel it and understand it before they ship it west to study it, as they inevitably will."
He sat down again, breathing heavily.
"But will it work?" she asked.
"It's amazing, Vivian. Turns out, you don't need a hundred miles of altitude to create a devastating electromagnetic pulse. One single Medusa exploding at ground level can bring an industrial society to a halt by triggering a secondary electromagnetic wave covering a radius of two thousand miles. It's everything I promised in the early seventies!"
"And ... you want me to ..."
"To take it in a cargo aircraft to Washington and supervise its delivery to the Pentagon."
"For the insurance money, is that correct?"
He nodded and paused, as if trying to decide how far to push. "I guess it's too late to ask you to do it for love."
She stared at him for a long time, expecting to see a sarcastic smirk, but his face was expressionless.
"Love, Rogers? You killed the love I had for you the first time you laid your hands on me in anger."
He snorted and got to his feet as her voice chased after him.
"I thought you wanted to make amends?"
He moved slowly toward the far wall shaking his head, his eyes on his shoes.
"Here's the deal, Vivian. There's a packet of instructions next to you there on the table. There's a key inside that opens the lab." He looked up at her slowly. "Follow the instructions to the letter and the administrator of the small trust I've set up to receive the insurance money will pay it to you. Refuse to do it or screw up the job, you don't get a damn cent. You still get the house — and the mortgage payments — but the three hundred thousand to pay for them goes away."
She got to her feet. "I'm sorry you're dying, Rogers." She moved a step toward the door and hesitated before looking at him. "I don't need your money. Get someone else to do it."
"SIT DOWN!" he roared as he turned, his eyes flaring in the maniacal manner she knew so well. "I should have expected a brainless, stupid response like that!"
Vivian felt her legs go limp. She sank back to the couch as he stopped in midsentence, chewing his lip, then shook his head.
"I'm ... sorry, Vivian. I'm sorry for the outburst."
She nodded wordlessly, her eyes searching the carpet as he shuffled back toward her.
"I know I was a failure as your husband. I know I made your life horrible and I'm a bastard, and I'm probably going to roast in hell, but I've done one thing right, and I want my country to have the benefit of it, and I want you to have the honor of presenting it. This will change history, Vivian!"
He was moving closer and she felt adrenaline flowing through her bloodstream as she calculated the distance to the front door.
"Vivian? What do you say? Will you do it?" His voice had dropped in tone again. He was almost pleading when she looked up.
"You'd trust your life's work to a brainless, stupid woman?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head again. "I didn't mean that. I talk too much, Vivian. I always have. Big threats, big talk, big put-downs. I didn't mean them." He could see the outburst had shattered the frail bridge he'd built. Suddenly he was sinking to his knees, his right hand reaching for the end table to steady himself, his emaciated body racked with sobs.
"Vivian ... I never meant to hurt you. I'm sorry I'm such a bastard!"
His words were muffled as he buried his face in his hands and she felt conflicting emotions overwhelm her.
"If you deliver it," he continued, "they'll take note. If you don't, they'll ignore it. This was my life, Vivian. The only part that was ever worth anything. Please ...!"
For a moment she hesitated, part of her mind screaming for her to get out, run, get away from this house and the shell of a man begging her to do what he couldn't. But if it was real, the significance of his accomplishment was staggering. She had enough years as a nuclear engineer to know that for certain.
But pity was overwhelming her self-protective nature. After all, he was hurting — dying — and that reality somehow eclipsed the memories of his past abuse.
She moved to enfold him as if by habit, holding his head against her breast for several minutes as tears streamed down her face.
"It's all right, Rogers. I'll do it for you. It's not the money."
He saw her to the door and squeezed her hand before she turned to go.
She left without another word, and he watched through the window until her car disappeared down the street. He straightened up then and smiled a tight little smile of triumph and satisfaction as he walked with some difficulty back to the converted two-car garage that served as his lab, closing the hallway door behind him.
There was a damp chill in the air of the windowless room and he shivered as he clicked on several lights to examine his creation. He moved slowly to an open panel on the side of the large rectangular metal object sitting on the bottom slab of a massive wooden packing crate and occupying nearly half the lab's floor space. The visible sides of a vaultlike container were smooth and unbroken except for a single opening, an inspection hatch two feet square, which had been left open. Within, the lead shielding of the internal chamber was visible, and Rogers Henry moved to it, peered inside, and checked it carefully before closing the compartment and locking it. He activated a small internal computer, set the clock, then lit a welding torch and carefully sealed the case.
The upper portion of the heavy wooden shipping crate hung suspended from a block and tackle attached to a metal beam in the ceiling. Slowly, painfully, he moved the crate into position along the beam, and, satisfied it was aligned, began playing out the heavy rope to lower the box into place. The effort exhausted him and he sat on a nearby crate for nearly ten minutes before taking the rope and guiding the crate once again toward the floor. When it was down, he rested once more before securing it to the bottom slab all around with a series of heavy bolts.
One more item, he reminded himself. A section of the garage roof had been fitted with solar panels to generate enough electricity to charge the battery inside the casing, keeping it fresh indefinitely. He connected the tiny cord to a plug on the back side of the casing, and made sure a small indicator light came on before stepping back for one final look. The cord was designed to disconnect and snap out of sight into the wall as soon as the device was moved, and he checked the tension before getting to his feet.
It was ready. At long last, it was ready.
A small split of champagne had been purchased and placed in the back of the refrigerator years before, when the plan had first taken shape in his blind fury over Vivian's desertion. He retrieved it now and popped the cork into a hand towel, then filled one of the gold-encrusted goblets from the two-hundred-year-old crystal set Vivian's mother had left her — a set he had gleefully crushed with a hammer and returned to her in a shoe box, leaving only one piece intact for his own use.
He took the goblet to the den and once again sat in his easy chair, turning the goblet around and around in his hand as he reviewed the details of what he had set in motion. A cold smile covered his face as he drained the last of the champagne, then hurled the glass against the bricks of the fireplace, taking pleasure in the finality of its destruction.
The smile broadened when he thought of how she had put her arms around him an hour before. Just as he'd planned it.
It was time, he decided.
Dr. Rogers Henry reached in the drawer of the end table and removed a polished wooden box before pulling the phone to his ear and dialing 911.
"Are you reporting an emergency?" a no-nonsense female voice asked.
"Do you have my address on your computer screen?" he asked.
"Of course," the woman snapped. "Are you reporting an emergency at that address?"
He opened the box and removed a loaded .44 Magnum from its velvet nest.
"I'm reporting a suicide."
MIAMI — ONE MONTH LATER
The phone had startled Vivian from another fitful dream, a surrealistic rerun of the funeral in which Rogers had climbed out of the coffin during the eulogy and chased her with a carving knife.
She shook off the confusion of the receding nightmare and answered the phone, surprised to hear the voice of the attorney who had been appointed executor of the will. When, he asked, was she going to make the trip to Washington so he could close out the accounts and transfer the house?
"Never," she replied.
"I don't understand," the lawyer replied.
She hadn't really been surprised to discover the part of the will that Rogers had hidden, the provision that kept the executor from transferring the house until the Medusa device had been delivered.
"Mrs. Henry, I can't transfer the house for three years unless you comply with his request."
Excerpted from Medusa's Child by John J. Nance. Copyright © 1997 John J. Nance. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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