Thursday, February 2, 2017

FREE READ: the CULL - Bloodline (part 2)

The second extra long extract from the first book in 'the CULL' series: 'the CULL - Bloodline'. Did you know the eBook is FREE on all platforms? Part 1 can be read here.


Amazon Link
Short Summary:

Disgraced FBI agent Amy Bree is approached by a mysterious Vatican Priest, Santiago Cancelli, and offered a return to Federal Law Enforcement as part of a small elite team within Homeland Security. She is partnered with another woman, Katie Lindon, an ex-NSA computer expert in her early sixties, and they are tasked with tracking down and eliminating a serial killer baptised ‘the Blood Sucker’ by the Press. 

Using Katie’s state-of-the-art software and Amy’s innate problem-solving skills and eidetic memory, they rapidly find themselves chasing leads first in Houston, then Chicago where they encounter a doctor studying terminal patients. Amy’s previous run-in with the Blood Sucker, which resulted in the death of her FBI partner, leads her to suspect he is the killer. 


Together Katie and Amy develop a plan to investigate the doctor, unaware the Blood Sucker is tracking them.


NOTE: PG-18 (graphic violence)



15.

“Doctor Neumann, Doctor Neumann.”
Despite the elevated background noise, his acute hearing clearly picked out the call. He continued walking down the hallway, however, playing to the role he had created. Behind him, wooden clogs clapped their tattoo on the shiny plastic floor, nearing rapidly. The name was called again, this time much closer. He placed a broad smile on his face and turned slowly.
“Ah, Nurse Syzmanski. How can I help you?”
Anka Syzmanski craned her neck to stare up at the tall man silhouetted against the strong sunlight streaming through the hallway windows. She shuddered involuntarily, the movement not lost on the doctor.
“Anka, are you coming down with a cold? You have been spending too much time under the air-conditioning outlet.” He spoke quietly in Polish, smiling all the while. She shivered again.
“I, er, Doctor…” She knew he spoke several languages fluently, yet his easy use of a tongue she had not heard outside her parents’ home since coming to the States thirty years ago, unnerved her even more. “Mrs Moorcroft, room 359…”
“Yes. I was on my way there now. How is she? I hope nothing… untoward has happened whilst I have been away?” He had reverted to English.
“Yes, er, no. The patient is still…” On this floor, patient deaths were almost daily occurrences, and the many euphemisms used by both nurses and doctors alike served as a verbal smoke screen in case they were in earshot of either a patient or visiting relative. Syzmanski cleared her throat, took a step forward and spoke.
“No, the patient, Mrs Moorcroft,” remembering Neumann’s insistence on using patient names rather than generic references, “well, she says she is feeling better today. Her voice sounds stronger, and her B.P. is up. If I didn’t know any better…”
“Never assume the worst, Anka. Even with extreme terminal patients such as Mrs Moorcroft, spontaneous remission has been known to occur.”
She fell into step with the large man, easily keeping up, as he plodded along the hallway toward room 359.
“That’s what your study is about, isn’t it?”
“Yes and no. The analysis myself and my colleagues perform,” he hefted the large suitcase he carried seemingly without effort, “is trying to isolate genetic anomalies. All we do is shine lasers of different frequencies at a minute sample of blood and take our measurements. Maybe, one day, we will make a discovery leading to something that will help save lives, instead of merely documenting their passing.” He sighed. “Death comes to us all. That is what they say, is it not? Death… oh, and taxes?”  He smiled again, as he held the door to room 359, allowing her to pass through first.


*   *   *   *   *

Anka preceded Doctor Neumann into room 359, a small deference most of the other doctors would not have allowed even though she was the Head Nurse on this floor. She glanced back at Neumann. His huge form and lumbering walk had made him the object of several unkind comments when he had first come to the hospital, two months ago, but his gentle manner and ready smile, combined with a willingness to listen to the nurses, unlike many of his colleagues, had won out. Still, in her innermost thoughts, Anka felt a tremor of unjustifiable fear when she was around the giant.
Her mind flashed, only for an instant but that was enough, to the tales her Grandmother used to relate to her when she was just a small girl, over forty years ago, in the Poland that had seen her birth. Tales handed down from her Great-Grandmother, as the twentieth century marked its first tentative days. Tales populated by demons who preyed upon those who dwelt in isolated villages. Tales designed to instil dread of the dark into the minds of rebellious ten-year-olds, like herself, who wouldn’t obey their elders and wanted to stay up late.
Yet she was sure this mild-mannered Austrian doctor was not one of her childhood demons; this was America, not rural Poland, and the twenty-first century’s technology swept before it all traces of her Baba’s terrifying stories. However she could not help her instinctive reaction to him every time they met. Even that first day when the Hospital Dean, her best friend Mari Angeles L√≥pez, had introduced Neumann, describing him as a researcher from ForschungsNova in Europe, here to do a study of the terminal patients under her charge, something had made her recall her youthful nightmares.
She had Googled the name of the research institute as soon as she could. They seemed to be singularly reluctant to promote themselves on the Internet, their website being a paltry affair. She had found a few references elsewhere to papers published by doctors and investigators financed by them, although Neumann’s name was not amongst them. Her next step, albeit she admitted she was letting her Baba´s tales get the better of her, was to call a couple of the hospitals in the States where Neumann had worked before; one in Florida and another in Texas, where she had friends on the nursing staff. They had confirmed who he was, how well he got on with the nurses, how he kept to himself most of the time, sitting in his small office with the door firmly closed, some even said locked, as he worked upon his machine’s data and made long video-calls to Austria. He appeared to check out, yet…
Anka looked over at the man as he gently lifted Mrs Moorcroft’s eyelids and shone a small pencil light’s beam into the pupil. He glanced up at the monitors, checking blood pressure and pulse, nodding to himself almost imperceptibly. When he spoke, it was not to her, but to the patient.
“I do not want to pre-empt anything, my dear Mrs Moorcroft, but your vitals are improving. It would seem your body is fighting back. I would like to hook you up to my little machine, if you allow me, and do round of analysis. Is that okay with you?”
Mrs Moorcroft, a shadow of her former overweight self, cracked a smile, showing yellowed teeth, a legacy from the chemotherapy, abandoned two weeks ago. She nodded, croaking a sibilant ‘yes, that’s okay’. Neumann took hold of a sliver of ice from the paper cup on her nightstand and held it patiently as the weakened fifty-year-old sucked slowly, alleviating the dryness in her mouth and throat. Neumann then took a waiver form from his pocket and helped the patient sign it. He took another small piece of ice and again waited as the patient drew the melting water into her mouth.
When Mrs Moorcroft had finished the sliver, he turned his attention to his suitcase, placing it on one of the bedside chairs before undoing the securing clasps. He lifted the lid and placed it on the couch near the room’s only window. Neumann extracted a large rectangular wooden box, replete with cables and tubes, and a laptop. As he plugged his machine into the mains, he spoke gently to his patient.
“Is your husband coming in later today, Mrs Moorcroft?” She nodded. “Good, do you know when? I would like to speak to him.”
The frail woman tried to respond, but her dry mouth failed her. She held up four fingers.
“At four this afternoon?” Again a nod. Neumann glanced at his wristwatch. “Good. That is an hour and a half; just enough time to finish the testing. Anka, will you inject this into her central catheter, please. It is the usual cocktail to help blood flow and reduce the nausea she might feel. We do not want Mrs Moorcroft to feel any worse because of us, right? ” He smiled, showing strong white teeth, as he handed Anka a small, prefilled syringe. Anka passed over the patient’s chart and he dutifully made a notation about the drugs he was administering and the analysis to come. Anka waited for the chart to be returned, before attaching the syringe to the central catheter in the patient’s groin and slowly depressing the plunger.
Anka watched as the doctor turned his attention to his laptop computer, which he proceeded to boot up. While he waited, he handed Anka a couple of transparent plastic tubes which snaked out of the wooden box’s innards. These were clearly marked ‘In’ and ‘Return’. Whilst Anka connected these to the central catheter, Neumann tapped away on the laptop’s keyboard. A rhythmic hum from the doctor’s equipment permeated the air near the bed.
“Can I do anything else, Doctor?”
“No, thank you Anka. I need to be here all the time the machine is connected.” He turned his head such that the patient could not see his face, and lowered his voice. “Even though Mrs Moorcroft’s blood just passes through the sensors and a minute amount is vaporized by the lasers, we need to run at least a pint and there is a remote possibility of inducing a reaction in her weakened state.”
“A stroke?”
“Yes. But the cocktail will help combat that possibility, and I will not leave her side. I do need to monitor the machine also; after all it is experimental. I will call you if anything unexpected occurs. Trust me that I will never endanger one of your charges.” His personalization of her patients, and the comforting smile, did little to assuage the sensations that subjected her subconscious to childhood reminiscences of evil, bygone doings.
She took a step back toward the door, watching.
Neumann flipped half a dozen switches on the side of the box and a barrage of coloured lights flashed red. After a few seconds, these changed to orange, then steadied on green. The doctor tapped away at the keyboard and a moving, graph-like image scrolled from left to right. He depressed a large square button on the main box and nodded as it lit up. The pitch of the hum increased.
Neumann glanced up at Anka, as she watched one of the tubes from the central catheter suck red blood into the machine. After a minimal pause, a rouge train ran the route down the adjacent tube back into the patient’s body. Neumann nodded again, looking over at Anka, then turned his attention to the feeble woman on the bed.
“Did I ever tell you about the time, when I was your age I think, I went skydiving with some younger colleagues in Austria? It all started out as a dare…”
Anka could have listened to the doctor’s humorous anecdotes, designed to distract the patient as the machine did its work, as she had done on several other occasions during the last couple of months. Today, however, she felt an uncontrollable need to phone her Mother and talk to her about Baba’s tales.
She took three slow steps backward, turned, closing the door softly on her way out.


16.

It took Katie and Amy almost two hours to return to Office 312. They had come upon the three bodies and, guns drawn, immediately searched the area, but the Blood Sucker, if this was indeed his work, had left. Amy had been amazed at her own conflicting emotions. On the one hand, she wanted to avenge Ralph’s death, and a chance to put a bullet into the man that killed him had made adrenalin course through her body, resulting in her being uncharacteristically aggressive with the Cops who had eventually turned up. On the other hand, the flashbacks she had experienced in the alleyway, of the huge creature with glowing eyes and a strength that defied belief, produced cold shivers and caused her hands to tremble.
They had debated turning the case over to the FBI’s BAU but, as Amy had pointed out, only the phone call from Cancelli connected the three corpses with the serial killer, and they might not want to explain that to the Feds. There was enough mystery about the deaths of the three men as it was: all mid-thirties, very fit, wearing body armour, carrying night-vision goggles, armed with suppressed pistols and long combat knives, pockets revealing fairly large cash amounts and Italian passports showing they had entered the country over two months ago. They had also found three burner phones. In two of these, the logs had shown only calls between the burners. The third, found on the man with the broken neck, had other numbers in its memory. Katie thought she recognized them and pocketed the three cell phones before the Cops showed up.
They handed the crime scene over to the Homicide detectives, stating that they had been passing nearby on their way to grabbing a coffee when passers-by had alerted them to muffled gunshots in the alley. Katie had left their numbers and asked for a copy of the autopsy findings to be e-mailed to her at the FBI building. Then they had left, each lost in their thoughts as they walked slowly back to Office 312.
When the red wooden door had closed behind them, Amy flopped onto the couch and Katie made her way to her desk. Amy glanced over at her partner. Katie seemed pale, unconsciously rubbing her temples as she examined the call logs on the phones. Maybe it was the exertion; Katie must be at least sixty and Amy had had to run hard to keep up with her pace as they made their way to the alley.
“Are you alright, Katie? You look bushed.”
“What? I’m okay. Just another damn migraine. I seem to have been getting a few these last couple of months. Probably the stress of leaving the NSA and starting here.” She slid the horn-rimmed glasses with their tinted lenses off her nose, allowing them to fall onto her chest. “That’s why I’ve taken to wearing these. I found they help when I’m in bright light. Fortunately my eyesight is still twenty-twenty, but I get throbbing migraines if I’m in strong sunlight for too long.”
“Have you seen a doctor or an ophthalmologist? Maybe it’s eyestrain from too much working with the computer monitors?”
“Maybe. I should ask for an appointment with one. Thanks, dearie, for being so kind.” Katie gave her temples a final brief massage and picked up one of the phones. “There are several calls on this one to Cancelli’s number; that’s why I didn’t want to leave it in the alley for the Cops to find.”
“Do you mean these guys worked for him?”
“I don’t know. Let’s have that belated cup of tea and think about this a little more before calling him though. I’m not sure what’s going on here and I don’t like being kept in the dark. Cancelli is definitely feeding us only a small portion of the information he has on the Blood Sucker. Maybe we should rethink our position here.” She sighed. “So much for a simpler life. I’ll put the kettle on.”
Amy rose and walked toward her office.
“While you’re doing that, I want to check something that’s bugging me.”
The kettle boiled and Katie busied herself making her only vice; a good strong cup of tea. Before taking a cup through to Amy’s office, she opened a lower drawer on her desk and took out a white plastic bottle of Advil Migraine tablets. She grimaced at the fluorescent red and yellow label; whoever designed that didn’t suffer from migraines, she thought. She popped the lid and took two tablets with a swig of her piping hot tea. For a brief instant she contemplated taking a third pill; of late that had been necessary. Shaking her head, she clicked the lid into place and dropped the bottle into the drawer.
Katie picked up both tea mugs and walked into Amy’s room.
“I put milk and sugar, I hope that’s ok?”
“Is that in my file as well?” responded Amy. The aggressive tone resulting from the adrenalin was waning, yet still noticeable. “Sorry, that came out badly.”
“Actually it isn’t, but I’ve found that a hot, sweet cup of tea is a great remedy after being in stressful situations.”
“I’m sorry, Katie, I’m a little wound up. All this Field Agent stuff is new to me; I was a backroom geek mostly, when I was in the FBI. I only ever drew my weapon on the range, until that day in Texas, that is, and that didn’t turn out too well.”
Katie tidied a stack of open file folders on the couch, placed them on the floor, and sat down.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know.” Amy’s voice was hardly above a whisper. “I just feel I’ve been railroaded into something I don’t really want.” She paused collecting her thoughts, taking a tentative sip of tea. “Before Cancelli’s call, you said something about a deal; why you were here.”
Noting the change of subject but deciding not to press, Katie put a smile on her face and spoke.
“I was in the NSA for a long time. With the Internet reducing the need to go out into the field to break into peoples’ computers, I seemed to do nothing but sit in an office in front of a stack of monitors and type away on a keyboard all day. Don’t get me wrong; I have a love-hate relationship with computers – I love to hate them.” She chuckled to herself. “And as retirement loomed, I started reflecting on what I was going to do with myself. I’ve always wanted to travel, not for business which I did, at least in the early days, but to really get to know places and people with different cultures.”
“Well, with retirement you’d certainly have the time to do that.”
“Yes. Time, yes; money, no. I’ve been on a government salary all my life, and although the NSA’s geeks are some of the best, they don’t get paid anywhere near what they could earn in the private sector. My savings, plus my pension, just won’t cut it. Sure, I could live in some quiet haven in Florida or somewhere, but that’s not what I want to do. Cancelli found out I was about to retire and he made me an offer. I had been developing a forerunner of SANTA in my own time for several years with the idea of perhaps selling a finished version to the CIA or NSA, but finishing meant spending big bucks on state-of-the-art servers and other equipment and my income just wouldn’t allow that.” She took a long sip of tea. “You know what the saddest thing in the World is? Spending your whole life in the service of your country, and then finding yourself frustrated that you’ve never done anything for yourself.”
“So Cancelli offered you the money?”
“Cash, plus a platform to field test SANTA,” she waived her hand around the room, “and the promise of using his contacts to get me top dollar for the software when it was finished. In return, I get to chase the Blood Sucker. Good deal, huh?”
“I think it sucks. I mean the serial killer bit. You know Cancelli doesn’t want us to arrest the Blood Sucker?”
“Yes, dearie, and I can tell you that I’m not happy about that. However, I decided to let things play out and see where we end up. One thing I’m sure about; if, no, when we track him down, if he surrenders, I’m going to hand him over to the FBI. But if he tries to kill me or you, that bugger’s going to see that this old lady has fire in her belly.”
“Well, I think I might be on to something that could help us.” Amy walked over to the whiteboard. On the left hand side she had listed all the victims, assigning each a sequential number. In the centre she had drawn a number of overlapping circles.
“Is that a Venn Diagram? We used them a lot in filtering datasets when I first started in the NSA.”
“Yes, and no. I’m just using the basics, but I’m more interested in what doesn’t fit, and I keep getting the same answer; the first two killings. But with what happened today, in the alleyway… if it was the Blood Sucker, then maybe I was looking at this in the wrong way. Look, in this first circle, all the numbers are those victims who were exsanguinated; fourteen people. Then in this overlap, the four family members who were killed in the last case.”
“I see you’ve got some letters in that circle as well.”
“‘R’ is Ralph, and ‘V’, one through three, are today’s victims. You see, these people were not the Blood Sucker’s targets. They just happened to be there at the wrong time. All were killed quickly and cleanly. The teenager’s family had their necks broken like one of the Italians… and Ralph.”
“Okay, I’m with you so far.”
“Ralph and I spotted that all of the victims who had their arteries cut had also been treated for terminal illnesses some years before, and their illness had gone into remission. So we checked the hospital records and found that all had been treated at the same Houston hospital within five months of each other. Within that time period there was one other patient who had also gone into remission; that was the last victim.”
“Just a minute, my dear. You said ‘all’. I thought the BAU discarded that theory because the first two victims had not been hospitalized.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but Ralph and I thought that maybe they had gone somewhere else, maybe out of State, or something. We couldn’t track down any hospital records for those two. One was a six-year-old female child, and the other a forty-seven year old trucker. The baby’s parents didn’t want to talk to us, the FBI, anymore; they were too distraught, it must have been horrific finding your child like that.”
“And the trucker?”
“No family to speak of. Pretty much a loner. Spent his life crossing the country in his rig; all long haul stuff.”
“Okay.” Katie stretched the word to three full syllables. “So what you’re saying is that our Perp is targeting people whose Cancer or whatever is going into remission. Maybe someone who thinks he has to finish the job? That the remission was some sort of medical mistake.”
“That’s the weird bit. Ralph rang the hospital in Texas and spoke to the Dean. All the patients were in their last few weeks or days. The doctors couldn’t do anything more. They were all going to die soon. Most were only on pain medication. Two were in comas. The remissions were all spontaneous!”
Katie thought for a minute. “We need to examine the trucker’s route. Then we’ll do some hacking. I have an idea.”
She stood.
“But first, I’m going to call Cancelli. I have a few questions I want answered. Want to listen in?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”


17.

Katie hit a few keys on one of her keyboards and the familiar ‘available line’ tone, followed by the racing beeps of a number being speed-dialled, came from the monitor’s speaker.
“Yes?”
“Monsignor Cancelli, it’s Lindon and Bree here.”
“Ah, yes. Did your… assignment go well?”
Katie and Amy exchanged looks.
“Assignment? The Blood Sucker took out three heavily-armed people and escaped before we got there. He had only a few minutes lead on us, but here, in central Washington, he could have hopped a cab and be quite some distance away in that time.”
“Pity.” They waited for more, but Cancelli limited himself to the single pronouncement.
“The three Italians he killed; were they your agents?”
“That would be correct.”
“How did they get onto him?” Amy chipped in a thought that had been bothering her for the last couple of hours.
“The details are not important at this juncture. We can discuss that later.”
Again Amy and Katie glanced at each other, frowns mirrored on their foreheads.
“But if you have some way of identifying…”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Thank you.”
“Monsignor Cancelli, when can we meet in person?” Katie allowed a harsh edge to creep into her voice; the message clear.
“I’m in New York at the moment but I’ll try to fly there tomorrow. I will let you know.”
“We have a number of questions we’d…”
“Goodbye for now, it was nice to hear from you.” The line went dead.
The two women looked at each other, then at the monitor’s speakers.
“That was one weird phone call.”
“Yes, my dear, I agree. I’m also sure that Cancelli has some explaining to do. I’m now convinced there’s much more to this than we’ve been told.”


18.

Monsignor Santiago Cancelli spun in his chair and replaced the cell phone on his desk. He cleared his throat and looked up at the inquisitive expression on his visitor’s face.
“A private matter. I’m sorry for the intrusion.”
The visitor did not respond, yet a slightly raised eyebrow said clearly that he knew Cancelli was not telling the truth. The visitor chose not to press the matter; this meeting was not going well as it was.
“May we return to the subject of my visit?” The mellow voice, speaking in English tinged with undertones of his native France, usually created the impression in unwary listeners of someone destined to be seen in the back row of any group photograph, someone you wouldn’t look at twice in a crowd, a human makeweight.
Cancelli was not amongst the unwary.
He had met Hugo DiConte once before, during a meeting with the Holy Father in the Vatican. He knew the Jesuit priest sitting before him was not a mere messenger from Rome. He needed to be extremely cautious around this man; cautious and very careful of what he said.
“Shall I order some refreshments before we continue? You must be tired from your flight; are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to rest for a while and meet later?”
“No, Cancelli. I will rest after I have your assurance that you understand your new orders. They come directly from Cardinal Moretti and the Congregation.”
Cancelli nodded slowly. Moretti and the Congregation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known popularly as the Inquisition, held much power in Vatican City. Indeed, the Pope had presided over its activities before being exalted to his current status.
“I see.” He lifted the two pages of text from his desk, allowing his eyes to flick between the encoded original and the cleartext translation, as though by staring at the words, somehow the message would change. He looked up at the priest. That a Jesuit, this Jesuit, had been given the task of personally transporting the message from the Dominican-controlled Congregation, in itself was another message: this radical change came with the Pope’s approval.
“Does that mean I can convey your understanding and acceptance of the change in your assignment back to the Congregation?”
Cancelli needed time. He was unsure what to do about this whole issue, particularly the modification in the directives that had ruled his life for so many years. It may just be yet another act of the on-going internecine war raging behind closed doors back in Rome. He needed to talk to people in the Vatican urgently. Yet, a refusal to respond to this priest now might have serious consequences for him on a personal level.
“Please tell the Congregation I will devise a plan to put into effect these new directives, and submit it for their approval before taking any further action.”
“That will not be necessary. I will be staying here in America until this matter is resolved. You will submit your planning to me and together we will conclude this mission once and for all. Do I make myself clear, Cancelli?” The priest turned and walked toward the office door. “We will meet at ten tomorrow morning. Here.”
“I have to fly to Washington tomorrow…”
“Cancel it.” The Jesuit opened the door and was gone.
Monsignor Santiago Cancelli smashed his balled fist onto the leather inlay of the antique desk.


19.

Katie had been pecking at her keyboards for over an hour, her head bent in concentration. Behind her right shoulder, the server rack looked like an electronic Christmas tree as red, green and orange LEDs danced to an unheard rhythm. Amy left her to her musings and returned to her new office. She dumped her jacket on the desk chair and stood before the whiteboard wall, now covered with documents from the case files. After a few minutes she started pacing. Four steps; spin; four steps; spin…
There was something here she was not seeing, and it was annoying her.
Abruptly her spin changed direction. She flopped down on the couch, her eyes never leaving the whiteboard.
She focused on her Venn diagram. If the Bloodsucker is targeting recovered terminal patients, assuming they can link-in the first two cases with the rest, what do these cases have in common other than the remission? She stood and strode over to the board, grabbing a marker from the metal rack. Quickly she wrote in large capitals: HOSPITAL, DOCTORS, NURSES, TREATMENT, MEDICATION, DATES. Alongside she drew a series of arrows and started to fill in data from the case files.
After a frenzied quarter hour, the board had more arrows than Custer’s Last Stand. Some names had repeated, especially doctors and nursing staff, but that was to be expected. However no single name was common to all, except for the hospital. Perhaps someone is trying to cover up a defective drug by killing off the patients to whom it had been administered; that had been a theory at the back of her mind, sparked by reading too many medical thrillers probably, she thought. Yet it was not borne out by the facts. The treatment and medication data also refused to show any clear repetitions. The dates were over a five-month period, yet her quirky brain could not detect any pattern there either.
She took a literal, and metaphorical, step back from the whiteboard.
Next stage: when you can’t see the hidden pattern, yet your gut says it’s there, suspect the data.
HOSPITAL: there was only one, so that didn’t look likely.
MEDICAL STAFF: The hospital Dean of Medicine had supplied the information, yet… wait, it was a huge teaching hospital. Could that mean there were outside researchers and teaching physicians not on the lists provided for each patient?  Amy stepped forward and scribbled a note alongside a huge interrogation sign.
Step back again.
TREATMENT and MEDICATION: her previous thought had sparked another idea; was any experimental technique or medication used? Shouldn’t that be on the patients’ charts? Again she launched herself at the whiteboard; another large question mark appeared.
That left DATES. Five months. Where did the first two patients fit into these dates, if they did at all? The dates did not evidence any sort of grouping, at least none that was obvious now. Maybe if the first two victims had been treated at the hospital, their dates would reveal a pattern. Had anyone checked in detail? Surely the baby could be investigated from the day of her birth. Again patient chart records.
Then Amy’s cerebral light bulb glowed fearlessly. The parents! Did anyone check out a possible relationship with the hospital?
She bound over to her desk, rummaging in her jacket for her cell phone. Then back over to the files. Pages flicked, scanned, discarded. At last! Her fingers transposed the numbers from the page onto the tactile surface of her phone. She pressed call and raised the device to her ear. No signal! What? She stared at the phone’s screen; the signal strength bars were nowhere to be seen. Dammit! Wait, Katie had said something about shielding from electronic eavesdropping; that worked both ways.
Gripping her handset, she strode purposefully toward the door that connected with Katie’s office. As she walked through, the older woman gave a small jump in her seat.
“Gotcha!”
“What?”
“SANTA has found the trucker’s route data.”
“How do I make a phone call inside here?”
“I knew if I sent a Helper hidden in an e-mail, they would let it loose on their network.”
“I need to call the hospital in Texas. How…?”
“Now I have the guy’s routing data for the last eight years. Let’s see if there’s a pattern…”
“KATIE!” Amy had raised her voice a little more than intended.
Katie looked up from her monitors.
“What? I…”
“I need to call out but my cell can’t get a signal.”
“Oh. Right. I should have routed the signal through the servers; it’s the only way in or out.” She started typing rapidly, her eyes never leaving the keys. “You should get a message asking to accept SANTA Interface. Reply OK and your phone will work in the office. Sorry about that. I should have done it before. I must be getting forgetful in my dotage. Have you discovered something?”
Amy hit the OK button that had appeared below the Interface request, mentally reminding herself to ask Katie what else SANTA’s presence on her phone would suppose. The green OK rectangle folded in on itself and, as if by magic, four signal strength bars appeared at the top of the screen. Rather than reply to Katie, she hit redial and raised the phone to her ear.
The number was the Dean’s own mobile. It rang once, then…
“Hello?”
“Doctor McKinley? This is Senior Special Agent Amy Bree with the Task Force investigating the Blood Sucker murders. I’ve just been going over the files you sent my colleagues in the FBI BAU unit, and I need to know if we have all the data we need.” Amy proceeded to detail her requirements. The conversation continued for a couple of minutes, then Amy looked up.
“Just a second, Doctor…” She hit the Mute button on the call and turned to Katie. “I need an e-mail address.” Katie opened a drawer in her desk, extracted a pad and pen, then scribbled an e-mail address. Amy hit the Mute again and relayed the address to the Dean of Medicine.
“Yes, Doctor, Homeland Security. The FBI was leading the investigation, but we are now involved. We’re bringing a… new perspective to their enquiries. I’ll copy them on the data you send, don’t worry about that.” After extracting a promise from the Dean to expedite her request, Amy said her goodbyes and hung up. She turned to Katie who was looking at her expectantly.
“It’s a teaching hospital, so there’ll be Visiting Doctors, Investigators, Researchers and who knows what else. Maybe our missing link is there.”
“And why did you ask for the baby’s parents’ medical histories?”
“It’s a hunch. If the baby was treated very early on in her life, perhaps the hospital linked her medical history with the parents. Or maybe the baby’s was lost or misfiled, but there should be some reference in the parents’ histories. How did your search on the trucker go?”
“SANTA is processing the route data now. There’s rather a lot of data, so it’s going to take a few minutes. I’d better set up your Homeland e-mail account, just in case the good doctor decides to ask you to make your request in writing.”


20.

They waited for just over fifteen minutes before coming to the realization that it was now mid-afternoon and they hadn’t eaten lunch. Amy agreed to go for some sandwiches while Katie waited on SANTA’s results. When asked what she wanted, Katie replied:
“Oh, I eat anything, my dear, just as long as there’s no garlic. Can’t stand it. Just thinking about it makes my stomach heave.” She chuckled. “Maybe I’m a vampire.”
“Yeah, sure, and I’m E.T.” responded Amy as she left Office 312.
Twenty minutes later, Amy was back with a large Mocha coffee and several varied sandwiches. She had assumed, correctly, as it turned out, that Katie would prefer her own brew of tea rather than the store-bought variety or even coffee. They chatted whilst eating, mainly about Amy’s upbringing in Maine. As Katie rose to put on the kettle for a post-sandwich cup of tea, SANTA pinged. Katie immediately spun around and dropped into her chair. She studied the monitors before her, started typing on one of the keyboards and watched the left-hand screen as a map of the US appeared, overlaid with thin red, green and blue lines.
From the displayed route data, it was obvious that William Dobbs, their trucker, had done some serious mileage. The lines stretched from coast-to-coast on the east-west axis and from the Gulf up into Canada.
“Let’s see,” began Katie, speaking more to clarify her thoughts than to Amy, “Dobbs lived alone in New Mexico. But he was killed outside Houston. He was the second victim.” She zoomed in on New Mexico on the map and the multiple lines simplified into three routes, all with a common end-point. She clicked on the point and a small box opened up with an address. It was far from where the Blood Sucker had sliced Dobbs’ throat then taken his blood and daubed it on the walls of the truck’s cab just over a year ago. The mental image made Katie shudder, not lost on Amy.
“Are you alright, Katie?”
“Yes, yes, dearie. Just had a vivid picture of the crime scene pop into my head. All that blood. It must have been gruesome.”
“Well that’s that settled anyway.”
“What?”
“You’re no vampire if the sight of blood makes you react that way.”
“Yes, I guess living in a computer world of nice, clean zeroes and ones can make you forget the atrocities that man inflects on his fellows. But you were there, in Houston. It must have been horrible.”
“To tell the truth, Katie, I can’t recall much of what happened with any clarity. The FBI shrink who interviewed me after…” An image of Ralph’s inert form flashed into her mind. “… the incident told me that this was common. It’s a PTSD thing. Your brain tries to protect you from the experience by denying you access to clear recollections. Then, after a while, days, maybe months, or even years, it filters stuff back into the conscious mind so you can process it and come to terms with what happened. After the Blood Sucker grabbed me and threw me against the wall, I was stunned; I’d had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t find my weapon. Then the bastard tried to strangle me. It’s…” She stopped, her eyes vacant.
“Amy, dear, are you…?”
“What? Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just that I lived, while Ralph died. I…”
“That’s just Survivor’s Guilt, my dear. Even I know that.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking… Why didn’t he kill me? Ralph died very quickly. His neck was snapped like a twig, according to the autopsy. The Blood Sucker was very strong. Yet, he had me pinned on the floor and was choking me, but he let me live. He could easily have broken my neck too, but he didn’t. I don’t understand it.”
“In your deposition you said that Ralph called out, interrupted the killer.”
“Yes. Ralph identified himself, twice I think. But, it wouldn’t have taken but a second to kill me, then go after him.”
“Survivor’s Guilt, my dear. You feel bad that you didn’t die yet your friend did. That’s normal, and healthy. It shows you are recovering a little.” Katie reached out, resting one of her hands lightly on Amy’s forearm. “In your deposition you said you couldn’t remember much about the man’s face?”
“It was dark. I was choking; scrambling around trying to find my backup gun and help Ralph. When I fired at that bastard in the lounge, he was outlined against the doorframe on the far side. All I remember was his eyes; they sort of glowed, yellowish-red, dull yet I could clearly see the two points of light.”
“Like a cat’s eyes when you catch it in the car’s headlights?”
“Yeah, a bit like that, but not the whitish colour you get with a cat, though. Yellow, with a tinge of red. Spooky.”
“Not all creatures’ eyes glow the same colour at night. I remember when I was in Africa, on a mission some years back, we were traversing cross-country at night. As we neared a river, we had to watch out for crocodiles. I had night vision goggles on and I saw a huge croc on the riverbank about forty feet away. Through the goggles, its eyes were brighter. I slipped them off, to see if I could see it with normal vision and a flashlight, but all I saw were two points of red light. You see, dearie, many nocturnal animals have what’s called the ‘tapetum lucidum’. It’s a sort of reflector at the back of the eye that sends more light to the rods and allows them to see in low-light conditions. It makes them better predators at night. That’s what shines when you hit them with a light source. But, Amy, my dear, human don’t have the reflector, only some nocturnal animals.”
“All the Blood Sucker’s attacks were at night, Katie. Do you think we might have some sort of mutation here?”
Katie was about to reply, but thought better of it. Instead she turned to her keyboards, called up a search engine and typed in ‘tapetum lucidum humans’. She hit the enter button and Google quickly responded.
“Well I’ll be damned!” She pointed at the right-most monitor.
Amy leant over and saw the search engine had responded with over sixty-six thousand entries. The first extract clearly stated that humans don’t have the reflector. The second spoke of a Chinese child capable of reading in the dark. Katie clicked on the link and together they watched a short video about the child, where it said his eyes glowed blue-grey when illuminated. The article that accompanied the video also referred to a US Navy experiment, done in the sixties, where servicemen were dosed with modified vitamin A in a bid to enhance their eyes’ sensitivity to longer wavelengths. The experiment ended with the Navy going for night-vision goggles, so it wasn’t that successful.
“Do you think that if there’s already a documented mutation like that,” Amy pointed at the screen, “maybe the Blood Sucker has something similar? If he has a very rare eye condition, we could run a search on ophthalmologists to see if there are any cases here in the US. It might turn up some new leads.”
Katie had already started typing on the other keyboard.
“That’s what I call thinking out of the box.”
“Katie, did the surveillance footage from the murders this morning turn up anything?”
“No, not really. It was the first thing I did after starting SANTA’s search for the routing data. The whole thing took place in an alley and there were no cameras.  I expanded the search and looked at images from nearby streets but I couldn’t spot anything unusual.”
“What I was thinking, in that video, the kid had problems seeing in normal daylight, the light was too bright for him and he saw stuff unfocused. Just suppose for a moment that our Perp has this mutation; would that mean he could also have problems seeing in normal light?”
“What are you saying? If he does, he might need special glasses or something?”
“Special? I don’t know. But if he has the same problem as the Chinese kid, maybe he needs to wear shades all the time in daylight ‘cause his eyes are too sensitive to normal sunlight. Did anyone in the surveillance footage have sunglasses?”
Katie laughed briefly.
“Amy, dear, this is Washington. It is a sunny day today and many people, even me, had sunglasses on. Plus, it’s also a fashion thing. Then there’s all the Cops and Feds who wear them to help them do their jobs…”
“Yes, but if we looked for someone wearing shades who was also tall and bulky and not dressed in a uniform? That should narrow the search down a little.”
Again Katie was about to reply, caught herself, and typed on the SANTA keyboard. SANTA responded almost as quickly as Google this time because all the footage had already been processed. One of the two central monitors now showed a mosaic of still images sampled from the surveillance footage. Over a hundred multi-coloured thumbnail pictures crowded the screen. Katie typed and, as images disappeared, the remaining boxes rearranged themselves and grew. Finally only seven remained.
“There!” Amy pointed at a still showing a half profile of a large man wearing shades stepping into a cab. “Where was that taken?”
“That’s from… F Street, ten minutes or so after we got to the alley.” She hit more keys and the still image filled the screen. “I’m going to track him back in time.” Katie typed, SANTA analyzed. Then…
“It’s almost as if he was avoiding the cameras. He only appears on that one just before hailing the cab, and he’s got his back to the camera except for the instant he steps aboard. Even then we can only see half of his face.”
“Can you track the cab?”
“I’ll try, but following a cab in DC is not easy. In Manhattan they’re all yellow so they stand out. Here we have all the colours of the rainbow and then some. That cab’s white and we don’t get a decent image of its number or registration plate. It will just blend in with all the other white cars in the District. Still…” She hit SANTA’s keyboard Enter button. Rapid motion on the monitor: SANTA grabbing images from surveillance cameras it had already catalogued. The image changes slowed down, as SANTA went further afield to untapped resources. Both Amy and Katie watched mesmerized as SANTA wound the surveillance footage back and forward, trying to predict where the white sedan would appear then confirm the angles in other images for matches. After a half hour, SANTA had lost the cab after several blocks. Still they had a general direction and SANTA did more predictive searching, each time with less precision, until…

GENERAL DIRECTION - SOUTH WEST
TRACKING LOST -  INDEPENDENCE AVENUE

SANTA’s statement of defeat caused both Katie and Amy to slump visibly, such had been the tension created by the virtual chase.
“Independence Avenue. South West. That’s where the Memorials are, and the Mall.”
“Yes, dearie, and thousands of tourist, which means hundreds of cabs, many of which will be white. And he could have got out anywhere on route. If SANTA’s predictive motion routines haven’t been able to find him, then that’s it. I borrowed that bit of software from the stuff I’d developed for the NSA and it’s as good as it gets, even though I say so myself. There’re just too many variables for SANTA to chase down. I could force it to track every possible outcome, search all available footage from the surveillance cameras. That would take considerable time and SANTA has a time-driven data validity algorithm that throws in the towel if the effort doesn’t produce a tangible result in a reasonable amount of time. In the end, even if we tracked him, the information is now several hours old. And, unless he took the cab directly to his house or hotel or whatever, the result would be inconclusive. I think he knows what he’s doing. The fact he did manage to avoid almost all the cameras shows he has Counter-surveillance training, and he’s pretty good at it. I think he probably took the cab to somewhere where he knew there would be crowds, and changed cabs again, maybe even two or three more times, to throw off any potential pursuers. This guy is good!”
“Don’t admire him. Katie, please.” Amy spoke almost with a little girl voice, devoid of any strength.
Katie looked up.
“Don’t worry, my dear. It’s not admiration. I just like a challenge, and with every minute, I’m more determined to track down and nail this bugger.”


21.

Cancelli was furious.
He had risen early, not out of any need to impress his visitor with his frugal ways, rather to try to give him the slip and fly to Washington. He had descended the stairs, with discreet footsteps, to the lower floor of the Bishop’s Residence where he had set up his New York headquarters, only to find DiConte sitting in his office, in his chair, reading his correspondence.
“What do you think you are doing?” he demanded of the intruder.
“This is church business, thus my business. I’m doing what I think appropriate for someone sent here to oversee you. Don’t forget your place, Monsignor. Remember who I represent, and the consequences of not collaborating.”
Cancelli puffed out his cheeks, squeezing his lips tightly closed lest an undiplomatic, un-Christian word slip forth. He saw his opportunity to meet with Lindon and Bree vanish like the morning mist. He sucked in air through distended nostrils.
“What had you in mind that I do this morning?”
“Have you contacted your people, told them about their new directives?”
“Not yet.”
DiConte picked up the receiver from the desk telephone and held it out to Cancelli without saying a word. Cancelli approached the desk, resisting a childish urge to yank the phone from the man’s outstretched hand. He leant over the desk, his desk, and punched the speed dial button for Lindon’s number.
“Speaker, if you please.” Cancelli responded to DiConte’s command with an ill-concealed sneer. He hit the speaker button with far more force than was necessary, causing the phone base to bounce slightly against the leather insert.
Cancelli stared at DiConte as they listened to the rapid call tones. A small smile caressed the corner of his lips as the ‘number unobtainable’ pre-recorded message was mechanically recited. He hung up.
“Why are your agents not answering? It’s seven-thirty. Try their cell phones.”
“That was the cell number. I have no idea where they are, nor what they are doing. We’ll just have to wait. Maybe try to call again, say in three or four hours?”
“No. We will take a flight to where they are. Get your coat. We are leaving for the airport in five minutes.” DiConte raised his hand, half-waving it in Cancelli’s direction; an offhand dismissal.
Cancelli spun on his heels and headed for the door. No way was this bastard going to mess with his resources! No way! His mind worked furiously, trying to come up with a strategy. Yesterday evening he had called people in the Vatican, yet he was still waiting for return calls with instructions about what to do about DiConte. His mind also played out several scenarios of a more drastic nature, including orchestrating an encounter between DiConte and the monster they called the Blood Sucker.


22.

Tuesday morning saw Amy and Katie in Houston. Amy felt strange. She had only been in the city once before; the night Ralph died. She found herself experiencing flashbacks at every turn. Some were almost pleasant memories: of her friend snoozing in the van, of him flashing his ID to commandeer the vehicle from the Police pound, of his unbound enthusiasm, his sureness in that they would put an end to the Blood Sucker.
It had been the other way around.
The remainder of the previous day had been frustrating. The hospital Dean had not responded to Amy’s request for more complete information on the staff as well as the patient records for the baby’s family. At the airport this morning, she had called the Dean at home, fully aware of the time zone difference, waking McKinley at five a.m. with brusque insistence the data needed to be ready that morning without fail. They would be calling in later in the day to collect it in person.
That was not their reason to fly to Houston, however. Katie had spent the afternoon tracking down the GPS data that Dobbs’ truck had supplied automatically to the route tracking software at the firm where he worked. SANTA had identified many nodes, places where Dobbs had returned time and time again. Each of these needed to be tracked down. On one monitor Katie had SANTA’s results; alongside she had pulled up Google Earth. Whenever there was a node, she typed the address into the search box on the latter then Streetviewed the location. Usually these were clearly warehouses; pick-up or drop-off points for Dobbs’ loads. Occasionally there was an office complex. Finally, after a couple of hours of tracking down the nodes, one stood out. It corresponded to a private house on Indiana Street, Houston, in a predominantly residential area. More SANTA searches showed the house belonged to a forty-three year old, single woman, Lorraine Jeffries. She had lived there for over twelve years. Interestingly, she was a doctor, although they could not find information about her speciality. Her Social Security records showed her working for the last ten years at a small private hospital on the outskirts of the city. The hospital’s web page revealed the full range of high-end medical care specialities, so that proved to be of little help. Rather than call the hospital, they decided to fly there early the next day.
They had taken the United flight from Ronald Reagan that left just before eight and it had arrived early at George Bush Intercontinental just after ten. A rental car was waiting and eleven-thirty found them driving into the tree-laden car park at the private hospital. They left their cases in the trunk of the car; Amy’s small holdall and the metallic carry-on that Katie described as ‘SANTA on Wheels’.
The building formed a rough inverted U, with the uprights forced open. The slightly tinted, large-pane windows on the upper floors of the five-storey edifice all overlooked trees, hiding the forecourt from the patients behind coniferous abundance. The U’s uprights channelled the visitors toward the main entrance. No ambulances or Cop cars parked in front of this steel and glass hospital, though. The entrance was designed to impress; to speak of money well spent. Double Palladian columns held up a stone arch that rose to the fourth floor, flanked by a couple of vaguely Greek statues, contorted into unnatural, armless postures as though belying this was a place of health care. They were meant to suggest solid, traditional, trustworthy values to the future patients rather than the gaudy mismatch that made Katie smile to herself.
They passed underneath the arch, double glass doors hissing open to admit them into a spacious and almost deserted reception area. No cryptic Tannoy chatter either, just the occasional note from background music turned so low, its presence was sensed as an occasional vibration in the air. The double slaps from Amy and Katie’s footwear signalled their presence as they neared a solitary figure behind a desk set almost as far back as possible without being outside the building.
Katie held up her ID badge, light flashing off the gold shield into the eyes of the small, white-coated man who had stood as they approached.
“Doctor Lorraine Jeffries. Where can we find her?”
“Doctor Jeffries is…” he looked down, consulting a tablet lying on the otherwise empty desktop, “she is finishing her rounds at the moment.”
“Can you page her? Tell her Homeland Security wants to speak with her now.”
“I can message her on her mobile. We don’t page here.” He tapped the tablet’s surface. “There. As soon as she finishes her rounds, she will come to Reception.” He pointed at a cluster of overstuffed armchairs and couches behind them, to the left of the entrance. “If you would be so kind as to wait there, she won’t be long.”
They had been seated for less than a minute when a tall, dark-suited man approached them. He identified himself as the hospital’s Chief Administrator, and enquired if everything was alright with Doctor Jeffries. Amy sensed that he was more concerned with any fallout from a visit by Federal Agents than the welfare of one of his medical staff. Once assured the doctor was not involved in any nefarious dealings, the Administrator walked over to the Reception desk, where he opted to hover, trying to look busy, yet neither speaking with the receptionist nor doing more than glancing periodically at the man’s tablet. His eyes constantly returned to the two female agents.
After another ten minutes, a medium height, chubby woman, dressed in a spotless, doctor`s white coat approached the chairs.
“Hello. I’m Lorraine Jeffries. I understand you wish to speak with me.”
Amy and Katie stood, identified themselves and asked to speak somewhere more private. Doctor Jeffries suggested her office and they followed her across the foyer. Amy glanced back, seeing the Administrator about to follow. She looked him directly in the eye and he faltered, almost stumbling forward. She mouthed a ‘thank you’ at him, and followed Katie and the doctor through a wide wooden door into the left-hand wing of the hospital.
The doctor’s office was far more homely and casual than they had expected. It had the feeling of a small informal lounge rather than an office. Maybe it had been planned that way to placate patient nerves but Amy felt it had too many personal touches to have been the work solely of some high-end hospital designer. They settled on an overstuffed couch, a close relative of the one in the reception area, yet the colourful Native American shawl thrown over its back, made it seem unique.
“Firstly, you’re not in any trouble, Doctor Jeffries. We are part of the Task Force investigating the death of William Dobbs…”
“Billy,” interrupted the doctor, “he preferred people call him Billy. He hated William.”
“Was he a patient of yours?”
“Yes and no. He is my… was my boyfriend. We were going to get married next year.”
“How did you meet?” asked Amy.
“He’s, was a trucker. We met at a burger place downtown. He was sitting at a table alongside mine. He had one of those smiles you don’t forget easily and we just started talking while we waited for our food. He even paid for my meal and asked me out there and then. We went for a stroll. It was my day off and he was just passing through, going to somewhere on the West Coast, I seem to remember. We just clicked, I guess. Every time he came to Houston we would meet and pretty soon he was staying at my place.”
“You said ‘Yes and No’ when I asked you whether he was a patient.”
“Yes. He complained about abdominal pains from time to time. I wanted him to come here so I could do some tests. At first he put it down to all the hours he sat behind the wheel of his truck, but eventually he realized that something wasn’t right. I brought him here, off the books; this place is very expensive; all private patients. I did some analytics and consulted with colleagues here and in another hospital where we have use of specialized diagnostics. Billy had Stomach Cancer. It was too far advanced to do anything.” She stopped talking, momentarily lost in her recollections. They waited patiently for the doctor to resume. After a few seconds, Jeffries cleared her throat and continued. “He had three or four months, no more. I was heartbroken. I loved him more than anyone I’ve known.”
“What happened?” asked Katie. “He recovered, didn’t he?”
The doctor nodded.
“It was a miracle. I’m not a very religious person, but when Billy called me from his house in New Mexico that day, his voice was so full of joy, I cried during the whole time we talked. Then I went to the chapel here and knelt and thanked God.”
“Was he receiving treatment?”
“Only palliative; painkillers mostly. He decided to go to New Mexico rather than be a burden on me. It was our first argument. I wanted him to stay here, so I could look after him, but he wanted to be alone.”
“Are you an Oncologist, Doctor?”
“What? No, I’m a Cardiologist. Why do you ask?”
“So who treated William… Billy?”
“No one, really. Me, I guess. There was nothing that could be done. The Cancer had spread and it was terminal. All I could do was control the pain.”
“So how did he recover?”
“We don’t know. It’s as simple as that. When Billy called me, he said he woke up, in the early afternoon and felt something had changed. A couple of days later he was feeling much better. Then two weeks later he called again. He was here in Houston. He’d driven over. He said he felt great, like new. I insisted on more tests and the results showed no sign of the Cancer. It was amazing. He kept saying he’d dodged a bullet somehow.”
“What happened then?”
“He went back to work, what else? He spent more time here, though, with me. At first we didn’t know what to do. We were afraid the Cancer would come back, that maybe it wasn’t gone, just sort of hiding, you know? I know that’s stupid, I’m a doctor and all; but this was something else. After a year, I smuggled him back in here and did a complete analytic. I sent the results to my colleagues again and they all concluded that the Cancer appeared to have gone for good. In fact, Billy’s analysis was showing the best values he had ever had: his cholesterol levels were down; so was his blood pressure. He felt like an eighteen-year old again, he used to say. We started making plans for a life together. He wanted to take on more work, with his truck, and save as much as he could. Then he was going to sell his house in New Mexico and move here, start up a small business in truck repair or something. Then we would get married…”
Doctor Jeffries started sobbing quietly. Katie stood and sat on the arm of the doctor’s chair, holding her shoulders as the sobs waned.
“I’m sorry,” said Jeffries, grabbing a handful of tissues from a box on the low table separating the couch from her chair. “It’s just not fair. Billy gets well from the Cancer then that monster has to take him.”
“Do you have any idea why he was chosen as a victim? Did he have any enemies?”
“No. We were happy here. He was on his way to see me when…”
“The FBI report says he was killed in his truck, on the outskirts of Houston.”
“Yes. The police told me he had been found near the river, off Interstate 10, this side of Sealy. Why he’d leave the Interstate I don’t understand. His truck was in the middle of a field. The trailer was still coupled with a full load of fruit and other stuff he’d picked up. He hardly ever picked up hikers. He was always careful, like that. I just don’t understand why.” She started sobbing again. Katie waited, exchanging glances with Amy.
“You said you consulted with another hospital here in Houston?”
Doctor Jeffries suppressed her tears and named the hospital and the people she had consulted, both there and in the building where she worked. Amy noted the names in her book, although her memory was already matching them with all the names that had come up so far in the investigation. Only one match: that of the hospital Doctor Jeffries had consulted.
“Thank you, Doctor. You have been very helpful. More so than you think.”
“One last question, Doctor,” Amy interjected. “Was there anyone here or at the hospital who was particularly involved with Billy’s case?”
“Involved? How do you mean? We didn’t even go to the hospital, and here I had to keep him off the books. The Administrator is…”
“Yes, I understand. I was just trying to see if there was any unusual interest in him, that’s all.”
“Unusual? No, not really. The only unusual thing was the Black Giant.”
Amy and Katie swapped rapid glances.
“The Black Giant?” prompted Amy.
“It’s nothing, really. Billy and I used to laugh about it. When he was ill, he had a vivid dream about some huge man, dressed in black, who came into his bedroom in the middle of the night and spoke to him. He can’t remember much else, not even what the man said. He told me the dream happened again a couple of weeks later.”
“Did he keep having the dream?” asked Katie, her brow furrowed.
“No, just those two times. But it was so vivid, he said, although he couldn’t remember what happened.”
“When did the first dream happen?” Amy was playing a hunch, driven by her mind, seeking patterns even where none might be found.
The doctor thought hard.
“I think it was a couple of days before that call. You know, the one I told you about, when he said he was feeling so much better.”

23.

He crouched down in the front seat of the dark green hire car, watching the two Federal Agents exit the private hospital. He saw them smiling, obviously happy about something. The older one took out a cell phone, glancing briefly at its screen. Her voice floated over the tarmac to his open window.
“Another lost call from Cancelli. And a text message. ‘Where are you? Get out of Washington now’. What do you think is going on?”
“He sounds panicky. I’ve only had a couple of meetings with him, but he doesn’t strike me as someone who gets stressed-out easily.” The light tones of the younger agent, the one he had almost killed, carried in the gentle breeze, easily audible from twenty feet away, although he was also listening to the audio feed, so as not to miss anything important.
“No, he doesn’t get rattled that easily. Still. For now, he can wait. We have a good lead here, so let’s chase this down then worry about the Monsignor.”
In the car, his bulk pressed low behind the steering wheel, he smiled. They made a great team these two. He particularly liked the older one; she had fibre. That’s what his Ol’ Man used to call it, so very long ago yet remembered as though it were this morning; inner strength, innate toughness, despite her frail appearance. The young one…, well, it could go either way. He might still have to take her life. For now they were useful. They were leading him to his target, he felt it; sensed, somehow, that he was closer.
As the Feds climbed into their car and drove away, he threw himself sideways, so he couldn’t be seen as they passed. They left the car park, heading south, driving with purpose, obviously with a destination in mind. He lifted himself upright again and glanced down to his right, at the tablet on the passenger seat. The two pulses were so close, they formed a flashing red figure eight. He placed two fingers on the screen and performed a pinching movement. The image zoomed out; the dots became one, the streets clearly visible as they sped away.
He watched them travel four blocks before pressing the Start button and shifting into gear. No need to get too close: technology was his best ally.


24.

Once in the vehicle, they had not spoken. Katie was at the wheel, mentally multi-tasking her driving skills with processing the two important pieces of data revealed in their interview with Jeffries: Dobbs had been terminally ill and recovered, just like the other victims, and there was an indirect connection with the same hospital that had treated the other victims. Then there was the matter of the ‘Black Giant’.
Amy was lost in her thoughts also. She had managed to suppress a shudder when the Doctor had told them about Dobbs’ recurring nightmare. The ‘Black Giant’ description immediately dragged images from her subconscious; images of huge creatures with glowing eyes, silhouetted in darkened rooms. She had emptied two magazines at that apparition, yet…
“Katie.” Amy’s voice had a slight tremor as she broke the silence. “Can we swing by the last crime scene before we go to the hospital? I need to check something out.”
Katie glanced over at her partner. She didn’t like what she saw.
“Amy, my dear, are you sure you want to go back there? I don’t think…”
“No, no, it’s okay. Please. I really need to go back. There’s something I don’t understand.”
Katie didn’t reply. She pulled the car over to the side of the road and reprogrammed the Satnav. The unconcerned tones of the female voice quietly spoke new directions. Katie started up the car again and drove in silence. From time to time she looked over at Amy. The latter sat, breathing deeply, eyes fixed on a point some ten feet in front of the car, seeing only in her mind.
As Katie drew up in front of the house, Amy’s body shook violently. She turned and forced a smile. Opening her door, she spoke.
“This’ll do me good, I think. I’ve not been back since… that night. Time to face the demons.”
Together they crossed the road, toward the yellow tape forming a perimeter around the metal railings. Before entering, Amy paused, letting her gaze sweep the single-storey dwelling from side to side. She forced her right foot forward, toward the gate. Katie followed close behind, intent upon her partner’s reactions.
As Amy pushed open the gate, her right hand went unconsciously to the Glock 22 holstered on her hip. She caught herself; her fingers brushing the gun’s hard surfaces, not grasping it as she had done on that night. Katie held the gate, stopping it from crashing closed. She remembered Amy citing the noise in her report; how her stealth approach had been destroyed by the clash of metal as the gate slammed shut. She had also seen Amy’s hand make its way to the gun. Katie was worried that Amy was too wound up to act rationally.
“Amy, dear. I’ve not been here before. I’ve only read the reports. Could you talk me through what happened that night, please?” Katie figured that if Amy could vocalize the events, it would help her overcome the anguish she must be going through now.
Amy looked around at her partner. She nodded, once.
“By now, I had my gun drawn. I was just going to take a look, see if the house had been entered, then leave and join… go back to the van. That damn gate. I should have closed it. I felt the spring when I pushed it open; should have realized it would slam. Second big mistake.”
“Second?”
“Yeah. The first was coming here thinking we could handle this ourselves. We are geeks, backroom support staff not Field Agents.”
“Well you’re not a geek now, Senior Special Agent Bree, so get with the program.” Katie let a gentle harshness creep into her voice, enough for Amy to snap out of her self-recrimination.
She expected her partner to move forward, toward the house, as the report had stated. Instead, Amy suddenly stepped past her, moving rapidly back to the gate, looking out at the street.
“What…?”
“There’s someone out there, Katie, I can feel them watching us.” Amy had her gun drawn, pointed down parallel to her leg. Katie reached for her own weapon, her eyes alternately watching Amy and scanning the street.
“Are you sure? I don’t see anyone.”
“I’ve had this feeling since we arrived at Houston this morning. I don’t know… I can’t see anyone on the street either. Nobody sitting in cars. It’s quiet, yet…”
“Well, truth be told, my dear, I had the feeling we were being followed on our way to see the Doctor. I did Counter-surveillance, but couldn’t pick up a tail. T.Y.I., though.”
“T.Y.I.?”
“Back in the office. Another of my samplers. Trust Your Instincts. T.Y.I.”
They opened the gate quickly, stepping out into the road, guns levelled. Amy went right, Katie left.


25.

Ten long minutes later they met up again at the metal gate. They had searched both sides of the street, peering in every car, looking in every window. Most of the houses were empty, their owners away at work or shopping. Only one neighbour appeared, startled as Amy thrust her weapon in his direction. She had identified herself, barked an order for him to return inside.
Katie noticed that Amy’s hands were trembling as they reunited by the fluorescent yellow Police Line tape.
“I couldn’t see anyone, dear.”
“I still can’t shake that feeling though.”
“Let’s check out the inside of the house.”
They moved through the gate, allowing it to slam behind them. No sense going stealthy now.
Katie reached the front door first. It was locked, as expected. They moved along the grey brick of the front wall, Amy in the lead, until they reached the large picture window. Furtive peeks inside detected no movement. The morning sunlight now illuminated the couch and lounge chair, reflecting dully off the black TV screen.
Amy picked up the pace, reaching the corner of the house, poking her weapon around and quickly following. Katie followed, occasionally twisting around, covering their backs, just in case. Ahead, on the left, the dark leaves of the six-foot tall hedge, still shiny with last night’s dew. On the right, the kitchen door. More yellow police tape.
Without stopping, they moved past the door. Halting at the rear corner, they examined the back of the house. A large expanse of lawn, brown patches predominating through lack of watering. An awning over a stone flag porch. A large brick-built barbeque. A dense stack of wood logs, fuel for the fire in the lounge. Amy darted forward, her gun trained on the logs. She sidestepped the barbeque and checked out the area behind the log pile.
“Clear.”
Katie was close, following her with her weapon aimed behind them.
“Don’t yell ‘clear’ when it’s only the two of us, dearie. I know that’s what they taught you in Quantico, but it only works if we are a large team. Otherwise it just gives your position away.”
“Uh, I…”
“Let’s check the far side then go in.”
Three minutes later they framed the kitchen doorway. The Houston Cops had put a large metal clasp on the rear door and fitted it with a sturdy police lock. Katie examined it. It looked untampered with.
“Front door,” she said, rapidly making her way along the side of the house. As they neared the main entrance to the house, Katie holstered her weapon and extracted her ID wallet. Using a fingernail, she pried apart the leather stitching near the bottom of the spine, extracting two thin metal rods. One she inserted into the lock near the top of the orifice; the other, broader, piece went in below it. She twisted the latter, creating torsion on the mechanism, and started moving the top piece in and out briskly. Amy watched fascinated at Katie’s familiarity with lock picking. Less than ten seconds; the torsion bar turned.
“I’m getting rusty. That was slow. It’s a cheap lock; should have been easier.” Katie pocketed the picks, drew her pistol and pushed the door wide.
The hallway where Ralph had died lay ahead. To their left, the opening that gave onto the lounge. In front, a series of doors, four on the right, one at the back, on the left. Katie looked over at Amy.
“Check out the lounge and kitchen. I’ll stay here.”
Amy moved off to the left, taking a step toward the opening into the lounge. She faltered. She had emptied a clip at the monster, Ralph’s killer, as it stood here. Her mind deluded her into smelling the cordite, seeing the smoke and fire, watching the glowing eyes watching her. Her body shook, hard, rustling her clothes. Katie glanced back, worried.
Amy stepped forward, her Glock thrust out, finger already on the trigger. Screw Quantico; screw firearm safety procedures. The barrel traversed the lounge quickly. No targets. Stepping rapidly, Amy focused the weapon on the far doorway. Advancing, faster than she should according to Quantico’s instructors; turning into the hallway, now the kitchen.
No knife on the worktop.
No dark figures with glowing eyes.
Breath short, violent. Amy retraced her steps. Katie had not moved. They checked out the bathroom next. Empty. Three steps brought them to the bedroom door. A bunch of yellow tape had been tied to the knob. Amy signalled to skip this room; check the rest first. Two more bedrooms, one done out with bunk beds and kids’ stuff awaiting grandchildren that would not return. The last room, an office. A big screen desktop computer, a large Brother inkjet printer and a stack of paper. Amy picked up the top sheet. ‘I fought Big C… and won!’ followed by the victim’s name; bold type, bold statements. She placed the page back on the pile, glancing over at Katie by the door, her weapon trained on the hallway.
Only one door to open; one room to check.
Katie moved first, taking up a position to the right of the bedroom door.
Amy approached, her gun pointing at the floor, each step leaden. Her left hand rose under unconscious command, turning the doorknob, pushing inward.
She had been prepared for the red nightmare of her dreams, the unspeakable events playing out without remorse every night since it had happened. She forced her eyes to open wide, made herself breath, expecting the coppery, bloody odour.
The walls were cream. Pale cream. The floor, fake redwood. A faint wisp assailed her nostrils; solvents with a metallic edge. A Crime Scene clean-up crew had been here.
She stepped into the room, crossing quickly to draw the drapes wide. Sunlight flooded the room, pursuing her fears, pushing them from her mind.
The bed had been stripped; only the base remained. Two side tables flanked it. No lamps, books, alarm clock, or the other usual night-time stuff. Everything now in the evidence locker at Houston P.D., or maybe at the BAU labs in Quantico.
Amy looked up. The light fitting, centred in the ceiling, had anchored the body upside down as its arteries and veins had been severed. Blood had poured into a plastic kitchen bowl, then was thrown onto the walls. That’s what the report had said.
“Breathe deeply and slowly, dearie. You’re hyperventilating. There’s no one here.”


26.

Amy stepped back out into the hallway, turned to face the bedroom and slumped against the wall, her body deflating as she slid down to the floor. Katie followed her out, stepping over her sprawled legs as she made her way to the lounge, her gun still raised, checking no one had entered behind them.
When Katie returned from her recce, she found Amy sitting against the wall, her legs still straggling the hallway, her gun abandoned on the floor alongside. Amy had her face buried in her hands. She was quietly sobbing, her body rocking gently.
Katie holstered her weapon and crouched down, laying a comforting arm across her partner’s shoulders. The older woman chose not to speak. She had experienced the loss of a colleague more than once on assignments in the early days and remembered that tears helped wash the soul of grief at times like these.
Several minutes passed; the silence of the house broken only by intermittent sniffs from Amy.
“Katie, I just realized, here, where I’m sitting, it’s where Ralph died. I’m sorry…”
“Nothing to be sorry about, my dear. It’s best that you grieve when you can. You’ll need a cool head if we are going to track down the bastard who killed your friend.”
“I don’t understand. I fired a whole clip, nine rounds…” She reached down, extracting her Glock 27 backup gun from its ankle holster.  “I was less than eight feet away… it’s a .40 Cal… should have…”
Katie scooped up Amy’s gun from the floor and stood, holding out her free hand to help her partner to her feet. Amy leaned over, returning the smaller Glock to its holster, before retrieving her main weapon from Katie and placing it back on her hip.
She took a step toward the bedroom and turned.
“I was about here. He was…”
Katie moved back, positioning herself in the doorway to the lounge. “About here?”
“Yeah. Look how close. How could I miss?”
Katie looked around. Several bullet impact holes were evident in the frame and wall just to the right of the door. They were clustered together about mid-chest height. Centre-mass hits if they had been on target. Knife marks gouged the area where the bullets had been removed by the Crime Scene Investigators.
“Is that a Glock 27 you use?”
“Yes.”
“Okay. You said nine shots, so you don’t use the Pearce extension magazine.” It was a statement more than a question.
“No. It’s a BUG weapon. I wanted it small and easy to conceal carry.”
“The problem is, my dear, the basic 27 is very uncomfortable to fire repeatedly. You probably got a good skin graze on your thumb knuckle. The Pearce makes it firmer to grip, and gives you an extra round.”
“I still don’t understand how I could miss?”
“You were in shock, emotional, half-choked, dizzy maybe. If you grabbed the gun quickly, jerked the trigger, not lined it up and squeezed, you would be pulling it to the right slightly, with every shot.” Katie pointed to the holes. “Nine.”
“Fuck!” Amy spat out the word. “I came so close to nailing that bastard.”
“Five inches to the left and you would have wounded him. We would have had his DNA, at least. Still, better luck next time. It was your first time shooting at a person too. It’s not the same as on the range, my dear.”
“You ever shot someone?”
“Yes.” Katie responded with quiet finality.
Amy chose not to pursue her question. She brushed herself off, removing a light coating of dust, and her dour mood, with every swipe.
“That’s what I couldn’t see; how I could miss at that distance.” Said more to herself than as an explanation for their visit. “I guess I missed the same way, when I fired across the lounge.”
“Let’s go over to the hospital and see if the Dean has the files you requested.”
They walked to the front door, Amy glancing back over her shoulder at the place where she had been sitting, the spot where Ralph had died.
She nodded once; an inner promise for vengeance.


27.

From his perch, spread-eagled on the back-sloping roof of the house opposite, he watched them leave the house. They pulled the door shut after them, crossed to the gate and walked into the street. The metallic slam of the gate punctuated their withdrawal as they crossed to their car, climbed in and drove off.
He stayed where he was for a couple more minutes, not wanting any spurious backward glance to detect movement. They had been spooked when they arrived, somehow detecting his presence. He would have understood it, if it had been the older one. But it was the one he hadn’t killed. She was far more dangerous than he had supposed.
While he waited for them to drive down the street and turn left, he ran through his decision to allow the Fed to live. It had been a gamble, a rationalized afterthought, a pawn moving just one square. A long-term strategic positioning; in a way, a tempting morsel for Cancelli to gobble up and exploit. And it had worked. He was aware, thanks to the audio channelling to the tablet he had recovered from the dead strike team member, that Cancelli was now involved, that these two were working directly for him.
“Time to step up the stakes.” He spoke softly, a smile caressing his lips.
The Blood Sucker relaxed his body and slipped silently down the shingles.


-- ooo --



There are FOUR novels in 'the CULL' series curently available. The fifth and final, 'the CULL - Blood Kill', will be published later this year.

Some of the things they are saying about 
the CULL - Bloodline

"Gates has done his homework (or lived it), the attention to detail is top notch and the pacing is incredible. Couple that with a high-impact, adrenaline fueled story, and you've got an instant hit with readers. Gates has a knack for directing his reader's emotional response throughout, ratcheting the adrenaline up with quick, concise, impacting dialog and action. Then seamlessly transitioning to bring us back down through nearly hypnotic melodious syntax. I highly recommend the CULL - Bloodline to fans of Paranormal, Crime, Mystery, Suspense and Espionage novels. Those of you who just have to have a dose of romance are strongly cautioned. There's no room for it in this title, because it's already brimming with too much awesome."

"I must admit that when I first picked up this book I didn't know what to expect. It looked intriguing so I decided to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised, enjoying every word that I read. I was captivated throughout the novel by all of the suspense and mystery hidden behind the words. This book is James Patterson meets Dan Brown, while remaining entirely unique.

Gates' writing style dictates your mood towards the story. At times he uses short, choppy sentences, making the action seem even more intense. Other times his writing is soothing. Yet again, the way that his sentences are put together brings out further compassion for the characters involved. Each section of the novel is written in a way to maximize impact, while still flowing seamlessly together. The novel also remains gripping throughout. Even the parts that are simply background information or descriptive narrative are never boring.

This was by far one of the best suspense novels that I have read in a long time."

"This is one of those books that is so engrossing you just want it to keep going, so I was very happy to see it’s a series of four books – and I plan to read them all. “The CULL - Bloodline,” by Eric J. Gates, is full of exciting action and drama"

"This is a wonderful and thrilling story. I am a fairly fast reader so it didn't take a very long time to read. That is also because once I started I couldn't put it down. This book is one of the best books I have read in a while."


All this… and you’ve still not read it?
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