Weddings made Jason feel like the single joker in a deck of playing cards; unsuited, different, and alone. He would wait to feel the joy and happiness of the occasion, but it seemed the hands of the clock took an eternity to move. When the tick came, it only deepened the loneliness. He hated weddings. Yet here he stood in front of the church altar next to the groom, his brother Travis. As best man, he smiled as required. The bridesmaids had arrived and were across from them. He waited for the next tick of the clock.
Then it came, but not as expected. His eye caught something resembling a crimson pearl at the hem of the matron of honor’s blue dress. Seconds later, it grew. It became a dark red streak oozing along the narrow grout line between the church’s white marble tiles. In a blink, the stain was almost two inches long. The matron of honor, Maria, clutched her abdomen, her ashen face contorted in pain. She uttered a muffled cry almost imperceptible over the processional music.
Jason sprang across the aisle. Before he could get to her, Maria collapsed inside the folds of her dress, knees buckling. With her upper body remaining upright, she sank like a high-rise building imploding.
Maria’s dress splayed out and captured some of the blood. She started falling forward. A bridesmaid grabbed her shoulder and held her upright. Her head slumped, eyelids fluttered and closed. A stream of saliva oozed from her lips. The rivulet of blood continued to seep along the seams of the tiles.
The flower girl, now halfway down the aisle, shrieked. The cold granite and marble of the church produced a thousand echoes. Startled, the organist keyed the wrong notes.
Joined by Travis, Jason knelt at Maria’s side. “Someone call 911. Get an ambulance!”
One of the groomsmen reached in his pocket for his phone. “No reception. I’ll go outside.” He ran towards the door.
Confused by the chaos, wedding guests stood, looked at one another, and whispered questions that went unanswered.
A voice rose above the din. Michelle, the bride, called out, “Please. Let me by!”
Jason stood and pushed aside the gathering crowd. “She’s a nurse, let her through.”
Michelle dropped to her knees, blood staining her white satin bridal gown. “Lay her back. Help me with her legs.”
Jason and Travis reclined the unconscious Maria onto her back. Jason moved her arms, and he was struck by the gentle scent of the floral bouquet on his former girlfriend’s wrist; how it belied the chaos of the moment.
Maria’s eyelids fluttered again. She groaned as if pierced by a thousand knives, and with breath held, grimaced. Her parole of unconsciousness now revoked, tears ran down her cheeks.
“Honey, is it the baby?” Michelle stroked Maria’s cheek.
Maria’s eyes rolled back as if she were about to pass out again. A guttural sound came from deep within her. Others in the church went silent, held their breath. The still air was cool, yet beads of perspiration covered Maria’s face.
A bewildered look appeared on Jason’s face. “She’s pregnant?”
“She’s about six weeks along.” Michelle peeked under Maria’s dress and gasped when she saw all the blood. “Crap. We need to get her to a hospital. Now.”
Jason pointed to a simple backless bench that altar boys sat on. “Travis–help me get that bench over there. We can use it to get her to the street to wait for the ambulance.” They picked up the bench and put Maria on it. Jason suspected life was ebbing out of Maria.
Maria let out a scream so filled with pain that it seemed to echo forever. She lost consciousness again leaving a cold stillness in the church.
“She’s hemorrhaging. It may be an ectopic pregnancy. Where’s that ambulance?” Michelle said.
Jason and Travis loaded Maria onto the bench and carried her towards the church entrance. Michelle walked alongside applying pressure to Maria’s abdomen.
Jason began racing toward the exit forcing Travis to keep pace. “Michelle, don’t let her die.”
Michelle glanced at Jason and then returned her gaze to Maria. “Travis, keep your end of the bench lower, so the blood flows towards her head,” Michelle said. “Hurry up, we haven’t much time.”
Travis lowered his end of the bench and quickened his pace even more as they whisked past the bewildered wedding guests.
The priest came alongside and began reciting the last rights.
“She’s not a Catholic, father,” Michelle said.
The priest’s gentle smile reassured her. “God loves all his children. He lets me give free passes.”
The groomsman returned, meeting them at the door. “There’s been an AMTRAK derailment. Every ambulance in town is answering that call. The woman at 911 said she’d try to divert an ambulance this way, but it may take some time.”
Jason motioned to a groomsman. “Take my end of this bench. I’ll get my car. We’ll take her to the hospital.”
Jason ran outside and pulled his Jaguar sedan in front of the church.
Michelle got in the back seat. “Jason, your seats are going to get blood on them.”
“Hell with that. Maria’s more important. I can get new seats or even a new car. Make Maria comfortable.”
They placed Maria into the back seat with Michelle who then cradled Maria’s head and maintained pressure on her abdomen.
Within minutes, they arrived at the emergency entrance of the hospital. Maria was loaded onto a gurney and wheeled into a treatment area. The triage nurse told the rest of them to go to the waiting room. Michelle ignored the directions and accompanied her best friend.
In the waiting room, Travis and Jason, in their tuxedos, became the center of attention. The brothers ignored the stares.
Jason replayed the events at the church in his mind, praying that his momentary hesitancy at disrupting the ceremony hadn’t jeopardized Maria.
A toddler in a pink dress came up and grabbed Jason’s trouser leg to help maintain her balance. Her mother was soon there picking up the child. “Sorry, she’s a handful.”
Jason smiled at her, “Don’t worry. She’s just exploring.” He watched the toddler’s bright smile as she and her mother retreated. The little girl didn’t know about the pain and suffering that went on here. Jason wished she’d not know for many years.
Jason had dated Maria a few years ago, but he wasn’t ready, and it never went anywhere. Maria caught him on the rebound from a woman who’d betrayed him. The relationship with Maria faded and, a year after it was over, she married a marine who resembled the fellow on the Marine recruitment poster. Jason was happy for them; Maria deserved the best.
Jason observed that Travis had his tie undone and his blond hair looked somewhat ruffled. With that scar that bisected his eyebrow and his ruddy appearance, he looked out of place in the tuxedo walking around the ER waiting room.
For what seemed an eternity, Jason and Travis paced about. Like moths returning to the light bulb, each would come back to the small windows in the doors leading to the treatment rooms, looking for some sign of good news, any news.
The swoosh of the opening doors startled Jason. Michelle emerged dressed in scrubs, carrying her bridal gown. She had a pained expression on her face. “She’s gone…the baby too. The ER doc says they’ve had eighteen similar cases this week. Something is wrong here…very wrong.”
Travis, Jason, and Michelle sat in Jason’s family room in Malibu. A gentle ocean breeze wafted through the patio doors. The wedding ceremony was a bust, and the matron of honor was dead. Travis had his arm around Michelle. Her demeanor bounced between rage and tears, like the ocean breaking upon the rocks and then receding.
“Somebody or something killed her.” Michelle broke away from Travis, stood, and began to pace. “Probably some damn drug company, just like they killed my father.”
“What do you mean?” Jason said.
“My father had diabetes. The doctor gave him a prescription that was supposed to be a miracle drug but destroyed his liver. They failed to monitor his enzymes, and he died.” She stood by the open doors to the patio with her arms crossed. “The drug was eventually pulled off the market after scores of deaths and lots of liver transplants. The bastards knew the drug had problems, but kept selling it. And, the government flunkies let them.”
“Don’t you think you might be overreacting,” Jason said. “There’s no evidence that she was killed by anything nefarious.”
Travis left the room and returned with a notebook computer. He sat on a sofa, placed the computer on the coffee table, and opened it.
“Travis. Stop playing with that damn computer. Help me here. Your brother thinks I’m an overwrought female who doesn’t know shit.”
Jason raised his hands above his head. “Hold on now. I didn’t say that.”
“You might as well have said it,” Michelle said and then turned towards Travis. “Travis, stop playing with your computer.”
Travis’s gaze remained on the computer. He waved his hand in a motion indicating silence.
“Don’t shush me. I’m not a child, and come to think of it, I’m not even your wife…yet.”
“Oh shit,” Jason said. “I didn’t mean to start a war. Let’s all be calm and we’ll see what we can do.” Jason turned toward Travis. “Travis, be more respectful of your future wife.”
“Ha,” Michelle said. “If he took lessons from you, Jason, he’d still be a virgin and a hermit living in a shack in the desert with nothing but his computer, a toilet, and lots of empty pizza boxes.”
Travis shook his head, looked as if he wanted to say something, but held back. He got up and walked out to pool deck.
For the next five minutes, the only sound was waves breaking in the distance, no one spoke. Finally, Travis calmed himself, returned and sat on the sofa. “Ok. Sit down here, so you can see the computer, and I’ll show you what I’ve found out about miscarriages.”
Jason sat on the sofa to the right of Travis and leaned back. With a pout, Michelle bounced on the sofa on the other side.
“I hacked into the central billing department of a large hospital holding company,” Travis said. “They have a hundred and fifty or so hospitals throughout the U.S.”
Jason and Michelle sat forward and stared at the computer display.
“This is a plot of the miscarriages billed for the past few years. A few months ago, they began increasing. It’s now tenfold last year’s rate.”
Travis tried putting his arms around Michelle.
Michelle escaped from Travis’s embrace. “I told you. She didn’t die of natural causes. The ER doc virtually said so. I’m sure the autopsy will confirm it.”
Jason stood. “She may have a point. Maria was a healthy woman who bled to death in minutes.” He went to the wet bar, poured a glass of whiskey, and handed it to Michelle. “Here, drink this, calm down, and let’s figure this out.”
Travis felt tightness in his chest. Damn you Jason. This wasn’t going to calm Michelle; it would incite her.
Travis turned back again to see Jason run his hand through his salt and pepper hair as if he was trying to rub it off, or had some strange itch. Travis often told his brother that doing that was what gamblers called “a tell.” Jason did it anyway. Travis knew it meant Jason was intensely interested in something, his mind was clicking away at light speed, and something explosive would soon happen.
Jason kicked off his shoes and put his feet on the coffee table; displaying casualness contrary to what Travis felt was going on in Jason’s mind. “Michelle, what makes you think that Maria’s death might have been the result of something she was taking?”
“I don’t know. It’s just the doctor was almost sure the death wasn’t from natural causes. He didn’t think it was an ectopic pregnancy that induced the massive hemorrhage. This was not a normal miscarriage.”
Travis looked at Jason and massaged Michelle’s shoulders. “I guess we’re going to have to find out, won’t we big brother?”
“Roger that.” Jason reached into a pocket and pulled out one of his cell phones, the phantom one. The phone generated a new ID with every call that traced back to a telecom maintenance number, and the GPS signal showed it to be at various points around Omaha. It was a traceable phone, but the trace was a lie.
Jason slipped on his shoes and went out on the pool deck. Travis knew what was happening. Jason was calling people. Some of those would-be friends who would repay a favor, some just good souls he knew he could call upon for some things that were righteous and good, some were the greedy whom he would pay off or outsmart, and some were bad characters who would do his bidding to avoid his wrath. Whenever Jason started rubbing his hair that way, he was a force to be reckoned with. Travis recalled someone once said that Jason’s enemies, truly bad people, would often prepare for a frontal assault only to find that they had bled to death from the artery Jason opened while they weren’t looking. These people would awake with their riches evaporated, their dark secrets now public knowledge. Friends would abandon them; family would disown them. Jason wasn’t a violent man. For the bad people, he was worse than that.
Jason came back and in sat across from Michelle. “If you’re right, the doctors will call the police, and they will have yellow tape strung everywhere. Our friends will have come and gone by then. I’ve sent people to scour for evidence of anything in Maria’s medicine cabinet, pantry, or work locker she might have ingested. They’ll get it analyzed. Others will see if it’s a localized issue, throughout the state, or the country.”
Jason looked at Travis. “I also called your former father-in-law.”
“You called Jack?” Travis asked.
“I asked him to call in some favors and sniff around Washington.”
“Who’s Jack?” Michelle asked.
“Jack Strathern is a powerful congressman from California and the world’s worst former father-in-law,” Travis said.
Jason took Michelle’s hand and held it. “If, as you say, someone killed Maria and her baby, we’ll see that those responsible will pray to hear the sound of their own death rattle.”
Rain cascading down his windows distorted Mark Rubens’ view of Lake Michigan. The CEO of the largest commodity supplier, Arthur, Daniels, and Highland, was mystified as to why his private line was ringing. Only his ex-wife and a few others had that number.
He picked up the phone.
“Mark, what in the world are your scientists at ADH doing?” Debra Milano, the head of Food Safety at the FDA said. “I got someone at Center for Disease Control saying your bio-engineering may have introduced a pathogen into the food supply and it’s doing harm.”
“Hold on, Dr. Milano. We’ve investigated those CDC allegations. They are without merit.”
“Don’t give me your standard ADH corporate line. The Director is on my case. She’s looking for heads to chop off—”
“Hold on a minute. I’m not finished. Put away your axe.”
Subdued, she continued, “Look, we need to find out what’s happening to these people.”
“Debra, my sweet—”
“Mark, you can address me as Doctor Milano or Debra. I’m not your sweet.”
“Well, you weren’t always so formal.”
“I can see that was a mistake. Now back to the problem. What is ADH doing to the food?”
“Dr. Milano, I assure you ADH has nothing to hide from the FDA. We had our doctors in Idaho check all the records at the Women’s Center, going back ten years.” His gaze burrowed into the phone as if Debra were within. “They found nothing. Perfect health. Those people have been eating food grown by ADH, all the grains, and livestock, and haven’t exhibited any problems.”
“How can I be sure that something ADH has done to increase the yield of corn, or increase resistance to some insect isn’t causing this malady? Don’t lie to me.”
Mark paused, tried to regain his composure. “I know that you have an awesome responsibility with only a few resources. You’ve done a wonderful job of convincing everyone in the food industry to police their own shop. We’ll do everything we can to help you, but there’s nothing wrong with our bioengineering. And I’m not lying.”
“Again, how can I be sure?”
The wind whipped the rain on the windows into froth mirroring Mark’s growing frustration. “Shit, send your own team to Idaho. We have the data to support our position. Damn it, there’s nothing wrong at ADH.”
“I hope you’re right…for both our sakes.”
After Debra finished the call with Rubens, it rang again. It was Congressman Jack Strathern. Why was he calling? Had the shit hit the fan already?
“I need a favor,” Jack said.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Some hi-tech friends of mine, the Williams brothers, are investigating the death of a pregnant friend of theirs. They have a theory that the death may have been the result of some drug or food that was ingested and that it’s struck many other women. It may be a regional or even national problem. They need the cooperation of the FDA.”
Debra nearly dropped the phone. Her eyes squeezed shut. Could it be this was the same problem brought to her attention by the CDC? If so, it wouldn’t be long before it was in the newspapers.
“I’m about to investigate a similar problem, brought to me by the CDC. I can’t use the people here at the FDA. This place leaks like a sieve, and this situation needs to be muzzled until we can get a handle on it. We can’t have the public panic. Perhaps your friends might help me to help them.”
“I believe the Williams brothers will assist.”
Debra started tapping her pencil on the desk. “Jack, some years ago, a rumor was floating around, an urban legend thing, about your involvement with a team of non-government hi-tech commandos that stopped some disease that was inducing suicide in people. Are these the same guys?”
Jack’s voice almost sounded whimsical. “Well, you know how unreliable rumors are.”
Debra sighed. “I need a team of techies to investigate ADH. Can your guys do it?”
The tone of Jack’s voice changed. “Perhaps. How do you suggest they begin this investigation?”
“I want them to go to Idaho and verify the findings at ADH. And, one more thing, I can’t pay them.”
Jack laughed. “Let me see if I understand this. You want me to get a team that can investigate one of the largest agricultural commodity suppliers in the world, in secret, for nothing.”
“I suspect you would want this team to follow your directions, exclusively.”
“What if this team was independent to follow any lead that they felt important, anywhere it led them?”
“I could live with that. I just want to find the underlying cause of this without creating unnecessary panic. What can you tell me about these guys?”
“Jason Williams, along with his brother Travis, will, on occasion, assemble a team of scientists, engineers, and various special forces to quietly serve the nation.”
“Who funds them?”
“They are self-funded. Jason was with a couple of high-tech start-ups that went public. He made a large profit, twice. It’s said he subsequently made some complex investments abroad and now controls funds in the nine-figure range.”
“How well do you know them?”
“Travis Williams was married to my daughter before she died. Although we didn’t get along at times, now, I’d trust him and his brother with my life. You need to tell me more. I couldn’t get much out of Jason. What does this problem that the CDC brought to you do? “
Debra hesitated for a moment before saying, “It seems to affect only women.”
“Yes, but what does it do?”
“It kills their babies.”