“Words. Our words matter. We must be deliberate about what we say tonight. Our words will mean the difference between our commitment to Country First and the crime of High Treason.”
In the weighty silence that followed, Wendell Greene’s eyes fell on the masked faces of what appeared to be two men and a woman seated at one end of the long conference table in the spacious boardroom. A third masked man, former governor Hugh Gordon, sat with his head bowed, breathing to calm his thoughts, focusing to maintain resolve. Greene cleared his throat and continued from his place at the head of the table.
“You, Governor,” he continued, “You are destined to be remembered most in all this. History will cast your lot with that of either Thomas Jefferson or Benedict Arnold. Make no mistake, your presence tonight and your involvement will help provide legitimacy for this necessary deed. You have our profound respect and admiration.”
It was a scripted, secretive meeting, convened one minute after midnight in a dim boardroom, twenty stories above the steady, shimmering black flow of the Potomac River in the Rosslyn submarket of Arlington. The tower was mostly dark and the night was silent. A full-moon shone high above the city, bathing the darkened room in the tickly twilight of Selene. At the conference table, Governor Gordon writhed in his seat, uneasy, uncomfortable and increasingly unresolved.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Wendell Greene was a large man who wheezed when he breathed and always seemed to be out of breath. His large stomach, usually concealed under judicial black, rose above the table when he inhaled. His limp white hair, visible above his mask, was combed straight back, recently ruffled with splayed fingers. He spoke slowly, with a throaty, raspy voice.
“We are the last hope for America, brave patriots and understandably, reluctant conspirators. We know what must be done and derive no personal joy or gratification in doing what only we can do. The wheels at last are in motion. We will be heroes or martyrs.”
He motioned toward a masked aide by the door, who in response, bowed her head and exited.
“Words, my friends. Let us not be betrayed by our words, now and in future discussions. While it is natural to be curious, it would be best to let me question our guests without interruption. The less any of you say, the better you’ll fare in all this. I’m an old man. If we are discovered, I’ll take the blame and I’ll be the first to fall on my sword.”
The aide reentered, followed by two men in suits, billionaire technology stock trader Helmut Wolf and Dr. Benjamin Rosecrans, founder of Genengine, a private genetic research company. The aide then exited, so that only the men she brought in and the group at the table remained. The doctor seemed nervous, but Wolf walked to a place before the group, standing in the shadows.
“Brave gentlemen and gentlewoman,” he announced with an air of pride, “I appreciate the invitation to this impossible event. We have a great work to do, evidenced by the fact this meeting is even taking place. As no doubt our chair has informed you, what we speak tonight must never leave this room, and when it is accomplished, we must all be prepared to die to conceal what we have done.
“Let me introduce the brain behind this endeavor,” Wolf continued as he motioned toward the door. “Our good doctor here has spent the last ten years perfecting a process we financed, a one-billion-dollar experiment very near its application phase. It’s very narrow purpose: covert political assassination, on the global scale, reserved for the narrow and extraordinary aims of our enterprise, the invisible hand.”
The governor squinted, trying to get a glimpse of the doctor’s masked aspect through the murky gloom. Wolf paused to make sure his words had resonated.
“Our targets will die from natural causes, and no investigation initiated in the United States or elsewhere by any government or agency will implicate the process or the individuals involved. Through genetics, we have achieved perfect murder, which can be repeated over and over again as necessary, of course for the greater good. The question is not, who is going to let us?—rather it is, who is going to stop us? Thank you, Doctor. ”
The doctor gone and doors shut behind him, Greene nodded and cleared his throat.
“And at what point will your process reach its application phase, Mr. X?”
“Forty-five days. Beyond that, assassinations will, how shall we say, they will be final in no more than sixty days after we launch the vector.”
“And you’re sure you can gain access to our target?” the Justice continued.
“We already have what we need there. What we’ll require from you is cover, and of course, compensation. I have confirmation half the money was wired this afternoon, with the balance due when the target is neutralized.”
Governor Gordon, against Greene’s advice, against his own good judgment, raised his face, staring in disbelief, blurting out the words before he even realized what he was saying.
“White House target?” he gasped. “So you’re telling us you’re going to murder the most powerful man on the planet and get away with it?”
Wolf was uncomfortable with the question. He glared toward the Justice, who had assured him in advance there would be no unscripted questions. Greene shut his eyes as he exhaled and glanced over at the governor.
“As Mr. X indicated earlier, he and the doctor are merely in the experimental stage of an experimental process,” he sighed. “No one has indicated a specific target. Words, Governor.”
Gordon sat back, discomfited.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Greene smiled to reassure his old friend.
“Don’t worry, Governor. The die is cast.”
“Destiny Mitchell! Is this Destiny Mitchell?”
The illuminated numbers on the clock face were still blurry, slowly coming into focus: 3:43 a.m.! She did not recognize the desperate voice.
“Who? Who is this?”
“It’s me, Percy Grant!” the voice screamed. “You gotta help me! They’re killin us up in here!”
Now she was awake. She sat up, checking the phone’s caller ID.
“Who are you? I don’t know you.”
“Yeah you do!” the voice insisted. “You put me in here. Perseus Grant—double murder in ‘89, mother and daughter, Potrero Hill!”
When she remembered, she cringed, eyes widening, and almost hung up the phone, but she hesitated.
“Hold on. How are you calling me?”
“That’s not important! You gotta help me. They’re killin us in here!”
She flicked on the light.
“Wait a minute! Are you still at San Quentin? Are you calling me from inside the prison?”
“Yeah! I paid my ass to get your number and this phone! And I called you because no one else would believe me. I swear there’s somethin up with this prison. They’re murderin us in here!It’s in the DNA!”
Incredulous, she took a breath.
“You raped and tortured two women. You’re on Death Row. Of course they’re going to kill you! Why are you calling me? I’m going to report this to the warden.”
“If you don’t help me, I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter. But listen, you know I kilt them women. I deserve to be in here. You were right to come down on me.”
His voice broke.
“I always respected you for that. You’re good people. That’s why I knew you were my only hope, and not just for me, but for all of us.”
“What are you saying?” she emphasized. “You’re on Death Row!”
“But this ain’t the state doin this! or maybe it is. Whoever it is, we still got rights. If you don’t help us, no one will. They’ll kill us all! Please!”
She took a deep breath and braced herself.
“Talk to me.”
He rambled on for a minute and a half and suddenly stopped, whispering about hearing footsteps. He returned and continued for another twenty-five seconds and then he was gone again. After fumbling with the phone for a few seconds, he returned.
“Someone’s comin. Fuck! Someone heard me. I’ll call you back!”
Two days later, she read the story in the paper. It wasn’t a big story, on the second to the last page of the first section. His picture was there, a photo from the trial. That ugly trial had been an ordeal she struggled to forget, but the sight of his face dredged up a torrent of long-buried, consciously blocked memories.
It was her second year in the San Francisco district attorney’s office. Fresh off her third conviction, she had grown to love her job as a homicide prosecutor. She thought she was making a difference, putting the bad guys away, at least the ones who went against her. But she was unprepared for the details from that savage double murder in McKinley Park in November of 1989.
Perseus Grant, the accused, had kidnapped a woman and her thirteen-year-old daughter after dusk as they walked past the park, headed home from a neighborhood store. In his parked van, he raped and tortured mother and daughter for eleven hours. At dawn, he stabbed each in the neck through the carotid artery and left them to bleed to death on the sidewalk.
Grant was the first real monster Destiny had ever encountered as a prosecutor, and that made him the most memorable. Everything about him was creepy, sadistic and inhuman. His dark, sinister eyes, glazed over like a caged animal, suppressed extreme rage, never changing as they followed her around the courtroom. No one could penetrate past them. Stoic, he never spoke a word to his attorney and never took the stand.
But when the conviction was read, his head snapped toward prosecutor Mitchell as he lipped the words, “I’m gonna kill you, Bitch!” before guards roughed him up and forced him from the courtroom. Her knees became wobbly and she began shaking so erratically that she could not read the court document in her hands. She was unresponsive to the judge and had to sit to calm herself, never having been threatened so directly before, and this by a monster.
A week later, before sentencing, the judge asked Perseus if he wanted to go on record with a statement of regret. Destiny cringed as he stood. She had considered not attending the sentencing, but her boss insisted on her presence, asserting he would not allow the defendant to intimidate the district attorney’s office.
“Walls can’t keep me from her. I swear I’m gonna get out, and when I do, I’m gonna kill that ho right there. Yeah, I mean you, Destiny Mitchell! And if you think what I did to that bitch and her daughter was some sick shit, just wait till I get to your ass!”
For years, she had nightmares about Perseus Grant escaping and showing up somewhere. Freaked out about being alone at night, she took a roommate for three years and invested in a high-tech security system. But over the years, she realized how clever he had been. She had sent him to one form of prison, and he had sent her to another. Counseling helped. After nearly two decades, she had almost forgotten him.
But the phone call two days earlier brought back the emotional memories and the creepiness of the experience, the menacing, animal-like quality in his expression as his eyes followed her, studied her, the baritone in his voice when he threatened her and the crime scene photos of charred holes in that woman and her ravaged, mutilated daughter.
His voice however, was different during the phone call. It was lighter and more animated. She heard fear in his voice, but fear from what? She checked the next day, and there were still several appeals he could have availed himself to if the system began marching him toward the prison’s death chamber. Despite his crime and sentence, the state was not threatening to kill him any time soon. She had thought to call the warden or make a report about the late-night call, but he seemed almost believable.
Her eyes returned to the newspaper. Perseus Grant was dead, two days after the panicked call from the prison, implying his life was in danger. It was just too eerie to be a coincidence. And while she felt great relief that he would never be coming after her, she was impressed that he had gone through so much trouble to call her. Monster that he was, he trusted her to save him from whatever had produced the terror evident in his voice.
The article under the picture said he died from a heart attack and that he had been suffering from delusions and having emotional problems over the last couple of years. According to the reporter, prison psychologists said Grant had the highest tested IQ of all the inmates at San Quentin: 161. In the final paragraph, the writer made mention of another death at the prison a week earlier. And another inmate died from a heart problem some eight days before that. Mind still reeling, she closed her eyes, remembering.
She had never met Dhara Rangarajan and daughter Lata, but over the course of the trial she got to know them better than most. Dhara and her husband, Haresh, owned a corner liquor store and deli in an adjoining neighborhood. Eighth-grader Lata worked in the store after school and on weekends. On two or three evenings each week, Dhara and Lata took walks that ended with a slow stroll past McKinley Park.
Evidence indicated Perseus Grant watched the women over a few weeks, noting they walked past the park at about 6:00 p.m. on most of the days they were out, which was usually at dusk. Dhara and her daughter however, did not account for the daylight savings time shift affecting the first Monday of November.
A week earlier, and they would have been walking toward the sunset, slanted light glowing from the horizon, but the earlier sunset on that day took them by surprise. A bruise on the side of Dhara’s head indicated Perseus hit her with a blunt object as she passed his van, knocking her unconscious. And Lata, terrified by the violence, hadn’t put up much of a fight, though flesh from the defendant’s face was found under three of her fingernails.
Both victims were raped, sodomized and burned in various places with a blowtorch. The pain was so extreme that Lata had chewed her tongue in two and Dhara cracked three of her molars. Destiny remembered viewing a portrait the two had taken a week before the incident in glaring contrast to the crime scene photos of their bloody and burned withered bodies, eyes sunken deep back into the sockets. He was an animal, but now he was dead, and the world was a better place without him.
“Read the paper this morning?”
“Three papers,” Destiny answered. “Part of my morning routine.”
“So of course you saw the article about Perseus Grant?”
“Cried all in my milk!”
She looked across the table at Kiyomi.
“I don’t think I told you yet,” she began, hesitation in her voice, “but he called me two nights ago.”
“Perseus Grant! Really? From inside the prison? How’d he pull that off?”
“Don’t know,” Destiny shrugged, “but it was a weird call. The anger was gone. He was actually begging me.”
“Begging you to do what?”
“Not sure. He kept saying that some ‘they,’ some secret agency, was killing the inmates. He seemed desperate. I think he was begging me to help him.”
Kiyomi’s natural curiosity was peaked. Through instinct and training, she could smell a fluke in a bucket of bullshit. She had started as a reporter at the Chronicle when she was twenty-one. Over the years, she had moved through the ranks, becoming a crime scene reporter, a special features editor and a crime bureau chief before getting married and having a daughter.
At forty-six, she proclaimed fatigue and no longer wanted to work the typical “beyond full-time” reporter hours. So for the last four months, she had reported on innocuous daily events on a part-time basis, mostly boring stuff. Crime scene work was exciting, while the generic, metropolitan stories the paper assigned to her were unfulfilling and disappointing. She longed for the adrenaline rush she felt as an investigative reporter.
“What specifically did he say?”
“He was ranting mostly, repeating himself.”
She thought for a moment.
“He said there was something up with the prison, that the prison was involved.”
She closed her eyes.
“He kept saying, ‘they’re killing us,’ and when I reminded him he was on Death Row, he said it wasn’t the state. He said he knew who it was and what they were doing. He said they were going to kill him and anyone else who knew.”
“And then he dies two days later?”
“From a heart attack.”
Because the two had been friends since grade school, Destiny could almost read Kiyomi’s mind, but she asked to be sure.
“Okay, so what are you thinking?”
“A lot of things could cause a heart attack—drug injection, poisons, chemical fumes.”
“You think he was murdered?”
Kiyomi studied her best friend’s face and body posture.
“You talked to him. What do you think?”
“I think whatever had him afraid was real to him, but the article said he was delusional.”
“That was a reporter writing what the prison told her to write. Zero research was done. I know the lazy reporter. Did the number come up on your caller ID?”
“First thing I checked. He called from a blocked number,” Destiny answered, rechecking numbers in the phone.
Kiyomi took a folded newspaper section from her satchel, placed it on the table and rescanned the article.
“Did you see the bit here about the other inmate, the one that died at the prison a week ago, and the one before that?”
“Yes, I saw that.”
“Well, what do you think? You think the deaths could be related?”
Destiny wagged her head.
“You’re the reporter. Me, I hardly noticed. Used to be a lawyer, but I run a foundation now, and I’m better off for it. Is that what you think?”
“I think Perseus Grant calling you from Death Row and then just suddenly dying two days later is a mighty strange coincidence. And if you add that to the fact two other inmates died over there recently, I think it’s worth looking into.”
“Well then, you look into it. As far as I’m concerned, the death of Perseus Grant closes the chapter and the book. The whole ordeal is over. Coincidence or not, the state, the system, you, me—we’re all better off without him. He was a sicko. If someone killed him, he had it coming.”
After ten years with the San Francisco district attorney’s office, Destiny Mitchell was selected as executive director for the Aegis Foundation, an organization dedicated to defending, protecting and empowering women trapped in violent or oppressive domestic situations and work environments. In Destiny’s final case as a prosecutor, she took on Jordan Alexander, one of the city’s favorite sons, seeking to prove his guilt in the brutal murder of his wife, Lynette.
The jury hung and Jordan walked, but lawyers for Allegra Benson, Lynette’s mother, managed to get a twenty-one million dollar civil judgment on behalf of Allegra, and Lynette’s three daughters. When Jordan committed suicide twelve years later, the plaintiffs received another five million dollars. Allegra used her portion of the money to create the Aegis Foundation and chose Destiny to administrate it.
Destiny was forty-eight years old, but she looked much younger. Her hair was short and chic. She had recently stopped dying it, so there were subtle gray highlights. Her face was taut and pretty, her smooth brown skin still glistening with the freshness of youth.
When she married Bryan Osaka six years earlier, she was certain they would be happy. But she had no idea how demanding her job at Aegis would become. When the Foundation went national, she was required to be away from home five nights a week, and she was busy with constant phone calls in the balance of her time.
Bryan tried to be understanding. He took up golf and intensified his work schedule, but it got old after a few years. He loved Destiny too much to ask her to give up her work at the foundation. He knew how passionate she was about helping troubled women. So he just walked away.
His move to “San Diego” reflected the separation and distance he felt had grown between them. She was devastated when he left and offered to scale back her schedule, but both knew it was impractical. At some point she would have to choose between quitting the foundation and staying married.
When the phone rang at three o’clock that next morning, she froze for an instant, staring at the clock. Perseus was dead. Who could be calling at that ungodly hour? The number, just as it had been a week before, was blocked. Caution straining her voice, she answered.
“Is this Destiny Mitchell?”
The voice was male and sounded menacing. She answered.
“What did he tell you?”
She sat up, turning on the lamp next to the bed.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Who is this?”
“It would be better for you if you didn’t ask me any questions. You talked to him for more than two minutes that night. What did he say to you?”
She reacted to the tone of his voice.
“It’s three o’clock in the morning. How dare you call me and threaten me! Why don’t you tell me who you are, and then maybe I’ll talk to you. Otherwise, I’m hanging up.”
“I don’t have to threaten you, Ms. Mitchell. Perseus Grant has already gotten you involved in something far more dangerous to you than anything I ever could. So please, for your own good, tell me what he said.”
She wanted to rebut, but she realized her disadvantage and the implied warning. He knew her identity, but she had no idea who he was. And if Perseus Grant’s fears were not the product of a delusional mind, then this person on the other end of the phone was perhaps capable of murder, or at least he was in some way connected.
“As you obviously know, the call was very brief,” she explained, nervous. “And he spent the better part of the call reminding me about who he was.”
“That’s fine. And when he got past the introduction, then what did he say?”
She balked, wondering if Perseus Grant’s words were the only leverage she had.
“It’s like they said in the paper. He was ranting. He was delusional, and it was almost four in the morning!”
The voice interrupted.
“Just tell me what he said, goddammit! We both know he called you for a reason. He said something to you! He told you something! What was it?”
She drew a deep breath.
“He said someone was trying to kill him, and maybe some of the other inmates.”
“He told you that?” he groaned.
“Did he say or tell you anything else, anything else at all?”
“Thank you, Ms. Mitchell. I appreciate your honesty. I trust you’ll tell no one about either his call or mine, or you’ll needlessly endanger other people. If you don’t hear from me again, that will mean I’ve been able to resolve this matter without incident.”
“And if I do hear from you?”
She could hear the man’s breathy sigh.
“If you do, it just might be too late, for you. And for me.”
When Kiyomi arrived at six a.m., Destiny was frazzled, seated on the couch in the living room, drinking oolong tea.
“I got here as soon as I could. Did you call Bryan?”
“He’s flying up this afternoon.”
She crossed her arms.
“I don’t know. I’m just freaked out by the phone calls. First Perseus Grant, and then this other weirdo, whoever he was.”
“And he threatened you?”
Destiny’s eyes welled with tears.
“I don’t know. He said Perseus Grant got me involved in something dangerous. It sounded like something life-threatening.”
“You think the call was some kind of a prank? Maybe someone’s trying to scare you?”
Destiny looked over at Kiyomi.
“Trying? Perseus Grant died, two days after he called me. When people start dying, you take that pretty serious.”
Steadying her hand, she sipped the tea.
“What gets me is that other voice on the phone—he sounded like someone powerful, but he sounded scared too. I don’t remember how he said it, but it seemed he thought both our lives were in jeopardy, his and mine.”
“He obviously called from a blocked number?”
“Yes,” Destiny nodded. “But what I don’t understand is, Perseus Grant died from a heart attack. He wasn’t murdered. He had a heart attack. Medical Examiner said in the paper his heart was in bad shape.”
Kiyomi bowed her head for a moment and began.
“I told you I would be doing a little research on San Quentin. Well, you know me. It wasn’t long before I found something there that’s at least a little alarming.”
“Remember that article from the other day? It said another inmate had died a week earlier?”
Kiyomi pried open her brown leather satchel and withdrew a folder.
“Well, I checked. That inmate died, and another had died a week before that. According to prison records over the last forty years, the Death Row attrition rate is about three or four inmates per year, and half of those basically die of old age.”
She handed Destiny a document.
“However, in this last year, forty-one inmates have died, only one from old age. The rest are either from heart attacks or multiple organ failure, and that’s along an eighty-twenty split. Thirty-four died the year before.”
Destiny’s mouth fell open as she read.
“Okay, so what does this mean?”
“I don’t know, but something’s foul. Something’s happening over there, and I’m thinking Perseus Grant somehow discovered what it was.”
Destiny stood, her left hand slicking back her hair.
“Why doesn’t anyone know about this? Why hasn’t the Chronicle reported on this?”
“No one’s paid attention. It’s the prison. They tightly control information coming out of there, and it’s Death Row inmates who are dying. It all flies under the radar. An inmate dies of natural causes and the family is quietly notified. In most cases, they’re privately relieved it’s all over, that it’s an act of God. If there’s no family, the body goes out for cremation. So the passing of a Death Row inmate isn’t news, or at least it hasn’t been, until now.”
Destiny shrugged, wagging her head.
“So something’s happening to these Death Row inmates? It’s either some hazard at the prison or someone’s killing them, or both. A week ago, I wouldn’t have cared, but now I don’t have a choice. What are you thinking?”
“Well, according to the man who called you a few hours ago, you’re already involved in this. Whoever’s behind it, if they think you know something, they might come after you.”
“Might? I have to expect that they will.”
Kiyomi had gone to the kitchen where she was rummaging through the refrigerator. Her head appeared in the doorway.
“The way I figure it,” she ventured, “after Perseus Grant discovered whatever he did, he didn’t have many people he could trust. Probably no one. Then he remembered back to the trial. He remembered how far you had gone to see that justice was served in those murders. Maybe he was hoping you’d do the same for him.”
“Or he did it to get revenge on me for sending him there. Either way, I’m involved now.”
“We’re involved,” Kiyomi insisted, “but we’re not going to sit here and wait for something to happen. We have to get to the heart of this. We have to find out who they are and what they’re up to.”
Destiny looked over at her friend, gratitude in her eyes.
“And how do we propose to do that, Girlfriend? We’ve got nothing to go on. We don’t even have a phone number.”
“But we have something much bigger, and possibly better. We have a pattern. We have evidence that Death Row inmates are dying at San Quentin in unprecedented numbers. No one else is paying attention. We have leverage. We’ll start at the prison.”
Jettson Turner did not seem extraordinary in any way, not unless he was running operations, his specialty. He was a short man with eyes sunk deep within their sockets. His skin was tanned and wrinkled, like worn leather. He smoked one cigarette after another from the time he got up at five-thirty until he succumbed to the seductions of fatigue at midnight.
He wasn’t likable. In fact, his profanity-laced language offended most people, but he was good at his job. A former Chief-of-Staff for a previous White House administration, he was known as a man who could make things happen, a fixer. He was shrewd, organized and a stickler for detail. His focus was intense, indivertible, as he was always a few steps ahead of everyone else.
Turner scrutinized the three men seated at the table before settling into his chair.
“What’s this about a fuckin containment breach?”
Cornell Cotton, in charge of Turner’s debriefing and containment operation, hesitated before answering.
“I would hardly characterize it as a breach, Sir. Just a concern, pre-emptive.”
“What the fuck! Concern my ass! A fuckin inmate called out and talked to someone!”
“That’s true. On July 23rd at 3:41 a.m., Grant made a call from a disposable cell phone to a woman named Destiny Mitchell, and yes, it’s the same Destiny Mitchell who runs the Aegis Foundation in San Francisco. The call lasted two minutes and fifty-seven seconds.”
“What the fuck!” Jett sighed. “Any prior communication? Of course you checked that?”
“Naturally. No prior communication. Though it turns out she was the prosecutor who put him on Death Row in the first place. He threatened to kill her in court.”
“So this bastard, someone gives him a phone, and with one phone call to make, he fuckin calls the bitch who put him away? Why her?”
Cotton typed a command on his laptop, glancing down at the screen.
“We have the phone. It was just that one call, so we’re pretty much contained. Exactly one week later, I called personally to debrief her. She was spooked. This was a guy who threatened to kill her, calling her from prison Death Row in the middle of the night. He spent that two minutes and fifty-seven seconds trying to convince her who he was. He never got the chance to tell her anything.”
“Fuck! And I thought we were done over there!” Jett growled. “Okay, Grant—was he the last loose end?”
The man on Turner’s left shook his head.
“Well, there’s Sutter, but he’s a guard.”
Cotton glared at his underling for interjecting out of turn.
“Sutter is on his way out.”
Jett bowed his head, massaging his brow while thinking.
“I just don’t get a good feeling about this. If there’s any chance this thing has gotten out of the prison, I have to assume it has. I want surveillance on Sutter and I want complete work-up on this woman Grant called. Destiny Mitchell, is it? And I want dailies on the investigation over there. If this thing’s fuckin gotten out of the prison, we might have to get our hands dirty, maybe bloody, maybe break a few laws, but we have to shut it down.”
Agent Jake Martinez shifted to shallow breathing as he entered the dank, musty cell, the top two buttons of his dress shirt undone and his suit jacket and tie folded over his forearm. He turned back to the prison’s health care manager.
“So this was his cell?”
“He was in this cell for the last eight years,” the woman answered. “He was over on the other side before.”
Jake’s eyes scanned the perimeter of the small enclosure, the damage along the bottom of the wall in the far corner, the bubbled surface along the ceiling, the dust encrusted vent.
“When were these cells painted last?”
“According to our records, four years ago,” she answered, her voice becoming annoyed.
Jake nodded as he, tweezers extended, reached for a flake of peeling paint.
“So I imagine you have records on the actual paint that was used?”
Dr. Irene Spagnola, the facility’s health care manager, was quick to address the insinuation.
“We’ve already had it checked,” she sighed. “This year’s been a rare one. You could say extraordinary, but I don’t believe there’s anything sinister going on here. Even if there is and it’s something environmental, it wouldn’t be the paint. And it isn’t anything related to the ventilation either. We’ve had the paint, air, food and water tested for toxins, possible carcinogens, and even for radioactivity. We tend to believe it wouldn’t be something environmental.”
Agent Martinez spoke as he scraped a layer of caked dust from the ventilation opening.
“Nothing sinister?” he interrupted, sarcasm evident in his voice. “So how would you explain forty-one dead inmates in one year? And all from either heart attacks or multiple organ failure? Somehow I don’t think as health care manager you can rule environmental factors out.”
“We’ve had the entire facility checked, twice.”
Irritated by the doctor’s impatience and attitude, Jake closed on her.
“Forty-one of your inmates are dead, Doctor. You obviously missed something, twice.”
Martinez had been with the FBI for sixteen years, starting in the El Paso field office, moving to a bureau in Phoenix before finally landing at the San Francisco office on Golden Gate Avenue. He never married, but he had a son who visited him twice a year in the Bernal Heights home he purchased six years earlier.
Jake was stocky with a cheeky face, dark skin, Indian features and short black hair, styled up and tight, owing to his time as a Marine. He was still in shape at forty, though he had developed a bit of a pot-belly over the last few years. He spoke good English, but there were traces of his native Spanish in occasional words and phrases.
“Doctor,” Martinez warned, “you must realize I’m the last step in a process to save yours and your bosses’ asses. You have a problem at this prison. Inmates are dying, and it’s just a matter of time before it becomes a news story or worse, a national conspiracy theory.”
“We’ve checked and double-checked. The Inspector General’s been over here. They’ve checked. These inmates are dying due to natural causes. Autopsies are showing evidence of congenital heart disease and coronary problems that appear to have been hereditary, not attributable to any environmental factors. I admit it’s odd. It’s shocking, even for me, but there’s nothing unnatural going on here, no foul play. There is no conspiracy.”
“Forty-one inmates, dead in the last year?”
“Forty-two, actually,” she answered. “But if something here is killing them, something we don’t know about, it’s beyond medical science as we know it.”
“Then we have to go beyond medical science, Doctor, as you know it.”
He exited the cell.
“I’m going to need copies of medical records from all the inmates who’ve died in the last two years, and from the ones who’ve been sick. Obviously, there’s something you missed.”
“And you’re going to find it? You’re an ordinary FBI field agent, not a medical researcher.”
“I’m an experienced investigator, and I’m not convinced that there isn’t something sinister going on here. If there is, maybe you’re a part of it. But then of course, you’d be part of the cover up. You’d be telling me exactly what you’re telling me now.”
The doctor gasped, insulted.
“From a self-proclaimed experienced investigator, that was unprofessional and out-of -line!”
She removed her glasses, staring into the agent’s eyes.
“I’ll provide the records this time, Agent Martinez, but I’m going to complain about you to your superiors, and to U.S. Senator Bernstein, who happens to be a friend of mine. And just so you know, the next time you need access to my records and these cells, I won’t be so helpful. You’ll have to take it up with the warden. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Doctor gone, Jake lingered in the cell. He knelt, examining every irregularity in the floor. He checked the walls and toilet, the ceiling and the cell door. Ten minutes passed before he removed the thin, lumpy mattress from the bed. Squeezing a tiny flashlight between his fingers, he traced the grease and dirt mattress line along the wall until he came to what appeared to be a damaged area.
Upon closer inspection with the flashlight and a magnifying glass, he could barely make out seven numbers, scrawled into the cement wall with a fine-tipped metal instrument, 7,5,2,3,4,0 and 4, though there was an eighth number between the 2 and 3 that had been scratched out. And beneath the numbers, there appeared to be two words, separated by about a half inch, the words Viral Vector.
Bryan Osaka loved Destiny Mitchell. Their first year of marriage had been perhaps too idyllic, complete with adventures in Tokyo, Yokohama, Hong Kong, Cairo, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but then reality set in. While Allegra Benson’s ambition for the Aegis Foundation was humble and localized in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Destiny had taken the charter national. So what started as a modest Mission Street San Francisco shelter for battered women had become a national icon for female independence and empowerment.
After that first year of marriage, Destiny transcended her job as director, conferring many of her day to day, operational duties upon Lyndsey, Allegra’s granddaughter. Destiny had taken Lyndsey in after her father’s suicide and had adopted Lynette Alexander’s daughter as her own. After a shaky start, this reassignment of duties freed Destiny to hire a lobbying firm and to pursue the political and financial needs of the foundation on a national level. Aegis had become an influential force in America, making Destiny a powerful woman.
Despite the separation, Bryan and Destiny talked on the phone a few nights a week. He complained he always felt rushed, as if she had him on a timer, and he said she used too many “summation” words. Recognizing her transgressions and the continuous slights, she apologized and swore to her husband she would leave the foundation once it became active in all fifty states and in Puerto Rico. Notwithstanding, he was less than optimistic.
They had just sat to dinner at a cozy, neighborhood French bakery and cafe on O’Farrell, near Union Square Park. It wasn’t as fancy as some of the other restaurants in the neighborhood, but it was one of her favorites. They sampled a newly-released Zinfandel on the rooftop patio on that cool summer night, looking down on the Square. He sipped, analyzing flavors.
“It’s off!” she insisted. “I’m totally unplugged. I said I wanted to spend this time with you. I meant it.”
“How much time do I have?” he laughed.
Destiny sipped from the wineglass and smiled acknowledging his assessment of the wine.
“Oh, blackberry!” she laughed. “No, I’m yours for the night. I submit. I’m at your pleasure and command.”
He leaned toward her, innuendo unmistakable.
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
After dinner settings were cleared and coffee was served, Bryan plopped a manila file on the table and opened it, pen at the ready.
“Okay, Perseus Grant and that four o’clock phone call. Probably the best starting point. Do you want to tell me about it?”
She turned her chair and body away from his.
“I thought I wanted to earlier, but I’ve decided against it.”
“Because it’s too dangerous. I told you about the second call. Whoever it was said Grant got me involved in something serious enough to put my life in danger. But Kiyomi, you know her, she was at the prison the next day. That’s bad enough. If there really is something diabolical behind all the deaths over there this year, the less you know the better.”
Bryan was laconic by nature. He was tall for a Nisei, or second generation Japanese, and dark, his hair half gray. His handsome face rarely smiled or showed emotion in public, but he was becoming angry.
“You’re my wife and I’m a detective. There’s no way in Hell I’m going to sit on the sidelines and let you and Kiyomi deal with this by yourselves. You have no idea what you’re up against.”
“And you do?”
“I know people inside. The prison guards union, the CCPOA—I know their vice president. Not exactly a friend, but we have history. If there’s something going on over there, he’ll know. I’m sure he’s already dealing with it.”
“Or maybe he’s part of it?”
“I’m not ruling that out, but I’m not letting you and Kiyomi do this.”
“Why? Because we’re girls?”
Bryan exhaled, shaking his head.
“No, it’s because you’re my wife! This isn’t about girl power. Anyone who could murder forty-one inmates at San Quentin Prison in one year won’t care about that. They wouldn’t hesitate killing both of you if you threaten to expose whatever details they don’t want out there.”
He leaned in, his voice taking on a menacing tone.
“Have you thought about what would have to be involved over there? Someone, we have no idea who, but someone is killing these inmates. This is bigger than you could ever imagine! So the sooner I reel in Kiyomi, the better.”
She sat back, crossing her arms.
“You’re going to reel in Kiyomi? What does that mean? You’re taking over?”
“You two are way out of your league here. I’m saving your lives.”
Destiny bristled, her nostrils flaring.
“Maybe you don’t have a choice, Bryan. If whoever it is comes after me, I’m not sitting here like some damsel in distress depending on you to save me. I have to take the offensive.”
“You don’t even know what you’re up against.”
“That’s what I have to find out. Look, I won’t live in fear. I’ve done that before, and it’s no way to live. I have to assume whoever it is knows about me, and they’re watching me. I need to get some kind of leverage here, something to protect me.”
Bryan paused a moment, thinking.
“I can see there’s no reasoning with you, so I’ll be moving back in with you until we get some answers.”
She smiled. She had been waiting to hear him say those words for at least two years. And yet the actual thought of him moving back in did not live up to its anticipation. It was instead an awkward thought. She had grown comfortable living alone, again.
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Of course. Why? You seem disappointed. Do you not want me to move back in?”
She reached over, placing her hand on his.
“Of course I do. Like I said before dinner, I submit to you.”
“I could possibly believe that if I didn’t know you,” he laughed. “Isn’t your name Destiny Mitchell? Aren’t you the person who said on Oprah that a strong man with a successful career represents the greatest threat to an independent woman?”
“Did I say that?”
“If you would rather I rent an apartment up here, I will, but independent woman or not, I’m not going to let you and Kiyomi try to take on whoever is behind these prison murders, because that’s what they are, murders. And if I let you two go at it your way, it would be my fault when one or both of you ended up dead.”