The White Pigeon

 

The light from a full moon shined on three boys standing side-by-side in front of a two-story, windowless building. Each of them held a flashlight. Its beam directed at a closed door in front of them.

“What’s that smell?” Carl asked, the tallest of the three boys. “It smells like rotten eggs.”

“It’s sulfur dioxide,” Ted answered. He stood in the middle of the three boys. “Natural mineral water used to be pumped up from underneath the ground and stored in a large metal container on top of this building. Many years ago, people used to take a bath in it. At least, that’s what my dad told me.”

“Why would anyone want to take a bath in stinking, fart-smelling water?”

“Well, my dad said, people believed the water would cure their illnesses.”

Carl grunted. “Are you sure we’ll find pigeons inside here?” 

“Yes,” Ted replied, nodding his head. “Over the past month, I’ve seen at least a hundred of them coming and going from here.”

Allen, the third boy, head tilted downward, said with soft tone of voice, “I was with Ted a few times and saw many of them flying in and out of there.”

“Okay, I believe you guys. Let’s get one thing straight, I get half the profit from the sale of the pigeons.”

Ted peered straight at Carl. “That’s what I’d agreed on this afternoon at your house. You’re the expert in capturing pigeons. Besides, your uncle will buy them from us. It’s only fair, you get half the profit.”

Carl glared at Allen. “What do you say, shy boy?”

Allen looked down at the ground. “Yeah, I agree,”

“Okay, take one of these burlap sacks to put the pigeons in. I punched all kinds of holes in it to allow the pigeons to breathe.” Each of them took a sack. “When we go inside, be really quiet. They’ll fly away if you scare them. Understand?”

“We’ll be as quiet as mice in a church,” Ted answered. He gently elbowed Allen.

“Yes, as quiet as mice.”

“Well, anyway. You shine your flashlight directly at them. The light will stun them, preventing them from moving. You then just reach out and grab them from behind the neck and put them into the sack.” The two novices nodded.

Ted turned the doorknob and opened the door. The smelly air from inside rushed out. “Breath through your mouth, the smell won’t be as bad.” 

“Easy for you to say,” Carl said, as he reached up and pinched his nose.

Once inside, they stopped. Their flashlight’s beam shined throughout the room. 

The room was about two hundred feet across and about a hundred feet wide. About ten feet above them was crisscrossing of several two-foot square wooden planks extending the full length and width of the room. Each plank appeared to be about six feet apart from each other. 

Ted gazed around the room. “I haven’t seen one pigeon, yet. Maybe I was wrong about them being in here?”

Carl shook his head. “It’s obvious you’ve never been pigeon hunting before, Pigeons nest in high places, away from predators. Be quiet and you’ll hear them.”

Sure enough, coos echoed from the upper tier of the room.

Allen closed his eyes. “It sounds beautiful.”

“I wouldn’t call it beautiful,” Carl said firmly. “It’s more like money in our pockets after we sell them to my uncle.”

“How do we get to them?” Ted asked. 

“Over there is a ladder attached to the wall.” Carl directed his flashlight on the far wall directly in front of them. “It’ll take us up to where the pigeons are.”

A few minutes later, Carl led them along the first wooden plank. Their feet felt around in the darkness for the solidness of the two-foot wide plank. About ten feet away, Carl’s flashlight shined on a pigeon. The pigeon froze, unable to move due to the blinding light. He reached out and grasped the brown and white pigeon, stuffing it into the sack. “See how it’s done? It’s your turn, now. Just follow the beams and do your thing.”

Ted and Allen turned around, shuffling along for several more feet until they came to another beam. “I’ll go to the left, Allen. You go to the right.”

“Okay.”

Ted captured three pigeons in less than twenty minutes. In front of him was another pigeon nesting on a plank. “That’s strange,” he whispered. A pure white pigeon stared up at him. Its eyes were blinking, not frozen with fright like the other pigeons. It jerked its head to the right, sprang up onto its legs, and quickly flew away. 

A moment later, the cracking sound of wood echoed throughout the room, followed by a crashing sound of wood striking a concrete floor. The sound came from the direction of Allen.

“Allen,” shouted Ted. “Are you okay?” He waited for an answer. None came. Only the flapping sound of wings echoed from the darkness. In Ted’s mind, he saw his best friend lying on the floor, unconscious. Or dead.

“What was that?” Carl yelled from the far end of the room.

“I think Allen fell after stepping on a rotted plank.” 

“Our butts are in trouble now. We better get down from here and see where he landed. I’ll meet you at the ladder.”

A few minutes later, Ted shuffled his way back to the ladder, grabbing onto it. “I should’ve never brought Allen here. It’s my fault that he fell.”

A horizontal beam of light shined on the ladder. It wasn’t coming from either of their flashlights. They both turned and directed their flashlights toward the light source. It was Allen. His face projected a broad smile, nearly extending from ear-to-ear. 

“I’ll be, he’s not dead,” said Carl.

“I thought you’d fallen to your death.” Ted’s words were filled with compassion and concern. . 

Allen shrugged his shoulders, acknowledging he was alive and well.

Carl grunted. “We better get down from here before another wooden plank decides to give way.”

They slowly moved down the ladder, each of them holding onto their sack of pigeons.

A few moments later, their flashlights lit up the area where the wooden plank crashed to the floor. A splintered plank, about six feet long, contained an inch-deep shoe imprint into its wood. Carl leaned forward. “Is that your foot impression?”

“Yep, that’s where my shoe went into the wood plank.”

“It’s amazing you didn’t fall with that rotten plank,” Ted patted his friend’s back, as he shook his head back and forth.

“I think it was a miracle,” Allen said seriously.

“What do you mean by that?” Ted asked.

“I was just starting to walk on this plank when suddenly my right foot sank down into it. It felt like I stepped on a sponge. I was about to take another step when from out of nowhere this white pigeon landed on the plank in front of me. It looked up at me, spread its wings and began walking toward me. It scared me. I backed up a few steps. Right at that moment the plank in front of me began to crack. A few seconds later it gave way and fell to the floor.”

“Do you expect us to believe this story?” Carl asked. “You’ve lost touch with reality. I’ve been around pigeons most of my life. There ain’t no way a pigeon would do that.”

“You believe what you want. I know what I saw.” Allen took a step toward Carl, causing him to take a step backward. “Nothing you say is going to change my mind.” 

Ted chuckled to himself. His best friend seemed capable of handling his own arguments, now. 

The three of them left the building and stood outside.

“Well, let’s add up how many pigeons we captured,” said Carl. “I got five. How many do you have Ted?”

Ted laid his burlap sack on the ground, grabbed the bottom of it and slowly lifted upward. The pigeons flew out. “I don’t have any.”

“What are you doing? That’s money flying away.” While he had been shouting at Ted, Allen had done the same thing. “You two guys are crazy. I’m keeping mine and selling them to my uncle.”

Allen straightened up in a military-type stance and peered at Carl. “You do what you have to do, pigeon-boy,” 

Carl grunted something under his breath and stomped away into the darkness.

“We could’ve used the money,” Ted said. “But the thought of taking the pigeons away from their home seemed cruel to me.”

“I agree. Especially…when one of them saved my life.”

On top of the building, looking down at Ted and Allen, a white pigeon appeared to be nodding its head. Of course, that would be impossible.  
 
 

​              She rotated her head stretching the muscles in her neck as she raised her shoulders. She heard and felt a nonpainful click in the back of her neck.

      Simon glanced at Janet. "Looks like you need a shoulder and neck massage."

      "Know someone who's good at it?" She stared a Simon's hands holding the steering wheel. She knew they were soft, non-callused hands, probably capable of caressing tightened muscles, like her neck and shoulder muscles. Her face felt as if a heat lamp passed across it. Janet, this isn't the time for these thoughts. Get ahold of yourself.

      The corner of Simon's closed lips raised. He then said, "Matter of fact I do. I charge by the minute." They both laughed.

      The lateral aspect of Janet's abdominal muscles spasmed from her burst of laughter. She leaned forward pressing against her side to relieve the spasm. Tears of laughter rolled down her cheeks. She now leaned back in her seat, rubbing the tears from her face with the back of her hands. "I've said this before. I love this job. Being an agent of FMI there's suspense, adventure, hidden danger, death defying traumatic events and laughter. Plus, we get to solve medical mysteries.

      "I have to agree, there aren't too many dull moments."

      There interview with the two employers was unrewarding. Both victims were liked by their employers and fellow employees with no blemishing marks in their personnel files. There wasn't any change in their work performance or complaints of any medical issues the past few weeks. Simon and Janet got into their vehicle in the parking lot of the satellite company.

      Janet picked up the sheet with names of the cavers' employers. "I wonder how Frank and Jean are doing? I'll give 'em a call."

      "Good idea." Simon turned the vehicle on along with the air conditioning. Inside the vehicle the temperature had to be in the nineties from the relentless rays of the sun. 

      "Hi, Frank. How you guys doing?"

      "We completed four employers. One more to go. So far, there hasn't been anything out of the ordinary. No smoking guns. Only water pistols. Any leads at your end?"

      "Maybe. We think Brighton Research isn't telling us the complete truth about two of the victims, Rhode and Whitman."

      "Why do you think that?"

      "We believe there hiding something, something relevant to the deaths of the cavers. It's like The Circle, suspicion but no hard evidence to prosecute."

      "Jean and I are a few blocks away from the last employer on our list. We'll call you when we're done. Talk to you then. Bye."

      "Bye." She glanced out the side window at a billboard with a guy standing with his hands on the handle of two revolvers secured inside a leather scrolled western two-gun belt holster. Beside the image it read: Need a private investigator? Call Sam Lawless. 717-555-3290. Janet chuckled.

      "What's so funny?"

      She told him about the billboard. "It sounds like this guy will get the job done one way or another. Maybe we should hire him?"

      "You seem to handle situations and your Glock just fine. The flower shop comes to mind. We don't need anyone else."

Prologue

April 12

      A moonless night accentuated the meandering headlights of a moving vehicle along a winding lakeside road near the city limits of Gainesville, Florida. The driver said to his passenger excitedly, "Can't believe, Carl, how easy it was break into that home. The owners were definitely sound sleepers. They hardly resisted when we tied them up in their bed."

      "It's got to be our easiest home invasion yet, Eddy," Carl said, as he pulled out a flask from his pant's pocket and took a sip of whiskey from it. He then handed it to his cohort in crime.

      "I figure we should get a few thousand bucks for everything. The jewelry looks expensive."

      "Their lab tops are at the high end," said Carl. "We should get a good price for them too."

      "What was strange in all of this, the guy seemed more upset when we took a few bottles of his homemade wine."

      "Look out, Eddy!" The road made a sharp turn to the left and their vehicle continued straight ahead. The car shook violently as it sped down a wooded terrain's uneven incline toward the lake.

      Eddy, squeezing the steering wheel for dear life, pushed down on the break pedal as hard as he could. Nothing happened. "Holy shit!" The break lining had obviously ruptured. His head struck the steering wheel, followed by blood cascading down from his forehead.

      Carl's body lounged forward as his face slammed into the dashboard. A cracking sound came from his neck.  

       They flew by sparsely spaced pine trees, coming within inches of them. The car's headlights now lit up the water in front of them. Neither of them saw it, for their unconscious bodies pounced around in the front seat of the car like rag dolls. It took less than a minute for the car to submerge into the deep lake. Unless someone saw the vehicle enter the watery grave, no one would discover these two unhallowed residents.

      Something in the back seat emitted a faint, yellow glow as the car sank to the bottom of the lake.

April 26th

      Bus driver, Frank Murphy, said into a microphone, "We're about fifteen minutes to the Gulf of Mexico and Port Hawk."

      Some people on the capacity-filled bus exclaimed enthusiastically with "Thank God!" "Hallelujah!" Others commented with a less exuberance. Most of the people on the bus were couples in their late fifties or early sixties.

      Frank continued, "The casino ship's shuttle boats will be leaving a little over an hour once we stop. There'll be time to visit several little quaint novelty shops along the boardwalk."

       The blacktopped two-lane road started at I-75, just south of Gainesville. Frank has been making the ninety-minute casino bus trip for the past ten years. He knows every bump and curve in the road. There are several other bus trips to casino ships on the Gulf and Atlantic side of Florida, along with the Indian casinos. Frank can't figure out why residents of Florida hadn't voted for casino gambling at hi jai facilities, dog and horse tracks in Florida. There would be a tremendous increase in tax revenue for the state. The irony in all of this, he doesn't gamble.

       "How many times have you been on the casino ship?" Asked a passenger sitting behind Frank.

      Frank chuckled, then said, "Only once. I got severe sea sickness."

      "Was it a rough sea?"

      "No. Hardly a ripple. I should've known better, since I get motion sickness on airplanes and even some elevators. I've been like this since I was a kid. I couldn't go on merry-go-rounds or any other rides at carnivals."

      "What a shame. Not able to enjoy the rides."

      "No big thing. I became extremely efficient at those carnival games. I always walked away with an armful of prizes."

      The bus suddenly veered to the right and onto the shoulder of the road, its tires running over the ripped warning strips causing a whining sound to alert drivers their vehicle has left the highway. The low mumbling sound of passengers talking stopped, their attention diverted toward Frank Patton, who sat erect behind the steering wheel, his hands tightly grasping it.

      "Is everything all right?" said the passenger behind him. Panic filled his words.

      "I can't see!" Frank cried out as he applied the brakes. Within seconds, the bus jerked to the right as it headed down a slight embankment toward a row of pine trees. A moment later, the front of the bus crashed into them, killing Frank instantly.

 April 27th

      The early morning temperature was in the mid-sixties without a cloud in the sky as Carlos Garcia, a roofer of twenty years, climbed a ladder to the second story of a Colonial home. It was just one of several similar new houses under construction in Lewiston, Florida. The economy was finally showing signs of recover after a long recession.

      "Glad to see you made it to work this morning," said Ken Tanner as he loaded roofing nails into an air-powered gun.

      "I wouldn't miss it for all the enchiladas in Mexico," he said followed by a broad smile.  The two of them were best friends, working together for the past several years. Carlos was a third generation American from Hispanic heritage. He comes from a family of roofers, father and grandfather.

      "It's another beautiful day in paradise," said Ken.

      "If you call lugging fifty pound bundles of shingles around on a slanting roof all day as paradise, I'd rather be hunting for gators," he said as he now stood on the bare plywood decked roof.

      They both laughed.

      "Did you hear about the bus driver that died when he cashed his bus filled with passengers into a tree yesterday?" Tanner asked, as he placed the nail gun into his belt holster.  "I drove by the accident scene this morning. Not even a skid mark on the road. He probably had a heart attack or a stroke."

      Carlos displayed a solemn expression. "He lived in the same town as me.     

I knew him. Not personally. But talked to him briefly on occasions. You know, to say hi. How's it going? Stuff like that."

      "I guess when it's your time to go. You have to go. No choice in the matter."

      "Yeah. Its God's decision."

      They both looked toward the ladder. The supervisor frowned at them, then barked, "I'm not paying you guys to discuss current news!"

      A moment latter, Carlos and Ken, along with three other roofers began laying down rolls of tar-colored paper over the plywood roof.

      One of the other roofers slipped about a foot or two as he walked over to get another roll. "Be careful," said Carlos standing a few feet away. It was the young man's first day on the job and he hadn't yet gotten used to the pitch of the roof. Carlos remembered his first few days laying shingles. It took him quit a while to acquire balance on an uneven surface. "Concentrate on what you're doing. Don't let your mind wander to other things."

      "Sure will, Mr. Garcia."

      "Rookie," said Ken condescendingly. He then noticed Carlos's relaxed posture suddenly tensed, frozen like a statue with arms straight out in front of him. "What's wrong?"

      "I can't see!"

      "What do you mean, you can't see? Do you have something in your eyes?"

      "No. Everything is completely black."

      "Don't move. I'll come a get you, my friend."

      "Please hurry!"   

      A mild breeze slightly raised the edge the tarpaper. It also affected Carlos, causing him to lose to his balance and stumble forward. He fell off the roof headfirst onto a concrete driveway.


 

                                                                Chapter One

 

May 16th

      "Dr. Belmont, there's a twenty-year-old patient that suddenly went totally blind from no apparent cause," said Nurse Mitchell as she stopped in front of the emergency room station. David looked up and frowned. Two other doctors, who sat putting patient findings into their computer, peered toward her with austere expressions. "His vital signs are normal. He is alert and orientated. His parents are with him in room two."

      "Is he taking street drugs? Did he have a recent head injury?"

      "Only occasional marijuana. No history of head trauma. He's been in excellent health.

      "Doesn't sound good," said David getting up from his chair. He knew sudden blindness or amaurosis fugax could have many causes: Blood clot or occlusion by one the major vessels to the eye, detached retina, or a tumor in the brain near the optic nerve. These are only a few on a large list of possible etiologies.

      He walked into the exam room two with the Nurse Mitchell. David immediately noticed a frightened expression on his young patient's face. "I'm Dr. Belmont." He shook the parents' hands, and then turned to his young patient. "What's your name young man?"

      Josh Barton," he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. He appeared scared.

      "Doctor," said his mother. Her lips quivered. "Can you help my son?"

      "We'll do the best we can." He knew sudden blindness in a young person was uncommon. This would be his first non-trauma case in his twenty years as an emergency room physician. "After I finish with my exam of your son, I'll send him for a CT brain scan. It should give us some answers to what causing his condition."

      "You mean blindness? Don't you, Dr. Belmont?" asked the father.

      "Yes, Mr. Barton."

      The mother began to sob. Her husband put his arm around her in a comforting gesture.   

      Belmont reached over to his right, grabbing an ophthalmoscope from its wall holder. "Keep your head still, Josh. I'm going to look into your eyes." David examined the pupils to see if they were equal and reactive to light. The left pupil and right pupils were equal and reactive to light. No evidence of drug induced blindness that would sometimes show large or pinpoint pupils. The movement of the eye globe was normal in all four quadrants. He then looked in both eyes for any papilledema or swelling of the brain or any occlusion or rupture of the vessels in the eye. The optic disc in the back of the eyes appeared normal. "That's good," he said out loud.

      "What's good? Dr. Belmont," said Josh.

      "There's no apparent increase in the pressure inside your brain or rupture of any vessels in the back of your eye."

      "Does mean he's going to be okay? Said the mother.

      "Don't know yet."

      "Will he be able to see again?

      "Let the doctor do his job, honey," said Mr. Barton.

      "It's no problem. You can ask as many questions as you want. Unfortunately, I can't answer those questions at this time. It's only the beginning of Josh's medical workup." David could imagine the agony they're going through with their son. He has a seventeen-year-old son, Wade, graduating from high school in less than a month. The thought of his son being blind and missing the exciting life experiences that college brings would be terrible. He'd recently gotten Florida State University acceptance letter and would be starting his first semester in the fall. "You can go with him when he has his brain scan. I'm sure he'll feel more comfortable with the both of you there with him."

      "Thank you doctor," said Ms. Barton as she reached over and held her son's hand.

      David completed his exam and didn't find anything pointing to a specific medical cause. It was as if something stealthily reached in and turned off his vision. An orderly took him by wheelchair to the nuclear medicine department on the second floor.

      "What do you thinks causing his blindness?" Nurse Mitchell asked as she closed the exam room door.

      "Nothing obvious yet," said David. "Hopefully we'll have an answer after the CT scan." He walked over the ER station and typed into the computer Josh's history and physical exam. Under assessment, he put, SUDDEN BLINDNESS-ETIOLOGY UNDETERMINED. He'd been an emergency room physician for the past twenty years, the last five as head of the department, and had never seen a patient go completely blind for no apparent reason, other than from trauma, a toxic chemical getting into the eye or a detached retina. None of these things existed with this patient. David knew it was going to be a diagnosis by exclusion.

      About forty-five minutes later, David received a phone call from a physician in the nuclear medicine department. "It's Carl Simon. I just reviewed the CT brain scan of your patient Josh Barton."

      "Is there a tumor?" He waited for an ominous reply.

      "I don't see anything. It's completely normal."

      "I was sure there'd be something in his brain or near the optic nerve causing the sudden blindness," David said leaning back in his swivel chair. He was both relieved and disappointed. As a physician, one of the hardest things to do was to tell the patient they had a brain tumor. The second thing was to tell the patient they had no idea what was causing their condition. "I appreciate the call, Carl."

      "No problem, my friend." Their conversation ended.

      David thought about his next step. The next logical thing to do was to start him on steroids in case the blindness originated from an arterial inflammatory condition such as temporal arteritis. This eye disease primarily occurred in the elderly, not a twenty-year-old, and there was pain associated with it. Josh didn't experience any of these associated symptoms. Things weren't adding up. He'd picked up the phone and called the ophthalmologist on-call, Gary Winslow. His office was in the professional building next to the hospital.

      "Gary, this is David Belmont. I'm calling from ER. I have a twenty-year-old young man with a sudden onset of asymptomatic bilateral blindness. CT brain scan is normal, along with a normal physical exam. Don't know what's causing it."

      "Sounds like something at the optic nerve in both eyes, which would be highly unusual. Or something at the optic chiasm in the brain, where the two optic nerves cross just behind the eyes. Although you said, the brain scan was normal. It would have picked up any tumors in that area." He sighed, then said, "I'll be there in about fifteen minutes."

      "Thanks Gary. See you then." Their phone call ended.

      He walked into the exam room and talked with the parents. "The good news is there's no apparent tumor causing Josh's blindness."

      "Then why is he blind?" Asked Mrs. Barton. Her eyes slightly reddened by recent crying.

      "Don't know yet. I'm having an eye doctor look at him in a little while." He didn't know what else to say to them. Emergency room medicine attracted him due to the immediate treatment of common urgent and life-threatening medical conditions. Helping people in crisis gave him a lot of satisfaction. Blindness without an explainable cause frustrated him.

      Nurse Mitchell appeared at the doorway. A concerned expression showed across her face. "Dr. Belmont. I need to talk with you, please."

      He turned toward her. "I'll be right there." Turning back toward Josh's parents, he said, "Just wait here for the eye doctor. He shouldn't be too long." David then left the room.

      Nurse Mitchell stood next to exam room four. "I thought it would be best that you see these patients."

      "What do mean when you said patients? Is there more than one?"

      "Yes. I have a couple. The husband is fifty-five and his wife is fifty-three. EMS brought them in. They both suddenly went completely blind while waking through the mall about an hour ago. No trauma. No other associated symptoms. Just like our first patient, Josh Barton."

      "What's going on here?" He shook his head in frustration.

      "Maybe they're related or know each other," she said, "this couple and the boy."

      "Good point. What's their last name?"

      She looked down at the preliminary chart. It was more of a folder with a few sheets of paper inside. "Collier. Robert and Linda Collier."

      "Dang! That won't work. The patient confidentiality law of HIPPA prevents us from asking them, since they'll want to know why. We can't divulge medical information about one patient to another. We'll wait on that. If it's going to be essential to solve the cause of these cases of blindness, we'll find away around this law."

      David and the nurse walked into the exam room. The couple sat together on the hospital bed holding hands. Fear emanated from their faces.

      "This is Nurse Mitchell, again. I have Dr. Belmont with me. He's going to be asking you questions and do an exam."

      "Dr. Belmont. Can you help my wife and me? The paramedics didn't have any answers of why we all of sudden we went completely blind."

      "I'm sure going to my best," David said assuredly. He looked down at the nurses notes. "It says here, neither of you have eye pain, headaches or numbness."

      "No," said Mr. Collier. "We've been in good health. Only an occasional ache and pain from our back and joints. We feel fine other than we're blind." He reached over and rubbed his wife's forearm in an affectionate gesture. "There wasn't any warning. My wife first went blind. Then about a minute or two later, I lost my sight. We were at the mall buying each other gifts. Our 25th wedding anniversary is tomorrow. "

      David felt the beginning of tears in the corner of his eyes. He sighed. His first heart wanted to say, "Happy anniversary." His mind held him back, "No. Not now. It’s not a joyous moment."

      Nurse Mitchell said, "Do you have any children, relatives or friends that I can call and let them know what's going on? We can have them come and be with you while we're finding out what's causing your blindness." Her question definitely broke the sullen moment that existed in the room. In addition, it may let them know if the Barton's are related or our friends.

      "We have children. But they all live up north in Wisconsin and Illinois. We just moved to Florida about two weeks ago. We don't really know anyone own here yet."

      That pretty much answered the questioned about any connection between them and the Barton's. David now knew he had to concentrate on the cause of three people suddenly becoming blind. He examined the couple and found everything normal. There wasn't any apparent eye disease, such as glaucoma, blocked vessel in the eye or a detached retina. After ordering a CT brain scan on both patients, he left the room.

       As he approached the ER station, he saw the ophthalmologist, Gary Winslow, behind the counter. "Gary. How are you?"

      "Doing good. But I can't say the same for your patient Josh Barton."

      "What do you think is causing his blindness?"

      "Don't know. My preliminary exam was normal. It may be inflammation around the optic nerve or optic neuritis. Multiple Sclerosis or chemicals such as lead can cause blindness. The problem is that there aren't any other symptoms or physical signs. I ordered an MRI of the brain to eliminate MS and a blood test to check for any chemical causes. I'll empirically start him on corticosteroids orally since this appears more like an inflammatory disease than a tumor. It's a very interesting case."

      "This is only the beginning," said David as he handed him the Collier's charts.

      "What do you mean?" He opened the first chart and glanced through it. "Unbelievable!" He then skimmed the next chart, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Can't believe we have three patients suddenly becoming blind in the exact same manner. It's beyond medical precedence."

      "I agree," said David as he now sat next to Gary Winslow. "I presume you'll be ordering the same test on the Colliers."

      "I'll see them first. But from what I read on your assessment, I'll likely order the same tests."

      The emergency door at the end of the room, where EMS brought patients through, opened. They both focused their attention to three EMTs pushing wheelchairs. A man in his middle-thirties sat in the first one, a woman also about the same age sat in the second one, and an early teenage girl sat in the last one. None of them had any apparent physical trauma. They sat staring straight ahead as if their necks were frozen.

      A nurse asked the first paramedic, "What do you have?"

      "A family that suddenly went blind! Thank God, he was stopped for a traffic light when it happened. Things could've been much worse."

      David felt every muscle in his body tense as adrenaline rushed through his arteries. The sounds around him amplified to a higher tone; his mind shouted, "What in God's name is happening?"  He then looked at Gary, who displayed an expression of amazement.

      The second EMT said in a loud controlled voice, "We heard there have been numerous car accidents throughout the city, a small plane crash north of here, and people injuring themselves at work. The 911 lines are being flooded with calls about people suddenly losing their sight."

      David took a deep breath and then shouted, "Listen up everyone!" The other two emergency doctors, the nurses and technicians stopped from what they were doing and directed their attention toward him. "We're in a crisis situation. The emergency disaster plan is now in affect. We're going to be receiving patients from multiple accidents throughout the city."

      Since Ocala General Hospital wasn't a teaching hospital staffed with physicians from residency programs, doctors with admission privileges volunteered to come in during a major accident or disaster where a large number of patients would need medical treatment and attention.  A mock disaster occurred each year with the police, fire department, and all hospital employees participating with everyone having a specific task. The initial reason for the yearly training was to prepare for all the injuries after a major hurricane or a devastating tornado, or a multiple vehicle pileup on I-75--not a pandemic of blindness. David will find out if all their preparedness will be able to handle an actual crisis. As head of the ER, he'll command and coordinate the emergency plan at the hospital and all of its participants. The First Responders, which are the EMS and the three different law enforcement agencies, take control at the accident scenes.     

      "What's causing all these accidents?" Asked one of the nurses.

      "Sudden blindness. We don't know what's causing it yet. So address all their other medical conditions and complaints first."

      "Is it contagious?" shouted a lab technician.

      "We don't think so," said David. That was a good question, he thought to himself. If that were the case, everyone exposed to the infected person would eventually become blind. Only time will prove it right or wrong. He leaned down and whispered to Gary. "What's the chances a virus is causing the blindness?"

      "I'd never heard or seen any virus causing this," he said skeptically. "But I guess it's possible."

       "We'll need the expertise of Stan Butler, the infectious disease specialist."

      "Good idea," said Gary. "I'll give him a call and fill him in on what's going on."

      "Thanks, appreciate it. I'm sure the other hospitals are getting blind patients and an influx of accident patients. I'll let them now what we found--which of course is nothing. Maybe they've figured out what's causing the blindness."

      "That would be great if they did," he said picking up the receiver.

      After talking with the ER directors at the other hospitals, David turned toward Gary, who was sitting with Dr. Butler. "Stan. Glad you made it here safely."

      "Have to say, saw a few accidents driving over here. Gary filled me in on what's been happening."  

      "Good."

      "What did the other hospitals have to say?" Gary asked, "Are they getting blind patients also?"

      "They've only had a few so far," said David, "and several accident victims related to people suddenly going blind. Their diagnostic tests didn't give them a diagnosis either--same as us. If only some other symptom or sign showed itself to us, we'd be able to figure out what possibly was causing this blindness."

      "I agree," said Gary, "it's frustrating not knowing what we're dealing with."      

      David's cell phone rang. He glanced at the caller's name. It was Laura, his wife. She'd never call him at work unless it was something important. He visualized her a few minutes ago fumbling for her cell phone and trying to dial his number in complete darkness, for she had suddenly gone blind! "What's wrong?" His voice strained with anxiety.

      "Nothing is wrong," she said calmly. "Is everything all right with you? You sound upset."

      "I wasn't expecting your call."

      "Of course not. I just wanted to call and say I love you and miss you. And to say that I'm sorry I got so mad at you this morning for not waking me up on time."

      David had gotten a call this morning, just after getting dressed, from the night ER doctor about a situation with an irate and drunken patient. His conversation with him lasted about thirty minutes. He forgot about waking her up, putting her behind in schedule. "It was all my fault. I feel terrible about it."

      "I forgive you," she said."

      He turned his chair away from Gary and toward the back of the room. "I love and miss you too. Sorry I answered the way I did a moment ago. I thought maybe you had lost your--"

      "Dr. Belmont!" The nurse's harsh voice interrupted his explanation to Laura.

      "I'll be right with you," he said firmly.

      "What's going on there?" Laura said. Her voice filled with concern. "Are you in the middle of an emergency?"

      That was an understatement, he thought to himself. "Yes. But it's more than an emergency."

      "What do you mean by that?'

      "I just declared the emergency medical disaster plan for Ocala and the immediate surrounding communities."

      "My God. What happened? Was there a major train wreck causing leakage of a toxic chemical?" Laura was a science teacher at Ocala High School. She stood in the science lab at her desk as her 3rd-hour class noisily flowed into the room.

      "No. Nothing like that. At least, not yet."

      "I'm sure all the schools will soon receive the alert," said David. "The reason I initiated the emergency plan was due to people are coming in with sudden onset of blindness. Accidents are occurring all over the city."

      "Oh my God! What's causing it?"

      "We don't know."

      "The school wasn't notified," said Laura. "We'll have to be in lockdown until the crisis is over. Can't take a chance and have an accident with all those kids aboard a school bus."

      "You're right," said David.

      "I'll let the principal know what's happening."

      "If he doesn't already know now. The emergency notification plan will soon notify him and all the other principals. Just make sure everyone stays at school. The roads are extremely unsafe."

      "There was another thing, I just thought about" said Laura apprehensively.

      "What's that?"

      "Once the parents hear that the school buses won't be running because of the pandemic of blindness in the city, they'll likely panic and drive to schools to get their children. There could be a massive increase in car crashes. It would be terrible."

      "Very good point. Although if everything goes as according to plan, the residents of Ocala will receive a reverse EMS call giving them instruction in what to do and not do. We can only hope that people abide by it. I'll let you know if anything of importance happens."

      "Thank you, honey. I love you."

      "Love you too." Their conversation ended as he put the cell phone back into its belt holder. He turned back around and saw the hospital administrator and the head of the nursing department walk toward him.

      The nurse that had called his name a moment ago, said, "Ocala Police Chief Henderson is on line 2."

      He picked up the receiver on the counter. "Dr. Belmont."

      "It's Chief Henderson. I received the call from the hospital about the disaster plan starting.  Have you found out what's causing the blindness?

      "Not yet," said David.

      "As you know, vehicle accidents are occurring all over the city. I've talked with the Sheriff's department and the state police. I've also talked with the other hospitals' emergency rooms. We're all coordinating are efforts."

      David thought about what Laura said. "The school buses have to be shut down."

      "All the schools will soon be notified about keeping the children there until further notice. The reverse 911 call had also gone into affect telling people to stay in their homes due to dangerous conditions on the roads in Ocala."

      "Déjà vu," David whispered.

      "What did you say?"

      "Nothing important. Just that things are going according to plan. Thanks Chief. I appreciate the update."

      "You're welcome. Talk to you later."

      David reached over and placed the receiving back on its base.

      The hospital administrator, Edward Strom, who was standing with the head of nursing, Janet Lewis, said, "We called all essential hospital employees on the afternoon shift to work, including employees that on their day off."

      "Great," said David.  "We'll definitely need them."

      "How many people are affected by this blindness?" Asked Nurse Lewis.

      "Seven so far. Unfortunately, according to the paramedics more are on their way by EMS. To put it another way, we're only seeing a slight breeze now. Soon the hurricane winds will hit us."

      Nurse Lewis looked around briefly. "We're not going to have enough exam rooms for all of these new victims when they come in?"

      David frowned. "We'll do what we did last year during our mock disaster."

      "I wasn't here last year," she said. "I've only been with the hospital for the a few months."

      "Sorry. Forgot you're the new kid on the block," he said lightheartedly.

      "No problem."

      He stood up and said, "The patients that only present with sudden blindness without any other medical problems or injuries will be put in the hallway between and across from the exam rooms. After they're evaluated, the patient will be immediately admitted to the medical floor where the majority of the admission paper work will be done. That way we'll have the six exam rooms for trauma patients needing immediate attention and treatment."

      "It's pretty much the same at the hospital I previously worked at," said Nurse Lewis, nodding.

      "We'll soon have to deal with barrage of news media people at our doorsteps," said Mr. Strom. "They'll be asking a thousand questions. I'll make sure hospital security keeps them out of the ER. Everyone here will have enough to do without worrying about reporters bothering them."

      "Appreciate that," said David.

      "I'll get back to my office," said Strom. "I'm sure my secretary has a stack of phone messages in regards to the situation here. Talk to you soon." He left the ER hurriedly.

      "I'll help with triaging and make sure the nursing staff has everything they need," said Nurse Lewis.

      David nodded. "All our preparatory disaster training will now be put to use. 

I'm sure everyone will do their best."

      Just as he made that statement, the ER doors opened. EMTs pushed a man lying supine on a stretcher through the doorway. The patient's head was wrapped with an elastic gauze tinged with blood seeping through it. A hard cervical collar supported his neck. A splint encompassed his right arm, which lay next to him. The previous somewhat quiet ER atmosphere changed to the shouts of triage nurse, "What do have?"

      "A thirty-eight-year-old man with a broken arm and head laceration," said the lead EMT.

      "Is he blind?"

      "No. But the driver in the other car was. He'll be coming in shortly with the other EMTs. They pulled up behind us outside."

      "Exam room three!" Barked the triage nurse.

      David took a deep breath, and then whispered to himself, "God help us if this blindness is contagious."
 


 

“Ocala National Forest is the third largest national forest of white pines in the United States east of the Mississippi River,” Robert Jenson stated to a group of thirty people standing in front of him at the park’s museum building. “Brown bears, black bears, wolves, deer and a variety of poisonous snakes make their home here. There are areas in the park people haven’t explored due to its wooded density and remoteness. Over the past hundred years, officials estimated that over fifty people have wondered into the forest and never found. They were either eaten by predators, succumbed by poisonous snake bites, or died of exposure to the harsh environment.”    

A young man in his late teens chuckled. “Maybe they were taken by Big Foot?”

Robert grinned. “You’re partly right.”

“Really?”

“Yes. According to legend a half-man and half ape creature called Skunk Ape has been sighted throughout Florida from the Everglades to the northern region of the state, including here.”

A middle-aged woman asked, “Why do they call it Skunk Ape?”

“Because when the creature is nearby and the wind is blowing right, it has a pungent odor like that of a skunk.” This was Robert’s seventh year as a tour guide for the summer months. He completed his third year as a medical student at the University of Florida two weeks ago. Almost every tour group for the past six years--and now this year--will have at least one person making a comment about Big Foot.

“Mr. Jenson,” shouted a middle-aged, burly man behind him. He was wearing a ranger’s uniform.

Robert didn’t have to turn around to recognize Samuel Tallquist’s voice. His boss never liked him from the first time they met after he graduated from high school and was hired as a forestry guide for the summer. Robert had taken the job to help pay for college but after the second summer he looked forward to talking and answering questions about the history and sites of the park. After undergraduate studies followed by medical school, the job also gave him relief from the complex information in medical books. In addition, he liked talking with people and considered himself a congenial extrovert. Robert turned around. He could never figure out why he agitated Mr. Tallquist. “Yes, sir.”

“You don’t need to frighten these people about a mythical creature that doesn’t have any scientific proof it even exists. No pictures or videos of this thing have ever been taken. People’s imaginations are keeping this mythical creature alive.”

“What’s that smell?” asked a gray-hair man toward the front of the group.

A pungent odor permeated the area around Robert, Samuel, and the group of park visitors.

“Is it the odor of the Skunk Ape?” asked the teenager who had started the topic of Big Foot.

Other people in the crowd were nodding and making comments that a terrible odor was overwhelming them.

“No,” Samuel answered, shaking his head back and forth. “I don’t--”

“It’s the odor emitted by a decomposing body,” interrupted a young woman in her late twenties, who stood toward the front of the group.

Samuel stared at the woman and frowned. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because human decomposition has a very distinct smell. Once you smell it for the first time, you’ll never forget it.” She raised her head, turning it slightly to the right. “And since the wind is coming from the west, I’d say the odor is originating from over there.” She pointed to the left of Robert and Samuel.

“Why should I believe what you say is true?” Samuel asked skeptically.

“I’m Cynthia Davidson, a pathologist’s assistant for District 5 Medical Examiner’s Office here in Marion County and surrounding counties. I am very familiar with this particular odor, since I deal with dead bodies every day in the morgue.”

Robert grinned and chuckled to himself. That ah girl, put Mr. Tallquist in his obstinate place.

“Oh. Maybe you should check it out?” Samuel suggested. “Why don’t you, young lady, and Mr. Jenson go find out if what you said we all smell is a decomposing body? I’ll stay with the group of visitors while you track down the odor. Call me on my cell phone if you find something.”

“Don’t you think we should call the sheriff’s department?” Cynthia asked as she stepped away from the visitors and stood in front of Samuel. She glanced at Robert, then back toward Samuel.

“Yes. That’ll be a better idea,” Robert agreed. Sure, he dissected a cadaver with fellow classmates for anatomy class, but he never felt comfortable being with a dead body.          

Samuel glanced at Robert. “No. It’s not a better idea.” He then turned toward Cynthia. “If you find a body, you can call the sheriff’s department. We don’t want to jump the gun.” He paused a moment. “I guess that’s not a good choice of words.” He chuckled. No one laughed.

Robert led Cynthia through a meandering trail wide enough for one person. Cynthia walked a few steps behind him. “So you’re a pathologist assistant for the county?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you go further and become a doctor?”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business. We’re here to check on a dead body, not my personal life.”

Robert felt like his jaw dropped a foot as he became speechless. This attractive, petite female with short-styled hair, minimum make-up put him in an awkward state of mind. His good-natured personality was shattered by someone he thought was mild mannered. He enjoyed her comeback comment toward Samuel, but when it was now toward him, he didn’t like the rejected feeling. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry into your life.”

Cynthia snickered. “I was being a brat. I do this sometimes to get a reaction from people. I can see it affected you.”

Robert sighed, letting out all the unpleasant feelings created by Cynthia’s derogatory comments toward him. He felt reprieved. “You definitely were convincing. I got to say that about you.”

“I’ll try not to show my brat side of me toward you. Although I don’t like anyone prying into my personal life. But I’m sure you were creating small talk.”

Robert nodded. “I won’t ask you any more personal questions.”

“Don’t promise something you can’t keep. You never know what the future holds.”

Does it mean she wants to get to know me? Or did she have many disappointments from empty promises in her life? “Like you said, we’re here to find where the odor of human decomposition is.”

“The odor is getting stronger,” Cynthia said.

“I agree.” Robert slowed his pace. His mind visualized a hiker lying dead on the side of the trail after bitten by a poisonous snake. It wouldn’t be the first time someone discovered a body in the forest. But it would be his first direct encounter of one. If this was what a pathologist or medical examiner dealt with every day, he was glad he was going to be a doctor who treated living patients.

“Stop,” she said. “Don’t move or say anything. I hear something to the right of us.”

Robert’s first thought was a bear or some other predator was about to charge them. He held his breath and listened for any movement. He heard the wind rustling leaves and branches of trees--and a buzzing noise.

 “Ocala National Forest is the third largest national forest of white pines in the United States east of the Mississippi River,” Robert Jenson stated to a group of thirty people standing in front of him at the park’s museum building. “Brown bears, black bears, wolves, deer and a variety of poisonous snakes make their home here. There are areas in the park people haven’t explored due to its wooded density and remoteness. Over the past hundred years, officials estimated that over fifty people have wondered into the forest and never found. They were either eaten by predators, succumbed by poisonous snake bites, or died of exposure to the harsh environment.”    

A young man in his late teens chuckled. “Maybe they were taken by Big Foot?”

Robert grinned. “You’re partly right.”

“Really?”

“Yes. According to legend a half-man and half ape creature called Skunk Ape has been sighted throughout Florida from the Everglades to the northern region of the state, including here.”

A middle-aged woman asked, “Why do they call it Skunk Ape?”

“Because when the creature is nearby and the wind is blowing right, it has a pungent odor like that of a skunk.” This was Robert’s seventh year as a tour guide for the summer months. He completed his third year as a medical student at the University of Florida two weeks ago. Almost every tour group for the past six years--and now this year--will have at least one person making a comment about Big Foot.

“Mr. Jenson,” shouted a middle-aged, burly man behind him. He was wearing a ranger’s uniform.

Robert didn’t have to turn around to recognize Samuel Tallquist’s voice. His boss never liked him from the first time they met after he graduated from high school and was hired as a forestry guide for the summer. Robert had taken the job to help pay for college but after the second summer he looked forward to talking and answering questions about the history and sites of the park. After undergraduate studies followed by medical school, the job also gave him relief from the complex information in medical books. In addition, he liked talking with people and considered himself a congenial extrovert. Robert turned around. He could never figure out why he agitated Mr. Tallquist. “Yes, sir.”

“You don’t need to frighten these people about a mythical creature that doesn’t have any scientific proof it even exists. No pictures or videos of this thing have ever been taken. People’s imaginations are keeping this mythical creature alive.”

“What’s that smell?” asked a gray-hair man toward the front of the group.

A pungent odor permeated the area around Robert, Samuel, and the group of park visitors.

“Is it the odor of the Skunk Ape?” asked the teenager who had started the topic of Big Foot.

Other people in the crowd were nodding and making comments that a terrible odor was overwhelming them.

“No,” Samuel answered, shaking his head back and forth. “I don’t--”

“It’s the odor emitted by a decomposing body,” interrupted a young woman in her late twenties, who stood toward the front of the group.

Samuel stared at the woman and frowned. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because human decomposition has a very distinct smell. Once you smell it for the first time, you’ll never forget it.” She raised her head, turning it slightly to the right. “And since the wind is coming from the west, I’d say the odor is originating from over there.” She pointed to the left of Robert and Samuel.

“Why should I believe what you say is true?” Samuel asked skeptically.

“I’m Cynthia Davidson, a pathologist’s assistant for District 5 Medical Examiner’s Office here in Marion County and surrounding counties. I am very familiar with this particular odor, since I deal with dead bodies every day in the morgue.”

Robert grinned and chuckled to himself. That ah girl, put Mr. Tallquist in his obstinate place.

“Oh. Maybe you should check it out?” Samuel suggested. “Why don’t you, young lady, and Mr. Jenson go find out if what you said we all smell is a decomposing body? I’ll stay with the group of visitors while you track down the odor. Call me on my cell phone if you find something.”

“Don’t you think we should call the sheriff’s department?” Cynthia asked as she stepped away from the visitors and stood in front of Samuel. She glanced at Robert, then back toward Samuel.

“Yes. That’ll be a better idea,” Robert agreed. Sure, he dissected a cadaver with fellow classmates for anatomy class, but he never felt comfortable being with a dead body.          

Samuel glanced at Robert. “No. It’s not a better idea.” He then turned toward Cynthia. “If you find a body, you can call the sheriff’s department. We don’t want to jump the gun.” He paused a moment. “I guess that’s not a good choice of words.” He chuckled. No one laughed.

Robert led Cynthia through a meandering trail wide enough for one person. Cynthia walked a few steps behind him. “So you’re a pathologist assistant for the county?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you go further and become a doctor?”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business. We’re here to check on a dead body, not my personal life.”

Robert felt like his jaw dropped a foot as he became speechless. This attractive, petite female with short-styled hair, minimum make-up put him in an awkward state of mind. His good-natured personality was shattered by someone he thought was mild mannered. He enjoyed her comeback comment toward Samuel, but when it was now toward him, he didn’t like the rejected feeling. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry into your life.”

Cynthia snickered. “I was being a brat. I do this sometimes to get a reaction from people. I can see it affected you.”

Robert sighed, letting out all the unpleasant feelings created by Cynthia’s derogatory comments toward him. He felt reprieved. “You definitely were convincing. I got to say that about you.”

“I’ll try not to show my brat side of me toward you. Although I don’t like anyone prying into my personal life. But I’m sure you were creating small talk.”

Robert nodded. “I won’t ask you any more personal questions.”

“Don’t promise something you can’t keep. You never know what the future holds.”

Does it mean she wants to get to know me? Or did she have many disappointments from empty promises in her life? “Like you said, we’re here to find where the odor of human decomposition is.”

“The odor is getting stronger,” Cynthia said.

“I agree.” Robert slowed his pace. His mind visualized a hiker lying dead on the side of the trail after bitten by a poisonous snake. It wouldn’t be the first time someone discovered a body in the forest. But it would be his first direct encounter of one. If this was what a pathologist or medical examiner dealt with every day, he was glad he was going to be a doctor who treated living patients.

“Stop,” she said. “Don’t move or say anything. I hear something to the right of us.”

Robert’s first thought was a bear or some other predator was about to charge them. He held his breath and listened for any movement. He heard the wind rustling leaves and branches of trees--and a buzzing noise.


Type your paragraph here.

      EXCERPT FROM  ​MY NOVELS

​             

   Chapter One

A soft glowing ivory light is illuminating from the entire ceiling of this cube-shaped sterile-white room. Each of the room’s dimensions, width, length, and height, appears to be about twelve feet. Where are the windows to let in the sunshine, the celestial light? Light that has been present since the first organism and plant needed its nurturing power of life? Absent on the walls are pictures, shelves and electrical outlets. There’s a faint outline of a sliding door on one of the walls. Is this the way out of the tomb-like room? In the center of the room is a white, square stone table supported by four round stone legs resting on a white glossy marble floor. On top of the table is a pastel blue, oval-shaped object resembling a football in size and shape. A hammock-shaped silvery metal apparatus is cradling the object. What’s this bluish object? Wait a minute. The room is getting brighter. Even with my eyes closed, the piercing light is burning my eyes. The light is becoming brighter and brighter and brighter....

Adam Stafford’s upper eyelids snapped open to the morning sun’s rays piercing through his bedroom window. He rolled over to his right side. The thirty-nine-year old squinted at a digital clock sitting on the night table next to the bed. In less than a minute, the alarm would be going off at 6 A.M. He reached over and turned off the alarm.

This morning, an unusually vivid dream, a nightmare, awakened him. He rolled onto his back and stared up toward a white stucco ceiling, focusing on the day laying ahead of him: the monthly pediatric meeting this morning at eight o’clock. One of the residents will present a difficult pediatric case, leading to an open discussion and a diagnosis. After completing his pediatric residency program eight years ago, he thought his long marathon hours as a resident had ended. He had been fooling himself. Two years later, he accepted the responsibilities and duties as Chief of Pediatric at Ocala Regional Medical Center. Adam soon found out the prestigious position demanded more of his time and energy than the residency program.

“I better get up,” he whispered. Adam began his morning ritual of showering with his favorite soap, Irish Spring, and shaving with an electric razor. He put his work clothes on, white dress shirt with a Mickey Mouse blue tie, dark-blue slacks and white tennis shoes. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, retrieved a bowl and a box of cereal from the cupboard, milk from the refrigerator and sat down to enjoy his usual morning nourishment.

Adam’s mind pondered on Arius Turner, a twelve-year-old patient who was admitted by one of his pediatric residents three days earlier through the emergency room. The patient had a three-week history of a persistently elevated temperature. His parents, Howard and Patricia Turner, told the resident their son’s temperature had ranged from one-hundred and one to a hundred- and three-degrees Fahrenheit for three weeks. Arius didn’t have any medical complaints. All preliminary testing had been normal. Adam had a “gut” feeling Arius had something unusual, a rare medical illness causing his fever.

During Adam’s residency at the University of Florida Pediatric Residency Program, he had the reputation of looking further into symptoms and signs of an illness. When a patient’s medical condition appeared to be a clear and common diagnosis to his colleagues and mentors, he would prove them wrong by diagnosing an unexpected, and sometimes rare, medical condition or disease. The other doctors had been listening for the common gallop of a horse, but Adam had heard the rare hoof sounds of a Zebra.

He looked at the digital watch on his right wrist: 6:45 A.M. It was time to leave for the hospital. He walked into the living room of his two-bedroom ranch condominium. The house was meticulously neat and clean—not the typical condition of a bachelor’s residence. After about thirty minutes of driving, he pulled off I-75 and turned east onto 200th Street. Several minutes later, the hospital came into view to his right. The hospital’s tall, white, U-shaped structure towered majestically above the moderately treed surroundings. After parking in the hospital’s parking structure, he entered the hospital and stepped into the elevator. He rode the elevator to the sixth floor. The elevator door opened, and Adam stepped out onto the pediatric floor. Physician Assistant Scott Templeton stood behind the nursing station, looking down at a chart. “Hi, Scott. I’m sure all the residents are waiting for us in the conference room.”

He glanced up. “Good morning. You’re right. We don’t want to keep them waiting.”

A few moments later, Adam opened the conference room door. In front of him in the center of the room was a long, rectangular, highly glossed, mahogany table. On each side of the table were three pediatric residents sitting in their cushioned captain chairs. The chairs were spaced far enough apart allowing its occupants plenty of elbowroom. At each end of the table was an unoccupied chair, the chair to the left was Adam’s, the other chair was for Scott. Two of the three residents on the left side of the table, who were first-year residents, had solemn appearing expressions. The residents on the right side of the table and the one sitting next to the two first-year residents, smirked at Adam. Adam stood in the doorway shaking his head back and forth. A serious expression emerged across his face. Looking straight across the table, he glared back and forth at the two first-year residents. “What a motley appearing group we have at this table. I hope you all brought your questions for this important staff meeting. I wouldn’t want to expel anyone from the residency program.”

The first-year residents looked at each other baffled by Adam’s austere statement. “No one told us about having questions to ask,” said one of them. “What were we…?”

“Loosen up,” interrupted Adam. “I’m kidding.” The other residents laughed, causing the two, naive, first-year residents to roll their eyes upward in embarrassment. The meeting lasted about an hour. Adam pushed his chair back, stood up and said in a firm, authoritative voice, “Our monthly medical meeting is now adjourned.” His cell phone went off, indicating there was a text message He removed the cell phone from a holster attached to his belt. Adam retrieved the message. URGENT...REGARDS TO ARIUS TURNER...DR. WALKER. Dr. Walker was the hospital’s chief hematologist. Adam told Scott to start the pediatric rounds with the residents and that he’d catch up with them later.

Adam walked into the hematology lab. His vision encountered several apparatuses. Some of them were blinking an array of white, green and red lights, other computer machines displayed a series of changing numbers. Several monitors displayed wavy or pointed lines in a graphic pattern. Lab technicians sat in front of sterile-white countertops with their eyes pressed against the lens of a microscope. In his mind, Adam visualized the technicians were viewing a world of bizarre looking microscopic organisms and structures. The sounds heard inside the room were the mixture of various hums and whining sounds coming from the laboratory apparatuses. Turning his head to the left he saw Dr. Walker, who was about twenty feet away, standing next to a blood analysis machine. The machine had three small computer screens; the screens were about six inches square and displayed a series of constant changing numbers. The middle-aged hematologist was wearing a long, white lab coat, the coat hung neatly on his short and overweight stature. His sideward profile accentuated a long, broad nose and an extra fold of skin below his chin. Streaks of grey hair highlighted his temples, as a six-inch ponytail hung down passed his shoulders. “Good morning, Dr. Walker.”

“Dr. Stafford. I’m glad you received my message. There’s something astonishing I found on your patient, Arius Turner. Something unheard of in medical science.” There was excitement in his voice. “This young boy has immunity to HIV. His CD4 count is twenty-two hundred. Normal high is fifteen hundred. His HIV viral load is undetectable. He either has natural immunity or received a vaccine. But that’s not all. He has immunity to Hepatitis C. His viral load is undetectable and there isn’t evidence of any active disease. So, Arius Turner either has natural immunity or was given a vaccine. I also did an assay on several other deadly diseases and found the patient had an immunity to each of the diseases. All this indicates our patient has a supercharged immune system. From what I can see from all of this, he’d be able to resist any deadly virulent viral, fungal and bacterial pathogens.”

Adam stood there in complete awe. He felt like his body had walked out of a walk-in freezer. He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck, bringing warmth back into his psychologically frozen body. “Are you sure of the results? Maybe there was an error in your blood analysis?”

“I’ve rechecked every test, making make sure there wasn’t an error in the technique. There are no doubts in the results of the blood tests.”

“How can his immune system resist all of those devastating pathogens?”

“We may be seeing a genetic aberration. I can’t say with any certainty this is what we’re seeing with your patient. We’ll need to look at his DNA for the possible answer to his unnatural immunity.”

“I’ll call Dr. Frank in the genetics department,” said Adam.

“If you like. You can use the phone in my office to call him?”

“Thank you very much. But I don’t want to take you away from what you were doing.”

“No problem. I’m anxious to know what this twelve-year-old boy’s genetic make-up is all about.”

Adam followed Dr. Walker into his office and called Dr. Sidney Frank. Adam gave the geneticist a detailed scenario of Arius Turner and the results of his lab test. “Yes, Dr. Frank, I can have his chart sent up to you with all the blood results.” He looked at his watch. “That’ll be okay with me. I’ll see you round three o’clock.” Adam hung up the phone.

“It’ll be important to check the parents’ blood,” said Dr. Walker. “They also may have a similar immunity system?”

“I’ll be sure to discuss this matter with them today.” He shook Dr. Walker’s hand, then walked briskly out of the department. Adam glanced down at his watch: 11:30 A.M. It was almost lunchtime for the patients on the pediatric floor. Howard and Patricia Turner will probably be in Arius’s room. This would be the ideal time to question them. As the elevated reached the sixth floor, he heard muffled voices. The elevator door opened.

No one was there.

"Yes. We reviewed it on the plane from Virginia Beach. Like your police report, no pertinent information. The autopsy and blood work didn't reveal a cause of their deaths."

            "Hopefully, you and your agents can find a cause of these five deaths. If you need any assistance, please give me a call. I'll give you my cell phone number." He gave his number to Janet. She and Simon put the detective's number into their phone. "Also, here's the name, address and phone number of the deceased victims, along with their families." The detective handed Janet two sheets of paper inside a Manila folder.

          "Thanks, Detective Rhodes. We'll keep in touch."

          "I'll walk out with you. It's been a long day. I'm ready to go home."

          Janet and Simon waved to the detective as his car passed by them in the parking lot. "Sounds like we got a lot of investigation to do on these five deaths," Janet declared. "And as usual, no clues to direct us to an answer to these deaths."

          "That's what I love about this job. Trying to find a needle in a haystack."

          Janet grinned. "If the haystack was the size of a loaf of bread, I wouldn't mind looking for the needle."

          They both chuckled.

          Simon pulled out of the police parking lot and headed for the hotel. Janet looked forward in being with Simon. What was she going to tell Jean? "I'll be back in a few hours, there something I have to do." Jean will obviously know where she's going and who she'll be with. Does it really matter at this point? She and Simon are adults with no commitments with another person.

          "Can you call Frank and let him know we're on our way to the hotel. They'll probably be at the restaurant. Tell him to wait for us. We'll need to go over tomorrow's schedule."

          Janet called and spoke with Frank. "We should be there in about ten minutes. Talk to you then." Simon was correct, Frank, Jean and Danny had just sat down at the restaurant and ordered dinner.

          She and Simon walked into the restaurant. The front section of the restaurant was nearly filled with only two empty tables. No sight of the FMI team. The waitress said, "Are you two with Frank?"

          "Yes. We are." Simon answered.

          "They're in the back room to your right."

          "Thank you," Janet said. They walked toward the back room. She glanced at the people sitting at each table or booth and didn't see a familiar face. Ever since she joined the FMI team, she became more aware of people in public places, devious people wanting to do harm to her and the FMI agents. When they walked into the other section of the restaurant, Janet saw the FMI team sitting at a table to their far right about fifty feet away. The only other people in the room was a middle-aged man and woman sitting at a booth near the archway between the two rooms.

Frank waved his arm, acknowledging their presence.

          Janet and Simon sat at the table next to each other. The waitress walked up to the table and took their order. After she left, Simon said, "Detective Rhodes, the leading detective, didn't have any leads to the cause of the deaths or who was possibly responsible for their deaths."

          "Like we said on the plane," Frank said, "this is our normal presentation of mysterious, undetermined medical deaths."

          "You're right," Simon said as he poured coffee into Janet's empty coffee cup. He then poured coffee into his cup. "The agenda for tomorrow will be this, Frank and Jean will interview two of the victim's immediate family. Me and Janet will interview two victim's families. Whoever is done first will interview the fifth victim's family. We'll then do the same at the victim's place of employment. Pretty much our normal protocol for investigating mysterious deaths. We need to find a common thread connecting these deaths. As for Danny, I want you to check the victims' social media sites for anything that might connect these victims' deaths."

          After finishing dinner, they all walked back to the hotel. Simon asked everyone if they wanted to go to the hotel lounge for a nightcap before retiring to bed. Everyone declined except Janet. Simon stopped at the front desk to check in and get his room's cardkey. They then walked into the lounge and sat at a table. Simon ordered drinks for them. "This will be your third case with FMI."

          "Hard to believe. Seems like I’ve been doing this for quite a while, not almost two weeks."

          "To be exact, you started working with us twelve days and…, Simon glanced at his watch, "…eleven and a half hours ago. I rounded off the minutes and seconds. And you've been an FMI agent for seven days and about seven hours."

          "You sure seem to keep track of me."

          "Just part of my job Mam…just part of my job."

          Janet laughed along with Simon. She couldn't have asked for a better partner, and one she cared about deeply. Within ten minutes they had finished their drinks.

          Simon took a deep breath. "Would you like to come back to my room?"

          "Yes." Her heart raced, as it seemed to pound against her chest wall. She was anxious to be in the arms of a man she dearly cared for. As they walked down the hallway, her breathing increased as her body ached passionately for Simon's body to be pressing against her.

          Simon took out his cardkey, stopped in front of his hotel room and slid the cardkey into the door lock.

          The TV was on, as were the room lights. Someone was in the room.



 

                                                                     Chapter One

 

"Dr. Randall!"
He pivoted around and saw Nurse Jones, a middle-aged overweight woman, standing in the hallway outside the infirmary. "What's the matter?


"Inmate Armstrong is shaking all over." She paused to catch-her-breath. "He's saying over and over, 'I'm going to die.'"

The small hairs on the back of John's neck stood straight out. He had only examined Armstrong a few minutes ago. What could have gone wrong with him in that short period? John raced into the hallway between the infirmary and the nursing station. He looked to his right through glass panels. Armstrong lay in bed. His entire body shook as if an electrical current pulsated through it. Nurse Rollins stood next to him. He rushed into the six-bed ward and heard Armstrong shouting, "I'm going to die. I'm going to die. I'm going to die..." His unemotional words sounded like someone reading the ingredients off a soup can.

Rollins, a male nurse in his early thirties, removed a thermometer.

"What's his temperature?" John asked, reaching down and placing the back of his hand on top of Armstrong’s left forearm. The skin felt cool and dry.

"Ninety-four degrees."                      

Armstrong kept repeating, "I'm going to die. I'm going to die. I'm going to die…"

"You're not going to die!" John interrupted. "Try to stay calm." Armstrong stopped his chanting. His uncontrollable shaking continued. He turned toward Rollins. "Did you get a blood pressure and pulse?"    

"It was normal. Blood pressure was a hundred and twenty over sixty-eight and a pulse of seventy-two before he started to tremble.


John tried to grab Armstrong's wrist to take a pulse, but his violent shaking made it difficult. He removed a stethoscope from his lab coat, placing it over the left side of Armstrong's chest. The heart gaited at about sixty beats a minute. John removed the stethoscope, flipping it around his neck. "His vital signs are dropping. His skin is cool and dry. There’s uncontrollable shivering. You'd think he just stepped out of a walk-in freezer."

"He hasn't been out of our sight for the past hour and a half," said Jones.

"What's important now is to raise his vital signs. Jones, get the crash cart from the trauma room. Rollins, call EMS."

"What diagnosis do I give them?"

"Possible heart attack." John knew if Armstrong's vital signs continued to drop, a heart attack would occur.

Jones and Rollins ran out of the room.

John turned off the air conditioning to the infirmary. He grabbed blankets off the other beds, placing them over Armstrong's shivering body. He next placed a thermometer on a dry forehead. The temperature read ninety degrees. It dropped four degrees in less than ten minutes.

Armstrong stopped shaking. His body lay still with eyes and mouth closed.

John reached down and shook a cold, lifeless arm. "Armstrong! Open your eyes!"

No response; his eyes remained closed.

A squealing sound of two pieces of metal rubbing together behind him caused him to spin around toward the infirmary door. Nurse Jones rushed toward him with the crash cart. "Put it over here," he said pointing toward the head of Armstrong's bed. "Start on IV and open it all the way."

"Okay," she said slightly out of breath.

John placed a blood pressure cuff around Armstrong’s upper right arm. He squeezed the bulb several times, raising the dial up to two hundred. His fingers opened the valve, deflating the cuff. Armstrong’s pressure had dropped to eighty-four over fifty--much too low for a young robust man. John uncoiled the tubing attached to a nasal cannula from the top of the portable oxygen tank, placing its prongs into Armstrong's nose. He turned the oxygen on to two liters.

He next attached self-adhesive electrodes across Armstrong’s chest wall. A moment later, he turned on the EKG machine.

Beep…Beep…Beep from the EKG machine engulfed the room. John stared at a slow heart rate of thirty-six flashing in the upper right corner of the monitor.

Rollins ran into the infirmary. "Dr. Randall, I called EMS. It’ll take them awhile before they get here."


"Why’s that?"

"All their EMTs and Paramedics are tied-up at a multiple car accident on I-75."

"Damn! What can go wrong next?" He reached into the top drawer of the crash cart, removing a needled-syringe filled with atropine--a drug to increase the heart rate. He pierced the needle through the IV's plastic portal and pushed the drug into the IV line. He looked up at the monitor. A heart rate of 36 continued. "Jones, take his blood pressure. He leaned over and listened for chest sounds with his stethoscope while looking for movement of the chest. Both were present. "No need to intubate, yet."

"Blood pressure is sixty systolic," said Jones.

John picked up the thermometer, placing it onto Armstrong's forehead. A few seconds, he removed it. "Eighty-six degrees. It had dropped another four degrees. Why are the vital signs dropping so fast?"

John injected another vial of atropine into the IV line. "Be the one." The monitor displayed 32, then 34…36…38…." It's working! His heart rate is increasing."

"Great," said Rollins, turning and high-fiving Jones.

John took Armstrong's blood pressure. "Eighty over fifty-four. We did it."

"I'll take his temperature," said Jones, placing the thermometer on Armstrong's forehead. "It's dropped to eighty degrees!"

John rubbed the back of his head. "What the hell is going on?"

A piercing sound screamed from the cardiac monitor. John stared at the monitor. "He's in Ventricular Fibrillation! Rollins, give me the paddles. Turn the defibrillator on two hundred. Jones, start CPR."


A moment later, Rollins handed John the paddles. He reached over Armstrong, placing the paddles on a bare chest. "Stand clear!" Armstrong's body jerked. The monitor still showed V-Fib. "Turn it up to three hundred."

"Ready," said Rollins.

"Stand clear!" Armstrong's body jerked. The monitor continued to show V-Fib.

"Three hundred and fifty."

"Ready.”

"Stand clear!"  Armstrong's body lurched upwards. Again, John saw no change on the monitor.

"Rollins, give me the laryngoscope." In less than thirty seconds, John intubated Armstrong. "Jones, start bagging him. Rollins, take over chest compressions."

Over the next twenty minutes, John injected other cardiac drugs into the IV line.


"Stop CPR." The straight line moved across the monitor.

"Should we continue CPR?" Jones asked.

"No…," John’s shoulders slumped,"…we've done everything we can for him."

Jones removed the endotracheal tube. "What caused his death?"

Sweat dripped off John’s face. His saturated shirt clung to his skin. He slowly moved his tongue over his upper lip then over his lower lip. He stared down at a lifeless body. "Armstrong froze to death."



 

                                                                      Prologue

The students in Ms. Maddox’s eleventh-grade world history class sat at their desks looking down and reading a handout assignment. On the wall to the right of the classroom door hung a wall clock. The wall clock’s large hand sat on eleven and the small hand was on twelve. In two minutes, the school bell would blare its piercing ring, ending the fourth period. One of her students, Allen Murdock, who sat in the front row, peered up at her. His eyebrows raised as far as they could, displaying the upper whites of his eyes; his mouth gaping. Fear stared back at her.

A few seconds later, Murdock’s lips moved up and down, uttering a faint whisper—no one could hear but him. He then gently laid his forehead on the top of his desk.

Ms. Maddox walked over to his desk and tapped his shoulder. “Aren’t you feeling good, Allen?”

He didn’t answer her.

His head flopped to the right, resting the right side of his face on top of the desk. Wide-opened emerald-colored eyes appeared to gaze toward the desk next to him. Drool spilled out from the right side of his mouth. His chest ceased movement. A previously energetic teenager sat lifeless in his chair.

 

                                                                         ~ * ~

 

The noise threshold of the high school cafeteria, filled to near capacity, neared the decibels of a rock concert. How anyone could hear their fellow student sitting across from them at the long rectangular tables seemed impossible. With their iPads playing piercing music—and not Beethoven or other classical orchestrated renditions—these students in the future would more than likely be wearing hearing aids.

“Can you believe it?” said Cindy. “Paul asking Mary to the senior prom and not you. What a jerk. And I thought you and Paul were good friends.”

“I thought we were too,” said Pam, sitting across from Cindy at the crowded high school cafeteria table.

“I’m sure this is for the best. I have a feeling he would’ve ignored you at the prom anyway.”

A lanky, pimple-faced boy walked up to Cindy from behind. “Hi, Cindy.”

She turned and looked up. “Hey, Aaron. What’s going on?”

“Not much.”

Cindy turned back toward Pam, whose head now lay on top of crossed arms. Reaching over the table, she flicked her middle finger on top of Pam’s head. She didn’t flinch. “Come on girl. You can’t be tired. The lunch bell’s going to ring in a few minutes.” She flicked her finger again.

Pam still didn’t move.

She reached across the table, lifting Pam’s head off her arms. Dead eyes stared back at her.

Cindy’s scream silenced the noisy high school cafeteria.


 

                                                                Chapter One

Michael Bennett, a family practice physician, pulled his car in next to his wife’s SUV in the garage of their two-story colonial house at five thirty-five p.m. A few moments later he walked into the kitchen where his wife, Crystal, stood next to the stove. Sitting at the kitchen table were his two teenage children. “Hi, everyone.”

“Hi, Daddy,” said Carla, his thirteen-year-old daughter.

“Hey, Dad,” said Matthew, his fifteen-year-old son.

Michael walked over and kissed Crystal on the lips. “How’s my best girl?”

“I’m good, honey. Please sit down. Supper is almost ready.”

He raised his head and sniffed. “Supper sure smells good.”

The phone rang on the kitchen counter. “Are you on call tonight?” asked Crystal.

“No. John’s on call.” He picked up the phone. “Hello.” Michael listened to the caller at the other end of the line. “Yes, Randy Mitchell is a patient of mine.” He listened to the caller. His shoulders slumped; his face became ashen. “What was the cause of his death?” Michael looked toward Crystal. “Oh, I see. No. He wasn’t taking any medications, nor did he have any medical problems. Thank you for calling me.”

“Who were you talking to?”

“A forensic investigator from the medical examiner’s office. A patient of mine died today.”

“Oh, one of your older patients?”

“No. He was sixteen years old.”

“Did he die in a car accident?” Carla asked.

“No. His mother got home from shopping around three o’clock and found her son sitting in front of his bedroom computer with his head resting on the desk. He was dead.”

“Holy shit!”

“Matthew, don’t swear,” said Crystal.

“Sorry, Mom. But two kids today died at school. One was found in the classroom sitting at his desk with his head resting on his arms. The other one, a girl, was in the cafeteria sitting at a table with friends. They said she was talking with her girlfriend then laid her head down on her arms and died. They both died around noon.”

In the twenty years as a doctor, Michael couldn’t remember three teenagers dying in different settings with a similar presentation: heads peacefully resting on top of their arms or desks. Were they friends who ingested something in a suicide pack? A drug screen and an autopsy would answer his speculation. His sister was a Marion County Sheriff’s detective. She might know something about these deaths, or she might know if the teenagers knew each other. He’d give her a call after supper.

“What do you think these kids could’ve died from?” asked Crystal, taking the meatloaf out from the oven and placing it on the kitchen table onto a large hot pad.

Michael told her what he thought about the teenagers’ deaths. “I’ll call Janet after supper. She may know something.”

During supper, no one further discussed the teenagers’ deaths. One scenario of these deaths crossed Michael’s mind. Some type of virus, bacteria or even a devastating fungal infection could’ve caused these deaths. And were these three deaths the beginning stages of a contagious biological entity? Although, there should’ve been warning signs such as fever, headache, pain, or neurological manifestations. Did any of these teenagers have any of those medical signs before they suddenly died? There was one problem with this scenario: it would’ve been impossible for these victims to die about the same time, including the Mitchell boy, who probably also died near noon today. The teenagers being part of a suicide pack was a more logical scenario to Michael.

After supper, Michael called his sister, Janet, from the bedroom, where there could be privacy from his children. His kids would blab any of the latest information about the deaths of their fellow students to their friends at school. “Hi, Janet. How are you doing?”

“Doing okay. I’m sure you’re calling about all these deaths occurring a couple minutes before noon today. Am I right?”

“Yeah, you’re right. You always get right to the point.” He was eleven months older than Janet. They were close growing up. As the big brother, he had protected her in elementary and middle school, and up to her junior year in high school from any potential bullies. Although, his little sister could handle herself with her cocky attitude of: If you don’t like me or what I think, that’s your problem. “So, are the three teenagers’ deaths related? Like a suicide pack?”

There was momentary silence. “You know I can’t tell you anything over the phone even if I knew the answer. Unless I was authorized by the sheriff’ department’s news media liaison. But there are more deaths than the three teenagers.”

“What are you talking about? More people died today?”

“Don’t you listen to the news? Five others died under mysterious circumstances in Ocala today. They all died around twelve o’clock noon.”

“Was this a mass suicide pack? Like a cult? How could eight people all die around the same time unless it was a premeditated act by all of them?” Michael had no other explanation.

“I can’t say one way or the other.”

“Can you tell me this? Have you been assigned to the investigation? I’m sure this isn’t restrictive information.”

“You are persistent, Big Brother.” She chuckled. “Yes. I’m investigating one of these deaths. The fact is, I’m at the home of the boy who died sitting at his bedroom desk. He was homeschooled. A few minutes ago, the medical examiner left with the deceased. The ME’s investigator told me she’d talked to you earlier on the phone about the boy’s medical status. You told her the boy didn’t have any medical problems or any indications of drug abuse.”

“Yes, I did tell her these facts. I guess I’m now part of your investigation.” His sister couldn’t say too much on the phone about the deaths of the teenagers. They couldn’t be sure who might be listening in on their conversation. This was the twenty-first century, the age of the government’s stealthy listening tactics of speak no evil against the US government or its citizens or non-citizens. There was no assurance of privacy when talking with someone by phone or any other means of communication in the world of electronic surveillance today.

“Sort of. I’d say indirectly and superficially, Big Brother. I gotta get going. Talk to you soon. Bye.”

Crystal walked into the bedroom. “What did your sister have to say about the three teenagers’ deaths?”

“Nothing. Other than she’s the lead detective in one of the investigations, a patient of mine, Randy Mitchell. Janet couldn’t say too much on the phone since she’s in the middle of the investigation at the Mitchells’ house. I can't imagine what Randy’s parents are feeling now.” He reached over, gently grabbed Crystal’s hand and kissed the back of it. “We’d be devastated if it was one of our kids.”

 

                                                                             ~ * 

 

Janet Bennett put her cell phone into a holder on her belt then turned to her partner, Detective Bill Matters, who stood next to Randy Mitchell’s bedroom dresser writing something into a small notebook. “We need to check for any suicide note and anything related to suicide, cults, or anything pertinent to him suddenly dying.”

“You’re right,” Bill said, as he walked over to the desk. “I’ll examine his computer since it’s already on.”

“Good. I’ll look around the room for any evidence pointing to why or how the Mitchell boy died.”

Matters’ five-foot, ten-inch overweight frame sat at the desk chair. “I think I need to go on a diet,” he muttered as he squeezed into the desk chair. His body didn’t have any room to spare. He played halfback for the Tennessee Volunteers’ college football team twenty years ago. Of course, he gained about thirty pounds since the last time he carried the ball through an opening in the offensive frontline.

Janet opened all the dresser drawers, looked under the bed and between the mattress and box springs of the young Mitchell boy’s room for drugs, drug paraphernalia, or a suicide note. Nothing was found. “Did you find anything, Bill?”

“Nope. Not a thing. No mention of how to kill yourself without leaving a trace of evidence or material relating to dying or suicide in the computer search engines’ history files.”

Janet picked up Mitchell’s cell phone lying next to the computer and checked it for recent messages. “The last person he’d talked with was Derrick Olsen at 11:58 this morning. It’s around the time the other teenagers died. This could be the break we’ve been looking for.” Janet called him.

“Hey, man,” said Derrick. “Why did you hang up on me?”

“This is Detective Bennett from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. Are you Derrick Olsen?”

“Yeah. Why are you on Randy’s cell phone?”

Janet couldn’t tell him about his friend. It would be against police procedures when dealing with a minor. “Your friend Randy can’t come to the phone. Did you talk with him this morning?”

“Yeah, detective. It was around noon. We were talking, then he suddenly stopped talking. I thought maybe his mom was coming, so he hung up on me. Is he all right? Did he get into trouble?”

“I can’t discuss this with you. Can you tell me if he said anything unusual before he stopped talking with you?”

“No.” A short pause, “He did whisper something. But I couldn’t make out what he said. Then the phone went dead.”

“Thank you, young man.” Janet then put the cell phone in an evidence bag. She told Bill what the victim’s friend had said.

“We’ll have Randy Mitchell’s computer analyzed for any hidden and relevant information by our computer forensic department. Also, his cell phone.” Bill turned off the desktop computer.

They left the bedroom, talked with the parents briefly and walked to their car parked in the street. The Crime Scene Investigation team was finishing up, gathering possible pertinent evidence, including Randy Mitchell’s computer and cell phone.

Janet pulled out of the Mitchell’s driveway. “I don’t ever remember deaths like these before,” said Detective Matters.

“Because there’s never been eight deaths occurring in the same manner, at different crime scenes, and happening around the same time.”

Janet parked their unmarked car in the designated area of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office Major Crime Unit. She’d been a detective for twelve years, the last five years with the Major Crime Unit. In all her years in law enforcement she’d never encountered so many unexplained deaths at once. Her brother might be right about a mass suicide. The toxicology report on all these victims would answer the question of suicide. If the deaths pointed toward self-induced then the next logical step in this investigation would lead to the organization or group initiating these deaths.

Janet and Bill walked into their office, a large room accommodating eight desks with space to spare, including a large coffee maker in the corner of the room. All the detectives of the major crime unit occupied the room. They chatted on a serious tone with one another. Their faces were solemn, not displaying any signs of jovialness. Most mornings and afternoons, at least one or two detectives joked around with one another.

She talked with the other detectives about their investigations on the deaths of their victims. Eight victims had mysteriously died. Ages ranging from fifteen to seventy-five. One had died in her car while stopped at a stop sign; three were at work; three died at home; and two died at school. There weren’t any signs of trauma on any of the bodies. This was all the information the detectives had on their deaths so far.

Their boss, Captain Robins, walked into the room with two men in their thirties. The two strangers wore identical dark-grey suits. Janet didn’t recognize them but assumed they were federal law enforcement, likely FBI by the stoic stature and attire. Robins gestured for them to come over.

 “Detective Bennett and Matters,” said the captain, “these are Special Agents Williams and Carpenter from the FBI.”

Janet’s assumption of whom the two unidentified men represented was right on. She had the innate ability to quickly assess a situation or person and come up with an accurate observation a good percentage of the time. They wouldn’t be involved unless federal law was broken by these deaths. She nodded to each of them. “I assume some federal law statute was broken due to eight people dying at two minutes to noon today?”

“Yes. Correct,” Carpenter answered. “One of the victims was in the witness protection program. And he was going to testify against a major drug dealer in New York next month.”

Janet’s legs felt rubbery as an arctic blast of frigid air seemed to wrap around her spine. The face of the dead fifteen-year-old sitting at his bedroom desk flashed across her mind. “Why kill seven innocent people in order to kill a person in hiding from an organized crime syndicate? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Or it was a coincidence the informant was included in these mysterious deaths?”

“It may be a coincidence, detective.” Agent Williams answered. “Or it may be a monstrous act by criminals or a psychopath. Either one doesn’t have any empathy toward human life.”

“Whatever the reason for these deaths, a criminal element was involved by all indications.”

Both the agents nodded.

“But what’s more intriguing with these deaths…what could’ve caused these people to die around the same moment in time?” Janet asked.

“Just as you and your detectives, we don’t have an answer yet either.”

Janet glanced away. She visualized an electronic timer of some kind inside the victims’ bodies switched to the off position at 11:58 this morning.