When the lead that could save her law practice is destroyed in a suspicious fire, only her recollection of it remains. Tess can relive memories, but her gift comes at a cost. The last time she used it, she nearly died.
This time, she only takes a peek. A single moment spent in her memory of the defendant’s encoded document gives her a brutal migraine and a phone number.
Luke Broussard answers her call from the wreckage of his downed plane. His charter passenger is dead. And a mutated virus seeps from the man’s broken cargo, making Luke an unknowing carrier. When rescuers take Luke to an Atlanta hospital, the virus comes with him.
Tess follows her lead to Luke’s bedside, where she finds an instant connection. As they try to outrun a psychopath who’ll stop at nothing to retrieve the document, the city falls apart around them. The code hidden in Tess’s mind may be the only thing that can keep the outbreak contained, but using her gift to decipher it could kill her. If the virus — or whoever engineered it — doesn’t get to her first.
“Filled with compelling characters fighting not only for their lives, but humanity itself, you won’t be able to put it down.”
~ Jeffrey Jay Levin, author of Watching, Volume 1, The Garden Museum Heist
September 13, 2018
The girl on the video monitor stared up at the ceiling as blood trickled from her eyes and nose. Her only movement an occasional spasm of coughing.
Nothing unexpected, given the progression of the disease.
Dr. Edmund Haley shut off the overhead fluorescent lights and let himself adjust to the dim glow of the screens lining the back wall of the office. Only the girl’s monitor still played a live feed, but it lit the room well enough.
And, either way, darkness suited him fine.
He’d spent so much time stuck in this tiny godforsaken place, he could’ve found the desk and computer with his eyes closed. Haley dropped into a chair and adjusted his glasses, trying to ignore the sharp tang of antimicrobial soap that clung to his hands. It smelled like life in the hospital. Like the servitude of medical practice.
He hated it as much now as he had before he’d lost his license. But at least this time, he’d be well paid for his efforts. And soon, it would be over. He refocused on the girl’s image. The only question was when.
Light sliced into the room behind him as Margaret bumbled inside. He made no move to acknowledge the nurse, even as she pulled up a chair beside his. As idiotic as she otherwise seemed to be, she’d know by now not to bother him. He shifted his attention from the video monitor to the computer, where he pulled up the patient’s chart.
Patient: Octavia MILLS, 18 yo, Af-Am, F, #4
Vitals: 5’5”, 110 lb.
updated (9-10) 108.8 lb.
updated (9-11) 106 lb.
updated (9-12) 104.1 lb.
Provider Notes: Click to open
He scrolled to the section for his notes and, after a click of the mouse, entered the details of that day’s exam. “9-13-18; Liver and kidney function both continue to decline. Discrete purpuric patches expanding from face and trunk now merging. BSA involvement approximately 80%. Note third spacing.”
The third spacing, a condition where the skin separated from the tissue beneath and filled with blood, was something new. Margaret’s report of it had been the primary reason he’d put himself through the nightmare of protective gear and protocol it’d taken to do a physical exam himself. He wasn’t going to let it be said that he hadn’t been thorough.
Haley glanced back up at the monitor in time to see a bubble of blood form between Octavia’s lips. The thing grew with each shallow breath. When it reached the size of a small orange, it burst, splattering more droplets of blood onto her face and neck.
Octavia made no move to wipe them away. He’d given her enough morphine. She would be long past caring. And, more importantly, the extra dosage meant she’d finally quit staring out at him with that awful, confused look on her face.
He didn’t care. Not really. Except that it had been distracting, and he needed to focus. Needed to understand why was she still alive. What had he missed? Perhaps another round of blood work would—
The blare of an alarm sounded over the video feed and, more faintly, from the hall. Three more followed.
Octavia’s body spasmed, convulsing again and again as she vomited up a grainy black-red mix of blood and tissue. The progression was as repulsive as it was now familiar. The vomit mixed with the brighter red flowing from her eyes and nose as the virus moved into its final stage. Blood, still unable to clot, flowed until it covered her face and chest. Until the bedsheets were saturated and no longer white.
Octavia’s muscles tensed, seizing all at once before releasing. Her body too gruesome to look peaceful, even as she finally came to rest.
Neither he nor Margaret moved from their chairs.
The alarms echoed unanswered down the empty hall. Haley clicked off the monitor and most of the noise with it. “That’s better.”
God knew it had taken long enough. He turned back to the computer, closed Octavia’s chart, and opened another document saved to the desktop as “Subject Outcomes.” He scrolled down, missing Octavia’s name the first time, then tapped the cursor back up until he found it. She’d been number four of twenty-five subjects, and hers was the last empty field in the column marked TPOI for Total Period of Infection. From the time she had been exposed, it had taken four days for the disease to take its course. At least a full day longer than any other subject.
“About fucking time.” He spoke under his breath as he typed the final entry in with one finger. He still didn’t know why the girl had survived so long, but it was no matter. By any measure, his work there had been an overwhelming success. Haley pulled off his glasses and tapped them against Margaret’s shoulder. “Get me a copy of the subject files, including all of the relevant video footage.”
Margaret flinched away from him. “Yes, doctor.” She pulled a thumb drive from a desk drawer and plugged it into the video system. The system — which had been his idea — had not only allowed them to observe the patients from a safe distance but also recorded the progress of the disease in each subject.
Having such an accurate, time-stamped record of their experiments would be invaluable to his employer. As he had been. Haley cleaned the lenses of his glasses with the edge of his lab coat. Knowing what was coming, it didn’t hurt to have insurance. Which was why he had contingency plans stashed in safe deposit boxes across the city. It was a point he would be sure to make when he and his employer spoke.
No matter what, he wouldn’t end up like the others.
He pointed to Margaret as she collected the files. “Once you’re done, wipe the system clean.”
She looked at him, her eyes a question. What happens now?
He didn’t bother responding. Some part of her had to know already.
The kind of people who would hire her to do what she’d done weren’t the type to assume money would be enough to keep her quiet. She was a loose end who — unlike him — had no continuing value. Not that what happened to her mattered. And if she hadn’t been smart enough to see that going in… Well, she’d as much as made her bed, hadn’t she?
He put a layer of steel in his voice. “Do it.”
Margaret’s gaze flicked away. She pressed a few buttons on the keyboard and waited for the computer to comply, removed the thumb drive, and dropped it into his waiting hand.
He turned the small device over in his palm. Amazing that so many lives could be held in such a small device. But then, these lives weren’t the kind anyone cared about. Nobodies and throw-aways. The kind of people who would volunteer for a drug trial for pennies and not be missed when they didn’t come back. He’d done the world a service, really.
Haley slipped the thumb drive into a padded envelope, scrawled the address he had memorized at the outset of the project on the front, checked twice to make sure he’d stuck on enough postage, then slid the envelope into his briefcase.
“Take care of that, won’t you?” He tilted his head toward the hallway leading to the patient rooms, where the girl’s body lay waiting.
Margaret didn’t look up from the computer. “Of course, sir. Same as with the others.”
Haley tucked the briefcase under his arm, whistling as he left the facility for the last time. With his part done, the rest could finally could begin.
Excerpt from The Carolina Variant by Brooke L. French. Copyright 2023 by Brooke L. French. Reproduced with permission from Brooke L. French. All rights reserved.