Chapter 69 of Silent Vector

Chapter 69, in which team Temple debriefs the recent battle and preps for more

CHAPTER 69

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

Nick and Dalila, both wet from wading in, stand with Raoul just beyond the water’s edge. The Chris-Craft is anchored ten meters out in waist-deep water. Kyle and Pete wait near the tree line.

“Make sure he gets home, Raoul.”

“I’ll wire the unit from Government House. They’ll contact his wife.”

“Do you know her?”

“Since he joined the force. She’s pregnant. It’s going to hit her hard.”

“I’ll call Langley. They’ll take care of her.”

“Thanks, Nick. I should go.”

“Take the boat back to Red Hook. Find a slip and pay for a month in advance. We’ll figure out what to do with it now that it belongs to Uncle Sam. Radio Government House before you get in so the coroner’s waiting. Tell them no press. Nothing public.”

“Of course.”

“Jesus. It’s an awful business we’re in.”

“He knew the risks.”

Nick and Raoul shake hands. Dalila gives Raoul a hug before he wades out into the warm Atlantic towards the anchored boat carrying his dead friend. He climbs the aft swim ladder, heads to the helm without looking down at Cristobal’s covered body, and starts the boat’s twin engines. He eases the boat over the anchor, walks forward to pull it from the sandy bottom, and returns to the wheel. He points the bow towards the bay’s entrance, opens the throttles, and speeds away.

Nick and Dalila shield their eyes against the morning sun as they watch Raoul motor out of sight.

“We’ve got work to do.”

With that they turn and head to Kyle, Pete, and the lab of the late Professor Schnelling.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

“A trip wire. No surprise.”

Nick squats down to inspect the wire strung across the barely visible entrance to the lab. He follows the wire to a camouflaged detonator stuck into a package of C4 one foot above the ground. Anyone making contact with the wire would have both of his legs blown off from the knees down. Nick pulls the small detonator from the plastic explosive disarming the trap.

“I’m guessing there are more of these, so let’s be alert. We don’t need any more casualties.”

Nick enters the building that contains Schnelling’s living quarters and lab/production facility. Dalila and Pete are right behind him. All three, if asked, would have to admit they are impressed by their deceased adversary’s ability to construct and hide for more than two years such a sophisticated, self-contained, and relatively extensive operation. It wasn’t until they were practically on top of it that they recognized it for what it was. Its construction takes full advantage of the sugar plantation ruins and the surrounding vegetation to be undetectable from the air and nearly so from the ground. Their begrudging admiration quickly gives way to the task at hand.

“What exactly are we looking for?” Dalila asks.

“Pete, I want you to see what you can figure out about the science Schnelling was employing. Is there a cure? An antidote? Someway to neutralize the effects of the strain after exposure? Whatever you can determine about what he was doing that might help us defend against it both before and after release. Kyle’s on the radio asking for help intercepting the boat, but we’ve already been told all assets operating in this theater are committed to the crisis in Cuba. We’re probably still on our own.”

“What about me?”

“You and I are going to look for a transmission log, a code book, instructions, drawings, maps, anything that might point us to where that container’s going. Is it heading for one target? More than one target? What’s the plan for dispersal? Airborne? Water system? Look for schematics, sequenced letters, lists of numbers that might give us a clue as to encryption. We don’t have much time. That crate is on its way to the States, and we don’t even know where they expect to make landfall.”

Pete Hall wanders into Schnelling’s lab. His first impression is that this is the workspace of a careful and meticulous professional. The area is small, free of clutter, well-organized, and efficiently laid out. This guy just happened to be a sick bastard to boot.

A long, sturdy, wooden table occupies the center of the room. On the table is a complex series of interconnected glass tubing and flow cocks through which a clear liquid from a large, air-tight, glass jar, suspended from the ceiling is being introduced. That liquid is augmented by the addition of other liquids from marked beakers sitting on stands over small gas burners at various points along the tubing, like tributaries feeding a larger stream. The beakers have black rubber stoppers with more glass tubing running from the bottom of each beaker through the stoppers and eventually connecting to the main section of the glass array.

“The production line,” Pete thinks to himself.

Glass cabinets along the far wall contain two rows of clearly marked beakers with black rubber stoppers. Pete’s experience tells him that each beaker contains an experimental sample. Another row contains active petri dishes each with spores in various stages of growth. They too are marked in grease pencil with a code that appears to connect them either to the rows of beakers in the cabinets or the beakers feeding the complex of glass tubing. The remaining cabinet space is taken up with microscopes, scales, burners, racks of test tubes, and just about any other piece of equipment a well-stocked lab might need.

A tall green tank of pressurized oxygen sits in the lab’s far corner. The gauge on top of the tank’s butterfly valve indicates it’s less than half full. A clamped hose runs from the valve to a manifold near the end of the wooden table that can accommodate two canisters at a time. The manifold is designed to inject the liquid under production and then pressurized oxygen into the canisters. Clearly Schnelling contemplated pressurizing containers for the dispersal of his formula.

In addition to the two canisters at the manifold, three more sit near the lab’s entrance. Pete inspects the gauges on those three tanks and satisfies himself that they are full and pressurized. The thought of what is in those tanks fascinates him professionally, and terrifies him personally.

Along the wall opposite the glass cabinets is a workbench with a number of bound volumes on a metallic shelf over the bench. These volumes become the focus of Pete Hall’s attention as Nick and Dalila rummage through the rest of the premises. He sits on the high metal stool at the workbench and begins to go through the books.

“Beats firing pistols and throwing grenades,” Pete thinks to himself.    

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Nick and Dalila have just located Schnelling’s code book and log at the desk of his small living quarters when Pete Hall comes bursting in.

“It’s all here, Nick, and it’s all in the clear. Nothing’s encrypted.”

Pete Hall holds a thick, leather-bound volume he pulled from above the workbench.

“What have you got?”

“Production schedules – a total of six two-liter cylinders; delivery system – airborne dispersal; formula stability – it starts to deteriorate after a little under five days; and the final formula itself, including formulas for all unsuccessful attempts. And a lot more. Everything in fact. It’s all here. It’s in German, but I can read it. Part of the Ph.D. requirement.”

“How many canisters are still in the lab?”

“Five.”

“So the crate we saw being transferred to the boat is the only one that made it out of the lab?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“That helps. Big time. We know we’re just chasing the one. We find it, and that’s the end of it.”

“I didn’t see anything in the lab about post-production activity. His journals are all about the science.”

Nick shows him the code book he and Dalila found.

“That’s probably in here. But it’s not a code I’m familiar with. Christ, we don’t have time to pore over this thing. We’ve got to break it and fast. We’re playing catch up as it is.”

Kyle joins them in the small quarters and reports in.

“St. Thomas Department of Public Safety is coming by for Schnelling. Hope they get him before the crabs do. Or not.”

“Good. Any maritime help from our stateside friends?”

“Nada. All assets are dedicated. No change in the status quo.”

“It was a long shot. Okay, Kyle, secure the lab. Disarm any additional booby traps you find. You might have to spend a couple of days here. It can’t be helped. We can’t leave this lab unguarded. Pete, you stay here and keep working. We need to come up with a safe plan for destroying Schnelling’s work, and Langley’s going to want those journals.”

“You sure we shouldn’t destroy those too?”

Pete’s question is a good one, but Nick knows that the Company and Defense will be keenly interested in any weapons technology no matter how appalling its genesis or terrifying its effects. 

“I’m sure we should destroy them, but that’s not my call.”

“Understood.”

“Dalila and I’ll take the car over to Government House right now. She’ll bring the car back here after dropping me off. I’ll see if I can’t raise Ted Durant or someone at NSA. The way I see it, we’ve probably got less than 24 hours to crack this code. It’s our only chance. We know we’re not going to get any help from the big boys on stopping that boat, if the canister’s even still on board. The code’s our only chance. I’ve got to make a call to Langley, too. Make sure Cristobal’s family gets paid the debt our country owes them.”

As Nick turns to leave he notices the three small open windows and looks out one of them.

“I bet the windows caught a bit of sun when he opened them this morning. It’s a nice piece of luck that Cristobal was looking this way when Professor Nazi opened shop. Damn, that’s a tough one to lose.”

Nick and Dalila leave the building and walk to the parked Rambler. Pete and Kyle go back to the lab. The four of them know they are the only chance countless Americans have of escaping the cruelty of a sudden, crippling, and even fatal disease, the only chance those same Americans have of not becoming the latest victims in the clandestine struggles of the Cold War.