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Whiteout

Christmas Eve, 1 a.m.

Antonia Gallo was unpopular. She sat in the personnel department of Oxenford Medical with two men who wanted to go home. After eight hours, they hated her. She did not care.

She had organised a spot check of dangerous laboratory materials and found two irregularities that scared her. A canister that should have been full of a deadly virus, aerosolized Madoba-2, was empty. And two doses of an experimental drug were missing.

There might have been an innocent explanation, but she had not yet heard it.

Antonia, always called Toni, was facilities director, and her main responsibility was security. Oxenford Medical was a small pharmaceuticals outfit – a boutique company, in stock market jargon – that did research on viruses that could kill. Security was deadly serious.

The laboratories were located in a vast nineteenth-century house built as a Scottish holiday home for a Victorian millionaire and his family. It was nicknamed the Kremlin, because of the double row of fencing, the razor wire, the uniformed guards, and the state-of-the-art electronic security. But it looked more like a church, with pointed arches and a tower and rows of gargoyles along the roof.

The personnel office had been one of the grander bedrooms. It still had Gothic windows and linenfold panelling, but now there were filing cabinets instead of wardrobes, and desks with computers and phones where once there had been dressing tables crowded with perfume sprays and silver-backed brushes.

Toni and her two colleagues were working the phones, calling everyone who had passes to the top-security laboratory. There were four biosafety levels, named BSL1 to BSL4. At the highest level, BSL4, the scientists worked in space suits, handling viruses for which there was no vaccine or antidote. Not everyone was allowed into BSL4. Biohazard training was compulsory, even for the maintenance men who went in to service air filters and repair autoclaves. Toni herself had done the training, so that she could enter the lab to check on security.

Only twenty-seven of the company’s eighty staff had access. However, many had already departed for the Christmas vacation, and Monday had turned into Tuesday while the three people responsible doggedly tried to track them all down.

Toni got through to a resort in Barbados called Le Club Beach and, after much insistence, persuaded the assistant manage to go looking for a young laboratory technician called Jenny Crawford.

While she waited, she studied her reflection in the window. She was holding up well, considering the late hour. Her chocolate-brown chalk-stripe trouser suit still looked businesslike, her thick hair was reasonably tidy, her face did not betray tiredness. Her father had been Spanish, but she had her Scottish mother’s colouring, red-blonde hair and green eyes. She was tall and looked fit.

“It must be the middle of the night back there!” Jenny said when at last she came to the phone.

“We’ve discovered discrepancies in the hazardous materials log”, Toni explained.

Jenny was a little drunk. “That’s happened before”, she said carelessly. “But no one’s ever made a fuss about it.”

“That’s because I wasn’t working here”, Toni replied crisply. “When was the last time you entered BSL4?”

“Tuesday, I think. Won’t the computer tell you that?”

It would, but Toni was checking whether Jenny’s story matched the computer record. “And when was the last time you accessed the locked freezer?”

“I really don’t remember, but it will be in the log book.” Jenny’s tone was becoming surly.

“The reason I’m calling you is that the log book is wrong. Do you recall the last time you used aerosolised Madoba-2?”

“Bloody hell, is that what’s gone missing?”

“We can’t be sure. Do you recall –”

“I don’t think I’ve ever used it. I mostly work in the tissue culture lab.”

That agreed with the information Toni had. “Have you noticed any of your colleagues behaving in a way that was strange, or out of character, in the last few weeks?”

“This is like the sodding Gestapo”, Jenny said.

“Be that as it may, have you –”

“No, I have not.”

“Just one more question. Is your temperature normal?”

“Fuck me, are you saying I might have the virus?”

“Have you got a cold or a fever?”

“No!”

“Then you’re all right. It’s almost a week since you were in BSL4 – by now you would have flu-like symptoms if anything was wrong. Thank you, Jenny. It’s probably just an error in the log book, but we have to make sure.”

“Well, you’ve spoiled my night.” Jenny hung up.

“Shame”, Toni said to the dead phone. She cradled the receiver and said: “Jenny Crawford checks out. A cow, but straight.”

The laboratory director was Howard McAlpine. His bushy grey beard grew high on his cheekbones, so that the pink skin around his eyes looked like a mask. He said: “The overwhelming likelihood is that the material unaccounted for was used perfectly legitimately by someone who simply forgot to make the entries in the log.” His tone of voice was testy: he had already said this twice before.

“I hope you’re right”, Toni said. She got up and went to the window. The personnel office overlooked the BSL4 laboratory. At first glance, the extension building seemed similar to the rest of the Kremlin, with barley-sugar chimneys and a clock tower; then, on closer examination, its arched windows were revealed to be blank, its oak doors lacking handles, its gargoyles concealing closed-circuit television cameras. It was a concrete blockhouse in Victorian disguise. The new building was on three levels. The labs were on the ground floor. As well as research space and storage, there was an intensive-care medical isolation facility for anyone who became infected with a dangerous virus. It had never been used. On the floor above was the air handling equipment. Below, elaborate machinery sterilized all waste coming from the building. Nothing left alive, except human beings.

“We’ve learned a lot from this exercise”, Toni said defensively. She was in delicate position. The two men were senior to her, both in rank and in age – they were both in their fifties, she was just forty. She had no right to give them orders, yet she had insisted they treat the discrepancies as an emergency. “We now know that we have to keep a list of live phone numbers for everyone who has access to BSL4, so that we can easily contact them even if they’re at home or on holiday. And we need to audit the hazardous materials log more frequently than once a year.”

McAlpine grunted non-committally. He knew she was right, but he was in too bad a temper to admit it.

Toni turned to the director of human resources. “How far down your list are we?”

James Elliot dressed like a stockbroker, in a pinstriped suit and a spotted tie, as if to distinguish himself from the tweedy scientists. “We’ve spoken to all but one of the twenty-seven staff that have access to BSL4”, he said wearily. “All of them told the truth about when they had last entered the lab and opened the hazardous materials safe. None has noticed any colleagues behaving strangely. And no one has a fever.”

“Who’s the missing one?”

“Michael Ross, lab technician.”

McAlpine said: “He’s worked here for eight years without a blemish on his record. He last entered the lab three Sundays ago, for a routine check on the animals.”

“What’s he been doing since?”

“Vacation”, he said.

“For how long – three weeks?”

Elliot put in: “He was due back today.” He looked at his watch. “Yesterday, I should say. Monday morning. But he didn’t show up.”

“Did he call in sick?”

“No.”

Toni raised her eyebrows. “And we can’t reach him?”

“No answer from his home phone or his mobile.”

“Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“That a single young man extends his vacation without telling his employer? About as odd as rain in Glen Coe.”

Toni turned back to McAlpine. “But you said Michael had no blemish on his record.”

The lab director looked worried. “It’s true that he’s normally a conscientious chap.”

There was a two-person rule in BSL4: because of the danger, no one could work in there alone. Toni said: “Who was in the lab with Michael?”

McAlpine consulted a list. “Dr Ansari, a biochemist.”

Toni picked up the phone. “Give me the number.”

Dr Ansari spoke with an Edinburgh accent and sounded as if she had been fast asleep. “You called me earlier, you know.”

“I’m sorry to trouble you again.”

“It’s all right. Has something happened?”

“It’s about Michael Ross. We can’t track him down. I believe you were in the lab with him two weeks ago last Sunday.”

“Yes. Just a minute, let me put the light on.” There was a pause. “God, is that the time?”

Toni pressed on. “Michael went on holiday the next day.”

“He told me he was going to see his mother in Devon.”

“Ah – that’s helpful. Just hold on.” Toni repeated the information to James Elliot.

Elliot said: “The mother is listed as his next of kin. I’ll call the number.” He picked up a phone.

Toni spoke to Dr Ansari again. “Did Michael seem his normal self that afternoon?”

“Totally.”

“Did you enter BSL4 together?”

“Yes. Then we went to separate changing rooms, of course.”

“When you entered the laboratory itself, was he already there?”

“Yes. He changed quicker than I did.”

“Did you work alongside him?”

“No. I was in a side lab, dealing with tissue cultures. He was checking on the animals.”

“Did you leave together?”

“He went a few minutes before I did.”

“It sounds to me as if he could have accessed the hazardous materials freezer without your knowing about it.”

“Easily.”

“What kind of person is he?”

“He’s all right… inoffensive would be a good word.”

“Attractive?”

“You mean sexy? No.”

“Anything odd about him?”

“No.”

Toni sensed a hesitation, and remained silent, giving the other woman time. Beside her, James Elliot was speaking to someone, asking for Michael Ross or his mother.

After a moment, Dr Ansari said: “I mean, the fact that someone lives alone doesn’t make them a nutcase, does it?”

“No,” Toni said.

Beside her, James Elliot was saying into the phone: “How very strange. I’m sorry to have troubled you so late at night.”

Toni had got all she could out of Dr Ansari, and her curiosity was pricked by what she could hear of Elliot’s conversation. She ended her call to the biochemist, saying: “Thanks again, Dr Ansari. I hope you get back to sleep all right.”

“My husband’s a family doctor,” she said. “We’re used to phone calls in the middle of the night.”

“I appreciate your patience.” Toni hung up. “Michael Ross had plenty of time to open the safe unobserved,” she said. “And he lives alone.” She looked at Elliot. “Did you reach his mother’s house?”

“It’s an old folks’ home,” Elliot said. He looked frightened. “And Mrs Ross died last winter.”

“Oh, shit,” said Toni.

****

Powerful security lights lit up the towers and gables of the Kremlin. The temperature was five degrees below zero, but the sky was clear and there was no snow. The building faced a Victorian garden, with mature trees and luxuriant shrubbery. A three-quarter moon shed a grey light on naked nymphs sporting in dry fountains while stone dragons stood guard.

The silence of the night was broken by the roar of engines as two vans, each marked with the yellow international biohazard symbol, drove out of the garage, passed through the guarded gate, and headed south, going dangerously fast. Toni Gallo was at the wheel of the lead vehicle, driving as if it were her Porsche, using the full width of the road, racing the engine, powering through bends. She was afraid she was too late.

Michael Ross lived in an isolated cottage seventeen miles away.

Toni was wearing a light blue biohazard suit fitted with a HEPA filter which would keep out bacteria and viruses. In the van with her were three men trained to cleanse contaminated areas. The ambulance behind was a mobile isolation unit with a paramedic at the wheel and a medical doctor, Ruth Solomons, beside him. They could all talk to one another via headsets built into the helmets of the suits.

Toni wondered if she had done the right thing. She had activated a red alert on the basis of nothing but suspicion. An employee was absent without leave, he had lied about where he was going, and supplies from his lab had gone missing. It might be nothing at all. But her instinct told her otherwise.

Dr Ansari had said: “The fact that someone lives alone doesn’t make them a nutcase, does it?” It was one of those statements that meant the opposite of what it said. The biochemist had sensed something odd about Michael but, as a rational scientist, she hesitated to place any weight on her intuition.

Toni believed that intuition should never be ignored.

Nevertheless, she knew she might find Michael Ross safely asleep in his bed with his phone turned off, and she wondered what she would then say to her boss, Stanley Oxenford, in the morning.

She had been a police officer all her working life until two years ago. For most of her career she had been a golden girl – promoted rapidly, shown off to the media as the new style of modern cop, and tipped to be Scotland’s first woman chief constable. Then she had clashed with her boss over a hot-button issue, racism in the force. He had said that police racism was not institutionalized. She said that officers routinely concealed racist incidents, and that amounted to institutionalization. The row had been leaked to a newspaper, she had refused to deny what she believed, and she had been forced to resign. Bada boom.

At the time she had been living with Frank Hackett, another police detective. They had been together eight years, although they had never married. But when she fell out of favour, he left her. It still hurt when she thought about it.

The road was deserted and it took only a few minutes to get to Michael Ross’s home. The entrance was not clearly marked and Toni, in her haste, almost drove past it; but the man beside her had been here before and pointed it out.

The short drive led to a low stone cottage with a Volkswagen Golf parked outside.

Toni stopped the van and jumped out. “I’ll go first,” she said. On her own, she would be less frightening. An innocent person who woke up in the middle of the night and opened the door to five people in biohazard suits might suffer a nasty shock.

The place was in darkness. She walked up to the front door and banged the knocker. “Hello?” she called out. “Is anyone there?” She tried to speak loudly and sound reassuring at the same time. “It’s Toni Gallo, from the laboratory.” When she stopped speaking, there was complete silence.

If he had gone away, why was his car here?

She went around the cottage to the back. She could see into the kitchen by moonlight. She found the door unlocked and stepped inside. Still calling out, she walked quickly through the house, turning on lights. It was clean, tidy, and empty. There was not even a cat.

She spoke to the others over the headset. “No one home.”

When she returned to the garden, she noticed a small tool shed.

The door was unlocked.

When she opened it she immediately noticed a strange smell, strong and unpleasant, but not unfamiliar. What was it? Blood, she thought. The shed smelled like a slaughterhouse. “Oh, my god,” she said.

Ruth Solomons heard her over the headset and said: “What is it?”

“Just a minute.”

The inside was black: there were no windows. She fumbled in the dark and found a light switch. When the light came on, she cried out in shock.

The others all spoke at once, asking what was wrong. “Come quickly,” she said. “Ruth first.”

Michael Ross lay on the floor, face up. He was bleeding from every orifice: eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Blood pooled around him on the plank floor. Toni did not need Dr Solomons to tell her that Michael was suffering from a massive multiple haemorrhage – a classic symptom of Madoba-2 and similar infections. He was very dangerous, his body an unexploded bomb full of the deadly virus. But he was breathing: his chest went up and down, and a weak bubbling sound came from his mouth. She bent down, kneeling in the sticky puddle of fresh blood, and looked closely at him. “Michael!” she said urgently. “It’s Toni Gallo from the lab.”

There was a flicker of intelligence in his red eyes. He opened his mouth and mumbled something.

“What?” she said. She leaned closer.

“No cure,” he said. Then he vomited. A jet of black fluid exploded from his mouth, splashing all over the faceplate of Toni’s suit. She jerked back and cried out in alarm, even though she knew she was protected from infection.

She felt herself pushed aside. She wiped her faceplate with her sleeve and saw Ruth Solomons bending over Michael.

“The pulse is very weak,” the doctor said over the headset. She opened Michael’s mouth and used her gloved fingers to clear some of the blood and vomit from his throat. “I need a laryngoscope – fast!” A few seconds later, the paramedic rushed in with the implement. Ruth pushed it into Michael’s mouth, clearing his throat so that he could breathe more easily. “Bring the isolation stretcher, quick as you can.” She opened her medical case and took out a syringe already loaded with an injection. She pushed the needle into Michael’s neck and depressed the plunger. When she pulled the syringe out, Michael bled copiously from the small hole.

Two men arrived with the isolation stretcher, a gurney covered with a clear plastic tent. Toni and the doctor stepped outside to make room while the men lifted Michael on to the stretcher and sealed the tent over him. They wheeled him across the small patch of garden and through the gate to the ambulance. Ruth jumped into the back with the stretcher, and the paramedic got behind the wheel. The other man slammed the doors, and the vehicle raced away into the night.

Toni said: “Let me know what happens, Ruth. You can phone me on this headset.”

Ruth’s voice was already weakened by the distance. “He’s gone into a coma,” she said. She added something else, but she was out of range, and her words became indistinguishable, then faded away altogether.

Toni sighed. There was nothing more she could do for Michael. Perhaps no one could do anything for Michael.

“Let’s clean up,” she said.

One of the men took a roll of blue tape that read: “Biohazard – Do not cross line” and began to run it around the entire property – house and shed and garden. The others fetched spray cans of disinfectant, boxes of cloths, and garbage bags. Everything that would burn would go into the furnace underneath the BSL4 lab at the Fort. Hard objects and precious possessions would be autoclaved and returned. Every surface had to be sprayed with a powerful disinfectant that would destroy the virus by coagulating the protein capsule containing its lethal DNA. They would do the shed first, Toni decided, then the cottage, then Michael’s car.

Toni got one of the men to help her wipe Michael’s black vomit off her suit and spray her. She had to repress an urge to tear the contaminated suit off her body. The man who had helped lift Michael discarded his outer gloves and put on a fresh pair.

Toni looked around the shed, wondering why this had happened. For the first time, she noticed a dead rabbit. It was lying in an improvised biosafety cabinet. The rabbit must be a laboratory animal that had the infection. But why was it here? There was a water bowl marked “Joe”. Toni began to understand.

While the men were cleaning up, Toni searched the place. She was interested in whether Michael had collaborators. She picked up an appointments diary, an address book, and a file of letters. She learned that Michael had belonged to an animal-rights group called Animals Are Free. In the front room of the cottage was his computer. She sat at his desk and read his emails. He had bought books on moral philosophy and politics from Amazon. She was checking sites he had visited on the Internet when she heard a car outside. She looked out of the window.

It was the police.

That was quick, she thought. The security guards at the Fort had advised regional police headquarters at Harbourmouth of her red alert, as part of the Critical Incident Response Plan that she herself had devised. So she knew they would show up sooner or later. But their help had not been requested, and she had hoped to finish the clean-up before anyone without biohazard training came near the site.

Two uniformed police, a man and a woman, were getting out of a patrol car with bright yellow markings. She did not recognise them. Both were young. She knew most local police officers of her own age, and some of the older ones remembered her late father, Sergeant Antonio Gallo, inevitably nicknamed Spanish Tony.

As she watched, another car drew up, a plain grey Volvo saloon, and a man in civilian clothes got out of the passenger seat. When he turned his face to the moonlight, Toni saw that it was her ex. Her heart sank. She hated seeing Frank. Although he was the one who had left, he always acted as if he were the injured party.

Worse, Frank’s best friend was Carl Osborne, a local television reporter who valued sensation more than accuracy. If Osborne got hold of this story he would start a riot.

She went outside quickly. The two uniforms were standing by their car, but Frank had already ducked under the tape and was coming up the garden path. He stopped when he saw the biohazard suit. “What’s going on here?” he said.

“Hello, Frank,” Toni replied, speaking loudly to be heard through the suit. “Please go back behind the tape.”

“I might have known it would be you,” he said sourly.

“Behind the tape, please,” she repeated.

“I’m a Detective-Superintendent, and the most senior police officer on duty in the region at this moment in time,” he said. “I tell you where to stand, not vice versa.”

“I already know you’re a stupid prick, there’s no need to prove it.”

“It never takes long for you to become abusive, does it?”

Toni sighed. “You’re right, Frank, I can’t stop you coming in. We just took a young man out of here bleeding from his eyes, and before he left he puked all over me, and we haven’t yet finished cleaning up, so you’ll probably catch a disease for which there’s no cure; but you’re right, I can’t stop you coming in.”

He took a step back, but he was not ready to give in. “Cleaning up? I hope you’re not destroying evidence.”

“What makes you think this is a crime scene?”

“If your boy dies, there’ll be an inquest. How did he get the virus, anyway? Your security at the Kremlin is pretty tight. Were there any animals here when you arrived?”

Toni hesitated.

That was enough for Frank, who was a good detective, even though he was a lousy ex. “So an animal got out of the lab and infected the man who lives in this cottage?”

“I don’t know what happened. I’m here to make sure the virus doesn’t spread farther. And right now you’re a threat to public safety.”

“I got the message, lassie. But I know you. You’re not just worried about public safety. You want to protect your precious Professor Oxenford. But if there’s any evidence here, I want it.”

Toni heard a chime in her headset. “I’m getting a phone call,” she said to Frank. “Excuse me.”

The chime came again, then there was a hiss as the connection was made, and she heard the voice of the security guard on the switchboard at the Fort. “Doctor Solomons is calling Ms Gallo.”

Toni said: “Hello, Ruth.”

“Michael died, Toni.”

“Oh, Ruth, I’m so sorry.”

“He would have died if we’d got to him a week earlier. I’m almost certain he had Madoba-2.”

“We did all we could.”

“Why on earth did he do it?”

“Ruth, I have the police here. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay.” The connection was broken.

Frank said: “He died, didn’t he?”

Toni was still too much of a cop to lie about a death. “Yes.”

“If you’ve seen something in this house that may help the sheriff determine the cause of death, it’s your duty to tell me now, and you’ll be committing a crime if you conceal anything.”

“His name was Michael Ross, and he worked as a laboratory technician at Oxenford Medical. He was a member of a group called Animals Are Free. He appears to have died of a haemorrhagic fever characteristic of a virus called Maboda-2. I think he caught it from an animal he brought home from the lab.”

“Could he have infected others?”

“He lived here alone, he has no family and few friends. Anyone who visited him before he got sick would be safe, unless they did something highly intimate, such as sharing a hypodermic needle. Anyone who came after he fell ill would surely have called a doctor. So I think we’re probably safe. But obviously we’ll put out an appeal for anyone who has been in contact with him.”

“What kind of animal was it?”

Toni decided on the spur of the moment to set a little trap for Frank. “A hamster,” she said. “Named Fluffy.”

“Could Ross have been working with other people?”

“Perhaps. We occasionally receive hostile letters from animal rights groups. We send them all to you.”

“Did Ross belong to such a group?”

“Not as far as we know, but I’m checking.”

“Checking what?”

“I’ve found a diary, an address book, and some letters. They’ll have to be destroyed, but I can fax them to you first. And I’ll upload everything on his computer.”

“That’s better,” Frank said, pleased with his triumph.

“There’s something you could do for me.”

Frank raised his eyebrows.

“This doesn’t have to become a public scare. There’s a strong chance no one else is in danger.”

“Good.”

“I want you to let us handle the publicity. We won’t hold anything back, but we’ll keep it calm and measured. No one needs to panic.”

Frank grinned. “You’re frightened of tabloid stories about escaped animals roaming the Scottish moors infecting people with deadly viruses.”

“You owe me, Frank. I hope you remember.”

His face darkened with anger. “I owe you?”

She switched off her headset mike. “You remember Farmer Johnny Kirk.” John Kirk, known as Farmer Johnny, was a big time cocaine importer. Born and brought up in the rough Glasgow neighbourhood of the Gorbals, he had never seen a farm in his life, but he got the nickname from the oversize green rubber boots he wore to ease the pain of the corns on his feet. While Toni was living with Frank, he had put together a case against Farmer Johnny and prosecuted him. During the trial, by accident, Toni had come across evidence that would have helped Johnny’s defence. She had informed Frank, but he had not told the court. Johnny was as guilty as sin, and Frank had got a conviction – but if the truth ever came out, Frank would be finished.

“Are you threatening to bring all that up again if I don’t do what you want?” Frank said angrily.

“No, just reminding you of a time when I bent the rules to help you.”

His attitude changed again. He had been frightened for a moment, but now he was his old arrogant self. “We all bend the rules from time to time, that’s life.”

“Yes. And I’m asking you not to leak this story to your friend Carl Osborne, or anyone else in the media.”

Frank grinned. “Why, Toni,” he said in a tone of mock indignation. “I never do things like that.”