By the time Gene actually left his office, it was well past nine. At least he didn’t have to sit in traffic, he thought, and maybe Barbara would still be out with her friends so that he could just go to sleep to rest for tomorrow. When he pulled into his driveway and saw the whole house lit up, he knew she was home and awake. Like a teenager still hoping not to get caught for breaking curfew, Gene eased his car door shut after stepping out onto the stamped concrete driveway. Unlocking the door, he slipped inside and lowered his computer case to the floor. Voices floated from the living room; he hoped it was just the television.
Barbara bustled out into the foyer in a dress and heels, wearing flawless makeup and her hair pulled back into something she called a French twist. He didn’t know what was so French about it, but he knew better than to argue with his wife about hair or fashion. “Welcome home,” she greeted him with a plastic smile and a peck on his cheek. Letting her voice carry, she added, “I knew how disappointed you were that you couldn’t come to dinner, so I invited everyone over here. We’re having hors d’oeuvres; dinner is warming in the dining room. You must be famished dear.”
The way she squeezed his hand was enough to confirm he was in for another lecture later, but Gene knew he could lessen the blow by playing the friendly host now. “Oh, good. Let me just straighten my tie.” He shifted the knot back into place and adjusted his collar before following her into the next room. “Good evening, everyone. You didn’t need to wait for me to eat.”
“Nonsense,” Barbara cooed. “I know how hard you work, and how hungry you are when you get home. Let me put the finishing touches on dinner and you can sit with our guests.”
Barbara’s friends didn’t leave until after midnight. Then she scolded him for at least another half hour so that by the time he fell asleep, it was nearly one in the morning. His four-thirty alarm rang all too soon for Gene’s liking, and he rose from bed like a zombie from the grave, shuffling his way toward the bathroom for a shower. By eight-thirty, he was waiting outside the office of the Deputy Director in the Washington, DC office of the CDC. Gene rested his computer case against the foot of his chair and forced down the burnt black coffee some intern brought him a few minutes ago. He stifled a yawn; when he looked up, Hannah Mercer smiled down at him.
“You know, the best way to ward off disease is to be well-rested,” she lilted in her Southern accent.
“I thought it was washing your hands,” he remarked wryly. They’d spoken over the phone a few times and always seemed to get along. Hannah was probably a good fifteen years younger than he was–he guessed in her late thirties–and way too young for her job. This report was going to cause a lot of trouble for her and she might end up hating him. He stood and lifted his computer case onto his shoulder. “Lead the way, Miss Mercer.” He followed to her office. The room was bright with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls. “Very nice,” he remarked.
“Thanks. I like it here. The weather is better than Atlanta, at least.”
“I’m not sure that’s much of a comparison. So…where do you want to do this? At your desk? On the couch?”
“Let’s use the desk; that way you can comfortably type.” She walked around to sit in her chair after indicating one of the two chairs opposite. Hannah cleared off one half of her desk to make room for his computer.
“Thank you.” As he booted his laptop, Gene asked, “how about the added work? Settling in okay?”
“I don’t mind it. Later hours but I’ve never been a social butterfly. There are changes I want to make in the CDC and the only way to do that is to move up the ladder. That’s off the record, Mr. Dockery.”
She had a toothy smile, Gene thought. Her teeth were straight and white, but they seemed too large for her face. “Of course. I wouldn’t do anything intentionally to hurt your career. Not when you’ve been so helpful to me over the last six months, especially.” No sense in putting her ill at ease, he figured. His questions were going to do that soon enough. “Are you ready to begin?”
“I am. Fire away.”
“Can I record our conversation?”
“Great. My first question is this. Why did the CDC hide the fact that this disease–the Sweats–is not viral or bacterial in nature?” He saw the color drain from her face and wished this interview was on camera. Even so, the soundbites would have to do. He’d not been given permission to film the interview, though he never got a straight answer as to why that was. Being that he was interviewing the second in command in the Washington office, Gene hadn’t argued beyond being told three times that he wouldn’t get the interview on video. He figured this was why.
“At first,” she began, hedging her answer, “we didn’t really know what we were looking at. The disease sprang up so fast in the Middle East, and by the time we were able to run significant tests, it was already on its way here.”
“So you knew who Patient Zero was here in the US?” It wasn’t uncommon to stray from his planned questions; he’d get back to them.
“Not exactly, no.”
“Was the CDC working with Homeland Security or the FBI to track this disease? Some have speculated that its outbreak on American soil was an act of terrorism.”
“The CDC has worked with the World Health Organization, but as far as I know, we did not believe its appearance in the United States to be an act of terrorism. Just an unfortunate accident.”
“An accident? Is transmission of a disease ever intentional?”
“Of course not.” Hannah’s face flushed. “Of course it’s never intentional. Who would want anyone to get sick like this?”
“Well there are some theories about that.”
“Conspiracy theories at best, Mr. Dockery. I should have thought you’d be above giving credence to them.”
“So you dismiss any and all theories that the disease was created on purpose.”
She sighed and gripped the arms of her chair. “To the best of my knowledge, the disease was not created on purpose, nor brought to the United States on purpose.”
Gene smiled slowly. “Is there a possibility then that someone else might know something different? Someone higher up?”
“I can only answer for the information I have, Mr. Dockery.”
He was silent a moment. “Very well. Let’s move on to the next part of the interview.” The rest of the questions were about her speculations on what the future might bring. That’s all she offered him–speculations–but none of those mattered. Gene got what he came for in the first ten minutes. If she was lying, he’d find out–and if Hannah Mercer spoke truthfully, then he’d go above her to find out what was really going on. Besides, now he had an ally. He’d planted a seed of doubt. Gene wouldn’t nurture it just yet, but if there was one thing he knew from working in the media, it was that doubt was one of the most powerful feelings a person could have. Hannah Mercer would either go down in flames, or help him light the fire.