The Liger Plague
By Joseph Souza
Colonel Taggert Winters stood at the podium inside Harvard Medical School’s Gordon Hall and glanced down at the scientists and physicians seated in front of him. It would be the last time he would deliver such a speech in his capacity as director of the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease. He rumpled his sheath of papers and arranged his copious notes. Although he was a very good public speaker, and knew the material inside and out, it had taken him a good part of the week to tie it all together.
It had been a long time since he’d been back at Harvard University. Not since he’d been a medical student here many years ago had he returned to this campus. Hard to believe that he hadn’t returned in all that time, and now to think that he was the keynote speaker at the most prestigious infectious disease conference in the country.
He’d given speeches like this many times before and yet he still got nervous whenever he was about to deliver one. The subject of biologically engineered weapons was something he was well versed on and he could usually speak at length on the topic, without notes or prompters. And yet just about everyone in this room was an expert in their field. Some of the finest minds in the world had gathered here for this conference.
He stood staring down at all the intelligent faces looking up at him and waiting to drill him with questions, dent holes in his theories and challenge well held assumptions about the topic of infectious viruses. Many of the faces he knew from a lifetime of collaboration. Some were even good friends. Sweat dripped from his armpits as he shuffled his notes. He sipped his glass of water and then dove into his presentation.
Once he began to speak all the anxiety disappeared and he fell into a natural rhythm, speaking fluently and with minimum use of his notes. Time seemed to stop when he spoke and before he knew what had happened the audience began applauding and he realized he’d finished. It felt like the talk just got started by the time he wrapped it all up.
After a brisk and sometimes hostile round of questions, the conferees turned and began to file out of Gordon Hall. But one man remained there, hand raised and clearing his throat. A few of his colleagues waiting for him to make his way down the steps, turned and looked at the questioner.
“Can you answer one question, Colonel?”
“James Bacon with the Times. How long will it be before a terrorist organization develops the capability to create a biologically engineered organism containing multiple agents and with lethal or at least disabling capabilities?”
“I don’t know the answer to that question, James. Creating one lethal virus is difficult enough especially when you factor in all the components needed to achieve a high mortality rate combined with an effective method of transmission. Then there’s the difficulty of combining two separate viruses, owing to their distinct genetic make-up. So in a nutshell, I don’t anticipate seeing anything like that being developed in the near future. Now if that’s all I must really be going.”
“I’m sorry but I really must be going.”
Tag walked down the steps and shook the hands of his colleagues waiting for him, accepting their kind words and congratulations. Though he knew the gist of his speech, and the subject matter inside out, he always found it ironic that he could never quite remember the specific details of the presentation he’d just delivered.
“That was a helluva speech, Colonel,” Dr. Simon Wolfe said, vigorously shaking his hand. Wolfe was Harvard’s director for The Center for Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases. “Scares the bejeesus out of me hearing about the kind of work your outfit is doing.”
“Someone’s got to keep the bad guys on their toes, Simon.”
“I suppose you’re right. And to think I can remember your humble beginnings here as lowly medical student dissecting your first cadaver. Amazing how far you’ve come since then, Taggert.”
“A humble medical student is exactly what I was in those days,” he said, laughing. “You should have seen my lowly apartment in Jamaica Plain, cockroaches and all. It’s a good thing I never had to spend much time there.”
“You were a diligent student and practically lived in your lab.”
“More like the living dead living and working among the cadavers,” he said, laughing.
“The offer still stands, Taggert. We have a tenure track position open at the medical school if you’re still interested.”
“Believe me, Simon, there’s nothing I’d love more than to come back to Cambridge and teach after I retire from the Army. But my wife has the final say in regard to where we go next. She’s spent the last ten years in Maryland, and after being an Army brat for the last fifteen years, it’s now her turn to decide where we live.”
“Maybe after I have a word with Monica I’ll be able to convince her of the benefits of living near Harvard. Boston’s become a great city for artist’s, Taggert. She’d be right at home showing off those fabulous new glass sculptures of hers.”
“I’ll give you her number and let you go to work on her. But I think you’ve got your work cut out for you, Simon, because Monica’s got warmer climes in mind.” The two men laughed.
“Come on now. We have a cocktail reception waiting and you have some important people to meet.”
“Unfortunately, I can only stay for about fifteen minutes, Simon. My wife and daughter are waiting for me on Cooke’s Island this weekend. My other two kid’s are meeting us there later in the week for our annual family reunion.”
“At least we’ll have you for a short while. And maybe longer, depending on your final decision on the one inquiry that truly matters.”
“Monica’s decision,” he said, laughing. “But I must admit that the title of Professor Winters sounds rather nice.”
“Try the Sumner Dalton Professor and Chair of Infectious Diseases.”
“Well, it is Monica’s decision after all.” Simon patted him on the shoulder and laughed.
Tag felt as if he were on a cloud as they walked out of the grand room and into the ornate hallway. People shook hands with him as he passed, treating him like a celebrity, his heels clicking loudly on the marble floor. They entered the Coventry Room where he was immediately greeted with a cocktail and a light round of applause. He glanced around and saw some of the most recognizable names in the field of epidemiology and infectious diseases. He sipped his drink, promising himself not to have more than one. A two-hour drive to Maine awaited him, depending on traffic, and then followed by a twenty-minute ferry ride to Cooke’s Island. Just the thought of being able to relax on the island with a cold beer and some steaming lobsters filled him with happy thoughts.
A researcher with the CDC began to make conversation with him and he forced himself to concentrate if only for a few minutes more. Soon a few people had gathered to hear him speak. He loved the intellectual stimulation of dealing with peers in his field and speaking the shared idiom of the tribe. But all he could think about at the moment, however, was sitting on the beach and looking out at the waves rolling in off the Atlantic, a cold Shipyard in hand. After nine grueling yet enjoyable years leading the Institute, and helping to keep the nation safe from a biological attack, he felt a tinge of sadness at the notion of his pending retirement from the Army. Public service had been his calling. But he also felt excited to do something new and start the next phase in his life.
He was in the middle of a conversation with a top CDC researcher when his phone started to chirp. He excused himself and answered it.
“Colonel Winters speaking.”
“I’m pleased to announce that the liger has landed,” a computer enhanced voice said.
“Excuse me? I’m afraid you have the wrong number?”
“No wrong number, Colonel. The liger has landed and she’s a very bad and beautiful creature.”
Tag walked to the far corner of the room and cupped his hand over his other ear.
“What the hell are you talking about? Who is this?”
“You do know what a liger is, Colonel, don’t you?”
He had half a mind to hang up on the creep but something about the caller’s manner informed him otherwise.
“Of course I do. It’s a hybrid species. Half lion, half tiger.”
“Very good. More specifically the liger is spawned from the male lion mating with a tigress. It doesn’t occur in nature, as you already have guessed. These cute little breeds are thousand pound killing machines that exist only in captivity and never in the wild.”
“I’m not following you. What is it you want from me?”
“The liger has landed on Cooke’s Island.” The caller paused a beat. “Do you know who that island was named after, Colonel?”
“Captain Ezekiel Cooke settled the island in the 17th century.”
“’Settled’ might be too kind a term, Colonel. And it was 1619 to be exact. About thirty members of the Wabaseekit tribe had been living on the island for God knows how many years. Once the good Captain and his family arrived the Wabaseekit clan was doomed to extinction.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Smallpox, Colonel. It was how the good Captain ‘settled’ the island. In his private journal he wrote that the smallpox plague that wiped out the natives was ‘God’s work.’“
“So what does that have to do with me?”
“I thought it only fair that I give you a heads up before your wife and daughter meet up with the beast. Of course it’s too late for all the citizens already on the island. You best hurry up to Maine before it’s too late. Go on now before you get stuck in Boston traffic.”
“Who the hell is this,” Tag said loudly, causing people’s heads to turn. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the same building as you, Doctor. But don’t waste your time trying to find me because the lives of your loved ones are at stake. Now go! And make sure you keep your phone on at all times. And whatever you do, Colonel, do not call the authorities or I assure you that your wife and daughter will not make it off that island alive. When the time is right I’ll give you permission to call them. If you do as I say they may live. If not then I guarantee you that they’ll suffer a terrible, torturous death.” The line went dead.
Tag stared into his phone. Had the call been a prank? He didn’t care to find out. He grabbed his briefcase, said a quick goodbye to Simon, and sprinted out of the reception room. Fear gripped him as he ran down the hallway and emerged into the warm summer air. Down below people lounged about in shorts and summer skirts, their feet either bare or clad in sandals. A few students tossed Frisbees across the manicured lawn. He scampered down the steep steps of Gordon Hall and dodged the pedestrians strolling lazily along the sidewalk. Then he took off, sprinting the four blocks on Longwood Avenue to where his car was parked.
Clutching his keypad as he neared, he thumbed the remote and heard the electronic sound of his Jeep Liberty clicking. He whipped open the door, tossed his briefcase onto the passenger seat and jumped inside. Sweat coursed down his face and neck, dampening his shirt. He removed the heavy green Army jacket and tossed it back. The inside of the Jeep was sweltering and the second he started the engine he turned on the air conditioning and shut off the CD, which had been blaring The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes.
He sped recklessly along Longwood Avenue, barreling through intersections as he searched for his cell phone. Utilizing the car’s Bluetooth, he hit the talk button and shouted out the number and waited for a response, but instead heard nothing but the depressing sound of a dial tone. Cars jutted out in front of him, causing him to swerve around them and pound the steering wheel in frustration. Why wasn’t his wife picking up her phone? His daughter’s iPhone had broken and she’d been forced to use her tablet in order to communicate. Entering her junior year at Colby College, she was spending the summer taking classes in Paris but had come home for a week to take part in Cooke’s annual Art Festival.
The cold rushed in and filled the Jeep with chilled air. He raced along Brookline Avenue until he reached Storrow Drive, swerving in and out of the busy, two-lane traffic. The angry beeps of the other cars competed with the sound of the humming air conditioner. To his left flowed the murky Charles River. To his right rose up the old brick buildings comprising Beacon Hill. He charged up the long, gradual bridge leading to Route 93. Once he moved over to the left lane he punched the gas and headed straight to Portland, Maine, and to where the ferries carried passengers over to Cooke’s Island.
He tried calling his wife again but still got no reply. The worst-case scenario crossed his mind and for a second he debated defying the caller’s instructions and calling the authorities. The voice over the phone had been computer generated and unrecognizable. He wracked his mind trying to remember each and every person that had attended the conference. But there must have been well over a hundred scientists in attendance, and although he knew most of them he certainly didn’t know them all. He’d always known that his line of work was dangerous, fearing for the wellbeing of his family more than himself, but that was for entirely different reasons. And yet he knew he had to allow his family to live their own lives as free and uninhibited as possible.
The liger. What did the caller mean by that? He knew that a liger was a combination of a lion and tiger, two of the fiercest hunters in the animal kingdom. Was it a metaphor for something else? Where had he heard that term before? He wracked his brain trying to recall the term liger and it’s significance in literature or art. Two of the most dangerous animals paired to create a unique hybrid. And the caller specifically mentioned that it could only be done in captivity.
Then he remembered where he’d heard it. There was a local female author on Cooke’s Island who’d penned a popular children’s book called Lenny The Liger, which sat front and center in the window of Cooke’s Island Books. It had been one of their best sellers and even his kids had read it when they were little.
He swerved dangerously into the middle lane and then cut back over to the left. Cars behind him honked and flashed their high beams, but he didn’t give a shit about any of that now. All he could think about was his family.
They owned the vacation home on Cooke’s Island for fifteen years now. It had been the perfect place to relax and unwind after many long, grueling months performing in the hot lab. Back in the early days, when he’d been dissecting human and primate corpses, and dealing with the most lethal viruses known to man, a vacation home such as the one they had on Cooke’s had been a godsend. It hadn’t been cheap but it had been worth every penny, and its value had increased significantly throughout the years.
A frightening thought occurred to him as he crossed onto Route 95, sending shockwaves of panic through his system. He thought he understood now the meaning of the liger. It was a metaphor for a hybrid virus. Why hadn’t he made that connection before? An engineered, hybrid virus that didn’t occur naturally in nature but was engineered in a lab. Only under such controlled conditions could a sophisticated organism like that be created. Had that lunatic unleashed a killer virus on the island? And a hybrid virus to boot?
He noticed his hand shaking on the steering wheel. The caller claimed that he or she had been in the building at the same time as he was. It meant that the person was either known to him or someone with a well-known reputation in the scientific field. Only a person with such esoteric knowledge and skills could possibly even hope to engineer a lethal hybrid virus, and there were only a handful of people in the world that possessed such capabilities. He reminded himself to call Simon and get his hands on the list of attendees to the conference, including that reporter who’d asked that unusual question.
Panic gripped him as he weaved between the slow moving traffic. Cooke’s Island was located roughly four miles from downtown Portland and was home to just under one thousand residents. But at this time of year the island population swelled to nearly seven thousand people. The ferries ran like clockwork on the hour shuffling people back and forth. If a lethal virus had already been released on Cooke’s, and he prayed that it hadn’t, it meant that many people would be transporting the organism to the mainland or visa-versa. But if that were the case why would the caller have warned him ahead of time?
Just then his phone rang. The sound of it caused him to jump back in his seat in fear. Something bright flashed in his mirror and caught his eye. He stared in the rear view and saw a state trooper following him, the trooper’s lights flashing and its siren blaring. He banged on the steering wheel in frustration as he continued to dodge and weave through the heavy traffic heading up to Maine for the weekend. Tag hit the speaker button and answered the call.
“How are you, Colonel?” the computer enhanced voice asked.
“Tsk Tsk. You should try and be a good boy because I’m your only hope for saving that poor wife and pretty daughter of yours.”
“Sorry for my bad manners, asshole, but I’m currently being pursued by the state police.”
“That’s too bad, but I can understand your tendency for a lead foot. I suggest you keep driving, Colonel, because I may not be calling back. Besides, with your long list of credentials you should easily be able to talk yourself out of a ticket. And for the sake of your wife and daughter, you had better,” the altered voice said, laughing.
“What kind of organism are we dealing with?”
“Very good, Colonel. Your powers or deduction rival Holmes’.”
“What do you want from me? Are my wife and daughter okay?”
“Whoa! Slow down. So many questions and so little time. Now take a deep breath and listen.”
The state trooper followed on his tail. He cut to the far right lane and swerved around traffic. Then he accelerated laterally to the fast lane and raced ahead. In his rear view mirror he noticed the trooper’s vehicle wedged between some slow moving cars. He knew he wouldn’t escape the trooper, but he had at least bought himself a few more minutes.
“Wow! Those pigs are right behind you. I can hear sirens.”
“Tell me what you want me to do!”
“Okay, here’s the deal. That liger I delivered to your island is caged and pacing back and forth. He’s hungry, Colonel, and dying to get out and roam that gorgeous island.”
“You haven’t released it yet?” he said, his hopes rising. “Let’s negotiate a deal and maybe we can work this out. I didn’t catch your name, caller.”
“Call me Lenny the Liger.” The voice laughed. “There’s no negotiating anything now, Colonel. The virus will be released today with or without you. Your wife is exiting the ferry as we speak, carrying a package delivered to her and to be opened this afternoon at the opening ceremony of the Cooke Island’s Art Fest. In fact I can see her now walking off the terminal with package in hand.”
“How can you see her? I thought you said you were in the reception area back at Gordon Hall?”
“Have you forgotten that Cooke’s Island has web cams stationed all over it, continually filming live footage of all that is going on? Supposed to be part of some scientific experiment to follow and track some rare ocean bird. This will be the greatest reality show in the history of mankind.”
“What about the package?” he said, noticing that the speedometer was nearing one hundred. Three state troopers continued to tail him.
“She’s going to open that box once she reaches the Art Fest. Once she does, she’s going to release our famished cat and it will bound into the air, liberated from its claustrophobic confines.”
He felt nauseous and could barely keep the Jeep on the road. He struggled to keep his composure and not say something to this lunatic that he might regret.
“I know you’re worried, Colonel, but trust me when I tell you it’s too late to save those people already on the island. But it’s not too late to save your wife and daughter. Sure, you can try and call the Art Fest but I doubt they’ll listen to you. And if you do stop it from happening, I’ll just release it onto a major metropolis for shits and kicks, and kill many more people. Maybe the entire nation. So you decide what you want to do.”
“I’m supposed to decide between saving my family and saving millions of people I don’t even know?” he shouted.
“Oh no, I’m not that cruel,” Lenny said, laughing. “I’m going to give you a real fighting chance to save your family. Look in the backseat of your Jeep and you’ll see a small cooler. Inside it I’ve placed an antibody that will block the virus from being able to synthesize with the target cell. I suggest you take it before you make your way onto that island, and the sooner the better.”
He glanced back and saw the small red cooler and wondered why he hadn’t noticed it before. Grabbing it by the handle, he picked it up and put it on the passenger seat next to him. The troopers continued to tail him, their lights flashing and sirens screaming. He pressed the white release button and slid open the cover. Keeping his eye on the road in front of him, he reached inside and pulled out the single test tube filled with vaccine.
“Okay, I have it. I suppose this could be a trap.”
“You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that I really want you to save Monica and Nora’s lives. Besides, killing you is the last thing I want to do. It would defeat my purpose.”
He removed the stopper, stared at it for a second before downing the liquid. It had a slightly bitter taste but otherwise went down easily.
“Smart choice. And good luck with the pigs. I suppose you can figure the rest out on your own.”
“The rest of what?”
“Do I have to spell it out for you? You’re going to need to quarantine that island before people start taking this beautiful creature back to the mainland. That means finding a way to halt the ferries once you get there, and not a second too soon. Then you’ll need to barricade those pretty girls of yours inside that house overlooking the ocean. Because once the liger is released the radio frequency of a single cell phone call will have the potential to activate the second component of this organism. And when that happens that island party is going to get all wild and crazy.”
“What’s going to happen then?”
“For me to know and for you to find out.” The caller laughed. “Just get your girls in a safe place and make sure that none of the infected leave that island or else you’ll jeopardize the entire country.”
“It really is a hybrid virus?”
“This liger is a rare beautiful creature, Colonel. You should be very proud of what I’ve created. Or at least impressed with the craftsmanship of our trade.” The line went dead.