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First pages

Prologue

Montana 2018

I left my father’s infected corpse lying in the medical examiner’s lab and drove back to Medicine Falls, alone and devastated. I’d followed him in a professional path in prion research that had brought us to a high-risk laboratory located safely in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana.

Back in Dad’s apartment, I listened to his voice coming from a video I’d found in his safe deposit box. His words transfixed my exhausted body. “Callie, something terrible happened last night.” He sat silent for a moment, thoughtful, shoulders drooped. “I cut myself doing the necropsy on a prion-infected deer I’d euthanized. I scrubbed the bloody hand wound and started taking Dapsone. It’s my only hope. Within a few months, I’ll likely die like the pregnant doe.”

His eyes were moist and his voice soft, “She had followed me around the corral like a puppy, curious about what I was doing. We’d been friends since her birth two years earlier. I never should have infected her in the name of science. My monoclonal antibody trial looked promising. I thought I could save her, but before the antibodies were ready, she became afraid, thin, drooling, stumbling. Awful to watch. I’ve been testing deer for decades, but I’d grown so attached to her, I couldn’t let her suffer any more.

“It’s payback time. I gave the disease to her. She gave it to me. I don’t want anyone to know I infected myself. The fear of it spreading would cause an uproar in the community. These videos are for you alone and will provide details of the progression of chronic wasting disease in man. It might help in your research.”

I turned off the video, overcome with grief. Numbness gave way to tears. I wanted to put my arms around him. He’d lived in isolated anguish for months as prions propagated and shorted out his nervous system. I would miss him as a partner in research, but most of all, I felt so alone. Compelled to hear more of his message, I turned the video back on.

“I have no way of knowing how rapidly this prion will progress in a human after blood contamination or after consuming infected venison. We have no data on this strain of prion infection in humans. I may be the first case. I assume I’ll experience symptoms like the Brits got from eating mad cow burgers.

“You’ll find a series of journals I kept when I was on loan from NIH to a lab in the U.K., helping them during the mad cow outbreak in the ’90s. I recorded interviews with some victims that may help in your human research, but with my vet background, I focused on disease transmission to cattle and large game animals, not to humans.”

At the Human Prion Center, I had evaluated people with prion disease displaying unpredictable, paranoid behavior with psychotic outbursts and then an inexorable course to incoordination, dementia, and coma. I’d watched deer and elk infected with the strange protein; it caused neurological deterioration like the bovine form that causes mad cow disease.

Scientists are struggling to stop the onslaught of this disease few people realize exist. The often-misdiagnosed, universally fatal neurological disease creeps silently into animals and humans alike.

There is no treatment.

Over the three months following Dad’s blood contamination, his serial videos documented paranoid thoughts, memory loss, and tremors. The chronic wasting disease he’d caught from the deer progressed faster than it had in humans with mad cow disease in the Great Britain outbreak.

Maybe my rat drugs could have saved him. Every infected human and animal had succumbed to the disease until my rodent research showed promise. Their brains had improved so much that I was conducting a monkey trial with the hope of developing the first human treatment, but it was too late to help my own father.

After many hours with no sleep, I turned off the video. My thoughts drifted to his symptoms and their resemblance to the advanced Parkinson’s disease he had said he had. I should have recognized that he was lying before his confession at the lookout.

I had failed him.

Chapter 1

Deathwatch

Blaze, my dad’s German shepherd, lay on the bed beside his stiffening body. I sat in a rocking chair across from the bed in the chilly one-room mountain cabin where I’d kept vigil all night. Now, sunrise awakened the birds in the surrounding forest and Blaze stirred, jumped down from the bed, and led me to the door.

Our breath condensed in the cold fall air as the cautious dog scanned the area before disappearing into evergreens shrouded in ice fog. She returned a few minutes later and plodded back to me with worried eyes. Blaze circled Dad’s bed, whimpering, and then took her place at his side.

I left them lying together for the last time and locked the door.

Trees sparkled with hoarfrost along the winding road down to Medicine Falls, back into cell phone range where I could report his death.

Over our years of prion research, my father and I had worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control. I had never considered the possibility either of us would die from the infectious disease we were trying to cure.

As a research veterinarian at the high-risk National Institutes of Health Rocky Mountain Ridge Lab in Montana, my father had studied mad cow disease and a related contagious neurological disease that was spreading through wildlife across the United States and Canada. If I couldn’t keep the report of his death from prion disease confidential, it would create an outcry from residents of a state known for large cattle ranches and big game hunting.

Deaths from the untreatable contagious disease mandated a report to the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula. There, the medical examiner would provide the cause of death to the CDC and cremate the body to prevent spread of the disease.

The government wanted people to trust the laboratory containment of the incurable disease that could kill humans and animals, which is why I had been moved to the Montana facility after a near-catastrophic break-in at my biosafety level 3 biologics lab in Cleveland at the Human Prion Center. Animal rights activists had penetrated the laboratory and nearly reached my lab in the primate containment area. Federal authorities ordered my project, which used an aggressive cross-species prion, to be housed in the secure Montana lab where my father and other prion researchers had worked for years.

Prions are neither bacterial nor viral; they are strange rogue proteins that cause disease. Because of their stability in the environment, special containment methods employing lye and incineration are required to destroy their infectivity.

Dad had always been meticulous. When he cautioned me to wear gloves when I visited him at the cabin, I thought it strange. He was insistent. Containers of lye and Clorox sat in the sink.

I’d presumed he’d eaten from disposable plates and plasticware at the cabin, and placed trash in a burn barrel was for convenience in his debilitating Parkinson’s state.

I hated the interruption of my research when the feds made me move to the isolated, mountainside Ridge Lab. The disruptive move resulted in delays and adjustments but working at my father’s side had long been a dream of mine. He was excited about our working together when the order for my move occurred but had warned me about living in a small town. In passing, he mentioned that he was planning to retire early because he’d developed a progressive form of Parkinson’s disease that was making it difficult for him to continue his research.

When I arrived five weeks before his death, I was shocked to find him retired and living in his remote cabin, ill and uncoordinated. He said he’d decided to live out his days with his beloved rescue dog. My next shock was the town of Medicine Falls, where the only residence available for rent was a kitchenette in the old Wagon Wheel Motel.

Now, the morning of my father’s death, I parked in front of unit 6 at the motel to shower and change into a black outfit that fit my mood. Just after 8 a.m., I dialed the state lab and told Dr. Hugh Dalen of Dad’s death. I hoped the medical examiner would not release any information about Dad’s death and would prevent the frightening news of a human prion death from racing through this state of ranchers and hunters.

The forensic pathologist sounded genuinely sad. “I’m so sorry, Callie. I’ve been expecting your call. Your dad and I were friends. He told me of his diagnosis.”

His words shocked and saddened me; my father had confided in Dr. Dalen but did not tell me his diagnosis until the end.

Dr. Dalen dispatched two men to pick up Dad’s body. I arranged to meet them at the Wildlife Refuge, one of the few restaurants in town and a better location than my motel room.

I’d only eaten a trail mix bar the preceding day, afraid anything edible at the cabin might be contaminated with prions. I had no appetite but drinking coffee and eating toast helped me pass the time while I sat at a window table and waited.

An hour after my conversation with Dr. Dalen, I saw a dark van bearing a state government license plate park at the restaurant. Locals eating breakfast eyed the two strangers who entered looking for me. Over my third cup of coffee, we discussed the route to the cabin and my concerns on arrival. “Dad’s dog is in the cabin with his body. She’s a big protective German shepherd he rescued. I’m not sure what she’ll do when we try to separate them.”

***

The men remained inside the van while I entered the cabin put on gloves and clipped a leash on Blaze’s collar. I couldn’t give Dad a good-bye kiss because of the prion risk. Instead, I patted his bony shoulder in farewell, envisioning a hug from his once-strong arms.

The dog reluctantly followed me away from the cabin and up a trail, where we sat on cold ground scattered with golden aspen leaves. I held her quivering body to me and whispered to her that things would someday be okay.

Her lips parted in a growl when the men walked up the steps to the cabin. She lunged when they entered. I held her back, and through the open door we watched figures in protective clothing slide Dad’s stiff body into a black bag. They carried the remains of my beloved father down the steps and into the back of their van.

Blaze gave a mournful wail when the men closed their doors and drove away. She strained at the leash, pulling me down the trail. Her eyes followed the vehicle, trying to bolt after them.

I tugged her toward my car, and she jumped into the back seat.

As we followed the van, the mountain road turned onto Highway 93 and snaked north along the Bitterroot River toward Missoula. The face of the worried dog in my rearview mirror stared straight ahead at the distant van.

On the fifty-mile route, my thoughts returned to good days at the cabin and a rocky lookout above it, where birds sang, and one could see forever. Dad had seen forever for the last time at the lookout two days earlier after struggling up the rocky trail to reach this place he loved. I was sitting next to him on a boulder when he turned away from our endless view.

His sad, watery eyes looked at me. “I lied about having Parkinson’s.” He hung his head. “I couldn’t bear to tell you I have prion disease. That’s why I’ve stayed away from you and wouldn’t let you eat anything at the cabin.” His skeletal body racked with sobs.

Dad’s statement left me stunned and sent jumbled thoughts spinning through my brain. For months, I had believed he had a rapidly progressing form of Parkinson’s. I wanted to scream at him for not telling me what he really had.

Maybe I could have tried some drugs on him, slowed the disease.

His next, shocking statement left me wordless. “I plan to take my life before I can no longer care for myself.”

Mental instability from prion disease was impairing his judgement. I hoped he wouldn’t try to lunge to his death.

We cried until we had no more tears.

My loving father ended his life the following evening with a final rational decision formulated in his once-brilliant brain. He stirred the same drugs he had used in his research to inject and euthanize animals into a bowl of applesauce. Then he walked to his bed. Gasping to catch his breath, his thin legs hung limp between the involuntary myoclonic movements caused by the grim disease.

I watched in agony from a chair at his bedside as he struggled to swallow the applesauce. He drooled and choked on the death slurry like his research deer dying of the disease, then fell back on his pillow. He held out a trembling hand. “Callie, I’d like a little glass of brandy for a toast.”

We’d often sipped the calming liquid, sitting by a roaring fire and relaxing in the cabin after a day of hiking. Anguish choked my breath as I slowly poured the brandy into paper cups, trying to come to terms with the knowledge that his life was ending because of the incurable disease and he was leaving me to fight it without him.

Dad’s jerky movements sloshed brandy from his cup. With stumbling speech, he said, “Cheers to my wonderful daughter and friend. May you succeed in curing this damn disease before it wipes out the world.” Dad looked from me to the dog. “And to my other girl, Blaze. Take care of Callie.”

The dog whined.

I petted her silky muzzle. “Dad, we’ll take care of each other, and find that cure.”

Dad and I sipped brandy and listened to his battery-powered stereo playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” A smile had crossed his lips when he’d heard the orchestral CD I’d chosen during my sleepless night. He’d fought a valiant battle against the ravaging disease and was at peace with his suicide decision.

The music played on. He looked out to the mountains with Blaze beside him.

Mythical winged valkyries from Norse folklore, carrying soldiers who died in battle to the hall of Valhalla, accompanied my father’s journey that night.

I wept silently, waiting at Dad’s bedside, wanting to pull him back to the time before prions had entered his body, back when we’d laughed, back when we’d consulted. We planned to work on parallel projects to save lives. We loved what we were doing and never considered this possible end.

His eyes closed.

The cup slipped from his limp fingers.

Drugs slowed his breathing, stopped his leg spasms, and let him rest for the first time in months. Forever.

Thundering music filled the cabin.

I slid my gloved hand beneath his red wool shirt to feel his chest. His washboard ribs protruded. I waited for another breath that did not come. I sat back down, shocked and alone and resigned to staying in the cold cabin until daylight when I could safely navigate the mountain road back to town. I took the dog’s paw in my hand and hugged her.

Blaze whimpered when I moved to the couch to sleep. She remained on the bed.

My exhaustion carried me into a paralytic sleep. Nocturnal temperatures chilled the cabin, and I awoke shivering in darkness. I put on my jacket and stepped outside with Blaze for more logs to warm the cabin. She disappeared into the darkness, then waited at the door.

A faraway wolf howled. Forest noises compressed to an eerie chorus of rustling branches and whistling treetop winds. I startled at the whoosh of an owl’s wings sweeping through the air near me. Fog-filtered moonlight illuminated the large gray bird as it landed nearby on a bare pine limb wrapped with fingers of fog.

I recalled the Indian saying: If the owl cries, an Indian dies.

Owls symbolized death.

I stood still, barely breathing. Watching. Waiting.

The owl gave a soft cry and disappeared on silent wings.

Chapter 2

Death Knell

My anxiety unwound as I navigated the curves nearing the Missoula medical examiner’s lab. My dark thoughts of a future alone faded when a cold nose nuzzled my neck. The vehicle carrying my father’s body took a turn, proceeding to the corpse entrance at the back of the Montana State Crime Lab. I parked in front and left Blaze in the car with the windows lowered partway.

I had expected the forensic pathologist to be a man my father’s age. Instead, I met an attractive younger man.

Dr. Hugh Dalen greeted me with a professional handshake and condolences. He led me to his office and directed me to a chair near his desk.

A tear escaped down my cheek, betraying the anguish I was trying to conceal. “Why didn’t he tell me his diagnosis?”

“He was ashamed he’d made such an error. Nolan hoped he could cure himself and tell you news of his success.” Hugh slid a death certificate across the desk for me. “I completed this after your call. I know the cause of death. A forensic exam is unnecessary.”

Hugh’s words brought relief. I didn’t tell the pathologist my father had killed himself with potassium and sedatives. Dad would not have wanted suicide on his record. “Did he tell you he wanted to donate his body to the Human Prion Center in Cleveland?”

“We talked to Paul Wilder, your old director there, a few weeks ago. If you are up to talking to Paul, we could call him now to coordinate.”

I nodded, and Hugh dialed the number.

Dr. Wilder was my mentor during the years of my rodent research and on the monkey trial before my forced move to the Ridge Lab. His familiar voice answered on speaker phone. “Wilder here.”

“Hugh Dalen in Missoula, Paul. I have Callie Archer with me on speakerphone. Her father just died.”

“Callie, I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you, but your father swore me to secrecy.”

My gut clenched. “I can’t believe he lied to me. Dad maintained he had a form of Parkinson’s disease.” My tears started. “I didn’t know until two days ago that his internist, Dr. Maxwell, sent a sample of his spinal fluid to you for diagnosis.”

Hugh handed me a box of tissues and placed a hand on my shoulder.

I dabbed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m a doctor and couldn’t diagnose my own father. Sorry, I thought I’d get through this without more tears.”

“It’s a difficult situation. He did his best to hide the disease as long as he could.” Paul hesitated. “Nolan telephoned me and gave his approval for whatever studies we wanted to do here.”

Hugh added, “His will says body donation if the Prion Center wants it, otherwise, cremation.”

I looked down, sad and resigned. “I agree with his wishes.”

Paul asked, “Callie, did you know he was working with stem cell preparations and near the end injected the monoclonal antibodies into himself that he was testing on diseased deer?”

“Dad mentioned using monoclonals two days ago, but not stem cells. He had trouble speaking and was secretive.” I looked at Hugh for his reaction. “Prion paranoia—or maybe he couldn’t bring himself to talk to me about it.”

Hugh agreed. “Likely both.”

Paul Wilder continued. “I need his body refrigerated and air transported to me today. I’m anxious to examine his nervous system and other organs under electron microscopy.”

I said, “We need to see if the treatment he used had any effect. Let us know what you find.”

Hugh’s eyes found mine, his eyebrows raised, as he asked Paul, “Are you okay with me taking tissue samples for Callie’s research here before we ship his body?”

I hadn’t thought about doing research on my father’s tissue. Without Hugh’s suggestion, the opportunity would have been lost to me. “I hadn’t considered it. Yes, I’d like to compare drug effects on the prion strain in his tissues with the aggressive one in my study.”

“Collect the specimens she wants, then ship the body as soon as possible.”

I envisioned Paul in his lab coat, a shock of white hair, and twinkling eyes with smile crinkles. “Paul, I don’t miss Cleveland, but I do miss working with you.”

“I’m sorry you have to put up with Clint Reilly, that asshole lab director. Unfortunately, I have bad news from this end.”

His terse remark about Dr. Reilly brought a smile to my lips. The smile faded when I heard Paul’s next statement.

“Larry Westphal returned from his rehab stint, and Headquarters approved his request to transfer to the Ridge Lab, so you’ll have to deal with him again.”

“Shit! I thought I’d never see that bastard again.” My muscles tensed just thinking about Larry with his hands all over me as I fought him off.

“Report him if he harasses you.”

“I will.” We said good-bye to Paul. I slumped in my chair.

I’d always felt uncomfortable around men my age outside professional settings. A few nerdy researchers at the Ridge Lab were likeable, but now, when I was feeling and looking my worst, my self-consciousness resurfaced in Hugh’s presence.

I was twenty-eight. Dad knew I seldom dated and had no close friends in Cleveland. My workaholic nature interfered with relationships. It was easy for me to leave Ohio. Even under these circumstances, I felt more comfortable with Hugh than with most men. Maybe his friendship with Dad made the difference.

“It’s difficult to know what to say, Callie.” Hugh ran his fingers through his wavy auburn hair. “Nolan told me the government moved you to the Ridge Lab. I was surprised they’d move you away from the Human Prion Center to the isolated Montana facility since you’re in human research.”

“I quit my infectious disease practice and patient care after I started the primate project. Moving here sounded good to me because I’d be with Dad.”

“It’s awful it didn’t work out that way.”

I trusted Hugh, a forensic pathologist and my father’s confidant. “After all the people I’ve seen with prion disease, I can’t believe I didn’t wise up and ask about his symptoms.”

“You believed in him. Trusted him.”

Hugh’s kind words helped. “I know, but it will take a while for everything to make sense. I resigned myself to leaving the older facility after repeated threats by animal activists. It would be a disaster if activists contaminated themselves or released test animals infected with the aggressive cross-species prion in my studies.”

Hugh leaned forward. “Cross-species? Isn’t there a strong species barrier?”

“I probably shouldn’t be talking about it, but Dad trusted you, so I know the information is safe.”

His sad green eyes studied my face. “I’d hoped the three of us could work together.”

“Well, I guess now’s the time to start sharing our expertise.”

Hugh tilted his head, questioning. “What do you mean?”

“Dad will be with us in a scientific way.” I waited for his response, hoping he wouldn’t consider my statement crude.

“Always the scientist?” Hugh asked with a surprised look. “I wasn’t thinking about working together in quite those terms, but you’re right. He’ll be helping.”

“I’m hard-wired like Dad.”

“I see that. From what he’d said about you and your achievements at such a young age, I thought you must be like him.”

“Thank you for suggesting samples of his prion subtype for my use. I’ll need brain tissue, lymph nodes, skeletal muscle, and bone marrow.”

“I can complete the collection by early afternoon.” Hugh made notes on a yellow pad. “You want the specimens in liquid nitrogen and brain tissue in formalin, right?”

 I nodded. “I could return to pick them up later today after I check on my animals at the lab. I haven’t been to the lab in days.”

“That works for me. Do you want to see him one more time?”

“No. We said our good-byes.”

Hugh walked with me toward the front door. “So, who’s this Westphal guy?”

I stiffened, not wanting to rehash the ugly scene. “A drunk prion researcher who forced his way into my lab one night and tried to rape me.”

“Why isn’t the bastard in prison?” Hugh opened the building door. We exited to the parking lot.

“A security guard dragged him away. He went to rehab instead of prison.”

Hugh walked with me in silence. I opened a back door to let Blaze out. She woofed a greeting and ran to him.

“Blaze and I know each other.” Hugh petted her. “She’s a great dog. Nolan loved her.”

“I know.” I took her tail wagging as a positive sign. Dogs know who to trust.

The dog returned and jumped in. Hugh closed the door and leaned against the car to talk. “This isn’t a good time to talk business, but I’m concerned about a call I got from the CDC in Atlanta this morning. I think you’d want to know.”

“Why did the CDC call?”

“Three worrisome human prion deaths occurred over the past few weeks in Idaho. They just got a diagnosis on the one from last week on a guy that died about two hours south of Medicine Falls, just across the state line.”

“What are the prion subtypes?”

“A bovine spongiform encephalopathy variant, mad cow disease in cow country. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob just like the Brits.” Hugh looked around the parking lot. He whispered, “It looks bad. They’re considering Idaho a hotspot and are sending out an investigative team.”

“That’s ominous. We have to find the source immediately. Any hint of prion disease spreading in this area would devastate the local economy.” I opened my car door and turned back to him. “Call me if you have any more news. I hope we’re not ground zero for a pandemic.”

“We have to get ready for one. I hope there’s a quick explanation.”

“Right. The Montana beef industry would collapse.” I drove away, distracted from my grief by the potential disastrous outbreak of the fatal disease.

Chapter 3

A Voice from the Dead

Two miles south of Medicine Falls, I turned onto a dead-end road. Ten miles on the gradually climbing road brought me to the renowned high-security laboratory where my research waited. Orange sunlight through loops of concertina razorwire atop the perimeter fence cast spiraling shadows across the parking lot. I scanned the twelve-foot-tall chain-link external perimeter fence surrounding a moat of dead ground that extended to a similar electrified inner perimeter eight-foot fence. Nothing could get across that barrier.

Westward toward two deer corrals, a man was mingling with the animals. How wonderful it would have been to catch a glimpse of Dad out checking the deer instead of a stranger.

Blaze waited in the car with the window lowered, watching the deer. I walked across the parking lot toward the Administration Building to tell Dr. Reilly of my father’s death. On my arrival from Cleveland, the argumentative director had stuck me in an old lab in a wing of that. It irked me that the level 3 biocontainment lab NIH Headquarters had promised wasn’t ready when I arrived.

A guard waved me through the tallest fence, then through a metal detector and inside the electrified fence. A collection of single-story brown wooden buildings was laid out in an arc toward the east. West of Admin was the new four-story brick integrated restrictive facility that everyone called the IRF, which contained all biological security levels, including my new lab. The IRF architecture matched the large veterinary facility at the back of the thirty-acre compound.

I pushed the buzzer.

The security chief, Sgt. Les Collucci, opened the door.

“Hi, Sarge. Have you seen Reilly today?”

“He’s here somewhere.” Sarge’s eyes widened. “Is something wrong?”

“Dad died last night.” I took a deep breath and tried to hold back tears.

“Dr. Archer, I’m so sorry.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “We sure missed seeing him around the lab after he retired.”

“Thanks. I didn’t want to come here today, but I need to talk with Bernie Goff about my animals.” I wiped my eyes. “While I’m here, I’ll tell Dr. Reilly of Dad’s death, though I doubt if he cares.”

Sarge contemplated a moment. “You may be right. I’ll walk out to the animal compound with you. I need to talk to Dr. Goff about an alarm.” With his dark hair and white sideburns, he looked handsome in the NIH dark uniform pants and white shirt. His friendliness brightened my workdays. If he were single and a little younger, I’d be even more drawn to him.

Sarge and I took a shortcut through the ancient coffee room. Metal chairs with permanently butt-indented orange Naugahyde cushions sat along Formica tables waiting for scientists and staff to arrive in caffeine withdrawal. We walked the fifty-yard path to the Vet Building and talked about my new dog responsibilities. Sarge suggested Blaze and I move into Dad’s small duplex apartment in town.

I liked the idea but would have to sanitize everything with lye solution and paint before moving in. Dad was careful, but prion disease is always fatal. The hardy, infectious proteins are resistant to all common methods of decontamination. I didn’t want to face the death my father had endured.

We entered the vet compound via double doors with fingerprint and key-card locks. Sarge asked the receptionist where to find the chief veterinarian. The young man scanned an electronic board. “Dr. Goff’s badge shows her in the monkey pod.”

Sarge turned down a long hallway.

I followed. “I’m glad you know where you’re going. I still get lost.”

“You’ve only been here a few weeks. Soon, you’ll know your way around.” He held a door open for me. “Have you gotten to know Bernie?”

“A little. She’s helpful—and funny.”

The large air-conditioned building housed hundreds of project animals. Sarge introduced me to many workers in scrub outfits who were scurrying around like rats in a maze.

“You’ll like Bernie once you get to know her better.” Sarge opened a heavy metal door into a clean area where overhead classical music mixed with monkey chatter. An occasional screech echoed off the walls. The chief vet, a fortyish, exuberant woman, held a tiny monkey with a fuzzy golf ball-sized head. “We caught you playing with baby monkeys again.”

Her compact body spun toward him, a grin on her face. “I never play, Sarge. I’m examining her.” Bernie held the baby out for us to see.

“She’s adorable.” I stroked her soft fur with one finger. “How old is she?”

“Two days. She weighs about a pound. Put on a gown if you want to hold her.” Bernie nodded toward a cage. “Her mother is one of the disease-free controls. We moved your control pair to the cage against the far wall.”

The uninfected rhesus pair I used to compare with the test animals chattered and played. They swung around inside their large cage like they would have moved from branch to branch in their natural habitat.

I held the tiny baby. Her large, inquisitive eyes looked at my face, and her slender fingers gripped my thumb.

Bernie watched our interaction. “Don’t be getting too attached to her. You’ll be asking me for a pet monkey for your office instead of a hooded rat.”

“Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that.” I uncurled the delicate fingers holding my thumb and handed the baby back to Bernie.

“She’s docile now, but the older ones are pests. You’d get no work done with a monkey scrambling around your office.” Bernie placed the baby back with the mother and tossed her gloves into a trash can. “Sarge, your board alarm turned out to be a faulty freezer sensor. They checked it out this morning and installed a replacement.”

“Glad it’s solved. I enjoyed the walk with Callie. Have a good meeting, ladies.” He disappeared toward the exit.

Bernie removed her gown and washed her hands. “You can trust him, unlike a few others at this facility.”

I took a deep breath, preparing myself to again say the words I dreaded. “Bernie, Dad died last night.”

“Oh, no, Callie.” She threw her arms around me. “I’m so sorry. I’ve really missed him. My staff loved him.” She wiped her eyes. “We worked side by side for years. He was a meticulous researcher. Why are you back at work so soon?”

“I’d rather be working than home crying.”

“I understand. I suppose you want to check your animals?”

I nodded.

“The rodents are fine. They’re eating, looking good.”

“And the monkeys?”

“Not so good. I was going to call you.”

Bernie led me to a biocontainment wing. “The controls are adjusting to the new surroundings, but in morning review, the vet techs in charge of the infected pair said they weren’t eating much a few days ago.” She keyed open the door. “Now they’re agitated and falling from the bars.”

I followed Bernie along a corridor. “These athletic monkeys rarely fall. Don’t you think it’s too early for them to be showing signs of disease?”

“You’re the expert on that. We haven’t done prion studies on primates here before. You’re the first.

My two-foot-tall rhesus monkeys huddled in a far corner of their cage. As we approached, the female reached with a trembling arm for a climbing bar and missed. She sprawled on her back.

I hated seeing the monkeys sick and hoped my treatment would stop the disease in primates like it did in rodents. Success would pave the way for the first human study. Maybe my research could save others from Dad’s fate.

“I know distorted vision evolves to paranoia in human prion disease,” Bernie noted. “I can’t test subtle vision changes in monkeys like you do in humans, but now this pair has abnormal neurological signs we can follow to evaluate the effect of the treatment.” She scanned a chart. “When do you want to start the drugs?”

“Tomorrow morning. All I need is an accurate weight for each one to calculate their doses.”

Bernie handed me two clipboards. “Here are their weights from this morning.”

The female struggled to get up. Bernie’s eyes widened. “Oh my god, Callie, I think she’s pregnant! Look at her belly.”

I stared at the struggling animal. “Damn it! How could they have been so careless at the Cleveland lab to give me a pregnant monkey?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Dr. Kuffel’s experiences as an ER physician and pilot energize her writing. Search and rescue, sled dog racing in Alaska, and surviving a plane crash in the snowy mountains of Idaho inspire stories. She lives in Montana with her husband and two dogs where she rises early to watch sunrise over the Rocky Mountains and writes in several genres.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Biologic and medical thrillers are a natural continuum of my interests in science, emergency care, and human resiliency.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
Stories and characters invade my thoughts asking to appear in print. I’m never without a topic.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
In 1995 the first human case of prion disease from eating beef from mad cows occurred in Great Britain. The infectious protein killed hundreds of humans before scientists identified the cause and stopped the spread. The book is fictional, but prion disease is real & spreading in wild game today.