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Uninvited guest
Laurie’s eyes were glued to the light of her screens. Xander’s head was propped on her shoulder, mouth slightly agape, breathing the slow and steady rhythm of sleep. The cabin lights were long ago darkened and only a few halos of light were scattered among the seats. Laurie detested sleeping on planes. She found them utterly uncomfortable despite the snuggly shoulder of her intern. Really should give him a real title someday. The passage of night mid-atlantic was torturous for her. Therefore, she stared at her screen, reading and consuming with aimless abandon all she could about the pharmaceutical company Natalie tipped her to.

They changed planes in New York. Laurie was never so pleased to see the run down halls of JFK as then. It’d been a good year since walking on State soil (excluding the US Embassy in Sierra Leone). First thing she did was go to McDonalds for a crappy hamburger and coke.

She dozed on the flight to Dallas, but eventually, they landed and the long, torturous taxi across bridges and endless tarmacs finally brought the plane to their terminal. More freshly rested than she was, Xander figured out their transportation to a cheap hotel situated just outside Ft. Worth. The neighborhood wasn’t the best, but you couldn’t go wrong with a Holiday Inn in her opinion. drew enough revenue to pay for their needs (technically including their salaries), but she wasn’t made of money.

Finally, she collapsed on the bed and slept off the jet lag.
Jet lag sucked.

She did all the right things to combat the change in time zone, but they literally traversed the world from one side to the opposite. It was going to take more than a nap and melatonin to get her wake-cycles straight.

Thus, she was awake most of the night, wallet screens hovering like drones, all over her bed. She wore stretchy shorts and a tank-top, her typical sleep wear, and basically became a recluse until she was alive during the daylight. She sat cross-legged in the center of a cocoon of images with a data pad balanced on one knee.  

Just like all human research trials, Orion Pharmacotherapies had to register their projects with a federal overwatch database. They monitored safety and ethical design of human subjects research and it read like a book of stereo instructions – whatever those were.

She scrolled through names of projects that were mostly beyond her comprehension. After the common cold was cured and the company that cured it made a gazillion dollars, others sought the keys to cure all human maladies. If the cold virus with all of its complexities had a real treatment, anything could be cured. Which was why the Sickness was so frustrating to basically the whole world of science. Nobody could cure it.

One study caught her eye, and she clicked on the link to its description page. The title wasn’t outstanding in any particular way. The odd thing was the date of submission.
It was approved in a fraction of the time of all the other projects.

She scrolled the page, making notes on her data pad as she went. The start date of the project was two years ago. There was information about participant recruitment, design and outcomes to achieve. Something to do with cancer lineages and immortalized cancer cell lines.. A long list of researchers populated the identity of the scientists…
Alberto Watt
Eliza Zamora
Gideon Eaton
Alistair Levine
Raul Diaz

Diaz’s name led her to opening yet another screen and looking up his credentials. Dark hair’ed, and big, flashy smile, she already found him irritating just looking at his picture. Nothing seemed unusual so she went back to the first screen.

Approval for the project that seemed to fly through the red tape of federal instutitions came from the office of Roswell Jenkins, a name that sounded familiar though she wasn’t sure why.

When she clicked on his picture, her brows lifted high.

She’d met him before. When she lived in DC, a gala, she remembered it clearly, particularly when she realized she was speaking with a doctor in a room full of politicians. They weren’t common in politics, though not outstandingly rare. He was an upper level administrator at the National Institutes of Health. Given that funding for the institute was cut dramatically in recent decades compared to the glory-days of its height in the early 2000’s, she assumed he was there to advocate for his institution. He was particularly chummy with Holden, the then Speaker of the House..

She added more notes, wrote out some names on the data pad and connected lines between them. Question marks filled the margins.

There was an address for the trial consistent with the headquarters of Orion Pharmacotherapies, but there was a second address listed as “off-site data analysis” – an odd addition. Why wouldn’t they analyze their data at HQ? Was it a collaboration? So she summoned what felt like the fiftieth screen and looked it up, expecting to find some sort of anonymous office building. Instead, the address wasn’t found at all.

Growling, she flicked to a more powerful satellite image server. All public domain, the grid-like view of streets and corners shifted to a 3d birds’ eye view of the surrounding area. She zoomed in, transitioned to walking-view and found herself staring at a chain-link fence, a brick building boarded up with plywood, and a sign dangling from the door that said CLOSED. An old building filled the view while the little symbol hovering overhead linked the correct address. She had no way of knowing what the building was originally.

Obviously that wasn’t right.

The images must be outdated. They must have demolished and rebuilt on the site. Maybe a bill of sale for the lot..? She soon fell down a rabbit hole for records of land sales.


She went back to the map, walked it frame by frame, but they seemed odd. The building’s image wasn’t quite as sharp as the frames up and down the block. More shadows stretched the yard compared to sunny views surrounding it.

Finally, she saw the time stamp in the corner, and she leaned in close to read the tiny print. That confirmed it. Every quadrant around the building had a last-updated satellite frame from 5 months ago. This one was years older.

Why update everything on the map except this one frame? Was it just not worth updating, or was something rebuilt in its place? What exactly was this building and what went on inside there?
The address was probably an hour south of the city and not an easy drive-by. Laurie’s curiosity may get her killed someday, but the next night, she was in a car and speeding along the highway at speeds that made her intern nervous. The car’s GPS – a rental but still reliable – led them to a semi-small town about half way to Waco. What remained of downtown was a short mainstreet and boarded up businesses. A gas station was closed for the night. An old post-office was never demolished – the US Postal Service was was disbanded ten years ago in favor of de-centralized mailing services. Finally, the GPS brought them to a scenery she recognized. The map of the area formed in her head. Sure enough satellite images shown true. They drove toward the brick building, car rolling ever-slower.

When she saw someone standing on a corner, she turned a block premature. The shape carried a rifle at the ready. “Damn, Xander. Did you see that?!” she asked him. He was already snapping pictures.

Laurie circled the area twice more, but never made it closer. The only thing they made out were flood lights, a tall fence, and people standing guards on corners. Guests were clearly unwelcome, which meant Lawrence had to find out what was happening in there as soon as possible.

Frustrated, but not wanting to probe any further, they parked along the curb on main street while she thought. She glanced out the window, studied the old post-office, and promptly got out of the car. A little rummage through the trunk pulled out a crow-bar. It wasn’t long before she shoved open the back door and let herself inside.

Nobody cared about old USPS buildings. Faded grafitti decorated the exterior, nobody came around here in a while. Metal file cabinets lined a stock-room. Xander worriedly held a flashlight over her shoulder as she rummaged through the drawers. ”Bingo,” she said, pulling out a list of mail routes.

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