In a few hours, he would be on his way home, where he would no longer have to be polite to pushy women like Margie.
He took the second-floor walkway to the Vet Sciences building on Commonwealth Avenue as Margie tried to make sense of the petri dishes in front of her. She’d inoculated them the day before with an assigned unknown bacteria. Correct identification of all species of bacteria in the sample was a major part of the final grade in her course.
The bacterial samples she’d worked with as an intern at Cold Spring Harbor last summer were pure laboratory strains, and she’d developed bad habits in the lab. When Ann, the lab teaching assistant, reminded her that she had three different bacteria in her unknown and demonstrated the correct technique to separate them, Margie became huffy. If a laboratory that had won eight Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine praised her work, who was Ann to criticize her?
Had she paused to think, Margie would have realized that techniques adequate for culturing pure laboratory strains may be totally inadequate for working with mixed or contaminated bacterial samples. Instead, she ignored Ann’s advice.
Tonight, for the fourth time she put a glass slide on the microscope stage, adjusted the focus, and saw tiny red rods scattered among small blue balls. Another in a string of impossible answers to her lab tests!
It was supposed to be a fun course, but life is hard when you ignore the advice of experts and cling to a conviction that you’re right, despite evidence to the contrary. True, it works in politics, advertising, and marketing, but it sucks in science. Every test Margie ran produced contradictory results.
Margie was under pressure. A straight-A student since kindergarten, she had been a grade hound through high school, her undergraduate education, and for almost four years of vet school. She was so close to being a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine she could taste it, but now she faced a flunking grade and expulsion from vet school. Even were she readmitted to the veterinary program next year, getting into graduate school or an internship at a veterinary college would be difficult with a low grade in this stinking three-credit course.
Margie went over the edge. “Again! It doesn’t make sense.” She slammed her palm on the lab bench, tears welling in her eyes. “Miserable fucking three-credit lab course.” She sat on her lab stool and sobbed in frustration. Margie was in a raging hell of her own making as Ahmed entered the main hallway of the Vet Sciences building and headed for the elevator.
He took the elevator down two floors and walked west down a dark basement corridor. Others might walk hunched over in an unlit basement hallway. That wasn’t his style, and style was important. He’d never worn the cutoffs and T-shirt that were the spring, summer, and fall uniform of grad students in the basic sciences. A patrician in his native land, in his five years at Minnesota he’d dressed better than most of the faculty. Lazy and snobbish, he valued appearance and status over ability and knowledge.
Grad students were expected to work like slaves. Ahmed had never been treated like that at home and hadn’t submitted to it here. That didn’t go over well with the faculty, and he bounced from one graduate advisor to another. As his government liberally funded his education and his research, the graduate school couldn’t afford to expel him. Instead, the dean borrowed a page from the tactics of used car salesmen to coax graduate advisors to overlook his faults in return for supplemental funding for their projects. It remained a hard sell until Professor Nagabushana agreed to take him on.
Nagabushana was a short man, an East Indian with a dark complexion and a bushy, black mustache. Years ago he’d asked everyone to call him John or Naga as Americans seemed unable to wrap their lips around the syllables of his given name. He was sharp, but he often made his points crudely and aggressively, and he didn’t know when to shut up when talking to university administrators. He often spoke too loudly for his own good, too.
Shortly after Naga took him on, Ahmed heard him talking with another professor. “Damn! Look at this letter.” Naga had thrown a paper on his desk. “The dean of the graduate school has threatened to pull my right to have graduate students if another of my graduate students quits. My career will be ruined.”
An hour later, Ahmed complained to Naga that he had too much work and threatened to quit. Naga was trapped. He had no recourse other than to do the work for Ahmed.
Naga hadn’t taken the abuse silently. He’d railed against Ahmed and insulted him daily, but Ahmed knew he had leverage, and he used it. Naga despised sloth and sloppy work as only a man who’d worked hard all his life can, and Ahmed’s air of entitlement had grated on him even before he’d forced Naga to do most of the work on his project. Ahmed was Pakistani, and Naga was Indian. That had made things worse.
Ahmed patted his airplane tickets to Pakistan in the breast pocket of his jacket as he walked down the dark hallway. In a few hours, Naga wouldn’t be able to touch him.
Ahmed stopped at the door to a lab. He entered, turned on the lights, and checked the numbers on three upright freezers in the far corner, searching for the one in which Naga stored the samples from their studies. He could take his time. Anyone who happened to walk by wouldn’t see him. He was screened from the door by outmoded or unused lab equipment piled on the long lab bench running the length of the room. The bright light from the long florescent tubes in the ceiling-mounted light fixtures made reading the numbers easy. The freezer identified, he pulled out his key.
It didn’t fit the padlock on the latch welded to the freezer door. The padlock didn’t look like the standard ones the university used, and it was so new the price sticker was still on it.
He dug through his book bag and brought out a small hacksaw. This would take longer than planned, but he had time. He was getting cramps in his hand and forearm by the time the saw broke through the last of the hardened steel of the padlock. The lock off, he found the samples from his studies and pulled them out. Naga would need these for future work. Good luck with that, he thought. Tonight, Ahmed was taking revenge for the insults and expletives Naga had thrown at him over the last two years.
As he pulled the last of his samples from the freezer, he noticed a new box of samples sitting next to his. He read the label on the box: A. Hartman/J. Mitchell, BCV Calf Study # 3. Ahmed examined the white cardboard box, his mouth hanging open.
These were the samples from the BCV study! That explained the new padlock. He opened the box. Six inches on a side and four inches tall, it was nearly empty. There were only ten small plastic vials in a box with slots for fifty.
He’d heard about the study and its startling results. After the story of Paul’s instructions got around, even the janitors were talking about the virus, the FBI’s involvement, and the conspiracy to keep it quiet.
Ahmed smiled. He’d picked up skills in manipulating people in the years of playing his parents against each other. Those skills gave him the courage to seize this opportunity. In his imagination, new possibilities sprouted like weeds in an empty lot. His hands held a potential weapon, a weapon of mass destruction. He let his mind wander lightly over the trouble spots of the world.
North Korea—no. That government had scientists of its own. They’d have no need to keep him around once he delivered the virus. He could end up a tastefully dressed corpse.
Pakistan? He didn’t want to be anywhere near his parents, and the government already had nuclear weapons. They had no reason to work on something as chancy as biological weapons. Ahmed wasn’t familiar with whatever unrest was present in South America, and sub-Saharan Africa was too poor to consider. There were so many pathogens rampant in the populations and wildlife already that one more was unlikely to impress a government.
He needed a client who would pay, a client without a cadre of virologists to question his expertise or do the work themselves. His client must not be on friendly terms with the U. S. Extradition was such a nasty word. His future compatriots should have money—or provide a home where living high could be done on the cheap.
Insurgents? Jihadists? He’d never had a modicum of sympathy for their causes, but he could be flexible. He could even play religious zealot if the pay was right, living was comfortable, and no one expected him to become a martyr. With jihadist and insurgent groups multiplying from Ethiopia to Somalia and north to Syria, he was certain he could parlay these samples into wealth and independence with one of them.
He shoved his plans for revenge aside and stuffed the vials from the box into his book bag. But what if Ann or Jason checked their samples before he could disappear? An empty box was too obvious. He smiled as he remembered that samples frozen at minus seventy quickly frost over when brought from the freezer, making it difficult to read the attached labels. Any vials of the right size might delay discovery. He replaced the stolen samples with vials from his study, examined the box critically, and congratulated himself. The box would pass a cursory inspection.
His bike chain and padlock were in his book bag. He put his padlock on the freezer, and made sure it was locked. Satisfied a casual observer wouldn’t notice anything amiss with the freezer, he checked his watch. It was getting late; he’d have to hurry to pack and make his plane. Ahmed threw his book bag over his shoulder and hustled to the elevator.
Two floors above, Margie stomped out of the lab, tears blurring her vision. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and wiped her nose, silently cursing the teaching assistants in the lab. Her work had been praised at Cold Spring Harbor, one of the premier molecular labs in the world! It couldn’t be her fault if she flunked a simple lab course in a fucking fly-over school!
She took the elevator down and stormed through the door as soon as it opened, slamming into a well-dressed teaching assistant equally impatient to get on the elevator.
The man glared at her. He shoved her out of his way, pushing her back into the elevator. “Watch where you’re going, slut.”
The elevator door closed, and Margie was trapped with the bastard. She lunged past him and hit the “door open” button. He shoved her against the elevator wall and aimed a finger at the “close door” button. Margie wasn’t going to be a docile victim if this guy was thinking of sexual assault. She blocked his hand and forced him to turn toward her.
Margie had never even slapped a stranger before, but she’d never been this pissed off and had a jerk give her an excuse, either. “You miserable—” a knee there, “fucking—” swing with an elbow here, “male chauvinist—” a kick to the kneecap, “—pig,” and her years of martial arts training had paid off. The elevator door was open. She stepped over the moaning figure on the floor and strutted down the hallway to the exit and the student parking lot, her tears forgotten.
Outside, Margie took a deep breath of the sharp Minnesota spring air and walked to her car in the moonlight. “God, it’s a beautiful night to be alive,” she told the empty parking lot.
Ahmed lay motionless for several minutes, blood spraying in a mist from his broken nose. He moved to a kneeling position and screamed from the pain in his knee and groin. Using the steel handrails in the elevator, he struggled to a standing position and punched the button for the second floor. Gasping in pain, he hobbled into the hallway when the elevator doors opened.
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