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Smaller Fleas That Bite 'Em

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"Surprise!" yelled seemingly everyone I'd ever met more than once in my life as I stepped into my apartment.

Like hell it was.

I didn't react until everyone was looking at me and waiting for a response. "No it isn't," I replied.

Half the jaws in the room dropped. A few people smirked. They were generally the people who knew me best. Debbie was grinning. I was obviously getting too predictable in my old age.

Dolmacher was the first to break the silence. "You're no fun at all, ST," he said.

He was a part of the fine tradition of people being hired by GEE after we cost them their jobs. In his case, we ended up completely shutting down his employer, Biotronics, but not until after he'd been infected with a superbug that nearly melted his liver and tried to assassinate a presidential candidate with a paintball gun. It was a long story. He'd handled himself pretty well though, and we figured the least we could do was offer him a job. He was a halfway competent scientist, even if he was a dweeb.

He'd been with us over twenty years now. He was still a halfway competent scientist and he was still a dweeb.

"How did you know?" he asked?

I'd known someone was going to ask that, so I had my answer prepared. "Firstly," I said, "it's my fiftieth birthday and I knew that you guys weren't going to let that pass without reminding me that I was getting old. And secondly, some of you" -- I looked straight at Dolmacher as I said that -- "have been acting far too secretive recently. You make it too easy, sometimes."

It was all a big lie, of course. I actually knew because Bart had borrowed my laptop a week or so back and forgot to log out of Facebook. My nosiness got the better of my scruples, and I learned about my surprise party. There was no way I was going to tell them that though.

It ended up being a pretty good party, all told. It turned out to be less of a reminder that I was getting old and more of a reminder that I was still young. The main differences from the parties of my twenties were that I didn't have to clean anyone's projectile vomit from my shoes and that the embarrassing photos were on Facebook within five minutes rather than taking weeks to be developed, photocopied and passed around. I could live with that though. It certainly beat the night in playing Call of Duty and bitching at Debbie about how I was getting old that I'd planned otherwise.

I woke up the next morning with a hangover. Luckily, I didn't have anywhere I needed to be, so I stumbled through to the kitchen for a big glass of water. I drank that and popped a couple of acetaminophen, then went back to bed.

Next thing I knew, someone was poking me in the side and telling me to get up. Or rather, telling me "wake up, you lazy ass". My brain struggled to make sense of this as it slowly regained consciousness. I recognized the voice. Oh right. Debbie. My wife. I knew better than to keep her waiting, so I sat up blearily and made a show of stretching and rubbing my eyes.

"What do you want?" I asked. We had an unwritten agreement. I got up when she needed me to and she didn't expect me to be coherent or civil or any of those other niceties that weren't made for mornings. Or two in the afternoon in this case, as a glance at the clock told me.

"I've got something interesting here that I need you to look at" she said with a grin. She knew that would get my attention. She was right.

These days, my official job title at GEE was "Senior Consultant". What that actually meant was that I was too useful for them to get rid of but too much of an asshole for them to keep around. So they kept on paying me a small wage, just enough to make sure I didn't decide to look for a job elsewhere, and in return they expected to spend most of my time sitting around doing nothing or making a general nuisance of myself, but then they'd call me in whenever they had anything interesting going on that actually needed my talents.

It worked pretty well. The problem I had with the routine work these days was that it was too easy. Keeping up with the news was a joke when you could just have Google Alerts email it all to you. Same with doing research. Add in modern cell phones and you pretty much cut out the need for planning before a job. Anyone with half a brain could just figure things out as they went along these days. It was a good thing, of course it was. We'd been able to bring down a lot more toxic crooks with the help of modern technology than we would have been able to without it. It bored me half to death, though. I missed the old days. I wouldn't be caught dead admitting that, though. Only old people miss the old days, and fifty or not, there was no way I was an old person.

Every so often, though, some bastard freak of a case would come up, and that's where I came in. There was still nobody else in GEE New England as good as me at twisted genius.

So when Debbie told me that she had something interesting for me to look at, I expected a fun week. Debbie was good at what she did. There were a few people with the company who would call me up with something they thought was interesting, but was actually tedious and obvious but apparently beyond them. Debbie wasn't one of them. If she said it was interesting, it was going to be interesting.

She was gracious enough to let me eat breakfast before we got down to business, though not gracious enough to make it for me. I had to ask her to, even though I knew what the answer was going to be. It was nothing to do with sexism, just me being a lazy ass. Still, it was a good thing that she didn't let me get my own way. Being married to a doormat wouldn't have suited me.

Breakfast was two slices of toast and a large mug of slightly-too-hot coffee. Caffeine was a gross violator of Sangamon's Principle coming in at 24 atoms per molecule, even worse than the 20 of the acetaminophen from that morning. I didn't care, though. I was too much of a pragmatist not to value actually being awake over my principles.

After I'd finished my toast and the first half of my coffee, we sat down to talk business.

"So what's going on?" I asked.

"Greater rice weevils."

Scratch that. Apparently, we weren't going to talk business. We were going to talk weevils.

Apparently, my skepticism made it onto my face. "I know, I know," said Debbie. "Hear me out, OK?"

She unfolded a proper old-school on-paper map of Western Mass, and started pointing at marks that had been made on it.

"It's something that Kim and Theresa have been working on," she explained. "Last Friday, this farm here recorded a case of greater rice weevils. Then on Saturday, they showed up at two more farms, here and here. Sunday, five more. Monday, another 9."

I'd heard enough. The picture she was painting for me was one of a fairly straightforward epidemic, spreading out from a central point. Knowing the area, they were probably hippy organic farms who were afraid of pesticide too. For some reason, everyone always thinks that I'd be in favor of organic farming, but I'm not. Organic farming is just another name for unintensive farming which is just another name for using more resources to produce the same amount of food. If you do it right, there's nothing wrong with pesticides and GM foods. No matter how much you mess with its genes, it's impossible to grow a carrot that will melt your internal organs. Anything nasty enough to turn your liver to soup would just as easily liquefy the carrot. At the basic cellular level you're too similar to a carrot.

So no, I wasn't going to lose any sleep over a few hippy farms getting caught out by a weevil epidemic because they insisted on farming as if they were still in the dark ages. I said as much to Debbie.

"I knew you were going to say that," she said.

I should have figured that out. She'd not have built up such a neat and obvious explanation if she wasn't about to knock it down. With great gusto. I'd have noticed that if I'd been properly awake.

"The odd thing is," she continued, "that this farm here" -- pointing at the map -- "should have been right in the centre of everything, but they haven't had a single weevil."

"Haven't had, or haven't reported?" I asked. There was a big difference.

"Haven't had. Kim and Theresa paid them a visit and checked."

I nodded, so she carried on, "Then on Tuesday, things got really weird. The weevils stopped spreading any further and the crops that had been infested got better. Or at least, they stopped getting worse. Seems that the weevils all died."

Now that was interesting. You might think it's a good thing when plants suddenly stop dying, but it's not. We have a fairly good idea of how nature works, and things just shouldn't happen that suddenly. If you find an animal population suddenly soaring, it probably means that something nasty has happened to their main predator. If you find toxic waste suddenly disappearing from a harbor, it probably means that some bastard has figured out how to genetically modify bacteria to eat it, and that never ends well. What environmentalists like to see is slow and gradual changes in the right direction. Sudden changes make us nervous.

It's always possible to come up with a natural explanation for any sudden change, but normally you have to squint really hard to see them. I'd devised Sangamon's Razor for exactly this sort of case: If there were two explanations for an environmental phenomenon and only one involved a multinational corporation being assholes, then that was probably the right explanation.

Yes, I was cynical. Yes, that's why I was so good at my job.

I decided to go back to bed. I think better in bed. I tried to convince Debbie to join me -- for "brainstorming", I said -- but she declined. Something about having other work to do and how unlike some people she didn't get paid to stay in bed all day.

I came up with a plan that evening and so next morning I got up ungodly early and got into a van heading west along the I-90 to investigate the farm that had remained weevil-free. It was owned by Agricorp USA Ltd (a wholly owned subsidiary of Agricorp International). The horrible name alone was already a black mark.

My companions for the journey were Debbie, driving, and two of her interns at GEE, Kim and Theresa. They were a dyke couple in their early twenties who had met at Smith in an environmental science class, but I didn't hold the walking stereotype thing against them. Kim was about 5'6", average build, and with the standard issue lesbian haircut that made her look like a fiercer version of Justin Bieber. Theresa was about 4'11" with short, spiky red hair. She also had the sort of vindictive, vicious cunning that only a person shorter than 5 foot and named for a famous nun could possibly developed. She was also wicked cute, but I'd never tell her to her face. I valued my testicles too much.

After they'd graduated, they'd moved east to Boston with the specific purpose of joining GEE, been signed on as interns, and attached themselves to Debbie. They pretty much idolized her, which I couldn't blame them for one bit. The only fault they seemed to be able to find with her was that she'd married a guy. That part I did blame them for.

Debbie thought highly of them, though. They'd mostly been working out of the offices or labs so far, dealing with press releases, making phone calls, dissecting dead fish, that sort of thing. Debbie had decided it was time that they got out in the field and got their vegan Docs wet, so they were along for the ride as well.

They dropped me off at a GEE site just outside of Worcester. This was where we kept one of my favorite toys, our Quicksilver ultralight aircraft. It had originally been donated to us seven years back by an enthusiast who couldn't fly it any more after she'd developed complications from a cancer she'd been given by some toxic criminals we'd shut down. She figured we could find some way to use it, and she'd been right.

There were a lot of things you could do from the air that you couldn't do from the ground. Taking air samples for pollution for one thing. Performing rudimentary airdrops for another. I was probably the only person in the world who knew precisely how much horse shit you could carry from a Quicksilver ultralight and the best way to drop it. You had to be careful not to hit anyone, of course, but literally taking a dump from a great height on the people who were doing that figuratively to the environment was unbelievably mediapathic. Not to mention satisfying.

The plan for investigating the weevils was nothing nearly so involved. I was just going to be doing a bit of aerial surveillance and photography and generally making myself as conspicuous as I could while the other three did the real work.

Once I was up in the air, it was a simple matter to fly west and find the conspicuously immune farm. Once I was there, my main problem was finding enough things to do to give Debbie and the others time to slip in and take all the samples they needed. It shouldn't take them more than an hour at the outside to get everything they needed, but I'd learned always to try to allow more time than expected. Trying to cut things fine is a sure way of making sure that something was going to go wrong.

I started off by doing a simple surveillance run, flying over the area and checking for anything odd. It looked like a farm to me. Actually, it looked exactly like the farm I'd looked at the night before on the satellite images from Google Maps. A bit less blurry in person, but otherwise the same. It was always good to check, though. You never knew when someone had put up a toxic waste dump, bear bile factory or missile silo if you didn't look, and Google Maps were never entirely up to date.

There was nothing, though, so from that point on, it was pretty much just stalling. Taking photos was the obvious next step, and I was extremely thorough with that, covering each square millimeter at least twice. Changing the SD card every so often helped eat up a bit more time too. I had to assume I was being watched closely, probably through binoculars, so I had to put on a show. If they figured out that I was just flying around aimlessly then they'd probably start wondering why. They probably still wouldn't figure it out in time, but I didn't want to even give them the chance.

For my next trick, I started flying back and forth, methodically, as if there was something specific I was looking for. Every so often, I'd stop my fake search and circle around above one random spot for a couple of minutes, taking more photos. I had no clue what they might be hiding but I did know that everyone was hiding something, and planned to do my part in developing their guilty conscience.

I'd just started circling around my second random spot when my walkie-talkie crackled into life. Pretty much everyone had stopped using walkie-talkies years ago, but I still swore by them. Cell phones may seem like a better idea, but when you're using cell phones, there's an extra relay in the transmission where things can get fucked up. There were people and even companies who I'd trust not to fuck up when I was doing a covert op, but Verizon and AT&T weren't among them. Not even close. The other thing was that sending a signal through the open airwaves was actually more secure. Make a phone call, and someone can tap it, or they can subpoena the carrier to get a recording. Talk on a walkie-talkie and once it's said, it's gone. Sure, other people could pick up the message if they thought to, but nobody ever did. Nobody ever figured we'd use anything other than phones.

"Top Hat to Pink Tutu," came Debbie's voice over the walkie-talkie. I'd managed to convince her to use them instead of phones when we worked together, but only if she got to pick our call-signs. With hindsight, that had been a mistake.

"Top Hat to Pink Tutu. Come in, Pink Tutu." I could hear Kim and Theresa sniggering in the background. Good. All accounted for and all in good spirits.

"Pink Tutu here. Good to hear from you, Top Hat."

"Good to hear from you too, Pink Tutu. We're ready for lunch whenever you are." Our agreed code for "everything went according to plan and we're out without problems". Just because nobody ever eavesdropped on walkie-talkie transmissions any more didn't mean we were careless.

"Great. I'll be with you as soon as I can. Pink Tutu out."

I'd stay in the air a while longer, finish up the set of photos I was taking, at least. Leaving in the middle of something would make anyone watching suspicious.

At least, that was the plan.

It can't have been more than thirty seconds after that that I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I turned around for a better look. Another plane. Only a small one or two seater by the looks of it, but still a behemoth compared to my Quicksilver. And it was heading straight for me. Fuck. I decided to ignore it and carry on. If they were making efforts trying to scare me off, it meant they had something to hide and I hadn't found it yet.

While I flew in tight circles and took photos, they flew larger circles above me. That was OK. I could play the waiting game. It wasn't until I resumed my sweep that they acted. Once I was flying in straight lines again, I was a much easier target. They set themselves up directly in front of me and flew straight towards me, setting up a head on collision.

Having someone try to fly a plane straight into your face is one of those events that really focuses the mind. Several thoughts went through my head all at once. The loudest one was "oh shit oh shit I'm going to die."

Beyond that, I managed to quickly assess the situation. First, I knew that if they wanted me dead, I was dead. They were bigger and faster than I was, and their pilot was clearly more skilled than me. My only hope was that they didn't want me dead, just scared. Second, I knew that if we did hit each other, I'd definitely come off worse, but they wouldn't come out of it smelling like roses either. That definitely added credence to the "just wanting me scared" theory.

I decided to play it cool. As cool as I could when someone might be trying to kill me. I didn't try to evade at all. I just kept flying straight at them, waiting for them to flinch, like an aeronautic game of chicken. I wore my best poker face, trying to give them the impression that this was the sort of thing I did every day. I didn't even know if they could see my face, but concentrating on looking calm helped keep me feeling calm.

We got closer and closer. 600 feet. 500 feet. 400 feet. Time was going in slow motion at this point. 300 feet. I was starting to worry that they weren't going to budge when suddenly they pulled up. I offered a silent thank you to any deity that happened to be listening. That gave me the chance to land unmolested. I decided that a field in one of the neighboring farms -- one of the ones that had been hit by the weevils -- would work as a makeshift landing strip, and headed down.

I was a little bruised and battered from the unconventional landing, but I was alive. I contemplated contacting Debbie to let her know, but decided against. If she'd seen what happened, she'd have been in touch with me, and if she hadn't, there was no sense in worrying her just yet.

I walked to the nearest building, looking for someone to apologize to for the ultralight in their field. The hippy organic types probably didn't like that sort of thing. I found the farm's owner, a guy called Pete, carrying a sack of vegetables for their farmshare program.

He was a little bemused at first as I tried to explain things to him, but he came on side as he began to understand what had happened. I liked him. For a hippy type, he was surprisingly no bullshit. He told me not to worry about the plane and to send someone from GEE over to fetch it whenever we had a chance. He also told me about Agricorp. Apparently, they'd been buying up as many of the local smallholdings as they could and had been exercising some pretty nasty business tactics in doing so. He wasn't sure what they were up to, but was keen on our investigating them.

We made small talk for a while about nothing in particular. The weather. The Pats blowing a 12 point lead to lose to the Dolphins. That sort of thing. I didn't actually care about the Pats -- baseball was my game -- but I was always careful to keep up with the football too because it was so useful for small talk. Finally, I left with samples of soil, dead crops, and dead weevils, and the business card of a definite ally.

The next day, back in Boston, I went to the harbor to think. Call me weird, but with all the time I've spent their over the years, I find spending time with that noxious cesspool to be strangely calming. Actually, they've cleaned the place up a lot over the last few years. I still wouldn't drink the water there, but I don't check myself straight into hospital if I accidentally swallow some these days either. The day I knew that we'd won the battle for the harbor was the day I heard that they'd put a visitor's center on Spectacle Island. I guess they leave out the part about underground methane that could blow the place up at any time. Either way, it was the ultimate sign that things were getting cleaner. Coming down here reminded me of my victories and helped clear my head.

I sat there in the company of a roast beef sandwich, a fat seagull, and the wind off the Atlantic and thought about what we'd learned.

1. The people we were dealing with were assholes. No two ways about it.
2. I was still a bigger asshole.
3. They'd heard of me. No way they'd have been able to get that plane there so fast if they hadn't been prepared for me showing up.
4. They had something to hide.

That was precisely the way I liked things.

I could have been in the lab running soil samples through mass spec and NMR, but I wasn't. That was another part of my role as "senior consultant". It was about passing the torch, letting the younger generation take over, stuff like that. That was fine with me. I liked the ocean more than I liked the lab anyway.

For this job, Theresa was doing the chemistry that would have been my department. She was good enough that I didn't feel worried. For one thing, she'd actually finished her chemistry degree and had letters after her name to prove it. For another, her knowledge was 20 years more up to date than mine and she was less likely to start muttering about "fucking newfangled pieces of shit" when she used a gas chromatograph that had been made this century. Best of all, she was smart enough to know what she didn't know and call me if there was something that needed a second opinion.

Kim was the biologist of the two. She was a zoologist above anything else, due to a weakness for small furry things, but she had the valuable GEE attribute of being able to turn her hand to anything that was even half-way related to her field. Botany and entomology easily fell within her remit.

I guessed they'd probably bring Dolmacher in as well for some genetic wizardry. He was the same age as me, so hardly GEE: The Next Generation, but he was still sickeningly enthusiastic. He practically creamed himself every time he got to play with DNA Polymerase.

We had a meeting at 8pm that evening. The sort of meeting that involved sitting about on the couch and eating pizza. It was basically just a chance for everyone who'd been working on the case -- me, Debbie, Kim, Theresa, and Dolmacher -- to touch base and report in on what we'd discovered. In my case, that was nothing, but I wanted to hear what everyone else had to say.

Turned out that what the others had to say was pretty close to nothing as well. Chemically, the soil samples from the two different farms were pretty much identical, except that the Agricorp one had a few additional insecticides and fungicides. Neither of them contained any chemical smoking guns. No organic chlorine or heavy metals or anything like that. I wasn't expecting there to be, but I was glad Theresa was being thorough. Pretty much the most surprising thing at this point was learning that the chemicals that Agricorp was spraying its crops with were all sane and legal.

It was the same story from Kim. She'd dissected a couple of the weevils and found that they were weevils. There was nothing unusual about them anatomically, and no obvious cause of death. She talked a bit about non-obvious causes of death that she hadn't had a chance to check, but a lot of it went over my head. It was the same deal with the various crops she'd had a chance to analyze. There was nothing unusual about them, except that some of them had been eaten by weevils. Again, she had some more tests she was going to run the next day.

Finally, Dolmacher reported in, and finally we had some actual news. The oats that were being grown on the two farms we had samples from were from the same cultivar, which meant that they should have been genetically identical, save for a few mutations. They weren't. One of them had been genetically modified, and it didn't take a genius to figure out which one. Needless to say, Agricorp didn't have all the licenses they needed to run their own GM experiments.

He didn't know what the modification did yet -- seeing that something had been changed was a hell of a lot easier than figuring out what the change did -- but he was working on it. The Toxic Spiderman finally had something to work on. Actually, given that this was a team effort, I decided that we were the Toxic Fantastic Four. Plus Dolmacher. He didn't count.

I suspected that I was The Thing.

The next few days went by in something of a blur, not because they were so full of activity but because they weren't. No matter how much I tried, you just couldn't rush science, and progress was slow. Most of the tests we tried came back either negative or inconclusive. Isolating different bacteria, testing for specific chemical agents, that sort of thing. Everything was exactly as it should be, except for the inexplicable rise and fall of the weevil empire.

About the only progress we did make was outside the lab. I was searching through Agricorp's closets, seeing if I couldn't manage to pull out a few skeletons and while there wasn't much to find, I did eventually get something worth following up on. They owned a substantial piece of land in Middle-of-Nowhereville, upstate New York, allegedly used as an out-of-town retreat for meetings and team-building exercises. I didn't need to do a flyover to see that that was a lie. Google Maps had done it for me. Even from a satellite image, it's not hard to tell the difference between a high-tech science lab and a log cabin.

It fell to Debbie and Kim to go check the place out. I would have gone myself, but Theresa had some stuff she needed me to take a look at in the lab, so I had that to look forward to instead, while my wife got to have all the fun. Of course, this was just a basic fact-finding mission. Checking the place out, making contact with sympathetic locals, that sort of thing. I'd make sure I was back at the center of things when the real fun started.

When I got to the lab, Theresa was there before me. Big surprise there. After we'd said hello and I'd half-heartedly apologized for being late, I asked her what it was she wanted me to take a look at.

"Here, take a look at this," she said, handing me a printout of an NMR spectrum.

I thought aloud as I looked at it. "Lots of carbons and hydrogens, a few others, definitely some sort of long chained organic compound. How the hell should I know just from looking at it? Where did you get it?"

"The weevils. Their cells, actually. That's a phospholipid from one of their cell membranes that I centrifuged out."

"OK. So what's the problem?"

She handed me another printout. "That's what it should look like."

She paused for a few seconds to let me take a look and then carried on, "I did some digging through the journals, and there's actually quite bit on weevil cell chemistry out there. Something's up with this one, and I'm not sure what."

We spent the day trying to figure it out. It turned out to be a matter of sulfur. Chemically speaking, sulfur and oxygen do pretty much the same jobs. If you have a compound with oxygen in, you can normally take the oxygen out and replace it with sulfur and the compound will look the same. Of course, it doesn't always work. Take the oxygen out of water and replace it with sulfur and you get hydrogen sulfide: rotten egg smell. It's a good general rule though. In this case, it looked as if some of the oxygen had been replaced by sulfur and the weevil's cell membranes were made of thiophospholipids. What we didn't know was what that meant.

At about 6:30 I decided that we weren't going to get anything more done and called it a day. I invited Theresa back to my apartment. There was no sense in us both sitting around separately waiting for our other halves to get home. After we'd grabbed a quick dinner, we passed the time watching Mythbusters. Doing science, investigating the truth, and blowing shit up. They were my kind of people. It gave me and Theresa a chance to bond over having the hots for Kari Byron too.

I turned my cell on during the commercials. I'd had it off all day, because I hate distractions when I'm in the lab, but it was approaching the sort of time when I was expecting Debbie back and I didn't want to miss her if she tried to call me. Figured I may as well check my voicemail too. Two new messages.

"Um, hi. It's Pete from Shelbourne Farm. You said to call you if anything weird happened. Yeah. Something weird happened. I keep bees, and I had a case of colony collapse today. It might be coincidence but... I dunno. Call me."

Interesting. And odd. And almost certainly not a coincidence. But nothing urgent. I'd call him tomorrow. Next message.

"Ah, Mr. Taylor," it started. It was a voice I didn't recognize, and almost certainly someone I didn't like. Nobody I liked called me Mr. Taylor. "It was so nice of your wife and her little friend to pay us a visit today. We insisted they stay the night. You should come and visit too. How about tomorrow. I insist."

"Fuck!"

I swore a lot, but most of the time I didn't really mean it. It was just words. This time though, I really swore.

"Fuck!"

They had Debbie. They had Debbie and God knows what they were doing with her.

"Fuck, shit, fuck, fuck, fucking bastards!"

At some point during my invective, I noticed Theresa staring at me. I stopped swearing long enough for her to get a word in edgeways, which she did.

"What the fuck's wrong, ST?" she asked.

I didn't answer. I just turned on the speakerphone and replayed the message. She understood what it meant too.

I'd thought I was pissed, but I was as nothing compared to Theresa. She was 4'11" of pure, unadulterated rage.

"I'm going to kill them," she said with every ounce of her hatred being channeled into her voice.

"Calm down," I told her.

She didn't listen. I'm not sure if she even heard me. She just repeated herself. "I'm going to kill them."

I raised my voice and tried again. "I said, 'calm down'."

She raised her voice in reply. "And I said 'I'm going to fucking kill them'."

I cut her off before she could get any further. "You're damn right you're going to kill them. But you can't do it alone and you can't do it without a plan, so you're going to calm down, then we're going to figure out what we're going to do, and then we're going to roast these motherfucking bastards alive."

That seemed to get through to her. She grinned. It was the vast toothy grin of a predator showing you precisely what it's going to eat you with.

We planned.

We planned a lot.

We didn't get to bed until a bit after 2 in the morning. Or rather, I went to bed, and pointed Theresa at the couch. What seemed like three minutes after I fell asleep but was actually closer to three hours, my alarm went off. I reached over groggily and turned it off, and was about to roll over and go back to sleep until I remembered why I was waking up at 5am. Debbie. That motivation kept me awake for long enough to drag myself into the kitchen where caffeine did the rest.

The ride to upstate New York was spent in a combination of going over plans and singing along to the classic rock we had blasting out from the radio. It served as a good distraction from what we were about to do, while also getting us nicely pumped up and ready to go. The gods of coincidence proved they were on our side when Another One Bites the Dust came on just as we were crossing the state border into New York.

I reached the Agricorp complex a few minutes before 10am. I'd dropped Theresa off a couple of miles before we got there, so it was just me as I pulled into their car park. The damn place was full of Priuses. Bunch of self righteous bastards probably actually thought they were good little environmentalists. Just one more reason to add to the long list of reasons why I was going to take them down.

Stealth wasn't part of the plan at this point. I walked straight into the building's main reception, found a secretary, and announced my arrival.

"Hi there," I said with a smile, "my name's Sangamon Taylor. I'm expected."

"Ah. Yes," she stammered. Apparently I wasn't quite as expected as I thought. Good. "If you'll just follow me, please."

I followed her out of reception, and made a mental note of every turn. Through the security door (code 6258), turn right, down a corridor, then left, past the water cooler. That was where she stopped. "One second Mr. Taylor," she said, before stepping through a door. I could hear conversation through the door, but it was quiet and indistinct. Not even enough for me to get a good idea of who was talking, let alone what they were saying. I had my suspicions, though.

I didn't have time to dwell on them. It wasn't long before the door opened again, and the secretary told me to go in, before walking off back where we'd come from. I did as she asked me and walked into a spacious office with one occupier. I know I shouldn't judge people on appearances, but sometimes I can't help it. From the way he looked, this man looked like an advert for corporate arrogance and insincerity. He came fitted with a walrussy mustache, an expensive but ill-fitting suit, and a sneer permanently fixed on his eminently punchable face. He held out a hand for me to shake, which I ignored.

He harumphed. "Fine. Be that way, Mr. Taylor. It won't do you any good."

I recognized the voice. It was the same man who had left the message last night. I didn't even try to disguise the hostility in my voice. "You said I should come. I'm here. What do you want?"

"Sit down, Mr. Taylor," he said pointing at a leather couch. "My name is Robert Jameson and I'm Agricorp's CEO, and 'what I want', as you so eloquently put it, is for the two of us to sit down and chat and try to resolve this situation like two civilized gentlemen."

Pretentious asshole. I couldn't possibly let that pass. "Like civilized gentlemen who kidnap each other's wives, you mean?"

"That was... regrettable. I would have preferred that it hadn't been necessary, but your spying really left us no choice. You must understand that."

I was a little taken aback, though I was careful not to let it show. He seemed to genuinely believe what he was saying. There's nothing quite so dangerous as a lunatic convinced of his own self-righteousness.

"Of course," he continued, "I'd be delighted to have her released into your care. You could be with her inside of ten minutes. All you have to do is stop your investigation, and issue a press release exonerating us of any blame."

"Come on, you know I can't do that," I said.

"For your wife, Mr. Taylor. Your wife."

"Exactly," I countered. "I can't do it because of my wife. How do you think she'd feel if she knew I'd betrayed everything that we've worked and fought for over the last twenty years, my every last principle and scruple, just for her benefit? I'll tell you how she'd feel. She'd feel lousy. No deal."

He tried to cut in at this point, but I was on a roll and wasn't going to let him get a foothold in the conversation. The more off balance he was, the better. "Instead, let me tell you how we're going to do this," I continued. "There are two possibilities. The first is that you take me to see Debbie and Kim now, let them go, and we go on our way. If you do that, I promise you we won't press charges against you personally for the kidnapping" -- that part was a lie -- "but we are still going to carry on investigating you and if you've done anything wrong then we'll bring your company down" -- that part wasn't.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I could tell he wasn't enthusiastic about this plan. Again, I pressed on before he had a chance to think. "Or then there's the second option. I don't recommend the second option. If you aren't going to be civilized then I'm going to walk out of here right now and call the police. They're going to bust in here and they're going to haul your sorry ass off to prison for kidnapping. Then they're going to investigate your company and shut that down for all the illegal shit you have going on here. It's your choice."

This time, I stopped to let him think. I wanted him to run the worst case scenarios through his mind. If he was worried or nervous he'd make mistakes. It was ten full seconds before he opened his mouth.

"You're bluffing."

"Maybe I am." I couldn't help myself, so I carried on, "but you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?"

"You're bluffing." He actually sounded more confident this time. "I know about you, Mr. Taylor. I know how you operate. You don't want this to end up in court, where lawyers can tie things up for years. You like to go for the clean kill and that means that you want us on trial in the court of public opinion. You won't go to the police, because then you lose control of your case. So no. No deal. You can't touch me. You won't go to the police, and you can't do any damage yourself because you don't have anything concrete to pin on us."

"Let's see. You started off by genetically engineering your crops, making them weevil-proof. But then you noticed something. You noticed that while your crops weren't being eaten by weevils, neither were anyone else's. You weren't getting the return on your investment that you hoped for. So then you moved onto the weevils."

I was keeping a close eye on Jameson's face as I said all this. It was all guesswork, really. I didn't actually know what they'd done. I wasn't going to let that stop me reeling off a litany of their crimes, though. For one thing, we'd done enough research and investigation that the guesses I was making were educated ones. More important, though, was cold reading. I was friends with a stage magician, and had always been amazed by his "mind reading" tricks. A few years back, I'd gotten him drunk enough that he'd admitted how it worked. He wasn't mind reading; he was just responding to visual cues that he was being given to home in on the truth, a technique called cold reading. I'd managed to convince him to teach me a few of the basics. It was amazing how useful they were in cases like this.

"You'd needed the weevils to be more effective," I continued. "You needed a super weevil. And since you couldn't find one, you made one. Maybe it was just meant to be a test at first to see whether your resistant crops worked" -- Jameson's eyes flickered -- "or maybe it wasn't. Either way, once the weevils were in the wild, you realized you'd miscalculated. They were too good. The biological arms race between predator and prey is a finely balanced one. Neither side can win by too much without the other going extinct. You'd tipped the balance too far.

"You saw what was happening, and you panicked. You knew that anyone looking into this would be able to pin it on you." -- relief on his face; there was more to it than that -- "And more than that, you knew that the things were going to spread, and that they could create an unprecedented agricultural disaster.

"So you did the only thing you could. You went back to the lab and you escalated the arms race even further by designing something that could beat back the weevils. You found a bacterium that you could work with, and you engineered it to attack the weevils' cell membranes. Sure, the bacteria might be an even worse disaster than the weevils, but nobody would be able to pin them on you."

I was really hoping that I was going to be wrong at this point, but I could tell that I wasn't. Genetically modified bacteria were bad news. Bacterial cell chemistry is nothing like ours, which means that bacteria can happily produce all sorts of vile and noxious chemicals that do unspeakable things to you without it having any sort of negative effect on them. Bacteria that are deliberately designed to screw up animal cell chemistry are doubly bad news. Triply bad when they're made in a rush with no safeguards by reckless idiots.

Jameson spluttered, "I... but... how did you... I mean, that's all nothing but wild speculation!" He'd make a terrible actor and an even worse poker player.

I just grinned at him and let him sweat for a few seconds before carrying on, not answering his question. "Of course, if I can figure it all out this quickly, it probably wouldn't take the feds more than three, maybe four months tops. Especially if I help point them in the right direction. Which I would.

"Now, do you still think I'm bluffing, or are you going to give me back my wife, you bastard?"

He managed to regain his composure quicker than I'd expected, I'll give him that much. He didn't answer my question either, but instead launched into what I assumed was a pre-planned speech. It had probably sounded better in his head when I hadn't just run rings around him first.

"The thing you fail to understand, Mr. Taylor," he began, with a sneer, "is that you're a lot like a weevil. For too long you've been a parasite on hard-working American corporations, surviving because none of them adapted to your attacks. But here at Agricorp, adaptation is what we do. Our crops are adapted to be weevil-resistant and we've studied your attack patterns enough to be able to make ourselves resistant to you, the giant weevil himself. There's nothing you can do to hurt us. Now since you aren't willing to cooperate, I suggest you get the hell out of my office."

Luckily for me, I was a much better actor than he was. That and I was already mightily pissed at him, so pretending to lose my temper wasn't much of a stretch.

"You fucking piece of shit!" I screamed at him. "I'm going to bring you down! You hear me? I'm going to bring you down!"

The smug satisfaction was evident on his face. He obviously thought that making me get mad meant he'd won. "Don't threaten me, Mr. Taylor," he sneered. "I can have security here like that" -- he snapped his fingers -- "if you come any closer to me."

I backed away from him. I didn't want him calling security, but I also didn't want him to think I was backing down lightly, so I kept staring straight through his head as I retreated. "You're going down! So help me God, if it's the last thing I do, I'm bringing you down!"

After I was out of his sight, I turned and sauntered away calmly. Phase one of the plan had gone pretty much perfectly. He hadn't released Debbie and Kim, but that had always been a long shot. He had, however, unwittingly confirmed what we were up against, which gave us a much better chance of stopping it. And I was fairly certain I'd left him thinking that I was a dangerous lunatic who'd go to desperate measures to bring him down. That was going to help too.

I got back to my car and checked it for any sort of tampering, but couldn't find anything. The brake lines hadn't been cut, there weren't any obvious bugs or GPS devices, that sort of thing. I didn't have time to do a thorough check, but they hadn't really had time to do the sort of detailed job that would require a thorough check. I left the parking lot, and drove around in circles a while to check that I wasn't being tailed. When I was confident that I wasn't, I went back to meet Theresa where I'd dropped her off.

We exchanged notes on what we'd been up to. Her part of the plan had gone perfectly up to this point as well. I pulled the change of clothes we'd brought for her out of the trunk and looked away while she changed in the back seat. Once she'd swapped her muddy jeans and t-shirt for a smart skirt and jacket, we went our separate ways again, ready for phase two.

Theresa walked into the Agricorp reception and nervously approached the receptionist. "Um, hi, I'm hoping you can help me? My name's Theresa Carragher. I'm... I'm with GEE, I guess. Or at least, I was. I don't think I am any more. I need to speak with someone. It's important."

A song and dance of internal phone calls and buck-passing later, she found herself in Robert Jameson's office trying to explain herself. "When I joined GEE, I thought it would be an adventure, thought that I'd be dong some good in the world. But it's not like that at all. ST, Sangamon Taylor, he's crazy. He doesn't really care about the environment. He just likes risks and danger. And now his love of danger has got my girlfriend in trouble, and I don't care about Sangamon Taylor and I don't care about GEE. I just want her back. Please."

Jameson nodded, seemingly unsurprised. "I can certainly understand that," he said, "and I'm not unsympathetic. You aren't the first person to be duped by his cult of personality. You must understand, we're not generally in the business of holding people against their will. We're only holding your girlfriend here because Mr. Taylor forced us into it. In a way, we're both his victims here. Now, how's about you tell me what you know about his plans, and we'll see about reuniting you with your girlfriend as soon as we can."

"Please sir," replied Theresa, "I don't want to seem ungrateful, sir, but could I at least see her first? Just know that she's OK? I'm not asking you to let her go until I've proven that you can trust me, but please? I'm so worried about her." She bit her lip as if trying to hold back a tear.

Jameson nodded slowly. "That seems fair," he said. "Here, follow me."

He led her out of his office, as I watched on from the video feed from the miniature camera hidden in one of the buttons on Theresa's jacket. Back through to the lobby, down two flights of stairs, right, through a set of double doors, right again, and he stopped at the second door on the left. He entered a code on the door which I couldn't see. Hopefully, it was the same as the one I already knew.

"I have someone here to see you, ladies," he announced, as he opened the door.

Two voices came back instantly. "Fuck you!" said one, while the other said "Go to hell!"

Theresa walked through the door, and I saw they were being kept in a small room, little more than a cupboard, really. If I'd had to guess, it was probably a store room of some sort which had been hastily transformed into an impromptu holding cell, most likely by a confused as hell janitor who was told to clear all his stuff out of there without any explanation.

Debbie and Kim were pressed close up against each other. I didn't know whether that was for warmth or just simple human comfort. They both had their hands behind their backs, probably either cuffed or tied. Other than that, they didn't look as if they'd been mistreated. Beyond the whole kidnapping thing, anyway.

"Theresa? What are you doing here?" asked Kim, incredulous.

Jameson answered for her, "Miss Carragher is here to check that you're OK before we... negotiate for your release."

"Don't tell the bastard anything!" pleaded Kim.

"I have to," said Theresa, simply. "For you. I love you."

She looked away as Jameson ushered her from the room saying "We'll be back later, ladies."

Once they were back to his office, Theresa started listing off a litany of my sins. I was crazy, I was reckless, I didn't care about anyone other than myself, not even my wife. The one thing I couldn't stand was the thought of being beaten. I'd been growing more and more violent recently, and was planning a violent assault on the Agricorp building. Apparently, my plan was to bomb their on-site generator and then burn down their main building. I was arrogant enough that I was counting on there being so much confusion when the generator went down that nobody would even think of coming to look for me at the generator, or between the generator and the main building.

She explained that I'd been getting delusional, that I was convinced that everything that Agricorp had done had not only been deliberate, but had been deliberately done to spite me. Apparently, that was Jameson's cue for a rant.

"Typical. That's just typical of a sociopath like Taylor. Of course he thinks everything revolves around him. And of course he thinks everyone else is an idiot. We're not idiots, Miss Carragher. We didn't create a super-bug that could wipe out half the insect life on the Eastern Seaboard on purpose, you know?"

That was almost too good to be true. We were recording the whole video feed, of course. Once that little soundbite made its way to Youtube, Agricorp were as good as done with. I decided there was no point waiting any more, so I pushed the remote detonation button that I'd been keeping with me.

BOOM!

The huge explosion came from the direction of the generator. Over the video feed, I saw the lights flicker and dim, but stay on. They had a secondary generator, of course. I knew that, but I was hoping they didn't know that I knew. Jameson picked up the phone almost immediately, telling whoever was on the other end of the line to "have security send everyone they have down to the primary generator to catch that bastard Taylor."

When they got there, they'd find the generator intact and in full working order. The explosives that Theresa had set up while I'd been talking to Jameson had been a good hundred yards away from the generator itself, and had been rigged more for the sound and light show than for any actual destructive force. A Hollywood explosion, rather than a real explosion, but good enough to fool anyone in the main building. Especially since she'd also set a small, directed, secondary charge to take out the power line. Actually blowing up a building like that was far too dangerous for my tastes.

I waited a couple of minutes for all the security guards to run away from where I was about to be, then went back into the building. Down two flights of stairs, right, through a set of double doors, right again, then the second door on the left. I keyed in 6258 and the door gratifyingly clicked open.

"Hi sweetie," I said happily. "Did you miss me?"

"Whatever," answered Debbie, "just get these fucking ropes off me and get us the hell out of here."

"That's my girl," I thought.

I pulled my Leatherman from my pocket and pulled out the knife. I cut Debbie's hands free and was just motioning for Kim to turn around so I could do the same for her when an alarm sounded. Theresa had managed to slip away from Jameson and set off the fire alarm. As far as Jameson knew, he now had a dangerous lunatic arsonist who had a grudge against him somewhere in the building, and no security to help him out. I didn't expect him to stick around.

I cut Kim loose and then gave the two of them a brief recap on the situation. There was still one more place I needed to go before we made our exit. Fortunately, the labs were well signposted, and everyone else had evacuated the building, so getting there was easy. Between the three of us, we managed to salvage a fair amount of useful information. Lab books, computer hard drives, and even a couple of (very carefully carried) samples of the offending bacteria.

As a parting gift, I lobbed in a vial of putrescine -- the chemical responsible for putrefying flesh's unique stench -- to ensure that nobody with a sense of smell would be using the lab for a few weeks at least, and then shut the door behind me as fast as I could.

We ran into Theresa as we were making our way out, so the four of us walked out together, past the ranks of Agricorp employees assembled in the car park. I gave Jameson the finger as we walked past him.

From that point on, it was pretty much just a matter of clean up. Dolmacher managed to come up with a way to stop the bacteria before they spread enough to do any serious damage. With the data and the samples we'd brought back, he'd managed to find a way to engineer a virus that would target only the bacteria we wanted rid of. Something to do with a unique protein that it was targeting. Not really my field, but I was assured it was safe and wasn't going to do any more damage.

Once the video of Jameson admitting the scale of the catastrophe that he nearly caused, public contempt for Agricorp went through the roof. Every major supermarket and restaurant announced that they were no longer going to be buying from them. Their share value plummeted. Even the usual apologists came out against them. With a disaster that big, there's really nothing you can do but distance yourself as far from it as possible.

We ended up not pressing charges for the kidnapping. There was no need. There were enough other cases being brought against both Agricorp and Jameson personally that leaving ours out was little more than a drop in the ocean. Anything that meant avoiding a court case was good, in my book.

Kim and Theresa carried on working for GEE, and we quickly found permanent, non-intern positions for them. Debbie carried on being Debbie, my foil, my love. And I went back to being a consultant miserable bastard. The occasional interesting case made sure the job would always stay worthwhile.