Short Stories by Rick Jankowski

Speculative and Sensitive Fiction

The Virus was published in The Armchair Aesthete and reprinted in Detective Mystery Stories.  It won finalist/special honorable mention in the New Century Writer Ray Bradbury Fellowship Contest.  Ed Fillmore created this composite illustration.

In this story, a man on the run spreads a deadly disease - or does he?

The Virus 


     The dogs were coming.  Their angry staccato coughs filled the night.  Too long.  I had taken too long.  I finished misting the outside of the bottles, slid the spray canister into my backpack and leaped from the truck’s back door into the darkness.  Feet, knees and fingertips landed on dirt hardened and packed by thousands of tires.  I pulled the door closed, then sprinted toward the fence, a dozen parked trucks away.  The watchdogs turned the far corner of the distribution center, caught my scent and roared.  My legs pushed harder.  Six trucks to go.  Close now, barks turned to snarls.  The steel corrugated fence glinted in the moonlight. 

     One truck to go.

     The dogs closed the gap.  Snapping teeth ripped through my pants leg, just missing the flesh.  I scrambled onto the hood of the last truck and vaulted toward the fence.  Fingertips stretched and gripped the top of the steel.  A dog crashed inches below my feet.  A second raging beast used the first as a springboard.  His teeth flashed and clamped  - empty air.  I was already up, over and sprinting down the alley on the other side.

     Hundreds of heartbeats away from the beer and soft drink distribution center, I paused to catch my breath.  The pounding in my chest eventually subsided.  Since 9/11, security was tight everywhere – and I wasn’t a kid anymore.  There had to be a better way.  I inspected my shredded pants and shook my head.  Second pair this week.  Well, maybe there would be a sale at the mall.  And in that moment, I knew a better way.  I disappeared into the maze of avenues and boulevards.

#

     The next morning, at the currency exchange, the teller counted out a stack of singles, “One ninety eight, one ninety nine, two hundred.”  She wrinkled her freckled nose.  “Wouldn’t you rather have tens and twenties?” she asked.

     “I’m hoping it spreads farther this way,” I answered.

     “Well, one of us is in a good mood,” she said.

     I leaned close to her.  “It’s because,” I whispered,  “I’ve found the secret to happiness.”

       She rolled her eyes.  I smiled, folded the money in half, and placed it in my pocket.  The man in line behind me looked at his watch.  I hurried out, glad I was ordinary looking.  Perhaps they wouldn’t remember me.

     Once home, two hundred Washingtons marched across my shower floor.  I pumped the silver spray canister once, twice, three times.  Perspiration seemed to break out across all the faces of George.  Then the bills absorbed the mixture.  They splotched, darkened and wrinkled.  I sat cross-legged on the floor and waited for them to dry. 

#

     Giggling tight jean girls, glowering droopy pants boys, designer overflowing bags.

America.  The Mall.

     A newspaper machine outside the entrance screamed the local headlines.  From one knee, I read the front page through the glass: 

 

Mysterious Virus Strikes

A mysterious virus that has doctors baffled is spreading through the city.  Empty classrooms and vacant offices are causing concern.  An unnamed source high in the Mayor’s office postulates that the virus is manmade and purposely spread.  The Center for Disease Control has no comment.  High fever and chills mark the onset of the virus. See Virus on Page 5.

 

    I reached into my pocket for coins to buy the paper.  As I did, two shiny black shoes stopped next to me.  I looked up.  Dark, perfectly creased pants, matching shirt.  Dark, tightly tucked tie, matching attitude.  The Mall Police.

     “Buy the paper, or get moving.”  A gruff, no nonsense voice.

     “Sorry officer,” I said, “just wanted to read about the Virus.”  I waved a dollar at him.  “Got change for a buck?”   

     He glowered at me, then reached into his pocket and handed me four quarters. 

     “Here,” he said, “like I’m a change machine.  I should be out looking for the guy spreading the Virus.”

     The shiny black shoes marched away.  One down, one hundred ninety-nine to go.  I plunked the quarters into the machine, pulled out a paper and flipped to page five.  All wrong.  They were focusing on the early stages.  I tossed the paper into the garbage, held the door open for two grateful, blue-haired ladies, then followed them into the mall.

 

     An hour later, I exited via the same door, with one George left in my pocket and no tears in my pants.  A city bus offered an opportunity to disperse that last single.  I don’t own a car.  Too easy to trace.  The fare machine sucked in the coated dollar.  It would contaminate anything it touched.  I smiled as I thought of all the hands that dollar would pass through.

     Before going home, I decided to change a few more bills into singles.  This was so much easier, I thought, as I glided down the steps of the bus and padded a short half-block to the currency exchange.  As I walked, past the travel agency, past the grocery store, past the coffee shop, I congratulated myself.  I could stop sneaking around at night.  I could stop breaking into places.  I could…

     Stop!

     In the currency exchange - my old enemy - talking to the teller.  The teller who had two hundred reasons for remembering me.

     The easy way had led to trouble!

     Using alleys and gangways, I headed home.  A year in hiding had made me cautious and I had chosen my living quarters with care – a ground floor apartment with front and side exits.  Windows in the back, hidden from view by bushes, provided another passageway.  I chose this route now.  Holding the bushes aside with one hand, I applied pressure to the bottom of the window frame with my other hand.  The window popped open.  I slipped in.

     Once inside, I cocked my head and listened.  Nothing.  I silently floated from room to room.  They hadn’t found me yet.  I raised the kitchen blinds slightly, then parted the living room curtains just so.  When they arrived, I would know. 

Working quickly, I dismantled the small makeshift lab set up in one of the bedrooms.  I packed a couple of irreplaceable pieces and the viral concentrate into a small carrying case.  The rest I stacked in a corner.  Clothes went into my backpack.  Money went into my pockets.  Since disappearing from the research facility, going mobile had become routine. 

     I was packing food in the kitchen when a shadow fell across the blinds.  Stepping into the lab, I clicked on a baby monitor, bought for just this purpose, and hid it under my desk.  The receiver went into my pocket.  I picked up the silver canister and in broad sweeping arcs, sprayed the room.  A sound at my side door propelled me to the back window.  Opening it, I slid my case and the canister out, then squirmed through.  Someone screamed, “Now!”  My backpack caught against the window frame.  The side door crunched open.  

     Calmly, I reached behind me, freed my backpack and scrambled out the window.  No one followed.  I was out before they were in.  In the alley, a couple of garages down, I switched on my receiver.  It was always good to know what the bad guys were up to. 

      Static.

      I adjusted the receiver and the voices sharpened. 

     “Looks like he’s cleared out.”  A soft, smooth voice.  My old enemy.

     “I’ll look around.”  A new voice, like gravel. 

     “Put your gloves on.”

     “Why, you think the Virus is in here?”

     “Just put em on!”

     “Okay, okay, you’re the boss.  The newspapers said it’s nasty.”

     “Don’t believe everything you read.  Got em on?”

     “Yeah.”  

     “Check the closet.”

      Silence.

      I turned the monitor up as high as it would go and held it tightly to my ear.  Finally, Gravel Voice spoke again, “Nothing here.  What do you mean don’t believe the newspapers?”

     “They’re scared.  They don’t want certain stuff known,” said the smooth voice.     

“Check the desk.” 

     Slide-slam, slide-slam.

     “Empty,” said Gravel Voice.  ”What don’t they want known?”

     “That Robin Hood is alive and well and living here.”

     “What?  What’s that mean?”

     “This guy is taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”

     “Marcus, man, for a smart guy, you’re making zero sense.  Taking a virus from the rich and giving it to the poor?”

     “Maybe I should’ve said ‘Keeping’ from the rich  - and giving something so important to the poor that it’s wrecking our way of life.  Something so important that we’ve got orders to bring him in … or eliminate him.”

      I pressed my back against the garage and smiled.  Eliminate?  Good.  They were worried.

     Gravel Voice sunk an octave.  ‘What are you talking about Marcus?  Hey, … what’s under here?”

     A high electronic shriek pierced my brain.  I shook my head rapidly to clear my mind.  Abruptly, the shriek ended and Marcus’ smooth voice oozed from my receiver. 

     “David…” he said,  “I know you’re listening.  You can’t get away.  The FBI is after you, the cops are after you, and we’re after you.  Come in out of the dark, David, we’ll take care of you.”

     Yeah, I thought, you’ll take care of me.

     Marcus’ smooth voice continued,  “Do you really think the stinking masses, the poor, the downtrodden know what to do with what you’re giving them?  For God’s sake!  We know what to do with it!  Give it to us.  We’ll take care of you.  Give us the Happiness Virus!”

     I laughed.  Nice try, Marcus, I thought.  Give you the Virus?  So your master, the pharmaceuticals, can package and market it?  Sorry, Marcus, happiness belongs to everyone, no credit cards necessary. 

     I clicked off the receiver and shoved it into my backpack.  Angling across the alley, I pulled open a rusty chain link gate and squeezed into a neighboring yard.  The gate groaned.  A red haired behemoth, occupying most of the small backyard, turned from his gardening to confront me.  A sharp, black spade was in his right hand. The red-haired giant jabbed the spade into the ground.  It stuck upright and quivered.  Muscle and mass stomped over to me, steel arms wrapped around me and squeezed the air from my lungs.

     “David,” the giant said, “great to see you!  Me and the misses were just talking about you.  Don’t know how it worked, but since you sprayed that stuff on Maureen – man - she’s her old self.” 

     He released his bear hug and waved a massive paw at a delicately beautiful woman peeking through a back window.  “She’s still a little shy about having no hair from the cancer treatments, but by God, she’s got music in her eyes again and a twinkle on her lips.”

     “It’s all about attitude, John,” I said, “she’ll recover quickly, now.”

     “You bet she will, thanks to you!  Come in and say hello.”

     John eyed my canister and case.  He furrowed his brows, but asked no questions. It seemed like a good time to seek refuge.  So I did. 

     Two weeks later, with some help from John, I was settled and again working nights.  I waited in the shadows and watched.  The steel tube whirred back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  Under chairs, around baseboards, into corners.  Finally, the whirring stopped.  The cleaning lady bent, wrapped the tube around the vacuum and then, with sad eyes and sagging shoulders, pushed her cart down the hall.  Although security in the Doctors’ Pavilion was excellent, it wasn’t designed to prevent what I was doing.  Doctors’ offices and patients’ records were tightly sealed.  Doors to waiting rooms, however, stayed open until the cleaning staff had finished.  One waiting room, in particular, interested me. 

     Once inside, I misted the chairs and magazines.  For good measure, I sprayed the ledge where the patients signed in – right beneath the good doctor’s shingle:  Marcus Palmer, MD – Psychiatrist.  A little payback to Marcus, a little help to those in need.

On the way out, the cleaning cart was unattended.  I hesitated, then spritzed it too.  A noise from behind alerted me to the cleaning lady’s return.  I slipped the canister under my jacket, then stepped into a doorway and watched.  She gripped the handle of the cart, wrinkled her tired face, then wiped her hands on her pants.  She rattled down the hall and out of sight.

      I was feeling good about myself as I exited the building.  Good, until a blow from behind sent me sprawling to the pavement.      

     A gravelly voice spoke, “Marcus was right.  He said you’d show here.  C’mon, get up.” 

     I fingered the silver cylinder under my jacket.  In one motion, I turned and sprayed.  Gravel Voice clutched his face and staggered back.  I swung the cylinder.  It smashed into his ribcage.  He sank to his knees.

     “Did Marcus say I would do that?”  I asked.

     Gravel Voice looked up at me, one hand on the ground, the other nursing his ribs.  “Wait,” he said.  A wince.  A rasp.  “What’s that stuff gonna do to me.”

     “Nothing for a couple of days, then high fever and chills.”

     “And then what?”

     “Slowly, over time, a feeling of contentment, a sense of well-being.”

     “That’s it?  That’s what this is all about?”

     “Well, there is one more thing,” I said.  “The happiness, it lasts – forever.”  I placed the canister inside my jacket and walked away. 

#

     A little while later, I was home.  Someone waited in the dark, a cigarette glowing in one hand, a gun threatening from the other. 

     “Well, Marcus,” I said.  “First your goon, now you.  What have I done to deserve the attention?”

     “Sit down David.  Your time is short.”

      I sat.

     “Another apartment in the same building,” Marcus said.  “Who’d you think you were dealing with?”

     “How’d you get in?”  I asked, stalling for time.

     “Landlords, like everyone else, can be bought.”

     “I can’t,” I said.

     “No, David, you can’t – that’s the problem.  We’ve reasoned with you, we’ve off   ered to make you rich.  Yet, you insist on playing this stupid, stupid game.”

     Marcus stubbed out his cigarette.  His gun didn’t waver.

     “Happiness isn’t a game.”  I said.

     “No, you’ve made it something else, something serious, something dangerous.  Happy people need less pills, less entertainment, less … everything.  Soon, shopping stops, working stops  - the economy stops.  It’s already happening.”

     “People have the right to be happy,” I said.

      “You’re wrong, David.  You’re infecting everyone with a disease – and it’s time to eradicate the cause.”

     Marcus raised his gun.  I stood up.  As I did, a siren screamed outside my apartment.  Marcus sidled to the window, but kept his gun trained on me.  Parting the curtains, he peered out.  The room turned blue.  In the rotating police beacon, shadows flitted across Marcus’ face. 

     “The city’s finest,” said Marcus.  “Looks like everyone knows you’re here.  When did you get so stupid?”

     With Marcus’ attention diverted, I saw my chance.  I tugged the canister from my jacket, swung it at him – and missed.  Savagely, Marcus chopped down with his gun barrel.  Metal and flesh collided – and metal won.  Pain seared up my arm, through my shoulder and flamed into my brain.  The canister clanked to the ground and rolled between Marcus’ legs.  I bent for it, but Marcus was too quick.  Again he struck.  A hammer blow.  My back buckled and I collapsed, face first, to the floor.  Triumphantly, Marcus scooped up the canister.  He bent close.  Lips against my ear, he whispered, “try spreading happiness in jail.”  Then he was gone, out a back window.

     A moment later, the police crashed through the front door.  Two shiny black shoes stopped next to me.  A blue uniform bent to one knee and rolled me over.  The officer took off his cap, ran a massive paw through red hair, and said,

     “You okay, David?”

       My voice crawled from my throat.  “Nothing that a bottle of aspirin and a new body won’t cure, John.” 

     John slipped his arms under mine and helped me to a chair.

     “It’s a good thing you gave us that extra receiver,” he said.  “It works great, even across the alley.  Maureen called me in my patrol car and said you were in trouble.”

     I filled in the details, while John helped me gather my things.  “This time, I said, “I really have to leave.”

     “It’s too bad,” John said.  “You’re doing good work.” 

     “No,” I replied, “It stinks, but Marcus is right.  I’m wrecking the economy.  Maybe it’s time to stop trying to change the whole world.  Maybe one person at a time - like Maureen - works better.”

     “I hate it when the bad guys win,” John said.

     I laughed.  “They didn’t win this time,” I said.  “The canister Marcus got was empty.  I used it up on his office and his goon.  By this time tomorrow, I’ll be gone and Marcus…Well, Marcus will be blowing hot air at his bosses.” 

 

     The next day, as I watched through the back window of a bus, the city dwindled.  Smaller, smaller, gone.  A black carrying case bounced on my lap.  Across the aisle sat a small man with gnarled hands.  He twisted a handkerchief - over and over and over.  Once, he glanced my way and I saw the pain in his eyes.  I waited.  Finally, on a smooth stretch of road far from the city, I tapped him on the shoulder.  Reaching out my hand, I said:

     “Hi, I’m David.  And, I’m very happy to meet you.”