What happens when rogue military nanotech infests the body of Dannie Morgan, paralegal and single mom? Mayhem.


1. PARALETHAL--Chapter One

Chapter One


    Dannie woke and knew there was no one else in the bed.

    “Oz?” she murmured.  “Ozzie?”

    “It will be ‘Mr. Oswald’ from now on, of course.”  She opened one eye without moving.  The clock read 5:15 AM.  He stood in front of the mirror, fully dressed in a charcoal grey suit worth more than her car, knotting his tie with deft, confident gestures.  Everything Norton Oswald did was executed confidently.

    “I’m glad you’re awake.  It was a fine night, and I hope you enjoyed it as well.  Tomorrow morning there will instructions awaiting your supervisor that you’ve been promoted to work on the fifth floor—Mr. Gruenwald’s office.”

    Gruenwald?  But I thought …

    Oswald strode into the bathroom and retrieved the small toiletry kit that, along with his overcoat, was the only other object he had brought into the room.

    “It can’t be my office,” he said, answering the unspoken question.  “That would be entirely too obvious, especially for my wife.  Which reminds me …” He slipped his Android from the interior pocket of his jacket, touched it once, and brought a finger to his lips to warn Dannie to keep silent.  “Constance?  Good news, dear.  We got the Amundsen brief done more quickly that I thought, so I’ll be able to meet you and the girls for the 7:00 AM Mass.  What?  No, I showered here and changed.  You don’t need to bring anything.  Love you, too.  Bye.”

    Dannie felt her stomach lurch, swallowed the bile rising in her throat, and willed her body not to move.  There was a damp spot beneath her hips, she realized, that she’d been sleeping in for the past few hours.

    He walked over to the bed.

    “Let’s make this as adult as possible.  You were very good, and there is undeniably a certain something about you, which will probably allow you to keep moving up in the world.  But you knew going in that this would be … temporary.”

    I guess one night qualifies as ‘temporary.’

    Oswald didn’t seem to find the situation even slightly awkward.  A transaction, no more and no less.  “I need you to wait at least an hour before you leave.  Longer if you’d like; checkout is not until 11:00.  I’ve left you cab fare on the nightstand.”

    Then he was gone.

    Shaking, Dannie used her elbows to lever herself into a sitting position.  Despite the fact that there was no one else in the room, she kept a sheet folded carefully over her chest.  Trembling, she fought hard not to break out into the great wracking sobs that she felt lurking just beneath the surface.

    Fifteen thousand dollars more a year, she told herself.  Private school.  Braces.  Piano lessons.  And it didn’t cost me anything except a little chunk of self-respect.

    Her own clothes lay strewn across the room, and she could visualize the looks she’d get walking out through the lobby in the rumpled sack that had been the “little black dress” the night before.

    Cab fare, it turned out, was a $100 bill.

    At least I’m a C-note whore, she thought bitterly.


* * *

    The two figures in the dark-brown coveralls glided through the trees surrounding Rodney Square, then paused before approaching the Crowinshield Hotel.  Designated Delta and Gamma, they were both tall, muscular, and moved with fluid grace.  Their faces were obscured by Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball caps and—even in the predawn gloom—dark sunglasses.

    Delta held up a cell-phone-sized device, tapped its face, and said, “He hasn’t left the building yet.  We’ll take him in the parking lot.”

    The Mercedes, last year’s model with a vanity tag that read “GOD LAW,” wasn’t difficult to locate.  Delta said, “Give me a few seconds to knock out the security cameras.”  He pointed the tablet first in one direction, then in two others.  The device emitted a BLURP, followed by a PING, each time.

    “Don’t forget the one on the Radisson,” Gamma said.  “It covers forty percent of this lot.”

    “We’re just outside its arc.  I don’t want to take it down if we don’t have to.  If we just do these it will look like a local problem.  You’re clear.”

    Gamma tapped the four-digit lock code of the Mercedes without hesitation, then climbed into the back seat and flattened himself out of view.

    “How is it in there?  Check your heat.”

    “I’m fine.  It’s only going up a degree every three minutes.  As long as our intel about his habits is good, we should be golden.”

    “He never stays with one of his bimbos longer than 5:30.”  Another check on the handheld.  “Signal’s stronger.  I’d guess he’s about to exit the building.  I better move.”


* * *

    Dannie ordered the most expensive breakfast room service had on the menu, not because she was hungry, or even because Oswald would notice another $35.74 on the bill, but just because, damn it …

    She hid in the bathroom while the bellhop delivered the tray, and almost shrieked when he knocked on the door.  “Ma’am?  I, uh, need a signature for the food.”  She snaked an arm out and scrawled something indecipherable on the receipt, noting obscurely that the Crowinshield still made these guys dress up like the bellmen from a 1940s gangster movie, and that the guy was older than her father.  Part of her—the near-hysterical-manic part that she really needed a stiff drink to put back into its coffin—wanted to let the door slide accidentally open, let the towel drop by chance, and give him a free shot of her breasts.

    The rest of Dannie wanted to take a long, steamy shower, with disinfectant and a wire brush, prior to turning herself over to a monastery so she didn’t have any more chances to corrupt her daughter with a complete absence of morals and judgment.

    That should probably be a nunnery, shouldn’t it?


* * *

    Norton Oswald reviewed the night one last time, to his immense satisfaction, as he descended the back stairs of the hotel.  The Morgan woman had been a departure from type for him:  taller, fuller, and a bit older than his standard preference, yet he had to admit that the curves and the extra softness had been refreshing after a steady diet of angular, hard-bodied women.

    And three times? Oz, you’ve still got it, even at fifty-nine.

    Then, having savored the moment, he carefully compartmentalized the memory, and prepared himself for a return to what he thought of as his “other world.”  

    He dispatched emails via his Android as he walked.

    “To Seligman, Personnel, period.  Approve transfer of Danielle Morgan, to Gruenwald office.  Period.  Effectively immediately.  Period.  Pay as indicated.  Period.  Send.”

    Always pay your debts first, he thought.  That way they don’t come back to haunt you.  Not that the little slut would ever dream of crossing him.

    “To Dawkins, Partner, Period.  Leona, comma, I need the dossiers of the new associates on my desk Monday morning.  Period.  As usual please mark any for my special attention.  Period.  Are we still on for lunch on Tuesday?  Question mark.  Send.”

    The door to the parking lot creaked as he pushed it open.  Instinctively, Oswald scanned the area for witnesses.  It wasn’t that his little “try-outs” weren’t common knowledge, but what people thought they knew and what somebody saw were two entirely different things.  That’s why he avoided the Crowinshield’s subterranean parking garage:  too much chance of being spotted by an attendant too many times.  He remembered exactly where he had parked the car; forgetting his space in an airport lot—or anywhere—wasn’t the Oswald style.


*  *  *

    In the end Dannie used the hot tub rather than the shower.  

Eight jets and hotter ‘n hell, who could resist it?  

Besides, the ten minutes necessary for the tub to fill made her rethink breakfast.  The salmon and caviar were not to her taste, but the eggs had been perfectly poached, the fruit was deliciously ripe, and the coffee was real French Roast.  She snorted when she found herself feeling more actual guilt over using real butter and cream.

That’s what—another gazillion calories that would take three hours to work off at the gym if I had the time to workout or the money to afford a membership, she thought as she lowered herself into the steaming, frothy water.

>>Gender: Female. Age: 35 years, 3 months, 12 days. Height: 1.75 meters. Weight: 73.94 kilograms. Body Mass Index: 24.1 kg/m 2. This is within normal limits for general healthful living, although the numbers are at the high end of the scale.<<

What the hell?

She jerked upright, splashing water, knocking over the shampoo, and dragging the big furry bath towel into the tub.

What did I just think?

A minute passed with Dannie sitting half in and half out of the water.  By that time she could not even quite recall the entire statement that had flashed through her mind, but she knew it had included meters and kilograms, and that she and the metric system had never been friends.

Must have fallen asleep watching the Discovery Channel or something.

Or something.

But the errant thought had—if possible—unnerved her more than waking up with The Great and Powerful Oz, and she couldn’t really get into hot tub relaxation mode.  So she stood up, put a leg over the side and tracked water across the bathroom while looking for a towel fifteen minutes later.

Beside, you can’t put off going home forever.

She did a cursory job on her make-up—barely enough to keep her eyes from looking red-rimmed and weepy—and brushed out her dirty blonde hair, leaving it down.  The panty hose were a lost cause, but she took five minutes to iron the dress because that was the kind of thing Anne might ask difficult questions about.  Ready to leave, Dannie contemplated calling a cab, but the longer she looked at that $100 bill, the less willing she was to waste it, raise or no raise.  She stuffed it into her tiny purse, swallowed another lump of pride, and called Mama Del Rio to come pick her up.

Forty minutes later she walked down the hall and took Elevator B to the Garage level, where she’d told Mama to meet her.

Two Wilmington Police detectives exited Elevator A on her floor exactly five seconds after the door slid closed behind her.


* * *

They botched the take-down because it was hotter than Gamma had expected, and because neither of them counted on Norton Oswald carrying a gun and knowing how to use it.

For whatever reason, Oswald had run about eight minutes behind their projected schedule, and those damn leather seats in the Mercedes seemed to radiate heat.  Instead of the three or four degrees he’d expected, the thermo-sensor embedded in Gamma’s right forearm showed that his core temperature had risen nearly nine degrees.  Even the buckets of sweat dripping off his forehead and starting to stain his coverall couldn’t dissipate enough heat to make any difference.  In another few minutes he’d have to get out of the car or risk …

That’s when he heard the tick-tick-ta-tick of Oswald thumbing the lock, followed by the click of the driver’s-side door opening.  Oswald was multi-tasking:  tossing his coat on the far seat, fumbling for his keys, talking on his Android.

“… don’t care if it’s Sunday and you’ve got family plans.  You’re an associate bucking for partner, and you’d goddamn well better make the time to get in here to polish off the Amundsen brief.  If it’s not in my inbox by nine tonight, the only reason you’ll need to come to work tomorrow is to clean out your desk.  Are we clear?”

He slid into the seat, paused for a second, and placed his key into the ignition.  Later, Delta realized that was when Oswald had spotted Gamma in the back seat.  Mumbling, “Shit-for-brains lazy associates,” the attorney placed his left hand on the wheel as if preparing to back the car out of the parking space, while his right unobtrusively collected a tiny Beretta 9mm Nano semi-automatic from the magnetic clip below the dash.  Pivoting casually as if to place his right arm across the front seats when he shifted the Mercedes into reverse, Oswald nearly shoved the pistol up Gamma’s nose.

“You are one really stupid bastard if you think you’re going to carjack me.  Now get out of my goddamn car by the far door, and do it very slowly if you want to be alive when the cops get here.”

Flustered, Gamma lurched backward and the baseball cap fell off, exposing a bald scalp whose skin was dry, cracked, and oozing blood in several places from what appeared to be open sores.  Oswald’s eyes widened in revulsion, and for a split second he lost his concentration and situational awareness.  That was when Delta—having realized the snatch had gone wrong—approached the car from an angle just at the periphery of the lawyer’s vision.

The Mercedes’ door had locked automatically, leaving him few options, so Delta struck the driver’s-side window with both fists.  The shatter-resistant glass disintegrated, breaking several of his fingers and tracing a series of deep lacerations up his forearms.  Ignoring these injuries and the sudden blast of the car alarm, Delta leaned forward, reached in, and gripped Oswald’s skull in one hand, jaw in the other, and twisted.

A soft POP sounded, and Norton Oswald collapsed.

“This is a problem,” Delta said.


* * *

    Mama Del Rio did not own a car, and—when she thought about it—Dannie suspected she didn’t possess a driver’s license, either.  At four-foot-nine, the sixty-seven-year-old Guatemalan woman could barely peer over the steering wheel of Dannie’s nine-year-old Honda Civic to see the street, which was less of an impediment than one might think, given that she had forgotten her glasses.  She screeched to a halt inches short of Dannie’s feet, leaving about 4,000 miles worth of tire on the rough cement floor of the small parking garage.

    “Sorry to be so long,” she announced, as she threw open the door to allow Dannie into the driver’s seat.  “But I couldn’t find your keys, so the nina and I had to hotwire the car.  Did you know that the lights and the turn signals don’t work when you do that?”

    “The horn still works, though,” piped in Anne from the back seat, with the full bore enthusiasm of an twelve-year-old who had just participated in the pint-sized version of the Wilmington Grand Prix.  “They get the hell out of our way when Mama hits it!”

    “Don’t say ‘hell,’ Anne,” Dannie corrected automatically as she slid into the car, hoping that the thrill of the drive would keep her daughter’s mind off exactly why they were picking her up in a cocktail dress in a hotel garage at 8:00 AM.  “Say ‘heck.’”

    “’Heck’ is not evocative,” Anne said.  “That’s one of our vocab words.  It means to bring strong feelings or images to mind.  ‘Hell’ is definitely more evocative.”

    A chunk of the plastic on the steering column had been gouged out and two wires twisted together dangled from the hole.

    So much for saving a hundred bucks, Dannie thought.  She maneuvered the car carefully out of the poorly lit parking garage through the north exit, thereby missing the two police cruisers at the back edge of the overflow lot.


* * *

    “I was over on 8th Street wrapping up a homicide,” said Detective Sergeant April Yount as the elevator ascended.  “You?”

    “This is my day off,” Detective Matt Trevor said.  “Tim’s team is in the finals over at Hockessin in about an hour and a half.  Any chance we finish up the prelims before then?”

    The door slid open.  There was no one in the hall.

    “Twenty-third this year.  Young black kid.  Thirteen.  Looks like another one of those cheap mini-pistols been showing up on the street all year.”  She wore light green khaki slacks bloused into knee-high faux-leather boots and a red windbreaker.  From inside the jacket she extracted a Sig Saur .38.

    “This is only his fifth game since the doc cleared him after the concussion.  I was worried.  Pretty much the only way I’m going to be able to afford college is an athletic scholarship.”  He lifted the hem of his Philadelphia Eagles ‘Dead Bird Playin’’ hoodie to pull his Glock 9mm from the holster on his belt.

    “Doesn’t make sense.  Fourteen of twenty-three with these trashy little guns, more ceramic than metal.  Somebody’s got to be supplying all the gangs.  Room number 536, right?”

    “Yeah.  Down there on the right.  Nobody’s checked out.  Tim damn near got a hat trick yesterday—two goals and two assists.  There’s supposed to be a couple of college scouts there this afternoon.  You taken any of those guns yet?”

    They stood on opposite sides of the door.  Matt slipped his hand into his pocket to retrieve the key card they’d gotten at the front desk.

    “Tim’s what?  Fourteen?  College coaches already?  No, we don’t have any of the guns, but the ballistics is consistent.  Ready when you are.”

    “Mr. Oswald?” he said, tapping lightly on the edge of the door.  “Norton Oswald?  It’s the police.”

    No answer.

    “You’re good enough they start sniffing around when the kids are in ninth or tenth grade.”  He tapped again.  “Mr. Oswald?  Open the door, please.”

    They waited another ten seconds.  April nodded and he slid the card into the slot, carefully keeping his body out of line with the door.  When the diode glowed green, he hooked a finger under the handle and pulled down.  April swung low around the corner of the doorway, and said, “Police!”

    Thirty seconds sufficed to convince both detectives that nobody was in the room.

    “He’s gone,” April said.

    They’re gone,” Matt corrected, pointing to a pair of panty hose hanging partly out of a small trashcan.

    “Bag it.  Is Tim already thinking about some college he’d like to go to?  Or a major?”

    “It’s more that they’re interested in him.  SUNY Buffalo really wants a new hotshot striker in a couple years.  Bucknell’s been interested, too.”  He used the end of his fountain pen to stuff the panty hose into a plastic evidence bag.  “What are we calling this, anyway?  Missing person?”

    “We’re calling this ‘Dennis Gruenwald has enough political connections to make my life unbearable if we find his law partner’s Mercedes all fucked up with plenty of blood on the seats in the Crowinshield parking lot and no sign of Oswald anywhere,’ that’s what we’re calling it.  So just bag it and we’ll worry about tagging it later.”

    “You’re the boss.  Anything in the bathroom?”

    “Somebody didn’t empty the jacuzzi when they were done, and slopped water all over the floor.  Which, coincidentally, doesn’t sound like The Wizard of Oz at all.”

    “You know him?”

    “Ran across him a few times when he was still doing criminal work.  The man’s a world-class prick, but if I ever have to kill somebody outside the job, he’s the guy I want defending me.  More to the point, he’s iron-your-underwear type OCD.  Spilled bathwater says it was his guest, not him, taking a dip.  And probably after he left.”

    Matt sighed.  The process of identifying the woman that Oswald had undoubtedly spent the night would not be difficult, just time-consuming.  “I’m not going to make the finals, am I?”

    “Actually, Detective Trevor, today is your lucky day,” April said.  “We could do the usual routine of rounding up the night clerk and bellhops, but in this case there’s a simpler way.   Oswald, like I said, is OCD, and he’s into power trips.  He personally, ah, tries out all the new talent in his firm before they get a slot on the fifth floor.  So all we have to do is show up there tomorrow and find out which pretty young thing just got promoted.”

    “That’s assuming Oswald doesn’t show up before then, making the whole thing moot.”

    April shook her head.  “He’s gone, Matt.  Can’t tell you where or why, but I look at that window in the Mercedes and my gut tells me we won’t see him again—at least not breathing.”


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