A Dangerous Silence [Secure eReader]
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eBook by Catherine Palmer
eBook Category: Mainstream/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: When Dr. Marah Morgan returns to Cowley County, Kansas, she is surprised to find herself agreeing to run the family farm for her injured and difficult father. When government agents arrive and begin searching the farm for an Indian burial ground, Marah grows suspicious. A mysterious stranger appears, looking for work. Then Marah discovers alarming details about her mother's death more than twenty-five years earlier, making her wonder if reconciliation with her father is possible, or if bitterness--and silence--will destroy them.
eBook Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers/Tyndale House, Inc., Published: 2001
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2002
Cowley County, Kansas; Present Day
Big Ed Morgan stepped backward off the edge of his barn loft into thin air. He fell twelve feet to the dirt-packed floor and landed with the crunch of a shattering pelvis, the snap of breaking ribs, the pop of a shoulder being wrenched from its socket. Sunlit hay from the bale he'd been tugging scattered across him like leaves on an autumn morning. A piece of frayed twine drifted downward, settling finally on his barrel chest.
He took a ragged breath and lifted his head to peer across the barn. Taking the movement as a signal to play, Gypsy bounded from a corner of the barn where she'd hidden, tail waving in delight. Plopping her front feet onto her master's chest, the black-and-white dog licked his face, pushed her cold nose under his chin, and danced on his injured rib cage.
The dog sank to her belly, still panting happily. Her tail brushed wide arcs across the dirt floor. She was smiling.
In rapid succession, three certainties entered Ed's mind, imprinted as if they'd been inked with the forty-year-old rubber stamp he used to address payments of the farm's bills. First, Edward Donald Morgan wasn't going to die. Not a chance. Second, he wouldn't be able to milk his small herd of dairy cows this evening. And third, no one would find him.
The telephone was in the rock house, fifty yards away. His pickup sat over by the pond. Pete Harris, the nearest neighbor, was in Wichita attending a conference on wheat diseases.
As Ed lay on the dirt floor trying to focus his thoughts, trying to come up with a plan of action, the smell of the barn draped over his face like a wet washrag, gagging him. Though he'd lived on Morgan Farm all his life, he realized he had never given the odors much notice: moldy hay mixed with cow droppings, the sweet scent of oats, the dry pinewood bins that held leftover winter-wheat seed from the past fall's planting. A tang of metal flared his nostrils, pulleys that dangled from the barn's old beams, shovels and rakes, old tractor parts.
And suddenly Ed remembered Korea, Company C and the ambush at the railroad tunnels south of Chipyong-ni, the metallic smell of his gun, and the musky scent of damp, half-frozen rice paddies. A grenade had exploded a dozen feet away, leaving him shredded like so much hamburger meat. The first thing that had come to him was the scent of an army boot lying near his face, smelling of leather and sour socks and mildew, a boot empty of the foot that had belonged to his buddy Jim.
Somehow, Ed had managed to drag what was left of Jim to safety that morning, hauled him down into a ditch, and held his hand as their blood pooled together in the chilly dirt. Later, after the helicopters and the hospital and the months of recovery, Ed had been given a medal. He was a hero, the army said, though he hadn't felt heroic that day in Korea. Not unless heroism had something to do with making up your mind to stay alive. To live one more minute, and then the next. To refuse to give in to death's clutching fingers.
Big Ed Morgan, his fellow soldiers called him, because he was tall and brave and as tough as that leather boot. And he would live through this, too. Now as he lay in the barn remembering, he felt the numbness begin to fade. Pain shot into his hips and traveled down his legs, making them tremble. A knife twisted through his shoulders. His left eye began to twitch, as though a flea had burrowed down under the skin and was trying to get out.
In the old days, someone would have found Ed right away. Pop and Grandpa, one or the other of them, had sauntered in and out of the barn all day as they worked the cattle or tended the crops. Maybe a brother would have wandered by, Tom or Ben. But they were all gone now, buried in the cemetery in town. Tom was killed in a car wreck, drunk, his fault. And young Ben hadn't been tough enough to survive Vietnam.
There'd be no wife calling Ed to lunch, either. Ruby had died years before, left him alone to manage everything. And he had. Each of their four daughters had up and abandoned the farm almost the day she was grown. At the memory of his children, the crushed bones in his chest began to throb. Gypsy was all he had.
The Border collie scooted closer on her belly and nudged his hand. Ed ran his fingers across her warm silky head. Some people would be praying like crazy right about now. Not Big Ed Morgan. Oh, he believed in God, all right. He just figured the Almighty had more or less lost interest in his creation a long time ago. If folks were going to survive in this world, they'd do it on their own.
"Well, Gyp, looks like it's just you and me." Her tail thumped the floor. "Let's get a move on."
Edging up onto one elbow, Ed began to drag himself toward the barn door. His fingers raked the hard dirt, burying grit under his thick, flat nails. One leg was strong enough to push off with. The other scuffled along, the heavy leather work boot slowing his efforts. Once he made it out into the sunlight, he paused to catch his breath. His fingertips were bleeding.
He braced himself and began to pull again. Gyp raced around him in circles, barking encouragement. The sun rose in the sky, grew hotter, beat down on Ed's back, baked him inside his overalls. He stopped and retched. Then he wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and continued on.
* * *
The medical compound had once been a small elementary school built to serve the farming community. Far from any town, poorly heated and electrified, the wood-frame structure butted up against the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. Each of the six classrooms had held a single grade.
When Dr. Milton Gregory purchased the property, he found scattered textbooks, palettes of cracked watercolor paints, and bottles of dried ink scattered across the floor like remnants of a parade that had passed through long ago. The wooden floors and walls exuded the scent of sweaty bodies, mingled with the smell of pencil shavings, chalk dust, and a bygone lunchtime's cooked cabbage. But the windows were boarded up; the playground equipment had rusted.
Dr. Gregory deemed it perfect.
In a single year's time, the physician and his colleagues had moved into the building and remodeled it to serve their purposes. Nineteen men and women devoted to a single cause built bunks in the classrooms, rewired the entire building, rehabbed the plumbing, and transformed the cafeteria into a laboratory. Long wooden tables embedded with the grime of countless lunches had been scrubbed, bleached, and painted. Computers, microscopes, incubators, test tubes, culture plates, and flasks now lined the room-- a laboratory as sophisticated as many hospitals could boast.
Gregory was aware that few of his colleagues could fully comprehend the vast scope of the work they had undertaken, its import for the future, its ramifications to humanity. None of them was as well trained or as experienced as he, yet in the passing months, they had become essential to him, more of a family than he had ever known. Young and idealistic or old and embittered, each individual in his organization had been following a dream. Now, with Milton Gregory as their guide, they had dedicated themselves to this quest. They were, in a sense, knights seeking a holy grail. And he was their lord.
Dr. Gregory enjoyed his colleagues' dedication, and he had worked hard to earn their respect. Yet, despite hours logged on the Internet, intensive experimentation, and two field tests, the first phase of the project had failed. A mixture of anger and disappointment flooded through the physician as he studied the group gathered on metal folding chairs in the lab.
"Good afternoon, everyone." He paused to regard them, their faces strained with concern. "I want to thank you all for stepping away from your work schedules for a few minutes to gather here with me for this time of debriefing and reassessment."
His colleagues shifted in their seats. Restless. Disheartened. "As you all know, Phase One has been completed," the physician continued. "Team A, our research experts, pinpointed the excavation site in Utah. Team B, those of you involved in our actual scientific experimentation, accomplished the harvest, albeit on a small scale. I know we all appreciate the dedication and long hours both teams put in."
He began to applaud, and the others joined him. There was no point, he felt, in discouraging everyone to the point of resignation. They had, in fact, worked very hard.
"And Team C administered the viability test," he resumed as the applause died. "Then they attempted to carry out the destruction of the test sample. I'm afraid attempted is the operative word here."
Gregory spotted Mike Dooley, hunched over as if studying the pattern on the linoleum between his feet. The physician knew the young man was troubled. He had been active on both the excavation and the experimentation teams.
"Obviously, the sample we used in our experiment was not strong enough," the doctor said, as Dooley began to pick at a hangnail on his thumb. "Either it was the weaker strain of the agent, or we did not harvest enough particles to attack our test sample fully. Without a scanning electron microscope, I find it difficult to make a conclusive determination."
Gregory let out a breath of frustration. Had he not already exhausted most of his financial resources on this endeavor, he would have been able to afford the microscope. As it was, he had been forced to rely only on the polymerase chain reaction analysis of the volume of particles in the sample.
"Furthermore," he went on as he began to walk around the room, "the viability of transporting the agent to our target population on a wide scale is unproven. I'm sure you all recall Desert Storm and the toxins used by Saddam Hussein. They were subtle, indefensible, and deadly, and they moved through our troops in ways the United States government has yet to determine. In many cases, the government continues to deny these weapons were even used. Our mission is clear, ladies and gentlemen. We cannot allow such treachery against our people. We must protect ourselves from the threat of destruction. Now, as you are all aware, September 15 is our final deadline for this project. I cannot stress that date strongly enough. If we fail to accomplish our mission by September 15, my friends, we fail altogether. Summer knocks on our door. Time is running short."
"Dr. Gregory, may I ask a question?"
"Of course, Bob."
Bob Harper was a new member of the organization, and Gregory noted that he and Mike Dooley had struck up a friendship. Worrying the hangnail back and forth, Dooley turned in his chair so he could see more clearly.
"Sir, where can we get our hands on more of the agent?" Harper asked. "Sounds like we're going to need a lot of this stuff if we're going to be able to protect people the way you said."
"I'm glad you asked that question. It leads me directly to the topic of this meeting." Gregory turned and pulled down a rolled school map with the continents in bright, primary colors. "Once again our dedicated research team has done some great work, narrowing the focus of our next excavation first to the United States, and then to a single state, to a single county, and finally to a single farm. This is quite an accomplishment in itself. But in addition to that, the team has calculated the specific site for our new probe. Along a hilly ridge beside a river that runs through this farm, we believe we'll find what we need."
Mike Dooley spoke up. "Are there any towns close by, Dr. Gregory? In Utah, it felt like people were breathing down our necks the whole time we were trying to work."
"There's a small community nearby, but the farm itself is owned by a single man who has no family to speak of. I understand your concerns about interruptions, Mike, but I would ask you to keep in mind the importance of maintaining a clear focus on the goal of this project. Our work is of global importance. What we're doing together as a team will benefit mankind throughout the future."
Gregory noted that Dooley had yanked too hard on his hangnail and was blotting the blood on his jeans. He crossed to Dooley's chair. Removing his wallet from his pocket, the physician spoke softly. "Give me your hand, young man."
Dooley did as he was told. Gregory took a sterile Band-Aid from his wallet, peeled back the protective paper, and stretched the adhesive wings over the young man's thumb.
"Is that better?"
Dooley swallowed. Clutching his bandaged thumb into a fist, he mumbled, "Yes, sir."
"Infection can creep into open wounds like that, Mike. The results are often painful, even dangerous. We'll find you some antibiotic lotion after the meeting."
"Thank you, Dr. Gregory."
"Focus, Mike," Gregory said gently. "You'll do fine on this new effort, I know you will. As long as you keep your focus."
"Then pack your bag, Mike. You, too, Bob. We'll leave in the morning."
"Where are we going, sir?" Harper asked, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out with his heel.
Gregory turned and pointed to a small yellow rectangle in the center of the old school map. "Kansas."
Copyright © 2001 by Catherine Palmer