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“To be honest, I’d rather have her alive and pissed off than dead and happy,” I said, putting my hands flat on the table before I could grab hold of Becks again. “If you’ve seen her file, you must know she suffered from retinal Kellis-Amberlee.”

“Yes, I saw that. It’s amazingshe accomplished so much, given her disability.”

I somehow managed to smile at him. I may never know how I did that. “She did a lot with her life, it’s true. Now I’ve got to soldier on and take care of the things she wasn’t able to finish.”

“Oh?” Director Swenson gave me an attentive look. “What was she working on?”

“Reservoir conditions. See, she knew a lot of people through her support groups and mailing lists—”

Support groups? asked George, sounding horrified. I never joined a support group in my life.

I ignored her. “—and she started noticing this crazy pattern.” Was it my imagination, or was Director Swenson going still? “It was like her friends died faster than anybody else’s. I mean, even faster than my friends, and most of my friends are Irwins, which is sort of like waving a big red flag in the face of Darwinism. So she started to dig.”

“Funny, I don’t remember seeing any received queries in her file,” said Director Swenson. His voice had gone completely blank, neither excited nor cold. The voice of a man in the process of disconnecting.

“She didn’t query the CDC,” said Becks, before I could open my mouth. I decided to let her take the conversation and run. Her training was better for this bluff than mine was. “She figured that if there wasn’t a pattern, she didn’t want to bother you, and if there was…” She let the sentence trail off before lifting her shoulders in a “What are you going to do?” shrug, and said, “It was a pretty big scoop. If the reservoir conditions were that dangerous, and somebody was going to break the story, why couldn’t it be her?”

“I suppose her notes were lost along with your address book,” said Director Swenson, looking at me.

“Oh, no, not at all,” I replied. “I’ve been studying them, actually. I mean, they’re a little outside my reading level, but hey, what’s life without learning? She’s right, too. The death rate is, like, crazy. Some of these people, statistically, should have lived to see their great-grandkids. Which means either the overall mortality rates for the country need to be recalculated, because we’re calibrating something really, really wrong, or folks with reservoir conditions are dying at a really accelerated rate.” I gave him my best big-dumb-Irwin face, and asked, “Which do you think it is?”

“Well, now that you bring it up, there is some documentation to support your sister’s conclusions. I only wish she’d brought them to us before she died. It would have been a real pleasure working with her.” Director Swenson stood, motioning for Becks and me to stay where we were. “If you two will excuse me for just a moment, I’ll go and get the files that relate to this particular issue. I think you’ll find them very enlightening.”

“We’ll chill here,” I said, offering him a half-salute. Director Swenson mustered a wan smile and turned, walking quickly out of the conference room. He shut the door as he exited. Probably another of those crazy CDC security precautions… or he wanted us to think so, anyway.

Rxing in my chair, I pulled out my phone and fiddled with it, saying carelessly, “It’s cool that he’s going to share his research, huh?” as I texted Becks with He’s up to something. Watch yourself.

Becks didn’t look even slightly surprised when her phone started buzzing. Unclipping it from her belt, she read the screen and started to key in a reply as she said, “I told you the CDC was the place to go with this. They’re going to have files on anything and everything she could have found on her own, if she just hadn’t been so damn stubborn.” You think? That man couldn’t have rushed out of here faster if you’d been spurring him on with an electric prod. He’s not happy that we’re here, and he’s really not happy about this line of discussion.

“You know George. Stubborn to the end.” At least this confirms that it’s more than just Memphis. Did you keep track of escape routes on the way in?

“It was her best quality.” There really aren’t any, other than the way we came. These buildings are designed as giant kill chutes. If there’s an outbreak, staff is supposed to hole up and stay where they are until help shows up.

“You can say that again.” Isn’t that f**king awesome. While Becks keyed in her response, I dipped a hand into my pocket and withdrew one of our increasingly limited supply of Buffy-built bugs. You can buy listening devices from sources both legal and extralegal all over the world, and mail order makes it possible to make those purchases essentially untraceable. None of them hold a candle to Buffy’s work.

Hey, you’re the one who thought coming here was a good idea. I was following your lead. Do we want to scout while we wait for him to come back and get us?

I can’t imagine it would be a worse idea than coming here in the first place. I snapped the bug onto the bottom of the table, flattening its edges until they were flush to the frame. The CDC would need to be looking real hard to stand even a chance of finding it.

Got it. Becks glanced up from her phone, asking, “You think Director Swenson is going to be back soon? I need to tinkle, and he didn’t show us where the bathrooms were.”

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