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Authors: Graham Masterton

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Plague

BOOK: Plague
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Plague

by

Graham Masterton

Book One
ONE

H
e was still half-asleep when the doorbell rang. The sound
penetrated his head like someone dropping coins down a well. It rang again,
long and urgent, and he opened his eyes and discovered it was morning.

‘Just a
minute!’ he croaked, with a sleep-dry mouth. The doorbell wouldn’t wait,
though, and kept on calling him. He swung his legs out of bed, groped on the
floor for his discarded bathrobe, and pushed his feet uncomfortably into his
slippers.

He shuffled out
into the hallway. Through the frosted glass front door he could see a short
stocky figure in blue, leaning on the bellpush.

‘Just a
minute!’ he called again. ‘I’m coming!’

He unlocked the
door and peered out. The brilliant Florida sunshine made him blink.

The warm
morning breeze was blowing the palms beside his driveway, and already the sky
was rich and blue.

‘You Dr.
Petrie?’ said the man abruptly. He was heavy-set, dressed in crumpled blue
coveralls. He was holding his cap in his hand, and his face had the expression
of an anxious pug-dog.

‘That’s right.
What time is it?’

‘I don’t know,’
said the man hoarsely.
‘Maybe eight-thirty, nine.
It’s
my kid. He’s sick. I mean, real sick, and I think he’s gonna die or something.
You have to come.’

‘Couldn’t you
call the hospital?’

‘I did. They
asked me what was wrong, and when I told them, they said to see a doctor. They
said it didn’t sound too serious. But it keeps on getting worse and worse, and
I’m real worried.’

The man was
twitchy and sweating and the dark rings under his eyes showed just how little
sleep he’d had. Dr. Petrie scratched his stubbly chin, and then nodded.

Last night’s
party had left him feeling as if someone had hit him in the face with a rubber
hammer, but he recognized real anxiety when he saw it.

‘Come in and
sit down. I’ll be two minutes.’

The man in the
blue coveralls took a couple of steps into the hallway, but was too nervous to
sit. Dr. Petrie went into the bedroom, threw off his bathrobe, and dressed
hastily. He slipped his feet into sandals, ran a comb through his tousled brown
hair, and then reached for his medical bag and car keys.

Outside in the
hallway, the man had at last sat down, perched on the edge of a wooden trunk
that Dr. Petrie used for storing old medical journals. The man was staring at
the pattern on the tiled floor, with that strange dull look that Dr. Petrie had
seen so many times before. Why has this happened to me? Of all people, why has
it happened to me?

‘Mr....’

‘Kelly. Dave
Kelly. My son’s name is David, too. Are we ready to leave?’

‘All set. Do
you want to come in my car?’

‘Sure,’ said
Dave Kelly woodenly. ‘I don’t think I wanna drive any more today.’

Dr. Petrie
slammed the glass front door behind them and they stepped out into the heat and
the sun. His dark blue Lincoln Continental was parked in the driveway.
At the kerb stood a battered red pickup which obviously belonged to
Mr. Kelly.
On the side it said Speedy Motors Inc.

They climbed
into the car and Dr. Petrie turned on the air-conditioning. It was March, and by
this time of morning the temperature was already building up to 75 degrees.

All along the
quiet palm-lined streets of the fashionable Miami suburb, where Dr. Petrie
lived and practised, the neat and elegant houses had blinds drawn and shades
down.

‘Now,’ said Dr.
Petrie, twisting his lanky body in the seat to reverse the Lincoln out of the
drive. ‘While we’re driving, I want you to tell me everything that’s happened
to your son.
Symptoms, color, everything.
Oh, and
direct me, too.’

‘I live
downtown,’ said Kelly, rubbing sweat from his eyes.
‘Just off
North West 20th Street.’

Dr. Petrie
swung the car around, and they bounced over the sidewalk and into the street.
He gunned the engine, and they flickered through the light and shade of
Burlington Drive, heading south. The air-conditioning chilled the sweat on Mr.
Kelly’s face, and he began to tremble.

‘What made you
choose me?’ asked Dr. Petrie. ‘There have to be a hundred doctors living
nearer.’

Mr. Kelly
coughed. ‘You
was
recommended. My brother-in-law, he’s
an
attorney,
he used to be a patient of yours. I
called him and asked him for the best. I tell you, doc – I gotta have the best
for that kid. If he’s as bad as he looks, I gotta have the best.’

‘How bad does
he look?’ Dr. Petrie swerved around a parked truck.

‘Right now,
when I left him, he didn’t even open his eyes. He’s white, like paper. He
started to shake and shiver around ten or eleven last night. He came into the
bedroom and asked for a glass of water. He looked yellow and sick right then,
and I gave him water, and aspirin. Was that okay?’

Dr. Petrie
nodded. ‘They won’t do any harm. How old is he?’

‘David’s just
nine years old.
Last Thanksgiving.’

Dr. Petrie
turned on to 441 and drove swiftly and steadily south. He glanced at his gold
wristwatch. It was a little after nine. Oh well, a good abrupt start to Monday
morning. He looked at himself in the driving mirror and saw a clean-cut
all-American doctor with hangover written all over his face.

Some of his
more critical medical colleagues had sarcastically nicknamed Dr. Petrie ‘Saint
Leonard of the Geriatrics’. That was because his clientele was mainly elderly
and exclusively rich – old widows with immense fortunes and skins tanned as
brown as leather handbags.

And it was also
because of his uncomfortably saintly appearance – a look that gave you the
feeling that he drew half of his healing talent from medical training, and the
other half directly from God. It was to do with his tall, lean body; his clear
and almost inspired blue eyes; his open, benign face – and it all contributed
to his success.

The way Dr.
Petrie saw it, rich old ladies needed medication just as much as anyone else,
and if he could build up his income with a melting smile and a glossy clinic
full of Muzak and tropical fish, then there wasn’t anything medically or
morally wrong.

Besides, he
thought, at least I’m concerned enough to climb out of bed on a hot Monday
morning to visit a sick kid whose father really needs me.

He just wished
that he had been saintly enough not to drink eight vodkatinis last night at the
golf club get-together.

‘Who’s with the
boy now?’ Dr. Petrie asked Mr. Kelly.

‘His mother.
She was supposed to work the late shift, but
she stayed home.’

‘Have you given
him anything to eat or drink?’

‘Just water.
He was burning up one minute, and cold the
next. His
lips was
dry, and his tongue was all furred
up – I reckoned that water was probably the best.’

Dr. Petrie
stopped for a red light and sat there drumming his fingers on the rim of the
steering-wheel, thinking.

Mr. Kelly
looked across at him, nervous and worried, and tried not to fidget. ‘Does it
sound
like any kind of sickness you know?’ he asked. Dr.
Petrie smiled. ‘I can’t tell you until I see the boy for myself. It could be
any number of things. What about his motions?’

‘His what?’

‘His bowels.
Are they loose, or what?’ Mr. Kelly nodded.
‘That’s it.
Runny, like soup.’

They moved away
from the lights, and Mr. Kelly gave directions.

After a couple of
turns, they arrived at a busy intersection with a garage on the corner. The
garage had three pumps and a greasy-looking concrete forecourt, and
in the back were
a broken-down truck and a heap of old fenders, jacks,
wrenches, and rusted auto parts.

Mr. Kelly
climbed out of the car. ‘Follow me. We live up over the garage.’

Dr. Petrie took
his medical bag and locked his Lincoln. He followed Mr. Kelly around the side
of the garage, and they clanged together up a shaky fire-escape, to a cluttered
balcony, and then into the Kelly’s apartment. They stepped into the kitchen
first. It was gloomy and smelled of sour milk.

‘Gloria, I
brought the doctor!’ called Mr. Kelly. There was no answer. Mr. Kelly guided
Dr. Petrie through into the dingy hallway. There was a broken-down umbrella
stand, and plaques of vintage cars molded out of plastic. A grubby red pennant
on the wall said ‘Miami Beach’.

‘This way,’
said Kelly. He gently opened a door at the end of the hall and ushered Dr. Petrie
inside.

The boy was
lying on crumpled, sweat-stained sheets. There was a suffocating smell of
diahorrea and urine, even though the window was open. The child was thin, and
looked tall for his age. He had a short haircut that, with his terrible pallor,
made him look like a concentration camp victim. His eyes were closed, but
swollen and blue, like plums. His bony ribcage fluttered up and down, and every
now and then his hands twitched. His mother had wrapped pieces of torn sheet
around his middle, to act as a diaper.

‘I’m Dr.
Petrie,’ Leonard said, resting his hand momentarily on the mother’s shoulder.

She was a
small, curly-haired woman in her mid-forties. She was dressed in a tired pink
wrap, and her make-up was still half-on and half-off, just as it was when her
son’s sickness had interrupted her the night before.

‘I’m glad you
could come,’ she said tiredly. ‘He’s no better and no worse.’

Dr. Petrie
opened his medical bag. ‘I just want to make a few tests. Blood pressure,
respiration – that kind of thing. Would you like to wait outside while I do
that?’ The mother stared at him with weary eyes.
‘I been
here all night. I don’t see any call t’leave now.’

Dr. Petrie
shrugged.
‘Whatever you like.
But you look as though
you could do with a cup of coffee. Mr. Kelly – would you be kind enough to make
us all a cup of coffee?’

‘Surely,’ said
the father, who had been hovering nervously in the doorway.

Dr. Petrie sat
by the bed on a rickety wooden chair and took the boy’s pulse. It was weak and
thready – worse than he would have expected.

The mother bit
her lip and said, ‘Is he going to be all right? He is going to be all right,
aint he? Today’s the day he was supposed to go to the Monkey Jungle.’

Dr. Petrie
tried to smile. He lifted the boy’s arm again, and checked his blood pressure.
Far too high for comfort.
The last time he had seen vital
signs as poor as this, the patient had been dead of barbiturate poisoning
within three hours. He lifted David’s puffed-up eyelids, and shone his torch
into the glassy eyes.
Weak response.

He pressed his
stethoscope against the little chest and listened to the heartbeat. He could
hear fluid on the lungs, too.

‘David,’ he
said gently, close to the boy’s ear. ‘David, can you hear me?’

The boy’s mouth
twitched, and he seemed to stir, but that was all.

‘He’s so sick,’
said Mrs. Kelly wretchedly. ‘He’s so sick.’ Dr. Petrie rested his hand on
David’s skinny arm. ‘Mrs. Kelly,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have to have this boy
rushed straight to hospital. Can I use your phone?’

Mrs. Kelly
looked pale.
‘Hospital?
But we called the hospital,
and they said just a doctor would be okay. Can’t you do something for him?’

Dr. Petrie
stood up. ‘What did you tell the hospital? Did you say how bad he was?’

‘Well, I said
he was sick, and he had a fever, and he’d messed the bed up a couple of times.’

‘And what did
they say to that?’

‘They said it
sounded like he’d eaten something bad, and that I oughtta keep him warm, give
him plenty to drink and nothing to eat, and call a doctor. But after that, he
started getting worse. That’s when Dave went out for you.’

‘This boy has
to be in hospital,’ insisted Dr. Petrie. ‘I mean now. Where’s your phone?’

‘In the lounge.
Straight through there.’

On the way out
Dr. Petrie almost collided with Mr. Kelly, bringing a tin tray with three mugs
of coffee on it. He smiled briefly, and took one of the mugs. While he dialed
the hospital, he sipped the scalding black liquid and tried not to burn his
mouth.

‘Emergency unit?
Hallo. Listen, this is Dr. Leonard Petrie
here. I have a young boy, nine years old, seriously sick. I want to bring him
in right away. I can’t tell you now, but have a blood test ready.
Sputum, too.
Some kind of virus, I guess. I’m not sure. It
could be something like cholera.
Right.
Oh, sure, I’ll
tell the parents. Give me five, ten minutes – I’ll be right there.’

BOOK: Plague
4.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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