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Scorpion's Advance
Ken McClure
Scotland
(1986)

Bacteriologist Dr. Neil Anderson is asked by the hospital authorities to
try and discover what disease could possibly have transformed Martin
Klein, a healthy medical student, into a grotesque corpse within hours.
His investigation uncovers an unlikely link between Klein's routine
participation in testing a new drug and the research laboratories of Dr.
Jacob Strauss, one of the foremost medical scientists of his day... Was
Klein's death purely medical mishap? Or was it, as Anderson begins to
suspect, the result of something infinitely more sinister? 

THE SCORPION'S ADVANCE

by

KEN McCLURE

Saltoun

www.kenmcclure.com

 

First published in Great Britain by William Collins & Co Ltd. in 1986

Original ISBN 0 00 223090 9

This edition published by Saltoun in 2012

Copyright © Ken Begg, 1986

The right of Ken McClure to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent act, 1988

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people either living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

. . . Changeable fortune, O unstable chance,

Thine is the scorpion’s treacherous advance!

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Merchant’s Tale

 

PROLOGUE

Tel Aviv
1985

Dexter parked the car and got out with an awkwardness that said he was used to driving something bigger than the
green Fiat. He walked along Ben Yehuda Street with the slow, deliberate gait so typical of American men who had grown up in the shadow of Gary Cooper and John Wayne. It wasn't affectation, just the result of constant subliminal suggestion from an early age. The haircut, the smart lightweight suit, the crisp shirt with the button-down collar were what people in Dexter's position wore. It was as simple as that. No sartorial decisions had been necessary.

Dexter pushed open the door of the airline office and stepped into the cool, air-conditioned interior. He adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose while he took in his surroundings. There was one other customer being attended to at the desk. Dexter avoided eye contact with the assistant who rose to deal with him and picked up a leaflet which he studiously read until the other customer had completed his business. The door closed and Dexter put down the leaflet.

'Yes, sir. Can I help you?' said the clerk.

'I'm enquiring about flight LH 703,' said Dexter.

'We have no flight LH 703, sir.'

'Check for me, will you?'

'One moment, please.' The clerk left his post and disappeared through the back to return a few moments later. 'The manager will see you now, sir.'

Dexter nodded. He didn't waste words on people of junior rank where it could be avoided. He walked through the door that the clerk held open for him and turned right into a long corridor. He didn't need directions. He knew exactly where to go. He came here two or three times a year to deliver his report or when specially summoned as he had been this morning. He stopped at a blue door and pressed the buzzer outside. There was a pause while an overhead TV camera scrutinized him, then a noise like an electrical short circuit preceded a series of mechanical clicks as three
thousand dollars worth of electronic lock released the blast-proof steel door and let him in.

'Good morning, Mr Dexter,' said a smiling girl behind a typewriter.

‘Morning, Miss Ling.' Gary Cooper was always polite to ladies.

'The chief said to go right in, sir.' Dexter smiled and entered the inner office.

'Good to see you, J.D.,' said the short, grey-haired man behind the desk. 'Like Tel Aviv any better?'

'No,' replied Dexter flatly. 'Worst station I've had.'

'Well, wouldn't do if we liked them all,' laughed the grey-haired man.

'No, sir
,' agreed Dexter, though failing to see why not.

'Cheer up. Could be Paris next time!'

'With my luck it'll be La Paz.'

'Luck doesn't come into it. You're as good as your last assignment, J.D.'

'Then it'll be La Paz,' said Dexter.

'No progress, huh?'

'None at all.'

'Maybe this'll help,' said the grey-haired man, pushing a piece of paper towards Dexter. 'It came in from the London station early this morning. It's a response to your all-station request for information on peripherals. This one is dead.'

Dexter read the report and recognized Miss Ling's style in the decoding.
subject:
Martin Klein.
status:
Peripheral in Tel Aviv file.
message:
Subject died in St Thomas' Hospital, Surrey, England. Cause of death unknown.' Dates and times were listed.

Dexter looked at his watch and saw that Klein had been dead for six hours. 'Never heard of him,' he said.

'We checked for you,' said the grey-haired man. 'Klein was listed as a peripheral because he worked in one of the genetics labs at Tel Aviv University for two months earlier this year.'

Dexter nodded thoughtfully before saying, 'Probably nothing in it but we better have a look at the autopsy report.'

'I've asked London to lay hands on it.'

'Thanks.' Dexter got to his feet and buttoned his jacket while the other man leaned back in his seat and put his hands behind his head.

'I hear you've got an agent on the inside.'

'I have,' said Dexter. 'Not that it's made any difference. The target's still pure as driven snow.' Dexter leaned forward with his fingertips resting on the desk. He said, 'You are sure this guy is bent? There couldn't be some kind of mistake?'

The older man considered his words carefully before replying.

‘"Bent" is the wrong word, J.D. He's a head case. What's more, he's a head case with a PhD and access to everything he needs. That, my friend, is a combination that could make La Paz seem very attractive.'

CHAPTER ONE

Sweat was beginning to glisten on John
Fearman's forehead as he drew back for the third time. 'For God's sake hold him still, will you,' he snapped in an uncharacteristic show of temperament.

Sister Jane Long was not used to being spoken to that way by a junior houseman but, this time, she let it pass. She knew the pressure that
Fearman was under. She said in a deliberate monotone, 'The patient is convulsing, Doctor ... I am doing my best.'

Fearma
n noted the tone of her voice. ‘I’m sorry. Let's try again.'

'One moment.' Sister Long summoned another nurse and the two of them put their weight on the patient.

Fearman brought the needle closer to the patient's bare back. He wanted a clean insertion into the space between the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae, a nice clean sample of cerebro-spinal fluid and then out again. The last thing on earth that he needed was the man to jump when he had a needle inside his spinal canal.

The patient seemed calm for the moment.
Fearman held his breath and pressed the long aspiration needle into the cavity of his spinal column. The seconds ticked by like minutes before the needle was in place and the spinal fluid flowed out into the waiting test tube, only slightly tinged with blood through Fearman's hesitant entry.

Fearman
withdrew the needle and let out a sigh of relief. The sigh had barely passed his lips when the patient gave a huge involuntary convulsion. Fearman had to add his strength to that of the nurses in trying to control him, shuddering to think what might have happened had the needle still been in the man's back.

The fit subsided.
Fearman looked at the clock on the wall; it was 1.14 a.m. At twenty-six minutes past, the result came back from the biochemistry lab where the duty technician had been called out to run the tests. Protein: Normal; Glucose: Normal; Chlorides: Normal.

Fearman
could not believe his eyes. 'But it
has
to be meningitis,' he said out loud. 'He has all the signs.'

'Except for a normal CSF,' said Jane Long.

'You have seen a lot of meningitis cases, Sister. I value your opinion.'

Jane Long was pleased.
Fearman had atoned for his earlier indiscretion. ’I agree with you, Doctor. The patient is presenting as a classic meningitis.'

'But this says not,' said
Fearman, raising the lab report.

'Maybe viral?'

'Maybe, but the onset was all wrong. Who is the duty bacteriologist?'

'Dr Anderson.'

Fearman gave silent thanks. Neil Anderson was his flatmate. Calling out other doctors was always a problem for housemen. Do it too often and you would get a reputation for it; the kind of reputation that could damage your career. Calling out friends did not count.

'Neil? I need you.'

'What's the problem?'

'I've got a patient presenting as a severe bacterial
meningitis but the biochemistry says his CSF is normal.'

'Maybe it's viral.'

‘I think not. I still think it's a classic bacterial. Would you have a look at his CSF for me? See if you can find anything?'

'Be right there.'

Fearman came out of the ward side-room when he saw Anderson appear at the window. Thanks, Neil. Here it is.' He handed Anderson a test tube containing cerebrospinal fluid.

'Who’
s the patient?' asked Anderson.

'Martin Klein, aged twenty-two, an Israeli national. He's one of our medical students. His flatmate called an ambulance just before one and he's been going downhill fast.'

'Have you called Lennox-Adams?'

'Not yet. I'll wait until you have had a look.'

Anderson nodded. ‘I’d best get started.'

He left the warmth of the hospital and ran across the cobbled courtyard to the medical school with the cold night air nipping at his eyes. When he got in, the lift was on one of the upper floors. It was old and slow so he chose to sprint up the stairs instead and was breathing hard by the time he reached the Bacteriology Department on the third floor.

The fluorescent lights stuttered into life as he found the switch at the second attempt. He transferred the fluid from the test tube to a centrifuge vial and set the machine in motion. If there were any bacteria in the sample they would be concentrated at the base of the tube within minutes. While the centrifuge was running he prepared a series of microscope slides and culture plates, ready for inoculation as soon as the sample was static.

The automatic brake on the centrifuge cut in and the room was filled with the decelerating hum of the motor. Anderson removed the vial and held it up to the light. Not much debris there, he thought, but he went through the motions of decanting the top fluid and inoculating what was left on to the culture plates and glass slides. He put the cultures in the incubator and stained the slides at the sink by the window before examining them under the microscope.

Anderson's fingers moved the microscope stage slowly in a search sequence as he scanned the slide from right to left. He repeated the sequence in the opposite direction, still without success. There were no bacteria to be seen. After six traverses Anderson called Fearman. 'Sorry, nothing in the direct slide.'

'Shit.'

'I've prepared a ZN slide just in case it's TB meningitis, but I doubt it.'

'Me too. I think he's going to die. I've called Lennox-Adams.'

‘I’ll come down when I've finished.'

Anderson completed the examination of the second slide with the same negative result. He switched off the lights and returned to the hospital. As he approached the
side room where Fearman's patient was, he heard a scream of anguish and a loud crash. He opened the door to find that one of the nurses had been flung across the room. The patient's eyes were wide open and filled with fear; his arms flailed in all directions. Anderson rushed over to help Fearman and Sister Long restrain him. The fact that Klein was a well-built twenty-two-year-old did not help matters.

Anderson could feel Klein's muscles harden like iron as his body went into spasm. He could see the veins on the side of his neck swell up till it seemed that they must burst under the pressure. Whimpering noises came from his throat as Klein recoiled from some unspeakable horror that only he could see.

Fearman and Anderson had just begun to gain control of the situation when Sister Long, with an anxiety in her voice that neither had heard before, said, 'His tongue, Doctor! His tongue!'

In the throes of his seizure Klein had sunk his teeth into his own tongue. Anderson and
Fearman, unable to let go of his arms, looked up to see the skin round Klein's mouth retract and his teeth sink deeper and deeper into his tongue. Blood flowed over his chin and down the myriad channels created by the cramp-locked sinews and muscles of his neck.

Jane Long threw herself across
Fearman's back and attempted to prise Klein's jaws apart but with little success.

'Use the blunt end of the forceps, Sister,' said
Fearman.

‘I’ll
break his teeth.'

'He can talk without his teeth,' said Anderson.

Jane Long did as she was bid and succeeded in inserting her forceps into a gap between Klein's teeth on the left side of his mouth.

'What on earth is going on?' said a well-modulated voice behind them. It belonged to Nigel Lennox-Adams, the consultant physician
Fearman had called. 'Why hasn't this man been sedated?'

'He has,' replied
Fearman, still in the throes of a wrestling match.

'Well, give him some more!' boomed Lennox-Adams as if he were talking to an idiot.

'He's had the maximum . . . ' said Fearman.

'Give him more. I will take the responsibility.'

'Please, Sister,' Fearman said to Sister Long. She prepared the syringe with professional calm and called, 'Ready.'

Fearman
was in two minds about letting go of Klein's arm to take the syringe.

'Oh, give it here,' snapped Lennox-Adams. He gave Klein the injection and dropped the empty syringe into the bowl that Jane Long held out to him. 'Now we'll have some order round here,' he said, stepping back from the bed and waiting for Klein to respond to the sedation.

Nothing happened. Klein's body continued to convulse as if charged with electricity. The fear in his staring eyes could only hint at the nightmare his mind was inflicting on him. Lennox-Adams watched in growing disbelief as he saw that the sedation was not going to work.

Klein's body went into spasm again. His back arched and his muscles locked in rigid seizure. The staff looked on helplessly as the skin on Klein's face was drawn further and further back to expose all his teeth. There was a rattle from his throat and the agony was over. Klein was dead.

'Thank God,' said Lennox-Adams quietly. No one else spoke. He approached the bed and looked at the hideous death mask of Martin Klein. 'Brief me, will you, Fearman.'

Fearman
referred to his notes as he gave the information to his superior. 'The patient, Martin Klein, was twenty-two years old, an Israeli subject attending medical school in this country.'

'One of ours?'

'Yes. Third year.'

'Go on.'

'He became ill earlier this evening, complaining of severe headaches, sickness and stiffness of the neck. By midnight he had a high fever and was becoming delirious. His flatmate put in a treble-nine call and he was admitted to hospital at one o'clock. All the symptoms at that time pointed to severe meningitis.'

'In whose opinion?'

'Mine.'

'Go on.'

‘I performed a spinal tap and requested biochemical analysis on the CSF.'

'And?'

'The values were normal.'

Lennox-Adams looked puzzled but did not say anything.

'I called out Dr Anderson - he's the duty bacteriologist this evening - and asked him to examine Klein's CSF for bacteria.'

'And?'

‘I didn't find any evidence of bacteria in a direct smear test,' said Anderson. 'Of course, something might grow up in culture.'

'I am aware of that possibility, Doctor,' said Lennox-Adams coldly. He pulled back the sheet from Klein's body. 'An Israeli, you say?'

Fearman concurred and exchanged glances with Anderson as Lennox-Adams proceeded to examine Klein's arms and legs. At length he stood back from the bed and nodded to Jane Long who put the sheet back in place. 'I was looking for bite marks,' said Lennox-Adams. 'I saw a rabies death once; it was like that.'

The consultant left, and Jane Long called for the duty porter to take Klein's body to the mortuary.

'I think I'll get back too,' said Anderson.

'Don't you want some coffee?' asked
Fearman.

Truth is ... I wasn't actually alone when you called
.’

'You weren't . . . Oh, I see. Anyone I know?'

'Angela Donnington . . . ward seven?'

'Oh, I know, blonde, posh voice, nice legs.'

'We were having a late supper.'

'Of course you were,' leered
Fearman. 'See you in the morning.'

Anderson got back to the flat to find Angela fast asleep, her fair hair spread out on the pillow and her clothes strewn at intervals over the floor where, earlier in the evening, they had progressed, with the aid of a Carol King album, from the couch to the bedroom. Anderson undressed and slipped in beside the sleeping figure. She stirred as he put his arms round her and said sleepily, 'Oh, you're back.'

'I sure am,' said Anderson, in what he hoped was a low, sexy voice.

Angela giggled and put her hand down to rub his thigh. The phone rang. Anderson cursed and fumbled for the receiver.

'Neil? It's me, John.'

'You’
re doing this deliberately, Fearman!' hissed Anderson.

'No, I'm really sorry to disturb you but it's important. I've been going through Martin Klein's things and I've discovered that he was one of the student volunteers on the
Galomycin trial. You’re involved in that, aren't you?'

'Yes,' said Anderson. His annoyance had disappeared. 'Thanks for letting me know.' He put down the phone and switched on the bedside lamp.

Angela screwed up her eyes and protested. 'What's the matter?' she asked.

'A medical student died tonight, meningitis they think, but he was a volunteer on the
Galomycin trial.'

'
TheGal . . . ? Oh, the new antibiotic they're trying out.'

Anderson nodded.

'You don't mean to say that the drug killed him?' said Angela, her eyes opening wide.

'No, of course not, but it will be really important to es
tablish just what did before anyone else starts saying what you said.'

'But isn't that why you have volunteers? To find out if new drugs are safe or not?'

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