A vision denied is a battle lost.
With a flick of his hand the blackened sky blipped into eerie green. Crouched on the house’s back deck, he adjusted his night goggles. The high bushes surrounding the yard illumed in surreal glow, the wizened limbs of a giant oak straggling upward. The color reminded him of fluorescing bacteria under a microscope.
He ran his hand over a pocket on his black cargo pants. The vial created a telltale bump against his thigh. His latex-gloved fingers closed around it.
Rising, he crossed the deck in five long strides. He surveyed the lock on the sliding glass door. Not enough light. He raised the goggles, darkness reigning once more. From a left pocket he extracted a tiny flashlight. Aimed its beam at the lock.
A common thief he was not. His mission had required intricate study of skills he’d never dreamed he need possess. The pick of a lock. A stealthy skulk. A means to render unconscious.
He pulled the necessary tools from the same pocket. Holding the flashlight in his mouth, he worked the tools into the lock, manipulating as practiced. The mechanism gave way with a tiny click.
He slid the door open.
No alarm sounded. He knew it wouldn’t. In this upper-crust town, home to Stanford University, alarms were for vacations. Children at home were too apt to set them off.
He replaced the flashlight and tools in his pocket. Slipped inside the house and eased the door shut. Down came his goggles. The large kitchen gleamed into view. His astute nose picked up the lingering scent of pizza, cut with a trace of ammonia. A cleaning agent, perhaps.
The digital clock on the microwave read 2:36 a.m.
From where he stood he could see through open doorways to a den, a hall, and a dining room.
At the threshold to the hall he stopped and reached into the lower right pocket beneath his knee. The three-ounce glass bottle he withdrew had a covered plastic pump spray. The chemical inside was not compatible with metals. He removed the cap and slid it back into his pants.
Holding the bottle with trigger finger on the pump, he advanced into the hall. A left turn, and he stood in the entryway. Straight ahead, a living room. On his left, a staircase. Carpeted.
He lifted a sneakered foot onto the bottom step.
The bedrooms would be upstairs, two occupied. One by the nine-year-old daughter, Lauren. The second, a master suite, by mother Jannie. She would be alone. Her husband, the arrogant and remorseless Dr. Brock McNeil, was attending a medical symposium on Lyme Disease. No doubt spewing more poisonous lies.
His jaw flexed.
After three steps he reached a landing. He turned left and resumed his inaudible climb.
His heartbeat quickened. Too many emotions funneled into this moment—grief-drenched years, anxiety, all the scheming, and now adrenaline. He willed his pulse into submission. Once he went into action everything would happen quickly. He needed his wits about him.
Within seconds his foot landed on the last stair. To his immediate left stood an open door. He craned his neck to see around the threshold. Empty bedroom. With a quick glance he took in three more open doorways—two bedrooms and one bath, halfway down the hall. The closed door directly in front of him had to be a closet. He looked down the length of the hall, saw one open door at the end. That was it. The master bedroom, running the entire depth of the house.
He advanced to the next room on his left. Peered inside. The green-haloed room held a canopied bed and several dressers, a large stuffed lion in one corner. In the bed lay a small form on her back, one arm thrown over the blankets. Lauren. Beside her head was some sort of stuffed animal. A dog? He could hear the girl’s steady breathing.
His mouth flattened to a thin, hard line. He turned and glared at his targeted bedroom, left fingers curling into his palm.
His legs took him in swift silence to the threshold of Janessa McNeil’s door.
With caution he leaned in, glimpsing a large bed to his right. She occupied the closest half, lying on her side facing him. How very thoughtful.
Scarcely drawing oxygen, he stepped into the room.
Her eyes opened.
His limbs froze. He’d made no sound. Had she sensed his presence, the malevolence in his pores?
Janessa’s head lifted from the pillow.
In one fluid motion he strode to the bed, thrust the bottle six inches from her face, and panic-pumped the spray. The chloroform mixture misted over her.
A strangled cry escaped the woman, cut short as her head dropped like a stone.
He stumbled backward, holding his breath, pulse fluttering. When he finally inhaled, a faint sweet smell from the chloroform wafted into his nostrils. Leaning down, he dug the plastic cap from his lower pocket and shoved it onto the spray container. Dropped the thing back into his pants.
For a moment he stood, fingers grasped behind his neck, regaining his equilibrium.
Everything was fine, just fine. No way could she have seen him well enough in the dark.
Remember why you’re here.
Visions of the past surfaced, and with them—the anger. The boiling, rancid rage that fueled his days and fired his nights. So what if this sleeping woman was known to be quiet and caring? So what if she had a likable, if not beautiful, face? He’d studied her picture—the gray eyes that held both caution and hope, her smooth skin and upturned mouth. She looked as if she could be anyone’s friend. But she was nothing to him. Neither was her daughter. Merely a means to a crucial end.
He snatched the vial from his upper pocket.
Raising it before his face, he squinted through the hard plastic. Saw nothing. The infected parasite within it was no bigger than the head of a pin. He turned the vial sideways and shook it. A tiny dark object slid from the bottom into view.
His lips curled.
This Ixodes pacificus, or blacklegged tick, carried spirochetes—spiral-shaped bacteria—that caused Lyme Disease in California. And not just a few spirochetes. This tick was loaded with them, along with numerous coinfections. Thanks to painstaking work the spirochetes had flourished and multiplied in the brains of mice. As the infected baby mice had grown, the sickest were sacrificed, their brains fed to the next generation of ticks. How the spirochetes loved brain tissue.
Janessa McNeil would soon attest to that.
He moved toward the bed. No need to hurry now, nor be anxious. His target would not be roused.
Last summer in its larval stage, the captured tick had enjoyed its first feeding on an infected mouse. Now as a disease-carrying nymph, it was ready for its second meal.
He leaned over the sleeping woman and opened the vial.
The hungry tick would bury its mouth parts into Janessa McNeil’s warm flesh and feed for three to five days. After one to two days it would begin to transmit the spirochetes. Even fully engorged, nymph ticks were so minuscule they could easily go unnoticed on the body. But just to be sure, he held the vial above the woman’s temple. Her dark brown hair would provide cover.
Pointing the container downward, he tapped the tick over the edge.
He slipped the vial back into his right pocket, pulling the flashlight from his left. Then raised his night goggles and turned on the flashlight. He aimed its narrow beam at his victim’s temple and leaned in closer, squinting.
Ah. There it was, crawling near her hairline.
With a fingernail he nudged it farther back until it disappeared among the follicles.
He straightened and took a moment to revel in his victory. He’d done it. He had really done it.
Smiling, he put away his flashlight and lowered the goggles. With a whisper of sound he turned and left the room. Down the stairs he crept, and through the kitchen. He stepped out onto the back deck, closed the sliding door and relocked it with the tools from his pocket.
As he slunk from the backyard, a wild and primal joy surged through him. He smirked at the memory of the green-hued sleeping figure, every fiber of his being anticipating, relishing the fulfillment of his vision.
A battle won.