This is a work in progress. Enjoy Chapter One.

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What Could Go Wrong


A Novel of Infections

Chapter One

In these Happy times, nothing was strange. When a hand—a human hand—grimy, maybe even bloody—sliced the last inches of air between the elevator doors just before they closed, making them creak back open—slowly, grindingly, excruciatingly—to reveal… no one there… Turnbull didn’t react.

Of course there was no one there. The sun was barely thinking about climbing out of Asia or Iberia or wherever it slept and the building was—or should have been—empty. Turnbull got there so Gee dee early to have the place to himself.

The doors started to crank closed again.

Turnbull was hopeful.

Another slice from the hand.

No one there.


Probably another mystery.

That hand looked nasty. Probably a zombie. Why not? In these Happy times when nothing was strange, disembodied limbs probably came and went all the time.

Didn’t look like a werewolf. They said vampires were everywhere these days, but a zombie made more sense.

Made more sense?

John Touthick Turnbull MD PhD knew superstitions and mysteries were multiplying like fruit flies these days—that couldn’t be helped—but a zombie? Nope. Didn’t exist.

Or didn’t not exist. In these times what was and was not all depended on your orientation and how good you were at keeping things straight. Or not straight, or straight not. At least when you were talking. Or talking not. Turnbull was as good as anyone at talking not. Which wasn’t to say his syntax never got knotted. Just that problems like his were the fruit flies of the day.

The doors started to crawl closed again.

Turnbull was less hopeful.

The hand took another swipe. The doors slowly excrutiated again.


Not reacting was Turnbull’s gift. Turnbull could not react to just about anything. (Though he knew he still needed work on not not reacting, which could be just as important, depending.)

But Gee dee it, he got to the office at o-dark-whatever to be alone. He was trying to write. He had a notebook with two half-chapters, eleven first pages, 21 first paragraphs, and 134 half-formed thoughts for essays, short stories, and novels. But nothing ever seemed to get done.

A face… popped in… gone.

Ah well. Maybe he could use it in a story. This might be good.

If he didn’t get eaten.

Have to remember details… Face; scruffy; familiar.


A man… jumped in, head down… dirty overcoat; hand with a grimy rag; face averted; smell of onions.


The man sneezed. Wiping his nose, he raised an eyebrow in Turnbull’s direction, then dropped his head between his shoulders again. It looked like Marion “Duke” O’Flattery. He hadn’t shaved and his hair was a mess. Hoping to go unrecognized? Killing to a politician.

Turnbull said quietly, “That you, Duke?”

The man jolted. He hissed, “No names.”

Turnbull said, “I think we’re alone.” He reminded himself he didn’t hate O’Flattery.

The doors opened and Turnbull turned to his office. The man followed, practically stepping on his heels. “Damn it, John,” he hissed, “I thought you got here early.”

“I do.” Inside the office, Turnbull extended his hand. He expected The Handshake. Every encounter with Marion O’Flattery began the same: beaming bone-white teeth, a painful handshake, and “Call me Duke.” O’Flattery’s father had named his son Marion just so he could call him Duke. “After The Duke,” O’Flattery always added. Turnbull was unconvinced O’Flattery knew exactly which Duke he was named for. Perhaps the senior O’Flattery had left it up to Marion; an older kind of mystery.

Duke, though, put out his grimy hand, then pulled it back, then put it out, then pulled it back. He finally waved. “Damn it, John, I’ve been slumped in a doorway across the street for half an hour. Somebody put a buck on the sidewalk.”

“You do blend in,” Turnbull said. “I thought you were a zombie.”

O’Flattery didn’t laugh. “Sally’s out back,” he said.

Turnbull straightened. “Who’s Sally?” Maybe this wasn’t going to be good.

O’Flattery’s said, “She’s coughing.” 

“Who’s coughing?”

“My housekeeper.”

“Your housekeeper?”




“That’s all?” said Turnbull. “Sally?”

O’Flattery chewed his lips. “Damn it, John, my housekeeper. She’s coughing.”

“You said that. Everybody coughs. Where is she?”

“I snuck her up the alley. Damn it John. What if she has… it.”

Turnbull didn’t answer. No one had it, though of course someone could have it, no matter what they did or didn’t have. Though Turnbull, Chief Epidemiologist for the Department of Infection for the State of California, was pretty sure no one in his purview had it. Yet.

Duke said, “I got to go get her.” Before Turnbull could object, he’d disappeared.

This was not going to be good.

The alarm in the back stairway shrieked. The alarm in Turnbull’s head was barely quieter. O’Flattery was about to bring up a single person—a potential patient. Turnbull hadn’t seen a patient in fifteen years. He dealt with populations. But coughing made him nervous. On the professional level. On the personal level, too. Him and everybody else.

Turnbull grabbed his notebook. He jotted ‘Sally. Coughing. No Handshake.’ The stairwell alarm shrieked again. He scribbled ‘zombie.’

O’Flattery reappeared, hustling along a walking pillow; someone, apparently, stuffed into an oversized ski coat and sweat pants.

Turnbull didn’t hate O’Flattery but he was thinking about finding him annoying.

“Dee it, Duke! I haven’t seen patients in years. I’m not set up to see patients.”

“You are a doctor, aren’t you?”

“Yes. But I do… Duke, you know what I do. I don’t have an examining room, a table, a light, swabs… My stethoscope is in a drawer at home.”

Whoever was inside the pillow erupted in a long jag of a wet, wracking cough.

John Touthick Turnbull, Medical Doctor, couldn’t help himself; he began taking a history. “How long has she been coughing?”

“Maybe a day and a half. You got to do the test, John.” O’Flattery’s voice squeaked.

O’Flattery squeaked like Mickey Mouse. One of the things annoying about him. Turnbull had hated Mickey Mouse since he was old enough to turn on a Tube. It was vaguely un-American and could cost him his job with the State of California, but there it was.

It was unfortunate the squeak was O’Flattery’s everyday voice, because O’Flattery had a lot of voices: a crew of folks, like an old radio show. He could stir crowds at rallies with a ringing basso and lull a city council to sleep with a silky tenor; he could impart exuberance like a tent preacher or calm like a mortician. Turnbull wondered if all those voices talked amongst themselves, argued, told O’Flattery what to do, what not to do, whom to avoid, that he had been called by Gee in a language only he could understand. That would be a little close to paranoid schizophrenia, and if O’Flattery claimed personal messages in the Bible or buried treasure or the radio patter were intended for him and him only that would cinch it, but Turnbull wasn’t going anywhere near psychiatry. Zombies were bad enough.

The figure coughed again. Duke repeated, “You got to run the test.”

Turnbull walked O’Flattery and the pillow figure to a utility room in back and told Duke to get her undressed. O’Flattery said, “Here?” On one side was a stack of supplies: copy paper, toner, toilet paper, soap, tampons, etc. On the other side was the computer server: lights flashing, humming. “Jesus Christ, John. Haven’t you got anything to cover the girl up?”

Turnbull said, “I told you, this isn’t exactly a walk-in clinic.”

Duke, casting his own look of annoyance at Turnbull, held up the ski coat as a screen. When a girl’s voice said, “Lista,” Turnbull gently lowered O’Flattery’s hands.

The girl, in her bra and panties, was sweating and shivering. She had shoulder length black hair, oval eyes, a square chin with a deep cleft, and skin like coffee with cream. She was beautiful, or would have been if she weren’t breathing heavily, sweating, struggling not to cough, and generally looking sick and afraid.

O’Flattery said, “This is my housekeeper, Sally.”

Turnbull said, “Nice to meet you.”

Sally coughed into a checked rag that once might have been part of a tablecloth.

O’Flattery sneezed again.

Turnbull told himself doing a history and physical was surely like riding a bike. He said, “¿Como te llama?”

O’Flattery spurted, “Don’t start that!”

Turnbull looked at Duke, then back at the girl.

The girl looked at Duke, then back at Turnbull. She said, “Sally.”

Even with Sally’s English cobbed together with Turnbull’s Spanish, the history was quick: good health until this; started feeling ill three days ago; now coughing, dizzy, hurting all over. Classic signs of a viral infection.

Turnbull palpated Sally’s throat, then moved away. O’Flattery said, “Aren’t you going to look in there?”

“It’s dark in there.”

“Haven’t you got one of those doctor lights?”

“Duke, I’m an epidemiologist. I don’t see patients.”

O’Flattery looked peeved, then dug around in the emergency supplies until he found a flashlight. With a pencil for a tongue depressor, Turnbull looked in her throat. It looked pink. He had nothing to look in her ears. He really needed to listen to her lungs. He knew putting his ear directly to her chest would work, but it would be awkward for all concerned. He needed something tubular. Ah, a roll of toilet paper.

Turnbull pulled off the wrapper, then set the roll, end-on, on Sally’s back, just below the shoulder blade. He put his ear to the other end. “Take a deep breath,” he said. “Respire profundamente por favor.”

O’Flattery erupted, “Is this your idea of a joke?”

Turnbull straightened up. “This wasn’t my idea. And if you’ll be quiet, I’ll be able to hear what’s in there.”

“Don’t be uppity.” O’Flattery glared.

Turnbull glared. O’Flattery was Special Executor for and of Infectious Disease for the State of California, but he could have been the King of England and it wouldn’t have mattered in an exam room. In an ER, if things got ugly, Turnbull could have someone removed by Hospital Security. He didn’t have that option here. But he didn’t need it. He said to O’Flattery, “You’re not really here, are you?”

O’Flattery’s face colored. He clamped his mouth shut.

Sally’s chest was full of rattles. Whatever it was had gotten into her lungs. “I guess I should run some tests,” John said.

“Well no ess Sherlock.”

Turnbull glared again. “I’ll need ID.”

O’Flattery made a face.

Turnbull said, “She doesn’t have a card.”

“I didn’t say that.”

Sally coughed into her rag. Then coughed more. Turnbull examined the sputum: thick; green; copious; bloody. He said, “Duke, I can’t just throw shit into a lab. They got to know whose it is.” “

You know what would happen if she got ID’d. It’d be an effing ess-storm. They’d take her away. Poof. Gone.”

“When was the last time she was in Mexico?”

O’Flattery looked pained. “Two weeks.” Turnbull cursed. O’Flattery looked both ways as if a utility room had ears. He dropped Mickey Mouse in favor of his city council voice. “You…are in charge of that ess. You can disappear records.”

“I do that they disappear me. And Angola doesn’t sound so good even if it has started raining. Besides, if we did the test and it was positive, then my department would know about it and we’d have it in California and you know we don’t have it in California.”

Turnbull realized he was sounding like one of them. He needed to know if Sally had influenza, or did not have influenza, or influenza not, or—oh fuck that!—eff that!—and the serotype…what if it was this fucking goat flu? Which didn’t exist. What if somebody found out? Fuck that. Turnbull would get the specimens, get O’Flattery and Sally, or whatever her name was, out of the utility room and figure out the rest later.

Turnbull tiptoed down the hall to the office marked ‘Antoinette McCoy DRN.’ Doctor of Registered Nursing, whatever that was. She was a senior field epidemiologist, thin as a weed —the rumor was she was still hoping to be a movie actress or at least a model—particularly annoying, and, by all the evidence, a card-carrying proselytizer of the Refinement. Which didn’t exist. She was supposedly off in the nether regions of the state—Barstow or Yreka or Placentia, wherever that was—gathering data, but Turnbull figured her for a lot of extracurricular goings-on, given the volume of work she didn’t produce. He wasn’t about to complain, though. He hoped she would just stay away. Why couldn’t she be the one missing instead of his boss, Barolo St. James?

At that moment he only needed fieldwork supplies, though, and figured she had some stashed in her desk. Antoinette’s drawers were sticky and noisy. The first couple had predictable things—candy, gum, and tampons among the pens, paper clips, and note pads—but the third had some interesting looking electronic stuff. Turnbull couldn’t stop to figure out what it was, though.

In the bottom drawer was pay dirt: A box of nasal culture swabs and blood draw kits. Turnbull grabbed a handful and got out of Antoinette’s lair as fast as he could. It gave him the creeps.

Turnbull cinched a blue rubber strip over the girl’s biceps and mimed opening and closing a fist. Behind him, O’Flattery said, “You going to just draw blood? Just like that?”

“How else would you do it?”

“You know what you’re doing?”

“Now I’m just an epidemiologist?”

“I get lightheaded with that shit.”

“Then go out and wait in my office.”

“No. I can take it.”

Turnbull flicked the veins in the crook of Sally’s arm. She winced. O’Flattery said, “You’re hurting her.”

Turnbull gave a ‘duh’ look to O’Flattery, then thwapped her again. He smiled at her. She smiled back a little. Turnbull poked the needle with a slight jab under the skin. Dark blood shot back into the vacuum tube. There was a thunk behind Turnbull. He saw Duke O’Flattery’s hand, open, resting on the floor.

Sally suppressed a laugh.

Turnbull said softly, “¿Como te llama?’

“Anita,” she rasped.

“¿Hablas Inglés?”

“Solo poco.”

“How old are you?”

Anita looked from Turnbull to O’Flattery, then back. “Twenny-fibe.” Turnbull smiled slightly. Depending on clothes and makeup she could have passed for south of fourteen to north of 28. He figured she was eighteen at least.

He ran a cotton swab around the back of her mouth and another gently up her nose, stabbed the swabs into the culture jelly, put the lids on and tucked the tubes into a pocket.

Sally/Anita helped Turnbull get O’Flattery upright again and Turnbull helped O’Flattery, acting as if nothing had happened, get Sally back down through the alley and into his car. O’Flattery gently closed the car door and turned to Turnbull. He had tears in his eyes. Turnbull put a hand on his shoulder. “She doesn’t look good,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” O’Flattery said.

“She doesn’t look good.”

“Are you some kind of fucking fairy, Turnbull? Because…”

“I’m saying she looks sick, Duke. That’s all. Right now I don’t care if she’s good looking. Nor should you. She’s sick.”

“Well aren’t you a goddamn genius.”

She peeked from the car window, re-mummified and buried in the ski jacket, shivering, looking scared.

Turnbull looked at Duke. Neither spoke. Then O’Flattery said, “What will the test show?”

“Whether or not it’s influenza,” Turnbull said.

“It’s not.”

“Of course it’s not,” Turnbull said. He was Chief Epidemiologist for the Department of Infection for the State of California. A professional. He could talk not. “I’m just saying it’s our job to continue to prove it’s not.” He turned to go.

“We need the stuff,” the Special Executor said.

“The stuff?”

“Preutekt! Are you dense?”

“I’ve… we’ve… No you don’t.”

“Yes we do! I don’t give a fuck about the state’s cache. We made that shit for a reason. She needs…”

Turnbull interrupted. “It’s not about the cache, Duke. Nobody needs psillivirin. It doesn’t work.”

“Oh bullshit. It’s what we have.”

“It’s not worth the paper the disclaimers on.”

O’Flattery sucked his lower lip in from the far reaches of his cheeks. He was getting angry and he meant to show it. They didn’t call him Duke for nothing. “You got a demick lee.” O’Flattery drew deep from his well of talent. In his Senior Gangster, a man feared by judges and police chiefs, one people leaned toward to catch every subtle intonation (and cull words from the mouth full of marbles,) he mumbled, “Got tahz d diss uh lee de d- de raft ora.” He stared at Turnbull.

John ran the phrase through his mind three times but came up blank. O’Flattery didn’t give anything more, though. He straightened himself from his heels to the last hair on his head. He stood there for a five-count, staring at Turnbull as if he’d said it all. They didn’t call him Duke for nothing.




Copyright David Farris