Now, it may very well be that this story is completely understandable as a standalone tale, but as it takes place immediately after the events of the story “Dividing by Zero,” I highly suggest you read that story first, here. I plan to write at least two more stories involving Patient Zero, so keep your eyes peeled…and your antiviral remedies handy.
Correctional officer Larry Blanchard knew that his prison co-worker and predecessor as henchman to mass-murderer/assassin Patient Zero was a smart man when he started exhibiting symptoms after only one day.
Patient Zero had told Hugo I wouldn’t be contagious for a couple days, Blanchard considered. And here I am feeling sick already. But Hugo wasn’t a trusting man, and skipped town the very day I took his place not only as Patient Zero’s henchman but as the carrier of his final blow—a lethal virus that I’ll spread to my co-workers and their families, friends and associates in town.
What was weird was that he knew he was sick. He felt hot and his skin tingled in an odd way, but he wasn’t obviously ill from his external appearance, nor was he debilitated. Patient Zero had planned it well, it seemed, to maximize Blanchard’s ability to spread the illness, especially at the prison where he worked.
I’m doing this for my kids, he reminded himself. I’m doing this for the money that will support them when their mother fails them, so that they’ll have trust funds waiting when they become adults. So they won’t have to live in poverty thanks to that selfish bitch.
Blanchard went about his work and his usual life in town, shopping and eating at the local diner.
Knowing that he was sowing a path of death.
* * *
People started getting sick by the next morning, Blanchard noted. Obviously ill. And yet he himself showed no outward signs; still felt able to go about life, even as people all around him one by one stayed home or went home sick.
The federal government wasn’t stupid. They knew what mass-murdering, killer-for-hire horror was housed at the Janszen Correctional Institution and had no intention of taking their eyes off Patient Zero between now and his execution that was just weeks away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had staff openly monitoring and watching the area around the prison every day, since the first day the villain arrived. At the first sign of this strange illness, they sealed off the town—and two smaller ones nearby—and military personnel were stationed at all the roads leading anywhere. Even cow paths were marked with sensors or had eyes on them.
A few people tried to leave. No one got past the net the government had cast over the area.
Four days later, half the town was sick and the prison was down to a skeleton crew. Just about everyone was showing signs of heavily scarred skin as the disease not only tore them up inside but ravaged them outwardly.
The towns and the prison were cut off from everyone, and no one even pretended that some miracle cure was coming. They were severed from the rest of the country to die, and later for hazmat-suited military and CDC personnel to move in and make sure the threat was contained and everything sterilized with chemicals or fire. Many were protesting the decision; some were even demonstrating as close to the military blockades as they could get.
But the truth was the outrage wasn’t all that intense from most people unless they had loved ones dying inside the cordoned-off zone. For most of the country, the primary concern was containment, and to ensure that when no one was moving anymore, the military went in to make sure Patient Zero was dead, that they killed him on some pretense, or that they made sure he showed up for his execution date.
* * *
After another couple days, only a handful of people weren’t showing symptoms or scarred hands and faces.
That was when Blanchard knew he’d been had. That’s when he knew that Patient Zero’s talk of simply striking back was a sham. The man had an escape plan.
Why else would Blanchard’s skin be disfigured and his body a carrier for this horrid and deadly disease, but otherwise he was unaffected? Sick but not dying. Contagious but not terminal.
Because he needs his new henchman—his personal Typhoid Marty—able to come to work, so that when there’s no one else able to function, I can make sure he gets out, Blanchard realized. But maybe what I need to do is kill him myself.
* * *
Blanchard was the healthiest of the sick people still standing, and the only reason no one suspected him of anything was because his face was a wreck of scars like everyone else and his skin had a slightly feverish sheen. So he had free run of the prison, being the most functional member of the staff. Getting into the nine-person Transhuman Unit and opening Patient Zero’s cell was as easy as walking in the front door of his own apartment.
Normally, guns weren’t allowed in the Transhuman Unit, but Blanchard carried one openly.
No one’s well enough to watch me, much less stop me.
He stepped into the cell of the man who’d turned him into a biological weapon, and that man simply smiled his perfect smile.
“You could kill me, of course,” Patient Zero said, “but I haven’t authorized the rest of your payment yet. It isn’t in your secret accounts yet. There isn’t nearly enough money with the initial down-payment for your lawyers to create the trust funds for your children. Kill me and you fail them. Serve me and get me out of here, and I’ll pay even more. Enough to truly set them up for life; enough for you to have something nice for yourself to spend as well.”
“I don’t care about myself,” Blanchard stated flatly, and raised the pistol.
“But you do care about them,” Patient Zero reminded him. “And you’re in too deep. You’ll be the only survivor in this town, or one of a handful if anyone has a natural immunity to my little virus. You’ll live and very soon, you won’t even be carrying the virus anymore, though your scars will be proof you once did. I made sure of that. Suspicion will fall on you as being part of this. Assets frozen. Once your people set up the trust funds as you directed, the authorities will notice, they’ll put two and two together, and they’ll seize those accounts, which you cannot hide. Your children getting nothing. You ending up in prison and quite likely in the death chamber meant for my execution.”
“I could kill myself,” Blanchard pointed out. “After I kill you. Then I won’t be a suspicious-seeming survivor.”
“If you could kill yourself,” Patient Zero said, “you would have done so already out of shame for what you’ve become.”
Blanchard lowered the gun. Thought about how, despite his disfigurement, he might still find a way to be part of his children’s life somehow before his cancer claimed him. If not for them and a terminal illness, he wouldn’t be in this predicament. But perhaps he could still get something good out of this travesty.
And the cancer will limit how much time I have to be under Patient Zero’s thumb.
“What do I have to do?” Blanchard asked.
“Nothing much,” Patient Zero said. “Just whatever I ask, whenever I ask, without question.”
First on the agenda, Blanchard discovered, was finding a phone for Patient Zero to use.
* * *
Texas was such a pleasant place in late fall, Patient Zero considered—in fact, he’d been here often this time of year both in his villainous identity and as Gustavo Dobbins, long before they put him in Texas’ prison system.
The breeze now was cool and refreshing, nothing like the heat and oppressive humidity that dominated the warmer months. A wind upon which his transportation would be carried. A wind that would spirit him away from this prison.
An ill wind, one might venture, the man thought as he smoothed and straightened the white pullover shirt and pulled up the white elastic trousers common to all prisoners in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities. God, I will be glad to get back into designer clothing soon and visit a five-star restaurant.
Larry Blanchard was with the villain in the courtyard of the prison, standing slightly behind him. Feeling very much the servant now, very much the henchman—however reluctantly.
“Our ride will be here soon,” Patient Zero said. “Four of them, actually, though we’ll only board one of them. If Larry Blanchard goes missing, they’ll know you did it. You should solve that problem.”
Blanchard was so numb from the realization of just how far he’d fallen and the horror he’d unleashed that he couldn’t even fathom choosing a meal anytime soon, much less making sure no one knew he’d helped Patient Zero escape and kill off several nearby communities.
“How?” he croaked.
Patient Zero smiled—almost magnanimously, it seemed to Blanchard, as if he were bestowing a kingly boon. “Many of your co-workers are lying around dead or so close to dead they won’t fight you. I’m sure one of them is about your size. Switch uniforms with him—swap everything, down the socks and underwear, in case anything is marked or identifiable as yours or his. Shoot him in the face afterward. Between that and the scarring from the virus, no one will be able to tell the face doesn’t match the identification on the uniform and in the pockets. Larry Blanchard will seem to be the hero who died from a bullet probably trying to stop me and your evil co-worker who helped me. The CDC will be dealing with a plague zone. No one will check DNA or dental records. The body will be burned. Evidence will be gone. You will be safe and anonymous.”
For several moments, Blanchard stood there, stunned.
“As I said, whatever I say, whenever I say,” Patient Zero told him. “Your children are depending on you, and we don’t have forever.”
Blanchard left without hesitation, and found his patsy on the floor of a corridor within two minutes.
* * *
Nearly a half-hour later, three helicopters flew in over the walls of the prison in almost perfect, synchronized timing. Blanchard nearly fled, assuming the military had arrived to purge the area, but he stayed where he was when Patient Zero said, “Our rides are here.”
Blanchard remembered that his new master had said four rides would arrive, and clearly Patient Zero had noticed the same thing.
“They wouldn’t have full air support or significant anti-aircraft weaponry in this area since there is no airfield here, not even a small one for private planes,” the villain noted. “But clearly the soldiers have something and got lucky shooting down one of our rides. Well, at least the chances are good that we know at least three relatively safe escape routes now.”
The three helicopters landed, manned with mercenaries in hazmat-style protective gear, and Patient Zero picked one of the vehicles seemingly at random. He motioned to Blanchard, smiling.
“Let’s go,” he told his henchman. “My freedom and your new life await.”
* * *
Blanchard was in the well-appointed villa of Patient Zero, somewhere in rural Argentina, for two days, confined to a room there, when he realized he wasn’t sick anymore, though the extensive scarring of his body, especially his face, would be a permanent and hideous reminder of what he had done and what he had carried. Patient Zero left him there three days more, though, ensuring sumptuous meals were delivered, before he let him out.
“So sorry to have left you alone for several days,” Patient Zero said, almost truly seeming remorseful, “but I wanted to be absolutely sure you wouldn’t infect any of my house staff.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Blanchard said, and didn’t care if his master heard the scorn or sarcasm in his voice.
“You don’t have to like me,” Patient Zero said. “You don’t even have to pretend. You only have to obey, and the secrets of Larry Blanchard remain secret. The money in those accounts will be ready for the eighteenth birthdays of your children. Unfrozen. Ready to save them from the mother you so dislike and so mistrust. If you like, simply hate her more, and perhaps you’ll be able to stomach me a little better.”
“I suppose,” Blanchard said sullenly.
“You know, I sometimes wear a costume,” Patient Zero said. “Modeled after the ‘plague doctors’ of medieval times. A dour robe and a helmet-like mask of leather shaped a bit like a crow’s head and beak. Not always, but there are special times I feel I should dress up.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Blanchard asked.
“Because in that box there is your costume, which you will wear as you carry out mundane tasks for me officially and, maybe every once in a while, as you help spread my viruses,” Patient Zero said. “However, you can rest assured none of them in the future will touch you or mark you in any way.”
Blanchard opened the box, and lifted out the items one by one. A few black, full-head ski masks. Several black scarves. A couple pairs of dark sunglasses and a few black goggles. Two black trench coats—one leather and a lighter fabric one. Three pairs of black dress boots. Eight black slacks and matching black shirts. Even a dozen pair of black boxer shorts and black socks.
He’d look like some grimmer version of the guy from that old “Invisible Man” movie. His scars and identity hidden. His humanity hidden. A vision of darkness and mystery to shadow Patient Zero’s steps.
“Now?” Blanchard asked.
“Now, and forever more,” Patient Zero said, and Blanchard stripped down to his skin to don his new attire. “Welcome to my world, Malady.”