Barnes & Noble
Published by: Bell Bridge Books
Release Date: September 4, 2012
WINNER OF THE 2014 EPIC eBOOK AWARD, SUSPENSE/THRILLER CATEGORY
CO-WINNER, BIO-THRILLER CATEGORY, BEST AUDIO BOOKS OF 2016–BRIAN’S BOOK BLOG
A brilliant but psychopathic microbiologist-turned-terrorist is about to unleash weaponized Ebola, the Black Death of the 21st century, on a major American city.
Ebola. No vaccine. No cure. No hope. If you contract the virus, pray that you die quickly, for death by Ebola is beyond excruciating.
Only one man, Richard Wainwright, has enough information to stop what could turn into a global plague.
But he’s wanted for murder, has been shot and wounded, and is being hunted by a German hit-woman.
He doesn’t stand a chance.Add on Goodreads
“A page-turning thriller rooted in today’s world of political unrest. This all too realistic fiction will suspend your belief in the safety of home and the assurance of government protection. PLAGUE will keep you up at night long after you’ve finished it.” —John House, MD, author of So Shall You Reap
“If you love thrillers and haven’t read Buzz Bernard yet, I suggest you stop what you’re doing and rectify that right now. PLAGUE grabs you around the throat and squeezes, with believable characters, a realistic plot, and non-stop action. One of the best thrillers of 2012.” —Al Leverone, author of The Lonely Mile
“An all-too-believable nightmare tale about the horrors of biological terrorism. Buzz Bernard will keep you up at night wondering What if?” —Tom Young, author of The Mullah’s Storm, Silent Enemy, and The Renegades
“Fans of the late Michael Crichton should check out Buzz Bernard’s PLAGUE. This bioterrorism thriller is a real page-turner.” —Cheryl Norman, author of Rebuild My World
“A delight for thriller readers. Intense, edgy, full of twists and scary plausibilities. A totally unexpected protagonist and a brilliant cast of characters. Fans of Michael Crichton, Robin Cook and Stephen Coonts will want to pick up H.W. “Buzz” Bernard’s PLAGUE, but not before clearing all decks and fastening their seat belts." —Donnell Ann Bell, bestselling author of The Past Came Hunting
Behind the Scenes
Several years before deciding to try my hand at becoming a novelist, I read Richard Preston’s gripping nonfiction page-turner The Hot Zone, a book about the deadly Ebola virus. It scared the bejabers out of me, although I’m not sure what bejabers are.
What I learned was that while most species of Ebola are not transmittable through the air–lucky for us humans–the variant featured in The Hot Zone may be. Fortunately, that variant, while fatal to monkeys, is not fatal to humans. Again, lucky for us.
But it got me thinking, What if? What if a brilliant (and psychopathic) microbiologist were able to marry the variant of Ebola not fatal to humans but perhaps transmittable through the air, to the form most deadly to humans? That is, what if someone were able to weaponize Ebola? It would be a nightmare aborning. Perfect for a novel.
But breathing life into the story was slow. I’m not a microbiologist, I’m a meteorologist. Thus, to inject authenticity into the tale required a lot of research. For several years I, in essence, “crammed for finals” while simultaneously pecking out early drafts of Virus, whose working title back then was The Koltsovo Legacy (you’ll understand why when you read the book). I also took a two-year sabbatical to complete Eyewall, my debut novel.
The research on Ebola and microbiology turned out to be a labor of love since I was truly fascinated (frightened?) by the subject. The Websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more commonly called the CDC, and the World Health Organization provided reams of invaluable information and data.
Besides the Hot Zone, there were a number of other books that helped me develop insights into microbiology, viruses and the Russian and American biowarfare programs:
Biohazard–The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World by Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman
The Dead Hand–The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (a Pulitzer Prize winner) by David E. Hoffman
Germs–Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad
Level 4–Virus Hunters of the CDC by Joseph B. McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch with Leslie Alan Horvitz
Virus Hunter–Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World by C. J. Peters and Mark Olshaker
While the characters in the novel are all products of my imagination, there is one, Richard Wainwright, for whom I borrowed the professional DNA of an old friend. I loved the idea of having my hero be a high-integrity CEO who goes around fixing companies (all fictitious ones in the novel) and who could take over and run almost any kind of operation for a short period.
There was such a person in real life, an old high school friend, Steve Miller. Steve, early in his career, was CFO of Chrysler. From there he went on to spend the next twenty years salvaging a variety of foundering corporations. He met with enough success that he was labeled by the Wall Street Journal as “U.S. Industry’s Mr. Fix It.”
I lost track of Steve over the years, but I followed his professional accomplishments via newspaper and magazine articles. In the meantime, I completed Virus, modeling Richard Wainwright’s professional life after Steve’s, except for the fact that Steve was never in the Marines.
In early 2009, I found out Steve had written an autobiography, The Turnaround Kid–What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies. I got in touch with Steve and he sent me an autographed copy. It was a fascinating read. But I was stunned and saddened to learn that Steve’s wife, Maggie, had died of cancer in 2006. I’ll freely admit that tears flowed as I read of Maggie’s death in the book.
The bizarre thing was I had written the death of Richard Wainwright’s wife into the novel long before I was aware of Maggie’s passing. I explained this to Steve, and trust he doesn’t hold it against me.
Art accidentally imitating life.
NORTH METRO ATLANTA, GEORGIA
SUNDAY, AUGUST 18
David Gullison stared into the bathroom mirror, terrified by what he saw. Someone he didn’t know, someone he’d never known. There was something almost demonic about his image. His eyes swam in crimson. Dead rubies. His face, flushed and splotched with tiny scarlet blooms, gave the appearance of Edelweiss gone bad. He looked the caricature of an aged, hard-drinking Irishman. But he knew it wasn’t age or booze. It was much worse than that.
The pain came again, squeezing his gut, wrapping around his chest. It had started suddenly a couple of days ago. At first it was just his back. “Too much golf,” his wife said.
“No maybe. I warned you. Take it easy. You’re retired now.”
Then the fever had come, boiling up inside him like a pyroclastic flow. His throat felt as though a cheese grater had been dragged through it.
“The flu,” his wife said. “Go lie down for a while. I’ll get some aspirin.”
“Yes,” he said. He’d flopped down on his bed and didn’t move for twelve hours. It was unlike any flu he’d ever had. He felt as if he were on fire, burning up from the inside out. He struggled to take deep breaths; his lungs suffused with fluid. He coughed, deep hacking wheezes that expelled fine sprays of mucus tinged in pink.
The pain spread, invading his stomach and bowels, locking them in vise grips of agony. Vomiting and diarrhea followed. Nonstop.
Now the cramping hit again, sharp, wrenching. He leaned over the sink and vomited once more, long after there shouldn’t have been anything left to bring up. A tarry mixture, black and red, flooded into the basin. It was as if his insides were liquefying, turning to jelly. He gripped the edge of the sink, but had no strength left. The room spun in a dizzying spiral.
He knew he’d waited too long; knew he needed to get to an emergency room. He tried to call for his wife, but before he could, the searing effluent rose in his throat again. He sank to his knees and crawled toward the toilet, but failed to make it in time. A rush of burbling flatulence shot from his bowels. A vile, malodorous slime of blood and dark, stringy tissue ran down his thighs and splattered onto the floor. It oozed over the bathroom tile, staining it with a harbinger of something far worse to come.
He lost consciousness and collapsed into the repulsive emulsion.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 18
Richard Wainwright stood alone on the first tee of a golf course in Sunriver, just south of Bend, as the rising sun lifted into a pristine cerulean sky. The slanting rays lit the Cascade Mountains in a manner that exaggerated the contrast between their snow-capped peaks and the verdant darkness of the forests cloaking their slopes. Overhead, a golden eagle orbited, perhaps waiting to catch a ride on the first thermal of the day. The deserted fairways, notched among corrugated lava buttes and bubbly knobs of pumice, sported a fringe of sagebrush and juniper beneath open stands of ponderosa pines. The air, brisk and tinged with just a hint of dust, was redolent with the essence of evergreens. He could have been in the Garden of Eden. Yet he found no joy in the setting, for he was lost in memories, wrapped in melancholia, and clinging to a ghost that would never return. Karen.
He stepped up to the ball, eight-iron in hand, and took his stance, committed to hitting the perfect shot. He began his backswing, but was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He plucked the phone from his golf bag.
“Wainwright,” he said.
“Rich, I was hoping I didn’t wake you. I know it’s early out there.” The soft, deep rumble of a familiar voice.
“Ned. Good lord, it’s been awhile. What on earth are you doing these days? I’d heard you’d retired.”
Ned laughed, a sardonic chuckle. “And the answer is: two ex-wives, five kids in college and a huge mortgage in Greenwich.”
“Ah, then you’re still billing yourself as the nation’s top executive headhunter?”
“Business has never been better. There’s actually increasing demand for competent executives these days. Ones with integrity anyhow. Like you. And, well, I’ve got this company that’s in a real bind.”
Richard drew a deep breath. He probably shouldn’t encourage Ned. But what the hell, it couldn’t hurt to listen. “Okay, lay it on me.”
“Actually, it’s an easy assignment. Three months, six months. An Atlanta biotech firm, BioDawn, needs someone to step in and stabilize it while they find a new CEO. It’s a solid operation, well respected, in good financial shape. All you have to do is come in and look pretty. Hobnob with the investors and tell them everything’s going to be okay. And it is. Nothing nefarious here. The money people and board of directors just want a firm hand on the tiller while they ferret out new leadership. And there’s no firmer hand than yours.”
Wainwright waited for Ned to elaborate. When he didn’t, Wainwright challenged him. “Don’t give the mushroom treatment, partner. I know damn well there’s more to the story than what you’re telling me. I can hear it in your voice.” Richard sat on a bench adjacent to the tee box and gazed out at a nearby pond. A sub-surface wake knifed through the water. A beaver performing homeland defense.
Ned didn’t respond immediately.
“Ned, talk to me. Why is the CEO being replaced?”
“That hardly seems like a situation that would, as you said, put a company ‘in a real bind.’”
“So are the COO, CFO, executive vice president and chairman of the board.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What happened to ‘easy assignment’? Jesus, what happened to the corporate hierarchy?”
“Plane crash. The corporate Gulfstream was on its way to Munich from Atlanta when it disappeared over the Atlantic somewhere between Bermuda and the Azores. Only bits and pieces of wreckage were found. It may have been an explosion of some sort. But we’ll never know for sure.”
“Why were all those guys on the same plane?”
“Not too smart, I know, but they were young and inexperienced in the travel safeguards that bigger corporations use. They had their own plane and were excited to be going to Germany to open a new office. They probably viewed it as more of a field trip than a business trip.”
“Still . . .”
“Yeah, I know. They’re all dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ned. But you know I’m out of the game.”
“Yeah, but I want you back in. You were a legend.”
“No, a myth.”
“Not the way I heard it.”
“That was twenty years ago.”
“Whatever it was, it launched your career. Stepping out a window onto the ledge of a New York City office building; threatening to jump unless a group of Wall Street investment bankers agreed to back a federal bailout loan for Brighton-Reames Aerospace.”
“It was a joke, a youthful shenanigan by a wet-behind-the-ears CFO. I only stuck one foot out the window. I had no intention of going any farther.”
“Joke or not, it worked. You became a star.”
“I was lucky.” Richard stood and walked back toward the tee.
“No. You were the epitome of competence and integrity. You went on to raise more companies from the dead than Jesus Christ could have. And, on top of everything else, you oozed charisma. Even people you intimidated or fired respected you.”
“Yeah. But I pissed off a lot of folks. Too hands-on, they said.”
“Bull shit. That was your style, your strength. You could smell out deadwood like a hog after truffles. You knew how to read employees and understand their motives, their goals, their integrity, their competency . . . or lack thereof. You couldn’t have done that with your butt anchored in a corner office someplace.”
“Ned, read my lips—well, you can’t. So I’ll speak slowly. I. Am. Retired. It’s a beautiful day in Oregon. The sun is out. An eagle is soaring overhead. I’m on a golf course. And I’ve got it almost to myself.” A slow ripple fanned out over the pond as the beaver approached the shore.
“Spare me. You don’t know a Callaway RAZR from a Gillette razor. Don’t light me up.”
“I’m not available. And I know what a Callaway RAZR is. You have to know that before you can retire.”
“You’re too goddamned young to be retired. Look, I heard what happened; I know you had some heavy duty shit laid on you. And I know you’ve heard all the platitudes, but . . .” He paused.
Richard sensed he probably didn’t want to hear what Ned would say next, but then again, maybe he did.
Ned spoke softly, his words threaded with compassion. “You can put down the cross, Rich. Nobody will blame you. It’s been over two years. It’s okay. Get back in the game, move on with your life.”
The beaver surfaced and fixed its gaze on Richard and his eight-iron. Richard dropped the club and covered the mouthpiece of his phone. “Relax,” he yelled at the animal, “I’m hitting in the other direction.”
“Who are you talking to?” Ned asked. “I thought you said the course was deserted.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Then, “You’re bored, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I was good. But you were always better.”
“There’ll be a ticket waiting for you at the Redmond airport early this afternoon. Quick hop to Salt Lake, then Delta—first class, of course—to Atlanta. You’ll get in late this evening. There’ll be a driver at Hartsfield-Jackson waiting to pick you up. And bring your clubs. Lots of great courses in Atlanta. You’ll have plenty of time to hone your game.”
Though he didn’t believe in sixth sense, something gnawing at Richard told him that wouldn’t be the case.
DOWNTOWN ATLANTA, GEORGIA
SUNDAY, AUGUST 18
Alnour Barashi stared down from the window of the Sun Dial Restaurant, 73 floors up in the Westin Peachtree Plaza, at the weekend throngs below. At the crowds strolling through Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, people perhaps headed for the CNN Center, the massive Georgia Aquarium or the World of Coca-Cola. Americans, a nation of infidels. He imagined all of them—men, women, children—writhing in agony. Dying.
He gazed at the structures that towered skyward around him: the Bank of America Plaza, One Atlantic Center, 191 Peachtree Tower. Great steel and glass icons that symbolized everything he despised about American culture: its ill-gotten wealth, its excesses, its arrogance. “Faah,” he mumbled to himself. He finished his lunch, paid the bill in cash, and left.
Back in his apartment, he reclined in a chair and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, tilted his head back and blew a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. He repeated the action several times until a thin, hazy stratus blanketed his small quarters. Relaxed, he reflected on the fact there was one thing he liked about America, Atlanta in particular: its mild climate, a welcome counterpoint to the ice-bound years he’d spent working at the Koltsovo Institute of Molecular Biology in Siberia.
But that was far in the past. Now it was time to breathe life into the legacy of Koltsovo. He placed his cigarette in an ashtray and rummaged through a desk drawer. He pulled out a well-worn roadmap of metropolitan Atlanta, opened it and spread it over the top of his desk. He studied the red circles he’d made earlier on the map. With a ruler calibrated in millimeters, he measured the distance between the circles. He retrieved a calculator and tapped in some numbers. Time, speed, distance. He’d done this before, but wanted to make certain. No margin for error. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would die. He didn’t want to be one of them. He wanted his escape to be clean, and for that his choreography—attack, move; attack, move; attack, flee—had to be perfect.
He smiled, or at least imagined he did. His face, he knew, rarely betrayed emotion. Perhaps the world would never be aware of his genius, his accomplishment, his lethal bioengineered virus, but Allah would, and Allah would be pleased. Allah understood the scientific acumen, the years of labor, the dedication that had been invested in the effort.
Satisfaction washed over Barashi. His determination and patience had been rewarded. The prize: a recombinant Ebola virus as easily transmittable as the common cold. It was something known in the field of microbiology as a chimera virus, named after the mythological fire-breathing creature with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a snake.
The virus had only one more trial to pass, a field test he’d initiated Thursday. He already was convinced the pestilence would prove its lethality, but wanted to be one hundred percent positive. Tomorrow or the next day he’d call area hospitals to see if either, or both, of his targets had been admitted. He expected they had. And was certain there’d be others.
From his briefcase, he pulled a journal. He scribbled some notes in it, then snapped it shut. It made a sharp but tiny sound—a note of confidence, of celebration, of victory. He reached for his cigarette. Too late. It had burned out, leaving only a skeletal cylinder of ash. He brushed it into the center of the ashtray.
He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and considered what he was about to unleash. In the 14th century, bubonic plague, the Black Death, swept through Europe claiming more the 25 million lives. Death was excruciating. Victims often endured a week of continuous, bloody vomiting and decomposing skin before gasping their final agonizing breaths.
Now, Barashi mused, it would be America’s turn. Payment had come due. For its arrogance, for its imperialism, for its brutality. For its dismissal and humiliation of us. For its crusade to project its values onto our culture and our religion.
But no more. Of that he was certain. He held the power: the Black Death of the 21st century.