[Joe 2nd place]
By: Joe Diamond
William Pardo reviewed the formula for Toxin-Z and imagined a black
granite monument rising above the earth, inscribed with the names of billions. Ten
common ingredients one could easily mix into a lethal batch and deploy against
a large city. The secret to this Apocalypse wasnt locked in an atom; it was
lying on the shelves at Wal-Mart. The Grim Reaper, he thought, must be
laughing like a madman.
Dr. Pardo closed the document and finished his coffee in his tiny office
at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. He looked at the photo of his
four-year-old in a Dodgers jersey and cap and allowed himself a touch of pride
at his sons resemblance to him. If his own life was any guide, Scotts
dark hair and blue eyes would one day drive the girls nuts. But Toxin-Z
threatened to snuff out the future for Scott and his generation. So the doctor and
his colleagues at the CDC searched for an antidote.
As Pardo headed for the lab, his cell phone rang. The caller ID read
Calling now? It was just after 3 a.m. in Los Angeles, where his ex-wife
lived with Scott.
Daddy. Help me.
Scott? Whats wrong? Is it Mommy? What hap--
Doctor Pardo. It was a Middle Eastern-sounding man.
Who is this? What are you doing with my son?
Keep your goddamn hands off him.
You know what we want.
When American troops had taken Baghdad in 2003, they found scientists
working on an Iraqi innovation, Toxin-Z. Tests showed paralyzing effects similar
to botulism, but with a quicker onset of 45 to 50 minutes. It was also much
deadlier, with an eighty-percent fatality rate in two to three hours.
You will email us the formula, the caller said. Your sons life for
I cant send it. The system only allows messages to authorized users.
You will do it from your home. Theres a message waiting there with
our email address. You have twenty-eight minutes.
I cant get the formula that fast. Itll take hours to get
Stop the bullshit, doctor. You know it by heart. Toxin-Zs formula
is so simple, it could be concocted in a microwave from household items.
He was quoting from that damn article. Toxin-Z and the search for its
antidote had been classified. Someone had leaked it to the American Gazette,
probably for a hefty fee. Not the formula, but enough details to whet the
appetite of terrorists, like the fact that a small batch sprayed with a crop-duster
could kill tens of thousands.
Twenty-eight minutes, the kidnapper said, or youll get a video of
your son youll never forget.
Just enough time to drive home and send the formula. They have it all
figured out, almost to the second.
He heard Scott scream in the background, as if to punctuate the threat.
Another man yelled to be quiet.
Pardo felt as if his eyes were straining to pop out of their sockets.
Leave him alone, you--
Twenty-seven minutes fifty-six seconds. Fifty-five. Fifty-four.
* * *
As Pardos Camry hurtled toward the employee lots exit, the thought
gripped the thirty-year-old researcher that the kidnappers, formula or not, would
kill Scott. What if theyve already done so?
Theres no evidence they wont honor the deal. I have to believe that.
What about Donna?
He called his ex at home. Her machine answered.
Donna, please pick up.
What have I done to Scott and Donna?
During his two-year marriage, Pardos obsession with curing the planets
ills had left little energy for playing husband and father. Yet Scott and
Donna were now paying for being his family.
You spend all your time saving the world, Donna once said. How about
a minute for us?
Donna had asked for a divorce when he was a researcher at UCLA, right
before his breakthrough on a botulism treatment, when he often didnt come home
from the lab for five- or six-day stretches.
Call the FBI? he wondered, as he ran the red light at Briarcliff Road.
What could the FBI do in such a short time? If Scott was being held in
the house, how would his abductors react to a rescue attempt? If they were on
the move, it could take forever to find them.
Pardo also feared the FBI would limit his options, swooping down on him
in a heartbeat because of his work on Toxin-Z and stage-managing his response
to the terrorists. He knew the agents priority wouldnt be Scott, but
keeping the formula out of the terrorists hands. That was rational from the
governments perspective, Pardo conceded.
But he wasnt ready to sacrifice his son.
* * *
Too agitated to sit, Pardo hunched over the computer in his study and
retrieved his email. There was one blank message, from email@example.com
. His trembling fingers pounded out the reply and clicked Send.
He speculated what the kidnappers would do next. If they really intended
to let Scott go, they wouldnt just release him upon getting the email.
First theyd test the formula.
An hour or two to get their fuckin claws on the ingredients and run off
a batch, he estimated.
Whats their deployment plan? Did they have a crop-duster ready to go,
or some other way of spreading it?
Whatever their plan, Pardo thought it would take them three hours minimum
to test and await the results.
Of course, he knew there wouldnt be any results. Not with the bullshit
formula hed sent them.
At least I may have bought Scott some time.
* * *
Now he called the FBI.
Three agents quickly arrived and set up operations in his living room.
Martin Wexler, the Atlanta offices Special-Agent-in-Charge, showed up in
another ten minutes. He asked one of his men about Pardos computer.
Its going back to our office for analysis, Wexler told Pardo.
Were also intercepting your emails for new messages. You should have called us
I know. Please What about my son?
Our L.A. teams in motion. Lets go over everything. Starting with
Wexlers burly build and raspy voice gave Pardo hope.
* * *
Talk to me, Wexler barked into his phone.
He listened briefly, then looked at Pardo. Can I take this inside?
Pardo nodded toward the kitchen.
Wexler soon returned, his face drawn.
Doctor, its your ex-wife. We found her in the house. Wexler shook
his head. She was stabbed. Im sorry.
Pardo covered his mouth in disbelief and shut his eyes to relieve the
Its small comfort, but we found her cell phone, Wexler added. That
suggests they were still in the house when they called an hour ago, which
limits their current whereabouts. Were canvassing the area. Weve got
roadblocks all over, and L.A.X. and the ports are covered. Well find Scott.
* * *
Pardo looked at his watch, steadying his shaking wrist long enough to
make out the time. It was nearly three hours since he sent the email.
Great. Keep at it, Wexler said into his phone.
He turned to Pardo. A kid from around the corner was driving home a
little after three, Los Angeles time. He saw a black SUV pulling away from the
Thats it? Three hours, and thats it? It could be too late already.
I know how frustrating this is, but you cant let yourself think like
that. Every bit gets us closer. Try to sleep. Ill come up when I hear
The doctor went to his bedroom and lay on his back, still in his suit and
tie. He found closing his eyes impossible.
Youll get a video of your son youll never forget. He bolted up in bed
as he recalled the kidnappers warning.
Pardo grabbed his laptop from the nightstand, glancing at the Colt
Defender pistol he kept there.
Wexler had said FBI agents were intercepting his messages. Pardo
wondered if his Internet company was sending them the originals or just forwarding
copies, so that email still reached his inbox. He logged on and saw nothing
new from the kidnappers, but a fresh bit of spam indicated the latter.
Pardo sat frozen, clutching his laptop how long have I been up here?
until the familiar ping of an incoming email stirred him.
The subject line read, Scott Waves Bye-Bye.
Pardo heard someone running up the stairs.
Video. Of Scott, he said, as Wexler stopped in the doorway.
I know. Please. Dont look at it.
Too late. Pardo watched as Scott stood against a wall, crying
hysterically. A hand holding a gun appeared from the left of the frame, and jammed the
weapon into Scotts temple. Pardo saw the finger squeeze the trigger.
Although the shot sounded muffled on the laptop, for Pardo it was deafening. He
threw the laptop against the wall.
Pardo snatched his own gun, flipped the safety and drew it to his head.
Dr. Pardo, please, Wexler said. If you die, the terrorists win
everything. Youve got to do something for your family. Make sure what happened
to them isnt meaningless.
Theyre dead because of me.
Not you. Because madmen want a poison that can kill millions. You did
the right thing. Theyre no closer to getting the toxin than they were
before. But theyve left leads all over the place and well hunt them down.
Dont you understand? Its because of me.
Had it not been for you, Scott and your ex-wife could be two among
millions. This is a war and were up against fanatics who want to butcher
civilians. Well find the ones who murdered your family. But there are plenty of
other psychopaths wholl stop at nothing to get the toxin. And thats your
fight. You have to fuck them, make them obsolete by finding the cure.
* * *
Pardo kept the gun to his temple. Wexler noticed the huge circles under
the doctors eyes and the violent shaking in his hand. He appeared so
shell-shocked, Wexler worried that a bullet might be redundant.
The veteran agent knew that a lunge for Pardo was too risky. Instead,
Wexler made subtle adjustments to his posture that he believed from experience
would convey to the doctor, Im here for you.
A long moment passed. Finally, Wexler heard mumbling. Obsolete.
Well make them obsolete.
* * *
Dr. Pardo sat in his office and scanned the formula for the first time in
two weeks. He pictured the black granite monument rising above the earth,
his mind homing in on two names among the billions.
A suitcase by his desk held enough items to let Pardo live there for
weeks. Unlike UCLA, his office didnt have a cot. But sleep wasnt his concern.
He rose to join the days battle in the lab.
This is for Scott.