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Chain Reaction

The Phenom League

Author(s): T. C. Archer

For love of country and a woman, Jordan Pierce must sacrifice his humanity.

Former Chicago Detective Jordan Pierce put his life on hold in order to protect America's secret weapon against the Nazis; The Manhattan Project. But he can't protect himself against the disease eating away at his humanity. Jordan discovers how much of his soul this infection has devoured when he falls in love with the woman who could destroy America. Choosing her, means choosing the monster he's becoming, making him the most powerful man he's ever known.

CHAPTER ONE
October, 1942
 
Tension fermented in the air like a sour mash whiskey. By chance, skill, stealth, and deceit I had kept my secret. But tonight I strode down the halls of Chicago University's Eckhart Hall with a feeling my time had run out.

Every evening I reported for duty as The Manhattan Project's head of nightshift security not knowing what I missed during those midday hours when I lay dead to the world. Along with the bizarre sleep that immobilized me, the strange infection raging through my body made me dislike food and drink, stopped my smoking habit cold turkey, and switched me into permanent high gear. The worst part was the dread I barely kept at bay, knowing the people I worked for would turn me into a lab rat if they discovered the truth.

My gut coiled tighter as I entered Security Chief Lopez's office at six o'clock sharp. Lopez stood in front of his desk, hat in hand, while rifling through a stack of files. He looked over his shoulder and our eyes met.

I halted. His bloodshot eyes told me something was wrong even without the uncharacteristic loose tie and rumpled black suit. He straightened and raked strands of greased hair over the bald spot in the back of his head.

"Pierce," he said, "there's been a security breach."

Relief washed over me. This had to be a repeat of the one and only security breach we'd had a couple of weeks ago. In a fit of depression, Miss Therese Hance, a mathematics major here at Chicago University, had written a poem. I still recalled the verse verbatim:
 
Dear little neutronian who lives on a nucleus in an atom of my knee, if you do not stop jumping around, you are going to cause an atomic blast and blow up the universe.
 
With the top-secret race to beat the Germans to the first nuclear chain reaction going on at Chicago University, the poem hit too close to home. When Miss Hance's professor, Dr Albert, found the poem on her desk here in Eckhart Hall—Dr Albert had some vague awareness of the research going on—he passed the poem along to Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer panicked. Lopez and I barely prevented the scientists from having a collective nervous breakdown.

I gave Lopez a not this again look. "Which student wrote another poem? Miss Hance didn't know a thing. It'll be the same this time." Then I added before he could reply, "Don't tell me you bought into the story about how her studies in group theory gave her a subconscious knowledge of the scientific research being conducted here."

Lopez shifted and I caught sight of the bright red, Eyes Only, top-secret folder beside the pile of folders he had been thumbing through. I started. An Eyes Only report could only have originated with General Groves, head of The Manhattan Project. This was no student poem.

"We intercepted a radio message north of the Ontario border last night." Lopez grabbed the folder and extended it toward me. "The code-breakers say the message contains the correct amount of Uranium 235 needed to sustain a chain reaction."

"The true U-235 amounts?" I blurted, mechanically reaching for the folder.

Our big edge over the Nazis was the knowledge of how little Uranium 235 was needed to start a chain reaction. Of the two isotopes of uranium, U-238 and the rare U-235, the Nazi's head scientist, Werner Heisenberg, believed they needed a uranium concentration of ninety percent U-235 to build an atom bomb. According to our head scientist,

Enrico Fermi, only a twenty percent concentration of the rare isotope would reach critical mass. The disparity was enough to keep the Germans busy doing nothing but enriching uranium until we drove them back to Berlin. But we had to attain the first nuclear chain reaction to ensure victory.

I dropped my stare to the folder and forced my fingers to close around it as Lopez's hand fell away. A bona fide breach here at Chicago Pile One? No one in the outside world knew what was really going on in Eckhart Hall's Metallurgical Lab. The real liability lay a block away at Stagg Field. The scientists were building an atomic pile in an abandoned squash court beneath the field's west grandstands. Damn it, I'd warned Lopez someone would get suspicious at seeing scientists constantly running between Eckhart Hall and Stagg Field, briefcases clutched so tightly their knuckles turned white. Suddenly Miss Therese Hance's poem didn't seem so farfetched. Who else had noticed strange activity at Eckhart Hall?

"Who else besides the CP-1 scientists have this information?" I asked.

Lopez's mouth thinned. "You, me, and General Groves."

Groves and Lopez were above suspicion. The transmission had to have come from one of the fifty-two scientists working on the project. They all understood the ramifications of an atomic weapon in the hands of a madman like Hitler. I couldn't believe any of them capable of selling out their country, much less the rest of the world.

I swung my gaze up to Lopez's face. "If the Nazis find out Heisenberg's equations are wrong…"

"And the Nazis get their hands on the correct equations…"

We both let the unsaid words hang: The UScould lose the war.

"Any leads?" I asked.

"Nothing. I rang your apartment an hour ago when the report hit my desk, but you must have been out."

I nodded. Here was the reason for the dread I'd experienced tonight. A crisis like this could draw attention to the fact I was always out during the height of daylight hours. My service during the Great War combined with my position as a detective on the Chicago Police Force had gotten me through the security check for this job. Keeping a low profile had kept my secret safe—until now.

"What are our instructions?" I asked.

"Sit tight and observe until the spooks finish their investigation." He nodded at the folder. "It's all there. I've already requested a list of the scientists who have access to the U-235 information, as well as a few other topics so the librarians can't guess who or what we're after."

"When will the report be available?" I asked in a tone I hoped didn't show my disbelief. Waiting for our counter intelligence experts to mull over mounds of information wasn't General Groves's style. Groves was the kick-ass type who single-handedly spearheaded the construction of the Pentagon, the world's largest office building.

"When they're ready," Lopez said. "We've got to catch this guy, but can't chance alerting the scientists to the possibility we have a spy. Any panic, and the university might discover this isn't the harmless metallurgical laboratory our government claims. Those bleeding heart academics will strip us naked and toss us ass first to the media wolves. In the meantime, we go on alert. Our inside network is working to pinpoint where the information originated."

Suddenly, the folder felt like it weighed a ton. I'd never expected to be holding one of these super secret reports. My thirty-nine years of age made me ineligible to fight this war, so I'd consoled myself with the knowledge Chicago cops were needed to keep the streets safe here at home. When I'd been attacked in the alley eight months ago, I'd put my life on hold while I hunted for the fiend who attacked me. Now, I'd set aside my search in order to aid the war effort because I was even more afraid of Hitler's Nazis and Mussolini's fascists gaining control than I was of what I had become. The longer I put off finding out who infected my body with this sickness, the less likely the chances I'd be able to reverse the disease. I hadn't allowed myself to think about what I might become if the disease ate me alive.

"We can't let those bastards win the war," I said.

Lopez's mouth thinned. "I have to fly to Washington. You're in charge while I'm gone."

"Me?" I forced back shock. "What about Banks? He's your dayshift second in command."

"You're head of nightshift. Groves says you're in charge when I'm not here."

My mouth went dry. Lack of seniority enabled me to do this job. I wanted to ask when he would return, grill him on every tiny detail in the red file I gripped, anything, to keep him talking and here at CP-1.

His gaze bored into me. "You got this handled?"

"Yeah," I replied.

Without another word, he donned his hat and disappeared out the door.

I stared at the open doorway and muttered to the empty room, "As long as I can find the leak before sunrise."
 

CHAPTER TWO
 
I had read only eight of the eleven pages of the Eyes Only report when I got the call. Two minutes later, I stood outside the closed office door of Dr Leonard Heinrick, stopped by the smell of cold blood seeping from the room. A lot of blood. What stopped me wasn't the heightened sense of smell that aroused boyhood memories of the way my father smelled when he returned from the slaughterhouse where he worked, but the stomach-churning odor of decaying blood.

I fought back a rising panic. Why the hell hadn't Lopez caught a plane an hour later? As head of security, he should be standing here instead of me. At the very least, he should have locked down the lab and given me authority to run my own investigation. Instead, he'd tied my hands and left me waiting for information from the eggheads.

Movement on the other side of the door's frosted glass startled me from the dread and I recognized the blurred form of Officer Of the Day, or OOD, Colonel McHenry. I opened the door. He stood near the desk in the cramped office and turned, revealing the mutilated body of Leonard Heinrick. He lay on his back, arms at his side as if at attention. Blood had pooled in his right eye socket. Crimson stained the front and sides of his starched white shirt where his throat had been cut, and over a quart of blood had puddled on the floor under his head.

A chill snaked up my back. The precision throat slice reminded me of the way Lawrence 'Lucky Larry' Fiato liked to kill—when he had the time to enjoy his work.

"You didn't touch anything?" I asked in reflex as I forced my legs to carry me forward. The stench of dead blood made me want to vomit. Week-old hamburger would smell better.

McHenry marched to the door, quietly shut it, then faced me, hands clasped behind his back. "I secured the crime scene, then called you from the office next door."

I didn't know what secured the crime scene meant—the Army wasn't known for doing things like the Chicago PD. I swallowed back rising revulsion as I unbuttoned my suit jacket and squatted beside the body. The disease flowing through my veins made me crave warm, living blood. Dead human blood made my gut roil as if I'd taken a nosedive in a Douglas A-24 Banshee.

I made as close an inspection of the body as possible without disturbing anything. Nothing obvious was missing. Heinrick's wallet bulged in his front pants pocket and the Prexa Swiss-made Chronograph Manual watch he wore was still strapped to his left wrist. No other wounds were visible, but forensics would have to tell me what his backside looked like. The rotting odor I knew Colonel McHenry couldn't smell forced me to choke back a gag. I'd seen my share of blood and death. At fifteen years of age, my six-foot height and sprouting beard got me into the Army during the Great War, where I saw enough death and dismemberment near Maginot Line in France to last a lifetime. Now I couldn't get past the violent aversion to cold, dead blood.

But I'd have to deal with my loathing in order to find the killer. The stabbing to Heinrick's eyes indicated torture and the slice to his neck was professional. A trained killer had infiltrated the sterilized ranks of Chicago Pile One. I had to work fast. Espionage, torture, and murder mounted a greater problem than being out of communication during the midday hours when I lay unconscious.

We couldn't afford to draw attention to the lab with the kind of security found on military instillations, so we kept security light. I'd strapped on the Colt .45 General Groves had insisted Lopez and I keep in our desks in case of emergency, but neither McHenry, nor any of his civilian-dressed officers—we had to make the daily business look like a typical university operation—carried weapons. A policy that had to grate against McHenry's military mind. Yet strangers didn't enter Eckhart Hall without notice. So how had someone waltzed into Heinrick's office noticed?

I stood and walked a circle around the corpse. More important than the how was the why? Scientists had reasons to be jealous of one another: status, projects, publications, and occasionally romance created friction among them. But these motives seldom led to murder. Was Heinrick's murder related to the security breach or another matter altogether? The easy answer was that Heinrick had passed on the priceless U-235 information, then outlived his usefulness. But I had a feeling there'd be no easy answers.

I steeled myself against the nausea, squatted again, and drew the stench deep into my nostrils. In two seconds, I knew Heinrick had been dead approximately four hours. "You were killed around quarter after six, Heinrick," I murmured.

"How can you tell?" McHenry asked.

I looked up, having forgotten him. "Hypostasis." I drew an imaginary circle around Heinrick's eye with my forefinger. "See how pink his skin is here? That's an indication the blood is settling in the lowest parts of his body. The pinker the skin, the earlier the time of death." I glanced at McHenry, not adding that hypostasis commenced approximately six to eight hours after death and isn't fully pronounced for eight to twelve hours. Truth was, I couldn't explain how I knew the age of dead blood, and I'd grown tired of trying to understand the strange ability.

I dropped my gaze back to the bloody neck. "Just a guess. The coroner will have the final say."

"Security is on full alert," McHenry said. "We're on lockdown. If the killer is still here, we'll find him."

I nodded, not saying, If he isn't one of the staff or military personnel. Inside jobs were the hardest for military police to accept. Traitors in the midst of patriotic zeal hit hard.

I rose. "I assume none of the evening staff are missing?"

"No."

"You have someone checking on the day crew?" If the murder turned out to be an inside job, he could be in Canada by the time the day shift showed up and we discovered him missing.

"Banks is on it," McHenry replied.

"How about the office?" I asked. "Anything missing?"

"Don't know. Security still has to inventory the contents of the safe."

I glanced at the combination safe by the desk where Heinrick stored his classified documents. What McHenry called a safe was a fortified steel file cabinet with a combination dial about the size of my fist with a sturdy lever type handle. Every scientist had a similar safe. Some had two drawers like Heinrick's, others four. If the thief had accessed the safe, he wanted us to think otherwise: the drawers were closed and the cabinet looked unmolested.

I took two steps to the safe and pulled my handkerchief from my back pocket. Using the handkerchief to cover my fingers, I jiggled the handle and yanked. Locked.

"I'll have the contents inventoried and dusted for prints," McHenry said.

Spies preferred photographing documents instead of stealing them. Missing documents were always assumed to be in foreign hands, and steps taken to discredit, invalidate, or obfuscate the secrets within. The killer had made no efforts to hide the fact he was a professional, so why hide the fact he'd stolen documents? Now everything in the safe would be considered compromised. My gut said because he hadn't been interested in the safe's contents.

"Who found the body?" I asked as I scanned the sides of the safe.

"Dr Nichols."

Dr Gladys Anne Nichols, thirty years old—seven years younger than me—had four degrees from Vassar, Wellesley and Cornell. I had reviewed her personnel file a week ago when she arrived, but hadn't met her. I thought she worked dayshift.

"Where's she now?"

"Roma's office."

"I'll have a chat with her. Let me know when the Chicago PD arrives."

"General's orders are he talks to you first."

I jerked my gaze onto McHenry. "Chicago PD hasn't been notified?"

"You have to talk to General Groves first."

The implacable set of McHenry's jaw said he wasn't saying more, but I wasn't in the habit of leaving dead bodies lying around.

"You haven't reported the murder yet?"

"The Army doesn't report to local police."

"This isn't a military installation," I said.

"You were going to talk to Dr Nichols." He turned to the side, indicating I should precede him out of the room.

I stared for a long moment, but knew he wasn't going to budge until I left the crime scene. I strode from the room, McHenry closing the door behind us and taking up guard in front of the door as I kept going. "Damn Army by-the-book-board-up-their-asses attitude," I muttered as I turned the corner in the hallway. I used to like that about the Army when I served. I guess I was young and dependent back then.

A moment later, I halted in front of the closed door where Dr Nichols waited. The name painted on the glass read: Dr Enrico Roma, the alias of the great scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Enrico Fermi. The alias didn't fool anybody but the ignorant. Light shone through the milky glass window. I blew out a breath. The last thing I wanted to do was interrogate a hysterical woman.

I opened the door and stopped dead at the sight of a shapely blonde leaning against Fermi's mahogany desk. I stared as realization sunk in that the Veronica Lake look-alike standing there was the same egghead pictured in her personnel file. The glasses she'd worn were absent and, despite the red-rimmed eyes and drawn expression, the single overhead light warmed the creamy complexion that had looked bland and colorless in the photo.

Thick blond hair slid across her face in a broad wave and flowed down slim shoulders. Suddenly, I understood the reasoning behind the functional bun in the picture. Despite the legs that mesmerized a man all the way down to the high heel straps, the tweed skirt and blazer she wore emphatically stated the bombshell figure was off limits. But the moment a man laid eyes on her luxurious hair all bets were off. My breath caught with bloodlust as I drew in her scent from across the room.

Gray-blue eyes stared from behind the drape of blond hair. Her gaze flicked to my waistband and I realized she'd glimpsed the colt holstered beneath my suit jacket.

"You wear your gun like a gangster," she said.

I startled. Her voice, low and sultry, held a shaky note, but I knew the remark was payment for my staring.

"This incident requires I carry a weapon." My drill sergeant used to berate any reference to the word gun. "Your gun is
between your legs, son. Your pistol or rifle is called a weapon
."

She continued to stare and guilt stabbed at me. She'd discovered a colleague who'd been brutally murdered, and I stood in the doorway gawking at her. I swallowed, feeling like a school kid.

"Dr Nichols, I'm Agent Pierce, head of nightshift security." Her fingers tightened around a lace handkerchief gripped in her right palm. I didn't want to step closer, but had to. Her pheromones were making my blood, or what was left of it, crave an infusion from her veins. "What happened?"

Her gaze dropped to the hankie and she began working the fabric with both hands. "I was working late and needed Leon to come to the lab. I couldn't get the Geiger counter to calibrate. I knocked. When no one answered, I opened the door and…" Her eyes swung up to meet mine. "So much blood." Her gaze remained locked with my eyes as if demanding a response.

"I'm sorry," I offered. "I thought you were assigned to dayshift."

She swiped at the corners of her eyes with the handkerchief. "I switched shifts yesterday so Leon and I could calibrate the new equipment."

I nodded. The scientists worked a twelve hours on, twelve off schedule seven days a week. We were in a race against
Nazi scientists while men died in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. "Did you notice anything unusual tonight?" I asked.

"Nothing."

"Hear anything strange on the way to Dr Heinrick's office, pass anyone in the hall?"

She shook her head. "Maybe he's still here."

Something in the way she stared at—through—me, searching for answers and fearing what she might find, threatened to tip me off balance. "The murderer is gone," I replied in a level voice.

"How do you know?"

"A hunch," I said, and meant it.

"Why kill Heinrick?" she said. "Why not Compton or Fermi? But Heinrick…" Her voice trailed off.

"Are you saying Heinrick didn't know anything worth killing for?"

"I suppose we all know something worth killing for. Each scientist on this project is top in his or her field. But the project will go on without Heinrick. If we lost Oppenheimer, or Fermi, the project would be delayed, if not brought to a standstill."

"Did you enter Heinrick's office?"

"No, I took one look and ran."

The response, given without hesitation, or guile, made me wonder if this woman ran from anything.

"This was the first office I came to," she said.

Her story made sense, and my instincts said she was telling the truth. I had learned to trust my sixth sense, especially the last eight months. This ability was another one of those things I couldn't explain, like being conscious of the way her pheromones where working on me double-time.

"Are you staying in the dorm?" I asked.

She nodded.

"I'll have someone escort you there."

Desire to go with her shot to the surface with the heat of a volcano. I pictured white skin, full breasts, and blond hair between perfect thighs. I forced my breathing to remain even, and the swelling in my shorts abated. I'd never experienced such sudden, intense lust. If I escorted her back to her room I would drink her blood—and God only knew what I would do to her afterward. My pulse jumped with the thought of her warm blood flowing past my tongue down my throat… and her tight walls closing around me as I entered her.

"I have to complete my measurements before the day shift," she said. I jarred from the erotic thought. "There's not enough equipment to go around," she added.

I nodded. "Of course."

Clipped footsteps sounded almost noiselessly on the linoleum floor of the hallway and I recognized McHenry's walk two seconds before Dr Nichols's eyes shifted over my shoulder.

"Pierce."

I glanced back to see him standing in the open doorway.

"The general wants to talk to you."

A measure of sanity reasserted itself. I had to get away from her, now. "Could you escort Dr Nichols back to the lab?"
His expression lightened. "No problem." He stepped aside and motioned toward the door with an open hand. "Dr Nichols."

She cast me a farewell glance and headed toward the door. I tried tearing my eyes from the gentle sway of hips as she walked past, but couldn't, and felt the heat swell to the surface again. I had to find one of the small rodents whose blood I drank to keep my thirst for human blood at bay, or go back to Heinrick and hope the congealed blood in his decaying body would make me forget the craving. Rising desire twisted my insides and I feared even Heinrick's dead blood wouldn't work against the warm, pulsing blood of Dr Nichols.

I waited until their footsteps receded down the hall, then started forward. My gaze caught on Fermi's portable chalkboard on wheels, and I stopped. Equations filled the board that would have looked like Greek to me in my former life. Now, they sparked a story in my mind. Differentials, integrals, and algebra flowed in an almost perfect melody. The first time I saw calculus after becoming infected with this disease, I stared, fascinated. After flipping through a text on advanced mathematics I found in the small but well stocked CP-1 library, I could visualize the differential as rates of change, the integrals as sums, and functions as shapes and movement.

I stared at the puzzle of Fermi's equations, one side of my brain working the numbers, the other side stuck on the murder. Heinrick's eye had been stabbed in a careful, deliberate manner to inflict maximum pain without killing. Yet no one had reported the screams, which must have penetrated his office walls. Why? Like the equations on the board, the evidence didn't fit. Except, equations could be fixed. Heinrick would be dead forever.

I stepped up to the chalkboard, picked up a stick of chalk, and tapped down the chalkboard alongside the offending column of calculations. Halfway down, I fixed an exponent and turned a minus sign to a plus, then fixed the equation below, which didn't equal zero as Fermi had written. I circled the answer and connected the derivation on the right hand side of the board to the bottom equation on the left, which now equaled each other. I stood back. Harmony now flowed between the equations. I didn't know what they represented, but they were now correct.

The first time I stood in front of this chalkboard and recognized a mistake, I had walked away. If anyone discovered my abilities, I would be consigned to hell in some biological laboratory I dared not contemplate beyond the knowledge of its existence. Later that night, I found a communiqué on my desk from General Groves reporting ninety-eight men had died, including Rear Admiral Daniel Judson Callaghan and Captain Cassin, when the USS San Francisco sank during the battle of Guadalcanal. Groves had handwritten a single sentence on the Teletype page: This is why we're doing this.

I had rushed back to write my solution, but found Fermi had erased everything. Since then, I didn't chance leaving Fermi's mistakes uncorrected.

I set the chalk back in the tray and brushed my hands on my trousers. As for my personal problem, even if I found a cure for the need to drink blood, I would still never be the same after this war, no one would. Yet, whatever I was, I would still be alive. Many men wouldn't be.
 

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Genre: Paranormal
Date Published: 10/24/2012
Publisher: Broken Arm Publishing

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