Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Consciousness Plague: nice long sample

The Consciousness Plague "more nearly reaches the heights of Isaac Asimov's classic sf mysteries than those of most other genre hands who attempt them manage to do these days." - Booklist

Here's the beginning of The Consciousness Plague -


Chapter 1


"Phil! Good to see you!"  Jack Dugan, one of the brass I usually worked with – recently promoted to the Commissioner's right-hand man down at One Police Plaza – extended his hand.  He pulled it back, to contain a wracking cough.

"You look terrible, Jack.  What are you taking for that?"

"Nothing." He coughed again, then extended his hand again.

I took it and made a mental note to wash my hands as soon as I left the meeting.

"I guess I should get some antibiotics for this," Jack continued.  "But I hate to use the stuff – they say so much of it is around that bacteria are building up resistance."

I sat down in the available chair across from his desk.  "Never knew you were so public-minded about that, Jack."

He gave me a pained smile.  "Antibiotics upset my digestion.  I'd rather have the cough."  He cleared his throat like a bulldozer moving dirt.

"Yeah, well, antibiotics are like dumb cops, aren't they," I said.  "They come on the scene and club everyone over the head – the good-guy germs in your system that help you digest your food, as well as the bad guys that make you sick."

Jack laughed, then coughed.  His eyes teared.  Finally he took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.  "Let me tell you why I asked you down here."

I nodded encouragement.

"You know, you and I have had some differences over the years about your penchant for bizarre cases–"

Yeah, tell me about it, I thought.  He'd removed me from cases at least half-a-dozen times.

"–and, even though I've been a skeptic, I was talking to the Commissioner the other day, and he of course thinks that our city has to be prepared for anything and everything these days.  There's no telling what the next threat to public safety might be.  So, he'd like you to head up a taskforce – you know, just to be there, with some possible plans in the waiting, if something really strange crops up.  That’s your specialty."  He cleared his throat, then went into a coughing spasm.  He pulled a bottle of water out of his desk and guzzled half of it down.  "So, what do you think?" he finally managed to say.

***
Jenna sipped a glass of plum wine and smiled at me that evening.  "I know, you hate committees," she said.

I leaned back on the sofa in our living room.  "I've always accomplished more as a lone wolf," I replied.  "I've seen loads of these taskforces come and go.  Usually all they do is
Waste time and eat up energy."

"But you told Dugan you'd think about it," Jenna said.

"Yeah.  I suppose it could be good to finally have some people working under me.  And some resources.  That would be an improvement on having to always go the Department
on bended knee."

"You think there's some threat we don't know about that makes them want to do this right now?" Jenna asked.

I scowled.  "They wouldn't recognize something bizarre if it smiled in their faces – they'd say it was a hoax, and do their best to bury the evidence."

Jenna coughed. "Well, this damned cold or pseudo-flu or whatever it is certainly seems to be getting out of hand.  My sister told me everyone in San Francisco has it."

"Let's hope she didn't give it to you over the phone."

I gently rubbed her hand.

***

I called Dugan two days later to accept the offer.

"He's home sick with that bug," his secretary, Sheila,  told me.  "Both he and the Commissioner," she added. "Got them both.  Looks like the Department will be run
by the secretaries for the next few days!"  She chuckled.

"No different than usual," I responded in kind.

Now she laughed out loud.  "Shhh, Dr. D'Amato.  Don't you give away our secret now!"

"It's safe with me, don't worry."

***

I was down in Chinatown a few days later on a boring case.  But it wasn't a total loss – I used the opportunity to replenish my supply of green tea and persimmons.

The woman at the fruit stand – hardly more than a girl, with a very sweet face – was coughing her head off.

That reminded me to put in another call to Dugan.

"Good timing," Sheila's voice crackled through my phone.  "He came back, fit as a fiddle, just this morning."

The sun was close to setting on this crisp March afternoon, and I was finished with my business in Chinatown, so I decided to hail a cab and go over to Dugan's office.  It could be useful for me to see the expression on his face when I accepted his offer – see if there was any true pleasure there.

The traffic was worse than usual.  I counted two water mains broken and gushing and a pothole that looked as if it might have been made by the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs.  Sheila was gone when I finally arrived. But Jack was still in his office.

"So I see you're feeling better," I said, and took Jack's extended hand.

"I feel like a million bucks now," Jack said.  "How you'd know ... oh, I guess Sheila told you I was sick?"

"Right–"

"I tell ya, this was a nasty one. I tried to fight it on my own as best I could – I hate taking antibiotics and those new flu meds – but it got to the point where I was up all night coughing.  The Commissioner was pretty sick too – he picked it up from me, I picked it up from him, who knows – but his doctor told him about some new antibiotic or something 95% guaranteed not to upset the stomach.  That stuff wreaks havoc on my digestion, you know–"

"Yeah–"

"So, anyway."  Dugan gestured to the available chair.  "Have a seat, Phil.  What brings you to this exalted office?"

"Well, I've decided to accept your offer," I replied.

"My offer?" Dugan looked puzzled.

"Yeah, you know, what you told me last week, about the taskforce."

Dugan looked at me as if I was putting him on, or confusing him with someone else.  "I haven't the vaguest idea what you're talking about."

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