The courier was eager for me to sign for the package and get away. We both hid our persistent shivering from one another. He was swathed in a thick brown parka coat, gloved fingers holding the pen out for me to sign and looking to me for a signature and permission to leave.
Ted, my usual guy was no longer on this route. He had a severe reaction to an insect bite that put him in the hospital. I feigned shock at the news and told the courier to pass on my regards, knowing that he would not. I signed, the courier gave me a thumbs up and went around to get the container to the back of the truck.
I had warned Ted and he had ignored me. I did not offer this new courier anything similar because I had started to feel like King Canute, standing at the beach and commanding the waves to go back. I saved my energy and anxiety for my work instead. He had to use a trolley to get the container off the truck, a squat box that looked like a suitcase had joined a gym and started cycling anabolics. It was too large for sample cases and I wondered if the spectrograph parts had finally arrived.
The alternative was worse.
He grunted with the effort despite his back brace and I offered to help out of guilt, which was how I did most things. Warnings came to my lips and I swallowed them back. They tasted of bitter flowers, so instead I offered him a tip but he enjoyed the opportunity to refuse. It made me like him, a man who looked for the chance to be noble.
His departure was hasty, but that I put that down to his schedule, controlled by a piece of software or contained in a plastic binder and adhered to with the clarity of faith. Like how ants and bees were organised and controlled. He had every reason to be uncomfortable.
I was the Bug Lady after all.
He had got the case into the laboratory and I took a closer look at it. It was sealed without any obvious locks beyond a humming white strip that tingled with static when I touched it. It had a laser printed label on it with my name on. They had spelled my name correctly, which was unusual.
My laboratory had grown like a garden, driven by expediency rather than nature and it reflected my scattershot approach to the project. A chromatography station stood next to a gene sequencing station that beavered constantly and all of it connected up to a secure, stable power supply and my own wired network so I could receive data from my colleagues and collaborators all whom were working on different aspects of the same problem.
The crate had vents at the side and when I waved my fingers over them; I felt the soft tickle of breath against my fingers. An internal ventilation system, I guessed and looked over the crate again for any warning labels or biohazard symbols. Nothing at all.
I glanced around. The hanging kitty poster glazed at me with luminous blue eyes whilst the Bee Movie poster smirked in its insect approximation of Jerry Seinfeld. Bee and Kitty were useless assistants but perfect companions.
‘What’s in there?’ Kitty said.
‘More bugs.’ Bee said
I laughed to myself and found the raised sensor plate. I flicked the toggle and the plate vibrated as a wave of green LED lights started from the bottom, tingling against my palm.
I guessed that this was a new player, an angel investor or an aggressive start up who wanted to show off the swinging cock of his cash.
‘It looks scary.’ Kitty said.
The sensor read my palm with a pleasing ping and the seal around the lid deactivated with a lazy sigh to settle against the crate.
Samples. Something rare or dangerous enough to warrant high technology. I had received freeze dried Asian citrus psyllids and bullet ants before so my hope was that whatever was in here had come to me through caution and deference rather than anything else.
It was better than what I had received before in sealed, ventilated crates.
I lifted the lid away, blinking against the column of cinnamon tasting smoke before my eyes made out what was at the bottom of the crate.
Or to be more exacting, whom.
He laid in a sculptured cot, asleep in the fetal position with his arms wrapped around his knees. He had dark brown hair on his legs and chest, a lean, plated physique and a pair of Oriental symbols on his right arm. His head was shaved but stubble bloomed on the line of his jaw in a way that begged me to reach out and touch it.
He was different than the last three.
The first one had arrived a year ago. I had taken on large amounts of inventory, most of it funded by the citrus farmers and distributors who had lost 4 billion dollars to huanglongbing, which was spread by the psyllid and had not seen the crate until I had filed most of the equipment and samples away.
He had leapt from the crate, babbling in an unknown language, his jowls wobbling with the effort and his solid belly pressed against me as his hands sought my throat before his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell backwards, dead before he hit the small of his back against the lip of the container with a wet crack that made my ears hurt to hear.
Control had made me sign an NDA that included priority calls to them before any approaches were made to law enforcement. I lived far enough from anyone that I weighed up the cost of involving my superiors versus the spade in the shed and the soft, rich soil in the patch of land that I designated as my garden.
He had been naked, without any identification or markers that might have pointed out who he was. I dug him a good, deep grave and gave him a sparse, awkward eulogy. Kitty and Bee were in agreement that I had done the most expedient thing although Bee ribbed me about it for a few days.
I sent a report to Control, but they did not reply. We were spread across the world, working on different facets of the same problem with the economy of a pizza franchise and the focus of an ant colony. I had a touch of insomnia but I had pills for that. My tomato plants thrived like never before.
The second man was a blonde surfer type. He was dead before I got the crate open, his chin dark and sticky from blood where he had bitten through his tongue. I rang Control, which Kitty applauded me for and Bee stayed silent about. Control said they would arrange for a clearance team but they never did. I put him in the ground before he started to smell. I ended up giving away most of the crop of tomatoes to the food bank in town, on one of the few trips I ever made since coming here. Ted took home two boxes, said that his wife used them to make gazpacho and it was delicious.
The third man managed to get out onto the road before he collapsed, his heels beating a tattoo against the ground as he suffered a grand mal seizure and choked on his tongue. He was physically around seventeen years old with large black eyes and virtually hairless.
Control sent a black helicopter before I had ended the call. I was admonished for reporting further incursions and Bee damn near screamed for me to point out what bullshit that was but I demurred. I made a weak joke about their being a hole in every system and it being people, but my attempts were met with a puzzled frown before they took the bodies away.
This man was breathing but unconscious. He opened his eyes slowly, smacking his lips as though waking from a pleasant nap. He got up and raised his arms above his head to stretch his lower back.
‘Hi Emmy.’ he said.
He sat in my kitchen, clutching the front of the lab coat closed with one hand whilst he sipped at a glass of water. It was all I had to hand to cover his nudity. If I said I did not look, I would be a liar. He had a hard, lean body and his genitals hung between his thick thighs in a way that was arousing and arrogant.
What was most appealing was that he had not tried to murder me or die.
High school never ends, does it?
‘I know you have questions.’ he said.
I had too many to know where to start. I liked how his voice sounded in my kitchen, rough and warm like a dog’s tongue.
‘Where are you from?’ I said.
He raised his nose and sniffed the air.
‘I’m supposed to tell you things so you know this is real.’ he said.
I frowned and leaned forward, wrapping my hands tighter around my cup of coffee.
‘Oh now I am interested.’ I said.
A muscle fluttered in his jaw and he shivered against the cold. The lab coat kept stains off, but it was useless for any other function. I raised the cup to my lips and inhaled deeply.
‘You talking to the posters isn’t a sign of insanity.’ he said.
I dropped the cup, my hands gone numb with shock and struggled to remain upright in my chair. He shot up from his seat to come to my aid but I shook my head and waved him off.
‘Go on.’ I said.
‘That you don’t like to say I love you as a placeholder in a relationship.’ he said.
I sat there, struggling to breathe, to think.
‘Who sent you?’ I said.
He smiled and adjusted his lab coat to hide his nudity.
‘You would rather say I huge you because it means more.’
The walls of the room closed in, pushed into my vision by a tidal wave of soothing blackness.
I awoke on my bed, fully dressed but with the duvet pulled over me. He stood in the doorway, with a towel wrapped around him and his skin glistening like a seal’s pelt. He smiled at me and a knot untied in my stomach.
‘I know you should call Control.’ he said.
His voice was pleasant, the easy way that comes with familiarity and confidence. None of which I had invested in him, but I recognised it as a long-seated need I had left behind along with being a size 6 and being able to give a lap dance without blushing.
‘Yes, but seeing as you’re not dead or have tried to kill me, I at least owe you a head start.’
He chuckled and shook his head.
‘I’m exactly where I need to be. Emily.’
I sat up and clutched the pillow to my chest.
‘How does that explain the others?’ I said.
He grimaced and shook his head.
‘Control have not contacted you since you handed over the bodies.’ he said.
I nodded and clutched the pillow tight enough that my tendons in my forearms started to ache.
The phone rang and I stared at him.
‘Whatever that call is, you will know I am not lying if they tell you they found something important in the autopsies.’
My stomach clenched, pressed between a trembling, slow fear and a savage warm excitement at the sight of him.
I picked up the phone.
‘Security Question 4. Section 7.’
I thought about my answer. An incorrect one activated a response team to my location, usually whatever passed for SWAT or even military units if they were on exercise.
‘Territory.’ I said.
‘Miss Oates, this is Doctor Barrett, we met once in Stockholm. I’ve been asked to call you about a recent report you made.’
I looked at him across the room. I put the pillow to one side and kicked the duvet down the length of the bed with my feet. He walked across the room as Doctor Barrett started to tell me what they had found inside those men. I gestured towards the bed and he walked towards me, his caramel eyes gleaming with purpose and something that might have been love.