Kowalski's in LoveJames Rollins
Experience a heart-pumping and thrilling tale of suspense!
Originally published in THRILLER (2006),
edited by #1 New York Times bestselling author James Patterson.
In this Thriller Short from #1 New York Times bestselling writer, James Rollins, brings a story that’s no love story, at least not in the traditional sense. Fans of Rollins’s Sigma Force series know Joe Kowalski, a naval seaman with the heart of a hero, but lacking the brainpower to go with it. Kowalski stays in trouble and here readers will get to know a bit more about his backstory. One that illustrates something Kowalski seems to live by.
Dumb luck is better than no luck at all.
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Kowalski’s in Love
Kowalski’s in Love
James Rollins’s Sandstorm (2003) and Map of Bones (2004), were departures from his usual work. His prior thrillers were all stand-alones, with a separate cast of characters. But in these two, Rollins introduced his first series with recurring characters. He pursued that course based on input from his readers and from personal desire. For years, fans had contacted him and asked questions about various cast members from his earlier thrillers. What became of Ashley and Ben’s baby after Subterranean (1999)? What is the next port of call for the crew of the Deep Fathom (2001)?
Eventually, Rollins came to realize that he wanted to know those answers, too. So he challenged himself to construct a series—something unique and distinct. He wanted to build a landscape of three-dimensional characters and create his own mythology of these people, to watch them grow over the course of the series, balancing personal lives and professional, some succeeding, some failing. Yet at the same time, Rollins refused to let go of his roots. Trained as a biologist with a degree in veterinary medicine, his new series, like his previous thrillers, folded scientific intrigue into stories of historical mystery. His new characters belong to Sigma Force, an elite team of ex-Special Forces soldiers retrained in scientific disciplines (what Rollins jokingly describes as “killer scientists who operate outside the rule of law”). Finally, from his background as a veterinarian, the occasional strange or exotic animal often plays a significant role in the plot.
And this short story is no exception.
Here, Rollins links his past to the present. He brings forward a minor character, one of his personal favorites, from his earlier stand-alone thriller Ice Hunt (2003). Joe Kowalski, a naval seaman, is best described as someone with the heart of a hero but lacking the brainpower to go with it. So how does Seaman Joe Kowalski end up being recruited by such an illustrious team as Sigma Force?
As they say…dumb luck is better than no luck at all.
KOWALSKI’S IN LOVE
He wasn’t much to look at…even swinging upside down from a hog snare. Pug-nosed, razor-clipped muddy hair, a six-foot slab of beef hooked and hanging naked except for a pair of wet gray boxer shorts. His chest was crisscrossed with old scars, along with one jagged bloody scratch from collarbone to groin. His eyes shone wide and wild.
And with good reason.
Two minutes before, as Dr. Shay Rosauro unhitched her glide-chute on the nearby beach, she had heard his cries in the jungle and come to investigate. She had approached in secret, moving silently, spying from a short distance away, cloaked in shadow and foliage.
“Back off, you furry bastard…!”
The man’s curses never stopped, a continual flow tinged with a growled Bronx accent. Plainly he was American. Like herself.
She checked her watch.
The island would explode in twenty-seven minutes.
The man would die sooner.
The more immediate threat came from the island’s other inhabitants, drawn by the man’s shouts. The average adult mandrill baboon weighed over a hundred pounds, most of that muscle and teeth. They were usually found in Africa. Never on a jungle island off the coast of Brazil. The yellow radio collars suggested the pack were once the research subjects belonging to Professor Salazar, shipped to this remote island for his experimental trials. Mandrillus sphinx were also considered frugivorous, meaning their diet consisted of fruits and nuts.
But not always.
They were also known to be opportunistic carnivores.
One of the baboons stalked around the trapped man: a charcoal-furred male of the species with a broad red snout bordered on both sides by ridges of blue. Such coloration indicated the fellow was the dominant male of the group. Females and subordinate males, all a duller brown, had settled to rumps or hung from neighboring branches. One bystander yawned, exposing a set of three-inch-long eyeteeth and a muzzle full of ripping incisors.
The male sniffed at the prisoner. A meaty fist swung at the inquisitive baboon, missed, and whished through empty air.
The male baboon reared on its hind legs and howled, lips peeling back from its muzzle to expose the full length of its yellow fangs. An impressive and horrifying display. The other baboons edged closer.
Shay stepped into the clearing, drawing all eyes. She lifted her hand and pressed the button on her sonic device, nicknamed a shrieker. The siren blast from the device had the desired effect.
Baboons fled into the forest. The male leader bounded up, caught a low branch and swung into the cloaking darkness of the jungle.
The man, still spinning on the line, spotted her. “Hey…how about…?”
Shay already had a machete in her other hand. She jumped atop a boulder and severed the hemp rope with one swipe of her weapon.
The man fell hard, striking the soft loam and rolling to the side. Amid a new string of curses, he struggled with the snare around his ankle. He finally freed the knotted rope.
“Baboons,” Shay corrected.
“They’re baboons, not apes. They have stubby tails.”
“Whatever. All I saw were their big, goddamn teeth.”
As the man stood and brushed off his knees, Shay spotted a U.S. Navy anchor tattooed on his right bicep. Ex-military? Maybe he could prove handy. Shay checked the time.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“My boat br
oke down.” His gaze traveled up and down her lithe form.
She was not unaccustomed to such attention from the male of her own species…even now, when she was unflatteringly dressed in green camouflage fatigues and sturdy boots. Her shoulder-length black hair had been efficiently bound behind her ears with a black bandanna, and in the tropical swelter, her skin glowed a dark mocha.
Caught staring, he glanced back toward the beach. “I swam here after my boat sank.”
“Your boat sank?”
“Okay, it blew up.”
She stared at him for further explanation.
“There was a gas leak. I dropped my cigar—”
She waved away the rest of his words with her machete. Her pickup was scheduled at the northern peninsula in under a half hour. On that timetable, she had to reach the compound, break into the safe and obtain the vials of antidote. She set off into the jungle, noting a trail. The man followed, dragged along in her wake.
“Whoa…where are we going?”
She freed a rolled-up poncho from her daypack and passed it to him.
He struggled into it as he followed. “Name’s Kowalski,” he said. He got the poncho on backward and fought to work it around. “Do you have a boat? A way off this friggin’ island?”
She didn’t have time for subtlety. “In twenty-three minutes, the Brazilian navy is going to firebomb this atoll.”
“What?” He checked his own wrist. He had no watch.
She continued, “An evac is scheduled for wheels up at 8:55 a.m. on the northern peninsula. But first I have to retrieve something from the island.”
“Wait. Back up. Who’s going to firebomb this shithole?”
“The Brazilian navy. In twenty-three minutes.”
“Of course they are.” He shook his head. “Of all the goddamn islands, I had to shag my ass onto one that’s going to blow up.”
Shay tuned out his diatribe. At least he kept moving. She had to give him that. He was either very brave or very dumb.
“Oh, look…a mango.” He reached for the yellow fruit.
“Don’t touch that.”
“But I haven’t eaten in—?”
“All the vegetation on this island has been aerial sprayed with a transgenic rhabdovirus.”
He lowered his hand.
“Once ingested, it stimulates the sensory centers of the brain, heightening a victim’s senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“The process also corrupts the reticular apparatus of the cerebral cortex. Triggering manic rages.”
A growling yowl echoed through the jungle behind them. It was answered by coughing grunts and howls from either flank.
“Baboons. Yes, they’re surely infected. Experimental subjects.”
“Great. The Island of Rabid Baboons.”
Ignoring him, she pointed toward a whitewashed hacienda sprawled atop the next hill, seen through a break in the foliage. “We need to reach that compound.”
The terra-cotta-tiled structure had been leased by Professor Salazar for his research, funded by a shadowy organization of terrorist cells. Here on the isolated island, he had conducted the final stages of perfecting his bioweapon. Then two days ago, Sigma Force—a covert U.S. science team specializing in global threats—had captured the doctor in the heart of the Brazilian rain forest, but not before he had infected an entire Indian village outside of Manaus, including an international children’s relief hospital.
The disease was already in its early stages, requiring the prompt quarantine of the village by the Brazilian army. The only hope was to obtain Professor Salazar’s antidote, locked in the doctor’s safe.
Or at least the vials might be there.
Salazar claimed to have destroyed his supply.
Upon this assertion, the Brazilian government had decided to take no chances. A storm was due to strike at dusk with hurricane-force winds. They feared the storm surge might carry the virus from the island to the mainland’s coastal rain forest. It would take only a single infected leaf to risk the entire equatorial rain forest. So the plan was to firebomb the small island, to burn its vegetation to the bedrock. The assault was set for zero nine hundred. The government could not be convinced that the remote possibility of a cure was worth the risk of a delay. Total annihilation was their plan. That included the Brazilian village. Acceptable losses.
Anger surged through her as she pictured Manuel Garrison, her partner. He had tried to evacuate the children’s hospital, but he’d become trapped and subsequently infected. Along with all the children.
Acceptable losses were not in her vocabulary.
So Shay had proceeded with her solo op. Parachuting from a high-altitude drop, she had radioed her plans while plummeting in free fall. Sigma command had agreed to send an emergency evac helicopter to the northern end of the island. It would touch down for one minute. Either she was on the chopper at that time…or she was dead.
The odds were fine with her.
But now she wasn’t alone.
The side of beef tromped loudly behind her. Whistling. He was whistling. She turned to him. “Mr. Kowalski, do you remember my description of how the virus heightens a victim’s sense of hearing?” Her quiet words crackled with irritation.
“Sorry.” He glanced at the trail behind him.
“Careful of that tiger trap,” she said, stepping around the crudely camouflaged hole.
“What—?” His left foot fell squarely on the trapdoor of woven reeds. His weight shattered through it.
Shay shoulder-blocked the man to the side and landed atop him. It felt like falling on a pile of bricks. Only, bricks were smarter.
She pushed up. “After being snared, you’d think you’d watch where you were stepping! The whole place is one big booby trap.”
She stood, straightened her pack and edged around the spike-lined pit. “Stay behind me. Step where I step.”
In her anger, she missed the trip cord.
The only warning was a small thwang.
She jumped to the side but was too late. A tethered log swung from the forest and struck her knee. She heard the snap of her tibia, then went flying through the air—right toward the open maw of the tiger trap.
She twisted to avoid the pit’s iron spikes. There was no hope.
Then she hit…bricks again.
Kowalski had lunged and blocked the hole with his own bulk. She rolled off him. Agony flared up her leg, through her hip, and exploded along her spine. Her vision narrowed to a pinprick, but not enough to miss the angled twist below her knee.
Kowalski gained her side. “Oh, man…oh, man…”
“Leg’s broken,” she said, biting back the pain.
“We can splint it.”
She checked her watch.
Twenty-one minutes left.
He noted her attention. “I can carry you. We can still make it to the evac site.”
She recalculated in her head. She pictured Manuel’s shit-eating grin…and the many faces of the children. Pain worse than any broken bone coursed through her. She could not fail.
The man read her intent. “You’ll never make it to that house,” he said.
“I don’t have any other choice.”
“Then let me do it,” he blurted out. His words seemed to surprise him as much as it did her, but he didn’t retract them. “You make for the beach. I’ll get whatever you want out of the goddamn hacienda.”
She turned and stared the stranger full in the face. She searched for something to give her hope. Some hidden strength, some underlying fortitude. She found nothing. But she had no other choice.
“There’ll be other traps.”
“I’ll keep my eyes peeled this time.”
“And the office safe…I can’t teach you to crack it in time.”
“Do you have an extra radio?”
“So talk me through it once I get there.”
She hesitated—but there was no time for even that. She swung her pack around. “Lean down.”
She reached to a side pocket of her pack and stripped out two self-adhesive patches. She attached one behind the man’s ear and the other over his Adam’s apple. “Microreceiver and a subvocal transmitter.”
She quickly tested the radio while explaining the stakes involved.
“So much for my relaxing vacation under the sun,” he mumbled.
“One more thing,” she said. She pulled out three sections of a weapon from her pack. “A VK rifle. Variable Kinetic.” She quickly snapped the pieces together and shoved a fat cylindrical cartridge into place on its underside. It looked like a stubby assault rifle, except the barrel was wider and flattened horizontally.
“Safety release is here.” She pointed the weapon at a nearby bush and squeezed the trigger. There was only a tiny whirring cough. A projectile flashed out the barrel and buzzed through the bush, severing leaves and branches. “One-inch razor-disks. You can set the weapon for single shot or automatic strafe.” She demonstrated. “Two hundred shots per magazine.”
He whistled again and accepted the weapon. “Maybe you should keep this weed whacker. With your bum leg, you’re going to drag ass at a snail’s pace.” He nodded to the jungle. “And the damn apes are still out there.”
“They’re baboons…and I still have my handheld shrieker. Now get going.” She checked her watch. She had given Kowalski a second timepiece, calibrated to match. “Nineteen minutes.”
He nodded. “I’ll see you soon.” He moved off the trail, vanishing almost instantly into the dense foliage.
“Where are you going?” she called after him. “The trail—”
“Screw the trail,” he responded through the radio. “I’ll take my chances in the raw jungle. Fewer traps. Plus, I’ve got this baby to carve a straight path to the mad doctor’s house.”
Shay hoped he was right. There would be no time for backtracking or second chances. She quickly dosed herself with a morphine injector and used a broken tree branch for a crutch. As she set off for the beach, she heard the ravenous hunting calls of the baboons.