Unrestricted Access: New and Classic Short FictionJames Rollins
To all the Warped Spacers, past and present, who have held my feet to the fire for the past twenty-seven years. You are to blame for this book—and my career.
How It Began
Kowalski’s in Love
Novel Tie-Ins Become a Novelty
The Skeleton Key
The Midnight Watch
Crash and Burn
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
The Devil’s Bones
Two Heads Are Better Than One
City of Screams
Back to My Roots
Something Completely Different
Gone to the Dogs
Author’s Note to the Reader
About the Author
Also by James Rollins
About the Publisher
How It Began
For the introduction to this collection, let’s start at the beginning.
I can succinctly remember a cautionary warning from my ninth-grade English teacher. As she marched before the blackboard, she outlined the skill sets necessary to be a good writer, including comparing the various methods of storytelling.
She explained how a novelist had the free range of a nearly unlimited number of words in which to tell a story. Novelists had countless pages to construct a plot, to explore the inner worlds of its characters, to build toward that proverbial darkest hour, and to stick a landing with a satisfying ending. There was even more than enough space for subplots and tangents and trips down blind alleys before backtracking to the main story line.
That was not true when it came to the construction of short stories. She described how the amount of elbow room afforded an author became more restricted. To be successful here, a writer had to choose their words more carefully, to pare down a story to its essential parts while still creating the proper impact. To achieve this—and to do it well—took considerably more effort and skill than required of a freewheeling novelist.
But even then, my teacher was not done. She saved the most daunting task for last; namely, writing poetry. Here the economy of words was even more strangled. Each syllable had to be judged, the rhythm and rhyme metered and tested, each word had to serve multiple purposes. This, of course, took a true genius, a writer of incomparable skill.
I took these various descriptions to heart.
And that is why I became a novelist.
At the beginning of my career, I was self-aware enough to recognize that I was not a person of monastic frugalness when it came to words and stories. I loved reading doorstopper novels, and if those books were a part of a series, all the better. Inevitably, when it came to crafting my first stories, I certainly did not want to be restricted in the number of words or pages in which to tell my tale.
Alas, after writing half a dozen novels, someone asked me to write a short story.
I balked, made excuses, turned my back, ignored such requests.
If you are holding this book, then you know I eventually relented. The first story I wrote was “Kowalski’s in Love.” It appeared in the International Thriller Writers’ first anthology collection, Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night, edited by James Patterson. I agreed to write this story for one simple reason: peer pressure. I was on the board of ITW, so how could I refuse? The conceit of this anthology was for each writer to submit a story featuring a character from their respective novels.
By that time, I had been deep into my Sigma Force series. I had been writing about a motley team of former Special Forces soldiers who had been drummed out of the service for various reasons, but because of particular skills or talents, they were secretly recruited by DARPA—the defense department’s research-and-development agency—to act as field agents for covert projects and missions. By then, the titular Joseph Kowalski was a member of Sigma, but it was not the first time I had written about him. He debuted in an earlier novel, Ice Hunt, but I loved writing about this former navy man—a fellow who was not the brightest of the lot, but who perhaps was special in his own way—so I recruited him into Sigma. Still, I never shared the story of how he joined this elite team. So, goaded by peer pressure, I used this opportunity to finally tell the tale of how Kowalski became a member of Sigma.
That is “Kowalski’s in Love.”
As I wrote this story, I could hear my ninth-grade English teacher whispering in my ear. I sweated each word, pared the story down as much as I could. And while it was hard, I learned that such stories are not without their own particular delights. It allowed me to explore corners and back alleys of my larger work, areas not afforded even within the boundless expanse of a novel.
So let me welcome you all here to those hidden corners, to grant you unrestricted access to those back alleys of my writing. Throughout this collection, I’ll pop back in here and there to act as your guide, to let you know how the stories came about—and why.
Still, before we begin, let it be known that I have not forgotten the wisdom and warning of my ninth-grade English teacher. Acknowledging that lesson, I make you all a sincere promise. I’m even willing to set it in print.
I will never write poetry.
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 US 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 broke 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 camouflaged 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 rain 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.
“The apes . . . ?”
“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 US 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. “Mister 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 rigged as 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
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.