In the mid fourteenth century, as Mongol soldiers hurled the corpses of plague victims over the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Caffa, it became ground zero for the Black Death, the pandemic which devastated Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. | Photo: Charles Faddis | Link | Caffa, Charles Faddis, Book,

EXCLUSIVE: The first chapter from Charles S. Faddis

[Editor's note: This is the first chapter of Charles S. Faddis's new novel, "Caffa""" available now!]

"In October 1347, at about the beginning of the month, twelve Genoese galleys, fleeing from the divine vengeance, which Our Lord had sent upon them for their sins, put into the port of Messina. The Genoese carried such a disease in their bodies that if anyone so much as spoke with one of them he was infected with the deadly illness and could not avoid death. The signs of death among the Genoese, and among the Messinese when they came to share the illness with them, were as follows. Breath spread the infection among those speaking together, with one infecting the other, and it seemed as if the victim was struck all at once by the affliction and was, so to speak, shattered by it. This shattering impact, together with the inhaled infection, caused the eruption of a sort of boil, the size of lentil, on the thigh or arm, which so infected and invaded the body that the victims violently coughed up blood, and after three days' incessant vomiting, for which there was no remedy, they died ' and with them died not only anyone who had talked with them, but also anyone who had acquired or touched or laid hands on their belongings."

---The Chronicles of the Franciscan Monk Michele da Piazza, 1347

2150 HOURS. 16 JULY 2002.

"Good evening," said Dr. Bashir Mahmud to the night watchman. He smiled his broad, doubt free smile and strode past the small desk at the entrance to the building.

"Good evening, Professor Doctor," said the watchman as he stumbled to his feet. It was late, and the building was long deserted, but one did not ask questions of the director nor inquire as to his business. It was his Institute. If he wanted to come in that was his right.

Bashir scuffed his way down the hallway to his office, leather sandals slapping the floor as he went. He was dressed in salwar kameese, the loose traditional Pakistani garb, with a wool sleeveless vest over his top. It was a costume more suited to a shopkeeper on the street than a man with a PhD in microbiology from Oxford, but completely in keeping with his status as a devout Muslim of the Ahl-e-Hadith school.

On Bashir's left, he passed glass windows giving a view into the interior of the mammoth Biological Security Level 3 (BSL3) laboratory that was adjacent to his office. Visible through the windows were banks of refrigerators, incubators and ventilated hoods for use in working with dangerous microbes. Stacks of petri dishes and racks of test tubes and pipettes cluttered the countertops.

A short distance past the lab, Bashir unlocked a door and entered his office. The furniture inside was heavy and ornate, and the walls were covered in awards and commemorative photos from a long and distinguished career. Bashir saw none of it. He crossed the office, unlocked another door in the back wall and stepped into the room behind it.

This was Bashir's private lab. It was intended to be a space for the director to putter with his own pet projects as he waited out the days until his retirement. It had a different purpose now.

To the left was a refrigerator filled with petri dishes and bacterial samples. On the right were several boxlike incubators. Straight ahead on a black laminate countertop was a tall glass cylindrical container filled with liters of what appeared to be thick, yellow custard.

Sprouting from the top of the cylinder were wires and metal tubes leading to a stack of white plastic boxes covered with controls and digital displays. Together the cylinder and the attached stack of instruments constituted a fermenter. It was designed for the precise, controlled cultivation of microorganisms. It monitored temperature, fed nutrients and measured growth. It made sure that all conditions were optimal.

Bashir checked the displays on the white boxes and glanced quickly at tables of numbers he had jotted down in a notebook sitting next to the fermenter. He was simply confirming what he already knew. It was time.

Putting the notebook back on the counter, Bashir disconnected the tubes and wires connected to the glass cylinder and moved it to one side. Then, moving smoothly and efficiently, he used a large pipette, a long glass tube with a narrow tip at one end and a large rubber ball at the other, to suck up quantities of the custard-like substance and squirt it into long glass tubes with tight plastic tops. Once he had filled two dozen of these he slipped each one into a protective, airtight plastic sleeve. Lastly, he opened a special freezer next to the refrigerator and took out a foam cooler with five kilograms of dry ice in the bottom of it and slipped each of the plastic sleeves into a compartment inside the cooler.

Once finished, Bashir stood up from the wooden stool on which he had been sitting, took off the reading glasses he had been using while he worked and rubbed his tired eyes. He checked his watch. It was close to midnight. He needed to hurry.

Bashir walked out of the Institute with the cooler in a small rolling Pelican case'a hard, black, plastic shell designed for the transport of breakable items. The night watchman staggered to his feet to say goodnight and then settled back into watching an old Bollywood flick on a small black and white TV at his desk.

Outside the front doors to the Institute, Bashir handed the case to his driver, Hussain, who put it in the trunk of the official vehicle he was driving and then rushed to open the car door for Bashir. Bashir settled into the back seat of the black sedan.

"Where would you like to go, Director?" asked Hussain as he climbed in the car and started the engine.

"Let's go see the Colonel, please," said Bashir.

"Yes, Director," said Hussain crisply. No matter how long the hours, driving for the Director of the Institute was a great honor.

"How is your family, Hussain?" asked the Director. He was staring out the window of the sedan at the open countryside rolling by.

"Thanks to God, they are well, Director," said Hussain. "The youngest turns five tomorrow."

"Seven children. You are blessed, Hussain," said Bashir. He closed his eyes for a moment and let a feeling of contentment wash over him. It was good to be able to be of use in such a great cause.

Traffic was light and the trip down Muree Road and then Kashmir Highway to Islamabad from the Institute's site on the fringes of the city was uneventful. In fifteen minutes, Hussain was turning into the neat residential streets of the I-8 sector of town. On both sides the empty streets were lined with walled residential compounds.

Islamabad was one of those planned cities that were the vogue in developing nations after the Second World War. The rest of Pakistan was chaos, filth and noise. Islamabad, by contrast, was sterile, cold and artificial. It was a joke among diplomats posted to the city to say that it was only "minutes from Pakistan", a reference to Islamabad's sister city of Rawalpindi, which teemed with crowds and traffic.

Hussain pulled the car up to the heavy metal gate at the entrance to their destination. Two uniformed guards with submachine guns scrutinized the car for a moment and then, satisfied that they recognized the occupants, opened the gates and waved the car inside. As Hussain shut off the engine and opened the door for Bashir, the gates closed behind them.

"I will not be long, Hussain," said Bashir. He smiled and his long, bushy beard bristled.

"Shall I carry this for you, Director?" asked Hussain. He motioned to the Pelican case, which he had removed from the trunk.

"I am old, my friend," said Bashir. "I am not yet dead."

"Of course, not, Director," said Hussain as Bashir took the case from him.

"Get some tea in the guard house," said Bashir. The temperature was still close to ninety degrees and the air was steamy from the rain earlier in the evening, but there was always time for tea in Pakistan.

"Yes, Director," said Bashir. He walked toward the small cinderblock building set just inside the gate and in front of the main house. The door to the building was open and a light on inside. Two off-duty, uniformed guards were sitting around a small electric hot plate with a tin kettle on it. Scratchy, thumping Punjabi pop music was coming from a radio somewhere inside.

Bashir went up the short flight of stairs to the front door of the home pulling the wheeled Pelican case behind him. The plastic case bumped on each stair as he went. He was met at the entrance by the Colonel's assistant, Ahmed.

"Let me help you with this, Director," said Ahmed. He was a tall, thick man with no neck and black pitiless eyes. He took the case from Bashir and carried it by the handle on one end as he motioned for Bashir to enter. "The Colonel is in his office."

"Thank you," said Bashir. He stepped inside as Ahmed pushed the front door closed with his free hand. Then he followed Ahmed across the sterile front room with its cold furniture and bare walls and down a short hallway.

"The Director is here, Colonel," called Ahmed. He pushed open a door off the hallway into a small office with dark wooden furniture and heavy curtains on the windows. "I will take your case to the back room."

"Good evening, my brother,"

[Editor's note: This is the first chapter of Charles S. Faddis's new novel, "Caffa""" available now!

In the mid fourteenth century, as Mongol soldiers hurled the corpses of plague victims over the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Caffa, it became ground zero for the Black Death, the pandemic which devastated Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. | Photo: Charles Faddis | Link | Caffa, Charles Faddis, Book,

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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