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Author: F. Paul Wilson
Publisher: Tor, 2016
Series: The ICE Sequence: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Two secret societies vie for control of the ultimate medical miracle--Panacea--in the latest novel by New York Times bestselling author F. Paul Wilson.

Medical examiner Laura Hanning has two charred corpses and no answers. Both bear a mysterious tattoo but exhibit no known cause of death. Their only connection to one another is a string of puzzling miracle cures. Her preliminary investigation points to a cult in the possession of the fabled panacea--the substance that can cure all ills--but that's impossible.

Laura finds herself unknowingly enmeshed in an ancient conflict between the secretive keepers of the panacea and the equally secretive and far more deadly group known only as 536, a brotherhood that fervently believes God intended for humanity to suffer, not be cured. Laura doesn't believe in the panacea, but that doesn't prevent the agents of 536 from trying to kill her.

A reclusive, terminally ill billionaire hires Laura to research the possibility of the panacea. The billionaire's own body guard, Rick Hayden, a mercenary who isn't who he pretends to be, has to keep her alive as they race to find the legendary panacea before the agents of 536 can destroy it.





"Got a crispy critter for you, Doc."

Laura Fanning nodded absently as the deputy sheriff led her through the early morning light toward the smoking embers of what had once been a three-bedroom ranch on the fringe of Sunken Meadow State Park.

Crispy critter... she hated the way the term casually objectified a dead fellow human being. Same with the ever-popular DB.

But she suppressed a sanctimonious comment. No point in getting all holier-than-thou on him. She understood the defense mechanism involved, especially in cops and morgue workers: They saw so much death, so many horrendous examples of man's inhumanity to man, or the results of simple stupidity, or the random assaults by nature and machinery on the human body, that they had to erect some sort of emotional firewall. Those unable to raise that barrier didn't last long.

Laura made do with victim. Or vic.

"How's Marissa doing?" the deputy said.

His name was Philip Lawson and he looked like he'd been plucked from central casting's file of deputy sheriffs. Thinning hair under his black Stetson, florid face, button-stretching gut. But a good man. One of the first deputies Laura had met when she joined the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's staff five years ago. He was already a veteran then. She figured he'd been with the sheriff's department close to twenty years now.

He'd guided her through her first crime scenes. An easygoing man with a generous spirit. Her only problem with him was that he seemed to like her a little too much. He could get a bit clingy at times.

Oh, and he had this thing he did with his neck: rotating it back and forth until it cracked -- like popping a giant knuckle. Very annoying after a while.

"She's great," she said. "Bored as all get-out with staying home all the time."

"You'd figure she'd be used to it by now."

"Would you be?"

He laughed. "I can't wait! When I retire, I'm never leaving home. Not even for the paper. I'll have Newsday and the Post delivered right to the front door every goddamn morning."

Natasha, Marissa's tutor, had agreed to come early today so Laura could get out to the crime scene. Being a deputy ME allowed her a normal work schedule on most days -- except when she was on crime-scene call. And Wednesday was her call day. Accidents and murders always seemed to happen during the off-hours. Death tended to be inconsiderate that way.

"Not much left," she said, looking around at the blackened ruins. "You suspect arson, I take it?"

He popped his neck. "Oooh, yeah."

"The squad's been out?"


"But all-knowing Swami Lawson's got it pegged."

He smiled as he shrugged. "Seen enough of these. The smoke was reported around two A.M. By the time the fire crew got here, it was pretty much over. This baby burned hot. I mean real hot. Hotter than wood and fabric will burn on their own. I don't catch any odor of gas or kerosene, but some sort of accelerant was at work here. And you know what that means."

Laura knew. Arson meant she'd be posting a murder victim. At this point, the legal subsets -- first degree, manslaughter, felony murder, whatever -- didn't come into play. But later on the designation would hinge on her final report. The burden had now fallen on her to establish the cause of death -- not just beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt -- because her findings would help determine the charges brought against the perp or perps when they were caught.

"How'd you get involved?"

"Well, the fire did threaten the state park, and that's the sheriff's turf."

But murder wasn't. The staties and local Smithtown cops would be handling that. Still, Laura knew how Phil liked to worm his way into any investigation that involved a murder. Deputy Lawson: detective wannabe. He probably would have made a good one. He liked to talk about vegetating through retirement, but she wouldn't be surprised if he didn't end up doing some PI work.

They stepped through a leaning rectangle of blackened steel -- all that was left of the front door. The walls were gone too.

"Do we have a name?"

"Not yet. We figure it's a winter rental -- found a 'For Rent' sign in the backyard. We're tracking down the owner." Phil stopped and made a flourish toward the floor. "There he be."

Laura stepped closer and bent over the victim. He lay on his back and was indeed crispy -- skin blackened and flaking and the air around him redolent of burned flesh. The fire had vaporized whatever hair he'd had, giving her a clear view of his scorched scalp. No obvious entry or exit wound. His face was gone, but his jaw hung open, revealing a mouth full of white teeth. Good. She could use dental records for identification. With his limbs bent into flexion contractions, his position was almost fetal. Not unusual. Intense heat shrank the muscles, contracting the limbs.

"This how you found him?" she said.

"Haven't touched him."

"No signs of foul play on the body?"

Phil shook his head. "Nothing obvious. No knife sticking out of his chest, no dents or holes in his head. No sign of ligatures, but the fire could have burned those away."

"So he's one big mystery for now."

"Yeah, but maybe the motive isn't so mysterious."


Phil pointed to some of the charred debris. "He had lots of dirt inside the house. I mean lots."

Laura knew what that meant. "Weed?"

"Can't be a hundred percent sure, but you're looking at what's left of big wooden trays filled with dirt, and a shitload of lighting fixtures. So either he was filming mud wrestling or he was growing something. I'll go with growing. The crop, whatever it was, is ash now, but I got a feeling it wasn't orchids."

Laura raised her eyebrows as she turned to him. "Horning in on someone else's business, you think?"

"That's my take. Turf wars tend to turn nasty real quick."

Another reason for Deputy Lawson to be here: He was attached to some sort of joint task force between the DEA and the sheriff's office. He'd told her it offered a nice break from serving warrants and eviction notices.

"When are they going to legalize that stuff, Phil?"

"Can't be soon enough for me. I waste so much time busting people who just want to get high. If they don't do it on county property, it's not my business. But if folks could grow it and smoke it in their own backyards, you and me wouldn't have to deal with shit like this."

Her stomach gave a little lurch as she thought of her eight-year-old Marissa toking on a joint when she got to middle school. Although the poor kid sure could have used some form of it during her chemotherapy.

"People worry about their kids."

Phil snorted. "Show me a kid these days who wants it and can't get it, and I'll show you a kid who's still being potty trained."

Laura couldn't argue with that. As she turned to signal the morgue attendants who'd come along, she heard someone say, "Who's the MILF?"

She looked over and found one of the firefighters leering at her.

"Punk!" Lawson muttered behind her. He popped his neck. "I'm gonna --"

She put out a restraining hand. "I've got it."

She was aware that her looks attracted attention. Her mother was Mesoamerican -- full-blooded Mayan -- and her father lily-white Caucasian. Their mingling had left her with a slim, five-six frame, black hair, mocha skin, and startlingly blue eyes. Attention was fine; bad manners were not.

As she walked toward the man, glaring, his leer faded. A newbie, no doubt. The others knew better. He'd been standing with a buddy, both in firefighter PPE, but now his buddy faded too. The guy was all of twenty-five, if that. Laura had a good dozen, maybe fifteen years on him. She stopped and looked him square in the eyes.

"What did you call me?"

His brown eyes darted left, then right. "Uh, nothing."

"I heard 'MILF.' I know of no such word, so it must be an acronym. What does it stand for?"

"Nothing. I was just talking to --" He turned to look at his buddy who was no longer there.

"M-I-L-F... let's see..." DOLAN was stenciled on his yellow rubberized jacket. "What could that stand for, Mister Dolan? Morsel I'd Like to Fondue? Mignon I'd Like to Filet?"

"You weren't supposed to hear."

"Oh, yes I was. I'm not a MILF, Mister Dolan. I'm a deputy medical examiner for Suffolk County. Do you know what can happen when one public service employee sexually harasses another public service employee? In front of witnesses, no less? There's alllll sorts of regs and nasty consequences for that sort of behavior."

"Hey, I wasn't --"

"Yes, you were -- six ways from Sunday, as the saying goes. I'll send a copy of the regs to your chief so he can explain them to you."

With that she turned and continued her trek toward the morgue attendants. Lawson was already with them.

He grinned. "Carved him a new one?"

"I went easy on him."

"But I bet he won't be mouthing off anytime soon."

"His type never learn. But, on the bright side, one of the perks of my practice is that my patients have impeccable manners."

She told the attendants to tag and bag the victim. She'd post him later this morning.


Nelson Fife rubbed his temples but the fingertip massage did nothing for the headache. He was suffering more and more of them lately. No time was a good time for a headache, but now was especially inconvenient.

"Can we get on with this, Fife?" said Arnold Pickens from behind his desk.

Pickens was a deputy director of the Office of Transnational Issues. They were using his office to view the recording of last night's bust. Nelson blinked back the pain and focused on his superior.

"Of course. Just a little prelude, if I may. We traced the suspect to a house on the north shore of Suffolk County and began questioning him."

"He's one of these 'panaceans' you talk about?" He said the word like it tasted bad.

"You'll hear him admit to it."

Nelson knew he was viewed as a bit of an eccentric. Usually the Company would ease out someone like him, so he'd learned to compensate. His talent for astute analysis had earned him the rank of senior operations officer in the Special Activities Division of the Central Intelligence Agency's National Clandestine Service, and made him damn near indispensable. So, because he never let it interfere with his assigned duties, the Company allowed him what they considered his one harmless eccentricity.

He was an analyst, not a pitchman, but he had to sell Pickens. He'd need extra funding and a certain amount of leeway to track down the panaceans. To get those, he needed Pickens on board.

He remembered Alec Baldwin in that depressing movie about salesmen: Always be closing.

He plugged the thumb drive into the USB receptacle on the side of the flat-screen monitor set in the wall and it flickered to life. The time display in the lower right-hand corner read 1:38 A.M. Not even eight hours ago. Seemed like days.

A shirtless man sits on a chair among plant-filled trays crowding the front section of the small ranch house he's renting. They bask in artificial sunlight from the lamps strung above them. Marijuana growers use this method with great success, but these specimens are not Cannabis sativa.

In a grating voice he says, "Who the hell do you think you are?"

A man in a suit -- Nelson -- steps into the frame.

Nelson admired his suit from the rear -- a dark-blue pinstripe, drape cut in the classic British style. He never got to see it from this angle and it looked good. Damn good. He especially liked the way the center vent fell. Nineteen hundred dollars well spent. He'd switched to a three-piece wool herringbone for this meeting.

On the screen, he yanks one of the plants from the soil and holds it up to the light for the camera. At first glance, from a distance, it resembles garden-variety pachysandra. As it's brought closer to the camera, the leaves show smooth edges and a rounded tip.

Pickens said, "That's the plant you've been rattling on about?"

Nelson refused to respond to the verbal slap.

... rattling on about... as if he'd been raving like a madman.

He studied the image. Such an innocent-looking plant. And yet so dangerous. Despite the resemblance, its genome was far removed from pachysandra. This abomination was like no other plant on Earth.

He watched the shirtless man on the screen. Nelson had run his prints before the confrontation and knew lots about him: Cornelius Aloysius Hanrahan, age thirty-two. Born and raised in Des Moines. High school graduate. No criminal record. Lutheran by birth but never attended church as an adult. Worked as a mechanic until he seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth for two years. Resurfaced three weeks ago as a panacea dispenser under the guise of an orderly at Franklin Hospital in Valley Stream.

"You can't just march in here without a warrant!" Hanrahan says.

He's not bound to the chair, yet he offers no resistance. Nelson does not reply. Allow a suspect to blather long enough and they often let secrets slip.

"This is crazy!" he adds. "I ain't broke a single damn law! But if you want my plants, take 'em."

Nelson can't suppress a smile. "As if I needed your permission. And rest assured, I care not a whit about your tawdry plants. I --"

Hanrahan laughs. "'I care not'? Really? Who talks like that?"

Nelson ignores this. "I already have more of your plants than I can count. I'm here for answers."

"I'm all ears."

As Nelson opens his mouth to speak, Agent Bradsher emerges from the rear rooms.

Behind Nelson, Pickens groaned. "You got Bradsher involved too? Jesus! Do I have to remind you --?"

"I'm well aware of the restrictions, sir." Of course he knew the CIA was not allowed to operate on U.S. soil. "But this is a matter of national security."

Bradsher was an operations officer assigned to Nelson. Built like a fullback and an excellent field agent, but dressed in an awful, sack-cut, off-the-rack gray cotton suit.

"That is still up for debate," Pickens said. "But even if it turns out to be true, we have something called the Department of Homeland Security to handle that."

"Do you trust DHS, sir?"

Pickens didn't answer. No one trusted the heavily politicized DHS with anything sensitive.

On the screen, Nelson asks Bradsher, "Anything?"

Bradsher shakes his head. "Nada."

"Just what is it you're looking for?" Hanrahan says.

Nelson turns to him. "Answers. First question: Why have you returned?"

Hanrahan frowns. "Returned? I didn't know I'd gone anywhere."

Bradsher steps forward and makes to backhand him across the face, but Nelson raises a palm.

"We don't need that." He looks at Hanrahan again. "Don't be obtuse. Your cult has been quiet for decades. Why return now?"

Nelson wanted to know this most of all. The last time the panaceans made their presence felt was post-World War II during the polio epidemic, before his time. The plants and the man in the video were proof positive of their return.

"Why now?" Hanrahan's tone is matter-of-fact. "Because the All-Mother says it is time."

The All-Mother... how can such pantheistic bullshit exist in this modern age? Anyone can ascribe anything to the so-called All-Mother.

"Did this goddess of yours say why it was time?"

He shakes his head. "She's all-knowing. She doesn't need to explain. If she says it's time, then it's time."

"Does she speak to you in dreams? Does she whisper in your ear?"

"Word comes through channels."


"You know: the grapevine."

No, Nelson did not know. The cult is fragmented, cellular, acting as individual operatives with only the most tenuous interconnections.

"How exactly did word reach you to begin dispensing your potion?"

"The mail -- a packet of seeds in my mailbox. That was all I needed."

"And of course you disposed of the envelope."

Hanrahan smiles. "Of course."

"And where do you store your potion?"

The smile holds as he speaks without hesitation. "In the fridge."

Nelson glances at Bradsher, who shakes his head. "Nothing there."

"And no sign of any elsewhere?"

"Sorry, no."

Hanrahan says, "You want some for yourself, is that it?"

"I want it for many reasons, none of which involve me."

He shrugs. "Whatever the reason, Mister Pleeceman, you're outta luck. The batch was small and I used it all."

"How many doses did you dispense?"

"Four. But don't ask who to. I'm not allowed to tell."

"I know all four -- that's how we found you. But I'm not interested in them. I'm interested in you... the brewer of the potion."

Nelson now turned to Pickens, a shadow in the darkened room. "Please listen carefully. Here is where he admits to making the panacea."

Hanrahan's eyebrows lift. "Brew... so you know something about the process."

"I know everything about the process except the missing ingredient."

The eyebrows rise higher. "Missing ingredient? You got me there, pal."

"Don't lie. We know that you boil the plants, roots and all, but you add something in the process. What?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Seriously. Like you said, we brew a tea from the plants, but that's it."

Nelson knows there's more to it. "You will tell us."

"Or what? I can't tell you something I don't know."

"Maybe you've just forgotten," Bradsher says. "We'll jog your memory."

Copyright © 2016 by F. Paul Wilson


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