Denver, CO, July 1, 2017— Mind Virus, the debut novel from short story author Charles Kowalski, will be published by Literary Wanderlust in summer 2017. Mind Virus recently won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award.
The story follows Robin Fox, an ex-Army interrogator and current professor of world religions, who is unwillingly drawn back into the ranks of the CIA and FBI when a terror suspect is caught attempting to disperse a deadly virus. Fox reluctantly agrees to help and uncovers an international conspiracy to attack the Vatican. Later, he learns that a deadly sleeper cell is on the move with an agenda the harm the British Royal Family. Fox must go undercover to infiltrate a terrorist organization bent on eradicating all religions, and attempt to defuse the situation before everything he holds dear explodes.
“A fiendishly clever stew of mind games, bioterror, and a new breed of extremist malice. Mind Virus is one heck of a ride,” says Barry Lancet, award-winning author of The Spy Across the Table.
Mind Virus is set for publication on July 1, 2017.
About Charles Kowalski
Charles Kowalski currently divides his time between Japan, where he teaches English at a university, and his family home in Maine.
His previously unpublished debut novel, Mind Virus, won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award and was a finalist for the Adventure Writers’ Competition, the Killer Nashville Claymore Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary award.
Other novels and short stories by Charles Kowalski:
“Let This Cup Pass From Me” (Finalist, American Fiction Short Story Award (New Rivers Press); Honorable Mention, The Maine Review Short Story Competition)
“Arise, My Love”
“The Evil I Do Not Mean To Do”
About Literary Wanderlust
Literary Wanderlust publishes well-written novels and short story anthologies in the romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and thriller genres, as well as obscure history and research topics. Visit us at www.literarywanderlust.com.
- Author Biography
Charles Kowalski is almost as much a citizen of the world as his fictional character, Robin Fox, having lived abroad for over 15 years, visited over 30 countries, and studied over 10 languages. His unpublished debut novel, Mind Virus, won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award and was a finalist for the Adventure Writers’ Competition, the Killer Nashville Claymore Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary award.
Charles currently divides his time between Japan, where he teaches English at a university, and his family home in Maine.
Mind Virus is scheduled for publication by Literary Wanderlust on July 1, 2017.
Other novels and short stories by Charles Kowalski:
“Let This Cup Pass From Me”
“Arise, My Love”
“The Evil I Do Not Mean To Do”
III. Author Photo
- Book Photo
- Sample Q&A
Can you describe what your book is about in one sentence?
A peace-loving religion professor, striving to atone for his crimes as a military interrogator, must help stop deadly biological attacks on the world’s great pilgrimage sites on their holiest days.
What is the theme of Mind Virus?
Mainly, that the fanaticism that leads to violence can be found anywhere, whether among religious believers or nonbelievers, and the will to seek peace and understanding can also be found anywhere.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
Everything begins with “What if…?” In this case, the question was, “Everyone is always talking about terror in the name of religion; could there be terror in the name of atheism?” From this question flows the rest of the plot and the characters. It was easy to develop Robin Fox; he’s the person I might have been if my life had taken a slightly different turn. As for the other characters, they may be loosely patterned on a real person, or a composite of several. If a minor character doesn’t seem sufficiently well-developed, I ask myself: if I were an actor, how would I play this character? How would I see the story from his or her point of view, since in our own minds, we’re always the central character of any story we appear in?
What was your favorite part of writing Mind Virus?
Following in my protagonist’s footsteps in Israel, Vatican City, and England.
Give us some insight into your main character. What does he do that is special? What are his character flaws?
One reader described Robin Fox as “Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes: brilliant, moral, instinctive, with uncanny powers of perception.” Having seen a great deal of the world as the son of a Foreign Service officer, he is multilingual, culturally adaptable, able to survive in just about any country, but never completely at home anywhere. After his traumatic experience in Iraq, he is passionately committed to peace and nonviolence, to the point where he sometimes hesitates when decisive action may be called for.
If you could spend time with a character from your book, which character would it be? And what would you do during that day?
I would love to spend a day with Robin Fox, listening to his stories about all the places he’s traveled in search of enlightenment—meditating with monks in the Himalayas, whirling with dervishes in Turkey, sweating with shamans in the American Southwest—and asking what conclusions he’s drawn about the beliefs that unite the world’s faith traditions.
Tell us about the conflict in this book. What is at stake for your characters?
There are many layers of conflict. The main one, of course, is the race to stop the villain before he can start a worldwide epidemic. There’s also the undercurrent of tension between Fox and his CIA counterpart, John Adler, and Fox’s anxiety that the more he cooperates, the deeper he’s dragged back into a chapter in his life that he wanted to keep closed forever. And to top it all off, there’s danger to the woman for whom Fox secretly harbors an impossible love.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Mind Virus?
I learned a great deal about the subtle art of interrogation. Stories of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a code word for torture) dominated the news during the Iraq War, but the best interrogators would probably dismiss those as crude and ineffective. Good interrogators have to be keen students of psychology and talented actors, capable of improvising themselves into whatever role will help them earn the subject’s trust. Fox summed it up when he reflected, “In any interrogation, the most important questions are the ones that aren’t asked. Who is this person? What does he want most? What does he fear most? Once you know the answers to those, the field is won.”
Mind Virus seems to have some technical aspects that appear to require some expertise or background in the field. How did you come by this information? (Is it in your background, or did you just do research?)
Mind Virus was a very research-intensive book. Very little in my own background prepared me for it, so I read everything I could get my hands on and consulted everyone willing to share their experience and expertise with me.
How do you choose which genre to write in?
I chose the mystery/thriller genre because as long as there’s an unsolved mystery or a looming danger, readers will keep reading, and a great deal of philosophy can be woven into the narrative as long as the action keeps moving along.
What makes your book different from other books in your genre?
Mind Virus isn’t the typical thriller that pits the infallible West, led by the invincible United States, against the dark forces of Islam. It paints the world in more shades of gray (though perhaps not fifty!). And Fox is quite different from the standard-issue action-adventure protagonist; he’s a reluctant hero, tormented by remorse and self-doubt, who always prefers nonviolence over violence when he has a choice.
Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?
Of course, Robin Fox is my favorite, but his antagonist is a close second. It was great fun to read authors from Nietzsche to Harris and combine the nastiest parts of their philosophies into one monomaniacal psychopath from hell. His appearance may be brief, but he gets some of the best lines in the book.
Tell us about your background. What made you decide to pursue writing?
I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned to write, and finished my first (unpublished) novel at the age of 17. I write fiction because my mind naturally frames things in terms of stories; that’s how I try to make sense of complex issues. I also find that, especially on controversial and polarizing issues, the best way—perhaps the only way—of getting people to see an alternative point of view is through story.
What is your writing process?
I’m a plotter. I can’t start a manuscript without a clear idea of how the story is going to go. Once I have the plot in mind, I write the scenes I’m inspired to write, in no particular order, and often in layers: dialogue first, then narration, and finally description. And of course, however carefully I plan, there are always surprises, and the finished product is never quite what I had envisioned at first. I find that telling a story isn’t like carving wood or stone, it’s more like cultivating a bonsai. You’re not working with a slab of lifeless material but with something living, and you can try to direct it into the shape you want, but you also have to pay attention to the way it naturally grows.
Tell us about the challenges of getting your book published. How did it come about?
It was indeed a challenge. The manuscript won more than its fair share of awards and nominations, and agents and editors found the premise intriguing, but not enough to sign, possibly because they felt the story was too controversial to make it past a risk-averse editorial board. But after dissipating my savings in writers’ conferences, I finally met—on a Twitter pitch fest, of all places—an editor willing to take a leap of faith, Susan Brooks.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I like to read in the genre I like to write in: mysteries and thrillers. I also read a fair bit of middle-grade fantasy these days, since I have a son who’s that age, and I’m working on a project in that genre as well.
What are some of your favorite authors or books?
Of course, I took some inspiration from the big names in the genre, like Lee Child. Tana French showed me it’s possible to write genre fiction with a literary flair. Dan Brown, Daniel Silva, and Jeffrey Small paved the way for thrillers with religious themes. Barry Eisler and Barry Lancet showed me it’s possible for Japan-based authors to produce books with worldwide appeal; I’m hoping the same will prove true even for one who isn’t named Barry! And the list wouldn’t be complete without Leo J. Maloney, who ever since our chance meeting at Killer Nashville has been very generous with his time and expertise and always gave me a dose of encouragement at just the time I needed it.
What other projects are you working on?
I have other Robin Fox novels in the works, the next one set in my adopted homeland of Japan. I’m also working on a standalone thriller featuring an archaeologist who, in the course of an undercover operation to recover artifacts stolen from Iraq, finds evidence that she is descended from an extraterrestrial race tasked with saving humanity from an impending disaster.
Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer? If so, what do you do during the day?
I teach English at a university in Japan. Living abroad adds an extra layer of challenge to the writing process. I often feel somewhat out of touch with contemporary American culture, and research that for a U.S.-based writer would take only a simple trip to the local library, or a call to a local expert, for me requires careful planning and considerable expense. But on the other hand, field research in exotic locations is easier, and living at a distance from my native culture gives me a different perspective from writers who are immersed in it.
What motivates you to write?
50% inspiration and 50% desperation. Sometimes a story appears out of nowhere, grabs hold of me, and won’t let me go until I tell it, and Mind Virus was one such. Also, as a long-term expatriate, writing was also a way for me to maintain a connection with the world I left behind.
Why did you write Mind Virus?
The idea came about in response to the “New Atheist” movement, and the way its icons—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, David Silverman, the late Christopher Hitchens—proclaim that all the world’s problems would be solved if we could just get rid of religion. Living in a very secular country, I often hear this sentiment echoed, to the point where I began to wonder: What if someone were to carry this idea to its extreme, and decide religion must be eradicated by violent means if necessary? It started out in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek vein, putting atheists in the shoes of Muslims, always under suspicion because of the acts of a few extremists (“Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to carry books by Christopher Hitchens through airport security”), but the more I wrote, the more frighteningly plausible it felt.
Who did you write Mind Virus for (audience)?
Anyone who enjoys a thriller with philosophical underpinnings. People of faith and lovers of peace will identify with Fox most closely, but it was very gratifying to discover that nonbelievers and military veterans also enjoyed the story.
Where can we find you online?
On my website, charleskowalski.com, on Facebook at charles.kowalski.author, or on Twitter at @CharlesKowalski.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Forget what they say about “write what you know.” Write what excites your imagination, and the knowledge you need can be acquired. And if a story grabs hold of you and won’t let go . . . tell it! Pay no attention to the inner voices that say “this is no good” or “no one else will be interested in it.” Believe in yourself, even when it feels like no one else does. To paraphrase Florence Foster Jenkins, people may say you can’t write, but never let it be said that you didn’t write.
What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?
The writers I most enjoy reading, even in gritty, down-to-earth genres, have a touch of the poet in them; they can create original, evocative images and make words do things they hadn’t known they could. Writing my first novel left me feeling that the most important quality for a writer is empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of someone from a vastly different background. Especially, to create engaging villains, you have to see how the world makes sense from their point of view, even if it’s the polar opposite of yours. For me, a good villain is one who makes the reader ask, “If I had the same experience as this person, can I be absolutely sure I wouldn’t have done the same things?” Apart from that, I’ll let W. Somerset Maugham have the last word on this one: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Any last thoughts?
I hope you enjoy Mind Virus—and if you do, please help spread it!
- Book Synopsis
Robin Fox, peace-loving professor of world religions, wants only to leave his dark past as a military interrogator behind him. But when an unknown suspect tries to disperse a deadly virus in downtown Washington, Fox is unwillingly drawn back into the shadowy world of intelligence.
The FBI and CIA automatically suspect Islamic terrorists, but Fox digs deeper to discover the far more frightening truth: a global conspiracy to eradicate all religion from the face of the earth.
From Washington to Jerusalem, from Rome to London, Fox must use all his wits in a perilous race to stop a psychopathic mastermind from unleashing worldwide devastation.
VII. Sample Chapters
SATURDAY, MARCH 28
The coroner’s report confirmed that Thom had died of cyanide poisoning. The news claimed the top spot on all the networks, and even the BBC gave it airtime, right after a fire in the chapel of Windsor Castle. Thom’s name had clearly been known far beyond the Oberlin College campus.
The president of USAtheists called a press conference. “The murder of Thom DiDio is a tragedy and an outrage. Whether he was killed because of what he believed, or because of whom he loved, is irrelevant. What matters is that the world has lost a great intellect and a great humanitarian, and his blood is on the hands of religious fanatics.”
Fox flinched at the incendiary last line. That’s not how Thom would talk. But if the man needed to lash out, Fox could scarcely blame him.
He and Emily had worked with the FBI to help create a composite sketch, which was now being broadcast regularly on television. But so far, it had yet to yield any leads.
“Any progress with Harpo?” Fox asked once he was back in the incident room at FBI headquarters.
Adler shook his head. “We kept him under observation last night. Gave him a box of books, as you suggested, but he didn’t read any.”
“What did he do?”
“Just lay on his bed.”
“The whole time? You never saw him perform salat?”
“Say his prayers facing Mecca?”
“Well, he’s been in a cell without windows. He has no way of knowing what time it is, or which way Mecca is.”
“John, even at Gitmo, we showed the detainees at least that much courtesy. We gave them copies of the Qur’an, a qibla sign to point the way to Mecca, and even played a recording of the adhaan at the proper times.”
Adler shrugged. “If you want, you can take it up with the FBI; this is their turf. Now, the technician has him all hooked up, and they’re waiting for you in the interview room.”
The room held Harpo, Kato, Malika, the technician, Fox, and the extra guard he had requested. The polygraph apparatus, the projector, and a tripod-mounted video camera were crammed into the little space that remained. There was barely room to take a deep breath.
Fox kept a close eye on Harpo, and the readout from the polygraph. Harpo’s breathing was very steady and regular, three seconds in, five seconds out. Fox suspected that he had been trained in ways to “beat the box,” to fool a lie detector.
“Do you speak English?”
Fox watched the readout. It showed no variation in his blood pressure, heart rate, or galvanic skin response, either then or when Malika tried him in Russian and Chechen.
“Are there six people in this room?” This was a control question, to show what his vital signs looked like at baseline, after he was over his initial nervousness.
“Are you an American citizen?” No change in his vitals for that either, nor for the Eastern European equivalents.
“Can you hear me? Testing? One, two, three? Four, five? Six, seven?” Then, with a little extra emphasis: “Eight, eight?”
No variation. That diminished the likelihood that he was a white supremacist. The number 88, if letters were substituted for the numerals, became “HH”—a code for “Heil Hitler.”
“All right, let’s try some names. Do you know A.J. Muste? George Fox? Gene Hoffman?” These were control questions. All those names were peace philosophers, whom Fox thought it highly unlikely that he had ever heard of.
No change in the readout. No flicker of recognition on his face.
“Do you realize that if you answer our questions, the prosecutors will be much less likely to ask for the death penalty?”
That finally got to him. The readout showed a slight increase in his vital signs. A normal fear reaction to the threat of death? Or excitement at the prospect of martyrdom?
And they had also established that he understood English. They would have no further need of Malika’s services. It was just as well; the smell of her perfume in that confined space had been a little overpowering.
“You know, it must be awfully boring for you, cooped up in a cell all that time,” Fox continued. “I’ve put together a little video for you. I’m curious to see how you’ll like it.”
He put in a DVD that he had made, a montage of various clips garnered from the Internet. It began with innocuous natural scenes—flowers, mountains, waterfalls—with a background of soothing classical music.
Then came the scenes meant to show his reaction at times of emotional arousal. A battle scene from a movie, with loud explosions and bursts of gunfire. There was a slight rise in his vitals—the startle reflex—but he soon reverted to baseline, and stayed there as the video switched back to the control images.
A clip of a shapely blonde model sliding a gossamer silk robe off her shoulders to reveal her lingerie, and then reaching behind her back to unfasten her brassiere. Fox kept his eyes fixed on the readout, ignoring the stern look he got from Kato and the blush on Malika’s face.
Such an image would usually provoke an involuntary response in any red-blooded young male, but Harpo showed no more reaction than at baseline. Clearly, he was very well trained.
The control images again, this time alternating with others meant to provoke an emotional response. A sermon by the Reverend Hill. A cross being set alight by white-robed Klansmen. A muezzin intoning the call to prayer from a minaret. The second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. A speech by Osama bin Laden. A speech by President Obama, announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.
Then came the part that Fox had wanted extra protection for: a clip from a back-alley YouTube video making a mockery of the prophet Mohammed. For this one, he stepped out of Harpo’s reach, anticipating that he might jump up and attack even if he had to drag the entire polygraph apparatus behind him.
Harpo showed no inclination to move. The readout showed no reaction. If he was indeed a fanatical Muslim, he had a level of mental discipline worthy of a Zen master.
Fox stepped out of Harpo’s field of view again. “All right, we’re done. You can turn it off now,” he told the technician, while gesturing that he should keep it going. “Very interesting, don’t you think? These results indicate…” He put in a dramatic pause, then looked at Harpo and enunciated ominously: “N-S-R.”
Harpo’s shoulders relaxed slightly, and he let out a long breath. It was barely visible when you looked at him, but it showed up on the readout. A well-concealed sigh of relief.
Fox’s suspicions were confirmed. “NSR” meant “No Significant Response,” but there was no way Harpo could know that unless he had studied polygraphy.
Even so, the results were remarkable. The most common technique for beating a lie detector involved focusing on some frightening or exciting image after every question, to cause an artificial jump in the vital signs. The goal was to bring up the baseline, creating so many false positives that the polygrapher would have trouble distinguishing them from significant responses. Harpo had done the opposite, bringing everything down to a level where hardly any reaction was perceptible. How much mental training had he had to undergo in order to do that?
When Harpo had been disconnected and returned to his cell, Fox went back to the conference room to watch the video, together with Kato and Adler. The first time through, Fox kept his eyes on the readout. Neither the Klansmen nor President Obama did anything for Harpo; he appeared to feel no particular animosity or affinity toward either. The most noticeable reactions came with the images of the Reverend Hill’s sermon, the muezzin, and the Twin Towers.
They played the video again, this time concentrating on his face, looking for microexpressions—facial reactions that may be as brief as one twenty-fifth of a second, but are almost impossible to suppress. Harpo was very good at keeping his face impassive, but not perfect. He could have won big at poker but was not quite ready to stand guard at Buckingham Palace. With the Reverend Hill’s sermon, his upper lip curled in a slight but unmistakable expression of scorn.
Fox thought he noticed a very slight microexpression at one point, during the clip mocking Mohammed. It was so unexpected that he thought he must be imagining it, and backed up the video a couple of times to make sure.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Kato said in a voice that sounded as mystified as he felt. “That looks like Action Unit 12A, neutralized.”
“Which means?” asked Adler.
“A trace contraction, quickly suppressed, of the zygomaticus major and risorius.”
“In English, please?”
“She said,” Fox translated, “that he was hiding a smile.”
SUNDAY, MARCH 29
The Reverend Hill divided his time between Arlington Bible Church, “ABC,” a megachurch in an affluent Virginia suburb where he served as associate pastor, and the church he had recently founded in a run-down neighborhood in Anacostia, playfully named “Hill City Church.” Fox took the Metro to Anacostia, climbed a staircase masquerading shamelessly as an escalator, and followed the directions from the church’s website.
The faces Fox saw around him were of many hues, but his own was the palest among them. This was unusual. His grandfather had come back from the Pacific Theater with a Filipina bride, and Fox carried enough of her legacy in his face that whichever country he went to, people tended to assume that he was from one of its neighbors. This trait had often come in handy in countries where white visitors were the favorite targets of thieves and con artists, where the prevailing rule was “fair hair, fair skin, fair game.” Even so, he felt conspicuous, and the suspicious stares he drew made him feel that he was somehow trespassing.
The church grounds were surrounded by a brick wall, decorated with an elaborate graffiti mural of Biblical scenes. Fox joined the line at the gate, which extended a good way down the block. He wondered whether the line was always this long, but then saw the reason: two ushers at the gate, in double-breasted suits that were bulky enough, even on their already burly frames, to suggest bulletproof vests underneath. They greeted every arrival with a polite smile and a “Good morning, brother! Good morning, sister!” as they subjected each person’s bag to a thorough inspection.
At how many other churches across America, Fox wondered, would this be happening today? And how far would it escalate? How long would it be before the Department of Homeland Security established a second TSA—a Temple Security Authority, tasked with defending every place of worship in the country?
If Harpo had been hoping to diminish either the size or the enthusiasm of the Reverend Hill’s following, his plan had backfired dramatically. Spacious as it was, the church was filled to capacity with men in suits, women in elegant dresses, and young people in blue jeans and white hoodies silkscreened with wings, a halo, and the words “Hill’s Angels.”
Now that, Fox thought, was just a bit much.
After the service, Fox found the pastor’s office, which took up most of the top floor of the parish hall. The dark wooden walls were covered with banners bearing Scripture verses, and a line of portraits: Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and the Reverend Hill. Evidently, he had already decided on his place in the pantheon.
The Reverend Hill rose from behind the massive desk. “Professor Fox. Thanks for coming.” He had shed his voluminous black robe embellished with strips of Ghanaian kente cloth, and was now wearing a gray suit, wine-colored shirt, and gold cross.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet me, Reverend.” Fox shook his hand. “You must be very busy, and I appreciate your making the time for me.” He looked around. “This is quite impressive, I must say.”
“Well, the Lord has looked with favor on the works of my hands. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you.” Fox sat down in one of the leather chairs facing the desk. “You’re also associate pastor at Arlington Bible Church, right?”
“That sounds like a pretty big job in itself. And yet, you seem to be spending most of your energy these days on this church.”
He nodded and smiled. “ABC would be a thriving church with or without me. But this one…” he spread his hands, “…is my baby.”
“Hence the name, Hill City Church?”
“You know what the Bible says. ‘A city on a hill cannot be hid.’ ”
“ ‘Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel,’ ” Fox finished for him. “Can I ask what inspired you to choose this neighborhood for your baby to grow up in?”
“I was born not too far from here, in Washington Highlands. If you’ve seen the church’s website, you probably know my story. I hung with a bad crowd, took some wrong turns, landed in jail. And I probably would have stayed there if my uncle, who was a pastor, hadn’t kept coming to visit me. Thanks to him, I ended up going to college instead. Ever since then, I’ve had a dream of starting a church like this one back in my old neighborhood, hoping that I’ll be able to do for some of the young people here what my uncle did for me.”
“From the looks of things, you’ve been succeeding.”
He nodded. “Our outreach programs…”
“Like Hill’s Angels?”
The Reverend smiled. “Yeah, like that. During the day, they run our after-school programs, make visits and deliveries to shut-ins, that sort of thing. And at night, they go in groups on night patrols. The police tell me that crime in Ward 8 has gone down almost twenty percent since we started that program. You know, Jesus told us to visit the sick and the prisoners, all of that, but I’ve always felt that He’ll be even happier if we can keep people out of the hospital or prison in the first place. Don’t you think so?”
Fox nodded agreement.
“Reverend, I’m sure the FBI has been over this with you already, but can you think of any reason why you might have been targeted? Has anyone been making threats against you lately?”
He replied with a chuckle and a shake of the head. “I could show you a whole drawer full of fan mail. Of course, there are always the skinhead types that have nothing better to do than try to keep the black man down. When I talk about how being born again is the only way to salvation, I hear from the Jews and Catholics. When I talk about marriage and the family, I hear from gay rights groups. But you know what Jesus said, right? ‘Blessed are you, when men shall revile and persecute you, and utter all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.’ By that standard, I must be the blessedest brother this side of the river!”
They shared a laugh.
“I was interested in your choice of texts this morning,” Fox said. The Reverend Hill had preached on the story of Joseph at the end of Genesis, and how his abduction into slavery at the hands of his brothers was a necessary first step on the road to saving both Egypt and Israel from a devastating famine. “Do you feel like Joseph? What good do you see coming out of this evil?”
He spread his hands. “Well, we can’t answer that question while we’re still prisoners, can we? All we can do is to have faith that it will, someday, somehow.”
Fox nodded, rose, and extended his hand. “Thank you for your time, Reverend. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Fox’s hand was on the doorknob when Hill called after him, “Professor Fox. Any chance that I can see him? The suspect.”
Fox paused. “Why?”
The look Hill gave him over the rims of his glasses said, Do you really have to ask?
“I’ll see what I can arrange,” he promised.
Thom’s family in Missouri had expressed the hope for a small, quiet funeral, but that proved to be no more possible than bringing him back to life. The ubiquitous “God Hates Fags” brigade, showing detective skills worthy of the FBI, had found out the time and place and shown up at the cemetery, with signs ranging from the wearyingly predictable No tears for queers to a devil gleefully proclaiming Thom is in “H.”
Anticipating them, atheist and gay rights demonstrators had also flocked to the site from as near as St. Louis and as far as Boston. The police erected a barrier between the protestors and counter-protestors, but the tension was palpable, and not just across the line. Relations between the atheist and LGBT camps were not always cordial, and angry words flew even between some on the same side, such as when a couple bearing the signs Homophobia is a sin and Jesus had two dads too passed too close to an atheist whose No God, no hate sign was somewhat belied by his neighbor’s Euthanize Christians.
Watching the drama unfold on CNN, Fox hoped that Thom could at least be laid to rest without bloodshed. But that hope, too, was dashed when the bearer of a sign reading Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone sustained a scalp wound as someone on the other side took him up on it.
Fox’s phone rang. He pressed the mute button on the TV remote and picked it up.
“Mr. Fox, this is Agent Kato. Sorry to bother you on a Sunday. Is this a good time?”
Not remotely. “Sure, go ahead.”
“Mr. Adler just called and said he had some important news. Can you come in?”
Fox looked back at the screen, and switched it off before the chaos got any worse. “I’m on my way.”
He arrived at the Hoover Building to find Kato alone in the conference room. “Evening, Mr. Fox. Sorry to interrupt your day off.”
“That’s all right. You saved me from having to watch Thom DiDio’s funeral become the flashpoint for a second Civil War.” He collapsed into a chair. “And let the record show that I was working today. This morning, I went to Anacostia to interview the Reverend Hill.”
“Really. You actually caught him there? Not fleecing his flock in Arlington, or jetting off to some fundraiser in Beverly Hills?”
“I’m not sure that’s quite fair. Yes, it’s clear that he loves the spotlight, and seems a little more fond of the sound of his own name than you would expect from a spiritual leader. But still, he’s serious about helping his community…”
“Oh, please. He’s branded himself as the miracle man of the mean streets—‘I found Jesus in jail, and look at me now’—but if he’s so serious about this one-man Harlem Renaissance he’s planning for Anacostia, then why isn’t he living there instead of a McMansion in McLean?”
“I take it this touches a nerve with you.”
“I’ve seen his type before. He’s no different from the one who conned my mother out of money that should have gone for my brother’s and my education, and did nothing for her in return except keep her terrified that my father was going to hell. In a way, I suppose I should be grateful to him. Thanks to him, I decided that I’d rather live my life one hundred percent natural, no added fear, no added guilt. And everything I’ve seen since has only confirmed me in that. If there really is a God up there, sitting back and allowing people to do all the things they do to one another, then I’d want to see him indicted as an accessory on about a trillion counts.”
A whistle came from the door. “And I thought the docket was crowded now.”
Fox turned toward Adler. “Evening, John.”
“Am I interrupting a theological discussion?”
“Not exactly. Agent Kato was just debriefing me about my visit to the Reverend Hill’s church this morning.”
“What did you find out?”
Fox gave him a brief recap of the interview. “He said he wants to see Harpo.”
“Presumably, he wants to offer forgiveness.”
“First things first,” said Adler. “We need to figure out who the hell Harpo is and where he’s from, and then start building a case against him. Once he’s been tried and sentenced, then there’ll be plenty of time for pastoral visits. Plenty of time.”
“And I hope,” said Fox, “you’re going to tell us we’ve just come a big step closer to doing that.”
“Would you believe we have? I’ve just gotten word from the Georgian Intelligence Service.” He beat a drum roll on the table. “They’ve caught Venera Goridze.”
Kato and Fox both applauded, and Adler acknowledged it with a theatrical bow. They exchanged high fives all around.
“They got her to admit that…”
“Got her to admit?” Fox suddenly remembered hearing that the Republic of Georgia, despite many vehement denials, was suspected of hosting a “black site,” a secret detention and torture facility for the CIA.
“Do you want to hear this, or don’t you? She freely chose to reveal, if you like, that she had stolen samples of Zagorsk from her old workplace. And last year, she made a little hop across the border to Turkey to make a sale, to someone by the name of Rashid Renclaw. The description she gave matched Harpo on nearly all points: age, height, hair color, eye color. The only difference was that she said he was handsome. But hey, maybe to a sixty-year-old Georgian woman, anyone looks good. And she said he spoke English with a British accent.”
“You don’t look quite as excited as I’d have expected.”
“Well, I’ve told you the good news. The bad news is that so far, we haven’t been able to get anything else on him. Even supposing that the first name is one he gave himself when he converted to Islam, we haven’t been able to track the surname down anywhere. Our best guess is that it’s a shortened form of this Polish name, which I can’t even pronounce.” He showed Fox on a piece of paper: Renclawowicz. “But in any case, no leads on it.”
Kato and Fox headed back into the interview room. Fox noticed that Harpo’s eyes looked less defiant than they had last time, and more dazed, as though he had gone through the night without any sleep. He also saw that some of the hair around his temples had been shaved.
“Good evening, Mr. Renclaw. Or may I call you Rashid?”
He continued to stare dully into the middle distance. Fox’s hopes sank a notch. Either Harpo was too exhausted to show any reaction, or that was not his name.
“Or should I say: Dzien dobry, Pan Renclawowicz?”
He showed no sign of comprehension. It was just as well; that greeting had all but exhausted Fox’s store of Polish.
“How was your trip to Turkey?”
No reaction. Fox’s hope began to evaporate. The We Know All approach was getting them nowhere. Either Harpo had been working hard at perfecting his poker face since their last interview, or nothing Fox was saying struck any chords with him.
Very well, he thought: if this was a case of mistaken identity, he would take it and run with it.
“Did those Syrians bother to tell you what they were planning to do with the sample you sold them?”
He said nothing, but looked slightly puzzled. Understandably so, since Fox had made that up on the spot.
“Or maybe you haven’t heard. You must not get much news in here,” he continued. “This morning, there was an attack during Divine Liturgy at the main Orthodox church in Aleppo. Using—you guessed it—the Zagorsk virus.”
He watched Harpo’s face very closely. Anyone faced with a groundless accusation like this would naturally proclaim his innocence, by facial expression if no other way. But once Harpo’s initial curiosity had passed, he showed no further reaction. Fox’s story was completely improvised, but it seemed to be coming as no surprise to Harpo.
“ISIS claimed responsibility,” he went on, “and Syrian intelligence is very anxious to know who supplied them.” He gave Harpo a hard stare. “What do you think we should tell them?”
Kato laid a hand on Fox’s arm. His mind raced to think of a subtle way to signal to her: Just play along.
She leaned toward him. “You can’t be serious. Threatening him with rendition to Syria?” She said this in a whisper calculated to be overheard, while giving his arm a conspiratorial squeeze. There had been no need to worry about her. She was a seasoned interrogator too.
“Hey, who’s threatening anyone with anything?” he countered. “All they’re asking for is information. Now, of course it’s possible that the two incidents are unconnected. But still, two attacks on Christian worship services, one week apart, both using Zagorsk—does that sound like a coincidence to you?”
This was supposed to be Harpo’s cue to protest: You’re making a mistake! I’m not Rashid Renclaw! I don’t know anything about any Syrians! But he kept his gaze on its accustomed spot on the floor.
“But if he won’t confirm or deny it,” Fox went on, “then all we can do is get back to the Syrians with what we’ve managed to find out on our own. We have a suspect caught trying to disperse Zagorsk at an American prayer rally, and we have Venera Goridze’s admission that she sold a sample to a Rashid Renclaw, who by her description sounds a lot like our boy here. They can make the call themselves.”
Once they were out of the interview room, Kato gave Fox a sidelong glance. “I would never have thought you’d be such a good liar.”
“I guess I should take that as a compliment,” he replied as they entered the conference room. “You’re not such a bad actress yourself. But unfortunately, we’re no further ahead.”
Adler was looking expectantly in their direction as they came through the door. They briefed him. “I’d say it’s a safe bet that Harpo is not Rashid Renclaw,” Fox concluded. “He didn’t even seem to recognize the name.”
Adler heaved a sigh of disappointment. “Well, at least now we have the name of someone else in his network.”
As intelligence went, it was a mixed blessing. It was something, but if Harpo truly had never heard the name before, it meant at least two degrees of separation between him and Renclaw. The network was suddenly starting to look bigger.
“He didn’t look like he had gotten much sleep last night,” Fox added.
“Well, I don’t imagine any of us did.”
“And another thing: Why was he missing hair around his temples?”
“We had the psych team in to give him an evaluation. They had to rule out the possibility that he was catatonic.”
“Rule it out how?”
Fox jumped as though the same treatment had just been administered to him. “Shock treatment? Did they not tell you that plays havoc with a person’s memory? What good is it if we get him to talk, and he’s forgotten everything he’s done?”
“It only affects short-term memory. It’s long-term we’re interested in.”
“John, I’m a little bit unclear about the rules of engagement for HIG, but we haven’t established that Harpo is not an American citizen. If he turns out to be, and it gets out that these…‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ have been used on him, under the supervision of a CIA agent, no less…
Adler waved a hand. “It wasn’t an interrogation technique. It was a psychological diagnostic tool. Now, if it happened to have the unintended side effect of softening him up a little…”
Softening him up. The words opened a door to a long-disused closet in Fox’s brain, releasing a cascade of images and a whiff of a stench that he could perceive as clearly as if it were right there in the room. His stomach contracted at the memory.
“John!” Fox cut him off. “Just so we’re clear, if you’re going to be using torture, by whatever name you choose to call it, I want no part of it.”
“Well, thanks for letting me know. I’ll make sure you don’t have any.”
VIII. Blurbs, Reviews, & Testimonials
“Charles Kowalski takes a frightening idea to its logical (and terrifying) conclusion. The kind of pulse-pounding, adrenaline-pumping adventure tale that I associate with the best of Clive Cussler, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett. If this book doesn’t have you flipping pages long into the night, see your doctor. You may already be dead.”
— Jeff Edwards, bestselling author of Sea of Shadows and Steel Wind Rising
“A fast-paced thriller that will keep you breathless and wanting more. Robin Fox is one of the best heroes to come along in quite a while.”
— Leo J. Maloney, author of Termination Orders and Arch Enemy
“A fiendishly clever stew of mind games, bioterror, and a new breed of extremist malice. Mind Virus is one heck of a ride.”
— Barry Lancet, award-winning author of The Spy Across the Table
“ ‘Religion is the smallpox of the mind, and I am its Jonas Salk,’ states the evil mastermind who is behind a wave of global terrorist attacks in Mind Virus. The villain (whose name shall not be revealed here so as not to spoil some of the fun) believes the optimum way to eradicate this virus of the mind is to kill the infected hosts—otherwise known as people of faith. Enter religious studies teacher and Army veteran Robin Fox, whose job it unwittingly becomes to stop these international attacks and find the person responsible. His task becomes all the more personal when colleague and friend (or more?) Emily Paxton is kidnapped and held as leverage to get Fox to stop interfering in the terrorist’s plans.
It is no wonder Charles Kowalski won RMFW’s Colorado Gold Award for Mind Virus. It is a thoroughly researched, thoughtful novel regarding the nature of belief, and how what we believe governs how we treat each other, and in turn, how the way we are treated instructs what we come to believe. Don’t let words like ‘thoroughly researched’ and ‘thoughtful’ fool you—Mind Virus is also well-plotted, nicely paced, and packed with action. To wit, Professor Fox survives several attempts on his life, saves the Royal Family from a terrorist attack, and makes it from D.C. to Israel and to London and back during the Passover and Easter holidays. Not bad for a week’s work.
In Mind Virus, Kowalski skillfully tackles some of the largest issues of our time—namely religion and terrorism and their respective roles in shaping who we are as a global people. And who we are choosing to become as we move forward. He adroitly weaves together Bible verses, deadly nerve agents, and the imminent murder of thousands of innocent people to create a brilliant, riveting read. Hopefully we will see much more from Charles Kowalski in the years to come.”
— Five-Star Review from Colorado Book Review