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BY CHARLES KOWALSKI
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.
- “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
BY CHARLES KOWALSKI
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.”
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Any last thoughts?
I hope you enjoy Mind Virus—and if you do, please help spread it!
Links to Charles’ website, blog, books, etc.
Official Website: https://charleskowalski.com/
Purchase Link through his Publisher:
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.
Thanks, Charles, for sharing your book with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!