The Pinocchio Syndrome: A Novel

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9780385509558: The Pinocchio Syndrome: A Novel

A mysterious disease–a government cover-up–a handsome young senator determined to stem the rising panic. . . . In this explosive debut, author David Zeman weaves political intrigue and stunningly drawn characters into a riveting thriller.

An ocean liner called the Crescent Queen, carrying a group of gifted American students, is suddenly vaporized in the Mediterranean by a nuclear weapon of unknown origin. Soon after, a deadly disease appears in the United States and around the world. With no known cure or treatment, the plague-like affliction paralyzes its victims and creates a terrifying physical deformity that causes it to be called “the Pinocchio Syndrome.”

Already under fire for the Crescent Queen attack, the president of the United States is heatedly denounced by an ultra-right-wing self-made millionaire, Colin Goss, who has ridden a wave of public anxiety into the national spotlight. When word spreads that the well-liked vice president has been incapacitated by the Pinocchio Syndrome, one strong voice surfaces–it belongs to Senator Michael Campbell, a former Olympic gold medalist whose youthful charisma and keen intelligence represent the administration’s last hope. Campbell comes from a deeply connected political family and has long been groomed for the presidency himself. He now stands as the only man between Colin Goss and the White House. Meanwhile, as scientists struggle to rein in the epidemic, a brilliant young journalist, Karen Embry, uncovers a shocking mystery behind the Pinocchio Syndrome–a mystery leading into the forgotten past and hinting at a terrifying future.

The ultimate contemporary thriller, The Pinocchio Syndrome is a remarkable debut novel that embodies the sophistication of The Manchurian Candidate, and hurtles to a heart-stopping finale.

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About the Author:

DAVID ZEMAN holds a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University, and has taught at the graduate level at Northwestern, Rutgers, and most recently Yale University. He is the author of a seminal work in philosophy. He lives in Washington.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

SIX MONTHS LATER

Liberty, Iowa
November 15
11:45 a.m.

SNOW FELL silently, like a sleep coming over the land.

The postman came around the corner, pulling his bag behind him. The wheels of his cart left moist black trails in the fresh snow on the sidewalk. A crumpled snowman, made from yesterday's storm, regarded the passing postman pathetically, its corncob pipe falling down its face.

It was the biggest snow on record for this time of year. School had been canceled yesterday. Today was Saturday, so the town's children could enjoy what was left of the accumulation with their sleds and flying saucers.

The postman wore his Saturday look, a bit more watchful than usual, as he started to cross the street. Saturdays were more dangerous for him than weekdays, and more interesting. Children were on the loose. With children came snowballs, pranks, and sometimes an unruly dog. He had to be on his toes.

But something stopped him in the middle of the street. He stood still in his tracks, his cart beside him, his eyes fixed on something beyond the houses and the trees and the snow-covered lawns. One hand was raised toward his chin, as though to stroke it thoughtfully. The other was at his side. His eyes blinked as a wind-blown snowflake plopped on the lashes. His mouth was closed, the jaws set rigidly.

No one would find him for ten minutes. As luck would have it, the children were all inside their houses, playing in their rooms, watching Saturday-morning television, or getting ready for lunch. Those mothers who were not out at work did not expect the mail until after noon, so no one came out to check a mailbox.

During those ten minutes the postman did not move a muscle. He was as rigid as the dying snowman who sagged under the new-fallen snow.

The mother was standing in her kitchen, watching the news station on TV as she talked to her sister on the phone.

"No," she said. "Just getting ready to give the kids lunch."

She paused, listening to something her sister was saying.

"No," she said with some anger. "I'm so fed up with husbands, I'm not going to move a muscle. They can get along without me. I've had it."

She craned her neck to glance into the playroom. Her maternal radar had alerted her to the fact that the little ones were up to something.

"Just a second," she said to her sister. Then she held the phone against her breast and shouted at her older child, the boy, "Stop doing that to her!"

There was a pause. The mother went to the door of the playroom and gave both children a hard look. "Lunch in five minutes," she said. "Don't leave this room until you clean up this mess."

They were five and seven. The little girl was quiet enough when left to her own devices, but the boy, Chase, was a terror. When he wasn't torturing his sister he was putting her up to some sort of mischief. It was impossible to leave them alone in a room for half an hour without a crisis resulting.

The mother went back to the kitchen, the cordless phone in her hand. On the TV screen was the face of Colin Goss, the controversial right-wing politician whose rise in the polls had alarmed many observers.

"God," she said, "there's that maniac Goss on the news."

"Turn it off," her sister advised.

"I wish I could turn him off," the mother said.

Both sisters hated Colin Goss, a perennial independent candidate for president who had lost three times in the general election. They considered him a pure demagogue, a menace to freedom and a potential Hitler. Their husbands, however, had been swept up in the recent groundswell of support for Goss. It was difficult to get through an evening without an argument on this subject.

"Gary watches all Goss's speeches on C-SPAN," the mother said. "He actually thinks the guy makes sense."

"So does Rich. I've heard him say it a thousand times. Colin Goss is strong, Colin Goss is the only man who has the guts to do what needs to be done. To me he's a madman. Also, he's icky."

"Creepy. You're right."

A lot of men admired Goss for his success in business and his strength and toughness. They viewed him as a dynamic leader who could "save the country." But when many women looked at Goss's face they saw a lecher, a dirty old man. There was something cruelly sensual about Goss that repelled them.

Colin Goss's main campaign issue was, and always had been, antiterrorism. A Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who had built his own pharmaceutical empire from nothing, Goss had gone on to become one of the richest conglomerators in the world. His influence was said to extend to every corner of government and the private sector. Over the years Goss had had run-ins with terrorists whose activities had affected his business dealings overseas. In the 1990s he emerged as the most eloquent, and certainly the most strident, antiterrorist in American politics.

Goss's views never caught on, primarily because terrorism had not yet hit Americans close to home, and also because his speeches bristled with thinly veiled racism, particularly against Arabs and other people of color. When Goss talked of "cleaning up" the Third World and the American underclass, many political observers cringed. Rhetoric like this had not been heard since the fascist movements of the 1930s.

But the World Trade Center attack changed the political climate. And with that attack still fresh in the public mind, the Crescent Queen disaster created a new political world.

"If it weren't for the Crescent Queen," the mother said, "no one would give Goss the time of day. But people are scared out of their wits."

"Well, it's no wonder," her sister said. "All those poor children vaporized out in the ocean. It's unbelievable."

Military and scientific observers had determined that the Crescent Queen was destroyed by a tactical nuclear weapon delivered by ballistic missile. No terrorist group had taken credit for the attack. The president had promised that those responsible would be brought swiftly to justice. "The Crescent Queen disaster must not only be solved," he said. "It must be avenged."

But in the six months since the attack, the combined efforts of the federal intelligence services had failed to identify the perpetrators. A state of fear unequaled since the Cuban missile crisis had set in among Americans.

A week after the attack a terrifying piece of video was sent to the major television networks and cable stations from an unknown source. It showed the Crescent Queen floating placidly in the Mediterranean, in such close focus that the name of the ship was visible on the bow. Then the nuclear explosion vaporized the vessel, and the camera pulled back to show the mushroom cloud rising majestically over the blue sea. The video had clearly been shot from a surface vessel at a safe distance from the blast.

"It gives you the creeps," said the sister. "Just waiting to see where the next one is going to drop. I can't sleep at night."

"Gary thinks the Muslims are behind the whole thing," said the mother. "He says the nuclear technology is being provided by Iraq or Libya or somebody, and the Muslim terrorists are pushing the button."

"Maybe he's right. But it doesn't make much difference, since we don't know what to do about it. I feel like a sitting duck. I'm scared for my kids."

"Do you know what Rich says? He says kill all the Muslims and everything will fall into place."

"Gary is exactly the same. He says nuke the Arabs and divide the oil resources among the developed countries, and our troubles will be over."

Many American men had similar opinions. It was hard to avoid unreasoning anger when they saw news video of Muslims marching in the streets of Middle Eastern capitals to celebrate the Crescent Queen disaster. Shaking fists and holding up signs that read DEATH TO AMERICA, the Muslims considered the attack a victory over the United States. Islamic terrorism was on the upswing, spreading throughout developing countries like a cancer. Governments in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, intimidated by the Muslim groundswell, did not dare to refuse safe haven to the terrorists, even though this brought economic reprisals from America.

Meanwhile the continuing oil crisis, fostered by hostile Arab states, aggravated the recession that had begun just before the president's election. Unemployment was at its highest point in a generation.

Few Americans dared to remember the time, only a few years ago, when the worst problem the nation faced was what to do with the surplus. The old world was gone. A new one had taken its place, a world in which one held one's breath and waited for disaster to strike.

"You know," said the mother, "I believe Gary honestly thinks that's what Goss will do if he gets into office."

"You mean kill all the Muslims?"

"Yes. That, or something like that--crazy as it sounds."

"I don't know . . . It does sound insane, but I'm not sure I would completely put it past Goss. There's something about those eyes of his . . . You know, Hitler never actually said he was going to kill people, either."

"I can't believe we're actually saying if he gets in," said the mother. "Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable."

"Yeah, but that was before the Crescent Queen. People want revenge. Men especially."

"The recession has a lot to do with it too. Being out of work for two years can do something to a man's mind. I know it's done something to Gary's mind. He never used to be this way."

The president's popularity was at an all-time low. There was talk in Congress to the e...

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