Those who would have us all be the same would not like this one: it turns out that human females – that is, XX or XXY individuals, chromosomally speaking, to be PC – may be “tetrachromats”, or have four different colour receptors in their eyes. Thus, while most humans have only red, green and blue receptors, a quite significant proportion of genetic (XX) females can have two different red receptors (eg: orange-red and yellow-red).
This theoretically allows them to see a hundred times more colours than normal, according to the New Scientist article that just caught my (trichromatic) eye – “Dimensions of colour” in the 29 June issue, also available here – http://ophthalmology.washington.edu/sites/default/files/articles/jay_neitz_article.pdf.
This would very adequately explain to me, in my simple understanding of these things, why it is that many females – presumably XX – of my acquaintance seem able to discern so many more colours and tints than I can. But this is by the bye.
Now far more XY human males than XX females have red-green colour-blindness – because, it turns out, that the genes for the two receptors sit next to each other on the X chromosome, and as (XY) men only have one, a defect in one or other gene means no sensing that colour – and up to 2% of (XY) men are in fact missing / deficient in one or other.
And as (XX) human females have two chromosomes, it would take mutations to both sets of genes to have any effect – and that is statistically far less likely, which is why human (XX) females are far less likely to be colour blind.
But also the ONLY humans to be able to use four colour receptors…or to be able to differentiate all of those hues in a standard wall paint catalogue.
This less extreme than the case of squirrel monkeys, incidentally, where females are trichomats, and ALL males (you don’t need to be PC with squirrel monkeys) are dichromats, as they only have blue and green receptors.
Wouldn’t that seem like a superpower, if you were a male squirrel monkey?
Turns out that you can genetically engineer males back to par using a viral gene therapy vector – probably a recombinant adeno-associated virus (AAV), although they didn’t say – and that genengineered male monkeys now pass the colour-blindness test, a trait that is stable over years.
The article speculates – I would never dare; it would mean assuming that there was a genetic difference in ability between men and women, and we all know where THAT leads! – that humans might like to experiment with the same sort of therapy. A direct quote:
“Suppose you could just have the shot and get the fourth photopigment, so you could see a hundred times more colours – who wouldn’t go for that?”
Who indeed: to be able to differentiate teal from eggshell blue; cyan from lapis lazuli; peach from…who knows what these shades are called?
I don’t – and I don’t much care. I will just count this as a difference worth celebrating, and get on with life.
…which means I’d better get writing, because it stops here! Apart from Bullbar Ben, that is.
The searchers were stymied for the moment. They had more or less achieved their primary objective, but the almost-as-important secondary requirement was presently unfulfilled, and perhaps unfulfillable. The non-acquisition of the body was an annoying loose end: who was to know that the city had become such a third-world environment that the operatives would end up fighting over the target with greedy civilians? Who would not only interfere with the disposition of the target, but incapacitate the operatives to the point of forcing a withdrawal, and abandonment of the target. And then steal all the articles required for a clean conclusion to the leak. Heads were metaphorically rolling as communications raced at lightspeed around the planet. And of course, there was the minor additional problem that no-one wanted to face, of the few that were aware of it. The problem that the target may have brought more than just information back with him. And that it might already have spread. Surveillance was stepped up, and the watchers waited.
“There is something very frightening about the really good killer viruses. No, not the messy killers like Ebola: that is all gore and theatrics; in any case, hardly anyone really ever dies, relatively speaking. No, the really good ones are the stealthy kind – the ones that quietly get into you, and as quietly, but insidiously and inexorably, kill you. Like influenza – which has killed millions, and continues to strike down the old, the young, and the simply unlucky. Like the mind-altering Borna virus. Like the hantaviruses which cause pulmonary syndrome….
The problem with viruses as weapons is virulence, and delivery. Why doesn’t influenza kill a lot more people? Because it isn’t particularly virulent, compared to Ebola, even though it spreads very efficiently through a human population. Why doesn’t Ebola kill everyone? Because it can’t get to everyone – it only infects those unfortunate enough to come into contact with the natural host (very few); those who tend the sick (a few); those who dress the corpse (several more)…and those who go to bush hospitals, where poor hygiene and re-use of needles almost guarantee its spread. Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus, which is nearly as lethal, kills more people – but only those who get in the way of a short-lived particular growth stage of a particular tick, if it is infected. Or the odd abattoir worker, who is unfortunate enough to handle an animal at a particular stage of disease.
The good spreaders seem not to kill so well, and the good killers seem not to spread so well. This explains why influenza kills a few tens of thousands of people a year, while it infects many millions, while the extravagantly messy ones like Ebola have probably only ever killed a few thousand people, throughout recorded history – but that is over 50% of those who ever caught it….
Of course, if Ebola could spread like influenza, or ‘flu could kill like Ebola…but I would stick with a quieter killer, personally.
Something like a hantavirus.”
- Excerpt from third-year medical virology lecture notes, Dr Bruce Davies, Western Cape Medical School.
The helicopter did not get very far, but far enough to frustrate the salvaging ambitions of the men in uniform: it strained to keep in the air, just in and above the treetops, engine bellowing raggedly and belching smoke, for several kilometres towards the nearby hills. It even managed to climb a little, just before the end, when the motor abruptly failed, and it dropped like a great broken bird. That was what killed the men inside, the extra height: their necks snapped as the big machine hit the ground, here where the trees were thinner. All except the side gunner, who jumped just before impact, and fractured his legs and pelvis. He was the only one left alive to see the monkeys, the ubiquitous vervets of the African bush, eventually creep out to investigate the cooling wreck After much hopping around it and abortive sallies towards it, one brave little fellow finally made it into the shattered cockpit, where the two crew still hunched grotesquely in their straps. His excited chatter brought the rest, who quickly swarmed into and over the cabin, grabbing everything that moved, and biting much that did not. They could not penetrate the still-intact crates at the back of the cabin, however, and they soon contented themselves with what they could carry off into the shade of the trees, from where they watched the man as he moaned and occasionally moved. As time went by he stopped doing even this as he slipped into coma. Mercifully, he was dead by the time the feral dogs arrived. There was not much left by the time the old man and the children finally came, fearfully, to see what had happened to the last of the killers of their people. It took them even longer than the monkeys to get into the cabin, but they were a lot more thorough in their stripping of the craft. They found still-usable caps, sunglasses, spare clothes, watches and three handguns. They found emergency rations and medical kits. They also managed to open the boxes.
I had had to invoke some help in finding Danielle, after determining that she and Jerry had still been an item: she had moved since last we had associated, and wasn’t listed in the phone directory, nor in any of the on-line databases I could get into. She always had been private; mark her down as a technological illiterate as well. A former mutual friend helped, after some third degree as to why I wanted to contact her. That should have warned me, but I wasn’t looking for signals of conspiracies then – or not yet. Then it was just a matter of getting past the long awkwardness of re-establishing long-dead contacts, especially with the added complication of the only real thing we had in common being her now-dead lover, and the memory of a very short and long-ago liaison.
It was about as bad as I thought it was going to be. She was tearful, and hopeless, and distracted, and bitter; I was tongue-tied and trite (“He was a good man, Danielle, we all knew that; no, of course it’s unfair…no, I don’t know what it’s like, you’re right…it’s the damn job that was the problem…”).
With that last comment I inadvertently touched all the right buttons – and I do wish I hadn’t….
She snapped upright and glared at me. “No, it wasn’t!”
I gaped at her dumbly. “Well, they were always making him go off somewhere…” I tailed off tamely.
The air between us was stiff.
“No, they didn’t – he wanted to go. He asked them to send him – to the Heart of Darkness, he said. To Conrad country, to the source of all fears…and then he must have got into trouble, and people keep phoning me, and people are sneaking around trying to pump me for information, and trying to get into my house, and…and he doesn’t even contact me when he gets back, he gets you, and, and, and, we can’t even get his body…” She was taking great gulps of air now, starting to whoop, and then all of the wheels fell off, and she just collapsed into a quivering, blubbering wreck onto the sofa.
The Conrad and the other flowery bits were all real – Danielle was like that; English majors tended to speak differently to the rest of us while we were at varsity, and it obviously stuck with some of them. I tried to pat her back, but she just waved me off without even lifting her head, howling loudly.
I was more than a bit distracted by what she had said: that was the second comment about problems with the body, and what was all that about people trying to get in, and Jerry being in trouble?
I absent-mindedly there-thered and muttered platitudes in the direction of the trembling back till the sobs died down to a sort of hopeless keening, then I excused myself to go find the phone.
I needed to talk to a pathologist – to the King of the Flesh-Eaters, in fact. However, Ghoulman Reeves wasn’t taking any calls, apparently. And no-one would say why. And they asked me why I wanted him, and wouldn’t I leave my name and number?
I was sure I recognised the voice on the other end – though she sounded really strained – and I was going to say “Cut the shit, Patricia, this is Bruce, remember me?”, but I was getting a little paranoid thanks to Danielle, and she seemed to be pulling it back together anyway, so I left them with a “No, it’s alright, I’ll catch him later”, and cut her off in mid high-pitched -”No, please, we’ll take a message, just leave…”
I met the lady in the hall of her Observatory Victorian (high-ceilinged Chelsea gem, small enclosed garden, yellowwood floors, ideal for young executives…), sniffing slightly, but otherwise not looking too bad. I was just manouevring awkwardly around her, before starting the necessary-but-painful “Yah, sure, see you, keep in touch” type of platitudes – when the doorbell rang. We both looked at it dumbly.
She eventually solved the impasse by bursting into tears again and fleeing, so I stamped off and opened it up. Idiot!
“Ja, is…Mevrou…?” said a chunky large man standing silhouetted against the late afternoon sun on the step.
“No, sorry, she’s not feeling…I’m a friend, just visiting…”
“No, of course, it’s Doktor Davies again, ne?” said a delighted familiar-sounding gravelly voice.
Superintendent fucking Steenkamp, again.
I groaned. Too loudly, obviously, because then he asked if was alright, and yes I was, but how was the lady, and no, she was upset, and eventually: “Well, maybe I can help you, Superintendent?”. Idiot!!
The cause of it all, the cause…. I will remember you, Superintendent Steenkamp. All my life, or what’s left of it.
He sat down in the lounge, again looking as though he had known the house all his life. Danielle had disappeared somewhere; I couldn’t even hear sobs anymore.
“So , Doktor…you comforting the lady? You know her quite well then? You didn’t say…?”
“Yah…well, she’s just run off crying, and I was about to leave…. Yah, we were…friends…a long time ago.”
“Ja, sorry…listen, man, there’s something funny going on with your friend Jerry, you know?”
Oh, Christ, I thought, not you too.
“You know about it?”
“Dani said a few things…” Arsehole! What was it about this man that made me into an anxious schoolkid? Probably the same thing that had made me an anxious schoolkid: the calm authority of people who know how to use power.
I can’t let silences grow comfortably; no, I have to fill them.
“Yah, well, she said people were hassling her, and phoning, and trying to get in…”.
A silence grew. Thank God, he broke it this time.
“No, well, it’s just…we picked up this skollie just earlier today, we think he robbed your friend…”
Is that all, I was going to say, when:
“…and he told us these wit mense were going after him first…guys in suits”. The flesh prickled down my neck.
“Hang on, didn’t you tell me he was knocked down? Now you’re saying white guys mugged him??”
“No, no, ja, he was knocked down, by a car, but then these white guys were searching him, and my oke and his chommies in a taxi saw it and thought, magtig, why should wit mense get all the goodies, and they jumped in”.
“And you don’t think this is all a story, Superintendent?” There, I thought, learn your job!
“No, man – you see, my oke had a whole lot of chommies. And they dondered the white okes up a bit, and took some stuff off them, too.”
“So some of the stuff was still with my oke when we got him.” A silence again. I thought, what does this damn man want? I was about to ask: did he just come round for a chat, was he lonely or confused?
“…and it was very interesting, you know what I’m saying?”
“No. No, I don’t, and frankly Superintendent, I think this is all a little…”
“…so I was coming round to your friend’s girlfriend to ask her what was going on. It was spy stuff, you see – surveillance stuff.”
I was struck dumb.
“Ja, I thought that would get you”, the bastard chuckled.
He leaned forward, and suddenly he wasn’t so shabby anymore, and he didn’t sound confused. And he had a very level gaze, and he didn’t look friendly, and I felt a chill as I remembered all those old stories from my radical friends about the defunct Security Branch – and he was surely the right vintage, and hadn’t I heard about a Steenkamp somewhere?
“And it was from America. And the okes were tough, but not so skerm as our Capeys, ne? And they talked like Americans. So, Mister…Doktor Davies, what did your friend do to piss off the CIA? And how are you involved in this, really?”
Oh, shit, I thought, Jerry, what the fuck have you got me into?
I couldn’t have guessed.
The young men had been marching for days, in a loose formation on both sides of the dirt road. They had developed an easy sort of slouch, these ones that were left; swinging along, festooned with bandoliers and grenades, almost every one with Africa’s great equaliser, the AK-47. Rubber calf-high boots, muddy, baggy fatigues, slouch caps – and not a few with T-shirts and shorts, and car-tyre sandals; caught up from the villages they had passed through. A liberating army, this; they had marched all the way from the eastern border with Rwanda, and they planned to go all the way to Kinshasa. They had fought the Simba, the Interahamwe, the Mai-Mai, and even some Zairean Army regulars, and they were still advancing.
The young man with the RPG-7, Justus Kigame, was especially proud. He had trained with great dedication to carry that weapon; never mind that it was heavy and unwieldy; never mind that he would fire it far less often than his colleagues. In the last week he had personally taken out three APCs, or what passed for them out here in western Zaire – basically 5-tonne trucks with some excuse for armour – and his prestige was high at the moment. So he swung along, weapon across his shoulders, forearms draped across muzzle and stock, lustily singing out their marching song in his Tutsi dialect with the rest of them: “Mobutu, we are coming; run, you rabbit, run…” – even if he were dead, it was a fine song, and anyway, no-one had yet come up with another. He saw the front of the column, some fifty metres ahead, had broken their march; they were bunching, and starting to go up a side road flanked with a thick hedge. As he approached, he saw the fence beyond the hedge, the imposing double gates, the guard posts – now deserted. The gates, however, were chained shut. There was a small noticeboard on the gate column – but Justus could not read French, or very little of anything more complicated than a reading primer, come to that. The sergeant beckoned to him, to come with his rocket-launcher – he presumed to blow the gate. He approached eagerly, unlimbering his weapon, calling to his reloader.
A sudden loud clattering broke their rhythm; the roar of an engine stressed to the limits, the whipping of a helicopter’s rotors gathering speed. The big black craft slowly rose into view perhaps thirty metres off behind the hedge, kicking up dirt and stones that blew among the men. When it was perhaps fifteen metres up, they saw the helmeted man in the open door, behind the ominous-looking belt-fed HMG. The helicopter put its nose down slowly, and began to drift forwards – as the gunner loosed a quick burst into the ground in front of them – and into the sergeant’s leg. He fell, screaming – and the squad reacted instinctively. The front rank went down, rolled over, fired up; rear ranks scattered for the hedge and partial cover, and opened up as they were able. The helicopter was moving faster now, and Justus moved quicker than he ever had, to kneel, load, hold breath, aim…and press the trigger, for a shot that seemed to have gone astray, as the big bird flew on. Then the smoke cleared, and he saw the ragged hole at the back of the cabin; saw the smoke trailing out, heard the engines’ roar faltering. The men around him cheered as it staggered away, sinking out of sight out over the fence. It did not look as though it would get far. He dismissed it from his mind, for now: there were wounded comrades to look after. But he fully intended to see what had happened to it, very soon: a man had to look after his prospects, after all.
I’m never good in the morning, even if it isn’t the morning – and this one wasn’t, as I saw blearily while thrashing about to find the insistently ringing phone; it was some time after 12 midday. “Bastards!”, I thought, as I finally found the thing under the bed, picked it up, and then had to listen to my so-clever software answering again: the computer must have auto-rebooted earlier to do a virus scan or something. I thought it could only be Jerry again, as they waited out the whole of the smart message – and got quite a shock when a voice that sounded like gravel being mixed in a bucket said: “Mr Davies? Mr Bruce Davies? Is that you, sir…?” “Yes…yes, this is me – sorry, I mean, Dr Bruce Davies, yes…?” I managed to get out. What the hell, I’d worked for it long enough, I might as well use it.
The voice waited an uncomfortably long while, then: “Ja, meneer…ek is jammer, sorry sir…Doktor Davies…is that medical, sir?” And what do you care if you don’t know me, I muttered to myself, but “No, no – scientific. Or I used to be, but…”. Into another long silence. “Look – what is this about? I’m actually quite busy, so…?” A laugh that sounded about as bad as Jerry of the previous night rasped down the line. “Ja, ja, I’m sure – you see, Doktor Davies, I am Kaptein – nee, Superintendent, sorry – Steenkamp of the South African Police Services, and I’m standing outside your very quiet house with my cellphone, and your neighbour has said to me you never get up before lunch – so I thought I’d better phone, hey?”
Oh, Christ, I thought, the cops, and they’re here – and what the hell for?? And of course Mrs Coetzee spoke to him; the old bag would speak to anyone walking by – and especially about me, it seemed. As my mind raced, I dimly heard: “…so it would be nice if I could come in for a while so we could have a little chat, OK?” “What – what about?” I managed to get out, then my blood chilled as he said “About someone who’s dead, Doktor, with your name and address in his pocket – so I would appreciate it if you could let me in, hey?”.
I staggered out of bed and into some more-or-less clean jeans and a T-shirt; looked and myself in the wall mirror and remember saying “Christ!” at the stubble and red eyes and the thatch hair, then I managed to set off the burglar alarm on the way to the front door, and had to reset it, and then pulled open the door into painfully bright sunlight. And there was the man who would cause me such grief in the time to come: a big, baggy weather-beaten man with a nicotine-stained moustache in a shabby suit standing on the step, smiling benignly at me. Superintendent fucking Steenkamp in the flesh.
I was in the process of saying “Come in”, when he bustled around me and I found myself being escorted down my own passage in the direction of the lounge, his hand under my arm. It was all so bewildering that I was sitting sunk into my sleeper couch with him looming over me before I could quite figure out what had happened. When, of course, the alarm monitoring company rang, and I had to struggle up and get to the nearest phone in the bedroom one door back down the passage and go through all the business of code words to reassure them I wasn’t being held up. And as I hung up and turned around, there he was literally breathing down my neck; so close I nearly head-butted him in the moustache. He still had that benign smile, and he took charge again, so I found myself sitting on my bed with him looming over me once more.
In retrospect it was all just technique on his behalf; he effortlessly dominated me and put me on edge, and I babbled. So it worked, wonderfully. There’s no defence against professionals, and he was that in spades. Elderly, almost emphysematic, fatherly – and seriously intimidating.
He nodded at me, still smiling. “All these old Observatory houses are the same, ne? All with a long passage to the front door, and a lounge in the middle – and this is your bedroom, and the one at the front was a bedroom, but it’s now your office, ne?” I must have nodded dumbly, because he went on: “So let’s go there, Doktor, maybe you’ll feel safer, hey?”, and damn me if we didn’t end up traipsing back down the passage with my arm in his hand again, to sit down yet again.
This time he sat first, in my office chair, and I ended up in the spare and considerably less comfortable one. He made a meal of it, putting his arms behind his head and leaning back, swivelling all the way around and whistling appreciatively. “No, man, we could do with chairs like this in the SAPS, I can tell you…” All calculated; I don’t think he could help it, it was such second nature to him. Finally, though, he got serious, and leaned forward into my face, his arms on his knees.
“Ja…Doktor”- he managed to accent it so subtly in a sarcastic way – “Do you – did you – know someone called Jerry Mikalakis?”
Nasty creepy things patrolled the nape of my neck, and I could feel my chest getting tight.
“Ummm…yes, yes, I did…you mean something’s happened to him?”
“Ja…tell me, meneer…ek is jammer, Doktor…did he contact you recently?”
My mind was working overtime; I went round and round like a moth round a lamp, desperately trying to think what Jerry might have got into – might have got me into – before blurting “Yah”.
“Can I ask what about, Doktor?”
More frantic circumlocutions as I tried to think of something innocuous: I know they demilitarised the old SAP in creating the new SAPS a few years back; I know they are our friends now, and we all work together for the common good – but old attitudes die hard.
“Ah…just something for a story, some information…” Idiot!, I remember fuming at myself, and oh, what story was that, sir?
“Anything in particular…”
“Yes”, I said, suddenly inspired by my recent travails: “Yes, he wanted to know about the new commercial ventures into academic computing – I’m a consultant, you see – and how they would affect how academics use the Internet…you know, would they replace what the Yanks have cancelled, that sort of thing…” I tailed off hopefully. Good eye-glazing stuff, normally.
He sounded disappointed. “Was that all?”
“Yes, Inspector. Now, what has happened to Jerry?” My chest drew in again, and I could feel my pressed-together palms getting slippery.
“Were you a friend, sir?”
“Yes!” I half shouted, just to get the words out past the lump in my throat.
“Ja…well, I’m sorry to tell you, sir…apparently he was hit by a minibus taxi in the street outside his hotel – died almost immediately.
“No!”, I managed.
“Ja…well, it’s early to say…but maybe there was a mugging also. Anyway, all his stuff was stolen off the body, so it took some time to sort out where he came from; we are just now trying to get witnesses to tell the same story, and trying to find out what he was doing there.”
And where the hell was there, I asked myself. “Superintendent…” I managed to croak out.
I racked my brain for a way to find out why he’d called me, and maybe something else about why and how Jerry had died.
“Ummm…Superintendent, you said you found my number…and when did this happen?” was all I could come up with.
“Ag, no, man, it was a week ago today. And he had your name and number written on a paper we found in his stuff that came from the hotel – but by the time we found out where he was from, the bladdy people had moved all his stuff – and probably swiped some. Probably thought he skipped without paying, hey? Poor bastard. But that was why it took us a couple of days…”
“A week!” The superintendent looked surprised. “But…then he must have died just after talking to me!”
His eyebrows mutely interrogated me further. I babbled on.
“I think…maybe he could have been going to a pharmacy; he said on the phone to me that he was sick, and he sounded bad even on the phone. Thought he had a virus, or something….”
“Oh? Had he been up north, maybe? Where did he go to pick that up?”
Idiot again!, I thought to myself. “Yah, or something, maybe flu…he was a journalist, Superintendent, you know how those guys get around. What hotel was that again – I can’t remember. The Edinburgh, was it?” Sound less like you’re pumping him, jerk!
“Wag n’bietjie…no, it was the Stanley…there by Bo Buitenkant Straat. Now, Doctor – you sure you don’t know where he was?”
“No, Superintendent – well, I though it must be somewhere scummy; I heard streetwalkers or something when he phoned…why, you think he was involved in something funny?” God, I felt an idiot saying that.
The good Superintendent – who obviously still thought he was a Kaptein – didn’t seem to have noticed. Maybe it was just routine, and he wasn’t trying to catch me out after all. “No, no – it’s just that there’s some problem with the body, there by the hospital. They don’t want to release it and they wanted me to find out where he’s been. And the girlfriend, she’s getting really worried, you know?”
God knows why, but I babbled my way right into it. “Hell, Superintendent, maybe I can help -who is it at the Hospital?”
“Ja, of course, you a Doktor, hey? It’s…Doctor Reeves – you know him?”
As it happened, I did – Pete Reeves had had the office three down from mine, in the old Pathology block. He was in Forensic Pathology – the flesh-eaters, we used to call them, and he was eerily true to stereotype. A weird nerd who liked to hang out with the dead – and preferably as strangely dead as possible.
“Yah – let me call him, and see what’s the problem. And…”
“Anything else interesting, Superintendent?”
He just looked at me, one eyebrow raised. I fished, desperately: “I mean, clues about what he was working on, maybe?”
The silence lengthened. “Look…maybe I could help out? I knew something about what he was doing…” I cursed myself.
“More than you said, maybe?”
My turn for silence.
“Ja…well, OK – listen, I’ve got to go now…” – my heart leapt, only to plummet when he went on: “…maybe you should come in to the office and we could talk some more about it, hey?”
Trapped…! Idiot! I’ve probably never felt as stupid, or as manipulated.
“In Cape Town Central Police Station – you know, the old Caledon Square. Maybe you had business there sometime?” A gravelly laugh.
SAPS humour: I didn’t respond. The place had been – still was – notorious; plenty of my student generation had seen the inside of it during the last days of the old regime.
“Sixth floor, office 615. Maybe tomorrow morning? Ten, maybe? That not too early for you?”
I suppose I nodded.
“See you then, Doktor, hey?”. He sighed then, and seemed to struggle up to his feet. I noticed then how grey his face was under the tan and the nicotine, and how he seemed to breathe hard. He stood a while in front of my computer, shaking his head. “Man, I’ve never thought I would hate rugby, but at my age…”. Belatedly, I saw the cauliflower ears of the long-time lock forward, how shapeless his nose was, and noticed just how huge his hands were. He straightened up, and I swear I heard his spine crunching. Then: “Man, but I never got the hang of these things”, he was saying, gesturing at my computer. He leaned forward to look over his spectacles at the screen – yes, it was on, had turned itself on like I thought it had – and I became aware with a sinking feeling that my work was still spread out all around the PC. Said work consisting of lurid and highly suggestive photographs of improbably busty girls, and some very primrose text, of the kind that promises untold pleasures without being too explicit. He turned to smile benignly at me again, and I thought, fantastic, he hasn’t noticed, and he said: “Ja, my friend, it’s amazing what people find attractive, hey?”, and my heart sank again. He gazed at me a while, then shook his head as if to dismiss a train of thought, and turned to the door. I was so eager to see him out that I ran straight into him as he suddenly stopped and turned. He looked down at me over his specs as I bounced off his ample mid-section, and said abruptly: “Nie, meneer, maybe I’ll just call you when I need you – OK?”
I suppose it wasn’t a question, because I was anxiously agreeing as he turned again, and left. I came to myself a little later, slumped in my desk chair with my face in my hands, gazing blankly at the wall. I could see the phone icon was blinking away as the computer was processing something. Must have recorded something again, I thought. I reminded myself to disable it.
The bugger had really known what he was doing – and played me like a fish, given just a crumb of something to go on. Why, oh why did I let myself get into these things? Fatal curiosity, probably – the same thing that gets you into science, and then doesn’t let you out until you’re kicked out. Hopefully he’d lost interest at the end there, when the Doktor turned out to be a little elss than he’d thought – but then he’d spoken to Mrs Coetzee, hadn’t he, so he probably hadn’t thought much of me to start with. Well, I was involved now – might as well get involved further, I supposed.
Truth to tell, I was still more concerned right then with my most pressing problem – how to make my enforced career move finally earn me some money, after some months of failing to do just that – then with messing around trying to help someone I’d almost forgotten about, who turned out to be dead anyway.
Said career move had had a long and slightly sordid buildup, which had resulted in me resigning a perfectly secure if not particularly lucrative academic post, in order to keep somebody else from being victimised. And incidentally, to keep me from being publicly censured. The end result was my ending up with a respectable little pension fund payout, a great deal of experience in molecular virology, a fairly considerable degree of familiarity with computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web, and some experience in teaching. Most of which was of very little use in trying to find employment outside of the academic sphere in and around Cape Town or in fact anywhere: the academic sphere had been effectively barred to me by the sincere and very real threat of being blackballed to the best of his ability, by my former Head of Department.
So what do you do if all you know how to do is play with word processing and other more specialised molecular biological software, set up and administer Web pages, and teach people who are supposed to be capable of teaching themselves?
The respectable answer – what you do during the day – is freelance bioinformatics: this is the outwardly very boring (and inwardly too, frequently) art of making and supplying information out of biology. Modern biology involves a stunning degree of number-crunching and database construction and accessing, and those who have the necessary familiarity with the science and with computers are supposed to be in high demand. Except that, in academia, demand does not necessarily supply money.
The not-so-respectable but more lucrative answer – what you do at night, or during lulls in the respectable stuff – is being Webmaster for one of the smaller and less reputable Internet service providers. Meaning that you do data searches for people who are too ignorant or too busy to do it themselves, and you design and maintain Web pages for molecular biology and medical laboratories, poetry magazines, massage parlours and bondage equipment outlets. And run courses in how to download biological information off the Web, then (unofficially) find and download and catalogue and link megabytes of hard-core porn for some of the richer clients. A rich and varied job experience, and one I was becoming heartily sick of.
However, there were respectable and potentially lucrative prospects on the horizon: some of my more sympathetic and better-funded scientific clients who had been talking vaguely for some time about setting up a dedicated facility, had finally started to get a bit more serious about things. They wanted to establish a regional commercial bioinformatics service centre for the Western Cape region, to serve the three Universities, the Technikons, and the regional Health Service. This would be aimed at replacing what had rapidly become a totally archaic and largely redundant local government and University setup, and would go some way to re-establishing what we had had before the largest and most useful part of the Internet – the federally-funded US government databases and search facilities – had so suddenly become off-limits to us. Totally and mind-numbingly boring to the man in the street, but potentially meat and drink for me, and for a few like-minded and similarly underemployed friends. There was just the little hurdle of convincing the clients to go with me, and getting them to either ignore what could be very damaging references, or not to solicit them in the first place. Which was sufficient of a problem that it was interfering with my sleep, and tending to occupy the centre of my attention.
I sat down at my computer to see what was going on: apparently it had automatically rebooted sometime in the morning to run a virus scan, which had just finished. However, it had also answered the phone, and then apparently not hung up and was still recording via the headset, eating up my hard drive. I terminated the phone program, then did what I should have done two days earlier.
I phoned Danielle.
Jerry Mikalakis it had been; Jerry the Greek from our days in student residence. Greek in name only, though: he was green-eyed and tawny blond, well-built; third or fourth generation South African. Old money by my standards…. Smart Jerry, slick Jerry, rich Jerry: the one with the Alfa Romeo when we used to have to hitch; the one with the big sound system where we just had personal tape players. And a friend, more or less: a rival for Danielle some of the time; mutual traders of the barbed remark, but also both parts of the same crowd that used to drink and party together for three or so years. But this was ten years later; we’d moved onwards and upwards – or sideways and down lately, in my case – and I hadn’t seen him in a good eight years. Not to speak to, at any rate; it was hard to avoid seeing his name or hearing about him since he had managed to actually do what he dreamed of, and become a hot-shot reporter and journo. Oh, he’d started with the entertainment beat, and moved on through ambulance chasing and got into serious investigation of crime – and then of local and later of international politics and intrigues, going from the local papers to the national weeklies to freelancing for Time and Newsweek. Yes, our boy Jerry had gone all the way – taking Danielle with him, so far as I knew, but that was water long gone under the bridge.
And now here he was phoning me in the stark, cold early hours of morning, and I had to struggle to remember who he was.
Sounds of fumbling with the headset, then: “Yah. Yah, this is Bruce. Jerry? Slick Jerry?” and I could have kicked myself for the childish dig, but too late. I could hear what sounded like heavy breathing, and I thought oh no, not a prank call, and was about to get annoyed, when: “Ye-es”, he said in the same old remembered way, “But more like sick Jerry now”, and a short fit of coughing tailing off as he obviously turned away from the mouthpiece. “Shit, Jerry, you not joking – what’s the problem? You need a lift to a quack or something?”, I said, praying that he didn’t, and I could get to bed. A silence, then “No…no, it’s fine, nothing like that…listen Bruce, I’ve got a couple of questions I badly need to ask you…”. He really did sound bad: his voice was so hoarse and breathy he sounded as if he were having an asthma attack, and he was tailing off as if he simply didn’t have the strength to get out full sentences. “Ummm…yah, Jerry, but listen, man, can’t it wait? You lucky you caught me up still; I’ve been burning it at both ends, and I’m seriously buggered myself”. Silence a while, so that I could hear traffic outside his place, then he came back stronger. “No, sorry, I’ve been so caught up in this I wasn’t thinking…and this bloody virus or whatever, it’s zapped me so I can’t think straight. Sure, let me catch you tomorrow…it’s really important….”. And just as I was about to hang up, he came through again, and I had to scramble to catch what he said – but the computer recorded him faithfully: “…but I just need to know one thing – and it’s in your line of work”, and I thought yah sure, what’s that now, bordello web site design specialist and general infojunky dilettante? “…it’s just…like, I’ve been chasing something for weeks now, and I went to Congo to find it, and it’s really scary…”. I couldn’t help myself, it’s a pet hate, but damn, do I sound condescending when I play it back: I cut in with “That’s “frightening”, Jerry; only Yank kids say “scary”…”, but he carried on right over me with “…and it involves stuff like you got into…tell me, what would it take to do your sort of work in the middle of a jungle?”.
That stopped me cold for a while. One, because it sounded like Jerry had unexpectedly (to me, anyway) kept tabs on me over the last few years – but not most recently, or he’d have heard of the abrupt and enforced career change – and two, because all of a sudden this conversation had the nasty potential of getting pretty serious – and I just wasn’t in the mood right then.
“Ummm…Jerry, you want to be a bit more specific? Like – how far out into a jungle, and what sort of work do you mean?” I heard a gurgling laugh, that quickly degenerated into a long coughing fit, then a croaky voice saying “Way, way out, man…”, and a another choking laugh. I had to smile; here we were, ten years on, and slipping right back into Jerry’s old staple, the Cheech and Chong imitations. “No, really”, he croaked, “out in the middle of nothing – and working with viruses…”. He tailed off again. I waited a while, then prompted: “Yes, but what kind of viruses? You talking about routine virus diagnostics, like they do up at the hospital?” I meant Groote Schuur Hospital, the elegant old Hubert Baker-designed complex just a few hundred metres – and a whole former career – away. More silence. Then I heard, faint but clear, a far off high-pitched voice in an unmistakeable Cape Flats accent saying “Hey, my darling, kom naai!”, and a cackling laugh. “Shit, Jerry, sounds like you’re in a bit of jungle yourself there”, I heard myself saying. Another gurgling laugh, and “Yah, what can you do when you need a hidey-hole, hey? Hide in plain sight…”. Then: “No, man…no, I mean the really nasty stuff: Ebola, Marburg, smallpox…”…more coughing, then traffic noises again.
Suddenly this had become a lot more serious – and quite disturbing, given the post-World Trade Center world we lived in, and various governments’ unhealthy obsession with things pertaining to bioterrorism. I thought a while. “Jer: listen, we must discuss this tomorrow – this is all a bit too serious for this time of night. But I can tell you that anyone working on BL4 pathogens like you mentioned is going to need a serious building, with a major power plant, containment labs, cold rooms, industrial-strength aircon with HEPA filters…probably big animal facilities…and a pile of qualified people to run it. And it would be seriously stupid to put it out in the sticks; it’s all too sophisticated. You’d need something better than we have – than they have – up the hill here”. Meaning up at the University of Cape Town Medical School Infectious Diseases Centre labs, where I had worked until just recently. Silence, and another distant cackle from what I assumed to be a streetwalker – long enough so I thought I’d lost him, then: “Yah, Bruce, thanks…pretty much what I thought…listen, man, I appreciate this – sorry I called so late…I’ll get back to you sometime tomorrow – will you be there, or up at the Medical School?” I felt the bile rise up at the question, as it had for a while now. “No, Jer, I’ll be here – we had a parting of the ways, me and the Med School”. It was getting easier to say it, though, maybe sometime I’d shrug it off…. Jerry wheezed out “OK, well, let me crash here; Jesus, I feel horrible…”, and the coughing started again. “You and me both, bru” I was saying, when I realised he had hung up already. Well, fuck you too, Jerry, I remember thinking; phone me up, pump me for info, and hang up before I finish – Mr Big-Shot journo and his source. Which was pretty uncharitable even at the time, given how sick he’d sounded, but I wasn’t feeling too wonderful myself. So, I powered down all the hardware, and locked up the study, fired up the alarm system, found a cleanish glass and put some milk and a finger of whisky in it, and went off to bed. And crashed like a baby, right up to the point where the phone next to the bed woke me up, eight hours later.