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.