CHAPTER 8
 

That session wore everyone out, myself included. I doze off for a while
along with everyone else. Everyone is conked out until the phone yells
out. The response is instantaneous and nervous.

It's time for Jimmy to call.

Sari grabs it first and puts it on speaker.

"Hey, it's me," Jimmy says. He sounds as if he hasn't had any sleep at all.

"You sound like hell," Mel, equally groggy, barks at him.

"I got some stuff from Maggie. She says she--what did she do, Anndie?"

In the background, a quiet female voice says, "sequenced."

"She sequenced the stuff."

"The amino acid sequence," Anndie clarifies, her voice faint but still
audible.

"And?" John is waiting anxiously.

"Well, it just looks like a lot of T'a and A's and G's and C's and U's,"
Jimmy sounds sincerely puzzled.

"Where are you guys?" Mel demands.

"In a closed phone booth. You wouldn't believe where we had to go to
find one."

"They're in Stuckey's, man. Stuckey's is like the only place still has
'em," Ringo mutters.

"Shush!" Mel admonishes him.

"She says she's like blasted everything and she can't find it," Jimmy
continues to sound puzzled.

Deborah, now awake, says in a voice that would not betray how long she'd
been out, demands that he put Anndie on.

"Yes?" Anndie sounds frightened, hesitant.

"What do you know about this, Anndie?" Deborah asks her, managing to
keep her bitchy surgeon voice out of it. The rest must have done her good.

"Uh...you know, I worked on some stuff in the lab with Clobot," she
says, her voice nervous and thin.

"What the fuck is Clobot?" Ringo demands.

"Clostridium botulinum," Anndie says, sounding as though she's going to
be ill. "That's what this is from."

"But Jimmy says it's not in BLAST," Deborah says.

"It wouldn't be. I don't know where it would be." Anndie sounds near
tears. "Maggie's looked in every database in the world."

"We think we know where to find it," John says softly. "Anndie, can you
email us the amino acid sequence?"

"What good will that do you? We don't even have the proteins sequenced
yet," she says mournfully. "Maggie's trying. She's probably been working
all night."

"Send what you have." He gives her detailed instructions about going to
an Internet café and what account to use and where to send it.

"But you guys...you're not geneticists or biochemists...what can you
do?" Obviously Jimmy hasn't acquainted her with some of the guys' more
illicit activities. Just as well.

"Let's just say we have a knack for finding things," Mel says simply.

Jimmy comes back on. "She's a real nice girl. She's real scared and she
feels real bad about all this."

"Give her a quarter and tell her to call someone who cares," Mel snaps.
"Get the information to us, fast. Yesterday would be good. And Jimmy?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't fuck it up," Ringo tells him.

"Which means thanks for all your help," John translates. Jimmy laughs
very lightly. He understands.

"Go on. Git," Mel orders. When the phone call ends, he yawns and
announces that he's taking a nap and to wake him up when the email arrives.

Sari shakes her head and reproaches Mel and Ringo somewhat. "Jimmy and
Anndie are out there risking their necks, and the way you talk to them
is terrible."

Ringo yawns and snuggles back under the blankets. "Hey, Jimmy lives with
us. He knows what we mean."

"Yes, but what about poor Anndie?" Sari shoots back.

"She'll get used to it if she sticks around Jimmy long enough," Mel says
as he drifts back to sleep. "Although I say, perish the thought."

"I'm going on PubMed," Deborah announces. "Ringo, can you get me in
before you crash and burn?"

"The woman has an MD from one of the best universities in the world and
creds up the ass, and she can't program her VCR," Ringo teases her gently.

"And I don't plan to learn. I have you for that." She smiles at him
tenderly.

"Nice to know you're keeping me around for something," Ringo kids back.
Yes, knocking Deborah out for seven hours was not a mistake. She's in
much better spirits. "Other than for taking specimens out of."

"I'll take a specimen from you. But not for lab use." She winks at him.

We laugh. What a glorious sound.
 

The email, which John and Sari have been monitoring for, arrives about
an hour later.

"Wake up, guys, we have the goods," he calls out to the others. "Jimmy
came through."

"Miracles never cease," Ringo mutters.

"Shut up, Ringo," Sari bites back at him. He sticks his tongue out at her.

"We don't have to go on line again, do we?" I have to admit, all this is
making my blood pressure skyrocket. I took it a while ago, and the
results were not pleasant.

"We'll see," John says. "Okay, Langly, see if you can open the files."

"Nothing like a good decrypt to start the day," Langly says, a slightly
fiendish smile on his face.

"You can get them open, can't you?" My anxiety is taking over. Maybe I
need to get some real sleep.

"Like they could keep us out." Ringo looks like a little kid in a candy
store who's just been told he can have whatever he wants for free. I
don't feel exactly the same way. But I know that this has to be done. I
just keep telling myself, they're the best in the business...whatever
their business happens to be.

"Deborah, I'm taking a nap," I announce. I'm afraid if I don't get some
sleep now, I'll really start climbing the walls.

"Need me to give you a little special sauce?" she asks archly. She
stares at me meaningfully. "Yeah, you doctored my diet Coke, I know you
did, don't deny it."

"Guilty as charged." No point in denying it.

"Thanks. I needed that." She grins and waves me out of the room.
 

To my surprise, I fall into a deep sleep, and I'm dreaming about
tropical islands and rubbing suntan lotion on Mel's furry back when I
feel myself shaken awake. It's Sari.

"Wake up. I think we have it," Sari says quietly.

"Have--what? They found something?" I'm still in a fog and definitely
discouraged to wake up and find I'm not on a tropical island.

"They think so. Come and take a look."

"How long was I asleep?"

"About three hours. I hope, I pray, this is what we need." Her face,
hopeful a moment ago, becomes pale and strained.

"Join the club, honey."
 

"Here's what we found," Mel tells me. "See the sequence Anndie emailed us?"

I know basic genetics and biochem, so I can read the sequence, but I
really can't interpret it.

"And see this one?" John says. "Look at the sector numbers and
sequencing. We matched it up. It's identical."

"That's great news." I feel a surge of relief flood through me.

Leave it to Deborah to cut that short. "Not necessarily. You know what
this is?"

"No."

"Amino acid sequence for C. botulinum."

One of the most deadly toxins in the world. I've dealt with some cases
of it. In every case...

It was fatal.

"But it's been modified," John cuts in. "See those U's in the stop
codons? You should never have uracil in DNA. Someone did some serious
manipulation of the RNA in order to get that in there."

"Theoretically, you could modify the gene and slow the effects," Deborah
says. "I think that's what they did here, but like the rest of you guys,
no biochemist or geneticist am I."

"We need to get this to Maggie," Sari says restlessly.

"Jimmy is due to call in about an hour," Mel explains. "They're going to
take Maggie out to lunch. We really shouldn't contact her directly, but
I don't see any way around it at this point."

"Out to lunch? Knowing Jimmy, it's probably Waffle House," Ringo says,
shaking his blonde locks, now pulled back in a greasy ponytail.

"You like Waffle House," John reminds him pointedly.

"But I wouldn't like take a girl there," Ringo says back.

"No, you just take me to Hugo's," Deborah laughs.

"But you said you like Hugo's! You said you like a good cholesterol fest!"

"I love Hugo's," she laughs. "But I wouldn't object if you took me to
Waffle House."

"You gotta tell me these things, Deb, I don't read minds," Ringo says.

"What about you?" I slip in by Mel, wrapping my arm around his
shoulders. "I'm guessing you've done your time in Waffle House. I saw
your cholesterol count." Which is on the high side.

"Right now, I'm thinking some rum drinks sound pretty good. With white
sand and hot and cold running barmaids," Mel closes his eyes.

"He drinks girly drinks," Ringo taunts.

"Oh, and you don't? What about that blue monstrosity you ordered at Café
Jamaica one time just so you could get the supersized umbrella?" Mel
reminds him of a past deed.

"My mom always said don't eat or drink anything blue. So I ordered the
blue drink." He says it as if to say, doesn't this seem perfectly
logical to you. "Besides, I got to keep the umbrella."

John and Mel roll their eyes, Sari shakes her head, and Deborah just
laughs. "If any of you are calling his masculinity into question, allow
me to allay your doubts."

"Please. That definitely falls under the category of too much
information," Mel groans.

"Speaking of information, I hope we have enough," John's voice turns
somber and a bit shaky. "All I know is, I can't type anymore. I hope
Maggie can help us before things get worse."

Silence falls. We wait for Jimmy again.
 

Jimmy's late calling, and this makes us nervous. The guys doze fitfully,
Deborah and Sari cruise PubMed but it's clear their minds are not on it,
and I just sit with Mel, holding his hand, rubbing his back, doing what
I can to ease the tremors. They're not markedly worse than last night,
but who knows how long, and whether this is temporary or permanent, or
what comes next.

Finally. There's an audible release of sharp breath around the room,
although Mel grumbles that it's probably a telemarketer.

"Dr. Rose is with me," Jimmy announces, a little more alert this time
than last, but also a little more anxious.

"Put her on," Deborah instructs. "Hey. We found something you might find
useful."

"Deborah, I went through every BLAST in the world--"

"And you wouldn't have found it. But we did. I'm not much good in your
line of work, but looks to me like they've got the genome on this thing."

"Who's 'they'?" Maggie, departing from her usual self, is slightly tart
here. I don't think she's had much sleep lately.

"This was developed as a bioweapon, Mags."

Silence.

Finally, "How do you know this? Where did you find it?"

"We won't say you won't know and then you won't get into trouble, but we
need to get it all to you so you can start concocting a treatment protocol."

Maggie laughs, but it's not soft and musical like in days past. More
harsh and bitter. "Deborah, even with the genome in hand--and believe
me, I'm not about to ask where you got it--developing a treatment
protocol? You're talking about at least ten years' worth of work."

"We don't have ten years. We might not even have ten days. Take your
best guess and run with it."

"Do you realize what you're asking me to do?" Maggie is starting to
sound very upset. "You're asking me to do gene therapy for something I
barely know anything about. That's crazy. That's irresponsible. That's--"

"Our only chance," John says firmly.

"You realize that the consequences might be just as deadly," Maggie
continues in a very unhappy tone. "I'm sorry, it's unethical for me to
do this."

"Like I'm gonna report you to peer review," Deborah shoots back.

Silence again. "Send me the information."

"We'll email it to you," Mel says.

"No, you can't send this to my work or home--"

"We wouldn't dream of it," John says soothingly. "Jimmy can help you there."

Maggie coughs a little. "You mean Mr. Thousand Dollars Worth of Damage
in the Lab in Under 15 minutes?"

I was afraid that was going to happen, and the guys groan out loud.

"He's actually very reliable, given the proper tasks," John explains.

"Whatever those are," mumbles Ringo.

"I want to speak to Deborah privately now," Maggie says. Deborah picks
up the receiver and turns off the speaker.

Not much is said on Deborah's end, except a few 'uh-huhs' and 'I
understand.' When she quietly hangs up the phone, I'm expecting the worst.

"Is she going to help us?" Ringo asks, his playful expression gone.

"She's going to do whatever she can." Deborah shakes her head. "You do
understand that this is really risky. I mean, really, really major
league risky."

"We're used to it by now," Mel says. "It's become a lifestyle with us."

"Yeah, well, it's you could be dead risky," Deborah warns him. Not that
we need any reminding. "If she aims wrong, and she could, even doing her
best, it's gonna be bad news."

"So what's the alternative?" Mel demands of her. "Wait here and die
without trying?"

Deborah eyes him severely. "I never let anyone die without trying
everything."

"So you would do a risky procedure on a patient if it looked like the
alternative was death, even if death could be the outcome of a
procedure," John says quietly.

"Look, first dictate in medicine is do no harm. I'm sorry, I can't
guarantee that's not gonna happen."

The three eye each other.

"I think it's worth the risk," John says seriously.

"You think I'm in the mood to just lie here and try nothing? Get real,"
Mel is gruff.

"Remember what I said about not naming our firstborn Yves?" Ringo's
voice is lightly teasing, but his expression clearly says, I want to
live and I'm gonna.

"Then I guess we're all of one mind here," Deborah says. "We'll see what
Maggie comes up with."

"You said she's the best, and from what we've seen online, she's one of
the premiere virologists in the world," John says.

"Yeah, but she's not God. That's just a myth they feed you in med
school." Deborah shakes her head.

"And didn't you say it only applies to surgeons?" Ringo can still find
it in him to tease her.

"Ringo, if I were God, none of this would be going on. I'll remind
myself of that next time I get carried away with myself."

Humility will yet be another lesson on this journey.