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Frederik Pohl

Here’s a wise and gentle story by one of science fiction’s best-known authors, one that takes us to a friendly island paradise that is perhaps a little too good to be true . . .

A seminal figure whose career spans almost the entire development of modem SF, Frederik Pohl has been one of the genre’s major shaping forcesas writer, editor, agent, and anthologist—for more than fifty years. He was the founder of the Star series, SF’s first continuing anthology series, and was the editor of the Galaxy group of magazines from 1960 to 1969, during which time Galaxy’s sister magazine, Worlds of If, won three consecutive Best Professional Magazine Hugos. As a writer, he has several times won Nebula and Hugo Awards, as well as the American Book Award and the French Prix Apollo. His many books include several written in collaboration with the late C.M. Kornbluthincluding The Space Merchants, Wolfbane, and Gladiator-at-Law—and many solo novels, including Gateway, Man Plus, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, The Coming of the Quantum Cats, and Mining the Oort. Among his many collections are The Gold at the Starbow’s End, In the Problem Pit, and The Best of Frederik Pohl. He also wrote a nonfiction book in collaboration with Isaac Asimov, Our Angry Earth, and an autobiography, The Way the Future Was. His most recent books are the novels O Pioneer!, The Siege of Eternity, and The Far Shore of Time.


The place they called the Starlight Casino was full of people, a tour group by their looks. I had a few minutes before my appointment with Mr. Kavilan, and sometimes you got useful bits of knowledge from people who had just been through the shops, the hotels, the restaurants, the beaches. Not this time, though. They were an incoming group, and ill-tempered. Their calves under the hems of the bright shorts were hairy ivory or bald, and all they wanted to talk about was lost luggage, unsatisfactory rooms, moldy towels and desk clerks who gave them the wrong keys. There were a surly couple of dozen of them clustered around a placatory tour representative in a white skirt and frilly green blouse. She was fine. It was gently, “We’ll find it,” to this one and sweetly, “I’ll talk to the maid myself,” to another, and I made a note of the name on her badge. Deirdre. It was worth remembering. Saints are highly valued in the hotel business. Then, when the bell captain came smiling into the room to tell me that Mr. Kavilan was waiting for me—and didn’t have his hand out for a tip—I almost asked for his name, too. It was a promising beginning. If the island was really as “kindly” as they claimed, that would be a significant plus on my checklist.

Personnel was not my most urgent concern, though. My present task was only to check out the physical and financial aspects of a specific project. I entered the lobby and looked around for my real-estate agent—and was surprised when the beachcomber type by the breezeway stretched out his hand. “Mr. Wenright? I’m Dick Kavilan.”

He was not what I expected. I knew that R.T. Kavilan was supposed to be older than I, and I took my twenty-year retirement from government service eight years ago. This man did not seem that old. His hair was blond and full, and he had an all-around-the-face blond beard that surrounded a pink nose, bronzed cheeks and bright blue eyes. He didn’t think of himself as old, either, because all he had on was white ducks and sandals. He wore no shirt at all, and his body was as lean and tanned as his face. I had dressed for the tropics, too, but not in the same way: white shoes and calf-length white socks, pressed white shorts and a maroon T-shirt with the golden insignia of our Maui hotel over the heart. I understood what he meant when he glanced at my shoes and said, “We’re informal here—I hope you don’t mind.” Formal he certainly was not.

He was, however, effortlessly efficient. He pulled his open Saab out of the cramped hotel lot, found a gap in the traffic, greeted two friends along the road and said to me, “It’ll be slow going through Port, but once we get outside it’s only twenty minutes to Keytown”—all at once.

“I’ve got all day,” I said.

He nodded, taking occasional glances at me to judge what kind of a customer I was going to be. “I thought,” he offered, “that you might want to make just a preliminary inspection this morning. Then there’s a good restaurant in Keytown. We can have lunch and talk—what’s the matter?” I was craning my neck at a couple we had just passed along the road, a woman who looked like a hotel guest and a dark, elderly man. “Did you see somebody you wanted to talk to?”

We took a corner and I straightened up. “Not exactly,” I said. Somebody I had once wanted to talk to? No. That wasn’t right, either. Somebody I should have wanted to talk to once, but hadn’t, really? Especially about such subjects as Retroviridae and the substantia nigra?

“If it was the man in the straw hat,” said Kavilan, “that was Professor Michaelis. He the one?”

“I never heard of a Professor Michaelis,” I said, wishing it were not a lie.


In the eight years since I took the hotel job I’ve visited more than my share of the world’s beauty spots—Pago-Pago and the Costa Brava, Martinique and Lesbos, Bermuda, Kauai, Barbados, Tahiti. This was not the most breathtaking, but it surely was pretty enough to suit any tourist who ever lived. The beaches were golden and the water crystal. There were thousand-foot forested peaks, and even a halfway-decent waterfall just off the road. In a lot of the world’s finest places there turns out to be a hidden worm in the mangosteen—bribe-hungry officials, or revolutions simmering off in the bush, or devastating storms. According to Dick Kavilan, the island had none of those.

“Then why did the Dutchmen give up?” I asked. It was a key question. A Rotterdam syndicate was supposed to have sunk fourteen million dollars into the hotel project I had come to inspect—and walked away when it was three-quarters built.

“They just ran out of money, Mr. Wenright.”

“Call me Jerry, please,” I said. That was what the preliminary report had indicated. Probably true. Tropical islands were a bottomless pit for the money of optimistic cold-country investors. If Marge had lived and we had done what we planned, we might have gone bust ourselves in Puerto Rico . . . if she had lived.

“Then, Jerry,” he grinned, turning into a rutted dirt road I hadn’t even seen, “we’re here.” He stopped the car and got out to unlock a chain-link gate that had not been unlocked recently. Nor had the road recently been driven. Palm fronds buried most of it and vines had reclaimed large patches.

Kavilan got back in the car, panting—he was not all that youthful, after all—and wiped rust off his hands with a bandanna. “Before we put up that fence,” he said, “people would drive in or bring boats up to the beach at night and load them with anything they could carry. Toilets. Furniture. Windows, frames and all. They ripped up the carpets where they found any, and where there wasn’t anything portable they broke into the walls for copper piping.”

“So there isn’t fourteen million dollars left in it,” I essayed.

He let the grin broaden. “Look now, bargain later, Jerry. There’s plenty left for you to see.”

There was, and he left me alone to see it. He was never so far away that I couldn’t call a question to him, but he didn’t hang himself around my neck, either. I didn’t need to ask many questions. It was obvious that what Kavilan (and the finders’ reports) had said was true. The place had been looted, all right. It was capricious, with some sections apparently hardly touched. Some were hit hard. Paintings that had been screwed to the wall had been ripped loose—real oils, I saw from one that had been ruined and left. A marble dolphin fountain had been broken off and carted a few steps away—then left shattered on the walk.

I had come prepared with a set of builder’s plans, and they showed me that there were to have been four hundred guest rooms, a dozen major function areas, bars and restaurants, an arcade of shops in the basement, a huge wine cellar under even that, two pools, a sauna—those were just the sections where principal construction had gone well along before the Dutchmen walked away. I saw as much of it as I could in two hours. When my watch said eleven-thirty I sat down on an intact stone balustrade overlooking the gentle breakers on the beach and waited for Kavilan to join me. “What about water availability?” I asked.

“A problem, Jerry,” he agreed. “You’ll need to lay a mile and a quarter of new mains to connect with the highway pipes, and then when you get the water it’ll be expensive.”

I wrinkled my nose. “What’s that smell?”

He laughed. “Those are some of the dear departed on the island, I’m afraid, and that’s another problem. Let’s move on before we lose our taste for lunch.”


Kavilan was as candid as I could have hoped, and a lot more so than I would have been in his place. It was an island custom, he said, to entomb their dead aboveground instead of burying them. Unfortunately, the marble boxes were seldom watertight. The seepage I had smelled was a very big minus to the project, but Kavilan shook his head when I said so. He reached into the hip pocket of his jeans, unfolded a sweat-proof wallet and took out a typed, three-page list.

I said he was candid. The list included all the things I would have asked him about:


The total on the three-page list, taking the estimated figures at face value, came to over three million dollars. Half the items on it I hadn’t even expected.

The first course was coming and I didn’t want to ruin a good lunch with business, so I looked for permission, then pocketed the paper as the conch salad arrived. Kavilan was right. It was good. The greens were fresh, the chunks of meat chewed easily, the dressing was oil and vinegar but with some unusual additions that made it special. Mustard was easy to pick out, and a brush of garlic, but there were others. I thought of getting this chef’s name, too.

And thought it again when I found that the escalope of veal was as good as the conch. The wine was even better, but I handled it sparingly. I didn’t know Dick Kavilan well enough to let myself be made gullible by adding a lot of wine to a fine meal, a pretty restaurant and a magnificent view of a sun-drenched bay. We chatted socially until the demitasses came. How long had he been on the island? Only two years, he said, surprising me. When he added that he’d been in real estate in Michigan before that, I connected the name. “Sellman and Kavilan,” I said. “You put together the package on the Upper Peninsula for us.” It was a really big, solid firm. Not the kind you take early retirement from.

“That’s right,” he said. “I liked Michigan. But then I came down here with some friends who had a boat—I’m a widower, my boys are grown—and then I only went back to Michigan long enough to sell out.”

“Then there really is a lure of the islands.”

“Why, that’s what you’re here to find out, Jerry,” he said, the grin back again. “How about you? Married?”

“I’m a widower, too,” I said, and touched my buttoned pocket. “Are these costs solid?”

“You’ll want to check them out for yourself, but, yes, I think so. Some are firm bids. The others are fairly conservative estimates.” He waved to the waiter, who produced cigars. Cuban Perfectos. When we were both puffing, he said, “My people will put in writing that if the aggregate costs go more than twenty percent over the list we’ll pay one-third of the excess as forfeit.” Now, that was an interesting offer! I didn’t agree to it, not even a nod, but at that point Kavilan didn’t expect me to. “When the Dutchmen went bust,” he added, “that list added up to better than nine million.”

No wonder they went bust! “How come there’s a six-million-dollar difference?”

He waved his cigar. “That was seven years ago. I guess people were meaner then. Or maybe the waiting wore the creditors down. Well. What’s your pleasure for this afternoon, Jerry? Another look at the site, or back to the Port?”

“Port, I think,” I said reluctantly.

The idea of spending an afternoon on the telephone and visiting government offices seemed like a terrible waste of a fine day, but that was what they paid me for.

It kept me busy. As far as I could check, the things Kavilan had told me were all true, and checking was surprisingly easy. The government records clerks were helpful, even when they had to pull out dusty files, and all the people who said they’d return my calls did. It wasn’t such a bad day. But then it wasn’t the days that were bad.

I put off going to bed as long as I could, with a long, late dinner, choosing carefully between the local lobster and what the headwaiter promised would be first-rate prime rib. He was right; the beef was perfect. Then I put a quarter into every fifth slot machine in the hotel casino as long as my quarters held out; but when the light by my bed was out and my head was on the pillow the pain moved in. There was a soft Caribbean moon in the window and the sound of palms rustling in the breeze. They didn’t help. The only question was whether I would cry myself to sleep. I still did that, after eight years, about one night in three, and this was a night I did.


I thought if I had an early breakfast I’d have the dining room to myself, so I could do some serious thinking about Val Michaelis. I was wrong. The tour group had a trip in a glass-bottomed boat that morning and the room was crowded; the hostess apologetically seated me with a young woman I had seen before. We’d crossed paths in the casino as we each got rid of our cups of quarters. Hair to her shoulders, no makeup—I’d thought at first she was a young girl, but in the daylight that was revised by a decade or so. She was civil—civilly silent, except for a “Good morning” and now and then a “May I have the marmalade?”—and she didn’t blow smoke in my face until we were both onto our second cups of coffee. If the rest of her tour had been as well-schooled as she it would have been a pleasant meal. Some of them were all right, but the table for two next to us was planning a negligence suit over a missing garment bag, and the two tables for four behind us were exchanging loud ironies about the bugs they’d seen, or thought they had seen, in their rooms. When she got up she left with a red-haired man and his wife—one of the more obnoxious couples present, I thought, and felt sorry for her.

Kavilan had given me the gate key, and the bell captain found me a car rental. I drove back to the hotel site. This time I took a notebook, a hammer, a Polaroid, and my Swiss Army knife.

Fortunately, the wind was the other way this morning and the aromatic reminders of mortality were bothering some other part of the shoreline. Before going in, I walked around the fence from the outside, snapping pictures of the unfinished buildings from several angles. Funny thing. Pushing my way through some overgrown vines I found a section of the fence where the links had been carefully severed with bolt-cutters. The cuts were not fresh, and the links had been rubbed brighter than the rest of the fence; somebody had been getting through anyway, no doubt to pick up a few souvenirs missed by his predecessors. The vines had not grown back, so it had been used fairly recently. I made a note to have Kavilan fix that right away; I didn’t want my inventory made obsolete as soon as I was off the island.

One wing had barely been begun. The foundations were half-full of rain water, but tapping with the hammer suggested the cementwork was sound, and a part where pouring had not been finished showed good iron-bar reinforcement. In the finished wing, the vandalism was appalling but fairly superficial in all but a dozen rooms. A quarter of a million dollars would finish it up, plus furnishings. Some of the pool tiles were cracked—deliberately, it seemed—but most of the fountains would be all right once cleaned up. The garden lighting fixtures were a total write-off.

The main building had been the most complete and also the most looted and trashed. It might take half a million dollars to fix the damage, I thought, adding up the pages in my notebook. But it was much more than a half-million-dollar building. There were no single rooms there, only guest suites, everyone with its own balcony overlooking the blue bay. There was a space for a ballroom, a space for a casino, a pretty, trellised balcony for a top-floor bar—the design was faultless. So was what existed of the workmanship. I couldn’t find the wine cellar, but the shop level just under the lobby was a pleasant surprise. Some of the shop windows had been broken, but the glass had been swept away and it was the only large area of the hotel without at least one or two piles of human feces. If all the vandals had been as thoughtful as the ones in the shopping corridor, there might have been no need to put up the fence.

About noon I drove down to a little general store—“Li Tsung’s Supermarket,” it called itself—and got materials for a sandwich lunch. I spent the whole day there, and by the time I was heading back to the hotel I had just about made up my mind: the site was a bargain, taken by itself.

Remained to check out the other factors.


My title in the company is Assistant International Vice President for Finance. I was a financial officer when I worked at the government labs, and money is what I know. You don’t really know about money unless you know how to put a dollar value on all the things your money buys, though, so I can’t spend all my time with the financial reports and the computer. When I recommend an acquisition I have to know what comes with it. So, besides checking out the hotel site and the facts that Kavilan had given me, I explored the whole island. I drove the road from the site to the airport three times—once in sunlight, once in rain and once late at night—counting up potholes and difficult turns to make sure it would serve for a courtesy van. Hotel guests don’t want to spend all their time in their hotels. They want other things to go to, so I checked out each of the island’s fourteen other beaches. They want entertainment at night, so I visited three discos and five other casinos—briefly—and observed, without visiting, the three-story verandahed building demurely set behind high walls and a wrought-iron gate that was the island’s officially licensed house of prostitution. I even signed up for the all-island guided bus tour to check for historical curiosities and points of interest and I did not, even once, open the slim, flimsy telephone directory to see if there was a listing for Valdos E. Michaelis, Ph.D.

The young woman from the second morning’s breakfast was on the same tour bus and once again she was alone. Or wanted to be alone. Halfway around the island we stopped for complimentary drinks and when I got back on the bus she was right behind me. “Do you mind if I sit here?” she asked.

“Of course not,” I said politely, and didn’t ask why. I didn’t have to. I’d seen the college kid in the tank top and cutoffs earnestly whispering in her ear for the last hour, and just before we stopped for drinks he gave up whispering and started bullying.

I had decided I didn’t like the college kid either, so that was a bond. The fact that we were both loners and not predatory about trying to change that was another. Each time the bus stopped for a photo opportunity we two grabbed quick puffs on our cigarettes instead of snapping pictures—smokers are an endangered species, and that’s a special bond these days—so it was pretty natural that when I saw her alone again at breakfast the next morning I asked to join her. And when she looked envious at what I told her I was going to do that day, I invited her along.


Among the many things that Marge’s death has made me miss is someone to share adventures with—little adventures, the kind my job keeps requiring of me, like chartering a boat to check out the hotel site from the sea. If Marge had lived to take these trips with me, I would be certain I had the very best job in the world. Well, it is the best job in the world, anyway; it’s the world that isn’t as good anymore.

The Esmeralda was a sport-fishing boat that doubled as a way for tourists to get out on the wet part of the world for fun. It was a thirty-footer, with a 200-horsepower outboard motor and a cabin that contained a V-shaped double berth up forward, and a toilet and galley amidships. It also came with a captain named Ildo, who was in fact the whole crew. His name was Spanish, he said he was Dutch, his color was assorted and his accent was broad Islands. When I asked him how business was he said, “Aw, slow, mon, but when it comes January—” he said “Johnerary”—“it’ll be good.” And he said it grinning to show he believed it, but the grin faded. I knew why. He was looking at my face, and wondering why his charter this day didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.

I was trying, though. The Esmeralda was a lot too much like the other charter boat, the Princess Peta, for me to be at ease, but I really was doing my best to keep that other boat out of my mind. It occurred to me to wonder if, somewhere in my subconscious, I had decided to invite this Edna Buckner along so that I would have company to distract me on the Esmeralda. It then occurred to me that, if that was the reason, my subconscious was a pretty big idiot. Being alone on the boat would have been bad. Being with a rather nice-looking woman was worse.

The bay was glassy, but when we passed the headland light we were out in the swell of the ocean. I went back to see how my guest was managing. Even out past shelter the sea was gentle enough, but as we were traveling parallel to the waves there was some roll. It didn’t seem to bother Edna Buckner at all. As she turned toward me she looked nineteen years again, and I suddenly realized why. She was enjoying herself. I didn’t want to spoil that for her, and so I sat down beside her, as affable and charming as I knew how to be.

She wasn’t nineteen. She was forty-one and, she let me know without exactly saying, unmarried, at least at the moment. She wasn’t exactly traveling alone; she was the odd corner of a threesome with her sister and brother-in-law. They (she let me know, again without actually saying) had decided on the trip in the hope that it would ease some marital difficulties—and then damaged that project’s chance of success by inviting a third party. “They were just sorry for me,” said Edna, without explaining.

Going over the tour group in my mind, I realized I knew which couple she was traveling with. “The man with red hair,” I guessed, and she nodded.

“And with the disposition to match. You should have heard him in the restaurant last night, complaining because Lucille’s lobster was bigger than his.” Actually, I had. “I will say,” she added, “that he was in a better mood this morning. He even apologized, and he can be a charmer when he chooses. But I wish the trip were over. I’ve had enough fighting to last me the rest of my life.”

She paused and looked at me speculatively for a moment. She was swaying slightly in the roll of the boat, rather nicely as a matter of fact. I started to open my mouth to change the subject but she shook her head. “Do you mind letting your shipmates tell you their troubles, Jerry?”

I happen to be a pretty closed-up person—more so since what happened to Marge. I didn’t know whether I minded or not; there were not very many people who had offered to weep on my shoulder in the past eight years. She didn’t wait for an answer, but went on with a rush: “I know it’s no fun to listen to other people’s problems, but I kind of need to say it out loud. Bert was an alcoholic—my husband. Ex-husband. He beat me about once a week, for ten years. It took me all that time to make up my mind to leave him and so, when you think about it, I seem to be about ten years behind the rest of the world, trying to learn how to be a grown-up woman.”

It obviously cost her something to say that. For a moment I thought she was going to cry, but she smiled instead. “So if I’m a little peculiar, that’s why,” she said, “and thank you for this trip. I can feel myself getting less peculiar every minute!”

Money’s my game, not interpersonal relationships, and I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to react to this unexpected intimacy. Fortunately, my arm did. I leaned forward and put it around her shoulder for a quick, firm hug. “Maybe we’ll both get less peculiar,” I said, and just then Ildo called from the wheel:

“Mon? We’re comin’ up on you-ah bay!”


The hotel site looked even more beautiful from the water than it had from the land. There was a pale half-moon of beach that reached from one hill on the south to another at the northern end, and a white collar of breaking wavelets all its length. The water was crystal. When Ildo dropped anchor I could follow the line all twenty-odd feet to the rippled sand bottom. The only ugliness was the chain-link fence that marched around the building site itself.

The bay was not quite perfect. It was rather shallow from point to point, so that wind-surfing hotel guests who ventured more than a hundred yards out might find themselves abruptly in stronger seas. But that was a minor problem. Very few tourists would be able to stay on the boards long enough to go a hundred yards in any direction at all. The ones who might get out where they would be endangered would have the skills to handle it. And there was plenty of marine life for snorkelers and scuba-divers to look at. Ildo showed us places in under the rocky headlands where lobsters could be caught. “Plenty now,” he explained. “Oh, mon, six years ago was bad. No lobster never, but they all come back now.”

The hotel, I observed, had been intelligently sited. It wasn’t dead center in the arc of the bay, but enough around the curve toward the northern end so that every one of the four hundred private balconies would get plenty of sun: extra work for the air conditioners, but satisfied guests. The buildings were high enough above the water to be safe from any likely storm surf—and anyway, I had already established, storms almost never struck the island from the west. And there was a rocky outcrop on the beach just at the hotel itself. That was where the dock would go, with plenty of water for sport-fishing boats—there were plenty of sailfish, tuna and everything else within half an hour’s sail, Ildo said. The dock could even handle a fair-sized private yacht without serious dredging.

While I was putting all this in my notebook, Edna had borrowed mask and flippers from Ildo’s adequate supply and was considerately staying out of my way. It wasn’t just politeness. She was obviously enjoying herself.

I, on the other hand, was itchily nervous. Ildo assured me there was nothing to be nervous about; she was a strong swimmer, there were no sharks or barracuda likely to bother her, she wasn’t so far from the boat that one of us couldn’t have jumped in after her at any time. It didn’t help. I couldn’t focus on the buildings through the finder of the Polaroid for more than a couple of seconds without taking a quick look to make sure she was all right.

Actually there were other reasons for looking at her. She was at home in the water and looked good in it. Edna was not in the least like Marge—tall where Marge had been tiny, hair much darker than Marge’s maple-syrup head. And of course a good deal younger than Marge had been even when I let her die.

It struck me as surprising that Edna was the first woman in years I had been able to look at without wishing she were Marge. And even more surprising that I could think of the death of my wife without that quick rush of pain and horror. When Edna noticed that I had put my camera and notebook away she swam back to the boat and let me help her aboard. “God,” she said, grinning, “I needed that.” And then she waved to the northern headland and said, “I just realized that the other side of that hill must be where my old neighbor lives.”

I said, “I didn’t know you had friends on the island.”

“Just one, Jerry. Not a friend, exactly. Sort of an honorary uncle. He used to live next door to my parents’ house in Maryland, and we kept in touch—in fact, he’s the one that made me want to come here, in his letters. Val Michaelis.”


Ildo offered us grilled lobsters for lunch. While he took the skiff and a face mask off to get the raw materials and Edna retreated to the cabin to change, I splashed ashore. He had brought the Esmeralda close in, and I could catch a glimpse of Edna’s face in the porthole as she smiled out at me, but I wasn’t thinking about her. I was thinking about something not attractive at all, called “bacteriological warfare.”

Actually the kind of warfare we dealt with at the labs wasn’t bacteriological. Bacteria are too easy to kill with broad-spectrum antibiotics. If you want to make a large number of people sick and want them to stay sick long enough to be no further problem, what you want is a virus.

That was the job Val Michaelis had walked away from.

I had walked away from the same place not long after him, and likely for very similar reasons—I didn’t like what was happening there. But there was a difference. I’m an orderly person. I had put in for my twenty-year retirement and left with the consent, if not the blessing, of the establishment. Val Michaelis simply left. When he didn’t return to the labs from vacation, his assistant went looking for him at his house. When the house turned up empty, others had begun to look. But by then Michaelis had had three weeks to get lost in. The search was pretty thorough, but he was never found. After a few years, no doubt, the steam had gone out of it, as new lines of research outmoded most of what he had been working on. That was a nasty enough business. I wasn’t a need-to-knower and all I ever knew of it was an occasional slip. That was more than I wanted, though. Now and then I would spend an hour or two in the public library to make sure I’d got the words right, and try to figure how to put them together, and I think I had at least the right general idea. There are these things called oncoviruses, a whole family of them. One kind seems to cause leukemia. A couple of others don’t seem to bother anybody but mice. But another kind, what they called “type D,” likes monkeys, apes and human beings; and that was what Michaelis was working on. At first I thought he was trying to produce a weapon that would cause cancer and that didn’t seem sensible—cancers take too long to develop to be much help on a battlefield. Then I caught another phrase: “substantia nigra.” The library told me that that was a small, dark mass of cells way inside the brain. The substantia nigra’s A9 cells control the physical things you learn to do automatically, like touch-typing or riding a bike; and near them are the Al0 cells, which do something to control emotions. None of that helped me much, either, until I heard one more word:


I left the library that day convinced that I was helping people develop a virus that would turn normal people into psychotics.

Later on—long after Val had gone AWOL and I’d gone my own way—some of the work was declassified, and the open literature confirmed part, and corrected part. There was still a pretty big question of whether I understood all I was reading, but it seemed that what the oncovirus D might do was to mess up some dopamine cells in and around the substantia nigra, producing a condition that was not psychotic exactly, but angry, tense, irresponsible—the sort of thing you hear about in kids that have burned their brains out with amphetamines. And the virus wouldn’t reproduce in any mammals but primates. They couldn’t infect any insects at all. Without rats or mice or mosquitoes or lice to carry it, how do you spread that kind of disease? True, they could have looked for a vector among, say, the monotremes or the marsupials—but how are you going to introduce a herd of sick platypuses into the Kremlin?

Later on, I am sure, they found meaner and easier bugs; but that was the one Michaelis and I had run away from. And nobody had seen Val Michaelis again—until I did, from Dick Kavilan’s Saab.

Of course, Michaelis had more reason to quit than I did, and far more reason to hide. I only made up the payrolls and audited the bills. He did the molecular biology that turned laboratory cultures into killers.


The lobsters were delicious, split and broiled over a driftwood fire. Ildo had brought salad greens and beer from Port, and plates to eat it all on. China plates, not paper, and that was decent of him—he wasn’t going to litter the beauty of the beach. While we were picking the last of the meat out of the shells Edna was watching me. I was doing my best to do justice to the lunch, but I don’t suppose I was succeeding. Strange sensation. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t unaware of the taste of the lobster, or the pleasure of Edna’s company, or the charm of the beach. I was very nearly happy, in a sort of basic, background way, but there were nastinesses just outside that gentle sphere of happiness, and they were nagging at me. I had felt like that before, time and again, in fact; most often when Marge and I were planning what to do with my retirement, and it all seemed rosy except for the constant sting of knowing the job I would have to finish first. The job was part of it now, or Val Michaelis was, and so was the way Marge died, and the two of them were spoiling what should have been perfection. Edna didn’t miss what was going on, she simply diagnosed it wrong. “I guess I shouldn’t have dumped my troubles on you, Jerry,” she said, as Ildo picked up the plates and buried the ashes of the fire.

“Oh, no,” I said. “No, it’s not that—I’m glad you told me.” I was, though I couldn’t have said why, exactly; it was not a habit of mine to want that kind of intimacy from another person, because I didn’t want to offer them any of mine. I said, “It’s Val Michaelis.”

She nodded. “He’s in some kind of trouble? I thought it was strange that he’d bury himself here.”

“Some kind,” I agreed. “Or was. Maybe it’s all over now.” And then I made my decision. “I’d like to go see him.”

“Oh,” said Edna, “I don’t know if he’s still on the island.”

“Why not?”

“He said he was leaving. He’s been planning to for some time—he only stayed on to see us. What’s this, Friday? The last time I saw him was Tuesday, and he was packing up then. He may be gone.”

And he was. When Ildo deposited us at the Keytown dock and the taxi took us to the apartments where Michaelis had lived, the door of his place was unlocked. The rented furniture was there, but the closets were empty, and so were the bureau drawers, and of an occupant the only sign remaining was an envelope addressed to Edna:

I thought I’d better leave while Gerald was still wrestling with his conscience. If you see him, thank him for the use of his space—and I hope we’ll meet again in a couple of years.

Edna looked up at me in puzzlement. “Do you know what that part about your space means?”

I gave the note back to her and watched her fold it up and put it in her bag. I thought of asking her to burn it, but that would just make it more important to her. I wanted her to forget it. I said, “No,” which was somewhat true. I didn’t know. And I surely didn’t want to guess.


By the time we were back on the boat I was able to be cheerful again, at least on the surface. When we docked at our own hotel Edna went on ahead to change, while I sent Ildo happily off with a big tip. He was, Edna had said, a pretty sweet man. He was not alone in that; nearly everyone I’d met on the island was as kindly as the island claimed, and it hurt me to think of Val Michaelis going on with his work in this gentle place.

We had agreed to meet for a drink before dinner—we had taken it for granted that we were going to have dinner together—and when I came to Edna’s room to pick her up she invited me in. “The Starlight Casino is pretty noisy, Jerry, and I’ve got this perfectly beautiful balcony to use up. Can you drink gin and tonic?”

“My very favorite,” I said. That wasn’t true. I didn’t much like the taste of quinine water, or of gin, either, but sitting on a warm sunset balcony with Edna was a lot more attractive than listening to rockabilly music in the bar.

But I wasn’t good company. Seeing Edna off by herself in the bay had set off one set of memories, Val Michaelis’s note had triggered another. I didn’t welcome either train of thought, because they were intruders; I was feeling almost happy, almost at peace—and those two old pains kept coming in to remind me of misery and fear. I did my best. Edna had set out glasses, bottles, a bucket of ice, a plate of things to nibble on, and the descending sun was perfect. “This is really nice. Marge,” I said, accepting a refill of my glass . . . and only heard myself when I saw the look on her face.

“I mean Edna,” I said.

She touched my hand when she gave the glass back to me. “I think that’s a compliment, Jerry,” she said sweetly.

I thought that over. “I guess it is,” I said. “You know, I’ve never done that before. Called someone else by my wife’s name, I mean. Of course, I haven’t often been in the sort of situation where—” I stopped there, because it didn’t seem right to define what I thought the present “situation” was.

She started to speak, hesitated, took a tiny sip of her drink, started again, stopped and finally laughed—at herself, I realized. “Jerry,” she said, “you can tell me to mind my own business if you want to, because I know I ought to. But you told me your wife died eight years ago. Are you saying you’ve never had a private drink with a woman since then?”

“Well, no—it has happened now and then,” I said, and then added honestly, “but not very often. You see—”

I stopped and swallowed. The expression on her face was changing, the smile softening. She reached out to touch my hand.

And then I found myself telling her the whole thing.

Not the whole whole thing. I did not tell her what the surfboard looked like, with the ragged half-moon gap in the side, and I didn’t tell her what Marge’s body had looked like—what was left of it—when at last they found it near the shore, eight days later. But I told her the rest. Turning in my retirement papers. The trip to California to see her folks. The boat. The surfboard. Marge paddling around in the swell, just before the breaker, while I watched from the boat. “I went down below for just a minute,” I said, “and when I came back on deck she was gone. I could still see the surfboard, but she wasn’t there. I hadn’t heard a thing, although she must have—”

“Oh, Jerry,” said Edna.

“It has to do with water temperatures,” I explained, “and with the increase in the seal population. The great white sharks didn’t used to come up that far north along the coast, but the water’s a little warmer, and there are more seals. That’s what they live on. Seals and other things. And from a shark’s view underwater, you see a person lying on a surfboard, with his arms and legs paddling over the side, looks a lot like a seal . . .”

I saw to my surprise she was weeping. I shouldn’t have been surprised. As I reached forward and put my arms around her, I discovered that I was weeping, too.

That was the biggest surprise of all. I’d done a lot of weeping in eight years, but never once in the presence of another human being, not even the shrinks I’d gone to see. And when the weeping stopped and the kissing began I found that it didn’t seem wrong at all. It seemed very right, and a long, long time overdue.


My remaining business with Dick Kavilan didn’t take long. By the time Edna’s tour group was scheduled to go home, I was ready, too.

The two of us decided not to wait for the bus to the airport. We went early, by taxi, beating the tours to the check-in desk. By the time the first of them arrived we were already sitting at the tiny bar, sipping farewell piña coladas. Only it was not going to be a farewell, not when I had discovered she lived only a few miles from the house I had kept all these years as home base.

When the tour buses began to arrive I could not resist preening my forethought a little. ‘That’s going to be a really ugly scene, trying to check in all at once,” I said wisely.

But really it wasn’t. There were all the ingredients for a bad time, more than three hundred tired tourists trying to get seat assignments from a single airline clerk. But they didn’t jostle. They didn’t snarl, at her or each other. The tiny terminal was steamy with human bodies, but it almost seemed they didn’t even sweat. They were singing and smiling—even Edna’s sister and brother-in-law. They waved up at us, and it looked like their marriage had a good shot at lasting awhile longer, after all.

A sudden gabble from the line of passengers told us what the little callboard confirmed a moment later. Our airplane had arrived from the States. Edna started to collect her bag, her sack of duty-free rum, her boots and fur-collared coat for the landing at Dulles, her little carry-on with the cigarettes and the book to read on the flight, her last-minute souvenir T-shirt . . .

“Hold on,” I said. “We’ve got an hour yet. They’ve got to disembark the arrivals and muck out the plane—you didn’t think we’d leave on time, did you?”

So there was time for another piña colada, and while we were drinking them the newcomers began to straggle off the DC-10. The noise level in the terminal jumped fifteen decibels, and most of it was meal complaints, family arguments and clamor over lost luggage. The departing crowd gazed at their fretful replacements good humoredly.

And all of a sudden that other unpleasant train of thought bit down hard. There was a healing magic on the island, and the thought of Val Michaelis doing the sort of thing he was trained to do here was more than I could bear. I hadn’t turned Michaelis in because I thought he was a decent man. But damaging these kind, gentle people was indecent.

I put down my half-finished drink, stood up and dropped a bill on the table. “Edna,” I said, “I just realized there’s something I have to do. I’m afraid I’m going to miss this flight. I’ll call you in Maryland when I get back—I’m sorry.”

And I really was. Very. But that did not stop me from heading for the phone.


The men from the NSA were there the next morning. Evidently they hadn’t waited for a straight-through flight. Maybe they’d chartered one, or caught a light flight to a nearby island.

But they hadn’t wasted any time.

They could have thanked me for calling them. I thought. They didn’t. They invited me out to their car for privacy—it was about as much of an “invitation” as a draft notice is, and as difficult to decline—while I answered their questions. Then they pulled out of the hotel lot and drove those thirty-mile-an-hour island roads at sixty. We managed not to hit any of the cows and people along the way. We did, I think, score one hen. The driver didn’t even slow down to look.

I was not in the least surprised. I didn’t know the driver, but the other man was Joe Mooney. Now he was a full field investigator, but he had been a junior security officer at the labs when Michaelis walked away. He was a mean little man with a high opinion of himself; he had always thought that the rules he enforced on the people he surveilled didn’t have to apply to him. He proved it. He turned around in the front seat, arm across the back, so he could look at me while ostensibly talking to his partner at the wheel: “You know what Michaelis was working on? Some kind of a bug to drive the Russians nuts.”

“Mooney, watch it!” his partner snapped.

“Oh, it’s all right. Old Jerry knows all about it, and he’s cleared—or used to be.”

“It wasn’t a bug,” I said. “It was a virus. It wouldn’t drive them crazy. It would work on the brain to make them irritable and nasty—a kind of personality change, like some people get after a stroke. And he didn’t just try. He succeeded.”

“And then he ran.”

“And then he ran, yes.”

“Only it didn’t work,” grinned Mooney, “because they couldn’t find a way to spread it. And now what we have to worry about, we have to worry that while he was down here he figured out how to make it work and’s looking for a buyer. Like a Russian buyer.”

Well, I could have argued all of that. But the only part I answered, as we stopped to unlock the chain-link gate, was the last part. And all I said was, “I don’t think so.”

Mooney laughed out loud. “You always were a googoo,” he said. “You sure Michaelis didn’t stick you with some of the stuff in reverse?”


I hadn’t been able to find the entrance of the wine cellar, but that pair of NSA men had no trouble at all. They realized at once that there had to be a delivery system to the main dining room—I hadn’t thought of that. So that’s where they went, and found a small elevator shaft that went two stories down. There wasn’t any elevator, but there were ropes and Mooney’s partner climbed down while Mooney and I went back to the shopping floor. About two minutes after we got there a painters’ scaffold at the end of the hall went over with a crash, and the NSA man pushed his way out of the door it had concealed. Mooney gave me a contemptuous look. “Fire stairs,” he explained. “They had to be there. There has to be another entrance, too—outside, so they can deliver the wine by truck.”

He was right again. From the inside it was easy to spot, even though we had only flashlights to see what we were doing. When Mooney pushed it open we got a flood of tropical light coming, and a terrible smell to go with it. For a moment I wondered if the graveyard wind had shifted again, but it was only a pile of garbage—rotted garbage—long-gone lobster shells and sweepings from the mall and trash of all kinds. It wasn’t surprising no one had found the entrance from outside; the stink was discouraging.

No matter what else I was, I was still a man paid to do a job by his company. So while the NSA team was prodding and peering and taking flash pictures, I was looking at the cellar. It was large enough to handle all the wines a first-class sommelier might want to store; the walls were solid, and the temperature good. With that outside door kept closed, it would be no problem to keep any vintage safely resting here. The Dutchmen shouldn’t have given up so easily, just because they were faced with a lot of lawsuits—but maybe, as Dick Kavilan had said, people were meaner then.

I blinked when Joe Mooney poked his flashlight in my face. “What are you daydreaming about?” he demanded.

I pushed his hand away. “Have you seen everything you need?” I asked.

He looked around. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, really. Along one wall there were large glass tanks—empty, except for a scummy inch or two of liquid at the bottom of some of them, fishy smelling and unappetizing. There were smaller tanks on the floor, and marks on the rubber tile to show where other things had been that now were gone. “He took everything that matters out,” he grumbled. “Son of a bitch! He got clean away.”

“We’ll find him,” his partner said.

“Damn right, but what was he doing here? Trying out his stuff on the natives?” Mooney looked at me searchingly. “What do you think, Wenright? Have you heard of any cases of epidemic craziness on the island?”

I shrugged. “I did my part when I called you,” I said. “Now all I want is to go home.”

But it wasn’t quite true. There was something else I wanted, and that was to know if there was any chance at all that what I was beginning to suspect might be true.


The next day I was on the home-bound jet, taking a drink from the stew in the first-class section and still trying to convince myself that what I believed was possible. The people were meaner then. It wasn’t just an offhand remark of Kavilan’s; the hotel manager told me as I was checking out that it was true, yes, a few years ago he had a lot of trouble with help, but lately everybody seemed a lot friendlier. Val Michaelis was a decent man. I’d always believed that, in the face of the indecencies of his work at the labs . . . having left, would he go on performing indecencies?

Could it be that Michaelis had in fact found a different kind of virus? One that worked on different parts of the brain, for different purposes? That made people happier and more gentle, instead of suspicious, paranoid, and dangerous?

I was neither biologist nor brain anatomist to guess if that could be true. But I had the evidence of my eyes. Something had changed the isle from mean, litigious, grasping—from the normal state of the rest of the world—to what I had seen around me. It had even worked on me. It was not just Edna Buckner’s sweet self, sweet though she was, that had let me discharge eight years of guilt and horror in one night. And right here on this plane, the grinning tour groups in the back and even the older, more sedate first-class passengers around me testified that something had happened to them . . .

Not all the first-class passengers.

Just across the aisle from me one couple was busy berating the stewardess. They didn’t like their appetizer.

“Langouste salad, you call it?” snapped the man. “I call it poison. Didn’t you ever hear of allergy? Jesus, we’ve been spending the whole week trying to keep them from pushing those damned lobsters on us everywhere we went . . .”


Lobsters were neither mammal nor insects. And the particular strains of Retroviridae that wouldn’t reproduce in either, I remember, had done just fine in crustaceans.

Like lobsters.


The NSA team caught up with me again six months later, in my office. I was just getting ready to leave, to pick Edna up for the drive down to Chesapeake Bay, where the company was considering the acquisition of an elderly and declining hotel. I told them I was in a hurry.

“This is official business,” Mooney’s partner growled, but Mooney shook his head.

“We won’t keep you long, Wenright. Michaelis has been reported in the States. Have you heard anything from him?”

“Where in the States?”

“None of your business,” he snapped, and then shrugged. “Maryland.”

I said, “That would be pretty foolish of him, wouldn’t it?” He didn’t respond, just looked at me. “No,” I said, “I haven’t heard anything at all.”

He obviously had not expected anything more. He gave me a routinely nasty look, the whatever-it-is-you’re-up-to-you-won’t-get-away-with-it kind, and stood up to go. His partner gave me the routinely unpleasant warning: “We’ll be watching you,” he said.

I laughed. “I’m sure you will. And don’t you think Michaelis will figure that out, too?”

That night I told Edna about the interview, though I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t care about that, having already told her so much that I wasn’t supposed to about Michaelis’s work and my suspicions. There were a lot of laws that said I should have kept my mouth shut, and I had broken all of them.

She nibbled at her salad, nodding. We were dining in the hotel’s open-air restaurant; it was late spring, and nearly as warm as it had been back on the island. “I hope he gets away,” she said.

“I hope more than that. I hope he lives and prospers with his work.”

She giggled. “Johnny Happyseed,” she said.

I shook my head slightly, because the maître d’ was approaching and I didn’t want him to hear. He was a plump young man with visions of a career at the Plaza, and he knew what I was there for. He was desperately anxious to make my report favorable. The hotel itself was fine. It was the top management that was incompetent, and if we bought it out there would be changes—as he knew. Whether he would be one of the changes I didn’t yet know.

So when he asked, “Is everything satisfactory, Mr. Wenright?” he was asking about more than the meal. I hadn’t been there long enough to have made up my mind—and certainly wouldn’t have told him if I had. I only smiled, and he pressed on: “This is really a delightful old hotel, Mr. Wenright, with all sorts of marvelous historical associations. And it’s been kept up very well, as you’ll see. Of course, some improvements are always in order—but we get a first-class clientele, especially in the softshell crab season. Congressmen. Senators. Diplomats. Every year we get a series of seminars with Pentagon people—”

Edna dropped her fork.

I didn’t, but I was glad to have him distracted by the necessity of clapping his hands so that a busboy could rush up at once with a fresh one. Then I said, “Tell me, isn’t it true that the crabbing has been very poor lately? Some sort of disease among the shellfish?”

“Yes, that’s true, Mr. Wenright,” he admitted, but added eagerly, “I’m sure they’ll come back.”

I said, “I absolutely guarantee it.” He left chuckling, and wondering if he’d missed the point of the joke.

I looked at Edna. She looked at me. We both nodded.

But all either of us said, after quite a while, was Edna’s, “I wonder what kind of seafood they eat in Moscow?”

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