Professor Geoffrey Mulheran, an angelic fringe of white hair surrounding his
bald dome, character lines on his pink face, wandered into Freddie's lab at Columbia
Medical School. He resembled photos of Linus Pauling, twice a Nobel Laureate,
that he had seen. An eminent molecular physicist who'd written textbooks and
contributed countless articles to scientific journals, Geoff pushed 60. Freddie had
been a graduate student of his and considered the prof her mentor.
“Fredericka,” he said, always refusing to abbreviate her name, “I've received
an electronic whatchamacallit.”
“E-mail?” She grinned. The prof was always on top of the latest scientific
discoveries but contemptuous of what he considered gadgetry.
“From a certain Noah Greenberg who identifies himself as a biochemist at
Cold Spring Harbor Labs on Long Island.” A pedant, Geoff was scrupulous with
“They perform gene studies there?”
“As part of the Human Genome Project,” Mulheran said matter-of-factly.
Freddie was rinsing glasswork and putting the beakers and flasks on a cart for
the maintenance crew to finish. She sat on a stool, brushed a blond hair from her
smock and said, for nothing better, “They're coding millions of genes.”
“And this Greenberg fellow has stumbled onto a gene with an unusual
structure. He thinks it might have unique possibilities.”
“Wouldn’t the lab own the gene since it was discovered there?”
“Not necessarily. He was probably using his own time. Nights, weekends.
Anyway, the gene will probably amount to nothing.”
“But you’re interested?”
“The gene produces a novel protein. Greenberg’s unable to supply the exact
chemical composition or the precise utility...”
“If there is one. Ninety-nine percent of the genetic material sequenced thus
far has no apparent application and seems to be junk. Maybe it’s there in case other
genes are destroyed.”
“Elementary, my dear.” The Prof cocked his head. “Still, I wish we could
understand the superfluous DNA. Nature’s backup system is almost unbelievable.
But the protein might conceivably have a use and this Greenberg chap has asked us
“Why, should we?”
“Well, reputation, I suppose,” Mulheran said modestly.
“You mean your reputation.”
“I persevere, I admit.”
The prof couldn't resist exploring theoretical trails even though they mostly
led nowhere. She sometimes wished he was more practical but then she wouldn't be
his lab detective. “Me, you mean,” Freddie said sharply.
A smile wreathed Mulheran's face. “Are your decks clear?”
“What am I, a goddam sailor? I have to swab down from our previous
experiment. Then I'm free, I guess.”
In fact, she wanted a rest.
“How much time would be required, do you think?”
It would have taken anyone else a month but Freddie was the fastest lab gun
in West Harlem. “Give me two fucking weeks.”
Geoff's watery blue eyes regarded her solemnly. “No reason for profanity,
“I'll need rodents again and that's why I'm cursing. I hate the damn things.”
Not for the first time, it occurred to Freddie she might have preferred being a
man. Men used profanity all they liked and nobody objected.
And that wasn’t all. Women tended to cry (a means of relieving tension,
scientists claimed) but Freddie hated tears and refused to shed them. To her, tears
were a sign of weakness, a quality she associated with females.
Well, not herself. Who did she identify with, males? Power instead of
feminine helplessness. Why hadn’t she been born a man?
# # #
Packed in dry ice, the DNA fragments arrived by FedEx from Cold Spring
Harbor. She opened the package, removed the vial, dumped the ice into a sink and
let boiling water pour over it.
It took Freddie an endless week to produce enough of the protein to give the
rats -- cloning up Greenberg's gene using the polymerase chain reaction (invented by
a California biochemist and surfer, Kery Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for his
efforts). She then inserted the gene into another nonpathogenic simian virus she'd
grown in culture tubes. (Because it lacked reproductive machinery, the virus
required a host, E.Coli bacteria, also nonpathogenic, to replicate itself.) The protein
was then extracted from the genetic material.
Freddie threw the liquid into a homogenizer and beat the shit out of it for
several hours. She then centrifuged the glop and separated the protein on an
electronic gel. The result: a tiny dot at the end of a test tube filled with extraneous
She freeze-dried the protein dot which would be cloned and mixed with
ordinary rat chow and fed to the study group.
Twenty years ago the technique would have seemed the wildest science
fiction, but now the procedure was so routine Freddie could almost have followed it
in her sleep.
These days practically anything organic could be cloned - that was, in the
Greek, “branched”, even, theoretically, humans.
The only rodents available from the Animal Storage Unit had been specially
bred for experiments in senescence. Maybe the rodents could be kept alive for a
couple of weeks but not without hardening of the arteries, tumors, vision
impairment, osteoporosis, arthritis, loss of energy and other conditions associated
She stored the vial in the specimen refrigerator, where food was forbidden,
with the familiar biosymbol and a handwritten warning: “DO NOT TOUCH.
CONTENTS MAY BE BIOHAZARDOUS!”
Because, according to Mulheran, tests had shown the obscure simian virus
was benign, causing at worst mild flu and headaches, Freddie had taken minimal
precautions: a 5-micron particle filter over her nose and mouth, double latex gloves
and a big, stainless steel vacuum hood to suck whatever had been in the FedEx box
and spew it through a vent in the roof of the medical school. When the stuff reached
the bodegas and auto parts stores of Dominican Harlem, it would be far too diluted
to cause harm.
But the monkey virus made Freddie uneasy. She'd read somewhere that a
virus could bind to a protein. Viruses tended to cause disease. And viruses spread,
the very reason they existed.
The aging rats proved no problem. Technicians carried the cages from the
storage unit in the basement. One group of ten rats would be the study group to be
fed the protein; the other ten, the controls, would receive a placebo -- a shot of
saline solution in place of the protein.
She was preparing the injections when Greenberg called, inviting her to
Perhaps Freddie shouldn't accept. Her humor concealed raw nerves so why
rock Noah's ark? But was this the time for corny jokes?
No. Genes were basic to life.
Freddie felt apprehensive as noon approached. That she knew few single
men was because she concentrated so much on work and never had time for fun.
Or what others called fun. The truth was, she easily got bored. TV, the
movies, Broadway shows, art galleries, usually failed to live up to expectations.
Alcohol always left her cold. She suffered from what the French referred to as
cafard - the blues.
Sex would have roused her from lassitude but she didn't have a boyfriend or
even prospects. Most men bored her as well, Freddie had to admit. She had
nothing against them personally; she just hadn't met one who excited her in ages.
Or had she ever?
Perhaps she was anhedonistic, experienced pleasure rarely if at all.
Maybe she was too much of a perfectionist when it came to the opposite sex,
too demanding. When she fell in love she'd fall hard, she thought - - forfeit her good
judgment, her objectivity. But she hadn't met a guy who lived up to her standards
except Prof Mulheran and he was ancient. Would Noah also prove to be boring?
She feared he would.
So, on shaking hands with him, Freddie wondered whom she'd anticipated --
a scientist in shining armor? A tall, attractive male, single of course, a trailblazer,
like Francis Crick or James Watson, co-founders of Cold Spring Harbor Labs and
co-discoverers of the double helix molecule, the basis of our understanding of DNA.
Yes, Freddie had rather hoped to meet a more flamboyant type.
Of medium height, Noah wore pedestrian clothes, jeans and a denim jacket --
it was early summer -- and wire-rimmed glasses. With a long nose, large ears and a
downcast expression, he was far from handsome. She noticed he limped a bit as
they walked to Pedro's Dominican (what else in Spanish Harlem?) Restaurant, near
168th and Broadway, where the hospital was.
Greenberg said he'd heard of Freddie from Mulheran who'd described her as
being extremely capable.
“The Prof exaggerates.”
“And you're too modest.” He seemed almost in awe of her.
“Modest isn't how I'd describe myself,” she said.
“What word would you use if you had to pick just one?”
“Bold, maybe. You?”
“Shy, I guess,” he responded
“I suspect people always say the opposite about themselves from what is true.
So, deep down, you're bold and I'm shy,” she said.
They'd reached the restaurant and, while Noah hesitated, Freddie grabbed a
table. He struck her as rather bland until the conversation turned to science and
then his face lit up. “Breakthroughs are constant in biochemistry. We're achieving
so much that was never dreamed of.”
“The same is true in my field,” she said. “I specialize in mammalian
“How about my protein?”
Freddie rolled her eyes. “I'd just finished purifying the stuff when you
Noah laughed. “I'm being too pushy. I ask too many questions. For
instance, do you exercise?”
“Sure. I jog, ride a stationery bike and lift weights. Want a feel? My bicep,
He touched her arm. “Wow.”
“And I climb stairs.”
“Good. I....How old are you?”
“You shouldn't inquire, but I was 28 when last I bothered to count.”
“You seem younger,” he said.
“My face or how I act?”
“You could be a photographic model,” Noah said wistfully, as if women such
as Freddie were beyond his reach.
“I’m not like asshole models who pose semi-nude with rodents.”
“You despise rats?”
“Only what happens to them. I want to cry when an experiment's finished
and the rats must be sacrificed.”
“Beheaded, that is,” he said.
“I despise euphemisms.”
“Like 'golden years', 'senior citizens', or 'aging process' instead of just
'growing old',” he said.
Noah seemed to want to change the subject “Is Freddie your real name?”
She shook her head. “Fredericka. Fredericka Ferguson. My initials are FF,
as in 'fast forward'. I took the cue and shortened my name to Freddie. Fredericka
has too many syllables. So does my father's name, Frederick.”
She nibbled at the eggs rancheros and spooned sugar into the iced tea; Noah
took a forkful of rice and beans with chunks of pork. “Where's your father?”
“He lives in New Jersey. He's retired, a recluse on his little farm, almost a
hermit. I'd help financially but I’m strapped.”
“They don't pay much at Cold Spring Harbor either. It would be wonderful to
have serious dough. How about your mother?”
“She's dead. From cancer. Grief, I think, caused Daddy to go off the deep
end. He lost a small fortune gambling in Atlantic City and he'd always been
“Ferguson is Irish, right?”
“That must account for your green eyes.”
“Although Mom was of Nordic extraction,” Freddie chatted. “She pushed me
socially. I went to boarding school and had a coming-out party. I ate better food
then. We had a French chef named Hortense who prepared soufflés and bili-bi.”
“Chilled mussel soup. She had a wart on her nose. Funny how you
remember things from childhood. I couldn't have been more than five years old.”
“Memory is strange, what it chooses to focus on.”
“I wish I could recall everything. What about you?”
“I'm from the Lower East Side. My father was an Orthodox Jewish tailor.”
“Where’d you go to school?”
“Erasmus High in Brooklyn where the family moved.”
“I’ve never been to Brooklyn. To me it’s like Siberia. And then?”
“NYU and Cornell on scholarships. I also worked as a waiter – a gimp
“Are you observant?”
“Of our laws? I attend a synagogue.” He glanced down at his plate. “But
“...I eat pork. But I follow most of our customs. My mother would be
shocked if she knew I was having lunch with a shiksa.”
“What's a shiksa?”
“A Christian girl.”
His gaze seemed to travel from her rounded forehead to her wideset eyes to
the impudent nose to her mouth whose short upper lip conveyed both humor and an
almost childlike determination.
“Much less married one, I suppose.”
“Marriage is out of the question.”
“Are you gay?”
“Of course not. I have a serious medical problem.”
She recalled the limp. “Nothing communicable, I hope.”
“No. Pompe's Disease runs in the family. That's one reason I'm so interested
in genes. I have the adult type of Pompe's, less severe than the infantile or juvenile
varieties, though still not fun. Basically, my muscles are slowly shrinking. I
consulted the top guy in the field and all he could explain was, ‘Noah, your muscles
have started to atrophy. No one can predict how fast they'll go. The onset varies:
you could be crippled by the time you're 40.' Big help, huh?”
Though slender and slightly stooped Greenberg appeared in good health.
“Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”
“That's what most doctors want to know when they learn about the disease.
“Does age mean a lot to you?”
“Age doesn't count nearly as much as attitude. I guess you could call me a
philosophic skeptic, like Protagoras.”
“A pre-Plato Greek. Stoic and Sophist -- a Sophist could argue any side of
“Don't condescend. I know what they were.”
“Protagoras' position was that we should not believe in what our senses tell
us. You think the floor is firm, and then it suddenly caves in.”
“From an earthquake?”
“The cause doesn't matter. Protagoras' point was we have to be skeptical of
“Protagoras was very important. Plato combined Protagoras with Heraclites
and came up with the notion that all things are in the process of becoming, including
knowledge. That opened the door to the theory of relativity and quantum
mechanics. If things are constantly changing, nothing stays the same. Today's truth
may be tomorrow's folly. We should learn to be skeptical about what we're told.
There's always hope.”
Yes. Always hope. Her father had told her that and she had mostly believed
him, though sometimes her faith had been dashed on the reef of despair. The
challenge for Freddie was to keep things in perspective, to realize life should be
embraced as a totality, not squandered because of problems like aging.
But Noah had an incurable disease and she said, “Hope for Pompe's?”
“Maybe. I'm not a determinist, even when it comes to genes.”
“Human behavior isn't foreordained. We have some control over our
destinies. We can become almost anything we want if we have the will.”
“'Man is the measure of all things'? Except when women differ from men.”
“There is no objective truth. That's why I believe in tradition.”
They walked slowly back to the hospital and Freddie gave Noah a tour of the
lab. He asked no questions about the protein or the procedures but only whether he
could see her again -- a real date. She nodded matter-of-factly and Noah, seeming
pleased, returned to Cold Spring Harbor on the train.
She found him tedious but brave. Even noble in his doomed fight against
Pompe's. What did she value most in a man? Truth was, she hadn't decided.
Men had found Freddie attractive for as long as she could recall. She'd never
tried to take advantage of her femininity -- she kept that on hold. She seemed
forever preoccupied with more important matters. In graduate school, several young
men had displayed more than a passing interest but though she earned a reputation
for being friendly, she'd been unable to reciprocate.
Would the same happen with Noah? Uh-huh.
Were she a man, she’d have known how to handle women like her.
But what kind of man was Noah? Good, she judged. But suppose she was
And suppose her judgment of men was generally wrong? That might lead to
The control rats displayed Dewling's Syndrome -- their eyes were murky,
with fatty deposits in the corners -- and they moved lethargically. They no longer
bothered to groom themselves. The study group, also predestined to age fast,
scampered in their cages, eyes bright, coats shiny, always sniffing. “They should be
aging by now and they aren't, Freddie said to herself. To Carlos, the Latino she'd
just hired, she said: “You've been feeding the study group the special diet?”
“Yes,” he said.
Carlos had long flowing brunette curls, large brown eyes set in a tan
complexion, delicate ears, small white hands as graceful as a woman’s, a neat,
pointed black chin beard, pearly teeth.
“The protein doesn’t seem to have hurt them. Let's sacrifice a few from both
groups and post 'em.”
“Dissect. Conduct a post-mortem. Comprende?”
Carlos, a grad student, understood all too well. “I can't bear the sight of
blood,” he whimpered.
“You'll have to learn.”
Carlos put his fingers in the pockets of his lab coat defiantly.
Freddie sighed. “Okay, I'll do it.”
She held her nose and, with a double-gloved hand, dipped into the study-
group's cage for a frisky rat. She grabbed a squirming body and, with a syringe,
administered an intraperitoneal injection of phenobarbital. The rodent went limp.
Then she shoved it against the spring-loaded knife, decapitating it. The other rats
became agitated -- they could smell the blood.
“Little Carloses,” Freddie muttered. She left the body in the stainless steel
sink to drain.
She had less luck with the second rat; she lost her grip and instead of
executing the miserable creature, she cut off its snout. The rodent -- she evidently
hadn't injected enough phenobarb -- unexpectedly strong, ran around the lab bench,
bleeding profusely, then jumped to the floor and attempted to hide behind the 800-
pound centrifuge which had required four men from engineering to install. Small
wonder she hated lab rats.
Her arm was muscular but thin and she managed to retrieve the animal which
had died. Thank God!
She wielded a scalpel on the bodies as she dictated to Carlos who jotted
notes: “Bone tissue...respiratory system...liver...heart, perfect...color normal.
Unremarkable, except...No indication these individuals are past their prime. I
repeated the posts on control rodents. These individuals don't look so good. Tissue
much less firm, bones grayer; joint movement weaker, tendons less elastic.”
The autopsies had required all of five minutes. Perched on a stool, tensely
rubbing her cheek, she phoned the prof.
# # #
Up on the tenth floor, Geoffrey Mulheran had arrived at his office with a
queasy sensation in his stomach, blurred vision and other symptoms he identified as
a hangover. Didn't the medical docs call it alcohol withdrawal syndrome? A closet
drinker, he'd consumed far too much vodka the previous night in his lonely
apartment. He lacked the ability to stop but AA was for weaklings, not him. Even
brilliant scientists have foibles, he consoled himself.
Nausea had forced him to skip breakfast, but after a skimpy lunch washed
down with black coffee, his head was clear. When Fredericka called, he took the
lift down to the eighth floor. She'd sounded alarmed. Perhaps Greenberg's protein
had poisoned the rodents and the experiment had been for naught.
What did he expect? His existence in recent years seemed a breeding ground
for pessimism. The divorce, the drinking...which was the causal factor? Had he
become an alcoholic because his wife had left him or the other way round? Hard to
tell. And then the problem with the anti-cholesterol molecule. Because of
recklessness engendered by the divorce or heavy drinking....aaiiii...if another
opportunity arrived Mulheran resolved not to make mistakes. He'd be alert to every
chance in a world filled with untrustworthy bastards.
For how long had he experienced the universe as bleak if not hostile? Since
childhood, he supposed, or earlier, in the womb, programmed by his genes. What
accounted for, assuming such existed, genetic memory? He hadn't had an earlier
life, he was certain, but his primitive ancestors might have been hunters who fought
wild animals. Today's wild animals were in business and that was why they upset
him. When that genetic strain ran out, true Socialism would emerge.
Yes. Cooperation instead of hostility. Unselfishness instead of greed.
Geoff would never engage in deception. He was too advanced.
# # #
The arrow pointed to the eighth floor, and preoccupied, Mulheran almost
forgot to get off. He went to Fredericka's lab and she brought him up to speed,
pointing at the two groups of rats. He knew the setup. The study-group was
energetic, the controls fat and listless. Four dissected rodents lay on the bench --
the lab worker hadn't yet disposed of them. “What's so urgent?” he asked.
She shrugged, her inclination toward excitement tempered by scientific
caution. “I don't pretend to understand but the rats that eat the special protein are in
far better shape than the controls. I posted members of both groups and their organs
prove the point. The study rats have completely ceased aging, like in Shangri-la.”
“Shangri-la. The hidden place in the Himalayas, Bhutan, I think, where
people never grow old.”
“Unless they leave the Tibetan monastery. Then they instantly age.”
“Sounds far-fetched,” Mulheran said crossly.
“It's fiction after all. And we're talking here of rats, not people,” Freddie
Geoff examined the cages again. “The only difference is Greenberg's
protein? How old would you estimate the study rodents are in human terms?”
“It's hard to make a meaningful comparison but they're late middle-aged in
“Like the baby boomer generation, so-called?”
“On the verge of retirement, except rodents don't play golf or watch TV.”
“Not yet at least. I've heard there are commercials for cats, so why not
rodents? They're as smart.” Mulheran chuckled and plopped onto a stool. “Do you
want to continue testing?”
“By all means.”
The molecular physicist scratched his bald dome and seemed to ponder.
“Who knows? Maybe we've found a Fountain of Youth? What if Greenberg's
protein halts human aging as well?”
Freddie glanced at Carlos. “Shouldn't we refer to the substance as Protein
“Yes. Secrecy must be preserved.”
# # #
Mulheran knew he should climb the steps for exercise but he was in a hurry
now and took the lift. He had to make a call.
He had a compelling reason for secrecy. After almost a decade, much of it
working on a screen that flipped thousands of chemical compounds, he’d stumbled
on one that might reduce High Density Lipids (HDLs) in cholesterol. All drugs
were molecules but not all molecules were drugs, and the drug molecule had to be
sufficiently unique to patent and capable of reaching the target, another molecule.
Hundreds of lab hours followed. He had understood the new drug’s potential and
proudly presented his findings at a medical conference as a cure for hyperlipidemia.
He’d even cited the formula.
When he’d descended from the lectern a well-groomed man had asked to see
his notes. He must have had a minicamera because, a few weeks later, Mulheran
learned - oh God! - the formula had been patented by a pharmaceutical company
which claimed to have been working on the product all along.
Mulheran had been seeking investors for the new drug and he’d had a
glimpse of financial independence. He longed to quit teaching and devote himself to
A drug that put a stop to aging would be an outstanding product, the kind that
placed biotech outfits on the map and made stockholders instant millionaires.
Leaving the elevator, Geoff pictured the advertisements:
A LONGER LIFE IS TO DIE FOR
No, a bit grim that.
ENJOY A LONGER LIFE THROUGH...
Of course, to enjoy longer life one would have to be in near-perfect health, as
the aging study rats seemed to be.
Mulheran knew his excitement over Protein X was premature and should be
contained. Still, discovery thrilled him: major science proceeded not so much
through luck or inspiration but by following clues. And the clues left by the rodents
led him to the view that aging could be forestalled almost indefinitely.
Fredericka would insist on more extensive proof but Protein X must somehow
affect the gene or genes responsible for growing old and ultimately, death. Yes, the
death gene. That would be a landmark finding.
Mulheran wanted to be part of the action but he lacked sizeable assets and a
credit rating so the banks wouldn’t lend him the enormous amount of money such an
enterprise would need and, for obvious reasons, he distrusted the pharmaceutical
He remembered his motto, cited below his listing in Who’s Who In American
Science: “Genius counts but perseverance pays off.” If only he’d persevered in his
marriage instead of giving up. Heartbreak might have been avoided, the pain
proved unnecessary. Here he was, a middle or late-middle - Christ, how our society
plastered you with labels so advertisers could decide how to pigeonhole their dough
- aged scientist and alone.
Maybe, if he could regain personal self-confidence, he’d try to find another
wife. A great deal depended on the protein. All right, he’d persevere.
Ransacking his files, Mulheran at last stumbled on the name he’d been trying
to remember, a man who’d been deeply interested in the cholesterol product and
pledged to raise the necessary capital. Zygmunt Szaba’s background was somewhat
obscure. Zig, as he called himself, had been born in Poland. He had migrated to the
States many years before. He was an excellent amateur scientist with a keen grasp
of theory. Just the sort of fellow Mulheran was now hellbent on locating.
Zig specialized in rounding up European risk capital. God knew who his
Could Szaba be trusted? Normally, Geoff wouldn’t have crawled into bed
with such a chap but...
He must listen to the ‘but’.
But now that he spotted gold under the microscope he decided to take a
chance with the secret. He was desperate, he realized. This might be his last
chance and he mustn’t fail.
Mulheran remembered Zig as tall, trim, nice-looking, with a habit of mussing
his wavy gray hair. He was snappily dressed, confident of his own abilities and,
well, somewhat slick and self-centered. Ego went with his territory.
He had to be in his mid-fifties by then but probably still looked younger.
Mulheran felt ancient by comparison. Yes, he’d aged prematurely. He looked
exactly as his father had - bald, thick glasses, deep facial lines.
But Mulheran was more vigorous than his dad had been.
Zig was vigorous too, the kind of fellow you could count on for immediate
results, Geoff thought.
Nonetheless, having made a fool of himself with the anti-cholesterol
product’s chemical formula, Geoff was hesitant. He wouldn’t reveal his conclusion,
wouldn’t discuss the results with Szaba in any detail but let the experiment speak
for itself. If Mulheran were any judge of character, Szaba would flip. He’d
recognize a great business opportunity when he saw one.
If not? Mulheran wondered at what stage perseverance ran out.
# # #
A few miles away, as a mathematical crow would count, Zygmunt Szaba was
traversing Central Park in his chauffeur-driven limo. The destination, a dentist, his
third appointment in a month. His teeth were laden with cavities, as his mother’s
had been. She’d had deplorable teeth too. The dentist blamed Szaba for poor oral
hygiene - failure to floss, use a water jet, etc. But Zig knew better. One’s teeth
reflected heredity. A weak excuse, his dentist told him.
Sooner or later, arguably later, Zig would need implants, which meant bone
mass would have to be inserted, his sinuses raised. A messy, painful procedure. He
would almost have preferred to be an animal that grew replacement teeth, like
sharks, he thought. Yes, maybe he had a few shark genes.
An idle thought popped into his mind: perhaps suicide would be preferable to
oral surgery. Suicide, why not? The notion had occurred to him before. The act
might be acceptable if it were attached to a noble cause.
The answering service directed his calls to the cell phone in the Daimler. Zig
had deals pending, if they came to anything, and he couldn’t afford to be out of
touch, but the caller’s identity astonished him, a man whom Szaba hadn’t heard
from in years. A famous scientist, Geoffrey Mulheran, had discovered a drug that
appeared to lower HDL in the bloodstream, Zig recalled, potentially a terrific
money-maker. The idiot had revealed the formula and somebody else obtained the
patent. Szaba, who’d invested time and effort to persuade his backers to finance the
deal, had sworn never to engage in business with the naïve professor again.
Still, after Geoff’s greeting, “Hello, Mr. Szaba” Zig heard the words “Enjoy
longer life through....” and shifted the phone to his better ear.
“A possible product?”
“You be the judge of that,” Mulheran said.
“Give me a better clue,” Szaba said.
“A protein substance.”
“A protein that might affect human aging. That’s all I intend to tell you. An
experiment here at the hospital conducted by - -”
For the nth time Zig canceled the appointment - the dentist would be livid -
and instructed his driver to take him to Columbia Hospital. Rush-hour traffic
crawled on Broadway and Szaba sat in the rear seat, head lowered, eyes shut.
A man of his talents and insights ought not to be in the soup. He was strong,
resourceful, clever, industrious and so forth. He should have foreseen the savage
decline in the value of biotech stocks just after he’d borrowed a bundle of money to
buy more. His frugal Polish ancestors would have been ashamed of him but there he
was, in debt. How quickly biotech stocks had declined in value!
Summer rentals paid for the Massachusetts castle but that left the luxurious
apartment in the Carlyle, the condo in Paris. He needed them to impress his
visitors, the greedy ones with huge sums to invest.
His only real function was to scout out opportunities in the biotech field. He
read countless medical journals, talked endlessly on the phone to experts, pacing
back and forth until he’d worn a trail in the Persian carpet. He wasn’t perfect -
perfection, elusive as ever, remained his goal - but he was good enough not to be in
his present financial plight.
Simply to leave his bed in the morning cost him, on an annualized basis, a
half million a year and his savings were being rapidly depleted.
He hadn’t had a new investment idea in what seemed forever. Perhaps
biotechnology had run out of attractive notions. They were promising a cure for
almost anything. How could that be? What about the common cold?
“...affect human aging,” Mulheran had claimed. Surely not for the worse.
Everyone expected to live longer in the Third Millennium - a cliché by now - and if
that was all Mulheran promised Zig might as well go home.
Still, perhaps the protein substance would prove miraculous, like penicillin or
the polio vaccine. Zig had to know.
But he was ahead of himself. He’d have to observe the experiment and meet
this Ferguson dame who worked at the lab bench. Mulheran had told him of the
schools she’d attended. Mulheran had promised not to be intrusive. Szaba would
have to draw his own conclusions.
The Daimler drew up at an imposing marble-and-glass facade. They’d
reached the hospital.
# # #
Ferguson’s lab was on the eighth floor. As Zig anticipated, few or no
provisions had been taken for security. The door wasn’t locked and he walked in
He wasn’t certain what sort of woman he’d expected to encounter - probably
a middle-aged lab technician - but the female standing at the bench met his strict
standards of perfection. She was not only young but almost unbearably beautiful
with straight Greco-Roman features and lively green eyes. Wisps of golden hair
peeked from beneath a green surgical cap and made her seem girlish. Her skin was
unblemished. Thin cheeks descended to a mouth with a short upper lip, suggesting
sensuousness, and a rather pointed chin, indicating a stubborn streak, perhaps.
Physiognomy was to Szaba an excellent index of character. In any case, she was an
She removed her lab coat, on the verge of going home, Zig thought, as he
stole a look at her body, tall and thin with narrow curved hips and small pointed
breasts. She was precisely the sort of woman he craved. A line from the Polish
poet, Jan Szflaudynger, crossed his mind:
No magnet is as effective
As the magnet of a beautiful body
Requests will not give you permission
Because women like a conqueror
To display lust, however, struck him as crude and tactless. Instead he’d hide
his interest and come on cool. Patience eventually paid off. Zig had vast
experience with women.
When I am next to a beautiful woman
I keep my breath deep.
“I’m Zygmunt Szaba, Dr. Ferguson.”
“Why are you here?” she cried, examining the pin-striped business suit, hand-
painted tie and gold cufflinks.
“Professor Mulheran sent me to inspect the lab.”
“Are you an efficiency expert or something?”
“No. I’m a businessman. Think of me as a philanthropist if you wish.”
“And I have a sincere interest in science. Geoff Mulheran told me your
results are provocative.”
Her nostrils flared. “Well, I believe you find me provocative,” she said in a
Szaba, trying to soothe her, turned to the rodents in their cages. “Are they in
“Half are. They’re young-old rats.”
“And the other half?”
“They’re tired.” she said warily.
Scientists were generally disinclined to share information on their current
projects, Szaba knew. She reminded him of Botticelli’s Venus on a clamshell. The
painter had attempted to convey, in Szaba’s opinion, the dual nature of women.
They could make love to you or close up tight.
He wanted to bed this woman then and there, but only said, “Have any died?”
“Only the ones we sacrificed.”
“For the research?”
“Mmmm.” He enjoyed the way her lips curved.
“And what did you learn?” he quizzed.
“Well....” Freddie faltered. “What kind of philanthropist are you?”
Szaba smiled. “Benefactors are all the same. They give money away.”
Freddie gestured toward the rodents. “All the rats are programmed to age but
these seem to be doing much better than those.”
“Which is which?”
“Shit, can’t you tell?” She jabbed a finger and laughed proudly, picking up a
study-group rodent and nuzzling it.
“Have the rats received different treatment?” he said politely.
A smile limned her lean face. “The frisky rats have been fed a special protein
and I cuddle them.”
“May I inquire what the protein is?”
Freddie rebuffed him. “Ask the prof.”
“I shall.” He bowed at the waist, a courtly mannerism she had never seen
outside of Cary Grant movies. “Thank you for your time, Dr. Ferguson. You’ve
obviously been creative here.”
# # #
In the silver Daimler once more Szaba made a rapid series of calls. The first
was to Mulheran who waited anxiously.
“Tell me what the study rats are fed,” he barked.
Mulheran’s reply was inaudible. Was it the cell phone? “Again?” Szaba
“I mentioned a protein.”
“Can it be duplicated?”
“And the stuff truly confers longevity in rats.”
“It’s still very early in our work on the protein, but so far the study rates
“Would it be effective with humans?”
“I don’t know. We’d have to conduct a lot more research. Which would be
“Are there precedents?”
“Of course. Scientists have recently succeeded in postponing age in
threadworms and fruit flies through genetic manipulation,” Mulheran said.
“The telomerse gene.”
“Correct. The enzyme it releases enables cells to grow and divide
indefinitely. The problem is how to insert telomerse genes into the body so tissues
will accept them.”
“We’d remain youthful then?”
“But such technology is years off. Our discovery is in real time.”
“Wouldn’t the hospital pay for the new research?”
“They’d insist on owning the patent rights.”
“Uh-huh. We’d find a way around the problem. How about your assistant?
Tell me about her...will she stay on the job?”
“Fredericka is committed to the project and she’s utterly reliable.”
“Inform her I’m behind the project.”
Zig offered to fund the protein project for up to fifty thousand dollars but he
had conditions. Mulheran agreed to them.
Zig’s next call was to Poland where it was after 2 a.m.
“Daiendobry kto mowi...?” (Who’s calling?”)
“Oho, jaka cena?” (How much?)
The risk was high, potential profits immense. Warsaw guaranteed $150,000
Zig next phoned his private security man. A woman named Ferguson worked
in the lab. Szaba had to know if she could be trusted. Had she some kind of
criminal record? Ever cheated on exams? Would she steal? Had she a weakness
others might exploit? Was she a substance abuser?
His last call was to a florist who delivered round the clock.
Early next morning Freddie found orchids at the reception desk with a card
signed “S”. “To a remarkable woman,” the card read. Yesterday’s handsome
visitor - he was handsome, goddammit - must have sent the flowers.
# # #
That day, at the prof’s insistence, a double lock was installed on the lab door
to which only Mulheran, Freddie, Carlos and the maintenance people had keys.
Mulheran had asked Freddie to identify the protein’s molecular structure, a
first step toward obtaining a patent for a biological product. She thought this
premature - they weren’t ready to prove the protein retarded aging, but he was the
boss and he seemed eager.
The gene, already mapped by Greenberg, dictated a specific sequence of
amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. But the protein wasn’t just a chain but
a complex structure with unique folds and twists. Just as a completed building
looks far different than in an architect’s blueprints, so with the protein.
One technique to tease out this structure involved feeding the sequence into a
computer, using information like basic polarities and other aspects of the amino
acids to create a 3-D picture. With more than 100 gigabytes of memory, the
computer generated a mathematically-calculated estimate of the protein’s
appearance - a shining globule; a multicolored microscopic planet of ridges, curves
and valleys. Wow, Freddie thought, staring at the printout.
She showed the graph to the prof who said, “Remarkable. So many secrets
crammed into a speck of matter. Just think, we’re composed of those.”
“Can we ever know ourselves?”
“Not really if we’re nothing more than a collection of amino acids.”
“What about evil?”
Mulheran shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I don’t pretend to understand.”
“Maybe we have to have faith.”
“Strange,” he said. “The more we penetrate our tiny universe the more
necessary the God idea seems to account for nature. Even for me and I’m an
“God in the sense of a grand designer?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“And when the design falls apart?”
“Blame a flaw like myself.” Mulheran referred to his drinking, she thought.
Freddie sighed. To her a flawed design would be represented by a murderer,
a cold-blooded killer. Of course, she’d hadn’t encountered one and never would in
her line of work.
Although she knew how to use a gun, Freddie would have hated being a cop.
The only blood she ever expected to see would be drawn from lab animals for
# # #
In assaying the protein, she relied also on an old-fashioned technique,
growing the protein in crystals, chemically fracturing the crystals like ice cubes and
scanning them through an electron microscope. Examining the weird images was no
less exciting than watching the first photos from the Sojourner Mars mission.
Yes, man’s best hope lay in science. Where else could we learn the truth?
But she thought of Noah’s skepticism.
Carlos took copious notes. She refused to let him use a tape recorder. The
tapes could too easily be duplicated. Why should that concern her? she asked
herself. Because Carlos might have a design flaw, might be tempted to dispose of
the purloined tapes for cash. (She couldn’t bring herself to use the word “stolen”.)
The gorgeous Latino had to be aware they were testing a compound both for
the patent and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, necessary if
Mulheran was right and the protein really became a biological product. What would
they name it? Freddie wondered.
It was bad enough that she distrusted Carlos and for no special reason except
for underlying prejudice - he was guilty of Hispanic birth, was all. So maybe she
had the design flaw.
And then she had Martha to contend with. Martha had been on welfare until
the city ordered her to find work or lose her benefits. Freddie had conversed with
the older woman in the hospital cafeteria where Martha washed cooking utensils.
She disliked the job - the lifting bothered her arthritic shoulder - and Freddie,
having decided Martha was reliable, suggested she try the lab.
“What happens up there?”
“We experiment with rats.”
Martha’s wrinkled face sagged. She stroked her double chin with blunt
fingernails. “No, no, no, I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t. I can’t stand the sight of
those nasty creatures.”
“Actually, they’re rather sweet, not like street rats, you know,” Freddie said.
“Don’t they bite?”
Martha took the job. She always wore long sleeves which Freddie assumed
was to protect her arms from the rodents. Prejudices died hard. Either that or she
was hiding varicose veins.
On weekends, which Carlos had off, Martha fed the rats. (Freddie was
usually there but Martha lightened her load.) Martha also performed unpleasant
tasks - weighing the feces to check against food intake, measuring the water the rats
drank, a safeguard against dehydration. Martha would pull their skins to observe
Martha proved intelligent and submissive. She scrubbed the cage floors and
kept the food and water containers filled while Carlos, who sometimes seemed more
concerned with his coiffure, occasionally forgot.
Freddie never failed to marvel at the vagaries of human character, hers too,
maybe. The rodents were always the same but people demonstrated eccentricities.
Was that genetic? Such an analysis seemed far out but no more far out than
causing the test rodents to live well beyond their normal years. Science eventually
would have to come to terms with normality: how should it be defined? - but in the
meantime, she had to deal with quirky behavior.
Freddie first picked up a symptom when Martha came to the lab in a mink
jacket. She claimed it had belonged to her aunt but Martha lived in a cheap
apartment. Besides the mink was new and fashionable. Did Martha engage in
And might she steal loose change?
Having noticed coins seemed to be missing, Freddie carefully left five
quarters on the lab bench when she and Carlos departed for lunch. When she
returned, three of the quarters were gone.
To have validity, a controlled experiment had to be repeated. The next day,
she left three quarters and one was swiped by Martha.
Freddie diagnosed kleptomania. Theft was a compulsion the overweight
woman couldn’t resist.
Perhaps, as Martha aged, the neurosis would disappear. But if Freddie
confronted her, she’d lie and angrily deny the accusation and Freddie would have no
choice but to discharge her. From then on, Freddie kept her change in her lab coat
and said nothing.
She was secretive by nature and always had been, she knew. When had that
characteristic appeared? Why did she have it?
Talk about neurosis!
She must have been neurotic as a child. She remembered hiding in the
basement, staying there for hours on end, even as her parents cajoled her to emerge.
She had a hiding place underneath the stairs and, though starving, she had refused to
She’d hidden repeatedly and the psychologist her parents summoned figured
Freddie needed more attention than the usual child.
Was that still the case?
If so, and if he pursued her with sex in mind, Szaba might understand and
take advantage of her.
She’d only met him once but first impressions seldom went awry. He was
sharp and might have penetrated the weakness behind her femininity. That made
her want to sob, as females will. She hated being a woman, but not for long.
Posing as a headhunter, Len Veere, Szaba’s private security man, went to
Short Hills to investigate Fredericka. He was careful not to have anyone alert her
father who owned a small farm nearby but was seldom there.
Veere pieced together her story from interviews and an article in the local
paper. He noted the absence of close friends. She seemed to have been the solitary
sort who preferred her own company.
She’d written poetry but burned it, she’d told a classmate who said to Veere,
“Because the rhymes weren’t good enough....She was a stickler for perfection.”
(Reading this later, Szaba wondered if he might have found a soulmate.)
She was a crack shot who practiced in the basement of her high school which
had pistol classes. About that time she got a microscope and her interest turned to
Ms. Ferguson had gone to boarding school but switched to a regular high
school when her dad could no longer foot the bills. She seemed to have adjusted
easily. She’d been valedictorian, graduating at the top of her class, and attended
Sarah Lawrence where she graduated magna cum laude at the tender age of 21.
MIT had awarded her a PhD in molecular biology and she did her post-doc work
under Professor Mulheran.
“Didn’t she have any weaknesses?” Veere asked the amiable principal who’d
been there when Fredericks was a student.
The principal well remembered the girl. “She was famous for her looks and
brilliance and I kept track of her. She was both a student activist and a cheerleader
until she suddenly dropped from sight.”
“I shouldn’t be telling you this, but she had a rare skin condition. It must
have disappeared by now.”
“What skin condition?”
“Would you write that down?”
The principal did so. He said, “She was born with it, but had a mild case.”
Szaba had a medical dictionary and Veere had studied the pages. “A
congenital disorder characterized by dryness and fishlike scaling of the skin,” he
Szaba skimmed Len’s report and pronounced himself dissatisfied. Freddie
seemed perfect, too perfect. “Hasn’t she any problems?”
“You haven’t finished what I gave you - - the icky stuff.”
“What is it?”
“Varies, the fella told me. Sometimes a faint patch on her waist, sometimes
thick blotches on her cheek....It’s totally based on nerves, he believes. If she’s