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Dr. gabriel stanton’s condo sat at the end of the boardwalk, before the Venice Beach footpath morphed into lush lawns where the tai chi lovers gathered. The modest duplex wasn’t entirely to Stanton’s taste. He would have preferred something with more history. But on this odd stretch of the California coastline, the only options to choose between were run‑down shacks and contemporary stone and glass. Stanton left his home just after seven a.m. on his old Gary Fisher bike and headed south with Dogma, his yellow Labrador, running beside him. Groundwork, the best coffee in L.A., was only six blocks away, and there Jillian would have a triple shot of Black Gold ready for him the minute he walked in.
Dogma loved the mornings as much as his owner did. But the dog wasn’t allowed into Groundwork, so after Stanton tied him up, he made his way inside alone, waved at Jillian, collected his cup, and checked out the scene. A lot of the early clientele were surfers, their wetsuits still dripping. Stanton was usually up by six, but these guys had been up for hours.
Sitting at his usual table was one of the boardwalk’s best‑known and strangest‑looking residents. His entire face and shaved head were covered with intricate designs, as well as rings, studs, and small chains protruding from his earlobes, nose, and lips. Stanton often wondered where a man like Monster came from. What had happened to him in early life that led to the decision to cover his body entirely with art? For some reason, whenever Stanton imagined Monster’s origins, he saw a split‑level home near a military base—exactly the type of houses in which he himself had spent his childhood.
“How’s the world out there doing?” Stanton asked.
Monster looked up from his computer. He was an obsessive news junkie, and when he wasn’t working at his tattoo shop or entertaining tourists as part of the Venice Beach Freak Show, he was here posting comments on political blogs.
“Other than there being only two weeks before the galactic alignment makes the magnetic poles reverse and we all die?” he asked.
“Other than that.”
“Hell of a nice day out there.”
“How’s your lady?”
Stanton headed for the door. “If we’re still here, I’ll see you tomorrow, Monster.”
After Stanton downed his Black Gold outside, he and Dogma continued south. A century ago, miles of canals snaked through the streets of Venice, tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney’s re-creation of the famed Italian city. Now virtually all of the waterways where gondoliers once ferried residents were paved over and covered with steroid‑fueled gyms, greasy‑food stands, and novelty T‑shirt shops.
Stanton had ruefully watched a rash of “Mayan apocalypse” graffiti and trinkets pop up all over Venice in recent weeks, vendors taking advantage of all the hype. He’d been raised Catholic but hadn’t been in a church in years. If people wanted to seek their destiny or believe in some ancient clock, they could go right ahead; he’d stick to testable hypotheses and the scientific method.
Fortunately, it seemed not everyone in Venice believed December 21 would bring the end of the world; red and green lights also decorated the boardwalk too, just in case the crackpots had it wrong. Yuletide was a strange time in L.A. Few transplants understood how to celebrate the holidays at seventy degrees, but Stanton loved the contrast—Santa hats on rollerbladers, suntan lotion in stockings, surfboards festooned with antlers. A ride along the beach on Christmas was as spiritual as he got these days.
Ten minutes later, he and the dog reached the northern tip of Marina del Rey. They made their way past the old lighthouse and the sailboats and souped‑up fishing vessels bobbing quietly in the harbor. Stanton let Dogma off his leash, and the dog bounded ahead while Stanton trotted behind, listening for music. The woman they were here to see surrounded herself with jazz at all times, and when you heard Bill Evans’s piano or Miles’s trumpet over the other noises of the waterfront, she wasn’t far. For most of the last decade, Nina Countner had been the woman in Stanton’s life. While there had been a few others in the three years since they’d split, none had been more than a substitute for her.
Stanton trailed Dogma onto the dock of the marina and caught the mournful sound of a saxophone in the distance. The dog had arrived at the tip of the south jetty above Nina’s massive dual‑engine McGray, twenty‑two pristine feet of metal and wood, squeezed into the last slip at the end of the dock.
Nina crouched beside Dogma, already rubbing his belly. “You guys found me.”
“In an actual marina for a change,” said Stanton.
He kissed her on the cheek and breathed her in. Despite spending most of her time at sea, Nina always managed to smell like rosewater. Stanton stepped back to look at her. She had a dimpled chin and striking green eyes, but her nose was a little crooked, and her mouth was small. To Stanton, it was all just right.
“You ever going to let me get you a real slip?” he asked.
Nina gave him a look. He’d offered to rent her a permanent boat slip so many times, hoping it would lure her back to shore more often, but she’d never accepted, and he knew she probably never would. Her freelance magazine assignments hardly provided a steady income, so she’d mastered the art of finding open slips, out‑of‑sight beaches, and off‑the‑radar docks that few others knew about.
“How’s the experiment coming?” Nina asked as Stanton followed her onto the boat. Plan A’s deck was simply appointed, just two folding seats, a collection of loose CDs strewn around the skipper’s chair, and bowls for Dogma’s water and food.
“More results this morning,” he told her. “Should be interesting.”
She took the captain’s seat. “You look tired.”
He wondered if it was the encroaching tide of age she was seeing on his face, crow’s-feet beneath his rimless glasses. But Stanton had slept a full seven hours last night. Rare for him. “I feel fine.”
“The lawsuit’s all over? For good?”
“It’s been over for weeks. Let’s celebrate. Got some champagne in my fridge.”
“Skipper and I are headed to Catalina,” Nina said. She flipped the gauges and switches that Stanton had never bothered to really master, firing up the boat’s GPS and electrical system.
The faint outline of Catalina Island was just visible through the marine layer. “What if I came with you?” he asked.
“While you waited patiently for results from the center? Please, Gabe.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
Nina walked up, cupped his chin in her hand. “I’m not your ex‑wife for nothing.”
The decision had been hers, but Stanton blamed himself, and part of him had never given up on a future for them together. During the three years they were married, his work took him out of the country for months at a time, while she escaped to the ocean, where her heart had always been. He’d let her drift away, and it seemed like she was happiest that way—sailing solo.
A container ship sounded its horn in the distance, sending Dogma into a frenzy. He barked repeatedly at the noise before proceeding to chase his own tail.
“I’ll bring him back tomorrow night,” Nina said.
“Stay for dinner,” Stanton told her. “I’ll cook whatever you want.”
Nina eyed him. “How will your girlfriend feel about us having dinner?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“What happened to what’s‑her‑name? The mathematician.”
“We went on four dates.”
“I had to go see a man about a horse.”
“Seriously. I had to check out a horse in England they thought might have scrapie, and she told me I wasn’t fully committed to her.”
“Was she right?”
“We went on four dates. So, are we on for dinner tomorrow?”
Nina fired up Plan A’s engine as Stanton hopped onto the dock to collect his bike. “Get a decent bottle of wine,” she called back as she unmoored, leaving him once again in her wake. “Then we’ll see. . . .”
the centers for disease control’s Prion Center in Boyle Heights had been Stanton’s professional home for nearly ten years. When he moved west to become its first director, the center had occupied only one small lab in a mobile trailer at Los Angeles County & USC Medical Center. Now it spanned the entire sixth floor of the LAC & USC main hospital building, the same building that for more than three decades had served as the exterior for the soap opera General Hospital.
Stanton headed through the double doors into what his postdocs often referred to as his “lair.” One of them had strung Christmas lights around the main area, and Stanton flipped them on along with the halogens, casting green and red across the microscope benches stretching across the lab. After dropping his bag in his office, Stanton threw on a mask and gloves and headed for the back. This was the first morning they’d be able to collect results in an experiment his team had been working on for weeks, and he was very eager for them.
The center’s “Animal Room” was nearly the length of a basketball court and contained computerized inventory stalls, touch‑screen data‑ recording centers, and electronic vivisection and autopsy stations. Stanton made his way toward the first of twelve cages shelved on the south wall and peered inside. The cage contained two animals: a two‑foot‑long black‑and‑orange coral snake and a small gray mouse. At first glance it looked like the most natural thing in the world: a snake waiting for the right moment to feed on its prey. But in reality something unnatural was happening inside this cage.
The mouse was nonchalantly poking the snake’s head with its nose. Even when the snake hissed, the mouse continued to nudge it carelessly—it didn’t run to the corner of the cage or try to escape. The mouse was as unafraid of the snake as it would have been of another mouse. The first time Stanton saw this behavior, he and his team at the Prion Center erupted in cheers. Using genetic engineering, they’d removed a set of tiny proteins called “prions” from the surface membrane of the mouse’s brain cells. They’d succeded in their strange experiment, disrupting the natural order in the mouse’s brain and eradicating its innate fear of the snake. It was a crucial step toward understanding the deadly proteins that had been Stanton’s life’s work.
Prions occur in all normal animal brains, including those of humans, yet after decades of research, neither he nor anyone else understood why they existed. Some of Stanton’s colleagues believed prion proteins were involved in memory or were important in the formation of bone marrow. No one knew for sure.
Most of the time, these prions sat benignly on neuron cells in the brain. But in rare cases, these proteins could become “sick” and multiply. Like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, prion diseases destroyed healthy tissue and replaced it with useless plaques, squeezing out the normal function of the brain. But there was one key, terrifying difference: While Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s were strictly genetic diseases, certain prion diseases could be passed through contaminated meat. In the mid‑1980s, mutated prions from sick cows in England got into the local food supply through tainted beef, and the entire world became familiar with a prion infection. Mad cow disease killed two hundred thousand cattle in Europe and then spread to humans. First patients had difficulty walking and shook uncontrollably, then they lost their memories and the ability to identify friends and family. Brain death soon followed.
Early in his career, Stanton had become one of the world’s experts on mad cow, and when the CDC founded the National Prion Center, he was the natural choice to head it. Back then it had seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, and he was thrilled to make the move to California; never before had there been a dedicated research center for the study of prions and prion diseases in the United States. With Stanton’s leadership, the center was created to diagnose, study, and eventually fight the most mysterious infectious agents on earth.