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Begin with one freelance journalist hellbent on getting her story. Add one charismatic and internationally renowned genetic engineer who claims to have developed the first viable AIDS vaccine. Mix in a stormy love affair which colors their mutual past, and you have the opening gambits of the fast-paced political thriller June Mail. When Sarah Calloway arrives in California for her exclusive interview with the celebrated Dr. Winslow, she finds that the geneticist has disappeared without a trace. His disappearance ...
Begin with one freelance journalist hellbent on getting her story. Add one charismatic and internationally renowned genetic engineer who claims to have developed the first viable AIDS vaccine. Mix in a stormy love affair which colors their mutual past, and you have the opening gambits of the fast-paced political thriller June Mail. When Sarah Calloway arrives in California for her exclusive interview with the celebrated Dr. Winslow, she finds that the geneticist has disappeared without a trace. His disappearance is made doubly mysterious by the fact that she had received a wire from the man only two days before, setting up the California interview and dropping no hint of an impending move. As Sarah proceeds to track down the missing geneticist, an elusive but threatening presence appears to be tracking her down. Who? And why?
A clear head at all costs, sweetheart. There has to be an explanation here. Some reasonable enough rationale for his disappearance which eludes me at the moment. Maybe a slip-up in information? A last-minute change in plans? A wire that got by me, en route between New York and this god-forsaken hell hole.
I make a pit stop at May's Diner, apparently the only restaurant in town, in order to take stock of the situation. Unfortunately, the coffee here is lukewarm dishwater and my mind's an exhausted blank. More to the point is the disquieting air of this stripped-down hash house, reeking of a grease and loneliness which transports me onto some third-rate Edward Hopper canvas. Though even Hopper would have had the sense to skirt such obviousness as that bare yellow light bulb. And all these damn flies.
I light up what is to be my last cigarette of the day and take Frank's telegram back out of my purse:
Great to hear from you stranger.
Anticipate your visit with open arms.
Call before arrival.
Love and kisses--
But when I tried getting in touch out of San Francisco, the number came up disconnected. And his address traced down to that deserted bungalow west of Colston this afternoon. How to add anything up? Especially when considering that Frank's wire arrived two short days ago with no hints whatever of an impending move.
There is always the possibility that he is giving me the intentional slip. But then, why the telegram? That had never been Frank's style, to say one thing and mean another. Leastways, not the Frank I once knew. The man who had prided himself on being such an honest bastard. Bloodcurdling so.
I order a refill on the dishwater and flash back to our last awkward encounter, some four years ago. It was Oscar's front bar, if I remember it right. With the usual Friday night rabble clogging up the place on stale cigarette smoke and beer. And it was I who first caught sight of him, engrossed in cozy conversation with a most striking Latino woman nestled into his side. Considering the circumstances, which were somewhat less than propitious, I promptly buried myself in the pages of the letter I was in the process of reading -- from my mother no doubt -- in hopes that the Beautiful Couple would humor me by vanishing into the sultry summer night.
But when I finally risked a peek about, it was only to find Frank and Miss Costa Rica of 1981 right there at my elbow. She was a disgracefully slender creature, with the kind of liquid brown eyes one could kill for. And her name was Angelica. The Angelica? I darkly speculated, a smile freezing halfway across my face. The Angelica of crumpled napkin, tossed oh-so-casually onto my dresser that fatal evening, some three or four months before?
My suspicions were immediately confirmed by way of a certain nervous gesture of Frank's right hand to left ear lobe. A gesture which I had become all too familiar with over the ten or so months of our stormy and see-saw affair. My smile took on a distinctly bitter edge as the prerequisite banalities were exchanged. Soon enough I was making my excuses, gathering together the scattered pages of my letter and walking self-consciously out the door -- bent on leaving all memories of Frank and the fifteen pounds I had gained since our final break-up, far far behind.
By and large, I succeeded in doing exactly that. Until last month, that is. While passing time on a flight down to Boston, I chanced upon that Time write-up on Frank. What an erotic jolt that had been. Coming face to face with those familiar grey-blue eyes in the pages of a national magazine. "Why I know that man!" I had murmured incredulously to the lumpish businessman sitting to my left.
"You don't say," he had mumbled, head bobbing precariously low in my lap for a closer look before he lurched back up to toast my glory with another swig of scotch.
The article itself had been an extended wrap-up of recent strides in recombinant DNA, with particular emphasis given to its applicability in AIDS research. There were the usual hints of impending breakthroughs, the general drift being that Dr. Frank Winslow out of Genco Laboratories in Northern California was well on his way to developing a viable AIDS vaccine.
By the time we landed in Boston, I had made up my mind to locate the man and reconnect. I was in desperate need of a story, and his certainly looked like it could aptly fill the bill. Current, hot, and juicy. With yours truly on an unsuspecting inside track. Presuming, of course, that our past relationship, in all its clichéd absurdity, could be said to represent an inside track. Or any kind of track, at all.
If I am to be brutally honest with myself, it was more than the prospect of a respectable scoop which was egging me on. For I suddenly found myself craving the man like honey. Something in his lean, sensual presence which had jumped off that glossy black and white and into the pit of my stomach, wreaking havoc with nerve endings that had been lying complacently dormant for months.
And so it was that I wrangled his present address out of my connection at Time Inc. and dispatched a short note. It took two days for his return telegram to arrive. And two more for me to decide to withdraw what little remained of my dwindling checking account in order to cover the trips west. All that financial outlay, only to get out here and run up against this frustrating blank.
I stare glumly into the coffee grounds settling at the bottom of my cup and contemplate the options now before me. I must make contact with Genco's central offices and labs in Monterey, of course. But seven o'clock on a Friday evening is hardly the ideal time to try extorting what is no doubt classified information out of some private lab. I dimly consider the possibility of flying on back to New York tonight, as if a man named Frank Winslow did not exist. But what would that get me but an empty bank roll and enough unanswered questions to nag me for months to come.
In due course, I decide to stick around Colston one more day, in hopes of digging something up. Paying for my coffee, I question the waitress apropos cheap lodgings for the night. She recommends a Motel 6 some eight miles north of town. I slip another quarter under the saucer and head out into the hot desert night.
En route to the motel, I stop off at a 7–11 for the usual stockpile of reserves for solitary evenings in far away places. One Simenon mystery. One package of Parliaments. And a cold bottle of cheap white wine.
Simenon works his usual magic. Plucking me out of that tacky motel room and into the dusky streets of some canal town in northern France. A provincial backwater where Maigret and his pipe relentlessly track down their man. Three hours and three quarters of a wine bottle later, I put the finished mystery aside, annoyed at myself for not having had the forethought to pick up a second book.
Pouring out the last of the wine, I settle back against the pillows for a mental recap of the day gone by. A nightly habit picked up reading Gurdjieff: memory equals experience and experience equals life.
First there had been the croissants and coffee back at Amy's in San Francisco, the two of us catching up on past lives while we waited on her teenage admirer to recharge his motorcycle for their overnight in Carmel. Then the two hours wasted at Rent–A–Wreck, and the four and a half hour drive down Highway 5. Out from under San Francisco's foggy mantle into the blazing badlands of California's central plains.
Once here in Colston, my first stop had been the antiquated Shell station across from May's, where I made a sad attempt at freshening up in their cramped and filthy restroom before heading out to Paradise and Frank's. Or what had once been Frank's but apparently was no more.
Paradise Valley. One of the thousand and one arid little boom towns which have sprung up around this country over the last forty years. All of them with their vapid, treeless landscapes and split-level claptrap homes. Row after depressing row of them hatched out of identical prefab molds.
Not Frank's style, that place. Down to the many blowsy dandelions dotting his front lawn. Frank would never have tolerated such obvious beacons of sloth and neglect. Which is precisely why my somewhat casual lifestyle -- the peanut butter, the cigarettes, the white wine and hot baths and general state of disarray -- used to exasperate the man so. All that benign neglect.
He hadn't always been so intolerant. Not in the beginning, at least. And putting aside my plastic cup, I close my eyes and will myself back. Some five years back. To that glorious and troubled first month. First week. First night of nights. When and where we first met.
The setting is Davies Hall, Columbia University, West side, New York. The very last place I want to be on that particular rainy Friday evening. But there I am, none the less. Covering a debate on the ethical and moral perspectives of recent advances in genetic engineering research. Should Man Play God? was the timeworn question. And I am too cold, tired, and hungry to give a damn about the answer, my mind racing ahead to the leftover pizza I will be polishing off in front of The Honeymooners sometime later tonight.
Then he begins to speak. There is something in his manner, not so much in what he says as in how he says it, that yanks me back into the here and now of that vast and poorly heated room. His words are so weighted. His tone so pensive and self-assured. And his looks, if one goes in for such things, quite first rate.
Members of the press are invited back to the usual post cocktail party-reception directly following the debate. As a rule, I eschew such events. Too many of the same faces, the same banal conversations, the same watered-down punches and sweaty wheels of overripe brie cheese. But this evening I make an exception to the rule, heading home for a quick overhaul before taxiing over to a certain Esther Squire's East side flat.
The place is posh. Very posh indeed. And packed to the rafters with America's chic-intelligentsia elite. I make a beeline for the kitchen and a hefty glass of the nearest wine. A few gulps of an unusually sour cabernet sauvignon and I begin shouldering my way into the front parlor, ultimately staking claim to a foot square piece of territory to one side of an imposing marble hearth. From this particular vantage point, the man in question is nowhere in sight. Perhaps he will be making an appearance later in the evening? Or worse yet, has already arrived, paid his dues, and left? I drift in place, soaking up welcome heat from the fire blazing before me and sipping on a second glass of the red wine.
"Should get yourself a notebook, woman. All that paper shuffling can get on one's nerves."
The voice is startlingly familiar. I turn to lock eyes with the grey-blue, now grey, now blue eyes of my dapper geneticist, spilling what little is left of my wine in the process. A purple stain of Rorschach possibility materializes on the beige shag at my feet. "I was that bad?" I suggest with an ingratiating smile, beads of perspiration gathering instantaneously under both arms.
He nods, looking at me, or rather through me, and then back to the fire. Quite as if I have been found wanting in some essential virtue and tossed away.
"There was a lot to learn from you two tonight," I finally hazard. And after an excruciating pause, "Though it goes without saying that I'm on the other fellow's side."
"Without saying," he echoes dryly, a finger tracing and retracing the delicate line of his finely chiseled nose.
"It's a matter of principle, don't you think? And safety. If you want to play the game, you better be willing for the others to make the rules. Especially when your game happens to involve experiments with the life process itself."
"On the contrary, my dear lady. Since we are the ones playing the game, we're the only ones who can possibly understand what the rules should be."
"Ha!" I exclaim with unintended emphasis, setting my empty wine glass down on the mantel and surreptitiously scanning the room for a loose cigarette. "I find it rather difficult to believe you geneticists -- or any other scientists, for that matter -- are capable of blowing your own whistles. Just not part of your programming. Not part of your game."
"Genetic engineering is hardly a game, as you insist on referring to it," he points out in the same dry, condescending manner.
"Isn't it? Well no, you're right. It isn't. But I imagine that is precisely how a lot of your people begin to approach it after awhile. Ensconced away in your pearly white laboratories, with all your test tubes and double helixes and the like. There's some truth to that, isn't there, Doctor?" I persist, in a soft insinuating tone, swooping a fresh glass of wine off a passing tray.
"You're sure you need that?" he asks, nodding in the direction of my glass.
"Why, yes," I stammer, giving the man a quizzical, sidelong glance. The savior type, is he? "Which is why I took it in the first place, thank you. So tell me, Doctor. In all seriousness. And off the record. How can you be as infallibly convinced as you sounded up there tonight that there will be no freak genetic mishap in our future? No unforeseen calamities along the way to all of your miracle cures?"
"The opposition brought up any number of possibilities tonight, didn't they?" I say, regretting that I had not taken time out to review my notes. "But let's take the obvious. Some new-fangled miracle bacteria which continues to mutate outside the lab. Becoming unexpectedly toxic and killing off half the human race before an effective antidote can be found."
He stares down at me a moment in pensive silence. "You don't really believe that crap, do you?" he finally allows.
"What crap? . . . Why shouldn't I?"
He rubs his eyes in weary disgust.
"Now that," I murmur, one finger dancing in the air, "is precisely what I find so exasperating about you people. This condescending, 'our work is above it all' attitude you always wear."
"Look, Miss. . ."
"Miss Calloway. Recombinant DNA happens to be a very complex subject, about which I am fed up with having to discuss with every Tom, Dick, and--"
"Harriet," I interject.
"--reporter who happens to come along, and who invariably doesn't know a damn thing about what they're talking about. It's never the informed ones with whom I get mired down in these senseless debates."
"Is that so? Well! I guess I know when to beat a retreat," I demur, smiling crookedly up at the man, and surprised to find him smiling in return. "Nonetheless, Doctor, as poorly informed as I may be concerning the particulars of your work inside the lab, I'm quite sure I know enough about the ways of the world outside the lab to rest assured that the wonders of genetic engineering, whatever they may or may not be, will inevitably be used for the worst possible purposes, and wind up mucking things up even more than they already are."
"That was some retreat," he murmurs wryly, and suddenly we both laugh. A slinky blonde strolls into the conversation at this point in time, linking arms proprietarily with my new friend.
"Aren't you going to introduce us?" she purrs, smiling oh-so-graciously in my direction.
"Afraid I didn't catch your name?" he says.
"Sarah Calloway," I enunciate crisply, pulling my purse up over my shoulder in preparation for a quick exit.
"Well Sarah, this is Esther Squire."
The hostess, of course. "How do you do," I murmur, deciding she isn't the type to shake hands. "I must say, you have a beautiful place here. I'm afraid I've forgotten your name, as well," I lie, turning back to Frank.
"But I thought everyone knew the great Dr. Winslow," Esther coos, twining a finger playfully around his ear. He jerks his head away. It is an infinitesimal movement, but one I take note of, all the same.
"Frank Winslow," he says, giving me one of those long searching looks which, unbeknownst to me, he had become famous for. "You're not driving home, I trust?"
"Why no. As a matter of fact, I was planning on catching a cab."
"Good. There are enough drunk drivers out there tonight without adding one more to the scenery."
Whether the man is playing with me or not, this last remark seems totally uncalled for. "Dr. Winslow," I begin hotly, the blood rushing to my cheeks, "whatever else I may be this evening, I am most certainly not drunk. I do thank you for a most enlightening conversation. And a pleasure to meet you," I add curtly, with a vague nod in Esther's direction before making an about-face and strutting indignantly out of the room.
I land in the adjacent dining area, where an opulent spread of goodies has been laid out on a huge buffet. Why not? I tell myself, picking a plate off the sideboard and proceeding to pile it high with a bit of everything in sight. Unfortunately my appetite has deserted me, and without bothering to take a single bite I set the laden plate back down on the buffet and return to the kitchen for my coat.
Romeo and Juliet are still going at it to one side of the refrigerator. All that insatiable puppy love depresses the hell out of me. I am in the motion of battling into my coat, wrong arm into wrong sleeve -- okay so maybe I didn't need that last glass of wine -- when an invisible hand helps me along.
"Running off so soon?"
I turn, staring incredulously up at the man. Unable to believe he has actually followed me out here. "I don't really dig these things, to tell the truth," I say, gesturing vaguely into the other room.
"And you were going to leave just like that? Without even saying goodbye? . . . Before we could even finish our conversation?"
"I thought you finished things off rather handily, now that you mention it."
He laughs, "So?" he murmurs, lightly touching the top button of my coat and sending chills all the way down my back.
"When would you suggest we get together to wrap things up?"
Wrap things up? "Well, I don't know. Maybe sometime next week?"
"How about tonight?"
"Tonight? But don't you. . . ?"
"Don't I what?"
"Well, nothing. It's just that. . ."
"Just that what?" he asks, reaping obvious enjoyment from my obvious discomfort.
"Well what exactly do you mean?" I finally say. "Go some place and talk, or what?"
"I live right in the neighborhood," he replies, nodding in the general direction of the back door. "How does that sound? And I make a great pot of tea," he adds, drawing a finger along the collar of my coat.
"Yes. I bet you do."
He laughs again. "You do like tea, do you not?"
"Not particularly, as a matter of fact."
"Well, you'll learn to. It's an acquired taste."
When he returns to the living room to take care of some final farewells, I consider another quick swig of wine. But before I am able to translate thought into action, the man is back, a sport coat slung over one shoulder and a Carmen McRae album in hand. Whose album it is and how it happened to have found its way into this particular apartment, is not a question I care to go into at the moment.
We taxi over to his loft in the lower end of the Battery. Hardly in the neighborhood, as he put it to me earlier. But I am in no mood to quibble. And as promised, he really does make us up a pot of tea. And we really do talk. Or rather, he talks and I listen. Nodding along in my own sweet fashion as he expounds cryptically on cell fusions, vector molecules, incubated plasmids and the like. When all I can really think about is whether the two of us are going to be sleeping together tonight. Or not.
It is sometime around 3 a.m. that he hits me with the question. Should he call me a taxi home?
"Well yes. . . I suppose you had better," I answer, making a hesitant attempt to rise.
"Or do you have a better idea?"
I laugh. What else to do under the circumstances?
"Good," he says, carrying the teapot off to the kitchen and returning moments later with a bottle of Courvoisier, two glasses, and the Carmen McRae.
I never did acquire a taste for tea. But Carmen's smoky melodies have remained synonymous with love-making -- the sweet, new, lingering kind -- ever since.
It is not until morning, with the harsh light of a new day pouring through the bedroom window, that I am finally sober enough to take note of the slender band of gold adorning the fourth finger of his left hand.
"You're married?" I screech, pulling the bedclothes up around my neck.
"Of course," he answers, having the audacity to chuckle. "What self-respecting American male wouldn't be married off by thirty-five years of age?"
"Well then why in Jesus didn't you tell me?"
"I've never made a habit of announcing such things. Nor hiding them either, for that matter. The ring is here. Isn't that enough?"
"No, it isn't enough. And where is your wife?"
"With the kid, upstate. Any more questions?"
"Kids even," I mumble, too unnerved to bother hiding my total disgust.
"I was under the impression you had children squirreled away somewhere as well."
"What are you talking about?" I snap, yanking the sheet off the bed and whipping it around my waist.
"All that bleeding heart talk last night about having to put your children's destiny in the hands of a few mad scientists."
"I was speaking figuratively, for God's sake." Shrouded under the sheet, I march off to the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. And thinking how very much I despise that term "bleeding heart." The ultimate conservative-minded pigeonhole for people who just happen to be human enough to care.
When I re-emerge some fifteen minutes later, showered, dressed, and prepared to make a quick and cool exit, two glasses of fresh orange juice have already been set out on the breakfast room table, and some incredible smelling coffee is brewing on the stove. Ah well, I tell myself in Machiavellian resignation, if I don't want him bugging into my drinking habits, what right do I have bugging into his bedroom habits. And what she doesn't know won't hurt her. An axiom which over time I have come to vehemently disbelieve.
But as matters were to unfold that weekend, I was to spend the rest of the day and the following evening holed away in that loft. Feeling terribly compromised and compromising. And madly in love.
Copyright © 1986 by Jean Warmbold