Some nights, when the winds of spring rise up out of Virginia, they peel fog from the Potomac and drape it over the branches of deadtrees trapped in the river’s black mud banks. Streamers pull free and flow into the mews of Foggy Bottom and the cobblestoned alleys of Old Georgetown, float over the chockablock townhouses, and finally wrap pale, wet shrouds around war-fortune mansions.
A black Navigator pushed through this fog, driving weston O Street until it left behind the homes of the merely rich and entereda realm of oceanic wealth. The SUV turned onto a drive of gravel the size and color of corn kernels and walled on both sides by Madagascar barberry nine feet tall and bristling with three-inch thorns.
In the backseat, the passenger stared at the red spikes and thought about crucifixion.
The Navigator passed through a series of remote-controlled gates, the last of which was hung with warning signs:
It stopped in front of a mansion of rust-colored brick and white marble. Flowers like red fists filled white boxes hung beneath windows of wavy, distorted glass. Boxwoods carved into strange shapes lined the circular receiving area in front.
The driver got out, a tall man blacker than his blacksuit, lips like overripe plums, skin smooth as polished onyx. He wore sunglasses, despite the hour. His accent was thickly African: “Sair. We hair.”
The passenger stepped onto glistening cobblestones. A warm and moist night, fog coiling around his legs, air fragrant with boxwood and the coppery bouquet of those red flowers. The Navigator dissolved in mist. He climbed granite steps, their edges rounded off by a century and a half of wear, to a columned, curving porch that reminded him of the foredeck of an old sailing ship. He was reaching for the knocker, a massive brass cross hung upside down, when the door swung inward.
Standing before him was a tall woman wearing a blouse of lime-green silk and a white linen Dior skirt cut above the knee. She had shoulder-length red hair and green eyes and she was so beautiful that looking at her was like gazing at the sun: impossible to regard for more than seconds.
“Good evening. I am Erika. Thank you so much for coming.”Lilting, musical voice, traces of Ukraine or Belarus. She extended a hand,cool, long-fingered. She smelled faintly of gardenias.
“Mr. Adelheid has been expecting you. Please.”
He followed her down a long, dusky hallway floored with Italian marble, smooth and white as ancient ice. In pools of yellow light on the burgundy-painted walls hung what he took for reproductions, a van Gogh, a Renoir. Then he stopped.
“Excuse me. Is that a real Picasso?”
Erika glanced over her shoulder. “Of course. They are all originals.”
She brought him to a pair of doors from an old century, some European castle or palace, pushed one open, touched his arm, and left.
A man came forward holding a heavy crystal tumbler. He wore tan gabardine slacks pressed to a knife-edged crease, a blackdouble-breasted blazer, a French blue shirt open at the collar, and a pale roseascot. The visitor had never actually met someone who wore an ascot and had to keep himself from staring. The deep, resonant voice on the recordings had led him to expect someone huge and powerful, but this man was as slim as Fred Astaire and moved with the same languid grace.
A man who never hurried, he thought. Not once in his life.
For all his elegance, there was nothing effeminate about the man. Quite the opposite; he moved through space like a perfectly balanced blade.
“Bernard Adelheid.” Ahdleheight. Accent here, too. Faint, indistinct. Swiss? Dutch? “We are so glad you are here. You must be extremely busy.”
“You know government. Too much work, too few people. Always.”
“Always.” A handshake, mild, dry, brief. “What do you drink?”
“What are you having there?”
“Fifty-year-old Laphroaig, neat.” He held his crystal tumbler aloft. The room was high-ceilinged and dimly lit and the golden whiskey seemed to collect light from the tall white candles in brass wall sconces.There was a fireplace the two of them could have walked into. He could not see into the farthest corners of the room.
A hundred dollars a glass if it’s a cent, he thought.“I’ll have the same, then.”
Mr. Adelheid poured him four fingers from a Baccaratdecanter on a sideboard of medieval proportions. They clinked glasses and the host spoke in German:
“Mögest du alle Tage deines Lebens leben!”
They drank, and Mr. Adelheid said, “A very old toast. Eleventh or twelfth century. From the Teutonic Order, some say. Or perhaps de rBruderschaft St. Christoph. It goes, ‘May you live all the days of your life.’”
“Good advice. Even if easier said than done.”
“Not if one has the means.”
He raised his own tumbler, swirled the liquor, inhaled its spirit, a scent like lightning-struck oak.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?”
“As some things are.”
“Including this house.” He could feel the halls and countless dark rooms winding around him like the passages and chambers of agreat cave, dark space with weight, pressing, a sense of threat. “Is this yours?”
“Is my name on the deed? No. It belongs to a family of my acquaintance.”
“It looks very old.”
“Built in 1854 by Uriah Sadler. A ship owner.”
“What kinds of ships did he own?”
Mr. Adelheid smiled. “Fast ships with big holds and hard crews. He was a slave trader.”
He thought of the black man who had let him out of the car. “Your own crew. Impressive.”
“You mean Adou. Yes. A Ugandan. Mostly civilized.”
He saw chopped limbs, brained babies, changed the subject. “The place is huge.”
“And bigger than what you can see. Captain Sadler had unusual tastes even for a slaver. The cellar beneath is vast. Rooms with granite walls and drains. To contain the screams and flush the blood, I’ve been told.”
“A horrible time.” He could think of nothing else to say.
Mr. Adelheid sipped, watched him. “I hope you will stay to dine with me.”
“I had planned on it.”
“Wonderful. Please, come and sit.”
They took places at a table set for four. Crystal and silver sparkled on white linen. He had never been good at small talk, but Mr. Adelheid was extraordinary, so after a while he felt as though he were in one of those foreign films where people speak endlessly across fabulous tables, every utterance freighted with wit and irony. They talked about Washington’s execrable weather, the visitor’s workload, AfPak, one subject flowing smoothly into the next. Mr. Adelheid made a story about hunting wild boar in Russia sound like an elegant fable.
A waiter appeared, removed his empty tumbler, replaced it with a full one.
“Shall we begin with some Strangford Lough oysters?” Mr.Adelheid smiled, then looked abashed. “I’m so sorry. You do like oysters, don’tyou?”
The few raw oysters he had ever eaten had made him think of toilet bowls. “Absolutely,” he said.
The waiter set down silver plates with the slick, pink things in iridescent shells on crushed ice. Mr. Adelheid tipped one to his lips, slurped, savored. Steeling himself, the guest did the same. A taste like very dry champagne with a hint of salt wind. He smiled, agreeably startled.
“Incredible, no? I could eat them every day.” Mr. Adelheid lifted another. “This morning they were in the Irish Sea.”
They concentrated on the oysters. He had always known that certain people lived this way: palatial homes on estates that sprawled like counties, enormous yachts, exquisite women, the food and drink of royalty. Relishing ecstasies every day about which he could only fantasize.
He had never known how such lives were made. Now he might learn.
When he had finished eating the oysters, Mr. Adelheid pushed his plate aside, dabbed his lips.
“Let us speak now. You have a very important job at BARDA. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, yes?”
“Created in 2006 by President George W. Bush to counter biowarfare threats and responsible for, among other initiatives, ProjectBioShield.”
“Fascinating work, I imagine. Would you care to tell me about it?”
He paused while the waiter set down new plates. Velvety, chocolate-colored filets in a scarlet sauce. “Medallions of Black Forest venison with Madeira and black truffles,” Mr. Adelheid said. Then wine, poured into crystal goblets from a bottle with a label like parchment. He had drunk wine, of course, even, on a few occasions, in very expensive restaurants. Now he understood that he had never tasted great wine.
How many other great things had evaded him in this life? He suddenly felt regret so intense it made his eyes glisten. Too quickly, he brought the wine glass to his mouth, spilling a few drops onto the immaculate tablecloth, embarrassing himself. His moist eyes, the soiled linen—he felt thick and stupid in the presence of this polished man.
“I do microbiology. MDRBs.”
“I’m sorry. Multiple-drug-resistant bacteria.”
“Is it like in the movies? You know, exotic germs, that kind of thing?”
A little flare inside him. “Calling them germs is like calling diamonds rocks. They are miracles of evolution. And beautiful. Think of a spiral nebula on the head of a pin. Every color in the universe.”
“You speak of them as friends.”
“We get along well. I respect them. And admire their good qualities.”
“Astonishing evolutionary speed, for one.”
“Do you work in space suits?”
“Sometimes. Those in BSL-4.”
“What does that mean, exactly, ‘BSL-4’?”
“Biosafety Level Four. The highest security level. Positive-pressure environments. Chemturion protective suits. Respirators. Disinfectant showers and ultraviolet germicidal lights. Double-door air locks.Unbreakable labware.”
Mr. Adelheid nodded, touched his right ear with the tips of two fingers. The door swung open and Erika walked in. Even moving, shes eemed to be in repose. Everything about her was . . . perfect. Her legs, body, face, eyes—not one dissonant curve or angle.
“Good evening, Erika. Would you care for a drink? Some champagne, perhaps?”
“No thank you, sir.”
She sat, crossed her magnificent legs, and something caught in his chest.
“Erika, you have met our friend.” No name offered, none asked for.
“Would you like to spend time with our friend?”
“I would love to.” A voice like chimes, exultant, as if it were the greatest opportunity life had offered.
He almost dropped his fork, fumbled, felt like a fool.
“Would you find that agreeable?” Mr. Adelheid smiled at him.
He hesitated, thoroughly unsure how to respond.
“We could have Christina come in. Or Gisele.”
“No, no.” He reddened. “No. I mean, yes, of course, I would find that agreeable.”
“And Erika, would you like to accommodate our friend’s wishes?”
“Oh, yes.” She placed her finger tips on the back of his hand, four small, cool circles on his hot skin. There was something about the way she moved, slowly, dreamily, as though underwater. “There is a villa in the Mediterranean, on an island all its own, with a waterfall in the bedroom. Floors of pink marble, walls of glass.” She flicked her eyes at Mr. Adelheid.
He smiled. “No rules we do not make, the only laws those of nature.”
His thoughts twirled, huge black eyes, white fog, shining oysters, golden whiskey, scarlet wine, a turquoise sea scattered with flakes of light. This woman’s scent, heavier now, gardenia sweet. He closed his eyes, breathed.
I could use some air.
“Thank you, Erika.” She rose and turned to their guest.
“I hope to see you again.”
“And I . . . yes, me, too.”
He watched her leave, moving through space as though without weight.
“To the victors go the spoils.” Mr. Adelheid raised his glass again.
“God in heaven.” He drank, eyes closed.
“Would you like to learn more?”
“That’s why I came.”
Mr. Adelheid nodded. “Fine. But let us enjoy this good food first. We should never rush our pleasures.”
“Live our lives.”
“Indeed.” Mr. Adelheid did something in the air with his right hand, some ancient benediction, and picked up his knife. They ate in a nisland of light in the great shadowed room. With a silver knife he cut the venison and forked to his mouth pieces dripping with sauce. They ate and did not speak, the only sounds in the room those of their chewing and breathing and the insistent buzzing of one invisible fly.
The light in the room rippled, candle flames dancing with currents of air. He ate, drank wine, so over washed with pleasures he forgot forlong moments who and where he was.
After a time, with half of his venison uneaten, Mr. Adelheid laid down his silver, dabbed his lips. His fingers were slim and very long, tendrils with shining tips.
To leave food like that. His own plate had been clean for some minutes.
“Well. We would be very grateful for your help.”
“Leave BARDA and come to work for you?” He did not know who Mr. Adelheid worked for. But surely it would be made clear. Or would it?
“No. Not leave BARDA.”
“A mole, then.” Crude. He regretted it immediately, blushed.
The fly, buzzing again. An expression passed across Mr.Adelheid’s face, like clouds scudding over the moon. “An observer.”
“What would you want me to observe?”
“Most antibiotics today are derived from one original source, is that not true?”
“Yes. Actinomycetales. Discovered in 1940 by Selman Waksman. He got the Nobel for that work.”
“But germs are winning the battle. So I have heard.”
“Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from bacterial infections we can no longer treat. In the U.S. alone. Other places,the numbers are . . . appalling.”
“Hundreds of thousands of reported deaths. The true totalis much higher, isn’t it?”
“Of course. Did renal failure or hospital-acquired infection kill Mr. Jones? One checkmark in a different box on a report. An easy choice for dirty hospitals. Which most are.”
“And your facility—BARDA—is trying to produce an entirely new family of antibiotics.”
“Among other projects. But yes, that is one main thrust of the work.”
Mr. Adelheid smoothed his ascot. How old was the man? The visitor could not say with any certainty. Forty or sixty. His skin was smooth, eyes bright, movements lithe. But there was something ancient about him, Sphinx-like, an inscrutable repose.
“Consider this. The new currency of power is information,” Mr. Adelheid said.
“Really?” The Laphroaig and the wine were making him bolder. “So given the choice between a ton of gold and a terabyte of information, you’d take the terabyte?”
“On the surface, an easy choice. A ton of gold today is worth $45 million. No paltry sum. But: what if you have golden information? Do you have any idea how much money has been made from Dr. Waksman’s antibiotics?”
“Billions, I would guess.”
“Don’t you have politicians who can help you?”
“Of course we have politicians. And others. But no one like you.”
“So what do you need, exactly?”
“Exactly? At this very moment? Nothing. But there will come a time. Very soon, we think.”
Keeping his eyes on the table, he said, “You want me tobe a spy.”
Mr. Adelheid made a sound as if clearing something unpleasant from his throat. “Spies make death. Our wish is not to take lives but to save them.”
“For a profit.”
“Of course for a profit.” His tone suggested that any alternative would be irrational, like living without breathing. “What are millions of human lives worth?”
Mr. Adelheid regarded him in silence for a moment. “You know of Reinhold Messner? The great mountaineer?”
“I know he climbed Mount Everest solo.”
“And without oxygen. In Europe, a god. Messner said, ‘From such places you do not return unchanged.’ ”
“I don’t climb.”
“Mountains are not the only realms from which we may not return unchanged.”
Mr. Adelheid reached into his blazer, produced a slip of green paper the size of a playing card. He slid it to the middle of the table. A deposit ticket from Grand Cayman National Bank for Fifty thousand and 00/100 dollars, payable not to a name but to an eleven-digit alphanumeric sequence.
“An appreciation for the pleasure of your company this evening. You need only the PIN. Which I will give you.”
“For doing what?”