THE MALTHUS PANDEMIC
Copyright 2013 Terry Morgan
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First published in the United Kingdom in 2013 by TJM Books www.tjmbooks.com
The right of Terry Morgan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
"Anchored firmly in the present, no high-tech Bond style gadgets, just good old-fashioned detective work. Gritty descriptions of the international locations, compelling plot and poignant rants about the inadequacy of democratic institutions and persuasive insight on the inner workings of the global establishment. Easy reading and difficult to put down once started. Enjoyable read."
My name is Daniel Capelli and, before you ask, I am not Italian. My father was but my mother wasn't. I am English born and bred. Born in Portsmouth and brought up around West London - Chiswick to be precise. I'm forty-five years old and until recently I'd never found it hard to stay single. But details of my private life are sure to crop up later anyway so let's cut out the personal stuff right now. There's a lot to cover and I hate wasting time.
I'm writing this for a hundred different reasons but, before we start, I need to get something off my chest.
In the USA, UK and what is humorously called the European Union it is supposed to be a democracy. Right? Individuals can express their opinion freely, they can influence decisions that affect them and they are listened to because politicians need their votes. Correct? The many layers of bureaucracy, frustrating though they are, exist to ensure the necessary checks and balances so that we all live together in some sort of big, happy community. Organisations have been put in place that provide us, the hard-working tax-payer, with protection and support when we need protection and support. Those that get paid out of our taxes do as we want not what they want.
So, if we want to improve things and can show that it can be done at no extra cost to the public purse it stands to reason that we can point this out, expect immediate action and won't need to wait for an election to come around. And if we showed them that half of this happy community might be dead within a year, then what would you expect?
If I am not badly mistaken, you would expect all of our highly paid political leaders and that teeming mass of salaried and pensioned pen pushers that is their back-office support to drop everything and deal with it. Right?
Well, let's hope so because as I write this I'm so concerned for the future of this community of billions that I'm beginning to think a short spell of dictatorship might be better for a while. As far as I can tell, nothing has been learned from what we found and yet another man-made, lethal virus with another fancy name could, right now, be sat in a freezer next door to where you live.
Are you comfortable knowing that? If so, would you like to see someone else, perhaps a scientist, taking decisions for all those politicians who have shown they are too afraid to listen let alone take any action?
So why do I start this with a rant? Well, the politicians and bureaucrats had their backs turned or were on their tax payer funded summer holidays at the time. But it only took a handful of us to uncover this ingenious but complicated plot - and we weren't even being paid. The hand wringing and buck-passing started when we tried to explain to them what was going on under their noses and asked them to act. We weren't part of their cosy system you see. We were outside their comfort zone and so they couldn't recognise us, in the official sense of the word. Their system ensures they only deal with each other. That way they keep control and cover each other's backs to keep the cosy system ticking over. But many of us want to see real, dynamic leadership and action. We're fed up with this short-term, pandering just to get re-elected. So, is it any wonder that some, tired of waiting, decide to take direct action themselves and bypass the system?
But, you know what really hurts? At one stage they thought we were a bunch of fruitcakes. But I forgive them for that last bit. There are lots of fruitcakes out there.
So, yes, I'm Daniel Capelli and now I've got that first rant off my chest, let me tell you what I do and then introduce you to a few other fruitcakes.
In a nutshell I'm a private investigator. That's not what it says in my passport but it's what I sometimes call myself if asked. A business consultant might go a step further and say that I operate in a niche sector. That would be correct.
I like what I do and I'm good at it. If I wasn't any good I wouldn't survive. After all I run a private enterprise not a publicly funded monopoly. I'm a one-man band as it's called but my clients are often very big businesses. Most of the companies willing to pay for my services are not easy to please and demand value for their money so if I hadn't been delivering over the last few years then I wouldn't still be around. But I've slowly built a solid reputation for the specialised services I provide. Let's list a few:
Corporate fraud, industrial espionage, theft of intellectual property. That's a start. Satisfying suspicions about how competitors had made money so much more quickly and easily than they did or how the already wealthy have made their sometimes-ill-gotten gains are two more. The work does, occasionally, put you at odds with people, so I have to be careful, but I've always believed that life without risk was rather dull, besides being far less lucrative.
I still keep my small pad in West London but I travel around a lot. Airports are a necessity but no country is off limits and so I live mostly out of a suitcase with a few other passports tucked somewhere. Daniel Capelli, you see, also has a few other names he can use from time to time. It makes life so much easier.
But that's enough about me for now.
Sometimes I need my own back office support just like those politicians. But my civil service is another one-man band, or at least it started out as one. Colin Asher is a mate of mine. We've known each other for years but Colin has also built his business, Asher & Asher, from straight forward private investigation into something that resembles a privately-owned SIS - MI5 or MI6. He's got nothing like the same numbers of staff and operates from a little office off the Edgeware Road, but Colin's intelligence gathering service is good enough for my purposes. Colin is important. You'll hear more about Colin.
I'd never heard of Doctor Larry Brown until this case started. This is the way these things go. Larry is American and he's already seen what I've written above about democracy and leadership and the power of individuals. I knew he'd like it. Larry was in Nigeria working for the American Embassy when it started and it was Larry who came across tests on the Malthus A virus being carried out on a hundred or so innocent victims up in the north of Nigeria. Larry is black, of West African descent and mixed well in Nigeria once he'd slipped on a pair of old jeans. I like Larry's gritty determination and frustration with the system. He's left the Embassy now as the frustration got the better of him. But we're staying in touch.
Then there's Kevin Parker. Larry and Kevin are poles apart in many ways but it was Kevin's Malthus Society website that helped us find the technical brains behind the creation of this lethal, human virus, and the plot to release it. Kevin lectures on social and economic history and is a passionate speaker on anything to do with Thomas Malthus, Paul Eyrlich and others you may or may not have heard of. Like them, he holds some very strong views himself on the need for a reduction in the world population and he's full of statistics to show it makes a lot of sense. I learned a lot from Kevin and am now a fully signed up member of his Malthus Society with a growing appreciation of what it wants our sleeping politicians to do. As Kevin says in his usual way, "When the fuckers wake up it'll be too fucking late."
When I spoke to Kevin last week he told me he'd only just started sleeping properly again. Kevin, you see, had been having nightmares about being arrested on suspicion of involvement in a bioterrorism plot.
There are several others I could mention as well but you'll come across them later. But I need to make a special mention of Jimmy 'The Ferret' Banda from Nairobi. Jimmy, my friend - you were brilliant.
But let me start with the afternoon a few months ago when Colin finally tracked me down to the airport in Kuala Lumpur and asked me to fly back to London to meet a new client.
I had never heard of the American medical research company, Virex International, let alone its President, Charles Brady. But within twenty-four hours of the phone call I had abandoned my private plan to go up to Bangkok for the weekend and flown back to London for two nights and one day. The day was mostly spent waiting for Brady's delayed flight to arrive from Boston. What was left of the day was spent discussing Brady's problem.
By the time Brady arrived, I already knew that Virex International did complicated research on viruses that caused influenza and other human diseases and that they had apparently lost some research material. But Brady turned out to be strong on long, technical words and weak on commercial facts. In exasperation, and as he was already looking at his watch, I finally asked him to be more explicit by defining the importance of his loss in financial terms. At first, Brady appeared embarrassed by my bluntness but eventually put a value of a few million dollars on it. It still wasn't an exact sum but it was big enough to explain why Brady had flown first class to London to meet me and why I had then flown to Bangkok. Bangkok, Brady had suggested, might produce a few leads.
Now, at that point, I would normally have asked for far more detail but time was already running out for Brady's return flight and there was also a neat co-incidence of sorts. There was this other business in Bangkok that I had been planning to deal with just two days before and then postponed. So, armed with a very poor remit, I wished Brady a safe journey back to Boston, told him I'd be in touch and bought myself a ticket to Bangkok for the following night.
So let us now jump twenty four hours.
I woke in my Bangkok hotel room to the faint drone of the air conditioning unit and the pale light of dawn breaking through the window blind. I was tired, had slept deeply and for a few seconds wondered where I was. For someone who travels time zones as much as I do this is a common enough experience but, with my eyes still firmly shut, I tried to put the past few days and hours back into perspective.
I knew I had this vague job to do and had been busy but it had all been fairly plain sailing and normal up until last night.
I had arrived late afternoon and, after a shower and a change of clothing into something more suited to the Bangkok weather, ventured out into the hot, evening air, fought my way along the Sukhumvit Road through the hordes of evening strollers and ended up at a certain place that had become a bit of a habit of mine on recent visits to Bangkok. Up until then, it had been like the start of any other business trip but it then changed into something far more private.
The job I was there to do for Virex was, as I've said, unusually vague but as I lay there still half asleep, there was no harm in going over everything in my mind. I am, despite how I might sometimes appear, a very organized man. I am a professional in my field and don't normally make rash decisions. It is just that I occasionally take calculated risks or allow myself to be carried on a whim. Whims are a bit like instincts. I know they sound unprofessional but they are much the safest sort of risk. Last night's whim - the one that had taken me to that place - had looked innocent enough at the time. Nevertheless, I had still given it some thought before setting off. After all, any misjudgement could mean, at the very least, a ruined reputation and a nail in the coffin for a self-employed businessman.
But 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' has been a motto of mine for many years. I think I inherited that one from my Italian father. The other motto, 'muddle through' comes, I like to think, from my English mother to ensure that if life throws up the unexpected, as it often does, you can still find a way to deal with it and not be tied down by procedure or other matters that get in the way.
'Impatience is a virtue' is a motto I invented myself and I value it highly - in fact, it partly explains my rant at the beginning. So, anyway, a sudden retreat from the whim to stroll along Sukhumvit Road so as not to end up in that usual place looked like surrender and this is not my style. To accept my fate - whatever it might be - with a shrug had seemed a far manlier response at the time.
But, I admit I still felt a little uncertainty when I reached the door of that place. I had stopped and stared at the door as a vision of myself hit my conscience like that of a drowning man.
I am sure a drowning man can be forgiven for the flashbacks of his past pleasures or regrets. Perhaps, also, a drowning man with no hope of rescue can also cram an entire life into the short space of time it takes to hold his breath until he could stand it no longer and finally inhales that last, fateful lungful.
But that vision of myself had been just as quick. It was like a fast-forwarded video, a packaged version of my life to date, a quick snap shot of how other people might judge me if they had followed me over the last twenty years or so. And I freely admit that I did not like what I saw in the closing moments of the vision. I saw a professional loner, a sad example of a forty-five years old single man with no place he could call home except a rented flat over a Turkish restaurant in Queensway, West London. I saw a battered case containing a few bare essentials for personal hygiene - a toothbrush, a razor - and a few shirts and socks and a crumpled suit and blue tie in case there was a need to impress.
I also saw an empty notepad that I rarely use but still keep in there because, these days, I use mobile phones an awful lot. I'm buying and throwing them all the time for reasons you will slowly understand. I keep a few essential things on a memory stick hung around my neck until I can find a suitable place to plug the laptop in or visit an internet cafe. Often, too, I leave these technical aids behind in a hotel room or somewhere just in case I find myself in a spot of bother. I have learned a thing or two, you see. I regard a mobile phone as the worst piece of technology for storing private data, which is why I prefer new one’s empty of all private data and other information. No-one is ever going to steal Daniel Capelli's intellectual property.
Most things I carry in my head and so mine is a surprisingly light case for a man who lives out of it, uses it as his office and as an occasional pillow and travels around the world with it with a couple of spare passports tucked behind its lining.
Now I don't normally get depressed, but what I saw in that vision was, I admit, a bit dull and depressing. But I had always thought that one day I might find the time to sort myself out. It isn't as though I'm short of money although it has taken a lot longer to accumulate than I ever envisaged. After all, this business of mine is not one that promotes itself via a website or glossy brochures. Using third parties, word of mouth and constantly building a reputation works far better.
My ten o'clock appointment with a guy called Amos Gazit, the Research Director of Virex International was proof of that strategy. And the call in KL that had started it had come from Colin Asher and Colin had got the lead from somewhere else. This is how it works.
Anyway, on my bed I opened my eyes again to check the increasing light from the window to guess the time and then returned to the whim that had taken me to that place last night and that awful vision of myself as a lonely man living out of a battered black case. Finally, I had persuaded myself to push the door open. I left the street with all its heat and noise behind and stepped inside.
Now, seven hours later, I could feel a warm hand resting on my shoulder. It then moved down to my waist and around to my bare stomach. Her name is Anna. I was still a professional businessman with a job to do at ten o'clock but I knew then I was also on a very private slippery slope.
Kevin Parker had just finished another week at the Bristol University School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. But his regular Friday night drinking session with fellow lecturers and other hangers-on had been postponed because Kevin had an appointment.
He had spent most of the day in the library rather than teaching, so Kevin was even more casually dressed that normal. As he locked the door of his cluttered flat in Clifton he was wearing crumpled brown corduroy trousers, a green, open-necked shirt beneath a bright red sweater that said Liverpool FC on the front.
With six years of trying to teach British Economic and Social History to students with mixed results and very little self-satisfaction behind him, Kevin's weekends, most evenings and any other spare time was spent on his real interest - moderating the website of the International Malthus Society.
"Dedicated to exploring the ideas of Thomas Malthus on a theoretical and a practical level" was the somewhat uninspiring strap line of Kevin's website. But it opened the doors for all sorts of comment, opinion, political lobbying or action linked to Thomas Malthus' dire, eighteenth century warnings of the effects of overpopulation.
Kevin was on his way by train to London to give what he thought was a talk to Malthus Society members and any other enthusiasts interested in human population control. Kevin was an expert on the subject. He lectured on it so had all the facts and figures at his fingertips but he also tried hard to temper his lectures to conceal his own views and, even more so, his radical solutions. After all, he told some in private, he was not there to behave like some radical cleric in an Islamic mosque.
But he would often feel comfortable enough to expound on his wish to see direct action to radically reduce the world population so that the quality of life for those remaining improved. That was why he was looking forward to giving the lecture.
But the invitation had come as a surprise to Kevin. It had been a phone call from someone he hadn't even heard of and the man was clearly an Arab if the accent and name of El Badry was anything to go by. He also seemed to be an Arab with money as the flat Kevin had been invited to was overlooking Chelsea Embankment. It would certainly be large enough to hold several other members of the Malthus Society if that was what the caller intended.
On the train, Kevin took out his notes and a yellow marker and, in total innocence of who he was to meet, set about highlighting the points he wanted to make.
Larry Brown had always had a somewhat morbid interest in infectious diseases. He told friends that he could trace it back to watching a video as a boy. While his younger sister played at being a nurse, Larry would sit and watch and then replay the video about leprosy, Chagas disease, yellow fever and leptospirosis. His sister had gone on to become a lawyer but it was Larry who became the doctor. But the childhood fascination with infection and tropical disease had never waned and was one reason why he had left New York to travel, first to South America and then to West Africa.
Doctor Larry Brown, now in his late thirties and new to his post with the American Embassy commercial team in Lagos, Nigeria had just spent two nights in the northern State capital of Kano. The smaller city of Jos in neighbouring Plateau State was, according to Larry's calculations, only about 150 miles away so as the Evangel Hospital in Jos had always held top spot in Larry's list of places with especially interesting diseases, the chance for a quick visit was too good to miss.
In 1969, before Larry was born, the Evangel Hospital had been the first centre in West Africa to identify the haemorrhagic, flesh-eating, Lassa Fever virus that still causes around five thousand deaths a year across West Africa. Two missionary nurses at the Evangel Hospital died of the virus and a third fell ill and was flown to the USA. It was here where the virus was isolated and named. A year later, the medical director at the hospital, a missionary surgeon, also caught Lassa Fever after she accidentally cut herself during an autopsy. She was dead within two days.
After his visit and hoping that diplomatic relations between the US and Nigeria had been enhanced by his short and unannounced intrusion, Larry began to consider what he himself had discovered the day before during his time in Kano. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced that he might have discovered another new fever. It had none of the characteristics of Lassa Fever but if the estimated death toll in Kano of more than one hundred was accurate then someone needed to sit up and take notice. But no-one yet had.
Larry's official visit to Kano had been at the request of his Embassy superiors in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, and the line was that it would be useful diplomacy for an American to be seen to be doing something for the ordinary people. All the better if it was handled in a way that could not possibly be interpreted as remotely political or in any shape or form designed to inflame ongoing tensions with the northern Moslem community.
So, someone had organised a debate for two schools in Kano. The topic of discussion was to be "Who is more important to society, the teacher or the doctor" and was designed to encourage students to speak good and correct American English using appropriate American expressions. Who better to run the debate, then, then a real live doctor fresh out of New York - and a black one with ancestral roots in West Africa at that.
But Larry had never been a man who did his job and then went home. He met the students as required, learned far more from them than they did from him, went back to his hotel and then, with time on his hands decided to explore Kano.
Whether he was also naturally drawn to clinics and old mission hospitals he didn't know but as he wandered down the Kofar Wambai Road watching, listening to and smelling the local, Kano life he took off down one of the side streets. And he had hardly walked fifty yards when he found himself looking up at a plastic banner hanging, upside down on a thread of red nylon string. It was flapping in the steady, dusty breeze over the entrance to a single story, concrete building with rusting bars fronting unwashed windows. Perhaps it was because a red cross is never upside down, but it made him stop and, by twisting his head to read the rest of the banner, Larry could see it said, "Kofi Clinic."
Interest sparked, Larry thought he'd take a look inside. Being a black American doctor of West African descent, Larry had started to enjoy his ability to blend in with the locals and, as he also enjoyed checking out run down clinical establishments, this one looked like the best example he'd come across for some time. He pushed open the unlocked, wooden door and stood in a dark and dusty hallway that might, had the electricity been turned on, have been lit by a single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. At the far end was another door.
"It is closed, sir." The voice that came from behind was that of an elderly woman Larry had seen sitting and sewing outside on a stool. She was now stood behind him holding an old shirt and with the needle and thread hanging from the corner of her mouth.
Dressed in a long, colourful dress she also wore what Larry had recently learned was known, at least in Lagos, as a “Gele” - a Yoruba word for an ornate female head-dress. Despite the plastic stool, the dust, the trash and the lumps of concrete rubble around her feet, the woman looked clean, smart and educated. Larry introduced himself. "Closed down, you say?"
"Yes, sir. Very dirty," she said and removed the needle and thread from between her lips.
"So, who owned the clinic?"
"Did he have many patients?" Larry asked peering down the dark hallway. All he could see was a grey metal filing cabinet with empty drawers hanging out.
"Where has he gone?"
"I don't know, sir," the old lady said and started to walk back to her stool.
"Do you live locally?" Larry asked as he followed her. She pointed to a concrete block building opposite with a corrugated tin roof and open doorway.
"Did you see patients arrive here?"
"Yes sir, the doctor brought them in his truck."
"A truck? Do you know what happened to them - his patients?"
"Yes, they died."
"So were they very sick when they arrived here?"
"I don't know sir. I was a teacher but not a doctor."
"Of course," said Larry understandingly. "Do you know how many died?"
The old lady already seemed engrossed in her sewing once again but Larry noticed she looked at him out of the corner of her eye as if unsure whether to say anything. Then she glanced back down to her sewing and said, very quietly, "I heard it was more than one hundred." Then she got up again and started to walk away. Larry followed her.
"So, who decided to close the clinic?" asked Larry.
"The State Government sir." Then she hurried across the road.
Back at the Prince Hotel in Kano where he was staying, Larry phoned the American Embassy in Abuja and told them briefly what he had found. Pleased that no-one asked him how his earlier meeting with the students had gone or why he was wasting time wandering around Kano instead of hot footing it back to Lagos, he was given a phone number for the Kano State Government and a department that might be able to answer a few questions about the Kofi Clinic.
I realised my growing personal problem as soon as Anna had accepted my invitation to close her bar earlier than normal and spend the rest of the night with me back at my hotel. In the bar, she had looked at me with those big, black eyes, her black hair in a neat, parted fringe at the front and so long at the back.
"What's your name?" she had said in her delightful accent.
"Daniel. The same as last time," I said. "What's yours?"
"Anna, the same as last time."
"Where you come from?" she said and glanced down to where my hand had, without any permission from me, moved to touch hers.
I paused to take a mouthful of beer from my bottle and give myself time to think. "London," I said, truthfully and then watched the look on her face change. She stared directly at me and I knew exactly what her next words would be.
"How long will you stay?" Then she looked down. "Seem like too long. Where you go? I think you forget me."
I was at this point, looking at the top of her bowed head, faintly smelling a perfumed shampoo. Then I held her hand tighter and said to the top of the head. "I missed you."
Oh, yes, I knew right at that moment that my normal composure had gone and with it most of my professional dignity.
I turned over in the bed to look at what I'd brought back with me. Her long black hair was draped across her face but hidden inside it was my problem. And just to prove it, I found himself fumbling to part the long strands of black hair to see her face. And, yes, I openly admit to liking what I saw.
Her eyes opened and for a moment seemed shocked at the sight of my eyes just inches away. They seemed to soften and turn perhaps a little moist. I, of course, looked away but then found myself looking down at her naked body stretched out beside me. And, as I looked, her hand came up to my rough, unshaven face and a finger ran from beneath my eye to my lips and stayed there.
"How long you stay in Bangkok?" she murmured, moving her hips closer and wrapping a leg over mine. Now I found himself looking deep into her black eyes.
"Maybe a few days," I said knowing it was vague. But I did, nevertheless, manage a smile and, as luck would have it, she returned it. Then she stuck her finger into my mouth as if to stop me saying any more.
"Ooh. Long time, eh?" she joked, giggling in a sad sort of way. And my own thoughts went back to the night we had last parted.
She had been very upset when I left the last time. What’s more, I hadn’t even had the decency to tell her face to face that I was leaving. We had spoken on a noisy mobile phone link. I had been at the airport and she in the middle of a busy evening in the bar. The last sound I heard was the sound of quiet, wet sniffing. It was she who had then cut me off. This was just not normal. That, more than anything, had left me feeling thoroughly sick with myself and unknown to her I had almost taken a taxi back from the airport. But I had had a job to do. Duty called and I needed to be in Kuala Lumpur that night and it had been urgent. So, what was I to do?
"I told you I would be back" I said, though I realise I have said that to a few others in the past. There was no response, just a stare. "So," I added, "here I am".
I admit to being a bit embarrassed by my flippancy. In fact, you will find I will admit to a number of other personal weaknesses over the next few pages. I tried to sit up but my punishment for the flippancy was that she got hold of my ear and her mood changed. The look on her face also changed. Dear me, this was no frail woman needing the tender protection of a strong male.
"Where have you been?" she asked and her lips puckered not into a shape designed for kissing but one designed to instil fear into a man. This was a woman in angry tirade mode. She sat up and, still holding onto my ear, said:
"Too long you go away, I not know where you are, you not write to me, you not phone me. I try to forget but cannot. I try new man but he no good. I try another one but he go away and not come back. Like you, you crazy farang. You marry now? Why you not call me? I'm still here. Where you go? Why you come now? You make me sad again. You have other lady now. Sure you have. So why you come back and what your name this time? One time you say Daniel, next time Dan, then say Mike, next time say Steven. I think you joke. Another time you check in hotel in the name John. I say I prefer call you Kun Look-Lap, mean Mister No Name."
Thankfully, she then let go of my ear, looked away and sat up in bed holding her knees together with her hands. "Why you come?" she asked again, more quietly this time but speaking as if to the opposite wall. I, Kun Look-Lap as she had just called me, watched her reflection in the mirror but found I lacked any suitable words. Instead I rubbed my sore ear.
"Why have you come?" she repeated. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming back?"
Still no words came to me but I put this down to a general weakness with small talk. So, here's another admittance. I am not good at chit-chat. Business discussions yes, but not this sort of conversation. The dreadful silence probably lasted seconds but, to me, Kun Luke-Lap, Mister No Name or whoever I now was, it felt like an hour.
“Oooweee!” she then seemed to say, “Same silence as always. You are a very stupid man. You want some coffee?" And she sprang suddenly from the bed.
"Sorry" I muttered, trying to grab her but only finding thin air. "I think of you a lot, wherever I am. Sorry".
"Ao cafe mai?"
Clearly, she was tiring of communicating in English and fleetingly, I wondered if she was also tired of me. I thought I had better say something.
"No thank you. I have had enough."
"Not beer you stupid man. I asked you if you want coffee?"
"Sorry," I said feeling totally insignificant. Then I waited and watched her in the mirror with a sort of thickness in my throat. I wanted to swallow something but there was nothing there.
"Oooweee! Why you say sorry? Sorry, sorry, sorry - you always say sorry but you still leave me. Why did you come back? Why did you come back?"
She was clearly very upset now but I still had no explanation why I had come. I wondered if I should tell her about a migrating bird theory I had once invented but she was definitely not the right woman for this one. So why had I returned? Privately I knew that I had accepted the job with Virex International largely because it offered a trip back to Bangkok and I wanted to see Anna again. But I couldn’t possibly admit that, could I?
I think I may have said, “Umm!” or similar because there was this dreadful silence again. Anna was now watching me in the mirror. I couldn't stand it and glanced away.
"You still do the same business?" she asked, clearly trying to stay calm.
"Yes," I said grabbing a possible excuse as it passed by. But then I spoilt it. "Sort of," I added and felt it necessary to try to touch her shoulder.
"What mean, sort of? What real man says that? Only a man with many names or called Mister Crazy Look-Lap can say thing like that," she said crossly.
"Well, yes," I said rather stupidly but trying hard to think how much I may have told her previously about my work. "I still travel a lot. You know. Live in a suitcase."
Yes, I know, no need to tell me - another flippant remark. It was pathetic and, of course, it failed. So, I tried to improve on it. "I have been to several countries since I was last here." Oh yes, this was much better. I even sounded better.
"Did you go to London?" she asked.
"Yes, for two nights and one day." True.
"I think you have a wife you've not told me about. That's why you not like to tell me real name. I think there is a Mrs Look-Lap you don't want to talk about."
"No, no, no, believe me. You know I'm not married. There is no Mrs Look-Lap or whatever you call me," I said hurriedly. I'm always very quick to confirm my unmarried status to women. Then I continued because I was anxious to regain some authority. “And, anyway you also have two names - one is English the other I can’t pronounce. That makes me confused as well.”
“Mmm, maybe,” she said but as she clearly wasn’t going to let that upset her attack, she added, “But you know it’s Anna – I like Anna. It's always Anna. Never change.” Then she continued with her interrogation. "So, then, why did you come back?"
I looked at her and tried smiling and then, with a passing thought that I was back on the slippery slope again, found myself saying, "I came to see if you were still here".
But she was quick and her voice became instantly louder once again.
"Yes, so now you can see I am here. You see? This is me. I am sitting here. But why you come? You want me for your wife now?"
This was a bit blunt and pointed I thought. But I have heard that this is not at all untypical of Thai women. I let it pass but continued to slide down the slope. "I came to see you. I told you I think about you a lot".
She obviously wasn't going to be treated like this.
"Yes, but I'm sure you didn't come just to see me. Something else brings you here. You too much of a big shot and have some big business." And, with that she got up, tugged at the bed sheet, wrapped it around her middle and went to the bathroom. All I could do was watch her. Unusually, she closed the bathroom door and I heard her lock it.
I sat naked on the bed staring at the bathroom door.
She was just the same as I remembered. Her hair was a bit longer. The cheap gold chain with the impression of a Buddhist monk still hung around her neck. Her jeans were of the same slim fit that I like. They were hanging on the back of the chair. She still wore small brown sandals. They sat, neatly together on the floor by my case. Her underwear had been put carefully underneath her white blouse.
Finally, I heard the toilet being flushed and the door unlocked. She walked purposefully across the room, still covered in the bed sheet, and took out a comb from her handbag. Then she turned. There was no smile, no tears, no happiness in her eyes. She stared at me. "Why are you here, Mister Look-Lap?"
I still wasn’t sure if I liked being called Mister Look-Lap. To be referred to as Mister No-Name felt a little like mockery. Daniel was better. On the other hand, it was perfectly true that I used several aliases from time to time. I held several passports as well but it was all part of my profession. It was useful. Often it was necessary. And yes, I had once been operating as a Stephen Crossman and another time as a Mark Fitzgerald-Spencer - the latter name seemed to fit an investigation I was being paid to carry out on a company selling fake Chinese antiques. But I also knew she was clever with her words and, to be fair, I decided, Look-Lap was not a bad name for someone who kept inventing different names for himself for different reasons. Look-Lap sounded like Luke Lapp. Perhaps I should try it out. I had already used Matthew, Mark and John so Luke would complete the quartet.
But, to get back to her question, why was I here? Whilst she was in the bathroom I had had a few minutes to think about the question, which I knew she would soon repeat. So, I looked at her straight and said, "I still do the same thing as last time."
To be fair, I was trying to make it simple. But it was also very vague because, frankly, she did not know what I did and I should have known better. Anna's lips puckered once more and I knew I was in for another tirade. This one was even longer with hardly a breath taken.
"I do not know what you do. You are a busy man and fly, never stay a long time, always go, come and go. I don't know. You left me last time. I was very sad. Where did you go, I don't know. Last time you had a problem. I know. I tried to help but you said I couldn't. Then you left me. I didn't know where or why you went. You didn't tell me. I worried about you when you went. You said there was a big problem and you had to go. I thought maybe you were a bad man. but I then I thought no, you are too kind in heart, good man. I think someone gave you problem. Why you couldn't tell me, I didn't understand. Sometimes I think of you a lot. Many nights I think where you are and I want you here but that maybe you were with another lady or maybe you have a wife. I don't know. Sometime I get very up-sad. I don't know where you are. Big world out there. Maybe you never come to see me again. So, I think. Try to forget and look for another man. Many men come here, but I not like them. I check some, but not so many. They are no good. I always think of you and where you are, why you don't come to see me. I worry a lot. Perhaps you had died. I think maybe you will never come. But now you are here again. I didn't know what to say when I saw you last night. Why did you come? Did you come to see me? Did you come for business? Why?"
Finally, she stopped and I saw bright, wet eyes. I hate to see upset women, don't you? My manly, protective urges take over and that can be fateful. I have known women do it on purpose. They are a fearful sex. But I myself, felt a little choked now and it was clear I needed to say something meaningful in response. So I said, "Sorry."
With that, her wet eyes shot another frightening glance so I gave a little cough as if preparing to deliver a speech and continued:
"I came here to see you, Anna. I think about you every day. I did not know if you were still there. I thought maybe you had moved somewhere. If you were not there I think I would have had to try to find you. Believe me. I know I left you in a bad way - do you think I did not feel sad? I was also sad and upset, believe me. You say I am a busy man. I know you do not understand but I had to go. I cannot explain everything to you."
I then found myself staring at her without blinking until my own eyes felt so sore that I then had to blink franticly for a few seconds. Then I continued. "I am not a bad man, Anna. I had some business problems when I was here and I had to go. I went to Malaysia and Singapore and then to Hong Kong. I went to the Middle East - Israel. Then I came back to Malaysia and back to London. I work all the time. No holiday. No rest. Now I come here again. I arrived yesterday afternoon. And what did I do? I came to find you. I know I made you sad and I know that maybe I should not have come to see you but I want to try to say sorry and that I felt very sad and I am sorry and......."
I admit I am useless in very personal, emotionally charged situations. My unnaturally long and private speech, which I regret having mixed with an unnecessary description of a travel schedule, hadn't started too well and it hadn't finish too well either. In the end it had petered out and so I tried looking at her as if pleading for some help. No, I lie. It wasn't 'as if pleading', I was pleading - stop. Anna was staring back at me. Both of us knew that all I had actually said was what she had once called a ‘big sorry’. I like the phrase. I have since used it a lot. But how long the silence lasted I do not know. What I do know is that I had a dreadful feeling that she was going to hit me and walk out. But, as you begin to know and understand Anna, you will find her words are far more constructive.
"Do you have a few more minutes to spare me before you rush off again, Mister Luke-Lap?"
Kevin Parker was on the train to London preparing for his talk to what he thought was a small gathering of those interested in Thomas Malthus and human population control. But without being sure of the likely audience or numbers it was proving difficult. His academic's dilemma was whether to pitch it at ideas for direct action to get politicians to do something or whether to stick to the facts and figures.
Kevin had always advocated positive action but waiting for individual Governments to act was, he now knew, utterly pointless. International co-operation was vital for success but few Governments, except perhaps the Chinese with its one family - one child policy, Singapore, or Iran with its mandatory contraception had faced up to it let alone demanded international co-operation. The political will just wasn't there. It was far too risky to open such a bucket of worms when re-election was always the top priority. Dictatorships were a far better system for imposing the will than democracies. Indeed, it was becoming politically incorrect to even talk about reducing population. It infringed basic human rights, it upset the Catholic Church and was often deemed racist even to mention forcefully ending mass economic migration from destitute and overpopulated war-torn countries. The excuses for inaction were endless.
So political action was completely stalled and reasons to sweep the issue under the carpet for future generations to worry about just went on and on. There were even countries that considered population as a source of political, economic and military strength.
Kevin Parker had become a very angry and impatient man although he did his best to conceal it from friends and found it hard to support democracy as a system when it came to enforcing birth control. He had written extensively on the subject under his screen name of 'Thalmus' and had once hoped the UK might provide a world lead on it but he was sure now it would never happen.
The British branch of the Malthus Society rarely, if ever, met together but normally shared their views online. As website moderator and unelected Chairman of the UK branch, Kevin had only ever been able to organise one full meeting of members in the past and that meeting, held in the back room of a public house in Wolverhampton, had not been the success Kevin had hoped. If the group were to move their radical views forward to lobby government then they clearly needed funds from somewhere. Despite Kevin's efforts, no-one had offered either to donate to the group or pay a monthly membership subscription. And Kevin had even had to pick up the bar tab. Undeterred, Kevin had persevered and three years later he was still at it - if anything more motivated than ever and certainly keener for some direct action.
He sat back in his train seat and put his notes to one side. Despite being the unelected chairman of the UK branch of the Malthus Society, Kevin was unsure where this strange Mr El Badry who he was due to meet stood in relation to the Society. He could well have been a regular reader or even a contributor but because the website only asked for screen names and not anyone's full contact details, there was no way of telling. In fact, Kevin only knew the details of about twelve UK members by their online names and this was only because of the Wolverhampton meeting.
But this Mr El Badry could also have been based somewhere outside the UK because there were many other affiliated groups that Kevin monitored - not least the followers of the American Professor, Paul R Ehrlich. Kevin had also lectured on Ehrlich but Thomas Malthus had preceded Ehrlich by two hundred years and was British. Malthus was the one who had set the ball in motion. But knowing that there were thousands of people out there sharing his views was what Kevin found so encouraging.
Years of lecturing students first thing on a Monday morning had taught him the need to get people's attention right from the start and he wanted to cover as much as possible - conflict over food and water supplies, the misery of war and sickness, economic migration and mass unemployment in the west. He wanted to offer quotes from the great Robert Wallace - the “earth would be overstocked and become unable to support its numerous inhabitants." or, as his even greater hero Thomas Malthus had put it, “the germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds, in the course of a few thousand years.”
Thomas Malthus a British clergyman and economist had published “An Essay on the Principles of Population" in 1798. Population, when unchecked, he proposed, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increased only in an arithmetical ratio. Malthus outlined the idea of "positive checks" and "preventative checks" on population. Disease, war, disaster and famine were factors that Malthus considered to increase the death rate. "Preventative checks" were factors that Malthus believed to affect the birth rate such as moral restraint, abstinence and birth control. He predicted that only "positive checks" on exponential population growth would ultimately save humanity from itself. Without these checks, human misery was an "absolute necessary consequence."
Anger and impatience was what had led Kevin to track down the many hundreds of groups with similar opinions on population control dotted across the world. He had found them in North America, South America, right across Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Far East, in Japan and in Australia. Many were closeted individuals operating from bedrooms, others were far better organised. Kevin's list of contacts now ran to thousands.
There was the German group that operated from somewhere in Cologne with a membership claimed to be in the hundreds. Ausser Kontrolle (Out of Control) still advocated extermination of certain ethnic groups that did not match up to a long list of criteria they had published. Moslems were high on this list due, according to Ausser Kontrole, to "their unwillingness to move their culture forward from where it had stagnated since the hay-day of Islamic influence on science and education."
Then there was his Indian group, his Indonesian Group and a Singapore Group that advocated a policy of setting IQ tests with those not reaching the required level being left to fend for themselves. There was the Spanish Group, the Italian group and a very low profile South African group with similar views to Ausser Kontrole.
But Kevin's favourite group was the Nigerian one. Tunje Fayinka, also a college lecturer in Sociology, ran the group from his flat in Barnet, north London. Tunje believed that even the current population of Nigeria of some 166 million - a figure expected to reach 390 million by 2050 - was already totally unsustainable. Increasing ethnic and religious conflict was already proof of the need to reduce the population back to at least the 45.2 million figure it stood at in 1960.
Kevin and Tunje had a lot in common. They were, in fact, good friends and verbal sparring partners. But Tunje had learned to be far more careful with what he said in public or wrote online.
"Big Brother is always watching, Kevin. Go careful. The least you should do is keep the laptop hidden some place where MI6 won't go looking. Alternatively, just appear to be an innocent nutcase."
Until then, Kevin had not thought very much about security.
With good evidence, Kevin Parker knew that his UK Malthus Society website had become a genuine focal point for similar groups and he was proud of all that he had done to achieve that. Kevin now wanted to see some results for all his efforts, but not at any cost.
He sat back as the train rolled into Reading Station and picked up his copy of the Guardian. He read the headlines once again and then dropped the newspaper back on the adjacent, empty seat. Buying a Guardian had become a habit although he rarely read it properly these days. The newspaper was another English institution he now disliked because of the furore that had erupted amongst indignant would-be mothers attending fertility clinics and wealthy politicians with four children after his open letter to the Editor was published. Indeed, he had, afterwards, been summoned to meet the University Departments’ Professor for an explanation.
But Kevin had personal experience of poor living conditions and overcrowding. As the oldest sibling of eleven brought up on a housing estate in Liverpool he had seen and felt the consequences. His father had left soon after Kevin was born and his ten brothers and sisters had ten different fathers.
Castration or mass sterilisation had once been an attractive and popular idea put on the Malthus Society website and Kevin, with Tunje Fayinka's help, had become an expert on access to water supplies in target countries just in case an opportunity arose. But what was really needed was action on an international scale. A world war with nuclear weapons might have helped but was too indiscriminate. An epidemic of biblical proportions had possibilities but science moved so fast these days that treatments almost always became available before they had any real effect. Mass famine brought on by essential crops like rice and wheat being ruined by widespread resistance to pesticide was another idea. Kevin had been running out of new, practical ideas until, that is, he reached the Chelsea apartment of Mr El Badry
Larry Brown had been working for the American Embassy in Nigeria for less than six weeks and the cultural shock of life outside its confines had more than lived up to his expectations. But he had come for the interest more than career progression so he was more than ready to do whatever was needed. And, if he found he didn't like the job, he'd just move on somewhere else.
As a New York doctor, who had quickly tired of the daily mix of coughs, colds and backache, Larry had decided to do some overseas volunteering. He went first to Chile and then to Kenya and it was in Nairobi that he was asked if he was interested in looking at the Nigerian health system with a view to - as it eventually explained in his new job description - "assisting American companies to understand how best to win lucrative contracts in the provision of management services. medical supplies and medical equipment."
Larry had been unsure about taking the job at first but the thought of combining it with some travelling around Nigeria and possibly elsewhere on expenses had swung it. He had spent the first few days in Lagos and, if it not been for the hotel he'd been staying at, wasn't sure he if he would have survived the job for long. But the new apartment he now had was making it bearable and he was also starting to make the most of his status with the American Embassy.
It was this status that helped him make the appointment at the Kano State Government office to ask about the closed Kofi Clinic. He was met by a State official whose own status wasn't so well defined.
"Our police don’t have time to look for missing Doctors, Doctor Brown," the man said. "More important to our police and security forces is to deal with those murderous Islamist thugs, Boko Haram, who are threatening to disturb our peace."
The man had then seen an opportunity for a joke. He laughed.
"You need to watch out Doctor Brown. They don't like Westerners, especially Americans and in particular black Americans who they think have gone native."
"But I heard there were over one hundred deaths from this disease," said Larry.
The official shrugged. "We had a hundred die in a bomb blast a month ago."
Larry knew he was getting nowhere. But from what the State Government official had gone on to tell him, during their raid of the Kofi Clinic they had found no patient records but a drawer in an otherwise empty desk containing a note book listing the first names of over one hundred patients who seemed to have attended at some time or another.
There were no family names and no addresses for any of the patients but each of them had been given a number. All they knew was that conditions at the clinic were very poor. They had found it empty except for three stretchers, on wheel-chair and the empty desk. Locals said they had seen patients arriving in the back of Doctor Mustafa's Toyota pick-up truck and that all the patients had looked very sick and weak and had been coughing when they were led inside by Doctor Mustafa and another man. One man said he'd seen what he thought were two dead bodies under a green cloth being taken out using the same Toyota truck although no-one could back this up. But it was unanimous - those arriving there looked and sounded very sick and some, if not all, of those who left it were already dead. All the official knew was that when they came to inspect the clinic no-one was there and no-one had seen Doctor Mustafa since.
Philippe Fournier's idea to take his new Italian friend, Mara, for a Saturday drive in a rented Jeep to the small town of Kijabe fifty kilometres north west of Nairobi, Kenya was supposed to form part of a relaxing and mildly adventurous weekend away from Philippe's work at the Kenyatta National Hospital. Also, as he was becoming desperate to invite Mara back to his room later, he was rapidly running out of ideas to impress.
He had, in fact, struggled to win the girl over for a week or more as she had seemed far more interested in meeting other foreign students in Nairobi than learning about the valuable and pioneering work he was doing on HIV treatment and prevention.
"This is not just for the benefit of Kenyans," he had stressed. "Work we do here is for the good of all Africa. This is now a seat of excellence."
Having left France and England in order to pursue his childhood ambition to return to his grandparent's roots and work in Africa, Philippe's manner had become, perhaps, a little overbearing when it came to constantly mentioning his work and the low pay that came with it. But he felt strongly about what he was doing and was sure that an Italian nurse being paid generous expenses to learn a bit about tropical diseases in order to further her own career back home could have shown just a little more interest. He was also sure she earned far more than he did which was upsetting.
Philippe had visited Kijabe once before, although on that occasion it had been with a group of about ten others in a mini bus. This time, he was to be both the driver and the tour guide.
Fifty kilometres was no great distance but it was far enough outside the capital to give a feeling of being on a sort of romantic safari. It would also be quick to get back home if things turned out well.
During the journey he had explained once again about the work in his department - that it was there, as he put it, "to find more multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary partners to reduce HIV transmission, to mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS on vulnerable populations" and that his role was "especially focussed on training and ways to convey information and advice." And all throughout his explanation he had tried to use occasional Italian words mixed with the English. It had been quite an effort but Mara still seemed more interested in looking out of the window of the Jeep.
Nearing Kijabe, though, he had finally got around to describing where they were actually going. Kijabe, Philippe explained, was Masai for "Place of the Wind" as it stood on the edge of the great rift valley and was over two thousand metres above sea level.
"And it has a railway station," he explained as he swung the steering wheel of the Jeep to avoid a Masai farmer with a cow.
"Where does the train go," Mara asked and Philippe beamed at the show of interest.
"Uganda one way and Mombasa the other," replied Philippe. "And there is a small hospital there. It is called Kijabe Hospital. And there is a guest house for those who get lost or delayed."
Mara looked out of the passenger window.
Philippe, though, had not reckoned on there being a problem at Kijabe Station.
The train driver, fifty-six-year-old Samson Omwenga had taken ill whilst on the footplate. He hadn't felt well for several days but at Kijabe, he had finally given up his efforts to deal with the increasingly nauseous headache, sore throat, dizziness, the tickling cough and the general feeling of weakness. He had struggled to climb down from his engine, collapsed onto the platform and announced, between bouts of coughing that he was unable to continue. A doctor had been called but, when Philippe and Mara arrived to view the historic station and the train that was still known as the Lunatic Express, they were still waiting. Meanwhile, the passengers had disembarked and were either sat waiting for developments or standing in groups discussing the aptness of the train's other name.
Parking the Jeep next to a large puddle of red, muddy water, Phillipe got out and waited while Mara decided it would be safer and certainly cleaner and drier if she clambered over to get out of the driver's door rather than use the passenger door.
By then, Philippe had been approached by someone clearly in charge of railway administration to ask whether he was the doctor. Being black but with facial features suggesting he was not Kenyan but possibly of West African and Francophone origin, Philippe was, nevertheless honoured to be mistaken for the doctor.
"Yes," he said. "I am a doctor, but not a medical doctor. I work at the Kenyatta National Hospital. What is the problem?"
The stationmaster quickly explained everything and began to usher Philippe towards the station waiting room while Mara was still shutting the driver's door of the Jeep.
In the waiting room, a wooden bench had been acquisitioned to use as a temporary bed for the sick engine driver, Samson Omwenga.
With Philippe still trying to confirm his non-medical qualifications to an uninterested stationmaster the circle of onlookers surrounding the sick driver parted to allow him to approach.
"This is senior engine driver Samson Omwenga," said the stationmaster.
Philippe got as far as repeating, "Yes, but I'm not......." when the patient suddenly struggled to sit up and then coughed violently. He clearly did not look well. He was sweating profusely, his eyes were red and puffy, his mouth was open and he was clearly having difficulty in breathing. Sitting up was probably making it easier for him to cough or breathe but he looked weak and on the verge of collapse.
"This is the doctor," said the stationmaster.
"But I'm not,,,,,,,,,,,,,"
The patient coughed again, harder and even longer this time, and his eyes widened. Philippe looked at him and felt sorry he was not a real doctor but only had a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry. But he saw patients with AIDS on a regular basis and recognised the look of fear in the eyes. And the sweating suggested that driver Samson Omwenga was running a very high temperature.
"He needs to go to hospital, sir," said Philippe to the stationmaster.
"Do you not have some medicine for him? The train is late."
"Sir," said Philippe. "This man is very sick. He can hardly breath. He has a very high temperature. His lips and eyes are very red. Just look at him. He has no strength.- not even enough to drive the train to Nairobi let alone onwards to Mombasa. He needs a proper doctor. But I am only a......"
"Can you take him sir? We have too many passengers here and they all think he will be OK to start driving the train again soon and we do not have a qualified replacement. If you take him away they will see that the train is going to be delayed."
Mara finally arrived and came to stand alongside Philippe.
"This is Mara," said Philippe." "She is a nurse from Italy. I will ask her what she thinks."
Within fifteen minutes, Philippe was driving back to Nairobi with Mara in the passenger seat still staring silently out of the window. On the back seat lay a sweating, coughing Samson Omwenga, Philippe took him straight to the Kenyatta National Hospital.
Late that night, depressed and very much alone in his room, Philippe decided to phone his American doctor friend, Larry Brown in Nigeria for someone to talk to.
He had once met Larry at a conference on Infectious Diseases in Nairobi and they had struck up a good rapport that had ended in a very memorable evening at a nightclub. As a result, an update on women was always the first subject to discuss and as Mara was still on his mind, he thought he would mention his drive up to Kinjabe and the sick train driver he'd driven back to Nairobi.
It was two days after Larry Brown's trip up north and he had only just arrived back at his apartment when his mobile phone rang.
It was Philippe Fournier a Frenchman he had once befriended at a conference in Nairobi. Philippe was clearly in need of a friend to talk to and whatever the cost of the long-distance call from Nairobi seemed to think that he, Larry Brown, would be a good listener.
Larry was trying to get the hang of his new gas cooker and his head was inside the oven. At the same time, he tried listening to Philippe.
"How do you find the local women, then, Larry? Any good? Anything must be better than white women back home, eh? They are far too emancipated, man. That's what I think."
"No time, yet, Philippe," said Larry. "Still settling in."
"That being said, Larry, I've got myself an Italian. She's a bit quiet but nice tit - nice lady, Larry - nice legs as well - but didn't get to see much more."
"Why not, Philippe - something you said?"
"No, nothing like that, Larry. I took her to Kijabe."
"That must have been romantic, Philippe."
"Yes, but I still didn't get a chance. I ended up with an extra passenger in the Jeep."
Larry soon learned about the train driver and Philippe's return to Nairobi that had been far quicker than his trip out. He stopped his work on the oven and sat on his new sofa.
"I dropped him off at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Larry. Mon dieu, he was coughing just like a child with the whooping cough. Just like my cat when she had a hair ball stuck. Very high temperature. I called the hospital this evening to check and he died about an hour after Mara and I left him."
Larry logged it, was still thinking about it and would have liked to know more but Philippe was still talking.
"....and women like to be entertained. It's so expensive." Philippe continued.
"Tell me something I don't know already." Larry commiserated.
"Do you have any job vacancies that might pay more?" asked Philippe clearly now on a different tack and, perhaps, Larry realised, the real reason for his call. "I'm beginning to think I should have stayed in France."
"I don't run an employment agency, Philippe. If I did, the American Embassy would sure find out. You desperate?"
"Even bloody nurses earn more than me." Philippe said, using a word he'd often heard British nurses use.
"Sorry I can't help, Philippe," Larry laughed with as much sympathy as he could muster. "Try the bloody French Embassy."
Next morning, Larry phoned the World Health Organisation - the WHO - in Geneva to ask if they were aware of the Nigerian deaths. They weren't. So, Harry then explained what he'd found and suggested someone needed to look into it. As a doctor, he said, one hundred unexplained deaths in one small area, even though it hadn't seemed to bother the Nigerian Health authorities, could hardly be ignored.
And while he was on the phone, he decided to mention the Kenyan case and then pointed out that a friend of his currently on a back-packing holiday in northern Thailand had seen a report on Thai TV news about some sudden deaths near Bangkok rumoured to be from a kind of 'flu'.
Yes, the WHO knew something about the Thai cases but thanked him nevertheless. Larry Brown was starting to make himself known to the WHO.
Behind her desk, strolling a few steps in one direction and then back again, the diminutive Director General of the World Health Organisation in Geneva read the report she had just been given with growing concern.
Her adviser, Richard Lacey, an Englishman, sat patiently across the DG's desk. He knew she wouldn't take long to get to the core of the problem. The two of them had worked together for several years now and the rapport had always been good. Despite their closeness, he always treated her with the utmost respect for the responsibility she shouldered. Doctor Mary Chu had preceded Richard Lacey by two years and she was already way past her first official term in office. To Richard Lacey the DG was not Doctor Chu, or Mary but ma'am.
"CoV?" Mary Chu said at last. "Coronavirus?" It was a question posed as if she already knew the answer.
"No one yet knows, ma'am."
"If it's not Coronavirus, then what is it?" she then asked.
"Can't be sure, ma'am."
"Because we aren't getting any reliable virology?" This time it was a statement rather than a question.
"Because the cases are scattered and in rural areas and where doctors are in short supply and where there is no proper health service and no decent laboratory."
"Except Thailand, of course, where we have the highest number of cases or at least, the highest number of cases reported by the authorities."
"That's right. The point about reported cases need underlining," replied Richard Lacey stressing the word reported.
"The clinical symptoms from all the cases in Nigeria and the single case in Kenya are similar?"
"Although we can't be exactly sure, the signs are that they are very similar to the Thai ones. The symptoms are different to the Middle East version - MERS-CoV. It's the type of cough that characterises this one. It was only because the American doctor working in Kano, Northern Nigeria and a Frenchman working in Kenya knew each other that the African cases came to light. It seems the American doctor also had links with Thailand so he had also heard about the few cases there. He thought it was worth mentioning. He reckoned there might have been over one hundred cases in northern Nigeria."
"More than one hundred? How many more?" interrupted the DG, looking at her adviser with visible consternation.
"Well, we're in touch with the American doctor, Larry Brown. We've not got any data from Kenya - just the one case with similar symptoms. But in all cases, we have apparently healthy individuals with no evidence of previous health problems. They catch a cold - dismiss it as we might all do as a two-day inconvenience but then the symptoms worsen - serious cough - difficulty in breathing - blood in sputum - fever - then loss of consciousness during an unstoppable coughing fit. All dying within approximately three days of taking to their beds. It's the cough that has triggered the attention. But there might be many more cases we don't know about."
"And no laboratory has got a proper fix yet?"
"The Thai lab is working on it but cremations have taken place before sampling. And we have no idea at all what happened in Nigeria."
"So why haven't the Thai authorities reported earlier? Their Health Ministry is usually so efficient and when I was in Bangkok just last February nothing was said. It was still all about HIV, pigs and chickens."
Richard Lacey shrugged. “Politics, ma'am? Keen to stamp on rumours of any health risks that might affect the tourism industry?" he suggested.
"Mmm." said the DG. She then sat down and toyed with the watch on her wrist.
"What exactly does the Thai lab say?" she said eventually.
"That it looked like a Coronavirus. They thought it was MERS-CoV - Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus - at first but the symptoms seemed different. The current virology suggests something similar, perhaps a variant."
"But they still failed to report it immediately.............?"
It was Richard Lacey’s turn to say, "Mmm."
The Director General stood up once more and glanced out of her office window. Then she turned back.
"Can you ask the Regional Director for South East Asia to phone me, please? He has just left to attend the Conference on Virology and Infectious Diseases in Bangkok."
"Can we eat now? You make me very hungry, Mr Luke Lapp." Anna emerged from the bathroom for the second time that morning, this time wrapped in a white towel.
I was still naked except for the bed sheet and put down the new mobile phone I had been checking. Breakfast was not something I was planning. The unscheduled interruption to my timetable had lasted longer than anticipated and my ten o'clock appointment with Virex International looked in danger of being missed if I didn't hurry. I switched the mobile phone off and looked up wondering what excuse to give now.
"You had a phone call just now?"
What was it about women? Eyes, ears everywhere.
"A text," I said as, to my horror, I now watched Anna rummaging in my own, very private, black bag. No-one ever ventured inside there, except me. I watched her open it and peer inside. Then her hand disappeared and came out with a comb.
"OK?" she asked, "Can I? Mine is no good."
"Yes," I said. A comb seemed to pose no real threat.
I then sat watching her comb her hair with my comb and then, as the towel dropped away, I watched her recover her clothes and then dress. I also needed to shower and change urgently if I was to eat breakfast and then make my ten o'clock client. But, something seemed to be stop me rushing.
"So you do your business today? Not stay with me?" she asked, and turned away now fully dressed. I watched her in the mirror. As usual I wasn’t sure how to respond. To be honest, I hate mixing business with private intimacy, particularly if it needs an explanation of what I do. With others it's easy. You lie or, at least, you create plausible stories. But that's business. So, how to respond was troubling me and she was now looking at me in the reflection in the mirror, waiting for an answer.
"Some," I said at last. "I have to meet someone at a hotel. I don't know how long it will take. Maybe an hour, maybe longer. It depends. When do you need to go to the bar?"
"At five," she said and then, hunger apparently forgotten, went on, "I think I'll go to my apartment now and eat later. When will I see you? Will you come to the bar tonight? Can I be with you tonight?"
"Yes, I'll see you in the bar," I said, but my stomach churned and not with a need for breakfast. Things might not be so easy tonight. "I want to see you," I said and I meant it.
Thankfully, she seemed to detect my genuine sincerity but, possibly, also the doubt. She came over to me and looked up. I put my arms around her but looked out of the window behind. Through the tinted hotel windows, I think I remember it looked cloudy but that the sun was making its way up behind blocks of skyscrapers opposite.
"I'll see you later," I said and put my lips onto the still damp hair hanging over her shoulders.
"OK. I'll make special for when you come tonight." She said it with a clear tinge of doubt and finished her words by looking up at me for a sign of something or other. But instead I turned away and looked out of the window again.
"Mister Luke-Lapp?" I heard her say as if she wanted to ask or say something more.
"Yes," I replied and turned to look at her. Her face was a mixture of sadness and frustration, of patience and perhaps of hopeful tolerance. And, seeing it I then planted both feet stood on the slippery slope and felt myself sliding totally out of control. Whatever it was she might have been going to say, I will never know because words started to form in my head, or in my heart or somewhere.
"Thank you, Anna, “I said. “I'm glad I came to see you. Even when I walked out of the hotel last night I was not sure where I was going. But something seemed to take me there. And I know I say sorry too much, Anna, but……it’s difficult, you see.”
Yes, it was a pretty useless statement but probably significant. And I had used her preferred name, Anna, twice. Anna was the name she had told me she especially liked because it was the name her father had always called her. I normally try very hard not to use familiar names with women if I can possibly help it.
"I'll go now," she said, "I'll see you later".
I followed her to the door and slid the lock.
"My name is Daniel," I said and smiled.
"I know," she said. Then she pushed past me in exactly the way I remembered from the last time. She walked down the corridor without so much as a wave or a backward look. I stood and watched from the doorway as she turned the corner towards the lift. I even stood watching the corner in case she returned. But it was pointless. Instead it was the hotel maid who appeared.
"You check out?" she asked.
"Twenty minutes," I said.
"OK," she replied and wheeled her trolley on past my door.
I turned back into the room, showered, quickly re-packed the few things I had taken out of my case the night before. I replaced the comb that Anna had used, exchanged the jeans I had worn the night before for a pair of light casual trousers, put on a clean, white, short sleeved shirt and a blue tie. Then I returned to the bed, re-read the phone text message from Colin and deleted it. Then I left the room and walked out into the mid-morning heat, hailed a taxi and took off into the Bangkok traffic.
In a cheap hotel room off Gloucester Road in London, Kevin Parker had been unable to sleep. He had left the meeting with Mr El Badry with his mind in turmoil. But, mixed with the sense of finally having found someone with similar views to his own, a ready-made solution and, apparently, the resources to do something about it, Kevin felt very uneasy.
Getting off the tube at Gloucester Road station after his meeting with El Badry, Kevin had been offered something by a black youth stood outside Tesco Express and was tempted. But Kevin had felt high enough already.
Now, six in the morning with a hint of the dawn of a grey, damp London morning seeping through the faded curtains, Kevin felt he was at last starting to grasp what he had been told and what was being offered. Sitting on the edge of the creaking bed in his boxer shorts, he could see the No Smoking sign on the door opposite but ignored it and lit a cigarette.
He had found the red brick apartment block on Chelsea Embankment to be just as he had imagined - plush. He had taken the lift to the second floor and rang the bell. Then he had rang it again and, just as he did so, a big woman in a long black Arab dress with a cream-coloured head scarf opened it.
"I have come to see Mr El Badry," Kevin announced. "For a meeting of the Malthus Society."
"Yes," the woman said, "Come this way."
Kevin followed her across the shiny oak floor. The walls were clean and white with neat row of Arabic prints in ornate wooden frames. They came to a second shiny oak door and the woman pushed it open with a hand that bore large gold rings with blue stones. She beckoned Kevin to enter and then closed the door behind him. Kevin looked around.
It was clearly an office of sorts with a large wooden desk, a few papers scattered, a green desk light and a closed lap top computer. But the sofa and separate chairs, coffee table and Persian carpet (or whatever make it was) that dominated the centre of the floor gave it more of a living room feel. Through the vast plate glass window behind the desk, Kevin could see the river Thames and what he assumed was Battersea Park.
Kevin, clutching the brown folder that contained the notes for his talk, stood and waited, wondering whether other members of the Malthus Society or other foreign groups might also have received invitations and would turn up. For a moment he felt a little let down. Surely, as chairman of the Society, he should, at the very least. have been given more advanced information of the meeting. But, he consoled himself in knowing that all of the Malthus groups on his database operated in a slightly cloak and dagger manner.
Kevin was still wondering if he should go and sit in one of the white leather chairs or, perhaps, the white leather sofa, when he heard the door open behind him and the man he assumed was Mr El Badry walked towards him.
He was a not a big man, certainly not as tall as Kevin, but neatly dressed in a dark navy-blue suit, white shirt and blue tie. The greying hair looked gelled and neatly parted but the heavy moustache seemed to have retained its original black colour. As he approached holding out his hand, the other hand removed a pair of rimless spectacles.
Kevin, in his open necked green shirt and red Liverpool sweater, held out his hand.
"Mr Parker, Kevin Parker. I am Mohamed El Badry. Welcome."
Kevin took the hand and got a distinct whiff of aftershave or some other male cosmetic. Kevin had never bothered with such expensive luxuries but already felt he was in the company and in the home of a rich man. He decided to wait to be told what was expected of him.
"Please, be seated," El Badry said and Kevin sat on the edge of the white leather sofa. El Bady relaxed in one of the white chairs and crossed his legs to expose red socks and shiny, patent leather shoes.
"I have been following your work, Kevin - may I call you Kevin?"
"Yes, please do," said Kevin still clutching his folder.
"Your enthusiasm for the group you call the Malthus Society has become known to me. Tell me, Kevin, how many members do you now have on your lists?"
"In the UK we have around fifty," said Kevin, "but I have an international network of groups with similar views that probably adds up to well over a thousand people. "
"That is, indeed, impressive, Kevin. And you deliberately keep everything on a low profile, I believe."
"Yes," said Kevin, "I've already had some bad personal experiences of having my own views published. In fact, I now advise most of my network to deliberately avoid publicity as it seems to anger politicians and others," he paused, "The fertility clinic lot take a very dim view."
Kevin tried the little joke as he was still unsure where all this was leading and Tunje's warning about the CIA or MI6 was already in his mind.
Fortunately, El Badry seemed to like the joke as a smile appeared beneath the moustache. "Yes, there is an unfortunate shortage of people who share our view that we need more urgent and radical solutions, Kevin," he said. Then he continued:
"Tell me, Kevin, do you have a personal view on a solution to the problems of overpopulation?"
Kevin thought about it for a moment. This was dangerous ground. He scratched his chin with the edge of his folder and thought about it. To announce his opinion to someone he had only just met was risky. On the other hand, El Badry didn't quite have the feel or look of someone from a government or an intelligence body. He looked around the room wondering whether he was being secretly filmed or recorded but Kevin was not an expert on such technology. He had no idea. He decided on a cautious approach.
"I have my views, Mr El Badry, but I am not willing to disclose these until I know who I am talking to. Where do you stand on this subject? I came here expecting to give a talk on the views of Thomas Malthus with some additional views on potential solutions thrown in, but only if appropriate to the meeting."
Kevin was pleased with himself.
El Badry smiled again and this time eased himself up from his leather chair. He went over towards his desk and put his glasses back on. Then he sat in the white leather chair behind it and swivelled around to look out towards Battersea Park.
"As I said, Kevin, I have been following your work. You are right in what you say. We cannot wait for talking shops like the United Nations to act, even if one felt they might ever arrive at a consensus. What would you say if you knew that many more thousands of people in influential positions shared your views about overpopulation and wanted a solution now? "
Kevin, sitting in his much lower sofa, looked up towards the balding back of El Badry's head. "I'd say I already know that, Mr El Badry."
"And what would you say if there is a solution being developed that could bypass the political debate that we all know is going nowhere and makes things actually happen?"
"I'd say that there is no political debate taking place, Mr El Badry. There hasn't been anything serious since Thomas Malthus raised the matter way back in 1798. I and members of my groups have been wanting the debate for a very long time. But then we want a solution not just more talk."
El Badry swivelled back to face Kevin.
"We have a solution, Kevin."
"Who is we, Mr El Badry?"
"We, meaning my company, my associates, my researchers, my agents and my distributors. We are ready to move."
Kevin's brain was working overtime. It was like music to his ears but he had no wish to get carried away just yet. "I'm interested, Mr El Badry."
Kevin was trying to adopt a business-like tone to someone he now believed not only looked like but probably was some big shot businessman based somewhere or another, probably the Middle East.
"You have a friend, a Nigerian, who runs a similar group?" said El Badry.
"Yes," said Kevin, very surprised that Tunje was already known. But so as not to lose any initiative, he added, "He is someone who joined my British Malthus group."
"He speaks highly of you."
So, he fucking should, thought Kevin. Tunje Fayinke had learned most of his facts and figures and got most of the accumulated evidence by listening to him.
"Yes," El Badry went on, "We have recently been working with Mr. Fayinke to test out a few ideas."
This was news to Kevin. Inside, he raised an eyebrow and continued to listen.
"Tunje has a lot to learn, though. He will have to learn to live with local politics and high local security because of problems with Islamic militants. We will help him overcome all of this nonsense but, as a result, we want to try to find a few other people like Tunje to test out our plans in other countries. This is where you come in."
Kevin said nothing but put his folder on the sofa beside him. Despite all his preparations, clearly, he was not required to give a lecture.
El Badry swung his seat around again to face the river view.
"Let us not, what you say, beat about the bush, Kevin. Instead, let's get straight to the point. What, in your view, would be an effective way to forcibly reduce the world population?"
For Kevin, the slippery ground had returned but he decided to go for one of the most radical ideas just to check the reaction. It was one that had been mentioned before, even by Ehrlich. Then he deliberately smiled so as to suggest he was not entirely serious. If there was, indeed, a camera recording him, they might perhaps watch the playback and think he was talking with one tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
"Use public water supplies to disperse anti-fertility compounds."
"Any other ideas?"
El Badry was pushing him. What was he playing at?
"Introduce super-resistant bugs or other plant pathogens that caused essential crops to fail."
El Badry smiled. "Anything else?"
"Start a pandemic with a new virus or bacteria with no known cure."
Kevin smiled once again and looked up at El Badry who had turned back to face him. El Badry then leaned over to open a drawer in his desk.
"Whisky, Kevin? Gin and tonic? Vodka? Arak?"
"Soda? Tonic? Water?"
El Badry produced two glasses, came over and placed them on the fancy white lace cloth that covered most of the coffee table. He then poured two big, neat whiskies, offered one to Kevin and returned to his leather chair with the other.
"Cheers," he said and lifted his glass. Kevin lifted his and sipped at the contents.
"We have just that," El Badry said. "We have the means to cause a pandemic. But what we also have is a treatment. If you work with us, Kevin, the treatment will be made available to you."
"Will it be free?" asked Kevin, "my university salary only goes so far."
Less than an hour after checking out of the hotel that Anna and I had stayed in, I checked into a much plusher hotel overlooking the Chaoprya River and found myself a quiet corner seat in the hotel lobby. It was ten thirty and, despite the holdups I was still on schedule.
I checked arrival times at Bangkok Suvarnaphum airport and knew the American Airlines flight had landed on schedule. That meant that my client would be arriving at the hotel, traffic being normal, roughly on schedule.
At ten forty-five, I watched a mini bus pull up outside. Those disembarking were clearly American and, although I had never before seen the Virex man, Amos Gazit, before, quickly recognised him. He was much as I had imagined - middle aged and slightly bald but with a pair of glasses hanging on a cord around his neck. He wore a pair of baggy beige trousers, a colourful casual shirt and stood slightly apart from his compatriots.
For the Research Director of Virex International, Boston, USA, Amos Gazit looked every part the scientist. But he clearly had some business acumen I thought or, at least, an intimate knowledge of the company or his boss in USA, Charles Brady, would not have tasked him with this meeting. As the rest of his group dispersed towards the lifts, the American wandered across to stand amongst a forest of large, potted ferns. He put a small white bag between his feet.
As I got up and walked towards him, he clearly saw me coming. By the look on his face, he seemed grateful that what he had been told would happen was actually happening.
"Mr Capelli?" the American asked, lifting his spectacles onto his nose and squinting.
"Mr Gazit, I presume," I replied as if I was Stanley finally finding Doctor Livingstone in the jungle.
"Yes sir," the American said, "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, sir."
“Shall we have a seat?” I pointed towards the corner where I had been waiting.
"Sure.” Gazit picked up his white bag and followed.
“Sure. But far too long." He sat down and breathed out, loudly. "I understand you spoke to the President of Virex - Charles Brady. So, what's the plan?" Gazit was clearly impatient to get straight to the point.
"We need to talk more," I said. "The remit was far too vague and I didn't get long enough with Mr Brady. So, I suggest you get settled into your room, have a rest and meet me later."
“OK,” Gazit nodded but looked hot and stressed.
"Take a taxi to Centre Point. Seven thirty, OK? It's an Asian food centre. The taxi driver will know where it is." I said.
The American nodded again. "Do you want me to bring the other stuff?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. I’ll see you later.”
Gazit started to get up but then hesitated. He delved into a shirt pocket, pulled out a business card and handed it over. It read Amos Gazit - Head of Virology - Virex International and listed phone numbers, a website and an address in Boston, Massachusetts.
"Thanks," I said, "Sorry I can't reciprocate but I don't normally carry a card. But I can confirm my name is Daniel Capelli."
And so, at seven thirty and on schedule I was seated on a plastic chair at a stained metal table at the back of a busy Asian food centre. I had a glass of iced lime juice in my hand and was facing the crowds walking by outside when, also on schedule, the portly American came into view. Still looking hot and a little disorientated, he was carrying a large brown envelope.
Preliminaries over, I ordered two more fresh lime juices and then sat back. "So, what have you brought?" I asked, eyeing the envelope. The American handed it over but I put it on the table without opening it. Instead, I said, "Tell me more. How worried is your company?"
"Very concerned," replied Amos Gazit. "The loss of a hundred grams of research material has been confirmed. All the in initial tests on the new treatment were looking good. Eight years of research, you know? Virex has spent several million dollars so far but we are still some way from clinical use. It's going to take a while yet and then a lot more money for approvals etcetera. But things were looking very positive."
"So, where has it gone?" I asked. Having met Charles Brady in London, I already knew the answer that was coming, but it was worth asking once again.
"We don't know," Gazit said at last. "We suspect an internal problem but, as Charles Brady probably told you, the company is in a difficult position. There are over twenty staff employed directly or indirectly on this project. All of them are skilled in their own way. The company can move some out but, at present, there is no evidence. Also, whoever it is probably has the morals of a rat. Unless we have real evidence, the company can't do a lot if he then decides to move his know-how elsewhere."
Amos Gazit paused, clearly waiting for a response.
"Excuse me for appearing naive here," I said, "But what sort of material are you talking about. Can you describe it?"
"Put simply, it's a protein stored in a clear solution that looks like pink rose water - that's how I describe it to students sometimes. It is then sealed inside glass vials and deep frozen. We have pioneered a lot of work on modifying viruses under controlled conditions for vaccines and new drug treatments. We outsource some of the work to another company but they check clean and I know them well. Everything is fine until it gets back to our facility. Then something happens. Three batches of vials disappeared and replaced by similar ones containing nothing except a culture fluid."
"And how many staff have access to the deep frozen, stored material?"
"They all did. Because of the problem I've recently restricted access to two technicians only. Since then we have had no incidents but no company can go on like this Daniel. This is cutting edge biotechnology. Criminality is unknown. But there is big money involved. Big money. Charles will have told you I'm sure.
"What can anyone do with such small samples?" I asked.
"They could use it for some tests. You only need small amounts. Mix it. Dilute it. Inject it. They could probably treat about twenty patients with it and stand back and look at the results. Then, if it’s as good as we think it is, my fear is to suddenly find one or more members of my team, all of whom were hand-picked by me, resigning. I've never heard of anything like it before but anything, I suppose, is a possibility. If I have to put a figure on it I'd say we've already lost several million dollars’ worth of work. If we lose the technology as well it could finish us. Financial backers will get cold feet. Whoever it is or whoever they are could possibly retire on the proceeds of know-how. Chances are the know-how is already being passed on - God forbid. That's why Charles is desperate for confidentiality. Whoever he is, or they are, millions of dollars of work could be saved by bypassing our work. They could also be only a short time behind us on research and development if the insider has been passing on information regularly over the months."
The American paused again and looked around him.
Then he said, "I sure hope you are the guy I'm supposed to be talking with. All I had was a request from Charles Brady, my President, to meet up with someone with the name Capelli in the hotel. It sounded more like a meeting with the mafia to me. Anyway, this Mr Capelli would be waiting as soon as I arrived. I was told you were a Brit and kept a low profile as a mark of confidentiality and respect and that you'd worked for high tech businesses in the past. And that's all Charles Brady had to go on, too, as far as I'm aware. He said you had good references from someone he already knew and respected. Industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property, if that is what this is, is something I'd read about but never considered relevant to me."
I had been listening intently. "I assume everything I asked for is in this?" I said, pointing at the brown envelope.
"Yes, I dealt with it myself. You are registered as a delegate at the Conference on Virology and Infectious Diseases that I'm here for," he said. Then he added, "And in the name you asked for."
"And there is a trade exhibition going on at the same time, I understand."
"Yes, several companies involved in this research area will be there. Virex is not. We were booked but pulled out a few months ago, largely because we're already tightening up on our budgets. There will be companies in medical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, laboratory technology, infection control and so on. It's an important conference you know. There will be also be a lot of international press coverage. Since the scares about swine flu and bird flu and worries about other new viruses cropping up the world's press love it. There is nothing like the warning of a pandemic to get the media excited."
Amos Gazit drained his glass of lime juice, sighed and went on.
"You may not know but you sure will hear at this conference about new viruses cropping up. It's partly due to improved technology that enables identification and detection, but, by co-incidence, I understand Thailand has had a few cases of something very recently. But nothing is being made too public at present. But, from what I heard, I reckon by the end of this week there is going to be one hell of a stink - a stink on an international scale. Watch my words.
"Just like we need new antibiotics for bacterial infections - to treat superbugs and the like - so we also have an urgent need for new antiviral drugs and particularly a way to respond to the new variants as quickly as they appear. This is a key part of Virex's work. But it doesn't come cheap, Daniel. Years and years of investment goes in and just as we get close along comes this."
Gazit seemed to be on a roll. The enthusiasm for his work was obvious. I just sat back and let him roll. It was interesting anyway and I learned a lot.
"Did they tell you it was me who was credited with developing an enzyme that works on certain virus particles and upsets their replication? You know, it has taken six years of work to get this far. Most of this was spent in developing the techniques, we now use."
"God damn it," he finally said. "I am a scientist Daniel. I'm not used to this sort of thing. It's wrong. It's immoral and I'm still shocked to think there must be someone working for me who is so lacking in commitment to the company and to me that he can do this. "
"Are you sure it's a he?" I asked. I was actually feeling sorry for the American.
"No," said Gazit, "I just assume it is. I am old fashioned enough to think that a woman would show a bit more respect and not be tempted to try to destroy their employer."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," I said, "But have you any suspicions about who it might be?"
"No," said Gazit. "Sleepless nights? I have had a lot. But as far as putting my finger on who and why, no. I've watched, listened to, talked to them all without letting on I was checking them out - but no, no indication."
I looked at the American with a tinge of affection for the man who was obviously deeply concerned about the company he worked for and personally very hurt by whatever was going on. He was also, probably, far more at home in a laboratory than in the hot, stuffy confines of an Asian food centre in Bangkok. Enough for now, I beckoned the waiter for the bill and said:
"Do you think anyone, a person or a company, who you suspect of involvement in this will be at the conference?" It was the question I had wanted to ask Charles Brady in London.
"I'm not sure," said Gazit, "We think that whoever is behind this must be big enough to be in a position to do something with what they have stolen from us but must also be total crooks. It can't be a big, well known, multinational organization. They would not dare work like this. Would they? If they want know-how or people, they just go in and buy. Money no object."
"When I met Charles Brady, your president, back in the UK he told me something about one of your competitors losing key researchers. Seemed to think there might be a connection. Tell me a bit more."
"Yes, Biox Research International - also with their headquarters in Boston. There was a lot of newspaper interest and even more talk in the industry when David Solomon their director of research, a British guy, disappeared just over a year ago. No-one has seen him since. He was well known for political opinions. He would rail against the power of multinational businesses and was apparently involved with groups that would attack G8 type conferences. Most of us wondered how the hell he had risen to his position in the first place. But he was internationally respected for his research - he was a leading expert.
“Then there was the senior lecturer in immunology at Cambridge who disappeared last fall. He had worked for Biox and knew Solomon, in fact they were good friends from the UK. Name of Guy Williams. Clever scientist. He wrote several papers on viral chemistry. There have also been a few other resignations but we generally know where those guys have gone and we try not to get paranoid.
“You must also have seen the press coverage on infectious diseases, problems of resistance to current treatments and the prices of many of these drugs being out of reach of all except the rich. This controversy is being fuelled by some University and Institute researchers who are against multinational pharmaceutical companies’ ability to dictate prices of drugs. They want the funds for themselves. There is a lot of evidence that proves the point but the counter argument is that the big multinationals need the profits to fund research and development and only have short periods before patents run out. I see both sides."
Amos Gazit shrugged as if he had discussed the subject may times.
"Charles Brady had a theory about all this," I prompted. "Tell me your thoughts."
"Yes," Gazit said, "Charles Brady's suspicion, and mine, is that there might be an organisation out there operating illegally and below the radar, trying to capitalise on the gold mine that everyone sees is there."
Gazit looked at his watch.
"I promised to go along to the pre-drinks session with colleagues back at the hotel. I wouldn't want them thinking I chickened out."
"Before you go," I said, "Please tell me what you expect me to do. Charles Brady gave me some background in London and I know he clearly wants some investigations but do you know what he really wants done if we get somewhere."
The American stared at me but I thought I knew what was coming. They wanted to know as much as possible but then they'd keep it quiet. I'd been here before.
"Yes, Mr Capelli. Whoever you are or whatever it is you do, just keep it quiet. Let us know what you find out. I'm sure Charles told you that. We will decide what to do when we know more. We particularly don't want the media jumping up and down at the moment. We still need financing and backers can get very cold feet if they know that their investments are at risk. Keep it quiet Daniel. I am sure Charles told you that. We just want to know what the hell’s going on, then we'll decide."
Kevin Parker had checked out of his one-star Gloucester Road hotel and was taking his lunch. Sipping at a plastic mug of Coke with a half-eaten MacDonald’s burger hanging from its polystyrene box, Kevin had his mobile phone in his free hand trying to contact his Nigerian friend Tunje Fayinka. He had been trying all morning and had already left several voice messages and sent a text so Tunje was either at work at Barnet College, which seemed unlikely, or still asleep which seemed far more likely.
While he waited, mobile in hand, he was re-reading his unused notes from the folder that he had carried with him to see Mohamed El Badry the night before. The notes had already become a little greasy but the words of Thomas Malthus were as inspiring as ever.
"The love of independence is a sentiment that surely none would wish to see erased from the breast of man, though the parish law of England, it must be confessed, is a system of all others the most calculated gradually to weaken this sentiment, and in the end, may eradicate it completely."
Kevin looked up from his burger. Malthus was a genius and the written English so perfect. Malthus would have hated McDonalds with its brash red and yellow logo and its cheap mass catering for millions of overfed but unhealthy children. Their early deaths from diabetes, heart attacks and lack of exercise would prove Malthus' point.
"To remedy the frequent distresses of the common people, the poor laws of England have been instituted; but it is to be feared that though they may have alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune, they have spread the general evil over a much larger surface.
"The transfer of three shillings and sixpence a day to every labourer would not increase the quantity of meat in the country. There is not at present enough for all to have a decent share. What would then be the consequence?"
"Too right," said Kevin to his burger. "Bloody social security, family tax credits and child benefits. The Chinese will find a way to take it all for themselves if things get any tougher. What would fucking McDonalds do then?"
"I feel no doubt whatever that the parish laws of England have contributed to raise the price of provisions and to lower the real price of labour. The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole attention, and they seldom think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving they seldom exercise it, but go, generally speaking, to the ale house. "
"Or McDonalds," said Kevin to himself. "He puts it in a nutshell."
"Every endeavour should be used to weaken and destroy all those institutions relating to corporations, apprenticeships etc which cause the labours of agriculture to be worse paid than the labours of trade and manufactures. "
"Fucking McDonalds," muttered Kevin and pushed his half-eaten burger to one side.
"To prevent the recurrence of misery is, alas! beyond the power of man. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race."
"Then stop the suffering now," said Kevin and almost stood up.
"Though I may not be able to in the present instance to mark the limit at which further improvement will stop, I can very easily mention a point at which it will not arrive."
"Genius," said Kevin.
"I know of no well-directed attempts of this kind, except in the ancient family of the Bickerstaffs, who are said to have been very successful in whitening the skins and increasing the height of their race by prudent marriages, particularly by that very judicious cross with Maud, the milk-maid, by which some capital defects in the constitutions of the family were corrected."
"Steady on Thomas," muttered Kevin, "Nevertheless, Ausser Kontrolle like this bit."
"The lower classes of people in Europe may at some future period be much better instructed then they are at present; they may be taught to employ the little spare time they have in many better ways than at the ale-house; they may live under better and more equal laws than they have hitherto done, perhaps, in any country; and I even conceive it possible, though not probable, that they may have more leisure; but it is not in the nature of things, that they can be awarded such a quantity of money or substance, as will allow them all to marry early, in the full confidence that they shall be able to provide with ease for a numerous family.
"Singapore 2100 liked this, Thomas. Way ahead of your time."
Kevin's mobile phone suddenly rang.
"Hey man, what you want calling me at this hour?"
"It's midday, Tunje," said Kevin. "I thought you might have been lecturing the good students of Barnet and Southgate on population control."
"Yeh, well, tomorrow, Kev. What's up?"
"Met a mate of your last night. Mister El Badry.........."
"Shhhh...... Kev. Not so loud."
"I hear you're helping him with a few ideas."
"Nope, not me, mate."
"Tunj, my friend. Stop fucking me about. What's going?"
"If you want to know, meet me. Don't use any fucking technology, man. OK?"
"But is it true what he said, Tunj? Is he testing something on your patch?"
"Sure. Apparently. Nothing to do with me, my man. He just wanted my future support."
Kevin was not sure he understood. There was a long pause.
"Tunj. Let's meet. I can't get my head around him. The man's a rich, bloody Arab. What's he want with us?"
I don't think I'll ever know why I didn't go to see Anna after Amos Gazit had left? Fear? Uncertainty? I still don't know.
But as I entered the Convention Hall for the Conference on Virology and Infectious Diseases the next morning, the question was bothering me more than what I could possibly do for Virex International, Amos Gazit, the company's Director of Research or Charles Brady, the company's President.
I had called Anna in the bar to say I was tied up in a meeting and could not make it but would call again. But I could have found the time. It had not been so late when I had returned to the hotel down by the river. She had sounded upset again, as I knew she would, but I suppose it was that old familiar thought of starting another commitment that would end in more heartache, that had fuelled my doubts. But my own heartache was already in full swing.
For the moment, I tried to brush it aside and clutching the envelope Amos Gazit had given me the night before, made my way to the registration desk, took out my official delegate form, handed it over and waited while a girl tapped my name and details into a computer. Seconds later she produced a small name card and slipped it, neatly, into a clear plastic name tag and handed it back.
"Thank you, Doctor Stevens, " she said in practiced English.
Temporarily rebranded as Doctor Michael Stevens from the University of Kuala Lumpur, I thanked her, moved away to a quiet corner of the huge hall and examined the rest of the contents of Gazit's envelope.
Inside was a list of delegates - several pages of them with University, Research centre or company names and addresses, a small booklet outlining the lectures, the speakers, their topics and the chairmen for each session. I scanned it all. Then I took out the third booklet - a list of companies exhibiting in the adjacent hall and a list of company-sponsored "poster sessions" for those not officially speaking but who had some research topic to promote. I decided the trade exhibition could wait. I wanted to get a feel for the point of the conference - Virology and Infectious Diseases.
Sitting at the back of the vast lecture theatre I scanned the delegates and thought I could see the back of Gazit's head near the front. There were, I reckon, at least three hundred people present and very mixed nationalities. According to my official notes, the speaker was a local doctor, Dr S Vichai, a small man in a white shirt and dark suit made large on a vast TV screen behind him. The subject, "A new variant of Coronavirus?" It was a question rather than a statement.
Dr Vichai spoke in good but accented English, the accent so familiar and my own thoughts tracked forwards to tonight. Should I or shouldn't I go to see Anna? The unusual distraction was making it hard for me to concentrate on the speaker.
"...........AIDS has been a familiar problem for many years now. The public, worldwide, are mostly fully aware of the disease and how it spreads. They are also aware that it is only now becoming controllable with a mixed but expensive drug cocktail..........."
Doctor Vichai continued for a while and then called up another slide that appeared on the screen behind him.
"........this new variant, currently known by my laboratory in Bangkok as TRS-CoV. is different.............. what we have here is something new..........it appears to start with symptoms like a common cold but it then progresses rapidly to something more like whooping cough...........in the two cases where we have been able to take samples from patients before death, the virus appears new. We do not yet understand how it is transmitted............we do not know whether some patients may have recovered normally without progressing to the coughing fits and so we have no understanding of the numbers of cases.........the cases notified to us have all centred on just one area around Ayuthaya to the north of Bangkok.......all the males, aged between twenty-two and fifty are from this area. All were apparently healthy individuals with no known health problems. The one young woman was the exception and she was from the Bangkok area."
Next to me, a young man with an tablet phone stuck his pen in his mouth and got up. "Excuse me," he said in an English accent and brushed past towards the exit. A few others near the front of the room did the same. The press contingent was clearly picking up a story but Doctor Vichai was still speaking.
"...........I understand from the WHO that there are reports coming from Nigeria and a possible case in Kenya.......if these are, indeed, all caused by the same virus then this is very unusual as most new respiratory infections are very localised......"
I too got up and followed the English reporter outside. He was now on the phone probably to a London paper.
"Yeh, ..........got that? Believe me this is a good story. The implications are horrendous. What? Yes, the speaker -Doctor Vichai - Thai. Look I'll email something right now. Sorry to call you at this hour, Peter, but this has all the appearances of another new influenza or something. Were you still in bed? Sorry. I'll call later."
I remember pulling my own phone out of my pocket on an impulse to phone Anna but then I stopped. No - I'd phone her later. There were things I had to do.
In Nairobi, Philippe Fournier, PhD, leaned back as far as was safe to do so in his broken swing chair, and stared at the papers on his battered wooden desk.
Despite his qualifications as a microbiologist and biochemist, he was, at the request of someone far higher up, designing some leaflets for a sexually transmitted diseases poster. But his computer had, as usual, been going slow. Now it had stopped altogether.
"Merde! he said aloud. Then, “Fils de salope."
Then, deciding it sounded far better in English, he said, "Fucking, crap machine."
He got up, kicked the chair and went out, and because there was nowhere else to go, wandered along the depressingly long corridor that smelled of disinfectant and body fluids. Leaning on the ledge of an open window looking out towards the rest of the Kenyatta National Hospital site, he looked down at the ground below and felt a mouthful of saliva building up in his mouth as if he was going to be sick. He wasn't, but instead he let a large glob of the spit fall from his mouth. He watched its slimy progress all the way until it nestled in the weeds below. Then his mobile phone rang.
He pulled it from his trouser pocket and checked to see if it was Mara's mobile, but no. He didn't recognise the number.
"Jambo," he muttered although he knew full well that it would suggest to anyone who was calling that he was just a foreigner or tourist practising their Swahili. Philippe was past caring.
"Oui" he said, now thinking in French because of the title he'd just been given.
"We are recruiting highly qualified scientists for a new laboratory. Your name cropped up," the voice said.
Philippe's eyes lit up despite the speaker having already resorted to English. "Yes?" he said, not wanting to appear too enthusiastic.
"We are looking for someone to lead a group doing research in virology. Your name was mentioned."
"Yes," Philippe said, "I have a PhD from an English University but I also studied in Paris."
"Yes, we know," said the voice.
"How do you know?" asked Philippe, naively.
The caller ignored the question. "It would mean an immediate start for the right person. We can probably at least double your current salary. Are you interested in a meeting to discuss the position?"
"Uh, perhaps, " said Philippe, smiling down to where his spit had landed.
"The Oakwood Hotel at 7pm." said the voice. "I will be waiting for you."
"How do I know you?"
"Don't worry Philippe, I'll find you."
It was the trade exhibition at the Conference that really interested me. But I still had no idea how, or if, it would be of any use for my new client, Virex International. That Anna was constantly on my mind was a reflection of how involved in the job I was being paid to do I actually felt. I was in a dreadful state for a grown man. I felt like a teenage boy who thought a girl fancied him because she'd said she'd wait for him after school by the lamp post.
So, picking up a list of trade exhibitors, I took a deep breath and, adopting as manly a walk as I could muster strolled up and down the three main aisles. It was not a large exhibition by some standards but a mix of high tech medical diagnostics companies, laboratory equipment manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. But on the corner end of the third aisle I found exactly what I was looking for - Biox Research International - the company that, according to Amos Gazit had lost its research director and an ex-employee. I stopped, went forward and picked up a sales leaflet.
"Can I help you sir?" I heard an American accent. "I'm John Wardley."
"I'm not sure," I said looking up. "Perhaps some general product information."
"Doctor Stevens," Wardley said, eyeing my neat nametag. "Where you from, sir?"
"Currently in Kuala Lumpur. Local you might say. University. Molecular genetics. Passing interest in viral biochemistry." Hearing my invented story out loud for the first time it sounded passable.
"British though, eh?" joked Wardley, detecting the accent. "Any clinical involvement Doctor Stevens?"
"Peripheral.” I said, vaguely, as I was unsure exactly what that meant. “Actually," I continued in as British a way as I could, "I used to know one of your researchers a few years ago. Chap by the name of Solomon. He and I met at Cambridge. Last I heard he was head of research - done well for himself. I lost touch when I came out here. He went west, I went east." I paused to test the response."
"Dave Solomon," John Wardley said immediately. "I'm surprised you hadn't heard. He disappeared. Last year. Strange story. You say you knew him?"
"Yes, Cambridge. I spent a year there before coming out here but then lost touch with many former colleagues. I've tried to involve myself here as much as I could and my work went in a different direction."
Wardley seemed happy to continue. "Yup," he said, "Disappeared. Just walked out of his downtown apartment, left a girlfriend without even a note and disappeared. There was a lot of talk. He was well respected. In the middle of some very interesting research. Valuable to a competitor, perhaps, but he never surfaced. I know top management in the company were concerned. He was privy to a lot of company information. But I haven't heard him mentioned for a while."
"He was always very political," I said, trying to encourage Wardley to say a bit more. "I seem to remember he was very left wing. Anti-capitalist, environmentalist."
"So, I believe, but I didn't know him that well," Wardley said.
"Seems strange how he got on so well with Biox," I went on, pushing it as far as I could. "Although I heard he had toned down a lot after going to USA. Globalization and multinational corporations were always his big hate."
"I don't know a lot," admitted Wardley, "But Jack did." He pointed to an older colleague talking to another visitor. “Jack moved out of the labs into international marketing last year. He knew him well." Then: "Can I get you a coffee Doctor Stevens? We have a system around the back which is designed for guests but mainly to keep us on our feet for the next three days."
His colleague, Jack, was finishing with his visitor and came over.
"Walt Daniels," he said looking straight at me. He put out a big hand to be shaken. "Jack, to many people, I can't imagine why but I admit to liking a drop with the same name from time to time." He laughed at his little joke, but I am very cruel. I recognised it as his usual self-introduction to complete strangers.
Walt took me to a small plastic table covered in empty plastic cups by holding my elbow as if I was his son and my dinner was getting cold. "So," Walt leaned back in his plastic chair, "You interested in diagnostics, Doctor Stevens? Where are you based? Just come for the conference? From England, are you?"
Walt was a big man, overweight, probably in his late fifties, balding and looking as though a walk in the Bangkok sun outside might cause problems. I took the cup of coffee and nodded a thank you at John Wardley.
"I'm based in KL, Kuala Lumpur - the University," I repeated for Walt Daniels' benefit. "I'm doing some lecturing and research in molecular genetics. Not really in to your specialist area, I admit, but I had a few days leave and it's quite a quick flight up here from KL. I don't think you will sell me much but, as I was telling your colleague, the name Biox International was familiar. We were discussing David Solomon. I knew him at Cambridge but lost touch. I hear he disappeared."
Walt took a mouthful of coffee and wiped his lips. "Weird, that's what I call it. I worked under him in the virology department. He was head of one of the research divisions so he controlled a lot. My department was working on some second-generation tests, those that will come in after all these." Walt waved towards the sales brochures that lay in neat piles on the exhibition stand. "Dave Solomon was more directly involved in virus genetics. He had worked on HIV some years back and was looking at new treatments, enzymes and other things. A very highly respected young man was Dave."
"So how long have you been with Biox?" I asked him.
"I've been there ten years - joined just after it was set up. Biox has pioneered a lot of this type of virus research. Made a lot of money for the backers and for Josh Ornstein the Vice President though not much has come this way." He laughed, drained his cup, and then asked, "So how is Malaysia. How long you been there?"
"Two years, but I also worked in Perth and Singapore after leaving UK."
By this time, I had already used up most of my invented CV and hoped the questions wouldn't linger. I usually think up my stories in advance but it can depend how complicated the subject matter is. Without a PhD in virus genetics I knew I would quickly start to struggle here. I hate the bullshit that sometimes comes with this job. I usually try to divert conversations away as quickly as possible. I tried it this time. "I've been around a bit, you might say, but I like this part of the world," I said, hoping this would divert things away from the deeper aspects of molecular biology. I also wanted to bring another matter into the conversation.
"Tell me, didn't Guy Williams also work for Biox?" I asked. "He was another ex-Cambridge graduate. Someone told me that he was back in Cambridge but then I heard he hadn't stayed long either. What is it about Biox? When are you going to disappear, Walt?"
"My wife would find me wherever I went," Walt grinned. I pushed a bit more.
"Did you know Guy, Walt? He and I shared a girlfriend once in Cambridge. Every Friday night she used to decide who she preferred and we would have to accept her decision. Very civilized English behaviour really."
This was nothing like up to my usual standard of bullshitted probing and I knew it. But my own girlfriend was standing there at the back of my brain. I just couldn't get her to move away. Walt smiled politely and looked at me. His look bothered me and I wondered if I'd just lost a point or two. I was later to be proved right but hindsight, however quickly it comes, is no use in the bullshitting game
"Oh, yeh?" he said. "Guy Williams. Yeh. He worked for Dave Solomon for about a year. They were good friends. Guy went back to Cambridge. He had his eye on a Professorship I think. And yep, apparently, he also disappeared late last year. Perhaps you should go back now and find that girlfriend. You could have first picking every Friday night."
I remember telling Walt I was trying to stay single, which was sort of true. But then I saw John Wardley cozying up on the other side of the trade stand to a couple of young Japanese girls, nurses I think. I decided I'd better move on. The Biox ice was now broken and I could always come back. Walt and his brochures would be around for a couple more days.
"I must be going," I said, "Thanks for the coffee."
"No problem," said Walt as I got up. But then he added, "How about joining us this evening? We have a small company drinks reception for some delegates at eight. Afterwards, I'm told the nightlife gets interesting and we haven't had a chance to look around yet."
“Good idea," I replied. "I'd be very pleased to join you." Which would have been true a few days ago. But Anna was still lurking there. I could almost hear her winding herself up for another telling off.
I then left the Convention Centre, called a taxi and sat in the back looking out of the window, seeing nothing of the traffic jam around me but thinking about the lectures I'd just listened to. It's surprising how quickly you can become an expert on flu epidemics and epidemiology. But Amos Gazit's words were proving right. I definitely sensed some genuine concern amongst these leading specialists. It was not only the growing bacterial resistance to antibiotics that we all get told about but the regular and apparently spontaneous arrival on the scene of new viruses with quick and fatal consequences and no effective treatment available.
But Virex International had engaged me to help with their own particular problem of losing research material. Was there a connection with what I'd just learned rubbing shoulders with all these white coats? Both Charles Brady and Amos Gazit from Virex seemed to think so but they had provided me with very little evidence - none in fact.
I had never met these two disappeared scientists, David Solomon and Guy Williams, of course, but my made-up stories of having known them were having an effect on me. It was often like that. I can understand how actors playing a character can't just instantly drop the character when the acting's finished.
I started to think about Gazit and Brady. Perhaps they knew a few things about these two guys that they were not letting on. I was, in fact, damn sure of it. I had tried to extract more but they had both been vague and had conveyed nothing factual. I tried to recall exactly what Charles Brady had told me back in London? Talking about Solomon, who, let's not forget, had never worked for Virex but for the other Boston based company, Biox, Brady had said:
"I met him several times. He was good. We were thinking of getting him to join Virex. We used to meet at seminars. But then I started to lose confidence in him. Always trying to suggest we should change our emphasis. Always trying to suggest that medical research should be heavily subsidized on an international basis. Always suggesting that the new drugs we were looking for should be available to all and not just the rich countries of the West. He didn't seem to understand that specialised drugs needed highly trained doctors and facilities. Just look at modern cancer therapy in the West and then compare it to Africa. It's a sad fact that in some places there is still only one doctor to several thousands of people let alone specialists available. It didn't seem to affect him. To him it was still wrong."
Yes. I can go with all that, I thought. Nothing particularly wrong there. Solomon talks some sense at least some of the time.
And why had Brady suggested I come to this Conference? He genuinely seemed to think it would help lead to some answers if I mixed with people and companies. But he hadn't given me anything more specific.
I was still deep in thought when my taxi arrived near the river. Close to the bank of the wide and muddy water, rafts of green lotus weed floated past. Ploughing its way upstream was a long barge being pulled by a single noisy tug and amongst it all, was the throaty roar of river taxis. I love Bangkok. Every free space beside the road at this point was taken up by food carts and the pavements was crammed with rickety tables, chairs and people eating.
I suddenly felt very hungry. Something hot and spicy eaten at one of these hawker stalls appealed. But alone? No. I'm always alone. Relaxing company was what I suddenly craved. Someone I could sit with, in total un-pressured comfort, and absorb the heat, the sound, the smells and the views of one of my favourite cities. So, what should I do about that other burning question? Goddamn it, Anna was bothering me every few minutes and she wasn't even there. My life recently seemed to be a perpetual battle between conscience, duty, desire, the excitement of my job and the fear of personal commitment. I was becoming as pathetic as that vision I'd seen.
The taxi turned down another side street and within minutes I was back in the hotel. Now the next question?
Should I stay there or check out and return to my normal hotel off Sukhumvit Road? I had only moved to the river side hotel because Virex had booked me the room so I could meet Amos Gazit. I hadn't spoken to Gazit at the Conference because I'd been complying with my arrangement with them. Virex did not want to be seen by anyone to be in any way connected to this guy Doctor Mike Stevens from Kuala Lumpur.
I hate being indecisive. I took the lift to my room. An hour later, showered and changed, I sat on the bed and phoned Anna. But there was no answer. Somewhat dejected, I went down to the hotel bar, ordered a cold beer and sat in the corner. I suppose I could have got drunk and forgotten about everything. I could have got up, taken a taxi to the airport and flown back to London and my mate Colin. I could have ditched Virex and dumped.........no. I just couldn't do any of that. Not now.
Anyway, I don't drink much alcohol and I actually hate beer. I do not link beer with jovial, social gatherings in English pubs or American bars. I may have done when much younger but I now link beer with lone drinking in dark corners.
In Nairobi, Philippe had arrived at the Oakwood Hotel by 6.15, three quarters of an hour before his appointment with the mysterious caller.
Meeting people like this was not something Philippe was used to although he knew where the Oakwood Hotel was. Sandwiched between some high-rise buildings, it looked out of place and as it seemed to specialise in organising safaris for tourists. Philippe sat in the corner listening to conversations to try to get a fix on the cost of various safari packages. One group was wanting to go climbing, but thinking that Mara was unlikely to want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, he dismissed it and focussed on the relevant costs of two day and four-day safaris to the Masai Mara instead.
By 7pm, though, he was getting anxious as no-one had yet approached him about the job interview. By 7.15pm he started to stroll around the small lobby and finally went to ask the receptionist if anyone had asked to speak to him. It was then that he felt the tap on his shoulder.
Philippe jumped and turned, a little nervously, to find a man in a suit holding out his hand apparently expecting it to be shaken. Philippe said, "Yes," and took hold of the hand whilst looking into a slightly tanned face with a large smile across it.
"Shall we go up to the bar and balcony," said the man and, without waiting, led the way. "The Oakwood is typical old Kenya, I think," the man said as Philippe followed behind.
The small balcony next to the bar was a great vantage point to watch the Nairobi street life below. Looking towards the Stanley Hotel and the Thorn Tree Cafe, Philippe took the seat next to the small table he was directed to and looked around him. The tanned face man was ordering drinks.
"Whisky," he said to the barman. "You take ice?"
"Uh, yes," said Philippe, a complete stranger to anything stronger than Kenyan Tusker. Cider had been his favourite when at Reading University but only because he liked apples. Meanwhile, the man sat down across the table, loosened his tie and sat back. "I told you I'd recognise you," he said, still smiling. "So you are interested in a job?"
"Yes, sir," said Philippe. "Perhaps," he added, trying not to show too much early enthusiasm.
"You studied at a place called Reading, right?"
"Yes, sir. The Faculty of Biological Sciences."
"And you obtained a PhD, I understand." The accent may have been slightly French but Philippe did not question it.
"Yes, sir, on molecular virology, molecular pathogenesis and evolution and mechanisms of virus structure and replication - especially Coronavirus and arenavirus infection. I studied under Doctor Mark Cavendish, sir."
"That is very important Philippe. I, also, am an expert on Coronaviruses but what the fuck are arenaviruses?"
The language was now Americanised French or something similar, but Philippe only heard the word fuck. He was surprised by it being used during an interview but one of the senior researchers at Reading had been prone to mix his sentences with expletives so he decided not to let this put him off.
"Well sir, it is complicated. Do you want me to explain in some detail?"
"Yes, go ahead, Philippe. Ah, here is the whisky - sante."
"Well," Philippe began, "Arenaviruses have a bi-segmented negative-strand RNA genome, which encodes four viral proteins: GP and NP by the S segment and L and Z by the L segment. These four proteins possess multiple functions in infection, replication and release of progeny viruses from infected cells. The small Ring finger protein, Z protein is a matrix protein that plays a central role in viral assembly and budding.............."
"OK, Philippe, I see you know your arenaviruses - boire - drink your whisky - sante."
"Thank you," Philippe put his glass to his lips and sipped. It was like drinking fire.
"So, time for a career move, then, Philippe." The man peeled off his tie completely and then took his jacket off, hung it over the back of his chair and pulled out a mobile phone. He then looked out over the balcony towards the Stanley Hotel opposite. "One minute, Philippe. I need to make a call." With that the man got up and walked away leaving Philippe staring at the empty chair with the discarded red tie and jacket. While he waited, Philippe tried his drink again and wondered, briefly, if Mara liked whisky. He hoped not.
But Philippe was pleased that the man pronounced his name so well and not Fillip like so many Kenyans and British. The man suddenly returned and Philippe jumped out of his fleeting dream.
"Well," the man said. "The job is yours if you want it. You'll work for two of our senior scientists at our new laboratory. Private company. Funding is no problem. Virology, infectious diseases, that sort of thing - you know, you've done it before. Pioneering research, a new laboratory and the facilities are superb." He pronounced superb as if it had a 'e' at the end and then held up his thumb and first finger to make a perfect circle. "Are you interested? Do you have any questions?"
Philippe was overwhelmed by how quick it was. He'd expected a much longer interview, perhaps a second or even a third interview, aptitude testing, a tour of the laboratory even. "Uh, yes," he said, trying to think up sensible questions as fast as he could but also hanging onto the word superb pronounced just as a Frenchman would. Everything sounded superbe. "How much will I be paid?"
"You'll be paid seventy-five thousand dollars a year plus a bonus if all goes well. All living expenses."
Philippe's eyes widened. "Uh, is the laboratory far from here?"
"We will arrange transport. But you'll live on site. Luxury villa."
Philippe thought about Mara. Surely, he'd get weekends off. And a luxury villa? With a swimming pool, perhaps?
"Can you start immediately?"
"Uh, yes sir."
"Good, I'll pick you up here at 8pm tomorrow night. Come with a suitcase as if going away for a long weekend. And bring your passport. Ca va?"
"Oui. Yes, sir."
"And one last thing. Don't tell anyone just yet. Plenty of time to notify your friends and family. It's the company policy - ne t'inquiète pas!"
Philippe left in a dream. It was only at midnight as he was going over and over the interview in his sleepless mind that it struck him. He had no idea who the man was or what the company was called. But he now remembered the man's French accent so perhaps he was being recruited by a French company. And why the need for a passport? Perhaps he would be going to France for training. Philippe was both nervous and excited but he couldn't recall the man's face.
I think I drank half a bottle of beer in the hotel before phoning Anna again but her phone seemed to be switched off. Thinking that perhaps I was now getting the silent tirade, I headed back to the Convention Centre and then found I was far too early for the drinks reception, courtesy of Biox International. So, I sat in a corner waiting and playing with my phone until the start time.
For a while I mingled and listened to others, sipping at orange juice but saying nothing about myself. You know what it's like at these dos. If you're quiet and keep yourself to yourself you can quickly spot those who are comfortable and those who feel out of place. It's always a good opportunity to spot an out of place female, make her feel less out of place and see how things develop but I wasn't even in the mood for that. I generally hung around, nodding, smiling and sipping my juice. At nine, as people started to wander away, John Wardley tapped me on the shoulder. "Time to go have some fun," he said.
So, nothing ventured, nothing gained as my dad used to say, I took a deep breath and re-confirmed my willingness to act as their bar crawl guide. As I waited for Walt and John to close down the Biox trade stand for the night, I wandered off through the hall still clutching my orange juice.
The Livingstone Pharmaceuticals trade stand was in a corner where two of their salesmen were, like John and Walt, also packing up for the night. I watched them until they went away and then walked over to their stand. The Livingstone in-house company "news sheet" was lying on a coffee table and I picked it up for no other reason than passing interest.
The front page showed a picture of a small group of what I took to be Livingstone staff giving a cheque to someone for some good community cause - the caring, compassionate and charitable side of Livingstone. I flipped it open to the second page and to an article inside and read:
"Livingstone Pharmaceuticals have recently appointed Shah Medicals to market the new Histocytex range in parts of East Africa. This has followed two years of successful co-operation with in marketing Clarion Hand Creams, Clarion Skin Care and Mentha decongestants range.
“Shah Medicals is fast becoming a well-known name in international pharmaceutical sales and distribution under its banner of Shah Corporation. Already well established in the Middle East, the company has several branches in South East Asia and plans to increase its marketing activity in East and West Africa. The tie in with Livingstone will enable Shah Corporation to grow its African operation from its base in Nairobi where it now has its own research facility and regional base for all types of medical product licensing and trials."
The article closed with a wish for success to Shah Medicals and showed a photograph of the Shah Corporation chief executive, a smiling Mr Mohamed Kader seen shaking hands with someone from Livingstone Pharmaceuticals.
I'm usually good at remembering face and I was sure I had seen the man before, or at least a photograph of him. The similarity to that old tyrant, Saddam Hussein, had struck me before although this man was dressed in a good business suit, not an army uniform, and there were other, obvious, differences. But the smile and the heavy black moustache were strikingly similar.
On the other hand, the man looked similar to thousands of middle aged men from the Jordan or Iraq area. Yes, I could pin-point the man to that specific area. It’s another of my many talents acquired from too much travelling and too much time spent watching others. I pocketed the company's newspaper and wandered on past the emptying trade stands to find John and Walt for a evening in the Bangkok bars.
It was past midnight when we got back to Walt's hotel. That's not late for Bangkok but Walt had been showing signs of exhaustion before the evening had even started. After three hours of noisy bars he was all in. John though, was still going. But it was in one particular bar that Walt had spotted someone he knew and, above the loud music, had shouted something into my ear:
"Say, Mike. See those guys over there," he had nodded towards the other end of the bar where two Europeans or Americans were engaged with two attentive young ladies. "On the trade stand near ours - Livingstone Pharmaceuticals - you know the company?"
I shook my head but was, nevertheless, interested in what might come next. Walt looked as if he had more to say. He took a breath and shouted into my ear again.
"Those two guys. I think the older one must be the owner, Greg O'Brian. I've only ever seen a photo of him. By reputation he's a rogue and normally keeps a very low profile. I've no idea of his background but I believe he just stepped in and bought Livingstone when it was up for sale. Must have seen an opportunity. But Livingstone is a strange American company. It's an old business that started off doing consumer type products. Rumours have it they are moving into more high-tech stuff. I suppose that's why they're here. Perhaps I'll have a sniff around sometime. Headquarters in New York I think but someone told me yesterday they're doing something in East Africa - Kenya, I think he said. I think the other guy is their international sales manager. But if that's O'Brian then it's interesting. He rarely shows his face in public."
Walt had then stopped and tried sitting back on a stool that was far too small for his size and weight. "Hell. I'm getting too old for this," he had shouted. "Can't hear yourself think." He paused, nodding towards his colleague John Wardley who was clearly enjoying the night. "But I suppose you don't come in here for serious discussions."
"Why don't we leave John here, Walt," I said. “He’s a big boy and should know all about the risks he might be taking. How about a drink somewhere quieter?"
"Sure thing, Mike," Walt replied, before draining his glass and edging off the stool. Then he tapped John on the shoulder. "We're off. The English doctor says you are to be a good boy. OK?"
I was pleased to leave. Anna was not there but she was spoiling my night if you get my drift. I hailed a taxi. With Walt slumped into the well-worn rear seats and with the taxi's air conditioning appearing to slowly revive him, we both stayed silent and looked out of the window. You'll know what was on my mind. But, suddenly, just as it seemed Walt may have fallen asleep, he mumbled something. I turned to look at him.
"Funny you should know Guy Williams and David Solomon," Walt said, still looking out of the window on his side. "No-one has mentioned either of them for quite a while."
Then, as I was wondering what to say Walt went on, "You're not really a doctor are you?” Walt continued looking out of the window.
I was just a little taken aback but tried not to show it. I paused and replied in a way I've used before when trying to step around awkward questions. I've used it with women in the past but I won't ever try it on Anna. "What makes you say that?"
The weakness of the words was a real give away. Inwardly, I cringed.
I am a man with a few years of experience in dealing with people of so many different nationalities and in circumstances that almost always required tact, diplomacy and, sometimes, to be a good liar. Surely, I thought, I could have done better than that. I resigned himself to the obvious next questions but, frankly, was not too bothered. Walt and I had only met that morning but I already felt comfortable with him and decided it may not be such a bad thing to come clean.
As I've said I hate bullshit. Believe it or not I prefer total honesty. If bullshit can be avoided, then I'll avoid it. If it is shown to be total bullshit then I'll come clean and admit it. This was a clear-cut case of the latter.
Walt's reply came after only a slight pause. He was still looking out of the window but obviously far from asleep.
"Several things really," he muttered. "For one thing Guy Williams was openly gay." Walt stopped to wait for the point to sink in. "You shared a girlfriend, Doctor Stevens?" Then: "Gut feeling. You don't quite have the right image for your job. Most of us in this game, the lab ones anyway, are a boring lot, you know. We don't move around that much. You've been around."
Walt now turned to look directly at me. "You're not a doctor. Am I right?"
The guilty deceiver had been found out, so quickly. I wanted to smile but, for a moment, tried to retain the facial expression of an innocent one who was not being believed. But I couldn't hold the expression for long. I looked over at Walt and said: "Yes, you're right."
"Then what the fuck are you up to?"
I looked away from Walt and it was my turn to look at the passing scenery, not that there was much. We were in a late-night traffic jam. I then looked back at Walt to find Walt's face very, very close. He was looking straight up at me, his chin resting on his chest and his eyes pointing up - a sweaty and greasy brow with horizontal wrinkles of accusation and inquisition.
"Frankly, Walt," I said, "I am trying to help a friend who has lost something. I can't tell you too much. It's an industrial secret - that sort of thing. But my friend and I think there might somehow be a connection between those two missing characters and what they have lost." I stopped and handed the initiative back to Walt. It was his turn.
"So, what's your real name?"
"Just call me Mike, for now. OK? Sorry but I can't divulge more than that about myself. But, listen Walt. I'm trying to be honest here. I could do with some help."
I stopped right there and looked out of the taxi window again. I was doing a bit of my regular self-analysing, asking questions of myself, checking my direction and strategy. What sort of help was I after? And here I was, sat there in the back of a Bangkok taxi about to pour my honest soul out to a competitor of my client. I asked myself if I had gone raving mad and the answer I got back from myself was no. What else should I do at this stage? I still had a good feeling about Walt. If Walt was OK then Biox was OK. Did that make sense? No. But I needed help, some leads, some ideas, some pointers to which way I should go. So, I said, "Are you awake enough to share a last beer or something with me, Walt?"
And to prove my judgement was spot on, Walt said, "Suddenly, I feel wide awake again."
It was clear to Kevin Parker that Tunje Fayinke was far too hung up about being monitored by a Big Brother somewhere for any meaningful mobile phone discussion.
"OK, if the CIA and MI6 are definitely on your trail, Tunj, we'd better meet up for a pint. I assume you're not doing anything else today and as you've already had your eighteen hours sleep, how about a pint or two at the One Tun, Tottenham Court Road. Just use a tortuous route from Barnet via Brixton - that'll throw them off. And, by the way, it's your bloody turn to pay.
But, for all his efforts, Kevin had been sitting at the One Tun public house for nearly an hour before Tunje arrived. He was already onto his third pint.
"Just given you up, Tunj. Thought the CIA had got you."
"Sorry, my man. Got delayed. Mine's a pint - best bitter."
They settled into the corner that Kevin had already made his own.
"Now then, what the bloody hell is going on with this guy Mohamed El Badry?" Kevin asked. "I got interrogated like I was one of his staff last night. I never got to give the talk I'd spent hours preparing and he seemed to know more about me than I did."
"Ah, that'll be me," Tunje said. "I told him about the networks."
"So much for your strict security measures, then Tunj? You keep talking about being scared of Big Brother. Well, I actually think you'll find you've been talking direct to Big Brother himself. El Badry is Big Brother personified. "
"Fuck," said Tunje. "But he's keen to do something, Kev. He's Action Man personified."
"Yes, Tunj, but I still don't fully understand what he's up to or why, where he comes from or even the how, if, what or when. Do you, Tunj?"
"Yeh, he's also Big Shot personified. He has this business - pharmaceuticals. Got research places dotted all over. Worth a mega fortune. Got a company in Nigeria, Kenya - all over the fucking place."
" And how do you know all that, Tunj?"
"He told me, Kev."
"So why does your Mister Big Shot personified come asking one Little Shot Tunje Fayinke for all the details of the Malthus Society, chairman of which is a slightly bigger Little Shot called Kevin Parker who's sitting right here next to you. Answer me that, Tunj, please."
"Clinical trials, man."
"Yes, I got wind of something along those lines last night. But you're hardly going to give him the names of all twenty-eight members of the Nigerian Malthus Society for him to contact and ask if they'd be interested in helping them with his clinical trials are you, Tunj?"
"Fuck sake, Kev. Show a bit of confidence in me."
"Listen to me, Tunj. This is serious. If I recall El Badry's words from last night it went something like: 'We have been working with Mr. Fayinke to test out a few ideas.' What the bloody hell is that, Tunj?"
"Search me, Kev."
"Then he said something like 'Tunje has a lot to learn, though.' Then something about the need for security because of problems with Islamic militants."
"Ah yes, I mentioned it wasn't easy moving around up there because of Boko Haram."
"And what the bloody hell has Boko Haram got to do with it, Tunj? I'm rapidly losing the plot here."
"Yeh, Boko Haram, the Islamic insurgents, are up in the north of Nigeria. Don't you read the Guardian any more Kev? I think he wants to focus his activity on the north to start with. He may even have already started."
"He's started already?"
"I don't know, Kev. Sorry. But he seemed to have thought it all through. Very professional like."
"You mean a professional eradicator of half a million of your fellow Nigerians?"
"It'll never be that many Kev. He's only at the testing stage."
"Tunj. Listen to me. What the bloody hell is he up to? Do we or don't we know exactly what he's playing at? And who the fuck is he?"
"Yeh, I admit there are a few gaps in our knowledge at present."
"Gaps? A few gaps?" Kevin almost screamed and heads in the otherwise quiet pub turned to look. "Do you realise the potential seriousness of this? Yes, we've been demanding action for years but we've always said we wanted action by legitimate governments not by a fucking individual operating like he's a terrorist who's suddenly found a stock of nerve gas."
"Mmm," said Tunje, "Mmm, I see."
"And when did you see him?" asked Kevin trying desperately to stay calm.
"I got invited to his flat. Kev. Just like you. Nice place."
"Mmm," said Kevin deliberately copying Tunje. "So, you beat a path to his luxury pad before me." He took a swig of his beer as he felt the tension inside him growing again. With beer dripping off his lower lip Kevin then said, "He said he wanted me to help him find other people like you to help out. What does that mean?"
"Calm it, Kev. It's nothing, man. All I did was tell him about the website, which he seemed to know about anyway and that if he wanted any help, leave a message or something - anyone interested could get back to him."
"Via whom, Tunj? How is he going to contact Malthus group activists without contacting me? I'm the only one who keeps a rough tab on their personal details and even I struggle to know who most of them really are."
"But that's it, Kev. That's why he asked to see you. He needs contacts - not just Nigeria but anywhere."
"What?" yelled Kevin. "Everywhere?" He took another mouthful of his beer. "Why, Tunj? Why does he need the contacts? What the bloody hell is he up to? Who the fuck is he? What does he really want, Tunj? Because, I can tell you I came away last night one minute so excited I could shit myself thinking we'd at last found a threat we could use for direct action and the next minute coming out in a cold sweat because we, or mostly you, had given away so much that we risked losing all control to some Big Shot Arab who could, unlike you and me, probably pay over the odds for a get out of jail card if it all went pear shaped."
Kevin felt so out of breath now that he swallowed the remaining half of his pint in one go. "Your bloody turn. Mine's a pint - best bitter."
At Walt Daniel's hotel, we were waiting for the bar hostess to finish serving a Jack Daniels whisky for Walt and a coffee for me. We had hardly spoken since the taxi ride back. As soon as the hostess had finished, Walt leaned forward and helped himself from a bowl of peanuts.
"So, what sort of help do you want?" he asked.
"More facts," I said. "Far more than you will be able to give me, Walt. But understanding those disappearances might help. I need a few pointers to the whole scene."
"So, are you FBI or something?" Walt asked, looking me directly in the face. "But you're English aren't you. What’s the English equivalent?"
"I'm nothing like that, Walt," I replied. "As I said, I have been asked to investigate a few problems on behalf of another company. There's not a lot I can tell you for reasons of confidentiality. On the other hand there's not a lot I know yet."
I stopped for a moment and helped myself to the same peanuts but decided that peanuts and coffee don't mix. I then went on, deciding to get a bit cleaner.
"I'm a private investigator, Walt. I specialise mostly in international industrial problems - industrial espionage, theft of intellectual property, that sort of thing. But I'm new to your type of business. I’ve read a bit and I know how businesses operate – big ones, small ones. Frankly you must have been asleep if you don't know about outbreaks of disease, resistance to antibiotics, health risks from eating everything from beef to, well, peanuts these days. Everyone from school age up seems to have an opinion on the subject. You only had to sit in on the seminar this morning to know that this business is headlines. A new virus. No known cures. Outbreaks of what looks like the same virus in odd places like Thailand and Nigeria. New drugs, getting more and more expensive to find and produce. Bacteria and viruses getting the better of what is available. Then you get top scientists, scientists with reputations in this field just disappearing."
I paused for a moment. "So what sort of business is it these days Walt? You've been around a while."
Walt looked at me with tired, red eyes. "And why should I tell you anything," he said. "Most likely you're working for a competitor. Is that right? Sure, I've been in the pharmaceuticals and medical technology industry for a long time now. How I ended up on sales God knows, but they seem to need scientists to sell to other scientists these days. Green, raw salesmen straight out of college are not enough. The industry still gets a bad press from time to time but things have improved. I remember a time when there was a lot of media pressure. You know, business being bought by unethical incentives to doctors, that sort of thing. You had it in UK a lot at one time. Then there are a lot of multinationals joining other multinationals. Some of these organizations make annual profits bigger than the income of some entire countries. But a lot of the good research and innovation is still being done by the smaller companies, universities and hospital research departments. Biox is one of them. We've had some successes but it takes a long time to get anything licensed and ready to use these days even though we can sometimes get early licensing for special circumstances."
He stopped. "I'm rambling. What exactly do you want to know?"
"Tell me about David Solomon and Guy Williams. What's your gut feeling, Walt?"
"I dunno. For sure, both were a bit alike. They used to socialise together but don't get me wrong, this was not a liaison as far as I know. Dave was as straight as a die. Both had similar political leanings – that’s what they had in common. Environmental issues and such like. That and they were both were from the UK. Both with some weird notions about everyone should get free drugs, everyone was equal and no-one should have a priority on treatments just because they were better off than the next man. Dave was real hung up on this if you got him talking. Fall backs to state run enterprise stuff. It just don't work, man, and everyone 'cept those two knew it."
Walt took a drink from his glass, wiped his mouth and continued. "Course they both had fall outs with Josh Ornstein, the Biox Vice President. But both were good scientists, working long hours and both were productive.
"Dave Solomon was given his top post because he could motivate others. In the lab he would keep his private thoughts to himself. Outside, in the bar or wherever, it was different. I don't know what he got up to. But, first thing, Guy Williams left. Went back to UK. He'd been offered a place at Cambridge where he had started out from. We got news he also disappeared last fall. Dave Solomon just went home one night from the lab - this must be over a year ago now - seemed to spend the night with a girl friend who shared his apartment. Next morning, she goes her way, left him at the apartment. What he did after that no-one knows. But he didn't turn up for work that day. His girlfriend called the lab next day to ask if anyone knew where he was. None of us did. We were starting to wonder ourselves. Anyway, turns out he had packed a case after his girlfriend had left, said nothing and just disappeared. His girlfriend was interviewed by the police and I know Josh Ornstein and others went to see her. But - nothing. Apparently, she had not sensed anything wrong and was naturally a bit upset about everything. There was a bit of newspaper talk for a while but the company deliberately tried to keep it a quiet and, like everything, life goes on."
Walt stopped again, drained his glass and then said, "And that's about it. None of us have bothered too much about it for quite a while. Any the wiser?" He grinned and slumped back into his seat, clutching his glass of whisky and another handful of peanuts.
"No, but thanks, Walt," I smiled. "It's a slightly clearer picture now. I think you should get some sleep, Walt. Thanks again for the information. If it’s all right with you I'll call round by your trade stand again in the morning." I made a move to leave and Walt eased himself out of his chair.
"One last thing, Walt. Do you think these two guys may be together somewhere?"
"I know that's what Josh Ornstein thinks. You bet. It's a possibility. But where? Who with? They're keeping a low profile wherever they are."
I thanked Walt, wished him a good night's sleep and said I'd see him the next morning. Ten minutes later - it was now one in the morning - I asked my taxi driver to take a detour along some side streets. Then I told him to stop. I got out, paid him and then tried the door of the bar. It was still open and I walked in. Dimly lit as usual, the only drinkers left were two Europeans, already well-oiled and about to leave. They pushed past me, through the door and went off into the night.
Anna was standing alone behind the bar. I went over, leaned on the stained bar and she smiled at me from a distance.
"Sorry, Anna" he said, “I was busy. But I did try to phone you."
She said nothing but continued to clear the empty glasses. She then came over and stood, hands on the bar, and faced me.
"Where are you staying, now? I called the hotel but they said you'd checked out."
I think I sighed. I know I said: "Come on, Anna, take me to your apartment. Tell me about all about the lady-boy who lives in the next apartment again. I don't want serious, OK?"
"Why not the nice hotel?" she asked. "I have no air conditioning in my apartment. Better in hotel. Where did you stay last night?"
I shrugged. "I was busy. Business. Sorry."
Some six hours later I found I was lying on my back on a low bed, the dim grey light of dawn just appearing through a small corner window covered in mosquito netting. I was watching a large brown cockroach making its way in rapid movements across the top of a wooden closet. On the floor, boxes, cases and other belongings were piled high. Space here was very limited and it had been very hot all night although the fan had helped in directing a breeze of air at the two of us on the bed. I didn't mind.
I leaned over and looked at Anna as she slept as usual with her long black hair across her face. I then turned on my side and put my arm around her. It was even hotter but it felt the right thing to do. No, in actual fact, I couldn't resist it. She stirred slightly but stayed asleep.
Wherever I am, the hours around dawn are my best thinking hours and my biological clock seems to self-adjust. I suppose it's got used to all the travelling by now.
I ran over the events of yesterday and wondered if I should talk to Amos Gazit again today. But my thoughts then switched to the noisy bar where Walt and I had left John Wardley and to Walt's comment about the two other drinkers from Livingstone Pharmaceuticals sat opposite us.
Suddenly, I sat up. It happens like that sometimes especially when I've suddenly put a name to a face. I now knew where I had seen that man in the picture in the Livingstone magazine - the man called Mohamed Kader. Mohamed Abdul Kader was an Arab, probably Egyptian, with a string of companies in Kuwait and the Gulf States - mainly agency businesses in baby food and basic medicines for pharmacies. I remembered being in Abu Dhabi about two years ago when the man's picture had appeared in the business section of the Gulf Times. A multi-millionaire, he had just acquired yet another agency, this time for a much bigger, higher profile, international pharmaceutical company and was pictured in the same sort of pose as the one in the Livingstone publication.
If my memory was serving me right, Mohamed Kader's business had spread from the Gulf base and gone international. Many Arab businessmen from his background had stayed local there being, at least at one time, enough money to be made in the Gulf without expanding further afield. But this man was different.
I was sat on the edge of the low bed. The cockroach had vanished and I wondered where. Having now remembered the man's name from the Livingstone photograph, another piece of information from my memory slotted into place. This was, most likely, the same Mohamed Kader I had heard about in Hong Kong recently. There had been a scare caused by some contaminated batches of baby food sold by a distribution company owned by Kader. Health officials had inspected the company that had made the food in Hong Kong but had been unable to decide what had caused the problem. While I was there, the story had been a paragraph on an inside page but it was enough to log itself into my memory.
But, and it is times like this when I like to think my self-analysis comes into play again, perhaps I was wrong. Even if I was right, perhaps it was irrelevant. I lay back onto the pillow and found that Anna was now fully awake and watching me. I had nothing on and the fan was blowing the few hairs on my chest. Whether this was especially interesting for her or not I don't know but she suddenly cried out: "Crazy farang, I thought you'd fallen off the bed. What are you doing now?"
"Sorry. But I suddenly remembered something," I said and I pulled Anna towards me, pressing the side of her cheek onto my chest. If she wanted to get close to my chest hairs then she was now as close as she could get. But I also had another devious little plan. I wanted to say a few things without her staring at me.
"I'm always saying sorry to you, Anna." I said, "But....but, you’re very good for me you know?"
That was it. It was rather meaningless, I know. But I'm a bloke, OK? Don't criticise when I'm just getting going. I half regretted it anyway and had second thoughts about continuing. Instead, I hugged her even closer. It was hot, but she stayed there for a moment before wriggling free. She then sat astride me, looking down.
"Yes, I agree. I am very, very good for you," she said and smiled. "You want to shower? I'll make coffee."
She wrapped a towel around her waist and went to the corner of the little room where she sat crouched over a low shelf to find two cups. She busied herself while I wandered into the separate, small tiled area that she called the bathroom. I showered, washed my hair and pondered again on whether I was getting somewhere for Virex or chasing unconnected coincidences. But my thoughts then turned back to Anna. I began to think about her real, much longer name and tried to say it to myself. It was a pretty name and I liked it. But Anna was easier.
As I picked up a towel from the floor to dry my hair, Anna's face appeared through the plastic curtain. "Don't use that. Very dirty. I use that to clean the floor. I find good one."
She returned with a clean towel with pink floral decoration and stood there, still smiling, watching me. As I finished she took my hand and looked up at me, the towel dropping from her slim waist. Then she led me from the shower.
"Drink coffee later."
At the World Health Organisation HQ office in Geneva, the Director General was in a meeting with the South African Minister of Health. It had turned out to be a very formal meeting with pleasantries and dignified acknowledgements of the important status of each other. The politics was obvious. The DG was showing no outward signs of the impatience she was feeling but her adviser, Richard Lacey saw it. He glanced at his own deputy, Claire Sodano to check if she, too, had spotted it.
Besides the DG, Richard Lacey and Claire Sodano, the Minister had brought along his own Deputy Minister and secretary.
"Yes," the Minister was saying, "New infections among mature age groups in South Africa remain high but, most thankfully, new infections among teenagers seem to be on the decline. Regretfully, KwaZulu-Natal rates are still very high and so are those in Mpumalanga but the Government is continuing to pledge funding and support for educational campaigns and so on. We must............"
The DG was well aware of the dreadful South African statistics. She probably knew the actual figures better than the Minister. But still she remained impassive and listened intently.
Richard Lacey's phone, though, buzzed in his pocket. He quickly glanced at the caller, saw it was his own secretary and knew it as a sign to speed up the meeting if possible as either something important had cropped up or someone else was waiting to speak to the DG. Furtively, he pressed a couple of keys and waited. Instantly, the three letters return message was "SEA". Lacey knew what this meant. The WHO's Regional Director for South East Asia was waiting on the phone.
"Excuse me, ma'am - sir" he said to the DG and bowed his head to the Minister. He then got up and left the room.
"Doctor Pradit, Richard." the secretary said as he returned to his office.
"OK, transfer it to my office. Tell him the DG's with a Minister and I'll deal with it."
It took just seconds for Richard Lacey to digest the information from the Regional Director for South East Asia.
"Ah, Richard, ah. It's Pradit. I'm in Bangkok. We're getting some, ah, vital information now on the Bangkok respiratory outbreak. First, ah, viral tests show it's, ah, a new one. They're calling it TRS-CoV. What we need now are, ah, samples from the Nigerian cases to check if there is any, ah, similarity. Any chance of some urgent, ah, what you say, ah, arm twisting?"
"Not much of a hope, Pradit. I'll try but as far as Nigeria is concerned, it sounds as if it's too late."
Doctor Larry Brown had been summoned to Abuja, to meet the US Ambassador next morning. He was a single man but, so far at least, was finding that the evenings dragged. Yes, there had been a few noisy night clubs and a few women who had liked his American accent but, with the stress of Nigerian Airways and Nigerian taxis, he was finding his energy levels after 6pm far lower than he would have liked. Being a doctor, he diagnosed physical and mental acclimatisation - patience was needed and his energy levels would soon return to normal.
Alone and sprawled on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table in an Abuja flat he was able to use when in the capital, he was engrossed in what he knew had become a bad habit - playing with his mobile phone. In fact, he was checking logs and trying to build some sort of contacts list that might come in useful. For a minute or two, he couldn't place the phone call he'd received several days before that showed no caller's number. Then he remembered it had been from Philippe in Kenya. Philippe was sharing a serviced apartment with another Frenchman, a lecturer at the University.
Being bored, Larry tried the Nairobi number.
"Oui, uh, yes. This is Charles."
Larry asked to speak to Philippe.
"Uh, sorry. May I ask who is calling?"
"Larry - a friend - Nigeria."
"Larry Brown, US Embassy, Abuja. Philippe phoned me several days ago. He had a problem."
"Ah, yes. Philippe is not here. I am worried. I have not seen him for three days. He left on Monday. Took a small bag. He is not at the Hospital either. No-one has seen him. It is very strange. You say he had a problem? Do you know his family in Paris? I think they should know."
Larry apologised for being unable to help. Neither did he have any other contact details. Feeling sure Philippe would turn up somewhere, sooner or later, Larry forgot about it and instead started to think about his meeting with his boss, the American Ambassador. next morning.
I was back at the trade show at the Bangkok Convention Centre and Walt Daniels was standing, arms folded at his stand like a sergeant major watching the troops go by. Had I been a potential customer I think I would have walked on past, but let us not digress into the dos and don'ts of body language when running a successful exhibition.
"Ah," Walt said, "The man of mystery returns. Fancy a coffee?"
I accepted and thanked him for last night. John Wardley then emerged from somewhere, looking jaded from the night before.
"John is feeling a little unwell this morning, aren't you John?"
Wardley nodded and said, "I need to visit the men's room, Walt. I might be gone a while."
"Go ahead, young man," he waved John away. "What goes down either comes back up very quickly or travels further on down. Whichever route it chooses, it'll soon be out." He turned to me. "Told you, didn't I? Not sure if he got his end away last night or not but, either way, it hasn't done him a lot of good. Had a job raising him this morning." Walt poured coffee into two plastic mugs.
"Thanks for being so understanding, last night, Walt," I said.
"You mean understanding about John or understanding about you?"
"Me, Walt. But I've still got a few questions. Do you mind?"
Walt took a mouthful of black coffee and swirled it around his teeth. "Go ahead."
"What sort of research was David Solomon doing before he disappeared?"
"New treatments for viral infections as we all were. Specifically, looking at systems that acted on the surfaces of viruses. Certain enzymes were looking useful. He was also an expert on virus replication and was looking at the ways in which viruses changed. It's called 'gain of function' - GOF - research in our jargon. You change something, like a virus, and see how it then behaves. Controversial, but it's what we do. And he had done a lot of work on Influenza before he joined us."
"Did you know his girlfriend?"
"I met her once but he kept his private life to himself. Josh Ornstein spoke to her after he disappeared and, of course the police did. Why don't you ask Josh? You should probably talk to him anyway. Phone numbers are on my business card. Call him. He's away a lot but you can probably track him down."
"How co-operative will he be?"
"He's OK. I should tell him about you, anyway. I owe it to the company."
I thought, briefly, before replying. “Perhaps I'll call him and tell him that you and I have spoken. OK?"
"Sure, no problem. Good luck," said Walt. Then, seeing a possible customer approaching, he got up. "Must see to this guy."
I wandered out to the Convention Centre concourse, stood in a corner and, following my hunch of earlier that morning, phoned Hong Kong.
At the American Embassy on Diplomatic Drive, Abuja, Doctor Larry Brown was waiting for his first chat with the American Ambassador since he'd started work. He'd already waited an hour. But at last he was called in.
"Larry, good to see you. Settling in?"
"I hear you've spent a lot of your first few weeks travelling and in and around Lagos. Good idea. Get a good feeling of the problem there. Up here in Abuja, there's fresher air to breathe. How do you find it?"
"Lagos, sir? I'm still trying to get my head around the place, let alone travel around it."
"It's a challenge, Larry. That's what it is - a challenge. But you know the US position on healthcare. The only health care worth having here is private. Even these falls short of what we would expect in USA - and the quality of doctors? - makes me want to cry, Larry. Officially it's rated as poor to fair and as for the use of modern procedures - I wouldn't let them treat my dog.
"And as you know most of their medicines are imported from Europe. That's OK, I suppose, Larry, but we need to change that. More stuff needs to come out of USA. That's partly why you're here - to find ways to get our exports in. Met the guys in charge? Takes a while.
"As for their blood supplies - keep a pint or two of your own in the 'fridge, Larry. And never have a car accident out of town. And make sure you're nowhere near the scene if there's a civil disaster. The military couldn't cope and would probably only scrape up their own folk. And don't just stand there watching, Larry. Oh, dear me no. Make yourself scarce Larry - you wouldn't want to get the blame."
"Yes, sir. I'm learning all that," said Larry.
"Too many of them anyway, Larry. Breed like rabbits. Nice rabbits I hasten to say. I like Nigerians, don't get me wrong. Lot of character. I've been here long enough to make a lot of friends. But it's one hell of a mess out there. Shoulder to shoulder - especially Lagos."
"Yes, sir, I noticed."
"Now, Harry. Reason for getting you back up here. I understand you uncovered a bout of sickness up north. WHO are keen to know more. They phoned. What did you find? We need to get back to WHO with something. They're easily panicked."
"Kano, sir. I came across a closed private clinic in a back street. Seems the Kano State government had been trying to clear things up......"
"Told you, Larry. It's all about standards. At last they're taking note. Go on."
"Well, it seems there was a doctor operating out of the clinic who was bringing sick patients in, in the back of a Toyota pick-up and........."
"Christ! Go on."
"....and carrying them out in the same pick-up................"
"Cured, Larry? Cured?"
"Dear Lord. How many?"
"I spoke to a State Government official. They reckon a hundred or more. More than a hundred records found anyway. No names, just numbers."
"Seems like they all came in with the same sort of infection - fever, serious respiratory, coughing. That's why I called WHO. Things like that need reporting."
"Dead right, Larry. So, have they arrested the doctor?"
"No, he's disappeared."
"No idea sir."
"So what is the State Government doing about it?"
"Nothing. Too busy with the Boko Haram Islamic insurgency. They uncovered another bomb stock yesterday, I understand. It was on CNN..........."
"Yes, I know - we're keeping our fingers crossed, Larry - don't want to get involved but don't want another Iraq or Syria, either. Go on."
"Then I heard about a similar case in Kenya - from a French guy I know. Then there are some cases in Thailand. Have you read the New York Times, today?"
"No time, yet. Why you ask?"
"There was a conference in Bangkok. Could be a new virus. "
"And you, an American, discovered it, Larry?"
"Not exactly, sir. We must leave it to the WHO, but let me know if you start sneezing or coughing, sir."
"Ha! Where's my handkerchief? Keep me posted, Larry."
Later that day, Larry, logged onto the WHO website to find a new 'Disease Outbreak Notification’ - a DON - had just been posted.
"The Ministry of Public Health in Thailand has announced three laboratory-confirmed cases of a Respiratory Infection caused by a virus similar to, but not identical to, the Middle East Coronavirus MERS-CoV.
The first case patient was a 42-year-old man from Ayuttaya, the second a 28-year-old man from the same area. The third patient was a twenty-one-year-old woman from Bangkok. All three patients have died.
It is known that at least four more patients have also died following similar symptoms. The Ministry is currently investigating all cases.
WHO is currently investigating reports of an outbreak of a respiratory infection with similar symptoms to the Thai cases in Kano State, Northern Nigeria and one similar case in Kenya. The number of associated deaths in Nigeria is unknown. The Kenyan patient is known to have died.
WHO is monitoring the situation, particularly in relation to identifying the virus."
"So, what are the Nigerian Health authorities themselves saying, then?" Larry asked himself out loud. He answered it himself. "Nothing by the look of it."
Kay Choon was an old friend and a client of mine from my early days as an investigator. Standing outside the Bangkok convention centre, I phoned Kay's mobile in Hong Kong. There was a short pause after the ring tone finished and then a strong Chinese accent. "Hey, Choon, how are you?" I said, "Did you get anywhere with your commission problem?"
"Hey, man. Where are you? In Hong Kong again?"
"No, Bangkok. How's it going? Everything resolved now? Did the guy eventually pay up?"
"Got half so far. The money went direct into the company account from a bank in Manila. I don't know who paid but I've been told to expect the rest this week. Thanks for all your help on that. Your own commission will be on its way as soon as we get ours. Is that why you called?"
"No," I admitted. "I needed a favour. You remember that baby food scandal when I was in HK? The supplier was a competitor of yours, right? Are they anywhere near solving the mystery?"
"Ah, Ching Seng," said Kay Choon. "The Public Health people were investigating Sun Foods who made the product but, as far as I know, got nowhere. Why do you ask?"
I had already got what I wanted - the name Ching Seng was what had been missing from my mental filing system. "Big competitor, are they?" I asked.
"Not really. They are more into pharmacy supplies, not baby foods. Why?"
"Who owns Ching Seng, do you know?"
"It used to be Ed Ling but he recently sold out to an Arab company. Their chief was here, in person, a while ago, just after he bought them. He is based in Cairo or somewhere. It seems as if it will become part of the Shah Corporation, whatever that is."
"The Shah Corporation." I repeated it for my own benefit. "Do you know anything about the Arab company?"
"Not a lot. I spoke to Ed Ling some time ago. He is retiring soon and he sold out to fund his retirement. He had an incredible offer. More than he thought the company was worth."
"What's the Arab planning to do with Ching Seng, do you know?"
"Change its name for one thing. But it's in dire need of some change. Sales dropped a lot in the last year or so as Ed was losing interest. But what the Arab was thinking of in buying it I can't imagine. Ed had a few good agency lines but I think most of the sales went to other agents selling in China. His margins were small and his local sales were dropping if anything."
"So, no real idea of the Arab's motive for buying?" I probed.
"No, sorry, Dan. You called me just for that? What are you up to now. Into something connected with the Arab?"
"I just thought you might help, Choon, and you just have. Thanks for that. Keep in touch, OK?"
It was just a small piece of the jigsaw, but enough for now. I pocketed my phone and returned to the trade exhibition.
At the Livingstone Pharmaceuticals stand two men were talking to delegates I thought one was the sales manager Walt and I had seen through the dim light of the bar. The other, Greg O'Brian, the owner according to Walt, was nowhere to be seen. I loitered a while until the visitors had moved on and then approached the sales manager. The tall American was quick to introduce himself.
"Sam Marshall." he introduced himself. "Pleased to meet you, Doctor Stevens. "Where are you from, sir?"
"Kuala Lumpur," I replied sticking to my story line. But before the subject could move on or went in the wrong direction I said, "I wanted a word with Greg O'Brian. Is he here?"
"Sure, sitting in on the proceedings - should be here any minute. The conference finishes about now. Can I help you, in any way?"
"No problem," I said, "I'll come back."
Ten minutes later, watching from another exhibitor’s stand, I saw O'Brian ushering a small group of doctors towards the Livingstone stand. I loitered a bit more. I was just a few yards away.
This was my first real look at Greg O'Brian, a man destined to affect me, what I was doing for Virex and a of of other people for quite a while. I put his age at late fifties or early sixties. He was as tall as me at nearly six feet but I'm quite slim. O'Brian was not overweight but a noticeably bigger build than me. He was dressed in an expensive dark suit, white shirt and tie. The black shoes were very shiny. But there were signs of balding amongst the otherwise well-groomed and greying hair.
Eventually the visitors moved off and, judged by the hand shaking between O'Brian and Marshall, it appeared that Greg O'Brian had just made a sale and needed to show the younger man how it was all done. I saw my chance and walked over.
"Yeh?" O’Brian tried to see my lapel badge but his smile from his apparent recent success was still lingering. "Can I help you?" He didn't offer to shake my hand.
He hadn't uttered many words but, for me, the accent was recognisable and, with a name like that, perhaps I should have guessed. O'Brian was Irish American.
"I heard about your company. Mr O'Brian," I said. "I'm currently in KL, Kuala Lumpur, you know, and I was wondering if you could help me in some way. I'm going to Nairobi on secondment to the University there in about two months’ time. I will also be doing a bit of teaching. Someone told me you were setting up there and I was wondering if there would be any chance of some co-operation. I would be looking to give a few students some work experience in microbiology or anything. Expenses paid so it'd cost you nothing. Anything you could offer would be very welcome."
The made-up story, invented during my spell of loitering, sounded OK to me so I stood back to test the response.
"So, who told you that?" said O'Brian. "And what's your business?" The accent could now be pinpointed to time spent in or around New York. He'd said 'business', too. Jack or Amos Gazit, both scientists, would have said 'what's your interest' or 'what's your field." O'Brian was a man who's thought went straight to the bottom line.
“Bacteriology," I said, deliberately ignoring his first question, "But the University is keen to get involved with other local public health matters. There might even be some possible reciprocal arrangements - Kenyan students working in KL?"
Aloud, it sounded pompous but I had said it, so there was nothing more I could do. Clearly, though, O'Brian was not in the least interested and, frankly, I didn't care a toss.
"Well, I dunno," O'Brian said and I could tell he was already being distracted by something or other over my shoulder “It's nothing like that, you know - just a distribution agreement and we don't have plans for research." The Belfast accent was now showing through. He went on: "There is a lab of sorts but we'll use it for product registration work." The distraction behind me, whatever it was, was obvious. O'Brian moved as if to get away. I was ready for it.
"Anyone else who might help me?" I asked.
O'Brian groped inside a top pocket of his dark suit and withdrew a business card. He handed it not to me but to Marshall. "Here, Sam, write down Luther's name, or whatever his name is, and give it to this guy will you. I need to go."
Then, without another word, O'Brian wandered off, clearly conveying the impression that I had been a total inconvenience. O'Brian had far more important things to do than talk to some English prat from Kuala Lumpur. But I got a name, Luther Jasman, and another possible lead. And I'd also met Greg O'Brian although I hadn't shaken his hand.
With that I took a taxi back to the hotel and, en route phoned Colin Asher in London.
Colin had apparently just left his office off the Edgeware Road in London to get a breath of fresh air and buy a sandwich for his lunch when his phone rang.
"Colin, it's me - 007. I need your help again." I said.
"Typical - just as I was en route to lunch. Where the hell are you? In Bangkok again or somewhere else this time?"
"In the vicinity of Bangkok," I replied.
"What's up?" Colin said, the sound of London traffic in the background.
"I need some information on a Kuwaiti company, Colin - the usual stuff, subsidiaries, associated companies and the like. Also, I think they may have something going in Nairobi and Hong Kong. Any information on the guy at the top as well. The name is Mohamed Kader so that'll be a challenge - like checking on Smiths and Browns. Can you make a start now? I'll email you some more information right away as I can hear you are not where you should be at this time of day - sat at your desk. "
"That's all very considerate of you, 007. Also, very astute. I'm actually strolling towards Marble Arch at present. Can't you hear it? Can't you smell the exhaust fumes?"
"I can certainly hear something, Colin. Just get back to your bloody office, will you? The world can't stop just because you're going out for a sandwich."
"So where do I send the stuff?"
"Just hit the reply button on my email, Colin. I'll use the Dan Dare email.
"So, does Dan Dare dare to tell me exactly where in the world he is or is it a secret?"
"Bangkok, Colin. Your guess was spot on."
Early morning in Geneva and the Director General of the WHO was, once again, trying to understand the nature of the respiratory infections being reported from places as widely separated as Nigeria, Kenya and Thailand.
What was worrying her was that the symptoms appeared similar yet the cases were so far apart. And the virology information coming out of Thailand suggested something new. But it was her role to stay calm, establish the facts and not make connections where there weren't any. Only after that could the WHO give advice and recommend a plan of action. The problem was the lack of facts.
They had not yet even published a DON (Disease Outbreak Notification) on the website for fear of it being either alarmist or inaccurate. But the media had already got wind of something during the Bangkok Conference and if more scare stories were whipped up, everything could get out of control. So, the WHO was already being pressed for comment and would, very soon, need to say something. But what?
There was useful information coming from Thailand although the detail about the virus needed far more work. But the real unknown was the extent of infection in Africa.
The WHO Regional Director for Africa had been advised about some outbreaks of respiratory infection in Nigeria but the DG knew that it was not a priority for him at present. Neither did it appear to be a priority for the Nigerian Health Ministry. And the Regional Director for Africa was in Kinshasa dealing with a yellow fever outbreak in the Congo whilst also trying to cope with widespread publicity that had followed a BBC TV documentary on violence against women in parts of West Africa. Added to his other top responsibilities for improving the health of mothers and children and dealing with all the ongoing problems surrounding HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, Doctor Pedro Lopez from Angola was a busy man.
By midday, though, the DG felt more confident that, by collating information from Pedro Lopez, the Nigerian Ministry of Health, the Kano State Government and the original source of information - Doctor Larry Brown at the US Embassy in Lagos - some facts might start to emerge.
These days, Colin has a couple of women in his office to help. Both of them are ex Metropolitan Police but the speed at which Asher and Asher works sometimes astounds me. The SIS could learn a few things from Colin but don't tell him I said so. It was 11.30 pm in Bangkok when I thought I'd check my emails. I don't get many and I was only looking for one. But it was there already and must have been sent around 5 pm GMT. Colin's little team had produced this report within six hours. Some civil service.
"007," the email began. "As promised - see attached - a few notes for which you need to thank Karen in my office for the speed, not me. I've been pounding the streets of London most of the day and night. And it's cold and it's bloody raining. Colin."
I smiled to myself, opened the attachment and read:
"Report on Shah Corporation:
Shah Corporation - established 2001 - international trading arm for Al Zafar Agencies Ltd, a company originally registered in Jordan in 1998. Al Zafar is solely owned by Mohamed Abdul Rahman Kader - nationality uncertain but either Egyptian or Jordanian.
Al Zafar is mainly an agency for a long list of international companies in baby foods, health foods and pharmaceuticals.
The organisation has offices bearing the name Al Zafar in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Latest figures suggest a profitable company - turnover end of 2009 USD 60 million - but unlikely to be accurate.
Our Kuwaiti agent says Mohamed Kader is a multi-millionaire with business interests in several other companies - am trying to obtain more detail.
Shah Corporation was set up as Shah Medicals in Egypt in 2005. No information on the Egyptian company. Al Zafar/Mohamed Kader is involved somehow - perhaps owns it.
Shah Medicals Pte. Ltd is based in Singapore - small - Al Zafar is involved somehow - perhaps owns it - sells to pharmacies in Singapore and Malaysia. Our Malaysian agent says it is unusual for an Arab to set up a company like this in South East Asia. Local manager - David Chua.
Al Zafar/Mohamed Kader recently bought Hong Kong company, Chin Seng Trading - no detail.
Shah Medicals (Nairobi) set up very recently - no detail but thought to be a takeover of a local pharmaceutical distribution company also going by the name Shah, which may have been a useful reason for buying the company. Al Zafar/Mohamed Kader is involved somehow.
Shah Medicals may include Shah Pharmaceuticals, Shah Technick, Shah Africa, Shah Trading - still trying to unravel this.
Our Kenyan agent Jimmy Banda is out of town but his secretary Louise says the company was in the news recently - apparently expanding into manufacture. Mohamed Kader was there. He was interviewed on the radio. Personal note: Louise says she used to buy hand cream from old Mr Shah's pharmacy and her mother used to buy sore throat pills and other Indian and African remedies. Suggests Shah has long history.
Mr Shah (he was already 82) retired on the proceeds of the buy-out but he was well respected - a prominent pharmacist of the old school - ex President of the Pharmaceutical Society etc.
Mohamed Kader may (unconfirmed) also have offices or agents in Jakarta, Bangkok, Jeddah, Cairo, Athens, Istanbul and Lagos, Nigeria.
Al Zafar name is officially registered in several countries.
According to our Kuwaiti agent Mohamed Kader trained as a doctor in Cairo but failed or was thrown out of University (unconfirmed). Started as a medical salesman in Amman before setting up Al Zafar agencies."
I logged off and laid back on the bed.
Colin and his team had, as usual, performed brilliantly but there was not much more about Mohamed Kader than I had already dredged from my memory except, perhaps, a few pointers to suggest the company was more widely spread than I thought and worth more investigation. But I knew I could still be chasing something that was totally unconnected to Virex's problem. Except that - and I kept returning to this - both Amos Gazit and Charles Brady seemed to have suspicions about one or more companies who were at the trade show. Which one? And why?
The origins of Greg O'Brian were also starting to interest me. So, what should I do next?
It was now midnight and as I lay there thinking I'd better go and find Anna, the main hotel telephone next to my bed rang and startled me. Hesitant, but thinking it might be Anna checking on my whereabouts, I rolled over and picked it up.
"Yes?" I said and immediately recognised the voice of Amos Gazit.
"It's Amos Gazit. Sorry to call you but I think you should know something. I just had a call from Boston - Charles Brady. He told me to inform you, in strictest confidence."
Gazit paused as if uncertain how to put it.
"We seem to have lost one of our own senior researchers. He's a guy called Jan De Jonge. He failed to turn up on Monday morning. We've checked it out and he appears to have just disappeared. I told you we were worried about an inside connection, but this guy was not one of my suspects. He's a Dutch guy. Been with us three years. Worked in my department, for God's sake. Know him well. Nothing to suspect. Single guy. Most worrying thing is he was closely involved in the development of the material we lost. In fact, he had been responsible for modifying an electrophoresis technique we were using."
I moved the phone to my other ear and sat up.
"Go on," I said.
"Charles thinks there's a connection. Asked me if you had anything yet. I told him it was far too early. Police not told yet, nor his family in Holland. Reckon to give it a day to see if he turns up. But, I can tell you, we are not confident. There's a chance he might show up but things are too coincidental to be anything else."
Gazit rambled on a while longer, clearly shocked by the news. Eventually he stopped. "Well," he said, "What do you think?"
Gazit was clearly clutching at straws and I, Daniel Capelli was the only straw within touching distance. But I had no idea what I thought. It was obvious that Virex did not want any publicity about this. But families and others had a right to know and needed an explanation. That meant the police should know. The public may then get to know. Everyone might get to know.
"I assume you're in the hotel, Amos. Meet me downstairs in the lobby."
I left the room and found Amos Gazit already waiting amongst the potted ferns. Together we walked through the hotel, past the closed souvenir and gift shops and through the restaurant bordering the river where a pianist was still playing in the midst of tables surrounded by a few late diners. We stood at the iron railings bordering the ten feet fall into the river flowing silently below. Gazit leaned on the railings and was the first to speak.
"So what can we do?"
"I really don't yet know," I admitted. "It seems likely there is a connection here with what you've lost but we still can't be sure. There are too many unknowns. It's difficult to know where to start. Tell me, Amos, how much were the police, FBI etcetera involved with the Biox disappearances? Did Biox deliberately keep it quiet for corporate reasons just like you? Did they just adopt the stance of this being adults deciding on a career move somewhere unknown, but nothing suspicious? Is that what you should do with this Dutch guy? For the sake of your financial situation, stay cool, treat it as unimportant - just an ordinary employee deciding to move on? Can you do that?"
"I don't think we should make a big public issue out of it, that's for sure."
"I spoke to Biox about their disappearances," I admitted. I expected a shocked response and got it.
"You did what? Why?" Gazit almost shouted.
"Don't worry. I didn't tell them about Virex or what you have lost, but I had to dig a bit more to find out about their own problems. It was useful but I still haven't got enough to go on." I put my hand on Gazit's shoulder. "Don't worry. Let's take a stroll down there. I like the river at night."
It's true. I like rivers at night. But there are ways to make the experience a little nicer. One way is not to go strolling with a stocky American in his fifties who's sweating with nerves.
We strolled slowly on the raised walkway. Moths and a thick concentration of other exotic insect life circled the streetlights. Water slopped against the wall beneath us adding to the throaty roar of late river taxis drifting across on the warm, windless air. Am I getting the mood?
"Tell me more about this Dutch guy," I said. "Putting the problem of theft aside for a moment, can you think of any reason why he should suddenly take off like that?"
"He was just a very quiet guy," said Amos Gazit. "Like I said, he’d worked for a Dutch pharmaceutical company for two years and joined us on a recommendation - poached if you like - by consultants we sometimes use. He was first rate. He had already done some virology in Boston before going back to Holland. Then he came back again. As I said he worked under me. Obviously, he knew a lot about what we were looking for. Spent a lot of time getting some of the extraction and purification techniques right. Used to work late, often in the lab after most everybody else had gone. I was often still there of course and we used to chat a bit. Mostly about work. He was always interested in the business side. Often checking with me on the time scale we had been set. Not that there was a fixed one, but it showed his concern for quick results."
Gazit paused. He looked across the river but was seeing nothing.
"I'm beginning to see he may have had another reason. He also used to talk politics a bit. But we all do, don't we? He didn't like the way Europe was going. Too centralized for him. Kept saying that Britain was the only place that seemed to think things through and ask questions. There were too many people, the world was overpopulated. He was a biologist who cared about world resources but conversations were never long. Sort of short bursts."
"Did he know the two guys from Biox?"
"Yeh, I was wondering if you were about to ask that. Thinking about it, the answer is yes - probably. We were all in and around Boston a lot. The scientific community is quite close. And we all used to meet up at congresses and so on but I don't think it was anything more than that. On the other hand, I don't know what he did in his spare time. He liked to go to the gym a lot. He played tennis at a club that several other staff frequented. Other than that work was his main interest. He had written a few papers on Herpes virus with some people from the company in Holland. Useful for what he was doing for us but only because understood the research methods. I think he also mixed with students from Boston University - but where is the harm in that? He probably crossed paths with David Solomon who I know also spent time at the University. He used to complain about pay a bit but I can't think why. He was well paid, like everyone at Virex although he did ask me about part-time lecturing once. I told him to forget it. Focus on his real job."
"So, why would he go? Sounds a bit like politics with the two from Biox but why has your man gone. Can you pin it down more firmly?"
"I really can't say. Unless he was promised a lot of money to reveal what we were up to." He paused. "Yeh," he continued as if he might have hit on something, "Money might be the reason. He genuinely seemed to think he was worth a lot more than we were paying. He was being paid more than he would have got in Europe and the cost of living in the US is no higher. I must admit I couldn't understand him on that point."
"So, money," I concluded, "It was a real hang up of his was it?"
"Real hang up? Not sure. An issue? Maybe. But maybe there was something else biting him."
Gazit turned to face me. "Whatever, Jan's problems were, if this proves to be connected to the other disappearances, then I think you must agree, there is something amiss here. These guys are going somewhere and, unless they're dead, they are going to surface somewhere, sometime. But where? Who is it? What's going on?"
Because of Gazit and his problem I had spent another night in the hotel and not spent it with Anna. Gazit and I finished chatting around 2pm and after I'd phoned Anna to say sorry again I had lain on the bed thinking. I then fell asleep fully dressed. But at six thirty I was awake, showered, dressed and so hungry that I called room service and ordered a full American breakfast. As Virex were paying I didn't give it too much thought.
But by seven thirty I had checked out and was in a taxi heading for Anna's side street apartment. At eight I knocked on the door of room 118 and waited. The door was unbolted from inside and opened just a fraction on the chain. Anna's sleepy eyes peered through the small opening.
An hour later, we were lying on the low bed, she, on her elbows, peering down into my eyes.
Now, let me explain that I am not always the tongue tied, apologetic wimp you may think. Now and again, conditions being perfect, I can perform like any male lead in a black and white, post-war film drama. I don’t need a neat, greased-up haircut, a dark suit or a cigarette and my leading lady does not need to be wearing long, flowing skirts, petticoats and red lipstick and to be smoking her cigarette on a silver holder. But I can still talk like Cary Grant if I want to.
We were lying on Anna's bed and, at the height of my dialogue, two cockroaches had been watching and, presumably, learning. I had started cautiously enough but soon got into the swing. The start was all about my business, the travelling and the risks I sometimes took when investigating criminal activity. It was very romantic.
"Perhaps, Anna," I said, finally, "I should not be telling you this but I need to share my life with someone."
That's when my nerves started. Could I trust her I asked himself? But you had to trust someone. Could I mix my business with a companion and share my most private feelings? Could I make it work? Finally, I said, "So, will you come with me?"
And in saying that I knew I had made one huge decision. Anna fell onto my chest, the long hair flowing over me. "When are you going?"
"Today." I whispered in her ear.
Anna sat upright, the smile first evaporating then replaced by an expression of surprise and doubt mingled with excitement. "Today?" She repeated it to check what she had heard.
"Yes, I need to buy air tickets. You won't need a visa for the first part. But I need to go today - later this evening."
Anna looked at me. She was probably still trying to fathom me out. I knew I'd been a bit of a challenge. But I think it went OK. Anna's life is beautifully simple. Mine is just too damned complicated. But perhaps that is the attraction. "I must go now, Anna," I said. "I've got a lot of things to do today. Do you want to come with me?"
She smiled and nodded energetically. For once she said nothing. But no words were necessary. I was convinced.
"Then, while I’m out, go, pack your case. Take enough for a few days. Tell the apartment office you are going away for a while. I'll come for you around six this evening."
"Where are we going?" Anna asked.
"Singapore," I said.
It was late evening when we arrived at Changi Airport, Singapore. After going through my normal routine of buying a new phone and local SIM card, we took a taxi to a hotel I often stay at just off Orchard Road. Tired from a long day, we both slept soundly until at six, my usual waking time, I heard the rustling sound of a newspaper being slipped under the door.
Although given second place to a speech by the Singapore Prime Minister, the other front-page story was about the Bangkok Conference. And, just to prove Amos Gazit's comment about a media frenzy the headline read: "New Influenza Fear - WHO concerns." Below it was a small photograph of the Thai speaker Doctor Vichai.
I showed it to Anna. "So, why did you go to this meeting?" she asked.
It was a good question. I had attended the meeting at the suggestion of Charles Brady, Virex's President. But why? I still had no clear idea except that Brady had suggested it and that I still harboured a gut feeling that there was something that I hadn't yet been told. I re-read the article and then the quote from the WHO:
"............WHO is currently investigating reports of an outbreak of respiratory infections with similar symptoms to the Thai cases in Kano State, Northern Nigeria and one case in Kenya. The number of associated deaths in Nigeria is unknown. The Kenyan patient is known to have died.................."
So, no longer was it just about Thailand but Nigeria and Kenya. This was news to me.
Breakfast over and with Anna still apparently content to look out of the window of the twelve-story hotel window at the panoramic view of Singapore in daylight, I decided to make a few phone calls. Shah Medicals was top of my list. I asked to speak to David Chua.
"Sorry, he's out on a sales visit. Who is calling please?"
I'd quite liked being Doctor Mike Stevens for two days so I decided to continue. "My name is Mike Stevens, from the UK. When will he be back?"
"I think about one hour. Can I ask him to call you?"
"No, thank you. I'll call him."
I then called another number. This time, the accent was clear and definitely English "Good Morning, British High Commission."
"Good morning. May I speak to Caroline - trade and investment - please?"
"Can I have your name, please?"
"It's a private call. Just say it's Rupert Bear from the Henley Regatta. She'll understand."
The response was quick. "Rupert Bear uh! Still wearing your little scarf in this weather, are you? Hang on a moment."
There was a minute of silence and Anna again looked at me. I was still smiling at Anna when a plummy, female English voice answered.
"Is that really you Rupert, dear?"
"Hello, Caroline. How are you? Still keeping the wheels of British industry spinning from your tropical hideaway?"