So I call Ansbach and he gives me a time and an address, some little import-export office a friend of his owns. Makes sense: he's got to be watching his back like anybody else in the organization who doesn't actually buy into the party line. I take a cab to the place, go inside, and when I ask for Bill, the secretary takes me upstairs, to what serves as a lunch room. Ansbach is there waiting for me.
"Alex," he says, rising from the chair where he's been sitting in front of a checkerboard. He seems glad to see me, more casual than the first time we met.
"Miguel." I shake the hand he holds out.
"Sit, sit," he says, and I move around to the far side of the table and take a seat. He's wearing a button-front sweater and a tie, looking more like somebody's grandfather than a consortium researcher.
The beer sounds better, but it could mean a bottle with a top I can't get off without giving away the arm. But Ansbach is already reaching up into a cabinet. He brings out two glasses, pulls a couple of bottles from the fridge and reaches for an old-fashioned bottle opener attached to the edge of the counter.
All smooth enough that I wonder if Marita's told him about me. Not sure whether I like the idea that she might have.
"I suppose you're wondering why I asked to see you," he says as he sits down and passes me one of the glasses.
I clear my throat. "Marita said something about the vaccine."
"Yes, that's one thing. All these years while we've had nothing real to work with--just hope--I've been researching topical vaccines. The current production will be wonderful, of course, an admirable start." He stops to take a drink. "But in the larger scheme of things, the greater the number of people you can save, as we've discussed previously, the better off we all will be. A topical vaccine--say, one that could be disguised as perfume or suntan lotion, infused into restroom soap or painted on children at fairs as face paint--" His arms reach wide. "The possibilities are endless."
I find myself pulling forward. It's a damn good idea.
"The critical difference is the use of a plasmid-DNA vector rather than the traditional viral vector... But I won't bore you with the technical details. At any rate, I'll be needing a vial of the vaccine you'll be picking up three weeks from now."
Something inside me tightens. "But you don't need my permission for that."
"No. Though Marita wanted me to run it past you."
I shrug. "An undetectable vaccine? It'd be a dream come true." A damn sight better than having to think up scams to get people vaccinated; there are so many ways for things to go wrong. I nod past him. "Where are you planning to work on this?"
Ansbach stands and breaks into a grin. Obviously, he was waiting for me to ask. "Come," he says, "I'll show you."
And he takes me up three flights to a room outfitted as a lab... and not a cheap one, either, if I know what I'm looking at. It's behind a false wall, so obviously he's got the old men and their snooping on his mind.
"Everything I should need at this stage," he says, waving a hand to encompass the various pieces of equipment. Gradually his expression changes, though, his exuberance settling into something more sober. "But this isn't why I asked to see you."
He pulls out a stool, sits and motions for me to do the same. Cautiously I take the hint, wondering where this is leading.
"I was a good friend of Martín's, and since his death I think I've come to take Marita as my responsibility. Not that she's asked me to, mind you. She's an independent one. Still, old loyalties die hard, entiende?"
I raise an eyebrow, wanting to offer some kind of neutral response, but I'm starting to feel like a teenager ushered into a side room by his date's dad.
"Marita has been under a lot of stress. Not just recently, but for years, really. To her credit she adapted remarkably well to being moved here when her father was forced into the project fourteen years ago. She continued with school, went on to the university, got good marks." He pauses for a second. "She'd planned a career as an art dealer, you know."
My mouth opens.
"Of course, when her father explained the larger picture to her, good soldier that she is, she returned immediately to the university to get a degree in international relations... and of course, in due time, she hired on at the United Nations, and, unfortunately, out of necessity"- -he sighs--"with the group."
"She mentioned a brother," I say, to see what kind of reaction that will get.
Ansbach pauses, surprised. "She spoke of Colin?"
"Didn't mention any names. Just that he was younger than her and died in a riding accident." I shrug. "It was kind of a passing remark. Not sure she meant to make it."
"She rarely speaks of Colin."
"Or her father," I say, seeing my opening. "She seems to avoid the subject, actually. There doesn't seem to be a single picture of him in her apartment. Seems odd for somebody who's taken over the family mantle, doesn't it?"
Ansbach gives me a look--not exactly hostile, but a search for where I'm going with this, what my motives are. Finally he sighs and looks away, out through the foggy glass of a bank of old windows.
"Look, this is something I need to know from you," I say, pulling closer, trying to keep it low-key, though I can feel the intensity ratcheting up in my voice. "I was talking to someone the other day-- someone on the inside--who told me Martín's autopsy showed signs of poisoning, that it didn't kill him but probably shortened his life." I wait for him to look at me before I go on. "This source thought Marita might have had something to do with it."
I can't tell whether Ansbach is shocked by the accusation or just by the fact that I've brought it up.
"Now, I'm in this for the long haul," I go on. "I know how critical it is to save as many people as possible; without this program we're all dead. But I need to know if I should be watching my back as well as the sky. This vaccine is everything I've ever worked for and I'm not about to let anybody cheat me out of it."
It takes a second before Ansbach's mouth closes. "Alex, I--" He gives a helpless shrug. "I understand your concern. I realize you haven't known Marita long, and certainly it's been fortuitous that you met, each of you holding a key element to the success of Martín's plan. Let me assure you that Marita has dedicated her life to this project. She's laid aside any aspirations for her own life, any sort of personal fulfillment, in order to see this plan through to its proper completion. She would never do anything to jeopardize this program."
"What about the poison in her father's system?"
"As I said, I've been a close friend of the family's for many years. Martín requested that I join the research so he would have an ally on the inside to forward his secret plan--"
"You were supposed to steal the vaccine when they were successful?"
"Yes, but it never came. And in the meantime I've had to do many things--sometimes terrible things--to hold my place within the organization, to be ready if and when the plan came together. And then before anything did, Martín was diagnosed. He had six months. It quickly became evident that his treatment was going to be in vain, and much as he wanted to fight his disease, Martín was a realist. He saw no purpose in putting his daughter, his only remaining child, through the trauma of watching him deathly sick from the therapy when there was no hope of recovery.
"So he made the decision to quit the treatments, to try to live as best he could in his final months. For the first six weeks or so he was fairly comfortable, lucid... He and Marita took a short trip to Mallorca, stayed in a friend's home with a private beach where he could sit by the water." He lets out a deep sigh. "Well, and that was it. They returned, Martín almost immediately took a turn for the worse, and--" Ansbach turns away momentarily; his Adam's apple dips.
He gets up now, goes to the window and stares out through the dirty glass. A sigh comes out of him and his shoulders sag. "He was soon bedridden, and he began to ramble, to talk semi-coherently. The group's doctors continued to attend him, of course, and when once we'd heard him mention his beloved vaccine plan, there wasn't much choice, really."
He begins to walk the perimeter of the room, his hands moving in explanation as he talks. "The plan was Martín's penitence, in his eyes, and his salvation as well--to know he'd done something worthwhile, something that made up for the actions he'd been forced to take after he came to New York." He looks up at me now. "It was either save the plan, or preserve what little time Martín had left, thereby destroying the plan he'd devoted so many years to developing."
"He could have exposed you two."
"Quite easily. But it meant far more than two lives saved: it wasn't as mercenary as it would sound to a novice. Surely you realize that."
I nod, looking at nothing. It's one of those places where life bites you. We hope for loyalty in the people we deal with, but *being* loyal when something critical's at stake--sometimes it's just not in the cards.
"Our personal safety was nothing compared to what the world could lose--what humankind stood to lose--without the blessing of Martín's foresight, and the plan he'd set in motion." Ansbach glances down, then up again and sighs. "The toxin was my idea. The one we selected interfered with his reasoning and speech, so if he managed to say anything at all, it was rarely coherent. At first we only administered it before a doctor's appointment, or when we knew one of the Elders would be coming to see him. But the farther he progressed, the more he focused on the plan, and we couldn't take that chance."
Ansbach's made his loop of the room; he's back standing in front of me now. He wipes a hand across his brow and drops into the chair beside me. He looks older somehow. "It shouldn't have shown up in the autopsy results. It was only an unfortunate interaction with another drug he was being given at the end that caused it to show up in the tox screen."
"And the old men?" I ask. "It didn't raise any kind of red flag for them?"
"Oh, they saw it. But it was a low-level dosage, and though Marita had been taking care of him, they could see no reason why she should have been the cause--"
"No reason she would have for getting him out of the way."
"Yes." He takes in a deep breath. "Of course they regarded her with suspicion for a time just on general principles, but Marita is careful and thorough in her work, and Martín was, to their mind, never more than a lower-level functionary, not so very important. So in time all was forgotten and things ran along as always." He glances toward the window again. "As if Martín had never been."
My mouth opens slightly, but what is there to say? I've taken out my share of inconvenient people, but there's never been a need to do it to anyone who would have made a difference to me. Now, if we were talking about... hell, what does it say that nobody comes to mind? Maybe a girl I knew for a while when I was still pretty much fresh off the boat. Or Mulder: if the old man had told me to take out Mulder, slowly...
For as much a pain in the ass as Mulder's been, I can't say. I have no idea what that would be like.
"Which," Ansbach continues, "brings us full circle to what I'd begun to say. Marita is a driven woman, perhaps more driven than most because she's had to give up everything she's ever had, or desired, and what is left? Now she works, works, works to make this plan a reality." He gestures toward me. "And you, we're very glad to have your contribution to this project, the vaccine and your background and input, and what I'm about to say to you I don't broach out of anything personal you may have done. But the fact is, behind it all, that you're a man and she's a woman. Sometimes, even in the middle of a deep investment in other things, when you least expect it, what's only natural creeps in. Just remember what she's already had to bear, Alex; that's all I'm asking. Don't make her load any heavier or more cumbersome than it is already."
Three weeks from now his remark will light up like neon in my brain, but in the moment I nod, still a little dazed by all he's said, and by what he slipped in there so neatly at the end. The last thing on my mind is screwing Covarrubias.
"No, we're in this together," I hear myself say. "What shakes one of us is going to shake the other. I'm not going to do anything to rock the boat."
At that point we're both a little awkward, but somehow we manage to close the conversation. I mumble something about having to get to another appointment.
On the way downstairs, what Ansbach's told me continues to run through my head. The facts: Marita couldn't be more dedicated to making this plan work, whether for the promise of salvation or through guilt or sheer drive. It should put me at ease, but the fact is I'm still jittery. Maybe I just need to know her better in person, though the background definitely helps.
Or maybe the buzzing in my gut is from the thought of the upcoming vaccine pick-up, that feeling you get before a critical operation that something's bound to go wrong. And I know not to count on anything that's not sitting in the palm of my hand.
Still, the thought I hang onto is that there's nothing in this world likely to lead Marita to do anything to derail this plan. And I'm sure as hell not going to do anything to sabotage it, or her; that would be suicide. It's not like some financial scheme, where there's motivation for one party to get rid of the other so he can keep all the money for himself. In this plan the payoff is survival, and neither of us is going to get there alone, or at the other's expense.
I look up, surprised to find myself at the street, and make myself step to the curb to hail a cab. Three weeks, Aleksei. Look ahead, keep your eye on the goal. Just keep moving forward and everything will fall into place.