Authors: Melinda De Ross
He laughed, appearing surprised to discover what a delightful person was hiding behind that distant shield.
“Okay, here’s the short story of my life: I was born in Bobigny—a small town located North-East of Paris—where I lived until I was sixteen. That’s when my father died.”
He paused, as though waiting for the usual pitying remarks, but she remained quiet.
Gerard resumed, “He was working in nuclear research, a field about which I don’t know much, since I was too busy being a teenager. Anyway, at some point he began having serious health problems. When he finally went to the hospital, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was inoperable, because he’d ignored the symptoms until the last moment. He refused to go through chemotherapy and other treatments. He only accepted some painkillers. Two months later, he was dead.”
Although he tried to appear detached, his voice still reflected the grief and regret he’d gathered in twenty years.
“After that, my mother decided for us to move here with her sister, Sophie. She was destroyed, physically and mentally. So was I.”
“Did the way your father died determine you to become a doctor?” she asked after a time in a gentle voice, which inspired understanding and confidence.
He lifted his gaze to her, appearing somewhat astonished by her perceptiveness. Then he took a sip from the tonic water.
“Could be,” he answered thoughtfully. “Maybe in my subconscious this weighed a lot in my career choice, but there are other factors. I inherited from my father a thirst for knowledge, a fascination toward science in general, and the human body in particular.”
She could read in his attitude the passion and profound devotement for his work. This kind of passion motivated her too at the same extent, even if the direction was different.
Gerard went on, “I’m intrigued by mechanisms, by the configuration of live organisms and their chemistry, their way to function, to adapt, to reproduce…”
Flustered by this last word, she lowered her eyes to the glass in front of her, toying with the colored straw. She could feel the weight of his gaze on her. If she looked at him then, she was sure she’d see an almost imperceptible smile.
“Well, mostly that’s the boring story of my life. Is there anything else you want to know?”
“Yes,” she replied, her eyes sparkling with interest. “Tell me about the magical treatment you’ve discovered.”
Gerard reclined in his chair.
“Actually, I can’t truly say I discovered it. There has been some research done in this direction. I managed to determine a treatment formula, which so far is giving excellent results with in vitro testing.”
“I gather that at Hope they don’t do tests on animals. It’s one of the reasons I chose it to offer financial support. I consider tests on animals monstrous, in this era when technology has evolved enough to exclude them,” she said.
“I feel the same. As a doctor and as a human, I respect life in any form. Even though it’s not appropriate for a physician to say this, there are people who deserve to live less than animals. There’s not a crueler animal in nature than the human.”
Linda smiled, a wave of heat enveloping her soul.
“I can’t believe there’s someone who actually loves and respects animals as much as I do. I agree with you. I couldn’t have said it better. Why didn’t you become a veterinarian?”
“I intended to, but I thought I could do a better job by saving children’s lives. For now, no matter their genetic baggage, they all deserve a chance to live. And maybe this will make them better people. The ones who survive, that is,” he added, a hint of sorrow in his voice.
They remained silent for a moment, each absorbed in their own thoughts. She was the first to reopen the conversation.
“How did you test your miraculous treatment?” she asked, returning to the main topic. “And what kind of treatment is it?”
Gerard linked his hands under his jaw, supporting his elbows on the table.
“A serum and an ointment made from snake venom. It’s mainly intended to cure some types of skin cancer.”
Her eyes widened in amazement.
“Is that so? I thought any kind of venom is harmful, not beneficial for the human body.”
He smiled slightly.
“That’s what most people think. I’m a nonconformist. I want to prove that any organic substance has its uses. It’s just hard to determine the proper way it needs to be used. The Mojave rattlesnake venom has some special features, discovered by researchers who try to produce anti-venom vaccines. It contains a very powerful neurotoxin and other substances which, to put it simply, transform the affected cells into a sort of soup. True, the destruction is nonselective, and the objective is to destroy the cancerous cells. But, as an alternative to the traumatizing and invasive effects of surgery and chemo, it’s preferable to inject a well-calculated quantity of serum into a tumor. In the first phase we obviously try the ointment.”
He shifted in his chair, then went on, “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to annihilate only the cancerous cells without affecting at least some of the healthy ones. We’ve made numerous tests in vitro and, by using other methods and meticulous calculations, we’ve determined a treatment formula. Of course,” he admitted, “it can’t be applied in all types of cancer, but for small external tumors we’ve already obtained encouraging results on two volunteers.”
“That is spectacular!” she exclaimed, animated. “I suppose there are a lot of parents who give their consent for their children to serve as guinea pigs.”
“Yeah…after all, their fate is pretty much sealed from the moment they’re diagnosed, so they haven’t got much to lose by trying new treatment methods. Nevertheless, our calculations are very exact and the risks are minimal for volunteers.”
Linda sighed, resting her chin on her hands.
“But what exactly provokes cancer?” she asked. “A virus, a bacteria, what?”
Gerard looked at her, seeming surprised by the acute interest she manifested regarding this subject.
“To be painfully honest, not even medical science can exactly pinpoint the cause of this disease. The most plausible hypothesis would be that, under the influence of certain factors, the growing and multiplication systems of normal cells change. In other words, the cancerous cells multiply in a chaotic, uncontrollable way. Their number increases until they form a visible tumor.”
“I know tumors are malignant and benign, and the malignant ones are nasty, so doctors have to get rid of them. Right?”
He gave a short laugh.
“Something like that. Would you like to be my assistant? I could really use having you around.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m more in my element amidst pieces of wood, metal and sharp implements. Biology was never my
and, most importantly, I don’t have the required psychological structure to work in healthcare. I get teary-eyed just by seeing sick people,” she said with forced cheerfulness. “Or did you forget the earlier demonstration?”
He covered her hand with his, stroking it lightly with the tips of his fingers.
“Don’t be embarrassed. It’s not shameful to have a soul. You have to be glad that society didn’t turn you too into an insensitive robot, like the ones surrounding us.”
She didn’t withdraw her hand, but fully enjoyed the pleasant feeling seeping into her at his warm touch.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I’m not ashamed for having weaknesses. Not really. I just wish I could hide it better, so I won’t be easily read by just anybody like an open book.”
A corner of his sensual mouth lifted.
“Believe me, you’re far from being an open book. When I first saw you I got the impression you’re a cool, distant dame who does charity just for publicity’s sake.”
This statement made her jaw drop, literally. When she stared at him, he ran a hand through his short hair.
“Damn it, I can’t believe I’ve said that.”
He laughed chagrined and, after a moment, she joined him.
“For such a smart man, you’re not so clever, Mr. Leon. Or didn’t you know I’ve always preferred to remain anonymous? What is known about me, is discussed only inside the clinic. At least, I thought so. But considering how informed everybody is about my personal life, I wonder how come they don’t speculate about the color of my underwear,” she joked without malice.
Gerard widened his smile.
“If you’d like, I’m perfectly available to check, just so there won’t be any uncertainties.”
You have no idea how tempting it is
, she thought, but asked with a dry smile, “Are you so friendly and helpful with all women?”
“Only with the incredible ones, like you,” he answered, as his expressive eyes turned dangerously serious.
She felt her cheeks coloring and lowered her gaze to her plate, suddenly seized by a wave of strange excitement. Realizing that both their plates and glasses were long empty, she grabbed her purse and stood, trying not to appear as though she was running away.
“Thank you for the treat, but I’d better get going,” she said. “I’ve got some work to do.”
“It was my pleasure. I’ll see you to your car. Just hold on a minute, while I pay our bill.”
Outside, the sun had long gone past its zenith, but the asphalt was still very hot.
They walked in silence the few dozen yards until they reached the clinic, where Linda had parked her car—a light-blue Mercedes Benz coupe, its top carelessly left down.
“You should be more careful. Don’t ever leave your top down, especially when you park on the street.”
“Oh…” She gesticulated vaguely. “There’s nothing to steal, really. Only some chisels somewhere in the glove box, but I have a few dozen more at home, of all kinds.”
Gerard took her hands in his once again.
“It was a real pleasure meeting you, Linda.” He held her eyes captive with his. “When will I see you again?”
She hesitated, before answering on a neutral tone, “I’m sure I’ll see you around, here at the clinic. Now that I live in London, I’ll pass by more often. Good luck with your treatment. I’ll check on your progress.”
He smiled, as though unaffected by her apparent indifference.
“I’ll see you around,” he said and kissed her cheek, before she had time to dodge it.
* * * *
After her car was out of sight, Gerard entered the building and went straight to the room where he’d met Linda earlier. From the floor, next to the chair where she had sat, he picked up the sunglasses he’d removed himself not long ago. With a short satisfied laugh, he headed toward Carolina’s office. She was one of the nurses and occasionally also served as a secretary.
Displaying his most seductive smile, he approached the plump, blonde woman, who resembled a bit his own mother.
“Caro, Ms. Coriola forgot her sunglasses here. Do you by chance know her address and phone number?” he asked.
The woman’s glowing face was turning somewhat admonishing, so he added quickly, “I know they’re confidential, don’t worry. This data is safe with me.”
Although she owned the house for a few months, Linda’s excitement toward the rust-colored brick building hadn’t decreased in the least. The two-story house had three bedrooms and two baths. Its simple façade was similar to those of most nearby houses, which formed an upscale neighborhood somewhere in South London. Next to the main building there was a small, white garage and in front of it stretched a driveway guarded by old trees. The access to it was through a massive gate, old looking and elegant, like the entire setting. The only modern element was the security panel, placed on the side of the gate’s sturdy stanchion.
Linda leaned into the dashboard and pressed a button on her remote. The ornate gate slid open fluidly. She took off her sunglasses as she drove down the lane to the house. The trees and shrubbery on each side of it filtered the light, making it look like a tunnel of vegetation.
She pushed another button and the garage door lifted. She parked her car, then climbed out and unlocked the side-door to the house. A short hallway led to a spacious living room, with enormous windows, which revealed the panorama that had enchanted her so much—a swimming pool with sinuous, asymmetric forms, which meandered behind the house. Alongside it, numerous garden dwarves, elves and other fairytale characters held in their ceramic hands dozens of lanterns. When night fell, the combined lights lent the scenery a fairytale charm. Next to the pool was a narrow platform with several lounge chairs. Beyond all these stretched a wild-looking yard, its trees and shrubs sheltering a small gazebo, which Linda used as her workshop.
She sprawled on the living room couch—one of the few pieces of furniture in the room—in front of a massive TV screen. Browsing through channels in search of something interesting, she called her companion. He immediately appeared from the kitchen, tail raised in welcome, and jumped on her lap purring noisily.
“How’s it going, babe?” she asked the cat, lovingly stroking the soft white fur, immaculate except for some black spots on the front paws, which looked like cat shoes. A patch of dark fur spread around his left eye. The nearly circular dark patch gave him a prankish look and had brought him the name Pirata.
In the three years since he’d been born, Pirata and his mistress had been inseparable. He was her most faithful friend and wisest confidant.
The cat let out a melodious meow, to which she promptly replied, “I just came from the clinic. If it were possible, I would’ve taken you along. I’m sure you could have cheered up the children a bit.”
She kept talking, caressing his sleek fur, while he listened carefully to her every word, watching her with slanted blue eyes.
“I’ve met one of the doctors, a guy…well, a great guy apparently. But you know I don’t trust men much, right? Especially the ones who seem too good to be true.”
Pirata gently rubbed his pink nose against hers, making her laugh.
“Geez, would you look at me? I’m completely pathetic! My best friend is a cat and the funny thing is that I get the impression you truly understand what the hell I’m saying. Let’s grab something to eat.”
Pirata jumped down promptly to lead the way to the kitchen, and she followed lazily.
The kitchen was furnished as simply as the rest of the house. In the center stood a triangular counter, which also served as a table, and two chairs. Dishes and utensils were stacked neatly in glass-paneled cabinets. Everything was stark white and pristine.
“Let’s see what Mrs. Adams cooked for us,” she muttered, referring to the housekeeper, whom she’d hired at the recommendation of the old couple who sold her the house. They had benefited from Mrs. Adams’s services for five years, and declared themselves fully satisfied.
Linda inspected the fridge. She found a pot of chicken soup, something that appeared to be mushroom omelet, and pumpkin pie—her favorite dessert.
“Yum! We’re going to eat excellent tonight!”
She put food and water for Pirata in
—an area next to the kitchen door where the cat had his sleeping basket, toys and a swinging door, specially built for his access and cattish needs. Finally, she sat at the counter and ate some omelet.
When she finished, she took a piece of pie and plopped down on the couch in the living room.
While changing the channels, bored, she stumbled over one of the many film versions made after Paul Feval’s book,
Le Bossu, a
book she had especially liked in childhood. The movie wasn’t half bad, so she watched it with interest. After it ended, she noticed that darkness had fallen and her elves—actually, the photo-sensors with which they were equipped—had turned on their lanterns and were playing sublime games of light on the pool’s shiny surface. Since it had probably been one of the hottest days in London’s history, the pool seemed more alluring than ever.