While the woman buttoned her blouse, Dr. Grey sat down at his desk and wrote the prescription. The woman hesitated before taking the paper from the doctor’s hand, so that it seemed as if she wanted to say something, but then she restrained herself, took the paper he was holding out, said goodbye in a barely audible voice, and left the consulting room. Dr. Grey, on the intercom, asked the receptionist to send in the next patient.
The next day, the Arab woman who said her name was Shelma came to Dr. Grey’s office again. Almost without preliminaries, she sat down and stammered in a choked voice that she was afraid, that someone was following her and she did not know whom to confide in. Dr. Grey, seeing only the clinical aspect of this announcement, told her that it might be the beginning of neurosis or schizophrenia and recommended that she see a psychiatrist or neurologist. She told him there was no time, that she would try to follow his advice, but first she had to ask him a favor. The woman took from her pocket a little vial like the ones penicillin used to come in and handed it to Dr. Grey. The doctor took it, examined it against the light and turned back to peer at the woman.
“I don’t understand,” said Dr. Grey.
The woman promised she would explain it next time they saw each other. Then she got up and rushed out of the room. Dr. Grey returned to examining the vial. What could it contain? He decided to hide it in the pocket of his jacket and bring it home with him. He did not want anyone to mistake it for one of the similar vials that were kept on a rack for sale at his office. When the woman returned, he would ask her for an explanation. Without thinking any more about it, then, Dr. Grey asked the receptionist to send in the next patient and resumed his normal routine.
The next morning, when Dr. Grey arrived at the building where his office was, his receptionist came out to meet him, all nervous and stammering something that the doctor could not understand. Once she had calmed down, she told him that someone had broken into the office during the night and turned it upside down. The doctor asked her if it had been thieves, or maybe drug addicts looking for narcotics, but the receptionist didn’t know. The only thing she knew, she told him, was that the police, called by a neighbor, were up there right now looking for clues.
Dr. Grey went up to his office. With a worried expression he saw the boxes on the floor and the patient files strewn all over the room. A policeman came over, who identified himself as Inspector Rossi. Without any further preamble, he asked the doctor if he had any idea who the intruder might have been, seeing as how none of the adjacent offices had been bothered. Dr. Grey said he didn’t know the reason for the apparent vandalism. Inspector Rossi replied that in his experience nothing happened without warning, and asked if he had treated any unusual patients in the last few days. Dr. Grey told him about the two visits of the woman with Arab features, mentioning her imaginary pains and his impression that she had something she wanted to say, but didn’t dare.
“When was the last time you saw her?” asked the inspector.
“Yesterday,” the doctor said simply.
Inspector Rossi then asked him to describe the woman in minute detail, and to try to reconstruct their conversation. Dr. Grey tried to be faithful to his recollections, except that he hid the detail of the vial. Finally, the police finished their investigations and left. The doctor and his assistant set to work clearing up the disaster. That day they cancelled all appointments, sending the patients instead to a colleague of Dr. Grey’s who had his office in the same building.
The following day, Dr. Grey went to work like any other day. He had cleaned up the mess and returned the files to their proper places. In one corner there was a broken chair, and a plant was missing, but the office looked neat and tidy again. In the middle of the morning, interrupting the flow of patients, Inspector Rossi and his assistant came by. The inspector put a photo on Dr. Grey’s desk and asked if he recognized the person in it. Dr. Grey recognized the woman with Arab features who had come to his office a few days back. The inspector informed him that the woman had been murdered yesterday. She was an Iranian citizen named Shirin. Dr. Grey felt a wave of grief. He told the inspector that the woman had seemed afraid, that she had even told him she was being followed, but he had thought it was a symptom of some psychological problem. He had thought that sedatives would help her.
Dr. Grey still omitted the detail of the vial. It was as if he felt compelled to keep faith with the woman he now knew as Shirin and not Shelma, but he did not even try to explain to himself what this useless fidelity might accomplish. It might have been just a whim of his disposition at that moment in time. The inspector told him that if he remembered any other detail about the woman, he should let him know. He gave the doctor his card and then he and his assistant left the consulting room. Dr. Grey read the card, tapped it mechanically against his hand, and then put it in his pocket.
That afternoon, alone in his apartment, Dr. Grey took out the vial and examined it. It was small in size, like the very first penicillin bottles that he had seen in the house of his father, who was also a doctor, and with whose rubber stoppers he had used to play when he was a child. He pondered what it could contain: a substance because of which someone had been killed. It couldn’t be drugs; the quantity wasn’t sufficient to provide a motive for murder. Grey thought about the woman, and about the subtle elves that produce chance meetings. He remembered the smoothness of her breasts, the whiteness of her skin that had hardly ever seen the sun. What was she doing with such a dangerous vial? And couldn’t her two visits be related? In retrospect, it seemed clear that her sensations of anxiety and racing heartbeat were due to knowing that she was being followed, hunted. But how could he have known? Those are not symptoms that general practitioners encounter frequently. It was natural that he might have failed to guess the cause. As he scrutinized the tiny vial, he considered handing it over to the police and forgetting all about it. But then how would he explain to them why he had hidden it in the first place? No, he would bring it to his office and pass it on to a friend in the laboratory so he could have it analyzed. Maybe knowing what sort of substance it was would shed some light on matters.
The following morning, Dr. Grey put the vial in his jacket pocket and went, like he did every day, to his office. That day, the practice was much busier than usual and he forgot to bring the vial to the lab where his friend worked. He ended up working late, and then he was tired and decided to go straight home. When he reached the door of the apartment, he froze. The door was open. Cautiously he stepped inside. The place had been ransacked, just like the office. Boxes and bureau drawers were open, some of them emptied. The contents had been strewn all over the floor. Instinctively he touched the pocket of his jacket to make sure the vial was still there. When he had managed to get hold of himself, he called Inspector Rossi and told him what had happened. The inspector told him not to touch anything, and he would be there soon.
A half dozen detectives, led by Inspector Rossi, arrived within ten minutes. The forensic team hurried to take photos, collect evidence, and scrutinize every significant detail. Inspector Rossi asked Dr. Grey, not very nicely, if he was hiding anything. Dr. Grey said again that he had already reported everything he knew about the murdered girl. There was nothing else. Inspector Rossi seemed unconvinced, but he stopped asking questions and directed his attention to overseeing the investigation. When the police work was over, Inspector Rossi bestowed a suspicious glance on Dr. Grey, then left.
Grey was alone. He thought about starting to clean up and organize the chaos that was his apartment, but he did not do it. What he did was close all the windows, clean off the coffee table, sit down in front of it, and take out the vial. He looked at it again, holding it up to the light. Then he decided to open it. He got up, went to the kitchen, filled a glass with water, and went back to sit by the coffee table. To take off the metal filament that sealed the top he had to use a knife. Then, without thinking twice about it, he opened the vial and smelled it. It was odorless. With care, he put a few drops in the glass of water. Instantly the water began to take on a green color, then ochre and finally black, but it was an ominous black, putrefied, as though the water had gangrene. The speed of the process surprised him. He had never seen such a strong reaction. Frightened, Grey resealed the vial and poured the black water down the drain. He did not know what the vial contained, but he had a hunch it was nothing good, not even worth further investigation. He decided to get rid of it tomorrow on the way to the office. He did not want to know anything more about it; it might be more dangerous than he had supposed. Dr. Grey regretted not having been frank with the inspector. He felt very tired, almost exhausted. After a long day at work, he had returned only to discover the violation of his home. He decided to go to bed and sleep. In the morning, he might be able to look at things with a more optimistic attitude.
Dr. Grey woke up feeling strange. He felt like he had a fever. He looked at the alarm clock; it was already almost time to get up. He got out of bed and went to the bathroom. There, he looked at himself in the mirror and was shocked. His face and the part of his torso visible beneath his pajamas were covered in pustules. Then his initial shock gave way to terror. He understood what the vial might have contained and panic seized him. He remembered that he had poured the contaminated water down the kitchen drain and his terror became apocalyptic.
“My God,” he said to himself. “What have I done?”
Two days after Dr. Grey, conscious of his grave error, had bent over desolate beside the dark waters of the coming catastrophe, on another continent, in a compound constructed in the middle of the Arizona desert, surrounded by high walls and with electronic surveillance devices all around the perimeter, the Governing Council of Purified Humanity was meeting around an elliptical table that they had christened a “new oval office.” The council comprised six members, four men and two women, all Caucasian. American flags hung in various parts of the room, and the walls were decorated with photographs and paintings that clearly exalted the white race. The one who acted as president, called Leader 1, addressed the other members of the Council:
“We have just found out that the first of the three vials sent out upon this mission of purification has been opened, and its contents are already working on behalf of our cause. Even if the other two are intercepted, the spread of the virus is now unstoppable. Its lethal strength and extraordinary contagious power guarantee that in a week or two, almost all of humanity will be dead. This weapon, which providence has placed in our hands, will allow all trace of melanin in the human species to be eradicated. It is the plan of God, a plan which we mere mortals must not presume to oppose. Very soon, the thousand occupants of this fortress will be the only living human beings on the planet, at least in the populous zones. From then on, we will be able to engender a humanity that is racially and ethnically pure. The five hundred men and five hundred women who make up our number will create a new, purified humanity. We will leave these mediocre times behind us forever and usher in a new era, in which conscience will possess the righteous rigor of the superior race. Let us thank the Lord.”
The rest of the council gave thanks to the Lord.
In the laboratory of the fortress, Professor Ashbery was admonishing his assistant Dr. Cecil Rhodes, who, with the air of one engaged in a harmless pastime, held in his gloved hand a little vial like the one which the unfortunate Dr. Grey had opened.
“I told you you shouldn’t bring any trace of the virus to this refuge. There should only have been three vials, the three with a mission of purification, the three for the outside world.”
“I thought it might be useful if those ones got lost or intercepted. We’d always have the possibility of creating more lethal strains. I’ll keep it in a hermetically sealed chamber.”
Dr. Rhodes, holding the vial with his rubber gloves, went over to the secure minifridge. But his lab coat caught on the corner of the table; he tripped, and the glass flew from his hand. Dr. Rhodes and Professor Ashbery watched as the glass vial descended to the floor. Their terror made those fractions of a second stretch out interminably. Finally the little vial hit the floor and shattered. The two men in white coats looked at each other. On their faces was an unknown horror, the horror of having sentenced the last pure bastion of the human species to extinction.
Lamberto García del Cid, Spain © 2009
Lamberto García del Cid was born in Portugalete, Vizcaya (Spain), in 1951. He holds his Licentiate in Economics from the University of Bilbao. He has published two books: La sonrisa de Pitágoras: Matemáticas para diletantes (Editorial Debate, 2006, Madrid; Debolsillo, 2007, Madrid) and Numeromanía: Números, mística, y superstición (Editorial Debate, January 2006). He maintains two blogs: one of irreverent humor, entitled La oveja feroz (The Fierce Sheep, http://laovejaferoz.blogspot.com/) and the other literary, Lector en desvelo (The Reader in Wakefulness, http://lacomunidad.elpais.com/lector-en-desvelo/posts).
Click here to see this story in Spanish
Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009
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