Richard Draman followed Mason’s assistant to the library where she left him standing alone beneath towering bookshelves. He stood motionless in the silence for almost a minute but the butterflies in his stomach started to attack again and he decided to try to distract them with a self-guided tour.
Original pencil drawings of various plants and animals hung on the walls—reminders of an elegant time of discovery before modern devices like cameras. He walked deliberately, occasionally pausing to examine a particularly impressive insect collection or well-preserved skull, finally stopping at a first edition of On the Origin of Species on display under glass. Standing in the study of one of the greatest biologists who ever lived looking at a book that could have been personally thumbed by Charles Darwin wasn’t doing much for his sense of calm. Hell, he wasn’t even sure what he was doing here. Calling Mason had been a ridiculous Hail Mary. He’d never actually thought the man would agree to a meeting.
“Dr. Draman. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Richard spun and found himself faced with yet another surprise. Mason was no longer the puffy, bespectacled man he’d been when he was working, nor was he the wild-eyed recluse so many had hypothesized.
For certain, he looked every one of his sixty-five years, but those years had settled in kindly. He’d lost at least forty pounds from when he’d disappeared, leaving a solid physique and shoulders that would be considered broad in the less than athletic world of academia. His skin was deeply lined around the mouth and eyes, but tan and healthy beneath a head of longish gray hair.
His acknowledgment was limited to a polite smile.
“It’s incredible to meet you, sir,” Richard said, pumping the man’s hand with embarrassing energy. He’d actually had a picture of Mason on the wall of his dorm room at school. As he recalled, it had held a place of honor just to the right of his highly collectible poster of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and just above his seldom-used beer bong.
“I really appreciate you agreeing to see me, sir. I know you don’t make it a habit. I’m truly honored to be here.”
Mason seemed vaguely amused by his guest’s breathless delivery.
“I’m sorry,” Richard continued. “I’m babbling. I suppose you get that a lot.”
“Not so much anymore.” Mason pointed to a pair of chairs and they sat.
“Last I heard, you were working in cancer, Richard. I seem to remember that there were a lot of people talking about you. The wonder boy from…Oklahoma, was it?”
“I’m from a little town you never heard of in Kansas, actually.”
“And how does someone from a little town I’ve never heard of rise to such eminence in as complicated a field as biology?”
Richard was embarrassed to feel a little surge of adrenaline at the compliment and the fact that August Mason would show any interest in him at all.
“Well, my high school didn’t really have classes that challenged me and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to study at an out-of-state private school.”
Technically, correct but hardly the full story. In truth, he’d felt completely isolated as a child, disconnected from his family, his school, his town. And that had led him to use the intellectual gifts he hadn’t yet come to terms with for less than productive activities. It had started with him creating a concoction that, when added to livestock feed, turned cows blue—a vast improvement over the normal Kansas monotony in his mind, but an artistic statement lost on the community at large. What had started as a harmless cat-and-mouse game, culminated in an unfortunate incident involving a water tower, his guidance counselor’s new car, and the better part of the local fire department.
“So it was at this school you found inspiration?”
Richard shifted awkwardly in his chair, uncomfortable talking about himself in the presence of someone as great as August Mason and finding it hard to continue to lie under his intense stare.
“To be honest, Dr. Mason, it was a military school. When I got there, I was so terrified that I actually made an effort on the placement exam they made me take. At first, they thought I cheated, but when they figured out I didn’t, one of the science teachers took me under his wing. I pretty much owe everything to him.”
“It’s interesting how a random event can change our lives in ways that would be impossible to imagine, isn’t it?” He had a way of speaking that made it seem as though he knew more than he possibly could—as if he was talking specifically about that damn water tower. “But I seem to remember hearing that you didn’t continue in cancer research. Is that right?”
Richard nodded. “Progeria. My daughter has it.”
“Then you’re familiar with the disease?”
“Oh, in a very superficial way.”
It would be an understatement to say that Mason had been as disliked as he was revered during his career. He had the reputation of being a cold-hearted bastard with a tendency to completely dismiss his intellectual inferiors, which, unfortunately, was just about everyone.
Perhaps worse, he’d also been a strong proponent of eugenics. His ideas on developing a program of abortions based on increasingly sophisticated amniocentesis had lost him the few defenders he had in the liberal academic community—Richard included. If it had been up to Mason, Susie would have never been born.
But it was hard now to see any of that in the man. Certainly, he wasn’t effusive and he had a disconcerting way of looking right through you, but he didn’t come off as one of Hitler’s tennis partners either.
“Now, I have to ask, Richard. What is it that I can do for you?”
“I wanted to talk to you about your research.”
“The fundamental structures of life.”
“Ah, the Great Truths. Not one of my favorite subjects.”
“But that was the real focus of your career wasn’t it? Some people might even say your obsession.”
“Delusion might be a better word.”
Richard opened his mouth to protest but Mason held up a hand, silencing him.
“I spent years believing that I was on the path to a breakthrough that would transform the way we understand life. That I would be the first person to stare directly into the mind of God. And instead, it turned out to be nothing.”
“And so you just went up in smoke,” Richard said, not bothering to hide his curiosity.
Mason smiled. “So what’s the popular theory these days? That I was living in the subway tunnels of New York? Or is the Syrian monastery hypothesis making a resurgence?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just such a mystery to all of us. You wouldn’t believe how many times the subject still comes up when biologists get together and have a few too many drinks.”
Mason shifted in his seat, obviously contemplating how much he wanted to say. “Let’s just say that God turned out to be more elusive than I thought, so I went to look elsewhere.”
“And did you find Him?”
“I’m afraid not. It’s up to the next generation. People like you.”
“And Annette Chevalier.”
Mason frowned. “I heard what happened. Horrible.”
“Were you aware she was doing research along a similar line as you were?”
“Yes. She called me a few times. I told her she was heading down a blind alley. But she wouldn’t listen. Did you know her?”
“Then you understand why I wanted to dissuade her. I knew about her depression problems and the fact that she’d tried to kill herself a few years ago. When I discovered my research was going nowhere, it was devastating enough to walk away from everything I’d ever known. I was concerned that she would…” He paused for a moment. “Take it harder.”
“Where is all the research you did?”
“I threw it away.”
“I’m sorry? What did you say?”
“I was upset. I threw it in the garbage.”
“You don’t have copies?” Richard said, horrified.
“It’s not as cathartic if you keep copies. So, I have to ask again. What is it I can do for you?”
Richard hesitated, knowing that he was on thin legal ice.
“Annette’s husband brought me a thumb drive with some of her theories and data on it. I looked it over and it’s incomplete and speculative. But it’s also pretty exciting. I know you say it’s headed nowhere, but I just can’t see the dead end you found.”
Mason’s expression didn’t so much as flicker. “Trust me. It’s there.”
Richard reached into his jacket and retrieved a copy of Annette’s data. “As unlikely as it seems, maybe she found an angle you didn’t consider. I know I’m asking a lot, but could you just take a quick look at this and tell me what you think? For reasons I’m sure you understand, I don’t have time to run down blind alleys.”
He accepted the drive and gazed down at it for a moment. “I’m not going to promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do.”