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Image from The Army Nurse (1945)

A Laboratory Curiosity

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To establish her prerogatives, Claire took her equipment bags to a narrow table against the wall on the far side of the room. The table held a blue-patterned porcelain vase filled with white, billowy hothouse roses. Claire placed the vase on the floor. Sensing the nurse’s glare at her back, she slowed her movements, staking her claim. She took off her jacket, folded it, and stashed it beneath the table. When Claire heard the nurse’s footsteps leaving the room, she felt relieved: first skirmish won. She arranged her cameras and film on the table for easy access. In her notebook, she wrote down the details about Edward
Reese. She checked the picture count on the cameras and sketched out rough captions. Claire was working alone today, without a reporter to take formal caption notes and help with the equipment. Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor several days before, the office had been topsy-turvy. This assignment had come in unexpectedly, and with staff heading to Washington and Hawaii, editorial had no reporters to spare. Just as well. Claire preferred to work alone, without a reporter’s interference.


CAPTION

Penicillin fungi image found on Allianz.com


“What’s the medication made from?” “… It’s made from a fluid produced by a common green mold in the same family as the mold that grows on stale bread and that’s used to make Roquefort cheese.”

When Claire finished what she thought of as her housekeeping chores, she looked around and was surprised to find herself alone with Edward Reese. His eyes had settled on her. She felt self-conscious and wanted to say to him, don’t worry, I’ll do you proud. Meeting his gaze, she said nothing, but it was the vow she made to herself. With her light meter in hand, she toured the room, taking sample readings and orienting herself. Luckily the room was bright. She wouldn’t need artificial light or a tripod, at least not yet.


The setup here was a little strange for a hospital. She glanced at Reese, who continued to watch her. She wondered if he’d noticed the oddness. The spacious, high-ceilinged room looked like the reception area of a private club, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the river and an arrangement of leather chairs and a sofa. Brilliantly colored, semiabstract seascapes decorated the walls, no doubt loans from Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., who collected modern art. Sunlight reflecting from the river shimmered and trembled upon the walls and ceiling, as if the hospital room were an extension of the paintings.


“Claire Shipley?”


Claire turned. A doctor in an unbuttoned white coat stood before her. He was about six feet tall, lean, with brown hair brushed back, and steel-rimmed glasses. He wore a conservative tie, buttoned-down oxford shirt, and a dark suit beneath the white coat. A stethoscope was draped around his neck. He held a clipboard and a three-ring binder. He was in his late thirties, Claire judged from the lines around his eyes. His face had an open, boyish handsomeness, yet the hard set of his shoulders revealed his disapproval. Nurse Brockett stood like a sentinel behind him. In the light from the river, the doctor’s eyes were deep blue. At five foot eight, Claire could almost look him in the eye, an advantage.


“I’m Dr. Stanton. The physician in charge of this case.” As Claire evaluated him, he evaluated her, and he was surprised. She was attractive. A professional woman who paid attention to herself. He appreciated that. She wore red lipstick. Her clothes, clearly designed to be comfortable for her work, nonetheless showed off her figure.


Claire understood his look and gave him time to indulge it. She needed Dr. Stanton, because now her narrative had two protagonists: the man dying on the bed, and this doctor, who might, or might not, save his life.


“Would you kindly step outside?” he said.


“Happy to.” As she followed him into the hallway, she sensed Reese studying them. Dr. Stanton walked with a certain insouciance, or maybe simply absolute confidence. Of course the confidence could be a veneer forced upon him by his position. Whichever, Claire found it stirring. The bottom of his white coat flicked backward with each step. He turned to her when they were several yards down the hall. “Dr. Rivers told me you’d be working here today.” Dr. Rivers was the director of the hospital. He was the one who’d contacted her editor about the story, following up on a casual conversation they’d had over lunch at one of their clubs. “Frankly it wasn’t my idea to invite you, but he’s the one in charge. We don’t have time for you, and we won’t be making allowances for you. I’d advise you to stay out of our way.”


“Good. I’m hoping to stay out of your way, too. I’m hoping you’ll forget about me completely.”


Frowning, James Stanton appeared at a loss for a response. Nothing like agreement to diffuse an argument, Claire had learned long ago. By necessity, she was an expert in the manipulation of her assigned subjects. Stanton stared at her, and she stared back.


“Maybe you should tell me what you’re dealing with here. So I can work harder at staying out of your way,” Claire added with a flirtatious touch of irony.


Her tone surprised him, too. For one instant, he allowed this woman to take him away from the morning’s pressures and responsibilities… to a vacation at the seashore, a hotel room filled with sunlight. He confronted her naked body on the bed.


Stop. She’d made a request for information. What was he dealing with? He couldn’t easily explain the issues to an outsider. Here at the Institute, the medication had been tested only on mice, never on a human. Worldwide, the medication had been tested on only a half-dozen humans. For a variety of reasons, none had survived. Nothing about the medication was established except its unpredictability. Educated guesswork alone would provide Stanton with the proper dosage for the injections. Edward Reese might have an allergic reaction and die the moment Stanton gave him the first shot. An undiscovered impurity in this batch of the drug could kill him. Yet the patient was on the verge of death anyway. Most likely he would be dead within hours. There was also a chance that the medication would work. In that case, James Stanton and his team would save Edward Reese’s life.


All this he was dealing with. To Claire Shipley he said only, “The patient will die without radical intervention. That’s what makes him a suitable candidate for this experiment.”


Claire detected the emotions held in check beneath Stanton’s professional demeanor. She made herself sound sympathetic. “I understand, Doctor. Tell me about the medication.”


To Stanton, the potential power of the medication was staggering. Its origins, however, were preposterous. “What about it?” His tone was harsher than he’d intended.


Claire heard his defensiveness, and it alerted her: here was a place where she could penetrate his inner life, his doubts, fears, and hopes. “Everything. What it is. Where it’s made. How it’s made.” She asked a string of questions to keep him engaged, to develop a common ground between them.


“We make it in the laboratory downstairs.”


“I’d like to photograph the lab later.”


“Not possible.” His refusal was automatic. He wouldn’t let an outsider get too close.


“Think about it.” Keep the conversation moving forward, don’t stop to recognize rejection. “What’s the medication made from?”


When his professional colleagues heard the answer to this question, they thought he was crazed. He’d learned to confront their disapproval openly rather than retreat from it. He gave her a half smile, not exactly a friendly smile, more like a dare. “Green mold. It’s made from a fluid produced by a common green mold in the same family as the mold that grows on stale bread and that’s used to make Roquefort cheese.”


“Sounds delicious.” Green-mold medicine didn’t bother Claire, if it worked. She saw Emily’s small and perfect hands folded upon her chest as Claire waited for the undertaker. Who had folded those delicate hands? Claire herself ? She couldn’t remember doing it. Her own mother, who might have remembered, was dead now, too, so this was something else Claire would never know.


“Depends on your point of view.” Stanton was glad she made a joke about the mold, glad she didn’t try to ingratiate herself with disingenuous acceptance. After all, maybe he was crazed. Recognizing the possibility steadied him. Gave him perspective. In the lab, they grew the mold in milk bottles and bedpans. The drug had worked well on mice in the lab; indeed the results had been spectacular. The medication was ready for the next step. This was an experiment like any other, he reassured himself. Just like any other.


“Jamie.” Cradling a folded towel, a young woman walked down the hall toward them. Swaying on high heels, she held herself with the elegance of a movie star. Her makeup was perfect. Her dark hair was held back with a filigree barrette at the nape of her neck, a utilitarian style that she’d transformed into the height of fashion. Beneath her unbuttoned, tan-colored lab coat, she wore a stylish skirt and a white silk blouse. Claire rarely felt outdone in appearance, but this woman made her feel overweight and earthbound.


When she reached them, Stanton said, “Claire Shipley, this is Dr. Lucretia Stanton. Our resident mycologist.”


Claire demanded of her memory the meaning of the word mycologist. A page in a high school science textbook came to mind. A mycologist studies mold.


“Please, call me Tia.” Her tone was more youthful and friendly than Claire expected from her appearance, and her appearance was the opposite of what Claire would have expected from a woman who studied mold. “Jamie told me you were coming today. I wish I could shake hands, but as you see.” She held forth the towel, and Claire glimpsed a glass vial of brownish yellow powder cradled within it.


Tia Stanton, James Stanton . . . were they a couple?


That would make an intriguing twist, a modern-day version of Madame and Monsieur Curie, the French couple who discovered radium. In her best of-course-you-can-trust-me manner, Claire asked, “Are you two married?”


The female Dr. Stanton laughed and took a step backward, as if to escape a common accusation.


“Tia is my sister. She’s younger and much more brilliant than I am,” James Stanton said. “She’s willing to work here at the Institute even though she has to put up with me. The job market for mycologists, let alone female mycologists, who want to do medical research is somewhat limited—a fact that is obviously an affront to our civilization.”


Claire was an only child and thus not an expert in siblings, but she thought Tia looked at her brother with an unusual degree of trust and affection. Glancing between them, Claire saw that the two shared a familial link in their eyes and their coloring.


Despite its appeal, Stanton resisted the urge to continue this conversation. “Let’s get started.” Abruptly he turned away and walked into the hospital room. Tia followed with the vial of brownish yellow powder. Claire experienced a satisfying sense that both Dr. Stantons had forgotten her. At the long counter along the wall, the two had a quiet discussion and checked the information in Stanton’s binder.

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18 Jul 2010
In addition to life-saving mold, which provides a fascinating subject for a very well told historical novel, we also get murder, espionage, family worries, and of course, a little sex and romance
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