6. The Meeting

The large conference room was obviously built to contain many more people than were there. The long rectangular table was empty and the participants, such as they were, stood in clusters. In one corner, Monser and Bast were chatting. Near the door Arthur Zabalka was talking to a man whom Sam assumed was Mike Levering. Levering was dressed in a dark blue business suit with white shirt and conservative tie. He was of average height and build, but somehow he appeared larger to Sam. When Levering saw their little group enter, he detached himself from Zabalka and walked over. He obviously knew Nick and greeted him with a warm smile and handshake. Nick introduced "my old buddy, Sam Michaelson and Dr. Susan Harwell," and left to talk to Zabalka.

Levering was the epitome of the successful administrator with his carefully combed dark brown hair, graying at the temples. His demeanor was warm and friendly without that familiarity that one usually associates with salesmen.

"I'm very glad that you were able to come, Dr.Harwell, we really are in need of your expertise, as you will find out. I'm sorry that I couldn't tell you more about it, but you'll soon find out why." The message was obviously also meant for Sam. "I think that we're all here, so we'll be starting in a few minutes." He turned to Sam "You come highly recommended, Dr. Michaelson. Harry told me that you're the best epidemiologist in the business with one exception -himself."

Sam smiled. "I think that I'd agree with at least half of that assessment," he replied, not specifying which half he agreed with.

Levering sat down at the head of the table and motioned for the rest to be seated. Seven people sat at one end of a table meant for thirty.

"Sorry about the room," Levering said," It was the only one that I could get on such short notice. I thought of holding it in my office, but couldn't push the walls far enough out. Thank you all for coming. I appreciate the faith that led you to come here without knowing why."

"Faith, hell," said Nick, "It was curiosity about what kind of a disease you would want to keep secret."

"Your curiosity will soon be satisfied, but first I want to make sure that you're all fully aware that the secrecy is no joke, it's serious. If any of you are not willing to abide by complete secrecy then I'd appreciate your leaving now."

"What, precisely do you want us to swear to, Mike? "said Zabalka.

"That nothing that you hear today will be told to anyone; not even your spouses."

"You want us to make a commitment without knowing what we are committed to?" asked Nick.

"No, not at all. I'll tell you what this is all about and you can decide whether you want to participate or not. I just can't have you revealing what I tell you. Not only that, but you are free to opt out any time that you want to. I should tell you that the reason for the secrecy has nothing to do with national security. It's just that any publicity would jeopardize what we have to do."

"Get on with it, Mike," said Zabalka and everyone nodded in assent.

Arthur Zabalka was over six feet tall, thin, with shiny carefully combed black hair, tinged with gray. He moved almost too elegantly; as if he were on stage. He was very well known in the scientific community for his work with polio vaccine. Sam had heard that he was very bitter about never having received the recognition that Salk and Sabin got. Levering stroked his chin just long enough to have everyone at the edge of their seats, then "I suppose that most of you have read the Time article about the 'Middle Aged Sexual Revolution.' That is what this meeting is about."

"What in tarnation do microbiologist have to do with sex?" said Nick.

Levering grinned, "I didn't know that you've given it up, Nick."

Nick raised his eyebrows in a look of mock innocence; "Isn't that what happens in middle age?"

Zabalka was impatient, "Stop wasting time with this foolishness!"

Levering continued," I think that I'll let Jack Monser fill you in on how this thing got started. Jack, for those of you who only read the technical literature, is head of The Schmuckler Institute for the Study of Sex. He's an authority on sexual behavior in middle age and the author, with Dr.Ellen Bast who is sitting next to him, of the best selling book Sex in Middle Age."

The Schmuckler Institute for the Study of Sex bore the name of it's founder, Harold Schmuckler, a movie mogul who found himself cursed with impotence at 55. Monser cured him of his impotence, which left him with a prodigious sexual appetite which he satisfied with the help of a new aspiring starlet each month. He died five years later; having willed half of his large fortune to The Schmuckler Institute, with the proviso that it was to be operated solely at Monser's discretion.

Monser was fifty three, but looked much younger. He was short and thin, had bushy blonde hair and sported an immense reddish blonde mustache which looked somewhat out of place on his almost boyish face. He wore a tweed jacket over a yellow shirt which was open at the neck.

"About a month ago," Monser began," a reporter for the Los Angeles Times was doing a story on the rape of a high-class call girl in the May Company department store. The victim adamantly refused to talk to him, but the culprit gave him as much information as he wanted. Apparently his hypersexuality followed an illness during which he had a high fever and severe headaches. In view of the fact that the man had no police record nor a history as a sexual deviant, the reporter thought that the illness might have had something to do with it. He came to me and Ellen to confirm this. When we heard his story, we believed the illness was simply a coincidence and that the man had probably been a sexual deviant for a long time and just managed to keep it well hidden. There are a lot of unsolved rapes in a city the size of Los Angeles and at least an equal number that go unreported. The reporter went along with our analysis."

"Later that week," Monser continued, "a couple, with whom we had been doing sex therapy in an attempt to revive an almost defunct sex life, underwent a remarkable change which we couldn't account for in terms of what we had done. They both told of having been ill with headache and fever, following which their libidos increased immensely. They even volunteered to perform for our cameras and instruments in our study of orgasm. We've been doing studies similar to those of Masters and Johnson in which we study the physiological components of sex. As you can guess, we have considerable difficulty finding middle aged volunteers who are uninhibited enough to perform while we measured their responses."

"What do you mean by perform?" asked Zabalka.

"Have sexual intercourse. As to this couple, I have been a sex therapist for over fifteen years and I've never seen anything like that. For one thing, the therapy hadn't really started yet. We had just taken the history and were barely starting to relieve their anxieties when they took sick and returned to us not only cured, but enthusiastic. They thought that it was our therapy that had changed them, but I know that we can't perform miracles like that; at least not that fast. Ellen, tell them what happened with you and that man."

Ellen Bast was about the same height as Monser. She was very petite and much more attractive than her portrait in Time indicated. She had very fine features and large, brown eyes, and wore a blue denim skirt and a multi-colored blouse. Her auburn hair was cut relatively short which accentuated her femininity, as did her delicate silver ear rings. She moved and spoke with the assurance of one who is used to dealing with people. The contrast of her sprightliness and candor with Sue Harwell's reserve and shyness was almost a paradigm of the difference between social and physical scientists.

"When they had finished having intercourse for the second time, the man asked me, 'Why don't you get undressed and join us? Maybe Dr. Monser is interested in trying Betty?' When I explained to him that it would be unethical for me to take part, he said 'What about her?' indicating my technician. My technician said, with an excited gleam in her eye, that she would do anything for science. I wired them both up and they had intercourse twice. By that time, the man's wife was so excited that they had intercourse again without the benefit of our apparatus. When the couple left, my technician suggested that I hire him as a permanent member of the team -all for the sake of science, of course."

"And you both think that this increased sexuality was caused by the illness that they had?" asked Nick.

"We didn't, at first," said Monser, " but we were at a loss to explain it any other way. Besides that May Company rapist had shown the same picture. I called my old friend, Mike Levering, and told him the story. He didn't believe that any of it was much more than coincidence; until he went to Ogden."

Levering took the floor: "I was on a project-site visit at the University of Utah. The Salt Lake Tribune ran story about four teachers having an orgy in the faculty lounge at a private school in Ogden -a very brief summary of that story appeared in Time magazine. The behavior of the participants was so incredible, that I decided to check it out myself, thinking that it would either confirm or refute Jack's idea. For those of you who don't read the Salt Lake Tribune, let me summarize what happened:

The whole business became public because a fifth grade student at the Benedict School had missed the school bus and was looking for someone who would give him a ride home. He opened the door of the faculty lounge and saw four teachers, two men and two women, in various states of undress, engaged in sexual activities which he was very reluctant to describe. One of the male teachers yelled 'get the hell out of here!' and ran toward the door. The startled child fled from the scene. He eventually found someone to drive him home, where he promptly told his mother about his experience. She, in turn, relayed the information to her husband who, as fate would have it, was chairman of the governing board of the school.

The father called the Principal of the school and told him what his child had seen, ending the conversation with 'what the hell kind of school are you running?' The Principal told the father that those were four of his best teachers and that his son must have fantasized the whole thing, but that he would check into it. After talking to the teachers he called the father back, apologized for doubting the story and admitted that he wasn't at all sure what kind of school he was running.

The four teachers were summarily fired. It would have ended there, except that the teachers appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that, since the incident took place on their own time and was unrelated to their teaching; that a reprimand would have been sufficient punishment for unauthorized use of the school grounds.

I drove to Ogden and talked to all four teachers. All told essentially the same story; that they had been ill a few days before the incident, with high fevers and severe headaches. The illness had lasted for about two or three days. I taped and transcribed the interviews. Let me read you one which is fairly representative. It is with Elise Prynne, an attractive 41 year old third grade teacher. Her attitude is typical of the attitude of all of the people involved. I'll eliminate the introductory remarks and go right into her story about what happened during the week preceding the incident in the faculty lounge."

"Well, Dr. Levering, the whole week started badly. On Monday a couple of kids got sick in class. You know how it is; one kid throws up and that starts a whole wave of it. We kept the janitor hopping and I had to have two dresses cleaned from just one day in class. Tuesday was almost as bad. On Wednesday morning, I started feeling sick and by noon, I was miserable, with a splitting headache and a temperature of 103."

That's nothing remarkable, thought Sam, there aren't many diseases that don't start with symptoms like that. Still, it doesn't sound like the same thing that the children had.

"I got someone to fill in for me and I went home. The headache got worse and, even loaded up with aspirin, it was all that I could do to keep from screaming in pain. I just lay in bed and sobbed. I started feeling better on Thursday afternoon and the headache was almost gone by evening. I had a good nights sleep and when I woke up on Friday I felt great -the air smelled fresh and clean, breakfast tasted delicious and everything felt wonderful."

Still not very remarkable, thought Sam, you take away the fever and headache and everything feels great by contrast.

"The kids were glad to see me after two days with a substitute and I was glad to see them. We had a great day;, enough to make up for the first part of the week. I couldn't resist hugging the kids as they went out the door. Dr. Levering, I've been teaching for over twenty years and I haven't felt that way since the first few years that I taught. I was young and enthusiastic again, but with the competence that comes from experience -I was the best darn elementary school teacher in the world."

"After school, a couple of us old-timers were in the lounge having a cup of coffee and swapping stories. Actually we were comparing symptoms; all four of us had been sick at the same time. We were talking about some of the funny things that happened in class during the week when Louise giggled and ran her fingers through Bob's hair. Bob started kissing her and feeling her up. Jim and I started doing the same thing. One thing led to the other and we were making love on the floor as if it were our normal Friday routine."

"Was it?" Levering asked.

"Of course not! I don't know about Bob and Louise, but Jim and I had never done more than shake hands."

"Did you hear the student opening the door?"

"Yes, but Bob yelled at him to go away and locked the door. I was too busy enjoying Jim to care."

"What happened then?"

"We changed partners and made love some more. Then we went home."

"Were you tired?"

"No, not at all -we were all starved."

"What did you do at home?"

"I called up my boy friend. He brought over a bottle of wine and I made a nice dinner. We ate and then went to bed."

"Did you, er.. indulge?"

"Sure, we did it four times that night and once in the morning."

Not a bad performance for a fellow who hasn't contracted a disease, Sam thought.

"Was four times the usual thing for you?"

"Oh, no! We'd usually do it, maybe, a couple of times a week."

"Has your sex life been as vigorous since?"

"More vigorous. I have two new boyfriends besides the old one. Mike, who delivers the milk, stops in for breakfast and a little loving; Elmer stops by for lunch and Willie, as usual, comes by in the evening and stays the night."

"Is everything else in your life O.K.?"

"Oh, no; I'm running out of money, what with no job and feeding three boyfriends. I have a small refrigerator and now I have to shop three times a week. I really don't mind, though. I guess if your love life is O.K. then everything else can be worked out. The boys have all offered to chip in for food, so I guess I'll manage."

"The stories were similar for the other participants." Levering continue. "The other teachers were married and, after dinner, took their respective spouses to bed and all reported a very vigorous and satisfactory evening. To date, the men's wives are delighted, as is the husband of the woman teacher."

"Do the spouses act as if their libido has changed, or have any of them had any of the disease symptoms?" asked Nick.

"If it were a contagious disease, you would expect the spouses to contract it; but they haven't, so far as we could determine." Levering replied.

"What about those sexual assault cases in Los Angeles?" Zabalka asked.

"Aside from that May Company incident, no one was actually raped. What happened was that some respectable women were propositioned and fondled a bit in inappropriate places."

"What inappropriate places?" Nick asked.

"Oh, stores, busses, parks and places like that." Levering replied. "Most of the assault cases involved men who had no regular sexual partner. In every case, either their wives were frigid or they had made a previous decision to lead sexless lives -that is before Epidemic E struck."

"Epidemic E?" Nick asked.

"Jack named it that. It's short for Epidemica erotica."

"Very clever," Zabalka sneered, "For a secret project, you sure picked a name designed for headlines. Besides, a handful of cases hardly constitute an epidemic."

"Maybe they're just being overly optimistic," said Nick; a mischievous smile on his face.

"Time magazine sure made it sound like an epidemic," Monser said.

"If any of you can come up with a better name, I'll buy it." Levering said, contritely.

"Why isn't this being handled by the CDC?" Nick asked.

"I discussed Epidemic E with the head of CDC and he said that they have enough to worry about with diseases that kill people, without having to deal with epidemic happiness." said Levering.

A woman in her fifties wearing an obvious red wig and a bright flowery print dress wheeled a cart in. The cart was loaded with tea, coffee, soft drinks and an assortment of sandwiches.

"Let's break for lunch!" Levering announced.

Everyone selected a sandwich and drink, and the discussion continued.

Sam turned to Nick, who was sitting to his right. "It seems to me I remember from my student days that people who had had encephalitis sometimes had bizarre behavioral change after they recovered from the disease."

" Yea, during the early part of the century they had epidemics of von Economo's encephalitis. They called it sleeping sickness even though no one really slept much. Some of its victims developed a whole range of defects from mental impairment to psychosis, as well as paralysis and Parkinsonism."

"What kind of virus was it?" Sue asked.

"We'll never know. They didn't have the tools for differentiating them in those days." Nick replied.

"Only a very small percentage of the people who got encephalitis developed mental changes, just like only a small percentage of people who contract poliomyelitis develop any kind of paralysis." Zabalka interjected.

"Then it's possible," said Levering, " that Epidemic E is only the tip of the iceberg (assuming that it is a virus) and for every case that we see, there may be hundreds with the disease who have either no symptoms or different symptoms."

"It's not only possible," said Zabalka, "but probable."

"With this sleeping sickness, were there any changes in sexual behavior?" asked Monser.

"I never read about any; but in those days nobody wrote about sex." Zabalka replied.

"What kinds of things can produce changes in sexual behavior?" asked Levering of the assemblage.

"Runner, at Bar Harbor, produced oversexed male mice." Bast said.

"With a brain lesion?"

"No, he just put a male mouse in with a different female mouse in heat every night. After a couple of weeks of that, the male would mount anything that was put in the cage."

"About the closest thing to this that I can recall is some work that Kluver and Bucy did with monkeys." Sue Harwell said," When they removed the temporal lobes of the brain the animals seemed to be oversexed; but they had all sorts of other behavioral changes."

"Then brain damage can cause increased sexuality?" Zabalka asked.

"With surgery, it can. But I would expect the same kind of damage in man to produce very extensive personality changes. Besides, I can't visualize a disease agent that would specifically attack the temporal lobes."

"Why not?" said Nick, "there are several viruses that seem to selectively attack the brain stem."

"These people do have extensive personality changes," said Ellen Bast." For one thing, they seem to loose the taboos that most people have about sex. Sex to them becomes an innocuous act similar to eating. The people whom Levering interviewed weren't the least bit shy about describing the most intimate details of their sex lives. Jack and I found the same things in the subjects whom we interviewed.

"Dr. Harwell," Levering said," you're the brain expert. How would you account for what has been observed in these people?"

"I can't account for it. I thought that some chemical might account for the behavioral changes, but that wouldn't explain the fever or headache." she replied.

"Arthur, can your encyclopedic mind come up with something?" Levering asked.

"It is important to logically evaluate the problem and its possible solutions. We know that there is an epidemic of sexual misbehavior which....." Zabalka proceeded to review what Monser and Levering had said as well as the lunch time contributions of the other participants. He concluded with "There appears to be a chemical or disease agent which produces fever and headache, followed by increased sexual activity of pathological proportions. Since the most likely cause of this syndrome is an encephalitis virus, it is imperative that we discover the nature of this agent and the means of preventing its dissemination in the general population."

"Why the hell would you want to prevent it?" asked Nick, yawning obviously.

"Why is the government interested in this?" asked Sam.

"Think for a moment," Levering said, "what would happen to the structure of our society if this turns out to be a communicable disease and it spreads in the population."

"It might improve it!" said Nick.

"You may be right," said Levering, "which is all the more reason for finding out what is happening. After all, we're setting out to investigate this phenomenon; not regulate it."

"Then why the secrecy?" asked Nick.

"If the press got wind of this, we wouldn't be able to investigate it. We'd all be spending our time being interviewed by the press and fighting off drug company representatives. What's more, we'd get so many case reports on everything sexual that we'd be snowed with useless information."

"The newspapers have almost all of the information that we have. How come they haven't tumbled to it?" Sam asked.

"You would think that they would have," Levering said," but it hasn't happened. Except for that one reporter, no one in his wildest imagination would guess at a disease. Even the National Enquirer, which will report on anything, hasn't guessed. Some journalists have attributed it to the changing moral climate in the country -the sexual revolution. The ultra-right wing, as usual, blames it on parental permissiveness, rock music and communism."

The meeting continued, with each participant discussing the incidents from the point of view of their own expertise. Tarkas and Zabalka agreed that a virus was a possibility, but they also were reasonably sure that nothing like this had ever been reported. The Monsers were completely sold on the idea that the behavior was all attributable to some change in the brain of the victims. Harwell was unwilling to be committed to anything and Sam had no data that an epidemiologist might use.

At two thirty, the Monsers left for a television interview in downtown Washington and at three Tarkas and Zabalka left to catch their respective flights home. Levering asked Sam and Sue to stay around for a few minutes after the rest had left.

" I asked you two to stay," Levering said," in the hope that I might persuade one or both of you to work full-time on this problem."

"I'm between problems now and this looks like the most interesting problem that I've ever run into. I'd love to work on it," Sam said.

"I'm in about the same situation as Dr. Michaelson. Do you think that there's enough work for two?" Dr. Harwell asked.

"More than enough," said Levering, "especially if you each work on it from a different angle."

Sam wondered how come he and Sue Harwell had been chosen instead of one of the others, but decided that he would ask Levering some time after things were better established.

Can you both stay over in Bethesda?

Both answered in the affirmative.

"In that case, I'll see you in my office at about ten thirty tomorrow morning." He looked at his watch then waved good-bye.

The doctors Michaelson and Harwell left the building and leisurely strolled toward the hotel. It was a warm autumn day. Neither seemed to wish to break the silence. Sam's mind was full of thoughts about his new project and his new partner. He thought that she seemed a cold fish, but was willing to attribute it to the usual British reserve. At any rate, she was pleasant. He could have gotten stuck with Zabalka as a partner -but not really- if it was Zabalka, Sam wouldn't have volunteered.

Sue Harwell was also wrapped up in her private thoughts, so, aside from a few remarks about the trees and the lovely weather, nothing was said. When they reached The Governor's House, Sam said: "would you join me for dinner?"

"I'd love to."

"Nick told me about a very nice French restaurant that's not too far away; unless you prefer the austerity of MacDonalds."

She laughed, "The French restaurant sounds fine, but I would like some time to change and freshen up."

"Is seven too early?"

"Seven is fine. Where shall we meet?"

"I'll be in the bar, off the hotel lobby."

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