29.The Press

Sam picked up the inside line, and the departmental secretary said "A Mr. Birnbaum from the Washington Post to see you."

"Send him over," said Sam.

A few minutes later a short young man with a massive shock of black kinky hair walked into Sam's office. He looked as if he had just stepped out of the pages of the suit section of the Montgomery Ward catalogue, and spoke as if he had spent his entire life at Harvard. He was carrying a tape recorder and a steno pad.

"Dr. Michaelson, I'm doing an in-depth story on Epidemic E and I would appreciate any help that you can give me."

"Epidemic E is top secret. How did you find out about it?"

"It was secret, Dr. Michaelson, but it isn't any more. Washington is buzzing about it. It's just the details that are missing. Dr. Levering gave me the whole story about the May Company rape, the Ogden teachers orgy, the R7001 polio vaccine and the EE children who transmitted the polio-coxsackie hybrid virus. But I'm a journalist, and a good one, so I like to go straight to the source rather than get my information second hand. Accordingly, I want to get the epidemiologic stuff directly from you, the serology from Dr. Tarkis the virology from Dr.Zabalka, and the psychology from Monser and Bast."

Sam was amazed. He seemed to know all about it. Just to be on the safe side, he said, "just a moment, I want to check something with Dr. Levering." He dialed Levering's office and Annabelle answered.

"I'm sorry, Sam, but Dr.Levering is gone until Monday."

"But it's only Wednesday."

"He phoned me this morning and said that he wouldn't be back until Monday."

"Did he leave a number where he could be reached?"

"No, he didn't and I know that he's not at home. He could have gone to his cabin, but there's no phone there."

"Please ask him to call me when he gets back. "He turned to Birnbaum, " I really should clear it with Levering before I talk to you. Could you come back on Tuesday?"

"I flew out here from Washington just to see you."

Sam was uneasy, "Well, if Mike gave you all of that information, it must be O.K. What would you like to know?"

"Start at the beginning and tell me how you first found out about Epidemic E."

In Los Angeles, Birnbaum talked to Jack Monser: "I've just interviewed Dr. Michaelson and he told me all about the May Company rape, the Ogden teachers orgy......................."

Monser picked up the phone and called Sam: "Did you give an interview to Joseph Birnbaum?"

"Yes, apparently Levering sent him."

"Thanks, Sam, I guess that it's O.K. to talk to him if Levering said it was."

In Boston, it was "Dr. Tarkas, I just came from Los Angeles where I interviewed Drs. Monser and Bast...................."

In Philadelphia, Zabalka phoned Tarkas and then, to be doubly sure, also phoned Sam: "I guess if it's O.K. with Levering and the rest, it's not secret any more."

Birnbaum boarded the Metroliner for Washington. In his office, he sat down at his word processor. Eight working hours later, he set the machine to print and fifteen minutes after that, walked into the Editor in Chief's office with the typed copy.

Early Monday morning, Levering phoned Sam: "What can I do for you?"

"A man named Birnbaum, from the Washington Post, was here. He wanted to know all about Epidemic E."

"You didn't tell him anything, did you?"

"He said that you sent him. He seemed to know all about it already, so I told him what he wanted to know."

"I didn't send him and it's still secret. You shouldn't have talked to him!" Levering's tone of voice led Sam to conclude that Mike wasn't really very upset by Sam's actions.

"It couldn't have been secret if he already knew all about it."

"Oh well, I suppose that you would have no way of knowing that the army has classified it as top secret."

"Andy O'Connor told me that before he left."

"Well, I suppose that you'd have no reason to believe that Andy wasn't kidding-he's a great kidder, you know. Don't worry about it, Sam; they can't blame you since you never were notified of it in writing."

Sam hung up the phone and looked up to find a man at his door.

"I'm Henry Gray from the Salt Lake Tribune."

Henry Gray appeared to be in his late fifties and wore a badly rumpled light-colored suit with food stains on the front. Sam thought that they were either ketchup or taco sauce. He was almost completely bald, and what hair he did have was white and unkempt. An unlit half of a cigarette dangled from his lip -he knew better than to walk into a prospective interview in Utah with a lit cigarette. This was no Cub Reporter that the Trib had sent to interview him, this was their best and most experienced. Sam had seen his byline over the years and it was always on important stories. "I've read a lot of your stuff, Mr. Gray," Sam said; "what brings you here?"

"The story on Epidemic E came over the wire this morning. How come the Washington Post got it first? You could have given the local paper a break."

"The Post got it through deceit. I assume that you're above that."

"For that kind of story, I'd hornswoggle my own mother."

"What did the wire story say?" Sam was going to be a lot more cautious this time. Even locking the barn door after the horse was stolen was better than not locking it at all.

Gray gave him a sheaf of typewritten pages. Sam sat down and read through them. They told about all of the preliminary findings: The Benedict School orgy, the L.A. rape and all of the things that Sam had told Birnbaum plus a lot of other stuff which he could only have gotten from Monser or Bast. There was a complete write up of Nick's immunologic work, that he could only have gotten from Nick himself. It was a very complete story except for Zabalka's work -it wasn't even mentioned, although Sam knew that Birnbaum had interviewed Zabalka. Apparently the army had gotten to the newspaper. Poor Arthur , thought Sam, Once again the fates conspire against him. First he was scooped on the polio vaccine, and now he's made a discovery that could make him a candidate for the Nobel Prize and the military declares it top secret. Apparently, it was only the fact that the virus existed in culture that the Army wanted kept secret, not the lurid details that led up to its discovery.

"Is there anything that you can add to that?" Gray asked.

"Nothing that I can think of. It's covered very thoroughly."

"I figured it would be. Birnbaum is an excellent journalist. What I would like from you is the kind of personal stuff that our readers are interested in -you're a celebrity now. Would you mind if our photographer took some pictures?"

"Not at all. I'm new to this celebrity business. What would you like to know?"

"To begin with, what does an epidemiologist do, and what's it like interviewing oversexed women?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, these women who have Epidemic E can't get enough nookie. How do they treat you when you interview them?"

"Some try to be seductive, so I try to do my interviewing when there are others present to avoid any situation that might compromise either me or the person whom I'm interviewing." Sam mentally crossed his fingers as he thought of Ellen Bast, justifying his half truth by thinking that she was a colleague, not a patient.

"Don't you get tempted?" Grey asked.

"Are you going to print this?"

"Sure! That's what the public wants -all of the lurid details that I can get. A good description of a beautiful woman seducing a reluctant scientist will sell more newspapers than a description of the Days of Forty seven parade."

"But my children are going to read this. How do you think they'll feel reading about their father screwing sick women?"

"I see your point -O.K., this is off the record. Did you?"

"Of course not, what kind of idiot do you take me for. These women can't help what they do?"

"That wouldn't stop most men. It's O.K. with you if I print the stuff about them being sick?"

"Sure, but I'd like you to get it straight. The reason that the Epidemic E virus does what it does is because it destroys the brain cells involved in the inhibition of sexual behavior. It doesn't add anything -it isn't an aphrodisiac, a sexual stimulant, in the usual sense of the word."

"It seems to me I remember reading somewhere that brain cells don't reproduce and once they die, they're never replaced."

"That's right."

"Then the change is permanent. These people will live the rest of their lives as sexpots."

"That may be true. Of course, other things can influence their behavior. Obviously, the man involved in that May Company incident isn't going to try that again."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, he doesn't want to go to prison and, aside from his increased sexuality, he's a normal human being."

"How do you think all this publicity is going to affect these people?"

"I have no idea. You'll have to ask them."

"The paper sent a couple of our younger reporters to interview some of the victims." Gray picked up immediately on Sam's smile, "What's so funny?"

"Off the record?"

"Off the record!"

"Depending on their sex, they may find it a very enlightening experience."

"Grey reflected for a minute, then said, "I think everything will be O.K. They sent males to interview males and females to interview females -with one exception. We have a high school kid working for us for the summer. They sent him to interview Elise Prynne."

"A high school kid?"

"Do you think that he'll have a problem?" Gray asked with proper fatherly concern.

"Either a problem or the solution to one."

The reporter was only the beginning. After he left, the photographers arrived, then the TV. people, then the reporters from Time and Newsweek. By the end of the day, Sam was totally exhausted. It wasn't the interviews themselves, but having to be constantly on his guard against even mentioning Zabalka or his work. He went home promptly at five, opened a beer and fell into his easy chair. Then he called Sue and spent half an hour telling her what had transpired. She chuckled through the whole thing.

"How delightful; apparently I've been sleeping with a celebrity. The children will be thrilled."

"One more remark like that and I'll tell the reporters that you started the whole thing."

"Please don't, Sam, I have no desire whatever to be a celebrity. Besides, I think that you love every minute of it. Underneath that conservative exterior is a movie star."

"I suppose that I do like it. Still, it's a bit frightening being out of my element. I have no idea what is going to happen next."

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