Angel Falling Softly

Chapter 33

Any burden's heavy if far borne

Milada sat next to the bed, where Rachel normally sat. She retrieved the WMI proffer from her attaché. It was a rough draft, full of estimates, talking points, trial balloons. Another month to finish the preliminary audit and put together a proposal. Another month after that to negotiate stockholder compensation and golden parachutes. By the end of the year, she hoped.

A nurse poked her head into the room. Her name tag identified her as “Suanne Lane, R.N.” She said, “Ma’am?”

Milada looked at her, threatened a glare, and then cocked her head to one side, innocently, quizzically. “Is there a problem?”

The nurse returned her look with equal severity.

Well, then?

The nurse nodded and backed out of the room and continued down the hall. Milada watched her through the glass. She might have to speak to that nurse alone. She returned her attention to the proffer. She took out a pen and circled a number she didn’t agree with, another she knew was wrong. Her pen hesitated on the paper, numbers and tables blurring together.

She rubbed her eyes, blinked hard, but her mind kept running away from the subject at hand. Or rather, it kept running to the girl beside her.

Milada had vaguely begun to understand the darker reasons for her attraction to the child and her irrational willingness to respond to Rachel’s pleas. She knew what it meant to be the last, best hope. She’d hunted for her sisters as the lioness hunts for her cubs. They could not have survived without her. And how she’d enjoyed tracking the prey, seducing them, cutting them away from the herd. Making them follow her, obey her—making them like her before delivering them to their fate.

“Sometimes I think I’m turning into him,” she’d told Kammy once. Kammy didn’t speak to her for months afterward. But Milada relished being the one who provided for them, the one Rakosi depended on. She would allow nothing to stand in her way.

She’d been in charge then and was now. Michael played the godfather role well, to be sure. He made and enforced the rules. He condoned or endorsed her decisions. And brooded in his Central Park West manse and carried on like a young Howard Hughes cast in The Picture of Dorian Gray, everything growing old around him while he remained the same.

DEI’s success was her success. It was enough, she told herself. It was enough. She hadn’t deliberately injured another human being in three hundred years. Not since Rakosi died. Not in a blood lust and not in anger.

And before Rakosi died? Yes, she had known what would happen to Rakosi’s victims. She understood why he did what he did and what he wanted: eternal companions to share the same lonely, eternal dusk. And so she had inured herself to a world in which a nasty, short, brutal life was the lot of common humans.

Even now, as removed from the temptation as she had become, as far removed from the instinct and inclination that had occasioned the sin, she still could not forget that she had once been tempted, that once she fell. There were stains on her soul that did not fade.

She could not change the past. But this child’s future she could change.

When Milada got back to Sandy, Kammy was sitting on the porch reading a journal by the glow of the porch light. Her Camry was parked next to the mailbox. Kammy could afford any car in the lot, and she always chose a Camry.

Milada parked the Mercedes in the garage and ducked out before the door closed. She checked her watch. Ten-thirty.

Kammy said, as she came up the walk, “You said to stop by sometime.”

Milada realized with a small start of apprehension that Kammy was wearing her scrubs. They could have passed each other in front of the hospital and not even known it. She reminded herself again: Kammy doesn’t work pediatrics.

“I hope you haven’t been waiting long. You should have called first.”

Her sister shrugged the way she always did. “Your cell phone wasn’t on. I left a message.”

Milada got out her phone and turned it on.

Kammy gave her a funny look. “Milly turning her phone off? The thin mountain air must be getting to you. Garrick will never believe me. Anyway, I was at Wylde, and it’s not that much farther to here.”

Milada breathed a quiet sigh of relief. She unlocked the front door. Kammy followed on her heels.

“You’re certainly not cramped for space,” she observed. “Your kitchen is bigger than my flat in New York.”

“My limo’s bigger than your flat,” Milada said, getting the bottle of Sparkling Catawba from the fridge.

“What’s that?”

“A ginger ale and grape juice concoction.”

“I’m game.”

Milada filled two glasses. Kammy sat down at the counter and took a sip. “Doesn’t suck. Rather bland, though. A wine spritzer sans the alcohol.”

“Sort of a metaphor for this place.”

“The mountains are nice. In the mornings I don’t have to mess with my Indiana Jones outfit.”

“At least you don’t mind wearing your Indiana Jones outfit.”

“When it’s a hundred degrees outside? Yeah, I do.” She drank a little more of the Catawba. “How’s the Wylde deal going?”

“A few critical variables are still up in the air. It’ll all shake out soon enough.”

Kammy nodded. “I’m for it.”

Milada made no effort to hide the surprised look on her face.

“Hey, I’m not agreeing to any of this running-the-company business. I’m only saying that there are a whole bunch of cool things we could do with the resources they’ve got there. I wonder if St. Jude is tied into their databases.” She got out her cell phone. “Sending myself a memo,” she explained, thumbing the keyboard pad.

Milada said casually, “I’ve been thinking that Wylde presents a good opportunity to analyze the properties of the virus.”

“The virus?” Kammy snapped the cell phone shut and looked up. “Oh, that virus.”

“You have to have the mutation to survive, right? What if a way could be found to mitigate that condition?”

“Hypothetically the mutation could be engineered with a retroviral vector,” Kammy said. “Nobody’s got it to reliably work yet, but let’s pretend. So a significant fraction of the population gets to live forever, farming the rest of the human race for their hemoglobin. Wow, talk about your haves and have-nots.”

“I don’t mean that.”

“Even if the CCR5 barrier could be engineered around, then what? We’re sterile, remember? Humanity would die out. Pretty much the definition of a Pyrrhic victory, no? I mean, there’s a reason for the rules.”

“The rules Michael made up, you mean,” Milada said.

“Be serious. That’s like saying gravity’s just a rule Newton made up. Try stepping off a tall building and see if you don’t go splat. We can’t go around infecting people willy-nilly. I for one have no desire to end up on a slab at the CDC being puzzled over by a bunch of epidemiologists. The only way to keep a secret is to keep the secret.”

“No one said anything about willy-nilly.”

“There’s always a price,” Kammy said. “You know that. We paid it. Do you want to pay it again? Do you really want to make somebody else go through that again?”

“Conditions can be mitigated.”

“What, like an existential epidural?”

“You’re the doctor. Explain why any woman would have a child more than once.”

“Hormones. Sex. Endorphins. Family. Love. Progeny.” Kamilla’s eyes narrowed. “What are you getting at?”

“I’m not getting at anything.” Milada said, a bit too defensively. “What about killed virus? Blood to blood, not enough to infect but enough to generate the necessary antibodies and attenuate the immune response? I recall you mentioning that the infection threshold is fairly high.”

“In a normal, healthy human.” Kammy nodded. “What immune response?”

“Say, organ transplantation.”

An amused look flashed across her sister’s face. “You’ve been doing your homework, Milly.” She thought about it for a minute. “You’ve got a point. That’s the one thing that really cripples quality of life even in successful transplant patients.”

“What about the venom? Its immunological qualities. Remember that girl Zoë slept with?”

“Yeah. Good thing her parents weren’t keen to nose about the exact nature of the relationship.” But she shook her head. “It’s pretty weak tea. Even concentrated. A mild allergic response, yes. It’s not going to touch a real autoimmune disease like lupus.”

“Graft versus host?”

“GVHD? Not a chance.”

So it was back to the virus. “What about the genome? The genes that keep us living?”

Kammy laughed. “My God, Milly. You really are keen to monetize this investment of yours.”

Milada answered with a nonchalant shrug. “It’s what I do.”

“You know,” Kammy said slowly, “you might have something there.” She rested her elbows on the counter and tilted her head to the side. “Yes, that just might work. Sneak random samples into the database tagged as anonymous donors.”

She stared vacantly off into space. Milada could practically hear the gears turning inside her head. “Allergies. IgE-receptor interaction. That’s a good place to start. Specific to the genome but abstract in the application. Start with the nuts and bolts, not the whole bloody car. Build from the ground up. Go for the universal applications. And no trail of breadcrumbs to backtrack from there to here.” She poked herself in the chest. “That way we can reference it as public data. Can’t exactly run around calling it some magical Romanian elixir from the old country. The FDA’s funny about that.”

She got out her cell phone and keyed another memo to herself. “And there is a cancer angle,” she said, as much to herself as to Milada. “Dendritic cell immunotherapy. A long way down the road, but worth exploring.”

“How much farther down the road?”

“A decade.”

Milada stared at her sister for a long moment. She couldn’t keep the thought out of her head: Jennifer can’t wait that long.

Kammy tucked her phone back into her waistband and spun around in the chair. She peered down at the family room. “Hey, you got cable?” She slid off the stool and skipped down to the family room and found the remote. The television came on to CNBC. Kammy sat back on the couch. That was when she saw the Triple Combination sitting on the coffee table.

“What’s this?”

“Mormon scriptures. Troy gave it to me. He was my date, if you recall.”

“How’d that turn out?”

“Not exactly a disaster, but close enough. He’s a rather charming young man in his own naïve way.”

“In other words, he had no intention of sleeping with you.”

“Most definitely not.”

Kammy laughed. “See, Garrick’s never wrong about stuff like this. Two cheers for strong moral fiber.”

The late-night repeat of the Donny Deutsch show came on. He was interviewing Eric Schmidt of Google. Kammy said, “You hear about Uncle Frank’s latest business scheme?”

Milada groaned. She hadn’t, and she didn’t want to know.

“Some green-energy investment business he’s starting with Alan Ridgeway.”

“Frank is a never-ending train wreck in slow motion.”

“You’re the one always harping on us to do something productive with our lives. Frank finally took it to heart. Monkey see, monkey do.”

“Exactly.”

“I don’t know. Maybe being a fun guy to be around counts as leading a productive life.”

“Maybe.”

Kammy flipped through the channels until she found Letterman. They sat there and watched the last half-hour of the show. It occurred to Milada that since coming to Utah she had seen more of Kammy than in the entire year before. Being strangers in this strange land together had made them sisters again. She didn’t want the relationship to end.

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