It had been a slow day. John and Pat sat in the shade of the porch out in front of the small laboratory. Their lab coats looked yellow in the dim afternoon sun but, to be fair, they looked yellowish the rest of the time too.
Pat wiped her brow and took a sip from her beer. She wiped some of her blonde hair from her face and lit a cigarette.
John secretly marvelled at her beauty as she took a drag and then offered him the slightly crooked Marlborro. He took it. There had been a time when his health was important to him, that time was over.
Pat exhaled slowly and carefully, following the stream of smoke up with her eyes. 'Anyway, you were telling me how you came to wind up here.'
'I needed a change of climate.' John smirked. He knew he would tell her but he liked to tease her. Besides, he wanted to tell the story right. It was the best, and worst, story of his life. He figured it might as well help him impress this pretty lab assistant. He had been an unremarkable person all of his life. To be frank, he would have been perfectly happy to remain unremarkable his entire career. Since this was no longer an option, he might as well go for it all out. He was trying to grow a beard. He'd thrown away his matching set of suitcases and bought a used backpack. He wore kaki. If only his brother could see him, the smug bastard.
'No, come on. Your nose peels and your eyes water at the slightest hint of dust, which is pretty much all the time around here. Tell me.' Pat poked John with her elbow.
John sighed. 'OK, so, there I was; fresh out of Cambridge...'
Pat poked him again. 'You told this part. Tell me about meeting the president!'
John shifted his weight and tried to find a more comfortable way to lean against the uneven adobe wall. Birds chirped and the long shadows were moving across the empty patio. Where to start? Should he... 'Is that the phone?'
Pat looked up, startled. 'Yeah, I'll get it.'
John got a long look at her posterior as she stood up and walked inside to answer the phone. He heard her answer. He tried to listen, but her voice was just that little bit too muffled by the thick walls and oak door. He couldn't make out the actual words, but he could follow the rhythm of the conversation. From the sound of it another family of farmers had fallen ill and someone somewhere felt it necessary to alert them just in case it was the Black Death this time. If you asked John, Ebola couldn't do more damage in this place than poverty was doing all on it's own. He'd like a small Ebola outbreak, or just a really nasty flu even. He felt slightly guilty about thinking this, like a fireman wanting to take a flamethrower to the place; no one could be blamed for thinking it, but as a professional you shouldn't. There had been talk of setting up a maternity clinic. John had, in private, protested on the grounds that it would only encourage the locals. It was harsh, he'd said, but if this place was a sick cat it would be put down, not encouraged to have a litter.
Of course Pat had objected that the cat was having a litter anyway.
John had only shrugged. He wasn't here out of idealism, like she was.
He just did his job, glad for the paycheck, glad for the anonymity and the lack of excitement.
Pat came back from inside and sat down. She lit another cigarette. John had smoked hers up. 'So, that must have been exciting, meeting the president?'
John made a face. 'Like it would have been exciting for a Jew to meet Adolf Hitler.'
Pat looked at him as she took a long drag. 'That was in poor taste.'
She was Jewish.
John waved dismissively. 'Yeah, sorry. Anyway, yeah, I met the president but he wasn't very happy with me.'
'What did he say?' Pat looked genuinely interesting. Her eyes were twinkling and a small drop of sweat made its way down her blouse.
'You have to understand I meant well.' John tried to sound convincing.
He was finding it hard. He hadn't meant well, he'd seen promotion and glory on the horizon and he'd been stupid. That was not the same thing as meaning well. 'So, this was when the PMS had just been implemented. We were happy like monkeys with two dicks with it.'
Pat nodded. She knew about the Pandemic Monitoring System. It was why she was there, why she had a job. The recession had hit hard and as a recent graduate she hadn't expected to find work at all. But the newly elected president had changed all that. Socialized healthcare had made things a bit better but when the PMS went on-line they couldn't hire doctors, lab technicians and IT people fast enough.
'So I had been flown in from the UK only a few weeks before. They wanted me because I understood computers, had done my thesis on statistical analysis of epidemics and could get a security clearance. I was rushed through the paperwork and put to work as soon as they could find me a desk and a PC.'
Pat wiped her brow again. Her blouse bulged and for a brief moment John could look right down it. She wore a black lace bra. 'Hey, you want another beer?'
John shrugged. 'Sure. Any Corona left?'
Pat jumped up and went inside, leaving the door open this time. Bugs would get in, John knew, but he didn't particularly care.
'Only Bud, I'm afraid. Still want one?' Pat shouted from inside.
'Sure!' John shouted back. Cold and wet was good enough for him. Besides, he didn't actually like Corona, he drank it because she did.
Pat returned with two bottles of beer. She handed one to John and took a swig from hers before sitting down again. 'So all your computer toys were humming away and gathering all lovely data from all patients everywhere...' Pat looked at John, anxious to hear the rest of the story.
'Yeah.' John took a sip himself. The beer was cold and tasted of piss.
'Since no one could refuse to cooperate anymore, we were more than happy as a monkey with two dicks. We had ten dicks at least and a free subscription to Playboy. That's how happy we were.'
John took another sip. During the brief pause this granted him he reminded himself to not sound bitter. Women didn't like bitter. Be cool; tell the story as a fish tale, not a drama. 'So there I was, I probably still smelled British. That's how briefly I had been there, and I noticed a spike.'
Pat arched her eyebrows. 'A spike?'
'Yeah, a significant deviation. Something was up.'
Pat nodded, she knew what a spike was. It meant the computer was throwing up some data which was different, possibly bad-news different.
'So what did you do?'
John sighed again. This was the hard part. 'I pushed the proverbial red button. It looked bad, you know. Lots of people who had been to the same region in Mexico, all with the same symptoms. I checked of course, and double-checked.'
Pat nodded again, she'd come to know John as the type to check and double-check. She took another sip. 'So this was when you met the president?'
'Yeah. By the time my superiors had looked over the data he was already on his way. So, they decided I could be the one to tell him.'
'What did you do?' Pat took another sip. The sun was nearly gone now. It never ceased to amaze her how fast the sun set near the equator.
'I showed him the data. I hoped he'd see the funny side, or perhaps even agree that a few false alarms were worth the one real one.'
Pat put her bottle down, engrossed in the story. 'He didn't see it that way?'
John shook his head and tried to smile. 'Nope.'
'So they sent you here?'
Pat put her hand on Johns knee. He could really see all the way down to her navel now.
'Didn't he say anything?'
'Only one thing, really. After the chewing out was done.'
'What? Come on, tell me!'
John tried to pry his eyes away from Pat's cleavage. 'You really want to know?'
John took another sip. A big one. 'He said...'
'Don't drink the water.'