June 16, 1996
It wasn't the Grande Jatte. Not exactly. It wasn't even the afternoon. Not
quite. But it felt that way--just like the picture--as if nothing could ever
go wrong. The placid park. The bright and dozy day. The neon-blue lake,
shimmering in the breeze.
Lew McBride was on a long run through the narrow park that follows
the shoreline of the Zurichsee from busy Bellevueplatz out to the sub-urbs.
He'd already gone about three miles, and was on his way back, jog-ging
through the dappled shade, thinking idly of Seurat.
The pointillist's great canvas was peopled with respectable-looking men
in top hats, docile children, and women in bustles carrying parasols. But
the age it captured was two world wars ago, before Seinfeld, the Internet,
and "ethnic cleansing." People were different now, and so were Sunday af-ternoons (even, or especially, when they were the same).
To begin with, it seemed as if half the girls he saw were on cell-phones,
Rollerblades, or both. They had pierced navels and mischievous
eyes, and cruised, giggling, past kids with soccer balls, dozing "guest-workers," and lovers making out in the lush grass. The air was fresh from
the Alps, sunny, cool and sweet, its soft edge tainted now and then with
whiffs of marijuana.
He liked Zurich. Being there gave him a chance to practice his German.
It was the first language he'd studied, chosen in high school be-cause
he'd had a crush on an exchange student. Later, he'd acquired Spanish,
picked up a little French, and even some Creole, but German was
first--thanks to Ingrid. He smiled at the thought of her--Ingrid of the
amazing body--cruising past a marina where sailboats rocked at their
moorings, halyards clanking.
He could barely hear them. He had the volume turned up on his Walkman, listening to Margo Timmons sing an old Lou Reed song about someone called
". . . Jane . . .
Sweet Jane . . ."
Music, books, and running were McBride's secret nicotine and, without
them, he became restless and unhappy. They were the reason he did not
own (could not afford) a sailboat--which he wanted very much. His
apartment in San Francisco was a testament to these obses-sions. Near
the windows, the stereo and the oversized sofa, stacks of books and CDs
stood like dolmens: blues, mornas, DeLillo, and opera. Konpa, rock, and
gospel. Chatwin on Patagonia, Ogburn on Shake-speare. And a dozen books
on chess, which McBride would rather read about than play (except,
perhaps, in Haiti, where he and Petit Pierre sometimes sat for hours in
the Oloffson, hunched over a battered chess-board, sipping rum).
Thinking about it made him miss it--the place, the chess, his friends . . .
As he ran, he glanced at his wristwatch and, seeing the time, picked
up the pace. He had about an hour and twenty minutes until his
ap-pointment at the Institute, and he didn't like to be late. (In fact,
being late drove him crazy.)
Headquartered in Kuessnacht, about twenty minutes from McBride's hotel, the Institute of Global Studies was a small, but venerable, think tank funded by old money flowing from
tributaries on both sides of the Atlantic. Like so many foundations
established in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Institute was
dedicated to the idea--the vague and elusive idea--of world peace. Toward
that end, it hosted con-ferences and awarded fellowships each year to a
handful of brilliant youths whose research interests coincided with the
These included topics as diverse as "the rise of paramilitary formations
in Central Africa," "Islam and the Internet," "Deforestation in Nepal,"
and McBride's own study--which concerned the therapeutic compo-nents of
animist religions. With the Cold War a thing of the past, the
Foundation's directors had formed the opinion that future conflicts
would be "low-intensity" struggles fueled, in most cases, by ethnic and
With advanced degrees in clinical psychology and modern history, McBride had been traveling for nearly two years. During that time, he'd produced reports on, among other things, the mass-conversion tech-niques of faith healers in Brazil, the induction of trance states in Haitian voodoo ceremonies, and the role of "forest herbs" in the rites of Candomble.
Two of these reports had been published in the New York Times Maga-zine, and this had led to a book contract. In three months, his fellowship would be up for renewal and, after thinking it over, he'd decided to take a pass. He was a little tired of living out of suitcases, and ready to focus on writing a book.
And since the Foundation had summoned him to Zurich for their annual
"chat," it was the perfect opportunity to let them know of his decision
All of which was just another way of saying that life was good-- and getting better. If McBride's meeting went as planned, he could catch the six o'clock flight to London, arriving in time for dinner with Jane herself--the real Jane, whom he hadn't seen in months.
"Sweet Jane, Sweet Jane . . ."
It was this prospect that spurred his pace, so that he got back to his hotel--the Florida--nearly ten minutes earlier than he'd expected. This gave him plenty of time to shower, shave, and dress, as well as to pack his only bag--a canvas duffel that had seen better days.
His meeting was with the Foundation's Director, Gunnar Opdahl, a wealthy
and cosmopolitan Norwegian surgeon who had given up medi-cine for
philanthropy. Having spoken with Opdahl by telephone from California,
McBride knew that the director wanted him to re-up for a third year. He
was glad that he had this opportunity to meet with Opdahl face-to-face.
It would give him the chance to discuss the reasons behind his decision
to leave, while at the same time expressing his gratitude to the
And, while he was at it, he could visit Jane on the way home.
The Institute was headquartered in a turn-of-the-century townhouse, a
brooding pile of granite built by a Swiss industrialist who had later
hanged himself from a chandelier in the foyer (damaging it in the
process). The building was three stories tall, with mullioned windows
and wavy antique glass. There were copper gutters with gargoyles at the
downspouts, a trio of chimneys poking through the tiled roof, and half a
dozen window boxes, dripping with flowers.
A small brass plaque beside the massive front door declared the Foundation's identity in German, French, and English. Above the leaded glass transom, a closed-circuit television camera stared down as he rang the doorbell once, twice, and--
"Lew!" The door swung open, and Gunnar Opdahl surged into view,
eclipsing the room behind him. Taller even than the six foot one
McBride, the Institute's director was impeccably dressed in an expensive
business suit that had a hand-tailored look, and a Hermes tie that
McBride recognized from the duty free shops at Heathrow.
Rangy yet solidly built, the fiftyish Opdahl moved with the grace and languor of
an aging athlete--which, in fact, he was, having won a bronze medal in
the downhill decades earlier. It came up in conversation one time--the
strange coincidence that McBride's father had medalled in the same Games
(Sapporo, 1972), taking a silver in the biathlon (the first American
ever to place in the event). Opdahl had winced good-naturedly,
complaining that "Norway owns the biathlon--at least, we're supposed to!"
Now, Opdahl shook his hand and clapped a friendly arm around McBride's
shoulder. "So how was your trip?" he asked. "No problems?" The older man
ushered McBride inside, then pushed the door shut be-hind them.
"A little jet lag," McBride replied. "But, no. The flight was fine."
"And the Florida?" Opdahl asked, looking bemused as he took McBride's duffel
and set it beside the door.
"The Florida's great!"
Opdahl chuckled. "Large rooms, yes. But, great? I don't think so."
McBride laughed. "Well, it's cheap, anyway."
Opdahl shook his head, and clucked. "Next time, stay at the Zum Storchen, and let the Foundation worry about the money. I've told you: that's what we do!"
McBride made a gesture that was something between a shrug and a nod, and
glanced around. The Institute's quarters were more or less as he
remembered them, with Persian carpets scattered across the marble
floors, coffered ceilings and oak wainscotting, oil paintings of flowers
and landscapes, and a scattering of blond PCs on antique wooden desks.
Though he'd only been to the Institute twice before, he was surprised to
find its headquarters so quiet. Noticing that surprise, Opdahl clapped
him on the shoulder, and gestured toward the stairs. "There's just us!"
he exclaimed, leading the way.
"Really?" "Of course. It's Saturday! No one comes to work on Saturday--except the boss. And that's only because I don't have a choice!"
"Why not?" McBride asked, as they began to mount the steps. "If you're 'the boss'--"
"Because I live here," Opdahl told him.
They ascended the stairs in tandem, heading toward the third floor.
"I always assumed you lived in the city," McBride remarked.
Opdahl shook his head, and winced. "No. This is . . . what do you say? 'My
home-away-from-home.' " He paused on the landing, and turned to
ex-plain. "My wife lives in Oslo--hates Switzerland. Says it's too
bourgeois." "Well," McBride said, "that's its charm."
"Of course, but--one can't argue these things."
"And your children?"
"All over the place. One boy's at Harvard, another's in Dubai. Daughter's in Rolle."
"School?" "Mmmnn. I spend half my life on airplanes, rocketing through
"And the rest of the time?"
Opdahl flashed a grin, and resumed climbing. "The rest of the time I'm raising money for the Foundation, or sticking pins in maps, trying to keep track of people like you."
It was McBride's turn to smile and, as they climbed, he made
a joke about being breathless. "I thought there was an elevator," he
"There is, but I don't like to use it on weekends," Opdahl
replied. "If there were a power failure . . . well, you can imagine."
On his previous visits, McBride had met with Opdahl and his assis-tants in
a conference room on the second floor--so he was at least mildly
curious about the living quarters overhead. Arriving on the third floor,
they came to a door that seemed entirely out of keeping with the
build-ing they were in. Made of steel rather than wood, it was unusually
thick and sported a brushed aluminum keypad that governed its opening.
Opdahl punched three or four numbers, and the door sprung open with a
metallic click. The foundation director rolled his eyes. "Ugly, isn't
"Well, it's . . . big," McBride remarked.
Opdahl chuckled. "The previous tenants were a private bank," he explained. "From what I've heard about their clientele, a big door was probably well advised."
The office itself was large and comfortable, brightly lighted and fur-nished
in a modern style--unlike the rooms below. There was a wall of books and
a leather sofa. A Plexiglas coffee table was laden with a silver tray
that held a steaming pot of tea, two cups and saucers, milk and sugar,
and a little pile of madeleines.
"Tea?" Opdahl asked.
McBride nodded--"Please"--and walked to the windows behind the desk, where he
marveled at the view. Seen through the trees, the lake was the color of
Windex, and glittered like broken glass. "Spectacular," he said.
Opdahl acknowledged the compliment with a tilt of his head, pouring the while.
"Just a little milk," McBride replied. And, then, noticing the
computer on the director's desk, he cocked his head and frowned.
"Where's the A-drive?" he asked.
"What's an 'A-drive'?"
"For your floppies."
"Oh, that!" Opdahl replied. "There isn't one."
McBride was genuinely puzzled. "How come?"
Opdahl shrugged. "We like to keep our
data confidential and, this way, we can be sure it stays in-house." He
handed McBride a cup of tea and, sitting down behind the desk, gestured
for the young American to take a seat on the couch. Then he sipped, and
exclaimed, "So!" A pause. "You've been doing a wonderful job!"
"Well . . . thanks," McBride replied.
"I mean it, Lewis. I know how difficult it can be to work in places like Haiti. They're filthy, and if you don't know what you're doing, they can be dangerous."
"I got my shots."
"Still . . ." Opdahl leaned forward, and cleared his throat. "You must be wondering what this is all about. . . ."
McBride shifted in his seat, and smiled. "Not really," he said. "I just assumed.
The fellowship ends in a couple of months. . . ."
Opdahl nodded in a way that confirmed the observation even as he dismissed its relevance. "Well, yes, you're right--of course, but . . . that's not the reason
"No?" McBride gave him a puzzled look.
"No." A whirring sound came from the hall outside the office and, hearing it, the two men looked in its direction.
"Is that the elevator?" McBride asked.
The director nodded, his brow creasing in a frown.
"It's one of the staff," Opdahl supposed. "He probably forgot something." Then the
whirring stopped, and they could hear the doors rolling back. A moment
later, there was a knock. "Would you mind?" the director asked,
gesturing toward the door.
McBride frowned. Hadn't Opdahl said, "There's just us"? And something about not using the elevator. But he did as he was asked. "No problem," he said, and, getting to his feet, stepped to the door and opened it.
There was only a fraction of a second to take things in, and no time at all to make sense of it. What he saw was this: a man in surgical scrubs with a gas mask over his face. Then a cloud of spray, and the floor rising toward him. A shower of lights. Darkness.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Syndrome by John Case. Copyright © 2001 by John Case. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.