" - No tribes are involved. No people at all," Roswell interrupted. "This vine, it grows several thousand feet up in the mountains, in a national park."
This caught her for a moment. She turned the fact over in her mind, examining it. "Where'd you... Who found the vine?"
"Look," said Stevens. "Jaguars were the ones to first use quinine, gnawing on bark from a cinchona tree whenever they had malaria. Pigeons discovered the power of coffee beans. For thousands of years humans have learned about drugs from watching other animals. Primates are especially sophisticated at botanical pharmacology. Female muriqui monkeys, for example, utilize over forty plants for everything from parasite control to contraceptives."
Max said, "Contraceptives?"
"During famines, the females consume a plant that's high in a progesterone-mimicking compound so they won't waste energy on pregnancy."
"Can we get back to the subject here?" Roswell used shorter sentences, a sort of staccato delivery. "Dubois is her name. The person who sent in the vine. She's French. A primatologist working with gorillas in the Rwandan mountains. She noticed the adult males would crush leaves of the vine in their mouths, then spit them out. Got curious about possible bioactive properties. Sent a sample to her college roommate who's a chemist."
"A chemist who happens to work for us," Stevens said. Roswell continued, "We know gorillas are genetically prone to heart disease. Among the males in captivity, it's the biggest killer. Half the great apes you see at the zoo are on Lipitor."
Stevens held up one finger, waiting for the pause. He was proud of this next bit of information. "Contrast those gorillas with the ones in the mountains where this vine grows. The area happens to be where Dian Fossey set up her research station in the 1960s. For the decades since then, scientists have been doing postmortems on every dead gorilla they've found in the area, recording the results." He added, "No sign of heart disease. Ever. No myocardial infarctions, no dilated cardiomyopathy, nada. Even in the ones that die of old age."
Roswell said, each word slow and enunciated. "This vine might be why."
"Fuck." Fricatives so satisfying. "Fuck." On bad days she used to not be able to stop her swearing. Now she used it as a control valve, letting off steam when necessary. Done this way, it sounded almost the way others swore.
The men went still. They were surprised, but not necessarily displeased.
Max closed her eyes, breathing, concentrating on finding errors in their logic. "Gorillas are a different species. What works on them might not..."
"You ever talk to a vet specializing in great apes? They fill the prescriptions at CVS. The only difference is dosage."
Max said, "The primatologist? What about her?"
"Yes, she found it. She's got a prior claim."
"Well, about her, there are pluses and minuses." Stevens chose his words with care. "She did sign away her claim."
"A big plus," said Roswell.
"She signed in exchange for us paying for park guards to patrol the mountains for the next decade. I guess hunters in the area tend to kill the gorillas. She's a big softie about the apes."
Roswell said, "Paying for the guards works for us. We'll be protecting the world's remaining mountain gorillas. The advertising department will love it."
"And the minuses with her?" asked Max.
"She won't send us more of the vine or show us where she found it."
"God knows," Stevens said. "She's weird."
"Dr. Tombay, listen." Roswell thumped his finger on the arm of his chair as methodically as a metronome, beating out a rhythm to his words. "Because we're paying for the guards," thump, "she'll let you stay at the research station." Thump. "You can search as long as you want." Thump. "She thinks no one can find the vine."
Excerpted from Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman. Copyright © 2012 by Audrey Schulman. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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