“Yes. I was taking a walk with my boyfriend when we saw Beverly’s owner have some sort of a seizure. He didn’t fall down, though. He just shut off, like he wasn’t in his body anymore.” And Beverly, poor, sweet Beverly, had barked at him like he was some kind of a monster. She hadn’t barked at anyone else like that. Not once.
“The dog must have been very frightened.”
It wasn’t a question. I found myself answering it anyway, saying, “She was terrified. That’s why I wound up taking her with us. She was barking at him like she thought that he was going to hurt her. She came to me as soon as I whistled for her.”
“Interesting. You didn’t think that maybe she was just an aggressive dog?”
“Had you met this dog before?”
I frowned, annoyance causing me to briefly forget that I was speaking to the CEO of SymboGen. “I already got the ‘did you steal this man’s dog’ questionnaire from the police. I’d never seen him, or the dog, before. But I work with scared animals all day, and when I realized how terrified she was, I couldn’t just sit by and leave her with no one to take care of her. Nathan called an ambulance for Beverly’s owner, and we agreed that it was best if she went home with me until we had a better idea of what was going on.”
“Nathan—that would be your boyfriend, Dr. Kim, from the San Francisco City Hospital Parasitology Department, correct? We offered him a job here at SymboGen once, you know.” Dr. Banks beamed at me, like this was the greatest honor that could be afforded to someone in the medical profession.
“Yes,” I said. “I know.” Nathan had actually tried to take them up on their offer—SymboGen was the place for an up-and-coming parasitologist who wanted to stay on the cutting edge of the field—but had been passed up for employment when their Human Resources Division realized that he was serious about his refusal to accept an Intestinal Bodyguard. They couldn’t technically make that a requirement for employment, but the fact came out, and suddenly the job offer was withdrawn.
“He seemed like a very nice young man.”
“Does your new dog have any problems with him?”
“She’s not my dog, but no, she doesn’t. Beverly likes everyone. She’s the sweetest dog I’ve ever known.”
Dr. Banks nodded before asking another of those overly casual questions, the ones that felt more like traps, iron jaws waiting to slam shut on my throat: “She doesn’t have any problems with you?”
“She slept on my bed last night,” I said. “If she had problems, I think I’d know.”
“Good, good. It’s important for a girl to have a dog. It helps with emotional and social development, and of course, dog ownership will bring you into contact with a wider variety of allergens. Pollens, dander, all those lovely bits of the environment.”
I struggled to muster a smile, and barely succeeded. “So according to the hygiene hypothesis, owning a dog will be good for my immune system?”
“Exactly!” Dr. Banks looked delighted. “Have you been reading the literature?”
“I’ve been listening to the audio versions.” It was hard to avoid learning about the hygiene hypothesis when I was dating a parasitologist. Half the literature Nathan had around his apartment was about the hygiene hypothesis, its impact on the field of parasitology, and the various ways it could be approached, ranging from “gospel truth” to “fringe science become multi-billion-dollar industry.” Even if I couldn’t read it for myself, he was more than happy to explain it all to me.
“I’ll make sure you get a copy of my autobiography before you leave today,” said Dr. Banks, still looking pleased as could be. “I’ll even sign it. And personalize it, of course. Wouldn’t want it showing up on one of the auction sites, now, would we?”
He laughed. I didn’t.
Apparently, that was the cue for him to get down to business. Dr. Banks sobered, folding his hands on his desk and leaning slightly forward, like a kindly professor on one of the crime dramas Mom liked to watch in the evening. “It really is good to see you, Sally. I worry about you. But you know there’s another reason that I wanted to meet with you today.”
I never would have guessed, I thought. Aloud, I asked, “What’s that?”
“I think it’s time we strengthened the relationship between SymboGen and your family. You’ve been here so much over the past few years, I really feel like you’re already a part of SymboGen. Like this is already your home.”
Cold terror clamped down on me with an iron hand, balanced by an equal measure of relief. This was it, then; this was the day when they decided they no longer had to let me leave. How much would they have to pay my parents to make this acceptable? How many zeros on the check that paid for a person? “Oh?” I said, hating the way my voice squeaked on that single syllable.
“We have an animal research division. They’re dedicated to developing strains of the Intestinal Bodyguard that can be used to protect domestic pets, even livestock, from medical calamity. You’re not suited to work in the research arena, obviously, but the animals need care. Many of them originally came from shelters or animal rescue groups. I’m sure they would appreciate having a human to provide them with the love and attention they desire.”
I stared at him for a moment, unsure of how I was supposed to be responding. Finally, I asked, “You think I could do this job?”