The mist peels back its pestilent curtain amidst barking and motorcycle exhaust. It's a cool morning of another year ruled by the death toll. As soon as he silences the alarm clock with a flick of his hand, Diego reaches for his cell phone and prepares himself to get updated.
Over two million people have died from the pandemic and with the English variant (cryptically named B.1.1.7), business opportunities are plentiful.
He has bought a shipment of chlorine dioxide with his Cantonese partner and is about to sell it on the black market at the price of gold. But first he must create a credibility campaign to facilitate a quick and risk-free sale. For that he hired Cassandra, a high school classmate and former lover, who has excelled at manipulating social networks.
“Hi, Cass. Sorry for calling so late. How are you doing with our project?”
The woman wakes up as she tucks in her girlfriend, who lies half-naked beside her.
“Last night I set up a hoax on Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok with fake credentials, as you asked me to do," she replies, clearing her throat. “Manipulating the scientific article is going to cost you more, Diego. I don't want to expose myself…”
“Don’t worry woman. You are an expert and these news emerge every day. Don't be paranoid.”
Grumbling, the young cybernaut dresses in a linen robe and tosses the cell phone onto the adjoining couch. Her lover tosses and turns in bed and continues to sleep.
Nevertheless, Diego's certainty, he is not the one taking the risk, she thinks; and the spread that CBD prevents dementia almost cost her a police prosecution. You have to be careful with fake news. “Nothing is harmless”, she says to herself, and smiles with irony.
The coffee starts to boil in the Bialetti and Cassandra, who no longer knows who to believe, lines up a gram of vitamin C, two capsules of turmeric with zinc, a spoonful of moringa and her dose of ivermectin on the breakfast bar. She makes a ritual gesture and swallows them together, puckering her mouth at the repulsive mixture of flavors.
“Mmmmm," she sighs, as he turns on the screen, "another day without seeing the sunlight.”
In another part of the city, Beto, who refuses to declare himself a partner of this pair of incompetents (as he often repeats), is waiting for a shipment of cheap hydroxychloroquine to negotiate with a pharmacy clerk and distribute it in the city's peripheral neighborhoods. Poverty is pervasive in these latitudes and he has had to cut back on his profits after the substance was so discredited.
“I should've bought Noni," he muses to himself, "it has a better reputation; the closest thing to a panacea, dammit!”
Down the hillside appears Christian, a very thin and scruffy black boy, who serves as a contact. They greet each other with visible displeasure as two greedy raptors unload the truck with the boxes of medicine. The exchange takes place with few words, as befits any surreptitious operation. Both know that the treasure is close at hand: a fake vaccine being manufactured in another clandestine laboratory in Salvador de Bahia, which promises an unprecedented return.
Beto hides the boxes in a warehouse adjacent to his bicycle store. Next Monday he will begin distribution, once he spends several hours spreading the goodness of the drug through WhatsApp and his different profiles on Facebook and Twitter. But he is angry; this purchase should have been made at the beginning of the pandemic, not now that there is so much competition.
He has gone over the subject ad nauseam with Diego; what they need is a spokesperson, a health professional to endorse these products on the Internet and, if he or she has some prestige, even on radio and television.
A few weeks ago they contacted a general practitioner who was well disposed to serve as a showcase for them, but the deal fell through when they found out that he had several sexual abuse claims among his patients. Now candidates are scarce, so they will have to up their fee offer.
“You can't trust anyone anymore," Beto mumbles, as he lights up a joint of marijuana.
The morning is hot, although it augurs a summer storm, one of those that clear the mind. With a certain reluctance, he decides to go to a neighborhood clinic where a recently graduated doctor, who might be interested in the business, works.
He enters the meager doctor’s office and waits his turn, looking around like a bird of prey. The patient who precedes him, a ragged woman, with a haggard appearance and coughing noisily, comes out, supported by her children.
“She doesn't have much life left," Beto thinks and ostensibly covers his face with both hands.
The doctor is dressed in an impeccable gown and receives him with seriousness. He can't be more than twenty-five years old, clean-shaven and with hair lathered with hair gel. He looks like a character from a silent movie and, as such, he offers a seat to the scoundrel in front of the metal desk that houses a cardboard calendar, his stethoscope and a notebook with notes. There is no telephone in sight and on the side wall a sign announces the well-known hygiene measures.
Beto settles into his chair and, without further ado, interrogates the doctor with the gaze of a trickster.
“Look doc. I’m here because I need your support to promote a vaccine made in Brazil.”
“What vaccine is it?” asks the doctor, clearly interested.
“They are not the kind that get into your genetics, with messages. Surely you are thinking like that Hispanic doctor that it’s going to change your sex or it will make you queer, right?”
The young doctor sharpens his eyes and shows his interest by sitting up in his seat. He is about to correct the speaker, but prefers to remain silent and intertwines his fingers on the desk. The other one rises in a conspiratorial tone, sure that he has set the bait.
“It's like this: in the next three to four weeks a shipment of cheap and safe vaccines for “the covit” will be arriving through the border. You take a short one with you and the only thing you have to do is to place them here in the clinic and the drugstores downtown. We take care of supplying the quantities required. What do you think? Cool, isn't it? Are you up for it? It's good money, doc.”
The doctor asks for more details and declares himself eager to undertake the business, but not before making sure that the risk is minimal and that all corners are covered.
They say goodbye with a firm handshake and a bright smile that anticipates succulent profits for both parties. Beto leaves the office, silently celebrating his unexpected triumph.
There are few people on the street and the clouds seem to cover the two conspirators with evanescent shadows; in the distance, an elderly woman slowly approaches to ask for a consultation.
Once he sees him walk away, Dr. Caballero pulls his cell phone out of his lab coat and dials an 800 number.
“Please put me through to the Interpol agent Dean Samuels in Aruba; I am his contact in South America. I think we have the rat by the tail....”