This begins with a butterfly. The insect in question, a Monarch, was flitting along a strand of morning glories threaded through the chain-link fence outside my apartment window, systematically dipping its proboscis into the powder-blue cones. It was a warm fecund morning in August, and I was twenty-seven years old. The butterfly mesmerized me, this Danaus plexippus with its ethereal antennae and magnificent orange wings limned by black stripes as bold and stark as the leading in a stained-glass window. How numinous it must have appeared to a lesser insect: a cricket’s epiphany.

Inevitably Lao-Tsu’s famous riddle crossed my mind — “Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?” — and I performed a thought experiment, mentally trading places with the Monarch. I don’t know whether the butterfly enjoyed being an impoverished philosophy student with a particular interest in ethics, but my lepidopterous condition delighted me. The sun warmed my wings, the nectar sated my hunger, and the perfume gratified my olfactory organs, located in, of all places, my feet.

The telephone rang: a representative from my bank, recommending that I go further into debt. I slammed down the receiver and attempted to reenter my Taoist reverie, but it had evaporated. No matter. The butterfly had served its purpose. Thanks to that fragile creature I’d finally acquired the hook on which to hang my doctoral dissertation. Mason Ambrose, embryonic ethicist, would write about the imperatives entailed in humankind’s connection to Danaus plexippus, and to insects in general, and to everything else in the world boasting wings, legs, tentacles, talons, tusks, claws, scales, feathers, fins, fur, flesh, or feet. With a rush of joy I realized that this Darwinist stance would appeal neither to secular Marxists, for whom moral lessons lay exclusively within history’s brute curriculum, nor to evangelical Christians, for whom a naturalist ethics was a contradiction in terms, nor to middle-class mystics, who detested any argument smacking of biological determinism. A philosophical position that could simultaneously antagonize the collectivist left, the God-besotted right, and the Aquarian fringe must, I decided, have a lot going for it.

“I’ve even thought of a title,” I told my long-suffering advisor, Tracy Blasko, as we shared a pitcher of sangría in the Pettifog Café that afternoon.

“That’s half the battle,” Tracy said. In recent months she’d begun to despair that I would ever find what she called, not unfairly, “a topic sufficiently pretentious to hold your interest during the writing phase.”

“I want to call it Toward a Materialist Deontology,” I said.

“Sounds like a goddamn doctoral dissertation,” Tracy replied, unsheathing her wickedest grin. She had a round melodic face whose softness belied her gristly intellect. When the renowned deconstructionist Benoit Tourneur had visited our campus earlier in the year, Tracy alone had summoned the gumption to dismantle, publicly and definitively, his ingenious apologia for Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies. “But whatever you call it,” she added, looking me in the eye, “the topic is eminently worth wrestling to the ground.”

“Will the committee agree?” I said, all aglow.

She nodded. “I’ll call in a few favors. Congratulations, Mason. You’ve cracked the first nut. The fruitcake can’t be far behind. Shall we order another pitcher?”

“Love to, but I’m late for a class.” I rose abruptly, kissed her on each cheek, and explained that in prelude to my Darwinian explorations I was auditing Ben Glockman’s legendary Biology 412, Monkey Business: Sexuoeconomic Transactions in African Primate Communities.

“One more thing,” Tracy said as I started out of the café. “You should call it Ethics from the Earth.”

* * *

For the next two years I taught English at Watertown High School by day and wrote Ethics from the Earth by night, laboring to convert my status at Hawthorne University from ABD — which at most schools stood for “All But Dissertation,” though Tracy preferred “Aristotle Be Damned” — to genuine Doctor of Philosophy, and so it was that raisin by raisin, currant by currant, the fruitcake took form, until 382 manuscript pages lay in my hard drive. And then disaster struck.

Tracy Blasko, dear Tracy who was half in love with me and I with her, poor Tracy went to pieces, checking herself into the Boston Psychiatric Center for clinical depression and alcoholism. The task of shepherding me through the final revisions fell to the innocuous Carol Eberling, a glum Hegelian who had none of Tracy’s acid humor or affection for audacity. But for me the real catastrophe — and I’m afraid this is how graduate students construct these matters — was that the person selected to round out my committee was certain to cause me trouble. The nemesis in question was the celebrated postrationalist theologian Felix Pielmeister, newly arrived from Notre Dame.

There are certain coordinates on this planet, spatial and temporal, where one is well advised to avoid antagonizing the locals. The lower East Side of Manhattan at three o’clock in the morning, for example, or Fenway Park during the bottom of the ninth with the Sox trailing the Yankees by seven runs, or the philosophy department of a major university any day of the week. I never found out how Felix Pielmeister came to visit my Web site. This scholar who’d delivered the Gifford Lectures, published eighteen books, and routinely communed with Saint Augustine’s shade — why would such a man waste his time picking through the dregs and dross of cyberspace? I suppose he went slumming one day, telling his search engine to display all notices of his newest book, an anti-Darwinist screed called The Algorithms of Immortality, and suddenly, voilà: the blistering review I’d composed to amuse myself during the gestation of Ethics from the Earth.

It was Dr. Eberling who alerted me to Pielmeister’s displeasure. “He’s livid, you know,” she said. “Really, Mason, you ought to send him an apology.”

“I will not eat crow,” I replied. “Nor any other bird that Pielmeister would put on my platter.”

What most infuriated the Augustinian, I suspected, was not my essay’s sarcastic tone, savage rhetoric, or unkind cuts. My sin was that I’d caught him in a logical error. Pielmeister’s argument reduced to an assertion that the acknowledged incompleteness of the evolutionary model (paradigm A) meant that divine creationism (paradigm B) must be the case. In other words, he was telling his readers that not A equals B, a lapse in rationality of a sort normally granted only to incoming freshmen and aging department heads.

It’s a particularly bad idea to make academic enemies when the school in question is Hawthorne. At the turn of the millennium our eccentric president, Gaylord Boynton, since retired, inaugurated a forum that endures to this day: dissertation defenses staged in a large auditorium and open to the general campus community. Boynton believed that such a practice would increase both the quality of the dissertations and the intellectual vigilance of the sponsoring faculty. Did this in fact occur? Hard to say. I know only that the innovation makes the average Hawthorne Ph.D. candidate feel less liken he’s explicating a thesis in early twenty-first century Boston than answering a charge of necromancy in late seventeenth-century Salem.

So there I was, striding down the aisle of Schneider Auditorium in prelude to mounting the stage and holding forth on my Ethics while several dozen students and professors stared and salivated. Perhaps a heated argument would break out, complete with red faces and projectile epithets. Maybe Dr. Pielmeister would ask a question so devastating that the candidate would faint dead away. Conceivably the event would turn physical, the professors assailing each other with half-eaten doughnuts. You never knew.

My abdomen spasmed. My bowels went slack. I gritted my teeth, decorated my face with a grin, and entered the arena.

* * *

My passion for philosophy traces to an unlikely source. When I was ten years old, a subversive babysitter allowed me to stay up till midnight watching The Egyptian on American Movie Classics. This 1954 Cinemascope spectacle stars stolid Edmund Purdom as Sinuhe, an abandoned infant who rises to become the most famous healer of his generation, physician to the Pharaoh Akhenaton. It’s not a very good movie, being overlong, ponderous, and badly acted. I love it to this day.

Early in The Egyptian, Sinuhe’s adoptive father, a master of the trepanner’s art, opens up a patient’s skull. “Look, this tiny splinter of bone pressing on the brain,” the old man tells his son. “When I remove it, he will speak again, and walk, and live.”

Young Sinuhe asks, “Why, father? Why?”

“No one knows.”

Cut to our hero, still a boy, walking beside the ancient world’s most philosophical river, meditating on the mystery of it all. “From the beginning I kept to myself,” Sinuhe tells us in voice-over. “I used to wander alone on the banks of the Nile, until the day came when I was ready to enter the School of Life.”

Cut to civilization’s would-be elite prostrating themselves before a basalt idol, among them Sinuhe, now a handsome adolescent.

“In the School of Life were trained the chosen young men of Egypt, her future scientists and philosophers, statesmen and generals,” Sinuhe continues. “All the learning of Egypt lay in the keeping of the gods. For ten years I served them in the School, that I might earn the right to call myself a physician. I learned to bend my body to them, but that was all. My mind still asked a question, ‘Why?’ ”

From the moment I saw Edmund Purdom impersonating piety in that Egyptian academy, I was hooked. The inquiring and defiant mind thriving within a begrudgingly reverent posture — it all made sense. Bow before Isis and Horus and Thoth, perhaps even believe in them, but give them no sovereignty over your thoughts — that was the way to be in the world. Sign me up. Call me Sinuhe.

At Villanova I took every undergraduate philosophy course I could squeeze into my schedule, and soon I’d set my sights on the doctoral program at Hawthorne. Late in my senior year I went through a crisis of doubt when my provisional girlfriend, a willowy physics major named Morgan Piziks, informed me at the end of our fourth date that anybody seriously interested in the question “Why?” should look not to philosophy but to the physical sciences — to cosmology, quantum mechanics, molecular biology, and the periodic table of the elements.

My mind went blank. Try as I might, I could contrive no riposte. I felt instinctively that Morgan’s claim enjoyed the nontrivial virtue of being true. What could I say? What counterblast was possible? By what conceivable stratagem might I send her worldview tumbling down when I couldn’t even get her to sleep with me?

A few weeks later I chanced upon a quote from Wittgenstein that renewed my faith in philosophy. “At the basis of our contemporary picture of the universe lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” Today that assertion strikes me as glib at best, but at the time it saved my sanity. Science could merely describe a phenomenon; it could never tell us the purpose of that phenomenon. The seminal question “Why?” still sat squarely within philosophy’s domain. So I continued to think of myself as the post-Aristotelian Sinuhe, exploring the banks of the Nile, wandering and wondering and idly tossing stones in the water.

* * *

A long table, draped in white, and five folding chairs occupied the center of the Schneider Auditorium stage, as if the audience was about to endure an avant-garde play in which the characters spent two hours sitting down and standing up and doing other minimalist things. Clutching a fresh printout of Ethics from the Earth to my breast, I trod across the boards, assumed my place at the table, and locked my anxious gaze on a plate of frosted doughnuts and a dewy carafe of ice water.

My committee entered from the wings, each carrying a copy of my dissertation. One by one they shook my hand, beginning with Dr. Eberling, wearing the pessimistic countenance of a deer who knows about prions and hunting season. Then came Desmond Girard, last of the Medieval Scholastics, stocky, grim, reportedly in possession of a steel-trap mind, though these days he baited it not for bear but merely for the occasional logical positivist who found his way to Hawthorne. Next to greet me was Joseph Schwendeman, our Nietzschean department chair, exuding his usual air of exultant nihilism. And finally I stood face-to-face with Pielmeister, a hulking, densely bearded figure who looked prepared to defend his views through whatever forum might present itself, from philosophical colloquium to pie-eating contest.

A palpable hush settled over the auditorium as the committee, seated now, passed the carafe around and filled their tumblers. Dr. Girard asked if I, too, would like some water. I accepted his offer, lest I appear self-effacing on a day I was expected to exhibit tough-mindedness.

Dr. Eberling said, “Mr. Ambrose, please begin by telling us what you feel you’ve accomplished in Ethics from the Earth.”

“Be happy to,” I said, cringing to hear such a dumb folksy locution escape my lips, then launched into my well-rehearsed précis. The fact that humankind now finds itself in a post-Darwinian epistemological condition, I explained, need not trouble us from an ethical perspective. Indeed, by problematizing our tendency to view ourselves as creatures apart — God’s Chosen Species, discontinuous with the rest of Nature — the evolutionary paradigm obliges us to address the assorted evils, from overpopulation to climatic disruption to habitat destruction, that we have visited upon this, our only planet. By means of a Darwinian deontology we might at last come to know the true character of our sins, a catalogue of transgressions not against heaven but against the earth and its lifeforms.

Throughout the auditorium there arose mutterings of approval mingled with bursts of applause, a smattering of jeers, and several sustained moans.

“Mr. Ambrose, are you saying that your naturalist ethics supplants the other moral systems surveyed in these pages?” Dr. Girard removed his glasses and rubbed his aquiline nose. “Are you telling us to forget about Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Thomism, Kantianism, and Utilitarianism?”

Although I was prepared in principle for Girard’s question, a nugget of dread congealed in my stomach. I took a slow breath, swallowed a mouthful of now tepid water, and assumed a swaggering smile that immediately degenerated into a grimace. For the next ten minutes I spouted convoluted and uniformly incoherent sentences, many turning to vapor before their subjects could enjoy intimacy with their verbs. Phrase by awkward phrase, I endeavored to explain why the admitted materialism underlying my dissertation was perfectly in step with the paraded of ethical discourse that had marched through human history, from the ancient Greeks to the early Christians to the twentieth-century Rawlsians.

The audience grew restless. They’d come for blood, not dialectic. Only in my concluding remarks did I manage to articulate a reasonably feisty thought.

“Rather than eclipsing Kantianism or Utilitarianism,” I said, “Darwinian deontology adds yet another pigment to the palette of moral philosophy.”

At this juncture Felix Pielmeister slammed his copy of my Ethics on the table — violently, righteously, as if to crush a cockroach. From his throat came a sound suggesting a wild boar simultaneously enjoying a good joke and an important orgasm.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Ambrose,” Pielmeister said, “postrationalist theology is not ipso facto at odds with the arguments of Charles Darwin. And yet I find that these fulminations of yours carry the reader far beyond the theory of natural selection, depositing him in a place devoid of all hope, meaning, and teleology. Is that in fact your position? Is transcendence an illusion? Is God dead?”

Excited murmurings wafted through the hall. This was why our audience had gotten up at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning — to watch state-of-the-art Augustinian theology stomp Mason Ambrose into the dirt.

“It depends on what you mean by transcendence,” I said.

“I believe you know what I mean by transcendence,” Pielmeister replied.

“Honestly, sir, I can’t unpack your question.”

“Stop temporizing, Mason,” Dr. Schwendeman said.

I fixed on the uneaten doughnuts. A solitary fly hovered above the pile, wondering what it had done to merit such sugary grace. My dilemma was elegant in its simplicity. I needed merely to assert that evolutionary biology, like the other physical sciences, had nothing to say about God, and I was home free. I had only to insist that I had no fundamental quarrel with either Jesus Christ or Felix Pielmeister, and I could pick up my union card.

With an impertinent flourish I seized the carafe and filled my tumbler to the brim. I sipped. The fluid that entered my mouth, however, was not Hawthorne tap water but some metaphysical beverage drawn from the Nile by Sinuhe himself. It tasted sweet. I savored the sensation, then took another swallow. Why did I want to be a Doctor of Philosophy anyway? Would I jump through any conceivable hoop to join that dubious fellowship whose attention I had momentarily claimed? What quantity of self-respect was I willing to lose in acquiring this most conventional of prizes?

“I believe I can best answer Dr. Pielmeister’s question with a few questions of my own,” I said at last. “They all begin with Sinuhe’s favorite word, why.”

“Sinuhe?” Dr. Girard said. “You mean from The Egyptian?”

“Correct,” I said.

“That’s not a very good movie,” Dr. Girard said.

“The book was better,” Dr. Schwendeman said.

“Why,” I said, “do our postrationalist theologians, Dr. Pielmeister among them, expect us to prostrate ourselves before a deity who, by the Darwinian insight he claims to endorse, stands exposed as a kind of cosmic dilettante—”

“That is not the language of philosophy,” interrupted Pielmeister, wagging his finger.

“—a kind of cosmic dilettante, idly tinkering plants and animals into existence only to have them go extinct from the very environmental conditions he provided for them?”

Delicate but palpable vibrations filled the stuffy air of Schneider Auditorium. The attendees shifted in their seats, delighted that the gladiator had mysteriously elected to insert his head into the lion’s mouth. My committee was likewise astir, wondering what sort of demon had possessed this outwardly rational candidate.

“Why,” I continued, “was Dr. Pielmeister’s presumably competent God unable to produce the contemporary world through any process other than the systematic creation and equally systematic obliteration of countless species?”

Nervous laughter emerged here and there throughout the audience.

“Why,” I persisted, “would this same divine serial killer have begun his career spending thirteen billion years fashioning quadrillions of needless galaxies before finally starting on his pet project: singling out a minor planet in an obscure precinct of the Milky Way and seeding it with vain bipedal vertebrates condemned to wait indefinitely for the deity in question to reveal himself?”

“Mason, this isn’t going anywhere,” Carol Eberling asserted.

“Right you are,” I said. “The show is over. Time to close the concession stand and sweep up the peanut shells. I would rather teach front-end alignment at an auto mechanics school in Framingham than continue to cast my lot with higher education. And so, with all humility and a deep appreciation for the effort you’ve expended in reading my dissertation, I withdraw my candidacy.”

“Mason, no,” Dr. Eberling said through gritted teeth.

“That is a terrible idea,” said Dr. Girard.

“Most Nietzschean,” said Dr. Schwendeman.

“Withdrawal accepted,” said Dr. Pielmeister.

“Go back to your offices, good professors,” I concluded. “Pick up your paychecks. See who’s reviewed your latest book in The Journal of Astonishingly Articulate Academic Discourse. But from this moment on, Sinuhe is his own man.”

I rose and, stepping toward the footlights, dipped my head in a theatrical bow. The audience members variously clapped, booed, hissed, and cheered. As I rushed down the aisle and into the foyer, a young man drew abreast of me and asked if I wanted to star in his student film about Sigmund Freud’s first sexual encounter. I gave him my e-mail address, then hurried into the street.

* * *

Every college campus has its beer hall, its rathskeller, its underground den of inconsequential iniquity — someplace where the philosophy majors can huddle in the corners hashing over eros and mortality while the athletes sit at the bar discussing fucking and sudden-death overtime. At Hawthorne this favored hangout was the Shepherd’s Pie, a convivial Commonwealth Avenue grotto where, according to rumor, H. P. Lovecraft had once sat composing what is probably his worst piece of fiction, “Herbert West — Reanimator,” but the theory is dubious at best, as that hidebound recluse rarely left Providence.

I skipped dinner and headed straight for the Pie, where I ordered a pitcher of Guinness, then sidled toward my favorite alcove, the very niche in which I’d once gotten my fellow Ph.D. candidate Matthew Forstchen, a card-carrying pragmatist, to admit the logical flaw in William James’s assertion that refusing to believe something is itself a kind of faith. (Do I have faith that the moon is not made of green cheese? Must I experience a divine revelation before rejecting Ouija boards?) Although my intention was to celebrate my escape from academe, I could not summon the requisite jollity. My position at Watertown High was about to evaporate, and since I wasn’t remotely qualified to teach front-end alignment in Framingham or anywhere else, I would soon face the challenge of supporting myself. Returning to my parents in Philadelphia wasn’t an option, as the law of self-preservation required me to distance myself from the slow-motion train wreck that was their marriage, nor could I imagine moving in with my sister Gwen, who was barely surviving through a combination of waitressing and off-Broadway acting gigs and didn’t need a grumpy unemployed little brother in her life.

I was also enduring the emotional aftermath of my meltdown in Schneider. Holding forth on the stage, I’d imagined I was participating in a venerable heroic tradition — the individual versus the system — but now I simply felt like a screw-up. I vowed to send apologetic e-mails to Eberling, Schwendeman, Girard, and perhaps even Pielmeister. Tracy Blasko also deserved a letter, a real one, the kind that reposes on paper and arrives in an envelope. I would thank her for tolerating my eccentricities during the past five years, then attempt to explain why I’d jumped ship.

“Mind if I join you?” a sonorous voice inquired.

I looked up. My visitor was an owlish black man in his late forties, with a salt-and-pepper beard and eyes as dark and soft as plums.

“I’m not in a very good mood,” I told him. “Have a seat.”

We shook hands.

“Dawson Wilcox, Paleontology Department,” he said. “Your notoriety precedes you. Mason Ambrose, late of the Philosophy Department, author of a quirky dissertation called Ethics from the Earth.” On the nearest empty chair he deposited a leather satchel, brown and scuffed and also bulging, as if perhaps it contained a fossil mandible. “May I buy you a beer?”

I gestured toward my pitcher of stout. “I’m fixed for the evening. Here’s a question for you, Dr. Wilcox. Does this pitcher truly hold four beers, or does it merely hold four potential beers, each awaiting the reification that will occur upon being poured?”

Wilcox gave me a blank look. “No wonder philosophers can’t get funded.”

I filled my glass with stout. An ivory wave of foam frothed over the rim and cascaded onto the table. “Will you help me get to bottom of this? The pitcher I mean, not the ontological mystery.”

Wilcox fetched a second glass from the bar, along with a bowl of miniature pretzels. I poured him a beer, grabbed a pretzel, and took a gulp of Guinness.

“I followed you here from Schneider,” my drinking companion said. “Let me congratulate you on what was perhaps the liveliest dissertation defense in Hawthorne history.”

“Self-destruction is always entertaining,” I said, munching.

“I’m here to offer you a job.”

“I never even played with plastic dinosaurs.”

“Oh, no, not in my department, though I appreciate the kind words you put in for Mr. Darwin this afternoon.”

“Let me guess. You decided to become a paleontologist when you fell madly in love with Tyrannosaurus rex in fourth grade.”

Wilcox issued a cryptic laugh and downed some Guinness, embroidering his upper lip with a second mustache. “Ever hear of Isla de Sangre?”

“Blood Island?”

“Ringed by a rare species of red coral,” he replied, nodding. “The coccyx of the Florida Keys, so far south it nudges the Tropic of Cancer. The owner’s a former colleague of mine, Edwina Sabacthani, a molecular geneticist. Eccentric, capricious, smart as God — the sort of person who’ll show up on the last day of an academic conference, sniff out whoever’s been a particularly pompous boor all week, and start hinting that she noticed a major methodological flaw in his latest published results.”

I drained my glass. The Guinness started doing what it was designed to do. “Three cheers for academic conferences,” I said. The one time I’d delivered a paper at a conference, “The Geist in the Machine,” a précis of my master’s thesis on Schelling, I didn’t meet any minds of Edwina Sabacthani caliber, but I was memorably seduced by a tenured Utilitarian from Toronto named Frédérique Wintrebert, who said she’d become aroused by my use of the word praxis.

“Here’s the deal,” Wilcox said. “Edwina has asked me to find a tutor for her adolescent daughter. I think you’re our man.”

“I’m a neo-Darwinian atheist, Dr. Wilcox. The average American mother would rather fill the position with Humbert Humbert.”

“It’s not your Darwinism that caught my attention,” Wilcox said. “What impressed me was your rambling but nonetheless astute overview of Western ethics. I’ve never met the young woman in question, but evidently she has a handicap. In Edwina’s words, Londa Sabacthani ‘lacks a moral center.’ You’re supposed to give her one.”

I poured myself a second glass. “Maybe I should print up a business card. Mason Ambrose. Failed Philosopher. Superegos Installed While You Wait.”

“This is a sad and serious case,” Wilcox said in a mildly reproving tone.

I gulped some stout and picked up a pretzel, orienting it so the parabolas suggested laudable breasts viewed from above. “There’s a whole science to pretzels,” I said as still more Guinness washed through my brain’s aching capillaries. “Mathematicians can plot the twists and curves. Wittgenstein would not be impressed. Actually I don’t think anything impressed Wittgenstein, with the possible exception of Wittgenstein.”

“The position pays one hundred thousand dollars for the first year. After that, you and Edwina can negotiate.”

I sucked on the pretzel, enjoying the sensation of the salt crystals copulating with my taste buds. One hundred thousand dollars? Pielmeister probably made more than a hundred thousand a year, but certainly not per student.

“You have to realize, this is an extremely difficult decision. I’m broke. I’m about to lose my job. I just threw away my future. And yet, sir — and yet you have the audacity to imagine I would accept a small fortune for taking an undemanding sinecure in a tropical paradise.”

Wilcox patted his battered satchel. “I’ve got the paperwork with me.”

“I think I should meet the girl before I sign anything.”

“A sensible precaution, but Edwina and sensible precautions haven’t been on speaking terms in years.” Wilcox unzipped his satchel, rooted around, and pulled out a file folder labeled Sabacthani. “I’m afraid you must either accept the job right now, or send me off in search of another ethicist.”

“One hundred thousand dollars? No fine print?”

“None required — the bold print is outrageous enough. Edwina expects you to drop everything, fly to Key West on Friday, and be prepared to give Londa her first lesson starting at ten o’clock Monday morning. On my way over here I made your plane reservations, and my graduate assistant will sublet your apartment and forward your mail. Don’t worry about your worldly possessions. We’ll crate everything up and ship it to you.”

“No moral center,” I said. “What could that possibly mean?”

Wilcox shrugged, then set the contract on the table, taking care to avoid the liquid rings stamped by our beer glasses. “Your liaison in Key West will be Edwina's colleague, Vincent Charnock, another biologist. Maybe he can answer your questions.”

I retrieved my ballpoint pen from my jacket and clicked the cartridge into place. “One hundred thousand?”

“Plus room, board, and travel expenses.” Wilcox ate a pretzel. “By the way, it was third grade, and it was the ankylosaur, so here I am at Hawthorne, working it all out.”

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