Authors: Peter Meredith
Riggs groaned. He had been hoping that Rothchild would be running the meeting. With Kip he knew that whatever was coming, good or bad, was going to be a headache. “After you, Dr. Lee,” Riggs said, opening the door to Stephen Kipling’s palatial-sized office. Not only was it palatial in its dimensions, it was also palatial in accommodations. In the center of the room was an oval-shaped table that could sit thirty people, though currently it held just ten, congregated at the far end.
The two principals were there: kindly, old Rothchild who needed only a red suit and an extra twenty pounds to make him resemble a mall Santa, and Kipling who was dapper as always in a three-piece Armani. The other six Track investigators were there, looking ill at ease in their lab coats, sitting stiffly in the humungous high-backed leather chairs
The other two men at the table were as different from each other as night and day. The first was a slight man in a grey suit sporting a nervous smile and a mustache of sweat across his upper lip. It was Jim Hartman who headed up the procurement division—he was notoriously stingy, which was why Kip kept him around despite receiving complaints from every scientist who had ever walked through the gleaming R&K doors.
The second man was unknown to Riggs or Thuy. He was tall, with muscles that stretched the fabric of his suit jacket at the biceps and shoulders. He was somewhere in his late thirties and had quick eyes—they were a soft brown in color, but were sharp. Clearly, he wasn’t a scientist. First off he sported a warm tan, which meant he didn’t spend his days with his nose pressed against a microscope. Secondly, there was his build; it was somewhat of a rule that true scientists couldn’t wield their slide rulers without getting winded and this guy looked like he could twist Riggs into a pretzel and not break a sweat.
Riggs immediately pegged him as “security” which didn’t bode well at all. It either meant that something had leaked or that the paranoia factor of the bosses was ramping up. Neither was good. Inwardly he cursed while outwardly he ignored the security man completely and brought out his most genuine fake smile. “It’s good to see you Kip and you Dr. Rothchild.
Kip returned the fake smile with equal sincerity. He gave a warmer one to Thuy, asking her, “Where was the good doctor?”
“As if we don’t know,” Dr. Milner interjected before Thuy could do more than open her mouth. Several of the other scientists smiled at this. Behind her, Riggs cleared his throat and gripped her shoulders tighter.
Thuy, who felt as though Dr. Riggs had been using her as a human shield since they had entered the room, replied to Milner, “In the cafeteria, about to sit down for a late lunch.”
Riggs tried not to let his surprise show as he escorted Thuy to her chair and pulled it out for her, something he never did. Rothchild watched the display of manners with a gentle smile on his wrinkled face while Kip waited with ill-disguised impatience until Riggs took his own spot at the table. Then he displayed his trademark smile that was supposed to put everyone at ease. It didn’t fool any of the regulars at the meeting. A smile from Stephen Kipling could mean anything, from a promotion to a diagnosis of a terminal ailment.
"The Chinese symbol for crisis, as some of you know, is the combination of the characters for danger and opportunity." Here Kip paused and nodded to Dr. Lee. She was half-Vietnamese and half-American GI, and despite her extensive education, she didn't know one Chinese symbol from another. Still she nodded back in an attempt to get Kip's focus off of her.
"Crisis!" he exclaimed with a fist held in front of his chest. "It's where we find ourselves today. In the midst of danger and opportunity. I am proud to announce that
have finally solved our Com-cell puzzle. The cure for cancer is ours! It's a great leap forward, but not one without risks." He continued speaking in his self-aggrandizing manner, interspersing the word
frequently although he had done very little to help the project in any way. It hardly mattered what he said since the lead researchers weren't listening. They glanced back and forth from one to another, each wondering who had managed the impossible and what the breakthrough would mean to their position on the project. Only Thuy did not look around. She was more interested in the gentleman in the black suit.
Normally, the men who provided security for R&K Pharmaceuticals were aggressively anti-intellectual, most likely due to feelings of inadequacy. This man was different. His eyes were disarmingly soft and brown, but they were also shrewd. He watched the scientists, judging their reactions, seeing the fear in some and the haughty, god-like ego of others. He was literally in a room full of geniuses, but unlike the man in the grey suit next to him, he was completely unfazed.
Thuy was impressed, right up until he turned that piercing gaze on her. Their eyes locked and her inner calm broke like glass. Her feelings were suddenly jumbled and somehow he even seemed to notice this. She hadn't budged or jerked or reacted in any way, still he smirked in an irritatingly knowing manner before turning his chin slightly to look at Riggs.
Riggs felt like he'd had the rug pulled out from under him. So far his track of combining stem cells with alkaloid producing fungi had shown the most promise in both the static carcinoma trials as well as with his favorite test animals: opossums. Still there was no way he could claim that he had perfected his version of the Com-cell. It was one of the others.
He snuck a peek at Thuy, forcing himself to look past her exotic beauty--
It couldn't be her
, he thought. Her choice of the
mycotoxins was so weak that nobody had given her any chance. Riggs had never been worried about her. If anyone was going to find the cure, other than himself that is, it would be Milner. Riggs would never admit it aloud, but he knew that Milner was smarter than he was. A glance in his direction, however, revealed the egotistical bastard looked about ready to shit his pants.
Kip seemed to be enjoying the uptight, near-silent chaos he had sown. "And thanks to my partner who has spared no expense bribing every one of our top-rated sleaze ball politicians, we have fast track priority from the FDA,” he concluded.
"Meaning what exactly?" Thuy asked.
Kip’s smile grew. "Meaning, my dear Dr. Lee, that we begin human trials five weeks from today. Congratulations."
The other scientists gaped at her and only Riggs was able to force out the word: "Congratulations."
Far from being ecstatic, as Riggs would've been, Thuy was irate. "That's too soon," she said. "We need at least one more round of animal trials before..."
Kips cleared his throat, loudly. "We will take that up later, but first we have some minor changes to announce. As of this moment we are discontinuing the other track research projects."
Riggs wanted to puke. Two years worth of work down the drain. What was worse in his mind was the fact that at best he would be relegated to some minor role in the new project where he would receive a hardy handshake and an "attaboy" when the cure was perfected. At worst he would be cut out completely--then there was the very real possibility of being fired. With the economy as crappy as it had been for the last five years, research dollars were drying up and with them, senior research positions seemed to be evaporating into thin air.
Rothchild saw the looks of dismay around the table at hearing the good news. "I would like to thank you all for your hard work. You all deserve an attaboy for your perseverance and dedication; however from this point on we will be advancing with a slightly smaller staff. Doctors Lee, Milner and Riggs will be staying on. The rest of you..."
Dr. Lipcomb leapt to his feet. "I can't believe you picked her track! It's...It's preposterous. Her work is crap. Her first trial showed only a three percent success rate for God's sake! And her second was only a little better at fifteen."
The senior partner nodded to the facts. "Yes," Rothchild agreed. "A five hundred percent increase in effectiveness. Her third trial was..."
Again, Kip cleared his throat. "Not yet, Edmund. I'm sorry Dr. Lipcomb we have made our decision, which brings me to an introduction I should have begun with. This is our new chief of security, Mr. Ryan Deckard. He has some things to announce."
The man in the black suit stood, glanced once at a small note and said, "Doctors Lipcomb, Rhagamesh, Beatty, Malinksi and Walters I will need all of your notes pertaining to your research by tomorrow at noon."
Andre Beatty snorted, "Do you have an e-mail address?" This was Beatty’s idea of a joke. The data compiled by each scientist over the last few years was more than enough to fill the hard drives of ten home computers. Beatty knew that e-mailing that much information would be a process of weeks.
"You misunderstand," Deckard said. "I want your hand written notes. The computers themselves are being seized as we speak."
This created another outcry larger than the first. Riggs barely heard. He was busy sighing in relief; the axe had fallen on someone else's head. Kip was glaring. "You each signed a contract. You each understand proprietary and intellectual property laws. And you each will comply with them or you will be subject to more lawsuits than you can afford in twenty lifetimes!"
Rothchild made a face at Kips heavy-handed tactics. "I'm sure threats aren't necessary. These are all ladies and gentlemen of honor."
"Then explain the leak!" Kip replied. The scientists had been whispering or grumbling under their breath but at the word "leak", they snapped their lips closed and again glanced around at each other.
Seeing as any discovery was the intellectual property of the company they worked for, the quickest way--really the only way to get filthy rich, as a scientist was to play corporate spy. Undoubtedly, the cure for cancer would be worth billions to the pharmaceutical company that could patent it first, so it followed that any company falling behind would be willing to pay out tens of millions to the unethical man looking for the big payday.
Rothchild could only shrug. "I can't explain the leak. However I have full confidence in these men."
"And I have full confidence in Mr. Deckard." Kip nodded to the security specialist. Deck had been eyeing the scientists closely during this exchange; none of whom dared to meet his gaze.
"I appreciate it," Deckard said, without emotion, dismissing the talk of trust. "Now if we can clear the room." Under his intense gaze, the fired scientists filed out in various states of unhappiness. When they had left the room, Deck turned to glare at Kip. "My advice was not to discuss the leak. Now you've made my job much more difficult."
Kip, who never liked it when someone pointed out a mistake of his, made a show of being unconcerned. "Maybe not. Perhaps we've flushed the culprit out into the open. Perhaps since he knows we're onto him he'll try to rush things and make a mistake."
Dr. Milner had been sitting this entire time tapping his pen on the desk, his face twisted into a sneer. He cared nothing about leaks when it wasn't his own work. Clearly unhappy to have been beaten to the cure, he rounded on Thuy. "How'd you do it?"
Thuy only smiled like a cat sitting in a pile of golden canary feathers.
Erik Von Braun worked alone. He had no lookouts or anyone to watch his back in case things got hairy. He didn't have friends or accomplices and he really didn't want any. He liked working alone because he never had to worry about anyone snitching or letting their tongue wag after a couple of snorts of this or that, and he never had to fear that some jackass would start bragging in a moment of manly stupidity.
This self-enforced loneliness was why he was so successful at killing motherfuckers in the joint. For Von Braun there was only the name of his next victim and his payment: a dozen cartons of cigarettes. He didn’t ask for instructions and he didn’t take requests in the manner in which his victim would die; he kept things simple, having only one rule: he would not kill a fellow white man, unless, of course, that man was a proven nigger-lover. Then, Von Braun, who looked like the poster-boy for the Aryan nation, would cut his fee in half. Nothing burned his nerves and drove him into a rage more than a goddamned, motherfucking, nigger-lover.
This was not one of those times. This was a straight up revenge killing: Y
ou kill one of mine, I'll kill one of yours
. For the most part he didn't give a rat's ass about the petty wars and stupid turf fights that went on in every prison in America. All he cared about was the kill, and this kill was only minutes from happening.
With the heel of his leather glove he wiped the sweat from his blue eyes and tried to relax in spite of the fact that his knees were folded up to his chin. The cabinet he'd forced himself into was black as night and hot as fuck. The air had long before turned stale and tasted used up. It was so friggin’ suffocating that it felt like he had shut himself up in his own coffin.
That thought gave him a second of pause, and he had to fight the urge to crack the door and take a breath. Instead, he kicked the thought out of his mind and concentrated on the challenge ahead. Tonight was a two-part kill: first the projectionist, who had the misfortune of simply being in the way, and then his real target, Malcolm X-Caliber.
"What a dumbass nickname," Von Braun whispered, trying to picture Malcolm. This wasn’t an easy thing for him to do because, to him
all looked alike. He had to pick out certain aspects of his victim to set him apart from the other coons. Malcolm had a shiny, slick head like an 8 ball, tats on both sides of his neck, Xs of course, and he was stick-skinny, which wasn't usual in the joint--men either went soft and fat or bulked up. Other than those little differences, Malcolm was simply a nigger like all the rest, and just like all the rest, he was a nigger with dumb-ass habits.
The dumb shit saw every movie that the prison ran, even the crappy ones, and he insisted on sitting in the very back of the theater just below the projector opening.
"Dumb, dumb, dumb," Von Braun whispered. His leg began to shake under the effect of the adrenaline that had begun to seep into his bloodstream and before he knew it, the neo-Nazi had his left glove off and was chewing on his thumbnail. The one thing he couldn't stand about killing niggers was the waiting. He was never nervous or anxious, in fact he had the opposite problem; he was always jazzed for the kill, eager, ready to spill blood. It made him want to go, go, go! But he couldn’t and the long wait was killing him.
He was dying for a smoke. His chest thrummed and his hands shook in his need for nicotine, but he never allowed himself a smoke while on the hunt and not smoking was hard shit for a man who went through four packs of smokes a day. It was why he let his nails grow between jobs. He knew that chewing them back down to nubs was the only thing that would keep him from going bat-shit crazy. Before the sounds of the first preview he’d nibbled all the nails of his right hand down to ragged points.
For some reason Von Braun couldn’t understand, the inmates loved the previews almost as much as they loved the feature presentation and he could count on it that those packed in the auditorium would be sitting slack-jawed and wholly captivated by the moving pictures on the screen.
He pulled his gloves back on and, as the preview began to escalate in volume, eased the door to his coffin open and slipped into the dark projection room. There was Monty the Movie-Guy standing near the whirring projector with one beefy forearm thrown up against the wall as he leaned down to watch the preview through the little window. He was chubby and balding and as black as a friggin’ tar baby. Monty didn’t need to die. He was as pleasant a man as Von Braun had ever met, however he had three things going against him: he was black, he was in the way of his next target, and he was motherfucking black as hell.
The only question was how he would die. Von Braun had a shiv in his pocket, but it didn't feel right. He was a very organic killer, and always had been. If he found himself in a butcher shop he would use a meat cleaver. If his victim was in a lumberyard he’d use an axe or a table saw. In a bakery, he'd drown the motherfucker in a vat of chocolate icing.
In the projection room there wasn’t much to work with. There was a bar stool unattended next to the projector; killing Monty with that would be loud and messy. Bolted to a heavy table was a small bladed film splicer that was probably too small to chop the guy's dick off. Next to it was a stack of film in circular metal tins. Von Braun hefted one; it probably weighed twenty-five pounds--perfect.
Outside the little room the sound of movie guns went off as though a battle was raging. The tin probably weighed twenty pounds—it was perfect. He stalked up to Monty who was just as oblivious as he could be, grinning out at the screen, his friggin’ watermelon-eating teeth white in his black face. With a swift, vicious move, Von Braun drove the tin down on the back of his head, right at the base and Monty dropped with a soft thump that no one heard.
Monty’s eyes were open. The left one stared up at Von Braun without understanding, the right one had slid back in his skull and was looking into his own brain. Von Braun hit him again, and again, and again, stopping only when Monty’s face was unrecognizable. It was indented wrongly and bloody as fuck, but the projectionist was still alive—breathing wet and loud like a bull before a matador.
“Tough ole’ buck, ain’t you?” Von Braun said to Monty, as he pulled out the shiv. He had made it from a piece of scrap metal. Including the taped handle, it was eight inches long and as sharp as a dagger. Slowly, almost gently, he slid the blade into the soft skin under Monty’s chin. The black man’s one good eye flew open. His hand came up and grabbed Von Braun’s arm; it was a weak hand. It was soft on his arm, more like a caress than an effort to fight back.
The knife slid deeper, slicing through flesh and muscle with ease, probing for one of the fat arteries that ran on either side of the trachea. A second later it pulsed rhythmically against the blade like a stereo’s bass. Ten seconds after that, the black lost his rhythm altogether.
“There you go, Monty. After a lifetime, you’ve finally achieved ‘good nigger’ status.” Von Braun gloated over the corpse until the first preview wound down and the second began in what sounded like the middle of a car chase.
He went to the projection window and glanced down at Malcolm X-Caliber eight feet below him. The dumb-ass coon was watching the run of images with his fat lips parted.
“Perfect,” Von Braun said. Coiled around his midsection beneath his shirt were ten feet of braided wire. There was a noose on one end, while attached to the other was a short length of wood, part of a shovel handle that he had sawed off just for the occasion.
Malcolm was in for a good old fashion lynching. If it wasn’t for the burning hate in his belly, Von Braun would have been giddy at the very notion.
The preview was in full swing when he dropped the noose softly onto Malcolm’s unsuspecting neck. The black man jerked and swatted at his shoulder; for just a second he had the wild thought that a bat had attacked him. Then the noose zipped tight as Von Braun snapped back on the braided wire, and before Malcolm could draw another breath he was lifted out of his seat.
Von Braun was over six feet in height and was very strong. Using the muscles of his legs he hauled back on the handle until Malcolm was almost to the level of the projection window, at which point he tied the braided wires around the leg of the splicing table that was anchored to the floor.
Malcolm’s friends on either side were so engrossed in the preview that at first they thought he was only standing up, choosing a real dumb-ass time to go to the bathroom. It was only when he started thumping the wall with his heels and clawing at his neck, that they looked away from the screen to see him being run upward like a slab of beef. Had either of them leapt in to help right away, Malcolm might have been saved. Instead, they both jumped back in fright and by the time they recovered, the wire had cut deep into Malcolm’s flesh and blood was draining down into his lungs. Eventually, when he was finally cut down, it was discovered that his head had been close to being shorn clear away.
Von Braun did not stay to gloat over this kill. He sped out of the projection room door, shedding his gloves and the bloody outer shirt he had worn, dropping them without care as he went. There was nothing that would link them to him in any way. He took a practiced evac route and it was only when he was safely a cellblock away making sure that he was seen by at least one of the guards that he fished out a cigarette and stuck it between his lips.
He was slow to light it. For some reason he felt more winded than he should have and his head was a little dizzy. With the urgent desire for nicotine on him, he didn’t wait for the feeling to pass fully and when he lit his cig, he immediately coughed up blue smoke like he was gagging on it, something he hadn't done since the second grade. His face went red as the coughing fit went on and on. In the middle of it he tried to take another drag on the cigarette. The heat of the smoke shriveled his lungs so that he felt like he was breathing through a very long, thin straw.
Behind him an alarm started braying.
“Shit,” he said in a high wheeze. He put his hand out to the wall as his head went light and the floor began to feel strangely unsteady for solid concrete. Against all commonsense he brought the cigarette up once more to his lips, but it never got there. The cellblock began to spin around him. The fag dropped and sparked on the white linoleum and a second later Von Braun landed right beside it, slapping the floor with the side of his face.
He barely felt it.
With the last dregs of his consciousness he tried to tell himself he was having an asthma attack, but beneath that thought lurked the word: cancer. It flitted on the ebb of his consciousness right before he passed out.
Maddy Rothchild balled her fists and stuck them on her hips. When she was determined, whether it be to stay up late, or to have Spaghetti-Os for dinner instead of salmon, she always struck this pose. It was by design. It told her opponent that he or she was in for a fight and that it would be best for all involved to just let her stay up those extra thirty minutes or to open that can of Chef Boyardee and be quick about it.
“Don’t give me that look, Maddy,” Ms. Robins said. “You are going to school and that’s final.”
“Mommy needs me,” the eight year old replied, raising a pale gold eyebrow. She was a skinny, blonde child in $300 designer jeans. “She was up all night with a cough.”
Ms. Robins nodded solemnly. “I am perfectly aware of the situation and it is nothing I can’t handle. I will see to her needs.”
“She needs her family,” Maddy said, lifting her chin, knowing she was stepping well over the line. Ms. Robins had been Gabriele Rothchild’s housekeeper, caregiver, and friend for over twenty years, and had long considered herself part of the family.
Her brown eyes flashed, and her lips went as tight as the bun on top of her head, but Ms. Robins was able to hold in her anger, barely. “And what could you do for her that I can’t?” When Maddy dropped her gaze to stare at the marble floor, the maid/nanny answered her own question: “You can be a well behaved daughter and do as I have asked. That is how you can help her the most.”
“Maybe,” Maddy allowed. “If this was a normal day, which it isn’t. She has her surgery tomorrow, for all darn it!” Maddy wasn’t allowed to swear. Her mommy said it wasn’t fitting for a young lady of her station, so she made up her own curse words, sometimes to odd affect.
“Which is why I have already spoken to your teacher, requesting that you have tomorrow off,” Ms. Robins replied. “Not today. And besides, this surgery won’t be like the last one. It won’t be nearly as bad.”
Maddy, who thought that all surgeries were very bad and very scary, pretended to agree. “I know. She’s having a
done. It’s when they cut out a section of the bronchi that’s all tumored up before reattaching the good ends.” She had looked it up on the internet. There had even been a cartoon-like video that made the surgery look very neat and clean—no blood, no mess, no pale, sweating mommy who could barely talk afterwards and who sometimes cried. That was the real truth behind these surgeries. Maddy knew first hand.
And there was another truth, one that no one talked about. One that was supposedly this big secret to protect little Maddy: Mommy wasn’t going to live no matter what they did. Everyone whispered it when they thought she couldn’t hear. This was why she was staying home, because what would happen if they were right? What would happen if mommy went to the hospital and never came back out?