Sunday, 5 May 2013

 Side Effects

Chapter One

A Fix Four novel

Copyright 2013 Michael Lane
This is a work of fiction, any resemblance, etc etc.

Rhianne dug her nails into my arm.
“Is the pilot just imitating a lawn dart or do we have a problem?”
I tried to be helpful.
“Well, we’ll know in a few seconds.”
The plane came into Spokane on a steeper angle than I liked, and I watched the desert scrub below as it came nearer and nearer, going green with a few trees and then with the patterned viridian of little lawns. The houses were older, small and shrinking away from their neighbors. I wondered if the owners ever got used to the howl of jet engines just few hundred feet over their roofs. Probably. You could get used to anything.
We had. Being nameless guns-for-hire had been strange for the first few jobs, but while it never became old hat, it was what we did.
I should mention we never actually use guns. Guns are the last resort of the talentless and crass, as far as I’m concerned. They’re also too easy, and they seduce a lot of people in our line of work with a quick solution to a problem; a solution that only engenders more problems.
The 737 didn’t have a problem, speaking of such, and we managed to get down while the plane crabbed, its nose out-of-line with the runway as its back wheels touched down. The pilot made it look easy, and used the rudder to drag the nose around as it dropped, and I exhaled as the seat belt dug into my gut under the reverse thrust of the big engines.
“I guess it was just windy and he wanted to get down between gusts,” I said. Rhianne quirked an eyebrow and disobeyed the seat belts fastened light to start digging in the overhead bin for her bag.
Dave had ridden a few rows back, and I caught his eye as we stretched and looked blearily around. Dave stuck out as a six-four Chinese American who weighed one-sixty soaking wet, and his anonymity wasn't helped by his facial hair. He’d grown an awful Fu-Manchu moustache that he insisted was authentic outlaw-biker over the last six months of unemployment. He looked like Burt Reynolds' bastard lovechild, but we couldn’t get him to shave the lip-weasel off. He offered a thin smile and waggled an eyebrow. We avoided each other as we disembarked. He’d take a cab to the hotel while Rhianne and I would rent a car from the Hertz counter, a process we finished as quickly as we could.
There wasn’t much to keep a tourist at the Spokane International airport. Maybe it’s changed since 2003, but back then it was two runways, a single terminal, endless parking lots and a nearly-deserted cab stand, high on the hilltops outside the city. If you went west, the rusty-barked Ponderosa pines thinned and failed, opening out into endless sagebrush and wheat. East, the trees thickened gradually as you fought uphill across the hundreds of miles of incline that eventually lead to Idaho, Montana and the Rockies.
The airport had a plaque extolling the fact that Spokane had hosted Expo ’74. I didn’t know if anything had happened locally since the World’s Fair, but I assumed nothing much had, or someone would have replaced the sign with something more up-to-date.
For a northern state, it was hot, if dry, and the little Toyota sedan we rented was an oven. As we navigated out way into the city the air conditioning made the interior gradually more livable, and Rhianne thumbed open her cell.
“Calling Jack?”
“Yeah. I want to see if he’s set up, and ask if he knows where we can get together and have dinner.”
“Not Applebee’s. I know he loves Applebee’s, but please God somewhere else.”
Jack picked up and my wife ignored me, so I concentrated on the view. The freeway had reached its long descent of the hills around Spokane, and I could see the city laid out below, tallest around the banks of the Spokane river, mostly brick and concrete and nothing much over twenty stories. The city sprawled widely, though, its far side lost in the brownish funk of a smog bank that capped the low-lying valley. I passed a Washington State Trooper sitting on the shoulder and gave him the curious stare anyone would. Ignoring cops always made them wonder what you were up to, in my experience.
Rhianne snapped the phone shut.
“Applebee’s?” I groaned.
“Nope. Dress for Mongolian.”
I spent the rest of the drive to the Sheraton wondering how one dressed for Mongolian.
Shang’s Mongolian Grill was located in downtown, in what looked like a re-purposed car dealership. You ordered mysterious meat-related food and then cooked it on the gas-fired steel grills that occupied the center of each table. It was pretty good.
When we’d pulled up and parked we spotted Jack’s beloved Ford panel van half a block up, looking rusty and dirty. The driver’s compartment was a litter-filled burrow, in contrast to the sealed cargo space, which was where Jack did a lot of his work when we were on a job. We found him inside Shang's, already seated, with Dave as his side, dipping a charred strip of some kind of meat into a bowl of sauce.
There were eight or ten tables, half of them full at this early hour, and we settled in and exchanged greetings.
“Jack, you look well,” Rhianne said, stealing some sliced peppers and beef from his tray and plopping them onto the grill with a hiss.
Jack smiled and adjusted his John Lennon glasses.
“I look fat and I am. You look great though. Why do you stay with Mark, anyway?”
“Jesus, Jack. Nice to see you, too,” I muttered with a twinge of reflexive worry. Jack did look big. He was at least 250 pounds back then, at the height of what he calls his Doritos Years. He knows he can make me twitch by asking silly questions of Rhianne, so he makes it a habit. I do have some professional skills, but self-confidence where it comes to my insanely beautiful wife isn’t one of them. I wonder why she hangs around, sometimes. She does have her adventures, but she always comes home to me, and there are times I can’t fathom it.
“It’s either his stamina in the sack or his inability to notice when you’re pulling his chain,” she said, pushing her cooking food around with a pair of bamboo chopsticks.
Jack smiled and rubbed his double chin, the reddish stubble rasping. Dave raised an eyebrow but said nothing; he was packing away the barbeque. For someone who looks like Ichabod Crane, he eats like a fire.
“So what have you figured out,” I asked Jack, who learned back and messed with his ponytail for a minute.
“Well,” he said, resettling the scrunchy that held his hair, “I’ve run the usual checks on both parties.” He lowered his voice and leaned forward, settling his forearms on the edge of the table.
“Aldebaran Enterprises is owned by a group of private investors, and Jared Burke is the CEO.” Burke was the man who had approached us through a former client in Germany. “He’s as rich as he says. Aldebaran Enterprises, known to its peers as ‘AE’, is doing private pharmaceutical research. They’ve been especially prominent in diet and cosmetic augmentation drugs; the stuff that makes big bank.”
“Botox and amphetamines? And the group that took his new drug?”
“McCarthy Medical Research. They also have their chief lab here in Spokane. Lorraine McCarthy is the founder and big boss. She came out of the University of California, working on geriatrics-related research, then moved into pharmatech. McCarthy Medical focuses on geriatrics, fertility and burn recovery.”
I laid out a fan of thin strips of pork and watched them sizzle.
“McCarthy sounds legit, why would they be stealing from a bunch of chemists specializing in the boobs-and-hardons field?”
Dave swallowed a mouthful of beef dipped in a pepper sauce I’d tried and discarded as inedibly hot and put in his two cents.
“From a research perspective, cosmetic and anti-aging research aren’t very far apart, and burn treatments would dovetail nicely with a lot of anti-aging skin work. They’re selling to different markets but the research is going to be in the same vein.”
I grunted.
“There’s also some personal bad blood,” Jack said. “Jared’s daughter Olivia is the one that stole the sample for her then boyfriend, one of the McCarthy lab rats that Lorraine McCarthy had instructed to get close to the daughter. Olivia insists she didn’t know who she was stealing it for. Her dirtbag boyfriend talked up some fictitious sister with burn scars. He had pictures, I take it.” Jack shrugged and made a disgusted face. “She might be that dumb, but in any case, she borrowed a vial of their new Nectar prototype and gave it to Chad, and Chad headed for the hills and his employers at McCarthy.”
“Sounds like the bird’s flown, so why bother bringing us in?”
“Burke isn’t convinced his goose is cooked, yet. The sample that was stolen was an early one in the first stages of testing. From what Burke says, it’s not something McCarthy Medical can patent, not in its present form. If McCarthy can’t duplicate their research and move ahead, it’s a hint, but that’s all.”
“So they want us to get it back and mangle McCarthy’s records, I assume,” I said.
“That’s it. Though you won’t be able to get the sample back. They’ll have made more, Burke said. What he wants is a sample of McCarthy’s work so he can see how close they are.”
Rhianne snorted. “So why don’t they just take it to the cops? Why pay us a quarter mil to recover their drug?”
“Embarrassment?” I guessed. Jack nodded and dumped a handful of octopus tentacles on the grill.
“Burke doesn’t want Olivia’s little boo-boo to get out. It’d make his investors nervous, and he’s not big on her potentially up on felony charges.”
I sighed. People pay us for a lot of reasons. It’s funny how often it’s because of common, garden-variety embarrassment combined with a fear of losing money.
“You have any reservations?” I asked.
Jack pushed the tentacles around as they curled into sucker-dotted donuts. “I’m always a little bothered when we have to clean up after rich kids and personalities are involved, but it looks square, as far as I can see. I can’t get much of anything on McCarthy. They’re buttoned up tight and we’ll have to go in and get the data and this ‘Nectar’ compound physically. That is to say you will.”
I nodded. Jack never did fieldwork. He was the wizard and set in his mobile tower of technological weirdness.
“Can you get us in?”
“Oh, yeah. Getting you out may be more interesting, but McCarthy is more vulnerable to physical entry than electronic. The drug will be in one of the secure labs on the sixth floor. As to the data, if there is any yet, they have their own isolated system and I’d bet the data’s in there, or in Lorraine’s safe on a thumb-drive. ”
“And they can’t just patent this Nectar?” Rhianne asked. “Even if it doesn’t work yet, just to lock it in?”
“It’s not ready, apparently,” jack said. “Dave knows more about the science stuff, but I gather they’ve got the guts of a brilliant wonder drug that will allow for skin recovery that would work for burn victims or old rich actors, but it’s not finalized and they don’t have a compound ready for registration.”
“Even if they did,” Dave added, “they’ve got to build a convincing mass of false research data – backwards engineer it – so it looks like McCarthy developed it on their own if Aldebaran challenges them. Aldebaran could ignore the theft and fight it in court, but it would take months or years, and there’s no guarantee a judge would find in their favor.”
Ever since we were dragged into the shadows after Rhianne was blackmailed in an attempt to get at her Senator father, we’d worked the sorts of problems that people needed dealt with quietly. None of us had intended to live this life. I’d been studying to be a journalist. Rhianne had been after her MBA, Dave was a chemist with real talent looking for a slot in an Ivy League school and Jack was trying to make the shift from high-school hacker to highly-paid computer jock. Life takes odd corners, sometimes.
It wasn’t that working in our off-the-grid team was a bad life. In fact it was a ton of fun, but it was always had the chance to go seriously wrong.
Well, it’s not as interesting as stealing Russian secret plans from the mob, but it pays good and it sounds solid,” I said, in one of my less-prescient moments. “I want a basic briefing and some options tomorrow at our room at the Sheraton.”
* * *
The Sheraton was one of the tallest building in Spokane, built right on the river. From our room’s balcony you overlooked Riverfront Park, the sole remaining bit of Expo ’74, and the creaming white roil of Spokane Falls. I was clutching the balcony rail – I’m not very good with height – when Rhianne wrapped her arms around me and murmured against my back.
“Do you ever blame me?” she asked.
“Huh?” I asked, aglow with my native brilliance.
“For the life we lead, all of us?”
I managed to turn around and looked down at Rhianne. She’s still the lithe, smart girl I fell for in the middle of a Yakuza sex-club. I know how that sounds. You had to be there. She’s a smart cookie with east-coast breeding who came west with her Senator-to-be father and fell afoul of the sorts of people that love power and money more than manners. I’ve written about it before in these annals, and it’s only important to realize that I meant what I said next.
“The best day I ever had was the one when I met you. The rest is just the candy dropping out of the pinata.”
That made her grin.
“Are you suggesting that if you hit me with a stick goodies will fall out?”
“No, but how about it I order a bottle of wine and turn the hot-tub on?”
“That might work better,” she admitted.
It did.

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