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MONDAY, OCTOBER 26
“VICTORY OVER AIDS! CURE WORKS”
The headline ran four centimeters high across the front page of the New York Times. Two photographs accompanied the story: a large one showing Kirby on the steps of the UN building after the announcement, and a smaller life-size inset of a Triphylactin capsule held between somebody’s forefinger and thumb. The caption beneath described it as “similar to a bright yellow jelly bean, but a lot more expensive.” Newspapers in every country were saying the same thing. They were all comparing Kirby to Jonas Salk, the immunologist who had come up with a vaccine against polio a half century earlier. The Boston Globe reported:
Not since Salk defied the scientific conventions of his day and delivered the world a polio vaccine has any development in medicine been so widely anticipated as this one. While Kirby’s Triphylactin (pronounced TRI-FE-LACTIN) does not offer any protection against infection by the HIV virus, the mere existence of what appears to be a bulletproof cure for AIDS suggests that it will be his name that survives the race for the matching vaccine.
Kirby had indeed become the darling of the press that Rosen had predicted. Rosen, on the other hand, was widely criticized for his pricing of Triphylactin. The San Diego Union-Tribune ran a picture of him above the caption “Imtech owner and chairman Daniel Rosen wears Armani suits, as do most of his newest customers.”
Newspaper editors weren’t the only ones to take offense. When Rosen got back from Geneva he arrived home to find a dozen strangers milling around on the pavement outside his driveway. When they saw him coming, half the group grabbed the cardboard props they had brought with them and laid down on their backs in front of his gate.
“What in hell…”
Rosen swore as he turned off the road and brought the front wheels of the car to rest on the drive. He saw now that the cardboard placards held behind the heads of those stretched out on the ground were shaped like tombstones. He was looking at a prefabricated graveyard, right there in front of his house. Nice. Rosen checked the rest of the street for signs of reporters. Luckily for him they hadn’t shown up yet. Even so, Rosen found himself grinding his teeth as he read the slogans painted on the fake headstones. DEAD FROM LACK OF AFFORDABLE TPL, one said. R.I.P. — KILLED BY CORPORATE GREED, declared another. A third read IMTECH PROFITS KILLED ME.
Rosen pounded on the car horn. He revved on the accelerator. But still they would not move. On an impulse he tried to move the car forward, at which point somebody jumped on the hood of his Bentley. Rosen became incensed. And then he made a mistake; he got out of the car.
The first blow landed him on the sidewalk. Before he could get to his feet again someone yelled, “I’d rather pay the Ferryman than you, you bastard!” and kicked him in the stomach. Rosen’s wife, who was unaware even that a posse had gathered outside their home, never heard a thing. Fortunately for her husband, the mailman was making deliveries only two houses away and saw what was happening. He beeped on the horn of his tiny white van — enough to scare the group off, it turned out — and Rosen escaped from the ordeal relatively unharmed. His only visible injury was a swollen eye. But the attack had shaken him up. Worse, it reinforced a long-held belief of his: that at its core, the world was fundamentally a hostile one.
On the other side of town Kirby threw his suitcase on the bed and went back to the living room. Cassie had the television on with the sound turned down in case there was something on the news about the conference.
“Did they have TV cameras there?” she asked.
“I guess so.”
“Maybe I’ll get to see you. My husband, the Media Star.” She laughed at that one.
Media Star or not, Kirby was surprised that no one had called. He wondered whether having an unlisted phone number was really enough to stop the press from finding you.
“Thought they would have tried harder than that,” he said, going off to the kitchen to find a beer. He came back with one a few seconds later. “No one called at all?”
“My mother. Called the minute she saw your picture in the paper this morning. She wants to know if you can get her a copy of that photo of you on the steps of the U.N. building. She says it’s the best one of you she’s seen yet. Looks like you finally impressed her.”
This time they both laughed.
“That’s nothing,” he said. “Wait till she finds out who I had lunch with.” He told Cassie about his meeting with Montoya and her complement of bodyguards. After the initial disbelief that her husband’s success was already attracting heads of state, she grew less comfortable with the idea. The thought of him surrounded by a presidential security seemed to bother her.
“Were they armed?”
“Well if they were, I didn’t notice.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” she said with a frown. “You’re not that observant.”
“Hey, don’t worry,” he joked. “I was the most menacing-looking one of the bunch.”
Cassie shook her head. “Unbelievable,” she said. “I married the only egghead who thinks he could stop the bullet of a trained assassin.”
Kirby took a sip of beer. “C’mon. She’s not that dangerous.”
“Isn’t she? She’s the President of Mexico, Richard. The woman has enemies.”
Kirby shrugged. “Maybe… Seemed all right to me, though. Seems like a smart woman with a tough job.”
“Does she now?” Cassie came and sat on his lap. “And what am I? Chopped liver?”
Kirby smiled. “Where are the kids?”
“At my mother’s place.”
“That reminds me,” he said. “There’s a present for the kids from Dan.”
“That was nice of him. What is it?”
“Didn’t say. Only he told me not to drop it. And it’s heavy. My guess is plutonium.”
They went back to the bedroom and dug the box out of the suitcase. Inside it, encased in polystyrene packing, was a large snow globe. Inside that was an evil-looking witch dressed in black, and a jack-o-lantern pumpkin in the snow at her feet. Kirby turned it upside down and then right side up so that the snow swirled throughout the ball. Tiny black bats that had been buried in the snow fluttered around the witch.
“It’s beautiful,” Cassie said giving her husband an odd look.
He challenged the look with one of his own. “What?”
“I was just thinking,” she said. “At least somebody hasn’t forgotten about Halloween.”
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 27
It was approaching noon on the east coast as Coleman headed out across the lawn to board Marine One. He was supposed to be in Richmond for a public relations engagement, but now he was going to be late. Leon Stark was struggling to keep up with him.
“That’s what pisses me off,” Coleman was telling him. “It should never have happened in the first place! We screwed up, Leon…” News of Rosen’s beating had left the President angry. He was convinced they should have seen it coming. The problem was, they hadn’t done their homework — no one had had the foresight to check how much Imtech would be asking for its new drug. Coleman shook his head. “Seventeen fucking bucks,” he said under his breath.
Stark tried to downplay the incident. “They just popped him once,” he said. “Nothing serious. Probably be back at work this morning.”
Coleman stopped on the lawn. “And what if someone had hit him over the head with a brick? What if he had been killed for Christsake! How would that look for me, huh?” Coleman had a right to be upset. Because of his wife’s supposed connection with Imtech, anything that affected the company from here on out would have an affect on him as well. That meant that if Rosen was kicked in the gut, Coleman would feel it too. “I want someone down there right away,” he told Stark. “You hear me? You make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. FBI, CIA, the Service. I don’t care. Just get a couple of guys down there.”
“I’ll handle it.”
Coleman stared at him unforgivingly. “You do that… This was your idea, Leon. We could have put a stop to it last week.”
Stark nodded. He wasn’t going to argue with the President. But neither did he think the attack on Rosen warranted the assignment of two good agents. All the same, he would find someone.
“There’s one other thing you should know,” he told the President. “We’ve learned that Montoya’s been trying to negotiate a price for Triphylactin on her own.” Stark said he’d been tipped off by a World Health Organization official who reported that Mexico was applying to be recognized as a developing country, which would then make it eligible for a cheap supply of Triphylactin. Montoya was said to have asked for confidentiality on the matter. “Clearly she doesn’t want to be seen holding out the begging bowl in public, but she knows she can’t afford it otherwise.”
“They won’t give it to her, will they?” Coleman asked.
“No. I’ve already leaked the idea that we wouldn’t be very happy about it.”
“Did you give a reason?”
“Sure. I said if they went ahead, it threatened to undermine our efforts to have Mexico accepted as an equal trade partner.”
“What a load of crap,” Coleman said setting off toward the helicopter again.
Stark grinned. “Yes. I said you would be very upset about it.”
Kirby arrived at work at 9:03. As he walked through the lobby the people he came across went out of their way to congratulate him — everyone, it seemed, but their CEO who he bumped into at the elevator.
“Did you hear what happened to Dan?” McCormick said. “Someone did him over outside his house. Smacked him in the face.”
“Is he OK?”
“He’s in a foul mood, that’s for sure. I don’t blame him.” McCormick ran his keycard through the electronic sensor.
“Did they get the guy?”
“Guys,” McCormick said. “It was a bunch of them.” They hopped inside the elevator. “Elevator to level five. Fucking AIDS protesters. That’s the amazing thing. The ungrateful bastards… I’ve got a meeting with him now.” Then, as if it were an afterthought, “Give us half an hour, would ya, Richard? You can catch him when we’re through.”
As Kirby was getting out on his floor, McCormick offered a last piece of advice. “Just watch your back, Richard… Watch your back, buddy.”
The elevator doors closed behind him.
Buddy. He wondered whether McCormick had any idea how much Kirby disliked him. McCormick projected an arrogance that Kirby found unsettling. Deep down he felt that McCormick was probably working at the wrong place — that he didn’t fit very well into a research environment. All he really knew about the man was that he had an MBA from Harvard, and that somewhere along the way he had helped Rosen to leave Merck and found Imtech.
As he approached his office Kirby spotted Schiller and the French girl, Debreu.
“Hey!” Schiller called out excitedly. “You’re a sneaky dog, yah?” He held up a copy of a newspaper with Kirby’s picture on it.
“Sorry, pal. You seemed kinda preoccupied.”
“At least now I go anywhere I want, huh?” Schiller turned to Debreu. “See, I just say, ‘I worked for Dr. Kirby. Yah, Dr. Kirby. He was a good guy,’ and they make me a professor!”
Schiller could hardly contain his laughter.
“Listen, wise guy,” Kirby said. “You come up with the vaccine and they’ll name a monument after you.” That was the goal behind Schiller’s research. To invent a gene-therapeutic approach to making vaccines which protected against retroviruses like HIV.
Schiller calmed down. “It worked, you know.”
“Using Klenow instead of Taq. It took forever but at least now I can do my blots.”
“That’s one happy customer…” Kirby turned to Debreu. “And what about you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Let’s go to my office. We can have a talk.”
“So what have you been looking at?”
Debreu dragged a chair up to Kirby’s desk. “Something new. At least I hope it is.”
“A human restriction gene.”
Kirby raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t a few of those been discovered already?”
“Not one like this,” Debreu said excitedly.
Restriction genes were a hot item in molecular epidemiology. Until recently people had argued that no genes existed which could shield against infectious human disease. But with the advent of the AIDS pandemic had come evidence that this was not strictly true. A small percentage of individuals exposed to HIV were known to have escaped infection, despite the virus having directly entered their blood.
Although most people doubted that the human population carried within it a gene conferring resistance to the HIV virus, in 1996 they were shown to be wrong. It turned out that one in every five Caucasians is carrying a defective copy of a gene which normally codes for a protein receptor on human immune cells targeted by HIV during the early stages of infection. Known as CCR5, the receptor is used by HIV to gain entry to the cell. For the approximately one percent of Caucasians who carry two defective copies of the CCR5 gene, the receptor fails to be expressed on the immune cells and the virus is shut out. They become immune to the effects of HIV. It was proposed that the defective CCR5 gene had arisen at a time in the far past when the human species was being visited by a retroviral infection similar to the one caused by HIV. Because it “restricted” against the likelihood of infection, the advantageous form of the gene had been passed down to those who carry it today by survivors of the pandemic.
“So you’ve been studying chemokines?” Kirby said.
He meant chemokine receptors, such as CCR5. He was surprised to hear that she was looking at them. The chemokine class was a relatively new discovery — the were proteins thought to be involved in dragging immune system cells to sites of injury in the body, but not a great deal was known about them. Other groups were pursuing them in the hope that a vaccine might come out of the work.
“Actually, no” she said. “I wasn’t looking at chemokines. I wasn’t even thinking about restriction genes in general. But I think I found one anyway. By accident. The protein it codes for looks like some form of interferon. The exciting thing is that it doesn’t appear to be any of the known types.” Debreu grinned and crossed her fingers. “So I’ve christened it delta interferon.”
Kirby sat back in his chair and looked at her. If what she said was correct, she had made a potentially important discovery. Interferon was a “trace protein,” a protein produced in such tiny amounts in the body that virtually nothing was known about it until the early 1980s when genetic engineering allowed it to be produced in bulk for study. At the time, interferon was observed to somehow “interfere” with the reproduction of viruses, giving rise to hopes that it might be used as a “magic bullet” to combat viral infection.
To date, there were three known classes of interferon, designated alpha, beta, and gamma. They had proven useful in treating a broad range of diseases, including arthritis and cancer. Gamma interferon was also known to be a powerful stimulator of the immune system. But the interferon family was a well-studied one, and it seemed unlikely that an unknown member remained to be discovered.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked her.
“So far, I know it’s a new protein. It took a while to convince Dr. Rosen of it, but he finally came around.”
“When did all this take place?”
“During my first postdoctoral position at Merck.”
That had to be over three years ago.
“Is any of this published?”
Debreu let out a sharp sigh. “I wish. It took me six months just to get an antibody assay. After that he had me look for the gene. Two more years. Shortly after that, though…” Debreu shook her head, expressing disappointment. “He must have got interested in something else.”
“How do you mean?”
“He began telling me we shouldn’t rush things. He said that we didn’t want to make any mistakes, that everything had to be checked twice. He said we had lots of time because no one else knew what we were up to. In the end I settled on trying to figure out what the protein looks like. That’s what I’m still doing — trying to figure it out.”
“How close are you?”
Debreu nodded triumphantly. “Close. I had the gene sequenced, so I know which amino acids are involved. The only thing stopping me now is the protein-folding program. I can’t get it to work.”
Kirby wondered why she hadn’t tried to use x-ray crystallography instead. Forming a good protein crystal was never easy, but an experimentally-obtained structure for the molecule would be a lot more reliable than a computer prediction based on the sequence of amino acids. In principle it could be done, but the theory wasn’t fully developed. “In my opinion,” he told her, “the available folding routines simply aren’t that good.”
“Yeah,” she said. “The available ones. But I’m using BLINDFOLD.”
Kirby shook his head. “What’s BLINDFOLD?”
Debreu looked at him strangely. “The prototype? Wow. I mean it’s supposed to be a company secret and everything, but I would have thought you’d know about it.”
“You’re telling me we have a real protein folding program? One that actually works?”
“As far as I know, yes. When it’s running.”
“Unbelievable. How many other things around here don’t I know about?”
Judging by the color of Debreu’s face he wasn’t the only one who felt embarrassed.
Kirby got out of his chair and headed for the door. He stopped and looked back at her. “Don’t just sit there,” he said. “I want to see what this thing can do.”
Seated at her workstation, Debreu tried again to link her molecular-graphics program structure to the software library which contained the protein-folding algorithm. Kirby watched from over her shoulder as she entered the commands.
She should have got back a message telling her that the software had settled down to the tricky job of doing the protein-folding calculations. Instead, meaningless columns of numbers scrolled rapidly up the screen and the program came to an abrupt halt. Just as it had done the week before.
“What a mess,” Kirby said. He pointed to the screen. “And you’ve got no idea what this garbage is?”
“No idea at all. But it’s the same numbers every time.”
“Well that’s a start, I guess.” He asked if she could print them out. Debreu hit the SCREEN DUMP button and a dot-matrix printer in the next room began to whir.
“We’ll get Ben to take a look at it,” he told her. But mention of the systems analyst’s name only prompted a sour look from Debreu.
“Oh that’s right,” he said. “You two don’t get on…”
“He doesn’t have a clue what we do here,” Debreu said folding her arms. “He speaks gibberish.”
“You’re underestimating him,” Kirby told her. He tapped the top of her workstation. “At the very least what he does know is this. When do you think the library was last working?”
Debreu thought it over. “I remember Dr. Frey was using it over the summer. I know because the air conditioning in his office was faulty and he sometimes came in here to borrow my machine. That would have been in July…”
Kirby stood up straight when she mentioned Frey.
“You mean Arnie Frey? He was working here at Imtech?”
“You knew him?”
“Sure. I know Arnie,” Kirby said. “We went to school together. Haven’t seen the guy for a few years, but — ”
“Oh…” Debreu said, cutting him off before he could say any more. “Then you didn’t hear about his accident?”
Kirby detected the discomfort in Debreu’s voice. It chilled him.
“It was up at one of the dams,” she said. “He fell off a cliff. I read about it in the newspaper.”
“What. Is he… What…”
“I’m sorry,” Debreu said. “Dr. Frey died.”
“Jesus…” Kirby turned away and looked out the window. Frey had been a good friend of his. It was hard to believe he was gone. “When did it happen?”
“First week of July. I was working from home at the time. But a few days later I came back in. Some of his stuff was still in my room, so I put it back in his office. Before his wife came in to collect his things, I mean.”
His wife. Kirby wasn’t aware that Frey had even got married.
“Listen,” he said. “Come and see me later, OK? I need some time to think.”
“I’m sorry about Dr. Frey,” Debreu said. “He seemed like a nice guy.”
“Yeah,” Kirby said on his way out. “He was.”
Kirby walked from Debreu’s office in a daze. Instead of picking up the screen dump, as he had intended, he walked right on past the printer room, leaving the sheet of paper sitting in the printer.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
Tina Hill was too absorbed with her magazine to notice Kirby standing at her door. When she did, she jumped.
Kirby motioned to Rosen’s office. “Is Dan alone?”
Rosen’s secretary nodded. “Mr. McCormick just left.”
Hill used the intercom to let Rosen know Kirby was waiting. Kirby heard Rosen’s voice telling her to send him through.
“I liked that picture of you in the paper,” Hill offered. “I think we should use it in the annual portfolio.”
Kirby wasn’t really listening, but he nodded and went through.
Rosen was sitting at the far corner of the room, behind a massive polished oak desk. “Be with you in a moment, Richard,” he said without looking up.
Kirby had visited Rosen’s office several times already. But today he took the opportunity to look around more carefully. The room itself had a formal atmosphere to it, with lavish floor-to-ceiling windows and solid oak inlays which imitated the style of the conference room down the hall.
On the east side of the room was a dark red buttoned-leather sofa which stretched away from the windows; in front of it, an identically colored tiled coffee table with industry magazines piled on top. Adorning the west wall opposite these, was a long tilted display shelf containing reprints of the 200 scientific papers that Rosen had been involved with over the years. Finally, over in the south-east corner behind Rosen’s desk, was an elaborate set of shelves stocked with tiny bottles of gleaming alcohol, shot glasses, and the remainder of Rosen’s collection of antique snow globes.
Rosen finished writing something on the page in front of him and looked up. For the first time Kirby noticed the dark color where Rosen’s face was bruised.
“Believe me,” Rosen said trying to laugh it off. “It feels a lot worse than it looks.”
“That’s too bad, because it doesn’t look that good.”
Rosen leaned back in his chair and waved dismissively. “I’ll heal. You ready to get back to work?”
Kirby felt awkward. “Yeah. Ah… I just found out that Arnold Frey worked here for a while. I was wondering why you never mentioned that before?”
“Where did you hear that?”
“One of the postdocs told me. Catherine Debreu.”
Rosen scratched the back of his head. Kirby had seen him do it before when confronted with bothersome problems.
“Ah,” Rosen said knowingly. “Ms. Debreu… What else did she tell you?”
“That he’s dead, for one thing.” Kirby crossed his arms and stared at a spot behind Rosen’s head. “Not only that, but what’s this Delta interferon she’s isolated? How come I don’t know anything about that?” Kirby could feel himself getting angry. He couldn’t think of any good reason for Rosen keeping him in the dark.
“Don’t get excited,” Rosen said. “I didn’t tell you about Frey because he never mentioned you. I never knew the two of you had met.”
Kirby didn’t believe him. “You mean to tell me that my name never came up in his presence all the time I was working for you at MIT?”
Rosen looked puzzled. “Really, Richard. He never mentioned you…”
“Why didn’t you tell me about Debreu’s work? You must know there’s a possibility of a vaccine there.”
“What? You mean an HIV vaccine?”
“Oh, come on,” Rosen groaned. “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself? We hardly know anything about her so-called Delta form. If that’s what it is.”
“Then you don’t think it’s interferon?”
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t… But let’s just say it is. We’re still a long way from knowing if it’s going to be commercial or not.”
“Fact is, Dan, that’s hardly the problem. I’m the manager of that division. How am I supposed to be able to do my job if no one’s telling me what’s going on?”
Rosen suddenly turned red. “Don’t tell me what your job is!” he exploded. “I should know, shouldn’t I? I hired you. Or have you forgotten who’s working for who here?” He slammed his hands down on the desk. “Damn it, Richard! What’s got into you?”
Rosen’s reaction caught Kirby off guard. He was surprised to see Rosen trembling with rage.
“Ever since we got to Geneva you’ve been questioning me!”
“Dan, this has got nothing to do with Geneva.”
“Like hell it hasn’t. You get a whiff of success and it goes right to your head. I know what’s going on here… Sure. You did a good piece of work. Maybe even a brilliant piece. But let me tell you, mister, that doesn’t make you the head of the company! Am I making myself clear?”
Kirby decided it was time to retreat. McCormick had been right; Rosen was in a foul mood.
“Maybe you’re right,” Kirby told him. “Maybe I was letting the news about Arnie get to me.”
Rosen grunted. He touched the stubble on his puffy cheek where it had been too painful to shave. “I guess we’re both a little on edge this morning.”
Speaking to Rosen about Frey had proved a waste of time. But that only made Kirby more determined to find out what had happened to his friend. Tina Hill’s remark about the company portfolio came back to him. Realizing that he could start there, he headed down to the lobby to check what the company had released as a matter of public record.
The reception desk in the lobby was a large semi-circular counter staffed by a young Asian woman by the name of Rumi Sato. She staffed the phone and acted as communal secretary to the heads of the three research divisions. When Sato saw Kirby coming she leaned across the counter with a piece of paper.
“That’s everyone who’s called since yesterday wanting to speak to you. There’s forty-five on the list.” Sato raised her eyebrows. “Oh, and your wife called to remind you she’d be here for lunch at twelve-thirty.”
Kirby glanced disinterestedly at the list of names and phone numbers; almost all of them from reporters looking for a story. But a couple of magazine publications did stick out; Rolling Stone and GQ in particular. If they were after him, then Rosen’s prediction that the press would do their marketing campaign for them was on the mark.
Kirby asked Sato if she remembered a Dr. Frey who was there before him.
“Uh-huh. I took his calls for a while.”
“I’d like you to go through the company records and pull out anything you can find about his time here. If we’ve got something on file about his accident I’d like to see that too.”
Sato turned to a shelf filled with company reports. “Well, I know that one of the quarterly reports contained a copy of the story that appeared in the L.A. Times — ”
“Could I look at that?”
“Except Dr. Rosen made me cut it out of the distribution when he found out about it.”
“Cut it out?”
“I had to use a razor-blade. We didn’t catch it until it came back from the printer.”
“That seems extreme. Why would he make you do that? Did he give a reason?”
“He said it wasn’t good policy to advertise our failures.” Sato lowered her voice. “The impression I got was that Dr. Frey’s accident wasn’t really an accident, if you know what I mean. Dr. Rosen said it wouldn’t be good for company morale if word got round that one its employees had… you know. And he certainly did seem unhappy for the last month or so.”
Kirby didn’t believe it. “No way,” he said. “Arnie wasn’t the sort of guy who would go and kill himself. Is that what it said in the papers?”
Sato looked embarrassed that she was pedaling gossip. “No, but… I have the master copy somewhere if you want to take a look.” She searched the shelf on the wall behind her for the quarterly report. “March. June. There it is. September…”
“September!” That was nearly two months after the accident. “I was here then,” Kirby said. “I got that report.” Understandably, when he had read it, he never noticed the thin strip in the margin which indicated a page was missing.
“AIDS Researcher Dies, Plunges From Dam,” read the headline gleaned from the newspaper. Kirby skimmed quickly over the story. Frey had apparently fallen to his death one night while out at the Otay dam, not far from where Kirby lived. According to the story, two colleagues had been with him at the time.
“Could you make a copy of this for me?”
Sato took the report over to a Xerox machine behind the counter.
“Any idea who these ‘colleagues’ are that they mention in there?”
Sato took a moment to look the story over again. “Not really,” she said shrugging her shoulders. “Didn’t hear too much about it after it happened.” She made a copy of the story and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said, folding it and putting it in his jacket pocket. “I owe you one.”