An Original Work of Fiction
David G. Yurth
All Rights Reserved
The Texas night was cool. Wet. Lush. Like the inside of a just right Japanese pear. Sweet and a little salty at the same time. Billy Ray drove along the loop in the darkness without talking, the sound of the monster V-8 rumbling contentedly beneath us. In the dark I had no idea which direction we were headed, as if it mattered at all. There are no landmarks like the mountains I am used to in Utah, so without a compass or a GPS unit, I couldn’t tell which way was up.
After about 20 minutes, we pulled off the freeway and drove out into what can only be described as country. The sounds of traffic disappeared, and the night got softer. I noticed lots of tall trees along the side of the road, caught occasional glimpses of open fields, saw the lights of large houses off in the middle distance. Instead of manure, though, I could smell the ocean. And then I knew exactly where they were taking me.
The place where Renken lives in Houston sits back in the center of a gated community on the West side of town. But that’s not his favorite place to be. Back in the late ‘80s, when the Fed was confiscating bank charters as part of the Thrift and Loan crisis, Renken and his posse from the oil patch had pooled their capital and raided the treasury.
All the assets held in security by the distressed S&L’s that got swallowed up in the frenzy known as the Thrift and Loan Crisis of 1999 had been transferred to a feeding trough called the Resolution Trust Company. In those days, anyone with a checkbook could walk into the RTC’s offices, usually just a big warehouse somewhere, and bid on sealed file cabinets full of all kinds of documents, sight unseen. For $50 you could buy a file cabinet that held worthless paper by the pound, which most of them did, or once in a while you could get lucky and buy a drawer filled with someone else’s certificates of deposit, bearer bonds, quit claim deeds or jewelry. In Renken’s case, along with $3,000,000 in bearer bonds, he happily discovered he had also acquired the title to a couple of fabulously expensive ocean side properties, previously owned by the erstwhile rich and famous of Dallas, Houston and surrounds.
In 1990, Renken bought all the file cabinets once owned by a little bank known as Lafayette Square Thrift and Loan. As I recall, he paid less than $1,000 for the lot. As the story goes, he hired a truck, loaded them up and hauled them back to Houston. Unlike most purchases of that sort, Renken’s interest had not been based on a blind gamble. He had known the people who owned Lafayette Square for a long, long time. And based on what they had told him, he was pretty sure what was in some of the sealed file cabinets before he ever bought them.
Among other things, as the story goes, he ended up owning a huge seaside estate covering slightly more than 160 acres just north of Galveston in a little place called Seabrook. The owners of the bank had loaned themselves millions to build it, but by the time their bank charter had been seized by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, their loans were already totally in default and deemed uncollectable. For less than it cost to turn on the utilities, Renken ended up owning it free and clear. Somehow, just a few years later, part of the property had been parceled out to a couple of blind trusts based in Belize, owners unknown, in exchange for a sizable piece of change, but that part of the story is not quite so clear. In Texas, the good old boys find ways to take care of each other. Sometimes those relationships come in real handy.
As we drove beneath the broad expanse of the gated entryway, I couldn’t help but notice the name of the place. Viracocha. The name of the mythical Inca messenger king, the creator of civilization. We drove up half a mile of cobblestone driveway, under Queen Beech and Poplars, the low light sentries planted along the drive showing us the way.
The house itself seemed more than just a house. In France, they call such places ‘Maison d’Maitre,’ the Master’s House. With huge limestone columns supporting its massive entryway, the lighted façade that loomed out of the darkness is a model of Greco-Roman revival, Texas style. The closest thing I have ever seen to it was the State House in Austin, but this place was clearly made for something besides government.
Several other cars were already parked on the far side of the fountain at the edge of the circular drive that fronted the grand entryway. Before Billy Ray had even stopped the car, Renken came out of the house and onto the porch, began walking down the sandstone steps. He opened the car door for me and stood aside so I could get out.
“When did you start wearing a toupee?” I asked.
CJ started to laugh but put her hand over her mouth to stifle it. Renken guffawed, rolling his head back in genuine delight.
“About the same time you started wearing elevator shoes,” he said. He grabbed my right hand and pulled me towards the house.
“Get in here,” he said. “We’ve got work to do.”
So I followed him up the steps, across a wide portico and through twelve-foot high double doors that must have weighed half a ton each. I’ve been in some remarkable homes in my life, but I had never seen anything as perfectly designed as this one. The entryway was paved in polished white marble, intersected at the corner of each two-foot slab by a small black tile set at a 90-degree angle to the fall line of the floor pattern. The effect was both elegant and electric.
A curved staircase out of Gone With the Wind rose out of the floor and ascended gracefully up to the second floor, where it disappeared behind a wall of enormous plants that erupted out of a collection of exotic floor vases. The entire entry area, perhaps forty feet square, was capped by a carved plaster cupola covered with stained glass panels on the top and inset into the sides. Flowering plants cascaded down from the upper story, down across the wall behind the fountain, arching gloriously around a curved archway that led from the vestibule into the rest of the house.
“You like?” he asked while I gawked.
“No way,” I said. “I get claustrophobic with low ceilings.”
He led me into the study which curved off to the right side of the entry doors. The walls inside the study were at least twelve feet high at the crown moldings. The ceiling was covered with embossed metallic plates set inside finished carpentry frames. The walls were covered with shelves of books, thousands of them. An Alex Stewart desk, top covered with brass brads and polished leather, sat in one corner. It was surrounded by soft brown leather easy chairs designed to swallow up the unsuspecting reader in a sumptuous embrace.
“You read all these?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Some of ‘em twice.” He walked behind the desk, sat down in the high-backed leather office chair, swiveled it around to face the matching credenza and opened one of the center doors by his knees.
I heard a whirring noise beside me and up to my left. When I shifted to track it, I saw a projection screen scrolling down from its cradle, an artfully camouflaged metallic housing about ten feet long set back under the ceiling tiles. When the screen was fully deployed, Renken pointed a hand held remote control unit at a spot on the wall next to the screen.
As soon as he did, he got up and walked back around from behind the desk and sat down in the arm chair next to mine. A series of raw, unedited video clips began to play across the screen while we sat in silence, observing. It was clear that the footage was raw. There were obviously no edits between the sequences, which simply ran from one into the next without pausing. The sound was not particularly clear, but I could clearly hear and make out what was being said in the background.
The scenes showed two men dressed in white coats of the kind commonly seen in hospitals and laboratories. They were accompanied in each scene by Valeriy, who seemed to maintain a severe distance away from them. Together, they pulled a large rolling cart around to the foot of the bed of each patient, opened the lid of a large, gray, metallic box which had been positioned precariously on the top of the cart, extracted a bag of some kind of clear solution, closed and locked the lid, hung the bag on the IV stand beside the bed, attached the IV tube from the patient’s infuser to the bottom of the bag, adjusted the flow rate, made notes in a hardbound notebook, then wheeled the cart out of the room and left. I counted fourteen sequences in all before the video ended.
“Run it again,” I said.
I watched the video more carefully the second time, paying close attention to Plotnikov and the two Russian doctors who were administering the treatment process. Several things jumped out at me. Plotnikov never touched anything except his note pad and pen. He walked carefully around things as if intent on not making contact with anyone or anything in the room. He seldom said anything, but it was clear from the way the other two doctors deferred to him that he was obviously senior to them in some meaningful way and in command of the situation. They did everything but salute him, and once during the film, after he barked an order at one of them, I thought the guy was actually going to stand at attention and salute.
Finally, I noticed that the IV bags containing the saline solution were removed one at a time from the gray metallic case. The heavy lid was lifted each time a bag was retrieved, then shut and deliberately, carefully relocked.
“Why do you suppose they did that?” I asked finally.
“Did what?” he said.
“Hauled the IV bags around in an armored car,” I said. “Did they really think someone was going to steal the bags between rooms?”
He said nothing for a moment, then punched a button on the phone base next to his chair.
“Billy, is Bob still in the house?”
Billy’s voice echoed clearly through the room. It sounded as if he were standing next to Renken’s chair. I caught myself actually looking for him over there.
“Nope,” he said. “He had something going on at the University tonight. He left about an hour ago.”
“Thanks,” said Renken. “Will you ask Baby to get him on the cell phone so we can have a word with him?”
“Sure enough,” he said.
“Who’s Baby?” I asked. “And what‘s with the telephone sound?”
“Hi Def directional audio. Lance Young at Dreamworks invented it. Came with the house. Got it in every room except the bathrooms.”
“Wow,” I said. “It sounded like he was right here in the room.”
“It’s got another feature,” he said. “Watch this. “ He looked up at the ceiling and said, “Baby, dial my answering service and see if I have any new messages, will you?”
A perfectly delightful, natural sounding female voice spoke into the room. “Of course, Mr. Renken. One moment, please.”
“Voice recognition?” I asked.
“Advanced voice-print security system. Recognizes the voice, responds with colloquial conversation, performs a whole raft of work functions. It also asks security questions. Even if you fool it the first time using a digital recording with the right voice print and the right passwords, Baby asks you to respond to a series of randomized questions. It sounds like she’s making small talk but what she’s actually doing is forcing you to use the same voice several times. The system is programmed to recognize audio edits, the sound of tape recorder buttons being pushed, things like that.”
“So what happens if an intruder gets in but doesn’t make the cut?”
He smiled a little. “Nothing. At least not right away. Let’s just say that it’s easier to get in than it is to get out.”
“Totally. The whole thing is fully integrated, from top to bottom, all run by a cabinet full of servers and a secure wireless network.”
Baby’s voice came into the room again. “Mr. Renken, you have no new messages, but Dr. Wheelwright is on the phone. Would you like to talk with him now?”
“Yes, please,” he said. “Put him through.”
“Hey, Buddy! What’s up?” said the voice of Dr. Bob. With my eyes closed, I could almost see him standing next to Renken’s chair. Holodeck on the Starship Enterprise. I could hear the noise of a crowded room in the background.
“Sorry to bother on your night out,” quipped Renken, “but I’ve got Dave here with me. He’s got a couple of questions for you.”
Renken motioned with his hand for me to go ahead on.
“Hi, Bob,” I said into thin air. “Sorry to bother you, but we’ve been sitting here looking at some of the video footage that was apparently shot during the clinical trials.”
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Who shot this footage?” I asked.
“One of the lab technicians. A guy named Mark something or other. He followed us everywhere we went with his digital video camera rolling. Part of the documentation package.”
“Is this S.O.P. for clinical trials?” I asked.
“No. Not usually.”
“So who’s idea was it to create a video record? Didn’t that add substantially to the cost?”
“The protocols were already in place when I got there, so I have no idea whose bright idea it was.”
“Do you have any other pieces of footage, or is this the only set of sequences you have?” I asked.
“I have copies of everything in my files,” he said. “You’re welcome to look at them all, if you want to. I’ve looked at parts of most of them, but I certainly haven’t had time to sit and analyze them as a set.”
I thought I just might decide to do that but left it for another moment. “I notice that the Russians transported their IV bags around in an armored car…what was that all about?”
“You know,” he said after a moment, “we all thought it was kind of bizarre, but when I asked Valeriy about it, all he could tell me was that that was the only container they had.”
I thought for a moment about this. I know all about container shortages in scientific laboratories in the post-Soviet era. While I was doing strategic planning for Ashurst, we had ordered samples of a Ukrainian energy accumulator technology from the Frantsevic Institute in L’vov. They sent the first shipment in a wooden ammunition box, covered with Cyrillic characters and clearly recognizable caliber designations. When our guys opened the box, they found that it was filled with excelsior and contained what looked like six anti-personnel devices.
Before we could get the packing instructions properly translated, one of the lab techs, a guy with a very low rating on the Darwin Survivability Scale, tried to pick one of the drab olive green containers up by grabbing it from the top. In the process, because he wasn’t paying attention, his wedding ring made contact with a screw on top of the container. The screw turned out to be the anode connection for an extremely high-powered super-capacitor circuit that had been fully charged prior to shipment.
After the sparks and smoke cleared away, we discovered that the end of his ring finger had been vaporized beyond the second knuckle and his gold wedding ring had become fused to what was left of the end of the stub. We later discovered that the lab guys in Ukraine who had sent the package had traded excess lab equipment for the land mine containers and the ammo box because they simply didn’t have any containers of any kind to ship our order in. So the container shortage response might have been plausible, but for some reason I felt a twinge of doubt niggling the back of my neck.
“And was the box in the video the same box that was carried into the lab when the Russians landed in Atlanta?”
“No,” he said instantly. “The other box was similar in appearance and construction, and about the same length and width. But it was probably two feet deeper than the one you’re seeing in the video clips.”
I paused for a moment, then asked, “and you never got to look at their magic black box in operation?”
“Definitely not,” he said. “Everyone was kept at arms-length at all times. I only set foot in their lab twice – once, when we were unloading and stashing their equipment, and again, after they had closed up shop and repacked everything.”
I looked at Renken. His eyebrows were slightly raised.
“What about Valeriy?” I asked. “Was he allowed to go in there?”
“Hell,” he said. “I never thought about it. You know, he was probably in and out of there all the time.”
“So,” I said, “if he was in and out of there all the time, why didn’t he say something during our meeting this afternoon?”
“Hm. Damned if I know,” he said. Band music swelled behind the sound of his voice. “I gotta go now,” he said, “before I’m assassinated for not paying attention. Let me think about this and we’ll talk some more tomorrow.” The connection went dead and silence filled the room.
It just didn’t make sense to me. Valeriy had all but lied to us. I tried to imagine what had to happen behind the scenes in the deep bureaucratic trenches of CDCC in order for a couple of nameless Russian doctors to even get into the place, much less take up residence with a magic black box, conduct secret treatment trials, and maintain such secretive access to their lab space that no one, not even the director of the trials, was permitted to see the equipment or the analytical protocols they were using. The fact that the trials produced apparently spectacular results did not square with the fact that no one besides the Russians had any idea in hell what they had been doing. Something was out of whack here, big time, and I needed to figure out what it was.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” I said, turning to look at Renken. “How did you get involved in this deal?”
“Bob called me one day about a month ago, took me to lunch at the faculty club, and asked if I would be interested in helping him license a new treatment system. He told me what it treated, and I asked him what he thought it was worth.”
“And?” I asked. “What is it worth?”
“Well, look at it this way. Nothing cures Hep C, or any other viral infection, for that matter. The best anyone can do with existing pharmacology is to treat the symptoms. So if you have a technology that really eliminates any trace of viral loading for any known virus, then you probably also have the basis for eliminating viral loading for all known viruses.”
The numbers quickly began to click in my head. Lots of zeros and lots of profits for the treatment of everything from AIDS to the common cold.
“What about bacterial infections?” I asked.
“We don’t know, and I don’t think anyone has had an opportunity to ask,” he said.
“You know, Renken,” I said quietly, “this is either the most important breakthrough in the treatment of viral disease since the development of vaccines or the biggest scam I’ve ever seen.”
He stood up, walked across the room to what appeared to be an entertainment center, folded the doors back and revealed a fully stocked wet bar, complete with hanging wine glasses and Giorgio Romani crystal whiskey glasses. “Ice?” he said without turning around, holding up a whiskey glass so I could see it over his shoulder.
“Sure,” I said. “What about Valeriy? What do we really know about him?”
“Not a lot,” he said, “but it looks like he may be a whole lot more interesting than we thought.”
“How so?” I asked, not really surprised.
“Baby,” he said, “will you ask Billy and CJ to come in here?”