An Original Work of Fiction
David G. Yurth
All Rights Reserved
Once upon a time in my younger days, when I had hair on top of my head and money was no object, I owned an athletic club. Not a health spa, mind you, but a full-blown athletic club. Over the years, I have made it a habit to stay in touch with other guys I met in the business who own high-end clubs around the country. It’s a small community, really, and the people who own and manage athletic clubs take real pride in the way their facilities look and operate. Once I was a member of this select fraternity, I found it exceptionally easy to talk to these people. Some of them have become close friends over the years.
When I travel, I sometimes make it a point to visit the best clubs when I can. I have discovered that it’s a great way to keep my weight down, keep the aging muscles in tone and burn off excess nervous energy. I have found that if I don’t get a good cardio workout sometime during the day, I don’t sleep worth a damn. Especially when I travel.
By the time we had finished hacking our way through Bob’s data, it was nearly six o’clock. Renken and I stayed in the conference room after everyone else had gone. Billy Ray was the last to leave.
“You got a hotel room?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said. I wasn’t sure what Renken had in mind but when we had gotten together in the past, our arrangements had always remained fluid until the last possible moment.
“I’ll take care of him, Billy,” Renken offered. They shook hands and Renken chucked him on the shoulder as he was walking through the doorway.
“All right, then,” he said. And with that he sort of sidled out into the evening.
Renken walked across the conference room to an elegant walnut sideboard which had been tastefully positioned under a large framed print of an Andrew Wyeth watercolor.
“Bogart,” he said.
“Bogart. Humphrey Bogart,” he repeated.
“Bogart what?” I asked.
“Bogart’s liquor cabinet,” he said, as he dropped the sliding lid into place and retrieved a bottle of Chivas.
“He owned that cabinet?”
“Yeah. He designed it and had someone build it for him. Actually, he designed a whole line of furniture. Really had an eye, don’t you think?” He turned to look at me over his left shoulder, held up a crystal whiskey glass. “Ice?”
“Two,” I said. I drifted around to Renken’s end of the conference table and ran my fingers along the top as I walked. “Beautiful,” I said.
“Maloof,” he said.
“Wow. He make this for you?”
He laughed. “No way. Bought it from a little S&L that got sucked up the pipe in ’89.”
He handed me a glass of whiskey that was nearly full to overflowing. We sat side by side at the Boardroom table, looking out through the window towards the rippling sunset, sipping our scotch. Neither of us said anything for what seemed a long time.
“So, whaddya think?” he asked.
What did I think. Simple question. Hard answer.
“I don’t know. It’s puzzling, isn’t it?”
“More than puzzling.” He sipped his scotch, swirled the ice cubes around in the glass, clinking them together. Thinking. “Really peculiar.”
“Peculiar like this.” He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, focusing, getting his thoughts in order. “If you were the head shed at CDC and somebody proved they could cure HCV, using any kind of clinical trial S.O.P.’s, wouldn’t you call a press conference? I mean, that’s really big news, don’t you think?”
“Sure. Major breakthrough stuff. Gorilla.”
“But no one said a thing. Not a word.”
“What happened to the data?”
“CDCC didn’t want it. Bob submitted all the papers and complied with all the reporting protocols, but the Director’s office sent it all back, unopened.” Pause. “No note. No written response. No one’s signature on anything official.”
“Who funded the trials?”
“We don’t know and they won’t say.”
“How did the trials get set up in the first place?”
Renken stood up, his glass nearly empty. “Refill?”
I shook my head and stared out the window until he had refilled his glass and sat back down. When I turned to look at him, I noticed that his face seemed drawn, gaunt, as if some internal vacuum was sucking his skin closer to the bones.
“Bob got a call from the CEO’s office at Baylor. They took him off the project he was working on and sent him to Atlanta. Nothing mysterious about that. He’s done lots of joint research with CDCC over the past twenty years.”
“What kind of research?”
“Hep-C trials mostly. As far as the medical world is concerned, Baylor is the center of the universe when it comes to Hep-C research. And Bob is the main man for all of it.”
“CDC is a government agency, right?”
“Government sponsored, government regulated, government funded, but they have their own agendas and work closely with virtually every sector of the medical establishment worldwide.”
“So how did Valeriy get involved? Is he a physicist or what?”
“Yeah. And an MD. Nuclear medicine.”
“What do you know about him, beyond the CV?”
Renken looked at me with a piercing glance, a hard dart of recognition. “Nothing,” he said. “Not a damned thing.”
He sipped from his glass, smacked his lips, held the half empty glass up towards the sunset. “Damned good,” he offered. “Mighty damned good.”
“How long has he been here with Bob?” I asked.
“Couple of months.”
“You mean, is he steady?”
“No. Does he stay here all the time or does he commute back and forth to somewhere else?”
“Oh, that. Well, he’s in town a couple of days a week, then he flies out of here for a long weekend.”
“Who pays for his tickets?”
“How the hell do I know?” he asked, not irritated, just recognizing that he had never asked these questions before and embarrassed that he didn’t know the answers.
“Anything hinky about the guy?” I drained the last of the scotch from my glass and sucked a diminished ice cube into my mouth. Sucking on it. Savoring it.
“He’s a hard case,” Renken said. “Doesn’t talk much, but when he does it’s usually worth listening to.”
“Typical,” I said. “Totally typical.”
“It’s their way,” I said. “The Russians.”
“Yeah. The Russians.”
Renken stood up, stretched, picked up my glass and put it back on the bar. “You hungry?”
“You kidding?” I laughed. I was just getting back to being able to breathe again. The last thing I needed was to eat. “I could use a workout and a steam, though,” I said.
“Good. Okay. Let’s do it. The Club okay?”
The Club was a code word Renken used to refer to the Clear Lake Athletic Club, an exclusive private club he partly owned with one of his banking buddies.
I noticed as we were leaving the building that Billy Ray had left my bags on the leather sofa in the vestibule. I grabbed the computer bag and Renken hoisted the strap of the travel bag onto his shoulder. We put them into the trunk of his Infinity sedan and drove across town towards the Johnson Space Center. It was almost dark, the last glimmer of the sinking sun shimmered under what was left of the afternoon’s tornado.
I love the way expensive Japanese cars smell. It’s not just the leather smell I like. It’s the smell of real wood and wax and newness. After we got into the car, I turned in my seat so I could see Renken’s face.
“What’s your interest in this Hep-C deal, anyway?” I asked.
“The Russians want us to take their treatment technique to market,” he said. “Tommy’s sitting on a licensing agreement that would give us worldwide exclusive marketing rights, but they want five million up front to do the deal.”
“And you’re sitting here holding it in both hands because you can’t figure out what they did or how they did it and they won’t tell you.”
“Right.” He stared out into the leavening night, concentrating on much more than driving his car.
“So you want me to figure it out.” It wasn’t a question.
“Uh huh,” he said.
“What’s my pay off?” I asked.
“Piece of the deal.if we make a deal. Fees for your time if we don’t.”
“Fair enough,” I said, and sat back in my lovely leather seat to enjoy the ride.
It takes fully 30 minutes to drive from Humble around the loop to the southeastern suburbs of Houston. We rode in silence, neither of us saying anything. Thinking. It’s one of the things I appreciate about Renken. He has no inclination to chatter. He seems to know when to be quiet, which is a rare thing in most newly wealthy men. Maybe a stretch in another kind of country club had that effect on him.
The Clear Lake Athletic Club looks like an athletic club ought to look. The exterior is grand and somewhat majestic. Once you go through the front doors, you are required to produce evidence that you are permitted to be there. Such notables as Arnold Palmer and Vice President Quayle have been required to wait until their need to be there had been independently verified. Renken produced a club card with his picture on it and escorted me past the gatekeeper, an austere middle-aged woman named Ethyl with silver hair and a bustline that rivaled the Himalayas. She was polite to a fault but only with what appeared to be great effort. I decided she was probably packing. I decide I would definitely not want to meet her on a bad day with no one else around.
The interior of the club is spacious, to use Renken’s terminology. He likes to use it to describe the Club’s forty-foot ceilings, complete with stained glass domes, broad expanses of Saltillo tile floors interconnected with highly polished, six-inch wide strips of mesquite. Southwestern furnishings, plants lining the walkways, flowering bougainvillea cascading down across the balconies. An elegant circular water fountain graces the center of the entryway, its variegated bottom covered with coins and a squadron of enormous gold and black-flecked koi. Altogether, the effect is welcoming, tranquil and slightly regal, in a tasteful, understated Texas kind of way.
Renken excused himself and abandoned me to my own agendas. I found my way to the locker room, picked up a fluffy white towel and took a long, hot shower. Without drying off, I walked into the dry sauna, slathered eucalyptus-scented oil on my skin, and laid down on the redwood bench inside. I must have dozed off because I was startled to see Renken coming through the door with a white towel wrapped around his ample waist. I sat up, he sat down, and we sort of looked sideways at each other, glancing but not looking directly.
“Any bright ideas?” he asked.
“About the Russian thing?”
“Yeah. You got any clues about what the hell they were doing?”
“Well,” I said, “here’s my thinking. Let’s look at what they were not doing. They were not using pharmaceuticals, at least not any that could be detected by a mass spectrometer. They were not relying on Bob’s analytical data. He didn’t deliver it and they didn’t ask for it. And they were not conducting any standardized tests on their own.”
“So how did they know what to do? And what were they doing?”
“Whaddya mean?” I asked.
“I mean, they obviously must have been measuring something, right? They had all kinds of lab equipment and they obviously did something with the blood samples that were delivered every morning.”
“Okay, so the question becomes, what did they do with the blood samples that CDCC didn’t?”
Renken tossed some eucalyptus oil on the heater and took in a deep breath, sucking the vapor into his nose. “And what’s the deal with the saline solution?”
“Damned if I know,” I said. “But whatever they were doing, it had to have something to do with the way water is absorbed into the body.”
He shook his head slowly from side to side. “You hungry?”
“Maybe a little,” I said. “But no more barbeque, okay?”
We left the sauna, showered and got dressed. He walked me back into the club’s dining room, a takeoff on Pier 54 without the ocean. The waiter came by and we ordered very cold beers in frozen mugs. While we were waiting for the beers to materialize, I noticed that everyone’s attention in the whole dining room had suddenly shifted to something that was happening behind me.
I turned around and saw a spectacular blonde woman, long golden hair, deeply tanned, wearing a dayglow pink leotard cut way up the side of her hip, strolling along twirling a graphite tennis racquet in her hand. She saw Renken, blew him a kiss and disappeared around the corner.
“The same C.J. as in Candy, your girl Friday?”
“Almost didn’t recognize her with her clothes off.”