By Gary Braver
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2000 Gary Goshgarian
All rights reserved.
OCTOBER 1986 APRICOT CAY, THE CARIBBEAN
Quentin took a sip of his champagne. "My best offer is three million dollars, take it or leave it."
"Leave it," said Antoine Ducharme, not missing a beat.
You son-of-a-bitch! Quentin thought. "Then we have a problem."
"No, my friend, you have a problem. The fee is five million per ton."
Quentin Cross, Chief Financial Officer at thirty-seven and future CEO of Darby Pharmaceuticals, sat in uneasy silence on the rear deck of Reef Madness, a long sleek cruiser that Antoine's girlfriend, Lisa, maneuvered around the coral heads. Working the mooring line from the bow was Marcel, one of Antoine's security guards, who wore a snub-nosed revolver and pair of handcuffs on his belt.
They were inside the barrier reef on the northern coast of Apricot Cay, a palm-fringed island fifteen miles southeast of Jamaica and owned by Antoine Ducharme, an elegant and highly educated yachtsman, entrepreneur, and drug trafficker. Antoine, who looked to be in his mid-forties, was a tall, solidly built man with short salt-and-pepper hair, and an open face that appeared scholarly behind his rimless eyeglasses. It was a face that was used to making substantial decisions and one that could turn to stone in an instant.
Dressed in a green lounging suit, Antoine had arranged for his ten associates a sunset dinner of lobster tail, sautéed breadfruit, and French cheeses topped off with a dessert of fresh apricots, of course.
Quentin knew very little about the other men except that they were all part of an international group of very wealthy power brokers given to secret capital ventures and extravagances. But their association with Antoine Ducharme suggested that they had no ethical qualms about getting dirty. There were no introductions. The men ate separately, speaking French and German, then moved into the inner cabin to watch a soccer game beamed from a satellite dish. To Quentin they were simply "the Consortium."
Sitting with Quentin and Antoine was an American of about thirty-five named Vince Lucas, Antoine's "financial security officer." He was lean and attractive in a feral kind of way. He had smooth fleshy lips, a tanned, V-shaped face, and shiny black hair combed straight back to expose a deep widow's peak. His eyebrows were perfect black slashes, and his eyes were so dark that they appeared to be all pupil. On his forearm was a tattoo of a bird of prey with a death-head skull. He looked like no financial officer Quentin had ever met.
"If you ask me, five million is a bargain," Vince Lucas said.
"Five million dollars is out of the question," Quentin repeated. But he knew that they had him by the proverbial throat.
Lisa cleared the dishes. She was clad in a scant black bikini, a yellow headband, and a rose tattoo on her shoulder. She was a stunningly exotic woman in her early twenties with cocoa skin and deep, uninhibited eyes — eyes which when they fell on Quentin made him self-conscious of his large pink face, thinning hair, and pot belly swelling over his shorts. When she was finished, she gave Antoine, who was twice her age, a long passionate kiss and went below, Marcel tailing her to leave the men to their business.
"Listen to me, my friend," Antoine said, "We have over two thousand acres of mountain rainforest, another thousand acres of orchards with mountain streams for irrigation, protected harbors, your own airstrip, storage buildings — 'the works,' as you Americans say. And most important: total privacy."
Quentin had heard all this before. He had toured the island including the rainforest. But biological diversity was not what interested him. Nor the acres of cannabis hidden in the orchards. Nor the camouflaged sheds where imported cocoa leaves were processed into cocaine for easy shipment northward — an operation which made Apricot Cay the Delmonte of dope in the Western Hemisphere.
What Quentin Cross wanted was apricots — and a particular species, Prunus caribaeus, unique to Apricot Cay. And he was willing to pay $3 million a ton for them.
No, Darby Pharms was not diversifying into the produce market. What made the species unique was the pits: They contained cyanogentic compounds highly toxic to cancer cells. In fact, the apricot toxogen had an astounding 80 percent success rate in the treatment of Mexican patients with malignant tumors. The FDA had not yet approved clinical testing in the U.S., but for Quentin the compound — with the potential trade name Veratox — promised to become the world's first cancer wonder drug.
Darby Pharms had kept the toxogen secret for two key reasons. First, they had not yet secured FDA approval; but that was no problem since Ross Darby was an old college buddy of Ronald Reagan. The second reason was Antoine Ducharme. Nobody at Darby but Quentin knew that he was an international drug baron, including Ross Darby, Quentin's father-in-law and current CEO — a man of impeccable scruples. If word got out, Darby Pharmaceuticals would not only lose its license to manufacture drugs, but it could end up in a criminal investigation that could put Quentin Cross and Ross Darby behind bars for years.
Antoine knew that and, thus, was asking for blood. What gnawed at Quentin's mind was the entrepreneur's unpredictability. Should Veratox turn out to be the world's hottest pharmaceutical, Antoine might double the price of subsequent shipments. Or he might set up an auction for bidders with limitless resources, such as Eli Lilly or Merck. The only solution was a commercially viable synthesis. But in spite of months of all-out efforts by Christopher Bacon, Darby's chief medical chemist, the toxogen was proving difficult to reproduce. The process required so many steps that the yield was infinitesimal. So far, Prunus caribaeus was an apricot only nature could build.
"Let me remind you that it grows only on Apricot Cay. And do you know why?" Antoine flashed another toothy smile. "Because a particular fungus that blights only Prunus caribaeus mysteriously wiped out all the apricot crops on the other islands."
Quentin was about to ask where the blight came from, but something in Antoine's eyes said he could guess the answer. The son-of-a-bitch was even more cunning than he had guessed.
"What prevents the blight from being introduced here?"
"The fact that nobody is allowed to disembark here without my permission."
That was true. He had ringed its beaches with elaborate electronic security systems — cameras, motion detectors, barbed-wire fences — not to mention armed guards on constant surveillance in towers and jeeps. He had even pushed old cars into the shallows of the bay for coral to build upon, making boat passage perilous. Apricot Cay was a tropical fortress.
"You're asking too much."
"Not according to the Wall Street Journal," Vince Lucas said. From his briefcase he pulled out a copy of the paper. "Darby Pharms' profitability increased 30 percent over the last year — some 50 million dollars. Barron's cites you as a growth company of choice. Besides, your Mr. Darby is an old friend of Ronald Reagan. Once you get FDA approval, Darby will be on the Fortune 500, n'est-ce-pas?"
Quentin wished he had never mentioned the White House connection. In a moment of bravado he once boasted how Ross Darby and Reagan played football together at Eureka College and that Darby had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Reagan's campaigns and raised millions more hosting Republican fund raisers. Ironically, Ross had even generously supported Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug initiative. That boast had probably doubled the cost of the apricots.
Quentin walked to the gunwale. The sun had set on the unbroken horizon, enameling the sea in burnt orange. Even with Reagan pressing the FDA Commissioner, it could take two years to win approval. Then another two before Veratox was on the market. Meanwhile, Darby would be another $25 million in debt to a Caribbean crook. Worse still, their ace microbiologist, Dexter Quinn, had retired two months ago, leaving only Chris Bacon and a couple of assistants on their premier project. They worked around the clock but had made no progress synthesizing the compound. But something bothered Quentin about Bacon. He seemed distracted all the time — as if he had another agenda just below the surface.
"Of course," said Antoine, joining him at the railing, "it's always possible that another firm would become interested in our fine harvest, no?" Antoine smiled broadly.
The bastard had him by the balls. On the table sat the leather-bound business plans containing all the lease conditions, the numbers, and paragraphs of legalese about the dummy corporation Quentin had established to export tropical fruit. It was all very sophisticated and legitimate, neatly spelled out in French and English and as negotiable as a firing squad.
Quentin felt himself cave in. Veratox was a billion-dollar molecule, and he was next in line to run the company. Once Chris Bacon's group could synthesize the extract, they would have no need of Antoine Ducharme and his island. "You drive a hard bargain."
"No such thing, my friend. Bargains are never hard."
Quentin shuffled back to the table and signed the contract. By November first, he would have to wire two and a half million dollars to a bank in Grand Bahamas as advance. A second payment of the same amount was due next June. And nobody would know because Quentin kept double books, siphoning funds from foreign sales of other products.
Antoine poured more champagne and they sat and watched the sky turn black while inside the others hooted over the game. After several minutes, Antoine stood up. "Trust, my friends. It is very important, no?"
The question threw Quentin. Vince Lucas just shrugged.
"More important than love." A strange intensity lit Antoine's eyes.
Quentin's first thought was that Antoine was drunk. But he moved purposefully to a wall unit by the boat's instruments and slid back a panel to reveal a small television screen. He hit a couple buttons and a color picture emerged. For a moment Quentin thought it was some kind of adult video. Two people were having sex. Antoine muttered something in French in a tone of harsh resignation, then turned a knob. The camera zoomed in on Lisa in the throes of an orgasm, Marcel, his red shirt still on, driving her from above.
Antoine's expression was a strange neutrality. He flicked off the set then picked up the phone and said something in French. Within a minute, Marcel climbed up from below. He was fully dressed, the holstered gun still belted around his waist.
Quentin could feel his heartbeat kick up.
"Everything okay below?" Antoine asked.
"Yes, of course," Marcel said, looking nervous.
"Good." Then he turned to Quentin. "Because my American associate here is joining us. He will be investing very heavily in our enterprise here, and we must assure him of flawless security, n'est-cepas?"
"But of course."
Antoine approached Marcel and raised a finger like a teacher making a key point. "Trust," he said, then reached around and unclipped the pistol from his holster. Marcel did not move. "See? Perfect trust." Marcel made an uncertain grin. Antoine raised a second finger. "Perfect security," he continued. "Essential ingredients for success, yes?"
Vince Lucas smiled and made a toasting gesture, encouraging Marcel to go along with the classroom charade.
Then Antoine motioned for Marcel to hold out his hands. The man looked perplexed, but Antoine was his boss making a point to impress his guest. So Marcel complied as Antoine removed the handcuffs from his belt and snapped one on his wrist. "Perfect trust, yes?"
Marcel nodded, then Antoine indicated for Marcel to turn around, which he did, half-proudly presenting his other hand behind him in perfect obedience. Antoine snapped on the second cuff, still keeping up his patter, while Quentin watched in anxious fascination. "Without trust, friendship fails, families dissolve, empires crumble."
He led Marcel to the portside edge. Across the water, Antoine's villa glowed like a jeweler's display. Above them spread an endless black vault fretted with a million stars and a crescent moon rocking just above the horizon. "And it is for all this," Antoine continued. "A paradise island in a paradise sea under a paradise sky — the stars, the moon, the air. All the moments we steal from the gods. We are as close to immortality as one can get."
"Yes, monsieur," Antoine echoed. He directed Marcel to look straight down into the water. "But not the face of deceit."
Before Marcel could respond, Antoine nodded to Vince Lucas who in one smooth move heaved Marcel over the side.
Marcel bobbed to the surface, coughing and choking.
"You guarded the wrong body, my friend." Antoine said.
Marcel shouted pleas to Antoine to drop a rope or ladder, aware that they were half a mile out with an offshore wind pushing him toward where the surf pounded the jagged reef to foam.
Vince pulled a pistol from under his shirt and aimed it at Marcel's head to finish him off.
"No, let nature take its course," Antoine said, "and prolong the pleasure."
From below, Lisa climbed onto the deck. She had heard Marcel's cries. "What happened? What did you do to him?"
Antoine turned to her with fierce intensity. "He wanted to get his dick wet."
She looked at him in horror, then at the two other men standing with champagne glasses, the Consortium inside celebrating a goal. She started away when Antoine pushed her to the side. He was about to hurl her overboard when Quentin cried out. "No, please, Antoine. Don't do this. Please!"
Antoine's face snapped at him, furious at the intrusion. But he caught himself and released the woman. "You can go," he hissed. "But you won't make the same mistake twice, will you?"
She stood gasping in hideous disbelief as Marcel choked for his last few breaths of air.
"Will you?" Antoine repeated.
"No," she whined, then backed down the stairs to her cabin.
Frozen in horror, Quentin looked for help to Vince who just winked and pointed out a shooting star, while Antoine poured himself more champagne then returned to the gunwale to watch Marcel die.
For two wicked minutes he choked and begged for his life — his words gurgling through the night waves, his legs kicking with all he had to keep his head above night surf — until totally exhausted he sank into the black.
Quentin was too stricken with terror to say anything else. He hid in his glass, wondering at the cruel justice of Antoine Ducharme, at the casualness of Vince Lucas as if he'd witnessed murders all the time, at what miseries Antoine had in store for Lisa — but knowing with brilliant clarity that he was dealing with a species of people who lived in a dark and gaudy world — a world whose principles were alien to the rest of civilized society.
But what bothered Quentin Cross almost as much as watching the young man drown was knowing that he was now part of that world — an accomplice and partner who had signed his name in blood.
And that the only way out was Christopher Bacon.
Or his own death.
NOVEMBER 1986 CANTON, OHIO
Karen Kimball couldn't put her finger on it, but the guy in the tan sportcoat looked vaguely familiar.
It was the eyes. The heavy lids, the dark blue flecked with stars. It's hard to forget eyes, no matter what happens to the rest of the face. These were eyes she knew from long ago. And the way they followed her. Not leering, not lewd, just a kind of warm speculation. But he was too young to be making eyes at her.
She mopped the table in the booth across from his and chided herself. Here she was an overweight fifty-nine-year-old divorcee with three kids and a grandchild — not some teeniebopper flushing at each foxy guy who passed her way.
She dried her hands and pulled out her pad. "Would you like something to drink, sir?"
He eyed her waitress outfit. "Aren't you the owner?"
Everyone in town knew that. "One of my girls called in sick, so you're going to have to settle with me. What'll it be?"
"I think I'll have a black cow."
"Guess you stopped making them. Make it a Heineken instead." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Elixir by Gary Braver. Copyright © 2000 Gary Goshgarian. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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