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By JEFF JACOBSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Jeff Jacobson
All rights reserved.
Bob Jr. thought the whole thing was a big joke right up until Dr. Deemer shot the Vice President of Marketing in the neck.
The day hadn't started out that bad. Hell, Bob Morton Jr. fully expected it to be one of the greatest days of his life. He'd been promised a party, and by God, he was ready for one. Up early, not too hungover, he joined his superiors on the exclusive little café on the roof of their hotel as the sun broke over Port-au-Prince. Then a short ride to the city's international airport where a sleek Gulfstream was gassed and ready to go.
Bob Jr. had never been on a jet that small or luxurious. He tried not to let the awe show on his face as he strapped himself into the leather seat. His employer, the genetically modified–seed giant Allagro, owned an entire island almost fifty miles to the west, and flew their executives back and forth all the time. Their proximity to Haiti and its laws gave the corporation quite a bit of flexibility regarding certain safeguards and scientific protocol. Before they had even taken off, the stewardesses, all perky local girls, brought everybody fresh oranges, giant frosted glasses full of hand-chipped ice, and nearly frozen bottles of Iordanov vodka.
Bob Jr. limited himself to just one screwdriver. He was one of the newest members of the upper echelon at Allagro and he didn't want to get too drunk too fast in front of the rest of the twenty or so other executives, all heavy hitters within the corporation. There was still a tour of the facilities and a whole mess of backslapping and glad-handing to get through before the real party began.
It hadn't been said aloud, but the message had been received loud and clear. Bob Jr. understood that all of the speeches, all of the presentations—everything—was simply a series of formalities meant to be endured before heading back to Port-au-Prince, where the booze, drugs, and women were all waiting.
And oh good Lord, the women. Bob Jr. had had to bite the inside of his cheeks to stifle a shit-eating grin. Somebody high up in the corporation had clearly spared no expense in showing their appreciation for a job well done. Viagra had been passed around like after-dinner mints. There was a damn good reason no wives had been invited on the trip.
The five-mile island was curved into a little comma. Cornfields covered most of the thin sliver of land. The jet landed smoothly on the airstrip that split the island in half and Bob Jr. got his first good look at the acres and acres of corn. As he disembarked, he couldn't help but feel a little unsettled. He'd grown up in cornfields; his dad had used to joke that he should have had corn silk for hair. But something was off. It felt wrong, somehow, to see all these endless, perfectly geometric rows of cornstalks with the pale blue Caribbean ocean in the background.
Six air-conditioned Range Rovers whisked the executives down dirt roads to the main campus, a sprawling cluster of massive greenhouses, a four-story office building, and what looked like a large, imposing warehouse. The office building was first, where a waiting contingent of on-site personnel were full of slick smiles and fawning congratulations. A troop of secretaries handed out mimosas spiked with rum-soaked pineapple wedges.
Then it was on to the laboratories.
Bob Jr. couldn't help but feel that shit just got real when they had to take turns going through a no-nonsense airlock. Everybody had to slip into surgical masks, sterile blue scrubs, and disposable booties fitted snugly over their custom alligator- and ostrich-skin shoes. The subdued, expensive paintings and wood walls disappeared, giving way to gray cement and pipes that clung to the ceilings; corrugated rubber mats protecting evenly spaced drains in the cement floor replaced the ornate rugs on hardwood. There was no doubt they were now squarely in the heart of Research and Development's territory.
Inside, the air tasted flat and stale. The rest of the tour was a dizzying blur of exotic scientific instruments and freezers and test tubes and obscure machines. They peered through thick Plexiglas into stark white rooms devoid of anything except heat lamps and a couple of cornstalks planted in ten-gallon buckets. Bob Jr. found he was having a hard time concentrating after the Caribbean heat and all the deceptively powerful drinks. The information their guides gave became nothing but endless, confusing blather.
He understood the basics, though. Of course he did. He'd been drilled, first from his father, then from the rest of the executives at Allagro, and finally from the men upstairs who never appeared at any meeting except on speakerphone. He barely knew these men's first names. He'd never actually met them in person. He didn't even know what they looked like.
It didn't matter, though. They certainly made sure he got the message.
These latest corn seeds were something brand new, going so far beyond the current cutting edge in technology that nobody even had a classification for them yet. They represented nothing less than the future of crop management. These special seeds had been armed with a sleeping genetic defense that only became active if the corn plant was attacked by some sort of pest, such as the European corn worm. This was a particularly troublesome moth whose larvae, voracious caterpillars, ate through the stalks, causing the entire plant to fall over and rot.
It had been patiently explained, over and over, that this genetic response was a kind of cocktail fungus grenade, a stew of fungal species that had been programmed to attack and destroy the corn worms. The whole thing was some kind of super-duper, top-fucking-secret. And though Bob Jr. had no idea what the Latin names actually meant, the eggheads certainly had been proud of their accomplishments. They'd combined a healthy dash of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a sizable chunk of Beauveria bassiana, a little contribution from Paecilomyces cicadae, and a sprinkling of God-knew-what.
How they did it exactly, Bob Jr. got a little shaky on the specifics.
All he really knew was that the men upstairs had decided to turn away from their profitable pesticide arm of the company. They sold that for billions and focused their genetic division of the corporation instead solely on organic responses to pests.
The new seeds were the harbinger of the future—a truly "green" solution.
When the tour of the labs had finished, the executives were shown into a plush conference room, and while Bob Jr. was thrilled to accompany the big boys to the island for the grand rollout, he hadn't realized how many stultifying speeches he would have to endure. One speaker after another had stepped up to the podium to explain, in soul-crushing detail, how their own unique vision had contributed to the success of the new seed. Everybody wanted his own moment in the spotlight.
At first, Bob Jr. had tried to pay attention, but the presentations were taking forever. His chair had become impossibly comfortable and the surface of the conference table had become a glazed, hypnotizing brown sea. The massive table had been built as a stylized replica of the actual island, with the sharp edges smoothed out, curves and angles minimized, until it resembled a thirty-foot quarter moon, curved in sync with the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out across a spotless white beach, revealing a seemingly endless tropical paradise—nothing but sand and waves. The alcohol and the heat were making his head fuzzy, and he was more than a little worried that he was about to fuck up and do something truly stupid, like fall asleep in front of everybody.
He tried to distract himself by watching the gray clouds piling up over the soft blue Caribbean water through the expansive windows behind the podium. The gorgeous view should have been enough, but the gentle rolling waves just made time pass slower. He shifted instead to picturing his fiancée, who was waiting for his return to Chicago, hopefully in something sheer and revealing.
Then he thought of his parents on their farm, and even though he had chosen not to stay and farm the land, they had to be so proud that their only child, a son no less, had at least chosen to pursue an extremely lucrative career in crops—corporate, genetically modified crops, in his case. He was bound and determined to fulfill his father's vision of returning the American farmer to his rightful, exalted position of honor in the greatest country on God's green earth.
The Vice President of Marketing was up at the podium, grinning like an egg-sucking shark. "Imagine, gentlemen, a corn seed booby-trapped with its own built-in pest control. No more pesticides, no more chemicals. This will improve our image among the organic fruitcakes and hippies whining about all these so-called 'genetically modified Frankenseeds.' No. That era is over. We are—"
That's when Dr. Deemer or Beemer or something lurched through the whisper-quiet double doors to the conference room, waving an old German Luger around. The scientist shouted something unintelligible to someone out of sight beyond the doors.
Bob Jr. recognized the gun because his father had one just like it. Supposedly Great-Granddad had brought it back from someplace in France or Germany just after D-Day, depending how much booze the storyteller had swallowed when the pistol was taken out of the family safe and passed around. Bob Jr. always got an extra swallow of beer after he held the pistol and aimed it; it always reminded him of Han Solo's blaster in Star Wars.
And because he was the new guy, Bob Jr. thought at first it was just a gag, some kind of lame hazing prank. He'd almost laughed out loud when the scientist had staggered into the room, waving the handgun in one hand and a bottle of Jameson in the other.
The gun-toting man, one of the leading eggheads who had actually developed all the genetic codes that lay dormant within the seeds, moved as if he were being forced to dance halfheartedly to music only he could hear, almost as if he needed to create momentum to keep going. It didn't look like the old man had gotten the memo that this was a triumphant, joyful occasion. His face, framed by unruly tangles of gray hair, had a haunted, lost quality. The skewed, smudged glasses didn't help the impression.
Given the circumstances, Bob Jr. figured the man was probably drunk. It made the most sense. After all, this whole trip, the tour, the conference, it all was one big celebration.
Either that, or he was having a stroke.
The scientist shuffled to the front of the room like someone in physical therapy learning how to walk after a serious car accident. He leaned into the podium at the head of the gleaming teak table and took a moment to catch his breath. If he was drunk, he wasn't a happy drunk, like everybody else.
The VP of Marketing finally edged back in and said, "Dr. Deemer?"
Dr. Deemer was either having hearing problems or ignoring the questioning tone. He glared at the twenty or so executives and said, "I hope you all are enjoying yourselves, but I am afraid I have some bad news." His voice barely rose above a whisper and the microphone only caught every third word. "Because this," he waved the pistol around, "... this, this is all a mistake. It is over. Finished."
"Perhaps it is," the VP said smoothly, gesturing at the table. "Nevertheless, we want to make sure everyone involved understands how vitally essential—"
"Shut your mouth, you simpering mongrel." Dr. Deemer's arm flopped over, and suddenly the barrel of the Luger was aiming in the direction of the VP. Even then, even when Bob Jr. should have known to run for the doors, he still thought it was all fake. Despite all of his instincts, he thought he was invulnerable. He was his father's son, and there wasn't anything he couldn't tackle. He knew the Luger, and even though he hadn't looked at the real thing since he was a child, he still thought it wasn't happening; he had convinced himself the gun in Dr. Deemer's hand was plastic, that it was a stupid cigarette lighter or even one of those gag toys where a little banner that said "BANG" popped out when you pulled the trigger.
Bob Jr. was hoping Dr. Deemer would snap out of it and cough and laugh and admit that it was all just a joke. After all these speeches, Bob Jr. had been promised a thirty-six-hour binge of drinking, women, and food, and maybe even a few illicit drugs. He had been focusing on these particular thirty-six hours for weeks now. Nothing would come between him and total hedonism. Nothing.
That's why the next logical choice was that it had to be a gag, part of some goofy ritual. Everybody would have a good laugh at the nervous looks on the couple of new executives, and then the lead scientist would follow the program and proclaim how these new seeds were officially vastly superior to all of the previous strains.
Goddamn, Bob Jr. was willing to drink to that. These new genetically modified corn seeds were going to make them all millionaires, if not fucking billionaires.
And the thing was, all this pomp and circumstance, all the dull speeches, all of it was unnecessary. The safety and effectiveness of the seeds had been cleared months ago by the internal research and development geeks. Hell, Bob Jr. had quietly shipped off a package to his parents once he'd heard that the seeds had been declared safe after the first round of test results. That was three, four months ago. His father owned one of the largest farms in Manchester County and couldn't wait to get the seeds in the ground. Allagro protocol demanded that the rest of the time was spent in equally useless further tests and buying off their pals in the Department of Agriculture. The whole process was like being wrapped in red tape and falling into bureaucratic quicksand, until finally, finally they were permitted to start test trials off the island.
Hence the celebration.
The punch line to the joke never came. Nobody broke character. Dr. Deemer said, "We are reaping what we have sown, gentlemen." He took a long swig from the bottle, swallowed, and wiped at his face. Bob Jr. was shocked to see tears streaming down the old man's face, spilling along the contours of the wrinkles.
There was a banging on the conference room doors.
"I warned you!" Dr. Deemer shouted at the doors, and then, without any further hesitation, turned and shot the VP of Marketing.
And even then, Bob Jr. thought it was staged. There was no deafening blast, no explosion of blood that splattered across the wall behind the VP like in the movies. No, it was just a little pop, and the marketing guy twisted, giving the surprised, harsh grunt of someone who'd had the wind knocked out of them.
Bob Jr. didn't know whether to grin or react in horror.
The VP clutched at his throat, took two steps toward the wall, and collapsed. He kicked once or twice in mindless spasms, gurgling his last breath as he slid down the wall and sprawled on the floor.
The doors were silent.
Now that he had everybody's attention, Dr. Deemer said, "This, this is one time where I will not be interrupted." He took the time to meet each executive's eyes, like a snake waiting for a mouse to emerge from under a log; and only until he had stared each of them in the eyes for a long two or three seconds did he move on.
When he met Bob Jr.'s eyes, Bob Jr. felt like he might piss his pants.
Dr. Deemer straightened. Put the Luger on the podium. "I hate to rain on your parade, as they say. However, I am afraid I have some bad news. The ... organisms contained within this new seed have developed in reaction to its environment in remarkable, unpredictable forms."
"So this, this fuckup is your fault, is that what you're telling us?" the CFO, Howard Slade, asked with an air of patient nonchalance. He had an antique pocketknife out and seemed to be paying more attention to cleaning his fingernails than to the gun.
Bob Jr. suddenly found that his own hands were the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. He was sitting next to Slade, and did not want Dr. Deemer looking their way. Bob Jr. had been around enough firearms in his life to know when he was in the line of fire.
Excerpted from Growth by JEFF JACOBSON. Copyright © 2014 Jeff Jacobson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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