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About the Author
Paul R. Theroux was an industry insurance executive. This is his first novel. He lives in Orlando, Florida.
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A Novel of Espionage and Racqueteering
By Paul R. Theroux, Wythe Bowart
LibertyTree PressCopyright © 2013 LibertyTree Press
All rights reserved.
KURT STRONG knew something was bothering his opponent. Usually, Roger Pate extended himself to maximum effort and concentration — but not this evening.
After scores of 6–2 and 6–1, Kurt started around the tennis net to change sides for the third set, when Roger startled him with, "Let's call it enough. I'm sorry, Kurt, but I'm way off somewhere."
"Okay," Kurt conceded grudgingly. He disliked attaining what seemed like only half a workout, and they had twenty-five minutes remaining of the one and a half hours they had reserved at the indoor tennis center. In the three years they had been pounding a ball at each other, Kurt couldn't remember Roger not wanting to play until the last minute. In fact, that was one reason they had such good matches; they both went all out to win, and neither wanted to give up a point without a struggle.
Roger seemed to sense the question in his friend's mind. "You're right, Kurt. I've got a problem that's bugging me. Let's go for a beer, and I'll tell you about it."
Infrequently, after a game at the indoor tennis center, they dropped by the Side Door Bar and Grill. Infrequently because Roger wanted to get home to his wife and two young kids. Kurt was single, a bit younger at twenty-six, and he would have preferred a visit to the Side Door Bar and Grill follow each tennis session. After three of their normally hot sets of tennis, it was the time he most enjoyed a cold draft beer. Also, he liked Roger, who reminded him of a big friendly dog with his enthusiasm and excitability. A chemist, Roger was the chemical research manager at a sizeable conglomerate — Benson & Co., just outside of Chicago.
After taking a long satisfying drink from the frosted mug in front of him, Kurt prompted, "Well, what's this problem you were talking about?"
Roger didn't respond immediately. His usually friendly face looked deadly serious, and he studied Kurt's eyes for a moment. Finally he blurted out, "Hell, I shouldn't be telling you my troubles. It's just that I'm up against something that has me up a tree, and I don't know what to do." He paused.
Trying to be helpful, Kurt offered, "Is it trouble at home?"
"No, everything is fine at home. It's at work. They're trying to pull something I don't like. In fact, they've already done it." He paused again, scowling intently into his half-empty mug of beer, as if the problem was hiding somewhere in the light-brown liquid. His six foot two, two hundred-pound body was tautly hunched in the secluded booth they had selected in the nearly empty tavern. Kurt waited patiently until Roger continued. "I know you have a law degree, and while you're not in active practice, maybe you can give me some free legal advice." He smiled briefly, without any mirth. "The lab project I've been working on for the past year was an improved shaving cream, one that would soften the beard so a razor blade would cut through whiskers like they were made of soft butter. About four months ago, it happened." Roger's eyes seemed to ignite as he looked up, recalling the thrill of success. "I finally came up with a combination that did just what we wanted. Even a relatively dull razor blade would produce a clean shave, with no stress or strain on the face."
"Sounds great," Kurt inserted.
"Yeah, if I had let it go at that — but I had to go and fuss with it some more." Roger's face screwed itself into a wry, disgusted expression. "If I had just quit while I was ahead, everything would be okay. Soly was happy as a lark. He's my boss. So I should have let it lay, but I figured I could make it even better." He paused and drained his beer mug.
"I'll get some more beer," Kurt offered, as he picked up the two mugs and stepped up to the bar.
With the refills in front of them, Roger continued. "Well, anyway, I kept adding more and more of this one ingredient. It's a new kind of softener I found. Finally, I had it. Formula Q-23 not only softened the whiskers, it actually made them disappear! What do you think of that?" he demanded.
"Come on," Kurt laughed. "What do you mean, disappear? Sounds like you invented vanishing cream."
"Well, in a way it is, 'cause it does make whiskers vanish. That's the beauty of it." Roger was enthusiastic. "It seems to affect only hair. Doesn't hurt the skin at all. I tested it on myself — no problems. It removes the hair all the way down to and including the roots. That's the biggie; it removes the roots. Until now, the only hair-removal method that removed the hair root, or hair bulb, was electrolysis, and that method has its drawbacks, including some pit-like scarring, time involved, and high costs. There have been some other cream-type hair removers, but they don't compare with Q-23. It's permanent hair removal with one application."
"Wow! Sounds like you really have something. You and your company should be happy. So what's the problem?"
"The problem is that Benson & Co. is a conglomerate. When I brought Q-23 to Soly, my boss, he was amazed, but he didn't seem pleased. He told me to keep it quiet. About a week later, I pinned him down. It seems our big moneymaker is razors, razor blades, and everything else that goes with shaving. Soly says he discussed my formula with our president, and they decided to do nothing with Q-23. Just bottle it up. The biggest thing I have ever come up with, and they want to stifle it."
The resentment and distress showed on Roger's face. He had worked at Benson & Co. for eight years now, since graduating from college. Benson & Co. had previously used outside chemical labs, but with Roger, they could handle special chemical research at a lower cost and with a better chance of keeping any new developments or products secret. He had his own small laboratory and office and reported directly to Sylvester (Soly) Claybourne, Vice President of Research and Development.
Kurt stared at Roger for a moment. "You mean to tell me they're not going to market an obvious winner like that?"
"That's right. Soly told me that 90 percent of our profits come from shaving products, and if nobody shaved it could blow most of those profits away. Benson & Co. has millions of dollars in shaving inventory, and even more millions in plants and expensive equipment. If Q-23 caught on, it could make all this obsolete. Anyway, Soly told me I had to think like management about the good of the company — and keep it secret. Well, I've always tried to be a good company man, always followed the rules, but this is different."
"What do you mean, different?" asked Kurt.
"Well, first of all, it's an important discovery — sort of a medical breakthrough — something that a researcher like me may come across only once in a lifetime. So from a personal standpoint, it's really important to me — as a person, a chemist, and a researcher — to not keep it bottled up. Secondly, I feel I have a duty to the public not to hide a product like this. This may sound like I'm trying to be noble, but it's not like that. Just think of the hundreds of millions of men who have to go through the bother of shaving every day, to say nothing about the time and expense involved. One application of Q-23 and you're through with shaving. I know. A month ago I gave myself the treatment, and I haven't shaved since. Here, feel my face," he said as he leaned forward and jutted out his chin.
Kurt ran his hand over Roger's chin and neck, and, with some awe in his voice, said, "Smooth as a baby's behind. Say, I suppose it would work on women, too."
"Sure it would," enthused Roger. "You'd be amazed at the number of women customers our division has. Even with the feminist movement, women want to be feminine, and that means no hair on most parts of the body. In fact, we probably would have as many, if not more, women customers for Q-23 than men."
"You've convinced me," Kurt admitted. "But why are you talking to me? Not that I'm not interested, but I don't see how I can help you."
"Maybe you can't," Roger agreed. "But I had to tell someone. I haven't even told my wife about it. I think she suspects something's going on, but so far I've honored our company's policy and position by not talking to anyone till now. Now four of us know about it: Soly, Mr. Benson, you, and me. I guess I'm telling you partly because I consider you one of my best friends, but also because I thought you might give me some help from a legal standpoint, regarding what is right in a case such as this or what I should do."
Kurt pondered a moment. "Off the cuff, I'd have to say you are stuck with your boss's position. Since your president reportedly agrees with him, this seems to eliminate going over your boss's head."
"I know," Roger scowled. "I've been thinking about going to the chairman of the board, but he's semi-retired, and I'm not sure I could get in to see him, anyway. Probably I'd just end up without a job."
"I doubt that," mused Kurt. "It seems to me you have a pretty strong hand. If they fired you, you could make this public, or go to a competitor, or start your own business. Of course, there could be legal problems, since you discovered this while working for Benson & Co. I doubt they would fire you, though, even if they wanted to. If you really want to fight this, why don't you confront your boss again, and try to obtain a hearing with your president, so you can explain your feelings firsthand."
"Maybe I should," Roger admitted. "I have to do something. This keeps bothering me so much, I can't do anything else right."
"Yeah, I noticed that on the tennis court," smiled Kurt. "I like to beat you, but not that easily."
"I was pretty bad, wasn't I?" agreed Roger sheepishly, as he looked at his watch. "I'd better get going or my wife will get even more suspicious about what is going on."
Kurt killed off his beer, and as they were walking out to their respective cars, added, "Look, Roger, let me know how this goes. If you get your day in court with your president and the issue is not resolved, let me know and let's talk further. We'll come up with something."
"Okay. I feel better already. I'll call you later this week. Thanks, Kurt."
On the way back to his bachelor's apartment, Kurt thought about Roger's plight. There must be more to the story. He couldn't imagine a big outfit like Benson & Co. trying to suppress a product like the one Roger had described. Yet Kurt had known Roger for several years, and he doubted Roger was feeding him a line or was greatly exaggerating the facts. While Benson & Co. was a large, well-respected company, it could be that one or two persons in management might pigeonhole a potential product like this for one reason or another, rightly or wrongly.
Kurt was trained and experienced in being analytical. When he had finished law school, he found he had little desire to take up the profession, even though he had been offered a start with a well-known law firm in Chicago. Instead, he did some investigative work, first with an insurance company and then with a private investigating firm. Then, just two years ago, he established his own firm, Strong Consulting and Investigating Service. Business had developed slowly the first year, but was doing well now, partly due to former contacts with the insurance industry and partly due to some hard work and the high degree of confidence and competence he displayed with other people. Also, his lean dark good looks and a six-foot athletic frame were not a handicap. The volume of business had developed so much that he had hired a young high school graduate named Ray Grayson. Ray was a happy-go-lucky youth who handled some routine outside work, but whose main jobs were to answer the phone when Kurt was out and to keep the office paperwork from becoming too much of a fire hazard.
Kurt was still thinking about Roger's problem when he was lying in bed that night, but he saw no easy solution. He dismissed the matter from his mind, turned on his side, and went to sleep.CHAPTER 2
IN HIS LITTLE office in his laboratory at Benson & Co. the next morning, Roger Pate waited until midmorning before he pushed 207 on the intercom. "This is Roger Pate. I'd like to see Soly," he said to Betty. Roger knew that Betty disliked anyone referring to her boss as "Soly." She considered it disrespectful, considering that Mr. Claybourne was a vice president, but Roger was feeling a bit belligerent.
"I'll see if Mr. Claybourne can fit you in," she retorted coldly. "I'll call you back later."
An hour later, Roger received word from Betty. "Mr. Claybourne has a very busy schedule, but he can see you at 3:45 p.m. this afternoon."
Sylvester Claybourne had been with Benson & Co. for about five years. He was a small handsome man in his late forties, with a full head of dark hair, just beginning to be tinged with gray. In fact, his hair was somewhat of an obsession with him. He had a nervous habit of whipping out a pocket comb to run through his hair. Then he would pat his hair on the sides to fluff it up on top. He was very ambitious, and felt that as vice president of research and development, he was in a good spot to promote his accomplishments and move up in the organization. The position of executive vice president was currently open. However, there were several other vice-presidents in Benson & Co., and Sylvester was determined to beat them out. Much depended on pleasing Mr. Benson Jr., President, who had absolute control, through stock ownership — his own, plus the Benson family's.
Roger walked in to Sylvester's relatively plush office promptly at 3:45 p.m. and was greeted with, "I have a meeting at four o'clock. What's on your mind, Roger?"
"It's Q-23. I still —" began Roger.
"Hold on, Roger." The vice president held up a hand like a traffic cop. "I told you our position on Q-23. We must defer any further action at this time. Maybe next year, if conditions are right. Now, was there anything else you wanted to see me about?"
"Can't we at least try testing —"
"Now look, Roger." The irritation showed on Sylvester's face and in his voice. Unconsciously, he pulled out his comb and passed it rapidly through his hair. "We've been through this, and it's settled. Your Q-23 is deferred for the present." Then his attitude abruptly changed to a confidential tone, as he walked around his desk and put a friendly hand on Roger's arm. "Look, Roger. This is a corporate decision for the good of the organization and, therefore, for the good of all of us. Just relax. We all appreciate the value of the work you've done and the potential of Q-23, and we may be able to do something with it next year, or the following year when our profits are not dependent on the razor division. But right now, it would be disastrous. You have plenty to do with your other projects, so just get back to your lab and keep up the good work."
Roger felt trapped, and thought maybe he should forget it for now. But then a surge of rebellion swept over him. He stepped away from the vice president, turned to face him, and blurted out, "I'd like to talk to the president."
The irritation that Sylvester had been trying to hide now returned. "Damn it, Roger, you're going too far." The comb again came out of his pocket and passed through his luxuriant locks. "You're just going to cause both of us a lot of trouble. I advise you to just get back to your lab."
However, Roger was too riled up to be put off. So he squared his shoulders, looked Sylvester directly in the eye, and repeated his request flatly.
"Soly, I request an audience with our president, Mr. Benson Jr." He added, "Or with Mr. Benson Sr., Chairman of the Board." They glared at each other, Roger being at least six inches taller than his boss.
Finally, Sylvester reluctantly said, "All right, Roger, I'll see what I can do."
Everyone in the company knew that Benson & Co. officially had an open-door policy. At the annual company picnic outing, Mr. Benson Sr. referred to their open-door policy every year during his off-the-cuff talk to the gathered employees. This customarily occurred sandwiched in between the eating and the games. He would say something like "If any of you feel you want to talk personally to me, or to Junior, about anything having to do with our business, just pass the word through your supervisor."
Excerpted from Q-23 by Paul R. Theroux, Wythe Bowart. Copyright © 2013 LibertyTree Press. Excerpted by permission of LibertyTree Press.
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