'Several weeks went by before I bumped into Nibble again. When I did, it was by accident on an old road leading through the forest. We sat down on a big log together while Nibble licked his feet which were badly torn up.
'"Sorry, I haven't been back but I've been after this jack rabbit who's been eluding me for weeks. Today I almost got him but he scrambled down this rocky hole and, well, you see the result." Nibble gazed morosely at his paws.
''You left me hanging again, Nibble,' I scolded. 'For weeks now I've been wondering how many pups Bluebell had... tell me... how many was it?'
'Waggishly, Nibble burrowed into my side with his great hound head, shook himself and stared sagaciously. "You don't imagine I'm going to tell you everything at once, do you?" he said, a shrewd wrinkle forming under his big wet nose. "What kind of story would that be? Nothing so boring as a story that starts at the beginning and goes straight through to the end. I have to familiarize you with some of the other characters - take Irving Allen's partner, Fred Straker, for example."
''I'll bet there's more to him than meets the eye,' I said. "Fred Straker - what a name!"
'"Frederick B. Straker, if you please," said Nibble. "He put the B in because he thought successful attorneys ought to have middle initials. Imagine him if you will, striding along a gravel path lined with spreading chestnuts, crunch, crunch, crunch, through the dense atmosphere of a late September afternoon from the stables to the mansion of his new Saddle River, New Jersey estate."
'"Now he's almost forty, his boyish footballer's face is becoming bloated, fat beginning to accumulate just beneath the skin of his large neck. Hard to believe, isn't it, that this paragon of entrepreneurial success in his custom-made cowboy boots, his buttocks squeezed into a pair of designer jeans, his pectorals covered by expensive cashmere, could have once been a skinny, wild-eyed Berkeley radical shouting slogans from the steps of the Berkeley Law School and dropping acid in the Haight."
'Impossible,' I agreed.
'"Nevertheless, true," sighed Nibbles, "but I can tell you it wasn't without a twinge of regret, a certain farewell to youth you might say, that at the insistence of his father, an ambitious dentist from Bakersfield, Fred Straker exchanged the massage parlors of Telegraph Avenue for Yale Commons in New Haven. Wasn't it better to jump on the nearest gravy train? he reasoned. Was anything wrong with that? Was there anything worse in America than not being successful?"
'"Imagine then this 'has-been' radical embracing the equally radical cult of the American prophetess Alissa Rosenbaum, better known as Ayn Rand. Now he is twenty years older and enjoying the fruits of following her Darwinian economic advice and very pleased with himself. He enters his study through a side door, kicks his boots off dramatically and slumps into his favorite arm chair. The green decor, the old English hunting prints and antique furniture chosen by his second wife Marilyn usually soothe his nerves but not today. Today, highly agitated, he attended Irving Allen's funeral, and returned home a wreck."
'"So he saddled up his favorite mare and went for a long ride. Riding and horses had been the common bond between him and his first wife Jane, a Boston heiress, who died mysteriously in a plane crash less than a year after their marriage. From her estate Straker had received a considerable fortune which he'd doubled, then tripled during the expansive Eighties and then with Irving Allen, a brilliant biologist, had founded Combinant Technologies."
'"Maintaining appearances at Irving's funeral had left him drained. 'Traitor,' he grumbled to himself incredulously, 'why should I feel anything for him? At least I wasn't asked to be a pall bearer - didn't have to carry the bastard to his grave.' "
'"Reaching for his glasses, Straker examined the printouts from his telex machine. The question now was: where was Rostov?
'"Irving Allen's assistant, Dimitri Rostov, had been out of touch since Irving's death. Straker had dispatched a query to the Paris headquarters of CTI and his eyes skimmed the jumble of news, rumors and market reports.
''Found him in Washington, have they?' he mumbled to himself zeroing in on a reply, 'right under our noses! hmm.' Punching out a telephone number, Straker tapped his foot impatiently."
''You have reached the residence of Dimitri Rostov,' a pleasant voice with an Eastern European accent murmured. 'He is not able to come to the phone right now but you can reach him at 201-566-8544 after seven o'clock this evening... or at the sound of the tone feel free to leave a message.' Slamming down the phone, Starker roused Marilyn on the intercom. 'Is Dimitri on his way here? He left our private number on his answering service - some nerve!"
'" 'Oh, I forgot to tell you,' sighed Marilyn. 'He called this morning while you were at Irving's funeral and said to give you his apologies.' "
'" 'Apologies," Fred grunted. 'Apologies aren't going to be enough. We don't need apologies, we need results. Who does he think he is?' "
'"Slumping back in his chair, Straker stared into space. How could anyone appreciate how much stress you accumulated dealing with these crazy scientific types? But then, maybe Rostov wasn't as crazy as he seemed. Maybe he'd figured out how really important he was now that Irving was gone, or worse, he could have found those goddamn papers, or even worse than that, perhaps Irving had given them to him before he'd disappeared. For sure, Rostov was going to try to strike some kind of deal - Had he underestimated him? The stakes were high. Rostov could take those papers to another company, sell them for a fortune and CTI would be left high and dry. He could, but would he?"
'"Mixing himself a strong drink, Straker stood at the library window watching the sun set in a sludge colored sky. Everything he had was tied up in this deal, the biggest thing in the history of Bio-Biz. How much did Dimitri know? How far had Irving let him in on what was happening? Perhaps he'd have to scare the truth out of Dimitri. Grimacing at his reflection in the window glass and flexing his muscles, he shrugged and gulped down his drink."
'"That evening in the new Chinoiserie dining room of the Straker mansion, under soft candle light, diminutive Marilyn Straker, ex-Belgian airline hostess, directed the progress of dinner by nervously stomping on a button concealed beneath her chair, summoning in turn the butler or either of four footman who rushed back and forth from the pantry. Marilyn was the sexy replacement for Straker's first wife Jane. Whereas Jane had been lanky, Marilyn was curvaceous; while Jane had been athletic and played a neat game of tennis, Marilyn's games were played in bed - all championship matches. Jane's estate however, had provided Straker with enough money for several Marilyns. Unfortunately, the bulk of it had become tied up in the operations of CTI and a good share of Straker's impatience over the progress of Irving Allen's project was that when his investment paid off, he intended to trade Marilyn in for a new model."
'"Judging from the way the current Mrs. Straker encouraged her husband's overeating, however, one might have imagined it was she who was striking the first blow. Not for nothing had she observed the eccentricities of thousands of airborne businessmen. When it came to survival, she was perfectly capable of turning Straker into a Strasbourg goose."
'"Her voice was always a surprise. Somehow she'd managed to learn English with a Southern accent. 'Dimitri, honey,' she drawled, Is everthin' okay? Have some more Yorkshire puddin'... I had the cook make it special for you.'
'"Although he found her clucking dismal, Dimitri Rostov, white-coat-bio-bum par excellence, had learned that with Marilyn blatant flattery was the best course. 'Your dinners are always so beautiful, ma chere,' he purred, 'You always do things so nicely, you and your attractive family.' "
"Dimitri Rostov, thirty-eight, was a White Russian of aristocratic descent.
His tousled blond hair, ruddy complexion and wolf grey eyes made him a sought after attraction in certain circles. During the Revolution, his mother and father had been rescued by a rich American family. Living on crumbs thrown by their benefactors, the two had gone mad and ended their lives in a double suicide. Their only son Dimitri had been sent to Harvard and MIT by his parents' benefactors and, until his job at Combinant Technologies, he'd been squeaking by on the proceeds of some Rembrandt drawings his mother had snatched from the family collection as she fled the Bolshevik terror. To Marilyn Straker, Dimitri represented the pinnacle of European haute monde and she was anxious that her two daughters, about to an attend an exclusive girls' school in Switzerland, should understand that their mother was on familiar terms with persons of royal blood."
" 'I'm always a little nervous when you come to dinnah, Dimitri honey,' Marilyn cooed. 'After all, if you were in Russia you'd be a Prince, wouldn't you?' "
" 'Serene Highness,' said Dimitri straight faced. 'But no doubt I'd be in one of those gulags, wouldn't I?' "
"Everyone laughed. The girls got the point, however, and stared dutifully at Dimitri, memorizing what Serenities looked like so that if they should come across one at their Swiss boarding school they could identify him."
" 'I'm sure I'm much happier to be in your cozy home here in New Jersey, dear Marilyn, with you and your lovely family than far away Siberia.' Dimitri gestured to the head of the table, 'and we owe it all to him.' "
"At the head of the table, Fred Straker's face, now damp with perspiration, glistened in the candle light. He had never been one to socialize over food. In Bakersfield, California, the dinner table was to eat at, not a place to sit around having long conversations about nothing. 'We'll have brandy and cigars in my study,' he grunted impatiently, clearing his throat, wiping his face and neck with his napkin. 'You'll have to excuse us, Marilyn, girls; Dimitri and I have some real important matters to talk over.' "
"Having thus been squashed, Marilyn's smile as she extended her hand to be kissed by Dimitri, froze in a toothy grimace. 'Perhaps we can have a night cap later,' Dimitri purred, 'but I have a feeling this brilliant husband of yours is going to keep me up all night... we'll have a long chat tomorrow.' Fred steered Dimitri out of the room and down a long hall on whose walls lighted cabinets displayed a hoard of expensive collectibles which the Strakers had recently acquired. On reaching the study, Fred poured out two brandies, selected a cigar for himself, offered one to Dimitri, lit them and stood burping quietly, his back to the fire.
'Well, Dimitri,' he said at last, puffing smoke rings in the air, 'what have you got to say for yourself... we thought we'd see you at Irving's funeral - where were you? We've been looking all over for you.' "
" '... had no idea,' Dimitri exclaimed innocently."
" 'Come, come,' said Fred, 'You mean in all that time you didn't listen to your message tape?' "
" 'I'm afraid the playback on that machine isn't working properly," Dimitri apologized. 'The fact is I was on a little vacation of sorts - working vacation you might say... giving this series of lectures on recombinant techniques to a group in Houston.' "
"Fred, grumpily, 'quite a few bio businesses starting up down there, I understand.' "
" 'Very exciting place, Dimitri said eagerly. 'You should fly down there some day. I could give you some interesting contacts.' "
"Fred leered slightly but would not be deflected. 'We were talking about opening a lab there before Irving....' His voice drifted off and he began again. 'Dimitri, our project is going to go forward, in spite of what's happened. I have a number of interesting leads and there's every reason to believe the government is going to use our new creatures in space. They can be introduced to the public through the space program. A great opportunity, wouldn't you say?'"
" 'I see it now,' Dimitri replied eagerly, 'Space ships manned by our creatures, constructing cities in space, voyaging to other planets, other universes.'"
" 'Space slaves,' Fred said straight faced."
" 'But of course,' replied Dimitri smoothly."
" 'Dimitri, I'm going to be very frank," Straker said, 'I must know whether you're with us or not. As you may have guessed, things are moving very fast and we've wasted considerable time since this set back over Irving... Are you or are you not going to step in and carry on where he left off ?' "
"Now Dimitri may have been brought up in an eccentric absent-minded atmosphere as a pampered young genius more or less insulated from the real world, but confronted with the brutal fact of supporting himself he'd learned to seize the moment. If anyone was going to make money in the bio-tech business, it would be someone like Straker with his self-serving enthusiasm and utter lack of scruples."
" 'Irving is irreplaceable, of course,' Dimitri said, 'filling in for him won't be that easy - there are so many missing pieces.' "
" 'I thought you might have run across some of those pieces,' Straker ventured cautiously, 'his missing papers, for example, all his research notes.' "
"Dimitri flushed. 'And you thought if I found them it would give me... what do you call it in your profession... leverage?' "
"Straker drew deeply on his cigar and exhaled, engulfing Dimitri in a cloud of smoke. 'Well?' he murmured menacingly."
" 'The plain fact is,' Dimitri coughed defensively, "I looked every where but couldn't find them.' "
" 'You've looked every where? You can't find them?' "
" 'Absolutely every where,' Dimitri repeated."
"An imperceptible sigh escaped Fred's clenched teeth. 'Well then, that brings us to the next question doesn't it? Can you put together the missing pieces?' "
" 'As you know," Dimitri explained coolly, 'Irving parceled out lab work piecemeal. None of us had the whole picture. But as you also know, he took me into his confidence more than the others and I assisted him in some of the final steps... yes, I think I can duplicate them.' "
" 'How long would that take?' "
" 'Without his notes I should say three to five years. We'll have to rebuild the lab, of course, the A.I. was totally destroyed. We'll have to fabricate new incubators... it will take time.' "
" 'Fred slammed a clenched fist on his desk. 'We must find those papers, damn it... they have to be somewhere... things like that just don't disappear.' "
" 'Perhaps he burned them,' Dimitri suggested."
" 'Irving burn his papers,' Straker laughed, 'Never! He was too egotistical.' "
" 'Without them it's going to cost a lot,' said Dimitri gloomily."
" 'How much do you figure?' Starker asked."
" 'With blind alleys, cost over-runs and so on I should say well... several hundred million just to bring us back to square one.' l"
" Fred gulped, as Dimitri knew he would. 'That's a substantial sum.' "
" 'Would there be a problem raising more capital?' Dimitri asked, trying to sound naive."
" 'There could be,' Fred said cautiously. 'Right now a bond issue is out of the question, many of our sources have dried up and if we went to market with a stock offering, it would mean... err... diluting the pie, if you know what I mean.' "
" 'Not quite,' said Dimitri, feigning an aristocratic disdain for matters financial. 'But what about the Greenfield Foundation?' "
" 'What about it,' snapped Straker."
" 'Well, aren't they your biggest investor? As they've got so much at stake already, wouldn't they be willing to spend a little more? I'm sure it's a drop in the bucket for them.' "
" 'They didn't know much until recently, we never told them about the slave project... now there seems to be some opposition developing."
" 'From whom?' Dimitri asked. 'Just the other day I had a conversation with Larsen McKantor, Secretary of the Foundation. He didn't...' "
" 'You've been talking with Larsen McKantor?' Straker asked sternly, indicating by his tone of voice he thought Dimitri had got out of line."
'He called me, asked if I'd found Irving's research papers.'
'Did he now?' Fred mumbled. 'Why would he want to know that? And he said nothing about any opposition?'
'No...who's opposing us, their Board of Trustees, some board member?'
'Rae Greenfield herself.'
'Rae Greenfield? Dimitri was amazed. 'I didn't know there were any living Greenfields...I mean direct descendants. Is that a man or a woman?'
'Rae Greenfield is a woman," replied Straker. 'The only living granddaughter of J.D. Greenfield, and she's throwing her weight around.'
'But I thought charitable trusts were free from meddling trustees... come to think of it, she's not even a trustee, is she? I've never seen her name mentioned?'
'In this case," Straker explained, "There was a small clause inserted by some clever attorney that the board members may be changed at the discretion of something called the Trust Protector.'
'And she is the Trust Protector, whatever that is?'
'I see. What sort of person is she?'
'Who knows... some sort of sentimental liberal crank I suppose... against anything she doesn't understand... a real menace to progressive thinking.'
'You're certain her mind couldn't be changed if she had the facts?' asked Dimitri. 'How did she find out about the project?'
'You tell me,' Straker mumbled pacing up and down. 'I suppose like everyone else she has spies and agents... anyway, she seems to know everything.'
'Well... let's arrange a meeting with her then,' Dimitri undaunted, 'I've been known to exercise considerable charm with old ladies.'
'No one's ever seen her,' Straker replied.'
'Never seen her,' groaned Dimitri, 'one of those!'
'Yeah, I'm afraid so,' Straker sighed. 'disappeared thirty years ago... sells melons and squashes out of a pickup somewhere in Texas or California.'
'Really... rather amusing,' Dimitri chuckled, 'she must be one of the richest women in the world.'
'She is and it's not amusing.' Fred snorted.
'Of course...,' Dimitri, soberly, 'but if Larson McKantor doesn't see her, how does he communicate with her?"
'Pay phones... calls him once a week from a different pay phone... he's tried to trace the calls but she's very clever, never talks more than five minutes from the same phone.'
'We must try to obtain a meeting with this woman at once, face to face. We will use the Russian gimmick - everyone else does, why shouldn't we? I will inform her of the dire results should the Russians, who are working along these same lines, beat us to the punch. As I am of Russian descent it should probably work...we must arouse her patriotism.'
'But she will only talk with Larsen McKantor.'
'Have Larsen tell her then...you might even offer him...err, what do you call it... an incentive - piece of the action...you would certainly know how to do that.'
'I'll think about it,' said Straker, brightening. 'Not a bad idea and I'm sure you might be more persuasive with her than McKantor. We must think up a way for you to meet her.' He slapped Dimitri on the back. 'I was afraid I couldn't trust you... now I see we're thinking along the same lines.'
'What's good for CTI is good for me," Dimitri trumpeted.
'I should hope so," Straker said, 'Have another cigar..and do call me Fred.'
There was a congenial pause while the two men clipped the ends of their cigars and lit them.
'Have you any idea who killed Irving?' Dimitri ventured. 'Not a clue,' Fred replied, eyeballing him. 'Have you?'
'Not a clue,' Dimitri echoed.
'Whoever did it left a mask and a waiter's uniform in the Yale Club mens' room...there were no fingers prints...maybe some DNA samples... that's all anyone knows.'
'It must have been someone so well known there he was invisible.'
'Or a hit man,' Fred ventured.
'I trust my taking over Irving's position won't place me in the same danger?'
"It could," Fred grinned. "But then, when large amounts of money are involved, there's always risk, isn't there?"
© Elwyn Chamberlain 2009