The Chosen Dead by M.R. Hall – Extract

The Chosen Dead

ONE

 Scottsdale, Arizona, 12 March 1982

The last thing Roy Emmett Hudson was expecting on the eve of his forty-first birthday was a bullet in the head, but life and death are only a single breath apart, and as a biologist, he appreciated that more than most. Even as he strolled across the company lot to the Mercedes Coupe´ he had driven all winter without once raising the roof, his killers’ thoughts were already moving on to where they might dump the body so that it might never be found. They were from out of town, and unfamiliar with the wilderness into which the city merged only a few miles away from the Airpark business zone.

Unaware of what awaited him, Hudson counted himself a lucky man. There was no other word to describe the turn of events that had placed him in the ideal position at the perfect time. Aside from the gifted few who had secured comfortable professorships in Ivy League schools, most of his peers from the Brown class of ’66 were grinding out their best years in the labs and offices of the giant pharmas back east. They had become company men and women who had left their scientific ideals behind to climb the greasy pole and save for a retirement they might never reach in sufficient health to enjoy. He, on the other hand, had taken a chance. Or had chance taken him? He couldn’t decide. Either way, it had all come down to an ad in the appointments section that had lain discarded on the seat of a commuter train which he rode no more than three times each year. If he hadn’t chosen that particular Tuesday morning to put his car into the shop, or if he had arrived on the platform thirty seconds sooner in time to catch the earlier train, his working days would still have been spent on the fifteenth floor of the Meditech Building, wondering what had happened to the young man who was going to save the lives of millions and collect a Nobel Prize.

The ad had simply read: Biotech start-up is seeking gifted and motivated scientists with experience in recombinant gene technology. Full details on application. Resume to Box 657.

The few colleagues to whom he had shown it dismissed the ad as having been placed by some gimcrack outfit try­ing to hitch up to the latest bandwagon. Either that, or it was a sneaky ploy by one the big corporates to test the loyalty of its precious R&D teams. Hudson hadn’t been so sure. He had had an instinct, a stirring in his gut that he hadn’t felt since he’d first stepped off the Greyhound and hauled his grip through the front gates of Brown. And he’d been right to trust it. The three directors of Genix, all young and visionary men, had wanted to attract only those curious and adventuresome enough to leave comfortable careers behind for an exciting and uncertain future. They could guarantee only twelve months’ modest salary, but offered generous share options to be taken up after three years’ service. If by that time the company had filed no patents nor had any realistic prospect of doing so, their backers would pull the plug. Simple.

It had taken Hudson’s team of fifteen less than a year to splice human DNA into E. coli bacteria and start producing human growth hormone at a level which showed potential for future industrial production. This early success had made real the possibility that all manner of previously rare and expensive therapeutic drugs could in future be grown cheaply and in bulk by genetically altered micro-organisms. The investors piled in with more money than Genix knew how to spend. Five months down the line Hudson was running a team of fifty and racing Eli Lilly, Smith Kline and Johnson & Johnson all the way to the US Patent Office. By the time he picked up his share options he figured they’d be worth more than ten million dollars.

Beneath the ice-blue desert sky, in this brand-new city where anything felt possible, Hudson marvelled at how close he had come to letting his dreams slip away. Back east, his vaulting ambitions had seemed more absurd and delusional with each passing year, but out here in Scottsdale, ‘The West’s Most Western Town’, nothing short of shooting for the moon was expected of every single employee of the new biotech businesses that were taking root in this burgeoning oasis. It had been a long sixteen-year journey with several false turns along the way, but one year into the second half of his life, Hudson believed that he was about to arrive; and he wasn’t just going to become a big name in the science of gene technology: he was going to change the world.

The Mercedes’ white-walled tyres (a little splash of ex­hibitionism he had allowed himself, along with the $200 sunglasses) made a pleasing squeal as he swung the car round to the exit and turned out into the light, pre-rush traffic heading for route 101. He had fifteen minutes to make the journey to McDowell Elementary, where his daughter, Sonia, was about to play in her first softball match. In the past, his wife, Louise, had taken care of school events, but now four months into studying for a doctorate in political science at Arizona State, she had started to insist he share responsibility. Hudson secretly resented the fact that his wife’s focus had shifted outside their home, but he had to concede that she had made more than her share of sacrifices to facilitate his career. They had been students at Brown together, but as soon as they had married, her ambitions had taken a back seat. While he scaled the corporate ladder, she had bottled up her intellectual frustration and made do with a series of part-time teaching jobs. The move west had been the final catalyst for change. ‘This isn’t just going to be about you or the money,’ she had declared, ‘this is my time, too.’ ‘Sure, sweetie, it’s time we both stepped out into the sun,’ he had said, and at that moment, he had even meant it.

He followed the 101 due east for several miles towards the mountains, the land either side of it one huge construc­tion site: entire neighbourhoods were going up as fast as the sunburned Mexican labourers could build them. Scottsdale was on the move. Businesses were flooding in. Thanks to the domestic air-conditioner and vast water-capture schemes, a town which in the 1950s had only a handful of residents had mushroomed to over 100,000. Just like the micro­organisms he had spent his professional life studying, human beings had an uncanny knack of bringing life to the most unlikely corners of the planet.

Hudson recalled some of the pot-smoking humanities students at Brown talking about ‘life force’ as some abstract idea drawn from mystic Eastern philosophy, but to him, a microbiologist studying living things in their most elemental form, life was a measurable physical force just like any other in the universe. But whereas light or heat would penetrate indiscriminately wherever it was able, in accordance with fixed and unaltering constants set at the beginning of time, the force of life was strengthening and accelerating. There was and always would be the same amount of gravity in the universe, but while the conditions remained to sustain it, life was relentlessly increasing in complexity, ability and ambition. Viewed from this perspective, a city in the desert made perfect sense. As the most advanced form of life, human beings were the fullest expression of the elemental drive to survive and proliferate however and wherever poss­ible. It was beautiful to behold. Beautiful – another word he couldn’t improve on. Life in its myriad forms was beautiful, but, as he always made the point of stressing to his few non­scientist friends, beautiful does not imply nice. Life is not a benign force; in fact, it is unique in the cosmos in being calculatingly ruthless.

The 101 swung south into the suburbs. The construction smells of concrete and bitumen now gave way to the sweet scents of cactus blossom and fresh-mown grass drifting over from Horsemen’s Park. Hudson leaned forward and switched on the stereo. The auto-tune clicked into a local country station, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on slide guitar and banjo, belting out one of their chick-a-chack old-time numbers: ‘I’m on a big black freight train, and we’re movin’ on…’ He smiled as he tapped his fingers on the rim of the wheel. Man, those guys could pick.

Leaving the 101 at 38, he followed East Raintree Drive for a mile or so, before heading south two blocks to the ball park opposite the school. Only three minutes after four: he was almost on time. The lot was already crowded with the outsize air-conditioned suburbans his fellow Arizonans felt compelled to drive, and there were no places left in the shade. He made do with a spot in the full sun and laid his linen sport coat over the passenger seat to save Sonia’s bare legs when it came time to go home. Hudson approached the mothers gathered on the bleachers in the shade of a row of palms. Aside from Coach Brewster he was the only man present. He nodded to the few women he recognized from the PTA barbecue Louise had hosted the previous fall, but no one invited him to join them. They seemed a little embarrassed by the presence of a father during office hours, and he sensed a trace of pity in their awkward smiles. He found a space on the bench at the end of the row as the first ball of the game was pitched. The little boy on the plate swung hard and got lucky. The ball sailed into the outfield and he scrambled to second base. Sonia was manning third and didn’t even twitch. Beneath the wide brim of her cap she was wearing a frown of intense concentration just like her mother’s. Hudson waved, but if she had noticed, she pre­tended not to. This was serious business, she was telling him; frivolity could wait.

‘Excuse me, sir—’

Hudson turned, a little startled. The quiet, polite voice belonged to a young man in a suit and tie who had approached unseen from his left.

‘Am I right in thinking you’re Mr Roy Emmett Hudson, R&D Director at Genix?’

‘That’s right.’

The man’s gentle tone made it sound like a social inquiry, but he looked too youthful to be a parent at a private school.

‘Have we met?’

‘No, sir.’ He reached discreetly into his pocket and flashed an ID card held in a cupped palm.

Hudson made out the initials ‘FDA’.

‘FDA? You’re kidding me.’ The bureaucrats of the Food and Drug Administration were a constant thorn in his flesh – every individual piece of research involving gene mani­pulation required a licence that involved paperwork of near-incomprehensible complexity – but even by their intrusive standards this was a new low. ‘Son, this is hardly an appropriate place—’

‘We’ll only take a moment, Mr Hudson. We want to process your application as swiftly as possible.’ ‘What? . . . Which one?’

‘I have the documents in the van. I’ve been told to obtain your signature by close of business – it’s a new privacy clause. The Administration’s getting anxious about who’s sharing what with whom.’

‘Why would my company be sharing its research?’

‘I promise it’ll only take a moment, Mr Hudson.’

Hudson sighed impatiently and stood up from his seat. ‘I have a ball game to watch. You have five minutes.’ He strode off towards the parking lot planning the stiff phone calls he’d be making to the FDA’s Washington HQ first thing in the morning.

‘I can’t apologize enough for disturbing you, sir, but I’m sure you’ll accept this is only a formality.’

The young man sounded embarrassed, making Hudson feel guilty for snapping at him.

‘Where are we going?’

‘The black Chevy.’

The minivan was parked in the centre of the lot, the engine idling to keep the air-conditioner rolling. Another young official was rifling through papers in the driver’s seat. Seeing them coming, he climbed out and opened the door on the far side of the vehicle – the kind that slid open sideways on runners.

‘What’s this – a travelling office?’ Hudson said, with more than a hint of sarcasm.

‘As a matter of fact, it is. You want, you can call your attorney or even fax him.’

Hudson made no comment and walked around the rear of the van. ‘OK, show me what you got.’

He glanced through the open door and saw black plastic sheeting on the floor of the empty interior, and in the sliver of a second between sight and thought felt a cold sensation at the nape of his neck accompanied by a brief metallic click.

Excerpted from The Chosen Dead by M.R. Hall. Copyright © 2013 by M.R. Hall.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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