Vasco Borden,forty-nine, tugged at the lapels of his suit and straightened his tie as he walked down the plush carpeted hallway. He wasn't used to wearing a suit, though he had had this one, in navy, specially tailored to minimize the muscular bulk of his body. Borden was big, six-four, two-forty, an ex-football player who worked as a private investigator and fugitive-recovery specialist. And right now, Vasco was following his man, a thirty-year-old balding postdoc, a fugitive from MicroProteonomics of Cambridge, Mass., as he headed right for the main room of the conference.
The BioChange 2006 Conference, enthusiastically entitled "Make It Happen Now!" was being held at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. The two thousand attendees represented all sorts of biotech workers, including investors, HR officers who hired scientists, technology transfer officers, CEOs, and intellectual property attorneys. In one way or another, nearly every biotech company in America was represented here.
It was the perfect place for the fugitive to meet his contact. The fugitive looked like a dink; he had an innocent face and a little soul patch on his chin; he slouched when he walked and gave the impression of timidity and ineptitude. But the fact was, he'd made off with twelve transgenic embryos in a cryogenic dewar and transported them across country to this conference, where he intended to turn them over to whomever he was working for.
It wouldn't be the first time a postdoc got tired of working on salary. Or the last.
The fugitive went over to the check-in table to get his conference card to drape around his neck. Vasco hung by the entrance, slipping his own card over his head. He'd come prepared for this. He pretended to look at the event roster.
The big speeches were all in the main ballroom. Seminars were scheduled for such topics as "Fine-Tune Your Recruiting Process," and "Winning Strategies to Keep Research Talent," "Executive and Equity Compensation," "Corporate Governance and the SEC," "Patent Office Trends," and "Investor Angels: Boon or Curse?" and, finally, "Trade Secrets Piracy: Protect Yourself Now!"
Much of Vasco's work involved high-tech firms. He had been to these conferences before. Either they were about science or business. This one was business.
The fugitive, whose name was Eddie Tolman, walked past him into the ballroom. Vasco followed. Tolman went down a few rows and dropped into a seat with no one nearby. Vasco slipped into the row behind and sat a little to one side. The Tolman kid checked his cell phone for text messages, then seemed to relax, and looked up to listen to the speech.
Vasco wondered why.
The manat the podium was one of the most famous venture capitalists in California, a legend in high-tech investment, Jack B. Watson. Watson's face was blown up large on the screen behind him, his trademark suntan and striking good looks magnified to fill the room. Watson was a young-looking fifty-two, and assiduously cultivated his reputation as a capitalist with a conscience. That appellation had carried him through a succession of ruthless business deals: all the media ever showed were his appearances at charter schools, or handing out scholarships for underprivileged kids.
But in this room, Vasco knew, Watson's reputation for tough deal making would be foremost in everyone's mind. He wondered if Watson was ruthless enough to acquire a dozen transgenic embryos by illicit means. He probably was.
However, at the moment, Watson was cheerleading: "Biotechnology is booming. We are poised to see the greatest growth of any industry since computers thirty years ago. The largest biotech company, Amgen, in Los Angeles, employs seven thousand people. Federal grants to universities exceed four billion a year on campuses from New York to San Francisco, Boston to Miami. Venture capitalists invest in biotech companies at a rate of five billion a year. The lure of magnificent cures made possible by stem cells, cytokines, and proteonomics are drawing the brightest talent to the field. And with a global population growing older by the minute, our future is brighter than ever. And that's not all!
"We've reached the point where we can stick it to Big Pharma - and we will. Those massive, bloated companies need us and they know it. They need genes, they need technology. They're the past. We're the future. We're where the money is!"
That drew huge applause. Vasco shifted his bulk in his seat. The audience was applauding, even though they knew that this son of a bitch would cut their company to pieces in a second if it suited his bottom line.
"Of course, we face obstacles to our progress. Some people - however well intentioned theythink they are - choose to stand in the way of human betterment. They don't want the paralyzed to walk, the cancer patient to thrive, the sick child to live and play. These people have their reasons for objecting. Religious, ethical, or even 'practical.' But whatever their reasons, they are on the side of death. And they will not triumph!"
More thunderous applause. Vasco glanced at the fugitive, Tolman. The kid was checking his phone again. Evidently waiting for a message. And waiting impatiently.
Did that mean the contact was late?
That was sure to make Tolman nervous. Because somewhere, Vasco knew, this kid had stashed a stainless steel thermos of liquid nitrogen that held the embryos. It wasn't in the kid's room. Vasco had already searched it. And five days had passed since Tolman left Cambridge. The coolant wouldn't last forever. And if the embryos thawed, they would be worthless. So unless Tolman had a way to top up hisLN 2, by now he must be anxious to retrieve his container, and hand it over to his buyer.
It had to happen soon.
Within an hour, Vasco was sure of it.
"Of course,people will try to obstruct progress," Watson said, from the podium. "Even our best companies find themselves embroiled in pointless, unproductive litigation. One of my startups, BioGen, in Los Angeles, is in court right now because some guy named Burnet thinks he doesn't need to honor the contracts he himself signed. Because now he's changed his mind. Burnet is trying to block medical progress unless we pay him. An extortionist whose daughter is the lawyer handling the case for him. Keeping it in the family." Watson smiled.