Private investigator Jamison Blake takes a simple missing person case as a favor to his wife. But even cases that start out simple can end up in moonlight raids on desert compounds with the fate of humanity at stake. Which is tough at Blake’s day rate.
Blake gets involved when his neighbor’s son, Hector, doesn’t show up for dinner. Hector is a renowned neuroscientist whose novel proteins could hold the cure for Alzheimer’s and ALS. His work is being funded by billionaire inventor, Renwick Clive, who plans to make the discovery free to the world. But a rival billionaire wants the discovery in order to maximize profits and humiliate Clive, which is why he has been trying to steal away Hector, perhaps this time literally.
The case gets tricky when Blake discovers that Hector’s proteins are being used as a designer drug called Focus, and that Hector might be hooked. Things get downright dangerous when Blake learns that Hector’s sometime collaborator, Lem Shelly, is selling Focus wholesale, building a community of users while funding his own secretive research. Shelly is racing to cure his father’s Alzheimer’s, and Blake worries that one threat to that goal might have been Hector himself.
But the real danger to Hector—and to humanity—only comes into focus when Blake learns the true power of the proteins: mind control.
Maximum i/o (75k words) is a detective novel blended with science fiction.
Excerpt (chapters 1–4)
My wife was crying quietly on the couch next to me and I was out of ideas on how to comfort her. This was sadly not uncommon.
A knock at the door saved me. Our neighbor, Esmerelda Garcia, was crying quietly on our porch.
“Jamison, you have to help me,” she said, clutching my forearm, pronouncing my name Chemison. “Hector is gone. He is disappeared.”
“Esme, please come in,” I said, extracting my forearm and gesturing with my other hand toward the couch. My wife had stepped into the kitchen to compose herself.
Esme sat on the couch. Usually prim and self-possessed, today she was a mess, with flyaway hair tucked in a rough bun, her floral blouse askew by one button, and thin black pants that looked suspiciously like pajamas giving way to what I was certain were slippers. Her lips were flat with worry, and her dark brown eyes were washed in tears and marbled with lamplight.
I grabbed the ready box of tissues and put them on the couch next to her, and then I sat in the chair opposite the coffee table, which provided a buffer zone between my forearm and her insistence.
“Take a minute, and then start from the beginning,” I said.
“It’s Hector,” she said. “He was supposed to come for dinner on Friday and he never showed up. But he is gone, I have not heard from him for a week. This is not like him to disappear. I made stew.”
“Can you tell me what you mean when you say gone,” I asked. “How do you know he’s gone?”
“I have called him a dozen times and it goes to voicemail. I’ve been to his apartment and he wasn’t there. He’s gone.”
“Ok,” I said. “Has he ever done this before?”
She shook her head, and said, “No, never. He’s never disappeared like this before.”
My wife emerged from the kitchen with swollen red eyes and a tray of tea, which she set on the coffee table, and then she sat in the other chair. “Can I offer you some tea, Esme?”
She smiled and nodded at my wife, pretending not to notice her puffy red eyes.
“I went to the police yesterday, after he didn’t show up for dinner the night before, but they told me they couldn’t do anything,” she said. “They were nice, but they didn’t believe me. They told me to go home and wait. But I can’t wait, I need to find my son.”
“Of course,” I said. “But he is a grown man, after all. Couldn’t he have taken a trip, maybe met a girl?”
She shook her head emphatically, “I am not a nervous hen. A mother knows when her son is in trouble, and I can feel it, I can feel my Hector in trouble.”
“Ok,” I said. I had limited experience with mothers, but I was pretty sure this was not a power they possessed.
“Jamison,” she said earnestly, “he is my only family, and I need to find him. Will you help me?”
I knew the request was coming, and I eased into my practiced answer.
“Well, if you want to find him, it makes sense to hire a detective,” I said, “since the police won’t really be able to do anything about it.”
She nodded hopefully at me.
“But I have a policy against taking cases for people I know, because they can get complicated—”
As I spoke, fresh tears hit her cheeks.
Next to me, my wife said, “Jamie, it’s her family.” I could only glance at her imploring red eyes for a moment before turning to stare into the empty space two inches above my knee, nodding imperceptibly while trying to think.
I didn’t know why it being her family mattered. Everyone was somebody’s family. But it mattered to my wife, and I thought maybe to be a good husband it should matter to me, too. I couldn’t have said why, but in that moment I felt that that if I solved this case and restored the Garcia family, that somehow it might help me save my own. I didn’t care in the same way my wife did, but I knew how to work a case, so I did that instead.
“—but, Esme, with you being our neighbor, and it being your son, of course I will help you.”
My wife exhaled, and I watched her close her eyes in relief.
Esme stood and came around the coffee table so she could properly mangle my forearm in thanks, but I was ready for her this time and I flexed before she reached me. “Oh, thank you, Jamison Blake, thank you.”
“Esme,” I said, “I’m going to need to get some information from you, Hector’s address, the names of his friends, and so on. Is that something you can share with me?”
“Yes,” she said. “I have it up at the house. Come and I’ll give it to you.”
She stepped to my wife and leaned down to hug her in her seat. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.”
Esme stood up and my wife squeezed her hand. “I’m sure Hector will be back soon.”
I held the door while Esme stepped onto the porch, and I watched my wife watch her go. Somewhere I’d lost the ability to make my wife happy, so it felt good to see her smile.
I paused at the door and then turned to see Esme waiting for me at the bottom step.
“You know,” she said casually, “I’m pretty sure Hector was kidnapped.”
I stared at her for a moment, until she turned toward the sidewalk, and then I followed her and said, “Can you repeat that?”
“Sure,” she said. “Hector once told me that if he ever disappear, there is a good chance that he was kidnapped.”
“But why would someone kidnap him?”
“Why else,” she said, slapping my arm with the back of her hand. “Because of what he knows.”
Her place was up the block, past a series of squat two-bedroom bungalows a century old and showing it, small front yards bordered with weeds, and paint tending toward shabby. We’d reached the final days of winter, and the grey, drizzly weather had gone dry and now it was just grey.
“I have everything in here,” narrating as she opened the door. “We can sit down and talk.”
We had been neighbors for six years, but this was my first time in her house. She dropped her keys on the entry table next to her cell phone and disappeared into the dark, while I stood to allow my eyes to adjust. I could see what looked like a bold geometric wall-paper on the far wall, but then Esme hit the light switch and I saw that they were family photos.
“We can sit in here, Jamison,” she said from what I could now see was the dining room.
I glanced again at the wall and saw Hector in a cap and gown, his arm around his mother, joy washed across her face.
“Tell me what Hector said about being kidnapped,” I said.
“You know what Hector does for a living?” She had a great pile of papers spread across the table, an accordion file lying empty on its side.
“Yes, he’s a scientist, he told me when I met him at your barbecue.”
“He’s a scientist, a neuroscientist. But he’s not just any scientist,” she said, finding the paper she was looking for, and setting it in front of me. “He’s a brilliant scientist.”
I didn’t, but I didn’t ask for details, so she sent on.
“He has incredible value to whoever he works for. Here,” she said, finding a page and sliding it to me. “He let me keep this when he got it.”
I picked up the paper and saw that it was an offer letter for a job to Hector from six years earlier, apparently when he was getting out of graduate school. The job was at a company called Neurogene, and the letter was gushing in its praise of Hector, as if he were the greatest scientist alive. The starting salary was very impressive, the total package was insane, but I still didn’t why I was looking at it.
She saw my confusion and went on, “When Hector got his PhD six years ago, he was pursued by many people to work for them, just like that one. They were the most aggressive, but some universities tried hard, too, and it was very hard for him to decide. But after he chose, and turned them down, these people didn’t give up, and kept on trying, trying, trying. They want to take him to dinner, bring him a new car. They even gave his girlfriend a job, a lady from his program, which was to pressure him, too.”
I nodded, but wasn’t really seeing it. Recruiting and kidnapping are very different.
“So one night we were talking, and he told me that they were so aggressive with him, he was starting to get anxious about it. And he said to me, like a joke but not a joke, If I ever go missing, it’s probably because I was kidnapped. And now he’s gone and I think that’s what happened.”
“Did they continue to pursue him?”
“No, eventually they just went away. He took his job at ERC. His girlfriend went to work for them, though. His girlfriend at the time.”
“And this was six years ago?”
“Ok,” I said. “I get that he was an attractive job candidate, graduate from Berkeley and all that. But are you suggesting that they have him chained in a lab somewhere?”
She nodded again.
“Wouldn’t it be easier for them to just hire a different brilliant scientist?”
“There’s nobody as good as Hector,” she said.
This time I nodded and looked pensive while I stalled. Outside of maternal pride and mother’s intuition, I didn’t see much danger of kidnapping, but I didn’t want to offend her.
“Was there anyone else that was aggressive like this?”
“Maybe,” she said, “but that’s the one he told me about.”
“Ok,” I said, “Well, that’s definitely something to look at. I’d also like to get some other information while I’m here.”
“Of course,” she said
I pulled a small notebook and pen from my pocket and began asking her for information. She seemed to be energized by my simple questions, as if she felt relieved to be doing something, anything, to find her son. Did she have his home address? Yes, here it was. Did she know how long he had lived there? Four years. Where did he work? At the Emeryville Research Center as a scientist. Did she know any of his close friends? Only one, a girl he dated back in college. Did she have access to his bank or credit card accounts? No, she didn’t. We went on like this for some time.
“This is all very helpful,” I said. “This should be enough to get me started.”
“Thank you, Jamison,” she said. “Whatever I can do to help, please tell me.”
Against the wall was a sideboard with more pictures on it, black and whites, and I said, “It would be helpful to have a recent picture of Hector.”
“Of course, let me get you one.” She got up and went into the living room. I scanned the pictures on the sideboard but they were all black and whites, old family photos, including one that looked like a young Esme, all trim and happy, standing next to a tall man in an army uniform with his arm around her.
She took a frame off the wall of the living room and came back to the table, and saw the picture I was looking at.
I pointed at the old picture and said, “Is that you and your husband?”
“Yes,” she said. “That was after we were married, before Hector was born. My husband died when Hector was a boy. He got the Lou Gehrig’s disease.” She stared at the picture, and looked ready to begin crying again, so I took the other picture from her hand, the recent one of Hector.
She turned her attention to that one and said, “That was right after he got his PhD. I was so proud of him, such a great scientist.”
I turned the frame over to open it and remove the picture, and she looked back at the photo of her husband and said, “You know, Hector became a scientist because of his father. He watched him die slowly, and decided to spend his life trying to fight that terrible disease.” She began crying again, but quietly, just a few tears moving down her cheeks as she looked at the old photo. “Such a good boy,” she said.
I thought of my own daughter, just seven years old.
I put the papers she’d given me into a pile, and slid my notebook back into my pocket. We stood and she hugged me tightly, her face pressed against my chest, and said, “Thank you, Jamison. Please find my Hector.”
I patted her back and said, “I will do everything I can,” which was true, but not really much of a promise, if you thought about it.
Outside I walked slowly toward home. Her kidnapping story was so thin it was hardly worth bothering about. I was pretty sure a company would never be evil enough to do that, and if they were I knew they would only do so if the person were some kind of wunderkind, transforming science itself. I was pretty confident Hector wasn’t in that league.
I pulled out my phone and did a quick search for Hector Garcia Neuroscience, and clicked on the first article, from a national magazine:
REWRITING THE RULES OF SCIENCE
Hector Garcia may seem like an unassuming science geek plugging away in his quiet lab, but in elite neuroscience circles he’s known as something of a wunderkind, overturning decades of orthodoxy in a field known for caution, and seems bent on transforming science itself….
“Huh,” I said to the grey sky. “I did not see that coming.”
My wife was cooking dinner across several pans on the stove, our daughter was entertaining herself in her room, and I was leaning against the sink, telling my wife what I’d learned about Hector.
“Did you know he was such a big deal?”
“No,” she said. “I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was industrial kidnapping good.”
“Well, I’m not still not quite buying that explanation, but we’ll see where it leads.”
As a detective, I am always skeptical of unlikely claims, but this was positively farfetched. Maybe in a spy movie, but I didn’t believe that science really worked like that, even high-stakes, billion-dollar science.
Over the years, I’d developed a working relationship with a research partner, a woman who ran her own firm, and could be counted on to answer just about any background question you could ask, in whatever level of detail your budget allowed. I had negotiated a one-hour special with her, where I could her ask a question, and she would answer me with the best answer she could based on one-hour of research. We called it the quick-take, and I could send these to her as needed, and she’d give me her next available hour to find the answer.
I texted her. Quick-take: Are organizations (unscrupulous companies, rogue states) known to kidnap key people to work on projects under duress?
It was Sunday evening, so I didn’t expect an answer very soon. But in the meantime, there were bases I could cover, regardless of whether the kidnapping angle panned out.
“I’m going to head over to Hector’s apartment and take a look,” I said.
“It shouldn’t take too long,” I said.
“We never finished our conversation.”
“I know,” I said. “And we will. But Hector needs my help, and the clock is ticking on this one.”
“The clock is always ticking, Jamie,” she said, literally stirring the pot.
I didn’t have a useful answer to that, so I took my own hard-won advice and kept my mouth shut. I blew my daughter a kiss on my way out the door, and then I was gone.
Hector lived in Rockridge, an area of Oakland catering to people the unpretentiously affluent, where you could find an artisanal version of just about anything for twice what you’d pay elsewhere, from soap to coffee to baby food. I parked in front of a store specializing in yoga clothes, flanked on one side by vegan Mediterranean restaurant and on the other by a cafe selling cannabis-infused fresh juice, all of which were doing a brisk business on Sunday night. I walked around the block to the residential side street, down from the organic grocery store, and found Hector’s building. It was a two-story box containing four front doors on a single porch, two to upstairs units, and two down.
As I walked up from the sidewalk, I saw the blinds twitch in the other downstairs unit, which was good news. Nosey neighbors can be a wonderful source of information, and I would pay this one a visit before I was through. I went up the steps, rang the bell on the right-hand door, and heard the chimes in Hector’s ground-floor apartment. I had the key, but it seemed prudent to try the doorbell first, in case Hector was in there with a girl or something. When there was no answer on the second ring, I used the key.
The apartment looked like a bachelor lived there. Video games in the living room, newspapers on the floor, under-stocked fridge, Hector had it all. I took a quick tour and then spent an hour being more methodical in my search for anything that might offer some insight. His desk yielded nothing more useful than credit card statements that showed recent trips to Las Vegas, a lack of female products in the bathroom, and a lease agreement showing his rent was insanely high, but reasonable for Rockridge. His bookshelves were stuffed with science fiction, books about ALS, and a range of books about neuroscience, neural networks, the biomechanics of disease, as well as a bunch of books about synthetic/organic interfaces that sounded interesting, but when I flipped through the pages of a few they may as well have been written in Aramaic.
I went out the front door and locked it behind me. Nobody was home in the upstairs units, but nosey neighbor answered within about 2 seconds of my knock, so I knew he’d been waiting for me. But he only opened the door about four inches, peering through the crack with a skepticism that I was worth any more than that. He was about 40 years old, with a lopsided nose and a greasy face, and I hated him on sight.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m wondering if I could ask you some questions about your neighbor?”
“Who are you?”
I held up my business card. “My name is Blake and I’m a private investigator.”
He squinted at my card for a moment and said, “Anyone can have a card made up.”
I put the card back in my pocket and said, “Well, you’re right about that. But not everyone can get an investigator’s license.” I pulled my wallet from my back pocket and held up my license, sitting behind a sheet of hard plastic. “I really am who I say and I’d just like to ask you some questions about your neighbor.”
He sort of snickered to himself, and then let the door open another foot or so and leaned against the jamb, and asked “Something happen to the great scientist?”
“Now, why would you say that?” I asked. For all he knew I was trying to collect on a debt or give him his lottery winnings.
He shrugged, and said, “I dunno. You’re the one looking for him.”
“Actually, I said I wanted to ask some questions about him,” I said.
“Sure, ask away,” he said, and shrugged again.
I had a strong urge to punch him in his face, but I didn’t want to get my knuckles greasy, so I stuck to conversation.
“When is the last time you saw Hector Garcia?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said. “Last week. Maybe more.”
“Where did you see him?” I asked.
“Where do you think,” he said. “Here.”
“Sure,” I said, patiently, “but where specifically. Was he coming home, leaving for work, or what?”
“Well, if he was leaving, I don’t know how I would know where he was going,” he said.
“You make a valid point. So tell me about when you saw him,” I said with a pleasant tone and no face-punching.
He told me, and it wasn’t that useful. He hadn’t physically seen Hector for two weeks, taking out his trash, but he’d heard him through the walls as recently as five days earlier. Nosey Neighbor was able to pinpoint the day and time because his viewing of his favorite show had been marred by Hector’s music. I left before I gave in to the urge to punch him, but I was able to get him to agree to call me if he saw Hector after haggling me to $75 for the service.
I walked back and sat in my car, watching the people sip their cannabis juices, wondering what my next steps should be, when my phone buzzed.
It was a text from Amy. Corporate kidnapping nearly non-existent. State-sponsored kidnapping rumored to happen in height of Cold War. But, sharp rise in corporate espionage over last 50 years, across all IP-driven industries (e.g. healthcare, aerospace). Recent blurring of State/Private espionage, like China helping using its spies to help its industries.
I hadn’t expected an answer that fast, and I felt a tug of relief that I could confidently move kidnapping to the bottom of my list of suspected explanations for Hector’s disappearance. Based on his credit card statement, my best guess was Vegas.
Another text from Amy. One confirmed corporate kidnapping, very weird, revealed as part of corruption scandal in eastern Europe. Romanian drug company Arvix wants to expand its vaccine portfolio, hires Russian “consultant” to steal the IP from American company. When Russians cant get into secure network for information, they kidnap key scientist from company instead. Held him for six weeks and then killed him.
I’d never heard about this.
I sent her a question. Who was the American company?
The yoga-pant store was closed, but the Mediterranean restaurant and the cannabis wheat-grass bar were doing brisk business, and I tried to decide which of them was less appealing to me, and then my phone buzzed with Amy’s answer.
I looked at my notes for the name of the girlfriend who went to work at Neurogene, Sally Chen, and wondered if she was still there. Esme had told me that they broke up after they finished their PhDs at Berkeley but that they were still friends. I went to a professional networking website and looked her up, and there she was, Research Associate at Neurogene for 6 years, with a black and white snapshot of her smiling in a lab coat and a capsule summary telling me that she was interested in the degradation of G protein-coupled receptor signals via heterotrimeric G proteins. But really, who isn’t?
I pulled up a public records database and found her address and phone number. It was about 8:30pm. I called, got her voicemail, and didn’t leave a message. I fired up my car and drove across town to North Berkeley, where she lived, but when I knocked on her duplex door she was either not home or very good at remaining quiet.
I sat in my car and tapped on the steering wheel while deciding what to do. I needed to speak with Sally, and I needed to visit Hector’s work, and I needed to find out some way to poke around Neurogene, since I couldn’t exactly call the main line and ask if they’d kidnapped any scientists lately. I thought if I looked at Hector’s papers I might be able to find some names of people he works with, but this wasn’t something I could do on my phone in my car, so I turned around and headed home.
My daughter was asleep when I got home, and my wife was reading in bed, and I sat at the kitchen table in front of a laptop with the plate of dinner my wife had left in the fridge for me and looked at the papers that Hector had published.
Scientists are unlike most other professionals in that they generate a highly public record of their work, the peer-reviewed papers that are the lifeblood of science. If someone does their work at a private company, like Sally Chen, it is done largely in secret, but if you are a scientist working in academia, government, or non-profit labs, you are inevitably publishing papers about exactly what you are working on, who you’re working on it with, who paid for it, and how successful you were. And based on where you publish, you can tell how important the work is.
I knew that Hector had gotten his PhD 6 years earlier, but his publication record started several years before that, which meant that he was publishing as a graduate student, which is uncommon. Across the last decade, he had authored or co-authored 61 papers, which seemed extraordinarily prolific. Of those 61 papers, he was the lead author in 29 of them, which told me that Hector was very successful inside the lab and spent very little time outside of it.
I read through the titles and abstracts of every paper, and I understood nearly nothing at all. The papers where he was the lead author were all related to neurobiology, I was pretty confident, but beyond that I understood virtually nothing of what they were about. A sample title was: Application of O-ring proteins as monoamine and trace amine inhibitors in neutotransmission. Not exactly the sort of thing you read at the beach.
All of this was interesting, as far as I could understand it, but the real value was the list of co-authors I developed, which told me who he spent the most time with professionally. Across those 61 papers, there were many hundreds of co-authors, with some papers having as many as 30 co-authors on it, but several names rose to the top. During his years at Berkeley, he had worked often with a researcher named Aubrey McAdams, who was on faculty in the neuroscience department, and he continued to publish with her occasionally after he left the university. Another Berkeley scientist he worked with frequently was Lem Shelly, who was a former associate professor of something called chemical biology at the same time Hector was at school, and they had continued to work together when he moved to the Emeryville Research Center (ERC). The third name that came to the top was Darian Hawkins, who was a researcher at ERC and was a co-author on a handful of the more recent papers.
The other thing that jumped out was that nearly all of this research was funded by the Proteus Foundation, which was a nonprofit focused on biological research and application, and which was also the funder of the ERC. I’d never heard of them so I did a quick search and discovered that the foundation was run by billionaire Renwick Clive, of whom I had heard. Clive was the inventor of several critical alternative energy technologies, and he had successfully commercialized them into products that are now ubiquitous, from stoves to lightbulbs to helicopters. He was not your average Billionnaire playboy, throwing lavish parties or indulging in exotic sports, however. His wife had died of neurodegenerative disease 10 years earlier, and since then he had been primarily focused on philanthropy, investing in projects with the most promise of improving humanity. Hector was one of his major assets in that regard.
I looked through some industrial espionage materials that Amy had sent me, primarily obscure links to local-language newspapers across the world, small articles about specific incidents. But there was one feature article on the subject that caught my eye because it had some quotes in it from none other than Renwick Clive. He made the case that it was profit-driven secrecy that was the underlying cause of industrial espionage:
“The problem is that everyone’s trying to make a buck, so they won’t share anything. Science should be done for the benefit of everyone, not whoever can make the biggest buck out of it. The whole subject of Intellectual Property has done more to hinder the progress of mankind than anything else I can think of. I mean, my friend Jim lost someone over this nonsense, it’s ridiculous.”
I was surprised this kind of thing such a problem, and I found myself glad that Hector had chosen to work for the guy who was trying to do the most to benefit humanity.
I looked through more links that Amy had sent me about the Arvix/Neurogene kidnapping incident. The family sued the U.S. government for its botched response to the kidnapping, which was dismissed, including twice on appeal. Arvix was dissolved and its leadership ended up jail in Romania, which can’t be fun, and Neurogene CEO James Pryce Martin condemned the attacks, created a security group tasked with worker safety at his company, and then proceeded to nearly double his company’s market share now that Arvix was out of the picture.
It was nearly 1am when I closed my laptop and climbed into bed next to my sleeping wife. I stared at the ceiling, letting the details of the case float through my mind unordered, a randomized inventory as I drifted off to sleep. Wunderkind. Espionage. Vaccines. Alzheimer’s.
My friend Jim.
I went back to the kitchen and opened my computer in the dark. It took me about five minutes to find what I was looking for. Renwick Clive, billionaire inventor and current employer of Hector Garcia, had been roomates freshman year at Harvard with one James Pryce Martin, CEO and majority shareholder of Neurogene. Each had achieved massive success in their respective fields, and according to some press accounts they maintained something of a rivalry, with conflicting reports on how friendly the rivalry actually was.
Had Hector somehow gotten caught in the middle of a grudge match?
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