This is the first chapter in an unpublished novel by John Carver that we’ll be serializing on TTAG on Fridays.
Indigo Broom leaned back in his orthopedic chair and stared out across the artificial lake. The summer sun slowly sank under the tree line, casting long shadows on the cubicle walls around him. Soon the fountain would stop, leaving the lake still and shining in the moonlight. Broom’s right hand spun a small purple pill on his desktop. The pill was fat at one end and thin at the other, like a teardrop. Broom remembered the one time he’d played spin the bottle . . .
He’d kissed Mary Jenkins. He couldn’t remember the kiss but he could recall his nervousness, calmed by Mary’s fresh-faced freckled smile.
Broom smiled and held the Protempo pill up to the lights beginning to illuminate the manicured countryside surrounding the lake. “Better loving through chemistry,” he said.
America’s number one erectile dysfunction pill evoking memories of early sexual exploration. Nothing wrong with that. Sex was how you made fresh-faced girls and hormone-crazed boys, who eventually made more fresh-faced girls and hormone-crazed boys. Circle of life.
Only it wasn’t life that was on Broom’s mind. It was death.
Six members of the Protempo team had died in the last three months. John Bigsby and Juanita Flores perished in horrific car accidents. Sally Palin fell down her basement stairs and broke her neck. Louis Parkinson stroked out. Sven Larsson drowned himself in the ocean. Brad Sainsbury hung himself in his attic.
Every one of the dead employees was the best of the best; located, hired, trained and compensated at enormous expense. Finding people qualified to take over the responsibilities of any one of the Protempo team would have been a challenge.
Broom sighed. There was no way he could rebuild the team in less than a year. Even if he could, there was no guarantee the new hires would work well together. And yet that was the assignment handed to Broom by Kelvin Pharmaceuticals: re-boot Protempo by the end of the fiscal year. Or else.
The Protempo death cluster was spooking the company. Kelvin had lost four employees to its competitors in the last two weeks. Three more had simply left. The talk around the water cooler was not music to Broom’s ears. Nor were the regular bouts of quiet sobbing coming from the employee bathrooms.
“Six deaths,” Broom said to his secretary earlier that day. “What are the odds?”
“The chances of winning the lottery after getting bitten by a shark in a lightning storm,” she replied with a half-hearted laugh. And then she’d clutched a Kleenex and started crying.
Broom stopped spinning the pill. Though unbidden and unwelcome, darkness had descended on Kelvin’s regional HQ.
Broom stared at his reflection in the plate glass window: a thirty-five year-old man with a scraggly casual Friday two-day growth wearing dark-framed designer glasses, tailored chinos and a light blue dress shirt. No tie.
Physically, Indigo Broom looked every inch the high-flying executive: fit, focused and financially flush; a rising star in the Kelvin conglomerate. Psychologically, Broom was close to replicating Larsson’s long march into the sea.
Broom’s wife had dumped him. The most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, easily one of the world’s sexiest females, had left him for the guy who cut the grass and tended the flowers surrounding his dream home. Ex-dream home. Ex-wife.
Broom tried to push away thoughts of his wife. It was a losing battle. He imagined Lucy sitting on the bed in her silk nightgown, begging for forgiveness in her own special way: her green eyes flashing mischievously, a crooked smile crawling across her perfect features, her nightgown open just so, knowing that Broom couldn’t resist her charms.
Anger and lust swirled through Broom’s mind and body, a toxic mix that robbed him of any desire to leave his chair.
“Broom,” his boss called from the far side of the office. “It’s time.”
Indigo Broom was an HR guy. He was paid to know people. What they wanted. The difference between what they said and what they meant. Their ability — or inability — to communicate. To process the thoughts and feelings of others. He didn’t need any of his training or experience to assess his boss’ state of mind.
Phillip Aster was pacing the floor behind his desk like a caged animal. Aster’s right hand smoothed his graying hair backwards. When it reached the back of his head, he rubbed his neck. And then he repeated the motion.
“He’ll be here any minute,” Aster announced, without breaking stride.
“Who is this guy again?” Broom asked.
Aster grabbed the chair in front of him, creating deep indentations in either side of the buttery black leather. He carefully rotated the chair, as if it threatened to spin off into space. He slipped into its embrace and turned to face Broom.
“His name is Henderson,” Aster announced. “They call him The Rain King.”
“Because . . .” Broom said, letting the word drift.
Aster remained silent, lips pursed, brows furrowed, staring at the jet black coffee mug sitting on his mahogany desk. After a moment’s contemplation, Aster’s right hand reached for the mug. He left the mug on the desk, tilted it towards himself and peered into its empty interior.
“Is Henderson here about the Protempo death cluster?” Broom prompted.
Aster instantly looked up, his hand on the mug, his features as blank as the yellow legal pad in front of him. Broom waited for a quiet nod. Or a gentle, mournful head shake. Something. Anything.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Broom felt an enormous adrenaline rush. For a long, confused second, he couldn’t understand why. When he finally identified the source of his biochemical emergency, Broom felt like he’d been shoved down a long flight of stairs. Stairs . . .
There was no way Nobel prize winning neurobiologist Brad Sainsbury had climbed those steep, rickety, pull-down stairs into his tiny attic, mounted a tall ladder and hung himself on the main cross beam. Sainsbury was acrophobic, claustrophobic and allergic to dust. He was also one of the happiest men Broom had ever known.
For the first time, Broom confronted the idea that the Protempo death cluster wasn’t bad luck, a coincidence or God’s revenge on people who made a pill that let randy old men have sex with younger women when they should have been bouncing grandchildren on their knee. Broom faced the possibility that the entire Protempo team had been murdered.
Broom’s mind began to race. He could almost feel his neurons firing, as his logic train left the station. A bullet train.
Five Star Pharmaceuticals produced Protempo’s competition: Elmaxo. With Protempo’s development and marketing team dead in the water — in one case literally — Elmaxo would gain market share worth billions.
Broom sorted through the Five Star executives he’d met at various industry events, trying to imagine any of them as secret serial killers. Or men who’d hire one. Except for one particularly odious individual who’d groped Lucy at the annual industry awards banquet, Broom couldn’t think of anyone at Five Star who’d terminate the Protempo team with extreme prejudice.
What had Lucy been wearing that night? Oh yeah: a sequined green dress that fit her body like a second skin. Her skin . . .
Broom had taken her from behind that night in the laundry room, inhaling the heady smell of sex, perfume and lavender-scented dryer sheets. It had been the most relaxing industry awards dinner ever. Except for the creep from Five Star. Broom had almost punched the guy.
I really feel like punching someone right now, Broom thought, his body drum tight, his nerves alight, his breathing rapid and shallow.
Aster’s gaze turned upwards, over Broom’s shoulder and through the frosted glass partition separating his office from the rabble.
“He’s here,” Aster announced, like a scout sighting an enormous enemy force looming on the horizon.
Broom’s head snapped around to see Henderson striding through the door. He was tall, thin, blond and patrician; immaculately dressed in a blue, tailored version of a Brooks Brothers suit, complete with a bright yellow tie with tiny blue orchids.
A casual observer would have mistaken the slightly-built men flanking “The Rain King” for Henderson’s executive assistants. From their perfectly coiffed hair to their expensive shoes to the way they looked at Henderson with disinterested subservience, they played the role of corporate drones to perfection.
The “assistants” eyes betrayed them. While their gaze didn’t dart around the room scanning for entrances, exits and threats, they scanned the room for entrances, exits and threats, moving their heads as if they were having a casual look around.
The dark-suited men moved with unnerving grace, positioning themselves slightly behind and to either side of Henderson. Not too close. Not too far. Special forces vets? Former undercover cops? Something….
Broom made eye contact. The first bodyguard gave him nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Broom named him Shark Eyes.
The second bodyguard met Broom’s gaze, smiled and tipped his head in greeting. It was a gorgeous smile, friendly and full of warmth. His blue eyes, incongruous in a head topped with jet black hair, practically danced with delight. Broom christened bodyguard number two Happy.
Henderson sat down quickly, instantly taking handshakes and introductions off the agenda.
“Who’s still working on Exodus in this building?” he demanded by way of greeting.
Aster was startled by the question. But not as startled as Broom. He thought he knew every drug in development, every employee under his care. Apparently not. Added to his suspicions about the Protempo death clusters, the realization felt like a gigantic hand pressing down on his chest, squeezing the life out of him.
“No one else,” Aster replied.
How did this super secret Exodus team get in and out of the building? Broom thought. Where did they eat lunch? Who kept track of their tax deductions and bonus payments?
Conclusion: there was no secret team working on Exodus, whatever that was. There couldn’t have been. Which could only mean the Exodus team was pretending to work on something else. Something like . . . Protempo.
Broom felt like throwing up. He couldn’t feel his hands. His heart was playing a baseline loud enough to fill a stadium. He wanted to run. Instead, he blurted out a question.
“Excuse me,” he said, his voice sounding strangely high to his ears. “What’s Exodus?”
The room fell silent. Broom could almost hear the wheels turning inside the minds of the men surrounding him. No one moved. At some point in the non-proceedings, it was time for someone to say something. No one did.
“You’re kidding,” Henderson sighed, finally breaking the silence. “He doesn’t know about Exodus and you brought him here? To this meeting?”
Broom knew he was doomed. His devious, cowardly boss had inserted Broom into a conspiracy whose conspirators were busy killing anyone who knew about or worked on Exodus. Whatever that was.
Time slowed as Broom’s brain delivered more bad news. The reason Shark Eyes and Happy didn’t look like bodyguards was because they weren’t bodyguards. They were assassins.
“I suppose it’s just as well,” Henderson pronounced wearily.
An instant after Henderson uttered the word “well,” Phillip Aster was dead. Broom watched his head snap backwards with God knows what flying from the inside of his skull onto the wall behind him.
Broom eyes widened as he stared at the formerly white wall for what seemed like an eternity. The combination of slowly descending grey chunks and red splotches looked like modern art in the making.
Broom knew he must be breathing. His heart must be beating. But it felt as if all his bodily functions had seized-up.
When Broom finally looked down at his boss, he noticed a small hole in the middle of Astor’s forehead. But something was wrong. How did all that revolting . . . stuff . . . got on the front of Aster’s shirt?
Broom instinctively turned his head for an answer. Henderson was unable to oblige. A large part of the front of his face was missing, mostly the nose. He’d been also been shot from behind. That accounted for the brain matter and red splotches on his boss’ formerly pristine shirt. Former boss.
Broom felt like he’d been TASED. Every nerve in his body was alight, but he couldn’t move a muscle. When the spell broke, Broom looked behind Henderson’s chair. Shark Eyes pointed a gun with an extremely long barrel straight at him.
Time slowed even further.
“So this is how it ends,” Broom thought. “Quietly.”
Not exactly. Broom remembered an extremely loud metallic clank that had accompanied the gunshots and became aware of an extremely painful ringing in his ears. His nostrils burned with the acrid smell of gunpowder.
I hope Lucy grieves for me.
He guessed not. The news of his violent death — or whatever clever cover story the assassins designed — would probably interrupt some epic sex session with he gardner. She might even return to it with renewed vigor and abandon, feeling free in a way that only his death could provide.
“I really should have a more positive final thought,” Broom thought.
Broom heard another deafening clank and watched Shark Eyes’ head jerk violently sideways. An explosion of material flew out of the opposite side of his head before he fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
“What is it with all the head shots?” Broom wondered. “OK, they are pretty spectacular. And they’re certainly effective. But they’re really loud and incredibly nauseating and there was going to be one hell of a mess for someone to clean up.
By Broom’s calculation, there were two people still alive in his former boss’ office. One of them was a cold-blooded killer. One wasn’t. He didn’t like the odds of survival for the one who wasn’t.
Broom suddenly felt strong, like he could lift an SUV. A huge desk? That too. He propelled himself up and out of his chair and turned to face the remaining gunman. Broom was ready to . . . what? Fight? Yes! Fight! And then he saw Happy’s face.
Happy was happy. His smile was still warm, open and friendly. Even better, his long-barreled gun was pointed at the floor.
Despite himself, despite everything, Broom smiled back. It was a half-smile, maybe even deranged. But it was enough to elicit a gentle nod and slightly raised eyebrows from Happy. It was if Happy was saying “See? It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Broom felt a rush of relief. It was temporary. Happy suddenly looked alarmed, his eyebrows diving towards his robin’s egg eyes. He tossed his head to his left, directing Broom’s attention to the office door.
Broom made a conscious decision not to look. Enough is enough, he thought. He was just as wrong about that as he was about the Protempo death cluster.