Paul Grossart, Managing Director of Lehman Genomics UK, was nervous. The head of the American parent company was coming to see him, rather than have him fly out to Boston, and this made him uneasy. His section leaders were ready to make presentations, outlining their groups’ research efforts with well-prepared slides and diagrams. Technical staff had made sure that the labs were free of clutter and would appear hives of industry should the visiting party care to call, and secretarial staff were making the company office smell like the cosmetics counter at Boots. Upstairs in the accounts department, the books were open and ready for inspection; their authors ready with optimistic and glowing projections for the future. The order of the day for everyone was to smile at anything that moved.
Despite all this, Grossart found that his palms were sweating as he stood at the window of his office, hands behind his back, waiting for his visitors to arrive. On the face of it, he had nothing to worry about. All UK biotech companies had been going through a hard time in the face of a business community which believed that they had been promising more than they had delivered, but Lehman had weathered the storm of disappearing venture capital better than most. They had done so because of their success in marketing several new diagnostic kits in the past two years, and their field trials of two new chemotherapeutic agents had been going well. Target dates for licences were beginning to look realistic to those in the know. But, in spite of this, Grossart still suspected that something was wrong; he felt it in his bones. The American visit had been advertised as routine but he just knew that there was more to it.
A black, S-class Mercedes saloon slid into the car park and Grossart walked over to his desk to press the intercom button. ‘Jean, they’re here. Give us five minutes, then bring in coffee and biscuits. See that the others know they’ve arrived.’
Straightening his tie, Grossart ran down the steps from his first-floor office to the entrance hall and smiled at the tall, gaunt man who entered first. ‘Good to see you, Hiram,’ he said, holding out his hand, which he’d dried on a handful of tissues in his pocket. ‘Long time no see.’
‘Good to see you too, Paul,’ replied Hiram Vance, executive vice-president of Lehman International. He gestured at the man behind him and said, ‘This is Dr Jerry Klein from our Boston lab; he’s chief of molecular medicine.’
Grossart shook hands with a small, black-bearded man who, in loose-fitting dark clothes, looked distinctly rabbinical. Grossart got the impression that Klein was almost as nervous as he was himself.
The three went upstairs to where coats were hung in the hall and they walked through to Grossart’s office, where the talk was initially about the weather and the vagaries of flying across the Atlantic in November. Grossart’s secretary brought in coffee and was introduced to the visitors, to whom she said welcome and smiled deferentially. ‘Anything else I can get you gentlemen?’ she asked.
‘That’s fine for the moment, Jean,’ said Grossart. ‘So where would you chaps like to start this morning?’ he asked as the door closed. ‘I thought maybe a tour of the labs, followed by short presentations from the research staff, then a look at the production suite and then maybe the offices?’
Vance looked at the door and asked, ‘Is there any way she can hear what we’re saying?’
‘I trust Jean implicitly,’ said Grossart, taken aback.
‘That’s not what I asked,’ said Vance.
Grossart responded by disconnecting the intercom. ‘No, there isn’t.’
Vance, a painfully thin man with a sallow complexion and dark hollows round his coal-black eyes, nodded. ‘We’ve got big trouble,’ he said.
‘Then this isn’t a routine visit?’
Vance shook his head. ‘The Snowball project’s just melted. We’re going to have to pull the plug on it.’
‘What?’ exclaimed Grossart. ‘But everything’s been going so well! And what about the arrangement?’
‘I know, I know.’ Vance nodded. ‘But Jerry here has come up with a real showstopper. Show him, Doctor.’
Klein opened his briefcase and withdrew a thin blue-covered file, which he handed to Grossart without making eye contact. Grossart flipped it open and started to read. When he finished he had to swallow before saying hoarsely to Klein, ‘You’re absolutely sure about this?’
Klein nodded and said in an accent that sounded like New York Jewish, ‘I’m afraid so. The sequence appears to be part of the host genome, but it’s not. Just look at the homology.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ murmured Grossart. ‘I should have known it was too good to be true. It’s too late to put out a recall. Where the hell do we go from here?’
‘All production will have to be stopped immediately,’ said Vance. ‘But…’
‘But what?’ said Grossart, still looking at Klein’s papers and feeling dazed.
‘Maybe that’s as far as it should go,’ said Vance, watching closely for Grossart’s reaction.
Grossart looked up from the file, his eyes unsure and questioning. ‘Are you saying that we should say nothing?’ he asked tentatively.
‘I’m suggesting that we be practical,’ said Vance. ‘It’s too late to do anything about the material that’s been used. If we start confessing all we’ll be crucified, the company will go down the toilet and we’ll go with it. The lawyers will see to that. I take it you have
… commitments, Paul?’
Grossart was having difficulty in coming to terms with the situation. He forced himself to concentrate on the question. Of course he had commitments. He had a mortgage on the wrong side of a hundred and fifty thousand, two children at public school and a wife who enjoyed the good things in life, but…
‘This company will do far more good for humankind if it stays in business,’ said Vance. ‘Think about it, Paul.’
Grossart clasped his hands under his chin and rocked slightly in his chair as he wondered what to do. He could actually feel his bowels start to loosen. He’d had such faith in the Snowball project that he’d sunk all the cash he could get his hands on in taking up company share options. Okay, so he’d been cutting every corner he could to speed things along, but that was business: he was in a race. It wasn’t really dishonest; it was just… business. But now it had all gone belly-up. Suddenly and without warning he was in this position and he was scared.
‘Christ, I don’t know!’ he exclaimed. ‘I feel I want to throw my hands up and apologise… but like you say… it won’t do any good in the long run if it’s already too damned late.’
‘Believe me, we’ve all had these thoughts, too,’ said Vance soothingly. ‘If there was anything we could do to turn back the clock we would be in there winding, but there isn’t, Paul, there just isn’t.’
‘Who knows about this?’ asked Grossart.
‘Just the three of us. Jerry came to me first with his findings and we decided we’d sit on it until we had talked to you. The UK’s the only place where we’ve “been on line”, so to speak.’
Grossart tapped his fingertips together rapidly while his mind raced, but he couldn’t think straight; there was just too much to take in. Rather than appear weak and indecisive, he decided that the other two had had time to think things through so they must have reached the right conclusion. He’d go along with them. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I agree. We keep quiet.’
‘Good man,’ said Vance. ‘Company loyalty like that won’t go unrewarded come annual bonus time.’
Grossart suddenly felt dirty. He looked at Vance, feeling sick inside, despising himself, but there was now no