“Sometimes bad genes need to be stamped out and good ones need to be fostered,” Bridget Engel said. “There’s really no difference between mice and human beings when it comes to genes.” She wore a gray suit, and her blonde hair was cut short in the style that Hillary Clinton had made popular.
He woke in the middle of the night, gathered his things, and slipped away. After Clay left, Victoria rose from the bed and went into the bathroom, carefully removed the condom from the Kleenex it was wrapped in and put it in a plastic baggie.
Now, Clive Miller was a fixer. He took care of problems that arose. Once given a task, his hands weren’t tied, and he was well-paid for his troubles. There were two simple rules. Eliminate the problem. Don’t draw attention.
Monday, July 6th
“Sometimes bad genes need to be stamped out and good ones need to be fostered,” Bridget Engel said. “There’s really no difference between mice and human beings when it comes to genes.” She wore a gray suit, and her blond hair was cut short in the style that Hillary Clinton had made popular.
Victoria Haas was careful to not let her fork drop to the plate and her mouth fall open in astonishment, not the expected response of ladies of power in business and society. Women who gaped did not drink the 2015 Chablis 1er Cru Fôrets for lunch in the swank private dining room of the exclusive Port Essex Harborside Hotel in the company of the CEO of Johnson Labs, one of the premier biomedical research companies in the U.S. and Maine’s third largest employer.
Victoria had been coming here since she could remember, while Engel had only moved to Port Essex some ten years earlier. Yet, she’d never known about this ornate oasis just off the main dining room. It appeared that this private room was reserved exclusively by Johnson for business functions and engagements.
What did Engel mean by stamped out, Victoria wondered? She’d brought up the subject in passing, asking how one could ensure that your baby was genetically gifted only to be somewhat taken aback by the abruptness of the answer. She bought some time taking a bit of the Cobb salad. Even though her ship had passed Engel’s at many political and official functions in the past years, this was the first time they’d met for a social engagement.
“How does one go about stamping out bad genes?” Victoria asked, taking a small sip of the chardonnay. She was also blonde, but was much more fashionably dressed, with a shirtwaist dress, dirndl skirt, Chanel slingbacks, and a string of pearls around her neck.
Engel was looking through the wall-size window into the main dining room, a window Victoria knew was mirrored on the other side. There were four tables in the room she was surveying, but only one occupied, by three men and a woman. This was the room that Victoria knew well, one that she’d eaten in countless times. It was one of the men at the table who’d caused Victoria to bring up the subject of babies. She’d known him since she was a little girl, even having had a fling with him after her senior year in high school, but she’d barely seen him since as their lives has led them in two different directions.
“It used to be easier,” Engel said, her attention drawn to the other room. “There was a time when the disabled, the poor, the inferior, and the promiscuous could be sterilized. Instead of having them grow up to be criminals filling our jails, or to let them starve out of their own imbecility, the United States used to prevent those who were manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
“Do you know those people?” Victoria nodded her head at the window.
“The two men with their backs to us work for my company,” Engel said.
Victoria nodded, taking another sip of the Chardonnay. She knew that Engel’s company, based nearby in East Essex, did genetic experiments on mice in an effort to eradicate disease, but she wasn’t quite sure where sterilization came in. The waiter approached and poured another scant inch of wine into their glasses.
“It seems that sterilization has long been out of favor,” Victoria said. “Perhaps there are other ways to…ensure that deficient genes are not passed on to one’s offspring?”
Engel turned from the view of the other room and focused on Victoria. “We’ve made great advances in the past few years. Soon, much disease will be a thing of the past.”
“That doesn’t take care of the slovenly or the stupid, though, now does it.”
“No, no it doesn’t.”
“You said something about fostering good genes?”
“Why are you asking?”
Victoria looked at the man facing her in the other room. He was the answer to something she’d been contemplating for some time now. She wasn’t getting any younger, and, for the past year, she had felt this emotional void, an emptiness only filled when she imagined bringing an extension of herself into this world, something larger than her work, her money, or anything she’d ever known.
“I’ve wondered about what it might be like to have a baby,” Victoria said.
“Tiresome,” Engel said, and the two women laughed.
“But truly,” Victoria said. “I have thoughts of becoming a mother.”
“I know the Haas family has impeccable genes and have had so for generations,” Engel said. “What of the father?”
“I haven’t chosen a father as of yet.”
“Does that mean you’re holding tryouts?” The two women looked at each before breaking into giggles.
“In a way, yes,” Victoria said. “I certainly don’t want my child to be average.”
“Or your husband.”
“I don’t believe I said that I was looking for a spouse.” Victoria’s tone changed from jest to business in a split second. “Just a baby.”
“Men can be a nuisance. How do you propose picking a father?”
“I have somebody in mind. I have had his background looked into—in all the usual ways. But if I wanted to do a DNA check on him, how would I go about it?”
The waiter opened the door, and Engel waved him away impatiently. “You could simply ask them to submit to a test. A swab from the inside of the cheek or a blood sample would do fine.”
“That might be a bit delicate.”
“He doesn’t know that he’s applying to be the father?” Engel asked.
Victoria blushed. “Not exactly. How about a hair?”
Engel shook her head. “You’d have to be sure to pull out the follicle and part of the scalp to be certain, and that would be noticeable.”
“Are you…sexually active with him?”
“Not for nineteen years.”
Engel laughed. “I’m sure the poor dummkopf doesn’t stand a chance against a woman such as you. Tell you what? Why don’t you seduce the poor fool and bring me a sample of his semen? I can have people at the lab analyze it and let you know whether he’s worthy of being the father of your child or not.”
“We must first establish the need for utmost confidentiality as concerns any and all of our business dealings and any such information, trade secrets, intellectual property or any related knowledge you may be…exposed to as you go about your work for us.”
The legalese hung heavy in the air over the table in the fancy function room of the Harborside Hotel where they were eating. The clean-cut fellow with the five-thousand-dollar suit had uttered the words more as a threat than a statement, the other man, his duds no less expensive, nodding in rhythm almost as if listening to music. He must be the lawyer, Clay Wolfe thought, wishing they would get to the point, not that he was invited into Port Essex’s inner sanctum for a fine lunch every day, but still….
“Of course,” he replied. “That is a standard clause of my contract.”
“I have a, um, slightly more binding non-disclosure agreement that I’d like you to sign.”
The man had said that his name was Rex Bolton and that he was chief operating officer of Johnson Laboratories. On second glance, he was not as well manicured as Clay had originally thought. His sandy blond hair was tight on the sides but tousled on top, and lines creased his face suggesting worry rather than age.
“I don’t see why that would be a problem,” Clay said, nodding. He hadn’t recognized most of the dishes on the menu and had ordered a Cobb salad. The waiter came and went so quietly and with such self-effacing efficiency that he was almost invisible. Unlike the quite impressive Frederick Remington statue in the corner next to a large mirror that made the room seem bigger than it was.
There were two tables separating Clay and his business partner, Baylee Baker, from the two men from Johnson Laboratories. This was to provide the minimum six feet of social distancing in this time of Covid-19. Baylee was slender with legs that went on forever, a bit of bronze to her skin, and brown hair that matched her eyes. The words Real People were tattooed on the inside of her left forearm. The glass of white wine in front of her was nearly untouched, unlike the surf ’n’ turf, scallops and Angus tips, which she’d demolished, much to Clay’s amusement. The woman had an appetite.
The lawyer, with as yet no name, looked at Baylee. “Absolute confidentiality, Mr. Wolfe, is what we need and expect.”
“Miss Baker is my lead investigator and a partner in the firm,” Clay said. He took a sip of the expensive scotch that he sure hoped was going on someone else’s tab.
“Nonetheless, we must insist,” the lawyer said.
Clay leant back in his chair. His hands pressed lightly onto the elegant tablecloth. He ignored the lawyer and spoke directly to Bolton. “I could tell you that I won’t include her in the case,” he said. “But I’d be lying. If it’s a deal breaker, then I’m sorry.” He steepled his fingers under his chin, his cards played, ready to accept the outcome however it went.
“I’m sure that we can have Miss Baker sign the NDA as well,” Bolton said.
The lawyer reached down to the chair beside him, taking up two thick-stapled copies from a briefcase and sliding them across the dual tables. “Please sign where indicated.” It seems he’d been prepared for this eventuality. They didn’t appear to be men who were surprised by much.
“What do you know about Johnson Laboratories, Mr. Wolfe?” Bolton asked when they were done, the paperwork safely stashed back in the lawyer’s briefcase with copies for Clay and Baylee slipped into a thick envelope.
“They, you, employ quite a few people in the area,” Clay said. “You’ve got a complex in East Essex.” He shrugged. “Testing with mice or something like that.”
Bolton smiled, a smirk that didn’t reach his eyes. “We’re the largest employer north of BIW with over a thousand employees. This includes over two hundred men and women with doctorates or other advanced degrees who investigate the genetic bases of cancer, disease, autoimmunity, and many other disorders. JOHNS is known for biomedical research that bridges translational and clinical contexts. We integrate mouse genetics and human genomics to understand the underlying cause of human health and disease. There have been nineteen Nobel Prizes associated with our work.”
“So, you do test with mice,” Baylee said.
Clay fought back a chuckle. That was about all he’d gotten out of the mumbo jumbo that Bolton had just spouted out, too.
“Yes, Miss Baker. As a matter of fact, we are the world’s supplier for over nine thousand strains of genetically defined mice.”
“That’s where all those rodents come from,” Baylee said.
“More importantly, they are mammals,” Bolton said. “Very similar to humans in many ways. We have even created a humanized mouse.”
“A humanized mouse?” Clay asked.
“Mouse models with human immune cell engraftment represent ground-breaking platforms to evaluate compounds to treat a variety of human diseases, from cancer and infectious diseases to allergies and inflammation.”
“Oh, I see,” Clay said. But he did not see at all. He did deem it best to not be an ignoramus when trying to land a case from a man in a five-thousand-dollar suit. “How about you tell us why you’re here and what you need from us?”
“We are worried that our research has been compromised,” Bolton said.
Clay nodded. “You must have your own security. Why us?”
Bolton looked at the lawyer, who said, “You understand that breaking the NDA could possibly be a treasonous offense, and that you could be prosecuted as a traitor to the United States of America.”
“You think the Russians or the Chinese are hacking you? Like they did with the Covid-19 vaccine? Because I’m sort of under the impression we should just be sharing that stuff, you know, if it’s going to save human lives.” Clay wondered, what could possibly be hacked in regard to mice?
“It’s more sensitive and delicate than you could imagine, Mr. Wolfe.” Bolton’s voice expressed exasperation.
“Perhaps I should get my lawyer to read through the NDA before I go any further,” Clay said. His lawyer was his grandpops, eighty-four years of age, still with a keen mind.
“That might be for the best,” Bolton said.
“What can you tell us about the case?” Baylee asked. “Without possibly compromising our freedom?”
“I like your directness, Miss Baker,” Bolton said. “Quite simply, somebody has been stealing mice.”
He’s worried that it’s an inside job, Clay thought. But stealing mice? It was quite a leap from that to treason. The mice must be quite special, possessing something so sensitive, that if he, Clay Wolfe, leaked, he could be arrested as a traitor and thrown into some place like Guantanamo without charges or trial. This was serious shit.
“And you suspect your own security team of being involved?” Clay asked.
“We don’t know who to suspect,” Bolton said. “But it is concerning.”
“I think before we get into the nuts and bolts of this that we’ll have our lawyer go over the NDA,” Clay said. “It shouldn’t take long. Perhaps we can get together tomorrow and move forward?”
“Time is of the essence, Mr. Wolfe,” Bolton said.
“Of course, I understand.”
The lawyer reached into his case and retrieved the NDA and slid it back across the table.
“One of our security team disappeared over the weekend,” Bolton said. “He was on the night shift for the fourth. Showed up to work. Was last seen about 2:00 AM. Never checked out. Never went home. Gone.”
Excerpt from Mouse Trap by Matt L Cost. Copyright 2022 by Matt L Cost. Reproduced with permission from Matt L Cost. All rights reserved.
Matt Cost is the highly acclaimed, award-winning author of the Mainely Mystery series. The first book, Mainely Power, was selected as the Maine Humanities Council Read ME fiction book of 2020. This was followed by Mainely Fear, Mainely Money, and Mainely Angst. I Am Cuba: Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution was his first traditionally published novel. He had another historical released in August of 2021, Love in a Time of Hate. Wolfe Trap and Mind Trap were the first two in the Clay Wolfe Port Essex Trap series. Mouse Trap is the third in this series. Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries. Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.