Red Contract

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Joe Grace, a successful Dublin financier with a dark past, is attempting to lead a normal life with his beautiful German girlfriend Hanny. Meanwhile in New York, in a world Joe left behind, the stock price of a pharmaceutical giant is soaring. The reason: a rumoured cure for a deadly disease. When Joe gets a call from one of his most valued investors, asking him to track down a missing scientist who has made the groundbreaking discovery, his attempt at a normal life quickly unravels. Bound by the terms and conditions of a contract with his investor, Joe reluctantly agrees to help find the man. But on a bloody quest that takes him from Ireland to New York, Mexico and Moscow, Joe soon discovers old personal scores are at stake…

PROLOGUE

redcontract
New York City – Mid-1990s

1

Six months before, if she had seen the same old ache in my eyes, we would have gone back to her apartment and made love until we slept. But before Christmas I’d got married, and so the days when Minx and I had been together were now just a fond memory.

An evening in early May. The weather was still fresh enough to let you taste the salt from the sea they told us was somewhere out beyond the Verrazano Bridge, the Dow had broken new ground a week before and God was in his heaven so far as Wall Street was concerned. Her name was Carmine Dominguez, but you said Do-minx. She was small and vivacious with a neat little body that moved with knowing understatement. I had hired her straight out of the Harvard Business School to join the team of analysts I headed up for Dolans, the business news-sheet. Dolans was fiercely independent. We reported business the way we saw it – a real hunger for the truth. And the debt-rating agencies took notice. Since the banks used the agencies’ rating to fix the interest level on corporate debt, it cost someone money every time Dolans spoke.

‘What’s the story, Minx?’

We were sitting at a courtyard table in one of the many winebars that had opened all over downtown New York in the eighties, but were to close when junk bonds lost their shine.

‘You know my comments on Trident Drug? Last month?’ Minx said and fiddled with an unlit cigarette.

‘What about it?’

‘I got this weird call, ten days ago. Two in the morning.’

I searched Minx’s face. I remembered the night I’d told her I was getting married. I’d told her before we’d made love; our passion in the hours that followed still filled my mind, if I let it.

‘Go on.’

‘A man. Very strange and cold voice. Said, “Trident do a lot of good that people like you are trying to screw up, lady.” Then he hung up.’

I felt a fist close around my gut.

‘Then last night he called again. Same time. He said, “Before you fuck around any more with Trident Drug, think of your own health first.”‘

I poured us wine. I had thought our little tete-a-tete was because Minx had got a better offer somewhere else on the Street and she wanted to break the news gently to me.

‘You should have told me about this before now,’ I said, watching her light the cigarette.

‘The first time I thought it might be some sort of weird coincidence,’ she said, blowing smoke from the side of her mouth. ‘Or someone playing a joke.

But not after last night. Who knows I wrote these pieces? And my phone’s not listed.’

There was no analyst whose insight I valued higher than Minx’s. She’d written what she had about Trident because she’d found hard evidence that Trident was boosting its sales by bribing doctors at state institutions to prescribe its drugs for mentally disabled patients – for such things as high blood pressure. There was evidence that the patients had the healthiest blood pressure in North America. They lived into old age, thousands of them in twenty states, ingesting drugs they didn’t need like laboratory rabbits bred for the sole purpose of enhancing the profits of Trident Drug.

I said, ‘You must tell the cops.’

Minx shook her head. ‘I don’t want to sound crazy, but this is a fantastic story, Joe. I mean, if Trident have hired some thug to try and spook me, and I can prove it, think of the copy that will make!’

I didn’t like it, and I said so. ‘Minx, do you know how much Roberto Groz stands to make next year alone on Trident share options?’
She nodded; she knew. ‘At today’s price, around fifteen million dollars.’

I would remember Minx from that evening for ever. The fading, New York sunlight making a band across the freckles of her nose. Her worried look. The way she thrust out her chin.

‘Be careful, Minx,’ I said. ‘These are not people to fuck with.’

Minx should her head, as if disappointed by my caution. ‘Wall Street is dazzled by the Groz it sees on Park Avenue. The banks see an ex-NIH official on Wall Street and give him whatever he wants. The media eat out of his hand. You buy public opinion and Dr Groz is not short of cash.’
She was right. I knew. The Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Trident Drug was becoming one of the corporate legends of the eighties. Roberto Groz’s oval-shaped eyes, which told you of his East European origins, always seemed to be looking out those days from somewhere on the news-stands.

‘People just see the icon,’ said Minx with zeal, ‘but believe me, Joe, there are even worse aspects to Dr Groz than the mental patients. He makes my flesh crawl. I mean, Trident has been indicted four times for putting unproven drugs into humans without approval. You kill people that way. And Trident has been singled out by animal rights groups as causing unnecessary pain and suffering to primates in experiments. There’s more, I just know it.’

I watched the face I knew so well in love.

‘You’re the analyst on the stock,’ I said. ‘You write what you must – but I still think you should report the calls.’

‘I’m setting up a tape-recorder on my phone,’ Minx said. ‘I want to get his guy on tape. Then I’ll tell the cops. Deal?’

I never knew why, but I said ‘Deal.’

‘Thanks,’ Minx said and brought my hand to her cheek. ‘I’ll write it as I see it. People read Dolans for the truth. Happy days!’ She raised her glass.

‘Happy days.’

Minx was smiling because she saw the old ache in my eyes. She leant over and ran her fingers through my beard. ‘Now be a good boy and run along home to your new wife, Joe Grace. And don’t worry about me.’

2

‘Dr Groz will go through the roof if he reads this,’ said Patrick Malone. ‘He’ll go into fucking orbit.’

It was two weeks after Minx had told me about the calls. We were sitting in what was grandly described in Dolans as the Boardroom. Patrick Malone, the man at the other side of the chaotic desk, had been a cop in Brooklyn before he’d gone into business journalism after the war. You could still see the big, raw cop in him, even though he was now seventy.

‘What’s the kid got against Groz?’ Malone asked. ‘What’s her problem?’

‘She’s just doing her job, Paddy,’ I replied. ‘She’s very good at it, which is why you pay her so much.’

‘Don’t be saucy with me, Joe,’ said Malone, showing his teeth. ‘You Irish are all the same.’

He blew out his cheeks and turned in his chair to gaze out the window from which you could just see the Brooklyn Bridge, or a two-by-one slice of it. Grand sweat hoops impended from Malone’s armpits.

‘You hear these stories about Groz,’ he said. ‘He’s ruthless, Joe. He’s got these heavies around him, from someplace in Russia, I don’t know. They say they’d walk straight through a brick wall, then come back and build it up again.’

‘Chechens,’ I said.

‘What?’ The old man frowned.

‘They’re from Chechnya. So is Groz. A region of Russia near the Caspian Sea, down near the Caucasus. Groz’s parents came from Grozny, the capital. It’s how he got his name.’

‘I don’t know nothing except this stuff of Minx’s is dynamite,’ Malone said, picking up the two-page typescript. ‘Dynamite.’

‘But true,’ I said. ‘I’ve been through it.’

‘So Groz made big over-provisions when he took over some tinpot outfits down in South America,’ Malone said, ‘and now he’s using those provisions to keep his last quarter’s profits up – so what? Everyone does it.’

‘It’s part of a bigger picture on Trident, Paddy.’

‘I know the pharmaceutical business, sonny. Trident Drug, Saxmann, Armentisia Laboratories, Bell Smith and Holland. It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, glossy on the cover, but when you get into the small print you realize these guys don’t want to cure diseases, they want to contain them. They don’t want people to get better, they want them to tick over, using their drugs. Trident is no different. Their interest is in profits, not in cures, and certainly not in people.’

‘Doesn’t sound too ethical.’

‘Ethical my ass! When I hear you talking ethical I know the cause is lost for sure. The pharmaceutical industry is an ethical quagmire and the most corrupt player in the whole swamp is the Food and Drug Administration of this country. More corrupt than the Mafia. Corrupt in the very way the system operates in favour of the status quo, of the big boys. Corrupt in putting internal politics and your career before the needs of millions of people. Corruption of power, that’s what I’m talking about.’

A secretary came in and added another stack of paper to Malone’s overflowing desk.

‘So what are you going to do?’ he asked, lifting up Minx’s piece again. ‘I’ve told you what I think.’

‘I think we should run it,’ I said.

Malone gave me a weary look; he shrugged and looked away. ‘You know I don’t overrule on these things.’

I saw, for the first time ever, a furtiveness across his eyes. ‘Paddy, has Groz tried to lean on you? Has he given you the heat over Minx?’
‘Even if he had, do you think I’d give a shit?’ asked the big ex-cop aggressively. ‘Do you think I’d put the interests of some empire builder like Roberto Groz before Dolans?’

‘But has he? Paddy?’

I knew it would have been easier to shift the Brooklyn Bridge than Patrick Malone.

‘Yeah, there’s been pressure,’ said Malone quietly. ‘Some big-shot lawyer got on to the Chairman. Told him Trident was being victimized.’ Malone curled his lips. ‘I told the Chairman to tell them go fuck themselves, all right? But that doesn’t mean Minx shouldn’t be careful. There’s a lot of money at stake for Dr Groz. People do funny things for a lot of money, in case you hadn’t noticed. Now get out of here, I got work to do.’

In the months and years that followed, I often thought back to that meeting. I should have told Malone about the calls to Minx. Because if I had, maybe then Malone would have done what he rarely did and pulled the piece on Trident. But I didn’t tell Malone. I didn’t because I felt that would be disloyal to Minx. Because I was too young to know better. Because I could just imagine the disappointment in Minx’s face if her piece was pulled. I told no one about Minx’s nocturnal caller, and then spent the next fifteen years regretting that I hadn’t.

3

When I left the army I thought I was qualified for nothing more than to survive in rough terrain and storm a fortified position. Wrong – I had learned how to analyse: men, situations. Maybe that’s my problem – too much analysis, too much poking my nose into things that don’t concern me. Anyway, I qualified as an accountant and worked in London for a few years, then New York. A lot of stuff happened back then that will come out some day. In New York I landed a job in Dolans and soon after that I married Lee. We lived on the Upper West Side. We were trying to make a go of it, despite the fact that gaps had opened up between us after a few months that we hadn’t realized were there. I’d been looking forward to settling down when we tied the knot, getting our new apartment together, doing the kind of groundwork on the marriage that my Irish cousins would have approved of. Which to me meant kids. But Lee wasn’t ready for kids. It had become an unspoken obstacle between us.
Perhaps it was because I was worrying about my marriage that I didn’t think too much more about Minx. Even when she pissed on Trident again, and some of the agencies shaved Trident’s ratings, I didn’t worry.
‘You seen Moody’s?’ Ricardo asked.
Ricardo Vegas, like me, was an assistant editor on Dolans. Women thought Richardo looked like the young Tom Cruise and Ricardo made the most of this resemblance. We’d swapped dates, he and I – before I’d got married.
‘I’ve seen it,’ I said.
‘Their downgrading will cost Trident on its long-term debt,’ Ricardo said. ‘Dr Groz won’t be pleased.’
‘Everyone worries about Dr Groz. If you ask me he runs a drugs company without very many big drugs and uses some peculiar methods to sell the ones he has.’
Ricardo fluffed out his long hair on his shoulders.
‘Yet he is one hell of an impressive guy, you must admit. Son of immigrant Russians. Tough kid in Detroit, brilliant school career, first in Michigan State, then medical school. Walked straight into one of the top jobs with the National Cancer Institute at Bethesda, Maryland.’
‘From where he jumped ship for an equally meteoric career in New York with Trident Drug -1 know his resume.’
‘He’s ex-NIH, he’s got the connections,’ Ricardo persisted. ‘Trident gets its products approved faster by the FDA than any other pharmaceutical.’
‘But what products? As Minx points out, a lot of them are running out of patent and Trident have nothing coming up to replace them.’
Ricardo winced. ‘It sounds as if Dolans has a vendetta going.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘Trident will survive Minx,’ and we both laughed.
I was right. Trident lost a dollar in as many days, but then climbed back again before anyone really noticed. Then one night when I was asleep in bed with my new wife beside me, the telephone rang. Calls at three in the morning have a way of making you become instantly awake. The person on the other end told me he was a doctor on casualty duty at Lenox Hill Hospital.
‘She keeps asking for you,’ he said. ‘I got your number out of the White Pages.’
I felt panic coming at me like a train. ‘What happened?’
‘I think if you can come in right now you should,’ the doctor said.
‘Is her life in danger?’
‘Not as such.’
‘Jesus! Do the police know?’
‘The police brought her in here,’ the doctor replied.
I pulled on jeans and a sweater and a pair of sneakers, left a note for Lee, and ran down to Broadway for a cab. I was scared. Not as such. I had no details of what had happened, but felt the way you do when the earth suddenly moves somewhere miles beneath you. Lenox Hill is on 77th and Park. The doctor was waiting in the lobby to Emergency when I ran in.
‘We’ve had to sedate her,’ he said, steering me down a corridor. ‘She was hysterical.’
‘What happened?’
The doctor took a deep breath. He was an intern, about my age. ‘Seems she was at home watching TV when . . . someone she thought was a friend called downstairs. A guy. She buzzed him into the building.’
We were walking down a bright passage crowded with patients on trolleys, hooked up to drips, and doctors in green gowns and masks battling to save lives whilst New York slept.
‘The guy came upstairs and still thinking he was … a friend, she let him into her apartment,’ the doctor said and looked closely at me. ‘He wasn’t a friend.’
We’d come to a door. A cop in uniform sat outside, his cap in his hands. He looked tired. The doctor pushed in the door. I
could see a man, another cop, I guessed, sitting beside a tiny figure in the bed. She appeared to be bandaged from the neck down.
‘She’s listed for surgery in the next thirty minutes,’ the doctor said.
‘What did he do to her?’ I asked. ‘Joe!’
Minx had seen me. She screamed. I went to her and she caught me and screamed. Terrified. Her grip, her eyes. She screamed into my face like something wild that’s been captured for slaughter.
‘JOE!’
‘I’m here, Minx, no one’s going to hurt you now,’ I said.
‘JOE! Do you know what they DID?’
‘Who, Minx?’ I shouted.
She sank back, weeping.
‘It’s okay now, Carmine, it’s okay,’ the doctor said, coming to the other side of the bed.
‘Groz,’ Minx whispered and looked at me from miles off. ‘Groz sent him, Joe. I know it was Groz.’
The doctor sank a hypodermic needle in Minx’s arm and her eyes went glassy.
‘Jesus,’ I gasped, standing up. ‘What’s happened to her, would someone please tell me?’
The doctor turned me away gently from the bed.
‘Whatever bastard she let in,’ he said quietly, ‘cut off her nipples.’
I had to get out into the corridor. I lost all sense of time or place.
‘Mr Grace?’
I saw this unshaven face somewhere off in the direction of Long Island.
‘Yes?’
The man introduced himself as Detective something or other. He described the call from Carmine, hysterical, made from a payphone because her own had been ripped out. Where the cops had found her, in the street, in a pool of her own blood. I took in maybe one word in five.
‘She was lucky she didn’t bleed to death,’ the detective said.
‘Why did . . I fought for my own breath. ‘. . . why did she let the bastard in?’
‘Because,’ replied the detective, scanning me curiously, ‘he said he was you.’
I took a cab back uptown. They’d used my name to get in and do it. I was sick. I didn’t want to have to talk to Lee about it either -1 felt too much for the woman I’d just left behind in the hospital, more than I could safely explain. I could not get the sight of Minx’s face out of my sight. Nor her voice from my head. Joe! Do you know what they DID? The thought of what had happened to her, what it meant for her as a woman, made me bite my tongue till it bled.
I stood under the shower for ten minutes, but couldn’t wash off the film of outrage. I was intact. I could run my hands down my wet body without coming to a flaw. No one had taken a knife to me because I had voiced my opinion.
I dressed quickly. The anger kept washing over me. Lee was still asleep when I left for the second time that morning and took a cab downtown. Such a man as Groz did not allow a fifteen million dollars stock bonanza to slip through his fingers. Not when all it took was some massaging of the figures to keep things humming. Or the mutilating of some perky kid.
We’d stopped at a light when I focused on where we were. In the middle of Park Avenue. Across the flowerbeds from a building I recognized.
‘I’ll get out here.’
Suddenly I was on a downhill without brakes, I had no say. Through the lobby, I found the name Trident on a board. Up eighty-seven floors by express elevator. I didn’t care if Chechen thugs who could knock down walls were up here; I didn’t care about anything. Behind a desk to one side of a walnut, panelled door, a blonde woman was arranging fresh flowers. For years afterwards I could recapture their scent. I stepped from the elevator and the woman turned to me and smiled.
‘Dr Groz,’ I said.
‘You’re expected for breakfast, sir? What name?’
The thought of Groz eating breakfast as Minx lay on the operating table of a hospital was obscene. The woman was looking at me, waiting for an answer.
‘Say a friend of Carmine Dominguez,’ I said and kicked in the door behind her.
No matter what your opinion of Dr Roberto Groz, the setting was spectacular. New York was everywhere below and around the vast room. Two waiters in white jackets with green epaulettes were serving bacon with scrambled eggs, and coffee to half a dozen suited men at an oval table. The men turned as one on my entrance. Groz was at the head of the table, far end. He stood up. He really did look like he’d just stepped off the cover of Fortune. Tall with pale but bright blue eyes and soft, curly brown hair. He was smiling as he approached me. From the breast pocket of his deep grey suit flowered a blood-red kerchief.
‘Can I help you?’ he enquired, but now he must have seen the look on my face for his eyes were darting from me to the waiters, telling one of them to pick up a phone, fast.
I broke his nose with the first punch. I felt it break. Groz skidded back, kicking his legs in an attempt at balance and fell heavily across his breakfast table, knocking silver dishes and coffee pots as he did so. The breakfast guests scattered like whitebait. Groz came up again, hands groping. I gave him the hardest head butt I knew how, finishing off in the nose department what I’d started. Permanently. I was shouting although I scarcely knew it. Minx’s name, over and over again. So the bastard would never forget. Groz was a big man; I broke the table with him. I smashed his jaw. I caught him by the throat and slammed him back against a wall tapestry where I systematically broke his ribs down one side.
‘Carmine Dominquez!’ I shouted and hit him at the apex of his stomach so that his eyes popped. ‘Will you remember now? Carmine Dominguez!’
It was the craziest thing I ever did. In front of eight terrified witnesses I beat one of the most powerful men in New York until no breath was left in my body. I forgot about my job and my wife and the family I had hoped to raise. I thought only about Minx. The craziest thing I ever did, but the most just.
When the guy from security stuck the gun barrel in my ear, it was the luck of God he didn’t blow my head off.

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