I haven’t posted anything recently because I’ve been busily working on book 2 in the telomere series, tentatively entitled ” Targeting the Telomeres.” For those of you who receive this blog post as an email, I hope you enjoyed my first thriller novel in this series, “Taming the Telomeres.”
While obviously things can change in the editing process of book 2, here are sneak preview chapters from the beginning of “Targeting the Telomeres.” Feel free to email me if you have any questions, ideas or concerns.
Targeting the Telomeres
©2017 R.N.Shapiro, Challedon Publishing
All Rights Reserved
Lying on the cramped, lower bunk of the sleeper car, she feels with her fingertips along the thin foam-rubber pad masquerading as a mattress. There it is. She tugs on the lower portion of her backpack hiding the loaded pistol with the customized silencer, nestling what constitutes all her belongings in the crook of her right arm.
She thinks, all I wanted was to get some of my memory back from before the crash. Not this.
The bullet train hurtling northbound towards Beijing at 180 miles per hour suddenly lurches, causing a metallic screech that soon fades.
Amanda thinks for a moment about a family photo. Of her dad, her, and her mom, sitting on the front porch of the house they lived in before the crash. The one she hopes to recall, that her Uncle Andy showed her. She mentally photoshops her baby brother Justin in too. Nothing can stop fantasies no one else can see.
If my plan fails, I won’t have to worry anymore, Amanda decides. Because I’ll be dead.
The TV in the background startles FBI counter-intelligence agent Steven Solarez during his early morning ritual of checking the weather on his tablet, sending a swig of burning hot French roast coffee everywhere.
Holy crap, he thinks, listening to the reporter on CNT.
“According to the Washington Observer, over 200 million dollars were transferred from the U.S. Government to a Hemispheres Airlines bank account, effectively funding most of the death claims for the victims of Flight 310, which left D.C. for New York City and crashed in Quarryville, Pennsylvania about two years ago. Official sources with the Department of Justice are strenuously denying this claim.”
Solarez feels his cell phone vibrating on his waist, slides it off its holster, and reads the incoming text message.
Emergency meeting @ 8:30 AM with Director. Confirm.
His mind whirls. Once the proverbial cat is out of the bag, can you ever shove it back in? This is bad, for sure. But he didn’t hear any details of why the money was paid to the airline, so maybe whoever leaked it doesn’t have the whole story. Maybe.
He texts his confirmation to his assistant, Dean, then decides to add more.
Find Amanda Michaels now. Tell her not to talk to the reporters. Put an agent on her 24/7.
He smiles knowing she stands far from helpless now. It was a prophetic move on his part to give her training at Quantico once school let out, virtually the same as a field agent undergoes. Weapons, hand-to-hand combat and evasive driving techniques. He had to pull a lot of strings for approval, but given the secret research role her father was undertaking, it made sense.
Next, he calls Andy Michaels and braces himself for an onslaught from the high profile trial attorney.
“I just heard the report on the radio. Do you know what this’ll do to my law practice? My reputation? Do you?” Andy says with a panicky voice as soon as he answers, mentally cataloguing every material possession in his Georgetown home and imagining his lucrative Georgetown practice going right down the rathole.
“Careful, this isn’t a secure line. Yeah, I get how serious this is.”
“How about my clients who settled their cases? What if someone decides I knew everything…”
Solarez interrupts him. “Stop! We need to talk in person. You did nothing wrong, so don’t start panicking. We’re putting protection on Amanda immediately. No one talks to any reporters until we have a solid response plan, hopefully around noon.”
“What am I supposed to tell my partners and my staff?”
“Tell them you can’t comment now, but you’ll issue a statement soon.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t say that.”
“You can’t tell them anything until you look into the allegations. Better?”
Andy contemplates this a few seconds. “No. Completely unconvincing.” He tries to come up with a logical explanation, but the more he thinks about it, the more furious and anxious he gets. He was never comfortable with the confidential information the DOJ lawyer had shared with him, that the U.S. did indeed pay the $200 million. His clients trusted him when he recommended they settle their wrongful death claims. Sure, they all were awarded major settlements, but that was before he learned of the secret government payout to the airline. He realized then if anything about sabotage leaked later on, there would be hell to pay.
“What about the press when they start calling?”
“Can you call Stein at the Department of Justice to confirm everything is still okay. He assured me all my settlements were legal.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“My head is ready to explode.”
“Tell you what, I have a meeting with the FBI director this morning, but when I’m done I’ll call you.”
Andy isn’t listening. He’s still thinking about the news story. Whoever leaked it must have an agenda. Why would the Chinese leak it, and risk exposing sabotage of the aircraft? Makes no sense. Maybe a disgruntled FBI or CIA employee? It’s possible, but who, and what was their motive?
“We’ll work this out,” Solarez promises, but Andy has major doubts. What is it they say about hiding the truth, he thinks? It usually floats back up to the surface no matter how hard you try to weight it down.
“Chuck, good to see you.” Walter Zukoff firmly shakes CIA Director Charles Isaacson’s hand. Built on a medium, stocky frame, Zukoff carries at least 15-20 extra pounds that he long since stopped worrying about. Too much work, much less exercise, meaning his belt buckle angles more downwards under the extension of his belly.
“Always a pleasure, Z,” Isaacson replies, using Zukoff’s nickname reserved for friends. They both sit down at a small round table deep inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Contrasted with Zukoff, Chuck Isaacson exercises religiously in his fully-equipped home gym to retain his trim frame.
“The President signed off on the directive.” Isaacson continues, tapping a document on the table, then offering it to Zukoff to verify for himself. Sliding his glasses out of his sports jacket pocket, he reads it over and looks up.
“You weren’t expecting otherwise were you?”
“Not at all. In an off-the-books meeting I had with him and his national security team, he literally mentioned the ‘Manhattan Project’ in discussing our work. He said something like ‘this does not have the urgency of that project, but in terms of long-term implications, this work could be more important because it would affect not tens of thousands, but potentially millions.’ Not sure I agree with him, but it certainly added some gravity to the assignments.”
Zukoff directs the biological research division of the CIA, a classified facility in a rural area of Maryland, affectionately called Sherwood Forest by those who know it exists. Locals realize it’s some kind of government base, but they have no idea that it’s the headquarters for the development of biological weapons. Anthrax, chemical weapons, ricin, radioactive compounds for weaponry, basically anything outside of regular firearms or classic ammunitions.
In 1989, the U.S. Government enacted the Bioweapons Anti-Terrorism Act, which adopted the earlier Bioweapons Convention Treaty, called the BWC for short. The act prohibited the research of “lethal” biological weapons. However, like much of the English language, the term “lethal” is open to differing interpretations. In this case the CIA chooses to interpret the word “lethal” as killing someone immediately, making a biological weapon that slowly kills its target over a week or two “non-lethal,” and therefore legal to develop under the BWC.
Isaacson begins again. “So, here are the details. I’m managing the commercialization aspect of the telomere project and covering any economic benefits to be derived from commercial licensing, like medications, rapid wound healing and life-extending modalities. You’ll be handling the non-lethal biological weaponry. But there’s a bit of a twist.” Isaacson pauses for dramatic impact, and Zukoff looks quizzically at him. “The commercial research part will be run by Ron Michaels.”
Zukoff chuckles. “Ha! Putting a dead man in charge. That’s quite a cover story. What brainiac thought that up?”
“Walt, Michaels isn’t dead.”
“What? He died in the Hemispheres crash and was buried with his wife. It was all over the news.”
Isaacson decides not to fill him in on the entire story, even though they’re friends. “Not exactly. Due to cooperation between the agency and FBI counter-intelligence, he wasn’t on the jet. He assisted us in an operation before the plane crash, and we kept him in a safe house for months after we extracted him.”
“I’ll be damned. We can keep a secret. What was he assisting with, besides his own project? And where is he now?”
“I still can’t share that information. But believe me, he’s 100% alive and well and he’s been continuing his research, at Sherwood.”
“Do you mean to tell me he’s been right under my nose all this time and I didn’t even know it?”
“That, my friend, is why I’m the director of the CIA and you head up research.” Isaacson jokingly replies. The truth is that he knows how to work a room of spooks as easily as a room of politicians, and he keeps the intricate complexities of the CIA humming. Z is the consummate introvert, much more comfortable supervising lab results and orchestrating biological breakthroughs. His idea of professional satisfaction does not involve testimony on Capitol Hill before an Intelligence Subcommittee.
“All kidding aside, there was no good way to start without him, and we can’t use a contractor like Biological Blood Services anymore, too many other nations want to get their hands on these breakthroughs.” Isaacson adds. “Each researcher working with Michaels at Sherwood was briefed on the classified status of this information, and for the foreseeable future we won’t allow him to leave. He is ensconced with his own team at Sherwood. He’s been given a new identity on paper, and maybe we’ll get him some plastic surgery down the road, or set him up on a remote farm in New Zealand. He can be put out to pasture later, but not until we use his telomere breakthroughs for medical and weaponry purposes. This isn’t the first time secrets possessed by one branch or division aren’t being fully shared with another.”
“True.” Zukoff manages, doodling in the margin of his note pad. Nice five-point stars, which he shades in as he briefly wonders whether the Hemispheres crash was connected to Ron Michaels’ research. But he doesn’t ask Isaacson, who continues explaining the master plan.
“The bio-medical part of the research, which preliminarily demonstrated the extension of cell life, will continue under Michaels. Before the crash, he officially confirmed it on animals. Unofficially, on a few human test subjects, which we found out about later. So no scientifically sound human trials exist, only animal trials. Still, the animal testing was nothing short of amazing. He extended the life span of fruit flies and mice over 50%, which could translate to a 15 to 25% extension of cell life in humans, but the issue of side effects is still unknown.”
“On the bio-medical commercialization side, the president’s directive calls for licensing the technology within 18 months to American companies, well, majority-owned American companies. Because of other intelligence information, he also wants monthly progress reports on the telomere weaponization and a viable ‘non-lethal’ weapon within 18 months. Desired features include easy delivery through food or drink, non-detectability, and irreversible decline, causing death within less than 7 days. He says it could be a game changer with some of our high-value terrorist targets.”
“Wait a second, this is ludicrous. No clear path exists for this type of thing. Three years would be the soonest for any bioweapon according to my timeline. Please tell me you didn’t say we could meet an 18-month window.”
“I didn’t say we couldn’t.”
“I don’t want unnecessary pressure on myself or my team because of an unrealistic deadline.”
“Look, the president and his advisors were adamant. Our current drone program saves troop lives, but it’s a public relations disaster. Sure, we kill our targets, but there’s collateral damage — family members, neighbors. Our field agents are saying with every drone strike that destroys a building we create hundreds of new terrorists, because the videos the extremists post all over the internet tie us to the damage. There are high value targets that call for drones, but we also need a weapon, easily secreted in food or drink, that eliminates the high-value targets without creating new terrorist propaganda videos in the process. Undetectable. Understand?”
“Yes, I do. Out of curiosity, how do you envision this bioweapon working? By making cells die faster instead of making them last longer?”
“That’s a possibility, but consider this. Michaels’ original focus was on cancer, to slow the growth or spread of tumor cells. Then he showed that rapamycin and mTOR hugely impact cell life. The telomerase enzyme signals the telomere somehow and increases the total number of divisions before it dies, extending cell life and presumably human life.”
“So, if telomerase can stimulate healthy cells to divide more than normal and live longer…”
Zukoff interrupts. “Then the same could possibly be done with abnormal cells, like cancerous cells, causing a victim to die far quicker than with many forms of cancers.” He stares at the crease where the conference room wall meets the ceiling, thinking. “Unfortunately, I don’t see our enemies lining up for blood transfusions so we can infect them with mutant cells.”
“Of course not. Michaels knows that blood transfusions are far too invasive and not realistic for the commercial applications either, so he’s already working on a different delivery system. You’ll have immediate access to his findings, but your team should be brainstorming too.”
Zukoff is now holding the pen vertically on top of the note pad, eyeing Isaacson. “This reminds me of how they lambasted President Reagan when he said he wanted to develop a space laser to zap nuclear missiles, and the press called it ‘Star Wars.’ It sounds great, but can it be done? What about costs?”
“No budget constraints, just requisition in the usual fashion.”
“I’ve already decided who my research director will be. He’s been with us for less than a year.”
“The name won’t mean anything to you since you aren’t acquainted with any of my key people. Chuck, you do realize human testing will be required.”
“That will never fly here at home. You do what you need to do, but it better somewhere else in the world. And be damn sure no dots connect it back to the agency.”
“Got it.” Zukoff’s mind wanders to the infamous LSD studies the government secretly conducted stateside that were eventually declassified. There’s no way any human trials he commissions will surface in declassified reports. Figuring out how to cleanly deliver a non-lethal bio-weapon comes before worrying about testing, he decides.
“Michaels’ group can’t know about your project.” Isaacson insists. “Your group will be apprised of their progress, but not vice-versa.”
“Impossible. They’re both working at Sherwood.”
“Walt, I am damn serious. You didn’t know Michaels was even there. During orientation, advise your team everything they learn and create is top secret, no exchange of information, even within the compound.”
“Okay, but why, can’t we trust our own people with classified information?”
“It’s not that, it’s Michaels. Every brilliant researcher is eccentric, and he is by no means an exception. I worry about his reaction if he found out his telomere breakthroughs might be used as a bio-weapon.”
“Don’t you trust him? You just disclosed he was assisting the agency before the Hemispheres crash.”
“Let’s say this. He’s instrumental to these breakthroughs. I trust him implicitly as to the research. However, some circumstances, shall I say, raise some questions. One more thing. He fathered a son while in protective custody and we have supplied him a full-time nanny at Sherwood.”
“His wife died when the plane went down, but they had frozen her eggs years ago. He used an agency-cleared surrogate to have another child. So, yes, Justin, his son, is with him and someone who has worked at Sherwood for years is his live-in nanny. The kid’s less than a year old, and Michaels can’t really leave the compound – the outside world believes he’s six feet under.”
“We’re talking about a top secret situation with tremendous implications. Are you sure you trust someone who has a young toddler to think about?”
“I trust him.” As he says this, Isaacson’s mind wanders to Michaels’ refusal to continue his research until the CIA and FBI agreed to let him see his daughter and brother. Not the time for self-doubt, he resolves, momentarily forgetting the active conversation with Z.
Zukoff interrupts his thoughts. “I’m going to need all of Michaels’ data as soon as possible. Then, as we move forward, how will I receive updates?”
“I’ll give them to you directly as they supply them to me. We’ll also have active surveillance all over the lab.”
“Then let’s get to work. Are you ready to change the world?” Isaacson asks as they walk towards the conference room door.
“Of course. That’s why we came to work here, isn’t it?”
* * *
Isaacson walks down the quiet hallway to his expansive corner office. Before he reaches the doorway he asks his assistant, Barbara, to come into his office. When they first started working together, she would appear with a notepad and pen, now she walks in with her tablet.
“I want you to call a couple of our research organizations and set up two different symposia. One needs to appeal to the top minds in the scientific community, so title it something like ‘Ethical & Economic Implications of Extending Human Life 25 Percent.’”
“Isn’t that a little vague? Shouldn’t you say ‘to 110 or 125 years of age?’”
“Whatever, you can create the exact title. It’ll cover the potential healthcare system costs of such an extension — increased costs of Social Security, contributions to the workforce with senior workers, all of those issues.”
“What’s the second one?”
“How about ‘Fast-Tracking Drug and Medication Approvals: Current Cutting-Edge Methods to Expedite Human Trials and Obtain Approval.’ Set them both up within 45 days if possible.”
“Got it.” she says, rising to walk out of his office. Isaacson can’t help but appreciate the shape of her long legs as she leaves, but the dominant thought pervading his mind is the enormity of the challenge facing both Zukoff and himself.
[End of Excerpt]
Check out the author’s first #1 Amazon suspense thriller e-book, Taming the Telomeres