Calypso, a former Russian icebreaker, was leaving Hamilton Island. It had spent the past five days cruising along the Great Barrier Reef on its way south to Sydney. Purchased for a pittance by Blackburn Pharmaceuticals from the Russian navy in the nineteen nineties, the massive ship had undergone a major transformation.
The dilapidated, discarded icebreaker had become a state-of-the-art research vessel, its bulky exterior a clever disguise for the sophistication within. Equipped with cutting-edge communications technology rivalling that of the US navy, and laboratories that would have been the envy of many a university or teaching hospital, it ploughed the high seas as the floating boardroom and proud flagship of Blackburn Pharmaceuticals.
Alistair Macbeth, founder, managing director and major shareholder of the international pharmaceutical giant, was an enigma. Because he gave no interviews, didn’t mix with his peers, had no fixed address and reported to no one, the press didn’t know what to make of him. Shunning the limelight that went with his self-made billionaire status, he lived like a recluse on Calypso and ruled his massive pharmaceutical empire from his luxurious stateroom on board the vessel. Because so little was known about him personally – apart from the fact he was a paraplegic – speculation and rumour had filled the frustrating gaps left by missing facts. The press didn’t mind; speculation and rumour were the grist of the insatiable tabloid mill, and the elusive Alistair Macbeth was a steady source of both. Annoyingly, the only thing missing was scandal.
His staggering wealth, power, influence and rugged good looks, periodically tempted hungry newshounds to pry into his affairs – usually with little success. Some had even tried to uncover his murky past, only to find smoke and mirrors thwarting their efforts at every turn. Macbeth fiercely guarded his privacy and knew how to protect it. If a curious journalist came too close to something he wasn’t supposed to know, or in some way stepped over the line, Macbeth made sure he never did it again. This well-known cat and mouse game had gone on for years.
Macbeth surrounded himself with only the best. With several languages and a Harvard MBA on her impressive CV, Carlotta O’Brien was very good at what she did. As Macbeth’s personal assistant, she had to be. Macbeth’s demands and expectations were legendary. Confined to a wheelchair, he had become a man who rarely slept and never rested. His useless body had turned him into a cerebral creature with an extraordinary mind and a voracious appetite for work.
Carlotta knocked softly, and entered the stateroom. Macbeth was sitting in his wheelchair by the desk as usual. ‘Adrian Cavendish for you,’ she said, handing the satellite phone, which was encrypted with an untraceable number, to her boss. Macbeth waited until Carlotta had left the room before taking the call.
‘You have something for me?’ asked Macbeth.
‘He’s dead,’ answered Adrian Cavendish, his voice sounding hollow.
‘The cleaner found him this morning in the lab.’
A hint of a smile creased Macbeth’s face; so far, everything was going according to plan. ‘When are you taking over?’ he asked.
‘There’s a problem …’
‘I will not be replacing him—’
‘What?’ interrupted Macbeth impatiently, ‘Why not?’
‘Apparently, he appointed someone else …’
‘You can’t be serious! Who?’
‘A French scientist. A former colleague of his. She’s a leading expert in genomics. The CEO just told me.’
‘Do you know who she is?’
‘Yes. Dr Alexandra Delacroix.’
‘But you assured me—’
‘I’m just as disappointed as you are,’ Cavendish cut in curtly.
That’s an understatement, thought Macbeth, considering his options. Losing Cavendish at such a critical phase in this groundbreaking research project was a major blow. A breakthrough in cancer treatment could mean billions to Blackburn Pharmaceuticals. However, if it fell into the wrong hands – competitors, for example – it could cost the company a fortune. Blackburn Pharmaceuticals was the sole producer of a recently discovered drug that significantly slowed down the advance of the dreadful disease. It had taken years and many millions to develop, and was without doubt the company’s top earner. If there were a breakthrough in prevention or reversal, the drug could become obsolete overnight. Macbeth had made his fortune by staying ahead of his competitors – at any cost – and silencing his critics. ‘Do you have any idea how far he got?’ he asked.
‘Very close, that’s all I know. He barely left his lab during the past few days. He worked like a madman. Alone, as usual.’
‘He must have recorded his findings, surely.’
‘He always kept meticulous records of everything he did.’
‘Do you know where they are?’
‘Usually, he kept his notes in a safe in the lab.’
‘It’s risky …’
‘I pay very well; you know that!’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘You’ll have to do better do that, Adrian, before it’s too late,’ said Macbeth, steel in his voice, ‘for all of us,’ he added quietly, and hung up.
The veiled threat wasn’t lost on Cavendish. Macbeth was a master when it came to formulating an effective threat. He was also a master when the time came to carry it out. With so much at stake, there was no room for error.
Moments after Macbeth had hung up, Carlotta re-entered the room. ‘I want you to find out everything you can about a Dr Alexandra Delacroix,’ said Macbeth, holding up the satellite phone.
Nodding, Carlotta walked over to the wheelchair, took the phone from her boss’ hand and left the room without saying a word.