Monday, June 29, 2020: Kentfield, Marin County, California, night
The priest divided his gaze between the woman next to him and her intubated daughter behind the window. A masked and shielded ICU nurse held the phone close to the sedated woman’s head and nodded. Father Healey spoke. “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.
“Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come, thy . . .”
The mother was sharply dressed and in her late forties. Rosary beads intertwined in her fingers, she semi-collapsed and clutched the priest.
“Stephanie! Stephanie! Stay with us!” Patricia Maggio gasped as rivulets of tears dampened her facemask.
“Patricia, the doctors have done all they can,” Father Healey said. “They need to move fast if the baby is to be saved. Let me finish my prayers.”
“Of course, of course. Forgive me.” Pat composed herself as a hospital staffer in decontamination attire entered the ICU observation room and pressed a clipboard into her hands.
“Please sign or initial as indicated. This is for the emergency caesarian.”
“Stephanie wanted to contribute her organs. Are those forms here?”
“No ma’am. Covid-19 damages the lungs, liver, kidneys and heart. We can’t accept donated organs. I’m sorry.”
Pat signed the papers unread and the orderly hustled away. The priest restarted the Lord’s Prayer from behind his unported N-95 facemask. Two twenty-something adults, a woman and a man, dashed into the room and pressed their noses to the glass to view their sister and spouse. After a few seconds to catch their breaths, they looked to Patricia.
“She’s in critical condition,” Pat said. “They’ll perform a caesarian. Sal’s on his way with an experimental drug. We just don’t know. Give me your hands and let’s pray.”
From inside Stephanie’s room, an alarm sounded as the ECG flatlined. The nurse hadn’t even dialed 3333 before the respiratory monitor triggered, too. Over the hospital intercom, a metallic voice announced the crisis. Within ten seconds, four nurses and orderlies rushed in and a nurse began CPR. Another med-tech arrived with a backboard. The team worked with practiced efficiency: this was the third code they’d dealt with this shift.
To the shocked family members huddled on the other side of the window, it was a surreal experience.
The paddles came out and with the application of shock, Stephanie’s body levitated off the backboard. Still no response. For the first time, those in the observation room could hear a raised voice from within her room. “Give me one milligram of Atropine.” A nurse handed a syringe to the doctor.
Sal Maggio sprinted into the room rubbing sterilizing gel into his palms. “Pat, what’s happening?”
“Her heart stopped! She’s not breathing. Oh my God, my dear God, save my baby!”
Sal leaned into his wife so only she could hear him. “I have two dosages from Nancy.” He turned to his daughter and son-in-law. “Keep the faith and comfort Mom. I’ve got something I have to do.” He rushed out.
“You can’t go in there or you’ll get the virus!” Pat called after him. Sal didn’t slow his pace as he headed for the ICU reception.
In a low voice, Father Healey recommenced reading Stephanie the last rites. He hoped he’d have enough time to make it through the Twenty-third Psalm before the code team gave up on the expectant women and her unborn child.
2. OUT OF BUSINESS
TEN DAYS EARLIER
FRIDAY, JUNE 19: SAN RAFAEL, MARIN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, AFTERNOON
“Pulling the plug will be heart-wrenching, but it’s for the best.” Chris Rogan, chairman of the board and senior partner at Bueno Capital, wore a big smile and a compulsory facemask that hung from one ear.
“We have enough money to fund at least two months’ research,” Sal protested. “That could lead to a breakthrough or buy us the time to attract a partner. Nafarm’s worth a lot more with our team intact than in liquidation.”
Rogan’s smile faded as he stared at Sal with his dead eyes. “Nafarm exists only because Bueno Capital lent it three million dollars in April, secured against intellectual property and repayable on demand. We want our money. Have the wisdom to see things as they are, not as they were, or you wish them to be.”
“Nafarm ran out of time,” CEO Fraser Burns said to Sal. “At last count two hundred companies are working on Covid vaccines, with four in clinical trials. We lost the race.”
“We’re adjourned.” Rogan pushed back from the table and rocked in his chair to leverage his nearly three-hundred-pound bulk to his feet. “Fraser, you stay. I need to speak with you.”
“I’ll come to your office in a half-hour,” Burns said as chief operating officer Sal Maggio stormed out.
By the time Sal had climbed the two flights to his office, he had regained his self-control. He reminded himself that he’d never respected Bueno Capital in the first place. They’d bought their seat at the table because of the absurd valuation they’d placed on Nabokov Pharmaceuticals. In the crunch, “Boner Cap” behaved just as their Valley nickname suggested. Worsening his tachycardia by stewing over those assholes’ decisions wouldn’t help. He needed to move to damage control mode.
* * * * *
“I negotiated a three months’ separation package.” Burns had dialed up his friendly persona. “Rogan wanted to give you two weeks, but I reminded him that you held Nafarm together while I searched for a strategic investor. Everyone in the company owes you for the great effort.”
Despite himself, Sal felt his blood pressure surge again. “Chris Rogan can stick his severance check up his ass. If he wants to pull the plug now, why did Boner Cap bother to lend us three mil six weeks ago? I haven’t been home for dinner since and the research team sleeps in the break room. What do we tell Nancy and the others? We could be on the verge of something that Big Pharma would pay a fortune to see.”
“None of that matters. We have ten days until the loan is due. Rogan read me the riot act: If we don’t repay them in full, including default interest of ten percent, Bueno Cap owns all the company’s IP.”
A thought struck Sal and his demeanor brightened. “ChemFil is in expansion mode. Last week, one of their execs came in and said that they’d pay top dollar for our building and land.”
Burns appeared to consider the idea, though it was always hard to tell what was going on in that undisciplined mind of his. With his swept-back chestnut hair, aquiline nose, strong chin and posh accent he looked like a CEO; he just didn’t perform like one. Three years ago, Burns hadn’t fooled Sal but the outsized salary and stock package had been too tempting to turn down even if it pushed Sal’s retirement plans out a few more years.
“What? A specialty chems company wants to buy our building? What do they make, crystal meth?”
Sal managed a wry smile. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Seems they pivoted hard to supply hand sanitizer to Home Depot. They’re scrambling for capacity.”
“What kind of money are we talking about?”
“We bought the land and put up the building for two-point-three million. I floated that number and their COO said he could see paying a premium given the circumstances. Add that to the last of our cash and we can repay Boner Cap even with their loan shark’s interest added on.”
“Sounds promising. Maybe we should have been property developers instead of a biotech shop. Give the staff the lethal injection tomorrow.” Burns stood and shouldered his tooled leather man-bag. “I have to dash to Minneapolis tonight for one last pitch tomorrow.”
Sal nodded, but said nothing. He’d just fought the board for three hours only to see his boss fold the tent and delegate the dirty work. Two things were certain: That man had no pride, and Rogan and Burns had discussed more than employee severance packages.
* * * * *
As always, Nancy Jacobs was in her lab and dressed like a Liberian Ebola doctor. Sal waited ten minutes while she shed her hazmat garb and decontaminated. While he sat in the second-floor break room, his phone buzzed: It was Pat.
“Greg just called and he’s at Mount Marin with Stephanie. They just admitted her with a 103º (39.5C) fever. They think it’s the coronavirus, but it’s Friday night so we’ll have to wait until Monday for the definitive lab results. I’m worried for her and the baby. They made Greg leave. The earliest we can see her is nine o’clock tomorrow.”
“Slow down, honey. Her immune system will fight it off, but I’m glad she finally got tested after feeling bad the last few days. Look, I have to go. Boner Cap did what I feared and shut us down and I think Burns was in on it. We can talk later. I’ll be back late, so don’t hold dinner.” Sal disconnected as Nancy walked into the room.
Nancy wasn’t much for small talk. Long hours and difficult working conditions had added years to a once-pretty face that no longer was on the youthful side of forty. “What is it, Sal? You look like your goldfish died.”
He motioned her to join him at the table. “Stephanie’s just been admitted to Mount Marin with Covid-19. She has a compromised immune system and we’re worried.”
“That’s awful. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks. He held the gaze of her brown eyes. “I wanted to meet because our investors decided to close us down by month’s end. Given all the work your team put in, you deserve to be the first to know. Tell your people not to sign anything without speaking to me first. We may have a buyer for this building that could get everyone three-month packages, but I won’t know for another week.” He let out a ragged sigh. “I feel like I let everyone down.”
“Sal, you put in more hours than anyone in the company. And this makes what I have to say easier. The protein cocktail failed the latest tests. Without human trials, we can’t know for sure, but the vaccine could provoke a cytokine storm that overwhelms the immune system. My recommendation is to suspend the research.”
Sal sat bolt upright. “Did you tell Burns?”
Nancy shook her head. “The last three monkeys died in the past three hours.”
“So that’s it? We’re done?”
Nancy swiveled her head to confirm they were alone, then lowered her voice. “Not quite. I have a side project. Instead of a true vaccine, I developed an adjuvant, a drug amplifier that works with the general antivirals already in the market to treat a Covid infection by stimulating T-cells. I focused on remdesivir, a failed Ebola treatment.”
Sal twirled his hand to urge her on.
“Well, I can’t be sure—if we had another month and six more monkeys and I’d know for certain—but there’s been a promising gain of function for one of the prototypes I synthesized. The only problem with this new drug—I’ve called it 896MX—is that the two main ingredients other than remdesivir are expensive and scarce. If you give me another week, I can produce a small sample batch.”
Sal stood up, leaned over and kissed Nancy on the cheek through his mask. “You’re a lifesaver. If you need anything, let me know.”