5:47 a.m. Clock Tower Condo, NYC
COOPER RAN HIS HANDS THROUGH HIS DARK, WAVY HAIR AS the first rays splayed across his unshaven jaw, forcing him to squint against their indefensible assault. It had been three nights of the same dream. The same thing every time. What did his sister always say? The best way to end a recurring dream was to tell someone about it? It seemed so stupid in the light of day, yet so familiar and concrete while he slept.
Unfortunately, lingering in bed thinking about dreaming was a luxury Cooper could ill afford. Although he had been with Proteus for eight years, he still felt a pang of guilt if he showed up after his supervisor.
His military father had left behind a lasting impression; reflecting on one’s dreams had not been part of the routine. There was no time for daydreaming either. In fact, it was entirely possible that his father would have tried to give orders as to when, how, and what the entire Delaney household dreamt had he been able to take control of both day and night. He would have come up with some military name for it, like twenty-four-hour mandatory dream compliance or some other crazy term. Cooper could just picture the daily dream schedule taped to the fridge for every day of the week, with each of their names at the top.
With a smile on his face, he lazily stepped his athletic, six-foot-three frame into the shower, laughing to himself about his father’s response to his “dreams” about Hailey Swanson in the tenth grade. Hell, maybe the old man would have even approved had he still been around.
Cooper was a contradiction. His good looks should have been intimidating, almost otherworldly, but when he smiled, the warmth that radiated made you feel you had known him your whole life. He stopped conversations when he laughed—everyone wanted in on the story. In contrast, his default expression was a look of superiority, like he knew something you didn’t even know about yourself. Fortunately, it was filtered by boyish concern and delight frequently enough that almost everyone found it impossible to dislike him. Luckily for Cooper, he had been born XY. Had he been female, there would be too many haters to count.
Walking into his office, he was surprised to find that the lights were already on. They were sensor-activated, which meant someone had come in looking for him. Cooper was disappointed. He was usually the first man in, especially on Monday mornings. His phone went off in his pocket. The text from Jon read:
“Come upstairs once you get in.”
Jon Cameron had been the director of research for five years before they met. Cooper’s reputation, even as a student, made him top of the class and bottom of the recruitment list at the same time. He was all attitude, a class clown, but it was hard to argue with his grades. No one ever thought he would go on to save the world. Selling out to a pharmaceutical company seemed a perfect fit. Jon recruited him with an offer Cooper couldn’t refuse; it had been all dollars and cents to him at the time.
Only lately had he started to wonder about the impact his “inventions” were having on society. We can’t prevent cancer but we can father a child at ninety. Lately, he pondered the impact of selling out, how in most cases money and values sat in opposition—reluctant guests at either end of life’s dining table.
Riding in the elevator to the thirty-first floor and walking down the glass corridor through the twelve-foot double-door entry was something Cooper had done only four times before. Usually for a promotion or bonus and only once to get chewed out. Today he felt the odds were in his favor. Since breaking up with his latest girlfriend, he’d spent evenings and weekends working on the most recent addition to the Proteus family instead. After months of testing, Noctural had become the forerunner as this year’s drug of choice. A sleep aid with no side effects—no aftertaste, drowsiness, dependency, or reduced effectiveness over time. In phase-three trials, participants responded favorably, and shareholders even more so.
“Glad you’re here. We have a problem.” This was Jon’s greeting from behind his new-age desk—a desk so oversized it fell beyond intimidating into the absurd, and then back again to intimidating once Jon stood up and started barking. He wasn’t one for ergonomics or modest surroundings. The only things seemingly out of place were the three sheep sculptures standing in the corner.
Jon effortlessly dwarfed everyone; even Cooper was forced to look up at him, literally. Jon was overpowering and impressive rather than attractive or good-looking. People of either sex seemed to give way to his proportion, accepting the total package rather than carefully inspecting his individual features. Most people would describe him as handsome, yet piecemeal he was average, with deep-set dark eyes, thin lips, and a receding hairline. Jon was vain when it came to his hair. No matter how many times Carlos tried to blend out his grey, Jon would have none of it. The result was a LEGO effect. Jon’s hair looked as if you could pop it off his scalp and change it up with a new color, if only you could reach his head.
Jon liked everything to happen exactly to plan—his plan, which meant grand, larger than life. Anything deemed impossible Jon made his mission to bring to fruition. If you needed a mountain moved yesterday, he was your man. No one could parallel his connections, track record, or funding. He had kept Proteus in first place for the past eight years, and in doing so, had made himself a fortune.
Now in front of him stood his rising star, the lead on his most promising trials, the real game changers. The kid was a cocky asshole with as much arrogance as brains. Jon had seen it all and was actually amazed by the kaleidoscope of individuals the field attracted. At the end of the day though, it was binary—all that mattered were the results. The packaging was just that, a simple amusement, especially in this case. Yes, that was it, he decided, he found Cooper amusing.
Cooper misread the hint of a smile that played on Jon’s lips as sarcasm and was relieved despite the concerning opener.
“A problem? Whose ass needs saving? Bertram? Radcliff ?”
“Yours!” Jon fired back.
Any trace of humor escaped his face and demeanor. Despite his appreciation of Cooper’s intelligence, there were times when Jon wished he was one of the nerdy types he could depend on to be intimidated—one of the skittish introverts who would say something stupid and leave at the first chance. How was he going to get across to this kid that his arrogance would be the only thing holding him back? Cooper’s misplaced confidence wasn’t just a character flaw, it was an attitude that would eventually seep into his work. Perhaps it already had.
“You remember meeting Malcolm Schwartz at the centennial benefit last year?”
“Yeah, old guy, works over at Genetech.”
“That ‘old guy’ is the head of genetic research. He’s likely the smartest individual on the planet and laughs at us over here every day making our ‘candy.’ He has my utmost respect and trust, which is why, last week when he mentioned the chronic insomnia he suffers from, I offered him your ‘wonder drug.’ After he had the ingredients dissected and deemed safe for human consumption, he joined our trial.”
“And the problem?”
“The problem is that it didn’t work.”
“That’s impossible. It works. One hundred percent, it works.”
“Oh, of course, my mistake. You’re right. There must be something wrong with Malcolm. It couldn’t be your test drug, still in trial.”
“That’s right, it’s him. Not the drug.”
A look of pain contorted Jon’s face. The “simple amusement” had just crossed over to “insolent little shit.”
“Just let me test him.”
“I called you up here to get that drug back in the lab, not to test Malcolm. In retrospect, I should have called in Bertram or Radcliff to save your ass.”
“Give me his number. There is nothing wrong with that drug.”
Jon laughed. “You know, if it was anyone other than Malcolm, I would never do this. He is going to eat you up. . . .”