“No. The company is not shutting down.” Marcus nearly choked on the thought. He quickly sealed his plastic container closing up the last bite of sausage and cabbage. Cabbage and sausage. The same thing every day. His life was a rut, one carved by other people. But today, he might have found a way out of the suffocating groove. “Why do you two always jump to the worst-case scenario?”
Across the wobbly cafeteria table, Quentin shrugged. “Because it’s usually true. And it’s always better to be prepared than to be caught unaware. That’s how you get killed.”
Marcus grunted. Some chose their ruts; others had them forced on them. Would the ex-marine resent his path when he was middle-aged the way Marcus did? “Maybe in the military. Civilian life rarely happens that way.”
On his left, Iona nodded.
Not that life didn’t have its own trials and tribulations. Marcus wanted to live Iona’s life. Free. Traveling where the wind blew. No ties to hold him down. And, now, maybe he could. Reaching into his cooler, he fished out an apple and a knife. He leaned forward and cut up the fruit. “In this case, LifeZone is giving us business.”
“Who are they?” Mae, the fresh-faced college graduate, had joined the team the day after she had received her microbiology degree. She leaned forward. Her hands rested softly on the Styrofoam container holding the crusts of her half sandwich and smears of potato salad.
Marcus stopped slicing the apple. “The woman is Kim Garcia. The guy’s name is Brian Tupper. They manage LifeZone’s small start-up facility back east.”
Iona arched a brown eyebrow. Expressions flit across her face—interest, confusion, and surprise— masks she tried on until she settled on pensive. Lips pursed and brow furrowed.
What must her life have been like before she landed in Phoenix? Marcus drew air into his tight lungs. She started the day he’d returned from his father’s funeral, appearing like an exotic bird trying to hide among pigeons. He stared at the two soda cans by her lunch box. One can was normal on a Monday. The second… that second one meant she planned to stick around, just a little longer.
He still had time to learn from her, borrow off her courage, and take his journey to anywhere but here.
“Back east?” Quentin chewed on a brownie, and his eyes narrowed. “A lot of alphabet soup government agencies are back east. All that’s missing from their black ops uniforms are the mirrored sunglasses.”
Marcus wrenched his attention from things he’d never said to Iona, may never say, if he didn’t find his backbone. He was a vertebrate. He should have one of those. He tucked a slice of apple into his mouth and chewed. Notes of tartness punctuated the sweet juice rolling over his tongue. He liked his young coworkers, but sometimes he wasn’t sure how they’d made it out of bed.
The ex-marine was too busy in conspiracy-land, and the young woman was all too happy to join his clown-filled circus.
Iona packed her bag of carrots back in her lunch sack. “It’s not unusual for people to dress alike, especially in business and power situations. It’s called mirror imaging. Or as most folks call it, fake it until you make it.”
Quentin tsked in dismissal and threw his brownie wrapper on top of his lunch remains. Closing his styrofoam burrito container, he set his hands over the top. “The government always has a pat excuse for suspicious behavior. The simpler it is, the more you know something is going on.”
Mae bit her lip but nodded.
Iona shrugged one shoulder. “Well, then, I guess you two are part of the same conspiracy.”
Quentin opened his mouth to argue, then he caught it. Both he and Mae leaned forward, hunched over their dirty lunch containers, right hand over left protecting nothing of importance.
“It’s human nature to mirror your tribe.” Iona leaned forward, propped her chin in her hands. “We are a tribe. They’re outsiders coming onto our territory, and worse, they are here to ask a favor. Their shoulders are square. They take up as little space as possible by keeping their hand gestures close. Their uniform is their armor. If they meant battle, they would be wearing sunglasses, hiding their vulnerability and distancing themselves from their actions.”
Had Iona always been so insightful, or was it a result of her living in so many different cultures? Marcus’s Ph.D. seemed a poor education compared to her life experience.
Quentin leaned back and drummed his fingers on the wobbly table. His lips moved, no doubt as his brain processed the information.
“Okay, yeah. I can see that.” Mae picked at the edges of her container. “But how do you know who they are? Are they famous or something?”
Quentin deliberately pushed his Styrofoam container into the center of the table then folded his arms across his chest. Muscles bulged as too many tried to occupy the same space. “They’re not the Majestic Twelve.”
Marcus refrained from rolling his eyes. If a super-secret agency did exist, how would the former marine know? As for Mae, her idea of famous meant a star on some scripted reality show.
“The company is legit.” Iona set her lunch sack on the floor. “I recognize Kim Garcia’s picture from the research I did when I knew I’d be returning to the States and needed a job. Their company is located in the Research Triangle in North Carolina.”
Marcus nibbled on the core of his apple. Iona had changed since joining them. No longer stuck in observer mode, she now participated in their conversations and challenged the others’ assumptions. Thank God, she was also a voice of reason.
Mae’s eyes rounded. “Is that like the Bermuda triangle?”
Iona smiled but didn’t openly laugh at the girl’s naïveté. “It’s a think tank. Since most small companies can’t afford Research and Development, Kim Garcia’s company takes freeware and shareware, then designs and tests their product ideas on a small scale.”
Marcus appreciated that Iona mentored their younger coworkers without them knowing it. Pride could be a tricky thing. His own was a bit prickly at the moment. Iona knew a lot more than he. And he’d had advanced warning that Kim Garcia and her partner were coming. “If the product is successful, Kim’s company finds a buyer.”
“Great, so our dumb ass employer purchased another new product to bring to market.” Quentin’s fingers dug into his biceps, making them swell like rising dough. “They’ve already launched three product failures this year, and it’s only April. The financial hit has RIFfed the third shift. Guess the Big Whigs figure they have two more to sacrifice.”
“Are you finished?” Marcus pinned Quentin with a stare. One more outburst like that and Marcus wouldn’t be able to share the good news. Already folks were tracking the couple’s progress across the room.
Kim Garcia and Brian Tupper glanced his way as their guide no doubt explained about the mothballed cafeteria.
The vet’s lower jaw jutted out. “Yeah. I’m finished.”
Marcus nodded once. If he acted casually, then hopefully, their little gathering wouldn’t draw the Big Whigs’ attention. He balanced the apple core on his pyramid of trash. “I know the company didn’t purchase any new products from them. In fact, it’s just like Iona said. They’ve here to ask a favor.”
“Doesn’t look like they’re asking too nicely.” Quentin’s attention bounced off Marcus to stick on the two suits.
Marcus didn’t try to pull his focus off the couple. Most of the people in the cafeteria watched the power duo. It would be odd if everyone at their table focused at their meal.
The suited couple dug in their heels at the double doors leading to the food trucks outside. After moments of discussion, their supervisor’s smile fell, and he shook hands with the couple then showed them out the front door.
Marcus’s stomach clenched. He hoped that wasn’t a bad sign. In the ten minutes since he heard the assignment, his imagination had spun a nice future for himself.
“I guess food trucks aren’t their thing.” Mae leaned back in her chair. “They’d don’t know what they’re missing.”
Iona shrugged. “More likely they don’t want to go out in the heat. People from back east aren’t accustomed to triple digit temperatures in April. Even the dry heat must feel like a sauna to them. Much better to move from an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned building than to stand around in the sweltering sun making small talk.”
Quentin snorted. “And it isn’t even hot yet.”
Iona focused her attention on Marcus. “So, what’s the big secret?”
Marcus sat up straighter. “While working with a new batch of probiotics, Tupper noticed a fungus had contaminated the batch.”
Mae blinked and confusion left pink furrows in her pale forehead. “A fungus?”
“Yes. Cohabitation on the Petri dish with the bacteria.” Marcus paused, letting his words sink in, knowing they’d get the repercussions.
“That makes no sense.” Mae wrinkled her nose.
Quentin frowned. “The idiot must be mistaken. Fungi like penicillin gave us the first antibiotics. It should have killed those probiotic bacteria or developed a zone of inhibition in the Petri dish, not cohabited with the gut bugs.”
Marcus grinned. Score one for the education system. “And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Tupper described it as a symbiotic relationship with the fungi boosting the potency of the bacteria.”
“That sounds like the beginning of a zombie movie,” Mae whispered.
Iona snorted then covered her mouth. Color brushed her cheeks as if she were embarrassed. “Excuse me. Guess the soda gave me a hiccough. What does this superbiotic have to do with us?”
Quentin sneered. “Superbiotic. Does it wear a cape and tights?”
Marcus inhaled deeply then released his breath slowly. Sometimes, his coworker’s snark got to him. But not today. Today, an opportunity landed in his lap and showed him a different future. “Tupper isn’t interested in the bacteria. He’s convinced the fungi is the key.”
Mae and Quentin stared blankly back at him. Guess one linking thought per hour had maxed out their brainpower.
Iona rubbed her chin as her eyes unfocused.
Marcus would give anything to know what she was thinking. As for the others, he’d spell it out for them. They needed to be on the same pages. “You two know about organ donations, right?” He waited for them to nod then plowed on. “Well, after a transplant, the lucky recipient must take anti-rejection drugs for life to keep the healthy organ. It’s the same with the probiotics. If you stop taking them, the beneficial effects start to wane, and your body returns to normal.”
Iona snapped her fingers. “They want to use the fungi to restore a person’s natural bioflora and not introduce unfamiliar strains of bacteria.”
Bingo. God, she was smart. Marcus nodded. “Tupper has isolated the fungus, but it won’t grow without a bacterial companion, and they don’t want to taint the strain.”
“So toss some bread at it.” Quentin’s solution was simple but accurate. Fungus did grow on bread.
Except in this case. Marcus’s blood warmed. He hadn’t had this kind of challenge even when he was teaching at the university. His palms itched with the need to get started. “It’s not that easy. Tupper believes the DNA of the fungus has altered enough to make symbiosis a requirement, not an option.”
“So, this Tupper guy wants us to undo the required symbiosis?” Mae shredded the lid of her styrofoam container. “But wouldn’t that undo the Superbiotic?”
Marcus blinked. How had they gotten off-topic? “It would, and that’s why we are to look for a way to get the fungus to grow on a large scale, without the bacteria but still retaining all its properties.”
“We’re not exactly set up to grow fungus.” Quentin gathered Mae’s styrofoam confetti and tucked it into his container before adding her garbage to it. “They spread their spores everywhere. I don’t think anyone wants a side of antibiotic with the Vitamin D the company produces.”
“LifeZone is providing a mobile fungal lab to be set up in the parking lot tomorrow.” Marcus suppressed a shudder. He hated cramped spaces. They were worse in a bunny suit designed to keep everything sterile. “The experts will certify it for use, and we should be good to go by the end of the day.”
“Great. There goes our Christmas bonus.” Quentin slumped in his chair.
Marcus refrained from kicking the kid. Seriously, the woe-is-me routine was growing old. “The company isn’t paying for the mobile lab. Kim Garcia is. She is also footing the bill for the time we spend on the fungus project.”
Iona whistled under her breath. “They really believe in it that much?”
“The numbers back it up.” Not that Marcus was a numbers guy. But he did know how much money was to be made in magic bullets. The fungus could be worth its weight in platinum. “What’s more, Kim Garcia is offering a cash prize to the team that scales up the production, and a long term contract to their company.”
Mae sat up straight in her chair. “How much of a cash prize?”
“A hundred grand.” Marcus observed Iona from the corner of his eye. She was interested.
Quentin’s eyes narrowed. “The upperlings will keep the prize and maybe toss us a hotdog at the holiday party.”
“Nope. It goes to us. The four of us, to split evenly.” Marcus held up four fingers. “Our supervisor gets his own prize and isn’t included in the pot. Kim was very clear about it and the fact that the money would be transferred from her company directly to the winning team’s bank accounts. It’s all spelled out on the nondisclosure agreement waiting for us in the lab.”
“Then the money is as good as ours.” Iona beamed at the group.
Quentin snorted. “Please. They’ve gotta be offering this prize to lots of other groups. We make vitamins, not antibiotics. We don’t stand a chance.”
Iona’s mouth opened and closed before she found the words. “You really don’t know who you’re working with. Marcus has a Ph.D. in mycology, the study of fungi. His dissertation was on some obscure tree mold from the rain forest that he made grow when no one else could.”
Embarrassment held a flame to Marcus’s cheeks. How did she know about that?
Iona cleared her throat and looked away. “I googled everyone after we met.”
Marcus leaned back in his chair. He’d been googled. By Iona, no less. Well, how about that.
Mae tapped the tips of her fingers together in a silent round of applause. “Twenty-five grand would go a long way to paying off my student loans.”
Quentin nodded. “That would be a nice down payment on a motorcycle I want.”
Marcus studied Iona. She hadn’t committed yet. “That could be another a year in Europe for you if you could stay until Christmas.”
Iona shrugged and studied her fingernails. “New year, new location. My sister does want me around for the holidays.”
Marcus would take it. “So, we’re in this to win?”
Rising, Marcus gathered his lunch. Eight months wasn’t a long time, but it was enough time to sell his parents’ house, stockpile his nest egg, and, most importantly, solve this little fungi problem. All while putting money in his account to fund his escape.