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Authors: Rick Acker

Blood Brothers

BOOK: Blood Brothers
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A
LSO BY
R
ICK
A
CKER

When the Devil Whistles

Dead Man’s Rule

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016, by Rick Acker

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Waterfall Press, Grand Haven, MI

www.brilliancepublishing.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Waterfall Press are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503934825

ISBN-10: 1503934829

Cover design by Cyanotype Book Architects

For my brother, Richard Acker, who didn’t live to read the ending of this book. He succumbed to colon cancer on the morning of his thirty-eighth birthday, May 20, 2007. In his “Final Jottings,” written a week before he died, he said, “Do not fail to seize the love of God, which is available to you in the all-embracing sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

Brother shall be brother’s bane,

Cousins break kinship’s bond.

Hard is the Earth; Whoredom reigns.

An Ax-Age, a Sword-Age

The shield cut through

A Wind-Age, a Wolf-Age

Until the world ruins.

No man to another mercy shall show.

—The Elder Edda, “The Song of the Sybil”

C
HAPTER
O
NE

A G
IFT
F
ROM THE
P
AST

A chill April rain fell outside Chicago’s Field Museum, drenching the wide black umbrellas that protected the designer gowns, suits, and hairstyles of the arriving guests. They came in couples or small groups, checked their coats and umbrellas, and found their way to the reception in the Founders’ Room, a venerable chamber with the feel of old money. The room’s reception area held a collection of fine artifacts never seen by the general public. A massive, ornately carved fireplace greeted visitors with a roaring blaze. Two large crystal chandeliers cast a soft light from the high ceiling onto the guests mingling below.

The room was full, but not too full—the mark of a well-planned event. White-coated servers maneuvered deftly among the clusters of chatting guests, offering appetizers or glasses of champagne. The selection of baked appetizers reflected a bias for salmon—perhaps because the hostess had been craving it when she’d planned the menu. Fortunately, most of the guests seemed to like salmon.

Ben Corbin, who did not like salmon, stood by a table of cheese-based hors d’oeuvres and watched his wife work the crowd. Two hours ago, Noelle had been a no-nonsense accountant, but now she had fully morphed into the role of society hostess: bright smile, well-coiffed brown hair, unostentatious (but not inexpensive) diamond jewelry, and an elegant blue sheath dress that complemented her athletic figure and matched her brilliant sapphire eyes. Her dress had been let out a little in the middle to make room for her expanding belly; she was four months pregnant with their first child and just starting to show.

Shortly after Ben and Noelle had told his mother the happy news, she’d commented to Ben that pregnant women “glow.” Ben had privately questioned whether
glow
was an appropriate synonym for “exhausted, moody, and nauseated,” but now he saw what his mother had meant. Noelle glowed tonight. She radiated happy expectancy and never tired of answering the same questions about how far along she was, how she was feeling, whether they had settled on names yet, and so on.

Ben put down his plate and sauntered over to intercept his wife as she walked from one group of guests to another. “Having fun?” he asked as he fell in stride beside her.

“Yeah,” she said distractedly as she quickly scanned the crowd for new arrivals she hadn’t greeted yet. There were at least two dozen, and more on the way.

Ben followed her gaze. “Too much fun?”

“Yeah. I’ve got to say hi to Senator Fintzen and Justice Gaido. Could you go talk to those people over there?” She nodded in the direction of a group just leaving the name-tag table. “That’s Gunnar Bjornsen and his family.”

“No problem.”

Ben walked over to a group composed of two young men in their twenties, an attractive woman of about fifty, and an imposing sixtyish patriarch. The younger men were both blond and handsome; otherwise, they looked nothing alike. The older of the two had slightly unkempt long hair, earrings in both ears, a paunch, and a Bohemian air. His younger companion had short-cropped hair; a lean, muscular build; and a well-tailored Brooks Brothers suit.
He looks like he just stepped out of a Young Republicans leadership meeting,
thought Ben.

Both men were over six feet tall, but they were dwarfed by the man whom Ben guessed to be Gunnar; he stood at least six foot four and still had the arms of a weightlifter, despite his age.

The two young men talked to the woman, an elegant, aristocratic-looking lady whom Ben assumed was their mother. The older man loomed over the little group, saying nothing, but scanning the crowd with intense pale-gray eyes. His craggy face wore an undisguised look of displeasure, though it wasn’t clear what had upset him.

“Hello,” Ben said as he walked up, smiling. “My name is Ben Corbin. Thank you for coming to the reception tonight.” He glanced at their name tags. “Are you related to the Bjornsens of Bjornsen Pharmaceuticals?”

The storm clouds on the older man’s face darkened further. “I
am
the Bjornsen of Bjornsen Pharmaceuticals.” His basso-profundo voice had a Scandinavian accent.

Oops.
Ben’s smile didn’t waver. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he replied, extending his hand. “Thank you for your company’s generosity in making this exhibition possible. I know the museum is very excited to be able to display artifacts from a royal Viking burial. I’m personally looking forward to spending an afternoon or two in the exhibition hall.”

“So am I,” said the big man as he shook Ben’s hand with a firm grip. “Gunnar Bjornsen. This is my wife, Anne, and our sons, Markus and Tom.” The sweep of his hand identified the Bohemian as Markus and the Republican as Tom. “My brother Karl runs Bjornsen Pharmaceuticals now,” he continued with a trace of bitterness in his voice, “so I never saw the final selection of pieces for this exhibition.”

“Oh.” Momentarily at a loss for words, Ben wished he had paid more attention when Noelle had briefed him on the guest list last week. “I . . . well, I hope you like the choices he made. I’ve seen pictures of some of the items, and they look terrific.”

Anne Bjornsen took pity on him and changed the subject. “Are you the same Ben Corbin who won that lawsuit against the terrorists?”

Five months ago, Ben had discovered that a routine breach-of-contract lawsuit was actually a battle over possession of a deadly biological weapon. “That’s me. I had a lot of help, though—and I had no idea I was up against terrorists when I took the case.”

“I read about that in the papers,” commented Gunnar. “Very impressive. But I assume litigating against terrorists isn’t a standard part of your practice—or is it?”

“If I did that full time, I would have a very short career. No, that’s the first—and hopefully the last—time I’ve taken on a case like that. My real specialty is business disputes: breach-of-contract cases, shareholder fights, things like that.”

Gunnar looked at him with interest. “Is that so? I’d like to—” he began, but Noelle’s voice over the speaker system cut him off.

“Thank you all for coming. As you know, we’re here tonight to celebrate the tremendous generosity of Bjornsen Pharmaceuticals. They have made it possible for the Field Museum to be the first American museum to display artifacts from the Oseberg excavations and the Trondheim Riksmuseum. Let’s welcome Karl Bjornsen, president of Bjornsen Pharmaceuticals, to the Field Museum.”

“Please excuse me,” said Gunnar. He turned abruptly on his heel and headed for the door. The other attendees applauded as a large man approached the front of the room, where Noelle and half a dozen museum worthies awaited him. He appeared to be a bit shorter than Gunnar but burlier, and he had the same fading blond hair and fierce gray eyes. He walked with the confident, shoulder-swinging stride of a man used to people making way for him.

While all eyes were on Karl Bjornsen, Ben also took the opportunity to slip out of the room. He had never been a great fan of the windy speechmaking that went on at receptions and awards dinners. Worse, when executives from corporate donors spoke, they often seemed to feel that they had been invited to do infomercials for their companies. Now that Noelle had sat down in one of the chairs on the dais, Ben figured he could quietly escape. He made for the entrance to the exhibit hall, which was framed by wooden pillars and a lintel carved with entwined geometric patterns, mimicking the entrance to a Viking hall.

Back at the reception, Karl Bjornsen walked up to the podium and looked out over the crowd. He recognized a dozen CEOs and other senior executives, several reporters, and the head of a large mutual fund. There were lots of decision-makers here tonight. Good.

“Thank you, Noelle,” he began, with a smile and a nod in her direction. “And thank you, Field Museum. Without the partnership of this great institution and the hard work of its staff, this exhibition would not have been possible.”

Polite applause.

“I am very lucky to be part of this great effort to bring treasures of ancient Norway to this new land. When I was a child growing up in Oslo, I remember going to the museums with my parents to see beautiful artifacts that had lain buried and forgotten for a thousand years. It thrilled me. And it thrills me even more, now, to share the glories of my ancestors with the people of this great city where I have made my home and built my company.

“But I would like to take a few minutes to tell you about a Norse treasure that is not locked in museum cases—a treasure that we can hold in our hands and that can change each of our lives.

“Last year, a hiker in one of Norway’s national parks got lost in the mountains. He wandered for days, growing hungrier and weaker. He would have died of starvation and exposure if he had not saved himself . . . by starting an avalanche.”

A few chuckles rumbled through the crowd.

“How does an avalanche feed a hungry man? The rock and ice that thundered away down the mountainside that day uncovered a cave that had not seen the light of the sun for a millennium or more. And in that cave were some leaves and seeds from an extinct tree.

“The hiker took those leaves and seeds and ate some—but fortunately not all of them. After he ate, he had a new will to live, more energy—and he was suddenly able to think of a way to escape from his predicament. He managed to rip open one of his hiking boots and pull out the steel shank. He found a sufficiently hard stone and struck sparks off it into a pile of dry grass and pine needles. Once he had a fire going, he made himself a torch and limped along the timberline starting fires at regular intervals, which he knew would get the attention of the park rangers pretty quickly. They did, and he was rescued.”

Karl paused for a moment to let his audience appreciate the story. “Quite a tale, isn’t it? But why didn’t the hiker think of that sooner? And where did a man on the brink of death get the strength to tear apart a hiking boot?

“The hiker was unable to guide the rangers back to the cave he’d found, so, unfortunately, whatever secrets it still holds have been lost again. But he did have some of the leaves and seeds in his pockets. Norwegian scientists began studying them, and what they found was truly amazing: the leaves, and particularly the seeds, contained complex compounds that acted together to make it possible for neural impulses to move through chains of nerve cells more efficiently and at greater speed. Theoretically, that means that these chemicals should make the subject’s brain operate faster and his reflexes quicker.

“Theoretically, that’s how it should work, but what does it
really
do? We knew the hiker’s story, of course, but that was only one individual and was hardly a controlled experiment. I wanted to find out more, so my company licensed the rights to perform experiments on extracts from these plants and make products from them. Let me show you what we found.”

The lights dimmed and a motor whirred as a screen descended from the ceiling. The crowd watched in complete silence.

Karl picked up a remote control from the podium and clicked. The screen came to life, showing two lab rats negotiating identical mazes. A digital display at the top of each maze tracked the rats’ performance.

“The rat on the right has been fed an extract from the seeds,” Karl said. “The rat on the left has not.”

As the video proceeded, the rat on the right finished well ahead of the other rat.

“On average, rats with the extract finished mazes twenty percent faster than those without it.

“But those are rats. What about something closer to a human being?” He pressed another button on the remote. The scene on the screen shifted to show two rhesus monkeys struggling to open clear containers with complicated lids that looked like blacksmith’s puzzles. Inside each container was an apple slice. Again, a digital monitor timed each animal. “The results were even more impressive than with the rats. The monkeys who took the extract completed the same intelligence-testing puzzles in roughly thirty percent less time, and they were able to do more-difficult puzzles than the control-group monkeys. In fact, they did puzzles more difficult than rhesus monkeys had previously been known to solve.

“And there may be another benefit to this extract.” He clicked the remote again and a picture of a monkey cage appeared on the screen. The cage was empty and two of the bars had been noticeably bent. “This is a picture we took last week. We left the bowl of apples too close to the monkeys one night.”

A laugh ran through the crowd.

“But, as often happens in science, our mistake led to a fascinating discovery: Those cages are actually designed to hold larger and stronger monkeys than the ones we were using. There’s no way that our monkeys should have been able to bend those bars—but they did! There was nothing wrong with the metal; we tested that. So the only possibility left was that these rhesus monkeys did something that rhesus monkeys can’t do.

“We’re doing additional studies right now, but our best guess is that the extract increases muscle strength by increasing the speed and strength of the electrical impulses transmitted by the nerves to the muscle cells. That’s only a guess, but it happens to fit the facts as we know them today.”

BOOK: Blood Brothers
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