John Rothke was examining the small package and the envelope that had just come by special messenger. The six inch square parcel was remarkable for its decorative spattering of evenly spaced black polka dots on two sides and top. Even with only one eye and from a distance, John was sure they were holes rather than dots and he knew what that meant. Bugs. Well, actually, beetles. The room was a study in contrasts?an Eames chair, a Perfect Posture office chair, an antique Cuban mahogany table that served as a desk. Some classic Breuer chairs?the original pattern not the Italian copies-- and a gorgeous burgundy overstuffed sofa. A bird of paradise plant in an enormous pot by a window was sporting 6 of those hard to believe flowers. An orchid of a hard to describe color that kept demanding visual attention was at one corner of the desk. Also a large computer monitor and keyboard, a small crystal vase sprouting three large Mont Blanc writing instruments?ball point, pencil and fountain pen. There was a Modigliani nude on the wall opposite the desk and at least at first glance it looked like an original. On another wall antique prints of beetles.
John was also a study in contrasts. His pants and shoes looked like Orvis, outdoorsy, casual, expensive, but readymade. He wore a blue dress shirt with a very delicate cloth- possibly Brooks Brothers or even more expensive- with French cuffs and antique gold cuff links. He wore no tie, but had a heavy gold chain around his neck. He was not young and not old, medium build, medium weight, medium complexion, but extremely white beard. He wore a black patch over his right eye, held in place by a thin black ribbon that crossed his forehead at a rakish angle and disappeared into his hair which was neither black nor white. His one good eye was green blue, but in spite of its doubled responsibilities and muted color, the gaze was penetrating, sharp, anyone in its way felt spotlighted, observed, taken in at the surface and below.
John turned to the envelope first. Inside was a typed letter and a small rectangular slip of blue paper; most prominent on it, his name, the words ?certified check?, and very bold numerals- 50,000 with a $ sign in front. The letterhead indicated the Midwest Grain Company, Chicago, Illinois. He read it.
Dear Dr. Rothke,
We are sending you this letter and our check for $50,000 in hopes that you will begin at once to work on a project that is of the highest priority for us. We know that you are one of the world?s two or three experts on the raunch beetle, and the only one who works on practical problems involving these pests. We have a practical problem.
As you of course know, these beetles have been a problem for rice farmers and rice dealers in the Far East for generations. They have never been known to attack wheat. Yet they have been found in 4 of our Midwestern Silos and they have obviously been eating wheat there. We have 821 Silos all in the Midwest and they contain in this season about $35,000,000 worth of wheat. The first beetles were discovered in our silos about two weeks ago. Yesterday we discovered them in two more silos, each fairly close to the ones already infested and in two different directions from the infested silos. We are getting desperate.
We are sending you this check to pay for your work on our problem. If you solve it in a week, there will be another $50,000. But you can keep the first check whether you get the answer or not, timely or not. We believe you are the only one who can solve this problem.
To confirm that you have accepted this commission, please call us at the number at the top of the page. Ask for me and you?ll be put right through. Under this agreement if you discover a solution, it will belong to us, to be shared or sold, as we see fit.
Randolph Garnett, CEO
John reread the letter and spent a few minutes with his eye fixed intently at the two small brown beetles in the tiny cage. He reached for the phone, dialed and asked to be connected with Mr. Garnett, admitting that he, the caller, was Dr. John Rothke. A short wait. ?Yes Mr. Garnett, this is John Rothke. Thank you for your kind words and your generous estimate of my talents. I am sorry to say that I can?t accept the job. I am working on an urgent project already and, I cannot start another job until I am finished. By then, it will probably be too late to help save your wheat.? A pause. ?No, More money won?t help. I told you I am engaged.? A Pause. ?I really don?t know how long it will take me to complete this other project. It may be in a day or two, or it may take a week or more. I am sorry. You might try Dr. Bill Withers at MIT. His field of interest is much wider than mine?he knows quite a bit about all the varieties of beetles. He may not know quite as much about the raunch as I do, but he knows enough so that he could be of help. He isn?t usually very interested in practical problems, but I know he has twin daughters who are applying to college this year.? A Pause. "Yes, I will call you to let you know when I have finished the other project and if you are still in need of my services, I will be happy to try to solve your problem. This really is a puzzling development and I?d definitely be interested in taking it on. I don?t think you should wait, however, since time matters so much. You can call anytime to arrange to pick up the beetles and the check? A Pause. ?No, I won?t even look at them? A Pause. "Okay, If you don?t hear from me by Wednesday, Ill expect you to call me to arrange for someone to come for them.? A pause. He hung up.
John placed the letter and the check under the onyx turtle that he used for a paper weight and picked up the tiny cage. He carried it with him as he left the office, walked down the hall and entered a room that was surprisingly large and unexpectedly technical. There were still aspects of beauty and comfort, but the aesthetics mostly grew out of function, utility, efficiency, and purpose.
Two walls were formed of bookshelves, and another with larger shelves provided housing for specimen trays, chemical equipment, and small electronic devices. There were also several lab tables with beakers and flasks and also larger equipment?microscopes, spectrometers, centrifuges. And much larger floor-standing equipment, one of them an electron microscope with only one eyepiece. Other professional or industrial looking imaging devices with screens and printers, and LED monitors.
There were also many small wire cages?made apparently of the same kind of wire mesh screening as the one John had just carried into the lab. Although the cages already in the room were of various sizes, none was as small as the one that had been delivered to him that morning. They were filled with the same little brown blobs. Some moving, some still. Some alone and some in pairs and some in much larger groups.
The project he had undertaken for the Far East Rice Corporation beckoned. But John didn?t go directly to the slides that were waiting in front of his electron microscope. Instead he set the small wire cage down in the middle of his central work table and observed the activity of the two small beetles. They moved around the space that would have been claustrophobically small for many creatures, but was of ample size for these tiny beasts to explore, to exercise in, perhaps search for food in.
He sat for perhaps five minutes, just looking at the insects, and their movement in their small habitat. His head moved from side to side more than a normal person?s would have?one of the ways he compensated for only having one eye.
John then entered the part of the world he loved best. In the world of knowledge about Raunch beetles, John was king. His expertise and skill set him apart and above others. John knew the geological age when raunch beetles first appeared on earth. He knew better than anyone the evidence of their evolutionary biology and their varietal diversity in various habitats on earth. He knew the chemical makeup of their shells. He knew how fast they fly and how far. He knew the structures that allowed them to move their feet and wings and the electro-chemical processes that activate those structures. He knew about their natural enemies and the cycles of the waxing and waning of their populations?worldwide and in various specific village rice paddies in Malaysia.
John knew what these insects liked to eat and what they could survive on if they couldn?t get what they liked. He knew the chemistry of their digestive systems and what their excreta looked like and was likely to contain in health and sickness. He knew under what conditions they might mate and the range of differences they might accept and still copulate. He could not predict which particular two raunch beetles might couple and procreate together. He did know when and where they have been a problem for human kind and what has worked and not worked to counter them.
With the same intensity that had led him to learn so much he turned to the problem at hand. A new variety or strain of the beetle had appeared in India which had proven to be immune to the usual pesticides and organic defenses that farmers and growers and purchasers of the rice had been using successfully (some of it developed by John) for years. As he set to work, he wondered whether a mutation was involved in this new resistance to pesticides and whether it might be another mutation on an even larger scale that had led to Raunches that would eat wheat instead of rice.
John moved to the electron microscope and soon he was feeding a slide into it, the silence of the room broken by the purring of the servo activated motor that brought the specimen into place within the precise and elegant instrument. John moved around to the viewing side of the machine and paused for perhaps 30 seconds with his forehead near the ocular piece, but he didn?t? really seem to be looking at the electronic matrix that would have reflected the enormous peering magnification that the microscope afforded. Perhaps that was because the printout would present the same information in other, perhaps more useful forms. Also because his attention was pulled toward the tiny cage he had received earlier. He
pressed a button and the machine began humming in another key, and the sound of the paper coming out of the built in laser printer was also clearly audible, even though very quiet.
This process repeated with dozens more slides. His own rhythm well practiced, graceful like a dance, reflected intense enjoyment of the machine. John owned it, he understood how it worked, it produced information at his command, and it enabled him to solve problems. The relationship gave him power.
No one but an expert would have any idea that the printouts were showing the molecules and atoms of what a particular raunch beetle from a field in India had eaten on a Friday, before noon local time, two weeks ago. And how the digestive system of this particular beetle might differ from that of other Raunch beetles?somehow making it immune to the ingestible pesticides that were so effective on other members of its tribe.
Hours later John was still hard at work-- consulting books, articles, a collection of past slides and their printouts. Time disappeared, no place outside of this one room. Meaning in the movements and processes and the matching of what came in by sight and sound to patterns in his own brain?networks of his body?s chemistry, physics, anatomy, biology, DNA.
The only deviation of John?s attention from the data and its analysis for the problem at hand was an occasional glance at the small wire cage from The Midwestern Grain Company. These Raunches were less active now, each one in a different corner of the little cage, clinging to the teeny wires that comprised it. Now and then the wings of one or both of them would flutter.
Almost twenty four hours after he had entered his lab, a night come and gone, full morning sunlight bathed the large potted pony tail palm that stood by the large window in the lab. John?s movement came to a halt and his face relaxed also. It appeared that his work was done, and there was enough satisfaction reflected in his visage to suggest he had solved the problem.
His hand reached for the phone, then paused, and then retreated as his eyes were drawn once more to those two wheat-eating Raunches. His face became tenser, somewhat puzzled, increasingly concentrated as if he were now engaged with another puzzle. He sat without movement for several minutes, thoughts travelling over some invisible territory, fully engaged in his own internal world.
After several minutes his face relaxed again, his body could be seen to be ready for movement even before the immobility itself was broken. Again, his hand reached for the phone, no pause, this time he pushed the buttons.
?Hello. This is Rothke. I believe I?ve found the solution. I know. You?re worried about the phones being tapped." A Pause. ?You can come over here as soon as you like and I?ll tell you what I?ve discovered." A Pause. "I?ll expect you in half hour, then.?
John took a quick shower and changed his clothes. He was putting on a red tie beautifully patterned with mandalas when the door bell rang. He went down the hall, looked through the spy hole and then slid off the chain and unbolted the door. A small dark man, dressed in an Armani silk suit entered.
?We were surprised you called so soon. We thought it would take longer.?
?I did stay up all night, and it helped that I knew the most likely place to look for change and what kind of change it was likely to be. Someone wrote a paper 7 years ago on a mutation in another variety of Raunch that allowed it to resist propalothiazine. I figured this might involve a similar metabolic variation.?
?I won?t bore you with the details, but your beetles don?t qualify as a new variety-- just a new strain. They have mutated somehow so that they are producing a new enzyme that allows them to break down the thioalyzine that kills most of the known varieties up till now. I think that if you add diaxoptiliaton at ten parts per million it will bind with the new enzyme and the thioalyzine will again be effective.
"Are you sure this is going to work?"
?As soon as you leave, I am going to mix up a batch of the solution and treat the beetles which you brought that are still alive. As soon as I can confirm that they have died, I?ll call you. But I think you should begin production of the new mixture right away, so that you can begin applying as soon as I have confirmation."
"Suppose it doesn?t work?"
"If it doesn?t work we?d need another solution. I have a couple of other possibilities in mind, but they are more complicated, would take longer to prepare, cost more, have more risk. I trust my findings. This is going to work."
As he was talking, John put his right forefinger to his lips and quietly approached Armani Silk. He offered Silk Suit a sheet of paper with a few sentences and what looked like a chemical equation hand printed on it.
Silk Suit looked startled at the gesture, quickly read the note, read it again and looked askance at John, who clearly nodded his head with an assuring "Yes" and immediately said, "I?ll call you as soon as I?ve got dead beetles."
Silk Suit nodded skeptically, but didn?t waste any more time. He had been told that Dr. Rothke was almost always right. He might as well not hedge his bets now. If this was the right answer, having it so quickly and using it as soon as they could, would save a lot of rice and a lot of money.
Later that day, when all six beetles he had treated with the new formula were lying lifeless, upside down at the bottom of their cages, and all six beetles treated with the thioalyzine alone were alive, John called Far East Rice. The conversation was brief, the chief point being that the beetles treated with the new formula were dead and that the company should continue production of new pesticide formula and start using it as soon as possible.
John?s face was a mixture of pleased and sad?hard to describe, but just what he felt. He had been right, he had solved the problem. He hated to kill the beetles. He would save some rice, more people could eat, some people would make more money and John would be quite a bit richer. His agreement with Indian Rice had been that they would pay him $25,000 to work on the project, no matter what the outcome. If he succeeded there would be a bonus?how much dependent on how quickly the solution was found. As it was they would pay him another $100,000. But this wasn?t the big payoff that was coming.
According to the agreement that he and Indian Rice had signed, if a new product was developed as part of the solution to the problem of how to get rid of the new strain of beetles, Indian Rice would manufacture it, sell it to anyone else who needed it and John would get 20% of the gross of all sales, unless he brought in the buyer himself. Then his share would be 50% of whatever price his buyer had agreed to. There was the likelihood that many dealers might want to start using the new solution, even if the mutated Raunches didn?t show up everywhere, just to be safe.
John also was almost certain that he knew another perspective client who would pay a great deal for the new insecticide. Not the formula that he had verbally given to Silk Suit. Instead, the one that he had written on the piece of paper he had handed to him.
Soon John left the house, walked to his bank, and deposited the check he had received in the mail from Midwest Grain. When he got home he redialed the number from the letterhead. He again asked to speak with Mr. Garnett.
"Mr. Garnett, I have finished with my other project." A Pause. "Yes, it went well. I found the solution. Are you still interested in having me work on your project? Or is it too late?" A Pause. "I see. You found someone in Russia who was able to begin work on the problem. They are very hopeful of a solution. That?s wonderful. I am glad you were able to find what you needed." A Pause. "Yes, you can send someone for the beetles today. Anytime between 2 and 4 will be fine." A Pause. "Oh yes, the check. I deposited it this morning."
A Pause. "I am considering it as a down payment for the service you will be needing from me." A Pause. "I am assuming that that the problem you told me about was not your real problem. I?m thinking that Raunch beetles still don't eat wheat. I'm also assuming that the Raunch beetles in your rice silos in the Far East are no longer being controlled by the pesticides you have been using. I am thinking that you will need a new effective pesticide, quite urgently to protect the several million dollars worth of rice in those silos. I can get you all of the effective pesticide you need, within a day or two. The price will be $1,000,000." A Pause. "Ah, you don?t know what I am talking about." A Pause. "Before you make a hasty decision, I should tell you that I broke my promise to you. I did look at your beetles, although I didn?t touch them. Something about the way they were moving didn?t look right to me. They?re bugs. But they didn?t transmit the formula want. Don?t use it unless you want to destroy all of your rice."
John hung up the phone with a smile on his face. His share of the million dollars would bring him enough to buy that sailboat he had been wanting. If Garnett hadn't tried to cheat him, Midwest Grain could have bought the new pesticide formula for $50,000 from Indian Rice. John would never agree to a contract that gave a needed product to only one company." Experts want everyone to know how good they are.