Excerpt from Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Three Weeks in December

By Audrey Schulman

Three Weeks in December
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  • Paperback: Jan 2012,
    353 pages.

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"Why, they're Arabs," said the purser surprised. "They'll be fine, sir. Like camels, they are. Be able to deal without water much longer than you or I could."

Pausing, the purser leaned forward to add confidentially, "You know, those people still buy and sell slaves in this day and age. That boat could be heading into port to pick up part of a caravan and auction them off in Persia." He shook his head. "Inhuman what they do."

Jeremy threw one last look astern at the dhow getting smaller in the distance, bouncing in the steamer's wake. Three of the men had struggled up into a sitting position, turned to watch the boat steam away. The distance made it impossible to see their expressions.

BANGOR, MAINE
DECEMBER 7, 2000

TWO

The moment the two of them stepped into her office, she didn't like their smell. The younger one reeked of cigarette smoke, as well as an over-reliance on hair gel. He said his name was Stevens, head of R&D, and he didn't wait to find out if she would hold out her hand for a handshake, but instead he picked her hand up from her side in order to shake it. Eye contact was something he could manage all day.

The older one was called Roswell. Wafting along with him came the essential oils of lavender and lemongrass - aromatherapy = unexpected from the CEO of a pharmaceutical. Since Stevens was still busily pumping her hand up and down, he just nodded to her.

Max stepped back as soon as she could. Took away her hand, rubbed it on her hip. "Yes?" she asked, sitting down behind the safety of her desk.

"As we said over the phone, we have a job proposal we think you might be interested in." Stevens's voice was rich and emotive, the kind a morning-talk-show host might have. She cocked her head, listening, but kept her eyes directed down toward her papers. She could listen better without the distraction of faces, especially those of strangers.

She strongly doubted this job proposal would be realistic. Just three years ago, Genzyme had four separate expeditions out in the field; Sanofi had two. Now there was nothing. Still she had to listen. Her postdoc ended in a month. The only offers she'd gotten had come from the fragrance industry.

These men, however, seemed serious. From the edge of her eyes she could see them lean toward her in their chairs: big men, ruddy skin, the sheen of expensive clothing, their hands clasped in front of them in a position reminiscent of prayer. On the phone, making the appointment, Stevens had said they were flying in from Denver just to talk to her.

This pause was too long. It must be her turn to talk. She still sometimes had difficulty with the rhythm of conversation, understanding what was required.

"Yes," she said, "Go ahead."

Stevens ran his hand over his tie, smoothing it down. Maybe he'd thought she was about to refuse even to hear the proposal. The combination of her height and averted gaze could make her seem haughty. He skipped over the pleasantries.

"Three weeks ago a rather battered envelope arrived in the mail, addressed to a chemist in our labs. Inside was a vine. Not much of a sample, three, maybe four ounces. Badly preserved and wilted. Still the chemist gave it to her lab tech to run a crude extract." He angled his head a bit, trying to get his face closer to the path of her vision, preferring to look into a person's eyes. She was surprised he didn't work in sales.

Roswell's voice was flatter, more factual. He was the CEO, didn't have to charm anyone. He cut to the point. "The extract contained five times the beta-blockers of anything known to science." At this, her eyes jumped, involuntary. The two of them. Heavy faces, manicured hair. Human eyes. Like touching an electric fence. The glittering shock.

She turned away, to the window, to the oak outside. On the wall behind her, the clock whined and thunked.

Excerpted from Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman. Copyright © 2012 by Audrey Schulman. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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