November 8th, 1996…
Connor Xavier Wellington’s young life wasn’t supposed to end this way. There was supposed to be a breakthrough—a dramatic last minute cure produced by his father’s three year heroic effort at Rexsen Labs. But David Wellington knew he’d failed. There would be no cure, no last minute miracle, only suffering and guilt.
The decision to move Connor into Saint Michael’s hospice in Irvine was his first admission of failure to his son. David sat anchored next to his wife in the dim glow of the single fluorescent light above the bed. Although they’d been at their eight-year-old son’s bedside every minute for the past week, he could barely recognize him. Pale and melting into the white sheets, Connor’s blue eyes peeked from underneath his eyelids as the morphine drip did its work and masked the pain of the multiple infections and failing organs, courtesy of the genetic imperfection that prevented his stem cells from developing into healthy blood. His thick brown hair was gone and replaced with a Dodger’s bandanna. He hugged his baseball glove while his mother, Linda, stroked the bony outline of his legs. David forced a smile and did his best to hide what they all knew was about to happen. Connor’s eyes lifted for a moment.
“Daddy, are you still working on my medicine?”
The question cut through David’s heart. He glanced at green numbers on the monitor counting down his son’s last heartbeats and reached deep for another smile. He rested his hand on his son’s head.
“Yes, Sport. We are still working on it.”
David looked at Linda and detected no evidence of blame. He’d quit his job at the investment bank in New York, moved the family to Newport Beach and dumped his seven figure bonus into a fledgling biotech firm in the hopes of finding a cure. But the Director of Research had delivered the bad news a week earlier. Without detailed mapping of the human genome it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Despite three years of research, testing and prayer, David could do nothing to stop his young son’s killer. He’d failed, and God didn’t care.
Connor sucked in a deep breath and sighed. “That’s good, Daddy.”
Connor closed his eyes and David heard the rhythm of the monitor slow. He reached for his son’s hand. Connor’s skin was still soft, but the warmth was fading. David heard Linda sob and she rose next to David, leaned in and kissed her son’s forehead. David squinted to force the tears back into his eyes.
“No, no, no!” he begged through his clenched teeth.
The monitor stopped and then warbled a continuous tone that David would never forget. Connor Xavier Wellington, the boy who was going to play third base for the Dodgers, was gone. The nurse quietly slipped in and shut down the monitor. Linda hugged her son and wailed. David wiped his eyes, stood and stared at Connor’s limp body, and then grabbed the glove at his son’s side and dropped it into the trash can on his way out the door.
Fifteen years later…
David Wellington found it hard to believe an imperfection could be so profitable. He didn’t tolerate them in his minions, hated them in his women, and acted as if he had none himself. After fifteen years of excelling at corporate politics and pretending he cared about his diseased and dying customers, the payoff of his life was at hand.
He celebrated, sipping his Hennessy X.O. from a Waterford crystal glass. His Gulfstream V, Rexsen Lab’s newest corporate jet, streaked southeast from San Francisco to Newport Beach 29,000 feet above the chilly Pacific. Equipped with soft leather chairs, inlaid wood cabinetry, and state of the art LCD screens, he was surrounded by the luxury he expected.
The forty-five-year-old CEO had just completed the last of the road shows promoting the most talked about initial public offering Wall Street would launch this year. The FDA was on the verge of approving his company’s first gene therapy treatment for leukemia. The institutional investors had been duly impressed with Wellington’s plans and the solid backing of the company’s seventy-five-year-old founder, Adam Rexsen, who slept peacefully in the seat across the aisle. Rexsen Labs would go public within two weeks, and David Wellington would become Newport Beach’s newest billionaire.
As Wellington tilted the glass and anticipated the warm burn of the last sip of liquor, he felt the plane shudder and dive to the left. The crystal snifter was ripped from his hand as a blast roared through the cabin. Instinctively, he grabbed the leather armrests, locked his arms and braced himself. A yellow oxygen mask fell from the headliner and bounced wildly in front of his face. Paralyzed, his terror refused to allow him to let go and grab the mask. He pushed back hard on the armrests and fought the invisible force trying to rip him out of the seat.
He assessed the situation instantly, and the conclusion echoed in his head.
I’m going to die.
He struggled to get a breath as smoke filled the cabin. The jet’s nose plunged steeper into the dive. For the first time since a genetic imperfection took the life of his son, he thought of his soul and its ultimate keeper.
Images flashed through his mind. Hell— Sister Theresa had described it as eternal flames and agony. “Heaven or hell—it’s your choice,” the nun had said.
For the past fifteen years he’d chosen money. It was how he kept score. Money was his drug of choice, and he was addicted. Suddenly, he understood the nun’s warning. He’d already made his choice.
He felt the jet’s fuselage start to vibrate. The black smoke thickened. His inner voice summed up the fruits of his time on earth.
I am selfish, greedy, and alone.
He knew the voice; it was the one he never listened to. He tried to ignore it, but it was strong and uncontrollable. Expensive leather briefcases and crystal glassware smashed into the bulkhead. He looked to the right at the old man who wagged his head in disbelief.
Adam Rexsen, the founder of Rexsen Labs, was about to die, but he had dedicated his life to finding a cure for cancer. His life had served a purpose, he’d said so just minutes ago; his wealth was simply a by-product. At the time, Wellington pitied the old man and thought the world had passed him by. Panicking, he now wished he’d listened to his mentor years earlier.
Purpose! What’s my life’s purpose? Shit, it’s too soon, too soon!
Wellington had seen no purpose in his life, at least not since he’d stood by helplessly and watched his baby boy wither away. His son’s disease was the reason he’d started with Rexsen. He had left his lucrative future as an investment banker and signed on with Adam Rexsen and a team of scientists who were focused on a genetic cure for cancer. He’d decided he’d dedicate his life to finding the sinister imperfections in the human genome that caused so much pain and heartache. But despite being a brilliant businessman with a Harvard MBA who’d built Rexsen into the leader in genetic oncology research, he could do nothing to stop his son’s killer. After three years of research, testing, and prayer, Connor died. God abandoned him in his time of need, he’d concluded, so he’d decided to return the favor. From that point forward, his only purpose in life was to use Rexsen to fill the hole in his heart with money and distract his mind from the pain with self-indulgent behavior.
Now facing death, an avalanche of guilt and regret for the life he’d lived engulfed him. He struggled to look aft at Jeff Reese. Minutes ago, Reese had said he was grateful not to have to fly commercially from San Francisco with the peons. Now Wellington could barely see him through the smoke, as Reese fumbled with a family photograph taken from his wallet. The most money-hungry man he knew, who’d just presented the medical breakthrough of the century to the most powerful investment bankers and investors in San Francisco, stared at the picture.
Fifteen years ago, Wellington had lost his chance at a happy family. After his son’s death, his marriage broke apart. Wellington had given up—sold out. His current wife was the founder’s daughter and nothing more than a good career move—a means to more money.
He glanced at Reese again. Reese cried and clutched the picture. Wellington cried for himself.
I miss my son! God, why did you take my son!
He hadn’t invoked God’s help in fifteen years. Now his name was attached to every thought he had. His body was crushed into the seat as the nose of the jet lifted.
“Multiple system failure. Can’t make Vandenberg. Prepare to ditch. Prepare to ditch!” the pilot screamed over the cabin’s speakers.
Please God, it’s too soon, too soon!
He choked as the thick black smoke burned his lungs. He was smothered with the smell of burning oil and rubber.
“Brace for impact! Brace for impact!” the co-pilot squawked.
“Oh, God!” he screamed out loud.
Wellington was driven into the bulkhead, face first. His ears throbbed from the roar, and he gagged on several broken teeth. The whole cabin tumbled: the ceiling, the window, the floor and the ceiling, again and again. Still belted in his captain’s chair, Wellington’s face smashed against a bloody stump of jagged flesh and bone, dangling between Adam Rexsen’s shoulders.
He felt a sharp pain rip through his chest. Still tumbling, the pain and his vision began to fade. He smelled jet fuel and felt searing heat. Then, the crush of seawater overwhelmed him. He tasted blood and saltwater and sank in the darkness. He considered surrendering his pointless existence, but something inside him refused to give up. Even his life seemed too precious.
Light—there’s light! Swim! Don’t breathe! Swim to the light!
He flailed and fought towards the light. The closer it got the harder he struggled. His lungs were still burning and about to explode. He bobbed to the surface and gasped for breath. Burning jet fuel covered the water behind him. Everything seemed fuzzy, as if in a dream.
A piece of cherry wood floated past. Fabric, liquor bottles, pieces of soundproofing foam, and oil surrounded him. Suddenly he felt cold, freezing cold. The frigid saltwater sloshed into his mouth and burned his bleeding gums. He coughed up the water and a few teeth.
A white mist fogged his vision. He couldn’t stay conscious much longer. His eyes were swelling shut. He spotted something yellow just off his right shoulder as it surfaced in the rush of bubbles coming from below. He remembered the safety briefing.
The raft! Reese must have opened the raft before impact.
His arms burned when he reached for the raft. He felt the slippery-cold, rubberized canvas. All his pain faded. There was no noise. The bitter taste of saltwater mixed with blood and jet fuel disappeared. Exhausted, he began to give up. There was no point in continuing to fight it; his pointless life wasn’t worth it. He surrendered to death’s grip, and, in a strange way, it warmed him. His vision narrowed to a small hole surrounded by white light, and then nothing but his inner voice’s final condemnation.
Heaven or hell? Probably hell.