Tangled Pipelines: The Muni-Biofuel Acquisition
A DiversiChem Narrative
By Gerald Keep, PhD
- This is not an autobiography, or a minor variation on what might have been. Many of the life and work experiences of Archie Teller parallel my own only to provide an element of realism to these works, which are fiction. This is not a “might have been if only for…” sort of fantasy.
- Similarly, the characters and events depicted herein are collages of real-life characters and events to lend realism to the story, and drive it; they are in no way factual representations of actual people or events. For instance, Archie Teller’s niece has certain situational parallels to my own niece, who spent 18 months doing work-study with me. However, Penelope’s personality and actions are totally different, as dictated by the needs of the story.
- The technology discussed here is plausible, but no warranty is made herein that it is currently being practiced, or even is commercially feasible. That which is in commercial operation is not described in adequate detail here to recreate it. Much has been demonstrated as a concept on a laboratory basis, but was never funded at a level to allow for full testing and development.
- Writing about this subject, for the benefit of those not familiar with this world, is emotionally draining. If you are offered the opportunity to read a draft, bear in mind that the work might never be finished, and the draft may be changed in multiple times to emphasize the motivations of the characters, foreshadow future events, or be altered to align facts between different portions of the work. For instance, the degree to which the CEO’s desire for power and victory over her perceived opponent overshadows her care for the best interests of her company, is still in the process of fine tuning.
- I hope you enjoy the story, it’s potential, and watching the evolution of subsequent drafts. If you take the trouble to read and comment, I promise to read and consider those comments in the spirit intended. Cheers!
Archie Teller, a maverick scientist, is pulled out of forced retirement to straighten out the countless problems of a down and out chemical firm, following its hostile takeover by the very holding company that had let him go in the first place.
(JOB 1 – training) General Formulations Incorporated (GFI) – An old-style chemical giant that grew up in the Appalachian Region, serving many different markets. Archie’s first position out of school was in GFI’s Plastics Division.
(JOB 4 – current) Diversi-Chem Holdings (DCH) – A lean mergers and acquisitions firm that buys and flips other companies. When they bought GFI’s Plastics business, but took on none of the staff, Archie resigned to form his own consulting firm. Eventually DCH completely took over GFI, and have sold off many of its former divisions piecemeal. They have continued to nip at Archie’s heels, buying out several positions that supported Archie over the years.
(JOB 2 – series of contracts) Technical Insights Consulting (TIC) – Archie’s consulting firm after leaving GFI. “TIC Talk” was his blog, by which he drew in clients.
Aggregated General Industries, Ltd. (AGI) – Singapore-based conglomerate that is the major competitor of DCH. British Empire roots, mostly based in Asia, but a strong presence in Texas oil country.
(JOB 3b) Specialty Products Worldwide (SPW) – Archie’s last in a long line of clients. The remnant of a larger company that was mostly bought out by AGI, still afforded Archie a fairly broad array of opportunities, until the remainder was bought out by DCH. At that point Archie was forced to shut down all research projects and assigned only make-work while he awaited an announced mandatory retirement.
(JOB 3a) American Textiles (AmTex) – The original parent company of SPW with diverse product lines and a rich array of opportunities for Archie, until it was reorganized and mostly bought by AGI.
(JOB 5 – the future) Municipal Bio-Fuels (Muni BF) – A small biodiesel firm recently purchased by DCH, which triggered Archie’s engagement with DCH management, and begins our story.
Chapter 1. – Diversi-Chem Lobby – Penelope
Archie Teller looked at the long flight of slate steps up to the glass front of the impressive brick building. It looked different to him; gone were the dignified General Formulations signs, and in their place were brightly colored Diversi-Chem logos everywhere he turned.
He stroked his grey-streaked brown beard and shook his head, shifting his gaze away, only to have it land back on the massive slate steps with a grimace. “Probably thirteen steps with my luck,” he muttered, “and a short drop on a rope at the end.”
He began slowly mounting the steps, counting under his breath until he was nearly to the top. Then he lifted his head, straightened his shoulders, his tie, and his backbone. “Face it like a man, Archie. You’re not dead yet!”
Just as he reached the top step, his phone rang. He jumped, then moved to the side to answer it. “Hello?”
“Hi Uncle, it’s me.”
“Penelope. What’s up?”
“Your darn animal woke me up with her caterwauling. Seems she’s starving and there is no cat food in the house.”
“Her name is Rover.”
“I can’t call a cat Rover. Anyway, it’s too early to think, with all her noise. What can I feed her?”
“You looked under the sink…?”
“Of course. Nothing there.”
“Fine. Go to the pantry. About two and a half feet in on the left, a shelf about… uh… shoulder high for you, you’ll find the reserve cat cans. And put it on the shopping list this time, okay?”
“Sure, sure. Oh, and are you going to make it home in time for dinner tonight?”
“I expect so, why?”
“I was thinking of going out with a guy I met. Sure you’re not going to meet a friend you’d like to have a few drinks with?”
“I don’t have any friends here anymore. This is the desiccated skeleton of the company I knew, being picked over by corporate vultures. I don’t expect to be meeting any nice people today.”
“Just because they put you out of business a couple times, golly! Surely they can’t all be stinkers.”
“At least three times now, going on four; I think they’re accelerating the mandatory retirement they told me was coming. Maybe they’ll not all be stinkers, but they are definitely not my friends. Leastwise, not the folks that, um, ‘invited’ me in to talk today.”
“If you say so. Honestly, Uncle, you need to get out more. Come with me on one of my hikes?”
“What, traipse all over the mountains with you and your boyfriend du jour, looking for lost apple tree species? I offered to put you up for the summer while you worked on your thesis, not to do your work for you.”
“Okay, your loss then. Anyway, have fun.”
“Right-o. And don’t forget to….” Archie looked at his phone screen and shook it. Then he put the device to sleep and pocketed it, shaking his head with a bit of a smile. “Kids.”
Bracing himself, he proceeded through the glass doors into a cool lobby, manned by a chubby fellow in a guard’s uniform.
The guard looked him over with a prying eye. “Name?”
Archie brushed his hand across his chest, where a nametag would have been in the old days. DCH didn’t believe in ID’s, they had other ways to know who you were. “Uh, … Teller, Archie Teller.”
The guard fiddled with his computer keyboard and frowned at the photo that came up. “You’re on the terminated list.”
Archie’s eyebrows shot up. “Already? That was fast!”
The guard squinted at his terminal. “No, it’s been a long time actually. Back in twenty ought — hey! Aren’t you one of the ones let go when we bought out General Formulations?”
Archie gave a sour grin. “No, I resigned, and it was five years before that – when Diversi-Chem bought out GFI’s high temperature plastics business. Of course later….”
The guard straightened up and looked back at Archie. “Alright then, your business here today?”
Archie nodded towards the elevators. “I have an appointment to see President Keel. I was summoned, really. Surely I’m on your schedule.”
The guard tapped on his computer again. “Okay, here you are. All right then, I’ll get you a visitor pass….”
Archie raised a hand. “Don’t bother. I am, once again, an employee here, what with all the acquisitions going on. I’m sure I’m on some other electronic list in your computer there, as senior scientist or something. Is she in the old R&D Head’s office? I know the way there — all too well.”
The guard blinked rapidly, as he tapped again on the keyboard. “No sir, she took the office directly above here, second floor. I think she likes the view of the people coming up the stairs.”
Archie nodded, “The old Division Director’s office. Thank you,” and proceeded to the elevators.
Chapter 2. – President’s Office – Mamay
On the second floor, there was a receptionist desk positioned near the old Division Head’s office. Archie glanced back and forth between the shiny new bronze nameplate on the door and the bronze-skinned blond with magnificent curls at the reception desk.
She struck a provocative pose. “Are you just here to window shop?”
Archie blinked, “I… I have an appointment to see President Keel.”
She smiled warmly. “Of course you do. I’m Tonya, by the way. And you are…?”
Archie stuck out his hand. “Archie Teller. Pleased to meet you.”
Rather than shake it, Tonya took his hand and studied it. “Hmm, scars, callouses, chemical burns, and…. A very rough lifeline. And yet, a very strong Venus mound.” Her gaze drifted to just below his beltline.
Archie snatched his hand back. “Um, I tried to get here early, is there a place to sit, or…?”
Tonya sat back behind the desk. “You do have a few minutes. Hey, you’re that new biodiesel expert, aren’t you? Maybe you can help me with something. Sit here.” She patted the metal visitor’s chair beside the desk.
Archie sat gingerly on the chair. “So what’s the problem?”
Tonya grimaced. “I’m supposed to be doing the books on this new biodiesel firm we acquired. I’m no chemist though. How can you take the glycerin out of oil and end up with as much biodiesel as you had oil to begin with?”
Archie blinked. “Well, first thing you have to understand is that what we’re essentially doing here is just chopping the fat molecules into three smaller pieces.’
Tonya cocked her head. “And… so why do that?”
Archie smiled. “Fat molecules from animal or plant oils are just too big and heavy to burn in a diesel engine. Cut in three easy pieces, they are just the right size to burn – and bio burns cleaner and with more energy that petroleum diesel.”
Tonya wrinkled her nose. “So where does the glycerin come from then?”
Archie smiled and nodded. “Gycerin is in the oil to start, it holds onto three fatty acid chains. We replace the big glycerin with three little methanol molecules that each hold onto only one fatty acid. Methanol, or wood alcohol, like race cars use, goes in and pushes out the same volume of glycerin.”
Tonya narrowed her eyes and fingered her chin. “So why aren’t we using up methanol? We seem to have more than we started with.”
Archie laughed. “Oh no you don’t. What you get out is wet methanol with lots of water in it. Most biodiesel processes actually use extra methanol, just to sweep away the water – which could ruin you if you don’t get rid of it. But if you count up the methanol molecules at the end, you have not got as many as you started with, it’s just that what you do have is saturated with water. One gallon of methanol reacts with every ten gallons of oil to make 1 gallon of glycerin and ten gallons of biodiesel. Roughly. The extra methanol just gets – wet.”
Tonya smiled. “Okay I got it. Thanks.”
The intercom unit on the desk crackled. “Two minutes, Tonya.” She reached over and flipped a switch. Archie stared at the unit thoughtfully as he stood up. Someone had been listening. Creepy.
Tonya pressed her lips together and gave a little pout. “You have two minutes, and it looks like you’ll need every second.”
She stood, startled Archie by straightening his tie, then tried to wipe the wrinkles out of his suit coat. She turned him around, wiped the back of his coat, and startled him again when she went all the way down his back.
Archie stepped away. “I haven’t got a comb.”
Tonya put a hand on her hip and looked him over thoroughly. “I guess that’ll just have to do then. And there go your two minutes. Perhaps we’ll meet again.” She swept her hand towards the large office door, and gave a little bow.
Archie tucked in his chin, patted his pocket to check his pens, realized he didn’t have a pad to write on anyway, took a deep breath, and reached for the doorknob.
The room inside was more changed than the building exterior had been. Gone was the cold glass-and-steel office. In its place was a veritable jungle of potted plants, with comfortable seating strewn about, and soft lighting, mostly from the huge tinted plate glass windows.
An older woman with greying black hair rose from a couch and held out her hand, palm down, fingers spread. “Archie Teller, ah just knew it was you, but somehow ah couldn’t bring mawself to believe it. Ah remember y’all from our General Formulation days. You were quite the naughty boy sometimes. A real maverick you were, that could outrun the best a them. Ahm charmed, once again.”
Archie took the hand and awkwardly tried to shake it, as his eyes grew rounder. “Keel. Dr. Madeline Mae Keel. You were over one of the synthesis groups back then, leadership track as I recall. Gosh it has been years.”
She drew back her hand and leaned forward with a conspiratory smile. “Call me Mamay, everybody does around heyaw, to ma face at least, the dears. And it’s not nice ta remind a lady how old she’s getting ta be.”
Archie cringed. “Um, sorry? It was just such a surprise to see you. You’ve done well for yourself then. Rode out all tlhe acquisitions and rose to the top. Er… like cream.”
President Mamay Keel smiled, sat on the couch, and leaned back. “But where are mah manners? Do you want a drink or anythin?” She waved absently at a small bar against the wall.
Archie shook his head and stood there looking confused. “No. No thank you. I’m fine.”
Mamay nodded. “Please. Take a seat. Ah unerstan you know Homer. How is the old dear these days?”
Archie frowned. “Not so well any more; it has been quite a while since he’s been at church.”
“Ah unerstan you worked with him at one tahm. He spoke hawly of y’all.”
Archie blushed. “Yes, it was kind of funny. I was new to the church, naïve, new blood that I was, and so they tapped me to head a committee – Finance it was. Imagine my embarrassment to discover that one of my committee members was the former Chief Financial Officer of GFI.”
Mamay chuckled. “How was the old dear to work with?”
Archie smiled. “Very good actually. He let me take the lead and only very rarely offered a drop of wisdom when we were heading down the wrong road. I came to realize he was just put there to make sure I didn’t screw up too bad. Mostly he sat back, let me do all the work, and smiled, like he was on vacation.”
Mamay nodded. “Yes, I’m sure they were leery of giving too much power to someone labeled ‘not a team player’.”
Archie scowled. “Not a team player! People keep saying that about me, and I resent it! I’ve always acted in the best interest of the company, always helped my colleagues, looked out for the people working for me, and never played political games. I was never one of those backstabbers that were just interested in climbing the corporate ladder. Um, no offense intended.”
Mamay smiled and nodded again. “The very definition of a maverick. But you left out one group of people from your list, the bosses.”
Archie nodded ruefully. “Yep. With age I’ve come to realize how naive I was. There is no such thing as THE company. It’s a collection of individuals, each with their own agenda. As a technical fellow, I could never bring myself to understand that my number one job was to make The Boss look good. Problem was, they never told me directly what they expected of me, as if I could read minds, or should have known already. I guess it comes down to how you define ‘the team’.”
Mamay smiled. “So Homer thought you’d be a model maverick — shake things up a little, but act in the best interest of the church, and he was right.”
Archie threw back his shoulders. “I did pretty well – two terms and we grew a lot during my tenure.”
Mamay cocked her head sideways. “Y’all came to us with the acquisition of Specialty Products Worldwide, isn’t that right? Tell me what have you been doing since.”
Archie adopted an angry look, but spoke carefully. “I thought you’d know, of all people. Of course all my projects with SPW came to a screeching halt with the acquisition. Turns out you were only interested in the worldwide marketing and distribution systems they had. So right to the backburner went all my work with algae, water reclamation from oil wells, novel flame retardants, hydroponic lighting, recycling various wastes into concrete block, asphalt replacement and so on. Since then I’ve been marking time with busy work, safety reports and EPA filings, personnel evaluations and patent reviews. In other words, busy work – just waiting for that mandatory retirement to kick in.”
Mamay leaned forward. “So now, Dr. Maverick, whose team are you on? Are you ready to go to work for me? Or do you want to go back to filling out EPA forms for the company until you get sent home?”
Archie bit his lip. “I guess I know who pays the bills around here, if that’s what you mean. Tell me what you want done, but don’t assume I read minds.”
Mamay’s smile got even broader as she sat back. “Do please sit down.”
Archie remain standing, and stood more stiffly. “You know, we don’t have to poison the water and spew out toxic vapors to make something of value and give people good jobs. Every project I have ever worked on could have made the world a better place, and provide people a good living doing it. DCH has a pretty bad reputation and I do have principles I won’t give up.”
Mamay smiled again. “Please, relax. Sit. That’s ancient history, before mah time. Ah am interested in green solutions too. You also used to work with biodiesel, at some point, didn’t you?”
Archie looked annoyed. “Yes. Biodiesel should have been on that past project list too. But when AGI bought out American Textiles and the remnant reorganized as SPW, there was a non-compete put in place. I had to pass over all my work in those two areas. AGI said they didn’t want me butting heads with them, but in fact they just killed the projects.”
Mamay nodded. “Yes, that’s what I‘m talking about. Please, sit down and tell me about biodiesel. There are some things I want to know.”
Archie took a deep breath and sat in an armchair across from her. “Okay. We need liquid fuel to power vehicles and the like, since they can’t just be plugged in to an electric wall socket, and batteries are short lived, but we want to use renewable resources to make those liquid fuels. Much of what we use now, gasoline and diesel, is from petroleum, which makes us dependent on foreign oil, and our military ability to protect shipping – setting aside all the atmospheric carbon dioxide issues. Unfortunately, renewables like animal fat and vegetable oil have molecules too big to burn in a diesel engine. We have to fix that by breaking each molecule into three smaller pieces by –.”
Mamay’s hand popped up. “Wait! I’m not worrying my pretty head about the chemistry. I want to hear about the politics, from a man that has been there, on the inside.”
Archie nodded thoughtfully and started again. “Okay, as usual everybody wants green but nobody is willing to pay for it. You might think the government would subsidizing it because it’s the right thing to do for the planet and to slow climate change, but of course that isn’t the way things work; they subsidize the petro industry more. Really the whole thing exists because the corn farmers seized on the idea of renewable ethanol from corn in order to get a bunch of pork-barrel legislation passed to line their pockets, and the pockets of their pet senators of course. So, we’re using petroleum based fuel to run the tractors to farm corn, that could have been used as food, to make ethanol instead, to mix with gasoline and make it even more polluting when it is burned as fuel, raising the mortality rate from airborne particulates, and plugging up small engines like lawn mowers with gunk. The one saving grace is that it paved the way for other renewable fuels that actually make more sense, like biodiesel – which can be made from abundant non-food resources that are otherwise treated as waste, and which even happen to burn more cleanly than petroleum products, and much cleaner than gas spiked with ethanol. Everybody concerned with green is looking at something like biodiesel.”
Mamay raised a finger. “But, it’s still not profitable?”
Archie shook his head. “Depends. Of course the fact that they are competing with the petroleum companies, which are subsidized up the wazoo, doesn’t help. Soybean oil used to be cheap, but of course it jumped up as people started using it. Nevertheless, on a level playing field, for the big companies that backward integrated and took control of their soybean oil supply source, yes it is profitable. Also the small companies that have a lock on something really cheap as an alternative starting material, like a used cooking oil supply or a slaughterhouse waste stream or something like that – well, they are doing okay. Um, didn’t you just buy out Muni-Biofuels? They’re making a go of using brown grease from municipal sewer grease traps, which is about as cheap as you can get.”
Archie paused and looked Mamay in the eye. “Is that why I’m here?”
Mamay smiled. “Maybe. Go on about the politics.”
Archie nodded. “Right. Okay, so we’ve covered that biodiesel is a marginal enterprise with lots of room for technical improvements – not surprising since the biodiesel industry was established by farmers and real estate developers trying to cash in on the legislative pork, back when soybeans were cheap and direct subsidies were lavish. Now the best hope for profitability is to get cheaper starting materials like brown grease up and running.”
Archie stood and began to pace. “So anyway, the Feds had passed a law that says that, if you make petroleum products, you must also make a certain quota of renewable product – ethanol, biodiesel, or whatever – and if you don’t make it yourself you have to buy ‘credits’ on the open market from the people who do make something renewable. This is on top of a direct subsidy. As a result, the petroleum people hate the biodiesel people and just want them to go away. And it’s mutual — most people working in biofuels bleed green and hate what the fossil fuel industry is doing to the planet.”
Mamay raised her glass. “Do tell.”
Archie smiled ruefully. “Of course huge government bureaucracy has grown up around regulating and monitoring the tax credits. Every gallon of biofuel produced under the RFS, that’s the Renewable Fuel Standard, is assigned a RIN or Renewable Identification Number, and buying and selling these RIN’s is a big deal. People have gone to jail for selling fake RIN numbers, because it’s tax fraud.
Archie sighed. “Now comes the good part. A key bit of the legislation, hiding in the fine print, is that the new year’s quotas are set by the previous year’s production. So as a consequence, you have the petro crowd cheering every time a bio company screws up and drops production, and they’re trying to figure any angle on how to get rid of the bio folks. One thing that they do every year is stall the legislature in issuing the annual quotas and re-upping the subsidies, almost to the end of the year. This makes the subsidies be set retroactively. How can you run a business if you don’t even know what your product is selling for all year long?”
Mamay sat up straight. “Surely the tax subsidy is not that big a part of the pricing?”
Archie scratched his beard. “You turn $4 per gallon soybean oil into $4 per gallon biodiesel and you make a dollar profit from the direct tax subsidy and sell the RIN credit for another dollar. To the petro companies, the quotas are still small enough to just be a nuisance, a bad precedent. To the original bio companies, whose plants were set up to run purchased soybean oil – well, without the subsidies, they’re caput, since you can’t take to the bank a hope that you’ll get a retroactive tax credit at the end of the year.”
Archie gave a wicked smile. “Also, the oil companies are allowed to buy their quota of RIN’s credits based on a two-year running average where the quotas are fixed on a yearly basis. Anything that they can do to knock down bio production one year lowers the quotas for the next and is money in the bank for them, so what they do is get together and buy their RIN’s on even number years and relatively little on odd number years. This means the RIN’s market whipsaws up and down from year to year and again the littlest bio companies can’t stand the financial stress. It’s a case of feast or famine; they can’t gear up for a good year then idle the plant the next. It absolutely kills any company that does not have control over their supply and distribution chains. A hundred small biofuel companies have gone belly up. You can buy a biodiesel plant for a song these days – and now that you mention it, I guess you did – Muni Biofuels.”
Archie collapsed back into a comfy chair and took a deep breath. “But why would you want one? It’s an ugly business. Is that what you wanted to hear about, what a mess you’ve bought into? Sorry, you punch my buttons and away I go in professor mode.”
Mamay nodded slowly and took her time to respond, watching Archie closely. The Southern Belle accent seemed to have vanished. “I was sure you were the right person to talk to, and now you’ve confirmed it. You have a broad view of all the issues, not just the technical ones. Let me fill you in a bit on our acquisition of Muni-Biofuels. They had protected themselves with a contract with AGI, guaranteeing purchase of whatever volume they could make, albeit at a low pre-negotiated price. You are familiar with how AGI operates, I assume.”
Archie nodded. “Aggregated General Industries, based in Singapore, US headquarters in Texas. Not the biggest of the petroleum companies but diversified to the hilt. They are into nearly everything – you can’t buy something off a store shelf without having a piece of AGI in it. They bring a bit of the worst of Texas to everything they do – big, arrogant, suffocating.”
Mamay smiled ruefully. “Yes, of course you know them – a major force in the chemical industry. Well, our customer rep from AGI is one Madam Xing Chan, a more slithering snake-in-the-grass you’ll never find. She has me concerned because since the acquisition she’s been trying very subtly to get production data on Muni-Biofuels. You know, raw materials, production capacities, the works. She’s clearly up to something.”
Archie shrugged his shoulders. “More of the same? Big petroleum company wants to squash the little biofuel guy and make them go away? You willing to sell out?”
Mamay shook her head. “I don’t think that’s it. The biodiesel operation is just a wash for us, and peanuts to AGI. Our interest lies elsewhere – with the glycerin.”
Archie laughed. “The glycerin produced as a byproduct from making biodiesel? Glycerin is the second story of this house of cards that we’ve been talking about. If biodiesel is shaky, glycerin is at least twice as bad. Most of it looks like mud and they treat it like a waste stream, even dumping their lab chems into it for disposal. I’ve been down that road, way down it. In fact I was making some progress on the color problem when AGI bought out AmTex and shut me down. They didn’t want my glycerin then, why the hell would you want it now?”
Mamay looked away and ran a finger along the arm of the couch. “Well, Rip down in R&D – you’ve met him? No? Well, he has an idea that if we keep control of it during the production process, we can turn out a good clean supply of glycerin and use it in new places.”
Archie bit his tongue, and looked thoughtful. “Something new? I was looking at eating into the profitable pharmaceutical grades when we were shut down. That kind of profitable?”
Mamay smiled. “We’re going to make a killing. Unless that bitch from AGI figures out what we’re doing and gets her claws on it somehow.”
Archie pursed his lips. “Aha. Pretty problem, that.”
Mamay’s smile broadened. “I’m glad you like it. It’s yours now.”
Archie sat back and raised his eyebrows then gave a wry grimace. “Ugh. Well, I guess this means I still have a job then.”
Mamay nodded. “Yes, but this is totally hush-hush. Nobody must know what your real purpose is, inside the company or out. Figure out what she’s doing and head her off, close her out, before she gets wind that we’re on to her.”
Archie let out his breath. “Whew boy. This won’t be easy; I’m not really cut out to be a cloak-and-dagger type. And what is everybody else going to think I’m doing all this time?”
Mamay nodded again. “Yes, you’ll need a cover. I’m making you Director of Quality, reporting directly to me. You can pretend to be digging into procedures and such while you do your real work.”
Archie sniffed. “Would it be okay if I actually did a little quality improvement while I’m at it?”
Mamay nodded, seeming to miss the joke. “Couldn’t hurt anything. You’ll want to see Esther Assad, head of R&D, for a desk and whatever else you need, and I’ll tell Gloria Vincenzo you have a blank check, though she’s Treasurer and she’ll watch your receipts like a hawk. Not that you would lose sight of whose money you’re spending. What did they call you back in the old days? ‘Pathologically honest’?”
Archie blushed. “Another reason my bosses didn’t see eye to eye with me, sometimes. Never sure whether to take that as a complement or….”
Mamay waved a hand. “As I said. But remember – loose lips sink ships. Any questions?”
Archie thought a moment. “So, I suppose I should talk to Tonya outside about getting computer access and scheduling all the usual orientation stuff….”
Mamay laughed. “I doubt she’s out there any more. I just asked her to come around to soften you up some for our little chat, and see how you talked to less technical folks. So. You’ve just had your orientation. Now, go work a miracle, Archie. Pull that snake’s fangs for me.”
Chapter 3. – R&D Lab – Khandi & Esther
Archie Teller had to wait for his meeting with the head of R&D, Dr. Esther Assad. He parked himself in the central conference room in the R&D wing, as he seemed to be the only one in that part of the building, and was reluctant to be caught snooping around. Rather than sit at the conference table itself, he sat in the corner on one of the dozen chairs that circled the room. Several doors with glass windows led out into the labs and office areas, but he could see very little of interest. Instead he sat and tried to sort the old and familiar audiovisuals from the new elements brought in by Diversi-Chem; it looks like they had installed dry erase and smart boards, with no sign of chalk or projectors anywhere.
For the longest time he chewed on the question of what they could be doing new with glycerin that made it profitable to try and reclaim the stuff. ‘Make a killing,’ Mamay had said.
Suddenly one of the lab doors opened and in came a middle-aged Indian woman in a bright orange sari with purple trim, trailing iridescent scarves as she swept through the room. Each step she took shook the tiny bells sewn into the hem of her garment. She held aloft a strange combination of incense burner and rotating bubble wand which left a stream of smoky bubbles trailing through the air behind her. She stopped and wrote 10:57 on the center of a dry erase board in green dry erase marker, circled it, then exited the opposite side of the room without ever seeming to notice Archie sitting there.
The strange smoky bubbles swirled around the room, initially floating with the winds but gradually turning white, then settling towards the floor and tabletop. When they hit, they did not so much pop as crunch on the bottom, leaving snowy white balls standing up on the tabletop. Archie picked one up and it turned to a sticky goo on his fingers. He sniffed the odor of sandalwood, shook his head, and went looking for a paper towel.
The next person to enter the room came in the main door from the direction of the elevators. She had a middle-eastern look and her hair was completely concealed by a scarf. She removed the coat and scarf, hanging them on a hat rack by the door, seeming to relax as she did so. She took a deep breath and looked around, noticing Archie for the first time.
Archie rose to meet her as she glided over with an outstretched hand. “Hi, I’m Archie Teller.”
She smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Teller. I am Dr. Assad, of course. Ms. Keel told me to expect you.”
Archie nodded. “Yes. I’m to come to you for facilities, and the like.”
She pointed to one of the doors. “Well, that office and lab suite is open. Anything you need that is not already in there you can get by calling down to the stock room. Do you have any staff coming with you?”
Archie shook his head. “Just me.”
She let out her breath, and relaxed a bit. “Okay then. You’ll probably want to join my group for safety meetings and the like. This is where we meet…” As she swept her hand toward the large table, she froze as she saw the little white balls all over it. “Sorry. I see that Khandi has been doing research again. Her smoky bubbles project.”
Archie cocked an eyebrow. “Smoky bubbles?”
Dr. Assad sighed. “She is trying to make permanent little bubbles of crosslinked polymers, filled with smoke that you can shake and have the smoke swirl around in, like those little snow globes you see with dioramas in them. I ask her why, what are they good for, and she says she has no idea. Honestly, they are like children. Rip is just as bad, but in the opposite way. He makes these giant leaps to grab the golden ring, saying wouldn’t it be great for the company if we could only do ‘X’ and then leaves it to the rest of us to figure out how that might be done. I have my hands full trying to keep them from embarrassing us in public. Now what sort of work do you do, Dr. Teller?”
Archie raised his hands and pushed back, shaking his head. “Nothing like that, I assure you. Quality Assurance, troubleshooting, trying to understand systems and processes better, so I can keep them under control. My days of grand vision quests are behind me.”
Dr. Assad nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m sure we’ll get along very well then. R&D is always very important to Quality Control efforts, but the last thing to get budgeted. If you keep us in mind, I am sure it will be a very synergistic relationship. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work. Drop by my office after you’ve settled in, and I’ll answer any questions you have.”
Archie nodded. “I’ll do that.” He watched her exit the conference area, then gave a little chuckle. He tried to pick up another ‘smoky bubble’, then went to explore his new domain.
Chapter 4. – The Old Files – Zak
Archie sat in one of a pair of offices that bordered the main hallway. Each had two doors, one to the hallway and one out into the U-shaped laboratory complex that wrapped around the offices and connected to the main hallway on either side. Everything was spookily silent, like a lab never is, because everything was shut down, including even the blowers in the fume hoods. Abandoned coffee cups, silverware, cracker packages, and not a few half-finished experiments lay about the desks and lab counters. Unknown white crystals crusted the unwashed glassware. Archie shuddered and returned to the safety of the office.
Two 4-drawer file cabinets dominated one wall and a 2-drawer cabinet served as a side table. He began going through the old files contained therein, and shook his head in dismay. “So many promising projects, just cut off, to die on the vine. What a waste.”
Suddenly there was a loud knocking on the door. Archie looked up, to see a heavyset dark-haired fellow barging in. “Hey there, I’m Zak. How’s it goin’?” The accent fairly dripped New York Yankee.
Archie took the proffered hand, and had his own squeezed tightly by the smooth but strong hand of the intruder. Archie opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t quite form words.
“Didja eat yet?”
Archie recovered his hand, and shook his head. “Um, no.”
“Great, free lunch then.” Zak took in Archie’s puzzled expression. “Mamay said you wanted to meet the Dragon Lady.”
Archie frowned. “Dragon Lady?”
Zak tried to look solemn, but somehow failed in his baggy pinstriped suit and rough haircut. “The evil Madam Xing Chan of AgriChem. That’s worth a free lunch, isn’t it? That’s my account, by the way. Don’t know why Mamay thinks I need help.” Zak grinned, then looked around. “You busy here, or can we go now?”
Archie looked around, then shook his head. “No, just trying to get a handle on what happened here. I mean, there are chemicals everywhere, snack crackers and coffee cups just left out….”
Zak’s eyebrows shot up. “Coffee cups? I could use a coffee cup. Mind if I check it out?”
Archie nodded. “Sure, sure. I have to call down to the storeroom and order some boxes and stuff. I’ll be just a minute. Go ahead.”
Zak headed out to the lab and Archie picked up the phone. He dialed a number from memory and was slightly surprised that it was still the right number. “Store room? Yeah, this is Archie Teller in….. yeah, the new guy…. Could you send up a couple dozen book storage boxes, and a couple boxes of hanging files for me? Thanks.”
Archie sat down and waited for Zak, who appeared shortly with a hot plate with its cord looped through the handles of a dozen coffee cups, a tall metal thermos bottle in his other hand, and his suit jacket pockets bulging. Archie just sat there, staring in shock.
“Okay, let’s go.” Zak headed for the door. Archie followed.
“I hope you’re okay wit’ Chinese. Food, I mean. I’ll eat the stuff, as long as the company is paying for it, but the Dragon Lady insists on Chinese, every time, so Chinese it is. I think she does it to torture me, you know? Those spices do a number on my gut.”
As they went through the lobby, Zak grunted and nodded at the guard, who surprisingly didn’t challenge him, despite all that equipment he was carrying out. They marched out to a visitor spot in the parking lot, very near the front door. Zak tucked the thermos under his right arm, then reached awkwardly with his left to get his keys. He mashed the button three times before the trunk of his well-weathered but late model turquoise sedan popped open. Zak loaded his booty into the trunk while Archie looked on in amazement at the collection of pens, day-timers, CD’s, umbrellas, golf caps, and other paraphernalia in the trunk.
Zak noticed his look. “Hey, I got customers to take care of.”
Archie looked away, and came to rest on the pole with the ‘Visitors Only’ sign. “Visitor?”
Zak grinned, “Hey, I visited you, didn’t I? Let’s get going.” He climbed behind the wheel, and threw a number of Styrofoam drink cups, tablets, and a hat into the back seat. Archie lowered himself gingerly into the passenger seat, and they were off with a squeal of rubber.
“So, tell me again why Mamay thinks I need a helper. Is she trying to ease me out or something?”
Archie hung on to the door handle and tried to talk through gritted teeth, as they bounced over a series of chuckholes. “No, no. I’m not Sales. I’m Development – Quality Assurance really. Mamay said Madam Chan had questions about Biodiesel.”
Zak smiled as he turned a sharp corner. “Great! So you’re the heavy artillery. I’ll just point you in the right direction and let you do your stuff then. That should get her off my back for awhile.” He slammed on the brakes, and they were there.
Chapter 5 – Lunch with the Dragon Lady – Xing Chan.
The Dragon Lady turned out to be a less-than-imposing 4-foot tall middle-aged oriental with thick jet-black hair that ran straight to just above her shoulders and iridescent purple eye shadow. She wore a silk dragon-print blouse, a knee-length black skirt, nylons, and what could only be described as black army boots. A black strap across her chest supported an enormous purse that rode low on her back, and from a gold chain around her neck dangled half-moon spectacles.
Her manner left no doubt about her spirit, however. She immediately reached up and pinched Zak’s cheek. “There you are, my little guy. You looking fat, you put on weight, no? Too many potato dumplings. You eat good Chi-nee food today. Lots of good green veg-ables.”
Zak’s stoney face jerked towards Archie. “Madam Chan, this here is the new guy. He’s going to help you out with your biodiesel questions.”
Xing Chan’s eyes glittered as she rounded on Archie. “New guy, huh? Noooo, this is a old guy. Look at these grey hairs.” She reached up and tweaked Archie’s beard. “And he fat too, just like you, Zak. When you gonna bring me young guy, hot handsome prince, instead of fat old men like you? Then we have really good time.”
Archie just stood there frozen, looking down on Xing, searching for words.
Zak cleared his throat. “Xing, when are you going to get me the specs on that zinc salt we talked about last week….?”
Xing rounded on Zak and shook a finger up at him. “No, no, no. Today, I customer, you buy lunch. I buy big things, you treat me good. Only fair. We talk about salt some other time. I want to know about when you gonna get me my biodiesel.”
The hostess approached and offered them a table, which Zak and Archie welcomed as a chance to divert the conversation. However, as soon as they were seated with water glasses, Xing started in on Archie. “So, you turning grey. You gonna become Santa Claus? You maybe bring me gift today?”
Archie looked blankly at Zak, who smiled and brought his hand out from under the table. A colorful silk scarf was whisked away to show a coffee cup that Archie recognized from the lab. It was black with a picture of a dragon on it.
Xing purred for a moment. “Oh how cute. Maybe I grow a bonsai in it.” She then hardened and rounded on Archie. “But I not come here for toys. I want know about my biodiesel. When you gonna give it me?”
Archie spread his hands. “Is there a problem?”
“You betcha there a problem. You promise me all you biodiesel, all of it, but maybe you got another girl on side you visiting? Givin’ her stuff under table, eh? What you doing foolin’ around with my biodiesel? I got contract, you gimme all you make or else.”
Zak thumped down his glass. “You are getting all our biodiesel.”
“Am not. You think I stupid? You think I not talk to all you suppliers? I know just what you make, and it same as you tell Feds when you file RIN numbers so don’t you give me that horse shit. Where my biodiesel?”
Zak waved a hand dismissively. “There has been a lot of chaos with the takeover, we’re trying to rationalize our trucking fleet, and make sure we’ve got enough of every type to meet our responsibilities. In fact our transportation expert is going to the plant tomorrow to look over the fleet of trucks we inherited. We need to verify cleanliness. You’ll get your biodiesel in due course.”
“You want more clean truck? We send you clean truck, no problem.”
Zak leaned back and laughed. “And what will you charge us for shipping the product? No, you’ll just have to wait until we get it all sorted out on our end.”
Archie leaned forward. “There is another issue, and that’s where I come in. We’re doing a quality review, making sure every lot meets not only transportation specs, but whatever specifications you have set as well. We need to make sure every shipment we make meets standards, and I haven’t had a chance to review the paper trail yet. And also, sometimes a lot of material meets one spec but not another and we have to blend lots to ensure everyone gets what they need. I assure you, that will be my top priority moving forward.” Archie nodded vigorously and smiled.
Xing looked like she had bitten into a sour lemon, and scowled. “You look like one those bobble-head dogs. Doink-e-doink-e-doink. I hope you know what you doing.”
Archie’s smile broadened. “I assure you, you’re going to get just what is coming to you.”
About then, an appetizer plate appeared. Xing grabbed a spoon. “Oh look, good green chi-nee veg-able. You take some. Good for you haaaat and you tummy. You eat.” She promptly spooned a generous amount of green wasabi on Archie’s plate.
Zak looked alarmed but Archie smiled back. “I’m so glad you’re concerned with my health. I expect this is the beginning of a long and profitable relationship.” He barely touched the wasabi with a fingertip and smeared it on a fried wonton noodle. “Cheers!”
The lunch continued in the same vein, Xing needling each of them in turn with Zak and Archie taking it with placid good humor. Finally the fortune cookies arrived.
Archie broke one open, read it with a laughed, and passed it to Xing. “This one must have been meant for you. I think it will clarify everything.”
Xing read it, and dropped it on the table in disgust. Zak picked it up and read, “ ‘The turtle beats the rabbit but the bird eats worms.’ Well, that’s confusing.”
Archie had to agree; Xing’s needling aside, this had been a most confusing lunch.
Chapter 6. – The New Office — Rip
Back at the office, Archie sat musing about his lunch with the Dragon Lady. He got out a pad and pen and started a list, “Things to Learn”, and gave the title a double underline.
He chewed on the back of the pen briefly, made a face, and began to write. “What was MuniBio’s actual production, both before and after DiversiChem took over? How much has shipped? What became of the remaining inventory?” He paused for a moment, then wrote, “What production numbers actually got reported to the Feds? Is somebody playing hanky-panky with the numbers?”
He threw down the pen in disgust. He stood and looked around the office, and spied the stack of cardboard that could be turned into book boxes for the old files. Plenty to do, while ruminating on a plan.
Archie had been examining a pile of recent memos that Tonya had sent down, thereby establishing that the inter-office mail system was working. There were phone lists including e-mail addresses, holiday schedules, and even an employee handbook. He was just trying to sync his new desktop computer with his mobile phone when there came a tentative rapping on his outer door.
Archie looked up. “Yes? Come in.”
The door slowly opened and a youngish fellow with dirty blond hair and a mustache stuck his head in the door. “You must be Doctor Teller….?”
Archie nearly dropped his phone as he sprang up and extended a hand. “I am. Nobody here but me, myself, and I. And you are…?”
The man stepped into the office and took Archie’s hand. “I’m Richard Fowler, but everybody calls me Rip; I guess it’s easier. I thought I should drop by and welcome you to the Research Labs – see if there is anything you need.”
Archie looked over his shoulder at the labs. “It looks like I have everything I could dream of out here, except some company. Kind of spooky, like everybody just dropped everything in the middle of what they were doing and walked out. I even found half-empty soda cans and opened packages of crackers at the work stations.”
Rip grimaced ruefully. “Well, it did sort of happen that way. I was against selling off this division, there were so many things we could have done with it, but the almighty dollar spoke and everybody was just summoned to a mass meeting and escorted off the premises. They were offered work at a manufacturing facility, if they were willing to move. It was a grand massacre of layoffs. You’ll probably find coffee cups and family photos here and there. I imagine you could have them forwarded, if you wanted to.”
Archie shook his head in astonishment. “Wow. I can’t imagine… I mean, I quit when my division was bought out by Diversi-Chem, but to be kicked out like that with no warning. Just – wow.”
Rip looked around. “Well, you have a good location to build up a team here. You’re mercifully close to the bathrooms, stairs and elevators down to the storerooms, one each way down the hall, or up to the analytical labs.”
Archie smiled. “Well, I don’t know about a team, but I will be needing to have some analytical work done. I’ve found some submission forms here – do they really use them, or do you just explain to the analyst what you need done? Sometimes they know better what techniques should be used to find out different sorts of things.”
Rip nodded and held out a bound notebook. “Talk to them, of course, if you want things done right. Don’t expect them to take the initiative – nobody around here has an abundance of free time in which to go looking for things to do. The only real requirement is you give everything a unique identification number, so I brought you your own official R&D notebook. Label your samples with Notebook number dash page number dash item number and it can always be traced back to your book here.”
Archie accepted the book and smiled. “Thank you. One less worry. I’m surprised they’ve gone back to paper notebooks – the were pushing for all electronic records when I left.”
Rip stroked his hairless chin. “Well, turns out paper records are harder to hack or fake — too much cyber espionage these days. It does all get scanned and microfilmed, then archived, so nothing is ever lost; you’re supposed to do that often. I knew the bureaucrats would not think to get you hooked into the system.”
Archie nodded. “That’s great. I’m ready to start collecting samples now!”
Rip raised his eyebrows. “Say, I’m going out to the Muni-Bio plant tomorrow to check out the glycerin facilities. Would you like to come along and get a start on their biodiesel operations? You know, chase down all those quality details?”
Archie smiled. “Sure, that would be great. I was wondering how I was going to get out there. Is the drive long?”
Rip shrugged. “Almost 2 hours. Meet in the lobby 8 am tomorrow morning. We should be back before supper. I look forward to picking your brain about your old glycerin work.”
Archie nodded and offered his hand again. “Sounds like a plan. Until tomorrow then.”
Rip looked quizzically at the hand, then took it. “Very good. See you at eight.”
Archie wrinkled his brow. “Say, what is it you’re going to be doing with the glycerin…,” but Rip was already out the door and gone.
Chapter 7. – The Lab – Dr. J. Nodeau
Archie took the elevator up one flight and found himself in an almost identical hallway. Instead of his silent-as-a-grave laboratory, this floor housed a lab stuffed with glowing lights he could see blinking through the glass windows on the doors, and he could hear the whir and whine of pumps and blowers even with the doors shut. There were still no people visible, until he stepped to the first door along the corridor. An abundance of glass windows showed it to be an office ringed by laboratory space. The nameplate read simply “Dr. J. Nodeau”.
Inside he could see the back of a figure with a gorgeous head of glistening brown hair, falling in ringlets across the shoulders of a plain white lab coat. He knocked, and the head turned, revealing a delicate neck adorned with a purple scarf that exactly matched the eye shadow that decorated the big brown eyes and their long full lashes.
The seated figure beckoned with one hand. “Eet is not locked, pleeze to come in.”
Archie opened the door and entered. “Hi, I’m new here, well, sort of. Archie Teller.” He held out his hand.
The lab analyst took his hand daintily and gave it a tiny squeeze. “Very pleezed to make your acquaintance, Archie. You may call me Jacqueline, eef it would make you comfortable. I ‘ave ‘eard you were coming, yes?”
Archie smiled. “Well, Diversi-Chem certainly did benefit from the acquisition of SPW. Did you come over with the French division?”
Jacqueline shook that head full of bouncy ringlets. “Non, I am Canadian. I have been here some time. But you will be wanting to tour zee lab, no?”
Archie nodded. “Sure, if it’s not to much trouble. Looks like you’re holding the fort here by yourself, though. Maybe you have a list of techniques, minimum sample sizes, and so forth that I could work from?”
Jacqueline shrugged and handed him a looseleaf notbook titled ‘Laboratory Test Methods’. “Of course every ting is automated ‘ere, Mamay spares no expense on analytical equipment. If you can imagine something we don’t have, that would just be an excuse to buy annuzer new toy, yes? I really enjoy zee excuse to set up zee new toys. Very sad though, what we do not have is many, many hands to run every ting at one time. So eet is very, very important zat you set your priorities and write down weech samples arr urgent, weech arr routine and can wait zare turn, and so on.
Archie looked around. “What about the tests that require you to be there yourself, like microscopic surveys and such?”
Jacqueline smiled. “Eet is so fun to explore new mysteries, ees it not? ‘Ave you –experience?” White pearly teeth showed in a smile and the big brown eyes batted their long lashes at him. Archie thought he might just drown in them.
Archie jerked back to the present and blinked rapidly. “I’m not sure what you mean….”
Jacqueline laughed. “Running zee exploratory experiments, of course. I can’t let you roughly handle my tender … equipments, alors, but we can work together, non?”
Archie let out his breath. “Of course. In fact I once set up and supervised an entire biodiesel QC lab. I can find my way around most analytical instruments, unless they’ve been computerized so much you need a manual just to find the on switch.”
Jacqueline laughed again. “Yes, yes, some of zem are zat way now. Just let me know your desire and I’ll see what can be done to make you ‘appy.” Again, the sun came out in that beautiful smile.
Archie backed out the door. “Great. That’s really wonderful. I’ll be bringing around some samples, probably day after tomorrow, first thing after start of business. Charge anything to the new QC department of course. Perhaps that would be a better time to check things out.”
“Perhaps. We shall see.” Jacqueline shrugged, and turned back to a pile of print-outs on the desk.
Archie beat a hasty retreat back down the stairs, wondering just what he had gotten himself into.