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Synopsis

A diffident catering company owner, Max Rosen, learns of the existence of a coded research document authored by her late scientist father. This research is linked to health pills that were unearthed from the site of the Indus Valley Civilization in ancient India. The pills were once the mainstay of German pharmaceutical giant Berliner that Max's grandfather worked for. And these pills were used in horrific Nazi era medical experiments.

When Max learns that the pills and the disturbing secret they hold may be the reason why her father may not have committed suicide as she has always believed, she embarks upon a whirlwind adventure to decode her father's research and find his killers.

In a thrilling ride that takes her and Julian McIntosh, a history professor, across the world, she must keep her wits about her or face dire consequences at the hands of Berliner and other unknown forces, who will stop at nothing to keep the research from coming out. Even as she struggles with her feelings for Julian, Max must brace herself for startling discoveries -her father's research may well reveal a frightening truth connecting Berliner, her grandfather, and perchance, all mankind. And the shocking reality about her father's death is one she may never be able to face.

Colossus is a lightning paced, intelligent suspense drama, blending fact with fiction, thus making it frighteningly plausible. Iyer takes the reader on an electrifying journey through history and exotic locales from ancient India to Berlin in the Nazi era, weaving in present day Chicago, London and Pakistan. A scrumptious blend of thrills, twists, surprises, humor and a dollop of romance, Colossus will remain with the reader long after it has been read and put away.

Sample Chapters


From Darkness

PROLOGUE


Mohenjo-daro - Mound of the Dead

Site of the 5,000-year-old Indus Valley civilization

Around 400 km from Karachi

1935

Dr. Samuel Rosen opened his new leather-bound diary. The rich

brown cowhide smelled raw and earthy. He unscrewed the top of

his fountain pen.

About fifty yards away was the Colossus's tomb.

Samuel wanted to recreate what might have happened in that

tomb over two thousand years ago.

He began writing.

The artist mashed lumps of red clay into the water, dipped his

brush into the paste, and painted the branches of a banyan tree

with broad strokes. The foreman dozed beside him.

Sunlight streamed down through the stairwell and lit up a column

of fine dust. The pungent odor of dried cow dung and lime

that covered the walls hung heavy in the air.

Fifty men had spent the past two months digging out the tomb,

carefully watched by the head priest who had supervised every

minute of their work, their meals, even their sleep. Today, miraculously,

the priest had left them alone.

There was some writing on the east wall. The artist went over to it.

He and his kind would never know the divine power of the god men -

to read and write. He touched the curves of the beautiful symbols. The

wall felt cool. His fingers tingled as he thought of the secrets it held.

The foreman raised himself up on an elbow. "Is the demonic

priest back?"

The artist shook his head. "Tell me," he said, "why was this

man called the Colossus?"

The foreman looked at the artist's painting and frowned.

"You've made him too short. He must be taller, bigger."

The artist went on, "And is this his story written here?"

"Yes."

"That's unusual, isn't it?" the artist said. "These murals, this

writing, that priest watching us like a hawk?"

The foreman sighed. "You've kept your lips sealed long enough,

I suppose." He picked up a brush and started to clean it. "The

Colossus's name was Soodhanta," he said. "He was a rich trader.

About ten years ago, he visited a faraway island, Ikaria. He found

an unusual tribe living there. He was the first from these parts to

trade with them."

"Unusual how?" the artist asked.

"People in this tribe had wrinkled faces, their skin hung loose

all over their bodies, and they had lost most of their hair."

The artist's eyes grew wide. "Were they diseased?"

"They were old," the foreman said. "How long do our people

live? Thirty-five, forty summers? These people had seen more

years than we can ever hope to. And their bodies had shriveled

up as a result."

The artist gasped.

"The tribe refused to sell Soodhanta their secret." The foreman

paused for effect. "And so he stole it."

"What was the secret?" the artist asked.

"A concoction of vegetables and herbs, rolled into little discs."

The foreman held his forefinger and thumb slightly apart to indicate

their size. "About this big."

The artist's jaw fell open.

"Soodhanta stole urns full of them," the foreman said.

There was a rustle above ground.

"Did anyone here eat them?" the artist whispered. "Are there

any left?"

The foreman stretched his arm and pointed to the large urns

lining the back wall.

The artist put a hand to his chest and with a sharp cry, rushed

to the urns and tugged at the sealed tops. He couldn't pry them

loose.

"Stop!" the foreman cried.

The artist picked up a sharp rock.

The foreman was panic-stricken. "They will cut off your neck

and not even bother to wipe the blade before they get to mine.

Listen to me - "

Footsteps could be heard near the mouth of the tomb.

"They're coming!" the foreman said in a frantic whisper.

But the artist paid no heed.

The priest descended the narrow steps leading to the tomb, his

elaborate jewelry jangling with his every step.

And yet the artist was too fixated on the urns to notice. He

brought the rock down hard on one of them. It cracked. Little green

pills spilled out. The artist grabbed a handful and swallowed them.

Samuel put down his pen. Beside him sat a vial of the same green

pills. What a wonder that they had stayed intact for centuries. Were

they just an early multivitamin? No, surely they were a lot more than

that. The pills extended lives, the locals said. But something in them

choked life away, too. The pills were cursed.

Samuel Rosen didn't believe in curses. He was a scientist. And

he was determined to unlock the secret this little pill had held for so

very long.


CHAPTER ONE


Maxine Rosen's apartment

Lincoln Park, Chicago

June 2000

The alarm went off. The first few bars of "Metamorphosis" began to

play. For the sixth time.

This time, Max raised her groggy, disoriented head from her pillow.

Her long curls were plastered about her head and face. She

brushed some stray hair out of her eyes. A power nap had turned

into a two-hour-long siesta. With a grunt, she turned the alarm off.

Even though it was Philip Glass, at this quiet twilight hour the soft

piano notes felt like a grater against her nerves.

Max threw her legs over the side of the bed and looked down.

Bare thighs stared back at her. One of these days, she promised herself,

these soft thighs would not rub. No sir. They would stand taut

and firm, with that fashionable gap between them. She'd finally start

wearing mini skirts that would ride up, revealing -

Max jumped off the bed before her mind could race off to unpleasant

places.

She set a pot of coffee to brew and looked out the window at

the lake. Her condo, inherited from her late father, was a large two

bedroom with a magnificent view of Lake Michigan and the curving

Lake Shore Drive. Joggers were moving up and down the running

path parallel to the lake, their rhythmic movement taunting Max for

her lethargy.

Why couldn't they stay in just once? Watch TV or something.

The aroma of coffee slowly filled the room. Max poured herself a

cup. It was almost 8:00 pm. Late, but she could still go for a run. She

should go for a run. Well, more of a lumbering jog, really, one that

would have her looking like she was about to keel over with every

step. Unless she kept at it at least twice a week, her happy size ten

would be quickly left behind. Going up half a size over two weekends

was not unusual for Max. It was a battle she had grown up fighting,

and one she felt herself losing at every turn.

Her phone started to ring.

She answered it. "Maxine Rosen speaking."

"Front desk, Miss Rosen. Good evening. There's a visitor for you.

A Mr. Lars Lindstrom from London."

"Who?" Max rubbed her eyes.

"He's been calling for you all day. He's finally here now. He says

he knew your grandfather Samuel in Germany. It's urgent, he says."

Max yawned. "How's he dressed? How does he sound?"

"Impeccable."

"Okay, send him up, please. Uh... in about ten minutes."

Max pulled on a skirt and scrubbed the sleep off her face as she

went over her schedule for the next day. At noon she was seeing the

principal of a private school about catering their lunches. After that,

she had meetings with her accountant and two organic meat and

produce vendors. Her accountant was insisting that it was time she

mastered QuickBooks. He would send her into a dizzy spell with

lengthy discourses on cash flow management. Bargaining with the

vendors would feel like a fencing duel. Max wondered, not for the

first time, why she had taken all this on.

Because I love to cook and this is the best way to do what I love and

make money, she told herself. It was an oft-repeated mantra.

She went to the kitchen and looked over her tasting menu for the

school. Ravioli, check. Chickpea salad, check. Sweet potato fries, and

yes, the hummus and the peas curry. She had prepped some of the

items. She could do some more tonight and finish first thing tomorrow

morning.

An unwelcome pit formed in her stomach. She shouldn't do the

fries. They would turn soggy. In fact the entire menu she had planned

was child unfriendly. She began twirling a lock of her hair, slowly at

first, then at a more frantic pace.

Calm down, she told herself. Hadn't they asked for healthy, and if

possible, vegetarian food? Well, that was what she was giving them.

There was a knock at the door.

It would be fine, she thought as she undid the various locks. The

school would hire her. And there was that one lead to cater board

lunches at the Jewish Students Awareness Association. They might

want kosher though. With a sigh she opened the door.

A man, probably in his late seventies, stood in the hallway, wearing

an expensive-looking charcoal suit. He was slim. His head was

covered with thinning white hair and his eyes were dark behind rimless

glasses.

"Mr. Lars Lindstrom?" Max said. "I'm Max Rosen."

He took her hand and held it in a firm, almost desperate grip.

Max winced.

"You... you look like your grandfather," he said in a polished but

shaky voice. "The same large brown eyes, blemish-less skin. He was

a handsome man."

Max blushed, not sure how to respond.

"Seeing you reminds me of times I have done my best to forget.

Still, it's nice to meet you," he rasped.

Max stood aside. "Uh, come in, have a seat. I don't have much

time, I'm afraid. I have several meetings tomorrow that I must prepare

for."

"I'll make this brief. Let's see, what time is it now?" He glanced at

the cuckoo clock by the door and started.

Max laughed. "That clock has never told the right time."

It was her 11:32 cuckoo clock. Or rather, her father's. The cuckoo

clock's needles were frozen at 11:32, had been for years now. Since

just before Papa died, actually. Every time she was tempted to throw

it out, she stopped. She and Papa had laughed about the fact that the

clock, which had never told time correctly, would now at least tell

the right time twice a day. It had been one of their last happy moments

together.

"Would you like some coffee and a sandwich, Mr. Lindstrom?"

Max asked, moving towards the kitchen. "I was about to have

dinner."

"Call me Lars. Just coffee sounds wonderful."

"Please make yourself comfortable," Max said, motioning toward

the living room. She made a sandwich with leftover chicken and

homemade red pepper paste, poured two cups of steaming coffee,

and settled down in a chair facing Lars.

"So you knew my Opa - my grandfather," she said.

"I knew Samuel well, yes, but I'm really here to talk about your

father."

Max took a sip of coffee and bit into her sandwich. "Hope you

don't mind if I eat while we talk. I'm famished."

"Oh no, go ahead," Lars said, his voice and manner tense. "Now,

before I say what I must, I need you to trust me. I'm one of very few

people that have an ancient seal from the Indus Valley. Samuel gave

it to me when he returned from his visit there. Do you know about

this seal?"

Opa's Indian seal.

Yellowed memories began to grow vivid in Max's mind.

When she was about ten or eleven, she had stumbled upon

her grandfather's diary. Not long after she'd turned to the first

page, where she saw a bright red seal's embossment looking like

a melted piece of candy, Opa had found and scolded her. Her

tears had softened him, and he told her that the mark was made

by his lucky seal. "This seal is from the Indus Valley, formerly in

India," he had said as he showed her the seal. "An advanced civilization

lived there thousands of years ago. This is a copy of a real

seal. The original belonged to a man they called the Colossus. An

archeologist friend gave it to me when I was in India visiting the

Colossus's tomb."

His face and voice had taken on a somber tone. Max had wondered

why was he so sad talking about it, if it was his lucky seal.

He didn't offer any more stories, and asked her not to mention it to

anyone else. It was to be their secret.

A few months later, Opa died. And with him all his stories.

Max put her sandwich down. "I do know about the seal, but - "

Lars Lindstrom held up his hand. "Hiram - uh, your father - was

doing some research before he died. It was work he took over from

Samuel. I knew this work too. You see, I was Samuel's assistant in his

lab at Berliner Pharmaceuticals. In Germany."

A knot formed in Max's stomach, its grip slowly growing stronger.

She drew back a little.

"Oh dear, I've upset you," Lars said gently. "This must be so unsettling.

A stranger comes to your door and starts yammering about

your father and grandfather."

Max shook her head. "It's fine," she said. "I'm just - " She gave a

little laugh. "I've had a harrowing day, that's all."

They sipped their coffees.

"So you're from London," Max said at last. "I'd love to visit someday.

What brought you to Chicago?"

Lars smiled. "I came here to say goodbye to some old friends at

the French pastry school. And I thought it was time that I see you."

He let out a loud sigh, rubbed his hands together, and put them on

his thighs. He looked at her with melancholic eyes. "Five years ago,

following your father's death, I received a package from him, sent by

his lawyer."

Max raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"

"It contained a coded research document and a letter." Lars

handed her a sheet of paper.

Max recognized her father's handwriting.

"Go ahead, read it," Lars said.


CHAPTER TWO


"Dear Lars," Max read aloud, "You are in possession of my most important

work. I have not been able to show it to the world and I'm no longer

around to do so. You should know that for the past several months I have

been receiving threats from our former employer, Berliner Pharmaceuticals."

Max let out a stifled cry.

"Steady, child," Lars said.

She read on. "Consider it a dead man's last wish to make sure this

research sees the light of day. I'm arranging to send you two packages. As

a precaution, this package with the coded research will be rerouted prior

to reaching you.

"The other package contains a sheet of paper with the key to decode the

research, and a vial. The vial contains the health pills my father got from

the Indus Valley dig in India. These are the pills you and he worked on at

Berliner just before the war.

"Since you are familiar with the origins of this work, I am making a

huge assumption that you might still have an interest in it. If not for my

sake, do this for my father's. But please do not involve my daughter. I want

to spare Max any pain associated with this work. I trust you to do the right

thing. Call my lawyer at 773-555-8327 if you need to.

"Yours most gratefully, Hiram Rosen"

Max gripped the arms of her chair. The room began to blur. Don't

faint, she told herself over and over. She put down the letter, moved

unsteadily to a corner of the living room, and threw up all over a pot

of pink begonias. Memories of Papa began playing like a movie in her

head, and she broke into heaving sobs.

Lars went to her and held her shaking shoulders.

"That was insensitive of me," he said in a pained voice. He handed

her a large white handkerchief and led her back to her chair.

"You think this means Papa didn't commit suicide," Max whispered.

"These threats from Berliner... you think they were carried

out? Is that how he died?"

How angry she had been with her father. And now, this... this

meant she had been unfair to him for years, even if it was only in her

thoughts.

But how was it possible? Scientist and researcher Dr. Hiram Rosen's

death was caused by alcohol and aspirin poisoning, accidental or selfinflicted,

the newspapers had reported. There had been no doubt in

the police's minds about that, she remembered.

"Perhaps they drove him to suicide," Lars said with some

hesitation.

Max tried to suppress the pangs of grief filling her chest.

"But how? Why?" she cried. "I mean, what is this research about,

anyway?"

"I must give you some background. About me, about this whole

business. I'm going about this all wrong." Lars pursed his lips and

pressed his hands together. "But first, a glass of water for you, my

child." He went into the kitchen.

Max took the water from him and sipped slowly. They didn't

speak for a while. Max stared at the floor, her mind numb, her body

drained of strength.

"Let's see," Lars said slowly. "I was a student at Berlin University

when I worked with Samuel. This was in the mid to late thirties.

During this time, Samuel was invited to India on an archeological

dig. They had found some mysterious little green discs in the Indus

Valley - medicinal pills - that the locals claimed was the pill of

immortality."

"Really?" Max said.

"Well," Lars said with a wave of his hand, "they were health pills

that helped the ancient Indus people live longer lives, a potent combination

of herbs and vegetable matter. But because of its legend,

Samuel was excited."

"What happened then?" Max refilled their cups with fresh coffee.

Lars smiled gratefully. "Samuel brought some back to Germany.

We found that the pills did prolong life by reducing metabolic rate.

My memory fails me now as to the details. But I do remember that

we found a contagious bacterium in the pill. In 1939, the war began.

As a Jew, Samuel's heritage became an issue when the Nazis came to

power. When Berliner couldn't protect him anymore, he was sent

off to Krippenwald labor camp. We were unable to finish our work."

"So Papa presumably took over the work you and Opa had left

unfinished," Max said. "But Papa worked in genetics. What's the connection

between your work and his?"

"I don't know," Lars said. "After Samuel was taken away, I couldn't

bear to remain in Germany. I went to London. There I met my future

wife and took over her family patisserie. It was a good life and I lost

all interest in returning to a career in pharmaceuticals. Samuel and I

stayed in touch off and on, but we never met again." Lars stared out

the window, eyes unfocused. "Samuel once mentioned to me that

Hiram was interested in our work on the Indus pills. I didn't know

the extent of Hiram's involvement in Samuel's research until after

your father's death. But by the looks of it, he unearthed something

about the pills that made Berliner nervous." Lars turned back to face

Max. "I called on you because I thought you might have some relevant

papers Hiram or Samuel may have kept."

"I have nothing work related of Papa's," Max said. "As for Opa, he

burned almost all of his papers in a fit of rage one evening. All I have

left from him is his seal and a diary, but most of it is torn and burned."

"Why don't you give this some thought?" Lars said. "Perhaps you

might be able to guess the key to decode Hiram's research."

"It's a really, really long shot," Max said. She put her hands over

her thighs to stop them from jiggling, picked up her sandwich, and

stared at it. Gosh, she was hungry. How morbid that she would

want to eat despite their conversation, despite throwing up, despite

feeling such raging sorrow. Disgusted with herself, she took

a defiant bite.

"Of course, once we crack the code, if we ever do, we'll need the

actual pills," Lars said, his face somber. "For peer review, et cetera.

Otherwise Hiram's findings, whatever they are, will make a weak

case."

Max stared at Lars. "Papa arranged to send this to you five years

ago. Why did you wait this long to - ?"

Lars turned away. "My wife was ill at the time. She died, but there

was our daughter. I didn't want to put her in danger." He paused. "In

case Hiram had been - well, if Berliner Pharmaceuticals had in any

way been involved in his passing. Besides, the second package containing

the key to decode the research and the vial of the pills never

arrived. All I had was his research, but it was coded and therefore

gibberish. I called Hiram's lawyer and told him that I would protect

the research but would do nothing with it. It was a coward's act,

but... " Lars shrugged.

"What did the lawyer say to that?" Max asked.

"What could he say? He agreed that without the key, the research

was useless. He asked me to let him know if the key ever surfaced. But

it never did. He was rather puzzled that I had received the package

containing Hiram's research. Hiram had rerouted it several times and

sent it to a post office box in London addressed not to me, but to Dr.

Klein, about which I received detailed instructions."

"Who's Dr. Klein?" Max asked.

"Me! Your grandfather called me that. Klein means "little one" in

German. I was rather young then, you see."

"All right, what about the second package?"

"That had been sent directly from the lawyer's office, also to that

same PO box. But it didn't reach me. Possibly mislaid. Or, more

likely, stolen."

"By Berliner?"

"Only they would have known Samuel's nickname for me," Lars

said. "So yes."

That her father had been involved in all this intrigue stunned Max.

It was as if she hadn't known him at all.

"What changed your mind?" Max said with a frown. "Why now?"

"I needed to do it," he said tightly.

Max was surprised at the calm she was starting to feel. Lunches

delivered late were usually enough to leave her in a cold sweat. Maybe

this was how numbing fear felt.

"I called Hiram's lawyer again a few days ago and asked him for

your contact information," Lars said. "And well, here I am."

Max tried telling herself that knowing the truth about Papa was

better, even if it burned a hole inside her that might never go away.

"Hiram's lawyer had asked me when I first called him five years

ago if Kevin Forsyth was involved in Hiram's work in any way," Lars

said. "Do you know him?"

"Kevin Forsyth is father's former business partner." Max said

sharply. "I don't know him and I don't trust him. Papa and he started

a business years ago. It failed. Papa never told me the details, but he

hinted that Kevin Forsyth cheated him somehow. Papa was bitter

about it for a long time." She shifted in her chair. "He started drinking.

It was bad."

"I'm sorry," Lars said softly.

"So is Kevin involved?"

"Not to my knowledge or the lawyer's," Lars said. "But apparently,

despite everything, Hiram admired Kevin, which is why the lawyer

mentioned him."

Max closed her eyes. Her shoulders slumped forward. "This whole

thing is as hopeless as it was five years ago."

Lars stood up and went to the windows facing the lake. "Remember

I said I was here to say goodbye to some friends? Well, a few

weeks ago, I found out I had stomach cancer. Stage three."

"Oh no - I'm so sorry," Max said.

She had seen death at close quarters. Papa's death had been a

shock, but it had made her angry more than upset. Mama's passing

had been different. Her mother had died of lung cancer when Max

was ten. She had watched helplessly as her mother suffered through

the intense pain of her disease, seen her smile through it all until the

very end.

Lars took a deep breath. "I thought about Hiram as I sat making

plans. I thought I'd destroy his research. Years had passed. No one

was asking about it. But I couldn't. And since I didn't have Hiram's

help in the form of the key, I'm taking the liberty of asking for yours.

Despite his wish that I keep you out of this."

Max didn't know how to respond. She was still smarting from the

shock of Lars's revelations. "What sort of code is it?" she asked.

"I was told it's a substitution cipher - using one letter for another -

or a book cipher where the substitution is based on a portion

of text. Or it could be a more complex one."

Max turned to her enormous movie collection. "I saw a documentary

about complex coding once. About the Enigma machine. It was

used to send secret messages by Germans." Max realized her voice

had grown animated.

Lars smiled.

Max was embarrassed. "Papa and I loved movies. We'd watch

our favorites over and over again. Sometimes I wish I could watch

movies all day," she said wistfully. "Whether I am stressed or happy,

I watch movies. Or I eat." She looked away, upset with herself for

being so candid.

"Well, I hope it isn't coded like your Enigma machine," Lars said.

"You said you still have Samuel's diary. Is it here?"

Max walked over to a small safe and opened it. After looking

through it for a few minutes, she said, "It must be in the safe at my

catering kitchen. Sorry, I'm horribly disorganized."

"Can we go look for it now?" There was urgency in Lars's voice.

"I leave for London tomorrow."

Max had never before felt more exhausted. It was as if the last hour

had torn her into ribbons. And she had so much to do for tomorrow.

She looked at Lars's desperate face. "Sure," she said.


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About the Author

Ranjini Iyer

Ranjini Iyer was born in Germany and grew up in India. She trained as an engineer purely because she hero worshipped her PhD holding dad. She then got herself an MBA in the U.S and stayed on.

Even as she pursued careers as a business owner, small business consultant, film producer and non profit managing director, there always remained an urge to write that had been there since childhood.

Following the birth of her children, she focused more and more on writing. Eventually, some of it became passably good.

The Colossus is her first (well...published) novel.

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