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Private Investigations, Part II

From the LabLit fiction series

rpg 16 March 2008

You ever see a PhD being made? It’s not pretty. You take a kid, still spotty, put him through three or four years of hell, end up with a machine

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the second episode of a four-part story about the adventures of a very special scientist-for-hire.

Am I boring you yet?

Mr Big took me round the joint, filled me in. I emptied myself and came back. It was a smooth operation he ran. You know those four-bladed razors they do? That kind of smooth. Smoother. It could get your phone number at a party and you wouldn’t even know it.

The main business is PhDs. You ever see a PhD being made? It’s not pretty. You take a kid, still spotty, put him through three or four years of hell, end up with a machine. Do it right and you can squeeze the life out of him.

Yeah, they’re exploited, but that’s how it is. They do all the dirty work, all the cases no one wants; desperate, see? They’ll do anything to get that piece of paper. The Government knows, of course – they even pay us to do it. Slave labour, really.

But it’s all a front. The real work is tracking down proteins. Who they’re with, where they’re going, what they do when they get there. Dangerous work, dirty work.

Come over, look at this. Those dots, these patterns – mean anything to you?

No, they don’t mean anything to me either. Damn. But you learn here, and learn fast. You have to, otherwise you’re out; no job, no money and one dark night you just…disappear. Not good to have failures running around on the street, scares the punters.

Oh, no: no one dies, as such. I think they get recruited into Admin, which is the same thing. The Government? As long as we keep churning out the PhDs they don’t look twice, don’t care.

No, you won’t have seen this place in the papers, or on television. When the press want an interview we hire a warehouse someplace, find an out-of-work actor, give him – or more likely her, if she looks good – the script and pay them to shut up.

But it works, see? Occasionally we announce that we’ve discovered something important, the press crawl all over us, and the Minister gives us some more money. Best thing is when we can buy a Nobel Prize. The payoff is big. Very big. Bigger than the Bank of England big. All the money comes back, one way or another.

You’re joking. But then, I thought the operation was clean too, when I started. Plenty of others like this around the world, no one thinks this place is different. I don’t think they think that. I think I’d know if they thought that.

Mr Big said nothing about it. He showed me the labs, the rows of white coats, the equipment. Then I was in, working for Bruce on my first case. The broad gave me a hard time at first, but she warmed to me. Blast furnace warm. I got third degree burns in five minutes.

“Hey Richards,” she said two weeks later, “you look new here.”

She was smart, as well as sassy. I shrugged. I didn’t want to give too much away. She blew smoke in my face. I emptied a fire extinguisher at her.

“You put my fire out, babe. You’ve got balls.” She winked, dropped the matches and walked away. My eyes were watering. She was fast, as well as smart. The others pretended not to notice. I looked, and they weren’t looking. They looked as if they weren’t looking, so I knew they were looking.

I followed the broad out of the room.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?” I asked.

“What’s in a name, babe?”

“Letters, for one. Sometimes those funny accent things, if it’s a French name.”

“You’re a funny man, Richards. You’d better watch your back.”

I twisted around. “That’s going to be difficult, sweetheart. I could use some help.”

She moved closer and whispered in my ear:

“They’re on to Bruce.”

I grimaced. “You’re standing on my foot,” I said.

She backed off. I followed. She backed up further. I followed again. I had no choice – my shoelace was caught in her hobnail boots.

Luckily I had a book of matches. I tore one out and set fire to the lace.

Outside, after the fire department had damped down and left, she came back over.

“Smart move, Richards. Destroy the evidence. I like your style.” She put her hand in my pocket and kissed me on the cheek.

As she walked away, I felt in my pocket. I pulled out a half-eaten cream doughnut. I figured she must be sweet on me. I could have caught up with her easily enough, but finished the doughnut instead.

She turned around and came back.

“Sorry, I meant to give you this.” She pushed a folded paper into my hand and walked away again. It’s not often a beautiful woman leaves you twice in one day. I felt like my heart would break, but it was just indigestion. I never did find out her name, but it didn’t matter after that; I never saw her again.

Back upstairs I scraped the cream off the paper and unfolded it. I read it through, twice. Then I turned the paper upside-down and read it again. It didn’t look any better:

Richards. I’m writing this quickly because I know you won’t have much time to read it. Do not trust the Germans.

With love,

The Sassy Redhead xxxx

PS Your fly is undone.

I looked down, which meant I didn’t see the ape detach from the shadows and lay me out with a monkey wrench. Everything went dark.

When I came to, my head hurt. My back felt like a Prussian marching band had lost the key to the town hall and had been trying to keep warm by marching up and down my spine. While playing Wagner. Bright lights swam across my vision. I couldn’t move my arm. The ape was still standing on it.

“Just a message from the Germans, Richards.” he growled. “Don’t get any more funny ideas.”

I tried to answer, but fireworks went off. The ape reached over and closed the window.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “It must be Guy Fawkes’ Night.” He left the room. Two minutes later he was back.

“Um, how do I get out?”

“Down the stairs, to the left.”


Over the next few weeks I puzzled over things in my mind. Who were the Germans? Why didn’t they like my jokes? Where was Bruce? Why were we celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night in July?

Bruce had gone missing just after the fire alarm. No one knew where, or why. That’s why it’s called ‘missing’. I called the local flatfoots. They said he was missing too. I checked his office, his bench, looking for some clues, or even a book of matches. The trail went cold. So had my coffee.

Then I found a half-completed experiment. Two tubes, labelled, in the lab fridge. I read the labels and had an idea. It was a wild idea. It was a mad idea. It was the kind of idea that would either get you a medal or a posthumous court martial.

It got me the position of Principle Investigator. And then all the proteins went missing.

[Continued next week]