Chapter Eight: The Sample

 

Scatter my ashes and let my feelings go
 – James Patrick "Jim" Glennie

“You do not know what you say,” Michel said. “We have procedures, we have clean rooms – ”

“But she died of chikungunya fever. And you had some in the lab. Is it possible she could have been infected by it?” 

Slater fell into Jade’s chair, heart hammering against his chest. The spooks had to be bluffing – the death had been accidental.

Max looked at Toni, his eyes wide. 

Michel sighed, his temper subsiding. “Yes, Charlotte got some from Tropical Medicine. But there was an argument. Tom, I mean Professor Slater, he wanted to concentrate on the influenza subtypes and told Charlotte to destroy the sample.” 

“But she could have kept it, had an accident?” persisted Toni. 

“No.” Michel was emphatic. “What would she do? Prep it in her kitchen at home? Anyway, chikungunya is not normally fatal, and certainly not the isolate she would have got from London.” He turned away, looked out over the fields to Great Shelford, “We all liked Charlotte. What you say, it is very upsetting to me. To us all.” 

Toni stepped forward and touched Michel’s elbow. He pulled away, shoulders tense. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, “maybe I can buy you a drink sometime?” 

Michel shrugged. “Perhaps. I have to go now.” Before she could respond, he turned and headed up the stairs, two at a time. 

“What the hell are you doing?” hissed Max, “where did chicken-thing virus come into it? How did you know that’s what was in the parcel from Tropical Medicine?” 

“Just a hunch,” Toni said, “and I followed up on it. It’s called journalism.”

**********

Slater nodded to the man on the desk, who didn’t register his passing, and jogged lightly up the stairs and into his lab. No music, no signs of life – perhaps, like him, everybody else had had a late night too. Nearly eleven – Christ. Wait, there was Michel’s cycling jacket and helmet hanging on pegs behind the door, but the Dutchman was nowhere to be found. Slater was relieved; he didn’t want to face anyone just yet, not with a hangover of these proportions. 

Slater dumped his briefcase and jacket and walked warily to the departmental secretary’s room, where the post (what little dregs remained in the age of email) was distributed every morning into pigeon holes. Every cell in his body was crying out for caffeine, but he wanted to grab his mail while Jade was down at her regular-as-clockwork cigarette break. Slater had recently realized that his newish PA had an inconvenient, not to mention unwanted, crush on him, and as a result he tried to avoid her whenever possible. He kept meaning to have a word with the agency about replacing her – the frequent cigarette breaks would be a good excuse – but he never seemed to find a spare moment. 

He ducked his head into the room – no Jade. Her phone was ringing but the rest of the room was silent and unoccupied. Slater slipped a hand into his pigeon hole and removed a wodge of post. One slim padded envelope from Amy Cresswell, Luis Santiago’s postdoc – this would be the crucial plasmid Michel had recently requested. A brilliant spot of luck that the woman had sent it directly to Slater – he’d chuck the parcel into the rubbish bin back home and by the time Michel realized it was “lost in the post” a month could easily have gone by. One more month of time bought, which would give Amy the chance to finally submit her competitive results to a top journal and leave Slater and Michel scooped and floundering in the dust. And then, maybe then…

He slipped the small parcel into his jacket pocket, chucked the rest of the junk mail into the recycle bin then turned to a white envelope, addressed to him but with no return address. Oddly, no stamp or postmark either. Nobody internally ever sent stuff on paper anymore. Slater felt a tingle of unease as he slid it open.

A single sheaf of A4, briefly typed: no greeting, no signature: 

“Condolences for your loss, but we are losing patience. The girl’s death was tragic – but you would not want something like that to happen to any other of your young charges, would you?”

Slater fell into Jade’s chair, heart hammering against his chest. The spooks had to be bluffing – the death had been accidental. Some freak infection, probably caught in a crowded international departure lounge on her multi-legged trip back from a conference in Athens. Chikungunya fever – not the spy’s weapon of choice, too bloody conspicuous. Besides, chikungunya seldom killed its victims; Charlotte had been spectacularly unlucky. In fact, the smarmily sympathetic consultant from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had even said – 

Suddenly, Slater was slammed by a lost memory. The LSHTM. Hadn’t Charlotte requested a sample of something from them, when she was in her headstrong phase of not listening to a word he said? The minute they’d started sleeping together, he’d lost all intellectual control and she’d developed some insane theory about alphaviruses, about rearrangements, about viral evolution. He’d squelched it straight away, but not before she’d sweet-talked some sample out of an impressionable young male technician. But that was years before she died. And anyway, the sample had been destroyed soon afterwards, he thought. At least, he had ordered Charlotte to destroy it unopened. 

But Charlotte had long since stopped obeying him by that point.

Hands shaking, Slater woke up Jade’s computer and went into the Wolfhaven’s online Materials Transfer database, where all scientific reagents incoming or outgoing had been religiously logged for the past decade. And there it was, under Charlotte’s name: 

Chikungunya virus, strain Bangalore 235A, 10 µL (105 pfu). 

Receipt status: OK. 

Signature: Paul Fellows. 

Jade’s phone rang again, making Slater cry out. His racing heart was making him dizzy and nauseous. He quit the program, pocketed the envelope and careered like a blind man to the coffee room, moving automatically through the queue until the double espresso was in his hand, the aroma coursing into his nervous system like an intravenous drip. 

The morning break rush was raucous around him, seemingly hundreds of colleagues chatting, laughing, swirling past, but he felt as if he were in a sterile bubble of fear. His hands were shaking so hard he could scarcely keep the liquid in the paper cup – and that’s when he looked up and saw Michel blocking his way.

**********

Brad Pettier didn’t recognize the number that glowed on his phone. Last night, after Slater had humiliated him he’d headed towards the Wetherspoons and his Rugby club, consoling himself that there was a very real possibility that someone was going to get punched. A line had clearly been drawn, but pick your battles, his Granddaddy had always said. Sometimes you gotta let the other fella think he’s won, just so’s you can come back twice as strong when he don’t expect it. Even so, damn, but walking away had hurt.

He’d soon forgotten thoughts of young female technicians, dumb wakes for some chick he hardly knew, and that old bastard. He could fuck that French chick all night for all the good it’d do him, Brad had decided as he and his mates arrived at The Rat and Parrot on their typical crawl along Downing Street.

But things always seemed to go wrong, or right depending on your point of view, around that time of the evening. The pub was usually full, which of course meant lots of young female undergraduates. Although it rarely registered on a conscious level, as they approached – or in some cases passed – their early thirties there was an increasing air of desperation among the unattached members of the group. By midnight those still single began to drown their sorrows with renewed vigour. Recently Brad felt that he had been spending more time in that demographic than was comfortable. His hangover mocked him, reminding him that in his advancing years he could no longer drink with the impunity of youth. 

He listened to his voicemail and felt his heart drop further into his stomach, a wave of nausea making him grasp at his bedpost for support.

It was that damned lady cop pestering him about the results of the toxicology run he’d performed on the samples taken from Charlotte. He clutched his head, pulling his hair. He’d forgotten to call her back with his fucking results! 

Yes, one of his colleagues was dead, but could he trust his damned data? All his analysis to date identified the virus as a rare, but not completely uncommon strain that Charlotte may well have picked up on her travels to Africa or the Far East. But the virulence of the strain was far too high, and the toxins produced made no sense. Based on his analysis his only conclusion could be that this must be an engineered organism. And that prospect was just too terrifying for him to grasp fully. 

Who the hell would engineer something like this? How the hell had Charlotte been infected? 

Brad was an intelligent young man with a good, although frequently misplaced, heart. His mind just didn’t run into conspiracy theories. He couldn’t grasp the straws needed to tie his results together. 

He stumbled to his bathroom, ran the shower cold and stared at the haggard face reflected in the mirror. He would have to call the cop, whatever her name was. But what the hell was he going to tell her?

Richard P Grant

About the author

Richard Grant is our Deputy Editor. A British molecular cell biologist and structural biochemist, he now specializes in strategic content at a pharma comms agency in London. He writes fiction under the pseudonym 'rpg' and tweets as @rpg7twit. In addition to helping to steer LabLit's editorial direction, he helps edit fiction and poetry. He blogs at Confessions of a (Former) Lab Rat on Occam's Typewriter.