Editor’s note: Back in the mists of time, LabLit.com used to have a forum, and a spontaneously assembled, multiply-authored lab lit story made it about halfway through before petering out. Recently, our Deputy Editor thought it deserved to be finished, and we are pleased to present the result as a regular serial, which we hope you will enjoy!
“Thank you for the coffee.”
He nudged the door open with his fingertips and sniffed. A sharpness in the evening air promised a late frost.
“Thank you for the flowers,” she said, smiling. “It was good of you to visit.”
“Well, it had been a long time, and I was worried over him.”
She nodded. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I haven’t said anything, I promise. Poor Mary. You understand that I never meant to hurt him?”
“I believe you, but you know how important he is to me. Anyway, I am sorry to have been a trouble.”
“Oh no, it was no trouble. Please, come by again.”
When he had left, she sprayed the flowers with the atomizer, and took a deep breath of the scent.
Charlotte loved freesias.
Chapter One: The Funeral
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way
– Isaiah 53:6
Professor Thomas Slater realized that it wasn’t going to be so difficult to be inconspicuous after all. Lurking at the fringes, he was just one of dozens of anonymous, black-coated older men, huddled deep into their collars against the persistent drizzle.
A pretty woman like Charlotte, first a jet-setting scientist and later an up-and-coming editor at Nature, would have collected scores of male acquaintances over the years, he reflected. She had been good at it.
Slater examined his feelings. Still nothing. Nada. No sadness, no pain, no regret. If anything, the slightest hint of relief that the entire episode was about to be, once and for all, buried. Literally. He knew there was a terrible feeling underneath, but he simply couldn’t access it.
Maybe it was for the best.
The rain misted Slater’s glasses, trickled a cold path down his neck. The yellow tinting made the grey world even murkier, like a faded sepia print: all the black-clad shoulders in front of him could have been dead relatives from another era.
“From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” intoned the vicar, his hand with the prayer book shaking almost imperceptibly.
Incipient Parkinson’s, noted Slater. It wouldn’t be long before the vicar would be at the receiving end of those incantations.
“Jesus Christ, our Saviour, shall raise you up on the last day.”
Slater zoned out. A single bird chirped, out of place. An aeroplane droned by, low en route for Stansted. The occasional sob, hastily stifled. A woman in front of Slater shifted, giving him a clear view of the open grave, of Charlotte’s grieving mother, and then –
It was her.
His shadow. Unmistakable. Straight platinum hair, sunglasses, stylish black overcoat, expressionless. Showing up at a funeral. Like she was a Fed and he was some mobster, scared out into the light by another turf-war killing.
She had been tailing him for weeks. At first Slater had assumed she was a private detective, hired by his ever paranoid wife. But recently he wasn’t so sure. There was something about her that screamed spook. MI5, MI6, maybe Foreign Office – which made him nervous, because it suggested that his contact was becoming impatient and had sent someone else to hound him. He had a bit of an idea what they wanted, but he sensed he was not in any imminent danger. She would reveal her intentions, eventually, and Slater had no desire to make the first move.
A soft voice from behind, a hand on his arm. Mike. He would know that voice anywhere, with its faint Dutch accent. He hadn’t been expecting Mike. But of course Mike would have come. To show his loyalty.
Slater didn’t want to talk to Mike, or anyone else, but he turned to face his senior postdoc nonetheless.
The long, black limo snaked through the gateway, attended by a convoy of mourners’ vehicles. Wipers swished and squeaked, not so much clearing the glass as spreading the layers of grease and mud into the corners.
Once, thought Michel, just once it would be good to attend a funeral on a glorious summer’s day. He remembered how, as an undergraduate, he had wandered through the Botanical Gardens and read the notice proclaiming that “Cambridge has a semiarid climate.”
Today was obviously a ‘semi’ day.
He sighed softly, pinched out the joint, and trudged after the cortège.
She was there again. But she would be. He had seen the white Ford parked illegally down Priory Street – not that a parking ticket would have worried her. And what kind of Emma Peel was she pretending to be, wearing dark sunglasses on a day like this?
He looked around to see if there was anyone else he recognized, anyone else to avoid. There was Prof, of course, and any number of senior scientists from Cambridge and London. One or two Nature editorial staff as well.
The familiar mumbling of the Our Father faltered and stuttered to a close, and Michel wondered what these mourners had hidden away and hoped no one else knew; what hypocrisies they trumpeted, what trespasses were theirs.
“En vergeef ons onze schulden,” he whispered, as he walked towards his boss.
It had to be done, although he knew he would regret it. Prof was one of the few people that he could talk to without his skin crawling, but even so, any more than a few minutes at a time and he would be useless for the rest of day. Unless they were discussing experiments, or writing a paper – for some reason that was all right. But anything on a personal level was hell.
Slater had not heard him approach, probably too wrapped up in his own misery, thought Michel. He reached out a hand.
The older man turned, a faint smile on his lips. “Good of you to come.”
Michel nodded. Now, what was it? Oh yes.
“Would you like a coffee, Tom? I think my salary can stretch to it.”
Slater laughed gently, seemingly genuinely amused. “That’s very kind, Mike, but if you don’t mind, I think I need some time to myself. Maybe some other time?”
Michel tried not to look relieved. “Of course,” he replied, “some other time. I shall go back to the lab and see if the sequencing results are in.”
“Oh Mike, I despair sometimes,” Slater said. “Today of all days? Don’t you ever take time off? When you’re not on your bike, I mean.”
“Today, Tom, it is raining. My bicycle does not like the Cambridge roads when it is wet. I shall see you later, then.” Michel turned to leave, but stopped, and looked into the trees.
“Prof?” he asked, “The lady with the sunglasses. Is she known to you?”
“Which lady?” Slater asked, to buy time. His heart started to beat a bit faster.
Michel pointed discreetly with a finger barely raised from his hip, matched it with a brief jerk of his head while Slater pretended to look for his shadow. She had belatedly put an umbrella up and was murmuring into a mobile phone.
“The blonde lady with the black coat.”
“Never seen her before in my life, why do you ask?”
His voice was casual, but Slater patted down his jacket pockets in memory of a packet of Marlboro and his lighter. The show was over and people were starting to stream past them, away from the black hole that had swallowed up Charlotte like she had never existed, sucking at her brilliant light until it was extinguished forever. Some sort of weird fever, he had heard – the obit had been thin on facts, but rumours were already swirling around the institute. Something so weird that the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had been consulted.
“I find her a bit vreemd – you know, odd.”
“Probably just someone from Nature,” Slater said. He gave a small, forced laugh. “They must have been odd to reject our last paper without review.”
Michel shrugged, restoring his gaze downward, failing to laugh at the jest. Michel never looked anyone in the eye, as far as Slater could see, nor managed to keep up with the lab banter. He was a bit of an odd one – very Dutch in his directness, but lacking that happy-go-lucky goofiness that Slater usually associated with his kind. Slater suspected that he was a bit Asperger’s – but it was so hard to tell with certain of the more gung-ho postdocs.
And Mike was about as gung-ho as they came.
The wind had stiffened, and Michel hunched his shoulders. Then he coughed, and looked at the darkening sky.
“Ha. You joke, Prof. I see now.” Mike turned towards the iron gates of the cemetery, and added, “but I think your little April drizzle is turning into a storm, and I will catch the bus.”
“Fair enough, Mike. Will you be at the wake?”
“I do not think so. There is much to do. See you tomorrow,” and Michel crunched towards the main road.
“Take some time off!” Slater shouted after him, but there was no sign that he had heard.