Chapter Eleven: The Volunteer


If it turns out that someone at the Institute has been involved with this death, wouldn’t you like to know?
…he writes there 
in invisible handwriting
the instructions the genes follow.
– RS Thomas

Sabine checked her watch against the clock over the door. It wasn’t that she and Max ever agreed to meet, but his habit was to be at the lab half an hour after leaving his office. And no one in Max’s company ever did any work after three on Friday afternoons. 

True, he had claimed to have an emergency meeting at some stupid hour this morning, and that might have put his entire day out; but Sabine knew that he had been lying. She opened her mobile, and closed it again. 

A familiar smell reached her nose. She pushed away from her desk and walked over to Michel’s bench. 

“I did not think you used the nail varnish for your nails, Michel,” she said, softly, “but what is it you are doing?” 

Michel did not look up, but continued at his task. Sabine watched him as he held a glass coverslip in forceps; as he dipped it in three different beakers, dried it on tissue; and finally, placed it on a drop of liquid on a slide. Just as she was beginning to think he had not heard her, he said, 

“The mountant for the slides sets fast, like glue, but does not hold the coverslip permanently. I paint the edges,” he picked up the nail varnish and took the brush, “like this, and it seals them.” He put the slide into a small black cardboard box. “And in half an hour it will be ready for the microscope.” 

Sabine blinked. “Do you buy the nail varnish yourself?” 

“Yes,” Michel said, “Is there a reason I should not?” 

Before Sabine could reply, Slater came out of his office, coat over his arm and briefcase in hand. 

“Mike, can we talk about that mutant tomorrow? I have to go now, and I need to think about what you said earlier.” 

Michel stood up. “Of course Prof. But tomorrow is Saturday, and I think – “ 

“Oh blast! And I have to take Mary to see her mother. Bugger. Monday then. First thing?” 

“My ‘first thing’ or yours?” 

“Cheeky bastard. All right, have a good weekend – you too Sabine. Try to stop Mike working so hard.” 

As he left, Michel looked at the clock. 

Kak! I am supposed to be meeting that reporter woman in ten minutes! I will need to come back to finish this.” 

“Toni? I saw her note. Are you going?” 

“She wants to talk about our work with viruses. It will be good for the lab for people to read about us.” 

How can such a bright man be so naïve? Sabine wondered. Not for the first time she found herself looking at his legs, toned and muscular from cycling. Ah! If only he would do something about his clothes. 

“May I come with you?” she asked. 

Michel went quiet, and stared at his desk for what seemed like several minutes. 

Finally: “I am afraid that I might bore you. I am not very good at talking, Sabine.” 

“I know. That is why I want to come with you.”


Toni realized that the afternoon had flown by faster than she had planned. After leaving her card at the virus doctor’s desk and walking out with Max, they thought it might be best to show up at their respective workplaces. She had an article to write and some research to do before the meeting at the pub. She couldn’t help but wonder if Michel would appear, as he had seemed a little hostile at first. 

“Scientists,” she sighed out loud. “Who knows, maybe a beer would loosen him up?” 

The phone on her desk rang and she glanced at her watch: it had to be Max calling to check if she had changed her mind. 

“No Max, I’m still going. I’m meeting him in like two hours. Uh huh.”

She glanced around the office. It was already half-empty, the interns out on assignments and the boss greasing some local politico. Her article was languishing unread on his desk, and she’d learned as much from scientific articles and a breathless write-up in New Scientist as she was ever going to. 

Sod it.

“Sure, if you’re hungry. I wouldn’t say no to something small either. OK, I’ll see you there in a bit.”


The pub smelt stale, in that dead period between the late lunch and the early knocking-off pints. They had taken a booth, where Toni insisted on sitting facing the door. 

“Max, you know I don’t like having my back against people. Who knows who might sneak in?” 

They had finished their meal, and when Max finally looked up at her, she noticed the haggard look in his eyes. 

“Are you OK?” 

He shook his head and took a sip of his beer, Newcastle on tap, just as he always liked. 

“I’m sorry, I really don’t like this. I lied to Sabine this morning and now I haven’t heard from her all day.” 

“So?” Toni frowned. “What do you mean? You don’t talk every day during work hours, do you?” 

“Maybe not, but now I’m here with you instead of going to the lab and meeting her. And I still don’t know what I’m going to tell her tonight.” 

Toni hated to hurt people she liked, and she really liked Max. They’d been friends for a long time, ever since college. She’d been the one to call it off, but despite that – maybe even because of it – she still cared about him and wanted him to be happy. The question was, was Sabine the woman to give him that happiness? So far, the time they had been together it seemed all he did was walk over to the lab and hang out waiting for Sabine to be done with work. 

At least, she mused, he had someone to wait for. Who did she have? Who waited for her?

She hadn’t had a boyfriend for a long time – probably why her work, and especially this job, were so important to her. They were her ticket out of the small paper, the small town, with its small town fashion and self-centred community gossip.

She leaned across the table and patted Max’s hand. 

“Can’t you just say there has been a busy day at work? I mean, if it turns out that someone at the Institute has been involved with this death, wouldn’t you like to know? Sabine is still working there, right? You’re just helping me to make sure she’s safe if something strange is happening.” 

Max downed the last of his beer and rose from the table. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m sorry that I’ve been coming down on you so hard. It’s just been so really weird. You know what I mean? I’m going home to Sabine. I’m sure everything will be OK. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, all right? Try to be nice to the guy, he seemed a bit upset this morning.” 

Toni nodded, saw the door open behind Max’s back, and the strange man she’d been waiting for was on his way in.

And behind him was Sabine. 

Toni’s smile froze. 

“Yes Max, do that. Um…”

Max frowned, and turned to follow her gaze.

Toni got up, her hand briefly resting at Max’s back.

“Over here! Hello!” 

He doesn’t look too shabby, was the thought that ran through her mind. She smiled again and waved; both of them, but particularly Sabine, looked a little flustered, as if they had been walking fast. 

Michel spoke first. “Hello, I hope you were not waiting too long.”

“Not at all. I was early, that’s all.” 

Toni offered her hand when Michel walked up to the table. He extended his and they briefly shook hands. Nice and soft, she thought. 

“I hope you don’t mind a booth? I thought that might be more private than the bar?” 

Michel opened his mouth to speak, and then noticed Max, apparently for the first time. Max was still standing very still, his eyes looking from Sabine to Toni, then back again. 

“No, that would be fine,” Michel said. “I see you already have a drink.” He looked back to Max, seemed to come to a decision, and headed to the bar.

“Hi Sabine.” Toni felt she had to break the silence. But Sabine just looked at her, and turned to Max instead.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she said.

“Neither did I.” 

Sabine glanced over at Toni before she answered. “Well, it seems like you had lots to do at work today.”

An awkward pause, then,

“There was an early meeting,” said Max. 

“So you said.” Sabine turned from the table and looked him in the eye. “And you left at three as normal?” 

“Yes!” Max seemed flustered. “No – there was a, another meeting. I – “ 

“A meeting with her?” Sabine nodded towards Toni. 

“I was having a drink with a friend,” Max said, slowly and deliberately. Colour rose in his cheeks. “Like you, it might appear.” 

“Michel is meeting a reporter. He asked me to help him.” She gestured with both hands. “You know, don’t you, how he does not like being with people?” 

“But he’s okay with you?” Max glared at the bar, where Michel was carefully arranging coins on the counter. 

“What are you saying, Max?” 

“I’m saying that you’ve never respected me. I’m saying that you keep me for, for entertainment value. Your colleagues,” he spat the word, “laugh when I walk by. They look at me like I’m a lost puppy. And they all know that we fucked in the darkroom.” 

“Max!” Sabine’s cheeks were flushed. “People will hear you!” 

“Let them!” Max nearly shouted. “I don’t care anymore. Let them listen. Let them talk. Let them know what we did in the lab, and how you laughed, and will laugh when I’m gone. I know what they, what you say about me. They call me an idiot accountant just because I don’t have a PhD. Because I don’t spend my life doing something worthwhile.” 

“Max, please – ” began Sabine, eyes glistening. 

“I don’t care any more, Sabine. If your friends can’t respect me, they can just fuck off. I’m going home.” 

The murmur of conversation around the pub dipped as Max stiff-armed the door and strode out, then recovered to a higher level. 

Michel appeared at Sabine’s shoulder, a pint of dark ale in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, red tinging to purple in the dim light. He sounded almost happy. 

“They have Châteauneuf. I thought, after last time, but no, the barman found a case in town and saved some for you.” 

He looked from Sabine to Toni, and back again. Something made him pause, as if he were struggling with something. 

“What is the matter? Is Max not staying?”

About the author

Richard Grant is our Deputy Editor. A British molecular cell biologist and structural biochemist, he is now Executive Scientific Director 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.