Chapter Nine: The Infection

 

I know what you’ve been up to with the lab. I know why they’re after you. And I can help, if you’ll let me
 Something that in my memory has been replaced,
Suddenly it all comes back
 – Tim Wheeler

Michel scanned the canteen. There were too many people, here; too much noise, but sometimes, if he concentrated, he could shut it out and actually think. 

There, for example, was Slater, not so much holding as clinging to his coffee. He was headed this way, but not looking where he was going. Why was he so pale? 

Slater almost knocked his senior postdoc over, shrank back as if in fear. 

“Tom.”

“Mike! Sorry – you startled me! What are you doing here?” 

Michel blinked. 

“It is time for coffee. You are here, and I wanted to speak with you.” 

“Yes, ha ha! I know that, I didn’t expect to see you here. Have you got some coffee, oh, of course – you don’t like the stuff they serve here do you, can’t blame you myself, foul stuff, I only drink it for the company. Did you have a good time last night? Of course not you didn’t come, sorry I’m feeling a little under the weather this morning, It must be the sudden sunshine, not like May at all, ha ha!” 

“Tom.” 

Something in the tone of Michel’s voice got through Slater’s whirling mind. 

“Yes?” Slater snapped, “What is it man? Out with it!”

“Why would a reporter think Charlotte was infected with a virus that you told her to destroy?”

**********

Toni watched Michel walk towards the stairs, and when he was out of sight turned towards the lab he had left. 

“What are you doing?” Max whispered. 

Toni looked at him and shrugged. “We might as well take a quick look. Especially as I need to leave my card so he can call me.” 

She smiled at Max, struck again by how someone like him could have bagged Sabine. She seemed like such a demanding French woman. Love wasn’t always logical or possible to explain, she figured. She of all people should know that.

Toni started towards the lab, not waiting for Max to catch up – though she smiled to herself when she heard his footsteps behind her. 

“Why would you make that stab in the dark, Toni?” he called after her. “What’s wrong with you? He seemed really upset – it was a pretty shitty thing to do.” 

Toni looked back at him, feeling his irritation. 

“Look Max, do you think it is fair that a scientist should die in the lab? Just by looking at this virus thing. I mean, what if it was Sabine? Wouldn’t you want someone investigating that?” She paused. “And anyway, I really need a story for the CEN. The editor is just waiting for me to bring him something good. And this is good.” 

Toni continued into the lab, leaving Max staring after her. Empty, as she’d hoped for.

Max’s voice whined like a mosquito trapped behind a curtain. “Of course I would want an investigation if Sabine…” He shook his head. “How could you even question that? You’ve really crossed the line, Toni. With me, and with him. He knew her, you know.” 

“That’s why I want to talk to him, OK?” She was distracted, looking around in the room, searching for Michel’s desk. After a minute she walked up to it and gave it a thorough inspection. Disgustingly tidy, no writing or notebooks in evidence. She tried the drawers and filing cabinet: all locked. Who locked their drawers in the middle of the working day?

Paranoid – or did he have something to hide? 

“Nothing,” she said softly. Another shrug, took a card out from her wallet and looked in vain for a pen from the desk. “Max, be a dear, would you?”

Max sighed and pulled out a chewed Bic pen from his pocket. Toni flashed him the grin, and took it from his outstretched hand.

I’d love to have a drink with you. I’ll be at the Volunteer at 6 p.m. tonight! Toni x

Toni put the card on the desk, straightened up. “OK, I think we’re about done here. Nothing more to see, unless you want to hang around for Sabine?” 

Max shook his head. His steps towards the door were of a man walking towards relief.

**********

It was as if a bomb had gone off, only a perfectly noiseless one. Or he had gone deaf from the impact of Michel’s question and everything was moving in silent slow motion away in the explosion. In the invisible flash, Slater saw Charlotte’s face, framed by that ridiculously luminous pre-Raphaelite hair – furious, thwarted, with a twist of smile that meant he could order her about all he wanted, but she’d just do whatever she wanted behind his back and he’d be powerless to prevent it. Her hair, too, was fanning out from the blast, coils and spirals of heavy red, a livid Medusa in a white coat. 

He blinked: the ghost vanished, and the noise of the canteen resumed. 

“Tom?” Michel repeated. “Did you hear what I said?” 

“Yes, a reporter,” he said, evenly, holding it all together by sheer force of will. “How tediously predictable. Has the Institute been invaded by the tabloids already?” He made himself smile, as if the entire thing were very amusing indeed. “And I suppose the viruses came from Mars as well?” 

Michel seemed confused: Michel, so painfully easy to fool with bluffs and emotional gambits. It was this aspect that made Slater feel, most days, that his hunch had to be wrong. Michel, in this respect, was as unlike from Slater as a man could be. 

“Just a student reporter,” Michel was saying, subdued. “But she’s been snooping around the lab, saying things about chikungunya virus and Charlotte’s death.” 

“Ridiculous things, obviously,” Slater said. 

“But we did receive that shipment of – “ 

“Irrelevant. We never used the vial.” 

“But maybe Charlotte –” 

“She didn’t! I watched her, with my own eyes, in the BL3 hood, pipette bleach into the vial and put it in the red bin for incineration.” Slater paused, and seemed satisfied that his lie carried weight with the younger man. For now. 

“Even if a microscopic droplet had somehow flown out, escaped destruction and the hood, she died two years later. And the Bangalore strain is completely innocuous.” 

Michel paused, as if making up his mind about something. Then, 

“I’m just not so sure I can trust you. Knowing what else I know, I mean.” 

Slater felt a flutter in his stomach, but managed to keep his mask airtight. His tone took on a dangerous edge. “I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” 

“The blonde woman with the glasses, at the funeral,” Michel said, his words gathering speed as they came out. “I know everything. I know what you’ve been up to with the lab. I know why they’re after you. And I can help, if you’ll let me.” 

Everything. Was it possible? Was he bluffing? Would, Slater wondered, someone of Michel’s character even know how to bluff? He somehow doubted it. 

And just like that, a decision. 

“Not here,” Slater said, taking Michel’s arm. “Let’s take a walk in the park.”

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.