Chapter Ten: The Promise

I said, “What do I know
 Show me the right way to go”
 – Coldplay
If it was to end this way, he wanted to see it coming. With a wave of startling clarity, like ice water in his face, he finally accepted the truth of his data

Michel breathed in the freshness of the gardens, or the “Park” as it was known to the Institute’s denizens. Part of the bequest that endowed the Wolfhaven (and persuaded a desperate government to part with more cash than a recalcitrant Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills really wanted to allow), with its ecologically sound and expensively ugly architecture, was ring-fenced in perpetuity for maintenance of the grounds. The gardener took his mandate seriously, and as the daffodils finally surrendered to the advancing tulips, tight green bluebell buds were already preparing for Spring’s rearguard action. 

Some of the staff joked that the money spent on the gardens was to expiate the hideousness of the buildings. Others were serious about it. 

“Tom, sometimes I miss home,” Michel said. 

“The Netherlands, you mean? I thought you were unhappy there.” 

“It was my home. My mother lives there. I thought I might try to get a position at the TUE. Eindhoven’s close enough to Maastricht, and they have a good bioengineering group. I think I might be able to do something, there.” 

“You’ve done something here, Mike!” Slater shook his head. “I can’t let you leave now, there’s still too much to do. We can find a way through this.” 

The two walked in silence for a minute, and came to a stop by a small stream that chuckled down an artificial waterfall. 

“Why did you leave the US, Mike?” 

Michel ignored the question. “It was a little over two years ago,” he began, scratching at a nonexistent blemish on his Levi’s, “about seven, one evening. Dark, and I was outside, having a smoke. I saw a white car, and thought it was security, so I stood in the loading bay, in the shadow.” 

“You hid? From security?” 

“I don’t smoke tobacco, Tom,” Michel said, gently. 

“Yes, I see. The plod do get a bit fascist about that sort of thing. Go on.” 

“The car stopped under the camera pole, in the lights from Micro, and I realized that it was a Ford. Our security people drive Vauxhalls. I was about to go back inside, but I remembered that it was the wrong colour for that model. Sheffield licence plates.” 

Slater did not question this. Michel knew these things: it was part and parcel of his strangely wired brain. 

“So I decided to wait, and see who it was.” 

“And who was it?” Tom asked, slightly too quickly. 

Michel shrugged. “You. You came out from the Micro entrance, as usual, looked around and walked over to the car. You looked around again, looked straight at me, but I don’t think you were seeing me. The rear passenger door opened, and you put your briefcase in first, then got in. Ten minutes later you got out, and ran towards Long Road. The car followed a minute later.” 

“Only ten minutes? It seemed longer.” 

“I timed it.” 

“I’m not surprised. Then what?” 

“I went over to the camera pole,” Michel said. “It’s the only place in the loading area where the security cameras do not point.” 

In unspoken agreement, they started walking back towards the Institute. 

“The next day, you got me to start work on the infectivity of the Chikungunya virus. But, you did not want to help. Well, I mean you seemed to want to help: you put on a lab coat but I had to teach you everything. Everything. It frustrated me and I had to work late to catch up. Reagents did not arrive on time. We could not get samples from London. And you were slow signing orders, and then our order system went down.” 

“Did it? How unusual.” 

Again, Michel missed the joke. “It is usually efficient, yes. But I helped Paul sort out the mess, and I discovered a backlog of orders from our lab, that you had signed off but put on the incorrect grant code. They were stuck in the system, waiting for you to correct them.” 

“That was bad of me, wasn’t it?” Slater said. 

“And then, I was suspicious. I cracked your password – ” 

“You WHAT?” Slater stopped, mid-stride, his face reddening. “That’s a disciplinary offence!” 

“Yes, that was bad of me, wasn’t it?” Michel actually smiled, and Slater stared, openmouthed. “But you really should not be so surprised. Anyway.” Michel kept walking, and Slater had to trot to keep up. “Love letters, naturally. Nothing that I couldn’t guess already. But you also had a Gantt chart, with all the projects on it. And a note about snake venoms and virus genomes.” 

“I see,” Slater said, dully. “That looks bad.” 

“Not as bad as that admission,” Michel replied, startling even himself with the insight. “So I have to know. Are you a terrorist?” 

“Oh God, Mike. It’s all so – damn. Terrorist? No! Well, state-sponsored maybe, but no, nothing like that.” 

Michel nodded, and stopped. They had reached the gravel path that swept up to the main entrance. Michel considered that the word “portal” had never before seemed so appropriate. 

“In your outbox, there was a message to Charlotte.” He closed his eyes, reciting from memory, 

“ ‘It’s best if we don’t see each other. Mary’s getting suspicious, and the whole lab knows. I can’t keep the other project secret as well. It’s not you, but it’s just not safe; for either of us’.” 

Michel looked directly at Slater. “But not terrorism?” 

“Oh God. It sounds so like a B-grade crime drama. It’s the government, Mike. Legally it’s all above board. Morally, however… morally it’s blackmail. They knew about Charlotte, and I couldn’t afford that.” 

“Do you trust me, Tom?” 

“You? Trust you? Eh, of course I do. You know I do. Like a son.” 

“Do you still love Charlotte? I mean, if she were alive?” 

“You’re an incurable romantic, Mike.” 

“Maybe.”

Michel bent down, brushed a microscopic grain of dirt off the path back onto the immaculately manicured flowerbed. He straightened up and said, 

“I left the States because Karen broke my heart. I could not bear for the same to happen to you. I know you didn’t destroy the virus sample. Not all of it, anyway, because Charlotte had some. I found it when I cleared out her shelf after she left.” 

Tom Slater sagged, defeated. 

“No, you’re right. I never did destroy the sample.”

Michel walked up to the building, flashing his card at the Wiegand, and the doors hissed sideways. 

“Leave it with me. You do trust me, don’t you Tom?”

“What? Of course. But what are you going to do?”

“I don’t want to hurt you, so better you don’t know.”

“Mike.” Slater put his hand out to stop the door sliding close. “Michel. You are like a son to me.”

“Yes, you said.”

“No, wait. There’s more than that. Thirty-something years ago, the summer I started my PhD, I was in Amsterdam. It was a conference. Avian oncogenes, all that jazz. I was young and hot property. Or at least thought I was. There was this woman, a local. She was serving canapés at one of those horrible Seventies receptions, all pineapple on sticks and prawn mayonnaise as if it was the best thing ever.”

“It must have been an English catering firm,” Michel said.

Slater laughed. “Quite possibly.” But then, lowering his voice, “She was sharp, sparkling. Pretty, too. We got talking. We went for a walk. We ended up at my hotel.”

Michel nodded. “I see. And you were – ”

“Yes, I was engaged to Mary. It was just a fling. But, but the thing is,” he leaned back, looking up at the sky. “The thing is, she had your eyes. Or maybe you had hers. I never forgot her. Never. And then, and then – ” his voice tailed off.

“And then?”

Slater let the door close again.

“And then, years later you appear. With those eyes and that spark and – well, what was I to think?”

“Which is why…”

“Which is why I want you to be careful. Don’t do anything foolish, Michel.”

The Dutchman nodded. “Foolish is a matter of opinion, Tom.”

**********

Brad wiped the remains of the vomit from his mouth and emptied the bathroom cabinet in a fruitless search for aspirin. Leaving his house in a hurry, he popped into a café on his way to the Institute. 

Second mistake of the day, the first being awake in the first place, he thought. The greasy smell of the frying food caused his stomach to immediately revolt again and sent him rushing for the nearest toilet, unsure of which sphincter would fail him first. What was wrong with these fucking Brits? With the fucking greasy eggs and half-cooked bacon in the morning. Where were the pancakes? Waffles? Damn, sausage and grits… real breakfast food.

Finally reaching the Institute he slunk up to his lab. Hearing voices near the elevator he took a back staircase to the fourth floor. 

Mistake number three, his heaving lungs told him. He’d recently started smoking again after quitting for a couple of years. What with Katrina upheaving his life and sending him hurtling across the Atlantic, running into Slater after all these years, then his work going too slowly… who’d complain if he smoked a cig occasionally? Fags, the Brits called them, he thought, smiling. Fucking Brits

In his lab he booted his computer and pulled up the results he’d obtained from repeating the HPLC. The data were staring him in the face, but the meaning wasn’t. What the hell was going on? 

Her interferon titre was through the roof. That wasn’t unexpected; she’d had a raging viral infection. But the IFN3 peak was unusual, it should never be that high… unless someone had engineered a toxin into the virus. But then, why couldn’t he detect it? What was she, some kind of immuno-mutant? A quick BLAST search had confirmed his fears that the viral genome hadn’t been sequenced yet, so he had no easy genetics to go on. Reluctantly, he reached for his phone, and nearly dropped it with a yelp when it suddenly rang. 

“Hello?” he offered. 

“Listen, Dr Pettier, I’ve been trying to reach you for the better part of two days. Are you stupid or just forgetful? Did you not get my bloody message?” 

Mistake number four. Always check the caller ID. The Lady Cop’s voice echoed around his addled head. Barely knowing what he was saying, his half formed excuses collapsed under her direct attack. I’d never make a fucking career criminal, part of his mind observed as his mouth began speaking apparently under its own control. 

“Yes. Sorry. My, um, well my phone battery…” he started. 

“Shut up. Don’t fucking lie to me. The ringer was working. Where are you?” 

“In… in my lab… at the Wolf– ” 

She’d hung up at the word ‘lab’. His heart was racing now. What to do? Oh fuck. What to do. This was bad. Like worse than in the movies bad. 

His lab door slammed open, startling him into yelping, a wet fart escaping as opportunity presented itself. How the fuck had she gotten here so quickly? 

“Uh, hi…” Blushing furiously and with part of his mind wondering how he could possibly be more embarrassed right now, he tried to gather his confidence. Lara never gave him the chance. 

“You are in a world of shit, young man. A world of shit. Does obstruction of justice mean anything to you? What are you hiding?” 

A sudden calm washed over Brad. So, this was it. The end of his career. Well, it had happened a little faster than he’d expected, but Hell! Face this like a man! 

His heart slowed, his breathing eased. He swept his hands through his curling hair, pushing it back off his face. If it was to end this way, he wanted to see it coming. With a wave of startling clarity, like ice water in his face, he finally accepted the truth of his data. Perhaps for the first time in his career he was acting like a scientist. 

“Charlotte was murdered.”

Lara stared at him for a moment in shock, then growled. He continued over her vicious swearing, 

“I can’t give you specific details given the data right now,” He paused trying to frame it so a lay person would understand. “Her reaction was too severe. The autopsy showed she was taking aspirin for her fever. That can exacerbate the symptoms of Reye’s syndrome, but – ” 

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“OK, look, Reye’s syndrome is a very rare and often fatal complication found in people who are suffering from viral infection.”

Brad held up his hand, ticking off points on his fingers.

“But it doesn’t add up in this case. The odds of Charlotte even contracting this virus are infinitesimally small. Recent data show that global climate change is speeding up the northern migration of viruses from Africa into Europe, but still I just don’t buy it. And then for her to suffer from Reye’s as well? Sorry, officer, it just doesn’t seem likely. You want my professional opinion?”

He ignored her raised eyebrows at his rhetorical question. 

“There’s something going on here way beyond a journalist getting just sick and dying. I don’t have the data to draw a complete conclusion yet, but none of this adds up. Somehow this girl was murdered. I can’t figure out how it was done, but I’m scared. Something real bad is going on here,” he continued, talking over her half-formed protests. “And you just don’t understand enough yet to be scared too.”

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.