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The institute

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Chapter Seven

Richard P. Grant 24 July 2020

www.lablit.com/article/43

Max suddenly remembered Paul – the annoying busybody in charge of the Institute’s stock room. Not only did he know everyone’s supply orders, but he was elbow-deep into their private business as well

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Chapter Seven: The Institute

Il est encore plus facile de juger de l'esprit d'un homme par ses questions que par ses réponses
– Pierre-Marc-Gaston de Lévis

Max sat on a bench, smoking his fifth cigarette of the morning and keeping his eyes fixed on the main entrance of the Wolfhaven Institute. Its relatively new façade was already turning a dirty grey from pollution, and the building looked even uglier under the bright sunlight, which seemed to accentuate its every architectural flaw.

Where the hell was Toni?

She had persuaded him to get up at this ungodly hour, and now she was late. It had been a nightmare trying to convince Sabine that he had to leave early for a meeting with colleagues to discuss some emergency that had come up with important Japanese clients overnight – Max, whose mundane job never had emergencies, and who usually had to be coaxed out of his bed with a cattle-prod.

Was it just his imagination, or had Sabine suspected something? Her eyes had seemed to mock him as he fumbled again through the excuse he had concocted. You are a terrible liar, the eyes informed him, and I will get to the bottom of this. In the meantime, the nicotine was singing in his blood and his bowels felt loose at the thought of what he and Toni were about to do. Why on earth had he let her talk him into it?

“Boo!” 

“Fuck!” Max’s cigarette leapt out of his cold fingers and scattered sparks on the pavement. “Toni, you are a menace to society. And what kind of time do you call this?” 

“Relax,” Toni said, slipping on to the bench beside him. She looked fresh as a daisy, ten hours of sleep and a balanced breakfast no doubt, infuriating him further. “I’m only ten minutes late, and now you’ve had a chance to case the joint.” 

“Case the joint? Case the fucking joint? What is this, an episode of Magnum, PI?”

“Language, Max.” She patted his knee, unconcerned. “Are people coming in yet?” 

Max sighed. “Yeah, unbelievably. At least five boffins, so keen they’d miss breakfast to get to the lab. I reckon we skulk around the corner and go in with the next brainiac who happens by. You sure they won’t challenge us?” 

“Positive,” Toni said, cheerfully. “The best disguise in the world is confidence. People can rob houses in broad daylight with the neighbours watching happily if they just act like workmen who have a right to be there. Trust me, I’m a pro.” 

“Oh fucking hell, let’s just get this stupid thing over with.” Max got up and Toni followed, approaching the Wolfhaven on a long parabolic curve ending up behind a corner near the main entrance, thinly camouflaged by shrubbery. 

An old lady went past, then a runner with a panting Doberman on a lead. Then a twenty-something girl with scruffy jeans and an even scruffier coat slouched past, seemingly about to turn into the entrance. Max and Toni exchanged a quick glance and whispered “boffin” simultaneously. 

The pair detached themselves from the shrubbery and followed the girl, who sure enough was making her way to the door. She put her pass-card against the detector. 

“Thanks!” Toni chirped as the girl even held the door open for them. 

“Glad to see I’m not the only slave up early this morning,” the girl said before vanishing down the stairwell inside. Max saw the man on the door was completely engrossed in his Sun, and Toni flashed Max a triumphant grin as she pressed the lift button.

“Well, hello...” 

The voice drifted off just as Toni and Max heard the ping of the lift doors opening. They turned around to face an older man, wearing a brown tweed jacket with leather pads on the elbows and a matching pair of brown trousers, standing just behind them. He was smiling and his eyes positively gleamed with curiosity. 

“I remember your face, love.” The man winked at Toni as he stepped into the lift, “Are you two coming, or did you just want to push the button for fun?” 

As the man laughed at his own joke, Max looked at Toni as if to say Who is this guy? And why is he so friendly with you? In response, Toni just grabbed his arm as she followed the man into the lift. 

“Of course we’re coming – Paul, isn’t it? It’s been a while. Everything the same here, I guess?” 

Max suddenly remembered Paul – the annoying busybody in charge of the Institute’s stock room. Not only did he know everyone’s supply orders, but he was elbow-deep into their private business as well. 

“Ah, lots of young people moving around, as usual,” Paul was saying to Toni. “The profs keeping them all busy as bees. It is a crazy place, this is. I try to keep an eye on them as much as I can though. So, what brings you here so early?” 

Toni smiled back at him and tried to look as if the question didn’t faze her, but before she had time to answer, Paul zoned in on Max. 

“Seen you around lots, though. You’re involved with the French lass in Professor Slater’s lab, aren’t you?” 

Max’s face turned red as he nodded.

“Yes, I thought I’d seen you there quite a bit,” Paul said. “So, Toni – are you working today or is this just for fun? Visiting the Wolfhaven I mean?” 

Toni smiled at Paul, coming to Max’s rescue. 

“The Slater lab, isn’t that where the woman who died used to work? Back before the Wolfhaven was built, obviously, in the old building.” 

“See, I knew you were up to something.” Paul chuckled and then turned solemn. 

“A really lovely girl she was, Charlotte something... yes, she worked for Slater a few years back. I remember her because I brought her a couple of parcels from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. We get a lot of things, but every time we get stuff from there, it always feels a little scary. Tropical Medicine and all. Who know what kind of bugs might be in there, huh?” 

Toni felt the lift coming to a stop. 

“Well, this is my floor, Toni. Come round see me someday and grab a cuppa, why dontcha?” Paul patted her arm as he stepped out of the lift, leaving Toni and Max looking at each other.

**********

But this, this was like coming home. The whine of rubber on tarmac, the air plucking at his sleeve, the tensing of alternate leg muscles and the sheer exhilaration of speed. Up the hill, defending his own space, then cresting the Gogs and accelerating into the city. Crouching lower, merging with the traffic on the roundabout, then taking the centre line and pushing past it.

The stress of the previous day had all but evaporated by the time Michel joined Hills Road, daffodils nodding and waving in dappled sunlight as he cycled past immaculate gardens and stalled traffic. The lights turned amber as he neared Addenbrookes roundabout; with perfect timing he slipped in front of the queue, crossing the line on green. 

No one who thought they knew Michel would have recognized him that morning, sweat on his forehead and watermelon grin splitting his face. He sat up and freewheeled past Outpatients, and onto the new link road to the Institute. 

**********

“What a weirdo,” Toni said when the lift doors had closed. “He may be a lowly tech, but he’s still a typical scientist.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I dunno.” She shrugged. “The clothes, the way he talks. Although I’ve also been thinking that science is a lot like journalism, so I better watch that I don’t start developing any weird habits myself.” 

“Science and journalism, alike? You’re having me on.” The lift began to grind to a halt. 

Another shrug. “You fit pieces of a puzzle together and you’re trying to make a story. Same deal, really.” 

“I don’t buy it.” Max was a bit too distracted by the upcoming task. He hated it when Toni got philosophical. 

“What, you don’t have to think about them objectively once you start fucking them?” 

“Fuck off!” Max felt that perpetual anger prickle again just below his skin. Sometimes he felt he might start hitting something, or someone, and never stop. But Toni only smiled, which did nothing at all to calm him down. 

Ding went the lift, swish went the doors, and the pair stepped out. 

**********

Showered and changed, Michel ran his hands through still-wet hair and sat down at his Mac, fingering his notebook. He tried to concentrate on the notes he had taken, but images of last night kept slipping into his mind. “Viruses? We must talk!” The arginine residue, mockingly blue. The girl in the lab with Max, what was her name? Terry? Why was she snooping in Slater’s office? Plaques on the wrong plate. Why was Max so upset? 

Unusually, Michel felt the need to talk to someone. Slater had come in early this morning, his coat on the back of his chair, but he was not in the lab. Probably at coffee. Felicity would be on the microscope, and Sabine – oh Sabine. Why did you have to be involved in this? He felt her scent in his nostrils, and a memory floated just out of reach. But Sabine was not here, and neither was – but no. That was finished, and he had done all that could be done. It was over. 

An image of the woman in sunglasses at the cemetery formed in his mind. Now there was unfinished business, and maybe something could be done about it. He nodded to himself, and walked out of the lab, along the corridor to the stairwell. 

Spring sunlight caught the edge of the window frame, casting rainbow colours on the floor. Michel stopped, one hand on the banister. Rainbows never ceased to amaze him – how incredibly convenient it was that rain could split sunlight into its constituents. And here, the edge of the glass was being a prism, just for him. It was not merely convenient, he felt; it was magical. In a few moments the sun would move off, taking with it this ephemeral beauty. The architect did not foresee that, he mused.

But then again, in his own dissection of nature, he had not foreseen its complexity. This mutant that forced the virus to use another receptor: Who could have known? 

That stupid Yank, for a start. 

Michel, never really one for smiling, frowned. Yes, Brad had been right all along, and if it weren’t for a schoolboy error he would have scooped them. But Brad only knew half the story, Michel realized, and with the reagents they already had he could now wrap this up. 

A couple of simple, biochemical assays, a few titrations and another Nature paper could be his. A second structure would seal it, but he had an advantage there, too. They would not have to admit they were formally wrong, but just spin it as a refinement of the previous theories. He did not have to wait for the Santiago lab to share their reagents, either – he knew exactly what he would need, and exactly where in which minus eighty freezer they were. And by showing that the previous work was misguided, Slater should be able to shake off that blackmailing spook. And then, who could say what lay before him?

In a state of mind almost approaching happiness, Michel did not hear the ding of the lift behind him. But as he turned to go up the stairs, a gasp shocked him into the present. He looked up.

“Max?” And a ghost, come from the past and half a world away to wreck his dreams? No. The resemblance was faint, more imagined than real. “Terry?”

**********

Max stopped in his tracks, arrested by the white, expressionless face of the Dutchman materializing from the left. The Dutchman who gave him the creeps, and who seemed always to be creeping around. And who, at this moment, stood squarely between them and the Slater lab. 

“You two again,” Michel said at last, the voice as expressionless as the face. “Is there any point even asking what it is you are doing here on this occasion?” 

“Last time I checked, you weren’t our keeper,” Toni said. At the same time, she applied some pressure to Max’s arm. Relax. Follow my lead. 

“Well, I do not see any ID cards on you either, showing that you are actually allowed to be here.” Michel’s voice was clipped, Max thought, like a robot in a bad SF film. Meanwhile, Max himself was paralysed by indecision, as if the robot had zapped him with some fucking stun-gun. But Toni was typically unfazed. 

“I’m doing research for a CEN story,” Toni said sweetly. “In fact… maybe you can help. Did you know the dead girl? Do you know what sort of collaboration she had on with that Tropical Medicine place?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Dutchman said. The neutral expression seemed to be struggling.

“Word on the street,” Toni continued, “is that Charlotte may have got some infection from the lab.” 

“Nonsense!” Michel said, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

To be continued...