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Hunting unicorns

From the LabLit short story series

Henry Gee 22 September 2013

The way she smiled, pitching her head slightly to one side as she did so, made my tongue inflate. And other parts too

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the conclusion of a two-part short story by Henry Gee. Use the navigation tool above right to catch up on the first part if you missed it.

I didn’t want to knock on her office door. Our boss could be in the room. Not that it really mattered – but, well, the thought of approaching Alice at all made my throat turn to sandpaper. The thought of interrupting Alice with my supervisor was just too much for me to handle. I decided I’d approach her at morning coffee. I’d have to seize my chance – she usually had coffee deep in conversation with a few other postdocs, and was pretty swift about it. A week went by with no openings. Then another. I was beginning to despair, when, thinking about something else entirely – nipping into town and buying a sandwich for lunch – I stepped out of my office and there she was, right outside my door, her back to me. She was looking at a poster, recently pinned to the wall opposite. It described research that people in the department had presented at a conference a month or so back. Alice wore sweatpants, running shoes and a singlet, exposing bare shoulders loosely covered with ringlets of dark brown hair. Even from the back she looked so desirable I thought I might dribble. Not that she’d notice me – she was rapt in front of the poster. The title was:

Gone Fishing: Inference of Marine Resource Use from Stable Isotope Analysis of Neanderthal Teeth.

I looked closely and saw that Alice was, in fact, third on the author list, behind our boss, and someone from another lab. It was likely that she’d been at the conference, presenting the poster for all of them. I sensed my chance. I coughed slightly as I closed the door. Alice turned, looking slightly startled.

“Er … sorry,” I started. “Didn’t mean to disturb, I …”

“That’s OK – no worries!” The way she smiled, pitching her head slightly to one side as she did so, made my tongue inflate. And other parts too. It was impossible not to stand close to her in the confines of this corridor. I’d better get to the point before I embarrassed myself.

“It’s interesting work, that,” I said. “Can I talk to you about it? You might be able to help me with a … er … problem I’ve come up against.”

“Sure!” she said, as happy as a schoolgirl. “I was just on my way to lunch – wanna come?”

“I was, too. My treat.” I felt foolishly gallant.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed, walking ahead. “Some of us actually have a job.” Her laugh was low, syrupy and delicious. I followed as meekly as a lamb.

Ten minutes later we were perched on high stalls eating ramen noodles. We were side by side, which was kind of a relief, as we didn’t need to make eye contact. “What’s this problem you have?” she asked, between slurps.

I explained about the specimen, how it was out of place in a collection of Ice Age mammal material, and that it might be a narwhal tusk, but I needed a way to be sure.

“A narwhal tusk? In a load of bison bones?” she asked. “How extraordinary!”

“Happens all the time,” I said, trying to be nonchalant. “Specimens get misplaced. Once I was looking at a collection of Ice-Age reindeer antlers and – right in the middle – was the leg bone of a moa, from New Zealand. Someone must have put it down for a minute – distracted by something else – and there it stayed.”

“So where do I come in?” she asked.

“Well, you do stable isotope analysis, don’t you?”

“No, not me personally. We send it away to a lab and they send us the results. Actually, we send replicates to three different labs.” I couldn’t help notice the Royal ‘We’. “We’re really interested in the nitrogen-fifteen,” she went on. “There’s a little bit of it in everything that contains nitrogen from the air. The proportion changes as you go up the food chain, so you can tell something about an animal’s diet from the amount of N-fifteen it has in its bone collagen.

“The great thing is that there’s much more N-fifteen in an animal that’s fed on seafood, especially high-trophic-level predators such as fish, or seals, than in an animal that’s lived off the land, whether as a carnivore or a herbivore. There’s this big idea that only modern humans ate seafood – it was something that set us apart from the Neanderthals, explaining why they became extinct and we didn’t - but we think that’s wrong. Our analysis of Neanderthal teeth shows N-fifteen of eighteen, maybe nineteen per cent. And that means pretty high consumption of seafood.”

I loved the way she talked when she talked about science. There was no self-conscious teasing, no head games, just an infectious enthusiasm for something she enjoyed. Her craft.

“What does the percentage mean?”

“Oh, that – the percentage is above or below some standard reference sample. Your average grazer won’t have a nitrogen-fifteen more than, say, five per cent above standard; the wolf that eats the grazer, maybe eight or nine per cent. But something that feeds mainly on fish will be way higher, sixteen or eighteen per cent.” It was then that she turned to look at me directly. Her eyes were large and brown. I swallowed.

“Could you analyse this narwhal tusk for me?” I burbled.

“Sure. But why? It’s bound to have a high N-fifteen. It’s a marine predator. Unless … you can’t mean ...?” She laughed. Other diners turned to look. But her mirth was more conspiratorial than teasing.

“Just got to cover all the bases,” I said. “Eliminate the possibilities. That’s, you know, science. Isn’t it?”

“Let’s go back to you office now,” she said, “and you can give me this specimen. I’m just about to send a batch of reference material away for testing. One more won’t notice. I can get a sample from the bone inside the tusk – you need collagen, and there won’t be any of that in the enamel. How big is this thing, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s about so big …” I measured the size of the specimen in the air with my hands, like an angler describing that ever-elusive catch.

“As big as that?” she laughed. “My! That’s quite a specimen!” She reached over and touched my hand with hers. Her skin was cool and dry. I swore inwardly that I wouldn’t wash that spot for as long as possible.

It took three weeks for the results to come to through. I tried not to think about it, to keep busy with my regular work. There were other collections to study, after all. Alice was away at a conference for some of the time, so I decided to bring forward my appointment at the Natural History Museum. A few days in that huge collection would take my mind off things for a while. And so it did. But I didn’t find a match for my mystery specimen there, either, neither among the land mammals, nor in the collection of narwhal tusks.

On my first day back, as I walked down the corridor to my cubbyhole, even before I’d sat down or anything, I saw Alice marching straight towards me, a sheaf of printouts in hand. “You’re not going to like it,” she said. “Or maybe you are!” A lopsided smile and a cheeky glint from her dark eyes. I thought I’d melt where I stood.

My office was just big enough for one. It was certainly too small for two, especially when one of them is the vehicle for your private nocturnal fantasies, bending over a printout, and quite plainly not wearing a bra beneath a sleeveless singlet. I kept my eyes on the printout, front and centre. Her hair fell across her face as she explained it all to me.

The top sheet had the name of a commercial laboratory, and a table of numbers.

“See here?” she said. “Here are the samples. Each one is a tiny amount of bone collagen. The percentage of nitrogen is there,” - she pointed to the second column - “and the deviation from the standard nitrogen benchmark is here.” She pointed to the third column. There were fifteen samples in all. The first eight had small, positive deviations from the standard.

“I’m guessing these are from herbivores, right?” I asked.

“Right,” said Alice. “Five of those were teeth from cows, from the University farm. And I threw in a couple of other herbivores from the museum collection just for good measure.”

“How can you tell? The species and provenance aren’t indicated.”

“Not so fast, Boy Wonder,” she said. “We wanted to give the samples to the lab as a blind test. They didn’t know what they were measuring. I have the key, don’t worry.”

The remaining ten numbers had huge positive deviations from standard. “Are all these marine?”

“Bullseye. All marine, all top predators. Leopard seals, polar bears, even a narwhal tusk.”

“So – that’s my mystery specimen, right?”

She stood up and looked at me. “Nope. Would you like to guess which one of those samples was yours?”

“Well … it could be any one of them, but if it comes from a narwhal…”

“OK, I’ll put you out of your misery. It was this one.” She took another list from the bottom of the pile and matched it up with the table of figures. This was the key to the samples. Mine was number two: the legend UNKNOWN PROVENANCE ?NARWHAL was sandwiched between two Friesian cows. Whatever my specimen was, its owner had been a grazer. And it lived on land.

“But … it can’t be… I can’t match this specimen with any known land animal,” I protested.

“Must be an unknown land animal then, mustn’t it?” she said. “And, in case you were wondering, we got the same results from two other, independent labs.” She flashed two more printouts at me before scooping up the small pile of paper and leaving the office. On the way she patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it,” she said.

Apart from the regular hellos and goodbyes consistent with being colleagues in the same department, I didn’t see Alice for quite a long time after that.

The rogue specimen lay on my desk, slowly sedimenting beneath other, more pressing clutter. In idle moments (which were few) I asked myself what I’d do with the specimen, and the answer always came back the same… nothing. With no details of its provenance, and no documentation at all (and, believe me, I searched the rest of the Museum, at intervals, for labels without specimens) there was nothing that could be done or said. As far as anyone knew, the specimen might have dropped in from outer space. With nothing in the catalogue, nobody would miss it. No-one but me would know it was there. And nobody but me would know if it wasn’t.

So that’s when my resolution of ‘nothing’ turned to ‘almost nothing.’ I stopped dining at the kebab van and started to eat more healthily. I even took regular exercise. Honest physical exhaustion banished fantasies about Alice until they were hardly more than pleasant memories.

But decent diet and exercise weren’t the only things that helped me lose the spots, the grease and the flab. Because, just now and then, I scraped a few flakes of bone from inside the specimen, ground them to powder and sprinkled them on my breakfast granola.

A few weeks after I started doing that, Alice made a habit of calling by my office for no reason I could identify. More lunch dates followed. Dinner dates. Movies. Dancing. Long walks in the country with her pressed up against me, her smile like June sunshine and her eyes sparkling. Long evenings together in front of a roaring fire. Evenings that turned into long, athletic nights and bleary, woozy mornings. Those shared breakfasts meant I could sneak some powdered specimen into her morning latte, too.

It could have been a placebo. And given that my fantasies about Alice had become glorious reality, I wasn’t about to try a control experiment. Whatever the origins of the rogue specimen, its medicinal effects were every bit as potent as promised.

How much proof did you want?

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