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Fiction

Body in the laboratory: Part 1

From the LabLit short story series

Julia Richards 6 January 2015

www.lablit.com/article/847

He lifted her wrist to feel for a pulse and noticed a bright red mark on the tip of her index finger

Editor's note: We are pleased to present this two-part mystery story by Julia Richards, with sketches by Elicia Preston. Use the navigation tool at the top right to read part 2.

Todd Finklestein stepped out of the elevator onto the darkened third floor of the chemistry building.

Half the overhead light bulbs need replacement. Tripping or slipping hazard, he noted to himself. Todd was Senior Associate Health and Safety Inspector for the university. General building maintenance wasn’t really his area, but he wrote it on his clipboard anyway. It definitely wasn’t safe for students to be carrying toxic chemicals in a dark corridor.

Todd liked to conduct these surprise lab inspections in the morning when the labs would be emptier. In his experience, most scientists got in late and worked late. Not that it was strictly safe to work odd hours when there are fewer people around to call 911, but Todd couldn’t fight the department on everything. He checked his watch: 8:30am, the perfect time.

Professor David Denslin’s laboratory took up most of the 3rd floor with half a wall of windows facing into hallway, so the benches filled with scientific apparatus were visible to passersby. Surprisingly, all the lights were already on in the lab and the door was partially open.

“Hello?” Todd called, knocking on the door, “Health and Safety, here for an inspection.”

There was no answer, but he could hear music playing further back. He walked past the lab benches to the row of desks lining the windows facing the building courtyard.

The desks were set up in sets of two, one pair per window, with the chairs back to back, and high bookcases separating each pair from the next. The first two desks were empty, but as he got to the third one, a pool of blonde hair caught his eye. Lying face up on the top of the desk was the body of a young woman. Her limp arm was hanging off the edge of the desk.

Todd felt his stomach heaving but kept moving closer. He stood at the girl’s head and gently touched her shoulder, hoping she was simply asleep. Then his gaze moved down her body, and he noticed the sorority t-shirt she wore had brownish stains dotting the front.

Oh god, he thought, this does not look good.

He lifted her wrist to feel for a pulse and noticed a bright red mark on the tip of her index finger. He felt nothing. His head spun, but as he tried to grip the desk for support, his hand felt the smooth, silky hair of the girl’s head instead.

“Oh god,” Todd said out loud and then fainted dead away.

**********

Three weeks later:

The alarm clock went off at the usual time, 5:05 am. Todd had forgotten to reset it so he could go into work late. After the last three weeks, he had thought he deserved to sleep in. He'd had a ton of long interviews about finding the body: the campus police, the regular police, his supervisor, and the heads of various university departments.

The dead girl had turned out to be an undergraduate named Melanie Hudson. Her death was thought to be alcohol-related since she had vomited a great deal a short time before her death and her BAC was high. It was thought that she may have choked on her vomit, although the report didn’t officially say that. The coroner ruled death by asphyxiation, and as her parents were multi-millionaire donors to the school, their desire to keep things quiet got the case settled quickly.

After quieting the alarm, Todd lay there beside the sleeping form of his wife Marsha, staring at the ceiling. He kept picturing the red mark on the dead girl’s finger. The coroner had apparently said it must have been a burn she sustained while cooking, but Todd was skeptical whether this girl was the domestic type. Even Todd could tell her manicure was pretty fancy, much more luxurious-looking than the ones his wife occasionally had done. Somehow he thought he'd had a similar burn on his finger at some point in his life. He had been searching his mind through his twenty years on the job, but he came up blank.

The bed felt so cozy with the down comforter warm on top of him. How had he been jumping out of bed early every morning of his life when he could have been lying here like this? Marsha stirred in her sleep, turning onto her side and pulling the blanket over her head. However, he couldn’t stop racking his brain about the girl’s burn, and he realized he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, no matter how inviting the bed was.

“Professor Denslin’s labs are still due for inspection,” he thought. He hadn’t been back there since finding the body. He thought of seeing that desk again, cleared of the body, looking perfectly ordinary. He decided to go back and finish the inspection.

Carefully, he climbed out of the bed.

**********

Todd once again stepped out of the elevators onto the third floor of the chemistry building. This time it was the middle of the day, and students filled the corridor with their footsteps and conversations. He headed in the direction of Professor Denslin’s labs, but this time he went in through a door on the wall opposite the lab space and into the office area.

A group of the professor’s people were in various stages of eating lunch. Todd introduced himself as Senior Associate Safety Inspector and said that he was about to conduct a surprise lab walkthrough. He awkwardly held up his clipboard to counteract the silence that followed his introduction. Until that moment, Todd hadn’t thought about whether or not they would recognize him as the man who'd found Melanie’s body. He felt suddenly conspicuous.

Fortunately, they didn’t seem to have any reaction to him or his name. A tall, blonde woman with what Todd thought was a Swedish accent introduced herself as Anna. She was a postdoctoral researcher who had worked for Professor Denslin the longest, five years. There were also two graduate students, both in their second year: Dan, an impossibly skinny guy with a mop of greasy brown hair, and Ruiling, an Asian girl with cropped black hair and thick black glasses, who told him she preferred to go by the name Rachel.

“Sorry to hear about the girl that died here. That must have been difficult for all of you,” Todd heard himself say. He had no idea why on earth was he bringing it up. His plan this morning in bed was to do this inspection and forget about the whole incident.

“What is this?” the postdoc Anna asked. She looked at Todd, and her blue eyes suddenly seemed to turn gray, like smoke clouds had passed in front of her pupils. “Health and Safety already agreed this was no laboratory accident. We should not get a violation cited against us.”

“He is just being kind,” Rachel said to Anna, her voice trembling.

“Yeah, geez, calm down, Dragon Tattoo. Not everything is some giant conspiracy against you,” Dan added. Anna looked disgusted at all three of them and left the room.

“Sorry, she is very upset about all of this,” Rachel told Todd. “She can get quite aggressive when she is emotional. Sometimes she can be quite frightening”

“I don’t know why. She never worked with Melanie, probably never said two words to her,” Dan said with a laugh.

“Oh, so Melanie just worked with you two?” Todd asked. What was he saying? He shouldn’t drag these students through this again.

“Nah, I was supervising her,” Dan said, “but Rachel knew her because Melanie was in her Chem 101 class last year. Also, because Rachel’s so nice and helps everyone in lab. Sometimes she even grabs the trashcans for the janitors.”

Rachel blushed and headed back to lab. Meanwhile, Dan pulled a giant container full of gummy bears from one of the drawers. Dan grabbed a handful of the candy and shoved it in his mouth.

“If yoush asksh me,” Dan began but then paused to swallow, “the person who knew Melanie best was Professor Denslin. If you know what I mean.” He looked at Todd with a wolfish grin on his face. Todd was about to ask what he meant when the door opened and Professor Denslin walked in.

“Who the hell are you?” Professor Denslin asked. He was a middle-aged man still with a full head of blonde hair, blue eyes, and a perpetual good-natured smile. However, Professor Denslin had a reputation in the department for always getting what he wanted, whether with his charm or with his authority.

“Todd Finklestein, here for a safety inspection,” he replied.

“What the hell? Didn’t we have ours already?”

“You did, but this is a surprise check up.”

“Oh god,” Professor Denslin said. “Dan, you’ll show him around, right?”

“Actually,” Todd ventured, “perhaps you could accompany me, Professor Denslin.”

A momentary look of either disbelief or outrage crossed the professor’s face before he regained his smiling composure.

“Just considering recent events,” Todd added.

Actually,” Professor Denslin said, “I’m writing a paper on how our compound selectively kills malignant liver cells. I think curing cancer might be more important than following some bureaucrat around. Or perhaps even more important than talking to some bureaucrat who’s trying to pump me for gossip on the tragic death of a student.”

“I meant no disrespect, Professor. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I only meant that we’re all under increased scrutiny now, so I want to be as meticulous as possible,” Todd said.

As he saw another flash of emotion cross the professor’s face, his lips momentarily grimacing in what looked like real pain, Todd found he belatedly meant what he said. It was a young girl this man had known and taught who was now just a body in the ground. He had a hunch that the professor had really felt her death.

“Fine,” Professor Denslin said. “Let’s go.”

Dan gulped down the last mouthful of gummy bears, and the three men headed into the lab.

**********

“Let me first just check that these gas tanks are secured,” Todd said as they entered the lab.

“Good God, we’re not idiots.” The professor started to glare at Todd but checked himself. He instead stalked off to talk to Anna, who was working at one of the benches.

Dan slapped Todd good-naturedly on the shoulder and chuckled in sympathy. With the professor ignoring them, Dan guided him through the rest of the lab. The benches were shared space in the middle of lab where everyone could use the equipment. Everyone had their own personal fume hoods to conduct chemical reactions. Anna and Rachel had their hoods on the right wall right where the door to the lab was. Anna’s hood was busy-looking with three flasks of liquids stirring away. Rachel’s hood had a vacuum line where she was freeze drying some things in tubes. Both were a bit full but orderly with bottles carefully labeled.

Dan and Melanie’s hoods were against the opposite wall. Todd sighed when he saw Dan’s work area and began scribbling on his clipboard: uncapped bottles of acid, stains of various colors, a pack of gummy bears sitting open next to a bottle of acetone.

“I’m sorry,” Dan said sheepishly, following Todd’s gaze. “You should see my bedroom.”

Todd couldn’t help a small smile as he moved onto Melanie’s old hood. It had already been stripped clean of all equipment. In fact, it had been scrubbed down so much it looked brand new. It was like Melanie had never existed.

“What can you possibly be finding?” Professor Denslin had come up behind Todd and spoke directly in his ear. “A completely empty fume hood? Is that somehow dangerous?” Todd saw the flush on the professor’s face and his stomach started churning again.

“Professor, could you look at this with me?” Anna called. As the professor walked over, Todd noticed him place his hand on her waist. It was just a second of contact, and then the professor seemed magnetically repelled away from her. Then Anna started talking loudly at the computer screen.

“I cleaned out her hood when the police were done,” Rachel too had snuck up behind Todd. These people were very good at sideling. “I think it was hard for people to see it just sitting there like nothing had happened. I hope that was okay.”

“Sure, I was just looking. That’s just my job,” Todd said. Rachel went back to her work. Dan had been standing by Todd during all of this but was absorbed in some game on his phone.

“All done?” Dan asked hopefully.

“Let me just walk around back,” Todd said with a smile. “By the way, you really shouldn’t play with your phone while you have gloves on. People will think you’re contaminating it.”

“Sure thing, Inspector Finklestein!” Dan pocketed his phone and gave Todd a salute.

The desks were along the back of the lab by the windows. Dan’s was a mess, but at least there were no open packets of food on it. The desk Melanie’s body had been on was back-to-back with Dan’s. Like her hood, it had been scrubbed clean.

“Oops!” Dan said as his phone fell to the floor, “Sorry, I just play with my phone so much it’s become an unconscious thing, you know?”

“Dan, maybe you could give me a hand with this clamp?” Rachel had once again materialized beside them.

Dan gave Todd an apologetic shrug and went with her. Todd stared at Melanie’s desk. He felt like finding the body was something that had happened to someone else a long time ago.

He turned away to finish the inspection. There was an ice chest near the lab benches. He checked the labels to make sure it had the proper hazard stickers. The cooler contained frozen carbon dioxide or “dry” ice. Dry ice being negative 80 degrees Celsius and a potential safety hazard, Todd was careful to inspect it. It was in a well-ventilated portion of the room with a ventilation mechanism that allowed for the slow release of the carbon dioxide gas that was produced when the dry ice warmed. It was, however, a larger and deeper cooler than he would like.

Todd tsk’d to himself. Dry ice was so commonly used to cool chemical reactions that people often forgot about the dangers. Sometimes people would stick their heads into these deep coolers to grab the last bit of ice and the carbon dioxide gas would asphyxiate them. Also, the ice was so cold that prolonged contact to the skin could cause frostbite-like burns.

Burns! The burn on the girl’s finger! Todd felt dizzy as he knelt beside the chest. What is the matter with you? Todd thought to himself, looking around. Dan and Rachel were working on something. Anna and the professor were by the computer deep in discussion.

It’s just a burn and there are a million ways she could have got it.

…To be continued.