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The lab

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Chapter Two

Richard P. Grant 21 May 2019

www.lablit.com/article/962

For the life of him, Max did not understand scientists. He was even sleeping with one and he was none the wiser

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Chapter Two: The Lab

Nobody said it was easy

– Coldplay

Dr Bradley Jefferson Walker Pettier III was confused.

This wasn’t itself remarkable – confusion was a common feeling for Brad, and more so than usual recently. Normally he hid his confusion under a thick layer of Deep South bluster and bombast. It had stood him well during his PhD training, and had been working fine as a cover during his brief postdoctoral tenure at Tulane University in New Orleans. But then Katrina had hit and he, along with so many other young researchers, found his blossoming scientific career on hold as laboratories were suddenly closed, and senior academic faculty scrambled for new positions and funding.

“Well, what does it say?” the female voice at the end of the telephone shocked him back to the present.

“Um, the data are not fully conclusive at this preliminary stage of our analysis.” Brad tried to keep his voice from trembling. Damn it! He had worked so hard at trying to identify the sample the police had given him.

It was an honour, admittedly one he felt he deserved, for his lab Head to hand this project to him. He ignored the fact that it was both expediency and ethics that had had the greater part in the decision. Professor Edgerton was leaving on sabbatical soon, and more importantly, Brad hadn’t really known Charlotte. If the analysis had to be contracted out to an academic lab, so be it; they were often better equipped and trained. However, the irony – that the lab was at an institute where the dead girl was known and liked – was lost on no one. Especially not Brad.

The road to his current predicament had not been an easy one, good intentions or otherwise. After Katrina, his own mentor had been more fortunate than most, receiving a lucrative offer to run a group at Merck Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Brad it was a case of last hired, first fired when it came to filling the limited number of positions available at the new Institute. Desperate not to let his career stagnate, and knowing that competition would be fierce for positions in the States, he applied for every foreign postdoctoral position he could find. And now, a little over a year later, he found himself in Cambridge, England, staring in confusion at his latest result.

“Look, you’ve had the bloody thing for a week now,” she snapped. “What the hell’s going on? Don’t you have some machine or something that’ll just bloody tell you what it is?”

“It’s really not that simple,” Brad said, pausing while he tried to work out how to explain HPLC to an angry police officer.

“OK. Fine. I’ll be back in town tomorrow and we can go over this together. I can’t wait around for ever. The girl went in the ground today. I need a result. My DCI is breathing down my neck. So – ” She left the threat unfinished and hung up.

“Damn. Damn. Damn. Why the hell does this happen to me?” Brad muttered under his breath. He left the office area and headed back to the laboratory. “Typical postdoc. Another night at work,” he thought. “I’ll just have to run the damned thing again.”

**********

She swore as she snapped the phone shut. After a moment’s consideration, she swore again with the graphic creativity of a girl brought up around the fishing boats. It was one of the few times that Lara Colbourn’s upbringing shone through.

A grandfatherly man shot her a disapproving frown, and she glared at him until the flow of commuters took him away. The crowded station did nothing to cool her temper; Lara kept a firm grip on her bag as she pushed and jostled her way across the prevailing flow with expert ease.

The phone rang, piercingly sharp above the crowd noise. Flipping it open, Lara scowled at the caller ID. “Colbourn.”

“Colbourn, where the hell are you?”

She winced at the gruff roar. “Hey, boss. I just got back.”

“I’m missing a report, Colbourn. It was supposed to be on my desk yesterday.”

“Yeah, I know, boss. I haven’t finished with it yet.” Lara had quite deliberately not told the lab rat just why her boss was riding her.

There was muffled cursing on the other end. By blocking her other ear, Lara could make out her boss berating obsessive compulsive detectives. There was a pause, and a weary sigh. “Look, Lara, Forensics say it’s natural causes. She’s in the ground. What more do you want?”

The exit ahead was plugged with a knot of youths. She pushed around them, swearing as she nearly tripped over a half dozen school bags. “Sorry, boss. I dunno. But she was a scientist. Working on viruses.”

“What’s your point?”

“She had the flu when she died.”

A short silence, during which Lara ducked and weaved and finally made it into the open street, signaled the churning thoughts on the other end, most likely judging how serious his detective was on this. “You’re thinking... what?”

“I’m not saying anything, boss. I don’t have anything. It’s just... I’ve got a funny feeling about this one.”

He sighed. “All right. I’ll give you some time, Colbourn. But you’d better find me something soon.”

“You got it, boss. Thanks.” Lara breathed out as she stuffed the phone back in her bag. She’d bought herself a week, more if she was lucky. A week to discover just what it was about this one that bugged her.

She’d lean hard on the lab rat if he didn’t deliver tomorrow. One hand outstretched to hail a taxi, Lara’s mind was already nibbling away at the scant information she had managed to piece together. Perhaps another visit to the girl’s workplace was in order... after her shopping and a good night’s sleep.

**********

Michel sat at his iMac, his fingers keeping time with the rain on the window.

The trip back had been difficult. A young couple had been on the bus, obviously in the first flush of a romantic entanglement, and the boy’s trainer laces had come untied. Unable to cope with the mounting horror Michel had got off the bus at the end of Long Road and stood watching the traffic lights for ten minutes. He hated himself for giving in. He knew what the problem was; why could he not deal with it?

And now this. A single base mistake in ordering the primers, and what was supposed to be a simple mutant was giving him a severe headache. Changing an acidic residue (an aspartic acid) to its non-charged amide equivalent (asparagine), was exactly the kind of subtle mutation that Mike enjoyed testing. Right in the binding site, all they would have had to do was demonstrate reduced viral infectivity and the structural work would be vindicated.

But the sequencing was clear. He had introduced a positively charged lysine – AAG instead of AAC. A simple error in transcribing from the screen to the ridiculous paper-based ordering system they were still stuck with. Such a drastic change should have completely destroyed binding and transmission, but the assays showed that this virus had at least doubled infectivity.

“Michel?”

There was only one person in the lab who used his real name, as if the singing French lilt was not enough of a clue.

“Sabine. Please come in.” Michel stood up, then turned to face in the direction of his visitor.

“Am I disturbing you?”

“No, it is all right. I have found the problem with the dee thirty five mutant assays.”

“Oh? Really? That is good, isn’t it?” Sabine said.

Michel shrugged. “Maybe. It is a silly mistake. We can talk about it tomorrow – you want to go to the wake, yes?”

“Um, yes!” Sabine seemed surprised. “I wanted to ask if I might give you a lift? I brought my car today.”

“That is nice. But I must culture my cells, otherwise they too will die.” He lifted his chin to the woman.

“Michel,” Sabine growled, “you are très macabre. Do not stay too late.” She pursed her lips in mock disapproval, then winked and turned to leave. “Oh!” she called over her shoulder, “if Max turns up tell him I’ll be late back tonight.”

“Goodbye,” Michel whispered to her retreating back. Verdomme! What was a woman like that doing with an invertebrate accountant?

**********

Max walked down the corridor toward Sabine’s lab. It was late, and something seemed wrong. Then he realized what it was: Usually the building was semi-populated with scientists burning the midnight oil; but tonight it was empty. He passed labs on the left and right, dark and quiet. Where were all the postdocs, doing their all-nighters?

For the life of him Max did not understand scientists. He was even sleeping with one and he was none the wiser. They were crazy; paid a pittance with no benefits or job security, they would nevertheless happily work 60, 70, 80-hour weeks in pursuit of – what?

“The truth,” Sabine had purred in her lovely accent the first night they’d met. “I seek the truth, I work day and night, and one day – bom – the truth she is revealed, and for a short moment I am the only person in the world, in all the history of the world, to know this one simple thing.”

It had made sense at the time, although Max suspected that he had been so intoxicated by Sabine’s voice and sexy red dress, and so preoccupied with pulling her, there in that smoky Cambridge pub, that anything would have sounded plausible.

Max was an accountant. He was sensible, not bad looking, decent teeth, reasonably well off, and he never worked longer than his statutory 35 hours a week. Unlike most of his colleagues, he even took the full hour at lunch. But after a few weeks with the lovely Sabine it became apparent that the only way he could spend any real time with her was to start hanging around her lab after his own clocking off time. At first the lab inhabitants were a bit wary of him, but by now, he was as much a fixture as the shiny centrifuges and other obscure bits of beeping, humming, flashing, shaking, rotating kit that cluttered the long black benches. Even the guy on the front desk would wave him past without making him sign in (so much for the much-touted high security policy in the new building), and the rest of the department would nod at him in recognition when he passed.

It was clear that to the scientists in the Slater lab, Max was as exotic as they were to him. Max often suspected they tolerated his presence for comic relief, and worse, that accountants were completely uncool in the eyes of these geeks. But Sabine didn’t give a toss what the others thought – she was fierce and proud and beautiful and confident.

And French, of course. That alone covered a multitude of sins.

Max swung into the Slater lab, seeing just one bench lamp burning – Sabine’s. But she wasn’t around – probably off making X-rays of genes or whatever the hell she did in that darkroom where once they’d had mad, giggling sex. Max sat down to wait on her stool, wondering where everyone else was. He vaguely remembered Sabine saying something about a funeral, or a wake party, some dead girl who used to work in the institute back when it was a heap of old bricks down the road. That was another thing about scientists – any excuse for a drink.

It was then that Max heard the floor creak, and realized that he wasn’t alone in the lab after all. He spun the chair around quickly until he was facing the source of the sound: Slater’s inner office, whose door was ajar and which was dark except for a blue computer glow.

“Hello?” Max called out, uncertainly.