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The party

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Chapter Three

Richard P. Grant 15 July 2019

www.lablit.com/article/965

She had already pegged quite a few of the mourners as scientists based on clothes alone – it made you wonder if they got a decent salary

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Chapter Three: The Party

Don’t stand so close to me

– Gordon Sumner

Ah, these silly English men, Sabine thought as she drove down Long Road. They are so easily amused – it really wasn’t work at all. All she ever had to do was smile at them and they would do anything she asked. Most of the time she didn’t even need to ask; they did it spontaneously. Max? Well, he was OK. He certainly kept her entertained, coming and hanging around the lab like a little poodle. And, it had to be said, he was so blinded by her, she could ask for anything and he would move heaven and earth to get it.

The only one who seemed resistant to her charms was Professor Slater. But she suspected that under that horrid jacket – tweed was it they called it, how can they get it so wrong? – that he was hiding something interesting. Mind you, he wasn’t the only one with no style; what about Michel, mon Dieu! But then again, he was Dutch. These northerners were all the same: they lacked a passion for life. Apart from Max, that one time in the dark room, of course.

Now, why wouldn’t Michel come to the party? Odd, these British, having a party to celebrate someone dying. They didn’t even have a proper Mass, not that she would have gone of course. Her grandmother would have disapproved greatly. But maybe the Prof would be at the party. It might be a good time to prepare the ground for a recommendation letter, try out some real charm on him.

Yes, she thought as she drove into the pub car park, it doesn’t hurt to look towards the future.

Sabine hesitated. Now, would they be in the lounge or in the public bar? It was so confusing in these English pubs, one part furnished in comfortable chairs and the other done up like a rough bistro in her little village in Normandy. She wouldn’t have been seen dead in the bistro at home, but sometimes she went to the public bar with the lab on a Friday. Given the circumstances, perhaps the lounge bar was more likely today. She pushed at the door – a good solid door, designed to hide whoever was behind it, no doubt. Then she heard Slater’s voice, smiled her most subtle smile and walked into the bar.

“Ah, hello Sabine,” Slater said as he saw her, “what would you like to drink? Un petit verre du vin?”

“Oui, monsieur, vous êtes très gentil,” she purred back, thinking that he’d been practising his French and hoping he didn’t miss her use of the polite form. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to try too hard after all. Amazing what a few drinks will do for a man’s confidence. Maybe this was going to be easier than she thought.

She slipped over to his side at the bar as he ordered her a Chablis, as well as another whisky for himself. A good 15 year old Single Malt, she observed. He must have been greatly affected by the woman’s death, because it was a rare day indeed that he drank more than his statutory glass of beer. She would have to be careful here; she wanted him drunk enough to lose any inhibitions but not so drunk he wouldn’t remember.

“I saw Michel at the lab, he said he had solved that problem with the codes,” she said as she took a sip of her wine. “He isn’t going to come to the wake though, said he has something else to do.”

She looked up at Slater through her long, brown lashes and smiled at him. She was glad she had worn the tight black T-shirt this morning with the jeans that moulded to her figure. Combined with her favourite strappy black high heeled sandals she always kept to hand in the car, it had to be said that she did stand out against these English girls, dressed in their washed out T-shirts and baggy jeans and nasty tennis shoes. They looked like homeless people half the time. She flicked her long wavy brown hair and pulled back her shoulders. She felt Slater trying desperately to avoid looking at her cleavage. She secretly thanked her grandmother again for having introduced her to the benefits of good lingerie.

Sabine knew Slater had a very possessive wife – she had called the lab once, demanding to know where he was. Sabine had had no clue who this banshee was on the other end of the phone but decided to be polite. Slater had later apologized and lab rumour had told her the rest. Sabine, glanced around: no wife tonight, wonder where she is?

“Tom, you are alone tonight, that is sad, especially on such a sad day, you shouldn’t be alone at a time like this,” Sabine said in a hushed voice as she gently placed her hand on top of his. She rarely used his first name, and she watched for the impact. She saw him swallow and his eyes slightly widen in response.

**********

The funeral photos were probably going to be all right, although Toni regretted that she had to leave the graveyard before the end.

Well, not regret exactly, since she didn’t like to be around when the casket was put in the ground, but it would have been a good way to get to know who was at the funeral and who was not, to confirm who was really close to the girl and who was just keeping up appearances.

Toni had not really thought about the idea at all – capitalizing on Charlotte’s death to score a good story – until she realized that the whole laboratory was at the funeral, as well as lots of other people. A woman as popular as Charlotte would have many coworkers and friends, not to mention admirers. Toni remembered what her mother used to say: “There’s no better place to meet people than at a funeral.” It seemed like other people had heard that saying too.

She had tried to put faces to names but only really recognized the professor, Tom Slater. Not that he stood out in the crowd, but maybe it was more because her friend Max had described him in detail once, when he was telling her about Sabine’s work, and she could see that horrid orange tweed jacket peeking out from under his black overcoat. Nothing escaped her journalist’s eye. She had already pegged quite a few of the mourners as scientists based on clothes alone – it made you wonder if they got a decent salary.

She hoped that the photos would turn out well and that she would be able to sort out who was whom. It would be nice to be able to have a decent caption for her article: “Close friends and coworkers of the deceased doctor unite in grief. From left to right...”

Sneaking past the guard downstairs had been easy. Easier than the time when she had gone undercover to expose the lack of security in the chemical factory – that had been the hardest so far. Even if the piece hadn’t made it into the paper.

“It’s not a good time for something on the environment,” her editor had explained when he spiked the story. He made the word ‘environment’ sound like a disease. “Maybe later, Toni. How about something about those footballers’ wives in Corsica?”

What a loser. She would show him. She was not in this game to become a second-class journalist. She had always wanted to be more like Gunther Grass or Bob Woodward. Investigative journalism, not Posh and Becks wearing Gucci at the film premiere.

Toni suddenly realized she was wasting precious time daydreaming. Coming back to herself, she resumed looking through Professor Slater’s papers at the desk.

The idea to get a feel for the lab environment while everyone else was at the wake had popped into her head during the funeral. She had realized as soon as she stepped in the lab that the inner office belonged to Professor Slater, and had not believed her luck when it she found the door into the office had been left unlocked. She had simply gone inside to see if there could be anything interesting lying around.

It was dim inside the room, but when Toni accidentally bumped the cordless mouse on the table, the computer screen lit up and displayed a small dialogue box.

“Please enter password.”

Toni saw that the screen was now putting out a hell of a lot of light – it was one of those theatre-sized flat screens. She looked behind her nervously into the main lab, but it was still empty. She turned back to the dialogue box. These new Macs probably had some kind of tracking device so whoever owned it could detect failed log-ins. Toni didn’t really fancy breaking into someone else’s computer anyway, but looking at some papers and photos around the office couldn’t hurt, could it?

She started to rifle through some of the mail that was stacked on one side of the desk when she noticed that there were several drawers underneath the desk. She was reaching down to test the lock on the topmost one, when suddenly a voice rang out in the lab behind her.

“Hello?”

Damn!

She quickly moved to the other side of the desk and hoped that the computer would enter screen-saver mode soon and go dark. Maybe she could pretend she had just stepped in here to look for someone. After all, it would not be too conspicuous if one wanted an interview with the leading professor in the virus field, when someone important just had passed away very suddenly from a nasty disease, was it? But the screen showed no sign of darkening, so Toni smiled, put on what her friends called her sweet little girl face, and strode back into the lab.

It was Max. Thank God! She exhaled, knowing she could definitely worm her way out of this.

“Hi, Max!” She flashed him more of that famous Toni smile.

**********

God. There was something about his postdoc, in the smoky light; a familiarity that hit him in the gut.

And then he placed it: it was that look. Charlotte’s look.

The look she’d given him that first time she’d marched into his office with bright eyes and a very short skirt, demanding a place in the lab to work with him on his research into the common cold virus. Oozing sex, as if a professor of Tom’s age and experience could possibly be swayed by a bit of leg. A common misconception.

Not that misconceptions are always baseless.

Young, she’d been, young and feisty and still with that post-PhD confidence that she could conquer the world and win a Nobel Prize, that the data would fall into her lap with a smile and a bit of cleavage, that the papers and grants would come her way simply because she willed them to.

Yes, he was attracted to her, but that’s not why he’d taken her on. He’d taken her on because she had a hot CV and a pair of irreproachable reference letters, because he couldn’t interest any of his other postdocs in something as arcane as rhinovirus replication – not with pandemic flu on the horizon.

Slater passed a hand over his eyes, remembering that it was Sabine before him, not Charlotte’s ghost.

Sabine, who wanted something and was waiting for a response. He knew instinctively that she did not want sex: there was something colder behind her eyes. Something calculating.

**********

“Toni! You scared the fuck out of me.” Max sank back down on the stool, embarrassed at how his heart was racing. “What in hell were you doing in there?”

Toni shrugged and leaned against the door frame. “Just poking around. I might ask the same question of you.”

“I’m waiting for Sabine.”

“You’d better get comfortable – she’s at the party.”

“What?” Max pulled out his mobile, scanned its screen, but no message alert was there. “How do you know?”

Why hadn’t she let him know? Why hadn’t she invited him? For the tenth time that week he wondered if she were having an affair with one of the boffins in the building. That sly-eyed, metrosexual little Italian shit down the hall, maybe, the one he’d caught flirting with her over a bucket of dry ice three nights ago.

“I came from there,” she said, shrugging. “It was boring, so I thought I’d see what there was to see around here.”

“Are you working on a story about Slater?” Max asked, curiosity overcoming his irritation.

“Not exactly,” Toni said, “but don’t ask. It’s too soon to reveal anything.”

“You always say that.”

“Max, I don’t suppose you know Slater’s computer password?”

“No, of course not!” Max hated all this cloak-and-dagger crap. He liked Toni – they’d been friends since Uni – but for the life of him he couldn’t understand why she enjoyed poking around where she wasn’t wanted. Max himself hated breaking rules – and he hated himself for being in essence a coward. Toni’s brazenness just reinforced his own weakness.

“Would Sabine? Could you get it out of her?”

“Not bloody likely,” Max said. “Sabine never tells me anything anymore.”