Sheila and Bob were sitting in Cheeky’s. There wasn’t anyone else who looked as though they came from the University there. There were plenty of people having breakfast, but Sheila was pretty sure they wouldn’t be eavesdropping.
They had been chatting generally about their departments and how busy they were, and how neither of them cared about the car parking memo. Bob was finishing off a bacon sandwich. Sheila was trying not to look at it. She didn’t do breakfast. She kept her eyes on Bob’s face. He wasn’t exactly built like Brad Pitt, but he looked quite sweet, and certainly seemed incapable of bullying anyone. Perhaps he’d be a bit of a kindred spirit at Burston Central. She could do with some allies.
He was looking a bit chirpier now he’d settled in one place and had some food inside him. He took a swig of his coffee. “OK, er, Sheila. So. What do you think of The Special Project?”
Sheila beamed. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity!”
Bob paled again. Oh, God. Maybe it was just him who thought it was completely bonkers.
Sheila realised that she was scaring him. She reached out and patted him on the arm. “Let me explain.”
Bob looked down at the small hand. He having a bit of trouble processing the situation. He looked back up into Sheila’s earnest face.
“Bob. I’ll be honest with you. From an moral point of view, I think the whole idea is completely appalling. It’s a betrayal of the intellectual idea of the university. Newman would be turning in his grave.”
Bob nodded. He had a vague memory of Newman from his teaching course, but anyway he agreed with the sentiment that it was all appalling.
Sheila continued “We can’t do proper higher education on the cheap. It’s ridiculous. And it’s short-changing the students who come. No proper library, no shared facilities, limited access to counselling or disability support. There’ll be a total dependence on part-time staff, and we all know how unreliable a system that is. The full-time staff will be run ragged trying to cover everything. It’ll just be survival of the fittest. And I will be honest with you, Bob. I may not be one of the fittest. I’ve had a long period off sick this year.”
Bob looked at her sympathetically “You look fine to me” he said.
Sheila fixed him in the eye, as her counsellor had taught her. “I had mental health issues, Bob. Of course I look fine.”
Bob looked as though he wished the floor would open and swallow him up.
Sheila let him stew for a moment, then carried on. “So, you’re probably wondering why I think this is an opportunity.”
Bob nodded, weakly, relieved that the subject was changing.
“Well. I think it’s an opportunity for me. And I suspect it might be an opportunity for you, too.”
Bob risked a little smile. What had his brother-in-law said to him last Christmas? “You need to let go and live a little, Bob.” Well, alright then, he would. Maybe Sheila was a nutter, but she seemed like a nice one. Which was an improvement on the others he’d met in the last twenty-four hours. He leaned over the sticky table and smiled encouragingly at her.
Scientists at work
D I Bones had managed to find the Huxley building and had parked on a double yellow line just by the main car park, which was completely full. He ferreted around in the glovebox for a piece of paper with the Burston Metropolitan emblem on it and the word ‘Urgent Police Business’, which was slipped inside a see-through plastic wallet. It looked official enough, although actually he’d knocked it up on his home computer one night after receiving yet another parking ticket down by the bus station. He put it inside the windscreen, picked up his notebook and got out of the car. It was 10.28 according to his watch. Perfect timing. He set off towards Huxley building with a self-satisfied smile.
He felt slightly less pleased with himself five minutes later when he’d made one complete circuit of the building without finding any obvious way in. The name of the building was clearly displayed on a huge notice near the seventh, floor, but there was no obvious reception area, and the only doors appeared to be fire doors which would only open from the inside.
Shit. And once again he’d forgotten to take any contact details for the mysterious Ms, Mrs, Miss, Dr Khan. He really was losing it.
He looked around, trying to work out what to do. A woman in a white lab coat was heading towards the building. She had her head down and she was moving pretty fast. He started to jog over to her, hoping to intercept her before she reached the building. He presumed she was heading for a door.
He caught up with her just as she got to one of the strange outward-opening doors. She spun round “Just piss off, you bloody loony” she snarled at him in a strong Aussie accent, “we don’t do any animal research here, so just leave me alone.” She raised her knee threateningly and DI Bones instinctively covered his crotch protectively.
She gave a sort of half-laugh, then turned back towards the door. He was pretty sure he heard her mutter “wimp” under her breath. D I Bones pulled himself together and chased after her.
He reached in his pocket for his ID and waved it under her nose. “D I Bones” he said, with as much dignity as he could muster. “I’ve got an appointment with Sereena Khan in the Huxley Building. But I can’t work out how to get in.” he added, lamely.
The woman stared at him for a second, and then laughed heartily. “Whoops, that’ll teach me to jump to conclusions. Sorry. We’ve had a lot of trouble from those animal rights nutters lately. Didn’t give you a fright, did I?” She put out her hand “Sandra Sharpe. No hard feelings?”
D I Bones took the hand and tried to look dignified. “No problem, Ms, er Dr, Sharpe? Good to see you’re on your guard. Though you shouldn’t take the law into your own hands.” he added. “Could get you into trouble. Now, is there any chance you could show me the special secret to getting into the building?”
Sandra took him by the arm. “Sure. Just stick with me. D I Bones, was it?” She winked at him. D I Bones smiled to himself..
They approached one of the strange doors. Sandra fished inside her white coat, hauling up a lanyard with an ID card on it. She pressed the card to the glass and a handle popped out from the panel. She opened the door and gestured to D I Bones to go through. He tried not to look as she pushed the card back down inside the lab coat again.
“Thanks” he said. He wondered if it would be really unprofessional to give her a business card. Maybe she actually knew Gareth Jones? That would be a good enough reason. While he was standing, slightly slack-jawed, considering this, Sandra pushed something into his hand and disappeared towards a staircase. He followed her with his eyes.
“D I Bones?” came a little voice from behind him. He turned to see a small, slim, woman, also wearing a lab coat.
He straightened. “You must be Ms, Dr, Mrs Khan” he suggested.
“Yes. But you’re terribly late. I’ve hardly got any time before I need to get back to my experiment.”
D I Bones remembered that he was feeling pretty aggrieved about the fact that she hadn’t explained how to get into the building. He opened his mouth to defend himself before realising that there wasn’t much point. “Is there anywhere private we can talk, Ms. Dr, Mrs Khan?” he asked.
Sereena gestured towards some sofas in an alcove and he followed her over there.
“It’s a bit dark over here, we can’t have them too close to the windows.” she said. “Animal rights.” she added, in response to his confused expression.
He didn’t feel much the wiser. Was everything slipping away from him? Or was it just this case? He hoped so. He got out his notebook.
“Now, can I just take some details?” he started. “First of all, can I just check the spelling of your name?” He started to feel a bit better. This was ok. He knew how to do this.
D I Bones was back in the office. He opened the notebook and tried to summarise what he’d found out that morning.
- It was Dr Khan.
- She and Gareth had shared a bench in the lab for three years.
- She had agreed that the person in the photo the pathologist had done for him was Gareth, although she hadn’t looked very carefully at it. He probably shouldn’t have told her where it was taken.
- Gareth was very shy (and so was Sereena, he added to himself).
- She thought he came from Wales somewhere.
- They sometimes had coffee together but they only talked about work.
- Sandra Sharpe had given him her business card.
Brilliant. What new information did he have? Gareth Jones might have come from Wales. What a waste of time. Apart from Sandra’s business card, that was. He wondered if she’d given it to him because she knew Gareth, or if she was interested in him. Only one way to find out. He picked up the phone.
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