Copyright © 2019 by CB Barrie All rights reserved.
Published in 2019 by: Britain’s Next Bestseller An imprint of Live It Ventures Ltd www.bnbsbooks.co.uk
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For my Family
About the Author
He was beginning to form the opinion that he was insane for trying to get to the laboratory under the current foul weather conditions.
If anything, his situation was comparable to a 19th century tea-clipper, under full sail and trying to outrun an oncoming storm front - only in his case the storm had caught up. The road he was driving on was the B3306, a narrow secondary road which ran along the north Cornwall coast. This particular stretch, running from Morvah to Treen, the latter some eight miles south west of St Ives, was notorious for its ferocious weather, often forcing drivers to stop entirely and abandon their winter journeys. At best they had to pull in to wait for the habitual onset of gale force winds, coupled to driving rain, to abate sufficiently for the journey to be continued.
Tonight was, if anything, wor; se - and he concluded that no one in their right mind should have been on the road, certainly not attempting to navigate against the kind of violent anti-cyclonic weather system that ordinarily would have kept sensible people dry and snug indoors.
But he had things to do, important things - and as usual he had only the weekend to accomplish them. He was determined to get to his place of work, the Metlab Research Laboratory just beyond Morvah, regardless of the danger the journey posed. He was becoming more and more certain that the research he had been surreptitiously carrying out over the last year and a half was no longer simply promising – indeed it was beginning to succeed, and with luck all he needed was a few more weeks to finalise things.
He was a good metallurgist, and if what he had been doing came to fruition, he might even become a famous, if not wealthy, metallurgist. But that depended on a number of factors; first, that the research and technology was actually successful, second, that his principals and supervisors remained ignorant of that success, and third he was able to personally patent the technology and license it for commercial applications. The last factor incurred a distinct risk of being sued by his employers, the Metal Industries and Mining Company or M.I.M.C, but he took the view that being in possession of the intellectual property would actually mean holding an ace at the card table against M.I.M.C’s particularly poor hand.
For all that to happen he needed to make progress over the coming few days and to ensure his activities in the laboratory, as in the past, remained a covert activity.
As his headlights and spotlights tried to illuminate the road to his front, it was becoming more a case of the hail and rain blanketing and obscuring his windscreen rather than any distinct sign of the tarmac surface he was trying to follow. The headlights reflected back against the blizzard of hail as though he was looking at a brightly speckled white sheet in front of him. Furthermore, the noise in the car was deafening as the hail and rain hit the car roof, windows and windscreen like machine gun rounds. The car swayed and buffeted as the gale force wind raced over the sea and then whipped over the cliff edge, making landfall no more than a few hundred yards away from the road. He was now on the worst part of the 3066 - closer to the cliff edge and sea and much more exposed. It appeared as though the angry, furious and implacable weather treated anything on the road as if it were an enemy to be destroyed.
Now he was drowning in hailstones, and they continued to blot out all vision ahead except for a short and somewhat indefinite section of the road directly in front of him. He had no choice but to change to second gear and crawl along at fifteen miles an hour, all the while cursing the difficulties he was facing. As he stared hard out of the windscreen, he tried to ensure he remained on the tarmac, and didn’t mistakenly slip into the coastal, cliff side verge of rain soaked gorse and bracken.
As he gingerly negotiated his way forward, he reckoned he was just over half way through his journey to the research lab’. As the car crept its way forward, his mind wandered back through the events that had led him to a research position with Metlab and then to risk life and limb in order to pursue his unofficial activities.
The Metlab Centre, a contraction of The Metals Research Laboratories Centre, was a central part of the Metal Industries and Mining Company, a massive world wide conglomerate of mining and metal processing companies all directed to finding, excavating and processing the less abundant metals employed in the world’s industries. It was Nickel, Chromium, Tungsten, Cobalt, Molybdenum and a range of other rare earth metals that supported their massive profits. The Metlab Centre was the principle research establishment for M.I.M.C and was not only extremely well funded, but populated by a picked scientific staff who were equally well financed and paid. This largesse wasn’t an act of generosity on the part of M.I.M.C – their financial executives had so arranged matters that M.I.M.C received a substantial tax concession for running a research operation which prima facia was non-profit making and thus could be deemed by the accountants to be running at a loss. He of course, like many of his colleagues, had no objections to this arrangement at all. And why should he object, he was 34, single and pleased to be able to afford a few of life’s luxuries. He had no wife, no dependents and up to a point he felt satisfied in his career.
He missed and regretted only one aspect of his life – a lack of recognition, acclamation and admiration. True, he had gained some seniority in commercial research; after that was he’d left Cambridge in his twenties with a doctorate founded on a rather well acknowledged doctoral thesis in physical chemistry. But it was metallurgy that had sparked his interest, and it had ignited not only a consuming interest but also a burgeoning expertise. But the one thing that gnawed at his soul was his failure to be properly recognised, celebrated or renowned – the failure, that was, to have his name on a well respected pile of research papers, and the chance to find himself so well known as to be invited to fellowship of one of the major scientific institutions. To a certain extent it was his choice of career that limited his reputation – commercial research did not have the academic expectations or requirements for its staff that a university might have. As such, he was deficient in well received research papers published in the academic and technical journals. That error he intended to alter at the earliest opportunity; not least as a prelude to all his ambitions.
The staccato drumming on the car was lessening as the hail started to give way to heavy rain.
As it did so his headlights probed further down the road and he was able to see some way ahead. He changed up to third gear and increased speed, now more confident that he was starting to move away from the hailstorm and into less ferocious cloudbursts. He began to recognise the road landscape and realised that he was moving from the Morvah plain into the outskirts of the village of Morvah itself. Soon he passed the Anglican Church and some village housing. On the other side of the village along a newly created access road lay the Metlab laboratory complex.
In a few more minutes he would be back in his laboratory and with optimism and expectations high, be able to complete his long investigation into super hard materials.
His car sloshed through the pooled and rain saturated driveway as he headed uphill towards the red and white spiralled security barrier.
One side of the barrier was flanked by a brick built security guard house, this in turn, along with the other side of the barrier, was joined to eight foot security fencing, all of which was topped with razor wire. The fencing encircled the whole four-acre site, but in the rain-saturated darkness, even its thick silvery wire mesh rapidly faded from view. The top of the low grey outline of the two storey laboratory main building came into view as he approached the barrier, and as his car nosed forward the storm gave a final outburst of cascading rain, perfectly timed just as he came abreast of the security housing.
He ran down the top of his window, keeping out the rain and waiting for the security guardroom door to open and for it to eject the late shift security guard. It was usually Nigel Pascoe, a man he had come to know well, and was on very friendly terms. Pascoe usually just waved him through without formally logging his arrival, but tonight he appeared with an umbrella and instead of giving the customary wave of acknowledgement, and then operating the barrier lift mechanism, he ran forward to the car, bent his head and shoulders down under the umbrella and leaned in towards the car window.
‘Doctor Caplin – there is someone else in the building, Doctor Ellis arrived about forty five minutes ago – I thought you should know. By the way – I’m on duty all night, I won’t be relieved until early tomorrow morning, my replacement is sick.’
That came as a pleasant surprise; he had never known anyone else to work as late as Pascoe intended. It suited his purposes not to be logged in and for staff to fail to know who was in the centre and who was out as the security shifts changed.
His own appearance at the laboratory was a risk he was unwilling to take without justified collaboration. His presence being reported by an over gossipy staff member was not something he wanted to explain to the personnel officer, and thereafter have to confront, and answer, unwanted questions from the laboratory director. At least Pascoe, now on duty overnight, had no reason to report him even if he didn’t reappear until late morning or until the Monday following the week end – Pascoe, fortunately, was extremely tight lipped. However, Ellis might not be.
For a brief moment he considered returning home. But then, Ellis had only recently been appointed to the staff, and it could well be that he was only in the building to catch up on his work schedule. If so, no doubt he wanted to appear diligent and hard working in his probationary period. Ellis certainly wouldn’t want to imperil his probation by alienating a senior staff member who might have Ellis’s ongoing career in his hands.
He nodded an acknowledgement of Pascoe’s note and gave an appreciative smile.
‘Is Ed’ Rowe on duty tonight?’
Rowe was the roving security guard located inside the laboratory complex and was tasked with periodically checking the whole building and its associated workshops. He too was used to turning a blind eye to the appearance of the one staff member he considered an incurable workaholic - a certain Doctor Michael Caplin. Tonight, however, he had an additional body to contend with in the form of Ellis, and perhaps this time he might be tempted not to ignore the two late night residents. This time he might log their attendance.
And yet, taken as a whole, it didn’t matter that much – even were he noted in the log as being in the complex overnight, it wasn’t as if there was a long record of him being in the laboratories every weekend, so just this once was hardly of any significance. Even were he to be confronted by someone in authority, he could easily shrug it off as a one-off appearance to complete some work. Of course, the fact that he intended to stay for the whole weekend might not be so easy to explain if it was uncovered, but that was a problem he could solve at a later time.
He gave Pascoe a wave of thanks as Pascoe gave a ‘He’s in’ confirming Rowe’s presence.
‘Okay, thanks, I’ll check with Ed’ and see what’s going on with Ellis.’
Pascoe stepped back and turned towards the barrier control.
As the barrier lifted he pressed the car’s accelerator and began the climb to the flatter part of the road that accessed the parking area to the south of the laboratory building. The track was dimly lit with low upright bowl topped luminaries but as he approached the parking area automatic overhead floodlights came on creating a wide pool of subdued light, pushing back the darkness and allowing an extensive field of view.
Force of habit meant that he drove into his usual parking bay, three bays back from the building. He could have parked closer to the reception area but his conditioned pattern of behaviour now meant a short walk to the building entrance. As he locked the doors of his BMW 325i he turned about and noted three other cars parked around him. He could account for two – the Fords of Pascoe and Rowe, the security people, but there was a third, a small Mazda MX5, a car he assumed belonged to Ellis.
As he made his way forward his footsteps echoed softly back from the building. He was amazed that the car park surface was virtually dry – but he put it down to the quirky microclimate the area experienced. This far up on the hill strange things took place. He wondered how people had survived this part of the world in the distant past; Neolithic man, 3,500 years ago, had certainly populated the area and, had it been daylight, and had he turned about, he could have viewed the distant Morvah iron-age hill fort. He was reminded that the whole area had once been a copper mine having started work in the 1850’s. Strange it was that after so long a time it had once more become a metal working area.
He walked on, turned the left hand corner of the building and made his way along the footpath to the glass fronted entrance and reception foyer. As he did so he glanced upwards, noting the subdued blue tinged lighting creeping out from all of the second storey office windows and corridors. At night the building was kept in illumination by a low ambient lighting system – good enough for people to navigate through the various parts, but nothing like the cost of keeping the full strip lighting functioning. Someone needing full lighting could override this in any office or laboratory and as he looked up he was astonished to see one office fully lit. Not only that, as far as he could judge it was his own office that had all its lights on!
He stood back on the footpath as far as he could without stepping into the soft, still rain soaked border turf, waiting to see if there was any obvious activity in his office. But without daring to stand back further, he could detect nothing. Suddenly the light extinguished, leaving the window in semi-darkness; now he was certain someone had been in his office.
He pushed open the glass doors of the entrance and half ran across the half lit foyer to the left ascending staircase. As he reached the upper level he slowed and made his way forward along the access corridor as silently as possible. He reached his office door in twenty seconds and pushed against the handle. The door opened as expected , it was always unlocked for fire access, and as it came ajar he felt for the light switch on the left hand wall. The lights instantly flared into life and as he stood in the doorway, looking into his office for an intruder, he was disappointed; there was nothing.
He stepped forward putting his briefcase on his desk and made for the window – he mentally counted the office windows prior to his and there was no doubt, it was his office that had been lit. He stood bemused, surely it had to be the night duty security man Ed’ Rowe who had switched on the lights, if not the only other…’
“Dr. Caplin, I’m…’
He flinched as the voice behind him broke the silence.
He turned - apparently looking stunned and angry.
It was Ellis, Nathaniel Ellis, and he had an embarrassed smile on his face.
‘It says Dr. Michael Caplin on the door doesn’t it?’
‘Er yes… it does, I’m sorry to trouble you, I...’
He took a pace forward towards Ellis.
‘What were you doing in my office Ellis?’
Ellis looked stunned, ‘How do you…I came to leave something on your desk, I swear that was all it was, I never touched any of your…’
‘I don’t bloody care what innocent reason you had for entering my office late in the evening when I’m not here but I warn you - never again, is that clear?’
Ellis, for all his six foot stature took on a cowed look and seemed to shrink. He shook his tousled head in remorse and dismay, letting some of the long blond hair fall across his forehead and face.
‘I’m unable to convey my feelings Dr. Caplin - all I did…’
‘All you did Ellis was to break a cardinal laboratory rule, personnel never enter a staff members lab’ or office without authority or permission – it’s not done.’
It was a convenient argument, in reality he had no intention of admitting that he wanted no one to get sight of his research notes – particularly the clandestine stuff, and not while he was trundling towards a breakthrough. The fact that all his lab notes and papers were locked in an under desk cabinet wasn’t any reason to be forgiving.
For a pregnant few seconds he watched Ellis wrap himself in wretchedness, and as he watched Ellis’s reaction it gave rise to a measure of sympathy. After all, his own background had been full of nasty encounters with dictatorial academic seniors and it had definitely left scars.
‘Okay, now tell me what it was that was so important for you to come in here. I take it that whatever it is or was, I was not expected to find out until Monday – yes?’
Ellis seemed to compose himself. ‘My thesis, a copy of my PhD thesis, it’s on your desk there. When they told me you were looking at new types of Stellite alloys I was fascinated. I did my PhD on very hard, high temperature alloys and I had the…er’ temerity…to believe that perhaps some of my work might be useful in yours.’
He looked around and saw a thick bound volume on his desk. He walked back and looked at the cover. It was entitled ‘Advanced Cobalt Based Alloys and Amalgams. Nathanial Ellis. PhD 2017.
For a second he was struck by the coincidence - if Ellis was that well up on the subject then he could be an ally – likewise, a threat.
‘Any of this published Ellis?’
‘No, my supervisor thought some of it merited a paper or two but I never got round to writing them up.’
He looked at the first few pages of the thesis, finding the acknowledgements. One caught his eye; Ellis’s supervisor was a name known to him, one Professor Gerald Napier.
‘I see you worked under Napier, he’s very well respected. Pity his advice to you fell on deaf ears; you realise, don’t you, that now you are immersed in a commercial research environment your chances of publishing anything are slim. Your only recourse would be to quit, go back to academia and start composing your papers from scratch.
Ellis nodded, ‘Maybe I should, it seems my chances of a career here have regressed enormously.’
He looked hard at Ellis. ‘What are you saying; that you think that because you offended me I would deliberately screw up your progress here. You’ve instantly come to think that badly of me?’
Ellis said nothing and simply gave a slight shake of his head.
‘Listen to me Ellis, If you think I have no experience of meeting hard headed prima donna academics who would betray you without a thought, or as soon cut your throat in order to climb above you, or make you the scapegoat for some fuck up they had done, you are mistaken. I know all about professional jealousy and I expose it when I see it. The university of hard knocks abounds – here and everywhere else, but I’m not a party to it. That said, you have nothing to fear from me. Give me a few days to read through your thesis and I’ll get back to you. If we have some common ground we’ll meet again and we’ll have a chat. Then we’ll see where it leads us – okay.’
Ellis seemed to restore his stature, straightening his shoulders and coming back to his full height. ‘Oh, that would be very… marvellous. Thank you.’
As Ellis turned to leave he asked him one more question. ‘As a matter of interest Ellis – besides your leaving your thesis for me, what else were you doing in the centre tonight?’
Ellis looked embarrassed, ‘Just getting my samples and papers into my new office – haven’t had a chance over the last few weeks, most of it only turned up by courier very recently - I had no idea I had collected so much stuff over the years.’
He offered Ellis a conciliatory smile – perhaps any threat he might have posed had now evaporated. As he had said, he would see.
He spent the evening sitting at his desk and scanning through Ellis’s thesis.
Ellis was conspicuously absent while he read and he was relieved when he heard the exhaust note of a car outside and, looking through one side of his window, saw the tail lights of Ellis’s MX5 disappear down the exit lane towards the security barrier. It meant he was now alone in the complex other than Ed’ Rowe the security officer, someone he would inevitably encounter over the next few days. His office had a well-padded armchair that for all intents and purposes appeared to be nothing more than an office chair intended for a short period of comfortable sitting. It wasn’t obvious that it was actually designed as a fully adjustable recliner and allowed him to sleep fairly comfortably as and when required.
He decided to complete his reading with a coffee at hand and made his way out of his office to the vending machine at the end of the dimly lit, rather sterile, corridor. His eyes took a little time to adjust to the light from the corridor’s overhead miniature blue white fluorescents; he had to blink a number of times as he exited his brightly lit office. A the end of the corridor the coffee vending machine stood out, it too blindingly lit, with multi-coloured light radiating out through the translucent plastic door, retarding the gloom and providing a far better illumination of the corridor floor as one got closer.
As he selected a black coffee with sugar and waited for the cup to be delivered he heard a sound behind him.
At the moment the polystyrene cup dropped and the machine nozzles started to deliver the coffee concentrate and hot water, Ed’ Rowe’s familiar voice interrupted his thinking.
‘Dr Caplin, good evening to you sir, everything okay?’
He turned to see Rowe’s familiar but diminutive figure behind him. Rowe was in his fifties, an ever-increasing waistline making his well-worn uniform close to bursting.
‘ Very well thank you Ed’. I trust all is well with you – care for a coffee?’
Rowe shook his head, ‘No thank you, I’ve got tea and sandwiches waiting for me in my room – wouldn’t want to spoil it. By the way, you’ve heard the rumour, we’re going to be amalgamated with the labs at Maunton, New Jersey.’
He had heard the rumour, and it was twaddle.
‘False news I’m glad to say Ed’. Maunton doesn’t do what we do, they’re only an ore quality unit – quality control that is, not research like us.’
Rowe smiled ‘Glad to hear it Dr. Caplin, especially from the horses mouth.’
He gave Rowe an appreciative smile and picked up his coffee from the machine, ‘I’m here for the weekend Ed’ – you haven’t seen me okay.’
Rowe smiled a conspirator’s smile, ‘You couldn’t be more invisible if you were the invisible man Dr. Caplin – and while we are on the subject, you never saw me either, so they can’t accuse me of falling down on the job.’
‘Absolutely not Ed’ – you are the most painstaking of security men and, I’m glad to say, the sole of discretion.’
Rowe gave a slight bow for the compliment, and turned away.
As he made his way back to his office Rowe’s words came back to him, particularly the word ‘amalgamate’. Something in Ellis’s thesis regarding ‘amalgams’ rang a bell, and he hurried back to see what it was.
He spent another few hours reading Ellis’s report on his efforts to apply mercury amalgams to his work on Stellite alloys. Stellite was at the centre of his own work and had been for some time. These alloys were essentially based on cobalt, nickel and chromium but in the past had been fabricated with other metals such as manganese and molybdenum. It was the American engineer and polymath Elwood Haynes who had first developed super hard, negligible wearing and corrosion resistant Stellite alloys in the early part of the twentieth century.
Haynes came to form alloys from cobalt, tungsten, chromium nickel and iron and became a multi-millionaire during the First World War as his Stellite and Stellite like alloys became essential for US war industries manufacturing machine gun, rifle and artillery barrels. His patent of 1912 on super hard and high temperature cobalt, chromium and nickel alloys had also allowed him to massively improve the durability of car engine valve seats (called valve seat hardfacing). He had early on become a broad industrialist with interests in car manufacturing natural gas, foundry technology and metal casting. In the present day Stellite has a very wide application in machine tools and high speed cutting tools.
However, its disadvantage was, and still is, that it had to be cast while molten to form its final shape – it was, and still is, too hard to machine in any economic way even with diamond grinders and cutters. That was a problem a certain Dr. Caplin had set out to solve, and by using plasma sintering he had started to see malleability in his samples. He had successfully pressure formed some of his samples and he was beginning to see progress. But what he wanted was to create not only the ability to pressure form and machine his samples into usable shapes prior to hardening, but to produce malleability and ductility so as to form rods, wire and filaments. He had to find a way of easily forming malleable and ductile samples into fully hardened Stellite alloy after it had been formed.
It was Ellis’s statement that when he was first able to employ mercury as a catalyst for sample softening, and had proposed dendritic (crystal) alignment as the reason it took place, that he began to see a pathway towards his own purposes. If Ellis was able to offer more than was written in the thesis, there was a good chance that a certain Dr. Caplin was close to successfully terminating his research.
Monday morning found him weary but optimistic.
He was already in his office as the various scientific and technical staff crawled in to begin their day’s work. Just after nine a.m. he found out Ellis’s new internal telephone number by asking the switchboard. Immediately after getting it, he dialled Ellis’ number.
‘Hello this is Nathaniel Ellis, who’s speaking.
‘Nathaniel, this is Michael Caplin, if you have a minute I’d like to see you. Come along to my office.’
‘I can come now if it’s important.’
‘It is. As soon as you can make it please.’
The knock on his door came only a few minutes after Ellis had agreed the meeting.
He beckoned Ellis to a chair.
Ellis looked dishevelled, his face unshaven and his mauve tie hung loosely from a crumpled grey striped shirt. His corduroy jacket had seen better days. It occurred to Caplin that he too was unlikely to be anywhere near his sartorial best. After spending almost the previous two days in the lab, and getting little sleep in his recliner on Friday and Saturday night, he was matching Ellis crease for crease. Sunday night he had returned home, but was too excited to become fully rested.
‘Nathaniel, I’ve got a pretty good idea of where and why your doctoral research followed the path it did. I’ve learnt a lot from scrutinising your thesis. My only concern is that your supervisor, Gerald Napier, didn’t seem to push you where I would have pushed you had I been your supervisor. I can’t understand why you, or he, didn’t press home your idea that amalgams might be the key to creating machinable cobalt alloys like Stellite. I imagine your viva voce was a bit of an ordeal. What went on, and why?’
Ellis gave a short, ironic, shake of his head.
‘I got the idea that while mercury formed amalgams with many metals except iron, platinum, tungsten, and tantalum, the typical Stellite components, that is cobalt, chromium and nickel, would definitely form amalgams and that depending on the amount of mercury employed there would be the formation of separate metal crystal lattices, physically ranging from liquid, paste or a solid. If I could then remove the mercury slowly, and break the metallic bonding, it would then expose the three metal components to each other again and by extreme heat-treating the matrix it would be possible to sinter the whole lot into a Stellite alloy. Prior to that of course, at certain temperatures, it would undergo different hardness and machinability properties - depending on the heat treatment. However, Professor Napier thought then whole idea was ridiculous and insisted I stuck to trying out different metal combinations and tabulating their physical properties.
‘As you can see, my thesis is packed with establishing hardness and thermal properties for a whole range of different alloying combinations. I only managed to get my preliminary data on the mercury amalgams into my thesis under protest from Napier, In the end we had a very uncomfortable disagreement and he wouldn’t speak for me during my viva. I only just scraped through - I was led to understand that my examiners were impressed by the competence in my analytical work and the rigorous approach to my data. As such they ignored any frostiness towards me from Napier and approved my doctorate. Nevertheless, they never mentioned the amalgam idea. As you’ll notice, the preliminary work I did on amalgams is confined to the appendix at the back of the thesis. I doubt my two examiners even read it – they certainly never queried any of it.’
He felt a degree of sympathy as he watched Ellis’s face show a measure of resentment and anguish as; otherwise in control and in a monotone, he recounted his trials. After all, he too had battled against convention and rigid thinking during his own post-graduate period. He was sure that like himself, Ellis would love the chance to kick success in the face of his old supervisor or academic colleagues. How lovely it would be to unexpectedly confront them all and to shout ‘I was right, you were utterly wrong, see!’
As his thoughts gave way to this fictional, final triumph, he gave Ellis a chance to compose himself.
‘Nathaniel, okay – you were diverted from your real objectives by Napier. Now tell me, what else could you have added to your thesis about amalgams had you been given the chance?’
‘If you must know, I was going to take a leaf out of the work that A.A. Griffith and Lockspeiser did in the 1920’s. They spent a long time in clandestine experiments on the theoretical strength of materials and gained unmistakable insight by drawing fine glass filaments. The more they drew them down the stronger they got. I started by dipping a platinum needle into the amalgamating mix and drew out what clung to the needle. I was hoping that I could boil off the mercury leaving the three metals behind and then heat the needle so as to form a cylindrical whisker of Stellite. I assumed the whisker would be made of striated crystal molecules - dendritic alignment if you will. Unfortunately, I made no progress.’
He waited while Ellis took on a wishful look. His eyes dropped so that he was looking at his hands, as if to have them complete the work he was unable to do.
‘Nathaniel, I’ve spent a long time reading and re-reading your thesis, and I was particularly struck by the promise inherent in your idea about amalgams. However, I took the thought experiment a bit further. What say we take parts of your idea, add mine and stitch them all together and add all the other bits you mention? As example, a little amalgam, a vacuum extraction, an incandescent filament to control heating and a way of drawing off mercury from the resultant filament. If we can do that, if we succeed, it leads the way to lots of other ways to form and profile Stellites. I believe your departmental head is Nick Gordon…yes? I propose contacting him and asking him if I can borrow you for a week or two. Then you and I will lock ourselves in my laboratory and we do what Edison used to do; we don’t come out until we have some solid results. Are you willing?’
Ellis suddenly looked animated, a huge, amiable, smile on his face. ‘Christ, am I willing? I’m not sure of precisely what you are proposing but just try to keep me away.’
It took three days to get any progress.
At first they used a hard vacuum to draw up the amalgam mix and pass it through an incandescent filament creating a temperature of some 2700C. It didn’t work because the platinum tube failed to allow the mercury to boil off. They needed a better way and it was only on the Wednesday morning that the redesign of the apparatus offered a result. Instead of using a vacuum to draw up the amalgam they inserted the sample into a 500 ml syringe and by increasing the pressure from the plunger the mercury could be fed out at a fixed rate into a length of atomically porous ceramic tubing.
The ceramic tube consisted of two halves and when coupled together the length of tubing it formed was immersed inside a tight coil of Nichrome wire. A controlled current through the Nichrome caused the coil to become incandescent, raising the temperature of the ceramic tube up to 2500C. Using less current they raised the coil temperature to 385C and allowed the ceramic tube to reach the same temperature; it was well above the 366C boiling point of mercury. After testing for mercury vapour in the large vacuum chamber in which the apparatus was immersed, they found all the mercury had boiled off after three minutes. Then they raised the coil temperature to a white hot 3500C using another coil made of Osmium/Tungsten and waited for the three metal components left behind to begin to sinter and then melt.
They were deeply disappointed; on splitting the two halves of the ceramic tube they found no sign of a Stellite filament or wire. They tried again with the same result. They assumed that there had to be some kind of residue left behind, so Ellis illuminated the inside of both halves of the ceramic tube with a wide spectrum ultra-violet source in an attempt to determine where the cobalt, nickel and chromium that should have melted and fused had gone. The result was equally disappointing. By early afternoon they were both nearing a state of exhaustion and disillusionment.
Ellis took his frustration out of the lab and made his way to the coffee vending machine. He spilled the first cup of coffee it delivered as he hastily snatched it from the delivery alcove without keeping the clear plastic screen pushed up. The screen lifted and fell back, striking his hand and jarring the cup. By the time he had successfully retrieved two cups of coffee and was returning to the laboratory his mood had collapsed.
‘Oh – thanks Nathaniel, just what I wanted.’
Ellis gave a weary nod of thanks.
‘Coffee I can provide, but not an answer to these inexplicable results we are getting. We’ve gone wrong somewhere but its hard to say exactly where.’
He too had to admit that Ellis had a point – was it the apparatus, the experimental design, or were they hoping to do something that was theoretically impossible? And yet his gut feeling led him to the contention that what was happening was due to a simple mistake or misunderstanding, and there was nothing fundamentally wrong in the approach.
‘Look, Nathaniel, take a break, leave it alone for a while and have a think. I’ve always found that breaking away from the problem for a time instead of being overwhelmed by its proximity can often lead to a solution – we should give it a rest and come back refreshed. Why don’t you go home and we’ll meet again tomorrow. Let’s face it; we have the rest of the week to unstitch the quandary we’re facing here. Let’s not assume it’s intractable.’
Ellis nodded his agreement. ‘Okay, I’ll get home early and ponder on things - I’ll see you tomorrow. I trust you’ll take your own advice and make an early departure.’
He raised a concurring hand, ‘I’ll just tidy up, power everything down and lock up. Regarding your remark about Griffith and Lockspeiser and their glass filament experiments, we don’t want to trail in all their footsteps do we? Remember, despairing of their experimental results they left early one day and left a gas torch burning in their workshop at RAE Farnborough and everything burnt down. I’d rather we didn’t do the same. I’ll see you here tomorrow; take care driving back, weather’s still atrocious.’
‘I will, bye.’
He watched as Ellis departed and after completing the equipment shut down was just about to douse the lights when he took another look at the experimental apparatus inside the large, glass domed, vacuum chamber. Looking was futile, he thought; looking didn’t shout out solutions unless…’
It was thinking about A.A. Griffith again that made him take the next step.
He lifted the domed vacuum chamber cover and extracted the final ceramic tube. He split the two halves and laid them on the sample stage table of a high powered microscope. He looked down through the eyepiece and adjusted the course and fine focus. Inside each half he saw the same thing – a linear layer of a metallic filament extending along the concave inner surface of the ceramic.
He drew back from the eyepiece, suddenly realising what he had seen. To prove it he needed an electron microscope, but even without an electron micrograph the tell tale sign of a long chain of alloy atoms was there. Of course, now he realised what the problem had been – the quantity of mercury amalgam injected into the ceramic tube had been too small. When the mercury had boiled off it had left behind only a minuscule amount of the alloying metals; too small to visually detect.
With a sudden upsurge of hope he rushed off to see Mike Halsford, the man in charge of the centre’s electron microscope, and the man who could likely change everything.
By ten a.m. the next morning Halsford had sent down a manila envelope full of ten by eight electron micrographs.
The photos were a revelation. Now, without any doubt, he could see the linear alignment of alloy crystals – dendritic alignment it was called - and each dendrite was stacked in line to the one before and the one after. It showed them equally positioned both in line and transversely. The transverse stack was only twenty deep so that the filament length and breadth was too small to be visible with the naked eye. Without any doubt, the problem they had faced was due to there being too little of the metal particles being carried into the ceramic tube. The mercury had boiled off leaving only a trace of cobalt, chromium and nickel to form the Stellite – but Stellite, or something very akin to it, had indeed formed.
As he scrutinised the photos the lab door opened and Nathaniel Ellis entered the lab’ carrying a cup of coffee.
‘Golly Michael, you look as though you’ve won the lottery.’
He gave Ellis a broad smile – as triumphant a smile as he could muster.
‘Much better than the lottery – have a look at these.’
Ellis put his coffee cup on a side bench and took the photos. For a few seconds he examined each one and as he did so his face took on an expression of delight.
‘Christ – there was, there is, something there – these are linear structures – what did you do?’
‘Nothing – those are the inside of the ceramic tubes we thought had nothing to show. But I was a touch suspicious last night after you left so I let Mike Halsford our electron microscopist have a look – those are the results. It means we had too little of the metals, or too much mercury in the amalgam, to leave anything visible behind in the ceramic tube. To get much more alloy production we simply have to find the critical amalgam levels that do leave behind enough metal after boiling off the mercury to make a substantial Stellite alloy. But that’s just trial and error at the moment, not science. But look, if we get the amalgam right and the size of the ceramic mould, that is as we want it, we can produce any configuration, any geometry or any shape of Stellite we want. Feed enough through at the appropriate rate and we can produce rods, wire, and filaments. You name it; this technique promises what you like. There’s no limit.’
Ellis looked astounded, ‘So that’s it – we’ve done it.’
He gave Ellis a cautious smile, ‘Not entirely – we have to demonstrate all the things I’ve just pointed out - but we have four more days to do it and like the man said, it’s not rocket science.’ Come on, put your lab coat on and let’s get to it - the sooner the better.’
It was Thursday before the morning had passed and Ellis had failed to materialise.
By then they had each worked hard to solve most of the amalgam concentration problems. They had made larger ceramic moulds, refined the incandescent heating controls and had made some small but very complex Stellite geometries, including plain bearing bushes and drill heads.
Since Ellis was absent he had carried on using the apparatus on a continuous production run for rods and shaped bars. It was as he had started the same approach in an attempt to produce filaments and wire that the telephone rang.
‘Hello, Michael Caplin.’
‘Yeah, hello Michael, this is Nick Gordon. Have you seen your temporary factotum Ellis this morning, is he with you?’
‘Actually no, I have no idea where he is – is there a problem?’
Gordon hesitated, ‘Not a problem as such, it’s just that I had something to tell him and some forms for him to sign, but his office is empty and no one knows if he’s in the lab’ in the centre or, come to that, anywhere else in the complex.’
‘Well, I’m sorry Nick, I can’t help, he’s not made contact with me this morning and, as far as I’m concerned he’s technically AWOL.’
Gordon sucked in breath, ‘Well, he may be unwell, we’ll leave it for now, if there is no sign of him by tomorrow perhaps you could find out why he’s gone missing. It’s probably the fact that you are working him too hard. Okay, let me know if anything turns up.’
He ignored the slightly offensive remark, ‘Okay, I’ll be in touch if he’s failed to turn up by tomorrow morning. If necessary, and I’m assuming there is a need, I may visit his current address just in case he’s ill and hasn’t been able to contact anyone. I’ll check with personnel and get his home number. Leave it with me.’
Gordon gave a quick ‘Okay’ and the line went dead.
So, Ellis was not going to be around to finalise the experimental work Caplin mused. Therefore it was down to oneself to complete things. Nothing new about that and, if anything, he relished the opportunity to see how far the work could go. Most of the samples had been fabricated and he had only to carry out the physical properties tests to establish that they had actually made ultra-hard alloys - Stellite probably, but given the unique production method the samples could be better or worse than the typical alloy. He was about to find out.
He found the initial results almost unbelievable, on some of the samples the Rockwell hardness tests went beyond the available limits, the diamond cone, attempting to penetrate the sample surface at a huge pressure, making no impression whatsoever. He tried a number of times and could only conclude that their samples were far harder than diamond.
It was as he started to test the tensile strength of a short wire sample that he realised that there was a problem. He had to use a narrow wavelength UV source to visualise the position of the wire. Every time he locked the almost imperceptibly thin end of the wire into the locking pulley on the tensile testing machine, it seemed to pull out. He’d already noticed that the end of his forefinger and his thumb had been stripped of skin as he carefully handled the wire ends and it had forced him to wear chain mail gloves. Even so, the wire seemed to penetrate some of the chain mail where he was handling the wire and it was as he examined the damage to his gloves, and then the pulley on the tensile testing machine, that he saw something that astonished him. Both jaws on the pulleys had been cleaved in two – the wire had cut through the hardened steel of the pulleys as though they were soft Plasticine.
It was impossible – and yet it had happened.
He inspected the cut sections of the pulley jaws and it was as though they had been perfectly separated and polished – the cut faces reflected like mirrors. He shook his head in disbelief - what he was seeing was beyond explanation unless…!
He rigged two of the Stellite alloy spools made previously and carefully wrapped the wire ends around each of them. He then used flexible Bowden cable to bind the spools around the remains of the pulley jaws and started to increase the tension from the machine. This time the wire made no impression on the alloy blocks but the tension reached an incredible level before the Bowden cable holding the blocks gave way. There was no indication that the alloy wire was going to part. Once more he was scratching his head in amazement.
He ran the test again, this time with thicker Bowden cable. He started the automatic tensioning and watched the output screen showing the force versus extension graph. It was unbelievable, the tensile force increased to thirty tons and yet there was no indication of any extension. The wire withstood the force without any stretching at all. The machine kept increasing the tension and it was only when it had crept up to 33 metric tons that there was a horrendous crack and the wire parted. He looked at the screen once more – no elastic extension, no plastic deformation, only a sudden sharply rising peak as the wire had parted.
He went over to see the almost invisible pieces of wire hanging from the alloy spools. It was incredible, a piece of wire less than an eighth of a millimetre in diameter and hardly visible to the eye had sustained 33 metric tons. Given the wire’s dimensions, it had an ultimate tensile strength far greater than the highest known to science, that of carbon nanotubes. He wondered what the electrical properties might be like –were they like carbon nanotubes? He applied a micro-ohm meter to two ends of one section of the ruptured wire.
He stepped down the scale and had to keep doing so, it was astounding. It was much less than one micro-ohm. It indicated once again a near perfect atomic structure in the material, allowing virtually unimpeded electron transport.
He stood studying the two sections of the tensile testing machine. To his utter bewilderment he began to realise that he was staring at an experimental outcome that might entitle him to a Nobel Prize. It was amazing, a material, which as Griffith had made clear, had no flaws, cracks, dislocations or disrupted atomic bonds; a material that was perfect in its atomic structure; an ideal lattice of three metallic atoms, homogenous and without any imperfections.
He had no idea what to do next but the scientist in him would not allow a celebration - he had to do it again to prove it wasn’t a fluke. He decided to make some more wire; and this time a much extended length. He made up another much larger quantity of critically proportioned amalgam, returned to the vacuum chamber, filled a higher volume powered syringe, and switched on the two incandescent heaters to a low level. It was going to take at least forty minutes, so as he raised the heater coils to red and white heat he waited for the soft tip of the new wire to emerge from the end of the first ceramic mould. It wasn’t a full Stellite yet, it had to wait for full sintering.
He waited until he could magnify it enough to view, and with fine-ended forceps, feed the end on to a slowly rotating motorised Stellite spool. It wasn’t under any noteworthy tension so he dropped a bead of superglue onto the spool and using the magnifying lens and tweezers quickly laid the section of the wire one inch from the end onto the cyanoacrylic bead. He breathed on it and the wire instantly held fast as the adhesive rapidly cured. Once the spool had turned enough, to carry at least two coils of wire, he was satisfied it would grip permanently.
He stepped back from the vacuum chamber base and fitted the glass dome. The vacuum pump started and a vacuum began to build up; after five minutes he had a hard vacuum and as the filament began to build up on the rotating spool he activated the power supply to the two final heating coils and watched them become blindingly incandescent at 3500C. In time he would have a significant length of wire.
As the mechanism inexorably proceeded, he decided it was time for a coffee.
Hell, he deserved one didn’t he?
As he completed the delivery of a coffee from the vending machine he decided to see if Nathaniel Ellis had re-appeared.
His office was in a shorter side corridor, formed by a sharp right angle past the vending machine and situated at the end of the main corridor. He didn’t actually expect to see Ellis, though he was under the impression that Ellis was as enthusiastic about the experimental programme as he was, and that had his erstwhile assistant made it in to the laboratories that morning he would waste no time in finding out how matters had progressed.
He walked up the ten yards of corridor and soon knocked on Ellis’ office door; but, as expected, there was no response. He pressed down on the door handle and found the door unlocked.
The office was one of the smaller staff offices usually allocated to employees without any seniority or immediate responsibility. Ellis, being a newcomer without a scientific track record and not too distant from completing his PhD, fitted the category perfectly.
He made his way in and found the office poorly lit due to the half shaded window. Everything was in shadow and gloom and he twice caught his feet on piles of books left on the floor as he tried to get to the window to let some daylight flood in. He finally pulled up the blind and uncovered the window, and as the lighting vastly improved he could see that whatever Ellis intended to do in organising his office he had, so far at least, neglected it entirely.
Books were strewn across the floor and piled in untidy heaps upon the desk. The desk itself had been pushed against the wall to the left of the window and, apart from the plethora of books across its surface, space was taken by a large VDU screen. He circled around the centre of the floor having created some space by shoving textbooks aside. As far as he could see all that had happened since Ellis and he had started work was that Ellis’ library, copies of past research papers and personal notes and files, had been dumped in the office without any attempt to organise things. It was disconcerting – he never imagined Ellis as someone so lazy or indifferent as to ignore getting his library catalogued and shelved. There was something wrong in what he saw – it was troubling, and after seeing the state of the office, Ellis’ absence troubled him more.
He reached over to pick up the phone currently on the floor near the desk. He knew the personnel section’s number by heart and dialled 221, getting a ringing tone almost immediately.
‘Two two one – personnel’
‘Good morning, Dr. Caplin here, could you let me have the current home address of Dr. Nathaniel Ellis. He’s just joined us but I’m concerned he may be ill, I haven’t seen him for a while and we are supposed to be working together.’
The female voice gave a ‘moment please’ and the line lapsed into silence.
Then came the rustle of movement on the receiver.
‘Hello Dr. Caplin - we have 11 Park Avenue, the Trethorlan Guest House as a temporary address. We’re told he intends to find a more permanent address in due course. We have a telephone number if it will help.’
‘No – I think I need to visit his digs to make sure everything is okay. If needs be I will be in touch. Many thanks.’
He dropped the receiver into the telephone cradle and stood thinking for a moment. Ellis it appeared hadn’t been near his office for a while, even during the time he was in the laboratory working on the amalgams. It didn’t make sense.
He looked around again and decided on one last line of action. He bent down and switched on the computer hiding under the desk. As soon as the desktop screen lit up he identified the email symbol and punched ‘enter’. He half expected to get nowhere, not knowing any ID or security codes, but to his relief the email listing came up instantly.
He scanned the last two months of emails, but could see nothing exceptional or of any real note - except for one very recent mailing.
It was entitled ‘Nathaniel’ and simply said ‘We expect you to keep to your commitment – failure will put you at extreme risk.’
He looked to see who was making what constituted a definite threat to Ellis, but the entire sender’s address was limited to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was meaningless as it stood and he learnt nothing by delving into Ellis’ private mail other than the likelihood that Ellis was under some kind of pressure.
There was nothing for it; the only way he was going to get to the bottom of Ellis’ circumstances was to find him, and that he intended to do as soon as possible. He closed Ellis’ office door behind him and made his way to the laboratory where his topcoat and car keys were. He was on his way to the Trethorlan Guest House – and there, he hoped, he would bring an end to the mystery surrounding Nathaniel Ellis.
It was getting on for twenty-seven miles from Metlab to St Ives and Park Avenue, but the late morning traffic conditions were light and he made it in just under forty minutes.
As he drove down the street he was presented with a range of Victorian and late nineteen fifties houses, some whitewashed while others were brick and render. He found Ellis’ car before he saw the guesthouse – the car parked on one side of the street with the guesthouse standing on the other.
He parked and walked back, climbing the stepped concrete pathway that led to the front door. He was at the right address, ‘Trethorlan’ was written in brass letters screwed to a varnished wooden back plate. The door had been recently over painted in red and shone with the mirror finish that new gloss paint presented. He pressed a white plastic doorbell and heard chimes ring out behind the door. For a few minutes there was no reaction and he was about to try again when he heard movement behind the door. It opened to reveal a woman in her middle years, but bright eyed, well groomed, with dark hair and still attractive. She was without makeup, except for a hint of lipstick, and had a relatively clear, unwrinkled face.
He gave her a smile in greeting, ‘Good morning, I’m sorry to trouble you, I’m looking for one of your guests, Nathaniel Ellis, is he with you at present?’
She shook her head, ‘No, he’s probably down by the sea, taking time to…well, feel better.’
She seemed reluctant to answer.
‘I work with Nathaniel; he’s my laboratory co-worker. If he’s sick I need to know.’
She shook her head, ‘Not physically, but there’s something troubling him, He won’t eat and I hear him pacing his room at night. He can’t sleep.’
So his intuition was right, Nathaniel was under some kind of stress.
‘When might he be back, do you know?’
She suddenly turned her head to look down the street.
Because of the stepped pathway leading to the house they were well elevated above the street and pavement level, and Nathaniel Ellis was plainly in sight as he walked towards the house. Even from fifty yards he was ungainly and appeared stooped and dishevelled.
They said nothing more as he and the landlady waited for Ellis to climb the pathway and come up to the doorway.
‘Hello Nathaniel, how are you?’
Ellis gave a wan smile and slipped past the two of them standing in the doorway. His woollen jumper hung limply over a pair of well crumpled jeans - even his footwear - a pair of old trainers – had seen better days.
AS Ellis’ back disappeared into the house the landlady pursed her lips, ‘If you want a little privacy you can use my sitting room – I’ll get some tea. Don’t worry; I’ll call him for you. Come in, it’s the front room, first on the left.’
He nodded his thanks and as he did so he heard Ellis climbing the stairs directly to the rear of the downstairs hallway.’
He made his way into the house and, as he opened the ground floor door she had indicated, he heard the landlady call out.
‘Nathaniel – come down please. I’m getting some tea. This gentleman here, your work colleague, wants to speak to you, and I think you should listen.’
For a short time there was silence and then the sound of Ellis descending the stairs made it obvious he was obeying the landlady’s imperative.
The sitting room was well furnished with a range of quality furniture and had warm, tasteful decoration.
Ornaments were scattered here and there with a glass display case in one corner filled with crystal glassware and silver. As he surveyed the comfortable surroundings he was momentarily regretful that he had never adopted a domestic existence – he’d remained a bachelor and had assumed, and enjoyed, a bachelor’s hermit like lifestyle. Perhaps a wife would have made him a different man – he didn’t know, but it was rather too late to try to prove it.
His reflections were interrupted by the door behind him opening and then closing, accompanied by the sound of crockery clinking and rattling. He turned to find Ellis holding a tray with a teapot, sugar bowl and some cups and saucers. Ellis gave a somewhat embarrassed smile.
‘Mrs Templeton, my landlady, thought I should do the deliveries today Michael – do you take sugar?’
‘Seems you get on very well with your landlady – I think she has a soft spot for you Nathaniel.’
‘He gave a wistful smile. ‘Yeah, in the short time I’ve been here she’s become my surrogate mother – truth is I enjoy it. She’s really special.’
He gave Ellis a knowing look, ‘Oh I see, but not too special I assume. She is very attractive.’
Ellis returned a thunderous look as he placed the tea tray on a coffee table.
‘What do you mean by that? If you must know I have no idea who my biological parents were or are – I was brought up in care and Mrs Templeton has been very kind to me, but certainly not in the way you are implying.’
‘I’m sorry Nathaniel – no offence, forgive my unthinking remark, it was meant to be light hearted.’
‘Oh, was it…okay then, sugar?’
He sat down opposite Ellis and sipped his tea. Now he had the chance to study him more closely and there was no doubt, Ellis was beginning to look seedy and worn out.
‘Nathaniel, what’s wrong? You needn’t concern yourself about being absent from the lab’ for such a short time, as long as we know why. If you’re ill all you have to do is to phone in to personnel and report it. But it’s not directly physical is it; you don’t need a physician do you? Something is worrying you quite deeply…am I right?’
Ellis let his shoulders droop and his head tilted forward.
‘Yeah, there’s a problem but one I can’t solve – I think I am going to have to resign.’
‘Christ Nathaniel, you’ve only just arrived. What on earth is so bad that you can dispose of your career just like that.’ Bloody hell, over the last twenty-four hours I have expanded our experimental work, I’m not kidding when I say we are very close to a Nobel Prize. Nobody has come anywhere near to us in our work and I’m damned if I’m going to see you and me compromised because of some bloody trivial problem that has crept up on you. Between the two of us we will solve it. Then we’ll be made.’
Ellis looked up and shook his head. ‘You don’t understand, its not trivial and it can’t be sorted out just like that. And as for the Nobel Prize, you must be joking. You know we can’t publish any research papers let alone patent anything, the company won’t allow it. You went to great pains when we first met to enlighten me on that particular subject. Moreover, if the problem I’m struggling with was easy to extricate myself from, don’t you think I would have done so by now, given how well our work was going. You can’t help Michael – it’s beyond your ability.’
He was irritated by Ellis’ insistence and said so.
‘Really, so tell me about it – I’ll be the judge of why it is, or is not, beyond my ability.’
Ellis stayed silent and then swallowed the rest of his tea. He carefully replaced the cup and saucer on the tray and sat back a little.
He saw Ellis fixate on his eyes and then take on a pensive look.
‘I told you earlier that I was brought up in care – three foster mothers and a number of different fathers. It wasn’t a lot of fun incidentally. By the time I was due to go to University I had a choice, a government loan to pay tuition fees, or simply not go. My last foster parents wouldn’t, or couldn’t, help me financially. I knew that should I get a good job after graduation I would have to repay the government loan over many decades – not something I relished. Then I saw a notice, it was for student sponsorship by a large corporation – they funded you through college and then after you graduated you were committed to working for them for at least five years after graduation. They even promised support if you went on to do postgraduate work. All I had to do was to agree to, and sign, a contract. It committed me to doing what they wanted me to do after all my studies were completed.’
‘Ah, I see, I knew that our people, the Metal Industries and Mining Company, did that kind of thing. I missed it I’m afraid.’
‘No Michael, it wasn’t M.I.M.C. or anything to do with them or Metlab. I’m talking about Consolidated Mines.’
That hit Caplin like a sledgehammer – Consolidated Mines were M.I.M.C’s primary competitors.
‘So, you signed up for CM – so what the hell are you doing in Metlab?’
Ellis shrunk, taking on an even more dejected, and guilty looking posture than before.
‘I’m an infiltrator, a spy – industrial espionage is what it’s all about. I’m supposed to report back to CM on everything I can find out about Metlab’s research success, technology and business strategy. At first, when they told me what they had in mind for me after my PhD, I refused. But they are a bloody ruthless lot; they made it clear that I’d signed the agreement and they had expended a lot of money on me. If I failed to follow through on what they wanted I would regret it. They reminded me that a research scientist doesn’t do too well with a pair of crippled legs. So you see, I’m stuck. I want out – I want to stay working with you, but it isn’t that easy. If I stay but refuse to cooperate they’ll catch up with me. If I leave, they’d still find me in the end.’
He was dumbstruck – what he was hearing he found hard to digest. If what Ellis was saying was true it was serious. But surely not, it was implausible; he couldn’t believe that Consolidated Mines would behave like a lot of gangsters; no, it wasn’t possible in the real world.
‘Nathaniel, I think you are making more of this than is reasonable, Consolidated Mines are a genuine business, to big and too well placed to risk using bully boy tactics. After all, they have too much to lose if it became public. Don’t you think most of this threat is emanating from the stress and tiredness we’ve been subject to over the recent few days? I can’t believe you have anything to worry about.’
Ellis gave him another hard stare.
‘Really, then think on this, I’m not the only sleeper in Metlab, CM have another insider who has recently been ordered to keep an eye on me. He’s already made contact and expects me to provide him with a full report on what you and I have been doing lately. It’s been made crystal clear that I had better do as I’m told…otherwise.’
For a second or two he felt the impact of Ellis’ words - distancing him even further from the award of a Nobel Prize. The more Ellis revealed the situation he was in, the more a certain Dr. Michael Caplin was at risk of having acclaim and fame prised from his fingers. He was enraged by the thought. It was anathema; it was not only offensive, it was outrageous. Okay, commercial ownership was hard to sacrifice but with what he desired more than anything else in the world at risk of being ripped from his grasp, he was not going to allow the morons who might seek it to prevail - not if he could help it.
‘Listen to me Nathaniel and listen closely. First, what I said to you earlier is true – our work must be a strong contender for the Nobel Prize, it surpasses anything done in metallurgy over the last forty years and if you think an employment contract from M.I.M.C is going to stop us from disseminating our research, and at some point capitalising on it, they have another think coming. I’ve had years to ponder on this and I’ve settled on a scheme which will succeed - we simply write up a patent specification giving M.I.M.C initial ownership of the intellectual property surrounding our work, but not everything. By filing the patent first, with a filing date on it that predates academic publication, we are then free to publish because we have not preceded the patent with a public disclosure. That would invalidate it. However, the moment the basic patent is filed we write up a series of research papers and get them in to the various important journals – Nature would be the first followed by any of the other top physical sciences journals. M.I.M.C would have no idea we were going to publish until it was too late. And what would they do about it – sue us? Of course not, after all, they would hold the patent. No court could say we had stolen the essential intellectual property from M.I.M.C if ostensibly they actually still own it. As for CM and its strong-arm tactics, well I have a proposition – we fight fire with fire.’
Ellis looked mystified, ‘Fire with fire, what do you mean?’
‘This guy, this CM agent you say is implanted in Metlab, who is he?’
‘He’s a technician, works in the ore and foundry section, name of Holden, Eric Holden. Why?’
‘Well, I suspect that we could get a very strong message to CM by ensuring this Eric Holden gets the same threat you are under at the moment. We simply make it plain that should he continue his nefarious activities, he pays the price.’
Ellis looked as though he found the suggestion incomprehensible.
‘Threaten him – physically?’
‘Of course – and if he won’t listen we ensure he finds out we mean what we say.’
‘Christ, Michael, can we?’
‘Oh yes, Nathaniel – nobody is going to deny us getting what we deserve. I’ve waited a lifetime for the recognition our work will most certainly attract. Make no mistake, neither the Eric Holdens, or the intimidation from the CMs of this world, will stop it happening, that I swear.’
Ellis gave a slow and disbelieving shake of his head.
‘You’re not kidding are you Michael?’
‘No, I’m bloody well not.’
Ellis made no move at first; remaining frozen and stock-still; then with only a faint smile on his face, he started to nod his head in approval.
Eric Holden habitually took his lunch in the staff canteen.
It was a habit that added to his workmates jealousy; they constantly having to remain frugal and eat sandwiches (rather than risk taking money that was crucial for their wife’s groceries, their children’s clothes, household utility bills and monthly mortgage payments). Not only did they resent Holden’s ability to casually spend money they did not have, but his new car, his four bedroomed house in St Ives, and his long ‘year on year’ vacations in the south of Spain, simply added to their envy.
He knew his workmates were bitter about his apparently well-financed lifestyle, but he could have cared less. His intention was to ensure that his workmates had nothing to recriminate about and that he remained free of any interference, or any threat, that could lose him his job at Metlab. Being the only operator of the overhead lift for the seven ton molten metal converter in the foundry meant that he wasn’t directly supervised, nor did he have to put up with being part of any operational team – he could keep clear of hostile entanglements and he meant to keep it that way. For, while he was ensconced in Metlab he had the advantage of a good salary and a generous supplementary income from Consolidated Mines.
He had previously been recruited by CM as a mining supervisor; but having cheerfully snitched on colleagues who were agitating for more pay the company had viewed him as potentially valuable, as they would anyone utterly without scruples and thoroughly immoral. When they suggested that he become CM’s agent for some industrial espionage he had readily agreed.
Now, for well over four years, he had surreptitiously made notes of everything he had sight of, or discovered, within Metlab. He reported anything in fact that could have a technical or business advantage to his paymasters in CM. On the face of it, he had little appreciation of how valuable his reports to CM were, but notwithstanding all the apparently trivial stuff he sent off, he continued to receive a handsome bonus. Lately of course things had changed – the arrival of another CM sponsored individual had lifted the importance of what he was doing immeasurably. Dr. Nathaniel Ellis had already been given his instructions from CM prior to being recruited for Metlab and after only a few days his initial reports about Dr Caplin’s work had made the people at CM very excited. They wanted more - more detail and, if possible, more experimental samples. In fact, the work Caplin and Ellis were doing seemed to override everything – CM wanted him to ensure Ellis disclosed every tiny aspect of the work being carried out in Caplin’s laboratory, and wanted an up-to-the-second account of progress.
Of course, he’d reminded them that it was not up to him to provide the data they wanted – it was Ellis who was the source of the information and so far Ellis was less than willing to convey what he knew.
Don’t let Ellis prevaricate or dissemble, CM had told him, ensure he remembers his obligation to CM and what the consequences will be if he reneges on his contract.
It was all very well them saying that, but they didn’t have to contend with Ellis and his stubborn and belligerent manner.
He stood in the queue, waiting to be served from the hot plates and food trays in the mixed grill section.
His appetite was undiminished, regardless of his encounters with Ellis and the irritated response he was getting from his people at CM. As he completed obtaining his fried food portions, fizzy drink and cutlery, and had paid the cashier, he looked for a free table. The canteen was segregated, one smaller section restricted to privileged senior scientists, engineers and top administration staff, the larger area set aside for ancillary staff.
He was in no way envious of the tables given over to the senior staff; he privately revelled in the fact that he was undoubtedly in a far better financial situation than most of them were. Indeed, it was a comforting realisation, and even more pleasurable, when he considered that nearly everything they did ended up being reported to his paymasters. It was a miracle to him that M.I.M.C was still in a position to keep trading.
He found a table in one corner of all the geometrically placed tables in the seating area. It was close to the senior dining section and was a useful location, often he would catch a conversation which ordinarily would be confidential; but as usual, the idiots at the senior tables always assumed that what they were conversing about went unheard by anyone else, and even if it was heard, the listener was a company man and disclosure to a business competitor would be a treacherous and a profound betrayal. What idiots they were – he had on occasion reported some real gems to his paymasters, and glad they were too. It made up for the inconsequential stuff that sometimes he sent in.
He sat enjoying his meal, watching the other patrons of the canteen milling about, finding tables and places for their trays of food. He failed to notice the two individuals who came up to his table and stood looking down at him. As he sensed their presence, he looked up and immediately lost his appetite – standing over him were Ellis and Caplin.
‘Enjoying your meal Holden?’
Caplin looked down to see a balding, pasty-faced individual dressed in a dark brown boiler suit. The man’s light blue eyes were cold and distant and as he started to fork food into his mouth his bottom row of teeth were stained and irregular.
Holden held his gaze, more in surprise and shock than in recognition.
‘What do you want?’ he mumbled as he started to chew his food.
‘Not to want to see you masticating your lunch Holden – we’ll sit down if you don’t mind.’
‘I do mind, goodbye.’
As they ignored his response and sat down opposite him he continued to eat.
‘My colleague Dr. Ellis here has been telling me about your activities, so let us start by my letting you know that I am entirely aware of your disreputable interests. Not only that, I am also aware of the situation regarding Dr. Ellis and his connection with you. I have no intention of being circumspect in this matter so I will make it plain. You have one month to resign your job and disappear. Failure to do so will result in you ever regretting you met me and made the mistake of ignoring my directive.’
Holden had just lifted a forkful of food from his plate and it was halfway up to his open mouth as he heard the last part of Caplin’s remarks. He froze in astonishment and the fork dropped from his hand, clattering and scattering fragments of sausage as it hit the side of his plate.
For a short time he looked hard at Caplin, then he gave a chuckle of incredulity.
‘Get stuffed, you think you can just walk in here like you have and threaten me? You two are the ones making a mistake – I can make life twice as difficult for you as you can for me. Resign my job? Like hell.’
He didn’t like Holden on sight, and as Ellis glanced at him after Holden had spoken he decided there was no other way but to demonstrate his sincerity.
‘If you think it’s an empty threat Holden, you had best think again. We have no intention of having you hand over to your masters every detail of what we are doing in our laboratory. Come to that, we don’t want you telling your squalid pals about anything else going on here in Metlab. Dr. Ellis will no longer convey to you anything to do with our work and you can tell…your principals…that they can strike off Dr. Ellis from their list of contracted agents. I say again, you have one month, and as regards CM, you can tell them that they are not invulnerable either, that we too can get rough.’
Holden picked up his soiled fork and started wiping it with a napkin. He seemed unfazed by what had been said but refused to look across at the two men.
Not getting any further comment from Holden they rose from their chairs, ready to leave. Holden, knife and fork in hand, returned to finishing his meal. For a moment Ellis despaired that what Caplin had said had in no way influenced Holden, but as they turned to go Holden spoke, a distinctly threatening edge to his voice.
‘Don’t get too confident you two; watch your backs. I’m going to make life very difficult for both of you – just you wait and see.’
It was time to go - but neither man looked back.
As they made their way back to the laboratory Nathaniel Ellis felt a shiver run down his back.
It wasn’t that the canteen had been particularly cold; rather he looked forward to being back in the higher ambient of the laboratory, hoping the added warmth would counter his mood. His intuition left him anxious about Holden and the potential for disaster. He had only been in the job for a week and suddenly everything looked grim and foreboding instead of the expectation and excitement anyone would feel getting a dream job. Yet, apart from the research outcomes, things had turned against him. He had very little experience of having to engage in the kind of situation he and Caplin now found themselves in - it was as though the sword of Damocles hung over them, and he had no idea if, and when, it was going to fall.
On their return to the laboratory he waited for Caplin to decide the next experimental procedure, instead Caplin took him into the small, fully glazed office, at the bottom of the laboratory. It exploited the free space available after the parallel set of workbenches and equipment stands.
He sat down behind the small desk and watched as Caplin stood by some filing cabinets, his stance somewhat uneasy and it seemed he was taking time to compose himself. At last he turned his attention to Ellis.
‘Listen Nathaniel, we need to move fast. I don’t trust Holden to do as I ordered; in fact I’m bloody sure he won’t. However, I never had it in my mind that he would simply throw in the towel but, that said, we had to try. Given the likelihood that he is going to stir up trouble I need to think about how we are going to trip him up – either officially or unofficially. That aspect I want you to leave with me. In the meantime I think we should leave the experimental stuff for a while and get on with what we agreed earlier - writing. I’m going to start composing the first patent specification; you are to start on the first academic paper. I know you haven’t written one before but you’ve read many typical research papers before and to a certain extent it’s hardly different than writing up your thesis, just pithier. Its introduction, background, literature, method, results, and conclusion. I think we should first concentrate on what would seem a preliminary report – forming the amalgams and identifying dendritic alignment. The next will follow with the problem of purging the mercury and the ability to form complex super hard materials.
‘Finally we’ll get round to a full report on the process apparatus detailing the boil off, critical levels of mercury and the moulding of complex geometries, wire and filaments. Okay with you? I’ll do the patent because it’s something you’ve absolutely no track record or experience in, and they’re a sod to write. You start the first paper and I’ll jog you along as you begin getting into your stride, and when, or if, you get stuck. My PC uses Word for Windows; I imagine its familiar. The printer is on the bookcase over there, it’s on a wireless link to the PC. With luck we should finish in the middle of next week, after which we can relax a bit. Okay?’
Ellis nodded his head and bent down to look for the PC power switch. As he did so Caplin addressed him again.
‘Just one thing Nathaniel, It’s Friday and I’ve got one or two things to get straight over the weekend and if it takes more time than I expect I may not be in on Monday; if I’m absent on Monday just carry on with the paper and, a propos that, try to think of a dramatic title, the referees like something that implies a breakthrough and that’s what we are telling them isn’t it?’
Caplin offered a wide smile and lifted a goodbye wave of his hand. Ellis mumbled a response and waited until he heard the laboratory outer door close. He sat for a few minutes contemplating the term ‘trip him up’ that Michael Caplin had used earlier. He wondered how much tripping up it would take for Holden to desist. For the moment though it wasn’t directly his dilemma. Thank God the weekend was nigh he thought, he could at least get some sleep, assuming he was able to. In any case, it wasn’t an intractable problem according to Caplin – or so he said. All he could do was wait and follow the piper. He had to presume the piper knew where he was going, and yet he had a funny feeling it was unswervingly towards Holden.
Caplin exited through the Metlab’s main doors, turned right and stopped as the car park came into view.
It was coming up to three forty five p.m. and there were already signs of the POETS syndrome infecting the laboratory’s work force. Two cars were already in transit, purring down the exit track with far fewer vehicles still parked, and far more parking bays unoccupied than had been first thing in the morning. It was common for the maxim POETS (Piss Off Early cos’ Tomorrow’s Saturday) to apply and for virtually everyone to contrive an early departure from Metlab on a Friday afternoon. POETS was the ideal pretext for the start of a premature departure and the commencement of an extended weekend. Not that anyone in authority would try to stop it; most of the senior and supervisory staff were guiltier of a rapid exodus than their subordinates. Even Metlab’s director, Henderson, was usually conspicuous by his absence, spending most of his time either at M.I.M.C’s London HQ, or at some seminar or Institute gathering. Few, employed at Metlab, if asked, would be able to describe his appearance, let alone recognise his name.
As he watched the two exiting cars scuttle off home, Caplin saw a figure walking across the intermediate grass strip separating the car park from the laboratory footpaths. Although now dressed in casual clothing the figure was instantly recognisable - it was Holden. As he looked, Holden turned his head towards him and instantly scowled. He refused to be intimidated and as he kept his eyes on Holden the scowl turned to a look of utter loathing. He half expected the man to spit, but instead he simply increased his pace.
He kept watch as Holden pressed the fob on an ignition key and the lights of a pristine Ford Mondeo came on, indicating that the door interlocks had been remotely defeated. Holden was in a hurry and as soon as he was in the drivers seat he fired the engine. The engine hardly had time to pick up revs before the rear wheels were skidding and the car accelerated away.
‘Good riddance,’ Caplin thought, ‘at least I know I’m free of him for a while and if what I intend to do succeeds, it won’t be for just a while, it’ll be permanently.’
He made his way to his own car and followed his usual habit for a Friday evening – home to his leased house in Treen, a take away meal eaten at home and then a return to Metlab. This time however, it was not to do with any covert laboratory work, this time it was for something entirely different.
He slipped through the security barrier with a friendly wave from the night security officer Nigel Pascoe.
Pascoe, thankfully, was now minus his umbrella. The weather had definitely calmed down and was so improved it was far from the hazardous conditions that he had met during last week’s arrival.
Indeed, his trip to St Ives prior to getting home and then returning to Metlab had been swift and trouble free.
Everything he needed had been purchased easily in various St Ives’ hardware stores and he intended to install everything as quickly as possible. All the necessary components and equipment were contained in a stout carrier bag – soon, after his activities, to be free of its contents and much lighter.
He went over his next task in his mind. The only part with any direct risk was the handling and fitting of the filament. In this he had to be careful – especially handling the spool of micro fine amalgam alloy. That definitely promised to be the tricky part.
He parked in a free bay as close to the main entrance as possible and carried the carrier bag around the corner towards the entrance. Pro tem it was the laboratory entrance he wanted, although his ultimate destination was the foundry and smelting unit – the section where Holden worked. First however he had to see the night watchman, Ed’ Rowe. A word in his ear would avoid any difficulties later.
He pushed through the glass doors of the entrance to find the foyer sombre and dismal, the gloomy atmosphere dimly lit by the small night security strip lights. Only the bright light that came from behind the glazed door of the small alcove next to the reception desk showed any sign of life; it was Ed Rowe’s sanctuary that he used when not making his periodic checks around the complex. He gave a sharp tap on the alcove door and it came open almost immediately. Rowe was sitting on a chair pressed against one wall, while to his side a heavily tea stained wooden table bore a kettle, an open sandwich box and a mug of milky tea full to the brim. At the back, against the wall, were what appeared to be sundry tea and sugar containers, while to the front a muted miniature portable television was showing a football match.
‘Oh, Dr. Caplin, did you want me?’ Rowe looked up, completely surprised.
‘No, it’s okay Ed, just wanted you to know I’ll be in my lab’ for a while keeping an eye on an experiment I’m running at the moment. I’m not sure how long it will need so you’d best ignore me for the while – I’ll let you know when I decide to shut down and leave. My lab will be lit for some time but I don’t want you to come in and check on me – not least because the experiment could be dangerous. Okay?’
‘No problem – I’ll stay clear.’
‘Well, not completely Ed, I have to take readings every ninety minutes. When you get to my laboratory door during your rounds you will hear the vacuum pumps working and if you look through the window of my door you will see the incandescent coils operating inside the vacuum chamber. That’s the dangerous bit by the way. Now, I’m likely to doze off between readings so you can do me a favour, as you come by knock on my door to ensure I’m not completely asleep, I don’t want to miss out on my readings because I was unable to stay awake. By the by, when are your rounds due?’
Rowe smiled. ‘Every hour strictly speaking sir, but I can stretch it to ninety minutes if it will help you. With your lights on, your pumps working and the building apparently occupied I doubt we are at risk of a break in. Anyway, its never happened before.’
‘No one will check on you then Ed’?’
‘No sir, I’m responsible for just one employee – me. I check on me and always have. I’m a hard task master.’
It was an amusing reply and he gave Rowe a wide and grateful smile.
‘Okay Ed’, you’ll catch up with me later I presume. Bye for now.’
He probably needed much less than ninety minutes to do what he wanted to do.
For the interim however, he had to arrange matters so that Ed’ Rowe would believe his story about running a controlled experiment that periodically required measurements. It wasn’t that difficult. The experimental apparatus was all contained inside the vacuum chamber and only needed to be apparently operational. That he could concoct by running the vacuum pumps, creating a hard vacuum and then energising the heaters and incandescent coils around each of the two, tubular, ceramic moulds.
He got to the lab’ and as the lights came on he immediately started the vacuum pumps to avoid any delay. He then made a coffee in the back office and when fully refreshed extracted all the parts he had purchased earlier from the carrier bag. These components he laid out on the office desk after carefully moving the PC VDU and stacking all the surface paper work and stationary equipment to one side. Included was a proprietary Lithium ion battery pack designed for cold starting a car immobilised by a flat battery. It was only able to provide 12 volts but for a short time, three or four milliseconds that is, anything up to two thousand Amps. It was ideal for his purposes. A pair of cheap earphones, a portable CD player, some crocodile clips and lengths of red and black soft insulation copper wire completed the arrangement he had previously intended.
Looking at his watch he noted that some three quarters of an hour had elapsed since he saw Ed’ Rowe – if Rowe was punctual, and was to keep to his promised schedule, he wouldn’t appear for another forty five minutes. That being so he had one last thing to confirm – the ability to visualise the winding of ultra fine Stellite wire entwined around a super hard spool and currently nestling in his jacket pocket. He went to the appropriate bench draw and withdrew a portable hand held ultraviolet lamp. It was designed to be a wide band source; infinitely variable between the upper part of the visible spectrum and well into the far B part of the ultraviolet. Laying the wire spool on the bench top, he ran the UV lamp on its battery and began to vary the output around the 230nm wavelength. As he did so he saw the beginning of a shimmering iridescence emanating from the spooled wire.
On increasing the ultraviolet intensity the iridescence became markedly stronger. It was enough, he knew now that he was ready. All he needed was for Ed’ Rowe to knock on his door and then walk on. That would give him all the time he needed.
When at last Rowe knocked on his door he emerged from the office carrying a clipboard and a made out he was jotting down some readings. He made sure Rowe saw him and he then turned to the lab’ door and gave Rowe a thankful wave.
Rowe in turn reciprocated and turned away to continue his rounds.
He gave Rowe another five minutes to ensure Rowe was as far away as his surveillance required.
He then picked up his components from the office desk and left the laboratory. He made his way back down to the foyer and left the laboratory block by the front doors. He turned left and made his way around to the large extension that constituted the foundry and casting shop. He tried the outer doors and as expected found them unlocked. Like the laboratories and offices they were left open to ensure rapid entry in case of fire, or escape in the event of fire or spillage of molten metals – in every case operatives would need to get in or out of the plant quickly, day or night.
The inside smelled of the pungent residues from hot metals and scale, and although everything was shut down it still gave the impression of how much sweat and grime was involved in the job. It wasn’t in any way a pleasant environment.
As he stood just inside the foundry he could just make out the overhead gantry and lifting tackle used to transport ladles or tip the blast furnace and smelters so as to access the molten metals. The dim light from the overhead strip lights was inadequate for his needs but he used a flashlight to identify the vertical ladder that reached up to the control cab at gantry level. Once up there, it allowed the operative to see down and thereby carefully control any required equipment movements.
Holding the carrier bag by slipping his hand right through the plastic handles, he began to climb the access ladder. Just as his head reached the two side grips, allowing the climber to safely step in to the cab, he stopped. Holding himself steady on the middle rung of the ladder he withdrew the battery wire, CD player, and headphones from the carrier bag and put them on the cab floor immediately inside the cab and against the facing wall. He had already attached red and black wires to the battery terminals, likewise to a jack, which fitted into the power input of the CD player. Now he had two wire ends stripped with frayed wires coming from the battery. There were two similar wires coming from the CD. He then plugged the earphones into the CD Player.
Once all this was done he was satisfied that the first part of his strategy was complete. Next he removed the super hard spool from his pocket, temporarily placed it on the floor of the cab and donned some chain mail gloves. From the carrier bag he took out the UV lamp and illuminated the spool. Using a pair of tweezers from his top jacket pocket he teased the end of the spool wrapped wire until the UV iridescence showed he had a sufficient length. He then applied the battery wires close together along a small length of the unwrapped wire close to the spool and waited until it flared into blinding incandescence. It burned exceptionally brightly for about five seconds and then the light abruptly vanished. Now he had the other end of the wire he needed.
He then carefully wrapped strong insulating PTFE tape around a right angle bracket locking the right side of the ladder to the cab, and then coiled a wire end around it; with the left side equally insulated he coiled wire around the left hand bracket. He was careful to make the wrap sufficiently tight to keep the wire taught and far enough away to ensure a body would encroach on it.
But regardless of his care, he noticed the PTFE tape, and the underlying steel of the brackets began to chaff. However, it didn’t matter.
He then linked two pieces of wire, from the ends of the taught cross wire across the ladder, to a miniature electronic timer that was then connected to the two wires coming from the battery. He did one last check with the UV lamp and saw the shimmering iridescence of the wire strung across the top of the ladder. This, he decided, completed his work.
He looked at his watch; he had expended thirty-seven minutes of the time he had been allowed by Ed Rowe’s ninety-minute rounds – it was time to go.
He switched off the flashlight and everything sunk into darkness – he was blind, blinded due to the intense light his flashlight and the burning wire had produced. He had no choice, even the low background light in the foundry was to low for him to see clearly - he had to wait and allow his eyes to adapt to the darkness again; there was no point in slipping off the ladder then stumbling forward and mistaking the direction of the doors, or even worse, injuring himself in a collision with the overhead wire.
He slowly began to make out the dark silhouettes of the machinery and benches he’d passed on the way in. Now, after a few minutes, he could see well enough and started to make his way down the ladder and towards the doors. He inched though the doors and closed them as quietly as he could. As the fresh air hit him he silently thanked God for it. He dribbled spit from his mouth and spat it out onto the ground, trying to free himself from the acerbic, acrid taste of saliva contaminated by trace metals.
Now for the lab, he thought, and a return to a little acting.
Above all he wanted a coffee, and the time to entirely forget what he had just done. After all, he had to get back to the lab and act the innocent as Ed’ Rowe reappeared.
In all respects, like his recent activities, he had to make a damn good job of it.
Holden was late in compared to the other Foundry operatives; but that wasn’t unusual for a Monday morning.
The others usually arrived half an hour earlier than the 8.00 a.m. start in order to get at least two mugs of tea down themselves before the furnaces and smelters were brought up to temperature and the foundry started to to take on the atmosphere of a Turkish bath. It was easy for the men to rapidly dehydrate as each of them was in the proximity of molten metals and converters some running in excess of 1550 degrees centigrade. The foundry air temperature often exceeded forty five degrees Celsius and it was an unwritten rule that there was no restriction on fluid intake so as to avoid the chances of a man with dehydration causing a major accident through fainting or dizziness.
Holden opened the foundry doors to be met by a deceptively empty workshop. He knew where they were; every one of his co-workers had all migrated to the back of the foundry where an ex-office had been converted to a tea bar and a rest area for all the foundry operatives. It was fitted with an air conditioning system so as to provide relief to those men overcome by the exhausting activity of smelting metals - especially so in the summer months. If it was needed, no one complained.
Holden inwardly sneered at the way their camaraderie was so blatantly false – he didn’t believe any of it and wanted no part of it. He knew they were friends only so long as one of them didn’t get promotion or any special favours. After that their jealousy turned to vindictive and spiteful comments and deliberate insubordination. But he had no wish or need to make himself a pariah; after all, he was the cabman, the one who hardly got to exchange a word with any of them while he was operating the gantry and the crane. All he did was to acknowledge instructions from the foreman below him using a walkie-talkie, and lift or tip the ladles, smelters or converters when it was wanted. He even resorted to having lunch away from the foundry in order to avoid having to converse or confer with any of the team.
He looked at his watch, it read 8.05 a.m. and the tea drinking was still in full swing. He had no intention of waiting, so he started to climb the cab access ladder. Half way up he could see an open smelter, already close to completely melting a load of copper iron alloy, and it was already glowing almost white hot. He realised that the team must have started much earlier than he thought – it would have taken time for the electric induction system to heat the smelter, so it had been started long before the tea party at the end of the foundry had begun.
He continued his climb looking down at the top of the smelter. It was just as his head approached the top rung and lifted up that he suddenly went blind. A reflex action meant he was still trying to move his legs in order to continue his climb. A thin line of blood bubbled from the top of his head down each side of his cheeks and across his neck, and for a second or two the cleaved parts stayed together, but now his face and the front part of his head had been severed; as too the front of his chest, for at that moment he had lifted his body and tried draw away from slowly fading terror he was experiencing. The section of his face that had separated then slipped away and, dropping down, ricocheted off a ladder outrigger. It hit the molten surface of the copper smelter with an explosive expansion of steam, momentarily bobbing about until after a few seconds it boiled away and disappeared.
The rest of his lifeless body toppled sideways, but a foot caught in a rung and pulled the leg upright as it fell. The force of the descending body weight then snatched the trapped foot free from the rung. Since now nothing impeded it, the body followed the head, first half wrapping itself around the outrigger and then, from its impetus, slipping forward and sinking into the molten contents of the smelter. There followed a huge surge of steam and exploding tissue as the1550 degrees of the smelter instantly consumed all the organic matter. In no more than ten seconds the surface of the liquid alloy had returned to quiescence and there was no sign that any foreign entry had taken place or that anything abnormal had happened.
In the cab above, a hidden timer set to 0807 waited patiently and then connected to the Stellite wire across the ladder’s upper framework. Just like the body parts entering the smelter, in no more than ten seconds the wire had gone from effective invisibility to a brilliant, blinding incandescence followed by complete burnout and a widely dispersed micro particulate cloud, none of which was ever to be seen again.
There was no one to witness it, nor was there anyone to witness what it had caused. Even the molten metal in the converter had nothing to say, nor did it invite any questioning.
It took three days before Holden’s disappearance was reported.
Metlab’s personnel department received a curt notification that a member of the foundry work force was absent. He had failed to appear for the first three days of the week, this without any telephoned notice of sickness from the man himself, or any sign of a medical certificate in the post. In itself this wasn’t usually cause for concern, too often a temporary malady developed into something more serious, only then warranting a visit to an employees GP. It was only then likely that a medical certificate would be issued and that might not find its way to Metlab for another four to six days.
In this case however, there were more ominous overtones. Holden’s car had been parked in the car park on the Monday morning, but remained unmoved for the next three days. Furthermore, he had not made an appearance in the canteen for lunch for the same period of time. Telephone calls to his home stayed unanswered, and even a visit to his home by one of the personnel department’s secretaries was to no avail.
Questions to those who worked with him in the foundry resulted in even more confusion, he had definitely arrived for work on the Monday, his car was in the car park to prove it, but no one amongst the foundry workforce had seen him enter the foundry on that day.
Added together, it was not only perplexing, but also highly suspicious.
In the end it was decided that the police should be informed and that regardless of company policy, the police would be given access to the laboratory complex.
When the call came in to the old Victorian police station in St Ives, it was Sergeant Mike Nichols who took it.
For a provincial, secluded and outlying station in a remote part of the country, the possibility of a major crime was as remote as the place itself. As such, Sergeant Nichols had no expectation on that bright Friday morning that he was to be immersed in a murder investigation, but that was what it was to become.
At first the ca