|Day of the Dandelion
By Peter Pringle
Published by Simon & Schuster
May 2007; 141654075X; 320 pages
Trinity Term, the Present
At precisely one minute before three o'clock in the morning, when the only sound in the botany laboratory was the low hum of the DNA analysis machine, Karen Lichfield, the last of the researchers still working at this unforgiving hour, removed the disk from her desktop computer, placed it in a plastic cover, and prepared to leave her experiments. With a red marker, she wrote in large letters on a piece of paper, "T3. Do Not Touch," and taped it to a steel incubator containing rows of glass test tubes. She punched her security code into the pad on the wall and let the metal door shut behind her as she entered the main laboratory. A biohazard symbol on the door at eye level warned about the dangers of the poisons she knew firsthand, plant toxins so potent that they could make people bleed from their eyeballs.
She carefully locked the computer disk in her personal locker, shook off her white lab coat, and hung it quickly on its appointed hook. At the sink, stained brown from years of use, she turned on the water and scrubbed her hands vigorously with the acrid soap, as researchers working with toxins were required to do at the end of each day. She dried her hands on a sheet of paper towel, then reached for her yellow fisherman's jacket and her blue backpack, telling herself with each ordinary task that she must try to remain calm and breathe normally.
The thick wooden door to the lab opened easily, and before it swung back into place, she carefully inserted a white plastic tab, used for labeling experiments, into the Yale lock, a primitive measure she and her colleagues employed on more innocent occasions when they were simply taking a break and did not want to be bothered about the door key. The security guard downstairs in the exhibition hall would now think the door was shut; on his closed circuit TV, the status of the lab would show on the screen as "secure." She took a long, deep breath and looked down the darkened balcony, reassured that no one was there. Then she walked quickly over the flagstones and down the steps into the silent cavern of the Museum of Natural History.
It was a journey she had made countless times, often at this late hour because her experiments demanded attention. But on this night, when she had agreed to play this dangerous game, her departure was timed to coincide with the security guard's tea break, which began promptly at 3 a.m. She knew, because she had practiced it several times, that it would take just under a minute for her to walk from the laboratory to the guard's desk, where he would be watching her on his monitor. Now she struggled to keep each function of her body under control so that the guard would not recognize her rising panic.
"Late one tonight, then," the guard said, giving her a friendly smile, as he always did.
As she signed out on the time sheet, she could feel her hand shaking.
"Yes, late one tonight," she repeated, trying not to look at him for fear he would see in her eyes something was bothering her, something different from all the other late nights at the museum over the last three years.
"Goodnight then, my duckie," he said, as he picked up his lunchbox and the evening's Oxford Chronicle, preparing to walk down into the basement kitchen for his break.
"You be careful on that bicycle, now. Watch out for those puddles."
The guard was her friend. He considered her personal safety one of his many responsibilities, more important, in some ways, than the safety of the museum's ancient specimens he was hired to protect. He didn't think it was right for a young woman, however important her scientific work, to be biking home on her own so late at night. His fatherly warning was always the same when she left the museum, no matter what the hour or the weather.
Walking across the exhibition hall to the service door at the back of the museum, Karen listened for the metal tips of the guard's shoes on the stone steps as he moved slowly downstairs to the staff kitchen. He was a nice man, she knew, a nice, considerate, widowed man who had several grandchildren of his own, and who had no idea that what was about to occur on his watch could so change both their worlds.
She shook her head, trying to concentrate, and checked the time on her digital wristwatch -- 3:03 a.m. Perfect, Karen thought as she pushed the bar on the service door. The opening cast a shaft of pale light across the darkened parking lot. She stepped outside, and as the door swung back, she placed her backpack in the way to prevent it from closing. She knew the open door would register "not secure" on the guard's TV screen, but he would not return from his break until 3:30.
Under the steady rain, she walked down the muddy path to the bike rack, her eyes slowly growing accustomed to the darkness around her. She took her bicycle lamp off the front of the basket on the handlebar, held it out into the parking lot, and switched it on twice, paused, and then twice again, as she had been instructed. Then she waited, shivering, although the night was warm. The shiver was only to shake off the rain, she told herself.
After a few seconds, endless seconds it seemed to her, a car headlight flashed twice and then twice again. She could just see the outline of the car, a small one, a Punto maybe, or a Panda. She heard the car's door open and then close with a firm click and could see the outline of a man walking toward her, his footsteps grinding the loose gravel at the edge of the parking lot. She walked back along the path, ahead of the man, and pulled open the service door, the light from the museum shining now on her companion for the first time.
His appearance startled her and she jumped back from him. He was of medium height and dressed entirely in black -- T-shirt and jeans and black gloves, thick black gloves reinforced, like a goalkeeper's. A black ski mask covered his head and she could see only his taut mouth and cold gray eyes -- a human, barely. He was carrying a small black bag, like a tool bag, and he moved with such ease and stealth that she felt clumsy and ordinary beside him.
She had not expected this catlike creature to come out of the night and she wanted to stop him right there, on the museum threshold, and tell him that there had been a terrible mistake, that she was not Karen Lichfield, or that she did not work in the botany laboratory, or that she was not the person who had arranged to meet a man in the parking lot and let him into the museum; that he should go away, right now, back to his car, or she would report him immediately to the security guard. But the man grabbed her arm with both his hands, a strong grip that made her wince in pain, and motioned to her with a flick of his head to go forward. This was how they would communicate, silently with head and hand signals, she realized, and she immediately nodded back. Then he grabbed her arm again and pushed her, roughly, inside and in front of him, clearly wanting her to lead the way. She felt his physical power and realized that there was no turning back, no backing down from her agreement to let this strange man into her private world.
The two of them slipped into the shadows of the exhibition hall, past the museum's dinosaur skeletons, the cases of fossils, and the stuffed birds suspended with their wings outstretched from the iron trusses of the glass canopy. Karen had walked through these exhibits many times, and at this time of night, but tonight, when she was moving silently with this man in black and when she was alert, watching and listening for any movement or sound, these ghostly creatures only added to her anxiety. Silently, she led him up the steps to the balcony and along the flagstones to the door of the laboratory. She turned the brass handle and the door opened. The plastic tab fell to the floor and instinctively she picked it up, a common tool of her trade, stowing it in a pocket of her yellow jacket.
She glanced around the familiar room, now strangely unfamiliar, as if she were seeing it through new eyes, the eyes of this stranger she had allowed to share it with her. Here was Oxford's botanical research, ancient and modern, amateur and professional. Smart new DNA analysis machines sat beside Victorian mahogany cabinets that had once housed the museum's butterfly collection. The drawers now contained small white cotton bags of exotic plant seeds studied by the young woman and her colleagues. In one alcove, antique brass microscopes, once the pride of the lab but long out of use, still stood among Leitz inverted epifluorescent microscopes and confocal laser devices. Shiny steel incubators and rows of test tubes lay on metal-topped antique pine tables with finely turned legs donated by alumni or a friendly benefactor. Plastic bags of dried plant specimens collected over centuries in distant tropical lands, each bag coded with a white tab, lay in piles, waiting to be examined and catalogued.
The man tugged at her arm, jolting her into action. As arranged, she led him to the professor's office, separated from the working floor by a partition with small glass panes, like the barriers that once separated factory managers from the work floor. This was an office with all the comforts of old Oxford. The desk was of polished oak, the armchair a rich brown leather. In the oak bookcases modern scientific journals sat beside leather-bound ancient monographs, and in one corner of the office stood an old steel safe, about the size of a commode, with a small brass wheel, polished and gleaming from constant use.
Karen pointed to the safe and the man nodded. He tried the door into the professor's office, which rattled but remained firmly locked. He looked at Karen for the key, but she shook her head. The man opened his bag and took out a roll of masking tape. He ripped off four short strips and stuck them in a crisscross on the pane of glass nearest the door handle. Then with one swift blow of his gloved fist he broke the pane, slipped his hand through, and opened the door. Karen watched as the man moved inside, cautioning her with a wave of his arm to stay behind.
He closed the door and unpacked his bag: a metal dial with a numbered face like a combination lock, two cloth pouches, and a pair of surgical gloves, the tools of a master craftsman in his underworld. The stranger took off his black gloves, revealing the long blond hairs on the back of his hands. Gray eyes and blond hair, Karen thought. It would not be enough if she ever needed to identify this man. Effortlessly, he rolled on the surgical gloves, well beyond his wrists. She watched as he placed the metal dial on the front of the safe, where it stuck, like a limpet. Then he pressed his ear against the disk as he gently turned the brass wheel. Karen watched the man and tried not to make any noise around this noiseless person.
After he had turned the wheel several times, this way and that, he gently pulled the safe door open and Karen could see the white cotton seed bags inside. The man scooped them into one of his cloth pouches, which he placed in his bag. Then he took out a small plastic box of slides, placing it also in his bag. He removed his surgical gloves, which came off with a loud snap, and he eased back into the lab.
Karen's watch read 3:22 a.m. The guard would return to his desk in eight minutes. She mouthed the words, "We must go," and urgently pointed to the exit. As they hurried through the lab, the man paused, as though he had forgotten something, placed his black bag on the lab bench, and opened it.
She pointed again to her watch and shook her finger, but he ignored her, picking out the little white seed bags, one by one, about a dozen in all. He held them up to show her, pointing to their coded tags. The codes began with the letters NS, and also with the letters SP. She nodded her approval. He opened the box of slides and held them up to the light, one by one, and showed her the labels. Again the codes began with NS and SP.
"Yes, yes," she mouthed, nodding her assent and pointing to her watch, more frantically than before. "We must go, now," she whispered, tugging at the man who slowly, too slowly, carefully replaced the slides into the box and then put the box into his bag, as though they were delicate pieces of jewelry. Then he took her arm again and pushed her in front of him, to lead the way out.
Karen let the front door of the laboratory close behind them, and this time it shut with a loud click that seemed to echo through the empty museum. Outside the laboratory door, they stood for a moment and listened for any sound of the returning guard, but there was silence. Satisfied, the two moved quickly along the balcony and down the steps into the exhibition hall.
As they reached the bottom, Karen froze, halting the stranger with a touch on his bulky shoulder. From down in the basement came the sound of a metallic shuffle, a slow, tired shuffle as the guard made his way up the stairs.
Karen signaled to the man to stay in the shadows instead of moving out into the hall, where she knew the TV monitor on the guard's desk would spot them. The sound of the guard's footsteps suddenly stopped, and then started up again, at first just one click, then several, quickening and disappearing. She could tell the guard was going back down the steps into the kitchen. She guessed he had forgotten something. She moved out into the hall, this time pulling the man with her by the arm. They walked swiftly toward the back of the building. At the service entrance, still wedged open with her backpack, Karen pushed the door, letting the man outside. As she bent to pick up her backpack, the man, in an unexpected gesture, held out his gloved hand. What was he trying to do, thank her? Say goodbye? She did not want his gratitude, she did not want his farewell. But he insisted, holding his hand outstretched, and she took it. The man squeezed her bare hand, his strong fingers digging into her skin. She winced as she looked into his eyes that were the color of flat steel. As she struggled to release her hand, Karen felt a tiny prick, like a needle or a shard of glass. She let out a cry of pain and the man released his grip.
"Goodbye," he mouthed and he was gone, down the muddy path, disappearing across the darkened parking lot.
She looked down at her hand and under the dim light of the service door could just make out a tiny red dot of blood. She ran her finger over the dot and felt something hard under the skin. A splinter of glass, perhaps, had lodged in the man's glove when he had broken the window into the professor's office. She could feel a sharp edge under her skin where the blood was.
Then she ran, stumbling down the path to her bicycle. She heard a car engine start and she thought of the man all in black, a man she had never seen except for the thin lips, the dead eyes, and the blond hairs on the back of his hands. She had never known his name. She had barely heard him say only one word -- goodbye. She did not know if he had an accent. She did not know where he came from, what country even.
As she pulled out her bicycle and began to pedal furiously down Parks Road, she wondered whether the security guard had heard the service door close as he came up from the basement, or whether he had heard the car engine start, or had seen her as she rode off on her bicycle. She was shivering again. She wiped the rain from her face, rain now mixed with tears of fear and anger at herself for letting the man in, for changing her life in a few short minutes, in ways she could not be sure of now.
At the traffic lights at Longwall, a uniformed constable was standing on the corner and she stopped for the red light, although she would normally not have bothered this early in the morning, with no traffic. The policeman in his shiny yellow rain jacket stared at her and she realized that she had not put her front lamp back in place. She saw his face in the street light, a young face, a boy's face, tired and wet at the end of his night's duty. She willed him not to come over, not to question her. As she struggled to clip the lamp onto the front basket, the traffic light turned green, and she pedaled into the last hour of darkness, pushing the bike hard, punishing herself in the rush to get away. Under the street light she looked down at the back of her right hand, still hurting from the fierce grip of the man's glove and still with a spot of blood, now streaked with rain, from the prick to her skin.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter Pringle
Seeds of a new corn plant are stolen from Oxford University's botany lab, and the professor, Alastair Scott, and his Russian assistant, Tanya Petrovskaya, are missing.
Alarms ring in London and Washington, where intelligence officials know that Scott was working on a supergene that could allow control over the world's entire food supply.
The British government calls in Arthur Hemmings from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. To his coworkers, Hemmings is just another researcher in the herbarium, but for many years he has been a secret service agent, an outwardly rumpled but dashing covert adventurer.
Officials see a Moscow plot. Has Scott been kidnapped? Is he dead? Have Scott and Tanya fled to Russia? And why is Oxford's vice-chancellor withholding vital information?
The intrepid Hemmings follows a series of clues into the cutthroat world of international patents, where the hunt for priceless genes is always nasty and often deadly.
In Arthur Hemmings, Pringle has created an original heartbreaker of a hero, a botanist detective with a dash of James Bond. Facing murderous threats, Hemmings investigates fearlessly and with devastating precision. Handsome, witty, an ambitious cook, and a wine lover, he is irresistible to a much younger American female researcher.
Day of the Dandelion is a seductive modern hybrid of the thrillers of Graham Greene and the adventure novels of Ian Fleming, filled with political, scientific, and commercial intrigue, and laced with miracle plants, deadly toxins, kidnappings, and car chases. It will keep the reader in suspense and amused from prelude to postscript.
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Peter Pringle is a veteran British foreign correspondent.
He lives in New York City.