Meat Machines

Chapter 7

The morning after the break-in at the lab I spend yet more time with Vincent Penney, at the police station this time. He's being very formal about it. We're in an interview room, grey, dirty and empty except for me, two cops, two chairs and a small table with nothing on it except a voice recorder. Not even a glass of water for the thirsty prisoner, never mind a coffee. The chairs are on either side of the table, with me in one and Penney in the other. There's a cop standing between me and the door. He looks bored. Penney looks angry.

"Remember when we took everyone's fingerprints yesterday?" he starts as soon as he's said the stuff about who was present at the interview. I nod and he goes on, "Yours were all over the desk. On every single drawer. So what were you looking for in the desk?"

"I wasn't looking for anything! The drawers had been taken out and I was putting them back in."

"What? After I told that girl on the phone not to touch anything! Have you no brains at all? What made you think it was all right to start putting things back?"

"Rose was upset about the mess." Even to me this sounds a bit feeble, so I add, "I'm sorry."

"So you should be." He glares at me. "Your prints could have covered up the intruder's. Has it by any chance occurred to you that this break-in might be connected with Naismith's murder?" He picks up the voice recorder and fiddles with it.

"Of course it has. I'd be surprised if it wasn't."

"You're very lucky two people can say you were in a pub with them at the time. If not, I can tell you you'd be my number one suspect. So next time I say don't touch anything, make sure I don't find the print of even one little finger. Did you see anything at all unusual or interesting in the desk? Or anywhere in the lab?"

Can't mention the memory card, and if he's making such a big deal about a few fingerprints, I'd better not say anything about the buckytube nanomachines that Andy destroyed. I'm going to try changing the subject.

"Nothing I thought was special, but I'm not really sure what was normal for that place. I did see a man hanging around outside. I don't know why I forgot to mention him yesterday." I'm curious to see if Penney will admit the guy is a cop. "I saw him before and I thought he might have been stalking Rose. He kept staring at her. He's about six-one, six-two maybe, thin, light brown hair, wears a black hooded jacket."

Penney drops the voice recorder. He stares at me with his mouth open, as if I've suddenly grown an extra head. "You saw this man? He was near the lab? On the University campus?"

"Yes. When I first saw him I thought he might be a cop."

Penney shakes his head. "He's no cop. Listen to this description." He pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and reads from it, frowning over his glasses. "Hair light brown, eyes grey, six foot two, slim build. Does that sound like the man you saw?"

"I'm not sure about the eye colour." I try to picture his face. All I can remember from our little chat in the pub is the contemptuous stare as he wrote me off as a loser. Pale eyes, certainly. "Could have been grey. The rest of it sounds right."

The frown has gone from Vincent Penney's face. He turns to the other cop. "Did you hear that? I've only had this letter one day, and we've already placed him at the scene! With an eye-witness!" He's back to me. "Would you recognise him if you saw him again?"

"Yes, I'm sure I would."

"Great. Now, Nate, if you happen to see this man again, anywhere or anytime, I want you to call me at once. But don't let him know you're doing it. He's a dangerous character. Whatever you do, don't put yourself at risk. Will you do that?"

"No problem."

For the first and probably the last time, Vincent Penney gives me a big grin. "Nate, thanks. I feel like it's only a matter of time now till we catch him."

"You think this guy is the murderer? Why?"

"I can't tell you that, I'm afraid. It's confidential information."

"Hang on, if I'm going to be watching out for him, I think I should at least know who he is and why he's so dangerous."

"Yes, I see your point. Well, if I tell you, you must make sure you don't let anyone else know, even by accident. It's important, Nate. Not anyone, not even Rose."

Vincent Penney is not a detective for nothing. "All right," I promise. "Not even Rose."

He waves the piece of paper at me. "I got this letter this morning. It's from an official at the Secret Intelligence Service. I've been working on this case for weeks, and they've only seen fit to tell me today that Louise Davis was working for them. She was feeding them information about the military applications of nanotechnology, and exactly what was being developed in Naismith's lab that could be a potential weapon. There's something here about targeting nukes, though how these nanomachines can manage that is not something I understand. Anyway, shortly after Naismith's murder, Louise got in touch to say some work had gone missing. Notes that should have been among Naismith's papers could not be found. They assigned one of their agents to work with her on locating these papers. But now they seem to think this man, Jonathan Forbes, has become a double agent. He's betrayed his country to our rivals in the nanoweapons race. I've just given you his description. He's the man I'd most like to interview in connection with both murders. You can put him outside the lab last night, and he also fits the description of a man seen running out of Naismith's building on the night of his murder."

I remember the identity parade. "The one you thought was me."

"Yes, sorry about that. If I'd had this letter at the start of the investigation — but that's the SIS for you. Wouldn't tell you the right time unless you had clearance."

Hard to believe, he's actually apologised. And he's forgotten all about my fingerprints on the desk. He gets up from his chair. It seems the interview is over.

"You might as well go. We shouldn't need you any more today. And remember, Nate. If you set eyes on Jonathan Forbes, call me right away."

So I leave the police station, feeling, if the truth be told, a bit of a fool. My mind flashes back to the shape of Jonathan Forbes' back, framed in the door of the Green Dragon. I remember the silhouette of the man who stood in the doorway of Naismith's old office at Quiller Supplies, just before he shot Louise. I should have guessed it yesterday, if not before. Maybe I would, if I hadn't been so sure he was a cop.

When Alan got home, he went straight to the lab and took the nanogold sample from his pocket. He looked at the shelf where he had an array of similar test tubes, all labelled with the name of the product inside. Carefully he peeled the label off the tube in his hand. "A scientist should never do this," he muttered as he took another tube from the rack and started to peel off the label that said, "Buckytube formula 17". He stuck the labels back on, but onto the wrong tubes. Now anyone who broke in to steal his nanogold would end up with a tube of completely different nanomachines, whose only function was to make strong tubular shapes out of any available carbon source.

A few days later he came back home to find a window had been forced open and the wrongly labelled tube had disappeared. At least this time they hadn't got the real nanogold. Still, he thought it was worth letting Professor Bergman know Harrison hadn't given up. He hadn't seen the old man since the day Roxy betrayed him. I should go there and see how he is, he thought with a twinge of guilt. Before he left he put a vial of green liquid in his pocket; his instant rusting formula.

Soon he was ringing Bergman's doorbell. The old man did not open the door right away. Was he becoming hard of hearing as he aged? Alan rang the bell again, pressing his finger down hard on the button. As he waited, he thought he could hear the sounds of people moving around inside. He could see a light on in the study window. As he watched it was switched off. What was going on? Didn't Bergman want to see him? Or could it be that someone else, perhaps Harrison, was in there with his mentor, preventing him from answering the door? Harrison was a bully. Why couldn't he leave the poor old man alone?

Furious, Alan smashed through the glass of the study window, careless of his own safety. He climbed through, stungun in hand. For a moment Alan was silhouetted against the light from outside. If Harrison had been waiting there with another biopellet gun, our hero might not have survived. But luckily the room was empty. They must have heard the glass breaking, he thought, they'll know I'm here.

The door was kicked open and two men armed with biopellet guns burst into the room. Alan let off a volley of shots and one of the men dropped to the floor. The other man aimed his weapon. Alan dived for cover behind the desk and heard the dull thunk of pellets embedding themselves in the wood. He wriggled under the desk and took careful aim. His first shot hit the man in the stomach. He shouted out in pain and his body folded in half as he went down. His feet were still twitching as Alan crawled out from under the desk. Now more worried than ever about the professor's fate, Alan ran along the hall to the sitting room at the back of the house.

Late in the afternoon I get a call from Penney. "Have you seen him again?" he wants to know.

"No, I've been at work all day."

"One of my men saw him, the one following Dr Steiner. Or at least he saw a man of his description hanging around outside the flat shared by Dr Steiner and Dr Bowden. That wasn't you, was it?"

"No, of course not. I just told you, I was here at work."

"Then it must have been our suspect. He may have been waiting for them to go out so he could break in and search their flat. I sent an armed squad round there and we almost had him. Just before they got there he got a phone call and ran off. My man who was watching went after him but he got away."

"If I see him I'll let you know right away," I promise.

If this Jonathan Forbes is watching Rose's flat, I think I will go round and keep an eye on the place. I can't concentrate on work any more so I might as well be somewhere else. But just as I'm about to walk out the phone rings. I leave it to Rick to answer. I'm half way down the stairs when he opens the door and yells at me, "Nate, hold on! It's Rose!" So I run back up.

"Hi Nate, I'm hoping you can help me with something," she says.

"Of course," I reply. "Always ready to help you, Rose. What is it you need?"

"I've found something on the memory card that might be important. It's in code, and I can't work out what it says. I remember you once told me you were interested in code breaking. I thought you might help me to decode it. Gilbert must have thought it was something worth keeping secret, so I don't want to take it to the police until I know what it is."

"Yes, I can help with that. Why don't you bring it here when you finish work?" Now I know she's safe and on her way here, I'll stay and get some work done.

"Thanks, Nate. I'll see you soon."

Shouldn't be too hard, I think, I've already cracked one of Naismith's codes. I hope the police don't have a tap on her phone — or mine.

Rose comes round about an hour later and we use my computer to take a look at the coded file.

"Look at the date it was saved," Rose says. "He wrote this on the morning of the day he died."

Rose turns out to be an awesome codebreaker and I've had a bit of practice recently so the secret of Naismith's last message is soon ours.

"So that's why he was killed," I say when we've finished.

"Poor Gilbert! Why did it have to happen that way?" Rose says.

"We'd better take this to the police. At least now they'll stop suspecting the wrong people."

"Yes, they'll have to stop following us. I suppose we have to take it to them."

"You'd better say you found it today, so we don't get shouted at by Penney."

"Yes, I'll say we found it when we were tidying up the lab. That sounds quite likely, doesn't it?"

"The cops who searched the place will probably get in trouble."

"According to Andy, they didn't make such a good job of it anyway."

I listen while Rose phones the lab. She talks to Karl, Tom and Andy in turn and tells them what we've found. They all agree she should take it to the police.

"Karl's worried about the documents that relate to the project he and I were working on. He'd like them kept confidential until we've had time to publish," Rose says to me, a worried look on her face.

"Shouldn't be a problem. I couldn't understand a word of that stuff, so I don't suppose the cops will either. They won't even read it."

Rose brightens. "Yes, you're probably right. In that case, I'd better take this to Penney right away. Want to come with me?"

"No thanks. I've had enough of the police station for this week. I'm off to the pub. Come down for a drink later, if you want."

"Thanks, but I'd better go home. Karl's at home tonight, and I've hardly seen him this week except at work. On second thoughts, I can't face the police again tonight. I'll talk to Karl about it at home, and we can take it in together tomorrow."

I walk home with her, just in case Jonathan Forbes is hanging around outside her flat again. I even go up to the flat and make sure Karl is at home before I leave her. He asks me if I want to come in for a coffee but I get the feeling he's just being polite and I'm not really wanted so I don't stay. It makes sense that a brainy girl like Rose would want to go out with someone who's a scientist. I'm a fool to even think about her.

Naismith's Last Message

To break the code, type the correct letter into the box below the code letter.

Here is a coded string.


When Rick and I first started out, we made a short game with a few codebreaking puzzles. I remember E is the most frequent letter in English. T, A, S and N are used a lot as well. A word of one letter must be I or A. The most common three letter word is usually THE. There are only so many words of two or three letters, so the short words should be a good place to start.

Naismith seems to have been a man of strong principles. I expect when he refused to hand over his research, the spy was afraid he would expose him as a double agent. He shot the professor and searched his flat for his records. He must have called Louise and asked her to search the lab. When she didn't find them there, she suggested they might be at Quiller Supplies. He must have given her his description on the phone and she thought I was him.

Next page