“Thou hast committed” –
“Fornication; but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead”
Christopher Marlowe – The Jew of Malta
“A bit grim, this, isn’t it sir?”
The small office is resonating with the sound of a cello scraping out a deep, melancholy tune backed by a morose, brooding orchestra. The volume on the radio is turned up so loudly the poorly-fitted glass in the doorframe is beginning to reverberate; it’s only a matter of time before one of their office neighbours starts pounding on the wall.
Morse, tipped back in his chair with his heels resting on the radiator and his arms crossed behind his head, looks up at his sergeant.
“‘This’ is Elgar, Lewis,” he says, with some affront.
“Right, sir,” replies Lewis, dubiously. At that moment, thankfully, the phone rings. Lewis puts up one hand to block out the radio and try to focus on the voice on the other end of the line.
It’s May in Oxford, the nick not yet the sweatbox it will become in the summer. Outside the world is full of light and colour; trees green and flowers blooming, birds singing, children playing. Inside Thames Valley Police Station murders, assaults and thefts continue to trickle in, just as they always have and always will.
The call’s come through from dispatch. Lewis listens, nods, and affirms the request, then puts down the receiver. “Dead body found in a research lab, sir. Some sort of scientist, from the sounds of it. Sir Thomas Winchester.”
“Winchester,” says Morse, lifting his legs down from the radiator and sitting up. He reaches out and snaps off the radio, an unusual show of interest for the chief inspector.
“Yes, sir. Did you know him?”
“I knew of him.” Morse stands, picking his jacket up off the back of his chair and pulling it on. “He was a researcher, as you say. One of the foremost in his field.” He heads towards the door, Lewis rising and pocketing his notebook before following.
“Which was?” he asks, curious.
Morse turns to him at the door, face expressionless. “Songbird physiology.”
“The pace of change, Lewis,” says Morse, eyeing the diggers as they leave the Jag, safely parked at the opposite side of the building. “Funding pours into the sciences, while the humanities starve.”
“Well, they’ve a lot more to discover, haven’t they, sir? All these new drugs and particles and theorems and what-have-you. Philosophy and classics are mostly dried up, in comparison.”
Morse turns and looks at him. In the bright sunlight his eyes are very blue, holding a hint of allure. “If you wish to get ahead with the scientific community, that is exactly the kind of thinking you need expound. If you wish to get on with your immediate superior, however, I advise you to choose your words more carefully.”
Lewis winces. “Sorry, sir.”
Together they enter the building, passing through the hardwood-floored foyer and getting a nod from the WPC stationed there. A security guard sitting behind a desk looks up; at a glance from the WPC he waves them through. “Second floor, far end of the hall on the right.”
They take the lift to the second floor; looking down the hall the room they’re there for is obvious; it’s the one with the PC outside.
As they walk down the long corridor Lewis sees that it’s lined with glass windows looking into laboratories on both sides, the centres of the long rooms filled with tables and the space around the edges taken up with electronic equipment and storage units. White-coated men and women are working in them; some look up as the two coppers pass by.
The room the PC indicates is a smaller office in the corner of the building; it has two sets of windows looking out, linoleum flooring, and metal filing cabinets along the walls. There’s a computer on the desk; a new model with a facsimile machine beside it. Pots of funding indeed, thinks Lewis.
Kneeling behind the desk is Max DeBryn. The pathologist looks up as they edge around the desk, his expression pleasant. “Good to see you,” he says, nodding and then looking down to make a note in his book.
On the carpet before DeBryn is the corpse, lying slumped on its side next to the desk’s chair. Sir Thomas was a man in his 60s, dark hair shot through with grey, heavy face set in deep wrinkles. He’s wearing a lab coat over a suit, and has a pass card clipped to its lapel. Not a handsome man, but one with a force of character.
“Max?” asks Morse, leaning up against the desk and glancing down before looking out the windows beyond. Lewis, used to his boss’s distaste of corpses, makes a closer examination of the deceased. Somehow, despite never appearing to pay attention, Morse never seems to miss the details – and expects the same of his sergeant.
“Death appears to have been instantaneous. No signs of violence on the corpse, but I did find this.” The doctor lifts up an empty syringe.
“Poisoned? Or a user?”
“I doubt the latter. There are no signs of regular injection sites; no stash in his desk or on his person either, come to speak of it.”
Morse frowns. “What was it then?”
“Something very fast acting. There are any number of drugs it could have been, in sufficient dosage. It will need to wait for the full autopsy. I’ll take this away with me to test as well,” DeBryn adds, putting the syringe carefully on the desk.
“We’ll need fingerprints off it, sir,” says Lewis deferentially. Max looks up at him through his hornrims, snorting.
“Of course you will, sergeant. When have the scientists ever had one-up on law enforcement?”
“Oh, Lewis is very pro-science,” drawls Morse, crossing his legs at the ankles and glancing at his sergeant. Lewis gives him a pained look.
DeBryn nods. “Glad to hear it. Shows a proper inclination in a young lad; we can’t all be idlers and dreamers, Morse,” he says, with mock-severity. His twinkling eyes belay his tone.
“I don’t recall ever setting up as a dreamer,” replies Morse.
“Just an idler then?”
Morse gives him a dry smile. It fades as he turns back to the corpse, nodding towards it. “Time of death?”
DeBryn looks down as well, mouth tightening in thought. “Winchester was found by a colleague 45 minutes ago. He spoke with his staff at their usual morning meeting today, which ended at 10. That gives a window of two hours. The medical evidence supports that.”
“A two hour window? Nothing more definite?” presses Morse.
“Not until the autopsy. Maybe not even then.” DeBryn stands, smoothing down his shirt front. “If you will excuse me, I’ve still time for a late lunch.” The pathologist picks up the syringe and steps out past the two detectives, disappearing out the door.
Morse looks around the office, eyes flashing over the windows letting in abundant midday sun, the framed diplomas and certificates on the walls, the bookshelf full of books and papers, the filing cabinets. Lewis follows his gaze, and sees nothing unusual in any of it. Perfectly ordinary trappings for a scientific researcher. His own gaze lands on the computer.
“We should get someone down here to take a look at the computer, sir,” says Lewis, a little wistfully. He’d dearly love to do it himself, but that’s not a sergeant’s job.
“Time enough for that when we’ve found out a bit more,” replies Morse. “Fagan,” he calls, raising his voice sharply. The PC from outside the door steps in.
“Who found the body?”
“Trevor Dix, sir. One of the doctor’s students. He’s waiting in the lab, along with the rest of the doctor’s staff.”
“Good, we’ll speak to them. Fagan, you dig up some additional information on our dead scientist. Friends, family, residences – the usual.”
“And get someone down to the pathology lab to fingerprint the syringe.”
“We are,” replies Morse. “Can we speak here?” he motions to the lab. The man nods and steps back to let them in.
“Just don’t touch anything.”
The other three scientists gather around, forming a semi-circle around the detectives. “I’m DS Lewis; this is Chief Inspector Morse. I’d like to get your names and your roles, if I could,” says Lewis, flipping open his notebook.
“Dr Jonas Little, chief researcher under Sir Thomas,” says the man who met them at the door; he’s some ten years younger than Thomas, short and plump and sporting a violently mauve bowtie.
Lewis looks to the woman beside him, petite with long brown hair pulled back and a tart expression; she answers promptly. “Dr Cathy Clarkson, researcher under Sir Thomas.”
“Neville Austin, research assistant,” says the next man along, much younger with long lanky hair and a hint of anxiety hidden behind an awkward smile.
“Trevor Dix, research assistant,” introduces the final man, also young but much more put together than Austin, with a charming smile and an easy manner.
“Neville and Trevor are – were – Sir Thomas’ students,” explains Dr Clarkson in a no-nonsense tone.
“You all worked closely with Sir Thomas?” asks Lewis.
“He ran the lab – as well as several other ventures. He set the research agenda and arranged funding. He also took it upon himself to secure research subjects,” answers Little. “We met daily to check in and weekly to report overall progress, but otherwise we didn’t see that much of him.”
“Research subjects,” says Lewis. “Meaning…?”
“Our work revolves around the chemical properties of songbirds – how they differ from humans, and what we might learn from that. Our subjects are songbirds – volunteers, who are financially remunerated for their time,” replies Clarkson.
Lewis feels his neck freeze abruptly with the sudden imperative not to look at Morse, not to see how the chief inspector – the songbird – has reacted, lest he give away Morse’s identity.
“What is it you hope to learn?” he asks, aware that Morse has gone very quiet and striving to fill the void.
“The possibilities are numerous. Songbirds retain heightened physical fitness as they age, they also possess increased stamina and resistance to injury. There are any number of traits that could benefit mankind,” answers Little, enthusiastically.
“Sounds very chimeric,” comments Morse dryly, speaking for the first time.
“Interbreeding is of course impossible,” cuts in Clarkson, “but there are any number of similarities in our biochemical structures – it’s perfectly plausible to replicate aspects of songbird physiology in humans.”
Lewis can see where the attraction would lie. Songbirds retain their beauty and grace throughout their lives, and are capable of sating even the most strenuous or exacting sexual appetites with ease. To be able to grant their unique gifts to humans would be to have the golden touch.
It’s ironic that he’s here with a guv’nor who has spent most of his life forcibly repressing those gifts.
“A human songbird?” Lewis feels his eyebrows rising.
“A human temporarily possessed of songbird traits,” corrects Clarkson. “But we’re not here to talk about our research.”
“Quite right, madam,” breaks in Morse, with a fleeting smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “We understand the four of you met with Sir Thomas this morning. What time was that?”
“Half nine to ten,” says Dix, the research student, promptly. “We met every morning at that time.”
“And Sir Thomas seemed his usual self, did he?” asks Lewis. The others look at each other and give a general shrugged assent.
“Had he been having any troubles lately? Perhaps with his research, or the University, or at home?” suggests Lewis.
Little gives a cough. “Sir Thomas had a combative personality; he was a very forceful man. It’s what made him such a good breadwinner for this programme; wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. If he did have any difficulties, he wouldn’t have taken them lying down. But I can’t say I noticed anything unusual about him lately.”
Morse looks around the little circle of researchers. “And the rest of you? Anything unusual?”
They all shake their heads. Lewis makes a note. “Who was the last to see him?” asks Morse.
“We all were,” replies Clarkson. “He left here at 10:00 and went into his office. None of us saw him after that.” They all nod in agreement.
“And anyone wanting to get into his office would have had to walk by here?” asks Lewis, pointing at the line of glass windows looking into the hallway. They’re set about a yard up from the floor, and run the length of the lab wall.
Dix, the student, shakes his head. “No; there’s a stairwell door opposite Sir Thomas’ office. Someone could have come up through it without our seeing them. His office just has a regular key lock; no need for a pass card.” Dix flicks the card attached to his lapel.
“These research subjects of yours,” says Morse suddenly; Lewis feels his gaze pulling to the chief inspector. Morse is standing with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders low, for all the world nothing but a middle-aged copper on an assignment he doesn’t much care for. “Is one of them Annalisa Wray?”
The scientists show surprise at the question, but several of them nod.
“And that didn’t strike you as a violation of ethics?” probes Morse.
The atmosphere in the room darkens, a kind of thick sullenness leeching into the air. Lewis looks to Morse, but sees no hint of clarity from that quarter.
“She gave her informed consent,” replies Little, at last. “As I said, one way or another, Sir Thomas got what he wanted.”
“I see,” replies Morse. “That will be all for now. Leave your contact information with the constable at the door; we may need to speak with you again.”
Morse looks to Lewis, and the two of them walk out together. In the hall Fagan catches them, handing Lewis a folded piece of paper. “Sir Thomas’ address,” he says. “His wife – Lady Veronica – is there now. She’s been visited by a PC already, sir.”
“Good. Get the contact information for this lot, if you haven’t already.” Morse thumbs over his shoulder, indicating the researchers in the lab.
They turn and head for the lift; when they’re nearly there a voice from behind catches them. “Inspector?”
Lewis stops and glances back; Neville Austin, the nervous young student who didn’t speak, is standing in the hallway behind them. They pause by the lift and he jogs over.
“Mr Austin, isn’t it?” asks Morse.
“That’s right. It’s – it’s about Sir Thomas,” he says, rubbing his fingers together and shifting his weight awkwardly.
“Go on,” says Morse, when he doesn’t speak.
“Well – I thought you should know – that is – I went to his office this morning. Just after 10:00. I had some questions…” he fades out. Morse and Lewis watch silently; sometimes silence is the best way to winkle a statement from a nervous witness; in this case, it does the job for them. “Questions about our research. About the ethics of it. His notes… I was concerned.”
“What about, Mr Austin?” asks Lewis.
“It doesn’t matter. I never spoke to him. What I came to tell you was that when I went to his office, his wife was there. I could hear them arguing through the door. She said she wanted a divorce. Shouted it, actually.” He pulls at the corner of his jaw with his thumb. “I didn’t tell the others; it was personal. But I thought you should know.”
“Is there anything else you’ve left out?” asks Morse. Austin turns wide, blinking eyes at him, and shakes his head. “Alright then. Mind you give your information to the PC.”
Austin scurries off down the hallway, and Lewis presses the call button for the lift. It arrives almost immediately.
They step in together, Lewis thumbing the button for the ground floor. “Do you believe he was telling the truth, sir?”
“Oh, I think so. Why make up something so easily verified?”
“One more thing, sir?”
Morse glances at him, eyebrows raised questioningly.
“Who’s Annalisa Wray? Why would her working with them be a violation of ethics?”
“Because, Lewis,” answers Morse, as the doors open and they step out into the foyer bright with midday sun, “Annalisa Wray used to belong to Sir Thomas. She was his songbird.”