It is a long way down the A1 and M1 from the turning for Lyndesfarne to the city of London, but the big car kept up a fast clip for most of the journey, with a minimum of traffic hold-ups. They stopped briefly in a service station allowing the driver - a different one than had driven them from Manchester - to refuel the car, while Bret and Kevin stretched their legs.
"Stretching their legs" was of course a euphemism. Kevin was in fact bursting for a pee. He and Bret both made a bee-line for the toilets. Without hesitation, Bret strode towards the Gents, followed closely by Kevin. Bret chose to use a cubicle, while Kevin stood at a urinal. After relieving himself, he washed and dried his hands, Bret joining him after a few moments but declining to catch his eye. Kevin wondered again about the social conventions in a world where a biological woman could, without either surprise or disapproval, successfully masquerade as a man.
On the way out, Kevin bought healthy snacks and caffeinated drinks in cans from the shop, while Bret purchased salted crisps and bottled water. Back in the car, the food tasted of nothing much in his mouth; the supposedly healthy low-fat snacks containing nuts and cereals actually included, he discovered when he looked more closely at the labels, very large amounts of sugar. I should not really worry, Kevin thought to himself gloomily, I am surprised I can eat anything at all.
During the latter part of the journey, Kevin dozed in the back seat, later coming to realise that Bret must have done much the same. He must have more deeply asleep than he realised, and came to with a jerk to find the other man talking into his mobile phone. They were already, he slowly came to realise as he peered through the windows, now in stop-start traffic in central London, making their way along the North side of the Thames Embankment.
To the eye of an architect and civil engineer, the Embankment was an impressive product of Victorian engineering, not to mention a prodigious amount of physical labour from Irish Navvies. Before the embankments were built, the river had been wider and shallower, with sandbanks and beaches on either side. Indeed, the road called "The Strand", now a busy thoroughfare several hundred yards from the bank and packed with shops and hotels, was once at the edge of the river Kevin knew that the world "strand" was an old word for "beach", meaning the place where boats were pulled out of the water - or stranded - for painting or repairs.
Kevin mused on the alterations this city had seen over the last few hundred years - a phenomenal rate of change in any case, and especially when compared with the near-static society and physical infrastructure in the Other World. Although perhaps the conspicuous Good Works - not to mention the militaristic empire-building - of the Victorian era were the most obvious example, the London of a few centuries ago was unrecognisable now.
The late afternoon traffic seemed to ease up, and it was only a few minutes later that their Range Rover drew up outside the imposing Art Deco facade of University College London. Bret and Kevin leapt from the car, and walked briskly up the steps to the main entrance.
In his professional life, Kevin had grown used to the ritual of the receptionist and the temporary visitors' access card. He had forgotten that British University buildings, even in the centres of major cities, eschewed almost any attempt at physical security. He was therefore mildly surprised that access to the offices and laboratories at UCL was as unfettered as the semi-rural campus sites such as the one where NISSA was located.
"Where are we going?" Kevin asked anxiously.
"Second floor," Bret replied ambiguously, indicating the stairs.
Kevin hurried to keep up with the other man as they rushed up two flights. A sign at the top of the steps announced "UCL School of Epidemiology". Well, Kevin considered, that explains why we are here, adding mentally that it seemed as if Bret had visited this place before.
"We're here to visit Doctor Wollack's Ph.D supervisor," he explained, tapping the sign with a forefinger.
Kevin followed Bret along a long narrow corridor, barely adequately lit by fluorescent tubes overhead and with a series of closed office doors on either side. The other man was evidently following the increasing numbers on the doors to left and right. The two of them finally stopped outside number 2.124. Bret knocked on the steel-framed wooden fire door.
"Come in," a cheerful voice sounded.
Bret pushed the door open and entered, followed closely by Kevin. Inside, the jovial voice must have emanated from the large man wearing black jeans and a dark green sweatshirt hunched over a computer on the desk. The figure's jolly nature was evident from his friendly - if slightly pasty - features, framed and partially concealed by dark hair and a wispy beard. He looked as if he did not move around very much if he could avoid it, and was rather younger than Kevin might have expected.
"Doctor Williams?" Bret enquired.
"That's me," the young man replied, with barely a trace of a Welsh accent, "Call me Huw. How can I help?"
It occurred to Kevin that Huw could pass for a junior member of the Taffia - that spuriously identified group of Welsh nationals making their way in contemporary London society.
"Bret," Bret said, extending a hand that the other man clasped briefly without leaving his seat, "And this is Kevin."
"We're here to talk to you about Andrew Wollack," Bret continued.
"Sure. What about him? He's not my student any more, you know."
Bret nodded sadly.
"Andrew Wollack was found dead, on the New Lyndesfarne Bridge, two nights ago," he said.
Huw Williams was obviously unaware that Doctor Wollack was dead. The shocked and saddened look in his face was completely in contrast with his previous good-natured expression.
"Dead?" he asked in a shaky voice, "How did it happen?"
"Well, we're not entirely sure yet," Bret replied, "There are several aspects which remain unexplained. And we are investigating the incident."
Huw nodded in understanding.
"So we need to know some things about the late Doctor Wollack, Bret pressed gently.
"Sure. Of course. Whatever you want."
The young Welshman seemed eager to help in any way he could, and Kevin could not imagine the man dissembling even if he wanted to.
"So tell us about Andrew," Bret pressed, "What was he like as a person?"
"Well, I didn't know him very well, really," Huw answered immediately, "He came to me with a reputation of being very diligent and hard-working, perhaps a bit withdrawn, but one who would persevere on a topic until he had achieved a complete understanding."
Bret and Kevin nodded together.
"He has - had - an excellent first degree, from the School here at UCL, and his undergraduate tutors spoke highly of him. So I took him on as a research student, one where I would have no trouble with the supervision."
Kevin wondered if this was a coded way of saying that Huw wanted a student who would largely look after himself, so that his supervisor could concentrate on his own interests.
"And so he completed a Ph.D thesis?" Bret queried.
"That's right, just last year" Huw answered, adding as if by rote, "Disease Vector Identification from Stochastic Computer Analysis of Historical Data. The first successful Ph.D with me as a supervisor."
Kevin knew what most of the words meant individually, but was not at all sure what the implication of the thesis title really was.
"I'm not a specialist," he asked, "So can you tell us in simple terms what his dissertation was about?"
"Well," Huw looked doubtful, "Basically, if you can get enough data - accurate data, which is challenging in itself from historical sources - you can get a computer model to identify the origin of an epidemic, and the paths the disease used to spread."
Kevin thought about this, and wondered about what interest this rather abstruse subject could have to the groups in control of the crossing. As he cogitated, the young academic looked thoughtful for a moment, glancing repeatedly at Bret through narrowed eyes. Kevin suspected that Huw Williams had finally recognised Bret for who - or at least what - he was.
"I think you should talk to Angela," Huw suggested finally, "She was the one who suggested that Andrew get in touch with your friends at the University of Newcastle."
Kevin was pretty sure that this was a euphemism for NISSA.
"Is she likely to be in the building at the moment?" Bret enquired.
"Probably," Huw agreed, "Let me see if I can get hold of her right now."
Rather than picking up the phone as Kevin has anticipated, he reached for the computer keyboard and typed a few words at high speed into a small window on the screen.
There was a pause, and more words - in a font too small for Kevin to read - appeared. Huw typed rapidly again, then turned back to Bret and Kevin.
"She's on her way over," he said, looking sadly back at Bret.
He shook his head and added, "I can't believe he's dead."
Uncharacteristically, Bret leaned over and patted the man on the shoulder.
"It's not your fault."
Twenty seconds or so later, there was a knock at the office door. Without waiting for a response, the door was pushed open and an energetic woman in her early thirties, Kevin judged, entered the room. She was casually dressed in tight-fitting but somehow anonymous-looking blue jeans and a cream fleecy top unadorned by logos or maker's insignia. Her dark hair was held back neatly by some kind of hairclip in a no-nonsense style which Kevin read as "too busy to do more than the bare minimum with my hair".
She too obviously recognised Bret, or at least his origins, and she held up a hand in greeting in the fashion that Kevin now knew all too well was widely used in the world of Lyndesfarne.
"Angela Newman," she said, then spoke a few words to Bret and Kevin in the Lyndesfarne language, words which Kevin thought he recognised as a familiar salutation, coupled with an expression of sadness.
Bret answered in English, nevertheless speaking in the slightly sing-song tone which Kevin associated with speech in the Other World.
"Bret," he said, "And this is my friend Kevin."
"What's going on at the crossing?" she asked urgently, looking from one man to the other.
The woman subsided into a chair in the corner of Huw's office, holding her head in her hands.
"I hear that there is some kind of a crisis at the Bridge," she said, sounding distinctly worried, "And then I've heard that my cousin Yiselle has been taken seriously ill. And no-one will tell me what's going on."
"Peace, sister," Bret said in an uncharacteristically formal tone.
It soon emerged that Angela was a cousin of a Guardian, the young woman Kevin and Bret had met on the bridge just after Andrew Wollack's body had been discovered. Both of them expressed their sympathies, but Bret explained that the ongoing investigation prevented further explanation at this time.
"So what are you doing here?" she asked, looking from Bret to Kevin and back again.
Bret explained gently that the deceased man was Andrew Wollack, the young researcher that she had been instrumental in introducing to NISSA. Angela looked shocked; it was clear that she had not heard who it was that had been found on the New Bridge.
"Kevin and I are investigating," Bret said, "And of course we are trying to find out more about Andrew." Angela nodded in understanding.
"Well, there's not very much I can tell you," she answered, "I met Andrew just a couple of times, looked at his academic record - he was a very bright young man, you know - and asked around the campus about his attitudes and open-mindedness. And then I made an appointment for him at NISSA."
Bret spent another half-hour with questions and answers with Huw and Angela, although all that emerged was a reiteration of the observation that the young Doctor Wollack was introverted, both brilliant and hard-working, and seemed entirely honest and trustworthy. There seemed to be nothing unusual or out of the ordinary; indeed, Andrew Wollack's life seemed to be commonplace to the point of boredom.
"Thank you very much for your time," Bret said finally to Huw and Angela, "I really can't tell you just how much I appreciate it. And, if something should occur to you, please get in touch."
Kevin added his thanks. The two men had just left Huw's office and were walking down the long corridor when Bret's mobile phone rang. He stopped and answered it, clearly listening intently to the caller although his own remarks were limited to monosyllabic interrogatives such as "When?" and "Where?". He returned the phone to his pocket and turned to Kevin, looking unusually pensive.
"That was Warden Williamson," Bret said, "He's just received a report from the police that a car was found abandoned. It was a Range Rover, one of the fleet run from Cliviger Grange."
He hesitated, looking Kevin directly in the eye.
"He believes that it was the car used to kidnap Tanji."
"Driver? Passengers?" Kevin asked anxiously, "Did they find anyone?"
Bret shook his head.
"There was no one around when the police arrived."
"So how did it get there?" Kevin demanded.
"We don't know for sure," Bret responded, "The car's supposed to be in the garages at the Grange. It looks like someone broke in, stole the key, opened the garage from the inside, took the car, and closed the door again."
"So it was an inside job?" Kevin wondered.
"Perhaps," Bret agreed, "No one had thought to check an official car leaving the grounds at the gatehouse. We didn't even know the vehicle was missing until we got a call from the police."
"Are there any other vehicles missing?" Kevin asked, speaking slowly and clearly.
"No. We checked. Twice," Bret confirmed, "Everything else is accounted for."
"Why steal a car from the Grange in order to perform a snatch in Manchester?" Kevin wondered aloud, speaking half to himself.
Bret was silent for a moment.
"The obvious conclusion," he said slowly, as if unwilling to countenance the possibility, "Is that it was someone - some people - associated with the Grange, or at least someone who knows about Lyndesfarne and the crossing. And, probably from my world, too."
Kevin agreed: it was clear to him that a group from the Other World performed the kidnapping, someone with few contacts in this world, but who certainly knew about the Guardians at Cliviger Grange.
"Where was the car found?" he asked.
Bret mentioned the name of a major road and a minor town in the Midlands. The road was familiar enough to Kevin and he felt sure he had driven it often enough in his peregrinations around the nation. There was something he recognised about the town, too, but he could not put his finger in just what it was that was ringing some vague internal bell.
Kevin shook his head, irritated that something important was eluding his conscious mind.
"I think we should go and have a look for ourselves," he said to Bret.
"I agree. We should be on our way," the other man replied grimly, setting off along the corridor towards the stairs.
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