The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 19

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Kevin slept but fitfully after being awoken by the phone. He lay awake for a long time, plagued by the thought that there should be something else he could be doing, to help release Tanji, or at least shed some light on just what was going on. When he did finally fall asleep, his slumbers were disturbed several times by dark and formless dreams. Waking and dressing in the gloomy half-light of an autumnal morning, things looked no better until he remembered the call from Dave.

Kevin joined Bret for a breakfast that seemed to consist solely of strong coffee, Kevin attempting to counteract the effects of his restless night. It was nevertheless ineffective in restoring him to a functional human being. Bret looked pale and drained too, and Kevin suspected that the other man had not slept well, either. The two men practically stumbled out through the main entrance of the Grange, where their car and driver waited patiently. They were driven to NISSA in silence, neither of them finding the energy for either small talk or a recap of the current situation.

Front of old build

They had planned on arriving as early as they thought they could get away with, perhaps hoping to be able to intercept the staff before they were entirely embroiled in their day-to-day activities, as well as missing the worst of the city centre traffic. As it happened, this was only partially effective as they were delayed in traffic more than they had hoped. Certainly, there were many people about in the NISSA building by the time they arrived. The two men were guided upstairs and shown into Professor Braxton's office by the same efficient young woman who had been the previous incumbent's administrative assistant.

Professor Braxton welcomed them, appearing only slightly surprised at their appearance at this early hour. "Coffee?" she asked kindly, looking at the two men's general state and indicating the seats in front of her desk.

"Please," Kevin replied wearily. Bret declined the offer of a drink.

"Sanjit," the Professor addressed her assistant who was still standing at the door, "Could you possibly rustle up a cup of coffee for our guest?"

"Just one, Professor?" she replied brightly.

"That will be fine, thank you."

"Right away, Professor."

Professor Braxton seated herself behind the desk and looked from Bret to Kevin and back again.

"I take it you're still looking into the unfortunate death of young Andrew Wollack?"

Bret nodded.

"We are," he said, "But there's been an additional complication."

Kevin interjected.

"My, um, friend Tanji has been snatched, kidnapped," he explained, "We don't know why, but we believe there's a connection between that and the death of Andrew Wollack."

The Professor looked puzzled.

"I can't see what the link is," she responded eventually, "Apart from the obvious connections with the Other World."

Kevin explained that Tanji had been taken from his flat in this world a couple of days ago, and that they had received a message from the kidnappers - although he did not go into any details.

"I suspect," Kevin concluded, "That Tanji's been taken to distract us - well, me, anyway - from the investigation. But we're trying to make progress regardless."

Professor Braxton seemed rather shocked by the suggestion that a kidnapping could be used for so heartless a purpose, but rapidly indicated that she would do whatever she could to help.

Bret took over the conversation.

"We know that poor Doctor Wollack was an epidemiologist," he said quickly, "But we need to find out more about exactly what Andrew was doing and why he was doing it."

"Of course," the Professor replied, "But what exactly do you want to know?"

Bret frowned briefly.

"Has there ever been an epidemiologist attached to NISSA before?" he asked.

"No," Professor Braxton replied, looking puzzled.

"So why now?"

"Well, it was just a suggestion for post-doctoral study."

Kevin already knew something of the realities of academic life: that there was a need to continuously discover (or invent) new things. He was also aware that researchers were forever casting about for new research topics, to improve their chances in the never-ending competition for limited resources - funds and skilled people - to improve their standing in their little communities.

The Professor quickly explained that an epidemiological study of the interactions of the Two Worlds had been on a long list of topics for NISSA to investigate for ages. It was simply a convenient conjunction of Andrew's availability, having just graduated from UCL, and funding being available that kick-started research in this area.

"If you want more details of the research work itself," the Professor concluded, "Then you'll have to ask Andrew's supervisor."

"And who's that?" Kevin wanted to know.

"Wendy Rossiter," she replied, "As I recall, you've met her, at one of your briefings here. I'll call her now."

The Professor picked up the desk telephone handset and punched a short sequence of numbers - an internal number, Kevin assumed.

"Wendy? Could you join me in my office for a few moments? As soon as possible. Thank you."

She replaced the receiver.

"She's on her way."

There was a brisk knock at the door and Sanjit entered carrying a tray of coffee implements: a hot cafeteria, cold fresh milk in a jug, a bowl of sugar, and a cup and saucer that Kevin was immediately sure was kept for special guests.

"Just here, please," Professor Braxton said, indicating the desk just in front of Kevin. He helped himself, then sat quietly for a moment sipping his coffee.

There was a light tap at the door, which opened slightly and Ms. Rossiter's head appeared in the opening. Wendy Rossiter was a tiny woman whose movements always put Kevin in mind of a small bird. She had spiky short-clipped grey hair and habitually dressed in black, offset only by a pair of large silver earrings, of which she apparently had a considerable collection.

Both Bret and Kevin stood up politely, and Linda beckoned her colleague into the room.

"You remember Kevin, of course," the Professor said.

Kevin was treated to the briefest of handshakes.

"And this is Bret."

Ms. Rossiter held up her hand in greeting, clearly having recognised Bret's origins from his appearance and clothing.

Professor Braxton indicated another chair and Ms. Rossiter sat daintily. Bret and Kevin returned to their seats.

Bret spoke up.

"Ms. Rossiter, we need to understand more about what Andrew was doing."

"Well," she began, glancing at the Professor, who nodded almost imperceptibly, "We've been aware that the crossings throughout the Two Worlds must, at one time or another, have permitted the transfer of microbes and disease."

"Obviously," Bret interjected.

"But what we don't know," she continued, "Is how often this has happened, or what the impacts actually were on the societies at the time."

Kevin nodded in understanding.

"So, Andrew was studying historical records, from this world - and some of those from Lyndesfarne, too - of epidemics and plagues, and then cross-referencing their spread and contagion with the locations of crossings and the periods when they were in use."

"Any conclusions?" Bret asked.

"Not yet," Ms. Rossiter replied, then looked away quickly as she realised what she had just said. After a few moments, she returned her attention to the two men, a hint of moisture around her eyes. She took a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her face.

"He was performing statistical correlations, using computer simulations," she continued, regaining her composure, "I had not heard any definite conclusions, although he was certainly working very hard."

"Can we see where Andrew was working?" Bret asked.

"And his computer, too," Kevin added.

Again, Ms. Rossiter glanced at the Professor before answering.

"Of course. Let me show you."

After politely taking their leave of Professor Braxton, Ms. Rossiter guided the two men along a couple of corridors before opened the door on a darkened room. She reached inside to operate the light switch before pushing the door wide open.

Kevin and Bret made their way inside, followed by Ms. Rossiter. It was an open-plan office space clearly occupied by several research associates and students. The windows were covered by closed blinds which Ms. Rossiter declined to open. The room contains half a dozen desks, each with their own workstations. Most of the computer screens were surrounded by a clutter of printed paper, notepads and rather grubby coffee mugs, together with the remnants of takeaway fast food obviously consumed late at night. Kevin was unsurprised to find it unoccupied that this early hour.

"This is Andrew's desk," Ms. Rossiter said, indicating an unusually tidy workplace. Apart from the computer equipment, the only things on the desktop were a jam-jar containing a selection of pencils and cheap biros, a scrupulously clean mug and a hard-bound A4 notebook.

Kevin pounced on Andrew's notebook and opened it. The book was nearly filled with neat annotations, to-do lists, sketches and tables - evidently the notes of a tidy-minded and conscientious person with a lot of things to remember. All of the entries were dated and typically no more than half a page - sometimes only a few lines - had been added on each working day.

To his disappointment, the last entry and indeed the preceding few pages contained nothing which, at a first glance, seemed to indicate anything out of the ordinary. After a minute or two, he gave up and tossed the book back onto the desk.

In the absence of anything else, Kevin turned his attention to the computer. Judging by the network cable protruding from the back and disappearing under the floor tiles, the machine was part of the University's managed network. Kevin had some experience with corporately-managed computer nets, particularly the systems deployed by the firm of architects that had employed him during the design of the New Bridge.

"What's the format for user names here?" he asked Ms. Rossiter, after a few moments thought.

"Eight characters, first part of surname and one initial," she replied promptly.

Kevin typed "wollacka" into the login screen. The thought flashed through his mind that this word sounded like some obscure Antipodean slang term for money, or something. He shook his head.

"And passwords?" he asked.

"I'm afraid I don't know what his password is," Ms. Rossiter replied.

"No, no," Kevin said, "I mean, what are the rules for allowable passwords."

"I'm not sure," she responded, "Let me check."

She stepped to a nearby desk and logged into another terminal. There was a few minutes of silence, punctuated only by the tap-tapping of typing on the keyboard.

"Here we are," Ms Rossiter said eventually, evidently reading aloud from something on the screen, "Strong password rules, 'un-guessable' passwords, with mixed letters and numbers, and no dictionary words. Oh, and they have to be changed every three months."

Acting on a hunch, Kevin again picked up the notebook. Turing the pages rapidly, he flicked back to the page dated with the previous quarter-day. To his considerable satisfaction, he spotted a string of nonsense characters jotted in one corner, with a casual circle around it.

"Got it!" he exclaimed.

Both Bret and Ms. Rossiter seemed taken aback by Kevin's sudden outburst.

"The password," he explained, "Wollack had written it in his notebook."

"He's not supposed to do that," Ms. Rossiter muttered, "It says so, in the rules."

Kevin nodded absently in agreement as he turned his attention back to the computer. He knew that the disadvantage of frequent password changes was that they were hard to remember, and it was very tempting to just jot them down somewhere.

By this time, of course, the login screen had timed out, and it was necessary for Kevin to re-type Andrew's user name into the workstation. He followed this with the password carefully transcribed from the page in front of him. After what seemed like a heart-stoppingly long pause, which in reality probably lasted no more than a couple of seconds, the screen changed to indicate that the login process was proceeding. A minute or two later, the arcane activities deemed necessary by the system's designers had completed and Kevin was able to inspect the contents of Andrew's file store.

Like the written notebook, the organisation of files on Doctor Wollack's computer was tidy and logically arranged. Kevin undertook several hours of concentrated work on Andrew's computer, watched stoically by Bret. He began by carefully reading the younger man's notes - both on the machine and in the notebook - as well as studying an incomplete draft of an academic paper he had evidently been in the process of preparing.

On the way, Kevin encountered a considerable amount of unfamiliar jargon and numerous analysis programs he had never come across before. He was forced to undertake some impromptu research on the Internet, the search engines once again proving their worth as a vehicle for instant - if superficial - erudition on almost any topic.

Once it was clear what Kevin was up to, Ms. Rossiter took her leave, claiming that she was overdue for a lecture. Kevin nodded vaguely, his head swimming with the material he was studying. Meanwhile, Bret got an update by phone from Guardians at the Grange, although there was no further news on either Tanji's captors or the dead man.

Eventually, Kevin thought he had understood Doctor Wollack's thesis, and set about explaining it to Bret. Firstly, it appeared that Andrew had been studying a great deal of the history of the Lyndesfarne world. He had established beyond reasonable doubt that there was a statistical correlation between particular crossings being in place, and the epicentre of certain epidemics, in both worlds.

One thing that Kevin had learned, many years ago - on of the few things that had stuck from an interminable series of university lectures on Statistics - was that correlation does not necessarily imply causality; that is, it was not necessarily that one thing occurring at the same time as another did not imply that one thing causes another.

The classic example, he knew, was that you could probably find a correlation between increased sales of ice cream and the incidence of sunburn. Of course, this does not imply that ice cream causes sunburn: rather it is just that they both happen in the summertime. It is the increased sunshine which is the causal factor.

Andrew clearly understood this, too. He had been trying to establish a plausible causal mechanism. He had considered and discarded numerous hypotheses, until finally there was just one that was objectively supported by the facts. Kevin got the distinct impression that the late Doctor Wollack was more than a little unsettled by these deductions.

View of causeway

Historically, the common factor was a high level of reported activity by ultra-conservatives: a faction, group or whatever, pathologically opposed to continued transactions between the Two Worlds. Whenever this group was active, people in both worlds got diseases and died in their thousands. This naturally led to considerable pressure on the authorities - the Boards of Control on both sides - to close crossings to protect 'us' from the 'dirty' ones over there.

Kevin looked seriously at Bret.

"You and I both know, from recent personal experience, that there is a faction, here and now, who are opposed to the Lyndesfarne crossing. And that they are actively seeking to close it."

Bret's eyes widened as he realised what Kevin was suggesting.

"They might be planning to try something like this again!"


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