The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 7

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NISSA Building Kevin looked up at the familiar facade of the NISSA building, which occupied a quiet corner of the campus at the University of Newcastle. He was walking with Tanji towards Bret, who was waiting for them on the steps and displaying that wry smile he so often wore.

Kevin had driven Tanji here in his own car, having retrieved it from the car park at the crossing. Much to his surprise, he had managed to find a car parking space within fifty feet of the front entrance of the Institute. Bret had managed to get even closer. He had alighted at the front door and was waiting for Kevin and Tanji to join him, having been transported in a chauffeur-driven Range Rover which had followed Kevin's Volvo closely. Both car and driver had apparently been supplied by RDTE.

They entered the building together. Sanjit the ever-efficient administrative assistant was at her customary desk in the outer office. She looked up sharply as the three of them entered the room. She clearly recognised Kevin immediately, while her appraising look rapidly took in Bret and Tanji's characteristically Lyndesfarne appearance - the vaguely chiselled facial features and an elfin cast to the ears.

"Good afternoon," she said politely to Kevin, with only the merest glance at the appointments book open on her desk, "I didn't realise that you were expected here today."

"Well, as it happens, I don't have an appointment today," he replied, smiling faintly to himself, "Nevertheless, we want to talk to Professor Braxton about one Andrew Wollack."

"Doctor Wollack?" she replied, suddenly looking surprised, "Is he in some kind of trouble?"

Bret stepped forward.

"Andrew Wollack was found dead in the early hours of this morning," he stated, enunciating particularly clearly, "And we are investigating the circumstances surrounding his demise."

Bret emphasised his remark with a casual wave of his hand which took in both Kevin and Tanji. Sanjit stared at him for a long moment, then picked up the telephone and pressed a single button. Kevin could not make out what she said but, moments later, the inner door was opened by the Professor herself.

"Come in, come in," she urged, ushering them inside.

The three visitors seated themselves in the not-particularly-comfortable plastic chairs reserved for visitors while Braxton settled into the rather more comfy chair on the opposite side of the desk.

"Who are your companions?" Professor Braxton asked directly, having studied the party carefully for a few moments.

"This is Tanji, my Guide and close friend," Kevin said, with conscious ambiguity.

"Ah," Professor Braxton responded, then added directly to Tanji "Pleased to meet you."

Tanji held up her hand in greeting, in the Lyndesfarne style Kevin was beginning to appreciate. The Professor responded immediately and in a fashion which looked, to his untutored eye, entirely authentic.

"And this is Bret," Kevin added carefully, "With whom I worked on the design for the New Bridge."

It seemed to Kevin that the Professor had already recognised Bret, although he was not sure whether this was as a person from the world of Lyndesfarne, or more specifically as some one with a position of trust and authority from the Other World.

"So why are you all here?" She asked after a few more moments scrutiny.

Bret smoothly took over the conversation.

"As I said to your assistant, we found the body of Andrew Wollack in the early hours of this morning."

Professor Braxton suddenly looked shocked and horrified.

"Dead?"

Bret nodded slowly.

"How terrible," the Professor exclaimed, "How did it happen?"

"We don't know yet," Bret replied, with a tight smile, "We found him in the centre of the New Bridge in the early hours of this morning. So we need to ask a few questions."

"Well, of course," the Professor replied, steepling her fingers and settling back into her chair looking serious. Bret glanced at Kevin meaningfully.

"So how did young Doctor Wollack come to join NISSA?" Kevin asked, after a few seconds thought.

Professor Braxton sat back in her chair, looking hard at Kevin. Finally, she glanced at Bret.

"Andrew was one of a very small number of people who made it through our rigorous screening procedures," she replied, sounding slightly evasive.

"So you have difficulties recruiting staff?" he pressed.

The Professor hesitated for a second, again glancing at Bret. As far as Kevin could tell, the other man had not reacted at all.

"Oh, it's a perennial problem," she replied eventually, "We get a fair number of applications from, well, freaks and weirdoes of all kinds - people with a completely misguided idea of what Lyndesfarne is all about. We're never sure how they hear about the Other World - or NISSA for that matter. But in general, we reject all such applications outright. Out of hand, automatically."

Kevin thought for a moment.

"So, anyone who applies directly to NISSA is very unlikely to be accepted?"

"Exactly so."

"And therefore Andrew did not apply directly?"

The Professor shook her head.

"No. Our most fruitful channel for applicants comes from the strong sense of family ties. There is a long tradition, here as well as in Lyndesfarne, of certain families being associated with the crossing. And we get a lot of applications from the younger members of these families."

Professor Braxton smiled sardonically.

"We almost always accept them. They're invariably hard working and serious-minded. The trouble is that, if we only accepted candidates from the Old Families, we would not have sufficient intake to fill all the places. And, before you ask, Andrew did not come from one of these families either."

She again glanced at the strangely silent Bret.

"So, to make up the slack, we have to very carefully select from serious candidates from elsewhere," she continued.

"I see," Kevin breathed, leaning forward in anticipation.

"We have a number of scouts and trusted contacts in many British universities and one or two elsewhere in the world. They put forward candidates for post-graduate studies - as graduate students - through this route."

"And the dead man," Kevin enquired, "He was accepted in this way?"

"Well, yes," the Professor replied, "But he was accepted as a Research Associate, rather than as a grad student."

"Ah," said Kevin, who had spent enough time in and around Universities to understand the difference "Is this commonplace?"

The Professor shook her head.

"This is too, itself also rather unusual. We generally prefer to recruit junior members of our research and academic staff from our own graduate students."

The Professor paused, apparently caught in a moment of reminiscing.

"I followed this route myself, a few years ago," she said eventually.

More than a few, Kevin thought a little unkindly, but did not say anything.

Suddenly, Bret leaned forward to ask another direct question.

"Surely there must have been some kind of background checks, some screening processes?"

"Of course," the Professor replied, looking affronted, "There are all sorts of discreet checks that are always undertaken - as I'm sure you know."

Bret said nothing, but raised a quizzical eyebrow.

"So, yes, Doctor Wollack was subjected to all the usual checks," she continued, looking a little peeved.

Bret sat back in his chair impassively, apparently satisfied with the answers.

Kevin glanced at Bret, then asked, "What was he working on?"

"He was just doing some research in our library," the Professor replied airily.

"We suspected as much," Bret said, waving what looked like a plastic credit card, "One of the few means of identification we found on the body was a library card - a NISSA library access card."

Kevin was immediately intrigued.

"You have a library here?" He interjected.

"Of course we do," Professor Braxton responded promptly, "We have an extensive collection of books and manuscripts on the Two Worlds, some very rare and, in a few cases, thought to be unique."

She paused briefly, adding, "Do you want to take a look?"

Kevin looked at Bret, who nodded almost imperceptibly. He could see that Tanji was smiling in an indulgently amused fashion.

"I'd love to," he replied.

Professor Braxton picked up the phone on her desk and pressed a button to connect to her assistant. There was a short pause.

"Sanjit? My visitors wish to see our library. Can you escort them?"

Kevin assumed that there must have been an affirmative from Sanjit, as there was a muted "Thank you" before the Professor replaced the receiver.

A few moments later, there was a knock and the dainty figure of Sanjit appeared at the office door.

Bret and Kevin both stood up, ready to take their leave. Bret pointedly reached over the desk to shake the hand of Professor Braxton.

"Thank you for your time," he said softly.

"It's the least I can do," she replied, sounding genuinely sincere, "If there's anything I can do, then please do not hesitate to contact me."

Bret nodded once in acknowledgement, then the three visitors followed Sanjit out of the office. As they walked along the echoing corridor, Kevin mused on what he had just been told. It seemed that surprisingly little was known in NISSA about the dead man.

Suppose, he wondered, one wished to get some kind of spy or agent into NISSA. Everything he had just heard indicated that one could not apply directly as a student - that would almost guarantee immediate disqualification. Unless one was a member of certain families whose loyalty was unquestioned, it would take ages to get to a position with some authority or responsibility.

Therefore, he reasoned, the approach taken by the late Doctor Wollack was the quickest route to the heart of NISSA, and indeed to the network of organisations who looked after the relationship between the Two Worlds.

It was also clear that the dead man also had access to, and had indeed actually been using the resources available at NISSA. The implications of all this gradually became clear during the tour of the library.

Kevin had vaguely expected a cool lofty room, filled floor to ceiling with rows of dusty leather-bound books. Instead Sanjit directed them to a modern elevator, where she had to both press a button and swipe a magnetic card before the lift door slid open. She ushered the three visitors inside, pressing the lowest of the line of buttons.

It became clear after a few moments that the library was actually a large air-conditioned basement with, Kevin guessed, both temperature and humidity carefully controlled to minimise damage and decay to the old tomes themselves. There was also a surprising degree of physical security, as Sanjit had to swipe her card again before the glass-and-steel door to the room would open.

Inside was the authentic hush of intellectual work progressing at full speed. But instead of the well-groomed individuals in crisp white lab coats that television and films always seemed to portray, or perhaps the fusty old librarian in prim and proper clothes, the room was populated by scruffily dressed postgraduate students and junior academic staff members - it was usually difficult to tell the difference, in Kevin's experience - most of them working quietly at computers.

NISSA Library scanner Sanjit pointed out the even-more-secure areas at the back of the room where the older and rarer volumes were kept, explaining that old books were very fragile and could be irreparably damaged by even the most careful handling. To make the contents more easily accessible, she continued, a modern computer-based indexing facility had been installed, together with an ongoing programme of image-scanning the pages of the ancient tomes. Such a facility must be hugely expensive, Kevin thought, once again impressed by the amount of money available to the Institute.

"Doctor Wollack spent quite a lot of time down here," Sanjit said quietly, "Apparently, some of the volumes he was using had not yet been scanned."

A little later, having returned to ground level and politely thanked Sanjit for her help, the three visitors once again stood outside the NISSA building.

"Hmm," Bret murmured, more-or-less to himself, "I'm not sure how much we have really learned here today."

"Indeed," Kevin concurred, "And I'm not sure how much more help I can be."

The other man shook his head, but more out of confusion rather than disagreement.

"Well, OK," he answered.

"Fine. We'll go on to Manchester, then. I take it you'll be returning to Lyndesfarne?" he added with his usual courteousness.

"Yes," Bret said, smiling slightly at the other man's old-fashioned good manners, "There are a number of avenues of investigations I want to follow. I'll be in touch if anything significant comes up."

Kevin nodded, then warmly grasped the other man by the hand. Bret turned and walked towards his car and chauffeur. After watching for a few moments, Kevin also wandered off, taking Tanji's hand in his own. She had been very quiet during the interview with Professor Braxton, he thought.

"So what did you make of all that?" he asked, as soon as Bret was out of earshot.

Tanji thought for a moment, then said, "Well, I don't think she's hiding anything and she seems just as confused as the rest of us."

She paused again, adding, "She didn't seem very upset, though."

It was only later that Kevin realised that they had not actually determined exactly what it was that Doctor Wollack was researching in the library.


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