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Hanging by a Thread • Betrayal

P. C. Weber

AS THE DIALOGUE in the recording continued, the woman in the shack sifted through the items from her bundle, taking care not to disturb the infant that lay sleeping next to her. She worked her fingers quietly through the pile until she located the large chunk of stale bread that she had found earlier that morning. After picking away the maggots that still clung to its surface, she began to nibble away at the stiff, tasteless crust, listening intently all the while to the voices in the interview.

“During the time that I was in graduate school in Detroit, I performed research in the laboratory of Dr. Stanley Rutledge, a professor in the Department of Microbiology,” stated Thomas dryly. “Although technically I wasn’t supposed to enter my school’s graduate program until the fall semester, I ended up working full-time for Rutledge during the summer before my enrollment. That was because he was paying me under the table to keep me from going into some other professor’s lab once I started school.” He paused briefly. “But more on him later.”

“Wow, a professor greased your palm just to lock up your future services in his laboratory,” observed Ravenna. “I guess even the academic world has its sleazy side.”

“Oh, if you only knew,” responded Thomas with a chuckle. “I was dirt-poor at the time, so his offer was one that I literally couldn’t refuse. The funny thing was, Rutledge didn’t have to bribe me to join his group. I wanted to be in his lab all along, hopefully to discover new and better ways of treating the disease of tuberculosis. Besides, it wasn’t like he ended up paying me to sit around and do nothing. I worked very hard for him that summer, and it really paid off. By the time classes started in the fall, I’d already had quite a bit of success in the lab, and could even begin to see a clear path towards earning my Ph.D. degree.”

“So, what was it like working towards a scientific doctorate, one that involved doing research in a laboratory?” asked Ravenna. “I’ve known a number of people who’ve earned graduate degrees, but they were all in liberal arts programs. Their investigations probably never carried them beyond the shelves of their school’s library.”

“Well, you take a lot of advanced classes, and you ultimately have to write and defend a lengthy dissertation. So those aspects of the graduate program in the Department of Microbiology were no different from any other. But factoring years of laboratory research into the equation definitely made things interesting. You see, you first have to learn and master many new areas of technical expertise, which then become the tools with which you conduct your experiments. Next, you have to devise a unique research program of some scientific relevance, one that presumably no one else has ever attempted before. Finally, you have to execute this grand scheme in a timely and highly efficient manner, so that you end up generating massive amounts of meaningful data. That’s the hardest part of all, because if you don’t succeed in producing the reams of killer results that are required to prove your myriad hypotheses, you don’t get your Ph.D. It’s just as simple as that. At best, your dissertation committee will pin an M.S. degree on you like it was some kind of booby prize. At worst, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t quit while you were ahead once you earned your B.S. Speaking of which, do you know what the initials in each of these degrees stand for?”

Ravenna laughed. “Yes, I believe I do … but I suspect that you’re about to tell me something different.”

“That could be,” replied Thomas. “B.S. stands for ‘Bull Shit,’ of course. M.S. stands for ‘More of the Same.’ And Ph.D. stands for ‘Piled higher and Deeper.’ This is privileged information that is passed on to all first-year graduate students by their more senior peers, the ones who have already spent years in the trenches with no end to the madness in sight … but I digress.”

“I must admit, I’ve never heard of those before,” said Ravenna, still laughing. “They’re also very revealing as well. With everything you’ve told me about graduate school, it makes me wonder why anyone would ever subject themselves to such an ordeal.”

“You really have to be passionate about science and not mind spending long hours in the lab, that’s for sure.”

“I guess so. It sounds as though that’s the way you are … or must have been.”

Thomas’ voice grew quiet. “Yes, I was. I really loved doing experiments at the bench … especially when I first started out in Rutledge’s laboratory.” He paused for a long moment, then resumed speaking in his previous tone. “It is true that a lot of things you set out to do in research will fail, and that can be quite disheartening. But there is nothing in the world that can compare with the thrill of designing a huge experiment from scratch and then having it turn out exactly the way your hypothesis predicted it would.”

“That does sound exciting,” agreed Ravenna.

“So, I learned very early on to multitask, and to run parallel series of experiments for different projects. That way, if one of them failed, I could still generate usable data with the others. My goal was never to lose hope, especially when faced with the sobering knowledge that I was just setting out on a journey that I knew would take years to complete.”

“I see. What a clever strategy.”

“Actually, that was just the start of it. I soon began keeping late hours in the lab, and sometimes even working around the clock. This also helped me to get my mind off of Rachel, who by that time had left to go back to school. Besides, I had all of the laboratory equipment to myself in the evenings, with no boss looking over my shoulder and asking all kinds of annoying questions.”

“It must have been lonely, working by yourself like that,” suggested Ravenna. “But I imagine it was quite a productive time for you as well.”

“Yes, it was both,” affirmed Thomas. He paused, then exhaled deeply. “So, this was to be my short, happy, tumultuous career in graduate school … just fifteen months of intense scientific research, much of it carried out under the cover of darkness. When it was all over and done with, I had several first-author publications to show for my labors, but sadly, no degree. However, it was during this period of my life that something truly remarkable happened. You see, before my time in Detroit was up, I was blessed with having made a discovery for the ages …”

THOMAS SAT ALONE in the empty laboratory, his hands working feverishly through a series of repetitive motion tasks while his head bobbed to the jackhammer beat of the heavy metal track blasting from a nearby portable sound system. Spread out before him on his bench were stacks of assay plates that he was methodically filling one at a time in preparation for an experiment. Each of the clear plastic dishes was slightly smaller than the size of his outstretched hand and contained precisely ninety-six identical miniature receptacles, a dozen wide by eight deep. Using an elaborate hand-held device, he deposited tiny volumes of liquid reagent into these small wells, one row of twelve at a time. When he had finished filling a dish in this manner, he proceeded to add a second and third set of fluids, then set the plate aside and moved on to the next one. Although there were many dozens of these dishes to prepare, each requiring the addition of its own unique and complex set of ingredients, Thomas worked exclusively from memory to fill the entire array.

As he was midway through setting up his final plate, the telephone at the far end of the laboratory suddenly began to ring. Thomas ignored it and went on to complete his work, then stacked all of the filled dishes into piles. The telephone fell silent at last, but rang anew just as he was about to prepare the last reagent for his experiment. “Shit,” he muttered, then walked across the room to answer the call. “Yeah, what is it?” he shouted into the receiver above the din of the music.

“Thomas?”

“That’s me,” responded Thomas with irritation.

“This is Jamal, down at the security desk.”

Thomas quickly softened his tone of voice. “Oh … hey, Jamal. What’s going on?”

“You got a visitor down here.”

“Can’t you just send him up?”

“Come on, my man,” laughed Jamal. “You know the rules. It’s long after hours, and it’s a Friday night, too. You have to sign her in if you want her to go upstairs.”

Thomas’ face grew puzzled. “Did you say ‘her?’”

“Yeah, a Ms. De Salvo. She says she’s here from the newspapers.”

Thomas’ eyes opened wide with shock. “Is her name Renee De Salvo?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“I’ll be right down.” Thomas slammed the receiver of the telephone back onto its base, then dashed out of the laboratory and ran down the hallway to the elevator. After waiting impatiently for the car to arrive at his floor, he descended to the lobby, his heart pounding with anticipation.

When he exited the elevator, he found a young pantsuit-clad woman standing at the guard’s desk in the otherwise empty foyer. Before he could utter a word, she stepped forward and reached out to shake his hand. “Good evening, Mr. Morgan. I’m Renee De Salvo. I believe we spoke by phone earlier this week regarding the possibility of doing an interview. I hope it’s not too late to discuss your latest scientific research for my upcoming article in the Wayne County Register.”

“Of course not, Ms. De Salvo,” replied Thomas. “I’m delighted that you were finally able to stop by to meet with me. We can start with a brief tour of our facilities, if that sounds all right with you.”

“That would be excellent,” said Renee amiably.

Thomas now turned to the security guard at the desk. “Jamal, can we get our visitor here checked in? Ms. De Salvo will be needing clearance to walk through some of our laboratories this evening. Then I’ll be taking her to our department’s conference room so that she can conduct an interview. Don’t worry, she’ll be with me at all times during her visit.”

“Not a problem, Thomas,” assured Jamal. “We’ll get her signed in.” He handed Renee a clipboard onto which was clamped a visitors’ log and pen. “Just fill in this information, Ms. De Salvo, and you’ll be good to go.” Renee entered her name and media affiliation onto the registry, then returned it to Jamal. “You’re all set,” he said with a nod.

Thomas thanked him, then led Renee into the elevator. As soon as the door had closed and Thomas had pushed the button for the top floor of the building to launch the car, the two rushed at one another and began to kiss with an almost furious passion. Thomas at once lifted Renee high off of the ground and carried her into the back corner of the car, where she braced herself atop the mounted railing of the wall and entwined her legs tightly around his. As the fervor in their kissing intensified, they pressed their bodies ever closer together and grabbed handfuls of each other’s lengthy hair, the desire between them becoming almost palpable within the confines of such a small space. The pair continued on in this manner for many long minutes, well after the car had come to a stop at its destination, opened and closed its doors, then left the two of them all alone in the still elevator shaft of the empty building …

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