With deepest sadness I must inform you that a member of our university staff, Irena Spargo, tragically died yesterday afternoon. As far as I am aware Irena has no immediate family, but I’m sure you will all join me in extending our deepest sympathies to her colleagues and her employer, Professor Sir Robert Hobbes…
Professor Ashcroft dropped the memo onto his desk and stroked his grey handlebar moustache in thought. He’d been called about the death last evening but he never knew this Spargo was one of Robert’s assistants. Though he never had made an effort to remember the names of most of the lower staff. Ashcroft glanced over to the grandfather clock in the corner of his office. Quarter past eight; he didn’t have any appointments for another three quarters of an hour. He stood up and put on his black blazer. Better go and see the old friend.
On his way to Hobbes’s office, Ashcroft looked in on the office of one of his own assistants, “Doctor Watson, I’m going to have a little chat with Professor Hobbes, see how he’s doing.”
The Indian man, dressed smartly with a brown tweed jacket and slicked-back hair, looked up from his work and nodded in understanding, “Ah, yes. This business with Irena Spargo is very sad. Give him my regards.”
“He always got on very well with his employees.”
“Do you know how it happened?”
“Now, now, Watson, we shouldn’t be thinking about that now. Our thoughts should be with those close to her!” he chided dutifully.
“Um… yes, of course,” Watson mumbled, pushing up his round spectacles with a finger before returning to whatever he was working on, with a flickering glance to ensure the old professor had gone.
Hobbes – almost old enough to be Ashcroft’s father – had been a good friend since the Great War. They had both worked on Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, after which they were moved to Newcastle to become professors of physics. Ashcroft’s harsher demeanour had sometimes jarred with Hobbes in the past, and they had drifted apart recently. But they knew each other too well; any fallouts they had had paled in comparison with what they’d been through together through the years.
It took several minutes for Ashcroft to reach his Hobbes’s office on the other side of the Armstrong building. It was largely the same as his own office; full of antique furniture – tall shelves, a dark wooden desk, even a leather armchair – though all with telling signs of age – scratches, discolouration, wear and tear. Much of the furnishings in the offices were taken from old buildings which had long fallen into disuse. Ashcroft peered into the office, though any entry was blocked by a black-uniformed policeman.
“Good morning, Professor.”
Ashcroft turned to see his colleague, Hobbes, at the end of the corridor. Hobbes had always been very gaunt, more recently wrinkly and balding, but today the man seemed even older, no doubt due to the ordeal of the past day. With his dark formal clothes and loose bow he had the look of some old Victorian butler, resurrected from the grave.
“Professor Hobbes! I wasn’t even sure you would be in!”
Hobbes nodded meekly, appreciative of his old friend’s presence, then held up a small object in his hand, “I don’t like it, but I have business to attend to for the police.” His voice was quiet, solemn. Distress was something he rarely displayed openly.
“Business?” Ashcroft approached Hobbes, but the old man turned and hobbled down a narrow stairway, leading Ashcroft to the floor below. Hobbes explained, “You’ve heard about what happened, I assume? She fell from my office window yesterday afternoon, while preparing for a conference. They think it was suicide.”
“So they closed off my office, and now they want to take all of Irena’s personal effects as evidence.”
They entered a cramped room near the bottom of the stairs. The room itself was actually rather larger than either of their offices, but was packed with six wooden desks with chairs. Fitted for staff much lower in the academic hierarchy than the professors themselves, the furnishing was much starker and more austere than on the floor above. There were no windows, illumination provided by rusting desk lamps. Each desk bore stacks of paper covered with scribbled and evidently mathematical workings – problems too mundane for high-level academia but still too complex for the university’s new electronic computers.
“Why do you let them put these Royal Air Force pictures on the walls?”
“They don’t exactly have the most pleasant work environment, I’ve got to give the women some slack.”
Hobbes sighed and eased himself onto one of the chairs, “I’ve never known what it is with you, sometimes. These women computers take much lower wages then men – that’s why they have them – and I would vouch they’re just as smart as men, too.”
Ashcroft snorted sceptically, “If you say so.”
“Have you ever met Irena Spargo?” Hobbes produced the object he had been holding in the corridor – a small key – and inserted it into the keyhole in the drawer of the desk beside him.
“Never heard of her before yesterday.”
“She was very good. Some of the solutions she came up with were quite ingenious – she could have had a bright future in science,” he paused for a moment as he opened the drawer and scooped out the contents, perhaps in a moment of silence for the respected colleague, “Didn’t quite seem to get noticed though. A bit of an outsider, you see. Never really got on with the others…”
“What’s that?” Ashcroft interrupted.
Hobbes looked at the sheets of paper in his hand, topped with the usual workspace clutter; pencils, paperclips… “Oh, they’re just rosary beads. Irena was…”
“No, on the pages!”
The pages were covered in neat lines of handwriting, but not anything legible; instead of letters there were small symbols spaced irregularly across the page, some right next to each other, some far apart. Even stranger, the writing was broken up by useless diagrams made up of apparently random lines with various lengths and directions.
Suddenly interested, Ashcroft pulled up a chair and sat at the desk, poring over the symbols topmost page, “What is this?”
“They appear to be astrological symbols,” muttered Hobbes, clearly as bemused and curious as Ashcroft was.
“Are they all like this?”
Hobbes spread the pages out across the table, “Several of them appear to be…”
“Appear to be what?”
“Redacted or… burned or something.” He flipped one of the pages over to check both sides – it may have had writing on it once, he couldn’t tell, but now charcoal black lines were scorched over whatever text or symbols might have been there originally.
Ashcroft furrowed his brow, “This is strange, this is all very strange.”
Hobbes was almost incredulous, “I… I never knew any of this was here.” Clearly the find was uncharacteristic of Hobbes’s late employee, or at least his impression of her.
“You don’t check your employees’ drawers?” chided Ashcroft.
He didn’t reply. Hobbes moved on, “What is it, anyway? Some kind of code?”
“She could have been a spy.”
“What? No! She would never…”
“Think about it,” Ashcroft interrupted, “she could have been spying for another country, stealing science. She was perfectly placed for it. Yesterday, in your office she gets into a spot of bother and is thrown out of the window!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“In the War, maybe.”
“But it isn’t the War anymore, Professor Ashcroft. The Great War ended thirty years ago!”
“Of course. I apologise.” He backed down. Professor Hobbes was usually a soft-spoken man; Ashcroft knew when he’d crossed a line. They both flicked through the pages individually for a few moments, inquisitive minds trying to figure out the meaning of the strange symbols and markings.
“More likely it’s a puzzle, some kind of game,” muttered Hobbes, gathering the pages and other items from the desk drawer into a neat pile.
It was still early, but the older professor already looked drained. Ashcroft patted his friend on the back, “Even so,” he added “we must give these to the police.”
* * *
On their way back along the corridor, evidence brandished in hand, Hobbes asked, “My room will probably be cordoned off for some time; I wonder if I could share yours for a short while?”
Professor Ashcroft sniffed, “Well, I’m sure Doctor Watson wouldn’t mind you working in his office…”
“Very good!” Hurriedly, Hobbes strode past the door of his own office with new vigour, “I’ll have a look now, if you don’t mind.”
Ashcroft picked up his pace to catch up, “Why the hurry? You could have given the contents of the drawer to that policeman back there. I’m sure he’d be happy to hand it in for you.”
“Don’t think I don’t know you, Professor Hobbes; whatever you might think of the character of this assistant of yours, there’s a police investigation going on. You can’t hold back evidence like this, that’s perverting the course of justice!”
Hobbes shrugged innocently, “I… I need to collect more things.”
“You don’t think these are the only personal effects she has? I need to collect everything together before I hand it in to the police.”
Professor Ashcroft threw him a suspicious look as he thought about replying. Hobbes didn’t make eye contact. “So, which is your man Watson’s room?”
“Just over here,” Ashcroft begrudgingly pointed out his assistant’s office, then knocked on the open door, “Doctor Watson, Professor Hobbes will be using your office for a while until the police find out why one of his assistants was killed.”
“Oh, don’t be so sour,” muttered Hobbes, brushing past.
“I just don’t think you should be delaying things because of some… personal impression of this Irena Spargo woman.”
The old professor turned to face the doorway, “Irena’s personal effects will be given to the police no earlier than tomorrow,” he slapped the stack of papers onto the desk finally, “now good morning.”