The next morning, at eight o’clock sharp, Doctor Watson stepped into the building. The ostentatious reception area had recently been redecorated in the popular art deco style, which clashed somewhat with the building’s slightly gothic redbrick interior. It was already becoming busy as people came in early to beat the sunrise. Removing his protective sunglasses and sunhat, then replacing his usual glasses, he made his way over to the pigeon holes which covered one wall of the reception area, then took the day’s post.
The name caught the corner of his eye. After reading it over and over again in the newspapers and hearing it over and over again in conversations at the university, a trivial name in a sea of names across the pigeon holes had suddenly become an eye catching detail.
But that wasn’t what drew his attention the most.
Sat in the pigeon hole was a thick manila envelope that hadn’t been there before. He knew it hadn’t been there before because the contents of her pigeon hole had been taken by the police the previous day.
Glancing around, as if anybody would notice, he picked the envelope out of the pigeon hole and turned it over in his hands. It was thick; thick enough for a small book, maybe. No stamp. No full address. This was an internal delivery. Delivered yesterday, probably. That meant it could have been sent two days ago, the day of Spargo’s death.
Suddenly, a thought flashed across his mind.
He looked at the writing on the front of the envelope,
Irena Spargo, Armstrong Building
Could it be?
At that moment he noticed a corner of the envelope was torn, providing a glimpse of what lay inside; several dozen sheets of paper, folded in half. Curiosity getting the better of him, he compressed the envelope to open the hole wider and peered inside. It appeared to be an academic paper.
He went to find Professor Hobbes.
* * *
It was ten o’clock by the time Ashcroft came to check on Watson, who was writing notes in his office.
“Doctor Watson, has Professor Hobbes handed that evidence to the police?”
“No, Professor. It’s still here on my desk.”
Moodily, Ashcroft walked over to the desk and picked up the papers, “Where is Professor Hobbes, anyway?”
“I’m not sure. I saw him earlier and…”
“He said he’d hand these in this morning!”
“I have a good mind to sort these out myself!”
“I saw Professor Hobbes earlier. He gave me permission to open a letter I found in Spargo’s pigeon hole this morning.”
He suddenly had the professor’s full attention, “Is it in code?”
“Code? No, it’s in plain English.” Watson held up the new set of pages.
“Let me see that!” The professor snatched them out of his hand.
As Ashcroft flicked through the pages, Watson explained, “It’s an unpublished academic paper written by Irena Spargo. I found it in her pigeon hole, so she must have sent it to herself shortly before she died.”
“She wrote an academic paper?”
Watson shrugged, “Apparently. It seems to be based on the matter transmission research Professor Hobbes has been working on over the past several years. Quite ingenious, actually. It even proposes an experiment, though I’m not quite sure what the outcome is meant to be.”
Ashcroft read a passage,
Previous work by Sir Hobbes et al suggests that, while instantaneous matter transmission is possible in theory, practical hurdles make it unachievable with foreseeable technology. To transmit a 3 oz. apple from one location to another would require the energy stored in 15,700 coal trucks of coal, and the data storage requirements would be equivalent to a quantity of magnetic tape 14,100 times the mass of the Sun. It could be a very different story, however, if one were to transmit the apple to exactly the same location as that which it originated…
He skimmed through the pages, his wiry grey eyebrows furrowing more and more as he took in what he was reading, “This seems to be suggesting that matter transmission is practical after all. With state-of-the-art equipment available to us now.”
“Matter transmission of a sort, yes. But in Spargo’s proposal the object doesn’t go anywhere – it’s hardly matter transmission at all. She proposes transmitting an inverted version of an object onto itself, so it just, well… disappears.”
“Disappears to where?”
Doctor Watson shrugged and pushed his glasses up his nose, “It’s unclear – I don’t think she knew herself – but I think that’s what she wants us to find out.”
Ashcroft flapped his hand in front of his face in annoyance, “Stop talking in riddles, Watson! What do you mean, ‘she wants us to find out’?”
“Um… well, I’ve been thinking. That paper is by Irena Spargo – it says so on the first page – and nobody else knew about this, so it must have been sent by Spargo herself, to herself, on the day of her death. Why would she do that?”
Professor Ashcroft shrugged, “Don’t ask me.”
Watson leaned forward over his desk, “She can only have sent it if she intended for somebody else to find it.”
Ashcroft seemed sceptical, “In her own pigeon hole? She could have sent this to herself to get it away from the office – to hide it in the postal system. We don’t even know if it was her who sent it in the first place.”
“The newspapers are saying it looks like her death was a suicide. If we assume she was already intending to die when she…”
“We don’t know that,” snapped Ashcroft, “you can’t talk about a person that way so close to their deaths!”
The professor threw his arms up in the air, “You’re making too many assumptions. I will not participate in this wild speculation!” Professor Ashcroft had strange manners and a bitter temper; Watson knew he would listen no more.
“Not interrupting am I?”
They both turned to see Professor Hobbes standing in the doorway. Ashcroft, who had not yet seen Hobbes that morning, had expected him to be better rested than the day before, but if anything he seemed more tired than ever.
“No, of course, come in.”
Glancing between them, Watson stood up, “I’m going to get some tea,” and negotiated his way out of the room. Hobbes sat heavily on the desk chair, “You don’t think he’ll mind me sitting…”
“No, no, of course not,” said Ashcroft, flapping his hand, “You look awful.”
Hobbes shook his head, “I had another long, long day yesterday. The police interviewed me over the incident, which I must say I wasn’t expecting so soon. They’re not ruling out that there was somebody else involved. I know I shouldn’t be worried, but it’s the accusations…” he trailed off, placing a knuckle against his mouth.
Ashcroft bristled and went to close the door, shutting the din of a change of class outside, “They shouldn’t be interviewing so early! Do they have any concern about other people?”
“Ashcroft, they need to investigate.”
He huffed and sat down in a nearby armchair, “Even so, I’m sure it wouldn’t have hurt for them to wait a few days. The living should take precedent over the dead, after all!”
Hobbes looked up sceptically, “Do you really believe that? What about your…”
“No. No, I suppose I don’t,” was the muttered reply.
Professor Hobbes decided to change the subject, “I take Doctor Watson has told you about the letter he found?”
He nodded and held up the paper, “Quite a fascinating academic paper. Based on your work on matter transmission, it seems. Doctor Watson seems very positive about it. I can hardly believe it was written by her.”
Leaning over to take the paper, Hobbes shrugged, “It has her name on it, doesn’t it?” He flicked through, “and these notes in the margins are definitely hers. Irena was a very bright woman, Professor Ashcroft, don’t underestimate her.” Then he picked up the coded pages and organised everything together, “I’d better get these handed in to the police…”
Professor Hobbes was taken aback, “I can’t? What are you talking about? Yesterday you were determined that I give Spargo’s effects to the police immediately.” His voice didn’t lack a hint of annoyance.
Ashcroft leaned forward in the armchair, “Think about it! If this paper is all it seems, it could be the ultimate culmination of your matter transmission research! You were working on the theory but nobody ever thought it could ever be practically possible. This could be revolutionary!” The excitement in his voice was palpable.
But he wasn’t finished. Jumping out of the seat and pacing across the room, he lectured the air with thoughts and possibilities, “In all our time in academia we were never able to create something as world-moving as what we did before! They dropped us out of the nuclear program at the end of the War as if we could just switch to new circumstances without looking back.”
“Imagine it! The power to make any object disappear and reappear before people’s very eyes; we could finally put our names in the history books…”
He stopped abruptly and spun around, surprised to hear Professor Hobbes call him by his first name in the professional environment, “Excuse me?”
The news hit him like a brick. He struggled for words, “You… you’re retiring? Now?”
Hobbes put the pages to one side and leaned forward, “Clarence, I’ll be 70 this year. You’re 64. We’re both well past our retirement ages now. I only carried on because… well, because I enjoyed my work, I didn’t want to stop. But now? Things are different now. Things have changed.”
Ashcroft almost shook with disbelief, “But now? With all this happening? With one of your assistants dead and all these unanswered questions? This is the worst time for you to leave!”
“I’m sorry, Clarence, I’ve already decided. Just yesterday, in fact. I think it’s time for me to leave.”
Ashcroft shook his head, “This is the worst time for you to leave. You should be leaving after doing some brilliant thing that people will remember you for, not after giving in. Not like this.”
Hobbes shuffled uneasily, “The past few days, they’ve been difficult for me, very difficult, and it’s made me wonder if this is really what I want to be doing anymore, or if I want to spend my final years some other way.”
Ashcroft was lost for words. He felt like his friend was abandoning him, giving up, but somehow he wasn’t angry or disappointed. He just felt lost, confused. “Prof… Robert, it’s been 34 years. 34 years we’ve worked together.”
“34 years ago people didn’t fear the sun, Clarence. Children could go out to play without having their skin burned to a crisp. The world wasn’t plagued by famines and ozone holes brought on by the reckless weaponry of the Great War. I told you, Clarence, things have changed and they’ve been changed for a very long time now. I’m moving on.”
Ashcroft sniffed, then straightened his back and brushed down his shirt, “I see. Well then, I wish you luck.”
Hobbes stood up, uneasy due to age and tiredness, and patted his friend on the back, “I hope we remain good friends. Perhaps better friends than we’ve been in the past,” then picked up Irena Spargo’s personal effects.
“Oh, I’ll take those,” Ashcroft leaned over to take them. Hobbes gave a knowing look, then handed the items to Ashcroft, “I’ll try to give you have access to as much of my research and equipment as I can. It’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you,” was all Ashcroft could murmur in return as his old friend opened the door and walked out of the room, leaving him, alone, holding a few dozen sheets of paper in his hand.