A growing sense of unease gathered in the pit of Ann’s stomach as she walked to the lab from her office. The unease became an ache when she saw the padlock on the freezer. All of her locks had been the same model, and this wasn’t one of them. Her heart pounded as she double-checked to make sure it was the right freezer.
Carla pointed to the floor under the latch mechanism. “Dr. Hartman, look at this.” She bent and scraped up a sample of fine black powder from the floor. “It feels like metal filings.”
Ann examined the powder and rubbed it between her fingers. “Somebody used a hacksaw.” She glanced quickly at the floor around the freezer and under the lab benches. “See if you can find my padlock around here. I have a phone call to make.”
Ann stepped out of the lab and called Jason in his office. She needed his analytical, unemotional approach to problems.
He arrived five minutes later, shortly after Wendy found Ann’s padlock under a lab bench.
Jason considered the reasons he would cut a padlock off a freezer. “Maybe someone with samples in the freezer needed them,” he said. “If I needed to test samples and some son of a bitch put a lock on my freezer, I’d cut it off. Who else has samples in it?”
“I’ve checked.” Ann handed him a page, half covered with handwriting. “This looks like an informal inventory. It was in a folder taped to the side of the freezer.” She watched Jason scan the list. “There are samples from almost a dozen studies run by people in four research groups.”
Jason turned the page. “Some of these studies were done over ten years ago. Look,” he pointed to the paper, “there must be three shelves of samples from Don Shroop’s studies. He retired years ago. No wonder the department doesn’t have enough freezer space. Nobody ever throws anything away.”
“Maybe I should get a bolt cutter and return the favor,” Ann said.
“No one is following up on Shroop’s work, and Naga and Ahmed aren’t doing any more lab work on their study,” Jason pointed at two lines near the bottom of the page, “and these guys are writing papers on their work. Their lab work is done.” Jason paused and looked at Ann. “None of these people would have needed their samples in the last two days.”
Ann had reached the same conclusion. Her gut felt like a knot. “I better make another phone call.”
She called Bill at his home. He told her to sit tight while he called the dean and campus security.
It took an hour to get someone from maintenance to arrive with a bolt-cutter and another fifteen minutes arguing with campus security. “Look,” the campus cop said, “an Agent Filburt of the FBI talked to my supervisor and really lit a fire under him. No way am I going to let anybody touch that padlock again until we get someone from forensics to look at it.”
“But that could take hours,” Ann said.
“The freezer is working, right?” the cop asked.
Jason shrugged, “Yeah, but—”
“Then there isn’t any reason you can’t wait. I’ll be damned if I’m going to catch hell ’cause you guys are in a hurry to get home.”
An hour and a half later, a black SUV with Sheriff’s Department license plates pulled up to the loading dock in the back of the Vet Sciences building. The front doors opened and two men in black jumpsuits and baseball caps climbed out of the car. They opened the rear hatch of the SUV and removed two metal cases of equipment. The passenger turned to the driver. “Tell me again, Jim, why the hell are we here on a Saturday afternoon?”
Jim took a deep breath and leaned against the SUV. “The same reason I gave you the last time you asked. A freezer has been tampered with, and it’s a freezer that has the FBI’s attention. You want to bitch, bitch to them. Tell your girlfriend you’ll take her to a later movie.”
They closed the hatch and climbed the concrete steps beside the loading dock. Jim tried the gray steel doors at the top of the steps and peered through the windows that made up the upper half of the doors. “Crap. The doors are locked, and nobody is here to open the place.”
He set his equipment case down and banged on the doors.
His partner set his case down and resumed his favorite topic. “Some fricking grad student loses a key, cuts a lock off, and I spend another night sleeping alone. Why the hell they—”
“Goddamn it, Bob, quit your bitching. I’m not any happier than you are about this.”
The campus cop opened the door and took them the few paces to the first-floor hallway and the elevator. Bob whined to the campus cop and Jim looked around the old elevator. His eye caught a brownish-red stain in a groove in the stainless steel plate behind the floor buttons, and below that, on the yellow wall of the elevator, was what looked like another partially cleaned bloodstain.
“Has anyone noted the blood here on the elevator walls and floor?” Jim asked.
“Blood?” the cop asked.
“Yeah, blood, here,” Jim pointed to the floor buttons, “and here, and here,” he pointed to spots on the elevator wall and grooves in the floor. “It looks like someone tried to clean it up.”
“Nobody mentioned blood before,” the cop said. “A student probably dropped a sample from one of the research animals.”
“We’ll find out.” Jim put his equipment case down, opened it, took out swabs and vials, and collected samples of the stains. “Still think this is a stupid milk run, Bob?”
It took twenty minutes to verify that there were no blood stains between the elevator and the basement lab as they walked the hundred feet to the lab. There, they cut the lock off the freezer the way they wanted it done, dropped it in a sample bag, and labeled it.
An hour after he arrived, Jim allowed Ann and her students to open the freezer. Behind the freezer door, each of the six shelves of the minus-seventy-degrees Centigrade freezer had its own flimsy door made of white, insulating plastic. Ann put on gloves, safety glasses, and a facemask and opened the door. She checked the box labels, opened the boxes, counted the samples, and sighed with relief. “They all seem to be here.” She checked a couple of vials from one of the boxes, brushing the frost off to read the labels before putting everything back in the freezer.
She turned to Carla and Wendy. “Finish your inventory, and bring that last page to my office when you’re done.”
“Do we still have to wear the safety glasses? Wendy asked. “They fog up and—”
“Wear them,” Ann said. “No exceptions, and remember to shower when you’re done.”
Ann’s team might have counted the vials in her boxes, checked the labels on one or two vials, as Ann had done, and called it good enough had it not been for the strange lock, the unusual safety procedures, and the blood in the elevator. They examined every label on the twenty vials in one box before returning it to the freezer and starting on the smaller box.
“Do we need to record every vial in the second box?” Wendy asked. Carla hesitated. Students working at the veterinary college were accustomed to drudgery. Their jobs ranged from cleaning dog kennels to counting endless boxes of tiny vials. Today was different.
“What the hell. This is as close to excitement as I’ve been since my tenth anniversary,” Carla said. “If I died in my sleep, my husband wouldn’t notice it until he started looking for his breakfast. He can feed the kids tonight.” She picked up her clipboard and pen. “It’s my turn to record. Read ’em off.”
Wendy picked up the first vial, “P. multocida vaccine challenge. Chicken 12A. Air sacks. J. Naga/A. Khan.”
The two women looked at each other. Wendy put the vial back in the box and picked up the next vial. “‘P. multocida vaccine challenge. Chicken 12A. Heart. J. Naga/A. Khan.’ Holy shit.”
She pulled out the next five samples, brushed off the frost that formed on the labels, and glanced at each. “‘P. multocida,’ ‘P. multocida,’ and ‘P. multocida.’” She hastily replaced those samples and picked out a sample at the end of the row. “P. multocida.”
She looked at Carla again. “Should we call her now or record all of the labels first?”
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