My Kafkaís castle analogy came to mind the next morning, Friday, August 29th, when the guard behind the semicircular desk refused to let me in.
"If you are going to be working here regularly, you need to get a picture I.D. and access card," he said.
I protested, "Iím supposed to interview all the profs." He just shook his head. "Coming Tuesday, they are going to process me for induction," I assured him.
These proved to be the magic words. While he wrote me a four-day pass, I watched his television monitors switching from hallways, to exit doors, to parking lots, to the loading dock and back again while the radio blasted with official cop talk. It felt more like a police station than an institution of higher learning.
The first open door on the fifth floor belonged to Dr. Grant Johnson, Associate Professor. From the brochure, I deduced that he was older vintage, having received his Ph.D. in physics at Ohio State in 1968, followed by a post-doctoral stint at Florida State in "quantum photochemistry" between 1968 and 1972.
His lab door was open but bore a sign warning, "CAUTION, LASER LIGHT." Dr. Johnson was leaning over a thick, steel plate on a large bench positioned in the middle of the room. Attached to the plate were several three-foot-long, V-shaped metal rails with clamping devices holding lenses, prisms, optical grating and modular light detectors. It was a homemade setup on an "optical bench."
"You canít come in for a couple of minutes," he said. With a small hexagonal wrench, he adjusted a lens. "Iíve been working all morning on lining this gizmo up."
Dr. Johnson hummed to himself as he leaned his thin, fiftyish torso over his project, revealing a bald spot on the top of his head of dark straight hair. His skin was pale, as if he had spent too much time in the lab. Taped to the wall over his gizmo was a cartoon of a German professor. The cartoon prof looked like Albert Einstein after someone had sat on his violin ó hopping mad. The caption read:
Diese Machine ist for Science-Experimenten und nicht for Finger-Poken und Button-Pushen und Knobben-Turnen. Venn diese Rubber-Necken-Dummkopf-Sight-Zeers gepoken und gepushen und geturnen, zenn geht die Machine KAPUTT. Just relaxen und gelooken zu die Blinken-Lights.
A Germanophile! A Swarthmore prof once told me that all scientists are supposed to know a little German and that some regard proficiency as a mark of distinction.
After a couple of minutes, Dr. Johnson looked up. His bench optics might have been straight, but his thick plastic glasses were not. The wire frames were crooked and a large lump of solder bulged over the bridge of the nose, the obvious result of an in-lab repair.
"Now my gizmoís lined up pretty good. Can you give me a piece of paper from your notebook?"
"Sure," I said, stepping up and tearing out a sheet. He took it, then gestured me back.
"Just stand back until I do my test shot."
Dr. Johnson knelt at the end of the bench and looked through a small hole in a metal disc.
"Yeah, looks like the lineup is pretty good."
He tore off a strip of paper and fixed it on the disc with adhesive tape.
"Now watch, but stand back. Five, four, three, tow, one, zero!"
Then I heard a click, zap and slap. For a split second, thin rods of bright red light flashed over the setup. The paper gave off a small puff of smoke. Dr. Johnson leaned over and inspected the burn hole carefully.
"Well, it looks like I got the right hole! Here, you can have it back as a souvenir. Now, what can I do for you?"
"Iím Ben Candidi. Iím starting next week as a graduate student. I wanted to talk with you about your research."
"Well, Candidi, here it is," he said with a sweeping gesture that took in the whole lab. "You just saw my laser excitation system. I stick fiber optic cables into that little hole and pure monochromatic light comes out the other end. So my laser can pump photons into any experiment Iíve got going here. Hell, I could pump photons to Stampawicz down the hall if heíd get me a cable thatís long enough!"
He rattled off this string of jargon in an easy Ohio twang. He pointed to a large black box with an irregular array of precision dials, identifying it as a "fluorescence lifetime apparatus." He identified an instrument-encrusted microscope as his "fluorescent microcytometer." I asked him what he used the microscope for.
"To tease secrets out of a single cell using photons without blasting its head off," he said, as if that were the simplest thing in the world.
"How do you do that?"
"I focus a strong pulse of laser light through a microscope to blast the fuck out of these dye molecules holding calcium in the cell. So the dye releases the calcium into the cytoplasm. Then, a millisecond later, I switch on a weak beam of light and measure calcium binding to the proteins in the cell ó you know, molecules like calmodulin."
I didnít know. But I kept asking him "intelligent questions" and he told me whatís calmodulin and how he measured calcium with the fluorescence of an entrapped dye molecule called Fura-2. He concluded by saying that his experiments told "a helluvalot" about the molecular calcium pumps in the cell membranes.
"It sounds like you can do a lot of interesting experiments," I said, in genuine awe.
"Yeah. Some of the guys around here say I do too many different experiments on too many different types of cells. But I get out a good number of publications each year and the granting agencies seem to like me. So what tí heck!"
His smile reminded me of my old friend Richard Bash after heíd just pulled off a foul-smelling prank in the Swarthmore chemistry labs. Dr. Johnson shared much of my old palís personality. I could have spent hours with him. He just couldnít be the one who killed Dr. Cooper. Taking advantage of his accessibility, I asked what effect the loss of Dr. Cooper would have on the Department.
"Iím as sorry as the next guy to see anyone leave us that way, but as far as his effect on the Department, good riddance!" His candor took me completely by surprise.
"Did a lot of faculty feel the same way?"
"Sure. Probably half of them. The old-timers like myself. That guy was the Mummyís Curse."
"Which of his policies caused ó "
"Hey, stop it right there!" Johnson said, surprising me like his rods of laser light. Behind his nerd glasses, his eyes locked onto me. A notch appeared between his eyebrows, nicely lined up with the lump of solder, as he drew a bead on me. "Let me tell you this, kid. I figure you came here to do research ó not to get yourself into a lot of political shit. So let me give you a word of advice. Once you start getting into this political shit, your science is fucked. I mean, fucked."
He made a gesture like he was shooing a fly from his face.
"Just get through your courses as fast as you can and start working on a project."
His initial blast jolted me like the laser pulse knocked the calcium off the dye molecule. But his weak beam of brotherly advice was gentle. I figured he would appreciate a millisecond-quick answer.
"I agree with you perfectly, Dr. Johnson. Itís just that these political manipulators can sometimes make life pretty hard for working scientists."
"You can say that again!" He shook his head in silence for several seconds, then took a step toward the door. "See you around, kid. Come back if you decide to do some photo-cytology in living cells."
So Dr. Johnson was one of the "Old Timers," and this group didnít like Dr. Cooper. George Ashton, neurotoxin specialist, was also an Old Timer. After a couple minutes in the brochure, I had identified the Old Timers and verified that they had been in the department a long time before Cooper came. Cooper probably made himself unpopular with the Old Timers by changing things around. I could imagine a lot of political shit hitting the fan.
And Dr. Johnson as the culprit? I smiled, picturing a group of professors standing around Cooperís smoking corpse on the hallway floor outside Johnsonís lab . . . and Johnson putting away his laser while it was still warm!
My next visit was to black-bearded and bespectacled Dr. Gary Stampawicz. He had the sinister look of a bomb-throwing anarchist, but he didnít have any murderous pharmacology. Rubbing his hands together in anticipation of great delight, he ushered me into his laboratory, parted the blackout curtains and said, "Voila! My microspectrofluorimeter . . . or should I call it my video fluorescent microscope . . . I really should finalize the name of the gadget."
On a stone table was an enormous microscope with a video camera mounted on top. Hanging on the blackened wall was a large color television screen showing the ovoid shape of a cell. Stampawicz looked a little ovoid himself. He said that the blue, green, yellow and red colors mapped regions of different calcium concentrations within the cell. He worked with smooth muscle cells that line arteries and veins and control blood pressure.
Our discussion lead to a comparison of his setup with Dr. Johnsonís. Dr. Stampawicz told me in plain and serious tones that he didnít need Dr. Johnson to pipe him laser light from down the hall because he, Stampawicz, had a "state of the art laser from General Defense Technology." He also made it clear that he knew a hell of a lot more than Dr. Johnson about control of cell activation by calcium.
Having successfully defended his turf, Stampawicz adroitly turned the conversation to me, quickly extracting 80 percent of my job description at the M.E. Office. Out of fear that he would blow my cover, I quickly excused myself, claiming to be late for another appointment. Probably, no harm was done.
After retreating down the hall, I gave Stampawicz a lot of thought. Although he couldnít have been a year under 40, he was only an assistant professor. From the dates in the brochure, I deduced he was hired by Cooper and was a member of the New Guard.
He probably didnít have any reason to kill Cooper, and he certainly didnít have any super poisons. Scratch him.
I couldnít get any more interviews that day, because everyone had left for the long Labor Day weekend. I decided to enjoy it, too, because coming Tuesday, Iíd be very busy checking out profs by day and studying by night.