|Rumor Propagation III: The Snowball Effect
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Hey, Cornwell. You got a call.”
Tristan held in a sigh. If he moved just a little too much, he was going to lose that tiny white speck to the digestive juices. He carefully twisted his wrist so he could continue to hold back the flap of perineum, then reached around to slowly lower the probe. A fraction before its tip would have touched the clump, he let the tweezers spread and delicately pushed their ends around the white speck. Then he lifted them and transferred the clump to a Petri dish.
The other lab technician had been patiently waiting, but as soon as Tristan turned around, the other man dropped the phone on the cart and walked off. He was pulling on a pair of gloves as he did, so he probably had been forced to drop whatever he’d been doing to come out. So Tristan wasn’t offended.
He stripped off one glove and picked up the phone, while with his other hand, he rummaged through the scalpels. “Hello?”
*Is this…Mr. Cornwell?* a female voice uncertainly asked. *This is Stella. I don’t know if you remember me…we never really spoke.*
The name rang a bell, and after a moment, Tristan remembered the appropriate profile: Morgan’s secretary. He stopped searching through the instrument tray. “I do. Are you calling on Dr. Fay’s behalf?”
Stella sounded much more relieved the next time she spoke. *Oh, yes. She had a matter she wanted to talk to you about and she was wondering if she could make an appointment with you?*
Tristan paused, then made himself hold in the snort as well. Morgan obviously had given her secretary some kind of script to read from, because that was the same type of flattery she used on Arthur. It was amusing—and a little disturbing, since she never did anything without calculating first, and she was treating him like an equal of hers. They’d been on good terms but not to that degree, and Tristan didn’t think it was that likely she’d suddenly given up on Arthur and moved on to him, so…damn it, it had to be about Mark. “I’m usually free afternoons after two.”
*Can you come in tomorrow afternoon? I’m sorry if this seems a bit rushed, but it’s a rather important matter.*
Definitely Mark. He and Morgan had maintained a chilly truce for years, but ever since Mark had started dating Isabel, he’d been pushing more and Morgan obviously hadn’t liked it. Tristan briefly debated telling Stella he was busy, and then continuously putting off the meeting, but finally decided that that would probably get Morgan coming down to the lab; she wasn’t one for prevaricating. And anyway, he would have more options if he were seeing what was happening himself instead of trying to find out second- or thirdhand.
*I’ll pencil you in. Thank you very much! Buh-bye,* Stella chirped.
Tristan took the phone down from his ear long enough to punch in Arthur’s number, then put it back. He glanced over the scalpels again, then picked up the one with the longest blade.
“Arthur. Have you been paying any attention to the forensic science faculty lately?”
* * *
It’d been a long shot and unfortunately, it hadn’t paid off: Arthur had been too busy between the Clayton debacle and running his subdepartment to bend an ear to the campus gossip. He had promised to ask Vanora, but Tristan doubted that was going to come through before he got on campus and could do his own probing.
The lab had just wrapped up a major case, so Tristan had the night off to catch up on sleep and thus had started early in the morning, right after he’d gotten off work. He’d only stopped off at the apartment to leave his work-files there and see if Gawain had already left—he had; his first discussion of the semester was today and nerves usually saw him overpreparing for it right up to when the students walked in—before he hit campus.
The secretary pool didn’t seem to know much except that Mark had seemed a bit distracted, but he’d been like that for months now. Morgan’s secretary didn’t mix much with the others, so Vanora didn’t really have anything to say about that corner either. “I think the only time I’ve spoken to the poor woman was last week when I ran into her in front of the law library. Poor girl, she seems nice enough, but Dr. Fay keeps her running.”
“Well, thanks anyway. Just let Arthur know I stopped by, but it wasn’t an emergency.” Tristan leaned forward and gave Vanora the peck on the cheek on which she always insisted, then headed off for the law library.
A quick hack showed him that Morgan hadn’t been borrowing any unusual books from there. Forensic science was inextricably mixed up with the law nowadays, so her going over for advice from them wasn’t in and of itself odd, but Tristan still had a feeling that something was off. He thought about checking on the faculty to see if he could find out who she’d been contacting, but that would take too long.
Trying to figure out what Morgan was doing would be too complicated, so…Tristan found an isolated computer terminal and tried to remember the little he knew about Mark’s girlfriend. He’d met Isabel a few times, but she hadn’t terribly impressed him so after a cursory background check, he’d forgotten about her. That probably had been a bad idea, since Morgan certainly had always acted as if Isabel was a major issue and Dr. Fay wasn’t generally one for over-estimation.
Though Isabel had come off as fairly brainless: when introduced to Arthur, she’d asked him if he was from England, and when he’d said yes, she’d asked him if the national anthem was ‘God Save the King’ or ‘God Save the Queen’ because she’d heard people say both. It’d been one of the few times Tristan had ever seen Arthur literally drop his jaw at someone.
She didn’t come up with any kind of violent criminal record, but she was averaging three parking tickets a month. On a rather expensive car; Tristan tried to remember what she’d said was her job and couldn’t, so he set about looking that up. Of course, Mark was fairly well-paid and ran a lab that received some of the largest grants in all the university, but that seemed a little precipitate for him to give that sort of gift. Anyway, it appeared as if the car had been licensed to Isabel only a few weeks after she and Mark had met.
It was expensive, but also fairly lowkey and tasteful: the kind of car Arthur might have bought if he had wanted to move in the social circles his inheritance and family background did allow for. Also a little off for a woman with that low of a credit score. Tristan stared at that page for a moment longer, then reluctantly closed the window and went back to trying to figure out her profession. Looking up the exact details of her credit card histories would have to wait till he got to one of his laptops at home, but he could guess from the way she’d dressed and ordered food the one time Mark had invited him along to dinner with them what Isabel might have been spending all that money on.
Twenty minutes later, Tristan decided he was having a very hard time answering what should be a very easy question. Isabel was mentioned once on the website of a company that sold extremely pricy DNA analysis equipment, but she was only down as one of many, many low-level sales reps. The income bracket was way off.
He tried for another five minutes, then checked his watch. He didn’t seem to be getting anywhere here, and he was out of ideas based on the little knowledge he had, so he logged off. Mark was doing a lecture in another hour, which gave Tristan just enough time to stop in at the Conservatory, feed his hawk and squeeze in a nap. Then he could wander up and talk to Lynda without worrying about Mark barging in.
* * *
“Oh, I haven’t seen you in ages! You work too hard, Tristan,” Lynda said, giving him a big hug and kiss on the cheek.
Tristan patted her back, then pulled away. She’d known him too long to take offense at it and just offered to get him something to drink, which he turned down. He grabbed a seat in the corner, where he’d be able to see anyone coming down the hall from at least fifteen yards off. “I’m working the night-shift for at least another month. No one’s seeing much of me till then.”
“Not even that cute boyfriend of yours?” Lynda teased. She laughed and settled back behind her desk to work on what looked like Mark’s weekly schedule. “Well, I’m glad you stopped in, anyway. It’s one bright spot in my day—month, really.”
“Hmm?” He dropped his bag between his feet and unzipped it, then pulled out a casefile. Back when he’d been a student, he’d sometimes come down to sit here and work when the labs had gotten too full of other people, so that’d seem normal to Lynda.
She just sighed and rolled her eyes a little. “Well…that girl’s been in here more than ever.”
Isabel, Tristan mentally translated. He got out a highlighter and started working with his head cocked towards Lynda. She usually would go on for a while without needing prompting, and anyway, he liked her so he’d prefer not to use too much of that on her.
“I swear, sometimes I think Mark just needs a good fistfight and then a night in jail. If he was going to have a mid-life crisis, he could’ve been at least a little sensible and just bought some ridiculously flashy car, or had his hair dyed, but no, he picks up with a girl who’s half his age. If that.” Lynda shook her head and sighed. Some of her bangs slipped out from behind her ear and she put down her pen to tuck them back, then reached for her stapler. “Oh, I sound like a prude. I wouldn’t care about the age, really, if she just acted like she had half a brain. Like…I don’t know, like Arthur’s girlfriend.”
Tristan paused, then flicked a look over at Lynda. Of course, Arthur’s personal life was a popular topic on campus, but Lynda generally stayed away from it, apparently out of respect for him and Tristan.
“Now, she never makes a fuss when she comes to visit, but Isabel? Get out the ticker-tape and the screaming fans,” Lynda snorted. “And she sticks her nose in where she shouldn’t.”
After a couple seconds, Tristan decided it wasn’t a pause and that he probably should say something. “Where did she and Mark meet again? At one of those equipment fairs?”
“Yep. Sales rep, or so she said. Normally I don’t listen to Dr. Fay about other women, but this time I’m inclined to think she was telling the truth when she told me Isabel was basically a pretty display and the other reps were doing all the work,” Lynda said. She stuck the end of her pen in her mouth and chewed it a little, looking at the schedule spread over her desk. Then she pushed back and began digging through a drawer. “She keeps making suggestions to Mark about how to do things in the department and it’s obvious she doesn’t have a clue.”
Tristan stopped highlighting. “Really?”
“Just two weeks ago, I was getting ready to put in orders for the lab like usual when hours before the deadline, Mark comes in and asks me to change vendors. The price is much higher per unit, and well, maybe it’s of finer quality and maybe it isn’t. The usual thing would’ve been to order a small amount and see, right? Only he wanted a total switch.” Lynda shook her head as she straightened up again. “And guess whose vendor he wanted to use? I swear, I despair of him nowadays.”
That…probably was enough to go on. After a little more chatting about other subjects, like the new crop of graduate students and which one had already gotten thrown out of the dissection rooms for tasteless jokes, Tristan said his farewells and headed back across campus to Arthur’s office.
Arthur was out, but Tristan just needed to borrow Arthur’s computer so that wasn’t a problem. He scribbled a short note and left it in Arthur’s planner, then sat down to start on the searching. And he kept sitting for a few seconds.
Mark had been a very good advisor to him. A little distant for the first year till he’d decided Tristan was his top student, but even then he’d…made a reasonable effort to see to Tristan’s progress. He had always tended to be overly concerned with his and his lab’s reputation, and then the department’s only after, but he’d helped Tristan a lot. Maybe he hadn’t earned as much of Tristan’s respect as he could have, but he did deserve some gratitude.
On the other hand, it was beginning to sound as if Mark might have suspicious dealings with a manufacturing corporation, and if that were true, that could endanger the whole university. Avalon had done more for Tristan and Gawain. And Avalon mattered to Arthur, who’d forbidden Tristan to get involved in the Clayton-Interpol tangle that currently was threatening to force Arthur into a choice between academic life and a different profession. Tristan could, however, take this on.
He lifted his fingers to the keyboard, hesitation dealt with. He’d just started to type in search terms when the door suddenly opened and Arthur came in, looking troubled. The other man drew up sharply and stared at Tristan for a moment, then abruptly closed the door.
“What did they send you?” Tristan said.
Arthur was holding a plain manila folder that looked like any other folder he might happen to handle, but the way he glanced at it ruled that out. Then he looked up at Tristan in a very strange way, as if he were apologizing in advance for bad news; usually he was apologetic because he thought something was his fault. “Your advisor—”
“Taking payments from vendors to manipulate university contracts? Involving his girlfriend Isabel?” Tristan took his hands off the keyboard and got up.
After a moment, Arthur just accepted that and moved on. “I received copies of intercepted emails and memos this morning from an…anonymous source, which also claims to have sent them to Merlin and to Dr. Fay. But why would they send it to me?”
He wasn’t asking Tristan for an explanation: he obviously already had a couple in mind. He was asking Tristan to start ruling out possible scenarios. “I think the evidence is real enough. Dr. Fay asked to talk to me—she didn’t say, but it has to be this—and I didn’t have to do much checking to find some support.”
Arthur cocked his head. “You didn’t talk to Mark about it at all yet?”
Tristan shook his head and came around the desk towards Arthur. After a look at the other man, he took the folder and quickly browsed through its contents, which all seemed genuine enough. It certainly was more than enough to open up an investigation into Mark’s finances…which Tristan should have checked first, come to think of it.
“I’m sorry, Tristan,” Arthur said in a low tone. He looked steadily and with real regret at Tristan. “It doesn’t change the quality of the knowledge and skills he taught you. But I know you wanted to think better of him.”
“I did what I could on my end; he didn’t keep up his,” Tristan replied after a moment. He had to pause and swallow in the middle of it. Then he gave himself a shake and tried to concentrate on what was currently happening rather than what could have happened. “This isn’t a set-up to frame him.”
Arthur grimaced. “Damn. I’ll still have to see Merlin and—it’s still a warning to me, isn’t it? Don’t mix academics with other interests.”
Tristan didn’t bother answering, since Arthur was only thinking aloud and he most likely was right. And he made another note to himself: step up checks on the espionage circuit. It’d been his advisor who’d been targeted, after all, so it wasn’t just for Arthur’s sake anymore.
“Very subtle of them,” Arthur muttered. His lip curled as he glanced down at the folder, eyes momentarily going icy. “They left it till you wouldn’t get caught in it, but still…”
They could have done it earlier, according to the dates on some of the intercepted documents. And that could either be read as gentlemanly consideration—which Tristan sincerely doubted—or an extra level of warning.
“You said Morgan called you? I should probably try and see her too—where would she be right now?” Arthur took back the file and, after rearranging the papers in it, stuck it under his arm. “You’d better head over to the forensics department. Merlin’s already there, talking to some of the staff.”
“Morgan’s been spending some time in the law library lately. I haven’t looked at her schedule lately so I wouldn’t know where she is now for sure. Checking would take a while,” Tristan said. He swore to himself for a couple moments; he’d wanted to avoid direct involvement in Mark’s problem as much as possible, but that wasn’t a realistic option any more.
And yes, he would’ve liked to avoid a face-to-face meeting with Merlin as well. The Dean seemed uncommonly prescient about certain matters, and the statue of limitations hadn’t yet run out on some of the pranks Tristan had pulled while at Avalon. But Arthur would probably keep that out of the picture for now…Tristan would have to call Gawain afterward and let him know about things, too. So much for spending any of his free day trying to make up for Gawain’s loneliness.
“Well, I’ll walk over to the undergrad library and check in with Dagonet just in case Morgan’s anywhere in the libraries. It’s on the way, so I’ll meet you at the forensics offices,” Arthur decided. He hesitated, then took a step forward and gave Tristan a quick hug. “I’m sorry about this.”
Tristan held onto him a little longer than he had onto Lynda. “It’s fine. It’s not your fault.”
“Partially not.” Which, since it was Arthur, was a little more sensible than usual. He gave Tristan’s shoulder a last squeeze before he headed off.
For a few minutes afterward, Tristan stayed in Arthur’s office and thought things over. But he came to the same conclusions, so in the end he just resigned himself to it. People were flawed, and Mark’s character issues had been dangerously close to doing him in for years. Not everyone could be like Arthur and face their problems and not back down.
And then again, people like Arthur did exist, and so did people like Gawain, who was always trying to improve things, even if it wasn’t in an earth-shaking way. So it wasn’t completely hopeless.
Tristan went out in a slightly better mood. He certainly was more focused on a solution to the problems at hand.
* * *
Lancelot looked over at Guinevere again, just to make sure she was following the second storyline beneath the simple one Tristan was telling to the others. She didn’t notice him for a few seconds, but when she did, she made an irritated gesture towards Tristan, so that was a yes. And he could in fact listen without having to look at the other man, thank you.
Just as Tristan finished, the conference room door opened and Merlin stepped out. He seemed a little surprised to see Lancelot and Guinevere, but quickly regained his composure and turned to the others. “Jack, Jess, thank you very much. I’m sorry to have kept you so long, and if you need any excuses written, please let me know.”
“Er…so you don’t need us anymore?” Jack asked.
“No, you’re free to go now.” Merlin smiled. It was rather disturbing how good his impression of a bushy-bearded nice old grandfather was, particularly since Lancelot had been to his dinner parties and had heard him casually deconstruct snobs to the point of tears over the appetizer course. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Oh, it was no problem, really,” Jess said, getting up. Then she stood uncertainly about for a moment before finally turning to Jack with a sheepish look. “I…um, I’m really sorry to ask again, but I’ve got no idea where we are.”
Jack looked absolutely ecstatic. Then he seemed to realize that this wasn’t quite an appropriate reaction and promptly toned it down, chewing on his bottom lip a little. “Well, I could show you to your dorm—it’s on my way, anyhow. You’re living in South, right? With the other athletes?”
Lancelot missed the rest of that conversation because he was absolutely fascinated by how, when Galahad started to cough at the ‘on my way’ bit, Mariette smothered him with her hand. But he kept struggling and made it too obvious, so in desperation she dropped down and gave him some tongue. Merlin looked benignly nonplussed.
“I’m hungry,” she said when she came up for air. “Gawain, would you mind if we go and then bring you dinner? We aren’t doing anything here, I think.”
Galahad clearly knew he was being railroaded, but was just as clearly torn since it apparently was going to give him some quality time with his girlfriend. “Yeah…want Chinese or pizza? You do have to stay, don’t you?”
“Uh—” Gawain looked at Tristan, who looked at Merlin, who looked a little sorry but firmly nodded anyway. “Chinese sounds really good. Thanks.”
“No prob.” Then Galahad glanced around, but Jack was a bit smarter than his babbling indicated and had sneaked off with Jess in the meantime. With a shrug, Galahad grabbed Mariette’s hand and led her off. They started arguing at five feet, Mariette punched his arm at ten, and at fifteen they were cuddling again.
Merlin cleared his throat. “Tristan, I’d like to speak to you again. It’s just to clear up a few points that arose while I was speaking to Mark.”
Tristan didn’t exactly look like it was something he wanted to do, but he got up without making a hassle out of it. Gawain got in a surreptitious hand-squeeze, and then sat there staring worriedly after the other man.
As Tristan went in, Arthur came out. Finally. Lancelot got up—one second before Guin had, and didn’t she look annoyed when he slid out to grab Arthur’s arm first. Though she didn’t miss a beat in latching onto Arthur’s other side.
“So are you done yet?” Guin asked.
“Because I think we need to speak to you.” After a close look at the other man, Lancelot tightened his grip on Arthur’s arm. “And feed you. Did you skip lunch again?”
Arthur opened his mouth, then glanced over his shoulder. He wasn’t about to get any escape there, since Merlin and Tristan had already disappeared into the meeting room. Then he looked at Guinevere and Lancelot again. “I’d like to stay in the building until they’re done with Tristan,” he finally said in a mild tone.
“It’s a very large building.” Guin started pulling.
Gawain was looking at them oddly, as if he wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to laugh or not. Lancelot tipped him a wink, then pressed up against Arthur’s side. “And it’s after-hours. There has to be an empty office or something like that somewhere.”
“We need to talk,” Guinevere said, shooting both of them warning looks.
What? Lancelot started to ask, but then Arthur sighed and actually started walking with them, so Lancelot had to concentrate lest he trip over his own feet.
“We do indeed,” Arthur said under his breath. “All right, I think I know of a room.”