Saturday, July 07, 2007

Burning down the house (Part II)

Hello all

The last few weeks have been unsettling, to say the least. Fortunately, we are now in new accomodation and connected to the internet. I can now begin to piece mine and my family's lives back together, and hopefully re-build the Institute - albeit in a different physical guise.

But first - you need to know what happened, and why I have been absent. So here is the concluding part of the final chapter detailing the end of the previous incarnation of the Cumbernauld Institute of Parasitology...


I couldn't believe what I was seeing with my own eyes. Inside the laboratory someone was deliberately attending the bunsen burners that were heating the charcoal that was heating the steel bath. What was inside the bath I had no idea. My previous panic that perhaps No.3 was the occupant had now subsided, which meant I was less concerned about immediately busting down the door. But there was still a need for action, and it was my duty as head of the Institute to stride forth in full McCrumble mettle.

'Ravel!, ' I called to my research assistant, who was over by the reception desk, looking at the cctv images from the lab. 'Break down this door now!.'

'Better to go in back door boss', said Ravel, still concentrating on the camera image. 'Hey I recognise this man. You see here. Look.'

I strode over to the reception desk and peered at the image. It was becoming increasingly smokey in the lab, but I could still clearly identify the person inside. It was a man whom I thought had left for good, someone I never expected to see again, and someone I never thought badly of in our previous meeting. Yet here he was, in full view, caught red-handed on cctv (woe betide anyone who tells me our surveillance society is a bad idea!).

It was Curly.

Yes, the very same man who so recently had taken advantage of my hospitality (and bike) was now in the very act of conducting what was either a) poorly planned and totally unauthorised experiment or b) an deliberate act of arson. In my state of relative calm I now vascillated between the two ideas - my natural belief in the goodness of other people advising me that he was simply an overexcited fan of experimental research who was seduced by the academic lifestyle and unable to control his enthusiasm, whilst my sceptical side suggesting that he was a lunatic criminal acting out some lurid fantasy.

'Boss, look, he is removing clothing!'

Sure enough, Curly had just stripped to his underpants. His semi-naked appearance confirmed that he was well endowed with body hair, and also revealed a medium-sized tattoo on one shoulder. It was the internationally recognised biohazard symbol.

'Right, Ravel, we need to stop him before he causes any real damage. You distract him here whilst I sneak in the back door.'

'Er, ok, boss, but maybe I go to catch him. In army days we were taught to...'

'No, Ravel. Sometimes negotiation is preferred over brute force. I could never forgive myself if I let you come to any harm. You stay here and take care of Dolores and the child. It's time I took charge of the situation.'

Dolores grabbed my arm.' Let Ravel go, Joseph. He's....'

There was no time for argument. Already Curly was in some advanced stage of his 'experiment' - talking manically to himself whilst pouring what appeared to be dry ice over his upturned face. I turned to my wife and cupped her face in my hands, smiled, kissed her lips in mid sentence, kissed the head of my screaming infant, patted Ravel on the shoulder, and exited by the front door. Moments later I had pulled open the back door of the lab and was face to face with the near-naked American. He was startled to see me suddenly beside him, and reacted by throwing what was left of his cannister of dry ice in my face.

'Hey McCrumble!', he shouted as he lept away. 'Good to see you again. Sorry I stole your bike but I had to go buy the tin bath and they didn't have one in the village. I brought the bike back - it's up by your exhibition shed.'

'Er, fine. Good.', I said slowly, unsure how to react to his apology.

'I was going to finish this experiment on my own, but seeing as you are here, you can be my assistant. Hey, how about that - the great McCrumble becomes my assistant!'

I wasn't sure where this was coming from. So far as I was aware, Curly had no prior knowledge of either myself or the Institute. Our previous meeting had been entirely opportunistic and engineered by the police.

Or so I thought. Curly was clearly in the mood for engaging in conversation, and it wasn't long before the truth came out...

'OK, so before we go any further here...', he said, 'I should let you know that my background story -you remember, the one about searching for my ancestors - well, that was a load of bullshit. I really came looking for you.'

'You did?'

'Sure. Your Uncle Jake sent me.'

'Huh?', I cried, surprised to hear the name of the Institute's benefactor coming from Curly's mouth. 'What? How?'

'Well, OK, if you put me on the spot I have to admit he didn't actually send me. He kind of fired me, on account of some genuine mistake I made in his lab and sort of accidentally blew it up. But I needed to continue with my experiments, and he told me all about you Dr McCrumble, and I knew I had to find you. But I didn't know where you were, on account of the fact that you live anonymously - why is that, by the way?'

I was listening intently to his story, but at the same time aware that there was still an unauthorised fire in my laboratory. Whilst I was prepared to explain myself, it seeemed more appropriate to attempt a resolution to the current threat, so I said, 'It's a long story. I'll, er, tell you later. You want to put out the fire now?'

'Nah. The fire is an essential part of the experiment. You see, if I don't have the fire, the bathwater won't get any hotter, and the hedgehog won't cook properly.'

'You are cooking what?' I said, a uncomfortable image suddenly flashing through my mind's eye. 'A hedgehog? Why? What hedgehog?'

'I dunno. Just a hedgehog. He was in that cage over there.'

I didn't need to look. The only cage in the laboratory containing a hedgehog belonged to Timothy. It was now, finally, clear to me what was in the pot.

'Timothy! Are you in there?' I cried, stepping forward to make absolutely sure. Curly moved to block my path.

'No time to waste Dr McCrumble. The experiment is reaching a critical stage. We, er, need some more dry ice. You get some whilst I take measurements.

I had to think fast. If Timothy really was in the tin bath, he was either already dead, or in the process of being boiled alive (somewhat oddly perhaps, I was reminded at this moment of the classic experiment involving Shroedinger's cat, whose state of being was unknown prior to observation). Whichever was the truth, I had to persuade Curly to put out the fire, for should there be any altercation, it was possible that a nasty accident would ensue. 'It's OK, Curly', I said quietly. 'I can take charge now I'm here. You've done a great job so-far, and I'll make sure I mention you in the lab book.'

'Hey Doc, that's what your Uncle Jake used to say. Like Uncle like Nephew! But it's OK, really. I can handle it. You need to trust me more. I spent six years as a trainee technician because I was, you know, a bit slow at getting things right. So you can probably see that I'm a bit proud of my acheivement that I finally got a job at your Uncle Jake's. And I really appreciate you taking me on here, but you gotta trust me or I'm going to be worried that all that training was for nothing. You trust me, don't you Dr McCrumble.'

'Er, of course, Curly. So, in your training you would have learnt about inter-observer measurement error, yes?'

'Sure, Doc. It happens because one person always measures things slightly differently to another. I get it. So you think we both need to take measurements, huh?'

'Exactly!' I shouted, clapping my hands with relief at this breakthrough.

'Yeah, well, I never did believe the textbooks. That's why it took me so long to train. I kept questioning things. I think I can take pretty accurate measurements. I've got 20-20 vision and rock-steady hands. Now you get the dry ice will ya like I asked, or the experiment is going to be ruined, and it will be your fault, and I may have to fire you for incompetence.'

Damn, I thought to myself. He was clearly irrrational, and therefore unlikely to respond to negotiation. The time had come for physical intervention. Ravel was peering in from the door, and I knew that he was waiting for my signal. But I was afraid that Ravel's entry into the lab would precipate a brawl, with potentially dire consequences. My first priority had to be to put out the fire, so instead of collecting dry ice, I poured some distilled water into the pot, making sure that my back was turned. Once back at the scene of the 'experiment' I waited until Curly was writing something in his notepad and threw the water over the flames from a safe distance. Unfortunately, my aim was poor, and most of the water landed on Curly's feet.

Now, most people would be a little annoyed at finding their shoes suddenly wet whilst indoors, but I had clearly struck a nerve. Curly's face took on a purple shade as he glared at me with what I can only describe as a look of absolute hatred. His fists were tightly closed as he spoke, his speech suddenly peppered with expletives. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had ruined the experiment, that I was no longer his employee, and that I should leave immediately. I shouted back that I would do no such thing, and squared up to him. I reminded him, also in no uncertain terms, that this was my laboratory, my equipment, and that he was not actually employed.

'That's enough McCrumble!' he shouted. 'You just clear up this fucking mess right now then get your sorry ass out of here, you piss-faced limey.'

'What mess?'

'This!', he shouted emphatically, raising his left leg and kicking the 'equipment' on the bench beside him. He struck three times to dislodge first the bunsen burners, then the steel bath, and finally the charcoal platform. The whole assemblage looked very unstable for a moment, before a fourth kick brought it crashing down. The bunsen burners continued to spew flame as they dangled off the bench, whilst the hot charcoal scattered and the bath disgorged its contents.

Timothy was not inside. Neither was there any water. Instead, he had filled the bath with almost my entire collection of preserved rodent specimens. Each rodent was still in it's jar when the bath tipped over, but as they hit the ground they burst open. The preservative was formaldehyde - a highly inflammable chemical. One of the bunsen burners had fallen on the floor whilst still attached to its line, and just a few moments after the first jar hit the ground, I was facing an almighty conflagration, not to mention the sight of Curly picking up burning rodent carcasses and throwing them around the laboratory. There was, I surmised at this point, nothing to do but run.

'Run!' I shouted, and headed for the back door. Ravel met me, extinguisher in hand. We turned round to minster the extinguisher, but in doing so received two or three flaming rats in our faces, one of which set light to Ravel's hair.

'Retreat!' , I shouted, and we left the laboratory. 'Phone the emergency services!' I yelled to Dolores, who told me she had phoned them as soon as I had entered the lab. They turned up a few minutes later, by which time the lab was in a poor state. Most of the benches were on fire, and the cupboards had been emptied. The thick smoke had turned acrid, and was leaking through the main door. Curly was no longer visible, but I forbid anyone from going to look for him. Laboratories are notoriously unsafe places when on fire, a sentiment re-inforced when the fire chief told me they would operate in 'defensive mode' until a risk assessment had been made. This meant the fire was not going to be put out in hurry. We were told to evacuate the building, and promptly obeyed. Fortunately, both Ravel and Dolores had managed to remove most of our valuables and sentimental items before the order was given, and all we had to do was retreat to a safe distance whilst we watched the Institure burn.

Perhaps it could have been saved if the lab hadn't actually exploded. The fire-doors would have prevented the fire from spreading, but in the end they were useless. The explosion sent burning material onto the roof of the living area, and within minutes the whole place was ablaze, despite the brave attempts of the fire brigade. Hours later, only a smouldering wreck remained. Curly must have made good his escape (he is still at large), and, as I have already mentioned, Timothy hedgehog is missing.

So what about us? Well, this all happened a few weeks ago. Since then we have moved out of the area, and are now living in England. I'm not prepared to say where, just in case Curly comes looking for us. For the time being, at least, I'm going to have to remain anonymous. I'll keep up the blogging as we start our new life. Whether I will carry on my valuable scientific work depends on many things, and I won't know for a while. Until such time, dear reader, please be patient as we try and adjust to our new lives.



Anonymous said...

Glory be, what an awful time for you all. Curly must be a real thug with Tattoes. Has Ravels hair grown back? If not I do a very good brand of real hair wigs.

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Gorilla Bananas said...

Curly looks like an ex-convict - or possibly the lead singer of Hot Chocolate. In future you'll have to set the dogs on such people before they enter the building.

Kim Ayres said...

I hope you've learned enough of a lesson to fix a webcam into the laboratory in future so we can all observe events on the Internet and back you up when when the police investigate

Nikki said...

You have got to be one of the best story tellers I've ever "met"

Dr Joseph McCrumble said...

Anon - Ravel's hair was only singed, so no real damage requiring a wig. Thanks for the offer, though

GB - I'm just too trusting sometimes. This episode has taught me many things, but I've never been a fan of phrenology, and though it may be tempting to throw cursory judgements at people on the basis of their appearance, I'd rather work on more solid evidence, such as trashing my Institute.

Kim - the picture of Curly was taken on cctv. I never broadcast what goes on in the lab for security reasons.

Nikki - Thanks - I only wish my stories were the result of a fertile imagination rather than solid descriptions of real, often tragic events.

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