Edward James Higgins, professor of tropical plant science at Oxford University was doing what he always did when it rained during his bike ride to work. He hung his wet socks and sandals on the radiator to dry and then spent the rest of Saturday morning padding around the laboratory rehearsing a lecture on Curvularia aragrostidis as a cause of leaf spot in pineapples.
That done he then sat at his cluttered desk and glanced at the faded remains of the old newspaper cutting pinned to the cork board. With the dark, shoulder-length hair and central parting, few would have recognised the forty-year-old photo of himself as a student demonstrator and fanatic, pale-faced environmental activist who the press had dubbed “Huggy.”
Now, simply known as Eddie, his unruly hair, bicycle, sandals and flapping old raincoat were well known around the streets of Oxford but, at sixty-two years old, the one-time Ozzie Osborne look-alike now sported a central parting that had broadened to six inches. Eddie was pondering on balding when the phone rang.
“Your visitor’s here, Eddie,” said Charlie who combined janitorial duties with unlocking the front door on Saturday mornings.
Eddie knew who it was although they’d not yet met. This was the new head of a local cosmetics company called Vital Cosmetics that had offered the university money in the form of a student bursary in return for technical advice.
Remembering his bare feet, Eddie sat on the floor to drag on his socks and thought back to how Bill Hughes, the head of department, had finally persuaded him to be the adviser. “Think about the possibilities, Eddie. Influence? Powers of persuasion? Change for the better?”
With his opinion on the nastiness of businesses unchanged for fifty years, Eddies eyes lit up. “Well, if you put it like that.”
Now, wearing his damp socks, Eddie opened the door to a wall of perfume. Standing there was an unexpectedly young, slim and black-haired woman in a neat suit. This wasn’t the squat, savage-looking, bespectacled and mousy-haired chief executive of his imagination but a more delicate creature with pure white skin, shiny red lips and deep brown eyes surrounded by thick, black paint. She smiled at him. “Professor Higgins?”
“Call me Eddie.”
“May I come in?”
Baroness Isobel Johnson slipped passed him and so he checked her from behind. She was wearing shiny, red, high-heeled shoes and black stockings with a flimsy red scarf draped over her jacket. A red leather handbag hung from her shoulder.
Eddie’s low interest in personal details meant he hadn’t learned much about her beforehand. Company directors were all the same – evil capitalists. Had he bothered he’d have discovered that Isobel Johnson was highly regarded in some circles as a regular contributor to magazines on fashion and was often called upon to speak at conferences in support of women in business. All Eddie knew was that not a drop of Oxford rain had touched her. Quite clearly, she’d not travelled by bicycle.
He was still holding the door open with his glasses hanging on a cord around his neck. “We banned those sorts of shoes some years ago,” he said. “They leave marks on the floor.”
As she turned to look at him Eddie saw a striking resemblance to a waxworks model of a Chinese concubine, he’d once seen.at Madame Tussaud’s. It was the glossy red lipstick that clinched it.
“Of course,” Isobel said. “How thoughtless of me. Shall I leave them outside?”
Eddie had also been at the forefront of a ban on high heels in corridors but at this rate, she’d need to return home for a complete change of clothing. “Outside is fine,” he said watching how she bent over in the tight skirt and removed each shoe by balancing on one leg.
Of course, Eddie would have sat on the floor but he continued to watch as she placed the shoes neatly against the wall, brushed her skirt down and then looked up at him from a slightly lower altitude. “Better?” she asked.
“Thank you,” Eddie said. “Please come in. Take the stool by the incubator.”
“Did you put the kettle on as you said you would, Professor Higgins?”
“Yes. It has already boiled. Twice. Tea?”
“Neither thank you. It’s a big laboratory, Professor Higgins.”
“What sort do you have? Not too sugary.”
“Rich Tea or whatever they’re now called.”
He busied himself with two mugs of tea, one with milk and two sugars, the other without. He squeezed the tea bags with a spoon, checked they were fully spent of colour and polyphenols and tried dropping them in the pedal bin but missed.
“This looks very complicated Professor Higgins.”
In looking to see what it was that was so complicated, the tea from one mug spilt on the floor so Eddie wiped the splashes with his foot. Hot wetness seeped into his damp socks. “Gas chromatographic and mass spectrographic printouts. Some students’ work. Results from a few tests on krabok nut oil,” he said.
Eddie was a world expert on tropical hardwood trees such as kraboks, their nuts and their fungal diseases, but tried hard not to bore a listener with too much science.
“And what does it tell you?”
He slid the mug of tea towards her leaving a trail of wetness, put two biscuits alongside it and noticed her fingers, the shiny red nails and three rings – gold with clear little stones. “My students were tasked to look for therapeutic properties, particularly antifungal ones amongst the aldehydes and esters components,” he said somewhat distractedly. Nail paint had always intrigued him. Why did they do it? What was the purpose?
“In the cosmetics business, Baroness, you call them essential oils,” he added.
“In theory, when choosing an essential oil for human use you would want one with a high therapeutic value and low toxicity. There are many different compounds within each of the major categories – in fact there are several hundred chemical substances in these oils. That makes it difficult to evaluate them chemically. Even though a chromatograph may show only a few of the constituents of an oil, one still needs some knowledge of chemistry to read and understand a GC-MS report. Some components can be quite toxic in large quantities.”
Eddie glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “But, of course, you know all that because you run Vital Cosmetics,” he sniffed. “Are cosmetics so vital to the wellbeing of humans?”
Isobel tried sipping her tea but Eddie knew it would be too hot for her delicate lips. Over his half-moons he watched her put the mug down and look at the computer screen through two strands of straight black hair that had fallen forward. Her brown eyes peered through long black eyelashes that were either false or fluffed up with those little black brushes they used to improve the flutter effect. Her eyebrows were thick, black and neat mirror images of each another.
He turned to his computer. “This,” he said, “is a comparison of two oils that you might think were identical – lavender oils. Lavender is useful for teaching students. If lavender is grown above 2,000 feet, the ester content increases. That, some claim, makes high altitude lavender oil more useful in aromatherapy and therefore more profitable.”
He watched her raise her eyebrows.
“We’re talking serious biochemistry coupled with complex benefits and toxicity testing, Baroness. Claims, for instance, that lavenders have calming effects and antispasmodic properties are mostly hearsay. Most users and sellers of aromatherapy products don’t have the slightest understanding of the chemistry behind the ludicrous claims they make.”
Eddie was getting into the swing of things now. He pulled up another stool next to her but the perfume was overpowering. “And neither do perfume and cosmetics manufacturers,” he added, wrinkling his nose.
Isobel smiled. “But whoever heard of someone dying from an overdose of skin cream, Professor?”
“And whoever heard of someone taking an anti-ageing cream who finds the ageing process has stopped in its tracks,” he snapped back.
“But it’s their choice,” she said rechecking the heat of her tea with a polite sip. “If they feel and look better then…”
Eddie couldn’t help it. He erupted.
“The word anti means against,” he said. “Anti-ageing therefore means against ageing. In this case it means a mix of chemicals that act against ageing or at least delay the biological process of ageing. No such chemicals exist. Anti-ageing does not mean that ageing is stopped in its tracks. The cosmetics industry uses expressions that distort scientific fact. It uses clearly understood words and changes their meaning. It distorts truth to get around advertising standards that are, in themselves, inadequate. The cosmetics industry lies and misrepresents in order to sell products that don’t work.”
“Really, Professor, I don’t quite…”
There was no interrupting Eddie when he was on a roll.
“Take the word serum,” he scowled. “Ask any woman these days what serum is and she’ll tell you it’s cosmetic. No. it’s not. Serum is a highly complex body fluid in which blood cells circulate in blood vessels. Serology is a scientific subject in its own right. Serum is not, and never can be, a mix of a few synthetic chemicals in a drop of oil sold in pink tubes and little bottles. Someone stole the word to make money.”
Eddie checked the reaction. Isobel looked shocked as if no-one had ever spoken to her like so he felt pleased with the effect so far. “And do you think that someone in a society like ours where good quality food of all types is cheap and available in indecent abundance needs to take food supplements and consume energy drinks as if they’re vital for general health and performance?”
He was pleased how he’d slipped in that indirect reference to the new range of Vital Sports drinks he’d heard about so made a noise that was meant to sound triumphant.
“What on earth is meant by replacing lost electrolytes for example? Do they really mean the sodium chloride in sweat? Does anyone who drinks these concoctions understand words like hypotonic, hypertonic or isotonic? And, even if it was possible, why would anyone want to speed up their metabolism?”
Isobel wriggled off her stool, her knees brushing against Eddie’s damp and wrinkled trousers. “Professor Higgins. I thought I was here to listen to your views following a talk you gave to my staff a short while ago.”
That was true. Talking to staff was one of the jobs of the scientific adviser. So far, Eddie had only talked to them once but it was enough. He’d walked around their manufacturing area but found senior staff boring, disinterested, arrogant, flippant and, quite frankly, rude.
Isobel was now facing him at eye level so he stood because his mother had always told him to stand if a seated lady, he was conversing with stood.
“True,” he said, “Because according to your letter you had concerns about the way your business was being run. You’re in the cosmetics and health products business and you’ve appointed a scientific adviser. Well, here I am – advising.”
It was Isobel’s turn to sniff. “Professional advice is one thing. Personal views are quite another.”
Eddie shook his head. “Not so. For a scientist, different sets of opinion must be allowed to overlap until indisputable facts tilt opinion one way or another. And, anyway, the message I received was that you wanted opinions on staff motivation and commitment, not just their scientific knowledge. That is a pity because as none of your staff are properly qualified their ability to question my questions was limited. But it was as if you were suspicious of goings on within your own company. Am I right?”
She sniffed again so he knew he was right.
“If so, then as your scientific adviser and as I am not at all clear who I actually report to, I would like to say that operations at Vital Cosmetics give me cause for concern.”
Eddie swallowed half of his tea and wiped his mouth. “So, do you want to hear my views?”
“Yes,” she replied. “That’s why I’m here. And if you are still in any doubt, Professor, you report to me.”
Eddie was pleased she’d cleared up that long-standing question but it was the way she announced it that took him by surprise. It was surprisingly forceful.
At last, she took a reasonable sip of her tea and nibbled on a biscuit. “What qualifications does your chief buyer have?” he asked.
Edie nodded. “That’s him. What is his background?”
“Business, Professor. He was not my appointee. You must understand all the staff were in place before I took over. The chief executive, Nick Carstairs and the finance director, Boris Hamilton, were also in place.”
“He was in banking.”
“The quality manager, Donald McVie?”
“I believe he worked for a local engineering company but why do you ask?”
“I think one or more of them broke into my home.”
That shook her. Isobel’s eyes widened and the thick black eyelashes didn’t move for a full three seconds. “Broke in? Good gracious. How? When?”
“I trod on a blob of chewing gum outside my front door.”
“Both Lester and McVie chew gum.”
“Do they? But it could have been the postman or a delivery driver.”
“Perhaps, but let’s see what the finger prints tell us.”
“Finger prints? Did you call the police?”
“Finger prints found in dust are being looked at by my private investigator.”
“Private investigator? Good gracious. But why on earth would anyone break in.”
“To steal my krabok nuts, Baroness.”
“Your nuts?” she repeated.
“And to steal my personal information and private correspondence.”
“Your private correspondence? Why?”
“Let’s begin with my nuts,” Eddie said. “Drums of krabok nut oil are used in some of your cosmetics. Right? They could be valuable to Vital Cosmetics. What’s more, during my jungle forays in South East Asia - which I conduct twice a year, by the way - I came across a type of krabok tree that produced three times as much of a certain vital component as normal. Those trees could become very valuable in cosmetics. Far more interesting to me, however, is that these trees produce an interesting oil that could be extremely valuable in medicine. However, Baroness, that is all very unlikely as those trees were also stolen.”
Eddie stopped at that point and watched her fingers playing around her shiny red lips. Her cheeks, too, showed a slightly rosier tinge. “Stolen?” she said.
“Perhaps I should have said illegally felled – taken from a prized and protected national park in northern Thailand.”
Feeling he was making progress, Eddie went on, “So, with regard to concerns about the way your company is run, I’m not a businessman but it’s all about standards. We should all live according to a set of standards. In Vitals’ case staff should be suitably qualified, understand the products they make and sell and should not, whilst being remunerated by Vital, be tempted into doing things on the side that verge on illegality.”
He stopped then, wondering whether he’d gone too far but it was Mark Dobson, his private investigator friend, who had sown many of Eddie’s suspicions.
He watched Isobel remount the stool, wriggle and pull her skirt down to almost cover her knees. She sipped her tea once more, pushed the rogue strand of hair from her face and took a deep breath. Then came the minor capitulation that Mark Dobson had forecast when he knew Eddie was meeting the lady in charge.
“We all have to make the best of whatever we inherit,” she said.
Eddie had just dunked half a biscuit and lost it to the depths of his cup of tea. He decided to search for it later. “I think, Baroness, that what you’ve inherited is a business philosophy of cutting corners, contempt for quality assurance and total disregard for science, international law and the environment. And, personally, I would never have employed any of your senior management team. How does that make you feel?”
“Mmm,” Isobel murmured. “Bad enough to seek some help, Professor Higgins. A public scandal would not be good for anyone. Despite your obvious passion, your conclusions are, I admit, not too different from my own. The burglary is new though.”
Eddie wiped tea from his nose and mouth but his glasses fell off and landed close to Isobel’s bare ankles. Briefly unsure what to do he, nevertheless, bent down, took a quick look at red, toenail varnish, retrieved them and hooked then back over his ears. A wave of heat then passed over him that he attributed to the exertion of bending over. “Yes,” he stalled. “I was planning some direct action of my own but phoned the international commercial crime investigator instead.”
Suddenly Eddie felt sorry for her. Sometimes, he had to admit, he was a little too harsh on people. Students mostly laughed when he left the room but he had, once, made one cry. The memory of her screwed up face and the trembling lower lip still lingered. He looked at Isobel over the top of his glasses thinking he’d never seen a face with such evenly distributed features before It wasn’t just the eyebrows. One side of her face was a perfect mirror image of the other.
“Would you like lunch?” he said quietly. “If it’s not too crowded, I often eat at Greggs. They do a very nice cheese and ham baguette.”