As the early morning sun penetrates the rising mist around Oxford University’s Magdalen College, Professor Giles Butterfield, alone at his desk after sleepless night, has been struggling with a huge dilemma.
It has now been several months since Ahmad Sharif of the Middle East Centre for Cancer and AIDS Research (MECCAR) had stunned Western scientists with his discovery of the Achilles gene. As each copy has the potential to cause its cell to commit suicide should it ever become cancerous, the breakthrough had promised a universal cure for the disease. But there had been a hitch. Although present in all of us, only the Bedouin tribe in which it had been discovered has the DNA switch to turn it on. And as MECCAR had pledged never to reveal anything unique about the tribe’s genes, it had been up to other scientists to invent an artificial switch for cancer therapy. When Stephen Salomon of the US National Cancer Institute had won the race, naming his creation Deidamia, the Nobel Assembly’s choice for its next Prize in medicine had been unanimous. But Giles suspects Salomon’s achievement may have been fraudulent.
Aware that Salomon has already left for a lecture tour in the run-up to his big day in Stockholm, now only a few weeks away, Giles makes a bold decision. Hastily packing his bags and leaving a note for his secretary, he departs for Washington to search Salomon’s office for the evidence that would settle the matter one way or the other.
What he finds late at night seems to confirm his worst fears – Deidamia’s genetic code written in Ahmad Sharif’s handwriting on an article about the Achilles gene. Aware that Salomon had recently attended the same cancer congress in Sorrento as Sharif, Giles concludes he must have stolen the document and published the Bedouin’s switch in the guise of his own creation, Deidamia. As Sharif had drowned in the hotel pool during the same congress, and MECCAR was under its perpetual oath of secrecy, nobody would ever know the truth.
When Giles informs Salomon’s boss Hank Weinberg, Director of the National Institutes of Health, about his find, Hank calls Salomon in Paris for an explanation. Salomon assures Hank that, although the handwriting might look like Sharif’s, it is not the case. He had created Deidamia and written the note himself, long before attending the congress. As evidence, he emails Hank a document whose date purports to prove this was so.
Upon returning to his hotel, Giles is surprised to find Fiona Cameron, his laboratory assistant in Oxford, sitting in the lobby, having taken it upon herself to follow him. She suggests that Salomon could have created the document and falsified its date after receiving Hank’s call. And if that were the case, evidence of the crime should be sitting in his laptop. But what sort of evidence would it be?
That evening, Fiona determines there would actually be two smoking guns, not just one, on Salomon’s hard drive. But how could they prove it?
After flying to Cape Town in the hope of persuading Giles’ brother Conrad, an IT security expert, to spy inside Salomon’s laptop, he reluctantly agrees to write two scripts of malicious code - Adonis and Aphrodite. Giles emails them to Salomon in attachments. When Salomon opens them, Adonis locates a folder that Fiona believes would contain the first piece of evidence and emails a copy back to Giles. Aphrodite, a Trojan backdoor, awaits her moment.
Upon opening the folder received from Adonis, Giles is distraught to see it does not contain the incriminating file. Had it never been there? Or had it been deleted when Salomon had added a new document to the folder? Certain that Conrad would now withdraw his cooperation, and they would never know the truth, Giles quietly fabricates the missing file before showing the folder to him.
The following morning, Giles flies to Stockholm, where he arranges to meet the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Gunnar Eriksson. With the ceremony now only a few hours away, Giles shows him the faked file. Alarmed by what he sees, Gunnar takes Giles to his apartment and leaves him there with his colleague Henrik Olsen before continuing to the ceremony
When Giles calls Conrad from Gunnar’s study to activate Aphrodite, he is alarmed to find he is in Groote Schuur Hospital about to have surgery for acute appendicitis. But Conrad has managed the crisis. While still on the theatre trolley, he instructs Aphrodite from his laptop to spy inside Salomon's computer. Would she find the second smoking gun that would prove Salomon’s guilt with Henrik as a witness? Or had also it never been there?
As Aphrodite obeys Conrad’s step-by-step commands, Giles follows her progress on an image of Salomon’s screen projected to his own. When, to his great relief, she finds the second smoking gun Fiona had predicted, Giles sends a text message to Gunnar, who stops the ceremony just as Salomon is about to receive his medal from the king. The police arrive to escort Salomon for questioning.
Days later, after a whirlwind tour of interviews, Giles is returning to Oxford. Although a hero’s welcome awaits him, he is plagued by doubts. Was it true, as Salomon had since claimed to the police, that he had come upon the Achilles article by accident, leaving him with no moral alternative but to publish the details of the Bedouin’s switch as his own invention? Or had he stolen it from Ahmad Sharif? Could the two pretty girls who had accompanied Salomon to the congress not have been his latest research fellows, as he had asserted, but there to seduce Sharif into revealing Deidamia’s details? And had Sharif’s drowning not been an accident, as the Carabinieri had concluded, but an outcome with a more sinister explanation? Could there be much more to MECCAR, Achilles, and Deidamia than the world yet knows?
(Continued in Part 2 of The Waynflete Trilogy, Deidamia’s Surprise)
Giles Butterfield was not a man from whom other dons in Oxford University’s Magdalen College had come to expect surprises or heroic exploits. As the Marchese di San Marzano Professor of Genetics for longer than he cared to remember, the maverick ways of his former years in Liverpool University had long since waned. In the great maritime city that had grown so close to his heart his adventurous spirit and disregard for convention had led friends and students alike always to expect the unexpected from their favourite boffin. But to the disappointment of those who had kept in touch, all that had seemed to have been left on Lime Street Station’s platform one wet and windy October morning.
His move south had also affected him in other ways. In Flanagan’s Apple or Kelly’s Dispensary, his regular haunts of a Saturday evening, the sight of his stocky figure in the doorway, tossing his battered Barmah onto the coat stand or propping his umbrella against the wall, had always been a cause for celebration by those already on their first. But in Oxford’s smart bars and bistros the banter and yarns that had been so in tune with the Merseyside character were now rarely heard. Only during his increasingly frequent trips to congresses would they return for the benefit of overseas colleagues and new acquaintances.
“You mightn’t believe me,” he would often quip after a glass or two in the hotel bar, “but inside Bishop Waynflete’s crumbling walls, I’m like a re-corked bottle of bubbly, long abandoned in a fridge door. They all think I’ve gone flat, lost my fizz. But I haven’t, you know. One day someone will leave that bloody door open., .and pop., .you won’t be able to see me for froth. I don’t know when, and I don’t know why. But mark my words, happen it will.”
He had never understood Magdalen’s effect upon him. Perhaps the move south had been too late in life, or too soon after the death of Hillary, his beloved wife of more than twenty years. But he did know it had started the first time he’d crossed St John’s Quad from the Porters’ Lodge to knock uneasily on the door of the President’s Lodgings. He would never forget that moment, as he waited in the now-familiar Oxfordshire drizzle, listening to Sir Quentin Philpot’s heavy footsteps on the lobby’s cold stone floor. It was as if all the magnificent old buildings around him—the Great Tower behind, the Founder’s on his right, the Grammar Hall to his left—were peering down in toffee-nosed indignation, wondering what on earth he was doing there.
His adjustment had been made all the more difficult by his disenchantment with so many of his new colleagues. This was particularly true of three elderly emeritus fellows, who would occasionally turn up for no apparent reason other than to chat on the lawns with Sir Quentin, shaking his hand graciously and patting him on the back like good old chums. He had never got to know them properly, always instinctively steering clear and viewing them with curiosity from a distance, as if repelled like opposite poles of a magnet. Having looked them up in the College’s website, he knew their academic records were no less than one would expect. But why be so pompous about it, so irritatingly self-satisfied?
“How could such great minds”, he would ask in moments of jaded cynicism, “once such rich loam for germinating forests of new ideas, now serve only as clay for cultivating laurels?”
They couldn’t always have been like that.could they? By nature, academics are not in that mould. Perhaps Magdalen does that to you, he feared, and sooner or later he would join them. Heaven forbid!
Although conscious his attitude was irrational, and likely down to prejudice after so many years in the Northwest, he’d never been able to shake it off. Unreasonable it might be, foolish even, it nevertheless had become immutably ingrained in his psyche. And that troubled him. It also strained his relationships with other members of the College, unencumbered as they were by the same bigotry.
How often had he bemoaned not having heeded the advice of his brother, Conrad, now enjoying life as an executive of a computer security firm in Cape Town.
“For all your intellect and erudition, Giles,” he’d exhorted during one of their tramps among the Drakensbergs, “you’re not the Oxbridge type. Liverpool changed you. Deep down, you’re a Scouser at heart now, and you know it. For God’s sake, man, stay put!”
But he couldn’t stay put. He’d had itchy feet ever since spending his boyhood with their diplomat parents, as they toured the Middle East from one embassy to another, while Conrad stayed in his West Sussex boarding school with his rugby pals. If it had been any other college, he might have turned a deaf ear to Sir Quentin’s overtures. But the lure of a life among Magdalen’s manicured gardens, its quiet quadrangles and wisteria-clad cloisters, had been too strong to resist. And what dyed-in-the-wool academic would not have chosen to be a part of that peerless history of scholarship?
Even now, after so many years, he would gaze through the New Library’s windows of a winter’s eve, and picture the spirits of the College’s greatest gathering on the moonlit lawn below. The scene was always pretty much the same. Ahead of the rest would be Erwin Schrodinger, the atomic physicist whose famous equation, framed in gold, hung over Giles’s bedhead as a constant reminder of his own brain’s limitations. Howard Florey, Australia’s “lord of penicillin”, would arrive next, chatting to his compatriot John Eccles, while that other great neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington listened attentively from behind. Peter Medawar, the immunologist whose work had paved the way to organ transplantation, would emerge from Longwall Street with Robert Robinson, the wizard of molecular puzzle-solving at a time when chemistry had been as much an art as a science. Alfred Denning, “the greatest judge that ever lived,” would appear from the library itself in the company of Edward Gibbon, hugging a volume of his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Oscar Wilde and John Betjeman might squeeze through the High Street door in animated jocularity after a night in the Eagle and Child, followed at a studied distance by C.S. Lewis. And so it went on. But he needed more than spirits. He needed spirit itself.
It had not all been pain. Indeed, there were many things about the place that he cherished. His cosy office and adjoining reading room in St. Swithun’s, entered from the wide archway that divides the building, were Sir Quentin’s reward for a large donation Giles had secured from an Italian aristocrat. With windows on both sides ensuring the benefit of any sunshine on offer, and oak doors and walls of Headington stone uninterrupted quiet, they were a haven where he could work from dawn until dusk. A second bequest from a wealthy Russian, whose son he had diagnosed with a rare inherited disease, had given him the unique privilege of a small laboratory in the New Building, overlooking the Deer Park. Though cramped and rather poorly designed, it was adequate for his purpose and wonderfully convenient. These boons, along with his neat terraced house in Holywell Street, just a stroll from the College’s gates, had kept him there in spite of everything. Like the old tweed jacket he was inclined to wear this time of the year, although it ill-suited him in many ways, Magdalen had been too comfortable to discard.
Though still cited in the top journals, his celebrated work on poxviruses was now behind him. At the behest of the Marchese, whose sister had died of leukaemia, he had switched his research to cancer genes. Although this had been less successful, he and his young Scottish assistant, Fiona Cameron, were satisfied with their achievements nevertheless. Lately, with his retirement in Italy on the horizon, he had been leaving the practical work to her, devoting himself to teaching the students, his autobiography, and his sideline of medical journalism.
He had been a regular contributor to The Oxford Times ever since impressing the editor, a distant relative, with a short article on stem cells. His latest piece was about the recent announcement in Stockholm that the next Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was to be awarded to Dr Stephen Salomon, Director of the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, near Washington, DC. Having covered all the Nobel Prizes for the past eight years, he knew exactly what to do. An anecdote to stimulate the reader’s curiosity would be followed by an outline of the subject matter in question. After that would come a biographical sketch of the Laureate, and finally a description of the breakthrough for which the great honour was to be conferred, usually with an illustration or two prepared by Fiona.
To date all his Nobel pieces had been about a field of medicine of which he was not an expert. Indeed, this was one of the things he liked about the job. For there was nothing he enjoyed more than a few days alone in the libraries, delving into the origin of an important medical advance. With the help of the Internet, he could have done most of it without leaving his desk. But writing about a Nobel Prize was something special. He wanted to go back in time, get close to the people involved, sense the thrill of discovery they had experienced as one stepping stone had led to the next. And the only way of doing that was to feel the print in his hands. Seeing a breakthrough paper for the first time in a long-neglected issue of a journal, dog-eared and dust-covered, in a dimly lit basement, its pages yellowing and musty, was always a moment of great emotion.
But this year it had been different. There had been no bespectacled ladies to harass at their desks, no stacks of creaking shelves to climb, no dust to sweep away with his handkerchief. For the field the Nobel Committee had chosen this time was his very own: the business of what goes wrong inside a cell to make it cancerous, senselessly multiplying out of control until it kills the entire organism of which it was once just a tiny part. On top of that, the winner was an old friend with whom he had spent a year of sabbatical leave. He had worked beside him at the laboratory bench, shared his coffee and doughnuts while debating politics in his office, even suffered a ball game or two. They had not seen each other for quite a while, but Stephen Salomon had remained a part of his life ever since.
As the article that had so impressed the Nobel Assembly had reported the creation of an artificial piece of DNA that promised to revolutionise the treatment of cancer, he had picked up his pen (for on these occasions he always reverted to handwriting) with a buzz of excitement. But as time went on, his mood had slowly changed. With great reluctance, he had started to suspect there was something irregular about his friend’s widely acclaimed scientific paper. In fact, if his fears were right, it would be more than irregular; it would be the biggest case of scientific fraud since the Piltdown Man. After much anguish and soul-searching, he had come to the unwelcome conclusion that he would have to do something about it. And with Stockholm’s big day now only five weeks away, there was no time to waste. But what should he do?
It had become obvious to all in the College, from the President to the gardeners, that something was bothering the old boy. By day sitting alone on a bench in the Fellows’ Garden or University Parks, by night brooding in his office or aimlessly perusing shelves in one of the libraries, his mood had become a recurring topic of conversation. On his rare visits to the Senior Common Room, he would be disinclined to talk, eating little more than an apple and a piece of cheese, or a roll with a bowl of soup, before excusing himself with his customary courtesy. Later, in the Smoking Room, if he went there at all, he would sink into a chair with a magazine, picked up at random from the many on offer, and suck on a long-abandoned briar he had resurrected from his cottage, all the noisier for being empty.
“Giles is definitely up to something,” the others would whisper over their cups. “Better leave him to it. No doubt we’ll know sooner or later.”
And how right they were! For on that bright and blustery November morning, as he scurried from his office to catch the coach to Heathrow, his briefcase bulging and his crumpled trousers betraying a sleepless night, it would not be long before they, and the entire world, would learn the unimaginable story he was about to expose.
By the time he had reached Gloucester Green bus station, panting and perspiring from the unaccustomed effort, the next coach to Heathrow was ready to leave. After struggling onboard apologetically and paying the driver, he made himself comfortable by a window and tried to relax while regaining his breath. But it was impossible. He was shaking from head to foot in a way he’d not experienced since a bout of dengue fever in Cairo many years ago. Perhaps he was about to have a stroke or a coronary, he feared. What with the unremitting stress of the past few days, hardly any sleep last night, and that final desperate dash, anything was possible.
After checking his pulse a couple of times, he turned his unshaven face toward the window to avoid the inquisitive stare of an elderly lady across the aisle. As the bus made its way down High Street, he scanned the familiar scene in the hope of taking his mind off the daunting task that lay ahead. But it did nothing of the sort. Instead, he found himself fixing every detail in his mind—a postman delivering letters to McDonald’s, two students’ bicycles propped against St. Mary’s, a Yorkshire terrier cocking his leg on the steps of The Queen’s College. It’s as if he was creating a photographic record of a great historic event. And then it dawned upon him that that’s exactly what it might be. After all, if he found that his suspicions were justified, he would have made history, wouldn’t he? There would never have been anything like it in the history of the Nobel Prize. Over the years, a few winners had been found to have made major blunders, or to have been less than virtuous in one way or another, but what he had in mind was a very different matter.
On the other hand, if it turned out that Steve had done nothing wrong after all, the news of his own impending crime, which would inevitably leak out sooner or later, would be such an embarrassment to the College that Sir Quentin would surely have no alternative but to let him go. How many Magdalen dons had suffered that humiliation down the centuries?
As the College’s tower disappeared from sight, he wondered what would be waiting for him when it next came into view. A line of cheering secretaries, gardeners, bursars, clerks, and maids to greet their returning hero, while the cooks made preparations for a banquet in his honour? Or only silent glances from those who had witnessed Sir Quentin’s outrage at his sudden unexplained absence, and suffered the disastrous publicity that had followed?
Perhaps he should keep his nose out of it after all, he wondered. It was not too late to get off the coach and forget about it. The driver was bound to stop if he invented some kind of personal crisis at the approaching roundabout—the realisation he had left a suitcase on the pavement, for example, or that he’d locked his cat in the garage. But he’d been through everything a thousand times, hadn’t he? For days he had agonised over the facts, the possibilities, the options, and the ethics, as objectively as he could manage and with a scientist’s attention to detail. And he had made the only decision he could live with, hadn’t he? That he owed it to medicine and to scientists everywhere to do something, anything, to get at the truth. That’s what he had decided, and that’s what he should stick to. And if he made a fool of himself or upset a few people in powerful places, so what?
Fortified with renewed resolve, he opened his briefcase and withdrew the students’ essays on their latest laboratory class. Always conscious of her responsibilities, Fiona had been pressing him for his report for several days. If he didn’t get it done before arriving at Heathrow, it would be too late. He was going to have plenty of other things to think about during the long flight ahead.