“Black C.A.S.T.L.E.” Chapter XIX – Uncertainty

For the first time since this whole thing started what seemed like hours ago, Kacie felt like she had the upper hand. The gunmen were clearly after something in the chem lab. But what was it? This was an FDA-approved lab, but busting into one of the most secure facilities on the planet just to swipe a few prescription pain pills or laughably small quantities of Schedule 1 drugs was insanity. Either these guys weren’t as smart as they thought they were, or they were after something else entirely.

She moved through the department, getting her bearings. Just inside the doors was a liquid nitrogen filling station and a small cabinet stocked with thermal gloves, aprons, and dewars. Beyond this, the central corridor ran down the length of the space with labs budding off on either side of it behind closed doors. Each door had a rectangular window of safety glass; large, double-paned windows of the same were on either side of the doors, revealing the work going on within. Kacie couldn’t tell one lab from the next except for the varying names on the placards outside of them. They all had long black-topped lab benches, racks upon racks of glassware, and an array of machines that ran from a basic microwave to cutting-edge chromatographs and spectrometers. Kacie looked in on each of these labs like they were displays in a museum, but she didn’t come across anything that grabbed her attention.

Kacie continued down the hall, past a bright yellow, floor-to-ceiling flammable storage cabinet and a cart of dirty glassware some intern had neglected to take to the washer before leaving for the weekend. At the end of the hall, a vast area opened up, one that featured row upon row of lab benches overtopped with shelving packed full of supplies: infinite bottles of all shapes and sizes, some in clear or brown glass, others in opaque plastic; countless boxes of KIMWIPES and parafilm wrap; an endless display of pipettes and the rainbow of color-coordinated tips that went with them; beakers and flasks; bunsen burners; balances; and test tube racks. Nothing unusual. Nothing worth stealing, really.

Out of curiosity, Kacie walked the perimeter of the sprawling common lab. One bench featured an elaborate setup that involved a slowly churning peristaltic pump pushing a clear, viscous liquid through what appeared to be miles of tubing. The other benchtops were relatively clear of clutter. Along the wall, fume hoods were dark and quiet, except for one which had a Rube Goldberg-esque construction of glassware, hot plates, and stir plates; it looked to Kacie to be some sort of distillation setup, but it wasn’t running at the moment. Electrical equipment stood shoulder to shoulder with each other against the wall in the spaces between the hoods. The revolving table of an incubator/shaker was slowly swirling a beaker some unknown liquid around at 37°C while its experimenter was away. A mass spec. stood resolutely while its little green indicator light blinked to announce that it was ready and willing to serve. Refrigerators and freezers hummed pleasantly along.

Freezers, thought Kacie suddenly. She found herself thinking about Michael, not with concern exactly, but with a sort of thread of connection–a solution–that teased her, offering itself up but not quite coming out into the open. Michael worked in the chem lab before coming to our department. Was that coincidence or part of some long-term plan?

While her mind churned over the possibility that Michael Martin could be the connecting link to all of this trouble, Kacie let her feet guide her aimlessly around the vast shared lab space. The passage around one corner of the lab had been made narrower by a dolly stacked with six cardboard biohazard boxes that were taped up and ready to be hauled away to the incinerator. Kacie absentmindedly bumped her hip against one of the boxes as she tried to pass. Its contents made a strange sound, not the expected clink of broken glassware, nor the subtle rattle of used pipette tips in their disposal bags. It was a crystalline, crunching sound, like light steps over fine gravel or the tilt of a salt shaker.

The odd noise was enough to grab Kacie’s attention; the sticker on the side of the box–the one featuring a cartoon man in white overalls giving a thumbs up–was more than enough to hold it. She had been so preoccupied with trying to unravel the threads related to Michael that she’d nearly missed the biggest single knot yet. There was nothing odd about biohazard boxes stacked and waiting for disposal, nor anything strange about that little cartoon man … except for the fact that Kacie kept seeing his smiling face turn up every time she had a run-in with one of the gunmen.

Kacie tried to lift one of the boxes to set it on the floor so she could investigate its contents. It wouldn’t budge. It felt like it was nearly twice her own weight, a ridiculous amount for what should be a box full of broken glassware and disposed plastic bits. She plucked at the tape that secured the lid and, getting a fingernail under one corner of it, ripped it free.

As she pulled back the cardboard flaps and got her first look at what someone had gone through so much trouble to hide in plain sight, and what others had killed to possess, she still couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.


Image of PPG Place via Derek Jensen(Tysto), Wikimedia Commons

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