A Discovery of Witches / Chapter 5

Chapter 5


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After dinner I sat down on the sofa by the sitting room's dormant fireplace and switched on my laptop. Why would a scientist of Clairmont's caliber want to see an alchemical manuscript-even one under a spel -so much that he'd sit at the Bodleian al day, across from a witch, and read through old notes on morphogenesis? His business card was tucked into one of the pockets of my bag. I fished it out, propping it up against the screen.

On the Internet, below an unrelated link to a murder mystery and the unavoidable hits from social-networking sites, a string of biographical listings looked promising: his faculty Web page, a Wikipedia article, and links to the current fel ows of the Royal Society.

I clicked on the faculty Web page and snorted. Matthew Clairmont was one of those faculty members who didn't like to post any information-even academic information-on the Net. On Yale's Web site, a visitor could get contact information and a complete vita for practical y every member of the faculty. Oxford clearly had a different attitude toward privacy. No wonder a vampire taught here.

There hadn't been a hit for Clairmont at the hospital, though the affiliation was on his card. I typed "John Radcliffe Neurosciences" into the search box and was led to an overview of the department's services. There wasn't a single reference to a physician, however, only a lengthy list of research interests. Clicking systematical y through the terms, I final y found him on a page dedicated to the "frontal lobe," though there was no additional information.

The Wikipedia article was no help at al , and the Royal Society's site was no better. Anything useful hinted at on the main pages was hidden behind passwords. I had no luck imagining what Clairmont's user name and password might be and was refused access to anything at al after my sixth incorrect guess.

Frustrated, I entered the vampire's name into the search engines for scientific journals.

"Yes." I sat back in satisfaction.

Matthew Clairmont might not have much of a presence on the Internet, but he was certainly active in the scholarly literature. After clicking a box to sort the results by date, I was provided with a snapshot of his intel ectual history.

My initial sense of triumph faded. He didn't have one intel ectual history. He had four.

The first began with the brain. Much of it was beyond me, but Clairmont seemed to have made a scientific and medical reputation at the same time by studying how the brain's frontal lobe processes urges and cravings. He'd made several major breakthroughs related to the role that neural mechanisms play in delayed-gratification responses, al of which involved the prefrontal cortex. I opened a new browser window to view an anatomical diagram and locate which bit of the brain was at issue.

Some argued that al scholarship is thinly veiled autobiography. My pulse jumped. Given that Clairmont was a vampire, I sincerely hoped delayed gratification was something he was good at.

My next few clicks showed that Clairmont's work took a surprising turn away from the brain and toward wolves- Norwegian wolves, to be precise. He must have spent a considerable amount of time in the Scandinavian nights in the course of his research-which posed no problem for a vampire, considering their body temperature and ability to see in the dark. I tried to imagine him in a parka and grubby clothes with a notepad in the snow-and failed.

After that, the first references to blood appeared.

While the vampire was with the wolves in Norway, he'd started analyzing their blood to determine family groups and inheritance patterns. Clairmont had isolated four clans among the Norwegian wolves, three of which were indigenous. The fourth he traced back to a wolf that had arrived in Norway from Sweden or Finland. There was, he concluded, a surprising amount of mating across packs, leading to an exchange of genetic material that influenced species evolution.

Now he was tracing inherited traits among other animal species as wel as in humans. Many of his most recent publications were technical-methods for staining tissue samples and processes for handling particularly old and fragile DNA.

I grabbed a fistful of my hair and held tight, hoping the pressure would increase blood circulation and get my tired synapses firing again. This made no sense. No scientist could produce this much work in so many different subdisciplines. Acquiring the skil s alone would take more than a lifetime- a human lifetime, that is.

A vampire might wel pul it off, if he had been working on problems like this over the span of decades. Just how old was Matthew Clairmont behind that thirty-something face?

I got up and made a fresh cup of tea. With the mug steaming in one hand, I rooted through my bag until I found my mobile and punched in a number with my thumb.

One of the best things about scientists was that they always had their phones. They answered them on the second ring, too.

"Christopher Roberts."

"Chris, it's Diana Bishop."

"Diana!" Chris's voice was warm, and there was music blaring in the background. "I heard you won another prize for your book. Congratulations!"

"Thanks," I said, shifting in my seat. "It was quite unexpected."

"Not to me. Speaking of which, how's the research going? Have you finished writing your keynote?"

"Nowhere near," I said. That's what I should be doing, not tracking down vampires on the Internet. "Listen, I'm sorry to bother you in the lab. Do you have a minute?"

"Sure." He shouted for someone to turn down the noise. It remained at the same volume. "Hold on." There were muffled sounds, then quiet. "That's better," he said sheepishly. "The new kids are pretty high energy at the beginning of the semester."

"Grad students are always high energy, Chris." I felt a tiny pang at missing the rush of new classes and new students.

"You know it. But what about you? What do you need?"

Chris and I had taken up our faculty positions at Yale in the same year, and he wasn't supposed to get tenure either. He'd beaten me to it by a year, picking up a MacArthur Fel owship along the way for his bril iant work as a molecular biologist.

He didn't behave like an aloof genius when I cold-cal ed him to ask why an alchemist might describe two substances heated in an alembic as growing branches like a tree. Nobody else in the chemistry department had been interested in helping me, but Chris sent two Ph.D. students to get the materials necessary to re-create the experiment, then insisted I come straight to the lab. We'd watched through the wal s of a glass beaker while a lump of gray sludge underwent a glorious evolution into a red tree with hundreds of branches. We'd been friends ever since.

I took a deep breath. "I met someone the other day."

Chris whooped. He'd been introducing me to men he'd met at the gym for years.

"There's no romance," I said hastily. "He's a scientist."

"A gorgeous scientist is exactly what you need. You need a chal enge-and a life."

"Look who's talking. What time did you leave the lab yesterday? Besides, there's already one gorgeous scientist in my life," I teased.

"No changing the subject."

"Oxford is such a smal town, I'm bound to keep running into him. And he seems to be a big deal around here." Not strictly true, I thought, crossing my fingers, but close enough. "I've looked up his work and can understand some of it, but I must be missing something, because it doesn't seem to fit together."

"Tel me he's not an astrophysicist," Chris said. "You know I'm weak on physics."

"You're supposed to be a genius."

"I am," he said promptly. "But my genius doesn't extend to card games or physics. Name, please." Chris tried to be patient, but no one's brain moved fast enough for him.

"Matthew Clairmont." His name caught in the back of my throat, just as the scent of cloves had the night before.

Chris whistled. "The elusive, reclusive Professor Clairmont." Gooseflesh rose on my arms. "What did you do, put him under a spel with those eyes of yours?"

Since Chris didn't know I was a witch, his use of the word "spel " was entirely accidental. "He admires my work on Boyle."

"Right," Chris scoffed. "You turned those crazy blue-and- gold starbursts on him and he was thinking about Boyle's law? He's a scientist, Diana, not a monk. And he is a big deal, incidental y."

"Real y?" I said faintly.

"Real y. He was a phenom, just like you, and started publishing while he was stil a grad student. Good stuff, not crap-work you'd be happy to have your name on if you managed to produce it over the course of a career."

I scanned my notes, scratched out on a yel ow legal pad.

"This was his study of neural mechanisms and the prefrontal cortex?"

"You've done your homework," he said approvingly. "I didn't fol ow much of Clairmont's early work-his chemistry is what interests me-but his publications on wolves caused a lot of excitement."

"How come?"

"He had amazing instincts-why the wolves picked certain places to live, how they formed social groups, how they mated. It was almost like he was a wolf, too."

"Maybe he is." I tried to keep my voice light, but something bitter and envious bloomed in my mouth and it came out harshly instead.

Matthew Clairmont didn't have a problem using his preternatural abilities and thirst for blood to advance his career. If the vampire had been making the decisions about Ashmole 782 on Friday night, he would have touched the manuscript's il ustrations. I was sure of it.

"It would have been easier to explain the quality of his work if he were a wolf," Chris said patiently, ignoring my tone. "Since he isn't, you just have to admit he's very good.

He was elected to the Royal Society on the basis of it, after they published his findings. People were cal ing him the next Attenborough. After that, he dropped out of sight for a while."

I'll bet he did. "Then he popped up again, doing evolution and chemistry?"

"Yeah, but his interest in evolution was a natural progression from the wolves."

"So what is it about his chemistry that interests you?"

Chris's voice got tentative. "Wel , he's behaving like a scientist does when he's discovered something big."

"I don't understand." I frowned.

"We get jumpy and weird. We hide in our labs and don't go to conferences for fear we might say something and help someone else have a breakthrough."

"You behave like wolves." I now knew a great deal about wolves. The possessive, guarded behaviors Chris described fit the Norwegian wolf nicely.

"Exactly." Chris laughed. "He hasn't bitten anyone or been caught howling at the moon?"

"Not that I'm aware of," I murmured. "Has Clairmont always been so reclusive?"

"I'm the wrong person to ask," Chris admitted. "He does have a medical degree, and must have seen patients, although he never had any reputation as a clinician. And the wolves liked him. But he hasn't been at any of the obvious conferences in the past three years." He paused. "Wait a minute, though, there was something a few years back."

"What?"

"He gave a paper-I can't remember the particulars- and a woman asked him a question. It was a smart question, but he was dismissive. She was persistent. He got irritated and then mad. A friend who was there said he'd never seen anybody go from courteous to furious so fast."

I was already typing, trying to find information about the controversy. "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, huh? There's no sign of the ruckus online."

"I'm not surprised. Chemists don't air their dirty laundry in public. It hurts al of us at grant time. We don't want the bureaucrats thinking we're high-strung megalomaniacs. We leave that to the physicists."

"Does Clairmont get grants?"

"Oho. Yes. He's funded up to his eyebal s. Don't you worry about Professor Clairmont's career. He may have a reputation for being contemptuous of women, but it hasn't dried up the money. His work is too good for that."

"Have you ever met him?" I asked, hoping to get Chris's judgment of Clairmont's character.

"No. You probably couldn't find more than a few dozen people who could claim they had. He doesn't teach. There are lots of stories, though-he doesn't like women, he's an intel ectual snob, he doesn't answer his mail, he doesn't take on research students."

"Sounds like you think that's al nonsense."

"Not nonsense," Chris said thoughtful y. "I'm just not sure it matters, given that he might be the one to unlock the secrets of evolution or cure Parkinson's disease."

"You make him sound like a cross between Salk and Darwin."

"Not a bad analogy, actual y."

"He's that good?" I thought of Clairmont studying the Needham papers with ferocious concentration and suspected he was better than good.

"Yes." Chris dropped his voice. "If I were a betting man, I'd put down a hundred dol ars that he'l win a Nobel before he dies."

Chris was a genius, but he didn't know that Matthew Clairmont was a vampire. There would be no Nobel-the vampire would see to that, to preserve his anonymity. Nobel Prize winners have their photos taken.

"It's a bet," I said with a laugh.

"You should start saving up, Diana, because you're going to lose this one." Chris chuckled.

He'd lost our last wager. I'd bet him fifty dol ars that he'd be tenured before I was. His money was stuck inside the same frame that held his picture, taken the morning the MacArthur Foundation had cal ed. In it, Chris was dragging his hands over his tight black curls, a sheepish smile lighting his dark face. His tenure had fol owed nine months later.

"Thanks, Chris. You've been a big help," I said sincerely.

"You should get back to the kids. They've probably blown something up by now."

"Yeah, I should check on them. The fire alarms haven't gone off, which is a good sign." He hesitated. "'Fess up, Diana. You're not worried about saying the wrong thing if you see Matthew Clairmont at a cocktail party. This is how you behave when you're working on a research problem.

What is it about him that's hooked your imagination?"

Sometimes Chris seemed to suspect I was different. But there was no way to tel him the truth.

"I have a weakness for smart men."

He sighed. "Okay, don't tel me. You're a terrible liar, you know. But be careful. If he breaks your heart, I'l have to kick his ass, and this is a busy semester for me."

"Matthew Clairmont isn't going to break my heart," I insisted. "He's a col eague-one with broad reading interests, that's al ."

"For someone so smart, you real y are clueless. I bet you ten dol ars he asks you out before the week is over."

I laughed. "Are you ever going to learn? Ten dol ars, then -or the equivalent in British sterling-when I win."

We said our good-byes. I stil didn't know much about Matthew Clairmont-but I had a better sense of the questions that remained, most important among them being why someone working on a breakthrough in evolution would be interested in seventeenth-century alchemy.

I surfed the Internet until my eyes were too tired to continue. When the clocks struck midnight, I was surrounded by notes on wolves and genetics but was no closer to unraveling the mystery of Matthew Clairmont's interest in Ashmole 782.


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