Death and Chocolate;Doctor Who;Sarah Jane Smith;Lis Sladen;Third Doctor;Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart;Jon Pertwee;Jeri Massi
Death and Chocolate
Written by Jeri Massi
"Do you know how long the child's been dead?" the Doctor asked.
"That's the deuce of it. The pathologist chap no more than needed a quick look at the body to say it had been frozen for a pretty good period of time before being buried back there---"
Sarah Jane's mouth dropped open in both amazement and horror. "Frozen? You mean, stored away? Like in somebody's basement freezer or something?"
The Brigadier nodded. "Apparently." Then he caught himself. "Miss Smith, you realize you are participating in a privileged conversation. The child has parents some where---"
Her amazement turned to indignation. Her thin eyebrows drew together. "Look here, I have got some ethics---" she began.
But he was still cautious. "Not a word even of the hint of a story can go out from you---"
"You have my promise, Brigadier. It's a pretty tragic mess. I'm not going to make it worse. But I don't work for a tabloid, you know. My editor would respect the family's right to find out first."
"You wonít alert her until I say so?"
"I promise you," she said with a nod.
"Back to the matter at hand," the Doctor said. "What age are we talking about? A child old enough to be lured away? To walk into a dangerous situation?"
"Eleven or twelve," the Brigadier said. "Old enough to set out on his own and be taken by a total stranger."
"Or someone he knew," the Doctor said. "Old enough to consent to go a good distance from all safety---"
"Yes, and then be bound---"
"Bound?" Sarah Jane asked.
He nodded. "He was still bound. Bound before death and severely mistreated, and---the rest of it. All of that was quite apparent."
The Doctor frowned. "Horribly tormented, killed--" He glanced up. "How was he killed? What was the actual cause of death?"
"We donít know yet."
"But the body kept perfectly intact and frozen?" The timelord frowned. "Like preserving the action itself---"
The Brigadier nodded. "The body is in one piece, not dismembered for burial as some killers would do. It was kept in cold storage some where. The pathologist said he would try to let me know, but he's not hopeful, so---" And he glanced at the Doctor.
The Doctor gave a grim nod. "You thought I might have a go with my equipment."
"What do you think? Can you find something on when the lad was killed?"
The time lord ran his hand through his thick white hair. "What I can give you after some study of the tissues is a baseline of possibilities at a given temperature: that he'd been dead so long if stored at 30 degrees; dead so long if stored at 25 degrees; dead so long stored at 20 degrees, and so forth. What I may not be able to do is tell you the length of storage if the body had been frozen and then thawed and re-frozen. I'd have to assume a consistent freezer temperature, and I'd have to assume the body was frozen fairly quickly after death."
"This is awful," Sarah Jane muttered.
"I'm not trying to sound unfeeling, but one aspect of determining how long the body was frozen is the problem of whether it was kept in a frost-free freezer or not, as they go through a temperature variation cycle every few hours," the Doctor added. "If the body was stored in a frost-free unit, there would be almost no way to determine how long it was stored, not from the tissues, anyway."
The Brigadier let out his breath and sat back. "So we may never find out much."
"I didnít say that. Was the body clothed?" The Doctor asked.
"Well the clothing may tell us a lot. And other attributes. When do you want me to look at it?"
"I have to get your identity formalized and make arrangements with the police---"
"Why are you being so cautious?" the Doctor asked him.
"Because of the highly sensitive nature of the case, Doctor. There has not been such a crime committed in these parts since anybody can remember. And---besides---there's a danger in cases like these---"
The Doctor arched an eyebrow. "What?"
"A serial pattern. A sociopath who preys on children---little boys. The police want help from UNIT, but they're not very---cosmopolitan. If they get so much as a hint of you being some sort of stranger---or even an eccentric-----"
"Eccentric? Me?" And the Doctor was truly shocked.
"Yes, Doctor. You. If they don't trust you right off, they'll have none of it."
"Look, what about searching round the freezers here?" Sarah Jane asked. "I mean, the victim was found right on the grounds. If you're concerned about a serial pattern, youíd better get moving before any other bodies are spirited off."
Lethbridge Stewart shook his head. "For one thing, there are no massive freezers here, apart from those accessed daily in the kitchens."
"No of course not," the Doctor added. "Chocolates are never frozen. They're stored at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit."
"And not only that, our police friends up here are certain that the Highlers plant can have nothing to do with the murder." The Brigadier's voice was slightly disgusted.
"Why not?" Sarah Jane asked.
Unit's commanding officer stood up and took up his hat. "Oh, Jack Highlers is quite the squire around here: salt of the earth type, man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Fellow who gives the poor laborer a chance to get ahead." He settled his hat on his head and adjusted it. "He and his workers do a lot of work for St. Nick's the children's hospital---"
"Plenty of opportunity then---" the Doctor began.
"Not one complaint. Not ever." And the Brigadier strode to the door. "However, it does seem that the body of the poor lad was taken from storage some place else and buried hastily in the wood on the back grounds of this facility. Not a stone's throw from a country lane, and nobody's out that way after dark." He stopped and glanced back at them, his hand on the doorknob. "It could easily have been a chap who brought the body out a long way to get rid of it."
"Has Royalty House been alerted?" the Doctor asked.
Lethbridge Stewart nodded. "They've expressed shock and concern. But they want distance from it. Already pointing out that the body was less than 20 yards off the right of way."
"Look, can you get me some information to form a base line?" the Doctor asked.
He cocked his head. "Base line?"
"Yearly overviews of pathology for the area. If we have no idea who the dead young man is, I can at least determine if he's local to the area or not. That may help us deduce where he was born and raised, possibly clue us in on where he was mistreated and killed."
The Brigadier nodded. "I'll see to it. I'm off to set up liaison between UNIT and the local police. Had to check it with Geneva, as it may turn into a significant public matter. But they say to give what help we can to the locals. I'll be in touch, Doctor. Call Benton if you need me. They'll patch you through."
"Do you still want us here?" the Doctor asked.
"Yes, of course. We've still got a report to do on the two suicides and any link to Royalty House. Have a quick look 'round and get back to UNIT as soon as you're ready." And with a nod to Sarah Jane, he strode out and closed the door.
Sarah Jane glanced at the Doctor. "I donít much fancy a tour now. Seems pointless." Her eyes were large.
"Sarah, sociopaths have preyed upon children, upon women, upon men, ever since mankind became smart enough for one twisted person to use terror and force to subdue his fellow man," the Doctor said. He put his hand over hers to give it a reassuring squeeze and was surprised when she suddenly gripped his hand.
He stood up and sat down next to her, and---again to his surprise---she instantly put her arms around him, wanting the sense of his protection. He held her for a moment, her head under his chin. "We'll get it sorted it out," he said. "We'll find whoever did this and make sure he can never do it again."
She didn't move, and the Doctor frowned. This behavior was directly opposite of what one expected of Sarah Jane Smith. "So I need you to be brave and dependable," he said quietly. "I know I can count on you."
"Oh I wish I could stay right here, always," she said, half to herself.
He didn't understand. "At Royalty House?"
"No, no, but it's all right." She looked up at him. "I want you to be able to depend on me. What do you want me to do?"
"Well, finish your breakfast and then get ready for the day. We've got the tour at eleven. Let's go take a look at the inner workings of this place."
At last she let him go. "All right, Doctor. I'm not hungry. I'll get ready for the tour." She made her voice sound brisk, but her eyes were still large, still vulnerable. Something had deeply frightened her, he thought. Or at least made her feel extremely vulnerable. But he let her go to her room to change.
The serving dishes still lay scattered on the coffee table, and in an absent minded way he gathered them up and put them back on the food cart. There were still a few chocolates left in one of the many glass bowls. As he waited for Sarah Jane, he took up the bowl, considered the startling events that lay before them, and in the same absent way took up the chocolates one after another and swallowed them. At the back of his mind, he noted that they were not as smooth and silky on the tongue as what Clarence Lawman sold in his shop, certainly no where near the quality of Lawman's exquisite special line. But then, one wouldnít expect even the finest house of chocolate to leave hand crafted specialties lying about in glass dishes.
"What? Are you standing there eating all my chocolates?" Much more herself, Sarah Jane appeared in her doorway, dressed fashionably in casual slacks and a sweater.
"I'm sure the maid service will re-stock the candy dishes while we're gone," he said. "We've got thirty minutes before the tour starts, let's explore the gardens."
"Sounds good to me. I could do with some fresh air and sunshine."
She linked her arm around his in a companionable way, and he led her out.
* * * *
It was hard to believe that such evil could exist under this fresh spring sky, Lethbridge Stewart thought as his eyes followed two wheeling birds through the office window in the police headquarters. Intense, and yet fresh and vivid, the cloudless sky hosted only the tiny, dark silhouettes of the birds, and sunlight poured down life and good will to everything. Yet only a few rooms away, the body of a child, the rope marks still on his wrists and feet, lay waiting the final series of inspections that would confirm all the atrocities done to him.
How did such evil exist under the scepter of such goodness and promise? Lethbridge Stewart believed in an England of gardens and roses and nightingales, in spite of his daily duties in concrete buildings and paved streets and London crowds. The crowded structures and the jostling bustle of the city had never deterred his confidence in the real countryside version of England. But this, a child abused horribly and killed, his body still bound, tossed into a hastily dug grave, shook his confidence. He was a man who did not like such doubts.
The pathologist walked in just then, and Lethbridge Stewart turned to him and made his voice brisk. "Have you got those tissue samples for UNIT's science team?"
"We'll have them ready for transport to your site in a couple hours. And I brought these." And the medical man, a wiry, worn specimen of the profession, with a moustache so thin one wondered why he had one at all, handed a sheaf of folders to the Brigadier.
Lethbridge Stewart accepted them and cocked an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"What your science advisor requested: overviews. And I donít doubt he'll find something interesting, though it has little to do with this case."
As though he could read scan them, the Brig fanned through the sheets. "What's interesting?"
The smaller man folded his arms. "The higher incidence of stroke in this village and the surrounding farmland since Royalty House built their headquarters here."
Lethbridge Stewart lowered the sheaf of folders and papers and looked at him expectantly, but the pathologist shrugged. "I've made my reports to the NIH. I've pointed out the unusual spike---"
"Nothing. The higher rate of incidence is not enough to be an epidemic, but it is enough of a spike in the statistics to be noteworthy."
"Hasnít the government done anything?"
"Oh yes---commissioned a health study. Came out here and checked the water, checked the sewage, checked the soil content, checked the air quality. Things like that. They come 'round three or four times a year and check the environment."
"And nothing ever's been found?"
He shook his head. "Statistical anomaly: that's the official report, though they keep coming out. They humor me."
"Perhaps it is just an anomaly---a bubble in the bell curve." And Lethbridge Stewart took up his hat. Outside, the day was still disturbingly serene and fresh. He felt a twinge.
The pathologist looked up at him with a squint. "Young man, I've served this area for thirty years, and for twenty-three of there was no such anomaly. The year that Royalty house began operation here was the year the curve ramped up."
"What do your colleagues say?"
"I don't report such things to my colleagues." And now he threw his glance out the window in the general direction of Royalty House. "They're the largest employer for eighty miles. They support the Hospital of St. Nicholas, almost single-handedly. They send the best and brightest of our local young people off to technical training or even university." He squinted back up at the Brigadier. "Before you or I or any other individual interferes with a place that gives hope---even a misplaced hope---to so many people, we'd better be sure we have the facts, the alliances, the support, and the resources to take them on."
"Are you saying youíre afraid of them---of Royalty House?"
"I am afraid of the common man, Brigadier. The common man is often very ignorant of the larger picture, and he acts in the best interest of the environment he understands. Jack Highlers has seized the hearts of the common people here. He knows that any single person who threatens our way of life will likely be removed before he even lifts a finger to say one way or another." He gave a nod to show he was finished. "Good day to you."
The Brigadier put on his hat and went outside in the glorious late morning. The fresh breeze carried a sudden chill, even in the bright sunlight.
* * * *
Her hand still linked in his arm, Sarah Jane let her eyes roam over the vast flower beds of the gardens. Other visitors strolled the flagstone walkways as well, but everybody was waiting for the summons to the grand tour.
"What do you think?" the Doctor asked.
"Well, they're bright enough," she said. "Smell heavenly---"
"But not the masterfully arranged gardens you've seen elsewhere?"
"I've covered more gardens than even you've ever seen," she told him. "Journalists start out with gardens and marrows. Then we work our way up to village elections, disgruntled council members, and so on."
"So does this garden rate highly in your journal of gardens?" He glanced down at her.
She crinkled her nose and shook her head briefly. "The colors donít blend; the design doesn't follow the curve of the land properly. A large garden array like this should look like itís part of the landscape. This looks like somebody just plopped down some flower beds."
He nodded. "Almost overpowering fragrance, though."
"Be nice enough if---hey, look!" And she pointed down the slope. "Is that a greenhouse?"
"A great big greenhouse, I should say." He squinted. "Actually a row of three or four of them, and very high ceilings."
"You donít think they're trying to produce their own cacao on English soil do you?"
"Highlers probably has a research and development team tying to establish something that's hardier than what Mother Nature has provided, and quicker to mature. Cacao is very difficult to mess about with. Fragile."
A brief but clear piping tune of five notes suddenly sounded over the flower beds. "Ah, that's our summons!" He beamed at her. "Let's see how the Jack Highlers process compares with Clarence Lawman's!" They hurried together towards the main building.
A quarter of an hour later, clad in white paper coveralls that were fitted over their clothing, and wearing white papery "booties" the Doctor and Sarah Jane and a dozen other people followed a similarly attired young man down a flight of carpeted steps in the very back of the main building. He led them to a large, vault-like door with a circular handle on it, which he spun around. It turned smoothly under his hands, and the door opened as it was released. Before he led them further, he put a finger to his lips.
"Now, this is a live work zone," he told them. "Chocolate is produced here seven days a week to satisfy the British needs for our confections. So I must ask everybody to stay together on the yellow line as I lead you through the process."
"May we ask questions?" Sarah Jane asked loudly. The Doctor hid a smile. She was having none of this. The paper coveralls, the vault-like door: it was all window dressing, special effects. They were being made to feel the privilege of the tour.
"Yes, you may ask questions," the guide said. "But one at a time, and please keep your voices moderated. Are we ready?"
Everybody nodded, and he led them through.
They passed down a corridor and walked by a window in the wall on the right side that the Doctor recognized as the real security checkpoint for the process.
Beyond that, the walkway opened on to a wide, vast processing area where the large stainless steel tanks were the most noticeable pieces of equipment.
"Now just stay on the yellow line and follow me," the guide said, and he led them past a bank of large enclosed motors whose pipes ran down into the floor.
He stopped before a row of great silver colored tanks. "Before grinding can begin, the beans must first be sorted," he said. "The Highlers process uses the three most typical bean: the aromatic Criollo, the hardy Forasteros, and the delicious Trinitario. We blend our beans carefully and then grind them by blend---"
Sarah Jane's hand popped up. "You donít roast the beans yourself?" she asked.
"Well, no. We purchase them in lots already roasted."
"Wouldnít that damage the flavor then, having some day laborer roasting the beans? If the heat gets too high, you lose the flavor. Up in smoke, as the saying goes."
Startled eyes in the small crowd turned towards her.
"I assure you, young lady, the standard practice is to purchase the beans already roasted, from skilled craftsmen."
"What craftsmen are those then? Is there some sort of guild that does the roasting?"
The Doctor hid a smile. This was Sarah Jane in her element.
But their guide, after a moment of looking rather desperate, suddenly relaxed and laugh. "You know, I am just a tour guide, Miss. I will have to refer your questions to our buyer. He can tell you ever so much about the craftsmen with whom we conduct business. But you'll find no higher standard of quality than the quality of Highlers' Royalty House chocolates."
"What about Clarence Lawman?" she asked. "I like his chocolates a lot."
But he passed over this question. "Come along then. Let's go see the grinding machines."
"Bet he'd like to throw me into one," she muttered to the Doctor.
"You're going to give yourself away as a journalist if you're not careful," he muttered to her.
"I don't care if he knows I'm a journalist. Now that I'm here they won't dare throw me out."
"Are you sure?"
She looked up at him as the small group came to a stop before an enormous platform, its surface slightly curved towards the ceiling. Up above, a roller was poised, ready to come down.
"These days, our grinding process is carried out by automated processing in large, enclosed, milling machines," their guide said. "This older piece of machinery, however, displays how chocolate processing once relied upon machines imitating the hand grinding process---called metate---used for centuries by the South Americans---"
Sarah Jane's hand shot up. "And the machine process works just as well?" she asked.
"Better," he said, and now relief and smugness let them know he was on solid ground. "With machine milling, we can reduce the cocoa powder to smaller than eight microns. Essentially, we create a cocoa dust rather than a powder, and this ultra-refined dust is much smoother on the palate and has a longer 'stay' in the mouth." He addressed the group. "The enjoyment of chocolate relies heavily upon texture and feel of the end product. The sophisticated chocolatier must create a product that lingers like silk, that truly is reluctant, and yet not stubborn, about being swallowed. Excellent chocolates coat the tongue with a velvety softness before going down."
"Velvety softness, now I like that," a voice behind Sarah and the Doctor said. They turned to see a young man, blond with thinning hair. He smiled down at Sarah Jane Smith. "One rarely sees a combination of sophistication, elegance, and velvety, smooth softness," he said. "But those of us who develop the ideal chocolate value such a combination of qualities." He looked up with a sudden grin at their tour guide. "Isnít that right Bob?"
"Oh, Mr. Highlers!" And the tour guide took on a cheerful but definite deference. "What brings you here?"
"Well I was wondering where the tour had got to. Is this young lady peppering you with questions?" And he grinned broadly and then gently shouldered his way through the tour group. "Pardon me, pardon me," he said. He came and stood by the tour guide and beamed at the group, especially Sarah Jane.
"This is Mr. Highlers," the guide said, introducing the blonde young man with a touch of awe.
"That's Jack Highlers?" the Doctor asked.
Light of recognition kindled in the young man's eyes. "No sir, I am David Highlers. I'm general manager of the plant. My father is Jack Highlers. He keeps himself busy in the office side of things these days, but I prefer the manufacturing floor." He glanced at his watch. "Now the tour is running a bit late, so I thought I would take it over and satisfy the young lady's questions." He leaned closer to Bob and said in a mock whisper, "She's a journalist you know!"
The tour guide's jaw dropped in honest alarm, but Sarah Jane was also surprised.
"How did you know that?" she asked.
"I was just catching up to you when I heard you and your----husband?---discussing it."
"He's my father," she snapped, and she saw that the young Highlers did not believe her, but did not mind the deception at all. In fact, he folded his arms across his chest and adopted a satirical school master pose. "Right then Miss. Who sent you? Weight watchers? Some slimming down program? All those run and be fit people? Local jogging club? Vegetarian society?" Then he wagged a finger. "We'll have none of that here. The purpose of Royalty House is to have a smashing good time, so let's go." And without any more interruption, he led them down the yellow line.
Under the smooth expertise of Dave Highlers, the official tour guide was reduced to a yes man, but the young general manager explained the process with a quick expertise and thoroughness. Even Sarah Jane could find no questions to ask for several stations.
At last, Highlers brought the group to an open area where three long, wide troughs, all stainless steel, were filled with thick liquefied chocolate. Wide rakes with paddles instead of teeth combed through the thick substance, leaving swirl patterns that slowly closed up after them. The wide troughs were at a sufficient distance from the walkway to be out of reach, and they were behind plexi glass.
The soft sweeping motion of the sets of paddles through the dark ribbons of chocolate caught everybody's attention.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Highlers asked. "It's actually a pleasure just to watch it. What is this stage called, Miss Smith?"
"Conching," she said, but the Doctor could see that she was slightly embarrassed by Highler's unabashed teasing.
"Yes, conching. It's necessary, if you want to create something truly satisfying, that the chocolate must be completely subjected to the will of the craftsman: roasted a long time without rest, then ground, then even more finely milled, pounded to almost nothing, and then pressed so that every bit of cocoa butter is pressed out of the chocolate." He had his eyes fixed on the troughs. The paddles swept through them, creating long streamers and ribbons in the thick but shining liquid.
"But then, he added, "when you've subjected it to your will and made the cocoa completely compliant, you return all its richness to it, enrobe it in soft cocoa butter, fill it with sweetness, and temper it on your craft table until you have something that a king would kneel to consume." The Doctor glanced at him. Next to him, entranced by the sight of the rhythmic sweeping, the throb of the slow and powerful motors, and Highlers' voice, Sarah Jane seemed to be in some sort of reverie. "In the end," Highlers said. "It comes back to the craftsman with perfect sweetness because of what it's suffered. The mastery of any craft is total mastery."
"Youíre not going to let him get away with that, are you?" the Doctor whispered to her. She looked up at him blankly for a moment.
Highlers turned his gaze to the group, but most of them were staring at the conching display in a reverie. "Any questions?"
"Yes I have a question!" Sarah Jane piped up, and she sounded very pert and sure of herself.
He was startled. Satisfied, and standing behind Sarah Jane, the Doctor folded his arms and fixed smug eyes on Highlers.
"What are you growing in those green houses?" she asked.
"We're not growing anything in those greenhouses," he said at once. "They are unsafe and are off limits to the public."
But his words snapped everybody out of their reverie.
"I'm sorry. I donít mean they present a danger. But we spent three years trying to grow a special hybrid cacao tree in them. It's been wiped out by witches broom. And replanting has only continued the infestation. We subject those greenhouses to regular, intermittent showers of phosphine. The liquid rains down and then rapidly converts to gas and should kill all fungal life."
"And does it?" the Doctor asked.
"Not completely, not so far. If you know anything about fungal infestations of any crop---but especially cacao---it is extremely difficult to completely eradicate the fungus. It may take a couple years."
"Surely you observe the laws of keeping the greenhouses safe," the Doctor said.
Highlers nodded, and so did the tour guide. "We have them posted with the appropriate placards, and we have the doors locked. And we have signs up, warning away our visitors. The green houses are a good distance from the buildings, and we urge our guests not to disturb them. Any other foreign agent such as a mold spore or bacteria introduced innocently could also hinder our efforts to re-establish an environment down there."
Everybody nodded, including Sarah Jane.
"This way then," Highlers said. He led them along the yellow line.
"What's phosphine gas?" she whispered up to the Doctor as they followed the group.
"Nerve agent. It is used to eradicate fungal infestations, and it's legal. A few whiffs of it at saturation levels would stop a person's heart and lungs."
"You think they've really got a witches broom infestation?" she asked.
He lifted his eyebrows. "I find it unlikely that they were starting a nursery of cacao trees," he said. "The greenhouses aren't roomy enough, for one thing. A mature cacao tree capable of bearing fruit is at least 15 feet high, and often gets to 30 feet. Those greenhouse ceilings are only about 12 feet high."
"Maybe they're trying a miniature variety."
"Well I can tell you this: another problem with a greenhouse cacao tree is the tree's desperate need for shade and heat. If you subject a cacao tree to full light, as in those greenhouses we saw, you're asking for disease. Over exposure to sunlight makes the cacao unhealthy."
"Well what do you think's down there?"
He glanced at her. "It could be three greenhouses of ruined cacao trees. Highlers may have been experimenting. Or it could be something else."
Her eyes became inviting. "Want to go check?"
"We may get tossed out. I think David Highlers will have his eye on you from now on."
She was startled "Why is that?"
"Because he's picked you out as a trouble maker. Here he comes now." They abruptly stopped whispering. The tour group had reached the same large door by which they had entered, and now people sat on benches or leaned against the walls to remove the paper shoe covers and paper coveralls.
"Well Miss Smith," the younger Highlers said. "I trust the tour answered your questions."
"Oh very nearly," she said as she lifted her foot and pulled off a shoe cover. He offered her his hand, but she shook her head. She lifted her other foot and pulled off the other shoe cover. There was a hint of gracefulness about her. The Doctor grinned ruefully. Sarah Jane knew how to make herself look cute, sophisticated, or sweetly seductive by turns. And though she seldom resorted to such devices, she certainly could when she chose to.
He ripped apart his coverall with a loud noise. "Oh pardon me," he said, and he went over to one of the rubbish bins.
She pulled hers apart at the snaps.
"Well if the tour didnít quite get all your questions answered, perhaps you'll take a turn around the gardens with me," he said. "I mean, assuming that your father wonít mind."
"Oh no, Dad would be just as pleased." She turned as she stepped out of the coveralls. "Oy, Dad!"
Pushing his own paper coveralls into the container, the Doctor glanced up at her. "Yes, Sarah."
"Would you mind if I walk the ground with Mr. Highlers?" She stepped out of the paper suit and smoothed down her clothing. Then she wadded up the coveralls and tossed them to the Doctor. He caught it. "Yes, shall we have supper together?"
"Oh certainly Mr. Smith," Dave Highlers said to him. "I think I can show your daughter what she wants and have her back to you within the hour."
"Right then." And the Doctor nodded. "Off you go. I'll go back to the room and give Uncle Brig a call, Sarah Jane."
She nodded. "That's lovely. See you later."
Dave Highlers offered her his arm, and she took it as they went out the door and up the carpeted steps to the main hallway above.
"You'll never convince me he's your father," he said.
"No? Why not then?"
"Come on. We specialize in weekends off for the highly stressed, the highly educated," he said. "The work-hard, play-hard school."
"Hey what are you saying?" she demanded. Her eyes were ready to be offended.
Her host back-peddled. "Only this. If I were prepared to steal a kiss from a very pretty girl, would that old fellow punch me in the nose?"
"I might punch you in the nose," she told him. "I'm not a girl who can be bought for a box of chocolates. Or a weekend at Royalty House."
"Well he's here with the UNIT investigation over the suicide chaps. And you're a journalist. I do know that." He glanced down at her and opened a door with his free hand. They exited and crossed a wide flagstone walkway. The air outside had become still in the afternoon. In the distance, across the wide flower beds, Sarah Jane could see the greenhouses. Her eyes shot to them for an instant and then shot back to the flowers.
"Yes, I am a journalist. But a brilliant man like the--like my--"
"Like the Doctor. That's what you usually call him," Highlers said, his eyes serious.
She stopped and looked up at him. "I'm not going to spend the next hour arguing with you, Mr. Highlers."
His manner remained unruffled. If anything, at her displeasure, he became more gracious and more kind. "I apologize Miss Smith. It's just that I am general manager of the production floor. I have a vested interest in the security and well being of this place, my family name, and the people who work for me. It did appear to me that you were trying to put one of my best men on the spot in there."
She stared at him for a moment, and then her eyes became reluctant. "Well I suppose I did."
"And I didnít mean to eavesdrop, but I did hear you rather boasting about it. I mean, is this weekend a lark for you? Were you merely teasing a tour guide to be funny? Or have you really come to dig up dirt on a large manufacturing plant that does a lot of good for its community?"
Unexpectedly, even to her, she answered him directly. "I've read Stephen Ischink's book, SWEET SORROW," she said. "And I wanted to find out if he's made a case."
Recognition flickered across the young man's face. The book, after all, had been an indictment of his father.
"Yes." He said quietly. "Ischink has made a case. My father is not the demon Ischink has portrayed. But if you are asking me, did my father alienate that man from his wife, yes he did, Miss Smith. I'm not proud of it. It hurt everybody. It hurt my mother. And it deeply hurt me, and it will always hurt me. But my father is a man with many sides to him. He seized what he wanted without pity. And yet he is a man who does do a great deal of good." He hesitated. "I had to forgive him because I am his son. But yes, my father hurt many people very, very badly."
Now sobered, she looked down. "I apologize, Mr. Highlers."
"Call me David, please," he said. "My father's dalliance has caused me a lot of sorrow because my mother is a great lady. A lady in every sense of the word. Come on then." And he offered her his arm. She took it.
"But you've forgiven him," she said.
"Of course I did. My mother wanted me to. No use making a scene, she said. It does no good to run off and defy him." He glanced down at her. "My mother said that your family is all you get, so you take what comes and if you make the best of it, you still get a lot of happiness." Then he looked off across the grounds. "Besides, I didn't want to hurt her by defying him. She's been through enough."
"So your parents are still together?"
He nodded and for a moment didnít say anything as they walked. But then he added, "He was always polite with Mother. Never berated her, never spoke an unkind word. But he sort of expected that she would have to put up with him."
"Well, I am sorry."
"Are you going to put that part into your story?" he asked.
She let out a rueful laugh. "I'm not doing a story, not really."
He suddenly smiled at her. "Come on then."
"Down to those greenhouses. Youíre dying for a look, arenít you?"
"Hey, I thought you said they were off limits!"
"They are. I'll walk you around them and show you the gas tanks, and that ought to be enough for you to keep your nose out of them!" And he grinned at her. "I know you're type, Miss Smith. Curiosity killed the cat, so I'll give you some satisfaction. Then I get your word that you'll stay away from the greenhouses."
"Oh all right then."
They walked away from the garden and trudged down a footpath. Sarah Jane realized after a moment or two that the greenhouses were farther from the buildings than they'd appeared.
They trudged down a draw and came up a small rise, and suddenly they were among the three long, glass structures. "Not a place to throw stones," she said.
"No indeed, although the glass we use is pretty strong," he told her. "The tanks are here. See those white units with the piping going up towards the roofs?"
"But what were you growing?"
He glanced at her. She had released his arm for the long walk down, and they were a few paces apart. "I told you, cacao trees. Hybrids."
"The buildings are too low for cacao trees," she said.
"Not for seedlings. We never planned to mature them here. Just develop sturdy hybrids. Look, the phosphine is stored as a liquid and pumped in as a liquid. It rains down from the ceilings and becomes a gas on contact with the air," he said. "Let me check the air levels in the greenhouses. We have at least five minutes before the next spraying. If the air levels are safe, you can take a peek inside and see the seedlings for yourself."
"No, no thank you," she said. Her voice was uncertain.
"Oh? Are you afraid? He walked over to the side wall of the nearest green house. "Well it doesnít matter. The air is not safe. We canít go in, and I'm afraid the walls are fogged up on the sides from condensation. Itís a tropical climate in there: lots of humidity." He glanced at her. "So there's no way to show you what's inside, but I assure you, it's just a lot of seedlings, and not in the best of health." Just then a beeping interrupted them. "Oh that's the plant floor. Something's likely amiss. Wait here, please. We have a call box up that way." He strode away.
Just then, from a door in the greenhouse furthest from them, a man in gum boots and work clothes stepped out from the green house, pulled off a pair of work gloves while standing in the doorway, and then closed the door and walked away. He seemed completely unperturbed at sight of Sarah Jane.
"Hey!" she called after him. "Isnít there poison gas in there?"
"There's only seedlings in there, Miss," he said, and he continued on his way.
Intrigued, Sarah Jane walked up to the door and tried it. It opened easily. She thrust her head inside.
Rows of small trees ran down the length of the greenhouse. She paused and stared at the pole-like trees. They almost looked like stripped telephone poles, except that a few of them had secondary stalks that sprouted up alongside the main trunks. She looked down at the door knob. It was a mere turning handle with no lock on either side. Cautiously, she entered the humid room and looked around. She closed the door behind her and then opened it again to double-check, but there was no lock mechanism at all. It may as well have been a pantry door.
She stepped further in to the forbidden zone. The cacao trees, too immature to flower, possessed no real beauty or grace, no hint of the lovely confection they produced.
Suddenly, the noise of a motor kicked in, and over the speaker system, a computerized voice said, "Gas now in lines one, four, and six. Gas system positive. Ten, nine, eight,--"
Sarah Jane raced to the door and turned the knob, but the door didnít yield. "Is somebody on the other side?" she shouted.
"Seven, six, five, four---"
She pounded on the door with the flat of her hand. "Please, is somebody holding the door closed? Let me out!"
"--Three, two, one--"
From nozzles up in the ceiling, a hissing emitted. "Please, get away from the door! Let me out!" Sarah Jane shouted. "I'm in here! Let me out!"
Clear liquid hit the door and the wall on front of her. She covered her head with her arms. "Help!" she shouted. She bent forward to cover herself. The sprayers suddenly gushed liquid over the trees and walls. There was no escaping it.
I appreciate comments from readers. Please tell me what worked for you in the story and what did not work. Did any part move too slowly? Was the story hard to get into? Were any of the characters not true to the television series? I appreciate all input.