Matthew came to col ect me after lunch-the only creature among the human readers in the Selden End. While he walked me under the ornately painted exposed beams, he kept up a steady patter of questions about my work and what I'd been reading.

Oxford had turned resolutely cold and gray, and I pul ed my col ar up around my neck, shivering in the damp air.

Matthew seemed not to mind and wasn't wearing a coat.

The gloomy weather made him look a little less startling, but it wasn't enough to make him blend in entirely. People turned and stared in the Bodleian's central courtyard, then shook their heads.

"You've been noticed," I told him.

"I forgot my coat. Besides, they're looking at you, not me." He gave me a dazzling smile. A woman's jaw dropped, and she poked her friend, inclining her head in Matthew's direction.

I laughed. "You are so wrong."

We headed toward Keble Col ege and the University Parks, making a right turn at Rhodes House before entering the labyrinth of modern buildings devoted to laboratory and computer space. Built in the shadow of the Museum of Natural History, the enormous redbrick Victorian cathedral to science, these were monuments of unimaginative, functional contemporary architecture.

Matthew pointed to our destination-a nondescript, low- slung building-and fished in his pocket for a plastic identity card. He swiped it through the reader at the door handle and punched in a set of codes in two different sequences. Once the door unlocked, he ushered me to the guard's station, where he signed me in as a guest and handed me a pass to clip to my sweater.

"That's a lot of security for a university laboratory," I commented, fiddling with the badge.

The security only increased as we walked down the miles of corridors that somehow managed to fit behind the modest fa├žade. At the end of one hal way, Matthew took a different card out of his pocket, swiped it, and put his index finger on a glass panel next to a door. The glass panel chimed, and a touch pad appeared on its surface.

Matthew's fingers raced over the numbered keys. The door clicked softly open, and there was a clean, slightly antiseptic smel reminiscent of hospitals and empty professional kitchens. It derived from unbroken expanses of tile, stainless steel, and electronic equipment.

A series of glass-enclosed rooms stretched ahead of us.

One held a round table for meetings, a black monolith of a monitor, and several computers. Another held an old wooden desk, a leather chair, an enormous Persian rug that must have been worth a fortune, telephones, fax machines, and stil more computers and monitors. Beyond were other enclosures that held banks of file cabinets, microscopes, refrigerators, autoclaves, racks upon racks of test tubes, centrifuges, and dozens of unrecognizable devices and instruments.

The whole area seemed unoccupied, although from somewhere there came faint strains of a Bach cel o concerto and something that sounded an awful lot like the latest hit recorded by the Eurovision song-contest winners.

As we passed by the two office spaces, Matthew gestured at the one with the rug. "My office," he explained.

He then steered me into the first laboratory on the left.

Every surface held some combination of computers, microscopes, and specimen containers arranged neatly in racks. File cabinets ringed the wal s. One of their drawers had a label that read "

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