18. Japp gets a chemistry lesson

Cleon was grumbling yet again. Graptus was only listening with half an ear as it was all complaints he’d heard at least a dozen times before. They weren’t entirely unreasonable but that was all the more reason Graptus just didn’t want to hear it, in case he got sucked into the same grumpy, grumbling behaviour. He had other things on his mind, such as how to get the job completed as quickly as possible so that they could all get out of here and go home to Rome. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but be aware that Cleon was, once again, moaning about the weather, and the number of nights they were having to spend away from their comfortable headquarters in order to supervise the more distant stretches of road building. The summer had been good, the following autumn hadn’t been that bad, but the winter had been harsh with ice deep enough to walk on covering the many small streams and ponds. The North-South route had been completed, the Southern end meeting the trackway westwards to Anderitum at the south coast, much to Cleon’s relief. They’d travelled westwards from the southern iron workings and spent a couple of days in the port in celebration which had quieted Cleon’s moaning for a while, until he’d remembered that back home he’d have been able to get honey cakes from his favourite food shop. The cakes here weren’t quite the same, apparently. The honey was wrong, or something like that.

Graptus had mildly suggested that the sooner they get back to work the sooner they could get home to Rome, and to his surprise Cleon had agreed. He’d still bought some sweet wine cakes and a pot of honey to take back with them though. He’d shrugged at Graptus’s raised eyebrows, and mumbled something about them being better than nothing. Now their second winter here was nearing the shortest day, the branch road from the North-South route to Portus Lemanis was underway, and Graptus was bored. He was bored of Cleon’s moaning, he was bored of making roads, and he was bored of the terrible weather. What he really wanted to be doing was some grand scheme of work, constructing a new Temple in the Forum, perhaps. Last time he had spoken to the Emperor there had been talk of a magnificent villa to be constructed, somewhere for Hadrian to escape from all the bickering and politicking in the city of Rome. Peace and quiet, that’s what they all wanted, he thought. No interruptions, nothing to spoil the view, no noise of industry, no horrible smells from Cleon’s cooking – he looked up, suddenly aware that there really was an awful smell.

Cleon looked back at him from their cooking fire, looking contrite for once. ‘Sorry’, he said, ‘I was experimenting.’ Graptus shook his head half amused, half despairing, of his friend’s inability to make something as simple as honey cakes. The supplies he’d bought back in Anderitum were long gone, and it seemed that it was more difficult than Cleon had anticipated to work out how to make the cakes himself. Still, Graptus thought, practice makes perfect after all, just think how much better the second lot of bricks had been: they had been good enough for him to use for the strong room. The first lot had really only been good enough to be pounded up to make a base for a section of road: useless as building bricks they’d come in handy as a foundation layer for the cinders on top.

He started to imagine how he would design a palace fit for an Emperor, one with no expense spared, with everything laid out to be beautiful and nothing to jar the senses. As he let his mind wander in daydreams he abruptly sat up bolt upright, shouted out, ‘Tunnels!’ and smiled. Cleon looked over in astonishment, wondering if his old friend had finally been driven completely mad by this terrible country, but all that Graptus would say was that he had a plan to get them out of here, but that first he needed to experiment and practice.


Japp’s early start that morning seemed to catch Superintendent Greene by surprise. After sitting at his desk looking at the papers left by Stu, he’d arranged for all the files to be transferred to the incident room that had been set up as soon as news of the explosions had reached the police station. He’d not waited for the big boxes to be moved before wandering over himself and writing up what he knew on the big boards that dominated one end of the large room. He made a mind map of everything they knew so far, trying to trace every possible connection, pinning up the copies of maps, pictures from the tunnel, and so on, as he went. As he stepped back to take a look at the broader picture he nearly knocked Greene over, and there was a moment or two of confusion as they worked out which one of them should say sorry more profusely, ending with Japp making the final apology.

Japp couldn’t help thinking that Greene was overly embarrassed over the whole stupid incident, even more than would be expected from a British person who had been bumped into through no fault of their own. It was almost as if he was embarrassed about being found there, but why that would be so Japp couldn’t imagine, as Greene had every right to be in an incident room in his own police station. Maybe he was imagining things, as Greene seemed to be his irritable old self once more, and was asking Japp if Sarah Bacon had discussed the additions to their team yet, and whether they had his approval. Japp hadn’t had any objection to Sarah Bacon’s list of preferred officers when they’d spoken the night before, and so he told Greene, who seemed happier to have Japp’s seal of approval.

At that point the smell of coffee from the corridor announced the imminent arrival of several police officers trying to be awake enough to start a new shift, and they were joined by DI Bacon, Sgt Nickerson, Sgt McKeown and Constable Spencer. Japp expected Greene to stay for the initial briefing, but he pleaded an appointment with Bernie Forkin and needing to prepare for the press conference that was scheduled for later that morning. Japp noted the signs of relief that the other four officers showed as Greene left, and realised that he wasn’t exactly popular as a commanding officer.

Sarah Bacon was watching Greene leave particularly closely and as soon as she judged that he would be out of earshot, she started talking to the rest of the group.
‘While it’s just us five, there’s something I need to tell you all. We need to be alert for signs that this investigation is being sabotaged.’
She nodded, grimly, at their startled looks.
‘There was a reason I asked for you three,‘ indicating Nickerson, McKeown and Spencer, ‘to join us and that’s because I trust you to spot anything suspicious and report it to us. We’ll be joined by officers from goodness knows where before too long, there’s no way we can manage an investigation this big and keep policing the local area with officers just from this station, and it’s not certain that Japp will remain in charge as it’s a massive incident for a DI to handle. Sorry, Japp, that’s just the way it is.’
Japp frowned, then nodded. ‘Yes, you’re right. There’s every chance someone more senior will want to take over. There’s a lot riding on this now, with deaths of emergency personnel to investigate, but what makes you think someone is trying to undermine the case?’
‘I didn’t tell you last night because, honestly, you sounded so asleep I wasn’t sure you’d take it in, but when Nickerson here chased up border control we discovered that the Smiths had been taken off the watch list. Yes, really. They’ve been off the list for over a week, and no-one thought to tell us. I take it I’m right to assume that nothing was said to you when you rang them on Monday?’
Japp shook his head, and frowned some more. This was worrying.
Bacon went on, ‘So the way I see it is, we’re going to have to be a team within a team. Keep our ears and eyes open for anyone behaving oddly, try and keep tabs on all the evidence and what other team members are up to, as well as all our own work. We’re also going to have to think carefully about who we share this information with. It’s going to be tricky, but if we’re going to get to the truth and not be railroaded into a dead end then I can’t see any other way of doing it. I trust us, everyone else is an unknown quantity, at least for now.’

Japp looked around at the others and saw identical looks of worry and bewilderment on each of their faces. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to have suspicions about fellow officers. Gradually though, their bewilderment was replaced with determination. They all nodded as McKeown said, ‘Well, if that’s the way it is then that’s what we’ll have to do. Do we have anyone in particular under suspicion?’
Sarah looked at Coat, who shrugged and shook her head before adding, ‘No, there’s nothing concrete. It was just a feeling I got when speaking to Michelle at border control that she thought the decision had come from someone very senior, she seemed scared to talk about it and very keen to make it plain that she didn’t know anything. Of course, we don’t know whether that decision came from within border control or outside. Michelle may be more willing to talk outside of work. I’ll track her down and arrange to go for a drink.’

They all turned to the door in sync as footsteps were heard approaching. Bernie Forkin walked through the door, took one look at their grim and suspicious faces and held up some plastic bags and said, ‘Bloody hell, that’s a fine welcome for someone who’s bringing you some evidence!’ He had a grin on his face though, so their apologies were more along the lines of wondering that a big, tough, fire officer could be so put off by five people looking at him. Within seconds they were all laughing together, and Japp felt extremely grateful to Bernie for breaking the tension and bringing some much needed humour. Unfortunately it couldn’t last long, and they turned to asking him what he had brought with him.

‘We’ve found what we could of that plastic arrangement in the chimney. There wasn’t much left of the pipe that went down into the cellar, but what there was contained a thin wire. The big plastic end was mostly protected by the brickwork of the chimney piece, although it did get crushed. That’s here.’
They all looked at the mangled plastic through the evidence bag. Now that it was in his hands Japp could see, and feel, that it contained something heavy and mostly metallic, but he had no idea what it could be. Spence, though, seemed to know what it was.
‘That’s the inside of a speaker. Look, there’s the big magnet in the middle and that mangled thing is the card dish that vibrates to make the noise.’ He looked at their amazement and explained that his dad owned a guitar shop and he helped repair amps in his spare time. It was a puzzle though, why would the house have a speaker sticking out of one of the chimneys? That didn’t seem to make any sense. Bernie had moved on though.
‘This is all that’s left of what was at the base of the plastic tubing and wire. It was hidden in an alcove with a false wall in front, so was protected from the worst of the blast.’
Bernie was holding up something that looked a little like a radio, but not one that played any music station. Its front edge was buckled in and pitted with debris from the explosion, but you could still make out that there were various knobs and controls, and a screen with a needle that was now hanging loose behind the shattered glass.’

Once again Bernie was on to the next evidence bag before Japp could really take in what he was being shown. No matter, he thought, we’ll look at it all closely later. The next bag that Bernie held out contained a sliver of wood. This Japp thought he recognised, it was from the wooden door that led into the room containing the barrels.
‘Yes,’ Bernie confirmed, ‘that’s exactly what it is. We’ve found the source of the smell and what was making you dizzy. It’s ammonium nitrate. The same as the labels on the plastic barrels that you found. They must have spilled some on the door and floor when they were transferring it. Water was getting in through the hatch, we think, and mixing with the chemical in the wood to make ammonia gas, which gives off some pretty nasty fumes. That’s not the really worrying thing, though. Most of the barrels look like they were empty. In some ways that’s good news because if they hadn’t been the explosion would have been so enormous there wouldn’t have been any of the clearing left. The explosion was caused by someone mixing sugar with a small amount of ammonium nitrate left in one of the barrels. We’ve found traces of the mix clinging to pieces of plastic, but we haven’t found a trigger yet, if there ever was one. It’s pretty unstable stuff’

Japp listened to what Bernie said with growing horror, and realised that the really bad news was that whoever was responsible for all this knew how to make bombs that way. It had suddenly become urgent that they find out what had happened to the rest of the ammonium nitrate, and pray that it hadn’t already been turned into bombs.


About kentishlol

Wife, mother of three, dog owner, and rank amateur at everything. You don't really want to know that I bake, knit, garden, make marmalade and sloe gin, do you? Thought not.
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4 Responses to 18. Japp gets a chemistry lesson

  1. betunada says:

    nice, how you’re weaving “the Romans” and the present day …


  2. Great Britain’s ancient Roman roads–and now Roman tunnels too. I’m so intrigued.
    And of course you’re inserting some terrific tension into the story with the element of group paranoia. Who to trust? Who’s the mole? Where is the enemy? All good bits to add to the tone of urgency–as well as the need to discover where the remaining liquid has gone to.
    Now as far as writing groups go, I’m suggesting either or both. I have both, but you might not have enough time for online and in person. If you decide to pursue publishing, the more help you can get the better. And all for the price of for free. Well, apart from the time commitment. Along with other people reading your writing, commenting, and guiding you through their suggestions, you become an editor as well and learn to spot elements–both good and bad.
    Here is a good article explaining the pros and cons of each and links to some you may find worthy. http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/find_the_right_online_critique_group_for_you
    If you’re searching for in-person groups, you can ask at your local library and they might be your first good lead.
    Great job, Laura!


    • kentishlol says:

      Thanks so much, Shelley for all your advice and kind words! I shall look into all of that. We’ve been having some messy building work done in the kitchen, so Real Life stuff has been taking over somewhat and other things have had to take a back seat, but I hope to get some peace, quiet, and dust-free writing done tomorrow. 🙂


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