Real theorists do it from first principles; wasn't that the boast we'd always made back in my days at the department?
I pulled another slug from the bottle, tipped my hat back with my forefinger, and wiped my shirt cuff across my brow for the thousandth time. There was something about this case that just didn't add up, no matter how long I stared at the numbers tumbling down my computer screen.
I remembered a similar case I once worked on, years back when the city was cleaner and I still thought I could sort out all of the world's problems. Now I didn't even know if I could sort out any of my own.
I cast my mind back, digging through the alcoholic haze, trying to remember how that old case from my Group IV days had panned out. Yeah, that was it....
There'd been this antimony, hanging around with the smoothest hunk of silicon you've ever seen. It all looked on the level; well, on the surface, at least. Turns out they were working together to pull off some kind of undisclosed optoelectronic job.
Seems the antimony was cruising round the silicon surface in twos, looking for trouble - whenever other atoms showed up, the antimony just smeared them across the surface flatter than a suicide off the 12th floor. Heck, it was almost a public service, preventing overcrowding, but I'd smelled a rat. Sure enough, they'd been caught charging for their little ``surfactant racket''. Electrostatically, of course, but it still wasn't legal.
Well, I'd cleaned that one up, but you know how it is with antimony, you can build a case as watertight as the QE2 and still somehow nothing manages to stick....
Just a few weeks later, it'd shown up again, this time hanging around on germanium. Same setup, same old routine - we'd gone in and closed that one up so quick you could've heard the casebook snap shut a hundred miles away. But the story was so similar it'd stayed in the notepad, so the public never got to hear about it.
Now someone else was nosing round the same patch that I'd cleaned up all those years ago, and it looked like they might be onto something big, maybe something really big. If only I'd dug a bit deeper the first time around....
Damn! Hindsight was one cruel mistress. With that bitter thought I slipped into some other unwanted memories, scowled, and drew another long slug from the bottle. I knew the drinking should stop, but I promised myself `Hell, just to the end of this case...'
The obvious difference this time round was some new evidence from the boys in forensic. They'd come up with a whole bunch of data on the modus operandi of antimony, and not all of it fitted the profile I had in my mind. I stared at the file, wishing I could've seen it sooner. Seems they had a hunch antimony was getting all twisted up when it got near germanium in a way it didn't when it was with silicon. But that just wasn't how I saw it....
This one was too tricky to solve alone, so I thought I'd try it out on the new boy in town, Eddie 'Tricky fingers' McGraw. He was a good kid, if a bit green between the ears.
I remember when I used to be in his shoes; picking up all the bum jobs that the old timers won't touch with a bargepole, just trying to make a name for yourself, build up a rep. Bet he still thinks he can change the world, too.
Outside a cat would've knocked over a dustbin and howled off down a side alley, if we weren't halfway up a tower block.
Eddie tried hard, but he just wasn't getting it, and spilling the story to him didn't help straighten out my addled thoughts any. He suggested we head out to Shady Jane's, clean out some of her Bourbon and shoot some pool into the small hours, but in the end I sent him off on his own; there was no way I'd be enjoying myself until I'd got the weight of this case off of my chest.
I woke up in the morning with my face pressed into the computer screen and the empty bottle wedged between the mouse and the keyboard. The ridges of sunlight were streaming straight through the blinds into my eyes and my head was about fit to split.
About that point Eddie walks in, whistling, glass of water in one hand and two tablets in the other. He grins, says, 'how's the head?' and hands me the tablets and water. And just about then I want to wipe his smiley-arse, cheery, 'I-won-a-bunch-of-money-and-got-laid' looks all over the wall, 'cos I know that the only thing I got closer to the bottom of last night was the whisky bottle, and the case is still just as unsolved as when I started.
Still, three weeks later and it all just dropped into place. Like I'd always suspected, antimony turned out to be pulling the same racket around germanium as it had on silicon. But this time round I could prove it, and I'd pinned down every irritating little difference so tight you could've sold 'em to a politician. Better still, Eddie blew all his ill-gotten gains on my tip-off for a horse called ``Big Science'', so I guess at least the story ended with a smile.
As published in 'Lateral Thoughts', Physics World, April 1998. Back