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Half Life

Robert J Deeth and Pamela Kelt

A romantic thriller set in 1930s Norway

Some search for the North Pole. Others seek to split the atom. They are both perilous journeys. When it comes to the former, it is up to the men and women involved to consider risking their lives.

 I throw up my hands and leave them to it. However, when it comes

to the latter, these nuclear adventurers risk the future of mankind,

and I, for one, fear for us all.”

Aaron Edelstein (1868-1939), The 1933 Chancellor’s Lecture, University of Vienna

Chapter One
“Occupation?” The border guard turned his official grey gaze upon her.


“Occupation. Job.”

“Oh, I see. Sorry. Chemist.”


“No. A doctor.”

“Lege? Physician?”

“PhD. I’m a theoretical chemist. Research.” After nearly a dozen years at Cambridge, Dulcie was used to explaining. She pushed her passport toward him and loosened the belt of her macintosh. It was nine o’clock on an August morning in Oslo, and surprisingly warm. The official peered at the photograph. He looked back at her. She smiled and waited.

The guard sighed and dialled his telephone. After a few words, he replaced the receiver and turned to her. “Lyngen Institute? Sohlberg?”

“That’s right,” she said. “I’m with Professor Spinneyfield.”

“Ah.” He nodded, then stamped the page like a baker stamping biscuits. “Velkommen til Norge, Doktor Bennett.”

She nodded, replaced it in her clutch bag and moved away, glad to be back on dry land after the crossing from Copenhagen. The professor passed through quickly and was soon trotting alongside, head tilted like an optimistic partridge in a windswept moor out of the shooting season. He scanned the terrain. “This way!” He veered off toward a sign that read “Tog Oslo-Bergen” next to a picture of a train. She adjusted the strap of her shoulder case. It was heavy. Inside was her calculating machine, which she refused to let out of her sight. It had cost a small fortune, and weighed around a stone, but she was quite used to carting it about—and making sure it didn’t ladder her stockings. She was grateful she’d sent her trunk on in advance.

Ahead, a double door opened. Steam billowed out and a square-shouldered man in a well-cut greatcoat launched out. Both Dulcie and the professor pressed themselves against the tiled wall as he swept on, leading a group of men who moved forward in formation, sleek in black and grey. Some carried briefcases in soft leather. Two more men in black coats appeared from behind Dulcie and approached the party. They saluted, using the straight right-armed salute she’d seen on the newsreels. “Heil Hitler!” The leader nodded, and followed them out of the customs hall into a waiting Mercedes-Benz embassy staff car, its black, polished bodywork gleaming. Swastikas fluttered from the front wings. The soft leather top was already folded down.

“Who were they?” She kept her voice low.

Spinneyfield just stared. A fellow traveller in a sharp suit and brown hat leaned toward them. “German inspection group from Telemark, judging by the arrivals board,” he said, tapping his nose. “Coupla Gestapo and a bunch of tame scientists. I bet they’re scurrying back to the embassy to send in their reports about heavy water production to the Führer.”

“Really?” Dulcie wondered how he knew so much.

“Oh yeah.” He stressed the first word. “The plant’s been producing the stuff since ’34.” He held out his hand. “Sorry, should’ve introduced myself. The name’s Wendell P. Sanger.”

The professor intercepted. “How do you do? I am Stanley Spinneyfield, Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, Cambridge, specialising in wave function theory. Oh, and this is my research assistant, Dr. Dulcie Bennett.”

“I heard.” Sanger raised his hat and gave her figure an admiring glance. “Although you don’t look like any research assistant I’ve ever seen.”

Dulcie smiled, but said nothing. This type of comment was all-too familiar but, for some reason, she didn’t mind. In fact, she rather liked Sanger, and his deep brown eyes that looked amused. Easy laughter lines ran either side of a friendly mouth. She also enjoyed his accent with its hard-boiled vowels. New York, she decided.

“And you, Mr. Sanger. What brings you here?” the professor was saying.

Sanger pulled a face. “I’m just a secretary to the head of the U.S. outfit that’s funding our research in Norway. My job’s to report back on our guys’ progress.”

The prof barely listened. “I am looking forward to some pretty lively discussions about Enrico Fermi’s work on bombarding elements with neutrons instead of protons.”

“You don’t say.”

“Battle lines have been drawn.”

“Well then, prof, I guess we’re all headed in the same direction.”

“Geographically, politically, or sub-atomically?”

Sanger laughed. His teeth were white and square. “I heard about you Brits and your humour. All three, I hope. Especially these days.”

Wendell Sanger held open the door for her and she went through and found herself on a station platform, clouds of condensation billowing out as if a liquid nitrogen Dewar had sprung a leak. A porter in a uniform waved them forward. Doors banged, someone shouted something she couldn’t make out, then, before they’d found their seats, the train lurched forward.

* * * *

She dropped onto the threadbare seat and placed her two bags beside her. It was two whole days since she and the professor had left Cambridge and taken the train (second class) to Dover. After hours of trundling through northern European wheat fields, they’d arrived in Copenhagen and taken the ferry to Oslo. She opened her handbag, found her compact, and refreshed her lipstick. By now, they were travelling in dazzling sunshine through some of the most spectacular scenery Norway had to offer, and she settled back to watch.

Bolt upright, Spinneyfield sat opposite, reading his guidebook, glancing out as the train toiled upward into the forested mountains. It was almost twelve hours to Bergen, and another few hours to go after that. She should have brought another book.

Sanger was nowhere to be seen. He’d probably booked a sleeper. Smart devil, she thought. The professor had insisted on this train trip, being a great fan of the railways. She wasn’t, but, being the research assistant, she had no choice in the matter. She caught her reflection in the glass and was forced to agree with Sanger. She wasn’t the typical research assistant. Her peers were all men in their early twenties, with schoolboy haircuts and lumpy jackets. Dulcie wore her dark hair cut in a sleek bob. Even though she needed to wear the regulation white lab coat, she wore suits specially made by a tailor on the King’s Parade (based on an ensemble she’d bought in London), and her shoes always co-ordinated with her bag, as was the case today. As for jewellery, her choice was inevitably pearl earrings and a diamante bracelet watch.

All a far cry from the fresh-faced eighteen-year-old who’d arrived in the city a decade ago. She smiled at the memory of the childish clothes, the side hair-parting, and flat shoes. She had changed so much. This trip could mean some changes, too.

She glanced at the prof’s plump figure buttoned into a rather out-dated brown tweed jacket. Fluffy silvery hair clustered either side of a bald pate. With his battered trilby and his briefcase by his side, he could only be an academic—or perhaps an evil mastermind in disguise.

In truth, although he talked all the time, she seldom knew what he was thinking. She wondered if he even knew she was planning to apply for a permanent position at the university. Few women ever tried. Perhaps that was why he was exiling them to Norway for a year, just to keep her to himself? Was he that devious?

“Ah!” he cried, tapping at the window, waggling his eyebrows, which sprouted alarmingly above small, sharp eyes. “Lake Krøderen!”

“Really?” She stared out of the window, her thoughts wandering as the prof prattled on about monazite and rare-earth metals.

Cedric would have hated this journey, she decided. He liked his comforts. Luncheon at college at one on the dot. Sherry in the senior common room at six. Bicycle clips on the hook by the lab door. Even the few times they’d managed to get away together, she’d been surprised how fussy he was about cushions and pillows and blankets and toothbrushes. His blond hair always needed to be combed just so, and cheeks freshly shaven. Well, his wife could deal with all of that now. She had him all to herself. Dulcie had abdicated.

The train charged into a tunnel, distorting the sound of the engine. She shifted in her seat, seeing the professor smile his supervisorial smile. In some ways, he wasn’t a bad boss. In fact, compared to some dons, he was positively revolutionary, selecting a female scientist as his assistant. Probably not an evil mastermind, then, she decided, editing her thoughts.

Of course, she had by far the best qualifications. Maths at Newnham, followed by a PhD, moving into theoretical chemistry with Spinneyfield. From the outset, he seemed to be impressed and now barely even checked her maths any more. She was a perfectionist, checking and double-checking her work until her fingers blistered from turning the handle on the barrel of her trusty Brunsviga calculating machine. She patted the reassuring bulk of the moulded case.

Good, wholesome numbers, she thought. Black and white. Non-subjective. Rows and columns, no wavy probabilities. Abruptly, her stomach rumbled. She rummaged in her coat pocket and produced two rolls she’d bought on the ferry to Oslo. She offered one to the professor. “Luncheon?”

“Ham and egg! How nourishing.” He fished a newspaper out of his briefcase and draped it over his knees. He took a messy bite and some egg landed on a picture of a brunette wearing too many jewels and a thin-lipped smile. Dulcie twisted her head to read the headline. “American socialite Wallis Simpson joins King and guests for cruise along Yugoslav coast.”

Dulcie glanced at the paper, feeling relieved that her personal life wasn’t quite so complicated. At least she wasn’t a divorcée and consorting with a monarch.

The professor chose to be oblivious to the stray egg and put on his omniscient face, which was deeply irritating because he was usually right. “Did you realise that along this stretch of railway it is only in the late summer that there is no snow? Soon, everywhere will be white.”

She made an appropriate noise, making a mental note to go shopping for winter clothes right away. What did one wear? Cambridge was often below freezing, but this experience was going to be quite different.

“I trust the next few months won’t be too dull.” He dabbed at his chin, watching her reaction.

“A break from the Cambridge ‘hothouse’ could be just the thing.”

“Indeed.” He gave her a sideways look and folded up the newspaper. “But what can you expect? He was a botanist, after all. Still, a whole year in Norway should see it all blow over nicely.”

Blood rushed to her face. So, the professor did know about her affair. At least he’d kept her on. Some bosses would have found a way to get rid of a woman with the wrong sort of reputation. She tried to think of something to say and decided to stay silent.

“Never mind all that. Fresh start, what? Just ignore what the others say,” continued the prof in a brassy, bright tone.

So there it was. Spinneyfield now had something on her. He would be prepared to overlook her behaviour, if she continued to work for him. Academic blackmail, pure and simple. Even if another permanent job came up, in Cambridge or anywhere else, and she decided to apply, what kind of reference would he write? She was trapped. Meanwhile, Cedric could continue swanning about in Cambridge unscathed, running those long fingers through his fringe and making the ladies swoon.

“I think I’ll have a short nap, Dulcie. Wake me in an hour?”

She nodded, shifting uncomfortably on the prickly seat. Only nine more hours to Bergen.

* * * *