Cat Zero

Cat Zero

by Jennifer Rohn


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Sexism, Secrets and Science: Cat Zero by Jennifer Rohn

Scientist Artie Marshall is perpetually underfunded, relegated to a damp basement, and besieged on all sides by sexist colleagues. Added to that, she is immersed in a messy divorce. But she’s never been happier, studying an obscure cat virus that nobody else in the world seems to have heard of – or cares about.

Everything changes when local cats start dropping dead and Artie’s arcane little research problem becomes worryingly relevant. Matters get worse when people start getting infected too.

Working with her right-hand man Mark, her vet friends and her street-smart technician, Artie races to get to the bottom of the ballooning epidemic. Unexpected assistance arrives in the form of two basement-dwelling mathematicians – a sociopathic recluse and his scary, otherworldly savant mentor. When their mathematical models suggest that the cat plague might actually be more sinister than it first appears, Artie gets drawn into a web of secrets and lies that threatens to blow apart her lab family, undermine her sanity – and endanger her own life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938463662
Publisher: Bitingduck Press
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 277
Product dimensions: 8.89(w) x 6.29(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Rohn leads a cell biology research lab at University College London in the United Kingdom, studying how bacteria outwit human cells during infection. In her spare time, she moonlights as a science writer, journalist, broadcaster and pundit. She blogs about the scientific life at Mind The Gap and on the Guardian, and has written for a number of outlets including The Times, The Guardian, Nature, The Telegraph, and the BBC. She also created and continues to run the science culture online magazine, which has been highlighted in the New York Times, US National Public Radio, the Guardian and the Boston Globe. 'Lab lit', a term she coined, is a tiny but growing genre of mainstream fiction about scientists and science as a profession (as opposed to science fiction). She speaks frequently to live audiences, and appears on TV, radio, on podcasts and as an expert in science documentaries. She is the author of two other lab lit novels: Experimental Heart and The Honest Look, and has also published short fiction. She is also no stranger to rebellion, having founded Science is Vital, a well-known grassroots organization campaigning for UK research funding. Born and raised in the United States, Jennifer became a naturalized British citizen and now lives in Gravesend, Kent (not far from the action in this novel) with her husband and son.

Read an Excerpt


The Perils of Abbreviation, Gender-Neutral Variety

Artie Marshall was considering the article in her hand, trying to decide whether to file it under "Cat Viruses, General" or "Feline Endemics, Global" when a knock at the door postponed the decision. To someone compelled to excessive subdivision, filing was always painful.

"Hi," Artie said, looking up at the man — or boy, more accurately — who hesitated, one foot in the corridor and one in the disaster area that was one day destined to become her office. "Can I help you?"

The student, a blond twenty-something with a perpetually throttled look, was attired in pressed trousers and a white shirt: a dead giveaway in this place. He frowned at the sheaf of papers in his hand, frowned at the room number, and frowned at Artie before alighting on something obviously more encouraging over her left shoulder.

"Dr. Marshall?" His eyes bulged with asphyxiated relief.

Artie heard the screech of Mark's chair and reminded herself for the fourth time that day to bring in a can of WD40.

"Not me," Mark said, sounding amused. "Her. And it's Professor Marshall."

Artie offered the student a smile and an outstretched hand, and he nearly recoiled.

"You must be Ryan," she said, trying to decide whether she would file him under "Rabbit, Scared" or "Loser, Clueless".

"But I was expecting ..."

"A man?" Artie said. "Common mistake. 'Artie' is short for Artemis." When he didn't respond, she added, "My parents had a thing for Greek mythology."

"I'm sorry?"

Mark coughed over his laughter before explaining, "Artemis, as in the virgin hunter goddess."

"Daughter of Leto, born after she and Zeus got it on behind Hera's back," Artie said.

"Didn't Zeus give birth to her himself, sprung fully formed from his forehead?" Mark asked.

"You're thinking of Athena."

"Ah, so I am."

"There might have been a mistake," the student said, looking optimistically at his papers again.

"PhD studentship?" Artie said. "The Department of Molecular Virology? Feline leukemia?"

At his miserable nod, she said, "Take a seat, Ryan, I'm perfectly harmless."

"Extra chairs haven't arrived yet," Mark said, as the student looked around in confusion. "Pull up one of those crates."

After about five minutes of interview it was clear that he was never going to work out. Artie struggled to extend the conversation to thirty as a formality before allowing him to slither away.

She sighed and met Mark's eye. Mark shrugged.

"Are they removing part of the frontal lobe as a university graduation requirement these days?" she asked.

"I doubt we've been seeing the top students."

"What's scaring them off?" She studied the face of her first ever post-doctoral fellow — a post-doc she had been very lucky to secure, she was starting to realize.

"Maybe we should tone down the whole mythology angle."

"I'm serious, Mark. My age? The lab's outmoded research topic? Heatherfields as a whole?"

The Institute had been founded by Rupert Heatherfields, a prominent entomologist, when he'd gathered together the first utopian cluster of interdisciplinary scientists in 1883. The organization, more like a think-tank than a private research facility, was still going strong in the original building. Its aura of sleepy, old-world charm was enhanced by its location, hidden away in the leafy north-London suburb of Mill Hill, worlds away from the hard-core labs jostling within internationally renowned campuses in the center. As such, it was not much rated among modern biologists, with their medical bent and their twenty-first century pragmatic cynicism.

Mark leaned back in his chair and gave her his habitual grin, the one that started as a twitch at the corner of his mouth before gradually taking over the surrounding territory. It still disconcerted Artie that he was older, and she was supposed to be the boss.

"All three," he said. "And if they're not deterred by that, seeing the state of this office pretty much caps it."

Artie's high spirits experienced a rare dip. "You had no idea what you were getting into, did you? Ever have second thoughts?"

"Not a chance," he said. "I came here because I wanted to work with the top feline leukemia specialist. You're it, Art."

"I almost wish I'd persuaded you not to come. For your sake, I mean."

But her tone wasn't convincing, and he obliterated the argument with a sweep of his hand. "If you can flourish in a passé field, so can I," he said. "I reckon there's room enough for two rebels in the system."

For the hundredth time, Artie silently blessed the day that Mark's email had arrived. Mark Reynolds, who had sprung fully funded from a modest but hardworking avian virus lab in Bristol, already had eight years of post-doctoral experience when he got restless and developed an interest in an even more obscure topic.

"Why the shift?" she'd asked him at the interview back in April, which had taken place over too many pints down at the Victoria Arms.

"Honestly? I'm tired of chickens."

"No, really. Give me some legitimate reasons ... and make them good, or I might not hire you."

They had both known she wasn't serious. After only an hour in his presence, Artie was convinced that he was the one to get her lab off the ground. His CV demonstrated an impressive breadth as well as depth, and despite his lighthearted delivery, she could sense the intense intellect underneath. Although Artie berated herself for being so unscientific, he also inspired confidence with his tall, sturdy build and tree-felling arms, with that bearish dark-brown hair curling around his head and over most of his exposed surfaces. In fact, she had the peculiar conviction he was somehow the older brother she'd never had.

"Right." He held up a finger. "Your papers are insightful and take a stab at serious evolutionary questions. Not like everyone else's, pretending their arcane little treatise is going to cure human disease. You seem to want to understand the deeper implications of the biology for its own sake."

"Hmmm ... you obviously haven't read the shameless pandering in my latest grant application to Cancer Research UK."

"Second," he said, ignoring her embarrassment. "I know this place is a backwater, but I'm well into the eccentric, intellectual vibe."

Artie make a noncommittal noise. Eccentric was certainly one way to describe Heatherfields, which ran rampant with interdisciplinary oddballs who had never produced important medical cures, lucrative patents or Nobel prize-winning research.

"And third," he said. "Can I be frank? You've been appointed here at a very young age — that must mean something. You're obviously someone worth learning things from."

"If Phil hadn't retired, I assume you would've gone to Edinburgh instead?"

He just smiled. "He may be brilliant, and he may have transmitted only a fraction of his knowledge to you, but I prefer your style. Fourth ... I'm interested in AIDS, and it was becoming increasingly clear that studying it in birds was a waste of my time."

She shifted in her seat. "Mark, I hate to break it to you, but feline leukemia virus went out of fashion as an AIDS model decades ago. And even the feline immunodeficiency virus model's not ideal — you should really be looking at monkeys."

"Not interested," he said. "I don't want to study animals in cages. I want to study a natural virus in its natural host population. Cats are the way forward, Artemis."

"You're preaching to the converted," she said. "And call me Artie. Better yet, 'boss' will do nicely."

Artie's reminiscences were dislodged by a knock on the door. She looked up to see Fiona, the third and final member of her new research team, poking a head into the office.

"Any luck with that student?" Fiona said, making a face. "He wandered into the lab by mistake and tripped over those cables Mark was messing with. The way he swore at me ... well, it sounded like he's not too keen on women."

"He'd fit right in at Heatherfields, then," Mark muttered.

"I don't think he'll be troubling us further, Fiona."

"Thank God for that," she said, considerably cheered.

"As gormless as that boy was, he was also our last applicant," Artie said, picking up the troublesome article again as Fiona disappeared.

"Don't worry." Mark, as always, projected an aura of equanimity. "There's always next year. Besides, students are hard work. Let's get the show running first before we worry about expanding your empire."

A few days later, the office was sorted out to mutual satisfaction — except, of course, for Artie's filing.

"The only thing we're missing is a window," Artie said, looking at the reprint on the top of her pile. She was wavering between "Mutations, Non-coding" and "Genetic Variants, Minor".

Mark glanced up from his laptop. "I got cornered by some nerd up in Behavioral Psych at lunch. He was telling me about his preliminary specs for a solar periscope, designed specifically for people who work in basements."

"Oh, Mark ..." Artie was extremely gullible, and Mark clearly delighted in testing the limits of her credibility.

"I'm serious," he said. The scary thing, knowing Heatherfields, was that he very well could be. "It's a simple metal and mirrored affair, requiring only a modest series of holes drilled through the ceiling, and apparently it can go a long way towards alleviating something called Subterranean Displacement Blues."

"Isn't that a Bob Dylan song?"

"Laugh all you like, but I think you might be presenting with some of the major symptoms, Art."

"Don't you have some important stretch of the internet to surf?"

"Let's see ... Manic energy," he pronounced, not noticing her sudden discomfort. "Workaholic tendencies. Reluctance to leave said basement. Excessive caffeine consumption ..."

There was a knock on the door.

"Did someone mention caffeine?" A woman was standing in the doorway, dripping with rain and hugging a polystyrene box to her chest. "I'll trade you a couple of dozen blood and saliva samples for a decent cup of tea."

"Mary!" Artie jumped to her feet. "Give me your coat — you're drenched! And how did you get past Cerberus on the door?"

"I threw him a big juicy steak," she said, placing the box on Artie's desk. She peeled off the sodden outer layer to reveal a prim grey skirt suit. "Nice office, you two."

"We're still arguing over the feng shui," Mark said, "so we compromised on the plastic palm tree."

"It's hideous," Mary said, tilting her head critically.

"Mark, be a love and stash those samples in the freezer, would you?" Artie hung up the coat and switched the kettle on.

"Yes, ma'am." Mark swept up the box in his large hands. "Anything for me in here, Auntie Mary?"

"No immunodeficiency cases this time, I'm afraid," she replied. "But I did manage to score you a spectacularly disgusting thymic tumor."

"Really? Hey, cool!" He hurried out the door, already prying away at the tape.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again," Mary said. "He's lovely, Art — so polite and well trained."

"And he keeps his fur groomed and his litter box tidy as well."

"How's his lab-side manner?"

"Fabulous," Artie said, perching on her desk. "You should see his research proposal. It should fit in nicely with my main project — maybe a bit too ambitious, though."

"Reminds me of someone I know."

"His work will require lots of samples, Mary."

"Hmmm ... also familiar."

Artie grinned. "Feel free to tell him to back off if he gets too demanding. After all, you weren't put on this earth solely to supply us with cat spit."

"Mark, demanding? He could charm the bone marrow out of a rabid moose."

"Getting many of those in your surgery, Mary?" Mark slipped back in and threw himself into his chair.

"No hoofed quadrupeds, but plenty of overweight poodles and depressed budgies."

"How can you tell if a budgie's depressed?" Mark asked.

"It sits on the sofa eating chocolates and watching re-runs of Friends."

"Right, you two," Artie said. "Down to business."

Mary tucked her straight black hair behind her ears before pulling out the familiar red leather notebook. Making herself more comfortable, she launched into an amusing description of all the feline illnesses she'd seen in her small vet practice in Gillingham in the past few weeks. Then she rattled off secondhand anecdotal accounts of her colleagues from around the Medway area, and finished with her usual digest of some relevant local cases in the vet journals. Artie scribbled rapid notes, and she and Mark took turns peppering Mary with questions.

Artie had known Mary since University. Later, the two women evolved easily from friendship to scientific collaboration when Artie developed an interest in feline leukemia virus, an affliction that still popped up now and again in Mary's practice. Artie had come up with a controversial new theory about the way this virus mutated and spread in cats, but to test it, she would have to study the genetic signatures of many viruses over a number of years to chart their spread. Such an approach would be difficult and had never before been attempted in cats, so she was in the process of thinking up new strategies to grapple with the logistics. But more crucially, she would need samples from a large number of sick cats, and Mary's connections with vets all over Kent county had been invaluable.

"That's basically it," Mary said. "Unless you're interested in hairballs. Listen, I've got to run — a seminar at the Royal Vet, and the Northern Line is a shambles today. Have fun with the samples."

"And, Mary ..." Mark looked at her imploringly with his chocolate Labrador eyes.

"I'll keep my eyes peeled for cat AIDS," she promised.

Artie had learned everything worth knowing about feline leukemia virus from Philip Cox, one of those old-timer veterinarian scientists who used to figure so prominently in the virology scene, but who were rapidly becoming extinct in the post-genomic age. In fact, Cox had worked fifteen years longer than the University of Edinburgh had wanted him to, but he had been undeterred by cajoling, pension-enhancing bribes and finally outright blackmail, using his celebrity status to maintain a dynamic research lab right into his late seventies. All of this had been fortunate for Artie, who turned out to be the last post-doc he ever hired. Cox, too, had tried to dissuade Artie, just as Artie had felt duty-bound to be open with Mark, whose reasons for wanting to work with her had sounded all too familiar.

"Feline leukemia virus is dead, Dr. Marshall," Philip Cox had told her. He might have inspired awe at that first interview seven years previously, having only recently stepped down as President of the Royal Society, but Artie was not easily spooked. "There are still a few good labs in the States, but they've gone over to simian and human AIDS viruses almost completely. It won't do your career any favors to specialize in it now." He glanced at her CV. "Even more of a pity after such an auspicious beginning."

"It's what I want to do," Artie said. "I've got new ideas, and they involve understanding natural disease patterns. Mouse viruses" — the topic of her PhD dissertation — "are too artificial, too lab-bound. Whereas feline leukemia is infecting cats all over the world."

"I am aware of that, Dr. Marshall." But the great man finally smiled. "Very well, but don't say I didn't warn you in four years' time. And I might be too dead to write you an effective reference letter."

Happily, Philip Cox was still alive, and Artie often suspected that it was precisely this letter that had secured her prestigious appointment at Heatherfields the previous February. There were other scientists her age at the institute, but very few of them had tenured senior positions (the job title was "Professor", even though its beneficiaries were not required to sully their thought processes with undergraduate education).

Or maybe it was because she was as much of an anachronism as the institute itself. Throughout her career, she'd been good-naturedly teased for her propensity to hunch over forgotten anatomy treatises in the underground archives of medical schools, or to attend seminars on particle physics or chaos theory just to look at the scientific method from a fresh angle. She sent emails to molecular paleontologists about the cause of death in mummified Egyptian cats, to behavioral zoologists observing lions in the Sahara, to classical Greek scholars for the latest translational take on some ancient feline plague. She was, in short, exactly the sort of person that Heatherfields was looking for, and had to increasingly struggle to find. Some aspects of the Institute's culture had not evolved much since its Victorian origins, so it was probably this as much as Philip Cox's blessing that had caused its Inner Sanctum to disregard her distinct lack of a Y chromosome.


Excerpted from "Cat Zero"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Rohn.
Excerpted by permission of Bitingduck Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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