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"But the dental records . . ."
"I'm afraid that's not my department, Inspector. Can't two people have similar dental histories?"
"Identical? I've never heard of it."
Osternak raised his eyebrows and held a prolonged shrug for a moment longer, and then placed his hands palms-down on his desk in a gesture of finality. "Well, all I can suggest, Inspector, is that you take a leaf from the practice of science," he said breezily.
"And what might that be, sir?"
"Hypotheses are built upon the best data available, but they are never inviolate. When incontrovertible facts are established which contradict the hypothesis, then the hypothesis must be revised. In this case, the hypothesis based on previous experience is that no two individuals have identical dent.i.tion. . . . I trust you take my point."
"I see." Wenkle rubbed his nose and seemed about to say something, then thought better of it. "This will cause quite a sensation among forensic circles," he remarked.
"Hmm? . . . Oh yes. Yes, I suppose it will."
"Well, I suppose there's no need to take up any more of your time, Professor."
"If you're sure I can be of no further help . . ."
"Oh, I think we've covered everything." Wenkle began collecting his papers together. "Where did you say Dr. Gorfmann went, again?"
"To Australia. He was a rather headstrong and unusually ambitious young man-very capable, mark you, but he thought he wasn't getting enough of an opportunity here. He resigned and went off to . . . oh, I forget the name of the place. One of those billabong-sounding, Aborigine words, out in the desert."
"A bit abrupt, wasn't it?"
"Remarkably so. It caused us a few headaches, I can tell you. But he was very temperamental. Terrible, the lack of consideration among young people these days. Terrible."
"It seems strange that he didn't wait to collect the insurance money."
"Didn't need it. His family's dripping with money. They own gold mines or something out in Australia.
That's probably why he went there."
"Why would he have bought a new car so recently if he was going abroad?"
"Who knows? As I said, he was an extremely headstrong young man. It was probably an impulse that came out of the blue. He was like that. It doesn't surprise me at all. I only wish I had the money and freedom to be able to do things like that."
"I see." Wenkle zipped up his doc.u.ment holder and rose from his chair. "Just one more thing, Professor."
"To enable us to close our file on the case, I suppose there'd be no objection to letting me have copies of the relevant doc.u.ments-his resignation notice and termination papers?"
Osternak stared down at the desk for a moment. "You mean right now?"
"Well, if it wouldn't be any trouble, since I'm here anyway. . . ."
"Hmm . . ." Osternak sniffed and scratched his temple. "That might be difficult. I've just remembered that our secretary who handles all those things is off this afternoon."
"Well, maybe in the next couple of days?"
"Oh, in that case . . ." Osternak showed his palms in a gesture of magnanimity. It would mean a long session with Hoetzer's high-resolution graphics printer, but he could survive another late night, he supposed. "Certainly, Inspector. Give me a couple of days, and I'll let you have all the doc.u.ments you like."
"Very good, then. Good day, Professor Osternak. And thank you again for being so cooperative."
"Not at all. I like to do my best for another profession whose objective is uncovering the truth, eh?
Good day to you, Inspector."
Osternak got up and escorted Wenkle to the door. Then he came back and stood for a long time staring at the equations on his chalkboard. The recent events demonstrated an even greater need for care than he'd imagined. But when he went over the things that had happened and examined them again in terms of symbolic relations.h.i.+ps . . . yes, yes, he could see a strange kind of logic beginning to emerge. Intrigued, he moved nearer the board, picked up a piece of chalk, and began to write.
Thanks for joining me in this somewhat erratic voyage of rediscovery around an archipelago of thoughts from 1988. For those who are so disposed, I look forward to meeting you again in Rockets, Redheads, and Revolution. I welcome hearing from readers with thoughts to share, hopefully a compliment or two, or grumbles that need airing. My e-mail address [email protected] . Web site http://www.global.org/jphogan
James P. Hogan