IGNORANCE OF CHEMISTRY • by Jonathan Pinnock

Masterson was getting bored. If it wasn’t for the fact that the guy was producing the highest quality recreational pharmaceuticals in the Northern hemisphere, he wouldn’t have given him the time of day. “Look,” he said. “Stop fannying around. If you need to upgrade your equipment to meet production targets, just come out and say so. Don’t bother me with the details. Remember: I’m the entrepreneur, you’re the chemist. I don’t pretend to understand what you do and I doubt if you have a clue what I do. So let’s keep it that way, right?”

The little man gave a nervous laugh. “S-so it’s OK, then?”

Masterson spread his arms wide. “Sure,” he said, “Whatever you need.” He was interrupted by a knock on the door, and Dmitri came in, dragging the bloodied wreck of a human being behind him. As the bodyguard dumped the man on the floor in front of his desk, Masterson raised one eyebrow.

“Intruder,” said Dmitri, by way of explanation. “Near boathouse.”

“Leave us,” said Masterson to the chemist, who scuttled out of the room. He stood up and walked over to where the man was lying, wondering who could have sent him. There were so many.

“Oh, Dmitri, what have you done to this poor chap?” he said. Dmitri responded by shrugging his shoulders. “I know,” he continued with a sympathetic air, “I know. I understand. You tried to use reasonable force, but he put up such a fight, and one thing led to another?” Dmitri shrugged again. Whilst Masterson had been talking, the intruder had managed to raise himself onto his knees and was coughing up blood in short, hacking bursts.

“Pick him up,” he ordered. “And give him something to drink. I want to talk to him if he’s still capable.” Dmitri grabbed hold of the prisoner and dumped him in a chair, supported by cushions. He was breathing fitfully, and when they brought him a glass of water, he almost choked on it.

“Well, what have we here?” said Masterson, walking slowly around the stranger. “What sort of person tries to sneak into my grounds at this hour of night? Was he armed?” He looked at Dmitri, who produced a small knife. “Is that it? A crappy little pen-knife? Not much of a murder weapon, is it?” He continued to circle the intruder. “Has he talked yet?” he said. Dmitri shook his head, and Masterson gave a sad smile. “Well, we have ways, you know,” he said. “Dmitri does enjoy his work.” He smiled indulgently at the bodyguard, and then turned back to his prisoner. “If it were me, well … I don’t think I’d manage to keep quiet for long, if the truth were told.”

Masterson squatted down and looked the man in the eye. “Do you actually understand what I am saying? Do you even speak English?” There was no reaction whatsoever. “Who sent you? Just tell me that, and we’ll make it nice and quick.” The intruder maintained his silence, holding Masterson’s gaze.

At that point, Masterson noticed the fob watch in the man’s waistcoat pocket. He detached it and took it out.

“Well, there’s a nice piece,” he remarked, dangling it idly from its chain. He took the watch in his other hand and examined the back. There were three letters inscribed there in curlicued writing. “H C N,” read Masterson. “Now, what can that stand for? Horace Catchpole North, perhaps? Harry Cornelius Nesterton? Henry Charles Nowell? Hmmm? Yes, I think we’ll settle for Henry Charles Nowell,” he decided. “Would you like that inscribed on your gravestone, Mr Nowell? ‘Another stupid bastard who tried to kill Frankie Masterson and paid the ultimate price for screwing it up’? Is that a suitable epitaph?”

Masterson took the watch and swung it from its chain in front of the prisoner. “You are feeling sleepy,” he said. “You will tell me everything you know. You will tell me who sent you. You are feeling sleepy …”

There was still no reaction at all, and Masterson slapped the man hard across the cheek in frustration. “Damn you!” he shouted in the man’s ear. “Damn you to hell!” He walked back to his own chair, deep in thought.

“All right,” he said eventually. “This is what we’re going to do, Mr Nowell. It’s one minute to midnight. You have sixty seconds precisely to tell me who sent you and why. If midnight strikes and you still haven’t told me anything, I will hand you back to the care of my good friend Dmitri, who will take you apart, limb by limb, cell by cell, atom by atom. Understood?” Masterson was getting sick of the man’s blank stare. “Am I fucking understood?” he screamed, “Sixty fucking seconds!”

He leaned back in the armchair and began fiddling with the watch. When he finally worked out how to flip it open, there was the tiniest puff, followed by an overpowering smell of almonds. As he struggled to breathe, he noticed that the intruder had begun to smile, and a vague memory surfaced in his dying brain that HCN meant something significant. If only he’d paid a little more attention in Chemistry lessons …


Jonathan Pinnock was born in Bedfordshire, England, and – despite having so far visited over forty other countries – has failed to relocate any further away than the next-door county of Hertfordshire. He is married with two children, several cats and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox. His writing has won a number of prizes, short-listings and long-listings, and and he has been published in such diverse publications as Smokebox, Litro and Necrotic Tissue. His unimaginatively-titled, but moderately interesting website may be found at www.jonathanpinnock.com.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Paul Freeman

    A great little story of revenge? Assassination?

    We can make up our own minds.

  • Now that was a neat way to kill a man. He’s lucky Dmitri did such a poor job of searching him. Cool story.

  • Good set up and good ending.

  • Oscar Windsor-Smith

    Another cracking story from the pen of JonP. One of your best, Jon. Keep ’em coming. Oh, and a five, of course.

    😉 scar

  • This one was great. Well written, and very slick ending. Terrific!

  • Very nice, I enjoyed it, gave it a 5.

    But I fear that some readers, as ignorant of chemistry as Masterson was, may not get it. It’s always a problem when you use specialized knowledge in a story, be it Zelda, skiing, the movie “Mystic Pizza”, or chemistry. They say “write what you know” but then it’s not always easy to find the proper audience for it …

  • Gail Mary

    How did the prisoner know that Masterson would take his watch, or would open it?

  • J.C. Towler

    I enjoyed the twist and understood what HCN was in the context of the story (and almonds were another big hint).

    I wasn’t such a fan of Masterson’s “voice”. His manner of speech was bad-guy cartoonish. Not saying he needed to sound like a character out of Scarface or Goodfellows, but as presented he didn’t go down well for me.

    –John

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Very interesting “here and now” science fiction. I like this story very much. As I read it I was thinking through most of it, “I don’t like this; what has all this brutality to do with the chemistry?” But the ending brought it round to meaning and I’m glad I stuck with it. Maybe some sort of hint or connection in the middle might keep some other less avid reader from dropping it half way.
    Is a watchful of HCN into the air enough to kill? I don’t know chemistry but I don’t own a chemistry lab. Shoemaker, stick to your last.

    Joshua – Maybe Dmitri is taking an evening class in chemistry.

  • I enjoyed the James Bond-ish sort of story. The ending and the fact that I didn’t know that HCN was hydrogen cyanide (courtesy of Wikipedia)didn’t bother me. I’ve read many novels where I didn’t entirely understand the technical side of things but the gist of it was apparent.

  • Bob

    The first several sentences were very confusing. Unclear on POV, whether Masterson was “the guy”, who was giving whom the time of day, nor even who was speaking at first.

    Agree with Gail Mary – nothing in the story indicated to us that Masterson would take particular notice of the guy’s pocket watch. It’s almost deus ex machina. And Masterson’s sudden emotional outbursts (“damn you to hell!”) just didn’t ring true.

    In short, a clever idea for an assassination story, but execution just wasn’t there.

  • Jen

    Interesting story. At first I didn’t like it, I had no idea where it was going or what was going on, but when we got the watch it got interesting.
    I don’t know excatly what HCN is but it didn’t matter, I figured out from the smell of aldmonds clue that it was a chemical and was going to kill him.

  • Good stuff, Jon, as always! 😉

  • Delicious, well written, fantastic ending. Well done, Jon.

  • Well the sympathy factor was low for a bunch making recreational pharms, seems there’s enough angst between the legit drug makers. It was for sure someone would die and the battered trespasser seemed sure to survive until the end. Still a well told tale as usaul, Jonathan, and it keep me reading right through.

    –dj

  • Many thanks for the comments. Of course, what I didn’t say was that Masterson was also a well-known connoisseur of antique timepieces. At least, that’s what it will say in the re-write …

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  • Jack Nolson

    Great story. The ending was unexpected, I really enjoyed it.

  • I don’t know anything about chemistry, but as soon as I read ‘almonds’ I thought ‘cyanide’, so that worked for me. Yes, a bit of foreshadowing to show Masterson’s got a passion for antique timepieces might be a good ploy, but that aside, this was an excellent little tale.

  • Tyrean

    I liked it, but I actually expected something like the ending. I didn’t expect the watch, but given the title and his treatment of his chemist . . . I kind of knew ahead of time that he was going to die by chemical means and at the hand of his “guest.” I liked it but I actually wanted to be surprised more.

  • Cat

    Bit more research would have served this well – HCN smells only faintly of almonds, so the scent wouldn’t’ve been overpowering – but not a bad little story at all. Nice treatment of an egomaniac.

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  • absolutely LOVED the ending! i wonder what Dmitri did to him afterwards, though… ew