Max surveyed the lab with flagging interest. The police had been through with their brushes and combs, and any clue to the whereabouts of the missing chemist was no doubt bagged and tagged and sitting on the shelf of some dark evidence room. But amidst the dull microscopes and flasks and hot plates his eyes were drawn to a garish Russian nesting doll, smiling coquettishly from inside a Pyrex beaker.
Max lifted it out, twisted the little babushka at her equator to reveal the smaller but otherwise identical doll inside. Max’s mother always had a thing for nesting dolls. Max liked them himself–who didn’t? They posed an unanswerable question, a tickle in the brain. A complete doll demanded that you excavate all her little daughters and granddaughters. These little women, once disassembled, demanded to be put back together again, and so on. You were never finished. And the smallest doll– the size of a lean peanut, its painted face like punctuation–was always to Max a frustrating delight. Small enough, certainly, yet he always wished it could hatch still smaller generations. A woman like a grain of rice. Then another like a hangnail. Then a single peasant molecule, its atoms waiting to be split into the purely theoretical.
And so he noted with pleasure when the seventh largest of the chemist’s nesting dolls could itself be cracked to reveal an eighth the size of a newborn’s toe. And even the eighth–impossible!–had a little seam at the waist. And so did the next little grain of a doll inside. He tried to twist this one open, lost his hold, and spent the next three minutes hunting for it on the linoleum floor.
Finally he had it again, pinched tightly at both ends between his cramping fingers. He prized it apart, and the white speck inside dropped to the workbench and began immediately to flex and uncurl. It was a strip of paper, barely wider than an eyelash, yet unmistakably scribbled with tiny script. Max squinted at it for while before recalling that he was seated next to a microscope.
It took a while to coax the strip into place, still longer to figure out the microscope’s workings, but then he was reading it, a message that at a magnification of fifty appeared pockmarked and rough, but still legible:
look behind you.
Frowning, Max turned to see the chemist, and her gun, and the little babushka it fired.