by London Lampy
I've now managed to make it to work on time for three days in a row. Vin's suggestion of setting my alarm clock a bit earlier has worked and today, the fourth day, I've actually managed to get in early; something that hardly ever happened even before Topher was living with me. I walk into my office to find Vio already there at her desk, which is a bit irritating as I wanted to be in before her for once.
"I'm early!" I say when she sees me.
"You want a fucking medal? I've been here since six."
"Why?" I know she likes to be punctual but that's ridiculous. "Did Caddy have enough of your snoring and kick you out of bed?"
"No, she didn't stay over last night. There was something I wanted to do while the place was quiet, look." She has a stack of Municipal Works headed papers on her desk and she spreads them out across its surface for me to see. It's Menna Abbot's suicide note, or rather twenty-two identical copies of her suicide note, the only difference between them being a number from one to twenty-two pencilled in the corner of each copy.
"Did you type them all?" I question, wondering if she's gone a little crazy.
"Yep, each one of them on a different typewriter in the typing pool room." She has gone a little crazy.
"Can I ask why?"
"You can, let me explain." Her voice takes on a lecturing tone. "All typewriters are slightly different, that is the original note," she points to the only one with a fold crease in the middle and no number on it. "See how on the lower case "e" the bottom is slightly paler than the top, and how part of the serif on the upper case "M" is missing?"
"What's a serif?" I ask.
"That bit," she points one blunt nailed finger at the M. "The little horizontal lines at the top and bottom. Now look at all these others, each one has a different set of flaws, but none that match the original note. This one," she indicates a paper with four written in the corner, "was done on the machine that Menna was using the day she died, but it's clearly not the same one the note was written on." I pick up number four and the original to compare them, and now she's pointed it out to me I can see just what she means. "And believe me I've been through all of them with a magnifying glass."
"So what does all this mean?" I frown, trying to think it through.
"It means what it means, that the note wasn't typed in the typing pool room. It doesn't necessarily mean she didn't write it, but it does cast a big fucking shadow of doubt over the whole thing."
"We should tell Vin," I say.
"No, we shouldn't," she shakes her head. "As far as Sampson's concerned this is all over and done with, he won't want us stirring the shit up, and if he doesn't neither will Vin."
"Vin's not that callous," I protest. "If there's a chance Menna was murdered he'd want it investigated."
"Ordinarily I'd agree with you, but he's not exactly been in Sampson's good books since our little "holiday" in the forest has he? The daft fucker blames Vin for him getting kidnapped, and right now Vin's watching his back. If I tell Vin that I've been looking into this he'll tell me to stop and I can't go against his orders, but what he don't know won't hurt him."
"What are you two muttering about?" At the sound of Sonja's voice Vio begins to quickly stack the papers back up. "Are you talking about me?"
"Don't fucking flatter yourself, I wouldn't waste my breath." Vio replies as Sonja seats herself at her desk, and another working day begins.
Just before tea break time Vin calls me into his office. "Fancy a trip out to the theatre tomorrow night?" he asks.
Is he trying to get me to go on a date? "No, apart from anything else Jack's coming back to the city tomorrow and I've got the afternoon off to meet him from the train."
Vin frowns at me. "You didn't ask for the afternoon off."
"I did, I asked Zale." Who grudgingly gave it to me when I pointed out that I hadn't had any time off since the week I spent recovering at Ry's beach house after I got shot last year.
"You didn't ask me though."
"You weren't here." This was because I waited until he was out. For once Zale was the lesser of two evils as if Vin knew I wanted to take time off to see Jack he would have probably found a reason why I couldn't.
"So you've booked the afternoon off to dump solider boy?" Vin's very good at hiding his emotions when he wants to, but he can't completely disguise his smugness right now.
"No, I'm meeting him from the train." I give him what I hope come across as a "challenge me if you dare" look.
"So you're going to let him dump you, take the coward's way out of it?"
"I'm going to meet him and I'm going to talk to him." I don't want to be having this conversation with Vin.
"Good luck with your "meeting", but I'm afraid that the theatre trip isn't optional. Sampson and Mrs Sampson are going and he's asked for you specially to be one of his bodyguards."
"Why? I'm a terrible bodyguard, everybody says so." Well Vio says so, and she's most likely right.
"Because he likes you." I think I preferred it when Sampson didn't know who I was. "And I know you're a terrible bodyguard, that's why I'm going to be the other one."
"But I'm meeting Jack, it's all arranged."
"This isn't until the evening, you can still have your afternoon off then meet us at the theatre later."
"And I have no choice in this at all?" Whatever happens with Jack I do not want to be spending tomorrow evening with the Sampsons and Vin.
"No, not if you want to keep your job, or come to that if you want me to keep mine. Sampson was very specific in requesting you, he thinks you're his lucky charm."
"It's not the opera is it?" That really would be the cherry on the whole shitty cake. Ry took me once, just once, it was enough for me to know that I never ever wanted to see an opera again.
"No, fortunately for you it's not. It's at The Empress, you know, the variety place? It's a gala evening for one of Mrs Sampson's charities, raising money for orphaned puppies or something similar no doubt. My mother goes to those kind of events, no one really cares about the cause, it's all about seeing and being seen, and trust me, as the organiser Mrs Sampson wants to be seen, complete with a retinue of bodyguards."
Vio and I are sitting on a bench in the park near our building eating our lunches. Vio has a neatly packed lunch box with a ham and tomato sandwich, an apple and a flask full of home made soup. I have half a packet of biscuits and slightly brown banana stuffed into in an old bread bag, and a bottle of lemonade that I bought from the park's small refreshment kiosk.
"I wouldn't have minded doing that. Caddy and me often go there, they have some pretty good stuff there," she says when I tell her about the body-guarding job.
"I wish you could go instead, tomorrow is not a good day for it, but apparently Sampson requested me."
"Oh yeah, Jack's back isn't he?" she gives me a cold blue stare over her vegetable soup.
"That's right," I nod, finishing the banana. "So what are you going to do next in the Menna thing?" She knows that I'm changing the subject deliberately, but she doesn't want us to fight about Jack again any more than I do.
"What I really want to do is talk to the mother and search through Menna's stuff. There's bound to be a diary or letters or something that'll tell us more about her ex and whole pregnancy thing, but I'm not a cop any more and I can't just walk in there do that. I'm going to have to go very softly if I want to catch this monkey." I frown at her. "It's an expression! Fuck, between you and Tippit I have to watch everything I say. I'll give it a bit of time then approach Mrs Abbot, it's too soon right now and I don't want her making a complaint to Vin about me, but what I have done is spoken to Pamela from the typing pool and got her to give me the details of the abortion doctors that she gave to Menna. At least we might be able to find out once and for all if she actually did have an abortion, and to be honest it's just about the only other thing I can think of doing at the moment."
"Are you going to do that today?"
"Yeah, I've signed us out of the office for a bit, thought another person with me would make it all look more official. So what do you say, want to spend a few hours talking to abortion doctors?"
Despite the question I'm not sure that I have any more choice in this than I do in body-guarding the Sampsons tomorrow.
During the tram journey to the first of the two addresses Pamela gave her Vio shows me a photograph of Menna. It's the one from her company file, as a rule those things are less than flattering, they're taken in front of a white sheet and even I look pale and washed out in mine. I've never seen Vio's but I can't imagine that you would be able to tell where she stopped and the sheet started, but even with that you can see how pretty Menna was when she was alive. Her heart shaped face is framed by dark wavy hair that falls to her shoulders and her large dark eyes are fringed by long lashes, they seem to stare out at me from the photo; it's hard to believe that's she's dead. I try to remember seeing her before, if I can recall passing her in a corridor or standing next to her in the elevator, but I can't, and I don't know why but I feel kind of guilty about that.
The first place we go to turns out to be a boarded up building on the end of a small row of empty shops that are ear-marked for demolition. Apparently all the business moved out some time ago. No one is able to tell us where the doctor has gone to, and some even act like they never knew that he was there in the first place. A few of the locals that we spoke to looked away, shuffled their feet and claimed to have never heard of him, so having learnt nothing useful we have no choice but to catch another tram move onto the next address.
"People really didn't like us asking about that doctor," I say, looking out of the window at the passing city. It's a hot day and everybody seems to be moving at half the speed they do in the wintertime. People are keeping to the shady side of the street, fanning themselves with whatever they have to hand and I see an ice cream seller with a large queue beside his cart.
"No, it's not exactly a subject people are comfortable with," she shrugs. "It's not illegal as such, but it's kind of under the carpet. No one wants to admit to knowing anything about it, or gods forbid to having had one."
"When I was in the orphanage a girl had an abortion. She ran away and did it, it was nothing to do with the nuns, but she came back and she nearly bled to death because of it."
"Poor cow," Vio winces.
"Yeah." I think back, that was part of a whole chain of events that ended with Jack being forced to join the army. Jack. Fuck, how am I going to explain things to him tomorrow?
The second address is in a better part of the city. Most of the buildings in this area are occupied by businesses and when we find the place we're looking for it has three brass plaques beside the open door. One is for a dentist, one is for a shipping company and the last one simply reads "Dr Gruber, woman's specialist, floor three".
We let ourselves in and climb the stairs, at the top is a small but clean and bright waiting room with a receptionist seated behind a glass window. Vio speaks to her while I look around, I'm not sure what I was expecting, something grubby with a furtive air about it I suppose, but this place is just kind of...ordinary. The receptionist tells Vio that Dr Gruber should be able to see us for a few minutes once the current patient has left, so we take a seat to wait. Vio picks up a magazine off the top of a pile and flips through it, while I just sit and think. If I were Jack how would I feel to come here and find me living with Topher? Not one bit happy is the only conclusion I can come to. To me it doesn't feel like I'm cheating, I've never once considered trying to keep Topher a secret from Jack, but I'm not sure that Jack will see it that way.
After a short while a slim, pale woman lets herself out of the doctor's room and leaves without looking at either of us. The receptionist comes out from her cubby and goes in, then returns and tells us that the doctor will see us now. I follow Vio in and am a little surprised to find that the doctor is a woman. She's sitting behind a desk, looks to be in her fifties with short, straight, iron grey hair and deeply tanned and sun-spotted skin. She's wearing a short sleeved, plain, dark blue cotton shirt, has a pair of sliver framed spectacles on a chain around her neck, and her only visible jewellery is a simple gold wedding band.
The room is as tidy and practical looking as her. There are no decorations, no pictures on the walls or anything personal on the desk. The room contains nothing more than an examining couch with a folding screen beside it, a small white sink and a shelf with a neat row of doctor's implements on it. The only one I recognise is a stethoscope, and a couple of the other things look kind of scary.
"Good afternoon, I'm Doctor Gruber." The woman introduces herself then indicates for us to sit in a pair of upright wooden chairs in front of her desk. "My receptionist informs me that you're investigating the death of a young woman." Her voice is clipped and her tone neutral. "Are you with the police?" As she says this she glances at me and I catch a hint of curiosity.
"No, we're..." Vio hesitates for a second. "Investigating it privately."
"So I'm under no obligation to talk to you." Dr Gruber folds her hands on her desktop.
"No Doctor, you're not," Vio agrees. "But we would be grateful if you did."
"Miss..?" she looks at Vio.
"I'm Vio and he's Exit." I see the doctor's eyebrows twitch slightly at my name, and she glances at me again.
"Vio, my patient's confidentiality is very important."
"I understand that," Vio agrees. She's good at this, she knows that the doctor isn't a woman she can intimidate or trick into telling all. "But Menna Abbot is no longer your patient, she's dead, possibly murdered, and we're trying to find out as much about her as we can. We believe that she may have visited you for a...procedure two to three months ago." Vio takes out her wallet, removes the photograph of Menna from it and places on the desk so that Doctor Gruber can see it. The doctor puts on her glasses, picks it up and scrutinises it for a few seconds, then hands it back to Vio with a small nod.
"She did come to you then?" Vio asks.
The doctor removes her spectacles again, rests her elbows on the desk, steeples her hands and looks at Vio. "Three months ago I saw a young woman who wanted to have an early stage pregnancy terminated. She paid me upfront, had a consultation, came back a few days later and I performed the procedure, then she had the standard two follow up examinations and I never saw her again."
"She came alone?" Vio asks.
"Did she tell you anything about her circumstances, who got her pregnant, why she chose to end the pregnancy?"
"No," Doctor Gruber shakes her head. "Vio, you must understand, I am not here to listen to their confessions. I don't ask them for their stories, and I make it clear that I prefer them not to tell me. My job is to perform a service as hygienically and efficiently as possible, nothing more, nothing less."
"That seems a bit harsh," I say.
"Oh, you can speak." The doctor looks at me, and her gaze is every bit as piercing as Vio's. "Young man, I suspect that I have been doing this for more years than you have been alive. It is a necessary task that few are willing to take on, but I cannot be expected to be responsible for the emotional well being of every woman who passes through my doors. If I did that I'm afraid my own sanity would start to suffer."
"But you did operate on Menna Abbot?" I ask, just to make sure.
"I don't believe I said that. I told you that I saw a young woman, I see a great many young women. Now if the pair of you will excuse me I have work I need to be doing."
With no other leads on Menna to follow up we return to the office for the rest of the afternoon. I end up staying late to try to make up for being out today and taking the whole afternoon off tomorrow, and by the time I leave I'm the only person remaining in our office. During the morning and evening rush hours the broad steps in front of the building are filled with people, but this late there's only a few others around so I spot the tall, familiar figure leaning against the wall beside the entrance door straight away. My first reaction, the one that bypasses my brain and goes straight to my heart is one of joy at seeing Jack again, and I call out his name and grin at him as I walk toward him. Then my brain gets in on the action and points out the way he's standing, with his arms folded across his chest, and the expression on his face, the narrowed eyes and the mouth set into a straight line that doesn't change as approach him.
"Hello," I say, hoping that he might smile back at me, but he doesn't. "I wasn't expecting to see you until tomorrow."
"Obviously," comes the flat reply. "I went to your place, thought I'd let myself in with the key you gave me and surprise you when you came home from work. Do you know what I found there?"
I squeeze my eyes shut, this is the worst possible way for him to have found out. When I open my eyes again I find I can't look at him, and I stare past him at the street instead. "You found Topher, didn't you?" I reply.
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