by London Lampy
It's going to make me late for work but I decide to go home and change my clothes before I go in. I figure that as I'm working tonight, and now that I now don't need the afternoon to meet Jack because he's already here, I can get away with it.
I said goodbye to Jack in the hotel room and suggested that he check out and that I ask Vio if he can stay with her. This was kind of my plan all along if he didn't simply decide to turn around and go back as soon as I told him about Topher. I think she'll agree to it as she likes Jack, and I'm going to meet up with him again at lunch and hopefully give him a key so he can let himself into her place. After I've finished my day at work I'll call into the flat to get changed into my smart clothes for this evening at the theatre and explain what's happening to Topher. It's complicated, but hopefully it'll work, for now.
I'm halfway up the metal staircase that leads up the side of the Costa's shop to my place when someone calls out my name from behind me. I turn to see Effie in her dowdy shop girl dress standing at the bottom, her hands on her hips, a cross expression on her face.
"Hi Eff," I say, wondering why she's glaring at me.
"Where have you been?" she demands.
"What?" I come back down to stand a few steps above her. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that poor Topher has been worried sick about you. You've been gone all night and he didn't know where you were, or what had happened to you. He told me to tell you if I saw you and you were in one piece that he's really," she lowers her voice, "pissed off that you stayed out all night without letting him know."
"Oh shit," I swear. I suppose I should have let him know somehow, I just got so caught up with Jack I didn't bother. "Has he gone to work?"
"Yes," she nods. "So where were you?"
I take one step down toward her. "With Jack, I'm surprised Topher didn't work it out. Jack came here a day early and I wasn't home, but Topher was and they met, unfortunately." A while ago I ended up explaining more or less the whole situation to her. Partly because I wanted to talk to someone about it who wasn't either involved or as opinionated as Vio, and partly because Effie is nosey and wanted to know if Topher living with me meant my relationship with Jack was over.
"So Jack and you haven't broken up?" She looks pleased about this, she really likes Jack, although she also gets on very well with Topher too. However she doesn't have a crush on him, they just have a mutual love of gossip.
"No, but maybe now Topher and me will," I sigh. I've sorted things out with one of them and accidentally fucked things up with the other one.
"Oh, I do hope not," Effie says, bringing her hand to her mouth, seeming genuinely distressed at the prospect.
"So do I," I agree.
The book shop isn't that easy to find, it's off the main streets but after a bit of asking around I locate it, tucked between a family run jewellers and a shop selling all types of kitchenware. In the window is a display of the latest novels and three cats, two are dozing in sunny patches and one watches me with a green-eyed gaze, all four paws tucked under its body. It radiates a kind of smug calm, which is very much the opposite of how I'm feeling. I push the door open and a bell tinkles loudly. The inside of the shop is unsurprisingly filled floor to ceiling with book stocked shelves, and the whole place smells of paper, and just a little of cat pee. I can't see Topher but sitting behind a large, battered, book covered table that from the fact that it houses a cash register marks it out as the shop's sales counter is a small, elderly man. He has thick round framed glasses, a head that is entirely bald except for two tufts of white hair that stick up behind his ears and despite the heat of the day he is wearing a sweater that can't be much younger than him. It's a brownish colour and is fuzzed and holed with age. He looks almost exactly like an owl would if it was suddenly turned into a human.
I walk up to the counter-table and he lifts his gaze from a book and blinks at me. I almost expect him to hoot rather than speak, but when he does speak it makes little more sense than a bird's cry because he addresses me in the echoback language. The first part of what he says is "hello", and at a guess the second part is "how can I help you", but I'm not going to try to reply in the same fashion. I know a little of the language since spending time in the forest, but not nearly enough to hold a conversation. I wonder why Topher's boss can speak in my specie's tongue?
"Hello," I reply. "I'm sorry but I don't really speak the language."
"Oh," he raises a pair of thick white eyebrows. "Then I'm sorry, I shouldn't have presumed, and if I'm honest I'm more than a little rusty, I'm not sure how far we would have got if you could. So how can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Topher, he works here."
"Ah yes, my new employee, the young earl." How the hell did he find that out about Topher so quickly? "He's upstairs doing a bit of tidying up, shall I fetch him down?"
"No, I'll go up if it's alright with you," I say quickly. I'd rather talk to Topher without an audience.
"That's fine, it's all part of the shop." He gestures to a small wooden staircase that's almost hidden amongst the shelves. "Are you a friend of his?"
"I'm not sure right now," I confess.
"Ah," he nods seriously. "Best you go and talk to him then."
I find Topher at the end of an aisle sitting on a stack of books reading, not "doing a bit of tidying up" at all. When he sees me he very briefly looks pleased, then his expression changes to one of extreme irritation.
"Where the fuck were you all night?" He puts his book down, stands up and steps over to me.
"With Jack." There's not much point in saying anything else. "Didn't you work that out after he came to the flat?"
"After he turned up at my home and shouted at me for being there you mean?" I wish they'd met under better circumstances, they're never going to get along now. "The fact that you could have possibly been with him was the only thing that stopped me from searching the hospitals for you. I cannot believe that you did not even send a fucking note round to tell me. Did it even occur to you that I might be worried?"
The honest answer is no, it didn't. Sometimes even I know that honesty isn't always the best policy. "Look, Jack just turned up unexpectedly. He came to surprise me and found you, as you know he wasn't happy about this, but whatever he said to you the person he was actually angry at was me. We had a very very long talk, by the time we'd got it kind of sorted out it was really late and I assumed you'd have guessed why I wasn't at home and who I was with. We spent the night in a hotel and I'm sorry I didn't tell you, I'm not used to having anyone caring where I am." He frowns at me. "I'm really, really sorry."
"I was worried," he says sulkily. I suddenly realise why this is such a big thing for him. He's already lost too many people that he cares about in his life, I remember how he used to worry about something bad happening to Quint all the time.
"Sorry," I step forward and hug him. "I promise that it won't happen again." He doesn't hug me back, but he doesn't push me away either.
"Are you going to be out again tonight?" he asks against my shoulder.
"I..." I let go of him. Maybe Vio's right and this can never work, I've gone from feeling guilty about Jack to feeling guilty about Topher. "Would you mind if I was?"
His reply is a shrug.
"I've got to work tonight, Sampson is going to the theatre and wants me to go as his bodyguard so I'd be late anyway. I made plans to meet up with Jack after."
"You are going to the theatre?" he questions, sounding interested. "Can I come?"
"Topher, it's work."
"Fine, I will see you tomorrow then, or whenever you next come home." He turns away and starts moving books around on a shelf.
"I'll ask Vin." Perhaps Vin having a thing for him might work in my favour. "See if you can come, but I can't promise he'll say yes."
He turns around again and looks at me with his big black eyes. If I had to choose, if it was a final binding choice, which one would I pick, Topher or Jack? I don't know. "I'll come back home after work and tell you what he said then, is that alright?"
"I guess," he shrugs. Gods I hope Vin says yes.
"Have you come in here to tell me why you're nearly two hours late for work?" Vin says frostily from behind his desk.
"It's only just an hour and a half," I point out. "And I don't need this afternoon off now so I thought it would be alright to come in a bit late instead."
"Well it's not. You can't just choose what hours you want to work. Next time you're late you're going to have to go along to Zale's office and explain yourself to him, no more warnings Exit, this is it."
"I'm sorry," I apologise, which about all I seem to be doing at the moment. Vin has been in kind of a bad mood lately, normally I can get round him, but clearly not today. I wish I didn't now have a favour to ask him. "About tonight, this theatre body-guarding thing..."
"No, you can't get out of it," he snaps.
"That's not what I was going to ask." I hold my hands up. "I wanted to know if perhaps Topher could come too..."
"Exit, it's not a night out, it's your job."
"I know, but he really wants to and he's a bit pissed off with me at the moment so I said I'd ask."
"What did you do to piss him off?" Vin questions, as I knew he would.
I sigh, I might as well be honest, he'll find out anyway. "Jack."
"Oh, so solider boy came back early?"
"Yes, and Topher is feeling a bit put out about it and I'd like to bring him along tonight to cheer him up." I don't need Vin interrogating me right now, I'd rather simply lay it all out for him.
Vin doesn't reply for a few seconds, instead he gives me a long searching look. "Careful there Exit, or you'll be turning into me," he says eventually.
"No," I shake my head, but a little part of me fears he might be right. "They both know about each other."
"It's a slippery slope." He smiles a crooked smile that's not one bit pleasant. "Look, it's not really my call. If you want Topher there you need to go and ask Sampson if you can bring one of your boyfriends along tonight."
"I can't do that!" I protest.
"I'm not asking him for you, either do it or don't, I don't care either way. It all depends how much making up you have to do to Topher."
Sampson's secretary Miss Collister peers at me over her typewriter. She's a sour faced woman of advanced years dressed all in severe black with small, hard eyes, a tight-lipped mouth and a hint of a bristly moustache. The rumour goes that Mrs Sampson, who was Sampson's secretary before she became his wife, hand picked her for the job, knowing that with Miss Collister there was no risk of her husband once again succumbing to an office romance.
"He's very busy today." She says brusquely when I ask about the possibility of seeing Sampson for a few minutes. If she ever decided to change jobs she'd fit right in with the nuns at the orphanage.
"I just need a quick word." I try not to sound as irritated as I feel.
"Take a seat over there then," she indicates half a dozen hard wooden chairs lined up along the wall on the other side of the outer office, "and wait."
"How long will he be?" I've already waisted a enough time today.
"As long as he takes."
As I sit down she starts to type, the clatter of the keys fills the room, and something occurs to me. Vio tested all of the typewriters in the typing pool room for a match with Menna Abbot's suicide note, but she didn't check Miss Collister's typewriter.
"Excuse me," I say, approaching her desk again. "Would you mind letting me look at your typewriter?" It could be the one, maybe Sampson forged the note to cause the least amount of scandal or disruption to the company. It wouldn't mean Menna didn't do herself in, but it would explain why her note wasn't written on any of the machines that we know she had access to.
"No, you may not," Miss Collister glares at me, putting one hand protectively onto her machine as if I'm about to snatch it away from her.
"Could I see something you've typed on it then?" It was a half faded lower case "e" and a missing bit on the upper case "M" that were the tell tale signs.
"Young man, these are confidential documents." She flips the papers on her desk over as I try to look at them.
"Then could you perhaps type something for me?" I ask.
"That is what the typing pool is for, I am Mr Sampson's personal secretary. I do not know what your fascination with my machine is, but I kindly ask you to sit down and wait quietly or I will have you ejected."
Before I can say anything more the door to Sampson's office opens and he comes out with a small group of men whose hands he shakes as he bids them farewell in a cheerful way. He shows then out slapping them on the back and as he returns he spots me still standing beside Miss Collister's desk.
"Exit, hullo!" he bellows. "Don't often see you up here, been chatting to Miss C eh?" The secretary glares at me again, then gives her boss a simpering look.
"This young man wanted to speak to you, I did tell him you were very busy."
"Too busy for my favourite investigator? Nonsense." He comes over and now slaps me on the back, while Miss Collister gives me a look that could freeze hell. "Come on into my office."
Sampson's office occupies almost the whole of the the fifteenth floor and is huge. He has a large dark polished wood meeting table at one end, and behind that is a fully stocked drinks cabinet.
"Fancy a little snifter?" he asks as he unstoppers a decanter of what I guess is brandy as it's normally his drink of choice. "The sun must be over the yard arm by now."
"No thank you sir," I decline. Today is going badly enough already, getting drunk before lunch isn't going to help any.
"Are you sure?" he raised his bushy eyebrows in surprise.
"Ah well, just me then." He indicates for me to sit down at the table as he pours himself a generous measure and then comes to join me. "Do you know who those chaps were?" he asks as he settles down opposite me.
"No," I shake my head, knowing that he's going to tell me.
"Luminaries from three of the small towns down in the Midlands." That's where Jack is from originally. "Come to ask...no to beg for me to run power lines to their little towns," he laughs. "They offered to pay for us to run electricity to them." He then goes on a long ramble about electrifying the countryside and his ever growing empire, and I fear that he's never going to shut up and I'm never going to get to ask him about Topher coming with us tonight.
"Sir," I say quickly when he stops to take a gulp of his drink. " I have a request."
"Oh, really." His steel grey eyes fix on me, and for an instant I get a glimpse of the other Sampson. Sampson the ruthless businessman, not Sampson the bumbling idiot. "And what would that be?"
"I'm accompanying you to the theatre tonight..." I start.
"Mrs S's charity gala, I must say I'm glad it's finally arrived, in our house there has been talk of little else for days." His face lights up, he may have many faults, but he really does adore his wife. "And you and Govinder are going to be there to keep us safe, splendid."
"Yes," I put in a touch desperately before he can go off again. "And I was wondering if it would possibly be alright with you if I brought a friend along?"
"Oh, a friend?" he flaps his eyebrows suggestively. "Some young lady you're trying to impress is it?"
"No sir, it's a male friend." I wait and watch as he stops, thinks, frowns, then nods when it finally comes back to him.
"Ah yes, I'd forgotten that about you." He clears his throat with a loud "harrumph". "Well, you see Exit this is an event for society types, and the thing is, would your friend know how to behave in that kind of company? You wouldn't want him to feel out of place now, would you?"
I have a sudden, inspired idea. "He'll fit right in, he's actually an earl."
"An earl! Good grief, Mrs S would love that, real nobility at her gala, where's he earl of?"
"Er...somewhere in Surosa." He has told me, but I've forgotten.
"A member of the Surosian nobility?" Sampson looks impressed. "How closely is he related to King Didrick?"
"I don't think he's related to the king at all sir."
"Of course he's related to the king, they all are, they marry their cousins and so on. The whole of the nobility out there are practically one big family," he insists. "I'll ask him when I meet him."
"He can come then?"
"Come? Mrs S would have my head on a platter if she knew that I'd turned down the opportunity to have an earl at her gala," he grins. So I guess Topher has an invite then.
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