by London Lampy
"And this one makes three." Vin is crouched down beside the chair and has managed to prise the bullet that was lodged in it out with his penknife, he adds it to the other two that are already in his pocket.
"That's the one that hit Topher," I say. There is now a dark blood stain on the gold velvet upholstery of the chair from where the bullet nicked his upper arm. Fortunately it didn't pass through his flesh, it just scored a shallow furrow in his skin then buried itself in the back of the chair. A few inches further and it would have been a different story, instead of the Sampson's taking Topher off to see their private doctor for a couple of stitches he would be in the hospital, or worse. It makes me feel sick to think about it. I can't stop thinking about it.
By the time we'd established that the gunman had stopped at three shots and that Topher wasn't seriously injured most of the audience had left the building. Vin and me ran through the theatre and up a back staircase to find where the shots had come from. The location turned out to be a dusty storage room filled with old paperwork, cardboard boxes and broken pieces of furniture, but there was no one in there when we got to it. We both agreed that whoever had tried to shoot Sampson had escaped among the crowd who had mostly drifted off into the night.
Vin asked the theatre manager, a small worried looking man named Fran, to try and get as many of the people who were milling about on the street back inside so we could interview them but he hasn't had much success. The good and great of Parnell society don't take being ordered around kindly. Pretty much the only people left in the building now are us, the performers, and the staff.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? That's evidence." A voice from the doorway of the box berates.
I look across to see a chunky middle aged man wearing a rumpled suit. He is red faced and beads of sweat are standing out on his forehead and scalp where he has a horseshoe shaped bald patch, although he seems to be trying to make up for the lack of hair on his head with a large bushy brown moustache. Vin stands up and the man stares at him, an expression of irritation forming on his face that makes him look like a cross, hairy tomato. "Oh, it's you," he growls, his accent pure Parnell.
"Hello Inspector," Vin says with an exaggerated sigh.
"Hand them over." The man holds his hand out palm up and Vin makes a show of rummaging in his pocket then slowly drops the bullets into the man's hand one by one.
"Three bullets, one slightly blood stained," he says as they drop.
"What happened to the person who got hit?" the man asks.
"Nothing much, it was only a graze. He's been taken to see a doctor." Vin sounds almost insolent, and I can suddenly see him as he must have been in his teens.
"We'll need to speak to him."
"Feel free, he lives with Exit here." Vin points in my direction where I'm perched on the edge of the box, the inspector seems to notice me for the first time. "He can give you his details."
"Ah, the famous Exit." Famous? "Good to finally meet you." The man puts out his hand and I shake it as he introduces himself as Inspector George Milden of the Parnell police force. His hand is hot and damp and I have to resist wiping mine on my trousers once he's let it go.
"My lads will be here soon," he says to Vin. "The pair of you get on your way now."
"I don't think so," Vin replies with an amused raise of his eyebrows. "We still have work to do."
"This is a police matter, you're civilians." Inspector Milden is taller than Vin and is clearly trying to stare him down. It's not going to work.
"George, come on, you know we have a special arrangement with your superiors when it come to matters that affect us."
"When it's matters of business irregularities, not cases of attempted murder."
"Really, are you sure? I don't recall any clauses to that effect. Shall I get my boss to go and disturb your boss doing...whatever it it is he likes to be doing on hot summer nights...to ask him? As far as I'm aware the arrangement covers everything and anything that may have a connection to Municipal Works, and someone attempting to assassinate Mr Sampson is definitely that."
"Anything, anything you turn up that may be pertinent to our investigation you hand over to us, understand? Or you'll find yourselves arrested for withholding evidence." The man knows he's been beaten, and is not happy about it. He's somehow managed to go even redder than he was to start with.
"Of course I will George, I have the utmost respect for the force," Vin grins. "After all, you've trained some of my best staff."
The blond man who was with us earlier, and whose name I have subsequently discovered is Sam, has taken us back up to the place where the shots were fired from to have a good look around before the real police get here.
"You don't keep it locked?" Vin asks as he opens the door.
"No, there's nothing anyone would want to steal in there," he shrugs as he flicks on the light. We were only the store room briefly before to look for the gunman but everything seems just as it was before.
"What's the hatch used for?" Vin says as he crosses the small patch of floor to open it.
"Changing light bulbs," Sam replies. "It's too high to get up here with a ladder from the ground but we can reach out from there."
"Come here and have a look," Vin calls me over.
I stand beside him, a bit too close for comfort but it's the only way I can look out of the hatch at the same time as him. I can see what Sam means, there's a light fitting just below us and I could easily put my hand out to touch it. This is undoubtedly where the shots were fired from, I can see down and directly into the box we were all sitting in not so long ago. Inspector Milden is still in there, sitting in the chair Topher occupied looking around the auditorium thoughtfully. As Vin pushes the hatch open wider the inspector spots the movement the way I did earlier and glances sharply upwards, glaring in our direction.
"How many people have access to this area?" Vin asks, giving the inspector a cheery wave.
"Everyone, the staircase is a fire escape. Any member of the audience could come out here if they wanted, although if the ushers catch them they send them back into the auditorium."
"Great," Vin mutters. "Thanks Sam, could you round up everyone who's still in the building so we can talk to them? It won't take long." I know he wants us to get in and do that before Inspector Milden's "lads" have a chance to do the same.
"I'll try." He doesn't sound that positive about this, and I know what he means. Getting people together in one place, and then getting them to stay there without them wandering off when being there is of no benefit to them isn't easy.
"Thanks," Vin says again. Once Sam's left Vin gives the inspector one last wave then shuts the hatch and starts to look around the small room.
"He doesn't like us does he?" I say as Vin opens the drawers of a dented filing cabinet one by one and peers inside.
"Who, Sam? I doubt he any strong feeling about us one way or another." Actually when we were climbing the stairs I though he might have been checking Vin out, but I wasn't sure and now is not the time to bring that up.
"No, I don't mean him, I mean Inspector Milden."
"George? No, he doesn't," Vin agrees. Not finding anything of interest in the cabinet he moves onto a pile of old posters and starts flipping through them. "And he especially doesn't like me."
"Partly because he it hates that I run what he sees as a private police force that operates on his patch, but mostly because, in his words, I poached one of his best thief-takers."
"Huh?" I decide that I ought to be doing something too so I start to poke about in a box full of rusty metal things, although I have no idea what I'm looking for apart from possibly a gun.
"It's a copper's phrase for another copper, a good one anyway. I've employed a few of his men over the years, but the one that particularly annoys him is Vio."
"He should have paid her more money if he wanted to keep her," I say, lifting out some kind of hinge. It squeaks loudly when I move it back and forth, Vin gives me a brief frown so I throw it back into the box with a dull clang. I know for a fact that she now gets more than double what she was getting as a cop.
"Is that why she told you she left?" He seems to have given up his search and claps his hands together to get the dust off them.
"Yeah, that she joined Municipal Works because you offered her a lot more money." I stop looking too, my hands are now covered in flakes of rust.
"Well, that is true but it's not really the reason why she left, it was that they didn't promote her, even though she was one of their best. It's because she's a woman and the whole damn force is one big boys club. She kept getting passed over while watching men with half her skills rise up through the ranks."
"That's really unfair." Poor Vio.
"Yes, it is," he agrees. "She was told that the only way for a woman to climb the ladder was too keep her senior officers beds warm. You can imagine how well that went down."
"Gods," I wince.
"Exactly. Come on, let's go and interview people before George's men get to them and tell them that we're not actually police and they're under no obligation to talk to us."
We split up. Vin interviews the performers backstage while I speak to the Empress' staff in one of the bars. The staff are as helpful as they can be but none of them can recall seeing anyone or anything suspicious. "You didn't see anyone who looked out of place before the shooting, or anyone running away after?" I ask my final interviewee, a small, brown skinned young woman wearing blue coveralls who is apparently named Fudge, which if you ask me is an even stupider name than mine.
"Nope." She shakes her head, making her jaw length black hair swish around her face. She looks a bit like Topher, but lighter, I wonder if she's part Surosian? "No one, and no one who didn't have a ticket could have got in either. That Mrs Sampson said she didn't want any riff raff coming in and made us put on extra ushers." She rolls her black eyes. "She didn't even let us sell the tickets, so it's not like someone off the street could have walked in here and bought one."
"How did people get the tickets then?" I ask.
"She sold them through her charity," Fudge shrugs. "Don't know how she got so many people to come along though." I do, she's the wife of one of the most powerful men in the city, perhaps even the whole Twin Islands. People want to be seen to know her, a certain sort of people anyway.
I can't think of anything else to ask her so I take down her details in a note book that Vin gave me for the purpose and then thank her for her help, trying to sound as much like a policeman as I can.
"You're not a slave, are you?" she suddenly asks as I'm flipping my notebook shut.
"No!" I retort. "We're not all slaves you know, as a matter of fact there are hardly any slaves left now." And that is at least partly down to Sampson, he has his good points.
"Sorry," she apologises, looking embarrassed. "I only ever met one other echoback before and he was a slave."
"It wasn't Tippit was it?" He's the only other one I know of in the city, although he spends much of his time disguised as a very short human. "He's actually an ex slave."
"I never learnt his name, it was about four years ago now, he worked..." She stops herself and blinks. "Never mind...it was your eyes, they just reminded me, that's all."
Soon after this the real police arrive in numbers so Vin and me head out into the night leaving them to it. "Will Mrs Sampson have the details of all the people who bought tickets?" I ask him as we stand in front of the Empress. It's still very warm out here, it almost reminds me of being on the Northern Continent.
"Undoubtedly," Vin nods. "She'll want to write to them, or get one of her people to write to them, and ask for donations in the future."
"So we're going to have to track them all down and talk to them?"
"Yes," Vin agrees. "All nine hundred of them, and we need to look into the backgrounds of all the performers and theatre's staff too. Someone who was in that place tonight wanted Sampson dead, it's just a question of finding out which one."
"And why," I add.
"If I had to put money on it I'd say it was someone working for, or at least sympathetic to Clearwater, but they're not his only enemies. We've got a lot of work to do, however we'll start tomorrow." He puts a hand on my shoulder. "Want to go for a drink?"
I have a problem. I'm meant to be meeting Jack at Vio's house, and I do want to, but I also want to go home and check on Topher, he should be back from the doctor by now. I know that Topher won't want me to leave him if I go home, and then I'll be letting Jack down, but if I go straight to Vio's I'll be letting Topher down. I don't know what to do so I decide to put off the decision for a while. "Yeah, alright," I nod. "I could use a drink."
"That's not beer," I say as Vin hands me a glass filled with ice and some kind of pink liquid.
"No, it's not," he agrees, sitting down at the small table across from me. "It's crushed strawberries and strawberry liqueur and some other stuff. I thought you'd like it, it's sweet."
I try a bit, I do like it but it's not what I asked for and I point this out. "It's a hot night, much too hot for warm flat beer." He takes a sip of his own drink, something clear and bubbly with ice and a slice of lemon, from the fragrant smell it's gin.
We're in a bar a few streets from the Empress theatre. It's busy but not crowded and we found a free table near the back. Someone has propped a door open to let the air in, but it's not much cooler outside than in. "I hope Topher is alright," I say, drinking some more of the strawberry stuff. "I remember how crappy I felt after you shot me."
"Putting aside the fact that I didn't actually shoot you, you moved my arm and ended up in the firing line, you had a bullet rip through your thigh at point blank range. It severed your femoral artery, chipped your bone and you came very close to bleeding to death. Topher has a small cut on his arm, to be honest seeing a doctor was possibly overkill. A sticking plaster could have done the job, but it occupied the Sampsons and got them off the premises. So in answer to your question, he'll be fine."
We talk about the shooting and how much work this is going to cause for all of us until I'm staring at an empty glass and Vin is asking me if I want another. "I ought to go," I say. But where?
"You sure?" he smiles at me. "Have one more then go."
"One more," I nod. "Then I'll go."
Three drinks later I'm finding it hard to walk in a straight line as Vin steers me back out into the street. "I don' know where to go." The street is almost empty now, what the hell is the time?
"We could go to my office," he suggests, catching me before I fall off the edge of the curb into the road.
"Go to work?...isn't it too late...or too early...or too something."
"I wasn't suggesting we worked." He pulls me close to him, wrapping his arms around my waist from behind.
"What..? Oh...no," I shake my head. "No no no...I promised Jack."
He kisses my neck. "Jack doesn't have to know," Vin says quietly into my ear, then moves a hand down to stroke me between the legs.
"Jack doesn't have to know?" I repeat, my body starting to respond to his touch.
"I won't tell him if you don't." Vin is getting hard too, and I find myself pushing into his hand, but... "No!" I break away from him unsteadily. "I love Jack...I love Jack and I'm going to see him!"
Vin briefly looks angry, but then he smooths it out to his normal expression. "What about Topher?" he asks. "I thought you wanted to see him too?"
"Oh shit...yeah." He takes a step toward me again. "You stay away from me!" I shout, backing into a lamppost.
"I'll make you an offer," he says, standing much too close and touching my face. "You take a cab and go and see solider boy, and I'll go to your place and check on Topher for you."
"Thanks," I grin. "Can you tell him I'll see him..." When will I see him? "In the morning." Does that sound right?
"In the morning," Vin nods. "I'll tell him, and look, as luck would have there's a cab." He points to a taxi that's trundling slowly in our direction with its lamp lit, then steps away from me and hails it.
After a few attempts I manage to remember Vio's address and I scramble into the back. It's not until I'm standing outside Vio's house ringing her doorbell that I realise what a huge mistake I've made in letting Vin go and see Topher alone in the middle of the night.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]