by London Lampy
In this part of the city there used to be endless rows of small back to back terraced houses, at least according to Vio. Most of them have been demolished to make way for blocks of flats, because you can cram more people in and make more money by building upwards. The Abbot house is in the middle of one of the few remaining rows, a strip of twenty houses and a small shop all living in the shadows of the recently built blocks. For me this causes a problem, every block could be filled with unseen eyes watching me attempting to illegally enter the house, the watcher ready to run and find the nearest policeman.
It's late at night and I'm dressed entirely in black right down to a pair of leather gloves and I'm carrying an empty bag slung over my shoulder. I couldn't look more like a burglar if I tried. I have two options, my first option is to simply walk up to the front of the house and brazenly pick the lock. It's a very basic lock, or at least it looks to be from the alleyway between two blocks of flats across the street where I'm currently lurking, and I reckon that I could easily have it open in no more than two minutes. To a casual passer by I'd appear to be someone unlocking their front door, but if a neighbour who knows Mrs Abbot happened to see me they'd no doubt raise the alarm. My second option is to jump over the back fence into the yard and break in that way. It's a little less visible than the front door, but if anyone sees me jumping over they'd know I was up to no good, there is no reasonable reason for a young man on his own dressed all in black to be climbing over a back fence in the middle of the night. After a few moments deliberation I pick the second option. I go around to the back of the row of houses, count along until I find the right one and with my heart thumping I vault over the fence and find myself in a small tidy back yard. An empty washing line runs the length of it and around the three sides of the fence are pots of growing flowers, most of which have withered from lack of water. I wonder if anyone has bothered to water them since Menna died?
I make short work of the lock on the back door. If people knew just how easily the majority of locks could be picked they'd be horrified, and this is one of the flimsiest I've ever seen. I tiptoe through a kitchen and out into the small hallway. The house is very much as I expected it to be, neat and a little old fashioned with fussy flowered wallpaper and patterned carpets. A large wall clock chiming the quarter hour makes me jump as I put my foot onto the bottom step of the staircase, and I have to stop for a second and take a deep breath before I make my way upstairs to find Menna's bedroom. The bedroom is behind the second door I try, the first being a tiny bathroom of the kind where you could sit on the toilet and clean your teeth at the same time, but scrubbed clean and smelling of disinfectant.
Menna's room is heartbreaking. Her mother doesn't seem to have touched a single thing since the day her daughter died. Unlike the rest of the house a fine layer of dust covers everything and it's a bit untidy. The bed is rumpled, the bed clothes have been pulled up but it's only made as well as I ever do it and there's even still a dent in the pillows. A selection of clothes are thrown over the back of an upright chair as if on the day she died Menna couldn't decide what to wear and had tried on several outfits before she left the house. Worst of all a worn and well loved looking stuffed bear is lying at the foot of the bed, its black glass eyes seem to stare at me reproachfully.
Before I came here Caddy gave me some advice on the sort of places a young woman might keep private things like a diary or love letters, Vio claiming to have never had either when she was Menna's age. It's horrible going through a dead girl's stuff and I'm not sure I've ever felt like I'm doing something quite so wrong and intrusive before, even if the reason behind me doing it is a good one. After about ten minutes of carefully searching in every drawer and behind every drawer, under the mattress, under the bed and in the wardrobe I turn up a small red leather diary with a lock and a decorated cigar box full of letters. I've pretty much run out of places to look unless I start taking the carpet up or pulling the walls apart, so I decide that this will have to be enough. I spend a bit of time trying to make the room look exactly as it did before so hopefully Mrs Abbot will never know that she's been broken into and return downstairs just as the clock is chiming half past. I let myself back out into the yard and use my lock-pick to relock the door behind me, something that a normal burglar would never bother to do.
I briefly congratulate myself on having successfully completed this part of my mission, then jump back over the fence. Unfortunately I land straight in the oncoming path of a pair of uniformed policemen who must have just turned into the alley at the back of the row of houses that separates it from the blocks of flats. For a split second we stare at each other along the length of the alleyway, then I come to my senses and start to run. I can hear them chasing after me, their boots clattering loudly on the paving stones and they blow their whistles in an attempt to summon any other policemen who happen to be in the area to come and assist them. I have the advantage and soon outrun them, but I also know that at any moment more cops could appear from anywhere, so I go in the one direction humans never think to look in, up. With my tail tucked into my trousers and a pair of boots on my feet my balance is kind of off, but it's still not hard for me to scramble up the side of a shop using the drainpipe to help and then jump onto the neighbouring building's roof. I make my way across the city like that, leaping my way from roof top to roof top and running along them as if I was on the pavements below. As I go I curse my luck, there's very little chance of the cops finding me up here but I have to come down sometime and I don't know how much of my face they saw before I bolted. If they saw my eyes I'm as good as arrested.
After about a mile of roof running and jumping I reach my destination and I carefully descend to the ground at the delivery entrance of a darkened furniture shop. Checking around to make sure that no one saw me I cross the street and knock three times on the back door of The Blue Dog pub. Caddy's father, a tall, red-faced man in his sixties answers and lets me into the snug bar where Vio and Caddy are waiting for me, along with Topher, who didn't want to be left out.
They all look relieved when they see me, Topher especially, and when I go and sit next to him he kisses me on the cheek and rests his hand on my leg. The ashtray on the table is filled with cheroot butts and there's a pall of blue smoke in the air, a sure sign that Vio has been concerned too. She pushes a tall glass of lemonade in my direction.
"You took your time, we were getting worried," she says as I take a grateful swig.
"I almost got caught by the police," I reply, putting down my glass and taking the bag off my shoulder.
"Are you fucking joking?" she frowns.
"No," I shake my head. As I explain what happened Vio lights up again and Topher shifts his chair as close to mine as he can then laces the fingers of one hand into mine, squeezing tightly.
"How good a look do you think they got of you?" Vio asks when I'm done.
"I don't know, I didn't stop to ask."
"He was here all night, I got a pub full of customers will swear to it." Caddy's father chips in from behind the bar where he's polishing glasses.
"Thanks Dad." Caddy throws him a grateful smile.
"Thank you Mr Peterson," Vio adds, she's always very formal with him. "But hopefully it won't come to that."
"If it does you know where to come," he nods at me, then winks.
Mr Peterson likes Vio. I remember having a conversation with him after we came home from the forest about how at first he'd found it pretty odd that his daughter was dating a woman but that he was getting used to it now. He told me that all of Caddy's boyfriends had been, in his words, "good for nothing shits", and that it was nice to see Caddy being treated well for a change, and that Vio was also handy around the pub, especially for changing barrels.
"The cops aside, did you find anything?" Vio asks.
"I think so." I pull the diary and cigar box out of my bag and hand them to her. Vio lifts the lid of the box and peers inside.
"Thanks Exit, I do appreciate it," she says, sounding serious.
She'd better do, it might have cost me a lot more than either of us bargained for.
I know that Vio wants to spend the day going through the things I took from Menna's room but as we're still investigating the attempted shooting of Sampson she can't. Instead we're stuck in the office sifting through the interview reports in the hopes of finding something, anything, that we missed before. By the afternoon I'm cross eyed from reading and bored stupid, but then something happens that makes boredom seem like a good option. Inspector George Milden walks into our office, and my guts turn to ice. Thankfully Sonja and Kezlo are out interviewing cab drivers in case one of them remembers taking a gunman to the Empress the other night, because clearly anyone who's intending to attempt to assassinate someone is going to tell their taxi driver all about their plans. Sonja thought it was such a stupid and pointless task that she threatened to resign over it, but unfortunately this so far has turned out to be an empty threat.
"Good afternoon," the inspector greats us as he walks in. He pulls Kezlo's chair out from behind his desk so that it's facing us then sits himself down in it. It's another hot, humid, day and he's sweating freely, droplets are running down his cheeks and getting caught in his moustache. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and mops his face with it.
"Hello," Vio replies guardedly, while I stay silent, feeling like I have the word "guilty" written on a sign above my head, an arrow pointing down to me.
"So how's the investigation into who shot Mr Sampson going?" he asks conversationally, gesturing to our paper mountain that's currently weighed down by Vio's ashtray to stop it blowing across the room in the breeze from our Municipal Works issue office fan.
"We're making progress." I can almost see the animosity between them in the air.
"Anything you want to pass onto me?" he asks, tucking the handkerchief away and pulling out a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches.
"We're following up a number of leads." She glances at her cheroot box as he lights up and a cloud of smoke drifts through the room, but she doesn't move to pick them up.
"Withholding evidence is a crime, although I'm sure I don't need to tell you that." I watch him fill his lungs from the cigarette, its tip glowing red as he inhales, and I pray to every god I can remember that he's just here to find out if we've uncovered anything new.
"We're withholding nothing, but we are very busy," Vio replies.
"Then I won't keep you." He blows out a plume of smoke as he speaks and makes as if he's about to stand up, while I struggle not to sigh in relief. "But," he says, settling back into the chair again, "I did briefly want to talk to Exit about another matter." He turns his gaze onto me, clearly enjoying every minute of this.
"What would that be?" I ask, trying to sound normal. I suspect I sound anything but.
"Where were you last night between midnight and one am?" I swallow, my mouth suddenly very dry.
"He was with me, in the snug bar at The Blue Dog," Vio puts in quickly.
"You got witnesses to prove it?"
"Yes," she answers firmly.
"That's interesting, because I've got two uniformed constables put him at the rear of Chapel Road, unexpectedly appearing from over the back fence of number ten, at around that time."
"I was in the pub." I croak, feeling as sick as I did after all the pink alcohol.
"You see," he continues, waving his cigarette for emphasis, "I might have given you the benefit of the doubt, thought that it was some other monkey out on the rob except for the coincidence." He stares at me through a haze of smoke. I know he wants me to ask, but I am not going to, one thing I am good at is keeping quite. A full minute passes in silence before he laughs and shakes his head. The ash has built up on his cigarette and he flicks it into Kezlo's empty tea cup. "The coincidence being that that particular address just happens to be the home of a Mrs Muriel Abbot, mother of the late Menna Abbot, a young woman who happened to work for this firm before her sudden suicide of two weeks ago." I hear a noise, Vio has given in and is lighting up a smoke herself. I can feel my hands shaking so I tuck them under the desk out of sight. "My lads, on discovering the property to be empty obtained a key from a neighbour, then let themselves in to see how much damage had been done, and do you know what they found?" I shake my head ever so slightly. "Nothing, they found absolutely bloody nothing. The house appeared untouched, not a single sign of forced entry. Mrs Abbot's jewellery was still in its box, the jar of money she keeps behind her wedding picture on her mantle was wasn't taken, and a pair of silver candle sticks were still in place, all the things a burglar would just love to make off with were safe and sound, which leaves me with a question." He leans forward, placing his hands on his knees. "Exit, what the fuck were you doing in there?"
"He was in the pub." Vio gets to her feet, walks around our desks and places a hand on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. Inspector Milden completely ignores her and speaks to me again.
"Tell me what you were doing and I'll go easy on you, a slap on the wrist at most. Burglary is a serious crime, but if there's no damage to property and nothing is taken," he shrugs, "then perhaps we can make it into a case of trespassing. I will say this, it was a very neat job lad, you even thought to lock up again after yourself, that impressed me a lot."
"Is he under arrest?" Vio asks, her voice flat.
"Exit, tell me what's going on," he says, staring at me, not blinking.
"Is. He. Under. Arrest?" She asks again, emphasising every word.
"Tell me," he repeats. I can feel Vio's fingers digging into my shoulder painfully.
"If he's not under arrest then he doesn't have to tell you anything."
The inspector finally acknowledges her and they stare at one another in silence, the only movement being their combined smoke swirling in the fan's breeze. I'm wondering just how long this stand off is going to last when he suddenly swears and shakes his hand, his cigarette has burned down far enough to singe his fingers.
"I think you'd better get out of here before you burn our office down," Vio says. This seems to break the spell because he stands up and heads for the door, but on his way out he gives me a look and a small shake of the head that seems to be saying "it's only a matter of time".
I leave work early. Vio did her best to assure me that they have nowhere near enough evidence to arrest me, and that the word of two policemen who only got a quick glimpse of me wouldn't stand up in court. She said simply identifying that the burglar was an echoback didn't mean they could prove it was me. That it was like saying if I was a blond human and all they saw was my blond hair they could arrest me just because I was blond, but I know it's not the same. She's feeling guilty and that this is all her fault, which it kind of is, and that's is why she told me to go home a bit early. It's not much consolation, but even so I don't turn her down.
I decide to go and meet Topher at the bookshop, but being a hot day I don't feel like getting the tram. It's the start of the rush hour and spending twenty minutes in a metal box with a bunch of sweating strangers doesn't appeal so I opt to walk instead. Parnell is a large city, the largest on the West Island and most of the time I don't even notice the other people sharing the pavement with me, but after about ten minutes of walking I realise that more of less since I left the office I've seen the same tall, rangy looking woman several times. When I stopped to look into a tailor's shop window she was a couple of shops down from me, also staring into a window, when I bent over to retie my boot lace I spotted her dawdling by a bench, and when I turned off the main road and down a side street she was there on the other side almost keeping pace with me. She seems to be minding her own business, but I could swear that she's occasionally glancing in my direction.
I'm used to people staring at me, so much so it normally washes over me, but this seems like more than the usual curiosity. I duck into a small paper shop to see what happens and whilst pretending to be browsing their magazines I look out through the window to see her standing on the opposite side of the street beside a flower stall. I use this as an opportunity to get a better look at her, despite the heat she's dressed all in black, tight trousers and a sleeveless shirt with a pair of boots on her feet. He arms are tight, sinewy, muscle and well tanned, and one of them seems to have a tattoo covering the upper part, however from this distance I can make out little more than a grey blur. Her hair is dark too, slightly curly and cropped close to her head. I don't recognise her, but once I've bought an early edition of the evening paper and left the shop she moves off from amongst the buckets of flowers and begins to walk again.
Now I'm sure that she's following me, but why, and who the hell is she? She could be something to do with Inspector Milden, but I'm not sure what good it would do for the police to have me followed. They know where I live and where I work, and with the threat of arrest hanging over me I'm hardly going to be doing anything else illegal in the near future.
He woman tails me all the way to Lustrum's books. I know that if I wanted to I could loose her, all I would have to do is take a sudden turn and run, but I'm kind of curious to find out what's going to happen when I reach my destination. Outside the bookshop I stop and deliberately stare at her, she was watching me but she quickly pretends to be scanning the street. As I let myself into the shop she walks away, disappearing from view and leaving me to wonder what the hell that was all about.
It's cool and dark inside. The windows of the shop are too full of books to let much light in and it takes a couple of seconds for my eyes to adjust, but when they do I see Topher sitting behind the table that acts as the shops counter. He's talking to a tall, lean, dark haired man who's perched on the side of the table itself, slightly closer to Topher than necessary. Neither of them pay the slightest bit of attention to me and I have to stand right in front of the table before Topher spots me.
"Hello," he says, sounding slightly puzzled. "What are you doing here?"
"I got out a bit early and I thought you might like it if I came to pick you up from work," I say, a touch reproachfully.
"Is this him?" the dark haired man asks Topher. I look at him, he's pretty good looking with collar length dark hair, pale skin and very blue eyes, and he's also oddly familiar too, but I don't know why.
"Yes," Topher nods, leaving me feeling like they're talking over me.
"I'll get going then, but think about it." The man stands up and I notice that his clothes and hands are covered with tiny spots of paint.
"The answer will still be no," Topher replies with a grin.
Once the man has left I frown at Topher. "Who was he, and what does he want you to do?"
"He is an artist and he wants to paint me," Topher says, finding me a stool to sit on.
"You don't want him to paint you?" I ask surprised, being painted sounds like exactly the sort of thing he'd love.
"I would like him to paint me, but I know that he also wants to do more than that, and that is kind of part of the deal if he paints you."
"Oh, I see. He looks familiar, what's his name?"
I shake my head, still unable to work out where I know him from.
"Perhaps you had sex with him and you forgot?" Topher suggests.
"No, I did think of that, but people always remember me even if I don't remember them."
Topher gives me a strange look. "What?" I ask.
"That was a joke, gods you are such a slut."
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