by London Lampy
I've chosen to take the stairs rather than the elevator because this way I can avoid having to walk past Caddy on the reception desk as the stairs let out on the other end of our floor. I'm pretty sure as soon as Caddy sets eyes on me she'll go and tell Vio that I'm back, and I can only take one person at a time shouting at me right now, and the first person I have to see is Vin. When I reach the fourteenth floor I make sure the coast is clear then quickly walk to Vin's office before anyone else appears. My stomach is flipping queasily as I knock on his door, and when Vin calls out for me to come in I have to swallow hard.
I open the door and go in without a word, not even daring to look at Vin until I'm standing in front of his desk. When I do finally glance up he's staring at me, his pen poised over some paperwork. Vin is normally a neat, tidy sort of man but he doesn't look it right now. I've never seen him unshaven before but he currently has a few days worth of stubble and his hair could do with a brush, it almost looks like mine.
"You're back," he says quietly, neither moving nor taking his eyes off me.
"Yes," I reply, not wanting to sit down until I'm told that I can.
Vin caps his pen, puts it down, stands up and I'm bracing myself for the worst when he does the last thing I'm expecting him to do. He walks around his desk and embraces me tightly. "Never ever do anything like that again," he says horsely into my ear. "I was afraid that they'd killed you."
I'm too surprised to respond, but I give him a very quick hug back then wriggle out of his embrace. For an awkward moment we look at one another, he looks tired, he has dark bruise like crescents under his eyes and his skin has a greyish tinge. "Sit down," he eventuality says, gesturing to one of the oversized chairs in front of his desk as he returns to the other side. "I had a telegram this morning," his voice sounds a little more normal now. "Concerning a power station that Clearwater attempted to attack last night. The details were scant but it seems that a maintenance worker at the station was a sympathiser but he lost his nerve and ended up telling his bosses everything in time for the police to be called. Unfortunately the police being the police fucked it up, three people escaped and one was shot dead. That person was, according to my telegram, a young man."
It must have been Cricket. He went through the door first so he would have been the last out, but why did they have to kill him?
"Putting this together with what Topher told Violet about your whereabouts I thought it might have been you."
"No," I say quietly. "I was one of the ones who escaped." That must mean that Knox and Vixen escaped too. "Did the telegram say if any of the policemen were badly hurt or killed?"
"No," he frowns. "There's a limit to how much can be put into a telegram, why?" I explain to him about the sheer hill and what happened. "If a policeman died I'm sure I'll find out in due course," he says once I'm done.
"Do the others know about what happened last night?"
"Not yet, I was waiting until I had more details. Exit, what exactly were you doing? Please tell me that you hadn't decided to jump ship and join Clearwater."
"No, not at all," I shake my head. "They tricked me and like an idiot I fell for it." I tell him everything from the first time Vixen followed me up until when I got on the train home last night.
"You should almost consider yourself privileged, being taken by Knox and Brogan themselves. They'd normally get one of their followers to do that sort of thing."
"Brogan? Is that Vixen's real name?"
"Yes, and she rarely gets too involved herself, she generally stays in the shadows. Brogan must have considered you a highly valuable prize to put herself in any danger. Did she tell you Knox was her son?"
"Yes," I look at Vin, it's easy to see how him and Knox are brothers.
"Did they tell you the rest?" he holds my gaze.
"Yes, after I mention that Knox looked like someone I knew."
He lets out a mirthless laugh. "Gods, I bet they just loved that. What did you think?"
"I was surprised at first, but then it all began to make sense. Does Sampson know?"
"Yes, it was him that initially approached me with the job offer when my predecessor died. He thought I might be interested in a job where I could spend part of my time attempting to destroy Knox and Brogan, but it's something we've kept between ourselves. I've always felt that the fewer people here who know the truth the better, or I might be seen as nothing more than a man out for revenge." Which is exactly what he is.
"I think that there might be someone who working here passing information onto them. They knew far too much about me, even about...you know...us," I look at him. "And about my connection to Barney, hell, they even knew that I had given up eating meat. They knew stuff about me hardly anyone knows."
"You're right, there is someone working here doing that." Now we're off the subject of Knox and Knox's mother he seems a little more composed, more the normal controlled Vin. "And I know who it is. It comes in handy at times, I can use it to occasionally spread a bit of disinformation. Not that this person knows that I know, as far as they're concerned they remain undiscovered. One day if they go too far I'm going to make them wish they'd never turned traitor, but for now they're useful."
"Who is it?"
"Not Violet, if that's who you're thinking."
"I wasn't." She's neither sneaky nor dishonest, she wouldn't do anything like that in a million years. "So who?"
"Exit, you do not need to know that particular piece of information." Now he's fully back to the normal Vin. "And it would be in your best interests not to spread it around Municipal Works that we have a spy in our midst, or the fact that I happen to be related to a very wanted man for that matter." That is clearly an order, not a request.
"I won't say anything."
"No, you won't," he gives me a hard green stare. "I need to spend some time with you going over every detail of what you've been doing for the last couple of days, and I also need you to write it up into a report for Sampson."
"Am I in trouble with him?"
"No, because I told him that you'd come to me and told me what they wanted you to do and that I'd given you permission to go."
"Thank you." Thank the gods.
"You're welcome," he almost smiles. "But now you need to go and see Violet, she has been very worried about you, I can tell from the thick cheroot smog that's settled into your office. Put her out of her misery and show her you're still in one, slightly bruised, piece."
"I will," I stand up to go, and just as I'm heading out of the door I remember something. "By the way, I'm almost certain that they didn't have anything to do with the shooting at the theatre."
"Yes, I know," he replies. "We got someone for that while you were gone."
"Go and see Violet, she'll explain."
"You stupid fucking idiot!" Vio rants at me.
I'm finally getting the telling off I was expecting from Vin, and I don't mind one bit. I deserve it, and with Vin acting all weird if Vio had hugged me too I don't think I could have stood it. However she doesn't know about the powers station incident yet, and she wasn't in the position of thinking that I might have been the young man the police shot dead.
"You never think do you, when are you going to grow up? What the fuck possessed you to go off with them in the first place? Gods! Have your brains leaked out of your ears or something?"
This has been going on for some time and I'm trying very hard not to smile. We're on the roof, which since Menna Abbot's death has become the place we go when we need to talk about things in private. Vio all but dragged me up here when she saw me in the doorway of our office. Eventually she runs out of steam, and after making plenty of apologies to her and promises to her never to do anything like that again she finally calms down enough to light up a smoke. I use this as an opportunity to ask her about who has been arrested for attempting to kill Sampson.
"You are not going to believe this," she snorts, blue smoke coming out of her nose. "Wendell Browning."
"Wendell?" I question. "No...that can't be right."
"Frankly, it's not. It stinks worse than Harry the Bastard in high summer."
Wendell was an accounts clerk at Municipal Works up until a few months ago when it was discovered that he'd defrauded the company out of a large sum of money over the course of about a year. Vio and me were the ones who confronted him with the evidence and when we did he broke down and sobbed, I actually ended up feeling very sorry for him. It turned out that he was convinced that he had developed a formula for winning money betting on horse races. At first his formula had worked and he'd kept betting more and more money, raising his bets higher and higher, but after a while he was making more losses than wins and he started stealing from the company to cover these losses and keep himself out of debt, and all the while he still continued to gamble.
He's a small, soft, nervous man who looks like he has been sculpted out of unbaked dough and has never seen sunlight. Hell, even I look butch in comparison with him. He's the last person I could imagine committing a violent act, especially attempted murder, the only part that rings true is that he missed Sampson. He doesn't have good eyesight, I don't think he could hit a barn door at ten paces let alone a man on the other side of a very large room.
When we confronted him over the money that had gone missing from the company Wendell was scared of two things. Firstly, that his elderly parents would find out what he'd been doing and that the shame would kill them. Secondly that he was going to be sent to prison, or more specifically that if he was sent to prison a man like him would be eaten alive inside, and he had a point there. Of course his parents found out, and it didn't kill them, but he didn't go to prison either. At his trial the judge deemed that as this was his first offence and as Wendell was clearly no danger to anyone and was very, very contrite about what he'd done he would suspend his sentence.
"What happened?" I quiz her. "Who caught him?"
"No one," she narrows her pale blue eyes. "Day before yesterday he just turned up at the police station and confessed all about trying to kill Sampson. Apparently his motive was that he was angry Samson didn't take him back on after the trial."
"That doesn't make sense, Wendell never expected his job back, he was just grateful he wasn't going to be sent down."
"I know! None of it makes any sense, he's as fucking guilty of shooting at Sampson as I am," she agrees.
"So why did he confess? Has he gone crazy?"
"I don't think so. I didn't get to interview him, Vin and Sampson went down to the police station, but my copper's instinct says he's either been bribed or blackmailed into doing it."
"By who, and why? Why would someone want Wendell to confess to something he didn't do?" This is all very odd.
"I don't think it's got anything to do with Wendell as such, he's just a convenient patsy, he could be anyone. Someone wants this case closed, and it's either got to be the person who actually did try to kill Sampson, or..." she sighs, looking away over the rooftops of the city, "...someone whose job depends on the guilty party getting caught."
I instantly get her meaning. "Vin?..You think he somehow got Wendell to confess?"
"I'm fucking afraid that I'm starting to think I do. He hasn't been right lately, and I know why part of that is, but I also think that Sampson is putting pressure on him because we haven't caught anyone yet, maybe even threatening him with the sack. Vin's not stupid, he knows that by now we've bugger all chance of catching the real shooter so he fabricates a culprit to get Sampson off his back."
"Shit," I mutter. "I think you might be right, should we tell someone?"
"I don't know." She drops her cheroot butt on the lead of the roof and grinds it out with the heel of her shoe. "I really don't like the idea of an innocent man going to gaol, but I don't want to lose my job either."
"You think Vin would fire you if you spoke up?"
"Maybe," she shrugs. "As I said it's not just Sampson getting him wound up at the moment, he's acting kind of unpredictable and I really don't know what he'd do."
"So what is this other thing?" If she mentioned it she must want me ask.
"Toni's left him, at least I'm pretty fucking sure she has. Caddy's cousin's best mate works as a maid in Toni's father's town house, and the rumour is that Toni's run off. Apparently the family are closing ranks, they've banned Vin from the house and are telling everyone she's staying with a friend, but this girl reckons that's not true. She says that every time anyone mentions Toni's name they go all weird and that no one's story quite matches up to anyone else's as to where she is, some say the countryside, some say the East Island, it's like they're all lying. Like either they don't know where she is or they don't want anyone else, or maybe just Vin, to know where she's gone."
"Shit," I say again. "Weeks ago he told me she'd gone to stay with friend." I look at Vio. "Do you think she caught him with someone else?"
"Probably, can you imagine how that would have felt, finding out that your husband was cheating?"
Ouch. "Horrible, I guess."
"Yes," she nods. "Fucking horrible."
We stand in silence for a while with just the constant whoosh of the air ducts in the background for noise. Poor Toni, and even kind of poor Vin. I know he bought this on himself, but if he really doesn't know where she is that can't be easy, no wonder he's not been himself. "Shall we go back to the office?" I suggest when nothing more seems to be forthcoming from Vio.
"No, let's take an hour out and go to the police station, see if we can have a little chat with Wendell Browning."
The police station is pretty much the last place I want to be seeing as how I'm still suspected of breaking into the Abbot house, but Vio assures me that there's absolutely no chance that they'll lock me up in a cell, and I almost believe her.
We don't see Inspector Milden, thank the gods, and they grudgingly let us in when we show them our Municipal Works identity cards and tell them that we're there to interview Wendell Browning. After about half an hour of waiting on hard chairs in a busy corridor we're shown to an interview room by a custody sargent who looks like he should long be retired. Him and Vio chat amiably about his wife's bad knees and his grandchildren, she clearly knows him from when she worked here, while I walk silently behind them praying I never end up here as more than a visitor.
Wendell is already in the room when we arrive, being guarded by a policeman who can't be any older than me. He has a touch of acne on his cheeks and a barely detectable moustache above his upper lip.
"We'd like to talk to Mr Browning alone," Vio says, looking at the young cop.
"Erm..." he glances at the sargent. "I was told to stay with him."
"It's all right son, I think Miss Vio and her friend can keep our Mr Browning in line," he says, winking at Vio. "Come and have a cup of tea with me, we'll be back in...ten minutes?"
"That'll fine," Vio gives him a grateful nod as they go.
Wendell is seated behind a table, his hands are cuffed together at the wrists, one of them has a greying bandage wrapped around it and he's covering this protectively with his other hand. I guess he's still wearing the clothes he came in here in because he has on a white shirt that's grey around the collar and cuffs, has large sweat stains in the armpits, and he smells of fear sweat to match. He has a couple of days worth of stubble on his round face, it's the same nondescript sandy colour as the thinning hair on his head and behind his glasses his greyish eyes are bloodshot and puffy, as if he's been crying.
"Wendell, Wendell, Wendell," Vio tuts as we sit opposite him. "What have you done?"
"I tried to kill Mr Sampson," he says flatly, looking down at the table top. "The guilt got too much for me so I handed myself in." He sounds like he's reciting this from memory.
"Except that's not what really happened, is it?" she asks. "Wendell, I know you did nothing of the sort, Exit knows you did nothing of the sort, so why the fuck are you saying that you did? Attempted murder is a serious crime, you'll go to gaol for a long time for this, and you didn't even do it."
He looks up at us. "I did...I did do it...I tried to murder Mr Samson."
"Why?" I ask.
"Because..." he takes a deep breath. "Because I was angry with him...I asked for my old job back and he wouldn't give it to me."
"Bullshit!" Vio interrupts. "You never really expected him to re-employ you, did you? You were hardly in a position to be angry with him when he refused, not considering what you did, and you know that. This isn't official, it's just between me, him," she points at me, "and you, Wendell, you can tell us, we're old friends, what the fuck is going on here?"
He starts to breath rapidly, squeezing his eyes shut behind his glasses he swallows hard. "I did it...I DID IT!" he says desperately.
Vio leans across the table and takes his bandaged hand in hers. At first I think she doing something very un-Vio like and comforting him, then I hear her start to count. "One...two...three...four...but look at that, no five." She lets his hand go. "Funny Wendell, I don't recall you missing a finger before."
"He's missing a finger?" I question her.
"He is indeed. So Wendell, how did your old mum and dad feel when their son's missing digit turned up in a gift wrapped package delivered to their door?"
I know what she's getting at now. It's one of Mother's, the deeply unpleasant crime lord who runs large parts of Parnell, favourite ways to issue a warning. He cuts off, or gets someone to cut off, a person's finger then sends it to their loved ones in a ribbon wrapped box. If that doesn't get him what he wants he sometimes keeps going with more fingers or other body parts. Apparently some years ago he sent one unfortunate rival's wife the man's severed cock and balls in a heart shaped chocolate box.
Vio's making an assumption, he could have lost his finger in any number of other ways, but her assumption pays off. He awkwardly reaches his cuffed hands up, removes his glasses, then buries his head in his arms and starts to cry large, heaving, noisy sobs.
"Have you been losing money on the horses again?" Vio asks, and I can see the top of his head moving as he nods. "Did you get into debt, and this time instead of stealing the money to pay for your habit you perhaps borrowed it off some nasty men at a very inflated interest rate, and then failed to pay it back?" he nods again without looking up.
"How does Vin fit into all this?" I ask.
Wendell looks up, his eyes are bright red now and he has twin snot trails leaking out of his nose which he wipes on the back of his bandaged hand. "I was desperate...they said they'd keep cutting bits off me and sending them to my parents until I'd either paid up or died in the process..." he sniffs a loud slurping sniff them swallows, "...so I went to see Govinder to ask for a loan. I know...I know it sounds crazy to go to him, but apart from Mr Sampson he's the only person I know who could get his hands on large sums of money quickly. I know just how rich his wife is...and I thought he might take pity on me."
Vio glances at me, it seems our suspicions were right. "How were you going to pay him back?" I ask.
"A little every week...do his accounts for free...work for him for free...anything he wanted really." He puts his glasses back on. "I don't know, but he was my only hope, otherwise they were going to kill me. They even said there was no point in running away, that if I did they'd start on my parents instead."
I have no doubt that Mother would do that, he doesn't make empty threats. "And Govinder offered you a way out," Vio says. It's a statement not a question.
"Yes, he said he'd pay my debts if I went to the police station and confessed to attempting to kill Mr Sampson...I don't want to go to gaol, but even that's better than being dead."
"Did Govinder tell you why he wanted you to do that?" she quizzes him.
"I asked, he said it was none of my business. But my guess is Mr Sampson is putting pressure on him to find the real assassin and he didn't want to look incompetent."
Which is more of less what we thought, although not so much that Vin doesn't want to look incompetent, more that he doesn't want to lose his job. If he wasn't at Municipal Works it would be much harder for Vin to pursue Knox, although even Vio doesn't know that bit.
"And he's paid off all your debts?" I question. It's a lot of money, but the job means a lot to Vin.
"He's paid half, he said he'll pay the other half when I'm sentenced," Wendell says with a sniff.
Vio and me look at one another, we have our answer, but now what do we do with it?
On the way back to the office we debate what we've just learned. "If we blow the whistle on what Vin's done he'll lose his job and Wendell's full debt will go unpaid, and he'll end up losing more bits, and ultimately his life. But if we keep quiet an innocent man goes to gaol, and a guilty one goes unpunished, ah fuck," she swears. "Sometimes there's no right answer is there? Just a choice between two different equally wrong endings."
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