The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 12

The silence of the sleeping buildings lay heavily across my shoulders. My eyes felt grainy, worn out by the harshness of the fluorescent lights. Deciding to take a different route back to the lab, I entered a stairwell at random. (Using the lifts before the sun rose was allowing myself to succumb, although by this hour each step grew impossibly steep, and the heavy floors exhausting underfoot). With luck, I’d get moderately lost. Perhaps a ball of string in my pocket might help.

As to be expected at this hour, everywhere I turned lay deserted. I stumbled on nearing a bend in the corridor; brain and feet, it seemed, were no longer on speaking terms. The floor had gone from tiles to concrete to fake wood, a few pieces curling at the joins. In some corridors an occasional print adorned the walls, while others were devoid of interest. I couldn’t decipher a pattern.

Beep-beep-beep. Beep-beep-beep.

The squall of my pager prised the emptiness apart. My stomach lurched at the tone, that piercing ‘read me now do nothing else’ squeal. Nothing good ever came from being paged; it usually meant a problem no one else wanted. It was the one sound to actually made me look forward to growing old and demented, for then each morning I could throw a pager out the nursing home window – and in the afternoon, flush another down the toilet.

As I unclipped my pager from my filofax, a change in light caught my eye. Glancing up, I saw the light in the cupola just as it went out. Ignoring any message waiting to be read, I hurried along the corridor then down a few flight of stairs, jogged the length of another hallway, rounded a corner, up another flight of stairs, then the length of another hallway, (but walking now in order to catch my breath). The far door was locked. Swiping my card had no effect. I couldn’t get into the old building.

I leant with my ear against the wooden door. Nothing. Where had the Grey Nurse been tonight? Who had she helped? She always helped someone.

After that uncharacteristic exertion, little enough happened to mark the passing hours. Once I returned to the lab I had neither the chance nor the need to leave again. I’m not sure exactly what kept me busy, more a myriad of unimportant things, but they made the rest of the night pass quickly, despite the never-fading smell of paint. If by coming here I thought I’d have the time to ferret out the truth, or maybe find a hidden scroll or musty tome covered with all the answers, nights such as tonight proved me wrong.

As Dawn threatened to rise, I paused in my mindless work to instead ponder the unfathomable. A box full of gems, the reappearing Dom, Jason, then Gillian materialising to drive me crazy; Kayl – just where did he fit into all this? – and the way he teased me about Henryk. Not to mention the puzzle of Henryk himself, who was proving as mysterious as the elusive Grey Nurse. Then, to complete the enigma, now came the summons to the Dean. None of it made any sense.

Pulling Dave’s box towards me I gently opened the lid. The stones slept in their foam bed, unchanged from when I last peered at them, but enlightenment remained elusive. Whatever movie this was, many reels still needed playing before the answer would be revealed. I was beginning to guess this was the type of movie where i wouldn’t find the answer on my own.

I picked up the little bit of brown glass from where it rested third from the end. A piece of a beer bottle, perhaps, but it reminded me more of those old-fashioned medicine bottles. The glass was thick, and the shape was such that it might’ve come from where the thickness of the bottom swirls into the thinner side. Such an odd thing for Dave to put in here. Not really a stone or a gem to my way of thinking, but more a mineral, really, since it was largely silica. Is that what Dave meant? Maybe this glass was some sort of artificial gem – something more for me to look up.

Dave had never made a puzzle with so many gems before. Seventeen lay spread before me, including the piece of paper with the name of the fossil. I hadn’t found the actual fossil yet, but there were two boxes in my wardrobe where I’d packed away the rest of his collection. They were ridiculously heavy. One day I’d have to decide what to do with them.

As I put the piece of glass back to rest, the foam crinkled under my fingers. I looked inside, but could see nothing; pressing the hollow where the glass rested I could definitely feel something moving underneath. Intrigued, I carefully out lifted the foam tray (complete with all the gems) and rested it on the table. Underneath, and so completely hidden, lay a folded piece of paper. As if it were a hundred years old and ready to fall to dust at the merest touch, I gingerly picked it up by one corner and unfolded it.

It was a list. That was all. Comparing it to the stones in their bed of foam, I realised it was merely a list of their names. Had Dave always done this and I’d never known? Surely I would’ve noticed such a thing – but I’d never thought to lift the foam from out of the box before.

Pyruvate, amber, a vial of saltpeter (so medieval, don’t you think?), an opal, nambulite, granite (think of it as an igneous rock), tigers eye, my fossil stenaster, azurite, limonite, limestone, fluorite (have you noticed its fluresence?), ulexite, diaspore, glass, epidote, dolerite

Just what I’d been needing, but I couldn’t see how it helped me. Maybe the answer would come. After all, I’d always managed to solve these riddles, and I’d be damned if I didn’t figure this one out. It was all I had left. Even the little hints he’d written next to a few names – Dave had never given me hints like this before. Or maybe he had, and I’d never found them. Since he must’ve replaced the foam to match the stones each time he rearranged the collections, Dave might simply have assumed I knew about the piece of paper lying underneath, and never saw the need to tell me.

Picking up the piece of fluorite, I cupped it in my hands as I walked over to a darker corner of the room. It did indeed glow in my palm; I hadn’t noticed this before, for I’d always looked at the stone in the light. But what did a fluorescent gem mean?

Probably nothing. Maybe that’s what this whole riddle meant. Nothing. But the fluorite looked so pretty as it lay shimmering in my palm.

I took the mineral back to my desk and once more sat down with a pretence to work. Swallowing a mouthful of lukewarm tea, I took what I now knew to be a lump of granite. It sparkled a little in the semi-darkness, but told me nothing. I could see no link. Try as I might, I couldn’t work why Dave had chosen these stones. What had been going through his mind?

Thinking had turned my brain restless, making it impossible to settle back behind my computer. Besides, the machine a few steps away was busy in its own little world of recalibration, my specimens were labelled and waiting for the day staff (for I was never trusted to run the collections from the hospital), and a program on my computer was busy with its own calculations. Nothing needed me here. I gingerly folded the piece of paper with the list of gems and stored it in my filofax, then, putting the box of stones back in my bag, I gave up on the pretence of doing any more work for the moment. Instead I went to the back room where Melody had set up tea making supplies. I needed something hot in my hand, instead of a mug of tepid tea. Yet the stench of paint had found its way even to this hidden room; more walls had been painted the colour of baby-pooh, and extra paintings stood stacked in any spare space.

Stepping over rolled up carpets to make my way to the kettle proved too much. My first day here I’d made a vow to pretend each day I was in Paris. That day might seem so far away, and the memory dim, but this room was so no Paris. What could I do but venture out from these labs in quest for some junk food? Anything to get away from the smell of paint and the flotsam and jetsam of tasteless redecorating.

Walking down the stairs to a forgotten vending machine – in the erroneous belief the exercise might bring some blood flow to my cranium and some enthusiasm to finish my work – my brain began is repetitive torment about Don. Like a caged mouse in a wheel, I spun round and round the same old thoughts. About how he’d found Dave’s results in the first place, and why he’d even bothered to steal them. Unanswerable questions I’d been asking for over a year.

As I fumbled around in my back pocket to fish out some loose change, I stared through the glass of the vending machine and decided on Twisties. Again. I never seemed to have the energy to branch out and try fruit pastels, or something more radical, like gummy bears.

I paused with my hand hovering above the buttons. Damn it, tonight ­– this morning ­­­– I’d be different. I decided on the sweet vanilla coffee – a watery, sugary poison which tasted nothing like coffee (I doubted it contained any caffeine) yet proved strangely addictive when working nights. Plus I’d get a packet of Twisties.

First my Twisties fell with a twang from the metal hanger, then a brown foam cup clattered into the serving bay. The entire machine vibrated as alternate jets of dark fluid and milk shot into the cup. Then all became still while a glass door slid open and the offering glided forward, allowing me to collect it. It lacked only a halo of light. With a self-satisfied whirl the machine then settled back to await the next visitor.

Half the reason I’d come this way was in the hope of glimpsing the Grey Nurse. While in the lab I’d noticed the cupola light had come back on, (for about the third time tonight), and I decided this forgotten corridor offered as good a hope of seeing her as anywhere, since I’d failed near her home of the old hospital. However, it wasn’t to be. I sensed nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps she’d learnt I didn’t believe in ghosts.

Sipping my ersatz coffee, I gazed instead at some posters tacked haphazardly onto the wall. I’d passed by here a few times each week I worked, for this vending machine had quickly proved a favourite, yet I’d never really looked at these pictures. I stepped closer towards the middle one, where a quaint caïque danced blissfully across a skittish sea. A skittish, wine dark sea. At least, although the crests of the waves sparkled under the kiss of dawn, their bottoms were the colour of wine dregs. I squinted at the title at the bottom of the print – ‘Sunrise in the Moluccas’.

The Moluccas. Where there was a wine dark sea, with a glorious sunrise. Where, I’d hazard a guess, dawn came swiftly. I took another swig of my coffee. If only I had the strength of will to forget everything, find a travel agent, and set off to discover this sea. Or even just to see things differently. As I now saw this painting differently, after seeing it so many times.

“Busy night, Stephanie?”

Henryk’s voice brought me back from the wanderings of Homer to the reality of harsh fluorescent lights. He now stood beside me, dropping some coins into the machine. Each one fell with a reassuring clunk. This mysterious man seemed able to materialize anywhere. Embarrassed, I managed a rueful smile.

Henryk’s packet of whatever tumbled into the collecting tray, followed by the tumble of a can. Both sounds fell sharply into the stillness. “Ah, the delights of the vending machine,” Henryk said as he bent and fished out his choice in one deft movement. “How the ancient world survived with neither coffee, sugar, chocolate, tomatoes nor single malt is a mystery unfathomable. I’m not even sure they had celery. No wonder olives were seen as such a delicacy. Even the gods only had ambrosia.”

“Are you going to start talking Latin next?”

He laughed. “I just like to read.”

“Really? I thought I was about the only...” As I blushed my sentence trailed away and I half turned to the window in my confusion. Although dawn was not far away, it was still dark outside. The window showed only our reflections. “You’re good at finding out of the way places,” I bravely continued to Henryk’s image, which stood opening a packet of lollies. “I thought this machine was pretty well hidden.”

“Comes from years spent first as a student then an underpaid academic,” came Henryk’s answer. “One develops an instinct for finding supplies.” He pulled the ring from the top of his can. The frizzy sound made the place seem almost alive. “Besides, I like the silence here. It’s the right kind of silence, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”

“Silence and peace,” Henryk said, “yet full of lots of little noises. The noises of life. Such as us eating, or someone walking in the distance. A cockroach scurrying across the floor,” he added, nodding towards where one conveniently paused near my foot. “The Elysian Fields, however –some called them the Isles of the Blest. Achilles, now, well they made him ache with despair. Life without life. Eternity, with nothing but the same eternal happiness day after day spent wandering fields of asphodel. I wonder if he ever woke up happy in the underworld, able to feel the dappled light of dawn dance across his face, or hear the warble of magpies, or the thunder of rain falling on the roof. Maybe he was too busy living in perfect happiness to stand atop a hill watching the play of whales, or to snuggle up next to his beloved long after the alarm had gone, forgetting the day. No surprise, then, that he sounded so wretched talking to Odysseus.” Henryk stopped, and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry. I sometimes forget where I am and get a bit carried away. I don’t get out much.”

I stared at my companion’s reflection as it hovered in the darkness of the window. This man kept saying the strangest things. I could just imagine him walking out of a jazz club, beret on his head, a crimson cigarette in his hand. “I don’t suppose you know where the Moluccas are?” I said, finally turning around.

“The Moluccas? Somewhere in the Spice Islands, me thinks, if I remember my year eight geography aright.” Henryk took a mouthful of drink then looked at me. Really looked at me. Unlike the way other people see only images on ID cards. “Any particular reason you want to know,” he asked, “or do you like throwing out random questions?”

I pointed to the print. “A wine dark sea. I never knew such a thing actually existed.”

“Well, will you look at that,” said Henryk slowly, walking over to the picture in question. “I’ve often wondered what those ancient Greeks drank that made wine and sea look the same colour.” He took another sip of his drink. “Mind you, the Spice Islands are a long way from Homer and his wanderings. Not even Odysseus made it there.”

Before I could think of an answer Henryk’s two-way radio crackled. I couldn’t understand its secret language.

“Quick – follow me!” He grabbed my hand and started running. Along the length of the corridor we ran, and up the nearest stairwell. Henryk slowed whenever I did, never letting go of my hand. I wondered if he would run forever.

My breath had vanished when, using his universal swipe card, Henryk opened a door to the roof and led me to one corner. Considering the hour, the place was crowded. “Will you look at that,” he said.

He had no need to point. Trying to hide the struggle to catch my breath, I watched as smoke billowed into the sky, a dense black cloud turned orange by the flashing lights of emergency cars. Within moments small bits of ash had settled on my arms.

I took a few deep breaths, my breathing almost normal. “I hate to say it, but don’t you think it’s strangely beautiful? The colours, and the way they flow around each other.” As I spoke I realised Henryk was still holding my hand. I held my half-drunk coffee in the other.

My guide turned and looked at me. The light of dawn now touched the roof, and I saw the colours of the fires reflected in his smile. “I’ve been wanting to ask you – what you told me the other day,” he said, turning back to the fires. “About this place being a labyrinth, and a hell. Do you mind if I use it?”

“Use it? What do you mean?” A hot breeze now criss-crossed the roof, yet somehow I managed to wipe the hair from my eyes with the hand still clutching my coffee.

“In my thesis.”

“In your thesis? Something I said? That’d be amazing – you don’t have to ask. It was just an idea, after all,” I said.

“Well, it was not only a good idea, it was your idea. I didn’t want you think I was stealing it. Of course, the only people who’ll read my thesis are the poor sods who have to mark it, but still...” Henryk left his words trailing as the two of us stared at the smoke dancing ever further across the sky. As if realising he still held it, he finally let go of my hand.

“Dom never...” I began, then stopped.


“It doesn’t matter.” I was glad the dawn had yet to sweep away the darkness.

“By Dom, you mean ‘The Book of Death’ Dom?”

“It really doesn’t matter.”

“So he stole your work also?”

“It wasn’t mine, it was Dave’s – my brother’s – research, and... what do mean by also?”

“I’ve seen it so often, it’s obvious. You borrow someone else’s work to fill out your own, and once you’ve presented it they can’t re-present it as new. Then, because you’ve now moved a few steps up the ladder, others give you their work to add to your own just so their name gets mentioned, and although they’re small bits they all add up, and suddenly you’ve built an empire built on the work of everyone else, making you the expert. And because you’re the expert, you get to read everyone else’s work, and so keep your finger on the pulse. In fact, you start getting paid to read other people’s work and put your name to it as if it was your own. A self-sustaining system prevalent in all the branches of academia. Is that what happened to your brother?”

“Yes, I, er, yes, it doesn’t matter. It’s over.” I didn’t add that was why my I could no longer see my own footprints in this world was full of mist. I’d walked into this labyrinth of work and higher degrees so willingly. Everyone had. Only, after a few twists and turns, I couldn’t really remember why. Every now and then, in my wanders, I stumble across someone more junior, and marvel at their freshness. Wrinkle free, hair brushed and shiny, they literally bound with enthusiasm when filling in forms. Then, before three months have passed, they snarl amongst themselves like refined dogs while competing for those first rungs of the ladder.

“I’m the minotaur,” I said, almost forgetting Henryk as he stood next to me. But not quite.


“Don’t you see?” I said, staring at the rainbow of flames. “I’m the minotaur. All this time I’ve been looking for the thread to lead me out, but that’s not it. The minotaur didn’t devour people, he was just lost and lonely. Banished for being the bastard nipper no one wanted, instead of being the perfect child. I’m devouring myself. And the labyrinth isn’t this place either. It’s time. It’s the tyranny of time, the fear of that Elysian future you were just talking about, which holds me prisoner here. It makes everyone a prisoner, because we’re already in that Elysian future. With every day which passes it becomes harder and harder to admit to the dead years flowing over the horizon, whether I look into the past or the future.” I fell into an embarrassed silence, wondering where those words had sprung from. I never spoke this clearly. I rarely thought this clearly.

I shot an embarrassed look at Henryk, only to find him scribbling in a book. “I’ve just got to get this down. This is great. You are so wasted in this job.”

“Tell me about it,” I said, turning back to the fires and the flashing sirens. I brushed some ash from y arm with my free hand.

“I hope we didn’t disturb you,” Henryk continued as he wrote. “That day at the graveyard.” He paused and looked at me. “I almost came to find you, but you looked like you needed to be alone.”

I blushed. “You remember me?”

“Only a fool wouldn’t,” Henryk smiled.

“It’s just, well,” I stammered, my recent oratory skills vanished, “I’ve never heard anyone laugh in a graveyard before, that’s all. Or see anyone eat. It just seemed...”


For a moment, I thought he might reach out to touch my face. Part of me wanted him to. “No,” I answered. “Natural. It just seemed natural. So natural that no one else does it. We’re all too busy fearing death.”

“That’s where your brother’s buried, isn’t it?”

I simply looked at him.

“I went over to the grave, after you left,” Henryk answered. “I didn’t know your name, of course, but what with the dates – well, it wasn’t hard to work out.”

“There’s been so much fuss,” I said, listening as the words flowed from someone else. “By all these people, as if they knew him. As if they know me.”

“Then you must come and meet my dead grandmother,” Henryk said. “By the way,” he added, “is that why you came here? To find out how Dom did it? Stole your brother’s work, I mean?”

“I don’t know why I came here,” I answered, suddenly close to tears. “I didn’t know Dom was even up here. I just want to know why... Why Dave died. Why he couldn’t tell me.” My voice fell to a whisper. “I suppose everyone thinks I want vengeance,” I continued. “He destroyed my brother’s life and got away with it. I just want to know why. And how. Then I’ll go. One death is enough.”

“You don’t seem the vengeance kind,” Henryk said. “I doubt anyone thinks that of you.”

I risked another peep at this bewildering cleaner. Strange how I could look at him without my heart breaking, without the physical ache that came if I saw even a photo of Jason. I could stand here, and breathe, with no beam smiting me in the chest.

Maybe his radio crackled first. I couldn’t remember when thinking about it later. I was sure Henryk had been reaching out a hand towards me, but instead he simply flashed a smile and listened to his radio. “Well, I’d best go,” he said, “otherwise rumours of our passionate affair will spread all over the place. Maybe it’ll replace the good one going around the moment about you and Kayl.”

“Kayl?” I said, shocked into forgetting I was embarrassed. “Kayl? You’re kidding me, right?”

“Not at all. It continually amazes me how much people love to gossip about so-called friends they don’t really know.” Henryk’s radio crackled again and this time, with a nod, he really did go. I stayed, staring at the billowing clouds. By now I could taste them, a burnt taste which stayed with me even after I’d fallen into bed to sleep away the day.

The smoke kept climbing into a sky now brushed with dawn. I rested against the parapet and closed my eyes. Tears of tiredness burned at the lids. Hanging like an albatross about my neck, my ID card swung in the warm breeze, gently tapping against the wall. I ran my fingers along its the smooth edges. Walking out a door, I thought, should be so easy. Much easier than steering a car into a tree.

So many doors here.

Tossing my empty cup into a handy bin, I crossed the roof and, with a swipe of the card, entombed myself once more within the labyrinth. Scratching at an old mossie bite on my finger – strange how they grew itchy at the same time each day – I wandered the soulless corridors once more before finally reaching the lab.

Without even a glance at my machines, I picked up a pen, pulled a blank bit of paper towards me and sketched a minotaur hanging ten on a mal. I then slowly stretched, feeling the bones in my back click. Resting my head in my hands, I half dozed, thinking of champagne and skinny-dipping, and the sound of cicadas waking me in the dappled green light of morning.

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