The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 17

Melody’s singing announced her arrival. I closed Dave’s folder as she breezed into the lab and dropped her bag noisily onto the desk.

Immersed in my collection of photocopies, I’d forgotten that life must return here, as it does in the Arctic Circle when the sun rises from her winter slumber. This last hour my only company had been a wren tapping at the window. At first I thought her simply trying to chase away her reflection, until I noticed she was more interested in the cobwebs sprinkled along the eaves. With deft movements she’d tap away as she gathered the trapped bugs. Then she’d dart off, bugs and webs woven about her beak, only to reappear about five minutes later, to begin it all again. Somewhere nearby must be a hoard of hungry babies – and hungry spiders, considering the destruction she’d wrought on their larders.

“How’s it going?” Melody asked as she pulled opened a drawer and started piling things inside. “Surviving?”

I mumbled an answer as I collected some stray bits of paper and slid them into Dave’s folder.

“I’d love to stay and have a cuppa,” Melody continued, “but I’m meant to be helping at a tute at half past, and I’d better start setting up.”

“You should’ve called,” I said, “I could’ve done it for you.”

Melody just smiled and waved as she hurried out the door. I wondered why she headed out the back door, but perhaps all the flotsam and jetsam made that route quickest.

Now aware of the hour, it didn’t take me long to gather my things and leave the night behind me. I didn’t stay to talk to anyone. Already they’d started arriving, all smiling and chatty, making a coffee or brewing a herbal tea, complaining about the smell of the paint, talking of plans for the weekend. Although part of me knew today was Friday, it hadn’t quite registered this meant, for most, the end of the working week. For me it meant nothing. Giving little more than a nod to the few who said hello, I hurried around the obstacles and out the door.

A little time lay between now and my appointment with the dean, but there seemed little point in going home to be embraced by sleep or ensnared by my thoughts. This morning I needed to stay awake. Besides, after perusing Dave’s folder, I now had a list of things to do scampering through my head. First, I needed the library.

A side-door led me outside to where a gentle path wound its way through a series of courtyards. I passed a frangipani in flower, festooned with tea towels left to dry in the morning sun. Rounding a bend, I noticed a guy sitting in the sun, sipping on a take-away coffee. I paused; it was the same guy who’d given me the USB stick, and I really didn’t want to talk anyone. Not that I ever did. Talking to him required effort, and I couldn’t even remember his name, but to creep back into the building and find another exit seemed so pathetic

He took of his glassed and opened his eyes as I bravely walked in his direction. Why come to work early if only to sit outside and sleep, when you can easily sleep at home? Despite soaking up the sun, his skin remained fashionably pale.

“Hello,” he waved.

“Oh, hi,” I answered, wondering how rude would it seem if I just kept walking.

“I always try to grab a few minutes of sunshine before I go in,” he said. “Just to remind myself that not everything festers.” Gathering up a large leather satchel, (battered but obviously expensive), he rose to his feet in a way both elegant and languid, as if the effort of readying himself for either his morning toilette or the guillotine was almost beyond him. “I was hoping to see you,” he continued, “I’m hoping to have my safe computer set up soon. Just waiting on a few more bits. Do you mind keeping my research for another day or two, just in case?”

“Sure,” I said, unwilling to tell him the USB was just upstairs, hidden in plain view. Perhaps I should take it home – but someone had moved the boxes in my room. This whole thing lay on the border between ridiculous and paranoia.

“It’s Friday today, though,” he said, sweeping his dark fringe from equally dark eyes. “The weekend might slow things down. I suppose Sunday’s your last night for the week?”

“No,” I said. “Tonight. For some reason I’m only rostered for five days this week.” I noticed he hadn’t called me by name. Perhaps, like me, he’d forgotten.

“Well, then, even if I haven’t got it ready I’ll find you tomorrow morning. I have to come in anyway, and it’s been good of you to hide it this long.” He raised his hand at someone over my shoulder as he talked. “Hope you get some sleep,” he said as he shouldered his bag and loped away. I turned back to see some girl waiting for him at the end of the path. She didn’t even glance my way.

As I watched him open the door for her I wondered how much more surreal this could become – and I thought the world of medical higher degrees, if not necessarily unscrupulous, decidedly distasteful. Surely none of this was true. I turned and headed in the opposite direction. The heat of the day was already stirring, and soon it would leave no space in which to think.

I walked through a riot of green, growing beyond the control of an army of gardeners. Most flowers had long vanished in the heat, at best a withered remnant of colour, yet I could feel the end of summer nearing. Encouraged by the recent rain, patches of fresh grass broke through the brown lawns. Even the warm breeze felt tenuous, as if these were its last days of sweltering the world before relenting a degree or two to let people sleep at night.

Scrupulously following the signs, it took me only some fifteen minutes to reach the library. By now the campus was now well awake, as students – and all others who had some reason to be here – arrived by the busload and trainload, by bike and by car. At this hour, most were just hurrying to wherever they had to be; the time for sitting in the sun and lounging on lawns or filling coffee shops lay for a while in the future.

The library was already open – perhaps it never closed, for quite a few souls drifted around, settling at the computers or stretching over the numerous desks to industriously made copious notes. Others simply read, while a few more stared out the window.

Despite my lack of navigational skills, I never get lost inside a library. After a few minutes spent on the database followed by a quick perusal of the directory, I soon stood in a long side section on the second floor, surrounded by journals I couldn’t see. Stack upon stack of movable shelves filled the long room. Alone in the emptiness, I felt like the captain of a U-boat preparing to dive, for with but a turn of a giant wheel I sent the chosen stack sliding across the room. If only the Battleship Potemkin had been on a submarine; Eisenstein’s black and white imagery perfectly encapsulated this place.

A glass wall separated these stacks from the rest of the library. Despite being so slow at learning even the oldest gossip, I knew how the main wall had been knocked down and replaced by glass after someone had been crushed to death, unseen and unheard, by the sliding shelves. Maybe Dave had told me. Squashed between stacks of rarely read journals, the desiccated body of the old librarian hadn’t been found for months, yet I’d heard no whisperings of a withered ghost rustling through the library, looking for a book to stamp or someone to hush. His demise proved less romantic than the Grey Nurse’s.

With a slight turn of a handle, I sent a wall of shelves sliding along their tracks with little more than a murmur. (No surprise, then, the old librarian died so silently. The poor sod responsible for turning the handle probably still had no idea they’d crushed a luckless soul to death.) In any university library, I always found it a bit of an adventure trying to find anything on the shelves. Since medieval times books and manuscripts have rarely slept where they should, and computer encoding has proved less effective than chaining tomes to a wall.

Adding another paper to my small pile, I turned in search of another row. With this room virtually soundproof, all I could hear as I searched was the slide of the stacks, and the rustle of pages as I hunted for another clue amongst original papers and arcane journals. At least this hadn’t taken as long as I’d thought. Already I’d found a little over half of what I wanted; the other journals were either lost or misplaced. They could take a while to hunt down, or I could wait for them to spontaneously materialise; anyway, I’d search for them another day. Even with a decent night’s sleep behind me I could easily waste hours going in circles and achieve nothing, forgetting what I’d done and where I still had to look. My only surety was today would prove another day without enough sleep. I could read what I’d collected later – well, compare the readings, really. That, I think, was the point. Photocopy them, see the Dean, read at my leisure. And sleep.

The door behind me clicked, the first noise in this room. I peered around the end of the stack as a librarian walked in, pushing a trolley. With her pencil skirt and polished hair she didn’t fulfil my classic image of a librarian.

“Oh, I didn’t realise anyone was here,” she said. “There rarely is, especially at this hour.”

“I’m nearly finished,” I answered with instant guilt. I felt so readily guilty about so many things. Only students and people with real jobs at the uni, proper jobs, should be here. People such as Henryk – who, fortunately, I hadn’t seen. (After last night I felt beyond seeing him.) Someone hunting down secrets from a dead brother had no place here.

Parking her trolley beside my things, the librarian swung such a gaze over my clothes that they instantly felt battered and poorly pressed, although I thought I’d dressed well today. I even had on a wrap-around dress, not jeans held together with tape.

She picked up a few journals from her trolley and walked along the stacks. “Do you mind?” she asked, spinning the handle before I could answer.

“Not at all,” came my polite answer as I quickly stepped out of the sliding shelves and walked back to my pile, deciding I’d finished for the day. As I put my last journal on top of my pile, I spotted another I’d been looking for in the librarian’s trolley. I surreptitiously slid it under my collection.

“Where are the nearest photocopiers?” I asked, not wanting to think about coincidences.

“Just by the main desk,” the woman answered as she came back towards her trolley. Her shoes clipped across the floor. “There’s a side room just for copying. Plus machines to load your student card with credit.”

“Oh, I, er, I’m not a student,” I stammered.

“But you work here, don’t you?” she said, pointing at the swipe card hanging around my neck. She perched herself on the desk beside my journals. I could never wear such a tight skirt, nor, even if I owned such long legs, be able to swing them with a nonchalance which comes from knowing you’re being noticed by all, even when no one watching. I supposed that was the whole point, really. Practice makes perfect. “Just load your security card up with credit,” the librarian continued. “It works the same way. Swipe it through the machine, choose the add-on credit from the options, pile in your coins or notes, then press the yellow button when you’re finished. Simply swiping your card will show how much credit you have left. Same on the photocopier.” Her voice ran like a recording, flipped on when necessary for any new student.

“Ah, thanks,” I said, reaching down to pick up my bag.

“Now isn’t that interesting,” she said, glancing at my journals. “Jason asked me to copy something from that same journal just a few days ago. You have heard of Jason?” this fashionable librarian added as she inspected her nails. She used just his first name. Always just the first name, and not the name by which I first knew him. That appellation, along with his past, had vanished.

“Ah, yes,” I said.

“Of course,” continued the woman, “it was only a fleeting visit. I don’t think anyone else knew about it,” she added with an air to match her superior knowledge. “Organising a few things for his upcoming show, I guess.”

“Is that right?” I added, not adding that as of yesterday, at least, Jason was still up here. Nor how a few mornings ago I’d come across that photo of him in the paper, with Dom in the background. The caption hadn’t said where, but since I’d also spotted Dom up here, anywhere else would be too much of a coincidence, and I never liked coincidences, especially as they never ran my way. Then again, both were bigwigs in various university boards – they could easily be at the same party, a trick of photography capturing the two of them in the one photo as if they were friends.

I fastened my bag. This had become very surreal. Salvador Dali would appear any moment, and the cocks on the wall melt around me.

Quietly cursing the Fates, I wondered if walking out would be the best way to escape this woman. How silly to think that running away would remove all traces of Jason from my life. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday; if the past didn’t chase you in a black suit, it found you in different ways. Such as with Duty and Honour, and What Is Expected Of You By The Rest Of The Family. At least Audrey had Gregory Peck to complicate things for a while, even if she chose to leave him.

Standing to smooth her skirt (although still no one else had materialised to notice) the librarian sat back down and once more wrapped one long leg around the other. She started flipping through my pile of journals. “It’s been a while since anyone has looked at some of these,” she said. “Now that’s curious,” the librarian said, holding another journal in her hand, “I also copied an article from this one for Jason.” She cast me a strange look as the temperature of the room fell a few degrees.

“What a coincidence,” I said, surprised by my nonchalance. “These journals have so many different articles. Besides, my work is in such a different field, I can’t image us reading the same things.”

“True,” said the woman, flipping blithely through the journal as she spoke, “but he is so knowledgeable, and so widely read. I heard him on the radio this morning as I drove to work. No wonder he’s the expert speaker on so many panels. I wish I had the time to read as widely as he does.” With the journal still in her hand, she started looking through the others in my pile. “Just where is it you work?”

I watched as she scanned the cover of each journal. To say anything would raise her suspicions further, and I wouldn’t put it past her confiscating my finds or even somehow banning me from the library. “Over in the labs,” I answered, delightfully non-specific.

“The vet labs?’

“No, in the science block.” That I occasionally visited the vet labs of a night to collect specimens seemed irrelevant.

“Oh, that’s okay then,” the librarian said, suddenly making a tidy pile out of my journals. “I thought you might work with Dick Blathe, one of the senior lecturers over there. His secretary’s been on the phone all week, wanting to know to what I’d copied for Jason. The tutors and lecturers around here always do this, before any public series. They try to find out what the presenter has been reading so they can look knowledgeable and ask difficult questions. Needless to say, I didn’t tell her.”

Putting the journal back on my pile, she paused and looked at it for a minute or two, then quickly rose from her elegant posture. “Still, it is strange,” she said. Giving me a brusque nod, she added, “Just leave the journals in the trolley by the photocopiers when you’re finished,” before turning to saunter from the room. Her mind seemed elsewhere, for she left behind her half-full trolley.

I watched her go, preparing myself for battle with the photocopier. I just knew the control panel would prove more complex than those computers which first sent men to the moon. There’d be offerings of too many sizes, double sided or not, how many, stacked in alternative order…so many choices. What ever happened with a simple on and off?

I quickly scanned the contents of the forgotten trolley. I must be tired, I thought as I picked up another journal to add to my collection, to worry about being stalked by a librarian. What answer could I give to her questions, besides either silence or a half-hour discourse? Nothing lay between.

I got lost just the once before reaching the Old Building. Once inside, her cool foyer embraced me, banishing the sunshine which had already painted even the shade with heat. Crystal light danced around my feet, a wreath of colours tumbling from the cupola high above. The wooden staircase beckoned. I had no idea where to go. I still had half an hour to spare – plenty of time to lose my way again, even though now I was in the right building.

With no one around, I decided to risk climbing to the next floor. I took my time, my hand trailing along the intricate railing as I tried decide what movie I’d walked into. Last time I’d graced this staircase I’d channeled Audrey Hepburn in a Givenchy gown; that girl now seemed so far away.

On reaching the first floor landing, the offering of too many corridors confused me. After a quick glance around, I walked over to an oracle plastered on the wall to seek guidance. It proved to be a large wooden billboard, complete with gold lettering. Dean’s Office, Fifth floor, it informed me in perfect italic script. A line of staff photos ubiquitous to any large institution graced the wall beside it. One set of eyes thundered out from the row of faces – eyes which I just knew would follow me when I walked away. A plaque announced to the world that Dom was now a member of the academic board. Dom, whose academic abilities were, at best, limited. I took a few steps back but the inscription didn’t change. This simply cannot have happened ­– surely some scholastic achievement was necessary. Why did he need to be on an academic board anyway?

Obvious, I thought. Money. Sir Dom wouldn’t waste his time on any other motive. Get on enough boards, and you could earn a small fortune doing relatively little.

Dom’s eyes scorched me as I retreated to the staircase. Halfway up I cast a quick look behind me, desperate to make sure they’d turned away, or at least blinked. They hadn’t. From this new height I could see into a few of the rooms lining one of the corridors below me, and my gaze slid from the photo onto the man himself.

For once the gods were smiling, and I looked down onto a profile. Dom stood silhouetted against a window, yet with his image soldered into my memory I instantly recognized the man. As he stood glowering at whatever took his fancy outside – for Dom could never merely look at something, or stare vaguely into the ether, unseeing – he drank a cup of tea, his paw of a hand drowning the small cup. Despite his bulk, I thought his movements remarkably prissy. With a pudgy little finger held in the air he raised a delicate cup to as his fleshy lips, almost swallowing it in the process.

Despite waves of nausea which refused to break, I stood like a roo caught in the headlights. It could be a little old lady on a scooter or a semi-trailer behind those lights; either way, I couldn’t move. Horrified, I stood immobile as Dom turned and took a few steps back to his desk. Gingerly laying down his cup and saucer, he opened a drawer and pulled out a book. With the caress of a pudgy lover he began turning the pages.

The sight broke the spell, and I scampered up the remaining stairs lest my nemesis feel the weight of my eyes. I passed the landing and kept going, until my knees buckled just before the turn of the two flights later stairs. Despite hearing voices from the floor above me, I sank down onto the steps and rested my head against the banister.

The Book of Death; I’d just seen Dom’s Book of Death. It couldn’t be anything else. The thing actually existed.

I just didn’t know what to do about it. About anything. All this stuff I kept finding, and I couldn’t work out if it actually meant anything. Logic, and inertia, kept telling me it didn’t. The interwoven stories unwinding around me would never suddenly make sense, search as I might for any meaning. There were no stories, and they weren’t interwoven.

But if they meant nothing, then I had to let it all go. And inertia stopped me doing that, too.

Using the banister for support, I cautiously pulled myself upright and stood a moment, waiting for the staircase to stop spinning. These stairs had a poor reputation for the giddy. I soothed my dress, re-adjusting the broach to stop the neckline from gaping. Next, a few breaths. Forget what I’d just seen, think about it later. After I’d finished with the dean. I needed to concentrate on one thing at a time.

A few people walked briskly past me. A little more steady on my feet, I started up the stairs again, almost ready to brave whatever awaited in the dean’s office.

The stairs opened onto a tableau of activity, completely different to the floors below. In the centre of the large receiving area a large desk greeted all new comers, but other desks also peppered the gracious space, each leading to its own web of others desks – real desks, with not a partition in sight. Real people sat here, working, or else they leant over the desks, actually talking to each other. Corridors led to more desks, the space between abuzz with movement coming and going from various rooms. Everyone walked with brisk purpose. I felt like Dorothy, stepping across the threshold from the bleakness of my world into one vibrant with technicolour.

An elderly lady came up beside me, using a giant tea-trolley as a surrogate walking frame. “Would you like a cuppa, dearie?” she asked. “You’re new around here. “Haven’t seen you before.”

“Oh, I’m not usually here,” I stumbled. “I work nights, over in one of the other buildings. Just waiting to see someone, really.”

“So you’ve been working all night, have you? Then you you’re definitely in need of some tea.”

A giant silver teapot hung majestically astride the tea-trolley. Before I could reply, the lady used one arthritic finger to tip the pot. The strong brew flowed into a waiting cup. “Milk?” she asked. “And why don’t you have one of these muffins. Here you go. The blueberry are, I think, the nicest, but the white chocolate aren’t too bad.” She leaned conspiratorially towards me as she handed me the cup and plate. “Will give you the energy to get you home.”

“Thanks,” I said, juggling this unexpected bounty.

“Been serving tea here for nigh on fifty years,” the woman continued. “Should’ve retired years ago, what with my bunions and all, but I’m earning a little cash to help with my grandson’s bills.” As I took a bite of the blueberry muffin (it was delicious, as promised) while balancing my tea in the other hand, the tea-lady rummaged through a bag hanging from one handle of the trolley. It was almost as big as the urn. After a bit of burrowing she pulled out some photos with a grunt of triumph. “There you go. Don’t often have a new face to show these to. That’s my Paul. These are some of his modelling shots. Not that modelling’s his thing – he’s studying to be a dancer. At the moment he’s just getting a few bit parts in the chorus, and not earning much. But the agency loves using dancers as models. And it earns him more money than the stage.”

Resting my supplies on a nearby desk, I took the photos and looked through them as the tea-lady kept talking. After all the antics of last night, I was relieved to simply see arty modelling shots of stunning young things possessing unending legs and no body fat, with no sign of Jason or Dom in the background.

“His dad,” the lady continued, “wants nothing more to do with him.” I don’t know how she managed it, but this elderly woman with her gammy hips and no make-up, and with her white hair pulled back into a wispy bun decorated with fading flowers, glowed with a natural genteelness.

I handed the photos back and, out of habit, glanced at my watch, only to see an empty wrist. I gathered up my goodies. “Thanks for these,” I said. “You, ah don’t know the way to the Dean’s Office, by any chance?”

“The Dean’s Office? It’s down that corridor there, dearie, then there’s a few winds and bends. You’ll see another desk – they’ll give you directions.”

With a parting smile the lady bumped and rattled on her way. She stopped at another desk a few metres away, where the receptionist was as large and as hirsute as a biker, and so covered in tattoos it was difficult to guess the original colour of his skin. He put down his knitting as the lady drew near, and placed an order. I guessed he was a favourite, for she handed him two muffins along with his tea, plus a few sachets of sugar. Grinning, I walked on, munching on my own trophy.

With tea and muffin still in hand, I followed the corridor to another foyer, the centre of a new network of stairs and corridors. As the lady of the tea leaves foretold, another desk – more of an endless bench - held court. A receptionist sat at one end, but the bulk of the desk lay swamped by people who, if not busy on one of the phones, fussed through their mail and messages and all manner of books and sheets of paper.

In the midst of the chaos Henryk materialised at the desk, busy eating his own prize. “So, what sort of muffin did Rose give you?” he asked

Strangely, I wasn’t surprised. “Blueberry,” I answered. In this new world the embarrassment of last night had never happened. I walked over and sat down near him, on the other side of the counter. After all, I couldn’t very well rock up to the Dean’s with a muffin in hand. A large clock on the wall confirmed I still had time to finish it. “And you?”

“I was awarded with three,” Henryk answered. “Choc chip, banana and blueberry. Like my dead grandmother, Rose seems to think I need fattening up.”

“Please tell me the two of you aren’t related.”

“Great aunt by someone’s third marriage.”

“You really do have quite a busy family, don’t you?”

Henryk simply bit his muffin in reply, and we munched away in silence as the business of the morning swirled along the corridor and up and down the stairwells. A short distance away some workman had started knocking down a wall with gusto, making conversation unnecessary. I half-expected them to burst into song, turning the place into Singing In The Rain or some other old MGM musical.

“Do you think they know what they’re doing?” Henryk asked, as sledge-hammer shuddered through chipboard.

“Trained professionals,” I said, pulling a hunk from my muffin. “Like us.”

“That’s so reassuring.”

“Holy shit!” came the yelp as a security box tumbled from its alcove. One man struggled under its weight, freely expressing himself with expletives, as another workman scampered in search of the right tools.

“Yep,” said Henryk, “just like us.”

I smiled and took a sip of my tea, savouring the luxury of taking my time rather than trying to do three things at once. Maybe this was the security box showing the same tape over and over, with Tina smoking in a stairwell – only that had been enclosed in a roof, I think she’d said, and in another building.

Henryk slowly freed another muffin from its case. “By the way,” he said, “Do you prefer Steph or Stephanie? I’ve heard both.”

“Steph, hi!”

After barging her way to the desk Gillian stood almost on top of Henryk, her back to him as if he didn’t exist. “I was so hoping to see you today,” she continued, leaning across the desk towards me. “You won’t believe who I’ve just been talking to. Your hair looks lovely by the way. Where do you get it dyed?”

Struggling for an answer, I wondered how to introduce Henryk. I couldn’t imagine the three of us talking of anything, but I also didn’t want my whistling friend to think he was forgotten as soon as someone else distracted me. Besides, for once a piece of my life lacked Gillian’s touch and I wished to keep it that way, otherwise before he knew it Henryk would be receiving cards with naked women on the cover and bad haiku penned inside.

Still, Henryk was the type to send the card back, the haiku corrected and marked, with an example of a half-way decent poem written in calligraphy on the other side. I noticed that as soon as Gillian started talking he’d whipped out his pocket book and fountain pen, and started jotting something down.

As Gillian’s personality settled over me like damp ash, I couldn’t help noticing how this last week she’d managed to materialise nearly everywhere I went, seemingly intent on drawing attention to my falling star. Perhaps she saw me as a stagnant pond, merely reflecting the rise of her own star.

“How did you get that!” Gillian almost shouted, interrupting my musings. I was embarrassed to think how long I’d been staring at nothing while my thoughts skittered along their tumbling course. Pulled abruptly back to the present, it took a moment to realise Gillian’s assault was directed not at me but at my muffin.

“Oh, this?” I said, trying to shrug off my perennial guilt.

“But the tea ladies never give them away!”

For that I had no answer, so Gillian continued with her game. “Like I said, you won’t believe who just called me.”

Weary to the point of unexpected rudeness, I picked off a chunk of muffin. “I’m really too tired to guess,” I mumbled with a full mouth. I didn’t offer Gillian any of my prize.


“Dom what?”

“Dom called me!

“Oh, Dom,” I answered, impressing even myself as I calmly took a sip of tea while channelling the confidence (spilling into arrogance) of Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution. “Who was he bitching about this time?”

Gillian’s imperial sniff immediately crumbled my confidence while augmenting my guilt.

“I really don’t know what your problem with him is,” Gillian answered, her voice throbbing with righteous anger. “You’ve always carried on like he’s radical or something, but I see him at church every Sunday! Is that radical?” Gillian’s hand began its predictable dance through the air. “Davy was the same, never letting go of something that hadn’t happened. Where’s the sweet little Stephanie I used to know back at school, the one who never said such things?”

“Davy?” Gillian’s words fell like salt onto a leach, turning everything inside-out. “Davy?” I repeated.

“Anyway,” Gillian said quickly, “Dom was trying to ring through to Professor Timbers.” Here she paused dramatically to take off her glasses, waving them around as spoke. “We chatted away for quite a while before he realised it was me! I didn’t tell him you were here,” Gillian added, intent on causing as much damage as possible, “but we all know that’s why you came up here.”

“No, Gillian, no,” I answered. Despite how I felt, my voice sounded remarkably calm. “I really had no idea he was up here until a few says ago.”

Gillian just smiled knowingly, her eyes glittering like granite.

“But I don’t get it,” I said. I had to say something to fill the void. “Don’t you see Dom all the time, what with your job and everything?”

For a flicker of an eyelid Gillian seemed nonplussed. “Oh, yes, of course,” she said. “But no to really talk to, if you get my drift.”

As she spoke I caught a vague sense of dissatisfaction hovering behind her shoulders.

“Anyway,” Gillian continued, “when he finally recognised my voice, we chatted for quite a while of this,” – with a dramatic pause as Gillian finally settled her glasses firmly back on her nose - “and that.”

I picked away at my muffin. To make eye contact would shatter my resolve. I wasn’t going to be pulled back into this quagmire. I simply wasn’t. Gillian had started on her significant eye-look routine, which involved raising her eyebrows to an impossible arch over a heavily kohled eye, followed by a slight drop of the chin to make the look all the more significant. Since Gillian’s glasses simply magnified the muddy-brown colour of her eyes, I just found the whole routine annoying. Despite my mood, I remained too polite to tell Gillian how Dom would gladly chat of this and that with any female foolish enough to bear his presence. Then, a few days later everyone in every building would know exactly where this and that had led, and Dom would start chatting to another.

Instead, as a way of apology for my distinct lack of enthusiasm, I said, “I like your dress, by the way.”

“Oh, it suits me, doesn’t it? I’ve lost another two kilos, so I decided to treat myself,” Gillian tossed away carelessly. “By Easter I plan to be a size six. Then I’ll go and spoil myself. The shop’s got some great stuff, but it’s all for, ah, smaller sizes,” she added with a blatant stare before carefully shaking her fringe into place.

“Excuse me interrupting, but I need the phone. Mine seems to be down.” Unnoticed, Henryk had walked around the desk and now stood beside me, facing Gillian. He picked up a handset resting between me and Gillian. A few other people also sat at the long desk, while others came and went looking for files, collecting printing, checking their pigeon holes. It was that kind of no-purpose multi-functional incredibly public counter.

“Well, really,” and the air dripped with contempt as Gillian flicked her fringe once more, “these phones are meant for important business only. We can’t have them being tied up by just anyone.”

“Of course, can’t have people tying the lines up as they talk about this and that, can we?” said Henryk, his face a picture of innocence.

If I’d had been sipping my tea, Gillian would’ve worn it. I wiped my nose to hide my smile.

“Well, in that case,” sniffed Gillian, “you’d best be quick. This is a private conversation.”

Phone in hand, Henryk actually threw back his head and laughed. A few people turned and looked at him. “What, here?” Henryk said. “In an office full of people and you craning over the counter looking as if you’re giving a lecture? Call me old-fashioned, but that’s about as private as a poor knight commissioning a troubadour to sing a love song before the king and a crowded court, hoping the woman for whom he is secretly pining gets the hint, and works out who the messages comes from.”

“What?” answered Gillian, bewildered.

“But please, continue if you like. I promise not to listen.” Henryk turned to me. “You don’t mind, do you?”

I, for my part, was beyond knowing what I minded. I merely shook my head and finished my muffin.

Unable to turn her back on Henryk now he stood next to me, Gillian instead leant over the desk, put her hand to her mouth and whispered loudly, “I bought the most gorgeous teddies on the weekend.”

“Aren’t you a bit old for bears?” I asked.

“Silly, not bears, teddies. Underwear. There’s a place in town which sells ones with the most delicious lace. The black ones especially are simply divine. Here, I’ll write the name of the place down. You should go there, when you get yourself a boyfriend.”

“Oh.” Too stunned to be insulted, I wondered about all the other people listening as they milled around the desk on a busy morning. Then Gillian pulled a fountain pen from her pocket, and the sight of it in her hand drove everything else from my mind. Even the sounds of the workmen finally freeing the tumbled security box from its casing faded from hearing.

“I need to get going,” I suddenly decided, crumpling the muffin wrapper into a ball.

“Of course,” Gillian said, her eyes with their frame of heavy black glistening, “you have that meeting with the dean soon.”

The sound of a clunking phone made me turn.

“They go and spring a double on me at short notice,” Henryk said, “so I have to try and sort out my social life without the others noticing.”

“Ah,” I answered, amazed anything could deflate me further.

“I knew that was why you were all dressed up,” Gillian preened. “You look far too presentable for someone working nights. Anyway, I must go,” she continued, “but I’ll see you over there. Don’t be late.”

“You know, much as I love your definition of a Grecian hell, I’ve thought of another one,” Henryk offered as he stood beside me and watched Gillian walk away. “An exquisitely painful one. Putting up with people you don’t really like simply because you have to work with them each day.”

“I thought it was the curse of a Catholic upbringing,” I said, amazed to have any answers left. “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce you, but trust me, you’re better out of it.”

Henryk smiled and nodded after the departing Gillian. “Face like a Medusa, wouldn’t you say? The thought of her in lacy black underwear turns my stomach,” he added.

“Oh, so you heard that?” I also watched Gillian. Her whole body bounced, a jaunt which left no room for self doubt. Were Gillian’s hair long enough for a ponytail it’d skip and swirl with every step.

“The whole place heard that. As they were meant to. Mind you, from what I hear of Dom, he might enjoy it.”

“You hear a lot,” I said.

“As I keep saying, comes from being ignored,” Henryk said. “Now, Dom’s Book of Death – almost worth putting on the lacy underwear myself to get my hands on it. To prove it really does exist.”

“It exists,” I said. “I just saw him reading it,” I stumbled as Henryk looked at me in surprise. “The way he held it, and turned the pages, it couldn’t have been anything else.”

“Where was this?”

“In his office. Well, I assume it was his office. Downstairs. I didn’t even know he worked here till I saw him as I walked up here. The whole world could’ve seen him and he wouldn’t have noticed. Not even if you had the lacy underwear on.”

The corner of Henryk’s mouth twitched but he said nothing. He took a sip of his tea, then crumbled his muffin wrappers into a ball and tossed them into a distant bin.

“I got a letter,” I said without thinking, “summoning me to the dean this morning.” I don’t know why I was telling Henryk; I’d had no plans to tell anyone, but somehow Gillian knew.

“The dean? What on earth for?”

“I really have no idea,” I said. “Do you think it’s something I’ve done? I can’t think of anything. But then I saw Dom and his book this morning. I don’t like coincidences.”

“And you’re in his book?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Well, maybe. It’s more my brother. He’s so in it.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” Henryk said. “If you’d done something necessitating the dean’s involvement, you’d be hauled first before a series of supervisors and sub mangers, each out to enjoy their pound of flesh before the dean gets his chance. Maybe he just wants to say hello.”

“Hello? Do deans just say hello? I’d have thought that a bit beneath their dignity. Besides, I’ve never met the man. And now Gillian knows, I don’t know how.”

“Oh that’s easy. She’s his secretary.”

“His secretary?”

“Well not his personal secretary. She’s in the pool of secretaries up there. His PA is too important to type letters, so it often falls to her.”

“Oh,” I said. “but I thought, I mean, she said….it doesn’t matter.” Gillian had talked of being head-hunted and promoted, of becoming my mentor and discussing my future with the powers that be. Not of working in a secretarial pool. “How did you know? No, let me guess, your sister works there.”

“No,” he smiled, “a cousin. Geoff. Apparently that Medusa of a woman throws airs and tries giving them all merry hell, but they simply ignore her.” Henryk looked at me a moment then took another sip of his tea. “She’s also started telling anyone who’ll listen how you’re a doctor, implying that you’re here under false pretences.”

“Is she?” I said softly.

“Plus the dean,” Henryk continued, “who is absolutely no relation of mine, is a good man. A man who would easily see Dom for what he is. Now, as I was asking just as that woman interrupted us, do you prefer Steph or Stephanie?”

“Stephanie,” I answered decisively. “Stephanie.” Only Dave could get away with calling me Steph. My mother had called me first Steph then even Stephie in an effort to keep her daughter both a child and under her control. Then Jason; I’d always been Steph for him. But he hadn’t been Jason. Not at first.

Now it was Gillian who called me Steph. And called my brother Davy, it would seem. Dave had called me Steph from when we were little, when he had trouble with his words, lisping over his fs and phs and confusing his gs and js.

“Gems,” I said.


“The pyruvate. It was Dave’s first stone. When he still spelt gems with a j.”

“I see,” said Henryk. “Of course he did. And that’s important because?”

“I have no idea,” I said, wiping my eyes. I wasn’t going to cry. Not again. “I’m sorry, you can’t have any idea what I’m going on about. It’s just, well, you see, Dave, my brother, well, he always left me a box of stones. Like a puzzle to work out, which he’d then change when I solved it, making a new one for when I next saw him. And I can’t work his last one out. And now, if a g is a j, it might mean something.”

Somehow Henryk held my hand in his own without either of us dropping bits of muffin or spilling tea all over ourselves. “See the dean, go have some sleep, Stephanie,” he said in a soft voice. “You’ve had a dark night of the soul, I’d wager. Followed by a morning that seems to be a shocker. Forget the stones. And if the answer doesn’t come to you in your sleep, perhaps we can talk about it tomorrow. At Jim’s. Over breakfast. And you can wear whatever you like. Despite what Gillian likes to imply, you always look great.”

Then Henryk smiled his Cheshire smile, and once more was gone. And I wasn’t quite sure if I’d been asked out on a date.

Nothing as dire as Gillian sat waiting for me outside the dean’s office. Instead, a nameless young man held sway. Impeccably dressed and faceless, he came straight from an Agatha Christie novel; effortlessly efficient, too bright for his own good, and eminently replaceable.

It took but a moment for him to usher me through to a small anteroom. Voices mumbled through a panelled door, which the innominate secretary opened after a brisk but subdued knock. After muttering something inaudible he just as quietly closed the door. He then nodded for me to sit down, assuring me in quiet but authorative tones that Professor James would be but a few minutes. All was done in one fluid movement.

I sat in the proffered seat, glad to reach it as the room swayed around me. Yet before even the chair had a chance to become still, the door opened and into my spinning world walked the Dean – and Jason. Not arm in arm; indeed, the gulf between them bordered on visible. I quickly rose to my feet, leaning my legs against the chair to keep my balance. For the length of a day Jason and I stared at each another.

“Stephie!” Jason finally managed, for once looking awkward. “My little Stephie! Fancy seeing you again!”

“Stephanie,” I said, turning to the Dean, holding out my hand. “Stephanie Allen. I’m meant to...”

“Of course. Dr Allen. Forgive me, we’re running a little late.”

The Dean gave my hand a firm but brief shake. He looked of an age to have retired a decade ago, (as did his well-worn suit). Both his posture and the lustre of his shoes bespoke of time in the services. Not quite whippet thin, a little stiff as he walked, the man carried an air of impeccable authority. Standing beside Jason he managed to convey the air of one staying in the job because he didn’t trust the motives of any of the buggers competing to replace him.

Obviously, I’d watch one too many Agatha Christie movies.

“What on earth are you doing here, Stephie?” asked Jason as he walked over and took my hand. “I’m beginning to think you’re stalking me.”

“Well, she does work here,” answered the Dean. The wise man even knew I couldn’t answer.

At his droll tone the room finally became still. Jason at least had the grace to look nonplussed. I pulled my hand free from his clutch.

“We may be seeing a bit more of each other,” Jason said to me. “The Prof and I have just been discussing a new position which has just come up.”

“Really?” I managed.

To avoid Jason’s gaze I stared over his shoulder to the door which lead back out to the efficient secretary. It opened silently as the efficient secretary entered. Behind him, walked Dom.

His hatred filled the room. I leant my weight further against the chair behind me as Dom glowered from the doorway.

“Ah, Professor James, I’m sorry...”

“I thought I’d find you here.” Dom’s growl smothered the secretary’s apologies before they were uttered. “I need to talk to you.”

“I think we’re just about finished here,” said Jason. “We were just discussing my new position.”

“Yes, we are finished,” said the Dean. “And my rooms are not a public thoroughfare. Dr Allen, perhaps you could go wait in my office?”

Under the weight of Dom’s stare I couldn’t move.

“You remember Stephanie?” said Jason. In the silence Dom simply stared first at me, then at Jason. “David’s brother,” Jason said. “David. Surely you remember David? David Allen.”

The knowledge dawned on me as enlightenment swept over Dom’s face. He hadn’t recognised me. The anger and hatred filling the air was simply Dom.

Until now. Now he knew me, all that bile was magnified and channelled straight towards me. His eyes hardened beyond possibility, bubbling with loathing.

The Dean laid a hand on my shoulder. “Surely you haven’t been working overnight?” he asked. “Good heavens, you must be exhausted. This appointment should’ve been made for your week off. Lionel,” he said, turning briskly to his secretary, “how has this happened?”

“I believe Gillian was in charge of appointments while I was on leave a fortnight ago,” Lionel answered quietly, “but I’ll make sure I have a word with her. Shall we rebook?”

“No, no, it’s fine,” I said. To leave now meant walking past Dom. Dom, who stood with the air of a salt-water crocodile about to lunge and embrace a victim in a death roll.

Run in zig-zags. That’s all I knew about escaping a saltie. They can’t corner.

“Then into my office, Dr Allen, and I’ll just be a moment.”

“Yes, yes of course.” The spell broken, I picked up my bag and walked away before Dom’s eyes could trap me again.

“Gentlemen,” the Dean began coldly as I shut the door behind me. I walked as far away as possible and leant against a window, my forehead burning against the coldness of the glass. Outside I heard a magpie call. Dom hadn’t known me. Dom hadn’t cared. He’d ruined our lives, and he didn’t care enough to even remember me. He was too busy plotting someone else’s downfall to even be bothered.

Now he was plotting with Jason. And just what sort of job did Jason have planned? And why up here, away from all his contacts and the cameras of his social calendar?

I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. Any moment the Dean would return, and I still had no idea why I was here.

Turning, I took a deep breath. The room smelt of, well, nothing. Definitely not the paint fumes I’d been inhaling all night, but also not the leather and cigar smoke and musty tomes or any of those heavy smells which almost demanded to be here. The room felt remarkably peaceful. I could easily imagine the Grey Nurse making this place her head quarters of a night, looking through a few text books or sitting at the large desk, sipping tea and reading the newspaper.

On the wall opposite the desk hung what looked like the fragment of an ancient fresco. About two feet square, it showed a woman dancing beneath a tree, the folds of her gown flowing with her movement. Branches laden with flowers drooped over her, and in her arms she held a bouquet of vivid blooms. I wondered how anything so beautiful had ended up here.

“Exquisite, isn’t she?”

I hadn’t heard the Dean enter. I turned, but simply nodded in reply.

“Delicate but still so alive. Late Etruscan. I believe it was once part of a funeral fresco. Of course, she’s a fake,” he continued as he came to stand beside me, “but I don’t think that diminishes her beauty. And being a replica, I can keep her here.” The Dean directed me to a chair by his desk. “The real one is being auctioned soon.”

I must’ve looked puzzled, for the Dean continued, “A donation. Last year. On the agreement any money raised would be used for research. Hence Mr Leigh’s interest, for it has been deemed the money will be used to establish a new professorial chair.” The Dean finally sat down on his own side of the desk. “But I wisely had a copy made, so I can keep looking at her. I’ve found a student here who could make a lucrative career doing forgeries.”

A brisk knock on the door was followed by the efficient Lionel bearing a tray.

“Ah, thankyou, Lionel. I took the liberty,” the Dean said, peering at me over his bifocals, “of ordering some coffee for us both. I am most definitely in need of substance. Mr Leigh chose to press his case for at least fifteen minutes. The man simply has no concept that other people’s time might be important.”

I managed to smother my giggle with a sneeze. I’d no idea what to expect this morning, but an ex-military man with a passion for Etruscan art and encouraged students in illicit activities wasn’t on my list. As he obviously didn’t have much of an opinion of Jason, I decided I quite liked him.

I relaxed as the Dean handed me a latte; he wouldn’t be doing this if I’d been summoned for a reprimand. Before coming here I’d never noticed how the ritual of drinking tea or coffee helps with delicate beginnings. That was how I’d met Kayl, and Melody and I had first talked over foam cups in the tearoom. Even Tina had offered me a tasteless brew.

“So, I’ve been meaning to meet you since you started,” the Dean began as he offered me a plate of biscuits.

I muttered something incomprehensible.

“This incident of the stolen blood is the perfect opportunity. Since there’s been a formal complaint I’ve made a point to talk to everyone in the department.” His chair creaked as the Dean leant back, resting his fingertips gently together. “You do know about that?”

“The blood? Why, yes.”

The Dean stared at me for a few moments. “How do you find the others in your department?” he asked abruptly.

“The others?” I repeated, surprised. “I don’t really know anyone there yet.”

“Ah, the itinerant life of a night worker,” the Dean said. “I remember it well. Never really meet the day people, and even if you it’s in isolation, away from the day to day politics which mark the running of any place.” Once more the chair creaked as he leant forward and picked up his cup and saucer. “Can you remember how you heard about the blood?”

“It was only a few days ago. That guy told me, I’m sorry, I can’t think of his name. The one who’s blood was stolen. His rats’ blood, I mean, not his own blood. He told me about it.” I wasn’t trying to protect the lad, for he’d made it clear to me that all and sundry knew; I simply couldn’t remember his name.

“Dark hair, casually ruffled, air of a pained existentialist?”

Despite my tiredness and nerves I smiled. This man was proving remarkably human. Plus he looked nothing like Henryk, nor any of his family members I’d met. “No,” I answered, “I believe that’s what he was aiming for, but he struck me more as fop from a Regency novel.”

Now it was the Dean’s turn to smile. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a Regency novel. And I believe the word fop has never been used in this office. Not even when my underlings mutter about me.” He shifted a little in his seat and took another mouthful of tea. “Steve. Was the lad’s name?”

“Yes,’ I said.

“Well, I’ll be honest with you. At first I thought he took the blood himself.”

“Why on earth would someone do that?”

“It’s a great way to cover a stupid mistake. You simply say someone’s taken some blood, or injected something into your animals, and you therefore can’t trust the results. There’s no choice but to start again, cleverly hiding the fact you mucked up the results in the first place.”

“But why all that effort?” I said. “It’d be easier just to do the research.”

“Because, Dr Allen, in this day and age, it’s not the research which is important. It’s the result. Without the right result, the research is meaningless.”

“But there’s no such thing as right result. Surely that’s the whole point. You notice things, get an idea, make an hypothesis and then a null hypothesis, design an experiment to test it, then release the result so other people can see if the experiment is reproducible. And if the result is unexpected, well, don’t you learn even more, as it leads to more questions and better knowledge?”

“Regrettably, Dr Allen, you’re basing your model on a world long gone.” The Dean paused to take another sip of coffee. “Now the all important dollar rules everything. University experiments are expensive – indeed, any research is expensive. This is no longer the time when Il Magnifico could finance Galileo ad hoc, whatever he found. Trials mean money, and then it’s years before investors see a return. And, trust me, investors demand a return. Companies want more than a tax deduction; they need tangible results to attract more investors. And they need something to sell. Even the promise of results is something which can be sold. So, decide on a result, then design an experiment to prove it. The scientific method run backwards. Rightly or wrongly, some have even likened the whole business to a ponzi scheme. Use the promise of results to get funding. No results, no money. No money, and people like Steve are without a job.” The Dean resettled his glasses on his nose. “Did Steve give you a copy of his work?”

I nodded. “On a USB. I posted it to myself.” Although technically true, at least I had the grace to blush. “I don’t get out much,” I added.

“I do like your style, Dr Allen,” the Dean said. I ignored the continued use of my title as the Dean continued, “I suggest you get it back to him as soon as possible. Just don’t open it.”

“But I’m not doing any research.”

“No, but I daresay the computer you use at night links into a few others, and if there’s anything wrong with that USB, any changes will be traced back to when you were logged on. I’ve seen many things in my years. I’m a country lad, and there’s a slickness in that boy I just don’t trust. Probably an innocent slickness, but I won’t have the wrong person being blamed.”

I nursed my coffee and said nothing. I was swimming far beyond my depth. Where ever I looked in this place I saw slickness.

“But you said at first you suspected Steve? Not now?”

“It might still be him behind it all. But now I find,” the Dean continued, “that someone else has lost six months’ work using a fixing solution which, proving to be something else altogether, destroyed all their slides. And a few months ago a computer got a virus which spread through the network and corrupted quite a few files. Last week, a page was neatly cut from the handover book, so a vital step in an experiment was missed. All little, untraceable things which can happen in any lab, all adding up to be great time wasters. You can save yourself six months’ work by getting someone else’s results. And if you muck up their results – well, then you buy yourself a lot of time. There’s something a bit deeper than merely covering up mistakes happening here.”

“It wasn’t Il Magnifico,” I interrupted.

“Who wasn’t?”

“Who supported Galileo. It was his grandson. Cosmo the Second, I think. Galileo tutored him as a lad. Actually, he might’ve been a grand nephew.”

The Dean took his time with his coffee. After a slow mouthful he said, “I must say I’m impressed. You know your history, which is more than I can say for most around here. You continue to intrigue me, Dr Allen.”

“And Galileo changed his results. Well, not changed them, but didn’t he say it was all hypothetical, to try and pacify the Church?”

“Yes, indeed he did. Though the threat of the Inquisitor is probably worse than facing life without funding.”

“May I ask you something?” I asked, suddenly emboldened.

“Of course.”

“If selling the fresco will raise enough money to fund a new chair, why not use it instead to pay people like Steve? You could employ quite a few research fellows, and establish some independence in research. And maybe that might stop all this theft.”

The Dean smiled. “You wouldn’t last a day in this job, young lady” he said. “Believe me, I would like to. A nice old-fashioned response. The number of post-grads we could employ instead of one Mr. Leigh makes me weep, having been a post-grad myself. Not to mention the benefit of not having the likes of Mr. Leigh here. Unfortunately, such decisions are far removed from me. Since the day that fresco was donated, the wolves have been lobbying the powerbrokers. Actually, snapping at their heels is a more apt description. Those with the most titles have the most influence, and they want more titles to their name. Basically, more titles, more money. Hence this decision for a new professor in a world already top heavy. Now the hopefuls have started harassing me, in the mistaken belief I hold some influence.”

I tried hiding my smile by biting into a biscuit, though I’m sure the Dean noticed. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he seemed as impotent as Machiavelli. The decision might not be his, the power might not be his, but I could not imagine this man devoid of influence.

But I was. What I felt, what I thought, whatever I did; it made no difference to Jason and his plans. He’d get his tenure despite me, and publish his first autobiography and make a fortune no matter how much angst I wasted in the process. I could spend my life agonizing, but he would continue to further glory. Besides, I had plenty of other things I could waste my time worrying about.

At least this explained Jason’s presence up here, sniffing around for a permanent position to add credos (and an extra income) to his stature. It didn’t necessarily mean he’d stay up here; I’d once been taught by professor who simultaneously held chairs on three continents. But why Dom – what did he need to see Jason so urgently about? And Gillian – a mere oversight on her part in organizing my meeting with the Dean after I’d worked all night? Was she desperate for me to fail at even this? All the hints and barbs she threw at me seemed so much effort to simply hide the fact that, like me, she’d slid into oblivion. She wanted so desperately to steal my life; now she had, and was living it.

With a knock on the door Lionel re-materialized to collect the tea things. “You’re appointment with Dr Galicion is in five minutes, sir,” he said.

“Thank you, Lionel. Has he arrived yet?”

“No sir.”

“Then maybe we shall keep him waiting a little while,’ the Dean answered. “I’m a little tired of these parasites hungering for tenure,” he said, directing his words at me as the door closed quietly behind the efficient secretary. “I shall be glad when a decision is finally made and they all leave me alone. Then I may ponder my fresco in peace. Until the next catastrophe. Tell me, how much longer do you plan to work nights with us?”

I shook my head. “I, ah, my contract was for six months in total. I think,” I added cautiously.

“And after that? Night shift isn’t really a long term prospect.”

“I haven’t quite thought that far ahead.”

“I see,” said the Dean. “And are you planning a return to clinical medicine?”

I fumbled with the sleeves on my dress, “I, er, I, ah, no, not really.”

“Because of your brother?”

I looked up into eyes penetrating but gentle. The man knew what I thought without me having to say anything.

“I totally missed that he was suicidal,” I said flatly. “I was too busy to notice.”

“I see,” said the Dean. And I knew he did. Knew that I’d only told him part of the story, and that my brother’s suicide was but the catalyst. He understood how sickened I’d become by the pettiness and backstabbing and public mortifications, the politics and paperwork and memorandums and protocols which got in the way of actually thinking, so now those who rose were either arrogant or listless or dynamic but rarely – unlike the man sitting opposite me – insightful. Or good at what they did.

Only, the Dean probably didn’t know and I simply sat here imagining I saw understanding in his eyes. He had a face perfect for a denouement scene (in black and white) where all is finally known but revealed with looks rather than words. I had no one to tell, not even my brother. Dave would understand what I’d done, and I couldn’t tell him. Not now he was dead.

The Dean rose from his seat. “Well, I think it’s time for you to go home. You’re working tonight?”

I nodded as I stood up.

“Then time for some sleep. To paraphrase the bard, it heals our wounds.” He guided me towards the door. “But I might just have something to interest you when you finish. Since you know so much about Galileo I believe this will intrigue you. Should it eventuates. I shall be in touch.” With a final nod he opened the door.

Once more I was walking down the stairs. I moved slowly, taking my time with each step, my hand sliding along the railing. People came and went around me, but I ignored them as they ignored me. No one demanded if I were lost, or implied I shouldn’t be here.

Halfway down I paused and looked up at the glass of the cupola. Through her colours the sky shimmered a summer blue. The cicadas would still be singing when I went outside, as would be the currawongs.

I then turned my gaze towards Dom’s room. Part of me hoped he’d be sitting glowering at his desk, and our eyes would lock and I’d outstare him; but his door was shut. I wondered if Jason sat in there with him, or if Dom had his Book of Death to himself.

How long since I walked up these stairs? Half an hour? An hour – it can’t have been that long ago, yet now I walked in a different world. Even my footsteps were different. I’d given up so much just to stay still, and for the first time in so long I could feel myself moving.

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