The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 20

Ten minutes later I was still sniffling. I shuffled a little on the floor, trying to get comfortable. My foot had gone to sleep, and I cradled the shattered phone in my lap. Kayl and a few others hovered nearby. “I’ll be alright, Kayl” I said. “You don’t need to come with me.”

“Don’t be silly Stephanie, I’m not going to let you walk back there on your own. Not now. Not after all that just happened.” He crouched down and, putting his arm around my shoulders, gently pulled me to my feet and sat me on a chair. “Just rest here a moment, and we’ll be on our way.”

“Honestly, Kayl, it’s day-light. I’ll be fine.”

“Dom’s not a vampire, sweetie, but Christ, he’s an awful man,” spat Kay. I’d never heard him speak with such emotion. “The way he went after you. He just does that, bullies and abuses anyone who’s in his way. The good thing is that by now he’ll be too busy seeking vengeance in Security to give you another thought.”

“Don’t forget the cleaner,’ piped in the one of his work mates, who sat at the desk writing in some notes. “And James. Did you see the way they made Dom cower? They can arrest me any time.”

“Yes, I’d forgotten about the cleaner” said Kayl with a side-ways glance in my direction. He patted me on the shoulder and disappeared into a side room. “I’ll just be a minute.”

I wiped my eyes and nodded towards a window. “Look, the sun’s already up. “There’ll probably be someone there already. And Dom....” My voice trailed away. I’d no idea what had happened to Dom. What could Security do, anyway? Could they hold him at all, or charge him, or simply march him off the campus? They might not even be able to do that much.

“I feel bad enough I did nothing to help before,” Kayl called from the side room. “Besides, there’s always safety in numbers,” he added as he came back out.

“He’s right, Stephanie,” piped in the other nurse. “I’ll hand over for you, Kayl. Done all your notes?”

“All done,” he said. “I’ll be right back, but if you could start handover for me that’ll be great.”

I almost smiled. “That’s very sweet of both you, but I’ll be okay.”

Kayl came and stood beside me. “Come along, sweety, time to go. At least let me play the big strong male this once. I’ll take these,” he added, gathering up the remarkably undamaged specimens from the bench. “You bringing the phone?”

I nodded. I was touched by his concern, yet Kayl had cowered in a nearby room as Dom ranted and raved - as had everyone else. Except Henryk and James.

“What’s all this then!” Francis’ boom sprang from nowhere, a bellow to rival Dom’s. At least I assumed the voice belonged to the evil night supervisor, for suddenly people scurried in all directions. Chaos ensued as she set about re-establishing her own order on top of our turmoil. Kayl grabbed my hand, and in the confusion this tall lanky lad slipped away unnoticed, with me in tow. I was impressed by his stealth.

As we slid down the hall I couldn’t stop myself glancing towards the alcove where a short time ago I’d seen Henryk sleeping. I wondered where he was. A true knight errant, he’d disappeared into the dawn. I’d spent all week trying not to think of him, and now... Pathetic. Surely I had a few more important things to worry about.

Kayl led me out the back door and into the maze of corridors. Some were already touched by the early sun, but most remained in darkness. We walked in silence. I didn’t feel scared as we walked the endless jumble of hallways and stairwells. I’d gone beyond feeling anything. The only reason I knew we’d reached the labs was by the crackle of plastic under my feet.

Finally letting go of my hand, Kayl held open a door for me. “Stephanie, what did Dom mean, about your brother?” he asked, finally breaking his silence.

“I don’t know,” I answered, not looking at him.

“But Dom knew him?”

I put the smashed phone on the desk and sat down. I wondered if it would fit into my already overladen bag, or if I’d have to bear this trophy proudly to the car. “Dom stole my brother’s work,” I said. “And published it. Really important research, and Dom stole it, and ruined my brother’s career.”

“But Dom was yelling about your brother stealing from him.” As always, Kayl flopped down into a nearby chair and started spinning.

“I know. I’ve no idea what he was on about. Really. I wish I did. Then it might make sense.”

“Is that why you came back?”

I’d been stroking the phone but paused and finally looked at Kayl. “No, Kayl, despite what people like Gillian say, it really isn’t. So, I needed a job, but I don’t really know why I came here, of all places. To be honest, I think it was to say goodbye.” It was true; that really was why I’d come. To say goodbye, so my brother would stop following me, so I’d stop talking to him. “I buried Dave up here because this was where he’d been happy,” I continued. “I had to come up and check. Just make sure he was okay. I’d no idea they were all up here – Dom, Jason, Gillian. And now I just want to go. Anywhere.” Which was also true. It just took the night from hell for me to learn and understand this. To know myself, as the Oracle suggested.

Kayl spun his chair across the floor to sit beside me. “So that’s why your brother killed himself? Because of Dom?”

I nodded.

“Shit,” came his elegant response. “Listen, I’ll go do hand over, then I’ll come walk you to your car.”

“Kayl, look, thanks, but honestly, I’ll be fine. I think Dom has more to do than lurk in every shadow.” I so needed to be alone. I need to get home. I need to sleep, but most of all I needed to think.

Reluctantly Kayl left and I was finally by myself in the empty lab. I decided to repair my face before anyone else might arrive. Remarkably, the reflection staring back from the bathroom mirror simply looked exhausted. My red eyes weren’t a pretty sight, but, along with my washed-out complexion, could easily be explained by lack of sleep. The disasters swirling around me had left no mark.

I woke with my head in my hands; I’d fallen asleep sitting on the toilet. Could this night become anymore humiliating? Not until I did a final check in the mirror did I notice that more tears had smeared my face. Wiping away the smudges, I emerged into a still empty lab. The skills learnt this past year helped me drag out logging the specimens to fill the empty minutes. Then I took my time making sure everything else was done. Next, I strolled over to where a machine sat flashing in a corner and checked the timer; I now had nothing else to do before the weekend crowd arrived.

All the while, a coldness embalmed me with every slow step. Try as I might, I could make no sense of all these stories whirling around me. Although I had a foothold in all, none were interwoven.

Suddenly I wished I still had some of Jim’s dinner left. He’d sent in the most delicious chicken curry, along with little cakes so full of sunshine he must’ve used his own apricots in the baking. Such things would ground anyone to this world.

I stood by the window of the lab, staring out onto a patch of lawn. A few rabbits dined off the dew-drenched grass, blissfully unaware of what happened to their cousin elsewhere on campus.

Totally bored, I opened the nightly to-do book. Just as no one had left me anything to do, I really had nothing to hand over. I jotted down a few simple things, more to make myself feel like I’d done something, and thought about adding a doodle in the margin. Running my hand across the page to smooth it, I felt a rough edge; looking closely, I noticed a small tag of paper caught in the string binding. A page had been ripped out. Someone had ripped out a page – did this mean I’d missed some important job overnight. That yet again someone would lose a night, a week, a month of research?

But who would stoop to such a petty thing? And when would they do it? I closed the book and stared out the window. It’d be someone staying around after all others had gone. After everyone else was off seeing a band. Someone who appeared in the tearoom without walking on plastic.

I must be mistaken. I just couldn’t believe she’d stoop to such a thing.

From behind me came the sound of someone arriving. I hoped it was the cavalry, and that I could go home. My week had finished; I didn’t want to be here anymore. I heard the swing of doors, followed by the occasional snatch of tuneless song; perhaps they’d stopped off in the tea room. As I walked over to my desk, I heard the shuffling of footsteps along the plastic. Although I couldn’t imagine Dom shuffling, I picked up the broken phone, ready to hurl it should I need a weapon.

The door swung open, and in walked a guy who looked as exhausted as I felt, carrying a large box. “Morning,” he called from the doorway. “Are you Stephanie? I’m Nathan, the day guy,” he continued as he made his way over to another desk. “Just give me a tic and I’ll be with you.”

I watched Nathan as he stood at his desk, unloading his box. First came a take away coffee, followed by stacks of journals, which he carefully arranged in four piles on his desk while sipping his coffee, then a few textbooks put into another pile. He then sat down and switched on his computer.

I also sat down and carefully rested my trophy phone on the table. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d kept it, other than it was an easier trophy to keep than a kicked in cupboard door.

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t kept the other phone. I don’t know how old I’d been. Four or five, maybe; young enough to be looking through the bannisters in the middle of night, but not tall enough to look over them. I saw little more than black shadows against the white wall of the hallway, as Mum paced up and down and Dad in his quiet tones tried to calm her. Then some more people came and Mum disappeared out the door, and the phone on the hallway table got knocked to the ground in the process. I think it was an accident; I couldn’t remember anyone throwing it. I just the remember the noise as it smashed against the tiles.

After a while Mum came back and Dave and I were told to be good, and at infrequent intervals Mum would grow flighty and disappear, then come back a few weeks later, settled but drier. Crisper, was Dave’s term; I thought of her as dusty, without the dust. By the time I was about ten she stopped disappearing, and Dave and I did our best to stay good children. It took me a long time to realise some people came from normal families.

I slipped Dave’s folder out from its nest under the computer. Picking my bag up from the floor, I thought about getting something smaller to lug around at night. No wonder my shoulder always ached. I flipped it open and, tucked carefully into one side, was a battered exercise book, such as we’d used in primary school. I hadn’t put it here. I went to take it out but stopped at the sound of Nathan’s chair scrapping across the floor. I quickly put in the phone and my folder and slid the bag under the desk.

“Sorry about that,” said Nathan as he came over to where I sat. “That programme takes forever, so I need to get it running first thing.”

“What’s with all your journals?” I said.

“Oh, my exam’s in a month. Thought it’s be a good day to study. So anything to hand over?”

As we talked a few other people dribbled in. Weekends, it seemed, were a good time to get things done; there were almost as many people as on a weekday. As they milled about they were simply shadows moving across my mind. I didn’t even listen as Nathan and I talked. What he said, what I said, what I told him; I had no idea.

I could only think of Dom, and what he’d done. And why. And if he’d do it again. And how desperate Dave must’ve been, to hurt his car. There was no sign of Henryk. I knew he would tell me if it wasn’t safe. If Dom was lurking somewhere, Henryk would let me know. I don’t how, but I just knew he would.

Yet now Dom lacked his most formidable weapon - his Book of Death - which had found a home in my bag. It couldn’t be anything else, and only the Grey Nurse could’ve put it there.

Eventually I found myself sitting on Dave’s grave, shivering in the sun. Exhaustion limped up and down my spine with icy steps.

I really had thought of going somewhere else. Maybe to Jim’s for a strong coffee and breakfast in a sunny courtyard. But after last night I couldn’t even face the little turtles sunning their mossy backs as they clambered over the logs their pond. Once I’d escaped the Uni, I just couldn’t face people.

Going home, to bed, had been first on my list all night, but not now. By now Kayl would’ve told Bradley what had happened. Surely everyone knew, but no one said a word as they walked through the labs this morning. Not Steve as he collected his USB drive with a nod of existential thanks; nor the others who arrived to drink coffee and turn on various computers. No mention was made of jobs not done. Maybe that page ripped from the book had been covered with nothing but spilt coffee or honey, rather than my nightly to-do list. Those who arrived unwillingly on a Saturday simply disappeared to their animals and their other experiments, or talked about weekend plans and how long till they could be back out in the sunshine, all with no word of last night. I felt that if I just reached out my hand I could touch their laughter and their banter as it flowed past in undulating waves, parting whenever it neared me. I’d handed over to Nathan as if the endless blue of the summer sky stretched over a world unchanged.

So, as always, I walked unseen. Surely Dom had yelled at someone else last night. Someone whose feet left a mark on the floor.

I hurried lest Bradley appeared bearing breakfast. Even without the events of last night, Louise’s meltdown would be enough of an excuse to send him in for damage control. He needed to be sure I’d keep to the unwritten script concocted for that house. Yet, like the Grey Nurse, I never saw him.

It had even crossed my mind to sit a while in a church. For me, an old and empty church always proves an oasis of calm. It depends upon the décor; some churches feel transient, or worse, rushed; they don’t encourage contemplation. I need lead-light windows and stained glass, wooden pews plus a stone or marble altar. I’d only ever driven past the church here, a forbidding brick edifice atop one on the hills (the Catholics had beaten the Protestants by some fifty years, leaving their religious cousins to make do with the main street). I just knew that inside I’d find a soulful Mary dressed in baby-blue and white, a snake writhing at her feet, along with various saints with imploring eyes, and a youthful and effeminate Jesus, his pierced heart on display. Even as the nuns shepherd us through our studies these statues had irked me. The agony of a medieval fresco, or the tragedy of a renaissance deposition, seemed far more realistic than this mass-produced righteousness, no better than the poison Bradley peddled. From the eyes of Bradley’s cleanliness those statues stared straight back at me.

I shuffled on Dave’s tombstone, trying to get comfortable. I had nowhere else to hide. I’d run out of old films with beautiful, elegant actresses – all painted with an untouchable theme. No mulatto would ever step out of the shadows to whisper strange secrets into my ear, nor would a paralysed flamenco dancer appear bearing the answers. Another summer gone and no one had whisked me away to an English country estate, complete with a folly, sunken lake, rose gardens in bloom and a nightingale waiting to sing. There was always a nightingale, just as there was always a kookaburra in the depths o the African jungle.

After a while of simply sitting, I opened my bag and pulled out The Book. After all these years of wondering, it proved to be nothing more than a series of exercise books stapled together. The early pages had yellowed, and many had corners dog-eared from frequent thumbing.

I tentatively turned a few pages. This Book of Death hid every rumour, every innuendo, every indiscretion Dom had ever found; the fabled book keeping him safely entrenched. The book which might have saved him today.

Now it was in my hands, it simply looked as pathetic.

I wasn’t yet up to working out how it’s got into my bag. Instead, I simply started reading. The dates on the first few pages showed Sir Dom had began his observations in the last years of high-school. Each entry was jotted down in small, immaculate handwriting, at odds with the man’s bullish frame. I found it hard to imagine his ungainly hand holding a pen. On the top corner of each page he’d written his name, followed by the initials JMJ . Not since sixth class had I seen that abbreviation for Jesus Mary Joseph. Dom had even labeled the title page. Somewhere between the first and second book Dom rebelled, with the JMJ disappearing, although his name remained.

As I scanned the entries phrases fell from the page: petty, despicable, a few illegal. I found Dave mentioned towards the end of the first book, when Sir Dom had progressed, somehow, to university. I was impressed he could spell the word. Remarkably, he and Dave had shared a tutorial group, and the vitriolic ramblings suggested my brother had the temerity to answer a question when Dom could not. I think that’s what Dom meant, though it was difficult to be sure. Even with my brain fully functional his ramblings would be difficult to decipher. Of all I could be sure Dom felt Dave had deliberately made a fool of him.

I sat blinking in the sunlight. Could this really be about something I doubted Dave even remembered?

Looking at the dates I decided to jump a couple of books. All the in-between bits could wait. Yet still I was too early – the guy was meticulous. Did he never worry that someone might find this and realise just how stupid he was? Choosing the penultimate book, I was rewarded by the right year, just a month too late. I slowly turned the pages.

I didn’t get it. By now the earlier brief entries had expanded to become more like a diary. After luridly detailing someone’s affair with a student, Dom wrote of his work, of his research, of getting it published. Of Dave (I mentally obliterated the adjectives) trying to claim it as his. None of it made sense.

Foraging through my folder of photocopying I pulled out a copy of an email Dave had sent to his supervisor, which basically outlined where he was up to in his PhD, along with a paper for publication Dave wanted like his supervisor to read. Conveniently for me, Dave had printed up the paper. His paper. Checking the date, I made my way back through Dom’s book. I rubbed my eyes in the sunlight; his cramped hand had given me a headache.

Prof Hilson found dead in his office yesterday. Jason replacing him until post filled. He gave me two papers for publication which if I tidied up in the usual manner (like a schoolgirl he’d underlined this last phrase) I could present them and put my name to one, the Prof’s on the other.

Professor Hilson: Dave’s supervisor.

This at least explained both Sir Dom’s success in academic theft and why he believed Dave was stealing from him: Jason had given Dom the paper; he had no idea Dave was the author.

I was too exhausted to berate myself for being such an idiot. I was too tired to even feel sick. Jason was on so many editorial panels, including that which had published the once-Dave’s-now-Dom’s paper, yet it had never occurred to me my ex-lover would squash anyone and everyone he used as a stepping-stone to his greatness. What Dave had found was ground-breaking, the sort of thing which launches a career – and although Jason’s had already boomed, he obviously wasn’t above erasing the footsteps of anyone who could grow to overshadow him.

Besides, Jason had made a career out of doing such things - all above board, of course. As a coup d’état, the paper was published as a team effort in memory of Professor Hilson, but with Dom’s name definitely on top and Dave’s buried in the small print. In his Book of Death Dom maintained he’d been given the data to present by his boss, then asked by Jason to use it as a paper. Which is what happened. In the inquiry people just assumed Dom was talking about the poor old chap who’d died, and didn’t press him on the matter – but it was Jason who was technically his boss through those months until a new appointment could be arranged.

But why had Jason told Dom to tidy the paper in the usual manner?

My head in my hands, I tried, without much success, to think. My brain proved as cold as the gravestone beneath me. The sunshine slid off my back and onto the ground, finding nothing to embrace. Some seagulls called to each other, and below the cliff the waves kept gnawing at the shore. Nearby, someone started whistling.

Whistling. At the sound I jolted upright. Henryk wove his way through the nearby graves, a satchel over his shoulder and a takeaway coffee in each hand. I quickly slipped Dom’s book into my bag.

As when I first heard him, the tune Henryk whistled carried the memories of distant places and lost loves. A place where people spent all day cooking strange foods to feed the soul, where lunch extended until nightfall, washed down with local wines and home-made brews kept in strange glass bottles. The sound of a place I wanted to visit, and possibly stay.

With a nod Henryk sat beside me but on the other side of Dave’s grave, as if we both lounged in a lovers’ chair. Silently he handed me a coffee, then opened his satchel and pulled out a large paper bag which, with a few rips, he turned into an instant tablecloth. My brother’s grave became a table, complete with an array of biscuits and little cakes.

“An offering,” he said, “as an apology.”

“An apology! What on earth do you mean?”

“If I hadn’t taken Dom’s book, he’d have left you alone.” Henryk stared out over the ocean. “I hate to think what would’ve happened if I wasn’t there.”

“Kayl wasn’t much good for back up, was he?”

The corner of Henryk’s mouth twitched into almost a smile, but he kept looking over the sea. “Does that mean rumours of your affair will now stop?”

“Our affair? Considering he’s dating my flatmate and sleeping with her brother, it doesn’t give me much of a look in.”

“Well, that must make for an interesting household.” Henryk kept staring out over the sea.

“I don’t think interesting is the right word, especially since yesterday Louise learnt Kayl’s was having a fling with someone, and she assumed it was me, until Kayl told her he likes me too much to sleep with me. Whatever that means.”

“It means,” said Henryk, finally turning to look at me, “that Kayl has done his best and you just haven’t noticed.”

“And you believed the rumours,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “the two of you do spend a lot of time together.”

“So have we this week,” I said, stubbornly, “and I haven’t heard of any rumours about us.”

Henryk smiled and took the lid off his coffee, dipping his finger in and out of the foam. “Sorry, that’s a bit gross,” he said, licking his finger. “Disgusting habit. Probably why I don’t have a girlfriend.” He took a sip of coffee.

“Of the things to talk about,” I said, “we’re sitting here talking about Kayl. Which he would love. Anyway, at least there won’t be any rumours about me and Dom. You took his book, didn’t you?”

Henryk nodded.

I sighed. “I so wanted the thief to be the Grey Nurse.”

Henryk smiled, and took my hand. With his other he picked up a small cake and offered it to me. “Here, one of Jim’s honey cakes.”

“I haven’t even thanked you for the meal last night. Or asked about your great aunt.”

“Everyone’s gathering today. There’s talk of binging her home, but I expect she won’t be with us long.” Letting go of my hand Henryk reached into his bag and pulled out a bulky folder. “I need to ask you,” he said, “do you mind swapping the book for this? It’s a photocopy. One of several I made. I thought you’d like to see the real thing first, but I need it back.”

“I’m not going to ask how you got it, or how it found its way into my bag,” I said. I took the book from my bag and looked at the cover a few moments before handing it to Henryk. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I think the police would be very interested.”

“The police? Why?”

“Just how far did you read?”

“Only a bit about Dave – my brother. When Dom stole his work. It was a few years ago.”

“I read the book last night,” Henryk said, taking my hand again. “In its entirity. As I sat by my aunt.” Henryk picked up a honey cake. “God, but reading it was hard work,” he said between bites. “I don’t know what was worse, Dom’s handwriting or his prose, neither of which have improved with the passing years.” He washed the cake down with a mouthful of coffee. “Your brother died in a car crash, didn’t he?”

I frowned. I’d never told Henryk the details. “He crashed it into a tree,” I said. “He so loved that car,” I said, and stopped. Dave had loved that car. Really loved it. He’d never hurt his car. And he’d said I knew all the answers.

Henryk put his coffee down and took my other hand.

“God, I’m so thick,” I muttered. “He so loved his car. He’d always been so paranoid lest it get a scratch. He wouldn’t have crashed it.”

“No,” said Henryk softly.

“But there was a puddle of oil back up the road. I found it. The police didn’t. I thought, I thought, he’d pulled over and, well, he’d, that he’d drained his break fluid.”

“That must’ve been where the cables finally fell off,” Henryk said, still holding my hands. “It’s all in here,” he added, nodding towards the book.

“But why would the idiot write down something that would incriminate himself?”


“Because Jason did it,” I said softly, before Henryk had to.

Henryk nodded. “But Dom was there, and helped him, because Jason had no idea of what he was doing. They partially cut the cables, so they could come loose at any time. They knew he was heading off on a long drive.”

I bit my lip. I’d done enough crying in front of Henryk.

Letting go of my hands, he picked up my coffee, prised off the lid and handed it to me. “Something warm,” he said. “Your hands feel like ice.”

My heart was ice. It had been for years. I wiped away the first of the tears, but more dripped into the coffee. I took a mouthful, anyway. “Have you any idea why?” I wanted to say, but only a garbled noise came out.

“Money,” said Henryk, somehow understanding me. “Simply money.” Pulling an old-fashioned handkerchief from his pocket he handed it to me, then took a sip of his own coffee and politely looked away. “They had quite a good racket going. Still do, I daresay. Not so much plagiarism, as altering. A tweak here and there, get the right results, and, more importantly, more funding. Well, I think that’s what they did. Dom’s a bit vague, and they didn’t put their names to the papers. With Jason on so many editorial boards, they didn’t have to. Jason, I daresay, orchestrated it all. He builds a lucrative career which gives him more access to more papers, companies are happy and fly him places to give talks and the like which further his career and their profits. Meanwhile Dom gets promoted, then finds his way onto another academic board, and so on. Each a stepping-stone to the next level.

“Somehow, your brother found out. I don’t know what he did or said, but he was in the way, and could have destroyed it all. So, they destroyed him.”

“Dom thought he was the bad guy,” I sad. “That Dave was trying to steal from him.”

“That’s the problem,” said Henryk. “The guy’s not only rich and connected, he’s absolutely stupid. So stupid, he had no qualms putting everything in a book he thought no one would find. The police will find it all very interesting. I’m sure Jason and his lawyers will do some smooth talking to send all the blame Dom’s way, but this is a start.”

I leant over and pulled out my folder from my bag. “Would these help?” I said. “I only found them a few nights ago. A lot of papers and research, the original articles and the ones published. I started going through, making a list of the differences, doing the maths on the stats and stuff. I doubt I’m a quarter of the way through.”

“Brilliant,” said Henryk, taking the folder from me and flipping through the contents. “You’ve done all this in only a few days? Just brilliant. I’ll make some copies and give this back to you.”

“How are you going to explain it to the police? About the book? About you having it?”

“I’m a cleaner, remember. It’s amazing what you find on the floor. Thought it was some kids, flipped through to find out who it belonged to, voila. The photocopies are a precaution. People like Jason and Dom are good at changing evidence.”

I dabbed at my eyes but it made little difference. “The things that have been happening here, in the labs. Does Dom write about that?”

“There’s a few references. I think the Dean will be interested when I pay a visit on Monday.”

We sat in silence as Henryk flipped through the papers. He didn’t look in the least tired.

“I still haven’t thanked you,” I said. “First, that time at Jim’s you scare Jason away, then you stopped Dom. No one else there was going to do it.”

Henryk put down the folder and turned to me, but whatever he was going to say was lost as someone called his name.

Through the tombstones I saw James making his way towards us. I quickly wiped my eyes again.

“I’m about to save you from Jason again,” said Henryk softly. “He strikes me as a coward, and cowards panic. Once he hears what’s happened, well, it’s not worth taking any risks. It’s going to take the police a while to sort this out.”

“Hi there, Stephanie,” said James as he sat on a grave opposite us. “Hey, has my bastard of a cousin been making you cry?’

“No,” I answered as Henryk spun around to face him. “Life’s been doing that without any help from Henryk.”

“Well, that’s lucky,” said James as he reached forward to take a couple of biscuits.

Reaching into his pocket, Henryk pulled out some car keys, then once more took my hand in his. “James is here to collect me, because you’re going to take my car. I don’t trust cars around Dom and Jason.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Just take the keys, love,” James said. “Henryk usually gets his own way.”


“No buts,” said James sternly. “We take care of our own family.”

“Family?” I barely heard my voice.

“Well,” said James, “if Hernyk doesn’t make a move soon, I’ll just have to. As long as the wife doesn’t mind.”

While Henryk looked daggers I started giggling and could barely stop. I sat giggling on my brother’s tomb.

“Honestly,” I said, wiping the tears on my face, “I thought you were going to say Dom’s mother was Jim’s niece twice removed, or Jason was related to you somehow.”

Henryk smiled. “No,” he said. “No personal vendettas or family honour involved. I just don’t like people getting away with murder.”

“Come on, Henryk,” said James as he rose to his feet, “time to go down to the station. I’ll walk you to your new car if you like, Steph.”

“Her name’s Stephanie,” said Henryk, “and you’re going to walk yourself to the car and give the two of us a few minutes alone.”

“Just a few minutes?’ asked James as he walked away.

Henryk turned to me. “Trust family to ruin the moment.”

Picking up my towel, I left the change rooms and headed along the beach. Henryk had driven away in my car, I now had his, while James had grandly directed proceedings before following his cousin.

The grains brushed gently against my feet. With each step the warm sand set free a soft note. Dropping my towel I then kept walking until the waves swirled around my ankles. Caught by a neap tide the water lay low, and my footsteps stretched in a graceful arc along the water’s edge. A few disappeared with each rogue wave scurrying across the sands.

A few people were already swimming – the sparkling water was impossible to refuse. Some mothers and young kids had set up camp; some elderly couples strolled along the shore line, while others waded out into the waves. One guy was busy with a metal detector. Some gulls circled further out to sea, while others crowded on the sand, squawking. Further down the beach a black labrador ran barking at the waves, it’s tail circling in a frenzy of delight.

I smiled. I felt remarkably calm. It was time to leave the future in the hands of the Fates, who were experienced in such things.

I looked over the gentle surf and took a few steps until the cool water swirled about my knees. I stood still, watching the tumbling waves turn a translucent green as they broke into a shower of white. My feet, still with red toenails, shimmered clearly through the water. A blue crab scurried after a snack, then buried itself in the sand as the next wave broke. Fish darted by my legs, large fish. ‘You’ve got to be careful,’ intoned my mother’s voice inside my skull. ‘They may be hunting tiddlers, but what’s hunting them? It’s shark weather today, mark my words.’

For my mother, it was always shark weather, wherever we were.

Beyond the break, some surfers rested on their boards as they lay waiting for the next set. Taking a deep breath, I plunged into the turquoise water. Brisk after the heat of the day, but beautiful. Such perfect weather. I lay on my back, rising and dipping with the waves, listening to them crash onto the shore.

A pity mangoes are no longer in season. Or blackberries and passionfruit. I suddenly needed something fresh and lush, the juice running down my chin and hands. It’d been a long week. A strange week. But then, as long as you can see your own shadow through the mist, and a kiss nestles between your mobile and wallet, what’s it really matter? There’s little an afternoon nap won’t fix.

I bobbed in the water, watching the clouds wheel across the sky. The call of gulls fell through the air, tumbling with the crashing waves to mix with the slap of water about my ears. The swell rolled over me, until there was nothing, and I became as translucent as the sea around me.

The waves lapped against the beach, washing it clean, leaving naked sand, with no footsteps. Once more, they were gone.

And I floated free.


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