I woke with a start; morning had finally come, but not to the summer sound of cicadas. Instead, I’d bumped against the wall and jolted myself awake. For a few moments, while the vulture of sleep hovered above me in the darkness, I had no idea where I was. My bed wasn’t against a wall.
Vulture of sleep, I thought, rubbing my tingling elbow. I liked it, with its image of that guy who was forever having his liver pecked out, only for it to re-grow each night. Quite an apt metaphor, really.
I lay enshrouded by darkness. Neither the light of the stars, nor a streetlight, filled my blank void. I hadn’t rolled into the wall; I wasn’t even in bed. Instead, I’d hit the back of a couch, which had been squashed between some desks and an unused machine in a hidden lab for so long it’d morphed into quite an unusual shape. Still, the lab proved the perfect place for a kip, for lacking windows the room remained completely isolated from the outside world. It was also free of the stench of paint which still held free reign everywhere else.
I wiggled my feet, my toes narcotized from hanging over the edge of the couch. As I waited for some feeling to return, I pulled my cardigan tight (for, being summer, the air-conditioning pumped out Antarctic air in this room, cold air into a few others labs, and lukewarm currents through an outlet near reception). Shivering, I flicked on a small table light. Its harsh fluorescence splashed across my hands, throwing a precise oval of light into the darkness. After looking at my watch to check the time, I raised my left hand, the better to see the threads hanging from my cardigan’s fraying cuff. Every time I wore this cardigan I tied them off, yet with every set of nights they unravelled a little more. Perhaps Penelope and I had something in common, after all.
I slunk off the couch on a quest for blankets. I figured some must be hidden somewhere in here, for even by day this room was often used for a nap. On opening a cupboard, magazines showered over me. Porno magazines. Cheap, porno magazines, not worth the effort of picking up. Sappho would find no inspiration here. (What had happened to me? Since meeting Henryk everything I touched reached back to the land of Greek legends.) Plus there were no blankets. I sighed and looked at my watch again. The watch I had yet to take off. Still a quarter to six. Outside, the sun had started rising.
I thought for a moment about curling up and trying for another nap, but I had no desire to enter the land of slumber. Although the dream had slipped away as I woke, its memory froze the air swirling around me ears.
For I’d dreamt of Dave’s death.
And once more the nightmare had galloped away as I opened my eyes.
Dawn coming, another shift ending; I needed to be somewhere else. I couldn’t stay in this dark lab with its pathetic porno magazines and my turbulent thoughts.
What had Dave been trying to tell me? The question had leapt into my consciousness as soon as I’d opened my eyes. He’d left a message amongst his rocks. Of that I was sure. He had to. And I couldn’t read it.
I’d only had a brief look at the gems yesterday. Only the names of a few sprung to mind, but that posed no problem Google couldn’t solve. The answer, I suspected, lay not in names – I needed more. I needed old-fashioned books and journal articles, and possibly one article in particular; in short, I needed clues, of a type best hidden in the academia of a university library. Maybe even in an arcane tome.
On impulse, I went back to the main lab, gathered up a sheath of papers from my desk and decided to play postman. Why some results could be emailed, others faxed, and others had to be hand delivered in a sealed envelope would, I feel, remain an eternal mystery. I dreamed of one day finding a job lifted straight from a black and white sci-fi of the fifties, with a vacuum delivery system spreading its arms over a multitude of floors. Perhaps Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet would be in charge. I’d put my results in the metal containers, then let the waiting tubes suck them from my hand with a reassuring shush. When Robbie was off recharging his battery or reprogramming his hard drive, with the spin of a dial I’d cause utter chaos by re-arranging the connections at random.
Leaving the labs, I ambled down a flight of stairs, continued along a corridor, then into another stairwell which in turn led me to a hallway where door upon door opened upon offices and tutorial rooms, plus the occasional tearoom. My feet echoed with each step. Although a few rooms had lights on, all seemed empty. The morning was still too young to witness the ritual of the turning on of the computers, papers to be shuffled, blinds opened, bikes wheeled into rooms, and cups of coffee to be desperately grasped.
Another hour, and these buildings would hum with a level of bustling activity so absent at night – yet I’d worked long enough in the world to know how little extra that fluff and noise achieved. When the sun rose I simply joined the other lost souls wandering the corridors, trying to escape a world so different to the familiar embrace which snuggled around me once darkness fell – which was when the buildings belonged to me and my fellow night-workers, in the same way, back when I was a border, the school had belonged to us once the day students left. At night, those who come by day are forgotten, an aberration incapable of seeing, let alone understanding, those mysteries dwelling in overlooked places. I’d learnt from my own wealth of working nights how, until hearing the whispers falling down the generations as I wandered an empty corridor, I couldn’t begin to understand a place.
Surely the nuns had felt the same, locked away in their convent. Students never made it past the gracious receiving hall, and parents rarely; behind those walls hid recesses the public never reached. Places where each nun might hold her memories and visions in blessed isolation, treasuring those things which no one else can ever own. Just as, back at home, Dave and I had our own places where we could watch the rabbits playing amongst the flowers in the full light of day, blissfully safe, or a fox glide pass in the middle of the night, its tail glistening in the moonlight.
As I walked, the names of Dave’s gems fell into the rhythm of my steps. The first was fool’s gold. Why on earth? Was it because it was his first stone? Being so little when he found it, Dave had spelt gem with a ‘j’. Jem. Was he going back to when it all began? Was that why… But then he’d also put a piece of dolerite in the box. Which didn’t fit in with that theory, for he’d only collected that piece in Tasmania shortly before… He’d been so excited. Not for the stone, but for its age. Unless, of course, Dave was going for the obvious, with an alpha and the omega reference. But Dave never did the obvious, and the dolerite had been in the middle of the box, not the end. And that theory didn’t explain the other stones in between. Such as the opal, which Grandma had given him when it fell from her broach.
Reading the numbers on the doors as I passed, I opened a door to a room – an alcove, really, for it in turn opened onto three or four other rooms. My destination was more of a forgotten cul-de-sac, the walls lined with ubiquitous pigeon holes and wire baskets, broken only by one small window. Still pondering Dave’s stones, I started sorting my sheets of paper into the appropriate spots.
A piece of glass. I’d forgotten about that one. There’d been a piece of glass amongst all the others. After Bradley had showered condescension and superiority over me I’d sat cradling Dave’s box in my lap, and the glass had caught my eye. It looked suspiciously like a piece of broken brown bottle. I couldn’t fathom why Dave would put it amongst his stone collection, but I had a sneaking suspicion that once I cracked the mystery, the answer would prove embarrassingly simple.
I shook my head and looked around me. I decided I liked this tiny alcove, although I hadn’t been here before. The rooms radiating from it looked modern and impersonal, but where I stood was dusky and old. Somehow it’d survived untouched when everything around had been renovated. Perhaps a push on the right shelf would open a secret door, revealing a staircase spiralling out of sight.
Surreptitiously, as if the dead (especially my mother) might be watching, I peeked once more at Jason’s ever-present watch. Then, delivering my last envelope, I turned my gaze to the sole window. Being shielded from any hint of the rising sun, only the faintest of light fell onto this side of the building. Outside, a small balcony hugged the length of the wall. In one corner slept a forlorn barbeque. It took but a glance to realise it’d never been used – unless perhaps once, on the day it was put there. The exposed balcony would prove a pathetic place for a party, work-mates all jovially competing for the tongs, the smoke and the eddying wind buffeting around them, no direct sunlight ever touching their skin. A barbeque for vampires. Or maybe werewolves, sheltering from the lycanthropic moon.
Dad had once been good at camp barbeques, back when we were little and he’d take me and Dave away to give Mum a break. He’d been good at a lot of things, back when we were little. A favourite camping spot had been along the mighty Clarence, which ran through fields so green and lush. Black swans drifted by and the sugar cane reached to the sky. We’d spend the afternoon fishing and then cook whatever had been caught for dinner. If the fish weren’t biting, Dad could make almost anything in one pot over a fire. Depending on the moon, we sometimes went prawning. After staying for a night or two, we come home to find Mum exhausted, having taken the opportunity to scrub the house clean.
Even after we’d both left, Dave and I still drove that way (whether alone or together) coming home, going back to uni when term started, or to work. I loved the stretch along the mighty Clarence, and would always start singing as soon as I saw the river flowing beside the road, for it meant the long drive was over, and we were nearly home. Cows wallowed in clover, fat and content. The milk here tasted different. The water tasted different. Everything here was different.
And ten minutes away from where we’d so often camped as kids it had happened. I’d seen it in my sleep too many times. A car ferry trundled back and forth all day, shipping cars across the swirling water. Four was the most it could take on any one trip, and it was rarely full. A trip on the ferry was always part of our time away with Dad; catch the ferry over the river, potter along in the car for a while, maybe stop at a pub somewhere for a lemonade, then potter back. More often than not no cars were waiting, and the ferryman sat on the veranda of his house drinking strong black tea as he struggled over last week’s cryptic crossword. (Dave often helped him as the ferry chugged across the river.) The ferryman could walk to his ferry quicker than any car could reach the end of the road. A decade later and still no council or government had thought of building a bridge; no one wanted one.
I could see the ferryman nod as Dave drove aboard. He’d recognised him – he said as much at the inquest, although for once my brother hadn’t helped him with his crossword. Another car had driven on ahead of Dave: one of those occasional tourists who demanded the ferryman’s attention. The water swirled around the underwater cables as they rose then slid back into the river, large trails of seaweed dangling from their metal ropes. The travellers stood by the railing, watching the eddies fight around the ferry, maybe taking a few photos. It depended upon the dream. When the ferry reached the other side, Dave was the last off. A scrabble of wheels in the dirt, a wave to the ferryman, a few bends in the road to negotiate.
It was at this last bend I found the stain of brake fluid. My brother had drained his car where no one else would see. The police never noticed. The coroner never found out. Dave knew I’d be the only one to think to look. It was his only way of talking to me.
Then came the long, straight stretch. He’d have carefully thought it all through. There were no farmhouses nearby. The school was another twenty minutes down the road. No child to get hurt by mistake.
Dave loved that car. I could hear him slip quickly through the gears as he turned into the stretch, the engine purring as the car sped along the unsealed road. Built for such speeds, the car quickly became a speck of flying dust heading straight for the giant gum. A witness to innumerable droughts and floods and fires, that tree had been but a sapling when the first white men arrived. Now its mighty bole crumpled Dave’s car like wet fairy floss.
I shivered, and pulled my cardigan tighter. I couldn’t stop wondering how much it’d hurt. Just how quick is instantaneous? Enough to stop thoughts? Did Dave have time for any when the bonnet of his beloved car and the mighty eucalypt embraced?
Having read David Copperfield once too often, I’d always imagined funerals in dark colours. Women in black sobbing quietly in the background while men in sombre top hats surrounded the young Copperfield, gentle hands on his shoulders as the boy stood by his mother’s graveside, his face of white sinking under the weight of mourning.
Naturally, nothing played out as I imagined, for no master planner watched from afar. Everyone had wilted under the white heat as the laughter of kookaburras drowned the words of the Requiem. While the church stifled, the sickly scent of flowers hung in the air and a few drunken bees bumbled significantly against a stained glass window of St Christopher. Melted across my memory is the label of the priest’s cassock. Every time he turned his back to us this label hung on view. I’d never thought of a priest’s robes as being so mundane they could be bought in a shop. Raised in a convent, I was convinced the nuns made all the priest’s garments by hand, sewing away diligently until their eyesight failed and the nimbleness of their fingers vanished.
Throughout the service I sat watching the drops of sweat trickle down the priest’s nose, counting every one, trying to work out the probability of which way each would fall. My own chaos theory to keep me alive as I sat in a maelstrom. It was the only way to survive as so many made a cloying show of suppressed grief.
Even now I can’t remember how I got to the funeral, or who took me home. Relatives fade in and out of view, endless cups of tea pressed into my hand. I woke one day to find my freezer full of meals.
“Oh look!” A church lady grabbed my arm, one of the many who’d gossiped with Mum as they arranged the altar flowers. “There’s your mother!” she continued in that self-righteous tone which brooks no denial. “Sitting on the branch of that tree over there. Blessing us all.”
The world-weary cry of black cockatoos fell from the sky as I muttered something incredibly witty and cutting in Latin. For the life of me I can’t remember what it was, but I knew it was both pithy, and unrecognised. Behind her, a queue of people waited for their share of sorrow. Like a wedding cake, they wanted to take a moment of despair home with them and slip it under their pillow. How was I to do this?
“Yes dear,” the woman continued, patting my arm as someone elbowed her away then stood in her place. “In that gum tree over there.” The significant stare and nod of her head managed to add that one had to believe, one had to be worthy, to see my mother’s apparition. The fact I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, merely confirmed the suspicion, (augmented by my Latin), that I’d proven a failure as a daughter.
For once Jason kept his distance, gathering those who’d already offered their words of mourning into his own solar system of planets, moons and unnamed asteroids, with him as the central Sol. The black hole to their symmetries, a lifetime of training ensured I hid my emptiness under pathetic pleasantries and tragic smiles, ignoring the pain of squashed breasts as almost strangers engulfed me in fearsome hugs. So many talked of their bond to Dave, oblivious my brother had been gone for so long. And as they talked of their special closeness to my dead brother, their eyes of blame cursed me for having done nothing, for crying no more than a few damp tears.
“So what are you going to do then?”
I fumbled for an answer even as I spun from the window, only to see no one. Using the relative darkness of my alcove as a shield, I peeked around the door towards the other rooms. Still no one, but I could hear the strident tones, as if shot through the wall. Staying in the shadows I tiptoed towards the corridor where, from the doorway, I looked to where a Spanish galleon of a woman stood firing broadsides into the ceiling above her.
Slowly, so as not to attract attention and so come under fire myself, I slid to the other side of the doorway so as to better follow the woman’s gaze. A pair of legs dangled through the ceiling, and I could just make out a muffled voice stumbling its own replies.
“Well,” mumbled the dangling feet, “it’s a bit different to what I expected but...”
“Excuses! Always excuses! Of course it’s different! I wouldn’t call you in at this hour for something obvious.”
The legs disappeared into the roof, to be replaced a moment later by a harassed face. Only the guy’s glasses – small circles of glass with no visible frame – and a chin in a desperate need of a shave stopped him from looking sixteen. He now blinked feebly at a woman who not only wore her angry eyes, but knew how to use them well. I hadn’t seen her before; another nameless soul in this nameless building, doing a nameless job. It just seemed early for such an obviously day person to be here. Just in time I stopped myself from glancing at my trustful watch, instead watching as the woman’s watery eye slid contemptuously over the face now peering down at her.
“Maybe that power surge yesterday in ...” he began.
“Have you got any idea how often I’ve heard that one? You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about. What am I meant to do in the meantime? There’s an important meeting happening here over the weekend, and I have to get these rooms by Friday!” As she spoke the woman’s voice was not quite flat yet not quite in the centre of the note. She wobbled through her tones in the way a poor violinist starts at the bottom of a note and slides into the centre.
The face above her disappeared, but with hands firmly entrenched on her hips the woman didn’t pause for breath as the legs now re-appeared. “How is anyone meant to get any work done with strange lights coming and going in the ceiling?” she demanded. “Unlike you, I have important things to organise. How can I arrange another four rooms at such short notice?”
Strange lights in the ceiling; I hadn’t come across that before in my night-time wandering. Perhaps a remake of Stalag 17 was in progress, where the all-round-American-hero-come-German-spy uses a dangling light bulb to communicate with the guards. Tying a knot in the cord let the guards know he had information to pass on. It took the swinging shadow of the light, and its changing length, to finally give the ploy away. Solved, of course, by the prisoner no one liked.
The woman strode a few steps to a nearby table in the corridor. Perhaps afraid of being boarded by pirates, she maintained a firm grip on the strap of her shoulder bag as she walked. Layers of firm fat slid under her clothes as she walked, and as she dropped her bag and fished out a mobile a dozen thick, gold bracelets jangled at her wrist, entrapped by an expanse of polished flesh. The roof-face reappeared, and struggled with a final try. “Did anyone have a look yesterday?”
“Oh, how should I know?” the woman all but shouted back. “First some boy arrived, and he was no use whatsoever. I couldn’t understand a single word he said. I doubt he even shaves. Then, just before I finished, some other guy came – he called himself a senior consultant, but I remain sceptical. Had the audacity to imply there was nothing wrong! I passed it on at handover, and as it wasn’t mentioned in the supervisor’s report when I started this morning I assumed it’d been sorted out. As it should’ve been. As it would’ve been, in my day. Now, the problem’s as bad as ever, and this meeting starts in a few days! I’ve been preparing for it for months. It’ll be impossible to find anyone to help me today.”
My high-powered work finished, I started planning my escape, for the two of them blocked the only exit. Then my pager went off, solving the problem. Aware of me for the first time, the Spanish galleon swung the full force of her glare in my direction. The face in the roof also turned, but his was a gentler stare, with the orbs of his glasses reflecting the morning light in two shimmering circles. Pretending to ignore them both, I unclipped the pager from my filo fax so as to read the message. Unlike my male counterparts, I lacked pockets. What had Oscar Wilde said about well dressed women having no pockets? I wondered how Grace Kelly would cope with a pager. Probably just elegantly pop it into her eponymous handbag. Somehow I couldn’t see myself wandering the place with a handbag in tow, let alone having Hermès name one after me. The Stephanie. What every well dressed, ambitious young woman needs.
Pretending to look at the message, I instead closed my eyes and waited for the ache to fade. Maybe I was simply too old for this crap. Although it was only my second shift for the week, I felt incredibly weary. Still, if I could snatch a few moments of quietness to somehow still both myself and my thoughts, it might help. Help me to be like Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Strong and silent.
Finally, I opened my eyes and looked at the message. Despite the hour, I hoped it was from Kayl, a man for whom Hermès would gladly design a bag, in a variety of colours.
Instead, it was merely my alarm, reminding me my shift was almost over, and that it was time to ready myself for the outside world. I gazed at the woman standing so impatiently in the corridor. The aging précieuse now stood gesturing grandly in the air. Even from this distance I sensed that her nail polish was immaculate. The handbag to accompany them was easy to imagine, but Hermès, I felt, would refuse to make it.
“Well, just do nothing then. We’ll just have to pray I can sort out your mistakes before the meeting starts.” The words curdled in the air as I fled through the door and down the corridor.
Once safely free, I banged my head against the wall a few times. It helped, a little. I’d send a five year old child to their room for such behaviour. If I only had red hair like Maureen O’Hara I’d bellow at the woman (in beguiling brogue, of course) to just shut up and leave the poor lad alone. That no one liked a bully. At least it might stop the voice shouting inside my own head.
I was just shoving my few things into my bag when the first of the day people arrived. This last year I’ve started labelling people this way: day, night, depending on when I saw them. I think his name is Steve. He looked dishevelled, and exhausted; how he always looked, from memory.
“Hi,” I half waved, hoping he would keep on ambling. I’d been hoping to make my escape before anyone arrived. Day and night don’t often talk, unless it’s about something they need done. I think I’ve spoken some half dozen words to this guy at most since my arrival.
He ambled over to where I stood. On closer inspection, he was exhausted, made worse by the pallor of his skin and the darkness of his hair. He sported not a beard but a three-day growth which, despite the rest of his appearance, was impeccably maintained. Even his clothes, on closer inspection, were artistic in their disarray. A Parisian student of the 60’s, protesting everything but looking good in the process.
“You’re here early,” I offered as I shouldered my bag.
“I wanted to ask you something,” he said, sitting down on my desk. “I’m not sure how.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, and said nothing. I seriously doubted he was about to ask me out on a date, and wondered what was worrying him.
As he sat looking at the floor, I sat down on the chair and rested my bag beside me. “Why don’t you just say it,” I said. “Steve, isn’t it? I want to get home and you’re here early for a reason.”
He turned his brown eyes on me. “Yes it’s Steve. I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name. I know George and Hayley, who also do the nights – I think there’s three of you. And you’re new.”
“Yes, I’m the new one. Stephanie,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Stephanie,” he said. “A more interesting name than Steve.”
I just smiled.
“I’m sorry, but this is really awkward,” he said.
“Is it something I’ve done?” I asked, feeling sweat trickle across my shoulders. I thought about the note from the Dean.
“No,” he said hastily. “No, I don’t think you did it, despite what the others are saying.”
At that the sweat did start to flow.
“Listen,” Steve said, “last week – when you were off – someone stole blood from my mice.”
I looked blankly at him.
“It’s easily enough to tell, especially when the mice are white. I could see the marks under their tails. I hadn’t taken it, so someone else has.”
“Who would steal...” I paused mid sentence. “It’d save months of research,” I finished.
“Months? Years, considering the effort I’ve put into breeding them. Not to mention the cost. If they crack what I’m doing and get the data published first... jobs, funding, more research...I could loose the lot.”
“And you have no idea who took it?”
“I thought I did, but, well, now, absolutely none.”
“Then how do you know I didn’t?”
For the first time Steve looked at me and smiled. “To start stealing results a few weeks after you’ve arrived? No one’s that dumb. Maybe they waited for you to start to cast suspicion on you.”
“Then take the blood when I’m not working?”
“True,” Steve said. “I’m just paranoid.”
“And someone said I did it?”
“Everyone’s name’s been bandied around, so I wouldn’t worry. It was even suggested I’d stolen it myself.”
“Now I am confused.”
“There’s a lot of researchers across the country after a finite amount of dollars,” Steve said. “People will do anything. Listen, I have a favour to ask,” he said.
“What is it?”
“My data,” he said, handing me a memory stick. “I know it all gets entered on the main computer, but, you know, it’s under my name, anyone can get it. So I’ve altered it and, well, this is the original,” Steve finished.
“You’re giving me your results?” I said.
“You know, I thought I could trust people, but you know, I obviously can’t. I mean, fuck, I wouldn’t put it past someone to dress up as a painter and do the deed, I mean they were working on the adjacent room when it happened.”
I took the USB drive from his hand. “The depressing bit,’ I said, “is that out in the real world, I think it’s even worse.”
Steve nodded his head sagely. “It’ll just be for a week or so,” he said. “While I work out a safer way to store them. Just don’t leave it at work.”
“I haven’t seen anyone around here,” said as I put the drive in my bag. “I mean at night. Not that I would, I suppose. If you didn’t want to be seen, it’s quite easy.”
“Too easy,” said Steve, standing up. “But the Dean’s promised a surveillance camera in there, so now all I have to do is work out to keep all my data safe. By the way, you haven’t asked me about my PhD.’
“I don’t want to know,” I said. “Not now, after all this has happened. When it’s sorted out, then you can tell me, without it being coated with bitterness.”
Steve gave me a strange look, but merely said, “I think I understand.” He shifted from the desk and stood up, his rumpled clothes hanging about him. “Thanks, by the way. I know it’s a lot to ask. Maybe I could take you out to dinner or something.”
“When it’s over,” I said. “You don’t want people guessing you gave me the data.”
“Good point,” he said. “Well, here’s hoping we catch the bastard soon.” Scraping his hand over his stubble, he smiled and loped away. “Oh,” he said, turning back to me after a few steps, “by the way, you can’t get out the front door. The painters have moved back in. You have to go down the flight of stairs behind the back lab and out that way.”
When I opened the door a few minutes later, I noticed the smell of the paint had intensified. Voices came from the front office - a room away, really, from where I’d been sitting this past hour, but I hadn’t noticed. Or if I had, it hadn’t registered as anything odd. Taking Steve’s advice, I stumbled past the furniture and stacked pictures which now lined the hallway, and further into the rabbit warren. All the while I could feel that USB drive burning away in my bag. I felt vaguely contaminated, like a drug courier, when I’d prefer to walk with the air of a spy. The Thirty Nine Steps, perhaps, or maybe The Maltese Falcon. The oddest things were happening to me this set of nights.
Had it really come to people stealing results? I mean, I knew it happened, I’d seen it happen, but I thought that a one off thing. And to stick a needle in some mice? How much lower could someone get? I zipped my bag closed as I walked, and as I did I so suddenly thought that perhaps I was being framed. I’d told Steve I knew nothing about his research – maybe he encoded his results so he’d know if I tried to open the files. Or maybe he’d put some virus on it so when I opened the file - I was just being paranoid.
I just needed to keep the USB safe, not even look at it, and pretend I was in The Great Escape. And when the Dean interrogated me – for surely this was the reason for my summons – I need give only my name, rank and serial number.
It was different to Dave, I said to myself as I clunked down the stairs. Totally different. I mean, he wasn’t even at the Uni when it happened.
The door from the back lab opened into a drab stairwell. I’d decided my best bet was to go down, into the lower level of the labs, and so find a way out. There must be a way out. The door shut behind me and, on a whim, I tried it – locked. A flight down, and the same thing – the door was locked. I peered over the banister; the stairwell continued for a few flights up and down. I must be able to get out somehow. I couldn’t think of anything worse than being locked in here. At least no one had snuck into the labs this way.
I knew I was being stupid. I was just tired and emotional. This was a University for god’s sake, a centre of learning, not some B-grade spy thriller. Steve was probably researching something riveting like the effect of magnesium sulphate versus magnesium hydrochloride on the density of protein receptors in the mitochondria – or maybe intracellular organelles - in immune deficient white mice. Hardly the stuff of espionage – and that was a spur of the moment hypothesis in a sleep-deprived brain. His research would surely be decorated with a title I wouldn’t even begin to understand.
Two levels later I was rewarded with a door opening, naturally enough, into a long corridor. I wondered where I was. Two large glass doors marked the far end, and through them I caught a glimpse of a huge security man talking to someone I couldn’t see. For a moment I thought he stood talking to himself. At least the beep and crackle of his radio remained trapped by the glass. Thankfully they didn’t spill into my brain, where they’d grow into a dance of colours and numbers ready to drown my thoughts – for what they were worth, at the end of such a shift. By this hour my mind lay drenched in mist.
I always feel a touch of sorrow on seeing such men, the closest I’ve ever come to a maternal instinct, for no one ever talks to them, unless to complain. Sometimes I try to summon up the courage to say hello, knowing too well how it feels to pass the days unnoticed. Having paid my way through Uni by waiting on tables, I hated when customers simply ignored me as I brought them their food, or else answered their mobiles half-way through giving their order, waving their hands as talked and expecting me to understand their flapping sign language. Or, far worse on the morality scale, (one of those things condemning them to about the sixth level of Hell), was when customers expected me to stand vacuously by the table until their over-loud phone conversation had finished and they became free to give their order. Naturally, I had nothing else to do. Yet the few times I’d nodded a hello to the security men here, their bulk alone left me feeling like a wayward child.
By the time I’d pushed open the glass doors the security man had morphed into one security man with grizzled hair and Henryk. The security man was as large as his boots had suggested, the truncheon at his hip merely emphasizing his size. By comparison Henryk looked almost small, in the way a leopard is small beside a full-sized grizzly. Both, however, looked as tired as I felt. I raised a hand in greeting, and the security man raised a magazine in reply. I noticed a picture of Tom and Nicole on the cover.
“Won’t be long now, luv,” he said. “Bet you’ll be glad to get home.”
“Won’t we all.” My smile felt tired and stiff. Jason had always preached that once you could fake sincerity, you can fake anything; I’m still embarrassed at how long it’d taken me to realise he wasn’t joking.
“This is James, by the way,” said Henryk. “One of my many cousins.”
“Nice to meet you,” James said enthusiastically. He shook my hand with both his own, gently, as if mine were a butterfly sleeping in his giant of a paw.
I felt dwarfed standing between the two men, but, from the inside at least, my smile felt more sincere. I hoped it seemed so to them.
“Look,” said the fountain-pen weaving, whistling Henryk, nodding towards the window. “Dawn comes early, with rosy fingers.”
I simply stared at him. Somewhere during the night I must’ve entered a parallel universe. Hollywood made it clear cleaners weren’t meant to speak like this; no one spoke like this. Even Dave recited Homer only rarely; I had a sneaking suspicion this guy had not only read Beowulf, but understood it. Probably even enjoyed it.
I also couldn’t hide the nagging thought he was making fun of me, in a way I didn’t understand – though, in all fairness, he was probably just trying to get through a long night. As we all were. He was almost as tall as his cousin, but not as bulky, with a physique which hinted at layers of muscles. Thewy, I thought, impressed at dredging up such a word at this hour. Like a caged puma. Michelangelo would’ve loved to carve him.
I blinked, having no idea where on earth that idea had come from.
“By the way,” Henryk continued, “I’ve asked James here to organise an escort for you. Of an evening. So you don’t have to cross the campus in the dark.”
“Oh, thanks, that’s really kind, but…”
James raised a massive finger to halt my words. “It’s all arranged,” he said, “so no excuses. I like to think this is a safe town, but there are always bad apples.”
I felt rather than saw Henryk smile as he stood beside me.
“Thank you,” I said, knowing no way to graciously extract myself from my new bodyguards. Looking at the large hands still cradling my own, I though of how safe Steve’s data would be with this man. I was sorely tempted to pull that dratted USB from my bag and let it be swallowed by the giant paw, but sense and reason stopped me. It was just a device with nothing. There was no conspiracy. I was just tired.
“I have to go,” I added, hoping this simple approach would work as I smiled at both of them. Slowly I pulled my hand free. “Still too many things to do.” Hurrying away, I wondered why I seemed to be forever running away from Henryk. Why he disconcerted me so.
I scooted across the foyer and into another stairwell, which emerged halfway along the tunnel. I turned around to get my bearings, for I couldn’t work out if I was in the main tunnel, or one of the side branches, or which way to go. With barely time to register what I saw, I ducked into one of the many sinister doorways. The steam and oozing slime was preferable to what I’d just spotted emerging from the lift. Closing my eyes, I counted to ten (in Latin) before peering around the dark opening. No one noticed me amongst the other flotsam and jetsam. Sir Dom, however, was easily visible as he stood self importantly near the lift doors, fiddling with his mobile as people squeezed around him to get in or out of the lift.
I remember my Mum as she got old. She walked with not so much pottery, but rather precise and firm steps. Never light. Perhaps it was her failing eyesight, or a lack of confidence; she’d decide on where she was going, and walk there with heavy tread, and others simply had to walk around her. Concentrating on her chosen path, she remained oblivious to all else. She’d stop all of a sudden, and slowly turn around, or veer to one side, ignorant to the possibility anyone might be behind her, waiting, trying to step around her. My Mum was tiny, yet somehow managed to occupy at least half the footpath. She always walked in the middle of the path, making it was impossible to walk beside her – I had to always walk behind.
Dom was the exact opposite. He knew where the world stood in relation to him. Sir Dom had always used his size to occupy as much space as possible. He merely feigned oblivion to the others stepping around him, but even back in primary school I’d watched him play this game. Now, all these years later, under the fluorescent lights his fleshy face had the sallow hue of someone innocent of sunlight and fresh air. I still found it remarkable he’d risen so high in his small pond without stumbling and drowning himself, for his mind was as vast and as empty as the corridors I wandered each night.
Kneeling to untie and retie my shoelace, I watched as my brother’s nemesis turned and shouldered his way back through a surge of tired bodies into the lifts. Thankfully. Now I no longer had to walk past him, although the price of this blessing was that the two of us now occupied the same building. At the same time. How it could still stand and not shatter defied belief. Just to be sure, I waited for a few moments after watching the lift doors shut before scurrying the length of the tunnel in the opposite direction, desperate to find sunlight.
I could no longer fool myself the nurses last night – no, it’d been the night before, I’d only worked two shifts this week and already they were blurring - had been talking about another guy with the same name. I’d seen Sir Dom, and he was not a man easily mistaken.