50,000 words was actually reached on Day 18, but so far just under 37,000 have been posted on here. I'm not sure if I'm going to post the rest, or go back to the schedule just yet... I think perhaps a month of Christmas(-y) stories every other day might be more interesting than continuing the NaNoWriMo novel for now. Feel free to comment if you'd rather see more of Joshua and Marie :)
Saturday, 30 November 2013
“Hold up,” said Joshua as they reached the ground floor. “There’s a faculty list round here somewhere,….”
“In your office, it’s called the phone directory,” said Mark. He stopped, and then followed Joshua round a corner. “Where are you going?”
“The phone list is the current faculty,” said Joshua, rounding another corner and then stopping in front of a large wooden board, nearly six feet square. It was divided into eight rectangles, six of which were filled and the seventh was two-thirds full. “This is a list of all faculty that have been at Sherwood University Mathematics Department.”
“This is weird,” said Mark. “Why is this here?”
“I don’t know,” said Joshua. “I found it when I first got here and was looking round the building. Apparently you have to be promoted to full professor while you’re here to appear on the board now, but up until about 1900 it listed everywhere who ever taught here. Ah, ok, here he is.” Joshua pointed to a name that had the year 1872 next to it. Markka Koivula.
“So at least I know he was a lecturer here,” said Joshua. “So it was probably him annotating his manuscript.”
“And he crossed his own name off it?”
“It looks like it, doesn’t it?”
Joshua did manage to only stay for one drink this time and went to bed at half-past ten when he was yawning too much to concentrate on the television. As he got into bed he noticed that the room felt cold, so he got up again to close the window. Finding it already closed he went back to bed thinking that it must just be unseasonably cold outside. He dreamt.
He found himself standing half-way up the stairs of Robin Hood Tower. He looked down at himself and realised that he was dressed except for shoes and socks; his feet were bare and he could feel the cold from the stone seeping into them. He started climbing the stairs to warm himself up and find something to stand on that wasn’t stone. As he reached the next floor there was a sea of dust covering it, and he had to practically wade through it to make progress. He trudged to the next flight of stairs leaving a wake behind him in the dust, and carried on up. The dust rose up around him and made him sneeze and his eyes water, so when he reached the next landing he stopped and rubbed his eyes and tried to get a breath that wasn’t full of dust. As the dust settled around him again he realised that one of the doors on this floor was open and that light was coming from it. He found himself drawn to the light, wondering who might be up here, and thinking that maybe Lieutenant Georges had come back and was systematically going through all the offices. The dust thinned out until it was just a thin layer on the floor that was barely disturbed at all by his passage, but his feet were so cold now that his toes were numb. He couldn’t feel his little toes at all, and his other toes hurt gently.
The door was only half-open, but it swung fully open as he approached, and he could see that someone was in there, sitting at the desk and leaning forward. As he got closer he could see that they were writing something on paper on the desk. The desk looked clean and tidy, and then Joshua realised that he could see a thin layer of dust on the desk, except in rectangles where something had been removed.
The person at the desk looked up and looked at him, and dark eyes met his. The person, a man, laid down the pen he’d been using, and turned slightly so that his body was facing Joshua. Joshua wanted to look at the man, but couldn’t free his gaze from the man’s eyes.
“I found those papers in my mother’s bureau,” said the man. His voice was raspy as though he’d not spoken in a long time. “They were mine, I found them. I took them, and they were mine.” He paused as though waiting for Joshua to say something, but Joshua found he couldn’t speak. “Beauty is terrible when it’s pure. It’s just a topological transform you know. Look three pages from the end and you’ll see it. It has to work, it just won’t work here. The dimensions are wrong.” He sounded as though he were running out of breath, and his voice became deeper and harsher. “But that’s not always the case. If you bridge the gap, then you can bring the dimensions with you.”
He stopped speaking, and his eyes flicked to something behind Joshua. Suddenly freed, Joshua realised that he could look around the room again, and at the man in the chair. He was skeletally thin, wearing an ivory ruffled-collar shirt and dark trousers beneath a brocaded gown that looked like something from centuries before. His hair was grey and sparse and long; it looked at though it hadn’t been washed. The rectangles on the desk suddenly jumped into relief, like an optical illusion suddenly becoming clear and Joshua knew that that was where they’d taken the papers from earlier.
Something behind him laid a hand on his shoulder and pressed down. It had great strength, and though he tried to resist he could feel his legs buckling. The man in the chair looked ecstatic, and stood up, the gown he was wearing reaching the ground and looking like some kind of priestly robe. His hands lifted upwards as though in supplication and the sleeves fell back revealing arms so thin that the bones were visible and the muscles along them stood out like wormy ropes.
Joshua tried to turn, but another hand grabbed his head and forced him to look forwards, and the man at the desk suddenly ran to the packing crates. Joshua didn’t remember seeing them there before, but they were there now, stencilled with numbers beginning with 301-. Everytime he blinked the numbers seemed to change, and he couldn’t remember any of them for long enough to check. The man scrabbled at a case, pulling the lid of it off with difficulty, and plunged his hand inside. He searched around in there, and Joshua could hear things being knocked over and pushed around, and then the hand pulled out a rusty-looking knife.
“True beauty is truly terrible!” said the man, his grin nearly a rictus. Joshua was absolutely certain that he was looking at the face of madness.
Something smashed outside the office and the hands gripping Joshua let go. He staggered, not having realised how hard he’d been trying to get free, and the man with the knife looked past him again. Then he looked down at Joshua. “Beauty awaits you,” he said, his voice dryer than ever, and then he exploded in a cloud of dust.
Joshua turned around as the dust swirled about him, coughing and spluttering, trying to clear the dust from his watering eyes. Out in the corridor was another figure, and for a moment he saw it clearly. It was Venkat.
He rubbed his eyes and opened them, and felt a hand land on his shoulder. He fell over, shocked. On the ground he tried to work out where he was. This wasn’t his bed, and he’d been sleeping. This should be his bed. It must be a dream. Only dreams were usually so cold. Or wet. The soil was wet.
“Sir?” A voice above him spoke. “Sir, can you hear me now?”
“Y… Yes,” said Joshua, starting to shiver. “Where the hell am I?”
“Sherwood University campus,” said the voice. “Are you aware that you’re naked, Sir?”
Friday, 29 November 2013
It took another hour to sit down with Security – Lieutenant Georges recruited two other colleagues to speed the process up – and have each piece of paper and its relative order in the piles documented. Only when they were sure that they had a clear record of exactly what Joshua had taken from the Tower was he allowed to leave. They had, however, found a couple of folders to put the papers in so that they were less likely to be pulled out of his hands by the rising wind should he go outside.
“We’d be rather disappointed if you took them away from this building now, though,” said Lieutenant Georges as he was standing to leave. “We understand that you might need to show them to a colleague, or you might want to take them home to study, but we’d like you to consider taking a scan or a photocopy instead. If you have a smartphone you’ll find that it’s very easy to photograph the pages in question and then mail them to yourself or a Dropbox account.”
Joshua nodded, understanding the intentionally vague threat, and walked upstairs wondering yet again how on earth he’d managed to spend most of the day retrieving ancient papers from an old faculty member’s office, and why the whole thing seemed so strange. He key-carded his office door open, and paused in the doorway. He looked around, carefully checking for strangers, of the unnaturally tall and thin persuasion, and confirmed that the office was empty. He hated himself for doing this, but he couldn’t help it. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to sit down unless he was sure.
When the door closed behind him he opened all of the cupboards again to check that they had no-one hiding in them either. He couldn’t have stopped himself if he’d tried, but he recognised what he was doing and managed to laugh at himself while still doing it. Finally he looked underneath his desk, and only then did he sit down. He looked at the folders, looked at the Macbook, and opened up the latter to check his email.
Half an hour later he looked at the folder again, and went to get a cup of coffee from the coffee lounge. The corridors were quiet as he went there, but when he opened the door he saw several groups of students in there. Not recognising any of them he quickly acquired a cup of coffee, then a Mars bar as an after-thought, and disappeared back to his office without being stopped and asked for help with homework problems. Sitting back down at his desk again he closed the Macbook’s lid and opened the first folder.
The first couple of pages were rough working of some kind, and although he looked over it it wasn’t clear what problem it came from, and there was little text there either. He surmised that when this guy’s office had been packed up, everything that was on the desk had been collected together in no particular order and just dumped in a box for transport. He turned the pages over, until he found something with more writing on.
He was halfway down the pile when he came across a set of typewritten pages with handwriting annotating and correcting them. The handwriting was in blue ink and was rounded and slightly childlike. The first page looked familiar, but the second page proved to be the actual first page of the manuscript: A curious Bernoulli recurrence, by Markka Koivula. The name had been struck through.
Joshua looked at it for several moments, and then placed the papers carefully on his desk and retrieved the journal from the bookshelf. Turning to the bookmarked page, and noticing that the journal now showed a tendency to fall open to that page, he checked. The author information was missing from the journal version. He turned back to the Contents page, and discovered for the second time that the Contents listing ended at page 31 for some reason. He turned to the end of the article, in case it was there in the small print; some modern journals provided small biographical information about authors there, but the last page of the article ended with a formula and nothing more. He set the journal down, and looked back at the draft manuscript. That an author would want to hide his name was a little curious, but especially so for a mathematical paper where precedence for new results was everything. And these results were so new as to be at least a hundred years ahead of their time. Why cross your name out?
He puzzled over it as he looked through the manuscript, noting that the corrections in handwriting were mostly changing the spelling of words; in some cases the misspelling was now the modern spelling. Then he suddenly realised that he didn’t know who had made the annotations. Was it possible that the annotator was someone other than Markka Koivula? It wasn’t an English sounding name after all, and both the manuscript and the handwriting were in good English. It was just a little bit old-fashioned to Joshua’s mind.
Someone knocked on his door, and he called out “Come in,” while he put the papers back in their folder. The knock came again, and he remembered that he had to open the door to admit visitors. A nuisance now, but quite a benefit when you didn’t want to be disturbed. He got up and opened the door, and there was Mark.
“Very funny,” he said. “Come in, indeed. Next thing I know you’ll be accusing me of breaking into your office when you’re not here and leaving journals on your desk.”
“Wanker,” said Joshua. “Are you coming in or not then?”
“I was hoping to get you to come out,” said Mark. “The pubs have opened.”
“They opened at 11,” said Joshua.
“And you were nowhere to be found at 11. I came by and you were missing. You were still missing after lunch as well. I was starting to think you were hiding from the mysterious journal-gifted.”
Joshua half-smiled, and explained about his trip to Robin Hood Tower and what he’d found there. He gestured casually to the folders, and then to the journal as he described the oddity of the crossed-out name on the draught-manuscript.
“Wow, spooky,” said Mark. “Footprints that only go in, your very own stalker, and now a journal author who doesn’t want the world to know who he is when he’s got the biggest mathematical breakthrough in a hundred years. All that’s missing are some meddling kids and Scooby-Doo!”
“It kind of feels like it, doesn’t it?” said Joshua. “Hey, you know what, the pub sounds like a good idea. But just the one, I’m not staying till closing again.”
Mark laughed and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “It’s not me saying ‘one for the road’ every half-hour,” he said.
Thursday, 28 November 2013
Venkat was waiting for Joshua outside the Mathematics building. Lieutenant Georges saw him first, and her eyes narrowed. Joshua, who was walking along-side her and carrying the papers that had been so much trouble to obtain, had turned his head to speak to her and saw her reaction. He looked back ahead of them, and saw a figure by the Mathematics building.
“Your little friend,” said Lieutenant Georges. Her tone left no doubt that she was annoyed.
“Who?” asked Joshua, squinting to try and make the person out. A few steps later and he recognised Venkat as well. “Oh hell,” he said. “He’s not my friend, I don’t know what he’s doing here. I didn’t arrange to meet him. Maybe he’s pestering someone else now.”
“Why would he be doing that?” Lieutenant Georges had quickened her pace, but she glanced at Joshua with curiosity.
“He’s a crank,” said Joshua. Seeing that he needed to explain more than that, he continued, “He’s got some ideas in his head, kind of mathematical, that he thinks are more important than they really are. He’s trying to find some real mathematician to pay attention to them and validate them, but they’re rubbish really. He doesn’t want to be a mathematician as such, he just wants attention, and people telling him how clever he is. If you ask him he’s probably got a bunch of stories of how clever he was a child, and how he did advanced courses or went to a special school. You can find them everywhere on the internet, and they’ve pretty much always got some idea so badly wrong that you could spend months trying to untangle it for them, only to have them accuse you of making them look bad, or hiding the good work and keeping it for yourself. The best thing to do is stay away from them.”
Lieutenant Georges sniffed. “Sounds like a stalker, then,” she said. “If you’re willing to say that, then I can keep him off our campus.”
“Oh good grief,” said Lieutenant Georges. “It’s always the same isn’t it? I offer you a definite way out of the problem, and you start worrying that you’re not being fair to him. He’s a pest, he’s a stalker, and he’s going to use up your time for no benefit. You just told me all that. Why is it so hard to tell me that you want him excluded from the campus for your own safety?”
Joshua swallowed. Everything she said was logical and correct, but it still seemed slightly wrong to just kick the guy off campus when he hadn’t actually done anything except hide a journal in his office and then try and talk about it. Then he remembered the strange, shadowy shape in his office, and how many times he’d had to search the room before he felt comfortable again.
“He’s a stalker,” he said. “I’d like you to exclude him from campus, please.”
“Was that so hard?” asked Lieutenant Georges. She quickened her pace again, and Joshua let her get ahead, knowing that he’d end up out of breath if he tried keeping up. He slowed as she reached Venkat, and then stopped, hanging back out of earshot. He saw Venkat point at him once, but Lieutenant Georges slapped his arm down, and then got up close to him, stepping inside his personal space. Joshua was slightly impressed that Venkat didn’t move and didn’t back off, but it seemed to do him no good anyway; something happened so fast that Joshua couldn’t follow it, and then Venkat was lying on the ground with Lieutenant Georges stood over him, holding his arm out straight and behind his back, and then two more Security staff were coming out of the mathematics building.
Five minutes later Venkat was being escorted away and Lieutenant Georges returned to where Joshua was standing. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get inside and get those papers catalogued so that you can take them away with you.”
“What did he want?” asked Joshua.
“Does it matter?”
He had to admit to himself that it didn’t.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Marie didn’t wake Jimmy until they were coming into Kings Cross because she wasn’t paying attention and the train didn’t actually stop at Milton Keynes. She leaned over the table and shook his shoulder gently, unable to reach far enough to do any better. Jimmy’s eyes flicked open like a striking snake, and his hand knocked hers away from his shoulder. He sat bolt upright, his gaze fixed on her and his eyes feeling like they were burning straight through her. Then he relaxed, and sank back.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “We’re on the train, right?”
Marie nodded, too startled still to speak.
“Ok cool, whereabouts are we?” He looked out of the window just as the train went into a dark tunnel. He waited, but the tunnel seemed to go on forever.
“Kings Cross,” he said. “I meant to ask you to wake me earlier. Never mind. You got all your stuff?”
Marie had put her puzzle book, the first puzzle still not completely solved, back in her handbag before waking Jimmy up, and she nodded again, and then lifted her handbag onto the table to show him. He half-smiled. “Right, good,” he said. “When we get off we’ve got to go through the barriers, so get your ticket ready, but hang on to it. It’s good for the underground as well, as we’re going on the Northern Line. We’ve got four stops, then we’re off at Kentish Town. Keep up with me, there’s a good girl; there’s going to be a lot of people going for our tube and I’d rather get there before them all.”
“Right,” said Marie, pleased to have found her voice again. “Follow you and be quick.”
Jimmy smiled. “Let’s get up,” he said. “We’ve been sat down for hours, standing will get the blood circulating again.”
They waited in the lobby of the carriage until it pulled into the station, and then Jimmy leaned on the Door Open button as though it made a difference until the door opened. He darted off the train as fast as a salmon leaping upstream, and Marie hesitated, startled before following him. She had to run straight away to catch up with him, only managing to do so because the barriers slowed him down. Then he led the way across a concourse and down a flight of stairs into a large tunnel, and then unerringly led her this way and that through the maze of corridors filled with people all staring ahead of themselves and hurrying just as fast. When they emerged onto the north-bound Northern line platform she was gasping for breath, and the number of people already on the platform startled her. She was sure that there were more people along this narrow platform than had got on her train down from Leeds, and they all looked impatient, and sometimes angry. Jimmy walked down the platform, dodging in and out of people, forcing her to follow or get lost. She found her eyes tearing up, but then he stopped and seemed to edge out a little space around him. She hurried up to him, and he ignored her.
An announcement came over the PA system, loud and slightly distorted, so unexpected that she couldn’t understand a word of it, as though they were speaking in a foreign language. Then a wind appeared from nowhere, and she looked around in a panic. No-one seemed to notice it, and if anything they seemed to huddle closer to the platform edge. There was a yellow line painted there, and they all seemed intent on being right up to it, but almost no-one stood across it. There was barely ten centimetres of room after it before the platform ended and the train track started, so she didn’t blame them for not wanting to go past it. Then the train arrived, sleek carriages drawing up lethally close to the platforms edge, and she squeaked now, astonished by the noise, the speed, and the proximity of it. No-one even looked at her. The doors opened with a clatter, and people poured off the train, not quite pushing aside the people on the platform, who moved reluctantly, unwilling to give up their positions relative to the doors. For a moment there was stillness as the last person leaving came from the carriage, and then the flow reversed and she found herself sucked on to the tube with the rest of the crowd. Jimmy was ahead of her somewhere, but it was only when the doors closed and she was left standing in the middle of the carriage that she saw that he’d sat down. All of the seats were taken, and the train started with a jerk that pulled her feet from under her and knocked her to the ground.
She had to get up, slowly and carefully, using the glass panels at the end of the row of seats, that separated those standing from those seated, and then she realised that there were bars above her head for her to hold on to while the train moved. Red-faced with shame and pain she clung to them, and when Jimmy stood up and got off without looking at her four stops later she followed him in silence.
“What did you think of the tube then?” asked Jimmy outside the station. A row of terraced houses stretched away across the road in both directions. “It’s an amazing piece of engineering. And there’s some things down in those tunnels that they don’t tell people about. I’ve always thought that Mr. High and Mighty knows something about what’s down there, but he’s not telling. Not me, anyway.”
“It’s a bit scary,” said Marie. She wished Jimmy would ask he she was alright, acknowledge that she’d fallen over, but she knew him too well to think that he actually would.
“You get used to it,” said Jimmy. “Right, we have a museum to visit!”
Tuesday, 26 November 2013
All the trains through Oakfell station were slow, stopping trains on what would once have been called a branch line. There were three stops through to Leeds though, and from there the trains went just about everywhere around the country. Jimmy had told her that he’d meet her at the station as he intended to get to Leeds the night before and visit some friends of his. Marie didn’t know a lot about them except that they were in the gambling business and sometimes gave Jimmy advice on what to back. He seemed to lose almost as much as he won, but he never doubted them. Her train came in, pulling up at the platform with agonising slowness; the doors seemed to open equally slowly despite the man at the front of the queue to get off pressing the door open button repeatedly and insistently as soon as the train stopped moving.
The main concourse was crowded with people, all looking at the huge boards that showed which platforms the departing trains were leaving from and what their destinations were. She looked at the boards as well, wondering if Jimmy would meet her in here or on the platform, and frowned. Nowhere on the board could she see London mentioned, all the destinations seemed to be for other places like Kings Cross and Edinburgh. A little confused now, she turned around, looking at the collection of small shops that lined the edges of the hall; mostly sandwich shops and coffee bars, the kinds of things that travellers wanted. There was a newsagents that looked stuffed with magazines; a single wall housed books that had numbers by them, indicating that they were best sellers in various categories. Opposite the shops was the ticket hall, dominated by the sleek, curving lines of the self-service machines; in the modern age the humans who could help you work out where you going and how to get there were pushed to one side and virtually hidden. She turned around, and then turned around again, wondering how anyone found anything in here.
“There you are,” said a familiar voice behind her, and she jumped. “On time and everything!”
“Jimmy,” she said, forcing a smile to her face. She did feel rather relieved that he’d found her though.
“I have the tickets here,” he said, waving a couple of slips of orange and cream card. And by the looks of things our train’s going to be on time, and should be being called in about a minute. Only I know that it’s going to be platform 1, so let’s stroll over there now.
He grabbed her hand as she started moving, and pulled back slightly. “Not too fast, we don’t want to let anyone know that we know.”
“How do we know?” asked Marie. She looked again at the boards, which were easily twenty feet high and covered with detail about the intermediate stops that the trains made and when they’d arrive there. “I couldn’t even find London on the board.”
Jimmy looked at her, his eyes raking over her face to see if she was joking. Then he laughed, leading her off to the right as he did so. “Kings Cross,” he said. “The London stations all have names, and you just need to know which one you’re going into.”
“Oh,” she said, feeling herself flush red. “Oh, I didn’t realise.”
“That’s ok,” said Jimmy. They walked through a busy, broad archway, and the platform barriers were just ahead of them. There were people near the barriers, but no-one seemed to be moving through them at that moment. Four platforms were visible from where she was, and they all had a train sat at them, waiting to move off. “You’ve not been down to London before then?”
She shook her head, and took the ticket that Jimmy offered her. The barriers accepted them, spat them back out, and swung back their little doors of plastic-coated steel.
“We’re going into Kings Cross,” he said. “It’s pretty central, but we’ll be taking the tube out north again straight away. It’s a bit annoying, because we kind of have to go back on ourselves, but it’s the way the train network works, and we definitely don’t want to get off early and then get a stopping train down. That would take all day!” As they walked onto platform 1 a television screen suspended from a pole changed its screen to announce that the train was going to Kings Cross and stopping at five other stations en route. Almost immediately the noise in the station increased as over a hundred people saw the announcement and started hurrying towards the barriers.
“We’ve got reserved seats, actually,” said Jimmy, walking briskly alongside the train. Marie had to keep running every now and then to keep up with him. “But it’s better to be on first, before anyone can take the luggage rack or be a nuisance.”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy.
They were, unsurprisingly, the first ones into their carriage, and Marie was startled to find that they were sitting in the First Class carriage. Jimmy walked quickly along the carriage, checking the little digital seat indicators until he came to a table, and then he sat down and shuffled over to the window seat. Marie stopped, not knowing which seat she should take.
“It’s on your ticket,” said Jimmy. “But it’s the window opposite me. I hate sitting on the aisle and having to get up for people getting on and off, and then having people push past you with too many bags. Let some other sucker sit there and suffer.”
“Right,” said Marie, not sure what to make of the hostility in his voice. Jimmy sounded like he hated train travel.
“It’s not expensive,” he said, as he sat down and then edged her way across into her seat. “If you book in advance you can get some pretty good deals. And we get food, though it’s probably just a sandwich and some coffee. I remember when you’d get a proper meal if you were travelling in first class; back then of course you had to know someone if you wanted a cheap ticket. But back then you didn’t have all the plebs going by train either, so I guess it cuts both ways.”
“Right, said Marie, wishing that she could think of something else to say. She wasn’t very sure that she wasn’t a pleb too, by the way Jimmy was talking, and she didn’t want to draw attention to that fact.
The train filled rapidly as though the entire station had been waiting for it, but their carriage filled more slowly, and Marie noted that the other people in the carriage were either elderly, with suitcases, or dressed in business suits and had laptops that they immediately set down and opened up. She wondered at the number of people who appeared to be doing business while on the train and started to think that she should have tried to bring something with her to do as well. She had a crossword puzzle book in her handbag, but she didn’t want to get that out in front of Jimmy.
After a couple of announcements about people getting off the train unless they were planning on travelling the doors hissed closed, hydraulics closing the heavy, solid portals with a definite thunk.
“Right,” said Jimmy slouching down in his chair and closing his eyes. “Wake me when we pass Milton Keynes. I was up late last night.” By the time the train had reached its first stop he was snoring, and Marie had got her puzzle book out and was chewing the end of her pencil while she tried to solve the first puzzle.
Monday, 25 November 2013
“I’ll bet,” said Janet. She wriggled like something cold was walking down her spine. “I’m not good with rats. Or mice for that matter. My parents got me a gerbil once and I made them get rid of it. Yucky things.”
Marie smiled gently. “Don’t worry, the traps will see them off pretty quickly,” she said. “There’s not much in the museum to attract vermin anyway, but sometimes they come in when it’s cold outside.”
“It’s May,” said Janet. “It’s hardly cold outside anymore.”
Marie laughed, thinking of her wardrobe that morning. “Not for all of us,” she said. Her eyes caught sight of Janet’s watch on her wrist, and she twisted her head to look at it properly. To her surprise she realised that she’d read it right the first time, it was just after three.
“Where did the time go?” she said. “I’m sure I wasn’t on the computer for that long.”
“Hours,” said Janet. “You didn’t go to lunch unless you sneaked out when I went to the toilet. As if cued, Marie’s stomach rumbled. She rubbed it.
“Didn’t you go for lunch then?”
“Got mine with me, I’m on a diet.” Janet’s diets tended to last about five days then disappear for three weeks, and reappear again when her magazines came out with the next fad that celebrities were engaged in.
“What is it this time?” asked Marie. Janet shrugged, her eyes averted.
“Oh, it’s a fruit thing,” she said, and then when Marie watched her, waiting in silence she tossed her hair and flushed. “Kiwi fruit,” she said. “You eat fifteen of them a day, and it’s all you’re allowed from when you wake up until tea-time. Then for tea you can eat anything you like so long as it’s no more than 800 calories, and then you’re allowed green fruit between then and bedtime. So apples, grapes, and kiwis.”
“That’s a lot of kiwi fruit,” said Marie. “Does it taste good?”
“Not really.” Janet pulled a face. “It’s a bit chewy too, and I don’t like the black seeds.”
“Are you losing weight?”
“Oh loads!” She cheered up as quickly as the thought of kiwi fruits had dampened her mood. “I was a whole kilo down from the weekend when I weighed myself this morning!”
“That’s good!” Marie meant it; her infrequent attempts at dieting usually ended when she realised that she was slowly gaining weight instead of losing it.
“Tickets!” Jimmy flung the main doors open, both of them bouncing off the little door stops there to protect the walls from his dramatic entrances, and shuddered on their hinges. “I’ve got two return tickets to London, and we shall be visiting Mr. High and Mighty himself tomorrow and telling him all about my statue!”
Marie had jumped, but Janet was unperturbed. She smiled. “No ticket for me, boss?”
“Hah, someone has to man the fort,” he replied, his white teeth brilliant in his broad smile. He came over and put a muscular arm around her shoulders, squeezing her slightly. “And you do such a wonderful job of it that I couldn’t possibly take you away. No-one would do it as well as you if you weren’t here. You have to teach Marie and myself how you do it sometime.”
“Stop it,” said Janet, but she didn’t try and wriggle free and she was smiling almost as broadly as Jimmy. “It’s not like we get anyone in here most of the time anyway.”
“That will change!” He spread his arms expansively. “That will change when we can tell the world that we have better exhibits than the de Havilleau collection! When I have humiliated Oscar, when he bows down and kow-tows at my knees, then we will get the attention and acclaim that we deserve! This is our moment girls, this is our hour in the sun. And like Jacob, we shall sit there and hold it motionless until the battle is won!”
Janet raised her eyebrows at Marie, who shook her head back. Jimmy caught the shake and roared, “Oh but it will be true, little chickadee! The important people all know the de Havilleaus, and now they will learn of the Grices as well! We shall show them all tomorrow!”
He stood back from them both. “Smile a little more, girls! This is good news! This is fantastic news! This is the best news I had since Terrapin House called four years ago! Now, I shall go and take some suitable photographs of our statue, so that we can exhibit them tomorrow and show Oscar too-good-to-be-true what we have!”
He marched off, his head held high and his coat flapping about his skinny frame. Janet laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Oh, I shouldn’t laugh,” she said, trying to control herself. “But he’s just so funny when he’s in a good mood.”
“I think he’s been taking something,” said Marie, staring after him. “Why is he coming with me now? He said I’d be going by myself tomorrow.”
“What’s Terrapin House?” asked Janet, lowering her hand at last. “I don’t think I’ve heard him talk about that before.”
“It’s the sheltered housing complex his mother lives in,” said Marie. “She moved there after his father died; she’s a bit of a recluse, I think.”
“So what happened four years ago?”
“I don’t know.” Marie mulled it over in her mind. “I don’t remember him even talking about it to be honest. He told me about his parents when his father died, but that was at least six years ago.”
“How long have you been working here then?”
Marie grinned. “And have you figure out my age? Not likely!”
“You sound like Jimmy when you say that,” said Janet.
“Marie?” Jimmy’s voice floated through the still air of the museum, and the two women looked at each other. He sounded nervous. “Marie!”
“Coming,” she called, and left Janet to go back to manning the desk like no-one else could. Jimmy was holding a camera in one hand, and standing half-in, half-out of the catalogue room. He appeared to be looking at something with a little trepidation.
“Marie, what were you looking at on the computer?” His voice was so odd she actually questioned herself and wondered if she’d been looking at anything that might have offended him. She remembered the de Havilleau website, and wondered how deeply his jealously of Oscar ran.
“The de Havilleau website,” she said. “I wanted to see more about what they say about –“
“After that,” said Jimmy. “What did you look at after that?”
“Nothing,” said Marie. “That’s all I was looking at. Why?”
“Look at this, said Jimmy. He moved out of the catalogue room so that she could stand in the doorway and see the computer screen. On it was a website written in a language that she didn’t recognise. Some of the text was in bright red letters and boxed on a black background, while much of the rest was black text on a lurid green background. It hurt her eyes to try and focus on it. In a sidebar on the right-hand side things slid up and down, but she couldn’t make out what they were; they were dark,murky images and the contrast between them and the background was poor.
“I don’t know what that is,” she said, looking away. The afterimages burned in her eyes for a moment before fading into cyan rectangles that gradually dissipated. “I didn’t go there.”
“The language,” said Jimmy. He seemed to be able to look at it without any trouble. “Do you recognise that?”
“No,” said Marie. “Should I?”
“No,” said Jimmy. “But I do, and it definitely shouldn’t be here. Are you sure that you didn’t go to this website? You didn’t click on some link without checking what it was first? Or open an email and click on a link in that?”
“I’m not stupid!” Marie glared at him, annoyed at the implication that she’d be caught out like that. “I was looking at the de Havilleau site and checking their pictures of their statue against ours. I didn’t click on anything except to enlarge the pictures, and I think I can tell the difference between that and an ancient statue!” She pointed, her arm shaking and her finger quivering.
“Could Janet have done this?”
It took her a moment to realise what he’d asked, and then she felt a sudden chill. Jimmy wasn’t angry with her, she realised. He was scared of something, and this website had somehow woken that fear. She remembered suddenly realising that nearly four hours had just disappeared, and wondered what she’d been doing in that four hours. She remembered looking at the pictures, but losing track of four hours just looking at pictures seemed… well, very unlikely.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “I was either in here or in the exhibition room all morning; I don’t think she could have crept past me without me seeing her. And I don’t see why she’s do this anyway.”
“How about lunchtime?” There was an urgency to his voice that seemed out of place.
“I didn’t go for lunch yet,” said Marie. “I’m on a diet,” she said to forestall his questions.
“Get rid of it,” said Jimmy, turning away, and hefting the camera. “I’ve got pictures to take. Oh, and don’t bookmark it either, I don’t want you going back to that site again.”
Marie bit her lip, annoyed at the implication that Jimmy thought she’d gone there and was lying about it, but she closed the browser down anyway. It took a couple of clicks before the computer recognised the mouse, almost as though the browser were sticky somehow. Then she went back out to the hall where Jimmy was walking round the display case like a predator stalking prey.
“The de Havilleau collection seem to have a cage of wires in their display case,” she said.
“Probably alarm wires,” said Jimmy. He found an angle he liked and photographed the statue. Marie nodded, wishing she’d thought of that herself. The alarms in Jimmy’s museum were mostly pressure sensors as they were cheaper, and no-one came in, let alone tried to steal things. He snapped another picture and then frowned.
“Were its arms like this when I brought it in?” he said. He pointed. Marie looked at the statue and for a moment couldn’t remember what it had looked like that morning. Its arms were upraised as though it was trying to grab someone by reaching over them.
“Yes,” she said. She wasn’t actually sure, but she didn’t want yet another accusation from her boss.
“Oh,” he said. “Odd. I could have sworn they were wider, like it was trying to embrace you. Funny how you misremember these things, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Marie, not thinking it funny at all. What Jimmy said resonated with her; she thought the statue had been in an embracing posture that morning now as well.
Sunday, 24 November 2013
After the puddle was cleaned up and Janet was back at the front desk in case anyone got lost and came in, Marie sat back down at the catalogue room’s computer and looked at the de Havilleau website again. She was about to close it down and get on with her real work when it occurred to her that she didn’t know much about the museum or its purpose, and yet she was going there tomorrow. She decided that browsing through the site and understanding the museum and why it had been set up was probably the prudent thing to do. It would only spoil Jimmy’s attempts to gloat if she said the wrong thing and they could laugh at him back.
The site had a history link in the footer as well, so she clicked on that as somewhere to start. A picture downloaded, with text beneath it; a large, black and white image of a striking young man with a thin black moustache, a widows’ peak that looked to be have been styled with some kind of wax, and a nose that looked as though it had been broken more than once. The picture looked old, and Marie judged it to have been taken in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Otto de Havilleau read the caption beneath the picture, and the text went on to describe him as a gentleman explorer born into an aristocratic family. The text had a hint of censure as it described how he’d married, got his wife with child and then gone off on frequent expeditions to various parts of the globe, usually returning with odd artefacts and trinkets picked up from wherever he’d been. He lavished these on his wife, and when she disliked them he sold them and used the money to buy her other, more contemporary things. Marie found herself liking the sound of him even though the author of the piece appeared to find him objectionable. Many of the items that he’d collected and they’d kept now formed the core of what was known as the de Havilleau collection. A significant part of the collection was on display in the de Havilleau museum, which was open to the public at a nominal fee. Marie noted carefully that the size of this fee wasn’t described.
Not all artefacts are on display, noted the text, and some of the artefacts have been permanently withdrawn from public view. If you are visiting us to see an especial item we recommend that you call ahead to confirm that the item will be available. The museum does not accept liability for costs incurred as a result of failing this check.
Marie found a piece of paper and wrote a note to herself to call the museum before lunch. She knew that she should probably do it right now, but she felt compelled to keep reading. The rest of the page seemed somehow dull and uninteresting though, and she found herself clicking back to the bookmarked page, with the picture of the statue in its display case.
She stared at it, and then she leaned in closer. She hunted for a zoom function, and finally found one, and enlarged the picture. Unless there was a problem with the image, it looked to her as though the display case was more of a display cage – she was sure that she could see thin black wires laced through the glass to reinforce it. To keep things out, or in, she wondered.
There was a bang, and she sat upright suddenly. She shook her head, and wondered how her thoughts had managed to wander so far. The webpage in front of her didn’t look right, but she was already turning away, looking to see what had made the noise that had woken her out of her thoughts. Janet was standing next to her desk looking sheepish.
“Mouse,” she said. “I’ve got no idea what it would be doing in here, it’s not like there’s anything for it to eat.”
“What did you do?” asked Marie. “Stamp on it?”
“I threw a book at it,” said Janet. There was something defensive in the way she was standing. “I missed though.”
Marie looked round and couldn’t see a book on the floor.
“Right,” she said. “Well, if you see it again shout for me. I’ll have to put some traps down.”
“Do we have any?”
Marie sighed. “I’ll have to buy some traps and then put them down.”
Janet smiled at last. “It was a big one,” she said. “I hope they make traps large enough.”
“Rat-traps,” said Marie. Janet looked nervous. “Before your time,” said Marie. “It wasn’t fun.”
Saturday, 23 November 2013
“Marie!” Jimmy’s voice came from the Northern Hemisphere wing, and Marie looked at Janet, who looked straight back at her and shrugged.
“Coming,” she called, and rolled her eyes. Janet smiled, and Marie left.
Coming into the wing she saw that Jimmy was in the catalogue room, sitting at the PC.
“Marie! What do you know about the de Havilleau collection?” he asked, not turning around. His back was blocking the computer screen from her.
“Um, I don’t think I know anything,” said Marie trying to think why the name sounded familiar. “Er, it sounds a bit familiar though….”
Jimmy turned around, and then adjusted the computer screen so that Marie could see it. The web-page from yesterday was up and visible on it, and immediately she remembered.
“Oh that!” she said. “I was researching my — our statue, and I found that there’s a similar one in the de Havilleau collection. I don’t think it’s in as good a condition as ours though.”
Jimmy’s face, which had been stern, suddenly lit up with a wide, brilliant smile.
“Really?” he said, sounding childishly excited. “Mine is better?”
Marie nodded. Jimmy was prone to mood swings and being oddly excitable, but this was a little unusual even for him.
“You’re sure they still have it? They’ve not put it away, or sold it on?”
“The website’s got a picture of it,” said Marie. “It’s still on display I think.”
“Fantastic!” Jimmy was almost bouncing up and down with excitement. “Do you think we should take it down there to show them?”
“Why?” Marie’s face was neutral, as she could guess that Jimmy really wanted her to say ‘Yes’.
“Because they’re the de Havilleau collection and we’re just Jimmy’s little museum in Oakvell,” he said. “We could go and show them that they’re not the only ones with rare and delicate artefacts!”
“It’s not very safe though, is it?” said Marie. “If we have to transport it down to London and back it might get broken.”
“I got it all the way back from L–“ said Jimmy, and abruptly stopped himself. “I got it all the way in one piece, didn’t I?” he concluded. “But you’re right, if Oscar sees it and it is better he’ll only want to get it for himself, or see that I can’t have it.”
“Oscar de Havilleau, bon vivante and gentleman adventurer,” said Jimmy. His words dripped with bitterness, and his eyes were as hard and grey as flint. “We were at school together. He inherited the de Havilleau collection and has been idly adding to it when he feels like it. He’s always bragging about the value and rarity of the objects in there, but he didn’t even find most of them himself. It was his grandfather who was the real explorer, he came back with loads of stuff from strange places. His dad wasn’t a fraud either, not like Oscar.”
Marie nodded, careful not to say anything. Jimmy’s face was focused and intense, and he looked unhappy.
“Well, if we can’t take the statue down there, we can still take a picture of it. Hah, I don’t need to go at all, let’s let Mr. Bigshot de Havilleau stew over how little I care! Go down there tomorrow, Marie, and show them pictures of what I’ve got. I’ll pay for the ticket; actually, I’ll go and get them now. You’ll want a return, I suppose?” He was out of the seat and walking past her before she could murmur yes. “Great. You’ll go down there first thing tomorrow and show them my statue. Make sure you show Oscar. Twice!” He was shouting as he left the wing, and Janet looked up from her desk to see what the commotion was about.
“We’ll show him!” called Jimmy from the front doors.
“You’ll show who what?” asked Janet when the doors had closed and Jimmy had gone. Marie shook her head. “Oscar de Havilleau,” she said. “Whoever he may be. It sounds like Jimmy’s got a bit a grudge going on. He’s sending me down to London tomorrow to look at their statue and tell them our mine. Ours, I mean. And to tell them how much better it is than there’s, too. He wanted me to take it with me at first.”
“Lucky you,” said Janet. “You get a day in London! Oh wait, is he making you pay for your own ticket?”
“No, he’s gone off to buy it now,” said Marie. “It’s just London though, it’s just a bit bigger than here.”
Janet’s eyes widened and her mouth formed a little round O. “Haven’t you been to London before?” she asked.
“Only when I was little,” said Marie. “I think we went to Madame Tussaud’s, you know, the wax place.”
“Waxworks,” said Janet.
“Yeah. It was a lot of walking. I remember my feet hurting a lot. And then it took ages to get back home again. We were on a coach I think.”
“Oh my,” said Janet. “Well, it’s probably not going to help you to think of London as being like here only bigger then. It’s a lot bigger. Much, much bigger. And busier, and more full of people, and they’ll all know where they’re going, and they’ll know that you’re in their way. And then they’ll trample you.”
“Don’t be silly!” Marie looked uncomfortable. “You’re just trying to scare me, now.”
“No,” said Janet. She leaned forward over her desk. “Seriously Marie, London’s big, and it’s fast, and it expects you to keep up with it. Don’t go there thinking it’s just like here. And don’t stand in anyone’s way, or you’re going to get shouted at or worse.”
“Or worse?” Marie’s eyes were huge and her face was a little flushed. “They’ll push you out of the way,” said Janet. “And they won’t stop if you fall over. I’ve seen it.”
“Oh yes. I went down there Christmas shopping last year, and it was madness. You’ve never seen so many people, all in the same place, all trying to do their own thing and hating everyone else for being there. It’s like a vision of hell.”
“It’s not Christmas,” said Marie, clutching at the only straw Janet had left for her. “Surely it won’t be that bad!”
“Well,” Janet hesitated, a little unwilling to back down from her vision of London now. “Well, maybe it depends where you’re going. Where’s this museum?”
Marie thought. “I don’t know,” she said. “I forgot to look yesterday, but then I didn’t think I’d be going down there. Let me go check.”
She went back to the catalogue room and woke the computer from its power-save mode. Jimmy had left the bookmarked website up, but it still took her a minute to work out that she needed to scroll the page down to the bottom and find the Contact Us link. That took her to a page with a map, some phone numbers and email addresses, and three names of people who might respond. None of the name, she noticed, were a de Havilleau.
“Kentish Town,” she called out to Janet. “The biggest road nearby is called Kentish Town Road.” She left the room to go back to the reception, but then a puddle of water caught her eye. Surprised, she went over to check it out. It had gathered around the pedestal on which the display case for the new statue was mounted, but nothing in or on the display case appeared to be wet. She ran a finger across the case just to check, and it squeaked a little.
“Exhibition Road is where all the big museums are,” said Janet. “Are you sure that’s the right place?”
“It’s not on Exhibition Road,” said Marie. “It’s in Kentish Town. Did you come in here already?”
“Oh right, fine,” said Janet. “That’s just a bit rough, you know? Not really where you’d look for a museum. No. Why?”
“There’ s a puddle of water here,” said Marie. “Do you think the cleaner’s missed it?”
“Must have done.” Janet walked in and came over to look at it. “Huh, that’s a big one for them though. I thought they just swept up in here.”
“I better get it dried before Jimmy sees it,” said Marie. Janet opened her mouth to make another joke about the fridge and then thought better of it. The look on Marie’s face convinced her that she’d made the right decision.
“Watch out for tourists,” she said instead. “You get loads of tourists around the museums, and they’re all rude. None of them will speak English either, and they’ll just barge into you and knock you over.”
“London sounds very rough,” said Marie. She looked unhappy. “Maybe I shouldn’t go,” she said. “Jimmy will probably go by himself if I tell him I’m not feeling well. I think he just wants to gloat over Oscar de Havilleau anyway from what he said.”
“Oh no,” said Janet. “You have to go! But don’t forget to do some shopping while you’re there. You won’t believe what the shops are like compared with here.”
“I shop online a lot,” said Marie. Janet looked at her, this time considering the slightly too-large blouse and the not-quite stylish skirt. “Really?” she said. “I’d never have guessed!”
Friday, 22 November 2013
Marie woke and caught her breath. She felt like she’d been shaken awake, and she stayed still for a moment, listening and waiting for it to happen again. The room remained dark and quiet though, so she sat up and reached across to the window and twitched the curtain aside slightly. The greyish light that came in showed her that it was morning and that it was raining outside. The room was blessedly empty, but she realised with a start that she was on the other side of the bed. Looking at the rumpled covers and the pillows on the floor she wondered how much she’d been tossing and turning to create such disarray. She understood why she’d woken up the way she had now; clearly she’d shaken herself awake without intending to.
She checked her alarm clock, it’s dull red digits pointing up to the ceiling where she’d knocked it over in her sleep, wondering why it hadn’t gone off. It read 5:58, an hour before she needed to get up. She righted the clock, twitched the curtain back into place, and lay down, pulling the covers over her. There was a pillow left on the bed, and she knew that if she got up to get the others she’d only feel obliged to straighten the covers, and then she’d be making the bed before she knew it… she made herself stop thinking that before the urge to get up and do it became any stronger.
She wasn’t sure that she’d get back to sleep, but the room seemed to just drift away from her and she jumped when the alarm clock started beeping. She hit it with the flat of her hand, muting it, and wondered if she could stay in bed for ten minutes longer. Then she blinked, and the clock read 7:15 and she wondered where the fifteen minutes had gone.
The room was cold when she got out of bed, and she hurried to the door where her dressing gown hung to put it on and hug it around her. Surely May mornings weren’t supposed to be this cold? Her breath condensed in the air in front of her, and when she drew the curtains back, to ensure that she wouldn’t just lie down on the bed, telling herself it was just for five minutes, and fall asleep again, she saw a pattern of frost on the glass.
The bathroom was just as cold, and the hot water in the shower was a real relief. She showered for as long as she dared and then got out feeling awake and cheerful. Wrapped in a bath sheet she wandered into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea and noticed that the windows were frosted there as well. She turned the tap on to fill the kettle from a little nervously, wondering the pipes would have frozen, but the water flowed freely and felt warm in comparison with the air.
With the kettle quietly heating the water she went back into the bedroom to get dressed, and opened the sliding glass doors of the Ikea wardrobe. They seemed to stick slightly when she tugged on them, and it took another try to get them to slide open. Inside, all of her blouses and dresses were covered in a fine filigree of ice like spiderwebs, and she stood there, staring at them with her mouth open in disbelief.
Janet nodded, checking all the bits and pieces that she needed for the front desk, listening to Marie describe the strange icy state of her flat that morning. When she reached the bit about the clothes all covered in ice she stopped what she was doing and sat down.
“Really?” she asked, her voice deep and resonant. “The wardrobe had iced up as well?”
“Yes!” said Marie. “Everything in it. The blouses clinked and crackled when I took one out. I had to take it into the bathroom and shake the ice off it.”
“Is the wardrobe against a wall that’s at the outside of the flat?”
“No. The only wall in my bedroom that’s an outside wall like that is the one the windows in. The wardrobe’s on the opposite side of the room.”
“Then how could things inside it ice up?” Janet looked quizzically at Marie, not questioning that it had happened but genuinely confused as to how it had happened.
“I don’t know! I thought maybe I should call the landlord and tell him.”
“You could,” said Janet slowly. “I guess he might care.”
“You don’t think he will, do you?”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like it’s his fault, really,” said Janet. “He might think that you’re leaving all the windows open, or–“
“Morning girls!” said Jimmy, opening the main doors wide and marching in. “You been putting any more exhibits in the fridge, darling?” He flashed a quick smile at Marie, an even quicker one at Janet, and disappeared through to his office. Marie grimaced, and closed and locked the main doors.
“Or ask you if you’ve been keeping your clothes in the fridge,” said Janet, her lips twisting.
“Very funny!” Marie hadn’t meant to snap, but something about the way Jimmy had come in had upset her again.
“I’m sorry, sorry,” said Janet. “It just seemed appropriate, you know?”
“No, I don’t know,” said Marie. “I should get rid of the fridge since you’re both so obsessed with it, then see how you cope.”
“I’m sorry,” said Janet again. “Look, it was a silly thing to say and I won’t mention it again. I’m just saying that I don’t think you’ve got enough there to go to the landlord with. Maybe you just had some freak weather in your road. Can you ask your neighbours if they had anything like that happen to them?”
“I don’t really know any of them,” said Marie. She twisted the key in the lock of the doors until it wouldn’t turn any further. “I suppose if I saw them in the stairwell though, maybe I could say something about it being cold for the time of year.”
“That’s a good idea.” Janet sounded genuinely enthusiastic. “If it’s happening to all of you then it definitely is something you can pick up with the landlord. It’s probably a health and safety issue then.”
“Do you think so?” Marie looked a little scared at the idea, her teeth worrying her lower lip. “I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, I just don’t want to have to defrost my clothes in the morning.”
Janet laughed and quickly stopped. “No,” she agreed, “that would be ridiculous.”
Thursday, 21 November 2013
Unlike room 302 the windows in here had clear glass and the light, though not as good as the electric lighting on the floor outside was adequate. Again there was a desk in there, set facing the windows and pushed up against the wall there, behind which was a chair. To the left of it, pushed up also against the wall were three straight-backed chairs with leather seat-cushions that looked quite old and rather fragile. More packing crates were set against the right-hand wall, and these were all stencilled with numbers beginning 301-. Hanging on the wall above the chairs was a map that looked as though it had been drawn on something other than paper; it was faded, and, from the corridor, impossible to do more than just make out the outline of whatever it was depicting. Dust lay heavily on all the surfaces, and there were a pile of papers on the desk.
“So what do you want from here?” asked Lieutenant Georges.
Joshua pointed into the room, and when she followed his finger her eyes narrowed.
“Footprints?” he asked, and she nodded. “That only go in?” She nodded again, her lips tightening and whitening now as well.
Neither of them could see anyone in the room, but the footprints clearly led from the door to the desk, and then stopped.
“Whoever it was could have walked backwards in their own steps,” said Lieutenant Georges after a few seconds. “It’s probably just a silly prank.”
Joshua started forward to look at what was in the room but she placed a hand on his chest, holding him back. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to investigate this first, she said. “You can’t go in there until I’m happy that I know what’s going on.”
“Oh,” said Joshua. “Damn, but we’re here now. Can’t I at least get the papers from the desk?”
Lieutenant Georges looked unhappy, and looked at the desk. Then she looked at him.
“Can I trust you to stay here when I tell you to?” she asked. Joshua nodded. “Seriously, you’re not going into that room and disturbing anything. You stand here, and you don’t move, or you don’t get your papers, and I go right back to my office and review your little breach of contract from earlier. Got that?”
Joshua nodded, and then seeing that she wanted more, said, “Yes. I stand here and do nothing until you come back.”
“Fine.” She stepped very carefully into the room, walking on tiptoe and standing only in the footprints that were already in the dust. Each step was slow, and she made sure that her tiptoe was down and steady before moving the next foot forwards. A little dust plumed up with each step, but little enough that Joshua had to actually watch for it. When she reached the desk she looked over everything on it quite carefully, and then took her gadget out of her pocket and took several pictures. The first four were done without a flash, and then she repeated them with the flash on. Only then did she pick up one pile of papers and carefully lay them crosswise on the second pile and pick them all up together. Then she looked over she shoulder, and very carefully started walking backwards again.
The whole process took nearly fifteen minutes, and Joshua stood as still as he could the entire time, waiting and watching. When Lieutenant Georges finally left the room she sank back down onto her feet and sighed.
“That hurts,” she said. “My calves are going to ache all day now.” She held out the pile of papers to Joshua.
“Don’t run off,” she said. “I need to check what you’re taking, and you’ll need to return them. We’re going back to Security in your building and they’ll all be catalogued there. And then I need to look in to what’s being going on in this tower.”
“Right,” said Joshua, slightly astonished by how long it was taking just to get hold of some papers left behind by an ancient member of faculty. “Thanks.”
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
Joshua hadn’t been to either of the towers on the campus before. They were at opposite ends of the same building, which was the oldest building and had originally been part of a fortification. The taller of the two was the King Richard Tower, and the shorter the Robin Hood Tower. The entire building was built from local stone and between the two towers were several large halls and, on the upper floor some offices. Joshua didn’t know anyone who had an office in the building, or even who knew who did have offices in the building. The large halls were used for graduations and other large ceremonies, and the King Richard Tower had an art studio at the top to take advantage of the views of the surrounding countryside.
“So is Robin Hood Tower just used for storage?” he asked as Lieutenant Georges unlocked a postern that led directly into the tower from the outside.
“I’m not entirely sure,” she said. This was the first time she’d spoken as they’d walked over. “My remit is the buildings around the Quadrangle, so I don’t usually come over here. As far as I know the tower isn’t used much at all any more.”
The door opened and a slightly musty smell spilled out and washed over them. Lieutenant Georges looked unimpressed, but Joshua wrinkled his nose.
“Ugh,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t smell like that all the way in.”
“You’ll get used to it,” said Lieutenant Georges. “I was reading the other day that oxygen smells absolutely dreadful, but because you smell it all the time you don’t notice it.”
“Really?” Joshua thought about that. “So, if you maybe held your breath for five minutes you could smell it when you started breathing again?”
“Why don’t you try it and find out?”
She led the way in, and then took a gadget from her pocket. Joshua recognised it as the device he’d been asked to sign when Venkat had been brought to his door. She turned it over, revealing a second screen, and poked at something on it, then read whatever the display showed. “Third floor,” she said. “Room 301,” so it’ll be the first.
The staircase in the tower spiralled up around the central column; each floor was an annular hallway with rooms leading off to the rooms on the outside. The stairs arrived on each floor, and then resumed the ascent a quarter turn around. Light was provided by skylights at the top of the tower and electric lighting attached to the central column. Orange cables ran from each of the lamps to the floor and disappeared to wherever the electric connections were made. Lieutenant Georges had to insert a lever-like metal key into a socket on the wall in order to turn the power on; then all the lamps on the floors lit up simultaneously and banished the dull grey light from the top of the tower.
“Follow me and don’t touch anything,” she said, setting her foot on the first step of the staircase.
The stairs were each a single stone block, worn in the middle by the passage of feet over time, and stained here and there. The walls were similarly constructed of large stone blocks, and the air was still, cold, and smelled musty still. The lamps shone brightly, but were covered with a thin coating of dust, and when Joshua walked past one he could smell the dull smell of the dust baking on. Their footsteps echoed slightly in the silent atmosphere.
The first floor was empty, and the second floor was almost empty; there was a decayed corpse of a bird pushed up against the wall between the two flights of stairs. Lieutenant Georges paused and photographed it with her gadget, and then added a note. When they reached the third floor she looked around and sighed.
“No numbers on the doors,” she said. “I can’t bring up the plans on this thing,” she waved the gadget. “They’re always doing this: they use the plans so they know where they’ve put things, but they don’t actually number the damn doors in the place where they’ve put them. Fine, well, 301 has to be one of these two.” She indicated the two doors that were between the stairs they’d just come up and the ones leading to the next floor.
“That one?” said Joshua, pointing to the door closest to them. Lieutenant Georges looked at the stairs, gauging if the door looked as though it were before or after the point where the stairs emerged.
“The other one, I think,” she said. “Not that it should matter, if you know what you’re looking for?”
Joshua shrugged. “I think so,” he said. “But it’s papers, so it might not be that obvious.”
Lieutenant Georges checked her keyring and selected another key from it, this one looking surprisingly thick. She tried it in the door, and it went in but wouldn’t turn. She pulled it out again and found the other key that was oddly thick on the ring, and tried that. This one turned, and the door opened when she gave it a solid push with both hands.
The room on the other side had a sickly greenish tint to it, which Joshua slowly realised was because the glass in the windows was shades of green. There were three mullioned windows, and in each lead-framed segment was a piece of glass a different shade of green to its neighbours. The room had a desk and a chair in it; on the desk was a globe of the world and a graduated circular disk with some arms that he thought might be an astrolabe or a sextant. Stacked against the walls opposite the desk were a number of packing crates, each stencilled with a number in black, and on the floor was a tattered rug that looked as though it might disintegrate if anyone were unwary enough to walk on it. The wall behind the desk had a tapestry hanging on it, but the detail was impossible to make out in the horrible green light.
“Well, that helps,” said Lieutenant Georges. She nodded at the packing cases, and Joshua realised that all of the stencilled numbers began 302-. “Wrong room.”
She closed the door and locked it again.
“Do you think anyone ever used that as an office?” asked Joshua. “There was the desk and everything, but the light was so bad!”
“I wouldn’t,” said Lieutenant Georges, finding the other key again and opening the door to the left of 302. The key turned with more reluctance, and the door wouldn’t budge until she shouldered it open. She looked at it oddly, and then at Joshua.
“That’s curious,” she said. “Anyone would think that 302 got used from time to time.”
Joshua smiled and nodded, but was more interested in what he could see in room 301.
Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Joshua looked at her face as he slipped past her and into the room, wondering if that was a joke or not. She wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t look angry either. “Thanks,” he said.
The office wasn’t quite large enough to fit a double bed in, but there was a table as long as his legs with a single chair on either side of it. Attached to the ceiling was a black, shiny hemisphere that probably housed a camera, and on the table were some coffee-rings, a half-empty cup of black coffee, and a fresh white notepad. Joshua sat on the side opposite the notepad, which had him facing the door.
“Right,” said Lieutenant Georges, sitting down opposite him. She produced a pen from the breast pocket of her jacket, but didn’t appear to be about to write anything down. She clicked it once. “You walked off leaving your visitor alone to wander around the building. Why didn’t you escort him out?”
“He was a crank!” said Joshua. “A complete waste of my time, he wouldn’t tell me why he’d written that paper, or what he’d done it for. He just kept telling me that he could help me and that I should go somewhere with him.”
Lieutenant Georges clicked her pen and looked at him. He waited, and she waited, and then he thought about what he’d said.
“Oh! Not like that,” he said. “Some place called Oakwell or Oakvale or something like that. He seemed to think that there was some mathematical stuff there. No other reason.”
The pen clicked, and then again.
“Whatever disagreement you may have had with him,” said Lieutenant Georges, sounding as though she was choosing her words, “you still left a visitor alone in the building. University policy is that all visitors are either escorted out of the building, or taken down to Security so that we can see to their departure. It is a security risk to allow unknown people, who are broadly unaccountable, to roam around the building. The university is old, and contains a lot of things whose value might not be apparent at a casual glance, but which a visitor might be able to identify, or simply be careless with. My problem here, Mr. Greene, is that you are in breach of that policy and don’t seem to be particularly concerned about it.”
The pen clicked.
“We removed your visitor from the building, and he left the university grounds shortly afterwards, so you’ll be pleased to here, I hope, that he hasn’t done anything that would cause a particular problem.”
The pen clicked again, and Joshua felt a cold sweat break out on his skin. Lieutenant Georges was staring at him now, and the pressure of her gaze was worrying.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and stopped. He was sorry, but he wasn’t sure that what he was saying really conveyed that. “I’m really sorry,” he tried. “I didn’t think –“
“Yes, well.” The pen clicked again. “That’s rather obvious, isn’t it?”
“He upset me!”
“We all get upset, Mr. Greene. That doesn’t excuse our behaviour afterwards though. You are employed by the university in an academic research post, aren’t you?” Joshua nodded. “Then surely you are paid to be clever, and to think clearly about things, no matter how upset you are? Or are you allowed to go home and not do your job because you’ve had an argument with a colleague, or because the weather’s upsetting you?”
Joshua shook his head. He felt as though he were five again and his mother was sitting him down and telling him why she was so disappointed in him. The look on Lieutenant Georges face and hers were almost identical, and he badly wanted to find something to say that would redeem himself in her eyes.
“I’m glad you understand,” said Lieutenant Georges. “I wish we’d not had to have this conversation. However, I now must remind you that when you were employed you signed a contract, and part of that contract said that you wouldn’t leave your visitors unattended in any of the university buildings.”
Joshua stared at her, the blood in his ears suddenly loud enough to almost drown her words out. Little pinpricks of light sparkled on the edges of his vision, and everything but Lieutenant Georges seemed to darken.
“You are, of course, in breach of that contract. In light of the fact that nothing actually went wrong, and given that you were upset when this happened, I suppose we can overlook it this time. And by overlook I mean only that we won’t take any action against you. This incident will be kept on file, and it will be taken into account if there are any further incidents of this nature.”
“Right,” said Joshua. His words sounded quiet in his ears, but the pinpricks of light were fading and the room seemed to be coming back into focus. “Right, thank-you. Thank-you.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Lieutenant Georges, and she smiled for the first time. “We don’t even tell your line manager about the first one unless it’s serious. And everyone, and I mean everyone, has had this conversation at some point.”
“Even Dr. Hawne?” Joshua didn’t expect a reply, but the idea that she’d ever been down here being spoken to like this was awesome.
“Even Dr. Hawne,” said Lieutenant Georges. “Though she is an exceptionally quick learner.”
“Oh wow.” Joshua sat there, still feeling a little numb, wondering how much of a bullet he’d just dodged.
“Thank-you for coming to see us,” said Lieutenant Georges, putting the pen away in her pocket. “I’ll show you out.” There was just the tiniest emphasis on her last sentence, a hint of reproach.
“Actually,” said Joshua, not standing up. “I came here for a different reason.” Lieutenant Georges looked surprised. “I didn’t know you wanted to talk to me,” he said. “I’ve not been back to my office yet. I wanted to ask about Robin Hood Tower.”
“What about it?”
“Well.” Joshua opened the journal to the bookmarked page and then flicked quickly through to the end of the article. “I asked our academic secretary about this guy,” he pointed, “and she said that his stuff all got moved into Robin Hood Tower. I was wondering if I could see it?”
The pen reappeared from Lieutenant Georges pocket and clicked.
“Yes,” she said after a moment. “Given our little chat just now though, you’ll need to be supervised.”
“Who by? Dr. Hawne?”
“No. By someone from security. When did you have in mind to go and visit the tower?”
“Now?” Joshua hadn’t expected such a quick decision, but it seemed like a good idea to go straight away if the offer was available.
“Hmm. Wait here.”
Lieutenant Georges left the room and turned right. Joshua looked around again, but the room was too small for him to have missed anything on his first inspection, and he didn’t want to look under the table in case the people watching the camera images decided that he was acting suspiciously. He took his phone out, and noted that he got no signal down here, and opened up the e-book reader on it. He’d read a couple of pages of a pre-print he’d been emailed a few days earlier when Lieutenant Georges came back in holding a set of keys on a keyring with a little yellow plastic fob.
“We can go now,” she said. “I’ll be your escort.”
“Great,” said Joshua, putting his phone away.