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Authors: Emily Winslow

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BOOK: The Start of Everything
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I paw at my pocket, unable to get hold of the buzzing phone inside it, until my left hand scoops it out and snaps it open against my ear. “Keene,” I bark into it. It’s not my brother. He hasn’t explained himself yet.

Forensics—pardon me: the CSI team—have new evidence. Their title was changed recently, so that real life can more closely conform to American TV. A hammer and bloody shirt have turned up in a brook running along Trumpington Road in Cambridge.

“That’s nowhere near our case,” Chloe says.

“And the strands of long hair wrapped around the hammer head are dark, not fair. But comparisons have been made with the damage to our skull, and the hammer fits as a possible weapon.”

“Maybe we’re wrong about our victim’s hair,” she muses. “Maybe the sweater was only borrowed from a blonde.”

Or maybe two separate people with longish hair have been beaten about the head with the claw end of a hammer.

“And the bloody shirt?” Chloe asks. The hammer had been wrapped in it.

“Blue sweatshirt. Small pocket. Nothing distinctive.” And no DNA or fingerprints from any of it, thanks to the water. It was as much a dead end as the victim’s red sweater.

Traffic congeals in the direction of Cambridge. The smell of exhaust tinges the air.

Chloe swerves. She pulls off to the side and flings the door open to be sick on the roadside.

“What’s wrong with you?” I say, but that’s not what I mean. I touch her back. Spasms undulate along her spine. When she finishes, she springs back up to sitting and wipes her mouth. She tells me there are tissues in the glove box.

I reach with my right hand. “Shit.” I reach with my left hand and pinch the latch. It takes four tries to make the door pop. I hand the packet over and she cleans up her shirt.

“You’d better go home,” I say.

“I’m fine.” She crumples up the used tissues and stuffs them into the door pocket.

Of course she can’t take even half a day off. I can’t get the job done alone.

“I’m fine,” she repeats.

That’s exactly what I say when I fumble my mobile. I say it when I struggle to write left-handed, when I have to be driven instead of drive. My right hand is useless, but I’m “fine.” I have regular physiotherapy. My left hand is compensating. I manage. I won’t give her less respect than I demand for myself.

“Get back on the road, then,” I say.

She stamps down the clutch and seizes the gear shift. The car jerks, then hurtles on towards Cambridge.

CHAPTER 7

MATHILDE OLIVER

L
ike Corpus, John’s is a succession of courtyards. A stone path cuts across the vast lawn of First Court, makes a plus sign in the lawn of Second Court, then outlines the rectangle of Third Court’s smaller lawn. On the other side of Third Court is the river.

I pressed both my palms against the stone balustrade of the Kitchen Bridge. One Katja had replied to me. She didn’t think she was the person my Stephen wanted but had agreed to meet here. She was late.

Just upstream, the river curved away; just downstream, the river’s only enclosed bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, filled my view. Across the water, wide lawns stretched out along the banks, and St. John’s postcard building, rightly called “the wedding cake,” loomed in a fussy froth of pinnacles. They rise up all over, like the points you make to test the stiffness of egg whites.

It wasn’t just the path I needed to mind. Riverside grass isn’t protected like courtyard grass; people walk and sit and lie on it, so I had to keep both paths and greens under surveillance. Katja told me she had
long blond hair. The dead girl had hair like that. I couldn’t shake the sketch from the newspaper out of my mind. I pictured this Katja in a red sweater. That’s why I missed her. I didn’t think it was her at all. She had to say, “Mathilde? I’m Katja. Are you looking for me?”

I was. But then, over her shoulder, I saw him, cutting across the lawn. He was bigger now. Still skinny, but taller and lumpy now with muscles. It had been six years, six growing-up years. But I think it was Luke.

“Yes, yes, I’m Mathilde,” I said. Then, “Do you know Luke Banning?” popped right out of me.

“I thought this was about someone called Stephen.”

“Yes.” I blinked.
It was, but

“My little brother’s called Stephen. He’s eleven.”

“No, that doesn’t—”

Luke jogged up the steps into the wedding cake. His figure stuttered in and out of view as he passed behind the row of pointed windows.

“There was a boy in my sixth-form class called Stephen. Does that count?”

“What?” I pulled my head around to face her again.

“A boy called Stephen. Back home in Exeter.”

“Is he a writer? Has he written a book?” I willed myself to pay attention.

She honked one loud
ha!
“No, he’s dense.”

I turned again. Luke had crossed onto the enclosed bridge parallel to ours. I squinted to follow his form behind the arches.

“Look,” she said, “I really don’t think I know any Stephen who would write to me at Corpus. That doesn’t make any sense.…”

I sprinted over the bridge and across the lawn and up the stone steps. I swung right, down the Gothic-windowed corridor. It narrowed into the enclosed bridge. I barrelled in and stopped at the crest of its stone hump. But for me, the bridge was empty. Katja gaped at me from the open-air Kitchen Bridge.

I cupped my hands around my mouth and called through the crisscrossed iron bars that cover all the glassless arches: “Katja?”

She waved me off and carried on.

“Katja!” I shouted. I surged over my bridge, too. I spilled out into
Third Court, the one with the unbroken rectangular lawn, and caught her up as she rounded the corner. “Do you know Luke Banning? Or Harrow, Luke Harrow? Was that him?” I panted, open-mouthed.

“Who?”

“The man on the bridge just now. Was that Luke?”

“I don’t know him. I didn’t see any—”

“He’s at John’s. You’re at John’s,” I accused her. “He was just on the bridge.” I pointed behind me. I stamped my foot.

Her mouth hung open at me.

“What’s wrong with you?” I demanded. I rubbed my back up against a stone pillar. I covered my face with my hands. When I pulled them down, she was gone.

I returned to the Kitchen Bridge and, again, pressed my palms on the stone balustrade. The coolness and solidity steadied me.

Punts glided underneath me. One chauffeur pushed his pole against the bottom and told lies about the empty clock faces on the wedding cake’s central tower. There’s a legend about a race with Trinity College to build the taller clock tower, and only one would be allowed to have an actual clock. It isn’t true. Anyone can have a clock in Cambridge. John’s could have a clock if it wanted. It has four blank, round faces instead. It chooses to not mark time.

I followed the path past the wedding cake and slipped out the back gate onto Queen’s Road. I crossed St. John’s sports ground, which was empty except for a gardener on a ride-on mower making stripes in the grass. In the middle of the field, a few trees huddled round the path. Two cigarette butts nestled among the roots. The miasma of their smoke still lingered.

The University expands to the west. This part of town is an ongoing construction project. Maths, Physics, and Computing build out here because advances in their subjects require new facilities. Astronomy and the Vet School have always been out here. They chose isolation, so the animals would have room and the astronomers would have darkness. Now new buildings spring up next to horse paddocks, and even Astronomy is building, crowding itself.

I cut through Maths. I crossed the car park and then Madingley
Road. Growling traffic followed me until I reached the turnoff. A cool avenue of trees culminated in the bright red door of the astronomy library.

I ran for the red door. Behind it, I U-turned into a stairwell. You have to turn immediately around to see it; most people don’t even know it’s there. The stairs wrap around and up. I breathed through my nose so I wouldn’t taste dust.

At the top, there’s a square half-height door, only a little bigger than an under-the-counter refrigerator. Its keyhole glowed red.

I took the key from the ledge on the wall. I stoppered the red light with it and twisted, hard. The door popped. I squinted and cupped my hand over my eyes. Sun shone hard on another red door; that’s what had made the keyhole bright.

The abandoned copper telescope dome over this red door was green with age, and ringed with a delicate filigree. It had been important once, but it wasn’t kept locked anymore. I entered and let the door fall shut behind me. I had a torch in my bag. I switched it on.

All was as I’d last left it. There was no telescope in here anymore; it was just an empty shell. There was only an awkward homemade table no one had wanted. Hundreds of wasp carcasses huddled in the corner where I’d swept them. The table was clean. The long beach chair I’d brought from home leaned, folded, against the round wall. I unfurled it and lay down.

I’d been living here since taping up Dad’s doors. I didn’t like seeing the tape. I brushed my teeth in the ladies’ room in the Hoyle Building; I’d done it two mornings already and no one said anything. I had clothes in a plastic bag. There were three more outfits in there before I needed to wash anything.

I’d deal with that then. For now, I closed my eyes.

“George!” I whispered. He couldn’t hear me. He was too far away.

The ground between us had been raked up by diggers. Plastic fencing ringed the resulting pit. On weekdays, the old buildings vibrated from the machines.

But today was Sunday. A white hard-hat rested on a seat. Caterpillar tracks pressed their zigzag patterns straight down into the mud.
People weren’t supposed to be here. Only the academically diligent and the cleaners were supposed to be about, in their own corners.

But I’d stepped out the red door to find more than a hundred strangers milling. They had nothing to do with the University. Children waved foam balls painted to look like planets and posed for pictures with characters from space movies. My father had once taken me to such a “family day.” He thought that because I liked science I’d welcome hands-on activities. Families are frightening. Kids shove, and dart, and jabber. Parents push monstrous buggies and swing massive bags from their shoulders. Wind blew the smell of grilling sausages at me. “George!” I hissed. I couldn’t see him anymore; a crowd around a roving R2-D2 filled up the space between the two white tents. I needed him. He was the only person in the crowd that I’d recognised.

There had been no reply yet to the note I left at Corpus for Katja. I’d left messages at departments as well, wherever there was a place to pin one. I put one up on the board here at Astronomy. I checked it every day.

I tried to go in when it was uncrowded, avoiding the twice-a-day teatimes and open evenings. Only once had someone stopped me to talk about my father. She’d said she was “so sorry.” She’d scooped up my hands and squeezed them. I let my fingers hang there until she let them go. People will do that if you wait it out. That’s another trick. Fighting or yelling only attracts more attention. I hold very still. Sometimes I count. I counted now: one plume of cooking smoke, two white plastic Stormtroopers patrolling the crowd …

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