Arden Pharmaceuticals (corporate office), Upper mayfair, level 28
Corinna held up two lipsticks.
“Nude guava or blushing sand, Jav?”
In consultation with their mother, Giulia had decided photos of Corinna and Javier walking into a police station was going to stir up too much shit in the tabloids. Instead the police were sending officers up to Arden Pharma head offices.
According to Giulia’s assistant, they were currently being escorted in.
“I want to seem like I made an effort to look nice — and failed,” said Corinna, “…upset and hurt, but a believable victim. I want them to feel uncomfortable pushing me too hard, you know? Optimum trauma.”
Their lawyer was an impassive sort of man, and his irritation was only evidence to Javier because Javier’s suppressors were turned off in preparation for the police interview. He was standing next to the door like a bodyguard, eyes glancing at his phone every few moments.
“Please don’t say things like ‘optimum trauma’ when we’re in the room,” said Arthur Kaufman.
Corinna was checking her reflection in a hand-mirror. She had spent half an hour applying makeup before they left the apartment, carefully giving herself a faint pallor and shadows under the eyes. Her hair was tidy, but not sleek, and she was wearing a woollen turtleneck dress in a soft shade of stale wine.
She ignored their lawyer’s comment.
“Well?” she asked, clicking the two lipsticks in front of Javier’s face, fanning them between her fingers as one might poker-chips.
“Guava,” he said, opening her handbag and passing her a slim plastic case, “blot it though.”
“Mm,” said Corinna to her mirror.
She pressed her lips together in an air kiss, then dabbed them with matte oil. She tilted her chin to admire her reflection, eyelashes low.
“I think this is as ugly as I’m gonna get,” said Corinna, tilting her head the other way, “which is to say, beautiful.”
“They’re here,” said Arthur, phone to his ear, “Miss Arden?”
“Who did they send?” asked Corinna.
“Detective Inspector Ian Garner and Officer Felicity Anker. She works in homicide”
Corinna wrinkled her nose.
“That man has it out for me; suspicious as hell,” she said, “do I know Felicity?”
The lawyer turned his phone around to show Corinna a photograph. It didn’t surprise Javier one bit to know that his sister apparently kept profiles on various law enforcement personnel, but he wished he didn’t know for sure.
“I’ve told Mr Hansen to stall them, but we can’t for long. Are you ready?”
“She looks straight,” said Corinna, swiping through the photographs, “Jav, take off your jacket.”
“Great plan,” said Javier, rolling his eyes, “because I also look straight.”
Corinna raised both eyebrows and held them there, expectant.
“And lose the tie,” she added.
Javier mirrored her expression for a moment. Ignoring Arthur’s low hum of amusement, Javier shrugged off his suit jacket and dignity, and draped them both over the back of the nearest chair. Then he undid his tie, the top button of his shirt; folded the silk and tie-pin carefully into his jacket pocket. He held out both hands, palms up.
Corinna tossed her lipstick and mirror into her handbag, taking Javier’s hand. Her apathy was like a balm, familiar and sliding up his veins like a needle. Her skin was warm and dry, and she laced their fingers together.
Javier breathed out slowly.
“You’re wearing the suppressors?” Corinna said to their lawyer.
“As always,” he said, “but neither Garner or Anker are registered Aptees. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
“Can’t be too careful,” said Corinna, patting his elbow, “we need you to keep a cool head in there.”
The conference rooms on this floor were designed to make the most of the large windows and city views. They were on the thirty-fifth floor, and whilst Level 28 had not been the top level for some decades, the Arden corporate offices overlooked Hyde park, a swathe of green adjacent to the banking district.
They were some of Javier’s favourite rooms in the office because of the heavy wooden doors hiding the occupants from view.
Pascal — Giulia’s personal assistant — was waiting by one of those doors. Despite the clear flush of irritation, the man had never projected much anxiety or stress. Unlike many people in this building, Pascal’s general state of being did not leave a sour aftertaste at the back of Javier’s throat; a low itch of sustained cortisol.
He was also the only secretary that had lasted more than a year with Giulia. The unflappable demeanour had something to do with it, thought Javier. That and his unimaginative corporate wear. The man had been Giulia’s shadow for almost six years now, and he appeared like some astral projection wherever Giulia wanted to micromanage.
Pascal cast a judgmental eye over Javier’s attire.
“What took you so long?” he whispered.
“Powdering my nose,” said Corinna, batting her eyelashes.
“They’re waiting inside,” said Pascal.
To Arthur, he nodded once, voice barely audible: “if you need interference, give me a buzz. We’ve swept for recording devices but the usual things are running, just in case.”
“Cheers,” said Arthur, “I’ll keep a tight handle on our friends. I’ll talk to Giulia personally once we’re done.”
Pascal opened the door for them, stepping back deferentially.
It was one of the smaller meeting rooms; someone had swapped out the chairs for more casual ones, soft and grey. They surrounded a low circular table in the middle of the room; two coffees, half drunk. Behind them, London was grey and white, the sunlight struggling valiantly against the thick clouds and overpasses.
The officers turned in unison when they entered: a man in his late fifties and the woman from the photograph. She was strung tight like a wire; in contrast, the older officer was a rumble of calm contempt. Javier felt the matching pop of recognition from them.
Unfortunately, he recognised Ian Garner as well: Javier and Stephen were regular visitors to the station thanks to Stephen’s periodic joyriding incidents. From the look on Ian’s face, those incidents were fresh in his mind too.
Corinna’s squeezed Javier’s hand.
“Detective Inspector,” said Corinna, holding out her hand, “thanks for trekking upstairs.”
Ian shook her hand, then gestured at Felicity.
“This is Officer Anker,” he said shortly.
They all shook hands.
Corinna turned to Arthur.
“You don’t have to be here for this,” she said, tone pitch perfect in its faux-uncertainty, “it’s just a recount. I’m sure you’re busy.”
“No, no,” said Arthur, pulling one of the chairs back and gesturing Corinna into it, “your father insisted.”
He smiled blandly at the police officers.
“I’m sure you can understand the concern,” he said, “Miss Arden has had a traumatic experience.”
“Of course,” said Ian, with only the barest hint of hesitation, “and Mr Arden…?”
“I’m her emotional support sibling,” said Javier, flashing his best toothpaste-commercial smile.
To his great relief, Felicity smiled back – if barely. Projecting ease was the simplest way to unspool suspicious anxiety, but it had to be done slowly; like thumbing soft fraying thread.
Arthur pulled a chair out for himself, setting it a distance back from the table. They took that as a cue to all sit. Javier paused long enough to pour both Corinna and Arthur a glass of water. He glanced at the coffees.
“Would either of you like a top up?” he asked solicitously.
“No, thank you,” said Felicity.
As soon as he sat down, Corinna immediately latched onto his hand again.
“We’ll try not take up too much of your time, Miss Arden,” said Garner, “do you mind if my colleague here takes notes while we speak?”
“I could have given you a written statement..?”
“Under the circumstances, we thought it’d be more helpful if we had a chance to talk face to face,” said Garner, smiling, “you look well, I must say.”
Corinna blinked at him.
“Thanks to the healers,” she said, “and a few days rest.”
A grimace flickered across Garner’s face, a flash of something heavy in his chest. It was there and gone. Javier kept his expression carefully mild.
“She’s really meant to be in bed,” he said.
“Of course, let’s get straight to it,” he said, smiling tightly at Corinna, “could you tell me what happened on Sunday evening?”
“Sure,” said Corinna, “I had been there sorting out some things for Monday. Most of our retail deliveries get sent out around two AM. I finished up, came out — and then got shot, apparently.”
“Apparently?” asked Ian.
“Well, I didn’t see anything,” Corinna said, her mouth rounding into a wry pout, “it just fucking hurt.”
Corinna was leaning her elbow on the chair arm closest to Javier. Her body language was utterly relaxed; like a cat surveying birds outside the window. Javier felt his skin goosebump, hyper-aware of the two officers sitting across from them. The collective pool of their emotions were still, like the surface of a pool.
“You were there quite late,” said Ian, “do you normally work out of that office?”
“I don’t have a nine to five, Detective,” said Corinna, “it’s a family business. I work where I’m needed.”
Something hound-like flicked upwards in Ian’s face, and Javier palmed it down carefully. He also projected a chest-squeezing breath at his sister, an echo of his own first hand memory. Her gaze didn’t change, but she squeezed his hand warningly. He didn’t let up.
You’re meant to be confused and upset.
“I make myself available,” Corinna added, “it’s not always that late. I wasn’t there all day.”
“When did you arrive?”
They had rehearsed these details, thought Javier, back in the apartment: Corinna, Peter and Javier around the kitchen island. Corinna had recited these details to Arthur when he arrived, and Javier felt like he knew them by heart like new choreography.
They’d likely have some kind of footage, Peter had said, at least of us turning off the immediate highway. It’ll be around ten twenty or so, thirty minutes after we switched cars.
We should have blanked out all the cameras, Corinna had retorted.
“I think around half past ten?” said Corinna.
“So you were inside the building for just under an hour before you came out, and that’s when the shooter fired at you,” said Ian.
“I suppose. I didn’t see anybody.”
“Did you feel anything? I understand you’re a Firestarter.”
Javier raised both his eyebrows so that Corinna didn’t have to.
“I am,” she said, “but that’s not how it works…no, I didn’t sense the gun going off before it went off.”
“No human presence?” insisted Ian, “you didn’t sense anyone at all?”
“Is there a point to this line of questioning?” interrupted Arthur, “I believe my client said she wasn’t aware of anyone there. I’m not sure there’s much more for her to add.”
“Quite a few incidents happened that evening, immediately around the shooting,” said Felicity, “anything Ms Arden can recall would be tremendously helpful.”
“I did hear a second bang,” said Corinna, glancing at Javier as if for support, “but I don’t know if that was because I hit my head, or not. There was rain in my face. I remember that.”
Ian and Felicity exchanged a look.
“Do you remember what happened after the bang?” asked Ian, leaning forwards slightly in his chair. His anticipation tasted like a fine film of sugar, and Javier dug up a well of fear in counterpoint; the breathlessness, the sudden rush of cold and hot when he picked up the call.
Beside him, Corinna tensed. Her eyes were wet.
“Not really,” she said, voice unsteady, “it was hard to breathe. Couldn’t move—”
She took a deep breath, visibly shaky.
“I’m sorry,” said Ian, sounding so warm it was disconcerting because Javier couldn’t feel even a blush of sympathy: it ran up hard against the bedrock of scepticism.
“It must have been scary.”
“But you didn’t see or hear anyone, after that?” asked Ian, “what else can you remember?”
Corinna shook her head, lips pressed together. A tear rolled down her cheek, fit for cinema. Dutifully, Javier handed her a folded pocket square. She pressed it to her nose with her free hand, sniffing.
Ian’s eyes were laser-like, grey as the sky behind him. He was watching Corinna steadily, and Javier didn’t want to risk raising his hackles with too much emotion. Javier let the sympathetic echo bleed out over the room instead, hoping it was subtle enough to make the officer ease off.
“We have a recording of the 999 call,” said Ian, “someone called an ambulance for you. Do you mind listening, and telling us if you recognise the caller?”
“I don’t believe that is appropriate,” Arthur interjected, “she’s told you she can’t remember what happened — likely because she was unconscious.”
“Was anyone with you, when you left the building?” asked Ian, ignoring the lawyer.
We’re going to have to explain Peter’s presence, Javier had said, days earlier, how the hell are we going to do that? You called me.
We’re not going to explain anything, said Peter, I was never there.
“I don’t remember,” said Corinna, still shaky, “I didn’t see anyone.”
“Would you mind listening to the call for us?” asked Felicity, “It really would help. Whoever called the ambulance may have also seen the shooter.”
“Wait,” said Javier, feigning indignance, “you haven’t caught them yet? My sister almost died.”
Ian shot him a chilling look, and Javier stared straight back.
“Not yet,” said Ian after a moment, “but rest assured we’re looking at all possible avenues. And a step in that investigation is identifying the caller.”
“…caller ID?” suggested Javier, reciting his lines.
“No,” said Felicity, and there was another flare of something close to irritation from Ian. Javier tamped down the responding spark of satisfaction from Corinna. He hoped she was maintaining her ‘upset victim’ expression.
“We thought perhaps it could have been one of your employees,” said Ian, “who came out after hearing the gun-shot. But the number was scrambled — pretty unusual.”
“Surely you can identify this voice recording some other way, without upsetting Miss Arden,” said Arthur, stalwart, “or we can schedule another time —”
Ian looked at Corinna.
“Don’t you think it’s a little unusual, Miss Arden?”
Corinna was still holding Javier’s pocket square in her left hand, and her wrist twitched, like she wanted to throw it. Thankfully, Arthur stepped in again.
“Don’t answer,” he said, “some random person made a call while she was bleeding, probably unconscious — and you want her to what, document review for you? I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, Detective, but I would be careful about tainting the admissibility of any statements going forward.”
It was becoming clear that no amount of crocodile tears was going to make the Detective back down.
Javier held back a wince: Corinna had dug the edge of her thumbnail into the palm of his hand. He looked at Arthur, who was the very picture of legal outrage. His emotions were steel steady.
Ian felt much the same.
“We’re all on the same side,” he said, “we’re doing our best to catch this person. And what we really need you to do, Miss, is listen to the recording.”
Javier pushed Corinna over the edge of her tears, and she nodded, eyes wet, holding her breath as if trying to steady herself. Felicity smiled encouragingly at her, but Javier couldn’t quite grasp her expression. It looked softer than she was feeling.
Perhaps he needed to stress her out too; but that risked raising suspicions.
Steady, he thought, swallowing; a mild squeeze of the ribs. Something closer to a simple pain response.
When the recording played, the voice was clear, distorted only by the wail of a fire alarm and the static of rain and harsh breathing. Peter sounded hurried, but frightfully calm: Ambulance! Yes, I need an ambulance, 27 year old female Aptee shot through the chest — what? Firestarter. Corner of Hay Street, thirty fourth, on Nineteenth – just get here!
In the background, Javier could hear a strained, shallow wheeze; the staccato of rapid gasping. It was the sound of someone struggling to breathe, choking and wet.
He felt physically sick.
Beside him, Corinna’s eyes were big, leaning towards the tablet as if curious despite herself. Confusion was a complicated thing, and what Javier had learned over the years was that it didn’t matter if someone was feeling the precise thing you wanted them to feel. As long as they looked as if they were feeling confused, the end result was the same: you could fool most people that way, with body language and the rhythm of your breath, the motion of your eyes; the stitching of your words.
His twin was exceedingly good at the latter, when it counted. Javier’s Empathy helped with the rest.
He was relieved to see both Ian and Felicity hesitate. Corinna had matched her breathing to that same stuttering wheeze in the recording, and she was holding the pocket square to her mouth.
“Hey,” said Javier, reaching for her just as Corinna threw herself across the chair. She hid her face into his neck as he wrapped both arms around her shoulders. She went through the routine of a very convincing minor anxiety attack, coughing and running Javier’s collar damp. At least he wasn’t wearing his tie anymore. It was impossible to get water stains out of silk, if you waited too long.
He patted her on the back gently and glared at the Detective Inspector.
“Are we almost finished?”
“Maybe we should take a break,” suggested Arthur.
“Just a few more questions,” said Ian, shifting in his chair.
Corinna milked the moment for another minute, before pulling back. She carded a hand through her hair.
“Sorry,” she said, quietly, “it’s been…a lot.”
“Of course,” said Felicity, immediately, “I’m sorry to make you relive this. As Ian said, we’ve just got a few more questions and then we’ll be out of your hair.”
Corinna tucked herself against Javier’s arm, and nodded.
“Just coming back to that recording,” said Ian, clearing his throat, “do you recognise that voice?”
Corinna looked at Javier, and then at Arthur. She was very pale.
“I …” she said, barely audible, “I’m not sure. I’m not – I don’t even remember faces, sometimes.”
“He seemed to know a lot about you,” Ian said, eyes not leaving Corinna’s face, “he knew your age, your aptitude – are you sure you don’t recognise the voice? An employee? A friend? Someone else?”
“I’m not sure,” Corinna repeated, “sorry, I’m just – not sure.”
“Anyone with access to the internet knows those things,” said Arthur dismissively, “Miss Arden is something of a public figure, especially in London. Entirely probable that any random passerby could recognise her.”
“Maybe,” said Ian, “but the cameras didn’t catch anyone approaching on either end of that street.”
“And?” said Arthur, “there are multiple alleyways and buildings in between Brights and ‘the end of the street’.”
“Sorry, I should have been more clear,” said Ian, “none of the cameras showed anything. No passerby, No one approaching. In fact, the most interesting thing is it didn’t show Miss Arden getting shot either.”
For the first time, Arthur looked taken aback.
Ian tilted his head.
Javier was grateful for their rehearsal, because Corinna had spent a full fifteen minutes practicing her confusion faces in a hand mirror. She pulled it out now, brow creasing and eyes puffy with crying.
“Like they were broken?” she asked.
“Like they were tampered with,” said Ian.
© Frances Wren 2020, all rights reserved.
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