By JuneBug <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Please see Page One for disclaimers
Jargon Alert: Just a touch, in Chapter twenty-six.
I apologise in advance.
Language Alert: A few words, in Chapter twenty-five. It's in keeping with the character, unfortunately. I've tried not to overdo it.
Twenty Four - Revelations
"What about this?" James looked over enquiringly, holding the garment against him.
Piersen stifled a laugh at the sight. "James, even if that was your colour, the cut of the dress really doesn't suit you."
Hazel eyes flattened a little, chiding her gently. "Very funny, Piersen. I meant for you."
"Sorry." Piersen chuckled apologtically, then stepped back, critically analysing the garment gracing the decidedly unfeminine form of her friend. "I don't know... this one might be a bit too adventurous for me."
James raised an eyebrow, conveying his dissention in pointed silence. Piersen's own subconscious mirrored his sentiments, prodding her deeply-ingrained good sense in the ribs. Oh come on, Piers. Take a walk on the wild side.
"Give it a go, boss. I have a good feeling about this." A cocky smile. "Even if it doesn't work out... what's a little loss of dignity amongst friends?"
She laughed. "That entails the assumption that I'm going to let you see it, James." She held off for a moment longer before extending her arm, conceding defeat. "Come on, hand it over."
"Excellent." He quickly draped the dress over her arm before she could rescind on her offer. "And I expect you to come out and show me - it won't do to have the shopkeeper throw me out for ripping out the doors to the change room, Piersen."
His friend gave him a flat look before disappearing into the cubicle.
That was too good. Much too good. Sighing with a heavy satisfaction, James turned and marked out a neat rectangle with his dawdling steps, eyes roaming the fashionably-minimalist store for want of something to occupy his mind.
Funny. That only seems to be a problem when she's not around.
He rubbed his chin as he wandered aimlessly between the aisles of overpriced clothing, his steps eventually taking him to the substantial pile of boxes and bags sitting by the floor-to-ceiling mirror. He glanced at their quarry with some amusement, the fruits of their slow journey along the Pitt Street boutiques as it wound its way through the Rocks.
When she says she likes something, she really doesn't hold back, does she? He smiled, playing back in his mind their foray in and out of a succession of buildings, the museum director quickly familiarising herself with most of the store managers up and down the street. She had them eating out of her hand by the time she stepped out of the door, and I don't think she even realised the kind of effect she was having on them.
That was one of the pleasures James derived from spending time with the small woman - her vibrant, golden presence that existed without pride or pretense, a guileless quality that was so open, yet was so difficult to define -
A grin twitched on the corners of his mouth as a memory slotted itself in the midst of his thoughts. It's like that first day, when we were all sitting in the boardroom, waiting for the Chairman to introduced the new Director to us... He laughed shortly, warming to his remembrances as they became more familiar. Gossip had been running rampant that this was going to be the biggest ton of bricks the Museum's ever had to deal with - everyone was bracing themselves for a monster, coming to whip us all into line...
The Chairman of the Museum Trust prowled around the room, eyeing his staff as a headmaster would at his afternoon detention class.
"Times have been tough for us lately... but this time, we're going to be tougher. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce you to the new director of the MCA."
He paused with all the dramatic nuance of a crack of thunder. And with that, he opened the door -
James grinned broadly now, ignoring the strange look the shop attendant threw in his direction. And in she strode, beautiful and confident and completely oblivious to the sounds of jaws hitting the table... it was priceless.
James paused, remembering there was there was a point to his runaway thoughts.
It was like... in that one instant between laying eyes on her and hearing her talk to us, we didn't know whether to laugh, or be the most frightened we had ever been in our lives. She looked like my next-door neighbour, but walked like a queen. Her smile was disarming yet her voice could command armies .
Who knew that such an unassuming, harmless package could hold such power in a glance, in a wave of her hand?
James paused, his butterfly thoughts moving seamlessly along another tangent. Then again, who would have known that she was married? Boy was that a surprise.
The thought nagged at him with stubborn persistence. When pressed, James could grudgingly concede that his knowledge of his friend was superficial at best - despite his strong conviction in the strength of their friendship - comparable to any employee who had read her resume in the article detailing her arrival in the staff newsletter, or any stranger who had chanced to engage her in polite conversation. She never seems to talk about her life outside of work, about her family or friends.
Even when I met her doctor friends a little over a week ago...
James frowned as more realisations flooded his thoughts, a harrowing litany that nagged at his brain. Ever since the events that night, his friend appeared to be lost in her office, barely speaking to the others unless absolutely necessary as if a cloud had descended over her. His best efforts to bring her out of her shell had all been rejected with warmth and gratitude, but they had been rejections, nonetheless. It was during this past week that James found himself wondering if his friend had anyone to look after her.
The well-built man tried to direct an admonishing look at himself in the mirror. Since when did you acquire a maternal instinct? I'm sure the boss can take care of herself.
Despite his best attempts to reassure himself, his thoughts continued relentlessly. Can you, Piersen...?
"Go home, review some numbers, go to sleep."
"Sounds like an exciting night out. No dinner?"
"Nothing in the fridge, James."
Where's your husband? Do you have family here? Friends? Lovers? He shook his head with a sigh, his brows suddenly feeling weighted and heavy. Is it lonely, Piersen?
His stream of consciousness was interrupted when the object of his thoughts peeped over the door of the cubicle, an apprehensive look in her eyes. "I don't know, James. I think this might be a bit... out of my league."
The man's face brightened, his hands swatting her protests away with a dismissive gesture. "I'll be the judge of that, thank you. Out you come."
There was a brief pause, and an audible sigh from behind the doors before it creaked open. Piersen stepped gingerly into view, and James' eyes lit up with obvious appreciation.
She lifted the material trailing the floor with her toe, her voice clinical. "I think I'm too short for this dress."
She looked up, and saw her normally-composed friend staring at her. She pursed her lips and stepped back a little, feeling self-conscious. "What?"
"Oh my." Not one to remain verbally challenged for long, James quickly augmented his critique. "You - you look divine."
Piersen raised her eyebrows with some scepticism, but had the good grace to blush. "You think? I think my skin is a bit too pale for this."
"God, no. Not at all." He swallowed, pulling himself togther before he ventured again, slowly at first. "This is perfect. Your complexion matches this dress wonderfully." His eyes roamed her figure, a calculating look dawning in his eye. "We could take off a little from the bottom, so you don't trip over, and.." He walked around behind her. "The back is gorgeous - this dress fits you like a glove -"
He broke off suddenly, the speculative gleam turning intense as he scrutinised his friend.
"What?" Piersen tried to turn around to look at him.
"Only..." James paced in front of her, muttering lightly through pursed lips as his elegant hands traced vaguely about her face. "If it were shorter here, and the back as well... and trim this bit -"
"James, you're talking about my hair." She smiled patiently at him, faintly amused. "You think I should get a haircut just to match this thing?"
He nodded with casual conviction, folding his arms to his chest. "It's the perfect complement to your dress."
Piersen turned away slightly as she laughed, the short clap of delight coloured with disbelief and a shot of intrigue. "My dress? I don't even have an excuse to buy a dress like this, James. Let alone getting a haircut to suit."
An eyebrow angled upwards. "On the contrary - I think you do."
Piersen smiled quietly, chiding him a little. "And you would know my social calender better than I do?"
His smile turned wicked. "Believe me, it is a fantastic excuse."
The museum director frowned with considerable thought, at an obvious loss for ideas. Her shopping partner looked on silently for a restrained moment before he spoke, his hand flourishing dramatically. "Picture this - early autumn evening, an open air terrace filled with tasteful music, fine wine and excellent food... the plates overflowing with deep fried lobster dumplings -"
"Lobster dumplings -" Understanding dawning, she nodded slowly, albeit lacking somewhat in enthusiasm. "The opening next week."
James snapped his fingers at her. "Absolutely. And it's just like you to remember the part about the food." He smiled beatifically at her before appraising her once more with indulgent pride. "I swear, Piers - the artwork wouldn't stand a chance with you looking like this."
She snorted softly. "I think I'd prefer to have the artwork on exhibition, James. Not the curators." She watched herself the mirror, uncertainty hovering in her steady gaze.
"Come on - how much better does this get? You have your first official engagement as the Director of the museum, you have found a dress that looks positively radiant on you, and it won't even break the bank." He grabbed the tag hanging off the hip of the dress, eyes flickering over it quickly. "Much." He flashed her an apologetic smile. "To imagine anyone else trying to squeeze themselves into this poor little dress, when only you can do it justice, would be a terrible insult to the couturier in any language."
There was a healthy colour to Piersen's cheeks when he finished his animated soliloquy, and without further word turned in front of the mirror with a speculative look in her eye.
Oh yes, I think we might have a winner here. James smiled broadly, and began again with earnest, resting his hands on her shoulders and looking her squarely in the eye. "No one shuts me up like you did when you walked through that door, Piersen. And once we restyle your hair, you'll be an absolute vision."
Piersen sighed, trying to ignore the blush rising in her cheeks as she blew a loose lock of hair out of her face. "Well, I do need a trim..." She grinned, knowing that it was becoming increasingly harder to walk away from the alluring feel of this dress, and well-nigh impossible to ignore her enthusiastic shopping partner. With a sidelong glance, she reprimanded him archly with an ongoing joke of theirs. "Has anyone told you how incredibly persuasive you are?"
"It has been mentioned once or twice, yes." He laughed, releasing his hold on her and turning her around back towards the cubicle. "Go on, get yourself out of that thing, and I'll introduce you to Steve. He will do wonders with your hair."
Feeling the ghost of her smile warm him to the quick, James couldn't resist a tiny skip of satisfaction, flashing a quick smile at the store attendant who gave him another lingering, worried glance.
Kai emerged from the bathroom, her skin still damp from the shower as she knotted the towel around her body. The morning thus far had been disappointing - following the events at the Esplanade she had no further inclination to be left to her own thoughts, signalling a retreat back to the hotel where she spent much too long in the shower, hoping that she could wash the experience from her memory.
She poured out a cup of Irish Breakfast and took a long sip as she lowered herself on the couch, reaching for her notes scattered amongst her laptop and several journals on the low coffee table. She was due to speak in a few hours, on the first official day of the conference. And while the interest and hype surrounding her project was already an established fact, last night's dinner and conversation had been more than useful as an indicator of the potential response to her announcement. True to her original anticipations, there appeared to be an equal share of enthusiasts and antagonists in the audience.
It will make question time all the more interesting, that's for sure. She grinned tightly, an innate part of her relishing the task of winning her sceptics over.
And to do that, she thought wryly, you could do worse than to look over your notes again. She reached out and thumbed through the stack of paper and graphs lightly. Even if you can recite them in your sleep.
Which was something she now found herself wanting - not the shallow, superficial sleep of the night before, but a long, enveloping slumber, one that did not involve an incessent shifting of restless muscles and untethered thoughts. In the airless suspension between half-wakefulness and tantalising sleep, consciousness lay in a mind that seemed feverish with activity, darting and shooting from memory to memory, leapfrogging in her brain and flashing long forgotten voices and images in her mind.
I think I made too much of a racket tossing around all night, Kai smiled slightly. That look I got this morning from the people next door...
Relief from the awful purgatory came only transiently to her last night. Her body would break free from the deafening echoes only to fall into them again, ending just before dawn with that strange haze of ethereal green light that defied description, yet was a shade so distinct and familiar it seemed seared into her brain.
Kai closed her eyes, feeling her body wrapped in a peculiar mix of polarised sensations from coiled tension to marrow-deep weariness. She allowed her long body to unravel along the couch, hoping that, given the chance, the bone-grating dichotomy would simply flow out from her body.
A sharp electronic trill emitted from her cell phone. Momentarily startled, Kai had to laugh at the perfectly wretched timing of it, throwing an arm over her eyes with an almost-euphoric despair.
I don't believe this...
Sighing, she straightened and reached for the phone which was demanding her attention, holding against her the towel that threatened to unknot itself.
"Good evening, Professor. Hope you're enjoying Boston." There was a grating edge to his tone.
"Julian." She closed her eyes, not sure if she was pleased or dismayed to hear from him. "You sound displeased."
"There was a joint meeting with OT and Oncology earlier today, about the exhibition due to open. The museum director came in to talk money and rally interest, and I had thought that you would be present."
A pause. Damn. I can't believe I forgot - "It had completely slipped my mind - I've had so many other priorities on my plate lately..."
"Yes, I know that now." His voice was more resigned, apologetic. "It was partly my fault - spending too much time at the museum and not keeping up with hospital memos. When are you making the announcement?"
"In two hours. Expect the phones in your office to be running anytime after that."
"I didn't realise it was so soon. Shall I call back later?"
"No, I need a distraction. How did the meeting go?"
He took a breath, stalling to gather his thoughts. "She's got her support and interest, but I don't think she gained any real ground today. She did her job well, but I think the others were looking to us for a definite commitment before they were willing pay up, seeing as the last thing we signed was only a preliminary agreement to pay our share in the venture. Seems like we're setting the standard here as far as monetary contributions go." There was a brief hesitation. "And I think word got around that you were less than enthusiastic about the idea - that wasn't helpful at all."
She frowned. "So they don't want to go ahead with it?"
"I didn't say that. They just need to see how committed you are. Pecuniarily speaking." There was a chuckle. "I don't think the director was too pleased about that. Or you."
Kai raised an eyebrow, her mind suddenly awake. "Me?"
"Well, maybe not you personally, but she did pull me aside after the meeting to express her... displeasure at your unexpected absence."
The image of the blonde woman with flashing green eyes came too easily to her, and Kai couldn't help but laugh aloud. "What did she say?"
"Hm... I don't know, Professor. You might not like what you hear..." She could hear Julian's teasing grin, his tone suggesting obviously wanting to tell her exactly what the museum director had said.
"Don't worry, Julian. I won't shoot the messenger." Smiling with anticipation, Kai leaned back in the couch and took a sip of her tea, waiting.
"Where to start...?" His voice was laden with suppressed mirth as he began. "Well, the meeting had finished, and most of the people had already left, so the room was empty. I was about to step out myself when I felt a hand on my arm - turns out it was the director. She very politely asked if she could speak frankly with me for a moment..."
"Certainly, Ms. Evans. Whatever's on your mind." He looked at the petite, attractive woman standing expectantly before him with a faint smile on her face. It was a young face, and a remarkably striking one - so much so that Julian could not have anticipated the brisk tone that came from those lips.
"Is it customary for the professor to absent himself without prior notice?"
Himself? Both brows raised, but he quickly got his surprise under control. "Not at all - this is the first time it has ever happened. I believe there has been some failure in communication between the Professor and myself, so if anything, I am partly to blame."
The woman smiled. Her voice was even, though it bore a hint of a steely amusement. "I should hope that he can keep his commitments even without your assistance, Mr Quinn. Much more could have been achieved had he been here."
She laughed - a warm, bright sound that in retrospect was deceptively harmless. "Both you and I can see that nothing will happen without definitive support from your neurology department. To be perfectly honest, it may have been more efficient simply meeting with your Professor alone." Curious green eyes bore into his. "Is it common for one person to have so much control over other departments?"
He shifted slightly, unprepared for the direct line of questioning. "The Professor has a lot of influence in this hospital, Ms. Evans."
"All the more reason for him to keep his commitments then. I hope he conducts his business in a more reliable manner, Mr. Quinn." Her lightly bantering tone became serious, as with her expression. "You do realise that this undertaking is a significant venture for the museum as well as for your hospital?"
The curator nodded, her voice softening to a lightly musical timbre once more. "I know you do your job well, Mr. Quinn, and that you're very attached to this project - which is why I'm being so straight-forward with you. I had wished for a more productive beginning - I hope you understand my position." She extended her hand, gripping his somewhat damp palm as she made her leave. "Please convey my regrets to the Professor at his absence."
"... then she just smiled like we were the best of friends, and walked off. I had to convince myself that this was the person had just told me to give you a piece of her mind." His shook his head in disbelief. "She's a dangerous one - I could feel it."
Stifling her internal chuckles, Kai grinned wolfishly and tried her best to hide it from her voice. "So it would seem." Boy - what I would have given to see that performance...
"I don't think she's been doing her homework, though. She seems to think that Professor Jamieson is a man."
"She thinks I'm a man - ?" Both eyebrows were arched high on her forehead at the surprise that this piece of information brought. Well... She laughed throatily, taking an unexpected delight in this strange misunderstanding as she lifted her teacup to her lips. "And you let her think that?"
"At that point, I didn't think it was wise to correct her. Being a smartass in that situation would not have been the right course of action." He paused, the silence tinged with mirth. "You never know - as they say, surprise is the best advantage. It might be useful, say, if she tracks you down and tries to get her teeth into you."
Kai tried not to choke on her tea, coughing slightly as she struggled with teacup and saucer.
Julian sounded concerned. "Are you alright, Professor?"
There was a slight pause as Kai pounded briefly on her chest, clearing her throat lightly. "I'm fine. Next time you see her, send her my deepest apologies." Taking a deep breath, she wiped at her grin with a corner of her towel, cementing a few decisions already made in her mind. "And a cheque for eight thousand - I'm impressed by what you've told me; that and the information you faxed me a week ago. I think this'll work out."
His pleasure at the decision was evident. "Marvellous! I'll notify the other departments." With a satisfied smile, Julian began to brief the doctor on other events in the hospital and relaying to her the activities in her department. "I've heard that Taylor and Rickson have been approaching Sanders quite a lot recently."
"That wouldn't surprise me. They're probably after a budget amendment, preferably before I get back." She sighed. "Geoff's very reliable. I'm not worried about how he handles them."
A worried pause. "I'd keep an eye on them all the same, Professor. There's too much animosity packed within those two."
Kai nodded, her lips pursed in thought for a moment before glancing at the clock. "I should go, Julian. I need to get ready, and so do you."
"Me? Oh, right. The announcement." He laughed. "I'll reprogram the answering machine. Good luck, Professor."
Hanging up, Kai could only smile. The morning light streamed through the window and blessed her tanned skin with warmth, and she could feel the clear surging of once-sluggish blood in her arteries. What do you know - it's shaping up to be a good day.
Basking in the sunlight for a moment longer, Kai closed her eyes and took in a deep breath before rising to her feet, letting the towel fall as she made for her wardrobe. She selected a conserative dark navy suit and black camisole, calm blue eyes tracking the fine pinstriping against the neatly tailored jacket and pants.
Considering the circumstances, it's surprising that I'm not more nervous.
A keynote speech at a conference of this calibre is a defining moment for any researcher, a public confrontation with very high wagers. Years of work and study are placed before both eminent and nameless peers, open to their scrutiny and questions. Even with its outward appearance of a civilised pooling-together of knowledge, research conferences were also a battleground for recognition and accolade where one's skills, expertise and reputation were put on the line.
And in a game where reputation bought credibility, funding and power, it meant everything was at stake.
The first thing Piersen realised when she heard the first snip of the hairdresser's scissors was how cold her neck was, but she had shrugged it off - the metal brushing her skin, perhaps. But it was a sensation that became all too noticeable as she walked along the footpath with her surrepticiously grinning companion, whom she pointedly refused to look at.
It wasn't that she was angry at him. Oh no, I'm wasn't angry at him at all. I'd just appreciate it if someone would explain the precise limits that would qualify a length of hair as a 'trim', preferably before they took scissors to my head. She shivered, feeling her own amber hair brush her face in unfamiliar places and tickle the back of her neck. For someone who has enjoyed long hair ever since she could remember, such a drastic change was bound to take a little getting used to.
"James, I thought you said a trim! What in Brixton do you call this??"
"Delicious!" James beamed a bright smile, holding her at arms length and admiring what he saw. "Don't you think so?"
"That's not the point - I can't believe they've taken this much off!" She raked her hands through her hair, still shocked at how quickly her fingers ran their course. "If it's one thing a girl has to be in absolute control of, it's how her hair is cut. I can't believe I just let you do this..."
"Piers, I swear I had no idea he meant inches -"
"Seven centimeters and seven inches are miles apart, James!" Her hands gesticulated figuratively to demonstrate her point, then looked forlornly at herself in the mirror once more. "I can't believe it - it's all gone..."
"I'm truly sorry, Piers." His voice, however, was not quite contrite. "But I swear... look at you!"
Piersen sighed, cocking her head a little as she scrutinised herself.
"See how it frame your face better and lifts the weight from your jawline?" His hands fluttered about her face as he gave critiqued her hair, while Piersen looked on, pursing her lips and blowing at the loose wisps touching her forehead. "You see what I mean? I sincerely think it looks incre- "
"Okay, okay." She cut him off with a raised palm. "Though I can't believe you didn't know the difference between inches and centimeters, James. For a curator that is really shameful."
She tried to glare at him but her expression promptly melted into a warm smile, and she tugged him on the arm. "Come on, you. I love it, and I'm glad you did it because I'd never have been adventurous enough. Now let's go and meet Adam - I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
James' somewhat teasing voice broke into her thoughts. "You speaking to me yet?"
A tart reply. "I didn't say I wasn't speaking to you, James. I'm just not going to look at you when you have that smug grin on your face."
He laughed, and made a weak attempt at defence. "It's not smug at all. It's just I've never seen you react that way over anything. In fact, I'm still not quite over the shock."
"Well, I've done my share of entertaining for the day. It's your responsibility for the rest of the night now." She gave him a sidelong grin.
"Alright, but one last thing..." Redistributing their shopping bags to one hand, he reached out and ruffled her hair, laughing and jumping back when the blonde woman loudly protested and reciprocated the attack. "Sorry, I've been dying to do that for the past half an hour."
Piersen was laughing too much to mind. "I used to do that to my brother all the time when we were young. Until he started growing."
"You've got a brother?" He stopped in front of a terrace house, motioning for her to open the gate.
"Yeah, two years younger." She smiled, holding the gate for her friend as he passed. "To come to think of it, you two would get along. You're both as silly as the other."
"If that's the case, I'd love to meet him. He's in England, right?" He fumbled in his pockets for his keys as they climbed the stone steps to his terrace house.
"Yeah. He runs a restaurant near Covent Garden." She grinned. "He was the one that fed me before you came along."
"Ah, so now I know my place in life." James laughed as he unlocked the door, ushering the smaller woman inside and following closely after. Even as they stepped through the doorway onto the slate floor, the two curators greeted by the swirling aromas of -
It was the first impression Piersen received upon entering James' house - the warm smell of vegetable soup, olive oil, roasted garlic and onions. And baked fish - all coming from a corner of the large room that was the kitchen, all sizzling fire interspersed with the roar of the range hood with one man conducting the extraordinary culinary ensemble.
"Hey there!" The lean, dark haired man looked up, waving his spatula from his end of the room before he strode towards them, wiping his hands on a towel. "You must be Piersen!"
James smiled as his flatmate approached, taking their bags and placing them in the hallway. "Piersen, meet Adam."
The man extended his hand towards her and they shook hands. "It's good to finally meet you - James keeps prattling on about you, you know."
"Oh, really? And what exactly does he say about me?" Piersen laughed as she released her grip, green eyes examining Adam's fine-boned face.
He laughed, motioning for them to step into the living area. "Amongst other things, that you would rather starve yourself than cook. You better prepare yourself - we are going to spoil you tonight."
Piersen raised a provocative eyebrow. "Ooh, I like the sound of that. Anything I can do?"
"Nope, we'll be fine here. How about I fix you a drink, and let you relax for a little while." He cast a look at the piles of bags on the floor, and a withering look at the tall man who brushed past him into the kitchen. "Methinks the two of you have been busy this evening."
Piersen smiled. "James is an awful influence, I tell you."
"Oh, that I know very well." Adam shot another glance at James, who was in the process of selecting two glasses. "He must be a nightmare to order around at work."
"With the right persuasion, my dear, I can be the perfect mercenary." James called good-naturedly as he approached from the kitchen, offering a glass of white to Piersen. "Now - seeing as a certain person here is starving, at least last time I heard, how about we leave you to entertain yourself while we get dinner together, yes?"
"No complaints from me." Piersen smiled easily and meandered to the lounge portion of the room. She cast her eye around the walls, idly sipping her wine and noting the texture of it as it swirled in her mouth. This part of the house was tastefully decorated - James' touch, no doubt - with bold colours and oddities scattered in endless nooks and crannies. Paintings capturing explosions of colour adorned the walls, interspersed with photos, everywhere - like a visual history surrounding her.
Out of curiosity, she picked a photograph, and smiled when she recognised the familiar figure of James in an overcoat, striking a pose outside the Guggenheim in New York. Her eyes followed the trail of photos, noting faces familiar and strange, until she stopped.
It was Golden Gate bridge at sunset, the brilliant orange and reds smearing across the sky like paint off the hands of an exuberant child, the thin silhouette of the bridge spanning the obsidian bay. But Piersen did not see the magnificent expanse of colour, nor the breathtaking beauty of the composition.
Her eyes were rivetted on the foreground, on the two figures standing on the edge of a pier, their faces alive with laughter, arms wrapped in a tight, warm embrace. Her fingers reached out, not knowing what she was seeking as she touched the glass surface, her eyes mesmerised by what the photo could not show.
James... and Adam. I had no idea...
Her eyes flickered to the kitchen area, watching the two men bustle about juggling pots and pans in apparent confusion, but in perfect choreography as they laughed. A hand brushing the small of the other's back, a smile and sidelong glance as fingers busied over diced vegetables - tiny gestures whispering insistently to her more than words could ever explain.
As a girl clutching to her Cinderella dreams Piersen swore she would be able to recognise love when it crossed her path. Even when those dreams matured into intangible desires she searched for it in the casual embrace of lovers passing by, in the face of her husband when he bound himself to a promise. But it was only now that she saw a shade of its compelling strength from a source that surprised her more than she would willingly admit.
Her eyes took in every touch, every glance - and she knew, with certainty as true as an absolute truth could be. The way one complemented the other, each a link in the other's chain, all coming together in a wonderfully complex, yet poignantly simple completion.
It was a wonderous insight. And a most unexpected realisation.
She laughed softly out of a self-conscious bemusement, and
chided herself gently. What do you know, Piers - you learn something new everyday. It
is out there - maybe not in the places you had expected, but it's there.
Turning back to the photo, she smiled as the brief surprise folded itself into a quiet contentment, feeling the implicit happiness in the picture touch her heart while the clatter from the kitchen provided perfect counterpoint, filling her senses.
Twenty Five - Res Ipsa Loquitur
Chris walked in slowly and closed the door gently behind him. To an outsider he would have have looked terribly out of place in this room - his solidly athletic build hewn from years of rugby training made him a bull in this 18th century glasshouse, despite the apparent ease with which he move about the rooms. In his plain sweater, rough jeans and scuffed shoes it would have seemed impossible that the sandy-blond man had spent his childhood in this house at all.
The tall glass doors opening into the expansive manicured grounds gave the room an illusion of airiness despite the starched opulence of the drawing room, the heavy colours of the Victorian wallpaper and onaments offset by the streaming oblique columns of afternoon sun. He walked up to the primly seated figure in a large chair, and chastely kissed her on the cheek.
"Christopher." Katherine Evans brushed her fingers across the back of his hand and led him to the seat in front of her. In contrast to her son, her elegantly poised slightness made her look fragile, though her eyes were as steely as agates. Her face was made up to perfection and her fading auburn hair neatly coiffed, matching the attire and understated ornaments that gave her diminutive stature a regal and formidable presence. "How was your trip?"
"It was alright. The traffic out of London was shocking as usual, and there was quite a bit of turbulence over the Midlands, but I'm here in one piece." Chris pertinently omitted the difficulties in organising transport at such late notice, an unexpected summon from his mother's housekeeper having caught him by surprise. There was a cold grip of fear that something had happened to her - a fear that had plagued him ever since the death of his father a few months ago, one strong enough to send him scrambling to get back to their family estate.
"How are things in London?"
He shrugged, though there was no hiding of the pride in his voice. "We're doing well, actually. The restaurant's just been listed as one of the top ten in the Guardian, and business has been up 11% in the past month."
"That's good to hear." She regarded him silently with an imperceptible frown. "Have you heard anything else about Richard?"
A voice echoed in hs mind, its timbres surprisingly close to his sister's. Whoa. Watch it here, Crispy. "No. I haven't spoken to the hospital since they called me by accident." The tall blond man consciously chose his words carefully, keeping closely his the constructed story. "I'm assuming that he's doing fine."
"If he was doing fine, dear, he would be here at home, not staying in the hospital."
Grey-green eyes averted in thought as she leaned back in her seat, crossing her legs comfortably. "I'm worried about him, and his parents are worried about him too. The firm can't function without their CEO, and even though Warwick Matherson is filling in for him nicely, I'd still feel more comfortable if he was back here as soon as possible."
"Naturally." Chris nodded obligingly, mentally
trying to extrapolate where this conversation would lead. "I don't know how much I
can help, though. I'm as much in the dark as you are."
"Yes, and that is about to change."
He tried to stop the interest from showing on his face. "What do you mean?"
"I just spoke with the head of the Sydney branch this morning. I explained why Richard didn't arrive at the Regional meeting and asked him to send me every detail about the hospital and the doctor in charge. I also asked him to try and arrange for his medical files to be transferred over here."
"I don't think they can do that, Mum. Besides, what would his files mean to you?"
"They are not for me. Last time I was in London for the Charity committee I met Sir Leighton -" Seeing her son's puzzled expression, she supplied further. "His family has been famous in medicine for generations. Sir Leighton was the head of the Royal College of Physicians before he retired -"
" - And you wanted him to look over Richard's notes." He rolled his eyes with some exasperation. "Mum, I'm sure that the doctors in Sydney are more than competent."
"I certainly hope so. Richard will have the very best of care - I won't just have anyone laying their dirty hands on him."
Chris turned away, not wanting his mother to see the brief flicker of scorn in his eyes. Boy, that's just so ironic, isn't it? Would you believe how many hands have been on him, Mum?
Her next question cut into his thoughts. "Have you spoken with your sister?"
"No - we haven't spoken since she left. Have you heard from her?"
She appeared to ignore his question, the severe lines of her face furrowing into a look of concern. "Perhaps you should let her know about Richard. It might be good to have her look after him - being stuck alone in a strange country can't be good for him." She paused, appearing to consider her thoughts. "I'm worried about Piersen as well - she hasn't sent word since last month, when she left us her new address."
"I'm sure she's well, Mum. Piersen knows how to take care of herself."
"I don't know. I don't like the idea of her being on her own, at the other end of the world. Goodness knows what she's doing with herself these days." Her voice held a strange quality that was neither weariness nor reprimand, and when she sighed, Chris suddenly noted how much older his mother seemed to look at that moment.
The silence dragged on for several moments, and Chris sat wordless, watching as his mother's gaze searched the gardens beyond the windows. When she spoke again, her voice startled him out of his own quiet observation. "I never liked the idea of her traipsing around the world in the first place. For the past five years she has scarcely been in the country, let alone being at home. Those artist types have made her wild -"
Chris started, his natural inclincation prompting him to rebuke sharply before caution reined him in. "Piers is hardly wild, Mum. And it's not like she was roaming aimlessly for the past five years - she's been working really hard."
"Work. That's all she thinks about. She should be with her family." The normally composed voice was injected with harshness before withering into a bitter calm. "Three weeks - just three weeks after her father passes away she runs off..."
Chris' flare of anger melted to nothing as he watched the pale face stiffen, her voice trailing off to broken incompletion. There was something in his mother's eyes that seemed so much like his sister's then, only... greyer; malachite where Piersen's were clear as glass. He felt a stronger connection to his aloof mother then, one that transcended the distant formality that he had known all his life. And in that instant he reached out and covered her hand, surprised at the skin that was cold to the touch.
His voice was quiet. "Mum - Piersen loves Dad. We all do. She just deals with things differently to us..."
If Katherine Evans was surprised, she did not show it. Instead, she smiled briefly at the intimate gesture before withdrawing her hand, sighing as she reclining back in her chair. "Well, at least I still have you here, Christopher. Once Richard gets back, things will return to normal again."
"Maybe Piersen might come home for a bit too." He offered, watching her mother intently as he continued. "When things have settled between her and Richard."
Katherine Evans nodded, her voice quietly confident. "Richard will resolve their misunderstanding. I'm sure she'll be back where she belongs as soon as he recovers."
And you think she belongs with Richard... why are you so sure that Piers will take him back?
There was a long spell where nothing was said, and Chris could very clearly hear the clock in the hall tick slowly, then suddenly chime five o'clock.
The elderly woman looked up at him, now every bit the regal matriarch once more. "Have you been to see your father yet?"
"No, I came straight here from the airport. I was planning to drive over to the church after I'd seen you first."
"Go visit your father - it's getting late, and I'd like you back in time for dinner. The Stamfords and Mathersons are joining us. In fact, Warwick Matherson has been asking after you. He is very interested in seeing you in the firm. I asked you to come home for dinner so that you could speak with him."
"That's why you asked me out here?" Another pep-talk trying to get me to leave my job and join the firm? He gritted his teeth, inhaling sharply as he tried to stifle resurfacing frustrations. My god, you scare me half to death, make me come out here like a horseman of the Apocalypse, when you're just trying to get me into the business again?
She countered his outburst with a slight flicker of her hand. "It was just a suggestion, dear. Although quite frankly, I think it's very kind of him to keep a position open for you, considering how many times you have refused him. Besides, how can you know something isn't for you if you haven't tried it? You're nearly twenty-six, Christopher. I want to see you make something out of your life."
"I am making something out of my life. I'm happy doing what I'm doing."
"I know you are. But being happy isn't everything, dear. There are traditions and commitments you have to learn to honour."
A disbelieving snort. "And you think having me join ranks with Warwick and Richard is going to teach me about commitment?"
Her voice cut in firmly, emphatically. "No. It's about tradition. The company is your heritage, Christopher. If you turn away from it now, you turn away from everything your great-great-grandfather did to build the firm." She spoke with a determined clearness, her voice almost ringing as she addressed her son. "The part about commitment is fulfilling you father's wish. He had always dreamt of seeing you run the company in his footsteps." An unasked question hovered between them, but Chris heard it as clearly as if it had been shouted to him.
"Do you think I would willingly deny him anything? I loved him every bit as much as you did - " His angry eyes met his mother's unwavering imperious gaze, and while he immediately regretted raising his voice to her, every nerve told him to remain defiant. When I told him about the restaurant, he was so happy for me... why can't you be satisfied, Mum? Am I such a disappointment to you?
Tearing his eyes away, he wordlessly rose to his feet and headed for the door, remaining resolutely silent.
Katherine Evans watched her son stalk away. So angry, Christopher. Perhaps it was a mother's insight or some sixth female sense, but she could read his storm-cloud face like a book despite his best attempts to hide his thoughts from her. In a way it was touching, knowing the effort he made to stifle his anger in her presence. Even with his grandfather's temper, he had always been a sweet, considerate child...
She heard the latch of the door handle turn, and before her son could leave the room she raised her voice a little, causing him to still.
"Oh, and Christopher?"
He turned, his dark brown eyes wary as he regarded his mother once more.
"If you have time before dinner, be a dear and stop by at the travel agent's for me - I want to take a trip to Sydney."
"This fish is incredible! What did you season this with?"
Piersen smiled over at the couple sitting opposite her, a fine chunk of swordfish poised on a silver fork halfway up to her lips. The clanging rabble of a busy kitchen had now brittly dissolved to the light clink of cutlery on ceramic, with the swinging beat of Stan Getz keeping countertime.
Adam toasted her briefly with his wineglass, thanking her for the compliment. "Well, it's the recipe my head chef came up with, and he swore me to secrecy. So I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
"Don't worry, Piers - I'll be here to defend you, every step of the way." James brandished his fish-knife, parried effectively by a casual flick of Adam's fork.
Piersen laughed, then direct her question again to the black-haired man. "So how did you get into running clubs and restaurants?"
"How did your brother?"
"He hated business law. So he opted for a change."
Adam grinned. "Well, I was sort of in the same boat. I'm trained in Biochemistry, but I ended up having more fun mixing cocktails than animal fluids, you know?"
James nodded, mid-chew. "At least you can drink your mistakes."
His partner gave him a quick smile, then went on. "The club I run now used to be a run-down old pub from the thirties. Half of the building used to be a cinema, but it folded decades ago, and was all boarded up. When the owner offered to put it up for sale, I jumped at the chance. There was so much room to expand, and it still had the grand old art deco feel to it. All it needed was a clean up - and I had myself a club."
"He left out the stress about securing loans, all the sleepless nights, the crabby mornings, worrying about whether or not it was going to get off the ground..." James punctuated with a quick bite into his poached fig.
"... But it was worth it. It might not be popular forever, but as long as there's good business, I'm happy."
Piersen watched the both of them, then smiled. "Golly, now you're finishing each other's sentences. How long have the two of you been together?"
James gave his lover a quirked smile. "Almost three years."
"Three years? God, feels like a million lifetimes." Adam rolled his eyes, though the curve to his lips betrayed the artfully-crafted exasperation.
"Sometimes, I wonder how I put up with you. Really, though - it was the hardest thing on earth, getting him to notice me." He laughingly dodged Piersen's disbelieving look. "Okay - I'm no shrinking violet, but this man here is probably the most clueless man in Sydney. I remember seeing him that first time, and I knew he was mine."
Adam shook his head, grinning tightly. "It's a good thing I love him for his confidence."
Piersen watched her friend with a smile, though her eyes shone with something more than just wonder. "Love at first sight. That's quite a story."
"I thought so, too. But it took him months and months to see things my way. We were so different - for heaven's sake, he reads scientific journals for fun! I was fighting an uphill battle."
Adam put down his fork and raised a dangerous eyebrow at his partner, feigning indignance. "Uphill battle? Your idea of courtship was a night out to the movies. I wanted to be wined and dined, James - I wasn't just going to give in to charm, you know."
Piersen laughed at their familiar bickering. "You two are such a married couple."
"Married!" James declaimed flamboyantly. "How could you ever think of such a thing!"
Adam joined in the laughter, finding the breath to speak as the commotion slowly died down. "You married, Piersen?"
It was such a simple, casual question. Yet James found himself unconsciously holding his breath for the woman's answer.
She smiled, a little too earnestly. "I'm separated."
Adam nodded solemnly. "Stupid."
James growled a warning, feeling acutely embarrassed for his friend. "Adam - !"
The dark-haired man make a move to correct himself. "Not you, your husband. He must be stupid to let himself lose someone like you."
"No, its alright." Piersen smiled reassuringly, more intrigued than affected. "I think you might be a bit biased."
"I know. But all men are bastards when it comes to women. They should come over to our side of the fence - that way, you'd be happy, they'd be happy."
"And we'd be even happier." James guffawed, throwing an arm around his partner as the three broke into raucous laughter.
Piersen tried to catch her breath. "Well, that's all fine and good for you - but with all the men gone, what does that leave me?"
Amongst their laughter, the two men glanced at each other for a sober heartbeat, then collapsed further into their mirth. Piersen watched them for a moment, shaking her head helplessly with a good measure of amusement, and continued with her meal.
Chris took a slow, measured breath - In. Out. Okay. This is unexpected. This is fucking unexpected. Let's collect yourself and regroup before you mouth off, shall we? Forcing a smile, he ignored the sudden freezing grip in his stomach and turned a benign laugh back to his mother. "You know, for a moment I thought you were telling me that you were going to Sydney."
"I was. I thought you could organise the details for me, since you seem so familiar with that kind of thing."
This is bad. This is very, very bad. He tried to think on his feet, speaking carefully. "What did you have in mind of achieving?"
His mother smiled faintly at him, a droll gleam in her eyes. "Achieving? Is it that unusual for me to want to go for a holiday?"
"You hate flying, Mum."
"Someone has to go to that Regional meeting, Christopher. And we need Warwick too much here to send him over."
Another pause, broken by soft footfalls as Chris slowly returned to his place on the ottoman. Thoughts rabbled furiously in his mind. It's not just the meeting - Mum would never fly out just for a meeting. "What's the big deal about the meeting? Surely there's plenty of people on the board you can send over."
"We have a very crucial agenda to discuss and implement in Asia, and I'm not going to send someone I don't trust to deal with it. Outside of Richard and Warwick, there is no one else I would entrust with the task." She favoured him with a significant look. "Why do you think I called you so urgently back here, Christopher? Yes, I wanted Warwick to speak with you. I need people I can trust in the firm, and right now I am afraid that the Board is fast being overrun by strangers. This business was your father's lifeblood - and my father, and his father before that. And now there isn't a single drop of our family blood left in the company except me. I can't allow this to continue down its course - I need family, people I trust. I need you in the firm, and I need Richard back as CEO."
Chris remained silent for a long moment. Well. That was new - no double-entendres, no games. She must be feeling pretty desperate to come right out with it like this. He mirrored her words wryly. "You need me in the firm?"
He shook his head firmly. "It's not possible, Mum. What you do - what Richard does... it's not for me."
"It's unfortunate -- that such a fine history of financial acumen should suddenly decide to skip a generation." A short, derisive laugh cut into a protracted silence. "Your sister's the same - squandering her talents on one struggling gallery after another. I didn't send her to Cambridge to become a book-keeping bohemian."
She broke off from her reverie, suddenly focusing on an invisible fleck of lint on her sleeve. With meticulous fingers, she lifted it off and watched it as it fell meandering, wilting to the ornate rug.
I will not be dissuaded. The grey-green regard returned to her son. "She will come home."
"Is that what you're going to do? Go to Sydney and order her to come home?" He shook his head, unable to articulate his intent. "It's never going to work, Mum. The two of you together..."
An amused smile. "You don't think I can have a civil conversation with my own daughter?"
"You are both as stubborn as the other." And willful. And determined to get your own way. If any serious conversation didn't end up with you mad at Piers, she would be walking out on you...
Chris bounded down the stairs, the elegantly trimmed carpet muffling his heavy footfalls against the protesting darkwood steps. He made his way purposefully to the Drawing Room, knowing that it was his mother's customary residence, intending to take his leave from his parents before returning to London.
"Any self-respecting woman... try being a decent wife to him for a change?
Chris slowed his approach, hearing his mother's muffled voice filter through the walls with tight sarcasm.
"It goes both ways, Mum... A decent husband would be conducive to..., wouldn't you think?"
He remained frozen in place, not knowing whether to walk on by or remain. His sister's reply was much clearer in its tense restraint, the slight waver the only indication that her voice was unaccustomed to the hard tone it had adopted. With a brief twinge of guilt, he strained to hear the muted conversation while his mind tried to connect the pieces together.
"With you traipsing around the world... ... I will not have any of this..."
"I'm going to live my life as I see fit, not to your idea of respectability -"
"Piersen, don't you dare... I forbid you to run off to..."
"I'm sorry, Mum - but I don't have to hear this." The sound of a glass door opening and closing followed, the slightly melodic overtones of rattling glass panes ringing briefly.
"Piersen. Piersen!" His mother's anger rang clearly in his ears. "Charles, this cannot be tolerated -" Her voice faded into lipped mutters as she addressed her husband.
There was a slight shuffle of cloth against cloth. "Look, I'll go and find her. I'm about to leave for my walk anyway." His father's voice was much closer, almost on the other side of the door, and Chris jumped back further down the corridor.
The door opened, and Charles Evans met his son's eyes in a silent exchange.
"You're heading back to London?"
Chris answered awkwardly. "Yes - I was just about to let you know I was leaving."
"You might want to see if your mother wants to come with you - she has the Society Luncheon tomorrow. It might be good for her to get there a bit earlier."
Chris understood, and nodded.
"Good. I wouldn't want her to have to rush, you know. She gets so agitated everytime she has to rush into town..." The stoic, distinguished figure opened the coatroom, retrieving his canvas jacket and hat. He pulled them on quickly as he headed through the foyer and opened the front door, calling over his shoulder just before the threshold.
Charles Evans grabbed his hiking stick from against the lintel, and walked from sight.
Chris shrank away from the remainder of his recollections, an echo of a crimson pain that was still too close to the surface stopping him short. He was almost thankful when his mother's voice cut into the silence.
"Why, Christopher - was there someone else you think would be better for the job?"
Anyone else would be better for the job. He bit his tongue, careful not to blurt out too much. If you say the right things, Crispy, this might not turn out to be the disaster it appears to be... "I just don't think you'd make very much headway."
"But someone else - for instance, you - might." Katherine Evans finished his thought neatly for him, nodding slightly. "Well, Christopher. What are you doing this weekend?"
The blond man stilled imperceptibly, realising that his mother was two steps ahead of him. He let out his interrupted breath slowly. "Excuse me?"
"I am asking if you are willing to speak with your sister this weekend."
Chris snorted. "It doesn't take a weekend to talk to her."
"It does to fly there, dear."
"Fly?" The casual set of his face jumped alive into indignation. "My god, Mum, the restaurant's the busiest on the Friday-Sunday period - you want me to put my life on hold so I can take off for a weekend?"
"And is that such a huge favour to ask?" Her steely gaze pinned sharply to his face. "Perhaps you may consider it unreasonable of me to ask you to be involved in a company that your family has run for three generations. And perhaps it is wrong of me to have greater expectations of you. But is it so difficult for you to put your restaurant aside for your sister?"
Was it? Do you know what you're getting yourself into, Sir Crispy? You really think you can walk out on the restaurant, fly over to the other side of the world just to keep your mother out of Piers' life?
The answer came not in a word, but an unequivocal, resounding sensation as everything settled into place in his mind. Piers deserves some time away from all this. I can do more for her playing into Mum's ideas than I ever could, arguing with her like this.
I'll never win if I want to talk her out of sending me to Sydney. But if I play my cards right...
Resolved in his course of action, Chris' features crumpled effectively into a bleak scowl as he replied to his mother's challenge. "That isn't what I meant. You know I'd never do that."
"It would mean a lot to me if you could go. Just this once."
It would mean a lot to her... For a woman who had never begged for anything, this was the closest thing to a heartfelt request Chris had heard in his whole life.
He sighed. "What do you want me to do?"
The matriarch's benign face shifted into an arch expression. "Was that a tentative verbal contract, Christopher?"
The brawny blond man shifted reasserting some of his casual indifference. "I suppose so."
"Good. You will persuade Piersen to return home, and arrange for Richard's return. I'll leave you to organise the details." Her voice faded for a long moment, but the set of her features indicated to Chris that there was more expected of him. "While you are there, I'd like you to attend the regional meeting in his place. I'll call the Sydney branch and ask them to reconvene this Sunday morning."
Chris was prepared for this development. "I'm not even on the Board. How can I sit in on the meeting?"
"If you actually paid attention to the AGM reports we take the trouble to mail out to you, Christopher, you would realise that you and your sister have 15% controlling interest each. This puts the both of you on the board by default." She smiled. "Like it or not, you're a member of the company, and I've just named you interim VP."
"Interim VP." You have got to be joking. Chris laughed sardonically, disbelievingly, knowing that he couldn't be pitched in a deeper pile of shit this side of India. Then again, she isn't joking, is she? I can try to get myself ahead of her, but she will just stretch the situation into more and more ridiculous proportions until she is satisfied. And she is happy to see things go that way if it gets me working for the firm...
He gritted his teeth. "I don't suppose you'd accept my resignation?"
"No." She smiled faintly.
There was a long pause before Chris spoke again. "You've left me very little choice." But you're not going to entirely get your way. I know how to play the game... He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, engaging his mother's steadily-watching eyes. "But I have two conditions."
Katherine raised her eyebrows. "Conditions?"
Chris forged on, maintaining his momentum. "One - I'll name my departure dates, and I'll set the time of the meeting. I'll let you know when that day is, but it's not going to be this Sunday."
Katherine Evans dipped her head once, but did not speak.
"Two - 'interim' is a negotiable term. I'll have no responsibilities with the firm after this trip."
"Unacceptable. I need someone I trust in Richard's absence, and with Warwick as CEO I will require someone else to assist him."
Chris shook his head firmly. "I have a business of my own to run - I can't afford the time you're asking."
"You're naming the dates, I'm sure you can arrange something." She smiled, reaching out to brush his angrily-mussed hair away from his eyes. "Don't worry, dear. You'll have time to look after your restaurant - after all, you'll still be based in London. All I need you to do is ensure that what Warwick does is in the company's best interest."
The company's best interest. He snorted internally. In other words, you want me as an errand boy to report on Warwick's every move. "Richard could be gone for months."
"All the more incentive for you to bring him back as soon as possible, isn't it?" Grey-green eyes regarded him with a faintly amused look. "You never know - you might find that you enjoy your time working for us."
Chris glowered, knowing he had been
out-maneouvred again, but grudgingly nodded. "Very well. My time on the board ends as
soon as Richard gets back."
"As Piersen's husband. He has to be family, Christopher. Without that, it means nothing." She straightened with a thin smile, her eyes alight as she held out her frail hand.
Chris looked at the expectant palm, knowing what he should do. I can play the game as well as you...
"All or nothing, Mum. All or nothing."
He took her hand, and grasped firmly once.
Twenty Six - Entropy
Pale blue eyes followed shifting lights as Kai watched Boston fall further and further away from her, the receding pinpoints of city lights fading into the night sky as the plane rose above the clouds.
She sank back into her seat and sighed, allowing her eyes to close with heavy relief. It's finally over.
For the first time since her keynote address, Kai had finally found the time to reclaim herself. For the remainder of the conference she had been passed between her peers and journalists in succession; extending congratulations, provoking arguments, and endless, endless questions. Her discovery had been hailed a milestone in the neurosurgical field, the ultimate breakthrough in the treatment of a debilitating disease - how can so many journalists come up with so many of the same cliches? It had been so long since she had experienced such a pressured frenzy of attention that after a few days it had been so tempting to simply walk away.
But I stayed. And now it's finally over.
Not only the conference, but the research project that had spanned over ten years of her life. There was a lingering bittersweetness as she gave her address, knowing that it was the close of something that she had only dreamed of as a child, a serious girl with serious eyes who sat her parents down in their kitchen, conducting a solemn presentation on the procedure which would re-unite her doll with its legs.
That was so long ago. Not willing to give way to the poignant sadness that was only masked thinly by whimsical nostalgia, she turned away from the window and felt the hard pull of the roaring engines ease.
There was a soft chime as the seat belt lights dimmed, and on its cue the cabin awoke with sounds of shifting passengers. Kai unpacked her laptop and booted it up, remembering that there were several high-priority messages waiting in her mailbox from her last-minute mail check before leaving the hotel. Retrieving her glasses from her coat pocket, she settled the metal frames on her nose and loaded up her inbox.
Ten new messages, two urgent.
Julian. Subject: News
Sanders, Geoffery. Subject: Patient reports
Kai smiled. Choices, choices. Which is the lesser of two evils...? The decision came easily, the mouse pointer quickly selecting Julian's message.
Good morning, Professor.
You may be pleased to know that I have been confined in my office all day, fielding calls from everyone requesting an audience with the elusive Professor Jamieson. You have created quite a storm indeed - I would hate to think what it was like in Boston.
Kai rolled her eyes. Tell me about it.
This is just a reminder that the exhibition opens this Friday. Yes - the Friday you arrive home from Boston, 7:30pm at the MCA. You may be somewhat less than pleased to know that at the last interdepartmental meeting, there was a ten to one vote assigning you as the official hospital representative for the evening.
There was an inward groan. Oh no.
I tried my best to voice your opinion on the matter, but one against ten was like throwing a mud pie against the incoming tide.
Shaking her head, Kai couldn't help but chuckle at the futile imagery. At least there was someone looking out for me.
Sorry, Professor, but it appears that you will be making the speech. I have a draft prepared for your perusal, which you should find attached to this message. I shall look forward to seeing you there. Perhaps as much as a certain museum director, who I suspect will receive the shock of her life when she finally gets a taste of a decidedly un-masculine Professor Jamieson.
Have a safe journey home. Cahill 18 isn't itself without the Iron lady at the helm.
The tall woman smiled. I'd almost forgotten about that. I don't there's a graceful way to let her know either - Julian certainly doesn't want to enlighten her. Her thoughts drifted to the blonde curator, the memory of their last meeting coming to her with amazing clarity.
"Piersen? We should probably get going. The buses are going to stop running soon." Kai watched as James reached for the door, ushering David and Giselle out before holding it open, waiting.
Green eyes touched hers for a fleeting moment before returning to her expectant friend. "Alright. You go ahead - I'll be with you in a minute."
Their companions stepped out of visual range and into the night, leaving them alone in the empty restaurant. Loneliness had the propensity to magnify the presence of others, and so it was that Kai was doubly aware of the beautiful woman standing beside her.
Her voice was politely distant yet startling intimate all at once. "It was good seeing you again, Dr. Jamieson."
Kai drew in a deep breath. It felt good seeing you again too, Piersen. It was a sensation the absence of which she felt keenly, that strangely awkward yet exhilirating feeling in the curator's luminous presence. And while she was keenly aware of the curator's absence in the past few days, even with the recollection of their conversation Kai could feel a core of warmth seep from her bones out to her fingertips. She seems to radiate softness, light - yet there is a steel-like fluidity to her gentleness.
Almost like - a fleeting glimpse of blonde hair reflecting flame-red in the dark halo of nightfall, of smiling emerald green mirroring twin points of - Fire.
And then it was gone, causing Kai to blink with some surprise as she snapped out of her reverie. There may even have been the earthy smell of loam lingering, but even that was purged from her nostrils by the unforgiving recycled cabin air.
Boy. If this is the way you're going to be at the beginning of the flight, you are going to have one hell of a battle with jet lag tomorrow. Shifting slightly, she returned her attention to the patiently waiting screen, opening the remaining message.
Sanders, Geoffery. Subject: Patient reports
We had no discharges, and one new admission today. He is a 39 year old male reporting a progressive paraesthesia over the past three weeks. On admission there was no sensation or movement below T10. I strongly suspect Guillain-Barre or Landry's Paralysis, and has been placed in bed 19 for observation with diagnostics pending.
Your patients are doing well on the whole. Ian Pollack in bed 31 had a mild seizure earlier this morning in response to the change in his chemotherapy, but we have that under control. Richard Stamford in Bed 23 is still comatose and stable. Your requests for another lumbar puncture and blood counts have been processed and the results are included in this report.
With regards to the remainder of your test requests, I would ask you to reconsider their true necessity before we proceed. I am concerned about the level of investigations you are affording this particular patient, which is much more generous than I would consider appropriate. The evidence to date has strongly indicated his condition to be due to post-operative complications of his head trauma. I have seen nothing in his condition to warrant the costlier investigations.
Kai frowned with some dissatisfaction. Geoff, the fact that he is still out cold from a simple burr-hole procedure is suspicion enough.
I understand this will be a point of contention for us. Your capabilities and instincts are unquestionable, but I strongly feel that your allocation of time and funds for someone who has essentially just suffered a knock on the head is extremely skewed. May I remind you that we have no details regarding his health insurance status, and that, along with this issue, may prove very difficult to explain to the hospital auditors next month.
Angry thoughts rose unbidden. So what are you saying, Geoff? That you won't let me run some more test on him because we can't justify it to the auditors?
She made a conscious effort to stifle the frustration in her mind. This was not the first time they had had differences of opinion on patient management, and while a part of her wanted to simply ignore her VC's demands, her left-brain knew that that was precisely why she valued his professional judgement. Someone has to keep an eye on this side of things, after all. He's doing is job well. Too well. With a deprecating smile, Kai opened the attachments, resolving instead to review the updated laboratory tests and implement another treatment strategy.
Okay. Why is he still comatose after a simple procedure alleviating a subdural haemorrhage?
Well, Toxicology says that he hasn't taken any drugs except 2g of paracetamol approximately an hour before presentation. So there couldn't been any adverse interactions with the anaesthetics that caused it... She turned to the lumbar puncture results and perused the figures, drumming her fingers against the keyboard. The only thing that deviates from normal is some raised protein levels in his spinal fluid, and a borderline leukocytosis in the full blood count.
His proteins and white blood cells have been consistently raised across the length of his stay. She folded her arms as she hunched in thought, casting her face into shadow. Maybe it's not a natural variation on his part. Maybe he has some sort of chronic low-level viral or bacterial infection.
Was that why he presented to Cas?
Her own thoughts quickly refuted her. All the bacterial cultures we did on his blood and spinal fluid came out negative, so there doesn't seem to be a bacterial infection.
It could be viral.
She frowned, idle ponderances spawning more and more questions that were becoming increasingly difficult to answer. Frustrated, she threw her head back into the headrest and sighed heavily.
Damn it, Geoff. I could find out what's going on with him if my hands weren't tied. Then instead of monitoring a vegetable, I could treat him and get him back on his feet.
She closed her eyes, her thoughts continuing on without her. Get him back to his wife. Where he belongs.
Feeling a dull lurch in her gut, she removed her glasses and shut down her computer, closing her eyes and purging her troubled thoughts as the screen faded to black.
"Watch that sculpture! It's not a sack of wheat, you know!"
Piersen chewed idly on a scrap of torn bread roll as she edited the layout for the exhibition catalogue, trying to ignore the frantic commotion that had drifted through the door of her office almost continuously throughout the day.
I can't believe it's tonight. My baby's going on show tonight.
She smiled at how easily James' metaphor came to her, knowing how true it was. Her inaugural exhibit at the MCA was shaping up to be a tremendous event, particularly following the receipt of the hospital's contribution. It was very generous. And I suppose I should know who to thank for that, too.
The sequence of events played itself out with an almost clockwork logic. The day following her confrontation with the hospital PR, an envelope had arrived on her desk via express mail containing a cheque compliments of the St. Vincent's Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. As the afternoon sun filled her office with deepening light, successive envelopes arrived in her inbox, each carrying financial commitments from other previously-reticent hospital departments. All promising to pay the bearer the non-negotiatble sum of eight thousand dollars and zero cents only.
Her lips eased into a satisfied smirk as she tore off another hunk from her bread roll. Professor, I don't know if I'd care much for your company, but you sure have carry some clout around the hospital. She redirected her attention on her page composition, searching through the scatter of photographs strewn across her table for one which would complement the other photographs already mounted on the paper.
A particularly loud crash punctuated her attention, and Piersen looked up, directing a withering gaze towards the general direction of the gallery. There were several more muffled sounds, followed by a stream of indignant curses unleashed in a freign language by the same, familiar voice.
Golly, James. I didn't think you even knew what some of those words meant.
Smiling, she shook her head and returned to work.
Kai waited at the luggage carousel, watching as her priority-marked bags slid closer to her on the conveyor belt. Surprisingly, she had managed to sleep through most of her flight, having edited through the speech Julian had prepared for her and finalising her report on the Boston conference.
Now - I can go home, take a nice long swim and spend an hour or two on the circuits... Then I'm going to the opening of an exhibition. Her lips curved instinctively at the thought as she reached out, snatching her bags from the carousel and made her way out to Customs.
"Anything to declare, ma'am?"
"No." She gave the officer a faint smile as he read through her customs declaration and waved her through. Just that I'm damn well happy to be home. She exited into the terminal, noting that she was in an uncharacteristically buoyant mood.
Well, I am. I'm really looking forward to this exhibition, and seeing some of the artwork by the patients. I've been meaning to see some of their work for a long, long time.
There was a slight prod from a tiny voice in her mind, and Kai felt obliged to continue, not really speaking to anyone, or anything in particular. And it'd be nice to catch up with Julian. We'd have quite a bit to talk about after everything that's happened in the past week. And the MCA is right on the harbour and all...
The inward question was accompanied by a tightly suppressed smirk. And?
Well -- you know, I've always meant to see the patient art... and -
An arch voice. Maybe someone in particular?
Grinning at herself, she turned to the taxi rank, the loud ringing of someone's cell phone reminding her that she had yet to switch hers back on. Fishing it out of her shoulder bag, she pressed a few buttons in succession, watching as the panel glowed before beeping insistently.
Ten calls missed. "Damn - what's going on?" Kai was about to investigate the voicemail when the phone rang abruptly in her hand.
Walter Thompson's voice rang in her ear. "Kai! I've been trying to get hold of you for the last ten minutes! Leave your phone on next time!"
She brushed off a flare of annoyance, her heart instead gripped tightly by the urgency in the neurovascular surgeon's tone. "What's going on?"
"We've got a 50 year old male who just presented with a two day history of strong global pounding headaches and projectile vomiting. He just collapsed with what seems to be a huge SOL. The registrar thought it was a subarachnoid haemorrhage due to aneurysm and called me in, but scans showed a cystic lesion anteroinferior to the third ventricle that's blocking CSF drainage. I could go in and try to get it out, but I'm no good with third ventricle procedures - how quickly can you get here?"
"What are his vitals?"
"He presented lucid with a heart rate of 140, blood pressure's 90/45 with bilateral papilloedema. Cranial nerves were intact - no numbness, weakness, no other localising signs. We've got him stabilised on 110/70 now but that cyst has got to go."
"Any history of travel?"
"No. It's probably just a colloidal cyst, not a parasitic one."
"What does the location of it look like to you?"
"I think a transfrontal approach is best, judging from the scans. I could give it a shot, but I'd rather you came and looked over it."
"Okay. Prep him with a stereotatic headframe and send him for another MRI to get the points mapped out. Get started on the craniotomy; that should help relieve the pressure for a while. I'll have to review the scans first, but I should be with you in fifteen minutes. If I'm late, get a VP shunt in there to keep the CSF draining, alright? I've got to get in from the airport."
"Alright. We'll be in Theatre A."
Hanging up, Kai hefted her bags and sprinted to the nearest taxi, barking sharply to the driver as she threw open the door.
"St Vincent's Hospital - let's get going!"
A neatly-suited man paced along the paintings, checking the alignment and lighting of each one with meticulous attention.
"James, you've been adjusting everything three times in the past hour. Relax, alright?"
He turned to see the smiling face of the museum director, though his own features bore a worried frown marring his forehead. "I don't know, Piers. I mean - " He reached out to correct the angle of a ceramic piece, but his hands were stopped by Piersen's warm fingers.
"Leave it alone, James. Everything looks perfect." She smiled, noting his evident consternation. This guy needs to get out of here, and find something else to think about. "I'm going to get changed. Help me choose the accessories when I'm done?"
"Sure." He nodded with some agitation, then relaxed grudgingly as his friend continued to regard him with faint amusement in her green eyes. "I don't think I can stand much more of this."
"Already? Golly, and we haven't even open yet." Piersen laughed warmly, and wound her arm into his, pulling him out of the gallery space.
Feeling some of the edginess melt away with a reassuring squeeze from Piersen's hands, James allowed his harrowed features to ease into a grin.
The tall surgeon swept into theatre, still pulling the mask over her face as she made for the wash basin. Squirting some lotion on her hands, Kai pushed the faucet lever with her foot and began to scrub her hands and arms briskly.
She called over to the group of powder-blue clad staff gathered around a central table, bleached near-white by the blinding illumination of the high-powered light. "Walter - what's been happening?"
"Three centimetre left frontal bony trephine, just behind the hairline. What were you doing at the airport?"
"Boston. Plane just landed when you called."
"Crikey! I'd completely forgotten about that - I thought you came back yesterday. I'm really sorry, Kai... "
"Don't worry about it." Kai approached the table and slotted herself in the space created for her, snapping on her latex gloves.
"You sure you're alright to work after a flight?"
"Never felt better." Kai replied flatly, holding her hands out before to check for tremor. "Are we ready to go?"
"All yours," Walter stepped aside, allowing the tall surgeon access. Her observations were interrupted by a call over the loudspeakers.
"Professor Jamieson, some of the residents would like to observe your procedure. Do you mind their being in the Observation gallery?"
She sighed and nodded for the attending registrar to activate the teaching microphones. "No, let them in." She glanced fleetingly at clock on the wall. Six thirty... I'll never make it to the gallery in time.
Kai turned her gaze to the patient shrouded in green cloth, her eyes already dissecting the exposed brain tissue, shining vulnerable with its membranes stripped clean.
I guess there are some commitments we just can't keep.
Looking up, blue eyes scanned the glass enclosure above the theatre, settling on a familiar face amongst the file of gowned doctors. "Lauren, I need you to contact Julian Quinn via switchboard, and let him know that I won't be able to attend the seven-thirty engagement." She paused, feeling a sinking weight in her chest. "Ask him to send my deepest apologies."
Kai shook herself free from the bitter burn of disappointment. Get to work, Kai. You have more important things to worry about.
Taking a breath, she grabbed the laser and addressed the congregation as she analysed the glistening patch of exposed cerebral cortex. "The procedure here is a stereotatic colloid cystectomy. CTs showed its position to be anterior to the third ventricle with superior extension between the fornices and septum pellucidum. So we shall be taking a left transfrontal, interforniceal approach... Retractor, please."
To Be Continued..Part 10
Postscript: Okay. For those who were so good as to keep track of the time differences, I know that the flipping between the two time zones in "Res Ipsa Loquitur" didn't quite fit. Let's just... try to ignore that.
As for "Entropy", I did a fair amount of research into neurosurgical techniques, but I wouldn't take that as a step-by-step guide into operating on the next person you meet with a colloidal cyst, if I were you. The technology in microscopic surgery and computer-enhanced imaging in surgical applications is fascinating to me, and I just wanted to write it in, just because. I ain't a neurosurgeon, ya know. Though I wouldn't mind meeting one. <G>
And a request: That picture of SF Bay in Chapter Twenty-Four "Revelations" - I have a great deal of personal attachment and pride to that picture. I would very much appreciate it if its exposure was limited to private use, please. © 1999
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