by Trevor Hopkins

There was a series of clattering rattles as the locks were deftly disengaged from the outside. The door swung open and Clathy herself stepped into the room. She was wearing the skimpy outfit the Starfield Club provided for this particular class of employee, with a light coat in a deep shade of purple thrown on over the top. She looked tired and a little care-worn, moving as if her feet hurt from standing up all day.

As she entered, I stood up and half-raised my hat, not so much as an expression of solidarity with her aching feet as a recognition that I had not yet mastered those tendencies to politeness drummed into me a century or so ago, and the reaction was mostly automatic. I am not always much of a gentleman, although I guess I could still pass for one if I put my mind to it. Even so, the reaction is one which, in this day and age, attracts more attention - mostly positive, I think - than many people realise.

Clathy stopped dead, halfway to the coat-stand with her macintosh in her outstretched hand. Her lilac eyes flashed in my direction, not so much in recognition or even displeasure, but a curious mixture of smouldering anger and another smouldering emotion which left me very slightly worried about the long-term impact.

She hung up her coat and kicked shut the door, the locks snapping back into place with a sound like metallic jaws closing.

"So why am I not surprised to see you here?" she said with resignation.

"You shouldn't be. You left a trail a mile wide, anyone could follow."

One side of her mouth lifted in a wry twist, most unladylike by any convention I knew but with a certain allure I found I could not deny.

"So you're a smart guy," she countered, "It happens."

Clathy threw herself into a chair on the other side of the fireplace and kicked off her shoes. She stretched out her stocking’d toes to the fire and wriggled them to get warm. I sat down again on the davenport, my hat returned to my knees. I waited. With the air of one putting off the inevitable no longer, she sat up straighter in her chair and looked across at me defiantly.

"You need to tell me why you took Vale's briefcase," I said gently.

"I know I shouldn't have," she said, "But Clunie wouldn't have known what to with it anyway"

"Perhaps," I acknowledged, "But it was given to her for safe-keeping, not you. So why take it off her?"

"But it should have been me," she exploded, "He used to trust me, before that over-inflated bimbo arrived at the Club."

"You mean he'd left things with you for safe-keeping before?"

"No, not things. Just that blasted briefcase. Didn't want anyone to know about it, he said. It used to live at the back of my closet, unless he wanted me to bring it to him. He'd let me know at the Club, and we'd meet somewhere - in a hotel, usually. He was always so kind, so gentle, so generous. Then it stopped, all of a sudden. It was weeks before I found out that he had taken up with that bitch Clunie."

Tears stood out shining in her lovely eyes. I put my hat on the davenport and stood up. I took a clean handkerchief from my pocket and unfolded it, handing it to her wordlessly. She took the white cotton cloth and dabbed ineffectually at her face.

"What's in the briefcase, Clathy?" I asked softly.

"I don't know," she wailed, "He always faced it away from me when he opened it, and I never saw him put anything in, or take anything out. He just lifted the lid and looked at the contents, perhaps touched them briefly, then closed it up as if he didn't have a care in the world."

She wiped her eyes more carefully and handed the handkerchief back to me with a sniffed "thanks".

"I used to tease him about it," she went on, wringing her hands in her lap, "It's nothing, he used to say, nothing to worry about. Just some ancient history I want to keep safe. But he would never tell me any more."

"And you don't know how to open it?"

"I've never tried. He said the magic wouldn't let me. He said it would blow up if I tried, and that I mustn't risk it. Whatever it was, it was precious to him. I didn't want to damage something he thought was that important."

Part 20 Part 22