“Listen, Doctor, your program has been running for fifteen years. The results, well, they’ve been disappointing,” the gloomy voice of a tired official who’s spent far too long giving bad news echoed around Dr Forrest’s office through the tinny speakers.
“Disappointing? They’ve been ground-breaking. Have I not shown you what kind of capability we could have? Do you not see the military application of this technology?” Dr Forrest resisted slamming his fist down on the desk. No one wanted to give the impression of being a disgruntled child.
“What we have seen is a series of interesting concept demonstrations with major underlying complications. Complications that have continued, time after time, unresolved. We no longer have the funding for this kind of exercise. It’s being redirected.”
“Redirected?” Dr Forrest replied, dejected.
“None of us are happy Doctor. Yours is only one on a long list of projects that are getting the cut. But the defence budget is just a black hole and the public have noticed. The guys in charge are starting to worry more about the ballot box than those ships in the sky. There hasn’t been a shot fired in half a century. Hell there isn’t even a single recorded case of ship on ship combat. There’s only so long you can drag out the fear. Politics, Forrest, it’s all politicians trying to save their asses.”
“But we’re so close to a breakthrough!” All they needed was the girl, she held the key to this.
“That’s what everyone’s saying Forrest. That’s what everyone’s saying. I don’t make the decisions, there’s no point reasoning with me. Funding will cease at the end of the financial year. If you’re that close, break through.”
* * *
“Yes, I told you. She was a student of mine,” Jane said. “Would you like another coffee?”
They hadn’t touched the first, but that might because it was getting a bit lukewarm. It was a compulsive offer. The two men didn’t fit in her small flat, making it seem much more cramped than it actually was. One, narrow faced, insisted on the interview. He flashed his badge and shoved his foot in the door before she could even read what it said.
He was the only one who spoke. The wide-set man beside him just loomed solemnly looking uncomfortably out of place sitting on what she liked to refer to as the ‘comfy’ chair. Hideous in all possible matters of taste, plastered with garish pattern of flowers worn nearly bare where it was most used. It was, however, her most loved item of furniture.
“No thank you, one is enough for me.” His thin lips formed a smile. It didn’t reach his eyes. It was as if he’d never seen a smile, just read about it in the dry pages of a book and tried to emulate it. It could only be classed as a smile in the strictly physical sense. “We are aware of that relationship already, but it has been brought to our attention that you have had other contact with the girl. The other teachers say she often stays behind after class with you?”
“I wouldn’t say with me exactly…” She was hesitant to give any details, however official. Alexis had a certain paranoia about her. It felt like betrayal just telling them basic facts. “She didn’t have much at home so-”
“You were aware of her situation at home?” he interrupted.
“Well, I know she wasn’t happy, I don’t know the details but she didn’t get on well with her mother.” Jane was beginning to feel glad Alex had been so protective over sharing information.
“Yes, we’ve spoken with her mother.” He clearly hadn’t gotten what he wanted, hence their appearance here. “Are you aware she had run away from home?”
Jane blinked. Well, it made sense, otherwise they would know exactly where to get at her. Whatever the reason. “No, I wasn’t-”
“Do you know where she would go, has she come to visit you?” He kept pressuring, but there was a common theme.
“I told you, I don’t know where she is. I haven’t seen her since the hospital,” she said. “I’ll go get that coffee.”
Jane stood, and picked up the untouched cups she’d given out earlier, retreating to the coffee machine. It was better to be in her little kitchenette. It put some distance between them. She didn’t have to maintain eye-contact. She could think more about what she said. Besides, she wouldn’t have to watch him scrawl down every word she said on that little tablet. No doubt he could just flick the microphone on, but that would be so un-intrusive. She might forget about it then.
“You understand we are concerned for her welfare here.” She heard behind her. When she glanced back he was standing, “Please, be honest with us Ms Greggory. You know that she was injured. We have reason to believe she may have been hurt quite seriously since. It is of upmost importance that we locate her.”
Jane’s heart sank, she was hurt? She never was good at looking after herself.
“Can you tell me about the incident that occurred earlier this month? What were you doing in that part of town?”
The spoon slipped from her fingers, scattering the instant coffee mix across the counter. At least it filled her flat with a comforting smell. It was something to do, making her hands busy with cleaning it up. “The… when we were attacked? I was giving her a lift home from something.”
“Yes, her examination in support of her recent application for admittance to the Cadet programme.” If he knew all this, why on earth was he asking? It would be in the report, he could ask the officers that were running it. No, he was asking this to make her uncomfortable. It was working.
He continued, “If you didn’t know the girl, why were you taking her to that appointment?” He was deliberately asking questions he knew the answer to. The more she withheld, the more he would expose her un-cooperation. She could, of course, give them the information but when it came to a real question – well, then he’d get what he wanted.
Better to be uncomfortable than give something away, whatever it was they were fishing for. She continued, ignoring him calling out her reluctance with the truth, “Her friend organised it, she was planning on getting a lift from her friend’s mother but they’d had a falling out so I offered. It was a one-time thing.”
“What kind of falling out?” he said, in his calm but pressuring voice.
She had no idea. “I really don’t know.”
“This friend you refer to, am I correct in assuming this is Bethany Spencer?”
“Yeah.” This wasn’t new to him. It was all in those reports. “Poor girl. I hope she gets better, for both their sakes. Alexis was devastated. I’ve never seen anyone react like that.”
“What was the nature of their relationship?”
“Well, you never know, but I’d always had my suspicions they-” She stopped herself. He’d stopped writing…
* * *
Arthur rang the intercom. Damn it was cold, his breath was steaming and he rubbed his hands to drive some heat back into them. Open the door woman!
The button camera blinked its LED light. “What do you want?”
“Hello Ms Greggory. I’m here from the police,” he answered.
“I know, I recognise you. What do you want?” That didn’t make him feel very welcome.
“To talk… about the case,” he said.
“What about it?” she replied instantly, “Why didn’t you just call me?”
God, why was she being so defensive? “Just let me in for God’s sake, it’s freezing!”
There was no response. Arthur cursed his temper but waited, just in case. After a minute, with two further rings of the buzzer he turned to walk away. Was she trying to protect the girl? She must know something.
As he took his first step there was a gentle click of magnets pulling the mechanism of a lock. He span and grabbed the handle before they could strike back home.