He had never seen a dead body at quite such close quarters. Identification was merely a formality, since Home Sec kept DNA records of all staff. In any case, he himself could identify this as the man from the files, though the uneasy thought flitted across his mind, again, that in this particular case, his talents had already failed him once. But it had become apparent that Robin was the only next of kin, and anyway, his remit didn’t officially extend to naming corpses. He watched as she touched Jon Nash’s face and hands, her fingertips gentle and shy of contact with something so cold and lifeless. Her thin, straight fingernails looked recently manicured.
Cause of death was still unknown, but he knew enough to see that it wasn’t by drowning; the autopsy would tell.
On the way back to the hotel, in the back of the car that had been sent for them, Robin said nothing, her hands pooled in her lap, her eyes closed, and her face heavy. Eric had no particular desire to make conversation with her anyway. He wondered why somebody else couldn’t have gone with her to the morgue, but supposed there was nobody. Dan, already ensconced in the hotel room with his pod and a handsome virtual stack of files, was hard at work; and Dan, he was fairly sure, had no physical training to enable him to take care of Robin. Eric glanced forward at the driver; there had been a definite gun-shaped drape to the man’s jacket as he had climbed out to open the door for Robin, no doubt also at Martin Dowell’s insistence. So why send me, too?
It occurred to him just then that there were a number of reasons, based on what Judith had told him, why International Operations might want to keep him within sight of someone with a gun.
He was coming down off Nicholas’s drugs now, and the Amsterdam streets were hurtling past outside. They passed a twenty-five year old woman, with a slight, upturned nose and fine cheekbones, her straight blonde hair whipping in the wind, catching the winter sun. The woman breathed out and her breath caught in the cold air and swirled around her, dissolving against her grey wool coat. The windows of the tall, narrow houses lining the street assaulted him with a bewildering array of information about their owners: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves - he caught sight of a series of nine English books about Renaissance art - and three very large plants with holes in their leaves, like Swiss cheese. The street’s uneven cobbles formed a shifting, fan-shaped pattern as the car sped past, and for a moment they strobed in front of him as he watched one pattern overlay another. Evidently, the comedown from these new pills was going to be unpleasant.
Nobody was there to meet them, back at the hotel, and the driver, who had been glancing at his watch most of the way back, appeared to be late for his next job, fingers tapping impatiently on the wheel, because he left Eric to open the door for Robin and help her out of the car. Irritated, Eric realised that he would have to guide her back to her room, too. Blinking in the late afternoon sunlight, bright after the car’s interior, he turned up his shades and attempted to hook his arm through hers as he had seen her colleague do. But to his surprise and distress, she found his hand and held it tightly. Her face reminded him of a bone china vase Nicholas had once owned, impacting on the hard wooden floor, cracks spreading, but strangely intact for a long, slow moment before it shattered into two hundred and thirty-one brittle, white pieces.
He guided her awkwardly through reception with its dreadful, multi-faceted chandeliers and into the elevator. Neither spoke. Eric, now well and truly into withdrawal but damned if he was going to stop and pop a pill in front of her, tried his best to avoid looking at the red carpet, with its irritating design of repeating interlocked gold letters. At least there were no mirrors in here. Just the thought of seeing mirror-images of the fragile woman beside him repeating into infinity made him feel slightly sick.
The tiny slit of near-dark between the elevator doors stopped scrolling past, and the doors opened. If they made a sound, he didn’t hear it. Robin stepped out almost before he did, and for a minute he wasn’t sure who was leading whom. But she hesitated, three steps along the corridor, biting her lip, her head turned slightly towards him, asking without asking. He walked on, still holding her small, pale hand. He was beginning to have the sensation of having left his body.
“We’re at your room.” He tried to let go of her hand, but she gripped his, insistently.
“Please ... don’t go yet.” The vulnerability of her expression surprised him. Her other hand quested in the black leather bag for the room key. “Please, just stay with me for a bit?”
There was nothing he wanted less. He had the strange sensation that his eyeballs were itching, and a tremendous urge to scratch them. His head pounded, demanding more visimorphine and a quiet, dark room.
And yet ... he knew how people looked, when they were close to collapse. Had identified a few in the line of work. Always that same, slightly translucent look, eyes glazed, a bravura squareness to the shoulders but with that giveaway slump of the neck. He imagined her complaining to Martin Dowell, imagined those probing grey eyes assessing whether he was fit to continue on this assignment. Imagined Nicholas’s disappointment. If you can’t have any empathy, Eric, at least learn to fake it.
She had found the room key, but her hand hung apathetically at her side, her head leaning on the white-painted doorframe, a strand of auburn hair obscuring her face. He sighed, the movement rippling the edges of his vision.
“Never mind,” she snapped, for a moment her usual, brittle self. He felt as though he were falling into the houndstooth weave of her coat-sleeve, arranged like black woolly parquet on the outside of a chimney.
Eric heard himself say, as if from a distance, “I need to take my medication.” Saw an arched eyebrow, mirrored and repeating into infinity. The door opened, her key in the lock, and he almost stumbled into the room. She followed him in, stepping carefully to her left to place her bag on the chair by the bed.
He fumbled with the packaging, impatience and a desire not to look directly at the textured foil making him clumsy. Swallowed the pill dry, then thought better of it and ran into the on-suite, gulping down mouthfuls of cold water straight from the tap.
When he looked up again, she was sitting on the bed, hands in her lap. At the sound of his footfall on the carpet, she raised her head a little, though not in his direction.
Don’t look at the carpet. He sat down carefully in another chair, by the window, and closed his eyes. Five minutes. He could wait here for five minutes, until the drugs kicked in.
He opened his eyes again, briefly. She had not moved, the angle of her head a persistent, unspoken question.
“I get ... headaches.” It was inadequate. “You’re a doctor ...”
“You idiot,” she said. “I have a PhD in cryptography.”