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Something Out of Nothing

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It was ten p.m. and Stevie's phone was ringing. She had had an early night and had been pleasantly asleep for once, with her cat on her chest and no terrible dreams. Half-awake, she held the phone to her face and muttered "I have a strong feeling this is not good news."

Chrissie replied with "I heard that."

"And I'm right," sighed Stevie.

"There's been a murder," said Chrissie. "One of the owners of a place called the Arrow gallery was found dead by a cleaner. I need you to go there with River. I've phoned him already."

"Right!" said Stevie with exaggerated brightness. She listened as Chrissie gave directions to the gallery and an apology for ruining Stevie's rest that only made Stevie roll her eyes. The cat mewed in protest when Stevie sat up. Dressing and leaving out some cat food only took a few minutes. She wasn't about to fuss over what clothes she wore to a murder scene, even with her boss there.

Stevie would have to go to River's flat and hope he was having a good night, not that anyone would be having a good night now. Her car was a giant mess of fast food wrappers and empty cups, but it didn't really matter. She was only going to leave it there so they could take his. River was horrible whenever he had to be a passenger so she had given up trying to drive him anywhere. He didn't say very much, but he gripped the dashboard like he was afraid he was going to die any minute.

One the way over she considered what she would have to do if River was not in fact doing well tonight. If he had answered Chrissie's call that might indicate that things were alright, but there was no way to be sure.

Last time she had come to pick him up she had found him staring at the wall in his sitting room. He was talking to someone who wasn't there, which didn't surprise Stevie anymore, but he wouldn't move or acknowledge that she was trying to get his attention, not even when she shook him by the shoulder. In the end she had had to stand in front of him and clap loudly until he blinked and and asked her what was happening. She had told him "You're back in reality now, friend. Shape up or we'll both be in trouble with Chrissie."

And that hadn't been his worst night. On a truly bad night she was more likely to find him curled up on the bathroom floor like some strange baby animal and unwilling to move. Sometimes she made him take his medication, even though she knew it wasn't the sort of thing that worked instantly. Once or twice she had even lied to Chrissie and said he was ill. Chrissie had looked at her suspiciously every time, as if she knew the truth, and it didn't help when Stevie would defensively point out that everyone got ill sometimes.

In the beginning she wondered what had happened to River to make him that way, if he had had trauma in his life he couldn't get away from. And maybe he had, but eventually she came to realize that it wasn't anything that simple, that there was something going on in River's head. Stevie had read in some book that everyone had something going on in their head and the people called "mad" were just more honest about it. She thought that was probably true, but the people who weren't called "mad" were less likely to forget to eat for two days because they'd been talking to a murdered home care worker. Stevie had fed River canned soup that time, almost as if he were an invalid, until he could finally focus and remember that they were still trying to find out who had killed the woman he had been chatting with. It had been an especially nasty case, Stevie remembered. She didn't really want to eat when she thought about it either.

She didn't dare wonder if there were something wrong with her head. Her childhood was a place she tried not to visit anymore, even though she couldn't escape her family. Not thinking about it, and certainly not talking about it, worked very well for her and she was just going to keep that up.

Stevie knocked on River's door. There was no answer at first. "You might as well open up. You know I have my own key."

Finally she heard River's voice from behind the door. "Don't you dare come in now!" he said.

"Is something wrong?" Stevie asked.

"I'm wearing underwear!" said River.

Stevie laughed. "So am I," she said.

"I mean I'm not wearing any trousers," River replied, sounding a bit frantic.

"And who says I don't want to see you in your underwear?" asked Stevie.

"Just give me a minute," said River with a sigh.

When Stevie opened the door he was fully dressed and had his hands on his hips. "I'm driving," he said.

"Yes, yes, I know."

After fastening her seat belt, Stevie looked at River. He actually looked handsome in his jacket, but she wasn't going to tell him that just so he could deny it.

After River started the car Stevie suddenly asked "So, who was your first girlfriend?"

"Why are you asking me that?" said River. He sounded peevish but Stevie knew some of it was a put-on.

"I'm just trying to make conversation," she said. "Something you badly need practice at."

"And that means asking invasive personal questions?" asked River.

"First woman you had a crush on, then. Even if it was someone from the telly."

"Maybe I want to concentrate on my driving," he said.

"Oh, come on, you're not going to crash the car just because you were thinking of Suzie Whatsit from your biology class and her blue eyes."

"Well, there were girls I noticed. That I thought were pretty. I have no idea what color their eyes were because I never got close enough to tell. I don't think any of them were named Suzie, but I've forgotten all that a long time ago."

Stevie brought River's love life up way too often, and to anyone else it would have been obvious that she was fishing, trying to see if she was River's type. She was pretty sure he didn't realize that, though. He never gave any illuminating answers, anyway.

There was silence for a few moments, then River suddenly said "Digestion hurts."

"Are you all right?" asked Stevie.

"No, I mean scientists have shown that digestion really hurts, but your brain tricks you into not realizing that."

"If no one feels the pain then how do they know it hurts?"

"I don't know."

"Where did you even hear that, about digestion?"

"The radio," he said.

"No offense, but it's an awfully strange thing to bring up."

"I thought it was interesting."

Brains are tricky, Stevie thought, but she didn't say it because it would hit way too close to home.

The officer guarding the back door of the Arrow Gallery recognized Stevie and let them through. They put on protective shoe coverings to avoid contaminating the scene and went inside. The gallery was what Stevie had expected - white walls with small paintings placed tastefully here and there. It all looked a bit like a science fiction film with all the forensic investigators in white boiler suits collecting evidence. Another detective came to introduce himself as Richard Baker. He led them to the body and uncovered it. The woman lay in the office of the gallery, a small room with beige walls hung with colorful lithographs, with most of the room taken up by a large wooden desk. Her body was face down and she seemed to have a laceration on the back of her head, though it was difficult to tell with her hair in the way. She was slim with short blond hair and wore a well-tailored suit. Her mobile phone lay next to her right hand.

"Eloise Spenser. Looks like maybe a blunt object to me," said Anthony Baker, "but I'm no pathologist. Whatever it is we haven't found it, so the killer may have taken it with him. Her sister's been notified and is coming to formally identify her."

Stevie sighed. "I imagine we'll be treated to a more intimate view of her in short order." Dead bodies didn't bother her at all, not anymore, but some of the pathologists seemed to want to show off everything they knew instead of just going straight to the cause of death.

"We'll get the phone to the technicians of course," continued Anthony Baker. "But I doubt we'll get anything from the CCTV - the camera back there in the alley is broken and the killer evidently didn't come in through the front door, since it was locked. At any rate the pathway outside is usually so busy it would be hard to pick anyone out."

"And nothing is missing?"

"Not as far as we can tell. There's some cash in the desk and in the victim's purse and all the paintings seem to still be on the walls. But as soon as we can we'll bring in the other owner and make sure everything is accounted for."

"There's another owner?" asked River.

"Yes, but don't get too excited about that. He was at a gallery opening in Scotland and hasn't even made it back here yet. Doesn't look like he's the guilty party. But who knows, maybe this will be wrapped up quickly anyway."

"It could happen," said Stevie doubtfully. She looked carefully around the floor and at the rest of the ofiice but nothing struck her eye as suspicious. River was looking only at the body, and Stevie very much wondered what he was seeing. Moving into the gallery itself, she began to look at the paintings.

"I don't think we're here for a tour," said River when he caught up to her.

"It could be important. You never know."

The first painting was a surreal landscape of craggy rocks in reds and purples, with a dark purple sky and a tiny human figure in the foreground. It was labeled "Thunderhead" and carried what Steve thought was a ridiculous price tag. "Reminds me of that one bloke," said Stevie. "You know, who did the album covers for Yes."

River looked at her quizzically. "You mean Roger Dean? This does look a little like his style, but I think it's fairly different."

"Is that your way of saying it's a bit shit?"

"No, actually I think this is more subtle."

"Will he be rolling over in his grave now that you said that?" asked Stevie.

"As far as I know he isn't dead," River replied.

"What if I told you Yes lyrics didn't make any damn sense?" she asked.

"You would have a point."

"No," said Stevie with a laugh, "This is when you tell me I don't know good music when I hear it, and then you tell me about beautiful album covers and the superiority of vinyl. You know, 'you don't get art when you download music.'"

River shook his head. "If you're going to carry on both sides of this conversation I can just go home."

"No, you can't, this is work."

"Anyway," said River, "This artist is apparently named George Allister."

"You mean you've never heard of him?" asked Stevie.

"Is he that famous?"

"He's famous for growing up in a council flat with no opportunities and becoming an artist anyway. I saw him in the paper. He's very young to have a show in a gallery, too, hardly eighteen."

"I hadn't heard about it."

"He had some heart-warming story about selling his shoes to buy paint or something like that," said Stevie.

"You're a fan, then?" River asked.

"No. I think they're making a big deal out of nothing and I don't even like this sort of art. Anyway, how much money can you get for used shoes?"

"Maybe they were those expensive athletic shoes," he said.

"Fair point. Anyway they're not exactly clearing space for him in museums but it looks like he won't have any trouble buying his own clothing from now on. Especially selling at these prices." She pointed to the sign under the painting. "Either someone misplaced a zero or this would be three months' salary for me. Not that I want it."

They investigated the rest of the crime scene, to the extent there was anything to investigate before the technicians finished, and got back into River's car. As soon as she got in the passenger seat, Stevie asked with exaggerated casualness, "Do you ever miss Sweden?"

"I haven't been back in decades," River replied.

"That doesn't answer my question," she persisted.

"I don't remember it very well. Wherever I go I'm a lot more concerned with what's going on in my own head than I am with where I'm living or who I'm living with."

"You don't live with anyone."

"Would you want to live with me?" asked River.

Stevie knew it was a rhetorical question but something moved inside of her when he asked it. Answering honestly that she often pictured it would be a mistake, she decided. "I imagine you'd be hell to live with," she said, which was also honest. Did River feel as confused about her as she sometimes did about him? Maybe she would have to speak up someday, just to let all the emotion have an object instead of existing vaguely inside her and making her frustrated.

On the way back to the station Stevie's phone rang. It was Chrissie again. "Good news," she said. "We've got a confession, so it looks like we can wrap this up quickly."

"A confession?" Stevie asked. "Who was it?"

"Victoria Wilson. George Allister's girlfriend. Looks like maybe there was some kind of love triangle going on? She's waiting to be questioned and has refused a solicitor, so get back here quickly."

On the way to the station, Stevie said "This doesn't sound right. This love triangle business. Chrissie told me Eloise Spenser is forty."

"Maybe she appreciated his art," said River.

"And what did he appreciate?"

"Having space in her gallery?"

"You think he was giving her sex in exchange for his big break? That's a terrible thought but it's a possibility," Stevie admitted. "But still, they want us to believe she was carrying on an affair with an eighteen-year-old?"

"We haven't even seen Victoria. Maybe then we’ll understand why he would do it," said River.

"You're just a sexist pig," said Stevie, though she knew she was being a bit unfair.

"You may be right," said River mildly. "Do you want to question her?"

"No, you go ahead and I'll watch. I want to appreciate your art."

Chrissie, of course, had the final decision about who did the questioning but she was also happy to let River do it. Clearly she was relieved and felt that the rest of the investigation would be just a matter of paperwork. Stevie doubted it.

She had looked into the old, dingy interview room many times but Stevie had seldom seen anyone in it quite as spectacular as Victoria Wilson. She was stunning, with long blonde hair in an elaborate braid. Her clothes were no less elaborate - a denim shirt covered with embroidery and a long flowing skirt. Stevie shook her head, wondering again what they were supposed to believe, and waited for River.

They dispensed with basic formalities for the sake of the tape recording, and then River confirmed her identity and asked a few basic questions. Stevie really did love watching River interrogate people. He knew things she could never have figured out. Chrissie knew it too, and that was a big part of why River still had a job.

"So you are saying that earlier tonight, or rather last night, you went to the Arrow gallery," said River.

"Right."

"And what happened there?"

"I argued with Eloise." Victoria replied. Unlike some people who had come to make confessions to the police, she didn't sound hesitant or timid.

"What did you argue about?"

"It was about George. She was having it on with him and I couldn't bear it anymore. She told me to leave, and when she turned to open the door I picked up this little statue she had there on her desk and hit her in the head with it."

"That was the whole conversation?" asked River.

"More or less," said Victoria.

"But you already knew George was carrying on with Eloise?"

"I suspected. But last night she confirmed it. I just wanted her away from him."

"They had a very large age difference," said River.

Victoria shrugged. "I guess they were attracted to each other anyway. Or she was attracted to him. I think she was just taking advantage of him."

"So you say you struck her in the head with this statue," said River. "Just once?"

"Yes."

"And you were intending to kill her?"

"No. I wasn't thinking straight. I just hit her, and then I realized what I had done, and I ran out in a panic."

"You left the gallery?"

"Yes."

"What did this statue look like?"

"It was made out of white stone, and looked like a person but no one in particular."

"What did you do with it?" asked River.

"Threw it into a skip somewhere."

"Where?" asked River.

"I don't remember."

"We are looking for it already," River said, in a tone that carried warning.

"Go ahead," she replied, as if she were daring him.

"And we will be searching your flat," River continued. "Now, think this over very carefully. Is there anything in the flat you wouldn't want us to find?"

"How could there be? I already confessed, didn't I?"

"You did, but we can't simply take your confession at face value. We have to continue to investigate, to make certain you aren't covering up for anyone else."

"Why would I do that?" Victoria asked. She sounded confident, brash almost, not much like an ordinary person who had committed a horrible crime.

"There are people who do," said River. "They have a spouse or a lover, sometimes a friend or a relative, and they get it into their head that it would be a better idea for them to confess to a crime and go to prison than for their lover to have to do it. So they confess, and they end up in prison for a very long time. And they think their very selfish spouse or lover will be grateful to them and wait for them, and they're surprised when that doesn't happen. But by then it's too late, and no one will believe them if they tell the truth."

Stevie could see Victoria blinking away tears. River was brilliant once he got going.

"And if you are convicted of murder," he continued, "You will be going to prison for a very long time, and he won't, and you will be miserable, and he won't."

"I don't know what you mean," said Victoria in a voice that shook.

"You don't have to do this. You think you would do anything for love but this is more than anyone should do. He isn't worth it."

Victoria gave a small cry. "But it was my fault! It was my fault anyway!"

"What do you mean?" asked River.

"I told her the truth about the paintings," she said softly. Now she finally sounded hesitant, cowed.

"The truth?"

"That they aren't his paintings," she said.

"They're yours?" asked River gently.

Victoria put her head down on the table. Stevie was impressed once again at River's ability to get to the truth. But it all made sense to her now too - she could picture this girl, in these clothes, in front of the paintings in the Arrow gallery and everything just fit together.

Victoria lifted her head. "George said women hardly ever paint, so it would be much more believable if we said they were his. And he was right. People loved the story about the shoes."

"And that was a lie too?"

"He just wanted us to have some money and a nicer life," she said. "And I ruined all that when I told her the truth. If I had just kept my mouth shut George wouldn't have had to--" She suddenly stopped speaking. River waited silently for her to continue.

"He's not a bad person," she said. "But it's too late now."

"Too late for?"

"I'm just not a good enough liar. I mean, you've already figured it out."

"You have to say it," said River.

"It was George!" shouted Victoria, tears now flowing freely down her face. "He killed Eloise, to keep her from telling anyone. He hid the statue at his mate's place. The mate thinks it's got drugs in it or something."

River sighed. "You may be prosecuted for interfering in a police investigation but under the circumstances probably not. You should go home."

"I have to stay here. I have make sure he's alright."

River shook his head. "You can't. But you're a very loyal woman, and I wish he deserved it."

In the hallway River and Stevie spoke softly to each other. "If we can get George to confess we'll be in luck," said Stevie. "And he's clearly no criminal genius, so he might just do it."

"He might," replied River. "But I don't understand this... him. He just decided she was worth less than he was? Why, because she's female?"

"You think you have to tell a woman the world is unfair?" Stevie asked.

"No," said River, then more quietly, “You know I could never do this without you.”

She was looking straight at him but he seemed to grow nervous and shifted his eyes to look down the hall.

"We're all so practiced," Stevie said. "Everybody."

"Practiced at what?" asked River.

"At not looking at each other, and pretending not to see anything if we do."

River just nodded, and it occurred to Stevie that right now what she wanted more than anything else was to embrace him, to hold on to him, to give and receive comfort.

Someday I will, she told herself. Someday I will.