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Janet made a little tsk'ing noise. "Poor thing, to lie there like that for so long with no one knowing. Trouble is, it could happen to any one of us, Sammy. Any one of us. I always used to tell my children, you won't let that happen to me, will you? But my son married a woman in California and my daughter's in Australia. I'll be lucky if I see my grandchildren once a year. So who'll miss me if something happens? Who'll even know?"
Samantha shrugged, feeling uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going. "They'd miss you at work," she said.
"But I'm retiring year after next, Sammy, remember?" She shook her head and smiled. "Sorry, I don't mean to come over so morbid. It's just..."
She turned back to the jewel box on the dresser. "I was younger than you when I started, you know." She laughed. "My first year, I nearly got the sack for wearing my skirts too short; they told me as a representative of local government, my knees had to remain covered at all times."
Samantha walked over to the black curtain and pulled it to one side, revealing a walk-in cupboard, empty except for a wooden chair and a full-length mirror on a metal stand.
"Janet, why does Hughie always cover the mirrors?"
"It's an old superstition. When someone dies, you're supposed to cover every mirror in the house so the soul of the deceased doesn't get trapped behind the glass. And one thing you don't want is ghosts getting stuck inside a looking glass, because you know what they do when that happens? They reach out and grab any person who becomes reflected in that mirror, and they take them far away."
"Away? Away where?"
"Bournemouth," Janet said. "Where do you think?" She smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Know why it's seven years bad luck to break a mirror?"
Samantha shook her head.
"Because it takes seven years for the soul to renew itself."
"The idea is the reflection represents your soul, so if you shatter the reflection, it stands to reason the soul will be shattered as well. Then, as if that wasn't enough, what do think your shattered soul fragments go and do? They only get themselves imprisoned inside the shards of glass! Stupid things. No wonder it takes seven years to sort them out." She laughed. "So now you know."
Samantha giggled. "Now I know." She started to draw the curtain back across the mirror.
"Tah-dah!" Janet exclaimed triumphantly.
Samantha let go of the curtain and swung around, startled.
"Told you I'd find it," Janet said, holding up a small key.
Samantha knelt beside her boss as she turned the key in the trunk lock and suddenly everything else — the smell, the insects, even the outline of a neglected corpse only inches away from their feet — was momentarily forgotten. The trunk was full of treasures. Beautiful, sparkling treasures.
"Oh, it's gorgeous!" Janet gasped, carefully unfolding a floor-length red silk dress wrapped in tissue paper. It must have been fifty or sixty years old but it was in perfect condition. Beneath it, she found a ballgown — white, embroidered with gold — and a long jet black sheath covered in shiny glass beads.
There were shoes and handbags, some leather, some alligator, some velvet studded with rhinestones. There were long white gloves, hats with veils, capes with fur-trimmed hoods, silk stockings with seams. In a large padded envelope at the bottom, they found a scrapbook full of press clippings and faded black and white photos of a beautiful dark-haired woman dancing in a variety of glittering costumes, sometimes with a male partner, sometimes as part of a chorus line, sometimes alone beneath a spotlight.
"So that was Eleanor Burdon," Janet said, carefully turning the brittle pages. "Sometimes I'm glad we don't know the future, Sammy. I mean, look at her, smug as the cat that got the cream, wasn't she? Would she have wanted to know how it was all going to end? And if anybody'd told her, you think she would have believed them for one moment? I doubt it. Bet she had the world at her feet in those days. Bet she thought she always would." She sighed and shook her head. "Poor thing."
"Poor thing," Samantha agreed, nodding.
Janet put the book to one side and picked up the black beaded dress. She stood, holding it in front of her; the hem dragged on the floor. "She was tall, that Eleanor. More like you."
"I'm only five seven."
"Taller than me. Taller than most of the old lady's generation." She told Samantha to stand up, then pressed the dress into her hands. "Now hold it up properly. Here, that really suits you. Have a look at yourself. Go on."
Samantha pulled down her mask and turned to face the mirror in the cupboard. She nearly laughed out loud; she looked ridiculous holding a beaded dress in front of a pair of baggy coveralls with a surgical mask hanging loose around her neck.
Then something went wrong. Everything reflected in the glass seemed to develop a kind of after-image, like a photographic double-exposure. Including her. She seemed to have two bodies, one superimposed over the other. She moved her head a few inches to one side; her duplicate head followed a fraction of a second later. She blinked several times, trying to clear her vision, but couldn't get her two sets of overlapping eyes to open and close in synch; one always seemed a millisecond behind the other.
Then everything went black. "Janet?" she said.
"Janet, where are you?" she said, fighting back panic. "Janet, I can't see!" She heard a sound of creaking hinges, then a beam of light cut through the darkness, moving in a graceful arc as it illuminated her surroundings, section by section.
She was standing on a bare concrete floor surrounded by black walls splashed with large red letters spelling something she couldn't make out. Then she realized why she couldn't read the writing: it was backwards. She had managed to decipher the first word — Gateway — when she was blinded by a torch beam shining into her eyes.
She heard at least two sets of approaching footsteps, and then the beam moved on. She stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe they hadn't seen her.
"Bloody hell," a man's voice said as the light fell onto a young woman with long blonde hair, slowly swaying in mid-air, a rope around her neck.
Samantha tried to run, but she couldn't move. She tried to scream, but no sound came out.
Janet suddenly crossed in front of her, pulling the curtain across the cupboard doorway. She seemed angry. "Are you mutt and jeff or something, girl? I've been telling you the last five minutes: stop admiring yourself and put that bloody dress away, we've got work to do!"
"Five minutes?" Samantha repeated. It seemed like less than ten seconds since Janet had handed her the beaded gown. She became aware of a tingling sensation in her hands. She looked down and saw they were clenched into tight fists, the knuckles white. And they were shaking. How could she have lost five minutes? She let go of the dress, carefully uncurling her aching fingers, and saw a line of deep ridges where her nails had dug into her palm.
Nothing about the room she was in seemed right, though she had no idea exactly what was wrong. She looked up at the light fixture in the middle of the ceiling, half-expecting to see a squirming mass of flies. There weren't any, of course; the flat reeked of insecticide. The chemical smell was so strong she could taste it.
She reeled over to one of the windows and stuck her head outside, gasping for breath. "I must have blacked out from the fumes. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry."
"Come on, girl," Janet said, "let's get you out of here for a bit."
They knocked on several of the neighbours' doors before they left the building. No one they spoke to knew anything about the old woman, though one suggested they try the residents' association.
There they found a man who knew Eleanor Burdon. He said she used to be quite active in the association, serving on the pensioners' committee, though she'd resigned three or four years ago. "She was eighty-odd and getting a bit frail," he explained. He also said she had a daughter somewhere: possibly Canada, though he couldn't be sure.
"Do you know the daughter's name?" Janet asked him.
He shook his head. "I only know it wasn't Burdon. Eleanor was widowed twice, and I'm sure she said the daughter was from the first marriage."
"Thanks for your help," Janet said, turning to leave.
"You know who you ought to ask about Eleanor," the man called after them. "They do a writing workshop at the community centre, down the north end of the estate. Eleanor was always writing poems and things."
The sign on the padlocked front door of the community centre read: "Closed as of 15 June due to lack of funding. If you are unhappy about this, write to the council."
They put Eleanor's trunk into a storage locker, then crossed the hall to the Arts Department, which the latest round of cuts had reduced to a single desk at the back of Social Services. Of course as funeral officers their "office" wasn't any better, consisting of two desks in the Environmental Services Department, sandwiched between Refuse Collection and Vermin Control.
It only took a minute to find the name and phone number of the woman who'd run the creative writing workshop on the Verdant Meadows Estate in the Arts Department files. Janet decided Samantha should be the one to make the phone call; the only way to learn was to do.
Samantha returned to her desk in Environmental Services, dialled the woman's number and introduced herself. The workshop leader, a Mrs Marcia Anson, confirmed that Eleanor Burdon had once been an enthusiastic member of her writing class, but had stopped coming the previous autumn. "Do you know how she died?"
"I think she had a stroke," Samantha said. "Something to do with her brain, anyway."
"Oh, dear," Mrs Anson tutted. "When did it happen?"
"Some time during the second week of June; I don't — "
"Well, she was still alive on the twelfth," Mrs Anson interrupted. "I saw her in the cafe in Meadow Lane Market, sitting in a booth beside the window. I would have stopped to say hello, but she seemed to be in the middle of a rather intense conversation and I didn't like to interrupt. Of course now I wish I had."
"Who was she talking to?"
"Some young girl; I doubt she was more than twenty. Looked a bit like one of those anti-road protester types, all torn clothes and messy blonde hair, with some kind of ring through her lower lip. I have no idea what she and Eleanor could have found to talk about, really. I mean, Eleanor always took such care of her appearance; what could those two possibly have had in common?"
"Ask her about Eleanor's family," Janet whispered.
"Did Mrs Burdon ever talk about her family?"
"Not really. I think she had a daughter somewhere, but that's all I know."
"Ask about friends," Janet prompted.
"Did Mrs Burdon have any friends that you know of?"
"I think she used to be involved in the residents' association. You might want to ask someone there."
"Well, we can strike that one off our list," Janet said as Samantha put down the receiver. She reached into one of the bulging carrier bags full of paper they'd brought back from the dead woman's flat. She pointed to another, on the floor beside Samantha's feet. "Look for anything with an address."
"I know, I know," Samantha said, emptying the sack onto her desk.
Most of the bag's contents turned out to be rubbish: junk mail, bills, old calendars, expired money-off coupons, recipe cards and so on, all of which could go straight into the bin.