September 4th, 1964
“Did you poison me?” Gemma asked. She hadn’t bothered getting out of bed for Verloc this time, feeling entirely too miserable to even bother, and instead just lolled her head to the right to stare in his direction.
“No,” Verloc said. He leaned against the wall next to the door, looking bored like he was merely biding his time in here. He hadn’t asked her any questions about how she was feeling, which Gemma found strange given the purpose of his visit, but not out of his character. “Blackberry withdrawal is difficult and unpleasant. Didn’t Sally tell you that?” He didn’t ask in a spiteful tone; he sounded as if he thought that wasn’t like her not to have been thorough in her warnings.
“She did, but she didn’t say death would be preferable.” The headache that started yesterday had only grown sharper and more insistent, and today it had been joined by the vague, itchy heat of an impending fever on her back. That morning’s dose of Coconut had added a generalized feeling of anxiety that she couldn’t put a cause to and was now working to ignore. “You have to have Crash here, don’t you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to test your Joy formula without the Blackberry interfering with it?”
Verloc shifted a bit, uncomfortable with the request. “Crash doesn’t make withdrawal easier, it just makes it faster. And Crashing out Blackberry might actually kill you.” He didn’t seem terribly concerned by that possibility, and he went on. “Besides, the point is to develop a formula that you can switch to without complications. I can’t know I’ve done that without the Blackberry interaction to work with.”
“You’re just going to let me suffer then,” Gemma sighed.
“I can’t do anything for you. It would compromise the data,” Verloc specified, impatient with Gemma’s complaint. “I know you came here to paint me as some sort of movie villain. Everyone always does. But you’ll all be thanking me when you don’t have to worry about supply shortages or withdrawal symptoms or even keeping track of dosages anymore.”
He sounded so put upon, Gemma thought. Typical narcissistic martyr complex. But she could work with that, couldn’t she?
“Do you really think you can make a permanent Joy?” she asked, making sure her tone was hopeful and not derisive in the way that question lived in her head.
Verloc’s look of indifference dulled at her apparent plea for reassurance.
“Of course I can,” he said. He believed it too; she could see that. Mostly. There was just enough of a hint of doubt that Gemma thought she could exploit later. Not today though. Today was about beginning to change Verloc’s perception of her, so that he’d be more susceptible to her questions in the future.
She’d spent most of yesterday trying to piece together a plan of action based on the tactics Mary Ann had said she used on her celebrities. Gemma had never interviewed anyone of Verloc’s prominence before: her work was clandestine, done under the noses of people like him. She dealt with the people on the periphery of people like Verloc. That was where the dirt tended to build up. Here though, where she was the one under intense scrutiny, Mary Ann’s more overt yet still underhanded approach was the tack to take, Gemma thought.
Mary Ann had started with Sally’s dress; Gemma decided she should start with something equally superficial.
Checking his watch, Verloc pushed himself out of his lean, preparing to leave.
“Wait,” Gemma said. Verloc stopped and listened. “You’re… really young to have white hair.” She didn’t ask outright if he bleached it because she didn’t know if he’d take it as an accusation. Men were often sensitive like that and Verloc was probably sensitive about a lot of things. If he didn’t choose to elaborate on it without further prompting, though, she could chance being more forthright in prodding him to.
Verloc’s face scrunched in suspicion. Gemma could see him trying to determine if there would be any harm in explaining. He loved being asked questions about himself when her colleagues with more benign intent did it. She knew he wanted to answer, but he probably thought even something as small and meaningless as this might be a trick out of her. Which, to be fair, it was. Still, his ego won out.
“It went white after my uncle went on holiday,” he said finally. “Ten years ago.”
Gemma frowned, much as her mask would let her. That was not the light, unimportant answer she was hoping for. She hadn’t guessed Verloc’s hair color was anything more than cosmetic or hereditary and his uncle was undoubtedly a heavier topic than one wanted to start off with when trying to get in under his radar.
“That’s a thing that can happen?” she asked, veering the question off on a tangent and away from the subject of his late uncle.
“Har- Dr. Haworth says it can,” Verloc said. He let himself out before she could ask anything else. Not that she’d planned to today. She was starting from a weak position with Verloc already wary of her. She’d need to go slowly with him. Hopefully tomorrow her innocuous question for him would have an appropriately innocuous answer.
Haworth, she thought, would be much easier to get on comfortable terms with, at least on an social level if not a practical one. Locked in an isolation cell for four years, Gemma figured he’d be desperate to talk and wouldn’t need much in the way of finesse or delicacy. She had a lot of questions for him too, especially in light of these new developments in his angle of her story.
She had supposed before that Verloc had Haworth killed. It would have been the tidy solution to get him out of the way. Finding Haworth alive in here threw a different light on the scenario. It didn’t make Verloc look any better. Keeping Haworth in a glass cell where he could come down from his office and gloat whenever he wanted was even more iniquitous than Gemma had yet imagined of him.
She was especially curious about Verloc’s outburst regarding the article the “O” Courant had run after Haworth went missing. She didn’t quite believe Verloc’s assertion that he himself had requested it. If he had, it could have just been to cement his cover in hiding Haworth away like this. Not that you’d need to be that convincing in a town where most people couldn’t remember what they did the day before. But that was the rub, wasn’t it? Why would Verloc even go to that length unless he actually was looking for Haworth? No one else would have been.
Another thing she noticed was that Haworth’s patient notes said he was admitted November 10th, 1960, but he had disappeared April 6th. That was roughly six months unaccounted for. If he had actually been missing, as Verloc claimed, had he been lost all that time? And if so, where had he been?
Gemma decided to start with that. She waited until their next status check – when a nurse or an orderly would walk by their observation windows and take notes on their behavior – before she made her move. Once the nurse for that hour jotted down Gemma’s apparent lethargy and turned the corner past her cell, Gemma rolled out of bed, gave herself a vigorous shake to try and clear her mind of the various distracting effects of Coconut and Blackberry withdrawal, and yanked her top sheet off her bed again. She twisted it into a rope like she had the day before and then knocked on Haworth’s window.
He was leaning on the wall next to his window into Plantagenet’s cell, indulging his other cellmate in playing audience to what appeared to be a very rousing speech. Haworth, for his part, looked to be in a more cheerful mood than Gemma had yet seen him, despite a fresh bruise in the middle of his forehead. He had headbutted an orderly last night, but whatever had set him off was long gone judging by the lackadaisical look about him today. He perked up at the sound of knocking and came to see what Gemma wanted, much to the upset of Plantagenet who started throwing an inaudible fit about losing the attention of his singular disloyal subject.
Gemma pointed at Haworth’s patient board and then set to work trying to ask what she wanted to know. She arranged her sheet rope to spell out “Apr to Nov” and then waited to see if Haworth understood what she was asking.
He looked at her message and his mouth pulled to one side and he tried to work out what she wanted. Eventually, he shrugged at her and shook his head. He didn’t understand.
Maybe he just thought she was asking about this April to November. Gemma rearranged her sheet to read “1960” to clarify.
She couldn’t hear it, but Haworth’s “Oh” of comprehension from the other side of the glass was unmistakable. He understood the question, but he had to think over how to give her the answer. After a moment, he made a pair of glasses with his fingers (which Gemma found amusing since he was already wearing glasses) and then swooshed his hand over his head to the right in a wavy gesture. It took Gemma a second before she connected the two gestures. Verloc. She flashed a V with her fingers at him and he pointed at her hand signal and gave her a thumbs up and a excited nod. Then he made a V sign himself and then drew a house shape in front of himself with his fingers.
Verloc’s house? For six months? What could Verloc have been doing with Haworth in his house for that long? And why had he kept him there, rather than just imprison him in here to begin with? Moreover, if Verloc had Haworth at his house, that didn’t explain the need for the article.
Every new bit of information she gleaned begged so many more questions. Gemma gave him her open-handed questioning shrug again. Why?
Haworth frowned. He looked up, apparently thinking out how to explain but after a few fruitless moments, he gave up and twirled his hands around noncommittally, giving her an apologetic grimace. He couldn’t figure out how to mime the why of his stay with Verloc.
Kneeling down to pick up her sheet rope, Gemma held it out at Haworth and gave it an insistent shake. He could use his sheet to spell it out to her. Haworth shook his head no. Gemma grumped and gave another annoyed Why? shrug. Haworth crossed his arms in front of himself, forming an X. Gemma gave her Why? shrug again (although this time it was more of a What? shrug) and Haworth gestured for her to come closer to look as he stepped back from his side of the window. When she looked through, he pulled had his blanket up off the corner of his bed to show her that he didn’t have a top sheet like she did.
Gemma gave yet another questioning shrug. Why not?
Haworth’s eyebrows raised at that. Why not indeed? he seemed to be thinking. His eyebrows then furrowed in thought as he struggled to remember why he didn’t have a sheet. Coconut must make recall like that hard for him, Gemma supposed, although she realized then that comparatively she didn’t feel as though she was having any memory problems yet. She’d need to watch out for that though. It wouldn’t do to learn anything new in here and then forget it.
Haworth appeared to find the explanation for his lack of top sheet though because a strange look darted across his face, wide-eyed and vacant, before it settled back to an uneasy neutrality. He glanced at Gemma and saw she was still waiting for his answer. He mimed twisting the sheet into a rope like she had done and then threw his invisible sheet rope up to the ceiling like a grappling hook. He pointed into her cell, at her ceiling. Gemma looked up; he was pointing at the Joy mister. She nodded, and held out an upturned hand to tell him to go on. Then he pretended to yank his imaginary rope down hard.
They had taken his top sheet because he had tried to pull his Joy mister out of the ceiling with it. Gemma nodded her understanding. She admired his ingenuity, but it cost him his ability to give her responses with even the slightest bit more nuance than charades could afford them. That was, unless they found some other way for them to convey more complex ideas. They’d already seemingly come up with a shorthand for referring to Verloc and Gemma had a now well-practiced gesture for asking any of the Five W’s. If they could develop of some sort of more generalized code for their use, then maybe Haworth could tell her what he was doing at Verloc’s house for six months.
Or, Gemma only dared to hope, there might be some code or cipher Haworth knew already that they could use. She had come to be interested in using codes as a schoolgirl, to encrypt the notes she passed with her friends so her teachers couldn’t read them. It was a fairly common practice, she thought. If she was lucky, Haworth might know some schoolyard cipher like that too.
Gemma pursed her lips and tapped her temple with a pointed finger, a gesture to say that she wanted to think on this. Haworth nodded and left his window to sit at his tea table. Gemma flopped back into her bed and buried her face in her pillow, trying to ease her headache and block out the light. She lay there and made a mental list of every cipher and code she knew of, adding and removing them based on how practical it would be to convert them into gestures.
Hopefully Haworth would be familiar with one of them enough to be able to use it.