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Vile Vortices

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April 4th, 2019, St. Philomena Hospital, Bermondsey

"Doctor Ackerman?"

Leda, who was eleven hours into a thirteen-hour shift and had previously been mechanically shoving rich tea biscuits into her already dry mouth, looked up at a snowy haired man who was standing next to her table in the hospital cafeteria.

Leda eyed him warily and reached out for her neglected cup of water. He was wearing a beige, oversized blazer and white linen trousers that were crinkled by the knees. It wasn't exactly the height of fashion, that was for sure. The man's white hair created a halo around his lined face and only partly managed to shade the crazy out of his intense blue eyes.

Oh boy, Leda thought, downing the lukewarm water in her cup as he watched her expectantly, here we go.

"Who's asking?" she, (un)ironically, asked.

She looked around, noting some F1s clustered on a table a little way away. They hadn't noticed the man enter, it seemed. Or if they did, they didn't think it was weird that an old man approached a lone junior surgeon instead of talking to her on the Ward like a normal person.

Maybe he was a patient's dad. Or something. But that didn't explain why he was here. Now. At her table. Stopping her from eating stale biscuits and feeling sorry for herself.

Leda knew that she could probably be a little nicer. Especially to someone who looked old enough to be her grandfather. But somewhere between being thrown up on (twice!) by a guy who could aim his vomit accurately enough to get it under her top each time and finding out the cafeteria had run out of her favourite pasta when she finally went on her lunch break three hours late, she had forgotten how to be nice to anyone. All she wanted was a (third) shower, a David Attenborough documentary, and one of those crappy ready-meals she told her patients not to eat.

Instead of answering, the old man gestured to the plastic chair on the other side of the table.

"May I sit?" he asked, already dipping into the seat before Leda could protest. She sighed, leaning back on her creaky plastic chair to fold her arms across her chest. The action dislodged a coil of hair from the large bun atop her head and it settled across her forehead. The old man, however, was sitting with a lot more dignity. His tanned hands were clasped on the sky-blue table and he was smiling amiably at her like he hadn't just interrupted her pitiful dinner. For a moment, neither of them spoke and Leda began to grow uncomfortable underneath his un-blinking stare.

"Uh- are you a family member?" she asked at the same time he said: "You are Leda Ackerman, are you not?"

Leda's brown eyes narrowed, and she uncrossed her arms to lean forward over the table. There was something in the way he said her name. Like he was interested in Leda the person and not Leda the doctor. It raised her suspicion levels to amber.

"Again," she ground out, eyes darting between the old man and the cafeteria exit behind him. If she left now, she could be back on the ward in under a minute. She may even be able to nap before her break was over. "Who's asking?"

The old man smiled again, this time his mouth opened, and Leda watched each of his perfect white teeth come into view as his smile widened.

"I am." he said simply.

"And you are?" Leda asked rudely, leaning away again. Her mouth was beginning to get dry and she wished she hadn't drunk all her water at once. She also wished she had taken her packed lunch with her the evening before. Instead she had forgotten it on her kitchen counter where she was almost certain her flatmate had devoured it as soon as she left.

"My name is Dr Samuel Morgan." he stated, his white teeth disappearing behind his lips as his smile slipped into something more contemplative. His hand reached into his front pocket and produced a white business card that he slid across the table towards her. Leda ignored it, not taking her eyes off the man who she was beginning to think was less crazy and more just wildly confused.

When she didn't pick up the business card he sighed, the first sign of well- anything, other than his heavy stare and calm smile.

"Are you a family member of a patient? If not, I'm not sure I have anything to say to you."

The man shook his head, gesturing towards the business card Leda purposefully ignored.

"I am not a family member of a patient, no. I am a Professor of Geo-biology at The University of Edinburgh." he said, as if that would somehow jog Leda's memory. "I live and study in the city and-"

"-And you like long walks on the beach and sipping Pina Colada's while getting caught in the rain?" Leda cut in, rolling her eyes.

She leaned forward again and pinched the corners of the business card between her fingers, holding it at an angle to read it without having to move any more than she had.

DR. SAMUEL MORGAN
PROFESSOR OF GEO-BIOLOGY
tel: +44 784 7761 773
email: semorgan@live.ac.uk
fax: 0203 664 3995

Fax? Jesus, Leda thought. Now she knew he was crazy. He still used fax? Who still used fax?

"You forgot to add that I like horror movies, pineapple on pizza and a side of sarcasm every time I meet a new person." Dr. Samuel – or the man claiming to be him, anyway – said, laughter in his eyes.

Leda snorted and dropped the card back onto the table. She opened her mouth to respond but he cut her off.

"And," he said as he steepled his fingers under his chin and pierced her with another one of his weighted stares. "I knew your father."

Leda was very careful not to move any part of her face, despite the lurch her heart gave in her chest.

"Oh." she said, as airily as she could manage. "No- he- he died when I was small. I don't-"

"No, Leda." Dr Morgan leaned forward across the table. He wasn't smiling, but there was something smug about him. Something that screamed gotcha. And maybe something more urgent, as well. Desperation. "No, he didn't. You and I both know that your father-"

"I'm sorry, Dr Morgan. You've come all this way but I'm positive that you have the wrong person." Leda's words came out in a mangled rush, tripping and falling into one another with no space between them until it was all one long run-on sentence. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time. I hope you find the person you're looking for."

"I think I already have, Ms Gauling." Dr Morgan said.

He lay his hands flat against the table, spreading his fingers. A show of peace, perhaps, but the action didn't make Leda any less on edge. In fact, it made her want to run even more than she already did. She looked past him, to the cafeteria's open doors. If only she could just get there. Because- well- shit. How did he know?

"You are Leda Ackerman. Formally Leda Gauling, correct? Daughter of Richard Gauling, Professor of Physics at Oxford University who specialised in the subject of Condensed Matter? Richard Gauling, who advanced the theory of Vile Vortices to include-"

Leda's heart gave another lurch in her chest and she smiled. She forced it to look at least mildly polite and not like she was baring her teeth and stood up quickly. Perhaps the action was a bit too forceful, though, as her chair tipped backwards from her speed, clattering to the ground with a screech.

A few of the F1s looked up in concern and she shot them strained smiles, shrugging her shoulders in apology but she didn't stoop to pick up the chair. She didn't have time. She had to leave. Now.

"I'm sorry- but I'm not Leda Gauling and there isn't a doctor in this hospital with that name. If you excuse me, I have patients I need to attend to."

Leda didn't give him a chance to respond before she began speed-walking to the exit. There was a clatter behind her and the heart that had lurched I her chest seemed to leap up and into her throat. The walls of the cafeteria swam as she broke into a run. It felt like the world she had painstakingly built was beginning to wobble around the edges. If she could just make it out of the empty cafeteria and back to her ward, he wouldn't be able to follow her. She would be safe. Maybe.

"Leda- Wait- Wait!"

She could feel the Professor gaining on her and her breath came one-two-two one-two-three-two until she wasn't sure if she was breathing in or out or what the order was or where she was or who-

"Leda please-" Dr Morgan's fingers grazed her upper arm and Leda stumbled, tripping over her own feet until she righted herself. Up ahead were the doors to her ward and she broke into a sprint, thighs protesting the sudden pressure. Thank God the hallway was empty. How would she even explain this to her boss? A doctor running away from what other staff would assume to be a potential patient? She'd be ruined.

"It isn't what you think!" Dr Morgan called behind her. She daren't look back, though. She couldn't face him if she did. She feared what she would say or do and more than that, she was terrified of what he would say. How had he found her? How could he have possibly found her?

"I only wish to talk to you! Please!"

Leda skidded to a halt by the ward doors and slammed her key card onto the back reader. She yanked the door open a fraction and slipped through the gap. The Professor got to the door a second after it clicked shut and she flinched when he slammed a hand on the glass and rattled the handle.

"Leda please!" he called through the glass, but she was already off, shoving off from the door and speeding past the nurse's station with a tight smile by way of explanation.

She didn't look back, nor did she relax the hunch in her shoulders until she was huddled in the sleep room, head in her hands, body rolled into a tight ball on a lower bunk. One thought running through her mind as the memory of the Professor's desperate, pleading face.

Shit. Shit. Shitting shit.