By the end of a grey, rain-soaked week with little else except a minor incident over a teacher’s palmer to distract anyone, Laura had been asked about Owen so often that she’d become adept at matching the right phrase to the right face, the way you automatically select golden koi lipgloss for a plain black T-shirt, slick bloodred when your lips need to slash a samurai arc. All the time her eyes wide, candid, alert for Zach.
Who was not in school. Who had left the hospital under escort, her mum had been quick to point out, and now seemed to have vanished. Who didn’t want to be found—Laura hoped. The alternatives kept her awake long into the night. And however much she tried to outwit herself with outrageous scenarios of the lonely-megastar-meets-warmhearted-schoolgirl variety, hair like ribbons of black treacle, fingers like warm toast inevitably ended up feeding her fantasies.
At supper on Friday her father laid a sumptuous box of imported chocolates on the table.
‘A celebration,’ he said.
‘For what?’ Max asked, his eyes already reflecting the shiny glaze on the first piece he’d have, and the second. A third too, if they’d let him.
‘A new patent.’
Laura’s mum smiled, but it was a tight little smile. ‘What about your promotion? You’ve been spending a lot of evenings at the lab lately.’
‘It’ll all help, Molly.’
‘The way the mud in the car last night—and on your shoes—will help?’
Laura watched her father duck his head, colour high. She curled her fingers round her knife, then remembered how angry he’d been about Zach: the quiet, obstinate anger of a weak man who needed to prove something to himself, but who would never defy convention. Who would never dare to stand up to his wife, his boss. Probably not even to a paramedic. Her eyes suddenly prickled with tears.
‘What have you done to him?’ she cried.
Max looked at her in surprise, her parents at one another in alarm.
‘I don’t know what—’ her father began.
‘What’s the patent for this time?’ Laura cut in viciously. ‘A device to control their thoughts? or merely to monitor them?’
She sprang up and slammed out of the room, thereby missing the frown which her dad quickly erased from his forehead. Molly already halfway out of her chair in furious pursuit, her husband was able to shake his head at Max, then mouth a word of caution without attracting her attention.
When Laura pushed open the door, Stella was serving an old man whose greasy hair hung to his shoulders, striated with grey. He smelled unwashed, and Laura was in no hurry to breathe in his rancid exhalations. She’d had her omniflu noc, they wouldn’t let you into school or a film or even the bloody supermarket without it, but you never knew about those weird mutations.
‘Shut the fucken door, freezen my balls here,’ he grumbled testily.
‘No need for that.’ Despite the rebuke, Stella’s gaze passed over Laura as though over a ghost.
Laura closed the door but hovered on the threshold till the greaser dug his hand into a pocket for some coins, and his hair swung forward, curtaining his face. With his head bent, he looked for a moment like a singer pausing for a breath over his mike. Laura stared at him, disconcerted. As if aware of her scrutiny, he glanced up. Sallow eyes blood-webbed with drink or drugs or age, and beneath it all, a deathly fatigue. He’d seen her on a thousand street corners, her disgust as offhand as small change.
Ashamed, Laura hurried to the rack and grabbed the first magazine that came to hand. She was still flipping blindly through its pages when Stella removed it from her hands.
‘If you’re really into bodybuilding, there’s a good gym round the corner,’ Stella said. ‘But don’t crumple the merchandise.’
Laura played with the zip on her jacket, trying to remember her carefully rehearsed lines. The takeaway’s plate-glass windows were fogged, and Laura had a momentary urge to scrawl a message in the condensation, press her nose like a child against the glass.
Stella jerked her head towards the empty table. ‘Go on, sit down. I’ll bring you a cup of tea.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘On second thought, you look as if you could use a meal.’
Laura shook her head, but soon found herself eating the bowl of chilli Stella put before her. Stella settled her bulk onto the other chair, grunting a bit.
‘You’re looking for Zach,’ she said without preamble.
Laura decided to match Stella’s bluntness. ‘I’m worried about him.’
‘You ought to be, after the trouble you’ve caused him.’
‘He said that?’
‘If you need to ask, you don’t know him very well.’
The conversation was heading offshore, and Laura wasn’t keen to do any swimming in these waters.
‘Listen, all I want to know is that he’s OK,’ Laura said. ‘Have you seen him?’
Stella leaned her elbows on the table, which tottered under her weight. Her dark brown eyes offered no safe harbour, so that it took a real effort for Laura to keep from dropping her own. She tucked her arms close to her torso in the hope that Stella wouldn’t smell her sweat. Why were roll-ons only effective when you didn’t need them?
A moment longer, and Laura would have capitulated. But Stella gave an abrupt nod, like a queen grudgingly approving an unwelcome edict.
‘Finish your chilli,’ she said.
And while Laura debated whether not eating the stuff would constitute civil disobedience or a mere tantrum, Stella locked the door to the café, flipped the hand-lettered sign to closed, and switched off the overhead fluorescents, leaving only a dim light behind the counter. Without a word she disappeared into a back room.
If she hasn’t returned by the time the bowl is empty, Laura promised herself, I’ll leave. She was hungry; the chilli was good. In fact, she was very hungry, but she ate more and more slowly. Footsteps prevented her from having to eat the rest a bean—a quarter bean—at a time.
Stella hung back in the passageway, observing the two of them. Though she’d told Zach that Laura was upstairs, his face changed when he saw her, his whole bearing. And the girl as well. The air around them stirred, and Stella could smell the cloves of her childhood, feel the hot sand burning the soles of her feet as she and Alan raced hand in hand, slipping and laughing when they tumbled together like puppies, kissing, running again towards their place between the old jetty and the endless fields of sugar cane. How she could run in those days! Sometimes she still couldn’t believe that Alan was dead, drowned in that sudden storm, his father and brother too, while she’d managed to hold on to a cushion. Even here, in this cold and bitter country, so many years later, she’d turn and there he’d be—grinning his rascal grin, beckoning. Did the dead ever let you go? They could be so greedy . . .
With a sigh she never permitted herself, Stella slipped back into the dark corridor towards the little office where she kept a bed—slept most nights too, these days. Just a bit, she envied them their youth. As for the rest, she was nearly an old woman, after all. Tired, a lot of the time. But not quite resigned, not yet. And where was that wisdom which was supposed to compensate for being too damned stubborn to drown?
‘Where have you been?’ Laura asked Zach.
‘Did they punish you?’
They sat in silence for a while in the soft yolky glow, neither quite sure what came next. Finally Laura touched a finger to Zach’s exposed wrist.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
Still he said nothing, his gaze fastened on her hand. But he didn’t pull away. His skin was warm; his pulse, a small creature quickening under her fingertip. Hesitantly Laura began to stroke its fluttering limbs, its tremulous muzzle.
‘Have you got long?’ he asked, his voice low, a bit hoarse.
‘Training at four. But Janey—my coach—won’t tell my parents if I don’t pitch up. She’s already had one fight with my mum. Interfering cow, Janey called her.’ The encounter belonged in Laura’s archive of favourite memories. ‘To her face.’
He seemed to make up his mind about something. ‘Come on, eat up. You’re too thin,’ he said, pushing the bowl towards her.
‘Girls are never too thin.’
Glinting with amusement, his eyes flicked to her chest. He helped himself to a sip from her tea, then sloshed some when she lifted her jumper and T-shirt in one swift movement. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
‘So?’ she asked. ‘Not big enough for you?’
He looked away. Looked back again. Then down at the teacup.
‘Fix your clothes,’ he said curtly. ‘There’s something I want to show you.’
A single dim bulb illuminated the stairs to the basement. Zach descended ahead of her, his footsteps echoing in the close air. Laura sniffed. Cigarettes, coffee, maybe something fried. Not just storage, then.
About halfway down, Zach stopped. He turned and looked up at her, licked his lips.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Let’s go back upstairs.’
She waited while he struggled with whatever was disquieting him. She could hear his breathing. Her own chest began to tighten, an underwater signal to come up for air, and she must have made a sound, for he took a step backwards, miscalculated, clutched at the handrail to avoid falling.
‘Don’t hurt me, Laura. Please.’
His hair poured into her hands like rich black cream.
There were three of them in a smoke-filled storeroom. Seated on a wooden crate, the younger lad was drinking from a mug of coffee while clutching some papers—black-and-white photoprints, it looked like. Spread on a low table was a large map of the city. The second lad, at a guess a few years older than Zach, glanced up from highlighting something near the Fulgur campus with a fluorescent marker, a high-end palmer in his hand. He frowned, but with far less hostility than the girl, who stubbed out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray and snarled, ‘What the fuck is she doing here?’ She slammed her laptop shut, then rose and positioned herself close to Zach, touching him repeatedly, ostentatiously—on his hand, his shoulder, the crook of his elbow. Zach made an effort to be polite, but finally jerked back and muttered something to her under his breath when she went too far and fingered a strand of his hair. Afterwards she kept her distance, but her eyes never left Laura.
Eyes whose unsettling nature neither long black lashes nor heavy makeup could disguise. Simus, all three of them. Laura tried to act as though they were about to break out the crisps and cokes, rad up a game, but she was sure that Zach was aware of her nervousness—and perhaps the older bloke, who said, not unkindly, ‘Welcome to our humble paddock.’ Then he jabbed the text marker in the girl’s direction. ‘Cut it, Jess. Let’s hear what Zach’s got to say.’ But the younger lad muttered ‘It had better be good’ and dropped the photos facedown onto the map, fanning them out to cover most of its surface.
Zach took his time, first fetching coffee from the flask, then offering Laura a doughnut from a carton. She accepted one, it could be useful to hide behind a full mouth. While he introduced everyone, she noted the shelves of catering tins and supplies, the packing crates, the butcher’s hooks, the bulky space heater which explained the almost stifling warmth. With its herringbone-bricked floor and triple-arched ceiling, the storeroom would have made an intimate jazz club, and even now, the odd pieces of furniture and broken tools wouldn’t have detracted from its cosiness if it hadn’t been for the undercurrents in the room, the feeling that she was going to need her most powerful stroke.
‘Laura’s the one who found the boy,’ Zach said. ‘She wants to help.’
Why the hell didn’t he warn me? Laura thought. And ignored the tart response Olivia would have made. Though fresh, the doughnut was too sugary, Laura could hardly choke down the first bite.
‘How?’ Miles asked, his voice loud, just short of belligerent. ‘She’s a damned monkey.’
Zach moved to stand close to Laura, their shoulders brushing.
‘Her dad’s a top neuro at Fulgur.’
‘You’re mad!’ Jessica said.
‘I trust her,’ Zach said.
‘Yeah, right,’ sneered Jessica, but was prevented from further eloquence by a muffled thump behind the shelf-lined wall. The room went still. Which enabled Laura to hear the groaning that followed, faint but unmistakable.
‘I’ll see to it,’ Nigel said, getting to his feet.
‘That’s my job,’ Zach said. ‘She’ll have to know.’
The argument was brief, and entirely silent. Laura dropped the doughnut onto a dirty plate and followed Zach into the passage. Unlocking the door to the adjoining room, he entered before her and flipped on an overhead light.
‘He deserves much worse.’
Slowly the man dropped his arm, which he’d used to shield his eyes from the sudden glare. He was lashed to a metal bedstead by a nylon rope around his waist, its ends fused, but otherwise he could move about freely—if that was the right word, Laura thought grimly, in the metre or so of space remaining. It looked as if he couldn’t reach the light switch. There was a covered enamel bucket, from the stench obviously serving as a toilet, and even a roll of loo paper. Bottles of water, food on a tray. Warm clean clothes.
‘Auger’s cunt,’ the man said, and spat at his feet. Perhaps he didn’t dare to aim better. Or knew he wouldn’t have the strength to do the job properly.
Expression grim, Zach moved in, and Laura expected him to strike the man. Instead, Zach peeled a long strip from the loo roll, wiped away the gob of spit, and dropped the twice-folded paper into the bucket, his movements as precise as ever. And then she thought he must be trying to impress her, because he crouched in front of the prisoner with the words, ‘Go on, spit in my face. That’s what you really want to do.’
Their eyes locked, the man’s bleary with spite and fear and solitary confinement; Zach’s, unblinking as only his kind’s could be. The man worked his lips, tethered now by more than fibre.
Laura’s mouth filled with spit, and she swallowed hard, afraid of throwing up. ‘Sod this,’ she muttered, and left Zach to his games.
Zach found her seated on the bottom step, head on her knees. When he squatted to address her, tucking his hands under his arms, she looked up and gave a humourless laugh. ‘I suppose you’ll challenge me to spit in your face now, too.’
The storeroom door opened, and Nigel peered out at them. ‘Everything under control?’
Zach waved him back, and Laura noticed that his hand was trembling. She took it before he could thrust it out of sight again.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’
‘I’d like to kill him. Slowly. Very slowly.’
‘Yeah. And god knows how many others.’
She brought his palm up to her cheek, careful not to kiss it. He closed his eyes for a moment.
‘What are you going to do with him?’ Laura asked.
‘What would you have me do?’
Zach made an exasperated sound in his throat, snatching his hand away. He rose and paced to the end of the passage, returned, moved off again. Once he stopped at the door to their headquarters, but after glancing back at her, let go of the handle. He strode towards her again, bearing down fast, fast and hard, and her breath caught in her throat. I’ll fight him, she thought. I want to fight him.
It took him several passes before he’d worked off enough of his agitation to stand before her, and even so, the walls could hardly contain his words. They splattered against her skin—angry, crimson.
‘Do you have any idea what it’s like?’ he cried.
Laura rose to her feet. ‘Let him go, Zach.’ He gesticulated in frustration, but she avowed as much for herself as for him, ‘You’re no hater.’
‘If I’m not, then I ought to be! You people have given me enough lessons.’
Reaching into his pocket, he flung something at her feet. She stared at him, then down at the floor, then back at Zach.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
He scooped up the folded piece of paper and started to shove it back into his pocket, but she intercepted his movement.
‘Don’t,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean for you to see it.’
But he didn’t stop her when she unfolded the sheet. A crude, ugly drawing with the usual threats. Slowly she refolded it.
‘It’s not hatred. It’s ignorance and—’ she said.
‘Hatred,’ he said flatly. Wearily.
He watched her as she put the note into her own pocket.
‘Maybe you’d better go,’ he said. ‘Before . . . ‘ His eyes slid towards the storeroom door.
‘Then I hope you’re prepared to be reviled.’ His voice shook. ‘To be despised every day, every single fucking endless day.’ Dropped to a whisper. ‘To look into someone’s eyes and want him to spit at you.’
One step, then her hands at his waist. His on her shoulders. The single quaver of the snap, the uneven chromatic slide of the zip. His skin warm under her fingers. A resonant crescendo. Tentative fingerings, needing practice.
But the score was still too difficult.
‘No!’ he exclaimed, taking her wrists.
She felt the fiery flush of shame and tried to turn away, but he wouldn’t let her go. Drew her close again, resting his cool forehead against hers. She listened to the singing of his blood, the drumming of his heart as, gradually, he brought his breath back to a settled tempo.
‘Not here,’ he murmured. ‘Not like this.’