Laura crouched at the child’s side. Up close she could see the cracks in his lips, traces of blood and spit caked at the corners of his mouth. Cheeks rouged by fever. Bruises—livid, horrifying bruises. And from the stench and the state of his pants, it was clear that he’d been left trussed like an animal for a very long time.
Laura glanced back at Owen. ‘Have you got a pocket knife?’
As Owen advanced into the room, the boy seemed to shrink further inside the loose husk of his skin, while his shudders became more pronounced. Soon Laura could detect a new smell, though she wondered how his body managed to spare enough moisture to sweat. At least I’ve still got some of my apple juice left for him, she thought. Usually she drank all of it right after swimming.
‘I don’t own a knife,’ Owen said, dropping a hand to her shoulder. ‘Come away, this is none of our business.’
Laura twitched aside. ‘He’s scared of you. Go and try to find something sharp. A piece of metal, some broken glass, whatever.’
‘For godsake, isn’t that obvious?’
‘What’s obvious is that you’re set on getting into more trouble.’
With the same hair-trigger response that made her racing starts so effective, Laura sprang up and rounded on Owen. ‘You can’t be serious. What if he was your little brother?’
Owen tried to make a joke of it. ‘An auger?’
The boy’s whimpering prevented Laura from slapping Owen. But she came close.
Owen retreated a step or two from the fierce expression on her face before capitulating. ‘OK. Have it your way. I’ll have a look.’ He turned to go.
‘Wait,’ said Laura, rummaging in her backpack for her mobile. ‘Maybe we ought to phone for an ambulance.’ She didn’t like the sound of the boy’s breathing. How long had he gone without that serum? Zach’s words came back to her. Worse.
‘You can’t do that. You’ll get your dad fired.’
‘For ringing emergency services?’
‘All calls are recorded.’
‘Then use your mobie.’
Owen slowly shook his head. ‘They know we go out together.’
There was a misunderstanding here, but Laura wasn’t about to tackle that now. She pulled out her bottle, dropped to a squat, and addressed the boy in as soothing a voice as she could muster. ‘We’re not going to hurt you. I want to turn you over and give you a little apple juice, then my friend’s going for a doctor. Don’t be afraid. You’re safe now.’
In certain parts of the world simu eyes are prized for their putative occult properties, and it’s rumoured that a single one on the black market will yield enough for a luxury flat in your metropolis of choice, housekeeper included; and an undamaged matched pair, a lifetime of leisure. However, to be of prime value they must be harvested from a living ‘donor’.
The boy stared at Laura with eyes so occluded that she couldn’t tell if he understood her. But he let her roll him onto his back with only a faint cry of distress, or pain. Striving to hide her disgust—she’d never seen anyone quite so filthy—she raised his head and moistened his lips from the bottle, then allowed him to take a few sips. ‘Not too much at once,’ she said when he gulped and rooted for more. ‘I’ll be right back,’ she added, and pulled Owen out of the room.
‘Look, he’s not OK,’ she said. ‘We’re going to need help.’ But what if the EMTs had no idea about the serum? Or even the doctors at the hospital? Isn’t that what Zach had implied?
‘There’s bound to be a phone box somewhere. We can make an anonymous call.’
‘And leave him on his own?’ Contempt, she remembered too late, tended to make meek people like her dad meekly obstinate.
‘He’s not in any condition to notice. And he must’ve endured far worse.’
Worse. ‘Give me your mobie! I’m going to ring Zach.’
‘Bad idea. Anyway, I don’t know his number.’
An angry rash mottled Owen’s cheeks. ‘You’re not still—’
They both startled at the loud retching from the room behind them. ‘Shit!’ Laura rushed back to the boy, who by now was choking weakly on the fluid he’d brought up. She got him onto his side in a modified recovery position, thumped his back as much as she dared, then stroked his long dank hair away from his forehead. Washed, she thought, it’d be almost as beautiful as Zach’s. The child had closed his eyes. His breathing was shallow; his skin, no longer flushed but pale and cold and clammy—alarmingly so.
‘Give me your mobie,’ she hissed at Owen. After a moment’s hesitation, he acquiesced.
‘Yeah?’ Zach answered.
Typical. Not even a polite hello. ‘It’s me,’ she said. ‘I need your—’
‘Sabra,’ he broke in, ‘nice of you to ring. What’s up?’
How the hell could he think so fast? Sabra was another simu at school, she’d cover for Zach without blinking. Especially after the way Tim had twatted off about having a simu on his ecology team. Which gave her an idea.
‘What do you mean, nice? Where the hell are you?’ If the Insects routinely monitored voice patterns, however, no one, except maybe Owen, would get away with only a warning. ‘Me and Owen have been waiting for ages—fucking ages—by the canal to finish up the stupid project for Tines.’
‘Damn. I forgot. Was it today?’
‘What’s got into you? You’re acting like a monkey with mashed bananas for brains. Get down here doublequick on your bike, and bring that pocket knife of yours for scraping off the sludge from the stones, like you promised. We’ve got everything else ready.’
‘Look, I’m sorry. Where exactly are you waiting?’
‘Behind the old cannery.’
‘OK. Fifteen minutes.’
‘Got any of that nosh you were desperate for last time? Remember? The one my dad also likes to whip up? There’s someone here with a great whacking hunger.’
Laura heard, in his drawn silence, the questions a lesser intelligence would blurt out. Simus, she was learning, are quick studies at not betraying themselves. She rang off at his ‘OK, I’ll have a look’ and handed Owen his mobile.
‘Go outside and wait for him,’ she said, making it plain she’d tolerate no dissension.
Once Owen had gone, she fetched her damp swimming towel from her backpack and wiped the boy’s face and chest. Aside from fluttering his eyelids, he lay still. He seemed barely conscious. With the cleaner portions of the towel she sponged his body as best as she could, then settled down beside him, taking his hand. To hearten herself perhaps more than him, she sang softly until she heard the muted drone of Zach’s motorbike—a sound that she’d come to recognise as readily as her own ringtone.
‘What’s going on here?’
A backpack slung over his shoulder, Zach strode into the room. As Owen came up behind him, Zach glanced from Owen to Laura with a contemptuous twist to his lips. Then he saw the boy. At once he gestured Laura aside and knelt next to the limp body. Zach’s hair was tied back in a ponytail, enabling Laura to observe how his face darkened. Very gently he rolled the boy onto his back and laid his head against the sunken chest to listen for a heartbeat.
‘Now that you’re here, Laura and I best be going,’ Owen said.
Zach lifted his head. ‘Wait outside and warn us if anyone approaches.’
Owen looked about to refuse until Laura—with admirable self-control, she thought—smiled at him. ‘Please, Owen. I’ll be along in a short while.’
As soon as they were alone, Zach used his pocket knife to slice through the bonds. Without a word he ran his fingers over the abraded flesh, which left a smear of blood on his fingertips, then arranged the boy’s limbs tenderly. Despite the silence Laura could hardly detect the sound of the boy’s breathing, but his chest rose and fell, albeit shallowly, and a weak pulse flickered like a matchlight at the hollow of his throat—the slightest stir of wind, and it would be snuffed.
Zach wiped his fingers on his jeans before removing a plastic container from his backpack.
‘Is he going to be OK?’ Laura asked.
Instead of answering, Zach ran his eyes over the boy’s body, then slipped one arm under his shoulders and the other under his knees, lifting him enough to take the measure of his weight. At last the boy reacted. A soft moan, eyes half open, neck muscles tensing.
‘I’ve got your medicine,’ Zach said. ‘After that you can have a drink.’
The child’s lips moved as if he wished to say something, but his body relaxed. Soon his eyes drifted shut.
From the plastic container Zach brought out a clean paper towel, on which he arranged a sealed disposable syringe, some flat foil packets, and a small bottle. He held the bottle up to the light before rolling it back and forth between his hands, evidently to mix its contents. After checking it once more, he tore open one of the foil packets, releasing the sharp smell of alcohol, and cleaned his hands with the swab it contained. He removed the lid from the bottle, cleaned its top with another swab, and broke out the syringe. All his movements were precise and unhurried, and despite the circumstances Laura couldn’t eschew her pleasure at watching him. For a brief moment she wondered how it would feel if those fingers touched her skin, her lips, her . . . Idiot, she thought, what’s the matter with you? But thoughts have a sly hunger of their own.
At least Zach was ignorant of her perfidy. He continued with his preparations until he’d drawn up the right amount of serum. Then he addressed Laura for the first time.
‘Hold the syringe by the barrel,’ he said, passing it to her.
With a fresh alcohol swab Zach cleaned a patch on the boy’s upper thigh, followed by a grimace as he noticed how dirty the swab had become. He used a second, then a third. Satisfied at last, he pinched up a fold of skin, held out his hand for the syringe, inserted the needle at a 45º angle, and slowly depressed the plunger. Under his breath he counted to five, removed the needle, and pressed another swab in place over the injection site. Through all of this the boy remained very still.
Zach dropped the spent syringe onto the paper towel. His eyes met Laura’s, and she recognised the bleakness in their depths.
‘Owen didn’t want to ring for an ambulance,’ she said.
‘Your boyfriend’s not as stupid as he looks.’
‘I told you, he’s not my boyfriend.’
Zach shrugged and turned his attention back to the boy, whose pulse he took with a frown before lifting one of the boy’s eyelids, then peeling back his lower lip. Even in the poor light Laura could see the bluish discolouration of the mucous membranes.
‘Maybe we’d best get him to a hospital,’ Laura said.
‘No. Only Fulgur’s people know how to deal with this, and they’d write him off straightaway.’
‘Never heard of the slaugers?’
‘The slag augers. The offscum, the damaged goods, the seconds. The Fulgur rejects.’
His bitterness stung like raw alcohol poured full-strength into an open wound, but Laura restrained her impulse to defend her kind. As she stared down at the boy, she remembered the contempt of the police till her father had managed to smooth things over. She’d been too scared to argue. But a boy younger than Max?
‘What about his parents?’ she asked.
‘Does it look like he’s got someone to care about him?’
‘Look, I appreciate what you’ve done, but Owen’s right. Keep out of it.’ He said nothing further while he stood and stretched, his jumper riding up to expose a gap of skin. He paced up and down for a few minutes, the slap of his booted feet loud against the concrete floor—any carpeting had been ripped away long ago—before coming to rest near a metal coat rack abandoned in a far corner of the room, one leg and several hooks broken off. He crossed his arms, stared down at it blindly, and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. ‘The boy’s probably not going to make it, anyway.’ Zach kept his voice level, but Laura sensed the effort it cost him—a clear cool melt pool disguising needle ice.
‘Be careful,’ she said, throwing a glance at the boy. ‘He might hear you.’
And as though in response, his body arched off the floor, his eyes flew open, and a deep gurgling sound issued from his throat. Like a marionette whose strings had been cut, he fell back almost at once, and was still again. Too still.
Zach launched himself with a cry towards the boy, all pretence of disinterest—resignation—forgotten. As Laura hovered in horror, Zach listened for a heartbeat, then pulled open the boy’s mouth to begin artificial respiration.
‘Not like that,’ she said.
She quickly felt for a pulse in the boy’s neck. Nothing. She checked his mouth for any obstructions, then tilted his head back with his chin pointing upwards. With one hand she pinched his nostrils shut, took a deep breath, and holding his jaw firmly in position, blew into his mouth. His chest rose. She placed her ear near his lips to listen for an exhalation. Again she breathed into his mouth, again she listened. There was an exchange of air, but he hadn’t resumed spontaneous respiration. Nor was there any sign of circulation.
‘You’re going to have to help me,’ she said, and showed Zach how to administer CPR. His thrusts were steady but too vigorous. ‘More gently, you’ll break his ribs.’
They worked together, alternating respiration with chest compression, for a good twenty minutes, half an hour. Sweat was dripping off Zach’s forehead when Laura laid a hand on his arm.
‘It’s no use,’ she said.
Angrily Zach shook off her hand and continued on his own, breathing in her stead. She crouched opposite him, tears threatening. They should have rung for an ambulance. With the proper training, proper equipment . . .
‘Zach,’ she finally said.
He dropped his head onto the boy’s chest, his face hidden from Laura. She couldn’t think of what to say, so said nothing. She hoped Owen had given up and left.
Not more than five minutes passed before Zach rose to his feet. Peeling off his jumper, he advanced on the remains of the coat rack, hefted it in his hands, and stepped back from the corner. His breathing was harsh in the silence. Laura saw his shoulder muscles bunch under his T-shirt. Then he swung for the wall. With an explosive whomp plaster and chips of paint flew over him in an avalanche of white. Some of it must have stung his skin, gritted his eyes, but he swung again, and again, and yet again, not once breaking the apparently effortless rhythm of his stroke. If anything, each blow was more forceful than the last. At one point the detonation was so loud that Laura flinched and glanced at the boy, irrationally expecting him to jerk upright in protest. Let me rest, she imagined him saying.
In a short while Zach was covered with a thick layer of snowy dust, and most of the plasterboard had been demolished. Hair now sweat-soaked and straggling free, he prepared to attack the adjoining wall. There was no sign that his rage had abated, despite large wet patches under his arms and along his back. Laura had always hated her mother’s angry outbursts—feared them often enough, too—but was riveted by the brute simplicity, the savage power of Zach’s feelings. His ragged panting filled the room, filled her inner space, as he paused for a moment to catch his breath. Her own breathing, she was shocked to discover, had quickened in response.
‘Have you lost your mind?’
Owen stood in the doorway, his expression—his whole bearing—incredulous. Zach spun to face him.
‘Out!’ Zach snarled. ‘Or you’re next.’
Owen hesitated, then took a step towards Laura.
‘Laura’s coming with me,’ he said.
Zach hoisted the tortured length of metal in both hands, cocked it over his shoulder, and with a cold smile closed on Owen. No tribal paint could have looked more feral, more inhuman than Zach’s glowing mask of white powder. Suddenly Laura understood why they whispered about a simu’s eyes.
‘Zach, no. No!’ She was on her feet and moving between them. And to Owen, ‘I’m OK. Go home. Please.’
For a second or two it seemed as if Zach would dodge around her. Owen backed away, brandishing his hands to conceal their trembling, though not quite succeeding. Zach halted and jerked his head towards the door.
‘Go on, get going,’ he said.
Laura knew enough about male pride to realise that however cowed Owen might be right now, he’d be the first in a crowd to kick a prostrate Zach in the kidneys, the first to throw a rock or jagged curse from a safe distance, the very first to snicker and crack dirty jokes with his mates. She’d made things worse. Again.
‘I’ll ring you later,’ she said, but immediately regretted her attempt at appeasement. With a grin meant to be mocking, Zach wheeled and stomped towards the intact wall. Owen flicked an anxious glance at Laura, but sighed when she mouthed ‘please’.
Along with the tension, Owen’s departure carried off the last vestige of energy in the room. Rather than battering the wall, Zach rested his forehead against it. His shoulders sagged, he gripped the coat rack like a cane. Laura considered searching for a blanket or bit of sacking to cover the boy, but it was all she could do to keep from sinking to the floor. The plaster dust had settled, leaving the air dry and motionless, the way the desert tombs of the pharaohs once must have been. There was a gritty film on her skin, and she ran her tongue over her teeth and swallowed repeatedly to erase the chalky taste. And she was thirsty, she realised, terribly thirsty, but the prospect of drinking from the same bottle which she’d held to the child’s mouth less than an hour ago defeated her. In her mind she saw those chapped lips desperately puckering for another sip. She could have at least let him have all he wanted . . .
How could someone die in the time it took to watch a cartoon? to play hide-and-seek? to decorate a birthday cake with sweets? No, less time than that. The time it took for a little kid to make his wish. To blow out the candles.
As if he’d heard her thoughts, Zach let go of the coat rack, which clattered to the floor. Slowly he turned to face her. His eyes were brimming with tears.
‘Laura,’ he whispered.
It took no time at all to reach him. Nothing she’d ever felt came close to the fierce possessive joy which swept through her at their embrace. Her father controlled every one of his feelings; her mother, none of hers. But neither parent would have felt so elated—so fucking glorious—at someone else’s grief. She buried her face in Zach’s damp, grimy T-shirt, and held on. With any luck he wouldn’t notice.
Zach covered the boy with a blanket he’d found in one of the other offices.
‘Do you mind waiting with him for five minutes?’ he asked. ‘I want to fetch something from my bike.’
‘My petrol canister.’
‘You’re not planning to—?’
‘Yeah, I am.’
‘But there should be an investigation. A funeral. Or something.’
Zach regarded her soberly. ‘I’ll do my own investigating.’
The fire destroyed most of the cannery. By the time the blaze had been brought under control, Laura had ridden pillion on a motorbike for the first time. TV coverage mentioned a child’s remains, unidentified. ‘Under investigation,’ a police spokeswoman said.