Andy comes off the court with sweat soaking his torn vest. The corporate gyms have become a favourite venue, particularly with younger employees. None of the techs wears top-of-the-line gear, though they could easily afford it, and Andy’s ancient sneakers stink.
‘Way to go,’ Fabio says, slapping Andy on the back. ‘Last hoop was pure gold, we’ll make a baller out of you yet.’
With intense green eyes, earring, and shoulder-length hair, Fabio doesn’t look to fit the Fulgur culture. He grew up in Rio, his stubborn streak showing itself early on—no football for him. Claims his mum gave birth to him on a court between games. After a couple of lagers, he’s been known to admit he could have played pro ball. But he’s one of Fulgur’s star execs-in-training, who bashes out directives even faster than a rim-buster.
Andy glances round to make sure they won’t be overheard, then draws Fabio towards a bench at the far wall.
‘Something’s worrying me,’ Andy says.
‘If it’s about that crazy bitch, tell her to—’
‘She’s no problem.’ Again Andy checks the gym. The others have already headed for the showers. ‘But if anyone asks, that’s what we were talking about.’
Fabio’s eyebrows shoot upwards like a sweet singin’ jump shot. Though Andy is smiling, the expression in his eyes comes straight from the favelas. Fabio wipes his forehead with the flat of his hand, then settles himself on the bench. Andy sits down next to him, and they both slump forwards, propping their forearms on their knees and staring at the floor between wide-planted feet as if they’re too wrecked to move.
‘So talk about her,’ Fabio says.
‘They don’t wire the gym, do they?’
‘Man, you’re one jumpy dude.’ But with a half-smile he lifts his left hand and directs a few words in Portuguese at his wrister, which beeps two tones in sequence, an octave apart. ‘That’ll run any interference we need.’
‘You’ve got a matilda?’
‘Yeah. Anyone listening in is going to get an earful of some great Brazilian choro. Ragtime meets samba.’ Fabio sees incredulity lingering on Andy’s face. ‘Where I grew up, you learn to watch your back and be prepared.’
A story no one would believe, Fabio least of all. Possession of such a device is so rare—and so suggestive—that to reveal its existence is a sign of real trust: Andy makes a fist and punches his friend lightly on a sculpted bicep.
‘The next bottle is on me,’ Andy says.
‘Damn right. Now talk.’
Like any good professional, Andy keeps his comments brief and succinct: the problem with Zach’s run yesterday, Litchfield’s reaction, Andy’s own fears. He ends by adding, ‘I’ve tried to abort the run on my own, but it hasn’t worked.’
‘I hope you’ve got a lot of gigs lined up. You’re looking to get fired. And blackballed.’
‘Fabio, I can’t just ignore it. By rights we ought to be bringing in some other top brains, Jakobi in Sweden, Gao, Hill maybe.’
‘I think so.’
No one who has ever worked with Andy doubts his instincts, which border on the uncanny—some say clairvoyant. Fabio’s current assignment is Human Resources, it’s his job to know. Andy will be believed if this gets round. He’s no Mateus, of course, but they share something of the same hot-headedness. Slade’s a fool not to manage his division better. And as for Litchfield . . . just how much has he told his best tech?
‘It might not be a malfunction,’ Fabio says.
‘Look, I’d like to be wrong but—’
‘Not wrong like that.’ Fabio removes his sweatband, tugs off his trademark black velvet scrunchie, and runs a hand through his hair several times—an uncharacteristic gesture—before securing it again. ‘Wrong about the grounds for a so-called malfunction. If you hung around more with your workmates instead of playing that infernal bass,’ —he ducks— ‘then you’d have heard some of the rumours.’
‘Such as Litchfield would happily dispose of Zach.’
‘Word has it there was something between him and Litchfield’s daughter.’
Andy glances sidelong at his friend. That note of diffidence—it’s too studied. Too much like a feint; or bait. Good ballers are terrific at bluffing. And he’s heard rumours that Fabio was present at the old Rex that night; that he and Zach were more than just political allies.
‘What else is new?’ Andy says in his best mates-only voice. ‘You know how it is, the simus are exotic. You’ve only got to watch Zach walk into the canteen. Every girl, hell every woman, in the place secretly—or openly—eyes him. Some of the blokes too.’
Fabio is quiet for a moment. He twists the heavy gold armband which once belonged to Mateus back and forth on his left wrist before slipping a finger underneath to rub his skin.
‘Zach’s a friend, that’s all,’ he says. ‘The thing between Laura and him, it was complicated. And I reckon you and I both know it.’
Andy gestures towards Fabio’s matilda. ‘You’re positive that gadget is working?’
‘OK,’ Andy says, making up his mind without recourse to his usual knuckle cracking. ‘There’s something I haven’t told you. Litchfield’s running an unauthorised upload with Zach’s help.’
Fabio whistles softly. Andy would expect him to be astonished. ‘Man, you lot are some crazy dudes.’
Andy reaches over and taps the matilda with a forefinger. ‘You’re Insec, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourselves.’
‘Litchfield’s worried, all right, but even if he could, he wouldn’t abort the run.’
‘You know as well as I do that if he’s endangering Zach, I’m not about to climb into my rainbow-striped hammock for a hundred-year wank. Isn’t that why you’ve come to me? The situation is dead precarious. Not only is Zach one of the best, he’s the most visible. No one can afford a martyr—not now, not with so much unrest and instability. Fulgur least of all.’
‘Litchfield’s dropped his nuts right into a steel nutcracker. He doesn’t want to jeopardise the run—or lose Zach—but he can’t get help without the whole thing blowing up in his face.’
‘Litchfield’s an idiot. A smart idiot, maybe even a brilliant idiot, but an idiot all the same. I’ll do what I can to cover for you, but if it’s a choice between—’
‘Mateus died horribly, didn’t he? Your brother?’
‘What the fuck has that got to do with anything?’
‘Then you’ll understand how Litchfield feels about his daughter. And Zach about Laura.’ Andy doesn’t bother to spell it out, there’s nothing sluggish about Fabio’s grey matter. ‘And why I agreed to go along with the whole scheme.’
‘Jesus F. Christ. You’re saying—’ A reputation has its uses. Fabio breaks off and gets to his feet, snatches up the rock and dribbles a couple of hard ones, stops at the sound of voices from the shower room, hooks the ball with a loud thud against the nearby wall. ‘Look, I’ve got to get back to my desk.’
Fabio’s cool legendary, Andy rises and watches the ball run out of steam before asking, ‘But you’ll help me?’
A flourish. ‘Just call me Esu.’
‘The Brazilian trickster god.’
Andy snorts. ‘Talk to Litchfield. He won’t heed me, but you might be able to get him to come clean. And if you’ve got the clout I think you do’ —Fabio holds up a hand, fingers outstretched as if to field a foul— ‘that I’m certain you do, get Randall to give Litchfield some sort of assurance. Nobody here understands the Fulgrid like Litchfield, and crucifying him will only make it much more difficult to rescue Zach.’ His smile is wry. ‘Besides, Litchfield’s family has still got to eat.’
But Fabio has no intention of rescuing Zach, who is exactly where he needs to be.
Andy’s band was in the middle of its second set when Olivia nudged Laura, sloshing her coke. ‘Don’t look now, but look who’s just come in.’ A little slurred, Olivia’s voice betrayed that she and Damien had been adding liberally to their glasses from a concealed bottle. Thea’s Jazz Club served no alcohol, one of the reasons it had been granted a rare lowered age-restrictions licence. The other, widely known, was Thea’s family connections to the City Council. The small basement club was always crowded, even in the worst weather.
‘About time he’s shagging one of his own kind,’ Damien said.
Melting snow glistened in Zach’s hair. Laura watched him shake his head so that a shower of fine droplets spangled his date’s face. The girl laughed, and Laura watched him wipe her cheeks and forehead with a gloved hand before helping her to remove her jacket. As he unbuttoned his own honey-coloured sheepskin, he turned towards the small stage and caught sight of Laura: she was sure of it, though he gave no sign.
‘They make a gorgeous couple,’ Olivia said rather slyly. ‘Anyone know who she is?’
The girl was tall, with a creamy complexion and features that were modelled for a name like Jade or Candace or Giselle. A draught of icy air must have entered with them; Laura crossed her arms over her chest. Hair that colour ought to be outlawed.
‘No idea, but I wouldn’t mind a couple of hours alone with her,’ Derek said with a crude gesture. He was between girls. Again. ‘Man, you can see her nipples.’
Olivia giggled, then gave him a friendly shove. ‘It’s the cold, you dope.’
Tim looked belligerent. ‘I don’t care how big her tits are. Augers shouldn’t be allowed in here.’ He drained his glass, belched, and pushed back his chair. ‘I’m going to complain.’
‘Won’t get you far at Thea’s,’ Owen observed, his eyes on Laura. ‘The only free table’s off behind a pillar, anyway. You won’t even have to see them.’
But Owen hadn’t reckoned on Andy, who took the lead in more than just bass. Playing two-handed like a pianist by tapping the strings to the fret, he finished a daring contrapuntal attack, then eased off to let his drummer ride the sax into an edgy, almost discordant riff. Even before the final notes were crushed beneath enthusiastic applause, beneath stamping feet and calls for ‘more, more’, Andy had unslung his bass and bounded off the stage to greet Zach. In no time coats had been carried off by a waiter and a table near the front organised, uncomfortably close to where Laura and her mates were seated. After wiping a trace of lipstick from Zach’s mouth with a tissue from her bag, his girl settled into place, seemingly oblivious to the stares and whispers. A good act, Laura thought sourly. Deep in conversation with Andy, Zach passed within touching distance en route to the musicians. It was only when the saxophonist handed him a clarinet that she realised what was happening. Was he doing this deliberately to taunt her?
Laura erected a small tower of pretzels, then flicked them over and rebuilt them as Andy introduced Zach. For a moment she was apprehensive he’d brandish the klezmer song from the cave, but Zach was far too subtle for such displays. Instead he chose a classic Sam Cooke ballad, A Change Is Gonna Come.
From the first note Zach shed his usual cool diffidence, though he began softly, almost inaudibly, so that the audience was forced to strain for the melodic line. After a few bars he had them: when Olivia muttered ‘wow, he’s good’, heads turned to glare at her. The keyboard, the bass, the drums—something was happening here that, just like a river, ran swift and hard and true, a floodwater of sound which swept the clubbers from their moorings, from their skins with raw and implacable power. The clarinet sang as though Aretha herself had dropped by to remind them what had changed, what had never changed. A long time coming.
There was no clapping. In the silence a blue spot anchored on Zach, whose head was bowed. He was breathing hard, as hard as a diver coming up for air. Laura stared down at her glass. That he didn’t try to hide the guttural sound—this was as shocking, and nearly as riveting, as his music. Despite her struggle to resist, to break free, the line between them held: both lifted their heads as one, and their eyes locked.
After a short pause Zach played once more, but by this time Laura had made her way to the ladies’. She bathed her face with cool water, then shut herself in a cubicle and rested her head on arms folded across her knees. Dry-eyed, she tried to work out how long she could remain here before Owen sent Olivia on a search-and-rescue mission. Ten minutes, maybe. Fifteen at most. She read the graffiti.
The door swung open, and Laura waited for her name to be called. Footsteps approached the basins, though no sound of running water followed. Not much sound at all. A brush and lipstick job, then. Laura put an eye to the gap, but the angle was wrong. Only one way to see, but if she got down on her knees, she could imagine the woman’s reaction. Again Laura read the graffiti, now wishing she had a black marker to add a few caustic lines of her own. Whatever the woman was up to, Laura couldn’t hide out in the toilets much longer. She flushed the loo, straightened her jumper, and clasping her bag tightly under her arm—not that there was much to steal—slid back the bolt.
‘Flushes in the key of E♭’ a familiar voice said.
‘You can’t come in here!’ Laura hissed.
‘Is that so?’ Zach asked, arms crossed and one buttock propped on the edge of a basin. How did he always manage to upend her expectations?
She moved to the other sink and washed her hands. And washed her hands.
‘They’re not going to get any cleaner,’ he said.
‘Shut up and go away.’
Zach reached over and turned off the brass retro tap—no fancy modern gadgets for Thea. Silently he handed Laura a clutch of paper towels which she would have preferred to toss back in his face. She forced herself to dry each hand with care, finger by finger. Don’t ask him, she told herself. Don’t you dare ask him.
‘Who is she?’ she heard herself say.
Their eyes met in the mirror.
‘You’re wearing my jumper,’ he said.
Laura glanced down, reddened. With both hands she dragged his jumper over her head, then realised too late that her camisole wouldn’t conceal the bruise across her upper arm. For a moment she thought he’d be polite enough not to comment.
‘At least my dates don’t slap me around,’ he said.
‘Don’t jump to ridiculous conclusions.’
‘So you walked into an open door?’ He didn’t bother disguising the contempt in his voice.
Laura held up the jumper, knowing full well she’d have to put it back on—or ask him to fetch her jacket, which would be worse.
‘I’ll have it cleaned and returned to you,’ she said.
‘Wear it. It suits you.’
Suddenly she was tired of pretending. ‘Because it’s yours.’
They were quiet for moment, then Zach stepped forward and ran his fingertips lightly over her bruise, while Laura studied the tarnish dulling the mirror like crape.
‘Here, I’ve been carrying this around for days. I planned to give it to you the afternoon of the Fulgur bombing,’ he said.
A small gold pendant lay in the palm of his outstretched hand, chain dangling from his fingers, swinging. His hand, she saw, was trembling slightly. She couldn’t believe the necklace was for her, even when he fastened it round her neck.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
Hands resting on her shoulders, he closed his eyes for a short time, allowing her to search his face for an inkling of understanding. To mention the bombing in such a casual—callous—tone, damn him. And then this.
‘Do you know the legends of the selkie?’ he asked.
The door opened. On the threshold Olivia was already calling out, ‘Laura, what’s taking you—’
Zach and Laura sprang apart.
‘Zach. Why am I not surprised,’ Olivia drawled. Always the quick-witted one, she’d never been bothered that people resented you for it, especially your mates, especially when you defended them. ‘Your own hot curry waiting at the table, while you guzzle ours in the loo.’ Sighing ostentatiously, she considered Laura. ‘How utterly tacky.’
‘Livs—’ Laura began.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell Owen. Or Tim. Just get the fuck away from this freak, even if his instrument’s as big as his clarinet. Even if it’s bigger.’
And then she was gone.
Laura hadn’t realised that Zach could blush. She was trying to decide whether it was anger or embarrassment or something else entirely when the walls shuddered, then tilted. Later she would have trouble remembering the exact sequence of events—have trouble remembering if she even heard the detonation or only felt it. There had been too many films she’d seen, too many news clips. Too many stories.
Zach rolled away from her and slowly sat up, holding his head. His face was the colour of a twice-used teabag left on the worktop to moulder.
‘What was that?’ she asked.
He didn’t answer.
‘Zach? Are you OK?’
Hoarse cries, screams were beginning to penetrate her awareness. Laura glanced towards the door, still firmly closed. The mirror had fallen and shattered, otherwise everything in the toilet seemed intact. Perhaps a bit more dust in the air, that was all. And that acrid smell.
‘A bomb?’ she asked, disbelieving.
She found she was still clutching Zach’s jumper. Wrapping it round her hand, she swept the shards away and crept to his side. He was shivering, unable to do much more than lean against her. She picked a sliver of glass from his hair. A small cut above his eyebrow was oozing blood, which she wiped with a spit-moistened tissue from her pocket. It continued to seep, but he shook his head when she tried to swab it again.
‘You people will blame us,’ he whispered. ‘Blame the murdering auger bastards.’ Though a little colour was returning to his face, the shivering continued. ‘Oh god, Carla, Andy, all those kids . . . ‘
‘Zach, look, no matter what I said that afternoon, I never meant it. Nobody who knows you could believe for one minute—for one second—that you’d do something like this.’
‘Haven’t you listened to the stuff the Purists spout? They’re everywhere, in the government, the police, the media, the chatrooms, your grandmother’s Bible study group . . . ‘
Above the frightful sounds from the club—and the smoke alarms—Laura now could hear sirens in the distance, heading their way. Despite the heavy snow, ambulances would soon get through. Firefighters, probably. Police.
‘Zach, we’ve got to leave. I’m going to try to find our jackets.’
‘Don’t go out there. You don’t want to see it.’
Laura looked round but could spot no place for Zach to hide.
‘Lock yourself into a cubicle,’ she began, but realised it was hopeless. She scrambled to her feet. ‘I’ll be right back.’ The corridor was full of smoke, but there didn’t seem to be any flames nearby. Ducking back for a second to take a swimmer’s deep breath, Laura shut the door behind her, crouched low, and made for the row of coathooks along the wall. Sheer luck that it was only a few metres. She would not think about the room full of people. She would not think about Andy and the other musicians. She would not think about her friends. There was nothing she could do.
Zach’s sheepskin was right on top, and Laura ripped it off the hook. Eyes smarting, she grabbed the next jacket that came to hand and held it to her face. She was beginning to feel light-headed. The fumes made it easier to ignore the sounds of panic and agony and confusion, only partly dampened by the dense pall. A man was moaning, ‘Help me, help me, someone help me.’ Contrary to her resolve, Laura slid forward for a quick look. Her gaze went straight to the flames claiming the wooden stage, so that her foot bumped up against a solid object, and it took a moment for her streaming eyes to recognise its grisly nature. She gagged.
Nothing you can do.
She stumbled back to toilet, slammed the door behind her, and dropped to her knees, gasping loudly. The air was still clear, there must be an open window. Wiping her eyes, she saw that Zach hadn’t moved except to cradle his head in his hands. Nor did he look up now. The sirens were louder.
What do you expect, a magic knife that would cut you out of here? she could hear Olivia scoff as Laura located the ground-level window, only to find it half open but burglar-barred. At least you’re alive, while I . . .
Laura shook out Zach’s jumper, hurriedly put it on, then the jacket. Stuffed into a pocket were a pair of gloves, a packet of cigarette papers, some matches; and best of all, a knitted woollen scarf, which she soaked at the tap.
‘Come on,’ she said, taking Zach’s arm. ‘We’ve got to hurry.’
She was relieved when he got to his feet and slid his arms obediently into the sleeves of his jacket, which she held open for him. Though trembling no longer, he fumbled with his buttons, then stopped to look at Laura in bewilderment. At first she thought of a child lost in a crowded supermarket, but was suddenly struck by his resemblance to their puppy when her mum had swatted it the first time with a rolled newspaper—before it had learned to cower. It should have bitten her there and then. Rage like boiling tar erupted in Laura. She seized Zach’s arm and shook him—shook him till he yelped.
‘Don’t even think of giving up!’ she shouted.
With the scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face, he followed her along the passage to the small kitchen, where the smoke had hardly penetrated. She’d guessed right, a service door led to a short flight of stairs and back alleyway. She dragged him at a clumsy run to the next road, skidding repeatedly but not quite falling on the icy pavement, as the sirens converged on the club. Only when they’d reached the charity shop and turned the corner did she stop for breath. They leaned against the wall, sheltered from passing gawkers by a large wheelie bin and by the snow, still falling thickly. Neither the late hour nor the weather would deter the curious from a bomb site.
The cold air had revived Zach. He loosened the near-frozen scarf, and searching his pockets for gloves, also came up with a bar of chocolate, which they split.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’m OK now.’
But Laura wasn’t sure, he kept pulling his glove off, chewing on a knuckle, replacing the glove, pulling it off . . .
‘I’m going back,’ he suddenly said.
‘Back where?’ she asked. He couldn’t possibly intend what it sounded like.
‘Maybe I can help.’
‘Are you mad? They’ll lynch you on sight. You didn’t see . . . there was a . . . oh god . . . ‘ She broke off and bent over, retching.
Zach held her as she vomited at the kerb, then kicked snow over the patch and drew her a few feet away. With a bare hand he scooped up a mound of clean snow, from which she took a mouthful or two, grateful for its numbing bite. Sirens continued to approach, hypnotic blue lights: rule of law, they flashed. It was hard to think when you were so afraid.
‘And you can’t go back to your flat either,’ she said. ‘You’re right, the Insects have been sniffing round. You’ve got to think of the others in your group, Stella too.’
He walked to the bin and slid open the lid, dislodging a thick crust of snow. The scarf was stiff and unyielding, it took some effort to remove it. Silently Laura watched him compress it into a spongy mass, grey and slushy as grease ice, before tossing it away, then flip up his collar and jam his hands into his pockets. With his shoulders hunched, he trod a few steps away from her, so that she couldn’t tell whether he was preparing to sacrifice himself in some stupid stupid stupid—and completely pointless—act of loyalty. Snow lay unsullied on his hair and jacket like fresh breadcrumbs, scattered by the village idiot for the crows. Rule of claw, the sirens cawed, rule of claw.
‘Maybe it’s time we simus started fulfilling their expectations,’ he said, his voice low.
‘Zach, you don’t mean that.’
‘Don’t I?’ He turned to look at Laura, such a bleak expression on his face that, viciously, she hoped if a couple of Purists had been at Thea’s, they were still alive, and screaming. ‘Savagery requires a savage response.’
‘So who’s first? I reckon you ought to catch them early on. A busload of preschool kids with their biccies and teddy bears?’
His lashes swept downwards, but not before she saw the spurt of tears. Fool, she told herself, why don’t you just peck them out, his heart as well? She moved to his side and with apologetic strokes brushed off his shoulders; even more tenderly, his hair. Snow swirled around them, lingered. Their breath fogged the small shared space. In a brief lull between sirens they could hear a distant church bell, thin and fragile as a rime of frost. Nine, ten, eleven—Laura counted the knells.
A sweep of yellow light startled them to attention. As one they pitched behind the wheelie bin, Laura narrowly avoiding a fall, but it was only a snowplough lumbering past. Laura rubbed her bruised shoulder, which had caught against the protruding lip of the bin.
‘Let me look,’ Zach said.
Laura shook her head. ‘I’m OK.’
After patting his own pockets but only coming up with his wallet and keys, he asked, ‘Have you still got your mobile?’
‘Yeah, in my shoulderbag. Why?’
‘I’ll ring for a taxi,’ Zach said, drawing her near. He tucked a strand of her hair into the hood of her jacket, then worked the slider on her zip, which was gaping open a bit, till his fingers rested under her chin. Still he didn’t release the pull tab. ‘You need to get home.’
He shrugged. ‘It doesn’t really matter, does it? They’ll find me sooner or later.’
‘Maybe someone will come forward and claim responsibility.’
‘Yeah, someone will, all right.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘There’s no faster way to make us feared—hated—than to prove we’re terrs. Scapegoatery’s been around since you lot climbed down from the trees, it’s a favourite pastime. As thrilling as ritual sacrifice, and a hell of a lot better than football to sate—temporarily—your near insatiable hunger for violence. And what a tasty morsel: the auger who, miraculously, escapes devastating carnage with nothing more than a scratch. The auger with known underground connections. The auger so despicable he’s even willing to blow up his own date, his friends.’
Only later would she wonder what it would have meant to let him go back to the club; wonder too at the ease of his acquiescence, as though he were choosing an anticipated, and more brutal, reckoning. In her imagination she’d replay events, and replay them, to avoid the irrevocable.
‘Can you drive your motorbike in the snow?’ she asked.
As if to gauge its density, Zach gathered up some of the powdery stuff and weighed it in his hand, then formed a compact snowball and threw it with a grim smile across the street, where it thumped against the wall, leaving a butterfly-shaped splotch.
‘But it’s possible?’
‘I’ve got winter tyres. Yeah, it’s possible . . . He brushed his gloves free of snow. ‘If you’re mad. Or desperate.’ Again shrugged his shoulders. ‘And have a place to go.’
‘Come on, then.’ Laura said, plucking at his cuff. ‘We’ll stop in a bit to ring my parents.’
‘And tell them what, exactly?’
‘Oh, I’ll think of something.’ She exhaled in relief when he took her hand. ‘I always do.’