Stella had been the only person allowed to trim Zach’s hair till Laura offered to take over the task. This once, however, Stella insisted on plunking him down on a kitchen chair in her back room and draping a towel round his shoulders. ‘You tell that girl of yours to keep it trimmed real good. Fact is, I’m going to take off a couple of extra inches, and I want you to think about a proper short cut like the other lads.’
He laughed. ‘A skin job, you mean?’
‘Fancy I nick some? You hold still now. And no more of your larking, I’m dead serious. It’s high time you stopped this hair nonsense. You’re a man, a man with responsibilities, not some sort of witchdoctor whose powers sprout from his scalp. Next thing you know, you’ll start thinking you can shatter rocks with your baby blues or raise the dead or fly. Like one of them net characters, you know the ones I mean, fake as a tart’s orgasm, what do you call them?’
‘No worry. My eyes aren’t blue.’
She snorted, then snipped away in silence till her mobile trilled from the shopfront. While she was gone, Zach got up to fetch a broom and began sweeping the hair together, only to pause mid-pass at the sight of the manky stray she’d recently adopted—or more accurately, who had adopted her—crouching under the radiator with something that was still moving, still alive. ‘What have you got there, Ra?’ He dropped to a knee, and the cat fled, abandoning his meal. It was left to Zach to manoeuvre the twitching, mangled, near-dead thing out with his broom. He sat back on his heels, regarding the creature half in disgust, half in fascination. What in god’s name was it? At first glance it appeared to be a bird, a largish crow maybe, but Zach wasn’t ornithologist enough to classify it on the basis of its body alone. For its head—that head! Tiny simian features, hairless and earless, mouth working as if mewling soundlessly, eyes already dulling like a stone when the tide retreats.
A shadow fell over him. From behind Stella reached out, snatched the thing up, and with one quick twist wrung its neck.
‘An abomination,’ she said.
For a while neither spoke. Then Zach asked, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’
‘You need to ask? And if we don’t put a stop to it, there’ll be more and more of them.’ She crossed herself, something he’d never known her to do, then wrapped the corpse in several sheets of newspaper, dropped it into a lidded bucket, and washed her hands at the basin. ‘I’ll burn it out back later on.’
‘It’s going to take a lot more than graffiti and a couple of websites to stop the Fulgur juggernaut.’
The first bomb detonated in a call box near the main gate to the Fulgur campus—harmlessly, TV news reports claimed, but word sped round the internet about the black tail and single white-booted cat’s paw, now tinged pink, that needed to be scraped from the buckled pavement. The second bomb blew up an unoccupied cherry-red Lamborghini in the executive carpark, which at school was deemed to have served its owner right, since nobody over the age of thirty had any business driving such a sexy car, particularly a smug-arse Fulgur division head who would have done better to spend his extra cash on anti-dandruff shampoo, a reliable brand of deodorant, and lifetime membership in a fitness club.
The third bomb killed three people, one of them a five-month old baby.
Olivia caught up with Laura after Mandarin. ‘I’ve got to talk to you.’
‘What’s the sudden push?’ Laura asked. ‘There are only two more lessons till lunch.’
Olivia moved closer to avoid the kids milling around them in the corridor. ‘The canteen’s no place for important stuff—private stuff. What are you doing after school?’
‘Can’t you skip it? This is urgent.’
‘I don’t know . . . ‘ Janey had been pretty understanding lately, but Laura wondered just how far she dared test her coach’s patience. Though her times hadn’t suffered yet, they hadn’t made much improvement, either. With the regional trials looming, there could be some serious rack if she missed any more sessions. ‘Best not. Janey’s going to be very—’
‘After school by the wall. It’s about that bloody Zach.’ When Laura tightened her lips into a fair imitation of her mother’s, Olivia hissed at her, ‘Just be there,’ then hurried away without a backward glance as the bell rang.
Despite the swipe cards, most everyone knew how to manipulate the system to skive off lessons. Zach had started pitching up at school again, though he and Laura took good care never to meet alone, never to speak, never even to exchange glances in public. But Laura was always aware of his presence, warm as a gossamer shawl round her shoulders. He wasn’t there today, which in itself wouldn’t have worried her, not yet, if it hadn’t been for Olivia. Before lunch Laura ducked out of the building and headed for Zach’s flat. She had a key, and she’d used the cellar entrance before.
Zach wasn’t in. Laura hadn’t really expected him to be, but it was the first place to look. Usually tidy, almost compulsively so, he’d left three red socks on the floor next to his bed, one of them draped over her favourite chocolate bar. She smiled to herself, he was always trying to get her to eat.
One sock, get out fast; two, go to Stella’s; three, wait for me. Kicking off her trainers, she peeled back the wrapper and took a bite of chocolate. Imagined them sharing the bar. Imagined . . . no, they weren’t going there. Not till—but here’s where she always back-pedalled. Not till what? She didn’t want to spend her life with someone like Owen, did she? He could be sweet, but . . . he could be so . . . Christ, then what was she doing with him?
Annoyed at herself now, she tossed the chocolate bar down on the bedside cabinet, and picking up the remote, switched on the TV. She was pulling her fleece jumper over her head—the neck was too tight, the stupid thing always caught on her ears—when her ears caught the gist of the broadcast. Ripping the jumper free to the sound of a seam giving way, she stared at the screen. At the chaotic scene unfolding in the iconic glass-domed foyer at Fulgur. Then she sank to the floor, her hands gripping her forearms.
. . . from the blast which rocked one of the neurocognitive research laboratories just before noon . . . all buildings on the campus evacuated as a precaution . . . CEO Randall shortly to issue a statement . . . terrorist attack . . . no one yet claiming responsibility . . . at least three people killed . . . more than a dozen casualties . . . critically injured . . . no confirmation of exact death toll . . . Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Livingstone . . . released as soon as possible . . .
And more, endlessly. Laura listened for a few minutes longer, but she had begun to shiver. Why didn’t the idiot heat his flat? She switched off the TV, then switched it back on again. Kicking aside her discarded jumper, she opened Zach’s wardrobe and hauled out one of his cashmere polo necks, the black one. Though he was scrupulous about keeping his gear clean, she held it up to her face and inhaled. Better than chocolate, she thought, her eyes straying to the screen.
A cognoscens research assistant may be one of the victims, a Fulgur spokeswoman admits. Suicide bombing cannot be ruled out at this time.
‘Are you going to wear it or eat it?’
Laura spun round at the sound of Zach’s amused voice. Arms crossed, he was leaning against the doorjamb.
‘What?’ she said.
‘Your jumper?’ She snatched a breath. ‘That’s all you can think about? A bloody jumper?’ Her voice was beginning to rise. ‘Who cares about a stinking lot of goat hair when I just thought when they just said when you—’ How dare he grin at her like that! ‘What the fuck do you mean by scaring me to to to—’ she stopped, her tongue stuttering like an angry woodpecker. ‘Bastard,’ she added, when he plucked his jumper from her hands and slipped it over her head as if she were three years old. Once she’d managed to thrust her arms through the sleeves, she fingered the damp spot on the collar—had she really been sucking it?
His body felt so good that, unaccountably, she was even more enraged by his embrace.
‘Take your bloody paws off me!’ she yelled.
Zach’s hands dropped to his sides. Slowly he backed away, his face shutting down.
Four fatalities are now confirmed. Amid widespread speculation about the perpetrators, the authorities are refusing to comment.
They both turned towards the TV.
‘Did you kill them?’ she whispered.
In the concussed silence after Zach switched off the TV, the question burgeoned to engulf them both. Momentary blindness can have many causes, including the detonation of a stun grenade; an intense flash of light even at the corner of your vision. Or, if you listened to visitation-mad religionists like Laura’s grandfather, the brush of wingtips.
Zach was the first to recover. ‘You know the answer to that.’
‘Bastard,’ she said. ‘Murdering auger bastards.’ Then shuddered as Zach lunged towards her the way her mother would have done. He stopped just short of a blow, however.
‘Go on,’ she said, ‘hit me. Hurt me. It’s what you want to do.’
‘No, it’s what you want me to do.’
Laura was seated in the bus before she realised that she’d left both her jacket and her backpack in Zach’s flat. Despite his beautiful warm jumper, she was shivering.
In the lobby of the aquatics centre Owen handed Laura his anorak. ‘Here, put it on. You’ll catch pneumonia without a jacket. It feels like snow.’ He looked closer at Zach’s jumper. ‘Very posh.’
‘My dad’s. Last year’s Christmas gift from my aunt.’
‘I’m surprised he lets you wear it. Looks like real cashmere—the expensive kind.’
‘It is. But he hates polo necks, won’t touch them, and it’s too big for Max.’ She rubbed her fingers over the soft wool. ‘I like it.’
They turned at the sound of footsteps.
‘Laura, I’m glad I’ve caught you.’ Janey smiled at Owen. ‘I won’t be a minute.’
Always well bred, Owen murmured the right words and went to examine the notices on the pinboard.
‘Look, Janey, I’m sorry I’ve been missing so much training.’
‘True, I haven’t been too happy about your progress lately.’ She held up a hand as Laura started to explain. ‘I see what’s been keeping you busy.’ A flash of those dazzling white teeth as she glanced towards Owen. ‘Nice lad.’
Laura never knew what to say when adults made such remarks, which happened with dreary inevitability where Owen was concerned. At least she’d stopped blushing. Tucking her hands inside Owen’s anorak, she began counting the cornrows along Janey’s scalp.
‘Anyway, if you continue to swim like you did today,’ Janey said, ‘I’ll have nothing to complain about. You were vicious in the water. Like a blood-crazed shark. Nobody could get near you.’
‘Thanks.’ Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.
‘But that’s not what I want to talk to you about.’
Laura lost count. ‘It isn’t?’
Janey glanced once more towards Owen, then placed a hand on Laura’s shoulder and steered her through the inner glass doors towards the showcase where the team’s plaques and trophies were displayed. The doors slid shut automatically, sealing Laura and Janey off from curious ears.
‘What’s wrong?’ Laura asked.
Janey pointed ostentatiously towards one of the plaques.
‘I had a disturbing visit yesterday,’ she said.
Laura pretended to study the list of names engraved on the metal while she waited for Janey to explain.
‘Are you in any serious trouble?’ Janey asked.
‘Christ, don’t tell me my mum’s been in to see you again! She’s always complaining about something.’
‘Not your mum. Serious as in Internal Security serious.’
Her fingers clutching Zach’s jumper, Laura stared at Janey.
‘Police?’ Laura finally asked.
‘Not quite. A man and woman with all the right IDs and lots of questions about your attendance and friends and attitude. Especially friends. I covered for you this time, but there are too many kids who know you’ve been skipping out regularly.’
‘Yeah, it’s not good. Is there anything you need to talk about?’
Laura shook her head.
‘Laura, I understand that things can be difficult with parents. Believe me, mine were no role models.’ Janey rolled her eyes expressively. ‘But you don’t want the Insecs on your number. You swim like a shark, but they smile like one.’
‘I bet it’s that stupid motorbike accident.’
‘One of the simu kids from school gave me a lift, and we skidded, that’s all. I ended up getting bitten by a snake at the roadside. Bad allergic reaction, ambulance, hospital. A real drama.’
‘But thanks for fending off the sharks,’ Laura said. ‘I’ll get my dad to sort it out.’
Janey gave her the look she usually reserved for swimmers who protested that they couldn’t possibly manage another ten laps (and who soon found out they’d survive twenty with Janey’s teeth flashing behind them).
‘OK. Your call,’ Janey said. But as the inner doors slid back, she added, ‘If you change your mind, you know where to find me.’
There’s something about the first snowfall which, like the icing sugar it can resemble, always lures the locals from their warm nests, even for a while sweetening their dispositions. The neighbourhood misanthrope, a nasty piece of goods who never failed to ring up about ‘insufferably loud music’ at precisely one minute past nine, summer or winter, stopped his shovelling to mutter a greeting as Laura and Owen walked past. Because of its seclusion, Laura’s mates preferred Pringle Hill for sledging after dark. Tonight, whenever they huddled for a drink—its northern slope was very exposed—the poisonous talk would inevitably start up again: the terrs, the bloody terrs. There’d be lots to drink. Lots of talk.
Turn back now, and Laura would only have to face Olivia tomorrow. Saturdays everyone favours a good lie-in, but when racked—and probably hungover—Livs was perfectly capable of storming over at nine, tongue whetted; earlier. In school plays she was often given the most flamboyant roles, like Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire till the head put a stop to the production. Still, she was far too smart not to think of the consequences of a public row, and too good a friend: gossip, like snowflakes, settles everywhere. And an icy wind cools tempers.
Laura and Owen detoured to collect Max together with Mike and George from a hill near the golf course where all the younger kids congregated, as well as some parents with tiny offspring suited up like astronauts and lurching fatly from one spill to the next. They reminded Laura of a set of cartoonish weebles Max used to have, pesky little ovoid creatures that would wobble and pitch but always pop right back up again. Max was staying the night with George, with whom he’d become matey since the night of the recital. Owen’s mother insisted on plying everyone with biscuits and hot chocolate, and afterwards Laura and Owen went upstairs to check out some new music he’d downloaded. Owen didn’t understand why Laura was so impressed with his parents. ‘They’re just too damned busy to bother much about what their kids get up to.’ He’d already shed his jeans. ‘Not that I’m complaining.’
Come to think of it, when Owen bobbed up and down like that, he reminded her of one of those weebles. Hadn’t Max taken a hammer to the blandest one, a pearly pink hippo-like ballerina, to see what made it work? ‘I like the trolls best,’ he’d said. ‘They’re scary.’
It had begun snowing again by the time Laura and Owen reached Pringle Hill. Above her cupped cigarette Olivia gave her a look which, if poured into a car radiator, would have required antifreeze. Laura usually didn’t drink much—training always made a good excuse, since Janey would undoubtedly maul any of her swimmers caught with alcohol—but by now Laura was cold and tired and just a bit edgy. She kept turning towards the stand of fir trees on the spine of the hill, visible only as a memory. Under the cloak of darkness the swirling snow hurled black-winged phantoms through the corners of her vision, though none with a sardonic smile and spice-filled laugh. After two downhill runs with Owen, she found herself sharing a flask of hot whisky punch, which burned straight through the single biscuit she’d nibbled in Owen’s kitchen. Cheeks bright red and eyes glittering, Olivia spoke to her at last.
‘Let the lads have a run on their own.’ Olivia’s message couldn’t be plainer: you’d best listen to me if you value our friendship.
They stamped their feet to keep warm, the snow too thick and soft and fresh to squeak. Olivia jammed her torch upright into a drift and offered Laura another round from the flask, then asked, ‘Lost your mobie?’
‘Left it home.’
‘This morning too?’
‘No.’ Laura took a swig of punch. ‘Look, I don’t want to lie to you. The truth is, I was ashamed to admit what I had to do after lunch.’
‘My mum’s making me see this bloody therapist. Big Family Secret. Daughter who’s going off the rails.’
‘Sounds like something she’d do.’
‘You could have told me instead of leaving me to wait in the cold.’
‘Livs, I’m sorry, I really am.’
‘Once upon a time we were friends who told each other everything.’
Were we really? Laura asked herself. Or was it only a fairytale we needed to believe? Aloud she said, ‘I despise the bloke. A horrible little man with yellow pointy teeth and a goatee. Can you believe it? A real shrink’s goatee.’
‘Keep away from little men, I always say. They never think they measure up.’ Olivia helped herself to more punch, then giggled. ‘I hear Zach’s got a good long one.’
Any guilt that Laura was feeling vanished. ‘Don’t be daft. I wouldn’t go near him for a starring role in Kor’s next film. Especially after everything that’s happened.’ She wondered how long the others would be. The snow was falling more heavily now, sledging would soon be impossible. She wanted to get out of the cold, she wanted her bed, she wanted . . .
‘Why do you keep looking behind us?’ Olivia asked. ‘Is something out there?’
‘Not bloody likely, at midnight in a snowstorm. I need to pee.’
They could hear Damien and Tim exchanging friendly insults in the distance, muffled by the snow. They must still be at the bottom of the hill. Having a snowball fight, from the sound of it. Olivia held out the flask, but Laura shook her head. Her stomach was beginning to slosh unpleasantly, and when she bent to scoop up a handful of snow to suck on, she lost her balance and pitched onto one knee. Olivia merely laughed, blast her, and upended the flask.
‘What was it you wanted to talk about?’ Laura asked, brushing off her ski trousers. ‘The guys are going to come looking for us before long.’
‘It’s about Max.’ Olivia suddenly sounded sober.
‘Know another Max?’
‘I thought you said it was about Zach.’
‘I did, and it is.’
Laura imagined a nice fat snowball—roughly the size of a football—landing on Olivia’s over-endowed chest, and Olivia landing arsefirst on the ground. When they started eavesdropping on thoughts, Laura would ask for a lobotomy. Or something.
‘Max has been going off with Zach on his motorbike,’ Olivia said.
‘You heard me. A couple of times this week.’
‘Rubbish. Somebody’s spreading tales.’
‘Nobody’s spreading anything, at least not yet. But they will be, if you don’t put a stop to it.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Laura said flatly.
Olivia gave her a withering look. ‘Have it your own way. I tried.’ She pulled off her cap, shook it free of snow, and jammed it back on her head again. Then she picked up her torch and set off, rather unsteadily, towards the level patch of trampled snow where they’d left the backpacks on a red plastic snow disc.
‘Wait!’ Laura stumbled after Olivia, clutched her arm. ‘How did you find out?’
‘You know that stupid dog-walking job I’ve got after school?’
‘The old Newfoundlander who can hardly move any more? I thought you were going to quit.’
‘Yeah, well they begged me to stay on.’ Olivia mimed crossing her palm with silver. ‘Upped my maos. This week she’s been worse than usual, they really ought to put her down. I can only manage to drag her through the churchyard, where she usually collapses against one of the gravestones.’
‘And that’s where they meet. There’s a lot of shrubs and trees, and it’s obvious they don’t want to be seen.’
‘You’re sure it’s Max? Absolutely sure?’
‘For fucksake, I’ve known your brother since he was in nappies. Of course it’s him.’
‘What are they up to?’
‘Good question. Ask Max.’ Olivia laughed, but her eyes flared code orange. ‘Or Zach. Maybe he’s training the next generation of terrs.’
The wind flung a fistful of snow into Laura’s face, momentarily blinding her. She ducked her head and hugged herself, her mobile a small hard lump in the zipped pocket of her anorak.
‘This cold is killing me,’ Laura said. ‘I’ve really got to pee.’
‘Can’t you wait? You’re going to freeze your arse.’
‘Can’t. I’ll wet my pants.’
‘Frozen arse or frozen pants. OK, let’s walk up towards the trees a bit.’
‘Wait here and keep a lookout. You know what Tim’s like.’
‘Want the torch? You might get lost.’
‘On Pringle Hill?’
Laura fought her way uphill against the wind. Within a few steps first Olivia and the backpacks, then the glow from the torch vanished like socks, one of a pair always missing through decidedly supernatural means. Abruptly Laura stopped, uneasy. Which of them would be lost, her or Olivia? The walls of Laura’s hideout thrashed around her, and for a moment she was tempted to part the snowy white sheets and run from under the dining room table to her mum. Who even back then would have scoffed at Laura’s fears.
After lurching up against a clump of wild holly, Laura hunched her back against the gusting snow, removed her mobile from her pocket, and peeled off a glove. She knew she shouldn’t be doing this, their calls were certainly being monitored. But she could no more stop herself than drown in the club pool.
Pls cn i cu l8r? she texted.
Within a few seconds she had Zach’s reply: no.
She tried again with pls urgent, but there was no further message. Their intermittent voices a beacon, she plunged back downhill to the others, who by now were downing a bottle of absinthe that Damien had nicked from his parents.