The division head waved Litchfield to a seat.
‘Coffee, Charles?’ Slade asked.
‘Thank you, no.’ He settled himself on the edge of the hide-upholstered chair. It never did to act as if they were having an awards-ceremony natter, despite his superior’s genial smile. Slade was active in local politics, and if Molly’s girlfriends could be believed, eyeing the soon-to-be-contested MP seat. A wartime stint in the oil zone was routinely touted, a tweet short of overkill. His squat, toad-like appearance worked entirely to his advantage, reminding you of a favourite bald uncle. Charles would never have known about the women if the adjoining flat hadn’t belonged to Max’s godmother, a piece of information he was hoarding like knowledge of falsified data. There were few others with his knack of reading a gatlas. He’d pick one up most evenings the way others indulged in bedtime thrillers, or Molly, trashy romances.
‘Very well, thanks.’
‘And the children?
Here it comes, Charles thought, but years of marriage had trained him well. ‘Just fine, both of them. Max’s teachers are very pleased with his work, especially in science and maths, and he’s shaping up nicely as a striker. And Laura’s gone back to swimming. The usual adolescent ups and downs with her, and of course we wish she were a bit more academically minded, but nothing we can’t handle.’
‘I’ve heard that she had to spend a few days in hospital. Not a chronic condition, I trust.’
‘Nothing of the sort.’ He reminded himself that this fool sat in on assessments—their ridiculous Vertical Mobility Advisory Board. Andy had another name for it. ‘An allergic reaction. Unfortunate, but we’ll be very vigilant it doesn’t recur.’
Slade leaned his elbows on his gleaming desk and steepled his hands against his lips. He regarded a single sheet of paper in front of him, at which Charles was careful not to stare. Not that he needed to.
After a measured silence, Slade smiled, picked up the paper, and tore it neatly in half before feeding the pieces through the shredder under his desk. Even in a largely paperless age, it was sometimes best to leave carbon rather than electronic footprints.
‘I’m glad to hear that, Charles. We’re men who understand the need for high standards.’ His voice took on a slight sing-song tone that reminded Charles of his father-in-law in the pulpit. ‘In our homes as well as our work, and above all in society as a whole. We live in unsettled times. We must never forget that the future lies with our children.’
Charles slowly let out his breath. A calculated risk, but the odds had been good—this time. He’d have to arrange a permanent solution. A pity, Zach was one of their best. But if Fulgur fired you, there was the dole, or scrubbing urinals in the morgue—not even cadavers.
‘I couldn’t agree with you more, Russell. Laura and Max mean everything to Molly and me. Well, almost everything.’ He gave a deprecating cough. ‘You know that my—our—commitment to Fulgur is 100%.’
‘No need for that. We never expect more than 98%.’
They laughed together, two men sharing a pleasant joke. Then Slade’s face took on the solemn look of distant relatives at a funeral. He reached forward and flicked a switch on his console. ‘No calls or interruptions, please, Penelope.’ He opened a drawer and removed a flat file. ‘Now about Project Elysium—’
‘You’ve been going through my things.’
Her mum laid the iron on its side and reached over to turn down the radio. Bach, thought Laura, when it ought to be Wagner.
‘What do you expect?’ Molly asked.
‘I’m nearly eighteen. I’ve got the right to my privacy,’ Laura said hotly.
‘Not if you break rules.’ Molly’s voice hardened. ‘Break laws.’
‘I’ll buy a lock to keep you out, if I have to.’
‘To keep you in would be better. Away from that—that simu.’
‘I’m not going to let you choose my friends. Not any more.’
Molly’s hand reached for the iron, and Laura took a step backwards, immediately furious at herself for cringing. Her mum smiled and dropped her hand.
‘We’ll see about that, won’t we.’
Laura was too close to tears to notice the small patches of colour on her mum’s cheeks, the slitted eyes, the silken vowels.
‘Then I’ll go to social services. You can’t treat me like a—’
Molly’s hand caught her across the side of her head, hard enough to bring the threatened tears to overflowing. Laura must have bitten her lip or tongue, she could taste blood. Before she had a chance to swallow properly, her mum had grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked, then began shaking her like a pitbull with a catch in its jaws. But the worst were the words, the vicious threats that Molly hurtled at her—’piece of shit’ and ‘slut’ about the mildest of them. Long experience had taught Laura to retreat into a sheltered place until her mum’s rage ran its course. Sometimes a deep blue, watery grotto. Sometimes a seal’s pure white lair. And this time, a secret cave where you could float for hours in a warm pool buoyed by the hypnotic notes of a clarinet.
Although they had arrived early, Owen’s spacious sitting room was already crowded, and guests were spilling over into adjoining reception rooms. Laura’s mum disappeared with her viola into the downstairs study reserved for warming up. Max grumbled sotto voce to Laura that they’d never get near the food later. Laura felt a touch on her shoulder.
‘It’s ages till they begin,’ Owen said. ‘Let’s get out of this madhouse.’
Laura glanced round. Through the doorway into the conservatory she could see her dad talking animatedly to a pair of bespectacled research types with Nobel Prize engraved on their foreheads.
‘If Dad surfaces before the quartet comes in, tell him I’m going over some maths problems with Owen,’ Laura instructed Max.
‘You can’t just run off and leave me on my own,’ Max protested.
‘Go into the kitchen,’ Owen said. ‘Mike and George are watching TV and eating pizza. Our au pair will make sure you get back in time.’
‘But Dad’ll notice,’ Max said.
‘Doubt it. Those are the visiting Stanford neurogeneticists, your dad won’t even hear the music begin.’
In Owen’s room Laura was surprised to find a bookshelf overflowing with paperbacks.
‘You like to read,’ she said.
Owen shut the door and switched on his sound system. ‘Drink?’ he asked, bringing out a couple of lagers from behind a row of thrillers.
After a hesitation Laura nodded, let him pop the ring-pull for her. The hiss of escaping gas seemed vaguely ominous, though she knew that the adder’s strike had been soundless. She drank a few sips, then set the can on his desk.
Owen watched her over the top of his can, licking a bit of foam from his lips. Laura looked away, his tongue was too wet, too pink—like a small animal that had been captured and skinned.
‘I’m not stupid,’ he said.
He waved at the books. ‘I can read as well as the next bloke.’
Laura coloured. ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’
Owen continued to regard her intently. His gaze was beginning to make her uncomfortable, and she reached for her lager.
‘Do you still see him?’ Owen asked at last.
‘Who?’ As if she didn’t know.
Laura shrugged. ‘I don’t think he’s been at school. Haven’t you seen him around?’
Owen drained his can.
‘Do you want to finish mine?’ Laura asked.
He shook his head and moved closer. ‘I don’t really drink that much,’ he said, taking the can from her and putting it aside. Now was the time to leave, if she were leaving.
‘Why did you go there with him? To that wood?’
Neither Zach nor Laura had mentioned the cave to anyone. By the time she’d been well enough to explain, he’d already taken the brunt of the blame on himself. She was very worried what they’d done to him, but could think of no innocuous way to find out. How much did Owen hear from his dad?
‘It was just supposed to be a motorbike ride,’ she said. She wasn’t able to blush on cue, but she’d perfected the lip-biting and fiddling with a strand of hair. ‘Naïve of me, I know. That certainly won’t happen again.’
‘Did he try anything?’
She looked away. ‘It’s hard for me to talk about it.’
‘I’ll get some of my mates together, we’ll sort him.’
‘Leave it, Owen. Please. I don’t want any more rack, my mum’s already half-crazed about the whole thing. The police will have given Zach a good scare, and my dad says Fulgur has its own ways of dealing with such things.’
‘Yeah.’ Owen grinned. ‘Yeah, they can be damned effective. And if I tell them about the fire—’
‘You know, at the old cannery. I didn’t want to get the two of you into trouble, but now . . . ‘
‘We didn’t have anything to do with the fire.’
‘You left together?’
Laura nodded. ‘The boy died, there seemed no reason to hang round.’
‘But Zach could have gone back later.’
‘Maybe.’ Laura waited to give him the impression she was thinking hard. ‘We separated at the street, I went my way, he . . . I guess I don’t know where he went. What would Fulgur do to him?’
Owen was quiet for a moment. ‘You’ll have to keep this to yourself.’
Absentmindedly he picked up her lager and swirled it without drinking. Then he took a deep breath, as if he were about to swallow a dose of bitter medicine. ‘There’s something about the augers, about their body chemistry, which Fulgur controls.’
Her expression bland, Laura nodded to reassure him that her promise was no mere placebo.
‘I don’t know all the details,’ he went on, ‘but it’s a big secret. Something so secret that even the augers themselves haven’t been told the truth.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Nor me. But it means Fulgur has a way to keep them in line. Punish them, if necessary.’
Owen searched her face. ‘Do you care?’
‘Not particularly. I used to think we ought to treat them like us.’
‘Then I’ll tell my dad about that auger kid. You saw how mad Zach went. He’s capable of anything.’
‘I don’t trust him. What if he makes up a whole string of lies?’ She ducked her head, her voice contrite. ‘You were right, you know. I should never have had anything to do with him. I feel so stupid. It was just that . . . those eyes of theirs . . . Are you racked at me?’
‘It’s OK.’ His smile was so rueful that for a moment she felt ashamed. ‘You remember Xuxa?’ he asked.
‘The Brazilian exchange student?’
‘Have I got the right one? Term before last. Gorgeous melting eyes, guitar, and triple-D cup?’
He blushed, and she had to remind herself what he and Tim and all the rest of them would gladly do to Zach. Even the augers themselves haven’t been told the truth.
‘This medical thing about the mulacs,’ she said, ‘you reckon my dad knows about it?’
‘Probably, he’s one of their top neuros.’ His voice skidded in alarm. ‘You’re not going to ask him or anything?’
Laura moved closer, took the can from his hand, and sipped without swallowing. Then she pressed her mouth to his, and when he opened it, gave him a taste of her tongue along with the lager. His reaction was instantaneous.
‘Do you want to?’ she asked.
‘If you’ve got protection.’
‘Have you ever—you know, with someone else?’
Laura pulled back enough to give her room for a proper show of disgust, the dribble of lager he wiped from his chin eliminating the need for much pretence. ‘You’re not suggesting I’d actually sleep with one of them, are you?’
‘Shit, of course not. I only meant—I mean, there might have been—I mean . . . ‘
She giggled and kissed him again, her hand straying. ‘You’ll just have to teach me, won’t you?’