His head next to hers at the window, Zach murmured something inconsequential about her hair. He noticed such things—a pair of new earrings, the smell of the lemon juice she’d used as a hair rinse. There were so many questions Laura wanted to ask—needed to ask—but none found its way past the ticking of his heart, the minutes slipping into memory. She couldn’t tell if he were afraid, or resigned, or planning some impossible simu stunt; nor did it seem to matter much, though one part of her whispered, do something, you’re mad wasting these last moments to escape, or at least draft a convincing story. But the room was so still, his breathing so soothing, so moth-winged that if she were given the chance to choose a single moment of her life to last for all time, she’d be content to stop the clock at this one.
‘Your skin is singing,’ she said.
He said nothing, but his arms tightened around her, pinioning the melody between them.
‘How close are they?’
‘Not long now.’
She felt a shiver go through him, which always frightened her; it reminded her of that first evening at his flat, and how terribly vulnerable he could be. With a shiver of her own, she glanced behind them, and her pulse jumped. Near the corner bookshelf stood a tall, thin man clothed in light. In another century she might have thought, angel, but there was nothing remotely angelic about his appearance, and his blue eyes gleamed with intelligence, amusement too. A scar like a cubist smile accented the corner of his mouth, and a chunk of something an art collector would covet winked in his hands, splattering miniature rainbows across the walls and floor as he tipped it towards her.
‘Zach,’ she cried, tugging him round and pointing.
Nothing there. The doors were closed, the room sunny, all the shadows accounted for. A few dust motes, not even a cobweb.
‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ she asked.
Zach’s laugh startled even the dust motes.
‘I’m serious! I saw someone—OK, maybe something—standing in the corner.’
‘Unless you dad’s been messing with holography, it must have been your imagination.’ His eyes returned to the window, lashes briefly trembling like mothy wings. ‘The mind does odd things when you’re nervous.’
Now she too could hear the sound of approaching vehicles. ‘Zach—’
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. They’ll take you home.’ He lowered his voice so that Laura found herself straining to hear him, and still she had to repeat his words to herself like a cryptic joke before they made sense. ‘And I deserve what’s coming.’
Three policemen; the fat one kept fingering Zach’s hair.
Outside, the sun had become an over-friendly tourist whose bright smile and hectic chatter would arouse any immigration officer’s suspicion—a smuggler, maybe an asylum seeker, by all means a foreigner who had no bloody right to their corner of the universe.
Three policemen: one fat, one jumpy, one avuncular. The nervy bloke reminded Laura of a hairdresser, and in fact his hair was raked and sheeny, scented too. Without being asked, all three had unzipped their jackets and tossed them onto the sofa. They were armed.
Only three policemen: Laura kept telling herself that this was a good sign, they would have sent a much larger squad if she and Zach were reckoned dangerous. She wanted to slap the fat bloke’s sluggy fingers away from Zach, who seemed oblivious of all but the pattern of sun and shadow on the floor, though he answered each question politely. Remotely, as if he’d prepared his answers long since and needed only to reel them off by rote.
‘I asked you for the names of your mates,’ the fat one said.
‘I don’t have any mates.’
‘Your cell, fuckhead.’ He yanked at Zach’s hair.
‘Take it soft, Gordon,’ the eldest man cautioned. He’d stationed himself next to Laura and smelled of fried onions when he opened his mouth. He was the only one with a wedding band, which he liked to slide back and forth over the lower knuckle of his ring finger. After a while Laura noticed a pattern to the movement: it speeded up whenever Gordon spoke.
‘Hey, I’m good, Dave.’ Gordon leaned forward and whispered something into Zach’s ear. Laura was watching Zach closely. How did he manage to stay so calm?
‘I think I’d best ring my parents,’ Laura said.
‘They’ve already been informed,’ Dave said. ‘I’ll be taking you home as soon as we finish here.’ He smiled. ‘Early start, long drive. Why don’t you make us some coffee? A couple of sandwiches?’
Laura glanced quickly at Zach, but he didn’t meet her gaze. It came as no surprise when Dave followed her to the kitchen, but his apology seemed genuine, and he helped to butter bread and lay the tray. ‘I’ve got kids of my own,’ he said, ‘a bit younger than you, what are you doing with this terr?’
A tight grip on the scoop, she spooned ground coffee into the filter and poured on the boiling water. The brown sludge rose above the brim, cambering in defiance of logic and gravity. She daren’t jar it.
‘You’ve got it wrong. He’s a decent person.’
‘You can still sort it for yourself. All you have to do is say this mulac forced you, held you prisoner. Nobody will blame you, Laura. A typical case of the Stockholm Syndrome.’
‘And if . . . I mean it’s easy enough to claim he . . . you know . . . molested you. I can call for a woman officer and a doctor to meet you at your parents’ house. You wouldn’t even have to go into headquarters.’
‘You mean say he raped me?’
‘It happens a lot with these augers.’ Dave indicated the bruise on her chin, the one she’d got when twisting her ankle. ‘There’ll be a quick trial, afterwards the court will order involuntary castration. It’s the best solution. I’m all in favour of the Striker plan to fix every one of them at puberty, makes them docile.’ He hurried for the dishcloth. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, but you’ve got to think about your own future. Everyone’s future.’ He mopped up the spilled coffee while Laura went to the kitchen window and hugged herself to keep from shivering. This time he made the coffee himself.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
‘He did not kidnap me. And he most certainly didn’t rape me. He hasn’t touched me at all, not at all, do you hear? He’s a friend from school. I held on to him while we rode here, nothing more. I’m not going to lie to make your job easier.’
‘If you were my daughter, you’d have learned more sense by now.’
The three of them drank their coffee while Zach sat on a chair and counted sunbeams. Laura tried unsuccessfully to catch his eye. The jittery bloke reminded Laura of a little kid who needed the toilet. He sat down, crossed his legs, took a bite from his sandwich, sprang up, walked to the window, blew his nose on a monogrammed handkerchief, picked up a stray bit of charred wood and chucked it into the fireplace.
‘For godsake, Lyle,’ Dave said, ‘sit down already. Your coffee’s getting cold.’
Lyle and Gordon exchanged glances. With a complicit nod and a smile Laura found difficult to interpret, Lyle perched on the arm of the sofa till he’d drained his mug in a few hasty gulps. Laura was surprised: he was the sort who would eat fastidiously, never slurp or smack his lips or belch. She transferred her attention to Gordon, who winked when he noticed her scrutiny. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one with a novelty lighter which must have come straight from a lap club, and exhaled through his nostrils, entirely at ease. Sandwich forgotten, Lyle had gone back to pacing. What were they waiting for?
Zach raised his head. ‘I want to ring a solicitor.’
To conceal her relief, Laura finally poured herself some coffee, but she needn’t have bothered. The policemen were paying no heed to her.
‘What did you say?’ Gordon asked.
‘A solicitor,’ Zach repeated calmly.
Ignoring the plates, Gordon balanced his smouldering cigarette over the edge of the tabletop, then stood and wiped his mouth with the back of a hand, hitched up his trousers, and refilled his mug, but this time added no milk or sugar. For a fatso he was light on his feet. He stepped behind Zach, and with a smirk in Lyle’s direction, emptied the steaming coffee over Zach’s head. Zach jerked sideways with a gasp.
‘You said something, crossfuck?’ Gordon asked.
So much for relief.
Lyle left off pacing but couldn’t keep his feet still. Dave’s ring must be eroding the top layer of his skin. On a rackety impulse, without thought or reason, Laura glanced at the corner of the room where she’d glimpsed that odd figure. The air felt grainy, as if the harsh sunlight had fused the dust motes to glass. It hurt to breathe.
Zach straightened his shoulders. With the heel of his hand he brushed his hair from his forehead, then lifted the hem of his jumper to wipe his face. Each movement was slow, graceful, choreographed. And utterly provocative.
Don’t, Laura pleaded silently. She’d seen Zach when he got this way. Please don’t.
‘I have the right to a solicitor. I expect you have a mobile phone between you.’
The blow knocked Zach to the floor. Laura cried out, and Dave grasped her arm to keep her from rushing to Zach’s side.
‘Let go of me,’ she hissed.
Dave ignored her. ‘I’ll take the girl to the kitchen.’
Lyle’s eyes were glittering, feverish almost, and there were two spots of high colour under his cheekbones. ‘Why? Maybe she’d like to watch.’ He danced forward and yanked Zach upright while Gordon picked up his cigarette to take a deep drag. He might have been at a party, except that at a party you don’t jab a burning fag into your mate’s cheek. This time Zach wasn’t able to suppress a cry of pain.
‘You bastards.’ Laura twisted and swung for Dave, momentarily forgetting his firearm. ‘You’re policemen. You can’t do this. I’m going to—’
Dave slapped her face, hard. She fell back, tasting blood, while tears spurted into her eyes—pain, rage. And that sliver of fear making its way towards her heart.
‘Don’t you dare touch her!’ Zach said, lunging forward. ‘I’ll kill you if you touch her again.’
Gordon’s lard evidently concealed a layer of muscle: cigarette dangling from his lips, he restrained Zach easily, as though dealing with a childish tantrum.
‘Threatening the police, are you now?’ Dave asked in a pleasant fatherly tone, a pleased tone. Kids needed to learn, it went with the job, like changing nappies or assigning chores or checking homework.
Why did they always say you went cold? The palms of Laura’s hands began to itch, and her aorta had become a blow hose distending the mass of hot glass now lodged in her chest. She said nothing, however. These men would pay for an excuse to use their fists on Zach. For weeks afterwards she wouldn’t be able to smell tobacco or hair gel without gagging. She never touched fried onions again.
Lyle clapped his hands together, breaking the silence. ‘Moth,’ he giggled, wiping his palms on his trousers. Laura stared at him.
After one last drag on his cigarette Gordon crushed it underfoot. Releasing Zach, the wanker indicated the pistol under his armpit. ‘Take off your jeans.’
‘Let’s go, Laura,’ Dave said. ‘No struggling, it’ll go harder on you—on him—if you act like those nutters who resist arrest.’ He clamped one hand to her upper arm, pressed the other to the flat of her back, and began marching her towards the door.
‘Hold on,’ Gordon said. ‘She’s staying. Let her see what happens to cunts like this. Maybe next time she’ll think twice before shagging one of them.’ To Zach, ‘What are you waiting for? You want Lyle to cut them off?’ From somewhere a knife had appeared.
Dave seemed to hesitate, but at a gesture from Gordon he sighed and propelled Laura into a chair. In the meantime Zach hadn’t moved, though Laura could see him beginning to shiver, and his face had paled. The burn mark on his cheek must hurt; it had already blistered into an angry statement.
Gordon pulled out his shirt tails, hoisted his vest, and scratched his white belly, almost hairless except for a few straggling reddish curls. ‘Take them off.’
Now Zach looked at Laura, his eyes the colour of sewage. ‘Never.’
‘You want to change places with her?’ Gordon asked. ‘Fine by me.’ He removed his gun and balanced it like a toy on his palm, then with his thumb toyed with what must be the safety catch. Off on off . . .
Zach closed his eyes. ‘Please,’ he whispered, ‘not in front of her.’
‘Move it,’ Gordon said.
Zach’s hands were trembling so much that he could barely manage his zip.
‘See that she keeps her eyes wide open,’ Gordon said to Dave once Zach’s jeans finally lay at his feet. ‘Now your pants, cunt.’
‘No! NO!’ The words tore like a salvo from her throat when she saw Gordon holster his gun, open his belt buckle, and begin to undo his trousers. ‘Oh god no, please no.’
‘Shut up,’ Lyle said, ‘or there might be an accident. We wouldn’t like to be accused of police brutality.’ Again that giggle.
‘You’re so right, Lyle,’ Gordon said. ‘Go and see if there’s any marg in the kitchen.’
Zach made no sound, except one muffled cry. There was a moment when Laura thought he’d stopped breathing, or she had. A moment when the contours of the room blurred, and colour bled from the furnishings into the air, and the dark hedges of nightmare took root at her feet. A moment when the pain was so intense that her vision doubled.
You see yourself kneel by his head. You see yourself stroke his hair, bend to whisper in his ear. I love you, you say. Again and again you tell him. Listen to me. I love you.
The room is dark but you see him lock the door behind him. You’re not asleep. You’re waiting. The night is a maze, he says, a secret game I’m teaching you how to play.
A sharp expletive whipcracked in Laura’s face. She jerked upwards, half rising till her shoulder met Dave’s hand, and he shook his head. He didn’t need to force her to watch, however: she would rather gouge out her eyes than abandon Zach to these men. As she sank back in her chair, a bright flash like the dazzle of sunlight on water caught her attention from the corner of the room. For a moment she saw the figure again, light spilling from the object in his hand. His lips seemed to move. Elusive as a fish, the image wavered and began to slip away as soon as she tried to focus on it, to net it. But in her inner ear she heard the whisper: keep telling him.
Now Lyle took his turn. Zach was so still that Laura thought he’d fainted. She put a knuckle to her mouth and bit down on it as hard as she could without drawing blood. Lyle was noisier, perhaps quicker than Gordon—she couldn’t quite tell, something odd was happening to her sense of time. She thought of those surreal liquid clocks of Dali. Had they already known about gravitational lensing back then? If only the mind could alter the light cone of an event as easily as a painting knife scrapes away a botched or imperfect layer . . . if only she could go back and paint over the canvas . . .
Stop it! she told herself, firmly damming the opiate drift of her thoughts. Concentrate on Zach. Keep telling him, and telling him, and telling him. You’ve got to believe he’ll hear.
Gordon signalled to Dave, who set his mouth and shook his head. It looked as though there might even be an argument till Dave moved to Zach’s side and stared down at him, then crouched and shook his shoulder. Head cradled in the crook of his elbow, Zach lay limp and unmoving like an item of bedraggled washing which had been blown from the line and now would have to be relaundered, but Laura could see his chest rising and falling, stalling and catching and rising, hear him struggling painfully to suck in enough air to stay alive. He was close to gasping—the harsh wet sound a heavy smoker makes during a bad cold. She would have been less troubled by his shivering.
‘Has your dad got any brandy in the house?’ Dave asked her, getting to his feet.
‘Bloody hell, nobody croaks from a little rearguard action.’ Gordon prodded Zach carelessly with a shoe, almost as an afterthought. (They hadn’t even removed their shoes, Laura thought incongruously.) ‘Get up, you, it’s time to go.’
‘Simus aren’t able to drink, alcohol is harmful to them,’ Laura said. ‘Kind of like poison.’
‘Then come and help him while we load his motorbike into the van and have a look round.’
‘Christ, Dave, you’re making—’ Gordon said.
Dave didn’t let him finish. ‘You want to explain to the chief why we’ve wrecked Fulgur property? He’s supposed to be their most valuable auger.’
‘A fucking terr!’ Lyle said from the doorway. His hands were still dripping, he’d obviously gone to clean himself up, unlike Gordon.
Ignoring him, Dave turned to Laura. ‘You’d best make him a cup of tea with plenty of sugar. But no nonsense, hear?’
Neither Gordon nor Lyle were bothered enough to bicker about it, not now. After a half-hearted remark or two, they set about their police business, leaving Dave and Laura facing each other over Zach’s prone, half-naked form. Dave’s hand went to his ring. Laura wanted to scream at him to get out, finally get the fuck out, so she could minister to Zach. There was no way he’d let her touch him, clean him up in front of anyone else, especially not one of them. But he seemed to be breathing a bit easier now.
‘Can I trust you not to pull any stunts?’ Dave repeated.
‘Do you really think I’ll give you an excuse to shoot him in the head?’
Dave looked as though he wanted to say something more but confined himself to a vague meaningless gesture, his eyes sliding away from hers. His attack of conscience was even less welcome than a sudden bout of diarrhoea, and his reluctance to leave disgusted her like a bad smell.
Empowered her. ‘Look, will you please just let me get on with it? He’s not about to run a marathon in the next twenty minutes, is he?’
She could see shame and affront warring for mastery behind his eyes as he turned at last to go, and hurled after him with savage pleasure, ‘You did say you’ve got kids of your own? I reckon this will make a great bedtime story for them.’
But Zach, as always, surprised her. At her taunt he lifted his head, took a deep breath, and refusing her hand, got slowly to his feet without any attempt whatsoever to cover himself. His stubborn dignity brought a prickle of tears, the first since this nightmare had begun.
‘Haven’t you got a forensic camera with you?’ Zach asked. ‘That way you could turn the story into a picture book.’ Expressionless, he waited in the brittle silence, then picked up his clothes and left the room.
Till now essentially a dayclub minus music and swank gear, school became a form of therapy. The well-greased machinery of justice—or perhaps Fulgur—had swallowed Zach whole, and though everyone was still talking about the club bombing, no one knew what had happened to him. Arrested, was the general consensus. Wild, then wilder tales circulated about his attempted escape, but nothing came close to the truth, and Laura’s involvement remained undisclosed. There had been enough confusion in the immediate aftermath of the explosion to cover any number of plausible stories, and her parents continued to speak gravely about her brief ‘rest cure’. In pre-emptive self-defence she speculated along with the rest of the kids about the terrs, and the what-the-fuck-do-we-do-about-them simus, and Zach. Due to the exigencies of national security, the police were releasing only the sketchiest of details, and that in barely perceptible increments under pressure from the media. The bloggers loved it.
Laura’s mates, who had survived by a dicey evasion of underage smoking laws, sucked every trace of rad from their ordeal. ‘Who says cigarettes kill?’ Derek repeated so often that even Tim finally told him to shut it or he’d wish he’d not gone outside for a fag. Olivia spent most of her free time with Damien, and Laura almost convinced herself that her friend’s coolness derived from the incident in the club toilet. But Olivia remained loyal enough not to spread her insider info round—or else was saving it up like extra dosh for the right investment.
It was Laura’s teachers who first remarked on the change. Mr Mitchell spoke to her after a maths lesson. ‘I knew you had it in you all the time. If you continue to work like this, you’ll soon be getting top marks.’ Like everyone else, he assumed that a sideswipe with death had catapulted her into the overtaking lane. Whereas in fact she’d begun to study because she hated it, because she was dolt terrible at it. Soon afterwards, Olivia sent her a cryptic text in history class: Henry II said at Canterbury, ‘Scourge me as I kneel at the tomb of the saint.’ And hissed ‘net it, if you’re suddenly so bloody smart’, when quizzed. Which Laura did, using her laptop. Aside from obvious precautions, she didn’t know how to disable—or even detect—a trace on Zach’s computer.
She went out with Owen; she went back to swimming; and she went to Zach’s flat when all else failed. The first time she stayed less than fifteen minutes, startling at each mumbled complaint of heating and plumbing, an old building which protested arthritically at this unwonted intrusion. The flat was chilly and smelled musty. How quickly possessions take on an air of neglect, lifelessness: they might belong to anyone at all, and whatever Laura was searching for wouldn’t be found among the lonely ranks of books on a shelf, tumble of clothing in a hamper.
She stayed away for two days. Then, after a particularly bitter fight with her mum, she stuffed schoolwork, her pod, and a sandwich into her backpack and headed for the library, with no intention of going to Zach’s. As she was turning the key in the lock, the door to the adjacent flat opened—not the one with the dog, at least.
‘What are you up to? There’s nobody home.’
‘I’m a friend.’ The old man was glaring at her, so she added rather belligerently, ‘I’ve got his permission.’
‘Oh yeah? Prove it. Zach don’t give nobody permission.’
It crossed her mind to ignore the whiskery snoop by hurrying into the flat and shutting the door in his face, but common sense prevailed. She jangled the keys in front of his beakish nose. In fact, he resembled a nasty old buzzard, with those protuberant eyes and feathery bits of whitish hair.
‘I’m looking after Zach’s place while he’s gone.’
‘You could have nicked them from him.’
Laura gave an exasperated sigh. ‘Listen, I’ve been here lots of times already. Even my little brother’s got a key.’
‘Max is your brother?’
‘You know him?’
‘A nice kid. Polite, not like some.’ His implication wasn’t lost on her.
‘Thanks.’ She ought to go in for politics, she was becoming practised at the ambiguous response. She hefted her backpack. ‘I need to do some studying, and I promised Zach I’d wash his clothes, so if you don’t mind.’
‘Not in any trouble again, is he?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Then either you’re stupid or a liar.’ He shuffled in her direction, and suddenly she realised by the way his eyes remained fixed on a point above her shoulder that something was wrong with his eyesight, that what she had mistaken for a stare might in fact be near blindness.
‘Bloody-mindedness seems to be a side effect of deteriorating vision. My great uncle’s got the same syndrome, but he takes pills for it. Maybe you should ask your GP for a prescription.’
To her surprise the man gave a bellow of laughter. ‘That’s telling me all right! Good, Zach needs someone who’ll stick up for him, not some piece of candy floss who’ll melt away after a poke or two from a fancy simu todger.’
Laura was glad he couldn’t see her face redden. ‘He’ll be gone for a while.’
‘A special assignment?’
‘Something like that.’ She couldn’t decide how well Zach knew this man. ‘His job.’
Better than she’d guessed. ‘Zach’s no terr, but they’ve got it in for him.’ He waved a hand in the direction of the third flat on their floor. ‘Brain-dead porkers included. Hope he’s found a good place to take cover for a while.’
Laura squeezed her eyes shut, which merely threw the last hour at the cottage into relief, vivid as a burning tower in the dark, its gutted struts etched in stark, mute, defiant contrast to the raging flames. Where was he? She suspected that her Dad knew, or could find out, from the evasive way he answered her questions. And Max wouldn’t talk much about it. ‘I told you, I can’t always tell about places. But Zach’s OK so far.’ When pressed for additional information, Max sounded sincere. ‘Don’t know. He wouldn’t like it if I snooped.’ Scant consolation that not everything had changed: she could still sense when Max was lying.
‘He’s a fine lad. Does my shopping for me. Takes me to the clinic, too.’
‘Zach?’ she whispered.
‘A fine lad,’ he repeated. ‘Not many his age would bother. Maybe not any.’
Laura turned her head away, though he wouldn’t have seen her eyes filling.
‘Name’s Josh,’ he said, patting her on the shoulder. ‘You go take care of your business, then come round later for a cup of tea.’
‘OK. I’d like that.’ And found that she meant it. Even his uneven yellow teeth no longer repelled her, his sagging skin.
‘I’ll babble on about my youth for a bit, then you’ll be allowed to tell me about yourself.’ At her chuckle, he added shrewdly, ‘Reckon there’s no one else you can talk to about Zach. Years ago had a Mongolian boyfriend, I remember how tough it can be.’
‘You’re not axing me, are you?’
‘That’s another thing about Zach. He looks beyond the wrinkles and baldness and shortness of breath.’
Once she’d let herself into the flat, Laura dropped her backpack by the door, threw off her jacket and boots, and went straight to the laundry hamper. A T-shirt was first to hand. She hauled it out, crept into Zach’s bed, and cried with her face buried in the sweet stale smell till, exhausted, she fell asleep.
Dark and icy cold, with a glaze of frozen slush underfoot which numbed her toes despite thick-soled boots, the night aspired to hurry Laura along. By rights she shouldn’t be out on these streets alone, even in good weather. The Christmas decorations already looked past their use-by date, though it was still a few weeks till the holiday, mismatched too, as if they’d been picked at random from a box of jumble. What the fuck was there to celebrate?
It was impossible to walk fast enough to suit her. Several times she threw a glance over her shoulder, several times stared into the shop windows, though they reflected no one else except the odd trudging figure muffled against the bitterest winter in years and intent only on a hot meal and bed. Not even any late shoppers in this district. Once a couple of noisy lads whose interest was perfunctory, something in her look warning them off: ‘Aw, let her be. That one’s got knives up her cunt.’
Halfway there she stopped and retraced her steps for almost a block, reluctant to involve Stella. Reluctant perhaps to face what there might be to face. Then, just before turning the last corner, she ducked into a bus shelter and leaned against a battle-scarred wall, shivering and hugging herself, telling herself she needed to make sure she wasn’t being followed. Sulphurous light from a streetlamp dimly illuminated the graffiti. Among the usual assortment of hearts and vulgar comments was a crude drawing of a fat, snaggletoothed woman wearing a peaked witch’s hat and lashed to a post in the midst of a bonfire. Laura grimaced but her nose was running, so she shrugged off her backpack and rummaged for a tissue, fingers clumsy in her woollen gloves, then slowly raised her head when the scrawl underneath the picture coalesced into words, into incendiary words. Grabbing up her backpack, she ran the rest of the distance.
The café was boarded up. Laura couldn’t tell whether it had been looted first, but the blackened brick and lingering smell of smoke and the charred sign, once Stella’s hand-painted pride, rendered the vicious graffiti sprayed across the plywood panels entirely superfluous.