‘Is that you, Jesse?’
Jesse whirled at Meg’s voice. He had drawn the curtains as soon as he’d come into his room and draped a blanket over the window for extra safety before switching on a light. His shower had been brief but blistering. Working quickly, he’d packed his rucksack, written a letter to Finn and Meg about Peter, and a short note to Matthew, and printed out a few lines of Shakespeare for Sarah, now folded under her pillow. Then he’d erased all his files from the laptop. On second thought he’d formatted the hard disk.
When he’d finished, he turned out the desklight, lit a cigarette, and sat down to wait. Meg would forgive him this once for smoking in the house.
Jesse had gone to the window to look out when he heard Meg speak.
‘Don’t put on the overhead light,’ he said.
She came into the room and shut the door. Jesse checked the curtains and blanket, felt his way to the bedside table, and moved his lamp to the floor before switching it on. He sat down on the bed, and Meg pulled out his desk chair and turned it to face him. There were lines of fatigue bracketing her eyes and mouth from the long hours of emergency duty. She took in the rucksack propped by the door, the neatness of the room. It already looked empty, unoccupied. Her eyes searched his.
‘The police are looking for you,’ she said. ‘They said the house was dark and no one answered the bell. I told them I’d call as soon as I knew anything.’ She gave him a wry smile. ‘Sometimes it helps to be a member in good standing of the professional classes.’
‘I’m only waiting to say goodbye to Sarah and Finn. Do you have any idea when they’ll be back?’
‘Finn rang me to say they’re on their way. They were making sure your body didn’t turn up.’
Jesse nodded. He’d be able to get away before the sun rose.
‘Where will you go?’ Meg asked.
Jesse was grateful that she didn’t try to argue with him, talk him out of leaving. He shrugged.
‘I’ve got a few ideas,’ he said, ‘but the less you know, the less you can reveal.’
‘We don’t live in a police state,’ she protested.
‘That’s not what—whom—I’m thinking of,’ he replied.
‘You don’t want anyone looking for you, do you?’
‘It’s best that way. You know it yourself. Sarah—’ Jesse stopped, unable to go on.
Meg was silent for a long while. The fire lay between them, burning as though it hadn’t been extinguished, consuming their lives. But neither of them spoke of it.
‘I think you’re wrong, Jesse,’ Meg said at last. ‘It’s not that she won’t love others someday. But—’
Jesse reached over and with his fingertips gently silenced her.
‘Please, Meg. Haven’t I got feelings too?’
He could feel her lips tremble under his touch, and she blinked her eyes rapidly until he dropped his hand.
‘All right,’ she said.
They both heard the car pull into the drive. Jesse rose, smoothed the bed, and hoisted his rucksack to a shoulder. ‘It’s safest to talk in the basement. In the darkrooms, where nobody can look in.’
She followed him downstairs.
In the hallway Sarah clung to Jesse without saying much except his name, over and over again. Then she went to wash her face and hands while Meg made a pot of extra-strong coffee and some sandwiches. In the darkrooms Finn found them folding chairs, which they positioned round one of the mounting tables. Finn spiked all but Jesse’s coffee generously with whiskey, and Jesse stirred four heaping teaspoons of sugar into his own mug. He gulped most of it straightaway, mindful that he needed the energy and not caring if he scalded his tongue. He wasn’t hungry but forced down a sandwich. Now he was drinking his second mug more slowly, wondering if he should ask Meg to let him have a flask for the road, inhaling the potent steam. But the rich smell of the coffee did not quite drive away the other, more acrid odour. Sarah’s clothes and hair and skin still reeked of smoke, Finn’s as well.
‘You’ll take care of Nubi’s grave for me, won’t you?’ Jesse asked quietly. ‘Plant some flowers, a rosebush maybe.’
‘We’ll look after it till you come back to do it for yourself,’ Finn said.
Jesse gazed at Finn, who shifted on his stool, then dropped his eyes and shifted again. After a long silence Jesse asked, ‘How many died tonight?’
‘Nine at the fire, some from asphyxiation, some crushed or trampled, and a half-dozen others are in critical condition in hospital.’ Finn spoke evenly, but his hand shook as he sipped from his mug, and he spilled a little of his coffee while setting it back down. He didn’t seem to notice.
Jesse closed his eyes for a moment. So many.
Sarah spoke for the first time. ‘It was an accident.’
Jesse looked down at his hands, his face tight and inscrutable.
‘Fire has a way of taking over that only a professional understands. Fire is vicious—and fast.’ Finn pressed a hand to his lower face and kneaded—clawed—the skin beneath his beard.
‘Katy?’ Meg asked.
‘She’s OK,’ Sarah said. She waited, but no one spoke. Her eyes sought Jesse’s. ‘You put it out.’
‘Saving a lot of lives,’ Meg added.
Jesse gave a bitter laugh.
‘The fire-fighters are completely baffled. They’ve never seen anything like it,’ Finn said. ‘Their chief was being interviewed on TV as we left, and I caught a bit of his report. A fire of that magnitude doesn’t just die off at its peak.’ Finn paused to swallow more coffee. ‘Fire is insatiable. It subsides only after it’s exhausted its fuel. Or a greater force stops it.’ He raised an eyebrow, a hint of his old self in the gesture. ‘A wonder, some are saying. A miracle.’
Jesse shrugged. ‘Let them wonder.’
‘There won’t be any evidence.’ Finn said. ‘Not for something like this.’
‘Does it matter? With no identity? They’ll have a picnic with me. And if they ever make the connection to Ayen’s facility . . . They’ll lock me up and throw away the key. Or worse. Whatever I am, it doesn’t fit into their cosy little universe. And what doesn’t fit is best removed, like a tumour. Or dissected for its secrets.’
There was no answer to this, and they all knew it.
Finn dropped his gaze to the scarred work surface, to the abrasions and cuts the years had etched into the wood. Then with a single violent movement he snatched up a pencil and snapped it in two, the sound splintering as much against their skin as their ears. Tossing the jagged halves to the floor with a soft inarticulate oath, he looked at Jesse.
‘Where the hell will you go?’
Jesse gave Finn the same answer he’d given Meg.
‘At least sleep for a few hours,’ Meg implored. ‘You’re exhausted.’
‘I need a headstart more than I need sleep,’ Jesse said.
‘You’ll not get far in the middle of the night, running only on adrenaline and caffeine,’ Finn countered.
They were quiet. Finn could hear the breathing of his family, of the house itself, which stirred above him like a restless giant, as if it too could not understand what was being worked under its eaves. Even Peter’s death hadn’t shaken its foundations, for any old house had seen its share of dying. But now . . . its walls would bear Jesse’s furnacings—his imprint—forever.
Finn asked Jesse for a cigarette, his words rueful. ‘I seem to break all of my rules for you.’ He let Jesse light it for him, inhaled, grimaced. Another long drag, then he offered it to Jesse. ‘Here. I’m not even enjoying it. Want to finish it?’ He pushed over an empty plate as an ashtray.
Jesse accepted the cigarette, drawing a circle in the air in front of him with the tip, then another. Everyone watched the glowing trace rather than their own thoughts. Sarah had caught a corner of her lower lip between her teeth and was gnawing on it—she’d draw blood if she continued. Jesse blew out a small cloud of smoke, which obscured his face briefly before drifting away.
After a puff or two, Jesse bent forward with a sigh, stubbed out the half-finished cigarette, rose and stretched. He rubbed the back of his neck wearily. Despite the coffee, he was tired. More than tired—drained, caffeine-razzed, even a bit feverish. How long would it be before he slept in a bed again—or slept at all?
He ought to tell them about Peter. He would tell them. A letter wasn’t good enough.
The doorbell rang.
Meg and Finn exchanged glances of alarm. For a moment no one moved, no one spoke. Even the house seemed to hold its breath. Then Finn stood and crossed to a panel near the door. Long ago he’d had an entryphone and security system installed. He put his finger to his lips in warning, waited a precise number of seconds, let the callers ring a second time—longer, more persistently—then pressed the button.
‘Yes?’ he asked, his voice deliberately gruff. No one likes to be disturbed in the wee hours before dawn.
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘May we come in?’
‘At this time of night? Morning, actually?’
‘We’re sorry to trouble you, but we need to speak with you and your wife. It’s important.’ He didn’t sound sorry.
Finn sighed loudly. Then he signalled to Meg, who understood his cue.
‘Finn, who’s there? What do they want? My god, it’s nearly four o’clock. Is something else the matter?’ She spoke fast and pitched her voice high, as if awakened in sudden fright.
‘Look,’ Finn said, ‘can’t it wait till morning? We’ve just got to bed a little while ago. The fire, you know, at that awful party. My daughter was there.’
‘We know. That’s why we’re here.’
Finn sighed again, even louder. Jesse smiled at the performance.
‘It won’t take long, Sir.’ The other voice was younger, more obsequious.
‘How do I know you’re the real thing? There’ve been a lot of burglaries in the neighbourhood.’
‘For god’s sake, we’ve got our warrant cards.’ The older man again.
‘That’s all right, Sir. Better to be safe.’
There was an unintelligible whisper.
‘Are you going to let us in?’
‘OK. OK. I’ll be down in a few minutes. I don’t fancy a nudist party. Just give us a chance to get some clothes on.’
Finn released the button. They all looked at each other. Now what do we do? passed in silent communication between them.
Jesse recovered first. ‘Have you got the keys to your Harley down here?’ he asked Finn.
‘There’s a spare set in my desk.’
‘Good. Will you give them to me?’
‘Why? What do you have in mind?’
‘Don’t worry. You’ll get it back in one piece.’
‘It’s your pieces I don’t feel like collecting!’
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘You can stay in the darkrooms till they leave.’ Meg said. ‘They won’t have a search warrant.’
‘No, it’s best this way.’ Loki must be grinning over his dice, raffish when someone seized his chance. ‘Go upstairs and put my rucksack by the kitchen door before you let them in. Do you think you can stall them in the sitting room? Behind closed doors? I’d like to have a few minutes alone with Sarah.’
Sarah made a noise at the back of her throat—not a sob, precisely, more like a soft hiccup or a single cello note, sorrowfully drawn.
‘No problem,’ Finn said. ‘But there’s no way I can keep them from hearing the sound of the bike, unless you wheel it away.’
‘That’s the whole point. I want them to hear it.’
‘What the hell are you up to?’
‘No time to explain. You’ll have to trust me.’
Finn stroked his beard while he reflected. ‘OK. Centre drawer. You can’t miss them, they’re in the trumpet-shaped ashtray Sarah made for me one year. Keys to the garage are also on the ring.’
‘Will you be in touch?’ Meg asked.
In response Jesse went to her, his hand outstretched. She rose and pulled him into a hug.
‘Thanks for everything,’ Jesse said. ‘I’ve left a letter for all of you, please destroy it after you’ve read it. And a note for Matthew. Will you see that he gets it?’
Meg nodded before whispering in his ear, ‘Forgive yourself. Guilt can be a form of arrogance.’ She took off her shoes and ran lightly out of the room without a backwards glance, while Jesse stared after her.
With a new set to his shoulders, Jesse turned to Sarah. His eyes held a small trembling flame. Her face began to brighten as if the day had begun again, and the fire could be prevented. Then Jesse moved towards Finn, who gathered him fiercely into his arms.
‘Have you got a licence for that pistol of yours?’ Jesse asked, leaning back slightly.
‘What pistol?’ Sarah asked.
Finn’s eyes flicked towards his bottom desk drawer, so that he didn’t see the brief smile of satisfaction cross Jesse’s face.
‘Never mind about that,’ Finn said. He released Jesse and reached into his pocket for his wallet. ‘You’ll need some cash—’
‘No, it’s OK.’ When Finn frowned at him, Jesse realised that refusal would only arouse suspicion. Though later on, of course, Finn would remember. It would help convince him. ‘Not too much, then. You’ve wasted enough on me.’
‘I can’t imagine a better investment.’
They embraced once more—Sarah would never forget the way Jesse butted his head against her father’s shoulder and dug his fingers into the thick muscles of Finn’s back—and then Finn too was gone.
There was a small silence.
‘You’ll come?’ Jesse asked.
“Do I have time to get a few things from my room?’
Swiftly Jesse crossed the room, opened Finn’s desk drawer, and felt around.
‘What are you looking for?’ Sarah asked.
He found the gun behind a box of shortbread. Loaded, he knew, and there was the safety catch; the rest he’d have to make up as he went along.
‘What is my dad—what are you doing with a gun?’
‘It’s not what you think,’ he said. ‘And you won’t need anything, you’re not going far.’ He stepped towards her, dropping the weapon on the table, as he saw the light leave her face. He knelt at her side and laid his head in her lap. After a brief hesitation she began to stroke his hair.
‘Jesse,’ she said.
‘Don’t say it,’ he pleaded. ‘I know.’
Sarah had passed the stage of tears. If she had to lose Jesse, then there would be hours and hours to fill with weeping later on. She gathered herself together. She would not give up without a fight.
‘I want to go with you.’
‘Then I’ll join you in a few months, when it’s safer.’
‘Sarah, I—’ He stopped, tried again. ‘I can’t—’ Again he stopped. There were no words, and perhaps no need for words. He shivered a little, his eyes glittering. Sarah touched his forehead with her fingers.
‘You’re hot,’ she said.
He stood up abruptly, and she rose with him, her chair scraping roughly on the floor. She looked at her father’s gun.
I’m not going to use it against anyone,’ Jesse told her. ‘And there’s no way I’ll ever let you come to harm.’
‘I’m not afraid. Not of that.’
Muffled footsteps sounded overhead. Jesse glanced up, then at Sarah.
‘We need to go,’ he said quietly.
She said nothing, just gazed back at him intently, photographing his features, fixing them in a bath of feeling that no sunlight, no air, no moisture could ever fade. Then she stretched out her hand and traced the line of his lips, committing their exquisite tender warmth, their wondrous eloquence to memory. She continued her reading of his face. When her fingers reached his nostrils, Jesse attempted a smile, but his muscles betrayed him. A corner of his mouth lifted, then trembled. The clear blue of his eyes wavered. Suddenly his self-control broke, and he flung himself into her arms.
‘I promise,’ he said. ‘Oh god, I promise.’
They held each other as the old walls hummed a soft triumphant note. The fire was forgotten. The police were forgotten. Their bodies met as if this were the first—the last—the ultimate—time. He forgot Jesse; and she, Sarah. There was only them, and here, and now.
‘There’s no time,’ Jesse whispered.
‘We’ll make time.’
‘And no condom,’ Jesse protested weakly.
Sarah chuckled, then laughed aloud. It felt so good to laugh.
‘Ssh,’ he warned.
Sarah drew him close again. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’s safe.’ But there was nothing chaste, or safe, in her kiss.