Advent Stories #9

FOOTPRINT ON NOWHERE BEACH

I’m Rad Hallah. I work here. I’m a Drop-jockey.

No. Let me do that again.

Hi. I’m Rad. Rad Hallah. I’m a Drop-jockey. If you die, die nasty, and the plods can’t work out why… buzz my line.

Jesus. That hums. One more time.

The name’s Hallah. I’m a Drop-jockey. I nail all murderers. Guaranteed. If there’s a death you want solving, remember this. Cops on duty? Things smell fruity. Hallah in town? Perp’s going down. Call now…

‘That’ll do,’ I said, once I’d repeated the number and signed off with a crisp Don’t put ’em in the ground till you’re sure the case is sound.

‘Cool, cool, cool,’ the producer rapped, snapping her gum, some pre-pube called Clara or Kara or somesuch. ‘Nice rhymes. Did you just make them up?’

‘No, I worked on them for weeks. You should have heard the early versions.’

‘So buy me dinner and I’m all ears.’

‘You’re all ears already, darling,’ I said. ‘There are operations you can get to sort that out, you know.’

She pulled a face and flounced off. Women do that a lot around me. I haven’t yet met a woman who couldn’t give good flounce. I was going to go after her and see if we could swap some really meaningless dialogue — I mean, it’s what guys like us do best, right? — when my phone vibrated. It was Milk. She wanted to meet me in Oak Seddon’s bar, right in the middle of the Splinters, that mass of skyscrapers at the heart of the city.

‘Is it a body?’ I asked her. I didn’t want to go all the way out there just to be quizzed on whether I thought her pashmina went with her cullottes.

‘It’s a body,’ she confirmed. ‘Actually… it’s two bodies.’ She didn’t sound too sure.

‘Juicy,’ I said. ‘I’ll be there within the hour. Have a pint waiting for me.’

I got a lift into the city with one of the film crew. He told me my ad would probably go out for the first time that very night. I was lucky. I didn’t have to pay a wedge because I wanted the graveyard slot anyway. I don’t make my money from the restful. I’d say ninety per cent of my clients are insomniacs, and for good reason.

I was dropped off on the corner of Coma Lane and Fruit Street. From there I walked through the market stalls of the bazaar which lies at the foot of the Splinters, a melange of clothes and gizmo stalls that, from above, probably looks like someone has emptied a giant suitcase all over the floor. In the five minutes it took me to wade through that shrieking mass of de-humanised rip-off merchants, hookers and self-mutilated beggars, I had been offered everything from a chakra massage to a titjob to a skink-skin wallet that looked as though it was carrying nothing, no matter how much shit you put in it.

I was hot and sweaty when I emerged on the other side. The bazaar was akin to some old-fashioned security system. Only the most determined could bypass it and be granted access to the Splinters. I hopped on to one of the monorail pods as it trundled by and was scooted into the dark, cool interior. Monster buildings lifted into the sky on either side of me, like trees in a Cretaceous rainforest. I looked up but cloud cover at maybe 3000 feet prevented me from seeing their summits. There were other buildings as thin, it seemed, as wafers, planted in vertical stacks, like chips in a circuit board. Big jets lumbered through specially designated corridors between the scrapers: sharks cruising the corals.

I don’t like the Heights. All that tungsten and glass and carbon fibre. It’s impersonal. Too polished. It’s like the city has pulled on a pair of mirrorshades. You can never see its eyes or tell what it’s really thinking.

I do like Oak Seddon’s bar, however.

You’ll find it in a small niche where the finance giants abut the pharmaceutical district. It’s a two-storey midget, made from wood and brick. When it’s cold, smoke rises from a chimney. People in smart suits and celebrity masks stop to stare. And then, thankfully, they move on to drink their powerjuice in rooftop bars with other masks who look so flawless they might well have been made from the obsidian bartops they rest their elbows on.

Milk does not like Oak Seddon’s bar. But she meets me there when she wants me to do a job for her. She thinks this gives her the upper hand. Poor, deluded fool.

‘A pint,’ she said as I entered, flapping my way out of my overcoat. ‘You didn’t say what you wanted that pint to consist of, but I guessed right, I think.’

‘You did,’ I said, and sank half of it. The studio lights had given me a big thirst. Milk was drinking a glass of the most outlandish thing that Oak serves in this place: red wine. I could imagine his face when he went to pour it. Shit, I bet he had to root around for a dusty bottle out back for five minutes first. A sign over the bar says: If it isn’t beer, remove your buns from here. Me and Oak: partners in rhyme.

Milk Fuss is an old friend of mine. We were at college together. We could have had a thing going if it weren’t for the fact that we both met other people first. She’s still with hers, a fat cat who’s big in the dog-eat-dog world of chimp farming. My wife left me six months after we married when I came home from a long weekend on a case stinking of whisky, bleeding from a gunshot wound in the arm and carrying a pair of human kidneys in my pocket. Don’t ask.

Anyway, there’s still something there between us, an unspoken what if, a bit of heat, a bit of banter. If flirting was an offence, we’d both be serving five to ten in Chalkham prison.

‘How’s the ex?’ she asked.

‘Still breathing,’ I said. ‘How’s monkey-boy?’

‘Up to his ears.’

‘I won’t ask in what but I’m glad to hear it. These bodies…’

Milk said, ‘It’s one body.’

‘But you said — ’

‘I’ve had time to reassess the situation.’

‘One body,’ I said. ‘These days I rarely get out of bed for just one body.’

Milk finished her drink and gestured that I should do the same.

‘Where is this two-bodies-no-wait-just-one-body?’

Milk jerked her head back and looked at the ceiling.

‘Oh great,’ I said. ‘Smashing.’

*

For some people it’s snakes or rats. For others it’s flying or in-laws. With me… you’ve guessed it, it’s heights. I tell you, I’m grateful to my gene pool that I failed to hit six feet. I sleep on a futon. My flat is one of the sunken jobs in Sorrel Dip, miles from here. The word ‘lofty’ brings me out in hives.

Milk held my hand in the lift. I clutched her shoulder with the other and gripped her knee between my own. I was ready to bite her cheek too, when we went through the clouds, but by then the lift was slowing and it helped to look up at the dark bowl of space.

‘So what’s the story?’ I said, in a strangled voice that sounded like a cat hacking up a furball.

‘Got a call from a Mrs Phthisis Mutch. Her husband didn’t come home last night.’

‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘Touching that there are still a few like that.’

‘Yeah. Once the duty officer had stopped laughing, he told her somebody would come and check it out. Like, some day. I picked it up from the slush pile yesterday. Sounded interesting. Thought I’d give you a call.’

We got off 20,000 feet above Oak Seddon’s spit- and lager-stained floorboards. The walkways up here are sealed, transparent tubes of plexiglass to protect our lungs from the rarefied air; they were flooded with tourists, musicians, truants, hookers and job-seekers. This wasn’t officeville. Bars and clubs and casinos stretched away in every direction, their awnings and entrance halls constantly being spruced up as if they were troops standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an inspection parade. Milk dragged me off to a narrow alley where some of the less salubrious watering holes were tucked. These were the unlicensed drinking dens, the places that cowered in the shadows in the hope that they would be missed during the occasional spot-check. And why not? There must be over a million bars in this city. The police will maybe turn a few of those over in the run-up to a mayoral election, but in the main, they’re ignored. More so if they look like a boarded-up Wax den.

In the way that this place, Bane’s, does.

We went inside, the bouncers melting away from the door like vampires in sunlight as Milk flashed them her District Sheriff’s badge. The place was so dark some of the punters were using pencil torches to find their drinks. On the stage — little more than half a dozen beer-soaked tables stuck end to end — a topless dancer was doing her best to extricate one last bill from the hand of a guy whose face was wreathed in darkness. All I could see of it was teeth and the glints on his lenses. She kept pursing his lips at him and wiggling her backside. It was worth his last bill, to be fair. The music was sleazier than a rat in a spiv’s suit. I liked it.

‘This is Muntin Bane,’ Milk was saying. The man in question was maybe early fifties, porny moustache and hair greased back to a tapering point behind his head, like a speed-cyclist’s helmet. He wore a suit that had seen better days, but compared to the clown’s outfit I was wearing, who was I to judge?

‘Hi,’ I said, keeping my hands in my pockets. Bane’s fingers looked like they could serve as stunt turds in a scat film. He grunted and asked if we wanted a drink. I said no. Then I asked him where the body was. He grunted again and wagged his head towards the toilets.

‘We moved him in there,’ he said. ‘He was putting the punters off.’

‘Where was he originally?’ I asked. It was no big surprise.

‘At the front door. We found him when we closed up about four this morning. Punters had been stepping over the poor guy all night.’

‘Do we have his 24-clip?’ I asked Milk.

‘That’s for you to find out,’ Milk said. ‘I’ve got to go. We got word through on the Duratein crop raid. They’re expecting it within the next twelve hours. I need to be there when they pinch them.’

That’s the way things go these days. Population’s so high, murder is quietly accepted as a modest means to help prevent it outstripping food production. The crimes that were paramount a century ago: homicide, drugs and the like, that’s nothing compared to biogenetic terrorism, or the war against water smugglers. That’s where the police are concentrating their efforts. Which is fine by me. Good old-fashioned killings like this keep me in semolina.

I waved Milk off and picked my way through last night’s wreckage to the conveniences, which from here looked more like inconveniences. The floor was littered with broken bottles, discarded bras, the odd tooth, all of it pointing to quite a party in Bane’s last night.

I didn’t need to push the toilet door open, it was hanging off its hinges. Several different types of filth encrusted the tiles, not all of them human. The Mutch guy had been propped on a toilet seat. Some comedian had stuffed a wad of tissue paper between his fingers. I felt sorry for him, all of his dignity gone, but at least he didn’t have to smell the hell that was Muntin Bane’s latrine. It wasn’t immediately obvious what had killed Finn Mutch, but when I tipped his head forwards, I saw right enough: a huge gash right across his cerebellum. Checkmate. I sat him up straight again and noticed straight away that there was ash on my shoes. My shoes are the best thing about my wardrobe. I keep them clean. It’s kind of important to project some shred of class. And now there was ash all over the insteps. When I saw where it had come from, I forgot about my shoes pretty quickly.

‘Nice touch,’ I said, just to say something. It was suddenly too claustrophobic in that cubicle with Finn Mutch, his battered skull and the burnt remnants falling from his eye sockets.

*

I returned to the bar, Mutch’s 24-clip safely tucked away in my pocket, and ordered a beer and a vodka chaser from Bane, who seemed affronted that I should regard him as a lowly bartender.

‘Lissa will serve you. She’s only going to be a minute. She’s collecting glasses.’

I pondered this and while I did so I pulled up a stool. But I didn’t sit on it. ‘You serve me,’ I said. ‘Let Lissa get on with her hobby.’ The V of a miasmic shirt yawned on Bane’s chest like puke made solid. Hard curls of chest hair rioted there like rusting bed springs. He wore a gold necklace with an ingot which read BANE, for those difficult crises of identity, most probably when he woke up in the mornings with his brain lagging half an hour behind him.

‘Cute,’ he said, but I could see he was saying it only because he didn’t understand me. Pearls before swine. ‘As I was saying, Lissa will — ’

I imagine the next words up were serve you but I couldn’t be sure because they were caught in a kind of squealing grunt as I reached over and dragged his bicycle helmet over the bar and through the slats of the stool. His feet waggled on the other side of the counter like a baby learning how to swim.

‘Is this cute too?’ I asked him. His face was turning purple. It didn’t go well with the shirt so I released him. He went off to pour my drinks.

‘On the house,’ he said, sarcastically. He really knew how to hit low.

I nodded back at the entrance. The wood around the doorframe was charred and smoke had left a sooty scar across the ceiling. ‘When did you have your fire?’

‘About a month ago,’ he said. He was being civil because he wanted me gone before he did something he was going to regret. I can tell that from a man’s eyes. And from the level of abuse I dole out first. His chest was moving like a guy’s backside under the sheets with his wife after a ten year stretch.

‘About a month?’ I downed the vodka and took a sip from my beer to smooth out the edges. ‘I deal in specifics, Mr Bane. Detail. Care to narrow that down for me?’

He gave me a date, I jotted it down. ‘I remember because it was the night Yuicy started.’

‘Yuicy?’

Bane looked over at the girl writhing around. The guy still hadn’t parted with that last bill.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘What is it with the soot though? You like the burnt effect?’

‘No structural damage,’ he reasoned. ‘Paint costs money.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. I got the rest on my pint inside me and flicked him a card from my wallet. ‘Call me, if you get lonely and want to talk some more.’

‘Next time you come here it won’t be such a warm welcome,’ he said.

‘It might be,’ I said. ‘If you don’t get your fire certificate in order.’

*

It was getting late so I went back to my flat, stopping on the way to buy a paper bag from Ming’s. When I got home I found that there was a pint of whisky in the bag. Lucky me.

I did a tour of my flat to check the booby traps I’d set that morning hadn’t been sprung but I couldn’t remember where the traps were. I stopped worrying about my brains a long time ago. The way I see it, everyone in this polluted metropolis is losing the old think cells at a bastard rate every day. So I forget what I was doing this morning. So some berk forgets to wipe his prints off a doorknob after killing his grandma. It evens itself out.

In the kitchen I poured my dinner and went to the window. It’s not a great view here in Sorrel Dip, the only place in the city that sounds like a side order in a vegetarian restaurant. I can see a kind of low hill saddled with restaurants and a deteriorating road that winds out of the city towards the suburbs of Chiefly and Billion Spread. A couple of drinks and I end up in her study, as I always do. I keep it this way, even though I could use the space. Her desk is in the corner of the room beneath a cork notice board filled with photographs and concert tickets and dressage rosettes. None of which she wants back. Her computer monitor — I’ve never turned it off — scrolls with the last message she typed into her screensaver: Sorry Rad, You were right… I’m not up to this.

She’s living in Tetrahedral Street now, on the other side of town. With some guy, some safe guy who doesn’t chase killers. It’s a shame, because Tupelo was good for me. She was the best kind of wife. She was a good listener. She’d listen to me while we lay in bed, spooling through all the shit that I’d done during the day, pouring it out, and by just listening, being a wall that I bounced stuff against, she helped clear my mind and let my best thoughts through, the thoughts that led to a capture. The thoughts that put our meals on the table.

But I wasn’t good for her. I was the worst kind of husband. I didn’t provide her with any kind of wall. She was alone in a wide open street and too many directions in which to travel unhindered. Unlucky for me, she picked one. I should have blocked her in. I should have been the last road she ever turned in to.

‘I should have blocked her in,’ I said and my voice boomed in the tiny study, slapping me awake.

I left my empty glass on the desk and returned to the living room. I dug through the newspapers and books until I found the remote for the plasma screen on the wall and flicked it on in time to watch my advert. I wish I hadn’t. My face looked as long as a lifestyle questionnaire. The advert finished. The phone didn’t ring.

Hungry after all, in the kitchenette I made an air sandwich with two slices of stale bread and the abundance of jack shit that was in the fridge. I kicked off my shoes and recovered the 24-clip from my coat pocket. I washed off as much blood as I could from the interface and slid it into the socket beneath the screen.

*

A 24-clip is a coin-sized device implanted under the scalp of felons. It stores 24 hours of information on it. Scenes from your day. You don’t have to be Tusk ‘The Eviscerator’ Myrikle to get one of these badges. Like poor old Finn Mutch, you could have committed a driving offence, or been caught shoplifting. If the plods were in the mood for a collar, it didn’t matter if you were a paedophile who ate the heads of your conquests or a fence who had handled a stolen drawing pin. A convict was clipped and every day he would have to upload his clip on to a hard drive that was accessible to the plods down at Cop HQ. If you didn’t upload, an alarm went off and the police came to find you and lock you up. Great for the police, who could get away with even less work and occasionally got the chance to watch some hot late night action. Great for me too, because sometimes the clip gave up a clue that could lead to my pinching the killer. Sometimes. Well, hardly ever. People killed in this city are invariably smashed around the head by those who know what clips are but don’t know how to retrieve them. Ever tried putting a raw egg yolk in a plug socket? Of course not. And I’ve never tried to play a clip that looks like a pile of matchsticks.

How long does it take to watch a 24 clip? Twenty-four hours, you might say. But you’d be wrong. It isn’t like watching television. The picture isn’t clear and there are constant fades to watch out for as well as other interference: daydream static, wish projection, lots of other cranial flotsam and jetsam. But there wasn’t too much of that going on with Finn Mutch. Maybe it was his job that scoured any imagination from his head: a dignity-sapping hands and knees scout for electronic lice. There was the occasional temper-induced flare, usually after some rubber-faced nadge-sac called Huckey dropped by to give Mutch grief, and a softer, warmer haze when he thought about the hands of his lover.

Anyway:

Huckey had slipped his head around the edge of the door twenty minutes ago to tell him, with that irritating, lispy voice of his, that there was no downing tools for him until every Ludd in the system had been flushed.

Mutch knew what that meant. He’d be lucky if Bane’s was still open by the time he finished here. Bane, with his cold hot dogs and warm beer. Bane, with his strange tattoos and lurid shirts. Hell, maybe he should just go straight home.

Cursing Huckey as colourfully as he knew how, Mutch ripped the sterilising sheath from a fresh nozzle and squeezed the rubberised membrane on the feeder until a dewdrop of gel oozed from the tip. This he fed into the cooling vein on the machine he was currently servicing, a moulded ventilation hub that looked to Mutch as though it had been made from tin, plastic and about six tons of fervent prayer. The nozzles were loaded with a special fluid, developed over the past six months, which dealt with the Ludds and repaired their damage in one dose. The fluid acted both as an anti-coagulant on the Ludd saliva that blocked up the exhaust pipes and electrical cables on the old technology they preferred and also rendered the Ludds sterile so they couldn’t breed. Before the introduction of the gel, each piece of machinery would have needed to be taken apart, cleaned, and reassembled, every Ludd paralysed with a pair of spark-pincers and tossed in the waste disposal cruncher. This way was much more civilised and highly effective. The adult generation were dying out; hopefully, Mutch would be able to forget about this part of the job for a while, at least until some cowboy mechanic re-infected the system with a rogue spare part or a less-than-pristine tool. The task was easier now, but as jobs went, it was still a bag of dung.

It was five hours later, and almost midnight, by the time he had cleansed the circuitry. He left a copy of the procedure log pinned to the wall and caught a ride up to the nineties, wincing at the bleached look to his face in the elevator mirrors. His back ached and his fingers itched where they had come into contact with the gel. He should wear gloves, safety tests for the gel were inconclusive; dark rumours abounded that they were carcinogenic but Mutch didn’t care. The itch in his fingers made him feel alive for a while. There were too many hours of numbness in his life at the moment.

Out of the fifties, the protective walls of the scraper fell away and he was able to look at the city as it unravelled around him. It seemed to be growing by the day. The new developments out east, in Pur and Dandasque, edged the horizon with a silver gleam. He had helped neutralise the cable network out there. It was clean for as long as it took for the pirates to feed outlawed services through them. It would happen, as sure as he would go to Bane’s and eat something dodgy, drink a few tepid, watered-down glasses of Burpszt, try to flirt with Lissa.

Everyone wanted cheaper power. And who was going to say no to a few extra channels on the TV? In the end, despite the unsociable hours and the occasional Ludd bite — which meant a trip down to the infirmary for a course of anti-rabies jabs — it was a solid job. He’d never be out of work.

He smelled Bane’s before he saw its tacky, faltering neon sign. A chalked sign on a small blackboard read: Litre beer $14. Girls Girls Girls read another. Mutch could see Lissa inside, working the tables, a tray filled with glasses of froth and bowls of nuts balanced on her upturned hand. He smoothed his hair down across his head and reached for the door handle.

And someone behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

*

I watched Mutch’s point of view rotated through 180°. Someone behind him, I couldn’t see who: too dark. Mutch well impressed, whoever it was. Yapping like a puppy. Then the other saying something. Muffled, something like: ‘Buy you a cocktail.’ And Mutch turning back to the entrance. And bang. Fade to black.

*

‘The guy was killed by someone who knew him,’ I said, my breath bouncing back at me from the mouthpiece like the sweet-sour burp of a cadaver’s gut during post-mortem. I was glad we hadn’t hit the video-link. I probably looked like something that ought to be on the slab too.

‘That’s interesting,’ Milk said. She didn’t sound interested. She sounded tired. ‘Rad, it’s four in the morning. Is this all you wanted to call for, to tell me this Mutch chap was offed by a known?’

No. No. No. No.

‘Yes.’

She downed the link, quite rightly. She was even polite about it, swearing only five or six times. I couldn’t sleep. I felt that a part of my past, recent or otherwise (or maybe some moment from my future) was out of whack. I was on edge, my belly full of prickles. It happens when I’m on a case. Early on, I know that I’ve seen something, or heard something which has provided me with the key to the whole shebang. Knowing what it is, of course, is a different bucket of gerbils.

Around 5 am I took off, the walls of my flat too inhibiting. The fresh air cleaned my mind and stripped away some of the damage last night’s whisky had caused. I just wanted to walk, pound some streets until the sun came up, I wasn’t thinking about directions. But my feet were, and I found myself outside the local fire station, staring up at the great polished doors that, at the first hint of an emergency, would sink into the earth to reveal a trio of fire-fighting trucks. An upstairs room was filled with light and shadow. I imagined firefighters cruising around a pool table, talking in murmurs, or playing cards, watching a little TV. Busy but waiting, always waiting.

I skipped up the steps and entered the office. There was a woman in a severe blue suit sitting in a hanging leather chair, wearing a headset. She was gabbing code into the mouthpiece, a fast sequence of numbers and letters, interspersed with the odd moment of recognisable speech: a street name, a yes, a no. She ended her conversation without saying goodbye and without looking up at me, without changing her voice pattern, she asked what she could do to help me.

I showed her a card and sat on the only available surface, the corner of her workstation. ‘I wondered if any of the crew on duty tonight were on duty a month ago, on the night of the 18th?’

The receptionist repeated the date into her headset and then said: ‘Duty log.’

A second later, she recited a list of names:

‘Fetter, Noo, Curve and Whysse. They’re all in tonight.’

I wrote the names down and asked if I could get a list of phone numbers. She shook her head. ‘You look like a nice guy but your card is not a shield. Sorry.’

‘Then can I talk to them now?’

‘Let me see.’ She got back on the headset. Told the crew what was what. After a short while she came back to me. ‘You can take the lift up. They’re waiting for you.’

It was nothing like the romantic vision I’d had in my mind. Two firefighters were stripped to the waist and were wrestling inside a chalk circle. The others were standing around with bottled soft drinks, calling out words of encouragement. One of the spectators came over to the lift as I stepped out of it. He shook my hand.

‘Byte Noo,’ he said.

‘Rad Hallah. Thanks for taking the time.’

‘No problem. Come on, let me get you a drink. We’ve only got fruit juice, I’m afraid. Either that or qat-tea and we don’t really go for that till after the shift’s over. Snooze stuff. Helps bring you down if you’ve had a rough night.’

‘Nothing thanks. I just wanted to ask a few questions. Be finished in a jiffy.’

‘Sure.’

We stopped by the large bay window that looked down over the sleeping, polished fire engines. The other spectator came to join us. Noo introduced her as Curve Moody. She wore a little cropped top. Her blonde hair was in a pony tail. We shook hands. She had a face that made you smile even if you were thinking of nuns on fire.

‘I was told you were on duty on the night of the fire over at Bane’s bar, in the Splinters?’

‘I know it,’ said Noo. ‘Yeah. Small fire. Hardly worth the effort. Guy could have pissed it out.’

‘What’s the wrestling all about?’

Curve Moody said, ‘Aggression. Good way to get rid of it. You don’t want to be pumped full of nasty when you get called out on a job.’

‘You wrestle too?’ I asked.

She smiled, nodded. ‘Like a demon.’

I pushed away the visions and concentrated on the job. ‘Do you get many fires occurring up in the Splinters? Isn’t it a huge disaster waiting to happen?’

The wrestlers were going for each other like thin dogs scrapping over a chicken wing. The smaller guy was winning. He was bulked out in the heavy, sculpted manner of a weightlifter. Whenever he went into a clinch with his opponent he let out a roar that seemed to come all the way up his body from his balls. I’d have him on my side any day.

‘The Splinters should pretty much take care of themselves,’ Noo was saying. ‘Sprinklers, auto-foaming ducts, vents that suck oxygen from a room to starve fires. We go along every so often to do firechecks. We’re serious about them too. Access for the machines — you’ve seen the size of them — is pretty limited. And it takes about ten minutes for a chopper to get over here from Paleshrike, enough time for a place to burn to nothing.’

‘Word was that it was kids, playing around,’ Curve Moody continued. ‘We put it out in seconds. It was a low-grade risk. Last job of the night, as I recall.’

Noo chipped in. ‘We went back afterwards. Owner offered us a drink on the house.’

Curve Moody looked at her watch. ‘You want to talk to Vex and Oquo? Vex Whysse and Oquo Fetter? They were the other guys on duty that night. They’ll be finished in a minute.’

I shook my head, despite the fact that Curve Moody was pulling off her combat trousers in readiness for her bout. ‘No thanks. It’s late.’

We said goodbye and Noo walked me to the lift. At the side of it was a photograph of four men. The inscription on the plaque beneath it read: Our glorious dead: Chew Matino, Hensall Grab, Bench Moody, Pol Cloake.

The lift doors opened. I said, ‘Moody. That something to do with Curve?’

Noo nodded. ‘Her father. All four of those firemen were killed in an oil rig fire ten years ago trying to save the crew. What a waste. There was a crew of eight working on the rig. Their last night on duty. They had been drinking pretty much all day and were bosko absoluto. Fire started in the galley. A pan of something they were cooking up for supper.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. It seemed a pathetically weak thing to say but Noo shrugged.

‘Death gets in the cab with you every time you go outside in this job,’ he said. Over his shoulder, Whysse and Fetter were leaving the circle. Whysse gave Curve Moody a big hug as they swapped places. Idly, I wondered how long it would take me to qualify as a fireman. ‘Curve joined up because of her dad, but she knows the risks.’

Outside, weak sunlight was striping the tips of the Splinters, occasionally visible above the rafts of cloud hugging the city. I stopped off at Chimp’s mobile diner for a Styrofoam container of tepid coffee and a jam doughnut that made my teeth disintegrate as I was chewing it. Then I went home and slept for four hours.

I woke up refreshed. Well, as refreshed as a man can be who suddenly finds himself staring into the muzzle of a pistol. Somebody was straddling my chest, making it hard to breathe. A balaclava concealed anything I might have used later down at the cop shop in order to have some failed artist drum up a picture of someone who looked nothing like my assailant.

I wheezed, ‘Get comfortable why don’t you?’

The lump on top of me was either mute, foreign or, as I expected, not mad keen on chit-chat. The pistol, cocked, was traced gently all over my face like a lover’s fingernails. It dimpled my cheek, pressed against my closed eyes, rattled my teeth. I got the picture.

A piece of paper was tucked into my shirt pocket. A little slap across the chops and the intruder was gone.

He had got in through the window. I always leave the window open when I sleep. One minor drawback of living at ground level. I closed it and locked it and drew the curtains even though the sun was shining. I took a hot shower, then a freezing cold one. More coffee, a fresh shirt and I was ready to read my love letter.

Two words, no nonsense: Walk away.

I dropped the note into a little plastic wrap for the graphologists and went outside, wishing for about the ten thousandth time that I carried a gun.

*

It’s true what they say. If you’re armed, you’re twice as likely to end up being shot. I believe this, even though I don’t know who they are, the people who say this. But put yourself in a villain’s shoes. He’s on the lam, he’s got a gun, he’s shakier than a jelly poodle. If he sees some chisel-faced dick sniffing him out with a piece in his hand, he’s more likely to slug it out. But me? Chisel-faced though I undoubtedly am, I don’t carry. I would rather face a gun-toting perp who feels as though the balance of power is in his favour than a sweating, slippery-fingered tripwire of a guy.

This was what I was thinking as I took the steps two at a time up to the entrance of Stable Cables.

That and why the cheesy nuggets don’t I carry a gun?

*

If Snafu Huckey was an entry in the dictionary, this is what his definition would be: n. Jesus Creeping Chrrrrist, what a choad-hole! See also: tit-head, knob-end, anal cyst and irritant (major).

I fixed a grin and sat on the other side of the desk from him, hoping he wouldn’t hear my teeth grind. Huckey’s chair was too low; the edge of the table was about level with his shoulders. His fingers clung to the table-top like he was playing a phantom piano. He wore a side parting so savage that he could have dismantled it and used it as a set square.

He was so spectacularly ugly that I completely missed the first few sentences he uttered.

‘I said,’ he said, his voice like the whine of a failing jet engine, ‘can I get you anything? Coffeeteawater?’

‘Nothing for me, thanks.’ I cleared my throat. I said, ‘Finn Mutch.’

‘Finn Mutch,’ he said.

I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘Yes.’

I said, ‘Sorry, did I take a wrong turn somewhere? Is this Echo Canyon?’

He spread his fingers. They looked like the kind of things you’d spear on a stick and toast over an open fire. ‘You haven’t asked me anything yet.’

‘Okay,’ I said, breathing deeply. ‘You and Finn. Did you get on?’

‘I was his boss.’

‘So that’s a no.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Then you did get on?’

‘I didn’t say that either.’ He wore the smug expression of a guy who thinks he’s smarter than most. I wondered what that expression would look like mashed on to my knuckles.

‘How long did Finn work here, Mr Huckey?’ I ladled just the right amount of sarcasm over that mister to drag his face a couple of degrees deeper into uglydom.

‘He was in his six-month probation period. Just coming to the end of it.’

‘And you were going to keep him on? He seemed quite a diligent worker.’

Huckey bristled. ‘I would have been the judge of that.’

‘Would you like to answer the question?’

‘Let’s make one thing clear, Mr Hallah. You are not police. I am not obliged to tell you anything.’

‘That’s right,’ I said, cheering up a little. Maybe I would get the chance to tenderise his facial steak after all. ‘But you will, because if you don’t, you’ll have trouble telling anybody anything for a while.’

‘Is that a threat?’

Not that bright then. I spent the next minute making it clear what I would do to him if he didn’t comply. He looked a little queasy after that. And told me all about Finn Mutch’s chances in the Ludd extermination industry. They weren’t great.

‘Why would you sack a guy like that?’ I asked. ‘Okay, he’s got some form, but it’s lower league stuff. I’m sure if we had a rattle of the skeletons in your cupboard we’d find more impressive offences.’

‘It had nothing to do with that, Mr Hallah,’ he said, regaining some of his oleaginous brio.

‘Then what?’

‘It was the company he kept.’

I nearly fell off my chair. ‘Really?’ I said, just to fill the silence. I thought about Huckey’s friends. I thought about spending an evening with Huckey and his friends. I thought about gnawing my own legs off. Without anaesthetic.

‘Mr Hallah. Clearly you don’t understand. Finn Mutch was, well, he was a homosexualist.’

*

Somehow I got out of there without painting my fingernails with his blood. I say somehow, but it was a call from Milk. At first I didn’t realise it was the phone vibrating in my pocket. I thought Huckey had brought on some kind of irritable bowel syndrome.

I left him without an excuse me and stood outside, wishing I smoked.

‘What is it?’ I snapped.

‘It’s a pause, so you can apologise.’

I said I was sorry and asked her again, just as snappily, what she wanted. She must have cottoned on that I wasn’t in a mood to mess around. She became clipped and businesslike. ‘There’s another body,’ she said. ‘Caramel Pines. I booked you a seat on this afternoon’s train. And a room at an impressively cheap hotel. I’ll expect a refund if you don’t nail this monkey.’

‘Same MO?’ I asked, knowing full well that it was. I had to say something though. I hadn’t been to Caramel Pines, let alone heard the name mentioned, for over a year. Why there? Fate was a clown with a custard cannon, and the seat of my pants had a target on it.

‘Same MO,’ confirmed Milk. ‘Only this one was done first. It’s about a month old.’

On my way to the train station I bought a fresh handkerchief and a bottle of cheap after-shave from a pharmacy. I bought a fistful of miniatures too for the journey, a five-hour jaunt. The thought of stepping off the train sober was enough to make my eyes bleed.

I picked up my ticket from reservations and found my train waiting on the platform, engine tutting away like a wronged Maud. Making sure my ticket was poking out of my top pocket, I settled into my seat even though departure time was over half an hour away. Then I started tucking into the booze. The next thing I remember was an old dear trying to clamber over me, complaining loudly that trains shouldn’t allow animals to travel with normal people. My ticket had been punched, and so had I, it felt like. Or maybe it was just the alcohol. Outside, darkness had turned the countryside into a congealed mass. I could smell salt water and scorched earth. The guard was strolling through the carriage telling me what I already knew.

‘This train terminates here. Taxis are available to Caramel Pines, Bow-wow South, The Jut and Winterwild. This train terminates here. This is Nowhere Beach.’

*

I made my way through the ticket barrier and stood in the entrance to the station, breathing deeply. There was a queue of taxis at the rank but most people were eschewing them in favour of a healthy walk in the freezing cold. I got in the back of a cab and told the driver where to go. I told him I’d give him a tip if he promised not to engage me in any smalltalk. We drove in silence, me staring at the back of the driver’s head, or at his resentful gaze in the rearview mirror.

I remembered it all. It had been Summer when I came here last. Heavy fruit on the trees, children playing in the sand. I smiled a lot. She smiled a lot. I blamed it on wind. She kicked me. Cold cuts on a rug by a hot fire. Hot sex on a cold kitchen worktop. I was maybe looking into her eyes 90% of the time and thinking how beautiful her eyes were for the other ten.

The cab driver dropped me off outside Hotel Jejune. I tipped him a little extra when he asked me if he could say goodbye. I was shown to my room by a little old lady in a Zimmer frame. Inside I locked the door and rammed the back of a chair up against the door handle. When I turned on the light I realised that if I was going to spend a night here I should have got the old lady to lock it from the other side. Cheap was too grand a word for this dive. But I was tired. And my head was filling with too much other stuff, old stuff, safe stuff, for me to care about how many spiders I was going to share my pillow with.

I slept. Maybe I cried. What does it matter?

*

Knocking on the door. Like someone auditioning for drums in a band called Drums and Nothing But.

‘Okay, okay,’ I yelled, but it wasn’t. It was far from okay. Within the hour I would have those knuckles mounted on a plinth and hanging over my fireplace. But the owner of the knuckles was already walking back to his car as I opened the door in the suit I had crashed out in. Weak sunlight dribbled through the crack. I slipped on my shades and asked if we could stop for coffee.

‘I have anticipated you, Mr Hallah,’ he called. ‘Come and get it.’

*

He introduced himself as Flyk Kibble. I nearly missed the name. I was staring at his godlike sideburns. He had fashioned them into deep, scything blades that petered out a centimetre or so from his chin. The coffee, it had to be said, was excellent.

‘What do you do out here?’

‘I’m liaison for the coroner, Mr Hallah. I am his eyes and ears.’

‘And legs.’

He laughed. ‘Yes, legs too. It was Ms Fuss though, who asked me to pick you up. A personal favour for her.’

‘How personal?’

He gave me a look. ‘We were at college together.’

‘That figures.’

‘Hmm?’

I said, ‘You’re both highly polished people. I could go round to knock on Milk’s door at 3 am and she’d open it looking like someone who just fell out of a movie. You too, I reckon.’

‘It’s called professionalism.’

Stung, I said, ‘I’m a professional too.’

‘I don’t doubt it.’

‘The tone of your voice says you do.’

‘What, we talk for two minutes and you know me well enough to determine what I think? Milk told me you were difficult.’

I said, ‘In my job it doesn’t pay to look like a clothes horse. I need to blend in.’

‘I’ll take you to the morgue if you like,’ he said. ‘You’ll blend in plenty.’

‘No thanks. The boathouse is good for now.’

Maybe I did lean on him a little too hard. But I prefer to travel in silence. Especially if other things are crowding in, trying to lay claim to the little good space that’s left inside my head. What did I care if he thought I was a pain in the neck? It wasn’t like we were neighbours.

*

I had a headache by the time we got to the edge of the lake. Mist clung to its surface, but you could just see enough to tell it was mirror-smooth. A little eaterie called the Bread ‘n’ Water stood next to it. I checked the menu in the window before we went in. Tupelo would have liked this place. Lots of fish and herbs. Lots of candles. Her eyes in candlelight… you could go mad.

There were no candles here now though. Lots of big, harsh lights. Lots of lab coats. Lots of police. And a scoop with a pencil jammed behind his ear and a big camera with a big flash attached to the hotshoe that went off with a sound like a sheet being torn from a bed. People in Caramel Pines took their murder seriously. It was nice to see.

I flashed my card and used Milk Fuss’s name like currency. It got me to the front of the pack where a squat guy in a cableknit sweater was lying on his back. I pulled out the aftershave and splashed a good few glugs into the hanky which I placed over my mouth and nose. Some of the cops laughed. Some of them looked at me wishing they had had the same idea.

I examined the body. Another gash across the back of the head. Brains hanging out like the tentacles of a Portuguese Man o’ War. No 24-clip. I was impressed the body had lasted this long with only superficial decomposition. But then, it was deep winter.

‘What do you reckon, city boy?’ one of the cops asked out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Dead?’

A bit of laughter. Local badges, they’re in a class of their own. I didn’t take the bait. There was a murdered man here. Someone who was looking forward to his lunch and then, maybe, the rest of his life. Young guy. What had he done? What had Finn Mutch done? Where was the common ground?

‘Who was here first?’ I asked. My lucky day, the cop with the comedy lips. He crinkled them as he approached me. They looked like something you might find at the back of a monkey.

‘Do you know him?’ I got in first, before he could impress his friends with more bon mots.

‘Sure. Name’s Gully Jukes. Owns a secondhand bookshop on the seafront.’ He handed me the wallet he had rescued from the corpse’s pocket. The face that beamed at me from the ID card didn’t carry a hint of the shadow of death that had now come home to roost.

‘Any ideas who did this? Or why?’

He smirked. ‘You’re the talent. You tell me. I just point traffic in the right direction.’

One of the boathouse staff was doing his best to try to clean up. He had a broom under the dead man’s feet before anyone could stop him. ‘Woah, boy,’ I said, and put my foot in the way. I was used to an unhelpful crime scene in the city. Out here, it made a nice change to have order. I wasn’t going to let anyone screw it up. But he’d done some damage, raking up some soft loam, a bit of litter. And hello.

A tiny skeleton. What was that? A mouse? a bird? I picked the little tangle of bones up off the floor and folded them into my handkerchief.

‘Lunch?’ asked the comedian cop.

‘Evidence,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’

‘Oh really? You think cock robin killed our friend here? And then topped himself?’ More laughter. I ignored it. I could rise above it all. Get me.

I said, ‘I need a lift to the station. I need to get back to the city.’

‘What’s the big rush? Getting nose bleeds so far away from your delis and your traffic jams?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Well, there are no more trains tonight, mister. Next one is at 8 am tomorrow morning. Stick around. I’ll show you the sights.’

‘No thanks.’ I gave him a card. ‘Call me if you get any more info on this.’ The bones in my pocket burned into my thigh as if they had just come from a cooked bird. I went back to the hotel and left the handkerchief on the dressing table. Then I caught a tram to the beach.

Nowhere Beach isn’t particularly pretty or dramatic. It isn’t good for sunbathing, enclosed as it is on either side by hills that block out the light. The area doesn’t have a rich diversity of wildlife. There are no good restaurants, no clubs or bars. It’s a bit of a nowhere place and maybe that’s how it got its name. And I like it. We liked it. Maybe because nobody else did. I get the feeling that Tupelo liked me for much the same reason.

We came here on the day after I asked her to marry me. I was feeling powerful, primitively powerful, as if my genes had triumphed over those of any other sad old Joe in the city. Man hunt for woman. Man find woman. Man good. I needed to get out of town and get some fresh air into me. The city was too stifling. I wanted to run around and scream. We took a picnic to the beach and ate some of it before our mouths gravitated towards each other. Most of the afternoon was spent spooning in the sand and we finally unlocked ourselves from each other as the hill’s shadows lengthened across the sea.

Now I walked down to where the tide lapped against the sand. The sea was darker than I remembered it, like beaten gunmetal, perhaps because of winter. With the ocean behind me, I scanned the beach, trying to remember where we had lain. I remembered after we had gathered together the blanket and the picnic basket, we hiked up the hill to the tram terminus instead of following the path that I had come in on.

I retraced the route we had taken last year, remembering how I had looked up at Tupelo as she picked her way barefoot through the rocks and vines, and teased her about the sway of her backside. She almost fell over at one point, she was laughing so much. Here. It was here that she pressed her foot into a little puddle of sand. I remember…

I had stared at the perfect little impression of heel and toes. Before she could see me, I had picked up a piece of slate and covered the footprint, possessed suddenly with an insane desire to protect it and prevent anybody else from clapping eyes on a little mark made by my wife, my wife-to-be.

I saw the slate, tinged with a little moss, hidden by a few thick ferns that had reached over, as if guarding a shrine. My heart was beating wildly as I reached out to flip off that slate lid, and I thought surely, not… the insects, the weather… surely not.

But the footprint was there. Five tiny dips and the elongated heart shape of her foot proper. I lost it, a little, up there on the hill. I dug my hand into the sand and scooped it up and put it in my pocket and dropped to my knees and lost it.

*

I thought of nothing else, of nobody else on the way back the next morning. I took out my phone. I would ring her. I would tell her things were different. That things had changed. I would send her the sand in an envelope.

I stepped off the train five hours later and put the phone back in my pocket. Caught a cab. I hadn’t had a drink for over twelve hours. That was a sin I was about to atone for.

Three pints in, Oak Seddon lining them up. An argument was raging between a Bible-quoting reformed stripper and a man with a banjo who sang rude songs. It was excellent entertainment. My phone vibrated.

‘Hallah,’ I said.

‘It’s Milk,’ she said. ‘Good trip?’

I gave her the bare bones about the bare bones and listened to her silent reply.

‘Still there?’ I asked. ‘Why don’t you come over to Oak’s and get tight with me?’

‘I was right the first time,’ she said.

‘I don’t follow you, toots,’ I said. ‘And after another one of these pints of rocket fuel I’ll have trouble following my own nose.’

‘Shit, Rad. I messed up. When I said there were two bodies at Bane’s? I did say it to get you interested. I was being facetious. But there really were two bodies up there. There was a skeleton. A little thing, like a rat. I didn’t think it meant anything.’

Oak’s beer suddenly tasted as flat as tapwater. He saw my expression and started clearing away the frothy glasses that were queuing up for my gullet. Fifteen minutes later I was in the plexiglass pod sprinting up into the Splinters, swallowing hard against a scream that was building like an orgasm inside my chest. By the time I got to Bane’s I was wound up like a dog chasing its own tail. Bane wasn’t around, but plenty of other people were. Yuicy was gyrating on her table like a drunken uncle at a wedding reception. A sea of faces looked up at her.

I pushed through the swilling bodies to the toilets. Mutch had been removed, but I wouldn’t have batted an eye if he was still on the throne. I kicked about in the filth for a while but did nothing other than make a case for Shoeshine Eddie to hate my guts for the rest of eternity.

Outside I saw a few heaps of muck that some short-straw loser had swept against the wall. In the second heap I struck paydirt. A tiny skeleton, not quite as intact as the first in my grim collection, but still very interesting. I pocketed it and went back to the bar.

‘You Lissa?’ I said, when the tall, raven-haired barmaid tilted my way.

‘Yes,’ she said brightly.

‘Where’s Bane?’

‘He’s playing cards in the back.’

‘Through there?’ I nodded at a door at the back of the bar.

‘Yes,’ she said, uncertainly. ‘But — ’

I vaulted the bar and pushed by her, ignoring her protests and those of the punters waiting to be served. I got through the door, surprised to see that the lights were off and I was in total darkness. But somewhere between that thought, and my legs folding, I realised that I had been brained.

*

I woke up. I vomited.

Sneezing puke through my nostrils and trying to swallow against the burn in my throat, I scrambled to my feet only to be punched back down again. Blood squirted, bittersweet across my tongue. I reckoned my face now looked like some ripe gourd at the bottom of an unsuccessful greengrocer’s refuse sack.

I made it upright once more and another fist landed on my nose, crushing it like an eggshell, persuading me it was better on the floor. I didn’t argue. I lay there, the centre of my face bubbling and fizzing, and waited for the feet to join in, but then came the sound of yelling and another scuffle that didn’t involve me. Footsteps ran away. Heavy, ponderous footsteps. Muntin Bane making good on his promises.

A hand in mine. Warm breath against my cheek.

‘Can you stand up?’

‘I tried it earlier,’ I said. ‘It didn’t work out.’ I recognised the voice. It made the hair on my neck spring to attention.

‘Come on,’ she said.

Somehow she got me on to the main street where she flagged a cab and took me home. In the kitchen, the striplight flickering, she washed my cuts and dabbed peroxide into them. I laughed at the pain. If I hadn’t, I would have cried instead.

She wrapped a blanket around me and took me into the living room, where she made a space on the sofa and let me rest my head against he shoulder for a while.

‘Thanks for rescuing me, Curve,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to show me a few moves sometime.’

She did show me a few moves, that very night, and it was good and it was great. Sometime towards dawn I heard her scuffling about for her clothes and I opened my eyes to watch. I was groggy from a glass of brandy and a few codeine pills, but I was able to see her body as it accrued layers, her breasts against the moonlight making it seem as though there was nothing but an edge to her, a brilliant white curve. I watched her move across the room to the door, where she stopped and looked back at me. She said something then and I went back to sleep and tried to forget.

I’m sorry.

*

I booted up the drive and pulsed my dad. It was early. I couldn’t stomach breakfast, but I found a coffee cup for the rest of the brandy.

He’s in his dotage, but my dad works harder than ever. Especially since my mother died. It’s like he equates retirement with senility and death. Maybe he’s right. Anyway, he’s up at sparrowfart and doesn’t go to bed till past midnight. He looks at me and thinks, she must have had an affair, I’m certain of it. He reads, he writes, he has so many filing cabinets that he has a filing cabinet devoted to a filing system that deals with his filing cabinets.

His face shimmered into view on the LCD. He blinked a few times and said, ‘Well?’ He suddenly saw me properly. ‘What the hell have you been up to, Rad? Did you forget how to negotiate doors?

‘Hi dad,’ I said. ‘How are you?’

‘Busy,’ he said, pointedly.

‘Busy doing what?’

He sighed. ‘I have to deliver an essay on a synthetic heat protein for the blood, you know, for the terraforming project in the Antarctic. I mean, have you ever tried using a screwdriver with fifteen pairs of gloves on?’

‘Right, dad. Sounds good. Listen, I need you to have a look at something for me. See if you can identify what it is.’

‘If it’s your brain, don’t bother. It will not be recognisable. Perhaps as a pickled walnut, but nothing else.’

You can see where I get it from.

‘I’m uploading the scans now, dad. I think they’re the same beast, but I’m not a hundred per cent.’

He screwed his magnifier into his eye socket, the compensating hike of his cheek giving him a lecherous appearance. ‘Ah,’ he said. And then: ‘Ah.’

He left his seat and wandered off. I took a sly slug from the cup. You’d need it too, if you were talking to my dad. He came back with a huge volume that he started riffling through contentedly, looking up now and again at the scans to make comparisons.

‘Hmm,’ he said, haughtily. ‘Regulus ignicapillus, I’d say.’

‘A bird, right?’

The magnifier out, he rolled his eyes theatrically. ‘Of course it’s a bird.’

‘It’s not helping me out here, Dad,’ I said, hating myself for allowing him to manipulate me like this. The only person in the world who could.

‘What else can I give you?’ he said. ‘Most people know that it has an orange flash on its head. It’s what gives it its name. They nest in spruce or larch forests. Migrant birds, but some of them have started to breed over here.’

I gritted my teeth against saying that he obviously just gleaned all that from the book he consulted, but a tiny part of me suspected that he knew it all anyway. He made me feel about as big as a pygmy in a basketball team.

I was readying myself to say goodbye, that I’d try to make it up to see him sometime soon, when I remembered what he’d said.

‘What name would that be, by the way?’

‘I told you lad,’ he said, ‘Regulus ignicapillus.’

‘Which means?’

Another sigh, augmented by the cluck of his tongue. I butched it out. ‘Why, Rad, obviously, it’s Latin. For Firecrest.’

*

The city is silent tonight. It’s withdrawn, huddled into itself. The cold has pinched the streets blue; frost sucks the depth from the alleyways, everything is visible in the city, in winter. There are no places to hide.

There were no places for Vex Whysse to hide, though he tried. I don’t think he tried too hard, in the end. I think that part of it was that he wanted to be stopped. It was too painful, all of it. The tracking down, the killing. The remembering. The killing didn’t stop the memories, or make better what had happened all those years ago. The killing made the memories fresh. It made the circle of pain that much wider, that’s all.

Curve Moody knew it and she had decided to end it now. She gave me an address, before she left last night. I found it when I was pulling on my clothes, slipped into my pocket. I went to check it out, a storage facility on the edge of the city, where people who can’t fit everything they’ve got into their apartments rent garage space to keep the remainder.

I broke in and found a pile of boxes containing clothes, sports equipment, magazines. Nothing special. But in a plastic carrier bag hanging on a hook on the wall, I found half a dozen Firecrest skeletons wrapped in cotton wool. Every one of them was an anatomy lesson in pain and regret. I called Milk Fuss as I studied them. I told her about the oil rig fire.

‘Check out the offspring of those who died, Milk,’ I told her. ‘They’re being picked off one by one. Father of a woman who works at the fire station was offed fighting the blaze. She joined up to keep his spirit alive, That kind of shit. Someone else joined up too, for the same reason, but without the good intent. I’m going to find him now.’

I asked her to run a check on Vex Whysse and she came back to me ten minutes later with the good news and the bad. Whysse had been a childhood sweetheart of Curve’s and applied to join the fire service on the same day Curve did. But although Curve got in at the first attempt, Whysse failed three times, on medical grounds. He had been a heavy kid. Remembering what he looked like on the night I visited the station told me something about his determination. Once in the service, he could go about avenging the killers of Curve’s father, not realising until it was too late that they had paid the ultimate price and that their offspring, innocent, harmless, were poor targets. I wondered if he slept at all these days. I wondered if his dreams were good.

‘We’ve accounted for five of the six who are left,’ Milk told me. ‘Sister of the sixth, a Nude Lucky, told me that her brother had been phoned up by a man who wanted to offer him a job. He’s gone to meet him there now. Desperate for work, apparently.’

I thought of Finn Mutch, how his sexuality had been preyed upon. Whysse knew about need. He knew how to work on a person’s Achilles heel.

‘Where?’ I said, wishing I had a gun.

*

I got to the kid before Whysse. I told him to be good and go home. There was no job. Then I waited on the waste ground outside the football stadium, listening to the animal roar of the spectators inside and watching the floodlights turn the area above the stands into powdery white haze.

I recognised Vex Whysse immediately, even though he was wearing a skullcap and a padded windcheater. He looked like an inverted triangle. His face was red in the brutal cold whipping down the street. When he saw me step out into the light. He stopped. Then kept walking towards me. That pause was enough to tell me that his being here wasn’t a coincidence and I might have it all wrong. That pause let him down.

‘Hi,’ I said.

‘Funny seeing you here.’

I nodded. ‘Hilarious. You ready to come in with me? We can get a cab to the DS’s office.’

‘I don’t think so,’ he said, and stepped away from me.

‘You going to make it difficult?’

‘I’m not… ready,’ he said, and took off into the waste ground at a speed that surprised me for such a muscly man.

I was on the back foot, but I gamely trotted after him. He fired a couple of times in my direction, but the shots were wildly off target. It was almost sad. I caught him trying to reload hunched down behind a stack of rotting pallets, his fingers shivering as they slotted the bullets into the chamber of his gun.

‘Come in with me, Vex,’ I said softly. ‘It’s over. You can stop running.’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t. I won’t go to prison.’

‘I can’t let you go. You know that.’

‘I know.’ He looked as if he was about to offer a different argument, serve up some kind of bargain, but instead he lodged the muzzle of the gun under his front teeth and blew his face apart.

*

There was a lot of attention from the media. I got my face plastered across the front pages, black eyes and busted nose, the works. Dad emailed me to congratulate me but also to harangue me for not mentioning him at all. And Milk slipped me a cheque which I cashed and spent a goodly portion of in the local bottle shop. I got home to find that my place had been broken into. I smelled her all over the flat, but nothing had been taken. Her shape was in the bedclothes. She had come here to be with me while things were being sorted out by the football stadium. It was the last time I ever felt near to her. I never saw her again.

I caught my advert on the screen again that night, and thought I didn’t look too bad after all, especially compared to the smorgasbord that my head now resembled. Toasting my erstwhile handsomeness, I tipped the bottle as the chump on screen stumbled over those rhyming couplets.

I was about to swallow when the phone rang.

Advent Stories #2

  TO THE BEACH

Petra was all for it, which scared me deeply. I knew I would have to go along with her or risk losing her to Prentiss or Fauchon, the only other fertile members of our Warren. I wasn’t ready for that, not when I’d spent the best part of a year applying for a conjoinment. The other boys were younger, healthier than me; I could sometimes hear them beyond my wall, spending their lust on each other or on the matriarchs who were barren and dying.

What I’d initially hoped was idle fancy on Petra’s part had soon formed the focus of her every waking moment. Fatuous as it was trying to dissuade her I found myself attempting just that one night during breakfast. I waited till the screens came down, knowing how the stars and that faint, diminishing smear of red relaxed her (not me; that colour and the body it signifies chilled me to the quick). As I composed my argument I watched her eat, her golden eyes fixed on the thickening dark.

‘It’s suicide,’ I said.

‘Not if we take care,’ she countered, so quickly it seemed she’d been rehearsing her gainsay. ‘Then it would be as close to living as we’ll ever get.’ She stretched, pushing away her tray of powdered fruit and water tablets. The hairless curves of her body looked jaundiced and tired this evening; at least the sores she (and all of us) had inherited were weeping less.

‘There’s more to life than dreams, Petra. They more or less died with the City.’

‘You don’t dream?’ Had she eyebrows they’d have arched.

‘I didn’t say that. But I know the value of keeping a dream in its place.’

‘In its grave more like.’ The bitterness in her voice unsettled me. Would Prentiss have the balls for this? Fauchon probably did it all the time. They’d be her next port of call if I wimped out.

‘The sentries, Petra,’ I pleaded. ‘The cameras. The Craw.’

She swept her plates to one side and spread herself over me, sensing victory. ‘The Craw has never been seen baby love. I never knew you were a sucker for myths.’

‘What do we do when the sun comes up?’ I asked, thinking, shit I’m going to do this.

‘We find a place to hide,’ spoken as if I was an idiot.

I toyed with my tablets. She knew she had me, knew the reasons why I would accompany her. For a second I hated her for that blatant manipulation of my need. Love was an old fashioned concept, existing only on the crumbling onionskin pages in the library. I didn’t understand what it truly meant but if it could encapsulate all the warmth, the yearning I felt for Petra then love was something I knew for her. She was looking into the distance which had now blackened completely. What she held in her eyes for that skyline tweaked at the craving she invoked in me. She was my horizon in a way; often visible, frequently beautiful but beyond my reach. No matter how much we sexed, she’d be unattainable. I wouldn’t have her, I wouldn’t have an inkling as to the complexities of her essence. I wouldn’t know Petra. Perhaps she wouldn’t let me know her –knowledge is an unfashionable thing here; I’ve been in the library just once and that to administer first aid to an epileptic. I noticed a quiet that was unlike any silence I’ve ever known before. Only a small room, the library, but its hush is almost cathedral in its immensity. There are few books. Only a few of us are granted access to them. Maybe too many educated people would promote ideas and argument, and a rocked boat is something Lascelles, our leader, doesn’t want. Anyway, if this was Petra’s motive for not letting me inside her head then certainly it was a charitable one. Life here is too base for a caprice like love I suppose, or so everybody thinks. The cynic in me is convinced Petra just wants me for now, that when I’ve exhausted my usefulness and influence she’ll move on to someone fresher and stronger. I was about to broach the subject of us, but she could read my misery and cut it off with a kiss and a smile that made me wonder why I could get so lachrymose at all.

Her pluck astounded me. During the night, while I worked in the surgery, she’d got her hands on weapons, packs of water tablets, even a lead coated parasol and, best of all, some asbestos sandals. I felt terribly inadequate having pocketed stuff I had access to anyway: painkillers, zinc cream, ointments and salt pills. After long deliberation I’d thieved a syringe and enough morphine to see to us both should it come to that, should we manage to evade the sentry guns and the Craw, or whatever existed Outside – if indeed anything could.

We moved together when dawn came, sucking the safe dark colours from the sky and turning it metallic. Just before the sun appeared the screens came down, squealing grittily. Her voice was blunted by fatigue.

‘Toohey?’ I was amazed that she thought I’d drifted off – how could I? ‘I wonder how the sun feels when it touches your skin. How it used to feel I mean, before it was dangerous.’

‘Warm, I imagine,’ I said, pathetically, keeping watch over her face, only half recognisable in this false night. One of her eyes contained a glimmer.

‘Just think, all those stars, all of them as lethal as ours.’ She paused for a while, perhaps shaping her next sentence, perhaps awed by the enormity of her vision. ‘Strange how they can provide life and hope but…take it all away just as easily. Can you think of anything else like that?’

‘No,’ I said, thinking you. ‘We should sleep Petra. We’ll need all our strength come evening.’

The sun was little more than a hazy stain through the screens, like an ulcer wrapped in gauze. I held her till, in sleep, she pushed me away and turned her face towards the sky. Kissing her smile, scared to share the blistered dreams that no doubt burned beyond her ‘lids, I shut my eyes and cast my mind towards something wintry.

Instead I was filled with fire. Smoke billowed from my throat; bones turned to ash. And every step I took split the blackness of my flesh to show me something ember–red winking beneath.

I could feel myself clenching for a scream but Petra’s mouth glued the sound in. She was already dressed; I could see I’d have to be careful for both of us: she was high with excitement and hadn’t even noticed in how much of a state the dream had left me. I showered the sweat off and remembered to ask her about the key cards.

‘What?’

‘The key cards,’ I shouted, turning off the water. ‘Did you manage to get copies?’

‘Oh I did better than that,’ she purred, tossing me a towel. From her thigh pocket she extracted a rectangular piece of laminated plastic – its shape spoiled at one corner, which was clipped. Two bands of sharp green at the opposite corner told me it was an original and that somebody on Intelligence Tunnel 8 was missing it.

‘How – ‘ I began, but I saw her jaw harden.

‘Toohey, you don’t want to know. And it’s not important.’

I tried not to show how crushed I was that she’d sexed with another. Attempting to curry favour by displaying emotion was doomed to fail and anyway, I’m not the doe–eyed type. ‘Suit yourself,’ I said dismissively, hoping she’d be pricked by the cruelty in my voice. Fat chance.

card (1)

She squatted in front of a mirror and spread her eyelids with the forefinger and thumb of her left hand. With the other she gently pressed a flat black disc on to her eye. It melted, spreading across its surface till it looked as though the socket was empty.

‘You okay?’ she asked, turning to face me. The live/dead look of her made me wince and I recalled the dream, moving my fingers to where I thought the cracks would be. I nodded all the same.

‘Some of those lenses for me?’

‘Of course. Here,’ she said, blinking another into place. ‘I’ll help you put them in.’

There was a flare of panic when her empty face sank in front of mine but it was less cloying now and I was able to return – if somewhat shakily – the smile she offered. My lenses in place (I had to quell the urge to rub – it felt as though my eyes were too big to blink over), I dressed and collected together the stuff we’d hoarded for the trip. The corridor outside our room was empty and dimly lit. My shadow engulfed Petra’s as I followed her out. Locking the door we waited, looking at each other, listening for something that shouldn’t be, something that would force us back inside. All that I could hear was the buried thrum of the generators and people snoring in Fauchon’s room.

‘This is not a good idea,’ I whispered as we crept towards the shuttle.

‘No, perhaps not. But it’s an idea at least. I’m up to here with people who make their minds up for me. And with people who just stupidly go along with them.’ That stung. ‘All this…’ she spat on the wall where a large poster of deadpan Lascelles hung next to an inelegant chalk depiction of a penis encrusted with glass – the current celibate defence. ‘All this restriction can go to fuck.’

I had to stifle my laughter at her use of the old obscenity despite the forcefulness and crude logic of her point.

The shuttle responded to the key card and was silent enough but I knew that when its doors opened on the Chamber we’d be exposed to the motion cameras. Rumour had it that Security weren’t as effective as they might be – little went on these days to warrant their intrusion – but the appearance of the guards I’d seen around did little to support the gossip. Alert and pristine they were and I couldn’t envision them feet up on a desk.

I kept looking at Petra as the shuttle swept along, searching her face for some betrayal of emotion but she was relaxed, eyes just about closed, breathing measured as if she were psyching herself for what lay ahead. Her performance only made me more nervous. It would have been nice to hold her hand but I had to look as though I was in some control. Keep your eye on her, I told myself. No matter how calm she seemed to be I could sense a bristling energy rising from her. She’d surely commit some rash error if I didn’t watch out. Finally there was a deceleration and we separated to opposite sides of the shuttle. I missed the moment of its stopping – so smooth were its brakes – for the sudden whisper of opening doors surprised me. Deep blue shadows spilled in from the Chamber, along with cool air from huge, slow moving fans on its ceiling, some ninety feet above us. Petra gestured with her head that I should take a look. I craned my neck, trying to keep within the block of shade, and searched for the cameras. There were just two of them, set on either side of the great room: I could see the infra–red sheen that coated their lenses and belied their apparent lifelessness. One of them must have caught some kind of motion; click–whirr it went, a strangely unsettling noise which echoed and settled in the dim heights.

I moved slowly back. We’d have to go soon or the shuttle would close and take us back to where we came from. I widened my eyes, hoping she’d recognise the futility of this venture. Instead she pulled out one of the rubber balls I store in my surgery – they’re squeezed by people with wasting diseases to try and keep their muscles supple – and rolled it slowly across the floor. The cameras jerked round in our direction and then panned back, following the ball’s progress. Petra hustled me out and, hugging the wall, we tiptoed beyond their arc of vision to the vacuum doors set into the wall. I was getting excited by this time; I wanted a whiff of real air though I wasn’t at all sure if it was poisonous. We smeared zinc oxide on our arms and faces and unfolded the great parasols. The ball bobbled against the wall, its energy spent. Those pale red eyes began to sweep slowly back towards us.

‘Quickly Petra,’ I whispered. She swiped the key card across the lock and a pneumatic hiss filled the chamber. The door drifted open and we crept Outside. We waited till the tower’s revolving ‘eye’ was turned away from us before sprinting towards a low ridge of rubble from which broken fingers of steel thrust. Only when we were safely shielded from the Warren did the force of what we’d achieved sink in. Since birth I’d sucked in air that had been strained through millions of lungs. Now, though far from fresh, it was a thrill just to have the flavour of something different in my chest. Petra was smiling, eyes wet and wide.

‘You did it!’ I shouted, beginning to laugh.

‘Hush,’ she put her fingers over my mouth but she was laughing too. ‘We should be elsewhere – it’s not safe yet.’

We stumbled away, looking back to ensure we remained in the wake of the largest heaps of debris. Soon, the Warren was little more than a grey needle tipped with light. We walked in silence for a few more miles, quickly growing tired as we were unfamiliar to such exertion. I grew conscious of a dim shape pulsing at the corner of my eye but when I looked there was nothing there, the shape simply kept out of my line of vision. The lens must have been faulty – I was about to ask Petra if she could see okay when the klaxons went off behind us, carrying on the still night air in rolls of sound.

‘God,’ I said, looking back. The Warren was out of sight now though I fancied I could still see a faint pink halo low on the horizon. ‘They’re wise to us already. How can that be?’

Petra tugged at my hand. ‘Let’s go, Toohey. I’m sure I can hear its rushing. Can you?’

Maybe I could. Or maybe it had something to do with the creeping dimness in my eye. But I wasn’t interested in her Great Blue Need at that moment. ‘Who was it you slept with? Who was it you stole the key card from?’

She looked genuinely shocked. ‘I sleep with only you. It’s on paper. You know that – we both signed it after all.’

‘You respect the conjoinment?’ I couldn’t keep the sneer from my voice.

‘Why should I sign otherwise?’

‘There are benefits for couples.’

‘Such as suspicion?’

She had this unerring ability to make me feel guilty when it was her in the wrong. ‘So how did you get his key card without him knowing?’

‘I killed him.’

My mind wouldn’t allow me to understand what she’d said. ‘You kissed him?’

‘Killed, Toohey. Murdered. I took his belt and strangled him. Okay?’

‘No, not okay. How are we supposed to get back into the Warren?’

She managed to make her grin look incredulous. ‘Who said anything about going back?’

The klaxons had stopped. I imagined a phalanx of troops surging from the Warren baying for blood. ‘You didn’t think we could live out here? We’ve no food. Nowhere to go to. The Warren…we were always going back. You must have known that.’

She moved up close to me and gripped my sides. ‘Well we can’t go back now. They’ll carve us up. And anyway, even if I hadn’t killed him, they’d have put us in quarantine for months before giving us our own jail cell.’

‘Not if we were discreet. We broke out. We could have broken back in.’

‘Too late. I’m not going back to die.’

‘You won’t have to,’ I said, but my bitterness couldn’t penetrate. To the east, dawn’s yolky spread signalled another hour’s safety. We had to find shelter, both from the sun and Lascelles’ hunters. I thought of my room at the Warren – the drabness of the walls. I thought of my job treating people who were beyond help. Petra had pushed all my greyness away. I kissed her. ‘Time to go.’

We picked our way through a gutted church once the sun’s leading edge whitened the sky. A great black shadow filled one area – where, in the last century, Mankind made a last desperate attempt to save the planet by trying to patch the ozone layer with a thousand square miles of mirror. The shuttles orbit the Earth even now, their wizened crew no doubt still drifting: a monument to our failure.

The parasol fluttered at my shoulders; I made sure we were contained in its shadow as the heat soared. My breath grew strained as whatever was left of the air’s freshness was scorched dry. A tiny popping noise carried to us as the heat increased. We traded theories on what it might be to pass the time and stave off nervousness before discovering it was the sound of flies combusting. In the shade of a calcified apse we huddled, watching the bleached stone as the quickening day fell across it. Petra started humming a tune, now and then throwing in a lyric or two as if half–remembering them:

Here comes the sun….Here comes the sun and I say

It’s all right….

It would have been nice for some of her steel to pass on to me but her blasé attitude, even the delicate melody she toyed with couldn’t banish my distress. The dimness in my eye was gathering again. I caught a whiff of something green and cool which then translated itself into something tangible, whispering up and down my back to settle between my shoulders, stitching the flesh there with a chill that was not unpleasant. Petra’s song died. She slept with her eyes open; I could see myself fixed in them, my face doubled and curved across the black gloss of the lenses. I wiped away the sweat forming on the scarred dome of her head and tried to equate the brash, sassy woman with the soft bundle of peace I held in my arms. I think I told her I loved her before my own sleep came – at least, I like to think I did.

When I woke, my legs had stiffened and my arms were sore. The cool patch at my nape was a salve: the stone around us had been cooked well; it radiated a heat of its own which rippled the view beyond the apse’s archway. I ate a salt tablet and chewed on a brittle stick of yeast. Petra, smelling my breath, stirred and plucked the meal’s remains from my fingers. The setting sun found a sliver of stained glass. Its light became civil for a brief time, playing lilac and green on the nave till it moved on and regained its cruel whiteness.

‘How do you feel?’ I asked. My voice was dusty, beginning to fail.

‘Hot and wet,’ she replied, rising. ‘And stiff.’ She stretched and her spine crackled. She looked at me when her movement stopped yet the sound continued, scuttling down through the ruins. Could they have caught up with us already? I couldn’t believe that, much as I’d have liked. I knew that whatever moved beneath the crumbled span of the church roof was in some way connected to my neck’s chill and the bloom in my eye. I wanted to ask Petra to move – she was in my line of vision and something beyond her was shifting slowly, seeping down from the shadows like a tide of thick oil.

Finally she crouched and the full breadth of what was coming detached itself from my eye and swelled. Then it faded, making me wonder if it had been there at all – a suspicion furthered by Petra’s complete lack of reaction.

‘Could you not see that?’ I asked, trying to stand. She stooped to help me, shaking her head.

‘You must have wakened with one of your dreams running through your head. We must move on. And carefully, in case there are any hunters nearby.’

It remained with me for a while, like a pattern of light imprinted on my retina. The muscled bulk of it, furred with green, its eyes great liquid swirls. Its smile was a needled curve of ice.

We slipped outside. The ground, having sucked in all those hours of heat, seemed to hum with energy; my feet ached with the constant rush of heat, despite the asbestos sandals. Dusk still contained enough of the sun’s ghost to draw sweat. Within minutes we were open mouthed, feeling so dry I thought I might crumble. Behind us, perhaps a mile or two, metal glinted. Why should they be so bothered about us? Was it because they thought we’d try to come back, bringing with us whatever plagues we attracted? Or was there something Lascelles simply didn’t want us to see? Perhaps the very creature I’d glimpsed. But Petra hadn’t seen it. My confusion was distracting me. I could see Petra was heading towards a crippled tower on the horizon. The light was becoming so grainy now that the shapes of rock around us writhed as if trying to rise up and block our way. My eyes, though tired and scratchy from the lenses, at least were free of any flaws and the pressure at the back of my neck had lessened. I couldn’t help but feel these things had become more an internal part of me, that they had fixed upon me, chosen me rather than Petra. I also felt the shapes and the chill were parts of something bigger – the creature I’d seen or imagined – and its name was the Craw. Since childhood, when the Warren was little more than a maze to play in, the Craw has filled the darkest moments of my life. All my fears and shortcomings are wrapped up in the ripening of me and the accompanying stories of the Craw. It was as much a part of me as my memories of parents, or the peculiar, pregnant moments I sometimes experience at midnight when the sky seems friendly, when there could almost be the promise of snow and my mind flees to some land filled with green. Talking to Petra about this, once she finished scoffing, she’d mentioned race memory – the capacity some have to recall ancient occurrences through some marvellous chance twist in the genes. A sucker for all things magical, I lapped this up; something else to cling to when the leaden sky burned the hope from you. It was odd, to garner such a love for nature, to be fulfilled by something that was generations extinct.

Petra checked the action on her Splinter rifle as we walked. I passed her some food and tried to smile but my lips were too sore. She stopped me and rubbed ointment into them, her other hand resting on my chest. I couldn’t tell which of us was trembling. How could she read the disquiet in my eyes when both of us looked so blank? But she held me, containing my need to talk to her about the Craw. A hug was enough, for now.

‘Will we see it before they catch us?’ she asked. For a moment I thought her question referred to the same thing but then I realised.

‘I’ll make sure of it.’ I said.

‘If they’re lenient…if we can ever go back, then we should Produce. And I’d call it Atlantic. Do you like that?’

‘Very much, Petra.’ I might have cried if the water wasn’t so necessary.

We carried on and, sometime before the redness returned, I realised she’d taken hold of my hand.

‘Describe it to me,’ I said. ‘How do you want it to be?’

I could feel her swell with so many different ways to express her obsession and an attendant frustration that most would remain unspoken. I waited, trying to ignore the compulsion to check the hunters’ whereabouts or the proximity of the Craw.

‘I want it to be fresh and blue. The waves topped with frothy white crescents. I want it to be huge and loud and angry. The ocean is Life, Toohey, the Earth’s great magic cauldron. I want it defiant.’

I gripped her hand, excited by her vision and proud of the way she’d delivered it. All I could see though was a scummy, shallow puddle: lifeless and losing itself as steam to the sun. Not that I could utter my reservations. At best I’d cause an argument; worst, destroy her (and my) joie de vivre which had been leavened by this whiff of liberty. I hoped I was wrong. It would be heartening to stand by something that harked back to a more urbane period.

Now Petra had stopped talking the silence bore down on us again. I could still sense her, brimful with possibilities and I considered ribbing her about my belief that dreams had died – she was teeming with them, all of them briny and blue. The tower glowered softly. It seemed like a good enough target to aim for though I was conscious we could be travelling in the wrong direction. The chill at the back of my neck returned and I was glad of its company. When his voice came I had to look down at Petra to see if she’d heard it too but of course not – it wanted to speak with me. My faith was being rewarded, that’s all.

It’s to be a beautiful day come the ‘morrow Mr Toohey. Stay a while. Share a sunrise with me and you’ll see a fair sight. You’ll cast your eyes on a world no human has glimpsed for two centuries, you’ll feel the warmth of a sun unknown to millions.

‘Can’t. It’s too hot. I’ll die.’

‘Toohey?’ she said. And I looked at her as if she’d only just become a part of my life. The chill dissipated and I blinked a few times till I became more like the person I knew I was.

‘Sorry. Just daydreaming.’

In the dark I couldn’t tell if her face had softened with belief. The pale oval remained – I could imagine the concern etched upon it – before slowly turning again to the horizon. The light on the tower had died. The sun was scorching the other side of the globe now. I wondered if there were others, like us, pining for something as we were. Something that shouldn’t be so important yet was now vital enough to risk our pitiful lives upon. If it hadn’t been the Ocean, it would have been something else. The spirit needs something to feed upon I suppose, or, like so many of those convulsed people in my surgery’s cots, it withers away to nothing.

Its voice. So like my own yet some bass note had been twisted lightly; a discrepancy that made us separate, no matter how entwined we might be. I wanted to tell Petra. Just think, the Craw was communicating with me! The myth made solid. But Petra would scold me and tell me the sun was getting to what was left of my brain.

‘How much further?’ she asked.

‘I can’t tell anymore now the tower’s gone. Maybe we’ll make it by dawn. If we walk a while in the sun we’ll surely get there without the need for another night’s shelter.’

‘Don’t talk wet, Toohey. For the sake of God – you’re meant to be the sensible one. Yet here you prate: of strolling merrily in the red death of it all. Madman.’

‘We’d be all right for a time.’ The voice in my head, the chill in me said so.

‘Aye. And then I could scoop up your remains and carry you around in my pocket.’ She let go of my hand. Always a sure sign something’s amiss. I didn’t give her the satisfaction of asking what was wrong.

‘What’s got into you Toohey? I need you to be strong. If there’s trouble ahead I don’t want a half–man by my side.’

I couldn’t say anything to that, partly because I wanted its voice to say something else and partly because, at that moment, sodium flares – three of them – exploded above us, magicking odd shadows from anything erect enough to provide them. Petra turned, her Splinter rifle cocked and primed, its barrel thrusting towards the already failing canopy of light.

‘We’re well out of range Petra. They just want to see where we are. Don’t forget, they’ll be wearing protective suits. They’ll be weighed down.’

Maybe to show she could choose to spurn my advice she let loose a short volley of shots. The shells disintegrated, spraying the dark with thousands of metal splinters. I watched the tracer fire vanish and put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged me off and strode away.

‘Shape yourself,’ she hissed, but I was past caring. I walked behind her a while, angry that she’d caused the Craw to back off. A hint of it remained – something sourly tempting – how I imagined the forests of Amazon might once have smelled. Their photographs, which I’d glimpsed in the Library seemed to possess some of the Craw’s lushness. Might it contain the secret of the forest’s rejuvenation? I almost swooned with the heady need for green.

After a couple of hours it became obvious the Craw was unlikely to make contact again. By that time my anger had risen and I just wanted to be close to Petra again. She was still in front of me but she was tired, head down, sandals scuffing the dust.

‘I’m sorry Petra,’ I said, reaching for her hand. She didn’t move away. ‘I’m giddy with all this. It’s a novelty – you have to admit. And I thought it was you full of mischief. You’ve more sense in your little finger.’ I didn’t mention the folly of her trigger–happiness. We had to heal the rift quickly. What would be the point of our expedition otherwise? And, if we did have a future together – no matter how tenuous its link with reality – I had to try for it.

She thawed after a while and by the time the tower reclaimed its shape from the darkness – huge and twisted and frail – I’d won a smile from her.

beach (1)

‘Not far now Toohey,’ she said. ‘I can hear it. I’m sure I can hear it. You?’

I tried, but the shushing in my ears could only have been the Craw soothing me. A thin breath of air caught itself in the wrenched metal and moaned as if sensing the coming of the sun to soften its limbs even further.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘I have no idea.’

‘Maybe it was a beacon of some sort. Or a watchtower.’

‘Maybe.’ We crested a rise of land and Petra guided me into a great mountain of bleached wooden slats and lengths of salt encrusted steel. A large white board, flaking and warped, struggled to state some kind of name or message in painted words so pale they might have been ghosts.

B ACKPO       LEASU       EACH

That was all I could make out.

‘What does it mean?’ Petra’s voice was deepened by the echoes of the chamber in which we now found ourselves.

‘I don’t know.’ I felt ineffective. I wanted to offer answers but I couldn’t. Maybe I had something else on my mind. Or in it. ‘Petra, there’s still time before it gets dangerous. We could be at the Ocean within quarter of an hour.’

She was undressing. ‘The beach can wait,’ she said.

It was different, sexing beyond the confines we’d always known. Our inhibitions were still in evidence – a throwback to days in the Warren when we’d have to muffle our excitement or risk inflaming the passions of Prentiss and Fauchon – who were not averse to banging on the walls and hollering invitations to join a congress of their own. Petra took it all in good humour of course but I, perhaps because I’m old fashioned, fretted over the act. I didn’t want her running off to something else.

Now, though our instinct for silence prevailed, something in the freedom of our environment or the release we knew in our own bodies conspired to heighten the thrill. Sexing slowly, we stared into the blackness of each others eyes till our movements became strained and trembling. No longer able to hold off the sprinting will of our muscles, we fled towards that blinding moment: more instantly intense than any number of suns.

And then: Come with me and I’ll promise you a Forever that is Ocean deep.

My mouth was wet upon hers. Petra was pushing upwards still, trying to gulp every last twitch of me. I sucked her tongue into my mouth: something to suppress the yell of surprise and delight at the Craw’s return. Sanity returned, as did the normal beat of my heart. We might have dozed but the pull of the tide was too great. The sky was beginning to bleed: dawn could only be minutes away.

‘Don’t look at the sun,’ she warned, before kissing me deeply and scampering outside. We ran like children towards the shattered railings that buttressed the edge of what must once have been a promenade. I wanted so badly to be wrong in my prediction of the sea that I almost heard the frothing surf of Petra’s.

We were both wrong.

The hissing of the sand was all. It was shot through with black striations of oil like poisoned veins showing in flesh. Some of them were sootily aflame. Loose sand raced in ribbons of white movement across the surface. Far away, a beached oil tanker slept on its side, picked clean of colour.

‘Atlantic,’ she whispered, and I sensed her slump beside me – any soul she’d managed to cling on to evaporated like the water we’d come so far to see.

We found a set of pockmarked concrete steps and descended to the beach proper. The sand felt firm, and warm from the previous day. I couldn’t tell her how sorry I felt. Words would have been pathetic anyway. She dropped the rifle; I fumbled for her hand, which felt cool and reassuring despite her anguish.

Only when she stepped out from the safety of the parasol did I realise whose hand I was holding.

‘I love you,’ I said.

‘I love you too,’ they both replied, as a brilliant cuticle of light found our world once more.

She turned to me and smiled, her lips cracking, washing the teeth with blood. Then she simply walked away. I wondered if she felt the sun on her skin before the bullets ripped into her. Twin trails of smoke drifted from her hidden face as the heat found its muscle. She fell forward and began to blister. Fauchon pushed past me and shot her again in the back of her head.

The Craw was no longer holding my hand. There was a syringe full of morphine instead.

‘You must return with us, Toohey,’ said Lascelles, stepping in front of me. I liked the way he recoiled at the void in my eyes. Thinking of Petra’s nerve, I laughed.

‘Go to fuck,’ I said.

‘We need you back in the surgery. People are depending on you.’

The sun was a great, wonderful orb. I wanted to be a part of its mystery.

Come then, it said. Something cold chattered by my ear. It showed me the pulse in Lascelles’ wrist as he lifted his hand towards me. The syringe grew swollen with promise. His blood sang.

‘We need you Toohey. Let’s be friends.’ His hand opened. ‘Put it there.’

So I did.

 

Dead Letters: the cover

Dead Letters cover - FINAL

I’m pleased to be able to reveal the cover to the new anthology, scheduled for publication next year. Credit to Titan for agreeing to list every author on the cover. None of that ‘And Many Others’ nonsense here!

It was a privilege to work with so many talented writers. I hope you’ll be as impressed by the stories as I was.

Dead Letters

stamp

Coming in April 2016 from Titan Books…

Dead Letters

An anthology of the undelivered, the missing, the returned…

Edited by Conrad Williams

The Green Letter – Steven Hall

Over to You – Michael Marshall Smith

In Memoriam – Joanne Harris

Ausland – Alison Moore

Wonders to Come – Christopher Fowler

Cancer Dancer – Pat Cadigan

The Wrong Game – Ramsey Campbell

Is-and – Claire Dean

Buyer’s Remorse – Andrew Lane

Gone Away – Muriel Gray

Astray – Nina Allan

The Days of Our Lives – Adam LG Nevill

The Hungry Hotel – Lisa Tuttle

L0ND0N – Nicholas Royle

Change Management – Angela Slatter

Ledge Bants – Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere – Kirsten Kaschock