Dead Letters is alive!

DeadLetters

It’s always a thrill to receive a box of books in the post. And it was especially satisfying to open this parcel, if only because it meant it hadn’t gone missing (which I was convinced was going to happen). The books are lovely; Titan have done a beautiful job. It seems like such a long time ago that I first came up with the concept, but all the hard work was done by others: eighteen ridiculously-talented writers (and each one a pleasure to deal with) contributed wonderful stories. I was thinking with some sadness that the project was over, but really, with the book’s publication, it’s only just started. Because now you lovely readers get involved. I hope you love this anthology as much as I do.

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Advent Stories #16

SLITTEN GORGE

forest

Ellis dreamt that night of the forest. He was treading through it in darkness, subtly aware of the conifers and the heather. His feet knew this territory well and he moved quickly, ignoring the sounds of the wildlife: the nightjar, the siskins, the snipes. He was trying to find something, or someone, but no matter how close he felt he was to capturing his quarry, some caprice of the dream would send it far away again. It made a creaking sound, this subject he tracked. Like old leather being twisted against itself, or of floorboards under continual stress. Now and again he thought he caught a glimpse of part of it through the crenellations of the ferns, or the splintered bole of a tree felled by lightning. But before his mind could apply itself to finishing off the picture, the scenery had moved and he was as blind as before.

He woke up, hungry, frustrated and afraid. It was that soft, uncertain time of morning when night and day argue over their own borders. Pale light hung in the sky like something too damp to ignite properly. Although it was late June, summer had failed to establish itself. The days were often a wash out, the nights cold enough for woollens. He sat trembling on the edge of his bed, blankets curled around his shoulders. The shower awaited him like torture. There had been no hot water in his flat for six days. At least after a cold wash his clothes felt so much warmer on his body. The colder you got, the less you felt it. The dead don’t shiver.

Through a window looking out on to the communal garden, he watched as a female blackbird chirped incessantly, playing a wild hopscotch upon the cracked flagstones of the porch, pausing a moment to shit what looked like the kind of electric white found only on artists’ palettes. He had never felt easy around birds since he read about how closely related they were to dinosaurs. He felt uncomfortable about their lack of weight, their thin, hollow bones. He disliked the way they moved so nervously, so spastically. How cold and alien their eyes. They seemed propelled by nothing more than instinct, and that vexed him, in a vague way that made him feel queasy.

His unease followed him to the kitchen where, despite his hunger, he was unable to eat one spoonful of the cereal he prepared for himself. Barely a sip of coffee made it past his lips without causing him to retch. He couldn’t remember the last meal he had consumed, yet he must have eaten within the last few days. Had he not, he wouldn’t have had the strength to turn the taps in the bathroom. He dressed without thinking, grateful for a job that didn’t demand a suit and tie. Then he went out, trying to avoid the bookcases lining the walls as he approached the door. But, as always, he had to look. The narrow space between them forced him to leave his flat sideways. The spines demanded his attention.

Birds of the Welsh Coast, The Red Kite in Wales, The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East, Birding in Snohomish County, Skuas and Jaegers, Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers.

There were so many books. He felt ill thinking how many he had, how much money he had spent on them. On the drive to work he wondered again if he might not be mad. That was the thing about insanity. You didn’t notice it yourself, only the people closest to you grew aware. But there was nobody who shared his life from day to day. What did being mad mean? Storing your own faeces? Posting letters to people long dead? Collecting books about birds when they scared you to the core? But you had to know about them, you had to have the knowledge. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.

At the gas works, he checked in with Reynolds, the site foreman, and Hinchcliff, the independent chemist who was to be attached to the demolition crew for as long as it took for the defunct purifying tanks to be dismantled. Ellis pulled on his overalls and checked the air line on his breathing apparatus. It was hot work, and while he was standing in the reinforced concrete tanks removing the spent iron oxide, he was grateful that summer was in abeyance. Hinchcliff had explained at the outset that six thousand tonnes of toxic waste had once filled these tanks – now transported to a secret, secure landfill site in north Wales – and the residue they were cleaning away might contain upwards of eight per cent cyanide.

At times within his mask, his breath amplified and alien to him, he imagined pulling off his protective headgear and sucking in a single, pure lungful of death.

*

—Death is painless, she said.

—Don’t talk wet, I said. —I seen them pictures of German tanks on fire, and the driver trying to get out, but his foot was stuck, or shot off or melted into the metal or whatever. He wasn’t whistling when he went, I can tell you.

—Well, I think it’s painless. The actual moment of it. Maybe not the lead up, but the moment you bow out? The body sheds all of its endorphins. Massive headrush. Absolute pleasure.

I laughed. She had this way of talking sometimes that was like poetry. Funny poetry. She had a killer line, Karen. It didn’t work with everyone, but she hit my spot and that was all I was bothered about.

She said —You never see birds dead, do you?

—Tell my mum that, next time she nips into the village for a chicken.

She rolled her eyes, thumped me. She was trying to get the ringpull off a can of cider but it was rusted or something, and wouldn’t budge. —I don’t mean like that. I mean you never see birds lying about on the road, dead.

—I suppose you’re right, I said. I was getting bored of this talk. I wanted some of that cider in me before I had to get back home for tea. The gorge rose up around us like a big green throat. I loved it down here. It was only just behind the row of shops on the main street in Lymm village, but it could have been some Amazonian ravine. It had everything, this place. Cool shadows. A heron that came to fish in the weir. Secrecy. You never had any grown-ups come down this way, either because it was quicker to take the village path, or they were scared of us yoofs, or they didn’t even know it was here, I don’t know. I snatched the can off her and used my penknife to ease the ringpull off. I had a big drink and passed it back, offering her a huge belch to accompany the ceremony. Karen drank too, tilting her head way back. Her shape changed. I found myself staring at her.

She said — Can you smell me? I’m bleeding.

*

Ellis did not join the others for a drink after the shift was completed. He drove through the centre of Warrington, trying to avoid the construction crews that were tearing through the heart of the town, slotting new department stores into the gaps left by failed developments. It all seemed like an affront to the faces of the old shops that clung jealously to the main streets. There was always a new generation of town planner, no doubt living far away from the place being redesigned, eager to leave a mark in history. Ellis was happy to leave it behind, but even though he pushed the Jeep hard until the soulless urban spread became rural patchwork, he did not find himself relaxing. So much green was a shock to him, even though he made this journey every weekend. It was as pervasive, as smothering as the threat of poison gas. But he could not understand how staying at home in his cloying flat could be any better for him. He turned on some loud music, but nothing could reclaim him from the slow panic filling his chest. It became so bad he had to pull over shortly after he passed the Ruthin signpost on the A494. His breath seemed to fail in his chest; he could not expel it properly. He felt as though he were recycling something old and stale, that any hope he had for a fresh start was stillborn.

Crumpled in his pocket, the letter from Pippa postmarked a few days previously helped him to refocus. Cav reckons he saw a lynx coming down across the scarp near the caravan late last night. He’d had a few though. Ha ha. The only lynx he’s seen lately is in the can he sprays his armpits with.

There had been several lynx sightings reported in the Clocaenog forest over the years. It was also one of the last bastions of the red squirrel. There were other animals too that benefited from the area, forty square miles or so of natural, native woodland. Deer, black grouse, pine martins, Welsh mountain ponies, polecats. Others that he could not bring himself to think about. But having begun a list that he daren’t finish drew the fear from the shadows into the real meat of him. It lay against his skin like sweat. He put the letter back in his pocket and felt his hunger deepen. He scrutinised his eyes in the rear view mirror while his hands played against the corrugation of his ribs. His breathing steadied. The sky over Wales was bruising, as if siphoning the resentment from the earth and describing its colour. A flurry of birds blurred the edge of his vision and were gone before he’d had chance to identify them. He started the engine and got back on the road. His hunger was so keen it wouldn’t allow him to envisage any kind of meal that might assuage it.

*

The caravan was empty when he arrived, just under half an hour later. Pippa and Cavan must have gone to the local pub, a mile or so further along the main road. He felt slighted, as if his arrival was nothing for them to get worked up about. Maybe it wasn’t. But they were the nearest he had to friends and it pricked him that they hadn’t waited; they could all be sinking pints now. What did they want to talk about that was so important it couldn’t wait? He thought about catching them up, but he didn’t want to be seen behaving like an eager puppy. He could give as good as he got, they’d see.

Quickly, he unpacked – he hadn’t brought much, just a change of clothes and a couple of books, his old Nikon, a long lens and some fast film, a pair of binoculars – and checked the small cupboards, but every tin he picked up made his stomach roll. He drank some water and paused, bent over the sink, waiting for it to come back with interest, but this time it didn’t. He washed his face, and tried to swab the angry red nubs on his shoulder blades with cotton balls soaked in witch hazel; he would have to have a word with Reynolds about the ill-fitting protective gear they were issued with. He switched on the radio and settled down with one of the guide books from his holdall.

Ellis saw straight away, from the uneven blocking of its pages, that the book had been damaged. He turned to the section that had been torn out, a few pages between the Orioles and the Corvidae. It was not immediately clear from the contents list which birds had been removed; only a general heading – Family and Species Descriptions – was provided. He had to trawl through the weighty index before he spotted the relevant page numbers. And then he closed the book carefully, almost reverentially, and placed it back in his bag, deep enough so that he could not see its cover.

Someone was trying to tell him something. He thought about who might have had access to his bag, his books, but nobody ever visited him at his flat. He had ignored the opportunities to stop at service stations along the way; he shied away from hitchhikers. He stared at the bag as if it alone was responsible for the vandalism. He would mention it to Cavan and Pip when he saw them; they were the only ones who knew of his passion, and his fear. Yet even as he gave credence to his suspicion, he was questioning it. They respected his love of books, and shared it to some extent. He had seen them handling volumes in the secondhand bookshops they occasionally visited, and approved of the care they displayed. Cavan had even warmed up a brand new hardback by gently opening the book at various points to prevent the kind of immediate stresses that can damage the spine.

Ellis tried to read about the grasshopper warbler but hunger worked on the words, sucking them back into the cream paper. Music was of some comfort now as he lay back on his bunk, but he found before too long that it distracted him as he strained for the sound of his friends returning. He turned the radio down to a level where there was really no point in leaving it on, but it meant the illusion of company remained. Wildlife inched around the caravan, its sound as natural as weather: the miniature crash of mammals in bushes, things taking flight, or coming home to roost. Something cried out, as he trembled at sleep’s door. He tried to identify it but it was beyond him. For a dreadful second before he sank, he thought its author must be human. The screams went with him, lifting out of the confusion to find a clarity in the night of his own mind. Fear puddled out of Ellis. He was weak. The caravan had melted away and he was in a clearing with trees rearing up before him as if startled. He felt light, weightless. The pain in his shoulder blades was gone, he felt free and easy there, somehow disburdened; his hunger had been sated. The screams were coming from his own throat, a dry, desperate sound that seemed to make the uppermost leaves shiver. Something lay ahead of him, beyond that line of trees. Something waited.

*

Ellis showered, wincing as he knocked his sore back against the walls of the tiny plastic cubicle. He wondered if his anger at not being woken by his friends when they had returned from the pub was misplaced. Was it fair that he should react to them for what, on their part, must have been an act of charity? God knew he needed his sleep. But he craved some company too. Already the weekend seemed chewed away. Tomorrow he would have to return to Warrington and the skeleton of the gas works. Nevertheless, pride would not allow him to go to them now. He crashed around the kitchen preparing a phantom breakfast, and noisily exited. He wondered if Pippa and Cavan were fucking, and why it didn’t bother him if they were. Hunger prevented him from remembering if he and Pip had ever been involved – he dimly recalled a long embrace, hair in his face, a heartbeat within her warm breast filling his hands – but it might have been several lifetimes ago. A different woman, even.

Good luck to them, he thought, glancing once at the curtained window of the bedroom. This weekend was about fauna, not fornication. He laughed bitterly, a blast of air through gritted teeth, and plunged into the forest.

*

The light changed down here. It became green. I couldn’t back that kind of claim up in the physics lab at school, but I swear that was how it looked to me. It was dappled light, and it lay around your feet like coins furred with verdigris. The air was different too. It stuck in your chest, but in a good way. It was as if it were heavier air, cleaner, and your lungs didn’t want to give it up. The spaces beneath the trees seemed to fizz with darkness; you could see it moving around, and I was sure that if the trees were to suddenly leap away, exposing it all to hard sunshine, it would remain, squat and earthy, like the ghost of a giant toad.

The red in the green, the red against the milky square of Karen’s exposed thigh, was some contrast.

— Fucking hell, I said. — Doesn’t it hurt?

— No, she replied. — Some people get period pains but I’ve had none of that.

— What does it feel like? Is it like having a nose bleed? Do you feel it trickling out of you?

— Don’t be a mentoid. There’s hardly any flow. Enough for a dessertspoon, my mum says.

— Mmm, yum. Raspberry Angel Delight. So there’s no danger you’ll bleed to death?

— The worst case scenario is that I’ll leave a tammy up there, forget it and die from TSS.

— TSS?

— Toxic Shock Syndrome. Not a nice way to go.

— Well no, but, as you said, death’s a top pastime.

— I didn’t say that. I don’t have a death wish.

— Me and you, suicide pact? What do you say?

— I say have some Angel Delight.

And so on. We spent all summer like this, every summer I can remember, ribbing and teasing and flirting, although we didn’t know it, couldn’t have put that word to it at the time. But that day was different. Suddenly I was aware of Karen as being someone with an inside as well as an outside. She was a girl-shaped blood bag, barely contained. Walking home for tea after that weird, green-red evening, I couldn’t pass anybody by without thinking of them as taut balloons, ready to explode. Something had turned, maybe just the world, maybe some switch in my mind that had never been touched before, but things were irrevocably new now, and I couldn’t understand why.

That night, I thought of Karen, the way she had filled out as she stretched, her body dipping and curving. I thought too of that slick of blood on her thigh, her fingers smearing it to show me how dense it was, and the way her knickers were eased to one side, the material tight against her bottom. I ejaculated in my sleep – my first wet dream – and I woke to feel my own thighs sticky and warm, and things, I felt, were set now. My life had been propelled in one direction. One only. There was to be no divergence. No turning back.

*

He lost all sense of who he was after a while. He kept thinking about his name, Ryan Ellis, how ridiculous it sounded the more he repeated it to himself. The sun’s intensity was lost beneath the tightly meshed canopy. It might have started raining; it would be hours before any of the water broke through. He felt protected. He felt utterly at home. In this bubble he slowly became more than he believed he was, an incremental adding or improvement. Doing physical activity in such raw surroundings pumped you full of hormones. It created a sense of the self as immortal. He felt he could achieve anything. It was seductive to deem this euphoria a result of the fresh air, or the overload of natural green, or the plain, animal sounds concerned with territory or sex. He felt a part of it, his reptilian brain itching with lost or distant connections. He was a member of that natural order, one of billions of everyday miracles. The knowledge that his existence was a fluke, the odds stacked heavily against him, was an inspiring and exhilarating epiphany. He mattered, in his own small way, and what he brought to the proceedings was as relevant as that from anybody else. He was real, and his name was something like rya nellis.

The trees seemed to solidify ahead, yet whenever he reached a point where they must crowd him out, there was the same strange sense of space. A visual anomaly, he thought, but once he’d witnessed it, it was difficult to shake off quite so easily. The ground underfoot was becoming more spongy. He guessed there must be some kind of stream, or that the water table passed close to the surface here. Beyond that thick mesh of shrubs and branches, Ellis thought he saw movement. It was desperate, trapped movement, the spasm of something that knows death might be the only release it will see. He wondered if a deer had been caught in a poacher’s trap, perhaps, or a person, shocked to silence by the pain and the outrage. He fought through the weave but the clearing beyond it moved only with occasional ferns or tall grasses. Dizziness piled through his head, as if someone were bending his mind. He saw a spiral of patterns: the trees, the star-shaped tunnel of sky above them, the ground as it met him coming the other way. He tried to get up but the vertigo relocated itself each time. After three attempts he gave up and let himself be cradled by the earth. The cool, cushioning moss and the comfort of a deep blue sky fringed with cloud helped to right his thoughts. He thought of the hide at Foel Frech where he had observed birds in the past. He had seen an owl take a grasshopper warbler in mid-air there last December. He remembered the sudden release of the smaller bird’s cloaca as the talons raked through its body. Blood was a black rip in the silver sky. It had dropped like something solid, and he had exited the hide, convinced the blood had frozen as it fell to the ground. He had failed to find the blood, but had searched for it until the light diminished and the other birdwatchers had gone home. He found something else that night, though. He was about to give up, feeling foolish at his mad conviction, and had turned at just the moment that the moon eased out from behind a bank of high cloud.

Something had gleamed.

He closed his eyes now, and remembered the fragility, the lightness of the skull. It was like holding folded paper, like holding nothing at all. Every shred of flesh had been picked clean from the boss, the orbits, the maxilla: the bird grinned at him, the shadows of its ghost eyes so black it was if the memory of blood and the method of killing was still fresh within it. The beak, the sharpness of it, the colour of ash, emerging from the bone like a creeping stain. It was its own whetstone. The shredding of bodies, the atrocities it had committed. How many? So much blood had gushed through those calcium chambers that the bone itself was tinged mahogany.

He still had it, that skull, secreted away in a little wooden box at the back of a drawer. Sometimes at night, when loneliness curled itself around his shoulders, he took it out of its box and inhaled whatever breath lingered in the fossae of its nasal cavities. He had never believed that something so dead could smell so alive.

*

He caught sight of his eyes in the mirror when he returned. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was late, it was dark all over the sky, no pallid edges to suggest that the evening had just left or that dawn was close. For a moment he believed his eyes contained some inner luminescence, as if the humours of his eye had ignited like paraffin. They reflected orange; he resembled something startled, something unnatural. An image came to him, of his body pushed into clothes and then into a metal box. Keys turning, an engine leaping into life. At the end of that routine was another called work. Another set of clothes. Another metal box. The sweat and steam and stink of decayed tanks. Chemical salt extruding through concrete. The heat of it through his protective suit. It all seemed a dream, an illusion. He looked down at his naked body, bathed in a diffuse glow from the moon. His life was so many layers of the same thing but at this moment, his blood up, he couldn’t recognise who he was or what he did. There didn’t seem to be any room for ritual. Instinct crowded him like a smell you couldn’t escape from. All he wanted to do was run through the tall grass and feel the cold mud suck at his feet. He sensed the warm bodies in the undergrowth frozen at his approach, watching him go by with perfectly round eyes, perfectly black. Heartbeats filled the air like rain.

He slept hard and deep and wakened to a light drizzle. He moved through it to the Jeep, feeling it misting his skin. He sat in the driver’s seat waiting for knowledge. Eventually it came to him and he turned the key, pushed the gearstick to D.

He didn’t remember the journey back. Too often his eyes strayed to the rearview mirror; the forest filled it all the way home.

*

In the gorge. She showed me how dark the blood was as she poured it from the warm body.

— Venal blood, she said. It’s almost the colour of chocolate.

The wood pigeon had been trapped in the crook of a tree, its mangled foot – injured in some previous accident – stuck fast in the fork of a branch. The harder the bird fought to get away, the more it twisted its leg into the crevice. By the time we got to it, following the sounds of flapping, the strangled sob that sounded almost human, it had broken the leg so badly that it was close to wrenching it off completely. A nictitating membrane was a momentary film of milk across the brilliant black bead of its eye. Nothing could be read in that speck. It looked the same alive as it would dead. Black, bleak code filing through the lens one way or the other.

Karen gently pulled the bird free and, holding it upside down, threaded its thin neck through her fingers, pulled and twisted it away from her body. The sound of bones powdering drew my skin into pimples. She coughed and spat, wiped her lips, the dead bird hanging limp from her fingers like a thin bag. Her eyes were bright, filled with a fluke light that had snaked its way through the green and sat fatly in her eyes.

I slept that night and the wood pigeon came back to life, spreading its wings. The pattern of Karen’s irises was woven into the soft grey span. The bird, stretching out against the sky, was more like Karen than its own species. It opened its beak to sing and blood drizzled from it, freezing in the air like a necklace of rubies that has been snapped.

I found myself back on New Road and I couldn’t remember how I had got there. Karen had kissed me. Her tongue had moved against my own, her eyes open, locked with mine. We didn’t hold each other. The bird hung between us, emptying itself on to my shoes. My hands were similarly useless, growing cold as she moved her face into me. I tasted blood in her mouth. I felt the dark at the very centre of her eyes seeping out to join with the shadows of the gorge.

I remember walking home, having to look back every few steps because I was sure the depths of the gorge were somehow rising, plateauing, sweeping into the streets to pursue me. When I got back I avoided the tea that had been laid out for me and went straight up to the bathroom. I vomited about a gallon of what looked like mulligatawny soup into the toilet. The smell and taste of copper was all over the place. She was in my mouth, she was in the crevices of my fingerprints though I couldn’t remember touching her. The flutter of her heart in her breast. The fragility of her bones. She unfolded like a flower, like a chick fighting against the membrane of an egg.

The colours around me were dull, despite the sunshine. Life existed in the shadows. Everything you needed was there. True meaning was in the word undergrowth. It was no coincidence.

Her finger in the bird’s crop. The elegance of something without life to prop it up.

*

The heat was so great that small puddles of sweat were forming at the base of his goggles. He had not eaten for so long he felt he was in danger of forgetting how to. His hands held the tools that scraped at the walls of the redundant gas chambers and he could almost believe that the work would never be done, that his hands would never be turned to any other task. His landscapes were filled with tars, nitrates, sludges and phenolics. He lived in toxicity. An hour later and he was pulled away from the face by Hinchcliff, who wanted to give him a spot check. He traipsed back through the rubble, the ceramic retort fragments, the clinker and scurf, broken bricks and ash. Hinchcliff tested his blood and his breathing. They talked about his diet and his exercise regime. Ellis lied steadily. At the end of the shift he bundled his clothes into the sealed laundry skip and took a hot shower. Hinchcliff waved a sensor over him in the changing rooms and he was given a green pass. The day was over. Ellis felt as though he were wearing contact lenses fashioned from lead. He drifted home and the colours of his work followed him down into sleep. Lampblack. The glitter of ash. Spent lime was known as blue billy. Cyanide trembled in the waste as Prussian blue.

The green of Slitten Gorge moved like scarves of weed caught in deep current. Sometimes its colour grew so concentrated that it was indivisible from black. You could survive a nuclear winter down here, she said. This is a place forgotten by time. The mapmakers keep missing it. Die here and your body would turn to dust before you were ever found.

Her thighs in his hands had shivered as he lowered his face to her cunt. She blooded him. Her hands fluttered at the apex of his shoulder blades, the bird turning in her fingers; he felt its dead weight flop against his back. He thought she was losing control, but she was performing magic.

Faces grew out of those forbidden colours. Hard-bitten profiles of his grandfather. He unbuttoned his shirt and swept it open; his skin came away with it. His lungs glowed in the pit of his chest, the pleural cavity thickened by plaques. His grandfather had contracted misothelioma, a rare, insidious cancer, the result of a decade of unprotected demolition. Ellis had seen photographs of him dismantling a factory during a blizzard, but the snow had been black asbestos.

Wanna bang on this? his grandfather had asked him, lying in his hospital bed, pulling off his oxygen mask and offering it to him. The mask had been stippled with bloody sputum. His breath came and went in staggered clouts, like an assault.

He had not seen her again after the end of that sultry, fractious day. He remembered a storm had climbed the sky that night as he lay in bed with his metallic flavours and erased the heat from the land. He didn’t know where she lived, but even if he had he wouldn’t have gone knocking. He understood that there were reasons, there were patterns. The storm might well have swept her away too. He had nothing tangible of hers to fasten her to reality. As the years went by, he started to question his reading of those events, and of the gorge itself.

An instinctive twitch of the steering wheel. He sent the Jeep on to Kingsway. At the swing bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal he turned left and followed the road into Thelwall. Memory scraped at the walls of his mind, trying to make itself known. He remembered these streets, although he hadn’t set foot on them for the best part of two decades. They had cadged drinks off the locals in Grappenhall village. They fished for perch in the Bridgewater canal. They sucked and blew on mouthfuls of hot, greasy chips from the fish bar by the Dog and Dart. Summer nights when the gorge waited for him and the sky contained a pale, soft grain that prevented complete darkness. The sodium lamps bleached the street of colour. Her lips were grey when he kissed her. It’s all right, because so are mine. She tasted of red and green. He dreamed of flight after she left his life.

He parked the Jeep outside the stationer’s at the point where the road sweeps left into Lymm village. Behind the rank of shops – the butcher’s, the greengrocer’s, a hair salon, an estate agent – the land forgot how to be level and plunged into black. People had been hurt here over the years. The sound of the weir was a subdued roar. Ellis gathered himself at the rails. He felt his hair move although there was no breeze. It felt as though the gorge was sucking his flavour into its depths, tasting him, remembering him after so long away.

He thought of Clocaenog, and the way its trees seemed compressed. Running through them, he had never tripped or jarred a shoulder against a trunk. He seemed to know their patterns, he understood the physicality of the forest. What he couldn’t work out was why he was running, or what he was running from. He felt the same paradox here; he knew Slitten Gorge as intimately as he knew himself yet he had not been as close as this in twenty years. He had loved this place, but associated it with decay, and an end to things.

He knew he would slip through the gateway and descend those treacherous stone steps furred with moss and moisture, as if they were sweating at their proximity to the place. He gripped the rails more tightly, looking down into the area where he had once observed a heron frozen as it waited for something to swim past. And then he was sinking into the strata of greys and blues and greens, his hands still clenched as if in an attempt to fool himself into thinking he was still at street level.

Someone else had appropriated this sacred space. Beer bottles and polystyrene cartons littered the floor; graffiti referred to Helen smoking cocks, and doing anybody who happened to be here next Monday night. Ellis looked around for something that might bolt him to a sultry evening in 1987, but only the colours remained. He felt the cool air move in his chest and wondered if his grandfather might have benefited from some time down here.

There was a shock of movement in one of the trees. Ellis turned to see a hand snatched up, or snatch itself up, into the higher branches; the leaves in its wake glistened with a colour darker than the shadows within which they shivered. He watched the tree, his heart beating hard, unsure of what he had just witnessed. Kids larking about. Some bruised fibre of memory. He didn’t know. He called out, but nothing responded.

He walked deeper, until the shadow of the slitting mill rose out of the darkness. The sun struggled to illuminate it, the dark ivy and moss growing on its stone absorbing the light. Nails had been produced here, and then the cutting of steel bands for the cooperage in Thelwall during Victorian times. The windows were scarred with dust that no amount of polishing could now hope to remove.

Hunks of Wilmslow sandstone peeked out from the greenery. Ellis pressed himself back against some; it was cold against his palms. She had led him into that place and scratched the end of a nail, a six-inch piece of iron perhaps as old as the village itself, into the hard curves of his shoulder blades.

If you had wings, she said, this is where they’d be.

She withdrew his prick and he felt it both trying to shrivel in the cold and thicken in her tight grasp. He felt his own blood trace lines across his back.

I want to show you blood that isn’t dark. I want to show you blood so bright that it lights up a room.

She had leaned close to him, her thighs bracketing his own. The nail in her fist traced a line along his throat. Fear had him at the point of vomiting, but before he could protest, she slid his penis inside her. Her eyes seemed to reduce somehow, as if she had a contrast button that had been turned right down. She fucked him hard and fast, hard enough that he thought she was going to damage him if he slipped out. Her movements were so violent that he missed the winding up of his orgasm. He was climaxing almost without realising. He cried out and she yelled his name.

Spread your wings, she said, and buried the nail into the side of her own neck.

*

Time jagged around like vicious pieces of broken glass. It was too dangerous to stop and try to pick them up. Ellis was in the Jeep. He might or might not have tried to call Pip and Cavan on his mobile phone. He might or might not have charged the battery before leaving work. He might or might not even own one.

He said, ‘As Ralph Hoffmann suggested, in Birds of the Pacific States, from 1927, “One cannot have too many good bird books.”’ He said it once, maybe one hundred times. By the time the eastern shoulder of the forest was muscling up against his car, it was dark. Breathing was becoming difficult. He thought of himself tearing pages from his books, trying not to focus on the photographs of Lanius excubitor. Death was easy around him. People dropped as if they were born to it. He wished he had been able to help his grandfather to spread his wings.

He found Pip and Cavan an hour later, once the forest had settled coolly in his thoughts. His hunger was something animal in him, turning his pupils black, filling his mouth with juices. Other animals had visited this place, this shrike’s larder, but had been put off by the stink of their survival. He stood before them and flexed his shoulder muscles. Shadows leapt away from them, into the shocked heights of the trees. They were trying to reason with him, clinging on to hope. Ancient nails rammed through their wrists and ankles had become encrusted with blood and sap. Their lips were white and cracked. Ripe tongues swelled in their mouths.

I fly, he might have said. Karen’s blood was orange behind his eyes. He could smell her, like something forged in a foundry.

He reached out and tore off some wet strips of meat for his belly, even though the bodies providing it begged him, haltingly through welling throats, not to. The screaming was so close to that of his own voice, and so loud, that he was not aware until much later of what had arrived, and was amassing on the branches.

Advent Stories #15

O CARITAS

OC

Monck realised he had been here too long when he glanced down at his hands to find the knuckles turned blue. The flyover fled off to the left and right of him. Everything else was just scenery. An acid blue sky was crocheted with vapour trails. There were half a dozen jets up there right now, scraping the troposphere, edging 600mph while their inhabitants grazed on plastic trays of trans-fats and overcooked starch. The air shimmered with particulates. Blue tremors made the surface of the road uncertain. He stared at his hands, clenching and unclenching them, watching the tendons crawl beneath the skin. He remembered, when he was active in this city, that he had suffered from narcolepsy. He wondered if, now he was back, it would return too. Then he pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket and stared at the name. COLLEEN MALLORY.

He headed east. This section of road between Marylebone and Kings Cross had always been busy, as long as he had lived here, as long as he had been aware of the capital. The buildings that muscled against it were scorched with product: advertisements, tags, fliers, exhaust. Monck moved like something set free from a cage. His lungs burned. What passed for fresh air up top seemed much cleaner than anything he had sampled below stairs for the past five years, although he knew this was not the case. The pollution in Beneothan was oil-based, natural; not this chemical cocktail that twinkled in the lungs for a lifetime.

The tiny screws on his sunglasses were weak; he kept having to press his fingers to the frames to ensure they did not fall off. Midwinter, the sun like a torch fuelled by a failing battery was still strong enough to cause white-out and tears. And he must see; he must not be caught napping.

The city had healed, much better than he had ever imagined it might. Everything seemed sealed, glossy, like scar tissue. The rich had risen. Structured gossamer, the new form of transport among the moneyed, was sailed between buildings hollowed at their summits to receive it. Ground level was becoming ghettoised, a grid of poverty being redrawn in tar and carbon monoxide and soot.

Where is everyone going? Monck thought. The cars ground and bit and squealed around the peeling tarmac, surging along the Euston Road like some Roman army with its shields raised. Fewer people than he remembered were walking, perhaps because of the dangers. As the city grew taller, the light went with it; the depths were gloomy all the time now, lit up only by the ochre stabs of headlights or some reflected glory chicaning down from the heavens. Though he was tempted to stop and stare, Monck kept moving, remembering that he had a job to do.

Despite his years away, and the changes that had occurred, he still loved his city. There was enough of the old face left behind to offer reassurance, comfort even. Occasionally he happened upon ghosts. Bends in the road that he had swept down in a car with a girlfriend. Zones that pricked at him with meaning until he realised that he was standing where a park used to be, where he had read a novel, or eaten a sandwich in the sunshine, or met someone for a chat and an ice cream. The idea of food found a mate in his gut; he was suddenly ravenous. He hurried along a huge street, wishing for some of the old London kebab shops to still be around, but there was nothing but glass and resin and high-tensile steel. There were no doors. No neon. No human buzz. There was no way in.

Skimmers had delivered reports to Beneothan of gangs roaming these streets. There were horror stories connected to the elite in their penthouse acres high in the clouds. They were hiring muscle to rid the streets of old Londoners, the people who had existed here before the cataclysmic earthquake that collapsed forty per cent of the capital. With the streets cleansed, the rich could spread out, move into some of the big piles that sat idle in the suburbs, regain control of the roads and engage with the earth once more, instead of drifting around like chancing spiders. The rich liked their penthouses, but they liked their mobility too. They did not like to feel restricted in any way.

Monck could care less. Silk linings or age-shined viscose; it made no difference to him.

‘In here, quick.’ The voice was panic-scarred, and frothy with nicotine. Monck spun towards it and saw the grey blade of face sink back into the dark like a shark’s fin. Monck remembered when he had teetered on the brink of discovery: his true identity, his connection with the tribe that lived beneath the city, his talent for melting into the scenery. Fear had been behind it all back then; had partially fuelled the epiphanies he experienced. His scare threshold had receded much in the intervening years; when you spent your life scurrying around in true blackness, this twilight, this daylight, was hardly a place for nightmares to exist.

It was Jermyn, one of the Skimmers. He smelled of burnt grease and air fresheners. Monck saw him flaring his nostrils, perhaps in yearning for the underground. ‘Your shift over soon?’ Monck asked him.

‘Another twelve hours. My tripes are sweating, being in this shit pit. I’ll be glad to be back in the soil.’

Monck nodded. ‘Have you an in for me? Is there anything doing, this area?’

‘This used to be Marylebone,’ he said. ‘Very swish. Very Swedish, in its day. Over there, where the road bends off the main drag, Homer Street. There was a very good bar on the corner. Overpriced, but good.’

‘Anything doing?’ Monck pressed. ‘Anyone who’d look good in white?’

‘You think I’m here to grade skirt for you? I’m a waterboatman, Monck. Not a matchmaker. I’m here to make sure Beneothan remains beneath. Unsullied.’

‘I’ll cover for you. Last twelve hours of your shift. Go boating up the Fleet with your sweetheart. I just need a lead.’

‘You’re on,’ Jermyn snapped. ‘This arterial road is cut off at the top by what used to be Edgware Road. It’s grim as graves that way now. There’s a possible breach at the mouth of the old tube station. You have to make sure nothing gets in. I’ve got a few dogs on it at the moment, while I check the other weak point at the corner of Once Upon a Baker Street. Old video shop boarded up and ostensibly sterile. But don’t fall for it. There’s a storage room underneath. Something’s been at the foundations. Anything enters those hotspots means Beneothan is compromised.’

‘What about below stairs?’

‘Facers are working on the inner sanctum as we retreat. Strengthening the important sections to make sure we aren’t pierced, weakening others at strategic zones to ensure major kapow should any spelunkers get too warm.’

‘Do you really sense a threat? Aren’t we beyond that now? We’re burgeoning. Population’s on the rise. Slowly, I admit, but stil… I doubt anyone up here even knows about us any more.’

‘As long as Odessa breathes, there’ll be a garrison at the limits. No harm ever came from being cautious.’

Monck smiled. ‘You say that, but you’re getting chilblains.’

Jermyn touched his hat. ‘When you’re done, you might consider taking a shower before presenting yourself at the alleyways behind what was once Park Lane. The great hotels are all bandaged up like sore fingers, but you’ll find what you need inside them. Go tall. Enjoy the view. There’s nothing happening below the fifteenth floors.’

He was gone, then, as if the shadows had dismantled him. Monck thought he heard something by way of a farewell, but he couldn’t work out what it might have been. It sounded too much like Ivy for it to be anything like a goodbye.

Monck breathed into a stiff bowl made by his fingers, tried to work some feeling back into them. The light, such as it was, was failing, but still it was too painful to remove his sunglasses. As the dogs were on guard at Edgware Road, he decided to check on the video shop first. His mind filled with confetti, he headed east.

*

A darkness in waiting. A darkness with poise. The air here has not changed in half a decade. It sags like the final breath in a dead man’s lungs. A shoal of post lies on the welcome mat. Shelves prop up cinema ghosts. Anime. RomCom. Adult. Faded labels stained with perished Sellotape: Video Box Sets Half Price. Sopranos Season One Five Pounds!!! A different kind of shadow where the cash register stood. A corner of the poster carousel taps gently against its mate, spurred on by a draught, the only sound this space has known until the jemmy splits the halves of the entrance and pops it open.

Monck moves into this, knowing this species of dark as if it were something that might be alive, kept in a vivarium. The rods and cones on his retina spring awake: recognition of a friend. He breathes deeply and tastes air that would have fresh when he too was known to these streets more readily than the tunnels gouged beneath them.

He freezes, his hands behind him, pressed firmly against doors he has closed again. It’s as if no change has occurred. Behind him, cut-up voices in the street. A mish-mash of questions, challenges, rejoinders, but he can’t apportion them to separate mouths:

one seventy/scalpel/over/get that light close in/twenty/fifteen ccs/incision/clamp that/prep/black lung/reinflate/city boy, this is a city boy/bleeder

Street code. Gang slang. A patois of the pavement. He struggles to understand it while his eyes take in the denuded stacks. A few discarded DVD jackets lie on the floor. A price gun. A box that once contained deep fried chicken. The darkness deepens in the south-west corner of the room.

Stairs lead down to a tiny staff area: a sink, a chair, a counter. A box of PG Tips and a bowl of fossilised sugar. Fingers of mould wrap around the edges of a mini fridge. On the wall is a calendar from 1998. A stock room behind this is contains a single, empty pallet in the far corner. It is cool in this room. There is a padlocked fire door. A staff whiteboard bear the words Return stock by April 9th and Jenny says yes to Jake!!! and Someone else get the biscuits this week, please. Monck moves cautiously to the pallet and toes it aside. Here lies the breach, or one of them. A narrow blue-black throat sinking into another place. Top to bottom. Head to toe. Monck ducks to the edge and breathes. There is a smell of home, but of danger too. This tunnel is being used for something other than access. What was Jermyn playing at? Had he not been inside this building? Did he think, just because the main entrance was sealed, that there were no other crevices? He had lived for long enough in the city’s bowels, Monck thought he might have taken on some of the skills of rats by now.

Carefully, with the green stick of chalk he used to indicate area of danger, he ringed the fissure and scratched a line on the wall above it. He made another mark on the wall outside the shop too, after closing the doors.

*

Back along the old Crawford Road. He remembered many of the shops along here, and the people who lived in the flats. There had been a chemist with stained glass windows, a Middle Eastern sandwich shop that advertised FRESHLY SQUIZZED JUICE. A man with dreadlocks in his beard pushed a shopping trolley filled with televisions and cardboard; he drank chocolate milk from a carton and smelled of turpentine and plaster dust. London was coming back into Monck, reanimating him. He was almost running by the time he reached the Westway again. Ahead, the dilapidated entrance to Edgware Road’s Bakerloo line was a riot of broken masonry and lurching, concertina steel. He saw three dogs sitting on the pavement and knew there was something wrong straight away. These were not Beneothan dogs. They were bullets of muscle, all jaw and forward motion: bull mastiffs, bred nasty. They spotted Monck as he was backing away; they tore after him immediately.

Monck hit diamond link and climbed savagely, feeling the snarl of salivating chops at his trouser legs. He swung his leg over and dropped into a basketball court. Painted lines ruptured by tectonic upthrust, the aftershocks of the quake. The mastiffs were trying to chew through the fence and Monck spent a panicked few seconds checking for gaps they might have missed. He ran to the far end of the court and climbed the fence there, then doubled back in a large arc, hoping that he was downwind of the dogs and that their stubborn idiocy would keep them at the fence, waiting for him to return.

Inside the station, he slid over the ticket barriers. The lifts were buckled and powerless. The Beneothan dogs had been strangled, hoisted up on their leashes and left to hang on the exposed strip lighting cables. Monck took the spiral staircase into pitch, his mind thick with foam and bulging eyes. It was as if he could taste the secretions of foreign bodies in the air; feel the heat from their footsteps through the soles of his boots on these cold, stone steps.

These tunnels had not known trains for half a decade. On the southbound platform, Monck found discarded briefcases and handbags, umbrellas and newspapers fluttering in the breezes that funnelled through the underground network. How old was this air? It had no way out. It was being constantly recycled, a stale miasma, a memory. Monck stood and listened to its song, trying to detect something more sinister within it. His mind wandered. He thought of his long dead mother, and of his father, of women he had loved: Nuala, Laura. He had to bite hard against a sudden compulsion to cry. You could not live in Beneothan and entertain thoughts of visiting friends and family. It was too dangerous. It was too uniting. This city beneath the capital was insular, jealous and proud. It was the hypochondriac fearing infection.

From the tracks, a sudden sizzle of intent. A mechanical exhalation. A death rattle snaking its way along the dust-clogged tiles. Monck steeled himself for revelations, but none came. Only half-formed sentences, techno-babble, more of the argot he had eavesdropped at the video shop.

Swab/Clamp/Suture/I need 5 milligrams/

Frustrated by a lack of stimulus, Monck checked the other platform and the staff only zones, before repairing to the spiral staircase. He ascended swiftly, mindful that the mastiffs might return. He chalked lines on the ticket barriers and entrance and left a mark to convey that basic checks had been undertaken, but a more thorough search was needed. How many failed pressure points like this across the city? How many were accidental, unknown? How many had been created by invaders?

The constant burble of traffic on the flyover. The scurry and rush. Where was everyone going? Why was anybody still here?

At a Skimmer node – the private park for residents in what was previously Connaught Square – he passed on the details of his search. It was out of his hands now. The Skimmers would contact the Web, at the heart of Beneothan, and sealing manoeuvres would be coordinated within 24 hours.

‘Jermyn,’ he said, as he was leaving. ‘Have any of you seen Jermyn?’

Goldhawk and Frith shook their heads. Delancey suggested he might be in one of the midway zones – a central tunnel, platform or storage unit – catching up on his sleep before his next shift began.

Monck nodded, unable to shake off doubtful feelings. He hurried into what had once been named Stanhope Place and crossed the old Bayswater Road into Hyde Park.

The sudden vastness screamed into him and he felt afraid for the first time in so many years that it was almost crippling. Tired as he had grown of the enamelled feel of the new buildings, their brutal aloofness, that claustrophobia was preferable to this. He had forgotten about space. He began to sprint, unable to stop himself, like some newborn animal having found its legs. It was directionless, terrifying, thrilling. He ran until he saw a massive blade separating the park, glittering in the moonlight. He tore off his sunglasses, disoriented. Time was important up here. It was something that could be measured. Underground there was just the work and the sleep and the love. The compression of time up here, the compulsion to follow it, to be dictated to by it, reminded him that all those things he enjoyed now, he had to place into little boxes before. Life had been a series of tasks. Shape, format, rules, laws, all had been imposed on him. Time was all of those constrictions, and more. It ate through your mind from birth. Your first kiss was defined by how long you mashed your lips against someone else’s. We were at it all night long. How many years did you devote to the company you worked for? How many birthdays? How many anniversaries? The watch. The clock. The time, sponsored by Accurist.

The blade gleamed, clean and long, like an arrowhead that has fallen free of its spear.

Serpentine. He had boated on this with Laura in a year he couldn’t begin to give a number. They had drunk cappuccini and watched children chase pigeons. Looking back, you forgot about how time controlled you. You could erase it from the scene, but it was always there, tutting at you, pointing a finger at its own face.

He angled across the park, conscious of how conspicuous he was under this brilliant moon. He saw a fire up ahead, and shadows pass in front of it, running fast. He would have to negotiate the broad drag at the west edge – Park Lane as was – before he could search The Dorchester or the Hilton. There were enough distractions. A family had taken refuge in a black cab; the father was jabbing something like a poker out of a hole in one window, trying to ward off the pack that were trying to get at them. Someone ran through the wall of fire and gave the flames a piggy back. A horde took off after the screaming figure, although it was gone before Monck could discern whether a rescue was taking place.

OC2

He hurried across the road, dodging overturned vehicles and grinning cracks in the tarmac. A trio of children were sitting by the entrance to The Dorchester, playing with dice, or teeth or pebbles. He slipped past their upturned, hollowed faces and into the hotel lobby. He could hear music. There was a signal of some kind, too. It sounded like the pips of a timecode, or the indecipherable beats that untangle themselves from surges of static on a shortwave radio.

As with everywhere else, the lifts were no longer functional. He put his head down and trotted up the first seven floors before he had to rest. His breath came ragged and hot, deafening him. He crouched in the corner of the stairwell until his lungs had calmed, and then proceeded more carefully, rattled that he should have made himself vulnerable at the end of his search. At the seventeenth floor, he found corridors festooned with crepe decorations, silver and blue balloons, the mineral hit of champagne. At the other end of the building, as he turned a corner, he glimpsed a blur of white, heard the shush of silk rubbing against itself. Music came from an unknown source: it crackled with the warmth of vinyl. Cat Stevens, Sitting.

…if I sleep too long, will I even wake up again…

He pushed a door open and saw a room that could not be there. It contained a pine wardrobe with thin metal handles. Inside, the smell of the wood had been lost to time, and the things that were stored within: magazines and bottles of malt whisky; old sweet tins brimming with photographs; a cardboard box of births and deaths and marriages. A cricket ball. A tin of Kiwi boot polish.

A dressing table against which his mother had died writing a letter. Her perfume. For a moment, in the triptych of mirrors, he thought he saw her. The arm of her bottle green bathrobe swung clear of the door, stiff enough to contain her. He stepped back, his throat constricting. Those photographs. He could remember them without having to look again. Mostly from when he was a baby, a toddler. For some reason, his father stopped taking pictures once he had grown beyond the age of four. Maybe he was too busy. Maybe his camera had broken; they weren’t so easy with money that such luxuries could be replaced. The novelty of children wearing off; but he couldn’t believe that. His childhood had been happy, secure, until the seizure that carried off Mum. Cat Stevens was singing about a boy with a moon and star on his head. If he were to move deeper into the room, he might find his father reading a book about hostas, sipping at his Laphroiag.

A cork popped from a bottle.

‘Colleen?’ he called. He wondered where they had found her, and why they thought he would be a good match for him. Odessa had warned him of the population’s mismatch. Seven men for every one woman. Beneothan would die out within a couple of generations if they did not attract more females.

A door paused in the shutting. He hurried towards it. Inside, the hotel room was a riot of decorations. A partially devoured wedding cake stood on a pedestal. The window gave a view of Hyde Park that made Monck feel dizzy. He had to put his hands flat against the wall; he felt his toes try to dig through the soles of his boots into the carpet.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. She was sitting on a bed large enough for a small family to share. Her face was slashed shut by shadows.

Monck shot a look at her before his gaze was dragged back to the window.

‘Long way up,’ he said.

‘Long way down, too,’ she said.

Spanish guitars were still playing from the hotel room further down the corridor. Cat Stevens sings Latin. He imagined his dad nodding his head to the hand claps, the insistent pulse of the strings. Give me time forever, here in my time.

‘Will you come with me?’ he asked.

‘I’ve been with you all day,’ she said. ‘I’ll be with you for as long as it takes.’

Monck watched lights coil around the vast body of the park. Occasional fires burned at its perimeter. Gossamer drifted past the window: a man was pouring wine for two female companions while a Spider steered them towards some penthouse or another.

Colleen approached him, but the shadow would not slip from her features. He smelled apples on her, and her breath was spiced with nothing so exotic, or so intoxicating, as fresh air. It was as if she had drawn a lungful of the winter countryside into her and transported it here to pollution’s carbon-scorched heart. She plucked the piece of paper from his fingers and a shift occurred in that knot of darkness, a stretching, a settling. She was smiling.

‘You need to remind yourself who I am?’ she asked.

‘This is unorthodox, I know,’ Monck said.

‘Well, I’m here, ready. My big day.’

She returned to the bed and sat down, patted the area next to her. He stumbled towards it, certain that his vertigo was going to tilt the room as well as himself, and spill him through the glass. She did not reach for him, nor him her. They sat together like would-be lovers in the presence of a chaperone. His eyes would not grow accustomed to her darkness. But he felt very strongly that he knew her. The way she sat, the way she talked, the way she moved. Her fingers were busy with the paper. She folded it and refolded it. Sometimes it disappeared between her fingers, but then she unfolded, and the square grew. At one point, busy with it again, it fell from her hands. She didn’t pick it up.

‘We ought to go,’ he said. ‘Places like this, they’re vulnerable. Easy for street levellers to come up here.’

She leaned forward. It was only at the last moment, as her lips found his, that he realised she meant to kiss him. He thought she was about to share some grim secret. Shock reeled around his body.

‘Nuala?’ he said. But Nuala was dead. She had burned in a graveyard for trains. Everyone from his past died or faded away. He was like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle whose interlocking parts had become torn off.

When he pulled away, the kiss becoming at once too cloying and too insubstantial, the dress was lying on the bed, old and scarred. The walls of the room were peeling, the window starred with concussions from rocks or metal bars, which lay on the floor before it. Red paint had been sprayed around the walls. Outside, Hyde Park was a mass of smoking bodies, a disaster scene trying to be contained with man-sized pieces of charred tarpaulin.

The static in his head resolved itself into a sequence of beeps, of beats. He looked down at his arm and saw his blood’s motion, synchronous in the raised bulge of a vein. As if he had just drawn his arm clear of water, he saw it gleam, saw the shift of his face reflected in a glint millimetres wide. He was reminded of the Serpentine, but when he lifted his head to search for the water, everything went grey. He turned, his heart thrashing, and knew he had to get out of the hotel. It was a trap of some sort. Jermyn’s shark fin face leered somewhere out there. Monck was on his knees, scrabbling for the door, when his hand brushed against the paper Colleen had been playing with. Its folds seemed unfinished; her name was obscured. Well, part of it. The initial letters of her given and family names were mashed together. As he was cloaked by the strength of his own astonishment, he saw the word: COMA.

*

A tube leading from the cannula sunk deep into the meat of his forearm snaked into the soil. Wires turned the shaved mass of his head into a study of fractures. Trying to move, he noticed he was naked. A monitor beep measured the strength beep of his life and played beep along.

Colleen shifted into his line of sight. He knew it was her because of the smell. He wanted to ask her how she managed that, how she could retain the freshness of the surface after so long in the stale belly of the city.

‘Are you smiling?’ he asked.

‘Shh,’ she said. ‘Don’t speak. I have to give you something.’

‘What?’

He heard rumbles move over his head from left to right, dull, distant, but onerous. Trickles of soil fell from the ceiling. A large bang from somewhere. The room, and Colleen, shivered in his eyes.

‘You shouldn’t have woken up.’

‘What do you mean?’

Other figures crowded around him. He recognised one as Odessa. ‘Put him under, quick,’ she said. ‘Jesus Christ.’

He found strength to fight her as she made to release the seal on the anaesthetic. He tore the needle from his arm with his teeth and spat it out. He sat up. The others shifted uneasily, moving away, unsure.

Odessa said, her voice softer now, imploring: ‘Don’t leave us. We’re nothing if you go.’

‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘We captured you.’

‘I’m with you. There’s no need to hold me prisoner.’

‘We captured your narcoleptic… other. The you that exists when you have an attack, when you sleep.’

Monck tensed himself for another rush at him, but everyone was keeping back. He wished they would attack him; it was something he could at least try to deal with.

‘Why?’ he asked, barely able to summon the breath required by the question.

‘We needed you up there, but we need you here too.’

‘Why?’ he asked again. He felt he might never be able to say anything but.

‘Storage. We’re in trouble. We’re under attack. We need to keep our functioning males safe. We’re building special, sealed hives. We have cryogenic technicians…’ Odessa’s voice petered out.

‘And what about this… other?’

‘Reconnaissance. We could read what was happening up Top without needing to imperil ourselves.’

Monck rubbed his face. ‘I remember a ruined hotel. Colleen was there. Hyde Park was burning.’

Odessa nodded. ‘We know. The city is dying. After the quake, well we hoped it would divert attention. But there were breaches. People came looking. There were deaths. No order after a cataclysmic event. No law to speak of. It was required elsewhere. Scum poured in. We were caught napping. People who lost everything in the trauma up Top found succour in the stores we had built down here. We are being routed and reamed. We are retreating so hard we’re meeting ourselves coming the other way.’

‘I have to go.’

‘No, we’re not finished. We need to find the other breaches. We have to repel and seal.’

‘Get Jermyn to do it. Or one of the other Skimmers.’

‘Jermyn’s dead. They’re all dead.’

‘I have to go. I’m going. I have to see for myself.’

‘Come back, then. Soon,’ Odessa said, and then something else, as she moved out into the tunnels.

He was pulling on his clothes, wiping his needle punctures with sterile tissues, when he realised what she had said.

At least one of you.

*

London was like a model for tectonic realignment, for climate change, for urban terrorism, all rolled into one. Fires and gangs roamed, seeking fuel. Monck noticed his lack of shadow, but it was night; what light there was came as a jittery, uncertain thing. He chided himself for allowing himself to be spooked, and chivvied himself along the old Oxford Street, with glances into the vandalised acres of glass and steel that flanked him, where at least his reflection – a pale craquelure – kept pace.

He approached the Dorchester from the rear, feeling strange at the knowledge that this was his first visit to the hotel, despite what his dreaming self had suggested. He felt light, reduced somehow, and wondered how long he had been lying on the bed. His legs were foal-weak.

He entered via a staff door that linked to the kitchens. The refrigerators had been raided. All of the knives and cleavers had been stolen from the hooks above the work surfaces. Dinner orders were still clipped to a carousel. A waiter’s bow tie hung limply on the back of a tea box filled with mouldering potatoes. He knew that there was no hope for Beneothan. You couldn’t put a finger in every hole; blocking it up only increased the pressure elsewhere. London was too big to police. It had accrued breaches for millennia. It was sieve city. It was groaning with collapse.

Monck methodically checked every corridor off the fire escape as he rose. On some levels he was unable to open the doors because of bodies or barricades. At the seventeenth floor he found cold sterility. Any evidence of the party had been cleared away, or had existed nowhere other than in the crevices of his sleep-brain. All of the rooms were open. All of the rooms were empty. He found the shadow of what might have been a wedding dress across the counterpane of a neatly made bed but when he pressed his fingers against it, shadow was all it was.

He heard something back down the corridor and turned to see a hand slide out of view, leaving a track of black in the wall that its nails had gouged.

He hurried after the figure, Colleen’s name on his lips, gritting his teeth against the feeling of faintness swarming around him. In the stone chasm of the fire escape, he heard hard, fast footsteps ascending. Monck stared at the risers as he pursued, expecting to see craters. Someone crashed through the emergency exit at the top of the hotel. Monck arose into a silent span of stars. Smoke smudged the horizon. London reared away from him, a mandala of fire, a thousand square miles of potential being forged in the flames of creation. It seemed. The truth was more prosaic, more dangerous. Distance did that for you. Whether temporally or physically. It prettified. It defused.

He/Monck said, ‘Long way up.’

Monck/He said, ‘Long way down, too.’

He was sitting on the edge of the world, a figure so utterly dark it was as if it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. It seemed to tremble, on the verge of sucking itself inside out. It felt strange, saying the things that this narcoshade was saying, yet it didn’t for a second make him feel as though he were being manipulated.

‘I’m tired,’ He/Monck/Monck/He said. ‘I’m so tired.’

There could be no trickery here, no surprise ending. He knew what was coming. So no need to ask the reason they had come up here. No need to ask what kind of future they might share. No more why. No more who. No more where. No more when. The how of it was the easiest part. Monck/He reached out his arms and began to run. Like a mirror made of oil, He/Monck opened up for an embrace. It lasted for as long as it took Monck to wonder if they would create one impact mark on the road, or two.

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 #5

THE DIMINISHED

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There was something purple in the corner of his eye.

Ethan tried to blink it away but when it started to move he realised it was beyond his window, the glass of which was becoming spoilt by rain. He watched her leave the church and pull the collars of her coat round her ears before following the gravel path to the gate where she paused to look into a bag. Away she moved again, and this distorted glass, the swollen, dark shape of her made Ethan think of slow suns at dusk. The distortion seemed something more though, specifically belonging to her in the cruel warp of her features. In that instant he knew he must follow her.

He switched off his computer (the dying sigh of its fan bothering him as always) and snatched his greatcoat from the hook upon his study door. Outside he saw that the rain was not as bad as he’d anticipated. His face was wetted, but only by errant spits. Puddles and dripping trees showed him he’d missed the worst of the weather.

He glimpsed a meniscus of purple as she dipped out of sight down stone steps which led to the high street; he must hurry or she’d lose him in the throng – it was market day in the town and not satisfied with its rank of retail shops, out came the stalls and legged suitcases. The scrum for fresh cabbages, cigarette lighters and all things Minecraft did not last long but it would surely be at its most hectic now as lunchtime shoppers drifted into the streets. He followed at a discreet distance, fingering a display of fruits or eyeing a new range of wristwatch straps if she punctuated her journey. The seedy manner of his pursuit he pushed to the recesses of his mind; that she was something rich and rosy on such a discouraging day was reason enough to shadow her. It beat designing Boucher’s database into second place, that was for sure – but then, so would cleaning toilets with his tongue. When he thought about it, as he did now, ducking into the alleyway from which she was only just emerging at the other end, he was finding all manner of distractions to take him away from his VDU and its alien face of equations. He’d neglected to tell Boucher of his limitations when it came to programming. He’d scraped his Computer Studies GCSE at school thanks to reproducing a model written in Forth he’d cribbed from a late night Open University course on television. Boucher’s use for the database was modest; he only wanted a system that would add up statistics from records he was compiling for the local water board and present them in a tidy array of boxes. How hard could it be? Well, so far, about as hard as licking your own forehead. The only thing which kept him going was the promise of his three figure cheque on deadline day – if he met it, which was becoming ever more unlikely, especially as he now spent so much time watching re–runs of The Clangers and Paddington Bear or nipping out to buy bottles of Ribena to ensure he received his RDA of Vitamin C. Yesterday he’d spent ten minutes trying to trim his nostril hair with the kitchen scissors.

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He was burying himself so deeply in whys and wherefores that he strode past the cafe into which she’d stepped. He left it a moment, listening to the babble of vendors doing themselves a grievance by offering state–of–the–art water filters for a fiver, before strolling back to the entrance. Inside he was clouted by a wall of smoke. A cluster of students were leaning over an ashtray choked with butts, heads almost touching. Dishes of half–eaten lemon meringue pie congealed in front of them. Beneath the reek of nicotine he could just detect a smell of all day breakfasts and coffee. Music leapt from hidden speakers: warm crackling vinyl supported a tepid beat and guitars that sounded tight and spangly. It halted soon after, victim to a scratch which brought half–hearted boos from the students. Ethan sat by the door and looked into the fog, trying to spot the girl. She was sitting by herself at a table by the sweet trolley, purple coat curled over the back of her chair. He chanced glances at her when her attention was diverted by somebody entering or leaving, or by the pulse of noise from the large table. She pushed reddish hair from her brow and nodded to the waiter who presented her with a jug of water. From her bag she pulled a strip of paper and studied it, her fingers moving against the skin of her wrists, her neck and temples. She looked fragile and lovely in the light, which only just managed to penetrate this far from the street. He watched her through the slowly shifting bank of blue smoke till his order arrived. She seemed insubstantial, as though the cafe and all it contained were of a vitality alien to her, almost appearing of the smoke rather than beyond it.

He sipped hot, weak coffee till his lips grew sore. The students were talking about a demonstration in London they would support if only they could afford the fare. Another round of Marlboros, more cappuccinos. They resembled bedraggled crows – huddled, black, nested down for the afternoon. One of them, a young woman with dreads and a leather waistcoat, shared Ethan’s interest in the girl, turning round to look at her when the conversation broke for laughter. Something in the precious way she guarded her gloved hand with its naked counterpart told him the limb was false, and recently acquired. He wondered why that should bother him.

The girl with the purple coat finished her studying and bagged the paper. When she raised a sputtering match to her own cigarette he saw that her eyes were different colours: one green, one brown and that with a stubbornly dilated pupil. The light cast unusual patterns on to her skin and it was only later, when he lost her in the glut of people tip–toeing around severed heads littering the floor by the fish market, that he realised the patterns were caused not by the flame, but by the web of scar tissue that portioned her face.

*

That night as he bathed, he became acutely aware of his body and found himself grateful for its petty imperfections. The way his penis curved slightly to the left when hard; the naevus that stained the skin of his right armpit; the soft wart on his scalp. All were slight when compared with the disfigurement she sported. That she did so openly was laudable but he didn’t know whether grim acceptance or defiance was her spur. He guessed the latter; there was a steel in her posture which belied her scant frame.

Head immersed, he listened to the call of his heart and concentrated till he was rewarded with a sense of himself as something other than a brain with chunks of meat attached. He followed the rush of blood and the peculiar rhythm of his organs till his chest ached and his extremities tingled. This heightened self perception froze him seconds later when he told himself something he’d thought about many times but which carried little punch when touched upon, as was usually the case.

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I’m going to die one day, he thought. There’ll come a time when all this will stop and I’ll cease to be. He surfaced and the lurch in his chest, the roar of water in his ears made him think for a moment that he’d splintered into a million pieces.

*

He slept shallowly and rose with the birds, pulling the curtains open on a morning the colour of the girl’s coat. He gazed at the church for a while, willing her to appear but there was nothing to suggest life inside the building yet.

He switched on the computer but when he saw the soup of letters and numbers as he’d left them he killed the power and padded downstairs where he drank orange juice and listened to next door’s radio through the walls and the yapping of some dog in the park. An hour or so later, as he returned from the shop with milk for his breakfast, the church bells pealed. Ethan watched his neighbours dance to its tune, sucked into the blackness of the church doorway as smoothly as water to a drain. More people than he thought possible entered the building and a little while after its doors were shut he heard the organ spring to life. As if on cue, she stepped from behind a wall and came towards him from the top end of the cemetery, stopping half way to lean against a gravestone, her head cocked, listening to the music. What he’d guessed was sassiness in her stance now occurred to him as something unnatural: her legs seemed stiff; the arch of her spine was too pronounced and her head seemed too small for her body. Ethan blinked and pushed this growing attention to anatomy away, aware that it was beginning to rub off on him as an irrational need to preserve his own completeness. Hadn’t he just walked back from the shop facing oncoming traffic so he could anticipate and possibly dodge any cars skidding on to the pavement? And having looked right and left then right again, hadn’t he sneaked a look skyward? He remembered the footage of the Lockerbie and Amsterdam air disasters. Just because the chances of a jet falling from the sky on to a town were minuscule didn’t mean they couldn’t happen. Caution was a small price to pay in order to keep your flesh whole, to remain normal. He realised how self–important his definition of that word must seem: everybody was ‘normal’ in their own eyes but it was important to the majority of society that most people be more normal than others, despite the fact that such a desire for homogeneity spawned the bigoted and blinkered.

Daydreaming, he almost lost her again. This time she moved away from the high street, walking a path that led to the dingier parts of the town where the canal made a border between terraces and semi–detached life. She walked with purpose though her gait was leisurely or so Ethan thought as she turned into minor roads without hesitation. The cantilever bridge was a series of black strokes against the sky: it looked worthy of its stance as the town’s favourite suicide haunt. At the gates to Ethan’s old school, she stopped to watch the cranes and the JCBs tear at classrooms where once he’d sat, dreaming of such a demolition. Now, the sight saddened him, if only because it meant a part of his past, a part that contributed to his reality, was being taken away from him. Even in recognising an opportunity to talk to her, he felt some of his self being erased.

‘I don’t remember you,’ he said. ‘What year did you leave?’

Though he hadn’t meant to startle her, he was disappointed that she didn’t jump. ‘I wasn’t a pupil,’ she said, without looking up.

Of course, she meant she wasn’t a pupil here. Ethan leaned against the gate and introduced himself. Her scars revealed themselves as the ghosts of stitches that knitted her face together with thick bands of white. The one eye he could see from here was black and lifeless as a shark’s. The skin that curved away beneath her collar seemed a different colour and complexion. What had she suffered, for God’s sake? He wanted to ask if she’d had skin grafts; if her mutilation was by design or accident. She must have sensed his scrutiny.

‘I’m Emma. Stare if you must but your eyes will get tired.’

‘Sorry,’ he managed, turning his attention back to the crumbling school. ‘Can I buy you a drink?’

‘No. I don’t drink.’ Her voice was measured and low, the words spoken so carefully Ethan was led to think she’d once had a stammer. Or perhaps it was her facial injuries which caused her lips to squirm in so guarded a fashion.

‘Well come and sit with me while I have one.’ He smiled and she looked at him fully. He was pleased that his smile didn’t falter, even though she looked so intimidating with that grotesque glare of hers. She seemed to consider him for a while, till a smile warped her face even further. It was a disconcerting effort, as it couldn’t reach her eyes, halted as it was by the barrier scars lining her cheeks.

‘I’m busy.’

He sighed. The broken clock above the main hall (which had read 3:17 since he first noticed it, fourteen years ago) came down in a plume of red brick–dust. A heap of rotten timber and steel girders concealed the spot where he’d once kissed Caroline Hulce in the third year.

‘This is bothering you?’ she asked.

‘Of course. I was a senior prefect at that school.’ He laughed. ‘All those marvellous teachers. Mr Meikle. Mrs Dunabin. All gone. God, can you smell that? Is it chalk dust?’

She shrugged. ‘What’s wrong with a little surgery now and then? All they’re doing is cutting away something that doesn’t work anymore, something rotten. To make way for something pure and new.’

‘What? You call a housing estate pure?’

‘Why not? It’s giving something to the community. What’s that school given, apart from poor marks and vandalism?’

He felt compelled to defend his past but he could see she was right. The school had suffered from dwindling attendances and a terrible sequence of exam results over the years. It had been doomed for a long time.

‘It’s true isn’t it, that it’s better to give than to receive?’ She walked away. ‘I might see you again.’

‘Why do you visit the church so much?’ The question blurted from his lips before he had time to check himself. He felt he was prying but she treated him to another non–smile.

‘My parents are buried there.’

*

He walked home, noticing how bare the trees looked. Not only had they been stripped of their leaves but the bark was weak and crumbly, hanging like scabs from trunks which didn’t seem strong enough to bear their branches. The faces he saw in dimming windows or passing him in the street were ravaged and grey. Everybody seemed to have a defect or a limit: a stiffness in gait, a stoop. Spectacles, hearing aids and inhalers. He felt cancers trying to gain purchase on his delicate innards. By the time he reached his doorstep, he was inflated with panic, certain he could feel the cells of his brain collapsing at a rate of one hundred thousand deaths per second.

*

Monday crept over him like a stale, unwelcome lover. A shower and breakfast did nothing to refresh him; the thought of his body as a shell full of dead tissue made him feel ill and scared. The polio which lurked in every human bowel, the inability for cells in brain and heart to rejuvenate themselves distressed him as he knotted his tie and listened to the DJ talk first of multiple pile–ups on the M62 and then his love of Farley’s Rusks. The heel of Ethan’s hand rested on his chest as he smoothed the tie against him. He felt his heart’s tap: between each beat he was certain it had stopped. A leathery muscle trapped in his ribs, becoming more worn every day.

‘Jesus,’ he hissed, and went to catch the bus.

He sat in the office, drinking tea and watching the shiver of shirts and blouses as his colleagues typed and faxed and photocopied. The thought of all those fatty, squishing valves sickened him; he had to spend a while in the toilets till he calmed. But even as he rinsed his mouth and looked at his face in the mirror – bleached by an unflattering splash of light – an insistent voice urged that bodies were flukes of nature, not perfections of it. That the designs were haphazard and mutated, not convenient or practical. He was struck by how fragile this configuration of flesh and bone and offal really was. Suddenly, even his saliva tasted unfamiliar and offensive. Vomiting only compounded his misery.

His boss, Melanie, took one look at him when he returned to the office and sent him home before he’d had a chance to ask for the rest of the day off. He dithered outside the cemetery, looking up at the stained glass windows of the church, then entered the grounds, sure that he’d not bump into Emma today. Presumably she had a job of her own. He found it strangely comforting here in the clipped, unobtrusive graveyard – there were bunches of flowers leaning against some of the more recent marble tombstones; messages too, which he stopped himself from reading. Ethan tried to imagine which of the plots contained Emma’s parents but without her surname he’d never know. It hit him then, for some unfathomable reason, that she’d lied to him. He didn’t know why he should be so positive about this but he felt it had something to do with the lacklustre mention of her parents. Surely someone who visited the grave of loved ones so often would speak of the dead in a more sombre way? Was she really so comfortable – to the point of being blasé – about the circumstances in which she found herself? And when he cast his mind back he couldn’t remember seeing her there before despite his renting the flat for a good fourteen months. Then her mother and father had died recently? No, it didn’t ring true. But why should he care a damn? He entered his hallway split between thinking she was just giving him an answer to shut him up and suspecting she was more interested in him than she let on. The thought that she was dogging him chilled him as effectively as these recent wintry mornings.

He spent the rest of the day with comfort foods: Cadbury’s Caramel and Strawberry Nesquik, and tried to make sense of the mess which was Boucher’s database. A little before six, as the sky lost its colour and was smothered by night, he packed a canvas bag with clothes and strolled to the launderette, his head aching with the twin assault of numbers and eye strain.

His luck was in: only one other person was using the machines, tucked away into the corner like a pile of old clothes. Ethan fed the washer nearest the window and poured in a measure of detergent before ramming a couple of coins into slots eaten by rust. Parking himself in an orange plastic seat relatively free of cigarette burns or splits, he took out a paperback and tried to lose himself in its words.

The pile of old clothes shifted. Ethan swivelled his eyes so he could watch the man over the corner of his page. The man’s eyes were egg–large, too big for the face in which they nestled. They were fixed on a section of linoleum, but from his expression it was obvious he was seeing something else. His hands raised to his face and Ethan’s heart clattered – he was sure the man was going to sink his fingers into the skin of his temples and pull away the face, but they only settled lightly and rubbed. Flakes from his scalp drifted to the floor. His hair moved, clearly a wig, and Ethan tried to satisfy himself that the squirming he saw beneath was of the light’s making. It wasn’t, and now he was finding it hard to swallow. It was as though the man’s skull was so thin beneath the etiolated skin of his head that Ethan could see the brain, grey and swollen, fluttering slightly as a fresh supply of blood and oxygen sped through it. Then the man was still once more, his attention drawn to the journey of his clothes through the dryer’s window. Ethan looked at the man’s wrists for a long time, trying to work out why one was covered in thick hair and the other was bald.

Thankfully, footsteps outside provided him with a release. He watched as the girl he’d seen in the cafe walked by, wearing the same leather waistcoat and a large velvet cap from which her dreadlocks hung like tails. Ethan stuffed his paperback into a pocket and stepped into the street; maybe she could tell him more about Emma, if indeed she knew anything of her at all.

The school was little more than a series of black blocks; the cranes towered above like dinosaur skeletons. The smell of the canal stained the air round here, he could almost see its green vapours rising from the bushy dip into which the girl now tramped, the road narrowing, interrupted by sleeping policemen. A mist so thin Ethan thought he was imagining it moved sluggishly off the water beneath the bridge. Perhaps unseen figures walking the towpath were causing the edges of the mist to curl and shiver away from dry land. The water behind him, he plunged into darkness, wondering when the road had been subsumed by this cobblestone thoroughfare. Up ahead he could hear an acoustic guitar perform some brisk melody which was over almost before it had begun. Candlelight surprised him as he broke through a layer of trees bordering a field. The dim squares of terraced houses at the opposite end contained flashes of TV light. The burnt–sweet smell of barbecued meat swept down with a hot cloud of smoke and ashes from beyond the first of the caravans and now he heard voices; something about their rhythm, though he couldn’t detect specific speech, was wrong. He remembered the deliberate way in which Emma had spoken and felt the temperature drop.

He couldn’t progress too far past the bank of trees for fear of being noticed but from where he was standing, he was privy only to the dance of waxy flames and, now and again, the foot of someone stretching out on the floor. The girl with the waistcoat had stepped into the circle of light and was sitting cross–legged in the grass. The black glove on her hand trapped the light and made it seem molten. An arm snaked out from the caravan’s edge, palm upwards. Into it, the girl placed her hand. The glove was peeled away and Ethan saw not a synthetic replacement, as he had forecast, but a proper limb. It was pale though, and withered. The hidden party inspected the flesh with probing fingers, lingering at a black band at the wrist which Ethan had thought was a bracelet but which he now saw was a course of stitches. The girl with the waistcoat smiled. The hands made a gesture Ethan didn’t understand but it prompted the girl to stand and shrug off her clothes. He found his fingers pressing themselves into his mouth to stop him from gagging. One of her breasts was deflated, trapping shadow in a series of deep wrinkles around the nipple. The other was pink and firm. The sweep of her stomach was scored with scars and he could see that one of her arms was shorter than its mate. A tattoo in gold of a moth stretched across her left buttock but was interrupted by more scars and a sweep of virgin flesh. Again the hands reached out from behind the caravan and touched the slack breast. Its owner nodded. And again. And then said what sounded to Ethan like: ‘I can make do. Till something better turns up.’

As she turned her body to give her arm easier access to its sleeve, the candlelight made her translucent. He saw her entrails resting in the broth of her belly; the shivering bird of her heart in its bone cage. The arms behind the caravan grew a body: Emma moved to help the girl dress. She was bald, which delayed Ethan’s recognition of her; her head was blue with veins. Here and there they had broken, becoming craters of bright red. At the nape of her neck a series of rivets were punched through the skin, which looked shrivelled and ill–fitting. Clusters of black stitching beneath the ears glistened; Emma wadded a tissue into the crudely sutured wound to dam any further seepage.

Ethan closed his eyes and tried to regulate his breathing. He strove for some kind of explanation but his mind was barren, blown empty by shock. Had he stumbled across some kind of cult who found an aesthetic in the brutalising of their own bodies? Or were they sick, forced to create a ghetto in which their suffering could take place without fear of outsiders snooping?

A thick voice carried to him: ‘They’re ready.’

He watched Emma lead the girl, and a man on crutches, to the edge of the field where a gate opened out on a dirt track. Ethan might have left then and returned to his chewing gum whites in the warmth of the launderette but for the flux of shadow creeping through the trees behind him. He heard footsteps slumping and a strange sound, like the rasp of nails on an emery board: the man in the launderette? Ethan imagined him trekking all this way just to give him the clothes he’d left behind but it wasn’t a thought that amused him. He took off across the field, pausing at the gate to look back at the lifeless caravans glow in the halo of hot coals and candle flame. When the gloom beneath the trees began to adopt a shape, he hurried along the path, clenching himself against the threat of his quarry lunging from the banks of trees on either side. He couldn’t see them ahead. He slowed to walking pace and tried to hear their progress above the hassle in his chest. A square of orange flashed into life away to his left, hanging in the midst of trees like a new sun. He made for the window, recognising the shape of the house as he neared, looming from the sky’s camouflage like subtle detail in a painting. They’d left the front door open, presumably for those who had encouraged Ethan’s flight earlier. How could he spy on their business if others were due? Boots scuffing in the dirt confirmed his suspicions. He crept on to the veranda and peered into the hallway which was lit by gas lamps on the wall. Lengths of wire peeled back to expose their copper core were scattered like strange hair in a corner. Before the second party could spot him he slipped inside, already berating himself for his foolishness but filled with a confidence that, should he be undone, Emma would step in to defend him. Buoyed slightly with this optimism, he moved towards the murmur at the end of the hall. He was in luck. Rising above the kitchen, which spat shadows from its doorway, a staircase travelled. Just before the landing he ought to have a view of part of that room without new visitors stumbling across him.

Through the balustrade he watched the man lean his crutches against a chair before his trousers were taken from him. Ethan waited for the bodies that lifted him on to the dining table to move so he could see the man’s left leg was missing. Emma moved into view. She held a knife against the puckered stump and cut into the flesh till it was sheened with blood. The man’s face remained static though Ethan hadn’t seen anybody numb him with a needle or gas. Concentrating to keep himself from vocalising his distaste, he watched Emma make a gesture. Somebody tossed her a polythene bag. Out of it she pulled a leg mottled with blue patches; its thick end ragged, containing a nub of bone which Emma shaped with a chisel before marrying it to the man’s thigh.

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‘You ought to lose a little weight to improve the join,’ she said, and held the limb fast while the girl shot a few staples from a gun into the meat. Emma watched her stitch him up. When the job was complete she opened a cupboard and unwound about three feet of wiring, each length of which was tipped with a gold needle. These she slid into the leg, on both sides of the join. Ethan found his capacity for shock had deserted him, even as she threw a switch and the air was filled with the smell of charring. The man’s thigh darkened, bubbling at the seams. When his new toes began to twitch, Emma clapped her hands together.

Movement at the front door. Half a dozen figures slouched and staggered across its threshold but instead of moving to the kitchen they lingered in the hallway.

‘You know I said my parents were buried in that churchyard?’ Jesus, was she speaking to him? ‘Well, I was telling the truth. All my mothers and fathers are there.’ She wiped her hands off against a bloody apron hanging from a hook on the shelf. Now she looked directly at him and he felt the blood fall from his face so quickly that his cheeks smarted. For a while things looked grainy; he might have struggled against the hands that helped him downstairs if his muscles hadn’t betrayed him and turned to mush.

‘Leave me alone,’ he breathed. The sharp reek of Dettol slapped him out of his stupor. ‘Don’t you cut me.’

Emma raised her eyebrows as best her skin would allow. ‘Take heed of what I said to you Ethan. Better to give.’

Bodies hustled him to the kitchen. He was lowered on to the table, which gave slightly. His fear-fogged brain realised it was not due to any weakness in the wood rather than the syrupy movement of blood which sheened its surface. The mealy smell of a butcher’s shop rose around him: he couldn’t tell if it was from the spare limbs that were stacked like bleached firewood against the wall or the breath of these harlequin bodies crowding out the light as they struggled for a vantage point.

The pain was fresh and bright and endless but soon, it reached such a zenith that the only sensations that could ensue were gradations of dullness. Some time before morning, as a rind of light peeled away from the treetops, Emma snatched his eyes.

*

He walked back to the school, trying to gather a sense of himself from the torment in his head. Just now, he’d had the urge to piss but couldn’t remember how. Unzipping himself because the pain was so great there, he’d discovered a smooth, shiny portion of skin tattooed with tiny words: Catheter till Wed pm (fresh attachment). Further explorations had revealed the absence of his left nipple and loose skin, as of an elbow missing a bone, where his shoulder had once been uniform muscle. His entire was lined with stitches as though he’d been wrapped in webbing. From groin to throat, thick rope sutures prevented him spilling to the floor. He was so far removed from experience that he couldn’t even begin to acknowledge what pain or colour or smell was. It wasn’t the complex web of catgut that appalled him. Black, bloated thoughts swelled in his head, memories he couldn’t lay claim to: all of his real scars lay inside.

 

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.

Quick… draw!

Gutshot is now available to pre-order at the PS Publishing website. The book comes in two delicious flavours: a hardcover at £19.99 and a signed, jacketed hardcover at £39.99. Thanks to the calibre of the authors involved, I reckon this one will shift so hurry to avoid disappointment. Gutshot is to be published in October 2011.