It had been a shock to Amelia’s system to be woken up at four am after a week of getting up whenever she’d fancied. The benefits of nobody shouting at you during the night or not having to sleep with one eye open were peculiar to her. Now here she was, boiler-suited, barefoot and handcuffed. Led out into the thick of the many-acre grounds, far further than she’d been before into a secluded circle of trees. Claxton, a middle-aged ginger woman she’d never met before, a man with what looked to be a sniper rifle and a girl with a sack-cloth bag over her head stood in the rough circle of trees surrounding a large steel box. Amelia twitched involuntarily, a chill up her spine. This did not look good. A small wooden platform had been built into the trees about ten meters back from the box, a wooden ladder leading up to it. Amelia, relieved of her cuffs was instructed to follow the man and woman up the ladder. She watched from the platform at the top as the sniper shouldered his rifle, un-cuffed the girl and pulled off her hood. The sniper pushed her to her knees and he turned to climb the ladder.
‘What the fuck are you doing to her?’ said Amelia.
Both the woman and Claxton glanced through her then turned back to look at the girl. She was staring at them from below.
‘Recognise her, Amelia?’
She did. From the tests at the institute. That girl – Lindsey, with the mousy hair who’d taken the same tests as her.
‘This is your last test, Lindsey,’ said Claxton. ‘Take the gun from your pocket. Six bullets, make them count.’
Amelia made for the ladder but a bullet zipped past her ear and had her reeling, deaf on the precipice. Hands pulled her away from the edge. Sniper man’s hands. He held her firm and frog-marched her back so she could see Lindsey.
Claxton clicked his tongue. ‘Are you quite ready Lindsey?’
Lindsey shook. ‘Whatever you’re planning please don’t do this to me.’
‘Don’t show yourself up, you can still rival Amelia, despite your limited success with the written tests.’
‘I answered all of the questions!’ said Lindsey.
Claxton tutted. ‘You missed one.’
‘I got them all right, you… you fuck!’
‘Flattery will get you nowhere,’ he said. ‘George, open it, please.’
The sniper pointed something at the metal box and pressed it, some kind of remote. Slowly the front-wall of the box slid down and their ears filled with screaming. Lindsey’s screaming, but far worse screaming. Something feral, something demonic from inside the box.
‘Please don’t do this,’ she begged, her voice raw.
‘Six bullets,’ Claxton said, simply.
She let one off immediately, it barely grazed the metal of the box. Lindsey fell back, turning to flee, but George’s sniper rifle zipped a bullet by her foot. She stopped stock still.
Amelia could barely breathe, horror and hate had gripped her as the thing inside the box threw itself into the world. Well one of the things. The box started to close as more arms launched out, clawing angrily at the outside world.
Lindsey hit the monster in the leg – monster? No, a man, some crazy feral man. It gurgled horrid words, got back to its feet and hobbled towards her.
Her next bullet flew uselessly wide. The man smacked the gun out of her hand. Punched her in the face, knocking her backwards in a shower of blood. On her back she grasped uselessly for the gun, meters away, the rise and fall of her chest a series of mini explosions. The man was on her, ripping at her stomach and throat, Lindsey screaming and twitching and then nothing at all; just a smear of blood and flesh amidst a circle of trees.
Amelia wanted to scream. She wanted to fight these people, to kill them. Instead she threw up over the side of the tower. Distantly she noticed movement down on the grass.
‘George?’ said Claxton.
The zip of another bullet. A thud and then quiet. When Amelia looked down at Lindsey’s corpse on the ground the crazy lay face down next to her, an oasis of blood surrounding them both.
‘Lindsey had her chance, Amelia. She chose early retirement. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.’
A cold sweat clung to Amelia’s face and back. ‘You’re fucking evil. All of you.’
‘She had six bullets,’ said Claxton. ‘Six bullets for one man.’
‘She’d probably never fired a gun before.’
Claxton snorted. ‘Lindsey stabbed a girl to death when she was seventeen. She blew her second chance. She got what she deserved. You still have your chance, you’re up tomorrow.’
Claxton made to pat her on the shoulder, Amelia pulled away. ‘Tomorrow you’ll do the Lindsey test.’
She tried to ignore what she’d just heard. ‘Where do these things come from?’
‘Trouble spots, Amelia. Lawless places. You don’t need to know. You only need to aim and shoot.’
Amelia heaved but nothing came, there was nothing left to bring up but saliva. She wiped her mouth. ‘I’ve never seen a person act like that before.’
‘A person? Not a person, Amelia. A thing. He was no more a person than my dead grandmother is.’
And that made her think of a name from long ago. Ruxpin. A name from her past that criss-crossed her mind. It couldn’t be, could it? Could that spindly little man have anything to do with the dead monster down in the grass?
‘Did someone do that to him?’ she asked.
‘Perhaps. It doesn’t matter to you. These are the types of things you’re up against. You read at least part of the document, why do you think you signed the Secrets Act? Why do you think it mentioned outlandish occurrences? It’s your job to look after Vika, to keep her sane. Be her friend – her lifeline and at times, cover her back. That is why tomorrow you begin your training proper.’
After Lindsey’s death Amelia was free to wander the grounds for the rest of the day. She walked along the perimeter fence for a spell – no chance of scaling that, even if it wasn’t electrified. Besides, guards and Gazers – small orb-shaped hover robots bristling with cameras and sensors patrolled the manor’s forty acres of private gardens and courtyards. There were few places to hide, if any. The gardens had elaborate water features and a vast hedge maze. Beautiful flowers sat snug in their beds and the grass looked pristine. She wasn’t in the mood for any of it. She looked for Vika inside the house but couldn’t find her, even in her room. Eventually she spotted Vika sat on the grass in a secluded corner under some tall evergreens. As Amelia approached she noticed the gravestones.
‘The only part of my heritage they haven’t screwed,’ said Vika without turning.
Amelia looked at the inscriptions on the stones, Albert and Elise Stapleton. ‘Relatives?’
‘Yup. Ma and pa.’
They didn’t sound very American to Amelia, but something stranger caught her eye. ‘These are your parents? Not your grandparents or great–’
Amelia’s brow furrowed, ‘But that would make you…’
Amelia had had enough of a head fuck back in the trees so decided to walk away. Still, she committed the surname Stapleton to memory, perhaps it could use a spot of research.
‘Wait,’ said Vika.
Amelia walked on.
‘Did they take you to the clearing?’
Amelia felt something in her stomach lurch, a sudden slide in her status quo. She turned. ‘The clearing?’
‘The trees,’ said Vika. ‘Did they take you to the trees?’
‘You knew? You fucking knew? Why didn’t you tell me what they were planning?’
Vika frowned. ‘How did it go?’
‘They killed a girl. I have to fight tomorrow. Why the hell didn’t you tell me Vika?’ She found her fists were clenched. She no longer cared for beauty, she wanted to punch Vika’s lights out.
‘Sorry Amelia. How am I supposed to tell you things like that exist?’
A black veil, black suit jacket, black silk gloves, Vika appeared to be dressed in mourning. Then again, thought Amelia, Vika had more costume changes than a Madonna gig, and the skin-tight jeans and blood-red Converse All-Stars did sort of spoil the effect.
It didn’t seem like a good enough excuse but Amelia felt her fists soften a little.
‘Look Vika, they must have put us together for a reason, and though I’m doubtful we’re going to be bosom buddies like they’ve made out, we need to help each other. We’re stuck in the same boat here. I could have died today. You could have prepared me, you could have taught me to shoot.’
‘Not while they’re watching. You don’t know what they’re like, not yet. They killed the last girl I tried to warn. Your predecessor.’
She tried to ignore the implications of the word “predecessor”. ‘They made you take the test too?’
Vika said nothing.
‘Look – I know they let girls die without breaking sweat. I know that tomorrow the same thing will happen again. To me.’
‘It won’t,’ said Vika.
Amelia sighed. ‘Why not?’
‘Because you’re a survivor, you’ll kick ass,’ but Vika didn’t exactly sound sure. ‘Have you fired a gun before?’
‘Well how’s your aim?’
Amelia thought back, she’d done a fair amount of archery when she was younger. Archery, horse-riding, fencing and much time spent under weeping-willows watching insects crawl dumbly across the powerful stanzas of poems. She ached for those days when life had been good.
‘My aim’s not bad,’ she said.
Vika put out her hands and then splayed her fingers in a gesture that seemed to suggest everything would be fine. ‘Aim to kill.’
‘Where the hell did those things come from anyway?’
Vika tapped her choker. ‘You know it gives them a headache every time I do that?’
Amelia shook her head. ‘Maybe I’ve done some bad things in my past.’ She paused. ‘I have done some bad things in my past. But killing something when you have no idea what it is…? How much blood before there’s blood on my hands?’
Laurence Cade could smell the aroma of uneasy bowels. It was his first day back to work in the factory since James’ death and for once, work was the least of his problems, James and Detective Chambers were in his head and would not let him rest. James kept on wisecracking, then he was dead, words cut short as he stared lifelessly up at Little Anglitan’s evening sky. Chambers, hooked on the fact Laurence had appeared first at the crime scene, continued to issue illogical threats. So things went in Laurence’s jaded head, round in circles until his brain eventually tired itself and a short burst of apathy and relaxation kicked in.
Laurence stared at the familiar four walls of the cubicle around him, hands padding their coldness in an effort to steady his spinning, caffeine-bathed head. Sounds and vibrations – an unearthly chorus of echoing farts and pisses. He pulled up his trousers and buckled his belt, putting on his top hat. Opening the door he stumbled across the room to the sinks, he was not a pretty sight. Dark-ringed eyes and hair that at some point during the morning had decided to rebel and form its own style-without-style. All the blemishes of a thousand fuck-ups cried out on his face. He cringed and blinked, eyes red. He splashed water on his face the way they did in the movies. It got his shirt wet.
Laurence re-emerged onto the corridor adjacent to the factory floor. Machines droned from adjoining rooms, the AC running at full capacity to fight the hottest British summer on record. Pax Brit Electronics, situated in Blossom Fields Industrial Park reminded Laurence of a cross between a prisoner of war camp and a family holiday to Butlins he had once endured, which pretty much amounted to the same thing as far as he was concerned. Places you could never really escape or forget, no matter how hard you tried.
Pax Brit Electronics produced little electronic parts for a country whose government, according to some, no longer cared for technology.
After several years on the factory floor Laurence had become the line manager for a bunch of workers who did not much like him. He was not surprised. His job – which he had not earned (as friend and foe repeatedly reminded him), involved him sitting at a desk, phoning and filing and occasionally going downstairs to ruffle the feathers of machinists if things were not up to standards. Every so often Laurence’s boss Mr. Dempsell would get him to make the “you’ll all be replaced by robots” threat, which was beginning to look probable given the current climate. Laurence was moderately happy his day had passed with simple paperwork; at least he was not sat at home brooding. All seemed well right up until the point when Mr. Dempsell strode in, eye-balling the watch on his fat wrist as he closed in on Laurence.
‘A word?’ said Mr. Dempsell, finally making eye contact, hands smoothing slick-back hair before applying his bowler hat.
Laurence had no place to hide. He would just have to have the word and be done with it. He realized his face must have echoed how he felt.
‘Come along, Laurence. It’s nothing bad,’ growled Mr. Dempsell.
So he was not being sacked then. He followed Dempsell into his office which was grey and boring, but mostly plain unsettling. Laurence knew that he would never be comfortable amidst the stench of movers-and-shakers and a world of foul-smelling cologne.
‘Sit down. Please.’
The black leather seat felt instantly uncomfortable. Laurence’s hand found a penny in his pocket and he rubbed it between a sweaty finger and thumb.
‘How are you …feeling?’
‘Um, OK. I suppose.’ Although my best friend is dead and a detective thinks I am somehow to blame, Laurence considered. He glanced James’ empty desk through prison-bar blinds.
‘I know you and James were… good friends.’
Laurence was holding James’ head again, his hands covered in blood. ‘Yes.’ He swallowed. ‘We were.’
‘Was today OK?’
Not really, thought Laurence. At least his mind had only been ninety percent on other things. ‘Fine,’ he said.
‘Good. OK then see you tomorrow.’
Laurence descended two flights of stairs and left the grim factory, looking left and right to be sure Detective Chambers was not lurking in the car park. He jumped into his red Mini and drove the mile back home. Laurence loved his car and he was determined to keep on driving it until Reddenergy-enabled automobiles took over completely. He did not have long until it would be illegal for him to drive his car without the monstrous-looking Reddenergy upgrade. He loved his Mini – it was old, reliable and environmentally unfriendly. That it took a little bit of the planet and humanity with him cheered him every time. That’ll teach you to make me out of stardust, he thought.
He wound down the windows and switched on the radio, half-listening to the news and weather. “It’s fair to say we haven’t had the best of global warming in the past, but this year it has been a different story…” Laurence switched it off again and hummed tunelessly, driving under the shadow of a zeppelin far above. Atari, the Grand News Zeppelin hung high on the hot summer air, neon news scrolling across its massive L.E.D. screen as it played classical music. Laurence’s eyes moved from the zeppelin to a series of biplanes looping effortlessly through fluffy cloud formations, one of notorious local aviator Eldon’s work-out routines. Laurence honked his car horn at a family who seemed to think they could stand around scouring maps in the road during rush hour. Tourists annoyed Laurence at the best of times, but he could see they were a necessary evil; people loved the variety Little Anglitan had to offer. Many of the buildings in the city were crooked, a mixture of modern, Tudor and hints of bombed-out settlements struck down in the war. Tower blocks scarred the sky, throwbacks from an ill thought out redevelopment scheme, some inter-connected with pleasant roof gardens – re-imagined space to nurture crops. Most of Little Anglitan’s streets were cobbled, so a damn good pair of shoes was advisable; luckily there were a wealth of distinguished shoemakers in the city.
Laurence reversed a little and half-glimpsed men down a side-street. No. Kids. Bloody kids. Teenagers, early twenties, perhaps. Thugs, by the looks of things, pressing a little guy against a wall. Laurence smacked his horn and the little guy bolted from his startled attackers. Have some of that, thought Laurence, James winking in his mind’s eye. He drove on.
Five forty-five, Laurence noted as he pulled into an empty space at the foot of his tall, grime-grey block of Little Anglitan Minor flats. Thirteen and a quarter hours until he had to think about work again.
Little Anglitan Minor formed the area from the roots of Marvel Hill at the heart of the city to the docks. It stretched all the way over to the Northern outskirts with the rolling hills, cliffs and quarry, Laurence’s flat and then High Otter sloping up towards Blossom Fields Industrial Park and work.
Someone familiar waved in the corner of his eye.
‘James?’ Laurence did a double-take, looking up and down the pavement on the opposite side of the street. Just a few Neo-Vic girls and a mobile market stall packing up for the night, the familiar smell of sea-salt in the air. No James. He pulled out his mint herbals, shirt clinging to him; perhaps he would get a shower before he got a smoke.
The inside of Laurence’s flat was not terribly different from the outside, dark and fairly depressing. The last of a dying breed. The wallpaper in the few poky rooms he called his own curled at the edges and it was difficult to locate a corner that did not have its own mouse trap.
Laurence put a tape into his portable audio player. He armed himself with chunky headphones and pressed play. He closed his eyes and side B kicked in.
‘What are you doing here, side A not enough for you, eh?’ bellowed the Zen Master. ‘Well seeing as how you are, we may as well get on with it. Here are some more eyes closed practices that can help you improve your mind and well-being.’
In one ear panpipes played and in the other came the Zen Master’s instruction. Laurence had purchased a job lot of original Zen Master tapes from a charity shop to go with the one James had taped off for him.
The phone rang. Laurence brushed the headphones to one side with a grumble and picked up the receiver.
‘Is Mr. Laurence Cade there?’
Laurence paused, rolling his eyes when he realised it was not Detective Chambers, he could make out the familiar ambience of a call centre. Scratching his nose with his free hand he replied, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Cade is dead.’ He hung up, not entirely sure why he had said it. He rubbed the sweat off his forehead, cursing the heat. There would be no real merit in showering; he would sweat and smell bad, there were no two-ways about it. He stripped to his underpants. This worked well enough, he thought, checking himself; still skinny, despite doing little to no exercise each day. He could certainly see signs of muscles.
The clock ticked away more of his life as he poured himself a brandy and sipped. He decided the clothes should go back on. His eye twitched; too much caffeine at work.
Fully clothed he stood on the balcony, flicked the flint of his ivory lighter and sparked up a mint herbal. A washing line stretched from his side to another block of flats, above a patch of grass surrounding an ancient Chestnut. On her washing line hung the infamous polka-dot top, dark-red trousers, a skirt and a flowery dress. Never undergarments. He sighed, knowing his neighbour must dry hers inside as he did. He watched her step out onto the opposite balcony, his heart beating fast as her eyes met his. It was hard to make out details but she was pretty – more than pretty, beautiful. They had shared brief glances before, but tonight time stood still. She smiled and Laurence returned the favour. She waved – a quick flick of her wrist before she turned and disappeared behind lace curtains.
It took a few moments for Laurence to remember where he was, standing on his balcony, staring into space. He flicked the stub into the darkness where the lit end glowed for a moment before fading forever.
Back inside the phone rang, for about ten seconds Laurence ignored it, then he ripped the phone from its cradle and thrust it to his ear.
‘I told you–’
‘Laurence Cade this is Detective Chambers,’ his voice quiet but authoritative, ‘I trust you have calmed yourself?’
Laurence recalled shouting in the street. ‘You should have been helping me Detective, not hounding me. I’m not the one to blame here. What do you want?’
He heard the man puff on a cigarette, Laurence needed another.
‘I only wanted to know you were there. I’ll be in touch.’
The phone went dead.
A prisoner in my own home, though Laurence. He put his neck tie and top hat on his dresser. If Chambers and the rest of them were not intelligent enough to find James’ killer then Laurence would. He pictured himself as a vigilante – unshaven, smelling and looking dreadful. Eating scraps of whatever he could find and being forced to kill. This made him queasy but a little excited. No, not a vigilante. He would go on a fact-finding mission, James deserved justice. First he knew he needed rest, relaxation; to regulate his damn breathing. He poured himself more brandy and winced as it kicked him in the throat. He poured another measure. These things took time and courage, after all.
Laurence reapplied the headphones to let the Zen Master take control, the day draining out of him and slowly his stomach loosened; he was swimming in a bright blue ocean of possibility. Then at the wheel in a sports car with a gorgeous girl at his side, the girl he shared his washing line with, she’d certainly do. He climbed a mountain and turned to ether. He was the air and the earth and the sea and he was complete. The tape clicked stop, he opened his eyes and the murkiness of his flat crawled back over him. Sleep was still an issue – patchy at best after James’ demise and the heat did not help. He would shiver and sweat, stripping off his covers. Next he would open all the windows, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the outside bustle of tourists and night-time festivities. Most of all he would think about his dead friend, but at least he’d got his appetite back. He thumped seven holes in a potato with a fork, stuck it in the microwave, waited, extracted it, halved it and chucked in a lump of butter. Dinner was served.