Romanse Macabre: An Urban Fantasy Zombie-Noir, Part Two

Read the first part here.

 

 

THREE

 

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.

 

He reloaded.

 

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.
Crack.

 

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.’

 

‘I’m what?’

 

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–’

 

‘Parents.’

 

Amelia’s brow furrowed, ‘But that would make you…’

 

‘Fuck off.’

 

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?’

 

Amelia grimaced.

 

‘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?’

 

 

FOUR

 

PRESENT DAY

 

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.

 

Read the first part here.

 

 

Romanse Macabre: An Urban Fantasy Zombie-Noir, Part One

The opening chapters of “Romanse Macabre”, a full-length novel written by me as part of my “Sisters Noire” series. Please be respectful and do not re-post this anywhere else. Apart from that, enjoy and feel free to comment!
 

Read the opening already?Read the next chapters here.

 

 

Never let the future disturb you.
You will meet it, if you have to,
with the same weapons of reason which
today arm you against the present
– Marcus Aurelius

 

No one murdered, nothing gained
– Robert Clegg

 

 

 

ONE

 

James stood in the Shilling and Rupee Curry House – waistcoat, pocket watch, breeches. It had been said he was a sucker for fashion and Neo-Vic was the vogue. He dusted off his glasses and reapplied them, watching the television, the volume was low but he knew the advert and it always made him smile; “Come to Little Anglitan,” it said, “where the fun never ends”. He wondered how many it had persuaded to visit the arse-end of England, it actually pitched his home city pretty well. Images of Discus Bay with its lighthouse, the view over the city from Marvel Hill and the splendid Cathedral at the city’s heart all flashed up on screen. Words like “varied and interesting” popped up in a non-too subtle manner and he supposed Little Anglitan was. The lie came when they explained how the city was busy “all year round”. He didn’t think much to the typography they were using, either. When the good weather came people were out in force on the beaches and on the pier. About ten miles North of Land’s End as the crow flies, the city’s summer months were highly lucrative, but in winter things quietened considerably. The advert ended with Atari the Grand News Zeppelin all lit up in the night sky. James had tried unsuccessfully to imagine a Little Anglitan without the vast shadow of Atari blanketing the city, permanently throwing news and slogans down into the valley at the city’s population. It was gigantic compared to its predecessors – able to comfortably carry three hundred passengers – but still dwarfed by its brothers and sisters in London. James recalled a programme he’d watched on the Hindenberg. Redden, the current PM had a grandfather on the airship during a botched attack and had it succeeded, there would be no Lord Horatio Redden at all. James phased out as the evening news came on. He glanced at the clock on the curry house wall, skeletal, it’s cogs exposed. A cheap imitation of some high-end Neo-Vic brand timepiece that were currently trending. Five forty-five pm.

 

A pissed off looking man, most certainly the owner, flitted between taking orders, yelling at the kitchen staff and mumbling about things he’d catch for a few seconds on the evening news. ‘Bloody politics,’ he said. ‘Overpaid bastard,’ he grumbled and ‘Damn holiday-makers.’. James considered keeping a tally of the man’s mutterings on the dog-eared menu he’d received through his front door several months back, watching as the newsreader shuffled his papers.

 

‘Yes sir?’ the disgruntled owner finally asked, his customer-facing voice more palatable.

 

James  made his order and as the owner shouted to the kitchen, James’ eyes went back to the screen – a fresh story from Wales and the reopening of the coal mines. Oil had well and truly run out of steam, so steam had taken over. Coal had become a rich commodity and Reddenergy had now taken the reigns.

 

‘It’s all watered down, to protect the planet they’d argue,’ said the owner, possibly to James. ‘It’s obvious who gets the good stuff. They churn up all kinds of crap for us – plants, animal fat, god knows what else.’

 

‘Children?’ James offered.

 

The owner didn’t smile, he merely wiped greasy hands down his overall. ‘I wouldn’t put it past them. They charge the earth for the converters.’

 

‘I got rid of my car,’ said James with a reassuring grin, though he felt a little pang of loss whenever he thought about it. ‘You want to speak to my mate Laurence, he’s not bothering with a converter on his either, he’s holding out until they turn his car into a cube. And he likes curry.’

 

James left the Indian with a spring in his step, when he got to Laurence’s they would drink beer, watch crap television, stuff themselves silly and in all likelihood moan about the office. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose a little, stomach rumbling at the smell emanating from the hot bag in his hand. He passed through a wide alley he used as a short cut to Laurence’s, lined with dustbins. The air was still hot from another sweaty summers day. James whistled Little Red Monkey as he walked, one of many Redden recycled bygone ditties he’d committed to memory, no-doubt so he could forget something important instead. He tried not to make eye contact with the men strolling past and whistled another verse. A man in black boots with a buzz haircut, a guy with an explosion of ginger hair, a bloke dressed in dark clothes, hair a shock of black and another man, but James had diverted his gaze to the floor by this time, he certainly had cool trainers, though. James tightened his hand around the bag of curry and looked up. He couldn’t help but stare at the man with a face that looked like he’d combed it with a cheese-grater and his taller and equally menacing companion. The man with the scarred face pushed a hand inside his scuffed suit and something metal came out. James had seen them in perhaps a million photographs and movies, but nothing quite prepared him for the sight of this man pulling a gun. James twisted away from them, bag swinging in his grip, eyes meeting the four men who had passed him, ducking, falling, pulling their own guns; the sounds of gunfire and a terrible pain as something struck his jacket and he fell. Irritation as on his back James realised the curry had spilt. He would have to go back and get some more. He put his hand on the burning pain and winced, brought his fingers into sight – blood. He stared at the sky, fished in his pocket for his phone and searched it for a number. He dialled, stared blankly at it for a moment, then he raised his phone to his ear and waited for Laurence to answer.

 

‘Lau-rence,’ Jesus, thought James, I can do better than that.

 

The phone crackled. ‘Hello?’

 

‘Lau-rence. I dropped, I dropped the curry.’

 

‘James? Where are you?’

 

James struggled to bring his voice under control, it hurt to talk. ‘The alley near the Indian, you know…’

 

‘Are you OK? James?’

 

‘Actually…’ A weak laugh. ‘I think I may be dying.’ And as he said it he realised he was. He realised there would be no more curry, no more crap television and no more moaning about the office. There would be no tranquil paradise fifty years down the line where he could die in his sleep surrounded by family; this was it, an alley that smelled of piss in a less than savoury part of a sea-side satellite town.

 

‘Hold on,’ said Laurence. ‘I’m coming…’

 

‘Hurry,’ said James. He felt the wound pulsing, ‘stay on the line. Talk to me.’

 

James looked around a little, but it hurt to move. Other men were writhing around him and lots of blood, he couldn’t really work out who they were, if they were the men he had just seen. Then the sound of a dog barking, a figure standing over him. At first James thought someone had come to finish the job. He rested his phone beside him.

 

‘Oh my god, can you hear me?’ – the shaky voice of a young woman. Her face blurred a bit through James’ steamed glasses.

 

‘I’m alive,’ James muttered. ‘If you could grab me a ride in an ambulance that’d… be lovely.’

 

‘OK,’ she said. ‘Of course. You’re going to be all right, OK? I’ll only be a moment,’ she left his field of vision and he heard her speaking on a phone.

 

James put his own phone back to his mouth. ‘See Laurence, someone’s just called me an ambulance. Nice lady. You’d like her.’

 

‘Stay awake OK? What do you fancy watching when we get back?’

 

‘Something… dreadful.’

 

‘I’ll be right there mate,’ said Laurence. ‘I can… I can see you. Oh Jesus.’

 

Quick footsteps. Laurence dropped to his knees beside him.

 

James felt the man’s hand on his, he had to imagine the slightly dog-eared suit, neck tie and hat he was sure his friend would be wearing as his vision had started to blur. ‘Hi Laurence,’ he said.

 

‘You’re going to be all right, OK? You’ll be all right. Where’s the girl?’ said Laurence.

 

‘Don’t know. I heard her call, though. Laurence, look, I–’

 

James felt the world on his shoulders, he could feel something monumental coming, the strange weightlessness of the situation, the pain had been replaced with something else. Something final and unquantifiable.

 

‘Laurence…’ his mind reeled, stomach lurching.

 

Laurence’s eyes were wet. ‘You’ll be OK, you’ll be all right,’ he kept saying.

 

Sirens now, getting closer.

 

‘This is difficult, mate,’ said James, ‘but I really need you to listen…’

 

Laurence waited. Prompted. Bent double and puked.

 

James only stared.
At six o’clock in Little Anglitan flashing lights and sirens closed in.

 

 

 

TWO

 

THREE YEARS EARLIER

 

Bryony was used to this now. Being forced up early by the resident battleaxe, standing naked in a shower with umpteen other damaged women and then slinging on sexless clothes designed for the morbidly obese. She was used to the taunts from the other girls and the officers. She was used to sleeping with one eye open – not least because she’d been dubbed “the pretty blonde” by some of the other girls. The one with the dimples on her cheeks. Bryony hated her fucking dimples. She was also used to being herded onto a stuffy coach at four in the morning. On the face of things it seemed there would be nothing different about this trip.
To take her mind off the other passengers and the smell of stale smoke, Bryony focussed on the green hills rolling past the window, pastures marking freedom – something now foreign, reminding her of a distant, idyllic childhood. Where had it all gone wrong? she wondered, accepting the paper cup of orange juice in her cuffed hands and sipping it slowly. Cattle grazed on the hills; their bodies twisted and melted into grass and bled into the sky as Bryony’s eyelids dropped shut and she slumped in her seat.

 

For weeks Bryony had been made to fill out paper-based tests and by the end of them her faceless grey clothes were covered in ink. The wardens would not give her new clothes, not unless she cut holes in them; they would only wash her dowdy pregnant garbs which dulled the black and blue a little. She had asked the wardens what the tests were for, in return they’d given her some bullshit about mind stimulation and evaluation; measuring the happiness of the patients in the facility that was now her home. Tests did not faze her – twenty-one years of age and despite a patchy attendance record at school, so far as she could remember she had never failed a test in her life. Originally there had been computers but some girls insisted on smashing them, even when they were dictating to typists with their hands secured behind their backs. The girls of the Izabela Woman’s Facility of Correctness were resourceful. Paper cost trees but the cuts it gave were, as a rule, less harmful. Or expensive. The tests started out easy and took place every Wednesday morning at ten am in the draughty main hall following breakfast and exercise. In fact, to begin with, Bryony couldn’t even call them tests. Rather they were unmarked questionnaires with questions like “What was your favourite place to visit as a child?” and various social scenarios requiring descriptive answers. Even at this stage, the following week there would be less girls in the hall. Then came the questions which were tests. Anyone who groaned too loudly or caused a raucous got thrown out and the following Wednesday previous troublemakers would be absent from the hall. The tests increased in difficulty as the weeks passed, until there were less and less of them sitting there. Despite the lack of any definable goal when it came to the tests, Bryony had made her own, a logical goal – to be the last one seated in the room. To see it through to the bitter end. Near the end of the tests Bryony experienced the same euphoria she’d experience in her youth. That self-assuredness of passing tests and doing well before her body blossomed into something beautiful to help things along. Before she “Grew into herself”, a phrase her generous uncle Terry had used to describe her transition to womanhood. A man whose arm she would later break in two places. She had become the room – the horrible hall with its dusty ceiling fan and grimy windows. She was the energy powering it, the light lighting it and the cool air inside it. She was good karma and another job well done. She was her own untroubled youth – her and her mother and father together. At home before it all went wrong. Steamy windows and Sunday roasts. For a moment she was completely content. But then, when there were only four girls left in the ever increasingly draughty hall, the tests stopped. She woke up early every Wednesday for the next three weeks for breakfast and exercise, but not once was she recalled to the hall for another exam. In fact, nobody was allowed anywhere near to the hall for the duration of those three weeks. All Bryony could do was imagine the final heats, those few girls with more agile minds than her. But how could that be? She was positive she’d answered all of the questions correctly and concisely, “No waffle” – the mantra of one of Bryony’s oft-flustered secondary school English teachers. It must have been down to the descriptive questions and those on world views. She had analysed her opponents in the last few tests, they were a far cry from most of the patients. They looked like they were from better places and took better care of themselves, though evidently somewhere along the line things had taken a nosedive and they’d ended up with her.

 

When Bryony awoke she found herself on a soft bed in a room of antiquity. She scanned the room – beautiful wooden furniture, shelves lined with fine china and a dresser covered in old dolls and toys. For a moment she thought she’d fallen asleep in a National Trust property, or possibly Windsor Castle. That at any moment some frustrated member of staff would step around a red bollard just out of sight and ask her to kindly remove herself before he called the police. Then she’d probably be sent packing and receive a fine. Or more likely than not, be locked up again. She tried to move, but grogginess and a spinning head prevented this.

 

‘Here,’ a man’s voice.

 

She swung her head to see a flash of hands and a bin bag obscured her vision. She was pulled up by two pairs of strong hands and marched in zigzags, presumably through the house, castle… whatever it was. She tried to resist, felt a tinge of panic, but she was too dazed to do much of anything. They guided her down creaking wooden steps, which were at least big enough for the three to walk side-by-side. She heard faint voices from other rooms and lost focus on her journey, but judged she passed through four more rooms before being pushed into a chair and the bag came off. She squinted. Two men stood over her with black suits and closely-cropped hair. She found it difficult to distinguish between them, though one was greying very slightly.

 

‘What is your name?’ asked one of the men. He had a slight Yorkshire accent.

 

Her voice was a croak and at first little sound came out.

 

‘Your name?’ the Yorkshireman repeated.

 

She tried to think of a fake alias but her brain wasn’t working.

 

‘Bryony. That was your name, wasn’t it?’

 

She agreed.

 

‘It has been changed. Your new name will be Amelia. Amelia Railey.’
She tried to argue, but her voice was a gargle and the bag went back over her head.

 

Amelia’s head had been covered by the bag three more times before she agreed to be called Amelia, which, having then been provided with an (at least according to them) official document, appeared to be her actual name. She had no idea now where she was in the house, they had moved her each time the bag went back on.

 

‘Bryony is dead.’ Said the Yorkshireman. He was tall and middle-aged, greying but athletic. ‘You can remember your past but it will be easier for you to forget.’ She hadn’t noticed before, but his eyes seemed to glow as he spoke. ‘We’re not going to faff about erasing your past any more than we already have done, though.’

 

Amelia dreaded to think what he’d meant by that.

 

‘My name is Claxton,’ said the Yorkshireman. ‘Welcome to Grace Manor. We are with the Government, and now, so are you. I can see you have misgivings, but let me assure you, this is your second chance at life.’

 

‘What am I doing here?’ she asked.

 

‘Working,’ he said simply. ‘There are things in this world that you won’t have seen before. Things that can’t easily be explained or understood. It is your job to ensure such things are regulated.’

 

‘I don’t understand.’

 

He smiled. ‘Of course you don’t, we haven’t explained yet. I need you to meet someone for that. Can you walk?’

 

‘I mean I don’t understand,’ said Amelia. ‘I was supposed to be being moved to Adelaide Glen today, on that coach. Why am I here? Where are all the others?’

 

‘They went there. You came here.’

 

Amelia coughed. ‘Where are we?’

 

‘Can you walk?’

 

She stood, a little shakily it had to be said, but she managed it.

 

‘Come along,’ said Claxton. ‘There’s someone you need to meet.’

 

She followed, trying to map the intricacies of the house in her mind, the nooks and crannies, any possible escape routes she could exploit. It looked like places she’d visited in her youth, stately home trust properties open to the public in London and dotted about the country. More grand though, and at the same time, more functional. She noticed a mixture of small and large shuttered rooms with heavy velvet curtains and spied what looked like a ballroom. She admired the majesty of the house – its grand hall with its marble statues and gleaming, polished floor, the beautiful wooden bannisters of the stairs and the ornate carpets and wall hangings.

 

‘Before you meet her,’ Claxton began ‘we need to make an agreement. You need to sign some papers. In here. Come.’

 

She found herself being ushered into a box room beneath the stairs in the grand hall by the Yorkshireman. She sat on an uncomfortable wooden chair and a document landed in front of her with a smack on the featureless table. The paper was a wedge of dead trees she had no desire to read or sign.

 

A moment of her staring listlessly at the cover and the man cleared his throat.

 

“Amelia Railey – Recruitment and Secrets Act” it read. She tried not to laugh at the title.

 

‘Recruitment for what?’ she asked.

 

He didn’t answer. She leafed through. Amelia read fast, scanning the information like a hungry scholar. It was vague, her signing her life away for some unspecified cause.

 

‘I can’t sign this if I don’t know what it’s for.’

 

What happened next happened fast. A silver handgun appeared in his hand. He pointed it at her face, she half considered batting it out of the way or letting him finish her, or refusing and seeing if he’d take her back to… no, she couldn’t go back there.
‘Time to sign, Amelia. We don’t have all day.’

 

She penned her signature with a drowsy hand.

 

‘Good, now you’re with us. Who will miss you? There’s nobody tomiss you. You have promise but you don’t use it, you’re not destitute but there’s something fundamental missing from your person. We can give you what you need to complete you. Give you purpose. Otherwise you might as well empty this handgun into your temple as we speak.’

 

‘I signed alrea–’

 

He waved his hand to silence her, as if her signing her life away had meant nothing and it was still her choice. It was still her choice.

 

He flipped the gun in his hand, handed it to her.

 

She turned it back on him, pulled the trigger. Nothing.

 

He smiled. ‘You’re tired Miss Railey, or you’d have known the gun to be empty. No more mess ups like that with us, we’ll teach you what you need to do.’

 

He acknowledged the man who put his head around the door. ‘Back to business, Ivan?’ said Claxton. ‘Send her in please. Amelia, here’s the lady of the house.’

 

The door opened and in walked the most beautiful woman Amelia had ever seen. Porcelain skin, eyes to die for and hair so perfect Amelia wanted to bury her face in it. She looked like a starlet who had waltzed off some imaginary fifties chat show with her wide, faint-yellow skirt, brunette curls and shock of crimson lipstick. Though there was something that didn’t sit quite right. Probably the red Converse. Again jarring slightly, a cruel looking metal choker clung to her neck, a red light glowing like a demon’s eye at its centre.

 

‘This is Vika Noire,’ said Claxton, ‘you two will be friends. When you were tested we found you posses attributes that would benefit our program, twinned with your fearlessness and willingness to fight. There are six girls currently in residence here, but you two are sworn to a secrecy that far surpasses the documents they have signed.’

 

Vika looked bored, as though she’d heard it all before, thumbing her choker like a fresh wedding ring.

 

‘One thing though Amelia, don’t believe you’re not replaceable. We can and will replace you should you muck up and then you’ll wish you were dead. Firm but fair, that’s our motto.’

 

He smiled again. What a bastard. Amelia stared at Vika, her eyes gave away nothing save for sadness. Would she be able to fill her in on what on earth she’d let herself in for?

 

Amelia waited patiently for Claxton to speak as he took a seat next to her in the manor’s grand dining room. She laid her knife and fork beside each other on her plate and sat back, wiping a greasy hand on a long grey shirt sleeve when she thought nobody had noticed, the clearing of a throat told her that someone had. One of the manor’s servants took the plate away and Amelia gave her thanks.

 

‘I take it you and Vika are well acquainted by now?’ said Claxton.

 

‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘I ask questions but she says nothing. She’s told me to fuck off once or twice.’

 

Claxton traced a line with his finger across the wooden table. ‘She’s like that. She needs defrosting.’

 

Amelia shrugged. ‘She wished me good morning and goodnight the other day.’

 

‘Well that’s something,’ he said.

 

‘Doesn’t she ever leave this place?’

 

He shook his head. ‘She is under house arrest. Unless she’s allowed out for a jaunt of course. We call her jaunts missions.’

 

Funny bastard, she thought.

 

‘You’ll have much the same treatment. Access to house and grounds only unless you’re out on reconnaissance, those are the rules.’

 

When Amelia wasn’t working on defrosting Vika Noire, she explored the house and grounds with surprising freedom, despite the constant feeling of being watched. She hadn’t fared much better with the other girls who so far had kept themselves to themselves and knew each other mainly by nicknames – the Mata Hari and Ci-Ci “Wetwork” Wyndham, for example.

 

Amelia, sleeves rolled up, sat reading mindless propaganda in her room on the manor’s version to the Internet called The Information Desk. It had everything, so long as they wanted you to read it. Amelia concluded that she’d been moved to the other side of the house from where she woke up in bed on her arrival. Her new room was not overly different, more minimalist. Damask-patterned wallpaper with two landscape oil paintings – places she did not know. Claxton had forced her to wear black. Someone at some point had entered her room and tied black ribbons to the fixtures and ornaments. She tried to ignore whatever they were doing. Her window looked out onto the vast grounds and adjoining wood, a fence lined it – electric. Rain came down hard and with the window open she could hear the fence sizzle. Occasionally she’d see an armed guard patrolling it. She watched in silent amazement as the door from the adjoining room – Vika’s, opened and out she strode, skin near-translucent. She stopped statue-still.

 

‘Hi,’ said Vika, her accent strange, a sort of uncaring mock American rock chick that did little to cover something far posher. She stood, hands in pockets, looking bored.

 

‘Hi,’ said Amelia, a little taken aback. ‘How’s it going?’

 

Vika slouched a little. ‘Fine. How’re you?’

 

Amelia smiled, stifled laughter and apparently got away with it, someone was trying too hard for don’t-give-a-fuck. ‘Getting by. I still don’t know why I’m here. I take it Vika isn’t your real name?’

 

‘Is now.’

 

‘OK. So what was it before?’ Amelia wheeled her office chair next to the bed and patted the duvet. Vika glided and sat.

 

‘I can’t talk about it. They have eyes and ears,’ she tapped her choker, grinned.

 

So apparently it was some kind of listening device. That could go some way to explaining Vika’s conversational manner, Amelia thought. ‘I was told we wouldn’t be able to talk much. They weren’t bloody joking.’

 

‘Yup,’ said Vika, ‘It’ll be good to have company.’

 

Amelia felt her eyebrows rise. ‘I didn’t think you liked me.’

 

Vika made a what-do-you-mean face, ‘Nah, you’re all right.’

 

Now what? Amelia stared out of the window at the trees and electric fences, racking her brains for something to say. ‘Can I talk about me?’

 

‘What did they say about that?’

 

‘They said it’s best I forget.’

 

‘Yup,’ said Vika. ‘It is. It can get rough if they think you’re not trying to reform, and it’s best you go along with the present, not the past, or things will get more difficult. Try to forget.’

 

To Amelia this didn’t sound like it’d be a fulfilling friendship. Maybe she’d leave it then.

 

All said and done, Vika did not look like a person who had forgotten herself, there was that spark in her eyes, one Amelia hadn’t before recognised. Besides the defiance, past the sadness, revenge, possibly? People didn’t forget that easily.

 

‘So what do you do here?’ said Amelia. ‘They mentioned missions?’

 

‘I sort out problems.’

 

Amelia barely suppressed a sigh. ‘What sort of problems?’

 

‘Surreal problems. Less surreal problems.’

 

Like blood out of a stone. ‘Vika, I really need your help on this. I really need you to tell me what I’m doing.’

 

‘When they woke me up I knew even less than you, Amelia, believe me. They’ll explain things in the next few days. It’s always easier to see with your own eyes, I wouldn’t want to confuse you prematurely.’

 

‘No, no chance of that,’ said Amelia.

 

‘Amelia?’

 

‘What?’

 

‘It’s shit,’ she said. ‘I know. Sorry. Try to get some sleep.’
 
 

Read the second part here.