Amelia held her gun firm, slipped off her shoes and felt the cool grass beneath her feet. She noticed a patch of trampled ground a few metres to her left. There were probably bits of blood and body if you cared to look. She didn’t. By her feet there were discarded handcuffs and a sack-cloth hood. A red dot lingered on the metal box in front of her as the front panel slid down slowly. Screams and muffled words spat from the steel box. She did not scream, she stood firm. Counted in her head. One to five, five to ten. Baby steps.
Six bullets. Six chances.
She breathed in, breathed out. Watched, waited. The flash of an arm clawing air. She fired and it exploded, a red spatter of gore against the steel box – a wasted shot. Wherever the rest of the monstrosity was it had fallen out of view. She took a few steps back. Another – this time with a full accompaniment of limbs launched itself at her. She took aim – crack, watched it’s head disappear. Blood drenched her face and body as the corpse rolled past her. More screams. Not her own.
‘Close it you bastards!’ She screamed. ‘Wasn’t that enough?’
No response from the tower.
‘Wasn’t that a-fucking-nough?’ She held firm, waited on the next monster. Two more flung themselves at her, eyes a crazy blue.
One of her bullets ripped through a shoulder, another wasted. She blew the head off the other – the one with the wrecked hand, it crashed against the steel prison and sank into the grass.
She fired at the remaining monster – the one with the damaged shoulder. Nothing compared to the bullet she put in its eye. It’s brain exploded and it went down. No more screams.
One more bullet.
As the door closed she pocketed the handgun, but as she did so a red dot appeared on her hand.
‘Put the gun on the ground,’ said Claxton.
She did so.
‘Kick it to the side.’
She did that too.
‘Very well done Amelia. Head and shoulders above Lindsey’s effort.’
She breathed fast, caked in blood. Claxton and the woman climbed down the ladder.
‘You have raw talent,’ said Claxton. ‘Here you’ll learn focus and control. Bed now. You’ll rise at four am tomorrow.’
Amelia had finally accompanied Vika on missions, but truth be told, she felt as though she may as well have been rattling around the house. She learned nothing and barely saw Vika. She was a driver, mainly, and had to resist the urge to put the pedal to the metal and screech off into the sunset. Of course the black car always followed, an armed escort. They had visited the country and a couple of residentials, hardly the same as killing some monstrous freaks in a clearing with a laser-sight pointed at your head.
Amelia sat with Vika in her room. They’d raided the kitchen for chocolate when the cooks weren’t looking and retrieved quite a collection.
‘So much for water-tight surveillance,’ grinned Vika.
Vika’s room, unlike Amelia’s, looked like an angsty teenager’s wet-dream. Posters of metal and grunge bands, clothes tossed over the floor, make-up smears on her crooked mirror and packs of cigarettes from god-knows where that were periodically confiscated. The strangest thing about it all was that Vika had made no attempt to alter the room itself or move around the original items. Embroidery, partly obscured by posters hung on the walls. Two large balloon backed chairs sat next to the window and lace and velvet obscured much of the room’s natural light. Vika owned a large collection of jewellery, some of it on show, much of it in a large silver jewellery box that folded out into several tiers with a built in mirror. It contained what she referred to as Victorian and Empire jewellery. Gold and silver, sapphires and perhaps a hundred other precious stones. Hardly your average mad-at-your-dad’s rock-chick haul, thought Amelia.
Vika sat cross-legged in cowboy boots, wearing a plaid fabric dress with a red sash bow.
‘You ever gonna get out of those birthing clothes for Christ’s sake?’ Vika tugged one of Amelia’s oversized sleeves.
‘Do you have anything I can borrow?’ Immediately Amelia felt like retracting the statement as she looked around the room.
‘I’ll find you something,’ said Vika. ‘First let’s eat this stuff before they grab it back.’
Everything Vika did seemed to have a little bit of attitude invested in it. Not always the positive kind, but attitude nonetheless.
‘They wanted me to be a Victoria,’ said Vika, stuffing a chocolate bar into her mouth and tearing off a chunk with her teeth. ‘I watched a bunch of T.V. and came up with a compromise – Vika.’
Amelia tried not to laugh at her lapses into the extremely well-spoken. ‘How did you come up with that?’ she asked.
‘Old Soviet propaganda,’ Vika said between munches. ‘An animation. Vika Der Vampir, my way of kicking against the pricks.’ She said it loudly and as close to her choker as her slightly chocolatey lips could get.
Amelia worried Claxton would thunder in and pistol-whip them both.
‘Ah,’ said Vika. ‘Company.’
Amelia’s heart resumed it’s beating when she realised Vika was referring to the fluffy tabby stretched under the open window who loped across Vika’s dressing table.
‘Not officially my cat,’ admitted Vika. ‘He’s a stray.’
Amelia stroked the tabby gently, his fur felt good. ‘Scaramanga,’ she said, not knowing
quite why. ‘Does he get out much?’
‘Around the grounds,’ said Vika. ‘He’s clever, avoids turning on all the security lights.’
Amelia let him nuzzle her hand. ‘How did he get in?’
‘Who knows, he’s a smartie. Amelia…’
Amelia looked up from the cat. ‘What?’
‘We have a window to talk. Properly talk. Look.’ Vika tapped her choker, the light had gone out.
‘It’s faulty. I’ve spent ages trying to hack the fucking thing off when the light goes out and I’ve never been questioned for it.’
‘What is it anyway?’ said Amelia.
‘Camera, microphone. And… a bomb.’
Amelia laughed. Vika didn’t. Amelia stopped laughing.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You’re not joking are you?’
‘Jesus, really? I…’ how precisely did one console a person with a bomb permanently strapped around their neck? ‘Well I wouldn’t try to cut it off,’ said Amelia.
‘Look.’ Vika turned the choker, exposing a strong-looking clasp. ‘If I cut it here I think I can remove it without danger. “If” being the operative word, I haven’t so much as scratched it so far and believe me Amelia, I’ve really fucking gone for it.’
‘They must really want to keep you here.’
‘Yup,’ she sounded almost proud. ‘Did they tell you why they called you Amelia?’
‘I doubt it really matters. So what did you do?’
For the first time in Amelia Railey’s adult life she was able to unload on someone she trusted and save for a few minor details, she did so.
‘I’d like to hear about you now,’ said Amelia finally. ‘I’d imagine you have some things to get off your chest too.’
Vika held up a finger for quiet and then used it to point at her choker. The collar had relit. Amelia felt a pang of guilt for having spent all of their free time talking about herself, but perhaps that’s precisely how Vika had wanted it.
Amelia had asked Vika before in one of the choker’s down-times whether she had ever tried to escape but Vika had been dismissive, explaining that because of the choker’s bomb there was no way to escape. Months later, after their friendship had flourished, after whispers, glimpses and coming face-to-face with the outlandish, Vika’s outburst came as a complete shock to Amelia.
They sat in Vika’s room at twelve midnight. Amelia perched uneasily as Vika’s rant escalated.
‘How can we support a society that allows so many to die alone? That indoctrinates and allows itself to be indoctrinated? That destroys people and glorifies fucking idiots, that dresses up the past and calls it the future? That worships… fucking anorexics, that has all of these wars and drops atom bombs but still insists on fighting instead of learning? This is not a thing I can protect any more, Amelia. I say let the monsters have them.’
‘What do you mean? You can’t give up,’ said Amelia. ‘Not in this place.’
Vika placed a cigarette between blue lipstick lips with a shaky hand. ‘I’m done Amelia,’ she puffed. ‘I won’t be a prisoner in my own home. Not any more. Is it really giving up to exercise free will? Fuck it. Come with me.’
‘Vika… I can’t, my time here’s nearly up.’
‘Your time here is, yes, but what do you reckon happens afterwards? You’ll always work for these fuckers, Amelia. You read the contract, you’ll become a sleeper for the rest of your life.’
‘I want to come with you Vika, but this isn’t my fight.’ Even as she spoke the words Amelia felt like she was stabbing possibly the best friend she would ever know in the back. Was what Vika was asking really that unreasonable? Yes, it probably was. Risk it all and escape, a life on the run? These people were bastards, there was no dressing that up, but they had taught her to channel anger and passion and given her another chance at life. Sure, she was still in an institution, but soon, soon she’d be set free.
Vika left the room and Amelia followed. Downstairs, she slipped out of one of the manor’s side doors into the dark and cold.
Amelia swept the grounds quickly with her eyes, they were allowed outside at night but there were always guards. She could make out a torch but it was down by the trees and probably too far away to notice them.
Vika said nothing, but held Amelia’s gaze.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Amelia. ‘You really are a great friend but I can’t. You told me nobody ever really escapes anyway.’
‘That’s probably true. It’s cool Amelia. You’re a great friend… you’ve given me hope in all the darkness. Maybe we’ll meet again someday.’
‘I hope so too,’ but it was bloody unlikely, she thought.
Don’t die, thought Amelia, as she hugged her friend goodbye and felt the first tears sting her eyes. Always run and never stop. Don’t let the bastards get you. Please don’t die, Vika.
Vika pulled away and strode off into the dark.
‘Do you have a plan… Vika? …what about the security lights?’
‘I have a plan.’ Vika half-turned, grinned. ‘And I’ll follow the paw prints. Remember what I said about Scaramanga avoiding them? I know where to tread.’
‘Wait,’ called Amelia. ‘What about your choker?’
But Vika had already gone.
Amelia made herself go inside and close the windows. Vika Noire had walked out of her life.
Amelia Railey arrived in Little Anglitan by taxi at ten am after two years of living at the Manor. They’d escorted her across rough cobbles to the apartment block and helped her with her luggage, including and the pet carrier containing a rather ticked off Scaramanga. Similar to the Little Anglitan Happy Acres Redevelopment Scheme with its high-garden blocks of flats, interconnecting pathways and allotment rooftops, Amelia’s home had been around for the best part of sixty years. When they were built they were the vogue but had quickly become eyesores. With everything vintage, her building had become quirky – Amelia fully expected a tower block resurgence in the coming years. Someone else had helpfully arranged her new home for her. She picked up her stuff, half expecting help and half expecting them to leave, but they did neither, instead they loitered in the car, engine humming. She ignored them and entered the building, taking the lift to her floor. She was greeted by her new landlady, Beverley, who seemed nice and bubbly and lived across the hall. Time would tell. Beverley left, giving Amelia a chance to unpack and collect her thoughts. Amelia set down Scaramanga’s prison and unleashed his furry fury into her new living room. She looked around. Not bad.
She put her head round the door. Beverley stood there with one of the men who had taxied her.
‘A gentleman friend for you. I thought you’d be popular but that was fast – well, try to keep the noise down OK?’
Amelia knew her face must have given something away because Beverley repeated five times that she was only joking before fumbling an apology and making good her escape.
‘Can I help?’ said Amelia.
The man’s face moved only to speak. ‘We had to see you were settling in OK.’
‘I’ve been here all of three seconds.’
He handed her a note. ‘Information we needed to give you. Our number.’
‘Commit to memory and burn. Should your services be required we will be in touch. You will recognize our call as the tone will be different and the light on your phone will flash red. Expect thirteen rings. If you don’t answer the first time we will call you back after a gap of approximately two minutes and forty seconds. Another thirteen rings. In extreme cases call us on the number I have given you. You must stay in Little Anglitan unless we consent to a trip or we review your situation and deem your service with us to be completed, but this is rare. If you see anything out of the ordinary, bad, or have a gut reaction call us on that number. You would do well to learn about this city, walk every street and study the maps. Just in case.’
She recalled a warning from Vika which gave off a fresh resonance – that she could never escape them.
‘Oh… OK. Straight to the point. Can I offer you a drink, if there’s–’
The man handed her a hamper bag. ‘Tea and coffee facilities.’
‘Oh, thanks. Fancy a cup then?’
‘No, thank you. I must go. Good luck, Sleeper.’ And he left.
Amelia stared at the blank walls as she sat in the single chair, Scaramanga meowing and nuzzling her bare legs.
‘You must be hungry, kitten,’ she said, bending down to pat him. ‘I’ll go get some food in a moment.’
Amelia was pleased to find that the money, as promised, had been deposited into her account. Money, judging by her balance, would not be a problem for a long time to come. She withdrew enough for groceries, took a walk and began her shop. Besides the cat food and other essentials she bought three bottles of wine and picked up a home improvement catalogue. Later she would order a replica vintage jukebox over the phone and it would be the last call she would make for a month. As she sat and stared at the shadows on the wall she wondered what other things normal people filled their lives with. They could, she considered in retrospect, have sent her somewhere far worse – the views around the city were fantastic and she knew the areas to avoid and frequent, but anywhere, even paradise became a prison with them watching. Amelia couldn’t help feeling like a bird with clipped wings.
She picked up her cat. ‘What in the world are we doing here?’ she said.
Darkness. Ithaca felt the irregular thud of his heartbeat as it twitched into action. He gasped for air, it was stale, still. Pain shot through him, he was bleeding. He had been shot two, no, three times in the chest. Each wound pulsed venomously, they were good shots, killing shots. Ithaca was dead, he knew that much, but then wasn’t he alive? Had hell rejected him, or was this an elaborate prank? What did it mean? His hands groped the darkness and flinched at cold metal walls around him. Oh. Oh god. He was in some kind of tube, a box. He tried to move but pain gripped him. Something ripped, spilling white-hot fire. His insides felt like straw and goo, each thud of his heart, agony. Light spewed in on him, burning his eyes. He closed them tight and felt himself being pulled out.
‘Wakey wakey.’ The familiar London (Laaahndan) drawl of Bob Clegg. ‘Open your eyes.’
Ithaca tried but things were too bright.
‘Don’t worry – you’re the picture of health. Insides feel like colslaw, don’t they? We’ll see to that a bit later, but right now Ith, we’ve gotta get out. We can’t stay here.’
‘What…’ His voice was sandpaper. ‘What the fuck happened? What the fucking hell are we doing here?’
‘We got shot,’ said Clegg.
Ithaca looked down at his wounds. He cringed and looked away. Three bullet holes – mangled flesh with strange silver dribbles. He tried to wipe some of it away, the pain bit, revealing a bigger scar – as though someone had opened his chest and sealed it back up.
‘We have those too,’ said Clegg.
Ithaca took his eyes off the wound. ‘There’s no way–’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
Clegg rolled his eyes. ‘Why the fuck do you think we’re in a mortuary?’
Ithaca observed the sterile walls, all whites and silvers. ‘Morgue.’ Though Clegg was right, none of this looked good.
Ithaca shook his thumping head. ‘People don’t die and come back, there must have been some kind of… mix-up.’
‘Look,’ said Clegg. ‘We’ve gotta get out of here, agreed?’
Ithaca’s eyes became used to the glare and he looked around the room. He sat up, his body made of pain. Besides the blood and wounds they were sporting the same strange silvery smears. No matter, his boys were back.
Clegg wore a body bag over his shoulders like a jacket or makeshift cape, his head crowned with a burst of ginger hair. Sam Binley perched on the edge of his own drawer, head in his hands. Last of all there was Alick Banks, his electric-blue eyes reeling crazily – a completely different blue from before, Ithaca noted. Ignoring the fact that Banks looked like he had caught ammo with his head, perhaps their wounds had not been bad enough to kill them after all. Though if Ithaca had mistakenly been written off death’s list, how on earth had the same mistake been made four times? Ithaca noticed a naked girl next to Banks, a foetal ball on the glacial floor, gagged and sobbing.
Ithaca felt his training kick in, shut out the fact that he could well be dead and that his comrades probably were too. He had learnt this trick in the army and it helped him to clearly assess the situation, but it did not seem to be working so well any more.
‘Ith. Ithaca. We’ve gotta go,’ Clegg persisted.
‘You’re right.’ Ithaca coughed when he spoke, water, he would die without water. His legs felt like cement as he lurched to a sink, his feet cold on the floor. He blasted liquid into his mouth until his lungs felt like bursting. ‘We’re moving out.’
‘Unless you want carting off to prison,’ Clegg added. ‘I can’t believe they fucking shot us,’ he said, ‘Fucking Sonnet, I’m gonna kill him.’
Sonnet’s was the last face Ithaca remembered seeing. He grasped at his neck for his ID tags. Gone. He looked down, knowing this would only confirm their absense. All he could see were old and new scars on his chest, tattoos and his wilting member.
‘What are we going to do with him?’ Binley motioned to the corner.
Ithaca noticed the white-coated man bound with wire, struggling on the floor.
‘He knows us now,’ said Binley, unblinking. ‘Find something to kill him with.’ Usually he’d have concealed, spring-operated retractable blades hidden in this shirt sleeves to do just that.
‘Leave him,’ Ithaca rasped.
Clegg advanced on the man, eyes sparkling. ‘Sam’s right. He’s seen us, he’s dead.’
‘No, no killing, not now,’ said Ithaca. ‘You don’t exist anyway. Not any more, you’re dead, remember?’
‘So are you, Ithaca.’
Ithaca rubbed his sweating brow, trying to ignore Binley’s confirmation.
‘Well, I’m taking the girl,’ muttered Clegg.
‘Not now. Let’s… let’s just get out. If we don’t–’
Binley’s lament cut through Ithaca’s warning, ‘We’re dead already. We’re dead.’
‘Not helping, Binley,’ spat Clegg.
Binley’s black hair had greyed in patches, his skin horribly pale. Ithaca wondered how he would feel when he came across a mirror.
‘My heart’s not even beating,’ said Binley.
Ithaca noticed a moth on his arm and swatted it, saw a flash of army ID tags in his head.
Clegg glared at him.
Clegg offered him his hand. ‘Let’s get out then, all right?’
‘What about Banks?’ said Ithaca.
‘Banks?’ said Clegg.
Alick Banks swayed on his feet, drooling.
Ithaca cleared his throat, ‘Banks?’
‘I think he’s a bit out of it,’ said Clegg.
Ithaca looked over his old comrade, Banks, ‘Is that a bullet in his head?’
‘Fuck me,’ said Clegg. ‘Is it? Banks? Alick… Alick?’
In a flash Banks was on Clegg, punching and gnashing. ‘Get the – fuck off!’ Clegg held off Banks as best he could.
Metal struck bone as Binley smashed the fire extinguisher into Banks’ skull. He went down. For a moment the sound reverberated around the sterile room.
‘What do we do with him now?’
Ithaca sighed. ‘We take him with us, Clegg.’
‘I seriously think we should do something about the girl,’ said Clegg. ‘She’s seen us now and she looks like a talker.’
Ithaca looked over at her – pretty and lithe with long legs, she clearly worked out, though with a little puppy fat on her belly. Despite her hunched position, he noticed her curves. Early twenties he suspected, she looked the type to drive men crazy. ‘Where did you find her?’
‘Knocking on one of the drawers,’ said Clegg.
‘She’s dead?’ asked Ithaca.
Clegg confirmed it. ‘Check her ankle.’
Ithaca reached down to the cowering girl, sobbing beneath her gag and he pulled at the band around her ankle to get a better look.
‘Elisha Curio,’ he announced.
‘Jesus.’ Laughed Clegg. ‘She probably did herself in with a name like that.’
‘Shush,’ said Ithaca, ‘Elisha, listen. I remember names and I remember faces. You don’t know us, all right?’ he pulled off her gag. ‘Do you understand?’
‘Take me with you,’ she said, gasping for the air that hadn’t filtered through her gag.
‘Sorry,’ Ithaca reapplied the gag, ‘No can do.’ He wanted to explain how it would save her a gang-rape courtesy of his comrades but decided to leave it. Could stiffs even get stiff, if that’s what they were?
‘Help me with Banks.’ Ithaca knew it was wrong to attempt a lift in his diminished state, but he helped Clegg with Banks’ body anyway and they left the morgue. Sirens wailed in Ithaca’s ears as they stumbled along. Down the corridor a flight of stairs led them to a fire exit Ithaca pushed open with the flat of his back. Outside the night air in the hospital bus depot was still warm. Despite their rush the smell of the air and chirping of the crickets seemed massively amplified to Ithaca’s ears. He breathed as if breathing for the first time, holding his naked, unconscious and possibly dead comrade upright with Clegg’s help. Binley picked up a brick and the window of a black Purgeot exploded. He flicked the door open and hot wired it, started the engine and they bundled in, narrowly avoiding an ambulance as the car flew away.
‘Fuck me, no cops,’ laughed Clegg. ‘Dozy bastards.’
‘Where to Ithaca?’ Binley asked quietly.
‘Home. Take us home,’ Ithaca murmured,’ Then we talk about this.’