There’s something great about mooching and I imagine in these days of online shopping even fewer will experience it. Charity shops, record stores, pre-owned video game gaffs, they’re my stomping ground again for the first time in a long time – at least six or seven years. For a long time after that, and especially in the last four or so years, I’ve been more reliant on Amazon. I’ve started to feel guilty about my shopping habits and their effect on the planet. There’s nothing like picking up a bargain and celebrating the success with a well-earned pint and a packet of crisps (seriously – there’s nothing like it) before heading home with a spring in your step.
Today marks the release of Bat For Lashes fifth studio album “Lost Girls” following a three-year hiatus since “The Bride” (2016).
Exhausted by the end of her long-awaited ten-year deal with Parlophone, Brighton-born Natasha Khan left London for LA to pursue a career in film scores. She was unsure wether she’d ever make another album.
Free from the expectations of this major label deal -her first three albums were nominated for Mercury and Brit Awards- Khan has paradoxically come up with her most accessible album to date and it’s a doozie (my favourite of her previous albums being “The Haunted Man”).
Inspired by films like The Lost Boys, Goonies, Karate Kid and more recently A Girl walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Lost Girls is of course very 80s, but also so very Bat For Lashes. It’s fresh and nostalgic. Currently my favourite tracks are “Jasmine” and “Kids in the Dark”. As ever, there’s a narrative, characters (this time vampires) and a delicious world to get wrapped up in… If you dare.
You can of course find it in your local record stores and Spotify, etc.
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.’
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.