Once upon a time, there were two little girls.

As twin sisters, they were quite alike. Both had hair as pale gold as the May sunlight streaming through a gap in the clouds; both had eyes the same bright, poster-paint blue as cornflowers; both had lips stained deep, dark red as if soaked in cherry juice.

And as twin sisters, they were nothing alike. One, the elder by a handful of fevered heartbeats, feared nothing and nobody. When they played, it was she who first climbed every tree, she who rode highest on the swings, she who challenged the other children and stood up for them both. She was sure of herself, in mind and in body, excelling in gymnastics, running, rounders and routinely winning in the egg-and-spoon race on Sports Day, but at the same time gifted with a swift and sharp wit and a formidable memory.

Even at nine years old, no-one who met Peony forgot her easily. She blazed through the lives around her like a tiny flaxen comet.

The younger twin, on the other hand, was a soft and tremulous creature: fragile, frightened, coy and clumsy. She stayed in the shadows, against walls and in corners, unless her sister was there to draw her out, speaking seldom, communicating instead through looks and touches. She was too timid for sports, flinching away from the ball in rounders and freezing on the starting line of every race, but when there was music, everything changed. She would close her eyes and hide between the notes, becoming something fleeting and ethereal when she danced or sang.

Of everything the world could offer, Pris loved two things. Music, and her sister.

The twins lived in an enchanted manor on a high hill looking out across a great old river slowly dying into the sea. The manor nestled deep within a nest of gardens, one inside another, with orchards hiding flower beds that opened onto mazes that bowed down into fields of long dry grass blowing in the breeze. Only one road went there, a white chalk driveway that spiraled up the hill to the crowning house and its twin jewels.

The place was drenched, perpetually, in a haze of summer sunlight and the smell of dry grass and apple blossom, haloed around the walls in the same way the love of the girls’ mother and father – and their love for each other – surrounded them.

But one night, when the sky was black and shivering with thunder, a Terrible Thing happened. Bright flames wrapped around the enchanted manor, melting the windows into water and eating away at the wood and stone. The girls’ mother and father screamed and seared their hands on the white-hot doorknob but the line of nails across the door to their room told the tale of the wooden boards on the other side, and when they broke the windows,  more planks blotted out the gardens and the fire engines that came.

The girls fled the flames. First they tried to go downstairs, but the fire and smoke were thick in the hallways and the blistered, reaching hands of the housekeeper sent both into flight. They ran up the stairs, climbing higher and higher as they looked for a way out.

A glass door, a thrown lamp, a high balcony, a long ladder, the swirl of blue lights and red engines and calm men with reassuring voices and strong but gentle hands. One sister stood atop the ladder, tugging on the other’s hand as she looked past her, back into the dark and the flames and screamed, falling as her sister flew back and away in a halo of smoke and sparks.

It was Peony that saved her sister, pushing her onto the ladder and letting go her hand.

But it was Pris that looked back and saw the monster in the dark.

Wasn’t it?

Advertisements

The Score

June 1, 2011


The Zippo hissed like a blowtorch as Ian inhaled slowly and deeply from the cigarette. The sound tripped other senses, bringing back the smell of seared meat, the bright and shocking swirl of red as it slipped down the shower drain, the feeling of sea spray on his face as he watched the seeping canvas sack sink without a ripple into the steel-grey sea.

His face stayed impassive, blank as the dark lenses that covered his eyes as he stared down at the city. It had been necessary.

He glanced across the little stretch of waste ground to where his wife bared her teeth and playfully fought with their Husky, Gerrard, over an old, dirty, scuffed football. The puppy let go of the ball to loll his tongue in the heat and Dolly, caught off-guard, tumbled backwards to land with a yelp on her plushly upholstered backside.

Ian’s face started to crack with a grin. “Oi!” Gerrard leapt up and ran to meet Ian as he jogged over. “Don’t damage that! It’s one of my favourite bits!” He bent down, holding out both arms to help her up.

“Oh, is it now?” Her hands grasped his forearms as if she was going to let him guide her back upright, but then her legs shot up, locking either side of his waist and shoving sideways while she hauled on his arms, trying to topple him down into the dust with her while the puppy bounced and barked excitedly. Laughing, Ian refused to budge. He scooped her out of the dust instead, her laughter fading and the impish gleam in her eyes becoming something molten as she wrapped herself around him. It was the kind of look that put a catch in his voice.

“One of them.” He tried to sound casual, hefting her up a little and taking a more secure grasp of the anatomy in question in the process. “Do you not remember me toasting it last Christmas?”

“I remember your Mum’s reaction!” She put a hand to her brow in theatrical dismay. “Oh Ian!”

“There was a lot of sherry in that trifle. But wasn’t there some kind of football game going on here?”

“Yeah.” The tip of her nose hovered just alongside his, her breath tickling his face. “You just scored.”


Sirens screamed and the air was thick with the crackle of radio traffic as one emergency service after another rushed to the scene. Towers of orange flame shot sparks into the sky; metal moaned and tore and the muffled sound of explosions was followed by belches of black smoke and clouds of ash and debris expelled from the shattered remains of the apartment building’s windows.

For Dolly and Ian, it might as well have been silent. She sat in his lap, wrapped up in his arms, her own folded across her chest, pinning his hands to her with a desperate need for him not to let go. It was all she’d said since they’d been united again. “Don’t let go. Don’t let me fall.”

They watched the blaze from the roof of an old, 6-story brick-built office building, long out-of-use and boarded up, where they sat on the edge of a creaking air conditioner cabinet. But those whispered pleas – “Don’t let me fall” – had nothing to do with the height; they came from somewhere deep inside her soul, somewhere raw and bloody and dreadfully afraid.

And they didn’t matter at all. Because he wasn’t going to let her go. Not now, not ever. He simply squeezed her tighter and buried his face against her neck as she watched the flames, rocking gently back and forth with a look of vacant wonder and innocence shining from her features and the reflected light turning her blue eyes a hungry orange, glowing back from the black wells of her pupils.

Somewhere inside the inferno of Chris Walsaw’s former home, a boiler exploded, sending streaks of molten copper pipe splashing down on the fire crews below. Ian felt his lover shiver, heard her give a broken little gasp, then finally the tears came. With every sob that shook her, Ian could feel the tension, the misery, the horror slowly draining out of her. Soon, it would be as if she didn’t remember, the only signs of the experience emerging as whimpers in her sleep and tears on her lashes in the morning.

He thought about the bag of medication Walsaw had given him. It might take away the terrors born inside her head, but what could tablets do to change reality? Could sanity give her innocence back the way madness did? Did it matter who she could be if he loved her as she was?

Masonry screamed. A large chunk of the building’s outer wall started to bulge over the street, then fragmented, dropping chunks of concrete down amidst the fire crews. Men ran back and forth, pulling the fallen back from the scene of the collapse or rushing in with new equipment. But from the roof of the empty offices, those men were tiny, ant-like, and the roar of the flames was as silent as the rush of starfire from overhead, Vishnu’s sword clearing out the old, destroying the past.

It was time to start again. And this time, Ian thought, as he rocked his wife lovingly in his lap, it was going to be different.

This time, he was going to do everything right.


It was a bright, fresh morning at the San Paro Marina – the only truce ground between gang runners and enforcement – with the night’s chill still on the air to make every breath feel like drinking cold water on a hot day. His muscles were still warm from his morning run and the taste of the strong, black coffee he’d drunk was still clinging on his tongue when Ian felt someone move up behind him.

Before he could react, a soft body was pressed tightly against his spine and arms wrapped around his chest. A slightly chilly nose nuzzled at his neck, then lips grazed their way up to his earlobe in a stream of delicate kisses.

He was already smiling when he turned around to find her blushing scarlet and shuffling awkwardly in place.

“Uh… I’m sorry. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that.”

Her confusion was adorable. He reached out and chucked her chin gently. “Of course you are! Why wouldn’t you be?”

“Well, I… Um. Well, we’ve only… uh… been together the once and… Well, I don’t really know how it all works out here and the stuff on TV is confusing and… well, I don’t really know if that’s it and I’m just supposed to be a friend now or if we’re a…. thing.”

He’d laughed, pulling her into his arms and resting his chin on top of her head while he held her. “Yeah. You can do that any time you want. Any time.” 

So she kissed him, stretched up on her tiptoes to reach, lips tentative at first, tongue a mere flicker against the corners of his mouth. She closed her eyes when she kissed and the innocence of it made her face into something rapt, something angelic, contradicted so hard by the quickening rush of her breathing, the way she dug her toes into the ground and pushed her body into him, kissed more hungrily, sucking his breath away.

Painfully hard.

When he got a chance to breathe, he’d scooped her off her feet to carry her to the car. A car. The closest car. Along the way, he smiled down at her over his sunglasses.

“You’re the first girl I’ve wanted to spend more than the night with, you know?” He paused, hearing his own words. “Does that make me sound like a douche?”

She reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. “I don’t know if it should or not, but it makes me feel special.”

They’d laughed together and when they finally got to the car, it was hard for him to put her down. He liked the feeling of having all of her in his arms, of being able to look down and see that slightly baffled look of happiness on her face, as if she’d discovered something quite wonderful and new that no-one had ever experienced before. 

Then again, his trousers were getting pretty uncomfortable.

“Yeah.” He set her down on her feet and brushed her hair gently back from her neck. “I guess we’re a thing.”

“Don’t let me go.” She’d whispered it, clinging to him like a drowning woman to a raft.

“I promise.”

They didn’t manage to actually get in the car for some time.

Carlyle screwed his eyes shut and groaned, forcing his mind out of memories, into the present, then checked the clip on his N-TEC assault rifle one more time. In the past week, he’d picked off four of the crew the enforcers had hunting for him and spent the rest of the time watching Walsaw’s grubby little apartment building, willing Dolly to give him some sign, a signal that Walsaw was off his guard and unprotected by others.

At least his contact in the CSA had said that enforcers were getting reluctant to sign up with Walsaw. Many considered it a death warrant and demanded more money for the risk. And he’d caused the ginger cunt more than enough expense to make sure he couldn’t afford it.

He smirked as he looked at the burned out husk of a Han Cellante still sitting in the parking bays outside the building, waiting to be towed away.

Dolly had been busy on her end, as well. He’d watched her carefully spitting pills into her palm, tucking them away in a corner of a pillowcase, or quietly digging and scraping at the mortar at the base of the middle bar on her window. The rest of the time, she sat, face turned into the sunlight, looking towards his hiding place with a secret little smile on her face.

She knew he was coming for her. She knew. Not hoped, not believed, but knew. And he wouldn’t let her down.

“I promise.”

His patience had run out. Running in shooting might not be the smartest thing, but plans came with no guarantees either and he thought best on his feet.

And he needed his girl back, dammit.

Getting into the apartment building was easy, even with Maria – his second love, his rifle – slung indolently across his shoulders. He just hit all the intercom buttons until someone buzzed him in.

He was through the door in a flash, running up the stairs before his unwitting accomplice could pop into the hall and discover that their pizza, dealer or whore hadn’t arrived yet. The steps blurred under his feet but he kept his head up, eyes forward, looking where his gun was pointing. The second he saw ginger, there would be death.

It was only four floors. Never unfit to begin with, thanks to his life on the streets, Ian was prime from his months of training for the football team that had signed him back in Blighty.

Another dead dream, killed by Walsaw and Fitzpatrick as surely as his child.

That threw him, the memory of his bound and bloody wife lying limply in the car boot. He crashed sideways into the wall and leaned there, consumed by rage and regret.

Walsaw was going to pay, just as Fitzpatrick had.

No more mercy, no more trust, no more second chances. He’d left too many loose ends, allowed this to happen. Stupid mistakes that had come back to bite him in the ass. Too damn cocky by half.

And he hadn’t known she was pregnant. If he’d known… If only he’d known, he’d never have left her alone. Never have taken his eyes off her, even for the few minutes it had taken Derek to snatch her away.

“Don’t let me go.”

“I won’t. Not ever.”

He didn’t realize he was moving until his foot hit the door, the impact jarring up through the old injury in his knee. The door was solid and didn’t budge; he backed up and hit it again. And again. The element of surprise was lost but Walsaw was a nancy. He just had to get in and that would scare Walsaw enough to throw him off his game.

The lock ripped clear of the doorframe. He kicked the splintered entry wide open and hurled a grenade in to clear the way. The concussive blast made his ears ring and brought a shower of plaster down from the ceiling. He lunged through the indoor rain, a flicked glance confirming the shitty little galley kitchen was unoccupied. There was a noise from beyond and to his right, something more metallic than the thud of falling ceiling. He stepped out into a largish living room, a second grenade cooking in his hand and mapped the available cover with his peripheral vision while his focus homed in on two closed doors on the far side.

The one looking out to the street would be Dolly’s. The grenade tumbled through the air in a serene arc, landing at the foot of the innermost door and Carlyle skidded to his knees behind a couch in the heartbeat before it went up.

He heard screaming in the wake of the blast and sprang to his feet, firing. Just a blur, Ian registered the old cop diving for cover, swinging the rifle fast to follow him.

There was blood in the air, but not enough. He emptied the full clip into the chair Walsaw took cover behind, a blizzard of fragmented foam joining the showering plaster dust, then dived back into cover, slamming another magazine into place. The sofa bucked twice with heavy impacts; something long range and high caliber, powerful but too slow for this kind of fight. Ian waited for the third shot, then popped up, firing where he expected his enemy to be.

The first bullet caught the enforcer’s hand, sending his gun skittering across the laminated floor. Then Walsaw’s body exploded out from behind the chair, slammed out directly into his sights.

He didn’t question it, just followed the grey suit with the rifle as it flew into view, hosing it away with a stream of lead.

When the clip emptied, everything was silent. In a few moments, there would be screams and sirens and it would be time to move, but for one frozen instant, everything flowed together, streaming into Ian’s eyes.

There was blood all over the wall, soaking into the floor. Blood and meat and other matter, ripped out of the body with careless ease by Maria’s deadly spray. The red, chunky mass on the floor showed no sign of life. No blood bubbled in the gaping cavity in the chest, no muscle twitched.

Dolly’s door was open, the lock splintered. She stood in front of it, holding the heavy iron bar she’d pried from her window with her long, slow, secret labor. There was blood on it, and strands of Titian hair. That was why the ginger fuck had flown.

Then the iron bar was falling from Dolly’s fingers and she was running towards him. He hurled the rifle away to let her take its place in his arms, clutching her against his chest.

“Never again, love. I promise.” He buried his face in her hair, aware that she was crying and fighting with tears of his own.

“They will never touch us again.”


Chris closed his eyes and clenched his fists in sheer frustration. “God! Why do you have to be such a bitch?”

He’d never spoken to her like that before. He was in the process of putting his face in his hands when he saw he’d finally gotten a response. Her head had whipped around, her eyes finally focusing on him for the first time since he’d rescued her.

…Kidnapped her.

Rescued her. The rage came back and burned out the regret.

“Look, I walked into damn near certain death for you. Derek had bricked you up in that fucking cellar to die and I’m the one who got you out. Me! Not Carlyle, not any fucker else. Me! You got my partner tortured to death. You cost me my job, my wife, my friends and I feel like I’m fucking losing my mind! I have lost fucking everything for you and not only are you too much of a prissy little cunt to say thank you but you’re too much of a bitch to even help me find out who really killed your parents!”

Her face crumpled. Her head bowed, face disappearing behind the veil of her hair. Chris’ pang of guilt was immediate, followed by a sharp fear that she was going to sink into herself again and the only response she’d ever given him (apart from the bite that had torn up half his face) was going to end there. He stepped round and sat beside her – she always sat here when he tried to talk to her, on the right side of the bed, facing the window. Slowly, very carefully, he put an arm across her shoulders and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, gently blotting the tears from her eyes.

She took the handkerchief to blow her nose into it and he smiled to himself. At least it didn’t look like she was going to try to eat him again. Gingerly, he took the photograph and placed it on her lap. She was still wearing the clothes he’d put her in for the flight – a pair of his jeans that she’d cut off into shorts and one of his shirts. He hadn’t known how to approach the subject of changing them, so he simply hadn’t.

He stroked her shoulder comfortingly for a moment, then tapped the photograph. “Do you remember this man at all? From anywhere?”

She needed a shower and a change of clothes badly, but that hint of vanilla still hung about her, especially in the hair that swung forward to frame her face as she stared at the photograph. Little shivers ran through her and he slid closer, squeezing her against him. “You do, don’t you? You’ve seen him before.”

She nodded slowly, then shook her head in confusion. The photo was a grainy still from a garage forecourt security camera, showing a rotund man with an ill-matching toupee placing a gas can into the boot of a car with four others.

“I do, I’ve seen him but I… I can’t.. I don’t…”

“Shhh. It’s OK.” Chris wrapped his other arm around her and rested his brow against her temple, murmuring into her ear. “That’s enough for now. You’ve been a brave girl, a good girl. You don’t have to remember right now.” Her knees shifted, an uncomfortable little shuffle of her feet that drew his eyes down to drift along the milky skin of her thighs. They’d been tanned before, a delicate hint of gold tinting them as they’d straddled his hips…

Bare thighs.

Cut-offs.

“Peony?” His whispered it tenderly into her ear, like a lover, as he held one hand open in front of her.

“Give me the scissors, love.”

She fished in her pocket for a moment, then dropped the tiny nail-scissors into his palm with a sad sigh, then looked back to the window.

“That’s my good girl.”

***

Ian lay on the rooftop, resting on his elbows as he looked through the binoculars. She looked thin, tired and sad, but when he’d first focused in on her through the binocs, she’d smiled a sweet, hopeful smile, as if she knew he was there, he was coming for her.

And she did, he was sure of it. She understood why she had to wait. There could be no mistakes this time, no more loose ends.

Maybe they couldn’t make the sweet, peaceful dream they’d had in England stay true – his football, her little nest in their perfect home, the baby… His heart lurched and he pushed the feelings down.

Maybe they couldn’t have all that, but so long as they had each other, they could still dream of it.

So he had to get this exactly right and leave nothing to come back to haunt them.

Something was happening in the room behind the bars on the window. Someone else was there. Walsaw. Ian’s lip curled back in a sneer.

The ginger cop sat down next to his wife, put his arms around her. His freckled lips were right next to her ear. She just stared down at her feet. Ian’s jaw dropped.

Fuck planning. Storming in there and blowing the guy’s head off could be a pretty good fucking plan.


[ This story draws in part on Carlyle’s story, “Circles” which can be found at http://roamingpariahs.com/circles/ ]


Life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

Carlyle held the cigarette between his lips and lifted the blue flame of the oxyacetylene torch to light it. This place – a warehouse, long unused, with soaked and broken furniture in the corners, stacks of shattered crates, mouldering coils of colored ropes that had once fenced out a boxing ring – had been his second home, a place the little gang he’d run with had claimed as their own. It was where he’d smoked his first cigarette as a defiant teenager, coughing fiercely on the hot smoke when he inhaled. This time – his first cigarette in six years – it came so naturally it was if he’d never stopped, the tanins rolling over his tongue, the smoke pluming slow and easy from his nostrils.

The stately strains of opera wafted over from the Bishada parked in the doorway.

Just like back then, he was here. Just like back then, he was alone. But when he reached for the old sassy attitude, it kept sinking away as if weighted down with heavy stones.

He looked at Derek, bloody, half-conscious, bound to the metal folding chair in front of him. The broken nose and the huge black bruise swelling over half his face, pocked with buckshot, took away any lingering likeness to him, but Carlyle had ceased to recognize it anyway.

She’d never whispered those light, dainty kisses along the line of Derek’s stolen jaw, up to his ear.

She’d never lifted her eyes to that other face with that look of wonder, disbelief, timorous hope, outright fucking adoration and need, the look that made him feel like a god in a tiny world made just for two and yet, at the same time, bound him to her as tightly as a junkie to a fix.

Fuck Derek. Fuck him and everything he’d tried to do.

“You’ve ruined things here, Derek. You’ve caused me quite a bit of stress. That’s why we’re here! I think I’ll find this whole experience…” He adjusted a slider on the torch, watching the flame elongate, turning white at its center.

“…Therapeutic.”

***

Life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

For Derek, drifting in and out of lucidity, one moment it was as if he was a child again, sitting paralyzed on his little chair in front of the TV while his father stepped over his sobbing mother’s body and slowly ground the embers of his cigar into the boy’s neck.

The next, he could see clearly, hear Carlyle’s voice, feel that strange, distorted absence of pain as his mind screamed that something was wrong, something was missing, something was dead and unable to hurt.

Hate gave him clarity. Pulled everything into a single, focused, narrow beam and blocked out the alarm bells ringing in his skull. Unable to speak through the tape across his mouth, he put it all in his eyes, willing that hate to pour over Carlyle and simply rip him out of existence, eradicate him so utterly that he would never have been able to touch Derek’s life and the bullets, and the surgery, and the pain and the absence of it, the humiliation and the loss and the nightmares would all simply unhappen.

Then that clarity would slide away from him, lost in a haze of smoke and the smell of burning flesh. The world would turn inside out, become somewhere else.

Was he back in London, torturing Jacob Carlyle again in that burned-out house? Wiping a thin layer of blood and hair from a fine hacksaw blade with a song in his heart, a sense of freedom and approaching heaven drowning him from within. The world had moved in the patterns he set for it. Nothing unexpected, nothing wrong. Just things becoming as they should be, as they always had before.

Walking back through his unit after receiving some honor or other, hands reaching out to clap him on the shoulder or the back, his name on every lip and he, just moving through, a smile on his face and his ears drinking it all in, but no need to look, no need to acknowledge it. It was simply as it should be.

Or was he rolling on the tarmac of the school playground, battered and hurting, eyes squinted tight as he fought the urge to cry, trying to get up before Bobby Stevenson could take another kick at him – the short kid, the skinny kid – unaware that when he lashed out in terror a few seconds before, he’d broken Bobby’s knee.

Was he torturer, or victim?

He looked up into Carlyle’s face, his own face, his father’s face and watched his circle close.

***

Life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

Back in San Paro, Chris had never gotten around to moving out of the small apartment he’d rented during the divorce, even when his wife’s remarriage gave him freedom from alimony and the means to move to a slightly better part of town. He’d never had a woman there before – the whole divorce had soured him on the dating scene and his few liaisons with hookers had always been in the safe anonymity of motels.

Now, though, he found it uncomfortably like being married again. He now shared his home with a woman who steadfastly refused to talk to him, turning a silent, condemnatory back and voicing her judgement in the sound of her breathing. Just like back then, he slept in the spare room, giving her the run of the master bedroom, waiting on her hand and foot and constantly apologizing, begging for her forgiveness in a voice she never even seemed to hear.

And just like his wife, she’d given him scars, though these were on the outside. He stared into the mirror, grimacing as he pulled the thread from his torn lip.

He’d untied her hands and neck, taken off the gag, then knelt at her feet like a supplicant as his fingers worked awkwardly on the knot between her ankles. He’d felt a breath on his neck and looked up, finding her face far closer than he’d expected, the soft scent of vanilla still hanging about her despite all the blood and damp, a sweetness it seemed nothing would ever touch.

Her nose almost touching his, eyes slowly closing, her face had tipped sideways like someone falling asleep. Plum-colored lips had parted, soft and inviting; he’d closed his eyes, leaning in, feeling the tickle of her breath against his face.

Her canines had sunk through his bottom lip and locked. She’d pulled back, tearing his lip back into a bloody flap and taking a good chunk of his chin with it. One of her nails had ripped off her fingertip, sunk into his eyebrow. Then she’d kicked him in the chest with both tied feet, sending him flying.

He’d had to stun her and carry her out, kept her drugged on the flight back, passing her off as his wife, who was scared of flying. She had been, too, back in the day.

Of course, when he was married, he hadn’t kept his wife locked in her room. It wasn’t all exactly the same.

He yanked the last of his stitches out and stared at his face in the mirror. It was time to close the endless circles of his life and move out of the past. At long last.

***

Dolly sat on bed with her back turned to the door, staring out of the barred windows of the flat. The sunlight felt like liquid on her face, warm and cool all at once. She drank it in, a soft smile hovering on her lips.

She knew where she was, even though Walsaw hadn’t told her. She could tell San Paro by the heat, by the quality of the light, the smell of the wind and the sea, the distant sounds of screaming tyres and gunfire coming from the streets below. She breathed it all in and smiled. Home again.

They’d first met outside a warehouse not far from here. She’d clambered down a ladder and looked up at the billboard riveted over the doors, the sleek lines of black and orange flames now overlaying the dry tatter of some ancient advertisement, long since bleached into obscurity by sun, rain and wind.

She’d been walking back to her stolen car when she heard the sirens and froze. Panic had turned her muscles to water, her voice to mist, her mind to a sparkling cascade of too many options, not knowing where to run, where to hide. The sirens came closer and closer.

And a van had pulled up. The side door had slid open and a muscular arm reached out to her. She took the hand and let herself be pulled into the van, drawn by the soft hazel of the eyes that had sparkled at her over a pair of aviators.

“What’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this?”

The memory made the smile stretch wider on her face as she looked out at the city with closed eyes. Because life has a way of moving in circles, always coming back to the beginning before ever reaching an end.

Soon, she would see Ian again.


She thought it had been some hours since the video and the vehement tirade that followed, when Fitzpatrick came to sit with her. She was lying just as he’d left her, on her side with her hands and feet tied behind her and tethered to her neck, forcing her to keep her body arched painfully backwards, gagged and mute with nothing to do but stare into the dark and silently weep.

He was different; neither his cool and flippant earlier self nor the raging demon of the morning… She thought it had been morning when he had her make his message for Ian, when she’d tried to escape. He sat down on the edge of the little camp bed and stroked her hair, touching her bruised cheek and tracing the trails of her tears with his fingers.

He didn’t wear his mask this time. She could see his face; the precisely sculpted mimicry of Ian she’d so obediently followed down from her window, but it looked nothing like him now. The muscles twisted differently under the skin. His scent was wrong and one eye far too deep and dark a brown. Still, she tried her hardest to pretend, telling herself that Ian was here now, that it was his touch she felt on her face, that everything would be better now. And cried a little more that it wasn’t true.

Derek’s voice was so soft she barely heard it. She tried to move her head to listen but the rope immediately began to haul at her neck; all she could do was whimper and arch back, rolling her eyes sideways to try to see her captor speak.

“I’m so very, very sorry.”

Then he got up and walked away, the stairs creaking beneath his steps, but the light from the door at the top didn’t go out.

Not immediately. Instead, it slowly narrowed and rose, climbing up the far wall of the room while heavy rhythmic clicks and scrapes drifted down the stairs, blending with the static and the ringing in her ears until she lost the sound and could only follow the light. It grew shorter and shorter as it rose higher and higher and then, almost placidly, it narrowed in from the sides and finally vanished, leaving her all alone in the dark.

Time lost all meaning. She slipped in and out of dreams, sleep several times almost causing her to strangle as her aching body tried to relax or stretch, snapping the rope taut. While awake, she simply cried; not the labored breathing and wracking sobs of a temperamental child, but the silent, free-flowing tears that come with a growing sense of despair.

If she’d lost hope entirely, she could easily have rolled onto her stomach. The throbbing muscles in her back and neck would have eventually given out and, survival reflex or not, she’d have strangled herself with her own weight. But one silent mantra kept her waiting, one heartbeat after another.

Ian will come.

She was just frightened she wouldn’t be able to hold on until he did.

It could have been minutes or hours later when she heard sounds coming again from upstairs. At first, she thought the pounding that resonated through the room was her own heartbeat, echoing inside her skull, or the footsteps of a giant, another hallucination come to join the miasma of voices, static and music that drowned her ears.

Then she thought she saw light. Just the faintest, swiftest glimmer, there then gone. Another thump shook the walls. The light was there again. Larger, stronger, infinitely more real and there was the cool touch of fresh air on her face.

Another blow and a slew of shattered bricks came tumbling down the stairs, flooding the room with dim light from the hallway above. She fixed her eyes on the light and her exhausted body shook with anticipation.

***

The red Audi was in the driveway. Carlyle ran his hand over the rear bumper as he strode past it, dry blood powdering his fingers.

The front door. His foot met the lock full force, not kicking the door open as he’d expected but tearing the whole thing off its hinges and sending it falling back into the hallway. It was too slow for him – he stamped it down with a foot and fired a shotgun blast into the hallway behind it.

Nothing. He pumped the gun with a swift flick of his arm and walked on, swiftly turning to the left to check what was once a living room, then right to scrutinize the stairs.

The shot echoed like thunder in the narrow space, followed by a low groan. He pumped a second shot into the darkness at the top of the stairs, then felt around on the wall for a light switch.

In the dim, yellowish light, he moved towards the crumpled, black-clad mass on the landing. Derek groaned and rolled over as he approached. Buckshot had torn his clothes and pounded his chest to so much red meat; his left knee seeped purplish blood into flattened pile of the carpet. Ian stared for a long moment into his own face – the solid line of the jaw bore no trace of the stubble his own chin sported, but the plane of the cheekbones, the arch of the brow, were his own. His nose crinkled and he swung the shotgun muzzle down over his foe when pain suddenly exploded in his hip, throwing him back down the stairs. He landed breathless, on his back, firing wildly once, back up the stairs, before grabbing for the wall to pull himself upright. Derek was doing likewise, clinging to the wooden balustrade with one arm, leaning against it to keep the weight off his leg, the pistol wavering as he tried to aim through shock and blood loss.

Cursing under his breath, Ian abandoned standing and simply rolled, back into the hall and dived for cover in the living room. Rapid stumbling steps came down the stairs after him. With no time to think of his wounds, Ian spun the shotgun to the thin, plasterboard wall and fired blindly through it, then reached out, snatching the edge of the open door and slammed it hard, a brief, satisfied smirk crossing his lips as he heard Derek smack face-first into it. He stepped out from beside the wall and fired right into the door, ripping the cheap wood paneling apart. Something gleamed in the new opening and Ian threw himself down, bullets ripping over his head, smashing the screen of the 1970’s television set in a spray of thin glass shards and stitching a pattern of holes into the far wall. He went to pump another shot into the wall and something jammed, the trigger stiff and rigid under his finger.

Silence fell, then he gradually picked out the sound of hard, fast breathing from the hallway, the metallic sounds of reloading.

“I didn’t think you’d be this pissed off, Ian!” Derek’s voice was clear enough through the shredded door, the American drawl sounding alien and theatrical after Carlyle’s months back in England. “I mean, come on! I’ve done you a favor! You’re young, career’s just starting and let’s face it…” He broke off to cough and the sound was wet and laden. As quietly as he could, Ian set down the shotgun and reached back, pulling the snub-nosed Stabba PIG from the back of his trousers as Derek went on. “… we’re a good-looking guy!” The laughter that followed broke occasionally to suck in air and Ian picked out the snap of a magazine clicking home. “Who needs to be tied down with a wife and a baby, eh?”

Ian ground his teeth in suppressed fury. “You’ve already signed your own death warrant, Fitzpatrick. Don’t make me want to take my time about it!”

The door flew open; he rolled and fired the PIG while bullets spat into the floor where he’d lain. He saw the sparks as the twin darts hit even as he registered a sudden, searing heat across his bicep. The swinging door hit an armchair and slammed closed before he could fire the second shot that would bring the man down. He heard Derek move back into cover, cursing as he yanked the darts from his body.

“Aw, that’s sweet! Tell me the truth though, man to man… That question that’s whirling in your head, the one that’s been keeping you awake at night… Are you scared I fucked her for her sake, or because you’re afraid she might have liked it?”

Ian grabbed the coal-scuttle and threw it at the door as it opened, the metal bucket knocking Derek’s aim wide, giving him time to take cover behind a couch that smelled of piss and mildew and start loading a set of darts into the PIG.

“Anything you touched her with, you sad little rapist fuck, anything, I will show you the insides of.”

“Aw, hey!” Another stream of bullets kicked flocking out of the sofa cushions. He heard the thud of one lodging in the thick wood of the padded armrest near his head. “It ain’t rape if she begs, is it?”

Ian gritted his teeth and popped up from behind the sofa, but rage shook his aim and only one of the two darts hit, the other harmlessly tagging the door. The charge fizzled, nowhere to go. He ducked again, avoiding the bullets that followed.

“What did you think, Ian? That you were going to get her back in pristine condition and everything would be just like it was before? Even if you kill me, think she’s gonna be so keen to suck you off now?”

Holding his breath, Ian flattened himself to the floor and crept slowly along the back of the couch, listening to Derek’s shots as they picked away at the arm covering his last hiding place. The enforcer was still talking, trying to push him over the edge, to make him lose the last of his control and become easy prey.

He worried that it was working.

“Seriously man, what did you think I’d do? Keep a hottie like that locked in the cellar and go buy porn? Learn to share your fucking toys!” He barked laughter, but Ian could see his narrowed, calculating eyes now, scanning the room.

The darts hit them. Derek screamed like a tantruming child. The second pair flew wild as Ian stood.

Then he hit the blind man in the face with all his fury. The snap as his jaw broke was audible. Breathless and soaked in his own blood, Ian fell to his knees beside him. Felt for a pulse in his throat and, finding it, poked at the wound in his chest for a response.

Nothing. He was out cold.

Ian tried to stand up again but his head was spinning, the room swooping in and out of focus, canting at precarious angles. Instead, he clutched at the floor and slowly dragged himself along the hallway, calling for his wife.

Cellar. The enforcer had mentioned the cellar.

He found it, the door open, a metal-headed sledge-hammer lying beside it. He used it as a crutch, levering himself to his feet and tottering onto the landing of the wooden stairs inside.

The room was empty.

A burst of renewed strength sent him tearing through the house, ripping the kitchen apart, overturning beds and tearing open closets.

When his strength finally failed him, he knew for sure the house was empty. He fell to his knees on the pavement outside, fists clenched, and railed up at the sky.

“Walsaw!”


From his parked car, two streets away across a tumbled expanse of stony earth that proclaimed, by signage alone, that it would someday offer 50 new luxury apartments, Chris watched the house. Even without his binoculars, he could see the way the light from the back window flickered as Derek moved back and forth, but that was all he saw. The remaining rooms at the rear of the house were dark and a brief drive past the front had shown no signs of life at all. Chipboard covered the windows and the lower panel of the front door. The garden was weedy and untended and the bricks on the leftmost side of the house slanted in towards the middle as the house gradually sank into the Mersey floodplain.

The other houses on the street were equally derelict, either abandoned entirely or overpopulated, used as squats by students and transients, doorsteps bleached with ancient, alcoholic vomit and walls stained with urine. The only new things in the entire block, in fact, were the shining, heavy brass lockplates on the front and back doors of number 19.

And all he saw in there was Derek.

He drove closer, parking behind a skip a few yards away and walking in. Rather than stop at the front door, he jogged around the side. The back yard was the same as the front, home to nettles, thistles and vines of old man’s beard that clung to the cuffs of his trousers with its tiny velcro fruit and dragged along behind him, rustling in the wet grass. The only sound from the house was the wet metallic rattle of an ancient heating system.

He took a deep breath, hunching his shoulders inside the pale yellow parka, and strode boldly across the muddy mire of the yard, heading for the back door and at last, the confrontation with Derek.

A red ripple of light from the evening sun stopped him.

Stooping, he clawed through a pile of wilting foliage to find the source of the reflection, a slow, cold fear winding slowly tighter in his chest. The metal he found, however, was not the knife, the saw, the blood-sticky implement of death he expected. Just a simple, straight bar of metal welded down the join of two metal cellar doors.

Chris inhaled sharply, half-lifting a hand to rap on them before he looked to the kitchen. No shadow had fluttered across the lit window in the last few minutes.

Derek was waiting.

Every muscle in Walsaw’s body was tense, his stomach taut and fearful as he strode the last few paces, hesitating in front of the door. Every move, his mind replayed and be-devilled with second thoughts. But he and Derek were partners. The code of that was so ingrained in every cop, every enforcer and he’d given Derek no real grounds on which to betray him.

They didn’t match well. They had no respect for each other. But still, they were partners.

As far as Derek knew.  Chris’ thumb flickered over the keys of his phone, sending a text to his new – and equally temporary – partner. Carlyle would be on his way the moment the message arrived, he knew. He would be there just in time, if things went wrong.

And just too late, if they went right.

He knocked on the door. Derek opened it instantly.

“You disappoint me, mate!” He stepped back, clinging to the shadows, and invited Chris in with a sweep of his hand. “I thought you were going to come crashing in through the windows on a white fuckin’ horse!”

Walsaw blew a few stray strands of Titian hair back off his face and grinned back. “Oh, come on. I told you years ago that I don’t ride that horse.”

“And that would be your loss entirely. But speaking of riding…” Derek walked to the sink and pulled out a wet can of beer that had been cooling there, offering it to the other man. “I assume you’re here about the filly?”

Chris noted the slight jerk of Derek’s head towards the hall and had to fight to still his own instinctive nod in response. He waved a “no” to the beer instead, half-sitting on the edge of the table to indicate he was relaxed without giving up his footing. His partner swept him with his eyes, noting the careful pose, the bulges of concealed weapons, but seemed to take it in his stride.

Thinking back, the old cop wasn’t surprised. Derek could take him easily, armed or not, and the young enforcer knew it. Normally, Chris would have agreed with the assessment, but today…

Today was different. Nervous, yes. Tense, yes, but the adrenaline was pumping through his veins, fizzing in his fingertips. Even his hair felt alive, somehow electrified. It was as if, like the samurai of ancient Japan, this battle had already been fought and won in Chris’ mind. Now all he had to do was dance the steps again.

“I am. Derek, you can’t do this. You have to let her go. Let me take her into custody, take her back to San Paro and a proper court…”

The dark-haired young man snorted. “God, listen to yourself, man! You’re obsessed! You’re the one that teaches profiling, knows all the psych games. Look at the language you’re using! You just said ‘take her‘ like, twice!”

Chris ground his teeth in mock-frustration. “You know what I mean, Derek! You’re crossing way over the line here. You’re becoming one of them!”

That was the line he had always used in the past, and it had always worked. For a half-instant, he wondered what he would do if Derek stepped back from the brink this time too.

His partner shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, man. You know I’d give her to you if I could, but it’s too late. What’s done is done.” Chris stopped breathing for a moment as Derek carried on. “You were… are a good cop, a good enforcer, even. In spite of yourself… But this fixation on her, it’s not good for you. You need to let go and get over it.”

The laughter that broke out of him wasn’t fake. “You… You are telling me to let it go? You are telling me to get over it? Jesus god, Derek, look at yourself! Look at Ian fucking Carlyle!”

“But see, Chris, I have something you don’t.” Derek bent forward to stare into Chris’ eyes, bringing his face into the light, the hazel of his replacement eye at odds with the deep brown of the other. “I have an ending. I know where this stops. You don’t. You just have half a dream and no balls and no idea of how to make it happen. You should have just fucked her at the detention center, let her go and gone on with your life. Then you’d be a lot happier and none of this…” He gestured angrily around the shabby kitchen, then stabbed a finger up at his own remade face. “None of this would ever have happened.”

Carlyle’s face.

Chris was already moving even as Derek spoke. Invisibly at first, tension flowing into the right muscles, weight shifting, his hand sliding slightly backwards in his pocket. Everything seemed slow, burdened down as if under water. Everything except him. He moved faster and more lightly than he ever had in his life. His right knee came up under Derek’s chin as his left hand grabbed the man’s right shoulder, pushing him down to meet the blow then pulling away, twisting him further off-balance. As his foot glided through silky air back to the grease-stained floor, the other swung forward and swept round, dragging Derek’s ankles with it. As he turned, he snapped his elbow back and felt the sharp jolt of connection, heard the slow, sparkling rattle of a tooth bouncing across the tiles. As Derek fell, Chris turned fully around, bending his knees and sliding forward, landing with his taser already dug deep into his partner’s ribs. It took the blue spark of electricity to bring him out of his trance.

He turned up the voltage and jolted him again, to be sure.

The third time was just payback.

Then he was running, skidding for a moment on the slick tiles before falling to his hands and knees on the damp carpet of the hallway. Not the stairs. Derek hadn’t looked up. Just a low doorway painted with cheap emulsion, a big, heavy metal toolbox beside it. There was a hasp and padlock, but it was unlocked.

There was blonde hair caught in the hasp. Blood on the door jamb.

He ripped it open, braced to fling himself down into whatever tiny cellar appeared, and slammed face-first into a brick wall.

A freshly made brick wall.


He hit play again.

“You’re supposed to be protecting her.”

The red bruise on her cheek tinged with purple. The diamond-shaped insignia of some class ring embossed on her face. The livid finger-marks on her throat. The blood running from her nose and swollen lip. Her pallor and the way her cheekbones stood out more starkly from the soft oval of her face. The blood in her hair, the eyes red from weeping.

His mind itemized them all, noting them down like items for a shopping list.

Buy milk, tomatoes, get car serviced, mutilate Derek Fitzpatrick.

He hit play again.

“You’re supposed to be protecting her. Get your arse over here and kill this fuck, already.”

The fist tangled in her hair, pale gold strands wrapped around and over the knuckles, holding it like a leash. The man’s body, clad in black, pressed tight against her back.

The white clothes, pristine in places, torn and grubby in others.

New clothes.

Different clothes.

With no sign of the clothes she had been wearing.

And Fitzpatrick… touching her like that.

He hit play again, listening to her voice speaking words that weren’t hers. Peony. The sister in her head. Long-dead but still alive in poor Dolly’s fractured, swirling mind.

Until he’d come along. Ian had thought he’d silenced Peony for good, that with him to love and support her, Dolly had been whole. And she had been.

And now something had happened. Something had made his wife’s mind go away, hide somewhere deep in the complexities of her subconscious and now Peony was back. Her sister-protector.

But she was still alive. Only hours ago, she had still been alive.

There was no rage. Only a cold, sick place in the pit of his stomach that it all went to, leaving his mind free to work, to plan, to prepare. His hands clicked the spring of his N-TEC back into place, then hit play again. Walsaw would come through soon. He had to. And then, the only thing standing between Fitzpatrick and death was the space of minutes and the traffic in Anfield.

And Ian knew how to deal with traffic.

The video scrolled to its black end and he hit play again.

The beeping was incongrous; it hadn’t been on the clip before. He’d wound back and replayed twice before he realized it was his phone.

A text from Walsaw. An address.

He didn’t run. He just strode out to the garage and got in the Bishada.

Calm.

Patient.

Implacable.

And inevitable as death.


The search hadn’t gone quickly, not as quickly as Chris would have liked. He’d spent the best part of the day on the phone to San Paro, and he’d quickly discovered that among Derek’s friends, the truth wasn’t going to get him anywhere.

“So? Who the fuck cares about some crim girl?”

“Are you asking me to sell out a bro, dude?”

“Look Walsaw, even if he’s gone off the rails, Fitzpatrick’s still your partner.”

“Way to go, Derek!”

“Better dead than on the streets.”

“Sorry mate, I’m not selling out another ‘forcer.”

“Fuck off, Walsaw, you ginger cunt.”

So he’d changed his tactics. Anton had been in Derek’s old unit, but he’d been in hospital for the last two months recovering from a spinal injury he’d incurred in the line of duty. He felt like a shit for lying to the guy, but he was least likely to have been tipped off by the men he’d already spoken to. Anton and Derek had been close and Chris could have bet money that he’d know how to reach Derek.

“Walsaw! Didn’t expect to hear from you! No, I’m doing a lot better, can walk a little now. Few more weeks of physio and I’ll be back on the streets.”

Chris took a deep breath. “Look, Anton, I need a favour. I’m looking for Derek… I think he’s in trouble and I can’t reach him.”

“No shit? Well, I told him that English guy was trouble. We lost Alex and Fredrickson chasing him, remember?”

“Yeah… Do you know anyone he might have been in contact with, here? Derek, I mean… I really need to find him before Carlyle does.”

“Yeah, I can give you a couple of numbers. Some guy in the Met he knows, used to work over here.”

That was the start of the trail. Derek’s friends in London had put him onto a real estate agent in Liverpool: one Mr Eltham, who, they had told Derek, could help him out with short-notice, short-term lettings, no questions asked.

The emphasis on “short-term” chilled Chris’ spine.

Eltham wasn’t answering his mobile. He left him a message, then forced himself to eat, choking down a slightly sweaty cheese sandwich from a nearby supermarket with the mug of coffee that had gone cold in the hours that he was on the phone. Earlier, Carlyle had sent him a copy of the video Derek had left when he took Phorbes. Watching it, seeing Derek cool as a cucumber with his face spattered in blood and fine flecks of bone, a dripping power-drill in his hand… It didn’t leave him with much of an appetite, but Chris had learned over the years to take food when there an opportunity, whether he wanted it or not. Low blood sugar slowed your wits, slowed your reflexes, made it easy to lose control.

And he was going to need every edge he could find.

Waiting for the agent to call hadn’t been easy. He phoned twice more, got no reply, left no message. He paced, forced himself to stop and sit down, got up and started pacing again. He did push ups, took a second shower, paced some more. Checked his kit bag through four times, unloaded and loaded his guns, checked the charge on his taser, paced again. Phoned the agent again, left another message asking him to call urgently.

Finally, cursing Derek, Carlyle, England and God under his breath, he’d slung his bag over his shoulder, torn a page out of the phone book with the agent’s office address on it and driven down there.

Eltham was out. The building’s security guard told Chris he had a secretary, however, and let him go into the office to look for her. A lot of small business shared the building; he found the sign for Atlantis lettings on the third floor and followed the wall round to a reception desk and a tired-faced red-head who, at first glance, he’d have guessed to be in her mid-to-late-40s, though he had a sneaking suspicion she might be younger, with hardship and frustration lining her face instead of time. The sign on her desk identified her as Pam White. He rested one hand on the desk and gave her a warm smile.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but would you happen to be Mr Eltham’s PA?”

She straightened in her seat, flashing him a smile that was wooden at first, then gradually warmed as the eye contact and his American accent worked their charm.

“That’s me! Welcome to Atlantis Lettings. I’m afraid Mr Eltham’s out at the moment, but if I could take your details I could get him to call you later?”

He leaned in a little further, lowering his voice conspiratorially even though there was no-one else in the room. “Actually, Ms. White, perhaps you might be able to help me?” He slipped a hand inside his coat and pulled out his badge and ID, placing it into her startled hands. “Now, you’re not in any trouble and neither is he. I’m an officer with the CSA in the US of A and I’m not here officially, but please…” He reached out to grip her shoulders. “I need to find a property your boss rented in the last 36 hours, probably by phone, to an American man with an accent like mine. I’m sorry to pressure you like this, but…” He swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing. “…it’s a life or death matter.”

“Oh god!” Fuchsia-tipped fingers flew to her lips. “Well, um, I handle most of the admin for the business, I’m sure I can…” She started flipping through a notepad next to the telephone. “Oh! I know which call it was! It’s not been a busy week and I remember his voice!” She spun her chair around and rolled it to the right, dragging open a steel drawer on one of the filing cabinets behind her. “He was trying to be flirty and stuff, like I don’t get enough of that all day… Here, here it is.”

She rolled back to the desk and plopped the file on it in front of Chris. “19 Beech Street in Kensington. Rented for 1 week, paid with a banker’s draft sent by bike courier.”

Chris stared at her for a long moment, shock turning his face as white as bone. She cringed down in her seat under his furious gaze. “Someone you never even saw paid this much…” He stabbed the relevant digit in the file with a stiff finger. “…For a piece-of-shit-hovel like this…” He flicked the picture at her. “…For just. One. Week… And you didn’t tell the police? What, aside from murder, did you think he could possibly want to do there?” The little vein on his temple was throbbing and the cords in his neck stood out as he glared down at Pam while she whimpered and babbled apologies and excuses.

His hand was inside his jacket, curled around the butt of his pistol. He forced himself to let it go, one finger at a time, then stalked towards the exit, pausing just long enough to turn and shoot her an icy glare. “If I don’t get there in time, be proud of yourself. You’ll have killed a helpless little girl.”

%d bloggers like this: