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?

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.


“‘Gone?’ What the fuck do you mean, ‘Gone?’” The supervisor’s body slammed back and up, pinned against the wall and Chris’ eyes widened to find it was his arm holding the man there.

He wasn’t normally a violent man; he’d never roughed up a suspect or a source in all his time on the force, not in all those years. Today was different, though. Today was the result of long days of waiting, thinking, pacing; the culmination of a raging internal debate that had knotted his stomach and shouted through his skull, roaring and contorting through his brain until… this. The one move nobody could have expected… least of all Chris himself.

Cursing under his breath, the enforcer abruptly released the portly Russian’s collar and took two quick strides towards the door. Then he spun on his heel, suddenly right back in the man’s face.

“Open the apartment, Kropotnik. I need to see!”

With a shrill, fearful whimper (and Chris had heard better; sweeter, laced with heavy breath and whispered pleas, murmured in the ear of some completely unworthy prick), the building supervisor started to bound up the stairs. Chris’ boots crushed viciously into each step behind him, giving the man a shove now and again when his poor physique threatened to win over his fear.

After 15 flights of stairs, somehow, the rage hadn’t ebbed from inside him. It was painful, seated deep in the pit of his stomach, spiking up through his spine with enough force to make his vision surge in and out of focus. He glared at the Russian as he fumbled the keys into the lock, then shouldered him aside, slamming the door open and bursting into the room.

The kitchen, the open plan living room beyond… The apartment was deserted, just bare furnishings without the trappings and clutter of life. A scrap of card rested on the kitchen counter, the tag clipped out of some item of clothing. A solitary shoe, lacerated beyond wearing, lay abandoned in a corner, its laces grubby and stained. He picked it up briefly; a man’s trainer, expensive once, size 13.

He dropped it as if it was coated with acid and whirled on the man in the doorway.

“You were supposed to tell me if they did anything out of the ordinary. Anything!”

“I didn’t know! Everything was quiet! I didn’t find out until the rent lapsed!”

‘Everything was quiet’ and you didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary? Did you see the set of lungs on that girl? You got complaints about them how many times a week? And it never even occurred to you to check?”

The Russian sputtered protests and claims of  ignorance to Chris’ back as he strode from room to room, tearing drawers from their fittings, flinging open cabinets, kicking over wastepaper bins and picking through the last detritus of inhabitance in hope of finding something, anything, to tell him where they had gone. A tinny sound beckoned him to the closed door of the bedroom; he paused outside it, pulling the pistol from the back of his jeans before kicking the door wide and striding in, scanning the room with weapon raised.

The room was completely black

I hugged her and she hugged back

Like the sailor said, quote “ain’t that a hole in the boat”

My head keeps spinning

I go to sleep and keep grinning

If this is just the beginning, my life is gonna be beautiful…

An open, empty wardrobe. Bed, stripped of covers. Dresser, drawers hanging open and empty. A radio alarm clock, still plugged in, singing out abandoned on the floor. He sat down on the edge of the bed, gun resting across his knee. The small bouquet of deep pink peonies slipped from his free hand and tumbled sadly to the floor, forgotten.

Her scent still clung there.

But so did his. He balled his fist and punched furiously into the pillow, yelling incoherently, trying to pound his frustrations away.

She’s telling me we’ll be wed

She’s picked out a king size bed

I couldn’t feel any better or I’d be sick

Tell me quick…

“You fucking smug dick.” The gun’s retort was deafening in the enclosed space, shattering the radio and leaving the enforcer’s ears ringing. The song kept playing in his head, however, giving him no respite.

“Officer Walsaw? You… OK in there, yes?”

The building supervisor… He hadn’t noticed anything until the rent lapsed. Only there had probably been a post-dated check or two to make sure of the man’s silence. Money. Information. Influence. The kind of power a legitimate man could never know. They’d had everything, these two.

Especially him.

“Officer…”

Especially him.

Warm spray washed over him, yanking Chris from his reverie. Warm red spray, painting his face, soaking into clean, pressed cotton of his shirt. He hadn’t even heard the gun go off and now he was staring, staring open-mouthed at the corpulent, mostly headless body of the Russian as it slumped so slowly to the floor while his gun quivered in his fingers with the force of its discharge. A high, tinitic whine rang in his ears as the echoes of the shot faded away, but it wasn’t enough to drown out the song, not even as he fled down the stairs, leaving bloody footprints in his wake.

Tell me quick, oh ain’t love a kick

Tell me quick, ain’t love a kick in the head


Each sharp retort of the gun brought a certain bleak satisfaction to Derek Fitzpatrick’s heart. Weeks of surgery had left him pale and far thinner than he’d once been, but a meticulous regime of exercise and healthy eating was starting to restore the flesh to his bones, while the doctors had performed the same service for his face.

Almost the same service. There was little resemblance to the man pictured in the Hall of Fame at CSA headquarters, not any more. He’d had to pull a few legal strings to convince the reluctant plastic surgeons to do as he asked.

Three shots, then the low whine of the mechanised pulley system as it reeled his target towards him.

He unclipped the picture from the cardboard target. Ian Carlyle’s features, looking back at him from the glossy headshot, seemed far less smug, marred as they were by a perfect diagonal track of three bullet holes. The enforcer slipped a finger through a hole that punched right through the pictured lens of the man’s habitual sunglasses and whirled the photograph idily around his digit. “An eye for an eye, my friend… An eye for an eye.”

He set the punctured photograph down and clipped a pristine one onto the target in its place before pushing down the button to set it scrolling backwards down the range. His eyes flicked briefly to the pale band on his tanned finger where his wedding ring had once lain. His wife, Lucy, had skipped town while Derek had been in hospital and he found himself too weary and on edge to put the effort in to find her again.

It was simply another gift for which he would have to thank Ian Carlyle properly.

He was two shots into his sequence again when a hushed step on the concrete interrupted him. He set down his pistol and pulled off his ear muffs and goggles, pushing his sweat-soaked hair back off his face as he suddenly became conscious of the evening heat radiating from the walls of the building.

“Did you get ’em?” Derek looked his visitor in the face without fear, though he would be one of very few to do so.

The man in the grey suit nodded, holding out a large, thick envelope. Derek snatched it from the man’s fingers, pulling out a handful of enlarged photos. He shuffled through them, one by one, then stopped, waving dismissively to his visitor, who simply bowed his head and left without a word.

The telephoto lens had captured every detail, from the lines on Carlyle’s knuckles to the sheen of reflected light from the engraved letters on the inside of the plain gold rings inside the tiny cushioned box he held out to his brother.

Wedding rings.

Derek closed his eyes and silently thanked either God or the Devil, whichever force had given Ian Carlyle something else for him to take away.


“Whoah! Whoah! Hey, I thought I’m not supposed to see the bride at all the night before the wedding?” Ian was laughing, resolutely keeping his back turned to the little blonde who was pressed close against his spine, arms reaching around his body and fending off his efforts to catch them with playful slaps.

“So keep your eyes closed! I have a solution to all our problems.” Dolly was half-laughing, half-exasperated as she tried to focus on tugging off the item of his clothing that had her attention.

“If it’s that ridiculous hoodie and mask you came in wearing, I’m not sure it’s a solution I want!” He finally stopped trying to blindly catch her wrists, lightly caressing her forearm with the back of one finger as he felt her hands brush near his face.

“It’s not.” Pulling his scarf loose, she tied it firmly across his eyes. “There! Can you see at all now?”

“Nope! But you’re making me want to!”

“That’s nothing…” In the darkened room, there was the long sound of a zipper unfastening, followed by the soft thud of cloth falling to the floor.


The soft purples of early twilight smeared into grey beyond the heavily-barred window as, in a low-rent apartment on the San Paro Waterfront, a blonde woman set aside a slim, colourful hardback book and lent forward to kiss her daughter, tucking the covers in around the little girl’s chin.

“And they all lived happily ever after, until the end of time.” The woman’s voice was soft and low, the British accent sounding rich and plummy in a sharp contrast to the west coast American drawl her daughter had picked up at school.

“Mommy? When is Dad coming home?”

“Soon, sweetheart. Very soon now. He’s been out on the streets making sure we’re safe.” She bent to kiss the child again, as a hand touched her shoulder and she staightened up to smile radiantly at the man who had just entered the room.

“I’ll always be home in time to kiss my little girl goodnight.” Chris Walsaw smiled tenderly at both of them as he reached past his wife to brush his daughter’s ginger hair. “Both my girls.” He turned, swiftly, leaning in to his wife for a kiss.

***

In a low-rent apartment on the San Paro Waterfront, Chris Walsaw jolted awake and stared blankly at the slowly-spreading damp stain on the ceiling, a knot in his throat and an inexplicable feeling of loss in his chest as the dream faded.

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