Friday, 21 May 2010

Chapter Eight

Prayer lay in the bathtub of the empty house, watching the twilight through the window. The bathwater was an ugly greyish brown and she cleansed herself thoroughly apart from her hair. Her arms, her legs, her face, her torso, between her thighs. The mess was sucked away down the plug hole, and she found the tub was now lined with grime. Patiently she cleaned it away and ran another bath, sitting on its edge. This one was much more enjoyable and she washed her hair. The water turned a brownish pink from the dried blood in it.
In the phantom girl’s bedroom she searched the closet and found an assortment of what seemed like very fashionable, sexy clothes. A resplendent thrill shot through her. Beautiful tops of many colours and textures; crimson and burgundy, marine and sky blues, pale and forest greens, gold and black. Figure-hugging pre-faded jeans, black and red underwear. This was all fairly new to Prayer, she had only seen these clothes on television, and in magazines she’d glanced through at Ensler.
Like treasure, it felt. Like finding treasure.
She grinned, a flutter of excitement, when she realised these clothes would fit her, that this phantom girl was almost her exact shape and size. It was undoubtedly part of the destiny that was laid out before her. She tried on nearly all the clothes, modelling them in front of the closet mirror. This unknown girl; her garments seemed expensive, and Prayer wondered at the kind of wonderfully happy life she must lead. These clothes were hers now.
Eventually, nearly an hour later, she dressed in the black set of underwear. Then she settled on a pair of tight blue jeans that were cut low on her hips, and a tiny black t-shirt that accentuated her breasts and exposed her midriff. She could see the lower part of her belly, like the girls in the magazines. She smiled at herself.
She found a pair of new-looking trainers and put them on over a clean pair of socks. Searching under the bed, Prayer found a large black duffel bag, and filled it with her books and other clothes that she liked. There were three jackets hanging on hooks on the inside of the closet. A black leather jacket, a blue denim jacket, and a brown suede jacket without a collar. The suede one looked more fashionable than the others and so she pulled it on and appraised herself in the mirror. Yeah, she liked what she saw. She felt new and alive, almost electric.
But something was missing.
She searched the girl’s hope chest and found the cosmetics she was looking for. Amongst them was a photo. It was the phantom girl; she had on the suede jacket that Prayer was now wearing. She had her arms around a handsome young man and they were both smiling at the camera. Prayer felt a stab of some cold emotion, realising quickly that it was jealousy. She tore the photo in half. At the hope chest mirror she applied some red lipstick, and thought it contrasted well with her dark brown hair. She looked like a woman now. She smiled and kissed the mirror, pulling back to see a red imprint of her lips on it. She could kill, she could fuck, and Jobe Vesson would not deny her. Just one loose end to tie up before she could have him.
She smiled again, slung the duffel bag over her shoulder, and left the bedroom.
I’m ready now, daddy, ready to come back home. Touch me with those nimble fingers and I’ll show you a new world.

***

At the multiplex they watched a big-budget science-fiction movie called ‘Serpent Rising’; a race of shapeshifting reptilians who were secretly taking over the planet. Michael said the script was terrible but he enjoyed the special effects, the stunning cathedral-like spaceships. Serima thought it was a decent enough thing.
Echoes of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by way of ‘V’ or ‘The X Files’.
Sorry, Shakespeare, she thought to herself. Movies about evil aliens were more popular than movies about the unending monotony of everyday life.
It didn’t mean that she didn’t fantasise about living the pornographic, media-led vision of everyday life, where everyone was sexy and political, or sexy and edgy, or sexy and hysterically funny, as though the whole world lived inside a satanic imitation of a counterculture zeitgeist. Style was everything, and all the outcasts were beautiful. The ugly did not exist and the graceless probably deserved to die.
Though she was desirable, still filled with dark mirth as many people complimented her – rarely did Serima feel it on any profound level. She searched Michael’s eyes more than once for some understanding of her caginess. She wanted him to see her, and she wanted to feel desirable to him in her nakedness. It wasn’t the nakedness of flesh; she knew her flesh was beautiful, at least in the eyes of others.
You've sold out, you little heathen. As far as she could tell, Michael was ignorant to her unspoken need. She felt like a fraud, an ugly little secret hiding behind a pretty face. It was too damn hard to be like other people – ridiculously complicated, really not worth her while. An outsider playing an insider pretending to be an outsider.
Shit…she wasn’t even making sense anymore.
Ooh-la-la...
After the movie they had headed out, and it was an unusually cold evening. They wandered the roads beneath the twilight, sharing cigarettes between gloved hands, glad that the rain had stopped, if only briefly. Eventually they sat in Jared Square, a tiny secret place backed on to some plush housing. Michael liked it because the fountain was shaped like a small angel. Serima came here sometimes without him, just to think and meditate, or ‘chill quietly’ as she preferred to call it. She liked the angel too. She spoke to it sometimes, commending its deadpan sense of humour.
“What did you think of the aliens, Seri?” Michael asked her.
“Didn’t look like any aliens I’ve ever seen. Lithe, dolphin-baby-demon things. Very nice. I did like how they pretended they were healers. I liked how they abused us with our own love. Got to hand it to those alien-demon-dolphin-baby things, right? Experts in all forms of seduction and subterfuge.”
Michael stared, perplexed. “What?”
Serima just laughed and looked away, unable to take the earnest confusion in his pretty face. “I thought the aliens were a bit tacky,” she said.
“Exactly! Everything is CGI these days…digital effects. It’s nice for the spaceships and stuff, gives it an epic scale which you need for the exteriors, but the aliens should always be puppets of one kind or another, otherwise they just look two-dimensional. Like cartoons. Spend millions for shit effects in Hollywood. I could make something more realistic in my basement. And I actually could.”
Serima stared at the angel fountain, and then at her boyfriend.
“Michael, what the hell are you talking about, man? Can you actually hear the words coming out of your mouth? I don’t want to talk about this nonsense, okay? I wasn’t paid thirty million dollars to teach men about their dreams.”
He glared at her, with that same look he’d been giving her more and more since the dreams had started. He could obviously sense something was wrong.
“You do realise that you’ve been off-key all week? You can talk at me or you can talk with me. Just tell me what the hell is eating you.”
“Nothing,” she said with a half-smile, “I think that’s the problem.”
Michael arched an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed. “Oh, you terrible slut.”
“I think I just need to seriously unwind. I’m coming apart inside, thinking maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this fucking play.”
After a while Michael put his arm around her. “We could go back to mine….my uncle won’t be home until early morning.”
Serima looked hard at him. “You got any coffee?”
He smiled, “Sure. Nescafe, as far as the eye can see.”
“Then lets do it.”

They had Nescafe sex with his bedroom door open, at Serima’s request, their jeans around their ankles, half listening for the sound of his uncle’s key in the front door.
Michael was athletic and had a beautiful body, not overly worked but toned and graceful. Though she adored boys, loved to look at them, gazing at the severity of the shapes that made their flesh, she’d questioned her sexuality many times. She wondered if it would be easier to make a life with a woman. In Michael that was what turned her on the most; the strange femaleness about him. The gentleness, the intuition. She guessed the only reason he hadn’t been snapped up by some hawk-eyed teenage starlet was because he was painfully shy.
It was a strangely desirable find; a boy who was so good-looking and yet so meek, and it brought out the sculptress in Serima. She’d given him some confidence and spontaneity but Michael, being an artist too, was hip to her game. He still let her take the lead; coaxing and teasing him. She liked the softness but she needed something hard. She didn’t really feel that in his mind, only in his well-proportioned body.
Or maybe all of that was just nonsense? Maybe she was deeply in love with Michael. Perhaps she was afraid, in serious denial. Sometimes, when they lay together and laughed together, it sure felt like it might be love. She was too damn young and tired and stupid for this, for love. How could she really know? Liar.
He seemed madly in love with her, an intensity that was sometimes uncomfortable. He always looked at her in that way that suggested ‘I know more than you think’, and he would cut his eyes at her in a way that asked ‘When are you going to be honest with me?’ And even when she was cruel to him, needlessly cruel, eventually he would hold her in a way that said, ‘I love you and I believe in you.’
Maybe she was just feckless, like her petulant older brother. Jobe was a coward, also too soft and noble. He did some sordid little things now and then, that he didn’t think she knew about. It didn’t really bother her. He had to get his kicks somehow and she wouldn’t begrudge him a little pleasure. Disgust was never an issue where her brother was concerned. Sometimes he was pompous and morbidly introverted. But he could also be compassionate, wickedly funny, almost telepathically perceptive. She hoped he would find someone special again, a girl that would treasure him like Emma had done at first; a girl that he allowed to hold him without making himself pay for that respite.
Serima knew her brother better than he realised, or so she liked to imagine.
She felt Michael inside her again, and this time she went with it. She held the back of his neck, breathing with his rhythm as he moved inside her, feeling the warmth and contact, an ache that was better than the ache of being alone. Thoughts of Jobe melted from her mind.
They moved together, Serima guiding him every now and then, Michael guiding her occasionally, and eventually, after many minutes, she felt him shudder, pressing his face into the curve of her neck. She listened to him breathing near her ear, the silver cross around his neck pressing coldly at her shoulder.
“Did you…?” he asked, a little breathless.
She wondered quickly whether to lie and say yes. “No,” she told him. He turned his face to her.
“I’m sorry…” There was look of vague guilt that nearly broke her heart.
“Relax…it’s still groovy. If you get my drift.”
He smiled in a way that made her realise the look of guilt was mostly fake. She could still feel him inside her, comforting. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Michael withdrew and then went down on her. He went slow and delicate at first, and Serima felt herself tense and settle simultaneously; a creative wave that made her arch her back slightly. This, she loved. This was perfect. Lazy tornadoes, slow whirlpools of release. Prose as purple as a bunch of blessed grapes. Angrier tornadoes and Dorothy’s house being blown all the way to Oz. Serima laughed out loud. Eventually she climaxed, grabbing the sheets in her fist, and for a moment she forgot who she was. For a moment, Michael was her soul-mate.

***

The rain had stopped for now. It might offer some brief pleasure, as Monica no doubt suspected. Jobe felt guilty but not guilty enough, like he was committing another small betrayal that Monica would simply mourn and accept because she loved him. He cruised in his red Escort, did three laps of Ephesia Road, watching carefully to see if he could spot Lisa. There were girls clustered on the corner, smoking cigarettes and jerking around restlessly on the pavement. They asked men that passed by if they were looking for business. Jobe could see the interest flicker across their faces before declining the girls services.
He needed something tonight, and this time he wasn’t going to work himself up into a state of shamefulness. He was simply going to take what he would pay for.
No intellectualising.
Two of the girls crossed the street, leaving the other one alone, who winked and called out to them. It was Claire. She was a blonde twenty-something, pretty but cruel-looking, worn down, dressed in a mismatched glittery mini-skirt and a black hooded-sweatshirt.
Jobe pulled up onto the curb. The girl recognised his car. She pulled up the hood on her sweatshirt, walked over and quickly climbed into the passenger seat. “Hey, Pete.”
Jobe lit a cigarette, glancing down the road for police cars. “Where’s Lisa?”
Claire followed his glance down the road. “Come on, don’t park here. Let’s drive.”
“Where’s Lisa?” Jobe asked again.
“Went back to Glasgow she said, to her sister’s funeral. Looked all torn up about it. Never said when she’ll be back.” She glared pointedly at him. “We gonna do this or what?”
Jobe pulled away from the curb and began driving down the street. There was silence in the car for a while.
“I really wanted to see Lisa tonight.”
Claire smiled and pulled on her cigarette. “Well, mate, you’re gonna have to settle. Or else drop me back where you found me.”
Jobe sighed, “No, it’s fine.”
“You sure?”
“Yeah.” They drove in silence again, for a while.
“Where’re we going, by the way?”
“My place.”
Claire nodded and smoked her cigarette.

At the flat, Jobe handed over the cash and poured them both a whiskey & Coke. She sat on the sofa, glancing around the living-room. He felt a little nervous but Claire seemed completely at ease. He’d only been with this girl once before. He’d never taken her here.
“It’s a nice place,” she said. “You live here alone?”
“With my sister.”
Claire smiled. “She isn’t gonna catch us is she?”
“Hope not.” He handed her the drink and she took it with a respectful nod.
“You ever bring Lisa back here?”
“Sometimes. Not a lot.”
He sat to her left and opened his chrome tin that was resting under the coffee table. He gestured at it. “Weed?” she asked and he nodded. “I wouldn’t say no to a spliff.”
He rolled one as she sipped at her drink. She was watching him, a vague smile on her lips. “Lisa keeps saying you’re a real gentleman. I can see why now. Most blokes that I know just get straight into it. But you’re not like the others, are you?” Jobe could hear the slight mocking in her tone.
“Actually, I’m just like the others. I just like a drink and a spliff first.”
“Lisa’s quite fond of you,” she said, smiling. “Did you know that?”
He lit the spliff and inhaled the spicy smoke. “Yeah, I knew that.” He took another pull and then handed it to her. Claire inhaled deeply on it, never taking her eyes off him.
“You’re a good-looking guy,” she said, closing her eyes finally and exhaling. “Not stunning or anything, but handsome, kind of intense. Why do you do this?”
“Do what?”
She laughed. “Do girls like me and Lisa.”
Jobe shrugged and answered too easily, “I don’t know. Shame, I guess. Never felt attractive or sexy. Never really fitted in as a kid, you know? I suppose I’m deeply insecure.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. But at the end of the day it’s bullshit, mate. It’s not much of an answer is it? Try a little harder.”
Jobe stared at her while she smoked the spliff. He took a sip of his drink and said, “It’s easier, and I suppose I kind of enjoy it.”
She nodded. “You like it a little dirty, a little dark.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Don’t worry, man. You’re not special.”
“Good.”
She handed him back the spliff. “You know, she talks a lot about you for a client. She really does like you, Pete. She says she thinks you’re better than all this.” She winked at him. “Me of course, I just think men are all the same.”
Jobe laughed at that, feeling a little more at ease. He liked the sparkle she put in her eyes for him, genuine or not.
Claire downed the last of her whiskey & Coke. “How do you want me?”
“Naked,” Jobe said. “Take your clothes off.”
She pulled her black sweatshirt up over her head and then unzipped the side fastening on her mini-skirt. She had on white underwear. Lisa always wore black. She stared expectantly at him.
“Take it all off,” he murmured.
She gave a smile and said, “You first.”
Jobe grinned, and began unbuckling the belt of his jeans. He was getting to like this girl.

Chapter Seven

Jobe called his sister’s mobile but she’d switched it off. He wondered if perhaps he was a little envious of her. But he wanted the best for Serima. He wanted her to strike out on her own and make a life for herself. He didn’t want to feel like a fake parent, constantly castigating her for valiantly attempting a life.
Today MasterKey wasn’t busy, which he was glad for, giving him time to work on his novel – a drama set in a housing-estate. The tone was pitched at darkly comic, but Jobe’s mind wandered as he typed. Eventually he decided it wasn’t comic or edgy, it was just derivative nonsense. He deleted all sixteen paragraphs in a flush of anger and shame, closed up the shop and drove towards the library, dialling Serima again. Her phone was still switched off, and in the rear-view mirror he caught himself scowling. He didn’t like the look he saw in his face.

Wells Gate Public Library was a gothic building on Queen’s Avenue, across the road from Keeley Park, with tall windows containing stained-glass community scenes designed by some of the students from the college. Though erected in 1889 its interiors were now fashionable and its security system reassuringly hi-tech. Jobe came here all the time, more recently to see Monica hard at work in her new job.
He first met Monica Lees in secondary school, when they were both twelve, and slowly but surely they became inseparable. Talking easily of films and books. Jobe was first attracted to the girl’s eyes, then to her voice. He watched and listened as she answered questions with a depth that made alarm bells go off in his young head.
Monica quickly became Seri’s new big sister, to Jobe’s delight. People said it was strange that they should consider themselves ‘best friends’ in the traditional sense, though he didn’t see why. Most people didn’t believe the two of them weren’t secretly screwing each other senseless.
There was definitely something between them, fourteen years of friendship, an intimate history together. Jobe liked to call her his fuck-bunny. She teased him for being a fluffy new-age beatnik who surrounded himself with literary trappings only for comfort. He teased her in turn for being so perceptive, usually eliciting her ‘evil laugh’ – a glorious laugh that was normally locked away in the chastity-belt of her watchful smile.
Monica was at a computer terminal near the counter when she glanced up, as a grin spread across her face, “Hey, fuck-bunny. I missed you on Friday.”
“Sorry I couldn’t make it,” he tried pathetically. She looked happy to see him.
Jobe knew her face too well. Tousled hair the colour of dark chocolate. Pale green eyes behind a pair of smart, silver-framed glasses. Her face was delicate and studious-looking, a face that most would call pretty but others would see as a touch too plain. Jobe knew, along with her dark and simple outfits, that it was all a carefully engineered projection; an inner truth presented as an exterior image.
Also a keen way to ward off unwanted suitors.
Miss Lees was a beautiful, intellectually adept young woman. And she was, in his humble opinion, the kindest person he’d ever met. She’d always allowed him his shabby social etiquette.
“You said you’d call. There’s this Ooh-la-la French movie I wanted to watch with you, but you weren’t answering your phone. It had tastefully handled domestic violence in it and everything. Even a sexy, tragic little kid with a red balloon…”
He leaned over the counter and smiled at her, “Sorry…”
“I sent you three texts,” she said, regarding him with what Jobe assumed was irritated affection.
“I know, Mon’, I’m sorry.” He flashed a crooked smile at her. “You’ll be done in fifteen minutes, right? We could go do something.”
“Can’t. Working on until Nine tonight.”
“Well…we could go to the pictures tonight, catch the last screening.”
Monica smiled, “I’ll kick your pretty little head in if you don’t turn up.”
“Agreed.”
“I’m deadly serious, Jobe, you complete whore…”
Despite the humorous delivery her words seemed undercut with a vague resignation, a sadness that made Jobe pause and stare at her. Monica had never really approved of the way he lived his life, but she preferred illumination to darkness. He wouldn’t lie to her. He held her gaze until a more accepting smile surfaced on her lips.
She sighed carefully, smiled again and said, “You only live once, after all.”
“Maybe,” said Jobe, which made her smile even harder; flashing that dark grin that she usually tried to conceal in polite company.

At the flat he threw his jacket on the sofa and went into the kitchen, fetching himself a can of beer. The living-room was blue with touches of red and dark green amongst the furniture, sometimes reminding him of Christmas. He sat in front of the television, cracked open the beer and lit a cigarette. There were over a hundred channels of soap operas, sitcoms, news, reality-TV shows. None of it interested him. He glanced at his video and DVD collection. He’d seen them all so many times before.
He stabbed the remote at the television and sat in silence, smoking.
Seri’s dream. She said she would tell him about it tonight. Was that why he was feeling so anxious? She didn’t want that halfway place, between madness and prophecy. It wasn’t a thing of beauty anymore. Perhaps it once was for him, when he was young and the world was new and exciting, a time when he could pin entire universes to a necklace of threaded light and wear it with abandon.
Long before Serima was born his mother would tell him about the second sight. How she was ‘blessed’ with it, and how perhaps her children would be blessed with it too. He’d lived with it for a long time; prophecy, precognition, the validity of the psychic plane, those ideas informing and shaping his subconscious. A natural product of his environment. He understood his mother’s hand in the creation of his inner worlds, but he also knew that beliefs and truths went beyond any human norms.
Jobe both loved and hated his mother. Sometimes he had dreamt of killing her, from a disturbingly young age. Once, he found himself standing with a kitchen knife over his mum and dad’s bed, thinking about plunging it into her throat. She stirred in her sleep, muttering Jobe’s name on her breath. It frightened him but he wasn’t surprised. Hurried back to his room, slipping the knife beneath his pillow. Dreamt that mum came into his dream, scolded him for his rash and violent desire.
Troubled sleep.
But when Serima was born, he recalled, light exploded into his life. Like a message from the heavens; a sister, a compatriot. A friend to share in his confusion and illuminate it. He could still remember his dad on the phone, glancing at him and whispering, ‘It’s going to be a girl!’ Jobe leapt around the living-room like a madman, grinning from ear to ear.
His sister had changed his life. Somehow he got older, caring for her however he could. Somehow she got older too. Eventually their mother began to tell her the same strange stories.
The girl was considered ‘brilliant’ for her age, just as Jobe had been. At first Serima lived with a disturbed mixture of fear and excitement at those stories, at the thought that she might be a part of them. Later she grew more comfortable and began writing poetry, always laced with a youthful but oddly cogent mysticism. Jobe began to wonder where it would lead his little sister, this flirting with madness.
A shapeless, nameless anxiety began to return, and then an anger, then a vague hate. He thought they would share things, sure, but now it seemed she was becoming more like him every day. Not what he wanted. Serima was supposed to provide contrast and clarity, not drag him deeper into this noble nothingness he lived in. She was supposed to be the cool, clear spirit that filled him with an ascension, away from the dark fire that haunted the edges of his consciousness. That dark light had only grown as his sister got older.
He had once dreamt of murdering Serima too.
Their mother, Maya Kistori, had been awed and somewhat feared by her town, as a young girl growing up in Calcutta. At least, that’s how she told it to her husband and her children; that many in the town spoke in hushed whispers about her, of how she could enter their dreams, of how she could see what was to come, and of how she was not like other girls in the town.
She was fortunate enough to come from a rich family of successful farmers, and they allowed her an education because she was the only child, and the gods hadn’t gifted them with a son. They wondered if she herself was the gift, or perhaps a curse, as some of the town believed. As a young English teacher, in a private school in New Delhi, she was never far from the energetic world. She was followed by spirits, both good and bad – spirits who took the forms of dead relatives or the popular images of Hindu gods.
Her grandmother in the hills at night, the time when she broke her bicycle. Vishnu in the shadows when she’d stayed with her cousins.
Jobe and Serima were rapt by their mother’s tall tales, but their father laughed them off. She’d been that way since they first met, he told them both, always willing to spin a vivid fantasy. Their mother would shrug and smile at his sweet chastising. Jobe wondered why a non-practising Catholic like his father was so attracted to her. There was something hungry in the way his parents looked at each other.
For Peter Vesson, a Historian and a rationalist, any genuine spirituality was to be found only in the realm of fantasy. Maya would always counter that imagination creates reality, that nothing and no one could escape their origins. Then she would quote Karl Marx, and make barbed comments about Globalisation, New Imperialism, how modern cultures were secretly fascist, until all Peter could do was just laugh strangely, stalking her with his gentle eyes.
Jobe saw it was a turn-on for both of them, and he wondered why. Maya’s imagination was all over the house as they grew up. Children couldn’t escape who their parents were, Jobe thought now, sipping his beer and sitting in the silence of the living-room.
Serima’s dreams were getting more intense, he knew, even though she had never stated it outright. She was probably terrified that she would break because of them. Imagination. Tall tales. She didn’t want to end up like their mother.
He could remember the exact moment when everything changed.
Maya had become moody and withdrawn following the divorce, constantly listening to music or writing alone in her room after work. He and Serima weren’t allowed to speak about it when they were around her, though they tried. Their mother was an expert at seemingly benign dismissals.
It had been the same night as the Aquinas fire. Four years ago. A blaze had raged that night; he remembered watching the news with Serima, as firemen and cameras gazed up at orange-black licking from the cinema windows. He and Seri often went there. It scared them both. Later, their mother came home from work. She spent an hour screaming down the phone at their father about the Aquinas, about signs and portents and the loneliness that comes with seeing them. Serima had tears in her eyes and Jobe held her, rocking her gently, singing ‘Silent Night’ to her in an atonal whisper. In the middle of the night he went to the bathroom. He saw his mum standing in the corridor.
The kitchen knife in her hand.
The sheer calculating coldness in her eyes. He realised in a split-second that she was going to stab him to death. His mother was going to kill him. In that moment he recalled his own dreams of killing her, and the night he stood over his parents bed with a knife in his own hand. The flashing blue sirens of police cars and ambulances. They took her away. She was silent and dead-eyed.
Jobe downed the last of his beer.

Chapter Six

Dr Katherine Reece’s mobile phone was ringing. She turned over in the hotel bed, trying to ignore it, but as it continued she felt an uneasy grope of despair. She snatched it from the bedside cabinet and glanced at the Caller ID. Wesley. She flipped it open.
“What?”
“Where are you?” he asked. Katherine rolled over in the bed, staring at the ceiling.
“I’m where I said I’d be.”
“Did you get much sleep?”
“No,” she informed him. On the line she could hear Wes smoking a cigarette.
“Neither did I.”
“What about containment?”
“High trace levels, but we knew that. Strange burns on the floors.”
Katherine sat up. “Consistent with what?”
“EM radiation, they think. And I mean Accelerated EM. It should be impossible, but in hindsight they suppose it’s not. She warped the structure of the entire corridor. They say the angles don’t make any sense. Everyone’s frightened. Even Deacon is frightened, and nothing scares that man.”
Katherine dropped her head back against the pillow, wanting to sink away into the bed. She closed her eyes, sick and angry at herself, at Locus Point, for thinking they could walk the tightrope of moral ambiguity. They would wash their hands of Rebecca Cole quicker than lightning, and crucify Katherine just to make a statement. String me up like a piggy. She lit a cigarette from the pack on the bedside cabinet, wincing at how rancid her mouth suddenly tasted.
“Kath, you still there?”
“Where else would I be?”
“Don’t blame yourself. It’s pointless.”
“I know that,” she said quietly into the phone, “But it’s hardly going to matter, is it? How the fuck am I supposed to find her? I wasn’t the one who let her out.”
“It’s business, Kath. Like everything. They need someone to blame.”
She shook her head at no one. “Worse case scenario?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Wes. Don’t do it.”
The line was silent for a few moments. “Worse case scenario; Locus cuts its losses, shuts down, and they turn everything over to the Interregnum.”
Katherine closed her eyes, enraged at the mere mention of the name. “So,” she asked softly, “then it goes from state to private…?”
“Yeah. Then a Tracer pops up, and we end up floating in the River Thames.”
“Or worse,” she murmured into the phone.
“Yeah, or worse.”
She took a deep drag of her cigarette, thinking she needed to brush her teeth. She laughed at the thought and began coughing on the smoke.
“What’s so funny, Kath?” he asked, “You think this girl carving her way across London would be amusing?”
She coughed again. “Maybe. It’d be…I don’t know.”
“Justified?”
“I was going to say poetic.”
“That’s it, doctor; play fast and loose with human lives. You’re becoming more like them every day.”
“Don’t talk to me about responsibility, Wes. Don’t talk to me like I fucking chose this situation. Logistics went over my head, and Deacon authorised that.”
“You had a hand in that,” she heard him say. “We both chose this. Look, our witness, the nurse; she’s at the police station. I’ll meet you there. One hour.”
She snapped the phone shut, staring at the white ceiling. Perhaps Wesley knew what she’d done four years ago. A misguided act of compassion. Katherine didn’t realise tears had rolled down her cheek onto the pillow

She showered and dressed, trying not to think about Sean or Robert. Tomorrow would be Sean’s birthday. Nineteen. The same age as Rebecca Cole. Christ, this was all quite hilarious really.
She clasped the chain with her wedding ring on it around her throat, slipping it inside her shirt. She stared at herself in the mirror on the closet door. She still looked damn good for a woman who was pushing forty-one. Her hair was still as orange-red as it had been as a child, apart from a few tiny flecks of grey at her temples that hopefully added a kind of grace. Her face was still beautiful in a distant, almost cruel way. She laughed out loud at her reflection but her eyes remained the same.

The wind made wet autumn leaves crawl along the pavements at the feet of pedestrians, and drift around above their heads against the grey sky. At least the season matched her hair, Katherine thought dryly. That was something.
She drove behind the wheel of a dark green BMW provided by her employers, eventually stopping at a newsagents to buy another pack of Lincoln. Quite simply, Katherine missed her boy and wanted him to be there to celebrate his birthday. A glaring impossibility. An image of Sean’s face slipped before her mind’s eye. She turned on the radio to quell the pointlessness.
Wesley was waiting for her in the car park of Wells Gate Police Station. He looked tired, not his usual intense, capable self. It pleased Katherine. She leaned up against his Mercedees, beside him, as a few uniformed officers were climbing into a sierra, watching them both with curiosity.
“Did you speak to logistics?” she asked quietly, peering across at the men as they stared from the windows of the leaving police car.
Wesley shot them a glance too. “They said that Cole was your patient, and hence your responsibility. Logistics doesn’t appreciate you using me as a go-between.” There was a faint smile on his lips.
She looked him in the eye, and decided to tell him to his face. “Wes…if you were the one to do it…well, I’d kill you first. Or at least I’d try. It’s not a threat, but you know I’m utterly serious.”
He looked away, “I know that. Jesus…lets focus on the task at hand, okay? They don’t want this anymore than we do, right, I mean that’s obvious. But these are high stakes. The highest.”
“Fine, what about containment?”
“Take a wild guess.”
She thought about it for a few moments. “The patient who was killed. They’re setting this up as a murder-suicide. Pin it on a dead man.”
“That’s what they’re going with. They’re saying he tried to escape during the blackout, like Cole, but really she tore open his ribcage. Died of shock before he could bleed to death. The guy was ex-SAS. He was supposed to be one of the best, before the breakdown. Anyway, it’ll be leaked in a few hours, all by the nine o clock news. They’ve accounted for the police. Glass-Darkly. So I guess they won’t be talking.”
Katherine smiled sagely, “That easy, huh? Why don’t they just pull Rebecca out of a hat? Save me wasting my time…”
Wesley laughed but Katherine didn’t detect any amusement. “They would if they could, Kath.”
She hated it when he called her that. At one time she’d been attracted to him, when she was first head-hunted by Locus. She had a thing for strong men, she realised early in life, and Wesley had been no exception.
A few years ago, to her surprise, she’d gone to bed with him one night.
It was devoid of feeling, and wildly enjoyable. Wesley had been raw, forcing the same dark quality from her. An unusual experience, thrillingly degraded, not so much that she felt exploited but enough to make her feel powerful, slightly perverse. So different to her lovemaking with Bobby, and Katherine had abandoned herself to Wesley for those hours. It was the only night they shared. But now after all this, after Prayer, his constant presence and remembering what they did…it only served to make him creepy, almost repellent.
She was no better than him, of course. They both abused the education and security they were given to spectacular effect. Katherine long ago realised, despite herself, that they were a lot alike. “Come on,” she said.

She spoke quietly with DCI Harin, telling him to order the others out of the fouth-floor corridor. She had to be alone with this woman. None of the officers had been allowed to speak with her, on orders from containment. The Chief Inspector made a show of sighing theatrically, staring at her with dagger-eyes, then quickly did as she’d asked.
Katherine finally stood alone outside the room, thinking, I’m signing this woman’s death warrant if I get her to talk. She knew that. This poor woman who’d seen what she shouldn’t have seen.
She went inside. The woman was young and cute, sitting dressed in a powder pink top, her eyes wide and hollowed. She glanced up, trying to force a smile but appearing terrified. Katherine returned the smile and sat opposite her. She offered the young woman a cigarette, who took it with a trembling nod and lit up. “Thank you for coming in here today. Do you know why you were asked in?”
The young woman shook her head and asked shakily, “Who are you – police? Or not?”
Katherine removed her ID and handed it to the nurse who glanced at it and said nothing, handing it back. “Your name is Paula Jance, right?”
“Yes,” she replied softly, then pleadingly, “I have a three year old son…”
“How long have you been a psychiatric nurse?”
“Five years.”
Katherine nodded and was silent for a moment. She leaned across the table and said in a whisper, “My hands are tied, Paula. Do you understand what I’m telling you…?” Paula Jance nodded quickly, teary-eyed. “I need to find her,” Katherine whispered again. Tears rolled down the young nurse’s face and she glanced at the ceiling.
“I have a three year old boy…Bradley. Please, he’s the only thing that…” She couldn’t continue.
In a measured voice Katherine said, “Maybe you should take a trip, you and Bradley, somewhere far.” The young nurse nodded again.
Katherine got up and left the room, expecting to see Wesley Morgan with his ear pressed to the other side of the door.
The grey and white corridor was empty. She walked down it and into the hallway. A few of the CID were standing around, eyeing her with blatant suspicion. There was a woman amongst them, younger than Katherine. Even she was filled with a dark look in her eyes. Katherine had to turn away from it.
One of the men called out to her, “They briefed everyone that was there, your cleanup crew. Terry Gaines, eh?” He stared intently at her. “What the hell did you do to him to make him massacre ten people like that? Must’ve made him as strong as an Ox…”
She saw the female DC immediately touch the man’s arm, murmuring, “Forget it, Tony.” The woman glanced at her. Katherine saw a little fear in her eyes, and a lot of disgust. She was obviously wiser than her brothers-in-arms.
Turning away quickly, Katherine descended the stairs. She expected to hear them laughing but they were quiet, as if genuinely horrified by this intrusion into their hermetic world. The expressions on the men’s faces – she was used to it. But the look of sheer contempt in the eyes of the female detective, it had given her brief pause.
Outside, Wesley was waiting in the car park with the DCI. When William Harin saw her he marched in her direction, brushing past her and disappearing inside the station. She approached her associate.
“What was he saying to you?” she asked him, and Wesley shook his head and smiled.
“Chief Inspector was fishing, Kath. You pretty much castrated him.”
“Too bad.”
“It’s all too bad. What did the nurse have to say?”
“Nothing. She didn’t see anything.”
“You see my point, Kath? It’s all too bad.” She watched him get into his car and roll down the window. He lit a cigarette, glancing up at her. “You speak to logistics this time. Tell them what you just told me. I don’t think it’ll change anything, but…you’re more romantic than I am.”
He started his Mercedes, reversed and left the station car park. Katherine waited for a few moments, unlocked the BMW and climbed inside. None of this was looking good. She speed-dialled the number on her mobile phone.
“Yes?”
“It’s Dr Reece. Patch me through to logistics.”
“Go secure. One moment please.”
A husky male voice said, “Yes,” like it was a statement. She took a quiet, deep breath.
“I’ve assessed the situation and I don’t think the nurse presents a critical risk.”
“That’ll be decided, doctor. What did she see?”
“Nothing. She was knocked unconscious. Extremely lucky girl.”
The man was silent for a moment, then, “Containment said she did see something, that there was an accelerated ion charge from exposure to the subject.”
Katherine closed her eyes. Shit. “They must be mistaken.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you want me to do then?”
“What is there to do?”
Katherine grit her teeth. “I don’t know. You tell me.”
“Report to ISAX; they’re attempting to track the EM with a cascade array but it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before.”
“What about the nurse…?”
“What about her?”
Katherine wanted to scream down the line but softly she said, “Is she a critical threat then? I mean…do we edit?”
The man at logistics laughed gently at the euphemism. “Doctor, you know that we’re not a publishing company. I’ll trust your judgement, so relax. Report to sequencing, at eleven tonight, okay? And watch the nine o clock news.”
Katherine snapped the phone shut.
She wondered, for the hundredth time, what it might be like to melt away inside Prayer’s purifying halo. A world of living words. She supposed it was the only thing that would save her now, make her clean. But she had to find the girl first. She pressed the phone to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut.

Chapter Five

The college theatre hall was wide and dark, with red arc lights on the stage, a white spotlight in the corner. A few munchkins sat around in the aisles, eating their lunch and talking. Stagehands were ambling about engaged in various tasks. Mr Holmes had gone for coffee and cigarettes, leaving the students to what he called their ‘questionable devices’.
Serima was perched on the edge of the stage, legs hanging over, bathed in red light, a sandwich in her hand. She didn’t feel hungry. The Oz script lay beside her and she had the headphones of an iPod in her ears, listening to a Tori Amos song with the volume down low, like a gentle ghost in her head. Tori’s freewheeling melodies offered some comfort. Serima was thinking, inevitably, about the dream; the realness of it, the vividness and lucidity.
She hated going to that place. It was utterly banal to her now. She pulled the headphones from her ears and switched off the iPod.
Too many Dreamless nights. A mother’s daughter. A mother’s son.
She couldn’t close her rationality to it. She’d tried numerous times, in vain. The images were too powerful, all at once a part of her and yet separate from her. Maybe Jobe could live in a contradiction, satisfy himself with turning it into a cruel cosmic joke, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t a thing of beauty.
The dream.
The burning trees. The thing moving in the dark that was shaped like a girl, slaughtering shadows that ran screaming. Serima was watching, naked, high in the branches of a burning oak, unscathed by the flames. She wasn’t the only watcher. The children were there too, looking down from green stars. Gossamer Children, they called themselves, and they watched from the edges of her dreams many times before. It was only a few weeks ago that she began to consciously sense them, but now she knew they were there since mum had been sectioned.
Observing the massacre she felt turned on; erotic, awake, lustful for blood. Jobe could never understand. She couldn’t allow him that. It sickened her to think of it.
The blood, its scent so sweet. It had been too dark to see it, but she heard it spurting from torn flesh amidst all the screaming and running. How could something murder a cluster of shadows? She wanted to leap down from her hiding place and bathe in the blood, wanted to embrace the thing that was shaped like a girl. But she was afraid, of the shadow-girl, of the mysterious Gossamer Children, so she only sat naked in the tree and watched, feeling moist between her thighs. When she woke, she had been dry. That was something, she supposed. It was only sexy in the dream; her body hadn’t responded to it in reality.
Still, she felt a stab of guilt and dropped from the stage, sitting in a seat near the other students, away from the accusing red glow of the arc lights. She watched munchkins and flying monkeys milling around; talking, eating, drinking coffee. The Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion were over by the emergency exit, huddled in a square of grey daylight, sharing a naughty cigarette. Serima couldn’t help but feel a slight flush of happiness.
She was doing it. It wasn’t exactly running smoothly, but she was doing it.
It was quite cool. Some of the stagehands were working on the front of Dorothy’s ruined Kansas farmhouse, others piecing together sections of the yellow brick road. Another quick stab of fear pierced the momentary happiness – she didn’t have a Dorothy. She was two months away from debut and she didn’t even have a lead actress. Katie and Jennifer were sitting further back in the hall, both clad in identical blue-white gingham dresses, eating chips and slurping Pepsi. Serima would chose Jen if it came to that, although frankly she didn’t think the girl was good enough.
She’d decided to keep the ruby slippers from the MGM film rather than return to the silver shoes of the book, because she’d fallen in love with the movie long before she read the original. For her the ruby slippers were truly magical. Growing up, they’d become a kind of totem for her; crushed by fate, seduced by destiny, yet homeward bound. Ooh-la-la…
She took a slow breath and then a bite of her sandwich.
Her best friend, Anna Duncan, was talking to the Scarecrow and glanced warmly at her, winking like a conspirator. Eventually she strolled over and sat down, staring intently at Serima. Anna had short blonde dreadlocks tied back from a pretty but fierce face, wearing jeans and a ‘Nirvana’ hooded-top, her black fingernails edged with scarlet.
“You okay there, artist-in-musing?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit worried.”
Anna had a straw in a can of Cherry Coke and nodded, taking a noisy sip. “Just chill, we’ll find another Dorothy. Don’t even stress it.”
Serima frowned. “I want this to be perfect. As you know. We’re only a month away from debut. Anna, if I screw up I’ll hate myself.”
“Are you blaming Kelly?”
“No, of course not.” Kelly’s mum had finally died a week ago, and Serima supposed the girl was in no state for a trip into Oz right now.
“Seri, it will be perfect. Everyone around you knows what a genius you are.”
“My brother’s the real genius. I’m just a delivery girl.”
“What?” said Anna, frowning.
“Nothing,” Serima mumbled. “Private joke.”
Anna stroked her arm and grinned. “They’ve got faith in you, man. Even Sherlock thinks you’re hot shit.”
‘Sherlock’ was their pet-name for Mr Holmes, the deeply laconic, virtually unflappable head of the theatre department. “I guess so,” Serima murmured.
“You know I’ve got faith in you, right?” Anna gripped her hand and stared pointedly. “Complete faith. You’re so talented, you cow. You make everything seem effortless. I’m thinking about having you killed.”
“You’re a sweetheart.”
“What’re friends for? Bitch.”
Serima laughed out loud at that. Anna offered her a sip of the Coke and she declined. In the half-light, she saw someone walking down the centre aisle of the hall. Anna glanced round, turned and nudged her. “It’s your one true love.”
Serima smiled thinly. Anna gave a sly wink, got up and wandered back to the Scarecrow. It was Michael that was approaching. He was tall and athletic, dark brown hair, lamentably kissable lips. Inwardly she sighed and then felt guilty for the hidden gesture.
Michael glanced at her and frowned. “What happened?”
“Nothing.”
“You don’t look right, Seri. I can see…something’s up.” He sat down where Anna had just been sitting, dried paint on his hands. Serima didn’t say anything so he began scratching a fingernail across the back of his hand, flaking at the paint. “The play will be awe inspiring, I just know it.”
“Yeah,” Serima nodded, “Anna just told me the same thing. I hope so. We haven’t even finalised a new Dorothy yet. I don’t want to crash and burn here.”
“You won’t. If worse comes to worst, you can play Dorothy. You know all the lines.”
“I want to remain behind the scenes if I can help it.”
He grinned, “Yeah right.”
“It’s true.”
“I’ve nearly finished the painting, Seri. Miss Carson says I’m a talented bastard and I shouldn’t let it go to my head.”
“Yeah? Cool. Can’t wait to see it.”
He was intently studying her face, Serima realised. It freaked her out for a moment but she glanced away. “So, what do you want to see?” he asked her.
“What? Is that some kind of abstract question?”
“Hello…the cinema? A film, tonight. We made plans last week.”
Serima cringed. “Shit…I totally forgot.”
“Don’t jump ship on me now,” he said, glancing away.
“No, of course not. We’ll go.”
“What do you want to see?”
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Is that some dumb American teen-comedy…?”
She laughed at his joke and pulled him close for a lingering kiss, surprising him. From a few rows behind them Anna and the Scarecrow both gave a loud whistle. A few of the munchkins and flying monkeys laughed, raising their sandwiches and coffees in celebration.
Serima rose from her seat, smiling, and barked at them, “Get back to work or heads will rock & roll!” A few denizens of Oz cackled with glee.

Chapter Four

She knew the living screamed louder than the dead. She knew the living secretly envied the dead, for it seemed the dead were truly alive. The words contained the needed truth, but most people doubted words and thought of them as nothing more than dubious currency, or at the most; an ambiguous and limiting necessity of communication. Prayer knew that words were a form of telepathy, a continuum of living spirit that was given shape through sound and light, but always housed, ultimately, in the minds of the ones that imagined them.
Sink deep through the heart of language, and touch dream.
Words were shells, like the dead bodies she’d left back at Esler psychiatric. They meant nothing without the spirits that animated them. Words meant everything to Prayer. Entire realms, inhabited, were hidden in the simplest gatherings of vowels and consonants. Words were doors that led to hidden histories, and to incredible reserves of energy. Energy was a neutral thing, infinite and immortal, but when harnessed by intellect and touched by guided hands, energy became power.
The Sunshine Blade – the power to fantasise the world into any image that was desired. Power always predicated desire, whereas energy was simple need. This was a fundamental truth of life concealed from most living people. It confused them, filled them with despair. They could feel something was wrong in their lives but they couldn’t identify what it might be. The truth always evaded them. And so they settled for counterfeit truths; static images that they pretended were dynamic concepts filled with the deepest profundity.
They lied to themselves. Prayer knew all of this. My glittering analysis.
She’d always loved books. She read constantly even when they had her sectioned, even when daddy said she’d tried to kill him. As a young girl she was fascinated by the pages of books, all books, anything she could obtain. She would squint until the words were nothing more than a mass of alien markings, nonsensical and opaque. She wondered how she was able to understand.
Where was the meaning in words?
The meanings couldn’t be in the words themselves because the words themselves, in truth, were a mass of opaque markings. The meaning must exist in the minds of the people that decoded them. The markings on a page were decoded, fantasised by human minds, into belief and poetry and prophecy.
As a child Prayer wondered how on earth any of this was even possible. It seemed bizarre to her, but most people didn’t genuinely question it. It was something like magic, she’d realised. She didn’t voice this knowledge, at least not out loud, afraid that others would think she was mad.
And they did, didn’t they? They thought she was a fucking lunatic.
Dear Daddy, I’m coming for you…coming to finish what I started writing years ago. Are you scared? I bet you are.
It wasn’t just written words, it was spoken words too - a series of interconnected sounds that somehow others could decode and understand, conveying things of such depth and complexity as to assault her young sense of reason. It was magic, to be sure. This thing that others called ‘communication’; it was something divine.
She imagined that the entire physical universe was a living vortex of interconnected mirrors, each reflecting and refracting the indefinable whole, creating an endless array of substantial illusions. Consciousness, energy itself, was both this mirror and its own reflection, in the way that artists were both reflected and created by their artwork.
The world was a beautiful, terrible, eternally unrepentant lie. A deception that generates light, a fictitious truth. The journals she compiled at Ensler contained all these musing; her life’s work, her life’s blood. Dozens of journals and scrapbooks filled with words and images, the garish mind of a psych patient. At first she thought of it as her legacy, something to leave the world so that she might be remembered.
Silly Girl. Later she came to understand that she’d written and complied these things for nobody but herself. They were tools of communication that allowed her mind to speak intimately with her heart. They changed her, these pages. They had named her. Rebecca Cole was a dangerous nineteen year old ‘sociopath’, but Prayer was something else. Oh yes.
Slicing open iridescent eyes that look but do not see.
Prayer was divine; a magical symbol pressed into flesh. Named and given form through words; a conversation between Life and Death themselves. Rebecca had been touched before, in a way that made her flesh sing and crawl. Now Prayer would touch, in a way that made others understand the beautiful lies that lived inside their minds and echoed through their veins.
I will teach them all to read.

Last night, blood and stringy flesh from the nurses and doctors clung to her when she fled. She had been a whirlwind, a walking explosion.
Never felt so free. And the blood, incredible, never felt or seen so much blood. Not hollow puppets after all; meaty and instinctive, the way they tried to run, casting off their training and their science, groping fearfully at a god-concept. Felt their bones crack in my grasp, and the feeling… oh, damn, the feeling...
Breaking bones like breaking bread. Sharing something of herself with these misguided but beautiful people. Behind the wheel of the neon crowned ambulance; a fugitive licking at her hands and wrists. Blood still warm, because of her. Her entire being throbbed like the heart of a star; burning, radiating. She remembered pulling madly at the wheel but she hit the abutment nonetheless, and the ambulance crushed around her in an instant.
She escaped the steel tomb, of course, running with the bag that contained her precious books, through a housing estate, over a chain-link fence and across a small stretch of wasteland that was once an allotment. Nobody saw her because now she could move differently, now she could hide in plain sight. She fell prostrate to the wet earth, amongst shopping trolleys and car tires. Her bare feet were slightly cut by unknown sharp things.
She rolled onto her back, panting, staring up at the night sky.
She lay there for what seemed a time. In the furthest distance she heard police sirens. She clawed at the soft mud. She smeared her arms and legs with it, rubbing it into the blood that washed her skin and her hospital whites. She ground the mud deep into her skin but it wasn’t enough. Prayer tore away her clothes; ripping off her top and bottoms, grinding the mud into her nakedness until her flesh began to bleed slightly from the abrasion.
It still wasn’t enough. She stuffed handfuls of mud into her mouth and swallowed it down, gagging and nearly choking but forcing herself to eat it. She parted her thighs and pushed small handfuls of it inside her vagina, feeling the wet, grainy softness. She fell back against the earth again. She felt better. She felt herself beginning to cool down.
After a time she rose naked to her feet, walking slowly across the patch of wasteland, the bag across her shoulder, staring down at her breasts as they bobbed gently, feeling the grainy strangeness of the mud rubbing between her thighs as she moved. She was struck by an image of herself, as if she were watching this naked girl walking through the dark. It felt almost like a warm dream, and yet she could feel the cold wind playing wonderfully across bare flesh.
She found that the ruined allotment ended where the back gardens of houses began. She easily scaled a high wall, wandering through an overgrown back lawn where patio furniture and a child’s bicycle lay overturned and abandoned.
The windows of the house were dark.
Prayer pulled hard at the patio door and it popped easily from its track. No alarm betrayed her crime. Inside, she found the house to be empty. There were six messages on a blinking phone and she played them, learning that the family who lived here were on a holiday in Barcelona and wouldn’t be back until next week. Somehow she knew the house would be unoccupied.
No real food in the refrigerator, of course.
She found a room upstairs that she guessed belonged to a girl of similar age, judging from the decor and university textbooks on the shelves. Prayer caught sight of herself in the closet mirror. Naked, wide-eyed, streaked with mud, blood and stringy flesh in her hair. Like something that had crawled up from a subterranean space. It frightened her for a moment, but then she smiled at her reflection and it smiled in return. Suddenly it was not frightening at all. It was Prayer. Not scared and confused Rebecca, the victim, but a vision. A message.
Crawling beneath the bedcovers of this unknown girl, she lay her grimy head on the pillow and closed her eyes. She could still feel the mud between her thighs, filling her. It was a comfort, and eventually she slept.
Glitter soul, like diamond in the blood. Soft spoken secrets in veins aching to bleed. No. This place of shapeshift, like the brothers dream and death. Serima…?
When she woke it was evening of the next day. She had slept for almost twelve hours. The bed was dirty and her body was caked in dried mud. She felt rested. She dreamt that she was watched by another naked girl, sitting in the branches of a burning tree. She scaled the tree and tried to speak with her, but the girl had only turned away, glancing up at green stars filled with dead children.

Chapter Three

The morning light was ethereal and bitter, like the sky was wounded somehow. It was raining less heavily than last night.
Serima sat in the passenger seat while they drove, her eyes closed. Jobe glanced at her. She was dressed in figure-hugging blue jeans and a burgundy jumper, her coat folded across her knees, trying to impress her drama teacher and fellow young thespians with her maturity and sophistication. She looked good. There was a little of the debutante in her, Jobe mused.
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’, from L Frank Baum’s book and the MGM film, it was Seri’s intended master-work. Jobe smiled to himself. A radical reinterpretation of the text, she’d called it. He watched her pour everything into this production. Even though she was admired and respected by her teachers, it was still a bigger venture than any she’d taken on in the past two years. Jobe knew the theatre department put a fair amount of money behind its best students. Serima would feel responsible if it turned into a disaster.
“How’s it going?” he asked carefully. “You still gonna be Dorothy?”
Serima opened her eyes and stared at him. “Not if I can help it. I’m swamped as it is. You know, sometimes I think I’m too young and stupid to handle all this. Maybe I’m trying to run before I can walk.”
“Seems fitting though,” he said with a grin, “You played Romeo, a young boy in love, caught in the middle of a war. Dorothy Gale would be full-on prophecy. Either way, you’ll do a good job. You’re a perfectionist.”
Serima lit a cigarette. Jobe snatched it from her hand and began to smoke it.
“Not in my car, Googley. These things will kill you.” Immediately she lit another one and took a pull. Jobe smiled.
They both smoked quietly for a while. Eventually, Serima exhaled and said, “Anyway, that was in school. A girls’ school. That’s the only reason I got to play Romeo. As incredible as I was.”
“Guess you haven’t found someone to replace your star?”
She bit gently at her bottom lip and raised an eyebrow. “No, not yet. Well, it’s down to two girls actually. I’ve got to decide. Kelly dropping out was all I needed.”
Jobe turned to her and winked. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Serima rolled her eyes but was smiling, hoping that would indeed be the case. She wanted this play to go off without a hitch. If it did it would earn her a lot of kudos in the theatre department and among the other students. She liked Baum’s book but she loved the movie much more. When she was twelve Jobe had given her a poster of Judy Garland as Dorothy that she kept on her wall for nearly four years.
In this production Serima wanted to combine the book and the film, but re-envision a far darker world of Oz. She wanted to walk Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin-Woodsman and Cowardly Lion into destiny’s harsh embrace. And, as implied in the book, Dorothy would knowingly murder the witch.
Dorothy would have a child’s near impeccable sense of style.
Jobe’s Ford Escort pulled up in front of Wells Gate College of Arts. She had a final drag of the cigarette and tossed it from the window. Taking her brother’s hand, staring pointedly at him, she knew what he was thinking.
“Jobe, a shadow-girl was in my dream. She killed a lot of people. She had so much rage. It reminded me of things I’d rather forget. Don’t ask me questions now – I’ll tell you everything when I get back tonight, okay? When will you close up the shop?”
“Around four, four thirty. Don’t let the Man get you down, Seri.”
She leaned forward, kissed his cheek, and climbed from the car. Jobe watched her put on her coat and sling her bag across her shoulder, as she walked towards the stone steps.

Wells Gate Public Baths was an old building, built in 1893. It had survived the Blitz and was refurbished countless times, but it still managed to exude an antiquated presence. The Men’s changing-room was a windowless rectangle with orange lockers that clashed with the polished grey stone of the walls. He stripped and changed into his trunks, taking his goggles and stuffing everything into a locker. Swimming always made him calm, focused and inspired. It illuminated his fears and doubts for what they were; hollow illusions filled with ghostly light.
He thought about the Aquinas here. But not just dark things.
He thought about great moments when he’d realised he was happy. In the water he coveted those precious times, like stolen coins from nature’s unyielding fist. Astrologically he was a Cancer sign, the cardinal water sign in the zodiac; a sign born to lead, a sign with a mother fixation.
So dashingly predictable.
Jobe smiled and raised a hand to Lucy, the cute lifeguard, as he slipped into the pool and began his laps, cutting smoothly through the water. Maybe he loved it so much because it was like being in the womb. Or perhaps, probably more accurate, it was like moving through the subconscious; through a realm of images unchained from the stone of the world, like dreaming whilst being awake, especially if he closed his eyes. He wanted the solitude and the darkness. It would be a darkness of language, a black ocean of words, utterly silent, and armies of angels would resolve the fates of the dreamless.
One day, he mused at his death metaphor. For now, I’ll make do with the light.

‘MasterKey’. It was a name that Serima came up with when she was a brilliant eleven year old on the cusp of puberty. A secret key to all the halls of knowledge, as she’d put it. Jobe guessed she liked the lawless implication. The shop sat on the edge of Thornsett Road, new books displayed in the large windows. Apart from Monica and Serima, it was the only thing Jobe really lived for. MasterKey insured his financial future. He’d be lost without it, merely another young man who couldn’t escape his adolesence. The last few months he’d been working on his third unpublished manuscript, often typing at his laptop between serving customers and trying to update MasterKey’s computer database. He couldn’t afford an assistant, and even if he could he wouldn’t hire one.
This place was his now.
He had put a lot of effort into making the shop visually pleasing; pale blue walls, plants dotted around, paintings hung between shelves. Some of the paintings were reproductions of Picasso, Degas, Magritte. Others, the explicitly postmodern ones, were his own creations.
A young boy kneeled on a vast chessboard floor, replicating the chessboard on a sketchpad beside him.
A girl, naked, arms crossed against her chest, sitting in the branches of a tree that was shaped like a key.
Jobe liked these adolescent images, but back in secondary school his art teacher referred to his strange paintings as ‘false surrealism; a trite pop-psychology attempt at meaningfulness…thoroughly derivative and wholly without depth.’
Jobe had been shaken by the contempt in the man’s eyes, and he wondered why a teacher would need to cut a fifteen year old boy to psychological ribbons. Nearly a year later the man was killed in a car crash that was the talk of the whole school. At the memorial service held by the Greenwood PTA, Jobe placed a single red rose beneath the shiny plaque bearing his name. He remembered feeling sorry for the guy, and wondering if the malicious art teacher had ever really known anything about art.
Jobe smiled now, thinking of Seri at college, forging a path of pure gold for Dorothy & Company. He put a Tom Waits CD in the player, took a sip of his coffee and spent the next few minutes going through the database, checking stock and reviewing orders, as Tom growled expertly on the issues of love and life. Jobe usually felt at peace here. His own kitsch little sanctuary. A church that made him smile, in which nothing skewed could touch him.
When he was finished with the orders, like hundreds of times before, he reached into the counter drawer and removed a photograph of his mother.
Maya Kistori was staring blankly at the camera. Long black hair and dark brown skin. The bindi at her forehead. She was beautiful but cold-eyed. He could see a lot of his sister in his mother’s face, and a little of himself. Seri had her delicate brow and nose. And her eyes too.
He reached in again and removed a photo of his father, smiling wryly. Jobe could see more of himself in the man. The lighter brown skin, the less aquiline nose, the intense yet saddened eyes. Both he and Seri had their father’s full lips. Their parents were good-looking people, and they’d at least blessed he and Seri with a measure of physical attraction.
Yeah, we’re blessed. Those words mean nothing.
Jobe laughed and shoved the photographs back in the drawer.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Chapter Two

The scene was fractured with blue neon that cut through the night, rain like thousands of tiny sapphires that fell from above. A disturbing quiet had descended on all the people she could see. The lights of the Ensler psychiatric-unit flickered back to life and with it, she supposed, all the lights in Wells Gate. Nobody seemed to notice the power had returned and the blackout was over.
She watched some of the faces – a young paramedic sitting in the back of an open ambulance, hands behind his head, eyes wide and empty. A male police officer was sobbing into the crook of a female officer’s arm. Even the older ones looked afraid. Members of the containment unit were stalking about, and she supposed people had begun to talk. The rumour-mill was already turning.
Dr Katherine Reece stood in the rain, feeling sick, as though icy stones lay nestled in her belly. She tilted her face skyward and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. The rain beat down on her cheeks and the lids of her eyes. She absently pulled the coat around her even tighter, crossed her arms against herself, glancing down at the Omega on her wrist. Two thirty-four.
Most of London was asleep.
She knew something about what awaited her, enough for the sickness she now felt to be more than psychosomatic. She’d received the call almost forty minutes ago. Things never stayed buried, even if you weighted them down.
When she opened her eyes and surveyed the scene again, she saw a large plain-clothes policeman jogging through the sapphire rain towards her. She recognised him from the photos she’d seen. His name was William Harin. He was a pliable man, they told her. They were usually right. “Detective Chief Inspector?”
He glared sideways at her through the rain. “Yeah. And who are you? CID?”
“A while back,” she said, staring him in the eye. “Dr Katherine Reece. I was a psychologist with the Royal Army for five years, with Special-Branch for three before that.” She reached into her coat and handed him the leather-bound identification. He flipped it open, squinted in the rain and then looked up at her.
“Ministry of Defence…? Love, do you know what happened in there?”
“Probably not as much as you, Inspector.”
He stepped forwards, in her face. “They were slaughtered – ten of them…four nurses, two doctors, a patient, a guard and two paramedics. Their ambulance was found missing from the visitors bay.”
She leaned forward and said in his ear, “From here on, Locus Point has full jurisdiction on this site. You need to take me inside right now, William.”
“Wait here.” He jogged back to a flashing police sierra, reaching inside for the radio. She watched him through the blue neon rain. Eventually he waved her over. She strode across the Ensler car park.
DCI Harin gestured at the shell-shocked officers, paramedics and containment agents haunting the scene like uniformed ghosts. “You see all this…?”
He left the question hanging, apparently not expecting an answer. Escorting her inside the building, he asked her, “Do we transfer the other patients to the unit at St Francis, or what? There’s a maximum-security wing here; Hopkins…for violent patients.”
“That’s not my concern. I need to see the patient files. You checked them all?” The last sentence was hesitant, fearing the answer.
“Only one unaccounted for,” he said as they moved through a hallway rigged with tarpaulins and portable lights. He glanced at the notebook clutched in his hand. “A patient named Rebecca Cole.”
Dr Katherine Reece inhaled deeply; icy stones jostling in her belly. She realised now that she couldn’t stop it. She never had a chance. Prayer was kneeling, only now it didn’t seem so darkly humorous. She wanted to cry but instead she stared stone-faced as they walked the corridor.
“Nineteen years old,” the DCI continued, “Diagnosed with…” He squinted at his handwriting. “…acute effective disorder. She’s listed as an escalating paranoid sociopath. I guess which means she has no conscience.” He nodded to himself, closing his eyes.
At the end of the corridor, forensics and photographers in white jump-suits were wandering around silently, apparently horrified at the scene beyond the corner.
The DCI snatched her arm, leaning in to her. “One of the nurses was ripped in half…and some of…the others…” He took a deep breath, his lips nearly touching her ear. “It’s worse than you think, love. It’s a vision of hell. I mean, I’ve never seen…”
She fiercely pulled her arm away and rounded the corner. What she saw, despite her lengthy career, despite her familiarity with violent murder, made her draw an awed inhalation of breath. “Oh…”
Prayer…My God…What the fuck have you done?
The blood and flesh and bones – everything was twisted, torn, disembowelled. An arm here, a torso there, a human head lying in congealed reddish black, all scattered like abandoned prizes. It looked unreal, a work of psychotic modern art. The carnage was so recent that only the fat scent of blood hung in the air. Even the walls seemed twisted out of alignment, bricks crumbling like dried mud.
From behind her the DCI leaned forward and whispered, “Now, doctor…you tell me what on God’s Earth could do something like this…”
Silently, hands trembling, she removed the mobile phone from her coat pocket and flipped it open. She was deathly cold and she thought of her son, which seemed strange in that moment. She pressed Send on the phone and held it to her ear, waiting.
As professionally as she could manage, “This is Reece. Tell logistics that we better think fast, and mobilise a secondary containment…now.”
She snapped the phone shut. Pulling her gaze from the carnage at the end of the hall, she focused on the DCI. He was looking at her as though he wanted her dead. “So you see all this, love?”
“I need those files.”
“Another unit? Well, that’s just brilliant. This is a disaster.”
“You won’t be compromised, sir. The fewer questions you ask the less disappointed you’ll be when you get no answers. Believe me.”
DCI Harin looked at the slaughterhouse scene, crossing his arms and hugging himself, as though truly frightening possibilities were now occurring to him for the very first time.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he muttered under his breath. “None of the coppers have…” He looked at her, a narrow and searching gaze. “A girl did this?” He sounded only slightly disbelieving. It made Katherine feel ill with shame.
“Please,” she said tightly, “Just do what I’m asking and do it now. Get me the files. Then we can both stop wasting time. Okay?”
The DCI stared and then nodded, jogging away down the hall.
She took another glance at the carnage. There was more blood than seemed feasible, literally painting the twisted walls. She turned away, stomach giving a dry heave, and she touched her mouth with the back of her hand in an effort to centre herself. She’d been right. Locus Point had been so damn wrong, and now they would blame her.
She would be held accountable for this massacre.
Katherine turned and hurried back into the car park filled with ambulances, police cars, and lots of frightened professionals. In the neon of the silent sirens the sapphire rain was still falling, heavier now. She pulled up the hood on her trench, reached into the pocket and lit a cigarette from a new pack of Lincoln. Nothing stayed buried; the past was back with sobering authority, snapping at her Prada heels. She felt like she wanted to throw up.
Halfway through the cigarette, she saw the DCI hurrying towards her. He had the files under his arms and handed her four of them in quick succession.
“That’s everything on Rebecca Cole.” He stared at her, looking frustrated and a little haunted. “I’m supposing that I have to take orders from them now? Ten people were killed and I’m supposed to lie for you. Right, love?”
“That’s right. You’ll go tandem with the containment unit for now, but it isn’t going to be covered in the national media like this.”
The DCI took the cigarette from her and she didn’t stop him. “One of the boys is bound to start asking questions.”
“Good. It’ll give them a place to channel their helplessness.”
He glared at her. “They found the ambulance a few minutes ago. It crashed at the top of Vassal Bridge Road. Nobody’s inside. The driver should be dead. You know the media is going to turn this into a circus, right? Everyone and his mother will want a piece. What am I supposed to do now?”
She took back her cigarette from him and said, “Just do whatever the fuck they tell you, William. That’s what I do.” She glanced at the dark sky, feeling the rain on her face. “I’ll leave my car here and ride with you. Let’s go.”

The ambulance had crashed into the abutment of a railway bridge that arched above the road. It sat in the rain, back doors hanging open, its front section pulverised into junk-metal. The driver’s cabin had been peeled back like tin-foil. Three police cars were parked around the abandoned emergency vehicle and the road was closed at both ends. A number of pedestrians nearest to the crash watched with interest from behind the blue police tape.
The sirens were still flashing silently against the night, as Katherine Reece stepped out of the car and into the sapphire rain with DCI Harin. Rebecca Cole was nowhere to be seen, apparently unscathed. Katherine glanced at the heavy-set Chief Inspector, trying to guess what was going through his mind at the sight of the peeled-back wreck.
He looked at her. “This sick little bitch slaughters most of the night-shift and then walks away from this crash…? Are you serious?”
She nodded silently, noticing that a dark car had pulled up behind the police cordon. Someone inside must have flashed an ID. The officers removed the tape, allowing the car to cruise into the scene.
Katherine glanced ruefully at the DCI, walked quickly to the purring vehicle, opened the passenger door and climbed inside. A tall, muscular black man in a business suit was behind the wheel. Dr Wesley Morgan.
She closed her eyes, her chest tightened. “Not looking good?” he asked her.
“No,” she said quietly. “Wes…you should’ve seen it. She ripped them apart.”
He frowned and lit a cigarette. “Don’t think I want to see that. The files?”
She handed him the folders. “There’s some surveillance footage, and the DCI says we might have a witness. A nurse. She’s in shock. I’ll do her first thing tomorrow.”
Wesley Morgan turned slightly and glared. “They ordered an edit? Jesus…it never went by me. Is that how we’re doing things now?”
“I meant that I’ll interview her. You’re all edgy.”
“We’ve got reasons to be edgy. The DCI, what’s he have to say about our presence?” She shrugged, so he took another pull of the cigarette. “After you’ve seen the nurse, what if Locus does order an edit? You’ll be the one pulling the trigger. You realise that, right Kath?”
She looked him in the eye, wondering how much he really suspected. “Of course I realise that, Wes. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
He glanced from the window at the sight of the overturned ambulance. “It’s already gone way too far, don’t you think?”

Chapter One

Moonlight came in through the blinds, a shroud of silver across Serima Vesson’s bed. In the darkness her lava-lamp was a strange molten fire on her desk. Rain snaked the windows. She could hear cars as they travelled out on Cromwell Road. Serima loved the swishing-hiss melody of traffic in the rain. Most nights it worked in lulling her, but not tonight. She glanced at the digital clock on her bedside cabinet.
2:09 a.m.
She pulled back the duvet and let air play across bare skin, wondering if her brother would still be awake, half wanting to tell him about the dream.
She left the bed and pulled a grey t-shirt over her head, padding softly down the hallway. There was light under her brother’s door. She knocked and went in.
Jobe had candles burning and was stretched out on his bed, smoking a cigarette and reading something. He glanced up and smiled. “Power went out a little while ago. Couldn’t sleep.”
Serima nodded and fell beside him on the bed. “Neither could I.”
“I think it’s maybe the whole of Wells Gate. Powerful storm.”
She arched her eyebrows at him. “Blackouts are spooky to the maximum.”
He pulled himself from the pages of the book and settled his familiar gaze. Jobe was tall with a milk-chocolate complexion, solidly built, a rough-edged attractiveness to him, with the darkest, most piercing eyes she knew – windows to the soul, for sure. He offered her the burning cigarette in his hand.
“Please,” she retorted and took the cigarette anyway, taking a long pull. It felt good inside her. She exhaled. “Got any weed…?”
Jobe laughed, “Not for you.”
“What’re you reading?” He showed her the front cover. The Big Book of Vampire Tales. A man in a suit and cape was beckoning from a mausoleum doorway. Serima laughed and nudged him. “Chewing the scenery?”
“Of course.” He stubbed out the cigarette and reclined on the bed, watching her face. She tried to stare back with the same intensity and failed. She could never out-stare her big brother, despite her large eyes. “You had it again…right? Another dream?”
She shifted her weight on the bed and pressed her back to the wall. “You always hound me about that stuff…I’m so bored now.”
He didn’t laugh or tease her, he only said, “I don’t believe you, Seri. I think you want to talk about it. I’d bet money on it. Talk to me, dude.”
She nodded grudgingly. “I don’t have the energy that you have, Jobe. Precognition, psychic dreams…I end up feeling so theatrical that I hate myself. Even though I love the theatre. Even though I love all those fucking things.”
“What are we talking about, googley?” Big-Eyed Googley was the idiotic nickname he’d given her as a child.
She laughed and said, “The sight, Jobe. Don’t bullshit me.”
“Right. You see the lightning a while ago? Man, it was pretty wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about – seeing yourself in the sky. I want it so badly but at the same time I don’t. I hate that place, you know. It’s not one thing or the other. I love it too.”
“Ooh-la-la?” he asked.
“Exactly…”
Jobe put a hand behind his head, regarding her with eyes that had always comforted but unnerved her. “Listen, Seri, a storm is a storm. It’s beautiful. It’s not foreshadowing anything. Just enjoy it, okay? Don’t try to control it.”
She laughed at him. “This coming from you, King of Dreamless? Whatever.”
As a child Serima had christened her brother the ‘King of Dreamless’, a time when she believed he could move mountains. She once believed his palms could open up like the pages of a tome. He sat up and lit another cigarette.
Exhaling a thin stream of smoke he said, “You gonna tell me or what?”
“Or what,” Serima mumbled.
“Then don’t waste my time. Go back to bed.”
She pinched him hard on his arm, “Don’t be a prick.”
“Gutter-mouth,” he glared at her, not too seriously.
“I miss mum, you know.”
Jobe could obviously hear the yearning that she didn’t bother to mask anymore. He stared at her there on his bed in her t-shirt and knickers.
“She’s not dead, Googley. Don’t talk about her like she’s dead. You want to mourn someone – mourn dad.” He pulled righteously on the cigarette. Serima lay down beside him, drawing an arm around his waist.
“Dad’s not dead either.”
“Oh yeah,” said Jobe, an innocent smile in his voice. She laughed at that because he said it like a child. He would often slip into his ‘cute kid’ persona just to see the look on her face. There was an easy silence between them. She glanced around her brother’s white bedroom in the candlelight, at the collages on the walls, at the small OM symbol that hung above the door, the small crucifix over the bed.
The Hinduism and the Catholicism, repackaged for small solaces.
“Is that what we are?” she muttered. “Are we really that kitsch? I hope it’s not that simple. I hope we’re not…maybe you should just take them down.”
She felt Jobe shrug, but she knew what his answer would be – his aesthetic love of the images. He would say that he was taking back creative control by keeping these religious symbols around. He could be a stubborn horse, like another man she knew.
“I’m nothing like my father,” Jobe said. Serima pulled away from him, smiling, eyes dancing.
“You read my mind…”
The stony facade of his face cracked. He laughed. “It’s magic. Harry Potter’s got nothing on me. I’m the master of the wand.”
She jabbed him with two fingers, “You’re a pervert is what you are!” She leaned over, peering into his face, taking on the tone of a strict school-mistress. “Don’t mess me around, wand-boy. I know where you live.”

Jobe laughed and pouted, but he realised she wasn’t going to tell him about the dream after all. He suspected it was the one about the army of dead children living within green stars, a reoccurring dream that soothed and terrified her in equal measure over the past few weeks. He decided to drop it, for tonight.
“Can I sleep in your bed?” she asked eventually.
“Nope.”
“Pleeease!”
Jobe shook his head coldly. She didn’t ask again. “Face your fear.”
“Piss off.” Serima got up from the bed and blew him a kiss.
“Night, Seri.”
She glanced back, smiling, and nodded, “Night.”
Moments after she closed his bedroom door the standing-lamp and stereo suddenly flickered back to life. A stab of bombastic heavy metal knifed the room with crunchy bass guitars and tortured vocals. Jobe flinched and heard Serima give a yelp of shock.
He leapt up from the bed and quickly shut it off. On the other side of the door, he heard his sister laughing.
He was feeling a little guilty now, for sending her off to her own room when she was clearly shaken by another dream.
Seri had always loved storytelling, just as he did; the ceremony and spectacle of it, the sheer life-blood and drama. She was in her second year at college, studying Theatre. Many of her teachers said she was a rising star, dedicated and professional, and that she would go on to do exciting things. It was a genuine tragedy that their mother wasn’t around to see what her daughter was doing with all those odd childhood stories.
It made him feel like a boy again, seeing his sister there on the stage. Not simple innocence but a spirit of wanton adventure. He craved that divine blend of fear and fearlessness.
Still, he knew how frightening the past few years had been for her. He knew it was why she poured her heart and mind into her college work. He wondered if all the strain was due to ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’; a college production that was only a few months away from debut and way behind schedule. Serima was the director, a responsibility she knew she couldn’t mess up. She wanted to go places, telling her beloved tales of the dreamless.
She needed to share her saving graces, her youthful renaissance.
Maybe she was buckling under the pressure, and she didn’t have the heart to tell him. Serima was stubborn, just like him, though she would call it single-mindedness.
Jobe remembered the look in her eyes a few weeks ago, the first time she told him about the frightening dream. She didn’t even cry. She lapsed into silence afterwards. He tried to get her to say more but she wouldn’t.
The divorce had been hard on her. She was only fourteen at the time, and she couldn’t really accept that their parents didn’t love each other anymore. And then, of course, that terrible night had happened, changing everything, burning away all illusions of a nice, normal family.
He knew first-hand just how dangerous Maya was.
Jobe always refered to his mother by her first name. Maya insisted on it from when he was a child. Names were powerful, she said. Jobe missed her too, just as much as Seri, and yet he was glad that she was locked away. For the first time in a long time he was beginning to feel like a real person. The guilt, shame and the sense of responsibility was something he’d learned to carry. If he carried it not with a certain grace, then he carried it at least with a grim efficiency. He blew out the candles and returned to his bed, crawling beneath the covers. Eventually, he slept.

Prologue

There was murder, then the apt loss of light. Like a heartbeat the power went off, the electricity extinguished. She stood thinking while rain fell in mirrored streams against the windows. No thunder or lightning yet, as there sometimes was in her dreams, but still, she knew this moment. She had seen it like a moving image, an elusive truth flitting mercilessly beyond reach.
But now she could almost taste it in her mouth, in the back of her throat.
Murder. Like the written word. These were pages; this life, this carefully crafted pain. Yeah, she knew this moment since she was a child, sneaking from her bed to watch films in the dead of night. At first there were tremors when she closed her eyes, later came a gathering of sorts. The shapes had slowly formed – the images began to move and speak.
Baby,” she murmured, “Is it you…?”
She wanted to believe her love had come like a thief in the night, weaving grand gestures for her, but she was afraid to dream like that. It could cost so much in a place like this, with its medications, therapies and security cameras. She supposed people tried not to dream in prisons, unless it was an ironic self-deception. The Ensler psychiatric-unit was an inferno easily hidden from apathetic eyes. Some knew of the darker, desperate things. Those unfortunates were insane. It didn’t matter, not in the serpentine scheme.
Darkness embraces all light.
A blatant sign was now offering itself for acknowledgement, just as Maya told her. She could still taste Maya sometimes, like a burning word on the tip of her tongue. She wasn’t allowed her to see her friend anymore. They stripped her of all human comforts with the excuse of confining her for her own ‘safety’.
She realised she could hear the faint sounds of screaming and ranting from the violent patients on the wing, seething with paranoia at the sudden blackout. It reminded her of a horror movie she’d seen one night as a child, but in the movie those expendable faces were butchered by a masked killer. She gave a laugh and glanced up at the security-camera in the corner of the room, illuminated by a patch of moon silver. The camera’s red light was no longer blinking like an alien eye.
There was blood on her left hand. It wasn’t her blood.
Murder, but it felt a little like she was dying herself.
The first silent shock came beyond the windows, a flare of light somewhere behind the night, the satisfied murmur of thunder. So this would be like her dreams then? Her given name was Rebecca Cole, although it wasn’t her chosen name, her true name. She turned from the window, trembling. Another bluish-white flare swelled the sky outside, briefly illuminating the room, and again she saw the nurse on the polished floor – the security-keys buried in her ruined face.
She killed her only minutes ago, wallowing now in the odd feeling. It should be her father’s face she saw staring lifelessly, but it wasn’t. She knew virtually nothing about this slightly overweight young woman, only that her name was Susan and that she smoked cigarettes during her breaks. Blood, possibly still warm, in a pool around her head.
Rebecca Cole’s true name was Prayer.
This moment now, with darkness here. Strange.
The door was still open. She kneeled, tearing the keys from Susan’s face, and then she left the cell that they laughingly called her ‘room’. She would discard these euphemisms. She heard the urgent shouts and footsteps of the unit staff further down the wing, in frenzied attempts to calm the other patients. Barefoot, she hurried down the corridor, turning the corner – and slammed into a figure racing in her direction.
She lunged sideways, whipping at his face with the keys in her fist. Again, so hard that something cracked. The shouts and footfalls of more of them. The male nurse slid away against the wall like a mannequin. His face was a mess.
She began racing down the hallway again – left, right, feet slapping the floor like drums. The criss-crossing beams of torches appeared as doctors and nurses rounded the far corner, with two security guards. She came to a shuddering stop, snatching at her hospital whites in fear, a fist clutched between her breasts. It was a gesture she’d made before, with her father.
A gesture of war.
They saw her in the dark, trembling slightly, shifting rhythmically on her heels. Immediately they paused, looked afraid. The older of the two guards shone the torch on her, at the security-keys dangling in her bloodied fist. She saw fear in his eyes. “Rebecca…Oh, child, what’ve you done…?”
They took everything when she was transferred – her paintings, journals, all her favourite books. They stripped her of all comforts. She wanted her stuff back. She knew where they kept it. After all the well-managed abuse, did they really think she was going to let an opportunity like this just slip away?
“Becky,” one of the nurses called out soothingly, spreading her palms in gestures of placation, “It’s okay, honey…just relax…” And then, in another lightning flare, she saw him…and she knew. Her baby boy was here, impossibly tall and thin, a figure cut from black silk. Like the living mirror that beat against the window. My Baby…
Prayer fell to her knees, bowing her head. A security guard was quickly at her side with an arm around her shoulder, gently raising her to her feet again. In the next moment she lashed out with the keys in her fist – another crack sounded in the darkened hallway and he slumped dead on the floor.
Shock widened the eyes of the others, and then fear quickly lit those eyes.
Stalking towards this little group, she realised they couldn’t see the thing behind them – the tall black figure that spread its arms like an aberrant Christ. He was blinding them for her. Some of them stumbled away at the threat of violence, others lunged, and Prayer felt a baton strike hard across her shoulder-blades. The pain rolled across her as though a veil had absorbed the blow.
Somehow she was trembling on the edge of her love. She moved then like a flesh-white blur and grabbed one of her jailers by the throat, hurling him at the wall, her eyes blazing with vivid realisation. She was vibrating inside at some infinite speed, translated though her flesh to the very tips of her fingers. She laughed with sudden delight.
“Yes, baby,” she hissed, “It is you…” She turned, to the rest of them, and sang the message like a coup de grace.
“What the fuck…” one of them muttered in terror, as collectively they began backing away, finally grasping how powerless they were. None of them were innocent, most of them were cruel. She would spare only one. “Oh God…no…” she heard.
This was the night of fools, where all the costumes were gaudy but scintillating, like old stories made fresh by fire. These idiots had long sold their souls to a carnival-keeper who demanded flesh made luminous and open. Like lovers should be. This insight spoke to her mind, in her own inflections, telling her that the world was an eternal conversation.
Then a nexus of the purest violence erupted in the corridor, her hands like the blades of a shining serpent. These pitiless nurses and doctors sobbing like children, trying to whisper superstitions on their breaths, trying to run. A reprimand of flesh and bone. The blood was hot, fat, and made her wet. Yet amidst this scarlet whirlwind, Prayer felt a purity she had only dreamt about.
Yeah, she knew this moment.
She could read it. Like the written word.