(Apprx. 10 min read)
Flames paint the narrow yard orange and bass thuds through the night air. Peter tries to work out if he knows the faces in the warehouse courtyard, but he doesn’t get far before he remembers who’s missing and buries his head in his hands. Sometimes he wondered if she’d seen him in the last moments before they’d hauled her away, one more face in the airports crowd watching the last moments of her liberty. His insides twist up tight. The phonecall couldn’t have taken more than five minutes, and by the time he returned his life had changed utterly. Becca might as well be dead. He tries to concentrate on the music sending out its messages to the dreaming city instead.
His friends think he needs to get out and take his mind of things. It’s the last thing he wants to do.
Slowly, the youth in the dark blue anorak allows his eyelids to shut, drifting through hazy memories of happier times before sleep takes him.
When he looks up next there’s only a few die-hard’s left waiting for the drivers to get themselves together.
The girl that’s sat down next to him is wearing clothes so tight they could be a second skin, and he has to try hard not to stare. He nods and takes the joint.
‘What’s your name?’ says his new friend. Peter tries to stay calm as she unfolds legs that disappear into industrial boots and metal tipped heels toward the fire. He never got the sexy one’s talking to him in clubs, something to do with the bulging eyes and jug ears he supposed.
A nasty twinge of guilt steals what he’s about to say next. He’s barely been able to read Becca’s letter through the smudged ink. When he gets to how much time she’s expected to serve has to stop every time.
His new friend hasn’t noticed anything though as she lets his name roll off her tongue. She has an accent – Russian thinks Peter.
‘I like that,’ says the girl.
‘Why did I think you were going to say something else?’
He wants her to laugh. The last girl Peter had tried to chat up had been a reiki practitioner in Chelsea. The conversation hadn’t worked out well.
‘What about you?’ says Peter. ‘What are you called?’
One of the circle of people with their faces buried in the darkness beyond the firelight shifts position and Peter catches sight of the marks on their arm. It looks like someone’s been stabbing themselves with a needle. He shouldn’t have let himself fall asleep.
‘Introduce yourselves then,’ says Nikki to the nearest. The next few minutes are an education as rapid talking rattles back and forth. Peter wouldn’t have been able to repeat a single word of what’s been said.
‘You lot Russki’s then?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Where we were born doesn’t exist now except up here.’ The figure she’s been talking to taps the side of their head.
‘No work, was it? say’s Peter.
‘Something like that.’
‘How come your name isn’t as foreign as your friends?’ He says to the girl.
‘It’s plenty foreign Peter, but names have power. You don’t think I’d be so stupid as to tell someone I’ve just met my real one? Besides I doubt you could pronounce it. Nikki will do for now. Don’t worry Peter we become friends and I might let you in on more.’
Now that sounded promising. He perked up a bit. After all she’s already told him she’s no tree hugger. She’s got weird mates, but that’s not a problem. She hasn’t met his yet.
‘What are you doing?’ says the nearest, leaning toward the girl with an odd movement like there’s too many joints hidden underneath its clothes. ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’
‘I’ll do what I like till daybreak,’ says Nikki with a twist of her lips, and her teeth flash pale in the firelight. ‘That’s the deal. They haven’t taken that away from me yet. ’
Peter’s surprised to see the figures slump back.
‘What do you mean?’ he says to Nikki. ‘You… .’ He stops, she’s got a look about her that’s warning him not to go there.
‘Nothing, I mean nothing, and they will not interfere.’ She stares at the men until they lower their eyes. Peter notices that somewhere along the line everyone else has left. But Nikki’s flashing her smile his way again and he has other things to think about.
‘My minders are over protective at times,’ she says and Peter sits up a little straighter. He’s heard of this sort of thing before.
‘So, who do you work with?’
She has a nice laugh. It’s a shame it’s directed at him.
‘Well what sort of celebrity are you then?’ He shuts his mouth before he can say any more. It’s important to play these sorts of things cool, not that he can remember actually meeting someone famous, or rich, when he thinks about it.
‘I suppose you could call me that in the right circles. I’m well known to some. Peter. Does that bother you?’
Peter’s a realist. A child of the working poor. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much when he’s looking at her. Nikki’s eyes are huge, outlined like an Egyptian queen.
‘No… well not as much.’
‘That’s nice. So, will you look after me?’
There’s a lilt to the words like they’re part of something formal, but it’s funny because the expression on her face kills the glib reply he about to offer straight away.
‘Um… sure,’ says Peter hoping he sounds more confident than he feels.
‘That’s good Peter.’ She leans forward, ‘I’ll hold you to that.’
Then she’s talking to the others and the Peter feels something small and bitter shift in his stomach.
‘You heard him. You’re witnesses all. The lady has a champion and she has until dawn. You will pass the message?’
Four heads nod in unison and limbs unfold with a sound like scissors opening.
‘What the fuck is this?’ Peter’s spooked because the things that have just stood shedding shadows like rags are taller than anyone he’s ever seen. The wind has picked up too, and when he glances at the fire its flames are dancing the wrong way. The warehouse is quiet now, the sounds of the party long silenced.
‘Hush Peter. It’s alright,’ says the girl. ‘They’ll do what I tell them.’
That’s good news thinks Peter. He’d barely be able to reach one of their chins.
‘What are you… really?’
‘You’re sweet Peter I like you, but if I tell you that I’ll have to kill you.’
Peter decides to blame the hairs standing up on his arms on the drugs, but Nikki’s still speaking.
‘I’ll die at dawn unless I can find a way out of here. I went against my Father’s wishes and a war was fought that nearly took the last of us. So, when they find me I am to be executed by the winning side.’
‘Who was that then?’
Nikki stares straight at him.
‘How am I supposed to help? I’m just one geezer surely you need… I don’t know,’ his hand flaps uselessly in the air ‘…an army?’
‘Something like them you mean?’ Nikki nods at her guard’s backs as they disappear. ‘They’re no use. They’re drones, worker bees, only here to keep the peace. The last of my allies died hours ago. I’m only alive because I ran.’ She looks around as someone drops a bottle and the sound of breaking glass spreads through the air. ‘I managed to find a refuge. However temporary.’
He’s about to mention Becca. But Nikki’s giving him that dislocated stare again. ‘You have something I need, and you cast so many shadows yet none at all. You’ll do.’
‘Yes, I haven’t got time to be picky and there’s plenty of darkness in you that you’re hiding. Come on, we’ve an appointment to keep.’
He’s already moving despite his misgivings.
‘Where are we going?’
‘To see my father, one version of him anyway.’
‘I thought you said he wants to kill you?’
‘He does. You’ll see, just help me get there. Then you can go. You gave your word, remember?’
There are still vehicles in the warehouse cul-de-sacs, cars mostly and the odd van. A light flicks on and he see’s people piling into a rusty ford transit.
‘Fukkit… ,’ Peter shrugs and turns to follow. He hasn’t really got anything better to do when he thinks about it.
In the taxi there’s plenty of time to think about what he’s doing with this strange girl who’s walked into his life. Nikki has long since curled up and nodded off after telling him where they’re going. Truth be told since Becca went down Peter’s kind of lost his purpose. Now he’s fleeing a city whose street corners are too full of memories right now. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, maybe not.
It’s still night when they arrive at their destination and for that Peter’s grateful. Even the street lights are hurting his eyes too much. He rubs his wrist. He must have caught it on a nail when they were adding wood to the fire because there’s cuts all the way up: pallet’s have always full of the bloody things. He looks around as the taxi speeds off. They’re standing in what must have been an industrial estate although all that’s left now is a gridwork of empty streets and the stumps of broken walls.
‘Where are we going?’ he asks the girl standing at the crossroads.
‘Somewhere most people have forgotten.’
‘That’s not much help is it?’ The comment doesn’t even earn him a look. He’s not even sure she’s listening as she shuts her eyes. He watches her eyelids twitch.
‘You never told me what it was you did to end up on the run,’ says Peter.
‘I killed a man.’
‘He was a bad man Peter. The sort that kids get told stories about to frighten them. He would have been the death of me.’
Peter pauses, digesting the information, ‘This place we’re going to. What’s there?
‘Something I need. Something I let escape.’
‘You mean like a pet?’
‘Wild things don’t make good pets. But I used to look after it and it kept me warm.’
That doesn’t sound too bad, but Peter’s thinking hard, ‘Once we’ve done this, we’re going our separate ways, alright?’
Irresistible she might be, but he’s had enough trouble in his past. Better to live up to his word and vanish.
‘You’re not going to leave me, are you? Peter?’ She blinks her huge Egyptian eyes at him and Peter’s shaking his head without even thinking about it. Becca’s face seems very far away right now. ‘We’re nearly there,’ says Nikki.
Lightning stutters along the horizon.
‘Well that’s a relief.’ Peter would have put more sarcasm into it if he could but he’s too tired to make the effort. ‘Somewhere dry is it?’
‘Oh yes it will be very dry Peter. You’ll see.’
Not for the first time he wonders what he thinks he’s playing at as she sets off again.
‘It’s here,’ says the girl. She’s pointing at the rungs of a ladder that descends through a hole in the concrete. Peter stares at the shadows crawling up its sides.
‘You want us to go down there?’
‘You can stay here if you like,’ answers Varya.
Peter looks around. It’s not much of a choice. She starts climbing down the ladder and for a moment her hair floats like she’s plunging into a sea. At the bottom the floor slopes steeply downwards. It reminds him of one of those pits you got in garage workshops except ten times bigger.
She’s only a girl Peter reminds himself. She needs someone to look after her. It’s just in the feeble light he wishes he wasn’t about to follow someone whose teeth glinted quite so sharply.
It’s freezing on the ramp, and before long Peter needs something to take his mind off wondering why. The beam from his mobile shows Nikki’s back in front of him. She hasn’t stumbled once.
‘Why did you really kill him?’ says Peter.
‘He stole from me.’ He can’t see her eyes. ‘And he was in my way.’
‘Is that’s why Dad’s got you down for the chop?’
‘I was stupid enough not to listen to him. Instead I got into bed with the enemy. It was the wrong type of warmth.’
‘It’s best you don’t know Peter, trust me.’
The noise that reaches them then robs him of any complaint Peter had been about to make. It’s the sound of something the world above has forgotten, savage, and fierce, and alone. They’ve been walking for a while now and with each step the ramp has grown more untouched. Even the graffiti’s vanished. Peter found himself imagining what would happen if the torch went out.
‘It’s just trying to scare us off,’ comes Nikki’s voice right by his ear.
Whatever it is it’s huge. Grit patters off his head as the earth shakes and his phone isn’t coming back on no matter how much he shakes it. When something brushes along his shoulder, he pulls it back… fast. He hopes it’s Nikki. Peter can’t see a thing; not even the sides of the burrow they’ve crawled into are visible.
‘Hold on to me,’ says Nikki.
He grabs hold of the back of her jacket marvelling that his mind can still think of what’s underneath even at a time like this, and steps after her. Nikki doesn’t pause and when the light does return it reminds him of the yard he’d left at the start of the journey.
They’re in a huge open hall; and his breath catches in his throat. Columns as big as church steeples march into the distance and in front of them there’s a cage that must have held something once. Peter peers closer, the bars are shaped like old men and the whole thing is suspended by a capstan the width of a merry go round although it doesn’t rise much past his shoulders, and it’s black like it’s made of iron.
‘Don’t stare,’ says Varya. ‘They don’t like it.’
‘Stare?’ thinks Peter and then one of those old men speaks with a voice as metal as what he’s made of although even his lips don’t move. The name he calls the girl at his side causes shivers to run down his spine.
‘You’ve been a long time.’
‘Father… you haven’t changed.’
‘A consequence of the bargain. I’m still here though aren’t I? I see you’ve brought my replacement.’
‘I have. He’s stronger,’ she shrugs her shoulders.
‘Does he love you?’ says the man.
Nikki glances at Peter. ‘It is the beginning.’
‘Does he know what he must do?’
She turns to Peter; and all he can think of is she’s so pale.
‘Will you help me catch what I lost?’
The noise is back, and Peter’s reminded of bird song. Up above him he sees the the darkness twicth as flames sends it roiling.
‘Why do you ask?’ says Peter like he’s reciting something he learnt in a history book.
‘Because I must take something from you when you do.’
Her teeth are back on view, sharper now, and longer.
Peter shivers. It’s dropped ten degrees. He pulls his jacket away from his neck.
‘When did you realise?’ says Varya.
‘When I saw your teeth.’
‘But you came with me anyway.’
Peter nods, ‘I have a lot to make up for.’
‘It won’t hurt,’ says Nikki.
He steps toward the cage and the empty space that’s been waiting for him. When his feet are firmly planted, he feels her mouth close on him and she drinks until he feels the cold settling in his bones.
‘Thank you,’ says the girl to the cages new metal bar as she wipes her lips.
‘You won’t have long,’ says the voice of her Father in her head as the shadows above the cage begin to move and the air fills with the beast’s cry once again. ‘Call it.’
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