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Dealing in shades of secrets

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"The streets are dark. The streets are lonely and, above all, the streets are cold." This is street smart - and soon to be conscripted secret agent - Aria's reality.

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Chapter One

I hear it. I hear the rustling of a thin blanket across a homeless man’s knees. I hear the scream of a helpless woman in the hands of a cold-hearted man. I hear the rats scuttling on the dirty, scuffed concrete. I hear my breathing; coarse, harsh and smelly.

The streets are not a good place to grow and live. The streets are dark. The streets are lonely and, above all, the streets are cold. My parents were killed when I was seven. I’m thirteen now. I was kicked out of every orphanage I ever tried to set foot in and so I ended up on the streets.

My fears live on the streets alongside me. They indulge in the darkness and despair, like most things struggling here. The dark. I shiver at the thought alone. That’s one of the things I’m afraid of. I shouldn’t be, not after being here so long. But I am, oh I am so. The dark is where my fears live and the dark is one of my fears. Because a fearless person isn’t brave, they are a coward for not admitting it, and stupid for not seeing it. My fears make me strong. Stronger than any coward would care to know.

The desert. The vastness and the emptiness. The streets are easier than the desert. I know where I stand with the streets. The desert is endless and even the sand is smart enough to not stay in one spot for long.

Pumpkins, as ridiculous as it might seem. With haunting faces and gnashing triangular teeth, eyes full of anger and mouths open wide, lit from the inside for Halloween and casting their shadows all over the naïve spaces.

Glass. Fragile and thin, one tiny crack would grow and grow and then the whole piece would shatter. I’ve broken a lot of it, and a lot of it has also ended up in various parts of my body. With no real sanctuary, I had dug the pieces out of myself in desperation, wishing that it would mercifully sliced the whole limb clean off rather than having to attempt to remove it myself, shard by miniscule shard.

Every night I sift through a dumpster or some idiot’s bin that had either been left out by accident or stupidly put out early. There is no money in the streets. There are drugs, there are rapists and there a bunch of other things I am scared out of my mind about. There are all of those things but somehow still no money.

I survive on uncleaned water, murky oiled puddles and rust-filled drips. I hide in drains and sewers if I have to - sometimes they are better than the alternative.

Last night had been particularly bad. I was in a sewer, a drain under the train station that I regularly called home. It was difficult to find but a trail of graffiti led the way ending with, PriSM 4 LifeS. I had taken that opportunity to add: Grammar’s for Losers!

I was all snuggled in, having taken my fair share of train tickets for tomorrow and next week’s nomadic ventures from the pockets of oblivious people. My stomach was full from leftovers in the rubbish (A bite of a Thai burger and three salmon canapés, fancy), and my eyes were heavy from being chased by a cop. I had only taken three tickets, really.

Then the sewer rat had arrived.

“Oi,” he squawked. “Dis is me place ya slut. Get ya own hole to crawl inna.”

“I’m surprised; yous rats have improved your grammar vastly! Been reading the papers too?”

Then he went to slap me and I knocked him out cold. I won’t be going back to that sewer.

But on this particular night I shivered in the light of a burning cigarette butt and told the man that once again, this was all I had. He was drunk and most likely coming off a high. I could sense it. I was trying to barter with him. One lump of stale bread for a blanket. In his mind it was flaky white granules sealed inside a tiny zip lock bag. Quite a large imaginary capacity, for the streets.

“No!” he shouted, angry. He shoved me up against a brick wall and put his hand to my throat. He began to squeeze and my throat began to cease up. I could feel my eyes lolling back into my head and knew I had to do something. And now. I kicked the man hard in the guts and his hold loosened, freeing me for a moment. I grabbed his cigarette and plunged it in his eye.

It sizzled and he collapsed on the ground, screaming. I turned to run but he grabbed my leg and pulled me down. My face hit the dirt and a small cloud of dust swirled around me. He stood up, holding one hand to his eye, and leaned over me, his grin glinting in the moonlight. I could smell the alcohol on his tongue as he reached for me. I rolled to one side and he stumbled before laughing giddily and staggering after me.

I ran along the dusty concrete, aluminium cans crunching and clicking, sliding across slimy packaging. I tripped, my ankle collapsing beneath me. He dragged me up, fist drawn, ready to punch. A flash of black. A splatter of blood from my nose touched my tongue, eyes only seeing the fist drawn back. I should be used to it by now; there should be no more blacking.

I lashed out at his face, clawing with my dirty long fingernails until he dropped me. I stood my ground and returned the favour, punching him hard in the face. He groaned and I jabbed my elbow into his ribs. While he was winded I searched him, finding the precious blanket, some cash, a flick-knife and a gun. Bonus. I was contemplating a warning shot but knew I couldn’t attract attention or the cops (worst enemies of the streeties, whether we were trouble or not) might come running. Instead I pocketed the gun and ran.

I didn’t look back as I tore through the streets that belonged to me. I didn’t look back as I passed the fountain in the park bubbling away into the night, scattering crisp autumn leaves across the grass. Curls of languorous smoke stretched into the sky from far off fires. Boarded up shops stared blankly at me. The posh shops in the wrong spot flicked their lights off as I ran past, leaving black to slowly engulf me. I sped up to beat the darkness, and my fears. The dull glow of the moon urged me on, the night giving me strength and pumping much-needed adrenaline through my blood. I had missed the food van that night, too caught up with my bartering, relying on them for a meal here and there. Oh damn, and it was Taco Tuesday.

I welcomed the rush of adrenaline, which whipped away my hunger with the wind through my hair.

I raced into an alleyway filled with the stench of rotting rubbish and barely looked up as a rat scuttled over my foot. I kicked it and listened to the screech as it soared over a wall. Reaching the end of the alley I turned around, jogged back a few metres to do a running jump, bouncing off a skit bin and scrambling up the wall. I felt my jeans rip as they snagged on broken glass, a jagged border between rich and poor.

Once on the other side, I paused for a gulp of air and surveyed my surroundings as best I could. There weren’t many options for escape – or even seclusion. One side was all cottages and white picket fences, bordered with pastel flowers and trailing plants. The other was across an intersection, clogged with traffic even this late, and lined with businesses and a few apartments. Too many people, not enough options.

I bit the inside of my lip. The screech of wheels round a tight turn caused my alarm bells to ring. I had stopped for too long. I should have taken the easiest option and ran with it. Literally, ran with it.

I set off at an even faster pace, weaving between cottage gardens. Heading east, the houses began to grow thinner, the businesses on the other side depleted. Hoping to have outrun the car, I double-backed in the next cul-de-sac, crossing a stream to swap streets.

What was waiting on the other side pretty much sucked.

I was met by a group of dark-clothed men and a sleek black car. Predictable, but even still, I gulped, yelped, and tried to run. Jelly legs left me slack and stuck. I saw one of the men reach into his pocket and pull out a gun. A handgun of some sort. Semi-automatic too. Classier than the one I had pinched. Probably worked too. Point proven as a bullet skimmed past my shoulder and another whizzed by my ear. I screamed this time, too shocked to hide the terror, and forced my legs to move, wincing through smaller cramps, and racing around the corner as other people in a house next door panicked, tearing the curtains closed and flicking off the lights.

I jumped a fence and dove across a lawn, desperately trying to dodge bullets. I barely felt as one clipped me in the ankle, the only sensation the quickening trickle of blood. Who the hell were these guys; some kind of crazy cop sector, or a social youth worker who had disliked my attitude?

I smashed a window with a rock and dove through, wincing at the glass along the floor, as though it was slicing me to pieces. I silently apologised to the quaint house; it was like Hansel and Gretel’s house of sweets. Minus the sweets.

I had been hoping for empty, but this had been the first choice and unfortunately it was occupied. The old woman inside was too frightened to shush. After a quick contemplation of my alternatives (nearly a full second!), I grabbed a fire poker and stuck it in the fire until it was glowing red hot. I wouldn’t hurt her; I couldn’t, and I hoped she would figure that out. I was only thirteen for crying out loud. I shoved my grubby, smelly hand over her mouth and waved the poker in her face before diving behind a ratty tartan couch, dragging her with me. Right on cue, the men kicked the door open.

“Where is she?” they screamed. Ah. So they knew I was holding someone hostage otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered asking. I waved the poker in the woman’s face, trying to appear menacing, but she bit my hand and I yelped, shaking it to ease the pain. Far out, I didn’t realise dentures were so solid!

“Over here!” she croaked. I dropped the poker, setting fire to the rug. The men jumped the couch, ignoring the growing heat, and cornered me; I got the gun out my pocket and aimed it at the lady.

“Don’t wanna see innocent people die do yous?” I spat. I glanced behind me quickly, eyes darting to particular objects then back to the men in front and around me. Fire licked up the curtains and the lady’s belongings slowly began to disintegrate. Her hands were now clamped over her mouth and she swayed as her eyes took in the scene. Before she could pass out from shock, someone dragged her out. Away from me. Away from, unfortunately, my bargain and my blackmail.

One macho man stepped to the left slightly and blew into a short red pipe. Very Native American. I felt a sharp pain in my leg, looked down and found a pink-feathered anaesthetic dart in my leg. I gave him evils and a man ran underneath to catch me as I collapsed into his arms.

I had been hoping for more comfort than a hard black chair. The cable ties across and around my feet weren’t that fantastic either. And for a cherry on top, duct tape across my mouth and cuffs on my wrists. Even I didn’t consider myself that dangerous.

I wriggled and screamed out of pure exasperation until finally the door was shoved open. An expensive looking pinstripe suit walked in. Not a cop. Honestly, I’ll admit I’m offended. His hair was thinning and grey and pushed to one side. The suit was pristine and a dark grape colour with light pink stripes. He half-limped, half-dragged his left leg and had a scar crossing one eye. The strong scent of rich, pure tobacco lingered around me. Some people can afford such luxuries, even the ones that will slowly kill them. He circled me and then sat behind an empty desk and locked eyes with me.

“Who are they? Where are they? And what do they do?” he asked calmly before leaning forward and ripping off the duct tape.

“What?” I said. He glared, appearing calm on the surface but with a hint of frown solidifying, and then made a ‘come in’ gesture. That was when I realised the room was made of solid glass. Soundproof by the looks of it. I gulped and tried to breathe. I was penned in by glass. What if it broke? What if he just left me to suffer surrounded by fear? He wouldn’t need to hurt me at this rate; I would make some gibberish up and pray he would believe it, as long as I could get out of the glass.

I started to squirm. The man looked incredibly at ease with my discomfort, even pleased perhaps. I stopped just to spite him. He narrowed his eyes and then proceeded to turn his back.

During this, three armed guards had walked in. Glock 17s in their hands, pointed at me, radios coiling to their ears and matching head-to-toe black and silver for the lot of them.

Except for a younger one at the back. He had yellow shoelaces. Newbie. I pressed my back against the chair as the guards began circling me, like sharks around their prey. Suit-man made another gesture and his lackeys put the guns away. He put a silk glove on and came alongside me, an ominous ship waiting to dock. Then slapped me. Hard.

I gasped, wanting so desperately to rub away the pain, but not possible with cuffed hands – I had been in such a position many times before. But Jeez Louise, this man could slap. At a signal from tobacco-suit-man, a lackey pulled back my head by my hair. I screamed. Tobacco man pulled the glove off gingerly, plucking the fingers free one by one, and tossed it behind his shoulder.

“What do you want?” I breathed.

“We want to know who they are, where they are and what they do,” he repeated.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I shouted. He slapped me again and one of the guards tipped me off the chair and took joy in kicking me in the ribs. Winded, I panted, trying to breathe.

The man stared me down and the guard dropped my hair. I collapsed into the chair and the man breathed in my face. I coughed, overwhelmed by the unbearable tobacco.

“Lock her up,” he instructed. His eyes locked onto mine. “And throw away the key.”

The guards nodded, mumbled something dark, and pulled me up. I screamed as my hair was yanked back a second time. They dragged me along the floor, my knees and elbows catching and grazing on the concrete. They literally threw me into a tiny cell, unlocked the cuffs and pushed me against a wall. Tears rolled down my cheeks as they hit me again and again.

“One for you, one for me, one for him, one for them,” they repeated over and over. When I collapsed they just laughed and dragged me up, holding me against the wall. They kicked. They punched. They ducked and weaved and teased, like I was a real opponent, before pausing and striking me to the ground.

Newbie’s apprehension was obvious at the beginning, until even he caught wind of the exhilaration and satisfaction a good one-two gave you. It was only when I couldn’t get up, couldn’t even be dragged to standing, that they realised I had obviously had enough. I lay on the floor on my stomach, the blood quickly soaking my shirt. Salty tears ran into my mouth and I winced. It stung in the cuts.

I couldn’t sleep.

I couldn’t think.

No-one bothered to get me food or water but I had lived on the streets since I was nine. I can deal with starvation. But this, I have never felt pain like that. It was as though someone had shoved hundreds of needles in my back, went to make a cup of tea and forgot about me. Evidently, I would never be able to withstand acupuncture.

I cried till I had no tears. An insult. Crying in the darkness, surrounded by my fear. It was a nightmare now. Blood pooled around me, my body stuck to the floor and to my clothes, and the floor and my clothes sticking to me.

Was I dying?

I lay on the floor of that cell for hours in silence.

Time passed. I dozed, confusing me and my body clock. There were no windows and I hallucinated sometimes. What might have been minutes seemed like days, hours actually seconds. I hardly slept. I didn’t eat. Not that they gave me the chance to. I received the luxury of water, it was even clean and sometimes cold. I slurped at it like a dog, not knowing the next time I would be able to drink. So they didn’t want me dead. Weak. Flexible. They were trying to snap me, I could tell. But I wouldn’t break.

I could play my ribs like a xylophone and stretch my ratty hair like a guitar string. I almost had my own private orchestra. My eyesight got foggy, my own mind threatening me with bizarre images, peculiar patterns that warped my sense of direction. My emotions were pulled apart and rattled around, put back in the wrong places. Static always covered the edges of my vision and I could feel my body trying to fight the torment it was being subjected to.

Every day was the same. Interrogating, questioning, threatening. Sometimes they did other things. Come into my cell every hour just as I was going to sleep and throw a bucket of freezing water on me then ask me the same questions.

“I don’t know,” I would croak. Then they would leave, not bothering with physical punishment. The tobacco man would simply watch and try again and again. It was so scary, it was so painful and somehow I knew it would never end. Not yet anyway. Not until I snapped. Not until my distorted brain could come up with good excuses and the clever lies I could weave so well.

All I needed was a ring of truth to set them bursting on fire, gulping up the kindling, all those sweet juicy words.

I thought I was about to die. Until I heard the gunshots. I hardly registered it. I didn’t fully realise for a few minutes. Gunfire: real and sparking. The kind that kills. The guards wouldn’t shoot. I snorted at the thought of Newbie, trying to take my life. Then again, he had succumbed hadn’t he? He had bashed my face in the same as the rest? Still, the guns were just for show.

I didn’t even think they kept them loaded. That meant an intruder had come in, or maybe, someone had got out. If there were any other someone’s. But escape? From this hell-hole? It was unlikely. But possible. The slimmest, thinnest, tiniest chance.

There was a shout and then the gunfire stopped and silence replaced it, a thick screen. That same deafening, ear shattering, maddening silence of darkness. And then I heard a noise. Pathetically, I turned up my head and called with the last of my strength.

“Hello?” I murmured, drawing myself close to the wall.

“Greg!” somebody yelled. “She’s in this one!”

Hurrying footsteps, then I glimpsed a face through the bars.

“Oh my God,” said the same voice. “Hurry!”

There was a hiss and a crack as the cell door opened. Smoke curled from the keyhole and a boy walked in. Was that chewing gum, wrapped around the steel? The boy gasped as soon as he saw me and tenderly wrapped me in his arms. I panted, like it was taxing for me, and screamed as he shifted position. Another man stopped at the door and handed something to the boy.

“Aria? Aria? Speak Aria! Come on!” he said.

That was my name, but I couldn’t reply. Could I be leaving? The strongest question on my mind was, how long? And then, who had come for me?

The boy carried me to the other man and I began to cry again. I saw the man pull out a gun and gasped, shrinking into the boy’s arms.

“Greg,” the boy whispered. “She’s scared out of her mind.”

“It’s not for you,” the man tried to reassure me. “It’s for them.” The man, Greg, had tattoos decorating thick biceps and red tips lighting up his hair. A ring through his eyebrow glistened with perspiration. A spider tattoo on the inside of his wrist seemed to grow and crawl towards me, fangs dripping venom and legs tickling the hairs on Greg’s arm. I knew my brain was making it up, but I couldn’t help it. I flinched away even further. I wasn’t even scared of spiders. Streeties and spiders, we were friends. The boy looked concerned, but nodded to Greg and began to run.

He tried to stop me from bouncing around because every time he did I would howl like a mutt and curl up with pain. Constant bruises had plagued me during my time in the cell and scabs and tender spots decorated my body with a twisted patchwork design. Greg fired a few rounds and there were screams, and sick splats as men hit the concrete. Finally we were out of wherever we were.

The boy followed Greg to crawl through a hole. Not a hole; a pipe. Then wind, and suddenly, as if from nowhere, a chopper appeared. Greg practically dove in and the boy passed me to him. I was all floppy, like a hackysack spilled of its beans. There was a doctor inside, a female. She was pretty, with orange nail polish emblazoned with tiny white skulls. I don’t know why I noticed that, amid all the static that was everything else.

“Lay her down,” she said smoothly. So calm on the surface, but her eyes rippled underneath. I was placed on a mattress on my back and groaned, not wanting to scream in front of strangers. Besides, I think I had done plenty of that. The boy jumped in and crouched next to me, holding my hand. The chopper door slammed and I felt it lurch as it left the ground. I continued to groan as the doctor passed over a bucket of something. The man pulled out some fabric and stuffed it in my mouth.

I tried to protest but obviously it was no use. They managed to flip me over and I tried to stop them but somehow the boy made me shut up. The chopper was black and white on the inside with dark-tinted windows and the main body split in half by a metal panel with glass at the top, like the separator in a limousine between driver and passenger. I could just see through it; there were pilot seats and a huge panel of controls and coloured beeping lights behind it. The lady doctor looked up at the boy.

“You should leave Zac,” she said. Don’t leave, I thought. How big was the chopper? He nodded sadly and walked out of the section we were in; I thought I saw him take one of the pilot seats. He was, like, fourteen. How could he possibly help control a chopper? And who had been controlling the chopper before; if the other seat had been empty?

“Fox,” said Greg. Greg and the doctor shared a moment of a staring contest before the doctor tore open my shirt and unclipped my bra. I knew I wasn’t meant to have stolen that lingerie. I tried to move my arm to hold it in place but no one seemed to care.

“Keep her still,” whispered Fox angrily. She pulled on gloves and then took a cloth, white as fresh linen, and dunked it in the bucket. I could see her biceps moving as she wrung it out and then, after a slight pause, it was slung across my back. I prepared for the incoming wave of pain. Surprisingly, I didn’t really register the hurt anymore, but the salve or balm or oil or whatever felt good against my dry skin. Then she hit a tender spot, a place at the back of my shoulder where they just happened to slam me into the wall every time. This time I registered the pain, and this time I screamed.

“Aria!” yelled the boy, Zac.

I shut my eyes for a split second but someone shook me and my eyes flew open. The world was fuzzy, now all I could see was static, and it began to slide sideways before someone held me still. I shivered in pain and the doctor tried to calm me down.

“Aria,” she whispered. “Aria, stay with us. It’ll be okay.”

Next time she dipped the cloth, it was the same colour as a fire hydrant. Greg didn’t look too happy about it and he watched Zac, who had turned away from the co-pilots controls. I was still pretty sure that a fourteenish year-old boy would have no idea how to fly a chopper.

“Get back at the controls,” muttered Greg, speaking to the boy. Maybe he could fly a chopper. As he nodded, a mole on the right side of his nose bobbed along with his head.

“What the heck was that?” I panted.

No answer. I hate to be ignored and I nearly exploded at the thought that I was left in the dark. Fear, of a different kind. I shook, waves of convulsions rocking my wrecked body, Greg doing his best to hold me steady.

Travel slowed the time. Or maybe sped it up? Whichever it was, he held me for a long time. I could see the different lights passing through the one-way tint on the windows. They went from golden street lights – lights of home and comfort and imagined warmth – to red and green marker lights of an entry into the deep sea. We had crossed an ocean.

“W-where are you taking me?” I stuttered.

Before Greg could answer I watched Zac drop a pair of black helicopter muffs, bulky ones with a speaker, DJ-style, walk over to us and answer for me. He nodded to Greg and then to Fox.

“The Agency.”

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