Groggily, Kiri followed Ben inside her apartment building and into the lift, only half-recognizing the place until she arrived on the landing at her floor. In a flash she remembered Mark and was overcome with a desire to check he was ok.
Somehow, in the turmoil of her interrogation and her tiredness she had half-presumed that he would just be safely waiting for her when she got back home but now she felt negligent to have hung around chatting to Ben instead of rushing home to find him.
Just because she had been released relatively quickly by the Civic officers didn’t mean that Mark had been released straight away. What if he was still in there being questioned and she had come all the way back here? Or perhaps they never even took him to the Civic building?
It was very late by then and the calm of the dead night hung over the building. As the lift travelled up Kiri had to lean against the wall to prevent falling asleep on her feet but by the time the door opened she practically bounded towards Marks door.
She knocked twice but there was no sound of answer from within. Was he asleep? She had been tired until a moment before perhaps he had already fallen asleep? But why, if he was home, had he not called her to tell her he was back safely.
Impatient, Kiri tried the door to his apartment and it swung open unnervingly easily. Inside, the apartment looked much the same as it had when they left that morning but Kiri sensed something was fundamentally different.
Without knowing exactly why, she felt that Mark was no longer there and a panic rose in her. Running to the bedroom, she desperately tried to visualise his head lying peacefully on the pillow, a small part of her believing that he might be there sleeping all this time.
Finding the bed empty, crumpled, and apparently untouched, she flew to the other rooms of the apartment, checking the lounge, the kitchen, study and spare room, the bathroom and even the balcony in case for whatever reason Mark was hiding out there but she discovered nothing.
Everything looked the same as it did that morning.
‘Think you’ve got the wrong flat,’ Ben had appeared behind her.
‘Mark’s gone,’ Kiri tried to sound matter-of-fact.
‘You think they’ve got him?’ Ben asked.
‘I don’t know, he obviously doesn’t tell me when or where he goes,’ Kiri said snippily.
‘They could have grabbed him, he might have escaped,’ Ben said, trying to reassure her.
Kiri longed to believe that was true. That Mark had eluded the Civic officers and would return unscathed, as if nothing had happened, but if that was true the last place he was likely to go was back to his apartment.
‘My head is spinning,’ Kiri said, ‘What have we got ourselves into.’
‘We don’t know anything yet, they could have picked him up and then just let him go. Maybe he just went for a beer to chill out?’
Until the previous night Kiri would have thought this was the most feasible answer, in fact if she thought about it she could imagine Mark doing exactly that but her mind stubbornly refused to accept it. If he had gone out for a beer and never even thought to call her she must have got their relationship very wrong indeed.
Was he not worried for her? Surely he wanted to find out where she was? It had been the first thought that crossed her mind when she left the Civic building. But then again, had she not given up when he didn’t answer. She had broken into tears and instead of rushing home had phoned Ben instead and forgotten about Mark’s plight. Could he have done the same?
‘How did you get in here anyway?’ Ben was prowling around the flat, picking up random books and ornaments and turning them over in his hand.
‘It was open,’ Kiri said, suddenly feeling uncomfortable at having brought Ben into Mark’s private space.
‘Hmmmm,’ she could see Ben was thinking, ‘you locked it when you left this morning?’
‘Yes, yes we did. Perhaps he came back and then nipped out again.’
‘Or someone else has been here?’ Ben said ominously. ‘Maybe they’re monitoring the flat to see who comes in here.’
The thought terrified Kiri. They had to get out of there.
Putting his finger to his lips Ben guided Kiri out of the apartment and into the hall. Taking the stairs they walked all the way down to street level without saying a word.
Finally, outside Ben broke the silence.
‘This is probably silly but if there is something going on, then whoever is behind it all could be monitoring both your flats. Just in case, let’s take a walk round the block and talk while we go.’
‘Ok,’ Kiri was secretly pleased that Ben was taking charge as she felt her energy waning.
‘When we get back act normal, talk about what happened and make it seem like you really can’t understand why they dragged you in but don’t mention Mark’s theories. Hopefully, as far as they’re concerned you got dragged into this by accident and don’t believe any of this conspiracy stuff, so lets make them keep believing that.’
Kiri nodded dumbly.
‘Any idea’s where he would go? You think he’s gone to investigate the GAAP place you found out about?’ Ben spoke in a low voice.
The thought that Mark might on his way to Cyness had crossed Kiri’s mind but it seemed so far-fetched. The two of them had talked about going there as they sat in the café in Labdoorton but it had seemed like a daydream. Something they might do one day, if they found real evidence, not a place he might go to that same night.
‘I guess,’ Kiri whispered in reply, ‘I don’t even know how to get there.’
‘Its far away?’
‘Yes,’ Kiri pulled out her phone to show him on the map but Ben shook his finger in front of her.
‘They can track that too,’ he said. ‘If it’s too far to take a city car then he would need to get an inter-city flight and he’s unlikely to get approval for that if Civic doesn’t want him to go. I’m guessing if he has managed to find a way to get there it’s not something we’ll find out about unless he lets us know.’
Would Mark let her know? And if so how long would that take? She liked him it was true but she was not going to wait around hoping he would call. At a guess it was a week’s travel by road to Cyness but in truth she had no idea exactly how far it was. She had never heard of anyone going there. She didn’t even know if there was a flight that went there.
‘He’ll let us know,’ Kiri said finally.
They walked a circuitous route, returning to the apartment after twenty five minutes. Entering the front door, Kiri felt as though the place belonged to another lifetime, somewhere she had lived in a past life. She staggered to the lounge and flopped down on to the oversized cushions of the couch while Ben pottered around in the kitchen. Even if they were monitoring the flat it felt good to be back in relative safety.
‘Hello?’ something had evidently caught Ben’s attention as she heard his footsteps stop and change direction walking back towards the front door.
‘What’s this?’ he shouted through from the hall.
‘What’s what?’ Kiri asked, annoyed at his question, which was evidently designed to get her to get up and come to where Ben was.
‘This, paper,’ Ben shouted back his voice sounding excited.
‘Well what is it then?’ reluctantly Kiri felt her interest growing and shuffled round to peer over the back of the sofa and get a look at the mysterious object Ben had found.
Ben appeared with a puzzled look on his face. In his hand he clutched a single sheet of paper that looked like it had been hurriedly torn from a jotter.
‘What is it?’ Kiri asked impatiently.
‘I’m not sure, have a look,’ Ben proffered the piece of paper.
On the piece of paper in scribbled writing were the following words
Burning desire to go on holiday. Take care of the dog. Love Mark. xx
The paper was relatively uncreased save for two or three crinkles in the corner, presumably caused by ripping the page out of whatever binding it had been in. It was thin greyish paper, covered in a grid of feint lines printed in a very light green ink.
The words were written in a thick black ink, like that of a marker pen and took up roughly half of the page. The letters were all capitals and had been printed relatively neatly but the overall impression was that the note had been written hurriedly.
Kiri’s eyes moved slowly across the paper, looking for any clue as she tried to take in the significance of Ben’s find, her mind locked on his final phrase.
He had not forgotten her at all - he had actually taken the time to write to her to tell her he loved her!
‘Is that Mark’s handwriting?’ Ben asked finally when Kiri said nothing.
‘I don’t know, yes I guess it could be,’ Kiri said, her heart beating faster despite herself.
She knew, of course, that anyone could have left this note, she had never seen Mark’s handwriting, but she felt that it must be from him. Suddenly she felt relieved he was safe and he had made sure he let her know.
‘Well what the hell does that mean?’ Ben asked a look of irritation on his face. Kiri straightened up. Had Ben seen the secret smile on her lips?
‘I don’t know,’ Kiri replied only now realising the cryptic nature of the note. Mark didn’t have a dog, had never had a dog as far as she knew. And holiday? Where would he go on holiday in the middle of the night?
‘You don’t know what this could mean then?’ Ben spoke in a loud, slow voice as if speaking to a particularly dim-witted child. ‘No idea where he could have gone?’
As he spoke his gaze moved from one corner of the room to the other and Kiri realised he was talking for the benefit of any monitoring device.
‘No, I don’t know. I don’t think he has a dog,’ Kiri said. ‘He never said anything about going on holiday to me.’
‘Well he must have decided he needed a holiday,’ Ben spoke quietly, staring at Kiri as if she could transmit some hidden knowledge to him telepathically but she shook her head in response.
Whatever Mark had meant by leaving this note it made no sense to her.
Evidently Mark had returned there in a rush, collected some things from his apartment and hurriedly scribbled a note. If they were monitoring both flats presumably they had also seen Mark’s note. Which meant they had left it there on purpose. But why would they do that?
Either they thought it was not worth taking cause it was meaningless or, more likely, they suspected it contained a hidden message for Kiri and were waiting to see where she would lead them. Was there nothing Kiri could trust anymore?
She felt as if she was drowning in layer upon layer of double-meanings and uncertainties. Everything she thought she knew suddenly felt weak and shaky. She couldn’t even say that things were turned upside down because in this weightless new world there was no up or down.
Ben sat down beside her and, with a strange expression on his face, pulled his knees up towards his chest and snuggled up next to Kiri, nuzzling his head next to her shoulder. Her first thought was that he was about to kiss her and she froze, unsure how to take this sudden advance.
But Ben didn’t kiss her, instead he turned his head so his lips were hidden by the fabric of Kiri’s jacket top and, in a barely audible voice, he whispered in her ear.
‘Is it a message?’ he asked. ‘Put your hand on my knee if you think it is.’
Kiri put her hand on his knee, her body was stiff as a plank as she stared ahead, imagining the man and woman that had interrogated her in the Civic centre watching now via some remote vid screen.
‘Do you think we can find him?’ Ben whispered. ‘Just leave your hand there if you think so.’
Kiri left her hand there.
More accurately she hoped they could find Mark, because she had no real idea how exactly they would go about it, but her hand felt comfortable on Ben’s knee.
‘Let’s watch a vid,’ Ben said in his normal voice again.
Kiri called up the vid screen to search the library and the giant screen winked to life. As she navigated the menus of the library system she notice the flashing icon in the lower left indicating she had a vid message. Selecting the icon a message window appeared with Mark’s face. He looked tired and had a haunted look behind his eyes.
‘Hi K,’ he spoke quickly and was evidently making some kind of effort to appear relaxed and ‘normal’, ‘just thought I’d let you know, going to take a trip for a bit, get a break you know.’ He laughed nervously and looked over his shoulder.
‘Wanted to let you know and also ask if you can feed the dog while I’m away. If you could take him for a walk once a day that would be great. He likes being outside. Especially the park around Lutton Street. You remember those great photos I have on my phone of him playing underneath the fountain there.’
Mark paused and seemed to clear his throat at this point.
‘Anyway,’ he continued. ‘Sorry to drop this on you but he really is lovely and sure you two will have a great time while I’m away. Got to dash.’
Abruptly the message ended and Kiri turned to Ben perplexed.
‘What the hell was that?’ he asked out loud now.
‘I don’t know… uh I guess he wants me to look after his dog?’ Kiri said, her brain frantically scrambling to make sense of the message.
‘But he doesn’t have a dog, does he?’ Ben asked.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Kiri said for the second time.
They both lapsed into silence, imagining countless interpretations of the message and scared to voice any of them in case one was correct and it tipped off the Civic officers.
‘Why don’t you walk me home,’ Ben said at last, jumping from the sofa and grabbing Kiri’s hand to pull her up too. ‘Come on, won’t take long.’
‘Really?’ Kiri felt utterly exhausted and had set her mind on staying on that sofa for the rest of the night.
‘Yes, come on. I need to go. Now.’ Ben pleaded with her. He had obviously thought of something.
For the second time that evening the two of them rode down in the lift to ground level and walked out into the deserted night-time street.
‘We’ve got to get to that fountain on Lutton Street,’ Ben said, once they had cleared the corner of her block.
‘Look if Mark wants to go that’s his own problem. ,’ Kiri reasoned. ‘We’re not going to find anything there in the middle of the night.’
‘Come on, Kiri, you cant be upset with him for leaving like that but there’s obviously something going on here. I’m not out here at this time of night because I want set you guys up on another date,’ Ben said in a jokey tone.
Reluctantly Kiri grinned back and nodded her head. Ben was right, she was letting her emotions cloud her judgment. She didn’t want to be chasing after Mark like some desperate middleager but they had to try and find him. There was no way she would be able to sleep now, not with all these unanswered questions running around her head.
Lutton Street was about ten blocks away from her apartment so they could walk it relatively easily. They walked in silence, the air still warm, carrying the last gasp of summer.
Aside from the odd car gliding along the road the streets were deserted at this time. Anybody that was still awake was either at home or out in one of the zones with bars and clubs. Kiri felt her body clock compensating for the time. While she had felt exhausted when she sat on the couch, she now just felt a dull background tiredness but her mind was awake. She realised she would not be getting any sleep now before the dawn came up.
The Lutton street park was relatively small and occupied one block, surrounded on three sides by apartment blocks with a few daytime cafes and exhibition spaces on the fourth side. Kiri had been there only a couple of times.
The park was filled with clusters of deciduous trees that formed a small wood and criss-crossed by several paths. At a couple of points there were small clearings where people could sit out on sunny days and it was true that people did walk dogs there but as far as she could remember Mark had never so much as mentioned it before.
She couldn’t remember the fountain but presumed it must be in the central clearing where all the paths converged.
When they reached the park they realised that getting to the fountain would not be as easy as they had initially imagined. In front of them the path stretched towards the centre but like many of the smaller parks in the city, the gates were locked between dusk and dawn.
‘We’re going to have to climb it,’ Ben said confidently.
Kiri eyed the fence worriedly. In the streetlight it seemed to tower above them.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked. She guessed it would be no problem for Ben who had always been agile on his feet and she had always thought he would have been a great sportsman if it wasn’t for his other health issues.
‘Yeah I’ll give you a leg up,’ he said, crouching down and interlocking his hands.
Hesitantly, Kiri stepped up to the fence and placed her foot on Ben’s hands. After a couple of attempts she manoeuvred herself into a position where she felt comfortable enough to shimmy up and with a heave Ben lifted hoisted her up high enough to lift her other leg onto the top of the fence.
‘Wait,’ Ben shouted. ‘Can you reach that branch?’
About a foot above Kiri’s head the lower reaches of a branch extended out across the fence. Instinctively she reached up to pull at the branch.
‘Pull it down here and I’ll use it to climb up,’ Ben said.
Holding on to the bars beneath her with her feet, Kiri managed to swing the branch down to Ben and he gripped it firmly. Using it like a rope he shimmied up beside her and within moments they were across the fence and inside.
‘Damn it’s dark in here,’ Ben said as they made their way along the path, taking baby steps to avoid tripping over.
By the time they had gone thirty metres into the park all they could see was the feint glow from light pollution above them and a distant shimmer caused by tiny pin pricks of light that shone through the patchwork of darkness formed by the trees.
‘Can you think of any reason why Mark would leave that message? It must mean something.’ Ben spoke in a low voice.
‘No, he never mentioned this place, we never came here, I didn’t even know he knew what it was called.’
‘Well, let’s just hope you recognise something when we get there.’
They walked on, curving this way and that, as the path wove in towards the centre of the park. Alone there, without any artificial lighting Kiri felt cut off from the city in a way she could not remember feeling in such a long time.
In the rest of the city there was, at all times, at least a partial light. Twenty-four hours per day the city kept the lights on, ensuring nowhere got truly dark, ensuring that nobody had to stumble around like a blind person.
Automatic switches were placed in every corner to detect movement, to sense people and predict if someone was approaching. The very fabric of the city was designed to accommodate itself to people after all.
While the systems that ran the city made life easier they also meant that few people ever experienced real darkness. Aside from the brief moments when Kiri closed the curtains and switched off the light in her apartment last thing at night she was always surrounded by light.
As she stepped on into the inky blackness, she wondered how many of the city’s numerous inhabitants had ever walked like this in the darkness of night-time and not under the artificial luminance that the city imposed. It gave everything around her a different substance, this darkness.
This world of night-time was in some sense, she felt, what nature was really like. The colours and movement of the daytime disguised something deeper that she only now recognised in the stillness and dread of the darkened park.
After what seemed like the longest time, they finally made out a glow ahead of them through the dark mass of leaves and slowly as they inched forward made out the shape of the fountain.
‘Wow that’s something,’ Ben whispered as they approached.
The clearing was no more than fifteen metres across with seven paths leading into it from different directions. At the centre of these tracks lay the fountain. It was lit up by a fantastical arrangement of blue and white lights to gave it the sensation of a prop from some fairy story.
The fountain was constructed from stone and bronze and stood on three large granite legs. Its highest point was some three metres from the ground and the bronze sections were all covered in ornate sculptures.
Around the central pillar, multiple statuettes sprayed jets of water from hidden apertures and about a metre off the ground, a circular basin two metres in diameter caught the water as it tumbled down.
The various streams of water combined to form a fine mist of water that refracted the lights at different angles making the fountain shimmer brightly.
Around the fountain the ground was covered in fine gravel that had evidently been raked recently as it felt even and smooth beneath their feet.
‘Recognize anything?’ Ben asked as they reached the fountain’s edge and he dipped his hand into the cold water in the basin.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Kiri said, her eyes darting across the textures and surfaces of stone, metal and water that danced in front of her. She imagined Mark taking her there, slipping between his arms, the two of them alone in the park.
‘But why would Mark come here?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ Kiri sighed. A feeling of depression settled on her as she looked at the wonderful fountain. She had hoped that as soon as she arrived there it would be obvious what Mark’s message had meant but now, staring at the fountain she realised she had even less idea why he had left that cryptic message.
‘You don’t remember him ever talking about this place, or coming here?’ Ben continued.
‘No,’ Kiri shook her head.
‘And his dog couldn’t be some clue?’
‘Yes, no, it just doesn’t make sense,’ Kiri sobbed. She felt her chances of seeing Mark again were slipping away.
‘Why would he just drop everything and run away.’ Kiri said.
Ben’s eyes lit up.
‘Of course,’ Ben had a look of concentration as his eyes scanned the light blue water in the basin. ‘He might have been dropped something, hidden something here in a hurry…what exactly did he say again, that he took photos of his dog here?’
‘I think he said he had some great photos on his phone of the dog playing underneath the fountain,’ Kiri said.
‘…underneath the fountain.’ Ben repeated.
‘The photos. Of course, that must be it!’ Kiri gasped, ‘His phone!’
In a flash, Kiri remembered the two of them standing in the Civic building about to leave as Mark photographed the files.
‘What?’ Ben asked.
‘He took photos of the files before we left. He must have hidden it underneath the fountain. Who knows what else is on it’
A wave of relief flooded over her.
They both crouched down to search under the fountain but it was quickly obvious that there was nowhere suitable to hide a phone. The basin itself was brightly lit by uplighters and the small statutes that decorated the feet were intricate but none of them afforded enough of a nook to hide much more than a matchbox.
The only feasible place that a phone could be hidden was under the large stone legs but after checking all three of them they turned up nothing.
Kiri’s feeling of despondency grew. They were out of their depth, scrabbling around in the dark, clutching at straws.
‘It must be here,’ Ben said, scanning around the clearing for any obvious hiding place but apart from the fountain the rest of the ground was unbroken shingle.
‘Keep looking, if he has left it here we have to make sure we find it.’ Kiri said.
‘Shit, maybe he buried it somewhere?’ Ben groaned.
Although the clearing was only about fifteen metres across that still left a lot of gravel.
‘Let’s work out from the centre,’ Ben said, ‘You take that side I’ll do this side.’
The gravel was laid to a depth of around ten centimetres so with a little effort they were able to use their feet to clear a small section at a time. Bit by bit they moved outward from the fountain looking for some sign of anything amongst the smooth white pebbles.
‘Do you think they’ve checked it already,’ Kiri called across to Ben who by then on the other side of the fountain but he couldn’t hear her over the crash of the waters.
Kiri was about two metres away from the fountain when she felt her toe touch something solid and let out an involuntary yelp.
‘What is it?’ Ben rushed over.
‘There’s something there,’ Kiri said, pointing at the spot.
Ben crouched down and using his hands hurriedly cleared away the gravel from the spot. As his hands Kiri saw a black metal rectangle about twenty centimetres across revealed.
‘What is it?’ Kiri now asked, peering over Ben’s shoulder.
‘It’s a drain, I think, some kind of cover,’ Ben replied.
Huddling next to Ben, Kiri reached down and touched the cold metal of the cover, a shiver travelling down her neck.
‘Can we open it?’ she asked.
‘Hang on let me try,’ Ben grunted, taking a grip on the corner he tried to wedge the lid open with a key from his pocket.
The cover was stiff but with a couple of smacks Ben managed to lift it. Using the flashlight from his own phone to peer inside. Crowding so close that she was almost touching his cheek, Kiri knelt down to look as well.
Below the surface, the hole extended into some kind of sewer and there, some ten feet below them, poking out from the water and slime that covered the base of the pipe Kiri could see the corner of a phone.