I teetered between pushing him off me and trying to calm him down for half a second, but since the drug had obliterated fear and not my conscience, I eventually sighed and put my hands over his.
“What’s your name?”
“My name?” He echoed, a look of perplexity on his ashen face.
“What do people call you?”
Something clicked in his eyes. “Fingers.” He wiggled said appendages at me, as if I needed help understanding his nickname.
“What’s your real name?” This time the confusion descended like concrete, and wouldn’t budge no matter how long I stared at him. When my patience reached the end of its fuse, I scowled at his bloodshot eyes, at a lank strand of blonde hair which’d fallen onto his forehead, and at the seeping wound on his lip –the one he’d blamed me for. “You look like a junkie, so I’m going to call you Shooter. Unless you can tell me your name?”
“Shooter’s fine.” Of course it was.
I bit my lip.
This guy gave me a bad feeling, and I’d named him, like you would a pet. What if he followed me home? I couldn’t go after Saeed with an unwashed kid trailing in my wake. I needed to get rid of him, and the easiest way to do that was to knock him down for the count and to disappear.
You can’t, a taunting voice chimed. Remember the receptionist? She’ll be waking up any second now, and her finger will point straight to you.
I didn’t have time to waste – every second I spent with Shooter, was a second I was risking being caught before I could find the scum who’d killed ma.
“I need to get going, Shooter.” His mouth opened, and I could practically see the words on his tongue. “Look, if you really think I did this, walk with me and we’ll talk about it. But I don’t see how I could have infected you.”
“I’ll come,” he quickly replied.
“The drug I was infected with isn’t transmittable. Do you understand that now?”
He paused by one of the train station’s rubbish bins and unearthed a broken umbrella. The fabric was intact, but the ribs had been bent the wrong way, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Humming quietly, he tucked it under his arm and caught up with me.
“There’s no way of knowing what it can do if it’s an experimental drug. Didn’t you see that film about the cancer drug that caused the apocalypse?”
“Fortis is not going to cause an apocalypse, Shooter.”
A snort was his answer.
“Listen to me,” I insisted. “Its effect is contained in my body. It blocks synapses between nerves and messes with connections in the brain – it doesn’t infiltrate the bloodstream, or bodily fluids.”
He snorted again. “If it goes between nerves and the brain, and is administered orally, it travels through the bloodstream. Which means traces of it are in your blood, and if it’s aggressive, like cancer cells, chances are you’re riddled with it. And so am I.”
We walked in silence after that. He read out street names, and I passively listened as my brain took charge.
Did the scientists at the lab know Fortis was contagious? Surely they did. They’d tested it on synthetic blood and animals – a similar reaction had to have been observed. And what were they doing to contain the outbreak? Had they already detained the others – Cole, Emma, Grey, the Filipino, and Thomson? Would they come for me? Should I be in hiding?
Or referring myself to a hospital, in case I spread the infection to more people? Shooter must have contracted it from salvia – we hadn’t made any other contact, as far as I could remember. Did that mean all my bodily fluids, and my blood, were contaminated? God, what about the paramedics who’d treated me? The nurses who’d changed my dressings and monitored my health? The surgeon who’d stitched me up? Had I ruined people’s lives without even realising it?
“North Bank.” I heard Shooter mutter, and the light in my brain abruptly shut off. I couldn’t afford to think about this now. Shooter was my immediate problem. Once he’d been dealt with, I could go after Saeed, find the man who’d shot my mother, and get justice.
After that, I’d surrender myself for quarantine. What harm would a few days do, especially if I’d infected people already? Another couple wouldn’t break the town’s back.
Home had become a dead place in my absence. Exhaustion had blinded me earlier, but I felt it keenly this time around. Ma’s presence was everywhere, like a ghostly brush of fingers against soft skin, but it was intangible. I tried to smell her, but the faint trace of her perfume wasn’t strong enough, and when Shooter shuffled through the front door, the stink of his body odour overpowered whatever lingering scents there were.
“You’re going to take a shower.” I told him point blank, pointing to the bathroom door. “Use a towel off the side and the dressing gown on the back of the door. I’ll find you clothes later.”
Leaving a guy to sit naked in the flat would have horrified ma, but I didn’t give a damn. My clothes wouldn’t fit him, and I didn’t want to give him any of hers. We’d given all of dad’s to charity. Then again, maybe mum kept one of his shirts to sleep with.
Shooter tugged at his ratty sleeve, as if discovering a new fear of water, but I took no prisoners. With an excessive show of force, I bullied him into the bathroom and shut the door on his wounded puppy-dog eyes. When I didn’t hear the faucet squeaking, which was customary if you wanted hot water, I hammered on the door until I could.
Twenty minutes later, a brand-new guy emerged from the bathroom. His wet hair was dirty blonde, his eyes were clear, the cheeks under them were pink, and he generally seemed healthier, like he wouldn’t keel over if I took my eyes off him. He hadn’t removed the bandage from his chest – I caught glimpses of it underneath the gown as he moved into the living room and sat down on the sofa.
“How are you not dead?” I demanded of him, stomping into the bedroom for our first aid kit. I always kept one with me after my years at university because I’d cut too deep once.
The stupid guy had yanked the dirty bandage off by the time I returned, and was poking the wound with his finger.
“You better have cleaned under your fingernails.” I snapped, setting the box on the sofa as I crouched in front of him. The bandages and antiseptic cream were buried under boxes of plasters and painkillers, which gave Shooter a chance to pick at the burn on his lip. When I smacked his hand away, a piece of skin came away with it. The sight was sickening – or it should have been. I felt nothing. I didn’t let it worry me too much – wasn’t disgust only a by-product of fear?
I took care of his chest first, since that seemed to be the more severe of the two injuries. It looked like he’d tried to burrow into it. Several layers of skin had been wrested from each other, and black-burgundy scabs had already formed over the fingernail indents.
“Why would you do this to yourself, Shooter?”
“I didn’t. I was short when my supplier came to collect. His lackey did this.” I took my hands away, because it felt like the right thing to do. I couldn't help a drug dealer, could I? What about the people he sold to? Was I endorsing their suffering by easing his? My mind asked the questions, but only out of habit. Right and wrong were as plain as ever – it was my consideration of them which had evaporated. If I’d had less of the Fortis, I’d care about that.
“Hey.” Shooter straightened up in his seat. “What’s your name? I never asked.” Lie, that voice from earlier piped up. He knows too much already. Tell him more, and its ammunition against you later down the line.
I stared into his eyes, trying to predict whether I’d regret answering. I didn’t finish following the train of thought. “Sasha. Sasha Burns.”
There was no sign of a male shirt in ma’s room, so I scavenged through my wardrobe and found an old boyfriend’s hoodie and my loosest pair of pyjama bottoms. They weren’t perfect, but they got him out of the gown.
After he’d finished dressing, we outfitted the sofa in the guest sheets, and I left him alone in the dark. For the first thirty minutes, I could hear him humming through my closed bedroom door. It reminded me of the trial, and of Cole’s unbearable snoring.
Was that why I’d gone after Cole as viciously as I had? He’d attempted to sexually assault me, that much was true, but the little things had been worse. Stealing my bunk, snoring, watching me, Emma and the Filipino constantly, like we were statues he didn’t want to miss moving. His intensity had made us awkward and uncomfortable. It’d reminded us how vulnerable we were.
Had a primitive part of me, drawn to the forefront by the drug, recognised that and acted in retaliation? Only the best survived – everything living knew that in their core. Hundreds of years of denying the truth didn’t make that certainty go away. Couldn't Fortis even be considered a good thing, if it reminded people of that?
Two hours crawled past. Sleep lingered on the edge of my consciousness, beckoning me under, but I refused its pull, and when the living room had been silent for a good half an hour, I threw on my darkest clothes, grabbed my papers, chose the sharpest knife from the kitchen and snuck out of the flat. Shooter was oblivious to it all, snoozing like a puppy on the sofa, arms flung in all directions and his body twisted like a spiral piece of pasta.
The address on the papers was one I didn’t recognise, but my navigation system told me it was fifteen miles out of town, in the suburbs. According to the papers, Saeed was eighteen years old, and a recent graduate from the grammar school’s sixth form. His father was listed as his emergency contact under the same address. It wasn’t the best scenario – dealing with him while his parents slept down the hall, but it didn’t deter me. He had answers. And if he wouldn’t give me those answers, I’d pull them from him one at a time, like rotten teeth.
The first thing I spied was a plastic, pink and white tricycle lying on their front lawn.
I remained on the path in front of the house, in case they had motion-triggered lights anywhere, but my view was unobstructed. A brick driveway led to the front door, if one could manoeuvre around the four-wheel drive parked on it, and there was a back gate, accessible from the left side of the house. I chose the latter form of entry, and while it did activate a burst of light, no one seemed any the wiser to my presence. No doubt cats set it off all the time.
The back garden was narrow and long, with a remodelled shed sat at the end of it. It was only because of that cursory scan that I spotted the hands on the fence. I ducked behind their blue bin. The hands came fully into view as whoever was trying to climb the fence succeeded. A blonde ponytail emerged from the darkness, followed by a translucently pale face. I was even impressed by her dexterity when she finally landed in the garden, considering she was dressed in a skimpy teddy with no shoes on. It was a teenage girl – probably a hook-up for Saeed.
She went straight to the bins, to my hiding place, and I gripped the handle of the knife in my jacket, but she chose the brown bin, positioning it directly under one of the gutters for the conservatory. Her ascent from the bin to the conservatory roof was flawless. The whole routine, actually, stank of practiced ease.
I climbed up behind her, not bothering to be sneaky about it, figuring that I could temporarily identify myself as one of his squeezes. Teenagers were compulsive cheaters, right? My sister had certainly been one.
“Who are you?” She hissed as I managed to pull myself up onto the roof beside her. I gave her a bodily once-over, and smirked.
“Not the whore of his acquaintance, that’s for sure.”
I took a step closer. “You heard me, princess. He doesn’t have me crawling into his bedroom in the middle of the night like a dirty secret.” And because I was having fun, “I’ve met his parents. His sister.”
I knew I’d messed up when she went silent. It was only confirmed when she backed up towards the window, looking at me suspiciously. “Saeed doesn’t have a sister,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied.
Then I rushed her, slapped a hand over her mouth, pinned her struggling form to the side of the house, and whacked her head, hard, against the brick. I did it again, and again, and again, until her white face went slack and her body went limp. She collapsed in a disarrayed tumble, her teddy riding up more than public decency would ever permit. I adjusted it, so she was at least covered, and sat her up against the wall, legs straight so her circulation wouldn’t be stunted.
The window was barely open, but it was just enough that I could widen the gap with my fingers and squeeze through. Darkness permeated the room, practically oozed from the walls, and it was difficult to get my bearings straight away. I could sense somebody on the left, which probably meant that was where the bed was.
“What you waiting for, baby?” A husky voice, from the left, beckoned me over, proving my assumption right.
I stripped out of my jacket and shoes, left them by the window, and walked over to the bed. The bedcover was soft but wrinkled, and as my fingers trailed up the fabric, they brushed against muscle, against a hairy leg, and then against something softer.
Saeed moaned. “Oh yeah, baby, just like that. Keep touching where you’re touching.”
I heard the rattle of handcuffs against the headboard. Keeping my touch light, I trailed it onto his stomach, over his nipples, across his throat and onto the pillow beside his head. A brief fumble in the dark paired my fingers with cold metal, and further exploration proved to me that both his wrists were firmly encased inside the cuffs. How easy he’d made this.
I tugged off my shirt and stuffed it into his mouth. He mumbled, questioning the sudden turn in the game, but I ignored him. With a flick, I switched the bedside light on, swamping the room in light, and exposed myself to him. His eyes bugged with recognition, and he started earnestly struggling, trying to trigger the catch mechanism in the cuffs with his thumbs.
With deliberate slowness, I picked up my jacket and withdrew the knife I’d stashed in its lining. “Let’s not end my fun so early, Saeed.”
His pupils dilated to pinpricks, his nostrils flared and his mouth desperately opened and closed. I didn’t know whether he was begging for mercy or whether he was trying to dislodge the gag. It didn’t matter. I straddled his naked body, taking particular care to press my calf into his injured stomach, and put the knife to his throat.
“I want the name of the man who killed my mother.” I informed him. “I know you remember me, and I know -” I ground my leg into his injury, and he yelped. Thankfully, the gag muffled most of it. “That you’re one of the muggers I stabbed.” Leaning in close to his face, I rubbed the blade against the rapid rise and fall of his throat. It even nicked him. “I want you to know that what I did wasn’t because of adrenaline. I was calm, and level-headed, and I could do a lot worse to you. And I will, if you don’t tell me what I want to know.” I stared down at his wide, glassy eyes. “I’m going to remove the gag, and you’re going to answer my questions. If I’m happy with the answers, I’ll leave without hurting you. Does that sound fair?”
He nodded enthusiastically, and I took the shirt out, only for him to launch into a spiel immediately. “Please don’t hurt me. I swear we didn’t mean to hurt anyone. We were just kidding around. We were going to use the money to buy beers, smokes, maybe score some weed. No one was supposed to die.”
“But someone did. My mother did.”
“And I’m sorry.” The assurance, at least, was genuine. “We all are. But we’re kids. It was an awful, horrible mistake, but we don’t deserve to go to prison for it. You attacked us. Jack was already nervous about holding his dad’s gun, and you made him jump when you went for us. It was instinct. A stupid mistake. One he’d give anything to take back.”
I removed the knife from his throat, much to his relief, and gagged him again. Then I immobilised his right hand against the headboard and stuck the knife straight through his palm. His whole body jerked. He may or may not have screamed.
“I don’t care if Jack regrets what he did. What I want, is his address. And if you lie to me, I’ll take this knife out of your hand and use it to cut off your thumb. Is that understood?” Snot dripped from his nose. Tears gushed from his eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed like it was in a barrel of water. “Is that understood?” I repeated, twisting the blade’s handle the barest degree.
Pain contorted his features but he managed to nod, so I allowed him to speak again.
“Give me Jack’s full name and his address.”
“Hearne. His name’s Jack Hearne. He lives about three miles from here, in the next village. His house is right next to the church – number forty nine.” When I didn't thank him for the information, his rambling adopted a desperate edge. “The house is modern, with white paint and brown boards. His dad has a ford focus and his mum drives a BMW. They have a husky. He’s an only child, and he’s doing an apprenticeship with -”
His tongue seemed to trip over itself in his mouth. With pleading eyes, he looked up at me. “Is that what you wanted? Will you let me go?”
“No, I won’t let you go.” I yanked the knife from his hand, and smothered his scream with the palm of mine. “But I won’t kill you, because you didn’t hurt her.”
“Kill?” His head shook. “Please, you can’t kill him. What happened was an accident. No one deserves to die for it. He’s a kid. We’re all kids.”
“You’re adults, and I’m going to hold him accountable for his actions.” Maybe I wouldn’t kill Jack. Maybe I’d take something precious from him, and see how he liked it.
I put the shirt back into Saeed's mouth, but he struggled so much that I took it out again.
“Please, one more thing and that’s it, I promise. My girlfriend was supposed to come tonight. You didn’t hurt her, did you?”
“Your girlfriend is unconscious outside.”
“But you didn’t hurt her?” He eyed the knife in my hand.
“I didn’t stab her, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I put on my boots and jacket and climbed back out of the window. The girl was where I’d left her, her dainty pink toes painted a shade of ocean-blue which complimented her smooth, unblemished skin. I watched her shallow breathing for a couple of seconds, admiring the simplicity of it, and then Saeed started shouting.
Lights turned on in the other windows, voices echoed in the hallways, and shadows flickered behind the glass panes. I was furious that he’d called for help. He’d be freed, taken to hospital, and he’d warn Jack that I was coming. I should have killed him – knocked him out, at the very least.
Now he’d ruined everything.
In a fit of anger, where his call for help seemed like a personal slight, I grabbed the girl by her silky blonde hair and slit her throat.