A child was crying. A tiny, muffled voice begging for its mummy. My head practically spun three sixty degrees like a preying mantis’s.
The offender was easy to spot – he was tall, decked out in black head to toe with his collar up to his chin and a cap covering his face. A skinny, rosy-faced girl with two French plaits, dressed in denim dungarees, was squirming in his grip, her feet positioned on the edges of the car’s open doorway.
Other people had noticed the commotion as well. A man had a phone in his hand by the smoking area, and a couple of youths next to him were stomping out their cigarettes. But they were over one hundred metres away, and I was closer.
The part of me that Fortis had corrupted, snorted. It asked why I should help a shrieking brat. If I was successful, her thankful family would have me on the news and at the attention of the police, and if I failed, I’d be asked to make a statement and expected to provide comfort to a grieving family. Neither option was preferable, but I found that I couldn’t stop instinct. A child was being forced somewhere against their will and any decent human being would help. And regardless of circumstances, regardless of Fortis and the lives I’d taken, I considered myself to be a decent human being.
That decided, I ran over to the attempted kidnapper. He noticed my approach, and bashed the young girl’s head against the doorframe. She slumped like soggy pizza, and he chucked her into the backseat and slammed the door behind her. Before he could open the driver’s door, I was there. I went straight into him, aiming to sock him in the stomach, but he jammed his knee into my stomach instead, and I stumbled backwards. I didn’t want to use my knife, not among so many people, so I ran at him again.
I gave no thought to doing him serious injury; all I needed to do was keep him occupied until bigger, healthier competition arrived. Already I could hear shouting behind me. The heavy thump of panicked footsteps.
His fist tangled in a clump of my hair, and he used his grip to manoeuvre me into the side of the car, and locked me in place against the hard slab of his body.
“What is it to you what I do to the kid?” He demanded.
I was shocked by his actual face – he looked like a home bred, good boy from a country village. He was clean-shaven, with neat, white teeth and seemingly kind, blue eyes. The hint of a smile on his lips was even charming, despite the circumstances.
“What kind of human being sits back and lets a child be kidnapped?”
“But you’re not a human being, are you Sasha?”
A shiver shot down my spine. He laughed at my expression. “I recognise your face from the news. You and your friends combined are patient zero, and you’re out in the world infecting the rest of us. Most people are calling it a curse, but I consider it a gift. I never would have done something like this before without Fortis.”
The approaching voices grew louder. Someone was crying. Another one was shouting obscenities at the attempted kidnapper. His situation must have abruptly dawned on him, because he cast a quick look over his shoulder and annoyance appeared in the curl of his lip.
“I’m not getting away with this bundle of joy. You’ve brought too much attention to us.”
“I am not with you.”
“But you are. Because if they catch you, you’re going to the same place they have reserved for me.” Pulling away from me, he loosened his grip on my hair, stroked my head and winked. “Try to keep up.”
Then I was released and he was gone, legging it across the car park. I stared after him for a split second, but the truth of his words was a bullet I couldn’t deny. Hopefully no one would consider it suspicious that I pegged it after him.
He was a fast sprinter, one I had no hope of keeping up with, but I did my best. He found a copse of trees near the travel inn that lay about a mile from the motorway services, and he was leaning against one of them, taking deep breaths, when I sped through the car park, desperately looking for him.
With gleaming eyes, he waved me over and smiled. I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t deny an attraction to him in that moment. He was wild, and bad, and completely unrestrained. A bad boy to the bone. And those muscles of his were giving me fantasies.
“I’m impressed,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks. Your approval means a lot.”
“You look like death warmed over. I’m surprised you didn’t keel over when I socked you in the gut.”
“I’m stronger than I look.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re invincible.” His look, I realised, was turning predatory. If I didn’t prove to him toot sweet that I wasn’t a fainting belle, chances were he’d force me into a strange car. I wasn’t a child by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t look my age, and I was practically helpless. This exertion alone had to have put me all the closer to passing out territory, and if that happened, I was well and truly screwed because the mercy of people was something I didn’t trust.
“Shouldn’t you be scoping out escape routes?” I asked him, and that smile of his spread, transforming into a smirk that resurrected desire in my blood. I wanted to grab his face between my hands and lay one on him. The thought disgusted my morality, but I wasn’t disgusted with myself. I couldn’t help what I wanted. Attraction was biological – at our core, women like dominant, capable men who can take care of us. His appeal to me was nothing out of the ordinary.
With a wave of his hand, he gestured to the vehicles in the inn’s car park. “Take your pick.”
“You know how to jump-start a car?”
He crooked an eyebrow. “You don’t?”
Between us, we selected an older car with a flaking paint job away from the main entrance. The windows facing us from the inn’s rooms were all closed, and covered with curtains, but my skin remained electrified, and the energy in me was coiled, ready to spring into action should I need to make a run for it. If we were discovered together, people would think I was his accomplice, and I did not need paedophilia added to my rap sheet. What would Justine think (or what would she have thought before she’d willingly infected herself with Fortis in a move which had actually hurt my feelings)?
Country boy stripped off his jacket, wrapped the fabric around his fist and punched the glass of the driver’s door. It shattered on impact on the first try. I did my best to ignore his victory jig, but it was a difficult thing to ignore. With a playful wink, he dropped into the glass shards on the driver’s seat and set to work withdrawing wires and stripping them. It was with relief that I heard the engine start a couple of anxious minutes later.
He switched off the central locking system and looked at me expectantly. He didn’t need words to ask his questions – I could see them spread across his grinning face. Was I leaving with him? Did I have a choice? Could I not hear the sirens in the distance?
“I’ll get in this car with you now, but you let me out as soon as I tell you to, wherever I tell you to, and you don’t look back. Agreed?”
He didn’t answer, but I got in the car anyway.
We drove for hours. I didn’t ask where we were going, or what his intentions were. I couldn’t find it in myself to care about either. Instead, I watched the world pass outside the window and listened to the radio.
Fortis was constantly mentioned on every station; stern voices warned people not to panic, explained its effects and where the nearest quarantine areas were for infected people; information on my escapades was repeated with alarming significance, as if I was on a personal vendetta to hurt innocent people.
There was no mention of Thomson’s capture, which had me gnawing my lip like a hungry animal throughout most of the journey. I kept waiting for an update, an urgent voice announcing that they’d located him, and he was being transferred to a top-secret facility, but nothing came.
Eventually, we stopped for petrol. Country boy chose somewhere isolated and local, rather than a well-known company, but our rolled-down window still warranted unwelcome attention. It was the middle of winter. I contemplated driving off without him, but the engine was off and I didn’t know how to jump-start it (not safely), and if I electrocuted myself, my body would finally give up the ghost. There was only so much it could take.
My companion seemed equally surprised that I hadn’t sped off without him, and as he put the receipt for his purchase in the glove box, strapped on his seatbelt and started the car, he smiled at me.
“I know what it looked like: me snatching a child. But it wasn’t for the reasons you think.”
“Oh? You aren’t a closet paedophile with the confidence to finally indulge yourself?”
“I wasn’t stealing her for me. She was for my sister. Her and her husband lost their little girl a year ago in a car accident, and when I saw the munch kin standing outside, alone, I couldn’t help it. She was the spitting image of Abigail.”
I blinked, staring at him with an intensity even I was uncomfortable with. I found it impossible to tell whether he was lying to me or not. He had the kind of face that someone instinctively trusted, but knowing Fortis was in his system made me instinctually weary.
I knew first-hand how easy it was to lie when you no longer had to worry about your tics giving you away. I wouldn’t trust him, not for all the money in the world, but I could at least give the appearance of it. Having him let his shields down around me wouldn’t be a bad thing. I could take advantage of that. And if we ran into the police, he was a distraction I could happily throw at them so I could escape scott-free.
“You’re an uncle?”
“I was. The brat got herself squished chasing a cat into the middle of the road.”
I whacked him on the arm. “You shouldn’t talk bad of the dead. Especially children.”
“Why? It’s not like she can hear me. And one stupid action ruined everything.” His fingers started tapping the steering wheel, and while he didn’t make eye contact with me, I fancied I knew what I’d find in his eyes if I looked closely enough. Grief.
“What’s your name?”
“Vauxhall. But everyone calls me Vaux.” Noticing my sceptical expression, he laughed. “You think that’s bad. My sister’s called Ford. Turns out the old man has a thing for car manufacturers.”
Our journey to nowhere continued.
Vaux, bored of my station surfing, hooked his phone into the sound system and played an endless stream of mind-numbing, modern music. I’d started bashing my head against the window, hoping to induce a blackout, by the time his humming turned into singing. When the opening notes of a sickeningly familiar techno beat emerged, I snapped, grabbed his phone, wound down the window and threw it out, cable, shimmery case and all. Vaux watched it go with an expression of outrage frozen on his face.
“You did not do that!”
“You’re lucky I didn’t stab you,” I told him in all seriousness.
“My dad pays my contract. He’s going to flip.”
That comment drew me up short. I gave him the once-over a second time, this time looking for distinguishing features which would tell me his age. He’d removed his cap and his jacket at the petrol station. It’d revealed dirty blonde hair, scooped back in a ponytail, and tanned skin. Not the kind that comes from a bed, but rather the kind that comes from labouring outside, lounging on a beach and hiking. There were no wrinkles on him, not really, and his skin was ridiculously smooth, but I could spot a blemish or two on closer inspection.
“You’re in your teens,” I announced when the realisation hit me.
“Eighteen,” he said, his knuckles bulging as he squeezed the wheel. “No one can tell me what to do any more. I’m my own person. No more emptying the dishwasher, no more hoovering the living room, no more mowing the lawn every Sunday.”
The ruthless excitement in his voice exposed his enthusiasm for what it was. “That’s why you think Fortis is a gift. It helped you leave your family life behind. Get started on a new adventure. You can go wherever want. Be whoever you want. Do whatever you want. But daddy is the one who’ll get the bill at the end of every month, because you haven’t grown up that much.”
I half expected my words to set him off, but he only closed his eyes (worrying, considering he was driving) and sighed. I put my hands on the wheel, just in case we swerved or something appeared on the other side of the road, but it was an unnecessary effort. Vaux opened his eyes a second later, realised how close I suddenly was, and put a hand at the nape of my neck, underneath my hair. I jerked backwards, knocking the steering wheel and sending us into the middle of the other lane. Vaux quickly corrected our course, looked over at me, and snorted.
“You talk a big game, but the lightest touch makes you jump.”
“I didn’t ask you to touch me.”
“You were stroking my hands. And you’ve been eye-fucking me since we got into this car.”
“You’re deluded. I’ve been watching you because you’re a suspected paedophile who I’d be stupid to let out of my sight, and I took the wheel because you shut your eyes – what the hell, by the way?”
Realising that there was actually a question amidst my rant, he shrugged. “I like to feel the road sometimes. I’ve never done it with a passenger. I was always too scared of something going wrong.”
“Just because you’re not scared, doesn’t mean something can’t happen. If we crash, we still stand the chance of being mangled. The only difference is that we won’t feel our bones piercing our skin or our blood sluicing out of our veins. We’ll die numb. So keep your eyes on the road.”
Blatantly ignoring my previous statement, he gazed at me. “What is it like? Feeling numb at the sight of your own injuries? It must feel like watching someone pull a tooth out, after you’ve been anaesthetised.”
We drifted into the middle of the road.
“I’ll talk if you keep us in our lane,” I bargained, anxious to see headlights pop up further along the road. Vaux, sensing my unease, or simply fuelled by his curiosity, put us back into our appropriate lane and this time, we remained there. After five minutes, during which he proved to me that he could drive responsibly, he spoke.
“Well? What’s it like, the numbness?”
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff since I’ve been infected, and most of it didn’t bother me. I told myself it should –forced myself to react appropriately in most cases, but I didn’t really care. Whatever motivated me before, Fortis wiped it out. If there’s no gain, or enjoyment in something, I don’t do it. Getting hurt is like that. I don’t care if I have a stab wound, or gaping lacerations in my arms, or a broken nose. I can’t feel any of it. But it attracts attention, and it has the same effect on my body that it’d have if I was normal, so I can’t ignore it.”
“I get the nose, and the arms. I can see the bruising and the bandages, but a stab wound? You got stabbed? Was that a copper trying to apprehend you? Or someone fighting you off?”
“It was a mugger. He and his friends tried to rob my mother and me, but I attacked them. One of them got the drop on me. Another one got the drop on my mother.”
Vaux tucked the longer strands of his fringe behind his ear. “The news mentioned that your mother had died. Everyone’s saying you did it.”
“I tortured one of the guys I took down. Slit his girlfriend’s throat. Then I found the guy who killed my mother, Jack Hearne. I went to his house with the intention of killing him, but it didn’t sit right with me.”
“That’s why you killed his parents.”
“An eye for an eye. He took away my world, so I took away his.”
“And you killed his dog. That’s just harsh.”
An overflow of nausea invaded my stomach at the mention of the dog. I positioned my head near the open window, in case I blew chunks, but Vaux didn’t seem to get the hint. “I get the parents. He shot your mother, but what did the dog do? The poor thing was probably spazzing out, trying to protect its owners, and you cut it down for absolutely no -”
“It bit me.” It came back to me, all of it, with startling clarity. “It wouldn’t let go, and I knew I had to get out of there. I did what I had to do. But you’re right. The dog didn’t deserve it. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Kind of like your mother, then? If she hadn’t been with you, the muggers would have taken her bag, and she’d have lived to tell the tale. Even if you had been there, just without Fortis in your bloodstream, chances are you’d have both survived.”
Vaux was growing animated. “Think about it. If Fortis hadn’t have numbed you, none of this would have happened. You and your mum would have been mugged, but you’d have meekly handed over your bags and forgotten about it over time. It’s only because of the drug that you forgot about the consequences and attacked them.”
“I should have let them rob us. They were kids playing at being bad guys. I fought back and freaked them out. Made their game real.”
“Exactly. You’ve exacted vengeance on them, but you haven’t punished the other party responsible. Not really. The people that made the drug, that administered it, that let you out into the world despite not knowing what it’d done to you – they’re to blame, too.”
“What are you saying, Vaux?”
“You don’t get it. You haven’t had your vengeance, Sasha. Not yet. Not until you punish the people who put Fortis into your body. They’re the ones who need to pay. They don’t deserve to feel its rush, or to reap its benefits. They deserve to die.”