Chapter 1 – Think of a Number
PART ONE: 1999
Friday, March 13th, 1999.
The headlights of a passing taxi shimmered in the rainwater coating Silver Street. Sheltering under the eaves of a nightclub, Tom scoured the pale, zombie-like faces of ravers leaving the club, looking out for his friend Dave. Where the hell was he?
“So where’s next, dude?” asked Isla, a stunning blonde girl he’d met on the dance floor and somehow managed to pull. His chest fluttered every time he looked at her.
“Home, I guess.” He was tired, shivering and coming down from the drugs. “I got some tasty skunk if you wanna chill at mine?” He imagined them curled up together on the sofa, sharing a spliff.
“Chill? I wanna dance.”
He chuckled. “It’s three in the morning.”
“I know somewhere.” She opened her bag and handed him a card—a promo for a rave called ‘Venom Empire’. The promo featured a drawing of a ram’s skull. A snake circled around the skull with its jaws wide open, ready to devour its own tail.
Tom stuffed the promo in his pocket, dismissing the sinister image. “Venom Empire? You sure this isn’t a Star Wars convention?”
“It’s a rave, dude,” said Isla. “They got the best sound system in Bristol. The bass hits you right here,” she reached out and placed her hand over his heart. The gleam in her blue eyes promised heady thrills, as if he stood on the edge of the Clifton suspension bridge, looking down at the deep Avon gorge below.
“I’ve never heard of Venom Empire.”
“They want to keep things exclusive. The music is always fresh, man. Electro-glitch hop with an industrial edge. You’ll love it.”
Keep on talking, thought Tom. Her voice, husky from smoking and shouting, was alluring.
“Sounds wicked, but I need to make sure my mate Dave’s alright.”
“He’s a big boy,” said Isla. “Let’s go.”
“You don’t know Dave. He’s got issues. Can we wait a few more minutes? I’ll keep you warm.” Tom put his arm around her and they huddled together, listening to the rain drumming on the taxi roofs and the voices of touts handing out flyers as people left the club.
Ten minutes later, Dave finally emerged, shivering and with no jacket to protect him from the cold. He was from Northern Ireland and had curly brown hair and a chin puff goatee. “Bloody eejits!” fumed Dave. “They turned the whole cloakroom upside down and couldn’t find my coat.”
“What’s that over there?” Isla pointed to a soggy black garment impaled on the railings by the park. Someone had ripped it to shreds. She grinned.
“That’s it!” Dave exclaimed, the rain trickling down his face. “How the… You took it.”
Hand on heart, Isla cried, “Me? Why would I touch your coat?”
Dave turned to Tom. “Did you see the way she was smiling? Cheeky minx.”
“Come on,” said Tom. “We’re going to a free party.”
The blood drained from Dave’s face when he saw the rave promo. “Let’s go home,” he pleaded. “It’s freezing.”
“You’ll be fine once you get there.”
Dave pulled him away from Isla. “There’s something about her. I don’t trust her.”
“Mate, relax. You’re being paranoid.” He had a chance with Isla. She wasn’t just any old Saturday night pull—she exuded an electricity that drew Tom to her. He wouldn’t let Dave ruin everything with his constant negativity.
Isla came up beside him and whispered in his ear, “Something to keep you going.” She took his hand and placed two pills on his palm. They were green with yellow and brown specks. “Green apples,” she said. Apples and serpents. What a temptress!
Tom took a pill and handed one to Dave.
Dave sighed. “You’re crazy, you know that?”
“Come on, dude. All the taxis have gone. You can’t walk home on your own. You’re safer with us.” Over the years, he’d become an expert in the logic of Dave’s neurosis. When all else failed, he played one fear off against another. “Let’s check it out for a couple of hours.”
“Let him go home,” said Isla, and huffed.
“Nah, Dave’s the man! Hardcore jungle warrior.”
Dave eyed Isla suspiciously. “She wants to take you to this place alone. That’s why she stole my coat!”
“Listen, dickhead…” Isla started, but Tom held his hand up.
“Dave, for fuck’s sake, she didn’t steal your coat! It was probably some scummy kid looking for drugs. Now are you coming or not?
Dave’s cheeks flushed red. He took the pill from his hand, brought it to his mouth and swallowed.
Tom smiled proudly at Dave, his protégé. He’d given him his first line of Colombia’s finest five years ago, and they’d been best friends ever since. Tom taught him things his psychiatrist couldn’t teach. How to dance. How to skin up. How to cook ketamine. How to relax and let music heal your soul.
“Let’s go,” said Isla, leading the way.
As usual, Tom’s day had started with a visit to Meadow View, his dad’s nursing home. The unmistakable stench of urine-soaked incontinence pads and disinfectant attacked his lungs as he entered the building. Around a table, a smiling nurse organised a card game with an elderly man; drool dripped from his chin onto his cards. A physiotherapist helped a snowy-haired woman as she traversed the hall behind a Zimmer frame. Tom soaked in the immaculate view of Chew Valley through the open window, the verdant slopes broken by hedgerows and ancient woods.
Usually, he preferred to visit later in the morning. There was a short stretch of time, just after his dad’s 10 o’clock levodopa, when he would be at his best. For half an hour, Tom could pretend his father wasn’t rapidly deteriorating, but the window of normality was getting smaller each week. He left the recreation room, followed a short corridor to his father’s bedroom, knocked on the door and entered.
Dad was still in his pyjamas, bedridden after a fall last week which left a nasty gash on the thin skin covering his leg. His mask-like face expressed little emotion. He murmured something, his speech slow and effortful, spittle clinging to his large, almost purple lips.
“Marie? Is that you?”
“Oh,” Dad moaned. “Where’s Marie?”
“She’s gone,” said Tom, trying not to show sadness as he thought of his mother, who died several years ago. Last week, Dad refused to go to lunch with him, believing he was being harassed by a total stranger. At his worst, Dad would ask him to wheel the television in, so he could watch the moon landings. “It’s me, Tom.”
“Oh yes,” said Dad. “Let me look at you.” Slow and trembling, his dad grasped his glasses, his wiry arm quivering with fine, uncontrollable fasciculation. The staff did everything they could. They’d trialled him on all the available dopaminergic medications and tinkered around with the timing and dosages, but the disease was intractable and was consuming him. A lump formed in Tom’s throat. When younger, he thought his dad would always be there, standing strong and tall. He regretted taking him for granted.
“What a fine young man you are! How are the kids?”
“Russell is the one with kids. It’s Tom.”
“Thomas? Oh, I despair of that boy! He’ll never make anything of himself, not like you, Russell.”
“Tom’s doing great, Dad. He works for Elixium, the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world.”
“Yes, but he’s an administrator. A trained gorilla could do that job. And only after I fixed things with that nice Mr Fenwick.” Tom grimaced—he’d heard the story many times. By chance, Reuben Fenwick, the vice-CEO of Elixium, jumped in his dad’s taxi cab, after a night at the theatre. His dad sweet-talked Reuben and managed to secure him a job interview. “Tom’s clever with numbers, yes, but you’re the smart one, Russell.”
Tom gritted his teeth. Russell never visited the nursing home and contributed almost nothing to his dad’s hefty medical bills. Despite the costs, Tom insisted on this private nursing home overlooking the countryside. Russell resisted, claiming he needed capital to expand his security camera business, and that if Tom wanted Dad to go there, he’d have to finance the home himself. Russell may be smart, but he’s heartless. If he’d had his way you’d be rotting in the cheapest, shittiest care home in the county.
Sulking, he stared down at his feet, until Dad’s hand on his shoulder jolted him.
“I only want the best for you… Tom. I wish I’d tried harder when I was your age, I wouldn’t have ended up as a bloody cabbie.”
If only he understood what Elixium Pharmaceuticals was like, Tom thought. Currently he was administrating trials for the company’s latest anti-hypertensive product, Primazine. It was exactly the same as an older drug but dyed pink to appeal to women. Still, it’d net the company billions in profits. And then there were rumours of cover-ups and backhanders. Sandra in Human Resources even claimed Elixium produced Zyklon B for the Nazis in the 1930s. Was a position of power in such a company really something to aspire to?
He gazed into his dad’s dull, brown eyes and sighed. He didn’t want his dad worrying about him. “I’ll try harder, Dad.”
He looked at his watch and realised he’d be late for his shift. After kissing his dad on the forehead, he rushed out of the nursing home.
After eight hours of mind-numbing data entry, Tom finished work and rang his friend Dave. It was Friday and he had tickets to a drum’n’bass night. He soon found himself dancing in a crowded club, buzzing on pills. He closed his eyes and savoured the breakbeats and funky basslines, a sudden blast of air from the pumping speakers cooling his sweaty face.
Later, while queuing at the bar with Dave, he noticed a hot girl. She had pale skin, studs in her lip and nose, and her eyes were decorated with luminous blue liner. She wore long, frayed fishnet gloves, a leather skirt and laddered tights over her slender legs. A tight pink satin top teased her breasts. With half the bar cheering, she joined a group of men in a drinking contest. She downed her cider in one and slammed the plastic pint glass on the bar before the others.
Now there’s someone I could have fun with, Tom thought.
He clutched Dave’s shoulder and nodded towards the girl. “Check her out.”
“She’s trouble,” said Dave. “I saw her talking to bovver boy over there.”
Tom’s eyes darted around, settling upon a tall, beefy skinhead smoking in the corner. He loitered beside a buffed-up dude in a baseball cap. Drug dealers, most likely.
Dave elbowed him. “Don’t stare.”
“She probably ran out of disco biscuits.” He delved into his pocket and retrieved the last of his own supply from the little plastic stash bag. There was no sign of the club’s bouncers. He bit the pill in half, grimaced at the harsh chemical taste, and swallowed it down with a mouthful of beer.
“Don’t look down,” said Tom, placing the other half in Dave’s hand.
Dave looked aghast. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! You don’t know when to stop!”
Tom met his worried brown eyes and put his arm around his shoulder. “I fucking love you, mate. Come on, let’s stay ’til the end.”
“I’m dead on my feet, man. Ready for some hits from the bong.”
Tom’s eye caught the girl dancing at the edge of the crowd. She raised an eyebrow at him, then threw her head back and laughed, revealing a gap between her front teeth. He finished his beer and ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. “The night is young, mate. Besides, I wanna talk to her.”
“You’re the biggest geek I’ve ever met. No way she’s going home with you.”
He’s probably right, thought Tom, but it’s worth a try. Maybe she’d find his messy hair, Buddy-Holly style glasses and cheeky smile appealing.
He turned to Dave. “You should talk to some girls too.”
Dave still held the half pill in his fist. “I can’t.”
Tom shook his head. “You’ve got a lot going for you. Be confident.”
“I work in a fish factory. All my clothes stink of tuna.”
“That’s bollocks, mate. Take the pill, go talk to some girls, I’ll meet you back here.”
Armed with amphetamine confidence, Tom marched to the dance floor and approached the girl. Her body grooved to the frantic beats, beckoning him to join with her. He waded through the crowd, elbows jabbing into him. They exchanged smiles and grooved together.
“I’m Tom,” he shouted over the music.
“Isla,” she shouted back.
“Great tunes tonight, Isla,” he yelled. God, that sounded lame. Despite lecturing Dave, he found himself flustered. Thankfully Isla smiled in agreement.
“Hey,” she yelled over the music. “You wanna talk somewhere?”
“Sure,” Tom shouted back, pinching himself to check he wasn’t hallucinating. Loved-up thoughts flowered in his mind. I’ll follow you to the end of the universe. Our atoms will fuse, an infinite nucleus, the cosmos orbiting around us as we combine, cell by cell. The DJ dropped a banging Ed Rush and Optical tune; the filthy bassline and distorted drums reinvigorated the crowd. Isla’s body swayed as she led him through the packed dance floor. His ex-girlfriend hated clubbing and nagged at him constantly for taking drugs, but Isla clearly loved the music. Together, they could set the jungle scene on fire.
In the chill out room, they nabbed the last free sofa. “You’ve got to be local with an accent like that, Isla.”
“Proper West Country girl,” she replied, rolling the /r/ in girl. “I’m from Nailsea. Home of yokels, cider, incest and The Wurzels.”
He’d softened his own Bristolian burr in his uni years. Usually he hated the accent, but it suited her. He handed her his pocket calculator, which he kept on him for moments like these.
“Think of a number,” said Tom.
“No. Make it hard. Three digits.”
“Um… Eight hundred and sixty-one.”
A tasty number, thought Tom, a citrus tang on his lips. “The square root of your number is twenty-nine point three four. Your number squared is seven hundred and forty-one thousand, three hundred and twenty-one.”
After checking his answer, Isla grinned. “Wow. That’s amazing.”
“I’m a human calculator,” boasted Tom. Usually girls thought he was a freak or doing a magic trick on them, but the glint in Isla’s eyes told him he’d impressed her.
“I’m good with numbers too,” she said, handing him back the calculator with a wry smile. She’d spelled out the word “BOOBS” on the screen. Her raucous laughter was infectious. He hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time.
“So I guess you’re an accountant?”
“Statistician for Elixium Pharmaceuticals, biggest drug company in the world.”
Her expression hardened. “Fucking Elixium! It’s full of cunts.”
Yikes. And it was all going so well.
Mind you, she has a point, he thought, as he tried to shake the image of Reuben Fenwick, Elixium’s sociopathic vice CEO from his mind. Reuben had large, unblinking eyes and a self-satisfied smile.
“My mum took them to court,” explained Isla, “now she’s penniless and we live with a prostitute in fucking Hartcliffe. Have you ever been to Hartcliffe?”
He shook his head.
“They’re evil,” said Tom. “But I need the money. My dad is in an expensive nursing home. He’s got dementia. Plus he really wants me to get ahead at Elixium.”
“I’m sorry about your dad. My mum nags me too. Wants me to be a nurse. Still, I’d much rather that than Elixium. These big corporations treat you like shit and destroy your confidence. You’re too good for them, Tom. You’re a maths genius!”
“Don’t be daft,” said Tom, his cheeks burning.
“It’s true. You can do anything you want.”
Her beauty and inspiring words made his heart skip a beat. It made a change for someone to believe in him. “So what do you do?”
“Mint! What like… paintings?”
She fiddled with the rainbow-coloured beads in her pale, blonde hair. “For money? Anything. Tattoo designs, chalk portraits, charcoal pictures of old ladies’ dogs. But my passion is, uh… aerosols.”
She frowned. “Street art. I don’t go around scratching dicks on the backs of bus seats. I do big, complex designs at skate parks.”
“Sounds amazing. I’d love to see.” He took her hand, she did not resist.
“Someday,” she said.
They talked about the new millennium, now less than a year away. Rumours of the Y2K bug worried her, but she was planning a big New Year’s Eve party. Tom stroked the smooth skin of her hand. He wished the moment could last forever, but the music suddenly stopped.
The silence was painful.
“Downstairs!” a club bouncer shouted. “Everybody out!”
Closing time. A gnawing pain spread across his belly and he winced as bright lights stung his eyes. The naked dance floor confronted him. It was littered with fag ends, empty beer bottles and crushed nitrous canisters. A splatter of pinkish vomit dripped down the side of the DJ booth. Ignoring the ominous feeling, he led Isla back into the main room.
He looked for Dave, his eyes skittering around the thinning crowd. There were pale faces and sharp, accusing eyes everywhere, but no sign of his friend. Despondency hit him like a truck. The night was over.
The prospect of a ‘suicide Monday’ loomed large. He thought of the office at Elixium Pharmaceuticals, lit with harsh fluorescent tube lights and gulped. He dreaded facing his colleagues while nursing a bad head, a sore jaw and aching teeth from all the grinding. Take me back. I need more. Please.
At three thirty in the morning, Tom, Dave and Isla set off in the pouring rain to find Venom Empire, the rave Isla promised would blow his mind.
“We need to call the organisers,” said Isla. “Let’s find a phone box.”
They marched along Rupert Street and clambered up the Christmas Steps, finally reaching the phone box by the petrol station on Park Row. Soaked to the skin, Tom wiped the rain from his brow. Dave, without his coat, shivered. His t-shirt and baggy blue denim jeans were soaked.
The dark, deserted forecourt filled Tom with foreboding. The shop had closed hours ago. Isla entered the phone booth, placed her change in the slot and dialled. Quickly she replaced the receiver.
“Second thoughts?” asked Tom.
“You call between three and five in the morning, wait two rings and then hang up.”
Tom sighed. They were in for a wild goose chase. The government criminalised raves in ’94. The scumbags passed a law prohibiting music characterised by ‘repetitive beats’. Ever since, finding raves was a nightmare. Last year, after getting the details from a pirate radio station, Tom and Dave tried to track down a warehouse party. They drove to the middle of nowhere and spent hours walking in circles through fields and dirt tracks in the dark. Dave stepped in a cowpat and moaned about the smell. Finally, they gave up.
“Maybe we shouldn’t bother,” said Tom.
“Yeah, let’s go for a smoke instead,” said Dave.
“Don’t worry.” Isla grinned. “They’ll pick us up.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Ten minutes later, a white stretch limousine rolled up to the garage.
“Our ride,” said Isla, grinning.
The limousine pulled into the forecourt. It glistened with rain and luxury. For a moment Tom wondered if he was hallucinating. Isla ran her fingers softly along the gleaming body and smiled.
Tom couldn’t believe his eyes. “What the—”
The chauffeur, a bald man in an expensive suit, greeted them. He opened the back door, revealing a cream upholstered leather interior.
The chauffeur’s outstretched arm and white-gloved hand invited Isla to get in. “This way please, Ma’am.”
Isla jumped in and winked at Tom. “Are you ready, Tom?”
Tom followed her, in awe of the magnificent vehicle and of Isla herself. Dave skulked behind, looking petrified.
“Are you coming or not?” Tom asked him.
“Don’t do this,” said Dave.
“Don’t be a poofter. It’ll be fun.”
Dave looked around the empty forecourt and the dark street. He got into the vehicle, his hand shaking as he closed the door.
They drove for what seemed like hours. Tom tried to keep track of where they were going, but soon lost all sense of direction. Isla’s pill warped his vision. He peered through the tinted window but saw only a vertiginous blur of concrete, neon and rain.
Isla reapplied her makeup as best as she could in the moving vehicle. The luminous blue eyeliner and multi-coloured kandi beads in her hair made her look young.
“How old are you, Isla?”
“Twenty-one,” she answered as if he was a bartender or a bouncer. He grinned.
“All right,” she conceded. “I’m twenty in July. You?”
“Twenty-five. Dave here was twenty-four last month, ain’t that right dude?”
“Yeah,” said Dave. He was fidgeting with an empty fag packet, turning it over and over in his hand.
Isla opened a small fridge installed in the limo, revealing a bottle of champagne. She handed it to Tom, and he opened it with a pop. They both had a large glass; the champagne was cool, sweet and fizzed on his tongue. His heart raced. Drinking champagne in the back of a limo with a sexy girl. Does it get any better than this?
Tom took a big gulp and giggled. “Isla, where the hell are we going?”
She laughed too and shrugged. “New location every time.”
“You’ve been before, right?”
“Only once, but it was amazing.”
Tom ran his hand along the luxurious leather seats. “Well, I’m impressed so far.”
Dave stopped fidgeting with the cigarette packet and snapped. “This was a bad idea. We should have gone home.”
“Don’t worry, babe,” said Isla. “I’ll look after you.” She reached over and stroked his arm. “Where are you from?”
“Derry,” he answered.
She told him he had a lovely accent and Tom rolled his eyes. How do you accuse a girl of thieving your coat and end up with her all over you?
Just after 4 a.m., the limo slowed to a halt. They waited in silence for the chauffeur to open the doors. Tom ached to dance; Isla’s pills were making his teeth chatter and his hands shake. The chauffeur opened the door and invited them out.
They were in an industrial estate, beside a large, intimidating building with a towering smokestack—an abandoned factory. Gooseflesh spread across Tom’s arms, but it was too late for second thoughts. The chauffeur had already started the limo’s engine. Tyres churned the gravel, and the vehicle sped off into the darkness.
With his heart pounding, Tom followed behind Dave and Isla. Booming, bass-heavy music grew louder as they approached the old factory. It was a dilapidated edifice with broken windows. In the distance, a silhouetted figure stood in front of a small doorway, from which a yellow light emanated. As they grew closer, he realised the figure wore a balaclava and held a gun—a big automatic weapon. Tom gasped and stepped back, but Isla grabbed his arm.
“Don’t run,” she whispered. “Everything will be okay.”