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An Innocent Man

p(((={color:#000;}.

An Innocent Man

By

Mark Z. Kammell

Shakespir EDITION

*****

PUBLISHED BY:

Mark.Z.Kammell on Shakespir

An Innocent Man

© Copyright 2017 by Mark Z. Kammell.

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of this author.

  • * * * *

Bang Bang. You’re Dead.

I think it all started at the party. Mark and Louise’s, that is. God knows why we were there in the first place, I can’t stand Mark (serial killer? Almost certainly) and Louise, well, right or wrong, friend or foe, it is really very hard to tell. But Mark was my oldest friend and therefore that’s where we headed, to the party, me and my wife (ex-wife, to be totally transparent) Sylvia. There’s always a crushing sense of disappointment about these things, the thrill that dissipates so totally when you have got past that edge of the booze, and you realise that all’s that’s left is the sadistically mindless task of talking to people. Listening to them, laughing at their jokes, thinking of dull but witty things to say, and eyeing the clock so that you can slink back into a taxi and crash back at your place for a night of drunken passion, or, more likely, a night of throwing up and ruining the silk sheets again, and you can’t wash them, you can’t even dry clean them, you just have to throw them out and oh god vomiting is such a turn off even if it’s with my wife (I mean ex-wife) who’s seen it all when it comes to me, even if her habits have started to become worryingly vampiric. And who knows where that will end. I have become increasingly frightened of spending time with her, though, ironically, or perhaps not in today’s supercharged world, I seem to spend far more time in her company now that we are not married, now that she is my ex-wife, and we actually seem to get on now, which is perhaps no surprise given that I don’t know of anyone, anyone, who actually gets on with his or her husband or wife or partner or boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever may exist in this post-gender, utterly confusing world.

But… let that not detract from the fact that my ex-wife is a vampire. Or, at least she claims to be; personally, though, I am yet to be completely convinced. She can’t fly, she doesn’t burn in sunlight, she eats proper food without coughing up blood, she’s not allergic to silver or even to garlic. On the other hand, she drinks blood, she has large vampire style canines, although these I suspect were synthetically manufactured and surgically implanted, and her reflection in the mirror is strangely muted. The jury’s out, I think, and probably that’s no bad thing, since the very existence of vampires challenges both my conception of the universe and the need to have order, clarity and stability. Of course, it also excites me beyond imagining, the idea of eternal life! I did actually ask her to bite me, I couldn’t really see what the harm would be, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. She really seemed to relish sucking my blood; she has only entered her vampire phase after we broke up; another plus, for she would never have agreed to it before, except maybe to inflict significant pain, although more likely it would have ended up in another pointless row about each other’s selfishness, and in another significant reduction in the number of dishes in our sideboard. This time, when I asked, she purred and reached over to me, held my neck and plunged her teeth into my veins, then, with a satisfying pop, withdrew and threw herself back down on her bed, eyes wide and shining and a thin trail of my blood on her chin.

There is a school of thought that says drinking blood is good for ageing, I suspect one of the things that built up the entire mythology of vampirism. Note please that I say mythology in its broadest sense, I am not judging this as fantasy, as a myth, for who am I to know, I really do think there have been stranger things, and who knows where technology will take us. There will be a convergence, at some point in the near future, I am convinced, where our technological ability will satisfy the cravings of magic, where the line will blur. What is magic if not unexplained technology? If we develop scientific methods, scientific principles, that enable us to emulate what has traditionally been seen as fantasy, does it make it any less awe inspiring? Yes, of course it does, it passes from one realm into the other, it ceases to be that wondrous, spectral, daunting bridge into countless possibilities, the promise of something different, the chance for atonement and change and the living of a different and perfect life. Instead it becomes something real and explainable, something for scientific magazines and bespectacled professors and coffee room conversation and altogether banal. I believe in the power of magic and yet I am one of its principle destroyers. Yes, I am going to confess something here and I would ask you, sincerely, to keep it to yourself, not to divulge it to anyone. I am sworn to secrecy, in a very real sense, and so I would ask that you respect that. Not in the same way as me, I am not asking you to sign the Official Secrets Act (as I had to), but I am asking you, with the greatest of sincerity, to respect the fact that I am sharing this with you, now, and not allow it to be known any further. The consequences could be enormous. (And yes, I will admit that my reason for sharing is as much to do with personal vanity as anything else, but then, of course, why shouldn’t it be. Why should I not be permitted to celebrate my own successes, my not insignificant contribution to this world. People do, with far smaller successes than my own. For instance, people have become famous for recording themselves playing video games and posting that on the internet. Where, I have to ask, is the contribution in that, other than giving people an excuse to burn their time in the most mindless way. At least if you actually play the games, you are doing something, questionable as that may be. Yet we open up our arms to become the ultimate in indolent voyeurism, and we celebrate its auteurs and allow ourselves, willingly, to be corrupted by them, we give them platforms to speak on and we treat them as if they are our modern-day philosophers, as if their embrace of mediocrity makes them, somehow, worthy of our time. And that’s what defines our lamentable generation, our politicians’ speeches and policies borne out of a need to pander to the zeitgeist of asinine self-celebration and self-loathing).

Enough of my rant, I am straying off my point, which is important given that my point is to share something truly exciting. Invisibility. I give you that one word. Truly the stuff of magic, you may think, captured in the worlds of Harry Potter and Thor and Fantasia. This is my point entirely! Instead of looking to the realms of the unknown, or unknowable, let us look instead at technology. I don’t mean the fantastic technology showcased on countless television series and films that is (and will always be, in my humble opinion) out of our reach, but technology that exists here, today, in our hands and in our grasp. Imagine this: tiny (by tiny I mean less than ten nanometres, which, if you don’t know, is about the width of four strands of DNA, or one thousandth the size of a single red blood cell) computers, all stitched together, billions and billions of them, into a full body suit, head to toe. The excruciatingly clever part is what those computers are. They each contain a tiny LED screen, and a camera. I am sure, being a man of intelligence, you see where I am going know with this very simple idea. The camera captures what is in front of it, and sends the information to the NC (nano computer) on the other side of the body, where it is shown on the tiny LED screen. Replicating this across billions of these things, capturing every conceivable angle, gives the impression of seeing through the wearer of the coat. You see? Amazingly simple, and amazingly clever, manipulating available technology to create something truly outstanding. Of course, there are still a few issues. From certain angles, someone viewing the wearer of this coat will notice a slight ripple in the air if the wearer is moving quickly, but that is just something the software developers will figure out, using predictive AI algorithms. The power remains a concern, with the wearer having to carry a power pack (inside the suit, of course) which can be hot and heavy, but we are confident that with the rapid improvements in electrical storage solutions, we will be able to resolve that. It has taken an enormous amount of investment, of course, and has dragged me from little known engineer from a little known start up to being at the centre of the most highly secretive department (at least that’s what I think it is) that this country has to offer us, with money and power that I really could not have dreamed of (but little known, still). Soon, I think, the technology will become public, once our esteemed military engine has leveraged it effectively; I would imagine that they would wish it to remain secret forever, but unhappily for them, that is an unrealistic ambition once industrialists and business leaders and politicians pick up the slightest scent, they will descend on it without mercy and it will be thrust in all its living breathing agonies into the public domain to be massaged and managed and manipulated until it eventually becomes a commodity and seeps its way through society and forever changes the game of hide and seek. And there you go; my unknowable legacy will be to destroy one of the most enduring children’s games. Bang bang. You’re dead.

Is Mark a Serial Killer?

I’m not kidding. This is a serious question. You may be wondering how I could ask if arguably my best friend of almost thirty years (thirty years, that’s right, do the maths, I know I don’t look it) could actually be a serial killer, I mean, what a question to ask. You’re then probably straight on to the oh hell, is he still out there, did you report him to the police, does he know and you’re thinking could Mark know that I (as in you) have heard this and know and so am I (you again) going to be his next victim, how could you (as in me, this time) put me into such a position, etcetera, etcetera. To which I say, don’t judge. I am merely posing the question that I started to ask myself because of the things that started to unfold at, or more precisely just after, his party. Of course, you could be Mark (although that I hope is extremely unlikely) in which case you would either be thinking why the hell does he not leave me alone, even now, even after all this. I don’t take this lightly, Mark, if this is indeed you. I don’t jump to conclusions for the sake of it, I am not an extrovert attention seeker, prone to making large, baseless statements in order to make myself seem more interesting, rather I am a man of science and I form my conclusions on evidence and judgement based on the balance of probability and my own experience. Even if that evidence starts to seem more and more unlikely.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Can I have a word?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not trying to hit on you

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why would you think that? I don’t even find you attractive. Besides, your wife is here.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ahem. My ex-wife.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So you say, but you don’t act like it. You were all over each other just now.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I raised my eyebrows)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You are spying on us now?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s not like you were trying to hide. You were in the middle of the room. I even saw you slip your hand under her dress.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So you were spying on us? Why would you look at something like that?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I wasn’t! I mean, I should be asking you, why would you do that in front of everyone?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I coughed)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Is this what you wanted to ask me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No. No. Listen. (She dropped her voice to a whisper, as if the previous exchange could have been shouted from the rooftops). I think Mark may be having an affair.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark? Why?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Keep your voice down!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I started whispering)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why would you think that?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Glances from some of the other guests as she guided me out of the room, holding my arm)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What’s going on, Louise?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Look. There’s something going on with Mark. I don’t know what it is but …

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Stop.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You’re about to start sounding like a soap opera and I won’t have that. Tell me what you’ve seen and I’ll listen, I may even give you an opinion.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Just tell me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He keeps a secret diary.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How do you know?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’ve seen him. Scribble in it, then hide it.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Have you looked at it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why not?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Because…it wouldn’t be right. He’s entitled to his private thoughts.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. And yet it is right to accuse him of having an affair?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s not just the diary.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What, then?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’ve seen him. He thinks I’m asleep, because I’ve been on those bloody pills for so long, I’ve been dead to the world. But I’ve been trying to get myself off them, it was meant to be a surprise to him, I thought I’d …

You can see where this is going. Louise had been on these pills for years, ever since I’d known her. Something about some childhood trauma that had sent her into a spiralling depression that she almost didn’t recover from, and then she met Mark, and then and then. She had to stay on heavy duty tranks, though even she wanted to be able to act like a normal human being and of course to sleep, and if you, like I, have experience of sleepless nights (and I don’t mean the lack of sleep that everyone complains about, I mean true sleeplessness, getting maybe an hour or two a night for weeks, months at a time, without a break, when even the simplest of human interactions become a herculean challenge and the lines at the edge of reality start to become blurred) and you multiply that tenfold then you still won’t really have any idea of what she was going through. She used to describe the world as if seeing it through a tainted rainbow, where everything was somehow disfigured and discoloured. Dark Alice, she used to call herself, and because I was too slow to get the reference she explained it to me – through a looking glass darkly, she said.

Ah. Now I understood. Her tranks didn’t make life quite normal again, but they made the darkness fade slightly and of course they helped her to sleep, although that was probably the wrong word for it now. It was a deep, dreamless, coma-like state whose blackness would have terrified anyone able to experience it, the black hole at the centre of the soul. And that was the battle she had been taking on, secretly, trying to, ever so slowly, wean herself off those destructive pieces of mind candy, and bring herself back, crutch free, to the world that the rest of us more or less inhabit (although perhaps she should have asked herself why). We do things in secret to relieve ourselves of the perceived pressure of success without necessarily considering the consequences, which were, in this case, the realisation that husband Mark, every second or third night, left the bed at about eleven thirty, dressed, left the house by foot wearing a long black trench-coat (that Louise hadn’t realised he owned), and returned at about four in the morning, to slip back into his pyjamas and back into bed, after having taken a long shower in the downstairs bathroom. Having, of course, taken advantage of her drugged state and still believing her mind was confined to that blackness; he probably didn’t even check, now, didn’t look for the fluttering of eyelids or the subtle shift in breathing patterns that would have suggested to him that she was present. The first time it happened, she hadn’t actually realised he had left the house, she’d assumed he had gone downstairs to read or watch television or drink whisky, and she had felt pity for his own drift towards insomnia; she had actually drifted off to sleep herself, without any help, that night, the first time in God knows how many years, the last thought as her mind drifting off that somehow it had transferred, floating across the night air and landing in his mind, her final emotion being guilt before the night took her.

She would have carried on thinking this, as she lay awake the second time, less able to find the doorway to sleep, when she heard a noise outside, and was afraid that the wild dogs had returned, those that she thought had been plaguing the neighbourhood. She flicked open the curtain slightly to see the shadowy figure stepping on the path towards the street. She was about to panic and rush downstairs to Mark, convinced that a stranger had been trying to break into their house, when a single beam of moonlight fell across the street, just as the intruder stepped into its path, and it became unmistakeably Mark. Head down, walking rapidly away, but him, without a doubt. Her reaction, at least the way she described it to me, was predictable. A gasp, a step backwards, a flop onto the bed, then a night of wakefulness fuelled by her imagination. Sleep was history, and now of course she was trapped in the nightmare of not being able return to her pills, afraid that the incident would repeat itself (which of course it did) and she would be unaware (she wasn’t).

And as she embraced her insomnia once again, with a different sense of dread, her days started the long slide back to the chaos of before, and she became terrified that Mark would notice, and question her, and then what was she to say, to this husband that kept secrets from her. He didn’t, of course, being caught in his own bubble of self-absorption. On the nights that he didn’t disappear he would sleep easily, snoring lightly, blissfully unaware of his wife’s slow slide back towards oblivion. Which led us to the party, to her approaching me, which I guess just showed how desperate she had become, her wariness of me almost matched by mine of her, after an unfortunate drunken tryst a long time ago, that neither of us can quite remember, of which we both fear the worst. Still, it has led to a certain confrontational closeness between us, and we have both shared our thoughts, hopes and fears, to an extent that neither Sylvia nor, I suspect Mark, have any understanding of. Now she asks my help, my confidante, and I am powerless. I asked her how long it had been going on for (for a few weeks, she wasn’t sure, time had lost its way a little), why she looked so awful (obvious answer) and whether she had talked to him about it (absolutely not). I asked her had she noticed any change in his behaviour (yes, hadn’t I been listening), and whether she had ever followed him. This last question caused her to take a deep breath and colour slightly, and then she embarked on this strange tale of the single time that she had attempted to do that.

She had been determined, that evening, she said; Mark had been out with some friends when she returned from work, and she had set about getting everything ready – clothes, head torch, a knife – putting it all into a small bag that she hid under her side of the bed. He hadn’t gone that night, and her nervous energy had been such that she had had to drink several whiskies to find an element of peace in the ever-descending spiral of her mind. The following night, though, it had happened. She had lain perfectly still as he slid from the bed (although given his lack of attention this was hardly necessary), she jumped into action as soon as she heard his light footsteps descend the stairs, hurriedly getting changed and sliding the knife into the left pocket of her slacks. Very quietly she had opened the door and tiptoed down the stairs, still unsure if he had left or not. It was normally a couple of minutes, no more, between him getting out of bed and leaving the house, and so she needed to hurry; on the other hand, what if she got downstairs and he was still there? A soft click answered her question, and she had hurried down, slipping running shoes on and stepping out of the house into the warm night.

As the door clicked shut behind her, she had realised with a shock that she hadn’t brought her house keys with her, and she had turned back desperately towards the house. From what I understood, from the disjointed way in which she told the story, this was the real start of her disorientation that night; she had decided to try and follow him in any case, stumbling down the path and into the road, narrowly avoiding a cyclist who swerved out of the way and swore at her, then looking both ways down the street and realising that Mark had disappeared. For reasons she didn’t clearly explain, instead of giving up, she had carried on blindly down the centre of the road, trusting her instinct rather than any rational plan to guide her, as the darkness of the night and the lateness of the hour engulfed her. If you know the area at all (and who knows whether you do or not, but I assume that there is a small chance) … If you know the area, then, you will know the dark, abandoned house at the bottom of the street; it was the one that Louise and Mark, in happier times, used to call the haunted house, and it was obvious why. Probably built three or four hundred years ago, in dark stone that was now cracked and crumbling, it had arched windows, turrets and towers; it had doors that creaked, breaking century old webs; it had an overgrown garden with broken storehouses; it had a huge, towering presence, which even seemed to cast a shadow in the darkness of night to create an absolute blackness. They had been walking past it one day with their niece and nephew (they had no children, if I haven’t already clarified that) and had teased these kids about it. Their nephew, being young and needing to prove himself, had marched up and lifted the ancient lion’s head door knocker, allowing it to fall back onto the door and send noise reverberating into the house. There was a sudden silence, even the birds seemed to stop singing, and then Mark was running up the wide driveway to the main entrance, picking up his nephew, slinging him over his shoulder and walking quickly back to the relative safety of the street. I had heard this story before, told jokingly over lunchtime drinks at their place. You could hear the slight anxiety in their voices, and I remember, as we drove back that afternoon, Sylvia and I stopped outside to examine the place, really for the first time. I mention it now because it was where Louise found herself, on her pathetically failed mission to follow her husband, somehow in front of the imposing mahogany front door, seeing it open, with a faint light coming from deep inside.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You didn’t actually go in there?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, of course I did. What do you take me for?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Not someone with any intelligence, that’s clear.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Darling (I hate it when she calls me that). I went after Mark. I ended up there, without knowing how. The door was open and there was a light on inside. After all that time! It was so clear that it was a sign.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You’ll be saying next that you believe Sylvia is really a vampire

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, darling, she has been looking exceptionally pale recently. And I love her teeth.

This was a tale that was never going to end well, although probably not in the way that you would expect. She entered the house (bravery or stupidity? She admits she doesn’t really know, the combination of lack of sleep and a heightened sense of awareness from too much caffeine, ingested too quickly, made her mind wander into alleyways that she didn’t know and didn’t understand, connections made and then lost at an alarming rate) and she followed the light through the dimly lit hallways and up the gothic stairs, to a slightly open door at the end of a dark corridor at the top of the house, where the shards of light beckoned her, where a faint hum soothed her cracked nerves, where there were other noises, too hard to understand. Perhaps you understand this, I’m not sure. I still don’t quite get how it fits in, or how she came across that place, and I suspect you do more than me, and given what happened and what I saw after that, it has to be relevant, doesn’t it. And also, please understand – I am writing here what she described to me, nothing more, and yes, it is possible that she imagined this, of course it is, although, I suspect that maybe it has more to do with her sleep deprived and drugged state than that.

When she walked through that door she found herself in a huge bedroom, one that seemed to stretch for miles, though this was probably a trick of the darkness. From the way she described it, it was a loft room, probably stretching across the entire area of the house, with sloping ceilings that faded into darkness in the corners. In the centre of the room was a young woman, sitting on a low stool, under a single bulb suspended from the ceiling, which cast a ghostly light onto her. Her head was hung and her long blond hair almost obscured her face, but Louise could see enough to see the deathly pale skin and eyes that seemed to be on fire. She glanced at Louise with a look that seemed to resemble surprise, before turning back to the extraordinary thing in that room. Because by her side, stood obediently as the woman had her hand on its neck, was a unicorn. Louise stood transfixed as its eyes landed on hers; like the woman’s they appeared to be on fire, but unlike hers they burned with a malign yellow glow as they locked onto Louise and its whole body stiffened. It dropped its head and rubbed its hooves on the wooden floor. Louise shrank back against the door, her breath caught as it held her in its sight, shaking its head and tensing its body, preparing to charge her but the woman was on her feet, whispering into its ear and stroking its mane, and the pressure eventually left it; but it remained focused on Louise with its dark and malevolent stare. The woman looked slyly at Louise and spoke softly. How did you find us, she asked. When Louise didn’t reply, she smiled. You don’t know who we are, do you. You don’t know what this place is, and there was a flash and a moment of intense pain (at least that’s what Louise told me, I suspect it was nothing serious) and Louise found herself back in her bedroom, the wind blowing hard against the glass and the smell of blood in the air.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. And you expect me to believe you’re not on drugs

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Darling, it’s true! (she held my arm)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Unicorns?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. A unicorn

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I thought they were supposed to be friendly creatures, anyway.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So did I, darling, but you know what, I checked. There’s a lot about them on the web if you search. Even sightings, you know.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Really?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Absolutely. I mean, granted, not many, and there are never any photos, but…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh, well now I really believe them.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You should! It’s true! I saw one with my own eyes. Surely you trust me, darling? (Our hands wandered dangerously close)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well… you did say the lack of sleep was making you…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. And that’s the other thing! Since that night, I can sleep! No pills, nothing. In fact, I have been having trouble staying awake to see what’s going on with Mark. That’s why…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… a unicorn? Have you gone back?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Back where?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. To the house? You know, in the daylight? To see?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No… you think we should?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Not we, you!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But darling… surely you wouldn’t expect me to go back there by myself? Surely you would help me (she put her hand over mine)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me? Why me? (I withdrew my hand suddenly) What about Mark? Why don’t you take him?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (She laughed). Oh, darling, what an idea! And how exactly would I explain to him that I was out in the middle of the night, checking up on him because I thought he was having an affair? Hmmm?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Exactly

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well… you could actually ask him

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ask him what, darling?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well… if he was having an affair?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Brilliant. Mark, are you having an affair. I can see it now. He’d tear me apart. He’d rip me to shreds. He’d…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You don’t think you’re being a touch over dramatic? I mean, this is Mark we’re talking about. I know him…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes! And you keep saying that you hate him. It’s for a reason, darling.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I never said I hate him!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (A soft smile). Darling, please.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well. It’s not that I hate him.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Honestly, darling, it’s fine. I won’t say anything. But I would love it if you came with me, just to have a look.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Look, why don’t we go over there now. We could slip out, we’ll be back in an hour…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Unless we’re speared by a unicorn…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well there is that, yes. But look, come with me. It’ll… (she started pulling at my shirt)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Don’t be ridiculous, Louise. It’s your party. You can hardly just leave with me. I mean, people will think…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ah, they’ll probably just think we are having sex somewhere secluded…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Exactly! I mean, Jesus, I’m a married man!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, that’s not entirely true darling, is it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, no, but…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hmmm (she studied me). Never mind. Look. Darling. This is why I need your help.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I gave a long sigh). Really? To hunt unicorns?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, no, we’re past that now. No, to find out if Mark really is having an affair.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You want me to ask him? (really not a good idea, I was thinking)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Gosh no! Please, please, don’t do that. No, I want you to follow him and find out where he goes.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me? But…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Think about it darling, you’d be perfect. I mean, he wouldn’t be looking out for you at all. And besides…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Besides what?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’d give you a chance to use that invisibility cloak thingy you’ve been talking about

Now. This was worrying. Why would she call it an invisibility cloak? How very Harry Potter. I would never stoop so low as to call it that, and that, my friend, is a microcosmic example of the difference between us. Her willingness to ascribe the most mundane words and, by extension, thought, or lack of it, to something so precise and devastatingly innovative. Before you say anything, I do recognise that I have talked about the convergence of technology and magic, and therefore why wouldn’t I be happy calling it an invisibility cloak. And to you I say this – Exactly. Nothing. I don’t have to justify myself. There was, of course, something else that was worrying about this – how did she know, although the answer was, I am afraid, pretty obvious, and was intrinsically linked to a litre of strong red wine and a bottle of tequila. Mea Culpa, I am afraid. And yet, it was actually not that bad an idea, when I thought about it. The development of the Visual Deflection Emulator (VDE – to give it its true name, one that recognises some, at least, of the scientific achievement that went into this) was, of course, subject to intense security protocols and I was bound by various legal documents that threatened me with, in no particular order, castration, incarceration and elimination. This of course only hastened my desire to put this to the test (apart from maybe the castration). After all, I was the only one who actually understood how the VDE functioned, and therefore indispensable, and so what threat was there really?

Just think about it though; what security should you use to protect the theft of something invisible? Really? I mean, these security guys are clever but they have absolutely no common sense. Jared Marks, Head of Security, perhaps you knew him. Nice guy, actually, but too much confidence in his own abilities. Thought he was being really clever by thinking “What’s the best way of stealing the VDE? Of course. Someone will wear it and walk out of there, but I’m going to be cleverer. I’m going to install thermal imaging alarms, so that someone will be caught. I’m going to install cameras that detect the slight ripples in the air that can be detected. And so on. And so on. Piling on the technologically driven security, innovation after innovation, until the place became so secure and so automated that no guards were necessary and that the chances of fooling the system were less than one in a billion. In fact, the system was set up in a way that anyone trying to wear the VDE and walk out would find themselves behind bars of diamond hardened titanium, in an ultra-secure facility right in the middle of the Ministry building. This had all been thoroughly tested, too, although initial results had meant a change of plan when the original equipment hadn’t quite worked. That original equipment was designed to immobilise the intruder by wrapping him or her up to the neck in a plastic coating that solidified and hardened within a second, effectively creating a mummy.

This was tested on a brave soul – Martin, I think his name was, one of the junior grunts that worked for Jared in Security. To be fair, initial results suggested that it worked very well. It stopped at the neck and therefore didn’t threaten to suffocate him, which had been the big worry, especially for Martin, judging by his expression when the test completed. All was well and Martin went home, given the rest of the day off as a reward, after having had the coating chiselled off. He didn’t return the next day, nor the next and then they went to check on him, which is when they realised that there had been some unfortunate side effects. Something to do with the constitution of plastic and contact with the skin, apparently. Went into his veins and reacted with the red blood cells, from what I understand. He woke up finding himself unable to move; plastic tentacles had crawled out of his veins and had wrapped themselves around his body, his bed, everywhere. It must have been fascinating to see, but unfortunately for Martin, probably extremely painful and definitely terminal. That security measure was quietly dropped, along with any mention of Martin ever having been on the payroll, or, if the rumours had any credence, having ever existed at all. Fortunately, he was a loner, had had no family; a quality that I think was top of the mandatory list of requirements when applying for a security guard role at our particular department in our particular agency, whose use of experimental techniques was core to their purpose and values.

I digress, I am afraid. What Jared hadn’t thought about, to my mind, was just activating the VDE, slipping it into my bag, and leaving. The best solutions are almost always the simplest (and also potentially a mark of genius). And what could go wrong? If I was caught, I’d spend a couple of hours behind bars, and then just say I was trying to test out the system. Seriously. It was fool proof. To such an extent, in fact, that I had spent many hours at night thinking it through, then through again, just to see if there was any possible way it could go wrong. And I was absolutely certain it couldn’t. And, of course, the only real question then was whether I was brave enough to try it out. It was this particular question that I was wrestling with when Louise made her proposal to me, and naturally it seemed like fate. What was a red-blooded male to do? Probably a poor choice of phrase, but I am sure you understand my meaning. Which led me, huffing and sighing, to say yes to Louise and put my plan in action, after telling her really really clearly that she wasn’t to tell anyone, anyone, about the VDE, otherwise it was all off, otherwise everything was all off, forever, if she understood me.

She smacked her lips and said I know, darling, don’t worry, you can trust me then walked back into the main room of her house, hips swaying. I caught a glimpse of her throwing her arms around Mark and planting a long, lingering kiss on his lips before I slipped out the back door and into their postage stamp of a garden. I lit a cigarette and took a long drag, watching the smoke drift up into the cloudless blue sky before I dropped the cigarette and stamped on it, crushing it into the ground, disgusted with myself for being so weak. Through the window into their living room I saw the last few remaining people there – Mark, preening himself in front of a mirror, running his hands through his thinning hair; Sylvia, stood behind him, watching him (I was sure) admiringly, Christ knew why; Jane and Austin (yes, I’m serious, they were a couple. Of all the people in all the world that you can choose from, why on earth would you choose someone with a name that will guarantee that even the most serious people will giggle at dinner parties. It’s not even like they were well suited; I mean, they were both tiresomely full of themselves and dull, but in incredibly different ways. No, I think they actually did this on purpose, to lift themselves up from the mundane where they doubtless belonged, and, with admirable presence of thought, decided that making themselves a literary laughing stock was a preferable route, one that guaranteed their admission to gatherings and parties that they wouldn’t have even known existed otherwise. Likewise, their hosts were willing to put up with their brand of tedium to be able to whisper to their more desirable guests things like – yes, that’s really them – yes, they’re really called that – yes – it’s Austin with an i, not an e, but it’s close enough – yes, they are incredibly boring aren’t they, but oh darling, how delightful).

I had the misfortune of sitting next to Jane for the short time we had to be seated at the table, where Mark and Louise, true to their bourgeois pretentions, had laid name plates (clearly printed in gothic style on extremely expensive card) forcing us into small social circles; my sitting next to Jane was doubtless payback for some forgotten sleight, such was Mark’s way. He was petty, held grudges and never, ever forgot; on the other hand, he had lots of interesting stories, was very generous and an unrivalled capacity for the consumption of alcohol. I was therefore willing to overlook his little taunts, threats and tantrums, and put up with Jane’s diatribe on the failings of EastEnders by burying my steak knife into my calf and twisting repeatedly until her words became a blurry background to the pain.) There was one other person there, a girl, or I should say a young woman, very still and quiet, yet striking in some unquantifiable way; she had jet black hair cut severely, a chiselled face and piercing black eyes that you couldn’t help looking away from. I had noticed that she had spent a long time, hours perhaps, discussing something in whispered tones with Mark, and I made a mental note to find out what. And maybe also find out a little more about her. I was a single man, after all. Sort of. And something about her intrigued me; it also gave me a strange, bewildering sense of déjà vu. But now was not the time for sexual daydreaming, now was the time for putting my plan into action, and with that thought I stepped away from the house and through the small passage to the front gate, easing myself out of it quietly so I could leave unnoticed. As I drove back towards my house, I passed the other house (you know which one) and glanced at its foreboding, beckoning shadow in the gathering dust, and wondered whether I would come to regret trading a unicorn’s horn for the threat of everlasting prison.

Do Unicorns Exist?

I do realise that I haven’t fully, or indeed at all, answered the last question, so please excuse this small diversion before I return to that subject.)

I did actually find myself googling unicorns, early the next morning, after waking up alone, except for my hangover, staring into the blueness of the cold sky. I vaguely realised that I had drunk way too much to drive home, and yet that is what I had done, safe in the knowledge that I had diplomatic protection, or something similar; another perk of the job, or, more specifically, working for the particular department that I did. I took the lift down to the underground garage and checked my car for bumps or scratches, just in case. I was almost completely sure that I hadn’t done anything totally stupid, but then almost isn’t always good enough, and the one non-negotiable of my elevated status was that I reported incidents that could require support, as they so euphemistically put it, before it reached them through some other channels, such as the police. It was therefore with some relief that I saw the car looked completely fine, and to reward myself, I went straight to the artisan coffee bar that was on the ground floor of my apartment block (complementary Columbian coffee, imported that day, and cake, freshly baked on the premises, for all residents, open 24/7, a small stack of tablets always available, deliveries at a small extra cost) and I sat browsing the latest news, whilst sipping on a flat white and taking small bites from a carrot cake, very moist. Just for fun, I entered ‘Do Unicorns Exist’ into Google; I have to admit, Louise was right, a lot of rumours, many sightings, strangely no photos (although in a few instances a photo had been posted but seemingly removed). There was one site, which took not a little finding, by the way, created by someone who seemed to call himself The Avengor (sic) – how distressing – who had tried to compile the rumours into something approaching coherence – that was his stated aim – though he (or she) clearly wasn’t practiced at this, and his approach went meandering off in a myriad of different directions, some very hard to follow. Just to give you a flavour of it, partly because it amused me and also because I am sure you want a full account of what went through my mind, here’s a little taste, although I think it’s ended up more in my words than his, though I have tried to remember it as closely as I can. Of course, it’s available on the web, if you can find it.

Unicorns are immortal. It’s really important that I state that up front, it’s the fundamental of their being, it’s what separates them from other animals and what has elevated them to the status of myth. Why? Because it changes everything. Everything we know, or believe we know about the earth and the universe, is based on our ability to fit all things into our defined framework of existence, which does not include immortality. The concept of birth, growth, ageing and death defines everything from the smallest insect to the largest star, so what would it mean to have something right in the middle of that that contradicted it all. In the early days – going back a few hundred years – it was, of course, different – our lives still revolved around the existence of God, and the presence of this creature did not challenge that reality, although I seriously doubt that the scholars of that time understood what they were dealing with. But as time moved on, and we developed mathematics into the language of the universe, and physics to define the laws of the universe, we started to believe that every question had an answer that would fit into those laws, and gradually they became our cornerstones and as a consequence made us small-minded, unable to accept anything we could not explain. Ironically, the more small-minded we became, the greater we assumed our intelligence, because we wrongly equated knowledge of something with knowledge of everything, and knowledge of everything with understanding of everything, and understanding of everything with belief in nothing. But had we paused for thought, had we looked at the evidence and realised what we were dealing with, then very possibly the unicorn would still be with us today, and the world would be a very different place. They were dying out anyway – unicorn flesh was a rare delicacy, served at the tables of kings, in the belief that eating it would give them favour in the eyes of their gods and enable them to destroy their enemies. This was ironic, as there was nothing special about unicorn flesh, in fact it was tough and bitter. (So I am told, although I have never, of course, tried it). The irony was that, once killed, the horn was discarded, although the horn is the one part of the unicorn that is truly special, indeed, if I dare say it, magical. It is its horn that gives the unicorn its power; without the horn, the unicorn will die, although those ancient hunters clearly didn’t know that, else they would have been revered in their lifetimes, if indeed they hadn’t discovered the secret to immortality, in which case they would have been with us today.

It was only much more recently that this was discovered, quite by accident, in a research facility near Granada in southern Spain. The team, through circumstances that need to remain confidential, had obtained a sample specimen – not from a living creature, but a horn that had been recently discovered, almost certainly one that had been discarded many centuries ago. It is thought now that none of these are left, although that’s almost impossible to verify. The research team determined that, when activated in the correct way, the horn was able to create immense energy, which could be harnessed in multiple situations and of course could potentially be a solution to the earth’s current energy crisis.

Fascinating though this is, it doesn’t resolve the question of the unicorn’s actual existence. Nor is there any way of verifying the Avengor’s claims; furthermore, his lack of ability to spell even his moniker leave a doubt as to his reliability. However. Why would Louise lie?

Invisible Me

I stole the suit. It was remarkably easy, although perhaps it is my genius. I didn’t go in at a special time, didn’t make any special preparations, didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Instead, I returned to the lab with it after a standard test and instead of putting back into its development chamber, I folded it up and slipped it into my briefcase. Then I sat down and worked at my computer for a few minutes, packed up and left at my usual time, about six thirty in the evening. I drove back to my house, parked outside and carried on my day as if nothing had happened. It was a Friday, and so the disappearance wasn’t discovered until Monday at about six in the morning, when Vince, a technician who appears to need next to no sleep, discovered something was amiss.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes? (this was me in a very grumpy voice, answering my phone)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Err… Mr Jones?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Err… sorry to disturb you

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What do you want – it’s … it’s six?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, I know, I’ve just got in to work

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, erm, this is when I normally start? It’s just, well, Mr Jones, I think I have bad news…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (silence on my end)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The… the invisibility cloak…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The what?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The invisibility cloak… erm, sorry, I didn’t mean that, I meant the Visual Deflection Emulator

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (silence)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Err… Mr Jones?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s not an invisibility cloak

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, I know that, sir, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to …

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How long have you worked here?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Err… about two years?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What was your name again?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Err… Vince, sir, Vincent. Vincent Markatovsky.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh. Vince. Yes, I remember you.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, sir…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain, please. We don’t stand on ceremony.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, Sylvain, sir, I mean, the thing is. The VDE, well, it’s gone.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (silence) Gone?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well. Yes. Gone.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Gone where?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, that’s just it, sir, I mean, Sylvain. I mean it’s disappeared. It’s not in its case.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How do you know?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How do you know it’s not in its case? How can you tell?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, erm, sir…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, don’t answer that, of course I know the answer, I was just kidding.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But why were you kidding? I mean, it’s missing! It’s a crisis!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ah, don’t worry, Vince. Remember all the security Jared put in. There’s no way it could go missing.

Poor Jared. He found himself looking for another job the following morning. I must admit I did secretly enjoy seeing his smug face crumple as he listened to X (that’s the head of our department, as he likes to be called. Seriously) chew him out over spending millions and millions on our security, and then allowing, it appears, someone to just walk out with it. I mean, you didn’t even have security cameras installed! Mind you, Jared’s reply – cameras are for novices at this game. Anyone can install a camera – was probably not thought through as much as it could have been; it soon became very clear that X did not think of high tech security as a game, and seemed to resent Jared’s insinuation that it was. Jared may be looking for a new job, but I think he’s also well aware that he will need to watch his back. Our department doesn’t like people to wander about into other jobs, especially not security people, when they have been privy to such sensitive information, and no number of official secrets acts will stop someone who is determined to find out what’s lurking inside your brain.

I think, to be honest, the best Jared could have hoped for was a lobotomy and a generous pension for his family. Perhaps you think I’m being cruel? You think I knew what would happen to Jared, and yet I still went ahead and stole the VDE. To you I say, he should have been doing his job properly. I mean, seriously, where does responsibility end? He knew what he was taking on when he joined for his mega salary. You should have seen the house he lived in; I did, when he invited me over for drinks one time. Not dinner with him and his family, just drinks, me and him, on the patio overlooking their vast lawn. Don’t get me wrong, I am well paid for what I do (though I should really be putting that in the past tense, shouldn’t I), but this was a different level entirely. I spent some of the evening trying to probe into why – as in, why was he richer than me – but with no joy. It was one of those typical mevenings (or man evenings, as Sylvia used to put it) – dicks out on the table, we may as well have had our bank statements spray painted on the sides of our Ferraris. I don’t own a Ferrari, never have done, but of course Jared did – two in fact, he told me, and I wondered if he had caught our CEO sleeping with the prime minister. (By our CEO, I mean X, to be clear). That wasn’t it, of course – no one would sleep with him, the fat, ugly bastard, but I sat there all night doing the sums and trying to figure it out and I really couldn’t. I mean, this guy was a security guard, basically. Jumped up, yes; in a serious position, yes; working for the government, yes – nevertheless, it made no sense, and I resolved there and then to ask for a very, very significant pay rise. Seeing your dick disappear into its own meagreness against this takes a big ego to overcome, and mine was clearly not up to the task. I know, it’s easy to judge me, of course, the relentless pursuit of material things and everything that goes with it, the subjugation of morality to wealth; but I will say to you again, why me? Why should I carry the responsibility? For centuries, our only goal has been to amass as much money as we possibly can, as a substitute for what? Who knows and who cares. Money is the only thing that gives us choices, and if Jared’s choice was to spend it on material things that he would never have a chance to use, then who was I to judge. I mean, really, who needs two Ferraris. Who needs a house that is so big you have probably never been in some rooms, and land so vast that you may have indigenous tribes living in some part of it and you would never realise, but to question that is to miss the point.

Now – to wonder what choices he made in order to get it, that is a good question. Because, of course, if Jared was able to make five, maybe ten times as much as me by protecting the thing that I spent hours, days, weeks, inventing, burning the oil of my mind, then who’s the more intelligent one? Yes, of course. And given everything, the fact that I am here now, and you are there now, well, who made the best choices? I digress. Again. Jared may have owned two Ferraris but that wasn’t going to stop them from putting a bullet in his back, and I was the one who had the VDE in a hidden cupboard in my apartment. Ah, you’re right I guess, it did make me feel good. Especially when they gave him one more chance – find out who did it and get it back within twenty-four hours – very Mission Impossible. Ha fucking ha. I’m not sure why they put the time limit on it; to be dramatic, I expect. Surely it would have been more important to retrieve it, even if it took longer. But no, twenty-four hours, that’s how much time our CEO (or X, or actually Andy Smith, which is his real name) gave Jared, and watched him sweat out that time as he built plan, then counter plan, then counter counter plan, as he roped in everyone to do everything to cover every conceivable angle about who could possibly have taken it.

We were all suspected, of course; he was very apologetic to me about having to search my apartment, and he did it with such reluctance that it was far easier than I expected to hide the thing. I could have saved myself thousands. They would never have found it, anyway; he assembled such a rag bag team of people to perform the search it was a wonder the found anything. Correct that. They didn’t find anything. I think the general consensus was that it was the Russians, and it was a small leap from there to the assumption that someone working in our department was a Russian spy, and it was a small leap from there to what became known as the Purges (very dramatic, of course, consistent with X); but then of course, I’m sure you will have heard about them. I wonder whether Jared ever felt guilty about that.

It wasn’t Beryl. It was never going to be Beryl, she was far too smart, though no one realised that; in fact, everyone knew it wasn’t Beryl because they thought she was far too stupid. They all knew it, didn’t they, but he had nothing else and so he had to lay the blame on someone, and who was easier than that. (And at this point, I would like to interject, for the record, that I do have a shred of decency. I was called into a meeting by our CEO, along with everyone else who was either important or had something to do with the VDE. I liked to think both applied to me, wrongly, I expect. X went around the table with the suggestion of Beryl, just to gauge the reaction, just in case, I guess, there was any pushback. Everyone just nodded – Beryl, well there’s a surprise, you never know with people, do you. Maybe you were there, too, who knows. The point being that I was the only one to say anything, to say it was ridiculous and didn’t we feel ashamed of ourselves. I’m still surprised I did it to be honest, and I think X was too – but I liked Beryl, she got on with things, she never made any trouble, and she always smiled at me. More than most.)

Jared made a mistake there, though, didn’t he – always be careful who you underestimate. Beryl the cleaner, easiest target in the world. Spoke with a slight accent, it was easy to make an inference there that she was somehow from the East, probably Iron Curtain (for those of us who remember such a thing), probably working for the Russians. She was big as well, and quiet, and so it was easy to make the assumption, wasn’t it, that because no one knew her, no one liked her. And then what happened to poor Beryl – suspended, convicted, sentenced, sent down, or at least that’s what we all thought at the time, wasn’t it. Turns out that Beryl did have some friends after all, friends who weren’t averse to staging a jail break, or, more accurately, breaking her out before she actually ended up in jail. And that left poor Jared a little stuck – on one side he had us, quite keen on ensuring his silence, and on the other side he had a vengeful cleaner called Beryl who, as it turned out, was pretty useful with a semi-automatic. The rumour goes that she tracked him down to a tenement in Buenos Aires, where he lived alone in a tiny flat with no running water. Give the man credit, he had provided for his family, had set them up in an, admittedly small, safe house, with an (admittedly small) monthly income and an (again small) car. The one flaw in this was that Jared’s interpretation of the needs of a safe house were in line with his concept of security – fabulous and yet fundamentally flawed. And thus, despite the clearly well intentioned plans that he had had to keep his family safe, tracking them down was not really a problem. Beryl and her friends were quick, and Jared’s wife was not very resilient, preferring, understandably, to keep her and her children’s bodies intact, in exchange for everything she knew about her soon to be ex-husband’s whereabouts.

Maybe I could mention here that if there is a moral to this small story, it’s that if you are in security, don’t have a family. Or if you do, keep your safe houses very safe, even from them. Jared’s main flaw was that he was a proud man (obvious of course as soon as you met him). He was prone, as I think I’ve mentioned, to showing off at every possible opportunity, and he allowed that to run to his family, boasting of his safe houses (or as he liked to refer to them, at least to his wife Ella, his sabbatical retreats) and thereby giving her enough information to point the vengeful Beryl in the correct, very specific direction. The biggest issue that they had had, Ella told me later, was getting the language right; Beryl, or more precisely her friend Carl, became very agitated when he thought Ella was taking the piss (excuse my French); meanwhile, Ella, who is herself somewhat of a force to be reckoned with, was also getting frustrated that these people didn’t seem to grasp what she was saying. It was quite simple. They wanted to know if he had any places he would go, so she described the five sabbatical retreats – Buenos Aires, Paris, Cape Town, Stockholm and Tokyo. Carl, visibly shaking, said he didn’t want to know how many f***ing holiday homes he had, they knew he was a rich f***er, until it eventually became clear that Ella had never visited them and that they appeared to be anything but holiday homes, at which point everything became much more cordial. Beryl and Carl stayed for a cup of coffee and then headed out to the airport.

They tossed a coin about where to go first, picked Stockholm, then decided against it as it would be too cold and Beryl needed a break, and so headed to Buenos Aires because they had never been, both liked steak and wanted to take advantage of the weather. That Jared was there was also a bonus, which they discovered on their third day there, after a suitable amount of time partying and taking in the sights. The small, dingy flat that had become his home was on the 32nd floor of a tower block in one of the city’s southern slums, overlooking miles and miles of built up area. Why he had chosen somewhere like that was anybody’s guess. To melt into the background of a large city by keeping as low a profile as possible makes sense only if you don’t tell everyone that’s what you’re going to do; as it happened, Jared would have been much better off with an ultra-modern apartment somewhere in the centre of town, four thousand square feet of luxury and an infinity pool – at least he would have enjoyed his final few weeks on Earth. As it was, he spent them in high rise squalor only to gain maybe a few extra days and the dubious pleasure of skydiving thirty-two floors with only his jacket as a parachute. Beryl and Carl did, in fairness, give him the opportunity to call Ella just before, which I think was quite big of them. Jared declined, I expect on the basis of not wanting his wife and kids’ final memory of him to be of a blubbering mess with brown trousers, rather than the overwhelmingly mixed, yet somewhat more positive picture that they had of him.

An interesting question, nonetheless, that troubled me more than the rest of the sorry, if somewhat predictable, saga, trying to picture myself and what I would do. I would like to think of myself standing with dignity on that tiny balcony, holding the phone to my ear as I tell Sylvia in a calm, pensive voice that I love her and would always love her (always in this case being the next thirty seconds of freefall), then handing the phone back to Beryl and stepping out into the warm air, rather than suffer the indignity of being thrown. The narrative in my head falls down somewhat when I think that, in reality, Sylvia would probably glance at her screen, see my name flash up and reject my call, crushing my final few seconds of rational thought in this world into a black hole of negativity. Still, I could hardly blame that on Beryl, or indeed Carl, who, contrary to appearances, were not a couple, just good friends with a strong business relationship and a shared love of adventure and violence. The rumour I heard was that Beryl defected to join some other outfit, although I don’t think it was government sponsored, not like ours; and that proved to be right, although she would have been better off staying there really, wouldn’t she. Between X and Jared and maybe even you, you got rid of pretty much everyone, except for the management. Except for me! Ha! Despite everything, I would have loved to see X’s face when he actually found out. I wonder what Jared would have thought. I can just imagine his face, thinking about that time he had me at his place. Just us, not wives, not kids. Just so he could show me how big his dick was. Well, I tell you what, Jared, if you can hear me now, if it’s not stuffed down your throat along with your balls, you should have spent less time measuring its size and more time doing your fucking job. Don’t you agree? Although, I have to admit, karma is a funny thing, isn’t it? If I hadn’t taken the VDE and hadn’t followed Mark, I wouldn’t have seen what I saw. And then of course, I wouldn’t have done what I did. And we wouldn’t be here now, would we.

But I did steal the suit, and when I thought it was safe I slipped into it and tried it out. I promised myself that I wouldn’t use it, except for when absolutely necessary, as there was no point in taking risks. I then quickly realised that there had been utterly no point in taking it if I wasn’t going to use it, so I scratched my first thought straight away, but I definitely promised myself that I wouldn’t take any stupid risks. Security at our department had been understandably tightened and there was a new guy in charge there. New woman, in fact. Jared had been replaced by Sally Evans, and first impressions, I have to say, were positive. She had none of his arrogance and his cult of Jared narcissism, she didn’t drive to work in a Ferrari, she didn’t have a dick bigger than Big Ben, or if she did she kept it well hidden. She was personable, matter of fact, knowledgeable and altogether scary. The first thing she did was dismantle Jared’s super-kit and replace it with a much simpler set up, one that included cameras, facial recognition and laser beams. Her testing regime was extraordinarily thorough, intense – and successful. No sudden deaths, no broken bones, not even any torn ligaments or lost fingers, just a classic demonstration of the effectiveness of the security measures. She also recruited her own team – she needed to, there was hardly anyone left – a mixture of computer geeks and old fashioned A team tough guys, that wandered through the offices and made you thankful they were on your side (except, in my case, of course, they weren’t, not strictly speaking). We did get the show back on the road, of course. We had to beg our lords and masters – the government, clearly, and ultimately the British taxpayer – for a few extra billion in funding – but we firmly set our sights on building a new device, developing and industrialising it, time suddenly being of the essence as we were convinced that the Russians, Chinese or Americans were now in the race and God knows what would happen if they all suddenly turned up with invisible armies (and invisible diplomats as well, in the Americans’ case). X knew that he would be the first against the wall, shot by his own government for creating such a mess; he could hardly take it out on Jared, could he, anymore, and X knew that he had been incredibly lucky to survive the first cock up, and he only did because so far there hadn’t been any consequences.

And I get it, God knows what would have happened to me if they had found out then it was me, so I knew I had to be careful, but then what red blooded male would be able to resist the urge to just put a few things to the test. And then of course there was the bizarre logic of the whole thing, which became very clear two bottles of wine. The government were determined to make X pay in the long term, that was clear to me, although I think he yet had to admit it to himself. Which meant, sans Jared, he would take it out on everyone else before meeting his maker, which very much meant me. For our loyalty to our country and our team only stretches as far as our own sense of safety, of course. That’s if they didn’t work out who stole it. If they did, well clearly that meant me as well. I was screwed either way, which rather put short term risk taking into perspective. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t do anything too untoward, but I did become acutely aware of the possibilities that this held. I should explain a couple of other things about the VDE. Firstly, we realised that its use in espionage would be severely limited if metal detectors were able to pick it up, and so we built into it the ability to go through these undetected. It’s quite easy, to be honest. And secondly, we also realised that there may be a need to procure and store goods, such as documents – imagine if a camera caught a top-secret document walking by itself through an office! We therefore built in a large pocket at the front, a little like a baby carrier. Of course, the VDE itself had built in cameras and all that jazz, but sometimes you need the real thing. In any case, useful as those may be on ultra-secret spying missions, my first impulse when this was in my possession was not to break into the Russian embassy, or to board a plane secretly, or to see what actually happens in a cabinet meeting, or to watch private people do private things, or all manner of other potential things that may have been more creative or more interesting.

No, the first thing that I did was to walk into a technology store and walk out again with over £5000 worth of the latest in mobile communications, without paying for it, without being noticed and without setting off any alarms. Yes, my imagination ran no further than the ability to be a thief. I’m not proud of it, but there you have it, you can’t deny who you are. I used to think of myself as someone who was inventive, creative, even, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve found the need or desire to express myself has diminished, I’m quite satisfied with an awful lot of money, a luxury car and, until recently at least, the love of a good woman. Ah, yes, Sylvia. People used to laugh – Sylvain and Sylvia, why would you do that, don’t you know it would never work, but I of course wouldn’t listen so such banalities and we both ran headlong into it. I’m no poet, but when we had enough time to come up for breath, Sylvia used to say we are just two sparks of light in a dark sky, trying to break through. I never really understood what she meant, I always thought of myself as a fleck of grey. Sylvia, however, thought she saw something in me that was never really there, and she pursued it and pursued it until we were both exhausted, until we ran out of road – then she would look into my dull eyes and, although she didn’t say it, I could see the disappointment reflected back to me. Is that all there is, she wanted to say, I think, is that really all of you. I sometimes thought she would have even preferred me to be someone like Jared. Flamboyant, ostentatious, vain and presumptuous but at least there was something there behind the façade, some passion or desire, that could change and become something else. Behind my grey eyes there was just a dull void.

I think I’ve changed, though, albeit only slightly, but the events of the last few weeks have forced me to realise that sometimes you need to take sides, and that there are things that it’s possible to believe in. For Sylvia, however, even if she were still with us, even if she were to have noticed, it would have just been a case of too little, too late. I do think she still loved me, actually maybe she still does, or at least she would if she was able and I knew where she was. A vain hope, I’m sure you agree, but there has been enough strangeness here to give me hope, wouldn’t you say? Even then, however, even if everything else wasn’t true, she would probably think I’m dead, lying in a ditch or in an unmarked grave, with my fingerprints and teeth removed so that there’s no way of identifying me.

I don’t blame them if that’s what they really want to do, if that’s where I’m headed. I would do the same thing, we all have to live our lives as effectively as we can, and who can blame people for wanting what’s after all just a little bit of security and safety. Oh, and by the way, the sex with Sylvia was still awesome, not that it’s your business, but people always ask, why are you still so close to her, why are you all over each other, and the reason is that we both enjoy it and we’re both mature enough to admit that. Sylvia, I do miss you, and I am determined, if I ever get myself out of this mess, to find you again, wherever you are, I’m sure you are somewhere. I will show you that I’ve changed and that I can be someone different, I can fill that void with something approaching light and then maybe we’ll sail off and find that island we talked about and have the most beautiful children. Ha! But look at me, what am I doing. I know, and you certainly know, that’s completely impossible.

Sylvia came round that afternoon, funnily enough, to find me sitting in my living room surrounded by high end technology. All she did was raise an eyebrow but was enough to tell me that she’d worked it out. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t have told her about the VDE, so sue me. We had still been married at the time, when we first kicked off the project, I thought it may capture her imagination and I had wanted to brag about my new-found importance. Besides, how else to explain the sudden increase in my salary? That afternoon, in any case, she said I should take the stuff back. What did I expect to happen, she asked? No clues on the CCTV, no alarms, nothing to suggest they had been stolen, it could only have been an inside job, management would conclude. Everyone under suspicion, innocent people dismissed, with a black mark on their CV and unlikely therefore to ever find meaningful work again. I did try to point out that I wouldn’t classify working as a sales rep for a large American technology firm as meaningful, but she told me I was missing the point, as always; who was I to judge others, and at least they had something they were passionate about, I’m not sure she meant it as a dig about me but I took it as such. But what could I do? Stealing things is one thing but returning them? When I thought about the risk that I had taken, when I thought about what had happened to Jared, when I thought about what would happen to me, it made no sense at all and it was absolutely not going to happen. I mean, maybe if she had said put it back and I will fall back into your arms with unwavering love, well then, maybe I would have considered it. As it was, I preferred to think of it as a successful dry run of my spying mission for Louise, and then I was hardly going to admit that to Sylvia, was I?

The last thing that Sylvia said to me that afternoon was God, Sylvain, you’re such an idiot, which of course is completely true, though I would have preferred something else; even something like God, Sylvain, you’re such an idiot but I do still love you would have been way preferable to the look of disdain that still sits in my mind; it wasn’t even said in a sweet, lovable rogue kind of way, it was said in a throwaway, off-hand way, a tiny example of everything that was wrong with our relationship. And in a truly mature response, I drank half a bottle of whisky and decided to follow Mark that very night as if that would give me some kind of redemption.

The VDE was a complex device and required care when being used. Just to initiate it needed precision; the batteries were thinner than a silk scarf (as our CEO used to say) and jerking them around when you had had a few drinks was not a sensible plan. I had used them and charged them numerous times, so I knew what I was doing – but it is very hard to move things precisely and minutely when your hands are shaking, and even harder when you’re not aware that your hands are shaking. I’m still not entirely sure what I did that evening, or how I did it, but at 10:31pm, wearing what I imagined to be a fully functioning VDE, I stepped out of my house and into the dark street. Forgetting to wait for Louise’s signal that Mark had actually left the house being my second mistake, albeit in itself not a catastrophic one. You’re probably one of those people who say that there’s no such thing as coincidence, you’re doubtless completely rationally minded. I hasten to say that I am rationally minded, but I do believe in coincidence – I’ve seen it too many times. I just stumbled out to follow Mark because it hadn’t occurred to me not to, and I walked unsteadily until I got to their house, and stood, waiting, on the opposite side of the street. Let it be known that I can take my drink, but half a bottle of whisky is enough to affect any man who still has a functioning liver and isn’t an alcoholic, and in some corner of my mind I registered that the street shouldn’t have been swaying half as much as it was, if it should have been swaying at all. I was lucky, actually, that it was a long time until the door opened and Mark stepped out into the night, and the exercise and cold night air had brought me back to a manageable level of sobriety; nonetheless, I felt a shiver of anticipation as I braced myself to follow him and discover what dark deeds he committed under cover of night, whilst safe in the assumed knowledge that his wife lay comatose under the influence of extreme drugs.

He stepped out onto the street and scanned it up and down. I had no need to hide, being protected by the VDE and so I watched him intently. Did I mention (perhaps not) that we had also ingeniously built in night vision glasses into the VDE’s framework, which automatically detected the amount of light in the air and adjusted the vision automatically, giving me a perfect view of Mark, albeit in that greenish hue that is almost impossible to avoid, and that turned his dark, Mediterranean features into a ghostly shadow. He stared in my direction, and I froze instinctively, then his brow furrowed, he looked inquisitive and then he turned away. Impossible that he could have seen anything, I thought, as I followed him, a good thirty feet behind, because one thing the VDE couldn’t do quite as well as we hoped – yet – was muffle any noise, and the street was quiet at that time of the night.

A line of text appeared in front of me. Message from Louise –

He’s just left. Sorry to let you know late but if you hurry you could just catch him. Let me know. Lou xx

My heart jumped a little at those two little crosses at the end of the sentence; was she coming on to me? How should I respond? She was lovely, in a way, Lou. Before anything else, I have to say, first, I know that I pushed her away a number of times, so why am I raising this now. I am also conscious of everything that I said about Sylvia, and that I probably appear as a typically shallow man, unable to have an emotionally mature thought for more than 30 seconds. However, I would say in my defence that firstly, my relationship with Louise was complicated, as I have clearly explained earlier, and secondly, my relationship with Sylvia was complicated, as I have clearly explained earlier. There. Let’s move on. I got the text from Louise, a little late, and replied that I was already on my way (or words to that effect). The in-built screen technology of the VDE is one of its simplest, yet most awesome features (and I do not use that word lightly), with its thought recognition communication that enables you to send text messages by thinking the words you want to say.

Admittedly, this still has a little way to go, both from a technology and a thinking point of view. You need to be very focused. Trying to reply to a text when you have had a lot to drink and when you are confused about exactly how to reply can, in some cases, cause certain issues, and whilst I’m still not one hundred percent aware of the exact words of my reply to Louise, I don’t think she appreciated everything that I wrote. Thought recognition, whilst we’re on the subject, is another of those top-secret projects that are being pursued currently. There is, apparently, a part of the brain that determines the right answer up to 99% faster than is possible when you actually consciously think about it. The logic is processed, the maths is done, the pros and cons are weighed up, and the solution is presented there, on a silver platter, as perfect a solution as possible, into the conscious mind. What happens then is that all of the crap that swills around most of our minds for most of the day starts to get involved, and lots and lots of tedious, irrelevant details, start to get in the way – what if this happens, what if that happens, what if the world ends, what if it rains tomorrow, what if I get wet – and the perfect, blissful answer gets lost in the falling debris and takes far, far longer to surface to the beautiful earth, or, more likely, is buried under a cloud of shite – to speak utterly plainly.

I know this because it was explained to me by Carl Alfred Thomasson, an extremely clever man and without any doubt the most brilliant man that I know. He knows because he devoted over twenty-five years of his life to researching this subject, after having joined MSI as fresh faced graduate from Cambridge, Harvard and MIT. I wonder whether you know what MSI is, I wonder whether you may actually work for them (I can’t really say us anymore), but in case you don’t, MSI is the Ministry for Secret Information, and I don’t really need to say much more about it, do I. Externally it is known as the Ministry for Rural Affairs – are you raising your eyebrows now – which of course is a Ministry so lacking in anything strategic, disruptive, technologically advanced or in any way at all interesting, that it provided a perfect hiding place for our small band of heroes, to which, at least until recently, I could consider myself a member.

Carl was appointed to lead Project Hal (I shouldn’t need to explain the reasoning) which devoted itself to studying the brainwaves of a single person over the course of an undefined number of years (however long it took, basically), during which time an enormous amount of data was collected, processed and studied, which led, eventually, to an in-depth understanding of the way that the brain processes information and develops thought. I need hardly say that this is an insanely complex area, and it took only the ability of someone like Carl, and of course his intense devotion and focus, to enable anything at all to be achieved, let alone the type of breakthroughs that his team was able to make.

Quite apart from the thought recognition and anticipation project that Carl led, the study led directly to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, that are of course all the rage at the moment and will probably lead to the destruction of all human life in a manner not unlike that described in the Terminator films. I did mention this to Carl once, as we relaxed over a beer in the MSI’s social club (I know; how quaint) and predictably, I guess, he gave me a look of intense disdain. He had not taken me for some liberal fascist (his words) that stood in the way of progress, and started on a rant so deep and detailed that I had to stop him by assuring him that I did not say this in a negative way, I was merely expounding a theory that mankind’s almost universal destruction may pave the way for science to reclaim its rightful place at the head of the world due to its unique ability to predict and prepare for all consequences.

So, you envision a future utopian race of scientists? he mused.

Well, and mad killer robots, I added, but he didn’t seem to appreciate the reference. Quite apart from his intellect, Carl also possessed an unwavering belief in the importance of his work, and an understanding of the necessary sacrifices that needed to be made. And I’m not talking about family (there was none), social life (again, none, apart from the occasional beer at the social club and an occasionally concerning whisky habit), hobbies and interests (what else was there except for science); no, all those, of course, go without saying. I am talking about true, unwavering dedication. One of the things you have to remember is that Carl, like all those like him, not only are brilliant, but they absolutely know they’re brilliant and also know, with a clarity that the rest of us can only admire, understand that this elevates them to a position of demi-god, and grants them an ability to make decisions that relate to a different legal and moral code than any that we mortals respect. Carl was even on the edge of that plain; most men of his stature grow into it, recognising their own brilliance after years of hard toil and sweat and, even dare whisper it, after having experienced failure.

Carl had walked into the MSI offices on his first day with an aura of divinity around him and with an absolute sense of entitlement and belonging. He trod so lightly that his feet barely touched the floor, and seemed not to notice the astonished glances of everyone around him. A week into his employment, (such an inappropriate word) he had his first meeting with the Director in Charge, a meeting that, as Carl tells it, resulted in the Director leaving the office sweating, flustered, wringing his hands, and tendering his resignation the following day. This was accepted by other, more enlightened mega beings and demi-gods, and the Director left immediately to join a commune in Goa, although I have serious doubts as to his long-term survival.

Carl laughed as he told me this story; his request had simply been necessary, he stated. In order to successfully complete his work, he needed to have a single subject who could be studied in a controlled environment over a long period of time. The reason so many similar projects had failed was obvious, he had said; there were too many uncontrollable variables, there were too many subjects, the timeframe was too short. Simply put, he said, he needed total control of a normally functioning human being for, potentially, a number of years. He also said that he recognised that it would be challenging to find someone to volunteer for this, and therefore the most efficient solution was kidnap.

This, he explained, with a tone of incredulity, was what that moron of a Director in Charge objected to. Fortunately, there were more visionary people in charge at the MSI, otherwise he would have walked out there and then and found a team that would take him seriously. The rest, of course, is history, and Carl went on to make one of the most sophisticated weapons of war ever created and least known – the thought engine, which drove such a fast and efficient response to any threat to give an enormous strategic advantage. And the price? Just one more unsolved disappearance, of someone that no one would really miss anyway. Well, granted, that wasn’t entirely, or at all, true; in order to ensure the best results, a suitable subject was needed, one with a high intellect and a functioning level of emotional maturity.

Carl insisted on picking the person himself, and the fact that he chose a PhD student from a very famous university can maybe give you some idea about the level of emotional intelligence that he operated at; nevertheless, the experiment was a success, so really, who am I to judge. I doubt you’re a bleeding-heart liberal, else you wouldn’t be sitting here, yet I’m sure you feel some level of discomfort around the ethics of this, as, I have to admit, did I. Carl explained all of this to me late at night, in the bar of our social club, after too much Balvenie 50-year-old, which is when I got most of my information out of him. He wagged his finger at me and accused me of mental immaturity (I have noticed, actually, a tendency amongst the good and the brave to accuse people who don’t agree with them of being immature) but his reasoning was interesting.

He asked me to picture Gavin Stanford (the name of this sorry student). He asked me to think about him; hand-picked to join the most exclusive research team in the world. He told me about the interview (yes, it’s true, Carl actually interviewed a number of people for the honour of being kidnapped and having their lives destroyed) and asked me to think about one particular question that he asked everyone who applied. How far would you be willing to go for your research? If you had the chance of making a real, material difference, a leap in scientific discovery that would have an impact on the world, what would you do? Would you be willing to kill? Would you be willing to die? The interviewees, I’m sure, thought of this as nothing more than a clever test of their commitment and of their speed of thought, not understanding the sub-Faustian pact that they were entering into. Carl, on the other hand, took it deadly seriously, and I really think he believed it, as he gesticulated to me unsteadily, talking loud enough to turn the heads of the few other people sad enough to be in that establishment.

But he was willing to die, he said, he was willing to put his life on the line. He was willing to die, Carl sneered, and I gave him his life back. The fact that Gavin Stanford spent years a prisoner, unable to leave, being subjected to strange, intrusive experiments, having to lie to his family and tell them he never wanted to see them again, having to remain celibate, having to cultivate friendships with the mice and the dogs, having to watch the real world pass as if in the haze of a dream, and eventually being admitted into a sanitorium when his usefulness was deemed over; all of this personal sacrifice didn’t touch the lines of Carl’s face. With genius comes sacrifice, he would say. With genius comes obsession, I think, and genius he clearly was.

Schrodinger’s cat

But before you get the wrong impression of Carl, before you think he was just a geek with no concept of humanity and no ability to relate to normal people, people like you and me, just bear with me. You’ve heard, no doubt, of Schrodinger’s cat, the famous experiment of the cat that is both alive and dead at the same time. You have, of course. I have to honestly admit that it had always escaped me. This cat is seen by many as the entrance to quantum physics – which, by the way, is the only part of this revered discipline that I find in any way interesting – and so it pained me that I didn’t get it. The concept that, just because we don’t look inside the box, the cat can be alive and dead. Surely, I thought, the only thing that changes is that we don’t know whether the cat’s alive or dead; it must be one thing or the other, the fact that we don’t know doesn’t change that.

I tried to explain this, drunkenly, to Carl; when I saw the expression on his face I realised that I had made a grave error, his look of disappointment was almost physical. But then he did a strange thing. He clapped me on the back.

Look, Sylvain, he said, you’re not thinking about this in the right way, you need to change your perspective. What our friend Schrodinger teaches us is that the fact that we don’t know is critical. His cat may be alive or dead, but until we observe it, the decision doesn’t have to be made, and therefore it is our observation that triggers the decision.

And it’s as simple as that. The question that remains – whose decision – is the one that led directly to Carl’s next creation, the Bridge, as it was affectionately known, to Carl, at least. Gavin Stanford, coincidentally, took a great interest in quantum physics during the latter years of his confinement. Carl had, wisely, recognised that a key component of the success of his experiment would depend on the ability to relate the subject’s thought processes to a more generic form, and that pending insanity may somewhat skew the results. His attempts to create as normal a life as possible weren’t overly successful, but he did provide Gavin with virtually unlimited reading material, and consequently Gavin gained a deep knowledge of quantum physics – as much as was available at the time – which he would discuss with Carl deep into the night, expounding and destroying theories.

I actually have the impression that Carl came to see himself as a surrogate father to the somewhat orphaned Gavin, despite the circumstances and the age difference of a mere few years; I do even think that the relationship may have become more complicated than that, if you follow my meaning, but I was scared of pushing too far. Gavin’s obsession was around the interconnectivity of the universe, or, more specifically, the relativity of time, space and thought. I think he believed that there was a way to access an alternate reality and thus escape, and who knows, maybe to an extent he succeeded, given some of the more wayward outcomes of Carl’s thought experiments and, more directly, his Bridge project, although of course I wasn’t to understand that then.

Gavin’s father, Mr Martin Stanford, came in one day, old and shrivelled, his white hair visibly falling out of his head as he walked. He was hunched over as if he’d lost the ability to look at life without crumpling, his face was constantly red and he stuttered and stammered like an old man. He was maybe in his fifties, and although this was a little while ago now, it was clear that his son’s death had taken a huge toll on him. Even Carl, I think, recognised that, as he told his story, although his primary focus was on the strange story that his father told as he tried to stand, tried to demand to see his son. But your son’s not here, Carl had said, he hasn’t worked here for over two years. I’m sorry about what happened between you, but I’m afraid that I can’t help you.

We were always so close, his father had talked in a cracked voice, broken like the rest of him. It made no sense when he called me. He told me it was you. (Carl had told me that this once proud man had tried to stare him down, using the last vestiges of pride and energy that were curled up behind his black thoughts. What must it do to a parent to have your child banish you.) Did Mr Stanford know this as he held out for a lifeline, when he talked about the constant dreams that he’d been having, his son crying out to him for help, when he woke up, drenched in sweat, his wife, initially tolerant, giving up eventually and pushing him into the spare room. That cruel or merciful act seemed to trigger something though; it was almost as if it created space for him, and when he woke up he could see Gavin there, as if the dream had been able to spill out into reality, maybe just for a few seconds, maybe longer. Carl’s ears had pricked up at this, and he had pushed the old man for more details. What did he say? Did he give you any details as to where he was? Did he say how he got there? How long do you think he remained there? Were you able to touch him at all, did he ever seem more than just a ghost? And then…. Did you ever try and cross over?

What do you mean? asked Mr Stanford, cross over where? and Carl had wisely backed off. Martin Stanford mistook Carl’s questions as an attempt to help him, and left grateful, only to be struck and killed by a Number 43 bus on his way out. They never told Gavin, but he became increasingly sullen after that, and I think they had started relying on drugs to help.

I digress again, my apologies. Carl was a useful man to know and he was happy to share some of the experimental outtakes of his research with my team, hence the thought recognition built into the VDE and hence Louise and I…. well, I think that may remain between us. Though Carl, of course, is as guilty as anyone as far as this are concerned. He may argue, if he had the guts to come and see me, that he can’t be held accountable for other people’s actions, but he knew what he was doing, and he can’t dissociate himself from the moral implications of science. There was one thing that Louise was right about, without doubt, though. Mark was up to something. I struggled to keep up with him as we walked quickly, purposefully, through the leafy back streets of the suburbia we inhabited, in towards the centre of town and its arch, demonic pretensions. He kept glancing back, as if he realised he was being followed, and darting in and out of the shadows that seemed to get darker the closer we got to the centre. The traffic lights were all red and stayed that way, the streets were almost deserted, there were no cars and just a few stray wandering souls that sometimes sidled up to Mark but were brushed away. I was careful to avoid getting close to them for fear of contact, as I continued to follow Mark from what seemed to be a safe distance, my mind clearing quickly in the cold night air. He walked through the quiet High Street and turned off just before the end, past some closed shop fronts and to the Inn Street Lodge, an old, redbrick building that I had been in a few times, because they served good beer and had a pool table.

I would have assumed that it was closed at that time, but he got in easily enough, slipping through the door. I walked quietly up to it and looked through the glass panels, seeing Mark talking to a young girl in the reception area. As I looked through, she glanced suddenly in my direction and I gasped before realising that I was protected. The girl frowned for some reason and then turned back to Mark, smiling as she pointed somewhere, and he walked off in that direction. She looked back up, back at me, and it truly felt like she was staring at me for just a split second, before her gaze went back to wherever Mark had disappeared to. I stood outside staring for a while, the cold seeping through me as I wondered what to do next. I looked at her – young, good looking, short jet black hair, but so tired as she waited, anxiety painted on her face as if she were trying to come to a decision about something – something to do with Mark, no doubt, trying, I guessed, to decide whether to follow him or not. Suddenly she seemed to have made a decision and she turned swiftly, walking away quickly in the same direction that Mark had gone, and the reception was empty. Tentatively I pushed at the door, expecting it to be closed. It wasn’t, of course, and I found myself in the deserted lobby of the hotel, a corridor leading off from one side with a sign saying “Rooms 1-21”, and on the other side, double doors taking me towards the bar.

I couldn’t help myself, and it was empty anyway, (a good thing really) although it did occur to me that there may be a lucrative side-line in Hotel ghost mythology that was waiting to be exploited. I imagine you’re thinking how pathetic, but think about it; people have made millions from being ghost hunters, ghost snatchers, ghost killers, or even just from running ghost tours. I saw a program on it once, it was honestly fascinating; it was a hotel in the States where the owners had dialled up some dodgy myth from the past, set up a couple of screens and a smoke machine, and their turnover went up tenfold. Yes, I know, that’s not the point, right, how shallow could I be, possibly the greatest invention that mankind has known (possibly, I said, I know there’s competition) and all I can think of is ghost tours. Well, the greatest ideas come from the humblest of beginnings and it did set me thinking that the one absolute pre-requisite for an VDE to be truly effective is secrecy. If it becomes known, and commercialised, and everyone knows you can buy an invisibility cloak (yes, I know it’s not one, I’m just using the word to make a point) from the local hardware shop, then whoops, who’s going to believe in ghosts anymore? And if that applies to ghosts then of course it also applies to all the top secret military plans that are funding this. And then if that’s the case, then where’s my pay off? Where’s my fame and money and rock star lifestyle, why, for Goodness sake, am I doing this? What use is The Good of Mankind if it doesn’t benefit me personally? What if there’s no one adding up all the figures, then what then? A small plaque and a lonely grave is one hell of a payoff. So why not Ghost Tours, there have been worse ideas. That, I’m afraid, is what I started thinking as I stood in the empty bar, eyeing the taps and the bottles and, without too much hesitation, and after one hundred percent checking that there was no one around, helping myself to a large glass of Chivas. I sat at one of the sofas at the back, far enough from any of the doors to be able to throw the glass under the table or behind the curtains or somewhere quickly just to avoid suspicion. And this, by the way, is when I realised it’s not a good idea to hook yourself up to such sensitive equipment when you’ve had too much to drink. Granted, I was drinking again now, but this was different – it was a post-drunk-then-sobered-up-quickly-in-the-cold-night-air-then-just-taking-the-edge-off-a-little-bit kind of drink, which meant that it didn’t really count, and it certainly didn’t stop me from looking in the full-length mirror and, well, just noticing something. Just a kind of flicker in the place I was sitting. Where there should have been nothing, suddenly there was something, and suddenly it disappeared again. You know what I thought. In one word. Fuck. I didn’t hook it up properly when I left.

Fuck. How could I have been so stupid. Jesus, what if Mark saw me. I gulped the rest of the whisky down to help me concentrate, and poured myself another large glass, this one to help steady my nerves. Then I sat down again and concentrated on the mirror. It was roughly every thirty seconds, nothing, nothing, nothing, a flicker and I was visible, nothing again. But the flicker was so quick, I was sure, absolutely certain, in fact, that the tiny glimpse of me was not recognisable; it was just a flicker in the air and then gone. And after another couple of glasses of Chivas, I was positive that I was right. Not good, though, by no means great or something to be proud of, and we would have to sort the design out, although maybe, I have to admit, I thought, just maybe in the ghost business it may be quite good, a freaky glimpse of the beyond. Maybe I could adjust the software to allow a flicker on and off, it couldn’t be that hard, I would talk to Benny and ask him to see what he could do. I’d think up some excuse, like prototype testing, for the rationale for it. Old Benny wouldn’t mind, he wouldn’t even think to ask, probably, he’d just see it as a challenge. We picked him up from geek school, one of those kids who spend twenty-three hours a day at his computer, hacking into the White House, probably, or building a connectivity route to Mars or whatever these kids do these days. I imagine we probably rescued him from a life sentence in Alcatraz, and he wasn’t interested in cash, either. We gave him a room with a two hundred and fifty six inch flat screen taking up one of the walls, his choice of any films, games, whatever he wanted, a connection to a twenty-four-seven fast food delivery service (anything he wanted) and promised not to try and persuade him to do any exercise, eat healthily, or indeed even wash, and he was happy.

His parents didn’t mind, I think. We had tentatively approached them and had an awkward conversation until we understood that they didn’t actually realised that he was still living in their house; they thought he had moved out two years ago, and had put the high level of consumption of chocolate down to very fat mice, and the disappearing funds from their bank accounts down to internet fraud on a grand scale carried out by their Romanian cleaner, which I have to say seemed a little racist to me, but then your expectations aren’t that high of a family who lose track of their son when he moves into the basement.

Benny didn’t seem to mind, anyway, he was glad to get out of the basement and have a proper room with proper electricity and running water, and he loved the projects that we gave him, as long as he wasn’t in the middle of an epic battle on World of Mines, or whatever the latest craze was. The biggest challenge with talking to Benny was staying in his room for long enough to a – grab his attention, and b – stand the smell. It had become quite bad, but we had ignored it because he didn’t mind and we just wanted to keep him happy, until it started seeping out and being noticed outside his room, and then outside the department. It came to a head when X, our CEO (as you know, as I’ve mentioned), was stopped on the steps outside our grand building by some dim-witted politician who thought himself a bit of a comedian. He commented on the smell that seemed to be emanating from our building, and quipped that we were probably taking the essence of the Ministry for Rural Affairs slightly too far.

It was going to be quite tricky, Benny was a little touchy when it came to discussing things like hygiene (or most things apart from programming) but something had to be done and therefore diplomacy was called for. For some bizarre reason, it was decided that I would be the best person to tackle this (which said more about the sort of people we employed than my own diplomatic skills) and therefore I found myself, not without trepidation, knocking on the door of his boy cave and waiting for permission to enter. There was a little huffing (use your imagination) and then a Wait a minute, followed by a gruff Hello. I tentatively turned the door handle, wiped my now sticky hand on my expensive trousers and walked into the room. It smelt like any teenager’s bedroom, only a thousand times worse, one that never had had a cross mother or father fling open the window in frustration, one that hadn’t been cleaned for years (probably true), one that had absorbed the putrid flatulence of junk food heaven without remorse (also true) and the hormonal extracts of a growing boy (again true). I caught my breath as Benny glanced at me and offered a small smile. He had always liked me, I thought, we had always got along. I had been responsible for his induction, such as it was, after he had been extracted from the parental home and set up with us, and we had talked about video games, consumed light beer and discussed the perils of the internet (none, in his opinion) and its virtues (Godlike). I would have liked to have thought that it was those chats that created the bond between us, but I was kidding myself. He talked to me as he would talk to any adult who, in any case, didn’t understand anything but thought they did, and wanted to espouse their imagined wisdom to kids who just didn’t want to listen. Why? Because they already knew the answers, saw adults’ mistakes and knew how to correct them, had unshakeable opinions on everything and didn’t see why they should have to compromise on anything, or do anything that they didn’t feel like doing.

A bit like grown-ups really, I guess. Except, of course, all those things did actually apply to us. I know, I’m sounding bitter, aren’t I. It’s not as if I even have kids, so yeah, get off my soap box, right, I know. My point was only that I made the mistake of thinking we had made a connection, whereas in Benny’s mind the only connection was my ownership of the key to his boy palace. Other than that, what was I? A surrogate father figure? Not an enviable position when his own father had forgotten he existed and his world view was narcissistic to a point. This may be why our conversation about the cleanliness of his room didn’t really go far beyond the basics.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How goes it, Benny?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Grunt.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You think maybe we could let someone in here to clean up this room (noticing pizza stuck to wall and strange movement underneath it).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Humph. Grunt. (Focus on destroying enemies in video game).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ah. Great? (uncertain voice, backing out of room as I saw the pizza start to slither towards me).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Nah. (Grunt. Fart.)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Close door behind me, lean against wall of corridor in a sweat of relief)

My report to X, instead of admitting failure, suggested another strategy. In the three minutes it took me to walk back from Benny’s room to X’s office, I had come up with at least five possibilities, the foremost being to drug Benny when asleep – rejected off hand, for two reasons – Benny would notice his room was suddenly clean, cue fits of rage, etcetera etcetera, and second, he never slept. Both fair points, and I guess one of the reasons he was CEO – a sharp mind. But to give him his due, he did have sympathy for my failure and didn’t ask me to go back in there; instead we sat down together and hatched a plan that involved sending divers into the sewerage system that ran under the building, getting them to drill microscopically small holes leading to Benny’s room, and setting up a ventilation system that extracted the dirty air, and replaced it with clean, fresh air. You may think Benny would have noticed that – cue fits of rage again – and that is a fair point, but we had thought of it and had created a terrifically simple addition – the fresh air pushed back in was scented with an artificial smell of gone off food and stale breath, whose intensity we lowered fractionally every day, gradually weaning Benny off his addiction to filth. It also contained a kind of antibiotic bug spray, which we hoped would stop Benny from falling (too) ill. It also had the added benefit of killing off any new life forms that may be emerging in his room and that may have a taste for human flesh – always a potentially hazardous issue. As a pleasing side effect of this, we were able to sell the bug spray to a number of unnamed countries’ prison systems, though we declined to ask exactly what they were going to be used for.

I digress. Benny’s ability to solve programming challenges was critical to helping me develop the VDE in the first place, and I was sure he would resolve the current glitch. In the meantime, though, I debated whether to stay in the hotel and risk being caught… did Mark know about the VDE? I really couldn’t remember, but then I had been absolutely sure that I hadn’t told Louise, and yet she knew. What if he saw me, realised and then challenged me about it. I could just imagine it now, his histrionics about how he couldn’t believe his best friend had let him down, how he wanted me out of his house, how he would ban Louise from seeing me, you get the gist. I played the conversation in my head and laughed to myself, imagining him calling me his best friend! And meaning it! I couldn’t stand the guy. True, we had known each other for a long time, but the only thing that kept us in touch was a mutual lack of having any other friends, and a somewhat difficult choice of dubious company over loneliness. True, I knew other people, like Carl, but calling them friends was a real step into the unknown. I think Mark and I were both surprised, no, shocked, when we both met women who were willing to spend time with us, and even more so when they both agreed to marry us, although I have to concede that Mark proved more successful in that department, avoiding the ignominy of being divorced because you’re just too dull not to be. And Mark just couldn’t see it in himself, couldn’t understand his luck, nor why his brand of self-congratulatory, self-righteous psychobabble could be anything but fascinating. God help you if you end up sitting next to him at a dinner party, God help you even more if he has anything more than one glass of wine, and you have to listen to his pathetic rants, espousing his greatness and whining about his life, like that rather beautiful young girl from the other night…

Then it hit me. I should have realised this straight away, of course, but it was the girl from the dinner party, the young one, striking looking, the one who had been talking to Mark for ages. I was absolutely sure it was the same girl as the girl he met here. Whoa. Maybe Louise was right. Maybe he was having an affair. (I guess you’re thinking that was pretty obvious when he met a girl in a hotel in the middle of the night, but to you I say – there is virtue in try not to jump to conclusions). However – I now needed to know who that girl was, exactly. I should have asked Lou, she would probably know. Of course she would know, it was her party! I had been so doubtful of Lou’s concerns, I just couldn’t for the life of me imagine why anyone who have any interest in Mark, sexual or otherwise, though I possessed just enough discretion not to say anything to her. But now? Was it feasible? They had met at the party, struck up a conversation and then started their clandestine reunions at an anonymous hotel; perfect in every angle – Mark able to slip away during the night whilst his wife lay comatose, and Mystery Girl able to take a little time off from wherever she lived. Who would have thought it? With a sigh, I poured myself a final glass of Chivas, ready to accept the strangeness and unfairness of the world, and head back home to break the news to Lou and also to get out of the suit before I got myself into trouble. That, however, is when things went really quite badly wrong.

What happens when you’re lost?

I stood in the gap between the bar and reception, looking out at the cold night where it had begun to rain, water lashing against the door and making me think about waiting a couple of minutes before walking back. I could hardly call a taxi, really. I really should have left then, because I wouldn’t have heard a noise, wouldn’t have seen a figure moving in the hall, wouldn’t have looked up and made out the shape of a man, half hidden in the shadows, walk hurriedly, nervously towards me. Wouldn’t have seen him emerge from the shadows as Mark, his face haggard and worried, clutching one arm in the other, his white shirt dripping with blood. He looked desperately around, looked straight at me (although I’m certain he didn’t see me), then took a step tentatively towards me before turning back and entering the men’s toilets. Jesus! Mark! Was he hurt? My first instinct was to go in and help him – I even took a step towards the door, holding myself back when I realised my presence would be very difficult to explain…. And anyway, he didn’t really look injured, he was walking all right. But all that blood! If he wasn’t injured, then…? I looked nervously down the corridor he had emerged from; there was some way the light was falling that made me realise one of the doors was open. I looked at the toilet door (still shut) and back down the corridor, and for a reason I still don’t understand at all, I walked quickly down it until I saw the door, slightly ajar. Room 12. I looked back at the halo of light coming from reception and back at room 12. Its silence gave me goose-bumps. But what did I have to be afraid of, I reasoned. I was invisible. Even if there was something horrific in that room, and even if Mark had done it, and even if he came back, I would be safe. And anyway, all I had to do was call the police, and naturally I had a phone built into my suit. Even so, however, I wasn’t a brave person, and I really surprised myself when I did actually move forward and take a step into that room. My legs felt weak and my head began to swim as I tried to take in what I was seeing. What was I seeing? Nothing. Everything was absolutely normal. Bed, television, desk. Case. Mark’s case. I realised I’d been holding my breath and let it go, feeling myself sway and almost fall down from relief. Maybe it had just been a bad nosebleed, a particularly bad one but a nosebleed all the same. I could imagine me and Mark laughing about this together years into the future, when we had reconciled our differences and had become great mates, Mark telling his grandkids –

You know Sylvain here, he thought I was a serial killer! He thought I had murdered someone in my hotel room after he chased me during the night. He thought I was going to come back, find him and kill him too!

And I would add, yes, and that’s after I accused him of having an affair! When actually all he was doing was getting a night’s kip as he had been struggling to sleep at home and didn’t want to worry your Gran!

Yes, that’s all it was, how stupid of me! I laughed to myself, and started to entertain the thought of taking my suit off and having a laugh with Mark about it, right here and now. Such was my relief that I even forgot how much I hated him – then suddenly the door to the room clicked shut and the air seemed to freeze. Mark stood by the door. He had changed his shirt, he was wearing a clean white t-shirt, and his left arm was bandaged just above the wrist. In that hand, he clutched a supermarket carrier bag. He looked worried as he glanced nervously around the room, his eyes darting towards me for one confused, terrifying instant, before they moved away. He was breathing quickly, and he put his hands together, bringing them up to his face, as if in prayer, before moving over to where his case was sat on the bed, just next to where I was standing. I resisted the urge to step back, keeping perfectly still as he stopped, right next to me, pausing curiously, his hand over his case. I wondered if he could hear my heart hammering in my chest; I was sure I could hear his, and I could definitely smell him, adrenaline fuelled sweat mixed with the sickly-sweet odour of blood. He picked up the case and moved to the open bathroom door, glancing back as if to acknowledge me before stepping inside and allowing the door to close, but not lock. I stood still, nailed to the spot, fearful of following him in, too curious to leave. The taps came on and I wondered for a brief moment why he had gone to the toilets in reception, if he had a bathroom right here in his room, but I quickly forgot this when I heard the strange noises emanating from there. Scraping. Sighing. Grunting with effort. Fizzing. More scraping. Tearing. Scrunching. More water. More fizzing. Silence. More silence. Shuffling. More silence. Then the door swinging open, Mark walking out slowly, case in hand, dropping it on the floor by the door and sitting heavily on the bed, sighing. He was looking straight at me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Morning, Sylvain. Didn’t expect to see you here.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (astonished silence from me)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. May I ask what you’re doing in my hotel room in the middle of the night?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (astonishment may have made way for fear by this point, it was hard to tell, but all the muscles in my body were frozen so I had no choice but to stay silent)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I don’t remember inviting you

(more more more, etc etc, still not able to talk or breath, think I am going to die here, etc, but have no idea what to do) … (more and more. Manage to start moving my eyes at least – though that takes some effort – flick over to the mirror and realise that I can see myself – what a fuckwit. I’m sorry, there’s no other word for it, my suit has failed because I didn’t fix it up right and now I am face to face with Mark after he’s done what unspeakable things in the night and now he’s going to kill me. Mental note to stop drinking, not that it matters because I am going to die in approximately six seconds and therefore should probably actually start drinking more and there isn’t even a minibar in the room. Mental jump to maybe that’s why Mark was outside, maybe he needed a drink after whatever he’d done, but then changed his mind and washed. Maybe he realised he needed to wash before going into the bar, maybe that was it. Maybe he saw the empty bottle of Chivas and he’s going to pin that on me too. Maybe I’ll go to jail for stealing it, oh God this night is just getting worse). I forced myself to stop thinking at that point, realising that I was rambling quite a lot, and then hoping that I hadn’t been saying this out loud. Thankfully, judging by Mark’s face, I hadn’t. He looked strange; not angry, not insane, just, well, tired.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I… (I realised after a few seconds that it was me that had started speaking)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Louise sent you to check up on me, didn’t she?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, I…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (He shook his head) … Why you, though? Of all people? My best friend?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I gulped… this wasn’t heading the way I expected) Well, at your party, you know, we were chatting, and she just

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (He gave a small laugh) … She got drunk, didn’t she. She got drunk and got all emotional and cried on your shoulder didn’t she. She saw me leave once and thought I was having an affair, and she begged you to follow me. Is that right?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I didn’t want to…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (He gave me a long look as if trying to decide whether to believe me) No, you didn’t want to but you did, then you came to the hotel, then…. (something crossed his eyes). When did you get here (this last question much sharper)?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I swallowed). I, well, I’ve only just got here

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How did you get into my room?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm… well, I’ve got this key… there’s this guy at work… this key, it can open any hotel door anywhere. This guy at work, Benny, he made it, you know, for a laugh… (this was all actually true, though he hadn’t given me a copy, despite my begging)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Seriously?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah! (nervous laugh) I know, it’s mad, isn’t it, but he’s just this kid genius and he does stuff like this for fun, and…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How did you know my room number?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I was sweating) … erm, same thing. Benny, he developed this app, you just get near to a hotel and you can see a list of all the guests and their room numbers, it all just comes up, I mean. (Again, this was true and Benny had actually given me a copy because he wanted to show off, and he urged me to try it out).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Mark was studying me). So you just got here?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I gulped). Literally just. I thought… I thought I’d just look in and see….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. See me in bed with another woman? Take photos and show them to Louise?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No! Well, yes, I mean, no! I just wanted to know…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (He sighed). Yeah, yeah, I guess you did. You are my best friend, after all. I can only hope you wouldn’t have told her if you had found me….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No! No, of course not…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’m not having an affair, anyway. Look, I’m all alone. Come on, let’s get out of here and I’ll buy you a drink.

He reached over and pulled the bathroom door shut, picked up his case and stepped out of the room, beckoning me to follow. Well, what could I do. The night was cool and my face was hot and my suit was broken and Mark still thought he was my best friend and I had drunk way more whisky than was necessary. The next bit was probably quite important but at the same time I am not going to tell you about it because I have no clue what happened. Blame the alcohol, blame my shocking memory but the plain and simple truth is that my last memory of that evening was following Mark out of that hotel room, my mind hazy with lack of sleep and fearsome imaginings about that black bag he was carrying and what exactly happened in that hotel room, and my next memory was of waking in my bed, in the bedroom of my flat, with a sore head, sore arms and sore legs, a t-shirt covered in blood and a very blank space where the last few hours should have been.

When I was at university I took a course on dream imagining. Not that it had anything to do with my actual degree course – I’m not going to tell you what that was, it just makes me depressed to think about it – but at least I used my time wisely, spending most of it in bars or at parties or in bed. I did, though, join societies and take other courses that interested me, one such being called Dreams and Imagination. I think you’re a man, but if you’re not I hope you’re not offended, because I’d rather be honest about the fact that one of the reasons this particular course interested me was that it was being held in the Arts faculty, and everyone from the Science faculty (of which I was a reluctant member) knew that Arts faculty members were, without a single exception, beautiful, innocent and in desperate need of a man, and it seemed therefore that my choices of extra-curricular activities were skewed somewhat in this direction.

Most of the lectures I attended made no sense whatsoever, and I did sometimes wonder whether Arts students were born with materially different brains from their scientific counterparts and consequently whether I was ever going to be able to form a relationship that existed outside of the confines of bedsheets – if that were indeed a bad thing – without having first mastered the understanding of the fundamental questions of the universe.

I think sometimes that’s the core of the difference; we as scientists are looking for answers and evidence, and we invented mathematics as a way of expressing those. Mathematics is a truly beautiful language, with no room for interpretation or error or deviation into fanciful, romantic notions. I shudder to think what mathematics would have felt like had it been invented by an artist. I can just imagine Newton trying to explain gravity, trying to grapple with the sentient feelings of the apple as it fell, or more probably not even asking whether the apple fell, and not why it fell, but what would have happened if it hadn’t fallen. Everyone (except for politicians) knows that the world isn’t run by politicians, but most people still think it’s run by big business, so called captains of industry, and that is just so far from the mark.

The reality is that the world is run by scientists, people who give us the vision and the knowledge to move on to the next stage, people who are masters of the new evolution. Imagine where we would be if it had been the other way around; we would still be living in caves, but at least we would know that the cave had feelings. That’s not to say that I don’t respect and understand art; well, actually I don’t understand it, but I do respect it, and none more so than when it gives itself over to science, such as in the interpretation of dreams. I do mean respect in its broadest sense, and not necessarily specifics, because the lecture I attended that day, as usual, made no sense, and I only remember it for two things. The first was that you should never ask anyone, ever, to interpret your dreams and let them tell you what it means about your emotional and psychological wellbeing, especially in front of a classroom of people that you are trying to impress, or at the very least not trying to look like a complete idiot in front of. The only reason that I put my hand up – the only reason – was because the lecture was being given by Miss Anna Dunnsbury, the most gorgeous PhD student, who a had a lilting, heart-breaking voice and who had never even realised I existed, despite my pathetic efforts. It would have made no difference if I had parachuted down from a helicopter in my underpants, landing directly in front of her, she would have just floated by and I would have been left with the bunch of roses that I manfully held aloft during my descent, protecting it against the wind and the rain with my bare body, and I would have dropped them to the floor and stepped on them, the blood from my feet as the thorns cut through them mixing with the water from my tears. No, the only way to have had any chance of her company was through mentally prostrating myself in front of her and talking about whatever went through my head, about the fragments of dreams and thoughts that stayed with me, about the first thing that came to mind when I looked at her (yes, a real question!), what I would do when I got up and left the room. My mind raced for something witty to say, as I felt the pressure of a thousand eyes on me and my one chance at happiness. I met her eyes and looked away from their curious gaze, and came to rest quite by chance on the curve of her breasts as it cut away under her red top. I talked about glimpses of death and about fear of life, I talked about closing my eyes and seeing a lost, dirty island, a cartoon desert island turned into a nightmare under dark skies, a dying tree in its centre and cold, grey sands crawling with vicious insects that would bite and tear at your skin, feasting on human flesh instead of ripping each other apart and I talked about what it meant, the end, the island just an illusion behind the door, and the door would always open because the cat would always be dead. I remember feeling such a hush around me, and as I wondered about exactly what I said and where I had dragged it from, I looked up into Anna’s eyes and saw shock and fear, and my heart leapt and fell. She finished the lecture quickly and started to leave swiftly, but I managed to catch her just before she walked out. Her body stiffened and when she turned to see it was me, she shrank back visibly. I guess I should have realised that this was not the best sign, but I blithely ignored it and asked if she would like to meet up for a drink, but she didn’t say anything – she caught her breath, shook her head and was gone. Ah well, you have to try.

The second thing I remember from that lecture was the only thing to actually resonate with me, which was that memory loss can be reversed, absolutely, as long as it done in time; all you need are the right drugs and a suitably high voltage applied to the brain for a very short period. When I woke up that morning I realised that I needed, pretty desperately, to know what had happened since I left the hotel room, not just for Lou’s sake but for my own. Given the state I found myself in when I woke up, I’m not seeking prizes for intuition.

Bleed like me

Not a question, I grant you. But if you ever doubt my commitment, you shouldn’t. Electric shocks to the brain I could manage with a little tampering in my home lab, but what drugs to use was a different matter entirely and it had been, what, almost thirty years since my encounter with Anna. Googling things like drugs required to retrieve lost memories proved futile, there were references to it and links to scientific studies on mice that I really didn’t have the time or the inclination to follow, and so more out of frustration than anything else I typed Anna’s name into the search engine and pressed enter.

I was somewhat surprised to get a hit; Anna Dunnsbury (Miss); Professor of Experimental Psychotherapy at a well-known university that I won’t mention it (suffice to say not the university that we both studied at). There was a picture of her, older and greyer but definitely her, and there was even an email address. I glanced at the time – 10:03am on Thursday 17th April. I should actually be at work, I realised, but then I was quite often late and I would go there straight after this, so I clicked on the link and typed quickly, before my embarrassment could come to the surface and save me.

Dear Anna, I’m not sure if you remember me but we were briefly friends at university, I think we went out for a drink once or twice (I know, so sue me). I was reminiscing with a couple of friends about the most interesting things we learnt at university, and I couldn’t help thinking about a conversation we once had about memory loss and the ability to retrieve it using, if I remember, drugs, as a stimulant, in conjunction with electric shock. When I was telling him about this, my friend says he’s lost some vital hours (too much drinking I am afraid!) and he is desperate to get them back, and I said I’d try and find out. I hope you don’t mind the mail out of the blue after so much time, but it made me think of you and wonder how you are. With fond memories, Sylvain Jones.

I pressed send before I could change my mind, and then went upstairs to my lab and find my headgear. I had it safely stored away, after having accidentally borrowed it a few years ago from one of the less successful projects that our department undertook. It looked awesome, though, all black and chrome with laser lights and strange wires designed to mess with the brainwaves in your head. I plugged it in, saw it buzz into life and turned the dial up to maximum voltage. I remember taking a deep sigh before tentatively moving it towards my head, then wondering what the hell to do.

Maybe this was a bad idea. I mean, I didn’t know what drugs to take. What if it went horribly wrong and I was left having a fit on the floor, what if it wiped out what little intelligence I had remaining. I looked down at my t-shirt – still blood stained, unfortunately – and i noticed dark splatters on the top of my jeans too. You’re probably wondering why the first thing I did was not to change my clothes, have a shower, scrub myself clean, then maybe burn my clothes and anything else I may have touched, and make some desperate phone calls to people to try and figure out what happened, or at least shield myself from any of the potential blame, if the worst had happened.

And I knew of course that this was what I should be doing, but as soon as you set these things in motion, then that’s it, there’s nothing that you can do, the wheels turn, the gears crunch and your fate is outside of your control. Now you’re thinking that you misunderstood me, your assumption that I was a man of compassion is being challenged, who is this person who sits in front of you, that when he wakes up covered in blood, doesn’t panic, doesn’t even get changed, just calmly starts to make plans. But you underestimate me. Self-control doesn’t mean a lack of emotion. Focusing on the truth doesn’t obviate sympathy for the broken.

When I was much younger, well before I met Sylvia, and well before I established myself and settled down, in a manner of speaking – I knew Mark, actually – of course, I’ve known him for years, and I remember even going for a drink with him and trying to talk to him about my latest disaster, which was getting sacked over a misunderstanding at work a day after my girlfriend dumped me. I had a lot of friends when I was at college and thought myself a popular guy… I can’t understand why, I had no imagination, but I can understand why because I had some money. Like I’ve said before, I’m a simple guy, I don’t pretend to have deep thoughts or understand the socio-political system that we live in, or care for that matter, and I found myself unable to muster any interest in people’s constant diatribes about revolution or class war or the evil of global capitalism, or even their near-religious fervour for sport (football in particular) and music (the more obscure the better, regardless of quality). I did at times wonder idly whether there was any ideological conflict between the two, but to express that would have been effort, a little like going to the gym or doing the washing up or having a career. Instead I drifted towards take away dinners, blockbuster videos, reality TV, and a graduate training scheme in something or other that was attractive only for the fact that the commute was less than fifteen minutes and they offered me a job. Beyond that, the thought of working in a factory was pretty abhorrent to me, and I couldn’t quite believe that I had ended up spending most days from eight in the morning till four in the afternoon pushing stuff into machines so that something else could come out of the other end.

To be fair, it’s not as if I even did that – I had to look at other people do that, and then tell different people what the first set of people were doing wrong and how they could do it better, so that the second set could pull together plans to get the first set to do different things, even though the first set of people had been working on these machines for five hundred years and I had never even switched one on. I figured out eventually that it didn’t really matter if I spent any time looking at the machines or the people working on them, as I didn’t understand what they did, I didn’t even understand the strange small objects that came out of them. It also didn’t really matter what I wrote in my reports to the second set of people, because the first set never listened to what they were told to do in any case, which meant I could write down pretty much what I wanted and nothing would change. That’s what I started doing, and I spent less and less time at the machines and more and more time upstairs in the offices that overlooked the shop floor like a medieval big brother (before the term had become digested, used up and spat out), the head of production’s office having a huge glass window that enabled him to survey everything and miss nothing.

Except for me, of course, and the fact that he didn’t notice perfectly summed up the value I was adding, as he would have put it. Luckily, I managed to hide in Yvonne’s office; I never entirely worked out what she did, but she must have been important because she had an office and a lot of time; recently returned from maternity leave, she seemed to be craving the sort of easy, uncomplicated company that I offered, away from the boredom of work and the relentlessness of home. We formed what I took to be a bond based on a mutual lack of respect for everyone around us, that took the form of long chats and illicit sex, as my relationship with a girl I had been with for over two years continued to tilt on the edge of a cliff. Possibly the first of the rocky steps of my wayward journey through my twenties, I just managed to avoid a summary dismissal for indecent behaviour on company premises through a loophole in my contract that I didn’t quite understand, but it did hurt that Yvonne’s interest in me seemed dependent on my being a young, starry eyed graduate; more understandable and predictable was Sam’s (my then girlfriend) reaction.

My subsequent fall from grace wasn’t spectacular, just dully predictable; even the most basic lifestyle requires money and human company, and it’s so damn easy to lose control when you spiral through mounting debt, dead end jobs and failed relationships. I’m sure you think I’m droning on, getting so far off track that I’m in a different field. And I’m sure you’re chuckling to yourself about it, about the stupid adventures and the droll way in which I’m telling you about them. All my friends did, Sylvain, he’s a bit of a mess isn’t he, ha fucking ha … but this wasn’t funny to me, it wasn’t droll, it wasn’t a happy go lucky existence, not a care in the world. It was tough and sad and lonely and more than once I wondered how the hell I had got into this place, what the hell I was going to do.

My friends, if you can call them that, the people I hung around with, they had careers and proper relationships where they planned things like holidays together and getting a mortgage. Seeing that and being outside of it didn’t make me feel free, no matter what they might have thought. The strange romantic notions of counter culture didn’t apply to me, or if they did then it’s all a lie. No, what you have to realise is that I dragged myself out of that place and I put myself back on the map. It took strength and it took discipline and courage which is what I have, whether you choose to recognise it or not, and that’s what I used that morning when faced with my bloody clothes and not a scratch on me. Understood what had happened was key for me to be able to keep control, and a few shocks to the head and some experimental drugs were a price well worth paying. Which drugs, though, did remain a problem, as I’ve said – I didn’t know which drugs to use, or even if I would be able to get hold of them, I was very conscious that those precious memories may start to slip away unless I acted quickly and the chances of getting a reply from Anna, certainly in the next hour or so were pretty remote.

I’m not really into drugs, not for a long time, but I do know a couple of people who are, and I thought something like LSD would be the sensible choice, given its history. I scrolled down my list of contacts on my phone, hit the name Justin Done and waited as it rang, holding the headset in my hand. Justin worked in the Department, as a technician, and we had got chatting on one of the many team days that X liked to organise as an attempt to avoid anything to do with management or motivation.

I hadn’t really talked to Justin before, but ended up sitting next to him on board a plane we were just about to jump out of, then parachute down to a private island for an all weekend, all expenses paid, party. Never let it be said that the country’s taxes go to waste. We were both nervous and began chatting inanely as the plane took off and as we approached the drop zone. I remember the huge back door of the plane opening and some mad guy standing in front of us all, his back to the gaping hole and rushing air, shouting out last instructions and reminding us that all we had to do was pull the cord, and if that didn’t work, something else would happen.

Justin and I were towards the front of the plane, and therefore right at the back of the queue to throw ourselves out into the infinite, and our conversation became increasingly hysterical as more and more brave souls took the plunge. The last thing that Justin said to me before his turn came was something about wishing he had imbibed large quantities of drugs, then he winked at me and then he was gone.

Later that night, as the party progressed into the small hours, we found ourselves together again; for me the adrenalin rush still hadn’t subsided, and I found myself pushing him to see if he could really get hold of anything. Like a lover succumbing eventually to temptation, his resistance dissolved gradually and he admitted that, yes, he had ways and means of obtaining certain illicit substances, and if I swore, absolutely swore, to keep it to myself, he would furnish me with a small selection. I really should have asked him where he got them from, but it didn’t seem that important then… stupid me. It was a wild night and we’d both drunk an awful lot and we agreed that I would prove myself through a blood oath, which I carried out there and then using a cheese knife to draw a line down my left forearm, leaving a scar that I still have today. It didn’t bleed much, but Justin squeezed my arm and a few drops fell into his whisky glass, swirling and the disappearing into the liquid. The scar still itches from time to time, and always when I talk to him. It did again now as he answered his phone.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hey, Sylvain, long time, how’s things?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I coughed and my voice seemed to come out gravelly, as if I’d smoked forty cigarettes the night before. Justin, yeah, good, how are you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The conversation carried out inanely for a few minutes until I asked him if he had any product I could have, at which point he went very quiet, then he whispered Hold on, then there was a lot of shuffling and he was back on the line, whispering.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sorry, my friend, my good lady, she doesn’t know about this. You having a party?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You having a party? That why you need the gear?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm, no, just, you know… (I trailed off).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Whatever, man. (He sounded hurt).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, Justin, I promise I’m not having a party, I’m not not inviting you… Please, listen, I just need… I’ve just got some issues to deal with.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (He went silent) Oh, man, don’t do it. It’s a slippery slope…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I really didn’t need my dope head friend lecturing me, but I endured it for a few minutes until he had satisfied his sense of decency, then he asked what I needed. When I told him LSD, he sighed). I’m sorry, Sylvain, can’t help you there. It’s just… not in demand any more. You know, things have moved on. The sixties chicks, they’re all dead and dying, and death really isn’t sexy.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The line went quiet, then… But… listen, I have got this… it’s not completely tested out, but it’s a synth… you know, a synthetic compound, similar effects but the long-term issues have been edited out. I think at least. Very hush hush. I haven’t tried it myself but….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I interrupted him to say I’d have some). But I need it right now.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Another pause). OK. Give me ten minutes. I’ll be there. Good excuse to get out of here.

The buzzer went as I was sitting at the kitchen counter drinking a double espresso. I have, or rather had, an app on my phone that let me see who was outside and buzz them in. Justin stood there, in just jeans and a tight fitting white t-shirt, making a point of not shivering in the cool air. I tapped the entry button and he disappeared inside, coming through my front door moments later.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hey man, how… (he stopped talking and that’s when I realised that I hadn’t changed. Mistake number one and so basic)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (my best smile) … Justin. Good to see you!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You’re covered in blood?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You like it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Incredibly realistic, isn’t it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh… oh bloody hell! Ha! Yes, you’re right it is, isn’t it? Wow, man, I was completely fooled. Thought you’d killed someone and you know…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Needed the drugs to calm myself down?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, yeah, I guess… But hey, man, it’s brilliant. Have to get myself one of those! Where did you get it from?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I… it was a present, actually.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh… well, remind me not to meet your friends!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah! Good one! Listen, thanks for coming over…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh… oh… yeah, sure, no problem. Look (reaching into his back pocket) … I brought you a little of this. But be careful. (He plays with the clear plastic packet in his hands). It’s only experimental. It’s called… G6. I’ve never tried it. Just one tab at a time, all right? Don’t want you murdering anyone else!

I’m not sure I appreciated Justin’s humour but at least congratulated myself on my quick wits. I managed to shove Justin out of my apartment after he had had two espressos and a bottle of ice cold lager and the first thing I did was pull off my t-shirt and jeans and put something else on.

I dropped the offending articles on the white floor of my kitchen, next to the brilliant white island, telling myself that I would clean them up later. I made myself another coffee and sat drinking it slowly, turning the packet around in my hands. It contained two small, white tablets, each with the number 6 stamped into the centre. Takes about an hour and a half to kick in, Justin had said, or so he thought. Still being finalised but he had obtained these lab samples, and he was totally sure that they were safe. I opened the bag and let one drop onto the counter, and held it between my thumb and forefinger. An hour and a half. I looked at the clock. 10:14.

Take the pill now, work out what the hell’s going on, get into work for the afternoon. I tapped a quick text to my assistant saying I wasn’t feeling great and would be in that afternoon, then checked my email one last time for a hopeful reply from Anna (there was none), then popped the pill in my mouth and swallowed it with the rest of my espresso. My phone pinged. It was James, my assistant.

No problem, hope you feel better. X wanted to see you this morning, told him you’d get back to him ASAP. May be worth calling him if you feel up to it, he seemed a little stressed. James. X.

It had caused much gossip when I chose a man as my personal assistant and even more when he sent texts that ended in an X. I have never seen a letter that causes so much anguish and hope. Why only two x’s, why not three? Why did she put an x there, was it a mistake? Why a small X, not a big one? And so on. And then of course there’s the gender game. I mean, it’s fine for women to put x’s on texts to men, that seems to signify nothing more than friendship, if they want it to, or much more, of course, if they don’t. And same sex x’ing is absolutely fine for women, but for men it’s a complete minefield. If a man x’s a woman then it’s almost certainly sexist, and if a man x’s a man then he’s 100% gay. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the issue here is not James’ sexuality, it is just the assumption and the broader issue of how men find their place in a post-feminist world. I think James, to be honest, is just trying to be provocative, with his camp manners, lullaby voice and choice of clothes. He’s young, he’ll learn and he’ll have to decide what to do when he becomes defined by his actions, but for the moment he can walk the line and see what happens. I saw a picture of his girlfriend once, falling out of his wallet as he was paying for a couple of coffees for us. It was one of those pictures of them, together, pretty intimate. He scooped it up quickly, stuffing it into the back of his wallet as he went completely red. He looked up at me with a desperate face, but me, coward that I am, just winked and smiled.

That, I think, is when he started putting X’s at the end of his texts to me, and the fact that I feel uncomfortable about it and refuse to reciprocate only proves his gender superiority. And so, despite myself, I smiled at his text and didn’t deign to reply. 10:25. I pulled myself off the kitchen stool, my head felt light and my legs unusually heavy. I made my way, slightly unsteadily, to my lab – too much coffee, maybe, and not enough sleep. The edges of my vision started to blur as if I was looking through plastic sheeting. It took me a little while to set up the headgear – I connected it to the current, checked the settings and adjusted the voltage to maximum (approximately 10,000 volts) and the time period to short. I set the timer to switch it on at 11:45.

I think there must have been something wrong with the equipment because it kept slipping out of my hands as I tried to test it, as if it had gained a life of its own. I checked my watch… 11:35… almost time. With some difficulty, given its slippery status, I got the headset positioned over my skull and sat, giving myself a couple of minutes to compose myself. The sun streamed in from the large crack in the front of the apartment, and I made a mental note to get it fixed – it would probably need more than Polyfilla. My phone pinged a message; strange, I must have turned the volume up to max and then some, because its noise pierced the air and shook my head. It also did something strange to the headset, because it felt suddenly tighter, as if it had been shocked into gripping my skull as tight as possible for fear of being blown away by the noise. The pain made my eyes fill with water as I lifted the phone to my face to see what the cause had been; the little green window showed me that I had received a message.

Mark didn’t come home this morning. Not answering his phone. Am worried. Call me ASAP. L.

What was this message? Who was L? I had a feeling that I knew, and that this message, whatever it meant, was critically important. But it had to find its own place in the maelstrom of light and colour that was rushing through my head, opening up towards a dark, dark void and that’s when there was a flash of light and a woman’s voice that screeched “Timer on!! Voltage Activateeeeeeeeedddddd!!!”

Did it work, you want to know? Did my use of a vaguely remembered procedure cobbled together with a home user high voltage kit and untested, experimental synthetic drugs enable me to rescue my memories of a few hours earlier? No, but it was one hell of a ride. And something definitely happened. The whole thing was like a flash flood of a dream, rushing through my consciousness at the speed of light, leaving me with just traces of something to cling on to. On the plus side, I did see Mark, if only for a fleeting moment. He looked worried – terrified, in fact, and I thought I may have been confusing memories, but I was left with the deep impression of him fending off an angry unicorn that seemed to be trying to spear him with its horn.

The next bit is a little hazy – again – I found myself lying on the floor of my lab – with a splitting headache and my hair matted with blood (my own, I think). The headset swung in the air, suspended by the wires that led to the generator. I pulled myself up slowly, careful to avoid objects that were still spinning in random directions, and sat myself down heavily at my lab desk. There were splashes of blood everywhere, but mostly on the corner of the desk, which I hoped was a sign of me hitting my head on the corner before falling, rather than anything more sinister. My eyes struggled to focus and left everything a little hazy as well as wobbly, and I found myself holding on to the desk for what seemed like ages until things began to settle down a little. My phone seemed to be saying the time was now 16:20, though I wasn’t sure whether to trust it or not. The phone also seemed to be flashing with lots of messages; I picked it up and held it in my shaky hand, trying to focus on the blurry shapes and force them into letters that my brain could understand. It wasn’t working, so I manoeuvred the phone into my back pocket (much harder than it seems), and pulled myself laboriously down off the stool, and made my way back to the kitchen, leaning on the walls for support. I seemed to have put my hand in something because I left red handprints over the walls as I went, until I eventually got myself back into the kitchen.

With trembling hands, I pulled open drawer after drawer until I found what I was looking for – a small, green container, which I managed to unzip and then extract a blister pack of extra strength codeine. I crushed a few pills on the counter, I think I lost track of how many, then with considerable difficulty got… All right, I’ll take the feedback, you know it was difficult, I was just trying to give you a feeling for what was going on. All right, I’ll cut that bit out, yes, I managed to take the codeine and yes, I mixed it with some downers that I kept hidden away and yes it got me coherent again. And yes, I’ll admit I needed a couple of bottles of ice cold lager to wash it down with and then I could start to concentrate again. And, yes, sensibly, the first thing I did was check my phone. There were, I think, over thirty notifications – four messages and sixteen missed calls from Louise (the last one barely five minutes previous, though I had no recollection of hearing the phone ring), the last message quite desperate.

(Still no sign. Call me please. Think I need to call the police), three messages from James, the last one quite resigned (Assume you’re not coming in now. X quite upset you haven’t come in or at least called him. Have tried to cover by saying you were violently sick, even left the office saying I was coming over to help you out. He looks quite agitated though. You should definitely come in tomorrow. J.). No kisses, I noticed, quite unusual.

There was a mail, surprisingly, from Anna Dunnsbury, it seemed to be quite lengthy so I decided not to read it for now. And finally, a few messages from Justin, the first in capital letters

S. DON’T TAKE THE G6!!

The second also in capitals

AND IF YOU DO…DON’T TAKE IT WITH COFFEE!!!!)

The third also in capitals

IF YOU’VE TAKEN IT, CALL ME!!!

I went to the kitchen to get myself another beer, and that’s when I saw a bloody t-shirt and trousers discarded on the floor, sending me fleetingly into shock before I realised that they were actually mine. With a deep sigh, I pulled myself out another beer and sat myself back down, stretching and arching my body. I actually felt OK now, good even, save for the blood in my hair and in my eyes, and the very slight green hue that still seemed to tint everything. As I drank, the phone rang. Unsurprisingly, I thought vaguely, it was Louise. I weighed it up for a second before deciding to answer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hey!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh, thank Christ for that! Where the hell have you been?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah… sorry about that. I’ve just been at home, haven’t been feeling well (latching on to the first excuse I could think of)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Do you know where Mark is (no thought to ask how I am)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’m feeling better now, thank you

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I said, I’m feeling better, thanks for asking

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But I didn’t ask…oh, Christ, Sylvain, grow up. What happened last night? Where’s Mark?

Now here I have to admit that I had been slightly stupid, not thinking in advance about how truthful I was going to be with Louise, and, if as seemed preferable, not entirely truthful, then what exactly I was going to say. As I’ve told you before, I knew I was in danger of losing control as soon as I involved anyone else, especially as my plan to fill in my memory seemed to have been so unsuccessful. That reminded me, I had a mail from Anna… maybe that would help. I put the phone on loudspeaker and went back to my mails. Here we are… Anna Dunnsbury.

Dear Sylvain, yes of course I remember you, we had some sweet, lovely times together didn’t we…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain? Are you there?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh… yes, sorry. Feeling a little…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, yes, I know, you said. Tell me where Mark is

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Sigh) Mark? I don’t know. Hasn’t he come home?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Jesus, Sylvain, haven’t you seen my messages? I’ve called you, what, twenty times today.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh… oh, sorry. Yeah (I coughed), shit. I wonder where he is?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Her voice became shrill…) Don’t you know? What happened when you followed him last night?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I coughed and spluttered for a bit) Ah… the thing is, Lou, I, erm, I didn’t follow him, I…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What? What do you mean? You even texted me to say you were… look, I’ve got it here… it says…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, yeah, I know (I interrupted quickly), but, look, the thing is, I started following him, and then, well… then, something went wrong with the suit. I mean, it kept switching itself off, and I thought he…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You thought he what?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I thought maybe he saw me, so I stopped and turned back.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Where? Where did he see you? What time did you turn back?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh, it wasn’t late, I mean, it was just after I started following him.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What time?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I don’t know, it was probably just after I texted you, what time was that…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (a pause) About eleven thirty I think…. And what the hell were you on with that text? I mean, Sylvain, I know you miss Sylvia, but … Anyway, now’s not the time for this. Sorry. Sorry. But Sylvain, what were you thinking? I mean, those things you said…We need to talk

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’m sorry (what the hell did I put in that text?)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No…yes, ok, ok. Stop talking about this. It’s not important right now. You sure you didn’t see Mark? Didn’t follow him at all? Oh, Sylvain, I’m so worried. What am I going to do?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Look, maybe he just got lost. Maybe he…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Just got lost? What does that mean? It’s not like he went on a hiking weekend! For Christ’s sake, Sylvain, he left the house at eleven on a Wednesday night, and he hasn’t come back! He’s never done this before! God, Sylvain, what am I going to do? I think I’ll call the police…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Nervously laughing) The police? Lou, you really think that’s a good idea?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What? Why?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well… I mean, if Mark is doing something… then….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What do you mean?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I mean… do you want that all to come out in the open?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. For God’s sake, Sylvain. You think I care if he’s having an affair? What if he’s lying in a ditch somewhere? What if he’s bleeding to death and he dies because I didn’t do anything?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Louise… Louise… Lou… don’t you think you’re being a bit overdramatic?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Jesus, Sylvain! What is the matter with you? God, you’re no help at all. I’ve got to go… I’m calling the…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Let me come over! (blurted out quickly)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’ll come over! Let me help!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh Sylvain, I’m not sure…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Look (I rushed on) you’re worried, of course you are! You don’t want to be on your own for this. Let me come over, we can at least talk it over, I can keep you company

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (silence)… And you won’t get the wrong idea?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No! No! Sorry, I think I’d probably had too much to drink when I sent that text, I didn’t mean anything…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (More silence… then a sigh) Okay, then, I guess. I’ll see you in a bit

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Only! Don’t call the police until I get there! (but I think she had already hung up)

I threw on a coat, and stepped into the cool sunshine of the early evening, to take the short drive to her house. My phone buzzed again, this time a call from Justin. I hit the red button and the call cut off, seeing that he’d sent me another two messages. I mean, I know it sounds reckless, and I am not a reckless man, but I really didn’t see the point of calling him back; I had taken the G6, I had taken it with coffee, and I had survived. Besides which, there were enough variables to play with at the moment, and the critical thing was to get over to Lou’s house and stop her from calling the police; seriously, that was the last thing I needed. I would remain focused and let nothing, I repeat nothing distract me. As I was about to put my phone away, I remembered the mail from Anna that I had started to read, and I brought it up, to scan it quickly.

Dear Sylvain, yes of course I remember you, we had some sweet, lovely times together didn’t we. It would be lovely to see you again, I guess you still live in Starlight Park? (how easy it is to find out where people live, these days) As it happens, I am travelling there tonight for a lecture. I meant to call you, but you know with work and everything I didn’t get around to it. How are you anyway? No, don’t tell me, maybe we could meet up this evening and have a drink and who knows, maybe something to eat? I can tell you about your strange request about your friend too, I do know quite a lot about it, it was the subject of my doctorate… anyway, I will tell you all! My lecture starts in a few minutes but I finish at 5:30. Maybe we could meet up at about 6:30? It would give me time to freshen up. What say we meet in town then, do you know any good bars we could meet at? Anna xxx. (She also included her address and phone number, which I won’t tell you, for the sake of her family’s privacy).

I was lost; was this the same Anna Dunnsbury, the goddess of my college life, who had not even noticed me and yet I had still worshiped from afar in that relentless pursuit of the tragedy of human love? Had there been a whole part of my earlier life that had been erased from my memory, or had she mistaken me for someone else? I had no idea, but I knew absolutely that I was going to find out, I wouldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. I looked at my phone – 17:32 so I just had an hour to get myself ready and meet her. I glanced at my reflection in the car window – if she thought I was someone else, I had one shot at this and I needed to get it right. I quickly started tapping out a message…

Dear Anna, what a nice surprise! As it happens I am free tonight, and it would be lovely to meet up. Why don’t we meet at Bar 45 on Stevens Street? Looking forward to it! S x.

I thought it struck a good note between casual interest and pleasure, and hit send. Right, an hour to clean myself up. My apartment was in a reasonable state, I thought, so a shave, a shower, a decent choice of clothes and a fifteen-minute walk to the centre of town. I let myself back in and poured myself a quick shot of whisky to calm my surprisingly edgy nerves, and I was about to strip off to have a long, cleansing shower when my apartment buzzer rang. I’m not sure why, but I touched the ‘Allow Entry’ option on my phone without checking who it was, and regretted my impulsive decision as soon as I saw who was silhouetted against the door.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, I muttered under my breath.

Sylvain, why haven’t you returned my calls? X asked. He was panting, breathing heavily, unsurprising seeing as he had to walk up ten steps to get to my front door and as he never did any exercise, ate like a pig and drank litres of beer every day. Mr Creosote, his nickname was in our office, not that I used that, but they had a point. If you don’t get the reference, and if you ever get any time, and assuming you leave this place, watch The Meaning of Life, you’ll understand.

We were all quite shocked when he ordered the parachute party, thinking that he would need at least three parachutes strapped to various parts of his bulk to stand any chance of not crashing at speed into the ground and perhaps precipitating an earthquake or tidal wave. Cruel? Maybe, but then he had to take responsibility. I saw him shovelling great spoonfuls of cake covered in cream into his mouth every lunchtime at our exceptionally good canteen, and then he wondered why he felt drowsy in the afternoon? I mean, come on. X was someone who drove for the highest standards, he had massive expectations and a short fuse when they weren’t met, and yet he didn’t have the courage or the discipline to look after his own body. I couldn’t help feel a shiver go through me every time I saw him, and now, especially, with so much to do, his presence was an unwelcome interruption – both emotionally and physically. I gave him my best smile.

Security Alert

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hi, how are you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Waving his hand) Don’t give me that. Why haven’t you returned my calls?

The problem of the parachute, incidentally, was solved through some ingenious engineering work. It had been X’s intention not to participate at all, but, to give him credit, he had listened to his senior team telling him how important it was for him to lead from the front, cement respect and trust amongst the workforce, especially after the Jared scandal, and a couple of other minor indiscretions. He instructed JK, his head of engineering, to solve the problem of guaranteeing him a safe flight and a safe landing. JK had pretty swiftly concluded that he would need his own separate plane (which was turned into an advantage by our marketing team, sending it off first, painted in snazzy colours and with the message “Lead from the Front” emblazoned on its sides and wings) and a parachute-like apparatus that was roughly three times larger than a standard parachute and included, hidden in the folds of fabric, twenty miniature jet propulsion engines that constantly pushed upwards and therefore controlled his fall. Yes, X needed a jet plane all to himself to avoid a sticky, untimely death, but it was built and it worked and, (although rumour has it he needed significant encouragement) he stepped out of his plane and landed on the ground and kicked the party off with an explosion that was more to do with trapped wind than hidden fireworks, but it was so loud and so unexpected that everyone started to laugh and clap, and X, unsure whether the laughter was at him or with him, managed to control his temper and smile broadly and then the festivities started. His mood then couldn’t have been more different to now, as he stood there in my apartment, the glint of anger in his eyes which I knew I had to control. I swiftly went into the kitchen and pulled a chair through to him, into which he sank gratefully, mopping his brow and controlling his breathing.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So (coughing and spluttering), why haven’t you returned my calls? And what’s happened to your hands?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I looked at my hands, realising they were still covered in blood. Oh, I… I fell and cut my head. Bled like a bastard. Still need to clean myself up, haven’t been feeling right today. That’s why I didn’t get back to you, I, well, I have just managed to get out of bed

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You look ok to me

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Apart from the blood?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, apart from the blood. Don’t get smart, Jones. I don’t like malingerers. And you know, when I call, I expect you to answer. The only excuse I’ll accept is if you are physically completely unable to speak. IE Dead. You understand me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah. Sorry. (It’s always been really hard to understand if he is joking or not). Truth is, I felt absolutely dreadful this morning, but I was going to try and come in this afternoon. Then, you know, about lunchtime, I dragged myself out of bed, I was going to try and get ready, but I was, well, I don’t know, I felt all light headed and that’s when I fell and I think I must have passed out, because I woke up a few hours later, and, well, you know, then you turned up…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He looked at me for a long moment. Hmphh…. Don’t do it again, all right?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, sure, of course not. I felt a sigh of relief go through me. Anyway, sorry to drag you all the way out here. You needed me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He started coughing again. Yeah, yeah. Sit down, sit down

We both looked around the hallway and I shrugged and sat on top of the ornamental vase that stood in one corner, pushing the artificial flowers down into the bowels of the vase with my backside. I was maybe a foot away from X, the odour of his sweat and the warmth of his body made my head start to swim again, especially when he lent forward. Listen, Sylvain, we have a problem.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What kind of problem?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Security. He coughed.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What about it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He closed his eyes. There’s been another theft.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I caught my breath) What? How do you know?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s my business to know, he spat angrily

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But…Sally Evans…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He spat again. Fucking waste of space. Says all the right things, does fuck all. I didn’t even find out from her. Called her in to my office, there she was, prim and proper, swaggering in like she owned the fucking place, think she thought I was going to give her a rise. Fuck’s sake. You could see her go white when I asked her about G6. Said she’d make some calls, find out what was going on, get the team on it. I told her not to fucking bother, to leave her car keys on her desk and get the hell out.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. G6?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You said G6?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah… you ok?

No, I wasn’t OK, my head was really spinning now again. G6? Seriously? Justin had stolen these from our office? How was that possible? We didn’t do anything like that, any chemicals? But if… Jesus, I was in trouble now. I made a mental note to kill Justin, which, I figured at the time, wasn’t unreasonable, I mean, what was the guy thinking? Just for the record, though, I didn’t kill him, and though I know he’s one more on the long list of people who have disappeared, but you can’t pin that one on me. Sigh. Maybe you can. But not directly at least. I can’t take responsibility for everyone. And besides, I’m not a killer. I know there’s all the business about Mark, and everyone else, but there’s specific circumstances all over those – i.e. THEY ARE NOT TRUE – and anyway, I’m sick of the way everyone extrapolates all the time. Yeah, so he stole the coat. Yeah, so he took some drugs. Suddenly he’s the root of all evil and let’s lock him up and burn the key, then let’s just decide to blame him for everything.

I know the way these things work. I saw what happened to Beryl. And to Jared. And all the rest. You people – if you are what I think you are – you people, you’re not after answers are you, you’re just after neat and tidy solutions that will make the problems go away so you can go and screw someone else’s life up. I’m not about to let you play your little games with me. Anything you get, you work for, understand? I’m telling the truth here. I’m admitting about the VDE, and, indirectly the G6 – though that’s hardly my fault – but the rest is lies. You will see. I have morals and I have integrity and you can’t take that away from me. Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re thinking I stole the VDE and took the pills, so who am I to judge? But that’s just lazy thinking. The VDE – well that was mine, anyway, and the pills – well, I didn’t know they were stolen, did I? It’s easy to say that I could have just told X and then maybe a whole lot of hassle would have been saved, but what would you have done in my place? Yeah, of course you would have done the same, whatever you say. Especially given X’s temper. I had been kicked around enough that day.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, yeah, still feeling, you know… not quite right

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, I don’t know. Never get ill, I’m one hundred percent fit. (This, bizarrely, was true). You’ve just gone white

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Don’t… don’t worry, I’ll be fine.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah. All right. Just don’t throw up over me, all right. Now… where was I?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Err… G6?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, that’s right, G6, it’s gone. And fucking Sally Evans let it happen.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… what’s G6?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He sniffed. Course. Course you don’t know. It’s from our pharma department…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But we don’t have a pharma department?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Another sniff. Yeah, we do. Well, kind of. It’s a collaboration with Department G.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Department G?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What the fuck’s wrong with you, with all the questions? Yeah, department G. Oh.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I didn’t think Department G existed, I ventured hesitantly. I thought it was just a myth? I thought it was shut down?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Fuck’s sake. Course it exists. What do you think, it’s just a story to scare your kids? Jesus, Sylvain, grow up. You don’t even have kids, do you? No, of course you don’t. Divorced, right, from Sylvia. Shame really, she was lovely. Still is I guess. What’s she doing these days? Maybe you could give me her number. (He started coughing and spluttering again and I couldn’t help notice the mess his spittle was making on my Persian rug). Shit. Shit. Listen. Sylvain. There’s a reason I’m telling you this.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. There is?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah. Look. Marks has gone. Evans has gone. Both shit. Couldn’t fucking trust them. I need someone I can trust. Need to get security under control. I mean. Jesus. First the invisibility cloak…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s not a…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, yeah, I know, fuck’s sake, that’s not the point. The point is first, that goes. And then, after we all know we need to get our security sorted, then, suddenly, G6, it disappears. Right from under our noses. Shit. Maybe it was Evans. Maybe she was working for the Russians. Maybe she got herself in on the back of stealing the suit and then she started. God, maybe I should sack all of them. Maybe I should deal with them…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What is it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. G6? What is it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s a drug. Experimental. Still being developed. Shit. I hope no bastard idiot actually takes it …. you’ve gone really white now. Fuck. Pull yourself together Sylvain. I don’t need you to be lily livered, I thought you were made of sterner stuff…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, no, I’m fine, really.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Don’t you want to go and throw up or something? Maybe you need a drink? Yeah. I could do with a drink. Do you have any of that decent stuff? What was it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Balvenie 50 years old….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, that’s right, go get us a couple of glasses

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I must admit he did have a point. We held a glass each – I guessed about five thousand sheets a glass – and the warmth of the alcohol helped me steady myself and refocus myself away from the darker thoughts that were flooding my mind.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Listen, Sylvain. I need someone I can trust. You understand me? You and me, we’ve been together, how long?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, exactly. Ages. Years. More than years. I can trust you, Sylvain. God knows I don’t think I can trust anyone else. You understand me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, that’s right. I want you to be my Head of Security.

I must admit I hadn’t seen that coming. As I replay that conversation in my head, I can’t quite believe it, the signposts were obvious, but I missed it completely. I do have to say though that the irony wasn’t lost on me, but right at that moment what he was offering felt like manna from heaven. Even my fears about what that strange drug was doing to my brain and my body seemed more manageable.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So. What do you say?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… I don’t know anything about security?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You probably know as much as Evans and Marks (he muttered). Seriously, Sylvain. Come on. Look, I don’t need you to know a lot about security. You’ve got loads of experts. Hell, fire them all and employ your own experts. I just need this to stop and I need someone I can trust.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… what about the project?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Get someone else in. They can work for you. They can do the day to day management. Choose who you want. What about that guy, that mate of yours, Jeremy…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Jeremy?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, not Jeremy, Justin. That’s him. What about him?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No. Terrible idea. He’s fucking useless. We should fire him. Just (waving his hands expansively around) … just choose someone.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Okay?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Excellent. You’ll do it. That’s excellent. Sylvain Jones, my new head of security. We’ll announce it tomorrow.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well. I’ll need to know things. Like, you know, Department G, and what this G6 drug does, and…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why do you need to know that?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well… if I need to get on top of this, I need to understand everything I’m dealing with.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. . [_I’ll give you level 2 clearance. That’s easily enough for what you need. Get to Department G headquarters tomorrow first thing. They’ll be expecting you. There’s a briefing on Project U.

Head of Security. Not bad for a failed engineer. Sylvain Jones, Head of Security. It had a certain ring to it that I liked. Sylvain Jones, Head of Security and Projects, maybe even better, though a little long. I wondered how long it would take to get cards printed, with some corporate logo on the front; maybe I would be upgraded to the thicker card, the cards that looked like you’d arrived. A quick text to James to get on it straight away. And also, to find out other critical stuff, like whether I could upgrade my car, move into another office, all the critical stuff. Sally’s office, come to think of it, was huge, the second corner office in the building (after X’s, of course, that managed to span three of the four corners in a bizarre L-shaped structure that also incorporated a bathroom, a gym (though why on earth he had decided to have that there was a mystery to everyone, and the rumour was that the protective plastic coverings were still on all the machines), its own lift, a balcony that looked out over the large inner courtyard, and a secret room that was the subject of many rumours, most derogatory and linked to X’s physical constitution).

Still, Sally’s office wasn’t bad; it had a large mahogany desk and you sat with your back to the window, which meant no one could see what you were doing on your computer… it had its own minibar, its own video conferencing facilities (not that I ever used them, but the important thing was that you had them, a little like those strange optional extras on your car that didn’t do anything remotely useful but were impressive), and it had its own outer office for James to sit in. I realised that I would need extra security and privacy for my secretive meetings with Department G, and made a mental note to add it to the list of things I needed James to get on with. I would send him a text tonight, he could get on with stuff whilst I went to the briefing.

Department G. Now there was something. The secretive, mythical department, even more secret than ours, the very heart of the Ministry for Rural Affairs. It had existed, or so some rumours went; before X came along (coincidentally, roughly at the same time as me). His predecessor, a man named Mark Smith, had been in charge of both departments, driven by a belief that bio-engineering was the future, and that by combining technical innovation with pharmaceutical expertise we would gain a significant strategic advantage. However, suddenly everything changed – Mark disappeared, and X came along, promoted from within the Ministry’s fast track programme, and any mention of Department G that may have existed was suddenly erased. I have no idea whether this is relevant – people like to make connections where there aren’t any – especially in our line of work, where everything is experimental, and therefore anything weird is probably something to do with something we’ve done – but, do you remember a few years ago, that Sunday morning, when people woke up to find the streets full of dead rats? Remember, right?

And then remember that there was a hastily put out excuse by the government about having been experimenting with a sewer cleansing agent, to make the city smell fresh and clean every day? And the rats not liking it and trying to escape, but it interfered with their metabolism? Or some such lame excuse that seemed pretty suspicious at the time, especially when X came in and told everyone that the Department G initiative had been scrapped by the government because it would have been too expensive, and that anyone we thought might have worked there was in fact lying and was being sentenced for treason, except for Mark of course who was being given a big promotion which meant we would never see him again.

And that was the last time anyone officially talked about Department G, though the rumours went wild, but, given that everyone had disappeared and no one really knew what to make of X at the time, they stayed very much underground. And now, positive confirmation that it existed and what’s more, I was going there! Another mental note, I would have to get James clearance, maybe not as high as mine, maybe level 3, I would talk to X in the morning about it; though come to think of it, I was Head of Security, I could probably decide things like that myself. I just started texting James when my phone started ringing… Sylvia? I wondered for a moment if she was phoning to congratulate me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hey, honey.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Her voice, in reply, was distinctly cold). Sylvain. We’re not married anymore. I hated you calling that even when we were, so please don’t anymore. (A bad start, really, and it was only going to get worse).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What’s up? (I continued, brightly).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What’s up (in a really rather testy voice), is that Louise is in tears, she’s desperate about Mark, she was expecting you to be here, because you said you would.

I really hate it when people emphasise particular words in order to make a point; it’s not like it isn’t clear enough as it is, but they feel that they have to rub it in, just to prove to you that yes, you are as bad as you think you may be, and I am going to make a point of it, just to clearly highlight the difference between us. She didn’t need to point out my weaknesses, they were clear enough and we’d been through them many times; what she was really doing was reiterating the huge gulf of morality, compassion and empathy that separated us, and by implication, her lack of desire to countenance a reconciliation. A clever woman, Sylvia, even for a quasi-vampire.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I thought you’d have wanted to be a shoulder for her to cry on

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ah. Sorry. Something came up. Shit. Shit. Shit. You’ve talked to her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’m with her. Silence. Then a sigh. Listen, Sylvain. I didn’t just call to have a go at you, though God knows you deserve it. I thought I better tell you she’s called the police, and they’ve been over here.

Ah. This really wasn’t good news. She calls the police and starts talking about Mark, and if they take her seriously, which they would, of course, because Mark’s a rich lawyer and he’s important and Louise can make anyone do anything she wants. Then they ask her who the last person was to see him, and she says it’s me, and then, before I know it, I’m implicated, and then I have to lie to the police, and even my job as Head of Security may not give me immunity from prosecution. In fact, what if X finds out about it and what if he changes his mind, and what if he does that before I’ve moved into the corner office and before I have had my business cards printed and before I have ordered by new black sports car, then all I would have had to show for all my efforts was the after effects of swallowing a strange pill, and, of course, maybe jail, if I had killed Mark, which was unlikely but which I definitely couldn’t rule out. I looked at my watch. 18:42.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Did she tell them about me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What, about how you followed Mark? I think she may have mentioned it (Sylvia sounded sarcastic). Look. I just wanted to warn you. I think they may be on their way to see you.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (The good mood that I’d got myself in since agreeing to meet Anna and then my surprise promotion evaporated, leaving me in something of a cold sweat). When? …

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How the hell should I know, Sylvain? Anyway, don’t worry, it’s not as if you have anything to hide is it. Except maybe you may want to hide that invisibility…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I interrupted her, deciding this once to let the question of its name go – although it did trigger a vague alarm about the whereabouts of the VDE – but I decided I would come back to that later). I’m coming over I blurted out.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I’m coming over. I feel bad about Lou. Tell her I’ll be there in five minutes!

I hung up and for the second time, rushed out of the house. I made a mental note to text Anna and say I may be a few minutes late, as I got in my car and headed over towards Lou’s house. My thinking was pretty simple – if I wasn’t in my apartment, the police wouldn’t be able to talk to me, and wouldn’t be able to start rummaging around in my things. I mean, they were hardly likely to break in, were they? It’s not like they had a warrant for my arrest or anything like that, and, fingers crossed, it wouldn’t come anywhere near that. No, I thought as I was driving over, the chances were that I hadn’t killed Mark, and even if I had, they would have to prove it, which was going to be pretty hard seeing as I was invisible half the time, and I couldn’t remember the other half. Flawed logic, you may be thinking, but it managed to rescue some remnants of the good mood I had been feeling earlier, and I was feeling good again when I pulled into Louise’s driveway and parked next to her huge black Mercedes.

Who killed the big bad wolf?

Time will explain. Louise sat in her living room, biting her nails, worry lines running across her face. She was bouncing up and down on her sofa next to Sylvia; I had never seen her so worried and not in control. It’s strange, I had always thought of them as an unmatched couple. When Mark had first announced his engagement (weeks after having met Louise, again out of character), his few friends had reacted with scepticism, expecting someone that reflected his own personality – petty, small minded, simplistic. That she proved to be witty, outgoing, bubbly even certainly took me by surprise, and I gave the relationship a year, maximum.

And OK, so I was wildly inaccurate but my instinct was still right – they were mismatched, they didn’t complement each other like some couples who are opposites (as I had hoped that Sylvia and I had, clearly wrong again) – instead they rubbed against each other, frictions that they initially told each other, and themselves, we endearing, but as the novelty wore off, became just that, frictions, which caused their relationship to be full of tension and negativity. I do admit to initial surprise with Lou’s mood when she first told me that she suspected an affair, and I was wrong footed again now, and consequently I found myself trying to recover lost ground by showing greater concern and real focus in helping to solve the mystery of Mark. Admittedly, it didn’t start so well.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What about calling his work?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. . [_Oh, thanks Sylvain, great idea. Why didn’t I think of that? Of course I called his work, I did that first thing this morning. This was going to be interesting.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So, what did they say?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Glancing up at me). Nothing. They said they couldn’t tell me anything. I said well what does that mean, and they said he was unavailable. I asked did that mean he’d actually come in this morning, and they said they couldn’t tell me. Some fucking secretary. I said to him, I’m his wife, goddammit, tell me whether he’s in or not! He didn’t come home last night and I don’t know where he is! The little shit, I could hear him smirking over the phone, with his posh accent. He wouldn’t have sounded quite so calm if I had been there in front of him, ready to stick my fist down his little mummy’s boy throat…But the little shit, he just said, I’m sorry madam, I need to apply the appropriate protocol. Do you have authorisation access? I mean, seriously? That’s what he said? Do I have authorisation access to know if my husband turned up for work? So, yes, I did call his work. And no, I don’t know anything else.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I coughed). I don’t understand…? I thought Mark was just a corporate lawyer who …. What does…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Sylvia interrupted). Oh, grow up, Sylvain. Of course he’s not.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… he’s my oldest friend.

Clearly this was a lie and disproves the maxim around saying the truth instinctively, but I must admit I was a little hurt. Mark wasn’t what I thought he was? I had known him for such a long time and spent many nights in his house, but he had lied to me and even Sylvia knew, and it made me feel small and stupid, which wasn’t fair. Sylvia must have caught something in my expression because she said Look. I didn’t know either, Louise just filled me in. Apparently, he does some secret lawyer stuff which we can’t talk about and his job’s just a cover. Don’t get all stressed about it, hardly anyone knows.

This was so unfair. But… I stammered, but, so do I and you know! I trust you all enough to tell you!

And you know what happened? Sylvia laughed, that’s right, she just laughed and she said Yeah, that’s true but you tell everyone you meet that you do some hyper secret work and not to tell anyone because it’s secret. And you even go around telling everyone about the invisibility cloak, which, I mean, is really secret.

It’s not an invisibility cloak…I started, but this seemed to stress Lou out. You see where this is going? Sometimes I really don’t understand people. If I hadn’t told Sylvia about what I did, or even Lou for that matter, then they would have started throwing all kinds of accusations at me. That I couldn’t trust them, that I was a typical man, tied up in his own world and so focused on his career that he puts its importance over his commitment to his family and friends. But I did tell them, and then I get the unsaid accusation that I can’t keep a secret, that I’m a typical man because I’m more focused on my own aggrandisement than the commitments I made to my work. That’s why the best strategy, the only strategy, is to never try to understand people, and do and admit to as little as possible unless you have to, or if it’s your own best interests.

I was still smarting at this, thinking of the best reply to make Sylvia and Lou see that I felt let down, and I felt hurt (of course I recognised that Lou had her own problems, but you can’t use that reason to completely abdicate responsibility for your actions) but then Lou suddenly jumped up, saying something about getting a drink to calm all our nerves – which I must admit was an absolutely excellent idea – and as soon as she left Sylvia stepped up to me and smacked me, hard, on the cheek.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What the hell was that for?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Get a grip, Sylvain, (as if I was supposed to deduce something from that).

I was about to protest but she gripped my arms, hard, and said Look. I know you, Sylvain. Lou tells me you don’t know anything, but you do, don’t you? You followed Mark, though Christ knows why you thought that was a good idea, and you saw something didn’t you? Her voice was trembling and angry. Look, you better tell me, and then we can work out what to do.

And this is another thing. I’d only talked to Lou on the phone about what had happened and had barely said a word to Sylvia about it, but somehow, she knew. I mean, don’t let them tell you women’s intuition doesn’t exist. If there was ever the need for proof of it, there it was, and if I had been quicker, I would have bottled it up and sold it to the Royal Society. But I am quick, and I glanced over towards the kitchen door to see if there was any sign of Lou coming back.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Look (talking quickly) I didn’t see much, but I did see him chat to a girl.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Sylvia caught her breath). What girl?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The girl at the party, you remember, the other week, when we were all here. You remember that girl, short hair, dark features, that Mark was talking to all night?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Sylvia nodded). The one that you started chatting to, right… The one you must have really pissed off because she wouldn’t look at you for the rest of the evening.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I gave Sylvia a look). No, I don’t remember talking to her at all. I’ve no idea who she was?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Sylvia sighed). Whatever. What about her, anyway?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, well, I followed Mark to this hotel, and he met her, and then something went wrong with the VDE and I headed home. That’s all I know. (My earlier vague worry about the VDE suddenly became a bit clearer, in that I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. Maybe somewhere in the flat. I made a mental note to check).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Sylvia took a deep breath). Shit. So, he was having an affair.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, you don’t know that

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sylvain, don’t defend him. I mean, he leaves in the middle of the night, meets a girl in a hotel, and… I mean, what the hell else could it be?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Still no Lou.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You’ve got to tell her, Sylvain. She needs to know.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I scratched my head). Well, let’s not be hasty. Listen… do you know who she was?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, I don’t know. Mark and Lou invited her. I thought she was a friend of yours, to be honest. I thought she worked with you? I think they thought, Mark and Louise, you know, I think they thought, you and her…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Some noise from the kitchen, and I talked hurriedly. Oh God, why hadn’t I realised). Do you know what her name was? I didn’t know her… That doesn’t make any sense

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Erm… something weird. Let me think, yes, Angel, I think, that was her name. Angel Marston or something like that. Why doesn’t it make any sense?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why doesn’t what make any sense?

Lou was holding a tray with a bottle of clear liquid (no label) and three glasses. Sylvia gave me a long look, which said you better start telling her but just at that moment there was a loud ping from my phone and I made some excuse about checking an urgent work mail.

Dear Sylvain, thanks for letting me know you were going to be late, but it’s been over an hour now, I’ve drunk most of a bottle of wine and I really would like to know if you are planning to turn up. Anna.

Shit! I looked at the time – 19:45, and no x’s behind her name! I could not believe that I had forgotten about my date with Anna, it was completely unlike me – but then to be fair, I had had a stressful day and I was sure Anna would understand. I tapped out a quick reply saying I would be there right now and was rushing out of the door to the confused shouts of Sylvia and Louise. I got in my car and drove as quickly as possible to the centre of town, pulling up outside Bar 45 and making my way in.

Where do you run, if you don’t know what you’re running from?

It’s fair to say the evening didn’t go as well as planned. It got pretty clear that Anna had no idea who I was and had mistaken me for someone else; I, on the other hand, recognised her instantly and saw that she hadn’t changed, except for losing the almost magical glow that used to hover above her, I guessed, to the demands and trials of the realities of life. She made a valiant effort to reconcile her idea of me with the disappointing reality that sat in front of her, and I guess the one positive I can take was that she definitely didn’t place me as one of the pathetic creature who used to worship her from afar. It seems that she had taken me for one of her brightest research students, to whom I bore a passing resemblance (I remember the guy, one of those super keen jerks who hung around with her, trailing her with a bunch of other super keen jerks, in a pack of groupies. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had had t-shirts printed in her honour; fans of Anna D; Anna D on tour, you get my meaning. And you’re thinking hey, well what’s the difference with what you did – I’m not so self-unaware to miss the irony of what I am saying, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t prevent me from recognising other people for what they are.) Our conversation became very stilted very quickly, when she started asking me about all the other sad guys I used to hang round me, how’s John and how’s Fred and how’s Alan and on and on it went, and there’s only so many people you can say you’ve lost touch with before you start to seem like a complete loser… it didn’t get any better when she, out of desperation I think, started asking questions about my social life – wife? Divorced. Kids? No. Hobbies? Just listen to Queen.

The disappointment in her face became more and more obvious as I think she was trying to work out whether I was not who she thought I was or else whether I had failed miserably in her expectations and the early promise that she had seen. To be fair, those initial questions were just the warm up, as what she had really wanted to know was how my dissertation had turned out, whether my pioneering research into the impact of sleep deprivation on the quality and lucidity of dreams had achieved any results. Buying time, I expressed surprise that she wasn’t at the forefront of research on the subject and didn’t know everything there was to know about it. She sighed, and she began talk surprisingly openly about the course her life had taken. When she was at university, she said, almost at the end of her PhD, she said I may remember that she left suddenly; in fact, she said, she only finished her PhD several years later. When I asked what happened, she laughed and started talking.

Well it will sound strange now, and I still can’t quite believe it myself, but I had a breakdown. It was probably down to all sorts of reasons, but it was finally triggered by one specific incident. As part of my final thesis, I was giving a lecture on the power of dreams. It was quite core to the success of the thesis and my PhD, my tutor was there as well as some guests from the Research Institute that I was hoping to join. I really wanted to make a good impression, and so as part of it I invited members of the audience to come and share their experiences with me, and the rest of the class. I remember it clearly, it was intended to be an experimental exercise in mind therapy, where I drew out some key themes and built up the audience’s perception of their understanding and ability to influence their dreams.

It sounds quite old hat now, but at the time we all felt it was quite ground breaking and I was really excited, if a little nervous. It started off well – some of the students were really quite engaging and we got a good discussion going, and I felt everything was going according to plan. We got to the last person that I invited to join me; I don’t know his name, I never knew it in fact, but he was definitely not from my department as I knew everyone there. I even struggle to remember what he looked like, I don’t really remember anything about him, actually, except that as he sloped down to the stage, I thought he looked – well, bland and ordinary. We started with the usual questions, and he gave monotonous one word answers, so I thought about wrapping it up, asking him politely to leave – I was sure my tutor would understand that not every discussion would create results. But then for some reason, he suddenly started talking, and he talked for what seemed like hours. It’s funny, because now I really don’t remember what he said, although it affected me deeply at the time. It was as if he had opened up his soul and spilled it out, and what came out was dark and dangerous and horrible, and it made me feel sick to my stomach. I remember looking into his eyes at the end and wondering whether I was looking at a psychopath, and I knew that I couldn’t carry on. I just had to end it there – it just felt to me as if this had made a mockery of everything that I was studying, and I had to get out.

I left the stage and hurried out, leaving the lecture unfinished and my tutor shocked and angry. It was terrible, but I couldn’t do anything about it, I just had to get out of there. I caught my tutor’s eye just as I was leaving the auditorium, and I knew this was something that he wouldn’t forgive me for, but at that moment I just didn’t care. And you know what was truly shocking? That student, that little shit, he came up to me just before I escaped. He touched my shoulder and it almost made me sick, and, can you believe it, he asked me out for a drink…. Anna shuddered visibly …. God, I wonder what happened to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up as a serial killer or something like that, at the very least he’s probably in jail. Ah. I wish I could have blamed him for everything, if only it was that easy. I know I have to take some responsibility, and it was far more complicated than one conversation at one lecture, but that failure led directly to my being suspended from my course, failing to go through the requisite interviews and tests to reinstate myself and dropping out. My tutor, I remember, he begged me to come back, I was one of his brightest students, he said, I couldn’t throw it away. He was a lovely man, and completely genuine, but I couldn’t forgive him for not having supported me when I needed it, and I think part of the reason I left was to spite him. I hate myself for it, but I have to admit it to myself, and that’s why I talk about it openly, I need to acknowledge my own failure and guilt. I ended up drifting for a while; I moved back in with my parents and stayed in bed, then I tried to go travelling but I really struggled with it.

I was half way across Europe, sitting in a bar in the centre of Warsaw on a December night, by myself, drinking a beer, when I looked my own reflection through the bottles behind the bar, and I realised that I was rushing to each new place just to avoid facing up to my disappointment about the old one. I think I had thought that I could replace my exploration of the mental with that of the physical, that I could find the place where they meet and rediscover my passion there, but instead I just found the boring and the banal, I found people whose interests stretched no further than the contents of the bar or the shape of my body, whose attempts at conversation hadn’t evolved beyond the puerile, and yet they considered themselves enlightened.

I searched for solace and understanding in the churches, the monuments, the buildings of ancient cities and the beauty of nature, but I found only blank empty spaces. And so that night, after I had fended of the attentions of some lonely businessman on expenses, and the sly grins of the local boys, I found a quiet bar where people didn’t seem interested in disturbing me and the owner was happy to speak his few words of broken English to me, and other than that leave me be with my drink and my copy of The Bell Jar.

I would love to say that I had an epiphany that persuaded me to return to the fold, but that wouldn’t be true. I just saw my current path for what it was in its futility, no better really than the adolescents struggling with their growing pains. I did return to England, and I trained and worked as a nurse and there, yes, I have found some sort of fulfilment, although it’s not what I expected and not where I still see myself ending up. In fact, I haven’t worked in the field of dream psychology since that day in the lecture hall, although I have thought about picking up my PhD again, recently. It’s funny, isn’t it, the trail that runs through my life from that day until your mail. I meant to ask, were you at that lecture?

That lecture, I asked, a chill running through me. The truth is that I do remember that well, I think I’ve mentioned it already, I remember Anna of course but I also remember saying things that surprised me, that I didn’t recognise, although I could never have imagined it having such a profound impact on someone. Now her curious gaze made me uncomfortable and I needed to shift the discussion on.

Sorry, I said, I thought you said you did get your PhD?

She smiled sadly and admitted to me that no, that wasn’t entirely true, that she was still struggling with turning back to face the darkness, even though the light she thought she had found was grey and murky and cold. That’s why, she admitted, she had been excited to receive my mail, she remembered me as having vision, determination and passion, as would anyone who forced themselves to stay awake for two weeks in the name of science. It was just as I left, she said, you were in the middle of that experiment, and I didn’t ever get the chance to find out if you finished it successfully.

The statement was left hanging in the air, and I didn’t know how to fill the emptiness. I will tell you that, I said, but first it would be great if you would help me with that question I asked, about retrieving lost dreams.

She gave a crooked smile and told me that yes, she had done some research on it early in her PhD, but it wasn’t altogether successful. The challenge, she told me, was controlling the impact of the treatment. Electro shock therapy combined with the right sort of drugs, in the right quantity, at precisely the right time, could unlock the memories and force them back into consciousness. However, results were haphazard and hard to predict, and some of the consequences were unexpected. Our understanding of the brain’s function was much greater now than it was in those times, she told me, partly due to some pioneering work on thought control that she had heard about, and she was surprised that I was asking about research that she had carried out over twenty years ago. They were playing around in the dark then, experimenting with things they didn’t really understand, and eventually they shut the project down because of concern about the long-term impact on some of the subjects. They had successfully rescued memories in just over five percent of cases, but the incidents of failure and the side effects were serious. There were instances of long term memory loss, real memories and dreams being intermingled and confused, and even stranger cases. She recalled a very disturbing incident of time distortion, where the timeline of memories in a particular man became jumbled up, and an interesting phenomenon where the man’s brain replaced memories that didn’t fit in the new timeline with distorted memories that did fit, which resulted in his whole history being rewritten and rewired in his brain.

But the most worrying case, the one which caused them to shut the project down, was about a man whose entire personality changed, as well as his entire memory system; memories reinvented to support his new view of himself. She shivered as she remembered this, and described how her tutor called them in one day and said it was over. He took all their documents and instructed them all to erase any other personal records they had, and not to discuss the findings with anyone. He didn’t exactly threaten people, but he made it clear that it would not be in their interests to talk about their findings, that the subjects, even though they had been volunteers and were completely aware of the risks, may feel some personal antipathy towards Anna and her team.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But why are you asking me this? Surely you have access to much newer data?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Did you ever feel threatened by them?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, I can’t be completely sure, but I did always wonder whether that student who destroyed my life was somehow related to it all – maybe not one of them, maybe his brother or best friend or something like that. And then there was… (She trailed off into the distance).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Go on, (I encouraged her, but she had already moved on and fixed her eyes back on me).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Tell me. Tell me really, why are you here. Tell me who you are.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But I’m… (I started and then I stopped, not even knowing who I was in her sad, dull eyes, that managed a tear now).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maybe you’re one of them, she whispered. I did think that, I did wonder, when I got the mail, it just didn’t sound right, and you, you’re not right. So, tell me, whoever you are, are you satisfied? Did you get what you want? Will you leave me alone now?

I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing, just stood, turned and left. I hadn’t even touched my glass of red wine and it stood now, glinting in the soft light and lonely and lost as Anna.

Is she an angel?

Sylvia was waiting for me at home, which was a nice surprise. Even though I’d moved out of the family home, I’d had her a set of keys cut for my new place, just to make her feel welcome. She occasionally came round and let herself in, and we would talk into the night about things, nothing consequential, but it made me feel like we were still close, and her too, I guess… you sometimes need someone to talk to, who you can be unguarded and open with, and I have always prided myself on being a good listener. I felt a little shiver of excitement when I saw her car parked outside my house, and the disappointment and strangeness of the evening faded a little.

She was sitting in the living room, a glass of wine in her hand, but she looked worried and guarded. Where the hell have you been, she asked heavily, turning hope into fear. I told her in vague terms that I had to catch up with an old friend, and thankfully she moved on, scolding me for leaving her and Lou so suddenly and not seeming to care that my best friend had disappeared. When I said that she knew he wasn’t my best friend, that I didn’t even like him, she waved her arms dismissively and told me that may be true, but then he was my only friend, and would I please start taking this more seriously.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. And anyway, I’m not sure the police would be that impressed if they knew you were linked with a missing person and there are bloodstains all over your flat.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (It took me a second to process this). I’m sorry, are you accusing me of killing Mark? The sentence seemed ludicrous even as I uttered the words.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Don’t be stupid, Sylvain. Of course I’m not. I’m just saying that if anything has happened to him, and the police see your flat like this, they may start poking their noses in, and finding things that they really shouldn’t find, if you get my drift.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I got her drift). I’ll clear it up.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, and I wouldn’t hang around, if I were you. They seemed pretty keen on talking to you when they were at Louise’s last night.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I told her not to involve the police.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, what did you expect? She’s really worried. I can’t believe you didn’t have the guts to tell her what you saw.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I was just thinking of her… (I started, but decided not to finish. Of course she was right, I thought, and there was also, if I admitted it to myself, a little bit of hurt that she was so upset. I went with my favourite reply, changing the subject).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I can’t believe Mark lied to me about where he works. Maybe let’s check out Arnold and Partners.

Sylvia raised her eyebrows but nodded. I fetched my laptop and logged onto their website. Sure enough there was a picture of Mark, his dark, handsome features accentuated in the professional photograph. We clicked on the link and it came out with the standard profile of a successful lawyer, which I skim read.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So, this is all completely untrue?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I guess. Maybe he works for the same company as you.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I don’t work for a company. I work for a government department. A secret government department.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, yes, we all know that, dear. It’s got to be this woman, she’s got to be key to it. You have to tell the police about her, even if you can’t bring yourself to tell Louise. All right, Sylvain? Promise me? For everything we had together, it’s important. If they have run off together, then Louise has a right to know, and if something’s happened to Mark, well, she could at least help point them in the right direction. Sylvain? You will, yes?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. . What was her name again? Angel…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Angel Marston.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You know anything about her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, I just got introduced to her at the beginning of the evening then that was it. I think it’s you who should know more about her… What did you say to her, I mean, she looked like she wanted to kill you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I didn’t say anything to her (somewhat defensively). I don’t remember her at all (and this was absolutely true. I’m sure Sylvia must have mistaken her for someone else.)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Try googling her?

I tapped her name in and the results flashed up. There was a picture of her – definitely her – and underneath – Angel Marston, Senior Project Manager, Calypso Software Solutions. Isn’t that… Sylvia started?

Calypso Software Solutions was, supposedly, a software house that specialised in development of systems for agricultural optimisation, which included things like calculating the optimal number of cows to make a farm collective profitable. I knew about it because it was one of the cover companies for the department I worked for – when we had to pretend we weren’t associated with the government – a little bit of an in joke that X thought up when he took over and the department started again from scratch; putting the r in rural, he used to say, though I had no idea what he meant. I nodded slowly, seeing this day’s rollercoaster take yet another bizarre turn.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But I have no idea who she is! I have never seen or heard of her. (And I thought, privately, how come she has her name and photo on the website when I have only managed my name, even after so many years).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, it seems like you do work with her after all. Too many drugs, maybe?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I don’t… (I started, but Sylvia put a finger to my lips).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (She leant over and kissed me lightly on the cheek). I’m going to head home, Sylvain. Call me tomorrow, all right? And Sylvain, clean this place up.

Good idea. Maybe I’d even find the VDE.

The truth about unicorns

I turned up early for the project briefing, which wasn’t like me, but I don’t mind admitting to you that I felt slightly intimidated as I stood outside the nondescript building that was, apparently, Department G’s headquarters. I smoked a cigarette as I waited, pacing up and down the street in the April sunshine and drinking a coffee to try and clear the fogginess from my mind. I had stayed up last night, staring at the shot of Angel and wondering why I didn’t know her, what she was doing at Mark’s party and what was going on between her and Mark. No matter how many times I’ve gone through it, I can’t escape the conclusion that Mark killed her and did something horrifying like dissolve her body in the bathtub of that hotel and maybe, just maybe, had some part of her, some sort of trophy, in that bag that he was carrying. What happened between then and me waking up covered in blood I still couldn’t work out, bar the obvious conclusion that I was still not willing to acknowledge.

Putting that to one side was clearly the best solution until I’d worked something else out, though I really did need to clean up my apartment – Sylvia was right about that. I had started to make a half-hearted attempt after she left, but the lure of whisky and contemplation of Mark’s misdeeds seemed altogether more attractive. Mark Forth, I thought I had known you, but it seems that you had many secrets. Bizarrely, I had found the prospect of him being a serial killer easier to fathom when I still thought of him as a corporate lawyer, dull and petty and narcissistic, but him being a government agent or a spy or whatever he was put a different complexion on it entirely, and I really didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe I would go to the offices of Arnold and Partners, maybe Louise was wrong, maybe it was all part of an elaborate ruse on his part and he’d be sitting there, in his big lawyer’s office, doing lawyer things and talking to other lawyer people and criminals.

Okay, so maybe there was an Angel Marston in our department – it was a big department after all, I didn’t know everyone there – and maybe it was a coincidence that she met Mark, maybe Sylvia just got confused about what she’d heard. Whoever said don’t believe in coincidence has no imagination, forcing themselves to see the world through the dull eyes of predictability, whereas life is in reality a game of chance and should be played as such, with the abandon and recklessness of a compulsive gambler. Unless it’s dangerous, of course. Or in any way detrimental to me.

I signed in at the building and was ushered into a large, airy room, with a glass table in the middle and screens all around and asked to wait here, please do not leave the room by someone small, young and efficient, before being left by myself. I wandered back out into the corridor in search of the loo but got slightly lost and ended up walking down a long, thin corridor with few markings and a door at the far end. There was a strange sign on the door that I seriously hoped meant the men’s toilet, but did look a little unusual. I tried the door and fortunately it was open, and it brought me out into a small room with a huge window at the end, a small desk and a computer sitting on it. No toilet, then. But I was here.

The door clicked closed behind me and so I walked over to the window and looked out. The window looked over a large, empty room, a little like a squash court, and if I’m honest my first thought was that I had walked into their gym area by mistake, and if so, there may be some toilets around. A closer look at the room and I realised this was completely wrong. The room had metal walls and a seat in the centre that reminded me immediately of an electric chair – not that I had seen one in real life, but you’ve seen I’m sure, like I have, those horror films which have these metal chairs, unforgiving and cold, with straps on the armrests and a helmet to keep the head from jerking too much in its final death throes. Just to add to the sense of foreboding, there were dark stains on the painted floor, spreading out from the chair as if unfortunate victims had bled out, struggling against the electricity coursing through their body and the knives ripping through their veins, seeing their lives leave them in the full horror of what was happening to them. All this was of course in my imagination only, and I must confess to a love of body horror, albeit on screen only – although I felt a strange thrill about what I was seeing and the possibilities it raised. As I watched, however, a door opened in the far side of the room and a man stumbled in – clearly pushed from behind. I say a man, although I couldn’t be sure – he had a black mask over his head, tied around his neck. His gloved hands were tied behind his back and he stood uncertainly, trying to regain his balance, half crouching in fear.

Someone else walked in and the door closed behind him – disappeared, actually, melting back into the metal wall, as if it had never been there. There stood a man, tall and slight, with a thin neck and a gaunt face, his black hair cropped short on his head. He smiled a cold smile on a mean face, holding his hands behind his back, and he was smartly dressed in what seemed to be an immaculate black suit, white shirt and black tie. He walked over to the prisoner and took his left arm. The prisoner jerked upright and tried to pull away but the man moved him with what seemed like huge strength, guiding him towards the chair and pushing him in. The straps tightened automatically over the prisoner’s arms and the helmet snapped over his head, pulling him back and tight.

The prisoner tried to struggle for a couple of seconds but quickly gave up and fell back, exhausted and defeated, into the chair. The man stood in front of him, reaching over and doing something that I couldn’t make out, but then he stepped back and stood to one side, giving me a clear view of the prisoner in his chair. There was a flicker to my left and I saw that the laptop had sprung to life, showing a white screen with a single window displayed. Commence extraction? was written there, and underneath were buttons saying Yes and No. I stared and the screen and back at the prisoner, silent and masked but for a moment it felt as if he was staring up at me in hope. Subtly the man shifted his position and looked up; our eyes locked and he gave a tiny nod of his head. I wish that I could say it was that command that made my hands move the mouse until the pointer hovered above the yes, and then click it. I don’t know, even, if what I was seeing or feeling was real, but I knew beyond doubt what would happen when I pressed that button and I did it just the same. The chair started to vibrate and the prisoner started to struggle in seeming silence against whatever forces were ripping through him. The man watched passively as the prisoner seemed to visibly shrink as if he was being sucked dry; his mask and clothes becoming baggy and his struggles becoming less visible under them, until eventually there was nothing except empty clothes and a trickle of a whitish substance that leaked from the trouser legs and formed puddles on the cold floor.

The man looked up at me again, gave a slight bow and walked away and I was left to study the puddles as they appeared to solidify and grow darker, adding to the stains of how many other victims that had been in this room. My trembling hand remained fixed on the mouse, holding me to account for what I had done. Then there was a click behind me and suddenly the small, young and efficient woman was by my side. She smiled efficiently and said “They’re ready now, would you come with me please”, I stared open mouthed at her and back at the screen, but it wasn’t there and I swung round wildly to see my surroundings had changed, and I was in a small, comfortable room with pictures on the walls, sofas for guests and a water cooler.

Are you OK, Mr Jones? my host asked, nervously, but my head felt strange as if I was running from something, as if the events of the last few minutes had just been a dream, as they became blurry around the edges and then more indistinct and then fused into one tiny black point that was trying to burrow its way into me, like a mark on my conscience that said forgotten but not forgiven. I stared at her then stared at my left hand.

I think I may call security, she said and I said No, no, I’m fine, don’t worry, sorry, just a bad turn, because maybe that’s all it was and maybe I didn’t know any different. I took a deep breath and followed her back into the conference room.

There were two people sat there – a woman and a man, both immaculately dressed, both serious looking, both on the right side of middle age. They both glanced at me, then back at the papers they were studying. The man muttered something about sitting, so I did, at the far end of the table, as far away from them as possible. They both carried on whatever they were doing, ignoring me, talking quietly to each other, jotting notes on the sheets in front of them. The woman was young, slim, dressed in a deep black suit, her handsome face serious, her hair long and extremely black, and I didn’t recognise her at all. The man, older, with cropped hair, slightly overweight and with serious eyes and, something about him did ring a bell but I couldn’t for the life of me place it. I glanced at my watch – 10:15 – fifteen minutes into the meeting and still nothing happening. My eyes started wandering around the room and lighted on a seemingly abstract picture of an old sailing boat caught in a storm, its hull broken in two and the sailors reaching up towards heaven for rescue. It was painted, though, in sparing detail, so that the waves were streaks of blue, the boat was made of swirls of lines and colour without specific shape or form and the dying men were half consumed by the clouds that seemed to reject their pleas. I found myself fascinated by it, thinking of the painter and whether he had felt that power over death and life as he had drawn it, and whether that translated into reality. I looked again at my hand – had I really killed someone?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman (coughing): We’re ready when you are

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me (surprised): I’m sorry?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman (glancing at man): I assume you have brought something to show us?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me (confused): Erm… no, I don’t think so?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man (sighing): If you’re not ready, why did you ask for this meeting?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… I was asked to join the project briefing?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man (glancing at woman): You were? Who by?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… X? I mean, Andy Smith, you know, my boss?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman: Department H? Why would you be here?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me (swallowing): Well… I’m his… I’m his Head of Security. We were going to collaborate on the security issues we’ve been having.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Man and woman talk to each other in low voices)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Give me a minute. (He pulls out a phone and talks, I can’t make out what he is saying. Finishes the call then looks at woman)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Fine. Fine. Seems like we need to cooperate with you on the security issues that you have been having.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: We’ve been having.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: That’s what I said.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: No, you said you’ve been having. I mean we, as in both our departments

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman (glancing at papers meaningfully): It would seem that your department mislaid first an extremely sensitive item of equipment, and then a sample of G6 that was in your possession. The fact that we have been working on that project collaboratively does not mean we share the accountability for your mistakes.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Seems like you have some big security issues, Mr…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Jones. Sylvain Jones.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man (scratching his head): Sylvain Jones? I remember your name. You joined just after I left, I think. But… you weren’t a security man? Weren’t you the designer of that invisibility device?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: It’s not an invisibility device, it’s a VDE.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman: And the difference?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Look. It’s just that…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Never mind. Are you the same man? Why are you in charge of security?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Andy thought I was the best man for the job.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman: He’s finally lost it. We should talk to…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Maybe later. Fine. (Big sigh). Fine. My name’s Mark Smith. I run Department G.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Mark Smith? You mean…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Man: Yes. Of course. This is…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Woman: Alice Stevens. I work with Mark.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: What do you do?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: That’s not relevant.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark: Right. Mr Jones. You have (he studied his watch) approximately ten minutes. What do you want?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… I thought this was a project briefing on Project U? That’s what Andy told me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: We don’t want to waste your time going through all our issues. Tell us what you want to know and we’ll do our best to answer it.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I need to know about G6. And Project U.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: Why do you need to know?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I need to understand why someone would want to steal it. What does it do?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: Do you have any idea who may have stolen it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I only started this job this morning. So, erm, no.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark (looking at Alice): You may need to work together on this.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: Really?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark: Why would anyone steal it? Unless…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: Yes. I know. You think it may be…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark (shrugging): It’s a possibility we need to consider.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice (glancing at me): Do you think he’s really the best they can do?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark: Well. It’s not like they’ve covered themselves in glory so far is it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: Oh God (then looking at me) … Listen. Jones. What we are about to tell you is in absolute strictest confidence. You understand? I know you have whatever level of clearance you think is important, but if this gets out, in any way at all, we will hold you to account. You understand?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark: And you don’t want to be held to account by us, my friend. Believe me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I understand.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Alice: Very well then.

So, here’s what I learnt, more or less. In fact, rather more than less. Department G always had a reputation for lunacy, which was partly why I was so surprised that it still existed. I guess we all needed people who would think the unthinkable and do the undoable, if only because everyone else was doing it too, and where would our strategic advantage be if we didn’t do what everyone else was doing, then do it again, then do it better. Or, more precisely, in a more extreme way. And so, Alice’s talk about alternate universes and infinite power and switching off elements of the brain and doing unspeakable things to test subjects didn’t even touch me; I suspected half of it was untrue and the other half just confirmed the banal cruelty of mankind and our endless quest for power. Who was I to judge, you may well ask – I was very possibly a killer twice over, the first time (perhaps) I killed Mark (then perhaps forgot about it), the second time (perhaps) I killed some sad prisoner in a mask and then of course perhaps I didn’t. But let me be clear that I’m not judging; I take no moral high ground, and even if I was (as I think is highly likely) completely innocent of those crimes of possible murder, then of course I condone murder, torture and exploitation on a daily basis simply by living in the west in the twenty first century.

That Mark and Alice and all their cohorts (and yes, Carl Alfred Thomasson, I include you in this, in case you ever hear this) have decided that the only way out is to build a bridge to an alternative universe and shove a few select people through so that they can go and fuck that one up too, but they can fuck that one up in their own way with their own specific brand of crap and maybe learn from the massive mistakes we’ve made in this one… so that when the fire burns and the lights go out and the temples crash down, it’s not their fire or their light or their temples, but someone else’s, because they’re the Gods this time and they will make the rules in their own image. I make no judgement except to say that, if nothing else, I realise that as God material goes, I’m not the place you should start, but then neither are these guys, whose self-obsession and self-reverence was screamingly obvious to me after only an hour in their company. After an hour, I also realised that I really didn’t care, because it’s someone else’s universe they’ll screw up and not the one I live in, and if, as seems possible, there’s an alternative version of me there, then all I will ask is that he doesn’t find a way to come back and track me down and kill me for failing to even try to stop these lunatics from doing what they were planning to do.

Actually, all I cared about really was G6 and what it may have done to me because that idiot Justin decided to steal it and feed it to me (sort of). And what they said about that was that it was still in development and its current effects were not entirely predictable; early trials had left subjects dead (a few), blind (many), mad and committed to an asylum (again, many), unable to distinguish between reality and dreams (many more), and sometimes in a state of occasional transference between this and one alternate universe which they were trying to access (a few). I didn’t dare ask how many test subjects they had got through, and what became of them, but I did also understand that these symptoms seemed to be on a timeline which worked in my favour (i.e. the first few ended up dead, the next lot blind and so on), and that the symptoms could also get mixed up rather than be purely linear (which didn’t work in my favour, especially when they added that this particular trait was greatly exacerbated when G6 was taken with caffeine, for reasons they didn’t fully understand) and that the alternative universe that sometimes opened up was one called Moondance – apparently, that’s what it had been named – which wasn’t their universe of choice for domination because it was a strange and dangerous place – but did have one thing in its favour in that it was the home to a certain mythical creature known as a unicorn – and they needed the unicorn in order to kill it, as the unicorn (or more precisely its horn) was the source of unfathomable power which they needed in order to be able to build a stable bridge to the universe they did want to go to, which they had named, in characteristic modestly, as G.

Of course, G6 also had all the usual potential side effects like paranoia and schizophrenia, but Alice only mentioned these in passing as if they were to be expected and not even worthy of comment. This is what Alice explained to me that morning in that meeting room, and she also explained that the loss of the drug G6 was a potential catastrophe that must be corrected immediately, and that they had their own super stealth team on the case as well, looking to bring the culprit to justice. Mark Smith added that although they remained sceptical of my ability to do anything remotely helpful to catch the thief, they were willing to extend the same offer to me as they did to the leader of that team – that if I brought the thief to justice (in its loosest sense) and oversaw the interrogation of said thief, or any other suspects, by any means necessary (and they had means) – then I would be allocated one of the places on the bridge to G. They let that hang in the air. You may have known all this already, of course, but you know what my first thought was? Stupid and banal, I know, but I thought if that’s what level 2 clearance gets you, what the hell do you get when you have level 1 clearance? That the world is secretly ruled by Godzilla? It honestly wouldn’t surprise me.

But seriously, I thought, they probably went way above what they should have told me. They could have told me anything, but their story was so far out and crazy that I thought it had to be true, or at least they probably believed it, and if the consequences were the same, then what was the difference really? You know why I thought they told me? I think it was pride. I think Alice and Mark got carried away, thinking here’s some grunt from Department H who thinks he knows things, let’s show him what real knowledge is and let’s show him how we are important, not just important, let’s show him how we are the makers of destiny. That’s a phrase Alice used again and again, the makers of destiny, as if they were something special, as if they were saying look at you and your pathetic career… head of security for some forgotten, lost department doing small, crappy things, and you dare to come and talk to us? Us? You talk to us as if you are an equal when you don’t even exist in our stratosphere. We are more than queens, more than kings, we are creators of a world and the makers of destiny. They forgot who they were and thought of themselves as the young gods, marching on invincible and not willing to acknowledge that they had been brought back to our own level through a small, simple mistake, had to rely on people like me to restore their status, and had to offer the elixir of eternity to the highest bidder. I left their offices feeling physically and mentally sick as I stumbled back to my own, pausing on the elegant stone steps of the Ministry of Rural Affairs to try and compose myself and decide what to do next.

The Young Gods

X started giving me a lecture how I was to show respect and not go barging in to the offices of Department G without so much as a by your leave, then start demanding answers from their senior officials, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, to throw up on the steps outside their – admittedly poky – offices. I did try and point out that it was him to told me to go to the briefing, but he was having none of it, and it did make me wonder if he was getting past it, if the years of physical and mental toil that he had put himself through were starting to have an impact.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Anyway (he told me, once he climbed off his metaphorical horse) they think they have a culprit.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Culprit for what? (almost spilling my coffee)

For the theft of G6, you idiot. Looks like you weren’t quick enough. They got a team together and went through all the records, CCTV, all that jazz that we should really have ourselves but we don’t (he looked at me pointedly), and they’re pretty sure they’ve got our man. Turns out he’s some jerk who has worked for us for years – for Department H, I mean – probably been pilfering our secrets and selling them to the Russians, I wouldn’t doubt. Don’t know who, exactly, but maybe if it’s not too much trouble you could find out? Probably him who walked out with the invisibility suit, I imagine. I mean, come on Sylvain, our security’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it? We leak more than a sieve. To be quite frank, I am surprised you can come in here, into this building, into my office, with your head held high in the mornings. Our security, frankly, is a disaster.

I did try and point out to X that I had been Head of Security for just under a day, but he wasn’t in the mood to hear excuses, he said. He had managed – as one last favour to me, because we went back – to get them to agree to let me sit in on the interview with the suspect – and I better be bloody grateful because he had to pull in a lot of favours and he wasn’t sure why he was making the effort, but he put himself behind his team. Get over there and get it sorted and don’t come back with any excuses.

I did start by saying that I had just left there and I was not sure I was entirely welcome, but he was already doing something else, so instead meekly I got myself up and shuffled out of his office. His secretary had already arranged transport and I found myself speeding back to the place that I had just left and being ushered in to an altogether different room. The young guy who met me outside glanced at the mess – someone seemed to have thrown up just outside the building’s entrance – and gave me a look that suggested he was just as disgusted as I was and he would make sure it was cleaned up, as a priority. The room that I was taken into was bizarre to say the least. It felt like the same size and shape as a squash court – I’m assuming you know what one of those looks like – with a concrete floor, dirty sheet metal walls and a large window at the top. There was a disgusting looking wooden table in the middle with three chairs around it – two on one side, facing the other. They looked stiff and uncomfortable and I hesitated as my guide ushered me into one of them, before sitting down heavily.

Coffee, he asked me in a sweet voice and I nodded. Don’t worry, he said, someone will join you soon, I really do hope you have fun, and he winked at me before leaving.

I sat all alone, wondering what was going to happen next and yes, of course I was worried, if you’re wondering. I don’t do nothing well, and I do it especially badly when I’m worried. I kept looking around the room; it seemed really familiar but I just couldn’t work out why. There were no doors – that was another thing that was strange – we had definitely come in through a door – of course, otherwise how would we have got in there – but I couldn’t see any opening at all, not even a faint line hiding a door. I was going to get up and look but something kept me back down on that chair, as if I’d been ordered to sit and not move; something also kept making me glance upwards towards the window, some occasional flicker of light, as if I was being watched. The guy never turned up again with a coffee, and I was becoming unsure what to do – even my phone didn’t get any signal, and there was no Wi-Fi, nothing. In fact, the battery seemed to be draining extremely quickly.

He sat thrashing wildly around, unable to move from his chair, though I couldn’t for the life of me work out what was keeping him there. I wondered whether he was struggling to breathe with that hood tied fast around his neck but for some reason I couldn’t say anything or make him aware of my presence. I was sure I’d recognised the person who brought him in – big, stocky lady, crew cut, tough, weathered face, she had glanced at me and nodded, then pulled him down, and left. I’ll be back, she’d said, and I wondered how as there didn’t seem to be any door, any opening in the metal walls of this cell. Did I call it a cell? Is that what it was and if so, what was I doing there? I was absolutely sure it wasn’t me who was being interrogated, I felt in fact that I was the one who would do the interrogation, and this really worried me. But then I was absolutely sure I knew who was underneath that mask, it all made perfect sense now. They had caught him, thank goodness really and they were going to make him pay for his crimes. I wondered if they had worked out exactly how many women he had killed – there was of course Angel Marston, he had very definitely killed her and dissolved her body in the hotel bath. I wondered if they had procedures for such things and whether the police would let them know that’s what happened. I wondered if the hotel manager’s manual covered such things. Do you need to replace a bathtub that has had a human body dissolved in it? Do you need to inform guests, does there need to be a little plaque or reminder somewhere? What would you do, what would you say if you took a bath in that bathtub and then found out later that someone had been dissolved in it by a serial killer? Could you sue the hotel? Damages for psychological distress? And what about the physical implications? I mean, if a body dissolves, surely some of it would be absorbed into the bathtub itself, but which part? If you ended up getting a terrible disease, could you try and prove that it was because of that, because you shared a bathtub with a dissolved corpse? I wondered whether there were any cases of that happening, and if not, whether it was something worth pursuing? Maybe I could go to the hotel and have a quick chat to them – not blackmail exactly, more being paid for giving them advice and for not letting other people know what had happened. It wasn’t a clear moral question, it was – “Maybe we could start now?” She was drumming her fingers on the table next to me, which to be frank was giving me a headache. I reached for my coffee but it had gone cold, which was especially annoying as it had only just arrived. Small swirls of undissolved powder were sitting on the top, making little beige whirlpools in the blackness. I really didn’t want to drink it, to be honest, but it would have seemed like an abuse of hospitality not to so I closed my eyes, swallowed a mouthful and put the cup back down. Yes. I do remember what happened, and yes, this is a full and fair reflection. Pay attention. The prisoner had stopped writhing so much but what I didn’t know was why; I hoped he wasn’t dying. Well, Mark, it’s your own stupid fault. How many other innocent women did you kill? How many were you planning to kill? Sylvia? Was she on your list? Lou? Were you going to kill your own wife? I shuddered at the thought, realising we had probably stopped him just in time.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Are we quite ready (and I looked at her properly for a second).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I was wondering if you recognised me (she smiled).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl Makepeace?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. At your service.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I heard you went off to work for someone else?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ah, I’m just helping out some old friends for a bit.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But didn’t we frame you for the theft of the VDE?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well. Perhaps. But I wasn’t enjoying my previous career, and that, you know – well, it helped – give me a push, if you like. Plus, I’d never seen Argentina before.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So it all worked out pretty well in the end, I have to say.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, you could say that. Surprised at you, though. Never took you for someone who was in security. I always thought you were an inventor. You know, that invisibility cloak thing that (and she nodded at the prisoner, a reference I didn’t quite understand).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me? Well, maybe. But, you know, X, he was….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (She laughed). Say no more, which I didn’t really understand either, but I took her advice.

Now, she said, shall we deal with this? She reached over to the prisoner and very quickly his head was free of the mask, he was coughing and spluttering and generally gasping for breath, but it was a very strange thing. Because, in front of me, tied up and waiting to face justice like a prisoner, was not Mark. Not Mark at all, in fact. I must admit my initial reaction was one of anger, as I was sure they had made a mistake and had picked up the wrong man. And then I got confused, because as this man was trying to settle himself down, with some reasonably forceful help from Beryl, it dawned on me that I did actually recognise him, that I knew this man and that was altogether even more confusing. I glanced at Beryl to see if she was surprised, but no, she seemed to be completely calm and reassured by this man’s presence. What did worry me, though, was that he was staring at me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain? (His first words after getting his breath back). Sylvain?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl was looking at me now. You know him? Of course you know him, he works for you, doesn’t he?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, he doesn’t. He just, works, you know, with people that I know. (I shook my head). I can’t even remember his name.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain! But it’s me, Justin! Sylvain, tell her! Tell them! I even warned you, when I found out! This is all a mistake! Jesus, Sylvain, help me! They want to kill me!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Justin! (Of course, it was Justin, I remembered now, how could I forget, Justin, who gave me the… Oh. This was actually quite bad).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Shut up Justin, (I snapped, and forgive me, but I reached over and smacked him across the face. Beryl nodded appreciatively).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Tell us (I snarled). Tell us what you did.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. We know what he did. That’s not the question. The question is why, and who he gave them to, and how much they paid him. (Justin looked like he was going to cry, he gave me a beseeching look and his body started to shake, as if he could shake his way out of there).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Do you definitely know it was him? (I asked in vain hope).

She glanced at him. Look, Sylvain, I like you, you were always all right to me. Some of the others, they treated me like shit, when I was a cleaner, you know. Even in your department. G is fucking horrible, but even H was bad. Even people there thought they were a cut above the rest, used to leave some of the rooms in such a state, you know, couldn’t even be bothered to do the basics. G was worse, though. G, Jesus. We used to tell each other stories about it. The guys that used to have to clean the labs. Body parts. Blood everywhere. It was disgusting, and I think they even made it worse deliberately sometimes. But I liked you. You were all right. You always used to smile and talk to me, remember? Yeah, course you do. Let me let you in to a little secret. I used to have a book, write down the names of everyone that really pissed me off. Because someday. You know what I mean? But you, you were never in that book, so you don’t need to worry. They only reason I’m doing this is money, not love, you understand. They came back to me and they said Beryl, you were great, can you help us out with this little – issue – we’ve got. You know why I said yes? Two reasons. Cos I figured, got to be an inside job. That’s the first. And if it’s an inside job, chances are it’ll be one of those pricks that used to make my life hell, and what I can do with a pair of pliers and half an hour to even the score. Second reason is money. Course it is, what else. They offer you that thing? (she smirked). Yeah. You know, bridge to a new world? Ha fucking ha. Like there’s any way in the world I would want to go and start a new universe with them? I mean, are they serious? I’d pay them to fuck off and go to some other universe, just so long as they leave me alone. I mean, you can go if you want to, you can have it. Listen, Sylvain, they offer it to one of us, you take it. As long as they give me the money. That’s fine by me, understand? I mean, I’d question your judgement and everything, but you never know, maybe you could find a peaceful hole and a nice girl and make something of it before they turn everything to a primeval swamp of shit. But listen, Sylvain, that’s fine, I won’t judge. I’d do that for you. But you’re shit at security, Sylvain. Honestly. Look. I looked through the data, l looked at the records, it’s this guy. No question about it. Thought he had his tracks covered but he wasn’t clever enough. G6, straight into his pocket, clear as day, I have the proof, if ever I needed it say, for a trial, not that that’s at all relevant, but you know what I’m saying? So, look Sylvain. They’re letting you sit here with me because they’re trying to act like they’re being cooperative, but basically, they’re saying just listen, smile and nod, and get involved if you need to do things like torture, but don’t, for goodness sake, pretend you know anything about security. When they first told me, I was, really? Honestly? Then they told me it was you and I relaxed. You know why, Sylvain? I mean, yeah, I said I know you were nice to me and everything. But it was more than that. When they first accused me of stealing that cloak, you know, I was livid. I swore I’d get my revenge back and I did, with Jared at least, though I’m not finished on that score. But then I found all the documentation, all the minutes and everything, everything they used to pin it on me. There was fuck all there, of course. But you know that, don’t you? Because I saw the transcript of that meeting, the one, you remember, Sylvain? You remember, the one where you were the only one – the only one who said no, who said, but we can’t do this, there’s no evidence at all against Beryl. You were the only one to stand up for me. And for that, Sylvain, I’m grateful. Really. Honestly, Sylvain, if I (she nodded at Justin) find out this little shmuck had sold the G6 to you and you were feeding it to the Russians, I wouldn’t shop you. I believe in loyalty. I’d make sure he (nodding at Justin again) was never, ever able to tell anyone about it, and that would be that. In fact, I’d probably make it worse for him, just to teach him a lesson. You get me? Sylvain? You ok?

I guess I was – better than Justin at least, who had gone even whiter. I’m fine, I stammered and tried to give Justin a surreptitious smile, just to show there were no hard feelings.

I’m not going to go into the details of what happened there, I’ve decided I’m really not into torture and I very much hope you’re not either. Respect to Justin though. Beryl tried to get something out of him, she tried very very hard, but he gave nothing away. He begged for forgiveness, and he begged both of us for mercy – mainly me – but what was I to do? I had no power there. And Beryl, to be fair, explained this to him. She also explained that her hands were tied, and she was sorry, but it was beyond her control. I did manage to stop some of the excesses, I have to say. When Beryl was about to start using the pliers on his teeth, I did say, look, maybe you’ve gone far enough, I know Justin and he’s a weak man, he isn’t going to tell us anymore. Justin’s line was that he took the G6 himself – recreational use (at least that’s what I think he said, his words became less and less coherent) – and that was a good explanation, though I could tell Beryl didn’t quite buy it.

He also denied any involvement in the theft of the VDE, which again she didn’t buy, and they both were surprised at my line of questioning about serial killers. But Beryl eventually sighed and put her tools down. She looked at the bloody mess that was Justin and put her hands on his cheeks. His eyes were full of fear. She pulled the hood back over his head and got up. Justin started to let out a low moan, and Beryl gently took my arm and guided me up. Let’s step out of here, she said softly. I’m done with him. It will get a little messy now. Justin was led away gently, it seemed, by a sour faced man in a strange suit, whom I thought I recognised. I looked at Justin’s shaking body as he stumbled towards the door, and I felt Beryl’s hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t you, she whispered, in a surprisingly gentle voice; but wasn’t it? I could see the pleading in Justin’s face as the torture became more and more cruel and I did nothing about it. What could I have done? Well, lots of things, I think. I could have begged Beryl to stop, for all she felt she owed me, I could have confessed and thrown both of our fates on her mercy, despite what she said. I could have told her I knew it wasn’t him, in fact it was me, I took the G6. Instead I sat and watched as she put him under more and more pressure, as she subjected him to unspeakable acts, and I did nothing. I looked at my hands and for some reason I thought – hands of a killer – I shivered and looked back at Beryl.

What will they do to him? I asked, and she breathed softly, and took my hand and led me out of that room.

Will they let him go? Are they going to take him to a hospital? I asked as we stood outside a café, smoking French cigarettes and drinking black coffee on that cold sunny day.

You’re a good man, Beryl replied. You try and do what’s best. She took a deep breath, and glanced around her. There was no one there, it was eerily quiet. I talked to him, she said. I talked to him before you got there. That – what you saw – it was for show, he’d already confessed everything. He told me it was you that he got the G6 for, he told me he’d been getting it for you for weeks, he was getting seriously worried about it. He told me he had warned you not to take it, as soon as he found out what its side effects were, but he thinks you ignored him and did anyway. She put her hand up to stop me speaking, though I had no idea what to say, I didn’t understand why Justin would lie. He also told me, she continued, that the last time he got it for you, you were covered in blood and moaning about having killed someone.

It’s not true, was all I could say.

Beryl lit another cigarette, stepped back and studied me. Look, Sylvain. You don’t need to worry about Justin. You know what they’ll do to him? No? Well, I’ll tell you. They’re all just desperate to get to this place G, that they think they’ve uncovered. I mean, really desperate. You’d think they think the world was about to end and they’re determined to leave before it does! They’ve got the technology working, but the big problem they’ve still got is energy. This bridge – well, you’re a scientist aren’t you, you know this more than me – I’m just a cleaner – this bridge, they need tons, and I mean tons of energy to open it, and to get people through. And, well, this is going to sound really sick, but they tell me not to worry about the body, because you can suck, you know, millions of volts of energy from a human body. And that’s what they do. They put it in this kind of chair and literally suck it dry. I’ve seen it, it’s disgusting, it’s like the electric chair, all metal and wires and everything, and you literally see the body shrivel up and end up a pool of, I don’t know, body stuff, on the ground. Beryl sighed. At least there’s no evidence. So when you ask me, will they let him go? Are they going to take him to hospital? No, they’re not. They’re going to put him in one of those chairs, and they’re going to suck him dry and that’s the last we’ll ever see or hear of Justin. Look, mate, I don’t know what you’re into but if I was you I’d stop being into it. These are not people you steal from and get away with it. You know what I’m going to say, I can only protect you so far, you know? You do know that, don’t you, Sylvain?

I feel guilty about this – I really do. I am not a killer, I believe in the sanctity of life and the right of people to live. I don’t believe in a life broken and caught, in the twists of fate that mean we can look forward without the fear of looking back, but… But. I could only imagine Justin’s screams and terror in whatever hell they had put him in, but it did mean that no one would be looking for me in connection with the theft of G6. And, remarkably, none of its symptoms seemed to be manifesting themselves in

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who is this? (Louise repeated, for maybe the tenth time).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I keep telling you, this is Beryl. We’re colleagues from work.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. And you’re sleeping with her?

Well, no, of course not, I replied, but the evidence seemed to point to the contrary. We were both naked under the covers and we were both sweating and the atmosphere was heavy with sex, though when Beryl looked at me I couldn’t for the life of me remember actually… having sex with her. There was an empty bottle of what may have been gin, or vodka, on the side table and maybe that offered an explanation. Beryl didn’t even react; she pulled the covers back, and stepped out of bed, completely naked, walking past Louise and back to the living room where, presumably, we had ripped our clothes off in naked passion. I smiled and shrugged to Louise, hoping that at least she would do me the decency of stepping out of my bedroom, or getting my clothes for me, or something similar. For all the history that passed between us, getting up and out of bed, my naked body in front of her, was something that I just couldn’t do. But she didn’t do any of these things, instead she stood there, hands on her hips and an expression of utter disappointment on her face, watching me.

Well? As if that was enough of a question. As if it was now down to me to explain everything to her. What do you want me to say, I thought, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t say this out loud. Sylvia kicks me out and you reject me, Lou, and I’m on my own and I need something, so what right do you have to judge me, Louise? What right at all?

Somehow when I tried to say this to her, it came out as Sorry. Louise gave me a look that suggested sadness and disappointment and resignation all in one, and she turned her back on me, just enough to allow me the chance to scamper out of bed and put on the first clothes I could find – black jeans and a white t-shirt and no pants, because the pants were in a drawer just in front of where Lou stood and that was just not going to happen. She turned back just as I was pulling the t-shirt over my chest; she walked over to me, close enough that I could smell her perfume and see the lines under her tired eyes.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain, you had better start telling me what’s going on.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, look, Beryl and I know each other from way back, you know, we both got drunk I think and well, Sylvia has divorced me, so….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, Lou interrupted. I’m not asking about that. I don’t care what you do… Well, I do care, but I mean, if you want to shag everything that moves then…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What do you mean? Shag everything that moves? It’s just once. It’s not like I…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Enough! Lou shouted and I stopped. I’m not asking about her. I’m not asking about that. I’m not here for her, or that, or you. You understand? Stop it, Sylvain. I want to know what you know about Mark. And why there’s blood all over your apartment. Did you? I mean, Sylvain, I know you don’t get along. But I said follow him, I didn’t say…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How do you know about that?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Jesus, Sylvain, you did something to him?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, no, no. All right, look. Sylvia told you, right? She didn’t reply and that was enough. All right. Well, I can only tell you what I told Sylvia. I did see him, that night, last night. I followed him into town, and then into a hotel. The Inn Street Lodge, you know it? Of course. Then I followed him there, and I followed him inside. And he met this girl there, what’s her name, Angel, you know, the one at your party, with cropped hair and those weird eyes, she was there, and I don’t know what happened between them, but then he was there and he was covered in blood and she had disappeared, and that’s all I know, Lou. I swear, that’s all I know, and that’s what I told Sylvia. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.

Lou was silent. (Now in my mind I was thinking, is that what I told Sylvia? Did I tell her all that? I’m not sure I told her the bit about being covered in blood. Shit. Keep control, Sylvain.) Beryl was there. I hadn’t seen her come back in, but there she was, in her clothes, smoking a cigarette. She looked at me, then back at Lou, then at me again, and she put her hand out as if she was going to say something, then she stopped. Then she tried again.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who’s Mark?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Lou’s husband.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who’s Lou?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I nodded at Lou. Beryl took a breath). Oh. So you two aren’t…? (Letting the question hang in the air).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Lou actually laughed) No, no, no! (very quickly).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, that’s a relief, Beryl smiled. Thought I may have to get my machete out for a minute. She turned to me. Sylvain, listen, mate, I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but your flat, it’s a bit of a mess, right? I mean. Your kitchen. There’s a t-shirt on the floor, and it’s covered with blood. And then, well, there are bloody handprints that lead out of the kitchen, up those stairs and to this weird room. I mean, look, I’m not judging, but it looks like you’ve killed someone in here? You know. You should get this place sorted. I know some people, I’ll get it sorted for you. Beryl scratched her eyebrows and glanced at Lou. Can you trust her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes! Yes! You don’t need to worry about her! (Lou made a strange noise and we both looked at her. She had gone very white).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. She OK?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I shook my head). I don’t know. Lou… Lou, you OK? (I gently took hold of her and led her through to the kitchen, and helped her lower herself down to the small sofa). Lou, are you OK?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. B(eryl knelt down by her, looking into her eyes. She murmured something, then slapped her, hard, on the face).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I shouted) What the hell?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ouch! (Lou’s eyes came back to life and she stared at Beryl). What the hell was that for, bitch? (Not what I was expecting)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Concentrate. What’s the matter with you? (Lou ignored her and looked at me).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Did you kill Mark?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What? No! Of course I didn’t!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain. I’m telling you. You got jealous and lashed out at him, didn’t you? Look at your apartment. Look at your clothes. (We all glanced at the bloody t-shirt that refused to leave its place on the floor of my kitchen.) I mean, Jesus, Sylvain, I never took you for a murderer!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Me, screaming) It wasn’t me!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Lou, screaming) Murderer!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Me, screaming) Take it back!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Lou, screaming) You’ll pay!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Shut the fuck up, both of you! (Beryl shouted and we both stopped).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Shut up, (Beryl hissed. She turned to Lou). Tell me why you think Sylvain is a murderer.

Well, Lou said, and she went into a diatribe about me and my personality, and how Sylvia had left me because I had no feelings and no soul, and how Mark had stuck by me as a friend even though I had gone off the deep end and tried to drag everyone down with me even though I secretly coveted his wife (i.e. her, which was completely ludicrous as she had come on to me that time and I had had to push her back and stop her doing something stupid) and despised him for being a lawyer when I was some high flying geek with my invisibility cloak and my stupid ideas and my experiments with turning my wife into a vampire and god knows what other maniac schemes I had to make myself seem better and more important when none of them wanted it. And how I couldn’t stand losing, and how I took out all my desires and frustrations on those around me, and I wrapped it up in what I called my strength and my discipline but in fact it was just my ego and my narcissism, and now it was enough. And how she had looked at Sylvia, shrinking and shrivelling under the crushing force of my own pathetic ego until she had found the strength and the courage to let go and to move on, but still despite everything, Sylvia had worried about me and looked after me, and made sure I didn’t retreat back into my own world as I had done in the past, but instead she had dragged me places and tried to get me to meet people, and how Lou had even helped.

Even at the last party I went to, at her house, they had tried to set me up with a lovely girl who even worked at the same place as me (not closely, thank goodness), but that I had seriously freaked her out and then pestered Sylvia, and when that didn’t work, I had started to come on to Lou, who had had a little bit too much to drink and was worried about Mark, and who, for some reason, ended up confiding in me. She told me about her sleep problems and how she had seen Mark get up in the middle of the night and disappear somewhere, and how concerned she was; Mark had a stressful job and was finding life really tough and she was worried he was walking the streets looking for comfort and for sanctity against the madness of the world, when all he should really do is call his best, his only friend, but of course it would be too much to ask me to take any accountability and give anything back to Mark, he who had been such a friend over the years.

And she recalled how I had begged – yes, begged her – to let me help – God knows why, she said, she should have realised then not to trust me – I said I’d follow Mark, and find out what was happening, and I’d talk to him and take him out for a drink. Please, Lou, let me do this for you, for him, I had said – apparently – I had held her hands and looked into her eyes with my false French charm and begged her. I had told her that I had stolen the invisibility cloak that I had built (of course that was a secret, but I couldn’t help bragging about it, so everyone knew) … (at this point, I have to note, Beryl looked at me again with what I am sure was a half-smile – and that I would track Mark down, and sit him down, and we would talk it through, and everything would be all right. And for all my broken promises and self-indulgence and my generally just being shit, she had thought I was being sincere and had agreed.

And then, of course, Mark had disappeared, hadn’t returned the following morning, and she knew, she just knew, that I was wrapped up in it. Every time – he had never stayed away before – yes, he had his faults, Mark, yes, he could be selfish and forgetful but his heart was in the right place – and he had always made sure, whatever the circumstances – that he got home or at the very least let her know where he was. It was me, Sylvain, who had planted the insidious idea into her brain that perhaps Mark was seeing someone else, having an affair; wasn’t, I had asked, that the most obvious explanation, wasn’t she being over indulgent of Mark…shouldn’t I go and find out what he was up to, and I would put it right – she didn’t need to worry, I would talk to him and I would bring him back, and I would make it right. And like a fool, she had believed me. And Mark was gone and my flat was covered in blood and what was she to think? The question hung in the air like a wisp of smoke as Lou stared at me, accusingly. I didn’t know how to handle this latest development, or, honestly, understand why Lou seemed to have lost her sense of reality, and to have painted me in such a light around things that just weren’t true.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But Lou… I started, and then stopped, not sure what else to say. Beryl asked me if I had killed this Mark, better to say it now and we’ll deal with the consequences, she said, but my denials sounded hollow, even to my ears, and I wondered (for the first time?) if I could have actually killed him, if I was capable of such a thing.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So what I hear you telling me, Beryl was saying, is that you don’t know whether you killed Mark or not. You followed him and you saw him with this girl and then they both disappeared.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes! Shouted Lou, they both disappeared, and then he (she pointed venomously at me) – he! – turns up covered in blood claiming not to remember anything. You know that girl – she even worked at his place, she was lovely and sweet, Mark knew her as well, somehow, I don’t know exactly – but Mark said to me, why don’t we invite her to the party, it would be good for Sylvain to think about someone new. And then, I don’t know what he (another spiteful look at me) said to her, but she wouldn’t talk to him, and Mark had to calm her down and…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But it can’t have happened like that! I shouted. I mean, I found them together, then Mark, he was covered in blood…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So you say! Lou screamed, but you’re the one with the bloody t-shirt aren’t you!

Beryl smacked her hands together – Enough! We’re not going to get to the bottom of this here, are we? Beryl looked at Lou. Do you have a photo, any info about, erm, Mark? I can get someone to look at it. No, I can look at it myself. You (she turned to me) – get your story straight. And get this place cleaned up. Thanks (getting a photo from Lou – then a silence – then a deep breath) – I know this guy? Do I know this guy? For the first time, Beryl looked nonplussed – puzzled and even slightly concerned.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What did you say he did? (Beryl asked Lou)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He’s a lawyer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah, but … (I started, but Lou hissed at me).

Beryl looked at both of us, then turned to Lou. Look, lady, I don’t know you, and I’m not sure what’s happened between the two of you, but Sylvain, he’s my friend, and I look out for him. And I will help you find your husband again, if only for Sylvain’s sake, and because I think he needs to avoid getting any deeper than he already is. And I will find this girl, and find out what happened to her, too. But… you have to level with me, and tell me everything. Understand? Oh, for crying out loud what is that now?

Your one phone call, and the only person you can think of is me? What good am I going to do you, Sylvain? Seriously. I mean, I’m not even sure I want to talk to you. You lied to me, despite everything, didn’t you? You only told me half the story! Of course Louise talked to me, of course she would, what did you expect? What do you want me to do, Sylvain? You want me to find you a lawyer? I can try and do that. But that’s it, you understand. No more. The click then the purr of the dialling tone and I realised she’d hung up on me. After ten years of failed marriage and two years of failed separation, this was the first time, ever, that she had hung up on me. Was I to take this as a sign of things getting worse? As an inevitable step into the final death throes of our relationship? None of it’s true, I had wanted to say to her, wanted to shout. Whatever Lou thinks, she’s got it wrong! She was just confused, I don’t know why she thought those things, but I only wanted to help her. That’s all. I wanted to help her and I wanted you back, I didn’t want anything else, none of it, not the drugs, not the suit, nothing, I just wanted you to see me differently, I wanted you to realise that there was a spark inside me, I wanted you to see me with wonder and excitement, or at the very least, passion and rage, instead of sadness and disappointment.

But I didn’t say any of those things, on my one call, I didn’t say anything except It’s Sylvain, and listened to her breath catch and then the inevitable flurry that has just led me to here, and now. I was pulled back in, after a couple of minutes holding the receiver in my hand, expecting it to change its mind and reconnect me, and after the inevitable disappointment I found myself back in the interview room, as dull and nondescript a place as you can imagine. I wonder if ever there were a picture of Hell, it shouldn’t be of fire and brimstone, rather it should be the inside of a police interview room, painted in a dirty yellow, with a single lamp dimly lighting a broken wooden table and the uncomfortable chairs either side, with the dank smell and the sticky floor and the odour of cigarettes, burnt coffee and sweat making you want to retch. They put you in there and leave you there for a while, alone, with a cup of tepid water and an empty packet of cigarettes, and they wait and watch you. I am sure that this is what the police do and they are very good at it, and when I’m finished, if I’m at all in a position to influence these things I will find those policemen and I will make my own cell and I will make them suffer. Those policemen came in after about an hour of me staring at the wall, and they sat down opposite me. These were the same two who had arrested me ‘on suspicion of doing something very bad’ when they had seen the state of my flat, the bloodstained clothes and the bloody handprints, and concluded, perhaps not unwisely, that this may be connected to the disappearance they were investigating. The presence of Lou there as well, in a hysterical mood and only just being prevented by Beryl from screaming ‘Arrest him, he’s the murderer!’ really didn’t help matters, and so I was taken down to the station to help them with their enquiries. That this consisted of being thrown in a dark and dirty cell, left without water or food or light for what seemed to be days, then dragged into this room for questioning, seriously undermined the meaning of the word Help in my opinion, but they definitely weren’t asking for that. Then I got my phone call and then I was chucked in that room for an hour and then, eventually, they turned up, flash policemen in flash uniforms, wearing sunglasses in the dark, bristling with attitude and spoiling for a fight. Especially the one sitting to my right – Justin Dredd his name, and he wore his attitude like a sword and armour. He carried two cups of coffee, and they sipped them as they stared at me. The other guy, Phil Maker, started. I think they liked playing good cop, bad cop, except I think they were both bad, but at least Dredd didn’t try and cover it up.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: So, Sylvain, may I call you Sylvain, he started, it seems we have a bit of a situation. It looks like we found a bit of a mess in your flat, didn’t we? Apartment, sorry. I should really call it an apartment. I mean, it’s very nice, isn’t it, with its split level, and its balcony and its views of the hills. We like those sort of things, don’t we Justin? We appreciate the finer things in life….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Except when they’re a murder scene

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Now, Justin, let’s not jump to conclusions, let’s hear what Sylvain has to say first…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: I really don’t see the point, it’ll just be more lies

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: But I haven’t said anything yet!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: The sign of a guilty man.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Okay, Okay, let’s not get carried away. Although I must admit…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I didn’t kill him!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Oh. Oh, well that’s interesting. I don’t recall us accusing you of killing anyone, do you, Justin?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: (growl)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: But… you…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Enlighten me, Sylvain. Who is it that you didn’t kill?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me (gulping): No one?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (smiling): Oh, Sylvain, you’ll have to do better than that.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Just tell us what you did with the body.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: What body?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Whose blood was it on your walls?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Mine!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Go in for savage parties, do you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: You invited a few friends round? Thought you’d push the boat out? A few sex games, was it? Went a bit too far? Easy step from there to cannibalism. What better way to dispose of the corpse. You and your perverted friends cut him up and had him on toast? Then thought you’d go for a bit of gore fest decoration? Shame for you they all left without cleaning it up, and you didn’t think to, before we came calling. Think you’re above the law, do you, Jones? Is that it? Phil, these sorts of people really disgust me. They think they can do anything and get away with it. Lucky we turned up when we did otherwise he’d probably be standing for Prime Minister next. That right, Jones? You got political ambitions, have you? Think of yourself as a leader of men? Some leader you turned out to be. Think if the masses could see you now. Dirty, filthy, stinking, rotting, made to pay for your crimes. How do you feel about that, Prime Minister Jones?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (head slightly in his hands): Justin, I think maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I don’t think we should go down the cannibalism route just yet.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: No? Then what did he do with the body?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: We’ll get to that. (Turning back to me) Now, Sylvain, what can you tell us about Mark Forth?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Well… he’s a good friend. Erm, he’s a lawyer, with Arnold and Partners. We… we went to university together, and you know, we’ve been friends ever since.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: And…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: And… well, Lou, that is Louise, his wife, she told me he had disappeared. Last… Thursday?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: And what can you tell us about Mr Forth’s disappearance?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me (sweating massively): Erm… nothing? I mean, I really don’t know anything!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Nothing. Well, that’s interesting. Are you sure about that?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Yeah… you sure?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… I think I want to talk to a lawyer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Oh, Justin. He wants to talk to a lawyer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Our company not good enough for him?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Apparently not.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Stuck up little runt.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Now Justin, he’s not that little.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (caressing a fist): He will be when I’m finished with him.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (raising his eyebrows): Thing is, Sylvain…We have a little bit of a problem there. You see, your friend Mark Forth, he was a lawyer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: All the way through.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Great lawyer, apparently.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: And a loving husband.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Great shame, really.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: He’ll be missed.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: So you see our problem, Sylvain?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… no?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: A lawyer disappears, presumed dead…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Eaten by your cannibal friends

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: We can’t just give you another one when one’s disappeared.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: It’s not like they grow on trees.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: So I’m afraid you’re going to have to do without… unless of course, you can tell us where Mr Forth is.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: I told you… check his stomach.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Maybe later.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: But I didn’t kill him?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: You keep saying, Sylvain. You keep saying. But then let me ask you this… if you didn’t kill him, how come it’s his blood all over your t-shirt?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (smirking): Not so cocky now, eh?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: We have the DNA evidence, my son.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: You do? But that’s… that’s just not…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Yeah, you’re right, we don’t have it yet. But it’s only a matter of time. So why don’t you just confess and we can all go and have a beer, what do you say?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I’m sorry… you don’t have it?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (leaning forward conspiratorially): Well, no, not yet. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, and in any case, it’s just a formality. So, look, do us all a favour and make life easy for everyone. We’ll make sure we look after you, won’t we, Justin?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: I’ll send you a Christmas Card every year.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: There! That’s the spirit!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (his phone ringing): Shit. (Answering) Yeah? What? (Then, exasperated): What? (Then, resigned): Yeah, yeah, all right. (Then putting his phone away and looking at Maker): Little twat’s lawyer’s here.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (Amused): Really? Looks like you lucked out on this one, Jones. We’ll be back.

You know what I thought? I thought that Sylvia had come through, and despite her harsh words, had found someone to represent me, someone who could crash through the barriers and obstacles and help me out of here. And I guess, in a way, that’s what happened. But it certainly wasn’t Sylvia that engineered it, and it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. You see, when Messrs Maker and Dredd had taken their leave of that cold room, the door swung open again and standing in the entrance was the familiar figure of Mark Forth.

Hello mate, he smiled as he parked his bulky frame on one of the chairs opposite me, laughing as it creaked under his weight. I hear you’re in a spot of bother, and that maybe you need a lawyer. Turns out I’m a lawyer, and, you know, I thought maybe I could help. I wanted to be speechless. I should have been speechless. I mean, thank Christ, I thought.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark. Thank Christ. You can get me out of here. Oh, thank God.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Whoa, whoa, there my friend, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s have a nice chat first.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But Mark, you’re alive, and they’re telling me that they think I killed you. I mean, just tell them. Surely they know who you are? Tell them, right?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Mark smiled and studied me, and he nodded, ever so slightly. Then he sighed. Ah, Sylvain, my friend, I wish that it were so simple.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It is!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, you know what, I thought we were friends, I thought we were really good friends.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. We are! (I was desperate, and he smiled sadly).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But, from what I have heard, you tell people that you don’t even like me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What? No? Who said that? It’s not true… we go way back, Mark, way back! Remember all those times… (I trailed off, struggling to remember any of those times). Remember… I looked at him lamely and his ruddy cheeks and his healthy complexion and I could have cried. What do you want, then? (I felt defeated)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. He smiled – I’m your lawyer!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But you told me you can’t help me!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Good point! (Mark clapped his hands). We’re just here for a chat. So… what did you do to Angel?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Angel Marston, remember her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, of course I remember her!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (He looked at me seriously). Now, Sylvain, you need to be honest with me. You talked to her at the party, you started telling her stuff that goes through your head, apparently, you wouldn’t stop talking and she got a bit freaked out, and I found her, out in the garden, chain smoking cigarettes. Poor lass. Took me a while to calm her down, to be honest, Sylvain, you need to treat people more carefully. I must admit, she was very grateful, she saw the fun side in me that she was hoping to see in you. It was me that invited her to our party, to be honest, I felt sorry for you after Sylvia ditched you. I suggested it to Lou – someone from Sylvain’s work, I said, lovely girl, I’ve met her once or twice. Lou thought it was a great idea. You should be more grateful to Lou. She cares about you. What’s the matter, Sylvain? Lost your voice?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… but… you killed her. I saw you, you were covered in blood.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Mark sat back). But she’s fine, Sylvain. She’s back at home, I think.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, I shouted, not Lou, I mean Angel, I saw you!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Tut, tut, Sylvain, I think you’re getting confused again. It was you that was covered in blood, not me, remember? I was just trying to clean up your mess. But, look, Sylvain, that’s not what we are here to talk about…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It isn’t?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No, no, of course not. Look, I have a few things to do, and it’s important that I get them done. That’s why I took a… leave of absence, so to speak.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. That’s why you disappeared, you mean? Leaving Lou frantic with worry, wondering what the hell has happened to you!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I think she’s clear what happened. Mark was calm. She’s convinced you killed me in a jealous rage.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I stared).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Oh, there’s lots that I know, he smiled. Now… to business.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What do you mean, to business, Mark? Seriously, what do you mean? All you need to do is go out there and talk to those policemen and tell them you’re alive and well, and then go and talk to Lou, and we can all be friends again…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Mark sighed again). Ah, my friend, wish that it were so easy. But what would we tell them about Angel?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, you tell me! What happened to Angel? I saw you, I saw you… (and then I stopped because I wasn’t exactly sure what I had seen).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Saw what, Sylvain? Mark was doleful. You saw me in a hotel with her. Yes, that’s true. And even that isn’t what it seems, I wasn’t sleeping with her. You’d jump to that of course, wouldn’t you, but you’d be wrong. It was far more complicated than that…she was having real issues, I won’t bore you with the details, you could have asked her when you had the chance anyway, but she needed help.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. In the middle of the night, Mark! You met her time and time again, in the middle of the night! How can that be talking about issues?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Details, Sylvain, you wouldn’t understand. The fact remains that you’re the last person to have seen her alive; in fact, you’re the last person to have seen me alive, which is not the best position for you to be in, my friend. You understand me?

Well, frankly, I didn’t understand, and I told him, again, that all he needed to do was… But he batted me away calmly. This wasn’t the Mark that I knew. The Mark I knew had his faults, many faults, that I’ve talked about many times, but he was normal. He was a corporate lawyer in a big firm, he drove a big car and lived in a big house and had a lovely wife that he didn’t deserve, he threw dinner parties and entertained guests with his funny stories and his big laugh, and yes, maybe he had an affair with a girl that he had supposedly set up with me, but he didn’t do this. He even looked different, the lines on his face were deeper, the colour of his eyes was brighter, his body was tauter, his clothes were different. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe this is the effect of taking G6, it’s transported me to a different universe where everything has changed. And then, I thought, what bollocks, and of course I was right – then at least.

Is Mark a serial killer?

I return to this question, for I still don’t yet have a satisfactory answer, but I am definitely leaning in direction of Yes. Mark says to me – let me explain our business. I have things to do. I’m an important man, more important than you can guess, and I don’t mean as a partner at Arnold and Company, you understand me? I need to get things done and I don’t have a lot of time, and I don’t need Miss Beryl Makepeace chasing after me. I understand she’s working freelance, as they say, on your behest, and I also understand she’s quite a determined lady. I would therefore very much appreciate, Sylvain, if you would be able to ask her to desist in trying to track me down. I am told that she is very persistent, and it makes my life…complicated. You’re following me, Sylvain? I would like you to ask Miss Makepeace – no, let me be clear – instruct Miss Makepeace – to stop her current project and focus on something else. You are to make it very financially attractive for her to do this. Do you follow me? I did follow Mark, but I couldn’t understand why he expected me to agree, especially as he seemed to have no intention of declaring himself alive, or of confessing to Angel’s murder.

You know, Sylvain, he continued, we go back a long way, don’t we? You remember the times we had at university? Good times, weren’t they? You know, it’s funny, I don’t really keep in touch with anyone from those days, except for you of course. How about you? Still see any of the guys from the old days? Who was it that we hung round with? Jerry and Carl and that lot, yeah, they were ok, weren’t they? I wonder what happened to them? And what about you, you little devil. All those women you chased around? Come on Sylvain, you can be honest with me, what have you got to be afraid of, it’s not like you’re married to Sylvia anymore is it? Still have a little black book with phone numbers, or a list of targets? I guess it’s not like that anymore, is it. I wouldn’t know, of course, being a happily married man, but I’m assuming it’s all social media now, all Facebook and Twitter and who’s following who and who’s done what today. I guess you can stalk people virtually, can’t you, unlike the old days. Who was that girl you were stalking? You were fair obsessed with her, if I remember right, in our final year, weren’t you? You used to say it was as if her feet didn’t touch the ground, quite poetic for you, I think. Didn’t you go to her lecture one time, and make a real tit of yourself with her? What was her name, Sylvain, what was her name? Anna, right? Yes, that’s it! Anna Dunnsbury! Of course, I remember now, she was gorgeous, wasn’t she? You remember her, right, Sylvain, of course you do! I wonder what’s happened to her now, I wonder if maybe I could get in touch. Perhaps we could have a late-night meeting in a hotel somewhere, wouldn’t that be lovely. Just me and her and the contents of my bag. Oh, look, is that the time. Think I better be going. Tell you what, Sylvain, for old times’ sake. Tell you what. I’ll make sure someone has a word with our friendly policemen, see if they can’t catch you a break this time. I’d really appreciate if you could go and have a word with our mutual friend Miss Makepeace. Oh, and give my love to Lou.

Moondance

Dredd’s final words to me as I left, hurriedly, and re-joined the human race, were See you soon, loser. Not that encouraging, I admit, and even less when I stood on the desolate pavement outside the building that I had been housed in (black brick, no signs or notices or anything giving an indication of what it actually was), in the driving rain, with no one waiting for me outside. Surprised? Yes, of course I was, I still live in constant hope, and somewhere in my mind I was sure that Sylvia knew I was being released, and knew that I would want company, and knew when and where to find me, and I expected to find her black Porsche parked there, waiting for me, a shelter against the rain and the torment of that day. In my mind, I tried to explain to her what had happened – that Mark was alive, that he had come to see me, that I was sure he had killed Angel Marston and, I thought at least, he had threatened me unless I stopped Beryl from trying to find him. Give my love to Lou, he said at the end, Sylvia. That’s what he said, give my love to Lou – as if he was teasing me, as if I knew she’d never believe me and throw it back in my face. What could I do, I didn’t have a choice but to try, so I flipped open my phone and called Sylvia’s number… it rang twice and then went to voicemail, clearly a sign she didn’t want to talk to me and didn’t mind me knowing it.

Sylvia, hi, look, you couldn’t pick me up, could you, I’m stuck out here and it’s raining and I really need to talk to you. I carried on walking for five minutes and then called her again – straight to voicemail this time. Listen Sylvia, I really need to talk to you. Mark’s alive, I met him! Seriously, honestly, I know this sounds completely crazy but he’s just been to see me in jail, and then I was let go. Sylvia, please, we need to talk!

I knew I was rushing my words amid the driving sound of the rain and the manic sound of my voice, but I figured Sylvia would at least respond to what I had said, if only to tell me I was mad, out of my mind, toys in the attic. Sylvia didn’t really think I was a killer, surely, she knew me too well, but what if Lou had been talking to her, telling her things, poisoning her mind against me, what if Lou truly believed that I lost control and killed Mark and Angel, what if she wasn’t just doing this to hurt me, and she told Sylvia and now they think I’ve gone off the deep end, what if they really believe it. I stopped on the pavement for a minute, looking up at the grey sky through my wet eyes and wet hair, and allowed the rain to soak my clothes and my body. I started shivering, at first a little and then uncontrollably as I gave myself over to nature as if that was a way out. Who was I, if not husband of Sylvia, friend and confidante of Louise and erstwhile companion of Mark, who was I if I wasn’t defined by these things. I had nothing else, no other real friends – sure, of course, I knew people at work and I had formed some vague relationships, although the only one that may in any way be meaningful was with Justin, and that of course wasn’t helped by his current state (i.e. presumed dead). I looked around me, realising that I must have walked quite far, because the building I had left was nowhere in sight. In fact, nothing was in sight, save the grey sky, the grey rain and the grey fields, and of course the empty road leading from nowhere to nowhere. I actually sat on the pavement, my arms crossed over my knees and my head bowed against the rain, and I closed my eyes and I waited. Somewhere, sometime later, through the cold of my body, I heard something, and eventually I realised that it was my phone ringing. I grabbed it with difficulty – my hands had become numb in the cold rain and the phone kept slipping out of my grip, but still it rang.

Eventually I got it up to my ear, and then it took me another few tries before I was actually able to answer it and get a Hello? out my trembling lips. I hadn’t checked who it was, that was way too much effort, but when I heard X’s gruff, angry voice and felt the crushing surge of disappointment, I realised, of course, that I had been assuming it was Sylvia.

Where the hell are you, Jones? he asked, why aren’t you in work? And then I realised that I had absolutely no idea what day or time it was, and so I could only answer with the feeblest of excuses that I wasn’t feeling well, again. X didn’t answer for a moment, but then Yeah, you sound pretty shit, to be honest, Jones. But I need you here. I need my security up to scratch. How did that interview go? Well, I take it? I hear the culprit was dealt with. One of our own. Justin Done. A shame when that happens. I always thought he was a good guy. Shows that you can’t really trust anyone. There was a crash of thunder… Are you outside, Jones… Are you…?

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen lightning up close before, but I hadn’t. My hair stood on end, and it was as if the sky cleared and everything, for a split second, became very still and tiny, as if we all squeezed into a tennis ball and were looking outside at a huge arc of light that exploded by me and sent shivers dancing right through me, and all the cold and the rain and the dark evaporated in the sense of wonder that I had, that I knew I was being ripped apart and there, then, in front of me, was a girl, standing in the middle of the road, facing me with her head bowed. The rain somehow cast a ghostly light onto her; her long blond hair almost obscured her face, but I could see enough to see her deathly pale skin and eyes that seemed to be on fire. By her side, stood obediently as the girl had her hand on its neck, was a unicorn. I looked, transfixed, as its eyes landed on mine; like the girl’s they appeared to be on fire, but unlike hers they burned with a malign yellow glow as they locked onto me and its whole body stiffened, and I could feel my body tense massively as I prepared for the inevitable charge. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at it, out of fear and of wonder. The girl whispered something in its ear and stroked its mane gently and then she looked back at me, and although she whispered through the rain, I could hear her clearly say Why are you here? What do you want? and I reached out to her because here, I knew, was salvation and here I could say to her I’m on your side, be wary of them, they want you and they want to destroy you, without really knowing even who she was or what I was saying, but I knew then that I was right and, if I did nothing else, I could at least try to save her. She spent a long time looking at me, and then she walked, so slowly, towards me, taking soft steps on the hard ground, the creature staying beside her, close to her as they approached, as they brought fire and warmth to me and the chill and wetness receded, as I found myself enveloped by them and their own. I found myself first getting to my knees and then standing as they approached, and then I could feel my body start to sweat and my clothes start to singe as I stayed there, transfixed by her eyes and by the burning presence of the unicorn until they were both so close to me that I could have touched them, if I had had the courage. And the girl looked curiously at me and the unicorn stepped that last step towards me and raised its head, as its horn came towards me and touched me on the forehead, and the pain was devastating and thrilling and magnificent as the sky exploded and the ground dissolved and my body tore itself apart.

Well, you know, I’m still alive and maybe I dreamt it, that’s what you may say, I guess, but who knows, maybe I’m completely wrong. What I do know is that I found myself standing outside my flat, the rain had stopped, the sun had broken through the clouds, but my clothes were sodden and dirty and my head felt like it had been in a vice. And Beryl was standing next to me, holding my arm, ushering me into my flat, and then

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What is that mark on your forehead?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What mark?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. We’re going to have to get rid of these clothes (looking at the muddy, wet, burnt mess that I’d had to peel off). Where the hell have you been, I’ve been trying to get hold of you. I’ve got some information, and I know I said I’d let that crazy girlfriend of yours know first, but I thought I should run it past you first. This guy, Mark Forth, I thought you said he was some corporate lawyer?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Did I say that, are you sure? I thought he was, I thought I should have known…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yeah (Beryl laughed uncomfortably) well he’s not. Take that one from me. He doesn’t work for that company, Arnold whatever. It’s just a front. He’s a hard man to find, and I’m still working on that, but if that gives you any comfort, it means he’s probably not dead. He’s definitely got something to do with your mates at Department G, and that tells me there is more to him than there seems. And that gives credence to your story. So don’t worry about having murdered him, comprende? At least, not yet. What did the police want with you, anyway?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What police? (though somehow I felt I should have known).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Look. I think maybe you’re feeling a little over stressed… I feel a little guilty to be honest, I shouldn’t have let you sit in on that interview, I’m really not sure it was your thing. I was doing it for you, if you can believe that. I just wanted you to see what it was like, that these people, they don’t care about you and they don’t care about life, except their own. They’ve decided on what they’re going to do, and they will do it, whatever you or me or anyone else says. And to be honest, let them. I don’t care, let them fuck off to the land of G or whatever the hell it is – rather they screw up someone else’s world than ours. But listen, mate, your friend Mark, he’s part of it, of that much I’m sure. Look, what we’ll do is this – I will find enough evidence to show his lady that he’s alive and you didn’t kill him. And then I will find evidence to show her that he’s betraying her. And then we leave it alone, because, to be honest, I want as little to do with this as possible. Are you ok, Sylvain?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Honestly, no, I’m not OK, I thought, and I think maybe I threw up and then I think maybe I remembered having seen Mark but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what we’d talked about, except… except…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Anna

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who the hell is Anna?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. We have to find Anna, please, take me there, drive me there!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Calm down, calm down, let’s just talk about this, you don’t want to be running this way and that looking for people. Calm down, tell me who Anna is and why you need to see her.

And I found myself telling Beryl that I knew Mark was alive because I had seen him, and that was it, she needed to stop looking for him, it was fine, he was telling me that he had just got lost and he was coming home and everything would be OK as long as she stopped looking for him, that she must promise me that she would stop right now, just leave him alone please, please would she do that for me. But Beryl looked for all the world as if she didn’t believe me, and she pushed me on a chair and slapped me around the face, hard, until it really hurt, then she went to my kitchen and brought something back and poured it down my throat, and she made me tell her everything again. And as I told her, the memories clicked into place, one by one, to start making sense. I told her about Anna – how I had worshiped her, and then how we had become secret lovers at university, and had kept in touch ever since, even through her many breakdowns, and how I had wanted to keep her safe, and care for her, and look after her, even as I met Sylvia and we were married, but then how we had lost touch and it almost broke my heart until she had written to me, a few days ago, out of the blue, and I had found her, and we were together again and everything was wonderful, until Anna started to lose her mind again and started accusing me of everything, of things that weren’t true, of things she said I had done but I hadn’t because all I ever wanted to do was look after her and all she ever needed was the purity of my undying love. Is that why you need to find her, Beryl asked, to put things right, and I looked at Beryl and I saw the flames and the fire and I thought yes, that’s why, that must be why, but there was something tearing at me and then I was saying no, that’s not it, she’s in danger, she’s in real danger and I have to help her before it’s too late! Why danger, Beryl was asking, insistent, why’s she in danger, danger from whom, how do you know, but it was too many questions that I just couldn’t cope with all at once.

We pulled up outside a small, battered house at the end of a cul de sac that had been through the wars. I am not someone who is really into description, but this road looked like it hadn’t been travelled down for half a century. There was grass growing through the tarmac, the few houses that were there were boarded up or burnt out. I was shocked that anywhere like this could actually exist, still, and why no one had come and redeveloped it; Beryl was thinking the same, it was clear, as she looked at me suspiciously.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Are you sure this is the place, (and I shrugged).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Well, it’s the address she gave me.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I thought you guys were very close, but you don’t know she lives in a tenement?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. We were, but we lost touch… I know she went through some hard times but Jesus, this is… (and then I stopped because I didn’t know what else to say).

Beryl shrugged and stepped out of her car. I say car, it was more like a truck, with wheels taller than most people and doors that were electrically operated just in case, like me, you didn’t have the strength to move them by yourself. It was big, black and boxy with blacked out windows and lights, and a sense of menace that stood in your way if you so much as dared to look at it. It had two steps to allow you to climb in and climb out without breaking your legs, and for that I was grateful as I followed Beryl to the front door of what appeared to be Anne’s house. 34 Ashlawn Gardens, the only house on the street to have any indication of being lived in, with curtains blocking the view through the grimy windows (which at least weren’t broken), and a path cleared to the front door, such as it was. It had been ripped off its hinges and hung dying, just waiting for a final rip to put it out of its misery and allow unfettered access to the dark corridor beyond. Beryl and I glanced at each other and there was unease in her look as much as mine. We didn’t have to go very far into the house to see that there was a very serious problem – that was made fairly obvious by the body lying in the hallway. Beryl knelt down by it and did a couple of things, then she got back up and looked at me, questioningly. It was Anna, of course it was, and she was very, very dead.

Fuck, said Beryl, sorry, and I realised eventually that she was talking to me. I stared at Anna, at her white face and cold eyes and I wondered exactly who she was, why she was lying here and what I was going to do now. Beryl held my shoulder softly. Are you ok, she asked, gently, and I smiled back at her. I mean, after all, I didn’t really know Anna very well, just a childhood crush, and I wasn’t going to waste tears on her except of course, for wondering why she was dead and what we were doing here. Beryl, somehow, seemed to think that Anna meant more to me than this, and she even seemed hurt when I pushed her away. It’s only shock, she said quietly, I’m so sorry, Sylvain.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Do you know who did this, I asked Beryl. Why would anyone kill Anna? and Beryl looked at me strangely yet again and led me into the living room of that run-down house, and made me sit on one of the, frankly disgusting, green sofas.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Take a deep breath, Sylvain, just hold it for a minute. We need to think. Why did you tell me Anna was in great danger? (And I stared at her and then I realised it was probably true, it was definitely true, and it all came flooding back to me).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It was Mark (I whispered), he threatened her.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Beryl nodded slowly) Yes, I thought so, but why?

But Mark had never told me why, and he had never explained why Anna, why someone I hardly knew instead of someone like…

Of course, she said, it was to stop me from investigating him, wasn’t it? She put her head in her hands, how stupid of me. But then why kill her in any case, why not…? She jumped up. Shit! We need to get out of here! she shouted, which I wished she wouldn’t do, because she had a really loud voice and I had a serious headache, and there was something else, really important, that I just couldn’t remember.

Come on, Sylvain, get up, we need to move! She was dragging me, forcing me to my feet, but I just needed a couple more minutes to sit down and take it all in, which she just needed to understand but we were on our feet, stepping over Anna’s body and towards the front door, and Beryl was cursing me, come on Sylvain, but it felt like my feet were lead, she was dragging me inch by inch and it was just too much and then there was someone else there and Beryl was shouting and this other person, no, two people, were shouting back and that’s when it got really confusing

It felt like I had just left. The room was cold and dank, painted in a dirty yellow, with a single lamp dimly lighting a broken wooden table and the uncomfortable chairs either side, only this time there were two of us on my side, if you include Beryl which of course you should. My favourite policemen, Dredd and Maker, were sitting opposite me, all cool in their fancy suits and their sunglasses and wearing self-satisfied expressions as if I was the one who had done something wrong. This time Dredd had a notebook in front of him, and was sketching a man being hanged at the gallows; he kept glancing at me, and then back down at the sketch, something which I didn’t take as a good sign. Maker gave me a big smile.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Well, it’s good to see you again, Sylvain.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: It is?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Yes, of course, we always like seeing old friends, don’t we, Justin?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (without looking up): Warms our hearts.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: Look… what’s this about?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Oooh… she speaks!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: Cut out the sarcasm, please, officer, and tell me why you have dragged us in to custody.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Well let’s see…. That may have something to do with the dead body we found at your house.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: It wasn’t our house.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Hmmm… I told you, they’re homeless, too.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl (addressing Dredd): Who the fuck are you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Now, there’s no need to take that attitude. We’re just having a friendly chat, aren’t we, Justin.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: I’m not feeling friendly today. Not with a double murderer in the room.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Good point, Justin.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Now just hang on a minute…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Now. Mr Jones. Let’s look at facts here. Were you, or were you not, found at No 34 Ashlawn Gardens, earlier today? Yes, you were. At No 34 Ashlawn Gardens, was there or was there not a dead body? Yes, there was. Was this body the body of Miss Anna Dunnsbury, or was it not? Yes, it was.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I want my lawyer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: You already have a lawyer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: No, I don’t.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (sighing): Sylvain, I’m afraid that’s not true. The last time you were here, oh, about… (checking his watch) six hours ago, Justin and myself kindly vacated the room, to allow you to speak to him. Didn’t we Justin? A court appointed lawyer, I believe. Not much cop, to be honest, but then you don’t really deserve any more, does he, Justin?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: (some strange noise)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Exactly. That he cannot be bothered to show his face now is hardly our concern. Now, enough pleasantries. Why did you kill Miss Dunnsbury?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: But…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl (in a cold, calm voice): We didn’t kill her. We turned up there, and she was dead already. I checked her pulse myself. We were about to call you before you…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Oh! You hear that, Justin? She was about to call us!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: I don’t recall giving her my number.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Good point. How did you have Justin’s number?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: Not you specifically but…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Changing your story?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Either that or she’s a stalker.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (turning questioningly to Dredd): How so?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Why else would she have my number? I don’t just give it out to anyone.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Hmmm. Good point. (Looking at Beryl) – who are you anyway?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: What proof do you have that we killed her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: I didn’t say you killed her. I said he (pointing at me) killed her.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: Same question.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: You his lawyer?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl (glancing at me): Just answer the question, fuckbrain.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Fuckbrain? Fuckbrain? I haven’t heard that one before, have you, Justin?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: I think this woman needs a lesson in manners (beginning to get up. Beryl stood up at the same time and they both faced each other for a couple of seconds)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Interesting as this encounter may be, I think we need to stick to the key reason we are here. (Looking back at me). Sylvain, did you know Miss Dunnsbury?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… a little.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: And did you know Miss Marston?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Who?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Miss Angel Marston. I believe we talked about her previously.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm… no?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: You don’t sound sure about that.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (glaring at Beryl before sitting down again): Of course he knew her.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: You sure you don’t want to reconsider that answer?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: No.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Not you, him!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (starting on a new sketch, this one looking suspiciously like a firing squad): Oh.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (looking at me): Well?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: You see, Sylvain, it seems surprising that you say you don’t know her, as you both worked together at, erm, (studying some notes) Calypso Software Solutions. That is the place that you work, isn’t it, Sylvian?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Erm, well…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: And it is the place that Miss Marston works. Two people you knew found dead. Interesting…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: You found Angel?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: Shut up, Sylvain.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (smiling): Well, no, not exactly. But we did find very significant traces of her blood on your clothes. And she is missing.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I thought you said…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Said what, Sylvain?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: That you… you were looking for Mark’s blood… and you didn’t… (I trailed off)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl (hissing): Shut up, Sylvain.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (smiling): You should listen to your friend. Fact is, Sylvain (studying his notes again) – fact is, we found traces of both Mr Forth’s and Miss Marston’s blood, on your t-shirt and your jeans. I therefore think it is safe to conclude you had a part to play in her demise, don’t you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: No!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Bona fide serial killer we have here.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: It would appear so, Justin.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Wonder what other crimes we can nail him for? That backlog we’ve got…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Now, now, Justin, we can’t do anything unethical.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Who’s talking unethical? Little bastard probably killed them all.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (eyeing me): Well, it’s certainly possible, but…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: No I didn’t! I haven’t killed anyone!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: That’s what they all say.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: It’s a hell of a coincidence, though, Sylvain, wouldn’t you say?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Mark’s alive! I’ve seen him!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Really?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: Yes! And it was him who killed them!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Have proof of that, do you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: We’ll get it

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Not if I can help it

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: Is that a threat?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Do you want it to be?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl: I bet you don’t even have a gun

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: You’re going to pay for this

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Guys, guys, guys…. Calm it down! Now, Sylvain, much as we would like to indulge your fantasies of Mr Forth being the erstwhile killer, the evidence points very much to the contrary, both concrete and circumstantial. Much as you also may wish that Mr Forth were alive and therefore able to be your scapegoat, again, evidence points very much to the fact that he is no longer with us. In fact, we have CCTV footage of you both entering his hotel room, after which you are the only one who still appears to be with us.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: That can’t be right! He left with me

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (sighing): Let’s start at the beginning (turning to face me). Sylvain, why did you kill them all?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I didn’t!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Okay, let’s start with an easier question. Why were you at Miss Dunnsbury’s house this afternoon, if not to kill her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Course he was there to kill her.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Let him answer the question, Justin.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I was worried about her.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: For good reason!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Why were you worried about her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: I thought Mark was going to…but then I didn’t think… I thought he was just warning me…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Warning you about what?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: This is bullshit. Let’s lock him up, already.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (making calming motions): Hang on, Justin, just a minute, we’re here to establish the facts.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Yeah, I know. And the facts are saying very clearly that this motherfucker is as guilty as hell. So let’s not waste any more time.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl (looking at Maker): You better get your monkey under control, otherwise there’s going to be trouble. I know some very powerful people.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Yeah? And what good they doing you now, sunshine?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Beryl (still ignoring Dredd): I mean it

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker (glancing at Dredd): Just calm down for a minute, Justin.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Seriously? You’re going to listen to this…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Look. You remember what happened in the Andrew Marks affair? How long did it take to…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: All right, point made. But I won’t forget this. I mean (looking at Beryl), you think you can just…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Justin!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd: Okay.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Thank you. Now… (looking at me) what do you say Mark Forth was warning you about?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: He threatened Anna. He came here, last time, you know, I was here with you. He told me to stop snooping around him, or else…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Hang on a minute… you’re saying that Mark Forth, whose blood is on your t-shirt, who we have on CCTV entering a room with you and never leaving, who hasn’t been seen for – what, five days, you’re saying that our assumption about him being missing stroke dead is completely wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary and despite our heritage and intelligence as the smartest police officers in our generation. Despite all that, you are saying that Mr Mark Forth walked in here, under our very noses, had a conversation with you threatening Miss Dunnsbury, and left, again under our very noses, in order to kill this lady. Just for my understanding, Mr Jones, that is what you are suggesting?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me (gulping): Erm… yes?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (looking at his watch): Listen, Phil, the pubs are opening soon, let’s chuck these two somewhere where the sun ain’t never going to shine, and get ourselves a beer.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Hmmm. I have to admit, Justin, I think you are…

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dredd (his phone ringing): Shit. (Answering) Yeah? What? (Then, exasperated): What? (Then, resigned): Hang on. (Whispering to Maker, Maker shooting angry looks at me)

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: Shit. It appears someone’s posted bail for you.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Me: For both of us?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Maker: No. Just you. But shit, we may as well let her go as well.

No one will talk to me, but the truth is that I don’t want to talk to anyone. No one will talk to me, but I don’t know anyone. I don’t want to talk to anyone, and yet still people come and try to talk to me. I don’t know anyone, I look like hell, but people won’t leave me alone.

The whisky they served in this place wasn’t deserving of the name, if truth be told. If I had more time and any inclination, I would sue them for misrepresentation, I would sue the pub and I would sue the manufacturer and I would sue the Scottish island that this purports to come from. In fact, I would go over there, I would drive and fly or take a ferry and I would walk into the distillery and demand that I spoke to the manager, or the chief distiller, or whoever passed for a leader in that place, and I would ask him or her to explain himself, to explain why we should have to accept this, why he felt that this was in any way okay or acceptable, why someone like me, sitting alone at the bar of a public house, wanting to lose myself for a few hours, would find myself distracted by the fact that I couldn’t even get the right quality of whisky. You may laugh, you may not understand, but if you work by the assumption, as I do, that every second, every decision, every action, should be taken as seriously as if it were your only one, ever, then I fail to see why drinking myself to oblivion should be done on bad whisky. But here I was, anyway, left alone at last and trying to hide myself amongst the fellow shadows and creatures of the night whilst I searched for an answer that was too slow in coming. Sylvia, oh Sylvia, why did you doubt me? Where you may have thought of my life blood running into a dry stream, you at least always knew that I was true, but now you, as well, even you, doubt me. Lou was too caught up by the tragedy of her husband to think in straight lines, that I could understand, although her venom may have been hard to take, but you, Sylvia, for everything that we went through, couldn’t you see that I was telling the truth? You did go there, I grant you, and you did post bail, thank you, but I just needed to see you trust me, not to see that flicker of doubt grow into a fireball that sent me spiralling down.

Even Beryl, who for reasons that I still don’t fully understand has been trusting, supportive and loyal, even she began to doubt as we stood facing each other in the rain, as you pointed at me and walked away as if it was me, as if it was my fault that all this has happened. Are you sure, she asked, not bothering to search for shelter, are you sure you saw him? Listen, Sylvain, that G6, it plays havoc with your mind, you forget things, you’re not sure what you’re doing, you know, maybe you got things confused, maybe…. And she trailed off leaving me to draw my own conclusions, but I knew what I’d seen and I knew what had happened and I’d sampled enough drugs in my life to be able to distinguish between what was real and what was fantasy, what was right from what was wrong and if I were to press any button or light any candle or say any prayer then I would know it, I would know it now and I would have known it then. So, write your rules, and I will follow them. Write the script and I will play the part to perfection. Write your song and I will cry harder than anyone, because I am everyone and everyone is me and I can walk into the void and become it but I will remain a spark in the sky that burns bright with life and not death. There, by myself, I stayed alone as one by one they deserted me because the fiction is easier to accept than the truth, when the truth points at things you don’t want to see. Lou said I was a killer, Lou said I was dangerous and a freak and I killed Mark because I was jealous, because she couldn’t face the horror of the truth that her husband wasn’t who she thought he was, that he was a maniac and a killer and she had lived with him, slept in the same bed as him, made plans with him and yet she didn’t know him at all; instead it was far easier to look at Sylvain, always the misfit, with his broken dreams and his broken marriage and to hell with friendship, and then it starts to infect everything like a virus slowly slipping out of control, worming its way into people’s thoughts, of course into those mad policemen who would do anything for a quick fix, even into Beryl who stays loyal despite herself, and of course into dear, darling Sylvia who looks at me and what I have become and feels enough doubt to break me again and again as … if … that … wasn’t … enough.

What a shithole. I turned to shoo away another hanger on before I realised that it was him. I mean, seriously, Sylvain, I thought your tastes had improved. You know, this is why I stopped hanging out with you, because you used to take me to shithole pubs serving crap lager and weak wine, and you used to think it was the height of sophistication to have a prawn cocktail followed by chicken kiev. I mean, I know we shouldn’t judge by superficial things but there is a limit, Sylvain, we all have to maintain our standards. I mean, you’re a little shit, aren’t you, Sylvain. Telling everyone that I was – let me get this right – petty and small minded. Did I nail it? Did I get it, my friend? Really, I mean, really? Did you ever look in the mirror? I mean, poor, sad Mark with his corporate job and his corporate salary and his petty life, that was nothing against what you had achieved, with your fuck ups and your alternative lifestyles and then your super spy status and your clever inventions and your oh so unpredictable personality. Didn’t you try and make yourself superior, every time we met, didn’t you have to drop a few hints about the latest gadget or invention you were working on, but how we mustn’t tell anyone, lest maybe one of my lawyer friends finds out and then oh where will you be, maybe go to jail for treason. And I would laugh and Lou would laugh and Sylvia would laugh and they both felt sorry for you, but I just thought you were a jerk. A stuck up, unappreciative jerk. I looked after you, Sylvain, each time you fell, I picked you up and got you back on your feet and, hey, I even introduced you to Sylvia, though I’m not sure she’d thank me for it now. And you feel you reward that by throwing it back in my face, ha, even trying it on with my good lady wife. And I have the narcissistic tendencies! But you know, I thought about this long and hard, and you know what I realised. You’re jealous. That’s the truth, isn’t it. With all your wacky ways and attention seeking, you’ve always been jealous of who I am and what I have and you don’t, you will never let it go. And that’s not even the worst of it, is it? The worst of it is that you think we’re the same, you and I. You think that just because we have a shared history and the same friends, just because we inhabit the same social circle, just because we’ve fucked the same people… you look at me and think that could have been you, don’t you, if only life had twisted that way instead of this. Well, get over it. You made your own choices and you have to live by them.

The whisky’s good, I murmured, and Mark grimaced when he tried it, but he carried on his diatribe. So, don’t come to me and ask me why, Sylvain. Don’t weep on my shoulder like you always used to. Take it like a man, go back to the police and confess. Go and talk to Lou and confess. Weep on Sylvia’s knee and confess. You killed Angel and you killed Anna and all those countless other girls, hell, maybe you even killed me, who knows, only you, but it’s time, Sylvain. Stand up and be counted. But… I started, looking at him, his handsome features and his easy charm, and I felt completely overwhelmed by him. Come on, he mocked, out with it.

But I don’t understand, I managed, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Why did you… And Mark’s whole demeanour changed, his eyes hooded over and his face became dark and he pulled himself up at the bar, and ordered another whisky. Hell, bring us the whole bottle. Look, I wanted to set the record straight on one thing. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t mean to set you up, it’s just that when you suddenly turned up in my hotel room – I mean, just appeared, out of thin air, in my hotel room, I admit I was a little shocked at first, but it did turn out rather nicely, don’t you think, it seemed like such poetic justice. Actually, though, I do have to commend you – that invisibility cloak, it works rather well, doesn’t it. (Despite myself, I bristled at his use of this name). Of course, you need to set it up properly, but, oh, Sylvain, you made it so easy for me, didn’t you? I mean, it was almost as if you wanted me to do it. I just slipped it on and slipped you a little something and sat back and watched, oh, Sylvain, it was so easy. Mark refilled both our glasses, and then he looked at me seriously. But then you had to get that Rottweiler on me, didn’t you? I’ll credit you, Sylvain, I’m not sure where you found her but she is persistent, and she is well connected. I did warn you, Sylvain, I did warn you to call her off, but you wouldn’t…

You didn’t give me a chance, I shouted, hitting my glass by accident and sending the whisky flying. The barman looked at it, then at me, and I’m not sure I liked the look, but he knelt down and cleaned it up and then wiped down the bar, before putting a new glass on the table and filling it from the now half empty bottle. I realised that my hand was shaking as I picked up the new glass and, closing my eyes, put it to my lips.

You didn’t give me a chance, I whispered. I told her, I told her to stop, but you didn’t give me a chance. Mark’s face cracked into a broad smile. Ah, well, you know how things go sometimes. I … well, things just got a little out of hand, I just went there to have a chat to her. And I must admit I was curious… I only had vague recollection of this girl that you had been obsessed by, although I did hear that she had gone off the rails somewhat. Maybe a kindred spirit, after all? No, I think not, Mark chuckled. In any case, as I said, I was curious to see what had happened to her, whether she still had that charm and that lightness, and also of course what she thought about your fantasies about you and her. It was a fascinating discussion, I must admit… Mark leaned close into me… apparently (he was whispering now) … apparently, you went to see her, what, only four or five days ago, you met her at a restaurant. Wait! This will make you laugh – apparently, you were late! I mean, very late, over an hour late, just imagine! For the lady of your adolescent dreams, you couldn’t even turn up on time, doesn’t that really sum you up!

Mark started laughing, so much that he even had to wipe tears away from his face. He grabbed me by the shoulder, to stop himself shaking. Imagine! In any case… ha ha ha, sorry, sorry… in any case, I had a lovely chat to Miss Dunnsbury, and I’m pleased to let you know that she is, excuse me, was, a charming person, if maybe a little dulled by time. I must admit, though, her shine had gone and she seemed to walk through life in a little bit of a haze. I did, subtly, as I’m sure you appreciate, question her about her relationship with you, and I’m sorry to say, Sylvain, it’s just another of your fantasies. In fact – and, look buddy, I’m sorry to break this to you – but after your recent encounter, I think she actually managed to work out that it had been you that set her life on its downward path, and she still felt a little saddened and shocked that you had – and Sylvain, I use her words rather than mine, so please do forgive me – she felt a little saddened that you had tricked her, that you had abused her hospitality and her trust, and plunged her back into a darkness that she had spent years escaping from.

I have to admit, Sylvain, I was impressed, you did seem to have made quite an impression on her in a short space of time. But you know, Sylvain, with all things said and done, poor Anna just wasn’t happy. And here I side with you – let’s be very clear about that – yes, you may have been a little bit of a shit to her, nothing I wouldn’t expect – but she had time to sort her life out didn’t she. She can’t go on hiding behind a few things that happened a few years ago, even if you did stalk her, and frankly, I find that hard to believe. No, she had to take responsibility for her own life and her actions and, to be honest, I got a little sick of her whingeing. Well, we talked about it and you know how these things go, we got into a little bit of an argument, and one thing led to another, and hey, the next thing you know she was bleeding a little and then she was bleeding a lot and then, well, I’m confident that you can guess the rest. So you see, Sylvain, you really were responsible. But please don’t feel too bad – she really wasn’t happy despite everything, so I consider it more of a release than anything else. Maybe when you talk to those policemen, you can tell them that, maybe they’ll take pity on you. You could even try and label it a mercy killing. There you go! Free advice from your lawyer friend Mark. And Mark winked at me and let me go. He pushed himself back on his bar stool and gave a deep, satisfied smile. Now, my friend, it’s probably time for me to go. Mark pushed himself off the stool and stood next to me, looking at me with wide and friendly eyes. Now, Sylvain, remember, please, this time – have a chat to your little Rottweiler and tell her that really, really, she needs to stop bugging me. I’m serious this time, Sylvain. We had a few little laughs with Anna, but this is a serious matter now. You understand me? I wouldn’t want to have to pay a less than friendly visit to your lovely ex-wife now, would I?

I could feel my whisky glass begin to crack in my hand as Mark kept his friendly smile. Sylvia? I croaked.

I know you still have feelings for her. It would be such a shame if she… and he trailed off. You leave her alone! I shouted, and I could feel several heads turn and stare, I could feel the glass begin to crack in my hand as the shards of glass pierced my skin and drew pain and blood. I’m telling you, Mark, you… But Mark was gone and I was left alone.

You going to let go of that, mister? the barman asked into the silence. Better get a towel or something to wrap around his hand, someone else said, but I wasn’t listening, I was trying to pull my phone out of my jacket, I was trying to dial a number, I was trying to speak to Beryl, I was shouting at her on the phone, she was telling me to calm down, calm down, Sylvain, tell me what’s the matter.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s Sylvia!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Hold still! (someone said and I could feel something being done to my right hand).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvia, your wife? What about her?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. We need to protect her! He’s been here, Mark’s been here and he threatened Sylvia! Beryl, I need your help!

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sylvain, listen to me, I’ve found….

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Not now, we haven’t got time, Beryl, I need your help here! She’s in real danger and I won’t forgive myself if anything happens to her! Beryl, do you understand? Listen, I’ll listen to you when we get there, all right, how about that, right now – ouch! (I cried as something else was happening to my hand. (I pulled it away and jumped out and started running out of the pub, leaving the noise and the shouts behind me). Beryl! I’ll meet you over there, all right?

And I shut the phone and ran into the street and flagged down a taxi.

Sylvia? Her house was eerily quiet. Sylvia had kept our house after our separation, and I knew it instinctively as I stepped through the open front door into the wide hall. The emptiness and the whiteness made my head turn, as it always did. Sylvia had stripped everything out of the massive hallway and redecorated with white tiles on the floor, brilliant white on the walls and a large central staircase, painted white, leading up. Sylvia? My voice echoed in the emptiness. The noise of my shoes as I stepped uncertainly over the floor was the only thing to fill the void, the clack-clack-clack as I struggled to regain my breath and stop my heart from pounding. And there was this feeling I had – it is hard to explain, but I knew with certainty that he was here, somewhere in this place, I could feel his cold eyes on me and the chill of his breath sending wisps of ice through the house. Sylvia? uncertain, afraid as I reached the foot of the stairs. Sylvia? I whispered as I took a step up, letting my left-hand rest lightly on the bannister and watching as my still bleeding right hand dripped a trail across the whiteness. Sylvia? my hand trembling, my vision blurring, as I walked slowly up the stairs. A step to the right towards the master bedroom and still the silence enveloped me, the cold smothered me. Sylvia? I tentatively moved towards the closed bedroom door. Sylvia. The door handle moved and I froze, tears welling in my eyes. The door opened slowly and Sylvia stood, silhouetted in the darkness. Sylvain? What… but she could say no more as a hand snaked across her mouth, stifling the scream that rose in her eyes, as another hand held her across the stomach, and I saw Mark’s evil, grinning face behind hers as her eyes wailed in terror even before the knife plunged deep into her body, even before she sank to her knees, even before I rushed forward and held her, pulling the knife out and trying with my hand to stem the flow of blood even as I knew it was much too late, as life trickled from her, as I pulled her head to my chest and cradled her in her dying moments, oblivious to everything else, oblivious to Mark as he walked slowly from the room and from the house, oblivious to the ice and the rain, to life and death and the hazy line in between and in those moments I joined her there and felt her warmth come over me, as we joined and became one. We walked together across the shining fields, hand in hand, warmed by the light of the millennial sun, between the mountains, valleys and craters. We were flanked by beasts on either side, guiding us, protecting us, herding us. Sylvia squeezed my hand and we stopped, she turned to me as the beasts closed around us, and I wanted to see truth and enlightenment in her eyes, for at least we were here, at least we had survived, but instead there was only confusion and hurt, and she let go of my hand and put it over her wound yet still the blood flowed, onto the ground, where the beasts stepped forward and lapped it up, and they grew taller and became majestic as even here they wouldn’t let her alone, as I felt her leave me one more time.

Oh God oh God oh God. Sylvain, get up, get up, oh no, Sylvain, what have you done? I didn’t know, I couldn’t see who it was, why she was saying this to me, what was going on. Sylvia wasn’t there and there was just whiteness, but also noises, shouts and cries but I couldn’t really see anything, the whiteness was too great, too overwhelming

Stop now. Drop the knife, Sylvain. Please. Drop the knife. Come on. Beryl took my hand in hers and slowly, gently released my grip on the knife that I had pulled out of Sylvia’s dying body. I looked up at Beryl, in hope more than expectation, that she may say that this had been a dream, that Mark hadn’t killed Sylvia and in fact her inert body was just sleeping, the sticky mess of blood all over her and over me just a slight crack of imagination gone awry, but Beryl’s face was hard and cold as she pulled me to my feet and led me down the stairs. I kept looking back to see Sylvia, but her body remained still, her face hidden by her hair, and I started to panic that I would never see her face again, never be able to pull her close to me and hold her, and though I knew, I understood that she was dead, still, even holding her lifeless body was better than the thought of nothing, of the emptiness that stood behind us. Beryl kept pulling me down the stairs to the hallway and sat me down on a white leather sofa. i seemed to be covered in blood – on my clothes, on my hands – and it made gruesome stains on the sofa, as if I had been involved somehow, as if I was the guilty party instead of my former friend Mark Forth. That’s right, if you ever hear this, I’m talking to you, Mark, I don’t believe that you are dead, no matter what I have seen, no matter what I am told. I do believe in universal justice, in the laws of nature that tell us someone must decide whether Schrodinger’s cat lives or dies, that allows us to exist within the essential paradox of all being hopelessly narcissistic (for how else could we cope with the vastness of life) and yet truly believe in essential goodness. We are all the machine, we are collectively one, that can say yes or no and devour art and poetry to stay alive as much as we devour flesh and blood, and yet for the machine to survive that is not enough, it must see the scales of justice balanced. And I will balance them for you, Mark Forth, no matter how long it takes I will search you out, I will find you and I will destroy you, for what you have done to Angel and Anna, for what you have done to Sylvia and most of all for what you have done to me.

Beryl told me that she couldn’t help me with this, couldn’t protect me from this. She said I would have to accept the consequences of my actions. I suspected, for the record, that this was her choice and that if she had chosen, she would have been able to do something – she was very resourceful – but she looked at the scene, she looked at my bloody hands and Sylvia’s dying body and the bloody mess everywhere and she made up her mind. Of course, I can’t blame her – the evidence was pretty damning and Mark had, again, been very clever in covering his tracks and leaving no trace of his presence. He was still using the VDE, I gathered – and why wouldn’t he – to be a serial killer having such a device at your disposal and choosing not to use it would be completely idiotic, and much as I didn’t like the man, he was no fool – so when Beryl checked the closed loop camera system (the first thing she did after calming me down) there was of course no sign of him. I did explain this to her, but she looked tired and angry; even then, I think maybe if I had had the time we could have had a reasonable discussion on it, but then Lou suddenly turned up and started to scream the place down, accusing me of being the embodiment of evil and calling for the wrath of God to be brought down on me. Lou, who I had lain with. Lou, who I had conspired with against Mark, who had entrusted me to find out his secrets, who had turned me into a villain because she couldn’t handle the thought of her own husband’s moral bankruptcy and his sordid secrets. Beryl had to restrain her as she came at me, her hands outstretched like claws, as if she wanted to rip my face to shreds, to rip my heart out and stamp on it, such anger and hatred that I have never seen before, never knew existed, as if she had forgotten that I was me, and instead saw me as a savage beast that had come to claim her loved ones and her life. Even Beryl, strong and powerful as she was, struggled to hold back Lou’s ferocity and she managed to swipe her had across my face, her nails tearing strips into my cheeks, as I could only sit, taut and inert in fright and awe.

Let me see, Lou hissed when it was clear she was losing the battle, at least let me see, and reluctantly Beryl loosened her grip, Lou tearing herself away to climb the stairs and stand solemnly over Sylvia’s destroyed body. Beryl and I both looked on as Lou knelt down and seemed to be turning Sylvia to face upwards, and Lou bent her head down close over her and I thought she may even have kissed her. I didn’t want this; I didn’t want the last intimate contact with Sylvia to be from anyone but me, but Beryl was holding me tight and I could do nothing else except let the energy and anger slide out of me and allow myself to give up and allow events to unfold, and hope that I would see Sylvia again to be able to say goodbye properly. Even when the police turned up, cuffing me so tight that my wrists started to bleed, I couldn’t bring myself to fight them. Even when I was dragged away, thrown into the back of a van, dark and cold and thrown about as we made our way God knew where, I couldn’t do anything to protect myself. Even when the police photographer raised his eyebrows at Detective Justin Dredd, as he took pictures of my bruised and bloody face, I didn’t protest. And the cell I found myself in stank of human excrement and death, and I sat in the corner, arms over my knees and closed my eyes and waited.

Maker and Dredd dragged me back again, maybe a few hours later, for questioning, but I was feeling too ill and faint to be able to remember much of what happened. Dredd, by now, I had understood, was a vindictive bastard who cared more about hounding people he didn’t like than about justice. Maker tried to present himself as more reasonable, but even through the dark light I could tell this was a poorly executed façade, and he was as much a sadist as his colleague. He did bring me some water, which I could barely taste through my cracked lips, and he did offer me a cigarette which I smoked voraciously, inhaling the fumes as if they would burn and cleanse the darkness inside. They fired ceaseless questions at me about what my movements had been and what my motivations were, why I thought it necessary to make such a nasty wound and smear my ex-wife’s blood all over her flat, and why again I had just sat there and waited rather than run and hide like the rat I was. I told you we should have locked him up and thrown away the key, Dredd had said. We let fucking killers out on bail because of our so called liberal values and then we’re surprised when they carry on killing. I wasn’t surprised, he had said. I could see it in that bastard’s eyes the moment I saw him. Perverse and morally bankrupt and yet still we afford him the same privileges and permissions that we do for decent, upstanding citizens. And how does he repay us? By rushing straight from the arms of the law to his ex-wife and taking his frustrations out on her. What a sick bastard. Dredd talked about me as if I wasn’t there, displaying his hatred and contempt like a badge. And then there was me. I tried to explain, tried to protest my innocence, I tried to tell them about the VDE and about Mark and how he had warned me, then acted on his warnings without giving me a chance, how he was not what he seemed but instead acted out corrupt fantasies as a reaction to the desolation of his existence. I didn’t know this, I only suspected, but I did suspect. Dredd snorted and slapped me hard, round the face, opening up my earlier wounds that had only just started to heal. Maker put his hand on Dredd’s arm to prevent him from further violence, and calmly explained that they had clear, incontrovertible proof that Mark was dead; he had been dead for about five days, in fact, and therefore I may want to start thinking about a different line of defence, if I was stupid enough to think that I had any chance in such an open and shut case. I sniffed and asked for a lawyer, holding my hands over my still bleeding cheek. Dredd, predictably, exploded with indignation but Maker calmed him down and told me, harshly, that I would get my lawyer, even if I didn’t deserve it, I would get my lawyer, because they respected the systems of justice and everyone’s right to representation. They both got up and left, and I half expected Mark to walk back in and sit down with that self-satisfied smirk of a job well done. This time, though, he was absent, and I sat alone looking at the white polystyrene cup with its dregs of cold coffee and a solitary cigarette butt floating in it.

It must have been hours and no one came, leaving me to with nothing but my thoughts and fears. I think, you know, I think this was the first time that I actually realised I may be in trouble – I had always been sure that the truth would find a way to the surface, that Mark would make a mistake and be caught, or at the very least that the evidence would clearly point in his direction. I had always thought that Lou would come around, that Sylvia would see the truth in me, and I knew that Beryl had my back. I was also pretty sure that X would vouch for me, and that if anything happened, he would see things right, but God knew what he would make of this situation, even if he knew. Now, however, not only was I having to deal with the emotional turmoil of what had happened to Sylvia, and what that bastard had done, but also the fact that I was here, me! Me! The strangeness of the situation baffled me. I am a simple man and I take people as I find them, I don’t look for secret agendas, ulterior motives or even for the sounds and lights of emotion that drive people to do what they do. I don’t believe in self actualisation or the search for an eternal truth that exists outside of science; I believe in a need for safety, acceptance and power and that anything else is extraneous. Yes, maybe we are the lost generation, maybe we won’t add anything to the great book of humanity that chronicles our spiritual development, maybe we are the first, even, to take a step backwards and openly worship wealth, power and decadence as our religion but won’t we have had so much fun on the journey! And who can blame us, with our discovery of the fragility of our planet, and the globality of our struggles, what else can we do except for party like it’s the end of time, because, quite probably, it is. And we may blame ourselves for what we have done, but I say we had no choice; we were just the ones left standing when the music stopped. The fact that no other generation did what we did is irrelevant – the only reason is that they didn’t have the means. We have brought ourselves, through our understanding of science, yes, even through our understanding of human nature, to the bleeding, blinding edge where we had no choice but to fall. And I have a right to my part in that, I will have to endure the drop so I want the right to join the party rather than being slung into the depths of a hellish prison. Why should I suffer, why should I pay for the mistakes of others, and suffer in silence? For Mark, a selfish, arrogant bastard, who played out his own fantasies in a way that was just unacceptable; for Anna, a girl too stuck up to notice her own frailty, and yet too fragile to deal with the loss of her own innocence, who would rather blame anyone but herself for her failings; and yes even for you, Sylvia, even though I crumble at the thought of your passing, I must be honest, you would spend your time looking for what wasn’t there, expecting to find truth and understanding to give meaning to our lives. You never stopped looking for that knight in armour that didn’t exist; worse, you tried to change me into your image of that knight and expressed crushing disappointment at what you perceived to be my lack of trying, but the truth, my darling Sylvia, was just too simple for you to understand. I wondered, sometimes, if you went looking for it elsewhere; I even wondered, if I’m completely honest, in some of my darker moments, whether you were having an affair with Mark, just because his brashness gave you something to marvel at, rather than the grey speck of dust that refused to shine, waiting for you at home.

Some will go down

Dredd’s mood was dark when he returned, alone. He could hardly even look me in the eye, as he yanked me to my feet and cuffed me again, the metal biting back into the angry wounds of earlier. He led me, holding on to the cuffs and dragging me faster than I could walk, through the poorly lit corridors back towards the surface. He was silent all the way, looking down and pulling me behind him as we passed empty corridors and closed doors. He left me in a small, empty room – stark and bare but at least it was over ground and didn’t smell – and shoved me to the ground before he pulled the heavy door closed behind him. I pulled myself up and stood unsteadily, holding myself against the wall. There was a small window breaking up one wall, it was closed and shuttered and gave no clue to the outside world. There were tattered posters on the walls saying things like Justice for One, Justice for All, written over a picture of what was probably a policeman pointing a gun at what was probably a dying criminal (shaved head, torn clothes, tattoos), with crowds cheering in the background. There was another that said To Defend And Serve, and below it a plain clothes policeman pointing a gun at the camera; it made me shiver despite the oppressive heat in the room. There was no choice but to stand and nothing to do except to wait, again, for hours, it seemed, as my dirty, bloody clothes became damp with sweat and the heat made me feel sick and dizzy. Then, at last, there were some noises behind the door and it opened up letting my first and last visitor in. I had, I think, expected to see some downbeat, state appointed solicitor slide through the door, ready to put up a token defence for whatever lowlife was kicked his way by the system, he and they unable to lift themselves to anything approaching decency. I had not expected to see the huge, looming figure of X staring in at me, and guiding me out with him into a somewhat larger and more brightly lit, if still bleak, room, a few steps away. Gratefully I sank into one of the cold metal chairs before I felt the chill; if the previous room had been overheated, this room seemed to be set at the temperature of a fridge, and my wet clothes turned immediately to ice and stuck to my body, making me start to shiver uncontrollably. X looked at me coolly, unfazed or not concerned about my discomfort as he sat opposite me and dropped a file onto the table that separated us.

Cold in here, isn’t it he said casually, and then, You look like shit, Sylvain, in a voice that suggested that he didn’t really care, didn’t care at all, but then he could hardly ignore my appearance. Then, tapping the table impatiently, he asked Well, you want to give me an explanation?

I’ve been framed I told him, I’ve been told there’s blood on my hands but it’s not my own. I need your help, I said, I need you to get me out of here, I need your power and your influence to help me. These policemen, they talk about justice, but they don’t care, they see me as an easy answer to their case, and they won’t listen to me. Look at me, I pleaded, look at me, I’m fading away, I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I won’t survive, not if I don’t get out. Please… I begged, please.

X put his hand up. Enough, stop. He tapped the folder in front of him. You really let me down, Sylvain. I put a lot of faith, and trust, in you. I even made you my Head of Security. Christ, I don’t know what I was on that day. I still can’t quite believe what you’ve done. I mean, they tell me… he sighed. Why Angel? She was such a lovely person, I thought you two got on. Why her, Sylvain? Why her?

But, I don’t… I don’t understand. I didn’t even know Angel, I had never met her before and then I desperately needed something to stop sucking myself in to an ever-darker place, as I looked in horror at X. What if this was more than just a mistake, more than just police brutality, more than just the cleverness of my old friend. What if this was a conspiracy, people closing ranks around Mark, or whoever he actually was, and finding in me a handy scapegoat to destroy at their whim. And you, too, you would also walk down this road for him and not for me, and I realised that whatever I said it wouldn’t make any difference, not for him, not now. My voice came out as low and broken I tried hard for you. I was always loyal, and this brought a grin to X’s face.

Yeah, well, you know, Sylvain, some people would say that theft of some rather confidential equipment and of our most experimental drug whilst being Head of Security would challenge the concept of loyalty…. Yeah, I know. We had to take Miss Makepeace in and have a long chat to her. She’s a remarkably tough lady. Or she was, at least.

You hurt Beryl…? and X looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I’m sorry, Sylvain, you are completely losing me here. You have murdered, what, four people, and you’re concerned that our methods with Miss Makepeace may have been a little rough?

I didn’t… I started, but what was the point.

In any case, X continued, Miss Makepeace lived the life, she knew what the risks were. And she was brave right up until the point that… well, enough said. I admit, though, I do respect her for protecting you, I value loyalty, courage and friendship. Unlike you, it would seem…. He waited, offering me time to answer and to defend myself but there was really nothing to say. X sighed and picked up the file from the table, opened it and looked through the contents.

Frankly he started, I’m sorely tempted to walk away from the whole sorry mess, and allow the wheels of justice to turn. But, of course, as you are aware, working for our organisation affords you certain privileges, one of which is a certain conditional immunity, which I am, to an extent at least, obliged to respect. And we have a need, and the solution, therefore, is an expedient one, although it makes me sick to my stomach that you’re not held to account for what you have done. Your wife! Your wife…

I couldn’t look X in the eye, even though what he was saying was a lie, I still felt damaged, degraded, dragged down – I felt sullied by the implication of it, and he seemed so sincere, it made me realise that he probably didn’t know the truth himself, he was probably just another pawn in the game, only slightly bigger and slightly more powerful than me. And I wondered whether it could actually be Mark, behind the scenes, pulling the strings, indulging in a serial killer fantasy behind the façade of husband and lawyer. It started to click in my mind – that would make sense, how he knew Angel and how he could seemingly manipulate things so easily. It would also, I thought, explain Beryl’s cryptic comment that he was somehow not what he seemed and of course, his desire to stop her. And where he failed, he used the machinery of the organisation to succeed. I saw Beryl’s face and it made me feel a little sick, I hoped to God they hadn’t subjected her to the same kinds of…

You work for Mark, don’t you, you work for him… I whispered; I saw a flicker in X’s eyes and I knew I had got it right before he recovered and banged the file down on the table.

What are you talking about, Sylvain? Mark? Mark who?

You know… I said quietly, Mark… Mark Forth… and he sank back into his chair and let his arms fall to his sides, and for a second I thought this was a prelude to an admission but of course he was too clever.

Mark Forth, he said wearily, was just a lawyer. True, he didn’t work for that company, whatever it was called, that was just a cover. I think that got Miss Makepeace’s radar twitching, but, to be honest, she was off on the wrong track with that one. It was nothing more than that. He wasn’t a super spy, he wasn’t deep undercover, he was our lawyer… X even laughed sourly, not that we really need one when you think about what those bastards at G get up to without batting an eyelid. But there you go, that’s bureaucracy for you.

But… I didn’t know, how could I not know?

Why the hell should you know, Sylvain? Seriously? You were just another engineer, it’s not like you were important, or anything. And anyway… when we employed him, we found out that he knew you, and, well, we all know how touchy you get, so we thought it best not to inform you. Conflict of interest, that sort of crap. Yeah, I worked with him a little. Yeah, he knew us, he probably even knew Angel, a bit, but that was it, Jones. Nothing else. I gather he’s at the centre of your morbid fantasy, but you’re going to have to stop twisting this into something it’s not. You killed him, along with the rest. I’ve seen the evidence. Get over it, Sylvain, accept it. X sighed deeply. Maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe I should ask them to put you back in the cells. Maybe I should…

No! I shouted, leaping forward and grabbing his left arm, my cuffs preventing me from moving properly, No! You can’t do that! X had pushed himself back as far as he could into his seat as I stood over him. You can’t I said hoarsely.

Let go of me X said, steadily, calmly, and I looked into his steel eyes and pulled back. He shifted his huge bulk uncomfortably in his chair and leaned forward, looking at me seriously. Now he said, now, listen to me, Sylvain. Whatever you think, is irrelevant. Whatever you believe, is irrelevant. Whatever your twisted mind has conjured up for you to make sense of this situation, is irrelevant. All that matters now is that you are here, sitting in this room with me, for the last time. All that matters is that you have one more choice to make. You understand? He tapped the folder. Your choice is in here. Either you walk back out of this room and back to whichever cell you were holed up in, or you sign the document that is in here. You understand? Good. Now. The contents of this document state, briefly, that, you will be released into our custody, and that all legal proceedings against you will be dropped, on condition that you agree to be subject to any activities, exercises, or, ahem, experiments that are asked of you. X opened the file, pulled out a piece of paper, turned it over to me and put a pen on it. All you have to do is sign, Sylvain, and you can walk out with me.

Living with the beast

Dredd refused to undo my handcuffs so I had to travel with them on and my wrists still bleeding when they took me somewhere, nowhere I had been before, some sort of research lab set in the depth of the countryside. They at least had the cuffs removed, allowed me to shower and patched up my wounds pretty well, then put me in a small room with a bed and a television and allowed me to rest. I don’t remember much about the next few days, lots of sleep, lots of tests, little explained, no contact with X or anyone from the outside (anyone I knew who wasn’t dead, that is), then more sleep, more tests, more exercise, lots to eat and drink, with a notable lack of alcohol. I wondered about Lou and how she was doing, I even asked one of the people I came in contact with (a psychologist, I think, given the questions I was asked), but she looked at me as if I was mad. Who knows, I have started, honestly, to doubt myself, at my lowest points, whether somehow my thoughts and actions had become confused, whether everything I remembered was real or whether somehow my dreams had bled into my consciousness. But then I looked at the scars on my hands, at the wounds on my face and body and their reality and pain reassured me, at least kept me anchored to something that I could feel, as I was herded like an animal through those strange days.

One morning, after having eaten the standard breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, tomatoes, mushroom, sausage and bacon, I wasn’t sent back to my room as per the procedure that I had got used to, but taken instead to the interview room, where I had previously endured a whole barrage of strange questions about my physical and emotional health and wellbeing. I braced myself for something similar; this wasn’t an experience I enjoyed. I had always thought that to have a therapist in what I thought of as real life, but what I really meant was the outside world, you had to be fairly self-obsessed, otherwise the thought of spending ninety minutes talking about yourself and your feelings must be pretty abhorrent. It was for me, at any rate, and the reality of it was quite as bad as I expected. People poking through your mind was far more invasive than people poking through your body and who were they to be able to share your innermost thoughts and fears, your dreams and desires and fantasies. That they couched it in some trite statement of doctor patient confidentiality didn’t help; that they talked about a safe zone where you could say anything you really felt just made it worse; things were only safe when they existed in the shadows of your mind, and as soon as they had words, they had form, and as soon as they had form, they were real. And only the truly narcissistic would be arrogant enough to want to create something real out of their hidden desire, only they would think something good could possibly come out of that. So yes, I’m not ashamed, I’m proud, in fact, to admit that I resisted all forms of psychology as strongly and as bravely as I could, and not because of fear of what it might reveal about me (as one particularly difficult doctor suggested). X didn’t agree, though; X thought that I didn’t want to have to face up to myself and the things that I had done, and he, as always, refused to listen, telling me that I was creating all sorts of weird and wonderful conspiracies just as a means of escape, but I certainly was not going to go down that rabbit hole with him again.

I was sure I had worked it out, you see. (And I am yet to be proved wrong). I had already worked out that Mark was in charge, and the slight change in people’s looks at me when I mentioned his name, that I had noticed over the last few days, proved me right, yet again. And then I had realised, when a psychologist by the name of Mary (they didn’t use last names here), had started questioning me about escape – had I taken the G6 to escape, to the land of unicorns, or whatever they believe it was? Had I thought I could pursue my crazy killing spree and then step out into an alternate universe where I could avoid any accountability? Was that why I had started taking it, and in such massive doses? I didn’t bother answering these questions – they had clearly been primed and given a false history, and would have just seen my denials as proof of my guilt and paranoia rather than the statements of fact that they actually were, but it made me understand what should have been obvious from the start. It was a brilliant plan by Mark – because he was in charge, and of course he would be going to G with his cronies, and so he could do anything he wanted, and then just leave. I got dragged in only by mistake, only because Lou stopped taking her pills, and only because I didn’t charge my VDE properly, and Mark saw no reason to spare me, only getting frustrated when Beryl started chasing him down and then threatened to expose him before he left. But then he dealt with me and he dealt with Beryl, and, because he was petty and vindictive, he chose his victims to cause me maximum pain, whilst I could only stand on the side-lines and watch. Well, here I am, Mark. For all the years we’ve know each other and all the pain we went through together, do you worst, now, because it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all over.

I keep telling you, he can’t come himself, because he’s dead. X started banging his fist into his open hand. Listen, Sylvain. We have kept you here for five days, to restore your health and to make sure you weren’t utterly insane, because it may have an impact. We’ve fed and watered you and I think we can put a big tick against health. Whether you’re insane or not, the jury’s out, but to be honest, I don’t really care. I’m only sitting here, with you now, because we have history, and because through some sort of stupid sense of loyalty I felt I should, but I am fast losing patience. Today, we are starting with the experiments. Ready or not. I wish you the best of luck. And he got up, and walked from the room, ignoring me as I shouted that I would only, only participate in the experiments, if Mark came here to talk to me himself. I will fight anyone who comes close to me, I will not let them succeed.

I recognised the woman. Alice Stevens, and the last time I had met her, we were sitting in a comfortable conference room sharing information and secrets. Now the tables had turned somewhat, and it was there for both of us to see. She didn’t feel any need to call it out, in fact she didn’t act as if she knew me at all, but her smug, self-satisfied air was enough. She asked me to remove my top – a dirty green sweatshirt to match the dirty green slacks that I had been given, and with the number 07485 written on the front. I pulled it off slowly and allowed it to drop to the floor in a tiny effort of rebellion – which she ignored; instead she glanced at my body in a critical, dismissive way and walked back to the table, where there were all manner of instruments. She left me standing, shivering in the cold of the room as she took her time reading through some notes, looking at the equipment, and very occasionally glancing at me. I stood, my hands crossed in front of me, trying to maintain an air of dignity after they had dragged me here unceremoniously, and thrown me onto the floor of this lab (I think?) at the feet of Alice Stevens. My initial thought had been to stay there, curl myself up into a ball and let them do their worst, but the futility of that was obvious. In your own time, Alice had said in her quiet, steely voice as eventually I uncurled myself and pulled myself up. There were two chairs and a table in one corner, but she didn’t offer me a seat and I couldn’t ask. If you’d wanted to rebel you should have started a hunger strike when you first got here, she said, but it’s a little late now, so I suggest we both just get on with it.

When I looked at her blankly (to be fair, this hadn’t even crossed my mind) she added

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You’re weak, like all of them. Strength isn’t something that comes to men easily, and you’re no exception. She was holding some paperwork and she glanced at it quickly. Sylvain Jones. I suggest you do what I ask, without resistance. It is unlikely to be painful if you cooperate. )Now she was standing beside me, holding my left arm in her hand and tying a tourniquet round it. She fetched a syringe filled with a green liquid and started tapping a vein. I tried to pull my arm back but she held it surprisingly tight).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What are you doing to me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Keep still. (She plunged the needle into a vein, and I could only watch as the strange green liquid flowed into me).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Is this going to kill me? (I was all too aware that I was sweating despite the cold. I tell myself I don’t fear death until I have to look it in the eye, when its insane, infinite blackness makes we want to weep). Am I going to die?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. S(he walked back to her desk). I told you, you are weak (She sighed). You read the form, you signed it, when Andy brought you in. No, you’re unlikely to die, not from this at least. There are, of course, risks – we are after all dealing with an experimental process, but the chances of fatality are minimal. Satisfied?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (I looked at the spot of blood on my arm). What are you doing to me?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (She flicked her hair away from her eyes and looked at me for a moment, as if deciding whether to give me any of her time). We are in the final testing stages of Project Bridge (finally, at least acknowledging that I knew what she meant). We need to understand the impact on the human body of entering the bridge, before we can call it safely operational. (She snapped the file she was holding shut with an air of finality).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. So, I’m…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Yes, you will be the first human being to go to G, for a few seconds at least, before we bring you back.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. But… what if… I mean, if I’m the first person, how do you know it’s…?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Safe? Safe? Is that what you want to know. You are able to swap living in a cell for the rest of your life with being a pioneer for humankind, for a chance to experience the infinite, and you want to know if it is safe?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. And what about you? (I raised my voice). What about you? You talk about me being weak, you talk about my chances, you look down on me with scorn, and yet it’s me you’re sending! You’re not going there yourself, are you? You’re not stepping into the void! What about you?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. (Quietly) Some of us have to stay. I’m needed here. When the time comes, I will go. You had your chance. We brought you in, we trusted you. You repaid us with betrayal. Why don’t you just accept your punishment, why can’t you be a man?

Why can’t I be a man. The last words Alice Stevens spoke to me as she led me out of that room and into another chamber with metal walls and a metal chair in the centre, with a small window high above and strange, disturbing stains on the floor. She pushed me roughly into the chair, although I was thankful that she didn’t strap me in, as she turned around brusquely and left, leaving me by myself. I looked up at the window and thought I saw a flicker of movement but it was too distant and faint. The chair, despite its looks, felt welcoming and comfortable, although it, this whole room, reminded me of something far more dangerous and sinister, and I felt a worrying sense of déjà vu. It was that which forced me to get a grip on myself and I tried to pull myself out of that chair, although even then it felt like a herculean effort, even then my body was screaming at me to sit, to let my muscles listen to the impulses of my brain saying give in, give in, give in. Why can’t I be a man, I thought, as tears welled in my eyes and I screamed at myself to listen, to take control as I felt my arms stick to the chair like glue, like there were lead weights holding my feet on the ground, as my vision blurred and distorted and everything was telling me just to let it go, just to give up, except for a small voice deep in my head that that was screaming with pain and with fear, and the words I heard were if you give up now you will die

and what is death but an arbitrary line that we draw, a medical definition based only around the limits of human imagination, what is death except the unknown that we have yet to discover, that our magic and our technology have not yet caught up with… we only fear the unknown because it is made to look frightening by those who still want to control us, when really it should excite us, we should be screaming and clamouring to take that final walk and see what it brings us, to go on the greatest journey. And yet I still fear it as it shackles me tighter than any chains; it wakes me, crying in the night in terror; it owns me and controls me. I am defined by death and not life and that is what they want. I ripped myself out of that chair and stumbled unsteadily around the room, to the metal walls, banging against them and screaming at them until suddenly someone was there, a man, tall and slight, with a thin neck and a gaunt face, his black hair cropped short on his head, but he was strong, and he was punching me in the stomach, the face, the arms, until I was on my knees, blood gushing from old wounds re-opened, then he had a black hood in his hands, and we fought, he had strength but I had fear and though my arms were weak and my legs were heavy, I kicked and punched him and headbutted him until my eyes were filled with blood and he was kneeling on the ground and he was whispering stop, please stop and I took a step back and kicked him in the head, and his head snapped back and he fell to the ground, jerking once, and then he was still.

I stepped back in shock at what I had done, seeing the crushed, ruined body of someone I didn’t even know, and I’m not trying to absolve myself but I it was as though things were happening automatically, as if my body was doing what it needed to do in order to survive.

I am with death, but I am not death.

I ran out of that room just before the door disappeared, I ran, stumbling, down a corridor until I saw another door cut out into the wall. I looked through the window and saw a figure huddled in the corner and recognised it instantly as Beryl. ‘Beryl!’ I shouted, I screamed, at the door, as I heard the first noises behind me. ‘Beryl!’ as I kicked at the door with such a force, ‘Beryl!’ as I punched at the glass with my bare hands, as my knuckles bled yet a tiny crack appeared, ‘Beryl!’ as she eventually got up and stood, in ragged broken clothes, looking uncertainly at my insane face and my fist punching, punching until the glass shattered and she was saying ‘Sylvain!’ and then I felt the first arms behind me, pulling me back, as I held onto the broken window and pulled a shard of glass from my bleeding hand, as I stabbed wildly behind me until I felt something rip and tear and the pressure ease, as I pushed and shrugged off the man that had been trying to kill me, as he fell to the ground, writhing and moaning and I kicked him just to make sure, before turning back to the cell, and looking through the window for Beryl. But she was no longer there, she had crumpled back to the floor and lay like a heap of discarded clothes, and I realised that she must have been very badly hurt. I needed to get her out of there, desperately and I reached in through the window, not caring that glass was tearing at arm, as I urgently tried to feel for a lock or a catch that I could use. There was nothing, and so I turned back to the guard, or whoever he was, lying on the ground, I pulled him up close to me and I growled at him, asking him how to open the door. He could only stare at me and cough up blood, and I let him drop back to the ground and started searching through his pockets for a key or something similar. There was nothing, not even a key card, not even a radio, or a gun, or anything remotely useful. I kicked at the now inert body again, mostly out of despair, and returned to the cell. ‘Beryl’ I said, but she didn’t move. ‘Beryl, I can’t get in, but I’ll come back for you, don’t worry’ I said, and turned to go. The corridor seemed eerily quiet as I stepped over the body and walked down it slowly; somehow the energy and urgency of earlier was dissipating, leaving me with nothing but a crushing tiredness. The corridor ended in a steel door that was almost certainly locked, but with nowhere else to go and a sense of dread I walked towards it until its faceless bulk stood in my way. I reached forward and pushed, tentatively at first and then harder as I could feel its bulk begin to move outwards, not willingly, but without dreadful resistance, until there was just enough room to squeeze through to the space beyond. I still held my glass weapon in my bleeding left hand, and instinctively I tightened my grip on it, ignoring the pain as it cut further into my hand. I stepped through.

Don’t shoot said a familiar voice; it took me a while to see what was around me. I was in a large, white room, empty except for three people, all stood together, all looking at me. Two, dressed in a black uniform, both had automatic pistols that they had trained on me. They flanked the third man, stood in a dark suit and white shirt, who was Mark Forth.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. You (I breathed).

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who did you expect? (he smiled). I see you have picked up a taste for killing, Sylvain. You see, it was always in your blood.

I didn’t know what to say or how to react. Here he was, live, flesh and blood, proving again that I was right and was the victim of a conspiracy. He was here and he could listen to me, listen to reason. I took a deep breath. It’s not too late, Mark, I said, talking through my bleeding gums. It’s not too late. Tell them it was you, just let the police know, and then I can walk away. You can escape anyway. You don’t need me anymore. You don’t even need to let the police know, just let X know, just Alice, whoever, just end this. End this for me, Mark. For Sylvia, for Lou, for everyone. Blood dripped from my mouth as I spoke, my head pounded and my body screamed for rest but I stood tall, looking him in the eye. I was sure there was a part of him that still felt some guilt, some responsibility for what had happened, and it was so simple. We could get Alice Stevens here, we could even get X here, we could all sit round the table and work it out. They could all disappear to Neverland and I could walk out a free man. Even Lou would forgive me, when she understood what I had been through, and we could walk together and sit by Sylvia’s grave and mourn her passing. I looked at Mark and then at his guards; they were wavering, their hands unsteady. Surely they must be wondering what was going on, and whether they were pointing their guns at the right person. I caught the eye of the guard on the left as he looked uncertainly at me, before glancing at Mark. Maybe, I thought for a fleeting second, maybe that was a time to run, but I was too tired, I had come too far.

Ah, Mark sighed, if only. Just commit a crime, and disappear into another universe, without having to face the consequences of your actions. I’m sure you wish you could do that, Sylvain. But here, I am afraid, we have to pay, we have to be held to account, whatever than means. I’m sure you must understand, somewhere in the depths of your mind, you do understand that we have to have standards of law and morality, and that you are no exception. You’re a clever man, Sylvain, you can surely see that? Now, why don’t you put the piece of glass down, and we’ll talk it through, what do you say?

What I said was this. The lights flickered and the room darkened. Cracks appeared on the walls and spread, joining and accelerating, letting the darkness in. The guards swung round, pointing their guns at unseen enemies, moving towards the centre of the room in instinctive self-defence, pulling Mark with them. There was a roar coming from somewhere, from the cracks, from the walls, from inside my head, but it was loud and strong and pushed me forward. The cracks grew deeper as plaster and then bricks started to fall from the walls and the ceiling, showering the guards, but missing both me and Mark. I walked purposefully closer to him, as he stared at me in disbelief, unable to comprehend what was happening. But I knew. I knew. He had done this to me, he and Alice and X and Mark Smith and Carl and all their conceits and plans and lies in pursuit of their dark and destructive plans. I stood tall and firm, despite my injuries, despite all the crap they had injected into me to try and control me, I stood there and watched, as the guards fell to the ground, crushed under the weight of the falling debris, and Mark found himself cornered, trapped by his own hands, unable to tear his eyes from me and from what I had become.

I took a step towards him as the light turned from white to black and then to red; he tried to back away but he had nowhere to go. He watched, transfixed as I walked with my arms outstretched, and then they were by my side – on my left the girl with deathly pale skin, bowed face and long blond hair, on my right, the magnificent creature with a white mane, fire in its eyes and death in its sights, and we walked together hand in hand with fear, misery and death. You had your chance, I whispered as we stood face to face, inches apart, as I looked at last into his confused and frightened eyes, but my voice came out like a shout from the heavens, like a beating drum, and I put my hand on the creature’s mane, and it strode forward and pierced Mark’s chest with its horn. He could only moan as his life started to leave him, he could only look at me with pleading eyes as he knew that it was too late, that despite everything, despite his power and his lies, he had lost and I had won, and despite myself, I held his fading gaze and I smiled as he fell and crumpled, as the creature pulled back, lowered and then raised its head and looked at me with its blazing eyes, as the girl put her arm around me squeezed me tight, then taking the unicorn and leading it away. I sank to my knees and, despite myself pulled Mark into my lap, cradled his lifeless body, and touched his forehead with my finger.

I forgive you, I whispered, seeing the carnage that I had brought, three more people who paid with their lives for the pursuit of truth, for that was what it was after all, nothing more, but at least that meant that I was able to forgive him and to mean it. As my passion broke so did the lights, so did the destruction and the aberrations, so did the sense and the smell of the dead, and all that remained was me, alone, in an empty room filled with white light.

The Bridge

And now I speak to you. Now everything else has faded, and it’s just you and me, alone, here, whatever that means. And I wonder who you are and why you are here. I wonder whether she really did defeat him or whether it was just a trick of the mind, or whether it’s actually you, there, behind that curtain.

They came to get me, eventually, from the room. They put me in a cell somewhere, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. I had found Mark and I had proved I was right, I had defeated him and doubtless sent them into disarray, like headless chickens, lost without their leader. They made up all sorts of lies, which were so outrageous and stupid that they had clearly thought of them in panic, because I had disrupted their plans so much. They denied evidence that I had seen with my own eyes, that I had felt and touched and lived. They denied that Mark had ever been there, they even denied the existence of the metal room, even of Beryl and the inhuman treatment that she had been subjected to. They told me that Mark was dead (of course! I killed him!), that Sylvia, Anna, Angel were dead – as if I didn’t know that. They told me that I was having psychotic episodes because of the drugs I took, as if had ever taken anything except that one time and except for the crap that they put in me for their stupid, crass experiments. They even brought Lou to see me, and she begged me to confess, to allow her to mourn, and I told her I was so sorry, I couldn’t imagine what they had threatened her with to make her have to say such lies. I told her it didn’t matter, that I forgave her, that these people would stop at nothing; credit to her, as she left, she didn’t once drop her façade, but left me with a last look of desperation and hatred that was so real it could only have been a lie. They even sent X to see me, I asked him why he had turned into a traitor, and he looked at me sadly, with none of his usual ferocity. I’m sorry, Sylvain, he had said. Maybe we put you under too much pressure. Maybe you weren’t emotionally stable enough. Maybe it’s my fault. And then, eventually, I think, they gave up on me, and put me in here, to talk to you. I don’t know who you are, or exactly why I am here, or how long I will have to stay. I know that I took Mark’s life – or at least I was a willing witness – and in some small way I feel that at least justice has been done – but I still have this dread that somehow he escaped – perhaps to G, that land he was so desperate to rule, and whose very existence they seem to want to deny now. And after all of it, this is all that is left for me – to tell you my story, the one story, the true account of events, and to hope that you will recognise the truth and you will follow it. If nothing else, at least please find Lou, and explain it to her. Find Beryl’s family and tell them that she died a hero. Do that for me, at least. Because I know it’s you. I don’t understand how, but I have seen enough to know that doesn’t make any difference. And now you’ve listened to my confession, have courage, be a man, and close the door on your final dark victory.

###

 

The End

 

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An Innocent Man

Recently single and depressingly lonely, Sylvain Jones finds himself spying on his best friend, whose wife suspects him of cheating. But a seemingly simple task has shocking results, and leads Sylvain to question whether the person he has known for thirty years is hiding a horrific secret behind his façade as a boring, middle class lawyer. As he tries to find the truth, he begins to understand that nothing is quite as it seems, and to fear that the he may be in the middle of a conspiracy so huge it threatens everything he has ever understood and believed in. Can he find the courage and the will to fight it, or will he allow to destroy his loved ones, his sanity, and ultimately, take him into the darkness?

  • ISBN: 9781370585618
  • Author: Mark Z. Kammell
  • Published: 2017-06-05 14:50:18
  • Words: 70688
An Innocent Man An Innocent Man